"Don't be discouraged, boys," said Si. "You'll soon git used to marchin'
that way right along, and never thinking of it. It may seem a little hard now, but it won't last long. I guess you're rested enough.
Si and Shorty had mercifully intended to slow down a little, and not push the boys. But as they pulled out they forgot themselves, and fell again into their long, swinging stride, that soon strung the boys out worse than ever, especially as they were not now buoyed up by an expectation of meeting the enemy.
"We must march slower. Si," said Shorty, glancing ruefully back, "or we'll lose every blamed one o' them boys. They're too green yit."
"That's so," accorded Si. "It's like tryin' to make a grass-bellied horse run a quarter-stretch."
"Might I inquire," asked Monty Scruggs, as he came up, wiped his face and sat down on a rock, "whether this is what you'd call a forced march, or merely a free-will trial trot for a record."
"Neither," answered Si. "It's only a common, straight, every-day march out into the country. You kin count upon one a day like this for the rest o' your natural lives--I mean your service. It's part o' what you enlisted for. And this's only a beginnin'. Some days you'll have to keep this up 15 or 18 hours at a stretch."
There was a general groan of dismay.
"Gracious, I wish I'd wings, or that I'd enlisted in the cavalry,"
"Brace up! Brace up!" said Shorty. "You'll soon git used to it, and make your 40 miles a day like the rest of us, carrying your bed-clothes and family groceries with you. It's all in gittin' used to it, as the man said who'd bin skinnin' eels for 40 years, and that now they didn't mind it a bit."
"Well, le's jog along," said Si. "We ought to git there in another hour.
There's a big rain comin' up, and we want to git under cover before it strikes us. Forward!--March!"
But the rain was nearer that Si thought. It came, as the Spring rains come in the North Georgia mountains--as if Niagara had been shifted into the clouds overhead. The boys were literally washed off the road, and clung to saplings to avoid being carried away into the brush.
"I'll fall back and keep the boys together," said Shorty, as soon as an intermission allowed them to speak.
"Alright," said Si. "Look out for little Pete." And Si began to forge stolidly ahead.
"Goodness, Sarjint, you're not going to travel in such a storm as this,"
gasped Gid Mackall.
"Certainly," Si called back. "Come on. We've got to reach that mill tonight, no matter what happens. You'd might as well be drowned marchin'
as standin' still. 'Tain't rainin' no worse further ahead than here.
[Illustration: CLOSE UP, BOYS. 111]
"Close up, boys," said Shorty, taking little Pete's gun and the youngster's hand. "This's only a Spring shower. 'Tain't nothin' to what we had on the Tullyhomy Campaign. There the drops was as big as punkins, and come as thick as the grains on a ear o' corn. Close up, there; dodge the big drops, and go ahead."
"Hold on to me tight! Hold on to me!" clamored little Pete. "If you don't I'll be washed away and lost for sure."
"Come along, Peter, my son," Shorty assured him.
"I hain't never lost no children yit, and I hain't goin' to begin with you."
The storm grew more violent every minute, limbs were torn from the trees, and fell with a crash, and torrents rushed down from the mountain side, across the road. Si strode on resolutely, as if the disturbance were nothing more than a Summer zephyr. He waded squarely through the raging streams, turning at times to help the next boy to him, strode over the fallen limbs, and took the dashing downpour with stolid indifference.
"Close up, boys! Close up!" shouted Shorty from time to time, "Don't mind a little sprinkle like this. It'll lay the dust, and make marchin'
easier. Come along, Peter, my son. I'm not goin' to lose you."
Night suddenly came, with pitchy darkness, but Si steadily forged onward. Then the rain ceased as suddenly as it began, but the road was encumbered with fallen timber and swirling races of muddy water. They seemed more uncomfortable even than when the rain was falling. They were now nearing the mill, and the sound of a fitful musketry fire came to their ears.
"They've sneaked up in the storm to attack the mill," Si called out to Shorty. "Close up and prepare for action."
"Goodness," gasped Gid Mackall, much of whose vim had been soaked out of him by the fearful downpour, and who was oppressed by fatigue, hunger, and the dense blackness of the night in the strange woods. "You don't have to fight when you're wetter'n a drowned rat, and so tired you're ready to drop, do you?"
"That's what you do," said Shorty, wiping off his musket. "That's the way you'll have to do most o' your fightin'. The miserabler you feel the miserabler you want to make the other fellers feel. Boys, turn your guns upside down and let the water run out. Then half-cock 'em, and blow into 'em to clean the water out o' the tubes. Then find a dry rag somewhere about you, and wipe off the nipples. We want every gun to go off when the order is given. Don't anybody load till Si gives the order."
The drenched but excited boys followed his directions with nervous haste. Shorty took one gun after another and examined it, while Si went forward a little ways to reconnoiter. The calm deliberation of the partners steadied the nervous boys.
"Load," called back Si, from the vantage ground of a little knoll, upon which he was standing, trying to see into the darkness beyond. A volley from out in front responded to the sound of his voice, and bullets knocked bark off the big chestnut behind which he had shrewdly taken refuge.
"Jest as I expected, Si," Shorty called back to him. "The rebels have throwed back a squad to watch for us."
"Yes," said Si, coolly, as he stepped back to meet the boys. "There ain't but 10 o' them, though. I counted every flash and located 'em.
They're all in a bunch right over there by a dead tree to the left. Move up there quick, aim a little to the left. Aim low, and fire just as we reach the rise. I'll fire first, and the rest of you foller. Try to hit something, every one of you."
CHAPTER X. THE BOYS HAVE A COUPLE OF LITTLE SKIRMISHES
BUT FINALLY GET TO THE MILL.
THE time and the surroundings were such as to bring the spirits of the boys to their lowest ebb.
The gloomy, mysterious woods seemed a world's distance away from their homes, friends and assistance.
The long, tiresome tramp, the violent rainstorm, which had soaked them to their skins, and apparently found its way to their hearts; the muddy, slippery road, with torrents rushing across it, the splashing, searching rivulets from the boughs overhead, were all deeply depressing.
The boys huddled together, as if to gain courage by closer contact.
"Gracious, I never supposed they'd pull off a fight at night, when everybody was tired to death and soaked to a gruel," said Alf Russell in a shivery whisper.
"They fought at Hohenlinden at night, and on the snow," answered Monty Scruggs. "But snow's not so bad as rain, and, then, they didn't have these awful woods. I'd feel much better if we was out in a clearing somewhere."
"Come into line to the left, there," commanded Si, in a low tone.
"Deploy, one pace apart. Shorty, take the left out there in the bushes.
Don't make no noise, step carefully, and don't shoot till I do."
"Keep near me, Pete, and you won't git lost," said Shorty, as he stepped off into the brush.
--"Must I shoot the same time you do, or wait till you shoot?" asked Pete, who seemed less depressed by his surroundings than the others, and mainly eager to get a chance to shoot.
"Don't watch me," cautioned Shorty. "Watch the fellers you are shootin'
at, and try to hit 'em. Fire just as soon as you want to after you hear the others."
"I'll bet I'll hit a rebel if anybody does," said Pete with hopeful animation.