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Three Miraculous Soldiers

I


The girl was in the front room on the second floor, peering through the
blinds. It was the "best room." There was a very new rag carpet on the
floor. The edges of it had been dyed with alternate stripes of red and
green. Upon the wooden mantel there were two little puffy figures in
clay--a shepherd and a shepherdess probably. A triangle of pink and
white wool hung carefully over the edge of this shelf. Upon the bureau
there was nothing at all save a spread newspaper, with edges folded to
make it into a mat. The quilts and sheets had been removed from the bed
and were stacked upon a chair. The pillows and the great feather
mattress were muffled and tumbled until they resembled great dumplings.
The picture of a man terribly leaden in complexion hung in an oval frame
on one white wall and steadily confronted the bureau.

From between the slats of the blinds she had a view of the road as it
wended across the meadow to the woods, and again where it reappeared
crossing the hill, half a mile away. It lay yellow and warm in the
summer sunshine. From the long grasses of the meadow came the rhythmic
click of the insects. Occasional frogs in the hidden brook made a
peculiar chug-chug sound, as if somebody throttled them. The leaves of
the wood swung in gentle winds. Through the dark-green branches of the
pines that grew in the front yard could be seen the mountains, far to
the south-east, and inexpressibly blue.

Mary's eyes were fastened upon the little streak of road that appeared
on the distant hill. Her face was flushed with excitement, and the hand
which stretched in a strained pose on the sill trembled because of the
nervous shaking of the wrist. The pines whisked their green needles with
a soft, hissing sound against the house.

At last the girl turned from the window and went to the head of the
stairs. "Well, I just know they're coming, anyhow," she cried
argumentatively to the depths.

A voice from below called to her angrily: "They ain't. We've never seen
one yet. They never come into this neighbourhood. You just come down
here and 'tend to your work insteader watching for soldiers."

"Well, ma, I just know they're coming."

A voice retorted with the shrillness and mechanical violence of
occasional housewives. The girl swished her skirts defiantly and
returned to the window.

Upon the yellow streak of road that lay across the hillside there now
was a handful of black dots--horsemen. A cloud of dust floated away. The
girl flew to the head of the stairs and whirled down into the kitchen.

"They're coming! They're coming!"

It was as if she had cried "Fire!" Her mother had been peeling potatoes
while seated comfortably at the table. She sprang to her feet. "No--it
can't be--how you know it's them--where?" The stubby knife fell from her
hand, and two or three curls of potato skin dropped from her apron to
the floor.

The girl turned and dashed upstairs. Her mother followed, gasping for
breath, and yet contriving to fill the air with questions, reproach, and
remonstrance. The girl was already at the window, eagerly pointing.
"There! There! See 'em! See 'em!"

Rushing to the window, the mother scanned for an instant the road on
the hill. She crouched back with a groan. "It's them, sure as the world!
It's them!" She waved her hands in despairing gestures.

The black dots vanished into the wood. The girl at the window was
quivering and her eyes were shining like water when the sun flashes.
"Hush! They're in the woods! They'll be here directly." She bent down
and intently watched the green archway whence the road emerged. "Hush!
I hear 'em coming," she swiftly whispered to her mother, for the elder
woman had dropped dolefully upon the mattress and was sobbing. And,
indeed, the girl could hear the quick, dull trample of horses. She
stepped aside with sudden apprehension, but she bent her head forward in
order to still scan the road.

"Here they are!"

There was something very theatrical in the sudden appearance of these
men to the eyes of the girl. It was as if a scene had been shifted. The
forest suddenly disclosed them--a dozen brown-faced troopers in blue--
galloping.

"Oh, look!" breathed the girl. Her mouth was puckered into an
expression of strange fascination, as if she had expected to see the
troopers change into demons and gloat at her. She was at last looking
upon those curious beings who rode down from the North--those men of
legend and colossal tale--they who were possessed of such marvellous
hallucinations.

The little troop rode in silence. At its head was a youthful fellow
with some dim yellow stripes upon his arm. In his right hand he held his
carbine, slanting upward, with the stock resting upon his knee. He was
absorbed in a scrutiny of the country before him.

At the heels of the sergeant the rest of the squad rode in thin column,
with creak of leather and tinkle of steel and tin. The girl scanned the
faces of the horsemen, seeming astonished vaguely to find them of the
type she knew.

The lad at the head of the troop comprehended the house and its
environments in two glances. He did not check the long, swinging stride
of his horse. The troopers glanced for a moment like casual tourists,
and then returned to their study of the region in front. The heavy
thudding of the hoofs became a small noise. The dust, hanging in sheets,
slowly sank.

The sobs of the woman on the bed took form in words which, while strong
in their note of calamity, yet expressed a querulous mental reaching for
some near thing to blame. "And it'll be lucky fer us if we ain't both
butchered in our sleep--plundering and running off horses--old Santo's
gone--you see if he ain't--plundering--"

"But, ma," said the girl, perplexed and terrified in the same moment,
"they've gone."

"Oh, but they'll come back!" cried the mother, without pausing her
wail. "They'll come back--trust them for that--running off horses. O
John, John! why did you, why did you?" She suddenly lifted herself and
sat rigid, staring at her daughter. "Mary," she said in tragic whisper,
"the kitchen door isn't locked!" Already she was bended forward to
listen, her mouth agape, her eyes fixed upon her daughter.

"Mother," faltered the girl.

Her mother again whispered, "The kitchen door isn't locked."

Motionless and mute they stared into each other's eyes.

At last the girl quavered, "We better--we better go and lock it." The
mother nodded. Hanging arm in arm they stole across the floor toward the
head of the stairs. A board of the floor creaked. They halted and
exchanged a look of dumb agony.

At last they reached the head of the stairs. From the kitchen came the
bass humming of the kettle and frequent sputterings and cracklings from
the fire. These sounds were sinister. The mother and the girl stood
incapable of movement. "There's somebody down there!" whispered the
elder woman.

Finally, the girl made a gesture of resolution. She twisted her arm
from her mother's hands and went two steps downward. She addressed the
kitchen: "Who's there?" Her tone was intended to be dauntless. It rang
so dramatically in the silence that a sudden new panic seized them as if
the suspected presence in the kitchen had cried out to them. But the
girl ventured again: "Is there anybody there?" No reply was made save by
the kettle and the fire.

With a stealthy tread the girl continued her journey. As she neared the
last step the fire crackled explosively and the girl screamed. But the
mystic presence had not swept around the corner to grab her, so she
dropped to a seat on the step and laughed. "It was--was only the--the
fire," she said, stammering hysterically.

Then she arose with sudden fortitude and cried: "Why, there isn't
anybody there! I know there isn't." She marched down into the kitchen.
In her face was dread, as if she half expected to confront something,
but the room was empty. She cried joyously: "There's nobody here! Come on
down, ma." She ran to the kitchen door and locked it.

The mother came down to the kitchen. "Oh, dear, what a fright I've had!
It's given me the sick headache. I know it has."

"Oh, ma," said the girl.

"I know it has--I know it. Oh, if your father was only here! He'd
settle those Yankees mighty quick--he'd settle 'em! Two poor helpless
women--"

"Why, ma, what makes you act so? The Yankees haven't--"

"Oh, they'll be back--they'll be back. Two poor helpless women! Your
father and your uncle Asa and Bill off galavanting around and fighting
when they ought to be protecting their home! That's the kind of men they
are. Didn't I say to your father just before he left--"

"Ma," said the girl, coming suddenly from the window, "the barn door is
open. I wonder if they took old Santo?"

"Oh, of course they have--of course--Mary, I don't see what we are
going to do--I don't see what we are going to do."

The girl said, "Ma, I'm going to see if they took old Santo."

"Mary," cried the mother, "don't you dare!"

"But think of poor old Sant, ma."

"Never you mind old Santo. We're lucky to be safe ourselves, I tell
you. Never mind old Santo. Don't you dare to go out there, Mary--Mary!"

The girl had unlocked the door and stepped out upon the porch. The
mother cried in despair, "Mary!"

"Why, there isn't anybody out here," the girl called in response. She
stood for a moment with a curious smile upon her face as of gleeful
satisfaction at her daring.

The breeze was waving the boughs of the apple trees. A rooster with an
air importantly courteous was conducting three hens upon a foraging
tour. On the hillside at the rear of the grey old barn the red leaves of
a creeper flamed amid the summer foliage. High in the sky clouds rolled
toward the north. The girl swung impulsively from the little stoop and
ran toward the barn.

The great door was open, and the carved peg which usually performed the
office of a catch lay on the ground. The girl could not see into the
barn because of the heavy shadows. She paused in a listening attitude
and heard a horse munching placidly. She gave a cry of delight and
sprang across the threshold. Then she suddenly shrank back and gasped.
She had confronted three men in grey seated upon the floor with their
legs stretched out and their backs against Santo's manger. Their dust-
covered countenances were expanded in grins.


II


As Mary sprang backward and screamed, one of the calm men in grey,
still grinning, announced, "I knowed you'd holler." Sitting there
comfortably the three surveyed her with amusement.

Mary caught her breath, throwing her hand up to her throat. "Oh!" she
said, "you--you frightened me!"

"We're sorry, lady, but couldn't help it no way," cheerfully responded
another. "I knowed you'd holler when I seen you coming yere, but I
raikoned we couldn't help it no way. We hain't a-troubling this yere
barn, I don't guess. We been doing some mighty tall sleeping yere. We
done woke when them Yanks loped past."

"Where did you come from? Did--did you escape from the--the Yankees?"
The girl still stammered and trembled.

The three soldiers laughed. "No, m'm. No, m'm. They never cotch us. We
was in a muss down the road yere about two mile. And Bill yere they gin
it to him in the arm, kehplunk. And they pasted me thar, too. Curious,
And Sim yere, he didn't get nothing, but they chased us all quite a
little piece, and we done lose track of our boys."

"Was it--was it those who passed here just now? Did they chase you?"

The men in grey laughed again. "What--them? No, indeedee! There was a
mighty big swarm of Yanks and a mighty big swarm of our boys, too. What--
that little passel? No, m'm."

She became calm enough to scan them more attentively. They were much
begrimed and very dusty. Their grey clothes were tattered. Splashed mud
had dried upon them in reddish spots. It appeared, too, that the men had
not shaved in many days. In the hats there was a singular diversity. One
soldier wore the little blue cap of the Northern infantry, with corps
emblem and regimental number; one wore a great slouch hat with a wide
hole in the crown; and the other wore no hat at all. The left sleeve of
one man and the right sleeve of another had been slit, and the arms were
neatly bandaged with clean cloths. "These hain't no more than two little
cuts," explained one. "We stopped up yere to Mis' Leavitts--she said her
name was--and she bind them for us. Bill yere, he had the thirst come on
him. And the fever too. We----"

"Did you ever see my father in the army?" asked Mary. "John Hinckson--
his name is."

The three soldiers grinned again, but they replied kindly: "No, m'm.
No, m'm, we hain't never. What is he--in the cavalry?"

"No," said the girl. "He and my uncle Asa and my cousin--his name is
Bill Parker--they are all with Longstreet--they call him."

"Oh," said the soldiers. "Longstreet? Oh, they're a good smart ways
from yere. 'Way off up nawtheast. There hain't nothing but cavalry down
yere. They're in the infantry, probably."

"We haven't heard anything from them for days and days," said Mary.

"Oh, they're all right in the infantry," said one man, to be consoling.
"The infantry don't do much fighting. They go bellering out in a big
swarm and only a few of 'em get hurt. But if they was in the cavalry--
the cavalry--"

Mary interrupted him without intention. "Are you hungry?" she asked.

The soldiers looked at each other, struck by some sudden and singular
shame. They hung their heads. "No, m'm," replied one at last.

Santo, in his stall, was tranquilly chewing and chewing. Sometimes he
looked benevolently over at them. He was an old horse, and there was
something about his eyes and his forelock which created the impression
that he wore spectacles. Mary went and patted his nose. "Well, if you
are hungry, I can get you something," she told the men. "Or you might
come to the house."

"We wouldn't dast go to the house," said one. "That passel of Yanks was
only a scouting crowd, most like. Just an advance. More coming, likely."

"Well, I can bring you something," cried the girl eagerly. "Won't you
let me bring you something?"

"Well," said a soldier with embarrassment, "we hain't had much. If you
could bring us a little snack--like--just a snack--we'd--"

Without waiting for him to cease, the girl turned toward the door. But
before she had reached it she stopped abruptly. "Listen!" she whispered.
Her form was bent forward, her head turned and lowered, her hand
extended toward the men, in a command for silence.

They could faintly hear the thudding of many hoofs, the clank of arms,
and frequent calling voices.

"By cracky, it's the Yanks!" The soldiers scrambled to their feet and
came toward the door. "I knowed that first crowd was only an advance."

The girl and the three men peered from the shadows of the barn. The
view of the road was intersected by tree trunks and a little henhouse.
However, they could see many horsemen streaming down the road. The
horsemen were in blue. "Oh, hide--hide--hide!" cried the girl, with a
sob in her voice.

"Wait a minute," whispered a grey soldier excitedly. "Maybe they're
going along by. No, by thunder, they hain't! They're halting. Scoot,
boys!"

They made a noiseless dash into the dark end of the barn. The girl,
standing by the door, heard them break forth an instant later in
clamorous whispers. "Where'll we hide? Where'll we hide? There hain't a
place to hide!" The girl turned and glanced wildly about the barn. It
seemed true. The stock of hay had grown low under Santo's endless
munching, and from occasional levyings by passing troopers in grey. The
poles of the mow were barely covered, save in one corner where there was
a little bunch.

The girl espied the great feed-box. She ran to it and lifted the lid.
"Here! here!" she called. "Get in here."

They had been tearing noiselessly around the rear part of the barn. At
her low call they came and plunged at the box. They did not all get in
at the same moment without a good deal of a tangle. The wounded men
gasped and muttered, but they at last were flopped down on the layer of
feed which covered the bottom. Swiftly and softly the girl lowered the
lid and then turned like a flash toward the door.

No one appeared there, so she went close to survey the situation. The
troopers had dismounted, and stood in silence by their horses.

A grey-bearded man, whose red cheeks and nose shone vividly above the
whiskers, was strolling about with two or three others. They wore double-
breasted coats, and faded yellow sashes were wound under their black
leather sword-belts. The grey-bearded soldier was apparently giving
orders, pointing here and there.

Mary tiptoed to the feed-box. "They've all got off their horses," she
said to it. A finger projected from a knot-hole near the top, and said
to her very plainly, "Come closer." She obeyed, and then a muffled voice
could be heard: "Scoot for the house, lady, and if we don't see you
again, why, much obliged for what you done."

"Good-bye," she said to the feed-box.

She made two attempts to walk dauntlessly from the barn, but each time
she faltered and failed just before she reached the point where she
could have been seen by the blue-coated troopers. At last, however, she
made a sort of a rush forward and went out into the bright sunshine.

The group of men in double-breasted coats wheeled in her direction at
the instant. The grey-bearded officer forgot to lower his arm which had
been stretched forth in giving an order.

She felt that her feet were touching the ground in a most unnatural
manner. Her bearing, she believed, was suddenly grown awkward and
ungainly. Upon her face she thought that this sentence was plainly
written: "There are three men hidden in the feed-box."

The grey-bearded soldier came toward her. She stopped; she seemed about
to run away. But the soldier doffed his little blue cap and looked
amiable. "You live here, I presume?" he said.

"Yes," she answered.

"Well, we are obliged to camp here for the night, and as we've got two
wounded men with us I don't suppose you'd mind if we put them in the
barn."

"In--in the barn?"

He became aware that she was agitated. He smiled assuringly. "You
needn't be frightened. We won't hurt anything around here. You'll all be
safe enough."

The girl balanced on one foot and swung the other to and fro in the
grass. She was looking down at it. "But--but I don't think ma would like
it if--if you took the barn."

The old officer laughed. "Wouldn't she?" said he. "That's so. Maybe she
wouldn't." He reflected for a time and then decided cheerfully: "Well,
we will have to go ask her, anyhow. Where is she? In the house?"

"Yes," replied the girl, "she's in the house. She--she'll be scared to
death when she sees you!"

"Well, you go and ask her then," said the soldier, always wearing a
benign smile. "You go ask her and then come and tell me."

When the girl pushed open the door and entered the kitchen, she found
it empty. "Ma!" she called softly. There was no answer. The kettle still
was humming its low song. The knife and the curl of potato-skin lay on
the floor.

She went to her mother's room and entered timidly. The new, lonely
aspect of the house shook her nerves. Upon the bed was a confusion of
coverings. "Ma!" called the girl, quaking in fear that her mother was
not there to reply. But there was a sudden turmoil of the quilts, and
her mother's head was thrust forth. "Mary!" she cried, in what seemed to
be a supreme astonishment, "I thought--I thought----"

"Oh, ma," blurted the girl, "there's over a thousand Yankees in the
yard, and I've hidden three of our men in the feed-box!"

The elder woman, however, upon the appearance of her daughter had begun
to thrash hysterically about on the bed and wail.

"Ma!" the girl exclaimed, "and now they want to use the barn--and our
men in the feed-box! What shall I do, ma? What shall I do?"

Her mother did not seem to hear, so absorbed was she in her grievous
flounderings and tears. "Ma!" appealed the girl. "Ma!"

For a moment Mary stood silently debating, her lips apart, her eyes
fixed. Then she went to the kitchen window and peeked.

The old officer and the others were staring up the road. She went to
another window in order to get a proper view of the road, and saw that
they were gazing at a small body of horsemen approaching at a trot and
raising much dust. Presently she recognised them as the squad that had
passed the house earlier, for the young man with the dim yellow chevron
still rode at their head. An unarmed horseman in grey was receiving
their close attention.

As they came very near to the house she darted to the first window
again. The grey-bearded officer was smiling a fine broad smile of
satisfaction. "So you got him?" he called out. The young sergeant sprang
from his horse and his brown hand moved in a salute. The girl could not
hear his reply. She saw the unarmed horseman in grey stroking a very
black moustache and looking about him coolly and with an interested air.
He appeared so indifferent that she did not understand he was a prisoner
until she heard the grey-beard call out: "Well, put him in the barn.
He'll be safe there, I guess." A party of troopers moved with the
prisoner toward the barn.

The girl made a sudden gesture of horror, remembering the three men in
the feed-box.


III


The busy troopers in blue scurried about the long lines of stamping
horses. Men crooked their backs and perspired in order to rub with
cloths or bunches of grass these slim equine legs, upon whose splendid
machinery they depended so greatly. The lips of the horses were still
wet and frothy from the steel bars which had wrenched at their mouths
all day. Over their backs and about their noses sped the talk of the men.

"Moind where yer plug is steppin', Finerty! Keep 'im aff me!"

"An ould elephant! He shtrides like a school-house."

"Bill's little mar'--she was plum beat when she come in with Crawford's
crowd."

"Crawford's the hardest-ridin' cavalryman in the army. An' he don't use
up a horse, neither--much. They stay fresh when the others are most
a-droppin'."

"Finerty, will yeh moind that cow a yours?"

Amid a bustle of gossip and banter, the horses retained their air of
solemn rumination, twisting their lower jaws from side to side and
sometimes rubbing noses dreamfully.

Over in front of the barn three troopers sat talking comfortably. Their
carbines were leaned against the wall. At their side and outlined in the
black of the open door stood a sentry, his weapon resting in the hollow
of his arm. Four horses, saddled and accoutred, were conferring with
their heads close together. The four bridle-reins were flung over a post.

Upon the calm green of the land, typical in every way of peace, the
hues of war brought thither by the troops shone strangely. Mary, gazing
curiously, did not feel that she was contemplating a familiar scene. It
was no longer the home acres. The new blue, steel, and faded yellow
thoroughly dominated the old green and brown. She could hear the voices
of the men, and it seemed from their tone that they had camped there for
years. Everything with them was usual. They had taken possession of the
landscape in such a way that even the old marks appeared strange and
formidable to the girl.

Mary had intended to go and tell the commander in blue that her mother
did not wish his men to use the barn at all, but she paused when she
heard him speak to the sergeant. She thought she perceived then that it
mattered little to him what her mother wished, and that an objection by
her or by anybody would be futile. She saw the soldiers conduct the
prisoner in grey into the barn, and for a long time she watched the
three chatting guards and the pondering sentry. Upon her mind in
desolate weight was the recollection of the three men in the feed-box.

It seemed to her that in a case of this description it was her duty to
be a heroine. In all the stories she had read when at boarding-school in
Pennsylvania, the girl characters, confronted with such difficulties,
invariably did hair-breadth things. True, they were usually bent upon
rescuing and recovering their lovers, and neither the calm man in grey,
nor any of the three in the feed-box, was lover of hers, but then a real
heroine would not pause over this minor question. Plainly a heroine
would take measures to rescue the four men. If she did not at least make
the attempt, she would be false to those carefully constructed ideals
which were the accumulation of years of dreaming.

But the situation puzzled her. There was the barn with only one door,
and with four armed troopers in front of this door, one of them with his
back to the rest of the world, engaged, no doubt, in a steadfast
contemplation of the calm man, and incidentally, of the feed-box. She
knew, too, that even if she should open the kitchen door, three heads,
and perhaps four, would turn casually in her direction. Their ears were
real ears.

Heroines, she knew, conducted these matters with infinite precision and
despatch. They severed the hero's bonds, cried a dramatic sentence, and
stood between him and his enemies until he had run far enough away. She
saw well, however, that even should she achieve all things up to the
point where she might take glorious stand between the escaping and the
pursuers, those grim troopers in blue would not pause. They would run
around her, make a circuit. One by one she saw the gorgeous contrivances
and expedients of fiction fall before the plain, homely difficulties of
this situation. They were of no service. Sadly, ruefully, she thought of
the calm man and of the contents of the feed-box.

The sum of her invention was that she could sally forth to the
commander of the blue cavalry, and confessing to him that there were
three of her friends and his enemies secreted in the feed-box, pray him
to let them depart unmolested. But she was beginning to believe the old
greybeard to be a bear. It was hardly probable that he would give this
plan his support. It was more probable that he and some of his men would
at once descend upon the feed-box and confiscate her three friends. The
difficulty with her idea was that she could not learn its value without
trying it, and then in case of failure it would be too late for remedies
and other plans. She reflected that war made men very unreasonable.

All that she could do was to stand at the window and mournfully regard
the barn. She admitted this to herself with a sense of deep humiliation.
She was not, then, made of that fine stuff, that mental satin, which
enabled some other beings to be of such mighty service to the
distressed. She was defeated by a barn with one door, by four men with
eight eyes and eight ears--trivialities that would not impede the real
heroine.

The vivid white light of broad day began slowly to fade. Tones of grey
came upon the fields, and the shadows were of lead. In this more sombre
atmosphere the fires built by the troops down in the far end of the
orchard grew more brilliant, becoming spots of crimson colour in the
dark grove.

The girl heard a fretting voice from her mother's room. "Mary!" She
hastily obeyed the call. She perceived that she had quite forgotten her
mother's existence in this time of excitement.

The elder woman still lay upon the bed. Her face was flushed and
perspiration stood amid new wrinkles upon her forehead. Weaving wild
glances from side to side, she began to whimper. "Oh, I'm just sick--I'm
just sick! Have those men gone yet? Have they gone?"

The girl smoothed a pillow carefully for her mother's head. "No, ma.
They're here yet. But they haven't hurt anything--it doesn't seem. Will
I get you something to eat?"

Her mother gestured her away with the impatience of the ill. "No--no--
just don't bother me. My head is splitting, and you know very well that
nothing can be done for me when I get one of these spells. It's trouble--
that's what makes them. When are those men going? Look here, don't you
go 'way. You stick close to the house now."

"I'll stay right here," said the girl. She sat in the gloom and
listened to her mother's incessant moaning. When she attempted to move,
her mother cried out at her. When she desired to ask if she might try to
alleviate the pain, she was interrupted shortly. Somehow her sitting in
passive silence within hearing of this illness seemed to contribute to
her mother's relief. She assumed a posture of submission. Sometimes her
mother projected questions concerning the local condition, and although
she laboured to be graphic and at the same time soothing, unalarming,
her form of reply was always displeasing to the sick woman, and brought
forth ejaculations of angry impatience.

Eventually the woman slept in the manner of one worn from terrible
labour. The girl went slowly and softly to the kitchen. When she looked
from the window, she saw the four soldiers still at the barn door. In
the west, the sky was yellow. Some tree-trunks intersecting it appeared
black as streaks of ink. Soldiers hovered in blue clouds about the
bright splendour of the fires in the orchard. There were glimmers of
steel.

The girl sat in the new gloom of the kitchen and watched. The soldiers
lit a lantern and hung it in the barn. Its rays made the form of the
sentry seem gigantic. Horses whinnied from the orchard. There was a low
hum of human voices. Sometimes small detachments of troopers rode past
the front of the house. The girl heard the abrupt calls of sentries. She
fetched some food and ate it from her hand, standing by the window. She
was so afraid that something would occur that she barely left her post
for an instant.

A picture of the interior of the barn hung vividly in her mind. She
recalled the knot-holes in the boards at the rear, but she admitted that
the prisoners could not escape through them. She remembered some
inadequacies of the roof, but these also counted for nothing. When
confronting the problem, she felt her ambitions, her ideals tumbling
headlong like cottages of straw.

Once she felt that she had decided to reconnoitre at any rate. It was
night; the lantern at the barn and the camp fires made everything
without their circle into masses of heavy mystic blackness. She took two
steps toward the door. But there she paused. Innumerable possibilities
of danger had assailed her mind. She returned to the window and stood
wavering. At last, she went swiftly to the door, opened it, and slid
noiselessly into the darkness.

For a moment she regarded the shadows. Down in the orchard the camp
fires of the troops appeared precisely like a great painting, all in
reds upon a black cloth. The voices of the troopers still hummed. The
girl started slowly off in the opposite direction. Her eyes were fixed
in a stare; she studied the darkness in front for a moment, before she
ventured upon a forward step. Unconsciously, her throat was arranged for
a sudden shrill scream. High in the tree-branches she could hear the
voice of the wind, a melody of the night, low and sad, the plaint of an
endless, incommunicable sorrow. Her own distress, the plight of the men
in grey--these near matters as well as all she had known or imagined of
grief--everything was expressed in this soft mourning of the wind in the
trees. At first she felt like weeping. This sound told her of human
impotency and doom. Then later the trees and the wind breathed strength
to her, sang of sacrifice, of dauntless effort, of hard carven faces
that did not blanch when Duty came at midnight or at noon.

She turned often to scan the shadowy figures that moved from time to
time in the light at the barn door. Once she trod upon a stick, and it
flopped, crackling in the intolerable manner of all sticks. At this
noise, however, the guards at the barn made no sign. Finally, she was
where she could see the knot-holes in the rear of the structure gleaming
like pieces of metal from the effect of the light within. Scarcely
breathing in her excitement she glided close and applied an eye to a
knot-hole. She had barely achieved one glance at the interior before she
sprang back shuddering.

For the unconscious and cheerful sentry at the door was swearing away
in flaming sentences, heaping one gorgeous oath upon another, making a
conflagration of his description of his troop-horse. "Why," he was
declaring to the calm prisoner in grey, "you ain't got a horse in your
hull ---- army that can run forty rod with that there little mar'!"

As in the outer darkness Mary cautiously returned to the knot-hole, the
three guards in front suddenly called in low tones: "S-s-s-h!" "Quit,
Pete; here comes the lieutenant." The sentry had apparently been about
to resume his declamation, but at these warnings he suddenly posed in a
soldierly manner.

A tall and lean officer with a smooth face entered the barn. The sentry
saluted primly. The officer flashed a comprehensive glance about him.
"Everything all right?"

"All right, sir."

This officer had eyes like the points of stilettos. The lines from his
nose to the corners of his mouth were deep, and gave him a slightly
disagreeable aspect, but somewhere in his face there was a quality of
singular thoughtfulness, as of the absorbed student dealing in
generalities, which was utterly in opposition to the rapacious keenness
of the eyes which saw everything.

Suddenly he lifted a long finger and pointed. "What's that?"

"That? That's a feed-box, I suppose."

"What's in it?"

"I don't know. I--"

"You ought to know," said the officer sharply. He walked over to the
feed-box and flung up the lid. With a sweeping gesture he reached down
and scooped a handful of feed. "You ought to know what's in everything
when you have prisoners in your care," he added, scowling.

During the time of this incident, the girl had nearly swooned. Her
hands searched weakly over the boards for something to which to cling.
With the pallor of the dying she had watched the downward sweep of the
officer's arm, which after all had only brought forth a handful of feed.
The result was a stupefaction of her mind. She was astonished out of her
senses at this spectacle of three large men metamorphosed into a handful
of feed.


IV


It is perhaps a singular thing that this absence of the three men from
the feed-box at the time of the sharp lieutenant's investigation should
terrify the girl more than it should joy her. That for which she had
prayed had come to pass. Apparently the escape of these men in the face
of every improbability had been granted her, but her dominating emotion
was fright. The feed-box was a mystic and terrible machine, like some
dark magician's trap. She felt it almost possible that she should see
the three weird man floating spectrally away through the air. She
glanced with swift apprehension behind her, and when the dazzle from the
lantern's light had left her eyes, saw only the dim hillside stretched
in solemn silence.

The interior of the barn possessed for her another fascination because
it was now uncanny. It contained that extraordinary feed-box. When she
peeped again at the knot-hole, the calm, grey prisoner was seated upon
the feed-box, thumping it with his dangling, careless heels as if it
were in nowise his conception of a remarkable feed-box. The sentry also
stood facing it. His carbine he held in the hollow of his arm. His legs
were spread apart, and he mused. From without came the low mumble of the
three other troopers. The sharp lieutenant had vanished.

The trembling yellow light of the lantern caused the figures of the men
to cast monstrous wavering shadows. There were spaces of gloom which
shrouded ordinary things in impressive garb. The roof presented an
inscrutable blackness, save where small rifts in the shingles glowed
phosphorescently. Frequently old Santo put down a thunderous hoof. The
heels of the prisoner made a sound like the booming of a wild kind of
drum. When the men moved their heads, their eyes shone with ghoulish
whiteness, and their complexions were always waxen and unreal. And there
was that profoundly strange feed-box, imperturbable with its burden of
fantastic mystery.

Suddenly from down near her feet the girl heard a crunching sound, a
sort of a nibbling, as if some silent and very discreet terrier was at
work upon the turf. She faltered back; here was no doubt another
grotesque detail of this most unnatural episode. She did not run,
because physically she was in the power of these events. Her feet
chained her to the ground in submission to this march of terror after
terror. As she stared at the spot from which this sound seemed to come,
there floated through her mind a vague, sweet vision--a vision of her
safe little room, in which at this hour she usually was sleeping.

The scratching continued faintly and with frequent pauses, as if the
terrier was then listening. When the girl first removed her eyes from
the knot-hole the scene appeared of one velvet blackness; then gradually
objects loomed with a dim lustre. She could see now where the tops of
the trees joined the sky and the form of the barn was before her dyed in
heavy purple. She was ever about to shriek, but no sound came from her
constricted throat. She gazed at the ground with the expression of
countenance of one who watches the sinister-moving grass where a serpent
approaches.

Dimly she saw a piece of sod wrenched free and drawn under the great
foundation-beam of the barn. Once she imagined that she saw human hands,
not outlined at all, but sufficient, in colour, form, or movement to
make subtle suggestion.

Then suddenly a thought that illuminated the entire situation flashed
in her mind like a light. The three men, late of the feed-box, were
beneath the floor of the barn and were now scraping their way under this
beam. She did not consider for a moment how they could come there. They
were marvellous creatures. The supernatural was to be expected of them.
She no longer trembled, for she was possessed upon this instant of the
most unchangeable species of conviction. The evidence before her
amounted to no evidence at all, but nevertheless her opinion grew in an
instant from an irresponsible acorn to a rooted and immovable tree. It
was as if she was on a jury.

She stooped down hastily and scanned the ground. There she indeed saw a
pair of hands hauling at the dirt where the sod had been displaced.
Softly, in a whisper like a breath, she said, "Hey!"

The dim hands were drawn hastily under the barn. The girl reflected for
a moment. Then she stooped and whispered: "Hey! It's me!"

After a time there was a resumption of the digging. The ghostly hands
began once more their cautious mining. She waited. In hollow
reverberations from the interior of the barn came the frequent sounds of
old Santo's lazy movements. The sentry conversed with the prisoner.

At last the girl saw a head thrust slowly from under the beam. She
perceived the face of one of the miraculous soldiers from the feed-box.
A pair of eyes glintered and wavered, then finally settled upon her, a
pale statue of a girl. The eyes became lit with a kind of humorous
greeting. An arm gestured at her.

Stooping, she breathed, "All right." The man drew himself silently back
under the beam. A moment later the pair of hands resumed their cautious
task. Ultimately the head and arms of the man were thrust strangely from
the earth. He was lying on his back. The girl thought of the dirt in his
hair. Wriggling slowly and pushing at the beam above him he forced his
way out of the curious little passage. He twisted his body and raised
himself upon his hands. He grinned at the girl and drew his feet
carefully from under the beam. When he at last stood erect beside her,
he at once began mechanically to brush the dirt from his clothes with
his hands. In the barn the sentry and his prisoner were evidently
engaged in an argument.

The girl and the first miraculous soldier signalled warily. It seemed
that they feared that their arms would make noises in passing through
the air. Their lips moved, conveying dim meanings.

In this sign-language the girl described the situation in the barn.
With guarded motions, she told him of the importance of absolute
stillness. He nodded, and then in the same manner he told her of his two
companions under the barn floor. He informed her again of their wounded
state, and wagged his head to express his despair. He contorted his
face, to tell how sore were their arms; and jabbed the air mournfully,
to express their remote geographical position.

This signalling was interrupted by the sound of a body being dragged or
dragging itself with slow, swishing sound under the barn. The sound was
too loud for safety. They rushed to the hole and began to semaphore
until a shaggy head appeared with rolling eyes and quick grin.

With frantic downward motions of their arms they suppressed this grin
and with it the swishing noise. In dramatic pantomime they informed this
head of the terrible consequences of so much noise. The head nodded, and
painfully, but with extreme care, the second man pushed and pulled
himself from the hole.

In a faint whisper the first man said, "Where's Sim?"

The second man made low reply: "He's right here." He motioned
reassuringly toward the hole.

When the third head appeared, a soft smile of glee came upon each face,
and the mute group exchanged expressive glances.

When they all stood together, free from this tragic barn, they breathed
a long sigh that was contemporaneous with another smile and another
exchange of glances.

One of the men tiptoed to a knot-hole and peered into the barn. The
sentry was at that moment speaking. "Yes, we know 'em all. There isn't a
house in this region that we don't know who is in it most of the time.
We collar 'em once in a while--like we did you. Now, that house out
yonder, we----"

The man suddenly left the knot-hole and returned to the others. Upon
his face, dimly discerned, there was an indication that he had made an
astonishing discovery. The others questioned him with their eyes, but he
simply waved an arm to express his inability to speak at that spot. He
led them back toward the hill, prowling carefully. At a safe distance
from the barn he halted, and as they grouped eagerly about him, he
exploded in an intense undertone: "Why, that--that's Cap'n Sawyer they
got in yonder."

"Cap'n Sawyer!" incredulously whispered the other men.

But the girl had something to ask. "How did you get out of that feed-
box?" He smiled. "Well, when you put us in there, we was just in a
minute when we allowed it wasn't a mighty safe place, and we allowed
we'd get out. And we did. We skedaddled 'round and 'round until it
'peared like we was going to get cotched, and then we flung ourselves
down in the cow-stalls where it's low-like--just dirt floor--and then we
just naturally went a-whooping under the barn floor when the Yanks come.
And we didn't know Cap'n Sawyer by his voice nohow. We heard 'im
discoursing, and we allowed it was a mighty pert man, but we didn't know
that it was him. No, m'm."

These three men, so recently from a situation of peril, seemed suddenly
to have dropped all thought of it. They stood with sad faces looking at
the barn. They seemed to be making no plans at all to reach a place of
more complete safety. They were halted and stupefied by some unknown
calamity.

"How do you raikon they cotch him, Sim?" one whispered mournfully.

"I don't know," replied another in the same tone.

Another with a low snarl expressed in two words his opinion of the
methods of Fate: "Oh, hell!"

The three men started then as if simultaneously stung, and gazed at the
young girl who stood silently near them. The man who had sworn began to
make agitated apology: "Pardon, miss! 'Pon my soul, I clean forgot you
was by. 'Deed, and I wouldn't swear like that if I had knowed. 'Deed, I
wouldn't."

The girl did not seem to hear him. She was staring at the barn.
Suddenly she turned and whispered, "Who is he?"

"He's Cap'n Sawyer, m'm," they told her sorrowfully. "He's our own
cap'n. He's been in command of us yere since a long time. He's got folks
about yere. Raikon they cotch him while he was a-visiting."

She was still for a time, and then, awed, she said: "Will they--will
they hang him?"

"No, m'm. Oh no, m'm. Don't raikon no such thing. No, m'm."

The group became absorbed in a contemplation of the barn. For a time no
one moved nor spoke. At last the girl was aroused by slight sounds, and
turning, she perceived that the three men who had so recently escaped
from the barn were now advancing toward it.


V


The girl, waiting in the darkness, expected to hear the sudden crash
and uproar of a fight as soon as the three creeping men should reach the
barn. She reflected in an agony upon the swift disaster that would
befall any enterprise so desperate. She had an impulse to beg them to
come away. The grass rustled in silken movements as she sped toward the
barn.

When she arrived, however, she gazed about her bewildered. The men were
gone. She searched with her eyes, trying to detect some moving thing,
but she could see nothing.

Left alone again, she began to be afraid of the night. The great
stretches of darkness could hide crawling dangers. From sheer desire to
see a human, she was obliged to peep again at the knot-hole. The sentry
had apparently wearied of talking. Instead, he was reflecting. The
prisoner still sat on the feed-box, moodily staring at the floor. The
girl felt in one way that she was looking at a ghastly group in wax. She
started when the old horse put down an echoing hoof. She wished the men
would speak; their silence re-enforced the strange aspect. They might
have been two dead men.

The girl felt impelled to look at the corner of the interior where were
the cow-stalls. There was no light there save the appearance of peculiar
grey haze which marked the track of the dimming rays of the lantern. All
else was sombre shadow. At last she saw something move there. It might
have been as small as a rat, or it might have been a part of something
as large as a man. At any rate, it proclaimed that something in that
spot was alive. At one time she saw it plainly, and at other times it
vanished, because her fixture of gaze caused her occasionally to greatly
tangle and blur those peculiar shadows and faint lights. At last,
however, she perceived a human head. It was monstrously dishevelled and
wild. It moved slowly forward until its glance could fall upon the
prisoner and then upon the sentry. The wandering rays caused the eyes to
glitter like silver. The girl's heart pounded so that she put her hand
over it.

The sentry and the prisoner remained immovably waxen, and over in the
gloom the head thrust from the floor watched them with its silver eyes.

Finally, the prisoner slipped from the feed-box, and raising his arms,
yawned at great length. "Oh, well," he remarked, "you boys will get a
good licking if you fool around here much longer. That's some
satisfaction, anyhow, even if you did bag me. You'll get a good
walloping." He reflected for a moment, and decided: "I'm sort of willing
to be captured if you fellows only get a d----d good licking for being
so smart."

The sentry looked up and smiled a superior smile. "Licking, hey?
Nixey!" He winked exasperatingly at the prisoner. "You fellows are not
fast enough, my boy. Why didn't you lick us at ----? and at ----? and at
----?" He named some of the great battles.

To this the captive officer blurted in angry astonishment: "Why, we did!"

The sentry winked again in profound irony. "Yes, I know you did. Of
course. You whipped us, didn't you? Fine kind of whipping that was! Why,
we----"

He suddenly ceased, smitten mute by a sound that broke the stillness of
the night. It was the sharp crack of a distant shot that made wild
echoes among the hills. It was instantly followed by the hoarse cry of a
human voice, a far-away yell of warning, singing of surprise, peril,
fear of death. A moment later there was a distant, fierce spattering of
shots. The sentry and the prisoner stood facing each other, their lips
apart, listening.

The orchard at that instant awoke to sudden tumult. There were the thud
and scramble and scamper of feet, the mellow, swift clash of arms, men's
voices in question, oath, command, hurried and unhurried, resolute and
frantic. A horse sped along the road at a raging gallop. A loud voice
shouted, "What is it, Ferguson?" Another voice yelled something
incoherent. There was a sharp, discordant chorus of command. An
uproarious volley suddenly rang from the orchard. The prisoner in grey
moved from his intent, listening attitude. Instantly the eyes of the
sentry blazed, and he said with a new and terrible sternness: "Stand
where you are!"

The prisoner trembled in his excitement. Expressions of delight and
triumph bubbled to his lips. "A surprise, by Gawd! Now--now, you'll see!"

The sentry stolidly swung his carbine to his shoulder. He sighted
carefully along the barrel until it pointed at the prisoner's head,
about at his nose. "Well, I've got you, anyhow. Remember that! Don't
move!"

The prisoner could not keep his arms from nervously gesturing. "I
won't; but----"

"And shut your mouth!"

The three comrades of the sentry flung themselves into view. "Pete--
devil of a row!--can you----"

"I've got him," said the sentry calmly and without moving. It was as if
the barrel of the carbine rested on piers of stone. The three comrades
turned and plunged into the darkness.

In the orchard it seemed as if two gigantic animals were engaged in a
mad, floundering encounter, snarling, howling in a whirling chaos of
noise and motion. In the barn the prisoner and his guard faced each
other in silence.

As for the girl at the knot-hole, the sky had fallen at the beginning
of this clamour. She would not have been astonished to see the stars
swinging from their abodes, and the vegetation, the barn, all blow away.
It was the end of everything, the grand universal murder. When two of
the three miraculous soldiers who formed the original feed-box corps
emerged in detail from the hole under the beam, and slid away into the
darkness, she did no more than glance at them.

Suddenly she recollected the head with silver eyes. She started forward
and again applied her eyes to the knot-hole. Even with the din
resounding from the orchard, from up the road and down the road, from
the heavens and from the deep earth, the central fascination was this
mystic head. There, to her, was the dark god of the tragedy.

The prisoner in grey at this moment burst into a laugh that was no more
than a hysterical gurgle. "Well, you can't hold that gun out for ever!
Pretty soon you'll have to lower it."

The sentry's voice sounded slightly muffled, for his cheek was pressed
against the weapon. "I won't be tired for some time yet."

The girl saw the head slowly rise, the eyes fixed upon the sentry's
face. A tall, black figure slunk across the cow-stalls and vanished back
of old Santo's quarters. She knew what was to come to pass. She knew
this grim thing was upon a terrible mission, and that it would reappear
again at the head of the little passage between Santo's stall and the
wall, almost at the sentry's elbow; and yet when she saw a faint
indication as of a form crouching there, a scream from an utterly new
alarm almost escaped her.

The sentry's arms, after all, were not of granite. He moved restively.
At last he spoke in his even, unchanging tone: "Well, I guess you'll
have to climb into that feed-box. Step back and lift the lid."

"Why, you don't mean----"

"Step back!"

The girl felt a cry of warning arising to her lips as she gazed at this
sentry. She noted every detail of his facial expression. She saw,
moreover, his mass of brown hair bunching disgracefully about his ears,
his clear eyes lit now with a hard, cold light, his forehead puckered in
a mighty scowl, the ring upon the third finger of the left hand. "Oh,
they won't kill him! Surely they won't kill him!" The noise of the fight
in the orchard was the loud music, the thunder and lightning, the
rioting of the tempest which people love during the critical scene of a
tragedy.

When the prisoner moved back in reluctant obedience, he faced for an
instant the entrance of the little passage, and what he saw there must
have been written swiftly, graphically in his eyes. And the sentry read
it and knew then that he was upon the threshold of his death. In a
fraction of time, certain information went from the grim thing in the
passage to the prisoner, and from the prisoner to the sentry. But at
that instant the black formidable figure arose, towered, and made its
leap. A new shadow flashed across the floor when the blow was struck.

As for the girl at the knot-hole, when she returned to sense she found
herself standing with clenched hands and screaming with her might.

As if her reason had again departed from her, she ran around the barn,
in at the door, and flung herself sobbing beside the body of the soldier
in blue.

The uproar of the fight became at last coherent, inasmuch as one party
was giving shouts of supreme exultation. The firing no longer sounded in
crashes; it was now expressed in spiteful crackles, the last words of
the combat, spoken with feminine vindictiveness.

Presently there was a thud of flying feet. A grimy, panting, red-faced
mob of troopers in blue plunged into the barn, became instantly frozen
to attitudes of amazement and rage, and then roared in one great chorus:
"He's gone!"

The girl who knelt beside the body upon the floor turned toward them
her lamenting eyes and cried: "He's not dead, is he? He can't be dead?"

They thronged forward. The sharp lieutenant who had been so particular
about the feed-box knelt by the side of the girl, and laid his head
against the chest of the prostrate soldier. "Why, no," he said, rising
and looking at the man. "He's all right. Some of you boys throw some
water on him."

"Are you sure?" demanded the girl feverishly.

"Of course! He'll be better after awhile."

"Oh!" said she softly, and then looked down at the sentry. She started
to arise, and the lieutenant reached down and hoisted rather awkwardly
at her arm.

"Don't you worry about him. He's all right."

She turned her face with its curving lips and shining eyes once more
toward the unconscious soldier upon the floor. The troopers made a lane
to the door, the lieutenant bowed, the girl vanished.

"Queer," said a young officer. "Girl very clearly worst kind of rebel,
and yet she falls to weeping and wailing like mad over one of her
enemies. Be around in the morning with all sorts of doctoring--you see
if she ain't. Queer."

The sharp lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. After reflection he
shrugged his shoulders again. He said: "War changes many things; but it
doesn't change everything, thank God!"

Stephen Crane