"I'll look out for that."
"I know you will. You'll take Shorty along, and your seven kids, which'll make up the number. You'll draw three days' rations, at the end of which time you'll be relieved."
"Now, boys," said Si, returning to his squad, "we won't drill today, but are going out on some real soldierin'. The Kurnel has given us a very important detail."
The boys swelled up visibly at the news.
"I want you to all act like soldiers, now," continued Si, "and be a credit to the company and the rijiment. We're goin' to be all by ourselves, and everybody's eyes 'll be on us."
"Yes," echoed Shorty, "we'll be the only part o' the rijiment at the front, and we want to git a good stiff brace on ourselves, because if we don't some o' these other rijiments may git the grand laugh on us."
Shorty's tone was that this was a calamity to which death was preferable, and the boys were correspondingly impressed. They were rapidly learning the lesson that the regiment and its reputation were the most important things in the whole world.
"Come along, and le's draw our rations," said Si. "And you boys want to keep in mind that this's all you'll git for three days, and govern yourselves accordingly. The 'Leventh Commandment is to take all that you kin git, and take mighty good care of it after you git it--"
"For sich is the Kingdom of Heaven," interjected Shorty, imitating the Chaplain's tone.
"No," said Si, who was irritated by his partner's irreverence: "but it's the way a good soldier does. His first dooty's to take care o' his grub, because that's takin' care o' himself, and keepin' himself in good shape to do the dooty the Government expects o' him. 'Tain't servin'
the Government right for him to be careless about himself. Now here's 27 rations o' bread, meat, coffee, sugar, salt and beans--three apiece for each of us. Harry Joslyn, you and Gid Mack divide them up into nine equal piles."
Si and Shorty turned to give directions about packing up the shelter-tents and blankets for carrying.
"Now, Gid Mackall," said Harry, "play fair, if you ever did in your life. I won't have none o' your shenanniging."
"Don't talk to me about shenanniging, you little imp," responded Gid cordially. "You can't do a straight thing if you try, and you never try.
You never fisted-up with me on a ball-bat that you didn't slip your hand so's to come out ahead."
"Now, there's three loaves o' bread for the Sargint," said Harry, laying them down on a newspaper. "There's three for the Corpril; there's three for me; there's three for you."
"Here, what're you givin' me that broken loaf for?" demanded Gid, stopping in his distribution of meat. "Give that to Pete Skidmore. He's the littlest."
"Ain't goin' to do nothin' o' the kind," responded Harry. "You've got to take things as they come. That loaf fell to you, and you've got to keep it."
"If you don't take that nubbin loaf away and put a full one in its place, not a speck o' lean meat 'll you get--nothin' but fat six inches thick."
"You'll cut that meat straight across, and give me my right share o'
lean, you puddin'-headed, sandhill crane," shouted Harry.
"Who're you a-calling names, you bow-legged little shrimp?" shouted Gid, slapping Harry across the face with a piece of fat pork.
An angry mix-up, school boy rules, followed, to the great detriment of the rations. Si and Shorty rushed up, separated the combatants, and administered shakes, cuffs, and sharp reprimands.
"Now, you quarrelsome little whelps," said Si, after quiet had been restored, "you've got to take them rations that you've spiled for yourselves. You shan't have no other. Put that bread and that meat you've kicked around into your own haversacks. Then go back there and roll up your blankets--same as the other boys. Alf Russell, you and Jim Humphreys come here and divide the rest o' these rations into seven parts, if you kin do it without fightin'."
The division of the rations proceeded, with some jars between Russell and Humphreys over the apportionment of fat and lean meat, and angry protests from little Pete Skidmore because they made his share smaller than anybody else's.
"Yit," said he, "I've got to march just as far as any of you, carry just as big a gun, and do just as much shootin'."
"You're wrong," said the medical-minded Alf Russell. "You ought to have less than the others, because you're smaller. The littler and younger the person the smaller the dose, always."
"No," acceded the farmer Jim Humphreys. "Tain't natural, nor right. You don't give a colt as much feed as you do a grown horse. Anybody knows that."
"Pete's plea is sound," contraverted the legal-minded Monty Scruggs. "All men are equal before the law, though they mayn't be a foot high. Rations are a matter of law, and the law's no respecter of persons."
"Rations is intended," persisted Alf, "to give a man what he needs to eat--nothing more, nothing less. Pete don't need as much as a man; why give it to him? There'd be just as much sense in giving him the clothes for a six-footer."
"All o' you are always imposin' on me 'cause I'm little," whimpered Pete. "And that stuck-up Alf Russell's the worst of all. Just because he's goin' to be a doctor, and leads in singin' at church, he thinks he knows more'n the man what writ the arithmetic, and he's down on me because I won't take all he says for law and gospel, in spite of his airs. Jim Humphreys is down on me, because I writ home that I'd shot a man back there at the burnt bridge, and Jim got skeered at a coon-huntin' nigger."
"Never mind, Pete," said Monty consolingly, "none o' them shall impose on you while I'm around. Now, Alf, you and Jim give Pete just as much as the rest, or I'll make you."
"Who'll you make, you brindle steer?" said Alf, laying down his bread and bristling up.
"Stand back, Alf; he meant me," said Jim, disposing his meat, and approaching Monty with doubled fists. "Now, Mister Scruggs, le's see you do some makin', since you're so brash."
"Here, stop that, you little scamps," shouted Si, whose attention had been so far devoted to quieting Harry and Gid, and showing them how to prepare their traps for marching. "Great Scott, can't you git along without fightin'? I'm goin' to take you where you'll git real fightin'
enough to satisfy you.
"Go ahead, there, and divide them rations, as I ordered you, and be quick about it, for we must hurry off."
The mention of real fighting immediately sobered up the boys, and made them forget their squabbles. They hurried about their work with quickened zeal.
"Now," said Si, "pack your rations carefully in your haversacks, just as you see me and Corpril Elliott doin'. First, keep your sugar, coffee and salt separate. Put 'em in little tin boxes, like these, and see that the lids are on tight. Hurry up, now. Shorty, you'd better look over the boxes, and go up and draw as many cartridges as you think we'll need."
The mention of need for cartridges was an electric impulse which set the boys keenly alive. They bundled their rations into their haversacks, and flung their blanket rolls over their shoulders, and were standing in a state of palpitating expectancy, when Shorty came back with his hands full of cartridges, which he proceeded to distribute.
"Take arms," commanded Si. "Forward!--March!"
Si and Shorty started off with their long, easy campaign stride, which, in some incomprehensible way that the veteran only learns by practice, brought their feet down every time in exactly the right place, avoiding all stumbling-blocks, and covering without apparent effort a long distance in the course of an hour. The boys pattered industriously after, doing their best to keep up, but stumbling over roots and stones, and slipping on steep places, and dropping to the rear in spite of themselves.
When Si made the customary halt at the end of the first hour, his little command was strung back for a quarter of a mile, and little Pete Skidmore was out of sight.
"Better go back and look for little Pete, Shorty," said Si. "We seem to be losin' him."
Pete was soon brought up, panting and tired.
"Dod durn it, what're you all runnin' away from me for?" he gasped.
"Want to lose me? Want to git into the fight all by yourselves, and leave me out? Think because I'm little I can't help? I kin shoot as well as anybody in the crowd, dod durn you."
"There, you see the nonsense o' giving you as much rations as the others," suggested Alf Russell. "You can't pack 'em, and you wouldn't need 'em if you did pack 'em."
"What business is it of yours. Mister Russell, I'd like to know," asked Monty Scruggs, "what he does with his rations. His rations are his rights, and he's entitled to 'em. It's nobody's business what use a man makes of his rights."
"Where are these rebels that we're goin' to fight?" asked Harry Joslyn, eagerly scanning the horizon. "I've been looking for 'em all along, but couldn't see none. Was you in such a hurry for fear they'd get away, and have they got away?"
"I wasn't in no hurry," answered Si. "That was only regler marchin'
"Holy smoke," murmured the rest, wiping their foreheads; "we thought you was trying to run the rebels down."