Jane Ryder was far from laughter. She was as cool as a cucumber. With one quick movement, and with surprising strength, she had shoved me into the closet. Then she flung the door wide open. As she did so the guard cried out at the top of his voice that the prisoner had escaped. And if ever a man was berated it was that big soldier who had fallen asleep at the post of duty. "You drunken wretch!" she cried; "I knew how it would be; I knew it!" He tried to make an explanation, but she would not hear it. "Oh, I'll make you pay for this! Go—go and find him, and if you fail take your cut-throats away from here and never let me see them again. Report to my brother, and tell him how you carried out your orders. You were to take them all without a struggle, but you took only one, and you bring him here more dead than alive. He is wandering about in the woods now, out of his head."
"But he shot one of my men. Haven't you any feeling for the man that'll be cold and stiff by sun-up?"
"For the man, yes. You should have been the one to pay for your blundering. You failed to carry out your orders, and you had a dozen against three, and one of the three a negro."
The man started away, but his lagging footsteps showed that he had something on his mind, and in a few moments I heard him coming back. "'Tain't no use to hunt for the man in the dark, and by sun-up his friends'll be buzzin' around here worse'n a nest of hornets. We are going back—going back," he repeated, "and you may report what you please."
Then the man went away, mumbling and mouthing to himself. As for me, I should have preferred to go with him. Pretty much everything is fair in war, and Jane Ryder was on the Union side. She knew of the ambuscade and had not told me; it was her duty not to tell. She would have made no sign if we had been going to our deaths. I have never felt more depressed in my life than I did at that moment. Something had slipped from under me, and I had nothing to stand on. I came out of the closet both angry and sorry. "I shall be obliged to you if you will find my hat," I said.
I tried hard to hide my real feelings, and with anyone else the effort would have been successful; but she knew. She came and stood by me and caught me by the arm. "Where would you go?" There was a baffled look in her eyes, and her voice was uneasy.
"Call your man," I said; "I will go with him; it is not his fault that he cannot find me; it is not his fault that I am hiding here in a woman's closet. Nor shall he be punished for it."
"Your hat is not here," she declared. "It must be where you fell. Do you know," she cried, "that you have killed a man? Do you know that?" Her tone was almost triumphant.
"Well, what of that?" I asked. "You set them on us, and the poor fellow took his chance with the rest. Gladly would I take his place." My head was hurting and I was horribly depressed.
She had turned away from me, but now she flashed around with surprising quickness. "You are the cause of it all—yes, you! And, oh, if I could tell you how I hate you! If I could only show you what a contempt I have for you!" She was almost beside herself with anger, passion—I know not what. She shrank back from me, drew in a long breath, and fell upon the floor as if a gust of wind had blown her over; and then I began to have a dim conception of the power that moved and breathed in the personality of this woman. She fell, gave a long, shivering sigh, and, to all appearance, lay before me dead.
In an instant I was wild with remorse and grief. I seized a chair and sent it crashing into the hallway to attract attention. To this noise I added my voice, and yelled for help with lungs that had aroused the echoes on many a hunting-field. There were whisperings below, and apparently a hurried consultation, and then a young woman came mincing up the stairs. I must have presented a strange and terrifying spectacle with my head bandaged and my wild manner, for the woman, with a shriek, turned and ran down the stairs again. I cried again for someone to come to the aid of the lady, and presently someone called up the stairs to know what the trouble was.
"Come and see," I cried. "The lady has fainted, and she may be dead."
I went into the room again, and, taking Jane Ryder in my arms, carried her into the next room and laid her on the bed. There was a pitcher of water handy, and I sprinkled her face and began to chafe her cold hands. After what seemed an age, the landlord came cautiously along the hall. "Call the woman," I commanded; "call the woman, and tell her to come in a hurry."
This he did, and then peeped in the room, taking care not to come inside the door. "What is the matter?" he said uneasily.
"Can't you see that the lady is ill?" I answered.
The woman—two women, indeed—came running in response to his summons. "Go in there and see what the trouble is. See if he has killed her. I told her he was dangerous. You shall pay for this," he said, shaking a threatening hand at me, though he came no farther than the door. "You think she has no friends and that you may use her as you please. But I tell you she has friends, and you will have to answer to them."
"Why talk like a fool?" said the elder of the two women—the woman with whom I had talked in the inner room of the tavern. "You know as well as I do that this man has not hurt her. If it were some other man I'd believe you. She has only fainted."
"But fainting is something new to her. He has hurt her, and he shall pay for it," the man insisted.
"And I tell you," the woman repeated, "that he has not harmed a hair of her head. If he had do you think I'd be standing here denying it? Don't you know what I'd be doing?"
"If I am wrong I am quite ready to apologize. I was excited—was beside myself."
"I want none of your apologies," I said to the man. "I have a crow to pick with you, and I'll furnish a basket to hold the feathers."
"It is better to bear no malice," remarked the younger woman, calmly. "The Bible will tell you so."
"It is better to tell me the cause of the trouble," interrupted her elder.
"Why, I hardly know. I asked for my hat, and from one word to another we went till she flamed out at me, and said she hated me, and had a great contempt for me; and then she fell on the floor in a faint. I thought she was dead, but when I laid her on the bed there I saw her eyelids twitching."
The two women eyed each other in a way that displeased me greatly. "I told you so," said one. "It's the world's wonder," replied the other. And then Jane Ryder opened her eyes. It was natural that they should fall on me. She closed them again with a little shiver and then the natural color returned to her face. "I thought you were gone," she whispered.
"Did you think I would go and leave you like this? Do you really think I am a brute—that I have no feeling?" She closed her eyes again, as if reflecting.
"But I told you I hated you. Didn't you hear me? Couldn't you understand?"
"Perfectly," I replied. "I knew it before you told me; but, even so, could I go and leave you as you were just now? Consider, madam. Put yourself in my place—I who have never done you the slightest injury under the blue sky——" I was going on at I know not what rate, but she refused to listen.
"Oh, don't! don't! Oh, please go away!" she cried, holding her arms out toward me in supplicating fashion. It was an appeal not to be resisted, least of all by me. I looked at her—I gave her one glance, as the elderly woman took me by the arm.
"Come with me," she said; "you shall have a hat, though I hardly think it will fit you with the bandage round your head."
She led me downstairs, and, after some searching, she fished out a hat from an old closet, and it did as well as another. She asked me many questions as she searched. How long had I known the poor lady upstairs? and where did I meet her? She would have made a famous cross-questioner. I answered her with such frankness that she seemed to take a fancy to me.
"Some say that the poor lady upstairs is demented," she volunteered.
"Whoever says so lies," I replied. "She has more sense than nine-tenths of the people you meet."
"And then, again, some say she can mesmerize folks." Then, seeing that the information failed to interest me, "What do you think of them—the mesmerizers?"
"I think nothing of them. If they could mesmerize me, I should like to see them do it."
"Oh, would you, you poor young man," she said, with a strange smile. "How would you know that you were mesmerized, and how would you help yourself?"
I know not what reply I made. A fit of dejection had seized me, and I could think of nothing but Jane Ryder. "You mustn't think of that young lady upstairs as hating you," said the woman, after she had brushed the hat and had asked me if I felt strong enough to walk a mile or more. "All she means is that she hates your principles. She hates secession, and she hates Secessionists. But something has upset her of late; she is not herself at all. I'm telling you the truth."
"She hates me; you may depend on that; but her hate makes no difference to me. I love her, and I'd love her if she were to cut my throat."
"Is that true? Are you honest? May I tell her so some time—not now—but some time when you are far away?"
"To what end?" I asked. "She would tear her hair out if she knew it; she would never be happy again."
"You don't happen to love her well enough to join her side, do you?" This question was put hesitatingly, and, as I thought, with some shy hope that it would receive consideration.
"Madam, you have tried to be kind to me in your way, and therefore I will say nothing to wound your feelings; but if a man were to ask me that question he would receive an answer that would prevent him from repeating it in this world."
"Humpty-dumpty jumped over the wall!" exclaimed the woman with a laugh. "I knew what you'd say, but I had my reasons for asking the question; you must go now; and bear in mind," she went on with a sudden display of feeling, "that the war has made such devil's hags of the women, and such devil's imps of the men, that everything is in a tangle. You'll know where you are when you go in the next room. And you must forgive me. I am Jane Ryder's mother."
And, sure enough, I was in the tavern in the woods, and sitting by the hearth was Whistling Jim. To say that he was glad to see me would hardly describe the outward manifestation of his feelings. Someone in the camp, he didn't know who, had sent him word that he'd find me at this house, and he had been waiting for more than an hour, the last half of it with many misgivings. He and Harry had escaped without any trouble, and my horse had followed them so closely that they thought I was on his back. But when they saw that he was riderless, they thought that I had either been captured or killed. Once at camp, Harry Herndon drummed up as many of the Independents as would volunteer, and they had gone in search of me; Whistling Jim heard them riding along the road as he was coming to the tavern.
The faithful negro had a hundred questions to ask, but I answered him in my own way. I was determined that none but those directly concerned should ever know that I had been held a prisoner or that Miss Ryder had a hand in the night's work; and I wished a thousand times over that I had not known it myself. The old saying, worn to a frazzle with repetition, came to me with new force, and I was sadly alive to the fact that where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise.
The night was now far advanced, and once at my quarters I flung myself on the rude bed that had been provided for me, and all the troubles and tangles in this world dissolved and disappeared in dreamless slumber. When morning broke I felt better. My head was sore, but the surgeon removed the bandage, clipped the hair about the wound, took a stitch or two that hurt worse than the original blow, and in an hour I had forgotten the sabre-cut.
Singular uneasiness pervaded my thoughts. More than once I caught myself standing still as if expecting to hear something. I tried in vain to shake off the feeling, and at last I pretended to trace it to feverishness resulting from the wound in the scalp; but I knew this was not so—I knew that one of the great things of life was behind it all; I knew that I had come to the hour that young men hope for and older men dread; I knew that for good or evil my future was wrapped in the mystery and tangle of which Jane Ryder was the centre. My common-sense tried to picture her forth as the spider waiting in the centre of her web for victims, but my heart resented this and told me that she herself had been caught in the web and found it impossible to get away.
I wandered about the camp and through the town with a convalescent's certificate in my pocket and the desperation of a lover in my heart; and at the very last, when night was falling, it was Jasper Goodrum, of the Independents, who gave me the news I had been looking for all day.
"You'd better pick up and go with us, Shannon; our company is going to raid the tavern to-night, and to-morrow we take the road. Oh, you are not hurt bad," he said, trying to interpret the expression on my face; "you can go and I think I can promise you a little fun. They say a spy is housed there, and we propose to smoke him out to-night. Get your horse; we start in half an hour."
He went off down the street, leaving me staring at him open-mouthed. When he was out of sight I turned and ran toward the camp as if my life depended on it.
I knew no more what I intended to do than the babe unborn. What I did know was that Jane Ryder was in that house, in all probability; and that fact stung me. She had aided me to escape, even though she had had a hand in my capture, and I felt that the least I could do would be to take her away from there, willingly if she could come, forcibly if she hesitated.
On the way to the camp I met Whistling Jim, and he stopped me. He was astride his horse and leading mine. "Dey er gwine on a ride now terreckly, Marse Cally, an' I lowed maybe you'd want ter go 'long wid um."
For answer I swung myself on my horse and, bidding the negro to follow if he desired, put spurs to the sorrel and went flying in the direction of the tavern. I did not turn my head to see whether Whistling Jim was following, but rode straight ahead. It strikes me as curious, even yet, that the darkness should have fallen so suddenly on that particular day. When Goodrum spoke to me I supposed that the sun was still shining; when I turned into the road that led to the house it was dark. I reached the place in the course of a quarter of an hour, and as I leaped from my horse I heard the negro coming close behind me. I waited for him to come up and dismount, and then I bade him knock at the door, and when it was opened I told him to stand by the horses.
The door was opened by the woman who had spoken so kindly with me. "You here again?" she cried with an air of surprise. "You would make it very hard for her if she were here, but I think she is gone. You'll not see her again, my dear, and I, for one, am glad of it. There's no one here but myself and my son."
"Your son is the one I want," I replied. "Tell him to come at once. I have news for him." The woman had no need to call him, however, for the inner door opened as I spoke, and out came Jane Ryder in the garb of a man—cloak, boots, and all.
I had an idea that she would shrink from me or show some perturbation; but I was never more mistaken in my life. In a perfectly easy and natural manner—the manner of a young man—she came up and held out her hand. "I think this is Mr. Shannon; Miss Ryder told me your name. I have to thank you for some recent kindness to her."
I shook her hand very cordially, saying that nothing I could do for Miss Ryder would be amiss. "As it happens," I went on, "I can do something for you now. Will you come with me?"
For one fleeting moment her woman's hesitation held her, and then her woman's curiosity prevailed. "With pleasure," she said.
As we started for the door the woman interfered. "I wouldn't go with him," she declared with some bluntness. "You don't have to go and you sha'n't. You don't know what he's up to."
This failed to have the effect I feared it would. "Don't you suppose I can take care of myself, mother?"
"I know what I know," replied the woman, sullenly, "and it wouldn't take much to make me tell it."
"Then, for heaven's sake, say what you have to say and be done with it," I exclaimed. "Only a very few minutes lie between this person and safety. If you have anything to tell out with it."
"Your blue eyes and baby face fooled me once, but they'll not fool me again. You know more than you pretend to know," said the woman.
"I know this: if this person remains here ten minutes longer he will regret it all the days of his life. Now, trust me or not, just as you please. If he is afraid to come with me let him say so, and I will bid him farewell forever and all who are connected with him. Do you trust me?" I turned to Jane Ryder and held out my hand.
"I do," she replied. She came nearer, but did not take my hand.
"Then, in God's name, come with me!" I cried. She obeyed my gesture and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" wailed the mother. "Tell me—tell me!"
I was sorry for her, but I made her no answer.
I anticipated this scene as little as I did the fact that Jane Ryder would come with me. I was prepared to carry her off if she refused, but I was ill prepared for the rumpus that this quiet-looking woman kicked up. She followed us to the door and stood wailing while I tried to persuade Jane Ryder to mount my horse. She hesitated, but I fairly lifted her into the saddle. The stirrup-straps were too short, but that made no difference. I sprang on the horse behind her, and, reaching forward, seized the reins and turned the horse's head in a direction that would bring us into the town by a detour, so that we should miss the Independents, who would follow the road that I had followed in coming.
"Where are you taking me?" inquired Jane Ryder.
"To safety," I replied. "The house is to be raided to-night, and I decided to bring you away. You saved me from a prison, and now I propose to save you."
"I saved you? You are mistaken; it was that foolish woman, Miss Ryder."
"Well, she said that you are her dearest friend, and I'm saving you to please her."
"You needn't hold me so tight. I'm in no danger of falling off. Where are you taking me?"
"To General Forrest." She caught her breath, and then did her utmost to fling herself from the horse. When she found that her strength was not equal to the task of removing my arms or lifting them so she could slip from the saddle, she began to use her tongue, which has ever been woman's safest weapon.
"You traitor!" she cried; "oh, you traitor! I wish I had died before I ever saw you."
"But this is the safest course," I insisted. "You will see, and then you will thank me for bringing you away."
"And I thought you were a gentleman; I took you for an honest man. Oh, if hate could kill you you would fall dead from this horse. What have I done that I should come in contact with such a villain?"
"You have a pistol," I said—I had felt it against my arm—"and it is easy for you to use it. If you think so meanly of me why not rid the earth of such a villain?"
"Do you know who I am?" she asked with a gasp of apprehension.
"Why, certainly," I answered. "Do you think I'd be taking the trouble to save you else?"
"Trouble to save me? Save me? Why, I hope your savage General will hang me as high as Haman."
"He would if he were a savage," I said, "and he would if you were a man. And he may put you in prison as it is; you would certainly go there if captured by the Forty Thieves. I am taking one chance in a thousand. But better for you to be in prison, where you will be safe, than for you to be going around here masquerading as a man and subjecting yourself to the insults of all sorts of men."
"You are the only man that has ever insulted me. Do you hear? You—gentleman!" she hissed. "Can't you see that I despise you? Won't you believe it? Does it make no difference?"
"Not the least in the world," I replied. "Now, you must compose yourself; you can be brave enough when you will—I think you are the bravest woman I ever saw——"
"I wish I could say you are a brave man; but you are an arrant coward: you, the soldier that plans to capture women."
"You must compose yourself," I repeated.
"In a few minutes we shall be in the presence of General Forrest, and I should like to see you as calm as possible. I don't know, but I think you will be safe. It was our only chance." The nearer we drew to headquarters the more my anxiety rose; yes, and my sympathy. "By the living Lord," I cried, "you shall be safe!"
"Noble gentleman! to entrap a woman and then declare she shall not be entrapped! To gain whatever honor there may be in a woman's capture by running ahead of his ruffians and capturing her himself! This is Southern manliness—this is Southern chivalry! I am glad I know it for what it really is. Do you know," she went on, "that I really thought—that—I—I—— You are the first man I was ever deceived in—I——"
"Come now," said I, not unmoved, for my feelings ran far ahead of hers and I knew what she would say and how hurt she was; "come now, you must be calm. Everything depends on that—everything."
Near General Forrest's headquarters I dismounted and walked by the side of my horse. Then when Whistling Jim came up, and I would have helped her from the saddle, "Don't touch me!" she exclaimed. She jumped from the saddle to the ground and stood before me, and for the first time I was ashamed and afraid. "This way," I said. Then to the guard at the door, "Private Shannon, of Captain Forrest's company, to see the General."
"He's right in there," said the guard with good-natured informality. I rapped at the inner door, and heard the well-known voice of General Forrest bidding me to enter.
I saluted, and he made some motion with his hand, but his eye wandered over me and rested on my companion. Then, after a moment, they returned to me. "What's the matter, Shannon?"
"I have brought to you here one who came to my rescue last night when I had been captured by a scouting party. We had gone to see the young fellow who, you will remember, was wounded in our last affair at the river—you saw him in the cabin. He was carried away the next day by his friends, but grew so ill that he could be taken no farther than the house on the turnpike two miles from town."
"You didn't let 'em git you just dry so, did you?" he asked. And then I gave him the details of the affair from beginning to end. "I thought Herndon was mighty keen to go," he remarked with a laugh. "You say this young fellow fixed it so you could git away? And then you went back and captured him? That don't look fair, does it?" He regarded me with serious countenance.
"It is a lady, General, and I did not want her to fall in rough hands." He uttered an exclamation of impatience and surprise, and made an indignant gesture. "Now, look here, Shannon, that is a matter that I won't tolerate. I've a great mind to——" He paused, hearing the voice of his wife, who was visiting him. "Go back in there and tell Mrs. Forrest to come in here a minute, and do you stay out till I call you. I'm going to look into this business, and if it ain't perfectly square all the way through you'll pay for it."
I hunted for Mrs. Forrest, hat in hand, and soon found her. I must have had a queer expression on my face, for she observed it. "You must be frightened," she said.
"I am, madam, for another as well as myself," and then I told her, as we walked along very slowly, just how the matter lay. She regarded me very seriously for a moment, and then smiled. She was a handsome lady, and this smile of hers, full of promise as it was, made her face the most beautiful I have ever seen before or since. It is a large saying, but it is true.
I remember that I remained in the corridor cooling my heels a weary time, but finally Mrs. Forrest came out. "You may go in now," she said. "It is all right; I'm glad I was called; I think I have made the General understand everything as I do. There are some things that men do not understand as well as women, and it is just as well that they do not. I am sure you will be very kind to that little woman in there."
I tried to thank her, but there is a gratitude that cannot be expressed in words, and I could but stand before her mumbling with my head bent. "I know what you would say," she remarked, graciously. "The General and I have perfect confidence in you."
I went into the room where General Forrest and Jane Ryder were. "Shannon, what are you and Herndon up to? What do you mean by going on in this way?" He spoke with some severity, but there was a humorous twinkle in his blue-gray eyes. "More than that, you took occasion to prejudice the jury. What did you say to Mrs. Forrest?"
"I simply asked her to be kind to the lady in here."
"Well, she was all of that," said the General, "and she threatened me with her displeasure if I wasn't kind to you, and as she's the only human being that I'm really afeared of, I reckon I'll have to let you off this time. Oh, you needn't look so smiling; you are to be punished, and that heavily. You are to be responsible for this young woman. You are to take charge of her and restore her to her own people—mind you, to her own people. You are responsible to me, and I reckon you know what that means; if you don't you can just ask somebody that knows me."
I knew what it meant well enough, and I knew what his words meant. "The lady is as safe with me, General, as if she were in her mother's arms."
"Now, that's the way to talk, and I believe you," said General Forrest.
All this time Jane Ryder had said not a word. She sat very quietly, but there was not a sign of gloom or dejection in her face. But uneasiness looked from her eyes. She spoke presently, while General Forrest was looking through a large morocco memorandum-book that was a little the worse for wear. "If you please," she said, "I should like to go back to my friends to-night, if they are not all killed. They can do you no harm even if they are alive. They are only a couple of women."
"Well, they are not killed," replied General Forrest without looking up. "Wimmen make war on me and do a lot of damage, but I don't make war on them. I'm letting you off on a technicality, Miss Ryder. You are not a spy; you have never been inside my lines until to-night; and yet you were in a fair way to find out a good many things that the other side would like to know."
"I never found out as much as I'd like to know," she replied; "and since he came bothering me I haven't found out anything."
Apparently General Forrest ignored the remark. He turned to me with a slip of paper in his hand. "You'll have to change your name, Shannon. This passport is made out to someone else. Read it."
He handed it to me, and I read aloud: "The bearer of this, Captain Francis Leroy, is authorized to pass in and out the Federal lines, night or day, without let or hindrance." It was signed by a great man at Washington and counter-signed by one almost as great.
"Why, that belongs to me," said Jane Ryder; "where did you find it?"
"I reckon it's just a duplicate," said the General, smiling. "I've had it some time."
A little frown of perplexity appeared above Jane Ryder's eyes, and if it had never gone away until she solved the mystery of this passport it would have been there yet, for neither one of us ever knew where General Forrest obtained the precious document.
"You will want to go out of my lines, Shannon, and you'll want to come back, so I'll fix it up for you." He went into the next room and dictated to an orderly, and presently brought me a paper signed with his own name, and I have it yet.
Everything was ready for us to take our leave, and we did so. "You are a different man from what I thought you," said Jane Ryder to General Forrest, "and I have to thank you for your kindness and consideration."
"It ain't what people think of you—it's what you are that counts," replied General Forrest. I have thought of this homely saying hundreds of times, and it rings truer every time I repeat it to myself. It covers the whole ground of conscience and morals.
As I was going out, Jane Ryder being in advance, the General said to me again, "Don't make no mistake about what I mean. You are responsible to me for the safety of that young lady. I believe in you, but I may be wrong. If I am wrong you'd just as well go out and hang yourself and save me the trouble."
"You needn't worry about me, General. I can take care of myself," declared Jane Ryder. We went out of the house and came to where Whistling Jim was holding the horses. I dismissed him then and there, and told him to put his horse in the stable and have plenty of feed for mine. But Jane Ryder, for reasons of her own, preferred to walk, so that Whistling Jim went away with the two horses and we were left to ourselves.
I remember that I said very little during that long walk, and all the burden of the conversation fell on the young woman. She was not at all elated over the narrow escape she had had, and preferred to make light of it, but I knew that, under different circumstances, she would have been put in prison in Richmond, and I think that her nature would have succumbed to close confinement.
"You have had your way, after all, but I am not sure that I like it," she said. She waited for me to make some reply, but none was forthcoming. "I hope you don't think you have won a great victory. If I had been a man, perhaps the victory would have been the other way."
"I didn't compel you to come with me," I remarked.
"You mean I came of my own accord. If I did, it was to avoid a scene before my mother—the lady you saw at the house. I didn't want her to hear you bluster and threaten; and, besides, I wanted to tell you what I think of you. We have both had our way. My mother thinks you are a gentleman in a way, and I know what I know."
I trudged along by her side silently; I had no relish for an argument in which I was sure to get the worst of it. In some matters a man is no match for a woman: he cannot cope with her in a war of words. Nor will silence discomfit them. At least, it had no such effect in this instance, for the more I was silent, the louder and faster she talked, and, apparently, the angrier she became.
"You will boast, no doubt," said she, "and tell your comrades how you lorded it over a young fellow who turned out to be a woman—how you compelled her to go with you to General Forrest's headquarters. But how did you know me? How did you know who I was?"
I laughed aloud. "Why, I'd know you through a thousand disguises, as I knew you here that first night."
"I don't believe it; you didn't know me that first night; you had never seen me but once before, and you couldn't have known me. How did you know me to-night? You won't answer, or if you do you'll say you knew me by my swagger. Anything to insult a woman. I'd like to be a man for a few hours just to see how they feel toward women—just how much more contempt they feel than they show. I tell you, you didn't know me that first night."
"Then why did I insist on going home with you?"
This rather stumped her. "Because—because you thought I was a slip of a lad, and you knew you could impose on me. If you had known I was a woman, you wouldn't have called me a little devil—Yes, you would!" she quickly added. "You would have abused me worse than that if you had known I was a woman. How did you know—if you knew?"
"By your eyes; the moment I looked into them fairly I said to myself, 'Here's Jane Ryder again; no one has eyes like hers!'"
She was silent for a little space, and then, "Did it never occur to you that it would be politer to refer to me as Miss Jane Ryder?" Now, I had never thought of her as Miss Jane Ryder, and I told her so. "Are my eyes so peculiar that you would know them anywhere? Are they positively hideous, as the young women say?" I hesitated, and she went on, "But why do I ask? No matter what you think, it can never, never make any difference to me, after the way you have treated me to-night, and I hope that when you bid me good-by, as you will have to do directly, that I shall never see you again."
"That is the talk of a child, and you are supposed to be a grown woman," I replied. "You know very well that I am obliged to carry out the orders of my General, no matter how much they go against the grain."
She stopped in the road and tried to read my face even in the dark. "Do you really mean that?" and then, without waiting for an answer, she turned and ran, and I followed the best I could.
It soon dawned on me that this surprising young woman was as nimble with her feet as a schoolboy. She scampered away from me in a way to put me on my mettle, and she must have run nearly half a mile before I could come up with her. I touched her on the shoulder lightly, crying "Caught!"
"There is no getting rid of you," she answered.
"Oh, but there is, as you will discover," I said. "Once with your kin-people, you will see no more of me." I was vexed, but my ill-humor seemed to add to her high spirits, and she talked away quite blithely. When we came to the door it was open, and the mother, who had been kind to me, stood there waiting. She was crying and wringing her hands, and, for a moment, I thought she had been maltreated by those whose duty it was to raid the house. But her trouble was of quite another kind.
"What have you done with her?" she asked.
"She is here with me," I replied. But when I turned to confirm my words, Jane Ryder had disappeared. I could only stare at the woman blankly and protest that she had been at my side a moment ago before. "I knew it!" wailed the woman. "First comes you to wheedle her away, and then come your companions to search the house for her. I knew how it would be. I never knew but one man you could trust with a woman, and he was so palsied that a child could push him over. And the little fool was fond of you, too." And with that she wailed louder than ever.
"But, my good woman——" I began.
"Don't good woman me!" she cried. "You don't look like that kind of a man, but I knew it; I knew how it would be!"
"Fiddlesticks and frog's eggs!" I cried. "Stop your crying. She is here somewhere. You know well enough that I wouldn't have returned without her. She came to the door with me. I'd have you to know, madam, that I'm not the man you take me for. Do you think I'd injure a hair of her head? It is you that have injured her by allowing her to masquerade as a man—a little thing like that, with nobody to advise her. You are her mother and pretend to be fond of her; why didn't you advise her against all this? Why didn't you take a hickory to her and compel her to remember her sex? You are the cause of it all—yes, you!"
I spoke in a very loud tone, for I was very angry, and I knew that the only way to contend with a woman was to make more noise than she could. Just as I was about to continue my railing protest, Jane Ryder came through an inner door, dressed, as she should be, in the garb of her sex. Her toilette would have been complete but for the fact that in her haste her hair had fallen loose from its fastenings and now flowed over her shoulders and down to her waist, black as night and as shiny as silk.
"I thank you both for your good opinions," she said, making a mock courtesy, "especially the chivalrous Mr. Carroll Shannon, with his straps, and his hickories, and his riding-whips, and I hope he will soon get a woman on whom he can use them all."
"Oh, Jane! Jane!" cried the other, "why will you worry those who love you? Why will you try them so?"
The young woman's face fell at that, and she seemed to be very contrite. She went quickly across the room and never paused until she found herself in the woman's arms, and showed her love by so many quaint and delicate little caresses, and had such a dainty and bewitching way about her, that no human could have held out against her. The woman's face had cleared on the instant and was no more clouded with grief and anxiety. "You see how she is," said the woman to me; "hurting you to the heart one minute and making you forget it the next."
"I see," I replied; "but you should control her. You should make her remember who and what she is, and not permit her to go about as a man or boy. Don't you know how dangerous it is?"
"Oh, but she's her own mistress," the woman explained. "She can wheedle, and no one can say her nay. But I'm glad she went away to-night, though I was terribly afraid for her. She had no more than got out of hearing before there came a pack of troopers, and nothing must do but they must search the whole house from top to bottom. They were hunting for Leroy, too, and if she had been here there would have been trouble."
"What did I tell you?" I exclaimed. "I captured her ahead of them, carried her to General Forrest, and now she is my prisoner. I am responsible for her."
"I believe I had rather the others had captured me," Jane Ryder declared. The woman looked at me and shook her head, as much as to say, "Never believe her."
"Why did you trouble yourself?" Jane Ryder inquired. "I am sure I never gave you any cause to worry yourself about me. If you think you have done me a service you were never more mistaken in your life. You have simply destroyed my usefulness for the time being; but you have given me an opportunity to show you what I think of your intermeddling."
"Jane! you know that he has meddled with you only for your own good," said the older woman. "You ought to thank him on your knees."
"On my knees!" she exclaimed angrily. "On my knees! I dare say he would like to see me on my knees before him, but he'll see me dead first." I was surprised at the heat she showed over the matter.
"Your mother," I said, "has simply used an unfortunate expression. You owe me nothing—and if you owed me everything a kind word would more than repay me."
She bit her lip, but made no reply. "It's her way," explained the mother, "and I'm free to say it's a very poor way. It has always been her way. Love her and she'll hurt you; do her a favor and she'll pretend to despise you. Her kind words are as scarce as pearls among the poor. Scarce, but when they are spoken they make up for all the rest. Don't be angry with her; a big man like you shouldn't care what a child like her says."
"Child! I am older than he is," said Jane Ryder.
"But age is not age unless it has experience and judgment," remarked the older woman, serenely. "Without them, age is another form of childishness."
"What are you going to do with me?" asked Jane Ryder, turning to me. She was evidently weary of a discussion of which she was the subject.
She had placed her finger squarely on my perplexity, for this was indeed the great problem that I had to solve—what should I do with her? Not to-morrow, nor the day after, but now—to-night. The question had occurred to me a dozen times, but I had put it aside, trusting its solution to the moment when it could be no longer postponed. I hesitated so long that both of the women sat staring at me. "You have not answered my question," said Jane Ryder, "and it is important that I should know."
"I might give you your parole for the night," I answered.
"You persist in regarding me as your prisoner?"
"I have my orders," I replied. "You know that as well as I do."
"Thank you for your information. Good-night!" and she was gone before I could say a word, even if I had known what to say. All I could do was to stare blankly at the door through which she had disappeared. I had known all along that if she once took the matter in her own hands I should be powerless, for she was a woman—and such a woman! I could no more hold her prisoner against her will than I could fly. My whole nature revolted at the thought of it. She was a woman—a dangerous woman, no doubt, but still a woman—and that settled it for me.
And then, after I had looked at the door long enough to stare it out of countenance, if it had had one, I turned to the mother and stared at her. There was just the shadow of a smile hovering around her lips, and it nettled me. "She is parading as a man," I said, "and I think I shall treat her as one. A man can be rapped on the head, tied up, and bundled about, without regard for his comfort."
"And yet," said the mother, with her knowing smile, "you wouldn't hurt a hair of her head, nor give her a moment's discomfort." She made the statement with so much complacency that I was more than irritated; I was vexed.
"If you knew me," I declared, "you wouldn't say that. I have no patience with women who try to play the man."
"I know you well enough to say what I have said," she replied. "You have a face that tells no lies—and more's the pity."
"Where has she gone?" I inquired.
"That I can't tell you," the mother replied; "but it would be the wonder of the world if she had gone to bed. We who love her have no power to control her. She needs a stronger hand than ours."
"I could tell you something if I would," she remarked presently; "but it would be like feeling my way in the dark, and I dare not. Yet there is another thing I will tell you that can do no harm, though I promised to keep it to myself. If you stay here you will get in trouble. The man you shot night before last has a brother, and this brother is determined to capture you. I'm telling you this because I think you are a good young man. I had a son once who, if he had lived, should be about your age, and I would have thanked any woman in the world to have given him the warning I have given you. You can gain nothing by remaining here. You can return in the morning. Jane will be here; she is not going to run away from you."
"Nevertheless, I must do my duty," I said. "With your permission, I shall remain here. Does Jane Ryder know of the purpose of this fellow?"
"Oh, no; I wouldn't tell her. She has trouble enough." She paused and hesitated. "Why not go? There is the door; it is unlocked and you will still have time to join your friends. This is all I can say to you—all I can do for you."
"No; you can pray for me. And another thing: if you hear any noise cover up your head and make Jane Ryder cover hers."
"I'm sure I don't know what to make of you," she said, puckering her forehead as she stood in the door.
"But I think I know what to make of you and your daughter," I replied, with a laugh.
"Above all things, don't misjudge us," and with that she was gone, closing the door behind her.
How long I sat there I know not; it may have been one hour or it may have been many; but some time during the night there came a rap at the door and the pictures of Jane Ryder were blotted out of the fire and went flitting up the chimney. The knocking was on the outer door, which was unlocked, as the woman had said, and I cried out, "Come in!" Responsive to the invitation, Whistling Jim made his appearance, and I was more than glad to see him. I discovered for the first time that I had been oppressed by my loneliness, for my spirits rose to a great height.
He seemed very glad to see me, for he laughed aloud. "I bet a dollar you ain't had no supper," he said, "an' I tuck an' brung you some. 'Tain't much, but it's better'n none." But I had no appetite. "I'm mighty glad I brung yo' pistols, too, kaze dey's sump'n wrong gwine on 'roun' here. I seed two er th'ee men prowlin' roun' in de bushes ez I come 'long. Marse Cally, how come you ter leave yo' pistols in yo' saddle? You ain't been a-doin' dataway. I speck dat ar little man you had up in front er you had sump'n ter do wid it." He laughed, but I found nothing humorous in the allusion. "Did I say 'oman, Marse Cally?" I shook my head. "Kaze ef I did, it slipped out des dry so. I wuz comin' atter you anyhow, but Marse Harry holla'd at me an' tol' me fer ter fin' you an' say dat de troops gwineter move in de mornin' an' our comp'ny starts fust."
I nibbled the food he had brought me, with some particularly heavy thoughts in regard to the course we were to take. Yesterday I was a boy, and a very foolish one, but to-day I felt myself to be a man. The feeling was the growth of a night, but it gave me new confidence in myself, and, coupled with it, an assurance that I had never had before, and that has remained with me all through the long years that have intervened. I think it must have caught the eye of Whistling Jim—the change, I mean—for he regarded me curiously and closely.
"Marse Cally," he said after a while, "I b'lieve you done got mo' settled, sence—dog ef I don't b'lieve dat it's been sence yistiddy! I dunner wharbouts de change is, but it sho' is dar. It mought be de way you look at me, an' it mought be de way you don't look at me—an' ef you ain't done grow'd bigger I ain't no nigger."
"I have only ceased to be giddy for the time being," I said. "I am afraid I have some serious work cut out for me to-night. If you want to go you are welcome to do so, and if you stay I'll be glad to have you. I don't know anyone I had rather have near me when a row springs up."
"Me, Marse Cally? You sholy don't mean me." It was plain that he was delighted. "You know how skeery I is, Marse Cally, when dey's a row gwine on. I can't he'p gittin' skeer'd ter save my life. But it's de same way 'bout leavin' you; I'm skeer'd ter leave you. I couldn't go out dat door fer ter save my life." Whistling Jim held out his long, slim hands where he could look at them. Then he ran the scale of an imaginary piano, once, twice, and shivered again. "I tell you, Marse Cally, I'm a-gittin' skeerder an' skeerder. I wish dey'd come on ef dey comin'."
"Well," said I, "I'll place the key of the door on the mantel here, and you can go out whenever you want to."
But he protested almost violently. "Don't you dast ter do dat, Marse Cally! You put dat key in yo' pocket, an' let it stay dar." Nevertheless, I laid it on the mantel. The negro looked at it more than once, and finally, as if taking leave of the temptation it represented, blew it a kiss from his long fingers.
As he sat down, four men filed into the room through the inner door, which had opened almost noiselessly.
The men came in treading on one another's heels. The leader was a thick-set, heavily built fellow, and he had an evil-looking eye. He was evidently a soldier, or had been one, for he had the air and bearing that is unmistakable in a man who has seen service. He had a heavy jaw, and I noticed that his hair was cropped close to his head. The others appeared to be civilians, plain honest men, but ready, as were many men in Tennessee in those days, to help the Union cause in a quiet way.
"You said thar was only one," remarked one of them to the short-haired man.
"I only told you what Captain Leroy said," replied the leader.
"Well, you better had 'a' fetched Leroy along," commented the man, and I judged that he had small stomach for the work before him.
I realized that the time had come for me to speak up. "State your business," said I. "What do you want with me?"
"We want you to go with us," replied the short-haired man; "and we'll get our wants, too."
"Where am I to go?"
"You'll know when you get there," was the answer.
"By which road?" I asked. "I am very careful about the roads I travel."
"We'll look after the roads all right," he replied. "Will you go peaceable or not?"
"Just for the looks of the thing," I replied, "I'd rather have it said that I surrendered only after a struggle." Glancing at the three men the ruffian had brought with him, I was confirmed in my impression that the affair was by no means to their taste. If they had made a rush all together it would have been the easiest matter in the world to overpower me, but somehow they hung back.
"Come on," the man cried to his companions, making as if he would lead them. They hesitated, and it was then that I gave them my views of the situation.
"Gentlemen," I said, "I take you for honest, fair-minded men, and I would advise you to have no hand in this business. This man's orders are from no competent authority, and I give you fair warning that you will bitterly regret your part in this night's work if you live through it."
I could see anxiety, not fear, creep into their faces, and a wholesome doubt of their leader's good faith. I was satisfied that my words had taken the edge off their eagerness, and this was all I hoped to do. I think the ruffian must have felt that his companions were weakening, for he paused and turned toward them, with his hand under his coat, as if in the act of drawing a weapon. What he intended to say I never knew, for, as he turned toward them, still watching me out of the corner of his evil eye, Whistling Jim was upon him.
Seizing the man in his arms, he whirled him around until he could get sufficient impetus, and then threw him against the wall as if he had been fired from a catapult. If you have never witnessed the fury of genuine fright it is to be hoped you never will, for there is something hideous about it. The ruffian had hardly hit the wall before the negro was upon him again, making a noise in his throat like some wild animal, his face distorted and the muscles of his arms and body standing out as prominently as if he were covered with huge wens or tumors.
The man had not been so badly stunned by his collision with the wall but that he could turn over, and by the time the negro reached him he had drawn his pistol half-way from his pocket; but that was all. Whistling Jim seized the hand and held it, and, using his head as a battering-ram, jammed it into the man's stomach and into his face. Then he dragged the limp body toward the fireplace, crying, "Git out de way, Marse Cally. I'm gwine ter put 'im whar he can't pester nobody else. Ef I don't he sho will shoot me, kaze I done seed his pistol."
While the negro was thus engaged with the most dangerous of the men, it is not to be supposed that I was idle. The three companions of the ruffian started to his aid when Whistling Jim began operations—their hesitation suddenly turning into indignation when they beheld the spectacle of a negro assaulting a white man. The foremost went down under the chair with which I struck him, the second one tripped over the fallen body and also went down with my assistance. The third man suddenly found the frame of the well-made chair fitting around his neck like the yoke of an ox. I did my best to pull his head off in order to recover my weapon, but his neck was tougher than the joints of white oak, and the two long legs that went to make up the back of the chair came off in my hand, thus giving me a bludgeon very much to my taste.
It was at this juncture that the negro came dragging the body of the ruffian and declaring his intention of giving him a foretaste of torment. My anger was of such a blind and unreasoning sort that I had no objections to the horrible proceeding, and if there had been no sudden diversion I should, in all probability, have aided him in carrying out his purpose. But there came a tremendous knocking at the door, and I could hear someone rapping and kicking at the panels trying to force an entrance. So I laid a restraining hand on the negro and bade him drop the almost lifeless body.
Giving him one of the chair-legs, and bidding him keep an eye on the three men, who evidently had had enough of the rough things of life, I went to the door. The key was in a position to reflect the light, and I had the door open in a moment; but whoever had rapped to get in seemed to have changed his mind. No one came in and no one made an effort to enter, but in another moment I heard the voice of Jane Ryder. "Run! run!" she cried. "Run, if you want to escape! The back yard is full of Union soldiers!"
But I thought that this was only a ruse on the part of the little lady to get rid of me, and, instead of getting away, as I should have done, I stepped out into the hallway. The sight that I saw filled me with indignation, for there stood Jane Ryder, leaning against her mother, and rigged out in the toggery of a man.
I took her by the arm, and I must have gripped it roughly, for she winced. "If you know what is good for you," I said, very sternly, "you will get yourself out of this wretched garb and throw it in the fire. Will you go?"
"How can I go when you are holding me?" she asked piteously. I released her and she went up the stairway sobbing.
Half-way up the stairs, she turned to me. "You will be sorry you didn't go when I told you. You couldn't go now if you wanted to," and with that she disappeared.
I could have cracked my silly pate at the sight of her weeping. I felt a hand on my arm, and found her mother standing at my side, laughing softly. Seeing that I regarded her with unfeigned astonishment, she laughed the louder. "You are the first that has ever mastered her. She is beyond me. When I married my second husband she declared that I had sold my interest in her for a pair of side-whiskers."
The mother said this so pathetically that I could but laugh, seeing that there was so much incongruity between the remark and the situation all about us. My laughter must have jarred her, for she said with some asperity, "You are laughing now, but in a minute you will be laughing on the other side of your mouth!"
And it was even as she said. A file of soldiers entered from the rear, and before I had time to move or raise a hand they had me surrounded. Their leader was a man full of laughter and good-humor. "Consider yourself a prisoner," he said to me. "How are you, mother? You are looking well. Where is sister? Upstairs? Well, get her down, for we must be moving away from here. What is all this?" He looked into the room out of which I had come, and saw there the evidences of a struggle, as well as the victims thereof.
He bustled about with an alertness that seemed to be prepared for anything that might happen. I saw at once that he was a West Pointer. I had seen not more than a dozen graduates of the great military academy, but enough to recognize the characteristics that marked them all. These characteristics are wellnigh indescribable, but they are all included in the terms "soldier and gentleman."
"The bruiser has been bruised," he laughed. "You are looking well, mother; keep it up for the sake of the children. Tell sister to hurry up; we are in a tight place here."
As he spoke, there was the noise of another scuffle in the room. I turned just in time to see Whistling Jim fling himself upon the man, who had risen to a sitting position and was making an effort to draw his pistol. The negro wrenched the weapon from him, threw it out of reach, seized the hand that had held it and crunched it between his teeth with such savage ferocity that the ruffian howled with pain.
"Oh, come!" cried the officer. "This won't do, you know; this won't do at all. I won't put up with it."
"Ef I hadn't er ketched him when I did he'd er shot me daid," Whistling Jim explained; "me er Marse Cally one. You don't know dat man, suh. He been follerin' atter we-all fer de longest."
"I know him well enough," remarked the officer. "Still——" He paused as if listening. The noise he heard was Jane Ryder coming from above. He met her half-way up the stairs. "My dear old sis!" he exclaimed as he clasped her in his arms. She said nothing, but sobbed on his shoulder in a hysterical way that was a surprise to me. "Brace up, dear girl," he said, trying to soothe her.
"They were always like that," said the mother in her placid way. "I think it is so nice for brother and sister to be fond of each other. Don't forget that she gave you fair warning." Her attitude and the tone of her voice were so out of tune with all my thoughts and surroundings that I regarded her with amazement. She paid no attention to the look, however, but folded her hands across her ample bosom and smiled at her children in a motherly way.
These children, I knew, were speaking of me, though I could not hear all they said, for the officer—he was Colonel Ryder—laughed and said, "Oh, he'll be in good company. I picked up another fellow in the woods. He says his name is Jasper Goodrum." Then she said something in a low tone, something that caused her brother to regard me with considerable interest.
"Is that so?" he exclaimed. "You must tell me the particulars later; I have no time to hear them now. We must get away from here."
As he said, so it was; he hustled everything before him, permitting me to keep my horse and allowing Whistling Jim to go along. "Good-by, mother," he said; "I'm sorry to leave you in such a place as this. I suppose you are waiting for Major Whiskers." He laughed gayly as he said this, and his mother slapped him playfully as she kissed him.
He invited me to ride with him at the head of his little squad of troops, saying that when a colonel started out to command a corporal's guard he assuredly needed assistance. He was perhaps thirty years old, but he had a tremendous fund of animal spirits, so that he had all the ways of a gay youth of twenty. He paid no more attention to the man who had been knocked about by Whistling Jim than if he had been a log of wood, and yet he was very tender-hearted. Whatever was in the line of war appealed to his professional instincts. War was his trade, and he seemed to love it; and he had a great relish for the bustle and stir that are incident thereto.
His sister rode in the top-buggy in which I had first seen her, and she might have been the commander of the men, judging from the way she gave instructions. She seemed to know all the roads, for she went ahead without the slightest hesitation. She was driving a good horse, too; his trot was sufficient to keep our horses in a canter; and whenever he heard us coming up behind him he would whisk the buggy away as if he scorned company. Perhaps this was due to the little lady who was driving him.
I had no grudge against her, heaven knows, but somehow I resented my present plight, for which I thought she was responsible. She had given me fair warning, but she should have known that it was my purpose to carry out the orders of General Forrest; and if I was to be warned at all she should have told me the precise nature of the danger. In that case, I could not only have escaped, but I could have been instrumental in the capture of her brother and his whole party. Perhaps she knew this—and perhaps this was why she would give me no definite information.
But if she knew at all she must have known everything; her brother must have come in response to a summons from her or her mother. In any case I had been tricked—I had been made a fool of—and after what I had done for her, I felt that I had a right to feel aggrieved. Colonel Ryder observed my sullenness and commented on it.
"Don't be down-hearted, my boy. It is the fortune of war; there is no telling when it may turn its sunny side to you. In your place I should whistle and sing and make the best of it. Still, I know how you feel, and I sympathize with you."
"I should not have gone to that house last night," he went on, "but I knew that my mother was there, and I had received information that one of our scouts by the name of Leroy was in great danger of capture. What I did discover was that Miss Ryder had been captured." He laughed as he said this, and gave me a peculiar look.
"As to Leroy," I asked, "was he at that house? I am very much interested in knowing, for General Forrest detailed me to capture him."
"Under the circumstances, you acquitted yourself wonderfully well, and General Forrest has no right to be displeased with you," remarked Colonel Ryder.
"But you have not answered my question," I said.
"In the nature of things," he replied, enigmatically, "I prefer not to tell you. Of one thing you may be sure—Leroy is not likely to bother the rebels for some time to come. I think you have put him out of business, as the boys say."
"Then Leroy must be the name of the man that tried to capture me at the tavern. It was the negro that put him out of business."
"But Leroy is a very dear friend of mine," laughed the Colonel, "and you may be sure I should not have left him there. You observed, of course, that I was very attentive to the man your negro had whipped." He was still laughing, and I could not imagine for the life of me why he was tickled.
We rode along without adventure of any kind, though I momentarily expected to hear the tramp of Forrest's outriders behind us. They never came, and about ten o'clock—my stomach was my clock in this instance, for I had had no breakfast—we suddenly turned off from the main road and plunged into the shadows of the finest wood I had ever seen. There were giant chestnuts, giant poplars, giant oaks, and giant pines. They were so large that human beings seemed small and insignificant beside them, and I realized that we were in the primeval forest.
The thought, however, did not satisfy my hunger, and I wondered when and where a halt was to be called and rations parcelled out. It is a vexatious feeling for the young to feel the pangs of hunger, and I was not used to a long fast. My feelings were relieved by Whistling Jim, who informed me that he had placed a very substantial ration in my holsters; and I am free to say that, after Colonel Ryder, the negro was the most thoughtful and considerate person I have ever seen. He had an easy explanation for it, and spoke of it very lightly, remarking that all he had to do was to think of himself first "an' de white folks nex'."
In turning into the wood, we were following the lead of the little lady in the top-buggy, and I think that Colonel Ryder had no idea whither she was leading him. Yet he yielded himself and his men to her guidance with a confidence that few soldiers would have displayed. We had come very rapidly until we turned out of the main road, and then we went along more leisurely. This gave me time to overcome my natural stupidity, for I finally realized that our rapid movements on the main road were intended to place us beyond the reach of Forrest's advance guard.
The by-way that we were now following appeared to be little used, yet it was a wide road and a good one, and probably served as the means of communication between isolated farms, or it may have led to some lonely grist-mill which had been built for the convenience of that thinly populated region. Though it was but little used, it was plain to the eye, and I thought with a smile that if Captain Bill Forrest's company should happen to have any leisure a dozen or more of them would be sure to see where it led, in which event——
The smile faded away as soon it came, for I thought of the little lady in the top-buggy who was driving ahead with so much confidence. She would be safe in any event, but what would she think of me if her brother should be captured or killed? I shrunk from facing such a contingency; I shrunk without knowing why. Being a young fellow, and feeling my importance as I have never felt it since, I imagined she would hold me responsible. I had interfered with her plans in more ways than one, and I felt that she owed me a grudge that would grow to enormous proportions should any harm come to her brother.
I was suddenly recalled to the affairs of the moment by hearing the screams of a woman, followed by a rifle-shot. I saw Jane Ryder urging her horse forward, and, without waiting to see what Colonel Ryder proposed to do, I put spurs to my horse, followed by Whistling Jim. The scream of the woman had sent a cold chill all through me, and I was in no humor for waiting to see what the others would do. I thought I heard shouts behind me, but I paid no attention to them. I turned my horse to the left and headed him in the direction from which the sounds had come.
Keeping a sharp eye ahead, I soon came in sight of a cabin sitting lonely and forlorn in the middle of a small clearing. I saw more than this, for three men were engaged in a desperate effort to batter down the door. My horse bore me past the little lady in a flash, although she was using the whip. With a cry of "Halt and surrender!" I rode at the men pistol in hand. They whipped around the house without turning their heads, and ran off into the thick undergrowth, where it would have been both useless and dangerous to pursue them.
They left one of their number on the ground, the victim of the rifle-shot we had heard. He begged lustily for both mercy and water. If he had been compelled to choose between the two I think he would have taken water. I gave him my canteen, which he emptied at a gulp and called for more. There was a strange silence in the house—a silence in decided contrast to the screams I had heard, and I wondered if the wretches had shot the woman. I started to knock on the door with the butt of my pistol, but Jane Ryder was before me.
"Only children do such foolish things," she exclaimed, and I thought she had scorn in her voice. "Sally! Sally Rodgers! Open the door if you are alive! Don't you know me? Your friends are here."
"Pardon me!" I said, pushing past Jane Ryder as the door opened. For a moment I could see nothing whatever, not even the woman who had opened the door, but when my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom that pervaded the house—all the windows were closed—I saw the big Irishman whom I had met at the tavern a few nights before. He was sitting very quietly in the chimney-corner, but I observed that he had me covered with his rifle. I stared at him without a word, and he was equally as silent, but something in the situation—or in his face, for he had as pleasing a countenance as I have ever seen—caused me to laugh.
"'Tis a long mile from a joke," he declared. "Ye see before ye Private O'Halloran av the sharpshooters. Wan av us is a prisoner, an' I'm thinkin' it's not meself."
"It is not given to every man," I replied, "to be taken prisoner while he is still a prisoner. You will have to speak to Colonel Ryder."
The woman had come from behind the door to greet Jane Ryder, and now she was giving her all the details of her troubles, her voice pitched in a very high key. Meanwhile, half a dozen children in various stages of undress swarmed from under the bed and stood staring at us. "The sound of the woman's screams," said I, turning to Jane Ryder, "caused me to forget that I am a prisoner. I hope your brother doesn't think that I made that an excuse for running away."
"And why shouldn't a prisoner escape—if he can?" she asked, after a moment's hesitation. "You'll never have a better opportunity to rejoin your command. You are not under parole, and you are under no obligations to my brother. You have only to mount your horse, beckon to your negro, and follow the path you will find at the back of the house. It leads by a grist-mill. A part of your command has already passed on the road beyond the mill, but if you will go now you will fall in with the rear-guard."
"Beggin' pardon," said O'Halloran, taking off his hat to the lady, "the lad has engagements wit' me. He's me twenty-ninth, all told, an' there's luck in odd numbers. If it's all the same to you, mum, he'll stay here."
"But it's not all the same to me, Mr. O'Halloran," she said, turning to the Irishman. "I prefer that he should go."
His eyes grew bigger as he stared at the lady. "Oh——" he exclaimed, and then paused with his mouth open. "Niver did I hope to see me gallant Captain in this rig. It doesn't become ye at all. The trimmin's make ye a fut shorter, an' be me soul! ye was short enough to begin wit'." His amazement made her laugh, but she made no reply.
"Are you going?" she inquired, turning to me. I hesitated. Undoubtedly here was an opportunity, but something or other—some feeling or sentiment—call it what you will—held me back.
"Not now," I said, finally. "Some other time, perhaps, but not now." I did not realize at the time why I held back—why I refused to be free.
She turned away from me with a petulant shrug of the shoulders, as much as to say that she was no longer under obligations to me for preventing her capture by the party that had raided the tavern. The big Irishman, who had evidently recognized the little lady as a person of some importance, went so far as to try to persuade me to make my escape, or, rather, to take advantage of the escape I had already made.
"If ye're stayin' thinkin' he's a woman, don't do ut. Don't stop for to say good-by, but straddle yure horse an' be off wit' ye."
But the little lady had a mind of her own, as I was shortly to discover. After she had talked with the woman for a few minutes, she turned to me.
"Will you ride with me a few miles?" she inquired. "Your negro can lead your horse."
I agreed with such promptness and eagerness that a faint tinge of color came into her face. But, in the bustle of getting away, I paid little attention to her appearance until we were on the move again, and then I observed that she was very pale. I thought it was cold, and said so.
"The wind is certainly chilly," she replied, and then, moved by embarrassment, or stirred by the motherly instinct that constitutes more than half the charm of womanhood, she leaned over and tucked the lap-robe about my knees, and then fell back in her place, laughing gleefully, as a child might have laughed. Indeed, for a woman grown, this little lady had more of the cunning tricks of childhood than anyone I had ever seen—the cute little ways that endear children to those who love them. At the time, this fact did not add to my happiness, for, what with her womanliness and her childishness, she presented a problem that puzzled and dazzled me, for my mind was wofully lacking in the nimbleness necessary to follow the swift changes of her moods.
She had turned the buggy into the woods, and was driving along with no road to guide her. I had not the remotest idea whither she was carrying me, but by way of saying something I protested against the way she was pushing her horse. "You will need him after to-day," I explained.
"I have reason to be in a hurry," she said. "Horses are cheap enough with us. They are furnished by the Government."
"Still, he is a fairly good horse," I remarked, "and he deserves some consideration on his own account."
"Do you think so?" she cried. "I am sure you are very kind—to horses. If I am driving him too hard you have yourself to thank. You have upset all my plans, and I am not very happy. Don't you think a woman deserves as much consideration as a horse?"
"They are to be treated according to their deserts," I answered, gravely. "They know what duty is. Private O'Halloran says that you are no woman, and I say that you are no man. Where does consideration fall in your case?"
"I ask for no more consideration than you would accord to a human being. Mr. O'Halloran has never seen me in my proper dress before, and he knows only how I appear at night when I am working for the cause of the Union. But who are you that you should judge of the deserts of men and women? You are nothing but a boy, and you'll not be different when you are a man. Instead of marching with your comrades, here you are riding in a buggy with a woman—and for what? In the name of heaven, tell me for what?"
She seemed to be overcome by quite a little flurry of passion, and her manner irritated me. "You know why as well as I do," I replied, soberly enough. "You heard the orders my General gave me in the first place, and, in the second place, you know that I am a prisoner. It is odd that you can play a game and forget the score. I imagined when I started that my duty would be the greatest pleasure of my life."
"Do you know where you are going now?" she inquired, very seriously.
"It is a matter of indifference to me," I answered. "Wherever I go, I am in the hands of Providence."
"If you could believe that," she remarked, "it would do you a world of good."
I laughed at her serious manner. "Believe it!" I exclaimed. "Why, it is too plain for mere belief. I do not believe it—I know it."
She was silent for a long time, and when she did speak her words, showed that the matter was still on her mind. "It seems to me very peculiar," she said, "that one so young should have such solemn thoughts."
"Why do you call them solemn thoughts?" I asked. "Can anything be more cheerful than to know that you are altogether in the hands of a higher Power—to know that you will be taken care of; or, if you perish, to know that it will be in the very nick of time?"
"You are too serious to be romantic," she said. "I should like to see you making love."
"I can gratify your humor with a right good will—only the lady I would make love to despises me."
"I'll never believe it," she declared, and it was evident that she meant what she said.
"That is because you have only a vague idea of the cruelty of woman when she has a man at her mercy—and knows it."
"I should like to see some woman at your mercy," she said. "No doubt you would give free play to the strap and the rawhide and other implements of the slave-driver."
Her words made me wince, and I must have shown the wound, for when I looked at her her countenance wore an expression of regret and repentance. "You must forgive me," she declared. "If we were to be thrown together you would have to forgive me fifty times a day."
"Well, I thank heaven," I exclaimed, with some feeling, "that I was never at the mercy of more than one woman, and that fact was mitigated somewhat. She was arrayed in the garb of a man, and I was so sorry for her that I forgot she had me at her mercy."
"You should have told her," the little lady declared. "Perhaps if she had known her conduct would have been vastly different. You never know what a woman will do until she has been put to the test."
"She did a good deal," I said, sullenly. "She called me a coward, a rebel, and a traitor."
"Then she must have been in despair," replied the little lady in the most matter-of-fact way. "When you are a little older you will discover that despair has an anger all its own. But I hope you will never feel it," she sighed. "Anyone can I see that you know very little about women."
"I hope my ignorance does me no harm," I suggested.
"Not the slightest," she answered. "It is a help to you. It is the sort that goes with youth, and I had rather have your youth than all the experience in the world."
The answer I made I shall always regard as an inspiration. "You can have my youth," I said, "if you will take all that goes with it." For one or two little moments she either doubted her ears or failed to catch my meaning. But when she could no longer doubt—when she was obliged to understand me—she hid her face in her hands to conceal the result of her emotions. I seized her hands and compelled her to look at me. She was blushing like a school-girl. "Is my youth, with all its appurtenances, worth your acceptance?" I asked. She made no reply, and I think she would have maintained silence the rest of the way but for my persistent chattering.
To me her embarrassment was very beautiful—thrilling, indeed—and in some mysterious way her youth came back to her, and she seemed to be no more than sixteen. "My youth is not too youthful for you," I insisted. "I have grown very much older lately, and you have become a girl again in the last five minutes." She was still silent, and I took advantage of it to draw her hands under the lap-robe. "There is no reason why your fingers should freeze," I said.
"They are not likely to—now," she declared, and, though it may have been pure imagination, I thought she leaned a little nearer, and the bare idea of such graciousness on her part seemed to change my whole nature. All the folly of youth went out of me, and love came in and took its place and filled my whole being. What I had been belonged to the remote past; I knew that I should never be the same again.
"I offered you my youth," I said, "and now I offer you my manhood, such as it is. You must answer yea or nay."
She gave me a quick, inquiring glance, and her face told me all that I desired to know. "Neither yea nor nay," she replied. "We are both very foolish, but, of the two, I am the more foolish. We are trying to look too far ahead; we are prying into the future, and the future is away beyond us. Everything you say and everything I have in my mind is absurd, no matter how agreeable it may be. Do you care enough for me to desert your comrades and fling your principles to the four winds? Do I care enough for you to leave my people and give my sympathies to your side?" She was smiling as she spoke, but I knew that she was very serious, and I made no reply. "I am going to tell you the simple truth," she went on. "I do care enough for you to leave everything for your sake, for there can be no real love where there is not a willingness to sacrifice all—— Oh, I don't know why women are compelled to make all the sacrifices."
"She not only does that," I replied, "but she is compelled to bear the burden of them alone. Ordinarily, man is a hindrance rather than a help, but I am here to help you."
"Then help me in the right way," she implored.
"I will," I replied; "but here is an argument that is worth all the rest," and with that I drew her to me and pressed my lips to hers. She made no resistance whatever, but somehow the argument did not appeal to her reason.
"I could kiss you twice ten thousand times," she declared, "but facts would remain the same. I have heard that your people have great notions of honor, and I hope it is true in your case."
Well, it was only too true, and I knew it, but, manlike, I must take some reprisal from the truth. "Your mother told me," I said, "that you have a great knack of hurting those you love."
She leaned against me with a sigh. "If I thought that the truth could really hurt you," she declared, "I should never be happy again in this world, but it is something else that hurts, and it is hurting me a great deal worse than it is hurting you."
I suppose I am not the only man in the world that has been caught in the desert that sometimes stretches its barren wastes between love and duty. I knew that if I but held out my hand to this little woman she would give up all, and, assuredly, had she held out her hand to me I should have flung duty to the winds. But she was of a different mould. The only comfort I had at the moment was in feeling that the sacrifice was mutual.
I longed for her brother to ride up behind us, so that I might still be a prisoner, but she had provided against that. I realized at last that I had never been regarded as a prisoner. I should have been grateful, but I was not—at least, not at the moment. If, as has been said, a man cuts a ridiculous figure when he is sulking, my appearance must have been truly laughable. But the little lady was very sweet and patient. Her eyes were so full of tears, as she afterward confessed, that she could hardly see to guide her horse.
When I came to take note of my surroundings I could not refrain from uttering an exclamation of surprise. We had issued from the forest, when or how I knew not, and were now ascending a very steep hill. Looking back, I saw a mill behind me, and noticed that Whistling Jim was engaged in conversation with the miller. He was evidently negotiating for meal or flour; but it all came to me as in a dream.
"Did you see the mill as we came by?" I asked.
"Certainly," the little lady replied. "Didn't you hear me speak to the miller?"
"I don't know how I am to forgive you for seeing and hearing things. I didn't know we had come out of the wood."
She laughed merrily and laid her face against my arm, but when she lifted it she was crying. "Oh, don't make it too hard for me," she pleaded. "I am not myself to-day. Duty has been poisoned for me, and I shall be wretched until this war is over. Surely it can't last long."
"Not longer than a century," I replied, bitterly.
"Look yonder!" she exclaimed.
We had now reached the top of the hill, and when I looked in the direction in which she pointed, I saw a sight that thrilled me.
From the crest of the hill a vast panorama, bare but beautiful, stretched out before us. The hill was not a mountain—indeed, from the direction of our approach, it seemed to be rather an insignificant hill; but on the farther side the land fell away from it quite unexpectedly, so that what seemed to be a hill from one side developed the importance almost of a mountain on the other side. The road dropped into a valley that ran away from the hill and spread out for miles and miles until it faded against the horizon and was lost in the distance. The season was winter, and the view was a sombre one, but its extent gave it a distinction all its own. Far to the left a double worm-fence ran, and we knew that a road lay between, for along its lazy length a troop of cavalry trailed along.
I knew it instantly for the rear-guard of my command, and the sight of it thrilled me. I suppose something of a glow must have come into my face, for the little woman at my side stirred impatiently. "That is your command," she said, "and you are glad to see them." She was silent a moment, and then, as if she had suddenly lost all control of herself, cried out, "Oh, what shall I do now?"
"You knew what my duty was," I said, with a sustaining arm about her, "and you brought me here."
"But if I had it to do over again I couldn't—I couldn't!" she wailed.
"If you had it to do over again you shouldn't," I answered; and then I seized her and held her tight in my arms. Nor did I release her until Whistling Jim, coming up and realizing the situation, celebrated it by whistling a jig. "If you'll say the word," I declared, "I'll go with you."
"I can't! I can't!" she cried. "Do you say it, and I'll go with you."
But neither of us said it; something beyond ourselves held us back. I am not sure, after all, that it was a sense of duty; but, whatever it was, it was effectual.
"I am afraid something dreadful will happen to you," she declared. "I have dreamed and dreamed about it. You have made a coward of me. I'm not afraid for myself, but for you."
"One year after the war is over," I said, "I shall be at the old tavern in Murfreesborough. One year to a day. Will you meet me there?"
"I'll be there," she replied, "or send a messenger to tell you that I am dead."
And so we parted. I mounted my horse, and she turned her buggy around. I watched her until she passed out of sight, and I knew that one of her little hands must be cold, for she waved it constantly until a turn in the road hid her from view. On the road toward which she was going I could see a group of men and horses, and I knew that her brother awaited her. With a heavy heart, I turned my horse's head, and went galloping after my comrades, followed by Whistling Jim.
I had but one thought, and that was to report to General Forrest as promptly as possible and receive the reprimand that I knew I deserved. At that time it was the general opinion, even among those of his command who were not thrown into daily contact with him, that this truly great man was of a grim and saturnine disposition. But it was an opinion that did him great injustice. There were times when he fairly bubbled over with boyish humor, and though these moments were rare, he was unfailingly cordial to those that had met his expectations or who had his confidence. He could be grim enough when circumstances demanded a display of temper, but he had never made me the victim of his displeasure.
I looked forward with no little concern to our next meeting, for I felt that I merited a reprimand, and I knew how severe he could be on such occasions. He was far to the front, as I knew he would be. "Hello, Shannon!" he exclaimed, in response to my salute. His countenance was serious enough, but there was a humorous twinkle in his eye. "Did you fetch me the fellow I sent you for?"
Thereupon, I related my adventures as briefly as I could. He seemed to be amused at something or other—I have thought since that it must have been at my attitude of self-depreciation—and called two or three of his favorite officers so that they might enjoy it with him. He was highly tickled by the narrative of my experience with the little lady in the top-buggy, though, as a matter of course, I suppressed some of the details.
"Now, I want you all to look at this boy," he said to his officers when I had concluded. "He ain't anything but a boy, and yet he did what no other man in my command could have done. He captured Leroy, the fellow you have been reading about, and fetched him to me, and I've put him out of business. There's Goodrum, an old campaigner, a man who knows every man, woman, and child in this part of Tennessee. I put Goodrum on the same trail, and Goodrum's a prisoner. This boy was a prisoner, too, and yet he turns up all right and puts up a poor mouth about what he failed to do. If every man in my command would fail in the same way I'd have the finest body of troops in the army. And look at him blush. Why, if these other fellows were in your place"—indicating the officers—"they'd be strutting around here like peacocks."
"But, General," I protested, "what I did was through my blundering."
"Then I hope you'll go right ahead with your blunders; you couldn't please me better. I'm going to take you away from the Independents, and I'll put you where I can get my hands on you any hour of the night or day."
And as he said so it was—and so it remained until the close of the war. Especially was it so when Forrest was ordered to cover Hood's retreat after the disastrous affair at Nashville. History has not made very much of this achievement, but I have always thought that it was the most remarkable episode of the war. Under the circumstances, no other leader could have accomplished it. No other man could have imposed his personality between the defeated Confederates and their victorious foe, bent on their total destruction. It was little short of wonderful.
I remember that I was shoeless, along with the greater part of my command, though the weather was bitter cold, and my feet were bleeding, and yet when I heard that trumpet voice, ordering us from the wagons to make one more stand, I never thought of my feet. Nor was there a shirker among the men—and all because the leader was Forrest. Nothing but death would have prevented us from responding to his summons. And we saved that defeated army from annihilation, holding the enemy at bay and driving him back, when, if he had known the true condition of affairs, he would have ridden over us roughshod. There were times when we were upon the point of giving way and fleeing before the numbers that were hurled against us. But always the imposing figure of Forrest appeared at the weak point, and then it would be the enemy would give way.
* * * * *
At this point, with only a few more words, my story would have been ended, but the young lady to whom it was first told would not permit it to end there. Her Boston education had not eliminated her curiosity. She sat looking at her mother with an indescribable expression on her face. I knew not whether she was on the point of laughing or crying, and I think that for a moment the mother was as doubtful as I. She did neither the one nor the other, but went to her mother's chair and kneeled on the floor beside her.
"Hasn't Dad left something out?"
"Why, I think not," replied the mother. "Indeed, I think he has told too much."
"Oh, no, not too much," replied the young woman. "I know he has left out something, and I think it is the most important part."
"What I have not told," I remarked, "has been strongly intimated. It is best to leave some things to the imagination."
"I think not," replied the young woman, with decision. "You haven't told anything about what happened after the war."
"That's true," commented the mother, with something like a blush; "but I think that is almost too personal."
"No, no," the girl insisted with a smile; "you know how the public take such things. If Dad writes his story and has it put in a book the readers will think it is pure fiction."
"But if it were fiction," said I, "it would be a bad thing for all of us."
Fiction or not, I was compelled to tell the story until there was no more story to tell.
In the middle of April, one year after the surrender, I made all my preparations to return to Murfreesborough, and it was no surprise to me that Harry Herndon was keen to go with me. His grandmother made no objection, especially when he explained that he desired to be my best man. His real reason for going, however, was a lively hope that Katherine Bledsoe would accompany Jane Ryder. And then there was Whistling Jim to be taken into account. He made known his intention of accompanying me whether or no. He was free, and he had money of his own, and there was no reason why he shouldn't visit Murfreesborough if he cared to. He settled the matter for himself, and, once on the way, I was very glad to have him along.
But for the subtle changes made by peace, the town was the same, and even the old tavern in the woods had survived all the contingencies of war and stood intact, but tenantless. I made haste to escape from the old house, and was sorry that I had ventured there before the appointed time. The sight of it gave me a feeling of depression, and I had a foretaste of the emptiness there would be in life should Jane Ryder fail to come.
The only consolation I had was in the hopefulness of Whistling Jim. "She'll be dar ez sho' ez de worl'," he said, and his earnestness was so vital that it was the means of lifting me across a very bad place in my experience; yet it did not cure me of the restlessness that had seized me. The night before the appointed day, I wandered far beyond the limit of the town, and presently, without knowing how I got there, I found myself near the house where Jack Bledsoe had lain when he was wounded. I went to the gate and would have gone in on the pretence of inquiring the way to the town; but a woman was standing there in the darkness.
I hesitated, but I should have known her among a thousand—I should have known her if the darkness had been Egyptian. I opened the gate and held her in my arms. Neither said a word, and the silence was unbroken until someone in the house came out upon the veranda and called:
"Jane! Jane! Are you out there? Where are you?" It was the voice of Katherine Bledsoe, and I was glad for Harry's sake.
* * * * *
"I don't think that is a very pretty way to end a story," said the mother of the college graduate, perceiving that I had nothing more to say. "You should by all means get your sweetheart out of your arms."
"Since that day," I replied, "she hasn't been out of them long at a time."
"But you will have to change that part of it when you write the story out."
"Oh, no!" cried the daughter.
I refilled my pipe and listened to their tender arguments until I was sleepy, and when I went to bed they were still arguing.