THE RAID OF THE GUERILLA
By Charles Egbert Craddock
Judgment day was coming to Tanglefoot Cove—somewhat in advance of the expectation of the rest of the world. Immediate doom impended. A certain noted guerilla, commanding a reckless troop, had declared a stern intention of raiding this secluded nook among the Great Smoky Mountains, and its denizens could but tremble at the menace.
Few and feeble folk were they. The volunteering spirit rife in the early days of the Civil War had wrought the first depletion in the number. Then came, as time wore on, the rigors of the conscription, with an extension of the limits of age from the very young to the verge of the venerable, thus robbing, as was said, both the cradle and the grave. Now only the ancient weaklings and the frail callow remained of the male population among the women and girls, who seemed mere supernumeraries in the scheme of creation, rated by the fitness to bear arms.
So feeble a community of non-combatants might hardly compass a warlike affront calculated to warrant reprisal, but the predominant Union spirit of East Tennessee was all a-pulse in the Cove, and the deed was no trifle.
"'T war Ethelindy's deed," her grandfather mumbled, his quivering lips close to the knob of his stick, on which his palsied, veinous hands trembled as he sat in his armchair on the broad hearth of the main room in his little log cabin.
Ethelinda Brusie glanced quickly, furtively, at his pondering, wrinkled old face under the broad brim of his white wool hat, which he still wore, though indoors and with the night well advanced. Then she fixed her anxious, excited blue eyes once more on the flare of the fire.
"Lawd! ye jes' now f 'und that out, dad?" exclaimed her widowed mother, busied in her evening task of carding wool on one side of the deep chimney, built of clay and sticks, and seeming always the imminent prey of destruction. But there it had stood for a hundred years, dispensing light and warmth and cheer, itself more inflammable than the great hickory logs that had summer still among their fibres and dripped sap odorously as they sluggishly burned.
Ethelinda cast a like agitated glance on the speaker, then her gaze reverted to the fire. She had the air of being perched up, as if to escape the clutching waves of calamity, as she sat on a high, inverted splint basket, her feet not touching the puncheons of the rude floor, one hand drawing close about her the red woollen skirt of her dress. She seemed shrunken even from her normal small size, and she listened to the reproachful recital of her political activity with a shrinking dismay on her soft, roseate face.
"Nuthin' would do Ethelindy," her granny lifted an accusatory voice, still knitting briskly, though she looked rebukingly over her spectacles at the cowering girl, "when that thar Union dee-tachmint rid into Tanglefoot Cove like a rat into a trap——"
"Yes," interposed Mrs. Brusie, "through mistakin' it fur Greenbrier Cove."
"Nuthin' would do Ethelindy but she mus' up an' offer to show the officer the way out by that thar cave what tunnels through the spur of the mounting down todes the bluffs, what sca'cely one o' the boys left in the Cove would know now."
"Else he'd hev been capshured," Ethelinda humbly submitted.
"Yes"—the ruffles of her grandmother's cap were terrible to view as they wagged at her with the nodding vehemence of her prelection—"an' you will be capshured now."
The girl visibly winced, and one of the three small boys lying about the hearth, sharing the warm flags with half a dozen dogs, whimpered aloud in sympathetic fright. The others preserved a breathless, anxious silence.
"You-uns mus' be powerful keerful ter say nuthin' 'bout Ethelindy's hand in that escape of the Fed'ral cavalry"—the old grandfather roused himself to a politic monition. "Mebbe the raiders won't find it out—an' the folks in the Cove dun'no' who done it, nuther."
"Yes, bes' be keerful, sure," the gran-dame rejoined. "Fur they puts wimmin folks in jail out yander in the flat woods;" still glibly knitting, she jerked her head toward the western world outside the limits of the great ranges. "Whenst I war a gal I war acquainted with a woman what pizened her husband, an' they kep' her in jail a consider'ble time—a senseless thing ter do ter jail her, ter my mind, fur he war a shif'less no-'count fool, an' nobody but her would hev put up with him ez long ez she did. The jedge an' jury thunk the same, fur they 'lowed ez she war crazy—an' so she war, ter hev ever married him! They turned her loose, but she never got another husband—I never knowed a man-person but what was skittish 'bout any unhealthy meddlin' with his vittles."
She paused to count the stitches on her needles, the big shadow of her cap-ruffles bobbing on the daubed and chinked log walls in antic mimicry, while down Ethelinda's pink cheeks the slow tears coursed at the prospect of such immurement.
"Jes' kase I showed a stranger his path——"
"An' two hundred an' fifty mo'—spry, good-lookin' youngsters, able to do the rebs a power o' damage."
"I war 'feared they'd git capshured. That man, the leader, he stopped me down on the bank o' the creek whar I war a-huntin' of the cow, an' he axed 'bout the roads out'n the Cove, an' I tole him thar war no way out 'ceptin' by the road he had jes' come, an' a path through a sorter cave or tunnel what the creek had washed out in the spur o' the mounting, ez could be travelled whenst the channel war dry or toler'ble low, an' he axed me ter show him that underground way."
"An' ye war full willin," said Mrs. Brusie, in irritation, "though ye knowed that thar guerilla, Ackert, hed been movin' heaven an' earth ter overhaul Tolhurst's command before they could reach the main body. An' hyar they war cotched like a rat in a trap."
"I was sure that the Cornfeds, ez hed seen them lope down inter the Cove, would be waitin' ter capshur them when they kem up the road agin—I jes' showed him how ter crope out through the cave," Ethelinda sobbed.
"How in perdition did they find thar way through that thar dark hole?—I can't sense that!" the old man suddenly mumbled.
"They had lanterns an' some pine-knots, grandad, what they lighted, an' the leader sent a squad ter 'reconnoitre,' ez he called it. An' whilst he waited he stood an' talked ter me about the roads in Greenbrier an' the lay o' the land over thar. He war full per-lite an' genteel."
"I'll be bound ye looked like a 'crazy Jane,'" cried the grandmother, with sudden exasperation. "Yer white sun-bonnet plumb off an' a-hangin' down on yer shoulders, an' yer yaller hair all a-blowsin' at loose eends, stiddier bein' plaited up stiff an' tight an' personable, an' yer face burned pink in the sun, stiddier like yer skin ginerally looks, fine an' white ez a pan o' fraish milk, an' the flabby, slinksy skirt o' that yaller calico dress 'thout no starch in it, a-flappin' an' whirlin' in the wind—shucks! I dun'no' whut the man could hev thought o' you-uns, dressed out that-a-way."
"He war toler'ble well pleased with me now, sure!" retorted Ethelinda, stung to a blunt self-assertion. "He keered mo' about a good-lookin' road than a good-lookin' gal then. Whenst the squad kem back an' reported the passage full safe for man an' beastis the leader tuk a purse o' money out'n his pocket an' held it out to me—though he said it couldn't express his thanks.' But I held my hands behind me an' wouldn't take it. Then he called up another man an' made him open a bag, an' he snatched up my empty milk-piggin' an' poured it nigh full o' green coffee in the bean—it be skeerce ez gold an' nigh ez precious."
"An' what did you do with it, Ethelindy?" her mother asked, significantly—not for information, but for the renewal of discussion and to justify the repetition of rebukes. These had not been few.
"You know," the girl returned, sullenly.
"I do," the glib grandmother interposed. "Ye jes' gin we-uns a sniff an' a sup, an' then ye tuk the kittle that leaks an' shook the rest of the coffee beans from out yer milk-piggin inter it, an' sot out an' marched yer-self through the laurel—I wonder nuthin' didn't ketch ye! howsomever naught is never in danger—an' went ter that horspital camp o' the rebels on Big Injun Mounting—smallpox horspital it is—an' gin that precious coffee away to the enemies o' yer kentry."
"Nobody comes nor goes ter that place—hell itself ain't so avoided," said Mrs. Brusie, her forehead corrugated with sudden recurrence of anxiety. "Nobody else in this world would have resked it, 'ceptin' that headin' contrairy gal, Ethelindy Brusie."
"I never resked nuthin," protested Ethelinda. "I stopped at the head of a bluff far off, an' hollered down ter 'em in the clearin' an' held up the kittle. An' two or three rebs war out of thar tents in the clearin'—thar be a good sight o' new graves up thar!—an' them men war hollerin' an' wavin' me away, till they seen what I war doin'; jes' settin' down the kittle an' startin' off."
She gazed meditatively into the fire, of set purpose avoiding the eyes fixed upon her, and sought to justify her course.
"I knowed ez we-uns hed got used ter doin' 'thout coffee, an' don't feel the need of it now. We-uns air well an' stout, an' live in our good home an' beside our own h'a'th-stone; an' they air sick, an' pore, an' cast out, an' I reckon they ain't ever been remembered before in gifts. An' I 'lowed the coffee, bein' unexpected an' a sorter extry, mought put some fraish heart an' hope in 'em—leastwise show 'em ez God don't 'low 'em ter be plumb furgot."
She still gazed meditatively at the fire as if it held a scroll of her recollections, which she gradually interpreted anew. "I looked back wunst, an' one o' them rebs had sot down on a log an' war sobbin' ez ef his heart would bust. An' another of 'em war signin, at me agin an' agin, like he was drawin' a cross in the air—one pass down an' then one across—an' the other reb war jes' laffin' fur joy, and wunst in a while he yelled out: 'Blessin's on ye! Blessin's! Blessin's!' I dun'no' how fur I hearn that sayin'. The rocks round the creek war repeatin' it, whenst I crossed the f oot-bredge. I dun'no what the feller meant—mought hev been crazy."
A tricksy gust stirred at the door as if a mischievous hand twitched the latch-string, but it hung within. There was a pause. The listening children on the hearth sighed and shifted their posture; one of the hounds snored sonorously in the silence.
"Nuthin' crazy thar 'ceptin' you-uns!—one fool gal—that's all!" said her grandmother, with her knitting-needles and her spectacles glittering in the firelight. "That is a pest camp. Ye mought hev cotch the smallpox. I be lookm' fur ye ter break out with it any day. When the war is over an' the men come back to the Cove, none of 'em will so much as look at ye, with yer skin all pock-marked—fair an' fine as it is now, like a pan of fraish milk."
"But, granny, it won't be sp'ilt! The camp war too fur off—an' thar warn't a breath o' wind. I never went a-nigh 'em."
"I dun'no' how fur smallpox kin travel—an' it jes' mulls and mulls in ye afore it breaks out—don't it, S'briny?"
"Don't ax me," said Mrs. Brusie, with a worried air. "I ain't no yerb doctor, nor nurse tender, nuther. Ethelindy is beyond my understandin'."
She was beyond her own understanding, as she sat weeping slowly, silently. The aspect of those forlorn graves, that recorded the final ebbing of hope and life at the pest camp, had struck her recollection with a most poignant appeal. Strangers, wretches, dying alone, desolate outcasts, the terror of their kind, the epitome of repulsion—they were naught to her! Yet they represented humanity in its helplessness, its suffering, its isolated woe, and its great and final mystery; she felt vaguely grieved for their sake, and she gave the clay that covered them, still crude red clods with not yet a blade of grass, the fellowship of her tears.
A thrill of masculine logic stirred uneasily in the old man's disused brain. "Tell me one thing, Ethelindy," he said, lifting his bleared eyes as he clasped his tremulous hands more firmly on the head of his stick—"tell me this—which side air you-uns on, ennyhow, Ethelindy?"
"I'm fur the Union," said Ethelinda, still weeping, and now and then wiping her sapphire eyes with the back of her hand, hard and tanned, but small in proportion to her size. "I'm fur the Union—fust an' last an' all the time."
The old man wagged his head solemnly with a blight of forecast on his wrinkled, aged face. "That thar sayin' is goin' ter be mighty hard ter live up to whilst Jerome Ackert's critter company is a-raidin' of Tanglefoot Cove."
The presence of the "critter company" was indeed calculated to inspire a most obsequious awe. It was an expression of arbitrary power which one might ardently wish directed elsewhere. From the moment that the echoes of the Cove caught the first elusive strain of the trumpet, infinitely sweet and clear and compelling, yet somehow ethereal, unreal, as if blown down from the daylight moon, a filmy lunar semblance in the bland blue sky, the denizens of Tanglefoot began to tremulously confer together, and to skitter like frightened rabbits from house to house. Tanglefoot Cove is some four miles long, and its average breadth is little more than a mile. On all sides the great Smoky Mountains rise about the cuplike hollow, and their dense gigantic growths of hickory and poplar, maple and gum, were aglow, red and golden, with the largesse of the generous October. The underbrush or the jungles of laurel that covered the steeps rendered outlet through the forests impracticable, and indeed the only road was invisible save for a vague line among the dense pines of a precipitous slope, where on approach it would materialize under one's feet as a wheel track on either side of a line of frosted weeds, which the infrequent passing of wagon-beds had bent and stunted, yet had not sufficed to break.
The blacksmith's shop, the centre of the primitive civilization, had soon an expectant group in its widely flaring doors, for the smith had had enough of the war, and had come back to wistfully, hopelessly haunt his anvil like some uneasy ghost visiting familiar scenes in which he no more bears a part;—a minie-ball had shattered his stanch hammer-arm, and his duties were now merely advisory to a clumsy apprentice. This was a half-witted fellow, a giant in strength, but not to be trusted with firearms. In these days of makeweights his utility had been discovered, and now with the smith's hammer in his hand he joined the group, his bulging eyes all a-stare and his loose lips hanging apart. The old justice of the peace, whose office was a sinecure, since the war had run the law out of the Cove, came with a punctilious step, though with a sense of futility and abated dignity, and at every successive note of the distant trumpet these wights experienced a tense bracing of the nerves to await helplessly the inevitable and, alas! the inexorable.
"They say that he is a tumble, tumble man," the blacksmith averred, ever and anon rubbing the stump of his amputated hammer-arm, in which, though bundled in its jeans' sleeve, he had the illusion of the sensation of its hand and fingers. He suddenly shaded his brow with his broad palm to eye that significant line which marked the road among the pines on the eastern slope, beyond the Indian corn that stood tall and rank of growth in the rich bottom-lands.
Ethelinda's heart sank. All unprescient of the day's impending event, she had come to the forge with the sley of her loom to be mended, and she now stood holding the long shaft in her mechanical clasp, while she listened spell-bound to the agitated talk of the group. The boughs of a great yellow hickory waved above her head; near by was the trough, and here a horse, brought to be shod, was utilizing the interval by a draught; he had ceased to draw in the clear, cold spring water, but still stood with his muzzle close to the surface, his lips dripping, gazing with un-imagined thoughts at the reflection of his big equine eyes, the blue sky inverted, the dappling yellow leaves, more golden even than the sunshine, and the glimmering flight of birds, with a stellular light upon their wings.
"A turrible man?—w-w-well," stuttered the idiot, who had of late assumed all the port of coherence; he snatched and held a part in the colloquy, so did the dignity of labor annul the realization of his infirmity, "then I'd be obleeged ter him ef—ef—ef he'd stay out'n Tanglefoot Cove."
"So would I." The miller laughed uneasily. But for the corrugations of time, one might not have known if it were flour or age that had so whitened his long beard, which hung quivering down over the breast of his jeans coat, of an indeterminate hue under its frosting from the hopper. "He hev tuk up a tumble spite at Tanglefoot Cove."
The blacksmith nodded. "They say that he 'lowed ez traitors orter be treated like traitors. But I be a-goin' ter tell him that the Confederacy hev got one arm off'n me more'n its entitled to, an' I'm willin' ter call it quits at that."
"'Tain't goin' ter do him no good ter raid the Cove," an ancient farmer averred; "an' it's agin' the rebel rule, ennyhows, ter devastate the kentry they live off'n—it's like sawin' off the bough ye air sittin' on." His eyes dwelt with a fearful affection on the laden fields; his old stoop-shouldered back had bent yet more under the toil that had brought his crop to this perfection, with the aid of the children whose labor was scarcely worth the strenuosity requisite to control their callow wiles.
"Shucks! He's a guerilla—he is!" retorted the blacksmith. "Accountable ter nobody! Hyar ter-day an' thar ter-morrer. Rides light. Two leetle Parrott guns is the most weight he carries."
The idiot's eyes began to widen with slow and baffled speculation. "Whut—w-whut ails him ter take arter Tangle-foot? W-w—" his great loose lips trembled with unformed words as he gazed his eager inquiry from one to another. Under normal circumstances it would have remained contemptuously unanswered, but in these days in Tanglefoot Cove a man, though a simpleton, was yet a man, and inherently commanded respect.
"A bird o' the air mus' hev carried the matter that Tolhurst's troops hed rid inter Tanglefoot Cove by mistake fur Greenbrier, whar they war ter cross ter jine the Fed'rals nigh the Cohuttas. An' that guerilla, Ackert, hed been ridin' a hundred mile at a hand-gallop ter overhaul him, an' knowin' thar warn't but one outlet to Tanglefoot Cove, he expected ter capshur the Feds as they kem out agin. So he sot himself ter ambush Tolhurst, an' waited fur him up thar amongst the pines an' the laurel—an' he waited—an' waited! But Tolhurst never came! So whenst the guerilla war sure he hed escaped by ways unknownst he set out ter race him down ter the Cohutty Mountings. But Tolhurst had j'ined the main body o' the Federal Army, an' now Ackert is showing a clean pair o' heels comin' back. But he be goin' ter take time ter raid the Cove—his hurry will wait fur that! Somebody in Tanglefoot—the Lord only knows who—showed Tolhurst that underground way out ter Greenbrier Cove, through a sorter cave or tunnel in the mountings."
"Now—now—neighbor—that's guesswork," remonstrated the miller, in behalf of Tanglefoot Cove repudiating the responsibility. Perhaps the semi-mercantile occupation of measuring toll sharpens the faculties beyond natural endowments, and he began to perceive a certain connection between cause and effect inimical to personal interest.
"Waal, that is the way they went, sartain sure," protested the blacksmith. "I tracked 'em, the ground bein' moist, kase I wanted ter view the marks o' their horses' hoofs. They hev got some powerful triflin' blacksmiths in the army—farriers, they call 'em. I los' the trail amongst the rocks an' ledges down todes the cave—though it's more like one o' them tunnels we-uns used ter go through in the railroads in the army, but this one was never made with hands; jes' hollowed out by Sinking Creek. So I got Jube thar ter crope through, an' view ef thar war any hoof marks on t'other side whar the cave opens out in Greenbrier Cove."
"An' a body would think fur sure ez the armies o' hell had been spewed out'n that black hole," said a lean man whom the glance of the blacksmith had indicated as Jube, and who spoke in the intervals of a racking cough that seemed as if it might dislocate his bones in its violence. "Hoof marks hyar—hoof-marks thar—as if they didn't rightly know which way ter go in the marshy ground 'bout Sinking Creek. But at last they 'peared ter git tergether, an' off they tracked ter the west——" A paroxysm of coughs intervened, and the attention of the group failed to follow the words that they interspersed.
"They tuk a short cut through the Cove—they warn't in it a haffen hour," stipulated the prudent miller. "They came an' went like a flash. Nobody seen 'em 'cept the Brusies, kase they went by thar house—an' ef they hed hed a guide, old Randal Brusie would hev named it."
"Ackert 'lows he'll hang the guide ef he ketches him," said the blacksmith, in a tone of awe. "Leastwise that's the word that's 'goin'."
Poor Ethelinda! The clutch of cold horror about her heart seemed to stop its pulsations for a moment. She saw the still mountains whirl about the horizon as if in some weird bewitchment. Her nerveless hands loosened their clasp upon the sley and it fell to the ground, clattering on the protruding roots of the trees. The sound attracted the miller's attention. He fixed his eyes warily upon her, a sudden thought looking out from their network of wrinkles.
"You didn't see no guide whenst they slipped past you-uns' house, did ye?"
Poor, unwilling casuist! She had an instinct for the truth in its purest sense, the innate impulse toward the verities unspoiled by the taint of sophistication. Perhaps in the restricted conditions of her life she had never before had adequate temptation to a subterfuge. Even now, consciously reddening, her eyes drooping before the combined gaze of her little world, she had an inward protest of the literal exactness of her phrase. "Naw sir—I never seen thar guide."
"Thar now, what did I tell you!" the miller exclaimed, triumphantly.
The blacksmith seemed convinced. "Mought hev hed a map," he speculated. "Them fellers in the army do hev maps. I fund that out whenst I war in the service."
The group listened respectfully. The blacksmith's practical knowledge of the art of war had given him the prestige of a military authority. Doubtless some of the acquiescent wights entertained a vague wonder how the army contrived to fare onward bereft of his advice. And, indeed, despite his maimed estate, his heart was the stoutest that thrilled to the iteration of the trumpet.
Nearer now it was, and once more echoing down the sunset glen.
"Right wheel, trot—march," he muttered, interpreting the sound of the horses' hoofs. "It's a critter company, fur sure!"
There was no splendor of pageant in the raid of the guerilla into the Cove. The pines closing above the cleft in the woods masked the entrance of the "critter company." Once a gleam of scarlet from the guidon flashed on the sight. And again a detached horseman was visible in a barren interval, reining in his steed on the almost vertical slant, looking the centaur in literal presentation. The dull thud of hoofs made itself felt as a continuous undertone to the clatter of stirrup and sabre, and now and again rose the stirring mandate of the trumpet, with that majestic, sweet sweep of sound which so thrills the senses. They were coming indubitably, the troop of the dreaded guerilla—indeed, they were already here. For while the sun still glinted on carbine and sabre among the scarlet and golden tints of the deciduous growths and the sombre green of the pines on the loftier slopes, the vanguard in column of fours were among the gray shadows at the mountains' base and speeding into the Cove at a hand-gallop, for the roads were fairly good when once the level was reached. Though so military a presentment, for they were all veterans in the service, despite the youth of many, they were not in uniform. Some wore the brown jeans of the region, girt with sword-belt and canteen, with great spurs and cavalry boots, and broad-brimmed hats, which now and again flaunted cords or feathers. Others had attained the Confederate gray, occasionally accented with a glimmer of gold where a shoulder-strap or a chevron graced the garb. And yet there was a certain homogeneity in their aspect, All rode after the manner of the section, with the "long stirrup" at the extreme length of the limb, and the immovable pose in the saddle, the man being absolutely stationary, while the horse bounded at agile speed. There was the similarity of facial expression, in infinite dissimilarity of feature, which marks a common sentiment, origin, and habitat. Then, too, they shared something recklessly haphazard, gay, defiantly dangerous, that, elusive as it might be to describe, was as definitely perceived as the guidon, riding apart at the left, the long lance of his pennant planted on his stirrup, bearing himself with a certain stately pride of port, distinctly official.
The whole effect was concentrated in the face of the leader, obviously the inspiration of the organization, the vital spark by which it lived; a fierce face, intent, commanding. It was burned to a brick-red, and had an aquiline nose and a keen gray-green eagle-like eye; on either side auburn hair, thick and slightly curling, hung, after the fashion of the time, to his coat collar. And this collar and his shoulders were decorated with gold lace and the insignia of rank; the uniform was of fine Confederate gray, which seemed to contradict the general impression that he was but a free-lance or a bushwhacker and operated on his own responsibility. The impression increased the terror his name excited throughout the countryside with his high-handed and eccentric methods of warfare, and perhaps he would not have resented it if he were cognizant of its general acceptance.
It was a look calculated to inspire awe which he flung upon the cowering figures before the door of the forge as he suddenly perceived them; and detaching himself from the advancing troop, he spurred his horse toward them. He came up like a whirlwind.
That impetuous gallop could scarcely have carried his charger over the building itself, yet there is nothing so overwhelming to the nerves as the approaching rush of a speedy horse, and the group flattened themselves against the wall; but he drew rein before he reached the door, and whirling in the saddle, with one hand on the horse's back, he demanded:
"Where is he? Bring him out!" as if all the world knew the object of his search and the righteous reason of his enmity. "Bring him out! I'll have a drumhead court martial—and he'll swing before sunset!"
"Good evenin', Cap'n," the old miller sought what influence might appertain to polite address and the social graces.
"Evenin' be damned!" cried Ackert, angrily. "If you folks in the coves want the immunity of non-combatants, by Gawd! you gotter preserve the neutrality of non-combatants!"
"Yessir—that's reason—that's jestice," said the old squire, hastily, whose capacities of ratiocination had been cultivated by the exercise of the judicial functions of his modest piepoudre court.
Ackert unwillingly cast his eagle eye down upon the cringing old man, as if he would rather welcome contradiction than assent.
"It's accordin' to the articles o' war and the law of nations," he averred. "People take advantage of age and disability"—he glanced at the blacksmith, whose left hand mechanically grasped the stump of his right arm—"as if that could protect 'em in acts o' treason an' treachery;" then with a blast of impatience, "Where's the man?"
To remonstrate with a whirlwind, to explain to a flash of lightning, to soothe and propitiate the fury of a conflagration—the task before the primitive and inexpert Cove-dwellers seemed to partake of this nature.
"Cap'n—ef ye'd listen ter what I gotter say," began the miller.
"I'll listen arterward!" exclaimed Ackert, in his clarion voice. He had never heard of Jedburgh justice, but he had all the sentiment of that famous tribunal who hanged the prisoners first and tried them afterward.
"Cap'n," remonstrated the blacksmith, breaking in with hot haste, hurried by the commander's gusts of impatience, forgetful that he had no need to be precipitate, since he could not produce the recusant if he would. "Cap'n—Cap'n—bear with us—we-uns don't know!"
Ackert stared in snorting amaze, a flush of anger dyeing his red cheeks a yet deeper red. Of all the subterfuges that he had expected, he had never divined this. He shifted front face in his saddle, placed his gauntleted right hand on his right side, and held his head erect, looking over the wide, rich expanse of the Cove, the corn in the field, and the fodder in the shock set amid the barbaric splendors of the wooded autumn mountains glowing in the sunset above. He seemed scenting his vengeance with some keen sense as he looked, his thin nostrils dilating as sensitively as the nostrils of his high-couraged charger now throwing up his head to sniff the air, now bending it down as he pawed the ground.
"Well, gentlemen, you have got a mighty pretty piece o' country here, and good crops, too—which is a credit to you, seeing that the conscription has in and about drafted all the able-bodied mountaineers that wouldn't volunteer—damn 'em! But I swear by the right hand of Jehovah, I'll burn every cabin in the Cove an' every blade o' forage in the fields if you don't produce the man who guided Tol-hurst's cavalry out'n the trap I'd chased 'em into, or give me a true and satisfactory account of him." He raised his gauntleted right hand and shook it in the air. "So help me God!"
There was all the solemnity of intention vibrating in this fierce asseveration, and it brought the aged non-combatants forward in eager protestation. The old justice made as if to catch at the bridle rein, then desisted. A certain noli me tangere influence about the fierce guerilla affected even supplication, and the "Squair" resorted to logic as the more potent weapon of the two.
"Cap'n, Cap'n," he urged, with a tremulous, aged jaw, "be pleased to consider my words. I'm a magistrate sir, or I was before the war run the law clean out o' the kentry. We dun'no' the guide—we never seen the troops." Then, in reply to an impatient snort of negation: "If ye'll cast yer eye on the lay of the land, ye'll view how it happened. Thar's the road "—he waved his hand toward that vague indentation in the foliage that marked the descent into the vale—"an' down this e-end o' the Cove thar's nex' ter nobody livin'."
The spirited equestrian figure was stand-ing as still as a statue; only the movement of the full pupils of his eyes, the dilation of the nostrils, showed how nearly the matter touched his tense nerves.
"Some folks in the upper e-end of the Cove 'lowed afterward they hearn a hawn; some folks spoke of a shakin' of the ground like the trompin' of horses—but them troops mus' hev passed from the foot o' the mounting acrost the aidge of the Cove."
"Scant haffen mile," put in the blacksmith, "down to a sort of cave, or tunnel, that runs under the mounting—yander—that lets 'em out into Greenbrier Cove."
"Gawd!" exclaimed the guerilla, striking his breast with his clenched, gauntleted hand as his eyes followed with the vivacity of actual sight the course of the march of the squadron of horse to the point of their triumphant vanishment. Despite the vehemence of the phrase the intonation was a very bleat of desperation. For it was a rich and rare opportunity thus wrested from him by an untoward fate. In all the chaotic chances of the Civil War he could hardly hope for its repetition. It was part of a crack body of regulars—Tolhurst's squadron—that he had contrived to drive into this trap, this cul-de-sac, surrounded by the infinite fastnesses of the Great Smoky Mountains. It had been a running fight, for Tolhurst had orders, as Ackert had found means of knowing, to join the main body without delay, and his chief aim was to shake off this persistent pursuit with which a far inferior force had harassed his march. But for his fortuitous discovery of the underground exit from the basin of Tanglefoot Cove, Ackert, ambushed without, would have encountered and defeated the regulars in detail as they clambered in detachments up the unaccustomed steeps of the mountain road, the woods elsewhere being almost impassable jungles of laurel.
Success would have meant more to Ackert than the value of the service to the cause, than the tumultuous afflatus of victory, than the spirit of strife to the born soldier. There had been kindled in his heart a great and fiery ambition; he was one of the examples of an untaught military genius of which the Civil War elicited a few notable and amazing instances. There had been naught in his career heretofore to suggest this unaccountable gift, to foster its development. He was the son of a small farmer, only moderately well-to-do; he had the very limited education which a restricted and remote rural region afforded its youth; he had entered the Confederate army as a private soldier, with no sense of special fitness, no expectation of personal advancement, only carried on the wave of popular enthusiasm. But from the beginning his quality had been felt; he had risen from grade to grade, and now with a detached body of horse and flying artillery his exploits were beginning to attract the attention of corps commanders on both sides, to the gratulation of friends and the growing respect of foes. He seemed endowed with the wings of the wind; to-day he was tearing up railroad tracks in the lowlands to impede the reinforcements of an army; to-morrow the force sent with the express intention of placing a period to those mischievous activities heard of his feats in burning bridges and cutting trestles in remote sections of the mountains. The probabilities could keep no terms with him, and he baffled prophecy. He had a quick invention—a talent for expedients. He appeared suddenly when least expected and where his presence seemed impossible. He had a gift of military intuition. He seemed to know the enemy's plans before they were matured; and ere a move was made to put them into execution he was on the ground with troublous obstacles to forestall the event in its very inception. He maintained a discipline to many commanders impossible. His troops had a unity of spirit that might well animate an individual. They endured long fasts, made wonderful forced marches on occasion—all day in the saddle and nodding to the pommel all night; it was even said they fought to such exhaustion that when dismounted the front rank, lying in line of battle prone upon the ground, would fall asleep between volleys, and that the second rank, kneeling to fire above them, had orders to stir them with their carbines to insure regularity of the musketry. He had the humbler yet even more necessary equipment for military success. He could forage his troops in barren opportunities; they somehow kept clothed and armed at the minimum of expense. Did he lack ammunition—he made shift to capture a supply for his little Par-rott guns that barked like fierce dogs at the rear-guard of an enemy or protected his own retreat when it jumped with his plans to compass a speedy withdrawal himself. His horses were well groomed, well fed, fine travellers, and many showed the brand U.S., for he could mount his troop when need required from the corrals of an unsuspecting encampment. He was the ideal guerilla, of infinite service to his faction in small, significant operations of disproportioned importance.
What wonder that his name was rife in rumors which flew about the country; that soon it was not only "the grapevine telegraph" that vibrated with the sound, but he was mentioned in official despatches; nay, on one signal occasion the importance of his dashing exploit was recognized by the commander of the Army Corps in a general order published to specially commend it. Naturally his spirit rose to meet these expanding liberties of achievement. He looked for further promotion—for eminence. In a vague glimmer, growing ever stronger and clearer, he could see himself in the astral splendor of the official stars of a major-general—for in the far day of the anticipated success of the Confederacy he looked to be an officer of the line.
And now suddenly this light was dimmed; his laurels were wilting. What prestige would the capture of Tolhurst have conferred! Never had a golden opportunity like this been lost—by what uncovenanted chance had Tolhurst escaped!
"He must have had a guide! Right here in the Cove!" Ackert exclaimed. "Nobody outside would know a hole in the ground, a cave, a water-gap, a tunnel like that! Where's the man?"
"Naw, sir—naw, Cap'n! Nobody viewed the troop but one gal person an' she 'lowed she never seen no guide."
The charger whirled under the touch of the hand on the rein, and Ackert's eyes scanned with a searching intentness the group.
"Where's this girl—you?"
As the old squire with most unwelcome officiousness seized Ethelinda's arm and hurried her forward, her heart sank within her. For one moment the guerilla's fiery, piercing eyes dwelt upon her as she stood looking on, her delicately white face grown deathly pallid, her golden hair frivolously blowsed in the wind, which tossed the full skirts of her lilac-hued calico gown till she seemed poised on the very wings of flight. Her sapphire eyes, bluer than ever azure skies could seem, sought to gaze upward, but ever and anon their long-lashed lids fluttered and fell.
He was quick of perception.
"You have no call to be afraid," he remarked—a sort of gruff upbraiding, as if her evident trepidation impugned his justice in reprisal. "Come, you can guide me. Show me just where they came in, and just where they got out—damn 'em!"
She could scarcely control her terror when she saw that he intended her to ride with him to the spot, yet she feared even more to draw back, to refuse. He held out one great spurred boot. Her little low-cut shoe looked tiny upon it as she stepped up. He swung her to the saddle behind him, and the great warhorse sprang forward so suddenly, with such long, swift strides, that she swayed precariously for a moment and was glad to catch the guerilla's belt—to seize, too, with an agitated clutch, his right gauntlet that he held backward against his side. His fingers promptly closed with a reassuring grasp on hers, and thus skimming the red sunset-tide they left behind them the staring group about the blacksmith shop, which the cavalrymen had now approached, watering their horses at the trough and lifting the saddles to rest the animals from the constriction of the pressure of the girths.
Soon the guerilla and the girl disappeared in the distance; the fences flew by; the shocks of corn seemed all a-trooping down the fields; the evening star in the red haze above the purple western mountains had spread its invisible pinions, and was a-wing above their heads. Presently the heavy shadows of the looming wooded range, darkening now, showing only blurred effects of red and brown and orange, fell upon them, and the guerilla checked the pace, for the horse was among boulders and rough ledges that betokened the dry bed of a stream. Great crags had begun to line the way, first only on one marge of the channel; then; the clifty banks appeared on the other side, and at length a deep> black-arched opening yawned beneath the mountains, glooming with sepulchral shadows; in the silence one might hear drops trickling vaguely and the sudden hooting of an owl from within.
He drew up his horse abruptly, and contemplated the grim aperture.
"So they came into Tanglefoot down the road, and went out of the Cove by this tunnel?"
"Yessir!" she piped. What had befallen her voice? what appalled eerie squeak was this! She cleared her throat timorously. "They couldn't hev done it later in the fall season. Tanglefoot Creek gits ter runnin' with the fust rains."
"An' Tolhurst knew that too! He must have had a guide—a guide that knows the Cove like I know the palm of my hand! Well, I'll catch him yet, sometime. I'll hang him! I'll hang him—if I have to grow a tree a-pur-pose."
What strange influence had betided the landscape? Around and around circled the great stationary mountains anchored in the foundations of the earth. It was a long moment before they were still again—perhaps, indeed, it was the necessity of guarding her balance on the fiery steed, a new cause of apprehension, that paradoxically steadied Ethelinda's nerves. Ackert had dismounted, throwing the reins over his arm. He had caught sight of the hoof marks along the moist sandy spaces of the channel, mute witness in point of number, and a guaranty of the truth of her story. A sudden glitter arrested his eyes. He stooped and picked up a broken belt-buckle with the significant initials U.S. yet showing upon it.
"I'll hang that guide yet," he muttered, his eyes dark with angry conviction, his face lowering with fury. "I'll hang him—I won't expect to prove it p'int blank. Jes' let me git a mite o' suspicion, an' I'll guarantee the slipknot!"
She could never understand her motive, her choice of the moment.
"Cap'n Ackert," she trembled forth. There was so much significance in her tone that, standing at her side, he looked up in sudden expectation. "I tole ye the truth whenst I say I seen no guide"—he made a gesture of impatience; he had no time for twice-told tales—"kase—kase the guide war—war—myself."
The clear twilight fell full on his amazed, upturned face and the storm of fury it concentrated.
"What did you do it fur?" he thundered, "you limb o' perdition!"
"Jes' ter help him some. He—he—he—would hev been capshured."
He would indeed! The guerilla was very terrible to look upon as his brow corrugated, and his upturned eyes, with the light of the sky within them, flashed ominously.
"You little she-devil!" he cried, and then speech seemed to fail him.
She had begun to shiver and shed tears and emit little gusts of quaking sobs.
"Oh, I be so feared——" she whimpered.
"But—but—you mustn't hang—nobody else on s'picion!"
There was a vague change in the expression of his face. He still stood beside the saddle, with the reins over his arm, while the horse threw his head almost to the ground and again tossed it aloft in his impatient weariness of the delay.
"An' now you are captured yourself," he said, sternly. "You are accountable fur your actions."
She burst into a paroxysm of sobs. "I never went ter tell! I meant ter keep the secret! The folks in the Cove dun'no' nuthin'. But—oh, ye mustn't s'picion nobody else—ye mustn't hang nobody else!"
Once more that indescribable change upon his face.
"You showed him the way to this pass yourself? Tell the truth!"
"He war ridin' his horse-critter—'tain't ez fast, nor fine, nor fat ez yourn."
He stroked the glossy mane with a sort of mechanical pride.
"And so he went plumb through the cave?"
"An' all the troop—they kindled pine-knots fur torches."
He glanced about him at the convenient growths.
"And they came out all safe in Greenbrier!" He winced. How the lost opportunity hurt him!
"Yessir. In Greenbrier Cove."
"Did he pay you in gold?" sneered Ackert. "Or in greenbacks? Or mebbe in Cornfed money?"
"I wouldn't hev his gold." She drew herself up proudly, though the tears were still coursing down her cheeks. "So he gin me a present—a whole passel o' coffee in my milk-piggin." Then to complete a candid confession she detailed the disposition she had made of this rare and precious luxury at the rebel smallpox camp.
His eyes seemed to dilate as they gazed up at her. "Jesus Gawd!" he exclaimed, with uncouth profanity. But the phrase was unfamiliar to her, and she caught at it with a meaning all her own.
"That's jes' it! Folks in gineral don't think o' them, 'cept ter git out o' thar way; an' nobody keers fur them, but kase Jesus is Gawd He makes somebody remember them wunst in a while! An' they did seem passable glad."
A vague sweet fragrance was on the vesperal air; some subtle distillation of asters or jewel-weed or "mountain-snow," and the leafage of crimson sumac and purple sweet-gum and yellow hickory and the late ripening frost-grapes—all in the culmination of autumnal perfection; more than one star gleamed whitely palpitant in a sky that was yet blue and roseate with a reminiscence of sunset; a restful sentiment, a brief truce stilled the guerilla's tempestuous pulse as he continued to stand beside his horse's head while the girl waited, seated on the saddle blanket.
Suddenly he spoke to an unexpected intent. "Ye took a power o' risk in goin' nigh that Confederate pest-camp—an' yit ye're fur the Union an' saved a squadron from capture!" he upbraided the inconsistency in a soft incidental drawl.
"Yes, I be fur the Union," she trembled forth the dread avowal. "But somehows I can't keep from holpin' any I kin. They war rebs—an' it war Yankee coffee—an' I dun'no'—I jes' dun'no'——"
As she hesitated he looked long at her with that untranslated gaze. Then he fell ponderingly silent.
Perhaps the revelation of the sanctities of a sweet humanity for a holy sake, blessing and blessed, had illumined his path, had lifted his eyes, had wrought a change in his moral atmosphere spiritually suffusive, potent, revivifying, complete. "She is as good as the saints in the Bible—an' plumb beautiful besides," he muttered beneath his fierce mustachios.
Once more he gazed wonderingly at her.
"I expect to do some courtin' in this kentry when the war is over," the guerilla said, soberly, reaching down to readjust the reins. "I haven't got time now. Will you be waiting fur me here in Tanglefoot Cove—if I promise not to hang you fur your misdeeds right off now?" He glanced up with a sudden arch jocularity.
She burst out laughing gleefuly in the tumult of her joyous reassurance, as she laid her tremulous fingers in his big gauntlet when he insisted that they should shake hands as on a solemn compact. Forthwith he mounted again, and the great charger galloped back, carrying double, in the red afterglow of the sunset, to the waiting group before the flaring doors of the forge.
The fine flower of romance had blossomed incongruously in that eager heart in those fierce moments of the bitterness of defeat. Life suddenly had a new meaning, a fair and fragrant promise, and often and again he looked over his shoulder at the receding scene when the trumpets sang "to horse," and in the light of the moon the guerilla rode out of Tanglefoot Cove.
But Ethelinda saw him never again. All the storms of fate overwhelmed the Confederacy with many a rootless hope and many a plan and pride. In lieu of the materialization of the stalwart ambition of distinction that had come to dominate his life, responsive to the discovery of his peculiar and inherent gifts, his destiny was chronicled in scarce a line of the printed details of a day freighted with the monstrous disaster of a great battle; in common with others of the "missing" his bones were picked by the vultures till shoved into a trench, where a monument rises to-day to commemorate an event and not a commander. Nevertheless, for many years the flare of the first red leaves in the cleft among the pines on the eastern slope of Tanglefoot Cove brought to Ethelinda's mind the gay flutter of the guidon, and in certain sonorous blasts of the mountain wind she could hear martial echoes of the trumpets of the guerilla.