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THE GHOST THAT GOT THE BUTTON

BY

WILL ADAMS

One autumn evening, when the days were shortening and the darkness fell early on Hotchkiss and the frost was beginning to adorn with its fine glistening lace the carbine barrels of the night sentries as they walked post, Sergeants Hansen and Whitney and Corporal Whitehall had come to Stone’s room after supper, feeling the need common to all men in the first cold nights of the year for a cozy room, a good smoke, and congenial companionship.

The steam heat, newly turned on, wheezed and whined through the radiator: the air was blue and dense with tobacco smoke; the three sergeants reposed in restful, if inelegant attitudes, and Whitehall, his feet on the window sill and his wooden chair tilted back, was holding forth between puffs at a very battered pipe about an old colored woman who kept a little saloon in town.

“So she got mad at those K troop men,” he said. “An’ nex’ day when Turner stopped there for a drink she says: ’You git outer yere! You men fum de Arsenic wid de crossbones on you caps, I ain’t lettin’ you in; but de Medical Corpses an’ de Non-efficient Officers, dey may come.’”

The laugh that followed was interrupted by the approach of a raucous, shrieking noise that rose and fell in lugubrious cadence. “What the deuce!” exclaimed Whitehall, starting up.

“That’s Bill,” explained Stone. “Bill Sullivan. He thinks he’s singin’. Funny you never heard him before, Kid, but then he’s not often taken that way, thank the Lord.”

“Come in, Bill,” he called, “an’ tell us what’s the matter. Feel sick? Where’s the pain?” he asked as big Bill appeared in the doorway.

“Come in, hombre, an’ rest yo’self,” invited Whitney, and hospitably handed over his tobacco-pouch. “What was that tune yo’all were singin’ out yonder?”

“Thanks,” responded Bill, settling down. “That there tune was ’I Wonder Where You Are To-night, My Love.’”

“Sounded like ‘Sister’s Teeth Are Plugged with Zinc,’” commented Whitney.

“Or ‘Lookin’ Through the Knot Hole in Papa’s Wooden Leg,’” said Whitehall.

“Or ‘He Won’t Buy the Ashman a Manicure Set,’” added Stone.

“No,” reiterated Bill solemnly. “It was like I told yer; ’I Wonder Where You Are To-night, My Love,’ and it’s a corker, too! I seen a feller an’ a goil sing it in Kelly’s Voddyville Palace out ter Cheyenne onct. Foist he’d sing one voise an’ then she’d sing the nex’. He was dressed like a soldier, an’ while he sang they was showin’ tabloids o’ what the goil was a-doin’ behind him; an’ then when she sang her voise he’d be in the tabloid, an’ when it got ter the last voise, an’ he was dyin’ on a stretcher in a ambulance, everybody in the house was a-cryin’ so yer could hardly hear her. It was great! My!” continued Bill, spreading out his great paws over the radiator, “ain’t this the snappy evenin’? Real cold. Somehow it ’minds me of the cold we had in China that time of the Boxers, after we’d got ter the Legations; the nights was cold just like this is.”

“Why, Bill,” said Whitney, “I never knew yo’all were there then. Why did yo’ never tell us befo’? What were yo’ with?”

“Fourteenth Infantry,” responded Bill proudly. “It’s a great ol’ regiment don’t care if they are doughboys.”

“What company was you in?” inquired Hansen, ponderously taking his pipe from his mouth and breaking silence for the first time.

“J Company, same as this.”

At this reply Stone opened his mouth abruptly to say something, but thought better of it and shut up again.

“It was blame cold them nights a week or so after we was camped in the Temple of Agriculture (that’s what they called it I dunno why), but say! the heat comin’ up from Tientsin was fryin’! It was jus’ boilin’, bakin’, an’ bubblin’ worse a heap than anythin’ we’d had in the islands. We chucked away mos’ every last thing on that hike but canteens an’ rifles. It was a darn fool thing ter do the chuckin’ was, o’ course but it come out all right, ’cause extree supplies follered us up on the Pie-ho in junks. Ain’t that a funny name fer a river? Pie-ho? Every time I got homesick I’d say that river, an’ then I’d see Hogan’s Dairy Lunch fer Ladies an’ Gents on the ol’ Bowery an’ hear the kid Mick Hogan yellin’: ’Draw one in the dark! White wings let her flop! Pie-ho!’ an’ it helped me a heap.” Bill settled himself and stretched.

“But what I really wanted to tell youse about,” said he, “was somepin’ that happened one o’ these here cold nights. It gits almighty cold there in September, an’ it was sure the spookiest show I ever seen. Even Marm Haggerty’s table rappin’s in Hester Street never come up to it.

“There was three of us fellers who ran in a bunch them days: me an’ Buck Dugan, my bunkie, from the Bowery like me (he was a corporal), an’ Ranch Fields we called him that ’cause he always woiked on a ranch before he come into the Fourteenth. They was great fellers, Buck an’ Ranch was. Buck, now yer couldn’t phase him, yer couldn’t never phase him, no matter what sort o’ job yer put him up against he’d slide through slick as a greased rat. The Cap’n, he knew it, too. Onct when we was fightin’ an’ hadn’t no men to spare, he lef’ Buck on guard over about twenty-five Boxer prisoners in a courtyard an’ tells him he dassent let one escape. But Buck wants ter git into the fight with the rest of the boys, an’ when he finds that if he leaves them Chinos loose in the yard alone they’ll git out plenty quick, what does he do but tie ’em tight up by their pigtails to some posts. He knows they can’t undo them tight knots backwards, an’ no Chink would cut his pigtail if he did have a knife he’d die foist an’ so Buck skidoos off to the fight, an’, sure enough, when the Cap’n wants them Boxers, they’re ready, tied up an’ waitin’. That was his sort, an’, gee, but he was smart!

“We was all right int’rested in them Allies, o’ course, an’ watched ’em clost; but, ‘Bill,’ says Buck ter me one night, ’its been woikin in me nut that these here fellers ain’t so different from what we know a’ready. Excep’ fer their uniform an’ outfits, we’ve met ’em all before but the Japs. Why, look a-here,’ says he, ’foist, there’s the white men the English ain’t they jus’ like us excep’ that they’re thicker an’ we’re longer? An’ their Injun niggers ain’t we seen their clothes in the comic op’ras an’ them without their clothes in the monkey cage at Central Park? An’ their Hong-kong China Regiment an’ all the other Chinos is jus’ the same as yer meet in the pipe joints in Mott Street. Then,’ says he, ’come all the Dagos. These leather necks of Macaroni Dagos we’ve seen a swarmin’ all over Mulberry Bend an’ Five Points; the Sauerkraut Dagos looks fer all the woild like they was goin’ ter a Schuetzenfest up by High Bridge; the Froggie Dagos you’ll find packed in them Frenchy restaraws in the Thirties where yer git blue wine and them Vodki Dagos only needs a pushcart ter make yer think yer in Baxter Street.’

“Buck, he could sure talk, but Ranch, he wasn’t much on chin-chin. Little an’ dark an’ quiet he was, an’ jus’ crazy fer dogs. Any old mutt’d do fer him jus’ so’s it was in the shape of a pup. He was fair wild fer ’em. He picked up a yeller cur out there the day after the Yangtsin fight, an’ that there no-account, mangy, flea-bitten mutt had ter stay with us the whole time. If the pup didn’t stand in me an’ Buck an’ Ranch, he swore he’d quit too, so we had to let him come, an’ he messed an’ bunked with our outfit right along. Ranch named him Daggett, after the Colonel, which was right hard on the C. O., but I bet Ranch thought he was complimentin’ him. Why, Ranch considered himself honored if any of the pup’s fleas hopped off on him. The pup he kep’ along with us right through everything; Ranch watchin’ him like the apple of his eye, an’ he hardly ever was out of our sight, till one night about a week after we quartered in the temple he didn’t turn up fer supper. He was always so reg’lar at his chow that Ranch he begin ter git the squirms an’ when come taps an’ Daggett hadn’t reported, Ranch had the razzle-dazzles.

Nex’ mornin’ the foist thing he must go hunt that pup, an’ went a scoutin’ all day, me an’ Buck helpin’ him but nary pup; an’ come another supper without that miser’ble mutt, an’ Ranch was up an alley all right, all right. He was all wore out, an’ I made him hit the bunk early an’ try ter sleep; but, Lord! No sooner he’d drop off ’n he git ter twitchin’ an’ hitchin’ an’ wake up a-yelpin’ fer Daggett. Long about taps, Buck, who’s been out on a private reconnoissance, comes back an’ whispers ter me: ’Ssst, Bill! The cur’s found! Don’t tell Ranch; the bloke’d die of heart failure. I struck his trail an’ follered it an’ say, Bill, what’n thunder do yer think? Them heathen Chinos has et him!’ Lord, now, wouldn’t that jolt youse? Them Chinos a-eatin’ Daggett! It give me an awful jar, an’ Buck he felt it, too. That there mutt had acted right decent, an’ we knew Ranch would have bats in the belfry fer fair if he hoid tell o’ the pup’s finish; so says Buck; ’Let’s not tell him, ‘cause he’s takin’ on now like he’d lost mother an’ father an’ best goil an’ all, an’ if he knew Daggett was providin’ chow fer Chinos he’d go clean bug house an’ we’d have ter ship him home ter St. Elizabeth.’

“I says O. K. ter that, an’ we made it up not ter let on ter Ranch; an’ now here comes the spook part yer been a-waitin’ fer.

“Four or five nights later I was on guard, an’ my post was the farthest out we had on the north. There was an ol’ road out over that way, an’ I’d hoid tell it led ter a ol’ graveyard, but I hadn’t never been there myself an’ hadn’t thought much about it till ‘long between two an’ three o’clock, as I was a-hikin’ up an down, when somepin’ comes a-zizzin’ down the road hell-fer-leather on to me, a-yellin’ somepin’ fierce. Gee, but I was skeered! I made sure it was a spook, an’ there wasn’t a bit o’ breath left in me. I was all to the bad that time fer sure. Before I had time ter think even, that screamin’, streakin’ thing was on me an a-grabbin’ roun’ my knees; an’ then I see it was one o’ them near-Christian Chinos, an’ he’s skeered more’n me even. His eyes had popped clean out’n their slits, an’ his tongue was hangin’ out by the roots, he was that locoed. I raised the long yell fer corporal of the guard, which happened, by good luck, ter be Buck, an’ when he come a-runnin’, thinkin’ from the whoops I give we was bein’ rushed by the hole push of Boxers, the two of us began proddin’ at the Chink ter find out what was doin’. Took us some time, too, with him bein’ in such a flutter an’ hardly able ter even hand out his darn ol’ pigeon English, that sounds like language comin’ out of a sausage machine. When we did savvy his line of chop-suey talk, we found out he’d seen a ghost in the graveyard, an’ not only seen it but he knew who the spook was an’ all about him. We was gittin’ some serious ourselves an’ made him tell us.

“Seems it was a mandarin that’s a sort o’ Chink police-court judge (till I got ter Tientsin I always thought they was little oranges), an’ this tangerine’s I mean mandarin’s name was Wu Ti Ming, an’ he’d been a high mucky-muckraker in his day, which was two or three hundred years back. But the Emprer caught him deep in some sort o’ graft an’ took away his button an’ all o’ his dough.

“‘Lord!’ says Buck when we come ter this, ’don’t that prove what heathens Chinks is? Only one button ter keep on their clothes with, an’ the Emprer he kin take it away! What did this here Judge Ming do then, John? Use string or pins?’ This here John didn’t seem ter savvy, but he said that the mandarin took on so fer his button an’ his loss of pull in the ward that it was sure sad ter see, an’ by an’ by the Emprer got busy again with him an’ had him finished up fer keeps; had him die the ’death of a thousand cuts,’ says John. It sounded fierce ter me, but Buck he says:

“’Pshaw! Anybody who’s been shaved reg’lar by them lady barbers on Fourth Avenyer would ‘a’ give the Emprer the merry ha-ha

“After Ming was cut up they took the remains of his corpse an’ planted him in this here graveyard up the road; but he wouldn’t stay planted an’ began doin’ stunts at night, ‘topside walkee-walkee’ an’ a-huntin’ fer his lost button. He’d used ter have the whole country scared up, but fer the last twenty years he’d kep’ right quiet an’ had hardly ever come out; but now sence the foreign devils come (ain’t that a sweet name fer us?) he’s up an’ at it again worse than ever, an’ the heathens is on their ear. Fer four nights now they’d seen him, wrapped in a blue robe, waitin’ an’ a-huntin’ behind tombstones an’ walkin’ round an’ round the graveyard lie a six days’ race fer the belt at Madison Square. John had jus’ seen him on the wall, an’ that was why he come chargin’ down the road like forty cats.

“‘Will Mr. Ming’s sperrit walk till he gits that button back?’ Buck asts. John says: ‘Sure.’

“‘Well,’ says Buck, ‘why don’t yer give him one?’

“‘No can give. Only Emplor, only Son of Heaven give.’

“‘Well, look here,’ says Buck, ’we sand rabbits ain’t no sons of Heaven, but I’ll be darned if we couldn’t spare a button ter lay the ghost of a pore busted police-court judge, who’s lost his job an’ his tin, if that’s all he wants back. What time does he come out at, John? Could we see him ter-morrer night?’ ‘Sure could we,’ says John; ’he’ll show us the way, but he won’t wait with us; he’s bad enough fer his.’

“So Buck takes John an’ goes back ter the guard shack, as it’s most time fer relief, an’ after I got back we told John ter git the hook, an’ we talked things over, an’ Buck he was just wild ter see if he couldn’t lay that Chino ghost. His talents was achin’ ter git action on him; anythin’ like that got up his spunk. Says I:

“’Maybe Ranch kin help. We’ll tell him ter-morrer after guard mount. It’ll take his mind off Daggett.’

“‘No, yer don’t,’ says Buck. ’Don’t yer dare tell him. He’s nervous as a cat over the pup as it is, an’ this spook business is awful skeery; I’m feelin’ woozy over it meself. I’m all off when it comes ter ghosts that is, if it’s a real ghost. And things here in Pekin’ is so funny the odds is all in favor of its bein’ the sure thing. I ain’t afeard o’ no kinds o’ people, but I sure git cold feet when I’m up against a ghost. Wouldn’t that jar youse? An’ me a soldier; when it’s a soldier’s whole business not ter git cold feet. But I’m bound I’ll have a show at that ol’ spook even if it does skeer me out o’ my growth. Only don’t yer dare tell Ranch.’

Nex’ night, right after eleven o’clock rounds, me an’ Buck slipped outer our blankets, sneaked out past the guard, an’ met John, who was waitin’ fer us in the road jus’ beyond where the last sentry woulder seen him. It was cold as git out. Jus’ the same kind o’ early cold as to-night, an’ John’s teeth was chatterin’ like peas in a box he was some loco with skeer, too, you bet.

“‘Which way?’ says Buck, an’ John spouts a lot o’ dope-joint lingo an’ takes us up a side alley, where there’s a whole bunch o’ Chinos waitin’ fer us, an’ they begun a kowtowin’ an’ goin’ on like we was the whole cheese. Turned out that John had jollied ’em that the Melican soldier mans was big medicine an’ would make Judge Ming quit the midnight hike an’ cut out scarin’ ’em blue. That jus’ suited Buck; he was all there when it come ter play commander in chief. He swelled up an’ give ’em a bundle o’ talk that John put in Chino fer ’em, an’ then finished up by showin’ ’em a button a ol’ United States Army brass button he’d cut off his blue blouse an’ tol’ ’em he was goin’ ter bury it in Ming’s grave so as ter keep him bedded down.

“An’ them simple idiots was pleased ter death, an’ the whole outfit escorted us over ter the graveyard, but they shied at the gate (Lord, I hated ter see ’em go even if they was heathens!), an’ let John take us in an’ show us where ter wait. He put us in behind a pile o’ little rocks in about the middle o’ the place near where Judge Ming hung out, an’ then retired on the main body at the double, leavin’ us two in outpost alone there together. I hadn’t never been ter a Chino buryin’ ground before, an’ night time wasn’t extree pleasant fer a foist introduce. There was a new moon that night a little shavin’ of a thing that hardly gave no light, an’ from where we was there was a twisty pine tree branch that struck out right acrost it like a picture card two fer five. The graveyard was all dark an’ quiet, with little piles o’ rocks an’ stone tables ter mark the graves, an’ a four- or five-foot wall runnin’ all round it; an’ somehow, without nothin’ stirrin’ at all, the whole blame place seemed chock full o’ movin’ shadders. There wasn’t a sound neither; not the least little thing; jus’ them shadders; an’ the harder yous’d look at ’em the more they seemed ter move. It was cold, too, like I told yer bitin’ cold an’ me an’ Buck squatted there tight together an’ mos’ friz. We waited, an’ we waited, an’ we waited, an’ we got skeerder, an’ skeerder, an’ skeerder, an’, gee! how we shivered! Every minute we thought we’d see Judge Ming, but a long time went by an’ he didn’t come an’ he didn’t come. There we set, strung up tight an’ ready ter snap like a banjo string, but nothin’ ter see but the shakin’ shadders an’ nothin’ ter hear nothin’ but jus’ dead, dead silence.

“All of a suddent Buck (he kin hear a pin drop a mile away) nearly nips a piece out’n my arm as he grips me. ‘Listen!’ says he.

“I listened an’ listened, but I didn’t hear nothin’, an’ I told him so.

“‘Yes, yer do, yer bloke yer,’ he whispers, ‘Listen. Strain your years.’

“Then way off I did begin ter hear somepin’. It was a long, funny, waily cry, sort o’ like the way cats holler at each other at night. ’Oh-oo-oo, oh-oo-oo!’ like that, an’ it come nearer an’ nearer. Then all of a suddent somepin’ popped up on the graveyard wall about a hundred yards away somepin’ all blue-gray against the hook o’ the moon an’ began walkin’ up an’ down an’ hollerin’. I knew it was sayin’ words, but I was so far to the bad I didn’t know nothin’ an’ couldn’t make it out. I never thought a feller’s heart could bang so hard against his ribs without bustin’ out, an’ me hair riz so high me campaign hat was three inches off’n me head. I hope ter the Lord I’ll never be so frightened again in all my livin’ days. I set there in a transom from fear an’ friz ter the spot. I don’t know nothin’ o’ what Buck was doin’, as my lamps was glued ter the spook. It jumped down from the wall, callin’ an’ whistlin’ an’ begin runnin’ round the little stone heaps. I seen it was comin’ our way, but I couldn’t move or make a sound; I jus’ set. All of a suddent Buck he jumps up an’ makes a dash an’ a leap at the spook, an’ there’s a terrible yellin’ an’ they both comes down crash at the foot of a rock pile, rollin’ on the little pebbles; but Buck is on top an’ the spook underneath an’ lettin’ off the most awful screeches. Gosh, they jus’ ripped the air, them spooks’ yells did, an’ they turned my spell loose an’ I howled fer all I was worth. Then Buck, he commenced a-yawpin’ too, but me an’ the spook we was both raisin’ so much noise I didn’t savvy what he said fer some time. Then I found he was cussin’ me out.

“‘Come here, you forsaken ,’ he howls. ‘Quit yellin’! I say quit yellin’! Don’t yer see who this is? Come here an’ help me.’

“‘You think I’m goin’ ter tech that Ming spook?’ I shrieks.

“‘You miser’ble loony,’ he yells back, ’can’t yer see it ain’t no Ming? It’s Ranch!’

“Well, so it was. It was Ranch skeered stiff an’ hollerin’ fer dear life at bein’ jumped on an’ waked up in the middle of a graveyard that-a-way. Pore ol’ feller had had Daggett on his mind, an’ went sleepwalkin’ an’ huntin’ wrapped in his blanket.

“‘An’,’ says Buck ter me, ’if youse hadn’t been in such a dope dream with skeer, you’d ‘a’ sensed what he was a-yellin’. He was callin’ “Oh-oo-oo, oh-oo-oo, here Daggett! Here, boy!” an’ then he’d whistle an’ call again: “Here, Daggett! Here, Daggett!” That’s how I knew it was Ranch; an’, besides, he told me onct that he sleepwalked when he got worried. But you, you white livered ’ an’ then he cussed me out some more.

“‘Smarty,’ I says, ’if yer knew so blame well it was Ranch, why did yer give him the flyin’ tackle like yer done an’ git him all woiked up like this?’

“‘Well,’ says Buck sort o’ sheepy, ‘I was some woiked up meself, an’ time he come along I give him the spook’s tackle without thinkin’; I was too skeered ter think. Hush, Ranch. Hush, old boy. It’s jus’ me’n Bill. Nobody shan’t hoit yer.’

“We comforted pore ol’ Ranch an’ fixed him up, an’ then when he felt better told him about things all but how Daggett was et an’ I wrapped his blanket around him an’ took him back ter quarters while Buck went a-lookin’ fer John an’ his gang.

“He found ’em about half a mile off, in front of a Mott Street joss house, all prayin’ an’ burnin’ punk an’ huddled together, skeered green from the yellin’s they’d heard. Buck, he give ’em a long chin-chin about layin’ the ghost, an’ how Judge Ming wouldn’t never come back no more; an’ then he dragged ’em all back (they pullin’ at the halter shanks with years laid back an’ eyes rollin’), ter him bury his United States button on Ming’s rock pile. He dropped it in solemn, an’ said what the Chinks took ter be a prayer; but it was really the oath he said. Buck havin’ onct been a recruitin’ sergeant, knew it by heart all the way from ’I do solemnly swear’ ter ‘so help me, Gawd.’ Buck says I oughter seen them grateful Chinos then: they’d ‘a’ give him the whole Chino Umpire if they could. They got down an’ squirmed an’ kissed his hands an’ his feet an’ his sleeve. They wanted ter escort him back ter camp, but he bucked at that, an’ said no, as he was out without pass an’ not itchin’ fer his arrival ter be noticed none.

“After that we took toins watchin’ Ranch at night, an’ got him another mutt ter love, an’ he didn’t wander any more, so Judge Ming seemed satisfied with his United States button, an’ kep’ quiet. But them Chinks was the gratefullest gang yer ever seen. They brought us presents; things ter eat fruit, poultry, eggs, an’ all sorts of chow, some of it mighty funny lookin’, but it tasted all right; we lived high, we three. The other fellers was wild ter know how we woiked it. An’ I tell yer I ain’t never been skeered o’ ghosts sence that is, not ter speak of much!”

Bill, paused, drew a long breath, and looked at the clock. “Gee!” said he, “most nine o’clock. I got ter go over ter K troop ter see Sergeant Keefe a minute I promised him. Adios, fellers. Thanks fer the smokin’.”

“Keep the change, hombre. Thanks for yo’ tale,” shouted Whitney after him as he disappeared down the hall.

“Well!!” said Stone, and looked at Hansen.

“Well!!” responded Hansen. The big Swede shook with laughter. “Iss he not the finest liar! Yess? I wass in the Fourteenth myselluf. That wass my company Chay. He wass not even the army in then in nineteen hund’erd.”

“Yes,” said Stone, “I knew, but I wasn’t goin’ to spoil his bloomin’ yarn. I happened to see his enlistment card only this mornin’, and the only thing he was ever in before was the Twenty-third Infantry after they came back from the Islands. He’s never even been out of the States.”

“But where did he get it from?” asked Whitney. “His imagination is equal to most anything but gettin’ so many facts straight. Of co’se I noticed things yere an’ there but the most of it was O. K.”

“I tell you,” said Hansen, grinning, “he got it from an old Fourteenth man Dan Powerss at practice camp last Chuly. He an’ I wass often talking of China. He wuss in my old company an’ wass then telling me how he an’ the other fellerss all that extra chow got. I tank Bill he hass a goot memory.”

“But the nerve of him!” cried Whitehall, “tryin’ ter pass that off on us with Hansen sittin’ right there.”

“It iss one thing he may have forgot,” smiled Hansen.

“Well, who cares anyway?” said Stone. “It was a blame good story. An’ now clear out, all of you. I want to hit the bunk. Reveille does seem to come so early these cold mornin’s. Gee! I wish I knew of some kind of button that would keep me lyin’ down when Shorty wants me to get up an’ call the roll.”