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Napoleon Shave-Tail by Owen Wister

 

Augustus Albumblatt, young and new and sleek with the latest book- knowledge of war, reported to his first troop commander at Fort Brown. The ladies had watched for him, because he would increase the number of men, the officers because he would lessen the number of duties; and he joined at a crisis favorable to becoming speedily known by them all. Upon that same day had household servants become an extinct race. The last one, the commanding officer's cook, had told the commanding officer's wife that she was used to living where she could see the cars. She added that there was no society here "fit for man or baste at all." This opinion was formed on the preceding afternoon when Casey, a sergeant of roguish attractions in G troop, had told her that he was not a marrying man. Three hours later she wedded a gambler, and this morning at six they had taken the stage for Green River, two hundred miles south, the nearest point where the bride could see the cars.

"Frank," said the commanding officer's wife, "send over to H troop for York."

"Catherine," he answered, "my dear, our statesmen at Washington say it's wicked to hire the free American soldier to cook for you. It's too menial for his manhood."

"Frank, stuff!"

"Hush, my love. Therefore York must be spared the insult of twenty more dollars a month, our statesmen must be re-elected, and you and I, Catherine, being cookless, must join the general mess."

Thus did all separate housekeeping end, and the garrison began unitedly to eat three times a day what a Chinaman set before them, when the long-expected Albumblatt stepped into their midst, just in time for supper.

This youth was spic-and-span from the Military Academy, with a top-dressing of three months' thoughtful travel in Germany. "I was deeply impressed with the modernity of their scientific attitude," he pleasantly remarked to the commanding officer. For Captain Duane, silent usually, talked at this first meal to make the boy welcome in this forlorn two-company post.

"We're cut off from all that sort of thing here," said he. "I've not been east of the Missouri since '69. But we've got the railroad across, and we've killed some Indians, and we've had some fun, and we're glad we're alive--eh, Mrs. Starr?"

"I should think so," said the lady.

"Especially now we've got a bachelor at the post!" said Mrs. Bainbridge. "That has been the one drawback, Mr. Albumblatt."

"I thank you for the compliment," said Augustus, bending solemnly from his hips; and Mrs. Starr looked at him and then at Mrs. Bainbridge.

"We're not over-gay, I fear," the Captain continued; "but the flat's full of antelope, and there's good shooting up both canyons."

"Have you followed the recent target experiments at Metz?" inquired the traveller. "I refer to the flattened trajectory and the obus controversy."

"We have not heard the reports," answered the commandant, with becoming gravity. "But we own a mountain howitzer."

"The modernity of German ordnance--" began Augustus.

"Do you dance, Mr. Albumblatt?" asked Mrs. Starr.

"For we'll have a hop and all be your partners," Mrs. Bainbridge exclaimed.

"I will be pleased to accommodate you, ladies."

"It's anything for variety's sake with us, you see," said Mrs. Starr, smoothly smiling; and once again Augustus bent blandly from his hips.

But the commanding officer wished leniency. "You see us all," he hastened to say. "Commissioned officers and dancing-men. Pretty shabby--"

"Oh, Captain!" said a lady.

"And pretty old."

"Captain!" said another lady.

"But alive and kicking. Captain Starr, Mr. Bainbridge, the Doctor and me. We are seven."

Augustus looked accurately about him. "Do I understand seven, Captain?"

"We are seven," the senior officer repeated.

Again Mr. Albumblatt counted heads. "I imagine you include the ladies, Captain? Ha! ha!"

"Seven commissioned males, sir. Our Major is on sick-leave, and two of our Lieutenants are related to the President's wife. She can't bear them to be exposed. None of us in the church-yard lie--but we are seven."

"Ha! ha, Captain! That's an elegant double entendre on Wordsworth's poem and the War Department. Only, if I may correct your addition--ha! ha!--our total, including myself, is eight." And Augustus grew as hilarious as a wooden nutmeg.

The commanding officer rolled an intimate eye at his wife.

The lady was sitting big with rage, but her words were cordial still: "Indeed, Mr. Albumblatt, the way officers who have influence in Washington shirk duty here and get details East is something I can't laugh about. At one time the Captain was his own adjutant and quartermaster. There are more officers at this table to-night than I've seen in three years. So we are doubly glad to welcome you at Fort Brown."

"I am fortunate to be on duty where my services are so required, though I could object to calling it Fort Brown." And Augustus exhaled a new smile.

"Prefer Smith?" said Captain Starr.

"You misunderstand me. When we say Fort Brown. Fort Russell, Fort Et Cetera, we are inexact. They are not fortified."

"Cantonment Et Cetera would be a trifle lengthy, wouldn't it?" put in the Doctor, his endurance on the wane.

"Perhaps; but technically descriptive of our Western posts. The Germans criticise these military laxities."

Captain Duane now ceased talking, but urbanely listened; and from time to time his eye would scan Augustus, and then a certain sublimated laugh, to his wife well known; would seize him for a single voiceless spasm, and pass. The experienced Albumblatt meanwhile continued, "By-the-way, Doctor, you know the Charite, of course?"

Doctor Guild had visited that great hospital, but being now a goaded man he stuck his nose in his plate, and said, unwisely: "Sharrity? What's that?" For then Augustus told him what and where it was, and that Krankenhaus is German for hospital, and that he had been deeply impressed with the modernity of the ventilation. "Thirty-five cubic metres to a bed in new wards," he stated. "How many do you allow, Doctor?"

"None," answered the surgeon.

"Do I understand none, Doctor?"

"You do, sir. My patients breathe in cubic feet, and swallow their doses in grains, and have their inflation measured in inches."

"Now there again!" exclaimed Augustus, cheerily. "More antiquity to be swept away! And people say we young officers have no work cut out for us!"

"Patients don't die then under the metric system?" said the Doctor.

"No wonder Europe's overcrowded," said Starr.

But the student's mind inhabited heights above such trifling. "Death," he said, "occurs in ratios not differentiated from our statistics." And he told them much more while they booked at him over their plates. He managed to say 'modernity' and 'differentiate' again, for he came from our middle West, where they encounter education too suddenly, and it would take three generations of him to speak clean English. But with all his polysyllabic wallowing, he showed himself keen-minded, pat with authorities, a spruce young graduate among these dingy Rocky Mountain campaigners. They had fought and thirsted and frozen; the books that he knew were not written when they went to school; and so far as war is to be mastered on paper, his equipment was full and polished while theirs was meagre and rusty.

And yet, if you know things that other and older men do not, it is as well not to mention them too hastily. These soldiers wished that they could have been taught what he knew; but they watched young Augustus unfolding himself with a gaze that might have seemed chill to a less highly abstract thinker. He, however, rose from the table pleasantly edified by himself, and hopeful for them. And as he left them, "Good-night, ladies and gentlemen," he said; "we shall meet again."

"Oh yes," said the Doctor. "Again and again."

"He's given me indigestion," said Bainbridge.

"Take some metric system," said Starr.

"And lie flat on your trajectory," said the Doctor.

"I hate hair parted in the middle for a man," said Mrs. Guild.

"And his superior eye-glasses," said Mrs. Bainbridge.

"His staring conceited teeth," hissed Mrs. Starr.

"I don't like children slopping their knowledge all over me," said the Doctor's wife.

"He's well brushed, though," said Mrs. Duane, seeking the bright side. "He'll wipe his feet on the mat when he comes to call."

"I'd rather have mud on my carpet than that bandbox in any of my chairs," said Mrs. Starr.

"He's no fool," mused the Doctor. "But, kingdom come, what an ass!"

"Well, gentlemen," said the commanding officer (and they perceived a flavor of the official in his tone), "Mr. Albumblatt is just twenty-one. I don't know about you; but I'll never have that excuse again."

"Very well, Captain, we'll be good," said Mrs. Bainbridge.

"And gr-r-ateful," said Mrs. Starr, rolling her eyes piously. "I prophecy he'll entertain us."

The Captain's demeanor remained slightly official; but walking home, his Catherine by his side in the dark was twice aware of that laugh of his, twinkling in the recesses of his opinions. And later, going to bed, a little joke took him so unready that it got out before he could suppress it." My love," said he, "my Second Lieutenant is grievously mislaid in the cavalry. Providence designed him for the artillery."

It was wifely but not right in Catherine to repeat this strict confidence in strictest confidence to her neighbor, Mrs. Bainbridge, over the fence next morning before breakfast. At breakfast Mrs. Bainbridge spoke of artillery reinforcing the post, and her husband giggled girlishly and looked at the puzzled Duane; and at dinner Mrs. Starr asked Albumblatt, would not artillery strengthen the garrison?

"Even a light battery," pronounced Augustus, promptly, "would be absurd and useless."

Whereupon the mess rattled knives, sneezed, and became variously disturbed. So they called him Albumbattery, and then Blattery, which is more condensed; and Captain Duane's official tone availed him nothing in this matter. But he made no more little military jokes; he disliked garrison personalities. Civilized by birth and ripe from weather-beaten years of men and observing, he looked his Second Lieutenant over, and remembered to have seen worse than this. He had no quarrel with the metric system (truly the most sensible), and thinking to leaven it with a little rule of thumb, he made Augustus his acting quartermaster. But he presently indulged his wife with the soldier-cook she wanted at home, so they no longer had to eat their meals in Albumblatt's society; and Mrs. Starr said that this showed her husband dreaded his quartermaster worse than the Secretary of War.

Alas for the Quartermaster's sergeant, Johannes Schmoll, that routined and clock-work German! He found Augustus so much more German than he had ever been himself, that he went speechless for three days. Upon his lists, his red ink, and his ciphering, Augustus swooped like a bird of prey, and all his fond red-tape devices were shredded to the winds. Augustus set going new quadratic ones of his own, with an index and cross-references. It was then that Schmoll recovered his speech and walked alone, saying, "Mein Gott!" And often thereafter, wandering among the piled stores and apparel, he would fling both arms heavenward and repeat the exclamation. He had rated himself the unique human soul at Fort Brown able to count and arrange underclothing. Augustus rejected his laborious tally, and together they vigiled after hours, verifying socks and drawers. Next, Augustus found more horseshoes than his papers called for.

"That man gif me der stomach pain efry day," wailed Schmoll to Sergeant Casey. "I tell him, 'Lieutenant, dose horseshoes is expendable. We don't acgount for efry shoe like they was men's shoes, und oder dings dot is issued.' 'I prefer to cake them cop!' says Baby Bismarck. Und he smile mit his two beaver teeth."

"Baby Bismarck!" cried, joyfully, the rosy-faced Casey." Yo-hanny, take a drink."

"Und so," continued the outraged Schmoll, "he haf a Board of Soorvey on dree-pound horseshoes, und I haf der stomach pain."

"It was buckles the next month. The allowance exceeded the expenditure, Augustus's arithmetic came out wrong, and another board sat on buckles.

"Yo-hanny, you're lookin' jaded under Colonel Safetypin." said Casey. "Have something?"

"Safetypin is my treat," said Schmoll; "und very apt."

But Augustus found leisure to pervade the post with his modernity. He set himself military problems, and solved them; he wrote an essay on "The Contact Squadron"; he corrected Bainbridge for saying "throw back the left flank" instead of "refuse the left flank"; he had reading-room ideas, canteen' ideas, ideas for the Indians and the Agency, and recruit- drill ideas, which he presented to Sergeant Casey. Casey gave him, in exchange, the name of Napoleon Shave-Tail, and had his whiskey again paid for by the sympathetic Schmoll.

"But bless his educated heart," said Casey, "he don't learn me nothing that'll soil my innercence!"

Thus did the sunny-humored Sergeant take it, but not thus the mess. Had Augustus seen himself as they saw him, could he have heard Mrs. Starr-- But he did not; the youth was impervious, and to remove his complacency would require (so Mrs. Starr said) an operation, probably fatal. The commanding officer held always aloof from gibing, yet often when Augustus passed him his gray eye would dwell upon the Lieutenant's back, and his voiceless laugh would possess him. That is the picture I retain of these days--the unending golden sun, the wide, gentle-colored plain, the splendid mountains, the Indians ambling through the flat, clear distance; and here, close along the parade-ground, eye-glassed Augustus, neatly hastening, with the Captain on his porch, asleep you might suppose.

One early morning the agent, with two Indian chiefs, waited on the commanding officer, and after their departure his wife found him breakfasting in solitary mirth.

"Without me," she chided, sitting down. "And I know you've had some good news."

"The best, my love. Providence has been tempted at last. The wholesome irony of life is about to function."

"Frank, don't tease so! And where are you rushing now before the cakes?"

"To set our Augustus a little military problem, dearest. Plain living for to-day, and high thinking be jolly well--"

"Frank, you're going to swear, and I must know!"

But Frank had sworn and hurried out to the right to the Adjutant's office, while his Catherine flew to the left to the fence.

"Ella!" she cried." Oh, Ella!"

Mrs. Bainbridge, instantly on the other side of the fence, brought scanty light. A telegram had come, she knew, from the Crow Agency in Montana. Her husband had admitted this three nights ago; and Captain Duane (she knew) had given him some orders about something; and could it be the Crows? "Ella, I don't know," said Catherine. "Frank talked all about Providence in his incurable way, and it may be anything." So the two ladies wondered together over the fence, until Mrs. Duane, seeing the Captain return, ran to him and asked, were the Crows on the war-path? Then her Frank told her yes, and that he had detailed Albumblatt to vanquish them and escort them to Carlisle School to learn German and Beethoven's sonatas.

"Stuff, stuff, stuff! Why, there he does go!" cried the unsettled Catherine. "It's something at the Agency!" But Captain Duane was gone into the house for a cigar.

Albumblatt, with Sergeant Casey and a detail of six men, was in truth hastening over that broad mile which opens between Fort Brown and the Agency. On either side of them the level plain stretched, gray with its sage, buff with intervening grass, hay-cocked with the smoky, mellow-stained, meerschaum-like canvas tepees of the Indians, quiet as a painting; far eastward lay long, low, rose-red hills, half dissolved in the trembling mystery of sun and distance; and westward, close at hand and high, shone the great pale-blue serene mountains through the vaster serenity of the air. The sounding hoofs of the troops brought the Indians out of their tepees to see. When Albumblatt reached the Agency, there waited the agent and his two chiefs, who pointed to one lodge standing apart some three hundred yards, and said, "He is there." So then Augustus beheld his problem, the military duty fallen to him from Providence and Captain Duane.

It seems elementary for him who has written of "The Contact Squadron." It was to arrest one Indian. This man, Ute Jack, had done a murder among the Crows, and fled south for shelter. The telegram heralded him, but with boundless miles for hiding he had stolen in under the cover of night. No welcome met him. These Fort Brown Indians were not his friends at any time, and less so now, when he arrived wild drunk among their families. Hounded out, he sought this empty lodge, and here he was, at bay, his hand against every man's, counting his own life worthless except for destroying others before he must himself die.

"Is he armed?" Albumblatt inquired, and was told yes.

Augustus considered the peaked cone tent. The opening was on this side, but a canvas drop closed it. Not much of a problem--one man inside a sack with eight outside to catch him! But the books gave no rule for this combination, and Augustus had met with nothing of the sort in Germany. He considered at some length. Smoke began to rise through the meeting poles of the tepee, leisurely and natural, and one of the chiefs said:

"Maybe Ute Jack cooking. He hungry."

"This is not a laughing matter," said Augustus to the by-standers, who were swiftly gathering. "Tell him that I command him to surrender," he added to the agent, who shouted this forthwith; and silence followed.

"Tell him I say he must come out at once," said Augustus then; and received further silence.

"He eat now," observed the chief. "Can't talk much."

"Sergeant Casey," bellowed Albumblatt, "go over there and take him out!"

"The Lootenant understands," said Casey, slowly, "that Ute Jack has got the drop on us, and there ain't no getting any drop on him."

"Sergeant, you will execute your orders without further comment."

At this amazing step the silence fell cold indeed; but Augustus was in command.

"Shall I take any men along, sir?" said Casey in his soldier's machine voice.

"Er--yes. Er--no. Er--do as you please."

The six troopers stepped forward to go, for they loved Casey; but he ordered them sharply to fall back. Then, looking in their eyes, he whispered, "Good-bye, boys, if it's to be that way," and walked to the lodge, lifted the flap, and fell, shot instantly dead through the heart. "Two bullets into him," muttered a trooper, heavily breathing as the sounds rang. "He's down," another spoke to himself with fixed eyes; and a sigh they did not know of passed among them. The two chiefs looked at Augustus and grunted short talk together; and one, with a sweeping lift of his hand out towards the tepee and the dead man by it, said, "Maybe Ute Jack only got three--four--cartridges--so!" (his fingers counted it). "After he kill three--four--men, you get him pretty good." The Indian took the white man's death thus; but the white men could not yet be even saturnine.

"This will require reinforcement," said Augustus to the audience. "The place must be attacked by a front and flank movement. It must be knocked down. I tell you I must have it knocked down. How are you to see where he is, I'd like to know, if it's not knocked down?" Augustus's voice was getting high.

"I want the howitzer," he screeched generally.

A soldier saluted, and Augustus chattered at him.

"The howitzer, the mountain howitzer, I tell you. Don't you hear me? To knock the cursed thing he's in down. Go to Captain Duane and give him my compliments, and--no, I'll go myself. Where's my horse? My horse, I tell you! It's got to be knocked down."

"If you please, Lieutenant," said the trooper, "may we have the Red Cross ambulance?"

"Red Cross? What's that for? What's that?"

"Sergeant Casey, sir. He's a-lyin' there."

"Ambulance? Certainly. The howitzer--perhaps they're only flesh wounds. I hope they are only flesh wounds. I must have more men--you'll come with me."

From his porch Duane viewed both Augustus approach and the man stop at the hospital, and having expected a bungle, sat to hear; but at Albumblatt's mottled face he stood up quickly and said, "What's the matter?" And hearing, burst out: "Casey! Why, he was worth fifty of--Go on, Mr. Albumblatt. What next did you achieve, sir?" And as the tale was told he cooled, bitter, but official.

"Reinforcements is it, Mr. Albumblatt?"

"The howitzer, Captain."

"Good. And G troop?"

"For my double flank movement I--"

"Perhaps you'd like H troop as reserve?"

"Not reserve, Captain. I should establish--"

"This is your duty, Mr. Albumblatt. Perform it as you can, with what force you need."

"Thank you, sir. It is not exactly a battle, but with a, so-to-speak, intrenched--"

"Take your troops and go, sir, and report to me when you have arrested your man."

Then Duane went to the hospital, and out with the ambulance, hoping that the soldier might not be dead. But the wholesome irony of life reckons beyond our calculations; and the unreproachful, sunny face of his Sergeant evoked in Duane's memory many marches through long heat and cold, back in the rough, good times.

"Hit twice, I thought they told me," said he; and the steward surmised that one had missed.

"Perhaps," mused Duane. "And perhaps it went as intended, too. What's all that fuss?"

He turned sharply, having lost Augustus among his sadder thoughts; and here were the operations going briskly. Powder-smoke in three directions at once! Here were pickets far out-lying, and a double line of skirmish- ers deployed in extended order, and a mounted reserve, and men standing to horse--a command of near a hundred, a pudding of pompous, incompetent, callow bosh, with Augustus by his howitzer, scientifically raising and lowering it to bear on the lone white tepee that shone in the plain. Four races were assembled to look on--the mess Chinaman, two black laundresses, all the whites in the place (on horse and foot, some with their hats left behind), and several hundred Indians in blankets. Duane had a thought to go away and leave this galling farce under the eye of Starr for the officers were at hand also. But his second thought bade him remain; and looking at Augustus and the howitzer, his laugh would have returned to him; but his heart was sore for Casey.

It was an hour of strategy and cannonade, a humiliating hour, which Fort Brown tells of to this day; and the tepee lived through it all. For it stood upon fifteen slender poles, not speedily to be chopped down by shooting lead from afar. When low bullets drilled the canvas, the chief suggested to Augustus that Ute Jack had climbed up; and when the bullets flew high, then Ute Jack was doubtless in a hole. Nor did Augustus contrive to drop a shell from the howitzer upon Ute Jack and explode him--a shrewd and deadly conception; the shells went beyond, except one, that ripped through the canvas, somewhat near the ground; and Augustus, dripping, turned at length, and saying, "It won't go down," stood vacantly wiping his white face. Then the two chiefs got his leave to stretch a rope between their horses and ride hard against the tepee. It was military neither in essence nor to see, but it prevailed. The tepee sank, a huge umbrella wreck along the earth, and there lay Ute Jack across the fire's slight hollow, his knee-cap gone with the howitzer shell. But no blood had flown from that; blood will not run, you know, when a man has been dead some time. One single other shot had struck him--one through his own heart. It had singed the flesh.

"You see, Mr. Albumblatt," said Duane, in the whole crowd's hearing, "he killed himself directly after killing Casey. A very rare act for an Indian, as you are doubtless aware. But if your manoeuvres with his corpse have taught you anything you did not know before, we shall all be gainers."

"Captain," said Mrs. Starr, on a later day, "you and Ute Jack have ended our fun. Since the Court of Inquiry let Mr. Albumblatt off, he has not said Germany once--and that's three months to-morrow."

 
 
 

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