by Thomas Nelson Page
The County had been settled as a “frontier” in early colonial days, and when it ceased to be frontier, settlement had taken a jump beyond it, and in a certain sense over it, to the richer lands of the Piedmont. When, later on, steam came, the railway simply cut across it at its narrowest part, and then skirted along just inside its border on the bank of the little river which bounded it on the north, as if it intentionally left it to one side. Thus, modern progress had not greatly interfered with it either for good or bad, and its development was entirely natural.
It was divided into “neighborhoods”, a name in itself implying something both of its age and origin; for the population was old, and the customs of life and speech were old likewise.
This chronicle, however, is not of the “neighborhoods”, for they were known, or may be known by any who will take the trouble to plunge boldly in and throw themselves on the hospitality of any of the dwellers therein. It is rather of the unknown tract, which lay vague and undefined in between the several neighborhoods of the upper end. The history of the former is known both in peace and in war: in the pleasant homesteads which lie on the hills above the little rivers which make down through the county to join the great river below, and in the long list of those who fell in battle, and whose names are recorded on the slabs set up by their comrades on the walls of the old Court House. The history of the latter, however, is unrecorded. The lands were in the main very poor and grown up in pine, or else, where the head-waters of a little stream made down in a number of “branches”, were swampy and malarial. Possibly it was this poverty of the soil or unwholesomeness of their location, which more than anything else kept the people of this district somewhat distinct from others around them, however poor they might be. They dwelt in their little cabins among their pines, or down on the edges of the swampy district, distinct both from the gentlemen on their old plantations and from the sturdy farmer-folk who owned the smaller places. What title they had to their lands originally, or how they traced it back, or where they had come from, no one knew. They had been there from time immemorial, as long or longer, if anything, than the owners of the plantations about them; and insignificant as they were, they were not the kind to attempt to question, even had anyone been inclined to do so, which no one was.
They had the names of the old English gentry, and were a clean-limbed, blond, blue-eyed people.
When they were growing to middle age, their life told on them and made them weather-beaten, and not infrequently hard-visaged; but when they were young there were often among them straight, supple young fellows with clear-cut features, and lithe, willowy-looking girls, with pink faces and blue, or brown, or hazel eyes, and a mien which one might have expected to find in a hall rather than in a cabin.
Darby Stanley and Cove Mills (short for Coverley) were the leaders of the rival factions of the district. They lived as their fathers had lived before them, on opposite sides of the little stream, the branches of which crept through the alder and gum thickets between them, and contributed to make the district almost as impenetrable to the uninitiated as a mountain fastness. The long log-cabin of the Cove-Millses, where room had been added to room in a straight line, until it looked like the side of a log fort, peeped from its pines across at the clearing where the hardly more pretentious home of Darby Stanley was set back amid a little orchard of ragged peach-trees, and half hidden under a great wistaria vine. But though the two places lay within rifle shot of each other, they were almost as completely divided as if the big river below had rolled between them. Since the great fight between old Darby and Cove Mills over Henry Clay, there had rarely been an election in which some members of the two families had not had a “clinch”. They had to be thrown together sometimes “at meeting”, and their children now and then met down on the river fishing, or at “the washing hole”, as the deep place in the little stream below where the branches ran together was called; but they held themselves as much aloof from each other as their higher neighbors, the Hampdens and the Douwills, did on their plantations. The children, of course, would “run together”, nor did the parents take steps to prevent them, sure that they would, as they grew up, take their own sides as naturally as they themselves had done in their day. Meantime “children were children”, and they need not be worried with things like grown-up folk.
When Aaron Hall died and left his little farm and all his small belongings to educate free the children of his poor neighbors, the farmers about availed themselves of his benefaction, and the children for six miles around used to attend the little school which was started in the large hewn-log school-house on the roadside known as “Hall’s Free School”. Few people knew the plain, homely, hard-working man, or wholly understood him. Some thought him stingy, some weak-minded, some only queer, and at first his benefaction was hardly comprehended; but in time quite a little oasis began about the little fountain, which the poor farmer’s bequest had opened under the big oaks by the wayside, and gradually its borders extended, until finally it penetrated as far as the district, and Cove Mills’s children appeared one morning at the door of the little school-house, and, with sheepish faces and timid voices, informed the teacher that their father had sent them to school.
At first there was some debate over at Darby Stanley’s place, whether they should show their contempt for the new departure of the Millses, by standing out against them, or should follow their example. It was hard for a Stanley to have to follow a Mills in anything. So they stood out for a year. As it seemed, however, that the Millses were getting something to which the Stanleys were as much entitled as they, one morning little Darby Stanley walked in at the door, and without taking his hat off, announced that he had come to go to school. He was about fifteen at the time, but he must have been nearly six feet (his sobriquet being wholly due to the fact that Big Darby was older, not taller), and though he was spare, there was something about his face as he stood in the open door, or his eye as it rested defiantly on the teacher’s face, which prevented more than a general buzz of surprise.
“Take off your hat,” said the teacher, and he took it off slowly. “I suppose you can read?” was the first question.
A snicker ran round the room, and little Darby’s brow clouded.
As he not only could not read, but could not even spell, and in fact did not know his letters, he was put into the alphabet class, the class of the smallest children in the school.
Little Darby walked over to the corner indicated with his head up, his hands in his pockets, and a roll in his gait full of defiance, and took his seat on the end of the bench and looked straight before him. He could hear the titter around him, and a lowering look came into his blue eyes. He glanced sideways down the bench opposite. It happened that the next seat to his was that of Vashti Mills, who was at that time just nine. She was not laughing, but was looking at Darby earnestly, and as he caught her eye she nodded to him, “Good-mornin’.” It was the first greeting the boy had received, and though he returned it sullenly, it warmed him, and the cloud passed from his brow and presently he looked at her again. She handed him a book. He took it and looked at it as if it were something that might explode.
He was not an apt scholar; perhaps he had begun too late; perhaps there was some other cause; but though he could swim better, climb better, and run faster than any boy in the school, or, for that matter, in the county, and knew the habits of every bird that flitted through the woods and of every animal that lived in the district, he was not good at his books. His mind was on other things. When he had spent a week over the alphabet, he did know a letter as such, but only by the places on the page they were on, and gave up when “big A” was shown him on another page, only asking how in the dickens “big A” got over there. He pulled off his coat silently whenever ordered and took his whippings like a lamb, without a murmur and almost without flinching, but every boy in the school learned that it was dangerous to laugh at him; and though he could not learn to read fluently or to train his fingers to guide a pen, he could climb the tallest pine in the district to get a young crow for Vashti, and could fashion all sorts of curious whistles, snares, and other contrivances with his long fingers.
He did not court popularity, was rather cold and unapproachable, and Vashti Mills was about the only other scholar with whom he seemed to be on warm terms. Many a time when the tall boy stood up before the thin teacher, helpless and dumb over some question which almost anyone in the school could answer, the little girl, twisting her fingers in an ecstacy of anxiety, whispered to him the answer in the face of almost certain detection and of absolutely certain punishment. In return, he worshipped the ground she walked on, and whichever side Vashti was on, Darby was sure to be on it too. He climbed the tallest trees to get her nuts; waded into the miriest swamps to find her more brilliant nosegays of flowers than the other girls had; spent hours to gather rarer birds’ eggs than they had, and was everywhere and always her silent worshipper and faithful champion. They soon learned that the way to secure his help in anything was to get Vashti Mills to ask it, and the little girl quickly discovered her power and used it as remorselessly over her tall slave as any other despot ever did. They were to be seen any day trailing along the plantation paths which the school-children took from the district, the others in a clump, and the tall boy and little calico-clad girl, who seemed in summer mainly sun-bonnet and bare legs, either following or going before the others at some distance.
The death of Darby — of old Darby, as he had begun to be called — cut off Little Darby from his “schoolin'”, in the middle of his third year, and before he had learned more than to read and cipher a little and to write in a scrawly fashion; for he had been rather irregular in his attendance at all times. He now stopped altogether, giving the teacher as his reason, with characteristic brevity: “Got to work.”
Perhaps no one at the school mourned the long-legged boy’s departure except his little friend Vashti, now a well-grown girl of twelve, very straight and slim and with big dark eyes. She gave him when he went away the little Testament she had gotten as a prize, and which was one of her most cherished possessions. Other boys found the first honor as climber, runner, rock-flinger, wrestler, swimmer, and fighter open once more to them, and were free from the silent and somewhat contemptuous gaze of him who, however they looked down on him, was a sort of silent power among them. Vashti alone felt a void and found by its sudden absence how great a force was the steady backing of one who could always be counted on to take one’s side without question. She had to bear the gibes of the school as “Miss Darby”, and though her two brothers were ready enough to fight for her if boys pushed her too hardly, they could do nothing against girls, and the girls were her worst tormentors.
The name was fastened on her, and it clung to her until, as time went on, she came to almost hate the poor innocent cause of it.
Meantime Darby, beginning to fill out and take on the shoulders and form of a man, began to fill also the place of the man in his little home. This among other things meant opposition, if not hostility, to everything on Cove Mills’s side. When old Darby died the Millses all went to the funeral, of course; but that did not prevent their having the same feeling toward Little Darby afterward, and the breach continued.
At first he used to go over occasionally to see Vashti and carry her little presents, as he had done at school; but he soon found that it was not the same thing. He was always received coolly, and shortly he was given to understand that he was not wanted there, and in time Vashti herself showed that she was not the same she had been to him before. Thus the young fellow was thrown back on himself, and the hostility between the two cabins was as great as ever.
He spent much of his time in the woods, for the Stanley place was small at best, only a score or so of acres, and mostly covered with pines, and Little Darby was but a poor hand at working with a hoe — their only farm implement. He was, however, an unerring shot, with an eye like a hawk to find a squirrel flat on top of the grayest limb of the tallest hickory in the woods, or a hare in her bed among the brownest broomsedge in the county, and he knew the habits of fish and bird and animal as if he had created them; and though he could not or would not handle a hoe, he was the best hand at an axe “in the stump”, in the district, and Mrs. Stanley was kept in game if not in meal.
The Millses dilated on his worthlessness, and Vashti, grown to be a slender slip of a girl with very bright eyes and a little nose, was loudest against him in public; though rumor said she had fallen afoul of her youngest brother and boxed his jaws for seconding something she had said of him.
The Mills’s enmity was well understood, and there were not wanting those to take Darby’s side. He had grown to be the likeliest young man in the district, tall, and straight as a sapling, and though Vashti flaunted her hate of him and turned up her little nose more than it was already turned up at his name, there were many other girls in the pines who looked at him languishingly from under their long sun-bonnets, and thought he was worth both the Mills boys and Vashti to boot. So when at a fish-fry the two Mills boys attacked him and he whipped them both together, some said it served them right, while others declared they did just what they ought to have done, and intimated that Darby was less anxious to meet their father than he was them, who were nothing more than boys to him. These asked in proof of their view, why he had declined to fight when Old Cove had abused him so to his face. This was met by the fact that he “could not have been so mighty afeared,” for he had jumped in and saved Chris Mills’s life ten minutes afterward, when he got beyond his depth in the pond and had already sunk twice. But, then, to be sure, it had to be admitted that he was the best swimmer on the ground, and that any man there would have gone in to save his worst enemy if he had been drowning. This must have been the view that Vashti Mills took of the case; for one day not long afterward, having met Darby at the cross-roads store where she was looking at some pink calico, and where he had come to get some duck-shot and waterproof caps, she turned on him publicly, and with flashing eyes and mantling cheeks, gave him to understand that if she were a man he “would not have had to fight two boys,” and he would not have come off so well either. If anything, this attack brought Darby friends, for he not only had whipped the Mills boys fairly, and had fought only when they had pressed him, but had, as has been said, declined to fight old man Mills under gross provocation; and besides, though they were younger than he, the Mills boys were seventeen and eighteen, and “not such babies either; if they insisted on fighting they had to take what they got and not send their sister to talk and abuse a man about it afterward.” And the weight of opinion was that, “that Vashti Mills was gettin’ too airified and set up anyways.”
All this reached Mrs. Stanley, and was no doubt sweet to her ears. She related it in her drawling voice to Darby as he sat in the door one evening, but it did not seem to have much effect on him; he never stirred or showed by word or sign that he even heard her, and finally, without speaking, he rose and lounged away into the woods. The old woman gazed after him silently until he disappeared, and then gave a look across to where the Mills cabin peeped from among the pines, which was full of hate.
. . . . .
The fish-fry at which Darby Stanley had first fought the Mills boys and then pulled one of them out of the river, had been given by one of the county candidates for election as delegate to a convention which was to be held at the capital, and possibly the division of sentiment in the district between the Millses and Little Darby was as much due to political as to personal feeling; for the sides were growing more and more tightly drawn, and the Millses, as usual, were on one side and Little Darby on the other; and both sides had strong adherents. The question was on one side, Secession, with probable war; and on the other, the Union as it was. The Millses were for the candidate who advocated the latter, and Little Darby was for him who wanted secession. Both candidates were men of position and popularity, the one a young man and the other older, and both were neighbors.
The older man was elected, and shortly the question became imminent, and all the talk about the Cross-roads was of war. As time had worn on, Little Darby, always silent, had become more and more so, and seemed to be growing morose. He spent more and more of his time in the woods or about the Cross-roads, the only store and post-office near the district where the little tides of the quiet life around used to meet. At length Mrs. Stanley considered it so serious that she took it upon herself to go over and talk to her neighbor, Mrs. Douwill, as she generally did on matters too intricate and grave for the experience of the district. She found Mrs. Douwill, as always, sympathetic and kind, and though she took back with her not much enlightenment as to the cause of her son’s trouble or its cure, she went home in a measure comforted with the assurance of the sympathy of one stronger than she. She had found out that her neighbor, powerful and rich as she seemed to her to be, had her own troubles and sorrows; she heard from her of the danger of war breaking out at any time, and her husband would enlist among the first.
Little Darby did not say much when his mother told of her visit; but his usually downcast eyes had a new light in them, and he began to visit the Cross-roads oftener.
At last one day the news that came to the Cross-roads was that there was to be war. It had been in the air for some time, but now it was undoubted. It came in the presence of Mr. Douwill himself, who had come the night before and was commissioned by the Governor to raise a company. There were a number of people there — quite a crowd for the little Cross-roads — for the stir had been growing day by day, and excitement and anxiety were on the increase. The papers had been full of secession, firing on flags, raising troops, and everything; but that was far off. When Mr. Douwill appeared in person it came nearer, though still few, if any, quite took it in that it could be actual and immediate. Among those at the Cross-roads that day were the Millses, father and sons, who looked a little critically at the speaker as one who had always been on the other side. Little Darby was also there, silent as usual, but with a light burning in his blue eyes.
That evening, when Little Darby reached home, which he did somewhat earlier than usual, he announced to his mother that he had enlisted as a soldier. The old woman was standing before her big fireplace when he told her, and she leaned against it quite still for a moment; then she sat down, stumbling a little on the rough hearth as she made her way to her little broken chair. Darby got up and found her a better one, which she took without a word.
Whatever entered into her soul in the little cabin that night, when Mrs. Stanley went among her neighbors she was a soldier’s mother. She even went over to Cove Mills’s on some pretext connected with Darby’s going. Vashti was not at home, but Mrs. Mills was, and she felt a sudden loss, as if somehow the Millses had fallen below the Stanleys. She talked of it for several days; she could not make out entirely what it was. Vashti’s black eyes flashed.
The next day Darby went to the Cross-roads to drill; there was, besides the recruits, who were of every class, quite a little crowd there to look at the drill. Among them were two women of the poorest class, one old and faded, rather than gray, the other hardly better dressed, though a slim figure, straight and trim, gave her a certain distinction, even had not a few ribbons and a little ornament or two on her pink calico, with a certain air, showed that she was accustomed to being admired.
The two women found themselves together once during the day, and their eyes met. It was just as the line of soldiers passed. Those of the elder lighted with a sudden spark of mingled triumph and hate, those of the younger flashed back for a moment and then fell beneath the elder’s gaze. There was much enthusiasm about the war, and among others, both of the Mills boys enlisted before the day was ended, their sister going in with them to the room where their names were entered on the roll, and coming out with flashing eyes and mantling cheeks. She left the place earlier than most of the crowd, but not until after the drill was over and some of the young soldiers had gone home. The Mills boys’ enlistment was set down in the district to Vashti, and some said it was because she was jealous of Little Darby being at the end of the company, with a new gun and such a fine uniform; for her hatred of Little Darby was well known; anyhow, their example was followed, and in a short time nearly all the young men in the district had enlisted.
At last one night a summons came for the company to assemble at the Cross-roads next day with arms and equipment. Orders had come for them to report at once at the capital of the State for drill, before being sent into the field to repel a force which, report said, was already on the way to invade the State. There was the greatest excitement and enthusiasm. This was war! And everyone was ready to meet it. The day was given to taking an inventory of arms and equipment, and then there was a drill, and then the company was dismissed for the night, as many of them had families of whom they had not taken leave, and as they had not come that day prepared to leave, and were ordered to join the commander next day, prepared to march.
Little Darby escorted his mother home, taciturn as ever. At first there was quite a company; but as they went their several ways to their home, at last Little Darby and his mother were left alone in the piney path, and made the last part of their way alone. Now and then the old woman’s eyes were on him, and often his eyes were on her, but they did not speak; they just walked on in silence till they reached home.
It was but a poor, little house even when the wistaria vine covered it, wall and roof, and the bees hummed among its clusters of violet blossoms; but now the wistaria bush was only a tangle of twisted wires hung upon it, and the little weather-stained cabin looked bare and poor enough. As the young fellow stood in the door looking out with the evening light upon him, his tall, straight figure filled it as if it had been a frame. He stood perfectly motionless for some minutes, gazing across the gum thickets before him.
The sun had set only about a half-hour and the light was still lingering on the under edges of the clouds in the west and made a sort of glow in the little yard before him, as it did in front of the cabin on the other hill. His eye first swept the well-known horizon, taking in the thickets below him and the heavy pines on either side where it was already dusk, and then rested on the little cabin opposite. Whether he saw it or not, one could hardly have told, for his face wore a reminiscent look. Figures moved backward and forward over there, came out and went in, without his look changing. Even Vashti, faintly distinguishable in her gay dress, came out and passed down the hill alone, without his expression changing. It was, perhaps, fifteen minutes later that he seemed to awake, and after a look over his shoulder stepped from the door into the yard. His mother was cooking, and he strolled down the path across the little clearing and entered the pines. Insensibly his pace quickened — he strode along the dusky path with as firm a step as if it were broad daylight. A quarter of a mile below the path crossed the little stream and joined the path from Cove Mills’s place, which he used to take when he went to school. He crossed at the old log and turned down the path through the little clearing there. The next moment he stood face to face with Vashti Mills. Whether he was surprised or not no one could have told, for he said not a word, and his face was in the shadow, though Vashti’s was toward the clearing and the light from the sky was on it. Her hat was in her hand. He stood still, but did not stand aside to let her pass, until she made an imperious little gesture and stepped as if she would have passed around him. Then he stood aside. But she did not appear in a hurry to avail herself of the freedom offered, she simply looked at him. He took off his cap sheepishly enough, and said, “Good-evenin’.”
“Good-evenin’,” she said, and then, as the pause became embarrassing, she said, “Hear you’re agoin’ away to-morrer?”
“Yes — to-morrer mornin’.”
“When you’re acomin’ back?” she asked, after a pause in which she had been twisting the pink string of her hat.
“Don’t know — may be never.” Had he been looking at her he might have seen the change which his words brought to her face; she lifted her eyes to his face for the first time since the half defiant glance she had given him when they met, and they had a strange light in them, but at the moment he was looking at a bow on her dress which had been pulled loose. He put out his hand and touched it and said:
“You’re a-losin’ yer bow,” and as she found a pin and fastened it again, he added, “An’ I don’ know as anybody keers.”
An overpowering impulse changed her and forced her to say: “I don’t know as anybody does either; I know as I don’t.”
The look on his face smote her, and the spark died out of her eyes as he said, slowly: “No, I knowed you didn’! I don’t know as anybody does, exceptin’ my old woman. Maybe she will a little. I jist wanted to tell you that I wouldn’t a’ fit them boys if they hadn’t a’ pushed me so hard, and I wan’t afeared to fight your old man, I jist wouldn’t — that’s all.”
What answer she might have made to this was prevented by him; for he suddenly held out his hand with something in it, saying, “Here.”
She instinctively reached out to take whatever it was, and he placed in her hand a book which she recognized as the little Testament which she had won as a prize at school and had given him when they went to school together. It was the only book she had ever possessed as her very own.
“I brought this thinking as how maybe you might ‘a’-wanted — me to keep it,” he was going to say; but he checked himself and said: “might ‘a’-wanted it back.”
Before she could recover from the surprise of finding the book in her hand her own, he was gone. The words only came to her clearly as his retreating footsteps grew fainter and his tall figure faded in the darkening light. She made a hasty step or two after him, then checked herself and listened intently to see if he were not returning, and then, as only the katydids answered, threw herself flat on the ground and grovelled in the darkness.
There were few houses in the district or in the county where lights did not burn all that night. The gleam of the fire in Mrs. Stanley’s little house could be seen all night from the door of the Mills cabin, as the candle by which Mrs. Mills complained while she and Vashti sewed, could be faintly seen from Little Darby’s house. The two Mills boys slept stretched out on the one bed in the little centre-room.
While the women sewed and talked fitfully by the single tallow candle, and old Cove dozed in a chair with his long legs stretched out toward the fire and the two shining barrels of his sons’ muskets resting against his knees, where they had slipped from his hands when he had finished rubbing them.
The younger woman did most of the sewing. Her fingers were suppler than her mother’s, and she scarcely spoke except to answer the latter’s querulous questions. Presently a rooster crowed somewhere in the distance, and almost immediately another crowed in answer closer at hand.
“Thar’s the second rooster-crow, it’s gittin’ erlong toward the mornin’,” said the elder woman.
The young girl made no answer, but a moment later rose and, laying aside the thing she was sewing, walked to the low door and stepped out into the night. When she returned and picked up her sewing again, her mother said:
“I de-clar, Vashti, you drinks mo’ water than anybody I ever see.”
To which she made no answer.
“Air they a-stirrin’ over at Mis’s Stanley’s?” asked the mother.
“They ain’t a-been to bed,” said the girl, quietly; and then, as if a sudden thought had struck her, she hitched her chair nearer the door which she had left open, and sat facing it as she sewed on the brown thing she was working on a small bow which she took from her dress.
“I de-clar, I don’t see what old Mis’s Stanley is actually a-gwine to do,” broke out Mrs. Mills, suddenly, and when Vashti did not feel called on to try to enlighten her she added, “Do you?”
“Same as other folks, I s’pose,” said the girl, quietly.
“Other folks has somebody — somebody to take keer on ’em. I’ve got your pappy now; but she ain’t got nobody but little Darby — and when he’s gone what will she do?”
For answer Vashti only hitched her chair a little nearer the door and sewed on almost in darkness. “Not that he was much account to her, ner to anybody else, except for goin’ aroun’ a-fightin’ and a-fussin’.”
“He was account to her,” flamed up the girl, suddenly; “he was account to her, to her and to everybody else. He was the fust soldier that ‘listed, and he’s account to everybody.”
The old woman had raised her head in astonishment at her daughter’s first outbreak, and was evidently about to reply sharply; but the girl’s flushed face and flashing eyes awed and silenced her.
“Well, well, I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ against him,” she said, presently.
“Yes, you air — you’re always sayin’ somethin’ against him — and so is everybody else — and they ain’t fitten to tie his shoes. Why don’t they say it to his face! There ain’t one of ’em as dares it, and he’s the best soldier in the comp’ny, an’ I’m jest as proud of it as if he was my own.”
The old woman was evidently bound to defend herself. She said:
“It don’t lay in your mouth to take up for him, Vashti Mills; for you’re the one as has gone up and down and abused him scandalous.”
“Yes, and I know I did,” said the girl, springing up excitedly and tossing her arms and tearing at her ribbons. “An’ I told him to his face too, and that’s the only good thing about it. I knowed it was a lie when I told him, and he knowed it was a lie too, and he knowed I knowed it was a lie — what’s more — and I’m glad he did — fo’ God I’m glad he did. He could ‘a’ whipped the whole company an’ he jest wouldn’t — an’ that’s God’s truth — God’s fatal truth.”
The next instant she was on her knees hunting for something on the floor, in an agony of tears; and as her father, aroused by the noise, rose and asked a question, she sprang up and rushed out of the door.
The sound of an axe was already coming through the darkness across the gum thickets from Mrs. Stanley’s, telling that preparation was being made for Darby’s last breakfast. It might have told more, however, by its long continuance; for it meant that Little Darby was cutting his mother a supply of wood to last till his return. Inside, the old woman, thin and faded, was rubbing his musket.
. . . . .
The sun was just rising above the pines, filling the little bottom between the cabins with a sort of rosy light, and making the dewy bushes and weeds sparkle with jewel-strung gossamer webs, when Little Darby, with his musket in his hand, stepped for the last time out of the low door. He had been the first soldier in the district to enlist, he must be on time. He paused just long enough to give one swift glance around the little clearing, and then set out along the path at his old swinging pace. At the edge of the pines he turned and glanced back. His mother was standing in the door, but whether she saw him or not he could not tell. He waved his hand to her, but she did not wave back, her eyes were failing somewhat. The next instant he disappeared in the pines.
He had crossed the little stream on the old log and passed the point where he had met Vashti the evening before, when he thought he heard something fall a little ahead of him. It could not have been a squirrel, for it did not move after it fell. His old hunter’s instinct caused him to look keenly down the path as he turned the clump of bushes which stopped his view; but he saw no squirrel or other moving thing. The only thing he saw was a little brown something with a curious spot on it lying in the path some little way ahead. As he came nearer it, he saw that it was a small parcel not as big as a man’s fist. Someone had evidently dropped it the evening before. He picked it up and examined it as he strode along. It was a little case or wallet made of some brown stuff, such as women carry needles and thread in, and it was tied up with a bit of red, white and blue string, the Confederate colors, on the end of which was sewed a small bow of pink ribbon. He untied it. It was what it looked to be: a roughly made little needle-case such as women use, tolerably well stocked with sewing materials, and it had something hard and almost square in a separate pocket. Darby opened this, and his gun almost slipped from his hand. Inside was the Testament he had given back to Vashti the evening before. He stopped stock-still, and gazed at it in amazement, turning it over in his hand. He recognized the bow of pink ribbon as one like that which she had had on her dress the evening before. She must have dropped it. Then it came to him that she must have given it to one of her brothers, and a pang shot through his heart. But how did it get where he found it? He was too keen a woodsman not to know that no footstep had gone before his on that path that morning. It was a mystery too deep for him, and after puzzling over it a while he tied the parcel up again as nearly like what it had been before as he could, and determined to give it to one of the Mills boys when he reached the Cross-roads. He unbuttoned his jacket and put it into the little inner pocket, and then rebuttoning it carefully, stepped out again more briskly than before.
It was perhaps an hour later that the Mills boys set out for the Cross-roads. Their father and mother went with them; but Vashti did not go. She had “been out to look for the cow,” and got in only just before they left, still clad in her yesterday’s finery; but it was wet and bedraggled with the soaking dew. When they were gone she sat down in the door, limp and dejected.
More than once during the morning the girl rose and started down the path as if she would follow them and see the company set out on its march, but each time she came back and sat down again in the door, remaining there for a good while as if in thought.
Once she went over almost to Mrs. Stanley’s, then turned back and sat down again.
So the morning passed, and the first thing she knew, her father and mother had returned. The company had started. They were to march to the bridge that night. She heard them talking over the appearance that they had made; the speech of the captain; the cheers that went up as they marched off — the enthusiasm of the crowd. Her father was in much excitement. Suddenly she seized her sun-bonnet and slipped out of the house and across the clearing, and the next instant she was flying down the path through the pines. She knew the road they had taken, and a path that would strike it several miles lower down. She ran like a deer, up hill and down, availing herself of every short cut, until, about an hour after she started, she came out on the road. Fortunately for her, the delays incident to getting any body of new troops on the march had detained the company, and a moment’s inspection of the road showed her that they had not yet passed. Clambering up a bank, she concealed herself and lay down. In a few moments she heard the noise they made in the distance, and she was still panting from her haste when they came along, the soldiers marching in order, as if still on parade, and a considerable company of friends attending them. Not a man, however, dreamed that, flat on her face in the bushes, lay a girl peering down at them with her breath held, but with a heart which beat so loud to her own ears that she felt they must hear it. Least of all did Darby Stanley, marching erect and tall in front, for all the sore heart in his bosom, know that her eyes were on him as long as she could see him.
When Vashti brought up the cow that night it was later than usual. It perhaps was fortunate for her that the change made by the absence of the boys prevented any questioning. After all the excitement her mother was in a fit of despondency. Her father sat in the door looking straight before him, as silent as the pine on which his vacant gaze was fixed. Even when the little cooking they had was through with and his supper was offered him, he never spoke. He ate in silence and then took his seat again. Even Mrs. Mills’s complaining about the cow straying so far brought no word from him any more than from Vashti. He sat silent as before, his long legs stretched out toward the fire. The glow of the embers fell on the rough, thin face and lit it up, bringing out the features and making them suddenly clear-cut and strong. It might have been only the fire, but there seemed the glow of something more, and the eyes burnt back under the shaggy brows. The two women likewise were silent, the elder now and then casting a glance at her husband. She offered him his pipe, but he said nothing, and silence fell as before.
Presently she could stand it no longer. “I de-clar, Vashti,” she said, “I believe your pappy takes it most harder than I does.”
The girl made some answer about the boys. It was hardly intended for him to hear, but he rose suddenly, and walking to the door, took down from the two dogwood forks above it his old, long, single-barrelled gun, and turning to his wife said, “Git me my coat, old woman; by Gawd, I’m a-gwine.” The two women were both on their feet in a second. Their faces were white and their hands were clenched under the sudden stress, their breath came fast. The older woman was the first to speak.
“What in the worl’ ken you do, Cove Mills, ole an’ puny as you is, an’ got the rheumatiz all the time, too?”
“I ken pint a gun,” said the old man, doggedly, “an’ I’m a-gwine.”
“An’ what in the worl’ is a-goin’ to become of us, an’ that cow got to runnin’ away so, I’m afeared all the time she’ll git in the mash?” Her tone was querulous, but it was not positive, and when her husband said again, “I’m a-gwine,” she said no more, and all the time she was getting together the few things which Cove would take.
As for Vashti, she seemed suddenly revivified; she moved about with a new step, swift, supple, silent, her head up, a new light in her face, and her eyes, as they turned now and then on her father, filled with a new fire. She did not talk much. “I’ll a-teck care o’ us all,” she said once; and once again, when her mother gave something like a moan, she supported her with a word about “the only ones as gives three from one family.” It was a word in season, for the mother caught the spirit, and a moment later declared, with a new tone in her voice, that that was better than Mrs. Stanley, and still they were better off than she, for they still had two left to help each other, while she had not a soul.
“I’ll teck care o’ us all,” repeated the girl once more.
It was only a few things that Cove Mills took with him that morning, when he set out in the darkness to overtake the company before they should break camp — hardly his old game-bag half full; for the equipment of the boys had stripped the little cabin of everything that could be of use. He might only have seemed to be going hunting, as he slung down the path with his old long-barrelled gun in his hand and his game-bag over his shoulder, and disappeared in the darkness from the eyes of the two women standing in the cabin door.
The next morning Mrs. Mills paid Mrs. Stanley the first visit she had paid on that side the branch since the day, three years before, when Cove and the boys had the row with Little Darby. It might have seemed accidental, but Mrs. Stanley was the first person in the district to know that all the Mills men were gone to the army. She went over again, from time to time, for it was not a period to keep up open hostilities, and she was younger than Mrs. Stanley and better off; but Vashti never went, and Mrs. Stanley never asked after her or came.
The company in which Little Darby and the Millses had enlisted was one of the many hundred infantry companies which joined and were merged in the Confederate army. It was in no way particularly signalized by anything that it did. It was commanded by the gentleman who did most toward getting it up; and the officers were gentlemen. The seventy odd men who made the rank and file were of all classes, from the sons of the oldest and wealthiest planters in the neighborhood to Little Darby and the dwellers in the district. The war was very different from what those who went into it expected it to be. Until it had gone on some time it seemed mainly marching and camping and staying in camp, quite uselessly as seemed to many, and drilling and doing nothing. Much of the time — especially later on — was given to marching and getting food; but drilling and camp duties at first took up most of it. This was especially hard on the poorer men, no one knew what it was to them. Some moped, some fell sick. Of the former class was Little Darby. He was too strong to be sickly as one of the Mills boys was, who died of fever in hospital only three months after they went in, and too silent to be as the other, who was jolly and could dance and sing a good song and was soon very popular in the company; more popular even than Old Cove, who was popular in several rights, as being about the oldest man in the company and as having a sort of dry wit when he was in a good humor, which he generally was. Little Darby was hardly distinguished at all, unless by the fact that he was somewhat taller than most of his comrades and somewhat more taciturn. He was only a common soldier of a common class in an ordinary infantry company, such a company as was common in the army. He still had the little wallet which he had picked up in the path that morning he left home. He had asked both of the Mills boys vaguely if they ever had owned such a piece of property, but they had not, and when old Cove told him that he had not either, he had contented himself and carried it about with him somewhat elaborately wrapped up and tied in an old piece of oilcloth and in his inside jacket pocket for safety, with a vague feeling that some day he might find the owner or return it. He was never on specially good terms with the Millses. Indeed, there was always a trace of coolness between them and him. He could not give it to them. Now and then he untied and unwrapped it in a secret place and read a little in the Testament, but that was all. He never touched a needle or so much as a pin, and when he untied the parcel he generally counted them to see that they were all there.
So the war went on, with battles coming a little oftener and food growing ever a little scarcer; but the company was about as before, nothing particular — what with killing and fever a little thinned, a good deal faded; and Little Darby just one in a crowd, marching with the rest, sleeping with the rest, fighting with the rest, starving with the rest. He was hardly known for a long time, except for his silence, outside of his mess. Men were fighting and getting killed or wounded constantly; as for him, he was never touched; and as he did what he was ordered silently and was silent when he got through, there was no one to sing his praise. Even when he was sent out on the skirmish line as a sharp-shooter, if he did anything no one knew it. He would disappear over a crest, or in a wood, and reappear as silent as if he were hunting in the swamps of the district; clean his gun; cut up wood; eat what he could get, and sit by the fire and listen to the talk, as silent awake as asleep.
One other thing distinguished him, he could handle an axe better than any man in the company; but no one thought much of that — least of all, Little Darby; it only brought him a little more work occasionally.
One day, in the heat of a battle which the men knew was being won, if shooting and cheering and rapid advancing could tell anything, the advance which had been going on with spirit was suddenly checked by a murderous artillery fire which swept the top of a slope, along the crest of which ran a road a little raised between two deep ditches topped by the remains of heavy fences. The infantry, after a gallant and hopeless charge, were ordered to lie down in the ditch behind the pike, and were sheltered from the leaden sleet which swept the crest. Artillery was needed to clear the field beyond, by silencing the batteries which swept it, but no artillery could get into position for the ditches, and the day seemed about to be lost. The only way was up the pike, and the only break was a gate opening into the field right on top of the hill. The gate was gone, but two huge wooden gate-posts, each a tree-trunk, still stood and barred the way. No cannon had room to turn in between them; a battery had tried and a pile of dead men, horses, and debris marked its failure. A general officer galloped up with two or three of his staff to try to start the advance again. He saw the impossibility.
“If we could get a couple of batteries into that field for three minutes,” he said, “it would do the work, but in ten minutes it will be too late.”
The company from the old county was lying behind the bank almost exactly opposite the gate, and every word could be heard.
Where the axe came from no one knew; but a minute later a man slung himself across the road, and the next second the sharp, steady blows of an axe were ringing on the pike. The axeman had cut a wide cleft in the brown wood, and the big chips were flying before his act was quite taken in, and then a cheer went up from the line. It was no time to cheer, however; other chips were flying than those from the cutter’s axe, and the bullets hissed by him like bees, splintering the hard post and knocking the dust from the road about his feet; but he took no notice of them, his axe plied as steadily as if he had been cutting a tree in the woods of the district, and when he had cut one side, he turned as deliberately and cut the other; then placing his hand high up, he flung his weight against the post and it went down. A great cheer went up and the axeman swung back across the road just as two batteries of artillery tore through the opening he had made.
Few men outside of his company knew who the man was, and few had time to ask; for the battle was on again and the infantry pushed forward. As for Little Darby himself, the only thing he said was, “I knowed I could cut it down in ten minutes.” He had nine bullet holes through his clothes that night, but Little Darby thought nothing of it, and neither did others; many others had bullet holes through their bodies that night. It happened not long afterward that the general was talking of the battle to an English gentleman who had come over to see something of the war and was visiting him in his camp, and he mentioned the incident of a battle won by an axeman’s coolness, but did not know the name of the man who cut the post away; the captain of the company, however, was the general’s cousin and was dining with his guest that day, and he said with pride that he knew the man, that he was in his company, and he gave the name.
“It is a fine old name,” said the visitor.
“And he is a fine man,” said the captain; but none of this was ever known by Darby. He was not mentioned in the gazette, because there was no gazette. The confederate soldiery had no honors save the approval of their own consciences and the love of their own people. It was not even mentioned in the district; or, if it was, it was only that he had cut down a post; other men were being shot to pieces all the time and the district had other things to think of.
Poor at all times, the people of the district were now absolutely without means of subsistence. Fortunately for them, they were inured to hardship; and their men being all gone to the war, the women made such shift as they could and lived as they might. They hoed their little patches, fished the streams, and trapped in the woods. But it was poor enough at best, and the weak went down and only the strong survived. Mrs. Mills was better off than most, she had a cow — at first, and she had Vashti. Vashti turned out to be a tower of strength. She trapped more game than anyone in the district; caught more fish with lines and traps — she went miles to fish below the forks where the fish were bigger than above; she learned to shoot with her father’s old gun, which had been sent back when he got a musket, shot like a man and better than most men; she hoed the patch, she tended the cow till it was lost, and then she did many other things. Her mother declared that, when Chris died (Chris was the boy who died of fever), but for Vashti she could not have got along at all, and there were many other women in the pines who felt the same thing.
When the news came that Bob Askew was killed, Vashti was one of the first who got to Bob’s wife; and when Billy Luck disappeared in a battle, Vashti gave the best reasons for thinking he had been taken prisoner; and many a string of fish and many a squirrel and hare found their way into the empty cabins because Vashti “happened to pass by.”
From having been rather stigmatized as “that Vashti Mills”, she came to be relied on, and “Vashti” was consulted and quoted as an authority.
One cabin alone she never visited. The house of old Mrs. Stanley, now almost completely buried under its unpruned wistaria vine, she never entered. Her mother, as has been said, sometimes went across the bottom, and now and then took with her a hare or a bird or a string of fish — on condition from Vashti that it should not be known she had caught them; but Vashti never went, and Mrs. Mills found herself sometimes put to it to explain to others her unneighborliness. The best she could make of it to say that “Vashti, she always DO do her own way.”
How Mrs. Stanley’s wood-pile was kept up nobody knew, if, indeed, it could be called a wood-pile, when it was only a recurring supply of dry-wood thrown as if accidentally just at the edge of the clearing. Mrs. Stanley was not of an imaginative turn, even of enough to explain how it came that so much dry-wood came to be there broken up just the right length; and Mrs. Mills knew no more than that “that cow was always a-goin’ off and a-keepin’ Vashti a-huntin’ everywheres in the worl’.”
All said, however, the women of the district had a hungry time, and the war bore on them heavily as on everyone else, and as it went on they suffered more and more. Many a woman went day after day and week after week without even the small portion of coarse corn-bread which was ordinarily her common fare. They called oftener and oftener at the house of their neighbors who owned the plantations near them, and always received something; but as time went on the plantations themselves were stripped; the little things they could take with them when they went, such as eggs, honey, etc., were wanting, and to go too often without anything to give might make them seem like beggars, and that they were not. Their husbands and sons were in the army fighting for the South, as well as those from the plantations, and they stood by this fact on the same level.
The arrogant looks of the negroes were unpleasant, and in marked contrast to the universal graciousness of their owners, but they were slaves and they could afford to despise them. Only they must uphold their independence. Thus no one outside knew what the women of the district went through. When they wrote to their husbands or sons that they were in straits, it meant that they were starving. Such a letter meant all the more because they were used to hunger, but not to writing, and a letter meant perhaps days of thought and enterprise and hours of labor.
As the war went on the hardships everywhere grew heavier and heavier; the letters from home came oftener and oftener. Many of the men got furloughs when they were in winter quarters, and sometimes in summer, too, from wounds, and went home to see their families. Little Darby never went; he sent his mother his pay, and wrote to her, but he did not even apply for a furlough, and he had never been touched except for a couple of flesh wounds which were barely skin-deep. When he heard from his mother she was always cheerful; and as he knew Vashti had never even visited her, there was no other reason for his going home. It was in the late part of the third campaign of the war that he began to think of going.
When Cove Mills got a letter from his wife and told Little Darby how “ailin'” and “puny” his mother was getting, Darby knew that the letter was written by Vashti, and he felt that it meant a great deal. He applied for a furlough, but was told that no furloughs would be granted then — which then meant that work was expected. It came shortly afterward, and Little Darby and the company were in it. Battle followed battle. A good many men in the company were killed, but, as it happened, not one of the men from the district was among them, until one day when the company after a fierce charge found itself hugging the ground in a wide field, on the far side of which the enemy — infantry and artillery — was posted in force. Lying down they were pretty well protected by the conformation of the ground from the artillery; and lying down, the infantry generally, even with their better guns, could not hurt them to a great extent; but a line of sharp-shooters, well placed behind cover of scattered rocks on the far side of the field, could reach them with their long-range rifles, and galled them with their dropping fire, picking off man after man. A line of sharp-shooters was thrown forward to drive them in; but their guns were not as good and the cover was inferior, and it was only after numerous losses that they succeeded in silencing most of them. They still left several men up among the rocks, who from time to time sent a bullet into the line with deadly effect. One man, in particular, ensconced behind a rock on the hill-side, picked off the men with unerring accuracy. Shot after shot was sent at him. At last he was quiet for so long that it seemed he must have been silenced, and they began to hope; Ad Mills rose to his knees and in sheer bravado waved his hat in triumph. Just as he did so a puff of white came from the rock, and Ad Mills threw up his hands and fell on his back, like a log, stone dead. A groan of mingled rage and dismay went along the line. Poor old Cove crept over and fell on the boy’s body with a flesh wound in his own arm. Fifty shots were sent at the rock, but a puff of smoke from it afterward and a hissing bullet showed that the marksman was untouched. It was apparent that he was secure behind his rock bulwark and had some opening through which he could fire at his leisure. It was also apparent that he must be dislodged if possible; but how to do it was the question; no one could reach him. The slope down and the slope up to the group of rocks behind which he lay were both in plain view, and any man would be riddled who attempted to cross it. A bit of woods reached some distance up on one side, but not far enough to give a shot at one behind the rock; and though the ground in that direction dipped a little, there was one little ridge in full view of both lines and perfectly bare, except for a number of bodies of skirmishers who had fallen earlier in the day. It was discussed in the line; but everyone knew that no man could get across the ridge alive. While they were talking of it Little Darby, who, with a white face, had helped old Cove to get his boy’s body back out of fire, slipped off to one side, rifle in hand, and disappeared in the wood.
They were still talking of the impossibility of dislodging the sharp-shooter when a man appeared on the edge of the wood. He moved swiftly across the sheltered ground, stooping low until he reached the edge of the exposed place, where he straightened up and made a dash across it. He was recognized instantly by some of the men of his company as Little Darby, and a buzz of astonishment went along the line. What could he mean, it was sheer madness; the line of white smoke along the wood and the puffs of dust about his feet showed that bullets were raining around him. The next second he stopped dead-still, threw up his arms, and fell prone on his face in full view of both lines. A groan went up from his comrades; the whole company knew he was dead, and on the instant a puff of white from the rock and a hissing bullet told that the sharp-shooter there was still intrenched in his covert. The men were discussing Little Darby, when someone cried out and pointed to him. He was still alive, and not only alive, but was moving — moving slowly but steadily up the ridge and nearer on a line with the sharp-shooter, as flat on the ground as any of the motionless bodies about him. A strange thrill of excitement went through the company as the dark object dragged itself nearer to the rock, and it was not allayed when the whack of a bullet and the well-known white puff of smoke recalled them to the sharp-shooter’s dangerous aim; for the next second the creeping figure sprang erect and made a dash for the spot. He had almost reached it when the sharp-shooter discovered him, and the men knew that Little Darby had underestimated the quickness of his hand and aim; for at the same moment the figure of the man behind the rock appeared for a second as he sprang erect; there was a puff of white and Little Darby stopped and staggered and sank to his knees. The next second, however, there was a puff from where he knelt, and then he sank flat once more, and a moment later rolled over on his face on the near side of the rock and just at its foot. There were no more bullets sent from that rock that day — at least, against the Confederates — and that night Little Darby walked into his company’s bivouac, dusty from head to foot and with a bullet-hole in his clothes not far from his heart; but he said it was only a spent bullet and had just knocked the breath out of him. He was pretty sore from it for a time, but was able to help old Cove to get his boy’s body off and to see him start; for the old man’s wound, though not dangerous, was enough to disable him and get him a furlough, and he determined to take his son’s body home, which the captain’s influence enabled him to do. Between his wound and his grief the old man was nearly helpless, and accepted Darby’s silent assistance with mute gratitude. Darby asked him to tell his mother that he was getting on well, and sent her what money he had — his last two months’ pay — not enough to have bought her a pair of stockings or a pound of sugar. The only other message he sent was given at the station just as Cove set out. He said:
“Tell Vashti as I got him as done it.”
Old Cove grasped his hand tremulously and faltered his promise to do so, and the next moment the train crawled away and left Darby to plod back to camp in the rain, vague and lonely in the remnant of what had once been a gray uniform. If there was one thing that troubled him it was that he could not return Vashti the needle-case until he replaced the broken needles — and there were so many of them broken.
After this Darby was in some sort known, and was put pretty constantly on sharp-shooter service.
The men went into winter quarters before Darby heard anything from home. It came one day in the shape of a letter in the only hand in the world he knew — Vashti’s. What it could mean he could not divine — was his mother dead? This was the principal thing that occurred to him. He studied the outside. It had been on the way a month by the postmark, for letters travelled slowly in those days, and a private soldier in an infantry company was hard to find unless the address was pretty clear, which this was not. He did not open it immediately. His mother must be dead, and this he could not face. Nothing else would have made Vashti write. At last he went off alone and opened it, and read it, spelling it out with some pains. It began without an address, with the simple statement that her father had arrived with Ad’s body and that it had been buried, and that his wound was right bad and her mother was mightily cut up with her trouble. Then it mentioned his mother and said she had come to Ad’s funeral, though she could not walk much now and had never been over to their side since the day after he — Darby — had enlisted; but her father had told her as how he had killed the man as shot Ad, and so she made out to come that far. Then the letter broke off from giving news, and as if under stress of feelings long pent up, suddenly broke loose: she declared that she loved him; that she had always loved him — always — ever since he had been so good to her — a great big boy to a little bit of a girl — at school, and that she did not know why she had been so mean to him; for when she had treated him worst she had loved him most; that she had gone down the path that night when they had met, for the purpose of meeting him and of letting him know she loved him; but something had made her treat him as she did, and all the time she could have let him kill her for love of him. She said she had told her mother and father she loved him and she had tried to tell his mother, but she could not, for she was afraid of her; but she wanted him to tell her when he came; and she had tried to help her and keep her in wood ever since he went away, for his sake. Then the letter told how poorly his mother was and how she had failed of late, and she said she thought he ought to get a furlough and come home, and when he did she would marry him. It was not very well written, nor wholly coherent; at least it took some time to sink fully into Darby’s somewhat dazed intellect; but in time he took it in, and when he did he sat like a man overwhelmed. At the end of the letter, as if possibly she thought, in the greatness of her relief at her confession, that the temptation she held out might prove too great even for him, or possibly only because she was a woman, there was a postscript scrawled across the coarse, blue Confederate paper: “Don’t come without a furlough; for if you don’t come honorable I won’t marry you.” This, however, Darby scarcely read. His being was in the letter. It was only later that the picture of his mother ill and failing came to him, and it smote him in the midst of his happiness and clung to him afterward like a nightmare. It haunted him. She was dying.
He applied for a furlough; but furloughs were hard to get then and he could not hear from it; and when a letter came in his mother’s name in a lady’s hand which he did not know, telling him of his mother’s poverty and sickness and asking him if he could get off to come and see her, it seemed to him that she was dying, and he did not wait for the furlough. He was only a few days’ march from home and he felt that he could see her and get back before he was wanted. So one day he set out in the rain. It was a scene of desolation that he passed through, for the country was the seat of war; fences were gone, woods burnt, and fields cut up and bare; and it rained all the time. A little before morning, on the night of the third day, he reached the edge of the district and plunged into its well-known pines, and just as day broke he entered the old path which led up the little hill to his mother’s cabin. All during his journey he had been picturing the meeting with some one else besides his mother, and if Vashti had stood before him as he crossed the old log he would hardly have been surprised. Now, however, he had other thoughts; as he reached the old clearing he was surprised to find it grown up in small pines already almost as high as his head, and tall weeds filled the rows among the old peach-trees and grew up to the very door. He had been struck by the desolation all the way as he came along; but it had not occurred to him that there must be a change at his own home; he had always pictured it as he left it, as he had always thought of Vashti in her pink calico, with her hat in her hand and her heavy hair almost falling down over her neck. Now a great horror seized him. The door was wet and black. His mother must be dead. He stopped and peered through the darkness at the dim little structure. There was a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and the next instant he strode up to the door. It was shut, but the string was hanging out and he pulled it and pushed the door open. A thin figure seated in the small split-bottomed chair on the hearth, hovering as close as possible over the fire, straightened up and turned slowly as he stepped into the room, and he recognized his mother — but how changed! She was quite white and little more than a skeleton. At sight of the figure behind her she pulled herself to her feet, and peered at him through the gloom.
“Mother!” he said.
“Darby!” She reached her arms toward him, but tottered so that she would have fallen, had he not caught her and eased her down into her chair.
As she became a little stronger she made him tell her about the battles he was in. Mr. Mills had come to tell her that he had killed the man who killed Ad. Darby was not a good narrator, however, and what he had to tell was told in a few words. The old woman revived under it, however, and her eyes had a brighter light in them.
Darby was too much engrossed in taking care of his mother that day to have any thought of any one else. He was used to a soldier’s scant fare, but had never quite taken in the fact that his mother and the women at home had less even than they in the field. He had never seen, even in their poorest days after his father’s death, not only the house absolutely empty, but without any means of getting anything outside. It gave him a thrill to think what she must have endured without letting him know. As soon as he could leave her, he went into the woods with his old gun, and shortly returned with a few squirrels which he cooked for her; the first meat, she told him, that she had tasted for weeks. On hearing it his heart grew hot. Why had not Vashti come and seen about her? She explained it partly, however, when she told him that every one had been sick at Cove Mills’s, and old Cove himself had come near dying. No doctor could be got to see them, as there was none left in the neighborhood, and but for Mrs. Douwill she did not know what they would have done. But Mrs. Douwill was down herself now.
The young man wanted to know about Vashti, but all he could manage to make his tongue ask was,
She could not tell him, she did not know anything about Vashti. Mrs. Mills used to bring her things sometimes, till she was taken down, but Vashti had never come to see her; all she knew was that she had been sick with the others.
That she had been sick awoke in the young man a new tenderness, the deeper because he had done her an injustice; and he was seized with a great longing to see her. All his old love seemed suddenly accumulated in his heart, and he determined to go and see her at once, as he had not long to stay. He set about his little preparations forthwith, putting on his old clothes which his mother had kept ever since he went away, as being more presentable than the old worn and muddy, threadbare uniform, and brushing his long yellow hair and beard into something like order. He changed from one coat to the other the little package which he always carried, thinking that he would show it to her with the hole in it, which the sharp-shooter’s bullet had made that day, and he put her letter into the same pocket; his heart beating at the sight of her hand and the memory of the words she had written, and then he set out. It was already late in the evening, and after the rain the air was soft and balmy, though the western sky was becoming overcast again by a cloud, which low down on the horizon was piling up mountain on mountain of vapor, as if it might rain again by night. Darby, however, having dressed, crossed the flat without much trouble, only getting a little wet in some places where the logs were gone. As he turned into the path up the hill, he stood face to face with Vashti. She was standing by a little spring which came from under an old oak, the only one on the hill-side of pines, and was in a faded black calico. He scarcely took in at first that it was Vashti, she was so changed. He had always thought of her as he last saw her that evening in pink, with her white throat and her scornful eyes. She was older now than she was then; looked more a woman and taller; and her throat if anything was whiter than ever against her black dress; her face was whiter too, and her eyes darker and larger. At least, they opened wide when Darby appeared in the path. Her hands went up to her throat as if she suddenly wanted breath. All of the young man’s heart went out to her, and the next moment he was within arm’s length of her. Her one word was in his ears:
“Darby!” He was about to catch her in his arms when a gesture restrained him, and her look turned him to stone.
“Yer uniform?” she gasped, stepping back. Darby was not quick always, and he looked down at his clothes and then at her again, his dazed brain wondering.
“Whar’s yer uniform?” she asked.
“At home,” he said, quietly, still wondering. She seemed to catch some hope.
“Yer got a furlough?” she said, more quietly, coming a little nearer to him, and her eyes growing softer.
“Got a furlough?” he repeated to gain time for thought. “I — I —-” He had never thought of it before; the words in her letter flashed into his mind, and he felt his face flush. He would not tell her a lie. “No, I ain’t got no furlough,” he said, and paused whilst he tried to get his words together to explain. But she did not give him time.
“What you doin’ with them clo’se on?” she asked again.
“I — I —-” he began, stammering as her suspicion dawned on him.
“You’re a deserter!” she said, coldly, leaning forward, her hands clenched, her face white, her eyes contracted.
“A what!” he asked aghast, his brain not wholly taking in her words.
“You’re a deserter!” she said again — “and — a coward!”
All the blood in him seemed to surge to his head and leave his heart like ice. He seized her arm with a grip like steel.
“Vashti Mills,” he said, with his face white, “don’t you say that to me — if yer were a man I’d kill yer right here where yer stan’!” He tossed her hand from him, and turned on his heel.
The next instant she was standing alone, and when she reached the point in the path where she could see the crossing, Darby was already on the other side of the swamp, striding knee-deep through the water as if he were on dry land. She could not have made him hear if she had wished it; for on a sudden a great rushing wind swept through the pines, bending them down like grass and blowing the water in the bottom into white waves, and the thunder which had been rumbling in the distance suddenly broke with a great peal just overhead.
In a few minutes the rain came; but the girl did not mind it. She stood looking across the bottom until it came in sheets, wetting her to the skin and shutting out everything a few yards away.
The thunder-storm passed, but all that night the rain came down, and all the next day, and when it held up a little in the evening the bottom was a sea.
The rain had not prevented Darby from going out — he was used to it; and he spent most of the day away from home. When he returned he brought his mother a few provisions, as much meal perhaps as a child might carry, and spent the rest of the evening sitting before the fire, silent and motionless, a flame burning back deep in his eyes and a cloud fixed on his brow. He was in his uniform, which he had put on again the night before as soon as he got home, and the steam rose from it as he sat. The other clothes were in a bundle on the floor where he had tossed them the evening before. He never moved except when his mother now and then spoke, and then sat down again as before. Presently he rose and said he must be going; but as he rose to his feet, a pain shot through him like a knife; everything turned black before him and he staggered and fell full length on the floor.
He was still on the floor next morning, for his mother had not been able to get him to the bed, or to leave to get any help; but she had made him a pallet, and he was as comfortable as a man might be with a raging fever. Feeble as she was, the sudden demand on her had awakened the old woman’s faculties and she was stronger than might have seemed possible. One thing puzzled her: in his incoherent mutterings, Darby constantly referred to a furlough and a deserter. She knew that he had a furlough, of course; but it puzzled her to hear him constantly repeating the words. So the day passed and then, Darby’s delirium still continuing, she made out to get to a neighbor’s to ask help. The neighbor had to go to Mrs. Douwill’s as the only place where there was a chance of getting any medicine, and it happened that on the way back she fell in with a couple of soldiers, on horseback, who asked her a few questions. They were members of a home and conscript guard just formed, and when she left them they had learned her errand.
Fortunately, Darby’s illness took a better turn next day, and by sunset he was free from delirium.
Things had not fared well over at Cove Mills’s during these days any more than at Mrs. Stanley’s. Vashti was in a state of mind which made her mother wonder if she were not going crazy. She set it down to the storm she had been out in that evening, for Vashti had not mentioned Darby’s name. She kept his presence to herself, thinking that — thinking so many things that she could not speak or eat. Her heart was like lead within her; but she could not rid herself of the thought of Darby. She could have torn it out for hate of herself; and to all her mother’s questioning glances she turned the face of a sphinx. For two days she neither ate nor spoke. She watched the opposite hill through the rain which still kept up — something was going on over there, but what it was she could not tell. At last, on the evening of the third day, she could stand it no longer, and she set out from home to learn something; she could not have gone to Mrs. Stanley’s, even if she had wished to do so; for the bottom was still a sea extending from side to side, and it was over her head in the current. She set off, therefore, up the stream on her own side, thinking to learn something up that way. She met the woman who had taken the medicine to Darby that evening, and she told her all she knew, mentioning among other things the men of the conscript guard she had seen. Vashti’s heart gave a sudden bound up into her throat. As she was so near she went on up to the Cross-roads; but just as she stepped out into the road before she reached there, she came on a small squad of horsemen riding slowly along. She stood aside to let them pass; but they drew in and began to question her as to the roads about them. They were in long cloaks and overcoats, and she thought they were the conscript guard, especially as there was a negro with them who seemed to know the roads and to be showing them the way. Her one thought was of Darby; he would be arrested and shot. When they questioned her, therefore, she told them of the roads leading to the big river around the fork and quite away from the district. Whilst they were still talking, more riders came around the curve, and the next instant Vashti was in the midst of a column of cavalry, and she knew that they were the Federals. She had one moment of terror for herself as the restive horses trampled around her, and the calls and noises of a body of cavalry moving dinned in her ears; but the next moment, when the others gave way and a man whom she knew to be the commander pressed forward and began to question her, she forgot her own terror in fear for her cause. She had all her wits about her instantly; and under a pretence of repeating what she had already told the first men, she gave them such a mixture of descriptions that the negro was called up to unravel it. She made out that they were trying to reach the big river by a certain road, and marched in the night as well as in the day. She admitted that she had never been on that road but once. And when she was taken along with them a mile or two to the place where they went into bivouac until the moon should rise, she soon gave such an impression of her denseness and ignorance that, after a little more questioning, she was told that she might go home if she could find her way, and was sent by the commander out of the camp. She was no sooner out of hearing of her captors than she began to run with all her speed. Her chief thought was of Darby. Deserter as he was, and dead to her, he was a man, and could advise her, help her. She tore through the woods the nearest way, unheeding the branches which caught and tore her clothes; the stream, even where she struck it, was out of its banks; but she did not heed it — she waded through, it reaching about to her waist, and struck out again at the top of her speed.
It must have been a little before midnight when she emerged from the pines in front of the Stanley cabin. The latch-string was out, and she knocked and pushed open the door almost simultaneously. All she could make out to say was, “Darby.” The old woman was on her feet, and the young man was sitting up in the bed, by the time she entered.
Darby was the first to speak.
“What do you want here?” he asked, sternly.
“Darby — the Yankees — all around,” she gasped — “out on the road yonder.”
A minute later the young man, white as a ghost, was getting on his jacket while she told her story, beginning with what the woman she had met had told her of the two men she had seen. The presence of a soldier had given her confidence, and having delivered her message both women left everything else to him. His experience or his soldier’s instinct told him what they were doing and also how to act. They were a raid which had gotten around the body of the army and were striking for the capital; and from their position, unless they could be delayed they might surprise it. In the face of the emergency a sudden genius seemed to illuminate the young man’s mind. By the time he was dressed he was ready with his plan — Did Vashti know where any of the conscript guard stayed?
Yes, down the road at a certain place. Good; it was on the way. Then he gave her his orders. She was to go to this place and rouse any one she might find there and tell them to send a messenger to the city with all speed to warn them, and were to be themselves if possible at a certain point on the road by which the raiders were travelling, where a little stream crossed it in a low place in a heavy piece of swampy woods. They would find a barricade there and a small force might possibly keep them back. Then she was to go on down and have the bridge, ten or twelve miles below on the road between the forks burned, and if necessary was to burn it herself; and it must be done by sunrise. But they were on the other road, outside of the forks, the girl explained, to which Darby only said, he knew that, but they would come back and try the bridge road.
“And you burn the bridge if you have to do it with your own hand, you hear — and now go,” he said.
“Yes — I’ll do it,” said the girl obediently and turned to the door. The next instant she turned back to him: he had his gun and was getting his axe.
“And, Darby —-?” she began falteringly, her heart in her eyes.
“Go,” said the young soldier, pointing to the door, and she went just as he took up his old rifle and stepped over to where his mother sat white and dumb. As she turned at the edge of the clearing and looked back up the path over the pine-bushes she saw him step out of the door with his gun in one hand and his axe in the other.
An hour later Darby, with the fever still hot on him, was cutting down trees in the darkness on the bank of a marshy little stream, and throwing them into the water on top of one another across the road, in a way to block it beyond a dozen axemen’s work for several hours, and Vashti was trudging through the darkness miles away to give the warning. Every now and then the axeman stopped cutting and listened, and then went on again. He had cut down a half-dozen trees and formed a barricade which it would take hours to clear away before cavalry could pass, when, stopping to listen, he heard a sound that caused him to put down his axe: the sound of horses splashing along through the mud. His practised ear told him that there were only three or four of them, and he took up his gun and climbed up on the barricade and waited. Presently the little squad of horsemen came in sight, a mere black group in the road. They saw the dark mass lying across the road and reined in; then after a colloquy came on down slowly. Darby waited until they were within fifty yards of his barricade, and then fired at the nearest one. A horse wheeled, plunged, and then galloped away in the darkness, and several rounds from pistols were fired toward him, whilst something went on on the ground. Before he could finish reloading, however, the men had turned around and were out of sight. In a minute Darby climbed over the barricade and strode up the road after them. He paused where the man he had shot had fallen. The place in the mud was plain; but his comrades had taken him up and carried him off. Darby hurried along after them. Day was just breaking, and the body of cavalry were preparing to leave their bivouac when a man emerged from the darkness on the opposite side of the camp from that where Little Darby had been felling trees, and walked up to the picket. He was halted and brought up where the fire-light could shine on him, and was roughly questioned — a tall young countryman, very pale and thin, with an old ragged slouched hat pulled over his eyes, and an old patched uniform on his gaunt frame. He did not seem at all disturbed by the pistols displayed around him, but seated himself at the fire and looked about in a dull kind of way.
“What do you want?” they asked him, seeing how cool he was.
“Don’t you want a guide?” he asked, drawlingly.
“Who are you?” inquired the corporal in charge. He paused.
“Some calls me a d’serter,” he said, slowly.
The men all looked at him curiously.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I thought maybe as you wanted a guide,” he said, quietly.
“We don’t want you. We’ve got all the guide we want,” answered the corporal, roughly, “and we don’t want any spies around here either, you understand?”
“Does he know the way? All the creeks is up now, an’ it’s sort o’ hard to git erlong through down yonder way if you don’t know the way toller’ble well?”
“Yes, he knows the way too — every foot of it — and a good deal more than you’ll see of it if you don’t look out.”
“Oh! That road down that way is sort o’ stopped up,” said the man, as if he were carrying on a connected narrative and had not heard him. “They’s soldiers on it too a little fur’er down, and they’s done got word you’re a-comin’ that a-way.”
“What’s that?” they asked, sharply.
“Leastways it’s stopped up, and I knows a way down this a-way in and about as nigh as that,” went on the speaker, in the same level voice.
“Where do you live?” they asked him.
“I lives back in the pines here a piece.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“About twenty-three years, I b’leeves; ‘ats what my mother says.”
“You know all the country about here?”
“Been in the army?”
“What did you desert for?”
Darby looked at him leisurely.
“‘D you ever know a man as ‘lowed he’d deserted? I never did.” A faint smile flickered on his pale face.
He was taken to the camp before the commander, a dark, self-contained looking man with a piercing eye and a close mouth, and there closely questioned as to the roads, and he gave the same account he had already given. The negro guide was brought up and his information tallied with the new comer’s as far as he knew it, though he knew well only the road which they were on and which Darby said was stopped up. He knew, too, that a road such as Darby offered to take them by ran somewhere down that way and joined the road they were on a good distance below; but he thought it was a good deal longer way and they had to cross a fork of the river.
There was a short consultation between the commander and one or two other officers, and then the commander turned to Darby, and said:
“What you say about the road’s being obstructed this way is partly true; do you guarantee that the other road is clear?”
Darby paused and reflected.
“I’ll guide you,” he said, slowly.
“Do you guarantee that the bridge on the river is standing and that we can get across?”
“Hit’s standing now, fur as I know.”
“Do you understand that you are taking your life in your hand?”
Darby looked at him coolly.
“And that if you take us that way and for any cause — for any cause whatsoever we fail to get through safe, we will hang you to the nearest tree?”
Darby waited as if in deep reflection.
“I understand,” he said. “I’ll guide you.”
The silence that followed seemed to extend all over the camp. The commander was reflecting and the others had their eyes fastened on Darby. As for him, he sat as unmoved as if he had been alone in the woods.
“All right,” said the leader, suddenly, “it’s a bargain: we’ll take your road. What do you want?”
“Could you gi’me a cup o’ coffee? It’s been some little time since I had anything to eat, an’ I been sort o’ sick.”
“You shall have ’em,” said the officer, “and good pay besides, if you lead us straight; if not, a limb and a halter rein; you understand?”
A quarter of an hour later they were on the march, Darby trudging in front down the middle of the muddy road between two of the advance guard, whose carbines were conveniently carried to insure his fidelity. What he thought of, who might know? — plain; poor; ignorant; unknown; marching every step voluntarily nearer to certain and ignominious death for the sake of his cause.
As day broke they saw a few people who lived near the road, and some of them recognized Darby and looked their astonishment to see him guiding them. One or two of the women broke out at him for a traitor and a dog, to which he said nothing; but only looked a little defiant with two red spots burning in his thin cheeks, and trudged on as before; now and then answering a question; but for the most part silent.
He must have thought of his mother, old and by herself in her cabin; but she would not live long; and of Vashti some. She had called him a deserter, as the other women had done. A verse from the Testament she gave him may have come into his mind; he had never quite understood it: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile ye.” Was this what it meant? This and another one seemed to come together. It was something about “enduring hardship like a good soldier”, he could not remember it exactly. Yes, he could do that. But Vashti had called him a deserter. Maybe now though she would not; and the words in the letter she had written him came to him, and the little package in his old jacket pocket made a warm place there; and he felt a little fresher than before. The sun came up and warmed him as he trudged along, and the country grew flatter and flatter, and the road deeper and deeper. They were passing down into the bottom. On either side of them were white-oak swamps, so that they could not see a hundred yards ahead; but for several miles Darby had been watching for the smoke of the burning bridge, and as they neared the river his heart began to sink. There was one point on the brow of a hill before descending to the bottom, where a sudden bend of the road and curve of the river two or three miles below gave a sight of the bridge. Darby waited for this, and when he reached it and saw the bridge still standing his heart sank like lead. Other eyes saw it too, and a score of glasses were levelled at it, and a cheer went up.
“Why don’t you cheer too?” asked an officer. “You have more to make or lose than anyone else.”
“We ain’t there yit,” said Darby.
Once he thought he had seen a little smoke, but it had passed away, and now they were within three miles of the bridge and there was nothing. What if, after all, Vashti had failed and the bridge was still standing! He would really have brought the raiders by the best way and have helped them. His heart at the thought came up into his throat. He stopped and began to look about as if he doubted the road. When the main body came up, however, the commander was in no doubt, and a pistol stuck against his head gave him to understand that no fooling would be stood. So he had to go on.
As to Vashti, she had covered the fifteen miles which lay between the district and the fork-road; and had found and sent a messenger to give warning in the city; but not finding any of the homeguard where she thought they were, she had borrowed some matches and had trudged on herself to execute the rest of Darby’s commands.
The branches were high from the backwater of the fork, and she often had to wade up to her waist, but she kept on, and a little after daylight she came to the river. Ordinarily, it was not a large stream; a boy could chuck a stone across it, and there was a ford above the bridge not very deep in dry weather, which people sometimes took to water their horses, or because they preferred to ride through the water to crossing the steep and somewhat rickety old bridge. Now, however, the water was far out in the woods, and long before the girl got in sight of the bridge she was wading up to her knees. When she reached the point where she could see it, her heart for a moment failed her; the whole flat was under water. She remembered Darby’s command, however, and her courage came back to her. She knew that it could not be as deep as it looked between her and the bridge, for the messenger had gone before her that way, and a moment later she had gone back and collected a bundle of “dry-wood”, and with a long pole to feel her way she waded carefully in. As it grew deeper and deeper until it reached her breast, she took the matches out and held them in her teeth, holding her bundle above her head. It was hard work to keep her footing this way, however, and once she stepped into a hole and went under to her chin, having a narrow escape from falling into a place which her pole could not fathom; but she recovered herself and at last was on the bridge. When she tried to light a fire, however, her matches would not strike. They as well as the wood had gotten wet when she slipped, and not one would light. She might as well have been at her home in the district. When every match had been tried and tried again on a dry stone, only to leave a white streak of smoking sulphur on it, she sat down and cried. For the first time she felt cold and weary. The rays of the sun fell on her and warmed her a little, and she wiped her eyes on her sleeve and looked up. The sun had just come up over the hill. It gave her courage. She turned and looked the other way from which she had come — nothing but a waste of water and woods. Suddenly, from a point up over the nearer woods a little sparkle caught her eye; there must be a house there, she thought; they might have matches, and she would go back and get some. But there it was again — it moved. There was another — another — and something black moving. She sprang to her feet and strained her eyes. Good God! they were coming! In a second she had turned the other way, rushed across the bridge, and was dashing through the water to her waist. The water was not wide that way. The hill rose almost abruptly on that side, and up it she dashed, and along the road. A faint curl of smoke caught her eye and she made for it through the field.
It was a small cabin, and the woman in it had just gotten her fire well started for the morning, when a girl bare-headed and bare-footed, dripping wet to the skin, her damp hair hanging down her back, her face white and her eyes like coals, rushed in almost without knocking and asked for a chunk of fire. The woman had no time to refuse (she told of it afterward when she described the burning of the bridge); for without waiting for answer and before she really took in that it was not a ghost, the girl had seized the biggest chunk on the hearth and was running with it across the field. In fact, the woman rather thought she was an evil spirit; for she saw her seize a whole panel of fence — more rails than she could have carried to save her life, she said, and dashed with them over the hill.
In Vashti’s mind, indeed, it was no time to waste words, she was back on the bridge with the chunk of fire and an armful of rails before the woman recovered from her astonishment, and was down on her knees blowing her chunk to rekindle it. The rails, however, like everything else, were wet and would not light, and she was in despair. At last she got a little blaze started, but it would not burn fast; it simply smoked. She expected the soldiers to come out of the woods every minute, and every second she was looking up to see if they were in sight. What would Darby think? What would happen if she failed? She sprang up to look around: the old rail of the bridge caught her eye; it was rotted, but what remained was heart and would burn like light-wood. She tore a piece of it down and stuck one end in the fire: it caught and sputtered and suddenly flamed up; the next second she was tearing the rail down all along and piling it on the blaze, and as it caught she dashed back through the water and up the hill, and brought another armful of rails. Back and forth she waded several times and piled on rails until she got a stack of them — two stacks, and the bridge floor dried and caught and began to blaze; and when she brought her last armful it was burning all across. She had been so busy bringing wood that she had forgotten to look across to the other side for some time, and was only reminded of it as she was wading back with her last armful of rails by something buzzing by her ear, and the second after the crack of a half-dozen guns followed from the edge of the wood the other side. She could not see them well for the burden in her arms, but she made out a number of horses dashing into the water on the little flat, and saw some puffs of smoke about their heads. She was bound to put her wood on, however, so she pushed ahead, went up on the bridge through the smoke as far as she could go, and flung her rails on the now devouring fire. A sudden veer of the wind blew the smoke behind her and bent the flames aside, and she could see clear across the fire to the other bank. She saw a great number of men on horses at the edge of the woods, in a sort of mass; and a half-dozen or so in the water riding up to their saddle-skirts half-way to the bridge, and between the first two, wading in water to his waist, Darby. He was bare-headed and he waved his hat to her, and she heard a single cheer. She waved her hand to him, and there was a little puff of smoke and something occurred in the water among the horses. The smoke from the fire suddenly closed around her and shut out everything from her eyes, and when it blew away again one of the horses had thrown his rider in the water. There was a lot of firing both from the edge of the wood and from the horsemen in the water, and Darby had disappeared.
She made her way back to the bank and plunged into a clump of bushes, where she was hidden and watched the raiders. She saw several of them try to ford the river, one got across but swam back, the others were swept down by the current, and the horse of one got out below without his rider. The other she did not see again.
Soon after their comrade had rejoined them, the men on the edge of the wood turned around and disappeared, and a half-hour later she saw the glint of the sun on their arms and accoutrements as they crossed over the top of the hill returning two miles above.
. . . . .
This is the story of the frustration of the raid upon which so much hope was built by some in high position at Washington. A day was lost, and warning was given to the Confederate Government, and the bold plan of the commander of the raiding party was defeated.
As to Little Darby, the furlough he had applied for came, but came too late and was returned. For a time some said he was a deserter; but two women knew differently.
A Federal soldier who was taken prisoner gave an account of the raid. He said that a contraband had come from Washington and undertaken to lead them across the country, and that he had brought them around the head of the streams, when one night a rebel deserter came into camp and undertook to show them a better way by a road which ran between the rivers, but crossed lower down by a bridge; that they had told him that, if for any reason they failed to get through by his road they would hang him, a bargain which he had accepted. That he had led them straight, but when they had got to the bridge it had been set on fire and was burning at that moment; that a half-dozen men, of whom he, the narrator, was one, rode in, taking the guide along with them, to see if they could not put the fire out, or, failing that, find the ford; and when they were about half-way across the little flat they saw the person on the bridge in the very act of burning it, and waving his
hand in triumph; and the man who was riding abreast of him in front fired his carbine at him. As he did so the deserter wheeled on him, and said, “God d–n you — don’t you know that’s a woman,” and springing on him like a tiger tore him from his horse; and, before they took in what he was doing, had, before their very eyes, flung both of them into a place where the current was running, and they had disappeared. They had seen the deserter’s head once in the stream lower down, and had fired at him, and he thought had hit him, as he went down immediately and they did not see him again.
This is all that was known of Little Darby, except that a year or more afterward, and nearly a year after Mrs. Stanley’s death, a package with an old needle-case in it and a stained little Testament with a bullet hole through it, was left at the Cross-roads, with a message that a man who had died at the house of the person who left it as he was trying to make his way back to his command, asked to have that sent to Vashti Mills.