The Complete Works of Mark Twain

Mark Twain > A Horse's Tale > Chapter VI

A Horse's Tale

Chapter VI


"When did you come?"

"Arrived at sundown."

"Where from?"

"Salt Lake."

"Are you in the service?"

"No. Trade."

"Pirate trade, I reckon."

"What do you know about it?"

"I saw you when you came. I recognized your master. He is a bad
sort. Trap-robber, horse-thief, squaw-man, renegado - Hank Butters
- I know him very well. Stole you, didn't he?"

"Well, it amounted to that."

"I thought so. Where is his pard?"

"He stopped at White Cloud's camp."

"He is another of the same stripe, is Blake Haskins." (ASIDE.)
They are laying for Buffalo Bill again, I guess. (ALOUD.) "What
is your name?"

"Which one?"

"Have you got more than one?"

"I get a new one every time I'm stolen. I used to have an honest
name, but that was early; I've forgotten it. Since then I've had
thirteen ALIASES."

"Aliases? What is alias?"

"A false name."

"Alias. It's a fine large word, and is in my line; it has quite a
learned and cerebrospinal incandescent sound. Are you educated?"

"Well, no, I can't claim it. I can take down bars, I can
distinguish oats from shoe-pegs, I can blaspheme a saddle-boil with
the college-bred, and I know a few other things - not many; I have
had no chance, I have always had to work; besides, I am of low
birth and no family. You speak my dialect like a native, but you
are not a Mexican Plug, you are a gentleman, I can see that; and
educated, of course."

"Yes, I am of old family, and not illiterate. I am a fossil."

"A which?"

"Fossil. The first horses were fossils. They date back two
million years."

"Gr-eat sand and sage-brush! do you mean it?"

"Yes, it is true. The bones of my ancestors are held in reverence
and worship, even by men. They do not leave them exposed to the
weather when they find them, but carry them three thousand miles
and enshrine them in their temples of learning, and worship them."

"It is wonderful! I knew you must be a person of distinction, by
your fine presence and courtly address, and by the fact that you
are not subjected to the indignity of hobbles, like myself and the
rest. Would you tell me your name?"

"You have probably heard of it - Soldier Boy."

"What! - the renowned, the illustrious?"

"Even so."

"It takes my breath! Little did I dream that ever I should stand
face to face with the possessor of that great name. Buffalo Bill's
horse! Known from the Canadian border to the deserts of Arizona,
and from the eastern marches of the Great Plains to the foot-hills
of the Sierra! Truly this is a memorable day. You still serve the
celebrated Chief of Scouts?"

"I am still his property, but he has lent me, for a time, to the
most noble, the most gracious, the most excellent, her Excellency
Catherine, Corporal-General Seventh Cavalry and Flag-Lieutenant
Ninth Dragoons, U.S.A., - on whom be peace!"

"Amen. Did you say HER Excellency?"

"The same. A Spanish lady, sweet blossom of a ducal house. And
truly a wonder; knowing everything, capable of everything; speaking
all the languages, master of all sciences, a mind without horizons,
a heart of gold, the glory of her race! On whom be peace!"

"Amen. It is marvellous!"

"Verily. I knew many things, she has taught me others. I am
educated. I will tell you about her."

"I listen - I am enchanted."

"I will tell a plain tale, calmly, without excitement, without
eloquence. When she had been here four or five weeks she was
already erudite in military things, and they made her an officer -
a double officer. She rode the drill every day, like any soldier;
and she could take the bugle and direct the evolutions herself.
Then, on a day, there was a grand race, for prizes - none to enter
but the children. Seventeen children entered, and she was the
youngest. Three girls, fourteen boys - good riders all. It was a
steeplechase, with four hurdles, all pretty high. The first prize
was a most cunning half-grown silver bugle, and mighty pretty, with
red silk cord and tassels. Buffalo Bill was very anxious; for he
had taught her to ride, and he did most dearly want her to win that
race, for the glory of it. So he wanted her to ride me, but she
wouldn't; and she reproached him, and said it was unfair and
unright, and taking advantage; for what horse in this post or any
other could stand a chance against me? and she was very severe with
him, and said, 'You ought to be ashamed - you are proposing to me
conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.' So he just tossed
her up in the air about thirty feet and caught her as she came
down, and said he was ashamed; and put up his handkerchief and
pretended to cry, which nearly broke her heart, and she petted him,
and begged him to forgive her, and said she would do anything in
the world he could ask but that; but he said he ought to go hang
himself, and he MUST, if he could get a rope; it was nothing but
right he should, for he never, never could forgive himself; and
then SHE began to cry, and they both sobbed, the way you could hear
him a mile, and she clinging around his neck and pleading, till at
last he was comforted a little, and gave his solemn promise he
wouldn't hang himself till after the race; and wouldn't do it at
all if she won it, which made her happy, and she said she would win
it or die in the saddle; so then everything was pleasant again and
both of them content. He can't help playing jokes on her, he is so
fond of her and she is so innocent and unsuspecting; and when she
finds it out she cuffs him and is in a fury, but presently forgives
him because it's him; and maybe the very next day she's caught with
another joke; you see she can't learn any better, because she
hasn't any deceit in her, and that kind aren't ever expecting it in
another person.

"It was a grand race. The whole post was there, and there was such
another whooping and shouting when the seventeen kids came flying
down the turf and sailing over the hurdles - oh, beautiful to see!
Half-way down, it was kind of neck and neck, and anybody's race and
nobody's. Then, what should happen but a cow steps out and puts
her head down to munch grass, with her broadside to the battalion,
and they a-coming like the wind; they split apart to flank her, but
SHE? - why, she drove the spurs home and soared over that cow like
a bird! and on she went, and cleared the last hurdle solitary and
alone, the army letting loose the grand yell, and she skipped from
the horse the same as if he had been standing still, and made her
bow, and everybody crowded around to congratulate, and they gave
her the bugle, and she put it to her lips and blew 'boots and
saddles' to see how it would go, and BB was as proud as you can't
think! And he said, 'Take Soldier Boy, and don't pass him back
till I ask for him!' and I can tell you he wouldn't have said that
to any other person on this planet. That was two months and more
ago, and nobody has been on my back since but the Corporal-General
Seventh Cavalry and Flag-Lieutenant of the Ninth Dragoons, U.S.A.,
- on whom be peace!"

"Amen. I listen - tell me more."

"She set to work and organized the Sixteen, and called it the First
Battalion Rocky Mountain Rangers, U.S.A., and she wanted to be
bugler, but they elected her Lieutenant-General and Bugler. So she
ranks her uncle the commandant, who is only a Brigadier. And
doesn't she train those little people! Ask the Indians, ask the
traders, ask the soldiers; they'll tell you. She has been at it
from the first day. Every morning they go clattering down into the
plain, and there she sits on my back with her bugle at her mouth
and sounds the orders and puts them through the evolutions for an
hour or more; and it is too beautiful for anything to see those
ponies dissolve from one formation into another, and waltz about,
and break, and scatter, and form again, always moving, always
graceful, now trotting, now galloping, and so on, sometimes near
by, sometimes in the distance, all just like a state ball, you
know, and sometimes she can't hold herself any longer, but sounds
the 'charge,' and turns me loose! and you can take my word for it,
if the battalion hasn't too much of a start we catch up and go over
the breastworks with the front line.

"Yes, they are soldiers, those little people; and healthy, too, not
ailing any more, the way they used to be sometimes. It's because
of her drill. She's got a fort, now - Fort Fanny Marsh. Major-
General Tommy Drake planned it out, and the Seventh and Dragoons
built it. Tommy is the Colonel's son, and is fifteen and the
oldest in the Battalion; Fanny Marsh is Brigadier-General, and is
next oldest - over thirteen. She is daughter of Captain Marsh,
Company B, Seventh Cavalry. Lieutenant-General Alison is the
youngest by considerable; I think she is about nine and a half or
three-quarters. Her military rig, as Lieutenant-General, isn't for
business, it's for dress parade, because the ladies made it. They
say they got it out of the Middle Ages - out of a book - and it is
all red and blue and white silks and satins and velvets; tights,
trunks, sword, doublet with slashed sleeves, short cape, cap with
just one feather in it; I've heard them name these things; they got
them out of the book; she's dressed like a page, of old times, they
say. It's the daintiest outfit that ever was - you will say so,
when you see it. She's lovely in it - oh, just a dream! In some
ways she is just her age, but in others she's as old as her uncle,
I think. She is very learned. She teaches her uncle his book. I
have seen her sitting by with the book and reciting to him what is
in it, so that he can learn to do it himself.

"Every Saturday she hires little Injuns to garrison her fort; then
she lays siege to it, and makes military approaches by make-believe
trenches in make-believe night, and finally at make-believe dawn
she draws her sword and sounds the assault and takes it by storm.
It is for practice. And she has invented a bugle-call all by
herself, out of her own head, and it's a stirring one, and the
prettiest in the service. It's to call ME - it's never used for
anything else. She taught it to me, and told me what it says: 'IT
IS I, SOLDIER - COME!' and when those thrilling notes come floating
down the distance I hear them without fail, even if I am two miles
away; and then - oh, then you should see my heels get down to

"And she has taught me how to say good-morning and good-night to
her, which is by lifting my right hoof for her to shake; and also
how to say good-bye; I do that with my left foot - but only for
practice, because there hasn't been any but make-believe good-
byeing yet, and I hope there won't ever be. It would make me cry
if I ever had to put up my left foot in earnest. She has taught me
how to salute, and I can do it as well as a soldier. I bow my head
low, and lay my right hoof against my cheek. She taught me that
because I got into disgrace once, through ignorance. I am
privileged, because I am known to be honorable and trustworthy, and
because I have a distinguished record in the service; so they don't
hobble me nor tie me to stakes or shut me tight in stables, but let
me wander around to suit myself. Well, trooping the colors is a
very solemn ceremony, and everybody must stand uncovered when the
flag goes by, the commandant and all; and once I was there, and
ignorantly walked across right in front of the band, which was an
awful disgrace: Ah, the Lieutenant-General was so ashamed, and so
distressed that I should have done such a thing before all the
world, that she couldn't keep the tears back; and then she taught
me the salute, so that if I ever did any other unmilitary act
through ignorance I could do my salute and she believed everybody
would think it was apology enough and would not press the matter.
It is very nice and distinguished; no other horse can do it; often
the men salute me, and I return it. I am privileged to be present
when the Rocky Mountain Rangers troop the colors and I stand
solemn, like the children, and I salute when the flag goes by. Of
course when she goes to her fort her sentries sing out 'Turn out
the guard!' and then . . . do you catch that refreshing early-
morning whiff from the mountain-pines and the wild flowers? The
night is far spent; we'll hear the bugles before long. Dorcas, the
black woman, is very good and nice; she takes care of the
Lieutenant-General, and is Brigadier-General Alison's mother, which
makes her mother-in-law to the Lieutenant-General. That is what
Shekels says. At least it is what I think he says, though I never
can understand him quite clearly. He - "

"Who is Shekels?"

"The Seventh Cavalry dog. I mean, if he IS a dog. His father was
a coyote and his mother was a wild-cat. It doesn't really make a
dog out of him, does it?"

"Not a real dog, I should think. Only a kind of a general dog, at
most, I reckon. Though this is a matter of ichthyology, I suppose;
and if it is, it is out of my depth, and so my opinion is not
valuable, and I don't claim much consideration for it."

"It isn't ichthyology; it is dogmatics, which is still more
difficult and tangled up. Dogmatics always are."

"Dogmatics is quite beyond me, quite; so I am not competing. But
on general principles it is my opinion that a colt out of a coyote
and a wild-cat is no square dog, but doubtful. That is my hand,
and I stand pat."

"Well, it is as far as I can go myself, and be fair and
conscientious. I have always regarded him as a doubtful dog, and
so has Potter. Potter is the great Dane. Potter says he is no
dog, and not even poultry - though I do not go quite so far as

"And I wouldn't, myself. Poultry is one of those things which no
person can get to the bottom of, there is so much of it and such
variety. It is just wings, and wings, and wings, till you are
weary: turkeys, and geese, and bats, and butterflies, and angels,
and grasshoppers, and flying-fish, and - well, there is really no
end to the tribe; it gives me the heaves just to think of it. But
this one hasn't any wings, has he?"


"Well, then, in my belief he is more likely to be dog than poultry.
I have not heard of poultry that hadn't wings. Wings is the SIGN
of poultry; it is what you tell poultry by. Look at the mosquito."

"What do you reckon he is, then? He must be something."

"Why, he could be a reptile; anything that hasn't wings is a

"Who told you that?"

"Nobody told me, but I overheard it."

"Where did you overhear it?"

"Years ago. I was with the Philadelphia Institute expedition in
the Bad Lands under Professor Cope, hunting mastodon bones, and I
overheard him say, his own self, that any plantigrade circumflex
vertebrate bacterium that hadn't wings and was uncertain was a
reptile. Well, then, has this dog any wings? No. Is he a
plantigrade circumflex vertebrate bacterium? Maybe so, maybe not;
but without ever having seen him, and judging only by his illegal
and spectacular parentage, I will bet the odds of a bale of hay to
a bran mash that he looks it. Finally, is he uncertain? That is
the point - is he uncertain? I will leave it to you if you have
ever heard of a more uncertainer dog than what this one is?"

"No, I never have."

"Well, then, he's a reptile. That's settled."

"Why, look here, whatsyourname"

"Last alias, Mongrel."

"A good one, too. I was going to say, you are better educated than
you have been pretending to be. I like cultured society, and I
shall cultivate your acquaintance. Now as to Shekels, whenever you
want to know about any private thing that is going on at this post
or in White Cloud's camp or Thunder-Bird's, he can tell you; and if
you make friends with him he'll be glad to, for he is a born
gossip, and picks up all the tittle-tattle. Being the whole
Seventh Cavalry's reptile, he doesn't belong to anybody in
particular, and hasn't any military duties; so he comes and goes as
he pleases, and is popular with all the house cats and other
authentic sources of private information. He understands all the
languages, and talks them all, too. With an accent like gritting
your teeth, it is true, and with a grammar that is no improvement
on blasphemy - still, with practice you get at the meat of what he
says, and it serves. . . Hark! That's the reveille. . . .


"Faint and far, but isn't it clear, isn't it sweet? There's no
music like the bugle to stir the blood, in the still solemnity of
the morning twilight, with the dim plain stretching away to nothing
and the spectral mountains slumbering against the sky. You'll hear
another note in a minute - faint and far and clear, like the other
one, and sweeter still, you'll notice. Wait . . . listen. There
it goes! It says, 'IT IS I, SOLDIER - COME!' . . .


. . . Now then, watch me leave a blue streak behind!"

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