Chapter XVII. The Drill Contest
 

While the Winnebagos were gasping under the cold shower of upsetting events, time marched steadily onward toward the day set for the military drill contest between Oakwood and Hillsdale. In these last days the Winnebagos realized what it meant to have the honor of a town on their shoulders. Although they had little heart for drilling they must turn out every day with their company of Oakwood girls just as if nothing had happened, must be the life and brains of the company and never appear to let their enthusiasm flag. Everyone in town depended upon them to win the contest for Oakwood; everywhere they went they were greeted with pleasant smiles and complimentary remarks; they were touched and flattered by the confidence that was reposed in them--they simply had to win that contest for Oakwood. No one else knew anything about Veronica; that was kept a state secret. The Winnebagos simply told Miss Raper that she had been called out of town and would not be in the contest, and Miss Raper chose another girl to put in her place.

Migwan and Gladys and Hinpoha were sitting together getting the suits ready which they were to wear in the drill--white skirts and middies, white shoes and stockings, red, white and blue arm band--when Sahwah came in waving an envelope over her head. "Letter from Nyoda!" she called. The three dropped their sewing and fell upon her in a body.

"Open it quick!"

"Here, take the scissors."

"Oh, read it out loud, Migwan, I can't wait until it's passed around."

Migwan promptly complied while the rest listened eagerly as she read:

Good Samaritan Hospital, St. Margaret's, N.S.

DEAR GIRLS:

Oh, I'm so thankful I can hardly write; my pen wants to dance jigs instead of staying on the lines, but I must let you know at once because I know how anxious you have been. Sherry is out of danger, he rounded the corner today, and there isn't much doubt about his recovery.

But if you had ever seen the day I arrived--! I got to St. Margaret's in the afternoon, tumbled into the first cab that stood outside the station; begged the driver to lose no time getting to the hospital, and went rattledly banging over the rough streets as though we were fleeing from the German army. The hospital was filled to overflowing with the survivors of the wreck, all of whom had been brought into the port of St. Margaret's. Beds were everywhere--in the offices, in the corridors, in the entries. It took me some time to locate Sherry because there was so much confusion, but I found him at last in one of the wards.

As I came up I heard a doctor who had been attending him say to the nurse beside him, "It's all up with him, poor chap."

Then he turned around and saw me standing there, and I said quietly, "I am his wife."

He and the nurse exchanged glances, and he looked distressed. He seemed to expect me to go off into a fit or a faint, and looked surprised because I stayed so calm. I was surprised myself. I seemed to be in a dream and moved and acted quite automatically.

Sherry did not know me; he had been struck on the head while swimming for a lifeboat, and had been insensible for hours. The doctors said his skull was fractured. They had done everything they could; there was nothing to do now but wait until the end came.

I had had nothing to eat all day, because I had been too nervous to eat on the train. But I stayed by his bedside all that night watching. He was still living in the morning and I left him at times to help look after other patients, because the nurses simply couldn't get around fast enough.

One of the men I waited on was a friend of Sherry's, a Y.M.C.A. man. He said that Sherry was being sent back to America to give a series of lectures. Just think! to have come safely through those awful months in the trenches, and then to perish when so near home!

For three days he lay in a stupor and all that time I never slept a wink because they said the end would come any minute without warning. But instead of that he opened his eyes without warning this morning, recognized me, and said, "Hello, Elizabeth," as casually as if we hadn't been separated for a year.

He's been awake now for five hours and the doctor says he's out of danger. I sort of let go then when the tension was over, but I've slept a bit since and have got a grip on myself again. I'm so happy that I feel like dancing a jig up and down the wards, and it is only with great difficulty that I can restrain myself.

I must stop now, because Sherry is clamoring for refreshments.

Your blissful, too-thankful-to-live

NYODA.

P.S. The soap is in the closet under the kitchen stairs. I forgot to tell you before I went away.

A chorus of glad cries greeted the reading of the letter. "Sherry's going to get well! Isn't it wonderful?"

Hinpoha and Migwan flung their arms around each other in an exuberance of feeling just at the same moment that Sahwah and Gladys did the same thing, and they all laughed and hugged each other for joy.

"Dear Nyoda! Think of her, going without sleep for three nights and keeping up through it all!"

"And helping to take care of the other injured ones! Isn't that Nyoda all over, though--Give Service, no matter how badly she might feel herself!"

"But, she never said a word about Veronica," said Sahwah in a puzzled tone, when the first excitement had subsided. "I can't understand it."

"She probably forgot it, she was so thankful about Sherry," said Gladys.

"Not she," replied Sahwah positively. "She couldn't have gotten our letter. I'm going to write again."

       *       *       *       *       *

The day of the great contest had arrived. It was the 15th of August, the day on which Oakwood celebrated the one hundred and seventieth anniversary of its founding. An elaborate celebration had been prepared, with parades and pageants in the daytime, and fireworks and a sham battle at night. The military drill contest had been a part of this celebration, that Oakwood's victory over Hillsdale might have a more spectacular setting. Oakwood was making much more of an occasion out of that contest than the Winnebagos had expected and their sporting blood began to tingle. The thought of winning before all that crowd thrilled them through and through.

Agony was in a high feather. Hers was a nature which expanded in the limelight; crowded audiences inspired her to outdo herself instead of "fussing" her as they did Oh-Pshaw. She could hardly wait for their hour to strike.

The contest was at five in the afternoon, after the parade and before the evening's program of fireworks. At four o'clock the Hillsdale delegation drove into town in hayracks decorated with flags and bunting, the troop of Girl Scouts who were going to drill in the first rack, and after them several racks full of Hillsdale girls and boys, coming to watch the contest.

"There they come!" whispered the Oakwood girls to each other, and the thrill of the coming struggle began to go through them at the sight of their adversaries.

"Oh, I'm afraid I'm going to make a mistake!" said Oh-Pshaw, turning quite cold. "I'll never get through that field formation wheel, I know."

"You will not make a mistake," said Agony emphatically. "Don't think about the audience, just think about that trip to Washington we're going to get, and keep cool. I don't see what you're so excited for anyway. I'm not a bit scared." Then she added, "How are you ever going to be a Torch Bearer if you can't keep cool?" It was a home thrust, and Agony knew it. Oh-Pshaw wanted to be a Torch Bearer more than anything else and she considered this occasion a test of her fitness. She must not get rattled!

The contest took place on Commons Field. A tent had been set up on either end of the field for the use of the people in the pageant, and the two drill companies used these tents as points of entry upon the drill grounds, forming their squads inside. The judges, who were three military men belonging neither to Oakwood nor Hillsdale, sat half way up the hill overlooking the center of the grounds. The Hillsdales, being the visitors, were given the privilege of drilling first.

The Oakwood girls looked on critically as their rivals marched out on the field and began their maneuvers. The Hillsdale supporters began to cheer and kept it up incessantly. The spirits of the Oakwood girls rose as they watched. The Hillsdale Scouts did their steps perfectly, they had to admit, but they lacked "pep." The Winnebagos knew they could put a dash into their performance that would beat this mere mechanical perfection all hollow. Their nervousness left them; the music of the band, the presence of the crowd, the sight of themselves in their natty white uniforms had gone to their heads like wine. They were inspired; they could hardly wait to get out on the drill grounds; they knew they would march as they had never marched before.

The Hillsdale Scouts finished their maneuvers and marched off amid a wild outbreak of applause from their friends, and Oakwood, tingling with eagerness, sprang to attention at Miss Raper's command. The bugle blew its signal for their entrance, the band crashed into a march and the squads began to move forward. A roar of applause went up from the crowds on the hillside; Oakwood citizens hailed their champions with all their powers of heart and voice.

"CAMP FIRE GIRLS!" yelled several thousand enthusiastic throats. The Winnebagos thrilled as they had never thrilled before. Here was the whole town honoring them, them, depending upon them to lead the Oakwood girls to victory over the ancient rival, Hillsdale. Agony was nearly suffocating with pride; applause was the breath of life to her.

The company came to a halt opposite the judges, one squad behind the other.

"Squads Left--Hunch!" Miss Raper's sharp command pierced them like a bullet. With the ease of long practice the squads moved in obedience to the command. The maneuvers had commenced. Command after command rang out, which they obeyed with conscious snap and finish, pivoting, wheeling, rear marching, left and right flanking in perfect step and rhythm. Applause was continuous, Oakwood citizens had recognized the "pep" in their performance and knew what the decision of the judges would be.

The first half of the maneuvers was over; there remained now only the prize figure of the drill, the difficult field formation, in which the squads wheeled into the form of a cross and then revolved by fours around a common center, like the spokes of a wheel going around. It was a complicated figure and required rapid thinking as to whether to turn to right or left in certain places.

The first half of the figure was executed without a flaw; the squads stood ready to form the cross. "Ready--Wheel!"

Alas for Oh-Pshaw! When the critical moment arrived and she got to thinking how dreadful it would be if she should make a mistake, she went all to pieces, lost her head and marched forward instead of backward, crashing violently into Agony, who was marching with the four ahead. Not prepared for the collision, Agony lost her footing and went down in a heap on the ground, covering her white suit with dust from head to foot. A simultaneous gasp of dismay went up from the audience and the company, while the Hillsdale-ites laughed triumphantly. One of the Hillsdale boys, a youth of eighteen, who considered himself superlatively funny, called out, "Oakwood Squad, Awkw'd Squad!"

Agony scrambled to her feet, white with anger, and Oh-Pshaw stood still where the collision had occurred, too horrorstruck to move. A low command from Miss Raper and the squads righted themselves into line and proceeded with the maneuver. There was no vim left, however. Oakwood had lost. They heroically struggled through the remainder of the figure, but Oh-Pshaw, completely demoralized, made one misturn after the other. The bugler "sounded off" and the contest was over.

The Winnebagos and their company would have fled away and hidden themselves, but no, they must march back onto the field with the Hillsdale company to hear the decision of the judges. It was a fearful ordeal, that standing up before the disappointed citizens of Oakwood to hear their triumphantly smiling rivals pronounced the victors, one that taxed the courage and composure of the girls to the utmost. With a desperate effort to appear blandly indifferent to the decision they stood frozen stiff at attention, carefully avoiding every eye in the audience. The spokesman of the judges stood up and prolonged the torture five long minutes, by complimenting first one company and then the other upon different points of their performance. It seemed he would never come to the point and pronounce Hillsdale the winner. All that time Agony stood there, acutely conscious of the dust on her dress, boiling with fury at Oh-Pshaw because she had caused her to make a spectacle of herself. The taunt, "Oakwood Squad, Awkw'd Squad," still rankled in her breast.

The spokesman came to the point at last, and with much flowery language announced that "all things considered, Hillsdale had displayed a greater degree of excellency," etc. A splitting cheer went up from the Hillsdale visitors; the Oakwood citizens were glum and silent. With a last desperate effort to maintain an outwardly Stoic attitude the Winnebagos marched with their company from the field. It was all over. Oakwood had trusted in them, and they had not fulfilled the trust.

Once inside the shelter of their tent the company gave way to tears in some spots and to wrath in others. Agony turned furiously upon Oh-Pshaw and vented her rage and disappointment in angry up-braidings; Hinpoha wept unconsolably; Gladys looked a world of reproach whenever she turned to Oh-Pshaw, and even gentle Migwan exclaimed in a voice that was sharp with disappointment, "Oh, Oh-Pshaw, how could you?"

Poor Oh-Pshaw! She felt as though she could never hold up her head again. She could never be a Torch Bearer now; she had disgraced the Winnebagos, they would never have anything more to do with her. Agony, her beloved twin, had turned against her; there was nothing left in the world for her now. With quivering lips and smarting eyes she slipped out of the tent and lost herself in the crowd outside. The rest did not notice her going; they were too busy lamenting. By and by Sahwah looked around and missed her.

"Where's Oh-Pshaw?" she asked.

"I don't know," replied Hinpoha, noticing for the first time that she was no longer in the tent. "She was here a minute ago."

"She'd better run and hide," sputtered Agony, still vindictive in her wounded pride.

Sahwah stared at Agony thoughtfully and her sympathy went out to Oh-Pshaw, having to bear the whole brunt of their disaster, her whole day spoiled for her. Other features of the celebration were going on in Oakwood; the pageant of the Early Founders was beginning. "Come on out and see what's going on," said Sahwah, who hated to miss anything, even for the melancholy pleasure of crying over spilt milk.

So they drifted back into the celebration and their interest in the proceedings soon began to dull the sharpness of their disappointment. Oh-Pshaw was nowhere to be seen, however, and by-and-by Sahwah slipped away from the others and went in search of her. She guessed that Oh-Pshaw might have gone home, to get away from the girls, and went to the house, but it was closed and locked, and there was no sign of Oh-Pshaw in the garden anywhere. Then Sahwah remembered that Oh-Pshaw had a favorite nook out in the woods where she went when she wanted to be alone, a wide-spreading, low-boughed chestnut tree in a dense, shady grove, away from the singing brook with its terrifying gurgle; into the branches she climbed and sat as in a great wide armchair, secure from interruption. She had taken Sahwah with her once. Of course that was where she would go.

Sahwah hesitated a moment. Over on Main Street the fun was going at full blast; it was just about time for the balloon to go up. If she went out to look for Oh-Pshaw she would miss it. After all, Oh-Pshaw might not have gone to the woods; she might be in the crowd somewhere, watching the performance where the girls couldn't see her. But Sahwah knew Oh-Pshaw, and knew that she considered herself disgraced and that she would have no heart to look at the rest of the performance. She had a vision of Oh-Pshaw sitting disconsolate out in the woods, hiding away from the festivities, and that vision refused to go away.

"I'll go and see, anyway," Sahwah decided resolutely, "and if she is there I'll make her come back with me, and if she isn't, there's no harm done by going. I've seen balloons before, and I'll see them again."

Turning her back on the festive town she took the path to the woods, and hurried along with light, swift footsteps, humming as she went. Just inside the woods she pounced on something in the path with a little exclamation of triumph. It was a red, white and blue arm band, undoubtedly Oh-Pshaw's. She had come to the woods after all. Sahwah sped on to the big chestnut tree, finding it without difficulty, although she had only been there once. Sure enough, there was Oh-Pshaw, all curled up in the embrace of the wide branches, her face in her arms, the picture of abandoned woe. Sahwah swung up beside her and called her gently by name. Oh-Pshaw raised her head with a start and looked surprised when she saw who it was.

"Hello," she responded forlornly to Sahwah's greeting.

"Don't take it so to heart," said Sahwah cheerfully. "It wasn't as bad as you think."

"The girls will never speak to me again," said Oh-Pshaw dismally, "and you can't blame them, either."

"Oh, come, they will, too," said Sahwah. "They're all over it already and out enjoying the rest of the show. Come on back. You wouldn't want to miss the sham battle for anything."

Oh-Pshaw's woebegone look began to fade from her face and her heart was warmed clear to the bottom at the thought of Sahwah's leaving the celebration and coming all the way out here to find her. The world took on a cheerful hue again; she sat up and dried her eyes and began to smooth out her crumpled uniform. Sahwah jumped lightly from the tree and Oh-Pshaw followed her, but Oh-Pshaw's foot had gone to sleep from sitting on it so long and she jumped stiffly and came down on a jagged stump, skinning her shin from ankle to knee and giving the knee itself a bad bump.

"Anything broken?" asked Sahwah, bending solicitously over the injured member and inspecting the damage.

"I guess not," replied Oh-Pshaw, wincing with the pain, "though it hurts like fury. I guess it's just skinned."

Sahwah bound up the two places that were bleeding the most with her handkerchief and Oh-Pshaw's and was gently replacing the stocking when her ears caught a sound--a noise like the humming of a giant bee. "What's that noise?" asked Oh-Pshaw.

"It's an aeroplane," said Sahwah. "It must be the aeroplane that's coming over from Philadelphia to take part in the sham battle. The one has been in Oakwood all day, but the other hadn't arrived yet when I started out to look for you. It's coming in this direction, over the woods. Come on, let's run to the open space by the Devil's Punch Bowl and see if he flies over there." Sahwah seized Oh-Pshaw by the hand and started away on a run, and Oh-Pshaw followed as best she could for the pain in her knee. The humming noise grew louder and louder as they ran, and then suddenly it stopped altogether.

"Where is he, is he gone?" asked Oh-Pshaw in disappointment.

"I can't imagine," replied Sahwah, looking up in bewilderment when they came out beside the Punch Bowl. "No, there he is," she cried, as the machine suddenly shot into sight directly above them. "Oh-Pshaw!" she screamed, "it's coming down!"

Rooted to the spot, they watched it, as nose downward the machine came rushing toward them, struck against the rock cliffs high above them and dropped with a terrific splash into the Devil's Punch Bowl.