World Wars.ca - Stories about World War I / II. Visit World Wars.caInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories

Other Chapters or Short Stories

Starlight Ranch

From The Plains To The Point

From The Point To The Plains

The Worst Man In The Troop

Van



The Worst Man In The Troop








From: Starlight Ranch

Just why that young Irishman should have been so balefully branded was
more than the first lieutenant of the troop could understand. To be
sure, the lieutenant's opportunities for observation had been limited.
He had spent some years on detached service in the East, and had joined
his comrades in Arizona but a fortnight ago, and here he was already
becoming rapidly initiated in the science of scouting through
mountain-wilds against the wariest and most treacherous of foemen,--the
Apaches of our Southwestern territory.

Coming, as he had done, direct from a station and duties where
full-dress uniform, lavish expenditure for kid gloves, bouquets, and
Lubin's extracts were matters of daily fact, it must be admitted that
the sensations he experienced on seeing his detachment equipped for the
scout were those of mild consternation. That much latitude as to
individual dress and equipment was permitted he had previously been
informed; that "full dress," and white shirts, collars, and the like
would be left at home, he had sense enough to know; but that every
officer and man in the command would be allowed to discard any and all
portions of the regulation uniform and appear rigged out in just such
motley guise as his poetic or practical fancy might suggest, had never
been pointed out to him; and that he, commanding his troop while a
captain commanded the little battalion, could by any military
possibility take his place in front of his men without his sabre, had
never for an instant occurred to him. As a consequence, when he bolted
into the mess-room shortly after daybreak on a bright June morning with
that imposing but at most times useless item of cavalry equipment
clanking at his heels, the lieutenant gazed with some astonishment upon
the attire of his brother-officers there assembled, but found himself
the butt of much good-natured and not over-witty "chaff," directed
partially at the extreme newness and neatness of his dark-blue flannel
scouting-shirt and high-top boots, but more especially at the glittering
sabre swinging from his waist-belt.

"Billings," said Captain Buxton, with much solemnity, "while you have
probably learned through the columns of a horror-stricken Eastern press
that we scalp, alive or dead, all unfortunates who fall into our
clutches, I assure you that even for that purpose the cavalry sabre has,
in Arizona at least, outlived its usefulness. It is too long and clumsy,
you see. What you really want for the purpose is something like
this,"--and he whipped out of its sheath a rusty but keen-bladed Mexican
cuchillo,--"something you can wield with a deft turn of the wrist, you
know. The sabre is apt to tear and mutilate the flesh, especially when
you use both hands." And Captain Buxton winked at the other subaltern
and felt that he had said a good thing.

But Mr. Billings was a man of considerable good nature and ready
adaptability to the society or circumstances by which he might be
surrounded. "Chaff" was a very cheap order of wit, and the serenity of
his disposition enabled him to shake off its effect as readily as water
is scattered from the plumage of the duck.

"So you don't wear the sabre on a scout? So much the better. I have my
revolvers and a Sharp's carbine, but am destitute of anything in the
knife line." And with that Mr. Billings betook himself to the duty of
despatching the breakfast that was already spread before him in an array
tempting enough to a frontier appetite, but little designed to attract a
bon vivant of civilization. Bacon, frijoles, and creamless coffee
speedily become ambrosia and nectar under the influence of mountain-air
and mountain-exercise; but Mr. Billings had as yet done no climbing. A
"buck-board" ride had been his means of transportation to the
garrison,--a lonely four-company post in a far-away valley in
Northeastern Arizona,--and in the three or four days of intense heat
that had succeeded his arrival exercise of any kind had been out of the
question. It was with no especial regret, therefore, that he heard the
summons of the captain, "Hurry up, man; we must be off in ten minutes."
And in less than ten minutes the lieutenant was on his horse and
superintending the formation of his troop.

If Mr. Billings was astonished at the garb of his brother-officers at
breakfast, he was simply aghast when he glanced along the line of
Company "A" (as his command was at that time officially designated) and
the first sergeant rode out to report his men present or accounted for.
The first sergeant himself was got up in an old gray-flannel shirt, open
at and disclosing a broad, brown throat and neck; his head was crowned
with what had once been a white felt sombrero, now tanned by desert
sun, wind, and dirt into a dingy mud-color; his powerful legs were
encased in worn deer-skin breeches tucked into low-topped, broad-soled,
well-greased boots; his waist was girt with a rude "thimble-belt," in
the loops of which were thrust scores of copper cartridges for carbine
and pistol; his carbine, and those of all the command, swung in a
leather loop athwart the pommel of the saddle; revolvers in all manner
of cases hung at the hip, the regulation holster, in most instances,
being conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, throughout the entire command
the remarkable fact was to be noted that a company of regular cavalry,
taking the field against hostile Indians, had discarded pretty much
every item of dress or equipment prescribed or furnished by the
authorities of the United States, and had supplied themselves with an
outfit utterly ununiform, unpicturesque, undeniably slouchy, but not
less undeniably appropriate and serviceable. Not a forage-cap was to be
seen, not a "campaign-hat" of the style then prescribed by a board of
officers that might have known something of hats, but never could have
had an idea on the subject of campaigns. Fancy that black enormity of
weighty felt, with flapping brim well-nigh a foot in width, absorbing
the fiery heat of an Arizona sun, and concentrating the burning rays
upon the cranium of its unhappy wearer! No such head-gear would our
troopers suffer in the days when General Crook led them through the
canyons and deserts of that inhospitable Territory. Regardless of
appearances or style himself, seeking only comfort in his dress, the
chief speedily found means to indicate that, in Apache-campaigning at
least, it was to be a case of "inter arma silent leges" in dead
earnest; for, freely translated, the old saw read, "No red-tape when
Indian-fighting."

Of much of this Lieutenant Billings was only partially informed, and so,
as has been said, he was aghast when he marked the utter absence of
uniform and the decidedly variegated appearance of his troop. Deerskin,
buckskin, canvas, and flannels, leggings, moccasins, and the like,
constituted the bill of dress, and old soft felt hats, originally white,
the head-gear. If spurs were worn at all, they were of the Mexican
variety, easy to kick off, but sure to stay on when wanted. Only two men
wore carbine sling-belts, and Mr. Billings was almost ready to hunt up
his captain and inquire if by any possibility the men could be
attempting to "put up a joke on him," when the captain himself appeared,
looking little if any more like the ideal soldier than his men, and the
perfectly satisfied expression on his face as he rode easily around,
examining closely the horses of the command, paying especial attention
to their feet and the shoes thereof, convinced the lieutenant that all
was as it was expected to be, if not as it should be, and he swallowed
his surprise and held his peace. Another moment, and Captain Wayne's
troop came filing past in column of twos, looking, if anything, rougher
than his own.

"You follow right after Wayne," said Captain Buxton; and with no further
formality Mr. Billings, in a perfunctory sort of way, wheeled his men to
the right by fours, broke into column of twos, and closed up on the
leading troop.

Buxton was in high glee on this particular morning in June. He had done
very little Indian scouting, had been but moderately successful in what
he had undertaken, and now, as luck would have it, the necessity arose
for sending something more formidable than a mere detachment down into
the Tonto Basin, in search of a powerful band of Apaches who had broken
loose from the reservation and were taking refuge in the foot-hills of
the Black Mesa or among the wilds of the Sierra Ancha. As senior captain
of the two, Buxton became commander of the entire force,--two
well-filled troops of regular cavalry, some thirty Indian allies as
scouts, and a goodly-sized train of pack-mules, with its full complement
of packers, cargadors, and blacksmiths. He fully anticipated a lively
fight, possibly a series of them, and a triumphant return to his post,
where hereafter he would be looked up to and quoted as an expert and
authority on Apache-fighting. He knew just where the hostiles lay, and
was going straight to the point to flatten them out forthwith; and so
the little command moved off under admirable auspices and in the best of
spirits.

It was a four-days' hard march to the locality where Captain Buxton
counted on finding his victims; and when on the fourth day, rather tired
and not particularly enthusiastic, the command bivouacked along the
banks of a mountain-torrent, a safe distance from the supposed location
of the Indian stronghold, he sent forward his Apache Mojave allies to
make a stealthy reconnoissance, feeling confident that soon after
nightfall they would return with the intelligence that the enemy were
lazily resting in their "rancheria," all unsuspicious of his approach,
and that at daybreak he would pounce upon and annihilate them.

Soon after nightfall the scouts did return, but their intelligence was
not so gratifying: a small--a very small--band of renegades had been
encamped in that vicinity some weeks before, but not a "hostile" or sign
of a hostile was to be found. Captain Buxton hardly slept that night,
from disappointment and mortification, and when he went the following
day to investigate for himself he found that he had been on a false
scent from the start, and this made him crabbed. A week's hunt through
the mountains resulted in no better luck, and now, having had only
fifteen days' rations at the outset, he was most reluctantly and
savagely marching homeward to report his failure.

But Mr. Billings had enjoyed the entire trip. Sleeping in the open air
without other shelter than their blankets afforded, scouting by day in
single file over miles of mere game-trails, up hill and down dale
through the wildest and most dolefully-picturesque scenery he "at least"
had ever beheld, under frowning cliffs and beetling crags, through dense
forests of pine and juniper, through mountain-torrents swollen with the
melting snows of the crests so far above them, through canyons, deep,
dark, and gloomy, searching ever for traces of the foe they were ordered
to find and fight forthwith, Mr. Billings and his men, having no
responsibility upon their shoulders, were happy and healthy as possible,
and consequently in small sympathy with their irate leader.

Every afternoon when they halted beside some one of the hundreds of
mountain-brooks that came tumbling down from the gorges of the Black
Mesa, the men were required to look carefully at the horses' backs and
feet, for mountain Arizona is terrible on shoes, equine or human. This
had to be done before the herds were turned out to graze with their
guard around them; and often some of the men would get a wisp of straw
or a suitable wipe of some kind, and thoroughly rub down their steeds.
Strolling about among them, as he always did at this time, our
lieutenant had noticed a slim but trimly-built young Irishman whose care
of and devotion to his horse it did him good to see. No matter how long
the march, how severe the fatigue, that horse was always looked after,
his grazing-ground pre-empted by a deftly-thrown picket-pin and lariat
which secured to him all the real estate that could be surveyed within
the circle of which the pin was the centre and the lariat the
radius-vector.

Between horse and master the closest comradeship seemed to exist; the
trooper had a way of softly singing or talking to his friend as he
rubbed him down, and Mr. Billings was struck with the expression and
taste with which the little soldier--for he was only five feet
five--would render "Molly Bawn" and "Kitty Tyrrell." Except when thus
singing or exchanging confidences with his steed, he was strangely
silent and reserved; he ate his rations among the other men, yet rarely
spoke with them, and he would ride all day through country marvellous
for wild beauty and be the only man in the command who did not allow
himself to give vent to some expression of astonishment or delight.

"What is that man's name?" asked Mr. Billings of the first sergeant one
evening.

"O'Grady, sir," replied the sergeant, with his soldierly salute; and a
little later, as Captain Buxton was fretfully complaining to his
subaltern of the ill fortune that seemed to overshadow his best efforts,
the latter, thinking to cheer him and to divert his attention from his
trouble, referred to the troop:

"Why, captain, I don't think I ever saw a finer set of men than you
have--anywhere. Now, there's a little fellow who strikes me as being a
perfect light-cavalry soldier." And the lieutenant indicated his young
Irishman.

"You don't mean O'Grady?" asked the captain in surprise.

"Yes, sir,--the very one."

"Why, he's the worst man in the troop."

For a moment Mr. Billings knew not what to say. His captain had spoken
with absolute harshness and dislike in his tone of the one soldier of
all others who seemed to be the most quiet, attentive, and alert of the
troop. He had noticed, too, that the sergeants and the men generally, in
speaking to O'Grady, were wont to fall into a kindlier tone than usual,
and, though they sometimes squabbled among themselves over the choice of
patches of grass for their horses, O'Grady's claim was never questioned,
much less "jumped." Respect for his superior's rank would not permit the
lieutenant to argue the matter; but, desiring to know more about the
case, he spoke again:

"I am very sorry to hear it. His care of his horse and his quiet ways
impressed me so favorably."

"Oh, yes, d--n him!" broke in Captain Buxton. "Horses and whiskey are
the only things on earth he cares for. As to quiet ways, there isn't a
worse devil at large than O'Grady with a few drinks in him. When I came
back from two years' recruiting detail he was a sergeant in the troop. I
never knew him before, but I soon found he was addicted to drink, and
after a while had to 'break' him; and one night when he was raising hell
in the quarters, and I ordered him into the dark cell, he turned on me
like a tiger. By Jove! if it hadn't been for some of the men he would
have killed me,--or I him. He was tried by court-martial, but most of
the detail was made up of infantrymen and staff-officers from Crook's
head-quarters, and, by ----! they didn't seem to think it any sin for a
soldier to threaten to cut his captain's heart out, and Crook himself
gave me a sort of a rap in his remarks on the case, and--well, they just
let O'Grady off scot-free between them, gave him some little fine, and
did more harm than good. He's just as surly and insolent now when I
speak to him as he was that night when drunk. Here, I'll show you." And
with that Captain Buxton started off towards the herd, Mr. Billings
obediently following, but feeling vaguely ill at ease. He had never met
Captain Buxton before, but letters from his comrades had prepared him
for experiences not altogether pleasant. A good soldier in some
respects, Captain Buxton bore the reputation of having an almost
ungovernable temper, of being at times brutally violent in his language
and conduct towards his men, and, worse yet, of bearing ill-concealed
malice, and "nursing his wrath to keep it warm" against such of his
enlisted men as had ever ventured to appeal for justice. The captain
stopped on reaching the outskirts of the quietly-grazing herd.

"Corporal," said he to the non-commissioned officer in charge, "isn't
that O'Grady's horse off there to the left?"

"Yes, sir."

"Go and tell O'Grady to come here."

The corporal saluted and went off on his errand.

"Now, Mr. Billings," said the captain, "I have repeatedly given orders
that my horses must be side-lined when we are in the hostiles' country.
Just come here to the left." And he walked over towards a handsome,
sturdy little California horse of a bright bay color. "Here, you see, is
O'Grady's horse, and not a side-line: that's his way of obeying orders.
More than that, he is never content to have his horse in among the
others, but must always get away outside, just where he is most apt to
be run off by any Indian sharp and quick enough to dare it. Now, here
comes O'Grady. Watch him, if you want to see him in his true light."

Standing beside his superior, Mr. Billings looked towards the
approaching trooper, who, with a quick, springy step, advanced to within
a few yards of them, then stopped short and, erect and in silence,
raised his hand in salute, and with perfectly respectful demeanor looked
straight at his captain.

In a voice at once harsh and distinctly audible over the entire bivouac,
with frowning brow and angry eyes, Buxton demanded,--

"O'Grady, where are your side-lines?"

"Over with my blankets, sir."

"Over with your blankets, are they? Why in ----, sir, are they not here
on your horse, where they ought to be?" And the captain's voice waxed
harsher and louder, and his manner more threatening.

"I understood the captain's orders to be that they need not go on till
sunset," replied the soldier, calmly and respectfully, "and I don't like
to put them on that sore place, sir, until the last moment."

"Don't like to? No sir, I know d--d well you don't like to obey this or
any other order I ever gave, and wherever you find a loop-hole through
which to crawl, and you think you can sneak off unpunished, by ----,
sir, I suppose you will go on disobeying orders. Shut up, sir! not a
d--d word!" for tears of mortification were starting to O'Grady's eyes,
and with flushing face and trembling lip the soldier stood helplessly
before his troop-commander, and was striving to say a word in further
explanation.

"Go and get your side-lines at once and bring them here; go at once,
sir," shouted the captain; and with a lump in his throat the trooper
saluted, faced about, and walked away.

"He's milder-mannered than usual, d--n him!" said the captain, turning
towards his subaltern, who had stood a silent and pained witness of the
scene. "He knows he is in the wrong and has no excuse; but he'll break
out yet. Come! step out, you O'Grady!" he yelled after the
rapidly-walking soldier. "Double time, sir. I can't wait here all
night." And Mr. Billings noted that silence had fallen on the bivouac so
full of soldier-chaff and laughter but a moment before, and that the men
of both troops were intently watching the scene already so painful to
him.

Obediently O'Grady took up the "dog-trot" required of him, got his
side-lines, and, running back, knelt beside his horse, and with
trembling hands adjusted them, during which performance Captain Buxton
stood over him, and, in a tone that grew more and more that of a bully
as he lashed himself up into a rage, continued his lecture to the man.

The latter finally rose, and, with huge beads of perspiration starting
out on his forehead, faced his captain.

"May I say a word, sir?" he asked.

"You may now; but be d--d careful how you say it," was the reply, with a
sneer that would have stung an abject slave into a longing for revenge,
and that grated on Mr. Billings's nerves in a way that made him clinch
his fists and involuntarily grit his teeth. Could it be that O'Grady
detected it? One quick, wistful, half-appealing glance flashed from the
Irishman's eyes towards the subaltern, and then, with evident effort at
composure, but with a voice that trembled with the pent-up sense of
wrong and injustice, O'Grady spoke:

"Indeed, sir, I had no thought of neglecting orders. I always care for
my horse; but it wasn't sunset when the captain came out----"

"Not sunset!" broke in Buxton, with an outburst of profanity. "Not
sunset! why, it's well-nigh dark now, sir, and every man in the troop
had side-lined his horse half an hour ago. D--n your insolence, sir!
your excuse is worse than your conduct. Mr. Billings, see to it, sir,
that this man walks and leads his horse in rear of the troop all the way
back to the post. I'll see, by ----! whether he can be taught to obey
orders." And with that the captain turned and strode away.

The lieutenant stood for an instant stunned,--simply stunned.
Involuntarily he made a step towards O'Grady; their eyes met; but the
restraint of discipline was upon both. In that brief meeting of their
glances, however, the trooper read a message that was unmistakable.

"Lieutenant----" he said, but stopped abruptly, pointed aloft over the
trees to the eastward with his right hand, dashed it across his eyes,
and then, with hurried salute and a choking sort of gurgle in his
throat, he turned and went back to his comrades.

Mr. Billings gazed after the retreating form until it disappeared among
the trees by the brook-side; then he turned to see what was the meaning
of the soldier's pointing over towards the mesa to the east.

Down in the deep valley in which the little command had halted for the
night the pall of darkness had indeed begun to settle; the bivouac-fires
in the timber threw a lurid glare upon the groups gathering around them
for supper, and towards the west the rugged upheavals of the Mazatzal
range stood like a black barrier against the glorious hues of a bank of
summer cloud. All in the valley spoke of twilight and darkness: the
birds were still, the voices of the men subdued. So far as local
indications were concerned, it was--as Captain Buxton had
insisted--almost dark. But square over the gilded tree-tops to the east,
stretching for miles and miles to their right and left, blazed a
vertical wall of rock crested with scrub-oak and pine, every boulder,
every tree, glittering in the radiant light of the invisibly setting
sun. O'Grady had not disobeyed his orders.

Noting this, Mr. Billings proceeded to take a leisurely stroll through
the peaceful herd, carefully inspecting each horse as he passed. As a
result of his scrutiny, he found that, while most of the horses were
already encumbered with their annoying hobble, in "A" Troop alone there
were at least a dozen still unfettered, notably the mounts of the
non-commissioned officers and the older soldiers. Like O'Grady, they did
not wish to inflict the side-line upon their steeds until the last
moment. Unlike O'Grady, they had not been called to account for it.

When Mr. Billings was summoned to supper, and he rejoined his
brother-officers, it was remarked that he was more taciturn than usual.
After that repast had been appreciatively disposed of, and the little
group with lighted pipes prepared to spend an hour in chat and
contentment, it was observed that Mr. Billings did not take part in the
general talk, but that he soon rose, and, out of ear-shot of the
officers' camp-fire, paced restlessly up and down, with his head bent
forward, evidently plunged in thought.

By and by the half-dozen broke up and sought their blankets. Captain
Buxton, somewhat mollified by a good supper, was about rolling into his
"Navajo," when Mr. Billings stepped up:

"Captain, may I ask for information as to the side-line order? After you
left this evening, I found that there must be some misunderstanding
about it."

"How so?" said Buxton, shortly.

"In this, captain;" and Mr. Billings spoke very calmly and distinctly.
"The first sergeant, several other non-commissioned officers and
men,--more than a dozen, I should say,--did not side-line their horses
until half an hour after you spoke to O'Grady, and the first sergeant
assured me, when I called him to account for it, that your orders were
that it should be done at sunset."

"Well, by ----! it was after sunset--at least it was getting mighty
dark--when I sent for that black-guard O'Grady," said Buxton,
impetuously, "and there is no excuse for the rest of them."

"It was beginning to grow dark down in this deep valley, I know, sir;
but the tree-tops were in a broad glare of sunlight while we were at the
herd, and those cliffs for half an hour longer."

"Well, Mr. Billings, I don't propose to have any hair-splitting in the
management of my troop," said the captain, manifestly nettled. "It was
practically sunset to us when the light began to grow dim, and my men
know it well enough." And with that he rolled over and turned his back
to his subaltern.

Disregarding the broad hint to leave, Mr. Billings again spoke:

"Is it your wish, sir, that any punishment should be imposed on the men
who were equally in fault with O'Grady?"

Buxton muttered something unintelligible from under his blankets.

"I did not understand you, sir," said the lieutenant, very civilly.

Buxton savagely propped himself up on one elbow, and blurted out,--

"No, Mr. Billings! no! When I want a man punished I'll give the order
myself, sir."

"And is it still your wish, sir, that I make O'Grady walk the rest of
the way?"

For a moment Buxton hesitated; his better nature struggled to assert
itself and induce him to undo the injustice of his order; but the "cad"
in his disposition, the weakness of his character, prevailed. It would
never do to let his lieutenant get the upper hand of him, he argued, and
so the reply came, and came angrily.

"Yes, of course; he deserves it anyhow, by ----! and it'll do him good."

Without another word Mr. Billings turned on his heel and left him.

The command returned to garrison, shaved its stubbly beard of two weeks'
growth, and resumed its uniform and the routine duties of the post.
Three days only had it been back when Mr. Billings, marching on as
officer of the day, and receiving the prisoners from his predecessor,
was startled to hear the list of names wound up with "O'Grady," and when
that name was called there was no response.

The old officer of the day looked up inquiringly: "Where is O'Grady,
sergeant?"

"In the cell, sir, unable to come out."

"O'Grady was confined by Captain Buxton's order late last night," said
Captain Wayne, "and I fancy the poor fellow has been drinking heavily
this time."

A few minutes after, the reliefs being told off, the prisoners sent out
to work, and the officers of the day, new and old, having made their
reports to the commanding officer, Mr. Billings returned to the
guard-house, and, directing his sergeant to accompany him, proceeded to
make a deliberate inspection of the premises. The guard-room itself was
neat, clean, and dry; the garrison prison-room was well ventilated, and
tidy as such rooms ever can be made; the Indian prison-room, despite the
fact that it was empty and every shutter was thrown wide open to the
breeze, had that indefinable, suffocating odor which continued
aboriginal occupancy will give to any apartment; but it was the cells
Mr. Billings desired to see, and the sergeant led him to a row of
heavily-barred doors of rough unplaned timber, with a little grating in
each, and from one of these gratings there peered forth a pair of
feverishly-glittering eyes, and a face, not bloated and flushed, as with
recent and heavy potations, but white, haggard, twitching, and a husky
voice in piteous appeal addressed the sergeant:

"Oh, for God's sake, Billy, get me something, or it'll kill me!"

"Hush, O'Grady," said the sergeant: "here's the officer of the day."

Mr. Billings took one look at the wan face only dimly visible in that
prison-light, for the poor little man shrank back as he recognized the
form of his lieutenant:

"Open that door, sergeant."

With alacrity the order was obeyed, and the heavy door swung back upon
its hinges.

"O'Grady," said the officer of the day, in a tone gentle as that he
would have employed in speaking to a woman, "come out here to me. I'm
afraid you are sick."

Shaking, trembling, twitching in every limb, with wild, dilated eyes and
almost palsied step, O'Grady came out.

"Look to him a moment, sergeant," said Mr. Billings, and, bending low,
he stepped into the cell. The atmosphere was stifling, and in another
instant he backed out into the hall-way. "Sergeant, was it by the
commanding officer's order that O'Grady was put in there?"

"No, sir; Captain Buxton's."

"See that he is not returned there during my tour, unless the orders
come from Major Stannard. Bring O'Grady into the prison-room."

Here in the purer air and brighter light he looked carefully over the
poor fellow, as the latter stood before him quivering from head to foot
and hiding his face in his shaking hands. Then the lieutenant took him
gently by the arm and led him to a bunk:

"O'Grady, man, lie down here. I'm going to get something that will help
you. Tell me one thing: how long had you been drinking before you were
confined?"

"About forty-eight hours, sir, off and on."

"How long since you ate anything?"

"I don't know, sir; not for two days, I think."

"Well, try and lie still. I'm coming back to you in a very few minutes."

And with that Mr. Billings strode from the room, leaving O'Grady, dazed,
wonder-stricken, gazing stupidly after him.

The lieutenant went straight to his quarters, took a goodly-sized goblet
from the painted pine sideboard, and with practised hand proceeded to
mix therein a beverage in which granulated sugar, Angostura bitters, and
a few drops of lime-juice entered as minor ingredients, and the coldest
of spring-water and a brimming measure of whiskey as constituents of
greater quality and quantity. Filling with this mixture a small
leather-covered flask, and stowing it away within the breast-pocket of
his blouse, he returned to the guard-house, musing as he went, "'If this
be treason,' said Patrick Henry, 'make the most of it.' If this be
conduct prejudicial, etc., say I, do your d--dest. That man would be in
the horrors of jim-jams in half an hour more if it were not for this."
And so saying to himself, he entered the prison-room, called to the
sergeant to bring him some cold water, and then approached O'Grady, who
rose unsteadily and strove to stand attention, but the effort was too
much, and again he covered his face with his arms, and threw himself in
utter misery at the foot of the bunk.

Mr. Billings drew the flask from his pocket, and, touching O'Grady's
shoulder, caused him to raise his head:

"Drink this, my lad. I would not give it to you at another time, but you
need it now."

Eagerly it was seized, eagerly drained, and then, after he had swallowed
a long draught of the water, O'Grady slowly rose to his feet, looking,
with eyes rapidly softening and losing their wild glare, upon the young
officer who stood before him. Once or twice he passed his hands across
his forehead, as though to sweep away the cobwebs that pressed upon his
brain, but for a moment he did not essay a word. Little by little the
color crept back to his cheek; and, noting this, Mr. Billings smiled
very quietly, and said, "Now, O'Grady, lie down; you will be able to
sleep now until the men come in at noon; then you shall have another
drink, and you'll be able to eat what I send you. If you cannot sleep,
call the sergeant of the guard; or if you want anything, I'll come to
you."

Then, with tears starting to his eyes, the soldier found words: "I thank
the lieutenant. If I live a thousand years, sir, this will never be
forgotten,--never, sir! I'd have gone crazy without your help, sir."

Mr. Billings held out his hand, and, taking that of his prisoner, gave
it a cordial grip: "That's all right, O'Grady. Try to sleep now, and
we'll pull you through. Good-by, for the present." And, with a heart
lighter, somehow, than it had been of late, the lieutenant left.

At noon that day, when the prisoners came in from labor and the
officer's of the day inspected their general condition before permitting
them to go to their dinner, the sergeant of the guard informed him that
O'Grady had slept quietly almost all the morning, but was then awake and
feeling very much better, though still weak and nervous.

"Do you think he can walk over to my quarters?" asked Mr. Billings.

"He will try it, sir, or anything the lieutenant wants him to try."

"Then send him over in about ten minutes."

Home once more, Mr. Billings started a tiny blaze in his oil-stove, and
soon had a kettle of water boiling merrily. Sharp to time a member of
the guard tapped at the door, and, on being bidden "Come in," entered,
ushering in O'Grady; but meantime, by the aid of a little pot of
meat-juice and some cayenne pepper, a glass of hot soup or beef-tea had
been prepared, and, with some dainty slices of potted chicken and the
accompaniments of a cup of fragrant tea and some ship-biscuit, was in
readiness on a little table in the back room.

Telling the sentinel to remain in the shade on the piazza, the
lieutenant proceeded first to make O'Grady sit down in a big wicker
arm-chair, for the man in his broken condition was well-nigh exhausted
by his walk across the glaring parade in the heat of an Arizona noonday
sun. Then he mixed and administered the counterpart of the beverage he
had given his prisoner-patient in the morning, only in point of potency
it was an evident falling off, but sufficient for the purpose, and in a
few minutes O'Grady was able to swallow his breakfast with evident
relish, meekly and unhesitatingly obeying every suggestion of his
superior.

His breakfast finished, O'Grady was then conducted into a cool, darkened
apartment, a back room in the lieutenant's quarters.

"Now, pull off your boots and outer clothing, man, spread yourself on
that bed, and go to sleep, if you can. If you can't, and you want to
read, there are books and papers on that shelf; pin up the blanket on
the window, and you'll have light enough. You shall not be disturbed,
and I know you won't attempt to leave."

"Indeed, sir, I won't," began O'Grady, eagerly; but the lieutenant had
vanished, closing the door after him, and a minute later the soldier had
thrown himself upon the cool, white bed, and was crying like a tired
child.

Three or four weeks after this incident, to the small regret of his
troop and the politely-veiled indifference of the commissioned element
of the garrison, Captain Buxton concluded to avail himself of a
long-deferred "leave," and turned over his company property to Mr.
Billings in a condition that rendered it necessary for him to do a thing
that "ground" him, so to speak: he had to ask several favors of his
lieutenant, between whom and himself there had been no cordiality since
the episode of the bivouac, and an open rupture since Mr. Billings's
somewhat eventful tour as officer of the day, which has just been
described.

It appeared that O'Grady had been absent from no duty (there were no
drills in that scorching June weather), but that, yielding to the advice
of his comrades, who knew that he had eaten nothing for two days and was
drinking steadily into a condition that would speedily bring punishment
upon him, he had asked permission to be sent to the hospital, where,
while he could get no liquor, there would be no danger attendant upon
his sudden stop of all stimulant. The first sergeant carried his request
with the sick-book to Captain Buxton, O'Grady meantime managing to take
two or three more pulls at the bottle, and Buxton, instead of sending
him to the hospital, sent for him, inspected him, and did what he had no
earthly authority to do, directed the sergeant of the guard to confine
him at once in the dark cell.

"It will be no punishment as he is now," said Buxton to himself, "but it
will be hell when he wakes."

And so it had been; and far worse it probably would have been but for
Mr. Billings's merciful interference.

Expecting to find his victim in a condition bordering upon the abject
and ready to beg for mercy at any sacrifice of pluck or pride, Buxton
had gone to the guard-house soon after retreat and told the sergeant
that he desired to see O'Grady, if the man was fit to come out.

What was his surprise when the soldier stepped forth in his trimmest
undress uniform, erect and steady, and stood unflinchingly before
him!--a day's rest and quiet, a warm bath, wholesome and palatable food,
careful nursing, and the kind treatment he had received having brought
him round with a sudden turn that he himself could hardly understand.

"How is this?" thundered Buxton. "I ordered you kept in the dark cell."

"The officer of the day ordered him released, sir," said the sergeant of
the guard.

And Buxton, choking with rage, stormed into the mess-room, where the
younger officers were at dinner, and, regardless of the time, place, or
surroundings, opened at once upon his subaltern:

"Mr. Billings, by whose authority did you release O'Grady from the dark
cell?"

Mr. Billings calmly applied his napkin to his moustache, and then as
calmly replied, "By my own, Captain Buxton."

"By ----! sir, you exceeded your authority."

"Not at all, captain; on the contrary, you exceeded yours."

At this Buxton flew into a rage that seemed to deprive him of all
control over his language. Oaths and imprecations poured from his lips;
he raved at Billings, despite the efforts of the officers to quiet him,
despite the adjutant's threat to report his language at once to the
commanding officer.

Mr. Billings paid no attention whatever to his accusations, but went on
eating his dinner with an appearance of serenity that only added fuel to
his captain's fire. Two or three officers rose and left the table in
disgust, and just how far the thing might have gone cannot be accurately
told, for in less than three minutes there came a quick, bounding step
on the piazza, the clank and rattle of a sabre, and the adjutant fairly
sprang back into the room:

"Captain Buxton, you will go at once to your quarters in close arrest,
by order of Major Stannard."

Buxton knew his colonel and that little fire-eater of an adjutant too
well to hesitate an instant. Muttering imprecations on everybody, he
went.

The next morning, O'Grady was released and returned to duty. Two days
later, after a long and private interview with his commanding officer,
Captain Buxton appeared with him at the officers' mess at dinner-time,
made a formal and complete apology to Lieutenant Billings for his
offensive language, and to the mess generally for his misconduct; and so
the affair blew over; and, soon after, Buxton left, and Mr. Billings
became commander of Troop "A."

And now, whatever might have been his reputation as to sobriety before,
Private O'Grady became a marked man for every soldierly virtue. Week
after week he was to be seen every fourth or fifth day, when his guard
tour came, reporting to the commanding officer for duty as "orderly,"
the nattiest, trimmest soldier on the detail.

"I always said," remarked Captain Wayne, "that Buxton alone was
responsible for that man's downfall; and this proves it. O'Grady has all
the instincts of a gentleman about him, and now that he has a gentleman
over him he is himself again."

One night, after retreat-parade, there was cheering and jubilee in the
quarters of Troop "A." Corporal Quinn had been discharged by expiration
of term of service, and Private O'Grady was decorated with his chevrons.
When October came, the company muster-roll showed that he had won back
his old grade; and the garrison knew no better soldier, no more
intelligent, temperate, trustworthy non-commissioned officer, than
Sergeant O'Grady. In some way or other the story of the treatment
resorted to by his amateur medical officer had leaked out. Whether
faulty in theory or not, it was crowned with the verdict of success in
practice; and, with the strong sense of humor which pervades all
organizations wherein the Celt is represented as a component part, Mr.
Billings had been lovingly dubbed "Doctor" by his men, and there was one
of their number who would have gone through fire and water for him.

One night some herdsmen from up the valley galloped wildly into the
post. The Apaches had swooped down, run off their cattle, killed one of
the cowboys, and scared off the rest. At daybreak the next morning
Lieutenant Billings, with Troop "A" and about a dozen Indian scouts, was
on the trail, with orders to pursue, recapture the cattle, and punish
the marauders.

To his disgust, Mr. Billings found that his allies were not of the
tribes who had served with him in previous expeditions. All the trusty
Apache Mojaves and Hualpais were off with other commands in distant
parts of the Territory. He had to take just what the agent could give
him at the reservation,--some Apache Yumas, who were total strangers to
him. Within forty-eight hours four had deserted and gone back; the
others proved worthless as trailers, doubtless intentionally, and had it
not been for the keen eye of Sergeant O'Grady it would have been
impossible to keep up the pursuit by night; but keep it up they did, and
just at sunset, one sharp autumn evening, away up in the mountains, the
advance caught sight of the cattle grazing along the shores of a placid
little lake, and, in less time than it takes to write it, Mr. Billings
and his command tore down upon the quarry, and, leaving a few men to
"round up" the herd, were soon engaged in a lively running fight with
the fleeing Apaches which lasted until dark, when the trumpet sounded
the recall, and, with horses somewhat blown, but no casualties of
importance, the command reassembled and marched back to the
grazing-ground by the lake. Here a hearty supper was served out, the
horses were rested, then given a good "feed" of barley, and at ten
o'clock Mr. Billings with his second lieutenant and some twenty men
pushed ahead in the direction taken by the Indians, leaving the rest of
the men under experienced non-commissioned officers to drive the cattle
back to the valley.

That night the conduct of the Apache Yuma scouts was incomprehensible.
Nothing would induce them to go ahead or out on the flanks; they cowered
about the rear of column, yet declared that the enemy could not be
hereabouts. At two in the morning Mr. Billings found himself well
through a pass in the mountains, high peaks rising to his right and
left, and a broad valley in front. Here he gave the order to unsaddle
and camp for the night.

At daybreak all were again on the alert: the search for the trail was
resumed. Again the Indians refused to go out without the troops; but the
men themselves found the tracks of Tonto moccasins along the bed of a
little stream purling through the canyon, and presently indications that
they had made the ascent of the mountain to the south. Leaving a guard
with his horses and pack-mules, the lieutenant ordered up his men, and
soon the little command was silently picking its way through rock and
boulder, scrub-oak and tangled juniper and pine. Rougher and steeper
grew the ascent; more and more the Indians cowered, huddling together in
rear of the soldiers. Twice Mr. Billings signalled a halt, and, with his
sergeants, fairly drove the scouts up to the front and ordered them to
hunt for signs. In vain they protested, "No sign,--no Tonto here," their
very looks belied them, and the young commander ordered the search to be
continued. In their eagerness the men soon leaped ahead of the wretched
allies, and the latter fell back in the same huddled group as before.

After half an hour of this sort of work, the party came suddenly upon a
point whence it was possible to see much of the face of the mountain
they were scaling. Cautioning his men to keep within the concealment
afforded by the thick timber, Mr. Billings and his comrade-lieutenant
crept forward and made a brief reconnoissance. It was evident at a
glance that the farther they went the steeper grew the ascent and the
more tangled the low shrubbery, for it was little better, until, near
the summit, trees and underbrush, and herbage of every description,
seemed to cease entirely, and a vertical cliff of jagged rocks stood
sentinel at the crest, and stretched east and west the entire length of
the face of the mountain.

"By Jove, Billings! if they are on top of that it will be a nasty place
to rout them out of," observed the junior.

"I'm going to find out where they are, anyhow," replied the other. "Now
those infernal Yumas have got to scout, whether they want to or not.
You stay here with the men, ready to come the instant I send or signal."

In vain the junior officer protested against being left behind; he was
directed to send a small party to see if there were an easier way up the
hill-side farther to the west, but to keep the main body there in
readiness to move whichever way they might be required. Then, with
Sergeant O'Grady and the reluctant Indians, Mr. Billings pushed up to
the left front, and was soon out of sight of his command. For fifteen
minutes he drove his scouts, dispersed in skirmish order, ahead of him,
but incessantly they sneaked behind rocks and trees out of his sight;
twice he caught them trying to drop back, and at last, losing all
patience, he sprang forward, saying, "Then come on, you whelps, if you
cannot lead," and he and the sergeant hurried ahead. Then the Yumas
huddled together again and slowly followed.

Fifteen minutes more, and Mr. Billings found himself standing on the
edge of a broad shelf of the mountain,--a shelf covered with huge
boulders of rock tumbled there by storm and tempest, riven by
lightning-stroke or the slow disintegration of nature from the bare,
glaring, precipitous ledge he had marked from below. East and west it
seemed to stretch, forbidding and inaccessible. Turning to the sergeant,
Mr. Billings directed him to make his way off to the right and see if
there were any possibility of finding a path to the summit; then looking
back down the side, and marking his Indians cowering under the trees
some fifty yards away, he signalled "come up," and was about moving
farther to his left to explore the shelf, when something went whizzing
past his head, and, embedding itself in a stunted oak behind him, shook
and quivered with the shock,--a Tonto arrow. Only an instant did he see
it, photographed as by electricity upon the retina, when with a sharp
stinging pang and whirring "whist" and thud a second arrow, better
aimed, tore through the flesh and muscles just at the outer corner of
his left eye, and glanced away down the hill. With one spring he gained
the edge of the shelf, and shouted to the scouts to come on. Even as he
did so, bang! bang! went the reports of two rifles among the rocks, and,
as with one accord, the Apache Yumas turned tail and rushed back down
the hill, leaving him alone in the midst of hidden foes. Stung by the
arrow, bleeding, but not seriously hurt, he crouched behind a rock, with
carbine at ready, eagerly looking for the first sign of an enemy. The
whiz of another arrow from the left drew his eyes thither, and quick as
a flash his weapon leaped to his shoulder, the rocks rang with its
report, and one of the two swarthy forms he saw among the boulders
tumbled over out of sight; but even as he threw back his piece to
reload, a rattling volley greeted him, the carbine dropped to the
ground, a strange, numbed sensation had seized his shoulder, and his
right arm, shattered by a rifle-bullet, hung dangling by the flesh,
while the blood gushed forth in a torrent.

Defenceless, he sprang back to the edge; there was nothing for it now
but to run until he could meet his men. Well he knew they would be
tearing up the mountain to the rescue. Could he hold out till then?
Behind him with shout and yells came the Apaches, arrow and bullet
whistling over his head; before him lay the steep descent,--jagged
rocks, thick, tangled bushes: it was a desperate chance; but he tried
it, leaping from rock to rock, holding his helpless arm in his left
hand; then his foot slipped: he plunged heavily forward; quickly the
nerves threw out their signal for support to the muscles of the
shattered member, but its work was done, its usefulness destroyed.
Missing its support, he plunged heavily forward, and went crashing down
among the rocks eight or ten feet below, cutting a jagged gash in his
forehead, while the blood rained down into his eyes and blinded him; but
he struggled up and on a few yards more; then another fall, and,
well-nigh senseless, utterly exhausted, he lay groping for his
revolver,--it had fallen from its case. Then--all was over.

Not yet; not yet. His ear catches the sound of a voice he knows well,--a
rich, ringing, Hibernian voice it is: "Lieutenant, lieutenant!
Where are ye?" and he has strength enough to call, "This way,
sergeant, this way," and in another moment O'Grady, with blended anguish
and gratitude in his face, is bending over him. "Oh, thank God you're not
kilt, sir!" (for when excited O'Grady would relapse into the brogue);
"but are ye much hurt?"

"Badly, sergeant, since I can't fight another round."

"Then put your arm round my neck, sir," and in a second the little
Patlander has him on his brawny back. But with only one arm by which to
steady himself, the other hanging loose, the torture is inexpressible,
for O'Grady is now bounding down the hill, leaping like a goat from rock
to rock, while the Apaches with savage yells come tearing after them.
Twice, pausing, O'Grady lays his lieutenant down in the shelter of some
large boulder, and, facing about, sends shot after shot up the hill,
checking the pursuit and driving the cowardly footpads to cover. Once he
gives vent to a genuine Kilkenny "hurroo" as a tall Apache drops his
rifle and plunges head foremost among the rocks with his hands
convulsively clasped to his breast. Then the sergeant once more picks up
his wounded comrade, despite pleas, orders, or imprecations, and rushes
on.

"I cannot stand it, O'Grady. Go and save yourself. You must do it. I
order you to do it." Every instant the shots and arrows whiz closer,
but the sergeant never winces, and at last, panting, breathless, having
carried his chief full three hundred yards down the rugged slope, he
gives out entirely, but with a gasp of delight points down among the
trees:

"Here come the boys, sir."

Another moment, and the soldiers are rushing up the rocks beside them,
their carbines ringing like merry music through the frosty air, and the
Apaches are scattering in every direction.

"Old man, are you much hurt?" is the whispered inquiry his
brother-officer can barely gasp for want of breath, and, reassured by
the faint grin on Mr. Billings's face, and a barely audible "Arm
busted,--that's all; pitch in and use them up," he pushes on with his
men.

In ten minutes the affair is ended. The Indians have been swept away
like chaff; the field and the wounded they have abandoned are in the
hands of the troopers; the young commander's life is saved; and then,
and for long after, the hero of the day is Buxton's bete noire, "the
worst man in the troop."





Next: Van

Previous: From The Point To The Plains



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 450