Are you too tired to move? Come on. We'll have a good wash, that'll take away some of the tiredness, then a big dinner, and a good bed tonight.
Tomorrer mornin' we'll be as good as new."
"I think I'd better git right on the next train and go back to Jeffersonvillie," murmured Shorty, faintly struggling with himself.
"They may need me there."
"Nonsense!" answered Si. "We've done enough for one day. I've bin up for two nights now, and am goin' to have a rest. Let some o' the other fellers have a show for their money. We haint got to fight this whole war all by ourselves."
"No, Si," said Shorty, summoning all his resolution; "I'm goin' back on the next train. I must git back to the company. They'll--"
"You'll do nothin' o' the kind," said Si impatiently. "What's eatin'
you? What'd you skip out from our house for? What'd you mean--"
He was broken in upon by Maria's voice as she came in at the head of a bevy of other girls:
"Si Klegg, ain't you ever comin' out? What's akeepin' you? We're tired waitin' for you, and w're comin' right in. What're you doin' to them ragamuffins that you've bin gatherin' up? Tryin' to patch 'em up into decent-lookin' men? Think it'll be like mendin' a brush-fence--makin'
bad worse. Where on earth did you gather up sich a gang o' scare-crows?
I wouldn't waste my days and nights pickin' up sich runts as them. When I go manhuntin' I'll gether something that's worth while."
Every bright sally of Maria was punctuated with shrieks of laughter from the girls accompanying her. Led by her, they swarmed into the dull, bare room, filling it with the brightness of their youthful presence, their laughter, and their chirruping comments on everything they saw. The jail was a place of deep mystery to them, and it was a daring lark for them to venture in even to the outside rooms.
"The girls dared me to bring 'em in," Maria explained to Si, "and I never won't take no dare from anyone. Si, ain't you goin' to kiss your sister? You don't act a bit glad to see me. Now, if it was Annabel--"
"Why, Maria," said Si, kissing her to stop her mouth, "I wasn't expectin' to see you. What in the world are you doin' over here?"
"Why, your Cousin Marthy, here, is goin' to be married Thursday to her beau, who's got 10 days' leave to come home for that purpose. The thing's bin hurried up, because he got afeared. He heard that Marthy was flyin' around to singin' school and sociables with some other fellers that's home on furlough. So he just brung things to a head, and I rushed over here to help Marthy git ready, and stand by her in the tryin' hour.
Why, here's Mr. Corporil Elliott, that I hain't spoken to yit. Well, Mr. Skip-and-away, how d' you do? Girls, come up here and see a man who thought mother's cookin' was not good enough for him. He got homesick for army rations, and run off without so much as sayin' good-by, to git somethin' to eat that he'd really enjoy."
Her merry laugh filled the room, and rang even into the dark cells inside. Shorty shambled to his feet, pulled off his hat, and stood with downcast eyes and burning face. He had never encountered anything so beautiful and so terrifying.
Maria was certainly fair to look upon. A buxom, rosy-cheeked lass, something above the average hight of girls, and showing the Klegg blood in her broad chest and heavy, full curves. She was dressed in the hollyhock fashion of country girls of those days, with an exuberance of bright colors, but which Shorty thought the hight of refined fashion. He actually trembled at what the next words would be from those full, red lips, that never seemed to open except in raillery and mocking.
"Well, ain't you goin' to shake hands with me? What are you mad about?"
"Mad? Me mad? What in the world've I to be mad about?" thought Shorty, as he changed his hat to his left hand, and put forth shamedly a huge paw, garnished with red hair and the dust of the march. It seemed so unfit to be touched by her white, plump hand. She gave him a hearty grasp, which reassured him a little, for there was nothing in it, at least, of the derision which seemed to ring in every note of her voice and laughter.
"Girls," she called, "come up and be introduced. This is Mr. Corpril Elliott, Si's best friend and partner. I call him Mr. Fly-by-night, because he got his dander up about something or nothin', and skipped out one night without so much's sayin'--"
"O, Maria, come off. Cheese it. Dry up," said Si impatiently. "Take us somewhere where we kin git somethin' to eat. Your tongue's hung in the middle, and when you start to talkin' you forgit everything else. I'm hungrier'n a bear, and so's Shorty."
An impulse of anger flamed up in Shorty's heart. How dared Si speak that way to such a peerless creature? How could he talk to her as if she were some ordinary girl?
"O, of course, you're hungry," Maria answered. "Never knowed you when you wasn't. You're worse'n a Shanghai chicken--eat all day and be hungry at night. But I expect you are really hungry this time. Come on. We'll go right up to Cousin Marthy's. I sent word that you was in town, and they're gittin' ready for you. I seen a dray-load o' provisions start up that way. Come on, girls. Cousin Marthy, bein's you're engaged and Si's engaged, you kin walk with him. The rest o' you fall in behind, and I'll bring up the rear, as Si'd say, with Mr. Fly-by-night, and hold on to him so that he sha'n't skip again."
"Me run away," thought Shorty, as they walked along. "Hosses couldn't drag me away. I only hope that house is 10 miles off."
Unfortunately for his cause he could not say nor hint any such a thing, but walked along in dogged silence. The sky was overcast and cheerless, and a chill wind blew, but Shorty never knew such a radiant hour.
"Well, why don't you say something? What's become o' your tongue?" began Maria banteringly.
"Have you bit it off, or did some girl, that you bolted off in such a hurry to see, drain you so dry o' talk that you haint got a word left?
Who is she? What does she look like? What made you in sich a dreadful hurry to see her? You didn't go clear up to Bad Ax, did you, and kill that old widower?"
"Maria," called out Si, "if you don't stop plaguin' Shorty I'll come back there and wring your neck. You kin make the worst nuisance o'
yourself o' any girl that ever lived. Here, you go up there and walk with Cousin Marthy. I'll walk with Shorty. I've got something I want to say to him."
With that he crowded in between Maria and Shorty and gave his sister a shove to send her forward. Shorty flared up at the interference. Acute as his suffering was under Maria's tongue, he would rather endure it than not have her with him. Anyhow, it was a matter between him and her, with which Si had no business.
"You oughtn't to jaw your sister that way, Si," he remonstrated energetically. "I think it's shameful. I wouldn't talk that way to any woman, especially sich a one as your sister."
"Whose sister is she, anyway?" snapped Si, who was as irritable as a hungry and tired man gets. "You 'tend to your sisters and I'll 'tend to mine. I'm helpin' you. You don't know Maria. She's one o' the best girls in the world, but she's got a doublegeared, self-actin' tongue that's sharper'n a briar. She winds it up Sundays and lets it run all week.
I've got to comb her down every little while. She's a filly you can't manage with a snaffle. Let her git the start and you'd better be dead.
The boys in our neighborhood's afeared to say their soul's their own when she gits a-goin'. You 'tend to the other girls and leave me to 'tend to her. She's my sister--nobody else's."
[Illustration: HAVE COME, SIR, IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF INDIANA TO DEMAND THE RELEASE OF THOSE MEN. 199]
Shorty fell back a little and walked sullenly along. The people at the house were expecting them, and had a bountiful supper prepared. A good, sousing wash in the family lavatory in the entry, plentifully supplied with clear water, soap, tin basins and clean roller towels, helped much to restore the boys' self-respect and good humor. When they were seated at the table Maria, as the particular friend of the family, assisted as hostess, and paid especial attention to supplying Shorty's extensive wants, and by her assiduous thoughtfulness strengthened her chains upon him and soothed the hurts her tongue had made. Yet he could not see her whisper to one of the other girls, and hear the responsive giggle, but he thought with flushed face that it concerned the Bad Ax incident. But Maria was not doing any such covert work. She was, above everything, bold and outspoken.
"You girls that want a soldier-beau," she took opportunity to remark at a little pause in the feast, "kin jest set your caps for Mr. Corpril Elliott there. He's in the market. He had a girl up in Bad Ax, Wis., but she went back on him, and married a stay-at-home widower, who's in the lumber business."
There was a general giggle, and a chorus of exclamations at such unpatriotic and unwomanly perfidy. Shorty's appetite fled.
"Maria," thundered Si, "I'll make you pay for this when I git you alone."
"Yes," continued the incorrigible tease; "and they say the best time to ketch a widder is while her eyes is wet. Transplantin's best in wet weather, and the best time to ketch a feller's jest when he's bin jilted."
Si sprang from the table, as if he would catch Maria and slap her. She laughingly threatened him with a big fork in her hand. They happened to look toward Shorty. He had risen from the table, with the sweat pouring from his burning face. He fumbled in his breast for his silk handkerchief. As he pulled it out there came with it the piece of Maria's dress, which Shorty had carefully treasured. It fell to the floor. Shorty saw it, and forgetful of all else, stooped over, picked it up, carefully brushed the dust from it, refolded it and put if back in his pocket. Maria's face changed instantly from laughing raillery, and she made a quick movement to place herself where she would hide from the rest what he was doing.
There was a rap at the door and the Sheriff of the County entered.
"Sorry to disturb you at supper," he said. "But there's some hint of trouble, and I'd like to have you stand by to help me if it comes. The news has gone all over the country of the haul you brung into the' jail this afternoon, and they say their friends are gatherin' for a rescue.
So many o' the right kind o' the boys is away in the army that I hardly know where to look for help. I'm sending word around to all I kin reach.
There's several o' the boys that're home gittin' well o' wounds that'll be glad to help. I'm sendin' buggies for 'em. They can't walk, but they kin stand up and shoot. I'd like to have you come down to the jail as soon's you git through your supper. And, Serg't Klegg, will you take command? I ain't much on the military, but I'll stay with you and obey orders."
"All right. Sheriff; we'll be right down," responded Si with alacrity.
"Git together a few of the boys, and we'll stand off the Knights. There won't be much trouble, I think."
The prospect of a fight transformed Shorty. His shamefacedness vanished instantly, and he straightened up to his full hight with his eyes shining.
"I don't think there's need o' disturbin' the other boys. Sheriff," he said. "I guess me and Si'll be able to stand off any crowd that they're likely to run up aginst us."
"Don't know about that," said the Sheriff doubtfully. "They've bin gittin' sassier and sassier lately, and've showed more willingness to fight. They've put up several very nasty little shindies at one place or another. Out at Charleston, Ill., they killed the Sheriff and a lot o' soldiers right in the Courthouse yard in broad daylight. I believe they've got rebels for officers. We mustn't take no chances."
"Let 'em come on," said Si. "We've run up aginst rebels before. We'll be down to the jail in a few minutes. Sheriff."
The Sheriff's words had banished the ready laughter from the girls'
lips, and taken away their appetites, but seemed to have sharpened those of Si and Shorty.
"Here, Maria," called out Si, as he resumed his place at the table with Shorty, while the girls grouped together and whispered anxiously, "bring us in some more o' them slapjacks. We may have to be up all night, and want somethin' that'll stay by us."