The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter II. First Shots.
"Cowards fear to die; but courage stout, Rather than live in snuff, will be put out." --Sir Walter Raleigh, on "The Snuff of a Candle."
All military courage of any value is the offspring of pride and will. The existence of what is called "natural courage" may well be doubted. What is frequently mistaken for it is either perfect self-command, or a stolid indifference, arising from dull-brained inability to comprehend what really is danger.
The first instincts of man teach him to shun all sources of harm, and if his senses are sufficiently acute to perceive danger, his natural disposition is to avoid encountering it. This disposition can only be overcome by the exercise of the power of pride and will--pride to aspire to the accomplishment of certain things, even though risk attend, and will to carry out those aspirations.
Harry Glen was apparently not deficient in either pride or will. The close observer, however, seemed to see as his mastering sentiment a certain starile selfishness, not uncommon among the youths of his training and position in the slow-living, hum-drum country towns of Ohio. The only son of a weakly-fondling mother and a father too earnestly treading the narrow path of early diligences and small savings by which a man becomes the richest in his village, to pay any attention to him, Harry grew up a self-indulgent, self-sufficient boy. His course at the seminary and college naturally developed this into a snobbish assumption that he was of finer clay than the commonality, and in some way selected by fortune for her finer displays and luxurious purposes. I have termed this a "sterile selfishness," to distinguish it from that grand egoism which in large minds is fruitful of high accomplishments and great deeds, and to denote a force which, in the sons of the average "rich" men of the county seats, is apt to expend itself in satisfaction at having finer clothes and faster horses and pleasanter homes, than the average--in a pride of white hands and a scorn of drudgery.
When Harry signed his name upon the recruiting roll--largely impelled thereto by the delicately-flattering suggestion that he should lead off for the youth of Sardis--he had not the slightest misgiving that by so doing he would subject himself to any of the ills and discomforts incidental to carrying out the enterprise upon which they were embarking. He, like every one else, had no very clear idea of what the company would be called upon to do or undergo; but no doubt obtruded itself into his mind that whatever might be disagreeable in it would fall to some one else's lot, and he continue to have the same pleasant exemption that had been his good fortune so far through life.
And though the company was unexpectedly ordered to the field in the rugged mountains of Western Virginia, instead of to pleasant quarters about Washington, there was nothing to shake this comfortable belief. The slack discipline of the first three months' service, and the confusion of ideas that prevailed in the beginning of the war as to military duties and responsibilities, enabled him to spend all the time he chose away from his company and with congenial spirits, about headquarters, and to make of the expedition, so far as he was concerned, a pleasant picnic. Occasionally little shadows were thrown by the sight of corpses brought in, with ugly-looking bullet holes in head or breast, but these were always of the class he looked down upon, and he connected their bad luck in some way with their condition in life. Doubtless some one had to go where there was danger of being shot, as some one had to dig ditches and help to pry wagons out of the mud, but there was something rather preposterous in the thought that anything of this kind was incumbent upon him.
The mutterings of the men against an officer, who would not share their hardships and duties, did not reach his ears, nor yet the gibes of the more earnest of the officers at the "young headquarter swells," whose interest and zeal were nothing to what they would have taken in a fishing excursion.
It came about very naturally and very soon that this continual avoidance of duty in directions where danger might be encountered was stigmatized by the harsher name of cowardice. Neither did this come to his knowledge, and he was consequently ignorant that he had delivered a fatal stab to his reputation one fine morning when, the regiment being ordered out with three days' rations and forty rounds of cartridges, the sergeant who was sent in search of him returned and reported that he was sick in his tent. Jacob Alspaugh expressed the conclusion instantly arrived at by every one in the regiment:
"It's all you could expect of one of them kid-glove fellers, to weaken when it came to serious business."
Harry's self-sufficiency had left so little room for anything that did not directly concern his own comfort, that he could not understand the deadly earnestness of the men he saw file out of camp, or that there was any urgent call for him to join them in their undertaking.
"Bob Bennett's always going where there's no need of it," he said to a companion, as he saw the last of the regiment disappear into the woods on the mountain side. "He could have staid back here with us just as well as not, instead of trudging off through the heat over these devilish roads, and probably get into a scrape for which no one will thank him."
"Yes," said Ned Burnleigh, with his affected drawl, "what the devil's the use, I'd like to know, for a fellah's putting himself out to do things, when there's any quantity of other fellahs, that can't be better employed, ready and even anxious to do them."
"That's so. But it's getting awful hot here. Let's go over to the shade, where we were yesterday, and have Dick bring us a bucket of cold spring water and the bottles and things."
"Abe!" said Jake Alspaugh to his file-leader--a red-headed, pock-marked man, whose normal condition was that of outspoken disgust at every thing--"this means a fight."
"Your news would've been fresh and interesting last night," growled Abe Bolton. "I suppose that's what we brought our guns along for."
"Yes; but somebody's likely to get killed."
"Well, you nor me don't have to pay their life insurance, as I know on."
"But it may be you or me,"
"The devil'd be might anxious for green wood before he'd call you in."
"Come, now, don't talk that way. This is a mighty serious time."
"I'll make it a durned sight seriouser for you if you don't keep them splay feet o'your'n offen my heels when we're marching."
"Don't you think we'd better pay, or--something?"
"You might try taking up a collection."
"Try starting a hymn, Jake," said a slender young man at his right elbow, whose face showed a color more intimately connected with the contents of his canteen than the heat of the day. "Line it out, and we'll all join in. Something like this, for example:
'Hark, from the tombs a doleful sound Mine ears attend the cry. Ye living men, come view the ground Where you must shortly lie.'"
Alspaugh shuddered visibly.
"Come, spunk up, Jake," continued the slender young man. "Think how proud all your relations will be of you, if you die for your country."
"I'm mad at all of my relations, and I don't want to do nothing to please 'em," sighed Jake.
"But I hope you're not so greedy as to want to live always?" said the slender young man, who answered roll-call to Kent Edwards.
"No, but I don't want to be knocked off like a green apple, before I'm ripe and ready."
"Better be knocked off green and unripe," said Kent, his railing mood changing to one of sad introspection, "than to prematurely fall, from a worm gnawing at your heart."
Jake's fright was not so great as to make him forego the opportunity for a brutal retort:
"You mean the 'worm of the still,' I s'pose. Well, it don't gnaw at my heart so much as at some other folkses' that I know'd."
Kent's face crimsoned still deeper, and he half raised his musket, as if to strike him, but at that moment came the order to march, and the regiment moved forward.
The enemy was by this time known to be near, and the men marched in that silence that comes from tense expectation.
The day was intensely hot, and the stagnant, sultry air was perfumed with the thousand sweet odors that rise in the West Virginia forests in the first flush of Summer.
The road wound around the steep mountain side, through great thickets of glossy-leaved laurel, by banks of fragrant honeysuckle, by beds of millions of sweet-breathing, velvety pansies, nestling under huge shadowy rocks, by acres of white puccoon flowers, each as lovely as the lily that grows by cool Siloam's shady rill--all scattered there with Nature's reckless profusion, where no eye saw them from year to year save those of the infrequent hunter, those of the thousands of gaily-plumaged birds that sang and screamed through the branches of the trees above, and those of the hideous rattlesnakes that crawled and hissed in the crevices of the shelving rocks.
At last the regiment halted under the grateful shadows of the broad-topped oaks and chestnuts. A patriarchal pheasant, drumming on a log near by some uxorious communication to his brooding mate, distended his round eyes in amazement at the strange irruption of men and horses, and then whirred away in a transport of fear. A crimson crested woodpecker ceased his ominous tapping, and flew boldly to a neighboring branch, where he could inspect the new arrival to good advantage and determine his character.
The men threw themselves down for a moment's rest, on the springing moss that covered the whole mountain side. A hum of comment and conversation arose. Jake Alspaugh began to think that there was not likely to be any fight after all, and his spirits rose proportionately. Abe Bolton growled that the cowardly officers had no doubt deliberately misled the regiment, that a fight might be avoided. Kent Edwards saw a nodding May-apple flower--as fair as a calla and as odorous as a pink--at a little distance, and hastened to pick it. He came back with it in the muzzle of his gun, and his hands full of violets.
A thick-bodied rattlesnake crawled slowly and clumsily out from the shelter of a little ledge, his fearful eyes gleaming with deadly intentions against a ground-squirrel frisking upon the end of a mossy log, near where Captain Bob Bennett was seated, poring over a troublesome detail in the "Tactics." The snake saw the man, and his awkward movement changed at once into one of electric alertness. He sounded his terrible rattle, and his dull diamonds and stripes lighted up with the glare that shines through an enraged man's face. The thick body seemed to lengthen out and gain a world of sinuous suppleness. With the quickness of a flash he was coiled, with head erect, forked tongue protruding, and eyes flaming like satanic jewels.
A shout appraised Captain Bennett of his danger. He dropped the book, sprang to his feet with a quickness that matched the snake's, and instinctively drew his sword. Stepping a little to one side as the reptile launched itself at him, he dexterously cut it in two with a sweeping stroke. A shout of applause rose from the excited boys, who gathered around to inspect the slain serpent and congratulate the Captain upon his skillful disposition of his assailant.
"O, that's only my old bat-stroke that used to worry the boys in town-hall so much," said the Captain carelessly. "It's queer what things turn out useful to a man, and when he least expects them."
A long, ringing yell from a thousand throats cleft the air, and with its last notes came the rattle of musketry from the brow of the hill across the little ravine. The bullets sang viciously overhead. They cut the leaves and branches with sharp little crashes, and struck men's bodies with a peculiar slap. A score of men in the disordered group fell back dead or dying upon the green moss.
"Of course, we might've knowed them muddle-headed officers 'd run us right slap into a hornets' nest of Rebels before they knowed a thing about it," grumbled Abe Bolton, hastily tearing a cartridge with his teeth, and forcing it into his gun.
"Hold on, my weak-kneed patriot," said Kent Edwards, catching Jake Alspaugh by the collar, and turning him around so that he faced the enemy again. "It's awful bad manners to rush out of a matinee just as the performance begins. You disturb the people who've come to enjoy the show. Keep you seat till the curatin goes down. You'll find enough to interest you."
The same sudden inspiration of common-sense that had flashed upon Captain Bennett, in encountering the snake now raised him to the level of this emergency. He comprehended that the volley they had received had emptied every Rebel gun. The distance was so short that the enemy could be reached before they had time to re-load. But no time must be lost in attempting to form, or in having the order regularly given by the Colonel. He sprang toward the enemy, waving his sword, and shouted in tones that echoed back from the cliffs:
"Attention, battalion! Charge bayonets! Forward, double-quick, march!"
A swelling cheer answered him. His own company ran forward to follow his impetuous lead. The others joined in rapidly. Away they dashed down the side of the declivity, and in an instant more were swarming up the opposite side toward the astonished Rebels. Among these divided councils reigned. Some were excited snapping unloaded guns at the oncoming foe; others were fixing bayonets, and sturdily urging their comrades to do likewise, and meet the rushing wave of cold steel with a counter wave. The weaker-hearted ones were already clambering up the mountain-side out of reach of harm.
There was no time for debate. The blue line led by Bennett flung itself upon the dark-brown mass of Rebels like an angry wave dashing over a flimsy bank of sand, and in an instant there was nothing to be done but pursue the disrupted and flying fragments. It was all over.