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   Chapter 27 No.27

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 26229

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The effort to crush Lee's army by a frontal attack led to the disastrous defeat of Cold Harbor, and Grant who was never personally routed resolved to throw his army south of the James River. It involved a concealed night march, while his lines were in many places but thirty to one hundred feet from the watchful Confederates. The utmost secrecy was used in regard to the bold movement intended, but preparations for it demanded frequent reconnaissances and map-sketching on the part of the engineers. A night of map-making after a long day in the saddle left John Penhallow on June 6th a weary man lying on his camp-bed too tired to sleep. He heard Blake ask, "Are you at home, Penhallow?" Few men would have been as welcome as the serious-minded New England captain who had met Penhallow from time to time since the engineer's mud-bath in the Pamunkey River.

"Glad to get you by yourself," said Blake. "You look used up. Do keep quiet!"

"I will, but sit down and take a pipe. Coffee, Josiah!" he called out. "I am quite too popular by reason of Josiah's amazing ability to forage. If the Headquarters are within reach, he and Bill-that's the general's man-hunt together. The results are surprising! But I learned long ago from my uncle, Colonel Penhallow, that in the army it is well to ask no unnecessary questions. My man is very intelligent, and as I keep him in tobacco and greenbacks, I sometimes fancy that Headquarters does not always get the best out of the raids of these two contrabands."

"I have profited by it, Penhallow. I have personal memories of that young roast pig, I think your man called it a shoat. Your corps must have caught it hard these last days. I suppose we are in for something unusual. You are the only man I know who doesn't grumble. Francis says it's as natural to the beast called an army as barking is to a dog."

"Of course, the habit is stupid, Blake. I mean the constant growl about the unavoidable discomforts of war; but this last week has got me near the growling point. I have had two ague chills and quinine enough to ring chimes in my head. I haven't had a decent wash for a week, and really war is a disgustingly dirty business. You don't realize that in history, in fiction, or in pictures. It's filthy! Oh, you may laugh!"

"Who could help laughing?"

"I can to-day. To-morrow I shall grin at it all, but just now I am half dead. What with laying corduroys and bridging creeks, to be burnt up next day, and Chickahominy flies-oh, Lord! If there is nothing else on hand in the way of copies of maps, some general like Barnard has an insane curiosity to reconnoitre. Then the Rebs wake up-and amuse themselves."

Blake laughed. "You are getting pretty near to that growl."

"Am I? I have more than impossible demands to bother me. What with some despondent letters-I told you about my uncle's wound and the results, I should have a fierce attack of home-sickness if I had leisure to think at all."

Blake had found in Penhallow much that he liked and qualities which were responsive to his own high ideal of the man and the soldier. He looked him over as the young engineer lay on his camp-bed. "Get anything but home-sick, Penhallow! I get faint fits of it. The quinine of 'Get up, captain, and put out those pickets' dismisses it, or bullets. Lord, but we have had them in over-doses of late. Francis has been hit twice but not seriously. He says that Lee is an irregular practitioner. It is strange that some men are hit in every skirmish; it would bleed the courage out of me."

"Would it? I have had two flesh wounds. They made me furiously angry. You were speaking of Lee-my uncle greatly admired him. I should like to know more about him. I had a little chance when we were trying to arrange a truce to care for the wounded. You remember it failed, but I had a few minute's talk with a Rebel captain. He liked it when I told him how much we admired his general. That led him to talk, and among other things he told me that Lee had no sense of humour and I gathered was a man rather difficult of approach."

"He might apply to Grant for the rest of his qualities," said Blake. "He would get it; but what made you ask about sense of the humorous? I have too little, Francis too much."

"Oh," laughed Penhallow, "from saint to sinner it is a good medicine-even for home-sickness."

"And the desperate malady of love," returned Blake. "I shall not venture to diagnose your need. How is that?"

"I?-nonsense," laughed the engineer. "But seriously, Blake, about home-sickness; one of my best men has it badly-not the mild malady you and I may have."

"You are quite right. It accounts for some desertions-not to the enemy, of course. I talked lately of this condition to a Dr. McGregor-"

"McGregor!" returned Penhallow, sitting up. "Where is he? I'd like to see him-an old comrade."

"He is with our brigade."

"Tell him to look me up. The engineers are easily found just now. He was an old schoolmate."

"I'll tell him. By the way, Penhallow, when asking for my mail to-day, I persuaded the post-master to give me your letters. Don't mind me-you will want to read them-quite a batch of them."

"Oh, they can wait. Don't go. Ah! here's Josiah with coffee."

"How it does set a fellow up, Penhallow. Another cup, please. I had to wait a long time for our letters and yours. Really that place was more tragic than a battlefield."

"Why so? I send Josiah for my mail."

"Oh, there were three cold-blooded men-machines returning letters. I watched them marking the letters-'not found'-'missing'-and so on."

"Killed, I suppose-or prisoners."

"Yes, awful, indeed-most sorrowful! Imagine it! Others were forwarding letters-heaps of them-from men who may be dead. You know how apt men are to write letters before a battle."

"I wait till it is over," said Penhallow.

"That post-office gave me a fit of craving for home and peace."

"Home-sickness! What, you, Blake!"

"Oh, that worst kind; home-sickness for a home when you have no home. I wonder if in that other world we shall be home-sick for this."

"That depends. Ah! here comes a reminder that we are in this world just now-and just as we have begun one of our real talks."

An orderly appeared with a note. Penhallow read it. He was on his feet at once. "Saddle Hoodoo, Josiah. I must go. Come soon again, Blake. We have had a good talk-or a bit of one."

At four in the morning of June 14th, when John Penhallow with a group of older engineers looked across the twenty-one hundred feet of the James River they were to bridge, he realized the courage and capacity of the soldier who had so completely deceived his wary antagonist. Before eleven that night a hundred pontoons stayed by barges bridged the wide stream from shore to shore. Already the Second Corps under Hancock had been hastily ferried over the river. The work on the bridge had been hard, and the young Captain had had neither food nor rest. Late at night, the work being over, he recrossed the bridge, and after a hasty meal lay down on the bluff above the James with others of his Corps and slept the uneasy sleep of an overtired man. At dawn he was awakened by the multiple noises of an army moving on the low-lying meadows below the bluff. Refreshed and free from any demand on his time, he breakfasted at ease, and lighting his pipe was at once deeply interested in what he saw. As he looked about him, he was aware of General Grant standing alone on the higher ground. He saw the general throw away his cigar and with hands clasped behind him remain watching in rapt silence the scene below him. "I wonder," thought Penhallow, "of what he is thinking." The face was grave, the man motionless. The engineer turned to look at the matchless spectacle below him. The sound of bands rose in gay music from the approaches to the river, where vast masses of infantry lay waiting their turn to cross. The guns of batteries gleamed in the sun, endless wagon-trains and ambulances moved or were at rest. Here and there the wind of morning fluttered the flags and guidons with flashes of colour. The hum of a great army, the multitudinous murmurs of men talking, the crack of whips, the sharp rattle of wagons and of moving artillery, made a strange orchestra. Over all rose the warning shrieks of the gun-boat signals. Far or near on the fertile meadows the ripened corn and grain showed in green squares between the masses of men and stirred in the morning breeze or lay trampled in ruin by the rude feet of war. It was an hour and a scene to excite the dullest mind, and Penhallow intensely interested sat fascinated by a spectacle at once splendid and fateful. The snake-like procession of infantry wagons and batteries moved across the bridge and was lost to view in the forest. Penhallow turned again to look at his general, who remained statuesque and motionless. Then, suddenly the master of this might of men and guns looked up, listened to Warren's artillery far beyond the river, and with the same expressionless face called for his horse and rode away followed by his staff.

The battle-summer of 1864 went on with the wearisome siege of Petersburg and the frequent efforts to cut the railways which enabled the Confederates to draw supplies from states which as yet had hardly felt the stress of war.

Late in the year the army became a city of huts, and there was the unexampled spectacle of this great host voting quietly in the election which gave to Lincoln another evidence of the trust reposed in him. The engineers had little to do in connection with the larger movements of the army, and save for the siege work were at times idle critics of their superiors. The closing month of 1864 brought weather which made the wooden huts, usually shared by two officers, more comfortable than tents. The construction of these long streets of sheltering quarters brought out much ingenuity, and Penhallow profited by Josiah's clever devices and watchful care. As the army was in winter-quarters, there was time enough for pleasant visiting, and for the engineers more than enough of danger in the trenches or when called on to accompany some general officer as an aide during Grant's obstinate efforts to cut the railways on which Lee relied. Francis, not gravely wounded, was at home repairing damages; but now, with snow on the ground and ease of intercourse, Blake was a frequent visitor in the engineer quarters. When Rivers also turned up, the two young men found the talk unrivalled, for never had the tall clergyman seemed more attractive or as happy.

Of an afternoon late in November Penhallow was toasting himself by the small fire-place and deep in thought. He had had a long day in the intrenchments and one moment of that feeling of imminent nearness to death which affects men in various ways. A shell neatly dropped in a trench within a few feet of where he stood, rolled over, spitting red flashes. The men cried, "Down, down, sir!" and fell flat. Something like the fascination a snake exercises held him motionless; he never was able to explain his folly. The fuse went out as he watched it-the shell was a dead thing and harmless. The men as they rose eyed him curiously.

"A near thing," he said, and with unusual care moved along a traverse, his duty over for the day. He took with him a feeling of mental confusion and of annoyed wonder.

He found Josiah picking a chicken as he sat whistling in front of the tent. "There's been a fight, sir, about three o'clock, on our left. Bill says we beat."

"Indeed!" It was too common news to interest him. He felt some singular completeness of exhaustion, and was troubled because of there being no explanation which satisfied him. Asking for whisky to Josiah's surprise, he took it and lay down, as the servant said, "There's letters, sir, on the table."

"Very well. Close the tent and say I'm not well; I won't see any one."

"Yes, sir. Nothing serious?"

"No." He fell asleep as if drugged.

Outside Josiah picked his lean chicken and whistled with such peculiar sweetness as is possible only to the black man. Everything interested him. Now and then he listened to the varied notes of the missiles far away and attracting little attention unless men were so near that the war-cries of shot and shell became of material moment. The day was cold, and an early November snow lay on the ground and covered the long rows of cabins. Far to the rear a band was practising. Josiah listened, and with a negative head-shake of disapproving criticism returned to the feather picking and sang as he picked:

I wish I was in Dixie land,

In Dixie land, in Dixie land.

He held up the plucked fowl and said, "Must have been on short rations."

The early evening was quiet. Now and then a cloaked horseman went by noiseless on the snow. Josiah looked up, laid down the chicken, and listened to the irregular tramp of a body of men. Then, as the head of a long column came near and passed before him between the rows of huts, he stood up to watch them. "Prisoners," he said. Many were battle-gri

med and in tatters, without caps and ill-shod. Here and there among them a captured officer marched on looking straight ahead. The larger part were dejected and plodded on in silence, with heads down, while others stared about them curious and from the cabins near by a few officers came out and many soldiers gathered. As usual there were no comments, no sign of triumph and only the silence of respect.

Josiah asked a guard where they came from. "Oh, Hancock's fight at

Hatcher's Run-got about nine hundred."

The crowd of observers increased in number as the end of the line drew near. Josiah lost interest and sat down. "Got to singe that chicken," he murmured, with the habit of open speech of the man who had lived long alone. Suddenly he let the bird drop and exclaimed under his breath, "Jehoshaphat!"-his only substitute for an oath-"it's him!" Among the last of the line of captured men he saw one with head bent down looking neither to the right nor the left-it was Peter Lamb! At this moment two soldiers ran forward and shouted out something to the officer bringing up the rear. He cried, "Halt! take out that man." There was a little confusion, and Peter was roughly haled out of the mass. The officer called a sergeant. "Guard this fellow well," and he bade the men who had detected Lamb go with the guard.

Soldiers crowded in on them. "What's the matter-who is he?" they asked.

"Back, there!" cried the Lieutenant.

"A deserter," said some one. "Damn him."

Lamb was silent while between the two guards he was taken to the rear. Josiah forgot his chicken and followed them at a distance. He saw Lamb handcuffed and vainly protesting as he was thrust into the prison-hut of the provostry.

Josiah asked one of the men who had brought about the arrest, "Who is that man?"

"Oh, he was a good while ago in my regiment-in our company too, the 71st Pennsylvania-a drunken beast-name of Stacy-Joe Stacy. We missed him when we were near the North Anna-at roll-call."

"What will they do with him?"

"Shoot him, I hope. His hands were powder blacked. He was caught on the skirmish line."

"Thank you." Josiah walked away deep in thought. He soon settled to the conclusion that the Rebs had found Peter and that perhaps he had had no choice of what he would do and had had to enlist. What explanatory lie Peter had told he could not guess.

Josiah went slowly back to the tent. His chicken was gone. He laid this loss on Peter, saying, "He always did bring me bad luck." Penhallow was still asleep. Ought he to tell him of Peter Lamb. He decided not to do so, or at least to wait. Inborn kindliness acted as it had done before, and conscious of his own helplessness, he was at a loss. Near to dusk he lighted a pipe and sat down outside of Penhallow's hut. Servants of engineer officers spoke as they passed, or chaffed him. His readiness for a verbal duel was wanting and he replied curtly. He was trying to make out to his own satisfaction whether he could or ought to do anything but hold his tongue and let this man die and so disappear. He knew that he himself could do nothing, nor did he believe anything could be done to help the man. He felt, however, that because he hated Peter, he was bound by his simply held creed to want to do something. He did not want to do anything, but then in confusing urgency there was the old mother, the colonel's indulgent care of this drunken animal, and at last some personal realization of the loneliness of this man so near to death. Then he remembered that Mark Rivers was within reach. To get this clergyman to see Peter would relieve him of the singular feeling of responsibility he could not altogether set aside. He was the only person who could identify Lamb. That, at least, he did not mean to do. He would find Mr. Rivers and leave to him to act as he thought best. He heard Penhallow calling, and went in to find him reading his letters. After providing for his wants, he set out to find the clergyman. His pass carried him where-ever he desired to go, and after ten at night he found Mark Rivers with the Christian Commission.

"What is it?" asked Rivers. "Is John ill?"

"No, sir," and he told in a few sentences the miserable story, to the clergyman's amazement.

"I will go with you," he said. "I must get leave to see him, but you had better not speak of Peter to any one."

Josiah was already somewhat indisposed to tell to others the story of the North Anna incident, and walked on in silence over the snow until at the provost-marshal's quarters Rivers dismissed him.

In a brief talk with the provost-marshal, Rivers learned that there had been a hastily summoned court-martial, and in the presence of very clear evidence a verdict approved by General Grant. The man would be shot at seven the next morning. "A hopeless case, Mr. Rivers," said the Provost, "any appeal for reprieve will be useless-utterly useless-there will be no time given for appeal to Mr. Lincoln. We have had too much of this lately."

Rivers said nothing of his acquaintance with the condemned man. He too had reached the conviction, now made more definite, that needless pain for the old mother could be avoided by letting Peter die with the name he had assumed.

It was after twelve at night when the provost's pass admitted him to a small wooden prison. One candle dimly lighted the hut, where a manacled man crouched by a failing fire. The soldier on guard passed out as the clergyman entered. When the door closed behind him, Rivers said, "Peter."

"My God! Mr. Rivers. They say I'll be shot. You won't let them shoot me-they can't do it-I don't want to die."

"I came here because Josiah recognized you and brought me."

"He must have told on me."

"Told what? He did not tell anything. Now listen to me. You are certain to be shot at seven to-morrow morning. I have asked for delay-none will be given. I come only to entreat you to make your peace with God-to tell you that you have but these few hours in which to repent. Let me pray with you-for you. There is nothing else I can do for you; I have tried and failed. Indeed I tried most earnestly."

"You can help if you will! You were always against me. You can telegraph

Colonel Penhallow. He will answer-he won't let them shoot me."

Rivers who stood over the crouched figure laid a hand on his shoulder. "If he were here he could do nothing. And even if I did telegraph him, he is in no condition to answer. He was wounded at Gettysburg and his mind is clouded. It would only trouble him and your mother, and not help you. Your mother would hear, and you should at least have the manliness to accept in silence what you have earned."

"But it's my life-my life-I can't die." Rivers was silent. "You won't telegraph?"

"No. It is useless."

"But you might do something-you're cruel. I am innocent. God let me be born of a drunken father-I had to drink too-I had to. The Squire wouldn't give me work-no one helped me. I enlisted in a New York regiment. I got drunk and ran away and enlisted in the 71st Pennsylvania. I stole chickens, and near to the North Anna I was cruelly punished. Then the Rebs caught me. I had to enlist. Oh, Lord! I am unfortunate. If I only could have a little whisky."

Mark Rivers for a moment barren of answer was sure that as usual Peter was lying and without any of his old cunning.

"Peter, this story does not help you. You are about to die, and no one-can help you-I have tried in vain-nothing can save you. Why at a time so solemn as this do you lie to me? Why did you desert? and for stealing chickens? nonsense!"

"Well, then, it was about a woman. Josiah knows-he saw it all. I didn't desert-I was tied to a tree-he could clear me. They left me tied. I had to enlist; I had to!"

"A woman!" Rivers understood. "If he were to tell, it would only make your case worse. Oh, Peter, let me pray for you."

"Oh, pray if you want to. What's the good? If you won't telegraph the Squire, get me whisky; and if you won't do that, go away. Talk about God and praying when I'm to be murdered just because my father drank! I don't want any praying-I don't believe in it-you just go away and get me some whisky. The Squire might have saved me-I wanted to quit from drink and he just told me to get out-and I did. I hate him and-you."

Rivers stood up. "May God help and pity you," he said, and so left him.

He slept none, and rising early, prayed fervently for this wrecked soul. As he walked at six in the morning to the prison hut, he thought over the man who long ago had so defeated him. He had seemed to him more feeble in mind and less cunning in his statements than had been the case in former days. He concluded that he was in the state of a man used to drinking whisky and for a time deprived of it. When he met him moving under guard from the prison, he felt sure that his conclusion had been correct.

As Rivers came up, the officer in charge said, "If, sir, as a clergyman you desire to walk beside this man, there is no objection."

"Oh, let him come," said Peter, with a defiant air. Some one pitiful had indulged the fated man with the liquor he craved.

Rivers took his place beside Peter as the guards at his side fell back. Soldiers off duty, many blacks and other camp-followers, gathered in silence as the little procession moved over the snow, noiseless except for the tramp of many feet and the rumble of the cart in which was an empty coffin.

"Can I do anything for you?" said Rivers, turning toward the flushed face at his side.

"No-you can't." The man smelled horribly of whisky; the charitable aid must have been ample.

"Is there any message you want me to carry?"

"Message-who would I send messages to?" In fact, Rivers did not know. He was appalled at a man going half drunk to death. He moved on, for a little while at the end of his resources.

"Even yet," he whispered, "there is time to repent and ask God to pardon a wasted life." Peter made no reply and then they were in the open space on one side of a hollow square. On three sides the regiment stood intent as the group came near. "Even yet," murmured Rivers.

Of a sudden Peter's face became white. He said, "I want to tell you one thing-I want you to tell him. I shot the Squire at Gettysburg-I wish I had killed him-I thought I had. There!-I always did get even."

"Stand back, sir, please," said a captain. Rivers was dumb with the horror of it and stepped aside. The last words he would have said choked him in the attempt to speak.

Six soldiers took their places before the man who stood with his hands tied behind his back, his face white, the muscles twitching, while a bandage was tied over his eyes.

"He wants to speak to you, sir," said the captain.

Rivers stepped to his side. "I did not tell my name. Tell my mother I was shot-not how-not why."

Rivers fell back. The captain let fall a handkerchief. Six rifles rang out, and Peter Lamb had gone to his account.

The regiment marched away. The music of the band rang clear through the frosty air. The captain said, "Where is the surgeon?" Tom McGregor appeared, and as he had to certify to the death bent down over the quivering body.

"My God! Mr. Rivers," he said in a low voice, looking up, "it is Peter

Lamb."

"Hush, Tom," whispered Rivers, "no one knows him except Josiah." They walked away together while Rivers told of Josiah's recognition of Lamb. "Keep silent about his name, Tom," and then went on to speak of the man's revengeful story about the Colonel, to Tom's horror. "I am sorry you told me," said the young surgeon.

"Yes, I was unwise-but-"

"Oh, let us drop it, Mr. Rivers. How is John? I have been three times to see him and he twice to see me, but always he was at the front, and as for me we have six thousand beds and too few surgeons, so that I could not often get away. Does he know of this man's fate?"

"No-and he had better not."

"I agree with you. Let us bury his name with him. So he shot our dear

Colonel-how strange, how horrible!"

"He believed that he did shoot him, and as the ball came from the lines of the 71st when the fight was practically at an end, it may be true. He certainly meant to kill him."

"What an entirely, hopelessly complete scoundrel!" said McGregor.

"Except," said Rivers, "that he did not want his mother to know how he died."

"Human wickedness is very incomplete," said the surgeon. "I wonder whether the devil is as perfectly wicked as we are taught to believe. You think this fellow, my dear old schoolmaster, was not utterly bad. Now about wanting his mother not to know-I for my part-"

"Don't, Tom. Leave him this rag of charity to cover a multitude of sins. Now, I must leave you. See John soon-he is wasted by unending and dangerous work-with malaria too, and what not; see him soon. He is a splendid replica of the Colonel with a far better mind. I wish he were at home."

"And I that another fellow were at home. Good-bye."

McGregor called at John's tent, but learned that at six he had gone on duty to the trenches.

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