The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter XVIII. Secret Service.
The flags of war like storm-birds fly, The charging trumpets blow, Yet rolls no thunder in the sky, No earthquake strives below. And calm and patient Nature keeps Her ancient promise well, Though o'er her bloom and greenness sweeps The battle's breath of hell. Ah! eyes may well be full of tears, And hearts with hate are hot, But even-paced come round the years, And Nature changes not.
The Summer and Fall of the "Battle Year" of 1862 had passed without the Army of the Cumberland--then called the Army of the Ohio--being able to bring its Rebel antagonist to a decisive struggle. In September the two had raced entirely across the States of Tennessee and Kentucky, for the prize of Louisville, which the Union army won. In October the latter chased its enemy back through Kentucky, without being able to inflict upon it more than the abortive blow at Perryville, and November found the two opponents facing each other in Middle Tennessee--the Army of the Cumberland at Nashville, and the Rebel Army of the Tennessee at Murfeesboro, twenty-eight miles distant. There the two equally matched giants lay confronting each other, and sullenly making ready for the mighty struggle which was to decide the possession of a territory equaling a kingdom in extent.
In the year which had elapsed since the affair at Wildcat Harry Glen's regiment had not participated in a single general engagement. It had scouted and raided; it had reconnoitered and guarded; it had chased guerrillas through the Winter's rain and mud for days and nights together; it had followed John Morgan's dashing troopers along limestone turnpikes that glowed like brick-kilns under the July sun until three-fourths of the regiment had dropped by the roadside in sheer exhaustion; it had marched over the mountains to Cumberland Gap, and back over the mountains to Lexington; across Kentucky and Tennessee to Huntsville, Ala., back across those States to the Ohio River, and again back across Kentucky to Nashville, beside side marches as numerous as the branches on a tree; 50 per cent. of its number had fallen vicitms to sickness and hardship, and 10 per cent. more had been shot, here and there, a man or two at a time, on the picket or skirmish line, at fords or stockades guarding railroad bridges. But while other regiments which had suffered nothing like it had painted on their banners "Mill Springs," "Shiloh," and "Perryville," its colors had yet to receive their maiden inscription. This was the hard luck of many of the regiments in the left wing of Buell's army in 1862.
Kent Edwards, whose promotion to the rank of Sergeant, and reduction for some escapade had been a usual monthly occurence during the year, was fond of saying that the regiment was not sent to the field to gain martial glory, but to train as book agents to sell histories of the struggle, "When This Cruel War is Over." Whereupon Abe Bolton would improve the occasion to invoke a heated future for every person in authority, from the President down to the Fifth Corporal.
But for all this the 400 hardy boys who still remained to answer roll-call, out of the 1,100 that had crossed the Ohio River in September, 1861, were as fine a body of fighting men as ever followed a flag, and there was no better soldier among them than Harry Glen. Every day had been a growth to him, and every trial had knit his spirit into firmer texture. For awhile he had made it a matter of conscience to take an active part in everything that his comrades were called upon to do. Soon this became a matter of pleasure, for the satisfaction of successfully leading them through difficulties and dangers more than compensated for the effort. But while he had vindicated himself in their estimation, he yet lacked that which the ordeal of a battle would give him at home, and more than all, in Rachel's eyes. He heard nothing from or of her, but he consoled himself with the hope that the same means by which she had been so promptly informed of his misstep, would convey to her an intimation of how well he was deserving her. When he gained his laurels he would himself lay them at her feet. Until then he could only hope and strive, cherishing all the while the love for her that daily grew stronger in his heart.
A patient in her ward, recovering from a fever, attracted Rachel's attention soon after her entrance upon duty at Nashville.
Womanly intuition showed her that no ordinary spirit slumbered underneath the usual mountaineer characteristics. The long, lank, black hair, the angular outlines, and the uncouth gestures were common enough among those around her, but she saw a latent fire in the usually dull and languid eyes, which transformed the man into one in whose brain and hand slept many possibilities that were liable to awaken at any moment. Still womanly, she could not help betraying this fact by singling him out as the recipient of many little attentions somewhat more special than those she bestowed on others.
On the other hand, often as she moved about the ward she would in turning discover his eyes fixed upon her movements with an expression of earnest study. After awhile the study seemed to show that it had been satisfactory, and one day, when the Surgeon had informed him that he was now in a condition to return to duty whenever he saw fit to do so, he asked Rachel:
"Kin I speak ter ye a moment in private, Miss?"
"Certainly," she replied. "Come right in here."
Entering the room he closed the door behind them, and made a minute survey of the windows, and other points of vantage for eavesdroppers. This done, he returned to where Rachel was watching his operations with much curiosity, and said:
"Let's set down. I guess no one'll overhear us, ef we're keerful.
"Hev ye enny idee who I am?" he asked abruptly, as they sat down on one of the rude benches with which the room was furnished.
"Not the slightest," she answered, "except that you appear on the roll as 'James Brown, No. 23,' no company or regiment given."
"Very good. D'ye reckon thet enny o' them in thar hev?"--pointing over his shoulder with his thumb to the ward.
"Of course I can not tell as to that. I never hear them say anything about you. They seem to think that you are one of the loyal East Tennesseans that are plentiful about here."
"I've been afeered fur the last few days that some uv 'em were Rebels in disguise, an' thet they sort o' suspicioned me. I hev seed two on 'em eyein' me mouty hard. One has a red head, an' 'tother a long black beard."
"I can perhaps set your anxiety at rest on that score. They are Southerners, but loyal ones. They were forced into the Rebel army, but made their escape at the first opportunity. They naturally watch every Southern-looking man with great interest, fearing that he may be an unpleasant acquaintance."
"Desarters from the Rebel army, be they? Thet makes me so'. I thot I'd seen 'em afore, an' this makes me sartin. They're mouty bad pills, an' they hain't heah fur no good. but whar did I see 'em? In some Rebel camp somewhar? No; now I remember. Ef I hain't powerfully fooled them's the two laddie-bucks thet Harry Glen an' me gobbled up one fine mornin' an' tuck inter Wildcat. They're bad aigs, ef ther ever war bad aigs."
"Harry Glen, did you say? What do you know of Harry Glen?" Her heart was in her mouth.
"What do I know of harry Glen? Why, jest heaps an' more yit. He's one o' the best men thet ever wore blue clotes. But thet's nuther heah nor thar. Thet hain't what I brung ye out heah ter talk on."
"Go on," said Rachel, resisting her eagerness to overwhelm him with questions concerning the one man of all the world she most desired to learn about. "I can spare you but little time."
"All right, Miss. Ter begin with, my name's not Brown. Nary a time. Hit's Fortner--Jim Fortner--the 'noted Scout,' ez I heered ye readin' 'bout 'tother day, when ye war givin' the boys the war news in the papers. I'm well-known ez a secret-sarvice man--tu well-known, I'm afeered. I could git 'long 'ithout quite ez menny 'quaintances ez I hev gethered up lately. More 'specially o' the kind, fur menny on 'em ar' only waitin' a good opportunity ter gin me a gran' interduction to 'tarnity. I'd ruther know fewer folks an' better ones, ez I wunst heered Harry Glen say."
"What do you know of---" Rachel started to say, but before she could finish the sentence Fortner resumed:
"I'm now 'bout ter start on the most 'portant work I ever done fur the Gover'mint. Things ar' ripenin' fast fur the orfulest battle ever fit in this ere co'ntry. Afore the Chrismuss snow flies this ere army'll fall on them thar Rebels 'round Murfressboro like an oak tree on a den o' rattlesnakes. Blood'll run like water in a Spring thaw, an' them fellers'll hev so menny fun'rals ter tend thet they won't hev no time for Chrismuss frolics. They've raced back an' forrard, an' dodged up an' down fur a year now, but they're at the eend uv ther rope, an' hit'll be a deth-nooze fur 'em. May the pit o' hell open fur 'em."
He watched Rachel's face closely as he spoke. She neither blanched nor recoiled, but her eyes lighted up as if with anticipation of the coming conflict, and she asked eagerly:
"O, are you only quite sure that our army will be victorious?"
His eyes shown with gratification.
"I knowed thet's the way ye'd take the news. I knowed the minit I sot eyes on ye thet ye war good grit. I never git fooled much in my guess o' people's backbone. Thar wuz Harry Glen--all his own comrades thot he wuz white 'bout the liver, but I seed the minit I laid my eyes onter him thet he hed ez good, stan'-up stuff in him ez ennybody, w'en he got over his fust flightiness."
Had this man some scheme that would bring her lover and her together? "But what do you want of me?" Rachel asked, with all the composure she could summon.
"Suthing a cussed sight more hon'rable an' more useful ter ther Gover'mint then stayin' 'round heah nussin' these loafers," he answered roughly. "Hist! thar's a shadder nigh yon winder." He crossed the room with the quick, silent tread of a panther, and his face darkened as he saw the objectionable red-headed and black-bearded men walking away toward the parade-ground, with their backs to the window. "Yer orful cute," he said talking to himself, and alluding to the retiring figures, "but ef I don't gin ye a trip afore long thet'll make yer heels break yer pizen necks I hope I may never see Rockassel Mountings agin. I'd do hit now, but I'm a-trailin' bigger game. When hit's my day fur killin' skunks look out--thet's all."
Returning to the expectant Rachel he continued:
"I leave ter-night fur the Rebel army at Murfreesboro. Ole Rosy hisself sends me, but I'm ter pick out the messengers ter send my news back ter him by. I must hev sev'ral so's ter make dead sho' thet ev'rything reaches 'im. I want ye fur the main one, becase ye've got brains an' san', and then ye kin git thru the lines whar a man can't. thar'll be nothin' bad 'bout hit. Ye'll ride ter Murfreesboro an' back on yer own hoss, ez a young lady should, an' if ye accomplish ennything hit'll be a greater sarvice tew the country then most men kin do in ther lives. Hit'll be sum'thing ter be proud of ez long's ye live. Will ye try hit?"
"Why don't you bring back the information yourself? Can't you come back through the lines as easily as you go?"
"I mout, an' then ag'in I moutn't. Every time I go inter the Rebel camps the chances get stronger thet I'll never come back ag'in. Ez Harry Glen sez, the circle o' my onpleasant acquaintances--the fellers thet's reachin' fur my top-knot--widens. Thar's so many more on 'em layin' fur me all the time, thet the prospects keeps gittin' brighter every day thet by-an'-by they'll fetch me. the arrant I'm a-gwine on now is too important ter take any resks 'bout. I'm sartin to git the information thet Gineral Rosy wants, but whether I kin git hit back ter him is ruther dubersome. I must hev 'some help. Will ye jine in with me?"
"But how am I to know that all this is as you say?"
"By readin' these 'ere passes, all signed by Gineral Rosencrans's own hand, or by takin' a walk with me up ter headquarters, whar they'll tell ye thet I'm all right, an' ez straight ez a string."
"But how can I do what you want? I know nothing of the country, nor the people, and still less of this kind of service. I would probably make a blunder that would spoil all."
"I'll resk the blunders. ye kin ride critter-back can't ye?"
Rachel owned that she was a pretty fair horse-woman.
"Then all ye hev ter do is ter git yerself up ez ye see the young women who are ridin' 'round heah, an' airly on the day arter to-morrow mornin', mount a blooded mar that ye'll find standin' afore the door thar, all rigged out ez fine ez silk, an' go down the Lavergne turnpike, at a sharp canter, jes ez though ye war gwine somewhar. Nobody on our lines 'll be likely ter say anything ter ye, but ef they do, ye'll show 'em a pass from Gineral Rosy, which, howsoever, ye 'll tar up afore ye reach Lavergne, fur ye 'll likely find some o' t' other folks thar. Ef any o' them at Lavergne axes ye imperent questions, ye must hev a story ready 'bout yer being the Nashville niece o' Aunt Debby Brill, who lives on the left hand o' the Nashville pike, jest north o' the public squar in Murfreesboro, an' ye 're on yer way ter pay yer ole Aunty a long-promised visit."
"there is such a woman in Murfreesboro?"
"Yes, an' she's talked a great deal 'bout her niece in Nashville, who's comin' ter see her. I thought"--the earnestness of the eyes relaxed to a suspicion of a twinkle--"thet sometime I mout come across sich a niece fur the ole lady, an' hit wuz well ter be prepared fur her."
"But suppose they ask me about things in Nashville?"
"W'll, ye must fix up a story 'bout thet too. Ye needn't be ver partickelar what hit is, so long's hit's awful savage on the Yankees. Be keerful ter say frequently thet the yankees is awful sick o' their job o' holdin' Nashville; that their new Dutch Gineral is a mean brute, an' a coward beside, thet he's skeered 'bout out'n his wits half the time, an' he's buildin' the biggest kind o' forts to hide behind, an' thet he won't dar show his nose outside o' them--leastways not this 'ere Winter. Talk ez much ez ye kin 'bout the sojers gwine inter Winter quarters; 'bout them being mortally sartin not ter do anything tell next Spring, an' 'bout them desartin' by rijimints an' brigades, an' gwine home, bekase they're sick an' tired o' the war."
"My," said Rachel, with a gasp, "what awful things to tell!"
"Yes," returned the scout complacently, "I s'posed hit'd strike you thet-a-way. But my experience with war is thet hit's jest plum full o' awful things. In fact hit don't seem ter hev much else in hit. All ye hev ter ax yerself is whether this is nigh on ter ez awful ez the the things they 'uns do to we 'uns. Besides, we 'uns are likely ter give they 'uns in a few days a heap more interestin' things ter think about then the remarkable stories told by young ladies out fur a mornin' ride."
"I'll take some hours to think this matter over," said Rachel, "and give you your answer this afternoon. That'll be time enough, will it not?"
"Heaps an' plenty, ma'am," he answered, as he rose to go. "She'll go," he added to himself. "I'm not fooled a mite on thet 'ere stock. I'll jest go to headquarters an' git things ready for her."
He was right. The prospect of doing an important service on a grand occasion was stimulous enough for Rachel's daring spirit, to make her undertake anything, and when Fortner returned in the afternoon he found her eager to set out upon the enterprise.
But as the evening came on with its depressing shadows and silence, she felt the natural reaction that follows taking an irrevocable step. The loneliness of her unlighted room was peopled with ghostly memories of the horrors inflicted upon spies, and of tales she had heard of the merciless cruelty of the Rebels among whom she was going. She had to hold her breath to keep from shrieking aloud at the terrors conjured up before her vision. Then the spasm passed, and braver thoughts reasserted themselves. Fortner's inadvertent words of praise of Harry Glen were recalled, and began glowing like pots of incense to sweeten and purify the choking vapors in her imagination.
Could it be that Harry had really retrieved himself? He had certainly gained the not-easily-won admiration of this brave man, and it had all been to render himself worthy of her! There was rapture in the thought. Then her own heroic aspirations welled up again, bringing intoxication at the prospect of ending the distasteful routine of nursing, by taking an active part in what would be a grand event of history. Fears and misgivings vanished like the mists of the morning. She thought only of how to accomplish her mission.
She lighted a candle and wrote four letters--one to her mother, one to Dr. Denslow, one to Harry Glen in care of his mother, and one to the Hospital Steward, asking him to mail the letters in case he did not receive any contrary request from her before the 10th of January.
She was too excited to sleep in the early part of the night, and busied her waking hours in packing her clothing and books, and maturing her plans.
She had much concern about her wardrobe. Never in all the days of her village belleship had she been so anxious to be well-dressed as now, when about to embark upon the greatest act of her life. She planned and schemed as women will in such times, and rising early the next morning she visited the stores in the city, and procured the material for a superb riding habit. A cutter form a fashionable establishment in Cincinnati was found in an Orderly Sergeant in one of the convalescent wards, and enough tailors responded to the call for such artisans, to give him all the help required. By evening she was provided with a habit that, in material and that sovereign but indescribable quality called "style," was superior to those worn by the young ladies who cantered about the streets of Nashville on clean-limbed throroughbreds.
As she stood surveying the exquisite "set" of the garment in such mirrors as she could procure, she said to herself quizzically:
"I feel now that the expedition is going to be a grand success. No woman could fail being a heroine in such an inspiration of dress. There is a moral support and encouragement about a perfectly made garment that is hardly equaled by a clear conscience and righteousness of motive."
The next morning she came forth from her room attired for the journey. A jaunty hat and feather sat gracefully above her face, to which excitement had given a striking animation. One trimly-gauntleted hand carried a dainty whip; the other supported the long skirts of her riding habit as she moved through the ward with such a newly-added grace and beauty that the patients, to whom her appearance had become familiar, raised in their beds to follow the lovely spectacle with their eyes, and then turned to each other to comment upon her beauty.
At the door she found an orderly, holding a spirited young mare, handsome enough for a Queen's palfrey, and richly caparisoned.
She sprang into the saddle and adjusted her seat with the easy grace of an accomplished horsewoman.
A squad of "Convalescents" standing outside, and a group of citizes watched her with an admiration too palpable for her to be unconscious of it.
She smiled pleasantly upon the soldiers, and gave them a farewell bow as she turned the mare's head away, to which they responded with cheers.
A few hundred yards further, where an angle in the street would take her from their view, she turned around again and waved her handkerchief to them. The boys gave her another ringing cheer, with waving hats and handkerchiefs; her steed broke into a canter and she disappeared from view.
"Where is she going?" asked one of the soldiers.
"I don't know," responded another gallantly; "but wherever it is, it will be better than here, just because she's there."
The sight of an orderly, coming with the morning mail, ended the discussion by scattering the squad in a hurry.
Rachel cantered on, her spirits rising continually.
It was a bright, crisp morning--a Tennessee Winter morning--when the air is as wine to the blood, and sets every pulse to leaping. Delicate balsamic scents floated down from groves of shapely cedars. Gratefully-astringent odors were wafted from the red oaks, ranked upon the hillsides and still covered with their leaves, now turned bright-brown, making them appear like serried phalanges of giant knights, clad in rusted scale armor. The spicy smell of burning cedar rose on the lazily-curling smoke from a thousand camp-fires. The red-berried holly looked as fresh and bright as rose-bushes in June, and the magnolias still wore their liveries of Spring. The sun shone down with a tender fervor, as if wooing the sleeping buds and flowers to wake from a slumber of which he had grown weary, and start with him again through primrose paths on the pilgrimage of blossoming and fruitage.
Rachel's nostrils expanded, and she drank deeply of the exhilarating draughts of mountain air, with its delicious woodsy fragrance. Her steed did the same, and the hearts of both swelled with the inspiration.
Away she sped over the firm, smooth Murfreesboro Pike, winding around hillsides and through valleys filled with infantry, cavalry and artillery, through interminable masses of wagons, hers of braying mules, and crowds of unarmed soldiers trudging back to Nashville, on leave of absence, to spend the day seeing the sights of the historic Tennessee capital. In the camps the soldiers were busy with evergreen and bunting, and the contents of boxes received from the North, preparing for the celebration of Christmas in something like the manner of the old days of home and peace.
Like the sweet perfume of rose-attar from a bundle of letters unwittingly stirred in a drawer, rose the fragrant memory of the last of those Christmases in Sardis before the war, when winged on he scent of evergreens, and the merry laughter of the church decorators, came to her the knowledge that she had found a lodgment in the heart of Harry Glen.
Was memory juggling with her senses, or was that really his voice she heard in command, in a field to her left? She turned a swift, startled look in that direction, and saw a Sergeant marching a large squad at quick time to join a heavy "detail." His back was toward her, but his figure and bodily carriage were certainly those of Harry Glen. But before she could make certain the squad was merged with the "detail," to the obliteration of all individuality, and the whole mass disappeared around the hill.
She rode on to the top of the rim of hills which encircle that most picturesque of Southern cities, and stopped for a moment for a farewell to the stronghold of her friends, whose friendly cover she was abandoning to venture, weak and weaponless, into the camp of her enemies.
Above her the great black guns of a heavy fort pointed their sinister muzzles down the Murfreesboro road, with fearful suggestiveness of the dangers to be encountered there.
She remembered Lot's wife, but could not resist the temptation to take a one backward look. She saw as grand a landscape picture as the world affords.
Serenely throned upon the hill that dominated the whole of the lovely valley of the Cumberland, stood the beautiful Capitol of Tennessee.
Ionic porticos and graceful Corinthian columns of dazzling white limestone rose hundreds of feet above the fountains and magnolia-shaded terraces that crowned the hill--still more hundreds of feet above the densely packed roofs and spires of the city crowded upon the hill's rocky sides. It was like some fine and pure old Greek temple, standing on a romantic headland, far above the murk and toil of sordid striving. But over the symmetrical pile floated a banner that meant to the world all that was signified even by the banners which Greece folded and laid away in eternal rest thousands of years ago.
At the foot of the hill the Cumberland, clear as when it descended from its mountains five hundred miles away, flowed between its high, straight walls of limestone, spanned by cobweb-like bridges, and bore on its untroubled breast a great fleet of high-chimneyed, white-sided transports, and black, sullen gunboats. Miles away to her left she saw the trains rushing into Nashville, unrolling as they came along black and white ribbons against the sky.
"They're coming from the North," she said, with an involuntary sigh; "they're coming from home."
She touched her mare's flank with the whip and sped on.
She soon reached the outer line of guards, by whom she was halted, with a demand for her pass.
She produced the one furnished her, which was signed by Gen. Rosencrans. While the Sergeant was inspecting it it occured to her that now was the time to begin the role of a young woman with rebellious proclivities.
"Is this the last guard-line I will have to pass?" she asked.
"Yes'm," answered the Sergeant.
"You're quite sure?"
"Then I won't have any further use for this--thing?" indicating the pass, which she received back with fine loathing, as if it were something infectious.
"Yes'm, quite sure."
She rode over to the fire around which part of the guard were sitting, held the pass over it by the extremest tips of her dainty thumb and forefinger, and then dropped it upon the coals, as if it were a rag from a small-pox hospital. Glancing at her finger-tips an instant, as if they had been permanently contaminated by the scrawl of the Yankee General, she touched her nag, and was off like an arrow without so much as good day to the guards.
"She-cesh--clean to her blessed little toe-nails," said the Sergeant, gazing after her meditatively, as he fished around in his pouch for a handful of Kinnikinnick, to replenish his pipe, "and she's purtier'n a picture, too."
"Them's the kind that's always the wust Rebels," said the oracle of the squad, from his seat by the fire. "I'll bet she's just loaded down with information or ouinine. Mebbe both."
She was now fairly in the enemy's country, and her heart beat faster in momentary expectation of encountering some form of the perils abounding there. But she became calm, almost joyous, as she passed through mile after mile of tranquil landscape. The war might as well have been on the other side of the Atlantic for any hint she now saw of it in the peaceful, sun-lit fields and woods, and streams of crystal spring-water. She saw women busily engaged in their morning work about all the cabins and houses. With bare and sinewy arms they beat up and down in tiresomely monotonous stroke the long-handled dashers of cedar churns standing in the wide, open "entries" of the "double-houses;" they arrayed their well-scalded milk crocks and jars where the sun's rays would still further sweeten them; they plied swift shuttles in the weaving sheds; they toiled over great, hemispherical kettles of dye-stuffs or soap, swinging from poles over open fires in the yard; they spread out long webs of jeans and linen on the grass to dry or bleach, and all the while they sang--sang the measured rhythm of familiar hymns in the high soprano of white women--sang wild, plaintive lyrics in the liquid contralto of negresses. Men were repairing fences, and doing other Winter work in the fields, and from the woods came the ringing staccato of choppers. She met on the road leisurely-traveling negro women, who louted low to her, and then as she passed, turn to gaze after her with feminine analysis and admiration for every detail of her attire. Then came "Uncle Tom" looking men, driving wagons loaded with newly-riven rails, breathing the virile pungency of freshly-cut oak. Occasionally an old white man or woman rode by, greeting her with a courteous "Howdy?"
The serenity everywhere intoxicated her with a half-belief that the terrible Rebel army at Murfreesboro was only a nightmare of fear-oppressed brains, and in her relief she was ready to burst out in echo of a triumphant hymn ringing from a weaving-shed at her right.
Her impulse was checked by seeing approach a figure harshly dissonant to Arcadian surroundings.
It was a young man riding a powerful roan horse at an easy gallop, and carrying in his hand, ready for instant use, a 16-shooting Henry rifle. He was evidently a scout, but, as was usual with that class, his uniform was so equally made up of blue and gray that it was impossible to tell to which side he belonged. He reined up as he saw Rachel, and looked at her for a moment in a way that chilled her. They were now on a lonely bit of road, out of sight and hearing of any person or house. All a woman's fears rose up in her heart, but she shut her lips firmly, and rode directly toward the scout. Another thought seemed to enter his mind, he touched his horse up with his heel, and rode by her, saying courteously:
"Good morning, Miss," but eyeing her intently as they passed. She returned the salutation with a firm voice, and rode onward, but at a little distance could not resist the temptation to turn and look backward. To her horror the scout had stopped, half-turned his horse, and was watching her as if debating whether or not to come back after her. She yielded to the impulse of fear, struck her mare a stinging blow, and the animal flew away.
Her fright subsided as she heard no hoof-beats following her, and when she raised her eyes, she saw that she was approaching the village of Lavergne, half-way to Murfreesboro, and that a party of Rebel cavalry were moving toward her. She felt less tremor at this first sight of the armed enemy than she had expected, after her panic over the scout, and rode toward the horsemen with perfect outward, and no little inward composure.
The Lieutenant in command raised his hat with the greatest gallantry.
"Good morning, Miss. From the city, I suppose?" he inquired.
"Yes," she answered in tones as even as if speaking in a parlor; "fortunately, I am at last from the city. I have been trying to get away ever since it seemed hopeless that our people would not redeem it soon."
The conversation thus opened was carried on by Rachel giving copious and disparaging information concerning the "Yankees," and the Lieutenant listening in admiration to the musical accents, interrupting but rarely to interject a question or a favorable comment. He was as little critical as ardent young men are apt to be of the statements of captivating young women, and Rachel's spirits rose as she saw that the worst she had to fear from this enemy was an excess of devotioni. The story of her aunt at Murfreesboro received unhesitating acceptance, and nothing but imperative scouting orders prevented his escorting her to the town. He would, however, send a non-commissioned officer with her, who would see that she was not molested by any one. He requested permission to call upon her at her aunt's, which Rachel was compelled to grant, for lack of any ready excuse for such a contingency. With this, and many smiles and bows, they parted.
All the afternoon she rode through camps of men in gray and butternut, as she had ridden through those of men in blue in the morning. In these, as in the others, she heard gay songs, dance music and laughter, and saw thousands of merry boys rollicking in the sunshine at games of ball and other sports, with the joyous earnestness of a school-house playground. She tried, but in vain, to realize that in a few days these thoughtless youths would be the demons of the battle-field.
Just before dusk she came to the top of a low limestone ridge, and saw, three miles away, the lights of Murfreesboro. At that moment Fortner appeared, jogging leisurely toward her, mounted on a splendid horse.
"O there's my Cousin Jim!" she exclaimed gleefully, "coming to meet me. Sergeant, I am deeply obliged to you and to your Lieutenant, for your company, and I will try to show my appreciation of it in the future in some way more substantial than words. You need not go any farther with me. I know that you and your horse are very tired. Good by."
The Sergeant was only too gald of this release, which gave him an opportunity to get back to camp, to enjoy some good cheer that he knew was there, and bidding a hasty good-night, he left at a trot.
Fortner and Rachel rode on slowly up the pike, traversing the ground that was soon to run red with the blood of thousands.
They talked of the fearful probabilities of the next few days, and halted for some minutes on the bridge across Stone River, to study the wonderfully picturesque scene spread out before them. The dusk was just closing down. The scowling darkness seemed to catch around woods and trees and houses, and grow into monsters of vast and somber bulk, swelling and spreding like the "gin" which escaped from the copper can, in the "Arabian Nights," until they touched each other, coalesced and covered the whole land. Far away, at the edge of the valley, the tops of the hills rose, distinctly lighted by the last rays of the dying day, as if some strip of country resisting to the last the invasion of the dark monsters.
A half-mile in front of the bridge was the town of Murfreesboro. Bright lights streamed from thousands of windows and from bonfires in the streets. Church bells rang out the glad acclaim of Christmas from a score of steeples. The happy voices of childhood singing Christmas carols; the laughter of youths and maidens strolling arm in arm through the streets; the cheery songs of merry-making negroes; silver-throated bands, with throbbing drums and gently-complaining flutes, playing martial airs; long lines of gleaming camp-fires, stretching over the undulating valley and rising hills like necklaces of burning jewels on the breast of night,--this was what held them silent and motionless.
Rachel at last spoke:
"It is like a scene of enchantment. It is more wonderful than anything I ever read of."
"Yes'm, hit's mouty strikin' now, an' when ye think how hit'll all be changed in a little while ter more misery then thar is this side o' hell, hit becomes all the more strikin'. Hit seems ter me somethin' like what I've heered 'em read 'bout in the Bible, whar they went on feastin' an' singin', an' dancin' an' frolickin', an' the like, an' at midnight the inimy broke through the walls of ther city, an' put 'em all ter the sword, even while they wuz settin' round thar tables, with ther drinkin' cups in ther hands."
"To think what a storm is about to break upon this scene of happiness and mirth-making!" said Rachel, with a shudder.
"Yes, an' they seem ter want ter do the very things thet'll show ther contempt o' righteousness, an' provoke the wrath o' the Lord. Thar, where ye see thet house, all lit up from the basement ter the look-out on the ruf, is whar one o' the most 'ristocratic families in all Tennessee lives. There datter is bein' married to-night, an' Major-Gineral Polk, the biggest gun in all these 'ere parts, next ter ole Bragg, an' who is also 'Piscopalian Bishop o' Tennessee, does the splicin'. They've got ther parlors, whar they'll dance, carpeted with 'Merican flags, so thet the young bucks an' gals kin show ther despisery of the banner thet wuz good enough for ther fathers, by trampin' over hit all night. But we'll show hit ter 'em in a day or two whar they won't feel like cuttin' pigeon-wings over hit. Ye jes stand still an' see the salvation o' the Lord."
"I hope we will," said Rachel, her horror of the storm that was about to break giving away to indignation at the treatment of her country's flag. "Shan't we go on? My long ride has made me very tired and very hungry, and I know my horse is the same."
Shortly after crossing the river they passed a large tent, with a number of others clustered around it. All were festooned with Rebel flags, and brilliantly lighted. A band came up in front of the principal one and played the "Bonnie Blue Flag."
"Thet's ole Gineral Bragg's headquarters," explained Fortner. "He's the king bee of all the Rebels in these heah parts, an' they think he kin 'bout make the sun stand still ef he wants ter."
They cantered on into the town, and going more slowly through the great public square and the more crowded streets, came at last to a modest house, standing on a corner, and nearly hidden by vines and shrubbery.
A peculiar knock caused the door to open quickly, and before Rachel was hardly aware of it, she was standing inside a comfortable room, so well lighted that her eyes took some little time to get used to such a change.
When they did so she saw that she was in the presence of a slender, elderly woman, whose face charmed her.
"This is yer Aunt Debby Brill," said Fortner, dryly, "who ye came so fur ter see, an' who's bin 'spectin' ye quite anxiously."
"Ye're very welcome, my dear," said Aunt Debby, after a moment's inspection which seemed to be entirely satisfactory. "Jest lay off yer things thar on the bed, an' come out ter supper. I know ye're sharp-set. A ride from Nashville sech a day ez this is mouty good for the appetite, an' we've hed supper waitin' ye."
Hastily throwing off her hat and gloves, she sat down with the rest, to a homely but excellent supper, which they all ate in silence. During the meal a muscular, well knit man of thirty entered.
"All clar, outside, Bill?" asked Fortenr.
"All clar," replied the man. "Everybody's off on a high o' some kind."
Bill sat down and ate with the rest, until he satisfied his hunger, and then rising he felt along the hewed logs which formed the walls, until he found a splinter to serve as a tooth-pick. Using this for a minute industriously, he threw it into the fire and asked:
"Well," answered Fortner. "I reckon hit's ez sartin ez anything kin well be thet Wheeler's and Morgan's cavalry hez been sent off inter Kentucky, and ez thet's what Ole rosy's been waitin' fur, now's the time fur him ter put in his best licks. Ye'd better start afore midnight fur Nashville. Ye'll hev this news, an' alos thet thar's been no change in the location o' the Rebels, 'cept thet Polk's an' Kirby Smith's corps are both heah at Murfreesboro, with a strong brigade at Stewart's creek, an' another at Lavergne. Ye'd better fallin with Boscall's rijiment, which'll go out ter Lavergne to-night, ter relieve one o' the rijiments thar. Ye'd better not try to git back heah ag'in tell arter the battle. Good by. God bless ye. Miss, ye'd better git ter bed now, ez soon ez possible, an' rest yerself fur what's comin'. We'll need every mite an' grain of our strength."