Home  »  One of Ours  »  XVI

Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Five: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On”


THE BATTALION had twenty-four hours’ rest at Rupprecht trench, and then pushed on for four days and nights, stealing trenches, capturing patrols, with only a few hours’ sleep,—snatched by the roadside while their food was being prepared. They pushed hard after a retiring foe, and almost outran themselves. They did outrun their provisions; on the fourth night, when they fell upon a farm that had been a German Headquarters, the supplies that were to meet them there had not come up, and they went to bed supperless.

This farmhouse, for some reason called by the prisoners Frau Hulda farm, was a nest of telephone wires; hundreds of them ran out through the walls, in all directions. The Colonel cut those he could find, and then put a guard over the old peasant who had been left in charge of the house, suspecting that he was in the pay of the enemy.

At last Colonel Scott got into the Headquarters bed, large and lumpy,—the first one he had seen since he left Arras. He had not been asleep more than two hours, when a runner arrived with orders from the Regimental Colonel. Claude was in a bed in the loft, between Gerhardt and Bruger. He felt somebody shaking him, but resolved that he wouldn’t be disturbed and went on placidly sleeping. Then somebody pulled his hair,—so hard that he sat up. Captain Maxey was standing over the bed.

“Come along, boys. Orders from Regimental Headquarters. The Battalion is to split here. Our Company is to go on four kilometers tonight, and take the town of Beaufort.”

Claude rose. “The men are pretty well beat out, Captain Maxey, and they had no supper.”

“That can’t be helped. Tell them we are to be in Beaufort for breakfast.”

Claude and Gerhardt went out to the barn and roused Hicks and his pal, Dell Able. The men were asleep in dry straw, for the first time in ten days. They were completely worn out, lost to time and place. Many of them were already four thousand miles away, scattered among little towns and farms on the prairie. They were a miserable looking lot as they got together, stumbling about in the dark.

After the Colonel had gone over the map with Captain Maxey, he came out and saw the Company assembled. He wasn’t going with them, he told them, but he expected them to give a good account of themselves. Once in Beaufort, they would have a week’s rest; sleep under cover, and live among people for awhile.

The men took the road, some with their eyes shut, trying to make believe they were still asleep, trying to have their agreeable dreams over again, as they marched. They did not really waken up until the advance challenged a Hun patrol, and sent it back to the Colonel under a one-man guard. When they had advanced two kilometers, they found the bridge blown up. Claude and Hicks went in one direction to look for a ford, Bruger and Dell Able in the other, and the men lay down by the roadside and slept heavily. Just at dawn they reached the outskirts of the village, silent and still.

Captain Maxey had no information as to how many Germans might be left in the town. They had occupied it ever since the beginning of the war, and had used it as a rest camp. There had never been any fighting there.

At the first house on the road, the Captain stopped and pounded. No answer.

“We are Americans, and must see the people of the house. If you don’t open, we must break the door.”

A woman’s voice called; “There is nobody here. Go away, please, and take your men away. I am sick.”

The Captain called Gerhardt, who began to explain and reassure through the door. It opened a little way, and an old woman in a nightcap peeped out. An old man hovered behind her. She gazed in astonishment at the officers, not understanding. These were the first soldiers of the Allies she had ever seen. She had heard the Germans talk about Americans, but thought it was one of their lies, she said. Once convinced, she let the officers come in and replied to their questions.

No, there were no Boches left in her house. They had got orders to leave day before yesterday, and had blown up the bridge. They were concentrating somewhere to the east. She didn’t know how many were still in the village, nor where they were, but she could tell the Captain where they had been. Triumphantly she brought out a map of the town—lost, she said with a meaning smile, by a German officer—on which the billets were marked.

With this to guide them, Captain Maxey and his men went on up the street. They took eight prisoners in one cellar, seventeen in another. When the villagers saw the prisoners bunched together in the square, they came out of their houses and gave information. This cleaning up, Bert Fuller remarked, was like taking fish from the Platte River when the water was low,—simply pailing them out! There was no sport in it.

At nine o’clock the officers were standing together in the square before the church, checking off on the map the houses that had been searched. The men were drinking coffee, and eating fresh bread from a baker’s shop. The square was full of people who had come out to see for themselves. Some believed that deliverance had come, and others shook their heads and held back, suspecting another trick. A crowd of children were running about, making friends with the soldiers. One little girl with yellow curls and a clean white dress had attached herself to Hicks, and was eating chocolate out of his pocket. Gerhardt was bargaining with the baker for another baking of bread. The sun was shining, for a change,—everything was looking cheerful. This village seemed to be swarming with girls; some of them were pretty, and all were friendly. The men who had looked so haggard and forlorn when dawn overtook them at the edge of the town, began squaring their shoulders and throwing out their chests. They were dirty and mud-plastered, but as Claude remarked to the Captain, they actually looked like fresh men.

Suddenly a shot rang out above the chatter, and an old woman in a white cap screamed and tumbled over on the pavement,—rolled about, kicking indecorously with both hands and feet. A second crack,—the little girl who stood beside Hicks, eating chocolate, threw out her hands, ran a few steps, and fell, blood and brains oozing out in her yellow hair. The people began screaming and running. The Americans looked this way and that; ready to dash, but not knowing where to go. Another shot, and Captain Maxey fell on one knee, blushed furiously and sprang up, only to fall again,—ashy white, with the leg of his trousers going red.

“There it is, to the left!” Hicks shouted, pointing. They saw now. From a closed house, some distance down a street off the square, smoke was coming. It hung before one of the upstairs windows. The Captain’s orderly dragged him into a wineshop. Claude and David, followed by the men, ran down the street and broke in the door. The two officers went through the rooms on the first floor, while Hicks and his lot made straight for an enclosed stairway at the back of the house. As they reached the foot of the stairs, they were met by a volley of rifle shots, and two of the men tumbled over. Four Germans were stationed at the head of the steps.

The Americans scarcely knew whether their bullets or their bayonets got to the Huns first; they were not conscious of going up, till they were there. When Claude and David reached the landing, the squad were wiping their bayonets, and four grey bodies were piled in the corner.

Bert Fuller and Dell Able ran down the narrow hallway and threw open the door into the room on the street. Two shots, and Dell came back with his jaw shattered and the blood spouting from the left side of his neck. Gerhardt caught him, and tried to close the artery with his fingers.

“How many are in there, Bert?” Claude called.

“I couldn’t see. Look out, sir! You can’t get through that door more than two at a time!”

The door still stood open, at the end of the corridor. Claude went down the steps until he could sight along the floor of the passage, into the front room. The shutters were closed in there, and the sunlight came through the slats. In the middle of the floor, between the door and the windows, stood a tall chest of drawers, with a mirror attached to the top. In the narrow space between the bottom of this piece of furniture and the floor, he could see a pair of boots. It was possible there was but one man in the room, shooting from behind his movable fort,—though there might be others hidden in the corners.

“There’s only one fellow in there, I guess. He’s shooting from behind a big dresser in the middle of the room. Come on, one of you, we’ll have to go in and get him.”

Willy Katz, the Austrian boy from the Omaha packing house, stepped up and stood beside him.

“Now, Willy, we’ll both go in at once; you jump to the right, and I to the left,—and one of us will jab him. He can’t shoot both ways at once. Are you ready? All right— Now!”

Claude thought he was taking the more dangerous position himself, but the German probably reasoned that the important man would be on the right. As the two Americans dashed through the door, he fired. Claude caught him in the back with his bayonet, under the shoulder blade, but Willy Katz had got the bullet in his brain, through one of his blue eyes. He fell, and never stirred. The German officer fired his revolver again as he went down, shouting in English, English with no foreign accent,

“You swine, go back to Chicago!” Then he began choking with blood.

Sergeant Hicks ran in and shot the dying man through the temples. Nobody stopped him.

The officer was a tall man, covered with medals and orders; must have been very handsome. His linen and his hands were as white as if he were going to a ball. On the dresser were the files and paste and buffers with which he had kept his nails so pink and smooth. A ring with a ruby, beautifully cut, was on his little finger. Bert Fuller screwed it off and offered it to Claude. He shook his head. That English sentence had unnerved him. Bert held the ring out to Hicks, but the Sergeant threw down his revolver and broke out:

“Think I’d touch anything of his? That beautiful little girl, and my buddy— He’s worse than dead, Dell is, worse!” He turned his back on his comrades so that they wouldn’t see him cry.

“Can I keep it myself, sir?” Bert asked.

Claude nodded. David had come in, and was opening the shutters. This officer, Claude was thinking, was a very different sort of being from the poor prisoners they had been scooping up like tadpoles from the cellars. One of the men picked up a gorgeous silk dressing gown from the bed, another pointed to a dressing-case full of hammered silver. Gerhardt said it was Russian silver; this man must have come from the Eastern front. Bert Fuller and Nifty Jones were going through the officer’s pockets. Claude watched them, and thought they did about right. They didn’t touch his medals; but his gold cigarette case, and the platinum watch still ticking on his wrist,—he wouldn’t have further need for them. Around his neck, hung by a delicate chain, was a miniature case, and in it was a painting,—not, as Bert romantically hoped when he opened it, of a beautiful woman, but of a young man, pale as snow, with blurred forget-me-not eyes.

Claude studied it, wondering. “It looks like a poet, or something. Probably a kid brother, killed at the beginning of the war.”

Gerhardt took it and glanced at it with a disdainful expression. “Probably. There, let him keep it, Bert.” He touched Claude on the shoulder to call his attention to the inlay work on the handle of the officer’s revolver.

Claude noticed that David looked at him as if he were very much pleased with him,—looked, indeed, as if something pleasant had happened in this room; where, God knew, nothing had; where, when they turned round, a swarm of black flies was quivering with greed and delight over the smears Willy Katz’ body had left on the floor. Claude had often observed that when David had an interesting idea, or a strong twinge of recollection, it made him, for the moment, rather heartless. Just now he felt that Gerhardt’s flash of high spirits was in some way connected with him. Was it because he had gone in with Willy? Had David doubted his nerve?