They tramped forward a few steps over the spongy ground, and through the dripping bushes.
The musketry fire continued fitfully around the mill in the distance.
They came to the summit of the little rise.
"Hist--halt; lay down, quick," called the watchful Si, in a penetrating voice. "They've loaded agin', and are about to shoot."
He and Shorty were down on their faces as he spoke. The others obeyed more slowly and clumsily. The rebel volley cut the limbs and bushes over their heads, and whistled viciously through the damp air and the darkness.
As little Pete dropped to the ground, his nervous finger touched the trigger and his gun went off up in the air. The others took this as a cue, and banged away as rapidly as they could get their muskets off.
Only Si and Shorty, in dropping, had kept the lay of the ground in view, and without rising they deliberately aimed their pieces whither the volley had come and fired. A suppressed yell of pain came from the other side.
"We salted one of 'em, anyway," chuckled Shorty, as he raised on his knee to reload his gun.
"Gosh all Chrismus," said Si, using his most formidable swear-word, for he was very angry. "What was you brats shootin' at? Squirrels or angels?
A rebel'd had to be 80 cubits high, like old Haman, for one o' you to've hit him. Lots o' good o' your packin' around guns and cartridges, if you're goin' to waste your ammynition on the malaria in the clouds.
Load agin, now, carefully, and when you shoot agin be sure to fetch something. I'll take my ramrod to the next boy that I ketch shootin'
higher'n a man's head. This ain't no Fourth-o'-July business. Our job's te kill them whangdoodles over there, and I want you to 'tend strictly to that."
The threat of a real boyish thrashing and the cool, matter-of-fact way that Si and Shorty conducted themselves--precisely as if chopping trees or mowing a field--steadied the boys wonderfully.
"They're about ready to shoot agin," Si spoke down the line, in a penetrating whisper. "Everybody hug the ground, and watch the flashes.
Each feller git a good line on the flash straight in front of him, and let the hound have a chunk o' lead just below his belt. If you're all real good, and shoot just right, I'll take you on a rush right at them fellers, and we'll scatter what's left like a flock o' quail. Lay low.
There it comes agin. Lay low."
An irregular volley burnt out in the blackness beyond. The bullets sang around much closer than before, and several of them struck near Si, one landing in the leaves and moss directly in front of him, and throwing a wet sprinkle in his face.
"Like the parrot, I was talkin' too much and too loud," thought Si.
"They wuz all reachin' for me, and one feller made a mighty good line shot. Le's see if I can't better him."
He drew down in his sights as carefully as he could in the darkness, and pulled the trigger. As the smoke thinned out a little he thought he saw something beyond which indicated a man staggering and falling.
This time the boys seemed to be firing effectively. There was a commotion in the woods beyond, and the sound of groans on the damp air.
"Raise up!" shouted Si. "Forward! Forward! Jump 'em. Jump 'em before they kin load agin!"
Loading his gun with the practiced ease of a veteran as he rushed forward, Si led his squad directly against the position of the rebels.
Part of the rebels had promptly run away, as they heard Si order the charge, but part boldly stood their ground, and were nervously reloading, or fixing bayonets, as the squad came crashing through the brush. One of the rebels fired a hasty, ineffectual shot, and by its light Shorty saw the nervous little Pete, who had torn off his cumbering haversack, letting his hat go with it, slip between him and Si, and gain a pace in advance.
"Git back, you little rat," said Shorty, reaching out a long arm, catching the boy by the collar, and yanking him back. "Git behind me and stay there."
The flash revealed another rebel fumbling for a cap. Shorty's gun came down, and the rebel fell, shot through the shoulder. The rebel leader, a long haired, lathy man, with the quickness of a wildcat, sprang at Si with his bayonet fixed. Heavy-footed and deliberate as Si usually was, when the electricity of a fight was in him there was no lack of celerity. He caught the rebel's bayonet on his musket-barrel and warded it off so completely that the rebel shot by him in the impetus of his own rush. As he passed Si delivered a stunning blow on the back of his head with his gun-barrel.
"That zouave drill was a mighty good thing, after all," thought Si, as he turned from his prostrate foe to the others.
While this was going on, the boys were imitating Shorty's example, getting their guns loaded, and banging away as fast as they did so into the rebels, who went down under the shots, or ran off, leaving one of their number, a tall, lank mountaineer, who seemed beside himself with rage. He had grasped his empty gun by the stock, and was swinging it around his head, yelling fierce insults and defiance to the whole race o' Yankees.
"Come on, you infernal pack o' white-livered, nigger-stealin', house-robbin', hell-desarvin' hypocrites," he shouted. "I kin lick the hull bilin' o' yo'uns. This is my wounded pardner here, and yo'uns can't have neither me nor him till yo'uns down me, which y' can't do. Come on, y' pigeon-livered cowards."
The boys who had pressed lip near him, shrank back a little, out of possible range of that violently brandished musket, and began loading their guns.
Shorty had stopped for an instant to turn over into an easier position the rebel he had shot.
Si paced up. His gun was loaded, and he could have easily brought the rebel down. But the rebel's devotion to his partner touched him.
[Illustration: DON'T ANYBODY SHOOT. 119]
"Don't shoot, boys," he commanded; "leave me to 'tend to him. Say, Johnny," he addressed the rebel, in a placatory way, "don't make a fool o' yourself. Come down, we've got you, dead. Drop that gun."
"Go to brimstone blazes," shouted the rebel. "If yo'uns have got me, why don't y' take me. I kin lick the hull caboodle o' y' sneakin' mulatters.
Come on, why don't y'?"
"Give him a wad, Si," said Shorty, reloading his own gun. "We haint no time to lose. They need us over there."
"No, don't anybody shoot," commanded Si; "he's just crazy about his partner. He's too brave a man to kill. Say, Johnny, have a little sense.
We haint goin' to hurt your partner, nor you, if you'll behave. Drop that gun at once, and surrender."
"Go to blazes," retorted the rebel, swinging his gun more wildly than ever. "Yo'uns is all liars. No dependence kin be placed on y'. If y'
want me, come and git me."'
Shorty had begun to think the thing somewhat humorous. "Look here, Johnny," said he, "wouldn't you like a big chaw o' navy terbacker--bright plug. Genuine Yankee plug? Swingin' that ere gun that way is awful tiresome."
"Eh--What's that?" said the rebel, startled by the new proposition and its coolness.
"I say, don't you want a big chaw o' terbacker? You must need it. I always do after I've bin workin' hard. Drop your gun, and have one with me. We're Injiannians, and we don't mean no harm to your partner, nor to you. We'll take care o' him, if he's hurt. Here, cut your own chaw."
"Air yo'uns from Injianny?" said the rebel, bringing his gun down to a less menacing attitude. "I've done got two brothers in Injianny, and I hear they'uns 've done inlisted in Yankee rijiments. Mebbe yo'uns know 'em."
"Mebbe we do," said Shorty, handing him a long plug and his knife. "But we hain't time to talk it over now. We'll do that in the mornin', when business ain't so pressin'. Le' me hold your gun while you cut your terbacker."
"Now, look here," said Si, "time's jumpin', and we must talk quick. If we parole you, will you stay here, and take care o' your partner and the others, and be here in the mornin', when we send for you?"
"You won't send for me, if yo'uns is a-gwine on ter fout we'uns up at the mill. We'uns chaw yo'uns up, or run y' outen the country."
"We'll take care o' that," said Si sharply. "Will you promise on your honor to stay with these men, and take care o' them till daylight, if we don't come sooner?"
"Sartin,--'pon honor," answered the rebel, with his mouth full of tobacco.
"All right, then. Load at will. Load! Forward!--March!" commanded Si.
Si moved on cautiously, for he feared that the runaways had told those attacking the mill about his advance, and would bring them all down upon him. The dying down of the firing about the mill confirmed this opinion.
He warned his boys to make as little noise as possible, and went ahead of them some distance, to reconnoiter, slipping along the side of the road, under the shadow of the trees. He arranged a system of signals with Shorty, by which one click of his gunlock meant halt, and two to come ahead. Presently he came in sight of the broad race which ran to the mill. The starlight was sufficient to show its width and its banks, with the logs lying along, which had been cut when it was dug. A bridge crossed the race for the road to the mill. Beyond the ground rose sharply, and looking at the crest against the sky, he could see the rebels, one by one, file over, and come down to where they could crouch behind the logs and ambuscade the bridge.
Si clicked his gunlock, and waited till he had counted 25 rebels gathered there, which seemed to be all, as no more appeared. Then he slipped back to Shorty, and hurriedly explained the situation.
The boys listened with sinking hearts. More than three times as many rebels as they themselves numbered, and perhaps fiercer and stronger than those they had already encountered.
The elation of their recent victory subsided. Again the woods became ominously dark and gloomy, the soaking dampness very depressing. They huddled together to brace each other up.