The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter XVI. The Ambuscade.
This heavy-headed revel, east and west, Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations; They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish frase Soul our addition: and indeed it takes From our achievements, though performed at hight, The pith and marrow of our attribute.--Hamlet.
The day spent with Aunt Debby had been of the greatest benefit to Harry Glen. Since his parting with Rachel Bond, there had been going on in his spirit a fermentation like that with which good wine discharges itself of its grossness and impurities, and becomes clear and fine. In this process had vanished the absorbing selfishness of a much-indulged only son, and teh supercilious egotism which came as an almost necessary result of his college curriculum. This spiritual ripening received its perfecting color and bloom from the serene exaltation of Aunt Debby's soul. So filled was she with lofty devotion to the cause, so complete her faith in its holiness, and so unquestioning her belief that it was every one's simple duty to brave all dangers for it, and die if need be without a murmur, that contact with her would have inspired with pure patriotic ardor a nature much less ready for such leavening than Harry's.
As Dr. Denslow had surmised, his faults were mainly superficial, and underneath them was a firm gristle of manhood, which would speedily harden into bone. With the experience he had been having, days would mature this as rapidly as ordinary years. He was himself hardly aware of the transformation, but only felt, as his physical exhaustion disappeared, a new eagerness to participate in the great work of the war. He was gratified to know a little later that this was no transient feeling. In the course of the evening Jim Fortner came back in, with Kent Edwards and Abe Bolton. After they had all satisfied their hunger, Fortner informed Harry and Aunt Debby that the enemy had fallen back to London, from which point he was sending out wagons into the surrounding country, to gather up food, forage, arms, clothing, ammunition, etc., with the double object of depriving the Union men of them, and adding the same to the Rebel resources. A long train had also been sent out to the Goose Creek Salt Works--twenty-five miles northeast of London--to bring away a lot of salt stored there, of which the Rebels had even more need than of food.
Fortner proposed to go out in the morning, and endeavor to capture some of these wagons. It seemed altogether probably that a few might be caught in such a position that their guards could be killed or driven off.
All readily agreed to this plan, Aunt Debby leading off by volunteering to ride ahead on her mare, as a scout.
Harry suddenly remembered that he was weaponless. "What shall I do for a gun?" he asked, anxiously.
"I declar, I done forgot all 'bout gittin' ye a gun," said Fortner with real concern. "My mind was disturbed by other things," he added with a suspicion of a grin at Edwards and Bolton; but they were leaning back in their chairs fast asleep. Apple jack, fatigue and a hearty supper together made a narcotic too potent to resist.
Fortner rose, spread a few blankets on the floor, added a sack of bran for a pillow, and with some difficulty induced the two sleepers to lie down and take their slumbers in a more natural position.
"I'll find ye a gun," said Aunt Debby, as this operation was finished, and walking to a farther corner of the room, she came back bearing in her hand a rifle very similar to the one Fortner carried.
"Thar," she said, setting the delicately-curved brazen heel down upon the hearth, and holding the muzzle at arm's length while she gazed at the gun with the admiration one can not help feeling for a magnificent weapon, "is ez true a rifle ez ever a man put to his shoulder. Ef I didn't b'lave ye ter be ez true ez steel ye shouldn't tech hit, fur hit b'longed ter the truest man in this livin' world."
"Hit wuz her husband's," explained Fortner, as her lips met firmly, as if choking down bitter memories.
"I'm givin' hit ter ye ter use ez he'd a-used hit ef he war a-livin'," she said, steadying her tones with a perceptible effort. "I'm glad thet my hands can put inter yours the means ter avenge him."
Harry tried in vain to make an appropriate response.
"I'll clean hit up for ye," she said to Harry, as she saw Fortner beginning to furbish up his own rifle for the next day's duties.
That she was no stranger to the work was shown by the skill with which she addressed herself to it. Nothing that a Kentucky mountaineer does has more of the aspect of a labor of love, than his caring for a find rifle, and any of them would have been put to shame by the deftness of Aunt Debby's supple hands. Removing the leathern hood which protected the lock, she carefully rubbed off the hammer and nipple with a wisp of soft fine tow, and picked out the tube with a needle. Wrapping another bit of tow around the end of a wiping-stick, she moistened it slightly in her mouth, and carefully swabbed out of the inside of the barrel every suspicion of dust and dirt. Each of the winding rifles was made clean and free along its whole course. Then the tow swab was lightly touched with sweet, unsalted goose-fat, that it might spread a rust-preventing film over the interior surface. She burnished the silver and brass ornaments, and rubbed the polished stock until it shone. When not a suspicion of soil or dirt remained any where, the delicate double triggers were examined and set so that they would yield at the stroke of a hair, a tuft of lightly-oiled tow was placed over the nipple and another closed the muzzle.
"Thar," said Aunt Deby, setting the gun back against the logs, "is a rifle that'll allers do hits duty, ef the man a-holt of hit does his. Let's see how the ammunition is."
The powder horn was found to be well filled with powder, and the box with caps, but there were only a few bullets.
"I'll run ye some," she said, taking from a shelf a small iron ladle, a few bars of lead, and a pair of bullet molds. "Fur more'n a hunderd years the women uv our fam'ly hev run all the bullets our menfolks shot. They b'lieved hit made 'em lucky. Granfather Fortner killed an Injun chief acrost the Maumee River at the battle of Fallen Timbers with a bullet thet Granmother hed run fur him an' markt with a little cross. Afore the battle begun Franfather tuck the bullet outen his pouch an' put hit inter his mouth, until he could git a chance ter use hit on big game. He brot the chief's scalp hum ter Granmother."
"I believe the bullets you cast for me will do good service," said Harry, with sincerity in his tones.
"I'm sartin of hit," she returned, confidently. "I hev adopted ye in my heart ez a son, an' I feel towards ye ez ef ye were raylly uv my own kin. I know ye'll be a credit to yerself an' me."
While the lead was melting upon the bed of coals she drew out on the hearth, she sat in her low chair with her hands clasped about her knees, and her great gray eyes fixed upon the depths of a mass of glowing embers in the fireplace, as if she saw there vivid pictures of the past or revelations of the future.
"How wonderfully bright an' glowin' hit is in thar," she said musingly; "hit's purer an' brighter then ennything else on arth. 'Purified ez by fire,' the Book says. My God, Thou has sent Thy fires upon me ez a sweepin' flood. Hev they purified me ez Thou wisht? How hit shines an' glows away in thar! Hit seems so deep sometimes thet I kin skeercely see the end. A million times purer an' brighter is the light thet shines from the Throne uv God. They're lookin' at thet now, while I still tarry heah. Husband an' son, when will I go to ye? When will I finish the work the Lord hez fur me ter do? When will the day uv my freedom come? May-be to-morrer--may-be to-morrer."
She began singing softly:
"An' when a shadder falls acrost the winder Of my room, When I am workin' my app'inted task, I lift my head to watch the door an' ask If he is come; An' the angel answers sweetly In my home: 'Only a few more shadders An' He will come.'"
"Aunt Debby, honey," said Fortner, rousing himself from a nap in his chair, "thet thar lead's burnin'. Better run yer bullets."
She started as if waked from a trance, pressed her slender thin hands to her eyes for an instant, and then taking the molds up in herleft hand she raised the ladle with her right, filled them from it, knocked the molded balls out by a tap on the floor, and repeated the process with such dexterous quickness that she had made fifty bullets before harry realized that she was fairly at work.
"Ye men hed better lay down an' git some sleep," she said, as she replaced the molds and ladle on the shelf. "Ye'll need all yer strength to-morrer. I'll neck these bullets, an' git together some vittles fur the trip, an' then I'll lay down a while. We orter start airly--soon arter daybreak."
They did start early the next morning, with Aunt Debby riding upon the roads that wound around the mountain sides, while Fortner led the men through the shorter by-paths.
Noon had passed some hours, and yet they had come across no signs of wagons. Aunt Debby was riding along a road cut out of the rocks about mid-way up the mountain. To her right the descent was almost perpendicular for a hundred feet or more to where a creek ran at the bottom of a cliff. To her left the hill rose up steeply to a great height. Fortner and the others saw Aunt Debby galloping back, waving the red handkerchief which was her signal of the approach of a wagon. After her galloped a Rebel Sergeant, with revolver drawn shouting to her to stop or he would fire. Abe Bolton stepped forward impulsively to shoot the Rebel, missed his footing, and slid down the hill, landing in the orad with such force as to jar into unintelligibiliy a bitter imprecation he had constructed for the emergency. He struck in front of the Sergeant, who instantly fired at Aunt Debby's mare, sending a bullet through the faithful animal, which sank to her knees, and threw her rider to the ground. Without waiting to rise, and he was not certain that he could, Abe fired his musket, but missed both man and horse. He scrambled to his feet, and ran furiously at the Rebel with raised gun. The Sergeant fired wildly at him, when Bolton struck the animal a violent blow across the head. It recoiled, slipped, and in another instant had fallen over the side of the road, and crushed his rider on the rocks below. Five of the wagon-guard who were riding ahead of the wagon galloped forward at the sound of the shots. Fortner, Edwards and Harry Glen fired into these, and three saddles were emptied. The remaining two men whirled their horses around, fired wildly into the air, and dashed back upon the plunging team, with which the driver was vainly struggling. The ground quivered as the frightened animals struck together; they were crushed back upon their haunches, and beat one another cruelly with their mighty hoofs. Wagon, horses and men reeled on the brink an agonizing instant; the white-faced driver dropped the lines and sprang to the secure ground; the riders strained with the energy of deadly fear to tear themselves loose from their steeds, but in vain. Then the frantic mess crashed down the jagged rocks, tearing up the stunted cedars as if they were weeds, and fell with a sounding splash on the limestone bed of the shallow creek.
Fortner, Glen and Edwards came down as quickly as possible, the latter spraining his ankle badly by making a venturesome leap to reach the road first. They found a man that Fortner had shot at stone dead, with a bullet through his temple. The other two had been struck in the body. Their horses stood near, looking wonderingly at their prostrate masters.
Bolton was rubbing his bruises and abrasions, and vituperating everything, from the conduct of the war to the steepness of Kentucky mountains. Aunt Debby had partially recovered from the stunning of her fall, and limped slowly up, with her long riding-skirt raised by one hand. Her lips were compressed, an her great gray eyes blazed with excitement.
They all went to the side of the road, and looked down at the crushed and bleeding mass in the creek.
"My God! that's awful," said Henry, with a rising sickness about his heart, as the excitement began subsiding.
"Plenty good enuf fur scoundrels who rob poor men of all they hev," said Fortner fiercely, as he re-loaded his rifle. "Hit's not bad enuf fur thieves an' robbers."
"Hit's God's judgement on the wicked an' the opporessor," said Aunt Debby, with solemn pitilessness.
"Hadn't we better try to get down there, and help those men out?" suggested Harry. "Perhaps they are not dead yet."
"Aunt Debby, thet thar hoss thet's rain' his head an' whinnyin'," said Fortner, with sudden interest, "is Joel Sprigg's roan geldin', sho's yore bo'n, honey." He pointed to where a shapely head was raised, and almost human agony looked out of great liquid eyes. "Thet wuz the finest hoss in Laurel County, an' they've stole 'im from Joel. Hit'll 'bout break his heart, fur he set a powerful sight o'store on thet there beast. Pore critter! hit makes me sick ter see 'im suffer thet-a-way! I've a mind ter put 'im outen his misery, but I'm afeered I can't shoot 'im, so long ez he looks at me with them big pitiful eyes o' his'n. They go right ter my heart."
"You'd better shoot him," urged Aunt Debby. "Hit's a si ter let an innocent critter suffer thet-a-way."
Fortner raised his rifle, and sent a bullet through the mangled brute's brain.
Aunt Debby's eyes became fixed on a point where, a mile away down the mountain, a bend in the road was visible through an opening in the trees.
"Look out," she said, as the echoes of the shot died away, "thar comes a hull lot on 'em."
They looked and saw plainly a large squad of cavalry, with a wagon behind.
"We must get outen heah, an' thet quick," said Fortner decisively. He caught one of the horses and shortened a stirrup to make the sadle answer for a side-saddle. "Heah, Aunt Debby, let me help ye up, honey. Now Bolton and Edwards, I'll help ye on these ere other critters. Now skeet out ez fast ez the hosse's legs will tote ye. Don't spar 'em a mite. Them fellers'll gin ye to the devil's own chase ez soon ez they get heah, an' see what's bin done. Glen and me'll go acrost the mounting, an' head 'em off on t'other side. Don't come back ef ye heah shootin', but keep straight on, fur we kin take keer o' this crowd without enny help. glen, you sasshay up the mounting thar ez fast ez the Lord'll let ye. I'll be arter ye right spry."
All sped away as directed. Fortner had been loading his gun while speaking. He now rammed the bullet home, and withdrawing his rammer walked over to the cliff beside which the teamster was cowering.
"O, Mister Fortner, don't kill me--please don't!" whined the luckless man, getting awkwardly upon his knees and raising his hands imploringly. "I swar ter God I'll never raise a hand agin a Union man agin ef ye'll only spar my life."
"Kill ye, Pete Hoskins!" said Fortner with unfathomable contempt. "What consete ye hev ter think yer wuth the powder an' lead. I hain't no bullets ter waste on carr'on."
He struck the abject fellow a couple of stinging blows on the face with the ramrod, replaced it in the thimbles, and sprang up the rocks just as the head of the cavalry appeared around the bend of the road a few rods away.
Overtaking Harry shortly, he heard about the same time the Rebels on the road below strike into a trot.
"They know hit all now," he said, "an' hev started in chase. Let's jog on lively, an' get ter whar we kin head 'em off."
Night had fallen in the meantime, but the full moon had risen immediately, making it almost as light as day.
After half an hour's fast walking, the two Unionists had cut across the long horseshoe around which the Rebels were traveling, and had come down much ahead of them on the other side of the mountain, and just where the road led up the steep ascent of another mountain.
There was a loneliness about the spot that was terrible. Over it hung the "thought and deadly feel of solitude." The only break for miles in the primeval forest was that made for the narrow road. House or cabin there was none in all the gloomy reaches of rocks and gnarled trees. It was too inhospitable a region to tempt even the wildest squatter.
The flood of moonlight made the desolation more oppresive than ever, by making palpable and suggestive the inky abysses under the trees and in the thickets.
Fortner looked up the road to his right and listened intently.
A waterfall mumbled somewhere in the neighborhood. The pines and hemlocks near the summit sighed drearily. A gray fox, which had probably just supped off a pheasant, sat on a log and barked out his gluttonous satisfaction. A wildcat, as yet superless, screamed its envy from a cliff a half a mile away.
"I can't heah anything of Aunt Debby an' the others," said Fortner, at length; "so I reckon they're clean over the mounting, an' bout safe by this time. Them beasts are purty good travelers, I imagine, an' they hain't let no grass grow in under the'r hufs."
"But the Rebels are coming, hand over hand," said Harry, who had been watching to the left and listening. "I hear them quite plainly. Yes, there they are," he continued, as two or three galloped around a turn in the road, followed at a little interval by others.
The metallic clang of the rapid hoof-beats on the rocks rang through the somber aisles of the forest. Noisy fox and aniphonal wildcat stopped to listen to this invasion of sound.
"Quick! let's get in cover," said Fortner.
"Ye make fur thet rock up thar," said Fortner to Harry, pointing to a spot several hundred yards above them, "and stay thar tell I come. Keep close in the shadder, so's they won't see ye."
"It seems to me that I ought to stay with you,' said Harry, indecisively.
"No; go. Ye can't do no good heah. One's better nor two. I'll be up thar soon. Go, quick."
There was no time for debate, and Harry did as bidden.
Fortner stepped into the inky shadow of a large rock, against which he leaned. The great broad face of the rock, gray from its covering of minute ash-colored lichens, was toward the pursuers, and shone white as marble in the flood of moonlight. The darkness seemed banked up around him, but within his arm's length it was as light as day. The long rifle barrel reached from the darkness into the light, past the corner of the rock against which it rested. The bright rays made the little "bead" near the muzzle gleam like a diamond, and lighted up the slit as fine as a hair in the hind-sight. Three little clicks, as if of twigs breaking under a rabbit's foot, told that the triggers had been set and the hammer raised.
The horsemen, much scattered by the pursuit, clattered onward. In ones and twos, with wide intervals between, they reached along a half-mile of the road. Two--the best mounted--rode together at the head. Two hundred yards below the great white rock, which shone as innocent and kindly as a fleecy Summer cloud, a broad rivulet wound its way toward the neighboring creek. The blown horses scented the grateful water, and checked down to drink of it. The right-hand rider loosened his bridle that his steed might gratify himself. The other tightened his rein and struck with his spurs. His horse "gathered," and leaped across the stream. As the armed hoofs struck sparks from the smooth stones on the opposite side, the rider of the drinking horse saw burst out of the white rock above them a gray cloud, with a central tongue of flame, and his comrade fell to the ground.
His immediate reply with both barrels of his shotgun showed that he did not mistake this for any natural phenomenon. The sound of the shots brought the rest up at a gallop, and a rapid fire was opened on the end of the rock.
But the instant Fortner fired he sprang back behind the rock, and then ran under its cover a little distance up the mountain side to a dense laurel thicket, in which he laid down behind a log and reloaded his rifle. He listened. The firing had ceased, and a half-dozen dismounted men were carefully approaching the spot whence he had sent the fatal shot. He heard the Captain order a man to ride back and bring up the wagon, that the body of the dead man might be put in it. As the wagon was heard rumbling up, the dismounted men reported to the Captain that the bushwhacker had made good his escape and was no longer behind the rock.
"Well, he hasn't gone very far," said the Captain with a savage oath. "He can't have got any distance away, and I'll have him, dead or alive, before I leave this spot. The whole gang of Lincolnite hellhounds are treed right up there, and not one of them shall get away alive." He put a bone whistle to his lips, and sounded a shrill signal. A horseman trotted up from the rear in response to the call, leading a hound with a leash. "Take the dog up to that rock, there, Bill," said the Captain, "and set him on that devil's trail. Five more of you dismount, and deploy there on the other side of the road. All of you move forward cautiously, watching the dog, and make sure you 'save' teh whelp when he is run out."
The men left their saddles and moved forward with manifest reluctance. They had the highly emotional nature usual in the poor white of the South, and this was deeply depressed by the weird loneliness that brooded over everything, and the bloodshed they had witnessed. Their thirst for vengeance was being tempered rapidly by a growing superstitious fear. There was something supernatural in these mysterious killings. Each man, therefore, only moved forward as he felt the Captain's eye on him, or his comrades advanced.
The dog, after some false starts, got the scent, and started to follow Fortner's footsteps.
"He's done tuck the trail, Cap'n," called back one of the men.
"All right," answered the officer, "don't take your eyes off of him for a second till he trees the game."
But the logs and rocks and the impenetrable darkness in the shadows made it impossible to follow the movements of the hound every moment. Only Fortner was able to do this. He could see the great greenish-yellow eyes burn in the pitchy-depths and steadily draw nearer him. They entered the laurel thicket, and the beast growled as he felt the nearness of his prey.
"Wolf must be gitten close ter him," said one of the men.
Fortner laid his rifle across the log, and drew from his belt a long keen knife. He stirred slightly in doing this, and in turning to confront the dog. The hound sprang forward with a growl that was abruptly ended, for Fortner's left hand shot out like an arrow, and caught the loose folds of skin on the brute's neck, and the next instant his right, armed with the knife, descended and laid the animal's shoulder and neck open with a deep cut. But the darkness made Fortner mistake his distance. He neither caught the dog securely, nor sent the knife to his heart, as he intended, and the hound tearing away, ran out into the moonlight, bleeding and yelping. Before he reached his human allies Fortner had silently sped back a hundred yards, to a more secure shelter, so that the volley which was poured into he thicket only endangered the lives of the chipmunks denizened there. The mounted men rode forward and joined those on foot, in raking the copse with charges of buckshot.
Away above Fortner and Harry rose yells and the clatter of galloping horses. Before they could imagine what this meant a little cavalcade swept by at a mad gallop, yelling at the tops of their voices, and charging directly at the Rebels below. In front were Aunt Debby, Bolton and Edwards, riding abreast, and behind them three men in homespun.
The Rebels seemed totally unnerved by this startling apparition. The dismounted ones flung themselves on their horses and all fled away at a gallop, without attempting to make a stand and without taking thought of their wagon. As they scurried along the opposite mountain-side Fortner and Harry fired at them, but without being able to tell whether their shots took effect.
The pursuit was carried but a little distance. The wagon was secured and taken up the mountain. A little after midnight the summit was passed, and Fortner led the way into an opening to the right, which eventually brought up at a little level spot in front of a large cave. The horses where unhitched and unsaddled, a fire built, cedar boughs gathered to make a bed on the rocky floor of the cave, and they threw themselves down upon this to sleep the sleep of utter weariness.
In the meantime Harry had learned taht the new comers were cousins of Fortner's, who, being out on a private scouting expedition, had been encountered by Aunt Debby and the others, near the summit of the mountain, and had started back with them to the assistance of Fortner. The sound of firing had so excited them that the suggestion of a charge by Kent Edwards was eagerly acceded to.
"It must be near three o'clock," said Kent, looking up at the stars, as he came back stealthily from laying the saddle blanket, which was the only covering he and Abe had, upon the sleeping form of Aunt Debby, "and my downy couch still waits for me. My life-long habits of staid respectability have been greatly shaken recently."
Abe groaned derisively.
An inspection, the next morning of the wagon's load, showed it to be mainly made up of hams, shoulders and sides, plundered from the smokehouses visited. With these were a number of guns, including several fine rifles, and all the ammunition that could be found along the route.
A breakfast was made of slices of ham broiled on the ends of sticks, and then a consultation was held as to the plans for the day's operations.
The result of this was a decision that Aunt Debby and one of the newcomers should go back and inform the neighborhood of what had taken place, gather a party to remove the dead from the creek and bury them, to keep the water from being poisoned, and recover what property might be found with the first wagon. Kent Edwards, Abe Bolton, and two of the new comers would scout down toward London, to ascertain the truth of the rumor that Zollicoffer had evacuated the place, and retired to Laurel Bridge, nine miles south of it. Fortner and Harry Glen would take the wagon to Wildcat Gap, report what had been done, and explain to their commander the absence of the enlisted men.
"Shade of King Solomon," said Kent to Abe, after their party had ridden for two or three hours through the mountains toward London. "I wonder if there is any other kind of worldly knowledge that I know as little about as I did of scouting when we started out? My eyes have been opened to my own ignorance. I used to have the conceit that we two could play a fair hand at any game of war they could get up for our entertainment. But these Kentuckians give me points every hundred yards that I never so much as dreamed of. Theirs is the wisdom of serpents when compared with our dove-like innocence."
"I like dove-like innocence," interrupted Abe.
"But did you ever see anybody that could go through the country as these fellows can? It's just marvelous. They know every short cut to every point, and they know just where to go every time to see way ahead without being seen themselves. It would puzzle the sharpest Rebel bushwhacker to get the drop on them."
"I don't know as I want to learn their way of doing," said Abe crustily. "It looks like sneaking, on a big scale, that's all. And I'm ashamed of this laying round behind a log or a rock to pop a man over. It ain't my style at all. I believe in open and above-board fighting, give and take, and may the best man win."
"So do I, though I suppose all's fair in war. But when we scout we give them the same chance to knock us over that they give us when they scout. I'll admit it looks very much like murder to shoot men down that way, for it does not help either side along a particle. But these Kentuckians have a great many private injuries to avenge, and they can't do it any other way."
All the people of the region were intensely Union, so it was not difficult to get exact information of the movements of the Rebels, and as the scouts drew near London they became assured that not only all of Zollicoffer's infantry, but his small parties of cavalry had retreated beyond the town. Our scouts therefore, putting Edwards and Bolton to the front, that their blue uniforms might tell the character of the party, spurred into a gallop, and dashed into London, to be received with boundless enthusiasm.
"Somebody ought to ride back to Wildcat immediately," said Kent, after they had enjoyed their reception a little while, "and report this to the General."
All assented to this position.
"It is really the duty of myself and comrade here to do it," said Kent, shifting uneasily in his chair, to find a comfortable place to sit upon; "but as we have been for two days riding the hardest-backed horses over roads that were simply awful, and as previous to that time we had not taken any equestrian exercise for several years, there are some fundamental reasons--that is, reasons lying at the very base of things, (he shifted again)--why we should not be called upon to do another mile of horseback riding until Time has had an opportunity to exercise his soothing and healing influence, so to speak. Abe, I believe I have stated the case with my usual happy combination of grace and delicacy?"
"You have, as usual, flushed a tail-race of big words."
"In short," Kent went on ("Ah, thank you. That is delicious. The best I ever drank. Your mountain stills make the finest apple jack in the world. There must be something in the water--that you don't put in. It's as smooth as new-made butter. Well, here's to the anner of Beauty and Glory.) In short, as I was saying when you hospitably interrupted me, we are willing to do anything for the cause, but unless there is some other way of riding, the most painful effort I could make for our beloved country would be to mount that horse again, and ride another hundred yards. To be messenger of this good news would be bliss; what prevents it is a blister."
The crowd laughed boisterously.
"Mister," said one of the Kentuckians who accompanied them, with that peculiar drawling inflection of the word that it were hopeless to attempt to represent in print, "ef ye want ter send some one in yer places me an' Si heah will be powerful glad ter go. Jes' git a note ter the Jineral at Wildcat ready while we saddle fresh beasts, an' we'll hev hit in his hands afore midnight."
The proposition was immediately accepted, and in a little while the Kentuckians were speeding their way back to Gen. Schoepf, with a letter giving the news, and signed: "Kent Edwards, Chief of Scouts."
That evening a party of young men who had followed the Rebel retreat some distance, brought in a wagon which had been concealed in an out-of-the-way place, and left there. It was loaded mainly with things taken from the houses, and was evidently the private collection of some freebooting subordinate, who did not intend that the Southern Confederacy should be enriched by the property. Hence, probably, the hesitation about taking it along with the main train. It was handed over to Kent as the representative of the United States, who was alone authorized to take charge of it. Assisted by Abe he started to make an inventory of the contents. A portly jug of apple jack was kept at hand, that there might not be any suffering from undue thirst during the course of the operation, which, as Kent providently remarked, was liable to make a man as dry as an Arizona plain.
The danger of such aridity seemed to grow more imminent continually, judged by the frequency of their application to the jug. It soon became more urgent than the completion of the inventory. Frequent visits of loyal Kentuckians with other jugs and botles, to drink to the renewed supremacy of the Banner of Beauty and Glory, did not diminish Kent's and Abe's apprehensions of ultimate thirst. Their clay seemed like some other kinds, which have their absorptive powers strengthened by the more they take up. They belonged to a not-unusual class of men whom it takes about as long to get thoroughly drunk as it does to heat up an iron-furnace, but the condition that they achieve then makes the intoxication of other and ordinary men seem a very mild and tame exhilaration.
By noon the next day this process was nearing its completion. A messenger galloped into town with the information that the Union forces were coming, and would arrive in the course of an hour or two.
"Shash so?" said Kent, straightening himself up with a crushing dignity that always formed a sure guage of the extent to which inebriation had progressed. "Shash so? Troops 'she United States 'bout to enter shis lovely metropolis wish all pomp and shircumshtance 'reassherted 'thority. 'Shtonishin' event; wonderful 'casion. Never happened 'fore; probably never'll happen again. Ought to be 'propriately celebrated, Abe!"
That gentleman made a strong effort to control joints which seemed unmanageable, and succeeded in assuming a tolerable erectness, while he blinked at his companion with stolid gravity.
"Abe, shis ish great 'casion. Greatest in she annalsh of she country. We're only represhentatives Government in she town. Burden whole shing fallsh on us. Understand? We musht do everyshing. Understand? Country 'spects every man to do his duty. Undershtand?"
Abe sank down on a bench, leaned his head against the wall, and looked at his companion with one eye closed wearily.
"Yesshir," Kent resumed, summoning up a new supply of oratorical energy, and an official gravity beneath which his legs trembeled. "Name shis town's London. Shame name's big town 'cross ocean. Lots history c'nected wish name. Shtacks an' cords of it. Old times when King went out t'meet him, wish shtyle pile on bigger'n a haystack. Fact. Clothes finer'n a peacock. Tendered him keys, freed'm city. All shat short shing. Ver' impreshive shpectacle. Everybody felt better'n for improvin' sight. Undershtand? We'll be Lord Mayor and train for shis London. We can rig out right here. Our trouseau's here in shis hair trunk."
"Shall we get anyshing t' drink?" inquired Abe making a temporary collection of his wits with a violent effort.
"Abe!" the freezing severity of Kent's tone and manner would have been hopelessly fatal to early vegetables. "Abe you've many good qualities--more of 'em shan any man I know. but a degrading passion fur shtrong drink is ruinin' you. I'm your besht fren, an' shay it wish tearsh in m' eyes. Lemme beg o' you t' reform ere it ish too late. Beware of it, my fren, beware of it. It shtingeth like a serpent, an' biteth like a multiplier--I mean an adder. You haven't got my shuperb self-control, an' so yer only shafety lies in total abstinence. Cheese it, my fren, cheese it on she sheductive but fatal lush."
"Are we goin' out t' meet she boysh?" inquired Abe.
"Shertainly we are. Yesshir. An' we're goin' out ash I proposed. Yer a shplendid feller, Abe," continued Kent, with lofty patronage. "A shplendid feller, an' do great credit t' yer 'portunities. But y' haven't had my 'dvantages of mingling constantly in p'lite s'ciety, y'know. Rough diamond, I know, 'nall that short o' shing, but lack polish an' easy grace. So I'll be th' Lord Mayor, an' y'll be th' train. Undershtand?"
He lurched forward, and came near falling over the chair, but recovering he stiffened up and gazed on that useful article of furniture with a sternness that implied his belief that it was a rascally blackleg trying to insinuate itself into the circle of refinement and chaste elegance of which he was the particular ornament.
"Come," he resumed, "le's bedizen ourselves; le's assume th' shplendor 'propriate t' th' 'casion."
When the troops marched in in the afternoon, the encountered at the head of the crowd that met them at the crossing of the creek just ouside of town, a man who seemed filled with deep emotion, and clothed with strange fancies. He wore a tall silk hat of antique patter, carefully brushed, which he protected from the rays of the sun with a huge blue cotton umbrella. A blue broadcloth coat, with gilt buttons, sat jauntily over a black satin vest, and nankeen trousers. A pair of gold spectacles reposed in magisterial dignity about half way down his nose, and a large silver-headed cane in the left hand balanced the umbrella in the right. By the side of the man with rare vestments stood another figure of even more limpness of general bearing, whose garb consisted of a soldier's uniform pantaloons and woolen shirt--none too clean--set off by a black dress-coat, and white linen vest.
As the head of the column came up he in the blue broadcloth pulled off his hat and spectacles, and addressed himself to speech:
"Allow me, shir, to welcome you with hoshpitable hands to a bloody--no, let me tender you, shir, the liberties of our city, and reshoice shat she old banner which has braved she battle, hash---"
The column had stopped, and the Captain commanding the advance was listening patiently to what he supposed was the address of an enthusiastic, but eccentric old Kentuckian, when one of the sharp-eyed ones in the company shouted out:
"I declare, it's Kent Edwards and Abe Bolton."
The yell of laughter and applause at the ludicrous masquerade shook the hills. The Colonel rode up to see what occasioned it. He recognized his two men, and his face darkened with anger.
"You infernal rascals," he shouted, "you have been off plundering houses, have you, in place of being with your company. I'll stop this sort of thing mighty sudden. This regiment shall not degrade itself by plundering and robbing, if I have to shoot every man in it. Captain, arrest those men, and keep thim in close confinement until I can have them tried and properly punished."