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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarbarians - Chapter 13. Muleteers
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Barbarians - Chapter 13. Muleteers Post by :rezell Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2753

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Barbarians - Chapter 13. Muleteers

CHAPTER XIII. MULETEERS

Lying far to the southwest of the battle line, only when a strong northwest wind blew could Sainte Lesse hear the thudding of cannon beyond the horizon. And once, when the northeast wind had blown steadily for a week, on the wings of the driving drizzle had come a faint but dreadful odour which hung among the streets and lanes until the wind changed.

Except for the carillon, nothing louder than the call of a cuckoo, the lowing of cattle or a goatherd's piping ever broke the summer silence in the little town. Birds sang; a shallow river rippled; breezes ruffled green grain into long, silvery waves across the valley; sunshine fell on quiet streets, on scented gardens unsoiled by war, on groves and meadows, and on the stone-edged brink of brimming pools where washerwomen knelt among the wild flowers, splashing amid floating pyramids of snowy suds.

And into the exquisite peace of this little paradise rode John Burley with a thousand American mules.

The town had been warned of this impending visitation; had watched preparations for it during April and May when a corral was erected down in a meadow and some huts and stables were put up among the groves of poplar and sycamore, and a small barracks was built to accommodate the negro guardians of the mules and a peloton of gendarmes under a fat brigadier.

Sainte Lesse as yet knew nothing personally of the American mule or of Burley. Sainte Lesse heard both before it beheld either--Burley's loud, careless, swaggering voice above the hee-haw of his trampling herds:

"All I ask for is human food, Smith--not luxuries--just food!--and that of the commonest kind."

And now an immense volume of noise and dust enveloped the main street of Sainte Lesse, stilling the quiet noon gossip of the town, silencing the birds, awing the town dogs so that their impending barking died to amazed gurgles drowned in the din of the mules.

Astride a cream-coloured, wall-eyed mule, erect in his saddle, talkative, gesticulating, good-humoured, famished but gay, rode Burley at the head of the column, his reckless grey eyes glancing amiably right and left at the good people of Sainte Lesse who clustered silently at their doorways under the trees to observe the passing of this noisy, unfamiliar procession.

Mules, dust; mules, dust, and then more mules, all enveloped in dust, clattering, ambling, trotting, bucking, shying, kicking, halting, backing; and here and there an American negro cracking a long snake whip with strange, aboriginal ejaculations; and three white men in khaki riding beside the trampling column, smoking cigarettes.

"Sticky" Smith and "Kid" Glenn rode mules on the column's flank; Burley continued to lead on his wall-eyed animal, preceded now by the fat brigadier of the gendarmerie, upon whom he had bestowed a cigarette.

Burley, talking all the while from his saddle to whoever cared to listen, or to himself if nobody cared to listen, rode on in the van under the ancient bell-tower of Sainte Lesse, where a slim, dark-eyed girl looked up at him as he passed, a faint smile hovering on her lips.

"Bong jour, Mademoiselle," continued Burley, saluting her _en passant with two fingers at the vizor of his khaki cap, as he had seen British officers salute. "I compliment you on your silent but eloquent welcome to me, my comrades, my coons, and my mules. Your charming though slightly melancholy smile bids us indeed welcome to your fair city. I thank you; I thank all the inhabitants for this unprecedented ovation. Doubtless a municipal banquet awaits us----"

Sticky Smith spurred up.

"Did you see the inn?" he asked. "There it is, to the right."

"It looks good to me," said Burley. "Everything looks good to me except these accursed mules. Thank God, that seems to be the corral--down in the meadow there, Brigadeer!"

The fat brigadier drew bridle; Burley burst into French:

"Esker--esker----"

"_Oui_," nodded the brigadier, "that is where we are going."

"Bong!" exclaimed Burley with satisfaction; and, turning to Sticky Smith: "Stick, tell the coons to hustle. We're there!"

Then, above the trampling, whip-cracking, and shouting of the negroes, from somewhere high in the blue sky overhead, out of limpid, cloudless heights floated a single bell-note, then another, another, others exquisitely sweet and clear, melting into a fragment of heavenly melody.

Burley looked up into the sky; the negroes raised their sweating, dark faces in pleased astonishment; Stick and Kid Glenn lifted puzzled visages to the zenith. The fat brigadier smiled and waved his cigarette:

"_Il est midi, messieurs. That is the carillon of Sainte Lesse."

The angelic melody died away. Then, high in the old bell-tower, a great resonant bell struck twelve times.

Said the brigadier:

"When the wind is right, they can hear our big bell, Bayard, out there in the first line trenches----"

Again he waved his cigarette toward the northeast, then reined in his horse and backed off into the flowering meadow, while the first of the American mules entered the corral, the herd following pellmell.

The American negroes went with the mules to a hut prepared for them inside the corral--it having been previously and carefully explained to France that an American mule without its negro complement was as galvanic and unaccountable as a beheaded chicken.

Burley burst into French again, like a shrapnel shell:

"Esker--esker----"

"_Oui_," said the fat brigadier, "there is an excellent inn up the street, messieurs." And he saluted their uniform, the same being constructed of cotton khaki, with a horseshoe on the arm and an oxidized metal mule on the collar. The brigadier wondered at and admired the minute nicety of administrative detail characterizing a government which clothed even its muleteers so becomingly, yet with such modesty and dignity.

He could not know that the uniform was unauthorized and the insignia an invention of Sticky Smith, aiming to counteract any social stigma that might blight his sojourn in France.

"For," said Sticky Smith, before they went aboard the transport at New Orleans, "if you dress a man in khaki, with some gimcrack on his sleeve and collar, you're level with anybody in Europe. Which," he added to Burley, "will make it pleasant if any emperors or kings drop in on us for a drink or a quiet game behind the lines."

"Also," added Burley, "it goes with the ladies." And he and Kid Glenn purchased uniforms similar to Smith's and had the horseshoe and mule fastened to sleeve and collar.

"They'll hang you fellows for francs-tireurs," remarked a battered soldier of fortune from the wharf as the transport cast off and glided gradually away from the sun-blistered docks.

"Hang _who_?" demanded Burley loudly from the rail above.

"What's a frank-tiroor?" inquired Sticky Smith.

"And who'll hang us?" shouted Kid Glenn from the deck of the moving steamer.

"The Germans will if they catch you in that uniform," retorted the battered soldier of fortune derisively. "You chorus-boy mule drivers will wish you wore overalls and one suspender if the Dutch Kaiser nails you!"

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