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   Chapter 8 No.8

A Little Union Scout By Joel Chandler Harris Characters: 18265

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Making a great effort to climb from the gully into which I had fallen, my foot slipped, and I fell again, and continued to fall till I knew no more. When I came to life again I was not in a gully at all, but stretched out on a bed, with my boots on, and this fact fretted me to such an extent that I threw back the covering and rose to a sitting posture. My head was throbbing somewhat wildly, and I soon found that the cause of the pain was a towel that had been too tightly bound around my forehead. The towel changed into a bandage under my fingers, and I found that I could not compass the intricacies of the fastenings. I remembered that I had disposed safely of the papers I had found in the chair-arm. One was a passport signed by one of the biggest men in the country, authorizing Francis Leroy to pass in and out of the Union lines at any time, day or night, and the other-there were but two-was some useless information with respect to the movements of the Federal forces between Murfreesborough and Memphis.

As I came more and more to my senses, I knew that these papers had been the cause of my undoing; I could see in it, as plain as day, the hand of Jane Ryder, and I was truly sorry. I thought I had been around the world and back again, and I should have been very wise, but the bandage and Jane Ryder were too much for me. How did she know that I had secured the papers? And why did she permit the soldiers to attack me. I was feeling very foolish and childish.

Then I observed that a large man was sitting in front of the small fireplace, and his long legs were stretched completely across the hearth. His head was thrown back, his mouth was open, and he was sound asleep. There was half a handful of some kind of medicine in a saucer on the table, and I judged that the man would be better off for a dose of it. I suppose it was common table salt, but, whatever it was, the notion remained with me that it would be a help to the man. It was a fantastic notion, but it persisted, and finally I lifted the saucer, emptied the medicine in my palm, and transferred it to the open mouth of the man. It failed to arouse him; he merely closed his jaws on the dose and slept on.

I enjoyed the man's discomfiture before it occurred; I knew what a terrible splutter there would be when the stuff began to melt and run down his windpipe. I should have laughed aloud, but the bandage was hurting me terribly. With a vague hope of getting some relief from pain, I opened the door as softly as I could, went out and closed it behind me. Another door was open directly in front of me, and through this I went. In the room a woman was sitting at a window, her head in her hands. She looked up when she heard the slight noise I made, and I was surprised to find myself face to face with Jane Ryder. Her eyes were red and swollen with weeping, and her hands were all of a tremble.

"Will you please, ma'am, take this off?" I said, pointing to the bandage.

She placed her finger on her lip. "Sh-sh!" she whispered, and then, whipping around me, closed the door with no more noise than the wing of a night-bird might make. "In there, and don't move on your life."

She pointed to a closet, but I shook my head.

"Not if I can help myself," I said. "I have just come out of a deep, deep ditch, and I want to hear the splutter." I was whispering, too, such was the woman's influence. She looked at me in amazement; she tried to understand me; but she must have thought me out of my head, for her lips were twitching pitifully and her hands trembling. "It's the man in the next room," I whispered with a grin. "I put a handful of medicine in his mouth. Wait! you'll hear him directly."

"Oh, I am so sorry for you," she cried, wringing her hands. "I am as sorry for you as I am for myself."

"Then please take this bandage off and have my horse brought round."

"I can't! I can't! You're wounded. Go in the closet there."

"I'll go where you go, and I'll stay where you stay," I said; and I must have been talking too loud, for she placed her hand on my lips-and what should I do but hold it there and kiss it, the poor little trembling hand!

And then there came from the next room the famous splutter for which I had been waiting. The soldier made a noise as if he were drowning. He gasped and coughed, and tried to catch his breath; he strangled and lost it, and, when he caught it again, made a sound as if he had a violent case of the whooping-cough. And all this time I was laughing silently, and I came near strangling myself.

Jane Ryder was far from laughter. She was as cool as a cucumber. With one quick movement, and with surprising strength, she had shoved me into the closet. Then she flung the door wide open. As she did so the guard cried out at the top of his voice that the prisoner had escaped. And if ever a man was berated it was that big soldier who had fallen asleep at the post of duty. "You drunken wretch!" she cried; "I knew how it would be; I knew it!" He tried to make an explanation, but she would not hear it. "Oh, I'll make you pay for this! Go-go and find him, and if you fail take your cut-throats away from here and never let me see them again. Report to my brother, and tell him how you carried out your orders. You were to take them all without a struggle, but you took only one, and you bring him here more dead than alive. He is wandering about in the woods now, out of his head."

"But he shot one of my men. Haven't you any feeling for the man that'll be cold and stiff by sun-up?"

"For the man, yes. You should have been the one to pay for your blundering. You failed to carry out your orders, and you had a dozen against three, and one of the three a negro."

The man started away, but his lagging footsteps showed that he had something on his mind, and in a few moments I heard him coming back. "'Tain't no use to hunt for the man in the dark, and by sun-up his friends'll be buzzin' around here worse'n a nest of hornets. We are going back-going back," he repeated, "and you may report what you please."

Then the man went away, mumbling and mouthing to himself. As for me, I should have preferred to go with him. Pretty much everything is fair in war, and Jane Ryder was on the Union side. She knew of the ambuscade and had not told me; it was her duty not to tell. She would have made no sign if we had been going to our deaths. I have never felt more depressed in my life than I did at that moment. Something had slipped from under me, and I had nothing to stand on. I came out of the closet both angry and sorry. "I shall be obliged to you if you will find my hat," I said.

I tried hard to hide my real feelings, and with anyone else the effort would have been successful; but she knew. She came and stood by me and caught me by the arm. "Where would you go?" There was a baffled look in her eyes, and her voice was uneasy.

"Call your man," I said; "I will go with him; it is not his fault that he cannot find me; it is not his fault that I am hiding here in a woman's closet. Nor shall he be punished for it."

"Your hat is not here," she declared. "It must be where you fell. Do you know," she cried, "that you have killed a man? Do you know that?" Her tone was almost triumphant.

"Well, what of that?" I asked. "You set them on us, and the poor fellow took his chance with the rest. Gladly would I take his place." My head was hurting and I was horribly depressed.

She had turned away from me, but now she flashed around with surprising quickness. "You are the cause of it all-yes, you! And, oh, if I could tell you how I hate you! If I could only show you what a contempt I have for you!" She was almost beside herself with anger, passion-I know not what. She shrank back from me, drew in a long breath, and fell upon the floor as if a gust of wind had blown her over; and then I began to have a dim conception of the power that moved and breathed in the personality of this woman. She fell, gave a long, shivering sigh, and, to all appearance, lay before me dead.

In an instant I was wild with remorse and grief. I seized a chair and sent it crashing into the hallway to attract attention. To this noise I added my voice, and yelled for help with lungs that had aroused the echoes on many a hunting-field. There were whisperings below, and apparently a hurried consultation, and then a young woman came mincing up the stairs. I must have presented a strange and terrifying spectacle with my head bandaged and my wild manner, for the woman, with a shriek, turned and ran down the stairs again. I cried again for someone to come to the aid of the lady, and presently someone called up the stairs to know what the trouble was.

I was wild with remorse and grief.

"Come and see," I cried. "The lady has fainted, and she may be dead."

I went into the room again, and, taking Jane Ryder in my arms, carried her into the next room and laid her on the bed. There was a pitcher of water handy, and I sprinkled her face and began to chafe her cold hands. After what seemed an age, the landlord came cautiously along the hall. "C

all the woman," I commanded; "call the woman, and tell her to come in a hurry."

This he did, and then peeped in the room, taking care not to come inside the door. "What is the matter?" he said uneasily.

"Can't you see that the lady is ill?" I answered.

The woman-two women, indeed-came running in response to his summons. "Go in there and see what the trouble is. See if he has killed her. I told her he was dangerous. You shall pay for this," he said, shaking a threatening hand at me, though he came no farther than the door. "You think she has no friends and that you may use her as you please. But I tell you she has friends, and you will have to answer to them."

"Why talk like a fool?" said the elder of the two women-the woman with whom I had talked in the inner room of the tavern. "You know as well as I do that this man has not hurt her. If it were some other man I'd believe you. She has only fainted."

"But fainting is something new to her. He has hurt her, and he shall pay for it," the man insisted.

"And I tell you," the woman repeated, "that he has not harmed a hair of her head. If he had do you think I'd be standing here denying it? Don't you know what I'd be doing?"

"If I am wrong I am quite ready to apologize. I was excited-was beside myself."

"I want none of your apologies," I said to the man. "I have a crow to pick with you, and I'll furnish a basket to hold the feathers."

"It is better to bear no malice," remarked the younger woman, calmly. "The Bible will tell you so."

"It is better to tell me the cause of the trouble," interrupted her elder.

"Why, I hardly know. I asked for my hat, and from one word to another we went till she flamed out at me, and said she hated me, and had a great contempt for me; and then she fell on the floor in a faint. I thought she was dead, but when I laid her on the bed there I saw her eyelids twitching."

The two women eyed each other in a way that displeased me greatly. "I told you so," said one. "It's the world's wonder," replied the other. And then Jane Ryder opened her eyes. It was natural that they should fall on me. She closed them again with a little shiver and then the natural color returned to her face. "I thought you were gone," she whispered.

"Did you think I would go and leave you like this? Do you really think I am a brute-that I have no feeling?" She closed her eyes again, as if reflecting.

"But I told you I hated you. Didn't you hear me? Couldn't you understand?"

"Perfectly," I replied. "I knew it before you told me; but, even so, could I go and leave you as you were just now? Consider, madam. Put yourself in my place-I who have never done you the slightest injury under the blue sky--" I was going on at I know not what rate, but she refused to listen.

"Oh, don't! don't! Oh, please go away!" she cried, holding her arms out toward me in supplicating fashion. It was an appeal not to be resisted, least of all by me. I looked at her-I gave her one glance, as the elderly woman took me by the arm.

"Come with me," she said; "you shall have a hat, though I hardly think it will fit you with the bandage round your head."

She led me downstairs, and, after some searching, she fished out a hat from an old closet, and it did as well as another. She asked me many questions as she searched. How long had I known the poor lady upstairs? and where did I meet her? She would have made a famous cross-questioner. I answered her with such frankness that she seemed to take a fancy to me.

"Some say that the poor lady upstairs is demented," she volunteered.

"Whoever says so lies," I replied. "She has more sense than nine-tenths of the people you meet."

"And then, again, some say she can mesmerize folks." Then, seeing that the information failed to interest me, "What do you think of them-the mesmerizers?"

"I think nothing of them. If they could mesmerize me, I should like to see them do it."

"Oh, would you, you poor young man," she said, with a strange smile. "How would you know that you were mesmerized, and how would you help yourself?"

I know not what reply I made. A fit of dejection had seized me, and I could think of nothing but Jane Ryder. "You mustn't think of that young lady upstairs as hating you," said the woman, after she had brushed the hat and had asked me if I felt strong enough to walk a mile or more. "All she means is that she hates your principles. She hates secession, and she hates Secessionists. But something has upset her of late; she is not herself at all. I'm telling you the truth."

"She hates me; you may depend on that; but her hate makes no difference to me. I love her, and I'd love her if she were to cut my throat."

"Is that true? Are you honest? May I tell her so some time-not now-but some time when you are far away?"

"To what end?" I asked. "She would tear her hair out if she knew it; she would never be happy again."

"You don't happen to love her well enough to join her side, do you?" This question was put hesitatingly, and, as I thought, with some shy hope that it would receive consideration.

"Madam, you have tried to be kind to me in your way, and therefore I will say nothing to wound your feelings; but if a man were to ask me that question he would receive an answer that would prevent him from repeating it in this world."

"Humpty-dumpty jumped over the wall!" exclaimed the woman with a laugh. "I knew what you'd say, but I had my reasons for asking the question; you must go now; and bear in mind," she went on with a sudden display of feeling, "that the war has made such devil's hags of the women, and such devil's imps of the men, that everything is in a tangle. You'll know where you are when you go in the next room. And you must forgive me. I am Jane Ryder's mother."

And, sure enough, I was in the tavern in the woods, and sitting by the hearth was Whistling Jim. To say that he was glad to see me would hardly describe the outward manifestation of his feelings. Someone in the camp, he didn't know who, had sent him word that he'd find me at this house, and he had been waiting for more than an hour, the last half of it with many misgivings. He and Harry had escaped without any trouble, and my horse had followed them so closely that they thought I was on his back. But when they saw that he was riderless, they thought that I had either been captured or killed. Once at camp, Harry Herndon drummed up as many of the Independents as would volunteer, and they had gone in search of me; Whistling Jim heard them riding along the road as he was coming to the tavern.

The faithful negro had a hundred questions to ask, but I answered him in my own way. I was determined that none but those directly concerned should ever know that I had been held a prisoner or that Miss Ryder had a hand in the night's work; and I wished a thousand times over that I had not known it myself. The old saying, worn to a frazzle with repetition, came to me with new force, and I was sadly alive to the fact that where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise.

The night was now far advanced, and once at my quarters I flung myself on the rude bed that had been provided for me, and all the troubles and tangles in this world dissolved and disappeared in dreamless slumber. When morning broke I felt better. My head was sore, but the surgeon removed the bandage, clipped the hair about the wound, took a stitch or two that hurt worse than the original blow, and in an hour I had forgotten the sabre-cut.

Singular uneasiness pervaded my thoughts. More than once I caught myself standing still as if expecting to hear something. I tried in vain to shake off the feeling, and at last I pretended to trace it to feverishness resulting from the wound in the scalp; but I knew this was not so-I knew that one of the great things of life was behind it all; I knew that I had come to the hour that young men hope for and older men dread; I knew that for good or evil my future was wrapped in the mystery and tangle of which Jane Ryder was the centre. My common-sense tried to picture her forth as the spider waiting in the centre of her web for victims, but my heart resented this and told me that she herself had been caught in the web and found it impossible to get away.

I wandered about the camp and through the town with a convalescent's certificate in my pocket and the desperation of a lover in my heart; and at the very last, when night was falling, it was Jasper Goodrum, of the Independents, who gave me the news I had been looking for all day.

"You'd better pick up and go with us, Shannon; our company is going to raid the tavern to-night, and to-morrow we take the road. Oh, you are not hurt bad," he said, trying to interpret the expression on my face; "you can go and I think I can promise you a little fun. They say a spy is housed there, and we propose to smoke him out to-night. Get your horse; we start in half an hour."

He went off down the street, leaving me staring at him open-mouthed. When he was out of sight I turned and ran toward the camp as if my life depended on it.

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