The Captain of Artillery
He was old for a soldier, and the years of campaigning and gunpowder had aged him
further, so that he was often mistaken for a retired veteran when he went about town in his dress
uniform with the buttons done up and his collar starched, although it had been only thirty years
since he and his cousin had launched apples out of slingshots in the orchard. He was a soldier
still, though, a captain of artillery, and he had many decorations on his breast and scars on his
flesh from his long and distinguished career.
At the Battle of the Timbers an exploding cannon had given him a cluster of white lines
on his right cheek and his first little silver badge denoting a wound. That winter day had been
only his second in command, and in his haste to fulfill the honor of his new station he’d packed
the charge too full and killed half of the men when the cannon exploded. But the court-martial
ruled it to be the fault of a junior member of the gun crew, and he never overloaded the powder
He gave up a finger at Three Rivers when the infantry failed and a cavalry charge came
over their earthen redoubt and his three gun crews fought the horsemen with swords. They gave
him a medal for bravery and a medal for wounds sustained and a medal of distinction for holding
his ground long enough to spike the guns. They gave the men who were killed white wooden
markers on a hill near the battlefield.
They wouldn’t let him retire because of his talent, and so each time he tried to find a little
farm with an apple orchard they gave him a rank or a medal and he stayed another year. The
artillery hadn’t needed him in the field for some years, so he spent his time teaching in the
Gunnery School. He used to have a wife, but she left; his son was in the cavalry and lived far
2|The Captain of Artillery
Still, he was not unhappy. There were clean and well-lighted cafés near the Gunnery
School where he liked to sit in the evening and drink wine while he remembered the Timbers and
Three Rivers and all the rest of them. He didn’t care to remember the battles but the battles had
been his life; mostly the rest was behind the cannon smoke. He had a month’s leave coming,
though, and was going to spend it visiting his son in Gold City, and the expectation was enough
that for a few nights he did not think much of the battles.
He was sitting in his favorite café, watching the comings and goings and thinking about
an artillery man named Krebs who had been on his crew after Three Rivers. Krebs had been a
joker, and the two of them had had a good time that winter bivouacked in a farmhouse. Then he
took a drink and spotted a man with lieutenant’s bars on his collar and a hat tucked under his
arm. The lieutenant approached his table, but didn’t sit down; his hair was black and brushed
straight back, and he had the look of a man who had earned his rank without killing terribly
“Captain Dardelle?” said the lieutenant. The captain nodded and stood and the two of
them exchanged salutes. He motioned for the lieutenant to join him at the table and the two sat
down, the captain leaning on his elbows, the lieutenant straight-backed with his hat still held
under one arm.
“I don’t get visitors very often here,” said Captain Dardelle. “To what do I owe the
“Sir, I have orders for you,” said the lieutenant. He took a set of papers folded into thirds
from the inside pocket of his coat and handed them across to the captain, who read them while
one hand stroked his mustache. When he finished, he tapped the bottom of the papers against the
table twice, the sound sharp as gunpowder, and set them down.
3|The Captain of Artillery
“These are orders sending me to the front.”
“One month and a half from now.”
“I am visiting my son in Gold City then,” said the captain with a look that was angry but
also very old and used to being given bad news.
“The General sends his apologies, sir, but your expertise is needed. The Captain of
Artillery in the Fourth Army was killed in an explosion.”
“I am visiting my son in Gold City then. He is in the cavalry.”
“Sir,” said the lieutenant, turning his hat in his hands. The café was emptying and the
owner going from table to table talking to the guests who always stayed late. “Sir, there was a
battle at Gold City.”
“It isn’t on the front.”
“They came through the borderlands, along the River Starling. They went much of the
distance by train.”
“And the cavalry?”
“They rode out to meet them.” The lieutenant studied a knot in the wood of the table but
the captain did not look away.
“Look at me, Lieutenant,” he said. The lieutenant looked up.
“Sir, they rode out to meet them, but the cannon were already in place,” he said. The
captain was quiet a moment and pushed his glass away from him. He was a captain of artillery
and knew what would happen to the cavalry if the cannon were already in place.
4|The Captain of Artillery
“I have a month’s leave when these orders send me to the front,” said the captain. “I am
visiting my son in Gold City.”
“Sir?” said the lieutenant, putting his hat on his lap. He had heard stories of old veterans
whose minds eventually wore out and he was afraid it had happened to the captain.
“I am to report in one month and a half,” said the captain. “To go to the front.”
“Yes, sir.” The lieutenant seemed relieved. He was uncomfortable and did not want to
deal with an old man’s tears over his dead family.
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” The captain took up his drink again. “Would you stay for a
“Thank you, sir, but no. I am on duty.”
“Good night, then.”
“Good night, Captain.” The lieutenant stood up and left the café and the old man sat in
his chair and sipped his drink while the owner went round making sure the late-night regulars
had full glasses.
For the next three days he did field exercises with the trainee gun crews and didn’t think
about much aside from the proper packing of gunpowder. From horseback he supervised the
students while they packed their cannons full and rolled the heavy iron balls down the barrels
and touched burning matches to the fuses. The horse took the bombardment stoically because it
had been at the school a long time and was deaf.
Wooden targets had been set up downrange in long ranks so they looked like columns of
soldiers advancing on the battery. The cadets were to load their guns as fast as they could, then
stand ready for his signal to fire. He had a watch in his hand and would fail any crew that
5|The Captain of Artillery
couldn’t load their guns in the specified time. The crews were working hard because failure put
them one step closer to the infantry and there were rumors that the enemy had new guns that
were accurate to five hundred yards. Still, two of the crews were behind, and a third had
forgotten to stuff hay between the powder and the shot.
After the slow crews had finished and the erring crew had been admonished, he rode the
length of the battery with his sword held high, which he had never done in action because he was
needed to aim the cannon; at the Gunnery School, however, he followed protocol. Then he halted
at the end of the line while the guns were aimed with brass quadrants and the matches were lit.
He held a moment while the targets seemed to become men; certainly at such a distance it was
conceivable. With a drop of the sword the battery fired and soldiers were maimed and killed,
horses shot from under them, the cavalry butchered by grape shot and exploding shell, horse and
son going down in a bloody wrack which the captain had himself created.
When the lesson finished he rode back to the school and took his letters from the mail
room. He received regular news on the conduct of the war as it related to artillery; one of the
letters discussed the enemy’s use of cannons during the fall of Gold City, and another lamented
the destruction of the foundries at Smallport by naval bombardment. When he arrived at his
office he found a visitor waiting, a cadet who was soon to graduate, young and red-faced with a
bright uniform and a way of frowning when he spoke. The captain and the cadet exchanged
salutes and took seats opposite one another.
“Cadet Locksley,” said the captain as he straightened some old papers detailing the
production capacity of the Smallport foundries. “What can I do for you?”
“I came to thank you, Captain Dardelle,” said the cadet. “I’m to graduate soon, and on
your recommendation I was chosen for the Fourth Artillery.”
6|The Captain of Artillery
“I’m glad. You’re more than qualified.” He sat back in his chair and pondered Locksley,
who was in truth a very good soldier and would make a fine captain of artillery in time. “They’ll
have you at the front almost immediately.”
“Yes. We’re to have our bags packed during the graduation ceremony; we leave by rail
“Perhaps we will see one another there,” said the captain. He tugged at the corner of his
mustache, fiddled with one of the decorations on his jacket.
“I said we might see one another on the front. The Third Artillery is my regiment, so you
won’t be under my command, but the two are both deployed with the First Army near Gold City.
There’s a very good chance our batteries will be nearby. Remember to take care with the amount
“Of course, sir.” The cadet folded one hand over the back of the other on his knee. “Then
you’ve been recalled to duty, Captain?”
“Yes. In six weeks.”
“Right after graduation, sir.”
“I suspect, Cadet Locksley, that we will be on the same train.” The captain smiled.
“Though I will have a more comfortable car.”
“As befits your rank, sir,” said the cadet, also smiling, though his seemed less weighted
and weary than the captain’s because he had no mustache. When the captain smiled, the
drooping mustachios kept the corners of his mouth from turning up; rather than an uplifting a
smile became a straightening, a move from an overall downturn to neutral.
“What do you have left to do for your classes?” asked the captain.
7|The Captain of Artillery
“Only to show up,” said the cadet. “I’ve passed every required exam except one. Why do
you ask, sir?”
“I’ve a trip to take before I return to the front,” he said. “Out to Smallport, to examine the
guns coming out of the new foundries there. I wonder if you might accompany me. As an
exemplary student and probable future captain of artillery, it would be a good experience.”
“I’m flattered, sir,” said the cadet, his face more red than usual. “But what about my last
“Which course is it in?”
“I can write a letter for you,” said the captain. “You’ve been an excellent student, and I’m
sure they’ll waive the exam at my request.”
“Thank you, sir. I’d be more than pleased to come with you.”
“Excellent,” said the captain, standing. Locksley did the same, and the two saluted.
“Have your bags packed for one month at the courtyard tomorrow at noon. Dismissed.” The
cadet left, and the captain sat down at his desk again and picked up the papers detailing the
destruction of the Smallport foundry. He tapped them against the desk twice and slid the
neatened stack into a drawer. Then he sat a while, looking out the window at the green lawn and
the flags drooping on their poles.
The pair of them traveled out of the city by horse, passing from close-packed houses to
shops and restaurants and finally to the factories on the edge of town, and from there out from
under the clouds of smoke and into the green fields. Each horse was laden down with saddlebags,
but the two men were soldiers and knew how to travel light even though the captain almost never
8|The Captain of Artillery
had on the campaign trail; an artillery train was an excellent place to stow a few extra creature
comforts. The captain’s friend Krebs had hidden enough goods on the powder and shot wagons
that he’d been able to run a makeshift store for the infantry.
They didn’t talk much as they rode because the cadet was conscious of protocol and the
captain was thinking about the fall of Gold City and the Battle of the Timbers and all of the other
things that had happened to him. The prevailing winds were from the south and they rode into
the east so that there was a tree line to their right, a windbreak for the fields. Squirrels chattered
at them as they went. The road was reasonably straight and level, climbing hills when it could
and curving gently around them when it had to. They met a few farmers and a letter-carrier, all of
whom tipped their hats because there was a war on and soldiers were to be respected.
“What made you join the army, Cadet Locksley?” asked the captain when he had had
enough of silence. They were somewhere between two little towns, far enough from each that
traffic was essentially nonexistent. There were gray clouds in the sky, though not many of them,
and the air was moist so that it felt like a cool mist was always on their faces.
“I’m from up north, in apple country,” said the cadet. “I have three older brothers and the
farm isn’t very big. Splitting it four ways would have left me with the west field, and that’s all
rocks and the trees are small and there’s nowhere to build a house. I never really learned to do
much of anything but farm apples, though, so I signed up with the army.” He stopped a moment,
running his fingers through the mane of his horse, then added “Sir.” The captain laughed.
“Don’t worry about protocol for the moment, Cadet Locksley,” he said. “In fact, call me
Dardelle, if you like, and I’ll call you Locksley, and we’ll dispense with the army altogether for a
“What if we meet someone, Capt—Dardelle?”
9|The Captain of Artillery
“In that case we will uphold the long traditions and honor of His Majesty’s artillery
corps. But I don’t think we’ll meet anyone for some time.” Dardelle went quiet, holding his
hands to his stomach where Locksley could not see them. “And the artillery?”
“They had a test,” said Locksley. “They had us in teams of three trying to pull a cannon
out of the mud. My team got it out, so we got sent to the gunnery school.”
“They used to have you shoot a cannon,” said Dardelle. “They saw who could hit the
target and chose them for the school. I suppose powder is too dear now.”
“It’s much better than the infantry,” said Locksley. “We don’t march so much, and it’s
safer back with the cannons.”
“You can ride on them, too,” said Dardelle as he thought of the explosion at the Timbers.
“When the cannon is hitched to the horse you can jump on the carriage. The crew and I used to
take turns at it.” They rode on through the gathering evening, and stayed at a roadside tavern
where they drank free on account of the owner’s son, who was a cavalryman.
Late in the evening Dardelle was drunk. Locksley cut himself off because wine made him
sick, but Dardelle drank and drank until Locksley was sure he would slide under the table; the
old soldier surprised him by staying in his chair, head swaying over his glass, but not stooping.
“Locksley,” he said, “they took my leave.”
“What do you mean?”
“My leave, Locksley, my leave. I had a month. I was to spend it with my son in Gold
“I’m sorry, Dardelle.”
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“They want me back on the front in one month and a half. Is that right, Locksley?”
Before Locksley could speak Dardelle continued. “They must be running short of men if they
send one like me to the front. I’m older than I look, Locksley. How old do you think I am?”
“Sir, I…” Locksley licked his lips. Dardelle was looking at him, the tips of the hairs
above his lip pinkish with wine. “Sir, perhaps in your early sixties?”
“I’m forty-eight, Locksley,” said Dardelle. “But I’ve been burned and cut and barracked
in the cold enough that I feel sixty. Locksley, they killed my son.” He lowered his head and
stared down at the table and said no more. Soon after, Locksley helped him up to bed, and in the
morning Dardelle didn’t remember anything he had said.
The next day they spoke more freely, Dardelle sharing stories of his children to
compliment Locksley’s stories of his childhood. It was a hot day and they rode with their jackets
open, and Locksley broke into a song from the Gunnery School barracks which set Dardelle
laughing so that he very nearly did not hear the sound of hoofbeats coming up the road behind
them, just out of sight around a curve and behind a wooded hill. When he heard them he
buttoned his jacket.
“I think we should get off the road.”
“Why?” asked Locksley, but the captain shook his head.
“Follow me.” The two of them rode into the trees and dismounted, stroking their horses’
noses to keep the animals quiet. The hoofbeats grew louder, and then two mounted military
police came into view, white badges sewn onto the arms of their scarlet jackets. They leaned low
over the necks of their horses and their hands rested on the handles of pistols. The two men in the
woods stood quietly until the riders were gone.
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“Let’s go,” said Dardelle. Locksley didn’t speak as he mounted. The two went back out
onto the road and started along it. They went at a slow clip, and as they crested a hill they saw
the two military police watering their horses at a cow pond. One looked up, grabbed his partner’s
arm, and pointed.
“And now we must run,” said Dardelle. “I am sorry, Locksley.” He kicked his heels into
the horse and leaned low over the neck, and Locksley did likewise. They shot off the road into a
field of low grass. There was a gunshot but the ball flew nowhere near them; even so, Locksley’s
skin rippled like water.
They galloped across the field, Dardelle leading, driving the horses as hard as they dared
and praying that there would be no holes. Somewhere behind them they heard the sounds of
pursuit, but the police came no closer, and only one more shot was fired. The sun battered
Locksley’s eyes, and Dardelle felt sweat running in a trickle down the center of his back. In the
distance there were trees.
Branches snapped as the pair’s horses leaped a low embankment on the edge of the
woods, and the animals whinnied and snorted. The two soldiers were no longer in control,
clinging tight to the horses’ necks as they raced and crashed through the trees. Behind them they
heard shouts and whinnies and then the shouts grew fainter, and then there was nothing but the
snapping of branches and the heaving of horseflesh and the sound of blood in their ears.
When the horses stopped they were in the open again, on the edge of a wheat field. The
horses were sweating and panting, the men’s faces were white and their uniforms torn, but by
some grace all of them, man and beast, were unhurt. Dardelle dismounted and led his horse along
the edge of the field, and Locksley followed.
12 | T h e C a p t a i n o f A r t i l l e r y
“We aren’t going to Smallport,” said Locksley.
“No.” Dardelle paused. “It was bombarded and burned two weeks ago.”
“Then we are away without leave.”
“And you contacted nobody about my final exam.”
“They would not have waived it if I had,” said Dardelle. Locksley tightened his fist
around the reins, but said nothing. They walked on under the sun, the wheat rustling and
whispering alongside them like the hiss of a cannon fuse.
“I am sorry, Locksley.” For a moment the cadet nearly reached for his sword, and he
hated the old man and wanted to kill him. Then the captain turned around and Locksley saw that
he was crying, and that the tips of the hairs on his upper lip were still stained from the wine. The
tears made Locksley angrier than he had been because a captain of artillery had no right to cry,
but they also stayed his hand because a captain of artillery ought not to die with tears in his eyes.
So Locksley said nothing, and the two continued on their way.
That afternoon the captain asked a passing cobbler directions to a place that Locksley was
not familiar with. When the horses had been rested and watered at a stream the two rode onward
in silence for most of the afternoon. Surely Locksley’s career as an officer in the artillery was
finished. Even if he told them he had gone without knowledge of what Dardelle was doing they
would likely never promote him beyond commanding a single gun crew. Most likely both of
them would be hanged. But he watched Dardelle ride with slumped shoulders and his hands
folded in front of him and could not muster the fury to shoot him.
13 | T h e C a p t a i n o f A r t i l l e r y
They came to a wide field with a road running down the middle of it and a series of
small, semi-circular hills on the western side. Dardelle rode along this line of little hills, counting
out loud and giving a man’s name to each one.
“One, that was Corisone,” he said. “Two was Ardennes, three, Beuafort, four Alfonse,
five, five, ah! How could I forget? Five was Sobieski, because he was next in line from six,
which was Clarisoe, who was next to the seventh battery: Dardelle.” He stopped next to the
seventh little hill and dismounted, leaving the horse to wander. The captain walked up onto the
crest of the hill and looked across the field, over the road and the new white fence along it to the
serried ranks of the trees. He sat down and folded his arms around his knees. Locksley
dismounted and approached to stand behind him.
“Three Rivers is five miles north along that road,” said Dardelle. “The fence wasn’t there
back then. Neither were these hills. They’ve changed since we entrenched ourselves. It took us
two days to get all of the guns dug in. There were only ten crews. It wasn’t enough.” He went
quiet while Locksley stood there with his hand on the handle of his sword. Dardelle’s neck was
open and the captain’s hands folded well away from his own blade. There was a breeze playing
in the green grass down below, and despite the height of the grass Locksley thought he could see
furrows where cannonballs had struck and bounced and maimed.
“You see we were poorly placed,” said Dardelle. He was speaking softly but very clearly,
so that it seemed like the grass was telling of what had happened. “We were too low, so when the
general ordered the advance of the infantry we couldn’t shoot anymore for fear of hitting our
own men. Later I would learn the importance of elevation when positioning cannon to support
the infantry, but I was not in command of the battery. I put my gun where I was told. Their
cavalry came out of the trees and the advance became a rout.”
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“Why did we come to Three Rivers, Captain Dardelle?”
“There are good elevations near Gold City.” Dardelle stood up and took out his sword
and used it to gesture at the green lawn as he spoke. “High ridges and hills that face the city
along the road for miles and miles.” With the swordpoint he traced the elevations, as if Three
Rivers had gone and the highlands near Gold City manifested before them. “If their captains of
artillery were wise they would have put guns in all of them. It’s what I would have done. When
the cavalry rode out it would have been into the mouth of hell.”
“Captain,” said Locksley, stepping to block Dardelle’s view, “why did you bring me to
“The cavalry came over here and here,” said Dardelle, pointing to two places on the top
of the little hill which were indistinguishable from any others. “One landed on my loader, but I
put my sword into the other’s thigh.” He would have continued, but Locksley took him by the
shoulders and shook him once, sharply. Dardelle looked at him for a long moment, and from the
town of Three Rivers came the sound of a bell.
“Why do you wipe inside the barrel with a wet rag before you load the powder?” asked
“Cadet Locksley,” said Dardelle, and he pulled himself straight and stuck out his chest so
that the buttons and medals shown brightly and the collar seemed to unwilt somewhat and hug
close to the stiff soldiery of his neck. “Why do you wipe inside the barrel with a wet rag before
you load the powder?”
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“Sir,” said Locksley, adopting the proper posture and protocol by reflex even as he
realized that it was pointless. “You wipe the inside of the barrel in order to extinguish any hot
material that might ignite your powder.”
“Very good, Cadet Locksley.” Dardelle turned away and sheathed his sword and crossed
his arms behind his back. “Perhaps you forget sometimes, though, and the spark stays there.
Maybe you load the powder and it doesn’t ignite that time, but there’s still a hot spark sitting in
the cannon. Maybe you fire and it’s still there, and you forget to extinguish it again. Mistakes are
made in battles. I once put too much powder in and destroyed the cannon.
“Maybe that spark sits in your cannon for ten or twenty shots, and you kill a lot of people
in the meantime. The cannon could work perfectly fine. The spark could even go out and be
replaced by another. Who could tell the difference? That cannon could fire fine time and time
again, and then you could load the powder and the spark could set it off and burn your loader to
death.” Dardelle hung his head and let his hand fall down from where it had rested on his sword.
Locksley stood looking at him. Here was a man speaking as if a routine hazard of firing
cannon were deeply profound. Locksley supposed it was part of age that such things began to
take on significance, but thought, too, that perhaps it was a part of being a soldier for so long.
Dardelle’s son had been killed in a cavalry charge near Gold City; the captain had told Locksley
this, but the cadet did not know how the captain knew the terrain there so well. He didn’t know a
lot of things, in fact, but that had never been a problem; he was a cadet, and therefore expected to
know very little.
“Sir,” said Locksley, “I don’t understand.”
“They killed my son, Locksley,” said Dardelle. “They killed my son, and they never
bothered to put out the spark. We came to Three Rivers on account of the spark.” Then he turned
16 | T h e C a p t a i n o f A r t i l l e r y
to Locksley and snapped to attention once more and drew his sword and presented it to the cadet.
“Cadet Locksley,” he said, “I absolve you of any responsibility for what I’ve done.
Things will go ill for you, for a time, but I hope that in the end they go well. I suspect that
bringing me to the garrison in Three Rivers will help curry favor.” Locksley stretched out his
hand and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the sword. He took it from Dardelle and held it
low at his side. Then he saluted once, sharply, and Dardelle returned it.
On the night that they hanged Captain Dardelle, Locksley was awake late. They had
flogged him, but forgiven his being away without leave, and after finishing his term at the
Gunnery School he was to report to the front as a junior member of a gun crew. He suspected
that there was yet something important about the captain and their ride to Three Rivers that he
hadn’t ferreted out, and he suspected that his not knowing it had very little to do with his being a
cadet. Eventually he went to bed.
He dreamed of the apple orchard where he’d grown up and of throwing apples with his
brothers. In the dream he watched the apples arc through the air and was wide-eyed at the
smooth paths they made and threw apple after apple to see how far they could go. The apples
burst in little clouds of fruit-flesh when they struck rocks and ants came out to eat them, and
Locksley sat down and took a bite out of one and thought of what a fine thing it was to be an