Their names's mud. They're now only part o' the real estate on the other side o' the crick. They're suddently become no good for poll-tax; only to be assessed by the acre."
"So you're sure they can't do more harm to the bridge?"
"No more'n the dead leaves on the banks."
"But I thought," persisted Harry, "that when a man's killed something had to be done--coroner's inquest, corpse got ready, funeral, preacher, neighbors gather in, and so on."
"Well, you needn't bother about any obsequies to them fellers over there," said Shorty, sententiously, as he pulled away at his pipe. "You done your whole share when you done the heavy work o' providin' the corpses. Let anybody that wants to put on any frills about plantin' 'em.
If we have time tomorrow mornin' and nothin' better to do, we may go over there and dig holes and put 'em in. But most likely we'll be needed to rebuild that bridge they burnt. I'd rather do that, so's we kin hurry on to Chattynoogy. Buzzards'll probably be their undertakers. They've got a contract from the Southern Confedrisy for all that work. You lay down and go to sleep. That's the first dooty of a soldier. You don't know what may be wanted o' you tomorrow, and you should git yourselves in shape for anything--fightin', marchin' or workin'."
"And sha'n't we do nothin' neither to that man that we shot when he was tryin' to set fire to the train?" asked little Pete Skidmore, who with Sandy Baker had come up and listened to Shorty's lecture. "He's still layin' out there where he dropped, awful still. Me and Sandy took a piece o' fat pine and went down and looked at him. We didn't go very close. We didn't like to. He seemed so awful quiet and still."
"No; you let him alone," snapped Shorty impatiently. "He'll keep. Lay down and git some sleep, I tell you. What need you bother about a dead rebel? He ain't makin' no trouble. It's the livin' ones that need lookin' out for."
The boys' looks showed that they were face to face with one of the incomprehensibilities of war. But they lay down and tried to go to sleep, and Shorty's thoughts returned to Indiana.
A shot rang out from the post on which he had stationed Jim Humphreys.
He was on his feet in an instant, with his gun in hand, and in the next Si was beside him.
"What's up?" inquired Si, rubbing his eyes.
"Nothin', I believe," answered Shorty. "But hold the boys and I'll go out and see."
He strode forward to Jim's side and demanded what he had shot at.
"I saw some men tryin' to cross the crick there," replied Jim, pointing with his rammer in the direction of the opposite bank.
"There, you kin see 'em for yourself."
"I don't see no men," said Shorty, after a moment's scrutiny.
"There they are. Don't you see that white there?" said Jim, capping his musket for another shot.
"That white," said Shorty contemptously, "is some water-birches. They was there when you came on guard, for I noticed 'em, and they hain't moved since. You seen 'em then, lookin' just as they do now. You're a fool to think you kin see anything white in a rebel. 'Taint their color."
"I don't care," half whimpered Jim. "Gid Mackall, and Harry Joslyn, and Alf Russell, and Pete Skidmore, and even Sandy Baker, have all shot rebels, and I hain't hit none. I don't have half-a-show."
"Be patient," Shorty consoled him. "Your three years's only begun.
You'll have lots o' chances yit. But if I ketch you shootin' at any more white birches I'll tie you up by the thumbs."
Shorty returned to the fire. Si bade the boys he down again, and took his own blanket. Shorty relighted his pipe, took out his never-failing deck of cards and began running them over.
[Illustration: WILD SHOOTING OF THE BOYS SAVES THE SURPRISED COLORED MAN. 273]
Jim Humphreys's shot had given new restlessness to the boys. They did not at all believe in Shorty's diagnosis of the situation. There must be more men lurking over there whence all that murderous shooting had come only a little while ago. Jim Humphreys was more than probably right. One after another of them quietly slipped away from the fire with his gun and made his way down to Jim Humphreys's post, which commanded what seemed to be a crossing of the creek. They stood there and scanned the opposite bank of darkness with tense expectancy. They had their ears tuned up to respond to even the rustle of the brown, dry leaves on the trees and the murmur of the creek over the stones. They even saw the white birches move around from place to place and approach the water, but Shorty's dire threat prevented their firing until they got something more substantial.
"There's rebels over there, sure as you're born,"' murmured Jim to them, without turning his head to relax his fixed gaze nor taking his finger from the trigger of his cocked gun. "Wish they'd fire a gun first to convince that old terror of a Corpril, who thinks he kin tell where rebels is just by the smell. I'd--"
"Sh! Jim, I hear a hoss's hoofs," said Harry Joslyn.
"Sh! so do I," echoed Gid Mackall.
They all listened with painful eagerness.
"Hoss's hoofs and breakin' limbs, sure's you're a foot high," whispered Harry. "And they're comin' down the hill this way."
"That's right. They're a'most to the crick now," assented Gid. "I'm going to shoot."
"No; I've got the right to a first shot," said Jim. "You fellers hold off."
Bang went Jim's gun, followed almost instantly by the others.
"Hi, dere, boys; I's done found you at las'! Whoopee!" called out a cheery voice from across the creek, and a man rode boldly down to the water's edge, where the boys were nervously reloading.
"Now, Jim Humphreys, what in blazes are you bangin' away at now?"
angrily demanded Si, striding up. "At a cotton-tailed rabbit or a sycamore stump?"
"The woods is full o' rebel cavalry comin' acrost the crick," gasped Jim, as he rammed down his cartridge. "There, you kin see 'em for yourself."
"What foh you come dis-a-way, boys?" continued the voice of the man on horseback. "I done los' you! I fought we done agreed to go ober by Simpson's hill, an' I jine you dar. I went dat-a-way, an' den I hear you shootin' ober dis-a-way, an' seed yoh fiah, and I cut acrost to git to you. Whah'd you git so many guns, an' sich big ones? Sound like sojer guns. I done beared dem way ober dah, an' I--"
"Hold on, boys," sternly shouted Shorty, springing in front of them and throwing up their guns. "Don't one o' you dare shoot! Hold up, I say!
Hello, you there! Who are you?"
"Who's me?" said the negro, astonished by the strange voice. "I's Majah Wilkinson's Sam, Massa Patrol. I's got a pass all right. De old Majah done tole me I could go out coon-huntin' wid Kunnel Oberly's boys tonight, but I done missed dem."
"Come ashore here, boy," commanded Shorty, "and be thankful that you're alive. You've had a mighty narrow squeak of it. Next time you go out coon huntin' be sure there's no Yankee and rebel soldiers huntin' one another in the neighborhood. Coons have a tough time then."
"Yankee sojers!" gasped the negro, as he was led back to the fire, and saw the blue uniforms. "Lawdy, massy, don't kill me. I pray, sah, don't.
I hain't done nuffin. Sho' I hain't. Massa said you'd burn me alibe if you eber cotched me, but you won't, will you?"
"We ain't goin' to hurt you," said Shorty. "Sit down there by the fire and git the goose-flesh offen you." Then turning to the boys he remarked sarcastically:
"Fine lot o' marksmen you are, for a fact. Halfa dozen o' you bangin'
away at a hundred yards, and not comin' close enough to a nigger to let him know you was shootin' at him. Now will you lay down and go to sleep?
Here, Si, you take charge o' this gang and let me go to sleep. I've had enough o' them for one night."
During the night a train came up, carrying a regiment of entirely new troops. In the morning these scattered over the ground, scanning everything with the greatest interest and drinking in every detail of the thrilling events of the previous night.
"It's just killin'," said Si to Shorty, "to watch the veteran airs our boys are puttin' on over those new fellers. You'd think they'd fit in every battle since Bunker Hill, and learned Gen. Grant all he knows about tactics. Talk about the way the old fellers used to fill us up, why, these boys lay away over everything we ever knowed. I overheard Harry Joslyn laying it into about 40 of them. 'No man knows just what his feelin's will be under fire until he has the actual experience,'
says he. 'Now, the first time I heard a rebel bullet whistle,' and his face took on a look as if he was trying to recollect something years ago."
"Yes," laughed Shorty, "and you should hear little Pete Skidmore and Sandy Baker lecturing them greenies as to the need o' lookin' carefully to their rear and beware o' rebels sneakin' 'round and attackin'
their trains. Hold on. Look through this brush. There's Monty Scruggs explainin' the plan o' battle to a crowd of 'em. He don't know we're anywhere around. Listen and you'll hear something."
"The enemy had reached the ground in advance of us," Monty was elucidating, in language with which his school histories and the daily papers had familiarized him, "and had strongly posted himself along those hights, occupying a position of great natural strength, including their own natural cussedness. Their numbers was greatly superior to ours, and they had prepared a cunning trap for us, which we only escaped by the vigilance of Corpril Elliott and the generalship of Serg't Klegg. I tell you, those men are a dandy team when it comes to running a battle. They know their little biz, and don't you forget it for a minute. The enemy opened a galling fire, when Corpril Elliott gallantly advanced to that point there and responded, while Serg't Klegg rapidly arrayed his men along there, and the battle became terrific. It was like the poet says:
"'Then shook the hills with thunder riven, Then rushed the steeds to battle driven, And louder than the bolts of heaven, Far flashed the red artillery.'"