Boys of the Fort/26
THE ENEMIES WITHIN THE FORT.
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you again, Will!" was the greeting which Joe gave his brother. "We were almost certain either the Indians or desperadoes had fallen upon you and killed you."
"Well, we did have some hot work," answered the young captain modestly. "Are you all right?"
"And you, Darry?"
"I'm first-class," answered the cousin. "But I can tell you, Will, there is trouble ahead."
"I know that, Darry. I must see Colonel Fairfield at once."
"He is very ill. The surgeon can do hardly anything for him. He says he has not the right drugs to reach such a dose as the colonel has swallowed."
"That's too bad."
By this time Captain Lee was at hand, and the two officers exchanged reports. Nothing had been heard concerning Lieutenant Carrol. The command of the fort now fell upon Captain Moore.
As soon as possible the young commander went in to see his superior. He found Colonel Fairfield very weak and in no condition to talk upon military matters. He took the young captain's hand, and said feebly:
"You must do your best, captain, do your best. Defend the place to the last."
"I will, Colonel Fairfield," answered the young officer. "And I trust you recover soon."
That day and the next passed without incident of a special nature. Sick and wounded were cared for by the surgeon, and a detachment went out, accompanied by Sam Benson and Hank Leeson, to look for any of the soldiers who had been attacked by the Indians or desperadoes and who might still be alive.
When this party returned they brought in the bodies of two soldiers that had fallen.
"The Indians are gathering in force," said old Benson, who had been right among them in the darkness. "There are now over a hundred and twenty of them."
"And what of the desperadoes?" asked Captain Moore.
"The desperadoes number twenty-six," answered Hank Leeson. "I counted noses myself. Matt Gilroy is a reg'lar captain over 'em an' has 'em drilled like a company o sharpshooters an' I reckon thet's wot they are, consarn 'em!"
"Then the enemy, all told, numbers about a hundred and fifty," mused the young captain.
"How many men here fit for duty today, captain?" came from the old scout.
"Not over forty, including the cooks and stable help, Benson. All the others are on the sick list—and some of them are pretty bad."
"Perhaps the crowd outside are a-waitin' till ye all git sick," suggested Leeson with a scowl. "'Taint fair fightin', is it? They ought all to be hung!"
"I must do my best," said Captain Moore gravely. "I can do no more."
As the day wore along and two additional soldiers were taken sick, he decided to send a messenger to Fort Prescott, a hundred and sixty miles away, for assistance.
Hank Leeson knew every foot of the territory, and was chosen for the mission. Benson was more than willing to go, but Captain Moore told him to remain where he was.
"If the enemy attack us you'll have to be our right-hand man, Benson," he said. Then he added: "I want to talk to you after Leeson is gone."
Since coming to the fort Captain Moore had been watching two old soldiers very closely.
These soldiers were named Moses Bicker and Jack Drossdell. Their reputations were not of the best, and the black marks against them were numerous.
Some time before, the young captain had heard that Bicker came of a family of Colorado desperadoes and that he had joined the army during a spasm of reformation.
The actions of the pair did not suit Captain Moore in the least, and that night he took it upon himself to watch them more closely than ever.
In the darkness he saw Bicker make his way to the stable, and to that spot, a little later, Drossdell followed.
"Something is in the wind, and I'm going to find out what it is," he mused, and watching his opportunity he passed into the stable unobserved.
At first he could hear nothing but the movements of the horses, but presently came a low murmur from one corner of the loft.
Cautiously the young officer climbed the ladder and stepped into the hay.
Here he could hear the conversation between Bicker and Drossdell quite plainly.
"They never suspected the butter," he heard Bicker say. "It tastes a little strong, but they would rather have it that way than have none, and the same way with the condensed milk."
"When shall we give the signal to the boys?" came from Drossdell.
"Not yet. There will be more of them sick by to-morrow night," replied Bicker.
More of the same sort of talk followed, until the young captain became fully convinced that Bicker and Drossdell were in league with the desperadoes, and that they had been using some drugs in the butter, milk, and other articles consumed at the fort, in order to make the soldiers sick.
As soon as he realized the importance of his discovery Captain Moore went below.
A corporal's guard was called out and sent over to the stable, and when Bicker and Drossdell came below they were placed under arrest.
"What's this for?" demanded Bicker, putting on a bold front. Drossdell had nothing to say, and trembled so he could scarcely stand.
"You know well enough, Bicker," answered Captain Moore sternly.
"No, I don't. I haven't done anything wrong, captain."
"March them to the guardhouse," was all the young commander said, and the two were promptly marched away.
As may be surmised, the moment the evildoers were alone each accused the other of having done something to bring on exposure.
Captain Moore knew his men well, and presently he sent for Drossdell and interviewed the soldier in private.
"I am sorry to see you in such trouble as this, Drossdell," he said. "I thought you were a better soldier."
"I haven't done anything, captain."
"It is useless for you to deny it. Do you know what my men would do to you and Bicker if they learned the truth? They would rebel and hang you on the spot—and you would deserve it, too."
"Oh, captain, for the love of Heaven, don't put us in the hands of the boys!" pleaded Drossdell, turning a ghostly white.
"You and Bicker plotted to get us all sick and then let the Indians and Gilroy's gang in on us."
"It is useless for you to deny it, for I heard your talk myself, and saw a letter written by Bicker to Gilroy."
"Bicker formed the plans!" cried Drossdell, breaking down completely. "He—he forced me to help him."
"Yes, captain, forced me I stood out a long while, but he—he— Well, I might as well make a clean breast of it, sir. He had me in his power, on account of something I did in Denver years ago. He said he would expose me if I didn't help him."
"This is the strict truth?"
"Yes, captain, and I will swear to it if you want me to," answered the prisoner.
"You were going to signal the gang when all was in readiness for an attack," went on Captain Moore.
"Bicker was going to do that."
"What was the signal to be?"
"Three white handkerchiefs stuck on the ends of a cross made of sticks six feet long. He was going to show these at ten in the morning or four in the afternoon, from the southwest corner of the stockade, behind the mess hall."
"And what was the signal to be if you wanted the enemy to hold off for a while?"
"A red shirt if he wanted them to hold off for one day and a red and a blue shirt if they were to hold off for two days."
"You are certain about these signals? Remember, if you are telling a lie it will all come back on your own head."
"I am telling the strict truth," answered Drossdell.