1879: Hat 02: The Cow

This story will be important in a future product.

It was a bright summer day, and the sun hung hot over the barracks yard of Fort Alice. The humidity was just high enough to make a body perspire from mild exertion, with only a bit of a breeze from the mountains nearby to offer any relief.

The latest group of recruits, fresh from London just two days ago, stood in parade formation with rifles presented. Sweat rolled down the faces of most as they stood stiffly under the blazing sun.

Colour-Sergeant Booth stood ramrod-straight in front center of the formation; motionless except for his eyes as he scanned the recruits, and his mustache flickering in the slight breeze. A thin sheen of moisture covered his face, but he didn’t feel the heat – a tour in Africa made the heat here seem like a pleasant warm evening. They were all standing here because yesterday he had overheard several of the new recruits complaining about the heat. He assembled them this morning in full dress determined to show them that a little heat would not deter soldiers of the crown. So far, after two hours, not one had collapsed. Booth was prepared to stand all day if need be, the lesson was too important to the recruits for him to go easy on them, especially considering the tasks they faced.

Looking over the recruits, he noted which looked like they might pass out soon. His gaze passed over the smooth-skinned face of Private Burns, a female recruit, and flinched inwardly. He was having a hard time with the Queen’s proclamation that women could now serve in the army, despite the fact it was nearly a year old. He just could not see a proper British woman in a bayonet charge.

His train of thought was interrupted by a throat clearing purposely behind his left shoulder. He wheeled around to see his subordinate Sergeant Nokwazi already saluting him. He never thought of her as a woman, no doubt because she was a Zulu warrior with many kills to her name. She was a slight woman of middling height, but wiry and strong like steel, and tough as old boot leather. She also didn’t show as much as a drop of sweat despite the considerable heat. He saluted quickly, as he knew she wouldn’t keep him waiting.

“Colour-Sergeant Booth. Lieutenants Morgan and Anderson wish to speak with you at the Rabbit Hole.”

Booth felt like a cloud had just moved over his head and stayed there.

“Bloody Hell!”, he swore quietly, but emphatically.

Sergeant Nokwazi grinned, showing her brilliant white teeth. She, like most officers at Fort Alice, knew all about the “Eccles affair”. Though Morgan and Anderson both swore they had no idea that would happen, it didn’t make Booth feel any better about ordering a man to his death, even if unintentional. Them calling him to the Rabbit Hole could only mean they, or the scientists, had come up with another idea for getting the Hat back to London. Booth sincerely hoped it wasn’t like the idea they attempted nearly two weeks earlier. The scientists had said something about vibrations, and how locking the Hat in a safe, and securing the safe to the floor of a train car would quell said vibrations, allowing the Hat to pass through the Portal. The result was less than successful. The entire train car, including the safe, blew to pieces the second the engine hit the portal, scattering fragments of metal across the fort and derailing the engine. The Hat simply bounced out of the wreckage, quite lazily in fact, and spun to a halt near the Colonel’s feet. It took over a week to clean up, right the locomotive, and repair the tracks, a fact Her Majesty and the Prime Minister were not amused about. So now a new group of scientists were here to find another solution to the problem.

Booth ceased his reverie and looked to Nokwazi.

“They’re handling standing well enough, so take them for a run around the grounds. One of your jaunts.”

Nokwazi was infamous amongst the new recruits for her endurance runs. As a Zulu, she was used to running wherever she needed to go. Her runs were the longest of all the sergeants and took the most torturous terrain she could find, over which she pushed the recruits seemingly without mercy.

She grinned again and pulled out her iklwa. Pointing to the main gate, she shouted to the recruits.

“Fall in column! Run, now!”

The recruits stumbled into a rough column formation with a variety of groans and began running. The column quickly fell to pieces as recruits pulled ahead and fell behind. Nokwazi ran after the stragglers like a jackal, slapping the slowest ones on the thigh with the flat of her iklwa. The crack of the strikes sounded like gunshots, making Booth wince. Nokwazi obviously had the situation well in hand, so he turned and headed for the portal.

He threaded his way through workers and soldiers until he neared the portal. There the human traffic cleared, as no one was allowed near it without good reason. He saw Lts. Morgan and Anderson, a scientist whose name he couldn’t remember, and, most inexplicably, a cow.

Booth walked up and saluted the lieutenants.

“Lieutenant Morgan, Lieutenant Anderson, sirs.”

Lieutenant Morgan looked up from the cow and made a quick salute.

“Colour-Sergeant. We thought you’d want to be here for this. Professor Fenwick believes he has found a solution to the.. uh… what did you call it again?”

A middle-aged man with thin black hair stood up from the other side of the cow. Thick lenses covered his eyes from a brass contraption strapped to his head. The effect made his eyes appear the size of tea cup saucers.

“Oh, yes Lieutenant Morgan, um… yes, sympathetic resonant vibrations.”

“Ah yes, vibrations again. Very good. Anyway Booth, the professor thinks the key to getting the Hat back is to encase it in living matter.”

Morgan inclined his head and shifted gaze to the cow.

Booth looked at the cow, then the professor, then back to Morgan.

“It’s… in the cow, sir?”

“Yes, well you explain it professor.”

Professor Fenwick, rotated a dial on the contraption, moving the lenses away from his eyes. Even without them, his eyes were rather large and watery.

“Well Sergeant, the problem is vibrations tend to shatter hard things, like the safe and the train car. Even the air transmits vibrations, that’s how we hear sounds. But, encase it in soft tissues, and the vibrations are dampened and the Hat may be transported! So we simply sedated the animal, opened her up and inserted the Hat into one of her stomachs. We sewed her back up and she’s ready to go!”

Fenwick positively beamed as he explained the procedure. After finishing, Anderson spoke.

“Very good. Anyway Colour-Sergeant, we thought you’d like to see the Hat go through, so we asked you over. Get the cow ready professor.”

Fenwick prodded the cow, getting it moving towards the portal. Booth leaned in towards the lieutenants.

“Sirs, might I suggest we observe from over there.”, he said, indicating a platform about 20 yards away.

“Nonsense Booth, here will be fine.”

Booth needed no time to consider, “Very good sirs, I’ll just take my leave to there then.”

He headed over to the platform at a brisk walk, then turned to watch.

Fenwick had the heifer moving towards the Rabbit Hole, and was standing back watching her plod along. Not far from him, the lieutenants stood watching and idly commenting.

The cow stopped right before the portal, letting out a long low before stepping in.

The cow exploded with a wet thud, showering all within 10 yards with blood, offal and bits of meat and bone. Fenwick was knocked flat, apparently unconscious, by the force of the blast. The lieutenants were covered head to toe in the remains of the poor creature. Spinning to the stop on the platform, untouched by blood or debris, was the Hat.

Booth strode up to the lieutenants.

“Are sirs all right?”

Morgan nodded dumbly, while Anderson cleared his throat and mumbled something in the affirmative.

“Very good sirs. With your leave, I’ll gather workers to clean up here.”

Booth saluted. The lieutenants stared at him for several seconds before managing weak salutes. Booth strode off, shouting for men to come with shovels and buckets.

It looked like they were going to need some more scientists.

Tally Ho!