The Woof of Thin Red Threads
TWENTY-FIVE men were making a road out of a path up the hillside. The light batteries in the rear were impatient to advance, but first must be done all that digging and smoothing which gains no incrusted medals from war. The men worked like gardeners, and a road was growing from the old pack-animal trail. Trees arched from a field of guinea-grass, which resembled young wild corn. The day was still and dry. The men working were dressed in the consistent blue of United States regulars. They looked indifferent, almost stolid, despite the heat and the labor. There was little talking. From time to time, a government pack-train, led by a sleek-sided, tender bell-mare, came from one way or the other, and the men stood aside as the strong, hard, black-and-tan animals crowded eagerly after their curious little feminine leader.
A volunteer staff officer appeared, and, sitting on his horse in the middle of the work, asked the sergeant in command some questions which were apparently not relevant to any military business.
Men straggling along on various duties almost invariably spun some kind of a joke as they passed.
A corporal and four men were guarding boxes of spare ammunition at the top of the hill, and one of the number often went to the foot of the hill, swinging canteens.
The day wore down to the Cuban dusk in which the shadows are all grim and of ghastly shape. The men began to lift their eyes from the shovels and picks, and glance in the direction of their camp. The sun threw his last lance through the foliage. The steep mountain range on the right turned blue, and as without detail as a curtain. The tiny ruby of light ahead meant that the ammunition guard were cooking their supper. From somewhere in the world came a single rifle-shot. Figures appeared dim in the shadow of the trees. A murmur, a sigh of quiet relief, arose from the working party. Later, they swung up the hill in an unformed formation, being always like soldiers, and unable even to carry a spade save like United States regular soldiers. As they passed through some fields, the bland white light of the end of the day feebly touched each hard bronze profile.
"Wonder if we'll git anythin' to eat?" said Watkins, in a low voice.
"Should think so," said Nolan, in the same tone. They betrayed no impatience; they seemed to feel a kind of awe of the situation.
The sergeant turned. One could see the cool gray eye flashing under the brim of the campaign hat. "What in hell you fellers kickin' about?" he asked. They made no reply, understanding that they were being suppressed.
As they moved on, a murmur arose from the tall grass on each hand. It was the noise from the bivouac of ten thousand men, although one saw practically nothing from the low-cut roadway. The sergeant led his party up a wet clay bank and into a trampled field. Here were scattered tiny white shelter-tents, and in the darkness they were luminous like the rearing stones in a graveyard. A few fires burned blood-red, and the shadowy figures of men moved with no more expression of detail than there is in the swaying of the foliage on a windy night.
The working party felt their way to where their tents were pitched. A man suddenly cursed; he had mislaid something and he knew he was not going to find it that night. Watkins spoke again, with the monotony of a clock.
"Wonder if we'll git anythin' to eat."
Martin, with eyes turned pensively to the stars, began a treatise.
"Them Spaniards -- "
"Oh, quit it!" cried Nolan. "What the piper do you know about th' Spaniards, you fat-headed Dutchman? Better think of your belly, you blunderin' swine, an' what you're goin' to put in it, grass or dirt."
A laugh, a sort of deep growl, arose from the prostrate men. In the mean time the sergeant had reappeared and was standing over them. "No rations tonight," he said, gruffly, and turning on his heel walked away.
This announcement was received in silence. But Watkins had flung himself face downward, and putting his lips close to a tuft of grass, he formulated oaths. Martin arose, and going to his shelter, crawled in sulkily. After a long interval Nolan said aloud, "Hell!" Grierson, enlisted for the war, raised a querulous voice. "Well, I wonder when we will git fed?"
From the ground about him came a low chuckle full of ironical comment upon Grierson's lack of certain qualities which the other men felt themselves to possess.
In the cold light of dawn, the men were on their knees, packing, strapping and buckling. The comic toy hamlet of shelter-tents had been wiped out as if by a cyclone. Through the trees could be seen the crimson of a light battery's blankets, and the wheels creaked like the sound of a musketry fight. Nolan, well gripped by his shelter-tent, his blanket and his cartridge belt, and bearing his rifle, advanced upon a small group of men who were hastily finishing a can of coffee.
"Say, give us a drink, will ye?" he asked wistfully. He was as sad-eyed as an orphan beggar.
Every man in the group turned to look him straight in the face. He had asked for the principal ruby out of each one's crown. There was grim silence. Then one said, "What fer?" Nolan cast his glance to the ground and went away abashed.
But he espied Watkins and Martin surrounding Grierson, who had gained three pieces of hard-tack by mere force of his audacious inexperience. Grierson was fending his comrades off tearfully. "Now don't be damn pigs," he cried; "hold on a minute." Here Nolan asserted a claim. Grierson groaned. Kneeling piously, he divided the hard-tack with minute care into four portions. The men, who had had their heads together, like players watching a wheel of fortune, arose suddenly, each chewing. Nolan interpolated a drink of water and sighed contentedly.
The whole forest seemed to be moving. From the field on the other side of the road a column of men in blue was slowly pouring; the battery had creaked on ahead; from the rear came a hum of advancing regiments. Then from a mile away rang the noise of a shot, then another shot; in a moment the rifles there were drumming, drumming, drumming. The artillery boomed out suddenly. A day of battle was begun.
The men made no exclamations. They rolled their eyes in the direction of the sound, and then swept with a calm glance the forests and the hills which surrounded them, implacably mysterious forests and hills which lent to every rifle-shot the ominous quality which belongs to secret assassination. The whole scene would have spoken to the private soldiers of ambushes, sudden flank attacks, terrible disasters if it were not for those cool gentlemen with shoulder-straps and swords, who, the private soldiers knew, were of another world and omnipotent for the business.
The battalion moved out into the mud and began a leisurely march in the damp shade of the trees. The advance of two batteries had churned the black soil into a formidable paste. The brown leggings of the men, stained with the mud of other days, took on a deeper color. Perspiration broke gently out on the reddish faces. With his heavy roll of blanket and the half of a shelter-tent crossing his right shoulder and under his left arm, each man presented the appearance of being clasped from behind, wrestler fashion, by a pair of thick white arms. There was something distinctive in the way they carried their rifles. There was the grace of an old hunter somewhere in it, the grace of a man whose rifle has become absolutely a part of himself. Furthermore, almost every blue shirt-sleeve was rolled to the elbow, disclosing forearms of almost incredible brawn. The rifles seemed light, almost fragile, in the hands that were at the end of these arms, never fat, but always with rolling muscles, and veins that seemed on the point of bursting. And another thing was the silence and the marvelous impassivity of the faces as the column made its slow way toward where the whole forest spluttered and fluttered with battle.
Opportunely, the battalion was halted astraddle of a stream, and before it again moved most of the men had filled their canteens. The firing increased. Ahead and to the left, a battery was booming at methodical intervals, while the infantry racket was that continual drumming which, after all, often sounds like rain on a roof. Directly ahead, one could hear the deep voices of field-pieces.
Some wounded Cubans were carried by in litters improvised from hammocks swung on poles. One had a ghastly cut in the throat, probably from a fragment of shell, and his head was turned as if Providence particularly wished to display this wide and lapping gash to the long column that was winding toward the front. And another Cuban, shot through the groin, kept up a continual wail as he swung from the tread of his bearers. "Ay -- ee! Ay -- ee! Madre mia! Madre mia!" He sang this bitter ballad into the ears of at least three thousand men as they slowly made way for his bearers on the narrow wood-path. These wounded insurgents were, then, to a large part of the advancing army, the visible messengers of blood-shed, death, and the men regarded them with thoughtful awe. This doleful sobbing cry, "Madre mia," was a tangible consequent misery of all that firing on in front, into which the men knew they were soon to be plunged. Some of them wished to inquire of the bearers the details of what had happened, but they could not speak Spanish, and so it was as if fate had intentionally sealed the lips of all in order that even meager information might not leak out concerning this mystery -- battle. On the other hand, many unversed private soldiers looked upon the unfortunate as men who had seen thousands maimed and bleeding, and absolutely could not conjure up any further interest in such scenes.
A young staff officer passed on horseback. The vocal Cuban was always wailing, but the officer wheeled past the bearers without heeding anything. And yet he never before had seen such a sight. His case was different from that of the private soldiers. He heeded nothing because he was busy, immensely busy, and hurried with a multitude of reasons and desires for doing his duty perfectly. His whole life had been a mere period of preliminary reflection for this situation, and he had no clear idea of anything save his obligation as an officer. A man of this kind might be stupid; it is conceivable that in remote cases certain bumps on his head might be composed entirely of wood; but those traditions of fidelity and courage which have been handed to him from generation to generation, and which he has tenaciously preserved despite the persecution of legislators and the indifference of his country, make it incredible that in battle he should ever fail to give his best blood and his best thought for his general, for his men and for himself.
And so this young officer in the shapeless hat and the torn and dirty shirt failed to heed the wails of the wounded man, even as the pilgrim fails to heed the world as he raises his illumined face toward his purpose -- rightly or wrongly his purpose -- his sky of the ideal of duty; and the wonderful part of it is that he is guided by an ideal which he has himself created, and has alone protected from attack. The young man was merely an officer in the United States regular army.
The column swung across a shallow ford and took a road which passed the right flank of one of the American batteries.
On a hill it was booming and belching great clouds of white smoke. The infantry looked up with interest. Arrayed below the hill and behind the battery were the horses and limbers, the riders checking their pawing mounts, and behind each rider a red blanket flamed against the fervent green of the bushes. As the infantry moved along the road, some of the battery horses turned at the noise of the trampling feet and surveyed the men with eyes deep as wells, serene, mournful, generous eyes, lit heart-breakingly with something that was akin to a philosophy, a religion of self-sacrifice -- oh, gallant, gallant horses!
"I know a feller in that battery," said Nolan musingly. "A driver."
"Damn sight rather be a gunner," said Martin.
"Why would ye?" said Nolan opposingly.
"Well, I'd take my chances as a gunner b'fore I'd sit 'way up in th' air on a raw-boned plug an' git shot at."
"Aw -- " began Nolan.
"They've had some losses t'-day all right," interrupted Grierson.
"Horses?" asked Watkins.
"Horses, an' men too," said Grierson.
"How d'yeh know?"
"A feller told me there by the ford."
They kept only a part of their minds bearing on this discussion because they could already hear high in the air the wire-string note of the enemy's bullets.
The road taken by this battalion, as it followed other battalions, is something less than a mile long in its journey across a heavily wooded plain. It is greatly changed now; in fact, it was metamorphosed in two days; but at that time it was a mere track through dense shrubbery from which rose great, dignified arching trees. It was, in fact, a path through a jungle.
The battalion had no sooner left the battery in rear than bullets began to drive overhead. They made several different sounds, but as they were mainly high shots, it was usual for them to make the faint note of a vibrant string touched elusively, half dreamily.
The military balloon, a fat, wavering yellow thing, was leading the advance like some new conception of war-god. Its bloated mass shone above the trees, and served incidentally to indicate to the men at the rear that comrades were in advance. The track itself exhibited, for all its visible length, a closely knit procession of soldiers in blue, with breasts crossed by white shelter-tents. The first ominous order of battle came down the line. "Use the cut-off. Don't use the magazine until you're ordered."
Non-commissioned officers repeated the command gruffly. A sound of clicking locks rattled along the column. All men knew that the time had come.
The front had burst out with a roar like a brush fire. The balloon was dying, dying a gigantic and public death before the eyes of two armies. It quivered, sank, faded into the trees amid the flurry of a battle that was suddenly and tremendously like a storm.
The American battery thundered behind the men with a shock that seemed likely to tear the backs of their heads off. The Spanish shrapnel fled on a line to their left, swirling and swishing in supernatural velocity. The noise of the rifle bullets broke in their faces like the noise of so many lamp chimneys, or sped overhead in swift, cruel spitting. And at the front, the battle-sound, as if it were simply music, was beginning to swell and swell until the volleys rolled like a surf.
The officers shouted hoarsely.
"Come on, men! Hurry up, boys! Come on, now! Hurry up!" The soldiers, running heavily in their accouterments, dashed forward. A baggage guard was swiftly detailed; the men tore their rolls from their shoulders as if the things were afire. The battalion, stripped for action, again dashed forward.
"Come on, men! Come on!"
To them the battle was as yet merely a road through the woods crowded with troops who lowered their heads anxiously as the bullets fled high. But a moment later the column wheeled abruptly to the left and entered a field of tall green grass. The line scattered to a skirmish formation. In front was a series of knolls, treed sparsely like orchards, and although no enemy was visible, these knolls were all popping and spitting with rifle-fire. In some places there were to be seen long gray lines of dirt intrenchments. The American shells were kicking up reddish clouds of dust from the brow of one of the knolls where stood a pagoda-like house. It was not much like a battle with men; it was a battle with a bit of charming scenery, enigmatically potent for death.
Nolan knew that Martin had suddenly fallen. "What -- " he began.
"They've hit me," said Martin.
"Hell!" said Nolan.
Martin lay on the ground, clutching his left fore-arm just below the elbow with all the strength of his right hand. His lips were pursed ruefully. He did not seem to know what to do. He continued to stare at his arm.
Then suddenly the bullets drove at them low and hard. The men flung themselves face down in the grass. Nolan lost all thought of his friend. Oddly enough, he felt somewhat like a man hiding under a bed, and he was just as sure that he could not raise his head high without being shot, as a man hiding under a bed is sure that he cannot raise his head without bumping it.
A lieutenant was seated in the grass just behind him. He was in the careless and yet rigid pose of a man balancing a loaded plate on his knee at a picnic. He was talking in soothing, paternal tones.
"Now don't get rattled. We're all right here. Just as safe as being in church. . . . They're all going high. Don't mind them. . . . Don't mind them. . . . They're all going high. We've got them rattled and they can't shoot straight. Don't mind them."
The sun burned down steadily from a pale sky upon the crackling woods and knolls and fields. From the roar of musketry, it might have been that the celestial heat was frying this part of the world.
Nolan snuggled close to the grass.
He watched a gray line of intrenchments, above which floated the veriest gossamer of smoke. A flag lolled on a staff behind it. The men in the trench volleyed whenever an American shell exploded near them. It was some kind of infantile defiance. Frequently a bullet came from the woods directly behind Nolan and his comrades. They thought at the time that these bullets were from the rifle of some incompetent soldier of their own side.
There was no cheering. The men would have looked about them wondering where the army was if it were not that the crash of the fighting for the distance of a mile denoted plainly enough where that army was.
Officially, the battalion had not yet fired a shot; there had been merely some irresponsible popping by men on the extreme left flank. But it was known that the Lieutenant-Colonel who had been in command was dead, shot through the heart, and that the Captains were thinned down to two. At the rear went on a long tragedy in which men, bent and hasty, hurried to shelter with other men, helpless, dazed and bloody. Nolan knew of it all from the hoarse and affrighted voices which he heard as he lay flattened in the grass. There came to him a sense of exultation. Here, then, was one of those dread and lurid situations which in a nation's history stand out in crimson letters, becoming tales of blood to stir generation after generation. And he was in it and unharmed. If he lived through the battle, he would be a hero of the desperate fight at -- and here he wondered for a second what fate would be pleased to bestow as a name for this battle.
But it is quite sure that hardly another man in the battalion was engaged in any thoughts concerning the historic. On the contrary, they deemed it ill that they were being badly cut up on a most unimportant occasion. It would have benefited the conduct of whoever were weak if they had known that they were engaged in a battle that would be famous forever.
Martin had picked himself up from where the bullet had knocked him, and addressed the Lieutenant. "I'm hit, sir," he said.
The Lieutenant was very busy. "All right, all right," he said, heeding the man just enough to learn where he was wounded. "Go over that way. You ought to see a dressing-station under those trees."
Martin found himself dizzy and sick. The sensation in his arm was distinctly galvanic. The feeling was so strange that he could wonder at times if a wound was really what ailed him. Once, in this dazed way, he examined his arm; he was the hole. Yes, he was shot; that was it. And more than in any other way it affected him with a profound sadness.
As directed by the Lieutenant, he went to the clump of trees, but he found no dressing-station there. He found only a dead soldier lying with his face buried in his arms, and with his shoulders humped high as if he was convulsively sobbing. Martin decided to make his way to the road, deeming that he thus would better his chances of getting to a surgeon. But he suddenly found his way blocked by a fence of barbed wire. Such was his mental condition that he brought up at a rigid halt before this fence and stared stupidly at it. It did not seem to him possible that this obstacle could be defeated by any means. The fence was there and it stopped his progress. He could not go in that direction.
But as he turned he espied that procession of wounded men, strange pilgrims, which had already worn a path in the tall grass. They were passing through a gap in the fence. Martin joined them. The bullets were flying over them in sheets, but many of them bore themselves as men who had now exacted from fate a singular immunity. Generally there were no out-cries, no kicking, no talk at all. They too, like Martin, seemed buried in a vague but profound melancholy.
But there was one who cried out loudly. A man shot in the head was being carried arduously by four comrades, and he continually yelled one word that was terrible in its primitive strength. "Bread! Bread! Bread!"
Following him and his bearers were a limping crowd of men, less cruelly wounded, who kept their eyes always fixed on him, as if they gained from his extreme agony some balm for their own sufferings.
"Bread! Give me bread!"
Martin plucked a man by the sleeve. The man had been shot in the foot and was making his way with the help of a curved, incompetent stick. It is an axiom of war that wounded men can never find straight sticks.
"What's the matter with that feller?" asked Martin.
"Nutty," said the man.
"Why is he?"
"Shot in th' head," answered the other impatiently.
The wail of the sufferer rose in the field, amid the swift rasp of bullets and the boom and shatter of shrapnel. "Bread! Bread! Oh, God, can't you give me bread? Bread!" The bearers of him were suffering exquisite agony, and often exchanged glances which exhibited their despair of ever getting free of this tragedy. It seemed endless.
"Bread! Bread! Bread!"
But despite the fact that there was always in the way of this crowd's wistful melancholy, one must know that there were plenty of men who laughed, laughed at their wounds, whimsically, quaintly, inventing odd humors concerning bicycles and cabs, extracting from this shedding of their blood a wonderful amount of material for cheerful badinage, and with their faces twisted from pain as they stepped, they often joked like music-hall stars. And perhaps this was the most tearful part of all.
They trudged along a road until they reached a ford. Here, under the eave of the bank, lay a dismal company. In the mud and the damp shade of some bushes were a half-hundred pale-faced men prostrate. Two or three surgeons were working there. Also there was a chaplain, grim-mouthed, resolute, his surtout discarded. Overhead always was that incessant, maddening wail of bullets.
Martin was standing gazing drowsily at the scene when a surgeon grabbed him. "Here! What's the matter with you?" Martin was daunted. He wondered what he had done that the surgeon should be so angry with him.
"In the arm," he muttered, half shame-facedly.
After the surgeon had hastily and irritably bandaged the injured member, he glared at Martin and said, "You can walk all right, can't you?"
"Yes, sir," said Martin.
"Well, now, you just make tracks down that road."
"Yes, sir." Martin went meekly off. The doctor had seemed exasperated almost to the point of madness.
The road was at this time swept with the fire of a body of Spanish sharpshooters who had come cunningly around the flanks of the American army, and were now hidden in the dense foliage that lined both sides of the road. They were shooting at everything. The road was as crowded as a street in a city, and at an absurdly short range they emptied at the passing people. They were aided always by the over-sweep from the regular Spanish line of battle.
Martin was sleepy from his wounds. He saw tragedy follow tragedy, but they created in him no feeling of horror.
A man, with a red cross on his arm was leaning against a great tree. Suddenly he tumbled to the ground and writhed for a moment in the way of a child oppressed with colic. A comrade immediately began to bustle importantly. "Here!" he called to Martin, "help me carry this man, will you?"
Martin looked at him with dull scorn. "I'll be damned if I do," he said. "Can't carry myself, let alone somebody else."
This answer, which rings now so inhuman, pitiless, did not affect the other man. "Well, all right," he said; "here comes some other fellers." The wounded man had now turned blue-gray; his eyes were closed; his body shook in a gentle, persistent chill.
Occasionally Martin came upon dead horses, their limbs sticking out and up like stakes. One beast, mortally shot, was besieged by three or four men who were trying to push it into the bushes where it could live its brief time of anguish without thrashing to death any of the wounded men in the gloomy procession.
The mule train, with extra ammunition, charged toward the front, still led by the tinkling bell-mare.
An ambulance was stuck momentarily in the mud, and above the crack of battle one could hear the familiar objurgations of the driver as he whirled his lash.
Two privates were having a hard time with a wounded captain whom they were supporting to the rear. He was half cursing, half wailing out the information that he not only would not go another step toward the rear, but was certainly going to return at once to the front. They begged, pleaded, at great length, as they continually headed him off. They were not unlike two nurses with an exceptionally bad and headstrong little duke.
The wounded soldiers paused to look impassively upon this struggle. They were always like men who could not be aroused by anything further.
The visible hospital was mainly straggling thickets intersected with narrow paths, the ground being covered with men. Martin saw a busy person with a book and a pencil, but he did not approach him to become officially a member of the hospital. All he desired was rest and immunity from nagging. He took seat painfully under a bush and leaned his back upon the trunk. There he remained thinking, his face wooden.
"My Gawd," said Nolan, squirming on his belly in the grass, "I can't stand this much longer."
Then suddenly every rifle in the firing line seemed to go off of its own accord. It was the result of an order, but few men had heard the order; in the main they had fired because they heard others fire, and their sense was so quick that the volley did not sound too ragged. These marksmen had been lying for nearly an hour in stony silence, their sights adjusted, their fingers fondling their rifles, their eyes staring at the intrenchments of the enemy. The battalion had suffered heavy losses, and these losses had been hard to bear, for a soldier always reasons that men lost during a period of inaction are men badly lost.
The line now sounded like a great machine set to running frantically in the open air, the bright sunshine of a green field. To the "prut" of the magazine rifles was added the under-chorus of the clicking mechanism, steady and swift as if the hand of one operator was controlling it all. It reminds one always of a loom, a great, grand steel loom, clinking, clanking, plunking, plinking, to weave a woof of thin red threads, the cloth of death. By the men's shoulders, under their eager hands, dropped continually the yellow empty shells, spinning into the crushed grass blades, to remain there and mark for the belated eye the line of a battalion's fight.
All impatience, all rebellious feeling, had passed out of the men as soon as they had been allowed to use their weapons against the enemy. They now were absorbed in this business of hitting something, and all the long training at the rifle ranges, all the pride of the marksman which had been so long alive in them, made them forget for the time everything but shooting. They were as deliberate and exact as so many watchmakers.
A new sense of safety was rightfully upon them. They knew that those mysterious men in the high far trenches in front were having the bullets sping in their faces with relentless and remarkable precision; they knew, in fact, that they were now doing the thing which they had been trained endlessly to do, and they knew they were doing it well. Nolan, for instance, was overjoyed. "Plug 'em!" he said. "Plug 'em!" He was aiming his rifle under the shadow of a certain portico of a fortified house; there he could faintly see a long black line which he knew to be a loophole cut for riflemen, and he knew that every shot of his was going there under the portico, mayhap through the loophole to the brain of another man like himself. He loaded the awkward magazine of his rifle again and again. He was so intent that he did not know of new orders until he saw the men about him scrambling to their feet and running forward, crouching low as they ran.
He heard a shout. "Come on, boys! We can't be last! We're going up! We're going up!" He sprang to his feet and, stooping, ran with the others. Something fine, soft, gentle, touched his heart as he ran. He had loved the regiment, the army, because the regiment, the army, was his life. He had no other outlook; and now these men, his comrades, were performing his dream-scenes for him. They were doing as he had ordained in his visions. It is curious that in this charge, he considered himself as rather unworthy. Although he himself was in the assault with the rest of them, it seemed to him that his comrades were dazzlingly courageous. His part, to his mind, was merely that of a man who was going along with the crowd.
He saw Grierson biting madly with his pincers at a barbed-wire fence. They were half-way up the beautiful sylvan slope; there was no enemy to be seen, and yet the landscape rained bullets. Somebody punched him violently in the stomach. He thought dully to lie down and rest, but instead he fell with a crash.
The sparse line of men in blue shirts and dirty slouch hats swept on up the hill. He decided to shut his eyes for a moment, because he felt very dreamy and peaceful. It seemed only a minute before he heard a voice say, "There he is." Grierson and Watkins had come to look for him. He searched their faces at once and keenly, for he had a thought that the line might be driven down the hill and leave him in Spanish hands. But he saw that everything was secure and he prepared no questions.
"Nolan," said Grierson clumsily, "do you know me?"
The man on the ground smiled softly. "Of course I know you, you chowder-faced monkey. Why wouldn't I know you?"
Watkins knelt beside him. "Where did they plug you, boy?"
Nolan was somewhat dubious.
"It ain't much, I don't think, but it's somewheres there." He laid a finger on the pit of his stomach. They lifted his shirt and then privately they exchanged a glance of horror.
"Does it hurt, Jimmie?" said Grierson, hoarsely.
"No," said Nolan, "it don't hurt any, but I feel sort of dead-to-the-world and numb all over. I don't think it's very bad."
"Oh, it's all right," said Watkins.
"What I need is a drink," said Nolan, grinning at them. "I'm chilly -- lyin' on this damp ground."
"It ain't very damp, Jimmie," said Grierson.
"Well, it is damp," said Nolan, with sudden irritability. "I can feel it. I'm wet, I tell you -- wet through -- just from lyin' here."
They answered hastily. "Yes, that's so, Jimmie. It is damp. That's so."
"Just put your hand under my back and see how wet the ground is," he said.
"No," they answered. "That's all right, Jimmie. We know it's wet."
"Well, put your hand under and see," he cried, stubbornly.
"Oh, never mind, Jimmie."
"No," he said in a temper, "see for yourself."
Grierson seemed to be afraid of Nolan's agitation, and so he slipped a hand under the prostrate man, and presently withdrew it covered with blood. "Yes," he said, hiding his hand carefully from Nolan's eyes, "you were right, Jimmie."
"Of course I was," said Nolan, contentedly closing his eyes. "This hillside holds water like a swamp." After a moment he said: "Guess I ought to know. I'm flat here on it, and you fellers are standing up."
He did not know he was dying. He thought he was holding an argument on the condition of the turf.
"Cover his face," said Grierson in a low and husky voice, afterward.
"What'll I cover it with?" said Watkins.
They looked at themselves. They stood in their shirts, trousers, leggings, shoes; they had nothing.
"Oh," said Grierson, "here's his hat." He brought it and laid it on the face of the dead man. They stood for a time. It was apparent that they thought it essential and decent to say or do something. Finally Watkins said in a broken voice, "Aw, it's a damn shame."
They moved slowly off toward the firing line.
* * * * * *
In the blue gloom of evening, in one of the fever tents, the two rows of still figures became hideous, charnel. The languid movement of a hand was surrounded with spectral mystery, and the occasional painful twisting of a body under a blanket was terrifying, as if dead men were moving in their graves under the sod. A heavy odor of sickness and medicine hung in the air.
"What regiment are you in?" said a feeble voice.
"Twenty-ninth infantry," answered another voice.
"Twenty-ninth! Why, the man on the other side of me is in the Twenty-ninth."
"He is? . . . Hey there, partner, are you in the Twenty-ninth?"
A third voice merely answered wearily: "Martin, of C Company."
"What? Jack, is that you?"
"It's a part of me. . . . Who are you?"
"Grierson, you fat-head. I thought you were wounded."
There was the noise of a man gulping a great drink of water, and at its conclusion Martin said, "I am."
"Well, what you doin' in the fever place, then?"
Martin replied with drowsy impatience. "Got the fever, too."
"Gee!" said Grierson.
Thereafter there was silence in the fever tent save for the noise made by a man over in a corner, a kind of man always found in an American crowd, a heroic, implacable comedian and patriot, of a humor that has bitterness and ferocity and love in it, and he was wringing from the situation a grim meaning by singing the Star-Spangled Banner with all the ardor which could be procured from his fever-stricken body.
"Billie," called Martin, in a low voice, "where's Jimmie Nolan?"
"He's dead," said Grierson.
A tangle of raw gold light shone on a side of the tent. Somewhere in the valley an engine's bell was ringing, and it sounded of peace and home as if it hung on a cow's neck.
"An' where's Ike Watkins?"
"Well, he ain't dead, but he got shot through the lungs. They say he ain't got much show."
Through the clouded odors of sickness and medicine rang the dauntless voice of the man in the corner:
" . . . Long may it wave. . . ."