The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. Hunted
Dick slept the whole night through, which was a very good thing for him, because he needed it, and because he could have made no progress in the thick darkness through the marshy wilderness. No human beings saw him, but the wild animals took more than one look. Not all were little. One big clumsy brute, wagging his head in a curious, comic way, shuffled up from the edge of the swamp, sniffed the strange human odor, and, still wagging his comic head, came rather close to the sleeping boy. Then the black bear decided to be afraid, and lumbered back into the bushes.
An owl perched on a bough almost over Dick's head, but this was game far too large for Mr. Owl's beak and talons, and he soon flew away in search of something nearer his size. A raccoon on a bough stared with glowing eyes and then slid out of sight.
Man, although he had just come, became king of this swamp, king for the night. The prowling beasts and birds of prey, after their first look, gave Dick all the berth he needed, and he did not awake until a bright sun was well above the edge of the earth. Then he rose, shook himself, much like an animal coming from its lair, and bathed his face in a little stream which ran down the hill into the swamp. It was swollen and painful from the mosquito bites, but he resolved not to think of them, and ate breakfast from the saddlebags, after which he studied his map a little.
Baggage and rifle on shoulder, he pursued a course south by east. There was a strong breeze which gave him a rest from the dreaded insects, and he pushed on with vigorous footsteps. The country remained thoroughly wild, and he soon had proof of it. Another deer, this time obviously started up by himself, sprang from the canebrake and darted away in the woods. He noted tracks of bear and resolved some day when the war was over to come there hunting.
His course led him again from firm ground into a region of marshes and lagoons, which he crossed with difficulty, arriving about an hour before noon at a considerable river, one that would require swimming unless he found a ford somewhere near. He was very weary from the journey through the marsh and, sitting on a log, he scraped from his clothes a portion of the mud they had accumulated on the way.
He was a good swimmer, but he had his arms and ammunition to keep dry, and he did not wish to trust himself afloat on the deep current. Wading would be far better, and, when his strength was restored, he walked up the bank in search of a shallower place.
He came soon to a point, where the cliff was rather high, although it was clothed in dense forest here as elsewhere, and when he reached the crest he heard a sound like the swishing of waters. Alert and suspicious he sank down among the trees and peered over the bank. Two men in a canoe were paddling in a leisurely manner along the stream.
The men were in faded and worn Confederate uniforms, and Dick saw their rifles lying in the bottom of the boat. He also saw that they had strong, resolute faces. They were almost opposite him and they were closely scanning the forest on his side of the river. He was glad that he had not tried to swim the stream, and he was glad too that he had kept so well under cover. The men in the canoe were surely keen of eye, and they must be a patrol.
He sank closer to the earth and did not stir. One of the watchers drew in his paddle and took up his rifle, while the other propelled the canoe very slowly. It seemed that they expected something or somebody, and it suddenly occurred to him that it might be he. He felt a little shiver of apprehension. How could they know he was coming? It was mysterious and alarming.
He waited for them to pass down the river and out of sight, but at the curve they turned and came back against the stream, the man with the rifle in his hand still keenly watching the western shore, where Dick lay hidden. Neither of them spoke, and the only sound was the swishing of the paddle. The hoot of an owl came from the depths of the forest behind him and he knew that it was a signal. The hair of his head lifted.
He felt the touch of the supernatural. The invisible pursuer was behind him again, and the silent soldiers held the crossing. The hoot of the owl came again, a little nearer now. He was tempted to rise and run, but his will held him back from such folly. His unknown enemy could pursue, because his boots left a deep trail in the soft earth. That was why he had been able to follow again in the morning.
He crept back some distance from the river and then, rising, retreated cautiously up the stream. He caught glimpses of the water twice through the bushes, and each time the canoe was moving up the river also, one man paddling and the other, rifle on his arm, watching the western shore.
Dick had a feeling that he was trapped. Colonel Winchester had been wise to make him wear his uniform, because it was now certain that he was going to be taken, and death had always been the punishment of a captured spy. He put down the thought resolutely, and began to run through the forest parallel with the river. If it were only the firm hard ground of the North he could hide his trail from the man behind him, but here the soil was so soft that every footstep left a deep mark. Yet he might find fallen trees thrown down by hurricanes, and in a few minutes he came to a mass of them. He ran deftly from trunk to trunk, and then continued his flight among the bushes. It broke his trail less than a rod, but it might take his pursuer ten minutes to recover it, and now ten minutes were precious.
The soil grew harder and he made better speed, but when he looked through the foliage he saw the canoe still opposite him. It was easy for them, on the smooth surface of the river, to keep pace with him, if such was their object. Furious anger took hold of him. He knew that he must soon become exhausted, while the men in the canoe would scarcely feel weariness. Then came the idea.
The canoe was light and thin almost like the birch bark Indian canoe of the north, and he was a good marksman. It was a last chance, but raising his rifle he fired the heavy bullet directly at the bottom of the canoe. As the echo of the first shot was dying he slipped in a cartridge and sent a second at the same target. He did not seek to kill the men, his object was the canoe, and as he ran rapidly away he saw it fill with water and sink, the two soldiers in the stream swimming toward the western shore.
Dick laughed to himself. He had won a triumph, although he did not yet know that it would amount to anything. At any rate the men could no longer glide up and down the river at their leisure looking for him to come forth from the forest.
He knew that the shots would bring the single pursuer at full speed, and, as he had saved some ounces of strength, he now ran at his utmost speed. The river curved again and just beyond the curve it seemed shallow to him. He plunged in at once, and waded rapidly, holding his rifle, pistols and saddlebags above his head. He was in dread lest he receive a bullet in his back, but he made the farther shore, ran into the dense undergrowth and sank down dripping and panting.
He had made the crossing but he did not forget to be ready. He rapidly reloaded his rifle, and fastened the pistols at his belt. Then he looked through the bushes at the river. The two canoemen, water running from them in streams, were on the other bank, though a little farther down the stream. He believed that they were no longer silent. He fondly imagined that they were cursing hard, if not loud.
His relief was so great that, forgetting his own bedraggled condition, he laughed. Then he looked again to see what they were going to do. A small man, his face shaded by the broad brim of a hat, emerged from the woods and joined them. Dick was too far away to see his face, even had it been uncovered, but his figure looked familiar. Nevertheless, although he tried hard, he could not recall where he had seen him before. But, as he carried a long-barreled rifle, Dick was sure that this was his unknown pursuer. There had certainly been collusion also between him and the men in the boat, as the three began to talk earnestly, and to point toward the woods on the other side.
Dick felt that he had avenged himself upon the boatmen, but his rage rose high against the little man under the broad-brimmed hat. It was he who had followed him so long, and who had tried ruthlessly to kill him. The lad's rifle was of the most improved make and a bullet would reach. He was tempted to try it, but prudence came to his rescue. Still lying close he watched them. He felt sure that they would soon be hunting for his footprints, but he resolved to stay in his covert, until they began the crossing of the river, to which his trail would lead when they found it.
He saw them cease talking and begin searching among the woods. It might be at least a half-hour before they found the trail and his strength would be restored fully then. His sinking of the canoe had been in reality a triumph, and so he remained at ease, watching the ford.
He was quite sure that when his trail was found the little man would be the one to find it, and sure enough at the end of a half-hour the weazened figure led down to the ford. Dick might have shot one of them in the water, but he had no desire to take life. It would serve no purpose, and, refreshed and strengthened, he set out through the forest toward Jackson.
He came to a brook soon, and, remembering the old device of Indian times, he waded in it at least a half-mile. When he left it he passed through a stretch of wood, crossed an old cotton field and entered the woods again. Then he sat down and ate from his store, feeling that he had shaken off his pursuers. Another examination of his map followed. He had kept fixed in his mind the point at which he was to find Hertford, and, being a good judge of direction, he felt sure that he could yet reach it.
The sun, now high and warm, had dried his clothing, and, after the food, he was ready for another long march. He struck into a path and walked along it, coming soon to a house which stood back a little distance from a road into which the path merged. A man and two women standing on the porch stared at him curiously, but he pretended to take no notice. After long exposure to weather, blue uniforms did not differ much from gray, and his own was now covered with mud. He could readily pass as a soldier of the Confederacy unless they chose to ask too many questions.
"From General Pemberton's army?" called the man, when he was opposite the house.
Dick nodded and stepped a little faster.
"Won't you stop for a bite and fresh water with friends of the cause?"
"Thanks, but important dispatches. Must hurry." They repeated the invitation. He shook his head, and went on. He did not look back, but he was sure that they stared at him as long as he was in sight. Then, for safety's sake, he left the road and entered the wood once more.
He had now come to country comparatively free from swamp and marsh, and pursued his way through a great forest, beautiful with live oaks and magnolias. In the afternoon he took a long rest by the side of a clear spring, where he drew further upon the store of food in his saddlebags, which he calculated held enough for another day. After that he would have to forage upon the country.
He would sleep the second night in the forest, his blanket being sufficient protection, unless rain came, which he would have to endure as best he could. Another look at his map and he believed that on the following afternoon he could reach Hertford.
He took the remaining food from his saddlebags, wrapped it in his blanket, and strapped the pack on his back. Then, in order to lighten his burden, he hung the saddlebags on the bough of a tree and abandoned them, after which he pressed forward through the woods with renewed speed.
He came at times to the edge of the forest and saw houses in the fields, but he always turned back among the trees. He could find only enemies here, and he knew that it was his plan to avoid all human beings. Precept and example are of great power and he recalled again much that he had heard of his famous ancestor, Paul Cotter. He had been compelled to fight often for his life and again to flee for it from an enemy who reserved torture and death for the captured. Dick felt that he must do as well, and the feeling increased his vigor and courage.
A little later he heard a note, low, faint and musical. It was behind him, but he was sure at first that it was made by negroes singing. It was a pleasing sound. The negro had a great capacity for happiness, and Dick as a young lad had played with and liked the young colored lads of his age.
But as he walked on he heard the low, musical note once more and, as before, directly behind him. It seemed a little nearer. He paused and listened. It came again, always nearer and nearer, and now it did not seem as musical as before. There was a sinister thread in that flowing note, and suddenly Dick remembered.
He was a daring horseman and with his uncle and cousin and others at Pendleton he had often ridden after the fox. It was the note of the hounds, but of bloodhounds, and this time they were following him. From the first he had not the slightest doubt of it. Somebody, some traitor in the Union camp, knew the nature of his errand, and was hanging on to the pursuit like death.
Dick knew it was the little man whom he had seen by the river, and perhaps the canoemen were with him--he would certainly have comrades, or his own danger would be too great--and they had probably obtained the bloodhounds at a farmhouse. Nearly everybody in Mississippi kept hounds.
The long whining note came again and much nearer. Now all music was gone from it for Dick. It was ferocious, like the howl of the wolf seeking prey, and he could not restrain a shudder. His danger had returned with twofold force, because the hounds would unerringly lead his pursuers through the forest as fast as they could follow.
He did not yet despair. A new resolution was drawn from the depths of his courage. He did not forget that he was a good marksman and he had both rifle and pistols. He tried to calculate from that whining, ferocious note how many hounds were pursuing, and he believed they were not many. Now he prepared for battle, and, as he ran, he kept his eye on the ground in order that he might choose his own field.
He saw it presently, a mass of fallen timber thrown together by a great storm, and he took his place on the highest log, out of reach of a leaping hound. Then, lying almost flat on the log and with his rifle ready, he waited, his heart beating hard with anger that he should be pursued thus like an animal.
The howling of the hounds grew more ferocious, and it was tinged with joy. The trail had suddenly grown very hot, and they knew that the quarry was just before them. Dick caught a good view of a long, lean, racing figure bounding among the trees, and he fired straight at a spot between the blazing eyes. The hound fell without a sound, and with equal ease he slew the second. The third and last drew back, although the lad heard the distant halloo of men seeking to drive him on.
Dick sprang from his log and ran through the forest again. He knew that the lone hound after his first recoil would follow, but he had his reloaded rifle and he had proved that he knew how to shoot. It would please him for the hound to come within range.
When he took to renewed flight the hound again whined ferociously and Dick glanced back now and then seeking a shot. Once he caught a glimpse of two or three dusky figures some distance behind the hound, urging him on, and his heart throbbed with increased rage. If they presented an equal target he would fire at them rather than the hound.
He could run no longer, and his gait sank to a walk. His very exhaustion brought him his opportunity, as the animal came rapidly within range, and Dick finished him with a single lucky shot. Then, making an extreme effort, he fled on a long time, and, while he was fleeing, he saw the sun set and the night come.
The strain upon him had been so great that his nerves and brain were unsteady. Although the forest was black with night he saw it through a blood-red mist. Something in him was about to burst, and when he saw a human figure rising up before him it broke and he fell.
Dick was unconscious a long time. But when he awoke he found himself wrapped in a blanket, while another was doubled under his head. It was pitchy dark, but he beheld the outline of a human figure, sitting by his side. He strove to rise, but a powerful hand on his shoulder pushed him back, though gently, and a low voice said:
"Stay still, Mr. Mason. We mustn't make any sound now!"
Dick recognized in dim wonder the voice of Sergeant Daniel Whitley. How he had come there at such a time, and what he was doing now was past all guessing, but Sergeant Whitley was a most competent man. He knew more than most generals, and he was filled with the lore of the woods. He would trust him. He let his head sink back on the folded blanket, and his heavy eyes closed again.
When Dick roused from his stupor the sergeant was still by his side, and, as his eyes grew used to the darkness, he noticed that Whitley was really kneeling rather than sitting, crouched to meet danger, his finger on the trigger of a rifle. Dick's brain cleared and he sat up.
"What is it, Sergeant?" he whispered.
"I see you're all right now, Mr. Mason," the sergeant whispered back, "but be sure you don't stir."
"Is it the Johnnies?"
"Lean over a little and look down into that dip."
Dick did so, and saw four men hunting among the trees, and the one who seemed to be their leader was the little weazened fellow, with the great, flap-brimmed hat.
"They're looking for your trail," whispered the sergeant, "but they won't find it. It's too dark, even for a Sioux Indian, and I've seen them do some wonderful things in trailing."
"I seem to have met you in time, Sergeant."
"So you did, sir, but more of that later. Perhaps you'd better lie down again, as you're weak yet. I'll tell you all they do."
"I'll take your advice, Sergeant, but am I sound and whole? I felt something in me break, and then the earth rose up and hit me in the face."
"I reckon it was just the last ounce of breath going out of you with a pop. They're hunting hard, Mr. Mason, but they can't pick up the trace of a footstep. Slade must be mad clean through."
"Slade! Slade! Who's Slade?"
"Slade is a spy partly, and an outlaw mostly, 'cause he often works on his own hook. He's the weazened little fellow with so much hat-brim, and he's about twenty different kinds of a demon. You've plenty of reason to fear him, and it's lucky we've met."
"It's more than luck for me, Sergeant. It's salvation. I believe it wouldn't have been half as hard on me if somebody had been with me, and you're the first whom I would have chosen. Are they still in the dip, Sergeant?"
"No, they've passed to the slope on the right, and I think they'll go over the hill. We're safe here so long as we remain quiet; that is, safe for the time. Slade will hang on as long as there's a possible chance to find us."
"Sergeant, if they do happen to stumble upon us in the dark I hope you'll promise to do one thing for me."
"I'll do anything I can, Mr. Mason."
"Kill Slade first. That little villain gives me the horrors. I believe the soul of the last bloodhound I shot has been reincarnated in him."
"All right, Mr. Mason," returned the sergeant, placidly, "if we have to fight I'll make sure of Slade at once. Is there anybody else you'd like specially to have killed?"
"No thank you, Sergeant. I don't hate any of the others, and I suppose they'd have dropped the chase long ago if it hadn't been for this fellow whom you call Slade. Now, I think I'll lie quiet, while you watch."
"Very good, sir. I'll tell you everything I can see. They're passing over the hill out of sight, and if they return I won't fail to let you know."
Sergeant Whitley, a man of vast physical powers, hardened by the long service of forest and plain, was not weary at all, and, in the dusk, he looked down with sympathy and pity at the lad who had closed his eyes. He divined the nature of the ordeal through which he had gone. Dick's face, still badly swollen from the bites of the mosquitoes, showed all the signs of utter exhaustion. The sergeant could see, despite the darkness, that it was almost the face of the dead, and he knew that happy chance had brought him in the moment of Dick's greatest need.
He ceased to whisper, because Dick, without intending it, had gone to sleep again. Then the wary veteran scouted in a circle about their refuge, but did not discover the presence of an enemy.
He sat down near the sleeping lad, with his rifle between his knees, and watched the moon come out. Owing to his wilderness experience he had been chosen also to go on a scout toward Jackson, though he preferred to make his on foot, and the sound of Dick's shots at the hounds had drawn him to an observation which finally turned into a rescue.
After midnight the sergeant slept a little while, but he never awakened Dick until it was almost morning. Then he told him that he would go with him on the mission to Hertford, and Dick was very glad.
"What's become of Slade and his men?" asked Dick.
"I don't know," replied the sergeant, "but as they lost the trail in the night, it's pretty likely they're far from here. At any rate they're not bothering us just now. How're you feeling, Mr. Mason?"
"Fine, except that my face still burns."
"We'll have to hold up a Confederate house somewhere and get oil of pennyroyal. That'll cure you, but I guess you've learned now, Mr. Mason, that mosquitoes in a southern swamp are just about as deadly as bullets."
"So they are, Sergeant, and this is not my first experience. Luck has been terribly against me this trip, but it turned when I met you last night."
"Yes, Mr. Mason. In this case two rifles are better than one. We're prowling right through the heart of the Confederacy, but I'm thinking we'll make it. We've got a great general now, and we mustn't fail to bring up Colonel Hertford and his cavalry. I've an idea in my head that General Grant is going to carry through big plans."
"Then I think it's time we were starting."
"So do I, Mr. Mason, and now will you take these crackers and smoked ham? I've plenty in my knapsack. I learned on the plains never to travel without a food supply. If a soldier starves to death what use is he to his army? And I reckon you need something to eat. You were about tired out when I met you last night."
"I surely was, Sergeant, but I'm a new man this morning. You and I together can't fail."
Dick, in truth, felt an enormous relief. He and his young comrades had learned to trust Sergeant Whitley implicitly, with his experience of forest and plain and his infinite resource.
"Where do you figure we are, Sergeant?" he asked.
"In the deep woods, Mr. Mason, but we haven't turned much from the line leading you to the place where you were to meet Colonel Hertford. You haven't really lost time, and we'll start again straight ahead, but we've got to look out for this fellow Slade, who's as tricky and merciless as they ever make 'em."
"Tell me more about Slade, Sergeant."
"I don't know a lot, but I heard of him from some of our scouts. He was an overseer of a big plantation before the war. From somewhere up North, I think, but now he's more of a rebel than the rebels themselves. Often happens that way. But you've got to reckon with him."
"Glad I know that much. He reminds me of a man I've seen, though I can't recall where or when. It's enough, though, to watch out for Slade. Come on, Sergeant, I'm feeling so fine now that with your help I'm able to fight a whole army."
The two striding through the forest, started toward the meeting place with Hertford. Now that he had the powerful comradeship of Sergeant Whitley, the wilderness became beautiful instead of gloomy for Dick. The live oaks and magnolias were magnificent, and there was a wild luxuriance of vegetation. Birds of brilliant plumage darted among the foliage, and squirrels chattered on the boughs. He saw bear tracks again, and called the sergeant's attention to them.
"It would be nice to be hunting them, instead of men," said Whitley. "You can find nice, black fellows down here, good to eat, and it's a deal safer to hunt them than it is the grizzlies and silver-tips of the Rockies."
They saw now much cleared land, mostly cotton fields, and now and then a white man or a negro working, but there was always enough forest for cover. They waded the numerous brooks and creeks, allowing their clothing to dry in the warm sun, as they marched, and about two hours before sunrise the sergeant, wary and always suspicious, suggested that they stop a while.
"I've an idea," he said, "that Slade and his men are still following us. Oh, he's an ugly fellow, full of sin, and if they're not far behind us we ought to know it."
"Just as you say," said Dick, glad enough to shift the responsibility upon such capable shoulders. "How would this clump of bushes serve for a hiding place while we wait?"
"Good enough. Indians pursued, often ambush the pursuer, and as we've two good men with two good rifles, Mr. Mason, we'll just see what this Slade is about."
"When I last saw him," said Dick, "he had the two canoemen with him, and perhaps they've picked up the owner of the hounds."
"That's sure, and they're likely to be four. We're only two, but we've got the advantage of the ambush, and that's a big one. If you agree with me, Mr. Mason, we'll wait here for 'em. We were sent out to take messages, not to fight, but since these fellows hang on our trail we may get to Colonel Hertford all the quicker because we do fight."
"Your opinion's mine too, Sergeant. I'm not in love with battle, but I wouldn't mind taking a shot or two at these men. They've given me a lot of trouble."
The sergeant smiled.
"That's the way it goes," he said. "You don't get mad at anybody in particular in a big battle, but if two or three fellows lay around in the woods popping away at you you soon get so you lose any objections to killing, and you draw a bead on 'em as soon as a chance comes."
"That's the way I feel, Sergeant. It isn't Christian, but I suppose it has some sort of excuse."
"Of course it has. Drop a little lower, Mr. Mason. I see the bushes out there shaking."
"And that's the sign that Slade and his men have come. Well, I'm not sorry."
Both Dick and the sergeant lay almost flat with their heads raised a little, and their rifles pushed forward. The bushes ceased to shake, but Dick had no doubt their pursuers were before them. They had probably divined, too, that the quarry was at bay and was dangerous. Evidently the sergeant had been correct when he said Slade was full of craft and cunning.
While they waited the spirit of Dick's famous ancestor descended upon him in a yet greater measure. Their pursuers were not Indians, but this was the deep wilderness and they were merely on a skirt of the great war. Many of the border conditions were reproduced, and they were to fight as borderers fought.
"What do you think they're doing?" Dick whispered.
"Feeling around for us. Slade won't take any more risk than he has to. Did you see those two birds fly away from that bough, sudden-like? I think one of the men has just crept under it. But the fellow who exposes himself first won't be Slade."
Dick's inherited instinct was strong, and he watched not only in front, but to right and left also. He knew that cunning men would seek to flank and surprise them, and he noticed that the sergeant also watched in a wide circle. He still drew tremendous comfort from the presence of the skillful veteran, feeling that his aid would make the repulse of Slade a certainty.
A rifle cracked suddenly in the bushes to their right, and then another by his side cracked so suddenly that only a second came between. Dick heard a bullet whistle over their heads, but he believed that the one from his comrade's rifle had struck true.
"I've no way of telling just now," said the sergeant, calmly, "but I don't believe that fellow will bother any more. If we can wing another they're likely to let us alone and we can go on. They must know by the trail that we're now two instead of one, and that their danger has doubled."
Dick had felt that the danger to their pursuers had more than doubled. He had an immense admiration for the sergeant, who was surely showing himself a host. The man, trained so long in border war, was thoroughly in his element. His thick, powerful figure was drawn up in the fashion of a panther about to spring. Bulky as he was he showed ease and grace, and wary eyes, capable of reading every sign, continually scanned the thickets.
"They know just where we are, of course," whispered the sergeant, "but if we stay close they'll never get a good shot at us."
Dick caught sight of a head among some bushes and fired. The head dropped back so quickly that he could not tell whether or not his bullet sped true. After a long wait the sergeant suggested that they creep away.
"I think they've had enough," he said. "They've certainly lost one man, and maybe two. Slade won't care to risk much more."
Dick was glad to go and, following the sergeant's lead, he crawled four or five hundred yards, a most painful but necessary operation. Then they stood up, and made good time through the forest. Both would have been willing to stay and fight it out with Slade and what force he had left, but their mission was calling them, and forward they went.
"Do you think they'll follow us?" asked Dick.
"I reckon they've had enough. They may try to curve ahead of us and give warning, but the salute from the muzzles of our rifles has been too warm for any more direct pursuit. Besides, we're going to have a summer storm soon, and like as not they'll be hunting shelter."
Dick, in the excitement of battle and flight, had not noticed the darkening skies and the rising wind. Clouds, heavy and menacing, already shrouded the whole west. Low thunder was heard far in the distance.
"It's going to be a whopper," said the sergeant, "something like those big storms they have out on the plains. We must find shelter somewhere, Mr. Mason, or it will leave us so bedraggled and worn out that for a long time we won't be able to move on."
Dick agreed with him entirely, but neither yet knew where the shelter was to be found. They hurried on, looking hopefully for a place. Meanwhile the storm, its van a continual blaze of lightning and roar of thunder, rolled up fast from the southwest. Then the lightning ceased for a while and the skies were almost dark. Dick knew that the rain would come soon, and, as he looked eagerly for shelter, he saw a clearing in which stood a small building of logs.
"A cornfield, Sergeant," he exclaimed, "and that I take it is a crib."
"A crib that will soon house more than corn," said the sergeant. "Two good Union soldiers are about to stop there. It's likely the farmer's house itself is just beyond that line of trees, but he won't be coming out to this crib to-night."
"Not likely. Too much darkness and rain. Hurry, Sergeant, I can hear already the rush of the rain in the forest."
They ran across the field, burst open the door of the crib, leaped in and banged the door shut again, just as the van of the rain beat upon it with an angry rush.
Save for a crack or two they had no light, but they stood upon a dry floor covered deep with corn shucks, and heard the rain sweep and roar upon the roof. On one side was a heap of husked corn which they quickly piled against the door in order to hold it before the assaults of the wind, and then they sought warm places among the shucks.
It was a small crib, and the rain drove in at the cracks, but it furnished abundant shelter for its two new guests. Dick had never been in a finer hotel. He lay warm and dry in a great heap of shucks, and heard the wind and rain beat vainly upon walls and roof and the thunder rumble as it moved off toward the east. He felt to the full the power of contrast.
"Fine in here, isn't it, Sergeant?" he said.
"Fine as silk," replied the sergeant from his own heap of shucks. "We played in big luck to find this place, 'cause I think it's going to rain hard all night."
"Let it. It can't get me. Sergeant, I've always known that corn is our chief staple, but I never knew before that the shucks, which so neatly enclose the grains and cob, were such articles of luxury. I'm lying upon the most magnificent bed in the United States, and it's composed wholly of shucks."
"It's no finer than mine, Mr. Mason."
"That's so. Yours is just like mine, and, of course, it's an exception. Now, I wish to say, Sergeant, the rain upon the roof is so soothing that I'm likely to go to sleep before I know it."
"Go ahead, Mr. Mason, and it's more'n likely I'll follow. All trails will be destroyed by the storm and nobody will think of looking here for us to-night."
Both soon slept soundly, and all through the night the rain beat upon the roof.