A LITTLE UNION SCOUT
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS
AUTHOR OF GABRIEL TOLLIVER, THE MAKING OF A STATESMAN AND WALLY WANDEROON
Illustrated by George Gibbs
NEW YORK McCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO. MCMIV
Copyright, 1904, by JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS
Published, April, 1904
Copyright, 1904, by The Curtis Publishing Company
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
I drank in the melody with a new sense of its wild and melancholy beauty Frontispiece
"He's tryin' to git away!" yelled Forrest in a voice that could be heard all over the field 10
"I want you to catch this fellow and fetch him to me" 38
Whistling Jim ran into him head down like a bull 64
I was wild with remorse and grief 96
"If hate could kill you, you would fall dead from this horse" 110
The leader ... had an evil-looking eye 138
He had me covered 156
A LITTLE UNION SCOUT
A young lady, just returned from college, was making a still-hunt in the house for old things—old furniture, old china, and old books. She had a craze for the antique, and the older things were the more precious they were in her eyes. Among other things she found an old scrap-book that her mother and I thought was safe under lock and key. She sat in a sunny place and read it page by page, and, when she had finished, her curiosity was aroused. The clippings in the old scrap-book were all about the adventures of a Union scout whose name was said to be Captain Frank Leroy. The newspaper clippings that had been preserved were queerly inconsistent. The Northern and Western papers praised the scout very highly, and some of them said that if there were more such men in the army the cause of the Union would progress more rapidly; whereas the Southern papers, though paying a high tribute to the dash and courage of the scout, were highly abusive. He was "one of Lincoln's hirelings" and as villanous as he was bold.
The girl graduate at once jumped to the conclusion that there was a story behind the old scrap-book, else why should it be preserved by her father, who had been a Confederate soldier? This idea no sooner took shape than she became insistently inquisitive. As for her father, the very sight of the scrap-book awoke the echoes of a hundred experiences—long and dangerous rides in the lonely night, battles, sharp skirmishes and bitter sufferings.
The story, such as it was, took shape in my mind, and I am afraid that the young girl had small difficulty in persuading me to tell it. Memory brought before me the smiling features of Harry Herndon, my life-long friend and comrade, the handsome face of Jack Bledsoe, one of our college mates from Missouri, and the beautiful countenance of his sister, Katherine Bledsoe. These and a hundred other faces came crowding from the past, and the story was told almost before I knew it.
When Harry Herndon and I went to the wars we were somewhat belated. The excitement of '61 found us at college, where we had orders to remain until we had finished the course, and the orders came from one whom we had never dared to disobey—Harry's grandmother. And then, when we were ready to go, she cut in ahead of our plans and sent us to the West with letters to General Dabney Maury, whom she had known when he was a boy and later when he was a young officer in the regular army.
We were not ill-equipped for two raw youngsters; we had Whistling Jim, the negro, three fine horses, and more money than I had ever seen before. We went to General Maury and were most courteously received. The Virginia Herndons—Harry belonged to the Maryland branch—were related to him—and he liked the name. We caught the barest glimpse of service at Corinth, and were fortunate enough to be in a few skirmishes, where we distinguished ourselves by firing at nothing whatever.
In the course of a few weeks General Maury was made commander of the Department of the Gulf, with headquarters at Mobile, where we saw service as clerks and accountants. For my part, the life suited me passing well, but Harry Herndon fretted so that we were soon transferred to the command of General Forrest, who was sadly in need of men. As it happened, we had little difficulty in finding our man. We had heard that he was in the neighborhood of Chattanooga, giving his men and horses a much-needed rest; but on the way news came to us that, in spite of his brilliant achievements in the field, he had been deprived of the choicest regiments of his brigade—men whom he had trained and seasoned to war. After this mutilation of his command, he had been ordered to Murfreesborough to recruit and organize a new brigade.
Toward Murfreesborough, therefore, we made our way, falling in with a number of Forrest's men who had been on a brief visit to their homes in Alabama and were now returning to their command. As we shortly discovered, the Union commanders in Tennessee mistook General Forrest's movement to the neighborhood of Chattanooga for a retreat; for, shortly after he moved in that direction, an ambitious Federal officer asked and received permission to enter Northern Alabama with a force large enough to worry the Confederate leader if he could be found. The organization and equipment of this force required a longer time than the Federal commander had counted on, and by the time it was ready to move General Forrest, with the remnant of his command, was on his way to Murfreesborough.
In some way—the sources of his information were as mysterious as his movements—General Forrest learned that a Federal force was making its way toward Northern Alabama, and he did not hesitate to give it his attention. Within a very short time he had followed and overtaken it, passing it on a road that lay parallel to its line of march. Then it was that the Federal commander began to hear rumors and reports all along his route that Forrest was making a rapid retreat before him. It was stated that his men were discontented and that the condition of his horses was something terrible.
One day, along toward evening, the Federal commander went into camp in the neighborhood of a wooded hill that commanded the approach from the south. He felt sure that the next day would witness the rout and capture of the Confederate who had for so long harassed the Federals in Tennessee. As he came to the hill he passed within a few hundred yards of Forrest's men, who were concealed in the woods. The Federals went into camp, while Forrest, leaving a part of his command in the enemy's rear, silently passed around his right flank.
Now, it happened that Harry Herndon and myself, accompanied by Whistling Jim and the companions we had picked up on the way, were coming up from the south. It happened also that we were following the road leading through the valley to the left of the hill on which the opposing forces were stationed. It was very early in the morning, and as we rode along there was not a sound to be heard, save the jingling of our bridles.
The valley had more length than breadth, and was shaped something like a half-moon, the road following the contour of the crescent. We had proceeded not more than a hundred yards along the road within the compass of the valley when a six-pounder broke the silence with a bang, and a shell went hurtling through the valley. It seemed to be so uncomfortably near that I involuntarily ducked my head.
"Marse Cally Shannon," said Whistling Jim, the negro, addressing me, "what you reckon make dem white folks bang aloose at we-all, when we ain't done a blessed thing? When it come ter dat, we ain't ez much ez speaken ter um, an' here dey come, bangin' aloose at us. An' mo' dan dat, ef dat ar bung-shell had 'a' hit somebody, it'd 'a' fetched sump'n mo' dan blood."
Whistling Jim's tone was plaintive, but he seemed no more frightened than Harry was. Following the bang of the gun came the sharp rattle of musketry. We learned afterward that this firing occurred when the advance guard of the Federal commander collided with Forrest's famous escort. We had no idea of the result of the collision, or that there had been a collision. We had paused to make sure of our position and whereabouts. Meanwhile, the little six-pounder was barking away furiously, and presently we heard a strident voice cut the morning air: "Go and tell Freeman to put his battery right in on that gun. I give you five minutes."
"That's our man!" cried one of the troopers who had fallen in with us on our journey. Joy shone in his face as he urged his horse forward, and we followed right at his heels. In a moment we saw him leap from his horse and throw the bridle-reins to a trooper who was holding a string of horses. We gave ours to Whistling Jim to hold and ran forward with the man we had been following.
We came right upon General Forrest—I knew him from the newspaper portraits, poor as they were. He was standing with his watch in his hand. He looked us over with a coldly critical eye, but gave us no greeting. He replaced the watch in his pocket and waved his hand to a bugler who was standing expectantly by his side. The clear notes rang out, and instantly there ensued a scene that baffles description. There was a rush forward, and Harry and I were carried with it.
I could hear loud commands, and shouting, and the rattle of carbines, muskets, and pistols made my ears numb—but what happened, or when or where, I could no more tell you than the babe at its mother's breast. I could only catch glimpses of the fighting through the smoke, and though I was as close to General Forrest as any of his men—right by his side, in fact—I could not tell you precisely what occurred. I could hear cries and curses and the explosion of firearms, but beyond that all was mystery.
I had time during the melee to take note of the actions of General Forrest, and I observed that a great change had come over him. His face, which was almost as dark as an Indian's when in perfect repose, was now inflamed with passion and almost purple. The veins on his neck stood out as though they were on the point of bursting, and his blazing eyes were bloodshot. Above the din that was going on all around him his voice could be heard by friend and foe alike. I cannot even describe my own feelings.
A courier rode up. He had lost his hat, and there was a spot of blood on his chin. He reported that the Federals were making a desperate effort on the extreme right. "He's tryin' to git away!" yelled Forrest in a voice that could be heard all over the field. "Tell Freeman to take his guns thar and shove 'em in right on top of 'em. We've got the bulge on 'em here, and we're coming right along."
And, sure enough, we began to find less and less resistance in front of us, and presently I could see them running out into the valley, filling the road by which we had come.
No pursuit was made at the time, and the Federals, finding that they were not harried, proceeded in a leisurely way toward the river. We followed slowly and at night went into camp, the men and horses getting a good rest. Scouts were coming in to make reports at all hours of the night, so that it was practically true, as one of the old campaigners remarked, that a horse couldn't whicker in the enemy's camp "but what the General 'd hear it sooner or later."
Early the next morning we were on the road, and I had time for reflecting that, after all, war was not a matter of flags and music. The General was very considerate, however—a fact that was due to a letter that General Maury had intrusted to Harry Herndon's care. We were permitted to ride as temporary additions to General Forrest's escort, and he seemed to single us out from among the rest with various little courtesies, which I imagined was something unusual.
He was somewhat inquisitive about Whistling Jim, Harry's body-servant, who he thought was a little too free and easy with white men. But he seemed satisfied when Harry told him that the negro's forebears for many generations back had belonged to the Herndons. We halted for a light dinner, and when we had finished General Forrest made a careful inspection of his men as they filed into the road.
We had gone but a few miles when we came to a point where the roads forked. On one he sent a regiment, with Freeman's battery, with instructions to reach the river ahead of the Federals and hold the ford at all hazards until the main body could come up. This done, we swung into the road that had been taken by the Federals and went forward at a somewhat brisker pace.
"I'm going to give your nigger the chance of his life," remarked General Forrest somewhat grimly, "and he'll either fling up his hands and go to the Yankees, or he'll take to the woods."
"He may do one or the other," replied Harry; "but if he does either I'll be very much surprised." General Forrest laughed; he was evidently very sure that a negro would never stand up before gun-fire. A scout came up to report that the Federals were moving much more rapidly than they had moved in the morning.
"I reckon he's got wind of the column on the other road," the General commented. "I allowed he'd hear of it. He's a mighty smart man, and he's got as good men as can be found—Western fellows. If he had known the number of my men in the woods back yander he'd 'a' whipped me out of my boots." And then his eye fell again on Whistling Jim, who was laughing and joking with some of the troopers. He called to the negro in stern tones, and ordered him to ride close to his young master. "We are going to have a little scrimmage purty soon, and a nigger that's any account ought to be right where he can help his master if he gets hurt."
Whistling Jim's face, which had grown very serious when he heard his name called by the stern commander, suddenly cleared up and became illuminated by a broad grin. "You hear dat, Marse Harry!" he exclaimed. "I'm gwine in right behime you!" He reflected a moment, and then uttered an exclamation of "Well, suh!"
About four o'clock in the afternoon the troopers under General Forrest came in contact with Federals. This was in the nature of a surprise to the Union commander, for there were persistent reports that Forrest had passed on the other road, with the evident intention of harrying the Federals at a point where they had no intention of crossing. So well assured was he that these reports were trustworthy that he was seriously considering the advisability of detaching a force sufficiently large to capture the Confederate. He therefore paid small attention to the attacks on his rear-guard. But presently the pressure became so serious that he sent a member of his staff to investigate it.
Before the officer could perform this duty the rear-guard was compelled to retreat on the main body in the most precipitate manner. Then the attack ceased as suddenly as it began, and the Federal commander concluded that, under all the circumstances, it would be best to cross the river and get in touch with his base of supplies.
He went forward as rapidly as his troops could march, and he had a feeling of relief when he came in sight of the river. It was higher than it had been when he crossed it three or four days before, but still fordable; but as his advance guard began to cross, Freeman's battery, operated by young Morton, opened on them from the ambuscade in which it had been concealed. The thing to do, of course, was to charge the battery and either capture it or silence it, and the Federal commander gave orders to that effect. But Forrest, looking at the matter from a diametrically opposite point of view, knew that the thing to do was to prevent the capture of the battery, and so he increased the pressure upon the Federal rear to such an extent that his opponent had no time to attend to the Confederate battery.
The Union commander was a very able man and had established a reputation as a good fighter. So now, with perfect coolness, he managed to present a very strong front where the rear had been, and he made desperate efforts to protect his flank. But he was too late. Forrest said afterward that it was as pretty a move as he had ever seen, and that if it had been made five minutes sooner it would probably have saved the day.
Just as the movement was about to be completed it was rendered useless by the charge of Forrest's escort, a picked body of men, led by the General in person. In the circumstances such charges were always irresistible. Before the Federals could recover, the Confederate general, by means of a movement so sudden that no commander could have foreseen it, joined his force with that which was supporting Freeman's battery and charged all along the line, bringing the eight and twelve-pounders right to the front. No men, however brave, could stand before a battery at close range, and the inevitable result ensued—they got out of the way, and stood not on the order of their going. They floundered across the river as best they could, and if they had not been American troops they would have been demoralized and rendered useless for fighting purposes; but, being what they were, they showed their courage on many a hard-fought field as the war went on.
When night fell we retired a mile or two from the river and went into camp. Forrest was in high good-humor. He had accomplished all that he had set out to accomplish, and more. He had emphasized the fact that it was dangerous work for the Federals to raid Northern Alabama while he was in striking distance, and he had captured army stores and secured horses that were comparatively fresh. The most welcome capture was the arms, for many of his men were armed with flintlock muskets.
He was very talkative. "That nigger of yours done about as well as any of the balance of us," he said to Harry Herndon.
"I didn't see him at all during the fighting," replied Harry, "but I told him you'd have him shot if he ran."
"Well, he went right in," remarked the General, "and I expected him to go over to the Yankees. Maybe he'd 'a' gone if it hadn't been for the water."
At that moment we heard Whistling Jim calling, "Marse Harry! Marse Cally Shannon!" I answered him so that he could find us, and he came up puffing and blowing. A red handkerchief was tied under his chin and over his head.
"Marse Harry!" he exclaimed, "kin I see you an' Marse Cally Shannon by yo'se'f? I done done sump'n dat you'll sho kill me 'bout."
"Well, don't make any secret of it," said I. "Out with it!" exclaimed Harry.
"Marse Harry, I done gone an' shot Marse Jack Bledsoe."
"Good Lord!" cried Harry.
"Yasser, I done shot 'im, an' he's bad hurt, too. You know dat las' time we went at um? Well, suh, I wuz shootin' at a man right at me, an' he knock my han' down des ez I pull de trigger, an' de ball cotch him right 'twix de hip an' de knee. He call me by my name, an' den it come over me dat we done got mix' up in de shuffle an' dat I wuz shootin' at you. But 'twuz Marse Jack Bledsoe; I know'd 'im time I look at 'im good."
"Good heavens! Is he dead?" inquired Harry, his voice shaking a little in spite of himself.
"He ain't dead yit, suh," replied Whistling Jim. "I got down off'n my hoss an' pick 'im up an' take 'im out er de paff er de rucus, an' den when you-all done des ez much shootin' an' killin' ez you wanter, I went back an' put 'im on my hoss an' tuck 'im ter dat little house by de river. Dey's a white lady dar, an' she say she'll take keer un' 'im twel somebody come. Does you reckon any er his side gwineter come back atter 'im, Marse Harry? Kaze ef dey don't, I dunner what de name er goodness he gwineter do. Dar he is, an' dar he'll lay. I'm done sick er war ef you call dis war—you hear me!"
Harry said nothing, but I knew he was thinking of the fair Katherine, Jack's sister, and wondering if he would ever be to her what she was to him. He had his face in his hands, and appeared ready to give way to grief. General Forrest turned to an orderly: "Go fetch Grissom here; tell him to come right away." The surgeon soon came, General Forrest told Whistling Jim to lead the way, and we were soon riding through the night in the direction of the river.
A fine mist was falling, and the night was so dark that we would never have found our way but for a small dog whose inhospitable bark directed us to the cabin. The dog was so disturbed by our approach that a woman opened the door to see what the trouble could be. We found Jack Bledsoe on a pallet, and saw at a glance that the woman had administered such remedies as common-sense and experience had taught her would allay the fever of a wound. He recognized us at once, and Harry could hardly keep back his tears when he saw his college chum lying helpless on the floor. He supported Jack's head while the surgeon was examining the wound.
"You are here sooner than I thought," said Jack, gripping Harry's hand hard, "but I knew you would—I knew it. And there is Carroll Shannon," he went on, holding out a hand to me. "You never were very fond of me, Carroll, but I always liked you."
I hardly knew what to say, and therefore I said nothing. I could only take his hand in mine and give him a grip that would tell him more than words could tell. "Don't worry, old fellow," Jack continued, observing the expression of grief and anxiety in Harry Herndon's countenance. "It's all owing to the way the cards fall. Some day your turn may come, and then I hope I'll be able to go to you." His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his lips trembled with suppressed emotion.
The tension was relieved by the woman, who looked at both the young fellows, and then turned to the surgeon and asked almost unconcernedly, "Ain't war a hell of a thing?"
It was the surgeon who responded. "It would be hard to find a better definition, ma'am."
"I've saw lots wuss'n this," she remarked, as if she would thus find excuse for her sudden use of an expression that is rarely heard on the lips of a woman.
"Why, yes, ma'am—a great deal worse. This is not a bad case at all. No great damage has been done. He will be lame for some weeks—perhaps for a longer time. The ball struck the bone, glanced, and is now close to the surface."
In a few moments he had deftly extracted it, and the wounded man seemed to be greatly relieved. Medicine, strange to say, had been declared a contraband of war by the Federals, and the surgeon could spare but a driblet of quinine from his small supply; but he left some, and gave various directions with respect to the possible symptoms that might arise.
Just then the woman's husband entered the door. He was an emaciated, unkempt man, whose movements were in strange contrast with his appearance. He was one of the most trustworthy of General Forrest's scouts, but neither betrayed the fact that he knew the other. On the contrary, the man was both angry and rude. "What'd I tell you, Rhody?" he exclaimed, turning to his wife. "I know'd they'd crowd us out'n house an' home ef they got a chance; I could 'a' took oath to it! Cuss 'em, an' contrive 'em, both sides on 'em, all an' similar! They'd as lief make a hoss-stable out'n the house as not, an' I built it wi' my two han's."
"An' what ef you did?" inquired the woman with some show of spirit. "Hit ain't sech a beauty that you kin brag on it. An' who made your two han's? You made 'em, I reckon, an' nobody else could 'a' done it."
The man made a gesture as though he could in that way weaken the force of the woman's words, and he evidently knew when to speak, for he said no more. On the contrary, sympathy shone in his eyes when he looked at the wounded man. "Don't you worry, Bill; ef ther's any worryin' to be done, leave it to me. It takes a 'oman to know how to worry right; an' ever'thing oughter be done right."
"Can you get a boat across the river?" inquired General Forrest, turning to the man. He was somewhat doubtful until he caught the General's eye, and then he thought that nothing would be easier. "Well," said the General, "go across and tell the Yankees that there's a wounded officer at your house and that he needs attention. Tell 'em that General Forrest says they can get him whenever they send after him."
"Is this General Forrest?" inquired Jack Bledsoe. "General, I hardly know how to thank you. I had just been dreaming of prison."
The General made a deprecatory gesture, and was on the point of saying something, when the man of the house spoke up. "Ef you're Gener'l Forrest," he said, "you'll be more than pleased to know that the Yankees ain't never took time for to cook supper. After they hit the furder bank they jest kep' on a-humpin', an' I don't blame 'em myself, bekaze 'twuz the only way wet men could keep warm."
"It's up to you, Herndon; he's your prisoner. He ought to be in a hospital where he could be looked after, but I reckon he'll have to stay where he is for a while."
"He won't put me out a mite ef he stays," said the woman. "He'll be company fer me when Bill is pirootin' 'roun'."
General Forrest gave us permission to remain where we were for the night. "We move at five," said he. "Bill here will put you across and show you which way to go when he has found your horses for you." Just how Bill would do that was a mystery, but we asked no questions.
We called for Whistling Jim when General Forrest had gone, but he was nowhere to be found. He had shown us the way to the cabin and then disappeared. I judged that he was afraid Jack Bledsoe would upbraid him or that Harry would give him a scolding; but, whatever his reasons, he disappeared when we went in the cabin, and we saw him no more till the next morning.
Harry and Jack talked of old times until the woman was compelled to warn the wounded man that it would be worse for him if he excited himself. But he talked away in spite of the warning. He talked of his sister Katherine, much to Harry's delight, and told of his own sweetheart in Missouri. His colonel, he said, was very fond of Katherine, but he declared that Kate still thought of Harry, whereupon the young fellow blushed and looked as silly as a school-girl.
Tom Ryder was the Colonel's name, and he had a sister Lucy. Miss Lucy was Jack's choice out of a thousand, he said. The main trouble with Jack was that his sweetheart's sister, Jane Ryder, didn't like him—and so forth and so on, till I nodded where I sat, and dreamed of Katherine and Jane and Lucy Ryder, until someone took me by the arm and told me that it was time to be up and going.
We delayed our departure on one excuse and another, until finally Bill, who was to be our guide, grew irritable; and even then we made a further delay while Jack pencilled a note to his colonel, which Harry was to take charge of as long as there was danger of his capture by roving bands of Federals, and then it was to be given to the guide, who thought he could insure its delivery.
When we were ready, and could invent no further excuse, Harry turned to Jack. "The war doesn't touch us, dear boy. Good-by, and don't fail to put in a good word for me when you go home."
Jack Bledsoe's face brightened up. "That's so!" he exclaimed; "I can go home now. Well, you may depend on me, Harry; but the two Miss Ryders are all the other way, and I'll be between two fires. Tell Whistling Jim I have no hard feelings. He has really done me a favor, if things turn out no worse than they are."
We bade our friend good-by again and went out into the damp morning air, each with his various thoughts. I congratulated myself that mine had little to do with the troublesome sex. The fog, hanging heavily over the river, shut out the sunlight. We had to take the guide's word for that, for we could see no sign of the sun. Indeed, it was so dark that we had considerable difficulty in making our way. But when we were on the other side, and had mounted the somewhat steep bank, the fog disappeared and the sun shone out; and not far away we saw Whistling Jim and the horses.
He hailed our coming with delight, for he had been waiting some time, and he was both cold and frightened. He took off his hat, as he said, to old King Sun, and he seemed to feel all the better for it; and we all felt better when our horses were between our knees. Even the horses felt better, for they whinnied as we mounted, and were for going at a more rapid gait than was necessary.
We entered the scrub timber and went through it for half a mile or more, and then suddenly came out on the public highway. The guide suggested that we smarten up our gait, and we put the horses to a canter. I thought surely that the man would give out, but he merely caught hold of my stirrup to help him along, and when we came to a cross-road, and halted at his suggestion, he showed as little fatigue as the horses—this man who seemed too frail to walk a mile.
Here he gave us such instructions as seemed necessary, and was just about to so-long us, as he said, when he paused with his hand to his ear. "I'll be whopped," he exclaimed, "ef I don't hear buggy-wheels, an' they're comin' right this way." With that he slipped into the bushes, and, though I knew where he was concealed, it was impossible to catch a glimpse of him.
There was a bend in the road about a quarter of a mile ahead of us, and we waited expectantly, while Whistling Jim, with a cunning for which I did not give him credit, pretended to be fixing his saddle-girth. As we waited a top-buggy rounded the bend in the road and came bowling toward us. It was surprising to see a buggy, but I was more surprised when its occupant turned out to be a woman—a woman in a top-buggy, riding between two hostile armies!
The lady made no pause whatever, and apparently was not at all surprised to find soldiers in the road ahead of her. She was not large, and yet she had a certain dignity of deportment. She was not youthful, neither was she old, but she was very grave-looking, as if she had seen trouble or was expecting to see it. Under any other circumstances I should have paid small attention to her, but the situation was such that I was compelled to regard her with both interest and curiosity. Almost in a moment my curiosity took the shape of sympathy, for there was something in the pale face that commanded it.
She was accompanied by a very clean-looking officer on horseback, and he, in turn, was followed by a small escort of cavalry—I did not take the trouble to count them, for my eyes were all for the lady; and it was left to Harry Herndon to realize the fact that we were in something of a pickle should the officer take advantage of the position in which he found us. He saw at once that our capture was a certainty unless we took prompt measures to provide against it, and he was quick to suggest that we adopt the tactics of Forrest and ride at them if they made a display of hostilities. I had just time to shift my carbine to the front under my overcoat and loosen the flap of my holsters when the lady drove up. We raised our hats as she came up, and made way for her to pass.
But she did nothing of the sort. She brought her horse to a halt. "Good-morning," she said, as cool as a cucumber. "You can't deceive us with your blue overcoats; you are both rebels. Oh, I have heard more of you Southerners than can be found in the newspapers."
"I'm sure we had no thought of deceiving you," responded Harry with one of his engaging smiles. "We are from the South, and you are from the North, of course. It may be that we are well met."
"Oh, no! not this time. I have seen prisoners taken before," remarked the lady with a little smile.
"Then you'll not flinch to see them taken again," said Harry very boldly. "But I shall regret to put you to any inconvenience."
I think the confident air of Harry saved us considerable trouble at the moment; but while he was putting on a bold front and trembling in his shoes—as he told me afterward—I had my eyes on the lady. She looked at me once, and turned her face away; twice, and frowned; thrice, and blushed. "I was afraid at first that you were a prisoner," I remarked in a tone that was intended to be apologetic, but the lady calmly turned her head away and ignored me.
"To what command are you attached?" inquired the Federal officer, very brusquely.
"We are serving under General Forrest," replied Harry.
"Why are you so far away from your command?" the officer inquired with real curiosity. His tone was so puzzling that Harry hesitated an instant—but in that instant a detachment of Forrest's troopers came around the bend in the road.
"Are we indeed so very far from our command?" I inquired.
The troopers came rattling up, and the officer turned to the lady, somewhat ungraciously, I thought, with the remark that they had been led into an ambuscade.
This was so ridiculous that I laughed aloud, though I felt little like laughing. "What amuses you?" the lady asked in some surprise. "I am sure I can see nothing humorous in our situation."
"Perhaps you have heard ladies placed under such accusations before?" I suggested.
"Miss Ryder knows I meant no such thing," said the officer with some heat.
"Is this Miss Lucy Ryder?" I inquired.
"What do you know of Lucy Ryder?" the lady asked.
"I know she has a sister Jane," I answered, whereupon the lady blushed again. "And I have heard that Miss Jane doesn't like a friend of ours—a young fellow named Jack Bledsoe, who is greatly in need of sympathy at this time."
"I like him well enough to go on a wild-goose chase in search of him," the lady replied. "We had an idea that he had been left on the battle-field."
Harry, who had been consulting with our comrades who had just arrived, returned in time to overhear a part of this conversation. He fumbled in his pocket and finally produced Jack Bledsoe's note. He lifted his hat as he handed it to the lady. She read it very calmly, and then passed it to the Federal officer who had escorted her: "You see, I am justified in coming."
"We sat up with Jack last night, my friend and I," Harry remarked.
"Well, you know the Bible tells us to love our enemies," remarked the lady, dryly.
"It was an easy matter to carry out the commandment in this particular instance, for, with the exception of this gentleman here"—indicating me—"Jack Bledsoe is the dearest friend I ever had."
"I know you well enough," the lady remarked with a smile. "You are Harry Herndon, and your friend there is Carroll Shannon, and the negro is Whistling Jim. Why, I know your grandmother, although I have never seen her."
"That doesn't help us now. How are we to find Captain Bledsoe?" asked the officer. I could have slapped him for the tone he employed.
"It is all provided for," replied Harry Herndon, curtly. "All you have to do is to hold on to the pommel of your saddle. There is a non-combatant here who will guide you. Bill!"
"I'm a-lis'nin' at ye," responded the guide from the bushes.
"This is one of the natives," Harry explained. "His wife is taking care of Jack Bledsoe and he will have no difficulty whatever in showing you the way."
The officer thanked us ungraciously, though why he took that attitude I was unable to discover, and we were on the point of joining our comrades when the lady remarked: "You'll probably know me again when you see me, Mr. Carroll Shannon!" This was a rebuke, I knew, and it upset me not a little, but there was something in the tone of her voice that sounded like a challenge, and I remarked that I should be sure to know her. "Then call my attention to the fact when you next see me," she cried as she touched up her horse.
"With great pleasure," I answered, raising my hat, and with that we were off to join our waiting comrades. It seemed that General Forrest was somewhat concerned for our safety, knowing that the country was strange to us, and he had sent William Forrest's company of Independents to watch the road for us so that we might come to no harm. While engaged in carrying out this order they saw the lady and her escort far ahead of them, and a detachment was sent to investigate, the rest of the company remaining to see whether other Federals would follow. Thus they came upon us in the very nick of time, for I judge that the Federal officer would have held us prisoners, in spite of the information we had for him, for he was very gruff and surly.
We reached the recruiting camp at Murfreesborough without further incident, and Harry and I soon settled down to the routine of duties that fell to our share. Harry served General Forrest temporarily as a courier, while I was billeted with Captain Bill Forrest's company of Independents, sometimes known as the Forty Thieves, owing to their ability as foragers.
I had time to ramble about in the woods, and I took advantage of it to explore the whole countryside in the neighborhood of the camp. Returning one day from a ride that was partly on business and partly for pleasure, I was informed that General Forrest had sent for me. When I responded to his summons he was reading a late copy of the Chattanooga Rebel, and was evidently much interested in what he read. He handed the paper to me when he had finished, and pointed out an article that was printed under a great display of black type.
A Federal scout, Leroy by name, and well known in both armies (so the newspaper said), had entered General Bragg's lines under very peculiar circumstances and had then managed to escape. Two pickets had been found bound and gagged. The whole story appeared to be absurd.
It was stated, among other things, that the scout intended to turn his attention to General Forrest. He directed my eye to this, and said he wanted me to take the matter in hand. I inquired how the correspondent knew the intentions of the scout.
"Why, he guessed 'em," replied General Forrest, "and he guessed right, too. I've got information from one of my men who is thick with the Yankees that this chap will soon be nosing around here, and I want to give him the worth of his money. I don't want the other side to know how many men I've got, and I don't want 'em to know that my superior officer has refused to honor my requisition for arms and horses. I'd cut a purty figure with the Yankees if they know'd that some of my men had muskets that were used in the Revolutionary War. If they found this out I'd never whip another fight. And there's another thing: I don't want to have it said that any Yankee scout can stick his nose in my camp and not git it pulled. That's why I sent for you; I want you to catch this fellow and fetch him to me."
I tried hard to get out of the difficulty. I protested that I didn't know the scout from a side of sole leather. But the General said that this was one of his reasons for detailing me to perform this duty. He said he would have given it to Jasper Goodrum, of the Independents, but everybody in Tennessee knew Goodrum.
"He was born and raised around here," the General said, "and he's got a tongue like a bell-clapper. Now, you're not much of a talker, and your face gives you the look of a big baby that has got out of its mammy's yard and don't know how to git back." I suppose I must have turned red under this back-handed compliment, for he went on, "I wish I had a thousand like you. I watched you that day on the hill and at the river, and you may put it down that I'll trust you anywhere."
I tried to thank the General for his confidence, but he stayed me by a gesture. He settled all the details that could be thought of beforehand, and, as I turned to go, he rose from his chair and followed me to the door. "If you have to shoot that fellow," he said, "do it and don't wait too long before you do it; and if you have to shoot two or three men, don't let that stand in your way—charge 'em up to me. But you must catch that fellow; I want to string him up just to show the balance of 'em that they can't fool with me."
As everything had been arranged to my hand I was soon going about the camp and the town arrayed in jeans clothes and looking like anything but a soldier. I had thought to surprise Whistling Jim, the negro, with my garb, but, as it turned out, the surprise was mine, for that night, when I went to see whether the horses had been properly groomed and fed, I found the door of the stable unlocked. I was not only surprised but irritated. Both Harry Herndon and myself had tried hard to impress the negro with the necessity of taking unusual precautions to secure the safety of the horses, for they had attracted the attention of the whole camp, which was full of questionable characters, some of whom would have answered to their names if Falstaff had appeared to call the roll of his ragamuffins.
The key had been turned in the lock, but the bolt of the lock had failed to catch in the socket. It was plain that the negro thought he had locked the door, but it was quite as plain that he had been careless, and I made a resolution then and there to look after the safety of the horses myself. I swallowed more than half of my irritation when I found that the horses were in their stalls, warmly blanketed, and an abundance of food before them. I was on the point of locking the door with my own key, when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. There were two men, civilians, as I judged, and one of them stuttered. Their conversation was of a nature to interest me.
They paused near the door of the stable. "This is the place where they keep them," remarked one of the men. "They are the finest horses in the rebel army, and it would be a good job to run them into the Union lines some fine night. I know a man that would pay a cracking good price for them."
"But the nigger sleeps in there with 'em," said the other man, "and what are you going to do about him?"
"That's as easy as picking up rocks in the road. A nigger will sell his immortal soul for ten dollars, and I'll git him to leave the door open some night when he's got a job of jiggering on the peanner and whistling with his mouth at the tavern in the woods."
"But that's horse-stealing."
"No, it ain't; it's turn and turn about. How many horses has old Forrest took from the loyal citizens of Tennessee? You couldn't count 'em if you was to try. I'll give you three hundred dollars for them three horses delivered at my brother's house—three hundred dollars in gold—and you'll have two men to help you. Don't you call that picking up money?"
"An' whilst I'm a-gittin' the horses, what'll you be doing?"
"Ain't I told you?" answered the man with some display of irritation. "I'll be putting up the money, the cold cash. What more do you want? I've always heard that good money is good enough for anybody."
They passed on, and I slipped from the stable, taking care to lock it behind me, and followed them.
I have never spent a more disagreeable hour than that which passed while I was engaged in following the two men for the purpose of identifying them. The weather was cold and the night dark, and there were peppery little showers of sleet. The two left the town proper and turned into a by-way that I had travelled many times in my rambles in the countryside. I knew that it led to a house that had been built for a suburban home, but now, in the crowded condition of the town, was used as a tavern. It had attracted the suspicion of General Forrest and I knew that he had placed it under the surveillance of the Independents. It was a very orderly public-house, however, and nothing had ever occurred there to justify the suspicions of the General.
The two men I followed could have reached their destination in less than twenty minutes if they had gone forward with the briskness that the weather justified; but there was an argument of some kind between them—I judged that the stuttering man had no stomach for the part he was to play as a horse-thief. At any rate, there was a dispute of some kind, and they stopped on the road at least half a dozen times to have it out. One point settled, another would arise before they had gone far, and then they would stop again; and at last, so dark did the wood become, and so low their conversation grew, that I passed within three feet of them and never knew it until it was too late to betray the astonishment I naturally felt.
I simply jogged along the path and pretended that I had not seen them. I went along briskly, and in a few minutes came to the tavern. The door was shut, the weather being cold, but I knew by the lights shining through the windows that a hospitable fire was burning on the hearth. There was no need to knock at the door. I heard the jangling piano playing an accompaniment to the flute-like whistling of Harry Herndon's negro. Remembering his carelessness, I felt like going into the tavern and giving him a frailing. The inclination was so strong that I held my hand on the door-knob until the first flush of anger had subsided. It was a very fortunate thing for me, as it turned out, that Whistling Jim was present, but at the moment the turn of a hair would have caused me to justify much that the people of the North have said in regard to the cruelty of Southerners to the negro.
The guests and visitors—and there were quite a number—made room for me at the fire, the landlord provided me with a chair and welcomed me very heartily, taking it for granted that I was from the country and would want a bed for the night. On the wide hearth a very cheerful fire burned, and the place reminded me somehow of home—particularly a big rocking-chair in which one of the guests was seated. It had an upholstered seat and back, and the high arms were made more comfortable by a covering of the same material. It was a fac-simile of a chair that we had at home, and I longed to occupy it, if only for the sake of old times.
Among those who were taking their ease at this suburban inn was Jasper Goodrum, one of my comrades. He was a noted scout as well as a seasoned soldier. He looked at me hard as I entered, and continued to watch me furtively for some time, and then his face cleared up and I knew that he had recognized me. He was in civilian's clothes, and I knew by that that he did not care to be recognized. So I turned my attention elsewhere. But in a little while he seemed to have changed his mind, and, suddenly rising from his chair, came to me with outstretched hand.
It was a mixed company around the fire. There was a big Irishman, who leaned calmly back in a small chair and smoked a short pipe. More than once I caught his bright eyes studying my face, but his smile was ample apology for his seeming rudeness. He was as handsome a man as I had ever seen, and if I had been searching for a friend on whom to depend in an emergency I should have selected him out of a thousand.
There was a short-haired man who was built like a prize-fighter. He wore a sarcastic smile on his face, and his shifty eyes seemed to be constantly looking for a resting-place. He had a thick neck and jaw like a bull-dog. I marked him down in my mental note-book as dangerous. There was a tall and pious-looking man, and two or three civilians who had no particular points about them; and then there was a burly man, who sat with his hands in his pockets and did nothing but chew tobacco and gaze in the fire, uttering not one word until some of the company fell to discussing Captain Leroy, the famous Union scout. When Leroy's name was mentioned the burly man was quick to join in the conversation.
"There ain't a word of truth in all this stuff you hear about Leroy," he said, and his manner was more emphatic than the occasion seemed to demand. "He's in the newspapers, and he ain't anywhere else on top of the ground. I know what I'm a-talking about. Leroy is the invention of Franc Paul, of the Chattanooga Rebel. He as good as told me so. He said that when he wanted to stir up talk and create a sensation he had something written about this Captain Frank Leroy. He's a paper man and he's able to do anything the newspapers want done."
"You talk like you had gray hair," said the man that looked like a prize-fighter; "but you're givin' away a mighty big secret. What are you doin' it for? Say!"
"Oh, because I'm tired of all this talk about a man that doesn't live outside of the mind of a newspaper man."
The big Irishman, who had been smoking and watching me with a shrewd smile hovering about his mouth, began to chuckle audibly. He kept it up so long that it attracted the attention of the company.
"What tickles you, my friend?" the burly man asked.
"Maybe ye know Franc Paul?" he inquired. His countenance was an interrogation-point. The man answered somewhat sullenly in the affirmative. "Is there anny risimblance bechune him an' me?"
"Not the slightest in the world," the man answered.
"Thin ye'd have a quarrel wit' his wife an' she'd have all the advantages," said the Irishman with a laugh. "F'r no longer than the last time I was at Chattanooga, Missus Paul says, 'It's a good thing, Mr. O'Halloran,' she says, 'that ye're a hair's breadth taller than me beloved husband,' she says, 'or I'd niver tell ye apart. Only the sharp eyes av a wife or a mither,' she says, 'could pick out me husband if he stood be your side,' she says."
"I must say," remarked the pious-looking man, "that you gentlemen were never more mistaken in your lives when you hint that there is no such person as Frank Leroy. I knew him when he was a boy—a beardless boy, as you may say. In fact, his father was my next-door neighbor in Knoxville, and I used to see Frank reading old Brownlow's paper."
"Don't think ut!" replied the Irishman, and with that all joined in the conversation and I heard more of the perilous adventures and hair-breadth escapes of Captain Frank Leroy than you could put in a book. It seemed that his identity was a mystery, but he was none the less a hero in men's minds because his very existence had been called in question; for people will hug delusions to their bosoms in the face of religion itself, as we all know.
The door of an inner room was open, and I could hear a conversation going on. One of the participants was the stuttering man, whose voice I had heard before the stable-door, and at a moment when I thought that my movements would attract no attention I took advantage of the freedom of a public-house and sauntered aimlessly into the room as if I had no particular business there. I saw with surprise that the chap who had proposed to steal the horses was one of the merchants of the town at whose store I had occasionally traded. In the far end of the room, reading a newspaper by the light of a small fire, sat a slip of a youth. He wore a military cloak that covered his figure from his neck to his top-boots.
I saw that he was not so absorbed in the paper that he failed to make a note of my presence in the room, and he shifted himself around in his chair so that he could get a better view of me, and still leave his face in the shadow. Near him sat a motherly-looking woman of fifty. She was well preserved for her age, and wore a smile on her face that was good to look at. The youngster said something to her in a low tone, and she immediately turned her attention to me. Some other words passed between the two, and then the woman beckoned to me. I obeyed the summons with alacrity, for I liked her face.
"You seem to be lonely," she said. "Have a seat by our little fire. This is not a guest-room, but we have been so overrun lately that we have had to turn it over to the public." She paused a moment and then went on. "You are over-young to be in the army," she suggested.
She had turned so that she looked me full in the face, and there was a kindly, nay, a generous light in her eyes, and I could no more have lied to her in the matter than I could have lied to my own mother if she had been alive. "I do not have a very hard time in the army," I replied.
"No, I suppose not," she remarked. "You are one to make friends wherever you go. Few are so fortunate; I have known only one or two."
There was a note of sadness in her tones that touched me profoundly. The cause I can't explain, and the effect was beyond description. I hesitated before making any reply, and when I did I tried to turn it off lightly. "I never saw but one," I answered, "on whom I desired to make an impression."
"And who was that?" the woman inquired with a bright smile of sympathy.
"You will think it a piece of foolishness," I replied; "but it was a lady riding in a top-buggy. I had never seen her before and never expect to see her again."
The youngster clutched his paper in his hand and turned in his chair. "The light is detestable," he said. "Please throw on a piece of pine, mother."
"You can't read by such a light," the woman replied. "Put your paper in your pocket and read it to-morrow." Then she turned to me. "If you are in the army," she said, "why do you wear such clothes? They are not becoming at all." She had such a kindly smile and betrayed such a friendly interest that it was not in human nature to suspect her—at least, it was not in my nature to do so.
"Why, mainly for comfort," I answered; "and while I am wearing them I am having my uniform, such as it is, furbished up and cleaned a bit. I have a few days' leave, and I am taking advantage of it in this way."
"I wish my son here would take advantage of his short furlough to wear the clothes he used to wear," she remarked, and her tone was so significant that I could but regard her with a look of inquiry. I suppose the puzzled expression of my face must have amused her, for she laughed heartily, while the son, as if resenting his mother's words, arose and swaggered to the other end of the room.
We had more conversation, and then I returned to the public room. Some of the guests had retired, but their places had been taken by others, and there was a goodly company gathered around the fire. I found the big arm-chair unoccupied, and, seating myself on its comfortable cushion, soon forgot the wonder I had felt that the woman in the next room had known me for a soldier. I had accomplished one thing—the identification of the prospective horse-thief—and I satisfied myself with that. As for Leroy, I knew I should have to trust to some stroke of good fortune.
The comfort of the rocker appealed to me, and, with my hands on its arms, I leaned back and, in spite of the talking all around me, was soon lost in reflection. Through long usage the upholstering on the arms of the chair had become worn, and in places the tufts of moss or horse-hair were showing. I fell to fingering these with the same impulse of thoughtlessness that induces people to bite their finger-nails. Suddenly I felt my finger in contact with a small roll of paper that had been carefully pushed under the leather, and then I remembered that the last occupant of the chair was the short-haired man—the man who had the general appearance of a prize-fighter.
Now, it had occurred to me in a dim way that this man might be identical with Leroy, and I suspected that he had left in the chair a communication for some of his accomplices. I determined to transfer the roll of paper to my pocket and examine it at my leisure. But no sooner had I come to this determination than I imagined that every person in the room had his eyes fixed on me. And then the problem, if you can call it so, was solved for me.
A stranger who had evidently arrived while I was in the next room appeared to be regarding Whistling Jim with some curiosity, and presently spoke to him, inquiring if he was the negro that played on the piano. Whistler replied that he could "sorter" play. "If you are Whistling Jim," I said, "play us a plantation tune. I heard a man say the other day that the finest tune he ever heard was one you played for him. It was something about 'My gal's sweet.'"
The negro looked at me hard, but something in my countenance must have conveyed a warning to him. "I 'member de man, suh; he say he wuz fum Cincinnati, an' he gun me a fi'-dollar bill—a green one."
Without more ado, he went to the piano and plunged into the heart-breaking melody of—
"Yo' gal's a neat gal, but my gal's sweet— Sweet-a-little, sweet-a-little, sweet, sweet, sweet! Fum de crown er her head ter de soles er her feet— Feet-a-little, feet-a-little, feet, feet, feet!"
Naturally all eyes were turned on the performer, and I took advantage of that fact to rise from the rocking-chair with the roll of paper safe in my pocket, and saunter across the room in the direction of the piano. Leaning against a corner of the ramshackle old instrument, I drank in the melody with a new sense of its wild and melancholy beauty. The room in which I stood seemed transformed into what it never could be, and the old piano shed its discord and was glorified by the marvellous playing of the negro.
The foolish little song runs along for several stanzas, simulating the sound of dancing feet. Alternately the negro sang the air and whistled the chorus, but whether he did one or the other, the effect was the same. The silly song struck the home note and sent it vibrating through my brain so invitingly that I was almost sorry that Whistling Jim had played it.
I returned to earth when he ceased playing. He looked hard at me when he had finished, but I did not glance at him. At the other end of the piano, leaning against it, and apparently lost in thought, was the young fellow I had seen in the other room. His cloak was thrown back from his throat, and the red lining gave a picturesque touch to his small, lithe figure. His face was partly in the shadow, but I could see that his expression was one of profound melancholy. He aroused himself at last, and, looking toward me, said with a smile that had no heart in it, "If all the negroes in the South are so gifted you must have a happy time down there."
"So it would seem," I answered, "but this negro is an exception. He tells me that he learned to play while his old mistress was away from home looking after her plantation interests. He can whistle better than he can play."
"He has great gifts," said the lad, "and I trust he is treated accordingly; but I doubt it," and with that he turned away from the piano with a snap of thumb and finger that sounded for all the world like a challenge. He turned and went swaggering across the room, and seated himself in the rocking-chair of which I have spoken. In a word, and with a snap of the finger, he had thrown mud at the whole South, and with no more excuse than I should have had had I made an attack on the North. Yet curiosity, and not irritation, was uppermost in my mind.
His conduct was so puzzling that I determined to have another taste of it if possible, and so discover what he would be at. So I went back to the fire and took a seat close to his elbow, while Whistling Jim passed around his hat, as was his custom when he played for company. He held it out to all except the young fellow and myself, and then returned to the piano and played for his own amusement, but so softly that conversation could flow on undisturbed.
I had a good look at the lad, and liked him all the better. His face had in it that indescribable quality—a touch of suffering or of sorrow—that always draws me, and I thought how strange it was that he should sit there ignorant of the fact that a word or two would make me his friend for life. I had a great pity for him, and there arose in me the belief that I had met him before, but whether in reality or only in a dream I could not make out. It was a foolish and a romantic notion, but it nibbled around my mind so persistently that I turned my gaze on the fire and fell into reflections that were both teasing and pleasing.
While thus engaged I suddenly became aware of the fact that the young fellow was fingering at the worn place on the chair-arm. Conversation was going on very briskly. The genial landlord, who had joined the group at the fire, was relating to a listening and an eager guest another story of the almost superhuman performances of the Union scout, Leroy, when suddenly the lad arose from the rocker and began to search the floor with his eyes. He had had the color of youth in his cheeks, in spite of the swarthiness of his skin, and I had admired the combination—your light-haired man is for everything that has a touch of the brunette—but now he had gone white.
As he stooped to search under my chair, I jumped up and drew it back politely. "Pardon me for disturbing you," he said; "I have lost a paper."
"Is it of importance?" I inquired, endeavoring to show an interest in the matter.
"You would hardly think so," he replied. "It involves the safety of a woman." I regarded him with unfeigned astonishment, and he, in turn, looked at me with a face as full of anger and disappointment as I had ever beheld.
"Why, you young rascal!" I exclaimed; "what do you know of me that you should speak so? For less than nothing I'll give you a strapping and send you to your daddy."
"You couldn't do me a greater service. He is in heaven." You may imagine my feelings, if you can, when, as he said this, he turned toward me a countenance from which all feeling had died out save that of sadness. If he had plunged a knife in my vitals he could not have hurt me worse. "Well, sir," he insisted, "proceed with your strapping."
"You are more than even with me, my lad," I said, "and I humbly apologize for my words. But why should you be so short with one who certainly wishes you no harm?"
"I am unable to tell you. You seem to be always smiling, while I am in trouble: perhaps that is why I am irritable." He looked at me hard as he resumed his seat in the rocker, and again I had the curious feeling that I had met him somewhere before—perhaps in some sphere of former existence. Memory, however, refused to disgorge the details, and I could only gaze helplessly into the fire.
After a little the lad hitched his chair closer to mine, and I could have thanked him for that. He drew on his glove and drew it off again. "Will you shake hands with me?" he inquired. "I feel that I am all to blame." As I took his hand in mine I could but notice how small and soft it was.
"No, you are not all to blame," I said. "I am ill-mannered by nature."
"I never will believe it," he declared with something like a smile. "No, it is not so."
Before I could make any reply, in walked Jasper Goodrum, of the Independents, and, following hard at his heels, was the man who had the appearance of a prize-fighter. This last comer appeared to be in a state of great excitement, and his brutal, overbearing nature was clearly in evidence. He walked across the room to my lad—I was now beginning to feel a proprietary interest in him—and seized him roughly by the arm.
"Come 'ere!" he said, and his voice was thick with anger. "You've got more'n you bargained for. Come into the next room; you better had! Say, ain't you comin'?" He tried to pull the lad along, but the youngster was not to be pulled.
"Don't touch me!" he exclaimed. "Don't you dare to put your hands on me. You have lied to me, and that is enough!" The short-haired man was almost beside himself with anger, and I could see that the lad would be no match for him. He was not at all frightened, but when he turned his eyes toward me, with a little smile, I saw the face of Jane Ryder, the little lady I had seen in a top-buggy on her way to carry aid to Jack Bledsoe. And instantly I was furious with a blind rage that stung me like a thousand hornets.
I rose and slapped the ruffian on the shoulder in a way that would have knocked an ordinary man down. "You dirty brute!" I cried, "say to me what you have to say to the lad!"
The man regarded me with an amazement that soon flamed up into anger. His under-jaw stuck out ferociously, and the veins on his neck and forehead were swollen with indignation. Before he could say anything Jasper Goodrum intervened. "This is partly my affair," he said to the short-haired man, "and you'd better leave this countryman alone."
"You're wrong," said the man; "it is not your affair. How can it be when I don't know you?"
"Still," insisted Goodrum, "you'd better not bother the countryman. You'll git yourself in trouble."
"Trouble!" he snorted. "Say! that's what I'm after. He's waded into the creek and he can't git out without wettin' his feet." Then he turned to me, his eyes full of venomous rage. "Say! what do you take me for?" He came closer and stuck his ugly mug near my face.
My reply was made with an exceedingly willing mind. I struck him on the jaw with my open hand and sent him reeling. He recovered his balance almost instantly and made at me with a roar of rage and pain, but he never reached me, for Whistling Jim ran into him head down like a bull. The result was a collision that put the man out of business and knocked all the fight out of him. He lay on the floor and rolled about in an agony of pain, and the negro stood over him, apparently waiting for a fitting opportunity to put in the finishing touch, but his hard head had done the work for the time being.
I judged that the ruffian had friends among the guests, but when I turned to keep an eye on them the room was clear. Even the landlord had retired. The lad was standing by my side, and my impression is that he was holding me by the sleeve of my coat. I turned to him, and I was more certain than ever that he was either Jane Ryder or her brother. But it was only when she spoke again that I was sure—for not even a twin brother could simulate that round and singularly mellow voice. "I am afraid you have made matters somewhat hard for me," she said, somewhat sadly, "and heaven knows that I have had trouble enough for one night."
"Well, you will have no more trouble here, at any rate," I said.
"I'd feel easier if I were sure of that," she remarked.
"Be assured," I answered. "When I leave this house you will go with me. I propose to take you to your friends, if you have any in the neighborhood; otherwise you go with me. You shall not stay here for that ruffian to abuse and misuse you."
"I'll go with you as far as the door if only to thank you for the unnecessary protection you have given me. There are many things that you do not understand."
"And many that I do," I replied as significantly as I dared. "I want no thanks, and you shall not remain in this house to-night. That is settled." She made a birdlike movement with her head and shoulders, looked me up and down, and smiled, but she saw that I was in earnest, and the smile left her face.
"Where shall I go?" she asked.
"Anywhere but here," I answered. "Anywhere away from that," I pointed to the man on the floor. He had raised himself to a sitting posture, and was rocking himself to and fro with his arms hugging his knees, apparently in great pain.
"He is not always as you see him to-night," she insisted. Then she turned to me impulsively, "I'll go with you; I know a house where I have very dear friends. But I must tell my friend here good-night—the lady you spoke with." She ran into the inner room, and then I heard her going lightly upstairs. She came down in a moment with color in her face and with some agitation in her manner. She seized me by the sleeve in a way that no man would have thought of, exclaiming, "Let us go at once—come!" Her sudden anxiety to be off took me entirely by surprise.
"You have a horse?" I said, hearing the jingling of her spurs. But she declared that her horse was well enough off where he was. "Come!" she said; "let us be off!"
"With all my heart," I replied. I was so highly elated that I forgot for the moment that I was dealing with a woman, and I threw my arm lightly over her shoulder with a gesture of friendliness and protection.
She threw it off and shrank from it as if it were a serpent. "What do you mean?" she cried. Her face was red with anger, and her eyes were blazing with scorn. "Don't dare to touch me!" For an instant I knew not what to do or say, and then it suddenly occurred to me that it would be well to hide from her the fact that I knew who she was and so I made a great pretence of anger. I seized her by the arm. "If you give me another word of your impertinence I'll carry out my threat of half an hour ago."
All the anger died out of her eyes. "You hurt me," she said almost in a whisper. "Oh, pray pardon me; I have travelled far to-day, and I am weak and nervous. Why did you come here to-night? But for you——" she paused and glanced up into my face, and placed her hand on mine. And then I would have known if I had not known before that she was no other than Jane Ryder, the little lady of the top-buggy. I looked in her eyes, and they fell; in her face, and it was covered with blushes; and somehow I was happier than I had been in many a long day.
"Come!" said I with some sternness, and held out my hand to her. Instinctively she seized it and clung to it as we went out into the night, followed by Whistling Jim.
"I have a friend who lives farther up the road," she said. "It is not far, but perhaps it is farther than you care to come—and you have no overcoat." I was not thinking of what she was saying, but of the warm little hand that nestled so confidingly in mine. I knew then, or thought I knew, that this little hand so soft and white, nestling in my big paw like a young bird under its mother's wing, had the power to make or mar my life. But, as is ever the way with birdlike things, the hand slipped from its nest and left it empty.
She was worrying about the ruffian we had left on the floor. "The trouble with him," I said, "is that he is selling information to both sides. He is an impostor. I think he is the scout they call Leroy." Whereupon she gave utterance to a laugh so merry that it sounded out of place in the gloomy woods. It brought Whistling Jim alongside to see what the trouble was. He said he thought the young master was crying. She laughed again, and then suddenly paused.
"We are very near the house," she said, "and all who live there are my friends. I shall be perfectly safe there. You have been very kind to me—kinder than you know. We have both seen each other at our very worst. Should we meet again, I hope we shall appear to better advantage."
She had entirely recovered her self-possession, but in doing so she forgot the part she was playing, forgot that she was arrayed in the toggery of a man, and was now altogether a woman. I do not remember all that was said, but I tried as hard as I could to conceal from her the fact that I had discovered her sex and her identity; I had not the least desire to humiliate her by airing my penetration. She stood silent for a while, as if in thought, or perhaps she was waiting for me to say farewell.
"You will do well to go in," I said. "The night is cold and damp."
"The cold and the damp are nothing to me," she replied. "I am warm enough. You were speaking a while ago of Frank Leroy. Don't forget that he is the best friend I have in the world except my mother. Good-night!" She held out her hand, and again it nestled, white and soft and warm, in my great paw, and stayed there a moment. The little hand must have been frightened, for it fluttered slightly and then flew back to its mistress.
I said good-night, but it was not a very gracious farewell, I am afraid. "I knew I had something to say to you," she remarked. "In the house there is a young Federal officer who was wounded some time ago. He has been in a very bad way, but he is better now. While he was at the worst of his illness he was constantly calling the names of some friends he has among the rebels. One of them he seems to be specially fond of—he calls him Harry Herndon. The other he calls Carroll Shannon. It may be that you know them."
"I am acquainted with Herndon," I replied. "Shannon I have never met, and I have no desire to meet him."
She was silent a moment, and then went on: "I thought that if the two would take the trouble to call on the wounded man it would do him good—though I am astonished that he should desire to see rebels and traitors. I hate them all without exception, and the more I see of them the more I hate them."
The little lady had worked herself into a grand fury against the rebels, and I am sure she believed what she said for the moment. "I shall take pleasure in informing Herndon that his friend is here," said I. "Shannon, as I have told you, I never met."
"You are fortunate," she replied. "I met him once, and it needed only a glance to tell me what he was."
"And what was he?" I inquired.
"The matter is not worth speaking of," she said. "I have just as much contempt for him as you have. Good-night!" and once more the little fluttering hand touched mine, and away she marched into the darkness. At the steps she turned and listened, but, as neither Whistling Jim nor I had stirred out of our tracks, she could hear nothing. "Why don't you go?" she called.
"I want to see you safe in the house," I said.
"You are taking a deal of responsibility on yourself," she responded. "You must think me a child or a woman." With that she slipped through the door, which yielded to her touch, and disappeared in the house.
Now, when the foolish girl disappeared behind the door, I turned away from the gate full of anger at all mundane things. But the only human being near at hand was Whistling Jim, and him I seized by the collar.
"You scoundrel!" I exclaimed, shaking him vigorously; "what do you mean by going off and leaving the stable-door unlocked?"
"Mar—Marse Cal—Cally—lem—lemme tell you 'bout it!" he cried, affrighted; and then, ashamed of my silly display of temper, I turned him loose. "What make you so fractious ter-night, Marse Cally? A little mo' an' you'd 'a' shuck my head off. I declar' ter gracious, Marse Cally, I thought I locked dat stable-door. I know I turned de key—dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat. I tuck de key out'n de lock when I went in, an' put it back in de lock when I come out—I put it in de lock an' turned it des like I allers do."
"But what you didn't do," said I, now angry with myself, "was to make sure that the bolt of the lock had caught. It didn't catch, and when I went there to-night the door yielded to my hand. It was a piece of pure carelessness, and if you ever do the like again——"
"Don't talk dat way, Marse Cally; you sho is been mighty good ter me, an' I don't want ter make you mad. I never is ter do dat trick ag'in."
Then I told him that there was a plot on foot to steal the horses, and advised him as to the identity of the two men. He knew them both—especially did he know the prominent citizen, who, on various occasions, had invited him into the store and made him presents of pipe and tobacco, and had even hinted to him that he could find a good job for him when he grew tired of working for nothing. He had also given him whiskey, which was a contraband article in the recruiting camp.
We walked along very friendly, for I was ashamed of myself for giving way to my temper. When the negro thought I was in a sufficiently good humor, he endeavored to ease his own curiosity on a matter that had evidently been worrying him. "Marse Cally," he said, "who wuz dat little chap we tuck home des now?"
"I don't know his name. Why do you ask?"
"Kaze he look so funny an' done so funny. He ain't look like no man ter me."
"Why, of course not; he is little more than a boy; that's the reason I made him come out of that house."
"He moughter been a boy," remarked Whistling Jim, after taking some time to think the matter over. "He wuz right knock-kneed, an' when he walked he walked des like de flo' wuz burnin' his foots."
I could only pretend to laugh, but I wondered at the negro's keep observation. Seeing that I made no reply, he went on: "You know what I think, Marse Cally? Dat uppity li'l chap is des ez much a man ez you is a 'oman."
"Well, it may be so," I replied. "He is nothing to me."
Whistling Jim laughed one of his irritating laughs. "Dat's so, suh, but I tuck notice dat you helt han's wid 'im a mighty long time."
This was intolerable, and I remarked with some severity that I proposed to make it my special business to inform Harry Herndon how his negro had neglected his duty. "Now, don't do dat, Marse Cally, please, suh! You know mighty well dat Marse Harry can't keep his temper like you does. I dunner when you been ez fractious ez you is ter-night."
"You are the cause of it," I declared, "you and no one else. First you leave the stable-door unlocked, and then you say that this young fellow is neither man nor boy."
"Did I say dat, Marse Cally?" exclaimed Whistling Jim, apparently almost as much amazed as if I had drawn a pistol on him. He stood a moment, as if trying to remember the circumstances under which the remark had been made, but he shook his head sadly. "Ef I said dat, Marse Cally, I must 'a' been dreamin'; I wuz mighty nigh fast asleep when we started back des now, an' ef you'd 'a' lissened right close I speck you'd 'a' hearn me a sno'in'. Ef you say I said it, den I reckon I must 'a' said it, but I wan't at myse'f, kaze ef dey ever wuz a grown man on top er de groun', dat chap is one."
"You are sharper than I thought you were," I remarked.
"You must be makin' fun er me, Marse Cally, kaze dey ain't nothin' sharp 'bout knowin' a man fum a 'oman. Ef I didn't know de diffunce I'd turn myse'f out ter graze wid de dry cattle, an' stay wid um all thoo de season."
"Now, that's the way to talk," said I with some heartiness; "but if I ever find the stable-door unlocked again I'll take it for granted that you have changed your opinion about our young friend."
"I may leave de stable-door onlocked time an' time ag'in," remarked Whistling Jim solemnly, "but I never is ter b'lieve dat dat boy is anything but a man."
I made haste to inform Harry Herndon that Jack Bledsoe was in the neighborhood, and, as was perfectly natural, he was keen to see him, less for Jack's sake, I imagine, though he loved the young fellow well, than for the sake of having some news of the fair Katherine. As the heaviest part of his work at headquarters was over, and as pretty much everything had depended on the reply to General Forrest's requisition on his superior officer—who, unfortunately, chanced to be General Bragg—for arms and ammunition, Harry had no difficulty in securing leave of absence for the day; and so, when all the arrangements had been made, we set out the next evening for the house where Jack Bledsoe lay.
On the way, I suggested that perhaps Jack's mother and the fair cousin would probably be found there; and this possibility was in Harry's mind also, for he leaned from his horse toward me and extended his hand, uttering not a word. I gripped it with mine, and hoped that before I died I should have the opportunity of shaking another hand as true. One other I found—but only one.
Jack's mother met us at the door, and not far behind her was the fair Katherine, more beautiful than ever. I saw at a glance that the ladies were expecting us, for they were rigged out in their best, which was not very bad, considering that they had been caught between the lines with a wounded man on their hands. Another face that I had expected to see was not in evidence, and whatever enthusiasm I may have felt in the beginning soon died away, and I was sorry that I had been foolish enough to accompany Harry.
We were taken at once to Jack's room, and it was very evident that he was glad to see us again. He had changed a great deal; he looked older, and appeared to be worn by illness. He had been removed from the cabin on the river at a critical period, and, as a result, he was compelled to go through a long and drastic illness. He was on the high road to recovery, but I thought he would never be the same handsome Jack again, so cadaverous was his countenance and so changed his voice. The two ladies and myself left the friends together and went into the room that had been the parlor, where there was a brisk fire burning.
The house was a very commodious country home and had evidently been built by some prosperous person whose heart and mind turned to the country after he had acquired wealth in the town. But the owner had deserted it when the Federals took possession of Murfreesborough, leaving furniture and everything to the mercy of circumstance—the cruel circumstance that goes hand in hand with war. But everything was intact. The old piano stood in the corner as glossy as if it had been newly bought, and the carpets on the floor wore a clean look, though some of them were threadbare.
After a while, Harry came in search of Kate—she was more important than his wounded friend—and Mrs. Bledsoe went to take her place by Jack's bedside. This arrangement would have left me very much alone, but for the thoughtfulness of Kate, who intimated that I should find very interesting company in the next room. "Don't be afraid," she said. But I was very much afraid, I know not why, and hesitated a long time before I ventured into the room.
And when I did venture to wander in casually, I was more afraid than ever, for at a window a small lady sat reading. I knew her at once for Jane Ryder, but that fact made me no bolder. On the contrary, I felt a timidity that was almost childish; it was a feeling that carried me away back to my boyhood, when I refused to go into a room where there was a company of little girls.
"I beg your pardon," said I, and began to back toward the door.
"Oh, no harm is done," the lady declared, closing the book, but keeping the place with her fore-finger. "Did you desire to see me? Or perhaps you would see Miss Bledsoe?"
"No, ma'am—I—that is, Miss Bledsoe is talking with a friend of mine, and I just wandered in here, having nothing else to do."
"To be sure! I believe that is a custom of Southern gentlemen."
"What is?" I asked, rather abruptly.
"Why, to go to houses and wander from room to room until their curiosity is satisfied."
I was angry, though I knew that she meant not a word she said. "Does Mrs. Bledsoe indulge in that habit?" I asked.
"Habit? I said custom. Mrs. Bledsoe is a changed woman since she has lived among people who know something of the world and its ways, and who are not slave-drivers."
"I believe this is Miss Jane Ryder," I said.
"Your memory is better than your manners," she replied, and though I tried hard to keep my temper, her words stung me to the quick.
"I assure you I had not the least desire to disturb you. I came in here with the hope, though not the expectation, of finding a lad who came here last night."
"He is not here," she asserted, "and if he were, he has no desire to see you. He told me something of his encounter with you, and if that is the way you treat a young lad, I wonder how you would have treated an unprotected woman."
I would not trust myself to speak to her. I made her a low obeisance and retired from the room; but I was not to escape so easily. She pursued her advantage; she followed me out into the hall. "Is it true that the young man compelled you to accompany him to this house last night?"
"If he told you so, madam, it is true," I replied.
"After threatening to give you a strapping?" she asked. Her mood was almost exultant, though she had been gloomy enough when I first disturbed her.
"If he says so, madam."
"He didn't say so, but I believe he slapped your face, for it is still red."
"Perhaps he did, madam."
"I am no madam, I'll let you know; why do you call me so?"
"It is simply a term of respect, ma'am. Our young people are taught to be respectful to ladies."
"You may be sure that the young man would have remained to see you, but I was afraid you'd run away and leave your friend." Women can be very childish sometimes, and this was pure childishness.
"Why, I had no idea that he bore me any ill-will," I remarked. "He trotted along by my side in perfect good-humor when I was fetching him home. If he has any grudge against me, I do not think the fault is mine. Say to him that I apologize most humbly for any offence I may have given him." Jane Ryder was now sure that I did not connect her with the lad—was sure that I had not pierced her disguise, and she became at once very much friendlier. Her relief was apparent in voice and gesture.
"The truth is," she went on, "the young man is very fond of you, much to my surprise. It is a strange fancy," she mused; "there is no accounting for it. I believe you could prevail on him to leave his friends and go with you to the South; that is why I am keeping him away from you."
"I have had few friends," I said, "and if you could add the young man to the list and place him above all the rest, I should be happy. But as for persuading him to desert his principles, I should never think of it; and I should think ill of him if he could be persuaded."
"He really thinks that you are one of the finest men he ever met," pursued Jane Ryder. "He says that a young woman would be as safe from insult with you as she would be with her mother."
"And why not?" I inquired. "I thank your friend for his good opinion of me; but it is no great compliment to me to say that I should protect a woman with my life, if need be. Back yonder there are gathered three or four thousand men, and out of that four thousand you will not find ten who would not do the same and think it nothing to boast of."
"I wouldn't trust them," she declared.
"Would you trust me?" I asked. The words were out of my mouth before I could recall them. They meant more than she would think or than she would care for them to mean.
"I certainly would," she said, clenching her hands in a strange little gesture.
"I thank you for saying that much," I declared. "The time may come—not soon, perhaps—when I shall have to ask you to trust me."
"Soon or late," she replied, "my answer will be the same."
I never was more shaken with the excitement of temptation than at that moment. She must have known it; they say women are quick at reading the thoughts of a man, but, instead of drawing away from me, she drew nearer. In another instant I should have seized her in my arms, the pale and lonely creature, but just then the sound of footsteps came along the hall, and I heard the happy laughter of Katherine Bledsoe. I had raised my arms, but now I lowered them and she had seized my hand.
"Good-by!" she said, and as soon as she could tear her hand from mine she was gone—gone by another door, and Harry and her companion came plump upon me standing in the hallway, gazing at the door through which Jane Ryder had disappeared. Then I turned and gazed at them, first at one and then at the other.
"What have you done with her?" inquired Kate, with just a shade of solicitude in her voice. "Oh, I hope you haven't hurt her," she cried. "She has the tenderest heart in the world."
"Hurt her? Hurt her?" It was all that I could say, and then all of a sudden I came to myself and stood there laughing very foolishly. "She ran away," I explained. "I don't know why. I am sure I didn't want her to go!"
Whereupon Kate fell to laughing, and kept it up until the tears came into her eyes. "Oh, men are such simpletons!" she exclaimed; "I don't know what I should do for amusement if I didn't see the lords of creation once in a great while."
We bade good-by to the household—though Jane Ryder was nowhere to be found—and went to our horses, which we had left in charge of Whistling Jim. That worthy was in quite a flutter. He had heard strange noises, and he was almost sure that he had caught a glimpse of more than one man in the darkness. We paid little enough attention to what he said, for we knew that the ladies were safe so far as the Confederates were concerned, and Jack Bledsoe would answer for their safety with the Federals.
Nevertheless, there was no one to answer for our safety, and we had no more than mounted our horses before we discovered that we were surrounded. We heard the tramp of cavalry on all sides. A quiet voice in the darkness made itself heard: "Don't shoot unless they resist!"
"Ride them down!" exclaimed Harry. My horse ran full into another horse, and he and his rider went down just as I used my pistol. Some one with an oath whacked me over the head with a sabre, my horse stumbled in the darkness, and down I went into chaos. I thought I heard someone singing, and then it seemed as if there was a free concert in progress, while I lay helpless in a great gully out of which I could not climb.
Making a great effort to climb from the gully into which I had fallen, my foot slipped, and I fell again, and continued to fall till I knew no more. When I came to life again I was not in a gully at all, but stretched out on a bed, with my boots on, and this fact fretted me to such an extent that I threw back the covering and rose to a sitting posture. My head was throbbing somewhat wildly, and I soon found that the cause of the pain was a towel that had been too tightly bound around my forehead. The towel changed into a bandage under my fingers, and I found that I could not compass the intricacies of the fastenings. I remembered that I had disposed safely of the papers I had found in the chair-arm. One was a passport signed by one of the biggest men in the country, authorizing Francis Leroy to pass in and out of the Union lines at any time, day or night, and the other—there were but two—was some useless information with respect to the movements of the Federal forces between Murfreesborough and Memphis.
As I came more and more to my senses, I knew that these papers had been the cause of my undoing; I could see in it, as plain as day, the hand of Jane Ryder, and I was truly sorry. I thought I had been around the world and back again, and I should have been very wise, but the bandage and Jane Ryder were too much for me. How did she know that I had secured the papers? And why did she permit the soldiers to attack me. I was feeling very foolish and childish.
Then I observed that a large man was sitting in front of the small fireplace, and his long legs were stretched completely across the hearth. His head was thrown back, his mouth was open, and he was sound asleep. There was half a handful of some kind of medicine in a saucer on the table, and I judged that the man would be better off for a dose of it. I suppose it was common table salt, but, whatever it was, the notion remained with me that it would be a help to the man. It was a fantastic notion, but it persisted, and finally I lifted the saucer, emptied the medicine in my palm, and transferred it to the open mouth of the man. It failed to arouse him; he merely closed his jaws on the dose and slept on.
I enjoyed the man's discomfiture before it occurred; I knew what a terrible splutter there would be when the stuff began to melt and run down his windpipe. I should have laughed aloud, but the bandage was hurting me terribly. With a vague hope of getting some relief from pain, I opened the door as softly as I could, went out and closed it behind me. Another door was open directly in front of me, and through this I went. In the room a woman was sitting at a window, her head in her hands. She looked up when she heard the slight noise I made, and I was surprised to find myself face to face with Jane Ryder. Her eyes were red and swollen with weeping, and her hands were all of a tremble.
"Will you please, ma'am, take this off?" I said, pointing to the bandage.
She placed her finger on her lip. "Sh-sh!" she whispered, and then, whipping around me, closed the door with no more noise than the wing of a night-bird might make. "In there, and don't move on your life."
She pointed to a closet, but I shook my head.
"Not if I can help myself," I said. "I have just come out of a deep, deep ditch, and I want to hear the splutter." I was whispering, too, such was the woman's influence. She looked at me in amazement; she tried to understand me; but she must have thought me out of my head, for her lips were twitching pitifully and her hands trembling. "It's the man in the next room," I whispered with a grin. "I put a handful of medicine in his mouth. Wait! you'll hear him directly."
"Oh, I am so sorry for you," she cried, wringing her hands. "I am as sorry for you as I am for myself."
"Then please take this bandage off and have my horse brought round."
"I can't! I can't! You're wounded. Go in the closet there."
"I'll go where you go, and I'll stay where you stay," I said; and I must have been talking too loud, for she placed her hand on my lips—and what should I do but hold it there and kiss it, the poor little trembling hand!
And then there came from the next room the famous splutter for which I had been waiting. The soldier made a noise as if he were drowning. He gasped and coughed, and tried to catch his breath; he strangled and lost it, and, when he caught it again, made a sound as if he had a violent case of the whooping-cough. And all this time I was laughing silently, and I came near strangling myself.