"Got that kink out o' your backbone? Bully boy. You've got the right kind of nerve. You'll be a man before your mother yet."
"Yes, and I'm here, too, and don't you forget it," said Alf Russell, not to be outdone by Monty nor unnoticed. "By rights, I ought to be in the hospital."
"By rights, I ought to be a Jigadier-Brindle," retorted Shorty, "but I never could git Abe Lincoln to take that view of it. Here, fill up your cartridgebox. You'll need lots of 'em, if you're only goin' to shoot to crease your rebels, as that feller did you."
It was not brilliant pleasantry, but it served. It set them to thinking of something else. They hastily filled their cartridge-boxes, adjusted their blankets, and when the bugle sounded forward they started with something of their original nerve.
The regiment moved off at the head of the brigade, and after a march of a mile or so came out upon a hill from which they could see one of our batteries having an unequal fight with several of the rebel batteries in a fort far to its front. Our cannoneers were standing up bravely to their work, but the rebel shells were bursting about them in a wild storm of crashing, deafening explosions, and hurtling, shrieking masses of iron. The sharp crack of their own rifles was at times drowned by the ear-splitting din of the bursting shells.
"Goodness!" murmured Monty Scruggs, with colorless lips, as the regiment came into line and moved forward to the battery's line of caissons at the bottom of the hill. "I'm so glad I didn't enlist in the artillery. I don't see how anybody up there can live a minute."
"Yes, it looks like as if those artillery boys are earnin' their $13 a month about every second of their lives," remarked Shorty. "There ought to be some other batteries loafin' around somewhere that could join in."
The boys leaned on their muskets and watched the awful spectacle with dazed eyes. It seemed far more terrible even than the ordeal through which they had just been.
The battery was one of the oldest and best in the army, and its "fire discipline" was superb.
The Captain stood on a little elevation to the rear and somewhat apart, intently studying the rebel line through his field-glasses. After a few words of direction as to the pointing of the guns, and the command, "Begin firing," he had given no orders, scarcely spoken. He could not have been heard in that terrible turmoil. He had simply brought his terrible engine of destruction--the engine upon which he and his men had lavished years of laborious drilling and training--into position, and set it going.
What the result would be fate alone would determine. That was a matter that neither he nor his men regarded. If it destroyed or crippled its opponents it was simply doing the work for which it had been created.
If its opponents destroyed it, that was a contingency to be accepted. It was there to endure that fate if so ordered.
Behind the wings of the battery stood the Lieutenants, leaning on their sabers, and gazing with fixed, unmoving eyes on the thunderous wrack and ruin.
They said nothing. There was no reason for saying anything. Everything was working systematically and correctly. Every man was doing his best, and in the best way. Nobody needed reminder, reprimand, direction or encouragement.
Similarly, the Sergeants stood behind their sections, except that one after another they stepped forward to the guns to take the places of men who had fallen and could not be replaced. At the guns the men were working with the swiftness of light flashes, and the unerring certainty of machines. To the watchers at the base of the slope they seemed to weave back and forth like some gigantic, demoniac loom, as they sprang at their guns, loaded them, "broke away" as they fired, leaped back again, caught the gun in its recoil, hurled it forward, again reloaded, "broke away" and fired, all quicker than thought. A shell took off a sponger's head, but the sponge-staff was caught by another before it fell, and the gun fired again without a pause. A shrapnel swept away every man about one gun. The Lieutenant looked inquiringly at the Sergeant, and in an instant another squad seemed to spring up from the ground to continue the firing without missing a note in the battery's rhythm.
The groups about each gun thinned out, as the shrieking fragments of shell mowed down man after man, but the rapidity of the fire did not slacken in the least. One of the Lieutenants turned and motioned with his saber to the riders seated on their horses in the line of limbers under the cover of the slope. One rider sprang from each team and ran up to take the place of men who had fallen.
The next minute the Lieutenant turned and motioned again, and another rider sprang from each team and ran up the hill. But one man was now left to manage the six horses attached to each limber. He soon left, too, in obedience to the Lieutenant's signal, and a faint, bleeding man came back and climbed into his place.
A shrapnel shell burst almost under the left gun and lifted it up in the air. When the smoke opened a little not a man could be seen about the cannon. A yell of exultation floated over from the rebel line.
The Lieutenant unbuckled his saber, dropped it to the ground, and ran forward to the cannon. Two or three men rose slowly from the ground, upon which they had been prostrated, and joined the Lieutenant in running the gun back to its place, and reloading it.
[Illustration: HOORAY FOR THE OLD BATTERY. 231]
"Hooray for the old battery! Bully boys! Made o' right stuff," shouted Shorty enthusiastically. "Never ketch me saying nothin' agin' the artillery agin. Men who act like that when they're standin' right in the middle o' hell with the lid off are 18karat fine."
"Captain," suggested Si, who was fidgeting under the excitement of a scene in which he was taking no part, "wouldn't it be well for some of us to go up there and help the battery boys out? I could sponge and ram."
"No," answered the Captain; "help has been sent for for them, and there it comes."
He pointed back over the hill to where two batteries were coming from different directions on a dead run. It was a magnificent sight. One battery was following the road, and the other cutting across the open space in a hot race to get ahead and be in action first.
The Captains were galloping ahead to point out the way. The Sergeants were alongside, seconding the whips of the drivers with strokes of the flats of their sabers on the animals' hanches. The six horses to each gun were galloping like mad, snatching the heavy piece over gullies, bumps, logs, and rocks as if it were a straw. The gunners had abandoned their usual calm pose with folded arms on the limber chests, and were maintaining their seats only by a desperate clutch on the side-irons.
The boys turned even from the storm in front to watch the thrilling spectacle.
The two Captains were fairly abreast as they led their batteries up the long slope, crushing the brush, sending sticks and stones flying from the heavy, flying wheels. Both reached the crest at the same time, and the teams, wheeling around at a gallop, flung the muzzles of the cannon toward the enemy. Without waiting for them to stop the nimble cannoneers sprang to ground, unlimbered the guns, rolled them into position, sent loads down their black throats, and before it was fairly realized that they had reached the crest hurled a storm of shells across the valley at the rebel batteries.
"Hooray! Hooray! They're gittin' some o' their own medicine now,"
yelled the excited regiment. "Sock it to 'em. How do you like that, you ill-begotten imps of rebels?"
The rebel cannoneers seemed to lose heart at once under the storm of fire that beat upon them. The volume of their fire diminished at once, and then became fitful and irregular. Two of their limbers were blown up in succession, with thunderous noise, and this further discouraged them.
Obeying a common impulse, the 200th Ind., regardless of the dropping shells, had left its position, and pressed forward toward the crest, where it could see what was going on.
The Colonel permitted this, for he anticipated that a charge on the rebel works would follow the beating down of the artillery fire, and he wanted his regiment to be where it would get a good start in the race to capture a rebel battery. He simply cautioned the Captains to keep their men in hand and ready. As Capt. McGillicuddy called Co. Q closer together, it occurred to Shorty that in the interest he had taken in the artillery duel he had not looked after Pete Skidmore for some time, and he began casting his eyes around for that youth. He was nowhere to be seen, and, of course, no one knew anything about him.
"Why don't you get a rope. Shorty, and tie the blamed kid to you, and not be pestering yourself and everybody else about him all the time?"
asked the Orderly-Sergeant irritably, for he was deeply intent upon the prospective charge, and did not want to be bothered. "He's more worry than he's worth."
"Shut up!" roared Shorty. "If you wasn't Orderly-Sergeant I'd punch your head. I won't have nobody sayin' that about little Pete. He's the best boy that ever lived. If I could only git hold of him I'd shake the plaguey life out o' him. Drat him!"
Shorty anxiously scanned the field in every direction, but without his eyes being gladdened by the sight of the boy.
The wounded being carried back from the batteries impressed him sadly with the thought that Pete might have been struck by a piece of shell.
"Him and Sandy Baker are both gone," said the Orderly, looking over the company. "I'll buck-and-gag both of 'em when I catch 'em, to learn 'em to stay in ranks."
"Indeed you won't," said Shorty, under his breath.
The rebel fire had completely died down, and our own ceased, to allow the guns to cool for a few minutes, in preparation for an energetic reopening when the anticipated charge should be ordered.
To be in readiness for this, the Colonel drew the regiment forward through the batteries, to lie down on the slope in front, that he might have a start on the other Colonels. As they passed through the batteries a little imp, about the size of Pete Skidmore, but with face as black as charcoal, pulled off the leather bag in which cartridges are carried from the limber to the gun, and handed it to one of the cannoneers, who said:
"Well, good-by, if you must be going. You done well. You ought to belong to the artillery. You're too good for a dough-boy. I'm going to ask the Captain to have you detailed to us."
A similar scene was taking place at the next gun, with a little blackamoor about the size of Sandy Baker.
The boys picked up their guns and belts from the ground, and fell in with Co. Q.
"Hello, Corporal," said Pete, with a capacious grin rifting the powder grime on his face. "We've just bin having lots o' fun."
"Pete, you aggravatin' little brat," said Shorty, giving him a cuff that started the boy's tears to making little white streaks through the black, "where in the world have you bin, and what've you bin doin'?"
"Why," whimpered Pete, "me and Sandy crept forward to a rock where we thought we could see better, and then we thought we could see better from another, and we kept a-goin' until we got clear up to where the limbers was, afore we knowed it. Just then a couple o' them powder-monkeys, as you call 'em, come runnin' back for cartridges, but they was both hit, and was all bloody, and both of 'em fell down and couldn't go no further, when they got the cartridges, though they wanted to. Me and Sandy thought it was too bad that the men up there at the guns shouldn't have no cartridges, when they was fighting so hard, so we picked up the boys' bags and run up to the cannon with 'em. The men there was so glad to git 'em, and told us to lay down our guns and run back for some more. They kept us goin' till the rebels was knocked out, and we thought we was doin' right and helpin', and they told us we was, and now you slap me. Boo-hoo-hoo!"
"Don't cry, Pete. I done wrong," said Shorty, melting instantly, and putting his arm around the boy. "You done right, and you're a brave, good little boy. Only you must not go away from the company without lettin' me know."
"Good God," groaned the Colonel, as he halted the regiment down the slope, and studied the opposite side with his glass. "There's another abatis, and it looks worse than the one in which we have just left half the regiment. But we'll go through if there's only one man left to carry the flag over the works. I don't suppose that we are any better than those who have already died, or got any better right to live."
"This is the dumbedest country for cuttin' down trees the wrong way,"
Si sadly remarked, as he surveyed the abatis. "It's meaner'n midnight murder. I'd like to git hold o' the pizen whelp what invented it."
"The devil invented abatis, just after he invented hell, and as an improvement on it, and just before he invented secession," Shorty judged hotly. "When we git through them abatis there I'm goin' to kill everything I find, just to learn 'em to stop sich heathenish work. It's sneakin' murder, not war."