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   Chapter 13 No.13

A Little Union Scout By Joel Chandler Harris Characters: 19912

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


We rode along without adventure of any kind, though I momentarily expected to hear the tramp of Forrest's outriders behind us. They never came, and about ten o'clock-my stomach was my clock in this instance, for I had had no breakfast-we suddenly turned off from the main road and plunged into the shadows of the finest wood I had ever seen. There were giant chestnuts, giant poplars, giant oaks, and giant pines. They were so large that human beings seemed small and insignificant beside them, and I realized that we were in the primeval forest.

The thought, however, did not satisfy my hunger, and I wondered when and where a halt was to be called and rations parcelled out. It is a vexatious feeling for the young to feel the pangs of hunger, and I was not used to a long fast. My feelings were relieved by Whistling Jim, who informed me that he had placed a very substantial ration in my holsters; and I am free to say that, after Colonel Ryder, the negro was the most thoughtful and considerate person I have ever seen. He had an easy explanation for it, and spoke of it very lightly, remarking that all he had to do was to think of himself first "an' de white folks nex'."

In turning into the wood, we were following the lead of the little lady in the top-buggy, and I think that Colonel Ryder had no idea whither she was leading him. Yet he yielded himself and his men to her guidance with a confidence that few soldiers would have displayed. We had come very rapidly until we turned out of the main road, and then we went along more leisurely. This gave me time to overcome my natural stupidity, for I finally realized that our rapid movements on the main road were intended to place us beyond the reach of Forrest's advance guard.

The by-way that we were now following appeared to be little used, yet it was a wide road and a good one, and probably served as the means of communication between isolated farms, or it may have led to some lonely grist-mill which had been built for the convenience of that thinly populated region. Though it was but little used, it was plain to the eye, and I thought with a smile that if Captain Bill Forrest's company should happen to have any leisure a dozen or more of them would be sure to see where it led, in which event--

The smile faded away as soon it came, for I thought of the little lady in the top-buggy who was driving ahead with so much confidence. She would be safe in any event, but what would she think of me if her brother should be captured or killed? I shrunk from facing such a contingency; I shrunk without knowing why. Being a young fellow, and feeling my importance as I have never felt it since, I imagined she would hold me responsible. I had interfered with her plans in more ways than one, and I felt that she owed me a grudge that would grow to enormous proportions should any harm come to her brother.

I was suddenly recalled to the affairs of the moment by hearing the screams of a woman, followed by a rifle-shot. I saw Jane Ryder urging her horse forward, and, without waiting to see what Colonel Ryder proposed to do, I put spurs to my horse, followed by Whistling Jim. The scream of the woman had sent a cold chill all through me, and I was in no humor for waiting to see what the others would do. I thought I heard shouts behind me, but I paid no attention to them. I turned my horse to the left and headed him in the direction from which the sounds had come.

Keeping a sharp eye ahead, I soon came in sight of a cabin sitting lonely and forlorn in the middle of a small clearing. I saw more than this, for three men were engaged in a desperate effort to batter down the door. My horse bore me past the little lady in a flash, although she was using the whip. With a cry of "Halt and surrender!" I rode at the men pistol in hand. They whipped around the house without turning their heads, and ran off into the thick undergrowth, where it would have been both useless and dangerous to pursue them.

They left one of their number on the ground, the victim of the rifle-shot we had heard. He begged lustily for both mercy and water. If he had been compelled to choose between the two I think he would have taken water. I gave him my canteen, which he emptied at a gulp and called for more. There was a strange silence in the house-a silence in decided contrast to the screams I had heard, and I wondered if the wretches had shot the woman. I started to knock on the door with the butt of my pistol, but Jane Ryder was before me.

"Only children do such foolish things," she exclaimed, and I thought she had scorn in her voice. "Sally! Sally Rodgers! Open the door if you are alive! Don't you know me? Your friends are here."

"Pardon me!" I said, pushing past Jane Ryder as the door opened. For a moment I could see nothing whatever, not even the woman who had opened the door, but when my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom that pervaded the house-all the windows were closed-I saw the big Irishman whom I had met at the tavern a few nights before. He was sitting very quietly in the chimney-corner, but I observed that he had me covered with his rifle. I stared at him without a word, and he was equally as silent, but something in the situation-or in his face, for he had as pleasing a countenance as I have ever seen-caused me to laugh.

He had me covered.

"'Tis a long mile from a joke," he declared. "Ye see before ye Private O'Halloran av the sharpshooters. Wan av us is a prisoner, an' I'm thinkin' it's not meself."

"It is not given to every man," I replied, "to be taken prisoner while he is still a prisoner. You will have to speak to Colonel Ryder."

The woman had come from behind the door to greet Jane Ryder, and now she was giving her all the details of her troubles, her voice pitched in a very high key. Meanwhile, half a dozen children in various stages of undress swarmed from under the bed and stood staring at us. "The sound of the woman's screams," said I, turning to Jane Ryder, "caused me to forget that I am a prisoner. I hope your brother doesn't think that I made that an excuse for running away."

"And why shouldn't a prisoner escape-if he can?" she asked, after a moment's hesitation. "You'll never have a better opportunity to rejoin your command. You are not under parole, and you are under no obligations to my brother. You have only to mount your horse, beckon to your negro, and follow the path you will find at the back of the house. It leads by a grist-mill. A part of your command has already passed on the road beyond the mill, but if you will go now you will fall in with the rear-guard."

"Beggin' pardon," said O'Halloran, taking off his hat to the lady, "the lad has engagements wit' me. He's me twenty-ninth, all told, an' there's luck in odd numbers. If it's all the same to you, mum, he'll stay here."

"But it's not all the same to me, Mr. O'Halloran," she said, turning to the Irishman. "I prefer that he should go."

His eyes grew bigger as he stared at the lady. "Oh--" he exclaimed, and then paused with his mouth open. "Niver did I hope to see me gallant Captain in this rig. It doesn't become ye at all. The trimmin's make ye a fut shorter, an' be me soul! ye was short enough to begin wit'." His amazement made her laugh, but she made no reply.

"Are you going?" she inquired, turning to me. I hesitated. Undoubtedly here was an opportunity, but something or other-some feeling or sentiment-call it what you will-held me back.

"Not now," I said, finally. "Some other time, perhaps, but not now." I did not realize at the time why I held back-why I refused to be free.

She turned away from me with a petulant shrug of the shoulders, as much as to say that she was no longer under obligations to me for preventing her capture by the party that had raided the tavern. The big Irishman, who had evidently recognized the little lady as a person of some importance, went so far as to try to persuade me to make my escape, or, rather, to take advantage of the escape I had already made.

"If ye're stayin' thinkin' he's a woman, don't do ut. Don't stop for to say good-by, but straddle yure horse an' be off wit' ye."

But the little lady had a mind of her own, as I was shortly to discover. After she had talked with the woman for a few minutes, she turned to me.

"Will you ride with me a few miles?" she inquired. "Your negro can lead your horse."

I agreed with such promptness and eagerness that a faint tinge of color came into her face. But, in the bustle of getting away, I paid little attention to her appearance until we were on the move again, and then I observed that she was very pale. I thought it was cold, and said so.

"The wind is certainly chilly," she replied, and then, moved by embarrassment, or stirred by the motherly instinct that constitutes more than half the charm of womanhood, she leaned over and tucked the lap-robe about my knees, and then fell back in her place, laughing gleefully, as a child might have laughed. Indeed, for a woman grown, this little lady had more of the cunning tricks of childhood than anyone I had ever seen-the cute little ways that endear children to those who love them. At the time, this fact did not add to my happiness, for, what with her womanliness and her childishness, she presented a problem that puzzled and dazzled me, for my mind was wofully lacking in the nimbleness necessary to follow the swift changes of her moods.

She had turned the buggy into the woods, and was driving along with no road to guide her. I had not the remotest idea whither she was carrying me, but by way of saying something I protested against the way she was pushing her horse. "You will need him after to-day," I explained.

"I have reason to be in a hurry," she said. "Horses are cheap enough with us. They are furnished by the Government."

"Still, he is a fairly good horse," I remarked, "and he deserves some considera

tion on his own account."

"Do you think so?" she cried. "I am sure you are very kind-to horses. If I am driving him too hard you have yourself to thank. You have upset all my plans, and I am not very happy. Don't you think a woman deserves as much consideration as a horse?"

"They are to be treated according to their deserts," I answered, gravely. "They know what duty is. Private O'Halloran says that you are no woman, and I say that you are no man. Where does consideration fall in your case?"

"I ask for no more consideration than you would accord to a human being. Mr. O'Halloran has never seen me in my proper dress before, and he knows only how I appear at night when I am working for the cause of the Union. But who are you that you should judge of the deserts of men and women? You are nothing but a boy, and you'll not be different when you are a man. Instead of marching with your comrades, here you are riding in a buggy with a woman-and for what? In the name of heaven, tell me for what?"

She seemed to be overcome by quite a little flurry of passion, and her manner irritated me. "You know why as well as I do," I replied, soberly enough. "You heard the orders my General gave me in the first place, and, in the second place, you know that I am a prisoner. It is odd that you can play a game and forget the score. I imagined when I started that my duty would be the greatest pleasure of my life."

"Do you know where you are going now?" she inquired, very seriously.

"It is a matter of indifference to me," I answered. "Wherever I go, I am in the hands of Providence."

"If you could believe that," she remarked, "it would do you a world of good."

I laughed at her serious manner. "Believe it!" I exclaimed. "Why, it is too plain for mere belief. I do not believe it-I know it."

She was silent for a long time, and when she did speak her words, showed that the matter was still on her mind. "It seems to me very peculiar," she said, "that one so young should have such solemn thoughts."

"Why do you call them solemn thoughts?" I asked. "Can anything be more cheerful than to know that you are altogether in the hands of a higher Power-to know that you will be taken care of; or, if you perish, to know that it will be in the very nick of time?"

"You are too serious to be romantic," she said. "I should like to see you making love."

"I can gratify your humor with a right good will-only the lady I would make love to despises me."

"I'll never believe it," she declared, and it was evident that she meant what she said.

"That is because you have only a vague idea of the cruelty of woman when she has a man at her mercy-and knows it."

"I should like to see some woman at your mercy," she said. "No doubt you would give free play to the strap and the rawhide and other implements of the slave-driver."

Her words made me wince, and I must have shown the wound, for when I looked at her her countenance wore an expression of regret and repentance. "You must forgive me," she declared. "If we were to be thrown together you would have to forgive me fifty times a day."

"Well, I thank heaven," I exclaimed, with some feeling, "that I was never at the mercy of more than one woman, and that fact was mitigated somewhat. She was arrayed in the garb of a man, and I was so sorry for her that I forgot she had me at her mercy."

"You should have told her," the little lady declared. "Perhaps if she had known her conduct would have been vastly different. You never know what a woman will do until she has been put to the test."

"She did a good deal," I said, sullenly. "She called me a coward, a rebel, and a traitor."

"Then she must have been in despair," replied the little lady in the most matter-of-fact way. "When you are a little older you will discover that despair has an anger all its own. But I hope you will never feel it," she sighed. "Anyone can I see that you know very little about women."

"I hope my ignorance does me no harm," I suggested.

"Not the slightest," she answered. "It is a help to you. It is the sort that goes with youth, and I had rather have your youth than all the experience in the world."

The answer I made I shall always regard as an inspiration. "You can have my youth," I said, "if you will take all that goes with it." For one or two little moments she either doubted her ears or failed to catch my meaning. But when she could no longer doubt-when she was obliged to understand me-she hid her face in her hands to conceal the result of her emotions. I seized her hands and compelled her to look at me. She was blushing like a school-girl. "Is my youth, with all its appurtenances, worth your acceptance?" I asked. She made no reply, and I think she would have maintained silence the rest of the way but for my persistent chattering.

To me her embarrassment was very beautiful-thrilling, indeed-and in some mysterious way her youth came back to her, and she seemed to be no more than sixteen. "My youth is not too youthful for you," I insisted. "I have grown very much older lately, and you have become a girl again in the last five minutes." She was still silent, and I took advantage of it to draw her hands under the lap-robe. "There is no reason why your fingers should freeze," I said.

"They are not likely to-now," she declared, and, though it may have been pure imagination, I thought she leaned a little nearer, and the bare idea of such graciousness on her part seemed to change my whole nature. All the folly of youth went out of me, and love came in and took its place and filled my whole being. What I had been belonged to the remote past; I knew that I should never be the same again.

"I offered you my youth," I said, "and now I offer you my manhood, such as it is. You must answer yea or nay."

She gave me a quick, inquiring glance, and her face told me all that I desired to know. "Neither yea nor nay," she replied. "We are both very foolish, but, of the two, I am the more foolish. We are trying to look too far ahead; we are prying into the future, and the future is away beyond us. Everything you say and everything I have in my mind is absurd, no matter how agreeable it may be. Do you care enough for me to desert your comrades and fling your principles to the four winds? Do I care enough for you to leave my people and give my sympathies to your side?" She was smiling as she spoke, but I knew that she was very serious, and I made no reply. "I am going to tell you the simple truth," she went on. "I do care enough for you to leave everything for your sake, for there can be no real love where there is not a willingness to sacrifice all-- Oh, I don't know why women are compelled to make all the sacrifices."

"She not only does that," I replied, "but she is compelled to bear the burden of them alone. Ordinarily, man is a hindrance rather than a help, but I am here to help you."

"Then help me in the right way," she implored.

"I will," I replied; "but here is an argument that is worth all the rest," and with that I drew her to me and pressed my lips to hers. She made no resistance whatever, but somehow the argument did not appeal to her reason.

"I could kiss you twice ten thousand times," she declared, "but facts would remain the same. I have heard that your people have great notions of honor, and I hope it is true in your case."

Well, it was only too true, and I knew it, but, manlike, I must take some reprisal from the truth. "Your mother told me," I said, "that you have a great knack of hurting those you love."

She leaned against me with a sigh. "If I thought that the truth could really hurt you," she declared, "I should never be happy again in this world, but it is something else that hurts, and it is hurting me a great deal worse than it is hurting you."

I suppose I am not the only man in the world that has been caught in the desert that sometimes stretches its barren wastes between love and duty. I knew that if I but held out my hand to this little woman she would give up all, and, assuredly, had she held out her hand to me I should have flung duty to the winds. But she was of a different mould. The only comfort I had at the moment was in feeling that the sacrifice was mutual.

I longed for her brother to ride up behind us, so that I might still be a prisoner, but she had provided against that. I realized at last that I had never been regarded as a prisoner. I should have been grateful, but I was not-at least, not at the moment. If, as has been said, a man cuts a ridiculous figure when he is sulking, my appearance must have been truly laughable. But the little lady was very sweet and patient. Her eyes were so full of tears, as she afterward confessed, that she could hardly see to guide her horse.

When I came to take note of my surroundings I could not refrain from uttering an exclamation of surprise. We had issued from the forest, when or how I knew not, and were now ascending a very steep hill. Looking back, I saw a mill behind me, and noticed that Whistling Jim was engaged in conversation with the miller. He was evidently negotiating for meal or flour; but it all came to me as in a dream.

"Did you see the mill as we came by?" I asked.

"Certainly," the little lady replied. "Didn't you hear me speak to the miller?"

"I don't know how I am to forgive you for seeing and hearing things. I didn't know we had come out of the wood."

She laughed merrily and laid her face against my arm, but when she lifted it she was crying. "Oh, don't make it too hard for me," she pleaded. "I am not myself to-day. Duty has been poisoned for me, and I shall be wretched until this war is over. Surely it can't last long."

"Not longer than a century," I replied, bitterly.

"Look yonder!" she exclaimed.

We had now reached the top of the hill, and when I looked in the direction in which she pointed, I saw a sight that thrilled me.

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