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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Cavalier - Chapter 24. A Million And A Half
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The Cavalier - Chapter 24. A Million And A Half Post by :Sandi_McQuade Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1529

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The Cavalier - Chapter 24. A Million And A Half

CHAPTER XXIV. A MILLION AND A HALF

About mid-afternoon I awoke from deep sleep on a bed of sand in the roasting shade of a cottonwood jungle. A corporal was shaking me and whispering "Make no noise; mount and fall in."

Round about in the stifling thicket a score of men were doing so. Lieutenant Quinn stood by, and at his side Sergeant Jim seemed to have just come among us. The place was pathless; only in two directions could one see farther than a few yards. Through one narrow opening came an intolerable glare of sunlight from a broad sheet of gliding water, while by another break in the motionless foliage could be seen in milder light, filling nearly the whole northern view, the tawny flood of the Mississippi. A stretch of the farther shore was open fields lying very low and hidden by a levee.

As we noiselessly fell into line, counting off in a whisper and rubbing from ourselves and our tortured horses the flies we were forbidden to slap, I noticed rising from close under that farther levee and some two miles upstream, a small cloud of dust coming rapidly down the hidden levee road. It seemed to be raised entirely by one or two vehicles. Behind us our own main shore was wholly concealed by this mass of cottonwoods on the sands between it and the stream, on a spit of which we stood ambushed. On the water, a hundred and fifty yards or so from the jungle, pointed obliquely across the vast current, was a large skiff with six men in it. Four were rowing with all their power, a fifth sat in the bow and the other in the stern. Quinn, in the saddle, watched through his glass the cottonwoods from which the skiff had emerged at the bottom of a sheltered bay. Now he shifted his gaze to the little whirl of dust across the river, and now he turned to smile at Jim, but his eye lighted on me instead. I risked a knowing look and motioned with my lips, "Just in time!"

"No," he murmured, "they're late; we've been waiting for them."

The sergeant's low order broke the platoon into column by file, Quinn rode toward its head with his blade drawn, and as he passed me he handed me his glass. "Here, you with no carbine, stay and watch that boat till I send for you. If there's firing, look sharp to see if any one there is hit, and who, and how hard. Watch the boat, nothing else."

He moved straight landward through the cottonwoods, followed by the men in single file, but halted them while the rear was still discernible in the green tangle. Presently they unslung carbines, and I distinctly heard galloping. It was not far beyond the cottonwoods. The Yankees were after us. Suddenly it ceased. Over yonder, shoreward in the thicket, came a sharp command and then a second, and then, right on the front of the jungle, at the water's edge, the shots began to puff and crack, and the yellow river out here around the boat to spit!--spit!--in wicked white splashes. Every second their number grew. Behind me Quinn and his men stole away. But orders are orders and I had no choice but to watch the boat. The man in the stern had his back to me, and no face among the other five did I know. They were fast getting away, but the splashes came thick and close and presently one ball found its mark. The man at the stern hurriedly changed places with an oarsman; and as the relieved rower took his new seat he turned slowly upon his face as if in mortal pain, and I saw that the fresh hand at the oar was the brother of Major Harper. Just as I made the discovery "Boom!" said my small dust-cloud across the river, and "hurry-hurry-hurry-hurry-hurry-hurry-hurry--" like a train on a trestle-work--"boom!"--a shell left its gray track in the still air over the skiff and burst in the tops of the cottonwoods. The green thicket grew pale with the bomb's white smoke, yet "crack! crack!" and "spit! spit!" persisted the blue-coats' rifles. "Boom!" said again the field-piece on yonder side the water. Its shell came rattling through the air to burst on this side, out of the flashing and cracking of rifles and the sulphurous bomb smoke arose cries of men getting mangled, and I whimpered and gnawed my lips for joy, and I watched the boat, but no second shot came aboard, and--"Boom!--hurry-hurry-hurry- hurry"--ah! the frightful skill of it! A third shell tore the cottonwoods, its smoke slowly broadened out, a Federal bugle beyond the thicket sounded the Rally, and the cracking of carbines ceased.

Now Major Harper's brother passes a word to the man at the boat's bow, whereupon this man springs up and a Confederate officer's braids flash on his sleeve as he waves to the western shore to cease firing. I still watch the boat, but I listen behind me. I hear voices of command, the Federal sergeants hurrying the troop out of the jungle and back to their horses. Then there comes a single voice, the commander's evidently; but before it can cease it is swallowed up in a low thunder of hoofs and then in a burst of cries and cheers which themselves the next moment are drowned in a rattle of carbine and pistol shots--Ferry is down on them out of hiding. Thick and silent above the din rises the dust of the turmoil, and out of all the hubbub under it I can single out the voice of the Federal captain yelling curses and orders at his panic-stricken men. And now the melee rolls southward, the crackle of shots grows less and then more again, and then all at once comes the crash of Quinn's platoon out of ambush, their cheer, their charge, the crackle of pistols again, and then another cheer and charge--what is that! Ferry re-formed and down on them afresh? No, it was the hard-used but gallant foe cutting their way out and getting off after all.

The skiff was touching the farther shore and the three oarsmen lifting their stricken comrade out and bearing him to the top of the levee, when Kendall came to recall me. On our way back he told me of the fight, beginning with the results: none of our own men killed outright, but four badly wounded and already started eastward in the ambulance left us by the Major's brother; some others more slightly hurt. My questions were headlong and his answers quiet; he was a slow-spoken daredevil; I wish he came more than he does into this story.

Not slow-spoken did we find the command when we reached the road where they were falling into line. After a brief but vain pursuit, here were almost the haste and tumult of the onset; the sweat of it still reeked on everyone; the ground was strewn with its wreckage and its brute and human dead, and the pools of their blood were still warm. Squarely across the middle of the road, begrimed with dust, and with a dead Federal under him and another on top, lay the big white-footed pacer. At one side the enemy's fallen wounded were being laid in the shade to be left behind. In our ranks, here was a man with an arm in a bloody handkerchief, there one with his head so bound, and yonder a young fellow jesting wildly while he let his garments be cut and a flesh-wound in his side be rudely stanched. Here there was laughter at one who had been saved by his belt-buckle, and here at one who had dropped like dead from his horse, but had caught another horse and charged on. But these details imply a delay where in fact there was none; the moment Ferry spied me he asked "Did he get across?" and while I answered he motioned me into the line. Then he changed it into a column, commanded silence, and led us across country eastward. For those few wounded who would not give up their places in the ranks it was a weary ten miles that brought us swiftly back to a point within five miles of that Clifton which we had left in the morning. And yet a lovely ten miles it was, withal. You would hardly have known this tousled crowd for the same dandy crew that had smiled so flippantly upon me at sunrise, though they smiled as flippantly now with faces powder-blackened, hair and eyelashes matted and gummed with sweat and dust, and shoulders and thighs caked with grime. Yet to Ned Ferry as well as to me--I saw it in his eye every time he looked at them--these grimy fellows did more to beautify those ten miles than did June woods beflowered and perfumed with magnolia, bay and muscadine, or than slant sunlight in glade or grove.

In a stretch of timber where we broke ranks for a short rest, unbitting but not unsaddling, a lot of fellows pressed me to tell them about the boat on the river. "You heard what was in it, didn't you?" asked one nearly as young as I.

"Besides the men? No. Same that was in the ambulance, I suppose; what was it?"

"Don't you know? Oh, I remember, you were asleep when Quinn told us. Well, sir,"--he tried to speak calmly but he had to speak somehow or explode--"it was soldiers' pay--for Dick Taylor's army, over in the Trans-Mississippi; a million and a half dollars!" He was as proud to tell the news as he would have been to own the money.

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