A Red Indian Day
FOR hours I seemed to have been squatting coolie-fashion, folded up like a jack-knife in my observation tent. The last look I had taken through a slit in the green denim showed five waterbuffalos standing with outstretched muzzles. Their eyes told them nothing, for my tent was to them but a broken tree-stump; their nostrils assured them that a white man was close in front, and hence should be charged and gored. I am more afraid of waterbuffalos than of anything else in the world; and so, when I was compelled to ease my aching muscles, I turned as quietly as possible.
‘For the love of Mike, man, are you crazy in the head?’
A shake and a rough voice awoke me. I was curled up in a knot like a sleeping dog, in the centre of a peasant’s bed, with blankets heaped over me; and, judging by my cramped body, I had been in fear of these mental buffalos for a long time. A dinner of halfcooked brussels sprouts, a feverish cold, and a few hours of concentrated sulphurous shell-fumes the previous afternoon, had produced the first dream which had disturbed my sleep for many years. It was bitter cold, and my flickering candle showed the windows feathered with hoar-frost.
As I lay quietly for a few minutes and looked about, I wondered why my dream had not had to do with the lives and tragedies of past years and centuries which this old room had witnessed. For nearly three hundred years — more than twice as long as we had been a nation — the rafters had looked down on generation after generation. Now the great beams of this peasant’s home were dulled by age and smoke to rich mahogany, and from them, high overhead, hung rows upon rows of dried vegetables. In the place of honor in one corner was a cheap sewing-machine, and back of it, on the wall, a crucifix. One felt that this was a recent innovation, and all the crude things which made this room a home seemed to focus more or less in the direction of the glistening machine.
I climbed several rungs of a vertical ladder and peered into the open attic. It was filled with a mass of half-broken discarded articles. Among the rest I saw two beautiful spinning-wheels and a fine old clock; and I thought of the reversal of position of this humble hut and an opulent New York home: how there the spinning-wheel would achieve a place in the drawing-room, the clock be treasured in some chosen place, while the unlovely modern machine would be relegated to some far-away sewing-room.
I hesitated, then dared, then glowed with the reaction of a douse of two pails of water, and joined my French pilot, who had so rudely interrupted the charge of the buffalos. This old friend had the slang of the world on his tongue-tip, and was master of every feat of acrobatique aërienne, and his tact and sense of humor accomplished the impossible — made one forget in friendship all differences of Latin and Anglo-Saxon. I did not hesitate to narrate my dream to him, for he had seen service in Cochin China and had no false standards of bravery in relation to the terrible cattle of Malaysia.
In the kitchen, which was also the dining-room, I heard the peasant mo ther pottering about, and knew she was cooking more brussels sprouts. My pilot went behind the house and began to fuss with his tools, and I walked through the misty gloom to where I knew was the top of a little rise, backed by a grove and a brook. For a while the tinkle of water held my attention; then it sank into subconscious hearing. Everything was adrip with the squeezed-out mist, and though it was not yet dawn, the gray shroud seemed to possess a faint luminosity of its own.
I squatted on my heels, my boots sinking deep into the soggy moss, the trench-mud on my puttees liquefying and running slowly down, achieving its final destiny — mud to mud. Like a tiny jack-o’-lantern face, my watch glowed dully, and cheerfully marked two o’clock, having apparently stopped the last time I rolled over on it, while the buffalos were still undecided. It was nearer five, and a gentle breeze moved the streams of mist and sent a shower of drops down my neck from the beech-buds overhead. Some small creature scuttled past, sniffed in my direction, and tore off through the dead grass. A smell of wet wood-smoke came on the gentle breeze, and the odor of new-turned sod. The mist-light strengthened, and dawn came slowly, diluted, as it comes through the ricepaper of Japanese shoji.
For a long time the light held and did not increase. It seemed as if the palpable mist were absorbing the day as fast as it came; and one remembered yellow-ochre days in London, when at high noon one disappeared ten feet away. Here was absolute silence — the mist strained the air clear of vibrations. I could not move — I did not want to; I waited as if for something big, something tremendous, which was about to happen.
Then came to the senses an anticlimax, but to the imagination an awakening, staggering in its contrast and significance. Two sounds broke the stillness, penetrating the fog with difficulty, each subdued, mist-muffled. First a faint, low kr-krump. A month later, and it might have been a small frog in a distant pool. Then a soft, liquid gurgle, a virile contralto note — the first vocal call of life to the dawn; a contented hooded crow talking to himself from his roost among the maze of beech-twigs.
The setting seemed perfect: the dawn of a late winter day in France, the voice of the bird and the frog, and the mist-borne fragrance of the freshly turned mould. How happily Burroughs or Sharp could phrase it; how the great god Pan would enjoy it! At last I could keep up the deceit no longer. Let Pan keep his bird and the smell of the mould — that was his: but the low hollow note, the faint kr-krump, so brief that it seemed almost a trick of the ear, this was a velvet glove of sound made by no batrachian, and Mars in his most hideous accoutrements strode forth in my imagination and claimed it. At times I have been in a perfect hell of artillery fire, but I know of no instance where the sound of a gun affected me as did this single distant krkrump, miles and miles to the north. Here it came gently, a soft antiphony to the content note of the crow; there it was a volcano of flying steel splinters and hideous fumes, tearing through flesh and wood and mud, destroying all life, human, animal and plant, demolishing even the inorganic face of nature, the dissipating smoke revealing a landscape comparable only to that on the surface of a dead moon.
The crow called again, clearer this time, less liquid, as if the thinning mist had dried from his throat; and quickly the fog drifted off toward the valley, and now the tinkle of the brook became audible again, and I walked rapidly down to the thatched farm-house.
The wind from the thrilling roar of propeller-blades shook the line of drying clothes, and soon after breakfast we were off. Of that day’s work and sights I may not write, though Verne himself never dared to image the strangeness of some of them. But in a new plane we set out from a small aerodrome late the same afternoon, headed due northeast.
Few pilots or observers recall memories of engine-trouble with aught but a shudder; but twice I have owed most unusual experiences to poor connections and foul plugs. We had done some sixty miles of straight traveling when the engine began missing in villainous fashion, and we had to descend, picking a grassy meadow, a trifle too rolling, but infinitely better than any of the surrounding ploughed lands. The trouble was more serious than we expected, and I set out to look for a place to spend the night. A second night in a peasant’s bed did not appeal to me; but the nearest town was miles away.
A member of the invariable audience, which quickly gathered, offered me the use of his home, and we walked toward the picturesque, age-weathered building, a counterpart of the one in which, on the previous night, I had dreamed of my buffalos. Coming out was an officer,— who the peasant told me was billeted on him — preparing to step into a waiting automobile. I was about to pass with a perfunctory salute, when I realized that the little god of chance meetings had been at work and had drawn us together, — the officer and me, — who last had met among savage men in a far-distant land. Some red tape was speedily unknotted, an order was interpreted according to the the spirit instead of the letter, and I took the place of a second officer in the car.
For a few miles we exchanged histories and had almost reached present chronology, when he signaled to the chauffeur to stop. We drew up just beyond a rustic bridge over a small, slow-flowing brook. He looked at his watch and suggested a ten-minute walk. He was ahead of schedule, and wanted me to enjoy something with him — one of two surprises as he put it. Now and then, as we walked down the slope among the scattered trees, we heard the low kr-krump which had come to my ears before dawn. It was a little more distinct and sometimes double, krum-kr-krump; but even now, a big frog at the bottom of the hill would have been more effective.
But all other thoughts slipped away as a new sound arose in the darkness, a sound which held for me a thrill as vital as the hint of distant battle, and incomparably more alluring. It rose slowly, a rich mellow ululation which stirred every fibre, and then quavered, descended, and broke off. We stood motionless, listening with all our ears, and again it came, unmistakably, from the depths of the misty woods. My companion smiled at me in triumph. His first surprise had come off promptly, even ahead of time, for it was only now growing dusk. We could see in imagination the drooped tail, the hollow-cheeked muzzle raised skywards — a wolf uttering that cry which of all sounds is most symbolic of the northern wilderness— unhurlement plaintif et lugubre. I could not believe my ears, that here in the heart of France, within sound of the guns at the front, I had heard the voice of a wild wolf. The peasants had reported wolves at several places, the cold and pinch of hunger driving them from distant fastnesses where their race was making its last stand. And now they had become bolder, finding little to oppose them in this depleted country. Lacking accurate knowledge, I had always assumed that in Europe, in these modern times, wolves were restricted to the farthest wilds of Russia and Siberia. To think of them in France was in imagination to repicture mediaeval times again.
We walked for a while in the patch of dense woods beyond the valley, but heard no sound of life except the rustle of mice or some small creatures.
As we hummed swiftly northward, toward the distant booming, we discussed the strangeness of this war, the great game of the senses along the front: warfare which varied from the plane-directed shell, whining its way for three score and ten miles through the air, to the direct smash of brass knuckles. There came to mind the calmness of early dawn, and then of the seeming reverse of earthly activity, blocked dug-outs bombed with phosphorus, and terrible slow deaths, which sickened me until I remembered the cause — the untellable Boche tortures which made retaliation the only method of teaching the fallacy of the doctrine of force.
But in all our memories, in all the ghastly experiences which come to one at the front, there is always the leavening high light of comedy. Tragedy and comedy are not two masks: they are more often different points of view, or a slight shifting of values of the same. And usually the possibility of comedy, the ever-ready butt, lay in the slowness of thought, the lack of humor, of the Boche.
Not far from where we were headed, a raid had been planned some time ago — a local raid, especially for information, so that prisoners were necessary. It was widely known that the Boche had well-equipped listeningposts, which were able to listen in on our own outposts. Hence obvious messages were sent along the lines, to the effect that all activity was at an end for a month or two. One night, about a week before the raid, several score of stink-bombs, mixed with a goodly proportion of poison gas, were shot over by our men. Three days later a similar barrage took place. At the moment of the raid, with every man ready for the jump, a good quantity of stink-bombs, but no poison gas, was launched, and when our men reached the Boche trenches, the poor logical inmates were all found firmly incased in their masks, and needed but gathering in. Seldom have I seen a more beautiful instance of the instinctive association of ideas due to precedent! The Boche formula had all logic behind it; all it lacked was appreciation of human nature unlike their own. They argued, —
Stink + gas bombs twice,
Stink + gas bombs thrice!
Unfortunately for them the correct formula was, —
As we went on, the roads became more muddy and more congested, and we frequently had to crawl along the steep slope far out on one side, clinging with the inner tires to the deep rut which alone kept us from sliding down into the ditch. Batteries of soixantequinze, lorries of food and ammunition, and indeed of everything, from camouflaged tree-trunks to rat-traps, passed us, a shaded lantern here and there giving the only light. It was for all the world like a vast ant-hill, the paths of which become crowded as soon as dusk shuts down. Panting horses and steaming motors alternated as motivepower; and while on the surface all seemed confusion, yet one realized that each team, each char-à-banc, each man, had an appointed place and duty. It was the nearest approach to the order existing in Nature with which any of man’s efforts has ever impressed me.
We went as near the front as it was safe to take the car, then left it and stumbled on in the darkness, squatting behind broken caissons when star-shells made us feel too conspicuous. Then we passed down a gentle incline, dug in the centre of a field, and walked through what seemed miles of zigzaging communication trenches. A cold drizzle had begun and the walls of the trench became smooth and dripping. Now and then we flattened ourselves against this plastic mud, when ammunition-carriers passed in one direction, or stretcher-bearers swung by in the other, the burdens of the latter lying with clenched teeth, hands fast gripped over those of the bearers — the only human link which bridged this awful gulf between bursting shell and surgeon’s ether.
There was something fearfully grotesque in this intimate passing of cases of bullets in one direction and victims in the other. It brought cause and effect more horribly together than is ordinarily the case. Only once do I remember seeing anything more acutely vivid: and that was when, in anticipation of a coming raid, two platoons of poilus were told off to dig a hundred graves in the cemetery of a front-line hospital. Even here the all-saving, unteutonic gift of humor dominated all other moods, and one saw a soldier now and then lie down laughingly in an unfinished grave, ‘pour voir,’ as he said, ‘si le tombeau me va!’
At last, plastered with the creamy lime, I was guided to a little dug-out, where by the light of a bottle-held, oxygen-starved candle, I felt my way to a wooden bunk, and lifted my shoes out of the two inches of water on the floor.
Left alone for a while, my mind reverted to the hectic variety of experiences through which I had passed in the last few hours: hurtling through the heavens in the undiluted glare of the winter’s sun; listening to the howl of a wolf in a dim, century-haunted forest; now, deep underground, with yards of wooden beams and concrete between me and the volcanic outpouring of tons of steel, which had been falling more or less intermittently — for four years! Surely the space of three hours brought variety enough in the forefront of this misunderstanding of Kultur and humanity. It seemed as if I was to run the gamut of strange mythologies: St. Josephine, the patron saint of aviators had let me down gently and turned me over to Assar, the friendly god of unexpected meetings, whence Pan had escorted me further; and now the grim god of war was to keep me company for a while.
Looking about the misshapen dugout, my thoughts soon reverted to more materialistic things. The most noticeable feature was the atmosphere, which so grudgingly gave its adulterated oxygen to the small flame. I recognized most of the ingredients which reached my nostrils as common to similar human burrows which I had already inhabited. There was old perspiration, and oil, and soiled clothes, stale wine and tobacco, and burned powder, with a hint of boiled cabbage and brussels sprouts, and the taint of carbon dioxide.
But there was something else, which confused me. It was neither white, Negro, nor Mongolian smell, nor the old familiar odor of crowded Calcutta bazaars which I had recently sniffed in an East Indian café in Paris.
As I sat and wondered, eight men crowded in, and the first glance at their features gave me my answer. They were full-blooded American Indians — Algonkins and Iroquois from Eastern Canada. If I had come upon a squad of Bornean sea-dyaks in the trenches, I could not have been more surprised. One thought of most modern Indians somehow as being bowlegged, pot-bellied fellows, ne’er-do-wells, who at best sold blankets and cheap beadwork. Yet here were eight fine-looking men, rangy, tall, swift of motion, and graceful in their mud-matted khaki. It was astounding beyond words. One of them — a university graduate, as I was told later — observed my ill-concealed surprise, and instantly interpreted it. ‘Looks as if we’d climbed out of Cooper, does n’t it?’ he asked smilingly.
Then my mind went back to surprise number one, — the wolf, — and my mind associated the two, and my reason told me that it was the year 1918, and the dull boom of guns reminded me that I was in the land of France; and then I gave it up as part of the most astounding war of divers weapons, men, and causes which the earth had ever known.
I found that there was a whole platoon of these Indians, officers and men, doing scout-duty at various points, trained to this modern raiding, the selfsame manoeuvring which their greatgrandfathers had practised against mine.
They were exceedingly quiet fellows, and the officer and I furnished most of the conversation. I learned, however, that a raid for information was planned and these men were to undertake it. We were packed in rather closely, with our feet on tilted boards and empty boxes, to keep them out of the water. By a misunderstanding they thought that I had eaten dinner on my way to the front; and when they learned that this was not so, I had trouble to prevent their sending over to the mess through an ugly shell-shower which had begun for no reason at all. The larder of the dug-out yielded a weird variety of edible substances, the eating of which did not distract my attention for a moment from my interesting hosts. My only memory of the meal is that there were no brussels sprouts, and that the last course was cold sliced sausage and musty spice-cake, the latter literally unearthed from an ancient Christmas box.
The air got thick with smoke and heavy with Indian smell, and I looked around to fix the scene forever in my mind, and was as happy as Kim wriggling his toes in the mud of the Great Road. The officer produced a bottle of wine from below the water-level in a corner, and now and then the surface of the red liquid in the cups would be troubled. Then the distant roar would come and silence settle down again.
We sat and smoked for a long time, the smoke after a while settling in layers, like cirro-cumulus clouds at sunset. I watched the dark faces, the occasional glint of an eye from half-closed lids, and had relaxed into a half-dream of old Redskin history, when one young chap named Gettus collapsed with his broken chair into the water, and everyone laughed.
By this time I had persuaded the officer to let me play at least a small part in the coming raid. From time to time one of the Indians went outside, and on his last return reported that all was quiet, with the exception of an occasional big shell, regular arrivés which came over singly day and night, falling far to the rear. After another hour we all crept outside and found that a few minutes’ snow had turned to a misty drizzle, and, joined by a few more men, — all Indians, — we made our way carefully along a narrow communication trench, each man touching the one in front, and our shoulders rubbing off smears of the clinging mud. We shuffled as usual through the muddy water, not lifting our feet; and we walked very slowly, for all the world like a ball-andchain gang — single file. Once I saw a face dimly outlined, staring at us from a lanterned niche in the trench; otherwise I could see no one besides our own party.
As we passed another lantern, and what looked like a hole in the ground but was really the entrance of a second dug-out, word was whispered to chuck coats and everything except trenchknives and grenades into it. I was ordered to keep my coat on, and, possessing no knife, did nothing. Presently the men crept past, going partly under our legs and squeezing by us. I noticed that four had no hats, their black hair glistening in the misty rain, and two had soggy, beaded moccasins on their feet — the single touch that was needed.
I turned at last and followed the man ahead. Several sand-bags had been twisted aside, and all had wriggled out into the gray vacuum of mist beyond. Suddenly the trench looked mighty good to me. One had the same feeling of opening the door of a warm lighted cabin and looking out at an icy, tempestuous sea; only in this instance the ice and tempestuousness were respectively in my feet and heart. My willingness to lag was disregarded by the man who followed me, and who occasionally poked the part of me which happened to be nearest. I had been carefully coached, and I kept close to the man ahead, who had been detailed to look after me. The officer had vanished in the mist. I went down on all fours and then still flatter, and hunched along sideways like a crab in the shallows, until I felt my cap lifted from my head. The sudden impact of cold air did not tend to compose my feelings, but by reaching out I scratched my finger and found that I was beneath a maze of barbed wire. The realization that it was not the hand of a Boche which had abstracted my cap relieved me, and I caterpillared steadily on through mud and water. I think that my speed and silence impressed my leader, for he increased his undulations. This was no new method of progression for me, for in times past I had crawled many hours through various jungles, like the serpent of Scripture.
At last we came to a depression, and slipped down until our chins rested on the edge, — a shell-crater I suppose, — and here we remained with feet again in water. My man looked asleep, instead of which he was concentrating every sense in front of him. Now and then his head turned very slightly, as a dim fluorescence seemed to fill the air, sufficient to show more plainly his fierce, intent profile. At each starshell, dim though it was, he pulled me down for an instant deeper into the mud and water, and then, like a couple of tadpoles, we wriggled up to our former position, and resumed our wait.
It seemed as if hours passed; I forgot to look at my watch later, and I shall never know. I determined that if we stayed here for the duration of the war, no movement of mine should distract my companion. The occasional drip of water near me was the only sound. I froze and thawed several times, my feet went to sleep and woke up, and my creases and buttons all wore depressions in me; yet still we remained. Finally, he grasped my arm and gripped it hard, pointing straight out in front. Not a sound came to my ears except my own blood pounding away, and thereupon we did another batch of waiting.
At last a scrape, a distinct crunch, reached me, and an Indian came, very slowly, trailing low, so that I could just make him out; then a man I had not seen before, crawling on all fours. Close to him were three more Indians, and after them I went, urged enthusiastically from behind by my guide. We crept beneath the barbed wire again, and on into the trench without further incident. Then I realized for the first time that the new man was a German — not the heavy, fat, comic-paper Boche, but a thin-templed, asceticlooking young man, with deep imprint of spectacles and a near-sighted intensity of glance. He stumbled along the communication trench, and when we stopped and clustered in a lanternlighted embrasure, one of the Indians drew a pair of spectacles from his pocket and gave them to the prisoner. They went on with a snap, and he stared keenly at us, and the puzzled look came to him, as it had at the smell of these men to me.
The officer appeared and, still in unbroken silence, we went on and on far to the rear. Then I was led to a damp musty bunk and wrapped up in all the blankets I could find. My guide whispered good-night and rolled into another coffin-appearing affair.
I was sound asleep when a most infernal racket began, and, sitting up, I suddenly banged my head against the rough wooden beams overhead. After a minute or two the bombardment redoubled in another direction, and for fifteen minutes plates jingled, the floorwater quivered, and our bunks trembled and shook. Then it died out in a Fourth-of-July crackling.
Early next morning, waiting for my friend the officer, I loafed in the trench, leaning back and looking at the strange sight of blue sky overhead, with a halfdozen Nieuports and Spads swooping and rolling as if they felt the exhilaration of the crisp air in their very canvas skin and spruce bones. Three soldiers — not Indians — were near me, idly looking upward, when suddenly all ducked and doubled over, then looked sheepishly at me and laughed. I saw the cause but did not know enough, or, rather stupidly, knew too much, to follow suit. A house sparrow had flown up and over the parapet and alighted on the heaped sand-bags piled at the back, and its sudden appearance was a close imitation of a hand-thrown grenade. I had had little experience with such missiles, but, from my life-work, I reacted instantly to the sight of the bird and did not give it a second glance. So there was no incentive to flinch, as I certainly should have done had I known what it might have been. To the soldiers experienced in this sunken warfare, the appearance of any object from that direction meant death; to me it was only a male house sparrow still in the veiled winter plumage.
No less instantaneous is the reaction to sound. At one spot the Boches were accustomed to rain shells which came with a peculiar grinding rush. The only safe defense was to drop whatever you had and plump flat down in the deep mud. A friend of mine discovered that his coffee-grinder gave forth an exact imitation of one of these arrivés, and thereafter, whenever he felt the need of relaxation, he concealed himself near an opening of his dug-out and at a particularly propitious moment gave his coffee-mill a turn. The effect invariably banished all gloom.
On my way back to the car, my officer told me that three Germans had been killed and the one brought in. I wondered how it had been done; I wondered whether and how they ultimately got the ascetic-looking prisoner to give the information desired. But a wind-fallen American cannot expect to have all his wonderments satisfied. I may not tell the division and place, or the wonderful cheats of appearance which these camouflaged Redskins used, but I can safely infer that the delayed bombardment indicated a distinct loss of temper on the part of the Boches, on the discovery of their exterminated outpost.
I had taken a tiny part in what was to me a new phase of the great war, with real Indians of my own continent; and my future thoughts of this race will be of these splendid Iroquois — athletic, wiry, virile, the menace of the German line throughout this whole sector.
But for bodily comfort, and general hygiene and ability to see what is going on in one’s environment, commend me to aeroplanes, rather than night-raids in No Man’s Land.