The story of a feud between two men of courage and the triumph of an amazing tenacity
WILL R. BIRD
LEADEN, rain-laden clouds hung like a pall over the desolate Somme region, and the deserted village of Sailly-au-Bois was as depressing as the weather.
The now swiftly ebbing tide of war had left it as though smitten by a plague. Grass and weeds grew in the streets; the houses were tumbled, forsaken ruins.
A battalion of Australians had come to the ratinfested cellars for an overnight rest, and in the misty morning they seemed a sombre crew, especially the few gathered in the cobbled yard of the one house that was still roofed. It was a company headquarters; ration sacks were piled at the doorway, and blood-blackened stretchers leaned against the wall. The tramp of heavy boots roused the men to attention as the trio they awaited filed into the yard. The sergeant-major was in advance, and behind him came a prisoner and escort. The prisoner was tall, straight as an arrow, splendidly proportioned, with features as set and unreadable as granite, and he bore himself with a hauteur a guardsman would have envied.
“Private Ray, ’shun! Ri'turn, quickmarchlefwheel, riturnalt!” It was a marvelous roar, but none of the watchers smiled. They stepped nearer the open door and listened.
“Private Ray”—the voice that spoke suggested sheathed claws, —“you are charged with cowardice and desertion. On September tenth, while on duty at Poilu Trench, you left your post during an enemy attack and did not reappear until your company was being relieved. What have you to say in defense?”
“Nothing, sir.” As short-bitten and hard as the voice of the accuser came the answer.
A long minute was broken only by the grumbling of distant artillery. “Surely you have some reason for your conduct?” There was a tinge of wonder in the question.
“I have nothing to say, sir.” The “sir” was used each time with emphasis.
“Under ordinary circumstances I would send you to a court-martial,” said the stern accuser, “but your record cannot be overlooked, and I must consider the fact that your post had endured the heaviest of the bombardment. Will you take my punishment?”
“Very well.” A snarl in the voice unsheathed the claws somewhat. “We are going back to the same front and this time you are going to stay on your post, no matter what happens, and that post, Private Ray, will be the ‘Graveyard.’ It has not been held since we were there, but I have volunteered to hold it again— with you ! That is all.”
The listeners by the door moved away as the prisoner came out. “One of them’ll not come back,” said a tightlipped corporal, “and maybe neither of them will.” “Well, whatever happens,” drawled another veteran,
“I know that Buck Ray never played coward—and Captain Butler knows it too.”
"DUCK Ray was born “out back” in the Never Never Land of Australia, and when he was twenty-one had never seen a church or school. His home had been a galvanized iron “humpie” with a dirt floor; his furniture, peeled poles. He had been so accustomed to hardships that he never knew them as such, and his sole companion was “Lady,” a yellow dog with almost human intelligence.
He was at a billabong, getting his daily supply of water, when a neighbor told him of the war and Australia’s call for men. Next morning he had “humped the bluey” for the coast, clad in his old felt hat, shirt and moleskins, carrying only his tea billy and blanket. Ten days later he was at Broadmeadows, wearing a uniform of blue dungaree and learning the caste of the army. And had he searched the coastal recruiting stations he could not have selected a harder school, for Lieutenant Butler was in charge, and three months detainment to serve as drill instructor had put this high-mettled officer on edge.
The battalion was one of the proud “Coo-ee” brigade where discipline was short-fused. On the second day Lady escaped from her tether and came to the field where the newest men were learning simple formations. “Get out of here, you yellow cur,” shouted Butler, halting his squad. “If there’s one thing I detest it’s a yellow dog.” He picked up a stick and hurled it at the intruder.
Lady looked at her master, ignoring the missile, and the officer reddened. “Are any of you responsible for this brute?” he snapped.
Ray stepped forward. “I am,” he answered. “That’s my dog.”
“Stay in your place,” grated Butler, “and say ‘sir’ when you speak to me. If that cur comes on this field again I’ll shoot it.”
Ray started to say something, checked himself, and stepped back in the ranks, but every man sensed his tensity. Thereafter he did not forget to say “sir,” but he drawled it always with emphasis, and he did not forget a detail of drill once learned; yet when he and Butler met, the very atmosphere seemed to crackle with hostility. Then Bully Peters came into the picture.
Bully was a drifter who had been in many ports. He had various accomplishments, but his ability with the padded mitts was outstanding. When Butler had cursed Lady and ordered her from the field, Bully had watched Ray, and as soon as drill was over he had hunted out the sheepman. “I know folks on the other side of the town what’ll keep yer dog till you gets back,” he said. “And they knows dogs.”
These were the first friendly words Ray had heard since he came to camp, and the easy-going, warmhearted drifter won his undying loyalty. A few evenings later, Bully formed a makeshift ring, donned boxing gloves and called for pupils. He had no need of a second call, and there were rugged exhibitions of the manly art. Ray kept in the background. One evening Lieutenant Butler came to the ring. “Let me have a go with someone,” he said to Bully. “Who’s your best pupil?” The officer was a heavy-shouldered man of athletic type.
A young giant from the water-front responded eagerly, and gave his best, but Butler toyed with him, bloodied his nose and sent him to the canvas with a spurt of leather lightning. “More.” The officer was in great good humor.
With his next opponents he exhibited more than ordinary skill, yet pulled his blows and coached the boxers. He was about to leave when he saw Ray in the shadows. “Come you from ‘out back’,” he taunted. “You look supple, try on the gloves.”
Ray shook his head. “I’ve never had them on—sir,” he answered.
“Well, now’s your chance to learn,” Butler purred banteringly. “Of course, if you’re afraid of ... ”
Ray vaulted the ropes and held out his hands. Bully jumped forward. “Not the first time, Buck,” he said in a low voice. “Wait till I’ve ...”
“Put them on!” Only the swollen veins in Ray’s neck showed that he was roused. Butler laughed, a smothered jeer, and cuffed the sheepman lightly. Ray was after him like a tiger, to be staggered by a righthander. “Easy, you fool,” said the officer, breathing faster. “Keep your head.”
He ducked a furious swing and laughed again. Dodging wild drives with the ease of an accomplished boxer, he met Ray twice with a straight right, but the sheepman stayed on his feet. In the second tilt Butler split his lips and rocked him with heavy body blows. A wild swing by Ray had knocked him into the ropes and the resulting whoops of delight from the watchers had set the lieutenant’s veins on fire. Ray, dazed and bleeding, never listened to a word of Bully’s pleading that he desist. The third round began in a whirlwind of action but Butler floored his man heavily. “You poor fool,” he sneered. “You—and your yellow dingo! You hate me—like a black with a knife.” Again he sent Ray to the floor, and when he rose, made the sheepman’s bewildered movements appear grotesque. “I’m going to teach you a lesson,” he panted. “You’re too darned elemental to mix with white men.” And, completely master of the situation, he teased his enemy with sharp jabs.
All of Bully’s persuasion failed to keep Ray in his corner, and the fourth round was a slaughter. Buck came up after a solid knockdown with a daze in his eyes, punch-drunk, foggy, but instinctively he rushed straight at his man. Butler gave a sardonic chuckle, started to add one more of his tantalizing pokes before the finish, and was careless of his movements; he had not reckoned the vitality of the man from “out back.” Ray’s glove caught him under the chin and the officer was lifted off his feet by the force of the drive, to crash down outside the ropes. The sheepman swayed as Bully led him to a seat to apply restoratives. He had received a terrible beating, such as only a boxer could estimate, and there were tears in the drifter’s eyes before he got his man to sleeping quarters. “If yer will only listen to me, Buck,” he groaned, “yer can beat him to a frazzle, but yer got to learn how to do it.”
“Will—you—learn me?” Ray asked through his battered lips.
“That I will,” said Bully fervently, “if yer’ll only give me the chance.”
“And what—was it he—was saying about—mixing with white men?”
“Ferget that,” advised Bully. “Butler’s one of them they calls aristocrats, which don’t mean anything in this country, and he was just makin’ dirty cracks about yer because yer hadn’t any schoolin’, and yer kind-a different, yer knows.” Bully perspired freely as he tried to explain. “Anyhow yer showed him guts enough fer two of his kind, and when yer learns —pow! Buck, yer can hit the hardest of any guy I’ve seen.”
Others had revived the lieutenant, but when fully restored, the officer had won supporters by his frank speech. “It served me right,” he asserted vigorously. “Ray comes from ‘out back’ and hasn’t had a chance. I lost my temper and intended to get him good, but he fooled me. I’m glad of it and I’m telling the world right now that he’s got grit enough for a battalion.”
And when Ray was presentable enough to come on parade a few days later Butler offered his hand. “I’m sorry, Ray,” he said heartily. “I lost my head. You’re a darn good man.”
The sheepman’s face was like a mask. He was slow at accepting the proffered grip, and when he did, gave no responsive warmth. “Thank you—sir,” he said mechanically, his voice even, low—dead.
Bully got a mate to take charge of the ring and he and Ray went to the other side of the town each evening. There, in a roomy shed without an audience, the drifter taught his pupil the finer tricks of the game, taught him the value of ring discipline and footwork, and before they sailed, burst into voluble admiration. “Yer packs a peach of a wallop and yer built for the gime. This Butler is a good one, but yer’ll put him over the fence.”
Buck, steeped in the stark realities of the Never Never Land, bore the camp routine without a murmur, cleaned dixies as readily as his rifle, but evinced anxiety when it came time to take leave of Lady. “If it’s not too much to ask,” he said to her keepers, “I wish you would write me sometimes, telling how she is. I might not be back for a year.”
The promise was readily given, and when he said good-by to the yellow dog, he left without looking back.
npHE Australians found Egypt a sore trial. Buck saw things he never dreamed of by his fires of dry sheep dung, and he bore the filth and conglomerated stinks of the country with the stoicism of a Red Indian, while his company hardened to fine steel on the desert training-ground. Bully was the leader of many forays in questionable quarters, but always found time to train his man, and, before leaving for Gallipoli, induced the colonel to allow a tournament. Boxing of the slam-bang, free-hitting style was served abundantly. Lieutenant Butler had volunteered to go on with a suitable opponent, never doubting Bully’s arrangements until he reached the ring. “I’ll not go on with Ray,” he said hotly. “Peters, you’ve shown rotten judgment in this matter.”
Ray, stripped and gloved, stepped into the ring. “I hope you are not afraid— sir,” he said quietly. A titter ran around those nearest the ring, a murmur of exultation. Butler paled and leaped in, taut, his eyes smouldering. “As you wish,” he grated.
“Lieutenant Butler and Private—”
“Elemental!” Ray spoke the word clearly enough to be heard by all. The announcer paused and peered at his card.
“Get on with it,” snapped the officer, and the referee cleared the ring.
They fought as men with an implacable purpose, and not a man in the crowd found his voice until it was over. Butler, rushing in to make a quick killing, was stopped with an uppercut that changed his attitude. He fell into a clinch at first opportunity. “You’ve learned something since last time,” he grated in Ray’s ear, “but you need another lesson.”
Ray had smiled with sheer joy, and the unbounded confidence in his eyes was the officer’s undoing. He lost control and tore into the sheepman with snarling fury. .The man from “out back” had learned the value of discipline. He gave ground, boxing with a cleverness only attained by those endowed with natural talent, and Bully watched with open mouth. Two rounds passed, so swiftly that the crowd did not realize their passing, then Ray spoke. “I like yellow dogs,” he said, low but clear, “and Lady is not a dingo. I’m as white as you are, and I’m giving you a lesson this time. How do you like it—sir?”
Butler went berserk. He launched himself at his tormentor. Ray sidestepped with neat precision and caught his man flush as he came. The officer’s head struck the floor, so terrible was the impact of that gloved fist, and his limbs twitched as he lay unconscious. A gasping sound, like soughing wind, eddied about the ring. Bully took charge. He put his helpers to work reviving Butler and he shook the winner’s hand. “Buck,” he said huskily, “yer got him proper. Yer can trim them all if yer wants, but never hit a guy harder’n that. Yer’ll kill him if yer does.”
Butler recovered and was assisted from the arena, but a severe edict from the colonel forbade such tournaments again, and Peters was harshly censured for his part in the programme. When the sheepman met theofficer again, he saluted as though he did not recognize him, but Butler called him back. “Ray,” he said evenly, “you played for me and got your revenge. I lost my head again, but perhaps you’re the better man. One thing, from now on, come in the open, whatever the game is, and I’ll meet you halfway.”
meet you halfway.”
Ray’s features held no expression. “I’ll remember—sir,” he said quietly.
At Gallipoli a bullet in the thigh saved Ray the torture of the Turkish trenches, and for the first time in his memory he received the attention of feminine hands. He was convalescent in France and after a tedious wait rejoined his battalion as it came to the western front. Bully, much thinner and worn-looking, greeted him like a brother. “Yer one lucky bloke,” he declared. “We’ve been lookin’ in hell’s back-door, and half the mob’s gone. How’s tricks?”
“Lady has pups,” said Buck, “and I wish I was there to feed her. When do you think we’ll get back?”
Bully set down his beer and stared. “Yer ’aven’t changed none, have yer?” he said whimsically. “Did yer see anything of Butler?”
“Now,” said ^Ray shortly. “How could I?”
“’Cause he were hit same time as yerself,” said Bully, after draining his glass. “Lumme, but I wish I’d copped
yer luck. I’m fair cuckoo with this war gime.”
The sheepman’s dark features showed elation. “I’ve seen as much fighting as Butler, then,” he muttered. “We’re even, yet.” This was the fear that had gnawed him as he waited the battalion— the thought that Butler had served his country more than he.
The trenches they took over were quiet, and the “mob” recovered its fighting strength. Then came the Somme. The “Coo-ees” were established in a wilderness of shell-holes and wire and old trenches, where the fighting was always bitter, and Buck Ray proved that he had no equal as a scout. Three times, when brigade needed information he crossed to the German trenches and brought back prisoners. He led patrols, was the means of ambushing an enemy patrol, seemed always on duty, and won exceptional glory in the fighting for Poilu Trench. This point was only taken after a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, and it was a certainty that the Germans would counter-attack as soon as they could bring up reserves. Parapets were built with all speed and ammunition rushed up. Ray was attached to a machine post that held the weakest point of the captured line. Then Butler, now promoted to captaincy, saw the strategic value of a position on his left, a pockmarked mound with grave-like craters, dubbed “the Graveyard.” He sent Bully Peters and his crew to hold it at all costs. “If they attack you can sweep their flank. Dig in as best you can and don’t come back unless you are relieved.”
Peters moved away without an answer. As he passed Ray’s post he stuck out his hand. “So long, Buck,” he said in a choked voice. “I’m headed for hell.”
Before night a clinging mist enveloped the front and under its cover the enemy attacked. Every man in the trenches fought determinedly, yet they would have been forced back, had not the raking fire from Bully’s gun cut swaths in the enemy masses. The next day the mist had cleared and the foe repeated his efforts. Exasperated by the defiance of the Graveyard, the Germans tried to circumvent it, but were once more repelled with awful loss. Then, at evening a storm of steel broke over the mound, a fierce pounding of shrapnel and high explosive, and when it lifted there was no defense. Captain Butler, with reinforcements, won the hill ahead of the Boche. He found it grimly worthy of its name. Bully lay mangled across his gun and about him were the bodies of his gallant crew. Very reverently they bore the heroes back to the trench, and Butler was totally unprepared for the message he received. “Private Ray is reported absent from his post, from the first attack until stand-to to-night.”
He was sure that some mistake had been made and asked Ray for an explanation. “I haven’t anything to say,” was all the answer he could get, and so matters stood until this morning at Sailly-au-Bois.
Y^APTAIN Butler and his men lay at their posts in the Graveyard and gazed in periscopes. They saw a foreground of tangled dead and wire, a field sprinkled with gray, sprawled figures, and beyond that a line of fresh earth and hasty barricades. The Germans had been vigilant enough to know that the mound was occupied again and had given the garrison a baptism of rifle fire. Now it had died down like the snapping of twigs in a spent blaze, and a dull, stifling sunlight sent myriads of blue flies buzzing among the dead; the scent of death was everywhere, the indescribable reek of blood.
“I never realized what little cover there was at this post,” muttered Butler to his sergeant. ‘Tm glad I recommended Peters for the work he did. He earned it ten times over.”
Ray, peering into his glass, did not look up, but the tension of his body betrayed the fact that he had heard.
“Our boys are the best there is,” returned the sergeant. “I’ll back them against any that’s in France.”
“Yes,” drawled Butler. “We can depend on—almost—all of them.”
One of the men who was off duty for the hour, crawled into the post. “There’s an entrance to a dugout just back of our crater,” he said in a tense voice. “One of the chaps says he’ll swear there’s someone in it.”
“Take charge, sergeant,” said Butler, “and you, Ray, come with me. We’ll investigate.”
Since they entered the trenches, the captain had kept the sheepman beside him, watching his every move. “I’ll go ahead with my flashlight,” said Butler. “You follow close behind.”
The entrance was partially destroyed, but once on the stairway, they found a well-constructed passage ending in a roomy dugout with bunks and tables. German equipment still hung from hooks, and stick bombs festooned the doorway. Butler, flashing his light warily, started as Ray pushed by him, his rifle raised. “Wait,” he said sharply, and struck up the weapon just as Ray fired at something moving at the end of the chamber.
It was a German soldier, his face ghastly with fright. “Mercy, Kamerad,” he called.
“What the devil do you mean, Ray?” demanded Butler, his hand on his automatic. “Have you gone crazy? I told you to keep to the rear. Never shoot an unarmed man who’s trying to surrender. It’s murder.”
Ray, his eyes burning with hate, seemed hardly able tc restrain himself. “That man was hiding here—sir,” he said in a strained voice. “He was up to some trick.”
“I’ll decide when there’s shooting to be done, just the same,” retorted Butler icily. “You’re not yourself, you’re losing your grip.”
The German came forward, watching Ray with dread. “I to surrender wish,” he said in English. “I wish not to fight.”
“Up the steps with you, then,” ordered Butler. “This light is getting dim. What the dickens ...” The German had bolted by Ray, keeping the officer between them. “Good heavens! What’s wrong? Did you ever see this fellow before?”
“No—sir,” growled Ray. “He’s been up to something.”
Butler made quick decision at the top of the stairs. He sent a man back with the prisoner, warning both to crawl down the sap that led to the front trench, and ordered the escort to bring back a supply of candles. “We can hold out here indefinitely,” said he to the sergeant. “If Peters had known of that dugout he’d be alive now. We’ll simply take cover when the Boche puts on a barrage, then come up and be ready for his assault.”
Ray seemed feverish the rest of the day. He had watched like a caged animal as the German was being taken to the rear. At dusk the drumfire of the guns beat on their ears like a devil’s tattoo. The enemy was especially active and with dawn his shelling increased. A big attack seemed imminent. It came at noon. A last deluge of shells was dropped on the Graveyard, without catching a single victim, then waves of field-gray, rivers of them, poured over the broken ground. They met a stout resistance. Butler and his men came forth and dealt devastation to the gray hordes. So well had they placed their guns, so well did they feed them, that the assault broke into a scrambled retreat. It was but a breathing space. The enemy re-formed and came again, accompanied, this time, by well-placed shell fire. Butler had three machine-guns in action, and the storm of iron beat out two of them. High explosive rained on the post. Men were blown to atoms, others died without a mark. The enemy, disregarding the danger of being caught in their own shelling, pressed closer. The survivors continued to fire their rifles until the weapons were too hot to hold, and Ray, assisted by Butler, still manipulated the remaining gun. Their throats were dry, their nostrils filled with the reek of burnt powder, their eyes dazed with flashes; sweat dripped from them.
There came a louder crash, a horrible death cry, and they were showered with fragments. The officer looked about them. “We’re all that’s left,” he shouted above the din.
Ray pointed to the gun. A bit of shrapnel had put it out of action. As coolly as if on parade, the sheepman reached for his rifle, tugged it clear of debris and prepared to shoot. His targets were only yards away.
“To the dugout,” yelled Butler. “Get those bombs. Ours are buried.”
Ray darted to the entrance, dived into the hole and hurried down the steps. He was loading his arms with grenades when the captain plunged into the opening. “They’re on us,” he shouted “We can’t get away.”
A lighted candle was stuck in the mouth of a German gas mask. The men looked at each other, then selected bombs. “We’ll have more chance above— sir,” said Ray, but as he spoke there was a guttural call at the entrance, then a tremendous shock. A big shell had exploded near the opening. The candle was extinguished and something tumbled down the stairway. Ray struck a match and coolly relighted their weird beacon. A jumbled, headless trunk lay at the bottom step, and an arm which had been torn from it. Crump! A second shock, ?nd earth bulged down the stairway, filled it The din above was suddenly hushed—they were trapped!
Butler stared at the blocked way as if fascinated. Then he searched the dugout. “There’s not a shovel of any kind,” he said nervously. “How can we clear the steps?”
“There were shovels beside the stairway—sir,” said Ray as if he were reporting on parade. “I’ll get them out.”
“Darn you, Ray,” Butler exploded. “Don’t be so infernal owlish at a time like this.”
Ray made no answer but calmly unearthed a pair of shovels. As they set to work Butler stumbled over the severed arm. With a hysterical cry he seized it and hurled it from him to the far end of the dugout. Ray did not look up. He knew that the officer’s nerves were giving way.
It was dark when they could climb through to fresh air. The gunä were booming sullenly but the battle had ceased, and flares soared, making queer moving shadows over the Graveyard. Ray went through first and made a cautious survey. By the direction of the flares he knew that the Germans had been defeated, but he discovered that they were still in possession of the mound. There were dark blurs that moved in the gloom. Low voices came from their battered post. It would require great caution to make their escape.
He reported the situation and Butler moved impatiently. “We’ll wipe them out with stick bombs,” he said sharply, crawling up. “Bring a dozen with you.”
His haste brought disaster. A German helmet lay at the entrance and his revolver clanked against it. There was a quick challenge in the dark. Butler, excited, sprang up, looking for the enemy, just as Ray emerged beside him. A Lueger cracked sharply, and Ray barely avoided the captain as he staggered and fell. There were more shots, then the sheepman threw his stick bombs. Their crashing detonations caused an increase of flares from the Hun trench, and Germans who had gained the rear of the mound rushed in with bayonet. Ray had salvaged a rifle and he met their onslaught with a savagery that daunted them. He bayoneted, slashed, struck, used the butt, so swiftly and with such deadly effect that his attackers were vanquished. A single shot came from the dark, the last effort of a dying German officer. Ray found him, fumbled for his Lueger, and shot him with it, then rose awkwardly and reached the captain. Butler was still conscious. “You’re a—better man,” he gasped. “Shake hands—once.”
“There is no time—sir,” said Ray, breathing heavily and disregarding the sticky flow that was seeping his chest. “I’m going to take you in.”
Much later, an Australian sentry who had been watching the Graveyard was startled by an apparition that peered over the parapet. Buck Ray, bathed in his own blood, was half-dragging, half-carrying Captain Butler. Before the sentry could move, the sheepman slumped forward unconscious.
DUCK RAY felt a pressure on his wrists and saw that a doctor was taking his pulse. His nostrils were filled with the smell of anaesthetic, his ears seemed to hear soft, drumming noises. A nurse opened a screen at the foot of his cot and shut out his view of the ward. He knew its portent and met her eyes as she came to his side. His lips moved and she bent over him. “I’m not going to die,” he whispered. “I got a dog.”
The nurse bent lower. “You must just sleep, then,” she said bravely. “Don’t move or think.” He closed his eyes as she spoke.
She hovered near. Later the doctor came, and the screen was removed as he muttered something about the impossibility of judging an Australian’s durability. And Ray, when he could take nourishment, could not understand the nurse’s wonder that he had lived.
Weeks passed and he was much better when they wheeled Captain Butler into the ward and left them together. The officer sat a while, as if at a loss for words, watching the sheepman’s expression; then he spoke rapidly, flushing as he began. “Ray, you can hate me if you will, but I simply had to come here and apologize. That German told us the whole yarn, and we understand why you wanted to shoot him. He told us about deserting and surrendering to Peters, and showing him the dugout when he saw that Peters was—was slipping. Gad! Why didn’t he tell me his nerves were bad! I’d never have sent him to such a hell hole! He did his bit at Gallipoli.”
Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on the captain’s forehead. His hands gripped his chair arms until the knuckles whitened. Ray’s face was a mask.
“You suspected, though,” the officer’s voice was more strained and tense as he continued, “and you slipped away in the mist and found him hiding. When you couldn’t talk him into facing the music you—you went up and took the gun yourself. The German says you were buried twice, and all your crew killed, but you broke up the attack.” Butler paused. “It must have been red hell!” he whispered.
Then he went on, doggedly, his features haggard with emotion. “Peters tried to get away when the heavy shelling began, and the German told you, for fear you would blame him for doing away with your pal, and you caught up with Peters and coaxed him back. You —at the gun—with dead Germans dragged in for a parapet—fighting it out —and Peters, whimpering in the crater, trying to buck up. Gad! I—I—”
For a moment Butler could not speak. Outside, lorries rumbled by, an aeroplane droned overhead. The captain’s voice was only a husky whisper as he went on. “That shell came, a direct hit on the post, and the dead bodies saved you. You came to, crawled out of the heap—and carried Peters to the gun and left him there as if he had been killed in action.” Ray’s drawn profile was as expressionless as if he did not hear Butler speaking.
“You told the German to get back to his lines, thinking him a captured man and wanting to do Rim a turn for helping you, then you got back in the dark without being seen. We thought Bully Peters was the best ever, and you risked everything to keep us thinking so.”
Ray made a queer growling noise in his throat but did not speak, and the captain went on, his voice stronger and softer.
“It was just a trick of fate that the German should find enough rations left by Bully’s crew to keep him till we went back. Ray—you’re going to get the Victoria Cross. The major who questioned the German and myself, are the only ones who know the real truth, and we were keeping it for a surprise; but I had to tell you, I couldn’t wait longer.
There was another dramatic pause, then Captain Butler wheeled himself nearer to Ray’s cot. “I want to take back everything I said about you, Ray,” he said determinedly. “I apologize and I mean it!”
“That German lied—sir,” said Ray stubbornly. “It’s all lies. Bully was the best gunner in the lot.”
Captain Butler gazed at the man on the cot, smiled and shook his head.
“I—I don’t understand your kind,” he said sadly. “I—I wish I did. Will you shake hands?”
Ray turned his head. His voice seemed tired. “Any time—sir,” he said respectfully, but he slurred the “sir” as he had always done. The officer held the moist palm a moment, there was no answering pressure, then he was wheeled away.
“Nurse,” said Ray, when he was gone. “Has there been any letters for me?” There was one, and she read it, a report on Lady’s health and the achievemerits of her three pups. Then the nurse made an announcement which roused Ray more than Butler’s visit.
“You’re going to have visitors tomorrow,” she said. “Your brigadier and some of his staff are coming to see you and the captain. They’ll be here in the morning.”
Ray’s wan cheeks took on color. “What do they want?” he queried, watching her eyes.
“They’re going to congratulate you on your work at some post—you know where I mean. Just imagine having a general to see you !”
The sheepman was quiet for a bit, then asked his question
“Nurse, what does ‘elemental’ mean?” “Elemental!” she exclaimed. “Why it means, let me think, something fundamental or . . . ”
“That’s too big a word,” he interrupted. “I want to know it in my language.” She smiled. “I have a dictionary, a book that explains words, I’ll bring it.” She read the meaning. “Elemental, relating to, or characteristic of, a necessary part of something.”
“Am I elemental?” There was an intensity to the question that made her answer gentle. “Yes, I would say you were, Ray. You’re characteristic of Australia—you’re one of her men, aren’t you? And you’re a very necessary part of the battalion—the best man in it, Captain Butler says.”
“He don’t like dogs.” The words came abruptly. Again a silence, then he spoke as if in doubt. “I wish you would ask the captain to come in this ward while the general’s here. I’m not good at talking.”
“I think he’d like to come,” she said eagerly. “I’ll ask him.”
Butler came. He was in good humor and chatted gaily with the nurse, yet was carefully attentive whenever Ray spoke. When the visitors arrived he skilfully bore the brunt of the well-meant enquiries, and avoided all mention of Bully Peters. But they were not to escape lightly. The brigadier asked for a full account of their exploit at the Graveyard. The captain stressed the part Ray had played.
“And, sir,” he concluded, “I hope you will permit my recommending him for the Victoria Cross.”
The general cleared his throat. “I’d like to,” he said, “but it would be strain-
ing a point to ask for two such decorations for action at the same post.”
“Two!” exclaimed Butler. “Who . . .?” “Peters’ nearest of kin will get the Cross,” said the general gruffly. “Gad— that man was only a lance-jack, had no officer to back him, as it were, and I advised your colonel to make such a recommendation.”
Butler paled as if he had suddenly weakened. Ray’s jaw set like iron, his eyes were live coals.
“What the devil . . ? Nurse, come here,” barked the brigadier. “What is it, Butler?”
“Just—just a weak turn, sir,” said Butler, looking at Ray. “I’m quite all right now, thanks. Why—ah—yes, sir, I’ll put Ray in for the D.C.M., if that will be satisfactory.”
“Quite so, Butler.” The general was very affable as he took his leave. “Understand, my good fellow,” he said heartily, smiling at Ray, “we all understand you earned the Cross, but feel that Peters was—er—first, you might say.”
“He was, always, sir,” said Ray, and he did not slur the word of respect.
When they had gone Ray put out his hand unasked. “Thank you, sir,” he said, and his voice was friendly as he gripped the officer’s hand. “If you’ll just tell that major ...”
“I will,” said the captain.” “Ray, you can have your wish. No one shall know about Peters.” His voice was husky. “And I want to tell you something more. It was just my vile temper that made me slur your dog at Broadmeadows, Ray. I like dogs, always have.”
Ray reached to the table beside his cot where lay the half-dozen letters from Broadmeadows, treasured through every peril. He fondled them. “If you’d care for one,” he said simply. “I’ll give you one of Lady’s pups.”
“I thank you, Ray,” said Butler gravely. “Nothing could please me more.” When he was gone, the nurse came back to Ray’s cot. “What breed of dog is Lady?” she asked curiously. “I’d like to imagine what she looks like.” “She’s yellow,” said Ray dreamily, “and her eyes are as pretty as yours, and she can smell a sheep for a mile, and she’s clean with her food, and ...” “But what breed is she?” insisted the nurse.
“Breed? Well, I don’t know,” Ray gave one of his rare smiles. “I guess she’s just elemental,”