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The Courage of Ericson by Will Nathaniel Harben

 

In straggling, despondent lines the men in soiled gray leaned on their muskets and peered through the misty darkness at the enemy crawling across the field in front of them like a monster reptile. The colonel of the regiment nearest the coppice of pines strode restlessly back and forth in front of his men, on tenter-hooks of anxiety, the spasmodic glow of his cigar showing features grim and tortured.

“I feel like we're in fer it to-night,” whispered Private Ericson to a battle-stained comrade.

“Right you are,” was the guarded reply; “an' we-uns ain't a handful beside the army out thar. I tell you the blasted fellers have had reinforcements sence the sun went down. I know it, an' our colonel is beginnin' to suspicion it. Ef he had his way he'd order a retreat while thar's a chance.”

Silence, punctuated by the clanking of the colonel's sword and the snoring of a private asleep standing, intervened. Then Private Huckaby resumed:

“So this is rally yore old stompin'-ground, Ericson. I reckon you uster haul pine-knots out'n them woods, and split rails on that mountain-side.”

“I know every inch of it like a book,” sighed Ericson.

“An' I reckon that sweetheart o' yor'n don't live fur off, ef she didn't refugee.”

“Her folks wuz Union,” returned Ericson, sententiously. “Her'n tuk one side, an' me an' mine t'other. The cabin she used to live in is jest beyond them woods at the foot o' the fust mountain, “Old Crow.” She's thar yit. A feller that seed 'er a week ago told me. She 'lowed ef I jined the Confederacy I needn't ever look her way any more. Her father an' only brother went to the Union side, an' she blamed me fer wantin' to go with my folks. She is as proud as Lucifer. I wisht we'd parted friendlier. I hain't been in a single fight without wantin' that one thing off my mind.”

Ericson leaned on the muzzle of his gun, and Huckaby saw his broad shoulders rise and quiver convulsively. He stared at the begrimed face under the slouched hat, beginning to think that what he had seen of his young mate had been only the surface—the froth—of a deeper nature. An excited grunt came from the mist which almost enveloped the colonel, and he was seen to dart to the end of the regiment and throw down his cigar.

“To arms!” he cried.

The words were drowned in the clatter of muskets as they were snatched from the ground to horny palms. The sound died like the rustle of dead leaves in a forest after a gust of wind. A composite eye saw that the line which had been moving across the field in front had paused, steadied itself. The next instant it was a billow of flame half a mile in length, rolling up and dashing itself against the wall of damp darkness. The colonel, his blue steel blade raised against the sheet of piercing lead, sprang forward, a black silhouette against the enemy's glare. He meant it as an objective command—a prayer—to his men to stand to their ground, but he tottered, leaned on his sword, and as its point sank into the earth he fell face downward. Drums, great and small, boomed and rattled on the Confederate side like a prolonged echo of the Federal's salvo.


Page 232

The ranks of the Confederates wavered—broke; the retreat began. Running backward, his gun poised, Ericson felt a numb, tingling sensation in his right side. He turned and started after his comrades, but each step he put down seemed to meet the ground as it fell from him. Then he felt dizzy. There was a roaring in his ears, and his legs weakened. As he fell his gun tripped the feet of Huckaby, and that individual went to earth, and then on hands and knees, to avoid being shot, crept to his friend's side.

“What's wrong, Eric? Done fer?” he asked, his tone weighty with the tragedy of the moment.

“I believe so,” said Ericson. “Go on; don't wait!”

“Good-by, my boy,” Huckaby said. “I'd tote ye, but some'n' is the matter with the calf o' my right leg. I'd give out, I know, an'—an' I must remember my wife and the ba—” He was gone.

Half an hour passed, during which time Ericson had experienced the delicious sensation of a man freezing to death, then a realization of his condition permeated his consciousness. He drew himself up on an elbow and glanced over the field. Black ambulances, like vultures stalking about with drooping wings, were picking their way among the dead and dying. Vaguely Ericson's numb fancy pictured himself being jostled like a human log of wood to hospital, or perhaps to prison, and grasping his musket, and transforming it into a crutch, he rose and hobbled away from the groans and puddles of blood into the edge of the wood.

He had no sooner reached it than he felt the earth acting as if it were a mad sea again, and he sank headlong into the heather and underbrush. When he came to it was morning. The oblique rays of the sun were making diamonds and pearls of the poised dewdrops. The field had been cleared. Only a shattered gun, a tattered cap, a battered canteen bore evidence of the recent carnage. Half a mile across the level valley Ericson saw a village of tents, blue-coated guards pacing to and fro, and the stars and stripes rippling from a tall staff.

The private rose cautiously to his trembling feet, and aided by his too weighty crutch he went slowly through the wood toward the cabin where dwelt Sally Tripp.

“It's the nighest house,” he said to himself. “Shorely she won't refuse to let me in.”

However, when he had passed through the wood and saw the cabin not fifty yards from him in the open, a screw of blue smoke curling from the mud-and-stick chimney, misgivings which had depressed him ever since he had parted with her attacked him anew. He forgot that he had lost nearly every ounce of his life-blood, and stood almost erect, resting hardly the weight of his hand on the gun as his eyes drank in the familiar old scene.

Then he heard the massive bar of one of the doors squeak as it was lifted from its wooden sockets, and in the doorway stood a golden-haired vision.

“Thank God, it's her!” Ericson muttered; and the sight of her standing there, looking afar off toward the camp of the Federals, gave him courage. He dropped his gun, determined not to exhibit weakness, and walked erectly, if slowly, toward her.

He saw the girl turn pale, stare at him steadily, and stifle a scream with her hand at her lips.

“Don't you know me, Sally?” he asked.

She stared mutely, inwardly occupied with her outward appearance, fearing perhaps that a tithe of her gladness of heart at seeing him might be detected by his supersensitive, pleading eye.

“Thar ain't nothin' to keep me from knowin' of you,” she said. “As fur as them clothes on yore back is concerned, they become yore sort powerful well. A rebel is a rebel anywhar.”

Again the qualms of physical weakness stirred within him. He hung his head, praying for strength to keep from falling at her feet. She smiled relentlessly and continued:

“I reckon when the Union men attackted you-uns last night you broke an' ran like all the rest. I seed that fight, John Ericson. Me an' grandpa scrouged down behind the chimney so as not to git struck an' watched the trap the bluecoats was a-layin' fer you- uns. We seed the reinforcements slide in round “Old Crow", an' knowed most o' you- uns would play mumbly-peg 'fore mornin'. I mought 'a' 'lowed you'd git off unteched, knowing them woods as well as you do.”

His silence, his downcast attitude may have shamed the girl, for a change came over her. She cast a hurried glance at the far-off encampment, and a touch of anxiety came into her tone as she added:

“You'd better git back into hidin', John Ericson. The Union soldiers have been sendin' out searchin' squads all day fer men that got aloose in the woods. They say they pulled Jake McLain right out'n his bed. His wife had burnt his rebel uniform an' said he was a Yank a-lyin' up sick, but the powderstains on his face give him away, an' they tuk him off.”

It was plain to him that she did not suspect he was wounded unto death, and he forgave her sternness for the sake of his great love. Besides, she was showing qualities of patriotism to which he granted her the right, though he could not comprehend what influence had entered her life to harden it to such an extent. Just then the bent form of Grandfather Tripp emerged from the other room of the cabin, crossed the entry, and stared at the soldier.

“Well, I'll be liter'ly bumfuzzled!” he exclaimed. “Ef it ain't John Ericson! I knowed yore company was in the fight last night, an' I thought o' you when I heerd the grape-shot a-plinkin' out thar. But hang me, ef you don't look sick ur half starved! Sally, give 'im some'n' t' eat. They don't feed the rebs much. Johnny, she's been a-pinin' fer you ever sence you enlisted, an' last night durin' the fight she mighty nigh went distracted. She—”

“Grandpa, that's a lie!” cried the girl, fiercely; but there were pink spots in her cheeks as she retreated into the cabin and began to slam the pots and pans on the stone hearth.

The old man caught the arm of the soldier. “Go right in, my boy. She's that glad to see you unhurt she don't know what to do. She'll give you a mouthful gladder'n she ever fed a Yank.”

Mounting the log steps to the cabin door seemed to deprive the soldier of the last vestige of his strength. As if from a distance he heard the girl's complaining voice, and a blur hung before his sight. Blindly he felt for a chair and sank into it. His head was sinking to his breast, when the sharp voice of the girl—sharper because of her grandfather's meddling—revived him like the lash of a whip on the back of a succumbing beast of burden.

“Pa's dead, John Ericson,” she cried. “Shot down, fer all I know, by you. He's gone. Now I reckon you see why I don't like the looks o' yore clothes. Then jest see heer.” She flounced into a corner of the room, jerked a trunk open and brought to him the soiled uniform of a Federal soldier. “This was what Brother Jasper had on when he died. That hole in the breast is where the ball went in. He come home a week ago on a furlough to git over his wound, an' died a-settin' thar in that door. Do you wonder that I never want to lay eyes on a dirty gray coat again?”

Ericson's slouched hat hid the piteous glare in his eyes. He rested his two hands on the arms of the chair and tried to draw himself up, but that effort was the signal for his collapse. The girl laid the uniform on the table and stared at him, the lines of her face softening and betraying vague disquietude.

“Look a heer,” she blurted out, suddenly, “are—are you wounded?”

He tried to speak, but his lips seemed paralyzed.

“My God! Grandpa, look!” the girl cried. “He's wounded! He's dying, an' I've jest been a-standin' heer—”

The old man bent over the soldier, and turned his face upward.

“Say, whar are you hit, Johnny?”

Ericson tried to affect a careless smile, and managed to place his hand on his wounded side. The old man unbuttoned his coat.

“Well, I should think so!” he muttered. “He's lost enough of the life fluid to paint a barn. Quick, Sally, put down a quilt fer 'im to lie on in front o' the fire!”

The girl obeyed as by clock-work, the whiteness of terror and regret in her face. She brought an armful of straw and some quilts and hastily patted out a crude bed for the soldier.

“Now,” said the old man, “you must lie down, Johnny.”

Ericson sat up erect.

“I don't want to—to be helpless heer,” he stammered. “All through the war I've never thought o' one single thing except Sally, an' now— “

The girl cowered down on the hearth in front of him, and hid her face with her hands.

“I didn't dream you was wounded,” she said. “Ef I'd 'a' knowed that, I'd never 'a' said what I did. Grandpa told the truth jest now, he did. Lie down, please do!”

He raised his eyes to her with a grateful glance. At this juncture the small, remote blast of a bugle fell on their ears, and it struck the tenderness from her great moist eyes. She rose and went to the door.

“It's a searchin' squad,” she cried, her voice vibrating with fear. “They are at Joe French's house now. They are shore to come heer next. Ef they take John away he'll die!” The old man stared at her rigidly.

“We must hide 'im,” he said. “Sally, he's an old friend an' a neighbor. We must hide 'im!”

The wounded soldier stood up, grasped the edge of the mantel-piece and swayed back and forth. There was a sweet comfort in her startled concern that rendered him impervious to fear.

“Thar ain't no place to hide 'im,” said the girl, with an agonized glance through the doorway toward French's house.

Ericson's knees began to bend, and he sank into his chair again.

“No use,” he muttered. “I 'lowed I mought git to the woods, but I'd hobble so slow they'd be shore to see me. When they git heer I'll tell 'em you wasn't harborin' of me.”

The girl turned from the door.

“They are a-comin',” she said. Then her eyes fell on her brother's uniform. She started, clutched it, and held it toward her grandfather, fired with a sudden hope.

“Dress 'im in it,” she said. “I'll go out an' meet 'em an' tell 'em nobody ain't heer except you an' my wounded brother home on a furlough. The permit is in t'other room. I'll show 'em that. They'll never dream he ain't brother when they read the furlough an' see 'im in the blue uniform.”

A sickly smile worked its way through the grimy surface of the soldier's face as he raised his hand to signify opposition to her suggestion.

“I couldn't do that, Sally,” he said. “Not to save my life, I couldn't. Somehow I think the chances o' my seein' another sunrise is dead ag'in' me, an' I don't want to die in any other uniform except the one me an' my comrades has fought in. I'd as soon wear the clothes of a brother o' yor'n as anybody else alive, but I can't put on blue even to escape arrest. I jest can't! It would be exactly the same as bein' a spy, an' the Lord only knows how a fightin' man hates that sort of a character.”

“But you must,” urged the girl, frantically. “Oh, you must!”

“I simply can't. That's all. I'd a sight ruther be tuk as a wounded soldier unable to stir a single peg than to sneak into another man's clothes an' deny the side I fit on. Huh, you are a woman! War makes men mighty indifferent to anything except duty.”

A picture of baffled despair, the girl peered through the doorway at the approaching men.

“You once said you'd do anything I asked ef I'd consent to marry you. John, now will you let grandpa put it on you?”

A warm scarlet wave had passed over her. She had never looked so beautiful. He hesitated for some time, and then shook his head.

“I can't put on blue clothes, Sally.”

The air was still as death. Above the beat of her strumming pulse she could hear the “hep! hep!” of the soldiers as they marched toward the cabin. Ericson staggered to his feet and stood swaying beside her.

“I mought as well go out an' meet 'em,” he said, his face awry with pain and utter exhaustion. “Ef I don't they'll think you are harborin' a reb, an' it mought go ag'in' you-uns.”

Then he threw out his hands and clutched her shoulders, and sank to the floor.

“He has fainted, grandpa,” said the girl. “Quick! Put the uniform on 'im. I'll try to detain 'em out thar till you are ready.”

“I mought just as well take off his suit an' kiver 'im with quilts,” suggested the old man. “It'll save time.”

“No, the uniform!” cried the girl. “Ef he has that on they won't ask no questions—along with the furlough. You know Jake McLain tried that trick on 'em an' failed. Put it on 'im, for the Lord's sake. Don't stand thar idle!”

The steady tramp of feet was now audible, and the occasional command of the officer in charge. Darting from the back door the girl crossed the entry, went into the next room, and emerged with the permit of absence in her belt. Picking up a pail near the door, she went to the pig-pen in a corner of the zigzag rail fence, and with no eyes for the approaching men, slowly poured the food into the animal's trough.

Stopping the squad a few yards from her, the captain doffed his cap and bowed.

“I have come to search your house for possible fugitives from the Confederate ranks last night,” he said, politely. “A good many have been found hiding in farmhouses in the vicinity.”

The girl set her pail down at her feet.

“We are Union,” she said, simply.

“I was told so,” the captain answered. “Nevertheless, I have orders to search your premises. Is there any one within?”

“Nobody but grandpa an' my wounded brother, a Union soldier home on a furlough.”

She took the paper from her belt and unfolded it very deliberately. “Thar's his permit. I fetched it out to show it so's you wouldn't have to wake 'im up ef you could help it. He couldn't sleep last nigh fer the shootin', an' the truth is, he is as nigh dead as kin be. I wisht you would let 'im rest.”

The officer perused the furlough through his eyeglasses.

“That's all right,” he said, handing it back. “But you see I have to obey orders.”

There was a pause. The maiden felt the captain's eyes resting on her admiringly. She could hear the hobnailed soles of her grandparent's shoes grinding on the puncheon floor, and knew that the old man was still engaged in dressing or undressing the fugitive.

“That's so,” she said, in a tone which plainly intimated that the question was not positively settled. “But it looks like a shame, for brother is powerful low, an' any noise mought do 'im lots o' harm.”

“I'll leave my men here, and go in myself,” compromised the officer. “I'll walk very lightly.”

The heart of the girl sank. She could still hear the crunching of her grandfather's shoes in the cabin.

“I'll be much obleeged ef you will be careful,” she said. And as he started to the cabin she joined him. “Please go in here first,” pointing to the room across the entry from the one containing the two men, “an I'll run in an' see ef brother is fit to be seen.”

He complied, with a bow, and went into the room indicated. Reappearing in a moment, he found her crouching down on the grass, a look of pain on her face.

“What's the matter?” he asked, with concern.

“Nothin',” she winced. “I set my foot on that rock an' it kinder twisted my ankle.”

He gave her his hand and aided her to rise.

“Please wait jest one minute,” she said, putting her foot down tentatively. “I was in sech a hurry jest now that I almost broke my ankle-bone.”

He bowed assent. His eyes lit with admiration for her physical charms, and she limped around to the rear of the cabin and went in. Just as she did so the noise of her grandfather's shoes on the floor ceased. The old man, thinking she was accompanied by the soldiers, was enacting his part. He had flung himself into a chair, and sat nodding as if asleep. On the bed of straw lay Ericson, still unconscious, completely clothed in blue uniform. The discarded gray suit lay in a bundle in a corner.

“Quick, that will never do!” she cried, causing the old man to look up with a start. Taking a case from a pillow on the bed, she filled it with the gray uniform and crushed it into the bottom of the old man's chair.

“Set on it,” she said. “An' don't git up, whatever you do.” Then she wrung her hands despairfully as she surveyed the room. A twitching of Ericson's yellow face warned her that he was returning to consciousness, and a new terror pierced her heart.

“Ef he comes to,” she thought, “he'll deny being a Union soldier, an' then they'll take 'im—my God, have pity on the pore boy!”

She turned from the door and limped smilingly toward the waiting officer.

“Ef brother wakes,” she said, “I hope you won't git mad at nothin' he says. Fer the last two days he has been clean out'n his head.

Once he declared to us that he was actu'ly President Jeff Davis. Thar's no tellin' what idea may strike 'im next.”

“I'll try not to wake him,” said the captain. “I'll merely step inside very carefully. I wouldn't do that if—if my men were not watching. You see they'd wonder—”

“Come on, then.” The rigidity of a crisis held her features. She entered first, and pushed the great cumbersome door open before her. The old man regarded them with sleepy looks and began to nod again.

The officer stood over the form in blue a moment, then peered under the bed, and even up the funnel-shaped chimney.

“It's all right,” he whispered to Sally.

Ericson opened his eyes and smiled faintly.

The girl comprehended his frame of mind; he had not noticed that his clothes had been changed.

“You've run me in a hole,” he said to the captain. “I'm ready to go, but I don't want you to think that these folks are a-harborin' of me. I come heer uninvited. The truth is, that young lady ordered me off, an' I'd 'a' gone, but I keeled over in the door.”

He put a hand on either side of him, and with a strenuous effort managed to sit up. Then he noticed his change of uniform, and as he plucked distastefully at his coat-sleeve, he stared first at the girl and then at the captain.

“Why, who's done this heer?” he asked. “I ain't no Yankee soldier. I'm a rebel dyed in the wool.”

The girl laid her hand on the officer's arm.

“Come on, please, sir; he's gittin' excited. Ef we dispute with 'im he'll git to rantin' awful.”

Without a word the officer followed her from the cabin and down toward where his men stood. She walked rapidly, her steps quickened by the rising tones of Ericson's voice behind her. She put her handkerchief to her dry eyes, and said, plaintively:

“I hardly know what to do. We've had no end of trouble. First the news come that pa had fell, an' then brother come home like he is now.”

“He looks like a very sick man,” said the officer, with a bluntness peculiar to times of war. “Perhaps I ought to ask our surgeon to run over and take a look at him.”

She started, her face fell.

“Old Doctor Stone, nigh us, is a-lookin' after 'im,” was the hasty product of her bewildered invention. “He'll do all that can be done— an'—an' I want to keep brother from thinkin' about army folks as much as I can. Will you-uns camp nigh us long?”

“We leave inside of an hour.” He raised his cap, saluted his men, gave an order, and they whirled and tramped away.

She went back into the cabin and sat down by the side of Ericson's pallet. There was something in his dumb glance and subdued air that quenched the warmth of her recent success. As he looked at her steadily his eyes became moist and his powder-stained lips began to quiver.

“I didn't 'low you'd play sech a dog-mean trick on me, Sally,” he muttered. I'd ruther a thousand times 'a' been shot like a soldier than to hide in Yankee clothes.” Under her warm rush of love and pity for him she completely lost the touch of hauteur that had clung to her since his return. She took his hand in hers and bent her body down till his fingers lay against her cheek. He could feel that she was deeply moved.

“I couldn't stand to see 'em take you off,” she sobbed. “Because you are all I got on earth to keer fer. It would 'e' killed you, an' me, too.” Her voice took on the gentle cadences of a mother consoling a sick child. “Grandpa will take off the mean old blue suit an' put you up in the big bed, and I'll make you some good chicken soup with boiled rice in it.”

He pressed her hand.

“Do you rally want me heer, Sally?”

Her reply was a moment's hesitation, a convulsive motion of the vocal cords, a failure of speech, and a final pressure of her lips on his fingers.

“Beca'se ef I 'lowed you did, Sally, I wouldn't keer much which side beat. I wouldn't be able to think about any livin' thing but you.”

“Well, you can, then,” she said; and she rose quickly. “Grandpa, I'm goin' in t'other room to fix 'im some chicken soup. Undress 'im an' put 'im to bed, an' then go fetch Doctor Stone.”

An hour later the old physician arrived and examined the patient.

“A flesh wound only,” he said. “But he has lost mighty nigh every bit o' blood in 'im. Nuss 'im good, Sally, an' he'll be able to make plenty o' corn and taters fer you the rest o' yore life—that is, if the war ever ends.”

Ericson was convalescing when the news of Lee's surrender came floating over the devastated land.

“I'm awfully glad it's all over,” he said. “I'm satisfied. I was shot by a Yankee ball an' nussed back to life by a Union gal, so I reckon my account is even.”

 
 
 

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