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"Severe action. Graham wounded; left thigh. Serious, but doing well. Our loss heavy.
And so they got the first news of the bitter midwinter battle that ended the days of Big Foot and so many of his band, that cost us the lives of so many gallant officers and men, among the icy flats and snow-patched ravines along the Wounded Knee.
But there came a meeting in March that brought surcease for all that fond mother's sorrow. There came an evening when the battalion, in its m.u.f.fling winter garb of gray, went bounding up the broad stone steps into the old mess-hall, and, stripping off caps and overcoats, quickly settled down to their hearty supper, for the days were longer, the first spring drills had begun, and tremendous appet.i.tes had these alert young fellows. The clamor and chatter began on the instant--a merry riot of chaff and fun. No outlying picket gave warning of the approach of disturbers, but once again that great-hearted commandant had planned a demonstration that should delight a mother's soul. Once again he was leading her up to the ma.s.sive portal, with a tall youth swinging on crutches beside her, and a joyous little party in her train. Only that day had he arrived--her Geordie--a little pallid from long housing and wearied from the long ride, but wonderfully well and happy otherwise, and a.s.sured that a few weeks more would see him strong as ever. Connell had met him at Buffalo. Bud was up from New York. McCrea had escorted him all the way from Chicago, where John Bonner would have held him for a week of lionizing, but he could not be stopped for an hour. Nolan and Toomey had ridden every mile to the railway to see their young leader aboard, but over the meeting with that yearning mother there was none on earth to spy. Long hours she kept him to herself, but, now that evening had come, she yielded him to the colonel's pleading.
"It is for their sake," said he, and for their sake even Geordie consented.
And so, very much as he had planned on the previous occasion, Colonel Hazzard led them to the door as supper was nearly over, having previously notified his officer-in-charge, but no man in the corps was in the secret. "Whatever happens," said he, "shall be entirely spontaneous."
For a moment they waited until, as before, the voice of the adjutant was heard, clear and commanding, above the clamor. Then came the publications, a perfunctory order or two, and then the colonel put forth a hand, pushed open the door, and while Mrs. Graham and Bud, trembling with excitement, clung to each other's arms, and the rest of the group instinctively closed about them, Hazzard turned to the two young graduates--his captains of the year gone by, now looking not a little white and by no means happy--and signalled "step within," he himself close following, and throwing wider the door so that Mrs.
Graham might see.
As the big half swung slowly inward, and the two crutches were planted across the threshold, Connell hung back, but the colonel would not so have it. The corporal of the guard, surprised at the intrusion, stepped forward to check the strangers within their gates, then as suddenly halted, his eyes alight with instant recognition and rejoicing, his hand springing up in salute, even as the cadet officers at the head of the nearest tables found their feet in instant and irresistible impulse. Up, too, sprang the first captain, at the opposite side, his first thought to rebuke, his second, at sight of the halted trio, to shout with delight. Before he could gather his wits the matter was settled for him, for all. The adjutant, amazed, dropped his paper and uplifted his eyes, for his voice was stilled by a stentorian shout from an inner table and the simultaneous rush of a light-footed fellow who almost swept Pops off his crutches as his arms flung about him.
"Cyclone" Holt, a big-lunged Kentuckian, had bounded to his chair with a yell of "Hurray! 'Badger' and '_Ki_ote!'" and all order was gone in an instant. Up as one man sprang the startled battalion. Had Holt gone mad? Had Frazier a fit? For answer came cheers from those nearest the door, cheers that spread like wildfire from table to table, and all in a second every young soldier was swinging a napkin and shouting like mad--some leaping on chairs, some even mounting the tables, a scene such as the mess-hall never witnessed before. Vain the effort of some one to guide the cheering (they had not then learned an academy yell), and for once in its day the corps went wild, every man for himself.
They yelled at Geordie, blushing and dishevelled from Benny's embrace.
They yelled at Connell, standing modestly by, with his set lips twitching, his eyes filling fast. They yelled at their colonel, now smilingly backing away. They yelled for three minutes without ever a stop, until some fellow, versed in town-meeting methods, began yelling for "Speech!" and that started others, and "Speech!" was the word ringing all over the hall, and that was more than enough to start Geordie. Speak he could not and would not. He could only stand smiling and shaking his head, until he saw they would not be denied; and then, at last, the lad who had faced and downed popular prejudice all through his cadet life, who had faced foes at the Point and foes on the plains--faced them with dauntless front and determined will--who had stood like a rock at the front of the enemy, trembled now like a leaf in the sight of his friends, and so, for the first time, shrank back and fled. Just as on the day of his graduation, our Geordie turned from the tumult of comrade acclaim and sought his mother's side. Con darted after him, and the big door closed on the chums of cadet days, on the "Badger" and "Coyote"--on Connell and "Corporal Pops."