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The Mascot of Battery B by Lloyd Osbourne

 

Battery A had a mascot goat, and Battery C a Filipino kid, and Battery D a parrot that could swear in five languages, but I guess we were the only battery in the brigade that carried an old lady! Filipino, nothing! But white as yourself and from Oakland, California, and I don't suppose I'd be here talking to you now, if it hadn't been for her.

I had known Benny a long time—Benny was her son, you know, the only one she had—and when I enlisted at the beginning of the war Benny wished to do it, too, only he was scared to death, not of the Spaniards, but his old Ma! So he hung off and on, while I drilled at the Presidio and rode free on the street cars, and did the little hero act, and ate pie the whole day long. My! How they used to bring us pies in them times and boxes of see-gars—and flowers! Flowers to burn! Well I remember a Wisconsin regiment marching along Market Street, big splendid men from the up-North woods, every one of them with a Calla lily stuck in his gun! Oh, it was fine, with the troops pouring in, and the whole city afire to receive them, and the girls almost cutting the clothes off your back for souvenirs—and it made Benny sick to see it all, him clerking in a hardware store and eating his heart out to go with the boys. He hung back as long as he could, but at last he couldn't stand it no longer, and the day before we sailed he went and enlisted in my battery.

He knew there was going to be a rumpus at home and I suppose that was why he put it off to the very end, not wanting to be plagued to death or cried over. But when he got into his uniform and had done a spell of goose-step with the first sergeant, he was so blamed rattled about going home that he had to take me along too. He lived away off somewheres in a poorish sort of neighbourhood, all little frame houses and little front yards about that big, where you could see commuters watering Calla lilies in their city clothes. Benny's house seemed the smallest and poorest of the lot, though it had Calla lilies too and other sorts of flowers, and a mat with "welcome" on it, and some kind of a dog that licked our hands as we walked up the front steps and answered to the name of Dook.

Benny pushed open the door and went in, me at his heels, and both of us nervous as cats. His mother was sitting in a rocker, reading the evening paper with gold spectacles, and I never saw such a straight-backed old lady in my life, nor any so tall and thin and commanding. She looked up at us, kind of startled to see two soldiers walking into her kitchen, and Benny smiled a silly smile and said:

"Mommer, I'm off to help Dooey in the Fillypines!"

I guess he thought she'd jump at him or something, for he had always been a mother's boy and minded everything she said, though he was twenty-eight years old and rising-nine—but all she did was to draw in her breath sharp and sudden, so you could hear the whistle of it, and then two big tears rolled out under her specs.

"Don't feel bad about it, Mommer," said Benny in a snuffly voice.

She never said a word, but got up from the chair and came over to where Benny was, very white and trembly, and looking at his army coat like it was a shroud.

"Oh, my son, my son!" she said, kind of choking over the words.

"I couldn't stay behind when all the boys was going," he said.

I saw he was holding back all he could to keep from crying, and I didn't blame him either, as we was to sail the next day and the old lady was his Ma. It's them good-byes that break a soldier all up. So I lit out and played with the dog and made him jump through my hands and fetch sticks and give his paw (he was quite a RE-markable dog, that dog, though his breeding wasn't much), while I could hear them inside, talking and talking, and the old lady's voice running on about the danger of drink and how he mustn't sleep in wet clothes or give back-talk to his officers—it was wonderful the horse-sense that old lady had—and how he must respeck the uniform he wore and be cheerful and willing and brave, like his sainted father who was dead—all that mothers say and sometimes what soldiers do—and through it all there was a pleasant rattle of dishes and the sound of the fire being poked up, and Benny asking where's the table-cloth, and was there another pie? By and by I was called in, and there, sure enough, the table was spread, and we were both made to sit down while the old lady skirmished around and wiped her eyes when we weren't looking.

We had beefsteak, warmed-over pigs' feet, coffee, potato cakes, fresh lettuce, Graham gems, and two kinds of pie, and the next day we sailed for Manila.

Them early days in the Fillypines was the toughest proposition I was ever up against. Things hadn't settled down as they did afterward, nobody knowing where he was at, and all of us shoved up to the front higgeldy-piggeldy; and, being Regulars, they gave us the heavy end of it, having to do all the fighting while the Volunteers was being taught the difference between a Krag- Jorgensen and a Moro Castle. It was all front in them days—for the Regulars! But we were lucky in our commissary sergeant, a splendid young man named Orr, and we lived well from the start and never came down to rations. The battery got quite a name for having griddle-cakes for breakfast and carrying a lot of dog generally in the eating line, and someone wrote a song, to the toon of Chickamauga, called "The Fried Chicken of Battery B." But I tell you, it wasn't all fried chicken either, for the fighting was heavy and hot, and a good many of the boys pegged out. If ever there was a battery that looked for trouble and got it—it was Battery B! But we took good care of our commissary sergeant—did I mention he was a splendid young man named Orr?—and though we dropped a good many numbers, wounded, dead, sick, and missing—we kep' up the good name of the battery and had canned butter and pop-overs nearly every day.

Benny and I were chums, but nobody knows what that word means till you've kept warm under the same blanket and kneeled side by side in the firing-line. It brings men together like nothing else in the world, and it's queer the unlikely sorts that take to one another. I was so common and uneddicated that I wonder what Benny ever saw to like in me, for, as I said, he was a regular Mommer's boy and splendidly brought up and an electrician. Religious, too, and a church member! But he was powerful fond of me, and never went into action but what he'd let off a little prayer to himself that I might come out all right and go to heaven if bolo-ed. Pity he hadn't taken as much trouble for himself, for one day while we were lying in a trench, and firing for all we were worth, I suddenly saw that look in his face that a soldier gets to know so well.

"Benny, you're shot!" I yelled out, dropping my Krag and all struck of a heap.

"Shot, nothing!" he answered, and then he keeled over in the dirt and his legs began to kick.

He took a powerful long time to die, and there was even some talk of sending him down to the base hospital, the field one being that full and constantly needed at our heels. But he pleaded with the doctors and was allowed as a favour to stay on and die where he was minded—with the battery. I was with him all I could, and I'll never forget how good that commissary sergeant was, a splendid young man named Orr, who always had a little pot of chicken broth for Benny and cornstarch, and what he fancied most of all—a sort of thick dough cakes we called sinkers. As luck would have it I got into trouble about this time—a little matter of two silver candle-sticks and a Virgin's crown—and Benny sent for Captain Howard (it was him that commanded the battery), and weak as he was, dying, he begged me off, and the captain swore awful to hide how bad he felt, and struck my name off the sheet to please him. There was little enough to do in this line, for it was plain as day where Benny was bound for, and he knew himself he would never see that little home in Oakland again.

Well, he got worse and worse, and sometimes when I went there he didn't know me, being out of his head or kind of dopy with the doctor's stuff, the shadow being over him, as Irish people say. One night he was that low that I got scared, and I waylaid the contract surgeon as he came out.

"Doctor," I said, "it's all up with Benny, ain't it?"

"He'll never hear reveille no more," he says.

I got my blanket and lay outside the door, it being against regulations for any of us to be in the field-hospital after taps. But the orderly said he'd call me if Benny was to wake up before the end, and the doctor promised me I might go in. Sure enough, I was called somewheres along of four o'clock and the orderly led me inside the tent to Benny's cot. There was no light but a candle in a bottle, and I held it in my hand and bent over and looked in Benny's face. He was himself all right, and he put his cold, sweaty hand in mine and pressed it.

"Do you know me, old man?" I said. "Do you know me?"

"Good-bye, Bill," he said, and then, as I leaned over him, his voice being that low and faint—he whispered: "Billy, I guess you'll have to rustle for another chum!"

Them was his last words and he said them with a kind of a smile, like he was happy and didn't give a damn to live. Then the little life he had left went out. The orderly looked at his watch, and then wrote the time on a slate after Benny's regimental number and the word: "died." This was about all the epitaph he got, though we buried him properly in the morning and gave him the usual send- off. Then his effects was auctioned off in front of the captain's tent, a nickel for this, ten cents for that—a soldier hasn't much at any time, you know, and on the march less than a little—and five-sixty about covered the lot. There was quite a rush for the picture of his best girl, but I bought it in, along with one of his Ma and a one-pound Hotchkiss shell and the hilt of a Spanish officer's sword; and when I had laid them away in my haversack and had borrowed a sheet of paper and an envelope from the commissary sergeant to write to Benny's mother, it came over me what a little place a man fills in the world and how things go on much the same without him.

I was setting down to write that letter and was about midway through, having got to "the pride of the battery and regretted by all who noo him," when I looked up, and what in thunder do you suppose I saw? The old lady herself, by God! walking into camp with an umberella and a valise, and looking like she always did— powerful grim and commanding. Someone must have told her the news and which was my tent, for she walked straight up to where I was and said: "William, William!" like that. She didn't cry or nothing, and anybody at a distance might have thought she was just talking to a stranger; but there was a whole funeral march in the sound of her voice, and you could read Benny's death like print in her wrinkled old face. I took her out to where we had buried him, and she plumped down on her knees and prayed, with the umberella and the valise beside her, while I held my hat in one hand and my pistol in the other, ready for any bolo business that might come out of the high grass.

Then we went back to the field-hospital and had a look in, she explaining on the way how she had mortgaged her home, so as to come and look after Benny. I guess the hospital must have appeared kind of cheerless, for lots of the wounded were lying on the bare ground, and it was a caution the way some of them groaned and groaned. You see Battery K had just come in, having had an engagement by the way at Dagupan, and Wilson's cavalry, besides, had dumped a sight of their men on us.

"And it was in a place like this that my boy died?" said the old lady, her mouth quivering and then closing on the words like a steel trap.

"There's the very cot, Ma'am," I said.

She said something like "Oh, oh, oh!" under her breath, and, taking out her handkerchief, wiped the face and lips of the man in the cot, who was lying there with his uniform still on him. I suppose he had got it because he was a bad case,—the cot, I mean,—and certainly he was far from spry.

"He's dead!" said the old lady, shuddering. "He's dead!"

"Orderly," I said, "number fifty-six is dead!"

The orderly bent over to make sure and then ran for his slate—the same old slate—and began to write down the same old thing. I suppose there was some sense to that slate racket, for with a little spit one slate would do for a brigade, but it seemed a cheap way to die. Then, as we stood there, another orderly came gallumphing in with something steaming in a tin can. The old lady took it out of his hand and smelled it, supercilious.

"What do you call this?" she said.

"It's chicken broth, Ma'am," he said. "That's what it is, Ma'am."

"Faugh!" said the old lady, "faugh!" and handed it back to him, like she was going to throw it away, but didn't. Then we watched him dip it out in tin cups and carry it around, while some other fellers came in and carried out the body of the man in the cot, a trooper by his legs. We went out with them, and, I tell you, it was good to stand in the open air again and breathe. The old lady took a little spell of rest on a packing-case; then she gave me her umberella and valise to take back to quarters, and, rolling up her sleeves, made like she was going into the hospital again.

I didn't know what to say, but I guess I looked it.

"William," she said, with a glitter of her gold specs.

"Ma'am," said I.

"Those boys aren't getting proper CON-sideration," she said. "If it was dogs," she said, "they couldn't be treated worse. William, I'm going to see what one old woman can do."

"You ought to ask Captain Howard first," I said. "You don't belong to the Army Medical Corps."

"It's them that let Benny die," she said, with her eyes snapping, "and, as for asking, they'd say 'No,' for they don't allow any women except at the base hospitals."

I knew this for a fack, but I'd rather she'd find it out from the captain than from me. I didn't want to seem to make trouble for her. So, while I was wondering what to do about it, she headed right in, leaving me with the valise and the umberella, and a kind of qualmy feeling that the old lady might strike a snag.

I didn't have no chance to come back till along sundown, but, my stars I even in that time there had been a change. Benny's mother had been getting in her deadly work, and the orderlies were bursting mad, not that any of them dared say anything outright or show it except in their faces, which were that long; for, you see, the contract surgeon had taken her side, and had backed her up. But they moved around like mules with their ears down, powerful unwilling, and yet scared to say a word. The hospital had been made a new place, with another tent up that had been laid away and forgotten (you wouldn't think it possible, but it was), and the sick and wounded had been sorted over and washed and made comfortable; and, where before there was no room to turn around, you could walk through wide lanes and wonder what had become of the crowd. She had peeked into the cooking, too, and had found out more things going wrong in five hours than the contract surgeon had in five months. Blest if there wasn't a court-martial laying for every one of the orderlies if they said "boo!" for the swine had been making away scandalous with butter and chocolate and beef—tea and canned table peaches and sparrow-grass and sardines, and all the like of that, belly-robbing the boys right and left perfectly awful.

It was a mighty good account of the contract surgeon that he took it all so well, and was willing to admit how badly he had been done. But he was a splendid young fellow, named Marcus, and what the old lady said, went! He was right sorry he couldn't put her on the strength of the battery, but the regulations kept women nurses at the base-hospitals, and anyway (for we broke everything them days, and there wasn't enough red-tape left to play cat-and-my- cradle with) Captain Howard hated the sight of a petticoat, and was dead set against women anywheres. I don't know what they had ever done to him, but I'm just saying it for a fack. But, however it was, Marcus said the old lady had to be kept out of sight, or else the captain would surely send her to the rear under arrest.

Now, this made it a pretty hard game for the old lady to play, and you can reckon how much dodging she had to do to keep out of the captain's sight. It was hard about her sleeping, too, for she had to do that where she could, not to speak of the pay she might have drawn and didn't, and which, sakes alive! she earned twenty times over. By and by everybody got onto it except the captain, but there wasn't such a skunk in the battery as to tell him, partly because of the joke, but, most of all, on account of the convalescents, who naturally thought a heap of her. Then it got whispered around that she was our mascot, and carried the luck of the battery; and it was certainly RE-markable how it began to change, getting fresh beef quite regular and maple syrup to burn, and nine kegs of Navy pickles by mistake.

You would have thought she was too old to stand it, for we was always on the move, and I have seen her sleeping on what was nothing else but mud, with the rain coming down tremenjous. But she was a tough old customer, and always came to time, outlasting men that could have tossed her in the air, or run with her a block and never taken breath. But, of course, it couldn't be kept up for ever—I mean about the captain—and, sure enough, one day he caught her riding on a gun-carriage, while he was passing along the line on a Filipino pony.

"Good God!" he said, like that, reining in his horse and looking at her campaign hat and the old gingham dress she wore. I wonder she didn't correct him for his profanity, but I allow for once she was scared stiff, and hadn't no answer ready. My! But she kind of shrunk in and looked a million years old.

"Madam," said he, "do you belong to this column?"

"Unofficially, I do," she said, perking up a little.

"Might I inquire where you came from?" said he, doing the ironical perlite.

"Oakland, California," said she.

"And is this your usual mode of locomotion?" said he. "Riding on a gun?" said he. "Like the Goddess of War," said he. "Perching on the belcherous cannon's back," said he.

The old lady, now as bold as brass, allowed that it was.

"Scandalous!" roared the captain. "Scandalous!"

The old lady always had a kind of nattified air, and even on a gun-carriage she sported that look of dropping in on the neighbours for a visit. She ran up her little parasol, settled her feet, give a tilt to her specs, and looked the captain in the eye.

"Yes," she said, "I do belong to this column, and I guess it would be a smaller column by a dozen, if it hadn't been for me in your field-hospital. Or twenty," said she. "Or maybe more," said she.

This kind of staggered the captain. It was plain he didn't know just what to do. We were hundreds of miles from anywheres, and there were Aguinaldoes all around us. He was as good as married to that old lady, for any means he had of getting rid of her. He began to look quite old himself, as he stared and stared at the mascot of Battery B, the cannon lumping along, and the old lady bouncing up and down, as the wheels sank to the axles in the rutty road.

"When we strike the railroad, home you go," said he.

"We'll see about that," said the old lady.

"It's disgraceful," said he. "Pigging with a whole battery," said he. "Oh, the shame of it!" said he.

"Shoulder-straps don't always make a gentleman," said she.

"Holy Smoke!" said he, galloping off very fierce and grand on his little horse, to haul Dr. Marcus over the coals. They say the contract surgeon got it in the neck, but we were short-handed in that department already, Dr. Fenelly having been killed in action, so the captain could do nothing worse nor reprimand him. It was bad enough as it was—for Marcus—for HE wasn't no old lady, and the captain could let himself rip. And, I tell you, it was a caution any time to be up against Captain Howard, for, though he could be nice as pie and perlite to beat the band, it only needed the occasion for him to unloose on you like a thirteen-inch gun.

Well, it was perfectly lovely what happened next, for, with all her sassiness, the old lady felt pretty blue, and talked about Benny for hours, like she always did when she was down-hearted; and, by this time, you know, she had got to love Battery B, and every boy in it; and it naturally went against her to think of starting out all over again with strangers, and them maybe Volunteers. So you can guess what her feelings was that night when the captain went down with fever. It was like getting money from home!

The captain had never been sick in his life, and he took it hard to be laid by and keep off the flies, while another feller ran the battery and jumped his place. I guess it came over him that he wasn't the main guy after all, and that it wouldn't matter a hill of beans whether he lived or quit. Them's one of the things you learn in hospital, and the most are the better for it; but the captain, you see, was getting his lesson a bit late. So he was layed off, with amigos to carry him or bolo him (like what amigos are when they get a chance), and the old lady give a whoop and took him in charge. My! If she wasn't good to that man. and, as for coals of fire, she regularly slung them at him! The doctor, too, got his little axe in, and was everlastingly praising the old lady, and telling the captain he would have been a goner, if it hadn't been for her! And, when the captain grew better—which he did after a few days—he was that meek he'd eat out of your hand. The old lady was not only a champion nurse, but she was a buster to cook. Give her a ham-bone and a box of matches and she could turn out a French dinner of five courses, with oofs-sur-le-plate, and veal-cutlets in paper pants! It was then, I reckon, she settled the captain for good; and, when he picked up and was able to walk about camp, leaning pretty heavy on her arm, she called him "George" and "My boy"—like that—and you might have taken him for Benny and she his Ma.

There was nothing too good for the old lady after that, and the captain wouldn't hear of her living anywheres but at the officers' mess, where she sat at his right hand, and always spoke first. The Queen of England couldn't have been treated with more respeck, and the captain put her on the strength of the battery, and she drew back-pay from the day she first blew into camp. My, but it was changed times! and you ought to have seen the way the old lady cocked her head in the air and made a splendid black silk dress of loot, which she wore every evening with the officers and rattled all over with jet. But it didn't turn her head the least bit, like for a time the boys feared it might, and she was twice as good to us as she had been before. We had a pull at headquarters now, and she had a heart that big that it could hold the officers and us, too—and more in the draw.

The tide had turned her way when she needed it most, for, tough as she was, she could not have long gone on like she had been. She had worn down very thin, and was like a shadow of the old lady I remembered in Oakland, California, and kind of sunk in around the eyes, and I don't believe Benny would have known her, had he risen from the grave; and, when anybody joked with her about it, and said: "Take it easy, Ma'am, you owe it to the battery to be keerful," she'd answer she had enlisted for the term of the war, and looked to peg out the day peace was proclaimed.

"Then I'll be off to join Benny," she'd say, "and the rest of the battery, in heaven!"

There was getting to be a good deal of a crowd up there—that is, if the other place hadn't yanked them in—and some of the boys found a lot of comfort in her way of thinking.

"A boy as dies for his country isn't going to be bothered about passing in," she would say, with a click of her teeth and that sure way of hers like she KNEW. And I, reckon perhaps she DID.

One afternoon she was suddenly taken very bad; and, instead of better, she grew worse and worse, being tied to the bed and raving; and the captain, who wouldn't hear of her being sent to hospital, give up his own quarters to her and almost went crazy, he was that frightened she was dying.

"It's just grit that's kep' her alive," I heard the doctor saying to him.

"You must save her, Marcus," said the captain, holding to him, like he was pleading with the doctor for her life. "You must save her, Marcus. You must do everything in the world you can, Marcus."

The contract surgeon looked mighty glum. "She's like a ship that's been burning up her fittings for lack of coal," said he. "There ain't nothing left," he said. "Not a damn thing," said he, and then he piled in a lot of medical words that seemed to settle the matter.

As for the captain, he sat down and regularly cried. I'm sorry now I said anything against the captain, for he was a splendid man, and the pride of the battery. And, I tell you, he wasn't the only one that cried neither, for the boys idolised the old lady, and there wasn't no singing that night or cards or anything. I was on picket, and it was a heavy heart I took with me into the dark; and, when they left me laying in the grass, and nobody nearer nor a hundred yards and that behind me, I felt mortal blue and lonesome and homesick, and like I didn't care whether I was killed or not. It was midnight when I went out,—mind, I say MIDNIGHT— and I don't know what ailed me that night, for, after thinking of the old lady and Benny and my own mother that was dead, and all the rest of the boys that had marched out so fine and ended so miserable—I couldn't keep the sleep away; and I'd go off and off, though I tried my damnedest not to; and my eyes would shut in spite of me and just glue together; and I would kind of drown, drown, drown in sleep. If ever a man knew what he was doing, and the risk, and what I owed to the boys, and me a Regular, and all that—it was ME; yet—yet—And you must remember it had been a hard day, and the guns had stuck again and again in the mud, and it was pull, mule, pull, soldier, till you thought you'd drop in your tracks. Oh, I am not excusing myself! I've seen men shot for sleeping on guard, and I know it's right; and, even in my dreams, I seemed to be reproaching myself and calling myself a stinker.

Then, just as I was no better nor a log, laying there with my head on my arm, a coward and a traitor, and a black disgrace to the uniform I wore, I suddenly waked up with somebody shaking me hard, real rough, like that—and I jumped perfectly terrible to think it might be the captain on his rounds. Oh, the relief when I saw it was nothing else than the old lady, she kneeling beside me all alone, and her specs shining in the starlight.

"William, William!" she said, sorrowful and warning, her voice kind of strange, like she didn't want to say out loud that I had been asleep at my post; and, as she drew away her hand, it touched mine, and it was ice-cold. And, just as I was going to tell her to lope back and be keerful of herself, the grass rustled in front of me, and I saw, rising like a wall, rows on rows of Filipino heads! My, but didn't I shoot and didn't I run, and the bugles rang out and the whole line was rushed, me pelting in and the column spitting fire along a length of three miles! We stood them off all right, and my name was mentioned in orders, and I was promoted sergeant, the brigadier shaking my hand and telling the boys I was a pattern to go by and everything a Regular ought to be. But it wasn't THAT I was going to tell. It was about the old lady, though I didn't learn it till the next day.

She had died at a quarter of midnight, and had lain all night on the captain's bed with a towel over her poor old face.

Now, what do you make of that?

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index