• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 16. Telegraph Dog

    By Mark Twain

    More breaking news: After last week’s new discovery from Thornton Wilder, this week brings another previously unpublished story—by none other than Mark Twain, from the new collection Who Is Mark Twain?, on sale this week. At one level this is a classic Twain tall tale, its central joke captured in the title. But for me its great power is in the way it builds toward the final sentence, which transcends the conventions of battlefield fiction with a small moment of honest shock.

    It was in the time of the Indian war, a quarter of a century ago. Company C, 7th Cavalry, 45 strong, had been headed off by a body of well armed Indians numbering 600 seasoned warriors, and had taken sanctuary in a small island in the South Platte a hundred miles from the nearest army post. Their situation was critical, and from day to day it grew worse; for their supply of provisions was slender, and a couple of attempts to get word to the fort had failed. This during the first twelve days. The Indians appeared in force every morning at a judicious distance beyond the river in the plain, and for hours kept up a long-range rifle practice upon the camp. The sharp-shooters of Company C wasted no ammunition—it was too scarce and too precious for that; they only fired when they were nearly sure of their man; the intervals between their shots were wide, but the shots were deadly. In the course of a day’s work they bagged many Indians, while the reckless storm of Indian bullets harvested but a small crop of casualties by comparison. Yet the general result was against the soldiers, for to them the loss of a man was a serious matter, whereas to the enemy the loss of a dozen was of no considerable consequence.

    Sometimes the Indians, driven to fury by the stubborn resistance of the handful of whites cast their native caution aside for a moment and dashed through the shallow stream and tried to storm the camp—but in broad day always; so the whites were ready for them, and flung them back defeated, each time.

    At the end of three weeksthe soldiers were in sorry case. Their commander was lying in the protection of a pit hollowed in the sand, helpless, with both legs broken by balls; eight of his men were dead, twelve were wounded, five of them to disablement; of the twenty-nine still ranking as effectives one was departing under cover of the night to try and carry word to the fort, and the rest were weak from insufficient nourishment and from want of due rest and sleep; the horses were all dead and were serving as breast works and food.

    Now came a lull. The plains were silent, the enemy had vanished. This continued all day. In some breasts it raised a hope—perhaps the Indians had seen smoke-signals warning them of the approach of white reinforcements and had given up and taken themselves off. It was a fair surmise, but some of the old hands said it could mean something of a different sort. Jack Burdick said—

    “They can be hatching something outside of their own usages. There’s a couple of white renegades with them.”

    The remark made an impression.

    “It’s so,” said several: “we can’t prophesy what Indians will do when they’ve that kind of cattle on hand to help invent projects.”

    There was silence for a while and much reflection. Then Phil Cassidy began—

    “If Captain Johnson would let one of us slip over there tonight and—”

    “Well, he won’t,” said Jack Burdick with decision, “so you can drop that notion.”

    It was dropped, and there was another silence. A hundred yards away, down among a growth of young cottonwoods the barking of a dog broke out of the stillness, in a series of strange, sharp, broken notes.

    “At it again,” said Tom Hackett.

    “Yes,” said another; “time-keeper of the camp; when he begins, you know it’s sundown.”

    “Practicing his voice—been an opera dog, Sandy says; expects to get an engagement again when the war’s over.”

    “Not in the way of singing, I reckon,” said Hackett; “it’s too jerky and broken-up; the most undoglike racket I’ve ever heard out of a dog’s mouth.”

    “Sandy calls it staccato—says that’s its scientific name.”

    “It’s a bright little chap, anyway; Sandy talks to him the same as if he was a human.”

    “Yes, and what’s more, he understands—understands every word. He can say to him, ‘Now Billy, you go and snoop around in the bushes at the head of the island, and if you don’t smell Injuns over on the shore, speak up and say so;’ and the dog will trot right off, and by and by you’ll hear him bark, sure enough, showing that he got the whole idea and is furnishing the facts.”

    A doubter laughed, and said—

    “You idiot, that don’t prove anything. How’d you know whether he was telling the truth or not.”

    The rest laughed, and the witness “schwieg,” as the Germans say, and seemed sorry he had said anything.

    “Say—the sun’s down and he’s at it yet. . . . . . There, he’s stopped, but it’s too late. Poor little doggy. It’s an awful pity.”

    “By George, it just is! Why, hang it, we can’t get along without the little cuss—he’s just a dear, and the friendliest little thing—”

    “Just the life of the camp. Right you are, Jack Burdick. Blamed if I couldn’t ’most cry.”

    “What in the nation has possessed Sandy, to let the poor little fellow break the orders?”

    “Oh, you can bet on it he ain’t with him, or he wouldn’t.”

    “Well, maybe the captain—just this once—”

    “No—you needn’t imagine it,” said Jack Burdick sorrowfully, “he loves the little dog, and it’ll hurt him in his heart, but that don’t matter; duty is duty, discipline is discipline, and if his own brother broke an order he’d have to take the proceeds.”

    The men sighed, and said—

    “It’s so. Poor little chap! He was so friendly and sociable.”

    “And is so brave, too. On hand in every scrimmage, like a little man, and fetching things for Sandy, and just as active and satisfied as if it was play.”

    “Yes, and didn’t give a dern for bullets, poor little rat—let them whiz all around him and just ’tended to business, and helped the best he could,” said Jake Foster, in an unsteady voice, for he was only a youth.

    Meantime, down in the cottonwood growth Sandy was saying to the dog—

    “Now you’ve got your instructions, Billy. Do everything the way I told you. The camp’s life is in your hands—in your paws, you understand. Keep me posted, that’s a good dog. They’re coming! Kiss me good-bye, and away you go!”

    Footsteps came grinding through the sand, and a soldier said—

    “I’m to kill him, Sandy—it’s the captain’s orders. I wish it was somebody else.”

    “Too late, ’Rastus, he’s gone.”

    “Gone where?”

    “Gone over to the Indians. Deserted.”

    “Deserted? Him? Billy? It’s a lie; he wouldn’t. Sandy, you made him.”

    “Well, it’s true. I did. It was to save him. He disobeyed orders.”

    “I reckon you’ll be sent for, corporal—just as well come along now.”

    Which he did; and reported to the captain, who said—

    “I am disabled, and in pain—make quick talk—explain this matter.”

    The corporal’s explanation was not over-clear, and contained traces of lying. The captain degraded him to the ranks, and ordered him on outpost duty; and added, sharply—

    “If I have to use a spy, I’ll risk your person in place of a better man.”

    “Let me try it to-night, sir.”


    “To-night, sir.”

    “Do you mean it?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Why, this is—is handsome. I’d give anything to know—to know what this tranquillity means. Come—try it, man, try it! But look sharp, don’t get yourself caught; we can’t spare a man.”

    The men soon knew of the dog’s escape and were glad; and of the corporal’s reduction, and were sorry.


    Three hours later, Billy’s distant bark was heard from beyond the river, and it rejoiced the hearts of the men to know he was alive and out of reach of the executioner. His clack went on during a stretch of fifteen minutes; then Sandy emerged from an ambush among the undergrowth on the head of the island and went groping his way in the dark to the captain’s pit, answering the challenges of the sentinels as he came. His report was important:

    “The renegades have persuaded them to a night attack, sir.”

    “Oh, impossible!”

    “I heard the renegades talking it over, sir, and it will begin at two in the morning.”

    “Do you mean that you have been—”

    “I have been in their camp, sir.” This was not true. “It is in a deep swale in the plain, two miles up to the right, beyond where the big cottonwoods are, in the bend.”

    “You have done admirably, I must say—and bravely.”

    “They are coming in their full strength, sir; half will cross the river at the ford half a mile up, and slip down behind us; and at the signal they are going to spring their surprise in the dark, front and rear.”

    “It is hardly believable—for Indians—but no matter, we’ll prepare.”

    Half of the effectives took position on one side of the island, under lieutenant Burr, the other half on the other side under lieutenant Taylor; a man crossed the river, on each side, and stole out in the gloom and crouched in the grass—no more than these could be spared for picket duty. The two repelling detachments lay on their arms and waited in profound silence.

    Toward two o’clock the pickets stole in and reported the advance of the Indians. After what seemed a long interval, and was a trying and tedious one to the watchers, a multitude of dim forms appeared upon either bank, and crept noiselessly down to the water, and came gliding across like spirits. Nearer and nearer they approached the prone watchers; nearer and still nearer, until the front rank of each mass was within thirty feet of their fate; then Burr gave the signal, two sheets of fire glared out upon the night from the repeating rifles, and glare followed glare, crash followed crash, and the Indians fell by

    The survivors broke away whooping and yelling and disappeared in the darkness. The camp was saved. The ex-corporal was reinstated in his rank.


    No Indians came the next day. They were busy at home, wailing for their dead. The renegades were busy, too. They were smoothing down the anger of the chiefs and trying to explain the miscarriage of their scheme.

    “There is a traitor in the camp,” they said.

    “Then find him,” said the unpleasant chiefs, with rude brevity, “or pay with your scalps.”

    They found the man they believed to be the right one. He suffered death, and the chiefs were satisfied. With the traitor out of the way, another surprise could be ventured with safety, and it was decided upon.

    At night fall Sandy asked Captain Johnson’s leave to go spying again, and got it with grateful promptness. He went to his lair at the head of the island and waited. About ten o’clock his dog’s distant note came down to him on the faint wind, from over the plain, and presently he rose and crept back to camp and reported to the captain.

    “I have been in their midst, sir,” he said, with economy of truth, “and have heard them talk. They are wild with rage over their disaster. The renegades have told them we know Indians too well to believe they will try another night surprise—at least any time soon; that we shall be all asleep to-night, and not dreaming of attack; therefore to-night, of all nights, is the time to try again. The chiefs are persuaded, sir, and game is called for one o’clock.”

    His words were true, and at the named hour there was another double slaughter of savages and a complete victory. When the matter was finished, Captain Johnson sent for Sandy. There the wounded officer lay in his pit, worn and haggard and pale, but there was almost the vigor of health in his voice when he said—

    “I have sent for you to thank you. The medicine chest is by me here, if you can see it—it will answer for a seat. Sit down, sir.”

    “In your presence, sir?”

    “Certainly, sir. I have promoted you. You are a captain, now.”


    The next day the whites had another ominously quiet day, but not so the Indians. Their rage was such that they were almost beyond control. Dark looks were cast upon the renegades, and for a time, near the close of the day, their lives were in danger; but they had a grisly repute as necromancers, and they invoked the evil spirits with awful and spectacular ceremonies and got information which saved them. The spirits said there was still another traitor in the camp, and pointed him out—he was a dead man in five minutes; and they devised a trick upon the whites, and commanded its execution. The chiefs listened to its sombre details, found them to their taste, and promised humble obedience.

    About this time or a little later, Captain McGregor, by permission of Captain Johnson, was starting out spying again. He hid himself in his usual lair, and at ten Billy’s crackling bark began once more to rise upon his listening ear out of the murky remotenesses of the prairie. By and by it ceased, and Captain McGregor betook himself to Captain Johnson’s pit, sat down on the medicine case, and reported.

    “I have just come from their camp, sir, and they have contrived a fresh trick. They will try it, and they are our meat, to a certainty. At noon tomorrow all the six chiefs and thirtyfive picked braves will come disguised as decrepit old squaws, under a truce-flag, and beg for leave to wail for their dead and bury them. They will have knives, tomahawks and revolvers under their ragged robes. They will offer to place half of their number in our hands on the island, to remain while the rest wail and do the burying. When the hostages have reached the island they will pull their weapons and begin the rush, and the
    others will raise the war-whoop and follow.”

    “It ends the campaign; triumph is sure, and the merit is yours, sir. Tomorrow I shall know how to reward you to your full deserving if all goes as we now expect. For the present I will limit myself to thanking you for to-day’s high service, Colonel McGregor.”


    Toward ten, next morning, the glasses showed a slow-moving and apparently bent and rickety body of ancient squaws approaching across the plain. They were expected, and their intended request would be granted. They plodded on. Some distance to their right the two renegades walked slowly along watching them, and talking, the dog Billy at their heels. One of them presently said—

    “Suppose they fail?”

    “But they won’t; there aren’t any spies to give it away this time, that is sure.”

    “Still, I say it again: suppose they fail?”

    “Well, what then?”

    “Shall you want to see the inside of that Injun camp again?”

    “Well—no. No, it wouldn’t do. We shouldn’t pull through alive this time, I reckon. What do you suggest?”

    “I don’t quite know. How would this do? Stop where we are, and wait till they do the rush. It’ll all be over in five minutes. If we hear the victory-song, go and join them and help do the shouting. If we don’t hear it, make for the lower ford and break for a safe country.”

    “That’ll answer. I’m agreed.” They stopped. The dog trotted on ahead and sat down on a knoll a hundred yards away. One of the men said—

    “There is that strange dog that is always around under our heels and has that broken-up bark.”

    “Yes, and only barks at night. I’m superstitious about him, George; we’ve had worse and worse luck from the time he came.”

    “It’s so, Peter. I never thought of it before. I wish we had killed him.”

    “It’s not too late, yet.”

    “Come, then.”

    “Wait a minute—he’s trotting off. Let him settle again.”

    The dog disappeared beyond the hillock. The men waited a long time, scanning the region everywhere, but there was no dog to be seen. Then Peter said—

    “Well, it serves us right. We had our chance and didn’t use it. He is a devil in disguise, probably, and won’t give us another; for I can tell you one thing about that kind of evil spirits, they—”

    A distant crash of guns broke the sentence in two. Then another and another; then an unpunctuated confusion of popping shots and war-whoops which continued during several minutes, then died down, and silence ensued. The two men waited, breathless, for the victory-song. In place of it rose the white man’s hurrah.

    “It’s all up!” said Peter. “Come—no time to waste!”

    “Wait—there’s that dog-bark again.”

    “Come along! If—”

    “Wait, I tell you—I’ve got the secret. I’ve been a telegraph operator; he’s barking the Morse system.”

    “Bosh! Come—we must be moving!”

    “Listen! ‘G-u-a-r-d l-o-w-e-r f-o-r-d—r-e-n-e-g-a-d-e-s—’

    What did I tell you? He has blocked the lower ford against us. We must make for the upper one. Come along.”

    They started on a run.

    “Hi—yonder’s the dog!”

    “In range, too—let him have it!”

    Billy was running. The third shot brought him down with a broken leg. They were soon out of sight, and safe to make the ford if not interrupted. Billy tried to correct his recent telegram, but his pains broke up his message and he had to give it up.

    In the white camp all was joy and gladness; victory was with the flag, and the perilous campaign was over. Captain Johnson called all the survivors before him, and in their presence conferred upon Colonel McGregor the rank of Major General in the Regular Army.

    The Tenth Cavalry arrived before night, and the happiness of the brave little band was complete.

    Toward noon the next day the little dog appeared upon the bank of the stream and lay down there, exhausted with pain and the slow labor of dragging himself so far. He was afraid to go nearer the camp anyway until he should get a pardon, for he knew that he was under sentence of death, and that military customs are strict. He hoped for a pardon, though, and expected it, and was soldier enough to wait patiently.

    Major General McGregor sent for him and would have pardoned him; but when he saw that his leg was broken it seemed best to shoot him; which he did, and Billy died licking his hand and looking his love for him out of his fading eyes.


    “Telegraph Dog,” from the collection Who Is Mark Twain? (c) 2001, 2009 by the Mark Twain Foundation and the Regents of the University of California.

    Who Is Mark Twain? Order now and find out!

    Check out the Mark Twain Project!

    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: