The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter XIX. The Battle of Stone River.
O, wherefore come ye forth, in triumph from the North, With your hands and your feet, and your raiment all red? And wherefore doth your rout, send forth a joyous shout? And whence be the grapes of the wine-press that ye tread? O, evil was the root, and bitter was the fruit, And crimson was the juice of the vintage that we tred; For we trampled on the throng, of the haughty and the strong, Who sat in the high places and slew the saints of God. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * They are here--they rush on--we are broken--we are gone-- Our left is borne before them like stubble in the blast. O, Lord, put forth thy might! O, Lord, defend the right! Stand back to back, in God's name! and fight it to the last. --"Battle of Naseby."
The celebration of Christmas in the camps around Nashville was abruptly terminated by the reception of orders to march in the morning, with full haversacks and cartridge-boxes. The next day all the roads leading southward became as rivers flowing armed men. Endless streams of blue, thickly glinted everywhere with bright and ominous steel, wound around the hills, poured over the plains, and spread out into angry lakes wherever a Rebel outpost checked the flow for a few minutes.
Four thousand troopers under the heroic Stanley--the foam-crest on the war-billow--dashed on in advance. Twelve thousand steadily-moving infantry under the luckless McCook, poured down the Franklin turnpike, miles away to the right; twelve thousand more streamed down the Murfreesboro pike on the left, with the banner of the over-weighted Crittenden, while grand old Thomas, he whose trumpets never sounded forth retreat, but always called to victory, moved steadfast as a glacier in the center, with as many more, a sure support and help to those on either hand.
The mighty war-wave rolling up the broad plateau of the Cumberland was fifteen miles wide now. It would be less than a third of that when it gathered itself together for its mortal dash upon the rocks of rebellion at Murfreesboro.
It was Friday morning that the wave began rolling southward. All day Friday, and Saturday, and Sunday, and Monday it rolled steadily onward, sweeping before it the enemy's pickets and outposts as dry sand by an incoming tide. Monday evening the leading divisions stood upon the ridge where Rachel and Fortner had stood, and looked as they did upon the lights of Murfreesboro, two miles away.
"Two days from to-morrow is New Year's," said Kent Edwards. "Dear Festival of Egg-Nogg! how sweet are thy memories. I hope the Tennessee hens are doing their duty this Winter, so that we'll have no trouble finding eggs when we get into Murfreesboro to-morrow."
"We are likely to be so busy tendering the compliments of the season to Mr. Bragg," said Harry, lightly, "that we will probably have but little time to make calls upon the lady-hens who keep open nests."
"We all may be where we'll need lots o' cold water more than anything else," said Abe grimly.
"Well," said Kent blithely, "if I'm to be made a sweet little angel I don't know any day that I would rather have for my promotion to date from. It would have a very proper look to put in the full year here on earth, and start in with the new one in a world of superior attractions."
"Well, I declare, if here isn't Dr. Denslow," said Harry, delightedly, as he recognized a horsemna, who rode up to them. "How did you come here? We thought you were permanently stationed at the grand hospital."
"So I was," replied the Doctor. "So I was, at least so far as general orders could do it. But I felt that I could not be away from my boys at this supreme moment, an I am here, though the irregular way in which I detached myself from my post may require explanation at a court-martial. Anyhow, it is a grateful relief to be away from the smell of chloride of lime, and get a breath of fresh air that is not mingled with the groans of a ward-full of sick men. It looks," he continued, with a comprehensive glance at the firmament of Rebel camp-fires that made Murfreesboro seem the center of a ruddy Milky-way, "as if the climax is at last at hand. Bragg, like the worm, will at last turn, and after a year of footraces we'll have a fight which will settle who is the superfluous cat in this alley. There is certainly one too many."
"The sooner it comes the better," said Harry firmly. "It has to be sometime, and I'm getting very anxious for an end to this eternal marching and countermarching."
"My winsome little feet," Kent Edwards put in plaintively, "are knobby as a burglar-proof safe, with corns and bunions, all of them more tender than a maiden's heart, and painful as a mistake in a poker hand. They're the ripe fruit of the thousands of miles of side hills I've had to tramp over because of Mr. Bragg's retiring disposition. Now, if he's got the spirit of a man he'll come out from under the bed and fight me."
"O, he'll come out--he'll come out--never you fear," said Abe, sardonic as usual. "He's got a day or two's leisure now to attend to this business. A hundred thousand of him will come out. They'll swarm out o' them cedar thickets there like grass-hoppers out of a timothy field."
"Boys," said Harry, returning after a few minutes' basence, "the Colonel says we'll go into camp right here, just as we stand. Kent, I'll take the canteens and hunt up water, if you and Abe will break some cedar boughs for the bed, and get the wood to cook supper with."
"All right," responded Kent, "I'll go after the boughs."
"That puts me in for the wood," grumbled Abe. "And, I don't suppose there's a fence inside of a mile, and if there is there's not a popular rail in it."
"And, Doctor," continued Harry, flinging the canteens over his shoulder, "you'll stay and take a cup of coffee and sleep with us to-night, won't you? The trains are all far behind, and the hospital wagon must be miles away."
"Seems to me that I've heard something of the impropriety of visiting your friends just about mealtime," said the Doctor quizzically, "but a cup of coffee just now has more charms for me than rigid etiquette, so I'll thankfully accept your kind invitation. Some day I'll reciprocate with liberality in doses of quinine."
In less time than that taken by well-appointed kitchens to furnish "Hot Meals to Order" the four were sitting on their blankets around a comfortable fire of rails and cedar logs, eating hard bread and broiled fat pork, and drinking strong black coffee, which the magic of the open air had transmuted into delightfully delicate and relishable viands.
"You are indebted to me," said Dr. Denslow, as he finished the last crumb and drop of his portion of the food, "for the accession to your company at this needful time, of a tower of strength in the person of Lieutenant Jacob Alspaugh."
Abe groaned; the Doctor looked at him with well-feigned astonishment, and continued:
"That gore-hungry patriot, as you know, has been home several months on recruiting duty, by virtue of a certificate which he wheedled out of old Moxon. At last, when he couldn't keep away any longer, he started back, but he carefully restrained his natural impetuosity in rushing to the tented field, and his journey from Sardis to Nashville was a fine specimen of easy deliberation. There was not a sign of ungentlemanly hurry in any part of it. He came into my ward at Nashville with violent symptoms of a half-dozen speedily fatal diseases. I was cruel enough to see a coincidence in this attack and the general marching orders, and I prescribed for his ailments a thorough course of open air exercise. To be sure that my prescription would be taken I had the Provost-Marshal interest himself in my patient's case, and the result was that Alspaugh joined the regiment, and so far has found it difficult to get away from it. It's the unexpected that happens, the French say, and there is a bare possibility that he may do the country some service by the accidental discharge of his duty."
"The possibility is too remote to waste time considering," said Harry.
They lay down together upon a bed made by spreading their overcoats and blankets upon the springy cedar boughts, and all but Harry were soon fast asleep. Though fully as weary as they he could not sleep for hours. He was dominated by a feeling that a crisis in his fate was at hand, and as he lay and looked at the stars every possible shape that that fate could take drifted across his mind, even as the endlessly-varying cloud-shapes swept--now languidly, now hurriedly--across the domed sky above him. And as the moon and the stars shone through or around each of the clouds, making the lighter ones masses of translucent glory, and gilding the edges of even the blackest with silvery promise, so the thoughts of Rachel Bond suffused with some brightness every possible happening to him. If he achieved anything the achievement would have for its chief value that it won her commendation; if he fell, the blackness of death would be gilded by her knowledge that he died a brave man's death for her sweet sake.
He listened awhile to the mournful whinny of the mules; to the sound of artillery rolling up the resonant pike; to the crashing of newly-arrived regiments through the cedars as they made their camps in line-of-battle; to little spurts of firing between the nervous pickets, and at last fell asleep to dream that he was returning to Sardis, maimed but honor-crowned, to claim Rachel as his exultant bride.
The Christmas forenoon was quite well-advanced before the fatigue of Rachel Bond's long ride was sufficiently abated to allow her to awaken. Then a soft hum of voices impressed itself upon her drowsy senses, and she opened her eyes with the idea that there were several persons in the room engaged in conversation. But she saw that there was only Aunt Debby, seated in a low rocking-chair by the lazily burning fire, and reading aloud from a large Bible that lay open upon her knees. The reading was slow and difficult, as of one but little used to it, and many of the longer words were patiently spelled out. But this labored picking the way along the rugged path of knowledge, stumbling and halting at the nouns, and verbs, and surmounting the polysyllables a letter at a time, seemed to give the reader a deeper feeling of the value and meaning of each word, than is usually gained by the more facile scholar. As Rachel listened she became aware that Aunt Debby was reading that wonderful twelfth chapter of St. Luke, richest of all chapters in hopes and promises and loving counsel for the lowly and oppressed. She had reached the thirty-fifth verse, and read onward with a passionate earnestness and understanding that made every word have a new revelation to Rachel:
"Let your loins be girded up, and your lights burning;
"And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh they may open unto him immediately.
"Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching; verily I say unto you that he shall gird himself and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
"And if ye shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and shall find them so, blessed are those servants.
"And this now that if the good man of the house had known what the hour the thief would come he would have watched, and not suffered his house to be broken through.
"Be ye therefore ready also, for the Son of Man cometh at an hour when ye think not."
Rachel stirred a little, and Aunt Debby looked up and closed the book.
"I'm afeared I've roused ye up too soon," she said, coming toward the bed with a look of real concern upon her sad, sweet face. "I raylly didn't intend ter. I jest opened the book ter read teh promise 'bout our Father heedin' even a sparrer's fall, an' forgot 'bout our Father heedin' even a sparrer's fall, an' forgot, an' read on; an' when I read, I must read out loud, ter git the good of hit. Some folks pretend they kin understand jest ez well when they read ter themselves. Mebbe they kin."
"O, no," replied Rachel cheerfully, "you didn't disturb me in the least. It was time that I got up, and I was glad to hear you read. I'm only troubled with the fear that I've overslept myself, and missed the duty that I was intended for."
"Make yourself easy on that 'ere score. Ye'll not be needed to-day, nor likely to-morrow. Some things hev come up ter change Jim's plans."
"I am very sorry," said Rachel, sitting up in the bed and tossing back her long, silken mane with a single quick, masterful motion. "I wished to go immediately about what I am expected to do. I can do anything better than wait."
Aunt Debby came impulsively to the bedside, threw an arm around Rachel's neck, and kissed her on the forehead. "I love ye, honey," she said with admiring tenderness. "Ye' 're sich ez all women orter be. Ye 'll make heroes of yer husband and sons. Ye 've yit ter l'arn though, thet the most of a woman's life, an' the hardest part of hit, is ter wait."
In her fervid state of mind Rachel responded electrically to this loving advance, made at the moment of all others when she felt most in need of sympathy and love. She put her strong arms around Aunt Debby, and held her for a moment close to her heart. From that moment the two women became of one accord. Womanlike, they sought relief from their high tension in light, irrelevant talk and care for the trifling details of their surroundings. Aunt Debby brought water and towels for Rachel's toilet, and fluttered around her, solicitous, helpful and motherly, and Rachel, weary of long companionship with men, delighted in the restfulness of association once more with a gentle, sweet-minded woman.
The heavy riding-habit was entirely too cumbersome for indoor wear, and Rachel put on instead one of Aunt Debby's "linsey" gowns, that hung from a peg, and laughed at the prim, demure mountain girl she saw in the glass. After a good breakfast had still farther raised her spirits she ventured upon a little pleasantry about the dramatic possibilities of a young lady who couls assume different characters with such facility.
The day passed quietly, with Rachel studying such of the Christmas festivities as were visible from the window, and from time to time exchanging personal history with Aunt Debby. She learned that the latter had left her home in Rockcastle Mountains with the Union Army in the previous Spring, and gone on to Chattanooga, to assist her nephew, Fortner, in obtaining the required information when Mitchell's army advanced against that place in the Summer. When the army retreated to the Ohio, in September, she had come as far back as Murfreesboro, and there stopped to await the army's return, which she was confident would not be long delayed.
"How brave and devoted you have been," said Rachel warmly, as Aunt Debby concluded her modestly-told story. "No man could have done better."
"No, honey," replied the elder woman, with her wan face coloring faintly, "I've done nothin' but my plain duty, ez I seed hit. I've done nothin' ter what they would've done had n't they been taken from me afore they had a chance. Like one who speaks ter us in the Book, I've been in journeyin's often, in peril of robbers, in perils of mine own countrymen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in weariness an' painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger an' thirst, in fastings often, in cold an' nakedness, but he warns us not ter glory in these things, but in those which consarn our infirmities."
"How great should be your reward!"
"Don't speak of reward. I only want my freedom when I've 'arned hit--the freedom ter leave an 'arth on which I've been left behind, an' go whar my husband an' son are waitin' fur me."
She rose and paced the floor, with her face and eyes shining.
"Have you no fear of death whatever?" asked Rachel in amazement.
"Fear of death! Child, why should I fear death? Why should I fear death, more than the unborn child fears birth? Both are the same. Hit can't be fur ter thet other world whar they wait fur me. Hit is not even ez a journey ter the next town--hit's only one little step though the curtain o' green grass an' violets on a sunny hillside--only one little step."
She turned abruptly, and going back to her chair by the fireside, seated herself in it, and clasping her knees with her hands, rocked back and forth, and sang in a low, sweet croon:
"Oh, the rapturous, transporting scene, That rises ter my sight; Sweet fields arrayed in livin' green, An' rivers of delight. "All o'er those wide, extended plains Shines one eternal day; Thar God, the Son, forever reigns, An scatters night away. "No chillin' winds or poisonous breath Kin reach thet healthful shore; Sickness an' sorrow, pain an' death, Are felt an' feared no more."
After dark Fortner came in. Both women studied his face eagerly as he walked up to the fire.
"Nothin' yet, honey," he said to Aunt Debby, and "Nothin' yet, Miss," to Rachel, and after a little stay went out.
When Rachel awoke the next morning the sky was lowering darkly. On going to the window she found a most depressing change from the scene of bright merriment she had studied the night before. A chill Winter rain was falling with dreary persistence, pattering on the dead leaves that covered the ground, and soaking into the sodden earth. A few forlorn little birds hopped wearily about, searching in vain in the dry husks and empty insect shells for the food that had once been so plentiful there. Up and down the streets, as far as she could see, men in squads or singly, under officers or without organization, plodded along dejectedly, taking the cold drench from above, and the clinging mud around their feet, with the dumb, stolid discontent characteristic of seasoned veterans. When mules and horses went by they seemed poor and shrunken. They drew their limbs and bodies together, as if to present the least surface to the inclement showers, and their labored, toilsome motion contrasted painfully with their strong, free movement on brighter days. Everything and everybody in sight added something to increase the dismalness of the view, and as Rachel continued to gaze upon it the "horrors" took possession of her. She began to brood wretchedly over her position as a spy inside the enemy's lines, and upon all the consequences of that position.
It was late that night when Fortner came in. As he entered the two expectant women saw, by the ruddy light of the fire, that his face was set and his eyes flashing. He hung his dripping hat on a peg in the chimney, and kicked the blazing logs with his wet boots until a flood of meteor sparks flew up the throat of the fireplace. Turning, he said, without waiting to be questioned:
"Well, the hunt's begun at last. Our folks came out'n Nashville this morning in three big armies, marchin' on different roads, an they begun slashin' at the Rebels wherever they could find 'em. Thar's been fouten at Triune an' Lavergne, an' all along the line. They histed the Rebels out'n ther holes everywhar, an' druv' em back on the jump. Wagon load arter wagon load o' wounded's comin' back. I come in ahead of a long train agwine ter the hospital. Hark! ye kin heah 'em now."
The women listened.
They heard the ceaseless patter and swish of the gloomy rain--the gusty sighs of the wind through the shade-trees' naked branches--louder still the rolling of heavy wheels over the rough streets; and all these were torn and rent by the shrieks of men in agony.
"Poor fellows," said Rachel, "how they are suffering!"
"Think ruther," said Aunt Debby calmly, "of how they've made others suffer. Hit's God's judgement on 'em."
Rachel turned to Fortner. "What will come next? Will this end it? Will the Rebels fall back and leave this place?"
"Hardly. This's on'y like the fust slap in the face in a fight atween two big savage men, who've locked horns ter see which is the best man. Hit's on'y a sorter limberin' the jints fur the death rassel."
"Yes; and what next?"
"Well, Rosy's started fur this 'ere place, an' he's bound ter come heah. Bragg's bound he sha'n't come heah, an' is gittin' his men back to defend the town."
"What am I--what are we to do in the meanwhile?"
"Ye're ter do nothin', on'y stay in the house ez close ez ye kin, an' wait tell the chance comes ter use ye. Hit may be ter-morrer, an' hit mayn't be fur some days. These army moves are mouty unsartin. Aunt Debby 'll take keer on ye, an' ye 'll not be in a mite o' danger."
"But we'll see you frequently?"
"Ez offen ez I kin arrange hit. I'm actin' ez orderly an' messenger 'bout headquarters, but I'll come ter ye whenever I kin git a chance, an' keep ye posted."
This was Friday night. All day Saturday, as long as the light lasted, Rachel stood at the window and watched with sinking heart the steady inflow of the Rebels from the north. That night she and Aunt Debby waited till midnight for Fortner, but he did not come. All day Sunday she stood at her post, and watched the unabated pouring-in on the Nashville pike. Fortner did not come that night. She was downcast, but no shade disturbed the serenity of Aunt Debby's sweet hymning. So it was again on Monday and Tuesday. The continually-swarming multitudes weighed down her spirits like a millstone. She seemed to be encompassed by millions of armed enemies. They appeared more plentiful than the trees, or the rocks, or the leaves even. They filled the streets of the little town until it seemed impossible for another one to find standing room. Their cavalry blackened the faces of the long ranges of hills. Their artillery and wagons streamed along the roads in a never-ending train. Their camp-fires lighted up the country at night for miles, in all directions.
Just at dusk Tuesday night Fortner came in, and was warmly welcomed.
"There are such countless hosts of the Rebels," Rachel said to him after the first greetings were over, "that I quite despair of our men being able to do anything with them. It seems impossible that there can be gathered together anywhere else in the world as many men as they have."
"I don't wonder ye think so, but ef ye'd been whar I wuz to-day ye'd think thet all the world wuz marchin' round in blue uniforms. Over heah hit seems ez ef all the cedars on the hills hed suddintly turned inter Rebel soldiers. Three miles from heah the blue-coats are swarmin' thicker'n bees in a field o' buckwheat."
"Three miles from here! Is our army within three miles of here?"
"Hit sartinly is, an' the Lord-awfullest crowd o' men an' guns an' hosses thet ever tromped down the grass o' this ere airth. Why, hit jest dazed my eyes ter look at 'em. Come ter this other winder. D' ye see thet furtherest line o' campfires, 'way on yander hill? Well, them's Union. Ef ye could see far enuf ye'd see they're 'bout five miles long, an' they look purtier'n the stars in heaven."
"But if they are so close the battle will begin immediately, will it not?"
"Hit ain't likely ter be put off very long, but thar's no tellin' what'll happen in war, or when."
"When is my time to come?"
"Thet's what I've come furt ter tell ye. Ef we're agwine ter be of sarvice ter the Guv'ment, we must do hit to-night, fur most likely the battle'll begin in the mornin'. Hit's not jest the way I intended ter make use of ye, but hit can't be helped now. I hev information thet must reach Gineral Rosencrans afore daybreak. The vict'ry may depend on hit. Ter make sure all on us must start with hit, fur gittin' through the lines is now mouty dangersome, an' somebody--mebbe several--is bound to git cotcht, mebbe wuss. The men I expected ter help me are all gone. I hain't nobody now but ye an Aunt Debby. D'ye dar try an' make yer way through the lines to-night?"
Rachel thought a minute upon the dreadful possibilities of the venture, and then replied firmly:
"Yes I dare. I will try anything that the rest of you will attempt."
"Good. I knowed ye'd talk thet-a-way. Now we must waste no time in gittin' started, fur God on'y knows what diffikilties we'll meet on the way, an' Rosencrans can't hev the information enny too soon. Ev'ry minute hit's kep' away from him'll cost many vallerable lives--mebbe help defeat the army."
"Tell me quickly, then, what I must do, that I may lose no time in undertaking it."
"Well, heah's a plan of the position at sundown of the Rebels. Hit's drawed out moughty roughly but hit'll show jest whar they all are, an' about the number there is at each place. Hit begins on the right, which is south of Stone River, with Breckenridge's men; then across the river is Withers, an' Cheatham, an' Cleburne, with McCown's division on the left, an' Wharton's cavalry on the flank. But the thing o' most importance is thet all day long they've been movin' men round ter ther left, ter fall on our right an' crush hit. They're hid in the cedar thickets over thar, an' they'll come out to-morrow mornin' like a million yellin' devils, an' try ter sweep our right wing offen the face o' the arth. D'ye understand what I've tole ye?"
"Yes. Breckenridge's division is on their right, and south of Stone River. Withers, Cheatham, and Cleburne come next, on the north of the river, with McCown's division and Wharton's cavalry on the left, as shown in the sketch, and they are moving heavy forces around to their left, with the evident intention of falling overwhelmingly on our right early in the morning."
"Thet's hit. Thet's hit. But lay all the stres ye kin on the movin' around ter ther left. Thar's mo' mischief in thet than all the rest. Say thet thar's 20,000 men gwine round thar this arternoon an' evening'. Say thet thar's the biggest thunder-cloud o' danger thet enny one ever seed. Say hit over an' over, tell everybody understands hit an' gits ready ter meet hit. Tell hit till ye've made ev'ry one on 'em understand thet thar can't be no mistake about hit, an' they must look out fur heeps o' trouble on ther right. Tell hit ez ye never tole anything afore in yer life. Tell hit ez ye'd pray God Almighty fur the life o' the one thet ye love better then all the world beside. An' git thar ter tell hit--git thru the Rebel lines--ef ye love yer God an' yer country, an' ye want ter see the brave men who are ter die tomorrer make their deaths count somethin' to'ard savin' this Union. Hit may be thet yore information'll save the army from defeat. Hit may be--hit's most likely--thet hit'll save the lives o' thousands o' brave men who love ther lives even ez yo an' me loves ourn."
"Trust me to do all that a devoted woman can. I will get through before daybreak or die in the attempt. But how am I to go?"
"Hide this paper somewhar. Aunt Debby'll fix ye up ez a country gal, while I'm gittin' yer mar saddled an' bridled with some common harness, instid o' the fancy fixin's ye hed when ye rode out heah. Ef ye're stopt, ez ye likely will be, say that ye've been ter town fur the doctor, an' some medicine fur yer sick mammy, an' are tryin' ter git back ter yer home on the south fork o' Overall's Creek. Now, go an' git ready ez quick ez the Lord'll let ye."
As she heard the mare's hoofs in front of the door, Rachel came out with a "slat-sun-bonnet" on her head, and a long, black calico riding-skirt over her linsey dress. Fortner gave her attire an approving nod. Aunt Debby followed her with a bottle. "This is the medicine ye've bin ter git from Dr. Thacker heah in town," she said, handing the vial. "Remember the name, fur fear ye mout meet some one who knows the town. Dr. Thacker, who lives a little piece offen the square, an' gives big doses of epecac fur everything, from brakebone fever ter the itch."
"Dr. Thacker, who lives just off the square," said Rachel. "I'll be certain to remember."
"Take this, too," said Fortner, handing her a finely-finished revolver, of rather large caliber. "Don't pull hit onless ye can't git along without hit, an' then make sho o' yer man. Salt him."
"Good-by--God bless ye," said Aunt Debby, taking Rachel to her heart in a passionate embrace, and kissing her repeatedly. "God bless ye agin. No one ever hed more need o' His blessin' then we'uns will fur the next few hours. Ef He does bless us an' our work we'll all be safe an' sound in Gineral Rosencrans' tent afore noon. But ef His will's different we'll be by thet time whar the Rebels cease from troublin', and the weary are at rest. I'm sure thet ef I thot the Rebels war gwine ter whip our men I'd never want ter see the sun rise ter-morrer. Good-by; we're all in the hands o' Him who seeth even the sparrer's fall."
Fortner led the mare a little ways, to where he could get a good view, and then said:
"Thet second line o' fires which ye see over thar is our lines--them fires I mean which run up inter the woods. The fust line is the Rebels. Ye'll go right out this road heah tell ye git outside the town, an' then turn ter yer right an' make fur the Stone River. Ford hit or swim your mar' acrost, an' make yer way thru or round the Rebel line. Ef ye find a good road, an' everything favorable ye mout try ter make yer way strait thru ef ye kin fool the gyards with yer story. Ef ye're fearful ye can't then ride beyond the lines, an' come inter ours thet-a-way Aunt Deby'll go ter the other flank, an' try ter git a-past Breckinridge's pickets, an' I'll 'tempt ter make my way thru the center. We may all or none o' us git thru. I can't gin ye much advice, ez ye'll hev ter trust mainly ter yerself. But remember all the time what hangs upon yer gittin' the news ter Rosy afore daybreak. Think all the time thet mebbe ye kin save the hull army, mebbe win the vict'ry, sartinly save heeps o' Union lives an' fool the pizen Rebels. This is the greatest chance ye'll ever hev ter do good in all yer life, or a hundred more, ef ye could live 'em. Good-by. Ef God Almighty smiles on us we'll meet ter-morrer on yon side o' Stone River. Ef He frowns we'll meet on yon side o' the Shinin' River. Good-by."
He released her hand and her horse, and she rode forward into the darkness. Her course took her first up a main street, which was crowded with wagons, ambulances and artillery. Groups of men mingled with these, and crowded upon the sidewalks. When she passed the light of a window the men stared at her, and some few presumed upon her homely garb so far as to venture upon facetious and complimentary remarks, aimed at securing a better acquaintance.
She made no reply, but hurried her mare onward, as fast as she could pick her way. She soon passed out of the limits of the town and was in the country, though she was yet in the midst of camps, and still had to thread her way through masses of men, horses and wagons moving along the road.
The first flutter of perturbation at going out into the darkness and the midst of armed men had given way to a more composed feeling. No one had stopped her, or offered to, no one had shown any symptom of surprise at her presence there at that hour. She began to hope that this immunity would continue until she had made her way to the Union lines. she had left the thick of the crowd behind some distance, and was going along at a fair pace, over a clear road, studying all the while the line of fires far to her right, in an attempt to discover a promising dark gap in their extent.
She was startled by a hand laid upon her bridle, and a voice saying:
"Say, Sis, who mout ye be, an' whar mout ye be a-mosyin' ter this time o' night?"
She saw a squad of brigandish-looking stragglers at her mare's head.
"My name's Polly Briggs. I live on the South Fork o' Overall's Creek. I've done been ter Dr. Thacker's in Murfreesboro, fur some medicine fur my sick mammy, an' I'm on my way back home, an' I'd be much obleeged ter ye, gentlemen, ef ye'd 'low me ter go on, kase mammy's powerful sick, an' she's in great hurry fur her medicine."
She said this with a coolness and a perfect imitation of the speech and manner of the section that surprised herself. As she ended she looked directly at the squad, and inspected them. She saw she had reason to be alarmed. They were those prowling wolves found about all armies, to whom war meant only wider opportunities for all manner of villainy and outrage. An unprotected girl was a welcome prize to them. It was not death as a spy she had to fear, but worse. Now, if ever, she must act decisively. The leader took his hand from her bridle, as if to place it on her.
"Yer a powerful peart sort of a gal, an' ez purty ez a fawn. yer mammy kin git 'long without the medicine a little while, an'---"
He did not finish the sentence, for before his hand could touch her Rachel's whip cut a deep wale across his face, and then it fell so savagely upon the mare's flank that the high-spirited animal sprung forward as if shot from a catapult, and was a hundred yards away before the rascals really comprehended what had happened.
Onward sped the mettled brute, so maddened by the first cruel blow she had ever received that she refused to obey the rein, but made her own way by and through such objects as she encountered. When she at last calmed down the road was clear and lonely, and Rachel began searching for indications of a favorable point of approach to the river, that hinted at a bridge or a ford. While engaged in this she heard voices approaching. A moment's listening to teh mingling of tones convinced her that it was another crowd of stragglers, and she obeyed her first impulse, which was to leap her horse over a low stone wall to her right. Taking her head again, the mare did not stop until she galloped down to the water's edge.
"I'll accept this as lucky," said Rachel to herself. "The ancients trusted more to their horses' instincts than their own perceptions in times of danger, and I'll do the same. I'll cross here."
She urged the mare into the water. The beast picked her way among the boulders on the bottom successfully for a few minutes. The water rose to Rachel's feet, but that seemed its greatest depth, and in a few more yards she would gain the opposite bank, when suddenly the mare stepped upon a slippery steep, her feet went from under her instantly, and steed and rider rolled in the sweeping flood of ice-cold water. Rachel's first thought was that she should surely drown, but hope came back as she caught a limb swinging from a tree on the bank. With this she held her head above water until she could collect herself a little, and then with great difficulty pulled herself up the muddy, slippery bank. The weight of her soaked clothes added greatly to the difficulty and the fatigue, and she lay for some little time prone upon her face across the furrows of a cotton field, before she could stand erect. At last she was able to stand up, and she relieved herself somewhat by taking off her calico riding skirt and wringing the water from it. Her mare had also gained the bank near the same point she had, and stood looking at her with a world of wonder at the whole night's experience in her great brown eyes.
"Poor thing," said Rachel sympathetically. "This is only the beginning. Heaven knows what we won't have to go through with before the sun rises."
She tried to mount, but her watery garments were too much for her agility, and with the wet skirts fettering her limbs she began toiling painfully over the spongy, plowed ground, in search of a stump or a rock. She thought she saw many around her, but on approaching one after another found they were only large cotton plants, with a boll or two of ungathered cotton on them, which aided the darkness in giving them their deceptive appearance. She prevented herself from traveling in a circle, by remembering this aptitude of benighted travelers, and keeping her eye steadily fixed on a distant camp-fire. When she at last came to the edge of the field she had to lean against the fence for some minutes before she could recover from her fatigue sufficiently to climb upon it. While she sat for a minute there she heard some cocks, at a neighboring farm-house, crow the turn of night.
"It is midnight," she said feverishly, "and I have only begun the journey. Now let every nerve and muscle do its utmost."
She rode along the fence until she came to an opening which led into what appeared in the darkness to be another cotton field, but proved to be a worn-out one, long ago abandoned to the rank-growing briars, which clung to and tore her skirts, and seamed the mare's delicate skin with bleeding furrows. The flinching brute pressed onward, in response to her mistress's encouragement, but the progress was grievously slow.
Presently Rachel began to see moving figures a little way ahead of her, and hear voices in command. She eralized that she was approaching the forces moving to the attack on the Union right. There was something grotesque, weird, even frightful in the sounds and the aspect of the moving masses and figures, but she at last made out that they were batteries, regiments and mounted men. She decided that her best course was to mingle with and move along with them, until she could get a chance to ride away in advance. For hours that seemed weeks she remained entangled in the slow-moving mass, whose bewildering vagaries of motion were as trying to the endurance of her steed as they were exasperating to her own impatience. Occasionally she caught glimpses of the Union camp-fires in the distance, that, low and smoldering, told of the waning night, and she would look anxiously over her left shoulder for a hint of the coming of the dreaded dawn. Her mare terrified her with symptoms of giving out.
At last she saw an unmistakable silvery break in the eastern clouds. Half-frantic she broke suddenly out of the throng by an abrupt turn to the right, and lashing her mare savagely, galloped where a graying in the dense darkness showed an opening between two cedar thickets, that led to the picket-fires, half a mile away. The mare's hoofs beat sonorously on the level limestone floor, which there frequently rises through the shallow soil and starves out the cedar.
"Halt! Go back," commanded a hoarse voice in front of her, which was accompanied with the clicking of a gunlock. "Ye can't pass heah."
"Lemme pass, Mister," she pleaded. "I'm on'y a gal, with medicine fur my mammy, an' I'm powerful anxious ter git home."
"No, ye can't git out heah. Orders are strict; besides, ef ye did the Yankees 'd cotch ye. They're jest out thar."
She became aware that there were heavy lines of men lying near, and fearing to say another word, she turned and rode away to the left. She became entagled with a cavalry company moving toward the extreme Union right, and riding with it several hundred yards, turned off into a convenient grove just as the light began to be sufficient to distinguish her from a trooper. She was now, she was sure, outside of the Rebel lines, but she had gone far to the south, where the two lines were wide apart. The Union fifes and drums, now sounding what seemed an unsuspicous and cheerful reveille, were apparently at least a mile away. It was growing lighter rapidly, and every passing moment was fraught with the weightiest urgency. She concentrated all her energies for a supreme effort, and lashed her mare forward over the muddy cotton-field. The beast's hoofs sank in the loose red loam, as if it were quicksand, and her pace was maddeningly slow. At last Rachel came in sight of a Union camp at the edge of a cedar thicket. The arms were stacked, the men were cooking breakfast, and a battery of cannon standing near had no horses attached.
Rachel beat the poor mare's flanks furiously, and shouted.
"Turn out! The Rebels are coming! The Rebels are coming!"
Her warning came too late. Too late, also, came that of the pickets, who were firing their guns and rushing back to camp before an awful wave of men that had rolled out of the cedars on the other side of the cotton field.
A hundred boisterous drums were now making the thickets ring with the "long roll." Rachel saw the men in front of her leave their coffee-making, rush to the musket stacks and take their places in line. In another minute they were ordered forward to the fence in front of them, upon which they rested their muskets. Rachel rode through their line and turned around to look. The broad cotton field was covered with solid masses of Rebels, rushing forward with their peculiar fierce yell.
"Fire!" shouted the Colonel in front of her. The six field-pieces to her right split her ears with their crash. A thousand muskets blazed out a fire that withered the first line of the advancing foe. Another crash, and the Rebels had answered with musketry and artillery, that tore the cedars around her, sent the fencerails flying into the air, and covered the ground with blue-coats. Her faithful mare shied, caught her hoof in a crack in the limestone, and fell with a broken leg.
So began that terrible Wednesday, December 31, 1862.
Bragg's plan of battle was very simple. Rosencrans had stretched out a long thin wing through the cedars to the right of the pike. At the pike it was very strong, but two miles away it degenerated into scattered regiments, unskilfully disposed. Bragg threw against these three or four to one, with all the fury of the Southern soldier in the onset. The line was crumbled, and before noon crushed back to the pike.
Rachel disengaged herself from her fallen steed, and leaning against a sapling, watched the awful collision. She forgot the great danger in the fascination of the terrible spectacle. She thought she had seen men scale the whole gamut of passion, but their wildest excesses were tame and frothy beside this ecstacy of rage in the fury of battle. The rustic Southerners whom she had seen at ball-play, the simple-hearted Northerners whom she had alarmed at their coffee-making, were now transformed into furies mad with the delirium of slaughter, and heedless of their own lives in the frenzy of taking those of others.
"You had better run back, young woman," said some one touching her elbow. "The whole line's going to fall back. We're flanked."
A disorderly stream of men, fragments of the shattered right, caught her in its rush, and she was borne back to the open fields lying along the pike. There, as when a turbulent river empties into a bay, the force of the current subsided, and she was dropped like silt. The cowardly ones, hatless and weaponless, ran off toward the pike, but the greater portion halted, formed in line, called for their comrades to join them, and sent for more cartridges.
Almost dropping with fatigue, Rachel made her way to a pile of cracker-boxes by an Osage-orange hedge, on a knoll, and sat down. Some fragments of hard-bread, dropped on the trampled sod while rations were being issued, lay around. She was so hungry that she picked up one or two that were hardly soiled, and nibbled them.
The dreadful clamor of battle grew louder continually. The musketry had swollen into a sullen roar, with the artillery pulsating high above it. Crashing vollies of hundreds of muskets fired at once, told of new regiments joining in the struggle. Rebel brigades raised piercing treble yells as they charged across the open fields against the Union positions. The latter responded with deep-lunged cheers, as they hurled their assailants back. Clouds of slowly curling smoke rose above thickets filled with maddened men, firing into one another's breasts. Swarms of rabbits and flocks of birds dashed out in terror from the dark coverts in which they had hitherto found security.
No gallantry could avail against such overwhelming numbers as assailed the Union right. The stream of disorganized men flowing back from the thickets became wider and swifter every minute; every minute, too, the din of the conflict came closer; every minute the tide of battle rolled on to regiments lying nearer the pike.
A Surgeon with a squad of stretcher-bearers came up to where Rachel was sitting.
"Pull down some of those boxes, and fix a place to lay the Colonel till we can make other arrangements," said a familiar voice. Rachel looked up, and with some difficulty reconciled a grimy-faced man in torn clothes with the trim Hospital Surgeon she had known.
"Can that be you, Dr. Denslow?" she said.
He had equal difficulty in recognizing her.
"Is it possible that it is you, Miss Bond?" he said in amazement, after she had spoken to him again. "Yes, this is I, or as much as is left of me. And here," and his voice trembled, "is about all that is left of the regiment. The rest are lying about the roots of those accursed cedars, a full mile from here."
"And Harry Glen--where is he?" she said, rising hurriedly from the boxes and passing along the line of stretchers, scanning each face.
A new pain appeared in the Doctor's face, as he watched her.
"You'll not find him there," he said. "The last I saw of him he was forming a handful of the regiment that were still on their feet, to retake cannon which the Rebels had captured. I was starting off with the Colonel here, when they dashed away."
"Come," he said, after making some temporary provisions for the comfort of his wounded. "You must get away from here as quickly as possible. I fear the army is badly defeated, and it may be a rout soon. You must get away before the rush begins, for then it will be terrible."
He took her over the pike, and across it to where some wagons were standing. As he was about to put Rachel in one of these their attention was arrested by an officer, apparently acting as Provost Marshal, dragging from behind a huge rock a Lieutenant who was skulking there. They were too far away to hear what was said, but not so far that they could not recognize the skulker as Lieutenant Jacob Alspaugh. The Provost Marshal apparently demanded the skulker's name, and wrote it in a book. Alspaugh seemed to give the information, and accompanied it with a lugubrious pointint to a bandage around his knee. The Provost Marshal stooped and took the handkerchief off, to find that not even the cloth of the pantaloons had been injured. He contemptuously tore the straps from Alspaugh's shoulders, and left him.
"The rascal's cowardice is like the mercy of God," said Denslow, "for it endureth forever."
He put Rachel in the wagon, and ordered the driver to start at once for Nashville with her. She pressed his hand, as they separated with fatigue and grief.
How had it been faring all this time with Harry Glen and those with him?
The fierce wave had dashed against the regiment early in the morning, and although the first fire received from the Rebels made gaps in the ranks where fifty men fell, it did not recoil a step, but drove its assailants back with such slaughter that their dead, lying in the open ground over which they crossed, were grimly compared by Abe Bolton to "punkins layin' in a field where the corn's been cut off."
Then the fight settled into a murderous musketry duel across the field, in which the ranks on both sides melted away like frost in the sun. In a few minutes all the field officers were down, and the only Captain that remained untouched took command of the regiment, shouting to Harry Glen at the same moment to take command of the two companies on the right, whose Captains, and Lietenants had fallen. Two guns escaping from the crush at the extreme right, had galloped down, and opened gallantly to assist the regiment. Almost instantly horses and men went down under the storm of bullets. An Aide broke through the cedars behind.
"Fall back--fall back, for God's sake!" he shouted. "The Rebels have got around the right, and will cut you off."
"Fall back, boys," shouted the Captain in command, "but keep together, listen to orders, and load as you go." The same instant he fell with a ball through his chest.
"Sergeant Glen, you're in command of the regiment, now," shouted a dozen voices.
The Lieutenant of the battery--a mere boy--ran up to Harry. A stream of blood on his jacket matched its crimson trimmings.
"Don't go off and leave my guns, after I've helped you. Do not, for the love of Heaven! I've saved them so far. Bring them off with you."
Harry looked inquiringly around upon the less than one hundred survivors, who gathered about him, and had heard the passionate appeal. Every face was set with mortal desperation. An Irish boy on the left was kissing a cross which he had drawn from his bosom.
The tears which strong men shed in wild fits of rage were rolling down the cheeks of Edwards, Bolton, and others.
"I don't want to live always!" shouted Kent with an oath; "let's take the ----- guns!"
"I don't want no better place to die than right here!" echoed Abe, still more savagely profane. "Le's have the guns, or sink into hell getting 'em!"
The remnant of the Rebel regiment had broken cover and rushed for the guns.
"Attention!" shouted Harry. "Fix bayonets!"
The sharp steel clashed on the muzzles.
For one wild minute shining steel at arm's length did its awful work. Then three-score Rebels fled back to their leafy lair, and as many blue-coats with drew into the cedars, pulling the guns after them.
"Pick up the Lieutenant, there, some of you who can do a little lifting," said Kent, as they came to where the boy-artillerist lay dead. "This prod in my shoulder's spoilt my lifting for some time. Lay him on the gun and we'll take himj back with us. He deserves it, for he was game clear through. Harry, that fellow that gave you that beauty-mark on the temple with his saber got his discharge from the Rebel army just afterwards, on the point of Abe's bayonet."
"Is that so? Did Abe get struck at all?"
"Only a whack over the nose with the butt of a gun, which will doubtless improve his looks. Any change would."
"Guess we can go back now with some peace and comfort," said Abe, coming up, and alluding to the cessation of the firing in their front. "That last round took all the fight out of them hell-hounds across the field."
"Some of you had better go over to the camp there and get our axes. We'll have to cut a road through the cedars if we take these guns off," said Harry, tieing a handkershief around the gaping saber wound in his temple. "The rest of you get around to the right, and keep a sharp look out for the flank."
So they worked their way back, and a little after noon came to the open fields by the pike.
As the wagon rolled slowly down the pike toward Nashville Rachel, in spite of anxiety, fell asleep. Some hours later she was awakened by the driver shaking her rudely.
"Wake up!" he shouted, "ef ye value yer life!"
"Where are we?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.
"At Stewart's Creek," answered the driver, "an' all o' Wheeler's cavalry are out thar' in them woods."
She looked out. She could see some miles ahead of her, and as far as she could see the road was filled with wagons moving toward Nashville. A sharp spurt of firing on the left attracted her attention, and she saw a long wave of horsemen ride out of the woods, and charge the wagon-guards, who made a sharp resistence, but at length fled before overwhelming numbers. The teamsters, at the first sight of the formidable line, began cutting their wheel-mules loose, and escaping upon them. Rachel's teamster followed their example.
"The off-mule's unhitcht; jump on him, an' skip," he shouted to her as he vanished up the pike.
The Rebels were shooting down the mules and such teamsters as remained. Some dismounted, and with the axes each wagon carried, chopped the spokes until the wagon fell, while others ran along and started fires in each. In a little while five hundred wagons loaded with rations, clothing, amunition and stores were blazing furiously. Their work done, the cavalry rode off toward Nashville in search of other trains.
Rachel leaped from the wagon, before the Rebels approached, and took refuge behind a large tree, whence she saw her wagon share the fate of the rest. When the cavalry disappeared, she came out again into the road and walked slowly up it, debating what she could do. She was rejoiced to meet her teamster returning. He had viewed the occurence from a prudent distance, and being kindly-natured had decided to return to her help, as soon as it could be done without risk.
He told her that there was a wagon up the pike a little ways with a woman in it, to which he would conduct her, and they would go back to the army in front of Murfreesboro.
"It seems a case of 'twixt the devil and the deep sea," he said, despairingly. "At any rate we can't stay out here, and my experience is that it is always safest where there is the biggest crowd."
They found the wagon with the woman in it. Its driver had bolted irrevocably, so Rachel's friend assumed the reins. It was slow work making their way back through the confused mass, but Rachel was lucky enough to sleep through most of it. When she awoke the next morning the wagon was still on the pike, but in the center of the army, which filled all the open space round-about.
Everywhere were evidences of the terrible work of the day before, and of preparations for renewing it. The soldiers, utterly exhausted by the previous days' frightful strain, lay around on the naked ground, sleeping, or in a half-waking torpor.
An officer rode up to the wagon. "There seems to be some flour on this wagon," said the voice of Dr. Denslow. "Well, that may stay the boys' stomachs until we can get something better. Go on a little ways, driver."
"O, Doctor Denslow," called out Rachel, as the wagon stopped again, "what is the news?"
"You here again?" said the Doctor, recognizing the voice: "well that is good news. When I heard about Wheeler's raid on our trains I was terribly alarmed as to your fate. This relieves me much."
"But how about the army?"
"Well it seems to have been a case of hammer and anvil yesterday, in which both suffered pretty badly, but the hammer go much the worst of it. We are in good shape now to give them some more, if they want it, which so far they have not indicated very strongly. Here, Sergeant Glen, is a couple barrels of flour, which you can take to issue to your regiment."
Had not the name been called Rachel could never have recognized her former elegant lover in the salwart man with tattered uniform, swollen face, and head wrapped in a bloody bandage, who came to the wagon with a squad to receive the flour.
A tumult of emotions swept over her, but superior to them all was the feminine feeling that she could not endure to have Harry see her in her present unprepossessing plight.
"Don't mention my name before those men," she said to Dr. Denslow, when he came near again.
"Very good," he answered. "Sit still in the wagon, and nobody will see you. I will have the wagon driver over to the hospital presently, with the remainder of the flour, and you can go along."
All the old love seemed to have been out at compound interest, from the increment that came back to her at the sound of Harry Glen's voice, now so much deeper, fuller and more masterful than in the fastidious days of yore. She lifted the smallest corner of the wagon-cover and looked out. The barrel heads had been beaten in with stones, and a large cupful of flour issued to each of the hungry men. They had mixed it up into dough with water from the ditch, and were baking it before the fire on large flat stones, which abounded in the vicinity.
"I'll mix up enough for all three of us on this board," she heard Harry say to Abe and Kent. "With your game arm, Kent, and Abe's battered eyes, your cooking skill's about gone. You ought to both of you go to the hospital. You can't do any good, and why expose yourself for nothing? I've a mind to use my authority and send you to the hospital under guard."
"You try it if you dare, after my saving your life yesterday," said Abe. "I can see well enough yet to shoot toward the Rebels, and that's all that's necessary."
"I enlisted for the war," said Kent, "and I'm going to stay till peace is declared. I went into this fight to see it through, and I'm going to stay until we whhip them if there's a piece of me left that can wiggle. Bragg's got to acknowledge that I'm the best man before I'll ever let up on him."
Rachel longed to leap out of the wagon, and do the bread-making for these clumsy fellows, but pride would not consent.
The dough was browning slowly on the hot stones, but not yet nearly done, when the spiteful spirits of firing out in front suddenly burst into a roar, with a crash of artillery. A bugle sounded near.
"Fall in, boys," shouted Harry, springing to his feet, and tearing off the flakes of dough, which he hastily divided with his comrades. "Right dress. Right face, forward, file right--march!"
"If there is anything that I despise, it's disturbing a gentleman at his meals," said Kent, giving the fire a spiteful kick, as he tucked the bread under his lame arm, took his musket in his other hand, and started off in the rear of the regiment, accompanied by the purblind Abe.
Rachel's heart sank, as she saw them move off, but it rose again when the firing died down as suddenly as it had flamed up.
Soon Dr. Denslow took the wagon off to a cabin on a high bank of Stone River, which he was using as a hospital.
She called some question to him, as he turned away to direct the preparation of the flour into food for his patients, when some one cried out from the interior of the cabin:
"Rachel Bond! Is that you? Come in heah, honey."
She entered, and found Aunt Debby lying on the rude bed of the former inhabitants of the cabin.
"O my love--my darling--my honey, is that you?" said the elderly woman, with streaming eyes, reaching out her thin arms to take Rachel to her heart. "I never expected ter see ye ag'in! But God is good."
"Aunt Debby, is it possible? Are you hurt, dear?"
"No, not hurt child; on'y killed," she answered with a sweet radiance on her face.
"Killed? It is not possible."
"Yes, honey, it is possible. It is true. The gates open for me at last."
"How did it happen?"
"I got through Breckenridge's lines all right, an' reached the river, but thar was a picket thar, hid behind a tree, and ez he heered my hoss's feet splash in the ford, he shot me through the back. An' I didn't get through in time," she added, with the first shade of melancholy that had yet appeared in her face. "Did you?"
"No, I was too late, too."
"An' Jim must've been, too. Hev ye seed him any whar?"
"No," said Rachel, unable to restrain her tears.
"Now, honey, don't cry for me--don't," said Aunt Debby, pulling the young face down to where she could kiss it. "Hit's jest ez I want hit. On'y let me know thet Bragg is whipt, an' I die happy."
All day Thursday the two bruised armies lay and confronted each other, as two bulldogs, which have torn and mangled one another, will stop for a few minutes, to lick their hurts and glare their hatred, while they regain breath to carry on the fight.
Friday morning it was the same, but there was a showing of teeth and a rising fierceness as the day grew older, which was very portentous.
While standing at the door of the cabin Rachel had seen Harry Glen march down the bank at the head of the regiment, and cross the ford to the heights in front of Breckenridge. She picked up a field-glass that lay on a shelf near, and followed the movements of the force the regiment had joined.
"What d' ye see, honey?" called out Aunt Debby. She was becoming very fearful that she would die before the victory was won.
"Our people," answered Rachel, "seem to be concentrating in front of Breckenridge. There must be a division over there. Breckenridge sees it, and his cannon are firing at our men. He is bringing men up at the double quick." She stopped, for a spasm of fear in regard to Harry choked her.
"Go on, honey. What are they doing now?"
"Our men have formed a long line, reaching from the river up to the woods. They begin to march forward. Breckenridge opens more guns. They cut lanes through them. Now the infantry begins firing. A cloud of smoke settles down and hides both sides. I can see no more. O my God, our men are running. The whole line comes back out of the smoke, with men dropping at every step. If Harry were only safely out of there, I'd give my life."
Aunt Debby groaned. "Look again, honey," she said after a moment's pause.
"It's worse than ever. Breckenridge's men are swarming out of their works. There seems to be a myriad of them. They cover the whole hillside until I can not see the ground. They yell like demons, and drive our men down into the river. They follow them to the water's edge and shoot them down in the stream. Ah, there goes a battery on the gallop to the hill in front of us. It has opened on the Rebels, and its shells dig great holes in the black masses, but the Rebels still come on. There goes another battery on the gallop. It has opened. There is another. Still another. They are galloping over here from every direction."
"Glory!" shouted Aunt Debby.
"There's a fringe of trees near the water's edge, whose tops reach nearly tot he top of the hill. The cannon shots tear the branches off and dash down the great ranks of Rebels with them."
"The arth rocks as when He lays his finger upon hit," said Aunt Debby.
The ground was trembling under the explosion of the fifty-eight pieces of artillery which Rosencrans hastily massed at four o'clock Friday, for the relief of his overpowered left. "What's them that go 'boo-woo-woo,' like great big dogs barkin'?"
"Those are John Mendenhall's big Napoleons," said a wounded artillery officer. "Go on, Miss. What now?"
"The Rebels have stopped coming on. They are apparently firing back. The shells and the limbs of the trees still break their lines and tear them to pieces. Now our men dash across the river again, and begin a musketry fire that mows them down. They start to run, and our men charge after them, cheering as they run. Our men have taken their cannon away from them. The Rebels are running for life to get inside their works. The hillside is dotted with those who have fallen, and there are rows of them lying near the water. Now everything is quieting down again."
"Glory ter God! for He has at last given the enemy inter our hands. Come and kiss me, honey, an' say good-by."
From the throats of twenty-five thousand excited spectators of the destruction of Breckenridge's division rose cheers of triumph that echoed to the clouds.
"What sweet music that is!" said Aunt Debby, half unclosing her eyes. "God bless ye, honey. Good-by."
The gentle eyes closed forever.
Late in the evening Dr. Denslow's stretcher corps brough in Harry Glen, who had fallen in the last charge with a flesh wound in the leg. Until he woke the next morning to find her sitting by his bedside, Harry thought he had been dreaming all the time that Rachel Bond had come to him, dressed in quaint country garb, and loosed with gentle, painless fingers the stiff, blood-encrusted bandage about his head, and replaced it with something that soothed and eased his fevered temples.
"I have very good news for you," she said, later in the day. "Kent Edwards says that you are promoted to Captain, by special orders, for 'Conspicuous gallantry on the battle-field of Stone River.'"
"And when are we to be married?" he asked.
"Just as soon as you are able to travel back to Sardis."
They looked up and saw Dr. Denslow standing beside them. A stunned look on his face indicated that he had heard and understood all. This speedily gave away to his accustomed expression of serene philosophy.
"Forget me, except as a friend," he said. "It is better as it is for you, Harry, and certainly better for her. Possibly it is better for"--with a little gasp--"me. The sweets of love are not for me. They are irrational, and irrational things are carefully eliminated from my scheme of life."
Towards evening Fortner came in with the news "Thet ole Bragg picked up his traps and skipped out fur Tullahoma, ter nuss his hurts, leavin' his wounded and lots o' stores in our hands."
So was gained the great victory of Stone River.