When the able-bodied citizens of the village formed a company and marched away to the war, Major Tom Boldin assumed in a manner the burden of the village cares. Everybody ran to him when they felt obliged to discuss their affairs. The sorrows of the town were dragged before him. His little bench at the sunny side of Migglesville tavern became a sort of an open court where people came to speak resentfully of their grievances. He accepted his position and struggled manfully under the load. It behoved him, as a man who had seen the sky red over the quaint, low cities of Mexico, and the compact Northern bayonets gleaming on the narrow roads.
One warm summer day the major sat asleep on his little bench. There was a lull in the tempest of discussion which usually enveloped him. His cane, by use of which he could make the most tremendous and impressive gestures, reposed beside him. His hat lay upon the bench, and his old bald head had swung far forward until his nose actually touched the first button of his waistcoat.
The sparrows wrangled desperately in the road, defying perspiration. Once a team went jangling and creaking past, raising a yellow blur of dust before the soft tones of the field and sky. In the long grass of the meadow across the road the insects chirped and clacked eternally.
Suddenly a frouzy-headed boy appeared in the roadway, his bare feet pattering rapidly. He was extremely excited. He gave a shrill whoop as he discovered the sleeping major and rushed toward him. He created a terrific panic among some chickens who had been scratching intently near the major′s feet. They clamoured in an insanity of fear, and rushed hither and thither seeking a way of escape, whereas in reality all ways lay plainly open to them.
This tumult caused the major to arouse with a sudden little jump of amazement and apprehension. He rubbed his eyes and gazed about him. Meanwhile, some clever chicken had discovered a passage to safety, and led the flock into the garden, where they squawked in sustained alarm.
Panting from his run and choked with terror, the little boy stood before the major, struggling with a tale that was ever upon the tip of his tongue.
The old man, roused from a delicious slumber, glared impatiently at the little boy. "Come, come! What′s th′ matter with yeh?" he demanded. "What′s th′ matter? Don′t stand there shaking! Speak up!"
"Lots is th′ matter!" the little boy shouted valiantly, with a courage born of the importance of his tale. "My ma′s chickens ′uz all stole, an′— now—he′s over in th′ woods!"
"Who is? Who is over in the woods? Go ahead!"
"Now—th′ rebel is!"
"What?" roared the major.
"Th′ rebel!" cried the little boy, with the last of his breath.
The major pounced from his bench in tempestuous excitement. He seized the little boy by the collar and gave him a great jerk. "Where? Are yeh sure? Who saw ′im? How long ago? Where is he now? Did you see ′im?"
The little boy, frightened at the major′s fury, began to sob. After a moment he managed to stammer: "He—now—he′s in the woods. I saw ′im. He looks uglier′n anythin′."
The major released his hold upon the boy, and pausing for a time, indulged in a glorious dream. Then he said: "By thunder! we′ll ketch th′ cuss. You wait here," he told the boy, "and don′t say a word t′ anybody. Do you hear?"
The boy, still weeping, nodded, and the major hurriedly entered the inn. He took down from its pegs an awkward smooth-bore rifle and carefully examined the enormous percussion cap that was fitted over the nipple. Mistrusting the cap, he removed it and replaced it with a new one. He scrutinised the gun keenly, as if he could judge in this manner of the condition of the load. All his movements were deliberate and deadly.
When he arrived upon the porch of the tavern he beheld the yard filled with people. Peter Witheby, sooty-faced and grinning, was in the van. He looked at the major. "Well?" he said.
"Well?" returned the major, bridling.
"Well, what′s ′che got?" said old Peter.
"′Got?′ Got a rebel over in th′ woods!" roared the major.
At this sentence the women and boys, who had gathered eagerly about him, gave vent to startled cries. The women had come from adjacent houses, but the little boys represented the entire village. They had miraculously heard the first whisper of rumour, and they performed wonders in getting to the spot. They clustered around the important figure of the major and gazed in silent awe. The women, however, burst forth. At the word "rebel," which represented to them all terrible things, they deluged the major with questions which were obviously unanswerable.
He shook them off with violent impatience. Meanwhile Peter Witheby was trying to force exasperating interrogations through the tumult to the major′s ears. "What? No! Yes! How d′ I know?" the maddened veteran snarled as he struggled with his friends. "No! Yes! What? How in thunder d′ I know?" Upon the steps of the tavern the landlady sat, weeping forlornly.
At last the major burst through the crowd, and went to the roadway. There, as they all streamed after him, he turned and faced them. "Now, look a′ here, I don′t know any more about this than you do," he told them forcibly. "All that I know is that there′s a rebel over in Smith′s woods, an′ all I know is that I′m agoin′ after ′im."
"But hol′ on a minnet," said old Peter. "How do yeh know he′s a rebel?"
"I know he is!" cried the major. "Don′t yeh think I know what a rebel is?"
Then, with a gesture of disdain at the babbling crowd, he marched determinedly away, his rifle held in the hollow of his arm. At this heroic moment a new clamour arose, half admiration, half dismay. Old Peter hobbled after the major, continually repeating, "Hol′ on a minnet."
The little boy who had given the alarm was the centre of a throng of lads who gazed with envy and awe, discovering in him a new quality. He held forth to them eloquently. The women stared after the figure of the major and old Peter, his pursuer. Jerozel Bronson, a half-witted lad who comprehended nothing save an occasional genial word, leaned against the fence and grinned like a skull. The major and the pursuer passed out of view around the turn in the road where the great maples lazily shook the dust that lay on their leaves.
For a moment the little group of women listened intently as if they expected to hear a sudden shot and cries from the distance. They looked at each other, their lips a little way apart. The trees sighed softly in the heat of the summer sun. The insects in the meadow continued their monotonous humming, and, somewhere, a hen had been stricken with fear and was cackling loudly.
Finally, Mrs. Goodwin said: "Well, I′m goin′ up to th′ turn a′ th′ road, anyhow." Mrs. Willets and Mrs. Joe Peterson, her particular friends, cried out at this temerity, but she said: "Well, I′m goin′, anyhow."
She called Bronson. "Come on, Jerozel. You′re a man, an′ if he should chase us, why, you mus′ pitch inteh ′im. Hey?"
Bronson always obeyed everybody. He grinned an assent, and went with her down the road.
A little boy attempted to follow them, but a shrill scream from his mother made him halt.
The remaining women stood motionless, their eyes fixed upon Mrs. Goodwin and Jerozel. Then at last one gave a laugh of triumph at her conquest of caution and fear, and cried: "Well, I′m goin′ too!"
Another instantly said, "So am I." There began a general movement. Some of the little boys had already ventured a hundred feet away from the main body, and at this unanimous advance they spread out ahead in little groups. Some recounted terrible stories of rebel ferocity. Their eyes were large with excitement. The whole thing, with its possible dangers, had for them a delicious element. Johnnie Peterson, who could whip any boy present, explained what he would do in case the enemy should happen to pounce out at him.
The familiar scene suddenly assumed a new aspect. The field of corn, which met the road upon the left, was no longer a mere field of corn. It was a darkly mystic place whose recesses could contain all manner of dangers. The long green leaves, waving in the breeze, rustled from the passing of men. In the song of the insects there were now omens, threats.
There was a warning in the enamel blue of the sky, in the stretch of yellow road, in the very atmosphere. Above the tops of the corn loomed the distant foliage of Smith′s woods, curtaining the silent action of a tragedy whose horrors they imagined.
The women and the little boys came to a halt, overwhelmed by the impressiveness of the landscape. They waited silently.
Mrs. Goodwin suddenly said: "I′m goin′ back." The others, who all wished to return, cried at once disdainfully:
"Well, go back, if yeh want to!"
A cricket at the roadside exploded suddenly in his shrill song, and a woman, who had been standing near, shrieked in startled terror. An electric movement went through the group of women. They jumped and gave vent to sudden screams. With the fears still upon their agitated faces, they turned to berate the one who had shrieked. "My! what a goose you are, Sallie! Why, it took my breath away. Goodness sakes, don′t holler like that again!"
"Hol′ on a minnet!" Peter Witheby was crying to the major, as the latter, full of the importance and dignity of his position as protector of Migglesville, paced forward swiftly. The veteran already felt upon his brow a wreath formed of the flowers of gratitude, and as he strode he was absorbed in planning a calm and self-contained manner of wearing it. "Hol′ on a minnet!" piped old Peter in the rear.
At last the major, aroused from his dream of triumph, turned about wrathfully. "Well, what?"
"Now, look a′ here," said Peter. "What ′che goin′ t′ do?"
The major, with a gesture of supreme exasperation, wheeled again and went on. When he arrived at the cornfield he halted and waited for Peter. He had suddenly felt that indefinable menace in the landscape.
"Well?" demanded Peter, panting.
The major′s eyes wavered a trifle. "Well," he repeated—"well, I′m goin′ in there an′ bring out that there rebel."
They both paused and studied the gently swaying masses of corn, and behind them the looming woods, sinister with possible secrets.
"Well," said old Peter.
The major moved uneasily and put his hand to his brow. Peter waited in obvious expectation.
The major crossed through the grass at the roadside and climbed the fence. He put both legs over the topmost rail and then sat perched there, facing the woods. Once he turned his head and asked, "What?"
"I hain′t said anythin′," answered Peter.
The major clambered down from the fence and went slowly into the corn, his gun held in readiness. Peter stood in the road.
Presently the major returned and said, in a cautious whisper: "If yeh hear anythin′, you come a-runnin′, will yeh?"
"Well, I hain′t got no gun nor nuthin′," said Peter, in the same low tone; "what good ′ud I do?"
"Well, yeh might come along with me an′ watch," said the major. "Four eyes is better′n two."
"If I had a gun—" began Peter.
"Oh, yeh don′t need no gun," interrupted the major, waving his hand: "All I′m afraid of is that I won′t find ′im. My eyes ain′t so good as they was."
"Come along," whispered the major. "Yeh hain′t afraid, are yeh?"
"Well, come along, then. What′s th′ matter with yeh?"
Peter climbed the fence. He paused on the top rail and took a prolonged stare at the inscrutable woods. When he joined the major in the cornfield he said, with a touch of anger:
"Well, you got the gun. Remember that. If he comes for me, I hain′t got a blame thing!"
"Shucks!" answered the major. "He ain′t agoin′ t′ come for yeh."
The two then began a wary journey through the corn. One by one the long aisles between the rows appeared. As they glanced along each of them it seemed as if some gruesome thing had just previously vacated it. Old Peter halted once and whispered: "Say, look a′ here; supposin′— supposin′—"
"Supposin′ what?" demanded the major.
"Supposin′—" said Peter. "Well, remember you got th′ gun, an′ I hain′t got anythin′."
"Thunder!" said the major.
When they got to where the stalks were very short because of the shade cast by the trees of the wood, they halted again. The leaves were gently swishing in the breeze. Before them stretched the mystic green wall of the forest, and there seemed to be in it eyes which followed each of their movements.
Peter at last said, "I don′t believe there′s anybody in there."
"Yes, there is, too," said the major. "I′ll bet anythin′ he′s in there."
"How d′ yeh know?" asked Peter. "I′ll bet he ain′t within a mile o′ here."
The major suddenly ejaculated, "Listen!"
They bent forward, scarce breathing, their mouths agape, their eyes glinting. Finally, the major turned his head. "Did yeh hear that?" he said hoarsely.
"No," said Peter in a low voice. "What was it?"
The major listened for a moment. Then he turned again. "I thought I heerd somebody holler!" he explained cautiously.
They both bent forward and listened once more. Peter, in the intentness of his attitude, lost his balance, and was obliged to lift his foot hastily and with noise. "S-s-sh!" hissed the major.
After a minute Peter spoke quite loudly: "Oh, shucks! I don′t believe yeh heerd anythin′."
The major made a frantic downward gesture with his hand. "Shet up, will yeh!" he said in an angry undertone.
Peter became silent for a moment, but presently he said again: "Oh, yeh didn′t hear anythin′."
The major turned to glare at his companion in despair and wrath.
"What′s th′ matter with yeh? Can′t yeh shet up?"
"Oh, this here ain′t no use. If you′re goin′ in after ′im, why don′t yeh go in after ′im?"
"Well, gimme time, can′t yeh?" said the major in a growl. And, as if to add more to this reproach, he climbed the fence that compassed the woods, looking resentfully back at his companion.
"Well," said Peter, when the major paused.
The major stepped down upon the thick carpet of brown leaves that stretched under the trees. He turned then to whisper: "You wait here, will yeh?" His face was red with determination.
"Well, hol′ on a minnet!" said Peter. "You—I—we′d better—"
"No," said the major. "You wait here."
He went stealthily into the thickets. Peter watched him until he grew to be a vague, slow-moving shadow. From time to time he could hear the leaves crackle and twigs snap under the major′s awkward tread. Peter, intent, breathless, waited for the peal of sudden tragedy. Finally, the woods grew silent in a solemn and impressive hush that caused Peter to feel the thumping of his heart. He began to look about him to make sure that nothing should spring upon him from the sombre shadows. He scrutinised this cool gloom before him, and at times he thought he could perceive the moving of swift silent shapes. He concluded that he had better go back and try to muster some assistance to the major.
As Peter came through the corn, the women in the road caught sight of the glittering figure and screamed. Many of them began to run. The little boys, with all their valour, scurried away in clouds. Mrs. Joe Peterson, however, cast a glance over her shoulders as she, with her skirts gathered up, was running as best she could. She instantly stopped and, in tones of deepest scorn, called out to the others, "Why, it′s on′y Pete Witheby!" They came faltering back then, those who had been naturally swiftest in the race avoiding the eyes of those whose limbs had enabled them to flee a short distance.
Peter came rapidly, appreciating the glances of vivid interest in the eyes of the women. To their lightning-like questions, which hit all sides of the episode, he opposed a new tranquillity, gained from his sudden ascent in importance. He made no answer to their clamour. When he had reached the top of the fence he called out commandingly: "Here you, Johnnie, you and George, run an′ git my gun! It′s hangin′ on th′ pegs over th′ bench in th′ shop."
At this terrible sentence, a shuddering cry broke from the women. The boys named sped down the road, accompanied by a retinue of envious companions.
Peter swung his legs over the rail and faced the woods again. He twisted his head once to say: "Keep still, can′t yeh? Quit scufflin′ aroun′!" They could see by his manner that this was a supreme moment. The group became motionless and still. Later, Peter turned to say, "S-s-sh!" to a restless boy, and the air with which he said it smote them all with awe.
The little boys who had gone after the gun came pattering along hurriedly, the weapon borne in the midst of them. Each was anxious to share in the honour. The one who had been delegated to bring it was bullying and directing his comrades.
Peter said, "S-s-sh!" He took the gun and poised it in readiness to sweep the cornfield. He scowled at the boys and whispered angrily: "Why didn′t yeh bring th′ powder-horn an′ th′ thing with th′ bullets in? I told yeh t′ bring ′em. I′ll send somebody else next time."
"Yeh didn′t tell us!" cried the two boys shrilly.
"S-s-sh! Quit yeh noise," said Peter, with a violent gesture.
However, this reproof enabled other boys to recover that peace of mind which they had lost when seeing their friends loaded with honours.
The women had cautiously approached the fence, and, from time to time, whispered feverish questions; but Peter repulsed them savagely, with an air of being infinitely bothered by their interference in his intent watch. They were forced to listen again in silence to the weird and prophetic chanting of the insects and the mystic silken rustling of the corn.
At last the thud of hurrying feet in the soft soil of the field came to their ears. A dark form sped toward them. A wave of a mighty fear swept over the group, and the screams of the women came hoarsely from their choked throats. Peter swung madly from his perch, and turned to use the fence as a rampart.
But it was the major. His face was inflamed and his eyes were glaring. He clutched his rifle by the middle and swung it wildly. He was bounding at a great speed for his fat, short body.
"It′s all right! it′s all right!" he began to yell some distance away. "It′s all right! It′s on′y ol′ Milt′ Jacoby!"
When he arrived at the top of the fence he paused, and mopped his brow.
"What?" they thundered, in an agony of sudden, unreasoning disappointment.
Mrs. Joe Peterson, who was a distant connection of Milton Jacoby, thought to forestall any damage to her social position by saying at once disdainfully, "Drunk, I s′pose!"
"Yep," said the major, still on the fence, and mopping his brow. "Drunk as a fool. Thunder! I was surprised. I—I—thought it was a rebel, sure."
The thoughts of all these women wavered for a time. They were at a loss for precise expression of their emotion. At last, however, they hurled this superior sentence at the major:
"Well, yeh might have known."