Southern Soldier Stories

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Dec 31, 1898
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"I'm tired, and the other pack mules are tired, and from the way you move I imagine that the rest of you donkeys are tired!" called out Jack Ridsdale, as the last of the mules and their drivers scrambled up the bank and gained a secure foothold on the little plateau.

"I move that we camp here for the night. All in favor say 'aye.' The motion's carried unanimously."

With that the tall boy threw off the pack that burdened his shoulders, set his gun up against a friendly tree and proceeded in other ways to relieve himself of the restraints under which he had toiled up the steep mountain side since early morning, with only now and then a minute's pause for breath.

"This is a good place to camp in," he presently added. "There's grazing for the mules, there's timber around for fire wood and I hear water trickling down from the cliff yonder. So 'Alabama,' which is Cherokee eloquence meaning 'here we rest.'"

The party consisted of five sturdy boys and a man, the Doctor, not nearly so stalwart in appearance, who seemed about twenty-eight or thirty years old. Each member of the party carried a heavy pack upon his back and each had a gun slung over his shoulder and an axe hanging by his girdle. There were four packmules heavily laden and manifestly weary with the long climb up the mountain.

As the boys were scarcely less weary than the mules they eagerly welcomed Jack Ridsdale's decision to go no farther that day, but rest where they were for the night.

"Now then," Jack resumed as soon as he got his breath again—a thing requiring some effort in the rarefied atmosphere of the high mountain peak—"we're all starved. The first thing to do is to get a fire started and get the kettle on for supper. If some of you fellows will unload the mules and get out the necessary things I'll chop some wood and we'll have a fire going in next to no time."

With that he swung his axe over his shoulder and stalked off into the nearby edge of the wood land. There with deft blows—for he was an expert with the axe—he quickly converted some fallen limbs and dead trees into a rude sort of fire wood which the other boys shouldered and carried to the glade where the Doctor had started a little fire that needed only feeding to become a great one.

During their laborious climb up the steep mountain side the party had found the early November day rather too warm for comfort; but now that the sun had sunk behind the mountain, and evening was drawing near, there was a sharp feeling of coming frost in the atmosphere, and as it would be necessary to sleep out of doors that night with no shelter but the stars, Jack continued his chopping until a great pile of dry wood lay near the fire ready for use during the night.

“Give it up, boys; you’re tired, and you’ve been in the water too long already. And, besides, I’ve decided that this job’s done.”

It was Ed Lowry who spoke. He was lying on the sand under a big sycamore tree that had slid, roots and all, off the river bank above, and now stood leaning like a drunken man trying to stand upright.

Ed was a tall, slender, and not at all robust boy, with a big head, and a tremendous shock of half-curly hair to make it look bigger.

The four boys whom he addressed had been diving in the river and struggling with something under the water, but without success. Three of them accepted Ed’s suggestion, as all of them were accustomed to do, not because he had any particular right to make suggestions to them, but because he was so far the moral and intellectual superior of every boy in town, and was always so wise and kindly and just in his decisions, that they had come to regard his word as a sort of law without themselves quite knowing why.

Three of the boys left the river, therefore, shook the water off their sunburned bodies,—for they had no towels,—and slipped into the loose shirt and cottonade trousers that constituted their sole costume.

The other boy—Ed’s younger brother, Philip—was not so ready to accept suggestions. In response to Ed’s call, he cried out in a sort of mock heroics:—

“Never say die! In the words of the immortal Lawrence, or some other immortal who died a long time ago, ‘Don’t give up the ship!’ I’m going to get that pig if it takes all summer.”

The boys all laughed as they threw themselves down upon the sand by Ed.

“Might as well let him alone,” said Will Moreraud; “he never will quit.”

Meantime Phil had dived three or four times more, each time going down head first, wrestling with the object as long as he could hold his breath, and each time manifestly moving one end or the other of it nearer the shore, and into shallower water, before coming to the surface again.

When he had caught his breath after the third or fourth struggle, he called out:—

“I say, boys, it isn’t a pig at all, but a good average-sized elephant. ‘Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish,’ I’m going to get that animal ashore.”

The road was a winding, twisting track as it threaded its way through a stretch of old field pines. The land was nearly level at that point, and quite unobstructed, so that there was not the slightest reason that ordinary intelligence could discover for the roadway's devious wanderings. It might just as well have run straight through the pine lands.

But in Virginia people were never in a hurry. They had all of leisure that well-settled and perfectly self-satisfied ways of life could bring to a people whose chief concern it was to live uprightly and happily in that state of existence into which it had pleased God to call them. What difference could it make to a people so minded, whether the journey to the Court-house—the centre and seat of county activities of all kinds—were a mile or two longer or shorter by reason of meaningless curves in the road, or by reason of a lack of them? Why should they bother to straighten out road windings that had the authority of long use for their being? And why should the well-fed negro drivers of family carriages shake themselves out of their customary and comfortable naps in order to drive more directly across the pine land, when the horses, if left to themselves, would placidly follow the traditional track?

The crookedness of the road was a fact, and Virginians of that time always accepted and respected facts to which they had been long accustomed. For that sufficient reason Baillie Pegram, the young master of Warlock, was not thinking of the road at all, but accepting it as he did the greenery of the trees and the bursting of the buds, as he jogged along at a dog-trot on that fine April morning in the year of our Lord 1861.

He was well mounted upon a mettlesome sorrel mare,—a mare with pronounced ideas of her own. The young man had taught her to bend these somewhat to his will, but her individuality was not yet so far subdued or suppressed as to lose itself in that of her master. So she suddenly halted and vigorously snorted as she came within sight of the little bridge over Dogwood Branch, where a horse and a young gentlewoman were obviously in trouble.

I name the horse and the girl in that ungallant reverse order, because that was the order in which they revealed themselves to the mare and her master. For the girl was on the farther side of the horse, and stooping, so that she could not be seen at a first glance. As she heard approaching hoof-beats she straightened herself into that dignity of demeanour which every young Virginia gentlewoman felt it to be her supreme duty in life to maintain under any and all circumstances.

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