The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter XIII. "An Apple Jack Raid."
This kind o' sojerin' ain't a mite like our October trainin', A chap could clear right out from there, ef it only looked like rainin'; And the Cunnels, too, could kiver up their shappoes with bandanners, An' send the Insines skootin' to the bar-room, with their banners, (Fear o' gittin' on 'em spotted,) an' a feller could cry quarter Ef he fired away his ramrod arter tu much rum an' water. --James Russel Lowell.
The morning after the battle, Kent Edwards was strolling around the camp at Wildcat. "Shades of my hot-throated ancestors who swallowed several fine farms by the tumblerful, how thirsty I am!" he said at length. "It's no wonder these Kentuckians are such hard drinkers. There's something in the atmosphere that makes me drier the farther we advance into the State. Maybe the pursuit of glory has something desiccating in it. At least, all the warriors I ever heard of seemed composed of clay that required as much moistening as unslaked lime. I will hie me to teh hill of frankincense and the mountain of myrrh; in other words, I'll go back where Abe is, and get what's left in the canteen."
He found his saturine comrade sitting on a log by a comfortable fire, restoring buttons which, like soldiers, had become "missing by reason of exigencies of the campaign."
The temptation to believe that inanimate matter can be actuated by obstinate malice is almost irresistible when one has to do with the long skeins of black thread which the soldiers use for their sewing. These skeins resolve themselves, upon the pulling of the first thread, into bunches of entanglement more hopelessly perverse than the Gordian knot, or the snarls in a child's hair. To the inexperienced victim, desirous of securing the wherewithal to sew a button on, nothing seems easier than to pull a thread out of the bunch of loose filament that lies before him. Rash man! That simple mesh hat a baffling power like unto the Labyrinth of Arsino, and long labor of fingers and teeth aided by heated and improper language, frequently fails to extract so much as a half foot of thread.
Abe had stuck his needle down into the log beside him. Near, were the buttons he had fished out of his pocket, and he was laboring with clumsy fingers and rising temper at an obdurate bunch of thread.
"I've been round looking over the field," said Kent, as he came up.
A contemptuous snort answered him.
"You ought to've been along. I saw a great many interesting things."
"O, yes, I s'pose. Awful interesting. Lot o' dead men laying around in the mud. 'Bout as interesting, I should say, as a spell o' setting on a Coroner's jury. The things you find interesting would bore anybody else to death."
Abe gave the obstinate clump a savage twist which only made its knots more rebellious, and he looked as if strongly tempted to throw it into the fire.
"Don't do it, Abe," said Kent, with a laugh that irritated Abe worse still. "Thread's thread, out here, a hundred miles from nowhere. You don't know where you'll get any more. Save it--my dear fellow--save it. Perchance you may yet sweetly beguile many an hour of your elegant leisure in unraveling its fantastic convolutions with your taper fingers, and---"
"Lord! Lord!" said Abe with an expression of deep weariness, but without looking in Kent's direction, "Who's pulled the string o' that clack-mill and set it going? When it gets started once it rolls out big words like punkins dropping out o' the tail of a wagon going up hill. And there's no way o' stopping it, either. You've just got to wiat till it runs down."
"The Proverbs say so fittingly that 'A fool delighteth not in wise instruction,'" said Kent, as he stepped around to the other side of the fire. His foot fell upon a projecting twig, the other end of which flew up and landed a very hot coal on the back of Abe's hand. Abe's action followed that of the twig, in teh suddenness of his upspringing. He hurled an oath and a firebrand at his comrade.
"This is really becoming domestic," said Kent as he laughingly dodged. "The gentle amenities could not cluster more thickly around our fireside, even if we were married."
When Abe resumed his seat he did not come down exactly upon the spot from which he had arisen. It was a little farther to the right, where he had stuck the needle. He had forgotten about it, but he rose with a howl when it keenly reminded him that like the star-spangled banner, it "was still there."
"Don't rise on my account, I beg," said Kent with a deprecatory wave of the hand, as he hurried off to wher he could laugh with safety. A saucy drummer-boy, who neglected this precaution, received a cuff from Abe's heavy hand that thrilled the rest of the drum-corps with delight.
When Abe's wrath subsided from this ebullient stage back to its customary one of simmer, Kent ventured to return.
"Say," said he, pulling over the coats and blankets near the fire, "where's the canteen?"
"There it is by the cups. Can't you see it? If it was a snake it'd bite you."
"It's done that already, several times, or rather its contents have. You know what the Bible says, 'Biteth liek a serpent and stingeth like an adder?' Ah, here it is. But gloomy forebodings seize me: it is suspiciously light. Paradoxically, its lightness induces gravity in me. But that pun is entirely too fine-drawn for camp atmosphere."
He shook the canteen near his ear. "Alas! no gurgle responds to my fond caresses--
Canteen, Mavourneen, O, why art thou silent, Thou voice of my heart?
It is--woe is me--it is empty."
"Of course it is--you were the last one at it."
"I hurl that foul imputation back into thy teeth base knave. Thou thyself art a very daughter of a horse-leech with a canteen of whisky."
Abe looked at him inquiringly. "You must've found some, some place," he said, "or you wouldn't be so awful glib. It's taken 'bout half-a-pint to loosen your tongue so that it'd run this way. I know you."
"No, I've not found a spoonful. The eloquence of thirst is the only inspiration I have at present. I fain would stay its cravings by quaffing a beaker of mountain-distilled hair-curler. Mayhap this humble receptacle contains yet a few drops which escaped thy ravenous thirst."
Kent turned the canteen upside down and placed its mouth upon his tongue. "No," he said, with deep dejection, "all that delicious fluid of yesterday is now like the Father of his Country."
"Eh?" asked Abe, puzzled.
"Because it is no more--it is no more. It belongs to the unreturning past."
"I say," he continued after a moment's pause, "let's go out and hunt for some. there must be plenty in this neighborhood. Nature never makes a want without providing something to supply it. Therefore, judging from my thirst, this country ought to be full of distilleries."
They buckled on their belts, picked up their guns and started out, directing their steps to the front.
In spite of the sunshine the walk through the battle-field was depressing. A chafing wind fretted through the naked limbs of the oaks and chestnuts, and drew moans from the pines and the hemlocks. The brown, dead leaves rustled into little tawny hillocks, behind protecting logs and rocks. Frequently those took on the shape of long, narrow mounds as if they covered the graves of some ill-fated being, who like themselves, had fallen to the earth to rot in dull obscurity. The clear little streams that in Summer-time murmured musically down the slopes, under canopies of nodding roses and fragrant sweet-brier, were now turbid torrents, brawling like churls drunken with much wine, and tearing out with savage wantonness their banks, matted with the roots of the blue violets, and the white-flowered puccoon.
Scattered over the mountain-side were fatigue-parties engaged in hunting up the dead, and burying them in shallow graves, hastily dug in clay so red that it seemed as if saturated with the blood shed the day before. The buriers thrust their hands into the pockets of the dead with the flinching, nauseated air of men touching filth, and took from the garments seeping with water and blood, watches, letters, ambrotypes, money and trinkets, some of which they studied to gain a clue to the dead man's identity, some retained as souvenirs, but threw the most back into the grave with an air of loathing. The faces of the dead with their staring eyes and open mouths and long, lank hair, cloyed with the sand and mud thrown up by the beating rain, looked indescribably repulsive.
The buriers found it better to begin their work by covering the features with a cap or a broad-brimmed hat. It was difficult for the coarsest of them to fling a spadeful of dank clay directly upon the wide-open eyes and seemingly-speaking mouth.
"Those fellows' souls," said Kent, regarding the corpses, "seem to have left their earthly houses in such haste that they forgot to close the doors and windows after them. Somewhere I ahve read of a superstition that bodily tenements left in this way were liable to be entered and occupied by evil spirits, and from this rose the custom of piously closing the eyes and mouths of deceased friends."
"No worse spirit's likely to get into them than was shot out of 'em," growled Abe. "A Rebel with a gun is as bad an evil spirit as I ever expect to meet. But let's go on. It's another kind of an evil spirit that we are interested in just now--one that'll enter into and occupy our empty canteen."
"You're right. It's the enemy that my friend Shakspere says we 'put into our mouths to steal away our brains.' By the way, what a weary hunt he must have in your cranium for a load worth stealing."
"Thee goes that clack-mill again. Great Caesar! if the boys only had legs as active as your tongue what a racer the regiment would be! Cavalry'd be nowhere."
Toward the foot of the mountain their path led them across a noisy, swollen little creek, whose overflowing waters were dyed deeply red and yellow by the load of hill caly they were carrying away in their headlong haste. A little to the left lay a corpse of more striking appearance than any they had yet seen. It was that of a tall, slender, gracefully formed young man, clad in an officer's uniform of rich gray cloth, lavishly ornamented with gilt buttons and gold lace. The features were strong, but delicately cut, and the dark skin smooth and fine-textured. One shapely hand still clasped the hilt of a richly ornamented sword, with which he had evidently been directing his men, and his staring gray eyes seemed yet filled with the anger of battle. A bullet had reached him as he stood upon a little knoll, striving to stay the headlong flight. Falling backward his head touched the edge of the swift running water, which was now filling his long, black locks with slimy sediment.
"The ounce o' lead that done that piece o' work," said Abe, "was better'n a horseload o' gold. A few more used with as good judgement would bring the rebellion to an end in short meter."
"Yes," answered Kent, "he's one of the Chivalry; one of the main props; one of the fellows who are trying to bring about Secession in the hopes of being Dukes, or Marquises, or Earls--High Keepers of His Majesty Jeff. Davis's China Spittoons, or Grand Custodians of the Prince of South Carolina's Plug Tobacco, when the Southern Confederacy gains its independence."
"Well," said Abe, raising the Rebel's hat on the point of his bayonet, and laying it across the corpse's face, "he's changed bosses much sooner than he expected. Jeff. Davis's blood-relation, who presides over the Sulphur Confederacy, will put on his shoulder-straps with a branding-iron, and serve up his rations for him red-hot. I only wish he had more going along with him to keep him company."
"Save your feelings against the Secessionists for expression with your gun in the next fight, and come along. I'm getting thirstier every minute."
They walked on rapidly for a couple or three hours, without finding much encouragement in their search. The rugged mountain sides were but thinly peopled, and the few poor cabins they saw in the distance they decided were not promising enough of results to justify clambering up to where they were perched. At last, almost wearied out, they halted for a little while to rest and scan the interminable waves of summits that stretched out before them.
"Ah," said Kent, rising suddenly, "let's go on. Hope dawns at last. I smell apples. That's a perfume my nose never mistakes. We're near an orchard. Where there's an orchard there's likely to be a pretty good style of house, and where in Kentucky there's a good style of house there's a likelihood of being plenty of good whisky. Now there's a train of brilliant inductive reasoning that shows that nature intended me to be a great natural philosopher. Come on, Abe."
The smell of apples certainly did grow more palpable as they proceeded, and Abe muttered that even if they did not get any thing to drink they would probably get enough of the fruit to make an agreeable change in their diet.
They emerged from the woods into a cleared space where a number of roads and paths focused. To the right was a little opening in the mountain-side, hardly large enough to be called a valley, but designated in the language of the region as a "hollow." At its mouth stood a couple of diminutive log-cabins, of the rudest possible construction, and roofed with "clapboards" held in place by stones and poles. A long string of wooden troughs, supported upon props, conducted the water from an elevated spring to the roof of one of the cabins, and the water could be seen issuing again from underneath the logs at one side of the cabin. A very primitive cider mill--two wooden rollers fastened in a frame, and moved by a long sapling sweep attached to one of them--stood near. The ground was covered with rotting apple pomace, from which arose the odor that had reached Kent's nose.
"Hello!" said the latter, "here's luck; here's richness! We've succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations, as the boy said, who ran away from school to catch minnows, and caught a ducking, a bad cold and a licking. We've struck an apple-jack distillery, and as they've been at work lately, they've probably left enough somewhere to give us all that we can drink."
Abe's sigh was eloquent of a disbelief that such a consummation was possible, short of the blissful hereafter.
Inside of one of the cabins they found a still about the size of a tub, with a worm of similar small proportions, kept cook by the flow from the spring. Some tubs and barrels, in which the lees of cider were rapidly turning to vinegar, gave off a fuity, spirituous odor, but for awhile their eager search did not discover a bit of the distilled product. At last, Kent, with a cry of triumph, dragged from a place of cunning concealment a small jug, stopped with a corncob. He smelled it hungrily.
"Yes, here is some. It's apple-jack, not a week old, and as rank as a Major General. Phew! I can smell every stick they burned to distil it. Abe, watch me closely while I drink. I magnanimously take the lead, out of consideration for you. If I ain't dead in five minutes, you try it."
"O, stop monkeying, and drink," was the impatient answer.
Kent put the jug to his mouth and took a long draught. "Shade of old Father Noah, the first drunkard," he said as he wiped the tears from his eyes, "another swig like that would pull out all the rivets in my internal pipings. Heavens! it went down like pulling a cat out of a hole by the tail. I'm afraid to wipe my mouth, lest my breath burn a hole in the sleeve of my blouse."
Three-quarters of an hour later, the spirits in the jug were lowering and those in the men rising with unequal rapidity. Under the influence of the fiery stimulant, Kent's sanguine temperament boiled and bubbled over. Imagination painted the present and future in hues of dazzling radiance. Everything was as delightful as it could be now, and would become more charming as time rolled on. But with Abe Bolton drinking tended to develop moroseness into savagery.
"Ah, comfort me with apple-jack, and stay me with flagons of it," said Kent Edwards, setting down the jug with the circumspection of a man not yet too drunk to suspect that he is losing exact control of his legs and arms. "That gets better the deeper down you go. First it was like swallowing a chestnut burr; now, old hand-made Bourbon couldn't be smoother."
"A man can get used to a'most anything," said Bolton.
"I get gladder every day, Abe, that I came into the army. I wouldn't have missed all this experience for the finest farm in the Miami Valley.
''Twere worth ten years of peaceful life, To soldier have a day,'
Sir Walter Scott says--as I improve him."
"'Specially one of them soaking days when we were marching through the mud to Wildcat."
"O, those were just thrown in to make us appreciate good weather when we have it. Otherwise we wouldn't. You know what the song says:
'For Spring would be but gloomy weather, If we had nothing else but Spring.'"
"Well, for my part, one o' them days was enough to p'ison six months o' sunshine. I declare, I believe I'll feel mildewed for the rest of my life. I know if I pulled off my clothes you could scrape the green mold off my back."
"And I'm sure that if we'd had the whole army to pick from, we couldn't've got in with a better lot of boys and officers. Every one of them's true blue, and a man all the way through. It's the best regiment in the army, and our company's the best company in the regiment, and I flatter myself the company hasn't got two other as good men as we are."
"Your modesty'll ruin you yet, Kent," said Abe, sardonically. "It's very painful to see a man going 'round unerrating himself as you do. If I could only get you to have a proper opinion of yourself--that is, believe that you are a bigger man than General Scott or George B. McClellan, I'd have some hopes of you."
"We'll have one grand, big battle with the Secessionists now, pretty soon--everything's getting ripe for it--and we'll whip them like Wellington whipped Napoleon at Waterloo. Our regiment will cover itself with glory, in which you and I will have a big share. Then we'll march back to Sardis with flags flying and drums beating, everybody turning out, and the bands playing 'See, the Conquering Hero Comes,' when you and I come down the street, and we'll be heroes for the rest of our natural lives."
"Go ahead, and tell the rest of it to the mash-tubs and the still. I've heard as much as I can stand, an I must have a breath of fresh air. I'm going into the other cabin to see what's there."
Kent followed him to the door, with the jug in his hand.
"Kent, there's a man coming down the path there," said Abe, pulling himself together, after the manner of a half-drunken man whose attention is powerfully distracted.
"Where?" asked Kent, setting the jug down with solicitous gentleness, and reaching back for his musket.
"There, by that big chestnut. Can't you see him? or have you got so much whisky in you, that you can't see anything? He's in Rebel clothes, and he's got a gun. I'm going to shoot him."
"Maybe he's one of these loyal Kentuckians. Hold on a minute, till you are sure," said Kent, half cocking his own gun.
"The last words of General Washington were 'Never trust a nigger with a gun.' A man with that kind o' cloze has no business carrying weapons around in this country. I'm going to shoot."
"If you shoot with your hands wobbling that way, you'll make him aas full of holes as a skimmer. That'd be cruel. Steady yourself up a little, while I talk to him.
"Halt, there!" commanded Kent, with a thick tongue. "Who are you, and how many are with you?"
"I'm a Union man," said Fortner, for it was he, "an' I'm alone."
"Lay down your gun and come up here, if you are a friend," ordered Kent.
The swaggering imperiousness in Edward's tone nettled Fortner as much as the order itself. "I don't make a practice of layin' down my gun for no man," he said proudly. "I'm ez good Union ez ary of you'uns dar be, an' I don't take no orders from ye. I could've killed ye both, ef I'd a wanted ter, afore ye ever seed me."
Bolton's gun cracked, and the bullet buried itself in the thick, soft bark of the chestnut, just above Fortner's head, and threw dust and chips in his eyes. He brushed them away angrily, and instinctively raised his rifle. Kent took this as his cue to fire, but his aim was even worse than Abe's.
"Ruined again by strong drink," he muttered despairingly, as he saw the failure of his shot. "Nothing but new apple jack could make me miss so fair a mark."
"Now, ye fellers, lay down yore guns!" shouted Fortner, springing forward to where they were, with his rifle cocked. "Lay 'em down! I say. Lay 'em down, or I'll let daylight through ye!"
"He's got us, Abe," said Kent, laying down his musket reluctantly. His example was followed by Abe, who, however, did not place his gun so far that he could not readily pick it up again, if Fortner gave him an instant's opportunity. Fortner noticed this, and pushed the musket farther away with his foot, still covering the two with his rifle.
"Ye see now," he said "thet I hev ye at my marcy, ef I wanted ter kill or capture ye. Efi I gin ye back yer guns, ye'll admit thet I'm yer friend, and not yer inimy, won't ye?"
"It'll certainly look like an overture to a permanent and disinterested friendship," said Kent, brightening up; and Abe, who was gathering himself up for a spring to catch Fortner's rifle, let his muscles relax again.
"Well, ye kin take up yer guns agin and load 'em," said Fortner, letting down the hammer of his rifle. "I'm Jim Fortner, supposed ter be the pizenest Union man on the Rockassel! Come along ter my house, an I'll gin ye a good meal o' vittels. Hit's on'y a little piece off, an' I've got thar one of yer fellers. His name's Harry Glen.