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The Lost Guidon
by [?]

1911

Night came early. It might well seem that day had fled affrighted. The heavy masses of clouds, glooming low, which had gathered thicker and thicker, as if crowding to witness the catastrophe, had finally shaken asunder in the concussions of the air at the discharges of artillery, and now the direful rain, always sequence of the shock of battle, was steadily falling, falling, on the stricken field. Many a soldier who might have survived his wounds would succumb to exposure to the elements during the night, debarred the tardy succor that must needs await his turn. One of the surgeons at their hasty work at the field hospital, under the shelter of the cliffs on the slope, paused to note the presage of doom and death, and to draw a long breath before he adjusted himself anew to the grim duties of the scalpel in his hand. His face was set and haggard, less with a realization of the significance of the scene–for he was used to its recurrence–than simply with a physical reflection of horror, as if it were glassed in a mirror. A phenomenon that had earlier caught his attention in the landscape appealed again to his notice, perhaps because the symptom was not in his line.

“Looks like a case of dementia,” he observed to the senior surgeon, standing near at hand.

The superior officer adjusted his field-glass. “Looks like ‘Death on the White Horse’!” he responded.

Down the highway, at a slow pace, rode a cavalryman wearing a gray uniform, with a sergeant’s chevrons, and mounted on a steed good in his day, but whose day was gone. A great clot of blood had gathered on his broad white chest, where a bayonet had thrust him deep. Despite his exhaustion, he moved forward at the urgency of his rider’s heel and hand. The soldier held a long, heavy staff planted on one stirrup, from the top of which drooped in the dull air the once gay guidon, battle-rent and sodden with rain, and as he went he shouted at intervals, “Dovinger’s Bangers! Rally on the guidon!” Now and again his strident boyish voice varied the appeal, “Hyar’s yer Dov-inger’s Rangers! Bally, boys! Rally on the reserve!”

Indeed, despite his stalwart, tall, broad-shouldered frame, he was scarcely more than a boy. His bare head had flaxen curls like a child’s; his pallid, though sunburned face was broad and soft and beardless; his large blue eyes were languid and spiritless, though now and then as he turned an intent gaze over the field they flared anew with hope, as if he expected to see rise up from that desolate expanse, from among the stiffening carcasses of horses and the stark corpses of the troopers, that gallant squadron wont to follow, so dashing and debonair, wherever the guidons might mark the way. But there was naught astir save the darkness slipping down by slow degrees–and perchance under its cloak, already stealthily afoot, the ghoulish robbers of the dead that haunt the track of battle. They were the human forerunners of the vulture breed, with even a keener scent for prey, for as yet the feathered carrion-seekers held aloof; two or three only were descried from the field hospital, perched on the boughs of a dead tree near the river, presently joined by another, its splendid sustained flight impeded somewhat by the rain, battling with its big, strong wings against the downpour of the torrents and the heavy air.

And still through all echoed the cry, “Rally on the guidon! Dovinger’s Rangers! Rally on the reserve!”

The bridge that crossed the river, which was running full and foaming, had been burnt; but a span, charred and broken, still swung from the central pier. Over toward the dun-tinted west a house was blazing, fired by some stray bomb, perhaps, or by official design, to hinder the enemy from utilizing the shelter, and its red rage of destruction bepainted the clouds that hung so low above the chimneys and dormer-windows. To the east, the woods on the steeps had been shelled, and a myriad boughs and boles riven and rent, lay in fantastic confusion. Through the mournful chaos the wind had begun to sweep; it sounded in unison with the battle clamors, and shrieked and wailed and roared as it surged adown the defiles. Now and then there came on the blast the fusillade of dropping shots from the south, where the skirmish line of one faction engaged the rear-guard of the other, or the pickets fell within rifle-range. Once the sullen, melancholy boom of distant cannon shook the clouds, and then was still, and ever and again sounded that tireless cry, “Dovinger’s Rangers. Hyar’s yer guidon! Rally, boys! Rally on the guidon! Rally on the reserve!”