Bad news travels fast. Captain Charlton at Fort Laramie was stunned by the tidings flashed to him by telegraph from Red Cloud. Despite the array of damaging evidence, he could not bring himself to believe that Al Metax was a thief: but he was sore at heart when he thought of the misery and sorrow the news must bring to the dear ones at his army home--above all to the proud old sergeant, whose life seemed almost bound up in the boy. Well knowing that it could only be a day or two before the story would make its way to the posts along the railroad, and would reach Sanders, doubtless, in a more exaggerated form, the captain decided to warn his wife at once, and by the stage leaving that very night a letter went in to Cheyenne, and thence by train over the great "divide" of the Rockies to Fort Sanders, giving to Mrs. Charlton all particulars thus far received, but charging her to say nothing until further tidings.
"I cannot believe it [wrote he], and am going at once to join the troop and make full investigation. Meantime I have written by the same mail to Major Edwards, who commands at Sidney barracks, to make every effort to trace the boy, should he have come south of the Platte; and you must be sure to see, when the news reaches Sanders, that the sergeant is assured of my disbelief in the whole story, and of my determination that Al shall have justice done him. It will be several days before you can hear from me again."
And the news reached Sanders, as he feared, all too soon. Telegraph offices "leaked" on the frontier in those days. The operators at the military stations were all enlisted men, who were not bound by the regulations of the Western Union, and who could not keep to themselves every item of personal interest. The Sidney office wired mysterious inquiries to Sanders; Sanders insisted on knowing what it meant, and presently Laramie, Sanders, Sidney, Russell, Red Cloud, and even Chug Water were clicking away in confidential discussion over the extraordinary theft and flight. And Mrs. Charlton's letter came none too early to save old Metax from despair. It was a woman, a gabbling laundress, who first told him of the rumor, and Mrs. Charlton saw him hastening to the telegraph office just as she had finished reading the letter.
"Mr. Nelson, quick!" she called to a young officer just passing the gate. "Stop Sergeant Metax at once. Don't let him go to the office. Make him come here to me. He will hear and obey you."
And Mr. Nelson touched his cap, leaped lightly across the acequia, and his powerful young voice was heard thundering, "Sergeant Metax!" in peremptory tones across the parade. "Sergeant Metax!" echoed a half dozen voices as the loungers on barrack porches took up the cry, "Lieutenant Nelson wants you!" and the soldier instinct prevailed, the old man turned and hastened toward the officers' quarters.
"What is it, Mrs. Charlton," asked Nelson. "Has there been another fight? Is Al killed? It will break the old man's heart."
"Oh, Mr. Nelson! I can't tell you about it yet!" she almost wailed. "There's bad news, and I'm afraid the old man has heard it. Stay here, near me a moment, can you? Oh, look at his face! Look at his face! He has heard."
White, livid, trembling from head to foot, the old soldier hurried toward the young officer and dumbly raised his hand in the mechanical salute.
"It is Mrs. Charlton who wants you, sergeant," said Mr. Nelson kindly. "Go to her," and without a word the veteran passed in at the gate.
She held forth her hand, her eyes brimming with tears. Instinctively he halted, the old respect and reverence for "captain's lady" checking the wild torrent of grief and anxiety, but she caught him by the arm and led him wondering and submissive, yet overwhelmed with cruel dread, into her cool and darkened parlor. There, with wild, imploring eyes, the old man half stretched forth two palsied hands, his forage cap falling unheaded to the floor, his whole frame shaking.
"Don't give way, sergeant; don't believe it!" she cried, and at her first words a look as of horror came into the stricken old face, and the hands clasped together in piteous appeal. "Listen to what the captain says. His letter has just come, and I was sure, when I saw you, that someone had told you the rumor. Captain Charlton will not believe a word of it. He was at Laramie on court-martial or it would not have happened. He has hurried back to Red Cloud to investigate, and he declares that Al shall have justice done him. I'll never believe it--never! Why, we would trust him with anything we owned."
"I--I thank the captain. I thank Mrs. Charlton," he brokenly replied. "It's stunned like I am." He raised his hands and pressed them against his eyes, and one of them was lowered suddenly, feebly groping for support. She seized his arm and strove to lead him to a sofa. "You must sit down, sergeant," she said.
"No, ma'am, no!" he protested, straightening himself with a violent effort. "Now, may I hear what it is they say against my boy, ma'am? I want every word. Don't be afraid, ma'am, I can bear it."
Then, with infinite sympathy and pity, she told him, softening every detail, suggesting an explanation for every circumstance that pointed to his guilt; and all the time the old man stood there, his eyes, filled with dumb anguish, fixed upon her face, his hands clasped together as though in entreaty, his fingers twitching nervously. At every new and damaging detail, condone or explain it though she would, he shuddered as though smitten with a sharp, painful spasm; but when it came to Al's midnight disappearance--horse, arms, and all--in the heart of the Indian country, stealing away from his comrades in the shadow of disgrace and crime, the old man groaned aloud and buried his face in his hands. Some time he stood there, reeling, yet resisting her efforts to draw him to a seat. She pleaded with him hurriedly, impulsively, yet he seemed not to hear. At last with one long shivering sigh, he suddenly straightened up and faced her. His hands fell by his side. He cleared his throat and strove to speak:
"You've been good to me, ma'am--so good"--and here he choked, and for a moment could not go on--"and to my boy"--at last he finished, with impulsive rush of words. "I know how they're sometimes tempted. I know how, more than once, the little fellow would be led away by the roughs in the troop, just to worry me; but he never hid a thing from me, ma'am, never; and if he's in trouble now he would tell me the whole truth, even if it broke us both down. I'll not believe it till I see him, ma'am; but I must go--I must go until I find my boy."
Blinded with tears, Mrs. Charlton could hardly see the swaying, grief-bowed old soldier as he left the house; but Nelson was waiting close at hand, and stepped forward and took his place by the sergeant's side.
"I don't know what the trouble is," he said, "but I'm going as far as the headquarters with you, and if there is anything on earth I can do to help you, do not fail to tell me."
That night, with a week's furlough and a letter from his post commander to Major Edwards at Sidney, old Sergeant Metax was jolting eastward in the caboose of a freight train.