Read CHAPTER XXIII. of Marion's Faith. , free online book, by Charles King, on ReadCentral.com.

IN CLOSER TOILS.

A coroner’s inquest was in session at Russell, and in the benighted regions of the Eastern States where the functions of that worthy public officer are mainly exercised in connection with the “demnition moist” remains of the “found drowned,” or the attenuated skeletons of the starved, there can be but faint conception of the divinity which doth hedge a coroner in a frontier city where people, as a rule, die with their boots on.  Perhaps it was a proper consideration of the relative importance of the two offices which had induced Mr. Perkins to decline with thanks the nomination of territorial delegate to Congress, and to intimate through the columns of The Blizzard that he sought no higher office at the hands of the people than that in which, to the best of his humble ability, he had already served two terms.  As the emoluments of the coronership were dependent entirely upon the number of inquests held during the year, the position in an Ohio town of five thousand inhabitants would hardly have taken precedence over a seat in the House of Representatives, but a lively frontier city, the supply centre of all the stock, mining, and trading enterprises to the north of the railway, ­a town that had been the division terminus since the road was built, and was the recognized metropolis of the plains, ­well, “that was different, somehow,” said Mr. Perkins’s friends; and, as his gleanings had been double those he would have received in Congress, ­that is, in the way of salary, ­Mr. Perkins had wisely decided that so long as “business was brisk” he preferred the exaltation of holding the most lucrative position in the gift of his fellow-citizens.  His decision had been a disappointment to other aspirants, for not only pecuniarily was the office of first importance, but, in the very nature of his functions, the coroner acquired in the eyes of all men a mysterious interest and influence beside which the governor of the Territory, the mayor, and even the chief of the fire department felt themselves dwarfed into insignificance.  For four years Mr. Perkins had been a busy man.  He dispensed far more patronage than the delegate to Congress, as he was constantly besieged by a class of impecunious patriots to “put ’em on the next one.”  A stranger arriving by train and seeing a man shot down in front of some one of the gambling-saloons, would have been perplexed to account for the rush of the crowd in one direction, instead of scattering till the shooting was over and then concentrating to stare at the victim.  It was a race for the coroner, and a place on the jury was the customary reward of the winner.  Too much precipitancy in some such cases, resulting in the discovery by Mr. Perkins on arriving at the scene that the corpse was humorously waiting for him to “set up the drinks,” had resulted in the establishment by him of a system of fines in the event of similar false alarms; but, as has been said, the coroner had reigned for several years as the wealthiest, the most envied and admired of the public officials.  He had invested in mines and real estate, had become a money-lender and capitalist, and for some time considered himself on the high road to fortune, when the discovery of gold in the Black Hills caused a sudden hegira thither of nine-tenths of the shooting element, and the summer of ’76 found Mr. Perkins a changed and embittered man.

“Cheyenne ain’t what it used to be,” he would regretfully say, as entire weeks would elapse without a fatal termination of a row; “fellers who used to shoot on sight only sit around and jaw now.  It’s gettin’ slow as any d ­d one-horse town east of the Mississippi.”  And in the general gloom of the situation Mr. Perkins had more than once regretted that he had not gone to Congress.

It was with a thrill of renewed hope, therefore, that he heard the loud knocking at his door before dawn, and descending, received with ill-concealed gratification the message of the commanding officer at Fort Russell that his services were needed there at once.  An officer had been shot to death in his bedroom.  It was one thing to air his importance before an admiring audience of townspeople; but this ­this was something bordering on bliss.  For the time being he could sit in judgment on the words and deeds of those military satraps at the fort.  Perkins had bundled a jury of his chums into carriages and started out across the prairie before the smoke from the morning gun had fairly died away.  By the time the men had finished breakfast the jury and the reporters were at their work, and an awe-stricken group stood silently at the gate of the little brown cottage wherein death had set his seal during the watches of the night.

It was in the back room of the first floor that the jury had assembled.  There on the narrow bed lay the mortal remains of the officer whose death-cry had startled the garrison so short a time before.  Men and women had spoken with bated breath, with dread and horror on their faces, with heavy load at heart, ­many had not slept at all, ­since the news flew round the garrison at one o’clock.  It was shocking to think of Mr. Gleason as murdered, but that he should have been murdered in cold blood, without a word of altercation, and murdered by an officer of his own regiment, ­one so brave, so gifted, so popular as Ray, ­was simply horrible; and yet ­who that heard the evidence being given, ­slowly, reluctantly, painfully ­before that jury could arrive at any other conclusion.  Even before the jury came sentries with fixed bayonet were stationed at Ray’s bedroom door, and no one was allowed to go in or out except by order of the commanding officer.

The colonel had not gone to bed since being aroused.  The moment the post surgeon had announced that Gleason was stone dead the body was lifted to the bed; Lieutenant Warner was placed in charge of the room, with orders to see that nothing was touched or removed, and the colonel began an immediate investigation.  The sergeant of the guard, who, with one or two men, had been out searching the rear yards, had handed the colonel on his arrival a silver-mounted pistol, ­Smith & Wesson’s, of handsome make and finish, with every chamber loaded but one.  He had picked it up just by the back gate.  On the guard were engraved in monogram the letters W. P. R., and as the colonel held it up, Private Hogan, who had been assisting in raising the body to the bed, gave one quick look at it, exclaimed, “Oh, Holy Mother!” and hurried from the room.  He was sternly called back, and came, white and trembling.

“Do you know that pistol, sir?  Whose is it?”

Hogan wrung his hands and looked miserably around.

“Answer at once!”

“It’s ­it’s the lootenant’s, sir!”

“What lieutenant?”

“Misther Ray, sir.  Oh, God forgive me!” sobbed poor Hogan, and, covering his face with his hands, he burst into tears.

“Where is Mr. Ray?” demanded the colonel, in a voice that trembled despite his strong effort at self-control.

“He was here, sir, when I came,” said the sergeant of the guard.  “He was kneeling over the body, and told me to hurry out on the prairie, ­the murderer had run that way.”

“Mr. Ray is in his quarters, colonel.  I took him there just before you came,” said Blake, entering at the moment, and Blake’s face was white as death.

“Who was here besides Mr. Ray?” asked the colonel of the sergeant.

“Not a soul, sir.  The body lay there on its face where the blood is on the floor, and Mr. Ray was kneeling beside it trying to turn it over, I thought.  I was standing in front of the company quarters just over here, sir, when the shot was fired, and I heard the yell.  I ran hard as I could straight here, and it wasn’t half a minute.”

“And you saw no one else at all?”

“No one, sir.  The lieutenant said the man as did it rushed out on the prairie between the hospital and the surgeon’s, and it was dark, sir, and no use looking.  Coming back, I picked up the pistol right by the gate.”

“Stay here all of you,” said the colonel.  “Mr. Blake, I want you.”

And in another moment Blake went silently up the row.  The colonel’s orders were that he should guard his comrade until relieved by the officer of the day with his sentries.

But the coroner’s jury had investigated still further.  The web of circumstantial evidence that had enveloped Ray by eight o’clock that August morning was simply appalling.  It summed up about as follows.  The sergeant of the guard had been making the rounds of the ordnance and commissary storehouses, and heard voices out on the prairie as of men coming from town; listening, he recognized those of Hogan and Shea, the latter being Lieutenant Gleason’s orderly.  They were apparently coming from the direction of the “house on the hill,” as the resort out by the little prairie lake, previously described, was termed, and as they were not boisterous at all, though evidently “merry,” he had not gone towards them, but, entering the main gate, he turned to the left to go to the guard-house, and was opposite the second set of company quarters when he heard voices at Lieutenant Gleason’s, excited but unintelligible, then the shot, a scream, and he ran full tilt, not more than two hundred yards, into the house and through the little hall to the back room, where a light was burning.  There lay Lieutenant Gleason on his face with his head to the back door, which was open, while Lieutenant Ray was kneeling between the body and the back door.  All he said was, “Quick! the man who did it ran out on the prairie past the doctor’s,” and the sergeant had pursued, but returned in a moment or two, having seen nobody but Hogan and Shea, who came running back with him.  Shea went for the doctor and Hogan to call Lieutenant Blake.  The corporal of the guard then arrived with two men.  They sent one for the colonel.  Lieutenant Ray again told them to hunt the murderer, but they found nothing but the pistol.  When they returned the second time the colonel and surgeon were there, but Mr. Ray was gone.

Shea’s testimony was sensational:  Hogan had come to him about tattoo, and proposed that they should go out and have a quiet time at the house on the hill; he had plenty of money and had already been drinking a little.  Shea went, but fearing Hogan would take too much and get into more trouble, had persuaded him to start for home about 11.30.  They came across the prairie and were talking pretty loud, heard no pistol-shot, or cry, saw or heard no one except the sergeant, though they had come through the gap between the hospital and surgeon’s quarters.  Shea said that he had been Mr. Gleason’s “striker” (soldier-servant) for two years; knew his character and habits well, and knew there was trouble between him and Mr. Ray.  Questioned as to particulars, Shea went on to say that there had been a “terrible row” between them the day Mr. Gleason started for Fetterman; he didn’t know what it was about, but had overheard some of the language from the back kitchen, and the last thing Lieutenant Ray had said was, “’If ever you breathe a word of this to a soul,’ or something like that, ‘I’ll shoot you like a dog.’” He was sure of the last words, and he thought then he wouldn’t like to be in Mr. Gleason’s place.  Shea’s words produced a marked effect; but no more so than did Hogan’s, whom grief and liquor had made somewhat maudlin.  Like every Irishman in the regiment he thought the world of Ray, and it cut him to the heart to have to testify against him; but he recognized the pistol at once as the lieutenant’s, and the fact was dragged out of him that before tattoo the previous evening he had gone to get it and clean it, and found it was not in the holster.  He asked the lieutenant for it and was refused.  “I want it” was what the lieutenant had said.

Mr. Blake, very calm and very white, was brought in next, and faced the impressive coroner and his jury.  He corroborated Hogan’s statement as to Ray’s language about the pistol; said that he had gone to bed up-stairs at eleven o’clock, leaving Ray reading in the room below, and knew nothing more of the affair until called by Hogan, when he had run to Mr. Gleason’s quarters, and after a moment had taken Ray home and insisted on his going to bed.  The lieutenant was just recovering from a severe illness, was weak and unstrung, and the affair threatened to bring on a relapse.  There had been an open breach between the two officers for over two years, and of late, he knew not how, it had widened.  The deceased frequently maligned Lieutenant Ray, and the latter never spoke of him without aversion.  Questioned as to his knowledge of anything that occurred between them on the day of Gleason’s departure, he said he knew nothing.  Ray had refused to talk on the subject.  The surgeon had given the necessary medical testimony as to cause, ­a gunshot wound penetrating the heart and causing almost instant death.  The post commander told of the charges against Lieutenant Ray, and of the fact that the deceased was a principal witness ­indeed, an accuser, and that seemed all that was necessary.  The jury desired to hear what Mr. Ray had to say, and they questioned the doctor as to his ability to see them.  The surgeon had replied with professional gravity that so far as he was concerned he thought his patient should not be disturbed, but that the gentleman himself had insisted that no obstacle should be thrown in their way if they felt disposed to examine him.  Mr. Ray was cool as a cucumber, though fully aware by this time of the fearful array of evidence against him.  Blake flew back to his bedside as soon as he heard that the coroner had decided to question him, and with tears in his eyes implored him to say nothing; but Ray had smiled faintly, and held out a warning hand, ­

“I’ve never hidden a word or deed of my life, Blake, and what has to be hidden now is for another’s sake ­not mine.  Time enough for lawyers when the case comes to trial.  A coroner’s jury can only express an opinion.  I could not rest easy now without the vindication of a full trial.”

And so the coroner and his jury filed solemnly in.  Ray’s voice was placid and his eyes steadfast and true.  He was courtesy itself to the members of the jury, and all patience even under the insinuations of the coroner that made Blake furious.  His story was briefly that he had strolled out to his rear gate to walk up and down in the yard a few minutes before retiring. (He did not say “To gaze at a certain window up the row.”) Being in arrest he was permitted to go no farther, and just after the sentry’s call of half-past twelve he was startled by hearing excited voices apparently in the rear room of the quarters two doors away, then a shot and a scream; he had hurried thither, and at the back gate of Gleason’s quarters a man rushed past him on tiptoe and at full speed.  Ray had caught his arm an instant but was thrown roughly aside, and the fugitive had fled like a deer through the open space between the hospital and surgeon’s quarters.  He himself was weak from recent illness and unable to pursue, but hurried into the back door of Gleason’s quarters, which was open, through the kitchen, and there, lying on his face in the back room, was the deceased, dressed in shirt and trousers, apparently even then dead.  The sergeant came almost immediately, and soon Mr. Blake, who presently reminded him that he was in arrest and had no right to be in any quarters but his own, and took him home.

Questioned as to enmity with the deceased, he said he had long disliked him, and that of late the feeling had become intensified.  Questioned as to the affair of the day on which the deceased had left the post, he admitted there had been a violent scene, and that he had threatened him.  He also admitted that the pistol was his, but that it had not been in his possession since the day the deceased left the post.  Questioned as to the cause of his quarrel and some further matters, he spoke very quietly, as follows: 

“These are matters, gentlemen, that cannot influence your decision.  No statement of mine can well counteract the chain of circumstances in this case.  I cannot tell you where my pistol was, and I must decline to say one word at present of the cause of my late quarrel with the deceased.”  In this he was firm, and what other verdict could they arrive at?  The deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound inflicted with murderous intent, and, to the best of their belief, by the hand of William P. Ray, a lieutenant in the ­th Regiment of Cavalry, U. S. Army.

When they were gone to their deliberation and Ray was alone with his friend, he called for a scrap of note-paper, thought earnestly a few moments, and then rapidly wrote in pencil a few lines.

“Blake,” he said, “take this to Mrs. Truscott and give it to her personally.  There will probably be no answer.  If you cannot see her, ask for Miss Sanford.”

They were all in the parlor, Mrs. Stannard, Mrs. Truscott, and Miss Sanford, when he reached the house.  Three sadder faces he had never seen.  The first question was as to the verdict of the coroner’s jury.  Blake shook his head.  “It can only be one thing.”  Indeed, was not that what Mrs. Whaling had been there to tell them already, with a simply maddening array of embellishments?

Mrs. Stannard’s blue eyes were red with weeping, and Mrs. Truscott looked as though she had wept for hours.  Indeed, she had been, long before the shot was fired.  Marion Sanford alone was quiet and composed; her eyes were clear as ever, though deep dark rings had formed beneath them, and her soft lips were set in constant effort to repress emotion.  Blake briefly told them how calm and brave Ray was, how he had refused to explain about the pistol, or to give any particulars of his quarrel with Gleason, merely saying it had been of long standing.  There were many things that he, Blake, must attend to at once, and so, if they would excuse him, he wished to see Mrs. Truscott a moment, and she followed him to the piazza falteringly.

“Ray told me to give this note to no one but you, Mrs. Truscott, and I inferred that he wished you only to see it,” said he.

To his surprise, she drew back her hand.  Her lips began to quiver, her eyes to refill.  She made no effort to take it.  He looked at her wonderingly.

“Mr. Blake ­I ­I cannot take it.  I cannot explain!” And then, abruptly turning, she rushed into the house and up the stairs.

Poor Blake stood one moment in dire perplexity and then went back.

“She wouldn’t take it, Billy.  She said she couldn’t; but d ­n me if I can fathom it.”

Ray’s eyes grew stony.  Every vestige of color left his face.  He covered it with his thin white hands, and the man who had braved death and torture to save his comrades, who had borne uncomplainingly, resolutely, patiently, the trying ordeal of his examination by a gang of suspicious men, who had suffered in silence the ignominy of a criminal charge rather than drag to light a defence that might involve a woman’s name, now quivered and shuddered and turned to the wall with one low moan of agony, cut to the heart by the fragile hand he would have died to shield.