Chapter XXVIII THE SWEETHEART OF MONETTI

Jack Van Ryder drawing of cavalry unit buildings

MONETTI was an Italian.

He admitted six years' service in the cavalry of his native country but added no details as to his rank or standing there. His soldierly bearing, his skill with all cavalry arms and above all his horsemanship gave birth to the idea that he had held his commission with the Italian mounted service. This he neither affirmed nor denied.

Sufficient to say that it was a short step between his appearance in the American cavalry regiment stationed on the border as Private Monetti and his rise to Sergeant Monetti. Quiet, pleasant and efficient, Monetti was a soldier.

It is of Monetti the horseman that this tale is told.

The replacements were being issued equipment, Monetti among them. Arms, saddle equipment and bedding were drawn and stowed away in their proper places.

The first sergeant turned to the corporal in charge. "Take these men to the stables and have the stable sergeant issue them mounts," he said. "Tell them that I want no monkey business. Give them horses they can ride." He was recalling the stable sergeant's quaint ideas of humor.

"Okay," said the corporal and the detail moved off to the stables.

Horses were tied on the picket line and assigned by numbers, but as the numbers were checked off one by one Monetti had been watching a dark bay mare. Her dainty head with its fine-drawn lines and flaring nostrils indicated breeding beyond that of the usual cavalry mount. Her coat, silky despite its length, glistened in the sun. It was easy to see that she was not being used for regular duty.

"Sergeant, is this mare assigned!" asked Monetti.

"Naw, but she's no troop horse," replied the sergeant.  "She's too much trouble in column. She's always raising the devil. She's a sweet filly but no good for drill."

Monetti drew another horse but his eye remained on the mare. A few days later he had the first sergeant's permission to work her and there began the combination that was to become famous in the troop.

He called her La Mujer, Spanish for The Woman. And woman she was in more ways than one. Fickle until her interest was really aroused then strong in her loyalty to the one that held it. A creature of changing moods, sweet-tempered until  crossed, then a fighting whirlwind. La Mujer, as the stable sergeant had said, was "usually raising hell and putting a chunk under it."

With the troop commander's permission La Mujer joined the troop. Monetti, already wearing corporal's chevrons, rode her to drill and no mount in the troop performed with better manners. For the first time in her army life she behaved like a lady.

Soon the regiment was ordered to prepare for the field. The punitive expedition was moving into Mexico and the barracks were scenes of apparently wild confusion, out of which came orderly preparation.

When the troop lined up for the final check before riding out to take its place in the column La Mujer stood quietly in her place carrying Monetti, who had just been made a sergeant. The twitching ears and bright soft eyes of the mare were the only signs of her interest in the clamor around her.

The long miles over bad trails, the sometimes insufficient forage and the lack of water in many places began to tell on men and horses. The chase after Villa may not have been a war but to the cavalry in the field the conditions were those of war-time; the trails were just as hard and the wear and tear on men and horses equal to that which a war would have imposed. The pace began to tell and the weaklings among the horses were soon weeded out. Cared for by Monetti, La Mujer stayed slick and neat, making her daily mileage without the fussing that had marked her previous work.

La Mujer and Monetti had become as one.

It was a cold and miserable day. The wind drove stinging particles of sand into the faces of men and horses and the troop riding in the advance guard bowed its collective head, tucked its chin into its collar and cursed Villa and all connected with him. There had been no report of enemy presence in the vicinity but with previous experience in mind the point of the advance guard was taking no chances.

A small collection of adobe huts with the space between them enclosed by a wall attracted the attention of the point. The sergeant rode toward it with two of his men just as the head of the troop topped a rise in the ground behind him. He was not more than fifty yards from the wall when a burst of rifle fire crashed out and his horse crumpled under him. He swung up quickly behind one of his men and rode back to the advancing troop.

The troop commander's whistle shrilled. The column, wind and sand forgotten, swung into line, spreading wide as foragers, and at the signal broke forward at a trot.

It was a quick action and decisive. The small group of Villistas which had been hidden in the adobe had not figured on the whole troop. They had thought the three men were alone and as the full force of the advance guard appeared they dashed for horses and prepared to run for it. Scattering shots from a few of the bolder spirits kicked up sand in front of the advancing cavalry as the officer swung his men into a gallop with pistols drawn.

At the first volley as the cavalry closed in several Mexicans and their horses went down and others surrendered and were quickly disarmed.

But one evidently in command of the small detachment was of sterner stuff. He had mounted a big chestnut sorrel and was attempting to gather his men when the troop charged. Sitting his horse with the easy grace common to the vaquero and slinging a carbine to his shoulder, he snapped bullets toward the advancing line. Till, his rifle empty, he turned to join some of his fleeing men.

"Let him go," called the captain as Monetti, leaning forward on the neck of the mare, gave chase. For the first time in his service with the troop the Italian disobeyed. He never turned his head but urged the mare on, taking the wall in a long bound and striking out after the fleeing sorrel.

The captain watched the chase which he felt was to be a long one since the sorrel was all horse and was carrying a real rider.

Then Monetti rose in his stirrups, drew his rifle from its boot and with a swift sure motion that made the feat look easy snapped the piece to his shoulder and fired. Once again as La Mujer settled into her stride he raised the rifle and again its sharp crack could be heard coming down the wind. But before the second bark of the rifle was heard the fleeing bandit was catapulted from his saddle. The sorrel ran a few steps farther and then, faithful to training, came to a stop with reins trailing.

Monetti rode forward, took a look at the man as he passed him, picked up the reins of the sorrel and rejoined the troop. As he rode directly toward the captain it was noted for the first time that his face and uniform were spattered with blood.

"Sergeant, are you wounded?" asked the officer. "I told you to let that man go.”

"I'm not wounded," said Monetti. "And I heard the Captain."

"Then why in hell didn't you do as you were told?"

'I'm sorry, sir," answered the Italian riding a bit closer to the officer. "I couldn't let him get away with that. Look what he did to La Majer."

It was then that the officer noted the source of the blood. The upper half of one of the dainty ears of the mare had been neatly shot away.

Monetti, soldier that he was, had made his own vendetta for that. Orders were orders -- but not when La Mujer was injured.

The captain looked at the man, then at the dainty stepping horse. His face was a study in conflicting emotions. Finally he said, "Turn that horse over to the stable sergeant and rejoin your platoon. And the next time I give an order -- Well, we'll say no more about that. I'm glad the mare isn't seriously hurt."

Then as Monetti saluted and rode away the captain grinned at the first sergeant and said, "What would he have done if they had killed the mare?"

Continue with Chapter XXIX LITTLE POISON