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   Chapter 7 No.7

A Little Union Scout By Joel Chandler Harris Characters: 15442

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Now, when the foolish girl disappeared behind the door, I turned away from the gate full of anger at all mundane things. But the only human being near at hand was Whistling Jim, and him I seized by the collar.

"You scoundrel!" I exclaimed, shaking him vigorously; "what do you mean by going off and leaving the stable-door unlocked?"

"Mar-Marse Cal-Cally-lem-lemme tell you 'bout it!" he cried, affrighted; and then, ashamed of my silly display of temper, I turned him loose. "What make you so fractious ter-night, Marse Cally? A little mo' an' you'd 'a' shuck my head off. I declar' ter gracious, Marse Cally, I thought I locked dat stable-door. I know I turned de key-dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat. I tuck de key out'n de lock when I went in, an' put it back in de lock when I come out-I put it in de lock an' turned it des like I allers do."

"But what you didn't do," said I, now angry with myself, "was to make sure that the bolt of the lock had caught. It didn't catch, and when I went there to-night the door yielded to my hand. It was a piece of pure carelessness, and if you ever do the like again--"

"Don't talk dat way, Marse Cally; you sho is been mighty good ter me, an' I don't want ter make you mad. I never is ter do dat trick ag'in."

Then I told him that there was a plot on foot to steal the horses, and advised him as to the identity of the two men. He knew them both-especially did he know the prominent citizen, who, on various occasions, had invited him into the store and made him presents of pipe and tobacco, and had even hinted to him that he could find a good job for him when he grew tired of working for nothing. He had also given him whiskey, which was a contraband article in the recruiting camp.

We walked along very friendly, for I was ashamed of myself for giving way to my temper. When the negro thought I was in a sufficiently good humor, he endeavored to ease his own curiosity on a matter that had evidently been worrying him. "Marse Cally," he said, "who wuz dat little chap we tuck home des now?"

"I don't know his name. Why do you ask?"

"Kaze he look so funny an' done so funny. He ain't look like no man ter me."

"Why, of course not; he is little more than a boy; that's the reason I made him come out of that house."

"He moughter been a boy," remarked Whistling Jim, after taking some time to think the matter over. "He wuz right knock-kneed, an' when he walked he walked des like de flo' wuz burnin' his foots."

I could only pretend to laugh, but I wondered at the negro's keep observation. Seeing that I made no reply, he went on: "You know what I think, Marse Cally? Dat uppity li'l chap is des ez much a man ez you is a 'oman."

"Well, it may be so," I replied. "He is nothing to me."

Whistling Jim laughed one of his irritating laughs. "Dat's so, suh, but I tuck notice dat you helt han's wid 'im a mighty long time."

This was intolerable, and I remarked with some severity that I proposed to make it my special business to inform Harry Herndon how his negro had neglected his duty. "Now, don't do dat, Marse Cally, please, suh! You know mighty well dat Marse Harry can't keep his temper like you does. I dunner when you been ez fractious ez you is ter-night."

"You are the cause of it," I declared, "you and no one else. First you leave the stable-door unlocked, and then you say that this young fellow is neither man nor boy."

"Did I say dat, Marse Cally?" exclaimed Whistling Jim, apparently almost as much amazed as if I had drawn a pistol on him. He stood a moment, as if trying to remember the circumstances under which the remark had been made, but he shook his head sadly. "Ef I said dat, Marse Cally, I must 'a' been dreamin'; I wuz mighty nigh fast asleep when we started back des now, an' ef you'd 'a' lissened right close I speck you'd 'a' hearn me a sno'in'. Ef you say I said it, den I reckon I must 'a' said it, but I wan't at myse'f, kaze ef dey ever wuz a grown man on top er de groun', dat chap is one."

"You are sharper than I thought you were," I remarked.

"You must be makin' fun er me, Marse Cally, kaze dey ain't nothin' sharp 'bout knowin' a man fum a 'oman. Ef I didn't know de diffunce I'd turn myse'f out ter graze wid de dry cattle, an' stay wid um all thoo de season."

"Now, that's the way to talk," said I with some heartiness; "but if I ever find the stable-door unlocked again I'll take it for granted that you have changed your opinion about our young friend."

"I may leave de stable-door onlocked time an' time ag'in," remarked Whistling Jim solemnly, "but I never is ter b'lieve dat dat boy is anything but a man."

I made haste to inform Harry Herndon that Jack Bledsoe was in the neighborhood, and, as was perfectly natural, he was keen to see him, less for Jack's sake, I imagine, though he loved the young fellow well, than for the sake of having some news of the fair Katherine. As the heaviest part of his work at headquarters was over, and as pretty much everything had depended on the reply to General Forrest's requisition on his superior officer-who, unfortunately, chanced to be General Bragg-for arms and ammunition, Harry had no difficulty in securing leave of absence for the day; and so, when all the arrangements had been made, we set out the next evening for the house where Jack Bledsoe lay.

On the way, I suggested that perhaps Jack's mother and the fair cousin would probably be found there; and this possibility was in Harry's mind also, for he leaned from his horse toward me and extended his hand, uttering not a word. I gripped it with mine, and hoped that before I died I should have the opportunity of shaking another hand as true. One other I found-but only one.

Jack's mother met us at the door, and not far behind her was the fair Katherine, more beautiful than ever. I saw at a glance that the ladies were expecting us, for they were rigged out in their best, which was not very bad, considering that they had been caught between the lines with a wounded man on their hands. Another face that I had expected to see was not in evidence, and whatever enthusiasm I may have felt in the beginning soon died away, and I was sorry that I had been foolish enough to accompany Harry.

We were taken at once to Jack's room, and it was very evident that he was glad to see us again. He had changed a great deal; he looked older, and appeared to be worn by illness. He had been removed from the cabin on the river at a critical period, and, as a result, he was compelled to go through a long and drastic illness. He was on the high road to recovery, but I thought he would never be the same handsome Jack again, so cadaverous was his countenance and so changed his voice. The two ladies and myself left the friends together and went into the room that had been the parlor, where there was a brisk fire burning.

The house was a very commodious country home and had evidently been built by some prosperous person whose heart and mind turned to the country after he had acquired wealth in the town. But the owner had deserted it when the Federals took possession of Murfreesborough, leaving furniture and everything to the mercy of circumstance-the cruel circumstance that goes hand in hand with war. But everything was intact. The old piano stood in the corner as glossy as if it had been newly bought, and the carpets on the floor wore a clean look, though some of them were threadbare.

After a while, Harry came in search of Kate-she was more important than his wounded friend-and Mrs. Bledsoe went to take her place by Jack's bedside. This arrangement would have left me very much alone, but for the thoughtfulness of Kate, who intimated that

I should find very interesting company in the next room. "Don't be afraid," she said. But I was very much afraid, I know not why, and hesitated a long time before I ventured into the room.

And when I did venture to wander in casually, I was more afraid than ever, for at a window a small lady sat reading. I knew her at once for Jane Ryder, but that fact made me no bolder. On the contrary, I felt a timidity that was almost childish; it was a feeling that carried me away back to my boyhood, when I refused to go into a room where there was a company of little girls.

"I beg your pardon," said I, and began to back toward the door.

"Oh, no harm is done," the lady declared, closing the book, but keeping the place with her fore-finger. "Did you desire to see me? Or perhaps you would see Miss Bledsoe?"

"No, ma'am-I-that is, Miss Bledsoe is talking with a friend of mine, and I just wandered in here, having nothing else to do."

"To be sure! I believe that is a custom of Southern gentlemen."

"What is?" I asked, rather abruptly.

"Why, to go to houses and wander from room to room until their curiosity is satisfied."

I was angry, though I knew that she meant not a word she said. "Does Mrs. Bledsoe indulge in that habit?" I asked.

"Habit? I said custom. Mrs. Bledsoe is a changed woman since she has lived among people who know something of the world and its ways, and who are not slave-drivers."

"I believe this is Miss Jane Ryder," I said.

"Your memory is better than your manners," she replied, and though I tried hard to keep my temper, her words stung me to the quick.

"I assure you I had not the least desire to disturb you. I came in here with the hope, though not the expectation, of finding a lad who came here last night."

"He is not here," she asserted, "and if he were, he has no desire to see you. He told me something of his encounter with you, and if that is the way you treat a young lad, I wonder how you would have treated an unprotected woman."

I would not trust myself to speak to her. I made her a low obeisance and retired from the room; but I was not to escape so easily. She pursued her advantage; she followed me out into the hall. "Is it true that the young man compelled you to accompany him to this house last night?"

"If he told you so, madam, it is true," I replied.

"After threatening to give you a strapping?" she asked. Her mood was almost exultant, though she had been gloomy enough when I first disturbed her.

"If he says so, madam."

"He didn't say so, but I believe he slapped your face, for it is still red."

"Perhaps he did, madam."

"I am no madam, I'll let you know; why do you call me so?"

"It is simply a term of respect, ma'am. Our young people are taught to be respectful to ladies."

"You may be sure that the young man would have remained to see you, but I was afraid you'd run away and leave your friend." Women can be very childish sometimes, and this was pure childishness.

"Why, I had no idea that he bore me any ill-will," I remarked. "He trotted along by my side in perfect good-humor when I was fetching him home. If he has any grudge against me, I do not think the fault is mine. Say to him that I apologize most humbly for any offence I may have given him." Jane Ryder was now sure that I did not connect her with the lad-was sure that I had not pierced her disguise, and she became at once very much friendlier. Her relief was apparent in voice and gesture.

"The truth is," she went on, "the young man is very fond of you, much to my surprise. It is a strange fancy," she mused; "there is no accounting for it. I believe you could prevail on him to leave his friends and go with you to the South; that is why I am keeping him away from you."

"I have had few friends," I said, "and if you could add the young man to the list and place him above all the rest, I should be happy. But as for persuading him to desert his principles, I should never think of it; and I should think ill of him if he could be persuaded."

"He really thinks that you are one of the finest men he ever met," pursued Jane Ryder. "He says that a young woman would be as safe from insult with you as she would be with her mother."

"And why not?" I inquired. "I thank your friend for his good opinion of me; but it is no great compliment to me to say that I should protect a woman with my life, if need be. Back yonder there are gathered three or four thousand men, and out of that four thousand you will not find ten who would not do the same and think it nothing to boast of."

"I wouldn't trust them," she declared.

"Would you trust me?" I asked. The words were out of my mouth before I could recall them. They meant more than she would think or than she would care for them to mean.

"I certainly would," she said, clenching her hands in a strange little gesture.

"I thank you for saying that much," I declared. "The time may come-not soon, perhaps-when I shall have to ask you to trust me."

"Soon or late," she replied, "my answer will be the same."

I never was more shaken with the excitement of temptation than at that moment. She must have known it; they say women are quick at reading the thoughts of a man, but, instead of drawing away from me, she drew nearer. In another instant I should have seized her in my arms, the pale and lonely creature, but just then the sound of footsteps came along the hall, and I heard the happy laughter of Katherine Bledsoe. I had raised my arms, but now I lowered them and she had seized my hand.

"Good-by!" she said, and as soon as she could tear her hand from mine she was gone-gone by another door, and Harry and her companion came plump upon me standing in the hallway, gazing at the door through which Jane Ryder had disappeared. Then I turned and gazed at them, first at one and then at the other.

"What have you done with her?" inquired Kate, with just a shade of solicitude in her voice. "Oh, I hope you haven't hurt her," she cried. "She has the tenderest heart in the world."

"Hurt her? Hurt her?" It was all that I could say, and then all of a sudden I came to myself and stood there laughing very foolishly. "She ran away," I explained. "I don't know why. I am sure I didn't want her to go!"

Whereupon Kate fell to laughing, and kept it up until the tears came into her eyes. "Oh, men are such simpletons!" she exclaimed; "I don't know what I should do for amusement if I didn't see the lords of creation once in a great while."

We bade good-by to the household-though Jane Ryder was nowhere to be found-and went to our horses, which we had left in charge of Whistling Jim. That worthy was in quite a flutter. He had heard strange noises, and he was almost sure that he had caught a glimpse of more than one man in the darkness. We paid little enough attention to what he said, for we knew that the ladies were safe so far as the Confederates were concerned, and Jack Bledsoe would answer for their safety with the Federals.

Nevertheless, there was no one to answer for our safety, and we had no more than mounted our horses before we discovered that we were surrounded. We heard the tramp of cavalry on all sides. A quiet voice in the darkness made itself heard: "Don't shoot unless they resist!"

"Ride them down!" exclaimed Harry. My horse ran full into another horse, and he and his rider went down just as I used my pistol. Some one with an oath whacked me over the head with a sabre, my horse stumbled in the darkness, and down I went into chaos. I thought I heard someone singing, and then it seemed as if there was a free concert in progress, while I lay helpless in a great gully out of which I could not climb.

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