THE STORY OF A SOUTHERN GIRL AND HER PRISONER.
BY LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE.
ON the brow of the rise, Alspaugh's mare halted in obedience to her rider's unspoken wish. Alspaugh himself crooked a lanky leg over the pommel of the saddle. Then he produced, filled, and lighted a corn-cob pipe, and gave himself over to a dreamy contemplation of the countryside, surveying the lay of the land through narrowed eyelids.
It drowsed in a shimmer of heat—a fair prospect of undulating farm-lands, golden and green, diversified with patches of timber, threaded by narrow streams that laughed back at the smiling skies, compassed round with rugged foothills; all infinitely peaceful.
Yet to the north, up the road over which Alspaugh had traveled, Morgan's division of the Army of the Ohio was resting warily on its arms; and to the south, somewhere in the hot, hazy distances that even the soldier's keen glances could not pierce, an army of ragged Confederates skulked defiantly, looking ever hungrily back to Cumberland Gap, which they had evacuated only a day or two gone, retreating before the Union advance.
Between the two armies there lay a debatable ground. Alspaugh considered it, sucking uneasily the reed stem of the corn-cob; for he found it of a questionable aspect. To his mind a menace lurked in the hollows of those hills, masked by the very peacefulness of their showing. In particular he pondered on the dense column of dun-colored smoke that rose steadily a mile or more to the south—rose from behind a hill, without a break through the still air, spreading out at a height to foul the brilliant skies.
"What's that, d'ye think?" Alspaugh wanted to know. "Brush burning, or guerrillas? Maybe I'll run over and find out, later."
Knocking the ashes from his pipe against his calloused palm, he chirped cheerfully to the horse, swung off from the road, and entered upon a narrow driveway, rankly weed-grown, that wound a serpentine course through grounds manifesting a like state of long neglect.
It was just eleven o'clock in the morning of the 20th of June, 1862. Before him, through a fringe of beeches, loomed a gray, rock-ribbed mansion, shuttered and gloomy. To all appearances it might have been deserted for years; but across a more distant stretch of lawn Alspaugh could see a frantic negro scuttling as for dear life, his rags weirdly fluttering. Alspaugh was moved to howl after him, and the darky discovered, mended his pace marvelously, giving vent to unearthly screeches. Alspaugh chuckled, but forbore to give, chase; the incident merely served to reassure him. He would have no trouble getting what information he desired, for no men were about.
A quizzical grin played in the corners of his mouth as he neared and remarked the expressionless face of the mansion.
"Watching me through the shutters," he said to himself. "Wonder if I look so perfectly awful as all that? Well, war's—business." he clucked to the mare again. "I'm not proud; if they wont welcome me at the front door, I'll go 'round, like common folks."
In the rear he found the evidences of human tenancy that he had expected—a pile of kindling-wood fresh cut by the kitchen door; abundant moisture around the well-curb; a number of haughty fowls subservient to a domineering rooster. Also, an upper window, the only one unshuttered, betrayed a sash-curtain of snowy whiteness, drawn hack by fresh pink ribbons. But his hail went unanswered.
Dismounting, he marched to the kitchen door and raised his hand to knuckle a thunderous summons upon the panels. His descending fist, however encountered nothing more substantial than air; the door had opened before him.
The Northern soldier stared, a pleased surprise kindling in his gray eyes. His cap came off abruptly, and he bowed—but mutely.
"Well? What do you want?"
The tone was as repellent as the speaker was decidedly to the contrary. A girl stood upon the threshold; a girl, but almost a woman, dark, rebellious, and wonderful in a number of ways which Alspaugh had scarce time to enumerate: a beauty in a temper. She frowned upon him, fearless, eyes snapping a challenge beneath her level brows; and she stamped a foot which Alspaugh thought absurdly inadequate for the purpose.
He recovered from his wonder and smiled cheerfully, meditating an excuse for his presence.
"I belong to a foraging party," he said glibly. "We are levying on the neighborhood for food for the army——"
"We have nothing!"
"So I observe," he agreed ingenuously, glancing absently toward the rooster and his family. "That being the case, I shan't disturb—you."
She ignored the emphasis, staring through the intruder, who would not budge. He shifted upon his feet, his spurs jingling, and smiled in the face of adversity.
"Could I have a glass of water, if you please?" he asked finally. "I'm powerful thirsty."
Without a word she turned her back and disappeared: when she returned it was with a glass in her hand.
"There!" she said, and indicated the well.
Alspaugh regarded it with interest. It was of the old order—an endless chain of small buckets operated by a crank; and he decided that it would be a matter of some difficulty simultaneously to raise and catch the water.
"Would you be so kind as to hold the glass for me?" he requested diffidently.
The girl hesitated, her frown deepening. Then, still quietly, she stepped out, taking the glass from his hand.
"Thank you," he remarked; but she would not reply.
He labored at the creaking windlass. She stood with face half averted, but he had time to appraise her more specifically. Presently the water gushed from the iron lip and brimmed the glass. To escape the splashing the girl drew her skirts away, daintily, and proffered the drink. Alspaugh courteously demurred.
"After you?" he suggested, his eyes full upon her face.
She debated his case for a brief instant, her anger rising—rising with the flush that crimsoned her cheeks beneath his ardent gaze. Then, without warning, the water struck Alspaugh between the eyes; he jumped, gasping, and remembered to swear inwardly.
"That's how we treat Abolitionists!" she stormed. "How—how dared you—an enemy of my country——"
Blindly he groped for his handkerchief—a bandanna—thanking Heaven that it was presentable. Secretly he was amused, outwardly dignified and stern, drying his eyes and dripping cheeks in uncompromising silence.
"With your permission," he said to her, and took the glass. With some trouble he managed to draw himself the drink, swallowing it with composure; the girl remaining mute and almost shamefaced after her first violent outburst. "Thank you," he said coldly, returning the glass.
She struck it from his hand, dashing it against the well-curb, to fly into a thousand fragments.
"Because a Northern soldier drank from it?" asked Alspaugh, gravely interested.
She nodded furiously, eyes blazing, lips set and hard; perhaps she dared not trust them. Alspaugh laughed softly, bowed, got to his horse and mounted.
"Good-day," he said pleasantly, from the saddle; adding as an afterthought, as he rode away: "My, what an angry child!"
A little patch of swampy timber land, a few acres in area, lay steaming and sweltering under the sun of high noon. Along its eastern edge ran what was by courtesy a road, in reality a broad ribbon of mastic mud, black, knee-deep, and treacherous. Technically both were within the sphere of Union occupation, but actually they were a half mile or so beyond the picket lines.
Within the timber, however, a detail of some fifty private soldiers of the Federal Army, under the watchful eye of a corporal, were felling saplings wherewith the swamp road was to be "corduroyed" for the passage of artillery and supply trains. The grove resounded with the staccato clamor of the keen ax-bits and the crashing of the fast-falling young trees. The men of the detail drawn from Alspaugh's regiment, Alspaugh himself among them—came from the half-cleared swamps of the Northwest, where they, even as their forebears, had hewn them their homes out of the living wilderness forests; past-masters in the art of the ax were they, before whom the slender saplings swept down like timothy before a scythe.
Alspaugh, inclined to grumble because of the labor involved, nevertheless found, after the first few blows, that the ax just "fitted" him, was of the right weight, and hung true on the handle. Presently he began to enjoy himself, and mowed a swath in the swamp like the expert woodsman that he was.
In time, however, he suspended operations; he was breathing fast, and the perspiration fairly ran clown his cheeks. Taking off his little fatigue cap, he fanned himself with it, ineffectually.
"Sa-ay!" he hailed the corporal. "Has it struck you that this is a mighty reckless way we're a doin' of this?"
"How's that, Adam?"
"You know the Johnnies are over the hill yonder, not more than a mile from here?"
"What of it?"
"What of it?" Alspaugh selected a fallen tree and deliberately seated himself. "Why, the racket we make might draw the enemy's fire."
"What of that?" said the corporal.
"It's too risky," argued Alspaugh. "You send word to the general that I say so, and I'll wait here till I hear from him."
"By thunder, if you don't get to work, I'll report you!"
"But, corporal, these brave boys are perishing of thirst. Hi, boys, give me your canteens. I'm going for water!"
And he did go for water. Taking half a dozen canteens, he sauntered off to the right, in which direction he declared he was positive there must be a spring; and was soon lost to the view of his laughing comrades. In time, on rising ground, he came upon a patch of dewberries, and set to work upon it, oblivious to all else until—it came suddenly: "Surrender, or I'll shoot you!"
"The devil you say!"
Reaching for a particularly ripe berry, Alspaugh tipped his face slightly and gazed into the muzzle of a rifle. Promptly he straightened up; after which he stood at attention.
"Oh, I beg your pardon. Why, certainly!" he assured his captor.
His first definite impression was of a pair of velvety black eyes glancing purposefully down the barrel of the rifle. Then he found that they were the eyes of a girl, and at once understood that they were eyes wherein one might fall and drown—by good fortune. Afterwards he recognized the girl; only a day had passed since the affair of the well-curb.
"Ah!" he said. "You didn't need the gun; your eyes are enough!"
"You are impertinent, sir!" And the eyes flashed dangerously, like unto summer lightning. "Precede me, and remember that an attempt at escape will be fatal!"
"With pleasure. But what makes you think that I'll try to get away from you?"
In obedience to the command he passed through the underbrush and came out upon the road. He found that the girl was mounted; she wheeled her horse cautiously, keeping the muzzle of the gun full upon the young man. "Do you see that big oak on the hilltop there?" she demanded frigidly.
Alspaugh nodded pleasantly, watching her face. She flushed angrily.
"There's a Confederate sharp-shooter up that tree," she proclaimed, "and his rifle is trained on you!"
"Why, the mean thing!" protested Alspaugh.
She bit her lip; he sighed with mock dolefulness.
"Yes. ma'am," he continued cheerfully. "I hope he'll miss me, hut I want you to hit me—if I'm fool enough to run away from as——"
"Sir! Your insolence——" She paused. "You talk too much," she concluded.
"It is a bit wearing," he admitted cheerfully; "but, bless you, I don't mind!"
"Get on, sir!"
Despite the quiver of the suppressed smile upon her lips, her tone was resolute; Alspaugh knew that she meant it. He stepped out at a livelier pace, the horse treading sedately behind him, the girl relaxing no jot of her vigilance. Alspaugh told himself that he could "sense" the gaze that she fixed upon the small of his hack.
"If only you'd let me walk backward, so that I might see you, ma'am——"
"Keep straight ahead, sir! You see that big chimney over yonder? Well, go that way: that's Lee & Gordon's mill."
"Fine mess of grist you're bringing them! I say, what are you going to do with me, anyhow?"
"Turn you over to General Forrest. Move faster!"
"What are you going to do that for? I'll get away from him, sure's you're a foot high: but you couldn't drive me away from you with a dog!"
"If he permits you to escape, that is his fault. My duty will he done when I've turned you over to him."
"Yes, I reckon so," Alspaugh agreed, adding in a tone of whimsical remonstrance. "But I don't see how you can bear to part with me."
To this she did not reply. Undaunted, he tried again.
"Do you make a habit of this sort of thing? Or did you just happen to gather me in?"
"What did you do it for, anyhow?"
This time the reply came explosively.
"Because I'm a Southern girl—that's why! I saw my chance to help weaken the Yankees, and I improved it."
"H'm," he assented gravely. "You hurt 'em badly, too. The army of the Ohio's going to have a mighty tough time without me!"
But the élan was gone from his raillery. Things were going much too far, he believed; the capture which he had been disposed to treat as a joke bade fair to become a most serious matter. He had not been awed by the imaginary sharpshooter, hut he was convinced that the girl herself would stand no trifling.
"Forrest!" he said to himself as he plodded. "That's bad. They say he hangs every Yankee who falls into his hands—if he doesn't eat him. I wonder if she knows that? Guess not; though that's no consolation."
Abruptly he faced about; the girl was startled, but ready.
"Don't do that!" she warned him. "I'll shoot—indeed I will!"
"Shoot, but hear me!" he said gayly; but she saw that his eyes were serious. "I want you to do me a favor; there's no telling what will happen, you know. No, I'm not going to beg off; but I've a mother living up in Ohio. Will you send her this if—if you hear of anything happening to me?" He held out his hand; in the palm lay a ring. The girl was relenting. He saw that: she knew that he saw it. But ere she could speak, he interposed. "It's an heirloom; she would like to have it. Just that and my name—won't you, please? It would be a small thing to do for a dead man, wouldn't it?" He took from his pocket a battered diary and the stub of a pencil, and tore out a leaf whereon he scribbled his name and address. "You'll do it? I can trust you?"
She accepted the ring; the hostility was gone out from her face, a grave tenderness was come into her eyes. But her resolution to hand him over remained unshaken.
"I will do that for you," she conceded, slipping the ring upon a finger. Then, gathering up the reins: "Move on, sir!" she commanded.
Forrest's face was long, lean, pallid; the face of an ascetic lit by the eyes of a zealot. He was a brave, keen soldier, a very representative petal of that brilliant blossom, the flower of Southern chivalry; but in his attitude, as he touched across the table, twisting his slender white fingers together, eying Alspaugh, the prisoner found something suggestive of wolfishness.
Alspaugh himself stood upon his two feet and faced the man with a high fearlessness. A Confederate cavalryman stood at his either side; an orderly was erect in the doorway. The girl sat uneasily upon the edge of a chair near General Forrest. She was speaking.
"I heard the sound of axes in the distance. Then I saw the prisoner; he was alone, in a berry patch. A little while before I had picked up this rifle——"
Forrest examined it carelessly.
"It is unloaded and the hammer is broken," he announced wearily.
"But I did not know that; neither did he. He seemed to come quite willingly."
Forrest coughed discreetly; he turned upon Alspaugh a non-committal expression.
"Your name?" he demanded.
"Ah! You admit it?"
"Certainly. Why not? Adam Alspaugh, private, Twenty-First Ohio."
"Yes." A long pause and tense; Forrest shaded his eyes and studied a paper on the desk. "Orderly," he said suddenly, "call the officers of the brigade for a drum-head court-martial."
The girl started, paling.
"General Forrest!" she gasped. "What are you going to do?"
"Hang him, Miss Thorpe."
For a moment the room in the mill swam around Alspaugh; then he set his teeth grimly, and steadied himself. That was absurd, of course. Why should he be hanged? Forrest merely wanted to scare information out of him, probably.
By twos and threes the brigade officers arrived; they whispered to one another, conferred with Forrest, looked coldly at the prisoner. As for the girl, she sat with her head bent low, fidgeting with her riding-whip. She was breathing rapidly, and Alspaugh knew that she was repenting.
Forrest convened the court-martial without ceremony; his voice was hard and unemotional.
"Gentlemen," he said, "this morning I was called upon by a Mrs. Swain. Your neighbor, I believe, Miss Thorpe? "
"She lived two miles down the pike, sir. But——"
"Pardon me. I am coming to that. Mrs. Swain's home was robbed and burned to the ground yesterday by a gang of bushwhackers led by this man, Alspaugh——"
"A lie!" Alspaugh branded it calmly.
"Silence, sir! Mrs. Swain's description of the leader fits this hound in detail—tall, well-built, wearing a blue uniform, a man with gray eyes. The outrage was perpetrated at eleven in the forenoon——"
The girl fairly jumped with relief.
"That proves that he had no part in it," she gasped.
"Because the prisoner was at my home at that hour."
"Indeed?" Forrest seemed not greatly impressed. "For what purpose?"
"He—he asked for a glass of water." She flushed slowly, nor dared to meet Alspaugh's eyes. "I gave it him. He went away at once. He was very gentleman-like, I thought. I am sure he had no part in the crime, General Forrest."
"Thank you," Alspaugh said gratefully.
"You are sure of the hour, Miss Thorpe?"
"I looked at the clock a moment or two after he left."
"In what direction did he ride?"
She hesitated; seemingly it was with a distinct effort that she managed to answer:
"Toward the south."
"He was mounted—yes? He rode away rapidly?"
Strangely enough, she was finding it extremely hard to give evidence that would go to condemn an enemy of her people. Alspaugh came to her rescue gallantly enough.
"It is unnecessary to question Miss Thorpe further on that point," he volunteered. "I readily admit that I rode south, even that I was at the Swain homestead. In point of fact, I arrived in time to see it a deserted, smoking ruin. But it is absurd to connect me——"
Forrest smiled acidly.
"I hold in my hand convincing evidence of your guilt. This belt was wrested from you in your struggle with Mrs. Swain. You can't deny your property!"
Suddenly the girl found herself on her feet, strangling a cry in her throat. Alspaugh's stare of blank surprise as he took the belt in his hands had been succeeded by an appalling pallor that bespoke his hopelessness.
It was a plain strap of worn black leather, with a brass buckle bearing the Federal "U. S." But attached to it was a cap-box; and on the under side of the flap, Alspaugh read his own name, in his own hand: "Adam Alspaugh, Twenty-First Ohio." He moistened the corners of his lips with the tip of his tongue.
"It is my name," he said slowly. He fumbled with the cap-box, stuck one finger through its bottom. "You see?" he said. "I don't expect you to believe me, but I threw that cap-box away while we were encamped at Sandy Springs. Some camp-follower must have picked it up."
He returned the belt and spread out the palms of his hands helplessly.
The girl could not face him.
"We don't believe you," she heard Forrest announce in his passionless voice. "The case is too plain. Can you explain what you were doing within two miles of Mrs. Swain's house yesterday morning, if you are innocent on this charge?"
Alspaugh's lips tightened; he threw a quick, furtive glance about him. He had no chance for escape. He knew himself damned already in the hostile eyes of the judges; and what he was about to reply would be misconstrued.
"I was on a reconnaissance," he said; "under orders."
"Ah! A spy?"
"If you call a man in full uniform between the lines a spy, yes."
"And may I inquire what information you got on your expedition?"
Forrest put the question absently, as if he attached no importance to it; but Alspaugh was prepared.
"Certainly you may inquire," he answered cheerfully. "But you don't expect me to answer, do you? I think you may as well sentence me to be murdered and have done with this farce, gentlemen."
"Yes," agreed Forrest slowly.
The girl turned and left the room.
Upon the homeward road her horse set his own pace, a slow one, unchidden; the girl herself was scarcely conscious of her whereabouts. She rode with a drooping head, wrapped in musings. A dying sun bathed her in a crimson splendor, and upon her hand the carnelian in the ring blazed like a drop of living, palpitating blood—upon her hand! She shuddered.
Clouds gathered; and the night's shadows closed about her swiftly. It was to be a black night, moonless; and when it had passed swiftly, as it would surely pass—— She shuddered again, and was shaken by a sigh deep as a sob.
The guard tent was backed up against the edge of the woodland, whose nocturnal stirrings made sibilant the long hours to Alspaugh. He sat in the center of the plot of moist earth, painfully hunched up; his wrists bound behind his back, his feet similarly secured. There was no one to talk to, not a chance for flight. His hands and feet were numb, and within the tent was black darkness.
In the dawning he was to hang. It was very unpleasant to think about. So he tried to think about the girl. He felt very sorry for her. He could imagine how the horror of it would sting her.
The long hours dragged. At midnight there was a change of guard, and he was inspected by lantern-light. He bore it stolidly, without replying to the friendly overtures of the officer of the guard. Then again the prisoner was left alone, with nought but his own conscience and the monotonous pacing to and fro of the sentry to keep him company.
Once he napped lightly. But a slight rustling in the rear of the tent roused him, and he sat for what seemed like ages straining his ears to catch a repetition of the sound, which did not come. Something else did, however—the coolness of a knife-blade against his wrists. He held his breath, a cold perspiration breaking out upon his face, his heart hammering like distant thunder.
The knife sawed through strand after strand; and when it was done, the hilt was thrust into his aching palm. He grabbed it with a silent prayer of thanks, and attacked the ropes upon his ankles with desperation. In a moment he sat free. The sentry still paced up and down, to and fro, unconsciously.
Noiselessly Alspaugh turned over and lay prone, wriggling toward the spot where the canvas had been slashed. As he reached it, the groping hand met his face; he seized it, and its mate pressed a revolver into his palm. They were the soft hands of a woman. He could put one and two together very satisfactorily; so he pressed her one hand to his two lips.
Stealthily as thieves in the night they made an arduous passage through the woodland. In one place they waited twenty minutes—as many years!—for a sentry to move to the further end of his beat. At length they were without the lines. Somewhere they came out upon an open road; and the starlight struck down and faintly outlined the face of the girl.
She had stopped; he saw that she was weeping, very softly but intensely. He stood speechless, amazed, until she turned upon him.
"Oh!" she cried. "Why, why did you do it?"
"But I did not do it," he expostulated. "If you believed I did, why did you come to me——"
"I don't mean that!" she whispered passionately. "I know that you were innocent. But why—why did you kiss my hand? I hate you!"
"But I love you," he explained in a breath. "How could I help it? You can't blame me." He paused. "Is it the pollution of my lips? You broke the glass. Will you cut off the hand? Or will you give it to another, to cleanse it of dishonor? Or"—he faltered—"can it wait? Will you keep it so, for me, until——"
Both were silent.
"I'm afraid of this country," Alspaugh laughed tenderly, after a while. "It's full of surprises. But I'm coming back to it—I'm coming back—I'm coming back!"
But the girl was gone from him, alone through the night; and on her finger the carnelian ring was like a drop of living blood.