Read CHAPTER XVI - DELLARME’S MEN GET A MASCOT of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

And have you forgotten gigantic Private Stransky, born to the red, with the hedgerows of the world his home? Have you forgotten Tom Fragini and the sergeant and the others of Captain Dellarme’s men of the 53d of the Browns, whom we left marching along the road to La Tir, with old Grandfather Fragini, veteran of the Hussars, in his faded uniform coat with his medal on his breast, keeping step, hep-hep-hep?

Grandfather Fragini has attached himself to the regiment while it rests in barracks a few hours’ march from the frontier. He is accepted as the mascot of the company in which both his grandson and Stransky are serving. But he never speaks to Stransky and refers to him in the third person as “that traitor,” which makes Stransky grin sardonically. Each day’s developments bring more color to his cheeks; his rheumatic old legs are limbering with the elixir of rising patriotism, though Tom and his comrades are singularly without enthusiasm, according to grandfather’s idea. They lead the newspapers gluttonously and they welcome each item that promises a peaceful solution of the crisis.

Inwardly, Grandfather Fragini is worried about the state of the army. Is his race becoming decadent? Or, as he puts it, are the younger generation without sand in their craws? When he came into the barracks yard swinging his cap aloft and shouting the news that mobilization had begun there was not even a cheer.

“I suppose it means war,” said Tom Fragini with a soberness that was in keeping with the grave faces of his fellows. Stransky sitting at one side by himself smiled.

“Well, you’d think it was a funeral!” grandfather exclaimed in disgust.

“There will be lots of funerals!” said Tom.

“I s’pose there will be; but if you get that in your mind how can you fight?” grandfather demanded. “Why, if any Hussar had spoken of funerals we’d called him white-livered, that’s what we would! We cheered till we was hoarse; we danced and hugged one another; we rattled our sabres in our scabbards; we sang rip-roaring death-or-glory songs. When you’re going to war you want to sing and shout. That’s the way to keep your spirits up.”

“Let’s sing ‘Ring-around-the-rosy’ to please the old gentleman. Come on!” suggested Stransky.

“I don’t see that we are after either death or glory,” said Tom. “We are going to do our duty.”

The impulse of enthusiasm seemed equally lacking in the others. Stransky grinned and his deep-set eyes turned inward with a squint of knowing satisfaction at the bony bridge of his nose.

“I’m not wanting any traitor to start any songs for me!” declared grandfather.

“Never mind. The fellows on the other side aren’t any more enthusiastic than we are, grandfather,” Stransky said soothingly, in his mocking way. “The fact is, we don’t want to kill our brothers across the frontier and they don’t want to kill us or be killed. It’s only the ruling classes that want the proletariat to-”

“Fire away, Stransky! It’s hours since you made a speech!” chirruped a voice.

“Look out, Bert, the sergeant’s coming!” another voice warned the orator.

The state of mind of the 53d was that of all the regiments of the Browns with their faces toward the white posts, quiet, thoughtful, and grave; for they had not to arouse ardor for the aggressive. As they were to receive rather than give blows they might be more honest with themselves than the men of the Grays.

In marching order, with cartridge-boxes full, on Saturday night the 53d marched out to the main pass road. When Grandfather Fragini found that he had been ordered to remain behind he sought the colonel.

“I’ve got reasons! Let me come!” he pleaded.

“No. It is no place for you.”

“I can keep up! I can keep up! I feel like a boy!”

“But it is different these days, and this is the infantry. The bullets carry far. You will not know how to take cover,” the colonel explained.

“Well, if I am killed I won’t be losing much time on this earth,” grandfather observed with cool logic. “But that ain’t it. I’m worried about Tom. I’m afraid he ain’t going to fight! I-I want to stiffen him up!”

“He will fight, all right. Sorry, but it is out of the question,” said the colonel, turning away.

Grandfather buried his face in his hands and shook with the sobs of second childhood until an idea occurred to him. Wasn’t he a free man? Hadn’t he as much right as anybody to use the public highway? Drying his eyes, he set out along the road in the wake of the regiment.

One company after another left the road at a given point, bound for the position mapped in its instructions Dellarme’s, however, went on until it was opposite the Galland house.

“We are depending on you,” the colonel said to Dellarme, giving his hand a grip. “You are not to draw off till you get the flag.”

“No, sir,” Dellarme replied.

“Mind the signal to the batteries-keep the men screened-warn them not to let their first baptism of shell fire shake their nerves!” the colonel added in a final repetition of instructions already indelibly impressed on the captain’s mind.

Moving cautiously through a cut, Dellarme’s company came, about midnight, to a halt among the stubble of a wheat-field behind a knoll. After he had bidden the men to break ranks, he crept up the incline.

“Yes, it’s there!” he whispered when he returned. “On the crest of the knoll a cord is stretched from stake to stake,” he said, explaining the reason for what was to be done, as was his custom. “The engineers placed it there after dusk and the frontier was closed, so that you would know just where to use your spades in the dark. Quietly as possible! No talking!” he kept cautioning as the men turned the soft earth, “and not higher than the cord, and lay the stubble side of the sods on the reverse so as to cover the fresh earth on the sky-line.”

When the work was done all returned behind the knoll except the sentries posted at intervals on the crest to watch. With the aid of a small electric flash, screened by his hands, Dellarme again examined a section of the staff map that outlined the contour of the knoll in relation to the other positions. After this he wrote in his diary the simple facts of the day’s events, concluding with a sentiment of gratitude for the honor shown to his company and a prayer that he might keep a clear head and do his duty if war came on the morrow.

“Now, every one get all the sleep he can!” he advised the men.

Stransky slept, with his head on his arm, as soundly as Eugene Aronson, his antithesis in character; the others slept no better than the men of the 128th. The night passed without any alarm except that of their own thoughts, and they welcomed dawn as a relief from suspense. There was no hot coffee this morning, and they washed down their rations with water from their canteens. The old sergeant was lying beside Captain Dellarme on the crest, the sunrise in their faces. As the mist cleared from the plain it revealed the white dots of the frontier posts in the meadow and behind them many gray figures in skirmish order, scarcely visible except through the glasses.

“It looks like business!” declared the old sergeant.

“Yes, it begins the minute they cross the line!” said Dellarme.

His glance sweeping to the rear to scan the landscape under the light of day, he recognized, with a sense of pride and awe, the tactical importance of his company’s position in relation to that of the other companies. Easily he made out the regimental line by streaks of concealed trenches and groups of brown uniforms; and here and there were the oblong, cloth stretches of waiting hospital litters. On the reverse slope of another knoll was the farmhouse, marked X on his map as the regimental headquarters, where he was to watch for the signal to fall back from his first stand in delaying the enemy’s advance. Directly to the rear was the cut through which the company had come from the main pass road, and beyond that the Galland house, which was to be the second stand.

“Can you see them from up here?” chirped a voice in a jubilant, cackling laugh that drew Dellarme’s attention to his immediate surroundings, and he saw Grandfather Fragini coming up to join him on the crest. He slid back on his stomach below the sky-line and held up an arresting hand.

“Kept along after you,” piped the old man; “and it’s just as I thought-the glummest lot of funeral faces I ever seen!”

“You must not remain! Follow that cut there and it will take you out to the road!” Dellarme told grandfather sharply.

“Just got to stay. Too tired to take another step,” and grandfather dropped in utter exhaustion. “Have to carry me if you want me to go.”

“That means two men out of the line,” thought Dellarme.

“You’re an archaic old fire-eater!” Stransky remarked in cynical amusement to grandfather Fragini.

“And you’re a traitor!” answered grandfather with all the energy he could command.

Now Dellarme disposed his men in line back of the ridge of fresh earth that they had dug in the night, ready to rush to their places when he blew the whistle that hung from his neck, but he did not allow them a glimpse over the crest.

“I know you are curious, but powerful glasses are watching for you to show yourselves; and if a battery turned loose on us you’d understand,” he explained.

The men wanted to talk but did not know what to talk about, so they examined their rifles critically as if they were unfamiliar gifts which they had found in their stockings on Christmas morning. Some began to empty their magazines of cartridges for the pleasure or occupation of refilling them; but one of the lieutenants stopped this. It might mean delay when the whistle blew. Thus the hours wore on, and the church clock struck nine and ten.

“Never a movement down there!” called the sergeant from the crest to Dellarme. “Maybe this is just their final bluff before they come to terms about Bodlapoo”-that stretch of African jungle that seemed very far away to them all.

“Let us hope so!” said Dellarme seriously.

“Hope there won’t be any war! Just listen to that from an army officer, with the enemy right in front of him!” gasped grandfather.