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A CONSCRIPT’S CHRISTMAS.
On a Sunday afternoon in December, 1863, two horsemen were making their way across Big Corn Valley in the direction of Sugar Mountain. They had started from the little town of Jasper early in the morning, and it was apparent at a glance that they had not enjoyed the journey. They sat listlessly in their saddles, with their carbines across their laps, and whatever conversation they carried on was desultory.

To tell the truth, the journey from Jasper to the top of Sugar Mountain was not a pleasant one even in the best of weather, and now, with the wind pushing before it a bitterly cold mist, its disagreeableness was irritating. And it was not by any means a short journey. Big Corn Valley was fifteen miles across as the crow flies, and the meanderings of the road added five more. Then there was the barrier of the foothills, and finally Sugar Mountain itself, which when[46] the weather was clear lifted itself above all the other mountains of that region.

Nor was this all. Occasionally, when the wind blew aside the oilskin overcoats of the riders, the gray uniform of the Confederacy showed beneath, and they wore cavalry boots, and there were tell-tale trimmings on their felt hats. With these accoutrements to advertise them, they were not in a friendly region. There were bushwhackers in the mountains, and, for aught the horsemen knew, the fodder stacks in the valley, that rose like huge and ominous ghosts out of the mist on every side, might conceal dozens of guerrillas. They had that day ridden past the house of the only member of the Georgia State convention who had refused to affix his signature to the ordinance of secession, and the woods, to use the provincial phrase, were full of union men.

Suddenly, and with a fierce and ripping oath, one of the horsemen drew rein. “I wish I may die,” he exclaimed, his voice trembling with long pent up irritation, “if I ain’t a great mind to turn around in my tracks an’ go back. Where does this cussed road lead to anyhow?”

“To the mountain—straight to the mountain,”[47] grimly remarked the other, who had stopped to see what was the matter with his companion.

“Great Jerusalem! straight? Do you see that fodder stack yonder with the hawk on the top of the pole? Well, we’ve passed it four times, and we ain’t no further away from it now than we was at fust.”

“Well, we’ve no time to stand here. In an hour we’ll be at the foot of the mountain, and a quarter of a mile further we’ll find shelter. We must attend to business and talk it over afterwards.”

“An’ it’s a mighty nice business, too,” said the man who had first spoken. He was slender in build, and his thin and straggling mustache failed to relieve his effeminate appearance. He had evidently never seen hard service. “I never have believed in this conscriptin’ business,” he went on in a complaining tone. “It won’t pan out. It has turned more men agin the Confederacy than it has turned fer it, or else my daddy’s name ain’t Bill Chadwick, nor mine neither.”

“Well,” said the other curtly, “it’s the law, Bill Chadwick, and it must be carried out. We’ve got our orders.”

“Oh, yes! You are the commander,[48] Cap’n Moseley, an’ I’m the army. Ain’t I the gayest army you ever had under you? I’ll tell you what, Cap’n Moseley (I’d call you Dick, like I useter, if we wasn’t in the ranks), when I j’ined the army I thought I was goin’ to fight the Yankees, but they slapped me in the camp of instruction over there at Adairsville, an’ now here we are fightin’ our own folks. If we ain’t fightin’ ’em, we are pursuin’ after ’em, an’ runnin’ ’em into the woods an’ up the mountains. Now what kind of a soldier will one of these conscripts make? You needn’t tell me, Cap’n! The law won’t pan out.”

“But it’s the law,” said Captain Moseley. The captain had been wounded in Virginia, and was entitled to a discharge, but he accepted the position of conscript officer. He had the grit and discipline of a veteran, and a persistence in carrying out his purposes that gave him the name of “Hardhead” in the army. He was tall and muscular, but his drooping left shoulder showed where a Federal bullet had found lodgment. His closely cropped beard was slightly streaked with gray, and his face would have been handsome had not determination left its rude handwriting there.

[49]

The two rode on together in silence a little space, the cold mists, driven by the wind, tingling in their faces. Presently Private Chadwick, who had evidently been ruminating over the matter, resumed the thread of his complaints.

“They tell me,” he said, “that it’s a heap easier to make a bad law than it is to make a good one. It takes a lot of smart men a long time to make a good one, but a passel of blunderbusses can patch a bad one up in a little or no time. That’s the way I look at it.

“What’s the name of this chap we are after? Israel Spurlock? I’d like to know, by George, what’s the matter with him! What makes him so plague-taked important that two men have to be sent on a wild-goose chase after him? They yerked him into army, an’ he yerked himself out, an’ now the word is that the war can’t go on unless Israel Spurlock is on hand to fling down his gun an’ run when he hears a bung-shell playin’ a tune in the air.”

Captain Moseley coughed to hide a smile.

“It’s jest like I tell you, Cap’n. The news is that we had a terrible victory at Chattanooga, but I notice in the Atlanta papers[50] that the Yankees ain’t no further north than they was before the fight; an’ what makes it wuss, they are warmin’ themselves in Chattanooga, whilst we are shiverin’ outside. I reckon if Israel Spurlock had been on hand at the right time an’ in the right place, we’d a drove the Yanks plumb back to Nashville. Lord! I hope we’ll have him on the skirmish line the next time we surround the enemy an’ drive him into a town as big as Chattanooga.”

Private Chadwick kept up his complaints for some time, but they failed to disturb the serenity of the captain, who urged his horse forward through the mist, closely followed by his companion. They finally left the valley, passed over the foothills, and began the ascent of Sugar Mountain. Here their journey became less disagreeable. The road, winding and twisting around the mountain, had been cut through a dense growth of trees, and these proved to be something of a shelter. Moreover, the road sometimes brought the mountain between the travelers and the wind, and these were such comfortable intervals that Mr. Chadwick ceased his complaints and rode along good-humoredly.

The two horsemen had gone about a[51] mile, measuring the mountain road, though they were not more than a quarter of a mile from the foot, when they came suddenly on an old man sitting in a sheltered place by the side of the road. They came on the stranger so suddenly that their horses betrayed alarm, and it was all they could do to keep the animals from slipping and rolling into the gorge at their left. The old man was dressed in a suit of gray jeans, and wore a wool hat, which, although it showed the signs of constant use, had somehow managed to retain its original shape. His head was large and covered with a profusion of iron-gray hair, which was neatly combed. His face was round, but the lines of character obliterated all suggestions of chubbiness. The full beard that he wore failed to hide evidences of firmness and determination; but around his mouth a serene smile lingered, and humor sparkled in his small brown eyes.

“Howdy, boys, howdy!” he exclaimed. “Tired as they look to be, you er straddlin’ right peart creeturs. A flirt or two more an’ they’d ’a’ flung you down the hill, an’ ’a’ follered along atter you, headstall an’ stirrup. They done like they weren’t expectin’ company in an’ around here.”

[52]

The sonorous voice and deliberate utterance of the old man bespoke his calling. He was evidently a minister of the gospel. This gave a clew to Captain Moseley’s memory.

“This must be Uncle Billy Powers,” said the captain. “I have heard you preach many a time when I was a boy.”

“That’s my name,” said Uncle Billy; “an’ in my feeble way I’ve been a-preachin’ the Word as it was given to me forty year, lackin’ one. Ef I ever saw you, the circumstance has slipped from me.”

“My name is Moseley,” said the captain.

“I useter know Jeremiah Moseley in my younger days,” said Uncle Billy, gazing reflectively at the piece of pine bark he was whittling. “Yes, yes! I knowed Brother Moseley well. He was a God-fearin’ man.”

“He was my father,” said the captain.

“Well, well, well!” exclaimed Uncle Billy, in a tone that seemed to combine reflection with astonishment. “Jerry Moseley’s son; I disremember the day when Brother Moseley came into my mind, an’ yit, now that I hear his name bandied about up here on the hill, it carries me back to ole times. He weren’t much of a preacher on[53] his own hook, but let ’im foller along for to clench the sermon, an’ his match couldn’t be foun’ in them days. Yit, Jerry was a man of peace, an’ here’s his son a-gwine about with guns an’ pistols, an’ what not, a-tryin’ to give peaceable folks a smell of war.”

“Oh, no!” said Captain Moseley, laughing; “we are just hunting up some old acquaintances,—some friends of ours that we’d like to see.”

“Well,” said Uncle Billy, sinking his knife deep into the soft pine bark, “it’s bad weather for a frolic, an’ it ain’t much better for a straight-out, eve’y-day call. Speshually up here on the hill, where the ground is so wet and slipperyfied. It looks like you’ve come a mighty long ways for to pay a friendly call. An’ yit,” the old man continued, looking up at the captain with a smile that well became his patriarchal face, “thar ain’t a cabin on the hill whar you won’t be more than welcome. Yes, sir; wheresomever you find a h’a’thstone, thar you’ll find a place to rest.”

“So I have heard,” said the captain. “But maybe you can cut our journey short. We have a message for Israel Spurlock.”

[54]

Immediately Captain Moseley knew that the placid and kindly face of Uncle Billy Powers had led him into making a mistake. He knew that he had mentioned Israel Spurlock’s name to the wrong man at the wrong time. There was a scarcely perceptible frown on Uncle Billy’s face as he raised it from his piece of pine bark, which was now assuming the shape of a horseman’s pistol, and he looked at the captain through half-closed eyelids.

“Come, now,” he exclaimed, “ain’t Israel Spurlock in the war? Didn’t a posse ketch ’im down yander in Jasper an’ take an’ cornscrip’ ’im into the army? Run it over in your mind now! Ain’t Israel Spurlock crippled some’r’s, an’ ain’t your message for his poor ole mammy?”

“No, no,” said the captain, laughing, and trying to hide his inward irritation.

“Not so?” exclaimed Uncle Billy. “Well, sir, you must be shore an’ set me right when I go wrong; but I’ll tell you right pine blank, I’ve had Israel Spurlock in my min’ off an’ on’ ev’ry since they run him down an’ kotch him an’ drug ’im off to war. He was weakly like from the time he was a boy, an’ when I heard you call forth[55] his name, I allowed to myself, says I, ‘Israel Spurlock is sick, an’ they’ve come atter his ole mammy to go an’ nuss him.’ That’s the idee that riz up in my min’.”

A man more shrewd than Captain Moseley would have been deceived by the bland simplicity of Uncle Billy’s tone.

“No,” said he; “Spurlock is not sick. He is a sounder man than I am. He was conscripted in Jasper and carried to Adairsville, and after he got used to the camp he concluded that he would come home and tell his folks good-by.”

“Now that’s jes like Israel,” said Uncle Billy, closing his eyes and compressing his lips—“jes like him for the world. He knowed that he was drug off right spang at the time he wanted to be getherin’ in his craps, an’ savin’ his ruffage, an’ one thing an’ another bekaze his ole mammy didn’t have a soul to help her but ’im. I reckon he’s been a-housin’ his corn an’ sich like. The ole ’oman tuck on might’ly when Israel was snatched into the army.”

“How far is it to shelter?” inquired Captain Moseley.

“Not so mighty fur,” responded Uncle Billy, whittling the pine bark more cautiously.[56] “Jes keep in the middle of the road an’ you’ll soon come to it. Ef I ain’t thar before you, jes holler for Aunt Crissy an’ tell her that you saw Uncle Billy some’r’s in the woods an’ he told you to wait for ’im.”

With that, Captain Moseley and Private Chadwick spurred their horses up the mountain road, leaving Uncle Billy whittling.

“Well, dang my buttons!” exclaimed Chadwick, when they were out of hearing.

“What now?” asked the captain, turning in his saddle. Private Chadwick had stopped his horse and was looking back down the mountain as if he expected to be pursued.

“I wish I may die,” he went on, giving his horse the rein, “if we ain’t walked right square into it with our eyes wide open.”

“Into what?” asked the captain, curtly.

“Into trouble,” said Chadwick. “Oh,” he exclaimed, looking at his companion seriously, “you may grin behind your beard, but you just wait till the fun begins—all the grins you can muster will be mighty dry grins. Why, Cap., I could read that old chap as if he was a newspaper. Whilst he was a-watchin’ you I was a-watchin’ him, an’ if he ain’t got a war map printed on his[57] face I ain’t never saw none in the ‘Charleston Mercury.’”

“The old man is a preacher,” said Captain Moseley in a tone that seemed to dispose of the matter.

“Well, the Lord help us!” exclaimed Chadwick. “In about the wuss whippin’ I ever got was from a young feller that was preachin’ an’ courtin’ in my neighborhood. I sorter sassed him about a gal he was flyin’ around, an’ he upped an’ frailed me out, an’ got the gal to boot. Don’t tell me about no preachers. Why, that chap flew at me like a Stonefence rooster, an’ he fluttered twice to my once.”

“And have you been running from preachers ever since?” dryly inquired the captain.

“Not as you may say, constantly a-runnin’,” replied Chadwick; “yit I ain’t been a-flingin’ no sass at ’em; an’ my reason tells me for to give ’em the whole wedth of the big road when I meet ’em.”

“Well,” said the captain, “what will you do about this preacher?”

“A man in a corner,” responded Chadwick, “is obleeged to do the best he kin. I’ll jest keep my eye on him, an’ the fust motion he makes, I’ll”—

[58]

“Run?” suggested the captain.

“Well, now,” said Chadwick, “a man in a corner can’t most ingener’lly run. Git me hemmed in, an’ I’ll scratch an’ bite an’ scuffle the best way I know how. It’s human natur’, an’ I’m mighty glad it is; for if that old man’s eyes didn’t tell no lies we’ll have to scratch an’ scuffle before we git away from this mountain.”

Captain Moseley bit his mustache and smiled grimly as the tired horses toiled up the road. A vague idea of possible danger had crossed his mind while talking to Uncle Billy Powers, but he dismissed it at once as a matter of little importance to a soldier bent on carrying out his orders at all hazards.

It was not long before the two travelers found themselves on a plateau formed by a shoulder of the mountain. On this plateau were abundant signs of life. Cattle were grazing about among the trees, chickens were crowing, and in the distance could be heard the sound of a woman’s voice singing. As they pressed forward along the level road they came in sight of a cabin, and the blue smoke curling from its short chimney was suggestive of hospitality. It was a comfortable-looking cabin, too, flanked by several[59] outhouses. The buildings, in contrast with the majestic bulk of the mountain, that still rose precipitously skyward, were curiously small, but there was an air of more than ordinary neatness and coziness about them. And there were touches of feminine hands here and there that made an impression—rows of well-kept boxwood winding like a green serpent through the yard, and a privet hedge that gave promise of rare sweetness in the spring.

As the soldiers approached, a dog barked, and then the singing ceased, and the figure of a young girl appeared in the doorway, only to disappear like a flash. This vision, vanishing with incredible swiftness, was succeeded by a more substantial one in the shape of a motherly looking woman, who stood gazing over her spectacles at the horsemen, apparently undecided whether to frown or to smile. The smile would have undoubtedly forced its way to the pleasant face in any event, for the years had fashioned many a pathway for it, but just then Uncle Billy Powers himself pushed the woman aside and made his appearance, laughing.

“’Light, boys, ’light!” he exclaimed, walking nimbly to the gate. “’Light whilst[60] I off wi’ your creeturs’ gear. Ah!” he went on, as he busied himself unsaddling the horses, “you thought that while your Uncle Billy was a-moonin’ aroun’ down the hill yander you’d steal a march on your Aunt Crissy, an’ maybe come a-conscriptin’ of her into the army. But not—not so! Your Uncle Billy has been here long enough to get his hands an’ his face rested.”

“You must have been in a tremendous hurry,” said Captain Moseley, remembering the weary length of mountain road he had climbed.

“Why, I could ’a’ tuck a nap an’ ’a’ beat you,” said the old man.

“Two miles of tough road, I should say,” responded Moseley.

“Go straight through my hoss lot and let yourself down by a saplin’ or two,” answered Uncle Billy, “an’ it ain’t more ’n a good quarter.” Whereupon the old man laughed heartily.

“Jes leave the creeturs here,” he went on. “John Jeems an’ Fillmore will ten’ to ’em whilst we go in an’ see what your Aunt Crissy is gwine to give us for supper. You won’t find the grub so mighty various, but there is plenty enough of what they is.”

[61]

There was just enough of deference in Aunt Crissy’s greeting to be pleasing, and her unfeigned manifestations of hospitality soon caused the guests to forget that they might possibly be regarded as intruders in that peaceful region. Then there were the two boys, John Jeems and Fillmore, both large enough, and old enough, as Captain Moseley quietly observed to himself, to do military service, and both shy and awkward to a degree. And then there was Polly, a young woman grown, whose smiles all ran to blushes and dimples. Though she was grown, she had the ways of a girl—the vivacity of health and good humor, and the innocent shyness of a child of nature. Impulsive and demure by turns, her moods were whimsical and elusive and altogether delightful. Her beauty, which illumined the old cabin, was heightened by a certain quality that may be described as individuality. Her face and hands were browned by the sun, but in her cheeks the roses of youth and health played constantly. There is nothing more charming to the eye of man than the effects produced when modesty parts company with mere formality and conventionality. Polly, who was as shy as a[62] ground squirrel and as graceful, never pestered herself about formalities. Innocence is not infrequently a very delightful form of boldness. It was so in the case of Polly Powers, at any rate.

The two rough soldiers, unused to the society of women, were far more awkward and constrained than the young woman, but they enjoyed the big fire and the comfortable supper none the less on that account. When, to employ Mrs. Powers’s vernacular, “the things were put away,” they brought forth their pipes; and they felt so contented that Captain Moseley reproved himself by suggesting that it might be well for them to proceed on their journey up the mountain. But their hosts refused to listen to such a proposal.

“Not so,” exclaimed Uncle Billy; “by no means. Why, if you knowed this hill like we all, you’d hoot at the bar’ idee of gwine further after nightfall. Besides,” the old man went on, looking keenly at his daughter, “ten to one you won’t find Spurlock.”

Polly had been playing with her hair, which was caught in a single plait and tied with a bit of scarlet ribbon. When Spurlock’s[63] name was mentioned she used the plait as a whip, and struck herself impatiently in the hand with the glossy black thong, and then threw it behind her, where it hung dangling nearly to the floor.

“Now I tell you what, boys,” said Uncle Billy, after a little pause; “I’d jes like to know who is at the bottom of this Spurlock business. You all may have took a notion that he’s a no-’count sorter chap—an’ he is kinder puny; but what does the army want with a puny man?”

“It’s the law,” said Captain Moseley, simply, perceiving that his mission was clearly understood. “He is old enough and strong enough to serve in the army. The law calls for him, and he’ll have to go. The law wants him now worse than ever.”

“Yes,” said private Chadwick, gazing into the glowing embers—“lots worse’n ever.”

“What’s the matter along of him now?” inquired Mrs. Powers, knocking the ashes from her pipe against the chimney jamb.

“He’s a deserter,” said Chadwick.

“Tooby shore!” exclaimed Mrs. Powers. “An’ what do they do wi’ ’em, then?”

For answer Private Chadwick passed his[64] right hand rapidly around his neck, caught hold of an imaginary rope, and looked upwards at the rafters, rolling his eyes and distorting his features as though he were strangling. It was a very effective pantomime. Uncle Billy shook his head and groaned, Aunt Crissy lifted her hands in horror, and then both looked at Polly. That young lady had risen from her chair and made a step toward Chadwick. Her eyes were blazing.

“You’ll be hung long before Israel Spurlock!” she cried, her voice thick with anger. Before another word had been said she swept from the room, leaving Chadwick sitting there with his mouth wide open.

“Don’t let Polly pester you,” said Uncle Billy, smiling a little at Chadwick’s discomfiture. “She thinks the world an’ all of Sister Spurlock, an’ she’s been a-knowin’ Israel a mighty long time.”

“Yes,” said Aunt Crissy, with a sigh; “the poor child is hot-headed an’ high-tempered. I reckon we’ve sp’ilt ’er. ’T ain’t hard to spile a gal when you hain’t got but one.”

Before Chadwick could make reply a shrill, querulous voice was heard coming from the[65] room into which Polly had gone. The girl had evidently aroused some one who was more than anxious to engage in a war of words.

“Lord A’mighty massy! whar’s any peace?” the shrill voice exclaimed. “What chance on the top side of the yeth is a poor sick creetur got? Oh, what makes you come a-tromplin’ on the floor like a drove of wild hosses, an’ a-shakin’ the clabberds on the roof? I know! I know!”—the voice here almost rose to a shriek,—“it’s ’cause I’m sick an’ weak, an’ can’t he’p myself. Lord! ef I but had strength!”

At this point Polly’s voice broke in, but what she said could only be guessed by the noise in the next room.

“Well, what ef the house an’ yard was full of ’em? Who’s afeard? After Spurlock? Who keers? Hain’t Spurlock got no friends on Sugar Mountain? Ef they are after Spurlock, ain’t Spurlock got as good a right for to be after them? Oh, go ’way! Gals hain’t got no sense. Go ’way! Go tell your pappy to come here an’ he’p me in my cheer. Oh, go on!”

Polly had no need to go, however. Uncle Billy rose promptly and went into the next room.

[66]

“Hit’s daddy,” said Aunt Crissy, by way of explanation. “Lord! daddy used to be a mighty man in his young days, but he’s that wasted wi’ the palsy that he hain’t more ’n a shadder of what he was. He’s jes like a baby, an’ he’s mighty quar’lsome when the win’ sets in from the east.”

According to all symptoms the wind was at that moment setting terribly from the east. There was a sound of shuffling in the next room, and then Uncle Billy Powers came into the room, bearing in his stalwart arms a big rocking-chair containing a little old man whose body and limbs were shriveled and shrunken. Only his head, which seemed to be abnormally large, had escaped the ravages of whatever disease had seized him. His eyes were bright as a bird’s and his forehead was noble in its proportions.

“Gentlemen,” said Uncle Billy, “this here is Colonel Dick Watson. He used to be a big politicianer in his day an’ time. He’s my father-in-law.”

Uncle Billy seemed to be wonderfully proud of his connection with Colonel Watson. As for the Colonel, he eyed the strangers closely, apparently forgetting to respond to their salutation.

[67]

“I reckon you think it’s mighty fine, thish ’ere business er gwine ter war whar they hain’t nobody but peaceable folks,” exclaimed the colonel, his shrill, metallic voice being in curious contrast to his emaciated figure.

“Daddy!” said Mrs. Powers in a warning tone.

“Lord A’mighty! don’t pester me, Crissy Jane. Hain’t I done seed war before? When I was in the legislatur’ didn’t the boys rig up an’ march away to Mexico? But you know yourself,” the colonel went on, turning to Uncle Billy’s guests, “that this hain’t Mexico, an’ that they hain’t no war gwine on on this ’ere hill. You know that mighty well.”

“But there’s a tolerable big one going on over yonder,” said Captain Moseley, with a sweep of his hand to the westward.

“Now, you don’t say!” exclaimed Colonel Watson, sarcastically. “A big war going on an’ you all quiled up here before the fire, out ’n sight an’ out ’n hearin’! Well, well, well!”

“We are here on business,” said Captain Moseley, gently.

“Tooby shore!” said the Colonel, with a[68] sinister screech that was intended to simulate laughter. “You took the words out ’n my mouth. I was in-about ready to say it when you upped an’ said it yourself. War gwine on over yander an’ you all up here on business. Crissy Jane,” remarked the colonel in a different tone, “come here an’ wipe my face an’ see ef I’m a-sweatin’. Ef I’m a-sweatin’, hit’s the fust time since Sadday before last.”

Mrs. Powers mopped her father’s face, and assured him that she felt symptoms of perspiration.

“Oh, yes!” continued the colonel. “Business here an’ war yander. I hear tell that you er after Israel Spurlock. Lord A’mighty above us! What er you after Israel for? He hain’t got no niggers for to fight for. All the fightin’ he can do is to fight for his ole mammy.”

Captain Moseley endeavored to explain to Colonel Watson why his duty made it imperatively necessary to carry Spurlock back to the conscript camp, but in the midst of it all the old man cried out:—

“Oh, I know who sent you!”

“Who?” the captain said.

“Nobody but Wesley Lovejoy!”

[69]

Captain Moseley made no response, but gazed into the fire. Chadwick, on the other hand, when Lovejoy’s name was mentioned, slapped himself on the leg, and straightened himself up with the air of a man who has made an interesting discovery.

“Come, now,” Colonel Watson insisted, “hain’t it so? Didn’t Wesley Lovejoy send you?”

“Well,” said Moseley, “a man named Lovejoy is on Colonel Waring’s staff, and he gave me my orders.”

At this the old man fairly shrieked with laughter, and so sinister was its emphasis that the two soldiers felt the cold chills creeping up their backs.

“What is the matter with Lovejoy?” It was Chadwick who spoke.

“Oh, wait!” cried Colonel Watson; “thes wait. You mayn’t want to wait, but you’ll have to. I may look like I’m mighty puny, an’ I ’spec’ I am, but I hain’t dead yit. Lord A’mighty, no! Not by a long shot!”

There was a pause here, during which Aunt Crissy remarked, in a helpless sort of way:—

“I wonder wher’ Polly is, an’ what she’s a-doin’?”

[70]

“Don’t pester ’long of Polly,” snapped the paralytic. “She knows what she’s a-doin’.”

“About this Wesley Lovejoy,” said Captain Moseley, turning to the old man: “you seem to know him very well.”

“You hear that, William!” exclaimed Colonel Watson. “He asts me ef I know Wes. Lovejoy! Do I know him? Why, the triflin’ houn’! I’ve knowed him ev’ry sence he was big enough to rob a hen-roos’.”

Uncle Billy Powers, in his genial way, tried to change the current of conversation, and he finally succeeded, but it was evident that Adjutant Lovejoy had one enemy, if not several, in that humble household. Such was the feeling for Spurlock and contempt for Wesley Lovejoy that Captain Moseley and Private Chadwick felt themselves to be interlopers, and they once more suggested the necessity of pursuing their journey. This suggestion seemed to amuse the paralytic, who laughed loudly.

“Lord A’mighty!” he exclaimed, “I know how you feel, an’ I don’t blame you for feelin’ so; but don’t you go up the mountain this night. Thes stay right whar you is, beca’se ef you don’t you’ll make all[71] your friends feel bad for you. Don’t ast me how, don’t ast me why. Thes you stay. Come an’ put me to bed, William, an’ don’t let these folks go out ’n the house this night.”

Uncle Billy carried the old man into the next room, tucked him away in his bed, and then came back. Conversation lagged to such an extent that Aunt Crissy once more felt moved to inquire about Polly. Uncle Billy responded with a sweeping gesture of his right hand, which might mean much or little. To the two Confederates it meant nothing, but to Aunt Crissy it said that Polly had gone up the mountain in the rain and cold. Involuntarily the woman shuddered and drew nearer the fire.

It was in fact a venturesome journey that Polly had undertaken. Hardened as she was to the weather, familiar as she was with the footpaths that led up and down and around the face of the mountain, her heart rose in her mouth when she found herself fairly on the way to Israel Spurlock’s house. The darkness was almost overwhelming in its intensity. As Uncle Billy Powers remarked while showing the two Confederates to their beds in the “shed-room,” there “was a solid chunk of it from one eend of creation[72] to t’ other.” The rain, falling steadily but not heavily, was bitterly cold, and it was made more uncomfortable by the wind, which rose and fell with a muffled roar, like the sigh of some Titanic spirit flying hither and yonder in the wild recesses of the sky. Bold as she was, the girl was appalled by the invisible contention that seemed to be going on in the elements above her, and more than once she paused, ready to flee, as best she could, back to the light and warmth she had left behind; but the gesture of Chadwick, with its cruel significance, would recur to her, and then, clenching her teeth, she would press blindly on. She was carrying a message of life and freedom to Israel Spurlock.

With the rain dripping from her hair and her skirts, her face and hands benumbed with cold, but with every nerve strung to the highest tension and every faculty alert to meet whatever danger might present itself, Polly struggled up the mountain path, feeling her way as best she could, and pulling herself along by the aid of the friendly saplings and the overhanging trees.

After a while—and it seemed a long while to Polly, contending with the fierce forces of the night and beset by a thousand[73] doubts and fears—she could hear Spurlock’s dogs barking. What if the two soldiers, suspecting her mission, had mounted their horses and outstripped her? She had no time to remember the difficulties of the mountain road, nor did she know that she had been on her journey not more than half an hour. She was too excited either to reason or to calculate. Gathering her skirts in her hands as she rose to the level of the clearing, Polly rushed across it towards the little cabin, tore open the frail little gate, and flung herself against the door with a force that shook the house.

Old Mrs. Spurlock was spinning, while Israel carded the rolls for her. The noise that Polly made against the door startled them both. The thread broke in Mrs. Spurlock’s hand, and one part of it curled itself on the end of the broach with a buzz that whirled it into a fantastically tangled mass. The cards dropped from Israel’s hands with a clatter that added to his mother’s excitement.

“Did anybody ever hear the beat of that?” she exclaimed. “Run, Iserl, an’ see what it is that’s a-tryin’ to tear the roof off ’n the house.”

[74]

Israel did not need to be told, nor did Mrs. Spurlock wait for him to go. They reached the door together, and when Israel threw it open they saw Polly Powers standing there, pale, trembling, and dripping.

“Polly!” cried Israel, taking her by the arm. He could say no more.

“In the name er the Lord!” exclaimed Mrs. Spurlock, “wher’ ’d you drop from? You look more like a drownded ghost than you does like folks. Come right in here an’ dry yourse’f. What in the name of mercy brung you out in sech weather? Who’s dead or a-dyin’? Why, look at the gal!” Mrs. Spurlock went on in a louder tone, seeing that Polly stood staring at them with wide-open eyes, her face as pale as death.

“Have they come?” gasped Polly.

“Listen at ’er, Iserl! I b’lieve in my soul she’s done gone an’ run ravin’ deestracted. Shake ’er, Iserl; shake ’er.”

For answer Polly dropped forward into Mrs. Spurlock’s arms, all wet as she was, and there fell to crying in a way that was quite alarming to Israel, who was not familiar with feminine peculiarities. Mrs. Spurlock soothed Polly as she would have soothed a baby, and half carried, half led[75] her to the fireplace. Israel, who was standing around embarrassed and perplexed, was driven out of the room, and soon Polly was decked out in dry clothes. These “duds,” as Mrs. Spurlock called them, were ill-fitting and ungraceful, but in Israel’s eyes the girl was just as beautiful as ever. She was even more beautiful when, fully recovered from her excitement, she told with sparkling eyes and heightened color the story she had to tell.

Mrs. Spurlock listened with the keenest interest, and with many an exclamation of indignation, while Israel heard it with undisguised admiration for the girl. He seemed to enjoy the whole proceeding, and when Polly in the ardor and excitement of her narration betrayed an almost passionate interest in his probable fate, he rubbed his hands slowly together and laughed softly to himself.

“An’ jest to think,” exclaimed Polly, when she had finished her story, “that that there good-for-nothin’ Wesley Lovejoy had the imperdence to ast me to have him no longer ’n last year, an’ he’s been a-flyin’ round me constant.”

“I seed him a-droppin’ his wing,” said[76] Israel, laughing. “I reckon that’s the reason he’s after me so hot. But never you mind, mammy; you thes look after the gal that’s gwine to be your daughter-in-law, an’ I’ll look after your son.”

“Go off, you goose!” cried Polly, blushing and smiling. “Ef they hang you, whose daughter-in-law will I be then?”

“The Lord knows!” exclaimed Israel, with mock seriousness. “They tell me that Lovejoy is an orphan!”

“You must be crazy,” cried Polly, indignantly. “I hope you don’t think I’d marry that creetur. I wouldn’t look at him if he was the last man. You better be thinkin’ about your goozle.”

“It’s ketchin’ befo’ hangin’,” said Israel.

“They’ve mighty nigh got you now,” said Polly. Just then a hickory nut dropped on the roof of the house, and the noise caused the girl to start up with an exclamation of terror.

“You thought they had me then,” said Israel, as he rose and stood before the fire, rubbing his hands together, and seeming to enjoy most keenly the warm interest the girl manifested in his welfare.

“Oh, I wisht you’d cut an’ run,” pleaded[77] Polly, covering her face with her hands; “they’ll be here therreckly.”

Israel was not a bad-looking fellow as he stood before the fire laughing. He was a very agreeable variation of the mountain type. He was angular, but neither stoop-shouldered nor cadaverous. He was awkward in his manners, but very gracefully fashioned. In point of fact, as Mrs. Powers often remarked, Israel was “not to be sneezed at.”

After a while he became thoughtful. “I jest tell you what,” he said, kicking the chunks vigorously, and sending little sparks of fire skipping and cracking about the room. “This business puzzles me—I jest tell you it does. That Wes. Lovejoy done like he was the best friend I had. He was constantly huntin’ me up in camp, an’ when I told him I would like to come home an’ git mammy’s crap in, he jest laughed an’ said he didn’t reckon I’d be missed much, an’ now he’s a-houndin’ me down. What has the man got agin me?”

Polly knew, but she didn’t say. Mrs. Spurlock suspected, but she made no effort to enlighten Israel. Polly knew that Lovejoy was animated by blind jealousy, and her[78] instinct taught her that a jealous man is usually a dangerous one. Taking advantage of one of the privileges of her sex, she had at one time carried on a tremendous flirtation with Lovejoy. She had intended to amuse herself simply, but she had kindled fires she was powerless to quench. Lovejoy had taken her seriously, and she knew well enough that he regarded Israel Spurlock as a rival. She had reason to suspect, too, that Lovejoy had pointed out Israel to the conscript officers, and that the same influence was controlling and directing the pursuit now going on.

Under the circumstances, her concern—her alarm, indeed—was natural. She and Israel had been sweethearts for years,—real sure-enough sweethearts, as she expressed it to her grandfather,—and they were to be married in a short while; just as soon, in fact, as the necessary preliminaries of clothes-making and cake-baking could be disposed of. She thought nothing of her feat of climbing the mountain in the bitter cold and the overwhelming rain. She would have taken much larger risks than that; she would have faced any danger her mind could conceive of. And Israel appreciated[79] it all; nay, he fairly gloated over it. He stood before the fire fairly hugging the fact to his bosom. His face glowed, and his whole attitude was one of exultation; and with it, shaping every gesture and movement, was a manifestation of fearlessness which was all the more impressive because it was unconscious.

This had a tendency to fret Polly, whose alarm for Israel’s safety was genuine.

“Oh, I do wisht you’d go on,” she cried; “them men’ll shorely ketch you ef you keep on a-stayin’ here a-winkin’ an’ a-gwine on makin’ monkey motions.”

“Shoo!” exclaimed Israel. “Ef the house was surrounded by forty thousan’ of ’em, I’d git by ’em, an’, ef need be, take you wi’ me.”

While they were talking the dogs began to bark. At the first sound Polly rose from her chair with her arms outstretched, but fell back pale and trembling. Israel had disappeared as if by magic, and Mrs. Spurlock was calmly lighting her pipe by filling it with hot embers. It was evidently a false alarm, for, after a while, Israel backed through the doorway and closed the door again with comical alacrity.

[80]

“Sh-sh-sh!” he whispered, with a warning gesture, seeing that Polly was about to protest. “Don’t make no fuss. The dogs has been a-barkin’ at sperits an’ things. Jest keep right still.”

He went noiselessly about the room, picking up first one thing and then another. Over one shoulder he flung a canteen, and over the other a hunting-horn. Into his coat-pocket he thrust an old-fashioned powder-flask. Meanwhile his mother was busy gathering together such articles as Israel might need. His rifle she placed by the door, and then she filled a large homespun satchel with a supply of victuals—a baked fowl, a piece of smoked beef, and a big piece of light bread. These preparations were swiftly and silently made. When everything seemed to be ready for his departure Israel presented the appearance of a peddler.

“I’m goin’ up to the Rock,” he said, by way of explanation, “an’ light the fire. Maybe the boys’ll see it, an’ maybe they won’t. Leastways they’re mighty apt to smell the smoke.”

Then, without further farewell, he closed the door and stepped out into the darkness,[81] leaving the two women sitting by the hearth. They sat there for hours, gazing into the fire and scarcely speaking to each other. The curious reticence that seems to be developed and assiduously cultivated by the dwellers on the mountains took possession of them. The confidences and sympathies they had in common were those of observation and experience, rather than the result of an interchange of views and opinions.

Towards morning the drizzling rain ceased, and the wind, changing its direction, sent the clouds flying to the east, whence they had come. About dawn, Private Chadwick, who had slept most soundly, was aroused by the barking of the dogs, and got up to look after the horses. As he slipped quietly out of the house he saw a muffled figure crossing the yard.

“Halt!” he cried, giving the challenge of a sentinel. “Who goes there?”

“Nobody ner nothin’ that’ll bite you, I reckon,” was the somewhat snappish response. It was the voice of Polly. She was looking up and across the mountains to where a bright red glare was reflected on the scurrying clouds. The density of the atmosphere was such that the movements of[82] the flames were photographed on the clouds, rising and falling, flaring and fading, as though the dread spirits of the storm were waving their terrible red banners from the mountain.

“What can that be?” asked Chadwick, after he had watched the singular spectacle a moment.

Polly laughed aloud, almost joyously. She knew it was Israel’s beacon. She knew that these red reflections, waving over the farther spur of the mountain and over the valley that nestled so peacefully below, would summon half a hundred men and boys—the entire congregation of Antioch Church, where her father was in the habit of holding forth on the first Sunday of each month. She knew that Israel was safe, and the knowledge restored her good humor.

“What did you say it was?” Chadwick inquired again, his curiosity insisting on an explanation.

“It’s jest a fire, I reckon,” Polly calmly replied. “Ef it’s a house burnin’ down, it can’t be holp. Water couldn’t save it now.”

Whereupon she pulled the shawl from over her head, tripped into the house, and went[83] about preparing breakfast, singing merrily. Chadwick watched her as she passed and repassed from the rickety kitchen to the house, and when the light grew clearer he thought he saw on her face a look that he did not understand. It was indeed an inscrutable expression, and it would have puzzled a wiser man than Chadwick. He chopped some wood, brought some water, and made himself generally useful; but he received no thanks from Polly. She ignored him as completely as if he had never existed.

All this set the private to thinking. Now a man who reflects much usually thinks out a theory to fit everything that he fails to understand. Chadwick thought out his theory while the girl was getting breakfast ready.

It was not long before the two soldiers were on their way up the mountain, nor was it long before Chadwick began to unfold his theory, and in doing so he managed to straighten it by putting together various little facts that occurred to him as he talked.

“I tell you what, Captain,” he said, as soon as they were out of hearing; “that gal’s a slick ’un. It’s my belief that we are gwine on a fool’s errand. ’Stead of gwine[84] towards Spurlock, we’re gwine straight away from ’im. When that gal made her disappearance last night she went an’ found Spurlock, an’ ef he ain’t a natchul born fool he tuck to the woods. Why, the shawl the gal had on her head this mornin’ was soakin’ wet. It weren’t rainin’, an’ hadn’t been for a right smart while. How come the shawl wet? They weren’t but one way. It got wet by rubbin’ agin the bushes an’ the limbs er the trees.”

This theory was plausible enough to impress itself on Captain Moseley. “What is to be done, then?” he asked.

“Well, the Lord knows what ought to be done,” said Chadwick; “but I reckon the best plan is to sorter scatter out an’ skirmish aroun’ a little bit. We’d better divide our army. You go up the mountain an’ git Spurlock, if he’s up thar, an’ let me take my stan’ on the ridge yander an’ keep my eye on Uncle Billy’s back yard an’ hoss lot. If Spurlock is r’ally tuck to the woods, he’ll be mighty apt to be slinkin’ ’roun’ whar the gal is.”

Captain Moseley assented to this plan, and proceeded to put it in execution as soon as he and Chadwick were a safe distance[85] from Uncle Billy Powers’s house. Chadwick, dismounting, led his horse along a cow-path that ran at right angles to the main road, and was soon lost to sight, while the captain rode forward on his mission.

Of the two, as it turned out, the captain had much the more comfortable experience. He reached the Spurlock house in the course of three-quarters of an hour.

In response to his halloo Mrs. Spurlock came to the door.

“I was a-spinnin’ away for dear life,” she remarked, brushing her gray hair from her face, “when all of a sudden I hearn a fuss, an’ I ’lows ter myself, says I, ‘I’ll be boun’ that’s some one a-hailin’,’ says I; an’ then I dropped ever’thin’ an’ run ter the door an’ shore enough it was. Won’t you ’light an’ come in?” she inquired with ready hospitality. Her tone was polite, almost obsequious.

“Is Mr. Israel Spurlock at home?” the captain asked.

“Not, as you might say, adzackly at home, but I reckon in reason it won’t be long before he draps in. He hain’t had his breakfas’ yit, though hit’s been a-waitin’ for him tell hit’s stone col’. The cows broke[86] out last night, an’ he went off a-huntin’ of ’em time it was light good. Iserl is thes ez rank after his milk ez some folks is after the’r dram. I says, says I, ‘Shorely you kin do ’thout your milk one mornin’ in the year;’ but he wouldn’t nigh hear ter that. He thes up an’ bolted off.”

“I’ll ride on,” said the captain. “Maybe I’ll meet him coming back. Good-by.”

It was an uneventful ride, but Captain Moseley noted one curious fact. He had not proceeded far when he met two men riding down the mountain. Each carried a rifle flung across his saddle in front of him. They responded gravely to the captain’s salutation.

“Have you seen Israel Spurlock this morning?” he asked.

“No, sir, I hain’t saw him,” answered one. The other shook his head. Then they rode on down the mountain.

A little farther on Captain Moseley met four men. These were walking, but each was armed—three with rifles, and one with a shot-gun. They had not seen Spurlock. At intervals he met more than a dozen—some riding and some walking, but all armed. At last he met two that presented[87] something of a contrast to the others. They were armed, it is true; but they were laughing and singing as they went along the road, and while they had not seen Spurlock with their own eyes, as they said, they knew he must be farther up the mountain, for they had heard of him as they came along.

Riding and winding around upward, Captain Moseley presently saw a queer-looking little chap coming towards him. The little man had a gray beard, and as he walked he had a movement like a camel. Like a camel, too, he had a great hump on his back. His legs were as long as any man’s, but his whole body seemed to be contracted in his hump. He was very spry, too, moving along as active as a boy, and there was an elfish expression on his face such as one sees in old picture-books—a cunning, leering expression, which yet had for its basis the element of humor. The little man carried a rifle longer than himself, which he flourished about with surprising ease and dexterity—practicing apparently some new and peculiar manual.

“Have you seen Israel Spurlock?” inquired Captain Moseley, reining in his horse.

[88]

“Yes! Oh, yes! Goodness gracious, yes!” replied the little man, grinning good-naturedly.

“Where is he now?” asked the captain.

“All about. Yes! All around! Gracious, yes!” responded the little man, with a sweeping gesture that took in the whole mountain. Then he seemed to be searching eagerly in the road for something. Suddenly pausing, he exclaimed: “Here’s his track right now! Oh, yes! Right fresh, too! Goodness, yes!”

“Where are you going?” Moseley asked, smiling at the antics of the little man, their nimbleness being out of all proportion to his deformity.

For answer the little man whirled his rifle over his hump and under his arm, and caught it as it went flying into the air. Then he held it at a “ready,” imitating the noise of the lock with his mouth, took aim and made believe to fire, all with indescribable swiftness and precision. Captain Moseley rode on his way laughing; but, laugh as he would, he could not put out of his mind the queer impression the little man had made on him, nor could he rid himself of a feeling of uneasiness. Taking little[89] notice of the landmarks that ordinarily attract the notice of the traveler in a strange country, he suddenly found himself riding along a level stretch of tableland. The transformation was complete. The country roads seemed to cross and recross here, coming and going in every direction. He rode by a little house that stood alone in the level wood, and he rightly judged it to be a church. He drew rein and looked around him. Everything was unfamiliar. In the direction from which he supposed he had come, a precipice rose sheer from the tableland more than three hundred feet. At that moment he heard a shout, and looking up he beheld the hunchback flourishing his long rifle and cutting his queer capers.

The situation was so puzzling that Captain Moseley passed his hand over his eyes, as if to brush away a scene that confused his mind and obstructed his vision. He turned his horse and rode back the way he had come, but it seemed to be so unfamiliar that he chose another road, and in the course of a quarter of an hour he was compelled to acknowledge that he was lost. Everything appeared to be turned around, even the little church.

[90]

Meanwhile Private Chadwick was having an experience of his own. In parting from Captain Moseley he led his horse through the bushes, following for some distance a cow-path. This semblance of a trail terminated in a “blind path,” and this Chadwick followed as best he could, picking his way cautiously and choosing ground over which his horse could follow. He had to be very careful. There were no leaves on the trees, and the undergrowth was hardly thick enough to conceal him from the keen eyes of the mountaineers. Finally he tied his horse in a thicket of black-jacks, where he had the whole of Uncle Billy Powers’s little farm under his eye. His position was not an uncomfortable one. Sheltered from the wind, he had nothing to do but sit on a huge chestnut log and ruminate, and make a note of the comings and goings on Uncle Billy’s premises.

Sitting thus, Chadwick fell to thinking; thinking, he fell into a doze. He caught himself nodding more than once, and upbraided himself bitterly. Still he nodded—he, a soldier on duty at his post. How long he slept he could not tell, but he suddenly awoke to find himself dragged backward[91] from the log by strong hands. He would have made some resistance, for he was a fearless man at heart and a tough one to handle in a knock-down and drag-out tussle; but resistance was useless. He had been taken at a disadvantage, and before he could make a serious effort in his own behalf, he was lying flat on his back, with his hands tied, and as helpless as an infant. He looked up and discovered that his captor was Israel Spurlock.

“Well, blame my scaly hide!” exclaimed Chadwick, making an involuntary effort to free his hands. “You’re the identical man I’m a-huntin’.”

“An’ now you’re sorry you went an’ foun’ me, I reckon,” said Israel.

“Well, I ain’t as glad as I ’lowed I’d be,” said Chadwick. “Yit nuther am I so mighty sorry. One way or ’nother I knowed in reason I’d run up on you.”

“You’re mighty right,” responded Israel, smiling not ill-naturedly. “You fell in my arms same as a gal in a honeymoon. Lemme lift you up, as the mule said when he kicked the nigger over the fence. Maybe you’ll look purtier when you swap een’s.” Thereupon Israel helped Chadwick to his feet.

[92]

“You ketched me that time, certain and shore,” said the latter, looking at Spurlock and laughing; “they ain’t no two ways about that. I was a-settin’ on the log thar, a-noddin’ an’ a-dreamin’ ’bout Christmas. ’T ain’t many days off, I reckon.”

“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Spurlock, sarcastically; “a mighty purty dream, I bet a hoss. You was fixin’ up for to cram me in Lovejoy’s stockin’. A mighty nice present I’d ’a’ been, tooby shore. Stidder hangin’ up his stockin’, Lovejoy was a-aimin’ for to hang me up. Oh, yes! Christmas dreams is so mighty nice an’ fine, I’m a great min’ to set right down here an’ have one er my own—one of them kin’ er dreams what’s got forked tail an’ fireworks mixed up on it.”

“Well,” said Chadwick, with some seriousness, “whose stockin’ is you a-gwine to cram me in?”

“In whose else’s but Danny Lemmons’s? An’ won’t he holler an’ take on? Why, I wouldn’t miss seein’ Danny Lemmons take on for a hat full er shinplasters. Dang my buttons ef I would!”

Chadwick looked at his captor with some curiosity. There was not a trace of ill-feeling or bad humor in Spurlock’s tone, nor in[93] his attitude. The situation was so queer that it was comical, and Chadwick laughed aloud as he thought about it. In this Spurlock heartily joined him, and the situation would have seemed doubly queer to a passer-by chancing along and observing captor and prisoner laughing and chatting so amiably together.

“Who, in the name of goodness, is Danny Lemmons?”

“Lord!” exclaimed Spurlock, lifting both hands, “don’t ast me about Danny Lemmons. He’s—he’s—well, I tell you what, he’s the bull er the woods, Danny Lemmons is; nuther more ner less. He hain’t bigger ’n my two fists, an’ he’s ’flicted, an’ he’s all crippled up in his back, whar he had it broke when he was a baby, an’ yit he’s in-about the peartest man on the mountain, an’ he’s the toughest an’ the sooplest. An’ more ’n that, he’s got them things up here,” Spurlock went on, tapping his head significantly. Chadwick understood this to mean that Lemmons, whatever might be his afflictions, had brains enough and to spare.

There was a pause in the conversation, and then Chadwick, looking at his bound[94] wrists, which were beginning to chafe and swell, spoke up.

“What’s your will wi’ me?” he asked.

“Well,” said Spurlock, rising to his feet, “I’m a-gwine to empty your gun, an’ tote your pistol for you, an’ invite you down to Uncle Billy’s. Oh, you needn’t worry,” he went on, observing Chadwick’s disturbed expression, “they’re expectin’ of you. Polly’s tol’ ’em you’d likely come back.”

“How did Polly know?” Chadwick inquired.

“Danny Lemmons tol’ ’er.”

“By George!” exclaimed Chadwick, “the woods is full of Danny Lemmons.”

“Why, bless your heart,” said Spurlock, “he thes swarms roun’ here.”

After Spurlock had taken the precaution to possess himself of Chadwick’s arms and ammunition, he cut the cords that bound his prisoner’s hands, and the two went down the mountain, chatting as pleasantly and as sociably as two boon companions. Chadwick found no lack of hospitality at Uncle Billy Powers’s house. His return was taken as a matter of course, and he was made welcome. Nevertheless, his entertainers betrayed a spirit of levity that might have irritated a person less self-contained.

[95]

“I see he’s ketched you, Iserl,” remarked Uncle Billy, with a twinkle in his eye. “He ’lowed las’ night as how he’d fetch you back wi’ him.”

“Yes,” said Israel, “he thes crope up on me. It’s mighty hard for to fool these army fellers.”

Then and afterward the whole family pretended to regard Spurlock as Chadwick’s prisoner. This was not a joke for the latter to relish, but it was evidently not intended to be offensive, and he could do no less than humor it. He accepted the situation philosophically. He even prepared himself to relish Captain Moseley’s astonishment when he returned and discovered the true state of affairs. As the day wore away it occurred to Chadwick that the captain was in no hurry to return. Even Uncle Billy Powers grew uneasy.

“Now, I do hope an’ trust he ain’t gone an’ lost his temper up thar in the woods,” remarked Uncle Billy. “I hope it from the bottom of my heart. These here wars an’ rumors of wars makes the folks mighty restless. They’ll take resks now what they wouldn’t dassent to of tuck before this here rippit begun, an’ it’s done got so now human[96] life ain’t wuth shucks. The boys up here ain’t no better ’n the rest. They fly to pieces quicker ’n they ever did.”

No trouble, however, had come to Captain Moseley. Though he was confused in his bearings, he was as serene and as unruffled as when training a company of raw conscripts in the art of war. After an unsuccessful attempt to find the road he gave his horse the rein, and that sensible animal, his instinct sharpened by remembrance of Uncle Billy Powers’s corn-crib and fodder, moved about at random until he found that he was really at liberty to go where he pleased, and then he turned short about, struck a little canter, and was soon going down the road by which he had come. The captain was as proud of this feat as if it were due to his own intelligence, and he patted the horse’s neck in an approving way.

As Captain Moseley rode down the mountain, reflecting, it occurred to him that his expedition was taking a comical shape. He had gone marching up the hill, and now he came marching down again, and Israel Spurlock, so far as the captain knew, was as far from being a captive as ever—perhaps farther.[97] Thinking it all over in a somewhat irritated frame of mind, Moseley remembered Lovejoy’s eagerness to recapture Spurlock. He remembered, also, what he had heard the night before, and it was in no pleasant mood that he thought it all over. It was such an insignificant, such a despicable affair, two men carrying out the jealous whim of a little militia politician.

“It is enough, by George!” exclaimed Captain Moseley aloud, “to make a sensible man sick.”

“Lord, yes!” cried out a voice behind him. Looking around, he saw the hunchback following him. “That’s what I tell ’em; goodness, yes!”

“Now, look here!” said Captain Moseley, reining in his horse, and speaking somewhat sharply. “Are you following me, or am I following you? I don’t want to be dogged after in the bushes, much less in the big road.”

“Ner me nurther,” said the hunchback, in the cheerfulest manner. “An’ then thar’s Spurlock—Lord, yes; I hain’t axt him about it, but I bet a hoss he don’t like to be dogged atter nuther.”

“My friend,” said Captain Moseley, “you[98] seem to have a quick tongue. What is your name?”

“Danny Lemmons,” said the other. “Now don’t say I look like I ought to be squoze. Ever’body inginer’lly says that,” he went on with a grimace, “but I’ve squoze lots more than what’s ever squoze me. Lord, yes! Yes, siree! Men an’ gals tergether. You ax ’em, an’ they’ll tell you.”

“Lemmons,” said the captain, repeating the name slowly. “Well, you look it!”

“Boo!” cried Danny Lemmons, making a horrible grimace; “you don’t know what you’re a-talkin’ about. The gals all ’low I’m mighty sweet. You ought to see me when I’m rigged out in my Sunday-go-to-meetin’ duds. Polly Powers she ’lows I look snatchin’. Lord, yes! Yes, siree! I’m gwine down to Polly’s house now.”

Whereat he broke out singing, paraphrasing an old negro ditty, and capering about in the woods like mad.
“Oh, I went down to Polly’s house,
An’ she was not at home;
I set myself in the big arm-cheer
An’ beat on the ol’ jaw bone.
Oh, rise up, Polly! Slap ’im on the jaw,
An hit ’im in the eyeball—bim!”

The song finished, Danny Lemmons[99] walked on down the road ahead of the horse in the most unconcerned manner. It was part of Captain Moseley’s plan to stop at Mrs. Spurlock’s and inquire for Israel. This seemed to be a part of Danny’s plan also, for he turned out of the main road and went ahead, followed by the captain. There were quite a number of men at Mrs. Spurlock’s when Moseley rode up, and he noticed that all were armed. Some were standing listlessly about, leaning against the trees, some were sitting in various postures, and others were squatting around whittling: but all had their guns within easy reach. Mrs. Spurlock was walking about among them smoking her pipe. By the strained and awkward manner of the men as they returned his salutation, or by some subtle instinct he could not explain, Captain Moseley knew that these men were waiting for him, and that he was their prisoner. The very atmosphere seemed to proclaim the fact. Under his very eyes Danny Lemmons changed from a grinning buffoon into a quiet, self-contained man trained to the habit of command. Recognizing the situation, the old soldier made the most of it by retaining his good humor.

[100]

“Well, boys,” he said, flinging a leg over the pommel of his saddle, “I hope you are not tired waiting for me.” The men exchanged glances in a curious, shame-faced sort of way.

“No,” said one; “we was thes a-settin’ here talkin’ ’bout ol’ times. We ’lowed maybe you’d sorter git tangled up on the hill thar, and so Danny Lemmons, he harked back for to keep a’ eye on you.”

There was no disposition on the part of this quiet group of men to be clamorous or boastful. There was a certain shyness in their attitude, as of men willing to apologize for what might seem to be unnecessary rudeness.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Danny Lemmons, “they ain’t a man on the mounting that’s got a blessed thing agin you, ner agin the tother feller, an’ they hain’t a man anywheres aroun’ here that’s a-gwine to pester you. We never brung you whar you is; but now that you’re here we’re a-gwine to whirl in an’ ast you to stay over an’ take Christmas wi’ us, sech ez we’ll have. Lord, yes! a nice time we’ll have, ef I ain’t forgot how to finger the fiddle-strings. We’re sorter in a quandary,” Danny Lemmons[101] continued, observing Captain Moseley toying nervously with the handle of his pistol. “We don’t know whether you’re a-gwine to be worried enough to start a row, or whether you’re a-gwine to work up trouble.”

Meanwhile Danny had brought his long rifle into a position where it could be used promptly and effectually. For answer Moseley dismounted from his horse, unbuckled his belt and flung it across his saddle, and prepared to light his pipe.

“Now, then,” said Danny Lemmons, “thes make yourself at home.”

Nothing could have been friendlier than the attitude of the mountain men, nor freer than their talk. Captain Moseley learned that Danny Lemmons was acting under the orders of Colonel Dick Watson, the virile paralytic; that he and Chadwick were to be held prisoners in the hope that Adjutant Lovejoy would come in search of them—in which event there would be developments of a most interesting character.

So Danny Lemmons said, and so it turned out; for one day while Moseley and Chadwick were sitting on the sunny side of Uncle Billy’s house, listening to the shrill, snarling[102] tones of Colonel Watson, they heard a shout from the roadside, and behold, there was Danny Lemmons with his little band escorting Lovejoy and a small squad of forlorn-looking militia. Lovejoy was securely bound to his horse, and it may well be supposed that he did not cut an imposing figure. Yet he was undaunted. He was captured, but not conquered. His eyes never lost their boldness, nor his tongue its bitterness. He was almost a match for Colonel Watson, who raved at all things through the tremulous and vindictive lips of disease. The colonel’s temper was fitful, but Lovejoy’s seemed to burn steadily. Moved by contempt rather than caution, he was economical of his words, listening to the shrill invective of the colonel patiently, but with a curious flicker of his thin lips that caused Danny Lemmons to study him intently. It was Danny who discovered that Lovejoy’s eyes never wandered in Polly’s direction, nor settled on her, nor seemed to perceive that she was in existence, though she was flitting about constantly on the aimless little errands that keep a conscientious housekeeper busy.

Lovejoy was captured one morning and[103] Christmas fell the next, and it was a memorable Christmas to all concerned. After breakfast Uncle Billy Powers produced his Bible and preached a little sermon—a sermon that was not the less meaty and sincere, not the less wise and powerful, because the English was ungrammatical and the rhetoric uncouth. After it was over the old man cleared his throat and remarked:—

“Brethern, we’re gethered here for to praise the Lord an’ do his will. The quare times that’s come on us has brung us face to face with much that is unseemly in life, an’ likely to fret the sperit an’ vex the understandin’. Yit the Almighty is with us, an’ of us, an’ among us; an’, in accordance wi’ the commands delivered in this Book, we’re here to fortify two souls in the’r choice, an’ to b’ar testimony to the Word that makes lawful marriage a sacrament.”

With that, Uncle Billy, fumbling in his coat pockets, produced a marriage license, called Israel Spurlock and his daughter before him, and in simple fashion pronounced the words that made them man and wife.

The dinner that followed hard on the wedding was to the soldiers, who had been subsisting on the tough rations furnished by the[104] Confederate commissaries, by all odds the chief event of the day. To them the resources of the Powers household were wonderful indeed. The shed-room, running the whole length of the house and kitchen, was utilized, and the dinner table, which was much too small to accommodate the guests, invited and uninvited, was supplemented by the inventive genius of Private William Chadwick, who, in the most unassuming manner, had taken control of the whole affair. He proved himself to be an invaluable aid, and his good humor gave a lightness and a zest to the occasion that would otherwise have been sadly lacking.

Under his direction the tables were arranged and the dinner set, and when the politely impatient company were summoned they found awaiting them a meal substantial enough to remind them of the old days of peace and prosperity. It was a genuine Christmas dinner. In the centre of the table there was a large bowl of egg-nog, and this was flanked and surrounded by a huge dish full of apple dumplings, a tremendous chicken pie, barbecued shote, barbecued mutton, a fat turkey, and all the various accompaniments of a country feast.

[105]

When Uncle Billy Powers had said an earnest and simple grace he gave his place at the head of the table to Colonel Watson, who had been brought in on his chair. Aunt Crissy gave Chadwick the seat of honor at the foot, and then the two old people announced that they were ready to wait on the company, with Mr. Chadwick to do the carving. If the private betrayed any embarrassment at all, he soon recovered from it.

“It ain’t any use,” he said, glancing down the table, “to call the roll. We’re all here an’ accounted for. The only man or woman that can’t answer to their name is Danny Lemmons’s little brown fiddle, an’ I’ll bet a sev’m-punce it’d skreak a little ef he tuck it out’n the bag. But before we whirl in an’ make a charge three deep, le’ ’s begin right. This is Christmas, and that bowl yander, with the egg-nog in it, looks tired. Good as the dinner is, it’s got to have a file leader. We’ll start in with what looks the nighest like Christmas.”

“Well,” said Aunt Crissy, “I’ve been in sech a swivet all day I don’t reelly reckon the nog is wuth your while, but you’ll ha’ ter take it thes like you fin’ it. Hit’s sweetened[106] wi’ long sweet’nin’, an’ it’ll ha’ ter be dipped up wi’ a gourd an’ drunk out’n cups.”

“Lord bless you, ma’am,” exclaimed Chadwick, “they won’t be no questions axed ef it’s got Christmas enough in it, an’ I reckon it is, kaze I poured it in myself, an’ I can hol’ up a jug as long as the nex’ man.”

Though it was sweetened with syrup, the egg-nog was a success, for its strength could not be denied.

“Ef I hadn’t ’a’ been a prisoner of war, as you may say,” remarked Chadwick, when the guests had fairly begun to discuss the dinner, “I’d ’a’ got me a hunk of barbecue an’ a dumplin’ or two, an’ a slice of that chicken pie there—I’d ’a’ grabbed ’em up an’ ’a’ made off down the mountain. Why, I’ll tell you what’s the truth—I got a whiff of that barbecue by daylight, an’ gentulmen, it fairly made me dribble at the mouth. Nex’ to Uncle Billy there, I was the fust man at the pit.”

“Yes, yes,” said Uncle Billy, laughing, “that’s so. An’ you holp me a right smart. I’ll say that.”

“An’ Spurlock, he got a whiff of it. Didn’t you all notice, about the time he[107] was gittin’ married, how his mouth puckered up? Along towards the fust I thought he was fixin’ to dip down an’ give the bride a smack. But, bless you, he had barbecue on his min’, an’ the bride missed the buss.”

“He didn’t dare to buss me,” exclaimed Polly, who was ministering to her grandfather. “Leastways not right out there before you all.”

“Please, ma’am, don’t you be skeered of Iserl,” said Chadwick. “I kin take a quarter of that shote an’ tole him plumb back to camp.”

“Now I don’t like the looks er this,” exclaimed Uncle Billy Powers, who had suddenly discovered that Lovejoy, sitting by the side of Danny Lemmons, was bound so that it was impossible for him to eat in any comfort. “Come, boys, this won’t do. I don’t want to remember the time when any livin’ human bein’ sot at my table on Christmas day with his han’s tied. Come, now!”

“Why, tooby shore!” exclaimed Aunt Crissy. “Turn the poor creetur loose.”

“Try it!” cried Colonel Watson, in his shrill voice. “Jest try it!”

“Lord, no,” said Danny Lemmons. “Look at his eyes! Look at ’em.”

[108]

Lovejoy sat pale and unabashed, his eyes glittering like those of a snake. He had refused all offers of food, and seemed to be giving all his attention to Israel Spurlock.

“What does Moseley say?” asked Colonel Watson.

“Ah, he is your prisoner,” said Moseley. “He never struck me as a dangerous man.”

“Well,” said Chadwick, “ef there’s any doubt, jest take ’im out in the yard an’ give ’im han’-roomance. Don’t let ’im turn this table over, ’cause it’ll be a long time before some of this company’ll see the likes of it ag’in.”

It was clear that Lovejoy had no friends, even among his comrades. It was clear, too, that this fact gave him no concern. He undoubtedly had more courage than his position seemed to demand. He sat glaring at Spurlock, and said never a word. Uncle Billy Powers looked at him, and gave a sigh that ended in a groan.

“Well, boys,” said the old man, “this is my house, an’ he’s at my table. I reckon we better ontie ’im, an’ let ’im git a mou’ful ter eat. ’T ain’t nothin’ but Christian-like.”

“Don’t you reckon he’d better eat at the second table?” inquired Chadwick. This[109] na?ve suggestion provoked laughter and restored good humor, and Colonel Watson consented that Lovejoy should be released. Danny Lemmons undertook this gracious task. He had released Lovejoy’s right arm, and was releasing the left, having to use his teeth on one of the knots, when the prisoner seized a fork—a large horn-handle affair, with prongs an inch and a half long—and as quick as a flash of lightning brought it down on Danny Lemmons’s back. To those who happened to be looking it seemed that the fork had been plunged into the very vitals of the hunchback.

The latter went down, dragging Lovejoy after him. There was a short, sharp struggle, a heavy thump or two, and then, before the company realized what had happened, Danny Lemmons rose to his feet laughing, leaving Lovejoy lying on the floor, more securely bound than ever.

“I reckon this fork’ll have to be washed,” said Danny, lifting the formidable-looking weapon from the floor.

There was more excitement after the struggle was over than there had been or could have been while it was going on. Chadwick insisted on examining Danny Lemmons’s back.

[110]

“I’ve saw folks cut an’ slashed an’ stobbed before now,” he explained, “an’ they didn’t know they was hurt tell they had done cooled off. They ain’t no holes here an’ they ain’t no blood, but I could ’most take a right pine-blank oath that I seed ’im job that fork in your back.”

“Tut, tut!” said Colonel Watson. “Do you s’pose I raised Danny Lemmons for the like of that?”

“Well,” said Chadwick, resuming his seat and his dinner with unruffled nerves, temper, and appetite, “it beats the known worl’. It’s the fust time I ever seed a man git down on the floor for to give the in-turn an’ the under-cut, an’ cut the pigeon-wing an’ the double-shuffle, all before a cat could bat her eye. It looks to me that as peart a man as Lemmons there ought to be in the war.”

“Ain’t he in the war?” cried Colonel Watson, excitedly. “Ain’t he forever and eternally in the war? Ain’t he my bully bushwhacker?”

“On what side?” inquired Chadwick.

“The union, the union!” exclaimed the colonel, his voice rising into a scream.

“Well,” said Chadwick, “ef you think you kin take the taste out’n this barbecue[111] with talk like that, you are mighty much mistaken.”

After the wedding feast was over, Danny Lemmons seized on his fiddle and made music fine enough and lively enough to set the nimble feet of the mountaineers to dancing. So that, take it all in all, the Christmas of the conscript was as jolly as he could have expected it to be.

When the festivities were concluded there was a consultation between Colonel Watson and Danny Lemmons, and then Captain Moseley and his men were told that they were free to go.

“What about Lovejoy?” asked Moseley.