On an Old Army Post
FOR some time I had not had a ‘striker’ who suited me. I am silent enough, and they had liked to talk, so that, in their anxiety for me to open a conversation, they seemed to make a little more noise while cleaning my quarters and setting out my simple meals — carried over from the company kitchen — than the business at all warranted.
When Dhoonif came to me in the Philippines I hired him with considerable satisfaction. In the company he had the name of a surly fellow, perhaps, but one who did his work. He was a Turk, new to the service, but had had a brother in the battalion, who became a devout, almost fanatical Christian. While we were in Mexico he turned melancholy, and, one night, shot himself in his bunk, after all the lights were out. Although he was little known, his mode of death was somehow a deep shock to every one in the command. Returning to this country, the regiment spent two years on the Border; years of such monotony that, as one became reminiscent, the time between the few events was blank, and they seemed to be crowded into one feverish month. Then my company was ordered to Fort Ledger, away from the Army, away from the world.
This fort had many odd legends. It was something very old in a very new country. In the days when one rode from Texas to Kansas without seeing another habitation, the trail led within a few miles of the Post, whose low, yellow-stone buildings, loopholed for musketry, stood on the bluffs of a creek, which wound across the bleak, rolling prairie. The thick, one-story quarters, built by Indian-fighting soldiers, are massive with vines and rank grasses; and, although for miles about there are only a few wind-worn trees along the bottoms, the officers’ line of the fort is a gloomy green with shade; for the creek is like some selfish spinster who has lavished her exuberance in but one spot; and, though the course of her life is changed thereby, proceeds again, as meagre as ever.
I have said that Dhoonif brought over my meals. There was no mess in the Post, for the two or three other officers lived at the opposite end of the line, and we took little interest in each other at best. The first sergeant of the company was an old soldier, so that my duties were few and my intercourse was small. Altogether I lived a life of such contented loneliness as only one other army post — and no other place— in this country would allow.
One very hot evening I was late to my supper. There had been a great deal of business to finish at the Post Exchange, of which I was detailed in charge — a sort of coöperative, general store for the soldiers, the profits of which go to augment their mess funds. I had begun eating, with the ledger propped up in front of my plate, when I was aware of Dhoonif behind me: he was so lightfooted that I seldom heard him. He usually went to the other end of the house and sat on the step during meals.
‘What is it, Dhoonif?’ I said.
‘Sir, who is the other captain who comes sometimes and sits at the captain’s desk while he is out?’
‘I have no idea. Probably some other officer of the garrison.’
I went on eating and conning my accounts, and presently became aware that Dhoonif had retired.
The next morning his remark occurred to me. It was the first time he had ever questioned me, I think. With some vague curiosity I asked one or two of the other officers, after drill next morning, if they had dropped in on me and found me away. We did not call much. They all denied it, and rather rallied me about missing some of my cigars, so I let the matter drop. As we were separating, the major, an elderly officer then commanding the Post, turned to me quietly.
‘By the way,’ he inquired, ‘you live in quarters number thirty-six, don’t you ? ’
‘ Yes, sir.’
‘At home much?’
‘Quite a bit, sir.’
‘Very trying weather we’ve been having lately.’
And he mounted his horse.
The weather was indeed oppressive. The sun shriveled the grass on the unkempt parade (we had not enough of a garrison to keep up the place), and the dimness of the houses was most grateful.
Coming in, I lay down and tried to get a nap. But it was too hot to sleep, so I got up and began to prowl about. As I have said, the houses were of only one story, but the stairs in the front hall led up to an attic, dimly lit by a vine-covered window in the dormer end. I had been up there only once before, when I first came into the quarters a week or more ago; and now, looking idly about, I noticed, under the eaves, the doors of what was evidently a low cupboard. The wood was warped and the doors stuck. I was almost balked of opening them until I got out my knife, when they gave outward with a great creaking. A quantity of rust flaked off the hinges and fell on the dusty floor.
The light of a match caused the scurrying of unseen rats, but discovered nothing save a big, calf-bound folio volume in the far right-hand corner. I remember noticing vaguely, as I crawled back with it, that my left hand, which had supported me on the floor of the cupboard, was black with dust, while my right, with which I had dragged out the book, was barely soiled. The doors closed with a further scaling of rust from the hinges, and I carried the book downstairs to my desk.
Curiously enough, it happened to contain the proceedings of a previous exchange on the Post. The minutes of meetings of the council, or board of officer-directors, had been kept by the exchange officer in a delicate, precise hand, with little weaknesses in the ending of words, which faded into the yellow page. The dates were of the year 1871.
As I intently turned over the leaves, Dhoonif startled me. He had come out of the bedroom with my revolver in one hand and an oil-flask in the other, and stood in front of the desk.
‘Your blue uniform — it fastens with hooks down the front of the blouse.’
It was the first time he had ever broken the military rule of addressing an officer in the third person.
‘Sir, do any officers wear a blue blouse that buttons with brass buttons instead, like the enlisted men?’
‘That was the uniform at one period, I believe,’ I answered, rather annoyed at the trivial interruption — his first. ‘You had better ask the sergeant; he has been in the service longer than I.’
When he went out, I noticed that he went straight to barracks. I continued reading.
It was a record of very much the usual sort of business, only that the merchandise was brought in quantity by wagon-train from the North, and there were consignments of rum and whiskey, which we no longer may keep.
Suddenly I came to the last entry in the book. It was in a different, more brutal hand. Here it is: — July 7, 1871.
‘The Council met at 8 A.M., this date, pursuant to the call of the president, Colonel Halcomb.
‘Present: All members.
‘It is voted that the affairs of this Exchange be wound up and settled, and that each company belonging to it shall equally bear the loss due to the shortage in the funds of the Exchange Officer, Captain Farloe, now deceased by his own hand.’
I carried the book back to its place in the attic. It was an uncanny thing to come upon after all these years.
I remember that the next week was a singularly busy one. A prisoner, whom I had had tried for a serious breach of morals, both military and social, and who had no cause to like me, had escaped from the guard-house. It was thought that he was still in hiding about the Post, for the trains were few enough, and the poor devil would have had to flag one at the station, which, of course, was closely watched.
Then, too, the accounts that month were especially intricate, and I encountered a lot of small, vexing troubles in getting them ready for the monthly meeting and audit.
The council met after we had all come in tired from a fruitless searching party. The little exchange office was very hot, and I stood over by the window, talking with the major, while the captain, who was the auditor for that month, counted the cash. Presently I heard him say something in a low tone to another officer, and they began to count together.
Then he turned his head toward us and said, —
‘Are you sure the figures in your cash-book are satisfactory to you?’
‘Why, yes,’ I answered. ‘ Why ? ’
‘And you should have five hundred in indorsed checks?’ ‘Yes. They were all ready to be mailed to the bank for deposit.’
There was a slight pause.
‘Well the indorsed checks are about three hundred dollars short.’
I started forward. The expressions on all their faces looked as set as if the scene were a photograph, and not of living persons.
Finally the major said quietly, —
‘Can you think of any one who might have taken the checks?’
‘No, sir, unless — unless it could have been the prisoner. But I don’t see — how he could have got at them.’
I could not have felt more dread if I had been guilty.
‘Yes; that would have been difficult,’ remarked the auditing officer coldly. After all, we were not friends.
They gave me until the next morning to ‘locate the mistake,’ and I carried the books to my quarters with a sick heart. I checked back every item, and added again and again. Really I only did it to keep my mind in a groove, for I remembered each one of the missing checks.
Dhoonif came over with my dinner, carried it back intact, and returned to do little odd jobs of his own making. Somehow he seemed more apprehensive than sympathetic.
The evening wore on. I tried to read. It must have been after eleven o’clock. Suddenly, close behind the house, a rifle cracked twice; the bullets spatted on something and whined off into the night. Then running feet and cries, —
‘Corp’ral of the Guard! Corp’ral of the Guard! There he goes! This way! Number two! This way!’
Three more shots.
I ran into the hall, revolver in hand, and met Dhoonif there.
Then, right above us, in the attic, came the smothered roar of a pistol, fired indoors.
I can hardly describe its effect. The sound of the shots from the rifles outside was natural, like the singing of the locusts in the grass; this, in the house, was as dreadful, as unearthly as the snapping chord of a great violin out of dead of night.
I turned toward the stairs, my revolver grasped limply. Dhoonif reached quickly and took it from me.
‘Not that: this!’ he said, and put into my hand a little, wooden crucifix.
I felt it press in as my fingers closed on it. I had dreaded some weak evil thing: suddenly that dread was gone, and instead a great, exorcising anger drove burning tears into my eyes, and I rushed up the thunderously creaking stairs in a crusading ecstasy, into the attic, expecting sights no man should see.
There was nothing.
Dhoonif holding a lighted match, we went over every board of the groaning floor. There was only dust on it. We pulled open the doors of the cupboard: still nothing, except the big, worn volume. Suddenly, as the match flared up, the book caught my eye again. Between the leaves protruded some crisp slips of paper. I jerked them out. They were the missing checks.
The major was standing under the hall light at the foot of the stairs.
‘Major,’ I cried, ‘I’ve found them! I have them!’
‘And we have the prisoner. My dear fellow,’ — He put his hand on my shoulder, for I must have been shaking, — ‘my dear fellow, your explanation was the logical one after all!’
Dhoonif slipped out of the door.
I tried to stop a horrible laugh.
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘there are three logical explanations.’
Some time afterwards I was ranked out of those quarters by a married captain. His three children career all over the house, and his wife has a notable recipe for fig-preserve.