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XXV A QUIET RIDE
Where Ferry's scouts camped that night I do not know, for we had gone only two or three miles beyond our first momentary halting-place when their leader left them to Quinn and sprang away southward over fence, hedge, road, ditch--whatever lay across his bee-line, and by his order I followed at his heels.

In a secluded north-and-south road he looked back and beckoned me to his side: "You saw Major Harper's brother land safe and sound, you say? He told you this morning he is acquainted with your mother, eh; but not how?"

"No, except that it was through--"

"Yes, I know. But you don't know even how your mother is acquainted with her."

"No, though of course if she lived in the city, common sympathies might easily bring them together."

"She did not live in the city; she lived across the river from the city. 'Tis but a year ago her father died. He was an owner of steamboats. She made many river trips with him, and I suppose that explains how she knows the country about Baton Rouge, Natchez, Grand Gulf, Rodney, better than she knows the city. But the boats are gone now; some turned into gunboats, one burnt when the city fell, another confiscated. I think they didn't manage her bringing-up very well."

"Maybe not," I replied, being nothing if not disputatious, "and she does strike me as one thrown upon her own intuitions for everything; but if she's the lady she is entirely by her own personal quality, Lieutenant, she's a wonder!"

"Ah, but she is a wonder. In a state of society more finished--"

"She would be incredible," I said for him, and he accepted the clause by a gesture, and after a meditative pause went on with her history. The subject of our conversation had first met Oliver, it seemed, when by reason of some daring performance in the military field--near Milliken's Bend, in the previous autumn--he was the hero of the moment. Even so it was strange enough that he should capture her; one would as soon look to see Vicksburg fall; but the world was upside down, everything was happening as if in a tornado, and he cast his net of lies; lies of his own, and lies of two or three match-making friends who chose to believe, at no cost to themselves, that war, with one puff of its breath, had cleansed him of his vices and that marriage would complete the happy change. This was in Natchez, Ferry went on to say. Most fortunately for the bride one of the bridegroom's wedding gifts was a certain young slave girl; before the wedding was an hour past--before the orange-blossoms were out of the bride's hair--this slave maid had told her what he was, "And you know what that is."

We rode in silence while I tried to think what it must be to a woman of her warmth--of her impulsive energies--to be, week in, week out, month after month, besieged by that man's law-protected blandishments and stratagems. "I wish you would use me in her service every time there is a chance," I said.

"The chances are few," he answered; "even to General Austin she laughs and says we must let the story work itself out; that she is the fool in it, but there is a chance for the fool to win if not too much burdened with help."

"How did you make her acquaintance?" I ventured to ask.

"You remember the last time the brigade was in this piece of country?" he rejoined.

I did; it had been only some five weeks earlier; Grant had driven us through Port Gibson, General Bowen had retired across the north fork of Bayou Pierre, and we had been cut off and forced to come down here.

"Yes; well, she came to us that night, round the enemy's right, with a letter from Major Harper's brother--he was then in New Orleans--and with information of her own that saved the brigade. I had just got my company. I took it off next morning on my first scout, whilst the brigade went to Raymond. She was my guide all that day; six times she was my guide before the end of May. Yet the most I have learned about her has come to me in the last few days."

"She has a fearful game to play."

"Oh!--yes, that is what she would call it; but me, I say--though not as Gholson would mean it, you know,--she has a soul to save. If it is a game, it is a very delicate one; let her play it as nearly alone as she can." "Yes," said I, "a man's hand in it would be only his foot in it;" and Ferry was pleased. He scanned me all over in the same bright way he had done it in the morning, and remarked "This time I see they have given you a carbine."

We went down into some low lands, crossed a creek or two, and in one of them gave our horses and ourselves a good scrubbing. On a dim path in thick woods we paused at a worm fence lying squarely across our way. It was staked and ridered and its zig-zags were crowded with brambles and wild-plum. A hundred yards to our left, still overhung by the woods, it turned south. Beyond it in our front lay a series of open fields, in which, except this one just at hand, the crops were standing high. The nearer half of this one, a breadth of maybe a hundred yards, though planted in corn, was now given up to grass, and live-stock, getting into it at some unseen point, had eaten and trampled everywhere. The farther half was thinly covered with a poor stand of cotton, and between the corn and the cotton a small, trench-like watercourse crossed our line of view at right angles and vanished in the woods at the field's eastern edge. The farther border of this run was densely masked by a growth of brake-cane entirely lacking on the side next us. Between the cotton and the next field beyond, a double line of rail fence indicated the Fayette and union Church road. Suddenly Ferry looked through his field-glasses, and my glance followed the direction in which they were pointed. Dust again; one can get tired of dust! Some two miles off, a little southward of the setting sun, a golden haze of it floated across a low background of trees.

"'Tis the enemy, I think," he said, "but only scouts, I suppose."


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