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The Price of the Harness
by [?]


TWENTY-FIVE men were making a road out of a path up the hillside. The light batteries in the rear were impatient to advance, but first must be done all that digging and smoothing which gains no incrusted medals from war. The men worked like gardeners, and a road was growing from the old pack-animal trail. Trees arched from a field of guinea-grass, which resembled young wild corn. The day was still and dry. The men working were dressed in the consistent blue of United States regulars. They looked indifferent, almost stolid, despite the heat and the labor. There was little talking. From time to time, a government pack-train, led by a sleek-sided, tender bell-mare, came from one way or the other, and the men stood aside as the strong, hard, black-and-tan animals crowded eagerly after their curious little feminine leader.

A volunteer staff officer appeared, and, sitting on his horse in the middle of the work, asked the sergeant in command some questions which were apparently not relevant to any military business.

Men straggling along on various duties almost invariably spun some kind of a joke as they passed.

A corporal and four men were guarding boxes of spare ammunition at the top of the hill, and one of the number often went to the foot of the hill, swinging canteens.

The day wore down to the Cuban dusk in which the shadows are all grim and of ghastly shape. The men began to lift their eyes from the shovels and picks, and glance in the direction of their camp. The sun threw his last lance through the foliage. The steep mountain range on the right turned blue, and as without detail as a curtain. The tiny ruby of light ahead meant that the ammunition guard were cooking their supper. From somewhere in the world came a single rifle-shot. Figures appeared dim in the shadow of the trees. A murmur, a sigh of quiet relief, arose from the working party. Later, they swung up the hill in an unformed formation, being always like soldiers, and unable even to carry a spade save like United States regular soldiers. As they passed through some fields, the bland white light of the end of the day feebly touched each hard bronze profile.

“Wonder if we’ll git anythin’ to eat?” said Watkins, in a low voice.

“Should think so,” said Nolan, in the same tone. They betrayed no impatience; they seemed to feel a kind of awe of the situation.

The sergeant turned. One could see the cool gray eye flashing under the brim of the campaign hat.”What in hell you fellers kickin’ about?” he asked. They made no reply, understanding that they were being suppressed.

As they moved on, a murmur arose from the tall grass on each hand. It was the noise from the bivouac of ten thousand men, although one saw practically nothing from the low-cut roadway. The sergeant led his party up a wet clay bank and into a trampled field. Here were scattered tiny white shelter-tents, and in the darkness they were luminous like the rearing stones in a graveyard. A few fires burned blood-red, and the shadowy figures of men moved with no more expression of detail than there is in the swaying of the foliage on a windy night.

The working party felt their way to where their tents were pitched. A man suddenly cursed; he had mislaid something and he knew he was not going to find it that night. Watkins spoke again, with the monotony of a clock.

“Wonder if we’ll git anythin’ to eat.”

Martin, with eyes turned pensively to the stars, began a treatise.

“Them Spaniards — “

“Oh, quit it!” cried Nolan.”What the piper do you know about th’ Spaniards, you fat-headed Dutchman?Better think of your belly, you blunderin’ swine, an’ what you’re goin’ to put in it, grass or dirt.”

A laugh, a sort of deep growl, arose from the prostrate men. In the mean time the sergeant had reappeared and was standing over them.”No rations to-night,” he said, gruffly, and turning on his heel walked away.