MoboReader > Literature > The Long Roll

   Chapter 22 THE VALLEY PIKE

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 34870

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

As he moved away from the stone house, the vicinity of Ashby and the line of Tigers behind the fence, he became aware that not a small portion of Wheat's Battalion had broken ranks and was looting the wagons. There were soldiers like grey ants about a sutler's wagon. Steve, struggling and shouldering boldly enough now, managed to get within hailing distance. Men were standing on the wheels, drawing out boxes and barrels and throwing them down into the road, where the ants swarmed to the attack. Not the Tigers alone, but a number of Ashby's men as well engaged in the general business. The latter, either not so hungry or more valiant to abstain from the smaller rifling, turned to the plunder of horses. There were horses enough, dead and wounded, along that frightful road. Others were unhurt, still harnessed to wagons, or corralled in fence corners, or huddled with prisoners in the trodden fields. Horses, to the trooper of the Valley, were as horses in the ten years' war at Troy-the prized spoil of battle, the valued trophies, utilities outweighing all filagree spoil. Each man of Ashby's owned the horse he rode, burned to provide himself with a second mount, and flamed to be able to say at home, "This horse I took at Middletown, just before we drove the Yankees out of the Valley and ended the war!" "Home," for many of them was not at all distant-gallop a few miles, deposit the prize, return, catch up before Winchester! Wild courage, much manliness, much chivalry, ardent devotion to Ashby and the cause, individualism of a citizen soldiery, and a na?ve indiscipline all their own-such were Ashby's men! Not a few now acted upon the suggestion of the devil who tempts through horse flesh. In the dust they went by Steve like figures of a frieze.

Inefficient even in plundering, he found himself possessed of but a handful of crackers, a tin of sardines-a comestible he had never seen before and did not like when he tasted it-and a bottle of what he thought wine but proved vinegar. Disgusted, he moved to the next wagon, overswarmed like the first by grey ants. This time it was ale, unfamiliar still, but sufficiently to his liking. "Gawd! Jest to drink when you're thirsty, and eat when you're hungry, and sleep when you're sleepy-"

A drum beat, a bugle blew. Fall in! Fall in! Officers passed from wagon to wagon. They were ready enough with the flats of their swords. "For shame, men, for shame! Fall in! Fall in! General Jackson is beyond Newtown by now. You don't want him to have to wait for you, do you? Fall in!"

The Valley pike, in the region of Middletown, proved a cumbered path. From stone fence to stone fence, in the middle trough of dust, and on the bordering of what had been, that morning, dew-gemmed grass and flower, War the maniac had left marks. Overturned wagons formed barriers around which the column must wind. Some were afire; the smoke of burning straw and clothing and foodstuffs mingling with the yet low-lying powder smoke and with the pall of Valley dust. Horses lay stark across the way, or, dying, stared with piteous eyes. The sky was like a bowl of brass, and in the concave buzzards were sailing. All along there was underfoot much of soldiers' impedimenta-knapsacks, belts, accoutrements of all kinds, rolled blankets and oilcloths, canteens. Dead men did not lack. They lay in strange postures, and on all the dust was thick. There were many wounded; the greater number of these had somehow reached the foul grass and trampled flowers of the wayside. Prisoners were met; squads brought in from the road, from fields and woods. There was one group, men and horses covered with the dust of all time, disarmed, hatless, breathless, several bleeding from sabre cuts. One among them-a small man on a tall horse-indulged in bravado. "What are you going to do with us now you've got us? You've nowhere to take us to! Your damned capital's fallen-fell this morning! Yes, it did! News certain. Rebellion's over and Jack Ketch's waiting for you-waiting for every last dirty ragamuffin and slave-driver that calls himself general or president, and for the rest of you, too! Pity you didn't have just one neck so's he could do the whole damn thirteen millions of you at once!-Jeff Davis and Lee and Johnston were hanged at noon. This very moment Little Mac's in Richmond, marching down whatever your damned Pennsylvania Avenue's called-"

A negro body servant marching in the rear of one of the contemptuous companies broke ranks and rushed over to the reviling soldier. "You damn po' white trash, shet yo' mouf or I'll mek you! Callin' Main Street 'Pennsylvania Avenue,' and talkin' 'bout hangin' gent'men what you ain't got 'bility in you ter mek angry enuff ter swear at you! 'N Richmon' fallen! Richmon' ain' half as much fallen as you is! Richmon' ain' never gwine ter fall. I done wait on Marse Robert Lee once't at Shirley, an he ain't er gwine ter let it! 'Pennsylvania Avenue!'"

Half a mile from Middletown they came up with a forlorn little company. On a high bank above the road, huddled beneath three cedars, appeared the theatrical troupe which had amused General Banks's army in Strasburg. Men and women there were, a dozen actors, and they had with them a cart bearing their canvas booth and the poor finery of their wardrobe. One of the women nursed a baby; they all looked down like wraiths upon the passing soldiers.

Firing broke out ahead. "Newtown," said the men beside Steve. "I've got friends there. Told 'em when we came up the Valley after Kernstown we'd come down again! 'N here we are, bigger 'n life and twice as natural! That's Rockbridge making that awful noise. Must be a Yankee battery-There it opens! Oh, we're going to have a chance, too!"

They were moving at double-quick. Steve simulated a stumble, caught himself, groaned and fell out of line. The wall to the left blazed. He uttered a yell and sprang back. "That's right!" said the man. "It's taken most a year to learn it, but you feel a whole heap safer in line than out of it when firing's going on. That's a nice little-what d'ye call it?-they've planted there-"

"Avalanche," panted Steve. "O Gawd!" A minie ball had pierced the other's brain. He fell without a sound, and Steve went on.

The troops entered the hamlet at a run, passing two of the Rockbridge guns planted on a hillock and hurling shell against a Federal battery at the far end of the street. There was hot fighting through the place, then the enemy, rallied here, broke again and dispersed to the westward. The grey soldiers swept through the place, and the people with tears and laughter cried them welcome. On the porch of a comfortable house stood a comfortable, comely matron, pale with ardent patriotism, the happy tears running down her cheeks. Parched as were their throats the troops found voice to cheer, as always, when they passed through these Valley towns. They waved their colours vigorously; their ragged bit of a band played "Old Virginny never tire." The motherly soul on the porch, unconscious of self, uplifted, tremulous with emotion, opened wide her arms, "All of you run here and kiss me!"

Late afternoon came and the army yet skirmished, marched, marched, skirmished on the Valley pike. The heat decreased, but dust and thirst remained. Fatigue was the abominable thing. "Gawd!" thought Steve. "I can't stand it any longer. I got ter quit, and ef I could shoot that lieutenant, I would." The man whom the closing of the ranks had brought upon his left began to speak in a slow, refined voice. "There was a book published in England a year or so ago. It brings together old observations, shoots and theories, welds them, and produces a Thor's hammer that's likely to crack some heads. Once upon a time, it seems, we went on four feet. It's a pity to have lost so valuable a faculty. Oh, Jupiter! we are tired!"

A man behind put in his word. "To-morrow's Sunday. Two Sundays ago we were at Meechum's River, and since then we've marched most two hundred miles, and fought two battles and a heap of skirmishes! I reckon there'll be a big fight to-morrow, with Old Jack jerking his hand in the air as they say he's been doing! 'N all to the sound of church bells! Oh, Moses, I'm tired!"

At sunset the bugles blew halt. The men dropped down on the tarnished earth, on the vast, spectacular road to Winchester. They cared not so much for supper, faint as they were; they wanted sleep. Supper they had-all that could be obtained from the far corners of haversacks and all that, with abounding willingness, the neighbouring farmhouses could scrape together-but when it came to sleep-. With nodding heads the men waited longingly for roll call and tattoo, and instead there came an order from the front. "A night march! O Lord, have mercy, for Stonewall Jackson never does." Fall in! Fall in! Column Forward!

When they came to the Opequon they had a skirmish with a Massachusetts regiment which fired a heavy volley into the cavalry ahead, driving it back upon the 33d Virginia, next in column. The 33d broke, then rallied. Other of the Stonewall regiments deployed in the fields and the 27th advanced against the opposing force, part of Banks's rearguard. It gave way, disappearing in the darkness of the woods. The grey column, pushing across the Opequon, came into a zone of Federal skirmishers and sharpshooters ambushed behind stone fences.

Somewhere about midnight Steve, walking in about the worst dream he had ever had, determined that no effort was too great if directed toward waking. It was a magic lantern dream-black slides painted only with stars and fireflies, succeeded by slides in which there was a moment's violent illumination, stone fences leaping into being as the musket fire ran along. A halt-a company deployed-the foe dispersed, streaming off into the darkness-the hurt laid to one side for the ambulances-Column Forward! Sometimes a gun was unlimbered, trained upon the threatening breastwork and fired. Once a shell burst beneath a wagon that had been drawn into the fields. It held, it appeared, inflammable stores. Wagon and contents shot into the air with a great sound and glare, and out of the light about the place came a frightful crying. Men ran to right and left to escape the rain of missiles; then the light died out, and the crying ceased. The column went on slowly, past dark slides. Its progress seemed that of a snail army. Winchester lay the fewest of miles away, but somewhere there was legerdemain. The fewest of miles stretched like a rubber band. The troops marched for three minutes, halted, marched again, halted, marched, halted. To sleep-to sleep! Column Forward!-Column Forward!

There was a bridge to cross over a wide ditch. Steve hardly broke his dream, but here he changed the current. How he managed he could scarce have told, but he did find himself under the bridge where at once he lay down. The mire and weed was like a blissful bed. He closed his eyes. Three feet above was the flooring, and all the rearguard passing over. It was like lying curled in the hollow of a drum, a drum beaten draggingly and slow. "Gawd!" thought Steve. "It sounds like a Dead March."

He slept, despite the canopy of footsteps. He might have lain like a log till morning but that at last the flooring of the bridge rebelled. A section of a battery, kept for some hours at Middletown, found itself addressed by a courier, jaded, hoarse as a raven of the night. "General Jackson says, 'Bring up these guns.' He says, 'Make haste.'" The battery limbered up and came with a heavy noise down the pike, through the night. Before it was the rearguard; the artillery heard the changed sound as the men crossed the wooden bridge. The rearguard went on; the guns arrived also at the ditch and the overtaxed bridge. The Tredegar iron gun went over and on, gaining on the foot, with intent to pass. The howitzer, following, proved the last straw. The bridge broke. A gun wheel went down, and amid the oaths of the drivers a frightened screech came from below. "O Gawd! lemme get out of this!"

Pulled out, he gave an account of his cut foot, piteous enough. The lieutenant listened. "The 65th? Scamp, I reckon, but flesh is weak! Hasn't been exactly a circus parade for any of us. Let him ride, men-if ever we get this damned wheel out! Keep an eye on him, Fleming!-Now, all together!-Pull, White Star!-Pull, Red Star!"

The column came to Kernstown about three o'clock in the morning. Dead as were the troops the field roused them. "Kernstown! Kernstown! We're back again."

"Here was where we crossed the pike-there's the old ridge. Griffin tearing up his cards-and Griffin's dead at McDowell."

"That was Fulkerson's wall-that shadow over there! There's the bank where the 65th fought.-Kernstown! I'm mighty tired, boys, but I've got a peaceful certainty that that was the only battle Old Jack's ever going to lose!"

"Old Jack didn't lose it. Garnett lost it."

"That ain't a Stonewall man said that! General Garnett's in trouble. I reckon didn't anybody lose it. Shields had nine thousand men, and he just gained it!-Shields the best man they've had in the Valley. Kernstown!-Heard what the boys at Middletown called Banks? Mr. Commissary Banks. Oh, law! that pesky rearguard again!"

The skirmish proved short and sharp. The Federal rearguard gave way, fell back on Winchester; the Confederate column, advance, main and rear, heard in the cold and hollow of the night the order: Halt. Stack arms! Break ranks! From regiment to regiment ran a further word. "One hour. You are to rest one hour, men. Lie down."

In the first grey streak of dawn a battery which had passed in turn each segment of the column, came up with the van, beyond Kernstown battlefield, and halted upon a little rise of ground. All around stretched grey, dew-wet fields and woods, and all around lay an army, sleeping, strange sight in the still and solemn light, with the birds cheeping overhead! The guns stopped, the men got down from limber and caisson, the horses were unhitched. "An hour's sleep-Kernstown battlefield!"

An officer whose command lay in the field to the left, just beyond a great breach that had been made in the stone fence, arose from the cloak he had spread in the opening and came over to the guns. "Good-morning, Randolph! Farmers and soldiers see the dawn!

Light thickens; and the crow

Makes wing to the rooky wood.

The poor guns! Even they look overmarched." As he spoke he stroked the howitzer as though it had been a living thing.

"We've got with us a stray of yours," said the artilleryman. "Says he has a cut foot, but looks like a skulker. Here you, Mr. Under-the-Bridge! come from behind that caisson-"

Out of a wood road, a misty opening overarched by tall and misty trees, came two or three horsemen, the foremost of whom rode up to the battery. "Good-morning, Randolph! General Jackson will be by in a moment. General Ewell lies over there on the Front Royal road. He has eaten breakfast, and is clanking his spurs and swearing as they swore in Flanders." He pointed with his gauntleted hand, turning as he did so in the saddle. The action brought recognition of Cleave's presence upon the road. Stafford ceased speaking and sat still, observing the other with narrowed eyes.

Cleave addressed the figure, which, there being no help for it, had come from behind the caisson. "You, Dagg, of course! Straggling or deserting-I wonder which this time! Are you not ashamed?"

"Gawd, major! I just couldn't keep up. I got a cut foot-"

"Sit down on that rock.-Take off your shoe-what is left of it. Now, let me see. Is that the cut, that scratch above the ankle?"

"It ain't how deep it is. It's how it hurts."

"There is no infantryman to-day who is not footsore and tired. Only the straggler or deserter has as few marks as you to show. There is the company, down the road, in the field. To-night I shall find out if you have been with it all the day. Go! You disgrace the very mountains where you were born-"

Beyond the guns was a misty bend of the road. The light was stronger, in the east a slender streamer of carnation; the air dank, cool and still. On the edge of Kernstown battlefield a cock crew; a second horn came faintly. Very near at hand sounded a jingle of accoutrement; Stonewall Jackson, two or three of the staff with him, came around the turn and stopped beside the guns. The men about them and the horses, and on the roadside, drew themselves up and saluted. Jackson gave his slow quiet nod. He was all leaf bronze from head to foot, his eyes just glinting beneath the old forage cap. He addressed the lieutenant. "You will advance, sir, in just three quarters of an hour. There are batteries in place upon the ridge before us. You will take position there, and you will not leave until ordered." His eyes fell upon Stafford. "Have you come from General Ewell?"

"Yes, general. He sends his compliments, and says he is ready."

"Good! Good!-What is this soldier doing here?" He looked at Steve.

"It is a straggler, sir, from my regiment. Lieutenant Randolph picked him up-"

"Found him under a bridge, sir. I'd call him a deserter-"

Steve writhed as though, literally, the eyes were cold steel and had pinned him down. "Gawd, general! I didn't desert! Cross my heart and may I go to hell if I did! I was awful tired-hungry and thirsty-and my head swimmin

g-I just dropped out, meaning to catch up after a bit! I had a sore foot. Major Cleave's awful hard on me-"

"You're a disgrace to your company," said Cleave. "If we did not need even shadows and half men you would be drummed home to Thunder Run, there to brag, loaf, and rot-"

Steve began to whine. "I meant to catch up, I truly did!" His eyes, shifting from side to side, met those of Stafford. "Gawd, I'm lost-"

Stafford regarded his quondam prisoner curiously enough. His gaze had in it something of cruelty, of pondering, and of question. Steve writhed. "I ain't any better 'n anybody else. Life's awful! Everybody in the world's agin me. Gawd knows Major Cleave's so-" Cleave made a sound of contempt.

Stafford spoke. "I do not think he's actually a deserter. I remember his face. I met him near Middletown, and he gave me his regiment and company. There are many stragglers."

Steve could have fallen and worshipped. "Don't care whether he did it for me, or jest 'cause he hates that other one! He does hate him! 'N I hate him, too-sending me to the guardhouse every whip-stitch!" This to himself; outside he tried to look as though he had carried the colours from Front Royal, only dropping them momentarily at that unfortunate bridge. Jackson regarded him with a grey-blue eye unreconciled, but finally made his peculiar gesture of dismissal. The Thunder Run man saluted and stumbled from the roadside into the field, the dead Tiger's musket in the hollow of his arm, his face turned toward Company A. Back in the road Jackson turned his eyes on Cleave. "Major, in half an hour you will advance with your skirmishers. Do as well as you have done heretofore and you will do well-very well. The effect of Colonel Brooke's wound is graver than was thought. He has asked to be retired. After Winchester you will have your promotion."

With his staff he rode away-a leaf brown figure, looming large in the misty half light, against the red guidons of the east. Stafford went with him. Randolph, his cannoneers and drivers dropped beside the pieces and were immediately asleep-half an hour now was all they had. The horses cropped the pearled wayside grass. Far away the cocks were crowing. In the east the red bannerols widened. There came a faint blowing of bugles. Cleave stooped and took up his cloak.

Steve, stumbling back over the wet field, between the ranks of sleeping men, found Company A-that portion of it not with the skirmishers. Every soul was asleep. The men lay heavily, some drawn into a knot, others with arms flung wide, others on their faces. They lay in the dank and chilly dawn as though death had reaped the field. Steve lay down beside them. "Gawd! when will this war be over?"

He dreamed that he was back at Thunder Run, crouching behind a certain boulder at a turn of the road that wound up from the Valley. He had an old flintlock, but in his dream he did not like it, and it changed to one of the beautiful modern rifles they were beginning to take from the Yankees. There were no Yankees on Thunder Run. Steve felt assured of that in his dream; very secure and comfortable. Richard Cleave came riding up the road on Dundee. Steve lifted the rifle to his shoulder and sighted very carefully. It seemed that he was not alone behind the boulder. A shadowy figure with a sword, and a star on his collar, said, "Aim at the heart." In the dream he fired, but before the smoke could clear so that he might know his luck the sound of the shot changed to clear trumpets, long and wailing. Steve turned on his side. "Reveille! O Gawd!"

The men arose, the ranks were formed. No breakfast?-Hairston Breckinridge explained the situation. "We're going to breakfast in Winchester, men! All the dear old cooks are getting ready for us-rolls and waffles and broiled chicken and poached eggs and coffee-and all the ladies in muslin and ribbons are putting flowers on the table and saying, 'The Army of the Valley is coming home!'-Isn't that a Sunday morning breakfast worth waiting for? The sooner we whip Banks the sooner we'll be eating it."

"All right. All right," said the men. "We'll whip him all right."

"We're sure to whip him now we've got Steve back!"

"That's so. Where've you been anyway, Steve, and how many did you kill on the road?"

"I killed three," said Steve. "General Ewell's over thar in the woods, and he's going to advance 'longside of us, on the Front Royal road. Rockbridge 'n the rest of the batteries are to hold the ridge up there, no matter what happens! Banks ain't got but six thousand men, and it ought ter be an easy job-"

"Good Lord! Steve's been absent at a council of war-talking familiarly with generals! Always thought there must be more in him than appeared, since there couldn't well be less-"

"Band's playing! 'The Girl I Left Behind Me'!"

"That's Winchester! Didn't we have a good time there 'fore and after Bath and Romney? 'Most the nicest Valley town!-and we had to go away and leave it blue as indigo-"

"I surely will be glad to see Miss Fanny again-"

"Company C over there's most crazy. It all lives there-"

"Three miles! That ain't much. I feel rested. There goes the 2d! Don't it swing off long and steady? Lord, we've got the hang of it at last!"

"Will Cleave's got to be sergeant.-'N he's wild about a girl in Winchester. Says his mother and sister are there, too, and he can't sleep for thinking of the enemy all about them. Children sure do grow up quick in war time!"

"A lot of things grow up quick-and a lot of things don't grow at all. There goes the 4th-long and steady! Our turn next."

Steve again saw from afar the approach of the nightmare. It stood large on the opposite bank of Abraham's Creek, and he must go to meet it. He was wedged between comrades-Sergeant Coffin was looking straight at him with his melancholy, bad-tempered eyes-he could not fall out, drop behind! The backs of his hands began to grow cold and his unwashed forehead was damp beneath matted, red-brown elf locks. From considerable experience he knew that presently sick stomach would set in. When the company splashed through Abraham's Creek he would not look at the running water, but when he looked at the slopes he was expected presently to climb he saw that there was fighting there and that the nightmare attended! Steve closed his eyes. "O Gawd, take care of me-"

Later on, when the ridge was won he found himself, still in the company of the nightmare, cowering close to the lock of a rail fence that zigzagged along the crest. How he got there he really did not know. He had his musket still clutched-his mountaineer's instinct served for that. Presently he made the discovery that he had been firing, had fired thrice, it appeared from his cartridge box. He remembered neither firing nor loading, though he had some faint recollection of having been upon his knees behind a low stone wall-he saw it now at right angles with the rail fence. A clover field he remembered because some one had said something about four-leaved clovers, and then a shell had come by and the clover turned red. Seized with panic he bit a cartridge and loaded. The air was rocking; moreover, with the heavier waves came a sharp zzzz-ip! zzzzzz-ip! Heaven and earth blurred together, blended by the giant brush of eddying smoke. Steve tasted powder, smelled powder. On the other side of the fence, from a battery lower down the slope to the guns beyond him two men were running-running very swiftly, with bent heads. They ran like people in a pelting rain, and between them they carried a large bag or bundle, slung in an oilcloth. They were tall and hardy men, and they moved with a curious air of determination. "Carrying powder! Gawd! before I'd be sech a fool-" A shell came, and burst-burst between the two men. There was an explosion, ear-splitting, heart-rending. A part of the fence was wrecked; a small cedar tree torn into kindling. Steve put down his musket, laid his forehead upon the rail before him, and vomited.

The guns were but a few yards above him, planted just below the crest, their muzzles projecting over. Steve recognized Rockbridge. He must, he thought, have been running away, not knowing where he was going, and infernally managed to get up here. The nightmare abode with him. His joints felt like water, his heart was straightened, stretched, and corded in his bosom like a man upon the rack. He pressed close into the angle of the fence, made himself of as little compass as his long and gangling limbs allowed, and held himself still as an opossum feigning death. Only his watery blue eyes wandered-not for curiosity, but that he might see and dodge a coming harm.

Before him the ridge ran steeply down to a narrow depression, a little vale, two hundred yards across. On the further side the land rose again to as high a hill. Here was a stone fence, which even as he looked, leaped fire. Above it were ranged the blue cannon-three batteries, well served. North and South, muzzle to muzzle, the guns roared across the green hollow. The blue musketrymen behind the wall were using minies. Of all death-dealing things Steve most hated these. They came with so unearthly a sound-zzzz-ip! zzzzz-ip!-a devil noise, a death that shrieked, taunted, and triumphed. To-day they made his blood like water. He crouched close, a mere lump of demoralization, behind a veil of wild buckwheat.

Rockbridge was suffering heavily, both from the opposing Parrotts and from sharpshooters behind the wall. A belated gun came straining up the slope, the horses doing mightily, the men cheering. There was an opening in a low stone wall across the hillside, below Steve. The gate had been wrenched away and thrown aside, but the thick gatepost remained, and it made the passage narrow-too narrow for the gun team and the carriage to pass. All stopped and there was a colloquy.

"We've got an axe?"

"Yes, captain."

"John Agnor, you've felled many a tree. Take the axe and cut that post down."

"Captain, I will be killed!"

"Then you will be killed doing your duty, John. Get down."

Agnor got the axe, swung it and began chopping. The stone wall across the hollow blazed more fiercely; the sharpshooters diverted their attention from the men and horses higher upon the hill. Agnor swung the axe with steadiness; the chips flew far. The post was cut almost through before his bullet came. In falling he clutched the weakened obstruction, and the two came down together. The gun was free to pass, and it passed, each cannoneer and driver looking once at John Agnor, lying dead with a steady face. It found place a few yards above Steve in his corner, and joined in the roar of its fellows, throwing solid shot and canister.

A hundred yards and more to the rear stood a barn. The wounded from all the guns, strung like black beads along the crest, dragged themselves or were carried to this shelter. Hope rose in Steve's heart. "Gawd! I'll creep through the clover and git there myself." He started on hands and knees, but once out of his corner and the shrouding mass of wild buckwheat, terror took him. The minies were singing like so many birds. A line of blue musketrymen, posted behind cover, somewhat higher than the grey, were firing alike at gunners, horses, and the men passing to and fro behind the fighting line. Steve saw a soldier hobbling to the barn throw up his arms, and pitch forward. Two carrying a third between them were both struck. The three tried to drag themselves further, but only the one who had been borne by the others succeeded. A shell pierced the roof of the barn, burst and set the whole on fire. Steve turned like a lizard and went back to the lock of the fence and the tattered buckwheat. He could hear the men talking around the gun just beyond. They spoke very loud, because the air was shaken like an ocean in storm. They were all powder-grimed, clad only in trousers and shirt, the shirt open over the breast, and sleeves rolled up. They stood straight, or bent, or crept about the guns, all their movements swift and rhythmic. Sometimes they were seen clearly; sometimes the smoke swallowed them. When seen they looked larger than life, when only heard their voices came as though earth and air were speaking. "Sponge out.-All right. Fire! Hot while it lasts, but it won't last long. I have every confidence in Old Jack and Old Dick. Drat that primer! All right!-Three seconds! Jerusalem! that created a sensation. The Louisianians are coming up that cleft between the hills. All the Stonewall regiments in the centre. Ewell to flank their left. Did you ever hear Ewell swear? Look out! wheel's cut through. Lanyard's shot away. Take handkerchiefs. Haven't got any-tear somebody's shirt. Number 1! Number 2! Look out! look out-Give them hell. Good Heaven! here's Old Jack. General, we hope you'll go away from here! We'll stay it out-give you our word. Let them enfilade ahead!-but you'd better go back, sir."

"Thank you, captain, but I wish to see-"

A minie ball imbedded itself in a rail beside Steve's cheek. Before he could recover from this experience a shell burst immediately in front of his panel. He was covered with earth, a fragment of shell sheared away the protecting buckwheat and a piece of rail struck him in the back with force. He yelled, threw down his musket and ran.

He passed John Agnor lying dead by the gateway, and he reached somehow the foot of the hill and the wide fields between the embattled ridges and the Valley pike, the woods and the Front Royal road. He now could see the Federal line of battle, drawn on both sides of the pike, but preponderantly to the westward. They were there, horse and foot and bellowing artillery, and they did not look panic-stricken. Their flags were flying, their muskets gleaming. They had always vastly more and vastly better bands than had the grey, and they used them more frequently. They were playing now-a brisk and stirring air, sinking and swelling as the guns boomed or were silent. The mist was up, the sun shone bright. "Gawd!" thought Steve. "I'd better be there than here! We ain't a-goin' to win, anyhow. They've got more cannon, and a bigger country, and all the ships, and pockets full of money. Once't I had a chance to move North-"

He had landed in a fringe of small trees by a little runlet, and now, under this cover, he moved irresolutely forward. "Ef I walked toward them with my hands up, they surely wouldn't shoot. What's that?-Gawd! Look at Old Jack a-comin'! Reckon I'll stay-Told them once't on Thunder Run I wouldn't move North for nothing! Yaaaihhhh! Yaaaaihhh-"

Yaaihhhhh! Yaaihhhhh! Yaaaihh! Yaaaaaaaihhhh! Ten thousand grey soldiers with the sun on their bayonets-

* * *

There came by a riderless horse, gentle enough, unfrightened, wanting only to drink at the little stream. Steve caught him without difficulty, climbed into the saddle and followed the army. The army was a clanging, shouting, triumphant thing to follow-to follow into the Winchester streets, into a town that was mad with joy. A routed army was before it, pouring down Loudoun Street, pouring down Main Street, pouring down every street and lane, pouring out of the northern end of the town, out upon the Martinsburg pike, upon the road to the frontier, the road to the Potomac. There was yet firing in narrow side streets, a sweeping out of single and desperate knots of blue. Church bells were pealing, women young and old were out of doors, weeping for pure joy, laughing for the same, praising, blessing, greeting sons, husbands, lovers, brothers, friends, deliverers. A bearded figure, leaf brown, on a sorrel nag, answered with a gravity strangely enough not without sweetness the acclamation with which he was showered, sent an aide to hasten the batteries, sent another with an order to General George H. Steuart commanding cavalry, jerked his hand into the air and swept on in pursuit out by the Martinsburg pike. The infantry followed him, hurrahing. They tasted to-day the sweets of a patriot soldiery relieving a patriot town. The guns came thundering through, the horses doing well, the proud drivers, cannoneers, officers, waving caps and hats, bowing to half-sobbing hurrahs, thrown kisses, praises, blessings. Ewell's division poured through-Ewell on the flea-bitten grey, Rifle, swearing his men forward, pithily answering the happy people, all the while the church bells clanging. The town was in a clear flame of love, patriotism, martial spirit, every heart enlarged, every house thrown open to the wounded whom, grey and blue alike, the grey surgeons were bringing in.

For fear to keep him, Steve had left his captured horse's back and let him go loose. Now on foot and limping terribly, trying to look equal parts fire-eater and woe-begone, he applied to a grey-headed couple in the dooryard of a small clean home. Would they give a hurt soldier a bed and something to eat? Why, of course, of course they would! Come right in! What command?

"The Stonewall Brigade, sir. You see, 'twas this a-way. I was helping serve a gun, most of the gunners being strewed around dead-and we infantrymen having to take a hand, and a thirty pound Parrott came and burst right over us! I was stooping, like this, my thumb on the vent, like that-and a great piece struck me in the back! I just kin hobble. Thank you, ma'am! You are better to me than I deserve."

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top