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   Chapter 5 No.5

A Little Union Scout By Joel Chandler Harris Characters: 21028

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

I have never spent a more disagreeable hour than that which passed while I was engaged in following the two men for the purpose of identifying them. The weather was cold and the night dark, and there were peppery little showers of sleet. The two left the town proper and turned into a by-way that I had travelled many times in my rambles in the countryside. I knew that it led to a house that had been built for a suburban home, but now, in the crowded condition of the town, was used as a tavern. It had attracted the suspicion of General Forrest and I knew that he had placed it under the surveillance of the Independents. It was a very orderly public-house, however, and nothing had ever occurred there to justify the suspicions of the General.

The two men I followed could have reached their destination in less than twenty minutes if they had gone forward with the briskness that the weather justified; but there was an argument of some kind between them-I judged that the stuttering man had no stomach for the part he was to play as a horse-thief. At any rate, there was a dispute of some kind, and they stopped on the road at least half a dozen times to have it out. One point settled, another would arise before they had gone far, and then they would stop again; and at last, so dark did the wood become, and so low their conversation grew, that I passed within three feet of them and never knew it until it was too late to betray the astonishment I naturally felt.

I simply jogged along the path and pretended that I had not seen them. I went along briskly, and in a few minutes came to the tavern. The door was shut, the weather being cold, but I knew by the lights shining through the windows that a hospitable fire was burning on the hearth. There was no need to knock at the door. I heard the jangling piano playing an accompaniment to the flute-like whistling of Harry Herndon's negro. Remembering his carelessness, I felt like going into the tavern and giving him a frailing. The inclination was so strong that I held my hand on the door-knob until the first flush of anger had subsided. It was a very fortunate thing for me, as it turned out, that Whistling Jim was present, but at the moment the turn of a hair would have caused me to justify much that the people of the North have said in regard to the cruelty of Southerners to the negro.

The guests and visitors-and there were quite a number-made room for me at the fire, the landlord provided me with a chair and welcomed me very heartily, taking it for granted that I was from the country and would want a bed for the night. On the wide hearth a very cheerful fire burned, and the place reminded me somehow of home-particularly a big rocking-chair in which one of the guests was seated. It had an upholstered seat and back, and the high arms were made more comfortable by a covering of the same material. It was a fac-simile of a chair that we had at home, and I longed to occupy it, if only for the sake of old times.

Among those who were taking their ease at this suburban inn was Jasper Goodrum, one of my comrades. He was a noted scout as well as a seasoned soldier. He looked at me hard as I entered, and continued to watch me furtively for some time, and then his face cleared up and I knew that he had recognized me. He was in civilian's clothes, and I knew by that that he did not care to be recognized. So I turned my attention elsewhere. But in a little while he seemed to have changed his mind, and, suddenly rising from his chair, came to me with outstretched hand.

It was a mixed company around the fire. There was a big Irishman, who leaned calmly back in a small chair and smoked a short pipe. More than once I caught his bright eyes studying my face, but his smile was ample apology for his seeming rudeness. He was as handsome a man as I had ever seen, and if I had been searching for a friend on whom to depend in an emergency I should have selected him out of a thousand.

There was a short-haired man who was built like a prize-fighter. He wore a sarcastic smile on his face, and his shifty eyes seemed to be constantly looking for a resting-place. He had a thick neck and jaw like a bull-dog. I marked him down in my mental note-book as dangerous. There was a tall and pious-looking man, and two or three civilians who had no particular points about them; and then there was a burly man, who sat with his hands in his pockets and did nothing but chew tobacco and gaze in the fire, uttering not one word until some of the company fell to discussing Captain Leroy, the famous Union scout. When Leroy's name was mentioned the burly man was quick to join in the conversation.

"There ain't a word of truth in all this stuff you hear about Leroy," he said, and his manner was more emphatic than the occasion seemed to demand. "He's in the newspapers, and he ain't anywhere else on top of the ground. I know what I'm a-talking about. Leroy is the invention of Franc Paul, of the Chattanooga Rebel. He as good as told me so. He said that when he wanted to stir up talk and create a sensation he had something written about this Captain Frank Leroy. He's a paper man and he's able to do anything the newspapers want done."

"You talk like you had gray hair," said the man that looked like a prize-fighter; "but you're givin' away a mighty big secret. What are you doin' it for? Say!"

"Oh, because I'm tired of all this talk about a man that doesn't live outside of the mind of a newspaper man."

The big Irishman, who had been smoking and watching me with a shrewd smile hovering about his mouth, began to chuckle audibly. He kept it up so long that it attracted the attention of the company.

"What tickles you, my friend?" the burly man asked.

"Maybe ye know Franc Paul?" he inquired. His countenance was an interrogation-point. The man answered somewhat sullenly in the affirmative. "Is there anny risimblance bechune him an' me?"

"Not the slightest in the world," the man answered.

"Thin ye'd have a quarrel wit' his wife an' she'd have all the advantages," said the Irishman with a laugh. "F'r no longer than the last time I was at Chattanooga, Missus Paul says, 'It's a good thing, Mr. O'Halloran,' she says, 'that ye're a hair's breadth taller than me beloved husband,' she says, 'or I'd niver tell ye apart. Only the sharp eyes av a wife or a mither,' she says, 'could pick out me husband if he stood be your side,' she says."

"I must say," remarked the pious-looking man, "that you gentlemen were never more mistaken in your lives when you hint that there is no such person as Frank Leroy. I knew him when he was a boy-a beardless boy, as you may say. In fact, his father was my next-door neighbor in Knoxville, and I used to see Frank reading old Brownlow's paper."

"Don't think ut!" replied the Irishman, and with that all joined in the conversation and I heard more of the perilous adventures and hair-breadth escapes of Captain Frank Leroy than you could put in a book. It seemed that his identity was a mystery, but he was none the less a hero in men's minds because his very existence had been called in question; for people will hug delusions to their bosoms in the face of religion itself, as we all know.

The door of an inner room was open, and I could hear a conversation going on. One of the participants was the stuttering man, whose voice I had heard before the stable-door, and at a moment when I thought that my movements would attract no attention I took advantage of the freedom of a public-house and sauntered aimlessly into the room as if I had no particular business there. I saw with surprise that the chap who had proposed to steal the horses was one of the merchants of the town at whose store I had occasionally traded. In the far end of the room, reading a newspaper by the light of a small fire, sat a slip of a youth. He wore a military cloak that covered his figure from his neck to his top-boots.

I saw that he was not so absorbed in the paper that he failed to make a note of my presence in the room, and he shifted himself around in his chair so that he could get a better view of me, and still leave his face in the shadow. Near him sat a motherly-looking woman of fifty. She was well preserved for her age, and wore a smile on her face that was good to look at. The youngster said something to her in a low tone, and she immediately turned her attention to me. Some other words passed between the two, and then the woman beckoned to me. I obeyed the summons with alacrity, for I liked her face.

"You seem to be lonely," she said. "Have a seat by our little fire. This is not a guest-room, but we have been so overrun lately that we have had to turn it over to the public." She paused a moment and then went on. "You are over-young to be in the army," she suggested.

She had turned so that she looked me full in the face, and there was a kindly, nay, a generous light in her eyes, and I could no more have lied to her in the matter than I could have lied to my own mother if she had been alive. "I do not have a very hard time in the army," I replied.

"No, I suppose not," she remarked. "You are one to make friends wherever you go. Few are so fortunate; I have known only one or two."

There was a note of sadness in her tones that touched me profoundly. The cause I can't explain, and the effect was beyond description. I hesitated before making any reply, and when I did I tried to turn it off lightly. "I never saw but one," I answered, "on whom I desired to make an impression."

"And who was that?" the woman inquired with a bright smile of sympathy.

"You will think it a piece of foolishness," I replied; "but it was a lady riding in a top-buggy. I had never seen her before and never expect to see her again."

The youngster clutched his paper in his hand and turned in his chair. "The light is detestable," he said. "Please throw on a piece of pine, mother."

"You can't read by such a light," the woman replied. "Put your paper in your pocket and read it to-morrow." Then she turned to me. "If you are in the army," she said, "why do you wear such clothes? They are not becoming at all." She had such a kindly smile and betrayed such a friendly interest that it was not in human nature to suspect her-at least, it was not in my nature to do so.

"Why, mainly for comfort," I answered; "and while I am wearing them I am having my uniform, such as it is, furbished up and cleaned a bit. I have a few days' lea

ve, and I am taking advantage of it in this way."

"I wish my son here would take advantage of his short furlough to wear the clothes he used to wear," she remarked, and her tone was so significant that I could but regard her with a look of inquiry. I suppose the puzzled expression of my face must have amused her, for she laughed heartily, while the son, as if resenting his mother's words, arose and swaggered to the other end of the room.

We had more conversation, and then I returned to the public room. Some of the guests had retired, but their places had been taken by others, and there was a goodly company gathered around the fire. I found the big arm-chair unoccupied, and, seating myself on its comfortable cushion, soon forgot the wonder I had felt that the woman in the next room had known me for a soldier. I had accomplished one thing-the identification of the prospective horse-thief-and I satisfied myself with that. As for Leroy, I knew I should have to trust to some stroke of good fortune.

The comfort of the rocker appealed to me, and, with my hands on its arms, I leaned back and, in spite of the talking all around me, was soon lost in reflection. Through long usage the upholstering on the arms of the chair had become worn, and in places the tufts of moss or horse-hair were showing. I fell to fingering these with the same impulse of thoughtlessness that induces people to bite their finger-nails. Suddenly I felt my finger in contact with a small roll of paper that had been carefully pushed under the leather, and then I remembered that the last occupant of the chair was the short-haired man-the man who had the general appearance of a prize-fighter.

Now, it had occurred to me in a dim way that this man might be identical with Leroy, and I suspected that he had left in the chair a communication for some of his accomplices. I determined to transfer the roll of paper to my pocket and examine it at my leisure. But no sooner had I come to this determination than I imagined that every person in the room had his eyes fixed on me. And then the problem, if you can call it so, was solved for me.

A stranger who had evidently arrived while I was in the next room appeared to be regarding Whistling Jim with some curiosity, and presently spoke to him, inquiring if he was the negro that played on the piano. Whistler replied that he could "sorter" play. "If you are Whistling Jim," I said, "play us a plantation tune. I heard a man say the other day that the finest tune he ever heard was one you played for him. It was something about 'My gal's sweet.'"

The negro looked at me hard, but something in my countenance must have conveyed a warning to him. "I 'member de man, suh; he say he wuz fum Cincinnati, an' he gun me a fi'-dollar bill-a green one."

Without more ado, he went to the piano and plunged into the heart-breaking melody of-

"Yo' gal's a neat gal, but my gal's sweet-

Sweet-a-little, sweet-a-little, sweet, sweet, sweet!

Fum de crown er her head ter de soles er her feet-

Feet-a-little, feet-a-little, feet, feet, feet!"

Naturally all eyes were turned on the performer, and I took advantage of that fact to rise from the rocking-chair with the roll of paper safe in my pocket, and saunter across the room in the direction of the piano. Leaning against a corner of the ramshackle old instrument, I drank in the melody with a new sense of its wild and melancholy beauty. The room in which I stood seemed transformed into what it never could be, and the old piano shed its discord and was glorified by the marvellous playing of the negro.

The foolish little song runs along for several stanzas, simulating the sound of dancing feet. Alternately the negro sang the air and whistled the chorus, but whether he did one or the other, the effect was the same. The silly song struck the home note and sent it vibrating through my brain so invitingly that I was almost sorry that Whistling Jim had played it.

I returned to earth when he ceased playing. He looked hard at me when he had finished, but I did not glance at him. At the other end of the piano, leaning against it, and apparently lost in thought, was the young fellow I had seen in the other room. His cloak was thrown back from his throat, and the red lining gave a picturesque touch to his small, lithe figure. His face was partly in the shadow, but I could see that his expression was one of profound melancholy. He aroused himself at last, and, looking toward me, said with a smile that had no heart in it, "If all the negroes in the South are so gifted you must have a happy time down there."

"So it would seem," I answered, "but this negro is an exception. He tells me that he learned to play while his old mistress was away from home looking after her plantation interests. He can whistle better than he can play."

"He has great gifts," said the lad, "and I trust he is treated accordingly; but I doubt it," and with that he turned away from the piano with a snap of thumb and finger that sounded for all the world like a challenge. He turned and went swaggering across the room, and seated himself in the rocking-chair of which I have spoken. In a word, and with a snap of the finger, he had thrown mud at the whole South, and with no more excuse than I should have had had I made an attack on the North. Yet curiosity, and not irritation, was uppermost in my mind.

His conduct was so puzzling that I determined to have another taste of it if possible, and so discover what he would be at. So I went back to the fire and took a seat close to his elbow, while Whistling Jim passed around his hat, as was his custom when he played for company. He held it out to all except the young fellow and myself, and then returned to the piano and played for his own amusement, but so softly that conversation could flow on undisturbed.

I had a good look at the lad, and liked him all the better. His face had in it that indescribable quality-a touch of suffering or of sorrow-that always draws me, and I thought how strange it was that he should sit there ignorant of the fact that a word or two would make me his friend for life. I had a great pity for him, and there arose in me the belief that I had met him before, but whether in reality or only in a dream I could not make out. It was a foolish and a romantic notion, but it nibbled around my mind so persistently that I turned my gaze on the fire and fell into reflections that were both teasing and pleasing.

While thus engaged I suddenly became aware of the fact that the young fellow was fingering at the worn place on the chair-arm. Conversation was going on very briskly. The genial landlord, who had joined the group at the fire, was relating to a listening and an eager guest another story of the almost superhuman performances of the Union scout, Leroy, when suddenly the lad arose from the rocker and began to search the floor with his eyes. He had had the color of youth in his cheeks, in spite of the swarthiness of his skin, and I had admired the combination-your light-haired man is for everything that has a touch of the brunette-but now he had gone white.

As he stooped to search under my chair, I jumped up and drew it back politely. "Pardon me for disturbing you," he said; "I have lost a paper."

"Is it of importance?" I inquired, endeavoring to show an interest in the matter.

"You would hardly think so," he replied. "It involves the safety of a woman." I regarded him with unfeigned astonishment, and he, in turn, looked at me with a face as full of anger and disappointment as I had ever beheld.

"Why, you young rascal!" I exclaimed; "what do you know of me that you should speak so? For less than nothing I'll give you a strapping and send you to your daddy."

"You couldn't do me a greater service. He is in heaven." You may imagine my feelings, if you can, when, as he said this, he turned toward me a countenance from which all feeling had died out save that of sadness. If he had plunged a knife in my vitals he could not have hurt me worse. "Well, sir," he insisted, "proceed with your strapping."

"You are more than even with me, my lad," I said, "and I humbly apologize for my words. But why should you be so short with one who certainly wishes you no harm?"

"I am unable to tell you. You seem to be always smiling, while I am in trouble: perhaps that is why I am irritable." He looked at me hard as he resumed his seat in the rocker, and again I had the curious feeling that I had met him somewhere before-perhaps in some sphere of former existence. Memory, however, refused to disgorge the details, and I could only gaze helplessly into the fire.

After a little the lad hitched his chair closer to mine, and I could have thanked him for that. He drew on his glove and drew it off again. "Will you shake hands with me?" he inquired. "I feel that I am all to blame." As I took his hand in mine I could but notice how small and soft it was.

"No, you are not all to blame," I said. "I am ill-mannered by nature."

"I never will believe it," he declared with something like a smile. "No, it is not so."

Before I could make any reply, in walked Jasper Goodrum, of the Independents, and, following hard at his heels, was the man who had the appearance of a prize-fighter. This last comer appeared to be in a state of great excitement, and his brutal, overbearing nature was clearly in evidence. He walked across the room to my lad-I was now beginning to feel a proprietary interest in him-and seized him roughly by the arm.

"Come 'ere!" he said, and his voice was thick with anger. "You've got more'n you bargained for. Come into the next room; you better had! Say, ain't you comin'?" He tried to pull the lad along, but the youngster was not to be pulled.

"Don't touch me!" he exclaimed. "Don't you dare to put your hands on me. You have lied to me, and that is enough!" The short-haired man was almost beside himself with anger, and I could see that the lad would be no match for him. He was not at all frightened, but when he turned his eyes toward me, with a little smile, I saw the face of Jane Ryder, the little lady I had seen in a top-buggy on her way to carry aid to Jack Bledsoe. And instantly I was furious with a blind rage that stung me like a thousand hornets.

I rose and slapped the ruffian on the shoulder in a way that would have knocked an ordinary man down. "You dirty brute!" I cried, "say to me what you have to say to the lad!"

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