7. More than fair?
The garrison stockade, a walled-off corner of an old paint storage shed, was
a temporary holding cell for soldiers who'd committed minor offenses. Those
found guilty of more serious crimes were transferred to the stockade at Camp
McKinley. David Fagen and Ellis Fairbanks spent that night and two more
in confinement. Once a day a guard opened the heavy wooden door and
delivered a pan of biscuits and a pail of water, exchanged the night soil bucket,
and then left without a word. The heat of day forced the breathable
air from the cell, and fumes from the tins of paint, turpentine and mineral
spirits burned their lungs and made their heads pound. Fagen scraped
a hole in a corner of the cell's dirt floor for Ellis when the fumes overcame
him and he vomited uncontrollably. Heat and poisonous air quickly weakened
the two men. To them, each passing hour in the nightmarish room seemed
Late the third night the door opened, and a sergeant appeared carrying an
oil lamp. Light flooded the cell, temporarily blinding the two prisoners. "Could
I have a word with you, laddies?" Fagen recognized him immediately. Now
he whistled a merry tune under his breath, and his face showed nothing of the
fear of that day in San Isidro when surrounded by the angry Filipino mob. The
man's casual, off-hand manner hit Fagen wrong, and a sudden, boiling anger
surged through his veins. He tried to stand up, but the long days and
nights in the cell had taken their toll, and he'd grown weaker than he realized. He
fell back on one knee and glared up at the sergeant. "What do you want?"
"You should take it easy, young fellow. You're not looking so good." The
sergeant stopped just inside the doorway and wrinkled his nose. "The
smell of paint in here is enough to gag a skunk. I think I'd better
set this lamp outside in good air. If these fumes were to touch flame,
we could find ourselves blown to smithereens."
Cool night air flooded through the open door into the tiny room. Fagen
lifted his head and took in oxygen. Ellis sat up, leaned against the
opposite wall, and gazed feebly at the cavalry sergeant. Dried vomit
stained his chin, his eyes yellow and bloodshot. "Why are you doing this to
us?" he pleaded. "We never did anything to you. I'd rather be
horsewhipped than locked up in here."
The sergeant looked around the tiny cell. "I think I'd agree with you
on that one, big man, but you'd do well to be careful what you wish for. It's
not me keeping you here, you see. I'm Irish, don't you know. The
Sons of Erin wouldn't do this to a man. It's not in our nature to be
cruel to another. More often than not we've been on the receiving end
of treatment like this. You lads are here because you had the bad luck
to get between a cavalry officer from Virginia and his pride."
Fagen needed every ounce of self-restraint to keep from strangling the chatty
little sergeant with the pink cheeks and the flat, round face. "The
Irish wouldn't put a man in a hell hole like this, but they'll stay silent
while another man does it."
The sergeant squatted, and Fagen smelled whiskey on his breath. "Now
there you've done it, haven't you? You've gone straight to the heart
of the matter. Silence is what I've come to discuss.
"The truth of the matter lads is the story of what happened in San Isidro
has already been written. All it needs now is your... What did the lieutenant
call it? Oh yes, silent confirmation. It seems you two black
fellows, not respecting local custom, tried to have your way with one of the
native women. When her family discovered what you were about, they screamed
like banshees, and you told them all to go to hell. That's when the
real fun started. You lads were in a fine spot. The lieutenant
and me happened to be passing by. Seeing the commotion, we stopped to
help and right away half the blessed town was involved. That's when
you boys ran and hid yourselves leaving me and the lieutenant at the mercy
of the crowd."
"That's a damned lie!" Ellis spat.
The sergeant's tone became conspiratorial. "If I was you, big man,
I'd have done with that kind of talk. It won't pay. If I was
you, I'd stand before the provost marshal and admit what I'd done. Then
I'd be turned loose from this place." The Irishman pulled out his brass
pocket watch. "I'd be turned loose and back in me own bunk in less than
an hour, slumbering peacefully until bird fart."
"So that's it. All we have to do is admit to a lie and it's over?"
"Repentance and redemption, lad," the sergeant smiled, his eyes wandering
to the ceiling. "It's Almighty God's gift to the common man."
"And you could arrange this right now? Tonight?"
"There would be just one other detail, boys. That would be the loss
of a month's pay for each of you."
Ellis jumped to his feet, "A month's pay! To hell with that!" He
went for him, and the sergeant scrambled for the door. Fagen moved quickly
between the two men. The sudden exertion made him nauseous and lightheaded.
"That is another matter isn't it?" the Irishman said. "You see there's
the purse that's come up missing. It must have gotten lost or stolen
in the struggle to rescue you boys. Who knows what happened to
it? The lieutenant said there was eighteen dollars and change in it. Adding
that to the cost of the purse itself, he feels it's only right and a month's
pay each is more than fair."
"Fair is what you call it. I call it robbery and a damned lie."
"Take it easy, Ellis. Let this Irish gentleman finish."
The sergeant held up his hands, palms forward, "I've said my piece, boys. You've
heard the whole lot. You were caught up in the flow of events, as they
say. Truth be told, you probably couldn't have done nothing else. Bad
things just happen to common people like us, lads. We don't often have
a lot of choices. Hell, in another life I might even believe your side
of the story."