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A watery July sun was hurrying toward a Punjab sky-line, as if weary of squandering his strength on men who did not mind, and resentful of the unexplainable—a rainy-weather field-day. The cold steel and khaki of native Indian cavalry at attention gleamed motionless between British infantry and two batteries of horse artillery. The only noticeable sound was the voice of a general officer, that rose and fell explaining and asserting pride in his command, but saying nothing as to the why of exercises in the mud. Nor did he mention why the censorship was in full force. He did not say a word of Germany, or Belgium.
In front of the third squadron from the right, Risaldar-Major Ranjoor Singh sat his charger like a big bronze statue. He would have stooped to see his right spur bettor, that shone in spite of mud, for though he has been a man these five-and-twenty years, Ranjoor Singh has neither lost his boyhood love of such things, nor intends to; he has been accused of wearing solid silver spurs in bed. But it hurt him to bend much, after a day's hard exercise on a horse such as he rode.
Once—in a rock-strewn gully where the whistling Himalayan wind was Acting Antiseptic-of-the-Day—a young surgeon had taken hurried stitches over Ranjoor Singh's ribs without probing deep enough for an Afghan bullet; that bullet burned after a long day in the saddle. And Bagh was—as the big brute's name implied—a tiger of a horse, unweakened even by monsoon weather, and his habit was to spring with terrific suddenness when his rider moved on him.
So Ranjoor Singh sat still. He was willing to eat agony at any time for the squadron's sake—for a squadron of Outram's Own is a unity to marvel at, or envy; and its leader a man to be forgiven spurs a half-inch longer than the regulation. As a soldier, however, he was careful of himself when occasion offered.
Sikh-soldier-wise, he preferred Bagh to all other horses in the world, because it had needed persuasion, much stroking of a black beard—to hide anxiety—and many a secret night-ride—to sweat the brute's savagery—before the colonel-sahib could be made to see his virtues as a charger and accept him into the regiment. Sikh-wise, he loved all things that expressed in any way his own unconquerable fire. Most of all, however, he loved the squadron; there was no woman, nor anything between him and D Squadron; but Bagh came next.
Spurs were not needed when the general ceased speaking, and the British colonel of Outram's Own shouted an order. Bagh, brute energy beneath hand-polished hair and plastered dirt, sprang like a loosed Hell-tantrum, and his rider's lips drew tight over clenched teeth as he mastered self, agony and horse in one man's effort. Fight how he would, heel, tooth and eye all flashing, Bagh was forced to hold his rightful place in front of the squadron, precisely the right distance behind the last supernumerary of the squadron next in front.
Line after rippling line, all Sikhs of the true Sikh baptism except for the eight of their officers who were European, Outram's Own swept down a living avenue of British troops; and neither gunners nor infantry could see one flaw in them, although picking flaws in native regiments is almost part of the British army officer's religion.
To the blare of military music, through a bog of their own mixing, the Sikhs trotted for a mile, then drew into a walk, to bring the horses into barracks cool enough for watering.
They reached stables as the sun dipped under the near-by acacia trees, and while the black-bearded troopers scraped and rubbed the mud from weary horses, Banjoor Singh went through a task whose form at least was part of his very life. He could imagine nothing less than death or active service that could keep him from inspecting every horse in the squadron before he ate or drank, or as much as washed himself.
But, although the day had been a hard one and the strain on the horses more than ordinary, his examination now was so perfunctory that the squadron gaped; the troopers signaled with their eyes as he passed, little more than glancing at each horse. Almost before his back had vanished at the stable entrance, wonderment burst into words.
"For the third time he does thus!"
"See! My beast overreached, and he passed without detecting it! Does the sun set the same way still?"
"I have noticed that he does thus each time after a field-day. What is the connection? A field-day in the rains—a general officer talking to us afterward about the Salt, as if a Sikh does not understand the Salt better than a British general knows English—and our risaldar-major neglecting the horses—is there a connection?"
"Aye. What is all this? We worked no harder in the war against the Chitralis. There is something in my bones that speaks of war, when I listen for a while!"
"War! Hear him, brothers! Talk is talk, but there will be no war until India grows too fat to breathe—unless the past be remembered and we make one for ourselves!"