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VI A HANDSOME STRANGER
Certainly no cricket ever dropped blither music from his legs than did my beautiful horse that glorious morning as we clattered in perfect rhythm on the hard clean road of the wide pine forest. Ah! the forest is not there now; the lumbermen--

For an hour or so the world seemed to have taken me for its center as smoothly as a sleeping top. Only after a good seven miles did my meditations begin to reveal any bitter in the sweet; but it was in recalling for the twentieth time the last sight of Camille, that I heard myself say, I know not whether softly or loudly,

"Oh, hang the uniform!"

The morning was almost sultry. As I halted in the clear ripples of a gravelly "branch" to let my horse drink, I heard no great way off the Harpers' train shrieking at cattle on the track, and looking up I noticed just behind me an unfrequented by-road carefully masked with brush, according to a new habit of the "citizens". The next moment my horse threw up his head to listen. Then I heard hoofs and voices, and presently there came trotting through the oak bushes and around the mask of brush two horsemen unusually well mounted, clad and armed. Their very dark gray uniforms were so trim and so nearly blue that my heart came into my throat; but then I noticed they carried neither carbines nor sabres, but repeaters only, a brace to each. They splashed lightly to either side of me, and the three horses drank together.

"Good-morning," we said. One of the men was a sergeant. He scanned my animal, and then me, with a dawning smile. "That's a fightin'-cock of a horse you've got, sonny."

"Yes, bub," I replied. The two men laughed so explosively that my horse lifted his head austerely.

"Jim," said the younger, "I don't believe all the conscripts we've caught these three days are worth the powder they've cost!"

"No," replied Sergeant Jim, "I doubt if the most of 'em are." I turned to him and drew down my under eyelid. "Will you kindly tell me, sir, if you see any unnatural discoloration in there?"

He smiled. "No, but I can put some there if you want it."

"Thank you, I couldn't let you take so much trouble--or risk."

The three of us pattered out of the stream abreast. "No trouble," replied the sergeant, "it wouldn't take half a minute."

"No," I rejoined, "the first step would be the last."

The men laughed again. "You must a-been born with all your teeth," said the private, as we quickened to a trot. "What makes you think we ain't after conscripts?"

"Oh, if you were you wouldn't say so. You'd let on to be looking for good crossings on Pearl River, so that if Johnston should get chewed up we needn't be caught here in a hole, Ferry's scouts and all."

The pair looked at each other behind my neck for full ten seconds. Then the younger man leaned to his horse's mane in a silent laugh while Sergeant Jim looked me over again and remarked that he would be horn-swoggled!

"I'm willing," I responded, and we all laughed. The younger horseman asked my name. "Smith," I said, with dignity, and they laughed again, their laugh growing louder when I would not smile.

"Well, say; maybe you'll tell us who this is we're about to meet up with."

Through the shifting colonnades of pine, a hundred yards in front of us, came two horsemen in the same blue-gray of the pair beside me. "Whoever he is," I said, "that gray he's riding is his second best, or it's borrowed," for his mount, though good, was no match for him.

"Borrowed!" echoed the sergeant. "If he doesn't own that mare no man does."

"Nor no woman?" I asked, and again across the back of my neck my two companions gazed at each other.

"By ganny!" exclaimed one, and--"You're a coon," murmured the other, as the new-comers drew near. The younger of these also was a private. Behind his elbow was swung a Maynard rifle. Both carried revolvers. The elder wore a long straight sword whose weather-dimmed orange sash showed at the front of a loose cut-away jacket. Under this garment was a shirt of strong black silk, made from some lady's gown and daintily corded with yellow. On the jacket's upturned collar were the two gilt bars of a first lieutenant, but the face above them shone with a combined intelligence and purity that drew my whole attention.

A familiar friendship lighted every countenance but mine as this second pair turned and rode with us, the lieutenant in front on Sergeant Jim Longley's right, and the two privates with me between them behind. For some minutes the sergeant, in under-tone, made report to his young superior. Then in a small clearing he turned abruptly into a neighborhood road, and at his word my two companions pricked after him westward. I closed up beside the lieutenant; he praised the weather, and soon our talk was fluent though broken, as we moved sometimes at a trot and often faster. In stolen moments I scanned him with the jealousy of my youth. Five feet, ten; humph! I was five, nine and a thirty-second. In weight he looked to be just what I always had in mind in those prayers without words with which I mounted every pair of commissary scales I came to. The play of his form as our smooth-gaited horses sped through the flecking shades was worth watching for its stanch and supple grace. Alike below the saddle and above it he was as light as a leaf and as firm as a lance. I had long yearned to own a pair of shoulders not too square for beauty nor too sloping for strength, and lo, here they were, not mine, but his. No matter; the slender mustache he sported he was welcome to, I had shaved off nearly as good a one; wished now I hadn't. As once or twice he lifted his képi to the warm breeze I took new despair from the soft locks of darkest chestnut that lay on his head in manly order, ready enough to curl but waiving the privilege.

"Cock-a-doodle-doo," thought I; "if those are not the same hundred-dollar boots I saw yesterday morning, at least they are their first cousins!"


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