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IX THE DANDY'S TASK
Westward likewise we soon were bickering. The morning sun shone high; the thin, hot dust blew out over the blackened ground of some forest "burn" or through the worm fence of some field where a gang of slave men and women might be ploughing or hoeing between the green rows of young cotton or corn. The level stretches were many, the slopes gradual, and to those sweet city-bird ladies everything was new and delightful; a log cabin!--with clay chimney on the outside!--a well and its well-sweep!--another cabin with its gourd-vines! They knew that blessed alchemy which turns all things into the poetry of the moment. Sweet they would have been anywhere to any eye or mind; but I was a homeless trooper lad, and sweeter to the soldier boy than water on the battlefield are short hours with ladies who love him for his banner and his rags.

These four were charmed with an old field given up to sedge, its deep rain-gullies as red as gaping wounds, its dead trees in tatters of long gray moss. Estelle became a student of flowers, Cécile of birds, Camille of trees. All my explanations were alike enchantingly strange. To their minds it had never occurred that the land sloped the same way the water ran! When told that these woods abounded in deer and wild turkey they began to look out for them at every new turn of the road. And the turns came fast. Happy miles, happy leagues; each hour was of a mellower sweetness than the last; they seemed to ripen in the sun. The only drawback was my shame of a sentimental situation, but once or twice I longed to turn the whole equipage into the woods--or the ditch. As, for instance, when three pine-woods cavalrymen had no sooner got by us than they set up that ribald old camp-song,
  "We're going to get married, mamma, mamma;
  We're going to get married, but don't tell pa--"

"Deserters, I don't doubt!" was my comment to the ladies. Tongue revenge is poor, but it is something.

Except in such moments, however, the war seemed farther away than it had for months and months. But about eleven o'clock we began to find the way scored by the fresh ruts of heavy wheels and the dust deepened by hundred of hoofs. The tops and faces of the roadside banks were newly trampled and torn by clambering human feet. Here was a canteen, smashed in a wheel-track; yonder a fragment of harness; here lay a broken hame, there was the half of a russet brogan and yonder a ragged sock stained and bloody.

"Why, what does all this mean?" asked Miss Harper amid her nieces' cries.

I said it meant Fisher's battery hurrying to the front. Twenty miles since five that morning was a marvel, horse artillery though they were, for, as I pointed out by many signs, their animals were in ill condition. "We shall have to go round them by neighborhood roads," I said, and presently we were deeper than ever in woodland shades and sources of girlish wonderment. The humid depths showed every sort of green and gray, their trunks, bushes and boughs, bearded with hanging moss, robed with tangled vines and chapleted with mistletoe. We seemed to have got this earth quite to ourselves and very much to our liking.

One o'clock. Miss Harper suggested a halt to feed the horses. I, knowing what it would cost me to dismount and go walking about, said no, thrice no; let us first get back upon the main road in front of that battery. On, therefore, we hurried, and soon the reality of the war was vivid to us again. In a stretch of wet road where the team had mutely begged leave to walk and the ladies had urged me to sing we had at length paused in a pebbly rivulet to allow the weary animals to drink, and the girls and the aunt and the greenwood and I were all in chorus bidding somebody
  "Unloose the west port and let us go free,"

when, just as our last note died among the trees one of us cried, "Listen!" and through the stillness there came from far away on our right the last three measures of a bugle sounding The March.

My eyes rested in Camille's and hers in mine. A musical license gave us the courage. At the last note our gaze did not sink but took on more glow, while out of the forest behind us a distant echo answered the last measure of the strain. Then our eyes slowly fell; and however it may have seemed to her, to me it was as if the vanished strains were not only or chiefly of bugle and echo, but as though our two hearts had called and answered in that melodious unison.

All that warm afternoon we paid the tiresome penalty of having pushed our animals too smartly at the outset. We grew sedate; sedate were the brows of the few strangers we met. We talked in pairs. When I spoke with Miss Harper the four listened. She asked about the evils of camp life; for she was one of that fine sort to whom righteousness seems every man's and woman's daily business, one of the most practical items in the world's affairs. And I said camp life was fearfully corrupting; that the merest boys cursed and swore and stole, or else were scorned as weaklings. Then I grew meekly silent and we talked in pairs again, and because I yearned to talk most with Camille I talked most with Estelle. Three times when I turned abruptly from her to Camille and called, "Hark!" the fagged-out horses halted, and as we struck our listening pose the bugle's faint sigh ever farther in our rear was but feebly proportioned to the amount of our gazing into each other's eyes.

Once, when we were not halted or harkening, we heard overmuch; heard that which brought us to an instant stand and caused even Miss Harper to gaze on me with dismayed eyes and parted lips, and the blood to go thumping through my veins. From a few hundred yards off in the northwest, beyond the far corner of an old field and the woods at its back, two gunshots together, then a third, with sharp, hot cries of alarum and command, and then another and another shot, rang out and spread wanderingly across the tender landscape.


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