"Give a hand here." Grafton gave a hand to help a poor fellow back to the field hospital, in a little hollow, and when he reached the road again that black horse and his boy rider were coming back like shadows, through a rain of bullets, along the edge of the woods. Once the horse plunged sidewise and shook his head angrily—a Mauser had stung him in the neck—but the lad, pale and his eyes like stars, lifted him in a flying leap over a barbed-wire fence and swung him into the road again.
"Damn!" said Grafton, simply.
Then rose a loud cheer from the battery on the hill, and, looking west, he saw the war-balloon hung high above the trees and moving toward Santiago. The advance had begun over there; there was the main attack—the big battle. It was interesting and horrible enough where he was, but Caney was not Santiago; and Grafton, too, mounted his horse and galloped after Basil.
* * * * *
At head-quarters began the central lane of death that led toward San Juan, and Basil picked his way through it at a slow walk—his excitement gone for the moment and his heart breaking at the sight of the terrible procession on its way to the rear. Men with arms in slings; men with trousers torn away at the knee, and bandaged legs; men with brow, face, mouth, or throat swathed; men with no shirts, but a broad swathe around the chest or stomach—each bandage grotesquely pictured with human figures printed to show how the wound should be bound, on whatever part of the body the bullet entered. Men staggering along unaided, or between two comrades, or borne on litters, some white and quiet, some groaning and blood-stained, some conscious, some dying, some using a rifle for a support, or a stick thrust through the side of a tomato-can. Rolls, haversacks, blouses, hardtack, bibles, strewn by the wayside, where the soldiers had thrown them before they went into action. It was curious, but nearly all of the wounded were dazed and drunken in appearance, except at the brows, which were tightly drawn with pain. There was one man, with short, thick, upright red hair, stumbling from one side of the road to the other, with no wound apparent, and muttering:
"Oh, I don't know what happened to me. I don't know what happened to me."
Another, hopping across the creek on one leg—the other bare and wounded—and using his gun, muzzle down, as a vaulting-pole. Another, with his arm in the sling, pointing out the way.
"Take this road," he said. "I don't know where that one goes, but I know this one. I went up this one, and brought back a souvenir," he added, cheerily, shaking a bloody arm.
And everywhere men were cautioning him to beware of the guerillas, who were in the trees, adding horror to the scene—shooting wounded men on litters, hospital men, doctors. Once, there was almost the horror of a panic in the crowded road. Soldiers answered the guerilla fire from the road; men came running back; bullets spattered around.
Ahead, the road was congested with soldiers. Beyond them was anchored the balloon, over the Bloody Ford—drawing the Spanish fire to the troops huddled beneath it. There was the death-trap.
And, climbing from an ambulance to mount his horse, a little, bent old man, weak and trembling from fever, but with his gentle blue eyes glinting fire—Basil's hero—ex-Confederate Jerry Carter.
"Give the Yanks hell, boys," he shouted.
* * * * *
It had been a slow, toilsome march up that narrow lane of death, and, so far, Crittenden had merely been sprinkled with Mauser and shrapnel. His regiment had begun to deploy to the left, down the bed of a stream. The negro cavalry and the Rough Riders were deploying to the right. Now broke the storm. Imagine sheet after sheet of hailstones, coated with polished steel, and swerved when close to the earth at a sharp angle to the line of descent, and sweeping the air horizontally with an awful hiss—swifter in flight than a peal of thunder from sky to earth, and hardly less swift than the lightning flash that caused it.
"T-t-seu-u-u-h! T-t-seu-oo! T-t-seu-oo!"—they went like cloud after cloud of lightning-winged insects, and passing, by God's mercy and the Spaniard's bad marksmanship—passing high. Between two crashes, came a sudden sputter, and some singing thing began to play up and down through the trees, and to right and left, in a steady hum. It was a machine gun playing for the range—like a mighty hose pipe, watering earth and trees with a steady, spreading jet of hot lead. It was like some strange, huge monster, unseeing and unseen, who knows where his prey is hidden and is searching for it blindly—by feeling or by sense of smell—coming ever nearer, showering the leaves down, patting into the soft earth ahead, swishing to right and to left, and at last playing in a steady stream about the prostrate soldiers.
"Swish-ee! Swish-ee! Swishee!"
"Whew!" said Abe Long.
"God!" said Reynolds.
Ah, ye scornful veterans of the great war. In ten minutes the Spaniard let fly with his Mauser more bullets than did you fighting hard for two long hours, and that one machine gun loosed more death stings in an hour than did a regiment of you in two. And they were coming from intrenchments on an all but vertical hill, from piles of unlimited ammunition, and from soldiers who should have been as placid as the earth under them for all the demoralization that hostile artillery fire was causing them.
And not all of them passed high. After that sweep of glistening steel rain along the edge of the woods rose the cry here, there, everywhere:
"Hospital man! hospital man!"
And here and there, in the steady pelt of bullets, went the quiet, brave fellows with red crosses on their sleeves; across the creek, Crittenden could see a tall, young doctor, bare-headed in the sun, stretching out limp figures on the sand under the bank—could see him and his assistants stripping off blouse and trousers and shirt, and wrapping and binding, and newly wounded being ever brought in.
And behind forged soldiers forward, a tall aide at the ford urging them across and stopping a panic among volunteers.
"Come back, you cowards—come back! Push 'em back, boys!"
A horse was crossing the stream. There was a hissing shriek in the air, a geyser spouting from the creek, the remnants of a horse thrown upward, and five men tossed in a swirl like straw: and, a moment later, a boy feebly paddling towards the shore—while the water ran past him red with blood. And, through it all, looking backward, Crittenden saw little Carter coming on horseback, calm of face, calm of manner, with his hands folded over his saddle, and his eyes looking upward—little Carter who had started out in an ambulance that morning with a temperature of one hundred and four, and, meeting wounded soldiers, gave up his wagon to them, mounted his horse, and rode into battle—to come out normal at dusk. And behind him—erect, proud, face aflame, eyes burning, but hardly less cool—rode Basil. Crittenden's eyes filled with love and pride for the boy.
"God bless him—God save him!"
* * * * *
A lull came—one of the curious lulls that come periodically in battle for the reason that after any violent effort men must have a breathing spell—and the mist of bullets swept on to the right like a swift passing shower of rain.
There was a splash in the creek behind Crittenden, and someone fell on his face behind the low bank with a fervent:
"Thank God, I've got this far!" It was Grafton.
"That nigger of yours is coming on somewhere back there," he added, and presently he rose and calmly peered over the bank and at the line of yellow dirt on the crest of the hill. A bullet spat in the ground close by.
"That hit you?" he asked, without altering the tone of his voice—without even lowering his glasses.
Reynolds, on his right, had ducked quickly. Crittenden looked up in surprise. The South had no monopoly of nerve—nor, in that campaign, the soldier.
"Well, by God," said Reynolds, irritably—the bullet had gone through his sleeve. "This ain't no time to joke."
Grafton's face was still calm—he was still looking. Presently he turned and beckoned to somebody in the rear.
"There he is, now."
Looking behind, Crittenden had to laugh. There was Bob, in a cavalryman's hat, with a Krag-Jorgensen in his hand, and an ammunition belt buckled around him.
As he started toward Grafton, a Lieutenant halted him.
"Why aren't you with your regiment?" he demanded sharply.
"I ain't got no regiment. I'se looking fer Ole Captain."
"Get back into your regiment," said the officer, with an oath, and pointing behind to the Tenth Coloured Cavalry coming up.
"Huh!" he said, looking after the officer a moment, and then he came on to the edge of the creek.
"Go to the rear, Bob," shouted Crittenden, sharply, and the next moment Bob was crashing through the bushes to the edge of the creek.
"Foh Gawd, Ole Cap'n, I sutn'ly is glad to fine you. I wish you'd jes show me how to wuk this gun. I'se gwine to fight right side o' you—you heah me."
"Go back, Bob," said Crittenden, firmly.
"Silence in the ranks," roared a Lieutenant. Bob hesitated. Just then a company of the Tenth Cavalry filed down the road as they were deployed to the right. Crittenden's file of soldiers could see that the last man was a short, fat darky—evidently a recruit—and he was swinging along as jauntily as in a cake-walk. As he wheeled pompously, he dropped his gun, leaped into the air with a yell of amazed rage and pain, catching at the seat of his trousers with both hands. A bullet had gone through both buttocks.
"Gawd, Ole Cap'n, did you see dat nigger?"
A roar of laughter went down the bed of the creek.
"Go back!" repeated Crittenden, threateningly, "and stop calling me Old Captain." Bob looked after the file of coloured troops, and then at Crittenden.
"All right, Ole Cap'n; I tol' you in ole Kentuck that I gwine to fight wid the niggers ef you don't lemme fight wid you. I don't like disgracin' the family dis way, but 'tain't my fault, an' s'pose you git shot—" the slap of the flat side of a sword across Bob's back made him jump.
"What are you doing here?" thundered an angry officer." Get into line—get into line."
"I ain't no sojer."
"Get into line," and Bob ran after the disappearing file, shaking his head helplessly.
The crash started again, and the hum of bees and the soft snap of the leaves when bullets clipped them like blows with a rattan cane, and the rattling sputter of the machine guns, and once more came that long, long wait that tries the soldier's heart, nerve, and brain.
"Why was not something done—why?"
And again rose the cry for the hospital men, and again the limp figures were brought in from the jungle, and he could see the tall doctor with the bare head helping the men who had been dressed with a first-aid bandage to the protecting bank of the creek farther up, to make room for the fresh victims. And as he stood up once, Crittenden saw him throw his hand quickly up to his temple and sink to the blood-stained sand. The assistant, who bent over him, looked up quickly and shook his head to another, who was binding a wounded leg and looking anxiously to know the fatal truth.
"I've got it," said a soldier to Crittenden's left; joyously, he said it, for the bullet had merely gone through his right shoulder. He could fight no more, he had a wound and he could wear a scar to his grave.
"So have I," said another, with a groan. And then next him there was a sudden, soft thud:
"T-h-u-p!" It was the sound of a bullet going into thick flesh, and the soldier sprang to his feet—the impulse seemed uncontrollable for the wounded to spring to their feet—and dropped with a groan—dead. Crittenden straightened him out sadly—putting his hat over his face and drawing his arms to his sides. Above, he saw with sudden nausea, buzzards circling—little cared they whether the dead were American or Spaniard, as long as there were eyes to pluck and lips to tear away, and then straightway, tragedy merged into comedy as swiftly as on a stage. Out of the woods across the way emerged a detail of negro troopers—sent to clear the woods behind of sharpshooters—and last came Bob. The detail, passing along the creek on the other bank from them, scattered, and with Bob next the creek. Bob shook his gun aloft.
"I can wuk her now!"
Another lull came, and from the thicket arose the cry of a thin, high, foreign voice:
"Whut regiment you b'long to?" the voice was a negro's and was Bob's, and Grafton and Crittenden listened keenly. Bob had evidently got a sharpshooter up a tree, and caught him loading his gun.
"Tenth Cav'rly—Tenth!" was the answer. Bob laughed long and loud.
"Well, you jus the man I been lookin' fer—the fust white man I ever seed whut 'longed to a nigger regiment. Come down, honey." There was the sharp, clean crack of a Krag-Jorgensen, and a yell of savage triumph.
"That nigger's a bird," said Grafton.
Something serious was going to be done now—the intuition of it ran down the line in that mysterious fashion by which information passes down a line of waiting men. The line rose, advanced, and dropped again. Companies deployed to the left and behind—fighting their way through the chaparral as a swimmer buffets his way through choppy waves. Every man saw now that the brigade was trying to form in line of battle for a charge on that curving, smokeless flame of fire that ran to and fro around the top of the hill—blazing fiercely and steadily here and there. For half an hour the officers struggled to form the scattering men. Forward a little way; slipping from one bush and tree to another; through the thickets and bayonet grass; now creeping; now a dash through an open spot; now flat on the stomach, until Crittenden saw a wire fence stretching ahead. Followed another wait. And then a squad of negro troopers crossed the road, going to the right, and diagonally. The bullets rained about them, and they scuttled swiftly into the brush. The hindmost one dropped; the rest kept on, unseeing; but Crittenden saw a Lieutenant—it was Sharpe, whom he had met at home and at Chickamauga—look back at the soldier, who was trying to raise himself on his elbow—while the bullets seemed literally to be mowing down the tall grass about him. Then Crittenden heard a familiar grunt behind him, and the next minute Bob's figure sprang out into the open—making for the wounded man by the sympathy of race. As he stooped, to Crittenden's horror, Bob pitched to the ground—threshing around like an animal that has received a blow on the head. Without a thought, without consciousness of his own motive or his act, Crittenden sprang to his feet and dashed for Bob. Within ten feet of the boy, his toe caught in a root and he fell headlong. As he scrambled to his feet, he saw Sharpe making for him—thinking that he had been shot down—and, as he turned, with Bob in his arms, half a dozen men, including Grafton and his own Lieutenant, were retreating back into cover—all under the same impulse and with the same motive having started for him, too. Behind a tree, Crittenden laid Bob down, still turning his head from side to side helplessly. There was a trail of blood across his temple, and, wiping it away, he saw that the bullet had merely scraped along the skull without penetrating it. In a moment, Bob groaned, opened his eyes, sat up, looked around with rolling eyes, grunted once or twice, straightened out, and reached for his gun, shaking his head.
"Gimme drink, Ole Cap'n, please, suh."
Crittenden handed him his canteen, and Bob drank and rose unsteadily to his feet.
"Dat ain't nuttin'," he said, contemptuously, feeling along the wound. "'Tain't nigh as bad as mule kick. 'Tain't nuttin', 't all." And then he almost fell.
"Go back, Bob."
"All right, Ole Cap'n, I reckon I'll jus' lay down heah little while," he said, stretching out behind the tree.
And Grafton reached over for Crittenden's hand. He was getting some new and startling ideas about the difference in the feeling toward the negro of the man who once owned him body and soul and of the man who freed him body and soul. And in the next few minutes he studied Crittenden as he had done before—taking in detail the long hair, lean face strongly chiselled, fearless eye, modest demeanour—marking the intellectual look of the face—it was the face of a student—a gentleman—gently born. And, there in the heat of the fight, he fell to marvelling over the nation that had such a man to send into the field as a common soldier.
Again they moved forward. Crittenden's Lieutenant dropped—wounded.
"Go on," he cried, "damn it, go on!"
Grafton helped to carry him back, stepping out into the open for him, and Crittenden saw a bullet lick up the wet earth between the correspondent's feet.
Forward again! It was a call for volunteers to advance and cut the wires. Crittenden was the first to spring to his feet, and Abe Long and Reynolds sprang after him. Forward they slipped on their bellies, and the men behind saw one brown, knotty hand after another reach up from the grass and clip, clip, clip through the thickly braided wires.
Forward again! The men slipped like eels through and under the wires, and lay in the long grass behind. The time was come.
Crittenden never knew before the thrill that blast sent through him, and never in his life did he know it again.
It was the call of America to the American, white and black: and race and colour forgotten, the American answered with the grit of the Saxon, the Celt's pure love of a fight, and all the dash of the passionate Gaul.
As Crittenden leaped to his feet, he saw Reynolds leap, too, and then there was a hissing hell of white smoke and crackling iron at his feet—and Reynolds disappeared.
It was a marvel afterward but, at that moment, Crittenden hardly noted that the poor fellow was blown into a hundred fragments. He was in the front line now. A Brigadier, with his hat in his hand and his white hair shining in the sun, run diagonally across in front of his line of battle, and, with a wild cheer, the run of death began.
God, how the bullets hissed and the shells shrieked; and, God, how slow—slow—slow was the run! Crittenden's legs were of lead, and leaden were the legs of the men with him—running with guns trailing the earth or caught tightly across the breast and creeping unconsciously. He saw nothing but the men in front of him, the men who were dropping behind him, and the yellow line above, and the haven at the bottom of the hill. Now and then he could see a little, dirty, blue figure leap into view on the hill and disappear. Two men only were ahead of him when he reached the foot of the hill—Sharpe and a tall Cuban close at his side with machete drawn—the one Cuban hero of that fierce charge. But he could hear laboured panting behind him, and he knew that others were coming on. God, how steep and high that hill was! He was gasping for breath now, and he was side by side with Cuban and Lieutenant—gasping, too. To right and left—faint cheers. To the right, a machine gun playing like hail on the yellow dirt. To his left a shell, bursting in front of a climbing, struggling group, and the soldiers tumbling backward and rolling ten feet down the hill. A lull in the firing—the Spaniards were running—and then the top—the top! Sharpe sprang over the trench, calling out to save the wounded. A crouching Spaniard raised his pistol, and Sharpe fell. With one leap, Crittenden reached him with the butt of his gun and, with savage exultation, he heard the skull of the Spaniard crash.
* * * * *
Straight in front, the Spaniards were running like rabbits through the brush. To the left, Kent was charging far around and out of sight. To the right, Rough Riders and negroes were driving Spaniards down one hill and up the next. The negroes were as wild as at a camp meeting or a voodoo dance. One big Sergeant strode along brandishing in each hand a piece of his carbine that had been shot in two by a Mauser bullet, and shouting at the top of his voice, contemptuously:
"Heah, somebody, gimme a gun! gimme a gun, I tell ye," still striding ahead and looking never behind him. "You don't know how to fight. Gimme a gun!" To the negro's left, a young Lieutenant was going up the hill with naked sword in one hand and a kodak in the other—taking pictures as he ran. A bare-headed boy, running between him and a gigantic negro trooper, toppled suddenly and fell, and another negro stopped in the charge, and, with a groan, bent over him and went no farther.
And all the time that machine gun was playing on the trenches like a hard rain in summer dust. Whenever a Spaniard would leap from the trench, he fell headlong. That pitiless fire kept in the trenches the Spaniards who were found there—wretched, pathetic, half-starved little creatures—and some terrible deeds were done in the lust of slaughter. One gaunt fellow thrust a clasp-knife into the buttock of a shamming Spaniard, and, when he sprang to his feet, blew the back of his head off. Some of the Riders chased the enemy over the hill and lay down in the shade. One of them pulled out of a dead Spaniard's pocket cigarettes, cigars, and a lady's slipper of white satin; with a grunt he put the slipper back. Below the trenches, two boyish prisoners sat under a tree, crying as though they were broken-hearted, and a big trooper walked up and patted them both kindly on the head.
"Don't cry, boys; it's all right—all right," he said, helplessly.
* * * * *
Over at the block-house, Crittenden stopped firing suddenly, and, turning to his men, shouted:
"Get back over the hill boys, they're going to start in again." As they ran back, a Lieutenant-Colonel met them.
"Are you in command?"
"No, sir," he said.
"Yes, sir," said the old Sergeant at his side. "He was. He brought these men up the hill."
"The hell he did. Where are your officers?"
The old Sergeant motioned toward the valley below, and Crittenden opened his lips to explain, but just then the sudden impression came to him that some one had struck him from behind with the butt of a musket, and he tried to wheel around—his face amazed and wondering. Then he dropped. He wondered, too, why he couldn't get around, and then he wondered how it was that he happened to be falling to the earth. Darkness came then, and through it ran one bitter thought—he had been shot in the back. He did think of his mother and of Judith—but it was a fleeting vision of both, and his main thought was a dull wonder whether there would be anybody to explain how it was that his wound was not in front. And then, as he felt himself lifted, it flashed that he would at least be found on top of the hill, and beyond the Spaniard's trench, and he saw Blackford's face above him. Then he was dropped heavily to the ground again and Blackford pitched across his body. There was one glimpse of Abe Long's anxious face above him, another vision of Judith, and then quiet, painless darkness.
* * * * *
It was fiercer firing now than ever. The Spaniards were in the second line of trenches and were making a sortie. Under the hill sat Grafton and another correspondent while the storm of bullets swept over them. Grafton was without glasses—a Mauser had furrowed the skin on the bridge of his nose, breaking his spectacle-frame so that one glass dropped on one side of his nose and the other on the other. The other man had several narrow squeaks, as he called them, and, even as they sat, a bullet cut a leaf over his head and it dropped between the pages of his note-book. He closed the book and looked up.
"Thanks," he said. "That's just what I want—I'll keep that."
"I observe," said Grafton, "that the way one of these infernal bullets sounds depends entirely on where you happen to be when you hear it. When a sharpshooter has picked you out and is plugging at you, they are intelligent and vindictive. Coming through that bottom, they were for all the world like a lot of nasty little insects. And listen to 'em now." The other man listened. "Hear 'em as they pass over and go out of hearing. That is for all the world like the last long note of a meadow lark's song when you hear him afar off and at sunset. But I notice that simile didn't occur to me until I got under the lee of this hill." He looked around. "This hill will be famous, I suppose. Let's go up higher." They went up higher, passing a crowd of skulkers, or men in reserve—Grafton could not tell which—and as they went by a soldier said:
"Well, if I didn't have to be here, I be damned if I wouldn't like to see anybody get me here. What them fellers come fer, I can't see."
The firing was still hot when the two men got up to the danger line, and there they lay down. A wounded man lay at Grafton's elbow. Once his throat rattled and Grafton turned curiously.
"That's the death-rattle," he said to himself, and he had never heard a death-rattle before. The poor fellow's throat rattled again, and again Grafton turned.
"I never knew before," he said to himself, "that a dying man's throat rattled but once." Then it flashed on him with horror that he should have so little feeling, and he knew it at once as the curious callousness that comes quickly to toughen the heart for the sights of war. A man killed in battle was not an ordinary dead man at all—he stirred no sensation at all—no more than a dead animal. Already he had heard officers remarking calmly to one another, and apparently without feeling:
"Well, So and So was killed to-day." And he looked back to the disembarkation, when the army was simply in a hurry. Two negro troopers were drowned trying to get off on the little pier. They were fished up; a rope was tied about the neck of each, and they were lashed to the pier and left to be beaten against the wooden pillars by the waves for four hours before four comrades came and took them out and buried them. Such was the dreadful callousness that sweeps through the human heart when war begins, and he was under its influence himself, and long afterward he remembered with shame his idle and half-scientific and useless curiosity about the wounded man at his elbow. As he turned his head, the soldier gave a long, deep, peaceful sigh, as though he had gone to sleep. With pity now Grafton turned to him—and he had gone to sleep, but it was his last sleep.
"Look," said the other man. Grafton looked upward. Along the trenches, and under a hot fire, moved little Jerry Carter, with figure bent, hands clasped behind him—with the manner, for all the world, of a deacon in a country graveyard looking for inscriptions on tombstones.
Now and then a bullet would have a hoarse sound—that meant that it had ricochetted. At intervals of three or four minutes a huge, old-fashioned projectile would labour through the air, visible all the time, and crash harmlessly into the woods. The Americans called it the "long yellow feller," and sometimes a negro trooper would turn and with a yell shoot at it as it passed over. A little way off, a squad of the Tenth Cavalry was digging a trench—close to the top of the hill. Now and then one would duck—particularly the one on the end. He had his tongue in the corner of his mouth, was twirling his pick over his shoulder like a railroad hand, and grunting with every stroke. Grafton could hear him.
"Foh Gawd (huh!) never thought (huh!) I'd git to love (huh!) a pick befoh!" Grafton broke into a laugh.
"You see the charge?"
"Part of it."
"That tall fellow with the blue handkerchief around his throat, bare-headed, long hair?"
"Well—" the other man stopped for a moment. His eye had caught sight of a figure on the ground—on the top of the trench, and with the profile of his face between him and the afterglow, and his tone changed—"there he is!"
Grafton pressed closer. "What, that the fellow?" There was the handkerchief, the head was bare, the hair long and dark. The man's eyes were closed, but he was breathing. Below them at that moment they heard the surgeon say:
"Up there." And two hospital men, with a litter, came toward them and took up the body. As they passed, Grafton recoiled.
"Good God!" It was Crittenden.
And, sitting on the edge of the trench, with Sharpe lying with his face on his arm a few feet away, and the tall Cuban outstretched beside him, and the dead Spaniards, Americans, and Cubans about them, Grafton told the story of Crittenden. And at the end the other man gave a low whistle and smote the back of one hand into the palm of the other softly.
Dusk fell quickly. The full moon rose. The stars came out, and under them, at the foot of the big mountains, a red fire burned sharply out in the mist rising over captured Caney, from which tireless Chaffee was already starting his worn-out soldiers on an all-night march by the rear and to the trenches at San Juan. And along the stormed hill-side camp-fires were glowing out where the lucky soldiers who had rations to cook were cheerily frying bacon and hardtack. Grafton moved down to watch one squad and, as he stood on the edge of the firelight, wondering at the cheery talk and joking laughter, somebody behind him said sharply:
"Watch out, there," and he turned to find himself on the edge of a grave which a detail was digging not ten yards away from the fire—digging for a dead comrade. Never had he seen a more peaceful moonlit night than the night that closed over the battlefield. It was hard for him to realize that the day had not been a terrible dream, and yet, as the moon rose, its rich light, he knew, was stealing into the guerilla-haunted jungles, stealing through guava-bush and mango-tree, down through clumps of Spanish bayonet, on stiff figures that would rise no more; on white, set faces with the peace of painless death upon them or the agony of silent torture, fought out under fierce heat and in the silence of the jungle alone.
Looking toward Caney he could even see the hill from which he had witnessed the flight of the first shell that had been the storm centre of the hurricane of death that had swept all through the white, cloudless day. It burst harmlessly—that shell—and meant no more than a signal to fire to the soldiers closing in on Caney, the Cubans lurking around a block-house at a safe artillery distance in the woods and to the impatient battery before San Juan. Retrospectively now, it meant the death-knell of brave men, the quick cry and long groaning of the wounded, the pained breathing of sick and fever-stricken, the quickened heart-beats of the waiting and anxious at home—the low sobbing of the women to whom fatal news came. It meant Cervera's gallant dash, Sampson and Schley's great victory, the fall of Santiago; freedom for Cuba, a quieter sleep for the Maine dead, and peace with Spain. Once more, as he rose, he looked at the dark woods, the dead-haunted jungles which the moon was draping with a more than mortal beauty, and he knew that in them, as in the long grass of the orchard-like valley below him, comrade was looking for dead comrade. And among the searchers was the faithful Bob, looking for his Old Captain, Crittenden, his honest heart nigh to bursting, for already he had found Raincrow torn with a shell and he had borne a body back to the horror-haunted little hospital under the creek bank at the Bloody Ford—a body from which the head hung over his shoulder—limp, with a bullet-hole through the neck—the body of his Young Captain, Basil.
Grafton sat, sobered and saddened, where he was awhile. The moon swung upward white and peaceful, toward mild-eyed stars. Crickets chirped in the grass around him, and nature's low night-music started in the wood and the valley below, as though the earth had never known the hell of fire and human passion that had rocked it through that day. Was there so much difference between the creatures of the earth and the creatures of his own proud estate? Had they not both been on the same brute level that day? And, save for the wounded and the men who had comrades wounded and dead, were not the unharmed as careless, almost as indifferent as cricket and tree-toad to the tragedies of their sphere? Had there been any inner change in any man who had fought that day that was not for the worse? Would he himself get normal again, he wondered? Was there one sensitive soul who fully realized the horror of that day? If so, he would better have been at home. The one fact that stood above every thought that had come to him that day was the utter, the startling insignificance of death. Could that mean much more than a startlingly sudden lowering of the estimate put upon human life? Across the hollow behind him and from a tall palm over the Spanish trenches, rose, loud and clear, the night-song of a mocking-bird. Over there the little men in blue were toiling, toiling, toiling at their trenches; and along the crest of the hill the big men in blue were toiling, toiling, toiling at theirs. All through the night anxious eyes would be strained for Chaffee, and at dawn the slaughter would begin again. Wherever he looked, he could see with his mind's eye stark faces in the long grass of the valley and the Spanish-bayonet clumps in the woods. All day he had seen them there—dying of thirst, bleeding to death—alone. As he went down the hill, lights were moving along the creek bed. A row of muffled dead lay along the bed of the creek. Yet they were still bringing in dead and wounded—a dead officer with his will and a letter to his wife clasped in his hand. He had lived long enough to write them. Hollow-eyed surgeons were moving here and there. Up the bank of the creek, a voice rose:
"Come on, boys"—appealingly—"you're not going back on me. Come on, you cursed cowards! Good! Good! I take it back, boys. Now we've got 'em!"
Another voice: "Kill me, somebody—kill me. For God's sake, kill me. Won't somebody give me a pistol? God—God...."
Once Grafton started into a tent. On the first cot lay a handsome boy, with a white, frank face and a bullet hole through his neck, and he recognized the dashing little fellow whom he had seen splashing through the Bloody Ford at a gallop, dropping from his horse at a barbed-wire fence, and dashing on afoot with the Rough Riders. The face bore a strong likeness to the face he had seen on the hill—of the Kentuckian, Crittenden—the Kentucky regular, as Grafton always mentally characterized him—and he wondered if the boy were not the brother of whom he had heard. The lad was still alive—but how could he live with that wound in his throat? Grafton's eyes filled with tears: it was horror—horror—all horror.
Here and there along the shadowed road lay a lifeless mule or horse or a dead man. It was curious, but a man killed in battle was not like an ordinary dead man—he was no more than he was—a lump of clay. It was more curious still that one's pity seemed less acute for man than for horse: it was the man's choice to take the risk—the horse had no choice.
Here and there by the roadside was a grave. Comrades had halted there long enough to save a comrade from the birds of prey. Every now and then he would meet a pack-train loaded with ammunition and ration boxes; or a wagon drawn by six mules and driven by a swearing, fearless, tireless teamster. The forest was ringing with the noise of wheels, the creaking of harness, the shouts of teamsters and the guards with them and the officer in charge—all on the way to the working beavers on top of the conquered hill.
Going the other way were the poor wounded, on foot, in little groups of slowly moving twos and threes, and in jolting, springless army wagons—on their way of torture to more torture in the rear. His heart bled for them. And the way those men took their suffering! Sometimes the jolting wagons were too much for human endurance, and soldiers would pray for the driver, when he stopped, not to start again. In one ambulance that he overtook, a man groaned. "Grit your teeth," said another, an old Irish sergeant, sternly—"Grit your teeth; there's others that's hurt worse'n you." The Sergeant lifted his head, and a bandage showed that he was shot through the face, and Grafton heard not another sound. But it was the slightly hurt—the men shot in the leg or arm—who made the most noise. He had seen three men brought into the hospital from San Juan. The surgeon took the one who was groaning. He had a mere scratch on one leg. Another was dressed, and while the third sat silently on a stool, still another was attended, and another, before the surgeon turned to the man who was so patiently awaiting his turn.
"Where are you hurt?"
The man pointed to his left side.
That day he had seen a soldier stagger out from the firing-line with half his face shot away and go staggering to the rear without aid. On the way he met a mounted staff officer, and he raised his hand to his hatless, bleeding forehead, in a stern salute and, without a gesture for aid, staggered on. The officer's eyes filled with tears.
"Lieutenant," said a trooper, just after the charge on the trenches, "I think I'm wounded."
"Can you get to the rear without help?"
"I think I can, sir," and he started. After twenty paces he pitched forward—dead. His wound was through the heart.
At the divisional hospital were more lights, tents, surgeons, stripped figures on the tables under the lights; rows of figures in darkness outside the tents; and rows of muffled shapes behind; the smell of anaesthetics and cleansing fluids; heavy breathing, heavy groaning, and an occasional curse on the night air.
Beyond him was a stretch of moonlit road and coming toward him was a soldier, his arm in a sling, and staggering weakly from side to side. With a start of pure gladness he saw that it was Crittenden, and he advanced with his hand outstretched.
"Are you badly hurt?"
"Oh, no," said Crittenden, pointing to his hand and arm, but not mentioning the bullet through his chest.
"Oh, but I'm glad. I thought you were gone sure when I saw you laid out on the hill."
"Oh, I am all right," he said, and his manner was as courteous as though he had been in a drawing-room; but, in spite of his nonchalance, Grafton saw him stagger when he moved off.
"I say, you oughtn't to be walking," he called. "Let me help you," but Crittenden waved him off.
"Oh, I'm all right," he repeated, and then he stopped. "Do you know where the hospital is?"
"God!" said Grafton softly, and he ran back and put his arm around the soldier—Crittenden laughing weakly:
"I missed it somehow."
"Yes, it's back here," said Grafton gently, and he saw now that the soldier's eyes were dazed and that he breathed heavily and leaned on him, laughing and apologizing now and then with a curious shame at his weakness. As they turned from the road at the hospital entrance, Crittenden dropped to the ground.
"Thank you, but I'm afraid I'll have to rest a little while now. I'm all right now—don't bother—don't—bother. I'm all right. I feel kind o' sleepy—somehow—very kind—thank—" and he closed his eyes. A surgeon was passing and Grafton called him.
"He's all right," said the surgeon, with a swift look, adding shortly, "but he must take his turn."
Grafton passed on—sick. On along the muddy road—through more pack-trains, wagons, shouts, creakings, cursings. On through the beautiful moonlight night and through the beautiful tropical forest, under tall cocoanut and taller palm; on past the one long grave of the Rough Riders—along the battle-line of the first little fight—through the ghastly, many-coloured masses of hideous land-crabs shuffling sidewise into the cactus and shuffling on with an unearthly rustling of dead twig and fallen leaf: along the crest of the foothills and down to the little town of Siboney, lighted, bustling with preparation for the wounded in the tents; bustling at the beach with the unloading of rations, the transports moving here and there far out on the moonlighted sea. Down there were straggler, wounded soldier, teamster, mule-packer, refugee Cuban, correspondent, nurse, doctor, surgeon—the flotsam and jetsam of the battle of the day.
* * * * *
The moon rose.
"Water! water! water!"
Crittenden could not move. He could see the lights in the tents; the half-naked figures stretched on tables; and doctors with bloody arms about them—cutting and bandaging—one with his hands inside a man's stomach, working and kneading the bowels as though they were dough. Now and then four negro troopers would appear with something in a blanket, would walk around the tent where there was a long trench, and, standing at the head of this, two would lift up their ends of the blanket and the other two would let go, and a shapeless shape would drop into the trench. Up and down near by strolled two young Lieutenants, smoking cigarettes—calmly, carelessly. He could see all this, but that was all right; that was all right! Everything was all right except that long, black shape in the shadow near him gasping:
"Water! water! water!"
He could not stand that hoarse, rasping whisper much longer. His canteen he had clung to—the regular had taught him that—and he tried again to move. A thousand needles shot through him—every one, it seemed, passing through a nerve-centre and back the same path again. He heard his own teeth crunch as he had often heard the teeth of a drunken man crunch, and then he became unconscious. When he came to, the man was still muttering; but this time it was a woman's name, and Crittenden lay still. Good God!
"Judith—Judith—Judith!" each time more faintly still. There were other Judiths in the world, but the voice—he knew the voice—somewhere he had heard it. The moon was coming; it had crossed the other man's feet and was creeping up his twisted body. It would reach his face in time, and, if he could keep from fainting again, he would see.
"Water! water! water!"
Why did not some one answer? Crittenden called and called and called; but he could little more than whisper. The man would die and be thrown into that trench; or he might, and never know! He raised himself on one elbow again and dragged his quivering body after it; he clinched his teeth; he could hear them crunching again; he was near him now; he would not faint; and then the blood gushed from his mouth and he felt the darkness coming again, and again he heard:
Then there were footsteps near him and a voice—a careless voice:
He felt himself caught, and turned over; a hand was put to his heart for a moment and the same voice:
"Bring in that other man; no use fooling with this one."
When the light came back to him again, he turned his head feebly. The shape was still there, but the moonlight had risen to the dead man's breast and glittered on the edge of something that was clinched in his right hand. It was a miniature, and Crittenden stared at it—unwinking—stared and stared while it slowly came into the strong, white light. It looked like the face of Judith. It wasn't, of course, but he dragged himself slowly, slowly closer. It was Judith—Judith as he had known her years ago. He must see now; he must see now, and he dragged himself on and up until his eyes bent over the dead man's face. He fell back then, and painfully edged himself away, shuddering.
"Blackford! Judith! Blackford!"
He was face to face with the man he had longed so many years to see; he was face to face at last with him—dead.
As he lay there, his mood changed and softened and a curious pity filled him through and through. And presently he reached out with his left hand and closed the dead man's eyes and drew his right arm to his side, and with his left foot he straightened the dead man's right leg. The face was in clear view presently—the handsome, dare-devil face—strangely shorn of its evil lines now by the master-sculptor of the spirit—Death. Peace was come to the face now; peace to the turbulent spirit; peace to the man whose heart was pure and whose blood was tainted; who had lived ever in the light of a baleful star. He had loved, and he had been faithful to the end; and such a fate might have been his—as justly—God knew.
Footsteps approached again and Crittenden turned his head.
"Why, he isn't dead!"
It was Willings, the surgeon he had known at Chickamauga, and Crittenden called him by name.
"No, I'm not dead—I'm not going to die."
Willings gave an exclamation of surprise.
"Well, there's grit for you," said the other surgeon. "We'll take him next."
"Straighten him out there, won't you?" said Crittenden, gently, as the two men stooped for him.
"Don't put him in there, please," nodding toward the trench behind the tents; "and mark his grave, won't you, Doctor? He's my bunkie."
"All right," said Willings, kindly.
"And Doctor, give me that—what he has in his hand, please. I know her."
* * * * *
A tent at Siboney in the fever-camp overlooking the sea.
"Judith! Judith! Judith!"
The doctor pointed to the sick man's name.
But the nurse would not call his name.
"Yes, dear," she said, gently; and she put one hand on his forehead and the other on the hand that was clinched on his breast. Slowly his hand loosened and clasped hers tight, and Crittenden passed, by and by, into sleep. The doctor looked at him closely.
He had just made the rounds of the tents outside, and he was marvelling. There were men who had fought bravely, who had stood wounds and the surgeon's knife without a murmur; who, weakened and demoralized by fever now, were weak and puling of spirit, and sly and thievish; who would steal the food of the very comrades for whom a little while before they had risked their lives—men who in a fortnight had fallen from a high plane of life to the pitiful level of brutes. Only here and there was an exception. This man, Crittenden, was one. When sane, he was gentle, uncomplaining, considerate. Delirious, there was never a plaint in his voice; never a word passed his lips that his own mother might not hear; and when his lips closed, an undaunted spirit kept them firm.
"Aren't you tired?"
The nurse shook her head.
"Then you had better stay where you are; his case is pretty serious. I'll do your work for you."
The nurse nodded and smiled. She was tired and worn to death, but she sat as she was till dawn came over the sea, for the sake of the girl, whose fresh young face she saw above the sick man's heart. And she knew from the face that the other woman would have watched just that way for her.
The thunder of big guns, Cervera's doom, and truce at the trenches. A trying week of hot sun, cool nights, tropical rains, and fevers. Then a harmless little bombardment one Sunday afternoon—that befitted the day; another week of heat and cold and wet and sickness. After that, the surrender—and the fierce little war was over.
Meantime, sick and wounded were homeward bound, and of the Crittendens Bob was the first to reach Canewood. He came in one morning, hungry and footsore, but with a swagger of importance that he had well earned.
He had left his Young Captain Basil at Old Point Comfort, he said, where the boy, not having had enough of war, had slipped aboard a transport and gone off with the Kentucky Legion for Porto Rico—the unhappy Legion that had fumed all summer at Chickamauga—and had hoisted sail for Porto Rico, without daring to look backward for fear it should be wigwagged back to land from Washington.
Was Basil well?
"Yas'm. Young Cap'n didn' min' dat little bullet right through his neck no mo'n a fly-bite. Nothin' gwine to keep dat boy back."
They had let him out of the hospital, or, rather, he had gotten out by dressing himself when his doctor was not there. An attendant tried to stop him.
"An' Young Cap'n he jes drew hisself up mighty gran' an' says: 'I'm going to join my regiment,' he says. 'It sails to-morrow.' But Ole Cap'n done killed," Bob reckoned; "killed on top of the hill where they druv the Spaniards out of the ditches whar they wus shootin' from."
Mrs. Crittenden smiled.
"No, Bob, he's coming home now," and Bob's eyes streamed. "You've been a good boy, Bob. Come here;" and she led him into the hallway and told him to wait, while she went to the door of her room and called some one.
Molly came out embarrassed, twisting a corner of her apron and putting it in her mouth while she walked forward and awkwardly shook hands.
"I think Molly has got something to say to you, Bob. You can go, Molly," she added, smiling.
The two walked toward the cabin, the negroes crowding about Bob and shaking him by the hand and asking a thousand absurd questions; and Bob, while he was affable, was lordly as well, and one or two of Bob's possible rivals were seen to sniff, as did other young field hands, though Bob's mammy was, for the first time in her life, grinning openly with pride in her "chile," and she waved the curious away and took the two in her own cabin, reappearing presently and walking toward the kitchen.
Bob and Molly sat down on opposite sides of the fireplace, Bob triumphant at last, and Molly watching him furtively.
"I believe you has somethin' to say to me, Miss Johnson," said Bob, loftily.
"Well, I sut'nly is glad to welcome you home ag'in, Mistuh Crittenden," said Molly.
Bob was quite independent now, and Molly began to weaken slightly.
"An' is dat all you got to say?"
"Ole Miss said I must tell you that I was mighty—mean—to—you—when you went—to—de wah, an' that—I'm sorry."
"Well, is you sorry?"
Molly was silent.
"Quit yo' foolin', gal; quit yo' foolin'."
In a moment Bob was by her side, and with his arm around her; and Molly rose to her feet with an ineffectual effort to unclasp his hands.
"Quit yo' foolin'!"
Bob's strong arms began to tighten, and the girl in a moment turned and gave way into his arms, and with her head on his shoulder, began to cry. But Bob knew what sort of tears they were, and he was as gentle as though his skin had been as white as was his heart.
* * * * *
And Crittenden was coming home—Colour-Sergeant Crittenden, who had got out of the hospital and back to the trenches just in time to receive flag and chevrons on the very day of the surrender—only to fall ill of the fever and go back to the hospital that same day. There was Tampa once more—the great hotel, the streets, silent and deserted, except for the occasional officer that rode or marched through the deep dust of the town, and the other soldiers, regulars and volunteers, who had suffered the disappointment, the heat, sickness, and hardship of war with little credit from the nation at large, and no reward, such even as a like fidelity in any path of peace would have brought them.
Half out of his head, weak and feverish, Crittenden climbed into the dusty train and was whirled through the dusty town, out through dry marshes and dusty woods and dusty, cheerless, dead-flowered fields, but with an exhilaration that made his temple throb like a woman's.
Up through the blistered, sandy, piney lowlands; through Chickamauga again, full of volunteers who, too, had suffered and risked all the ills of the war without one thrill of compensation; and on again, until he was once more on the edge of the Bluegrass, with birds singing the sun down; and again the world for him was changed—from nervous exaltation to an air of balm and peace; from grim hills to the rolling sweep of low, brown slopes; from giant-poplar to broad oak and sugar-tree; from log-cabin to homestead of brick and stone. And so, from mountain of Cuba and mountain of his own land, Crittenden once more passed home. It had been green spring for the earth when he left, but autumn in his heart. Now autumn lay over the earth, but in his heart was spring.
As he glanced out of the window, he could see a great crowd about the station. A brass band was standing in front of the station-door—some holiday excursion was on foot, he thought. As he stepped on the platform, a great cheer was raised and a dozen men swept toward him, friends, personal and political, but when they saw him pale, thin, lean-faced, feverish, dull-eyed, the cheers stopped and two powerful fellows took him by the arms and half carried him to the station-door, where were waiting his mother—and little Phyllis.
When they came out again to the carriage, the band started "Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," and Crittenden asked feebly:
"What does all this mean?"
Phyllis laughed through her tears.
"That's for you."
Crittenden's brow wrinkled in a pathetic effort to collect his thoughts; but he gave it up and looked at his mother with an unspoken question on his lips. His mother smiled merely, and Crittenden wondered why; but somehow he was not particularly curious—he was not particularly concerned about anything. In fact, he was getting weaker, and the excitement at the station was bringing on the fever again. Half the time his eyes were closed, and when he opened them on the swiftly passing autumn fields, his gaze was listless. Once he muttered several times, as though he were out of his head; and when they drove into the yard, his face was turning blue at the lips and his teeth began to chatter. Close behind came the doctor's buggy.
Crittenden climbed out slowly and slowly mounted the stiles. On the top step he sat down, looking at the old homestead and the barn and the stubble wheat-fields beyond, and at the servants coming from the quarters to welcome him, while his mother stood watching and fondly humouring him.
"Uncle Ephraim," he said to a respectful old white-haired man, "where's my buggy?"
"Right where you left it, suh."
"Well, hitch up—" Raincrow, he was about to say, and then he remembered that Raincrow was dead. "Have you got anything to drive?"
"Yessuh; we got Mr. Basil's little mare."
"Hitch her up to my buggy, then, right away. I want you to drive me."
The old darky looked puzzled, but Mrs. Crittenden, still with the idea of humouring him, nodded for him to obey, and the old man turned toward the stable.
"Yessuh—right away, suh."
"Where's Basil, mother?"
Phyllis turned her face quickly.
"He'll be here soon," said his mother, with a smile.
The doctor looked at his flushed face.
"Come on, my boy," he said, firmly. "You must get out of the sun."
Crittenden shook his head.
"Mother, have I ever done anything that you asked me not to do?"
"No, my son."
"Please don't make me begin now," he said, gently. "Is—is she at home?"
"Yes; but she is not very well. She has been ill a long while," she added, but she did not tell him that Judith had been nursing at Tampa, and that she had been sent home, stricken with fever.
The doctor had been counting his pulse, and now, with a grave look, pulled a thermometer from his pocket; but Crittenden waved him away.
"Not yet, Doctor; not yet," he said, and stopped a moment to control his voice before he went on.
"I know what's the matter better than you do. I'm going to have the fever again; but I've got something to do before I go to bed, or I'll never get up again. I have come up from Tampa just this way, and I can go on like this for two more hours; and I'm going."
The doctor started to speak, but Mrs. Crittenden shook her head at him, and Phyllis's face, too, was pleading for him.
"Mother, I'll be back in two hours, and then I'll do just what you and the doctor say; but not now."
* * * * *
Judith sat bare-headed on the porch with a white shawl drawn closely about her neck and about her half-bare arms. Behind her, on the floor of the porch, was, where she had thrown it, a paper in which there was a column about the home-coming of Crittenden—plain Sergeant Crittenden. And there was a long editorial comment, full of national spirit, and a plain statement to the effect that the next vacant seat in Congress was his without the asking.
The pike-gate slammed—her father was getting home from town. The buggy coming over the turf made her think what a change a few months had brought to Crittenden and to her; of the ride home with him the previous spring; and what she rarely allowed herself, she thought of the night of their parting and the warm colour came to her cheeks. He had never sent her a line, of course. The matter would never be mentioned—it couldn't be. It struck her while she was listening to the coming of the feet on the turf that they were much swifter than her father's steady-going old buggy horse. The click was different; and when the buggy, instead of turning toward the stable, came straight for the stiles, her heart quickened and she raised her head. She heard acutely the creak of the springs as some one stepped to the ground, and then, without waiting to tie his horse, stepped slowly over the stiles. Unconsciously she rose to her feet, not knowing what to think—to do. And then she saw that the man wore a slouch hat, that his coat was off, and that a huge pistol was buckled around him, and she turned for the door in alarm.
The voice was weak, and she did not know it; but in a moment the light from the lamp in the hallway fell upon a bare-headed, gaunt-featured man in the uniform of a common soldier.
This time the voice broke a little, and for a moment Judith stood speechless—still—unable to believe that the wreck before her was Crittenden. His face and eyes were on fire—the fire of fever—she could not know that; and he was trembling and looked hardly able to stand.
"I've come, Judith," he said. "I haven't known what to do, and I've come to tell you—to—ask——"
He was searching her face anxiously, and he stopped suddenly and passed one hand across, his eyes, as though he were trying to recall something. The girl had drawn herself slowly upward until the honeysuckle above her head touched her hair, and her face, that had been so full of aching pity for him that in another moment she must have gone and put her arms about him, took on a sudden, hard quiet; and the long anguish of the summer came out suddenly in her trembling lip and the whiteness of her face.
"To ask for forgiveness," he might have said; but his instinct swerved him; and—
"For mercy, Judith," he would have said, but the look of her face stopped the words in an unheard whisper; and he stooped slowly, feeling carefully for a step, and letting himself weakly down in a way that almost unnerved her again; but he had begun to talk now, quietly and evenly, and without looking up at her.
"I'm not going to stay long. I'm not going to worry you. I'll go away in just a moment; but I had to come; I had to come. I've been a little sick, and I believe I've not quite got over the fever yet; but I couldn't go through it again without seeing you. I know that, and that's—why—I've—come. It isn't the fever. Oh, no; I'm not sick at all. I'm very well, thank you——"
He was getting incoherent, and he knew it, and stopped a moment.
"It's you, Judith——"
He stopped again, and with a painful effort went on slowly—slowly and quietly, and the girl, without a word, stood still, looking down at him.
"I—used—to—think—that—I—loved—you. I—used—to—think I was—a—man. I didn't know what love was, and I didn't know what it was to be a man. I know both now, thank God, and learning each has helped me to learn the other. If I killed all your feeling for me, I deserve the loss; but you must have known, Judith, that I was not myself that night. You did know. Your instinct told you the truth; you—knew—I loved—you—then—and that's why—that's why—you—God bless you—said—what—you—did. To think that I should ever dare to open my lips again! but I can't help it; I can't help it. I was crazy, Judith—crazy—and I am now; but it didn't go and then come back. It never went at all, as I found out, going down to Cuba—and yes, it did come back; but it was a thousand times higher and better love than it had ever been, for everything came back and I was a better man. I have seen nothing but your face all the time—nothing—nothing, all the time I've been gone; and I couldn't rest or sleep—I couldn't even die, Judith, until I had come to tell you that I never knew a man could love a woman as—I—love—you—Judith. I——"
He rose very slowly, turned, and as he passed from the light, his weakness got the better of him for the first time, because of his wounds and sickness, and his voice broke in a half sob—the sob that is so terrible to a woman's ears; and she saw him clinch his arms fiercely around his breast to stifle it.
* * * * *
It was the old story that night—the story of the summer's heat and horror and suffering—heard and seen, and keenly felt in his delirium: the dusty, grimy days of drill on the hot sands of Tampa; the long, long, hot wait on the transport in the harbour; the stuffy, ill-smelling breath of the hold, when the wind was wrong; the march along the coast and the grewsome life over and around him—buzzard and strange bird in the air, and crab and snail and lizard and scorpion and hairy tarantula scuttling through the tropical green rushes along the path. And the hunger and thirst and heat and dirt and rolling sweat of the last day's march and every detail of the day's fight; the stench of dead horse and dead man; the shriek of shell and rattle of musketry and yell of officer; the slow rush through the long grass, and the climb up the hill. And always, he was tramping, tramping, tramping through long, green, thick grass. Sometimes a kaleidoscope series of pictures would go jumbling through his brain, as though some imp were unrolling the scroll of his brain backward, forward, and sidewise; a whirling cloud of sand, a driving sheet of visible bullets; a hose-pipe that shot streams of melted steel; a forest of smokestacks; the flash of trailing phosphorescent foam; a clear sky, full of stars—the mountains clear and radiant through sunlit vapours; camp-fires shooting flames into the darkness, and men and guns moving past them. Through it all he could feel his legs moving and his feet tramping, tramping, tramping through long green grass. Sometimes he was tramping toward the figure of a woman, whose face looked like Judith's; and tramp as he could, he could never get close enough through that grass to know whether it was Judith or not. But usually it was a hill that he was tramping toward, and then his foothold was good; and while he went slowly he got forward and he reached the hill, and he climbed it to a queer-looking little block-house on top, from which queer-looking little blue men were running. And now and then one would drop and not get up again. And by and by came his time to drop. Then he would begin all over again, or he would go back to the coast, which he preferred to do, in spite of his aching wound, and the long wait in the hospital and the place where poor Reynolds was tossed into the air and into fragments by a shell; in spite of the long walk back to Siboney, the graves of the Rough Riders and the scuttling land-crabs; and the heat and the smells. Then he would march back again to the trenches in his dream, as he had done in Cuba when he got out of the hospital. There was the hill up which he had charged. It looked like the abode of cave-dwellers—so burrowed was it with bomb-proofs. He could hear the shouts of welcome as his comrades, and men who had never spoken to him before, crowded about him.
How often he lived through that last proud little drama of his soldier life! There was his Captain wounded, and there was the old Sergeant—the "Governor"—with chevrons and a flag.
"You're a Sergeant, Crittenden," said the Captain.
He, Crittenden, in blood and sympathy the spirit of secession—bearer now of the Stars and Stripes! How his heart thumped, and how his head reeled when he caught the staff and looked dumbly up to the folds; and in spite of all his self-control, the tears came, as they came again and again in his delirium.
Right at that moment there was a great bustle in camp. And still holding that flag, Crittenden marched with his company up to the trenches. There was the army drawn up at parade, in a great ten-mile half-circle and facing Santiago. There were the red roofs of the town, and the batteries, which were to thunder word when the red and yellow flag of defeat went down and the victorious Stars and Stripes rose up. There were little men in straw hats and blue clothes coming from Santiago, and swinging hammocks and tethering horses in an open field, while more little men in Panama hats were advancing on the American trenches, saluting courteously. And there were American officers jumping across the trenches to meet them, and while they were shaking hands, on the very stroke of twelve, there came thunder—the thunder of two-score and one salutes. And the cheers—the cheers! From the right rose those cheers, gathering volume as they came, swinging through the centre far to the left, and swinging through the centre back again, until they broke in a wild storm against the big, green hills. A storm that ran down the foothills to the rear, was mingled with the surf at Siboney and swung by the rocking transports out to sea. Under the sea, too, it sang, along the cables, to ring on through the white corridors of the great capitol and spread like a hurricane throughout all the waiting land at home! Then he could hear bands playing—playing the "Star-Spangled Banner"—and the soldiers cheering and cheering again. Suddenly there was quiet; the bands were playing hymns—old, old hymns that the soldier had heard with bowed head at his mother's knee, or in some little old country church at home—and what hardships, privations, wounds, death of comrades had rarely done, those old hymns did now—they brought tears. Then some thoughtful soldier pulled a box of hardtack across the trenches and the little Spanish soldiers fell upon it like schoolboys and scrambled like pickaninnies for a penny.
Thus it was that day all around the shining circle of sheathed bayonets, silent carbines, and dumb cannon-mouths at the American trenches around Santiago, where the fighting was done.
And on a little knoll not far away stood Sergeant Crittenden, swaying on his feet—colour-sergeant to the folds of the ever-victorious, ever-beloved Old Glory waving over him, with a strange new wave of feeling surging through him. For then and there, Crittenden, Southerner, died straightway and through a travail of wounds, suffering, sickness, devotion, and love for that flag—Crittenden, American, was born. And just at that proud moment, he would feel once more the dizziness seize him. The world would turn dark, and again he would sink slowly.
And again, when all this was over, the sick man would go back to the long grass and tramp it once more until his legs ached and his brain swam. And when it was the hill that he could see, he was quiet and got rest for a while; and when it was the figure of Judith—he knew now that it was Judith—he would call aloud for her, just as he did in the hospital at Siboney. And always the tramp through the long grass would begin again—
He was very tired, but there was the long grass ahead of him, and he must get through it somehow.
* * * * *
Autumn came and the Legion was coming home—Basil was coming home. And Phyllis was for one hour haughty and unforgiving over what she called his shameful neglect and, for another, in a fever of unrest to see him. No, she was not going to meet him. She would wait for him at her own home, and he could come to her there with the honours of war on his brow and plead on bended knee to be forgiven. At least that was the picture that she sometimes surprised in her own mind, though she did not want Basil kneeling to anybody—not even to her.
The town made ready, and the spirit of welcome for the home-coming was oddly like the spirit of God-speed that had followed them six months before; only there were more smiling faces, more and madder cheers, and as many tears, but this time they were tears of joy. For many a mother and daughter who did not weep when father and brother went away, wept now, that they were coming home again. They had run the risk of fever and sickness, the real terrors of war. God knew they had done their best to get to the front, and the people knew what account they would have given of themselves had they gotten their chance at war. They had had all the hardship—the long, long hardship without the one moment of recompense that was the soldier's reward and his sole opportunity for death or glory. So the people gave them all the deserved honour that they would have given had they stormed San Juan or the stone fort at Caney. The change that even in that short time was wrought in the regiment, everybody saw; but only the old ex-Confederates and Federals on the street knew the steady, veteran-like swing of the march and felt the solid unity of form and spirit that those few months had brought to the tanned youths who marched now like soldiers indeed. And next the Colonel rode the hero of the regiment, who had got to Cuba, who had stormed the hill, and who had met a Spanish bullet face to face and come off conqueror—Basil, sitting his horse as only the Southerner, born to the saddle, can. How they cheered him, and how the gallant, generous old Colonel nodded and bowed as though to say:
"That's right; that's right. Give it to him! give it to him!"
Phyllis—her mother and Basil's mother being present—shook hands merely with Basil when she saw him first at the old woodland, and Basil blushed like a girl. They fell behind as the older people walked toward the auditorium, and Basil managed to get hold of her hand, but she pulled it away rather haughtily. She was looking at him very reproachfully, a moment later, when her eyes became suddenly fixed to the neck of his blouse, and filled with tears. She began to cry softly.
Phyllis was giving way, and, thereupon, with her own mother and Basil's mother looking on, and to Basil's blushing consternation, she darted for his neck-band and kissed him on the throat. The throat flushed, and in the flush a tiny white spot showed—the mouth of a tiny wound where a Mauser bullet had hissed straight through.
Then the old auditorium again, and Crittenden, who had welcomed the Legion to camp at Ashland, was out of bed, against the doctor's advice, to welcome it to home and fireside. And when he faced the crowd—if they cheered Basil, what did they do now? He was startled by the roar that broke against the roof. As he stood there, still pale, erect, modest, two pairs of eyes saw what no other eyes saw, two minds were thinking what none others were—the mother and Judith Page. Others saw him as the soldier, the generous brother, the returned hero. These two looked deeper and saw the new man who had been forged from dross by the fire of battle and fever and the fire of love. There was much humility in the face, a new fire in the eyes, a nobler bearing—and his bearing had always been proud—a nobler sincerity, a nobler purpose.
He spoke not a word of himself—not a word of the sickness through which he had passed. It was of the long patience and the patriotism of the American soldier, the hardship of camp life, the body-wearing travail of the march in tropical heat. And then he paid his tribute to the regular. There was no danger of the volunteer failing to get credit for what he had done, but the regular—there was no one to speak for him in camp, on the transports, on the march, in tropical heat, and on the battlefield. He had seen the regular hungry, wet, sick, but fighting still; and he had seen him wounded, dying, dead, and never had he known anything but perfect kindness from one to the other; perfect courtesy to outsider; perfect devotion to officer, and never a word of complaint—never one word of complaint.
"Sometimes I think that the regular who has gone will not open his lips if the God of Battles tells him that not yet has he earned eternal peace."
As for the war itself, it had placed the nation high among the seats of the Mighty. It had increased our national pride, through unity, a thousand fold. It would show to the world and to ourselves that the heroic mould in which the sires of the nation were cast is still casting the sons of to-day; that we need not fear degeneracy nor dissolution for another hundred years—smiling as he said this, as though the dreams of Greece and Rome were to become realities here. It had put to rest for a time the troublous social problems of the day; it had brought together every social element in our national life—coal-heaver and millionaire, student and cowboy, plain man and gentleman, regular and volunteer—had brought them face to face and taught each for the other tolerance, understanding, sympathy, high regard; and had wheeled all into a solid front against a common foe. It had thus not only brought shoulder to shoulder the brothers of the North and South, but those brothers shoulder to shoulder with our brothers across the sea. In the interest of humanity, it had freed twelve million people of an alien race and another land, and it had given us a better hope for the alien race in our own.
And who knew but that, up where France's great statue stood at the wide-thrown portals of the Great City of the land, it had not given to the mighty torch that nightly streams the light of Liberty across the waters from the New World to the Old—who knew that it had not given to that light a steady, ever-onward-reaching glow that some day should illumine the earth?
* * * * *
The Cuban fever does not loosen its clutch easily.
Crittenden went to bed that day and lay there delirious and in serious danger for more than a fortnight. But at the end a reward came for all the ills of his past and all that could ever come.
His long fight was over, and that afternoon he lay by his window, which was open to the rich, autumn sunlight that sifted through the woods and over the pasture till it lay in golden sheens across the fence and the yard and rested on his window-sill, rich enough almost to grasp with his hand, should he reach out for it. There was a little colour in his face—he had eaten one good meal that day, and his long fight with the fever was won. He did not know that in his delirium he had spoken of Judith—Judith—Judith—and this day and that had given out fragments from which his mother could piece out the story of his love; that, at the crisis, when his mother was about to go to the girl, Judith had come of her own accord to his bedside. He did not know her, but he grew quiet at once when the girl put her hand on his forehead.
Now Crittenden was looking out on the sward, green with the curious autumn-spring that comes in that Bluegrass land: a second spring that came every year to nature, and was coming this year to him. And in his mood for field and sky was the old, dreamy mistiness of pure delight—spiritual—that he had not known for many years. It was the spirit of his youth come back—that distant youth when the world was without a shadow; when his own soul had no tarnish of evil; when passion was unconscious and pure; when his boyish reverence was the only feeling he knew toward every woman. And lying thus, as the sun sank and the shadows stole slowly across the warm bands of sunlight, and the meadow-lark called good-night from the meadows, whence the cows were coming homeward and the sheep were still browsing—out of the quiet and peace and stillness and purity and sweetness of it all came his last vision—the vision of a boy with a fresh, open face and no shadow across the mirror of his clear eyes. It looked like Basil, but it was "the little brother" of himself coming back at last—coming with a glad, welcoming smile. The little man was running swiftly across the fields toward him. He had floated lightly over the fence, and was making straight across the yard for his window; and there he rose and floated in, and with a boy's trustfulness put his small, chubby hand in the big brother's, and Crittenden felt the little fellow's cheek close to his as he slept on, his lashes wet with tears.
The mother opened the door; a tall figure slipped gently in; the door was closed softly after it again, and Judith was alone; for Crittenden still lay with his eyes closed, and the girl's face whitened with pity and flamed slowly as she slowly slipped forward and stood looking down at him. As she knelt down beside him, something that she held in her hand clanked softly against the bed and Crittenden opened his eyes.
There was no answer. Judith had buried her face in her hands. A sob reached his ears and he turned quickly.
"Judith," he said; "Judith," he repeated, with a quick breath. "Why, my God, you! Why—you—you've come to see me! you, after all—you!"
He raised himself slowly, and as he bent over her, he saw his father's sword, caught tightly in her white hands—the old sword that was between him and Basil to win and wear—and he knew the meaning of it all, and he had to steady himself to keep back his own tears.
His voice choked; he could get no further, and he folded his arms about her head and buried his face in her hair.
The gray walls of Indian summer tumbled at the horizon and let the glory of many fires shine out among the leaves. Once or twice the breath of winter smote the earth white at dawn. Christmas was coming, and God was good that Christmas.
Peace came to Crittenden during the long, dream-like days—and happiness; and high resolve had deepened.
Day by day, Judith opened to him some new phase of loveliness, and he wondered how he could have ever thought that he knew her; that he loved her, as he loved her now. He had given her the locket and had told her the story of that night at the hospital. She had shown no surprise, and but very little emotion; moreover, she was silent. And Crittenden, too, was silent, and, as always, asked no questions. It was her secret; she did not wish him to know, and his trust was unfaltering. Besides, he had his secrets as well. He meant to tell her all some day, and she meant to tell him; but the hours were so full of sweet companionship that both forbore to throw the semblance of a shadow on the sunny days they spent together.
It was at the stiles one night that Judith handed Crittenden back the locket that had come from the stiffened hand of the Rough Rider, Blackford, along with a letter, stained, soiled, unstamped, addressed to herself, marked on the envelope "Soldier's letter," and countersigned by his Captain.
"I heard him say at Chickamauga that he was from Kentucky," ran the letter, "and that his name was Crittenden. I saw your name on a piece of paper that blew out of his tent one day. I guessed what was between you two, and I asked him to be my 'bunkie;' but as you never told him my name, I never told him who I was. I went with the Rough Riders, but we have been camped near each other. To-morrow comes the big fight. Our regiments will doubtless advance together. I shall watch out for him as long as I am alive. I shall be shot. It is no premonition—no fear, no belief. I know it. I still have the locket you gave me. If I could, I would give it to him; but he would know who I am, and it seems your wish that he should not know. I should like to see you once more, but I should not like you to see me. I am too much changed; I can see it in my own face. Good-night. Good-by."
There was no name signed. The initials were J. P., and Crittenden looked up inquiringly.
"His name was not Blackford; it was Page—Jack Page. He was my cousin," she went on, gently. "That is why I never told you. It all happened while you were at college. While you were here, he was usually out West; and people thought we were merely cousins, and that I was weaning him from his unhappy ways. I was young and foolish, but I had—you know the rest."
The tears gathered in her eyes.
"God pity him!"
Crittenden turned from her and walked to and fro, and Judith rose and walked up to him, looking him in the eyes.
"No, dear," she said; "I am sorry for him now—sorry, so sorry! I wish I could have helped him more. That is all. It has all gone—long ago. It never was. I did not know until I left you here at the stiles that night."
Crittenden looked inquiringly into her eyes before he stooped to kiss her. She answered his look.
"Yes," she said simply; "when I sent him away."
Crittenden's conscience smote him sharply. What right had he to ask such a question—even with a look?
"Come, dear," he said; "I want to tell you all—now."
But Judith stopped him with a gesture.
"Is there anything that may cross your life hereafter—or mine?"
"No, thank God; no!"
Judith put her finger on his lips.
"I don't want to know."
* * * * *
And God was good that Christmas.
The day was snapping cold, and just a fortnight before Christmas eve. There had been a heavy storm of wind and sleet the night before, and the negroes of Canewood, headed by Bob and Uncle Ephraim, were searching the woods for the biggest fallen oak they could find. The frozen grass was strewn with wrenched limbs, and here and there was an ash or a sugar-tree splintered and prostrate, but wily Uncle Ephraim was looking for a yule-log that would burn slowly and burn long; for as long as the log burned, just that long lasted the holiday of every darky on the place. So the search was careful, and lasted till a yell rose from Bob under a cliff by the side of the creek—a yell of triumph that sent the negroes in a rush toward him. Bob stood on the torn and twisted roots of a great oak that wind and ice had tugged from its creek-washed roots and stretched parallel with the water—every tooth showing delight in his find. With the cries and laughter of children, two boys sprang upon the tree with axes, but Bob waved them back.
"Go back an' git dat cross-cut saw!" he said.
Bob, as ex-warrior, took precedence even of his elders now.
"Fool niggers don't seem to know dar'll be mo' wood to burn if we don't waste de chips!"
The wisdom of this was clear, and, in a few minutes, the long-toothed saw was singing through the tough bark of the old monarch—a darky at each end of it, the tip of his tongue in the corner of his mouth, the muscles of each powerful arm playing like cords of elastic steel under its black skin—the sawyers, each time with a mighty grunt, drew the shining, whistling blade to and fro to the handle. Presently they began to sing—improvising:
Pull him t'roo! (grunt) Yes, man. Pull him t'roo—huh! Saw him to de heart.
Gwine to have Christmas. Yes, man! Gwine to have Christmas. Yes, man!
Gwine to have Christmas Long as he can bu'n.
Burn long, log! Yes, log! Burn long, log! Yes, log, Heah me, log, burn long!
Gib dis nigger Christmas. Yes, Lawd, long Christmas! Gib dis nigger Christmas. O log, burn long!
And the saw sang with them in perfect time, spitting out the black, moist dust joyously—sang with them and without a breath for rest; for as two pair of arms tired, another fresh pair of sinewy hands grasped the handles. In an hour the whistle of the saw began to rise in key higher and higher, and as the men slowed up carefully, it gave a little high squeak of triumph, and with a "kerchunk" dropped to the ground. With more cries and laughter, two men rushed for fence-rails to be used as levers.
There was a chorus now:
Soak him in de water, Up, now! Soak him in de water, Up, now! O Lawd, soak long!
There was a tightening of big, black biceps, a swelling of powerful thighs, a straightening of mighty backs; the severed heart creaked and groaned, rose slightly, turned and rolled with a great splash into the black, winter water. Another delighted chorus:
"Hol' on," said Bob; and he drove a spike into the end of the log, tied one end of a rope to the spike, and the other to a pliant young hickory, talking meanwhile:
"Gwine to rain, an' maybe ole Mister Log try to slip away like a thief in de dark. Don't git away from Bob; no suh. You be heah now Christmas eve—sho'!"
"Gord!" said a little negro with bandy legs. "Soak dat log till Christmas an' I reckon he'll burn mo'n two weeks."
God was good that Christmas—good to the nation, for He brought to it victory and peace, and made it one and indivisible in feeling, as it already was in fact; good to the State, for it had sprung loyally to the defence of the country, and had won all the honour that was in the effort to be won, and man nor soldier can do more; good to the mother, for the whole land rang with praises of her sons, and her own people swore that to one should be given once more the seat of his fathers in the capitol; but best to her when the bishop came to ordain, and, on his knees at the chancel and waiting for the good old man's hands, was the best beloved of her children and her first-born—Clay Crittenden. To her a divine purpose seemed apparent, to bring her back the best of the old past and all she prayed for the future.
As Christmas day drew near, gray clouds marshalled and loosed white messengers of peace and good-will to the frozen earth until the land was robed in a thick, soft, shining mantle of pure white—the first spiritualization of the earth for the birth of spring. It was the mother's wish that her two sons should marry on the same day and on that day, and Judith and Phyllis yielded. So early that afternoon, she saw together Judith, as pure and radiant as a snow-hung willow in the sunshine, and her son, with the light in his face for which she had prayed so many years—saw them standing together and clasp hands forever. They took a short wedding trip, and that straight across the crystal fields, where little Phyllis stood with Basil in uniform—straight and tall and with new lines, too, but deepened merely, about his handsome mouth and chin—waiting to have their lives made one. And, meanwhile, Bob and Molly too were making ready; for if there be a better hot-bed of sentiment than the mood of man and woman when the man is going to war it is the mood of man and woman when the man has come home from war; and with cries and grunts and great laughter and singing, the negroes were pulling the yule-log from its long bath and across the snowy fields; and when, at dusk, the mother brought her two sons and her two daughters and the Pages and Stantons to her own roof, the big log, hidden by sticks of pine and hickory, was sputtering Christmas cheer with a blaze and crackle that warmed body and heart and home. That night the friends came from afar and near; and that night Bob, the faithful, valiant Bob, in a dress-suit that was his own and new, and Mrs. Crittenden's own gift, led the saucy Molly, robed as no other dusky bride at Canewood was ever arrayed, into the dining-room, while the servants crowded the doors and hallway and the white folk climbed the stairs to give them room. And after a few solemn moments, Bob caught the girl in his arms and smacked her lips loudly:
"Now, gal, I reckon I got yer!" he cried; and whites and blacks broke into jolly laughter, and the music of fiddles rose in the kitchen, where there was a feast for Bob's and Molly's friends. Rose, too, the music of fiddles under the stairway in the hall, and Mrs. Crittenden and Judge Page, and Crittenden and Mrs. Stanton, and Judith and Basil, and none other than Grafton and radiant little Phyllis led the way for the opening quadrille. It was an old-fashioned Christmas the mother wanted, and an old-fashioned Christmas, with the dance and merriment and the graces of the old days, that the mother had. Over the portrait of the eldest Crittenden, who slept in Cuba, hung the flag of the single star that would never bend its colours again to Spain. Above the blazing log and over the fine, strong face of the brave father, who had fought to dissolve the Union, hung the Stars and Bars—proudly. And over the brave brother, who looked down from the north wall, hung proudly the Stars and Stripes for which he had given his young life.
Then came toasts after the good old fashion—graceful toasts—to the hostess and the brides, to the American soldier, regular and volunteer. And at the end, Crittenden, regular, raised his glass and there was a hush.
It was good, he said, to go back to the past; good to revive and hold fast to the ideals that time had proven best for humanity; good to go back to the earth, like the Titans, for fresh strength; good for the man, the State, the nation. And it was best for the man to go back to the ideals that had dawned at his mother's knee; for there was the fountain-head of the nation's faith in its God, man's faith in his nation—man's faith in his fellow and faith in himself. And he drank to one who represented his own early ideals better than he should ever realize them for himself. Then he raised his glass, smiling, but deeply moved:
"My little brother."
He turned to Basil when he spoke and back again to Judith, who, of all present, knew all that he meant, and he saw her eyes shine with the sudden light of tears.
At last came the creak of wheels on the snow outside, the cries of servants, the good-bys and good-wishes and congratulations from one and all to one and all; the mother's kiss to Basil and Phyllis, who were under their mother's wing; the last calls from the doorway; the light of lanterns across the fields; the slam of the pike-gate—and, over the earth, white silence. The mother kissed Judith and kissed her son.
Then, as was her custom always, she said simply:
"Be sure to bolt the front door, my son."
And, as he had done for years, Crittenden slipped the fastenings of the big hall-door, paused a moment, and looked out. Around the corner of the still house swept the sounds of merriment from the quarters. The moon had risen on the snowy fields and white-cowled trees and draped hedges and on the slender white shaft under the bent willow over his father's and his uncle's grave—the brothers who had fought face to face and were sleeping side by side in peace, each the blameless gentleman who had reverenced his conscience as his king, and, without regret for his way on earth, had set his foot, without fear, on the long way into the hereafter. For one moment his mind swept back over the short, fierce struggle of the summer.