Molly McDonald - A Tale of the Old Frontier
by Randall Parrish
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"You 're the sergeant who saved that girl down the trail, ain't yer?" he asked indolently. "Thought so; I was one o' Gaskins' men."

Hamlin accepted the hand thrust forth, but with mind elsewhere.

"Do you happen to know who that was with Miss McDonald?" he asked.

"Did n't see 'em, only their backs as they went in—nice lookin' blonde?"

"Yes, rather tall, with very light hair."

"Oh, that's Mrs. Dupont."

"Mrs. Dupont?" the name evidently a surprise; "wife of one of the officers?"

"No, she 's no army dame. Husband's a cattleman. Got a range on the Cowskin, south o' here, but I reckon the missus don't like that sorter thing much. Lives in St. Louis mostly, but has been stoppin' with the McDonalds fer a month er two now. Heerd she wus a niece o' the Major's, an' reckon she must be, er thar 'd been a flare up long ago. She 's a high flyer, she is, an' she 's got the Leftenant goin' all right."


"Sure; he's a lady-killer, but thet 's 'bout all the kind o' killer he is, fer as I ever noticed—one o' yer he-flirts. Thar ain't hardly an officer in this garrison thet ain't just achin' fer ter kick that squirt, but ther women—oh, Lord; they think he's a little tin god on wheels. Beats hell, don't it, what money will do fer a damn fool."

Hamlin stood a moment silent, half inclined to ask another question, but crushing back the inclination. Then he walked down the hall to the quarters assigned "M" Troop, and across to his own bed in the far corner. There were only a few of the men present, most of whom were busily engaged at a game of cards, and he sat down where he could gaze out the window and think. Here was a new complication, a fresh puzzle to be unravelled. He had never expected this woman to come into his life again; she had become a blurred, unpleasant memory, a bit of his past which he had supposed was blotted out forever. Mrs. Dupont—then she had not married Le Fevre after all. He dully wondered why, yet was not altogether surprised. Even as he turned this fact over and over in his mind, speculating upon it, he became aware of a man leaving the rear door of McDonald's quarters, and advancing back of officers' row toward the barracks. As the fellow drew near, Hamlin recognized the soldier who had been driving the carriage. A moment later the man entered the room, spoke to the group of card players, and then came straight across toward him.

"Sergeant Hamlin?"


"I was asked to hand you this note; there is no answer."

Hamlin held it unopened until the fellow disappeared, hesitating between hope and dread. Which of the two women had ventured to write him? What could be the unexpected message? At last his eyes scanned the three short lines:

"You recognized me, and we must understand each other. At ten to-night ask the Clerk of the Occidental—V."



Hamlin's first impulse was to ignore the note, trusting his position in the ranks would be sufficient barrier to prevent any chance meeting, and believing his stay at that garrison would be only a brief one. Sheridan was evidently preparing for an early offensive campaign, and it was rumored on all sides that the Seventh Cavalry had been selected for active field service. Indeed, the urgent orders for the consolidation of the regiment from scattered posts must mean this. Any day might bring orders, and he could easily avoid this Mrs. Dupont until then. Except for a faint curiosity, the Sergeant felt no inclination to meet the woman. Whatever influence she might have once exercised over him had been thoroughly overcome by years and absence. Even the unexpected sight of her again—seemingly as beautiful as ever—had failed to awaken the spell of the past. It was almost with a thrill of delight that Hamlin realized this—that he was in truth utterly free of her influence. There had been times when he had anticipated such a possible meeting with dread; when he had doubted his own heart, the strength of his will to resist. But now he knew he stood absolutely independent and could laugh at her wiles. She who had once been all—trusted, loved, worshipped with all the mad fervor of youth—had become only a dead memory. Between them stretched a chasm never to be bridged.

What could the woman possibly want of him? To explain the past? To justify herself? He knew enough already, and desired to know no more. Could she hope—natural coquette that she was—to regain her hold upon him? The man smiled grimly, confident of his own strength. Yet why should she care for such a conquest, the winning of a common soldier? There must be some better reason, some more subtle purpose. Could it be that she feared him, that she was afraid that he might speak to her injury? This was by far the most likely supposition. Molly McDonald—the woman was aware of their acquaintance, and was already alarmed at its possible result.

Hamlin stood up resolved. He would meet the woman, not from any desire of his own, but to learn her purpose, and protect the girl. The meeting could not injure him, not even bring a swifter beating of the heart, but might give him opportunity to serve the other. And Le Fevre—surely she could tell him something of Le Fevre.

Leave was easily obtained, and the Sergeant, rejoicing in a freshly issued uniform, dressed with all the care possible, his interest reviving at this new point of view. It was not far down the bluff road to the squalid little village which had naturally developed in close proximity to the fort—near enough for protection, yet far enough removed to be lawless—a rough frontier outpost town, of shacks and tents, most of these dispensing vile liquors. Among these, more enterprising spirits—hopeful of future development—had erected larger buildings, usually barn-like, with false fronts facing the single main street, filled with miscellaneous stocks of goods or used for purposes not so legitimate. One of these housed the "Poodle Dog" saloon, with gambling rooms above, while a few doors below was a great dance hall, easily converted into a theatre if occasion arose,—a grotesque, one-storied monstrosity. Below these was the stage office, built against the three-storied wooden hotel, which boasted of a wide porch on two sides, and was a picture of ugliness.

By daylight all was squalor and dirt, dingy tents flapping in the ceaseless wind, unpainted shacks, wooden houses with boards warping under the hot sun, the single street deep in yellow dust, the surrounding prairie littered with tin cans, and all manner of debris. But with the coming of night much of this roughness departed. Soldiers from the garrison on pass, idle plainsmen, bull-whackers, adventurers of all kinds stranded here because of Indian activity, stray cowboys from the nearby valleys, thronged the numerous dives, seeking excitement. Women, gaudy of dress, shrill of voice, flitted from door to door through the jostling crowds. Lamps blazed over the motley assembly, loud-voiced barkers yelled, and a band added its discords to the din. The "Poodle Dog" glared in light, resounded with noise; lamps gleamed from the hotel windows, and the huge dance hall stood wide open. Out from the shacks and tents crept the day's sleepers for a night of revelry; along the trails rode others eager for excitement; it was the harvest-time of those birds of prey in saloon and gambling hell.

Hamlin saw all this, but gave the surroundings little thought. He was of the West, of the frontier, and beheld nothing unique in the scene. Moreover, the purpose for which he was there overshadowed all else, left him indifferent to the noise, the jostling, drunken crowd. Some he met who knew him and called his name, but he passed them with a word, and pressed his way forward. At the hotel he mounted the steps and entered. The office was in one corner of the bar-room. The proprietor himself, a bald-headed Irishman, sat with feet cocked up on the counter, smoking, and barely glancing up as the Sergeant asked for Mrs. Dupont.

"Who are yer?" he asked.

"My name is Hamlin; I am here on the lady's invitation."

"Sure; thet 's ther name all right, me bhoy. Yer ter go out on the east porch there, an' wait a bit whoile I sind her worrd yer here. Oi 'm imaginin' she hed sum doubts about yer comin', the way she spoke."

"How do I get there?"

"Through the winder of the parlur over thar—sure, it 's a noice quiet spot fer a tate-a-tate." He got up, and peered through his glasses across the room. "Here, Moike; damn thet slapy head. Will one o' yer gents wake the lad—that's it. Now come here, Moike. You run over to the Palace an' tell Mrs. Dupont the fellar is here waitin'. Hold on now, not so fast; wait till Oi 'm done tellin' yer. Say thet to her alone—do yer moind thet, ye sap-head; nobody else is to hear whut yer say; stay there till yer git a chance ter whisper it to her. Now skip."

Hamlin hesitated, watching the boy disappear.

"At the Palace—the dance hall across the street?" he asked incredulously.

"Sure," indifferently, relighting his pipe. "Officers' ball; couldn't break in with a can-opener unless you had a invite. Guards at both ends, sergeant taking tickets, an' Third Regiment Band makin' music. Hell of a swell affair; got guests here from Leavenworth, Wallace, and all around. Every room I got is full an' runnin' over—say, there are fellars over thar in them fool swaller-tail coats; damned if there ain't. If the b'ys ever git sight of 'em on the street there 'll be a hot time. Say, ain' that the limit? Injuns out thar thick as fleas on a dog, an' them swells dancin' here in swaller-tails like this yere was Boston."

He was still talking when Hamlin crossed the narrow hall and entered the dimly-lighted, unoccupied parlor. The side window was open, a slight breeze rustled the heavy curtain, and the Sergeant stepped outside on to the dark porch. There was a bench close to the rail and he sat down to wait. A gleam of light from the Palace fell across the western end, but the remainder of the porch lay in shadow, although he could look up the street, and see the people jostling back and forth in front of the Poodle Dog. The sound of mingled voices was continuous, occasionally punctuated by laughter, or an unrestrained outburst of profanity. Once shots echoed from out the din, but created no apparent excitement, and a little later a dozen horsemen spurred recklessly through the street, scattering the crowd, their revolvers sputtering. Some altercation arose opposite and a voice called loudly for the guard, but the trouble soon ceased with the clump of hoofs, dying away in the distance, the regimental band noisily blaring out a waltz. Hamlin, immersed in his own thoughts, scarcely observed the turmoil, but leaned, arms on railing, gazing out into the darkness. Something mysterious from out the past had gripped him; he was wondering how he should greet her when she came; speculating on her purpose in sending for him.

It seemed as though he waited a long time before the curtain at the window was thrust aside and the lady emerged, the slight rustling of her dress apprising him of her presence. The curtain still held slightly back by her hand permitted the light from within to reflect over her figure, revealing in softened outline the beauty of her features, the flossy brightness of her hair. She was in evening dress, a light shawl draping her shoulders. An instant she paused in uncertainty, striving to distinguish his face; then stepped impulsively forward, and held out her hands.

"I have kept you waiting, but you must forgive that, as I came as soon as I could manufacture an excuse. Won't you even shake hands with me?"

"Is it necessary?" he asked, almost wearily. "You have come to me for some purpose surely, but it can hardly be friendship."

"Why should you say that?" reproachfully. "I have deserted a rather brilliant party to meet you here."

"That, perhaps, is why I say it, Mrs. Dupont. If my memory serves, you would not be inclined to leave such friends as you have yonder to rendezvous with a common soldier, unless you had some special object in view. If you will inform me what it is, we can very quickly terminate the interview."

She laughed, a little touch of nervousness in the voice, but drew her skirts aside, and sat down on the bench.

"Do you think you can deceive me by such play-acting?" she asked eagerly. "You are no man of wood. Tell me, is there nothing you care to ask me, after—after all these years?"

Hamlin lifted his eyes and looked at her, stirred into sudden interest by the almost caressing sound of the soft voice.

"Yes," he said slowly, "there are some things I should like to know, if I thought you would answer frankly."

"Try me and see."

"Then why are you Mrs. Dupont, instead of Mrs. Le Fevre?"

"Then my guess is true, and you are not so devoid of curiosity," she laughed. "My answer? Why, it is simplicity itself—because I was never Mrs. Le Fevre, but am rightfully Mrs. Dupont."

"Do you mean you were never married to Le Fevre?"

"What else could I mean?"

"Then he lied."

She shrugged her white shoulders.

"That would not surprise me in the least. 'T was a characteristic of the man you had ample reason to know. How came you to believe so easily?"

"Believe? What else could I believe? Everything served to substantiate his boast. I was in disgrace, practically drummed out of camp. There was nothing left for me to live for, or strive after. I was practically dead. Then your letter confessing came—"

"Wait," she interrupted, "that letter was untrue, false; it was penned under compulsion. I wrote you again, later, but you had gone, disappeared utterly. I wanted to explain, but your own people even did not know where you were—do not know yet."

He leaned his body against the rail, and looked at her in the dim light. Her face retained much of its girlish attractiveness, yet its undoubted charms no longer held the man captive. He smiled coldly.

"The explanation comes somewhat late," he replied deliberately. "When it might have served me it was not offered—indeed, you had conveniently disappeared. But I am not here to criticise; that is all over with, practically forgotten. I came at your request, and presume you had a reason. May I again ask what it was?"



She sat for a moment silent, gazing up the street, but breathing heavily. This was not the reception she had anticipated, and it was difficult to determine swiftly what course she had best pursue. Realizing the hold she had once had upon this man, it had never occurred to her mind that her influence had altogether departed. Her beauty had never failed before to win such victory, and she had trusted now in reviving the old smouldering passion into sudden flame. Yet already she comprehended the utter uselessness of such an expectation—there was no smouldering passion to be fanned; his indifference was not assumed. The discovery angered her, but long experience had brought control; it required only a moment to readjust her faculties, to keep the bitterness out of her voice. When she again faced him it was to speak quietly, with convincing earnestness.

"Yes, I realize it is too late for explanations," she acknowledged, "so I will attempt none. I wished you to know, however, that I did not desert you for that man. This was my principal purpose in sending for you."

"Do you know where he is?"

She hesitated ever so slightly, yet he, watching her closely, noted it.

"No; at the close of the war he came home, commanding the regiment which should have been yours. Within three months he had converted all the family property into cash and departed. There was a rumor that he was engaged in the cattle business."

"You actually expect me to believe all this—that you knew nothing of his plans—were not, indeed, a part of them?"

"I am indifferent as to what you believe," she replied coldly. "But you are ungentlemanly to express yourself so freely. Why should you say that?"

"Because I chance to know more than you suppose. Never mind how the information reached me; had it been less authentic you might find me now more susceptible to your presence, more choice in my language. A carefully conceived plot drove me from the Confederate service, in which you were as deeply involved as Le Fevre. Its double object was to advance him in rank and get me out of the way. The plan worked perfectly; I could have met and fought either object alone, but the two combined broke me utterly. I had no spirit of resistance left. Yet even then—in spite of that miserable letter—I retained faith in you. I returned home to learn the truth from your own lips, only to discover you had already gone. I was a month learning the facts; then I discovered you had married Le Fevre in Richmond; I procured the affidavit of the officiating clergyman. Will you deny now?"

"No," changing her manner instantly—"what is the use? I married the man, but I was deceived, misled. There was no conspiracy in which I was concerned. I did not know where you were; from then until this afternoon I never saw or heard of you. Molly told me of her rescue by a soldier named Hamlin, but I never suspected the truth until we drove by the barracks. Then I yielded to my first mad impulse and sent that note. If you felt toward me with such bitterness, why did you come here? Why consent to meet me again?"

"My yielding was to a second impulse. At first I decided to ignore your note; then came the second consideration—Miss McDonald."

"Oh," and she laughed, "at last I read the riddle. Not satisfied with saving that young lady from savages, you would also preserve her youthful innocence from the contamination of my influence. Quite noble of you, surely. Are you aware of our relationship?"

"I have heard it referred to—garrison rumor."

"Quite true, in spite of your source of information, which accounts, in a measure, for my presence here as well as my intimacy in the McDonald household. And you propose interfering, plan to drive me forth from this pleasant bird's nest. Really you amuse me, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin."

"But I have not proposed anything of that nature," the man said quietly, rising to his feet. "It is, of course, nothing to me, except that Miss McDonald has been very kind and seems a very nice girl. As I knew something of you and your past, I thought perhaps you might realize how much better it would be to retire gracefully."

"You mean that as a threat? You intend to tell her?"

"Not unless it becomes necessary; I am not proud of the story myself."

Their eyes met, and there was no shadow of softness in either face. The woman's lips curled sarcastically.

"Really, you take yourself quite seriously, do you not? One might think you still Major of the Fourth Texas, and heir to the old estate on the Brazos. You talked that way to me once before, only to discover that I had claws with which to scratch. Don't make that mistake again, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin, or there will be something more serious than scratching done. I have learned how to fight in the past few years—Heaven knows I have had opportunity—and rather enjoy the excitement. How far would your word go with Molly, do you think? Or with the Major?"

"That remains to be seen."

"Does it? Oh, I understand. You must still consider yourself quite the lady-killer. Well, let me tell you something—she is engaged to Lieutenant Gaskins."

His hand-grip tightened on the rail, but there was no change in the expression of his face.

"So I had heard. I presume that hardly would have been permitted to happen but for the existence of a Mr. Dupont. By the way, which one of you ladies shot the Lieutenant?"

It was a chance fire, and Hamlin was not sure of its effect, although she drew a quick breath, and her voice faltered.

"Shot—Lieutenant Gaskins?"

"Certainly; you must be aware of that?"

"Oh, I knew he had some altercation, and was wounded; he accused you, did he not? But why bring us into the affair?"

"Because some woman was directly concerned in it. Whoever she may be, the officers of the fort are convinced that she probably fired the shot; that the Lieutenant knows her identity, and is endeavoring to shield her from discovery."

"Why do they think that? What reason can they have for such a conclusion? Was she seen?"

"Her footprints were plainly visible, and the revolver used was a small one—a '36'—such as a woman alone would carry in this country. I have said so to no one else, but I saw her, crouching in the shadow of the barrack wall."

"You—you saw her? Recognized her?"


"And made no attempt at arrest? Have not even mentioned the fact to others? You must have a reason?"

"I have, Mrs. Dupont, but we will not discuss it now. I merely wish you to comprehend that if it is to be war between us, I am in possession of weapons."

She had not lost control of herself, yet there was that about her hesitancy of speech, her quick breathing, which evidenced her surprise at this discovery. It told him that he had played a good hand, had found a point of weakness in her armor. The mystery of it remained unsolved, but this woman knew who had shot Gaskins; knew, and had every reason to guard the secret. He felt her eyes anxiously searching his face, and laughed a little bitterly.

"You perceive, madam," he went on, encouraged by her silence, "I am not now exactly the same unsuspecting youth with whom you played so easily years ago. I have learned some of life's lessons since; among them how to fight fire with fire. It is a trick of the plains. Do you still consider it necessary for your happiness to remain the guest of the McDonalds?"

She straightened up, turning her eyes away.

"Probably not for long, but it is no threat of yours which influences me. It does not even interest me to know who shot Lieutenant Gaskins. He is a vulgar little prig, only made possible by the possession of money. However, when I decide to depart, I shall probably do so without consulting your pleasure." She hesitated, her voice softening as though in change of mood. "Yet I should prefer parting with you in friendship. In asking you to meet me to-night I had no intention of quarrelling; merely yielded to an impulse of regret for the past—"

The heavy curtain draping the window was drawn aside, permitting the light from within to flash upon them, revealing the figure of a man in uniform.

"Pardon my interruption," he explained, bowing, "but you were gone so long, Mrs. Dupont, I feared some accident."

She laughed lightly.

"You are very excusable. No doubt I have been here longer than I supposed."

The officer's eyes surveyed the soldier standing erect, his hand lifted in salute. The situation puzzled him.

"Sergeant Hamlin, how are you here? On leave?"

"Yes, sir."

"Of course this is rather unusual, Captain Barrett," said the lady hastily, tapping the astonished officer lightly with her fan, "but I was once quite well acquainted with Sergeant Hamlin when he was a major of the Fourth Texas Infantry during the late war. He and my husband were intimates. Naturally I was delighted to meet with him again."

The Captain stared at the man's rigid figure.

"Good Lord, I never knew that, Hamlin," he exclaimed. "Glad to know it, my man. You see," he explained lamely, "we get all kinds of fellows in the ranks, and are not interested in their past history. I 've had Hamlin under my command for two years now, and hanged if I knew anything about him, except that he was a good soldier. Were you ready to go, Mrs. Dupont?"

"Oh, yes; we have exhausted all our reminiscences. Good-bye, Sergeant; so glad to have met you again."

She extended her ungloved hand, a single diamond glittering in the light. He accepted it silently, aware of the slight pressure of her fingers. Then the Captain assisted her through the window, and the falling curtain veiled them from view.



Hamlin sank back on the bench and leaned his head on his hand. Had anything been accomplished by this interview? One thing, at least—he had thoroughly demonstrated that the charm once exercised over his imagination by this beautiful woman had completely vanished. He saw her now as she was—heartless, selfish, using her spell of beauty for her own sordid ends. If there had been left a shred of romance in his memory of her, it was now completely shattered. Her coolness, her adroit changing of moods, convinced him she was playing a game. What game? Nothing in her words had revealed its nature, yet the man instinctively felt that it must involve Molly McDonald. Laboriously he reviewed, word by word, each sentence exchanged, striving to find some clue. He had pricked her in the Gaskins affair, there was no doubt of that; she knew, or at least suspected, the party firing the shot. She denied at first having been married to Le Fevre, and yet later had been compelled to acknowledge that marriage. There then was a deliberate falsehood, which must have been told for a purpose. What purpose? Did she imagine it would make any difference with him, or did she seek to shield Le Fevre from discovery? The latter reason appeared the more probable, for the man must have been in the neighborhood lately, else where did that haversack come from?

So engrossed was Hamlin with these thoughts that he hardly realized that some one had lifted the window curtain cautiously. The beam of light flashed across him, disappearing before he could lift his head to ascertain the cause. Then a voice spoke, and he leaned back to listen.

"Not there; gone back to the dance likely, while we were at the bar."

"Nobody out there?" this fellow growled his words.

"Some soldier asleep with his head on the rail; drunk, I reckon. Who was she with this time?"


"Who? Oh, yes, the fellow who brought in that troop of the Seventh. Lord, the old girl is getting her hooks into him early. Well, as long as Gaskins is laid up, she may as well amuse herself somewhere else. Barrett is rather a good looker, isn't he? Do you know anything about the man? Has he got any stuff?"

"Don't know," answered the gruff voice. "He 's a West Pointer. Vera likes to amuse herself once in a while; that's the woman of it. Heard from Gaskins to-night?"

"Oh, he 's all right," the man laughed. "That little prick frightened him though. Shut up like a clam."

"So I heard. He 'll pay to keep the story quiet, all right. As soon as he is well enough to come down here, we 'll tap his bundle. Swore he was shot by a cavalry sergeant, did n't he?"

"And sticks to it like a mule. Must have it in for that fellow. Well, it helped our get-a-way."

"Yes, we 're safe enough, unless Gaskins talks, and he 's so in love with the McDonald girl he 'll spiel out big rather than have any scandal now. Wish I could get a word with Vera to-night; she ought to see him to-morrow—compassion, womanly sympathy, and all that rot, you know, helps the game. Let's drift over toward the Palace, Dan, and maybe I can give her the sign."

Hamlin caught a glimpse of their backs as they passed out—one in infantry fatigue, the other, a heavier built man, fairly well dressed in citizen's clothes. Inspired by a desire to see their features the Sergeant swung himself over the rail, and dropped lightly to the ground. In another moment he was out on the street, in front of the hotel, watching the open door. The two passed within a few feet of him, clearly revealed in the light streaming from the dance hall. The soldier lagged somewhat behind, an insignificant, rat-faced fellow, but the larger man walked straight, with squared shoulders. He wore a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, and a black beard concealed the lower portion of his face. Hamlin followed as the two pushed their way up among the idle crowd congregated on the wooden steps, and peered in through the wide doorway. Satisfied that he would recognize both worthies when they met again, and realizing now something of the plot being operated, Hamlin edged in closer toward the sergeant who was guarding the entrance. The latter recognized him with a nod.

"Pretty busy, Masters?"

"Have been, but there will be a lull now; when they come back from supper there 'll be another rush likely. Would you mind taking my job a minute while I go outside?"

"Not in the least; take your time. Let me see what the tickets look like. That 's all right—say, Masters, before you go, do you know that big duffer with a black beard in the front line?"

The other gave a quick glance down the faces.

"I've seen him before; dealt faro at the Poodle Dog a while; said to be a gun-man. Never heard his name. Oh, yes, come to think about it, they called him 'Reb'—Confed soldier, I reckon. Ain't seen him before for a month. Got into some kind off a shootin' scrap up at Mike Kelly's and skipped out ahead of the marshal. Why?"

"Nothing particular—looks familiar, that 's all. Who 's the soldier behind him—the thin-faced runt?"

"Connors. Some river-rat the recruiting officers picked up in New York; in the guard-house most of the time; driver for Major McDonald when he happens to be sober enough."

"That is where I saw him then, driving the ladies. Knew I had seen that mug before."

Left alone, except for the infantry man at the other side of the entrance, and with nothing to do beyond keeping back the little crowd of curious watchers thronging the steps, Hamlin interested himself in the assembly, although keenly conscious of those two men who continued to linger, staring into the brilliantly lighted room. That the two were closely involved with Mrs. Dupont in some money-making scheme, closely verging on crime, was already sufficiently clear to the Sergeant's mind. He had overheard enough to grasp this fact, yet the full nature of the scheme was not apparent. Without doubt it involved Gaskins as a victim; possibly Barrett also, but Hamlin was not inclined to interfere personally for the protection of either of these officers. They could look after themselves, and, if they succumbed to the charms of the lady, and it cost something, why, that was none of his affair. But somehow the suspicion had come to him that he had accidentally stumbled upon a more complicated plot than mere blackmail. Mrs. Dupont's intimacy with Molly, and the use she was making of her distant relationship with the Major to further her ends, made him eager to delve deeper into her real purpose. At least these two, apparently ignorant of their guest's true character, should be warned, or, if that was impossible, protected from imposture. Their open friendliness and social endorsement were the woman's stock in trade at Dodge, and whatever the final denouement might be, McDonald and his daughter would inevitably share in the ensuing disgrace of discovery. Even if they were not also victimized, they would be held largely responsible for the losses of others. Had Hamlin been a commissioned officer he would have known what to do—his plain duty as a friend would have taken form in a frankly spoken warning. But, as it was, the chains of discipline, of social rank, made it seemingly impossible for him to approach either the Major or his daughter openly. He did not actually know enough to venture such an interview, and mere suspicion, even though coupled with his former intimacy with the woman, was not sufficient excuse for his interference. The Major would treat the revelation with indifference, even disbelief, and Miss Molly might even resent his meddling in the affair. Besides he was not altogether convinced that the girl had not been actually present at, and in some manner connected with, the attack on Gaskins. The memory of that face, shrinking behind the corner of the barrack wall, remained clear in his mind. He might be mistaken, but perhaps it would be best to go slow.

It was a huge, bare hall, although the walls were concealed by flags, while other draperies were festooned along the rafters. The band was stationed upon a raised platform at the rear, and a hundred couples occupied the floor. The men present were largely officers attired in dress-uniforms, although there was a considerable sprinkling of civilians, a few conspicuous in garments of the latest cut and style. Evidently invitations had been widely spread, and, considering time and place, liberally responded to. Among the women present the Sergeant saw very few he recognized, yet it was comparatively easy to classify the majority—officers' wives; the frontier helpmates of the more prominent merchants of the town; women from the surrounding ranches, who had deserted their homes until the Indian scare ceased; a scattered few from pretentious small cities to the eastward, and, here and there, younger faces, representing ranchmen's daughters, with a school-teacher or two. Altogether they made rather a brave show, occasionally exhibiting toilets worthy of admiring glances, never lacking ardent partners, and entering with unalloyed enthusiasm into the evening's pleasure. The big room presented a scene of brilliant color, of ceaselessly moving figures; the air was resonant with laughter and trembling to the dashing strains of the band. Primitive as it was in many respects, to Hamlin, long isolated in small frontier posts, the scene was strangely attractive, his imagination responding to the glow of color, the merry chime of voices, the tripping of feet. The smiling faces flashed past, his ears caught whispered words, his eyes followed the flying figures. For the moment the man forgot himself in this new environment of thoughtless pleasure.

From among that merry throng of strangers, his eyes soon distinguished that one in whom he felt special interest—Mrs. Dupont, dancing now with McDonald, the rather corpulent Major exhibiting almost youthful agility under the inspiration of music. The lady talked with animation, as they circled among the others on the floor, her red lips close to her partner's ear, but Hamlin, suspicious and watchful, noted that her eyes were busy elsewhere, scanning the faces. They swept over him apparently unseeing, but as the two circled swiftly by, the hand resting lightly on the Major's shoulder was uplifted suddenly in a peculiar, suggestive movement. He stared after them until they were lost in the crowd, feeling confident that the motion of those white-gloved fingers was meant as a signal of warning. To whom was it conveyed? He glanced aside at the jam of figures in the doorway. Both the black-whiskered man and Connors had disappeared. It was a signal then, instantly understood and obeyed.

The Sergeant had scarcely grasped this fact when his attention was diverted by the appearance of Miss McDonald. She was dancing with a civilian, an immaculately dressed individual with ruddy, boyish face. His intense admiration of his partner was plainly evident, and the girl, simply dressed in white, her cheeks flushed, her dark eyes bright with enjoyment, set Hamlin's cool nerves throbbing. He could not resist gazing at her, and, as their eyes met, she bowed, the full red lips parting in a smile of recognition. There was no reservation, no restraint in that quick greeting, as she whirled by; he could not fail to comprehend its full significance—she had not forgotten, had no desire to forget. What he imagined he read in her face swept all else from his mind instantly, and, with eager eyes, he followed her slight, girlish figure as they circled the hall. The music ceased, and he still watched as the lad led her to a seat, himself sinking into a chair beside her. Then the passing out of several men, who desired return checks, claimed his attention. When the last of these had disappeared, he glanced again in her direction. She was alone, and her young partner was walking toward him across the deserted floor. The lad came to the door, which by now contained few loiterers, and stood there a moment gazing out into the street.

"Are you Sergeant Hamlin?" he asked quietly.


"Miss McDonald requested me to hand you this note unobserved. I have no knowledge of its contents."

Hamlin felt the flutter of the paper in his palm, and stood silent, clinging to it, as the other carelessly recrossed the room. She was looking toward him, but he made no motion to unfold the missive, until his eyes, searching the chairs, had located Mrs. Dupont. The very secret of delivery made him cautious, made him suspect it had to do with that woman. She was beside the band-stand, still conversing with the Major, apparently oblivious to any other presence, her face turned aside. Assured of this, he opened the paper, and glanced at the few hastily scribbled lines.

"I trust you, and you must believe I do not do this without cause. During the intermission be in the hotel parlor."



There were two more dances scheduled on the program. The last of these had begun before the infantry sergeant returned, and, apologizing for his long absence, resumed his duties at the door. Across the room, Hamlin's eyes met those of Miss McDonald, where she danced with an unknown officer; then he turned and elbowed his way to the street. The hotel opposite was all bustle and confusion, the bar-room crowded with the thirsty emergency waiters who had rushed about the hall completing final preparations. The Sergeant, intent on his purpose, and aware that the band had ceased playing, dodged past these and entered the parlor. It was already occupied by four men, who were playing cards at a small, round table and smoking vigorously, entirely engrossed in their game. None of them so much as glanced up, and the intruder hesitated an instant, quickly determining his course of action. There was little choice left. The girl would never make an appointment with him except through necessity, and it was manifestly his duty to protect her from observation. Two of the men sitting there were strangers; the others he knew merely by sight, a tin-horn gambler called Charlie, and a sutler's clerk. His decision was swift, and characteristic.

"Gents," he said, stepping up, and tapping the table sharply, "you 'll have to vamoose from here."

"What the hell—" the gambler looked up into the gray eyes, and stopped.

"That's all right, Charlie," went on Hamlin coolly, one hand at his belt. "Those are my orders, and they go. Hire a room upstairs if you want to keep on with the game. Pick up the stuff, you fellows."

"But see here," the speaker was upon his feet protesting. "The old man told us we could come in here."

"The old man's word don't go for this floor to-night, partner. It's rented by the post officers. Now mosey right along, and don't come back unless you are looking for trouble—you too, Fatty."

Right or wrong there was plainly no use continuing the argument, for Hamlin's fingers were upon the butt of his revolver, and his eyes hardened at the delay. The gambler's inclination was to oppose this summary dismissal, but a glance at his crowd convinced him he would have to play the hand alone, so he yielded reluctantly, swept the chips into the side pocket of his coat and departed, leaving behind a trail of profanity. The Sergeant smiled, but remained motionless until they disappeared.

"The bluff works," he thought serenely, "unless they make a kick at the office; some peeved, Charlie was."

He stepped over to the window, and held back the curtain. A burly figure occupied the bench, with feet upon the rail. Even in that outside dimness could be distinguished a black beard. The very man, and the Sergeant chuckled grimly with a swiftly born hope that the fellow might create a row. Nothing at that moment could have pleased him more. He blew out the parlor light, partially closed the door, and stepped forth on to the porch.

"Say, you," he said gruffly, dropping one hand heavily on the other's shoulder. "Did you hear what I said to those fellows inside? Well, it goes out here the same. Pack up, and clear the deck."

"Reb" dropped his feet to the floor and stood up, his bearded lips growling profanity, but Hamlin gripped his wrist, and the man stopped, with mouth still open, staring into the Sergeant's face. All bravado seemed to desert him instantly.

"Who—who says so?" and he stepped back farther into the shadow.

"I do, if you need to know," pleasantly enough. "Sergeant Hamlin, Seventh Cavalry."

"Oh!" the exclamation came from between clenched teeth. "Hell, man, you startled me."

"So I see; nervous disposition, I reckon. Well, are you going quietly, or shall I hoist you over the rail?"

"I had an appointment here."

"Can't help that, partner. This porch is going to be vacant inside of one minute, or there is a declaration of war. Your easiest way out is through that window, but you can go by rail if you prefer."

The black beard wasted half his allowed time in an effort at bluster; then, to Hamlin's utter disgust, slunk through the open window and across the darkened parlor.

"The pusillanimous cuss," the latter muttered, "he 's worse than a cur dog. Blamed if he was n't actually afraid of me. A gun-fighter—pugh!" He lifted his voice, as "Reb" paused in the light of the hall beyond and glanced back, a fist doubled and uplifted. "Oh, go on! Sure, you 'll get me? You are the brave boy, now," and Hamlin strode toward the door threateningly. "Lope along, son, and don't turn around again until you face the bar."

He drew the door partially to again, and sat down facing the opening, where a stray beam of light fell across the floor. Thus far the adventure had scarcely proven interesting. The last encounter had been a distinct disappointment. The dispersal of the card-players was, as anticipated, easily managed, but the reputation of "Reb" as killer and bad man had given him hope of resistance. But instead he had proven a perfect lamb. Hamlin crossed his legs and waited, his mind divided in wonder between what Miss McDonald might want, and the cowardice of the fellow just driven out. The man was actually afraid—afraid to start a row. Yet he had got to his feet with that intention; it was only after he had looked into Hamlin's face and asked his name, that he began to hedge and draw back. Could he have recognized him? Could Mrs. Dupont have warned him of danger in his direction? That would seem impossible, for the woman had not been with him for even a minute since their conversation. She had given him a swift signal at the door of the dance hall, but that could scarcely account for his present desire to avoid trouble. An engagement? Probably with Mrs. Dupont. But what was the use of speculating? Perhaps when the girl came she would have some light to throw on these matters. Surely her sudden determination to see him privately must have connection with this affair.

These thoughts came swiftly, for his period of waiting proved to be but a short one. He heard the laughter and talk as the merry-makers came into the hotel from the dance hall, crowding the passage, and thronging in to where the tables were set. Then a rattle of dishes, and the steady shuffling of waiters rushing back and forth. Occasionally he could distinguish a shadow out in the hall, but never changed his motionless posture, or removed his eyes from the aperture, until she slipped noiselessly through and stood there panting slightly, her hand clasping the knob of the door. Apparently in the semi-darkness of the room she was uncertain of his presence, while her white dress touched by the outside reflection made her clearly visible.

"It is all right, Miss McDonald," he murmured hastily, arising. "There is nothing to fear."

"You are here—alone?"

"Yes," smiling in memory. "There were occupants when I first arrived, but they were persuaded to depart. I had a suspicion you might prefer it that way."

"Yes," puzzled by his manner, yet softly pushing the door back so as to exclude the light. "I can see better now. Are—are you sure no one can overhear? I have something to tell you—something important."

"There is no one else here, yet some one might stumble into this room. It is not private, you know. We shall be safer on the porch outside. Will you take my hand, and let me guide you?"

She did so unhesitatingly, but her fingers were cold, and he could feel the twitching of her nerves.

"You are frightened—not of me, surely?"

"Oh, no!" a slight catch in her voice, "but I am running such a risk venturing here. I—I had to pretend a sick-headache to get away. You must not condemn me until you hear why I came."

"I condemn? Hardly, Miss McDonald. I am merely a soldier receiving orders; 'mine not to question why.' Here is the window; now sit down on this bench. I 'll keep guard, and listen." His voice sank lower, a little touch of tenderness in it impossible to disguise. "Are you in trouble? Is it something I can aid you to overcome?"

She did not answer at once but rested her chin in one hand, and turned her eyes away. Her breath came swiftly, as though she had not yet recovered from fright, and her face in the dim light looked white and drawn.

"Yes, you can," she began slowly, "I am sure you can. I—I came to you because there was no one else in whom I felt the same confidence. I know that sounds strange, but I cannot explain—only it seems natural to trust some people even when you do not know them very well. I do not suppose I know you very well; just those few hours we were together, but—somehow I think you are true."

"I certainly hope so," he put in earnestly. "I couldn't very well help being—with you."

"I believe that," and she lifted her eyes to his face.

"Yet I do not wish you to think me bold, or—or indiscreet. You do not think so, do you?"

"That idea has never once occurred to me, Miss McDonald. I am only too glad to be of service."

"It is good of you to say that; you see, there was no one else."

"Your father?" he suggested.

"But that is the very trouble," she insisted, rejoicing that he had thus unconsciously opened the way to her confession. "It is because my father is involved, is completely in her toils, that I am compelled to appeal to you. He will not listen to a word against her."

"Her? You refer to Mrs. Dupont?"

"Of course; why, I hadn't mentioned her name! How did you guess?"

"Because I am not entirely ignorant of conditions," he answered soberly. "Although I have only been at the post a short time, I have managed to see and hear a good deal. You know I chanced to become involved in the shooting of Lieutenant Gaskins, and then I saw you riding with Mrs. Dupont, and recognized her."

"Recognized?" in surprise. "Do you actually mean you knew her before?"

"Not as Mrs. Dupont, but as Vera Carson, years ago. She knew me at once, and sent your driver over to the barracks with a note."

"Why, how strange. She asked me so many questions, I wondered at the interest shown. Do you mind telling me what the note was about?"

"Not in the least. She referred to the past, and asked me to meet her."

"Were you—very intimate? Great friends?"

"We were engaged to be married," he acknowledged frankly, his eyes upon her face. "That was at the breaking out of the war, and I was in my senior college year. We met at school, and I was supposed to be the heir to a large property. She is a beautiful woman now, and she was a beautiful girl then. I thought her as good and true as she was charming. Since then I have learned her selfishness and deceit, that it was my money which attracted her, and that she really loved another man, a classmate."

She glanced up at him as he paused, but he resumed the story without being interrupted.

"The war came, and I enlisted at once, and received a commission. Almost our entire class went, and the man she really loved was next below me in rank."

"Eugene Le Fevre?"

"Yes; how did you know? Oh, I told you of him out there in the sand-hills. Well, I urged her to marry me before I went to the front, but she made excuses. Later, I understood the reason—she was uncertain as to my inheriting the property of an uncle. We were ordered to the Army of Northern Virginia. Once I went home on furlough, severely wounded. We were to be married then, but I had not sufficiently recovered when I was suddenly ordered back to the front. I did suspect then, for the first time, that she was glad of the respite. I afterwards discovered that during all this time she was in correspondence with Le Fevre, who had been detailed on Early's staff. It was his influence which brought about my sudden, unexpected recall to duty. A few months later I was promoted major, and, at Fisher's Hill, found myself commanding the regiment. Early in the action Le Fevre brought me an order; it was delivered verbally, the only other party present a corporal named Shultz, a German knowing little English. Early's exact words were: 'Advance at once across the creek, and engage the enemy fiercely; a supporting column will move immediately.' Desperate as the duty involved appeared, there was nothing in the order as given to arouse suspicion. In obedience I flung my command forward, leading them on foot. We charged into a trap, and were nearly annihilated, and Shultz was either killed, or made prisoner. Two days later I was arrested under charges, was tried by court-martial, and dismissed from the service in disgrace. Early produced a copy of his written order; it read 'cautiously feel the enemy's position,' and Le Fevre went on the stand, and swore the original had been delivered to me. I had no witnesses."

She watched him with wide-open eyes, her lips parted.

"And she—this Vera Carson?"

The man laughed bitterly.

"Wrote him a letter, which the man actually had the nerve to show me when I was helpless, proving her falsity. I would not believe, and went back seeking her. But she had departed—no one knew where—but had first convinced herself that my name had been erased from my uncle's will. Two months later I heard that she married Le Fevre in Richmond."

"And she—that woman—actually asked you to meet her again to-night?"


"Did you?"

"I must plead guilty."


"Here; just where we are now; we were together half an hour."

She half arose to her feet, her hand grasping the rail.

"But I cannot understand. Why should you? Do you—"

"No; wait," he interrupted, venturing to touch her arm. "I came, not because of any interest in her, Miss Molly—but for you."



Her breath came in a little sob, and she sank back on the bench.

"For me? How do you mean?"

"Surely I had every reason to distrust her, to question her character, and I could not believe you realized the sort of woman she is. I felt it my duty to discover her purpose here, and to warn you if possible."

"And you have succeeded? You learned her purpose in your interview?"

"Not exactly," with regret. "My suspicion was merely stimulated. To tell the truth, we rather drifted into a renewal of our old quarrel. However, between what she said, and parts of another conversation overheard, I know there is a blackmailing conspiracy on foot in which you are involved. May I speak very frankly?"

"I certainly desire it," proudly. "I am not aware that I have anything to conceal."

"Apparently the scheme these people have on foot originated about Lieutenant Gaskins. He is wealthy, I understand?"

"I have been told so; yes, I know he is."

"This knowledge, coupled with the fact of your engagement—"

"My what?"

"Your engagement. I had heard it rumored before, and Mrs. Dupont assured me it was true."

"But it is not true, Sergeant Hamlin"—indignantly. "I cannot imagine how such a report ever started. Lieutenant Gaskins has been very friendly; has—" her voice breaking slightly, "even asked me to marry him, but—but I told him that was impossible. He has been just as kind to me since, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing between us. I have never spoken about this before to any one."

If Hamlin's heart leaped wildly at this swift denial, there was no evidence of it in his quiet voice.

"The point is, Miss Molly, that Mrs. Dupont, and those connected with her, think otherwise. They are presuming on Gaskins' being in love with you. Mrs. Dupont can be very seductive. Little by little she has drawn the Lieutenant into her net. Believing him engaged to you, they have him now where he must either pay money for silence or be exposed. Just how it was worked, I do not know. The shooting last night was done to convince him they were serious. The fact that Gaskins later denied knowing who his assailants were—even endeavored to accuse me—is abundant proof of their success." He hesitated, wondering at her silence. "What puzzles me most is why you were present."

"Present? Where?"

"At this quarrel with Gaskins last evening. As I ran by toward the scene of the shooting I passed you hiding at the angle or the barrack wall. Of course, I have mentioned the fact to no one. That was why I made no attempt to defend myself when arrested."

She gasped for breath, scarcely able to articulate.

"You believe that? You think that of me?"

"I may have been deceived; I hope so; there was but little light, and I got merely a glimpse," he explained hastily.

"You were deceived," impetuously. "I was not out of the house that evening. I was in the parlor with my father when those shots were fired. You are sure you saw a woman there—hiding?"

"There is no doubt of that; her foot-prints were plainly to be seen in the morning. This discovery, together with the size of the weapon used, resulted in my immediate release. I saw her, and imagined her to be you. I cannot account for the mistake, unless you were in my mind, and—and possibly what I had heard of your connection with Gaskins. Then it must have been Mrs. Dupont. That looks reasonable. But she stays at your home, does she not?"

"She makes our house her headquarters, but is absent occasionally. Last night she was here at this hotel. Well, we are getting this straightened out a little—that is, if you believe me."

"Of course."

"Then I am going to question you. You spoke of overhearing a conversation?"

"Yes; it was after Mrs. Dupont had left. Captain Barrett came, and took her away. I was sitting here thinking when two men came into the parlor."

"Who were they? Do you know?"

"One was the soldier who drives you about—Connors; the other a black-bearded, burly fellow called 'Reb.'"

"Mr. Dupont."

"What? Is that Dupont? Lord! No wonder she 's gone bad. Why, I thought her husband was a ranchman down South somewhere! This fellow is a tin-horn."

"He did run cattle once, years ago. I think he was quite well off, but drank and gambled it away. Papa told me all about it, but I found out he was the man by accident. He—is the one I am really afraid of."

She stopped, her eyes deserting his face, and stared out into the darkness. He waited, feeling vaguely that he had not heard all she intended to say.

"What more do you know?" he asked. "What was it you expected of me?"

She turned again, aroused by the question.

"Yes, I must tell you as quickly as I can, before I am missed. I did not know about Mrs. Dupont and Lieutenant Gaskins. I realized there was something between them—a—a—slight flirtation, but scarcely gave that a thought. What brought me here was a much more serious matter, yet this new information helps me to comprehend the other—the motives, I mean. Mrs. Dupont's maiden name was Vera Carson?"

"Certainly; I knew her family well."

"She came here, and was received into our family as a daughter of my father's sister. If true, her maiden name would have been Sarah Counts. Papa had no reason to suspect the deceit. He does not now, and I doubt if even your word would convince him, for he seems thoroughly under her influence. There has been such a change in him since she came; not all at once, you know, but gradual, until now he scarcely seems like the same man. I—I do not dislike Lieutenant Gaskins; he has been pleasant and attentive, but I do not care for him in any other way. Yet papa insists that I marry the man. Lately he has been very unkind about it, and—and I am sure she is urging him on. What can I do? It is all so unpleasant."

Hamlin shook his head, but without reply.

"You will not tell me! Then I will tell you I shall say no! no! no! In spite of them; I shall refuse to be sold. But how does that woman control my father?" she leaned closer in her earnestness, lowering her voice. "She has not won him by charms; he is afraid of her."

"Afraid? Are you certain of that?"

"Yes. I cannot tell you how I know; perhaps it is all womanly instinct, but I do know that he is terrorized; that he dare not oppose her wish. I have read the truth in his eyes, and I am sure he is harsh to me only because he is driven by some threat. What can it be?"

"You have never spoken to him of your suspicions? Asked him?"

"Yes and no. I tried once, and shall never forget the expression of his face. Then he turned on me in a perfect paroxysm of anger. I never even dared hint at the matter again."

The Sergeant stared out into the street, not knowing what to say, or how to advise. Almost unconscious of the action his hand stole along the rail until it touched hers.

"If the woman has not ensnared him by her usual methods," he said soberly, "and I think myself you are right about that, for I watched them together in the dance hall—I did not comprehend what it meant then, but it seemed to me he actually disliked being in her company—then she has uncovered something in his past of which he is afraid, something unknown to you, which he does not desire you ever to know."

"Yes," softly, "that must be true."

"No; it may not be true; it may all be a lie, concocted for a purpose. A clever woman might so manipulate circumstances as to convince him she held his fate in her hands. We must find that out in this case."

"But how, Sergeant Hamlin? He will not tell me."

"Perhaps she will tell me if I can reach her alone," he said grimly, "or else that husband of hers—Dupont. He 'll know the whole story. It would give me pleasure to choke it out of him—real pleasure. Then there 's Connors, just the sort of sneaking rat if he can be caught with the goods; only it is not likely he knows much. I shall have to think it all out, Miss Molly," he smiled at her confidently. "You see, I am a bit slow figuring puzzles, but I generally get them in time. You 've told me all you know?"

"Everything. It almost seems silly when I try to explain what I feel to another."

"Not to me. I knew enough before to understand. But, perhaps, you had better go—hush, some one is entering the parlor."

She got to her feet in spite of his restraining hand, startled and unnerved.

"Oh, I must not be seen here. Is there no other way?"

"No; be still for a moment; step back there in the shadow, and let me go in alone."

He stepped forward, his grasp already on the curtain, when a woman's voice spoke within:

"Yes, that was what I meant; he does not know you—yet. But you must keep away."



The speaker was Mrs. Dupont, but Hamlin's one thought was to prevent any discovery of Miss McDonald. Without an instant's hesitation he drew aside the curtain, and stepped into the room.

"Pardon me," he said quietly, as the two started back at his rather abrupt entrance, "but I did not care to overhear your conversation. No doubt it was intended to be private."

The woman stepped somewhat in advance of her companion, as though to shield him from observation, instantly mastering her surprise.

"Nothing at all serious, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin," she retorted scornfully. "Don't be melodramatic, please; it gets on the nerves. If you must know, I was merely giving our ranch foreman a few final instructions, as he leaves to-morrow. Have you objections?"

"Assuredly not—your ranch foreman, you say? Met him before, I think. You are the fellow I ordered out of this room, are n't you?"

The man growled something unintelligible, but Mrs. Dupont prevented any direct reply.

"That's all right, John," she broke in impatiently. "You understand what I want now, and need not remain any longer. I have a word to say myself to this man."

She waited an instant while he left the room; then her eyes defiantly met Hamlin's.

"I was told you had driven every one out of here," she said coldly. "What was the game?"

"This room was reserved—"

"Pish! keep that explanation for some one else. You wanted the room for some purpose. Who have you got out there?" she pointed at the window.

"Whether there be any one or not," he answered, leaning against the window frame, and thus barring the passage, "I fail to see wherein you are concerned."

She laughed.

"Which remark is equivalent to a confession. Dave," suddenly changing, "why should we quarrel, and misjudge each other? You cannot suppose I have forgotten the past, or am indifferent. Cannot you forgive the mistake of a thoughtless girl? Is there any reason why we should not be, at least, friendly?"

There was an appeal in her voice, but the man's face did not respond.

"I cannot say that I feel any bitterness over the past," he answered lightly. "I am willing enough to blot that out. What I am interested in is the present. I should like to understand your purpose here at Dodge."

"Surely that is sufficiently clear. I am merely an exile from home, on account of Indian depredations. What more natural than that I should take refuge in my uncle's house."

"You mean Major McDonald?"

"Certainly—he was my mother's only brother."

"I think I have heard somewhere that the Major's only sister married a man named Counts."

She drew in her breath sharply.

"Yes, of course—her first husband."

"You were a daughter then of her first marriage?"

"Of course."

"But assumed the name of Carson when she married again?"

"That was when you met me."

"The change was natural enough," he went on.

"But why did you also become Vera in place of Sarah?"

"Oh, is that it? Well, never attempt to account for the vagaries of a girl," she returned lightly, as though dismissing the subject. "I presume I took a fancy to the prettier name. But how did you know?"

"Garrison rumor picks up nearly everything, and it is not very kind to you, Mrs. Dupont. I hope I am doing you a favor in saying this. Your rather open flirtation with Lieutenant Gaskins is common talk, even among enlisted men, and I have heard that your relations with Major McDonald are peculiar."

"Indeed!" with a rising inflection of the voice. "How kind of you, and so delicately expressed." She laughed. "And poor Major McDonald! Really, that is ridiculous. Could you imagine my flirting with him?"

"I have no recollection of using that term in this connection. But you have strange influence over him. For some reason the man is apparently afraid of you."

"Afraid of me? Oh, no! Some one has been fooling you, Dave. I am merely Major McDonald's guest. I wonder who told you that? Shall I guess?"

Before he could realize her purpose the woman took a hasty step forward, and swept aside the curtain, thrusting her head past to where she could gain a view outside. Hamlin pressed her back with one hand, planting himself squarely before the window. She met his eyes spitefully.

"I was mistaken this time," she acknowledged, drawing away, "but I 'd like to know why you were so anxious to prevent my looking out. Do you know whom I thought you had there?"

"As you please," rejoicing that the girl had escaped notice.

"That little snip of a Molly. You made a hit with her all right, and she certainly don't like me. Well, delightful as it is to meet you again, I must be going." She turned away, and then paused to add over her shoulder. "Don't you think it would be just as safe for you to attend to your own business, Sergeant Hamlin?"

"And let you alone?"

"Exactly; and let me alone. I am hardly the sort of woman it is safe to play with. It will be worth your while to remember that."

He waited, motionless, until assured that she had passed down the hall as far as the door of the dining-room. The sound of shuffling chairs evidenced the breaking up of the party, in preparation to return to the ballroom. If Miss McDonald's absence were to escape observation, she would have to slip out now and rejoin the others as they left the house. He again turned down the light, and held back the curtain.

"The way is clear now, Miss Molly."

There was no response, no movement. He stepped outside, thinking the girl must have failed to hear him. The porch was empty. He stepped from one end to the other, making sure she was not crouching in the darkness, scarcely able to grasp the fact of her actual disappearance. This, then, was why Mrs. Dupont had failed to see any one when she glanced out. But where could the girl have gone? How gotten away? He had heard no sound behind him; not even the rustle of a skirt to betray movement. It was not far to the ground, five or six feet, perhaps; it would be perfectly safe for one to lower the body over the rail and drop. The matted prairie grass under foot would render the act noiseless. No doubt that was exactly the way the escape had been accomplished. Alarmed by the presence of those others, suspecting that the woman within would insist on learning whom Hamlin was attempting to conceal, possibly overhearing enough of their conversation to become frightened at the final outcome, Miss McDonald, in sudden desperation, had surmounted the rail, and dropped to the ground. The rest would be easy—to hasten around the side of the house, and slip in through the front door.

Assured that this must be the full explanation, the Sergeant's cheerfulness returned. The company of officers and guests had already filed out through the hall; he could hear voices laughing and talking in the street, and the band tuning up their instruments across in the dance hall. He would go over and make certain of her presence, then his mind would be at ease. He passed out through the deserted hallway, and glanced in at the dining-room, where a number of men were gathering up the dishes. Beyond this the barroom was crowded, a riffraff lined up before the sloppy bar, among these a number in uniform—unattached officers who had loitered behind to quench their thirst. Hamlin drank little, but lingered a moment just inside the doorway, to observe who was present. Unconsciously he was searching for Dupont, half inclined to pick a quarrel deliberately with the fellow or with Connors, determined if he found the little rat alone to frighten whatever knowledge he possessed out of him. But neither worthy appeared. Having assured himself of their absence, Hamlin turned to depart, but found himself facing a little man with long hair, roughly dressed, who occupied the doorway. The hooked nose, and bright eyes, peering forth from a mass of untrimmed gray whiskers, were familiar.

"You keep the junk shop down by the express office, don't you?"

"Yep," briskly, scenting business in the question. "I 'm Kaplan; vot could I do for you—hey?"

"Answer a question if you will, friend. Do you recall selling a haversack to a traveller on the last stage out for Santa Fe in June?"

"Vel, I do' no; vas he a big fellow? Maybe de von vat vas killed—hey?"

"Yes; his name was Moylan, post-sutler at Fort Marcy."

"Maybe dot vos it. Why you vant to know—hey?"

"No harm to you, Kaplan," the Sergeant explained. "Only I picked it up out there after Moylan was killed, and discovered by some writing on the flap that it originally belonged to a friend of mine. I was curious to learn how it got into your hands."

The trader shrugged his shoulders.

"Vud it be worth a drink?" he asked cannily.

"Of course. Frank, give Kaplan whatever he wants. Now, fire away."

"Vel," and the fellow filled his glass deliberately, "It vas sold me six months before by a fellow vat had a black beard—"


"Dat vos de name ov de fellar, yes. Now I know it. I saw him here again soon. You know him?"

"By sight only; he is not the original owner, nor the man I am trying to trace. You know nothing of where he got the bag, I presume?"

"I know notting more as I tell you alreatty," rather disconsolately, as he realized that one drink was all he was going to receive.

Hamlin elbowed his way out to the street. He had learned something, but not much that was of any value. Undoubtedly the haversack had come into Dupont's possession through his wife, but this knowledge yielded no information as to the present whereabouts of Le Fevre. When the latter had separated from the woman, this old army bag was left behind, and, needing money, Dupont had disposed of it, along with other truck, seemingly of little value.

The Sergeant reached this conclusion quickly, and, satisfied that any further investigation along this line would be worthless, reverted to his earlier quest—the safety of Miss McDonald. Merely to satisfy himself of her presence, he crossed the street and glanced in at the whirling dancers. There were few loiterers at the doorway and he stood for a moment beside the guard, where he was able to survey the entire room. Mrs. Dupont was upon the floor, and swept past twice, without lifting her eyes in recognition, but neither among the dancers, nor seated, could he discover Miss Molly.

Startled at not finding her present, Hamlin searched anxiously for the Major, only to assure himself of his absence also. Could they have returned to the fort as early as this? If so, how did it happen their guest was still present, happily enjoying herself? Of course she might be there under escort of some one else—Captain Barrett, possibly. He would ask the infantryman.

"Have you seen Miss McDonald since supper?"

The soldier hesitated an instant, as though endeavoring to remember.

"No, I ain't, now you speak of it. She went out with that kid over there, and he came back alone. Don't believe he 's danced any since. The Major was here, though; Connors brought him a note a few minutes ago, and he got his hat and went out."

Hamlin drew a breath of relief. "Girl must have sent for him to take her home," he said. "Well, it 's time for me to turn in—good-night, old man."

He tramped along the brightly illumined street, and out upon the dark road leading up the bluff to the fort, his mind occupied with the events of the evening, and those other incidents leading up to them. There was no doubt that Miss McDonald and her father had returned to their home. But what could he do to assist her? The very knowledge that she had voluntarily appealed to him, that she had come to him secretly with her trouble, brought strange happiness. Moreover his former acquaintance with Mrs. Dupont gave him a clue to the mystery. Yet how was he going to unravel the threads, discover the motive, find out the various conspirators? What were they really after? Money probably, but possibly revenge. What did the woman know which enabled her to wield such influence over McDonald? What was the trap they proposed springing? The Sergeant felt that he could solve these problems if given an opportunity, but he was handicapped by his position; he could not leave his troop, could not meet or mingle with the suspected parties; was tied, hand and foot, by army discipline. He could not even absent himself from the post without gaining special permission. He swore to himself over the hopelessness of the situation, as he tramped through the blackness toward the guard-house. The sentinel glanced at his pass, scrutinizing it by the light of a fire, and thrust the paper into his pocket. Hamlin advanced, and at the corner saluted the officer of the day, who had just stepped out of the guard-house door.

"Good evening, Sergeant," the latter said genially. "Just in from town? I expect they are having some dance down there to-night."

"Yes, sir," hesitatingly, and then venturing the inquiry. "May I ask if Major McDonald has returned to the post?"

"McDonald? No," he glanced at his watch. "He had orders to go east to Ripley on the stage. That was due out about an hour ago."

"To Ripley? By stage?" the Sergeant repeated the words, dazed. "Why—why, what has become of Miss McDonald?"

The officer smiled, shaking his head.

"I 'm sure I don't know, my man," he returned carelessly. "Come back with Barrett and his lady-love, likely. Why?" suddenly interested by the expression on the other's face. "What's happened? Is there anything wrong?"



Startled and bewildered as Hamlin was by this sudden revealment, he at once comprehended the embarrassment of his own position. He could not confess all he knew, certainly not the fact that the girl had met him secretly and had vanished while he was endeavoring to turn aside Mrs. Dupont. He must protect her at all hazards. To gain time, and self-control, he replied with a question:

"Did not Connors drive them down, sir?"

"Yes, the four of them."

"And Major McDonald knew then that he was ordered East?"

"No, the order came by telegram later. An orderly was sent down about ten o'clock. But, see here, Sergeant, I am no Bureau of Information. If you have anything to report, make it brief."

Hamlin glanced at the face of the other. He knew little about him, except that he had the reputation of being a capable officer.

"I will, sir," he responded quickly; "you may never have heard of the affair, but I was with Miss McDonald during a little Indian trouble out on the trail a few months ago."

The officer nodded.

"I heard about that; Gaskins brought her in."

"Well, ever since she has seemed grateful and friendly. You know how some women are; well, she is that kind. To-night she came to me, because she did n't seem to know whom else to go to, and told me of some trouble she was having. I realize, Captain Kane, that it may seem a bit strange to you that a young lady like Miss McDonald, an officer's daughter, would turn for help to an enlisted man, but I am telling you only the truth, sir. You see, she got it into her head somehow that I was square, and—and, well, that I cared enough to help her."

"Wait a minute, Sergeant," broke in Kane, kindly, realizing the other's embarrassment, and resting one hand on his sleeve. "You do not need to apologize for Miss McDonald. I know something of what is going on at this post, although, damn me if I 've ever got on to the straight facts. You mean that Dupont woman?"

"Yes, she 's concerned in the matter, but there are others also."

"Why could n't the girl tell her father?"

"That is where the main trouble lies, Captain. Major McDonald seems to be completely under the control of Mrs. Dupont. He is apparently afraid of her for some reason. That is what Miss Molly spoke to me about. We were on the side porch at the hotel talking while the dancers were at supper—it was the only opportunity the girl had to get away—and Mrs. Dupont and her husband came into the parlor—"

"Her husband? Good Lord, I thought her husband was dead."

"He is n't. He 's a tin-horn gambler, known in the saloons as 'Reb,' a big duffer, wearing a black beard."

"All right, go on; I don't know him."

"Well, I stepped into the room to keep the two apart, leaving the girl alone outside. We had a bit of talk before I got the room cleared, and when I went back to the porch, Miss Molly had gone."

"Dropped over the railing to the ground."

"That's what I thought at the time, sir, but what happened to her after that? She did n't return to the hotel; she was not at the dance hall, and has n't come back to the post."

"The hell you say! Are you sure?"

"I am; I searched for her high and low before I left, and she could not get in here without passing the guard-house."

Kane stared into the Sergeant's race a moment, and then out across the parade ground. A yellow light winked in the Colonel's office, occasionally blotted out by the passing figure of a sentry. The officer came to a prompt decision.

"The 'old man' is over there yet, grubbing at some papers. Come on over, and tell him what you have told me. I believe the lass will turn up all right, but it does look rather queer."

The Colonel and the Post Adjutant were in the little office, busy over a pile of papers. Both officers glanced up, resenting the interruption, as Kane entered, Hamlin following. The former explained the situation briefly, while the commandant leaned back in his chair, his keen eyes studying the younger man.

"Very well, Captain Kane," he said shortly, as the officer's story ended. "We shall have to examine into this, of course, but will probably discover the whole affair a false alarm. There is, at present, no necessity for alarming any others. Sergeant, kindly explain to me why Miss McDonald should have come to you in her distress?"

Hamlin stepped forward, and told the story again in detail, answering the Colonel's questions frankly.

"This, then, was the only time you have met since your arrival?"

"Yes, sir."

"And this Mrs. Dupont? You have had a previous acquaintance with her?"

"Some years ago."

"You consider her a dangerous woman?"

"I know her to be utterly unscrupulous, sir. I am prepared to state that she is here under false pretences, claiming to be a niece of Major McDonald's. I do not know her real purpose, but am convinced it is an evil one."

The Colonel shook his head doubtfully, glancing at the silent adjutant.

"That remains to be proven, Sergeant. I have, of course, met the lady, and found her pleasant and agreeable as a companion. Deuced pretty too; hey, Benson? Why do you say she masquerades as McDonald's niece?"

"Because her maiden name was Carson and the Major's sister married a man named Counts."

"There might have been another marriage. Surely McDonald must know."

"Miss Molly says not, Colonel. He has known nothing of his sister for over twenty years, and accepted this woman on her word."

"Well, well! Interesting situation; hey, Benson? Like to get to the bottom myself. Damme if it don't sound like a novel. However, the thing before us right now is to discover what has become of Miss McDonald." He straightened up in his chair, then leaned across the table. "Captain Kane, make a thorough examination of McDonald's quarters first. If the girl is not found there, detail two men to accompany Sergeant Hamlin on a search of the town."

"Very well, sir; come on, Sergeant."

"Just a moment—if we find the trail leads beyond the town are we authorized to continue?"

"Certainly, yes. Adjutant, write out the order. Anything more?"

"I should prefer two men of my own troop, sir, mounted."

"Very well; see to it, Captain."

The two men walked down past the dark row of officers' houses, the Sergeant a step to the rear on the narrow cinder path. McDonald's quarters were as black as the others, and there was no response from within when Kane rapped at the door. They tried the rear entrance with the same result—the place was plainly unoccupied.

"Pick out your men, Hamlin," the Captain said sternly, "and I 'll call the stable guard."

Ten minutes later, fully equipped for field service, the three troopers circled the guard-house and rode rapidly down the dark road toward the yellow lights of the town. The Sergeant explained briefly the cause of the expedition, and the two troopers, experienced soldiers, asked no unnecessary questions. Side by side the three men rode silently into the town, and Hamlin swung down from his saddle at the door of the dance hall. With a word to the guard he crossed the floor to intercept Mrs. Dupont. The latter regarded his approach with astonishment, her hand on Captain Barrett's blue sleeve.

"Certainly not," she replied rather sharply to his first question. "I am not in charge of Miss McDonald. She is no doubt amusing herself somewhere; possibly lying down over at the hotel; she complained of a headache earlier in the evening. Why do you come to me?"

"Yes," broke in the Captain, "that is what I wish to know, Hamlin. By what authority are you here?"

"The orders of the Colonel commanding, sir," respectfully, yet not permitting his glance to leave the woman's face. "You insist then, madam, that you know nothing of the girl's disappearance?"

"No!" defiantly, her cheeks red.

"Nor of what has become of Connors, or your ranch manager?"

She shrugged her shoulders, endeavoring to smile.

"The parties mentioned are of very small interest to me."

"And Major McDonald," he insisted, utterly ignoring the increasing anger of the officer beside her. "Possibly you were aware of his departure?"

"Yes," more deliberately; "he told me of his orders, and bade me good-bye later. So far as Connors is concerned, he was to have the carriage here for us at two o'clock. Is that all, Mr. Sergeant Hamlin?"'

"You better make it all," threatened the Captain belligerently, "before I lose my temper at this infernal impertinence."

Hamlin surveyed the two calmly, confident that the woman knew more than she would tell, and utterly indifferent as to the other.

"Very well," he said quietly, "I will learn what I desire elsewhere. I shall find Miss McDonald, and discover what has actually occurred."

"My best wishes, I am sure," and the lady patted the Captain's arm gently. "We are losing this waltz."

There was but one course for Hamlin to pursue. He had no trail to follow, only a vague suspicion that these plotters were in some way concerned in the mysterious disappearance. Thus far, however, they had left behind no clue to their participation. Moreover he was seriously handicapped by ignorance of any motive. Why should they desire to gain possession of the girl? It could not be money, or the hope of ransom. What then? Was it some accident which had involved her in the toils prepared for another? If so, were those unexpected orders for Major McDonald a part of the conspiracy, or had their receipt complicated the affair? The Sergeant was a soldier, not a detective, and could only follow a straight road in his investigation. He must circle widely until he found some trail to follow as patiently as an Indian. There would be tracks left somewhere, if he could only discover them. If this was a hasty occurrence, in any way an accident, something was sure to be left uncovered, some slip reveal the method. He would trace the movements of the father first, and then search the saloons and gambling dens for the two men. Though unsuccessful with Mrs. Dupont, he knew how to deal with such as they.

The stage agent was routed out of bed and came to the door, revolver in hand, startled and angry.

"Who?" he repeated. "Major McDonald? How the hell should I know? Some officer went out—yes; heavy set man with a mustache. I did n't pay any attention to him; had government transportation. There were two other passengers, both men, ranchers, I reckon; none in the station at all. What's that, Jane?"

A woman's voice spoke from out the darkness behind.

"Was the soldier asking if Major McDonald went East on the coach, Sam?"

"Sure; what do you know about it?"

"Why, I was outside when they started," she explained, "and the man in uniform was n't the Major. I know him by sight, for he 's been down here a dozen times when I was at the desk. This fellow was about his size, but dark and stoop-shouldered."

"And the others?" asked Hamlin eagerly.

"I did n't know either of them, only I noticed one had a black beard."

"A very large, burly fellow?"

"No, I don't think so. I did n't pay special attention to any of them, only to wonder who the officer was, 'cause I never remembered seein' him here before at Dodge, but, as I recollect, the fellow with a beard was rather undersized; had a shaggy buffalo-skin cap on."

Plainly enough the man was not Dupont, and McDonald had not departed on the stage, while some other, pretending to be he, possibly wearing his clothes to further the deceit, had taken the seat reserved in the coach. Baffled, bewildered by this unexpected discovery, the Sergeant swung back into his saddle, not knowing which way to turn.



That both McDonald and his daughter were involved in this strange puzzle was already clear. The disappearance of the one was as mysterious as that of the other. Whether the original conspiracy had centred about the Major, and Miss Molly had merely been drawn into the net through accident, or whether both were destined as victims from the first, could not be determined by theory. Indeed the Sergeant could evolve no theory, could discover no purpose in the outrage. Convinced that Dupont and his wife were the moving spirits, he yet possessed no satisfactory reason for charging them with the crime, for which there was no apparent object.

Nothing remained to be done but search the town, a blind search in the hope of uncovering some trail. That crime had been committed—either murder or abduction—was evident; the two had not dropped thus suddenly out of sight without cause. Nor did it seem possible they could have been whisked away without leaving some trace behind. The town was accustomed to murder and sudden death; the echo of a revolver shot would create no panic, awaken no alarm, and yet the place was small, and there was little likelihood that any deed of violence would pass long unnoticed. With a few words of instruction, and hasty descriptions of both Dupont and Connors, Hamlin sent his men down the straggling street to drag out the occupants of shack and tent, riding himself to the blazing front of the "Poodle Dog."

Late as the hour was, the saloon and the gambling rooms above were all crowded. Hamlin plunged into the mass of men, pressing passage back and forth, his eyes searching the faces, while he eagerly questioned those with whom he had any acquaintance. Few among these could recall to mind either "Reb" or his boon companion, and even those who did retained no recollection of having seen the two lately. The bartenders asserted that neither man had been there that night, and the dealers above were equally positive. The city marshal, encountered outside, remembered Dupont, and had seen him at the hotel three hours before, but was positive the fellow had not been on the streets since. Connors he did not know, but if the man was Major McDonald's driver, then he was missing all right, for Captain Barrett had had to employ a livery-man to drive Mrs. Dupont back to the fort. No, there was no other lady with her; he was sure, for he had watched them get into the carriage.

The two troopers were no more fortunate in their results, but had succeeded in stirring up greater excitement during their exploration, several irate individuals, roughly aroused from sleep, exhibiting fighting propensities, which had cost one a blackened eye, and the other the loss of a tooth. Both, however, had enjoyed the occasion, and appeared anxious for more. Having exhausted the possibilities of the town, the soldiers procured lanterns, and, leaving the horses behind, began exploring the prairie. In this labor they were assisted by the marshal, and a few aroused citizens hastily impressed into a posse. The search was a thorough one, but the ground nearby was so cut up by hoofs and wheels as to yield no definite results. Hamlin, obsessed with the belief that whatever had occurred had been engineered by Dupont, and recalling the fact that the man was once a ranchman somewhere to the southward, jumped to the conclusion that the fellow would naturally head in that direction, seeking familiar country in which to hide. With the two troopers he pushed on toward the river, choosing the upper ford as being the most likely choice of the fugitives. The trampled mud of the north bank exhibited fresh tracks, but none he could positively identify. However, a party on horseback had crossed within a few hours, and, without hesitation, he waded out into the stream.

The gray of dawn was in the sky as the three troopers, soaked to the waist, crept up the south bank and studied the trail. Behind them the yellow lanterns still bobbed about between the river and town, but there was already sufficient light to make visible the signs underfoot. Horsemen had climbed the bank, the hoof marks yet damp where water had drained from dripping fetlocks, and had instantly broken into a lope. A moment's glance proved this to Hamlin as he crept back and forth, scrutinizing each hoof mark intently.

"Five in the party," he said soberly. "Three mustangs and two American horses, cavalry shod. About three hours ahead of us." He straightened up, his glance peering into the gray mists. "I reckon it's likely our outfit, but we 'll never catch them on foot. They 'll be behind the sand-dunes before this. Before we go back, boys, we 'll see if they left the trail where it turns west."

The three ran forward, paying little heed until they reached the edge of the ravine. Here the beaten trail swerved sharply to the right. Fifty feet beyond, the marks of horses' hoofs appeared on the sloping bank, and Hamlin sprang down to where the marks disappeared around the edge of a large bowlder. His hand on the stone, he stopped suddenly with quick indrawing of breath, staring down at a motionless figure lying almost at his feet. The man, roughly dressed, lay on his face, a bullet wound showing above one ear, the back of his neck caked with blood. The Sergeant, mastering his first sense of horror, turned him over and gazed upon the ghastly face of Major McDonald.

"My God, they've murdered him here!" he exclaimed. "Shot him down from behind. Look, men. No; stand back, and don't muss up the tracks. There are foot-prints here—Indians, by heaven! Three of them Indians!"

"Some plainsmen wear moccasins."

"They don't walk that way—toes in; and see this hair in McDonald's fingers—that's Indian, sure. Here is where a horse fell, and slid down the bank. Is n't that a bit of broken feather caught in the bush, Carroll? Bring it over here."

The three bent over the object.

"Well, what do you say? You men are both plainsmen."

"Cheyenne," returned Carroll promptly. "But what the hell are they doing here?"

Hamlin shook his head.

"It will require more than guessing to determine that," he said sternly. "And there is only one way to find out. That fellow was a Cheyenne all right, and there were three of them and two whites in the party—see here; the prints of five horses ridden, and one animal led. That will be the one McDonald had. They went straight up the opposite bank of the ravine. If they leave a trail like that we can ride after them full speed."

Carroll had been bending over the dead officer and now glanced up.

"There's sand just below, Sergeant," he said. "That's why they are so darn reckless here."

"Of course; they'll hide in the dunes, and the sooner we 're after them the better. Wade, you remain with the body; Carroll and I will return to the fort and report. We 'll have to have more men—Wasson if I can get him—and equipment for a hard ride. Come on, Jack."

They waded the river, and ran through the town, shouting their discovery to the marshal and his posse as they passed. Twenty minutes later Hamlin stood before the Colonel, hastily telling the story. The latter listened intently, gripping the arms of his chair.

"Shot from behind, hey?" he ejaculated, "and his clothing stolen. Looks like a carefully planned affair, Sergeant; sending that fellow through to Ripley was expected to throw us off the track. That 's why they were so careless covering their trail; expected to have several days' start. It is my notion they never intended to kill him; had a row of some kind, or else Mac tried to get away. Any trace of the girl?"

"No; but she must have been there."

"So I think; got mixed up in the affair some way, and they have been compelled to carry her off to save themselves. Do you know why they were after Mac?"

"No, sir."

"Well, I do; he carried thirty thousand dollars."


"He was acting paymaster. The money came in from Wallace last evening, and he was ordered to take it to Ripley at once."

Hamlin drew in his breath quickly in surprise.

"Who knew about that, sir?"

"No one but the Adjutant, and Major McDonald—not even the orderly."

The eyes of officer and soldier met.

"Do you suppose he could have told her?" the former asked in sudden suspicion.

"That would be my theory, sir. But it is useless to speculate. We have no proof, no means of forcing her to confess. The only thing for us to do is to trail those fugitives. I need another man—a scout—Wasson, if he can be spared—and rations for three days."

The Colonel hesitated an instant, and then rose, placing a hand on Hamlin's arm.

"I 'll do it for Miss McDonald, but not for the money," he said slowly. "I expect orders every hour for your troop, and Wasson is detailed for special service. But damn it, I 'll take the responsibility—go on, and run those devils down."

Hamlin turned to the door; then wheeled about.

"You know this man Dupont, Colonel?"

"Only by sight."

"Any idea where he used to run cattle?"

"Wait a minute until I think. I heard McDonald telling about him one night at the club, something Mrs. Dupont had let slip, but I did n't pay much attention at the time. Seems to me, though, it was down on the Canadian. No, I have it now—Buffalo Creek; runs into the Canadian. Know such a stream?"

"I 've heard of it; in west of the North Fork somewhere."

"You think it was Dupont, then?"

"I have n't a doubt that he is in the affair, and that the outfit is headed for that section. I don't know, sir, where those Indians came from, or how they happened to be up here, but I believe they belong to Black Kettle's band of Cheyennes. His bunch is down below the Canadian, is it not, sir?"


"Dupont must be friendly with them, and this coup has been planned for some time. Last night was the chance they have been waiting for. The only mistake in their plans has been the early discovery because of Miss Molly's disappearance. They have gone away careless, expecting two or three days' start, and they will only have a few hours. We 'll run them down, with good luck, before they cross the Cimarron. You have no further instructions, sir?"

"No, nothing, Sergeant. You 're an old hand, and know your business, and there is no better scout on the plains than Sam Wasson. Good-bye, and good luck."



The four men, heavily armed, and equipped for winter service, rode up the bank of the ravine to the irregularity of plain beyond. The trail, leading directly south into the solitudes, was easily followed, and Wasson, slightly in advance of the others, made no attempt to check his horse, content to lean forward, his keen eyes marking every sign. Scarcely a word was exchanged, since Hamlin had explained what had occurred as they crossed the river. Hardly less interested than the Sergeant, the sober-faced scout concentrated every energy on the pursuit, both men realizing the necessity of haste. Not only would the trail be difficult to follow after they attained the sand belt, but, if snow fell, would be utterly blotted out. And the dull, murky sky threatened snow, the sharp wind having already veered to the northwest. All about stretched a dull, dead picture of desolation, a dun-colored plain, unrelieved by vegetation, matching the skies above, extending in every direction through weary leagues of dismal loneliness. The searching eye caught no relief from desolate sameness, drear monotony. Nowhere was there movement, or, any semblance of life. Behind, the land was broken by ravines, but in every other direction it stretched level to the horizon, except that far off southward arose irregular ridges of sand, barren, ugly blotches, colorless, and forever changing formation under the beating of a ceaseless wind. It was desert, across which not even a snake crawled, and no wing of migrating bird beat the leaden sky above.

The marks of their horses' hoofs cutting sharply into the soil, told accurately the fugitives' rate of progress, and the pursuers swept forward with caution, anxious to spare their mounts and to keep out of vision themselves until nightfall. Their success depended largely on surprise, and the confidence of those ahead that they were unpursued. Wasson expressed the situation exactly, as the four halted a moment at an unexpectedly-discovered water-hole.

"I 'd think this yere plain trail was some Injun trick, boys, if I did n't know the reason fur it. 'T ain't Injun nature, but thar 's a white man ahead o' that outfit, an' he 's cock-sure that nobody 's chasin' him yet. He 's figurin' on two or three days' get-a-way, and so don't care a tinker's dam 'bout these yere marks. Once in the sand, an' thar won't be no trail anyhow. It's some kintry out thar, an' it would be like huntin' a needle in a haystack to try an' find them fellars after ter-night. This is my idea—we'll just mosey along slow, savin' the hosses an' keeping back out o' sight till dark. Them fellars ain't many hours ahead, an' are likely ter make camp furst part o' ther night anyhow. They 'll feel safe onct hid in them sand-hills, an' if they don't git no sight of us, most likely they won't even post no guard. Thet 's when we want ter dig in the spurs. Ain't that about the right program, Sergeant?"

Burning with impatience as Hamlin was, fearful that every additional moment of delay might increase the girl's danger, he was yet soldier and plainsman enough to realize the wisdom of the old scout. There were at least four men in the party pursued, two of them Indian warriors, the two whites, desperate characters. Without doubt they would put up a fierce fight, or, if warned in time, could easily scatter and disappear.

"Of course you are right, Sam," he replied promptly. "Only I am so afraid of what may happen to Miss Molly."

"Forget it. Thar's nuthin' goin' ter happen to her while the bunch is on the move. If that outfit was all Injun, or all white, maybe thar might. But the way it is they'll never agree on nuthin', 'cept how to git away. 'T ain't likely they ever meant ter kill the Major, 'er take the girl erlong. Them things just naturally happened, an' now they 're scared stiff. It 'll take a day er two for 'em to make up their minds what to do."

"What do you imagine they will decide, Sam?"

"Wall, thet 's all guesswork. But I reckon I know what I 'd do if I was in thet sort o' fix an' bein' chased fer murder an' robbery. I 'd take the easy way; make fer the nearest Injun village, an' leave the girl thar."

"You mean Black Kettle's camp?"

"I reckon; he 's down thar on the Canadian somewhar. You kin bet those fellars know whar, an' thet's whut they 're aimin' for, unless this yere Dupont has some hidin' out scheme of his own. Whar did you say he ranched?"

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