From School to Battle-field: A Story of the War Days
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How could the lad forget it! A policeman had tried to drive him back when he would have worked his way up along 28's line of hose, and Desmond gave him the big nozzle to take forward to the pipeman. Of course he remembered it, and how proud he was that when it came to "soaking down," and the big nozzle was screwed on in place of the three-quarter inch, the wearied pipeman let him take hold. Of course he remembered.
"But how'd you get here?" he asked. "How'd you know me so quick?"
"Lord! I seen you every day for a week when we were camped near you up there at Kalorama. Second Fire Zouaves I'm in, – Major Moriarty. We was down here on a frolic the other night, an' could 'a' got back all right, but there was a fire on the avenue, an' we piled out onto an engine, an' when the fire was out the fellers took us round to their house and salooned us to the best in the market, an' the next thing the patrol got us, and this shanghai lieutenant out here shoved us into the cells for offerin' to lam him in front of the guard. Sa-ay, ain't I seen that feller smokin' cigarettes round the stable next the school? If 'tain't him, it's like enough to him to be his twin brother. If 'tis him, you get me out of this and I can tell you things you and Snipe ought to know. Lay low, Shorty; here comes that big shanghai sergeant. Sa-ay, ain't he a rooster? Do what you can for us, boy, will you?"
And there was no time for more. Straight to the cage the sergeant stalked, and for the life of him Shorty couldn't help standing attention, as he did to his brigadier-general.
"I got those despatches," said the sergeant, "and sent them right on, and I've sent word to the officer of the day, and he'll be here presently. Better let me explain. You're too excited yet."
And under ordinary circumstances such might, indeed, have been the wiser course, but there were other surprises in store for Shorty and his guardians too. Even while the tall sergeant was asking certain questions there came the hoarse cry of the sentry in front of the building, "Turn out the guard! Officer of the day!" There was a scurry of feet, a banging of musket-butts, a word of command, a clash of steel, and after a moment or two of parley without there came through the dark hallway an officer whom Shorty saw to be a captain of infantry. His sash was old and weather-stained, his uniform a trifle shabby, but in every move there was the ease and swing of the old soldier. Hurrying after and ranging up beside him came another, an officer whose sash, belt, and dress were as spick and span, new and glossy as those of the officer of the guard, an officer who looked a trifle less at home in them than did the veteran on his right, but at sight of his face the light danced up in Shorty's eyes, and, forgetful of discipline, of regulation, of martial etiquette, propriety, he sprang forward with a cry of joy. Barely four months earlier, from his perch on the lamp-post and through blinding tears, the boy had marked him striding down Broadway at the head of a famous company of a famous regiment.Now here again he appeared, in the garb of the regular army.
"Mr. Winthrop – Captain Winthrop! Don't you know me? Regy Prime!"
And another of Pop's old boys, another Columbiad, another of New York's National Guardsmen, turned regular soldier, – the new captain threw aside his book and grabbed the youngster's hands.
"In the name of all that's preposterous, Regy, what are you doing here?"
And then, unnerved and overcome at last, fearful of breaking down, the lad looked imploringly at the big sergeant, and in twenty words the story was told.
"Who ordered him confined? Who took his despatches away?" demanded the older captain, the old officer of the day, with threatening eyes.
Not for the wealth of India would Sergeant Brennan sully the unimpeachable record of thirty years by a word of even inferential disapproval of the deed of a superior officer.
"Call Sergeant Hanley," said he, and Hanley came. The question was repeated.
"The officer of the guard, Lieutenant Hoover," said he, in answer.
"My compliments to the lieutenant, and say I wish to speak with him," said the veteran captain; and there was painful silence as, a moment later, the junior officer came clinking in, his black eyes flitting nervously about, his blue lips twitching. "This way, if you please, Mr. Hoover," said the senior captain. "Captain Winthrop, will you favor me?" And ushering them both into the little guard-room, the captain closed the door.
Less than four minutes lasted that interview. Meanwhile there was silence in the sunny court-yard. Brennan paced majestically up and down. Hanley stood uncomfortably a moment or two, then tiptoed back to the guard still standing in ranks in front of the building, and Shorty was left practically alone. There was a delighted whisper behind. "Sa-ay, Shorty, just wouldn't I rather be here than in that feller's shoes! Get us out of this now, and you'll see."
Presently the glass door opened and Hoover came forth, slinking, crestfallen, twitching, but if he had been a conquering hero Brennan could no more magnificently have saluted. Halting, facing him, his white-gloved hand snapped up to the polished visor of his cap, and there it stayed unnoticed, until the dismayed officer was swallowed up within the hall.
Two minutes more and two soldiers were sent on the run to clean the orderly's horse and equipments. A little darky was set to work on his besplashed leggings. "I'll see you in a few minutes again," said Captain Winthrop, as he and his predecessor hastened away to report to their commanding officer. The guards changed on the pavement outside. A new lieutenant came in and looked curiously at Shorty, now being regaled with soldier coffee and a huge crust of "Capitol Bakery" bread. Fifes squeaked and drums banged on the avenue as the old guard turned off, but Hoover came no more.
When Winthrop reappeared in course of half an hour, "Badger" was ready in front and Shorty was once more in trim for a ride. A receipt for his despatches was stowed in his belt, and then as the captain would have led him forth, the lad thought of Desmond, and briefly he told the story. Winthrop nodded, went back, spoke a few words to the Zouave, and rejoined the lad. Desmond waved his hand. Winthrop grasped Shorty's and shook it warmly.
"Now don't let this mishap trouble you, Regy. No harm has been done. Good will come of it. Now, good luck to you."
How much good was to be the result of that mishap Winthrop could never have guessed at the time. How much poor Shorty had lost through that storm, that morning mud ride, that arrest and incarceration and the consequent fatigue, he was to learn within another day.
The general was an indignant man when, late that afternoon, he heard the details of Shorty's misadventures, but the general was just. He knew that battles had been lost and kingdoms ruined because of orders hastily or carelessly worded. He might have known, as he said to the staff when discussing the incident, that if he "told that little bunch of springs and impetuosity to stop for nothing and put him on a hard-mouthed horse of similar temperament, the provost guard wouldn't have a picnic." The general knew he could not ignore the authority of the provost-marshal, but he might have known that Shorty would be little apt to stop for sergeants, corporals, or privates when told to stop for nothing.
Only a day or two before several generals and their staffs had an amusing illustration of Shorty's immense conception of his official position. A big working party from the brigade was chopping trees in the woods a mile up the Potomac, and a big pleasure party from Washington was visiting General "Baldy" Smith on the opposite bank. For the entertainment and instruction of his guests this accomplished officer had ordered out a light battery, and with much precision that battery was driving shells into that very wood – and the axemen out. Bearing fragments of iron in his hands, the indignant officer in charge of the work galloped in to his general to say that his party had had to run for their lives, and the work was at a stand. Shorty's horse stood ready saddled, so the general bade the boy orderly carry the fragments, with his compliments, to General Smith, and tell him the battery was shelling his men, and Shorty and "Badger" went off like a shot. Over the Chain Bridge they tore, to the amaze and disgust of certain sentries long accustomed to halting everybody that didn't wear a star, and straight up to the brilliant group at head-quarters they galloped, and with scant apology and only hurried salute, the youngster panted his message and exhibited his collaterals. The general listened with unruffled calm, inspected a fragment or two with professional gravity and interest, noted the fresh powder black on the fracture and concave surface, passed them on to his visitors with some placid remark about the force of the bursting charge, and, to Shorty's unspeakable wrath, appeared to be in no wise impressed with the peril to which he had subjected the men of a comrade brigade, and even less with the presence of the bearer of the message. Shorty had counted on creating a sensation, and he and "Badger" were the only ones to show the least agitation. Bethinking himself of a supplementary remark of the officer who brought in the news – and the fragments, the lad returned to the attack. "One shell burst so close to Captain Wood's head it almost stunned him, sir."
"Ah, did it?" queried the general, with provoking calm. "And was nobody hurt?"
"Nobody was hit, sir," answered Shorty, with temper rising still higher. "But a dozen might have been."
"Ah, well, ride back and tell the general I'm glad nobody was hurt," was Baldy's imperturbable ultimatum, and the lad spurred back in a fury. Of course the firing was stopped, and later the generals grinned affably over the incident, but Shorty's self-esteem was ruffled, and he told the senior aide, to that officer's infinite delight, that further messages to General Smith would "better be carried by some other man on the staff," and of course that story went the rounds of both brigades, much to the merriment of many a camp-fire, but not altogether to Shorty's detriment.
Now, if such was Shorty's conception of the gravity and importance of his duties when bearing a verbal message from one brigadier to a junior, what was not his immensity when a hastily written despatch, conveying tidings of flood and disaster, was intrusted to him by the commander at the front to be delivered to the general-in-chief in town. Shorty rode like a demon that day, and even "Badger" was amazed, and that he, bearer of despatches to head-quarters of the army and ordered to stop for nothing, should have had to stop for bayonets and be lifted by the collar into the presence of the officer of the guard, – that he should find in the person of that officer the butt of the whole First Latin, – that he should be ordered by that – thing – to the common cells wherein were penned the drunkards and deserters, and led thither by the ear, and an impudently grinning Paddy if he was a sergeant, all this was, in truth, too much for Shorty. No comfort Winthrop could offer would soothe his wounded soul. He went back ablaze to brigade head-quarters. The general was away up the Potomac, and didn't return till late. Even then when Shorty tried to tell his tale his excitement and wrath made him incoherent. The general was amazed to think that an officer of regulars would hold his messenger after discovering that he was actually the bearer of despatches. But Shorty's animated description of that callow soldier, and by no means guarded references to his school history, gave the general a clue. He fully intended, of course, to follow the matter up, but other and more important issues came to claim his time and attention.
That night at nine o'clock the general decided to make a personal inspection along his front. Horses for himself and two aides were ordered, and Marmion, the colored hostler, presently came round to the big tent.
"Marse Prime's horse done gone stiff, sir," he said to the adjutant-general, "and I reckon Marse Reggy don't feel much like night ridin'. He's sleepin' da' on de hay."
The officer went and took a peep. Wrapped in his blanket, his head on his arms, the youngster had curled up for a nap, worn out by the excitement and emotions of the day. "Don't wake him," was the order, and the three horsemen rode away.
It was a still, starlit night. The roads were yet heavy with mud. The horses sank to their fetlocks and squashed noisily through the mire until the little party were able to turn into the cart-tracks through the thick woods, and, joined now by the field officer of the day, they pushed on to the outposts. It was the dark of the moon. The blackness of the groves and copses was intense. Objects, except on the open field or against the sky, could hardly be distinguished five feet away. But every now and then there would come the muffled challenge of sentries at inner posts of the guard, and it was over half an hour before they reached the outermost groups, with the line of night sentinels some distance ahead. To every inquiry at every station of officer or sergeant, the answer was the same, all quiet, all alert. There had been much shooting at patrols and pickets for over a month, a practice both sides soon abandoned, but at the time there was hazardous, nerve-trying duty at the front, and few men welcomed it except for the excitement. Somewhere in the neighborhood of ten o'clock, following in single file a winding wood track, a sergeant leading afoot, the party approached the southern edge of a strip of woods and halted while the corporal stepped ahead to assure the sentinel. Then the general rode quietly up to question the man, the sergeant assuming his watch the while, for even in presence of the commander-in-chief there must be no cessation of vigilance.
To the queries as to where the nearest sentries were posted? what were his own instructions? what he would do in certain emergencies? the soldier answered promptly, perhaps a bit impatiently, even as though he might have enjoyed the catechism at another time, but had some weightier matter in hand at the moment. He kept turning and glancing out across the open field to the south, stooping once or twice as though to peer at something against the sky, and the general saw and questioned.
"Anything unusual about?"
"Why, yes, sir; at least I think so. The patrol that came by ten minutes ago said that they had heard horses galloping out across the fields, and I could have sworn I heard hoofs on this here bridle-path where it dips into yon woods. By day nobody can come across here without our seeing them. By night we can't see unless we lie flat and look up, and then they could get within a rod or two."
The general bent over his horse's neck and listened. There was not wind enough to rustle a leaf. The sky was almost cloudless; the fields in front were open and silent; the dark, shadowy woods, beyond, merged in the general gloom. Far off to the right front, over a mile away, a faint light gleamed in some farm-house window. Far off to the left front, the south, there was a dim, lurid tint upon the night that might have come from dozens of watch-fires. Straight away in front the cart-track dove into the darkness on its way across the field, and, over against them, there was a dent or depression in the outlines of the fringe of timber, as it stood against the southern stars, that told where the road entered the opposite grove. It was there, right there, said the sentinel, he was almost sure he had heard horses' feet, but nothing else, not another sound.
"Did the patrol stop at your outpost?" the general asked the sergeant.
"No, sir. It went right along the line of sentries. I crawled out during the afternoon and climbed a tree in the field to our right. You can see it standing there, sir" (and, indeed, its outline was faintly visible against the stars). "I could see some distance off to the south and southwest. Lewinsville and the barns are in plain view, and some scattered farm-houses."
"Did you see any troops?"
"No, sir, but some saw me, and the bullets came a-singing, and I had to quit and crawfish back. But this path leads into a road half a mile or so out there."
And while the sergeant spoke the soldier had resumed his watch, and suddenly they heard him whisper, "Hist!"
"What do you see or hear?" murmured the sergeant, springing to his side.
"There is something out there, by thunder! coming this way. These gentlemen had better get back a bit. I can't tell how many there may be."
Somebody, – some party, possibly, stealing up to feel the pickets again, and here were the general and staff-officers unescorted! What a plum for Southern cavalry to pluck, did they but know! In breathless silence the watchers waited. The general refused to retire. Not a sound could the horsemen hear, but that sentry sprawled on the ground could not be mistaken. Not an object moving was visible. Suddenly, though low and cautious, they heard the click of a gun-lock. The sentry had brought his rifle to the ready. Then, indeed, must there be something in the wind. Ten seconds later, and low, firm, so as to be heard only a few paces away, there came the order, "Halt!" A brief pause, then, with menace in the tone, the challenge, "Who goes there?" For an instant no reply. Then in tremulous voice came an answer in the field to the right of the road.
"It's only me, suh; Marse Finlay's Brennus, suh," and there can be no doubting the Ethiopian accent.
"Who's with you, nigger? Who's back of you there?"
"Nobody, suh. I'se all alone, suh, but they's some gen'lemen way back, suh. They done give me a letter."
"Come in here, Brennus. Let's see your letter," called the sergeant, stepping warily forward, his gun, too, at the charge. And presently out from under the stars steps a tall negro boy, lithe, active, and alert. He is trembling a bit and uncertain of his whereabouts. He needs to know something before he can impart anything, and presently it comes.
"Is you gen'lemen – Yankees?"
"Yankees from the general down," answers the sergeant. "Half a dozen right here ready to hear your story." And the negro seems to recognize alien accent in the Western twang of the speaker, and to take heart at once.
"Dey done gimme a paper," he whispers, and the general interrupts.
"Bring him back to the reserve, where there's a fire. We'll examine him there, sergeant." And, turning his horse, the general leads the way.
It is nearly eleven o'clock when, a little later, half a dozen officers are grouped about the slender, tattered, weary negro, a lad barely twenty years of age, if that. To the general he has handed a roll of tin-foil, on which, as it is unfolded by the gleam of the camp-lanterns, the word "Solace" is stamped, and the thin tissue-paper it encloses bears some writing, over which the general strains his eyes and studies eagerly; bends closer to the light and studies again. Then, straightening up suddenly, he turns upon the young negro.
"Where'd you leave them? How far out?"
"'Bout two miles, suh; p'r'aps not dat much."
"Are you sure about the troops, – about the number? There are none others?"
"Ye-as, suh. Dey ain't any udder companies near."
"And you can guide us right to the spot?"
"Ye-as, suh. Certain, suh."
The general turns sharply on his senior aide. "There's not a moment to be lost. What a pity we have no cavalry! Ride straight to Colonel Connor. Tell him to rouse his regiment instantly and without a sound. Leave knapsacks and blankets in camp. Guide them here as quick as you can. Now, captain, this boy must have a rousing supper. He deserves it."
And now if there is a boy reader of this story who doesn't say it is high time he is told what had become of Snipe Lawton, then the narrator never knew a thing about boys. Leaving Shorty to sleep over his injured dignity and lose another of the opportunities of his life, we will turn back the page and look again over the stirring fields thirty miles to the south. As neither Snipe nor his major nor his friend Keating, of the Zouaves, had been recognized among the dead, as they were not apparently among the prisoners, and as they certainly had not reappeared among their comrades along the Potomac, they must be looked for where last seen, close to that old brick and stone Virginia homestead, bowered in the midst of vines and fruit-trees, known as the Henry house.
Not until weeks after – long, weary, perilous weeks – was the story told, and then Snipe was not the narrator. The grave, taciturn major waxed eloquent and even diffuse for once in his life, and the burden of his song was Snipe and Sergeant Keating.
After their second brave advance along the plateau the New-Englanders found themselves unsupported on both flanks, and their men falling from the hot fire that poured in from almost every direction. The old colonel hung on to the last, but saw that to save his regiment he must withdraw, and so gave the order. They fell back fighting, closing to the centre, and only once was there anything like confusion, and that occurred close to the Henry house, when some other regiment that had suddenly marched up the slope to the west almost as suddenly broke and came surging over the right companies, carrying two of them in the rush. It was while staying this disorder that Major Stark was suddenly dashed to earth. His horse, disembowelled by a whirring fragment of shell, reared and plunged violently, falling on his rider and crushing him in his frantic agony. Almost wild with grief and excitement, Snipe sprang from his saddle and ran to the major's aid, even though a dozen gray-clad fellows came bounding at them through the smoke. "I declare," he said, afterwards, "I thought they were coming to help me. They did help, – three or four of them. They pulled that poor horse off just as we've seen a crowd pull a fallen horse out of a tangle on Broadway, and they lifted the major up and stood him on one leg, and one of 'em gave him a drink from his canteen, and another, a boy like myself, actually began brushing him off. Everybody was so crazy with yelling and shouting that for a minute they didn't seem to realize the situation."
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