His jaw set firmly, his keen, fiery eyes roving over the group before him, the gray-haired colonel of infantry closed his remarks with these words:
“Gentlemen, the task set for the officers of the United States Army is to produce, with the least possible delay, the finest fighting army in the world. Our own personal task is to make this, the Ninety-ninth, the finest regiment of infantry in that army.
“You have heard, at some length, what is expected of you. Any officer present, of any grade, who does not feel equal to the requirements I have laid down will do well to seek a transfer to some other regiment or branch of the service, or to send in his resignation as a military officer.”
Rising to their feet behind the long, uncovered pine board mess tables at which they had sat listening and taking notes, the eyes of the colonel’s subordinate officers glistened with enthusiasm. Instead of showing any trace of dissent they greeted their commanding officer’s words with a low murmur of approval that grew into a noisy demonstration, then turned into three rousing cheers.
“And a tiger!” shouted a young lieutenant, in a bull-like voice that was heard over the racket.
Colonel Cleaves, though he did not unbend much before the tumult, permitted a gleam of satisfaction to show itself in his fine, rugged features.
“Good!” he said quietly, in a firm voice. “I feel assured that we shall all pull together for the common weal and for the abiding glory of American arms.”
Gathering up the papers that he had, during his speech, laid out on the table before him, the colonel stepped briskly down the central aisle of the mess-room. As it was a confidential meeting of regimental officers, and no enlisted man was present, one of the second lieutenants succeeded in being first to reach the door. Throwing it open, he came smartly to attention, saluting as the commanding officer passed through the doorway. Then the door closed.
“Good!” cried Captain Dick Prescott. “That was straight talk all the way through.”
“Hit the mark or leave the regiment!” voiced Captain Greg Holmes enthusiastically.
“Be a one hundred per cent. officer, or get out of the service!” agreed another comrade.
The tumult had already died down. The officers, from Lieutenant-Colonel Graves down to the newest “shave-tail” or second lieutenant, acted as by common impulse when they pivoted slowly about on their heels, glancing at each other with earnest smiles.
“Gentlemen, our job has been cut out for us. We know the price of success, and we know what failure would mean for us, personally or collectively. Going over to quarters, Sands?”
Thrusting a hand through the arm of Major Sands, Lieutenant-Colonel Graves started down the aisle. Little groups followed, and the mess-room of that company barracks was speedily emptied.