Part 3 out of 3
was through with and his supper was offered him, he never spoke.
He ate in silence and then took his seat again. Even Mrs. Mills's
complaining about the cow straying so far brought no word from him
any more than from Vashti. He sat silent as before, his long legs
stretched out toward the fire. The glow of the embers fell on the rough,
thin face and lit it up, bringing out the features and making them
suddenly clear-cut and strong. It might have been only the fire,
but there seemed the glow of something more, and the eyes burnt
back under the shaggy brows. The two women likewise were silent,
the elder now and then casting a glance at her husband. She offered him
his pipe, but he said nothing, and silence fell as before.
Presently she could stand it no longer. "I de-clar, Vashti," she said,
"I believe your pappy takes it most harder than I does."
The girl made some answer about the boys. It was hardly intended
for him to hear, but he rose suddenly, and walking to the door,
took down from the two dogwood forks above it his old, long,
single-barrelled gun, and turning to his wife said, "Git me my coat,
old woman; by Gawd, I'm a-gwine." The two women were both on their feet
in a second. Their faces were white and their hands were clenched
under the sudden stress, their breath came fast. The older woman
was the first to speak.
"What in the worl' ken you do, Cove Mills, ole an' puny as you is,
an' got the rheumatiz all the time, too?"
"I ken pint a gun," said the old man, doggedly, "an' I'm a-gwine."
"An' what in the worl' is a-goin' to become of us, an' that cow
got to runnin' away so, I'm afeared all the time she'll git in the mash?"
Her tone was querulous, but it was not positive, and when her husband
said again, "I'm a-gwine," she said no more, and all the time
she was getting together the few things which Cove would take.
As for Vashti, she seemed suddenly revivified; she moved about
with a new step, swift, supple, silent, her head up, a new light in her face,
and her eyes, as they turned now and then on her father,
filled with a new fire. She did not talk much. "I'll a-teck care o' us all,"
she said once; and once again, when her mother gave something like a moan,
she supported her with a word about "the only ones as gives three
from one family." It was a word in season, for the mother caught the spirit,
and a moment later declared, with a new tone in her voice, that that was
better than Mrs. Stanley, and still they were better off than she,
for they still had two left to help each other, while she had not a soul.
"I'll teck care o' us all," repeated the girl once more.
It was only a few things that Cove Mills took with him that morning,
when he set out in the darkness to overtake the company
before they should break camp -- hardly his old game-bag half full;
for the equipment of the boys had stripped the little cabin of everything
that could be of use. He might only have seemed to be going hunting,
as he slung down the path with his old long-barrelled gun in his hand
and his game-bag over his shoulder, and disappeared in the darkness
from the eyes of the two women standing in the cabin door.
The next morning Mrs. Mills paid Mrs. Stanley the first visit she had paid
on that side the branch since the day, three years before,
when Cove and the boys had the row with Little Darby. It might have
seemed accidental, but Mrs. Stanley was the first person in the district
to know that all the Mills men were gone to the army. She went over again,
from time to time, for it was not a period to keep up open hostilities,
and she was younger than Mrs. Stanley and better off; but Vashti never went,
and Mrs. Stanley never asked after her or came.
The company in which Little Darby and the Millses had enlisted
was one of the many hundred infantry companies which joined and were merged
in the Confederate army. It was in no way particularly signalized
by anything that it did. It was commanded by the gentleman
who did most toward getting it up; and the officers were gentlemen.
The seventy odd men who made the rank and file were of all classes,
from the sons of the oldest and wealthiest planters in the neighborhood
to Little Darby and the dwellers in the district. The war was very different
from what those who went into it expected it to be. Until it had gone on
some time it seemed mainly marching and camping and staying in camp,
quite uselessly as seemed to many, and drilling and doing nothing.
Much of the time -- especially later on -- was given to marching
and getting food; but drilling and camp duties at first took up most of it.
This was especially hard on the poorer men, no one knew what it was to them.
Some moped, some fell sick. Of the former class was Little Darby.
He was too strong to be sickly as one of the Mills boys was,
who died of fever in hospital only three months after they went in,
and too silent to be as the other, who was jolly and could dance
and sing a good song and was soon very popular in the company;
more popular even than Old Cove, who was popular in several rights,
as being about the oldest man in the company and as having a sort of dry wit
when he was in a good humor, which he generally was. Little Darby was
hardly distinguished at all, unless by the fact that he was somewhat taller
than most of his comrades and somewhat more taciturn. He was only
a common soldier of a common class in an ordinary infantry company,
such a company as was common in the army. He still had the little wallet
which he had picked up in the path that morning he left home.
He had asked both of the Mills boys vaguely if they ever had owned
such a piece of property, but they had not, and when old Cove told him
that he had not either, he had contented himself and carried it about with him
somewhat elaborately wrapped up and tied in an old piece of oilcloth
and in his inside jacket pocket for safety, with a vague feeling that some day
he might find the owner or return it. He was never on specially good terms
with the Millses. Indeed, there was always a trace of coolness
between them and him. He could not give it to them. Now and then
he untied and unwrapped it in a secret place and read a little
in the Testament, but that was all. He never touched a needle
or so much as a pin, and when he untied the parcel he generally counted them
to see that they were all there.
So the war went on, with battles coming a little oftener
and food growing ever a little scarcer; but the company was about as before,
nothing particular -- what with killing and fever a little thinned,
a good deal faded; and Little Darby just one in a crowd,
marching with the rest, sleeping with the rest, fighting with the rest,
starving with the rest. He was hardly known for a long time,
except for his silence, outside of his mess. Men were fighting
and getting killed or wounded constantly; as for him, he was never touched;
and as he did what he was ordered silently and was silent when he got through,
there was no one to sing his praise. Even when he was sent out
on the skirmish line as a sharp-shooter, if he did anything no one knew it.
He would disappear over a crest, or in a wood, and reappear as silent
as if he were hunting in the swamps of the district; clean his gun;
cut up wood; eat what he could get, and sit by the fire and listen
to the talk, as silent awake as asleep.
One other thing distinguished him, he could handle an axe better than any man
in the company; but no one thought much of that -- least of all, Little Darby;
it only brought him a little more work occasionally.
One day, in the heat of a battle which the men knew was being won,
if shooting and cheering and rapid advancing could tell anything,
the advance which had been going on with spirit was suddenly checked
by a murderous artillery fire which swept the top of a slope,
along the crest of which ran a road a little raised between two deep ditches
topped by the remains of heavy fences. The infantry, after a gallant
and hopeless charge, were ordered to lie down in the ditch behind the pike,
and were sheltered from the leaden sleet which swept the crest.
Artillery was needed to clear the field beyond, by silencing the batteries
which swept it, but no artillery could get into position for the ditches,
and the day seemed about to be lost. The only way was up the pike,
and the only break was a gate opening into the field right on top of the hill.
The gate was gone, but two huge wooden gate-posts, each a tree-trunk,
still stood and barred the way. No cannon had room to turn in between them;
a battery had tried and a pile of dead men, horses, and debris
marked its failure. A general officer galloped up with two or three
of his staff to try to start the advance again. He saw the impossibility.
"If we could get a couple of batteries into that field for three minutes,"
he said, "it would do the work, but in ten minutes it will be too late."
The company from the old county was lying behind the bank
almost exactly opposite the gate, and every word could be heard.
Where the axe came from no one knew; but a minute later a man slung himself
across the road, and the next second the sharp, steady blows of an axe
were ringing on the pike. The axeman had cut a wide cleft in the brown wood,
and the big chips were flying before his act was quite taken in,
and then a cheer went up from the line. It was no time to cheer, however;
other chips were flying than those from the cutter's axe,
and the bullets hissed by him like bees, splintering the hard post
and knocking the dust from the road about his feet; but he took no notice
of them, his axe plied as steadily as if he had been cutting a tree
in the woods of the district, and when he had cut one side,
he turned as deliberately and cut the other; then placing his hand high up,
he flung his weight against the post and it went down. A great cheer went up
and the axeman swung back across the road just as two batteries of artillery
tore through the opening he had made.
Few men outside of his company knew who the man was, and few had time to ask;
for the battle was on again and the infantry pushed forward.
As for Little Darby himself, the only thing he said was, "I knowed I could
cut it down in ten minutes." He had nine bullet holes through his clothes
that night, but Little Darby thought nothing of it, and neither did others;
many others had bullet holes through their bodies that night.
It happened not long afterward that the general was talking of the battle
to an English gentleman who had come over to see something of the war
and was visiting him in his camp, and he mentioned the incident
of a battle won by an axeman's coolness, but did not know the name of the man
who cut the post away; the captain of the company, however,
was the general's cousin and was dining with his guest that day,
and he said with pride that he knew the man, that he was in his company,
and he gave the name.
"It is a fine old name," said the visitor.
"And he is a fine man," said the captain; but none of this
was ever known by Darby. He was not mentioned in the gazette,
because there was no gazette. The confederate soldiery had no honors
save the approval of their own consciences and the love of their own people.
It was not even mentioned in the district; or, if it was, it was only
that he had cut down a post; other men were being shot to pieces all the time
and the district had other things to think of.
Poor at all times, the people of the district were now absolutely without
means of subsistence. Fortunately for them, they were inured to hardship;
and their men being all gone to the war, the women made such shift
as they could and lived as they might. They hoed their little patches,
fished the streams, and trapped in the woods. But it was poor enough at best,
and the weak went down and only the strong survived. Mrs. Mills was
better off than most, she had a cow -- at first, and she had Vashti.
Vashti turned out to be a tower of strength. She trapped more game
than anyone in the district; caught more fish with lines and traps --
she went miles to fish below the forks where the fish were bigger than above;
she learned to shoot with her father's old gun, which had been sent back
when he got a musket, shot like a man and better than most men;
she hoed the patch, she tended the cow till it was lost, and then she did
many other things. Her mother declared that, when Chris died
(Chris was the boy who died of fever), but for Vashti she could not have
got along at all, and there were many other women in the pines
who felt the same thing.
When the news came that Bob Askew was killed, Vashti was one of the first
who got to Bob's wife; and when Billy Luck disappeared in a battle,
Vashti gave the best reasons for thinking he had been taken prisoner;
and many a string of fish and many a squirrel and hare found their way
into the empty cabins because Vashti "happened to pass by."
From having been rather stigmatized as "that Vashti Mills", she came to be
relied on, and "Vashti" was consulted and quoted as an authority.
One cabin alone she never visited. The house of old Mrs. Stanley,
now almost completely buried under its unpruned wistaria vine,
she never entered. Her mother, as has been said, sometimes went
across the bottom, and now and then took with her a hare or a bird
or a string of fish -- on condition from Vashti that it should not be known
she had caught them; but Vashti never went, and Mrs. Mills found herself
sometimes put to it to explain to others her unneighborliness.
The best she could make of it to say that "Vashti, she always DO
do her own way."
How Mrs. Stanley's wood-pile was kept up nobody knew, if, indeed,
it could be called a wood-pile, when it was only a recurring supply
of dry-wood thrown as if accidentally just at the edge of the clearing.
Mrs. Stanley was not of an imaginative turn, even of enough to explain
how it came that so much dry-wood came to be there broken up
just the right length; and Mrs. Mills knew no more than that "that cow was
always a-goin' off and a-keepin' Vashti a-huntin' everywheres in the worl'."
All said, however, the women of the district had a hungry time,
and the war bore on them heavily as on everyone else, and as it went on
they suffered more and more. Many a woman went day after day
and week after week without even the small portion of coarse corn-bread
which was ordinarily her common fare. They called oftener and oftener
at the house of their neighbors who owned the plantations near them,
and always received something; but as time went on the plantations themselves
were stripped; the little things they could take with them when they went,
such as eggs, honey, etc., were wanting, and to go too often
without anything to give might make them seem like beggars,
and that they were not. Their husbands and sons were in the army
fighting for the South, as well as those from the plantations,
and they stood by this fact on the same level.
The arrogant looks of the negroes were unpleasant, and in marked contrast
to the universal graciousness of their owners, but they were slaves and they
could afford to despise them. Only they must uphold their independence.
Thus no one outside knew what the women of the district went through.
When they wrote to their husbands or sons that they were in straits,
it meant that they were starving. Such a letter meant all the more
because they were used to hunger, but not to writing, and a letter meant
perhaps days of thought and enterprise and hours of labor.
As the war went on the hardships everywhere grew heavier and heavier;
the letters from home came oftener and oftener. Many of the men
got furloughs when they were in winter quarters, and sometimes in summer, too,
from wounds, and went home to see their families. Little Darby never went;
he sent his mother his pay, and wrote to her, but he did not even apply
for a furlough, and he had never been touched except for a couple
of flesh wounds which were barely skin-deep. When he heard from his mother
she was always cheerful; and as he knew Vashti had never even visited her,
there was no other reason for his going home. It was in the late part
of the third campaign of the war that he began to think of going.
When Cove Mills got a letter from his wife and told Little Darby
how "ailin'" and "puny" his mother was getting, Darby knew that the letter
was written by Vashti, and he felt that it meant a great deal. He applied
for a furlough, but was told that no furloughs would be granted then --
which then meant that work was expected. It came shortly afterward,
and Little Darby and the company were in it. Battle followed battle.
A good many men in the company were killed, but, as it happened,
not one of the men from the district was among them, until one day
when the company after a fierce charge found itself hugging the ground
in a wide field, on the far side of which the enemy -- infantry and artillery
-- was posted in force. Lying down they were pretty well protected
by the conformation of the ground from the artillery; and lying down,
the infantry generally, even with their better guns, could not hurt them
to a great extent; but a line of sharp-shooters, well placed behind cover
of scattered rocks on the far side of the field, could reach them
with their long-range rifles, and galled them with their dropping fire,
picking off man after man. A line of sharp-shooters was thrown forward
to drive them in; but their guns were not as good and the cover was inferior,
and it was only after numerous losses that they succeeded in silencing
most of them. They still left several men up among the rocks,
who from time to time sent a bullet into the line with deadly effect.
One man, in particular, ensconced behind a rock on the hill-side,
picked off the men with unerring accuracy. Shot after shot was sent at him.
At last he was quiet for so long that it seemed he must have been silenced,
and they began to hope; Ad Mills rose to his knees and in sheer bravado
waved his hat in triumph. Just as he did so a puff of white came from
the rock, and Ad Mills threw up his hands and fell on his back, like a log,
stone dead. A groan of mingled rage and dismay went along the line.
Poor old Cove crept over and fell on the boy's body with a flesh wound
in his own arm. Fifty shots were sent at the rock, but a puff of smoke
from it afterward and a hissing bullet showed that the marksman was untouched.
It was apparent that he was secure behind his rock bulwark
and had some opening through which he could fire at his leisure.
It was also apparent that he must be dislodged if possible; but how to do it
was the question; no one could reach him. The slope down and the slope up
to the group of rocks behind which he lay were both in plain view,
and any man would be riddled who attempted to cross it. A bit of woods
reached some distance up on one side, but not far enough to give a shot at one
behind the rock; and though the ground in that direction dipped a little,
there was one little ridge in full view of both lines and perfectly bare,
except for a number of bodies of skirmishers who had fallen earlier
in the day. It was discussed in the line; but everyone knew that no man
could get across the ridge alive. While they were talking of it Little Darby,
who, with a white face, had helped old Cove to get his boy's body
back out of fire, slipped off to one side, rifle in hand,
and disappeared in the wood.
They were still talking of the impossibility of dislodging the sharp-shooter
when a man appeared on the edge of the wood. He moved swiftly
across the sheltered ground, stooping low until he reached the edge
of the exposed place, where he straightened up and made a dash across it.
He was recognized instantly by some of the men of his company as Little Darby,
and a buzz of astonishment went along the line. What could he mean,
it was sheer madness; the line of white smoke along the wood
and the puffs of dust about his feet showed that bullets were raining
around him. The next second he stopped dead-still, threw up his arms,
and fell prone on his face in full view of both lines.
A groan went up from his comrades; the whole company knew he was dead,
and on the instant a puff of white from the rock and a hissing bullet told
that the sharp-shooter there was still intrenched in his covert.
The men were discussing Little Darby, when someone cried out
and pointed to him. He was still alive, and not only alive, but was moving --
moving slowly but steadily up the ridge and nearer on a line
with the sharp-shooter, as flat on the ground as any of the motionless bodies
about him. A strange thrill of excitement went through the company
as the dark object dragged itself nearer to the rock, and it was not allayed
when the whack of a bullet and the well-known white puff of smoke
recalled them to the sharp-shooter's dangerous aim; for the next second
the creeping figure sprang erect and made a dash for the spot.
He had almost reached it when the sharp-shooter discovered him,
and the men knew that Little Darby had underestimated the quickness of his
hand and aim; for at the same moment the figure of the man behind the rock
appeared for a second as he sprang erect; there was a puff of white
and Little Darby stopped and staggered and sank to his knees.
The next second, however, there was a puff from where he knelt,
and then he sank flat once more, and a moment later rolled over on his face
on the near side of the rock and just at its foot. There were no more bullets
sent from that rock that day -- at least, against the Confederates --
and that night Little Darby walked into his company's bivouac,
dusty from head to foot and with a bullet-hole in his clothes
not far from his heart; but he said it was only a spent bullet
and had just knocked the breath out of him. He was pretty sore from it
for a time, but was able to help old Cove to get his boy's body off
and to see him start; for the old man's wound, though not dangerous,
was enough to disable him and get him a furlough, and he determined
to take his son's body home, which the captain's influence enabled him to do.
Between his wound and his grief the old man was nearly helpless,
and accepted Darby's silent assistance with mute gratitude.
Darby asked him to tell his mother that he was getting on well,
and sent her what money he had -- his last two months' pay --
not enough to have bought her a pair of stockings or a pound of sugar.
The only other message he sent was given at the station just as Cove set out.
"Tell Vashti as I got him as done it."
Old Cove grasped his hand tremulously and faltered his promise to do so,
and the next moment the train crawled away and left Darby to plod back to camp
in the rain, vague and lonely in the remnant of what had once been
a gray uniform. If there was one thing that troubled him
it was that he could not return Vashti the needle-case until he replaced
the broken needles -- and there were so many of them broken.
After this Darby was in some sort known, and was put pretty constantly
on sharp-shooter service.
The men went into winter quarters before Darby heard anything from home.
It came one day in the shape of a letter in the only hand in the world
he knew -- Vashti's. What it could mean he could not divine --
was his mother dead? This was the principal thing that occurred to him.
He studied the outside. It had been on the way a month by the postmark,
for letters travelled slowly in those days, and a private soldier
in an infantry company was hard to find unless the address was pretty clear,
which this was not. He did not open it immediately. His mother must be dead,
and this he could not face. Nothing else would have made Vashti write.
At last he went off alone and opened it, and read it, spelling it out
with some pains. It began without an address, with the simple statement
that her father had arrived with Ad's body and that it had been buried,
and that his wound was right bad and her mother was mightily cut up
with her trouble. Then it mentioned his mother and said she had come
to Ad's funeral, though she could not walk much now and had never been over
to their side since the day after he -- Darby -- had enlisted; but her father
had told her as how he had killed the man as shot Ad, and so she made out
to come that far. Then the letter broke off from giving news,
and as if under stress of feelings long pent up, suddenly broke loose:
she declared that she loved him; that she had always loved him -- always --
ever since he had been so good to her -- a great big boy to a little bit
of a girl -- at school, and that she did not know why she had been
so mean to him; for when she had treated him worst she had loved him most;
that she had gone down the path that night when they had met,
for the purpose of meeting him and of letting him know she loved him;
but something had made her treat him as she did, and all the time
she could have let him kill her for love of him. She said she had told
her mother and father she loved him and she had tried to tell his mother,
but she could not, for she was afraid of her; but she wanted him to tell her
when he came; and she had tried to help her and keep her in wood
ever since he went away, for his sake. Then the letter told how poorly
his mother was and how she had failed of late, and she said she thought
he ought to get a furlough and come home, and when he did she would marry him.
It was not very well written, nor wholly coherent; at least it took some time
to sink fully into Darby's somewhat dazed intellect; but in time
he took it in, and when he did he sat like a man overwhelmed.
At the end of the letter, as if possibly she thought, in the greatness
of her relief at her confession, that the temptation she held out
might prove too great even for him, or possibly only because she was a woman,
there was a postscript scrawled across the coarse, blue Confederate paper:
"Don't come without a furlough; for if you don't come honorable
I won't marry you." This, however, Darby scarcely read. His being was in
the letter. It was only later that the picture of his mother ill and failing
came to him, and it smote him in the midst of his happiness
and clung to him afterward like a nightmare. It haunted him. She was dying.
He applied for a furlough; but furloughs were hard to get then
and he could not hear from it; and when a letter came in his mother's name
in a lady's hand which he did not know, telling him of his mother's
poverty and sickness and asking him if he could get off to come and see her,
it seemed to him that she was dying, and he did not wait for the furlough.
He was only a few days' march from home and he felt that he could see her
and get back before he was wanted. So one day he set out in the rain.
It was a scene of desolation that he passed through, for the country was
the seat of war; fences were gone, woods burnt, and fields cut up and bare;
and it rained all the time. A little before morning, on the night
of the third day, he reached the edge of the district and plunged into
its well-known pines, and just as day broke he entered the old path
which led up the little hill to his mother's cabin. All during his journey
he had been picturing the meeting with some one else besides his mother,
and if Vashti had stood before him as he crossed the old log he would hardly
have been surprised. Now, however, he had other thoughts;
as he reached the old clearing he was surprised to find it grown up
in small pines already almost as high as his head, and tall weeds
filled the rows among the old peach-trees and grew up to the very door.
He had been struck by the desolation all the way as he came along;
but it had not occurred to him that there must be a change at his own home;
he had always pictured it as he left it, as he had always thought of Vashti
in her pink calico, with her hat in her hand and her heavy hair
almost falling down over her neck. Now a great horror seized him.
The door was wet and black. His mother must be dead.
He stopped and peered through the darkness at the dim little structure.
There was a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and the next instant
he strode up to the door. It was shut, but the string was hanging out
and he pulled it and pushed the door open. A thin figure seated in
the small split-bottomed chair on the hearth, hovering as close as possible
over the fire, straightened up and turned slowly as he stepped into the room,
and he recognized his mother -- but how changed! She was quite white
and little more than a skeleton. At sight of the figure behind her
she pulled herself to her feet, and peered at him through the gloom.
"Mother!" he said.
"Darby!" She reached her arms toward him, but tottered so
that she would have fallen, had he not caught her and eased her down
into her chair.
As she became a little stronger she made him tell her about the battles
he was in. Mr. Mills had come to tell her that he had killed the man
who killed Ad. Darby was not a good narrator, however, and what he had
to tell was told in a few words. The old woman revived under it, however,
and her eyes had a brighter light in them.
Darby was too much engrossed in taking care of his mother that day
to have any thought of any one else. He was used to a soldier's scant fare,
but had never quite taken in the fact that his mother and the women at home
had less even than they in the field. He had never seen, even in their
poorest days after his father's death, not only the house absolutely empty,
but without any means of getting anything outside. It gave him a thrill
to think what she must have endured without letting him know.
As soon as he could leave her, he went into the woods with his old gun,
and shortly returned with a few squirrels which he cooked for her;
the first meat, she told him, that she had tasted for weeks. On hearing it
his heart grew hot. Why had not Vashti come and seen about her?
She explained it partly, however, when she told him that every one
had been sick at Cove Mills's, and old Cove himself had come near dying.
No doctor could be got to see them, as there was none left
in the neighborhood, and but for Mrs. Douwill she did not know
what they would have done. But Mrs. Douwill was down herself now.
The young man wanted to know about Vashti, but all he could manage
to make his tongue ask was,
She could not tell him, she did not know anything about Vashti.
Mrs. Mills used to bring her things sometimes, till she was taken down,
but Vashti had never come to see her; all she knew was that she had been sick
with the others.
That she had been sick awoke in the young man a new tenderness,
the deeper because he had done her an injustice; and he was seized with
a great longing to see her. All his old love seemed suddenly accumulated
in his heart, and he determined to go and see her at once,
as he had not long to stay. He set about his little preparations forthwith,
putting on his old clothes which his mother had kept ever since he went away,
as being more presentable than the old worn and muddy, threadbare uniform,
and brushing his long yellow hair and beard into something like order.
He changed from one coat to the other the little package which
he always carried, thinking that he would show it to her with the hole in it,
which the sharp-shooter's bullet had made that day, and he put her letter
into the same pocket; his heart beating at the sight of her hand
and the memory of the words she had written, and then he set out.
It was already late in the evening, and after the rain the air was
soft and balmy, though the western sky was becoming overcast again by a cloud,
which low down on the horizon was piling up mountain on mountain of vapor,
as if it might rain again by night. Darby, however, having dressed,
crossed the flat without much trouble, only getting a little wet
in some places where the logs were gone. As he turned into the path
up the hill, he stood face to face with Vashti. She was standing by
a little spring which came from under an old oak, the only one
on the hill-side of pines, and was in a faded black calico.
He scarcely took in at first that it was Vashti, she was so changed.
He had always thought of her as he last saw her that evening in pink,
with her white throat and her scornful eyes. She was older now
than she was then; looked more a woman and taller; and her throat if anything
was whiter than ever against her black dress; her face was whiter too,
and her eyes darker and larger. At least, they opened wide
when Darby appeared in the path. Her hands went up to her throat
as if she suddenly wanted breath. All of the young man's heart
went out to her, and the next moment he was within arm's length of her.
Her one word was in his ears:
"Darby!" He was about to catch her in his arms when a gesture restrained him,
and her look turned him to stone.
"Yer uniform?" she gasped, stepping back. Darby was not quick always,
and he looked down at his clothes and then at her again,
his dazed brain wondering.
"Whar's yer uniform?" she asked.
"At home," he said, quietly, still wondering. She seemed to catch some hope.
"Yer got a furlough?" she said, more quietly, coming a little nearer to him,
and her eyes growing softer.
"Got a furlough?" he repeated to gain time for thought. "I -- I ----"
He had never thought of it before; the words in her letter flashed into
his mind, and he felt his face flush. He would not tell her a lie.
"No, I ain't got no furlough," he said, and paused whilst he tried
to get his words together to explain. But she did not give him time.
"What you doin' with them clo'se on?" she asked again.
"I -- I ----" he began, stammering as her suspicion dawned on him.
"You're a deserter!" she said, coldly, leaning forward, her hands clenched,
her face white, her eyes contracted.
"A what!" he asked aghast, his brain not wholly taking in her words.
"You're a deserter!" she said again -- "and -- a coward!"
All the blood in him seemed to surge to his head and leave his heart like ice.
He seized her arm with a grip like steel.
"Vashti Mills," he said, with his face white, "don't you say that to me --
if yer were a man I'd kill yer right here where yer stan'!"
He tossed her hand from him, and turned on his heel.
The next instant she was standing alone, and when she reached the point
in the path where she could see the crossing, Darby was already
on the other side of the swamp, striding knee-deep through the water
as if he were on dry land. She could not have made him hear if she had
wished it; for on a sudden a great rushing wind swept through the pines,
bending them down like grass and blowing the water in the bottom
into white waves, and the thunder which had been rumbling in the distance
suddenly broke with a great peal just overhead.
In a few minutes the rain came; but the girl did not mind it.
She stood looking across the bottom until it came in sheets,
wetting her to the skin and shutting out everything a few yards away.
The thunder-storm passed, but all that night the rain came down,
and all the next day, and when it held up a little in the evening
the bottom was a sea.
The rain had not prevented Darby from going out -- he was used to it;
and he spent most of the day away from home. When he returned
he brought his mother a few provisions, as much meal perhaps
as a child might carry, and spent the rest of the evening
sitting before the fire, silent and motionless, a flame burning
back deep in his eyes and a cloud fixed on his brow. He was in his uniform,
which he had put on again the night before as soon as he got home,
and the steam rose from it as he sat. The other clothes were in a bundle
on the floor where he had tossed them the evening before. He never moved
except when his mother now and then spoke, and then sat down again as before.
Presently he rose and said he must be going; but as he rose to his feet,
a pain shot through him like a knife; everything turned black before him
and he staggered and fell full length on the floor.
He was still on the floor next morning, for his mother had not been able
to get him to the bed, or to leave to get any help; but she had made him
a pallet, and he was as comfortable as a man might be with a raging fever.
Feeble as she was, the sudden demand on her had awakened the
old woman's faculties and she was stronger than might have seemed possible.
One thing puzzled her: in his incoherent mutterings,
Darby constantly referred to a furlough and a deserter.
She knew that he had a furlough, of course; but it puzzled her
to hear him constantly repeating the words. So the day passed and then,
Darby's delirium still continuing, she made out to get to a neighbor's
to ask help. The neighbor had to go to Mrs. Douwill's as the only place
where there was a chance of getting any medicine, and it happened
that on the way back she fell in with a couple of soldiers, on horseback,
who asked her a few questions. They were members of
a home and conscript guard just formed, and when she left them
they had learned her errand.
Fortunately, Darby's illness took a better turn next day,
and by sunset he was free from delirium.
Things had not fared well over at Cove Mills's during these days
any more than at Mrs. Stanley's. Vashti was in a state of mind
which made her mother wonder if she were not going crazy.
She set it down to the storm she had been out in that evening,
for Vashti had not mentioned Darby's name. She kept his presence to herself,
thinking that -- thinking so many things that she could not speak or eat.
Her heart was like lead within her; but she could not rid herself
of the thought of Darby. She could have torn it out for hate of herself;
and to all her mother's questioning glances she turned the face of a sphinx.
For two days she neither ate nor spoke. She watched the opposite hill
through the rain which still kept up -- something was going on over there,
but what it was she could not tell. At last, on the evening of the third day,
she could stand it no longer, and she set out from home to learn something;
she could not have gone to Mrs. Stanley's, even if she had wished to do so;
for the bottom was still a sea extending from side to side,
and it was over her head in the current. She set off, therefore,
up the stream on her own side, thinking to learn something up that way.
She met the woman who had taken the medicine to Darby that evening,
and she told her all she knew, mentioning among other things
the men of the conscript guard she had seen. Vashti's heart
gave a sudden bound up into her throat. As she was so near she went on up
to the Cross-roads; but just as she stepped out into the road
before she reached there, she came on a small squad of horsemen
riding slowly along. She stood aside to let them pass;
but they drew in and began to question her as to the roads about them.
They were in long cloaks and overcoats, and she thought they were
the conscript guard, especially as there was a negro with them
who seemed to know the roads and to be showing them the way.
Her one thought was of Darby; he would be arrested and shot.
When they questioned her, therefore, she told them of the roads
leading to the big river around the fork and quite away from the district.
Whilst they were still talking, more riders came around the curve,
and the next instant Vashti was in the midst of a column of cavalry,
and she knew that they were the Federals. She had one moment
of terror for herself as the restive horses trampled around her,
and the calls and noises of a body of cavalry moving dinned in her ears;
but the next moment, when the others gave way and a man whom she knew to be
the commander pressed forward and began to question her, she forgot her
own terror in fear for her cause. She had all her wits about her instantly;
and under a pretence of repeating what she had already told the first men,
she gave them such a mixture of descriptions that the negro was called up
to unravel it. She made out that they were trying to reach the big river
by a certain road, and marched in the night as well as in the day.
She admitted that she had never been on that road but once.
And when she was taken along with them a mile or two to the place
where they went into bivouac until the moon should rise,
she soon gave such an impression of her denseness and ignorance that,
after a little more questioning, she was told that she might go home
if she could find her way, and was sent by the commander out of the camp.
She was no sooner out of hearing of her captors than she began to run
with all her speed. Her chief thought was of Darby. Deserter as he was,
and dead to her, he was a man, and could advise her, help her.
She tore through the woods the nearest way, unheeding the branches
which caught and tore her clothes; the stream, even where she struck it,
was out of its banks; but she did not heed it -- she waded through,
it reaching about to her waist, and struck out again at the top of her speed.
It must have been a little before midnight when she emerged from the pines
in front of the Stanley cabin. The latch-string was out,
and she knocked and pushed open the door almost simultaneously.
All she could make out to say was, "Darby." The old woman was on her feet,
and the young man was sitting up in the bed, by the time she entered.
Darby was the first to speak.
"What do you want here?" he asked, sternly.
"Darby -- the Yankees -- all around," she gasped -- "out on the road yonder."
A minute later the young man, white as a ghost, was getting on his jacket
while she told her story, beginning with what the woman she had met
had told her of the two men she had seen. The presence of a soldier
had given her confidence, and having delivered her message both women
left everything else to him. His experience or his soldier's instinct
told him what they were doing and also how to act. They were a raid which
had gotten around the body of the army and were striking for the capital;
and from their position, unless they could be delayed they might surprise it.
In the face of the emergency a sudden genius seemed to illuminate
the young man's mind. By the time he was dressed he was ready with his plan
-- Did Vashti know where any of the conscript guard stayed?
Yes, down the road at a certain place. Good; it was on the way.
Then he gave her his orders. She was to go to this place and rouse any one
she might find there and tell them to send a messenger to the city
with all speed to warn them, and were to be themselves if possible
at a certain point on the road by which the raiders were travelling,
where a little stream crossed it in a low place in a heavy piece
of swampy woods. They would find a barricade there and a small force might
possibly keep them back. Then she was to go on down and have the bridge,
ten or twelve miles below on the road between the forks burned,
and if necessary was to burn it herself; and it must be done by sunrise.
But they were on the other road, outside of the forks, the girl explained,
to which Darby only said, he knew that, but they would come back
and try the bridge road.
"And you burn the bridge if you have to do it with your own hand, you hear --
and now go," he said.
"Yes -- I'll do it," said the girl obediently and turned to the door.
The next instant she turned back to him: he had his gun
and was getting his axe.
"And, Darby ----?" she began falteringly, her heart in her eyes.
"Go," said the young soldier, pointing to the door, and she went
just as he took up his old rifle and stepped over to where his mother sat
white and dumb. As she turned at the edge of the clearing and looked back
up the path over the pine-bushes she saw him step out of the door
with his gun in one hand and his axe in the other.
An hour later Darby, with the fever still hot on him,
was cutting down trees in the darkness on the bank of a marshy little stream,
and throwing them into the water on top of one another across the road,
in a way to block it beyond a dozen axemen's work for several hours,
and Vashti was trudging through the darkness miles away to give the warning.
Every now and then the axeman stopped cutting and listened,
and then went on again. He had cut down a half-dozen trees and formed
a barricade which it would take hours to clear away before cavalry could pass,
when, stopping to listen, he heard a sound that caused him
to put down his axe: the sound of horses splashing along through the mud.
His practised ear told him that there were only three or four of them,
and he took up his gun and climbed up on the barricade and waited.
Presently the little squad of horsemen came in sight,
a mere black group in the road. They saw the dark mass lying across the road
and reined in; then after a colloquy came on down slowly.
Darby waited until they were within fifty yards of his barricade,
and then fired at the nearest one. A horse wheeled, plunged,
and then galloped away in the darkness, and several rounds from pistols
were fired toward him, whilst something went on on the ground.
Before he could finish reloading, however, the men had turned around
and were out of sight. In a minute Darby climbed over the barricade
and strode up the road after them. He paused where the man he had shot
had fallen. The place in the mud was plain; but his comrades had taken him up
and carried him off. Darby hurried along after them. Day was just breaking,
and the body of cavalry were preparing to leave their bivouac
when a man emerged from the darkness on the opposite side of the camp
from that where Little Darby had been felling trees,
and walked up to the picket. He was halted and brought up
where the fire-light could shine on him, and was roughly questioned --
a tall young countryman, very pale and thin, with an old ragged slouched hat
pulled over his eyes, and an old patched uniform on his gaunt frame.
He did not seem at all disturbed by the pistols displayed around him,
but seated himself at the fire and looked about in a dull kind of way.
"What do you want?" they asked him, seeing how cool he was.
"Don't you want a guide?" he asked, drawlingly.
"Who are you?" inquired the corporal in charge. He paused.
"Some calls me a d'serter," he said, slowly.
The men all looked at him curiously.
"Well, what do you want?"
"I thought maybe as you wanted a guide," he said, quietly.
"We don't want you. We've got all the guide we want," answered the corporal,
roughly, "and we don't want any spies around here either, you understand?"
"Does he know the way? All the creeks is up now, an' it's sort o' hard
to git erlong through down yonder way if you don't know the way
"Yes, he knows the way too -- every foot of it -- and a good deal more
than you'll see of it if you don't look out."
"Oh! That road down that way is sort o' stopped up," said the man,
as if he were carrying on a connected narrative and had not heard him.
"They's soldiers on it too a little fur'er down, and they's done got word
you're a-comin' that a-way."
"What's that?" they asked, sharply.
"Leastways it's stopped up, and I knows a way down this a-way in and about
as nigh as that," went on the speaker, in the same level voice.
"Where do you live?" they asked him.
"I lives back in the pines here a piece."
"How long have you lived here?"
"About twenty-three years, I b'leeves; 'ats what my mother says."
"You know all the country about here?"
"Been in the army?"
"What did you desert for?"
Darby looked at him leisurely.
"'D you ever know a man as 'lowed he'd deserted? I never did."
A faint smile flickered on his pale face.
He was taken to the camp before the commander, a dark,
self-contained looking man with a piercing eye and a close mouth,
and there closely questioned as to the roads, and he gave the same account
he had already given. The negro guide was brought up and his information
tallied with the new comer's as far as he knew it, though he knew well
only the road which they were on and which Darby said was stopped up.
He knew, too, that a road such as Darby offered to take them by
ran somewhere down that way and joined the road they were on
a good distance below; but he thought it was a good deal longer way
and they had to cross a fork of the river.
There was a short consultation between the commander and one or two
other officers, and then the commander turned to Darby, and said:
"What you say about the road's being obstructed this way is partly true;
do you guarantee that the other road is clear?"
Darby paused and reflected.
"I'll guide you," he said, slowly.
"Do you guarantee that the bridge on the river is standing
and that we can get across?"
"Hit's standing now, fur as I know."
"Do you understand that you are taking your life in your hand?"
Darby looked at him coolly.
"And that if you take us that way and for any cause --
for any cause whatsoever we fail to get through safe,
we will hang you to the nearest tree?"
Darby waited as if in deep reflection.
"I understand," he said. "I'll guide you."
The silence that followed seemed to extend all over the camp.
The commander was reflecting and the others had their eyes fastened on Darby.
As for him, he sat as unmoved as if he had been alone in the woods.
"All right," said the leader, suddenly, "it's a bargain:
we'll take your road. What do you want?"
"Could you gi'me a cup o' coffee? It's been some little time
since I had anything to eat, an' I been sort o' sick."
"You shall have 'em," said the officer, "and good pay besides,
if you lead us straight; if not, a limb and a halter rein; you understand?"
A quarter of an hour later they were on the march, Darby trudging in front
down the middle of the muddy road between two of the advance guard,
whose carbines were conveniently carried to insure his fidelity.
What he thought of, who might know? -- plain; poor; ignorant; unknown;
marching every step voluntarily nearer to certain and ignominious death
for the sake of his cause.
As day broke they saw a few people who lived near the road,
and some of them recognized Darby and looked their astonishment
to see him guiding them. One or two of the women broke out at him
for a traitor and a dog, to which he said nothing; but only looked
a little defiant with two red spots burning in his thin cheeks,
and trudged on as before; now and then answering a question;
but for the most part silent.
He must have thought of his mother, old and by herself in her cabin;
but she would not live long; and of Vashti some. She had called him
a deserter, as the other women had done. A verse from the Testament
she gave him may have come into his mind; he had never quite understood it:
"Blessed are ye when men shall revile ye." Was this what it meant?
This and another one seemed to come together. It was something about
"enduring hardship like a good soldier", he could not remember it exactly.
Yes, he could do that. But Vashti had called him a deserter. Maybe now
though she would not; and the words in the letter she had written him
came to him, and the little package in his old jacket pocket
made a warm place there; and he felt a little fresher than before.
The sun came up and warmed him as he trudged along,
and the country grew flatter and flatter, and the road deeper and deeper.
They were passing down into the bottom. On either side of them
were white-oak swamps, so that they could not see a hundred yards ahead;
but for several miles Darby had been watching for the smoke
of the burning bridge, and as they neared the river his heart began to sink.
There was one point on the brow of a hill before descending to the bottom,
where a sudden bend of the road and curve of the river
two or three miles below gave a sight of the bridge. Darby waited for this,
and when he reached it and saw the bridge still standing
his heart sank like lead. Other eyes saw it too, and a score of glasses
were levelled at it, and a cheer went up.
"Why don't you cheer too?" asked an officer. "You have more to make or lose
than anyone else."
"We ain't there yit," said Darby.
Once he thought he had seen a little smoke, but it had passed away,
and now they were within three miles of the bridge and there was nothing.
What if, after all, Vashti had failed and the bridge was still standing!
He would really have brought the raiders by the best way and have helped them.
His heart at the thought came up into his throat. He stopped and began to
look about as if he doubted the road. When the main body came up, however,
the commander was in no doubt, and a pistol stuck against his head
gave him to understand that no fooling would be stood. So he had to go on.
As to Vashti, she had covered the fifteen miles which lay
between the district and the fork-road; and had found and sent a messenger
to give warning in the city; but not finding any of the homeguard
where she thought they were, she had borrowed some matches
and had trudged on herself to execute the rest of Darby's commands.
The branches were high from the backwater of the fork, and she often had
to wade up to her waist, but she kept on, and a little after daylight
she came to the river. Ordinarily, it was not a large stream;
a boy could chuck a stone across it, and there was a ford above the bridge
not very deep in dry weather, which people sometimes took
to water their horses, or because they preferred to ride through the water
to crossing the steep and somewhat rickety old bridge. Now, however,
the water was far out in the woods, and long before the girl
got in sight of the bridge she was wading up to her knees. When she reached
the point where she could see it, her heart for a moment failed her;
the whole flat was under water. She remembered Darby's command, however,
and her courage came back to her. She knew that it could not be as deep
as it looked between her and the bridge, for the messenger had gone
before her that way, and a moment later she had gone back and collected
a bundle of "dry-wood", and with a long pole to feel her way she waded
carefully in. As it grew deeper and deeper until it reached her breast,
she took the matches out and held them in her teeth, holding her bundle
above her head. It was hard work to keep her footing this way, however,
and once she stepped into a hole and went under to her chin,
having a narrow escape from falling into a place which her pole
could not fathom; but she recovered herself and at last was on the bridge.
When she tried to light a fire, however, her matches would not strike.
They as well as the wood had gotten wet when she slipped,
and not one would light. She might as well have been at her home
in the district. When every match had been tried and tried again
on a dry stone, only to leave a white streak of smoking sulphur on it,
she sat down and cried. For the first time she felt cold and weary.
The rays of the sun fell on her and warmed her a little,
and she wiped her eyes on her sleeve and looked up. The sun had just come up
over the hill. It gave her courage. She turned and looked the other way
from which she had come -- nothing but a waste of water and woods. Suddenly,
from a point up over the nearer woods a little sparkle caught her eye;
there must be a house there, she thought; they might have matches,
and she would go back and get some. But there it was again -- it moved.
There was another -- another -- and something black moving.
She sprang to her feet and strained her eyes. Good God! they were coming!
In a second she had turned the other way, rushed across the bridge,
and was dashing through the water to her waist. The water was not wide
that way. The hill rose almost abruptly on that side, and up it she dashed,
and along the road. A faint curl of smoke caught her eye and she made for it
through the field.
It was a small cabin, and the woman in it had just gotten her fire
well started for the morning, when a girl bare-headed and bare-footed,
dripping wet to the skin, her damp hair hanging down her back,
her face white and her eyes like coals, rushed in almost without knocking
and asked for a chunk of fire. The woman had no time to refuse
(she told of it afterward when she described the burning of the bridge);
for without waiting for answer and before she really took in
that it was not a ghost, the girl had seized the biggest chunk on the hearth
and was running with it across the field. In fact, the woman rather thought
she was an evil spirit; for she saw her seize a whole panel of fence --
more rails than she could have carried to save her life, she said,
and dashed with them over the hill.
In Vashti's mind, indeed, it was no time to waste words,
she was back on the bridge with the chunk of fire and an armful of rails
before the woman recovered from her astonishment, and was down on her knees
blowing her chunk to rekindle it. The rails, however, like everything else,
were wet and would not light, and she was in despair. At last she got
a little blaze started, but it would not burn fast; it simply smoked.
She expected the soldiers to come out of the woods every minute,
and every second she was looking up to see if they were in sight.
What would Darby think? What would happen if she failed?
She sprang up to look around: the old rail of the bridge caught her eye;
it was rotted, but what remained was heart and would burn like light-wood.
She tore a piece of it down and stuck one end in the fire:
it caught and sputtered and suddenly flamed up; the next second
she was tearing the rail down all along and piling it on the blaze,
and as it caught she dashed back through the water and up the hill,
and brought another armful of rails. Back and forth she waded several times
and piled on rails until she got a stack of them -- two stacks,
and the bridge floor dried and caught and began to blaze;
and when she brought her last armful it was burning all across.
She had been so busy bringing wood that she had forgotten
to look across to the other side for some time, and was only reminded of it
as she was wading back with her last armful of rails by something buzzing
by her ear, and the second after the crack of a half-dozen guns followed
from the edge of the wood the other side. She could not see them well
for the burden in her arms, but she made out a number of horses
dashing into the water on the little flat, and saw some puffs of smoke
about their heads. She was bound to put her wood on, however,
so she pushed ahead, went up on the bridge through the smoke
as far as she could go, and flung her rails on the now devouring fire.
A sudden veer of the wind blew the smoke behind her and bent the flames aside,
and she could see clear across the fire to the other bank.
She saw a great number of men on horses at the edge of the woods,
in a sort of mass; and a half-dozen or so in the water
riding up to their saddle-skirts half-way to the bridge,
and between the first two, wading in water to his waist, Darby.
He was bare-headed and he waved his hat to her, and she heard a single cheer.
She waved her hand to him, and there was a little puff of smoke
and something occurred in the water among the horses. The smoke from the fire
suddenly closed around her and shut out everything from her eyes,
and when it blew away again one of the horses had thrown his rider
in the water. There was a lot of firing both from the edge of the wood
and from the horsemen in the water, and Darby had disappeared.
She made her way back to the bank and plunged into a clump of bushes,
where she was hidden and watched the raiders. She saw several of them try
to ford the river, one got across but swam back, the others were swept down
by the current, and the horse of one got out below without his rider.
The other she did not see again.
Soon after their comrade had rejoined them, the men on the edge of the wood
turned around and disappeared, and a half-hour later she saw
the glint of the sun on their arms and accoutrements as they crossed
over the top of the hill returning two miles above.
. . . . .
This is the story of the frustration of the raid upon which so much hope
was built by some in high position at Washington. A day was lost,
and warning was given to the Confederate Government, and the bold plan
of the commander of the raiding party was defeated.
As to Little Darby, the furlough he had applied for came,
but came too late and was returned. For a time some said he was a deserter;
but two women knew differently.
A Federal soldier who was taken prisoner gave an account of the raid.
He said that a contraband had come from Washington and undertaken
to lead them across the country, and that he had brought them around
the head of the streams, when one night a rebel deserter came into camp
and undertook to show them a better way by a road which ran
between the rivers, but crossed lower down by a bridge;
that they had told him that, if for any reason they failed to get through
by his road they would hang him, a bargain which he had accepted.
That he had led them straight, but when they had got to the bridge
it had been set on fire and was burning at that moment; that a half-dozen men,
of whom he, the narrator, was one, rode in, taking the guide along with them,
to see if they could not put the fire out, or, failing that, find the ford;
and when they were about half-way across the little flat they saw the person
on the bridge in the very act of burning it, and waving his hand in triumph;
and the man who was riding abreast of him in front fired his carbine at him.
As he did so the deserter wheeled on him, and said, "God d--n you --
don't you know that's a woman," and springing on him like a tiger
tore him from his horse; and, before they took in what he was doing,
had, before their very eyes, flung both of them into a place
where the current was running, and they had disappeared.
They had seen the deserter's head once in the stream lower down,
and had fired at him, and he thought had hit him, as he went down immediately
and they did not see him again.
This is all that was known of Little Darby, except that
a year or more afterward, and nearly a year after Mrs. Stanley's death,
a package with an old needle-case in it and a stained little Testament
with a bullet hole through it, was left at the Cross-roads,
with a message that a man who had died at the house of the person who left it
as he was trying to make his way back to his command, asked to have that sent
to Vashti Mills.
Thomas Nelson Page is known primarily for his short stories.
1853. Born at Oakland Plantation, in Hanover County, Virginia.
1872. Graduated from Washington and Lee University.
1874. Received his degree in law from the University of Virginia.
Some books by Thomas Nelson Page:
In Ole Virginia.
Meh Lady. A Story of the War.
Marse Chan. A Tale of Old Virginia.
The Burial of the Guns.
Elsket and Other Stories.
The Old South.
Polly. A Christmas Recollection.
Among the Camps. Young People's Stories of the War.
Two Little Confederates.
"Befo' de War." Echoes of Negro Dialect. (with A. C. Gordon)