"Holy smoke, look there," gasped Monty Scruggs, as a company of rebel cavalry came tearing over the hill in front, to the assistance of their comrades.
"Them ain't many for cavalry," said Shorty, as he and Si deployed the boys behind fence-corners, and instructed them to shoot carefully and low.
"Sargint, see there, and there," shouted Alf Russell, as other companies of rebels came galloping through over the crest, while the first arrivals began throwing down the fences, preparatory to a charge.
"Yes, there's about a rijimint," Si answered coolly. "We'll need the most o' Co. Q to 'tend to them. Here they come."
"Sergeant, what's all this disturbance you're kicking up in camp?" said Capt. McGillicuddy playfully, as he deployed Co. Q. "Can't you take a quiet walk out into the country, without stirring up the whole neighborhood?"
"They seem to've bin at home and expectin' us, Capt," grinned Si, as he pointed to the augmenting swarm of horsemen.
"There does seem to be a tolerably full house," answered the Captain with a shrug. "Well, the more the merrier. Boys, shoot down those fellows who're tearing down the fences. That'll stop any rush on us, and we'll develop their force."
"It's developing itself purty fast, seems to me. There comes another rijimint," remarked Si.
The firing grew pretty noisy.
Si was delighted to see how naturally his boys took to their work. After the first flurry of excitement at confronting the yelling, galloping horde, they crouched down behind their fence-corners, and loaded and fired as deliberately as the older men.
"What sort of a breach of the peace is this you are committing, Capt.
McGillicuddy?" asked Col. McBiddle, coming up at the head of the 200th Ind. "And do you want some accomplices?"
"I believe if you'll give me another company I can make a rush across there and scatter those fellows," answered the Captain.
"All right. Take Co. A. Push them as far as you can, for the orders are to develop their strength at once. I'll follow close behind and help you develop, if you need me."
An instant later the two companies rushed across the field, making a bewildering transformation in the rebels' minds from charging to being charged. The rebels were caught before they could complete their formation. There was a brief tumult of rushes and shots and yells, and they were pushed back through the woods, with some losses In killed and wounded and stampeded horses.
Si had led his squad straight across the field, against a group engaged in pulling down the fence. They were caught without their arms, and two were run down and captured. Palpitating with success, the boys rushed over to where the regiment was gathering itself together at the edge of the woods on the brow of the ridge.
"Why don't they go ahead? What're they stoppin' for? The whole rijimint's up," Si asked, with a premonition of something wrong.
"Well, I should say there was something to stop for," answered Shorty, as they arrived where they could see, and found the whole country in front swarming with rebel cavalry as far as their eyes could reach.
"Great Scott," muttered Si, with troubled face, for the sight was appalling. "Is the whole Confederacy out there on hossback?"
"O, my, do we have to fight all them?" whimpered little Pete, scared as much by the look on Shorty's face as at the array.
"Shut up, Pete," said Shorty petulantly, as a shell from a rebel battery shrieked through the woods with a frightful noise. "Git behind this stump here, and lay your gun across it. I'll stand beside you. Don't shoot till you've a bead on a man. Keep quiet and listen to orders."
A rebel brigade was rapidly preparing to charge. It stretched out far beyond the flanks of the regiment.
"Steady, men! Keep cool!" rang out the clear, calm voice of the Colonel.
"Don't fire till they come to that little run in the field, and then blow out the center of that gang."
The brigade swept forward with a terrific yell. Si walked behind his squad, and saw that every muzzle was depressed to the proper level.
The brigade came on grandly, until they reached the rivulet, and then a scorching blast broke out from the muzzles of the 200th Ind., which made them reel and halt.
Yells of "Close up, Alabamians!" "This way, Tennesseeans!" "Form on your colors, Georgians!" came from the rebels as the boys reloaded. Then all sounds were drowned in the rattling musketry, as the rebels began a hot fire from their saddles, in answer to the Union musketry.
"Captain, they are moving out a brigade on either flank to take us in the rear," said Col. McBiddle calmly to Capt. McGillicuddy. "We'll have to fall back to the brigade. Pass the word along to retire slowly, firing as we go. The brigade must be near. You had better move your company over toward the right, to meet any attack that may come from that direction. I'll send Co. A toward the other flank."
It was a perilous movement to make in front of such overwhelming force.
But the smoke curtained the manuver and the rebels only discovered it by the diminution of the fire in their front. Then they and the flanking brigades came on with ringing yells, and it seemed that the regiment was to be swept off the face of the earth. The 200th Ind. was not to be scared by yells, however, and sent such a galling fire from front and flanks, that the rebel advance lost its rushing impetus. The regiment was reaching the edge of the woods. The clear fields would give the rebel cavalry its chance.
The whole command advanced, the moment the rebels began to break under the fire, across the fields and through the woods to the crest where the 200th Ind. had first tried to stop the swarming rebel horsemen. From there they could see the broad plain rapidly vacated by their enemies, hurrying away from the pursuing shells.
The Colonel's clear, penetrating tones rang above the tumult:
"Attention, 200th Ind.! Every man for himself across the fields. Rally on the fence beyond."
Shorty, whose face had been scratched by a bullet, took little Pete by the hand. "Now, run for it, my boy, as you never run before in your life. Hold on to your gun."
There was a wild rush, through a torrent of bullets, across the cleared space, and as he jumped the fence, Si was rejoiced to see his squad all following him, with Shorty dragging little Pete in the rear.
They had scarcely struck the ground beyond, when it shook with the crash of artillery on the knoll above, and six charges of double canister tore wickedly into the surging mass of rebel cavalry.
"The Double Canister Battery got up jest in the nick o' time," gasped Shorty, as he shoved little Pete down behind a big log. "It generally does, though."
"I'm glad the brigade wasn't a mile off," puffed Si, listening with satisfaction to the long line of rifles singing tenor to the heavy bass of the cannon.
"Capt. McGillicuddy," said the Colonel, "I ordered you to develop the enemy's strength. Has it occurred to you that you somewhat overdid the thing?"
CHAPTER XIV. THE EVENING AFTER THE BATTLE.
"GREAT Jehosephat, how hungry I am," suddenly ejaculated Shorty, stopping his cheering, as the thunder of the guns died away into an occasional shot after the rebels galloping back to the distant woods on the ridge from which they had emerged.
"I must make some coffee. Wonder where I put my matches?"
"Here, Pete," continued Shorty, as he broke off some splinters from the rails and started a little fire, "take my canteen and Si's and yours, and run down there and find a spring, and fill 'em, before the others make a rush. Be spry about it, for there'll be a rush there in a minute, and you won't have no chance."
The excited boy had to be spoken to a second time before he would come back to earth, much less comprehend the want of water and food. Like the rest of his companions, the terrific drama which had just been enacted had wrought him to a delirium, in which he could think of nothing but a world full of bellowing cannon, and a nightmare of careering, plunging horses, with savagely-yelling riders.
They could not realize that the battlecloud had rolled away just as suddenly as it had burst upon them, and they stood there tightly grasping their reloaded guns, and staring fixedly into the distance for the next horrid development.
"I think you'll find a spring right over there where you see that bunch o' young willers, Pete," said Si, handing him his canteen. "Break for it, before anybody else gets there and muddies the water."
But Pete still stood rigid and unhearing, clutching his gun with a desperate grip, and glaring with bulging, unmoving eyes across the plain.
"Come, wake up, Pete," said Shorty, giving him a sharp shake. "Do as I tell you, and on the jump. The fight's over."
"The fight's over?" stammered the boy. "Ain't they coming back again?"
"Not on their butternut-dyed lives they ain't," said Shorty scornfully.
"They've got their dirty hides as full o' lickin' as they kin hold for one day. They'll set around for a while, and rub their hurts, and try to think out jest how it all happened."