The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter X. The Mountaineer's Revenge.
And if we do but watch the hour, There never yet was human power Which could evade, if unforgiven, The patient search and vigil long Of him who treasures up a wrong. --Byron.
Harry Glen's first feeling when he found the battle was really over, was that of elation that the crisis to which he had looked forward with so much apprehension, had passed without his receiving any bodily harm. This was soon replaced by regret that the long-coveted opportunity had been suffered to pass unimproved, and still another strong sentiment--that keen sense of disappointment which comes when we have braced ourselves up to encounter an emergency, and it vanishes. There is the feeling of waste of valuable accumulated energy, which is as painful as that of energy misapplied.
Still farther, he felt sadly that the day of his vindication had been again postponed over another weary period of probation.
All around was intense enthusiasm, growing stronger every instant. It was the first battle tha the victors had been engaged in, and they felt the tumultuous joy that the first triumph brings to young soldiers. It was the first encounter upon the soil of Kentucky; it was the first victory between the Cumberland Mountains and the Mississippi River, and the loss of the victors was insignificant, compared with that of the vanquished.
The cold drench from the skies, the dreary mud--even the dead and wounded--were forgotten in the jubilation at the sight of the lately insolent foe flying in confusion down the mountain side, recking for nothing so much as for personal safety.
The band continued to play patriotic airs, and the cannon to thunder long after the last Rebel had disappeared in the thick woods at the bottom of the gloomy gorge.
A detail of men and some wagons were sent back after the regiment's baggage, and the rest of the boys, after a few minutes survey of the battle-field, were set to work building fires, cooking rations and preparing from the branches and brush such shelter as could be made to do substitute duty for the tents left behind.
Little as was Harry's normal inclination to manual labor, it was less than ever now, with these emotions struggling in his mind, and leaving his comrades hard at work, he wandered off to where Hoosier Knob, a commanding eminence on the left of the battle-field seemed to offer the best view of the retreat of the forces of Zollicoffer. Arriving there, he pushed on down the slope to where the enemy's line had stood, and where now were groups of men in blue uniforms, searching for trophies of the fight. In one place a musket would be found; in another a cap with a silver star, or a canteen quaintly fashioned from alternate staves of red and white cedar. Each "find" was proclaimed by the discoverer, and he was immediately surrounded by a group to earnestly inspect and discuss it. It was still the first year of the war; the next year "trophies" were left to rot unnoticed on the battle-fields they covered.
Harry took no interest in relic-hunting, but walked onward toward another prominence that gave hopes of a good view of the Rebels. The glimpses he gained from this of the surging mass of fugitives inflamed him with the excitement of the chase--of the most exciting of chases, a man-hunt. He forgot his fears--forgot how far behind he was leaving all the others, and became eager only to see more of this fascinating sight. Before he was aware of it, he was three or four miles from the Gap.
Here a point ran boldly down from the mountain into the valley, and ended in a bare knob that overlooked the narrow creek bottom, along which the beaten host was forging its way. Harry unhesitatingly descended to this, and stood gazing at the swarming horde below. It was a sight to rivet the attention. The narrow level space through which the creek meandered between the two parrallel ranges of heights was crowded as far as he could see with an army which defeat had degraded to a demoralized mob. All semblance of military organization had well-nigh disappeared. Horsemen and footmen, infantry, cavalry and artillery, officers and privates, ambulances creaking under their load of wounded and dying, ponderous artillery forges, wagons loaded with food, wagons loaded with ammunition, and wagons loaded with luxuries for the delectation of the higher officers,--all huddled and crowded together, and struggled forward with feverish haste over the logs, rocks, gullies and the deep waters of the swollen stream, and up its slippery banks, through the quicksands and quagmires which every passing foot and wheel beat into a still more grievous obstacle for those that followed. Hopelessly fagged horses fell for the last time under the merciless blows of their frightened masters, and added their great bulks to the impediments of the road.
The men were sullen and depressed--cast down by the wretchedness of earth and sky, and embittered against their officers and each other for the blood uselessly shed--oppressed with hunger and weariness, and momentarily fearful that new misfortunes were about to descend upon them. In brief, it was one of the saddest spectacles that human history can present: that of a beaten and disorganized army in full retreat, and an army so new to soldiership and discipline as to be able to make nothing but the worst out of so great a calamity--it was a rout after a repulse.
Nearly all of the passing thousands were too much engrossed in the miseries of their toilsome progress to notice the blue-coated figure on the bare knob above the road. But the rear of the fugitives was brought up by a squad of men moving much more leisurely, and with some show of order. They did not plunge into the mass of men and animals and vehicles, and struggle with them in the morass which the road had now become, but deliberately picked their way along the sides of the valley where the walking was easier. They saw Harry, and understood as soon as they saw, who he was. Two or three responded to their first impulse, and raising their guns to their shoulders, fired at him. A bullet slapped against the rock upon which he was partially leaning, and fell at his feet. Another spattered mud in his face, and flew away, singing viciously.
At the reports the fear-harrassed mob shuddered and surged forward through its entire length.
The companions of those who fired seemed to reproach them with angry gestures, pointing to the effect upon the panicky mass. Then the whole squad rushed forward toward the hill.
Deadly fear clutched Harry Glen's heart as the angry notes of the bullets jarred on his senses. Then pride and the animal instinct of fighting for life flamed upward. So swiftly that he was scarcely conscious of what he was doing he snatched a cartridge from the box, tore its end between his teeth, and rammed it home. He replaced the ramrod in its thimbles with one quick thrust, and as he raised his eyes from the nipple upon which he had placed the cap, he saw that the Rebel squad had gained the foot of the knoll and started up its side. He raised teh gun to fire, but as he did so he heard a voice call out from behind him:
"Skeet outen thar! Skeet outen thar! Come up heah, quick!"
Harry looked in the direction of the voice. He saw a tall, slender, black-haired man standing in the woods at the upper edge of the cleared space. He was dressed in butternut jeans, and looked so much like the Rebels in front that Harry thought he was one of them. The stranger noticed his indecision, and called out again still more peremptorily:
"Skeet outen thar, I tell ye! Skeet outen thar! Come up heah. I'm a friend--I'm Union."
His rifle came to his face at the same instant, and Harry saw the flame and white smoke puff from it, and the sickening thought flashed into his mind that the shot was fired at him, and that he would feel the deadly ball pierce his body! Before he could more than formulate this he heard the bullet pass him with a screech, and strike somewhere with a plainly sharp slap. Turning his head he saw the leading Rebel stagger and fall. Harry thre his gun up, with the readiness acquired in old hunting days, and fired at the next of his foes, who also fell! The other Rebels, as they came up, gathered around their fallen comrades.
Harry ran back to where the stranger was, as rapidly as the clinging mud and the steep hillside would permit him.
"Purty fa'r shot that," said the stranger, setting down the heavy rifle he was carefully reloading, and extending his hand cordially as Harry came panting up. "That's what I call mouty neat shooting--knock yer man over at 150 yards, down hill, with that ole smooth-bore, and without no rest. The oldest han' at the business couldn't've done no better."
Harry was too much agitated to heed the compliment to his markmanship. He looked back anxiously and asked:
"Are they coming on yet?"
"Skacely they hain't," said the stranger, with a very obvious sneer. "Skacely they hain't comin' on no more. They've hed enuff, they hev. Two of their best men dropt inter blue blazes on the first jump will take all the aidge off ther appetite for larks. I know 'em."
"But they will come on. They'll pursue us. They'll never let us go now," said Harry, reloading his gun with hands trembling from the exertion and excitement.
He was yet too young a soldier to understand that his enemy's fright might be greater than his own.
"Nary a time they won't," said the stranger, derisively. "Them fellers are jest like Injuns; they're red-hot till one or two gits knocked over, an' then they cool down mouty suddent. Why, me an' two others stopt the whole of Zollicoffer's army for two days by shootin' the officer in command of the advance-guard jest ez they war a-comin' up the hill this side of Barboursville. Fact! They'd a' been at Wildcat last Friday ef we hedn't skeered 'em so. They stopt an' hunted the whole country round for bushwhackers afore they'd move ary other step."
"But who are you?" asked Harry, looking again at his companion's butternut garb.
"I'm called Long Jim Forner, an' I've the name o' bein' the pizenest Union man in the Rockassel Mountains. Thar's a good s'tifkit o' my p'litical principles" (pointing with his thumb to where lay the men who had felln under their bullets). Harry looked again in that direction. Part of the squad were looking apprehensively toward hiim, as if they feared a volley from bushwhackers concealed near him, and others were taking from the bodies of the dead the weapons, belts, and other articles which it was not best to leave for the pursuers, and still others were pointing to the rapidly growing distance between them and main body, apparently adjuring haste in following.
The great mental and bodily strain Harry had undergone since he had first heard the sound of cannon in the morning at the foot of Wildcat should have made him desperately weary. But the sight of the man falling before his gun had fermented in his blood a fierce intoxication, as unknown, as unsuspected before as the passion of love had been before its first keen transports thrilled his heart. Like that ecstacy, this fever now consumed him. All fear of harm to himself vanished in its flame. He had actually slain one enemy. Why not another? He raised his musket. The mountaineer laid his hand upon it.
"No," he said, "that's not the game to hunt. They'll do when thar's nothin' better to be had, but now powder an' lead kin be used to more advantage. Besides they're outen range o' your smooth-bore now. Come."
As Fortner threw his rifle across his shoulder Harry looked at it curiously. It had a long, heavy, six sided barrel, with a large bore, double triggers, and a gaily striped hickory ramrod in its thimbles. The stock, of fine, curly rock-maple, was ornamented with silver stars and crescents, and in the breech were cunning little receptacles for tow and patches, and other rifle necessaries, each closed by a polished silver cover that shut with a snap. It was evidently the triumph of some renowned kentucky gunsmith's skill.
The mountaineer's foot was on the soil he had trodden since childhood, and Harry found it quite difficult to keep pace with his strong, quick stride. His step landed firm and sure on the sloping surfaces, where Harry slipped or shambled. Clinging vines and sharp briers were avoided without an apparent effort, where every one grasped Harry, or tore his face and hands.
The instinct of the wolf or the panther seemed to lead Fortner by the shortest courses through the pathless woods to where he came unperceived close upon the flank of the mass of harassed fugitives. Then creeping behind a convenient tree with the supple lightness of the leopard crouching for a spring, he scanned with eager eyes the mounted officers within range. Selecting his prey he muttered:
"'Tain't him, but he'll hev to do, this time."
The weapon rang out sharply. The stricken officer threw up his sword arm, his bridle arm clutched his saddle-pommel, as if resisting the attempt of Death to unhorse him. Then the muscles all relaxed, and he fell into he arms of those who had hurried to him.
Harry fired into the mass the next instant; a few random shots replied, and another impetus of fear spurred the mob onward.
Fortner and Harry sped away to another point of interception, where the same scene was repeated, and then to another, and then to a third, Fortner muttering after each shot his disappointment at not finding the one whom he anxiously sought.
When they hurried away the third time they were compelled to make a wide circuit, for the little valley suddenly broadened out into a considerable plain. Upon this the long-drawn-out line of fugitives gathered in a compact, turmoiling mass.
"That's Little Rockassel Ford," said Fortner, pointing with his left hand to the base of the mountain that rose steeply above the farther side of the commotion. "That's Rockassel Mountain runnin' up thar inter the clouds. The Little Rockassel River runs round hits foot. That's what's a-stoppin' 'em. They'll hev a turrible time gittin' acrost hit. Hit's mouty hard crossin' at enny time, but hit's awful now, fur the Rockassel's boomin'. The big rains hev sent her up kitin', an' hit's now breast-deep thar in the Ford. We'll git round whar we kin see hit all."
Another wide detour to keep themselves in the concealment of the woods brough Fortner and Harry out upon an acclivity that almost overhung the ford, and those gathered around it. The two Unionists crawled cautiously through the cedars and laurel to the very edge of the cliff and looked down upon their enemies. They were so near that everything was plainly visible, and the hum of conversation reached their ears. They could even hear the commands of the officers vainly trying to restore order, the curses of the teamsters upon their jaded animals, the ribald songs of the few whose canteens furnished them with forgetfulness of defeat, and contempt for the surrounding misery.
All the flooding showers which had been falling upon hundreds of square miles of precipitous mountin sides were now gorging through the crooked, narrow throat of the Little Rockcastle. The torrent filled the ragged banks to the brim, and in their greedy swirl undermined and tore from there logs, great trees, and even rocks.
This wasthe barrier that stayed the flight of the fugitive throng, and it was this that they strove to put between thm and the presumed revengeful victors.
On the bank, field and line officers labored to calm their men and restore organization. It was in vain that they pointed out that there had been no pursuit thus far, and the unlikelihood of there being one. When did Panic yield to Reason? In those demoralized ears the thunder of the cannon at Wildcat, the crash of the bursting shells, and the deadly whistle of bullets still rang louder than any words officers could speak.
The worst frightened crowded into the stream in a frenzy, and struggled wildly with the current that swept their feet off the slimy limestone bottom, with the logs and trees dashing along like so many catapult-bolts, and with the horses and teams urged on by men more fear-stricken still. On the steep slope on the other side glimmered numbers of little fires where those who were lucky enough to get across were warming and drying themselves.
"Heavens!" said Harry with an anticipatory shudder, "if our men should come up, the first cannon shot would make half these men drown themselves in trying to get away."
Fortner heeded him not. The mountaineer's eyes were fixed upon a tall, imperious looking man, whose collar bore the silver stars of a Colonel.
"He has found his man at last," said Harry, noticing his companion's attitude, and picking up his own gun in readiness for what might come.
Fortner half-cocked his rifle, took from its nipple the cap that had been tehre an hour and flung it away. He picked the powder out if the tube, replaced it with fresh from his horn, selected another cap carefully, fitted it on the nipple, and let the hammer down with the faintest snap to force it to its place.
His eyes had the look of a rattlesnake's when it coils for a spring, and his breast swelled out as if he was summoning all his strength. He stepped forward to a tree so lightly that there came no rustle from the dead leaves he trod upon. Harry took his place on the other side of the tree, and cocked his musket.
So close were they to hundreds of Rebels with arms in their hands, that it seemed simply an invitation to death to call their attention.
Fortner turned and waved Harry back as he heard him approach, but Glen had apparently exhausted all his capacity for fearing, in the march upon Wildcat, and he was now calmly desperate.
The Colonel rode out from the throng toward the level spot at the base of the ledge upon which the two were concealed. The horse he bestrode was a magnificent thoroughbred, whose fine action could not be concealed, even by his great fatigue.
"Go and find Mars," said the Colonel to an orderly, "and tell him to build a fire against that rock there, and make us some coffee. We will not be able to get across the ford before midnight." The orderly rode off, and the Colonel dismounted and walked forward with the cramped gait of a man who had been long in the saddle.
Still louder yells arose from the ford. A powerful horse, ridden by an officer who was trying to force his way across, had slipped on the river's glassy bedstones, in the midst of a compact throng, and carried many with it down into the deep water below the crossing.
The Colonel's lip curled with contempt as he continued his walk.
A sharp little click sounded from Fortner's rifle. He had set the hair trigger.
He stepped out clear of the tree, and gave a peculiar whistle. The Colonel started as he heard the sound, looked up, saw who uttered it, and instinctly reached his hand back to the holster for a revolver.
Down would scarcely have been ruffled by Fortner's light touch upon the trigger.
Fire flamed from the rifle's muzzle.
The Colonel's haughty eyes became sterner than ever. The holster was torn as he wrenched the revolver out. A clutch at the mane, and he fell forward on the wet brown leaves--dead!
Dumb amazement fille dthe horse's great eyes; he stretched out his neck and smelled his lifeless master inquiringly.
A shot from Harry's musket, fifty from the astounded Rebels, and the two Unionists sped away unhurt into the cover of the dark cedars.