The Little Colonel's Hero, Chapter 15: The Sentry's Mistake

THE LITTLE COLONEL'S HERO
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1902
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER XV.
THE SENTRY'S MISTAKE

PROMPTLY on Thursday, at the time appointed, the orderly rode over to Camp Walton to escort the party back to the camp at Calkin's Cliff. The four boys led the way on their ponies; the rest piled into a great farm wagon filled with straw, that had been procured from one of the neighbouring farms for the occasion.

Hero followed obediently, when the Little Colonel ordered him to jump up beside her, but he turned longing eyes on the orderly, whom he had welcomed with strong marks of pleasure. It was only their second meeting, but Hero seemed to regard him as an old friend. He leaped up to lick his face, and bounded around him with quick, short barks of pleasure that, for the moment, gave Lloyd a jealous pang. She was hurt that Hero should show such an evident desire to follow him in preference to her.

"I don't see what makes Hero act so," she said to Mrs. Walton.

"The orderly certainly must bear a strong resemblance to some one whom Hero knew and loved in Coblenz," she replied. "You have owned him less than two months, and he has been away from Coblenz only a year, you must remember. Everything must seem strange to him here. He was not brought up to play with children, as many St. Bernards are.

"The other night, at the entertainment, I wondered many times what Hero must think of his strange surroundings. His life here is different in every way from all that he has been used to. A dog trained from puppyhood to the experiences of soldier life would naturally miss the excitement of camp as much as a soldier suddenly retired to the life of a private citizen."

"Oh, deah!" sighed Lloyd, " I wish he could talk. I'd ask him if he is unhappy. Are you homesick, old fellow?"

She took his great head between her little hands and looked earnestly into his eyes as she asked the question.

"Do you wish you were back in the German army, following the ambulances and hunting the wounded soldiahs? Seems to me you ought to like it so much bettah heah in Kentucky, with nothing to do but play and eat and sleep, and be loved by everybody,"

"But an army dog can't get away from his training any easier than a man," laughed the orderly, as he rode on beside the wagon. "It is a part of him. Hero is a good soldier, and no doubt feels a greater joy in obeying what he considers a call to duty, than in riding in the wagon at his ease, with the ladies."

"You know a great deal, perhaps, of this society for the training of ambulance dogs," said Mrs. Walton.

"Yes," he replied. "I am deeply interested in it. My brother at home keeps me informed of its movements, and has written me much of Herr Bungartz's methods. I think I shall have no difficulty in putting the dog through his manoeuvres, especially as he seems to recognise me and in some way connect me with his past life."

Fife and drum welcomed the party as they drove into camp, and the party were at once escorted to seats where they could watch the drill and the sham battle. It was a familiar scene to the General's little family, and to Miss Allison, who had visited more than one army post. But some of the girls put their fingers in their ears when the noise of the rapid firing began. Hero was greatly excited.

Soon after the noise of the sham battle ceased, the field was prepared for the dog's trial. Men were hidden behind logs, stretched out in ditches, and left lying as if dead, in the dense thicket that skirted one side of the field, for wounded animals, either men or beasts, instinctively crawl away to die under cover.

With hands almost trembling in their eagerness, Lloyd fastened the flask and shoulder-bags on the dog. He seemed to know that something unusual was expected of him, and wagged his tail so violently that he nearly upset the Little Colonel. He watched every movement of the orderly, who, with a Red Cross brassard on his arm, was acting as chief of the improvised ambulance corps.

"Will you give him the order, Miss Lloyd?" he asked, turning politely to the little girl. Lloyd had pictured this moment several times on the way over, thinking how proud she would be to stand up like a real Little Colonel and send her orders ringing over the field before the whole admiring regiment. But now that the moment had actually come, she blushed and shrank back timidly. She was not sure that she could say the strange German words just as the Major had taught them to her, when such a crowd of soldiers were standing by to hear.

"Oh, you do it, please," she asked.

"If you will tell me the exact words he has been accustomed to hearing," answered the orderly.

Lloyd stammered them out, greatly embarrassed, feeling that her pronunciation must have grown quite faulty from lack of practice under the Major's careful training. The orderly repeated them in an undertone, then, turning to Hero, gave the order in a clear, deep voice, that seemed to thrill the dog with its familiar ring. Instantly at the sound he started out across the field. Not a thing that had been taught him in his long, careful training was forgotten.

The first man he found was lying in a ditch, apparently desperately wounded. Hero allowed him to help himself from his flask, and drag a bandage from the bags on his back. Then, standing with his hind feet in the ditch and his fore feet resting on the bank above him, he gave voice until the men by the ambulance heard him, and came toward him carrying a stretcher.

"Look at him!" exclaimed Mrs. Walton, who with the party and several of the officers had walked down to the hospital tent. "He knows he has done his duty well. Did you ever see a dog manifest such delight! He fairly wriggles with joy!

The praise of the men bearing the stretcher, and especially of the orderly, seemed to send the dog into a transport of happiness. The second man lay far on the outskirts of the field, hidden by a thicket of hazel bushes. This time Hero's frantic barking brought no reply. The men acted as if deaf to his appeals of help, so in a few minutes, evidently thinking they were beyond the range of his voice, he picked up the man's cap in his mouth, and ran back at the top of his speed.

"Good dog!" said the orderly, taking the cap he dropped at his feet. "Go back now and lead the way."

"If that man had really been wounded, and had crawled under that thicket," said Colonel Wayne, "we never could have found him alone. Only the sense of smell could lead to such a hiding-place. The ambulance might have passed there a hundred times and never seen a trace of him."

The hunt went on for some time; before it closed, every man personating a killed or wounded soldier was located and carried to the hospital tent. When the tired dog was finally allowed to rest, he dropped down at the orderly's feet, panting.

"That was certainly fine work," said the Colonel, stooping to pat Hero's sides. "I suppose nothing could induce you to give him up to the army?" he asked, turning to Lloyd.

"Oh, no, no, no!" cried Lloyd, as if alarmed at the suggestion, and pressing Hero's head protectingly against her shoulder. If she had been proud of him before, she was doubly proud of him now. He had won the admiration of the entire regiment. Never had he been so praised and petted. When Mrs. Walton called her party together for their homeward drive, it was plain to be seen that Hero was loath to leave the camp. A word from the orderly would have kept him, despite Lloyd's commands to jump up into the wagon.

As the boys rode on ahead again, Keith said, "It does seem too bad to force that dog into being a private citizen when he is a born soldier."

"Did you hear what Colonel Wayne told mamma as we left?" asked Ranald. "He told her that it was reported that some of the animals had escaped from the circus that was in Louisville yesterday, and that a panther and some other kind of a beast had been seen in these woods. He laughed and asked her if she didn't want him to send a guard over to our camp. Of course he was only joking, but when she saw that I had heard what he said, she told me not to tell the girls; not to even mention such a thing, or they'd be so frightened they'd want to break camp and go straight home."

"It would be fun to scare them," said Rob, "but you'd better believe I'll not say anything if there's any danger of having to go home sooner on account of it."

"We've got to go day after to-morrow anyhow," said Keith, gloomily. "I wish I could miss another week of school, but I know papa wouldn't let me, even if the camp didn't break up."

"Come on!" called Ranald, who had pushed on ahead. "Let's hurry back and have a good swim before supper."

Not satisfied with the excitement of the day, the girls were no sooner out of the wagon than some one started a wild game of prisoners' base. Then they played hide-and-seek among the rocks and trees around the waterfall, and while they were wiping their flushed faces, panting after the long run, Kitty proposed that they should have a candy pulling.

Dinah made the candy, but the girls pulled it, running a race to see whose would be the whitest in a given time. Their arms ached long before they were done. By the time the boys came stumbling up the hill from their long swim in the creek, it would be hard to say which group was most tired.

"I'm sure we'll all want to turn in early to-night," said Mrs. Walton at supper. Freddy was yawning widely, and Elise was almost asleep over her plate. You are all tired."

All but Hero," said Miss Allison, offering him a chicken bone. "He rested while the others played. You'd like to go through your game every day. Wouldn't you, old boy?"

There was no story-telling around the camp-fire that night. They gathered around it, even before the light died out in the sky. Ranald had his guitar and Allison her mandolin, and they thrummed accompaniments awhile for the others to sing. But a mighty yawn catching Margery in the middle of a verse, and Mrs. Walton discovering both Jamie and Freddy sound asleep on the rug beside her, she proposed that they all go to bed an hour earlier than usual.

The Little Captain vowed he was too sleepy to blow a single toot on his bugle, so they went to their tents without the usual sounding of taps. It was not long before every child was asleep, worn out by the day's hard play. Mrs. Walton lay awake sometime listening to the sounds outside the tent. The crackling of underbrush and rustle of dry leaves was familiar enough in the daytime, but they seemed strangely ominous now that the lights were out. She could not help thinking of what the Colonel has told her of the escaped panther. She imagined the panic it would make if it should suddenly appear in their midst. Then she thought of Hero's protecting presence, and, raising herself on her elbow, she looked across the tent to where she knew he lay asleep. At first she could not see even the ruff of white that made the collar around his tawny throat, for the moon had slipped behind a cloud, but as she raised herself on her elbow, and peered intently through the darkness, the faint misty light shone out again, and she saw Hero plainly, the Little Colonel's outstretched hand resting on his broad back. Then she lay down again, this time to sleep, and soon all the little camp was wrapped in the peace and rest of perfect silence.

Half an hour later Hero lifted his head from between his paws and listened. Something seemed calling him. He did not know what. Being only a dog, he could not analyse the thoughts passing through his brain. A restlessness seized him. He longed to be back among the familiar sights and sounds of soldier life. This little play camp, where children tried to make him romp continually, was not home. Locust was not home. This strange new country full of unfamiliar faces and foreign voices was not home. But the orderly's voice reminded him of it. Over there were bearded men and deep voices, and strong hands, guns, and the smell of powder; fife and drum, and canteens and knapsacks; things that he had seen daily in his soldier life.

Was it some call to duty that thrilled him, or only a homesick longing? As he listened with head up, there came ringing, clear and silvery through the night, the bugle notes from the other camp. At the first sound Hero was on his feet. He moved noiselessly toward the tent flap, only partially fastened, and flattening himself against the ground wriggled out.

And if he gave no thought to the little mistress dreaming inside the tent, if he left without regret the life of ease and loving care to which she had brought him, it was not because he was ungrateful, but because he did not understand. To him his old life woke and called him in the bugle's blowing. To him duty did not mean soft cushions, and idle days, and the following of a happy-hearted child at play. It meant long marches and the guarding of ambulances and the rescue of the dead and dying. A true soldier's heart beat in the dog's shaggy body, and, obedient to his instinct and training, he answered the summons when it sounded. With long, swinging steps he set out in the direction of the bugle-call, taking the road through the woods that the wagon had travelled that day, and down which he had watched the orderly disappear. No, not deserting his duty, but, as he understood it, hurrying back with faithful heart to the cause that had always claimed him.

Now and then the moon, coming out fitfully from behind the clouds, shone on his great tawny body, touching the white curls of his ruff with a line of silver. Then he would be lost in darkness again. But he swung on unerringly, until he was almost in sight of the camp. A little farther on a sentry paced up and down the picket-line that ran along the edge of the woods. Hero travelled on toward him, the dry dead leaves rustling under his paws, and now and then a twig crackling with his weight.

The sentry paused and listened, wondering what kind of an animal was coming toward him in the darkness.

"Halt! Who goes there?" he called, sharply. The moon, peeping out at that instant, seemed to magnify the size of the great creature in his path. He thought of the panther and the other wild beast, whatever it was, supposed to be roaming about in the woods. Then the moon disappeared as suddenly as it had lighted up the scene, and the big paws still pattered on toward him in the darkness, regardless of his repeated challenge.

As the underbrush crackled again with the weight of the great body now almost upon him, the sentry raised his rifle. A shot rang out, arousing the camp not yet fully settled to sleep. The echo bounded back from the startled hills, and rolled away over the peaceful farms and orchards, growing fainter and fainter, until only a whisper of it reached the white tent where the Little Colonel lay dreaming. Then the moon shone out again, and the sentry, going a few paces forward, looked down in horror at the silent form stretched out at his feet.

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