The girl was in the front room on the second floor, peering through the blinds. It was the "best room." There was a very new rag carpet on the floor. The edges of it had been dyed with alternate stripes of red and green. Upon the wooden mantel there were two little puffy figures in clay—a shepherd and a shepherdess probably. A triangle of pink and white wool hung carefully over the edge of this shelf. Upon the bureau there was nothing at all save a spread newspaper, with edges folded to make it into a mat. The quilts and sheets had been removed from the bed and were stacked upon a chair. The pillows and the great feather mattress were muffled and tumbled until they resembled great dumplings. The picture of a man terribly leaden in complexion hung in an oval frame on one white wall and steadily confronted the bureau.
From between the slats of the blinds she had a view of the road as it wended across the meadow to the woods, and again where it reappeared crossing the hill, half a mile away. It lay yellow and warm in the summer sunshine. From the long grasses of the meadow came the rhythmic click of the insects. Occasional frogs in the hidden brook made a peculiar chug-chug sound, as if somebody throttled them. The leaves of the wood swung in gentle winds. Through the dark-green branches of the pines that grew in the front yard could be seen the mountains, far to the south-east, and inexpressibly blue.
Mary′s eyes were fastened upon the little streak of road that appeared on the distant hill. Her face was flushed with excitement, and the hand which stretched in a strained pose on the sill trembled because of the nervous shaking of the wrist. The pines whisked their green needles with a soft, hissing sound against the house.
At last the girl turned from the window and went to the head of the stairs. "Well, I just know they′re coming, anyhow," she cried argumentatively to the depths.
A voice from below called to her angrily: "They ain′t. We′ve never seen one yet. They never come into this neighbourhood. You just come down here and ′tend to your work insteader watching for soldiers."
"Well, ma, I just know they′re coming."
A voice retorted with the shrillness and mechanical violence of occasional housewives. The girl swished her skirts defiantly and returned to the window.
Upon the yellow streak of road that lay across the hillside there now was a handful of black dots—horsemen. A cloud of dust floated away. The girl flew to the head of the stairs and whirled down into the kitchen.
"They′re coming! They′re coming!"
It was as if she had cried "Fire!" Her mother had been peeling potatoes while seated comfortably at the table. She sprang to her feet. "No—it can′t be—how you know it′s them—where?" The stubby knife fell from her hand, and two or three curls of potato skin dropped from her apron to the floor.
The girl turned and dashed upstairs. Her mother followed, gasping for breath, and yet contriving to fill the air with questions, reproach, and remonstrance. The girl was already at the window, eagerly pointing. "There! There! See ′em! See ′em!"
Rushing to the window, the mother scanned for an instant the road on the hill. She crouched back with a groan. "It′s them, sure as the world! It′s them!" She waved her hands in despairing gestures.
The black dots vanished into the wood. The girl at the window was quivering and her eyes were shining like water when the sun flashes. "Hush! They′re in the woods! They′ll be here directly." She bent down and intently watched the green archway whence the road emerged. "Hush! I hear ′em coming," she swiftly whispered to her mother, for the elder woman had dropped dolefully upon the mattress and was sobbing. And, indeed, the girl could hear the quick, dull trample of horses. She stepped aside with sudden apprehension, but she bent her head forward in order to still scan the road.
"Here they are!"
There was something very theatrical in the sudden appearance of these men to the eyes of the girl. It was as if a scene had been shifted. The forest suddenly disclosed them—a dozen brown-faced troopers in blue— galloping.
"Oh, look!" breathed the girl. Her mouth was puckered into an expression of strange fascination, as if she had expected to see the troopers change into demons and gloat at her. She was at last looking upon those curious beings who rode down from the North—those men of legend and colossal tale—they who were possessed of such marvellous hallucinations.
The little troop rode in silence. At its head was a youthful fellow with some dim yellow stripes upon his arm. In his right hand he held his carbine, slanting upward, with the stock resting upon his knee. He was absorbed in a scrutiny of the country before him.
At the heels of the sergeant the rest of the squad rode in thin column, with creak of leather and tinkle of steel and tin. The girl scanned the faces of the horsemen, seeming astonished vaguely to find them of the type she knew.
The lad at the head of the troop comprehended the house and its environments in two glances. He did not check the long, swinging stride of his horse. The troopers glanced for a moment like casual tourists, and then returned to their study of the region in front. The heavy thudding of the hoofs became a small noise. The dust, hanging in sheets, slowly sank.
The sobs of the woman on the bed took form in words which, while strong in their note of calamity, yet expressed a querulous mental reaching for some near thing to blame. "And it′ll be lucky fer us if we ain′t both butchered in our sleep—plundering and running off horses—old Santo′s gone—you see if he ain′t—plundering—"
"But, ma," said the girl, perplexed and terrified in the same moment, "they′ve gone."
"Oh, but they′ll come back!" cried the mother, without pausing her wail. "They′ll come back—trust them for that—running off horses. O John, John! why did you, why did you?" She suddenly lifted herself and sat rigid, staring at her daughter. "Mary," she said in tragic whisper, "the kitchen door isn′t locked!" Already she was bended forward to listen, her mouth agape, her eyes fixed upon her daughter.
"Mother," faltered the girl.
Her mother again whispered, "The kitchen door isn′t locked."
Motionless and mute they stared into each other′s eyes.
At last the girl quavered, "We better—we better go and lock it." The mother nodded. Hanging arm in arm they stole across the floor toward the head of the stairs. A board of the floor creaked. They halted and exchanged a look of dumb agony.
At last they reached the head of the stairs. From the kitchen came the bass humming of the kettle and frequent sputterings and cracklings from the fire. These sounds were sinister. The mother and the girl stood incapable of movement. "There′s somebody down there!" whispered the elder woman.
Finally, the girl made a gesture of resolution. She twisted her arm from her mother′s hands and went two steps downward. She addressed the kitchen: "Who′s there?" Her tone was intended to be dauntless. It rang so dramatically in the silence that a sudden new panic seized them as if the suspected presence in the kitchen had cried out to them. But the girl ventured again: "Is there anybody there?" No reply was made save by the kettle and the fire.
With a stealthy tread the girl continued her journey. As she neared the last step the fire crackled explosively and the girl screamed. But the mystic presence had not swept around the corner to grab her, so she dropped to a seat on the step and laughed. "It was—was only the—the fire," she said, stammering hysterically.
Then she arose with sudden fortitude and cried: "Why, there isn′t anybody there! I know there isn′t." She marched down into the kitchen. In her face was dread, as if she half expected to confront something, but the room was empty. She cried joyously: "There′s nobody here! Come on down, ma." She ran to the kitchen door and locked it.
The mother came down to the kitchen. "Oh, dear, what a fright I′ve had! It′s given me the sick headache. I know it has."
"Oh, ma," said the girl.
"I know it has—I know it. Oh, if your father was only here! He′d settle those Yankees mighty quick—he′d settle ′em! Two poor helpless women—"
"Why, ma, what makes you act so? The Yankees haven′t—"
"Oh, they′ll be back—they′ll be back. Two poor helpless women! Your father and your uncle Asa and Bill off galavanting around and fighting when they ought to be protecting their home! That′s the kind of men they are. Didn′t I say to your father just before he left—"
"Ma," said the girl, coming suddenly from the window, "the barn door is open. I wonder if they took old Santo?"
"Oh, of course they have—of course—Mary, I don′t see what we are going to do—I don′t see what we are going to do."
The girl said, "Ma, I′m going to see if they took old Santo."
"Mary," cried the mother, "don′t you dare!"
"But think of poor old Sant, ma."
"Never you mind old Santo. We′re lucky to be safe ourselves, I tell you. Never mind old Santo. Don′t you dare to go out there, Mary—Mary!"
The girl had unlocked the door and stepped out upon the porch. The mother cried in despair, "Mary!"
"Why, there isn′t anybody out here," the girl called in response. She stood for a moment with a curious smile upon her face as of gleeful satisfaction at her daring.
The breeze was waving the boughs of the apple trees. A rooster with an air importantly courteous was conducting three hens upon a foraging tour. On the hillside at the rear of the grey old barn the red leaves of a creeper flamed amid the summer foliage. High in the sky clouds rolled toward the north. The girl swung impulsively from the little stoop and ran toward the barn.
The great door was open, and the carved peg which usually performed the office of a catch lay on the ground. The girl could not see into the barn because of the heavy shadows. She paused in a listening attitude and heard a horse munching placidly. She gave a cry of delight and sprang across the threshold. Then she suddenly shrank back and gasped. She had confronted three men in grey seated upon the floor with their legs stretched out and their backs against Santo′s manger. Their dust- covered countenances were expanded in grins.
As Mary sprang backward and screamed, one of the calm men in grey, still grinning, announced, "I knowed you′d holler." Sitting there comfortably the three surveyed her with amusement.
Mary caught her breath, throwing her hand up to her throat. "Oh!" she said, "you—you frightened me!"
"We′re sorry, lady, but couldn′t help it no way," cheerfully responded another. "I knowed you′d holler when I seen you coming yere, but I raikoned we couldn′t help it no way. We hain′t a-troubling this yere barn, I don′t guess. We been doing some mighty tall sleeping yere. We done woke when them Yanks loped past."
"Where did you come from? Did—did you escape from the—the Yankees?" The girl still stammered and trembled.
The three soldiers laughed. "No, m′m. No, m′m. They never cotch us. We was in a muss down the road yere about two mile. And Bill yere they gin it to him in the arm, kehplunk. And they pasted me thar, too. Curious, And Sim yere, he didn′t get nothing, but they chased us all quite a little piece, and we done lose track of our boys."
"Was it—was it those who passed here just now? Did they chase you?"
The men in grey laughed again. "What—them? No, indeedee! There was a mighty big swarm of Yanks and a mighty big swarm of our boys, too. What— that little passel? No, m′m."
She became calm enough to scan them more attentively. They were much begrimed and very dusty. Their grey clothes were tattered. Splashed mud had dried upon them in reddish spots. It appeared, too, that the men had not shaved in many days. In the hats there was a singular diversity. One soldier wore the little blue cap of the Northern infantry, with corps emblem and regimental number; one wore a great slouch hat with a wide hole in the crown; and the other wore no hat at all. The left sleeve of one man and the right sleeve of another had been slit, and the arms were neatly bandaged with clean cloths. "These hain′t no more than two little cuts," explained one. "We stopped up yere to Mis′ Leavitts—she said her name was—and she bind them for us. Bill yere, he had the thirst come on him. And the fever too. We——"
"Did you ever see my father in the army?" asked Mary. "John Hinckson— his name is."
The three soldiers grinned again, but they replied kindly: "No, m′m. No, m′m, we hain′t never. What is he—in the cavalry?"
"No," said the girl. "He and my uncle Asa and my cousin—his name is Bill Parker—they are all with Longstreet—they call him."
"Oh," said the soldiers. "Longstreet? Oh, they′re a good smart ways from yere. ′Way off up nawtheast. There hain′t nothing but cavalry down yere. They′re in the infantry, probably."
"We haven′t heard anything from them for days and days," said Mary.
"Oh, they′re all right in the infantry," said one man, to be consoling. "The infantry don′t do much fighting. They go bellering out in a big swarm and only a few of ′em get hurt. But if they was in the cavalry— the cavalry—"
Mary interrupted him without intention. "Are you hungry?" she asked.
The soldiers looked at each other, struck by some sudden and singular shame. They hung their heads. "No, m′m," replied one at last.
Santo, in his stall, was tranquilly chewing and chewing. Sometimes he looked benevolently over at them. He was an old horse, and there was something about his eyes and his forelock which created the impression that he wore spectacles. Mary went and patted his nose. "Well, if you are hungry, I can get you something," she told the men. "Or you might come to the house."
"We wouldn′t dast go to the house," said one. "That passel of Yanks was only a scouting crowd, most like. Just an advance. More coming, likely."
"Well, I can bring you something," cried the girl eagerly. "Won′t you let me bring you something?"
"Well," said a soldier with embarrassment, "we hain′t had much. If you could bring us a little snack—like—just a snack—we′d—"
Without waiting for him to cease, the girl turned toward the door. But before she had reached it she stopped abruptly. "Listen!" she whispered. Her form was bent forward, her head turned and lowered, her hand extended toward the men, in a command for silence.
They could faintly hear the thudding of many hoofs, the clank of arms, and frequent calling voices.
"By cracky, it′s the Yanks!" The soldiers scrambled to their feet and came toward the door. "I knowed that first crowd was only an advance."
The girl and the three men peered from the shadows of the barn. The view of the road was intersected by tree trunks and a little henhouse. However, they could see many horsemen streaming down the road. The horsemen were in blue. "Oh, hide—hide—hide!" cried the girl, with a sob in her voice.
"Wait a minute," whispered a grey soldier excitedly. "Maybe they′re going along by. No, by thunder, they hain′t! They′re halting. Scoot, boys!"
They made a noiseless dash into the dark end of the barn. The girl, standing by the door, heard them break forth an instant later in clamorous whispers. "Where′ll we hide? Where′ll we hide? There hain′t a place to hide!" The girl turned and glanced wildly about the barn. It seemed true. The stock of hay had grown low under Santo′s endless munching, and from occasional levyings by passing troopers in grey. The poles of the mow were barely covered, save in one corner where there was a little bunch.
The girl espied the great feed-box. She ran to it and lifted the lid. "Here! here!" she called. "Get in here."
They had been tearing noiselessly around the rear part of the barn. At her low call they came and plunged at the box. They did not all get in at the same moment without a good deal of a tangle. The wounded men gasped and muttered, but they at last were flopped down on the layer of feed which covered the bottom. Swiftly and softly the girl lowered the lid and then turned like a flash toward the door.
No one appeared there, so she went close to survey the situation. The troopers had dismounted, and stood in silence by their horses.
A grey-bearded man, whose red cheeks and nose shone vividly above the whiskers, was strolling about with two or three others. They wore double- breasted coats, and faded yellow sashes were wound under their black leather sword-belts. The grey-bearded soldier was apparently giving orders, pointing here and there.
Mary tiptoed to the feed-box. "They′ve all got off their horses," she said to it. A finger projected from a knot-hole near the top, and said to her very plainly, "Come closer." She obeyed, and then a muffled voice could be heard: "Scoot for the house, lady, and if we don′t see you again, why, much obliged for what you done."
"Good-bye," she said to the feed-box.
She made two attempts to walk dauntlessly from the barn, but each time she faltered and failed just before she reached the point where she could have been seen by the blue-coated troopers. At last, however, she made a sort of a rush forward and went out into the bright sunshine.
The group of men in double-breasted coats wheeled in her direction at the instant. The grey-bearded officer forgot to lower his arm which had been stretched forth in giving an order.
She felt that her feet were touching the ground in a most unnatural manner. Her bearing, she believed, was suddenly grown awkward and ungainly. Upon her face she thought that this sentence was plainly written: "There are three men hidden in the feed-box."
The grey-bearded soldier came toward her. She stopped; she seemed about to run away. But the soldier doffed his little blue cap and looked amiable. "You live here, I presume?" he said.
"Yes," she answered.
"Well, we are obliged to camp here for the night, and as we′ve got two wounded men with us I don′t suppose you′d mind if we put them in the barn."
"In—in the barn?"
He became aware that she was agitated. He smiled assuringly. "You needn′t be frightened. We won′t hurt anything around here. You′ll all be safe enough."
The girl balanced on one foot and swung the other to and fro in the grass. She was looking down at it. "But—but I don′t think ma would like it if—if you took the barn."
The old officer laughed. "Wouldn′t she?" said he. "That′s so. Maybe she wouldn′t." He reflected for a time and then decided cheerfully: "Well, we will have to go ask her, anyhow. Where is she? In the house?"
"Yes," replied the girl, "she′s in the house. She—she′ll be scared to death when she sees you!"
"Well, you go and ask her then," said the soldier, always wearing a benign smile. "You go ask her and then come and tell me."
When the girl pushed open the door and entered the kitchen, she found it empty. "Ma!" she called softly. There was no answer. The kettle still was humming its low song. The knife and the curl of potato-skin lay on the floor.
She went to her mother′s room and entered timidly. The new, lonely aspect of the house shook her nerves. Upon the bed was a confusion of coverings. "Ma!" called the girl, quaking in fear that her mother was not there to reply. But there was a sudden turmoil of the quilts, and her mother′s head was thrust forth. "Mary!" she cried, in what seemed to be a supreme astonishment, "I thought—I thought——"
"Oh, ma," blurted the girl, "there′s over a thousand Yankees in the yard, and I′ve hidden three of our men in the feed-box!"
The elder woman, however, upon the appearance of her daughter had begun to thrash hysterically about on the bed and wail.
"Ma!" the girl exclaimed, "and now they want to use the barn—and our men in the feed-box! What shall I do, ma? What shall I do?"
Her mother did not seem to hear, so absorbed was she in her grievous flounderings and tears. "Ma!" appealed the girl. "Ma!"
For a moment Mary stood silently debating, her lips apart, her eyes fixed. Then she went to the kitchen window and peeked.
The old officer and the others were staring up the road. She went to another window in order to get a proper view of the road, and saw that they were gazing at a small body of horsemen approaching at a trot and raising much dust. Presently she recognised them as the squad that had passed the house earlier, for the young man with the dim yellow chevron still rode at their head. An unarmed horseman in grey was receiving their close attention.
As they came very near to the house she darted to the first window again. The grey-bearded officer was smiling a fine broad smile of satisfaction. "So you got him?" he called out. The young sergeant sprang from his horse and his brown hand moved in a salute. The girl could not hear his reply. She saw the unarmed horseman in grey stroking a very black moustache and looking about him coolly and with an interested air. He appeared so indifferent that she did not understand he was a prisoner until she heard the grey-beard call out: "Well, put him in the barn. He′ll be safe there, I guess." A party of troopers moved with the prisoner toward the barn.
The girl made a sudden gesture of horror, remembering the three men in the feed-box.
The busy troopers in blue scurried about the long lines of stamping horses. Men crooked their backs and perspired in order to rub with cloths or bunches of grass these slim equine legs, upon whose splendid machinery they depended so greatly. The lips of the horses were still wet and frothy from the steel bars which had wrenched at their mouths all day. Over their backs and about their noses sped the talk of the men.
"Moind where yer plug is steppin′, Finerty! Keep ′im aff me!"
"An ould elephant! He shtrides like a school-house."
"Bill′s little mar′—she was plum beat when she come in with Crawford′s crowd."
"Crawford′s the hardest-ridin′ cavalryman in the army. An′ he don′t use up a horse, neither—much. They stay fresh when the others are most a-droppin′."
"Finerty, will yeh moind that cow a yours?"
Amid a bustle of gossip and banter, the horses retained their air of solemn rumination, twisting their lower jaws from side to side and sometimes rubbing noses dreamfully.
Over in front of the barn three troopers sat talking comfortably. Their carbines were leaned against the wall. At their side and outlined in the black of the open door stood a sentry, his weapon resting in the hollow of his arm. Four horses, saddled and accoutred, were conferring with their heads close together. The four bridle-reins were flung over a post.
Upon the calm green of the land, typical in every way of peace, the hues of war brought thither by the troops shone strangely. Mary, gazing curiously, did not feel that she was contemplating a familiar scene. It was no longer the home acres. The new blue, steel, and faded yellow thoroughly dominated the old green and brown. She could hear the voices of the men, and it seemed from their tone that they had camped there for years. Everything with them was usual. They had taken possession of the landscape in such a way that even the old marks appeared strange and formidable to the girl.
Mary had intended to go and tell the commander in blue that her mother did not wish his men to use the barn at all, but she paused when she heard him speak to the sergeant. She thought she perceived then that it mattered little to him what her mother wished, and that an objection by her or by anybody would be futile. She saw the soldiers conduct the prisoner in grey into the barn, and for a long time she watched the three chatting guards and the pondering sentry. Upon her mind in desolate weight was the recollection of the three men in the feed-box.
It seemed to her that in a case of this description it was her duty to be a heroine. In all the stories she had read when at boarding-school in Pennsylvania, the girl characters, confronted with such difficulties, invariably did hair-breadth things. True, they were usually bent upon rescuing and recovering their lovers, and neither the calm man in grey, nor any of the three in the feed-box, was lover of hers, but then a real heroine would not pause over this minor question. Plainly a heroine would take measures to rescue the four men. If she did not at least make the attempt, she would be false to those carefully constructed ideals which were the accumulation of years of dreaming.
But the situation puzzled her. There was the barn with only one door, and with four armed troopers in front of this door, one of them with his back to the rest of the world, engaged, no doubt, in a steadfast contemplation of the calm man, and incidentally, of the feed-box. She knew, too, that even if she should open the kitchen door, three heads, and perhaps four, would turn casually in her direction. Their ears were real ears.
Heroines, she knew, conducted these matters with infinite precision and despatch. They severed the hero′s bonds, cried a dramatic sentence, and stood between him and his enemies until he had run far enough away. She saw well, however, that even should she achieve all things up to the point where she might take glorious stand between the escaping and the pursuers, those grim troopers in blue would not pause. They would run around her, make a circuit. One by one she saw the gorgeous contrivances and expedients of fiction fall before the plain, homely difficulties of this situation. They were of no service. Sadly, ruefully, she thought of the calm man and of the contents of the feed-box.
The sum of her invention was that she could sally forth to the commander of the blue cavalry, and confessing to him that there were three of her friends and his enemies secreted in the feed-box, pray him to let them depart unmolested. But she was beginning to believe the old greybeard to be a bear. It was hardly probable that he would give this plan his support. It was more probable that he and some of his men would at once descend upon the feed-box and confiscate her three friends. The difficulty with her idea was that she could not learn its value without trying it, and then in case of failure it would be too late for remedies and other plans. She reflected that war made men very unreasonable.
All that she could do was to stand at the window and mournfully regard the barn. She admitted this to herself with a sense of deep humiliation. She was not, then, made of that fine stuff, that mental satin, which enabled some other beings to be of such mighty service to the distressed. She was defeated by a barn with one door, by four men with eight eyes and eight ears—trivialities that would not impede the real heroine.
The vivid white light of broad day began slowly to fade. Tones of grey came upon the fields, and the shadows were of lead. In this more sombre atmosphere the fires built by the troops down in the far end of the orchard grew more brilliant, becoming spots of crimson colour in the dark grove.
The girl heard a fretting voice from her mother′s room. "Mary!" She hastily obeyed the call. She perceived that she had quite forgotten her mother′s existence in this time of excitement.
The elder woman still lay upon the bed. Her face was flushed and perspiration stood amid new wrinkles upon her forehead. Weaving wild glances from side to side, she began to whimper. "Oh, I′m just sick—I′m just sick! Have those men gone yet? Have they gone?"
The girl smoothed a pillow carefully for her mother′s head. "No, ma. They′re here yet. But they haven′t hurt anything—it doesn′t seem. Will I get you something to eat?"
Her mother gestured her away with the impatience of the ill. "No—no— just don′t bother me. My head is splitting, and you know very well that nothing can be done for me when I get one of these spells. It′s trouble— that′s what makes them. When are those men going? Look here, don′t you go ′way. You stick close to the house now."
"I′ll stay right here," said the girl. She sat in the gloom and listened to her mother′s incessant moaning. When she attempted to move, her mother cried out at her. When she desired to ask if she might try to alleviate the pain, she was interrupted shortly. Somehow her sitting in passive silence within hearing of this illness seemed to contribute to her mother′s relief. She assumed a posture of submission. Sometimes her mother projected questions concerning the local condition, and although she laboured to be graphic and at the same time soothing, unalarming, her form of reply was always displeasing to the sick woman, and brought forth ejaculations of angry impatience.
Eventually the woman slept in the manner of one worn from terrible labour. The girl went slowly and softly to the kitchen. When she looked from the window, she saw the four soldiers still at the barn door. In the west, the sky was yellow. Some tree-trunks intersecting it appeared black as streaks of ink. Soldiers hovered in blue clouds about the bright splendour of the fires in the orchard. There were glimmers of steel.
The girl sat in the new gloom of the kitchen and watched. The soldiers lit a lantern and hung it in the barn. Its rays made the form of the sentry seem gigantic. Horses whinnied from the orchard. There was a low hum of human voices. Sometimes small detachments of troopers rode past the front of the house. The girl heard the abrupt calls of sentries. She fetched some food and ate it from her hand, standing by the window. She was so afraid that something would occur that she barely left her post for an instant.
A picture of the interior of the barn hung vividly in her mind. She recalled the knot-holes in the boards at the rear, but she admitted that the prisoners could not escape through them. She remembered some inadequacies of the roof, but these also counted for nothing. When confronting the problem, she felt her ambitions, her ideals tumbling headlong like cottages of straw.
Once she felt that she had decided to reconnoitre at any rate. It was night; the lantern at the barn and the camp fires made everything without their circle into masses of heavy mystic blackness. She took two steps toward the door. But there she paused. Innumerable possibilities of danger had assailed her mind. She returned to the window and stood wavering. At last, she went swiftly to the door, opened it, and slid noiselessly into the darkness.
For a moment she regarded the shadows. Down in the orchard the camp fires of the troops appeared precisely like a great painting, all in reds upon a black cloth. The voices of the troopers still hummed. The girl started slowly off in the opposite direction. Her eyes were fixed in a stare; she studied the darkness in front for a moment, before she ventured upon a forward step. Unconsciously, her throat was arranged for a sudden shrill scream. High in the tree-branches she could hear the voice of the wind, a melody of the night, low and sad, the plaint of an endless, incommunicable sorrow. Her own distress, the plight of the men in grey—these near matters as well as all she had known or imagined of grief—everything was expressed in this soft mourning of the wind in the trees. At first she felt like weeping. This sound told her of human impotency and doom. Then later the trees and the wind breathed strength to her, sang of sacrifice, of dauntless effort, of hard carven faces that did not blanch when Duty came at midnight or at noon.
She turned often to scan the shadowy figures that moved from time to time in the light at the barn door. Once she trod upon a stick, and it flopped, crackling in the intolerable manner of all sticks. At this noise, however, the guards at the barn made no sign. Finally, she was where she could see the knot-holes in the rear of the structure gleaming like pieces of metal from the effect of the light within. Scarcely breathing in her excitement she glided close and applied an eye to a knot-hole. She had barely achieved one glance at the interior before she sprang back shuddering.
For the unconscious and cheerful sentry at the door was swearing away in flaming sentences, heaping one gorgeous oath upon another, making a conflagration of his description of his troop-horse. "Why," he was declaring to the calm prisoner in grey, "you ain′t got a horse in your hull —— army that can run forty rod with that there little mar′!"
As in the outer darkness Mary cautiously returned to the knot-hole, the three guards in front suddenly called in low tones: "S-s-s-h!" "Quit, Pete; here comes the lieutenant." The sentry had apparently been about to resume his declamation, but at these warnings he suddenly posed in a soldierly manner.
A tall and lean officer with a smooth face entered the barn. The sentry saluted primly. The officer flashed a comprehensive glance about him. "Everything all right?"
"All right, sir."
This officer had eyes like the points of stilettos. The lines from his nose to the corners of his mouth were deep, and gave him a slightly disagreeable aspect, but somewhere in his face there was a quality of singular thoughtfulness, as of the absorbed student dealing in generalities, which was utterly in opposition to the rapacious keenness of the eyes which saw everything.
Suddenly he lifted a long finger and pointed. "What′s that?"
"That? That′s a feed-box, I suppose."
"What′s in it?"
"I don′t know. I—"
"You ought to know," said the officer sharply. He walked over to the feed-box and flung up the lid. With a sweeping gesture he reached down and scooped a handful of feed. "You ought to know what′s in everything when you have prisoners in your care," he added, scowling.
During the time of this incident, the girl had nearly swooned. Her hands searched weakly over the boards for something to which to cling. With the pallor of the dying she had watched the downward sweep of the officer′s arm, which after all had only brought forth a handful of feed. The result was a stupefaction of her mind. She was astonished out of her senses at this spectacle of three large men metamorphosed into a handful of feed.
It is perhaps a singular thing that this absence of the three men from the feed-box at the time of the sharp lieutenant′s investigation should terrify the girl more than it should joy her. That for which she had prayed had come to pass. Apparently the escape of these men in the face of every improbability had been granted her, but her dominating emotion was fright. The feed-box was a mystic and terrible machine, like some dark magician′s trap. She felt it almost possible that she should see the three weird man floating spectrally away through the air. She glanced with swift apprehension behind her, and when the dazzle from the lantern′s light had left her eyes, saw only the dim hillside stretched in solemn silence.
The interior of the barn possessed for her another fascination because it was now uncanny. It contained that extraordinary feed-box. When she peeped again at the knot-hole, the calm, grey prisoner was seated upon the feed-box, thumping it with his dangling, careless heels as if it were in nowise his conception of a remarkable feed-box. The sentry also stood facing it. His carbine he held in the hollow of his arm. His legs were spread apart, and he mused. From without came the low mumble of the three other troopers. The sharp lieutenant had vanished.
The trembling yellow light of the lantern caused the figures of the men to cast monstrous wavering shadows. There were spaces of gloom which shrouded ordinary things in impressive garb. The roof presented an inscrutable blackness, save where small rifts in the shingles glowed phosphorescently. Frequently old Santo put down a thunderous hoof. The heels of the prisoner made a sound like the booming of a wild kind of drum. When the men moved their heads, their eyes shone with ghoulish whiteness, and their complexions were always waxen and unreal. And there was that profoundly strange feed-box, imperturbable with its burden of fantastic mystery.
Suddenly from down near her feet the girl heard a crunching sound, a sort of a nibbling, as if some silent and very discreet terrier was at work upon the turf. She faltered back; here was no doubt another grotesque detail of this most unnatural episode. She did not run, because physically she was in the power of these events. Her feet chained her to the ground in submission to this march of terror after terror. As she stared at the spot from which this sound seemed to come, there floated through her mind a vague, sweet vision—a vision of her safe little room, in which at this hour she usually was sleeping.
The scratching continued faintly and with frequent pauses, as if the terrier was then listening. When the girl first removed her eyes from the knot-hole the scene appeared of one velvet blackness; then gradually objects loomed with a dim lustre. She could see now where the tops of the trees joined the sky and the form of the barn was before her dyed in heavy purple. She was ever about to shriek, but no sound came from her constricted throat. She gazed at the ground with the expression of countenance of one who watches the sinister-moving grass where a serpent approaches.
Dimly she saw a piece of sod wrenched free and drawn under the great foundation-beam of the barn. Once she imagined that she saw human hands, not outlined at all, but sufficient, in colour, form, or movement to make subtle suggestion.
Then suddenly a thought that illuminated the entire situation flashed in her mind like a light. The three men, late of the feed-box, were beneath the floor of the barn and were now scraping their way under this beam. She did not consider for a moment how they could come there. They were marvellous creatures. The supernatural was to be expected of them. She no longer trembled, for she was possessed upon this instant of the most unchangeable species of conviction. The evidence before her amounted to no evidence at all, but nevertheless her opinion grew in an instant from an irresponsible acorn to a rooted and immovable tree. It was as if she was on a jury.
She stooped down hastily and scanned the ground. There she indeed saw a pair of hands hauling at the dirt where the sod had been displaced. Softly, in a whisper like a breath, she said, "Hey!"
The dim hands were drawn hastily under the barn. The girl reflected for a moment. Then she stooped and whispered: "Hey! It′s me!"
After a time there was a resumption of the digging. The ghostly hands began once more their cautious mining. She waited. In hollow reverberations from the interior of the barn came the frequent sounds of old Santo′s lazy movements. The sentry conversed with the prisoner.
At last the girl saw a head thrust slowly from under the beam. She perceived the face of one of the miraculous soldiers from the feed-box. A pair of eyes glintered and wavered, then finally settled upon her, a pale statue of a girl. The eyes became lit with a kind of humorous greeting. An arm gestured at her.
Stooping, she breathed, "All right." The man drew himself silently back under the beam. A moment later the pair of hands resumed their cautious task. Ultimately the head and arms of the man were thrust strangely from the earth. He was lying on his back. The girl thought of the dirt in his hair. Wriggling slowly and pushing at the beam above him he forced his way out of the curious little passage. He twisted his body and raised himself upon his hands. He grinned at the girl and drew his feet carefully from under the beam. When he at last stood erect beside her, he at once began mechanically to brush the dirt from his clothes with his hands. In the barn the sentry and his prisoner were evidently engaged in an argument.
The girl and the first miraculous soldier signalled warily. It seemed that they feared that their arms would make noises in passing through the air. Their lips moved, conveying dim meanings.
In this sign-language the girl described the situation in the barn. With guarded motions, she told him of the importance of absolute stillness. He nodded, and then in the same manner he told her of his two companions under the barn floor. He informed her again of their wounded state, and wagged his head to express his despair. He contorted his face, to tell how sore were their arms; and jabbed the air mournfully, to express their remote geographical position.
This signalling was interrupted by the sound of a body being dragged or dragging itself with slow, swishing sound under the barn. The sound was too loud for safety. They rushed to the hole and began to semaphore until a shaggy head appeared with rolling eyes and quick grin.
With frantic downward motions of their arms they suppressed this grin and with it the swishing noise. In dramatic pantomime they informed this head of the terrible consequences of so much noise. The head nodded, and painfully, but with extreme care, the second man pushed and pulled himself from the hole.
In a faint whisper the first man said, "Where′s Sim?"
The second man made low reply: "He′s right here." He motioned reassuringly toward the hole.
When the third head appeared, a soft smile of glee came upon each face, and the mute group exchanged expressive glances.
When they all stood together, free from this tragic barn, they breathed a long sigh that was contemporaneous with another smile and another exchange of glances.
One of the men tiptoed to a knot-hole and peered into the barn. The sentry was at that moment speaking. "Yes, we know ′em all. There isn′t a house in this region that we don′t know who is in it most of the time. We collar ′em once in a while—like we did you. Now, that house out yonder, we——"
The man suddenly left the knot-hole and returned to the others. Upon his face, dimly discerned, there was an indication that he had made an astonishing discovery. The others questioned him with their eyes, but he simply waved an arm to express his inability to speak at that spot. He led them back toward the hill, prowling carefully. At a safe distance from the barn he halted, and as they grouped eagerly about him, he exploded in an intense undertone: "Why, that—that′s Cap′n Sawyer they got in yonder."
"Cap′n Sawyer!" incredulously whispered the other men.
But the girl had something to ask. "How did you get out of that feed- box?" He smiled. "Well, when you put us in there, we was just in a minute when we allowed it wasn′t a mighty safe place, and we allowed we′d get out. And we did. We skedaddled ′round and ′round until it ′peared like we was going to get cotched, and then we flung ourselves down in the cow-stalls where it′s low-like—just dirt floor—and then we just naturally went a-whooping under the barn floor when the Yanks come. And we didn′t know Cap′n Sawyer by his voice nohow. We heard ′im discoursing, and we allowed it was a mighty pert man, but we didn′t know that it was him. No, m′m."
These three men, so recently from a situation of peril, seemed suddenly to have dropped all thought of it. They stood with sad faces looking at the barn. They seemed to be making no plans at all to reach a place of more complete safety. They were halted and stupefied by some unknown calamity.
"How do you raikon they cotch him, Sim?" one whispered mournfully.
"I don′t know," replied another in the same tone.
Another with a low snarl expressed in two words his opinion of the methods of Fate: "Oh, hell!"
The three men started then as if simultaneously stung, and gazed at the young girl who stood silently near them. The man who had sworn began to make agitated apology: "Pardon, miss! ′Pon my soul, I clean forgot you was by. ′Deed, and I wouldn′t swear like that if I had knowed. ′Deed, I wouldn′t."
The girl did not seem to hear him. She was staring at the barn. Suddenly she turned and whispered, "Who is he?"
"He′s Cap′n Sawyer, m′m," they told her sorrowfully. "He′s our own cap′n. He′s been in command of us yere since a long time. He′s got folks about yere. Raikon they cotch him while he was a-visiting."
She was still for a time, and then, awed, she said: "Will they—will they hang him?"
"No, m′m. Oh no, m′m. Don′t raikon no such thing. No, m′m."
The group became absorbed in a contemplation of the barn. For a time no one moved nor spoke. At last the girl was aroused by slight sounds, and turning, she perceived that the three men who had so recently escaped from the barn were now advancing toward it.
The girl, waiting in the darkness, expected to hear the sudden crash and uproar of a fight as soon as the three creeping men should reach the barn. She reflected in an agony upon the swift disaster that would befall any enterprise so desperate. She had an impulse to beg them to come away. The grass rustled in silken movements as she sped toward the barn.
When she arrived, however, she gazed about her bewildered. The men were gone. She searched with her eyes, trying to detect some moving thing, but she could see nothing.
Left alone again, she began to be afraid of the night. The great stretches of darkness could hide crawling dangers. From sheer desire to see a human, she was obliged to peep again at the knot-hole. The sentry had apparently wearied of talking. Instead, he was reflecting. The prisoner still sat on the feed-box, moodily staring at the floor. The girl felt in one way that she was looking at a ghastly group in wax. She started when the old horse put down an echoing hoof. She wished the men would speak; their silence re-enforced the strange aspect. They might have been two dead men.
The girl felt impelled to look at the corner of the interior where were the cow-stalls. There was no light there save the appearance of peculiar grey haze which marked the track of the dimming rays of the lantern. All else was sombre shadow. At last she saw something move there. It might have been as small as a rat, or it might have been a part of something as large as a man. At any rate, it proclaimed that something in that spot was alive. At one time she saw it plainly, and at other times it vanished, because her fixture of gaze caused her occasionally to greatly tangle and blur those peculiar shadows and faint lights. At last, however, she perceived a human head. It was monstrously dishevelled and wild. It moved slowly forward until its glance could fall upon the prisoner and then upon the sentry. The wandering rays caused the eyes to glitter like silver. The girl′s heart pounded so that she put her hand over it.
The sentry and the prisoner remained immovably waxen, and over in the gloom the head thrust from the floor watched them with its silver eyes.
Finally, the prisoner slipped from the feed-box, and raising his arms, yawned at great length. "Oh, well," he remarked, "you boys will get a good licking if you fool around here much longer. That′s some satisfaction, anyhow, even if you did bag me. You′ll get a good walloping." He reflected for a moment, and decided: "I′m sort of willing to be captured if you fellows only get a d——d good licking for being so smart."
The sentry looked up and smiled a superior smile. "Licking, hey? Nixey!" He winked exasperatingly at the prisoner. "You fellows are not fast enough, my boy. Why didn′t you lick us at ——? and at ——? and at ——?" He named some of the great battles.
To this the captive officer blurted in angry astonishment: "Why, we did!"
The sentry winked again in profound irony. "Yes, I know you did. Of course. You whipped us, didn′t you? Fine kind of whipping that was! Why, we——"
He suddenly ceased, smitten mute by a sound that broke the stillness of the night. It was the sharp crack of a distant shot that made wild echoes among the hills. It was instantly followed by the hoarse cry of a human voice, a far-away yell of warning, singing of surprise, peril, fear of death. A moment later there was a distant, fierce spattering of shots. The sentry and the prisoner stood facing each other, their lips apart, listening.
The orchard at that instant awoke to sudden tumult. There were the thud and scramble and scamper of feet, the mellow, swift clash of arms, men′s voices in question, oath, command, hurried and unhurried, resolute and frantic. A horse sped along the road at a raging gallop. A loud voice shouted, "What is it, Ferguson?" Another voice yelled something incoherent. There was a sharp, discordant chorus of command. An uproarious volley suddenly rang from the orchard. The prisoner in grey moved from his intent, listening attitude. Instantly the eyes of the sentry blazed, and he said with a new and terrible sternness: "Stand where you are!"
The prisoner trembled in his excitement. Expressions of delight and triumph bubbled to his lips. "A surprise, by Gawd! Now—now, you′ll see!"
The sentry stolidly swung his carbine to his shoulder. He sighted carefully along the barrel until it pointed at the prisoner′s head, about at his nose. "Well, I′ve got you, anyhow. Remember that! Don′t move!"
The prisoner could not keep his arms from nervously gesturing. "I won′t; but——"
"And shut your mouth!"
The three comrades of the sentry flung themselves into view. "Pete— devil of a row!—can you——"
"I′ve got him," said the sentry calmly and without moving. It was as if the barrel of the carbine rested on piers of stone. The three comrades turned and plunged into the darkness.
In the orchard it seemed as if two gigantic animals were engaged in a mad, floundering encounter, snarling, howling in a whirling chaos of noise and motion. In the barn the prisoner and his guard faced each other in silence.
As for the girl at the knot-hole, the sky had fallen at the beginning of this clamour. She would not have been astonished to see the stars swinging from their abodes, and the vegetation, the barn, all blow away. It was the end of everything, the grand universal murder. When two of the three miraculous soldiers who formed the original feed-box corps emerged in detail from the hole under the beam, and slid away into the darkness, she did no more than glance at them.
Suddenly she recollected the head with silver eyes. She started forward and again applied her eyes to the knot-hole. Even with the din resounding from the orchard, from up the road and down the road, from the heavens and from the deep earth, the central fascination was this mystic head. There, to her, was the dark god of the tragedy.
The prisoner in grey at this moment burst into a laugh that was no more than a hysterical gurgle. "Well, you can′t hold that gun out for ever! Pretty soon you′ll have to lower it."
The sentry′s voice sounded slightly muffled, for his cheek was pressed against the weapon. "I won′t be tired for some time yet."
The girl saw the head slowly rise, the eyes fixed upon the sentry′s face. A tall, black figure slunk across the cow-stalls and vanished back of old Santo′s quarters. She knew what was to come to pass. She knew this grim thing was upon a terrible mission, and that it would reappear again at the head of the little passage between Santo′s stall and the wall, almost at the sentry′s elbow; and yet when she saw a faint indication as of a form crouching there, a scream from an utterly new alarm almost escaped her.
The sentry′s arms, after all, were not of granite. He moved restively. At last he spoke in his even, unchanging tone: "Well, I guess you′ll have to climb into that feed-box. Step back and lift the lid."
"Why, you don′t mean——"
The girl felt a cry of warning arising to her lips as she gazed at this sentry. She noted every detail of his facial expression. She saw, moreover, his mass of brown hair bunching disgracefully about his ears, his clear eyes lit now with a hard, cold light, his forehead puckered in a mighty scowl, the ring upon the third finger of the left hand. "Oh, they won′t kill him! Surely they won′t kill him!" The noise of the fight in the orchard was the loud music, the thunder and lightning, the rioting of the tempest which people love during the critical scene of a tragedy.
When the prisoner moved back in reluctant obedience, he faced for an instant the entrance of the little passage, and what he saw there must have been written swiftly, graphically in his eyes. And the sentry read it and knew then that he was upon the threshold of his death. In a fraction of time, certain information went from the grim thing in the passage to the prisoner, and from the prisoner to the sentry. But at that instant the black formidable figure arose, towered, and made its leap. A new shadow flashed across the floor when the blow was struck.
As for the girl at the knot-hole, when she returned to sense she found herself standing with clenched hands and screaming with her might.
As if her reason had again departed from her, she ran around the barn, in at the door, and flung herself sobbing beside the body of the soldier in blue.
The uproar of the fight became at last coherent, inasmuch as one party was giving shouts of supreme exultation. The firing no longer sounded in crashes; it was now expressed in spiteful crackles, the last words of the combat, spoken with feminine vindictiveness.
Presently there was a thud of flying feet. A grimy, panting, red-faced mob of troopers in blue plunged into the barn, became instantly frozen to attitudes of amazement and rage, and then roared in one great chorus: "He′s gone!"
The girl who knelt beside the body upon the floor turned toward them her lamenting eyes and cried: "He′s not dead, is he? He can′t be dead?"
They thronged forward. The sharp lieutenant who had been so particular about the feed-box knelt by the side of the girl, and laid his head against the chest of the prostrate soldier. "Why, no," he said, rising and looking at the man. "He′s all right. Some of you boys throw some water on him."
"Are you sure?" demanded the girl feverishly.
"Of course! He′ll be better after awhile."
"Oh!" said she softly, and then looked down at the sentry. She started to arise, and the lieutenant reached down and hoisted rather awkwardly at her arm.
"Don′t you worry about him. He′s all right."
She turned her face with its curving lips and shining eyes once more toward the unconscious soldier upon the floor. The troopers made a lane to the door, the lieutenant bowed, the girl vanished.
"Queer," said a young officer. "Girl very clearly worst kind of rebel, and yet she falls to weeping and wailing like mad over one of her enemies. Be around in the morning with all sorts of doctoring—you see if she ain′t. Queer."
The sharp lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. After reflection he shrugged his shoulders again. He said: "War changes many things; but it doesn′t change everything, thank God!"