McClure's Magazine/Volume 7/Number 5/The Pickets
Author of "The King in Yellow" and "The Red Republic."
"We be of one blood, you and I!"
" HI, Yank!"
"Shut up!" replied Alden, wriggling to the edge of the rifle-pit. Connor also crawled a little higher and squinted through the chinks of the pine logs.
"Hey, Johnny!" he called across the river, "are you that clay-eatin' Cracker with green lamps on your pilot?"
"O Yank! Are yew the U. S. mewl with a C. S. A. brand on yewr head-stall?"
"Shut up!" replied Connor, sullenly.
A jeering laugh answered him from across the river.
"He had you there, Connor," observed Alden, with faint interest.
Connor took off his blue cap and examined the bullet-hole in the crown.
"C. S. A. brand on my head-stall, eh!" he repeated, savagely, twirling the cap between his dirty fingers.
"You called him a clay-eating Cracker," observed Alden; "and you referred to his spectacles as green lanterns on his pilot."
"I'll show him whose head-stall is branded," muttered Connor, shoving his smoky rifle through the log-crack.
Alden slid down to the bottom of the shallow pit, and watched him apathetically. He gasped once or twice, threw open his jacket at the throat, and stuffed a filthy handkerchief into the crown of his cap, arranging the ends as a shelter for his neck.
Connor lay silent, his right eye fastened upon the rifle-sight, his dusty army shoes crossed behind him. One yellow sock had slipped down over the worn shoe-heel and laid bare a dust-begrimed ankle-bone.
Suddenly Connor's rifle cracked; the echoes rattled and clattered away through the woods; a thin cloud of pungent vapor slowly drifted straight upward, shredding into filmy streamers among the tangled branches overhead.
"Get him?" asked Alden, after a silence.
"Nope," replied Connor. Then he addressed himself to his late target across the river:
"My shot, you fool!"
"Why, sonny!" called back the Confederate, in affected surprise, "was yew a-shootin' at me?"
Bang! went Connor's rifle again. A derisive catcall answered him, and he turned furiously to Alden.
"Oh, let up," said the young fellow; "it's too hot for that."
Connor was speechless with rage, and he hastily jammed another cartridge into his long hot rifle; but Alden roused himself, brushed away a persistent fly, and crept up to the edge of the pit again.
"Hello, Johnny!" he shouted.
"That you, sonny?" replied the Confederate.
"Yes; say, Johnny, shall we call it square until four o'clock?"
"What time is it?" replied the cautious Confederate; "all our expensive gold watches is bein' repaired at Chickamauga."
At this taunt Connor showed his teeth, but Alden laid one hand on his arm and sang out: "It's two o'clock, Richmond time; Sherman has just telegraphed us from your State-house."
"Wall, in that case this crool war is over," replied the Confederate sharp-shooter; "we'll be easy on old Sherman."
"See here!" cried Alden; "is it a truce until four o'clock?"
"All right! Your word, Yank!"
"You have it!"
"Done!" said the Confederate, coolly rising to his feet and strolling down to the river bank, both hands in his pockets.
Alden and Connor crawled out of their ill-smelling dust-wallow, leaving their rifles behind them.
"Whew! It's hot, Johnny," said Alden, pleasantly. He pulled out a stained pipe, blew into the stem, polished the bowl with his sleeve, and sucked wistfully at the end. Then he went and sat down beside Connor, who had improvised a fishing outfit from his ramrod, a bit of string, and a rusty hook.
The Confederate rifleman also sat down on his side of the stream, puffing luxuriously on a fragrant corncob pipe. Alden watched him askance, sucking the stem of his own empty pipe. After a minute or two, Connor dug up a worm from the roots of a beech tree with his bayonet, fixed it to the hook, flung the line into the muddy current, and squatted gravely on his haunches, chewing a leaf stem.
Presently the Confederate soldier raised his head and looked across at Alden.
"What's yewr name, sonny?" he asked.
"Alden," replied the young fellow, briefly.
"Mine's Craig," observed the Confederate; "what's yewr regiment?"
"Two Hundred and Sixtieth New York; what's yours, Mr. Craig?"
"Ninety-third Maryland, Mister Alden."
"Quit that throwin' sticks in the water!" growled Connor. "How do you s'pose I'm goin' to catch anythin'?"
Alden tossed his stick back into the brush-heap and laughed.
"How's your tobacco, Craig?" he called out.
"Bully! How's yewr coffee 'n' tack, Alden?"
"First rate!" replied the youth.
After a silence he said, "Is it a go?"
"You bet," said Craig, fumbling in his pockets. He produced a heavy twist of Virginia tobacco, laid it on a log, hacked off about three inches with his sheath-knife, and folded it up in a big green sycamore leaf. This again he rolled into a corn-husk, weighted it with a pebble; then, stepping back, he hurled it into the air, saying, "Deal square, Yank!"
The tobacco fell at Alden's feet. He picked it up, measured it carefully with his clasp-knife, and called out: "Two and three-quarters, Craig. What do you want, hard-tack or coffee?"
"Tack," replied Craig; "don't stint!"
Alden laid out two biscuits. As he was about to hack a quarter from the third, he happened to glance over the creek at his enemy. There was no mistaking the expression in his face. Starvation was stamped on every feature.
When Craig caught Alden's eye, he spat with elaborate care, whistled a bar of the "Bonny Blue Flag," and pretended to yawn.
Alden hesitated, glanced at Connor, then placed three whole biscuit in the corn-husk, added a pinch of coffee, and tossed the parcel over to Craig.
That Craig longed to fling himself upon the food and devour it was plain to Alden, who was watching his face. But he didn't; he strolled leisurely down the bank, picked up the parcel, weighed it critically before opening it, and finally sat down to examine the contents. When he saw that the third cracker was whole and that a pinch of coffee had been added, he paused in his examination and remained motionless on the bank, head bent. Presently he looked up and asked Alden if he had made a mistake. The young fellow shook his head and drew a long puff of smoke from his pipe, watching it curl out of his nose with interest.
Then I'm obliged to yew, Alden," said Craig; "'low I'll eat a snack to see it ain't pizened."
He filled his lean jaws with the dry biscuit, then scooped up a tin cup full of water from the muddy river and set the rest of the cracker to soak.
"Good?" queried Alden.
"Fair," drawled Craig, bolting an unchewed segment and choking a little. "How's the twist?"
"Fine," said Alden; "tastes like stable-sweepings."
They smiled at each other across the stream.
"Sa-a-y," drawled Craig, with his mouth full, "when yew're out of twist, jest yew sing out, sonny."
"All right," replied Alden. He stretched back in the shadow of a sycamore and watched Craig with pleasant eyes.
Presently Connor had a bite and jerked his line into the air.
"Look yere," said Craig, "that ain't no way for to ketch red-horse. Yew want a ca'tridge on foh a sinker, sonny."
"What's that?" inquired Connor, suspiciously.
"Put on a sinker."
"Go on, Connor," said Alden.
Connor saw him smoking, and sniffed anxiously. Alden tossed him the twist, telling him to fill his pipe.
Presently Connor found a small pebble and improvised a sinker. He swung his line again into the muddy current, with a mechanical sidelong glance to see what Craig was doing, and settled down again on his haunches, smoking and grunting.
"Enny news, Alden?" queried Craig after a silence.
"Nothing much; except that Richmond has fallen," grinned Alden.
"Quit foolin'," urged the Southerner; "ain't there no news?"
"No. Some of our men down at Mud Pond got sick eating catfish. They caught them in the pond. It appears you Johnnys used the pond as a cemetery, and our men got sick eating the fish."
"That so?" drawled Craig; "too bad. Lots of yewr men was in Long Pond too, I reckon."
In the silence that followed two rifle-shots sounded faint and dull from the distant forest.
"'Nother great Union victory," drawled Craig. "Extry! Extry! Richmond is took!"
Alden laughed and puffed at his pipe.
"We licked the boots off of the 30th Texas last Monday," he said.
"Sho!" drawled Craig; "what did you go a lickin' their boots for—blackin'?"
"Oh, shut up!" said Connor from the bank; "I can't ketch no fish if you two fools don't quit jawin'."'
The sun was dipping below the pine-clad ridge, flooding river and wood with a fierce radiance. The spruce needles glittered, edged with gold; every broad, green leaf wore a heart of gilded splendor, and the muddy waters of the river rolled onward like a flood of precious metal, heavy, burnished, noiseless.
From a balsam bough a thrush uttered three timid notes; a great, gauzy-winged grasshopper drifted blindly into a clump of sun-scorched weeds, click! click! cr-r-r-r!
"Purty, ain't it," said Craig, looking at the thrush. Then he swallowed the last morsel of muddy hard-tack, wiped his beard on his cuff, hitched up his trousers, took off his green glasses, and rubbed his eyes.
"A he catbird sings purtier, though," he said, with a yawn.
Alden drew out his watch, puffed once or twice, and stood up, stretching his arms in the air.
"It's four o'clock," he began, but was cut short by a shout from Connor.
"Gee whiz!" he yelled, "what have I got on this here pole?"
The ramrod was bending, the line swaying heavily in the current.
"It's four o'clock, Connor," said Alden, keeping a wary eye on Craig.
"That's ail right!" called Craig; "the time's extended till yewr friend lands that there fish."
"Pulls like a porpoise," grunted Connor. "I bet it busts my ramrod!"
"Does it pull?" grinned Craig.
"Yes, a dead weight!"
"Don't it jerk kinder this way an' that," asked Craig, much interested.
"Naw," said Connor; "the bloody thing jest pulls steady."
"Then it ain't no red-horse; it's a catfish!"
"Huh!" sneered Connor; "don't I know a catfish? This ain't no catfish, lemme tell yer!"
"Then it's a log," laughed Alden.
"By gum! here it comes," panted Connor; "here, Alden, jest you ketch it with my knife; hook the blade, blame ye!"
Alden cautiously descended the red bank of mud, holding on to roots and branches, and bent over the water. He hooked the big-bladed clasp-knife like a scythe, set the spring, and leaned out over the water.
"Now!" muttered Connor.
An oily circle appeared upon the surface of the turbid water,—another and another. A few bubbles rose and floated upon the tide.
Then something black appeared just beneath the bubbles, and Alden hooked it with his knife and dragged it shoreward. It was the sleeve of a man's coat.
Connor dropped his ramrod and gaped at the thing. Alden would have loosed it, but the knife-blade was tangled in the sleeve.
He turned a sick face up to Connor.
"Pull it in," said the older man. "Here, give it to me, lad——"
When at last the silent visitor lay upon the bank, they saw it was the body of a Union cavalryman. Alden stared at the dead face, fascinated; Connor mechanically counted the yellow chevrons upon the blue sleeve, now soaked black. The muddy water ran over the baked soil, spreading out in dust-covered pools; the spurred boots trickled slime. After a while both men turned their heads and looked at Craig. The Southerner stood silent and grave, his battered cap in his hand. They eyed each other quietly for a moment, then, with a vague gesture, the Southerner walked back into his pit and presently reappeared, trailing his rifle.
Connor had already begun to dig with his bayonet, but he glanced up sharply at the rifle in Craig's hands. Then he looked searchingly into the eyes of the Southerner. Presently he bent his head and quietly continued digging.
It was after sunset before he and Alden finished the shallow grave, Craig watching them in silence, his rifle between his knees. When they were ready they rolled the body into the hole and stood up.
Craig also rose, raising his rifle to a "present." He held it there while the two Union soldiers shovelled the earth into the grave. Then Alden went back and lifted the two rifles from the pit, handed Connor his, and waited.
"Ready! " growled Connor. "Aim!"
Alden's rifle came to his shoulder. Craig also raised his rifle.
Three times the three shots rang out in the wilderness, over the unknown grave. After a moment or two Alden nodded good-night to Craig across the river, and walked slowly toward his rifle-pit. Connor shambled after him. As he turned to lower himself into the pit he called across the river, "Good-night, Craig!"
"Good-night, Connor," said Craig.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 61 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.