The Little Colonel's Hero, Chapter 16: Taps

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

Published 1902
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

 

 

 

CHAPTER XVI.
TAPS

THE corporal of the guard went running in the direction of the shot, and here and there an inquiring head was thrust out of a tent.

"Only a dog shot, sir," he was heard to call out in answer to some officer's question, as he passed back down the line. "Sentry took him for a wild beast escaped from the show."

Somebody laughed in reply, and the men who had been aroused by the noise turned over and went to sleep. They did not know that the corporal hurried on down to the guardhouse, and that as a result of his report there was a hasty summons for the surgeon. They did not know that it was Hero whom the sentry bent over, gulping down a feeling in his throat that nearly choked him, as he saw the blood welling out of the dog's shaggy white breast, and slowly stiffening the silky hair of his beautiful yellow coat.

The surgeon knelt down beside the dog, and as the clouds hid the moon again, he turned the light of his lantern on the wound for a careful examination.

"That was a cracking good shot, Bently," he said. He never knew what stopped him."

The sentry turned his head away. "I wouldn't have been the one to take that dog's life for anything in the world!" he exclaimed. "I'd pretty near as soon have killed a man. It never entered my head that any tame animal would come leaping out of the woods that way at this time of night. He loomed up nearly as big as a lion when the moon shone out on him. The next minute it was all dark again, and I heard his big soft feet come pattering through the leaves, straight on toward me. It flashed over me that it must be one of those escaped circus animals, so I just let loose and blazed away at him."

The surgeon stood up and looked down at the still form at his feet. "It's too bad," he said. "He was a grand old dog, the finest St. Bernard I ever saw. How that little girl loved him! It will just about break her heart when she finds out what's happened to him."

"Don't!" begged the sentry,. huskily. "Don't say anything like that. I feel bad enough about it now, goodness knows, without your harrowing up my feelings, talking of the way she's going to feel."

As the surgeon started on, the sentry stopped him. "For heaven's sake, Mac, don't leave him lying there on the picket-line where I've got to see him every time I pass. Send somebody to take him away. I'm all unnerved. I feel as if I'd shot one of my own comrades."

The surgeon looked at him curiously and walked on. Nobody was sent to take the dog away, but a little while later the sentry was relieved from duty, and another soldier kept guard over the silent camp, pacing back and forth past the Red Cross Hero, sleeping his last sleep under the light of the sentinel stars.

Somebody draped a flag across him before the camp was astir next morning. "Well, why not?" the man asked when he was joked about paying so much attention to a dead dog. "Why not? He was a war dog, wasn't he? It's no more than his due. I was the man he found in the ditch yesterday. As far as his intention and good will went, he did as much to save me as if I had been really lying there a wounded soldier. When he came leaping down there into the ditch after me, licking my face in such a friendly fashion and holding still so that I could help myself to the flask and bandages, I thought how grateful a fellow would feel to him if he were really rescued by him that way. It was all make-believe to me, but it was dead earnest to the dog, and he did his part as faithfully as any soldier who ever wore a uniform."

"You're right," said a young lieutenant, sitting near. "If for no other reason than that he was in the service of the Red Cross, he has a right to the respect of every man that calls himself a soldier, no matter what flag he follows."

Later in the morning, when the orderly rode into the little picnic camp, the girls were away. They were down by the waterfall digging ferns and mosses to take home. "We are thinking of breaking up camp this afternoon," Mrs. Walton told him. "The weather looks so threatening that I have sent for the wagonette to come for us, and I was about to send over to your camp to see if Hero had wandered back there. He has not been seen since last night. He was lying by Lloyd's cot just before I went to sleep, but this morning he is nowhere to be found. Lloyd is distressed. I told her that probably the drill yesterday awakened all his love for the old life, and that he might have been drawn back to it. Was I right? Have you seen him?"

"Yes," said the orderly, hesitating. "I saw him, but I find it hard to tell you how and where, Mrs. Walton." He paused again, and then hurried on with the explanation, as if anxious to have it over as soon as possible.

"He was shot last night by mistake on the picket-line. The sentry is all broken up over it, poor fellow, and the whole camp regrets it more than I can tell. You see, after yesterday's performance we almost claimed the dog as one of us. Colonel Wayne has made me the bearer of his deepest regrets. He especially deplores the occurrence on account of the dog's little mistress, knowing what a great grief it will be to her. He wishes, if you think it will be any consolation to her, to give Hero a military funeral, and bury him with the honours due a brave soldier."

"I am sure that Lloyd will want that," said Mrs. Walton. "She will appreciate it deeply, when she understands what a mark of respect to Hero such an attention would be. Tell Colonel Wayne, please, that I gladly accept the offer in her behalf, and will send Ranald over later, to arrange for it."

The orderly rode away, and Mrs. Walton turned to her sister, exclaiming, "Poor little Lloyd! I confess I am not brave enough to face her grief when she first hears the news. You will have to tell her, Allison. You know her so much better than I.  We might as well hurry the preparations for leaving. No one will care to stay a moment longer, now this has happened. It will cast a gloom over the entire party."

"Maybe it would be better not to tell her until after she gets home," suggested Miss Allison. She had soothed the childish griefs of nearly every child in the Valley, at some time or another, but she felt that this was the most serious one that had fallen to her lot to comfort.

"I'm sure it would be impossible to get Lloyd away from here without Hero, unless she knew," was the answer. "I heard her tell Kitty this morning that nobody could make her go without him. She said if he wasn't back by the time we were ready to start, we could go on without her, and she would hunt for him if it took all fall."

While they were still discussing it the boys came running back to camp much excited. They had met the orderly.

"Oh, the poor dog!" mourned Keith. "What a shame for the poor old fellow to be shot down that way. It seems almost as bad as if it had been one of us boys that was killed."

Ranald and Rob joined in with praise of his many lovable traits, talking of his death as if it were a lifelong friend they had lost; but Malcolm turned away with an anxious glance to the woods, where he could hear the laughing voices of the girls.

"Poor little Princess Winsome," he thought. "It will nearly break her heart," and he wished with all the earnestness of the real Sir Feal, that by some knightly service, no matter how hard, he could save his little friend from this sorrow.

The girls came strolling up, presently, so occupied with their spoils that no one noticed the boys' serious faces but Lloyd. The moment she caught Malcolm's sympathetic glance she was sure something had happened to Hero.

"Oh, what is it?" she began, the tears gathering in her eyes as she felt the unspoken sympathy of the little group. Leaving Mrs. Walton to tell the other girls, Miss Allison drew Lloyd aside, saying as she led her down toward the spring, an arm around her waist, "I have a message for you, Lloyd, from Colonel Wayne. Let's go down to the rocks by ourselves."

A sympathetic silence fell on the little circle left behind as they heard Lloyd cry out, "Shot my dog?  Shot Hero? Oh, he ought to be killed! How could he do such a cruel thing!"

"But he feels dreadfully about it," said Miss Allison. "The orderly said that, big, strong man though he was, the tears stood in his eyes when he saw what he had done, and he kept saying, 'I wouldn't have done it for the world."'

Nearly all the girls were crying by this time, and Malcolm turned his head so that he could not see the fair little head pressed against Miss Allison's shoulder, as she clung to her sobbing.

"Think how it must have hurt poah Hero's feelin's," Lloyd was saying, "to go back to their camp so trustin' and happy, thinkin' the men would be so glad to see him, and that he was doin' his duty, and then to have one of them stand up and send a bullet through his deah, lovin' old heart. Oh! I can't beah it," she screamed. "Oh, I can't! I can't! It seems as if it would kill me to think of him lyin' ovah there all cold and stiff, with the blood on his lovely white and yellow curls, and know that he'll nevah, nevah again jump up to lick my hands, and put his paws on my shouldahs. He'll nevah come to meet me any moah, waggin' his tail and lookin' up into my face with his deah lovin' eyes. Oh, Miss Allison! I can't stand it! It's just breakin' my heart!" Burying her face in Miss Allison's lap, she sobbed and cried until her tears were all spent.

It was a subdued little party that rode back to the Valley, a few hours later. Not only sympathy for Lloyd kept them quiet, but each one mourned the loss of the gentle, lovable playfellow who had come to such an untimely end after this week of happy camp life with them.                

Under the locusts that evening, just as the sun was going down, came the tread of many marching feet. It was the tramp, tramp of the soldiers who were bringing home the Little Colonel's Hero. All the men who had been most interested in his performances the day before, had volunteered to follow Colonel Wayne, and the long line made an imposing showing, as it stretched up the avenue after him.

Lloyd watched the approach from her seat on the porch beside her father. All the camping party were waiting with her, except the four boys who rode at the head of the procession. Ranald and Malcolm first, then Rob and Keith. Lloyd hid her eyes as Lad and Tarbaby came into view behind them.

"Look," said her father gently, pointing to the flag-draped burden they drew. "How much better it was for Hero to have been shot by a soldier and brought home with military honours, than to have met the fate of an ordinary dog --- been poisoned, or mangled by a train, as might have happened, or even died of a painful, feeble old age. The Major would have chosen this; so would Hero, if he could have understood."

There was more comfort in that thought than in anything that had been said to her before, and Lloyd wiped her eyes, and sat up to watch the ceremony that followed, with a feeling of pride that made her almost cheerful.

On they came to the beat of the muffled drum, halting under a great locust-tree that stood by itself on the lawn, in sight of the library windows, like a giant sentinel. There the boys dismounted to lower Hero into the grave that Walker and Alec had just finished digging. Then the coloured men, spreading the sod quickly back in place, stepped aside from the low mound they had made, and Lloyd saw that it was smooth and green. She started violently when the soldiers, drawn up in line, fired a parting volley over it, but sat quietly back again when the Little Captain stepped forward and raised his bugle. The sun was sinking low behind the locusts, and in the golden glow filling the western sky, he softly sounded taps. "Lights out" now for the faithful old Hero! The last bugle-call that sounded for him was in a foreign land, but it was not as a stranger and to alien they left him.

The flag he followed floats farther than the Stars and Stripes, waves wider than the banner of the Kaiser. It is a world-wide flag, that flag of perpetual peace which bears the Red Cross of Geneva. In its shadow, whether on land or sea, all patriot hearts are at home, and under that flag they left him.

               

A square white stone stands now under the locust where the Little Captain sounded taps at the close of that September day. On it gleams the Red Cross, in whose service all of Hero's lessons had been learned. But the daily sight of it from her bedroom window no longer brings pain to the Little Colonel. Hero is only a tender memory now, and she counts the Red Cross above him as another talisman, like the little ring and the silver scissors, to remind her that only through unselfish service to others can one reach the happiness that is highest and best.

Time flies fast under the locusts. Sometimes to Papa Jack it seems only yesterday that she clattered up and down the wide halls with her grandfather's spurs buckled to her tiny feet. But if he misses the charm of the baby voice that called to him then, or the childish mischievousness of his Little Colonel, he finds a greater one in the flower-like beauty of the tall, slender girl who stands beside the gilded harp, and sings to him softly in the candle-light. And it is Betty's song of service that is oftener on her lips

"My godmother bids me spin,
That my heart may not be sad;
Sing and spin for my brother's sake,
And the spinning makes me glad."

She knows that she can never be a Joan of Arc or a Clara Barton, and her name will never be written in America's hall of fame, but with the sweet ambition in her heart to make life a little lovelier for every one she touches, she is growing up into a veritable Princess Winsome.

Often as she sings, Betty closes her book to listen, thrilled with the old feeling that always comes with the music of the harp. It is as if she were "away off from everything, and high up where it is wide and open, and where the stars are." The strange, beautiful thoughts she can find no words for still dance on ahead, like shining will-'o-the-wisps, but she knows that she shall surely find words for them some day, and that many besides the Little Colonel will sing her verses and find comfort in her songs.

To both Betty and Lloyd the land of Someday and the happy land of Now lie very close together in their day-dreams, as side by side they go to school these bright October mornings, or stroll slowly homeward in the golden afternoons, under the shade of the friendly old locusts.

THE END

< Chapter 15

The Little Colonel's Hero - Table of Contents