The next thing was a studio where he could conduct his literary task without interruption, and Shorty finally found a rock surrounded by bushes, where he could sit and commune with his thoughts. He got the cover of a cracker-box, to place on his knees and serve for a desk, laid his stationery down beside him, re-read Maria's letter several times, spoiled several sheets of paper in trying to get his fingers limber enough for chirography, and then, begun the hardest, most anxious afternoon's work he had ever done, in writing the following letter:
"Camp ov the 2 Hunderdth Injianny
"Mishun Rij, nere Chattynoogy, April the 10, 1864.
"Miss Maria Klegg,
(This part of the letter had cost Shorty nearly an hour of anxious thought. He had at first written "Dere Miss Maria," and then recoiled, shuddered and blushed at the thought of the affectionate familiarity implied. Then he had scrawled, one after another, the whole gamut of beginnings, before he decided upon addressing her, as was her right, as formally as he would the wife of the President.)
"Yore letter was welcomer to me than the visit ov the Pamaster, after six months exclipse ov hiz cheerful mug."
("I think 'mug' is the word they use for face in good society," mused Shorty, with the end of the penholder in his mouth. "At least I heard the Kurnel use it one day. She can't expect no man to be much gladder of anything than the comin' o' the Paymaster, and that orter please her.")
"Thankee for yore kind inkwiries az to mi helth? Ime glad to say that Ime all rite, and sound in lung, body and runnin'
(Shorty was on the point of adding "Hope that you are enjoying the same blessing," when a shiver passed through him that it might be improper to allude to a young lady's locomotory apparatus. After deep meditation, he took safety's side and added):
"So's Si. I sinserely hoap that you are injoyin' the blessin's ov helth, and the konsolashuns ov religion."
("I'm not certain about that last," thought Shorty, "but I heard a preacher say it once, and it ought to be all right to write to a young lady.")
"We are still layin' in camp, but expectin' every day orders to move out for a little soshable with Mister Joe Johnston, whose roostin over on Pigeon Mountain. When we git at him, there won't be no pigeon about it, but a game ov fox-and- geese with us for the foxes.
("There," mused Shorty, complacently; "that'll amuse her. Girls like a little fun throwed into letters, when it's entirely respectful.)
"Little Pete Skidmore is in the company, all rite. He is wun ov the nicest boys that ever lived, but he needs half- killin' nerely every day. All real nice boys do. Woodent give much for them if they diddent. Tel his mother He look out for him, and fetch him up in the way he shood go, if I haf to break every bone in his body. She needent worry. I no awl about boys. Thair like colts--need to be well-broke before thair enny akount."
("Now," commented Shorty, as he read what he had written, "that'll make Maria and his mother feel easy in their minds. They'll think they're in great luck to git a man who'll be a second father to Pete, and not risk spilin the child by sparin the rod.")
("Great Jehosephat, what work writing to a young lady is. I'd much ruther build breastworks or make roads. Now, if it was some ordinary woman, I wouldn't have to be careful about my spelin' and gramer, but with sich a lady as Maria Klegg--great Cesar's ghost! a man must do the very best that's in him, and then that ain't half enough. But I must hurry and finish this letter this afternoon. I can't git another day off to work at it.")
"Respected Miss Maria, what a fine writer you are. Yore handwritin' is the most beautiful I ever seen. Jeb Smith, our company clerk, thinks that he can slink ink to beat old Spencerian System hisself, but he ain't once with you. Ide ruther see one line ov your beautiful ritin' than all that he ever writ."
("That's so," said Shorty, after judicially scanning the sentence. "Jeb kin do some awful fancy kurlys, and draw a bird without takin' his pen from the paper, but he never writ my name a thousandth part as purty as Maria kin.")
"And how purty you spel. Ime something ov a speler myself, and can nock out most ov the boys in the company on Webster's Primary, but I aint to be menshuned in the saim day with you.
"With best respecks to your family, and hoapin soon to here from you, I am very respeckfully, your friend,
W. L. Elliot.
Corpril, Company Q, 2 Hundsrdth Injiamiy Volintear Infantry."
By the time he had his letter finished, and was wiping the sweat of intense labor from his brow, he heard the bugle sounding the first call for dress parade. "I must go and begin my fatherly dooties to little Pete Skidmore," he said, carefully sealing his letter and sticking a stamp on it, to mail at the Chaplain's tent as he went by. "It's goin' to be extry fatigue to be daddy to a little cuss as lively as a schoolhouse flea, and Corpril of Co. Q, at the same time, but I'm going to do it, if it breaks a leg."
He was passing a clump of barberry bushes when he overheard Pete Skidmore's voice inside:
"I'll bet $10 I kin pick it out every time. I'll bet $25 I kin pick it out this time. Don't tech the cards."
"I don't want to lose no more money on baby bets," replied a tantalizing voice. "I'll make it $40 or nothin'. Now, youngster, if y're a man--"
Shorty softly parted the bushes and looked in. Two of the well-known sharpers who hung around the camps had enticed little Pete in there, and to a game of three-card monte. They had inflamed his boyish conceit by allowing him to pick out two cards in succession, and with small bets.
"I hain't got but $40 left o' my bounty and first month's pay," said little Pete irresolutely, "and I wanted to send $35 of it home to mother, but I'll--"
"You'll do nothin' o' the kind," shouted Shorty, bursting through the bushes. "You measly whelps, hain't you a grain o' manhood left? Ain't you ashamed to swindle a green little kid out o' the money that he wants to send to his widowed mother?"
"Go off and 'tend to your own business, if you know what's good for you," said the larger of the men threateningly. "Keep your spoon out o' other folks' soup. This young man knows what he's about. He kin take care o' himself. He ain't no chicken. You ain't his guardeen."
"No he ain't," said Pete Skidmore, whose vanity was touched as well as his cupidity aroused. "Mind your own business, Mister Elliott. You're only a Corpril anyway. You hain't nothin' to do with me outside the company. I kin take care o' myself. I've beat these men twice, and kin do it again."
"Clear out, now, if you don't want to git hurt," said the larger man,'
moving his hand toward his hip.
Shorty's response was to kick over the board on which the cards were lying, and knock the man sprawling with a back-handed blow. He made a long pass at the other man, who avoided it, and ran away. Shorty took Pete by the collar and drew him out of the bushes, in spite of that youngster's kicks and protestations.
He halted there, pulled out his pocket-knife, and judicially selected a hickory limb, which he cut and carefully pruned.
"What're you goin' to do?" asked Pete apprehensively.
"I'm goin' to give you a lesson on the evils of gamblin', Pete, especially when you don't know how."
"But I did know how," persisted Pete. "I beat them fellers twice, and could beat them every time. I could see quicker'n they could move their hands."
"You little fool, you knowed about as much about them cards as they know of ice-water in the place where Jeff Davis is goin'. Pete, I'm goin' to be a second father to you."
"Dod dum you, who asked you to be a daddy to me? I've had one already.
When I want another, I'll pick one out to suit myself," and Pete looked around for a stone or a club with which to defend himself.
"Pete," said Shorty solemnly as he finished trimming the switch, and replaced the knife in his pocket, "nobody's allowed to pick out his own daddy in this world. He just gits him. It's one o' the mysterious ways o' Providence. You've got me through one o' them mysterious ways o'
Providence, and you can't git shet o' me. I'm goin' to lick you still harder for swearin' before your father, and sayin' disrespeckful words to him. And I'm goin' to lick you till you promise never to tech another card until I learn you you how to play, which'll be never. Come here, my son."
The yells that soon rose from that thicket would have indicated that either a boy was being skinned alive or was having his face washed by his mother.
CHAPTER IX. SI TAKES HIS BOYS FOR A LITTLE MARCH INTO THE COUNTRY.
"SI," said the Orderly-Sergeant, "here's a chance to give them pin-feather roosters o' yours a little taste of active service, that'll be good seasoning for 'em, and help develop their hackles and spurs."
"Good idee. What is it?" responded Si with alacrity.
"An order's come down from Headquarters to detail a Sergeant and eight men from the company to go out about eight or 10 miles in the country, and take a turn guarding a little mill they're running out there, grinding meal. There's a gang of bushwhackers around there, that occasionally pester the men at work and they've tried once to burn the mill. I don't think you'll have much trouble, but you've got to keep your eye peeled, and not let any of your boys go to sleep on post."