An Echo of Battle
OUR mountain forms the sunset barrier of one northeastern Virginia county; uplifts itself as a herald of morning to another. It is hardly more than a range of wooded hills, ridgelike in close connectedness. yet with curving summit outline, pleasantly varied by here and there a higher swell or more abrupt inclination ; the dusky green or gray treetops standing dark against the sky, or fringing each sidewise lower slant. Its course lies almost due north and south for about twenty miles, gently trailing off at either end into scattered grassy uplands. Neighboring folk who live under the shadow, as it were, of this elevation, in whose landscape it serves as the most prominent sign-calendar of changing weather or season, are sometimes surprised and a little indignant at not finding it set down on the United States map. To realize an old friend’s comparative insignificance will give more or less of a shock. However, such stoutly contend that, though not quite so big or so high as the Blue Ridge or Cumberland, “ our mountain ” lifts as fair a head and turns as graceful a shoulder as any in America. We once heard one of these good people, an honest gentleman and leal-hearted son of the soil, tell how, on returning from a trip to Europe, he burst into tears at sight of the familiar hills. “Talk about the Alps and the Pyrenees ! ” cried he. “ Well, I’ve seen 'em all. ’T is n’t only because I love this one the best in the world, but, pledge you my word, the prettiest mountain that ever I laid eyes on is this old mountain of ours.”
From a certain famous battleground not very many miles away to eastward the mountain shows but a faint bluish undulating line low down against the horizon’s rim ; yet it gives name not only to that field, but to a living, moving tie between. On one of those rounded crests takes rise, from a spring coolly nested amid ivy, fern, and green bramble, a little, swift, clear stream, which, sullenly deepening and broadening as it makes down through lowland cornfield and pasture, was destined to be stained with the blood of more than one fierce conflict. From a signal station at one salient point, later on, flashed eastward and westward messages of danger or triumph. Through two notable gaps, one near each end of the range, the war-tide ebbed and flowed for four long years. Even the mountaineers themselves, dwellers amid thickest woods, in the loneliest hollows, must have taken some little human interest in that tragic, stressful time; though the degree of isolation and ignorance which they usually contrive to keep up, year after year, with along-settled civilized neighborhood on either hand not two miles away, is truly amazing. Be it strife or calm in the great outside world, small difference was it to them. One could hardly look for much exalted patriotic sentiment among such upcasts of turbid disreputableness in all these parts as the mountain people have been for generations. True, some claims to respectable descent a few of them are said to remember, if not exactly to cherish. Where in Virginia, from what unlikeliest, absurdest quarter, will you not hear a mysterious echoing whisper of gentler blood “’way back yonder”? Still, in this case, the possibly redeeming drop has strained unwholesomely far down, under the bar sinister, through sloughlike degradation, clean away from the heart-throbs of any high traditions. Benighted and stolid though its possessors be, they know well enough that even the poorest poor whites below—figuratively reversing matters — look down on the “mount’n tacks ” no less than their superiors. Why following in war if not fellowship in peace ? The reasoning holds good. Whatever brawls and feuds the mountain people might indulge in among themselves, they had always been harmless enough toward outsiders ; so let outsiders fight their own battles; stand or fall, what matter ? Neither at church nor at school did they risk the warlike infection, for church-going and schooling are unknown to the mountaineer. Along the top of his wooded stronghold, from one end to the other, runs a good, well-beaten road; each thicket, each steepest hillslant, discloses a footpath to him; and there he walks dry-shod, if shod at all, when Black Jack, darkest demon of Virginia mud, is holding tyrannical sway on the levels. If the land’s pride and flower lay bloodily trampled in that mire, what matter to him ? His log cabin, his pigs, and his corn patch were safely apart, however many noble manor houses might be laid in ashes, or wide, ripening wheatfields devastated, or fat beeves stuck with the bayonet.
In the summer of the first stormy year, when the women went down, as was their custom, with baskets of wild fruit — strawberries, huckleberries, blackberries, grapes — to offer for sale at crossroads stores and farmhouses, they heard and saw some strange things to talk over, as they made their way back in later evening dusk. At Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, the men, who ventured a like descent to get the whiskey by them thought needful to a proper celebration of those time-honored festivals, also found unusual matter for telling and comment. The old, well-fed, colonially established Church of England had left them these three great names for a legacy, if not one prayer or psalm in connection with the same. In that memorable first year, the sense of something uncommon in the air, something exciting. dangerous, possibly horrible, added no little enjoyment to each holiday as it came round. Something was going to happen, might happen any day. Life took on a sort of new, zestful curiosity. That was all.
So much for the general spirit at that time among the dwellers upon “our mountain.”But to every class there are individual exceptions, all the more striking by contrast with their background. With such an one our story has to do.
A good many years ago, there stretched a large clearing high up on the eastern slope of one of the highest hills, about midway between those much - trodden gaps aforementioned, — the widest and oldest field on the mountain. Surrounded by a rough stone fence, it had doubtless once been all under cultivation ; but at the time of which I write the corn patch belonging to a house set in the clearing was both small and barren. Wild strawberry vines thickly carpeted the open, half hidden here and there by clumps of brier or of stunted sumach. Three or four old cherry and apple trees stood dispersedly about. In and around the thrifty little garden — much better tilled than the corn patch — were planted many flourishing young peach, damson, and quince saplings, as well as various fruit-bearing garden shrubs. As for the house, it was but a log cabin, though ambitiously weather-boarded on the front and eastward side, — a cabin with a squat stone chimney, a big flat stone for a doorstep (stones are plentiful in this region), and two or three little deep-set windows cut through the logs without attempt at regularity. There was space inside for only one sizable room, and a loft under the greenish, mossy-shingled roof. A hundred-leaved rosebush grew on one side of the doorstone, a mock orange on the other. The thick, short turf in front was as clean as a twig broom could sweep it. A circular flower-bed, edged with stones, was full of touch - me - nots, bachelor’s buttons, young man’s love, zinnias, and hollyhocks, carefully tended and “ brushed,” to keep off the many hens that were scratching and clucking about the premises. From a rail pen rearward came the low grunting of several well-fed pigs. Far down the grassy slope in front a cow and calf were lazily dawdling in the sunshine. Here was certainly wealth, from the mountaineers’ point of view, and a household containing at least one thrifty member.
On a certain Sunday morning in July, about thirty years ago, a woman stood in the doorway of this cabin, a thin brown hand shading her eyes from the sun, her eager gaze strained eastward into the far distance, looking and listening.
Before her and beneath, the thick woods which skirted the clearing fell in huddled masses about the mountain’s foot. Beyond this dark, leafy barrier lay the open country, stretching away mile upon mile; seemingly level from this height, yet really undulating in long, indefinite sweeps of woodland, pasture, corn and wheat field. Over all the July sun stared brazenly from a cloudless amethystine sky. The baffling purplish haze that thickened toward the horizon was thrilled by quivers of heat. The air hung still. Not a treetop in the foreground swayed: hardly a leaf seemed to flutter. It was as if earth and air, that morning, were even like the woman in the doorway hushedly watching. However, not for the treetops nor for the nearer landscape had she eyes and ears. The point that drew her was more than ten miles away; all between was a blank. Against the far sky they went up, those little puffs of smoke that gave the only visible tokens—too softly white, too innocent-looking, in sooth — of a fiercer fire raging beneath than any which had ever swept in most parching drought-time over the mountain. Thence, too, came the sounds that alone broke that reigning atmospheric silence, —the long, sullen boom of cannon, the fainter crackling snap of musketry volleys, — lessened by distance, yet still distinctly audible. She was one only of a countless many who, from all the surrounding country, so yearned toward that central space. In days to come the mental gaze of the civilized world was to be concentrated thereupon. Maps would be carefully made out, and pictures drawn with pen and pencil; yet surely the keenest interest ever thus aroused was but as ashes to fire compared with the feeling of those who, when our softened Then was a fevered, dreadful Now, saw the smoke-wreaths and heard the deadly sounds of that strife. Matron and maid, mistress and slave, the white and the black, old men, children, eager chafing boys, made up the army of watchers. There were their nearest and dearest, fighting or dying, or already dead, — which? Could love avail for help, or burning anxiety, or even prayers ? Yet doubtless many a proud knee was then bent that for long years past had well-nigh forgotten such supplicating humility. The tears were to come afterward. Proud, youngeyed Valor against remorseless Will, stone-hard, backed by countless numbers, and brave no less, — they two were playing out the desperate game. There, face to face at last, in longed-for open conflict, stood the hereditary foes. Such a battle was fighting as never had our drowsy old mountain top overlooked before, or for that matter, the highest peak in the land. Never had its woody echoes responded to such sounds as then drew them forth, or its fairest streamlet leaped down in the sunlight, to meet such tragical pollution.
The woman over whose shoulder we have been looking was a little, wiry, slim body, straight as a dart, perhaps thirtyfive or thirty-six years old. On her left hand, hard and brown with toil, was a worn wedding-ring. Her black hair, screwed unbecomingly tight into a knot behind, showed not a few gray threads. Her skin was weather-worn and sallow, like that of most people of her class when past earliest youth, but just now on either cheek burned a flaming red spot. Her gray eyes shone eagerly, a certain alert sharpness, which may have been usually their main expression, yielding first outlook, as it were, to some exalted feeling. On her rather thin and compressed though strong lips this passion of the hour had also laid a dignifying, triumphant touch. There was about her whole manner and person something that education, culture, might have shaped into forceful dramatic intensity. Being who and what she was, it found vent in a jerky vehemence, almost fierce, perhaps sometimes unpleasing; but strength is always attractive when not positively repulsive, and this woman looked both strong and trustworthy.
The room behind her was scrupulously clean : the rough floor well scrubbed ; not a speck of dust on the split-bottomed chairs or the pine table which, with a bed, made up its principal furniture. The stone hearth of the big cavernous fireplace, even the two stones serving as andirons, were smooth with recent washing. The two pots, the Dutch oven, the skillet and griddle on a shelf hard by, stood in orderly array, as also the scanty store of crockery in a little corner cupboard. Clock there was none. On the wall just opposite the doorway hung a large gaudy-colored print, of the kind sold by peddlers, — the Beauty of the South, whom it was supposed to represent, with all the full-blown charm of her very big black eyes, very little red mouth, and pink fat cheeks, smiling blandly right out toward the battlefield.
In one corner of the room stood a clumsy invalid’s chair, and in this chair half sat, half lay, an evidently helpless old woman, her head nodding on her breast, her shriveled hands outspread on a patchwork coverlet tucked smoothly about her knees. Her eyes were bright, but vacant. On the wrinkled yellow face and about the sunken mouth hovered a smile, tremulous, half sly, yet pathetic, —the smile of childish age. She had been whispering fitfully to herself for several moments before she spoke, at last, shrilly aloud.
“ Ailsey,” she said (I spell the name just as it is pronounced, a not uncommon one in these parts, and perhaps a corruption of “Alice” or the old English “ Elsie ”), “Ailsey, gal, which -er-way comes that ’ar thunder ? Is thar ary gust a-risin’ over the mount’n ? 'Pears like I see the gun a-shinin’ out yonder. I don’t hear no wind, but the thunder keeps on a-mutterin’. Hit’s a mighty curious time.”
Ailsey whirled around into the middle of the floor, with eyes flashing and right hand upraised. Her voice, when she spoke, was quick, rather sharp, highpitched, as one who habitually protests against a prevalent drawl; but all the pent-up excitement of hours, days past thrilled in each tone and lent it tragic power. Her whole frame quivered.
“Hit’s sich er time,” said she, “ez you never did see, gran’mother, in all yo’ long-lifed days befo’. The sun, it’s ershinin’, an’ the wind, it’s still ez death, but the gust ’s er-ragin’, all the same, bitter-black ez hell. Nobody on all this here mount’n befo’ — don’t keer if they ’s er hund’ed years ole — ever heared sich thunder ez that. Hit’s the noise o’ the cannons an’ the guns, granny. Hit’s the battle ’way off yonder. Did n’t you hear what Rafe Downs said, when he stopped by last night an’ tole me to look out this mawnin’ ? ' Look out for thunder an’ lightinn’,’sez he. The soldiers wuz coimin’ in the kyars yestiddy. They wuz marchin’ through Big Gap. He said he seen some of ’em hisself, jest er-footin’ it. They ’re er-fightin’ there to kill, ’way down on the Run. We-all’s men is er-fightin’ the Yankees. The Yankees, they come marchin’ here to Virginny to rule us an’ tromple us under the feet. We-all’s men ’s out yonder er-fightin’ ’em back.”
The old woman stirred and shrank uneasily.
“ Fightin’ ? ” said she. " Fightin’, Ailsey ? Is they comin’ up the mount’n ? Don’t let ’em git in the house. Don’t let ’em come rippin’ an’ tearin’ round me. I ’se ole an’ I ’se skeery, Ailsey. I ’ve fit, myself, in my young days, when folks made me mad. I ’ve clawed some sassy vilyuns’ eyes nigh out, in fur-back times. But I ’se most a hund ed years ole now. Don’t tell me ’bout fightin’. Whar’bouts is Nat?”
Nat was her grandson, the husband of the younger woman, Ailsey Dawson.
“Nat’s there er-fightin’ too,” was the exultant reply. “ He’s the onliest man off’n all this mount’n that’s gone in the army. Plague on the rest of ’em ! Coward, no ’count coons ! Lord in heaven ! if I wuz er man ! ” She clenched her wiry hand, drew a long breath, and went on: “ All the gentlemen in Virginny is there er-fightin’. Nat’s there with the gentle-men. He went with Cap’n Westmo’, two months back. Don’t you reck’lect when he went, an’ how he told you good-by? If he’d hung back any, I ’d ha’ drove him off. 'Fore God, I would ! But he wuz willin’ enough to go ’long with the cap’n. He’s spunky ’nough, my man is, elst he would n’t be no husban’ long fur Ailsey Dawson. I reck’n Mrs. Westmo’, in her big fine house down here, is er-feelin’ in mind this day mighty nigh the same ez me. We ’re both in one boat, er-gazin’ an’ listenin’. Last time I wuz down to see her, sez she to me, ‘Ailsey, my woman,’ sez she, ‘ we ken feel fur one ’nother.’ She ’s er lady, she is, bawn an’ bred, an’ she sez that to me. Both our men’s there fightin’ fur ther homes. If they git kilt ” —
She stopped short, her face working, her hand at her throat. Grandmother Dawson chuckled and nodded. “ If they git kilt, they ’ll both be dead,” said she, “ an’ that 'll be the last on ’em. Hit’s er great time, gal : hit’s er great uncommon day. 'Pears to me, Ailsey, like you oughter be drest up in yo’ Sunday clo’es.”
Ailsey looked down at her bare feet, her faded purple calico gown, as if suddenly struck by a new idea. In her rapt, tense mood she had not once thought of the usual Sunday smartening. A few moments she stood thus, then flew to the door and called : —
“ You Malviny Jane ! You Tawm ! You Billzy! Come here this blessid minute ! Come here to me ! ”
Three little brown - headed, frecklefaced youngsters, all under ten years old, came scurrying up from the shade of a cherry-tree, eyes big with wonder and mouths agape. Their mother gave each a shake, though more in excitement, than anger. “ You little no ’count, ornary varments! ” she cried, “ here you is er-playin an’ talkin’ like 't wuz any common day, an’ drest like raggymuffins, an’ yo’ daddy out yonder, ’fore yo’ eyes, er - fightin’ fur his country ! Don’t you hear them guns er-boomin’ ? I say, don’t you hear them guns ? Ev’ry low they gives there’s men shot down. Put on yo’ Sunday clo’es, ev’ry best rag to yo’ back, an’ set down an’ study ’bout this time. Hit ’s er day you ’ll rimmember long ez you live. Hit’s er day to take pride in. None o’ the Dawsons that ever I heared of, not even them Injun-fighters what granny’s always talkin’ ’bout, ever come a-nigh doin’ what yo’ father ’s up to now.”
With sundry jerks, pats, and cuffs, with now and then a squeak on the part of Malvina Jane, Bill, or Tom, when a hair was twitched out or a bit of skin pinched between button and buttonhole, the three were at last arrayed and seated in a row on a bench out-of-doors ; their tempers roughened, their hair plastered smooth, their feet, aching in shoes and stockings, their minds now fully awake to the tremendous unusualness of the situation. Then Ailsey Dawson stopped, hesitating, before beginning her own toilet. A new calico frock was hanging in the closet under the stair which served for her wardrobe. In a chest in the loft overhead was another frock, folded carefully away, reserved as sacred to highest holiday occasions. Surely for this day of days nothing was too good. With eager steps she presently ascended the steep, crooked stair.
The dress was of scarlet merino, a present from that Mrs. Captain Westmore who was to Ailsey Dawson sole representative of ladyhood, culture, religion, and womanly dignity. The friendship between these two had begun several years before with a basket of wild strawberries offered for sale by the mountain woman, with impulsive kindness and interest on one side, and fast-deepening worship on the other. It added nothing to Ailsey’s already slight popularity among her jealous, shiftless neighbors. Neither her sharp tongue nor her restless aspirations were at all to their minds. The fact of her being the last remaining member of one of those families aforementioned who had “come down ” to be mountain dwellers was reckoned against her. Then rumors were indignantly spread of her desire to have Malvina Jane, Tom, and Bill taught to read, and it was whispered that she actually cherished notions of some day moving down to more level ground. Her urging of Nat Dawson into Captain Westmore’s company was taken as a scornful reflection upon their own indifference to war and warlike matters. As for the scarlet merino frock, they regarded that with special resentment. Was it not flaunted in their faces as a badge of superior favor with lowland gentry ? And what possible allusion to “ seckin’hand duds. “ big-bugs’ off-castin’,” or the like was ever spared the wearer? That frock meant a great deal to Ailsey Dawson, — meant nothing less than the triumph and pride of her life. Certainly, when she came down the stair, out into the sunshine, a few minutes later, arrayed therein, no color could have appeared better suited to her peculiar personality.
Hour after hour groaned on the deathchorus of that bloody harvest field ; hour after hour went up the smoke of the battle. Those salient puffs were lost, after a while, in one dusky, ominous cloud. The heat thickened. The firing now slackened fitfully, then broke out again into quick clamorous rage. The sun climbed to his zenith and began slanting toward the mountain’s top, changed from the yellow glare of morning to a sullen lowering red, as if he had looked displeasedly on ugly sights that day. The windless calm of afternoon grew more and more sultry and oppressive. Weariness began to dog the heels of overstrained intensity. It was an hour when even victorious right itself, even hate exultant, might flag and fail.
Had it been a week day, Ailsey Dawson would have gone violently to work in her garden or corn patch, to the washtub or the wood pile. But the mountain folk keep Sunday, in their own way, idling, exchanging visits, strolling about the woods. Such a vent for the tumult within her would not have suggested itself, even if she had not had on her best frock. In and out of doors, up and down the hill, hither and yon about the open field, she eagerly paced, while the three children, awe-stricken, mute as mice, watched her from the shade or crept timidly behind. At noon she gave them a lunch of cold corn bread and milk, and also prepared food for the old woman. Granny Dawson’s appetite was excellent. She had become used to the far-offsounds, seemed to feel no more fear or curiosity, and after dinner fell fast asleep. Ailsey neither ate nor dozed. Once she went down on her knees, looking with burning eyes wide open straight before her, but presently, after a shake of the head, got up without a word. She had never been taught to pray. If supplication stirred her heart, it found no familiar outlet in speech. Several times she thought of going somewhere to seek news, — down the mountain, to the next house ; but she could not bear to lose, even for a short while, her open point of view. Her eyes ached with persistent gazing, her temples throbbed.
It was perhaps three o’clock when she first noticed a little group of people assembled at the upper edge of the clearing, and, with Malvina Jane at her heels, she hastened to speak to them. An outcropping ledge of jagged moss-grown rocks just there supplemented the stone fence in places, overhung by branches of crowding outside trees, and in the shade, seated comfortably upon this barrier, or lounging against it, were about a dozen mountaineers, one of those Sunday parties wont to roam the woods. There were two or three old women, bent, snaggle-toothed crones ; two or three old men, more wiry, more alert, than the women, but all sharing in common that leathery skinniness which seems always to belong to elderly “ poor whites,” no matter what may have been their previous youthful varieties in coloring or texture. One handsome young woman among these ancients, a pink-and-white-skinned, blueeyed, buxom quean, served them by way of contrast. She was arrayed in skyblue curtain calico, red glass beads, very large brass earrings, and dirty yellow ribbon. Two sheepish admirers of her own age attended her, one at either elbow. Several children in the background, sharp-visaged, sunburnt, uncannily peering, made up the group.
All were pointing eastward and talking together when Ailsey drew near, as if the ominous thrill of the time had touched somewhat even their usual stolidity in regard to outside affairs. Nevertheless, on seeing the scarlet frock and the look upon her face, they did not omit a derisive grin in greeting of both, when she paused and stood before them.
But Ailsey Dawson took no notice of this ; nor did she answer their drawling “ howdy.”
“ Have you heared anything from the battle ? ” she asked.
One of the old men — the wit of the mountain side he was — spoke up, with a facetious wrinkling of his lantern jaws : “ Ya-as, we ’s been er-hearin’ rip-potes purty nigh all day.”
“ What? ” she cried breathlessly.
“ Them thar,” was his answer, with a nod toward the battlefield.
There was a chuckle of laughter from the others. She gave him, all of them, one flaming look. Her hands clenched.
“ An’ you ken stand here, an’ set here, ” she cried, “ er-dawdlin’, an’ starin’, an’ crackin’ yo’ fool jokes, hearin’ them Sounds down yonder, an’ knowin’ that all the men in Virginny—all the sho’ nuff men—is there, er-riskin’ ther lives ! What sort o’ stuff ’s you made out’n, I wonder ? Do you wan’ to be walked over by Yankees ? You wan’ to be no better ’n slaves, an’ have free niggers set above you ? Oh, you po’ ornary creeters ! If I wuz er man ” —
The two young men looked down sulkily. The handsome girl giggled. “That’s what I tell ’em myself, Mis’ Dawson,” said she. “ I sez, jest now ” —
Old Stephen Bell, the former speaker, interrupted her. “ It you wuz er man, Ailsey, gal,” drawled he, with another of those facial contractions which answered for a smile, “ you’d most likely be erlayin’ somewhars yonder, dead or dyin’. Sich er heap o’ smoke is mighty apt to kiver some fire. With that much shootin’ hit 'll be right quare if er dozen or so ain’t kilt, or leastwise wownded. Onct I heared er preacher man read out’n er book, when I wuz er little shaver, ' Er live dawg is better ’n er dead lion.’ Them wuz the very words, gal. I ain’t never furgot ’em. ‘ Er live dawg.’ Well, here ’s one ole dawg that’s lived nigh seventy year, an’ he wants to die er nachal death an’ have er grave to hisself. Did ary man jack of us on this here mount’n help to kick up this here scrimmige ? Blamed if I knows anything ’bout Yanks or Rebs, Union or Secesh, an’ blamed if I keer, nuther ! Let them gran’ lion gentle-men what’s done all the roarin’, — Cap’n Westmo’ an’ sich, — let ’em fight it out, tooth an’ nail, ’thout callin’ on dawgs to holp ’em. Jeff Davis, he ’ll have to do the best he kin ’thout me. Hit 'll be er maky-shift, but I reck’n he 'll worry erlong. An’ if Gin’ral Bewregyard p’intedly wants my advice ’bout his little plans, jest let him ride up here arter it. Some o’ them fellers that marched so spry through Big Gap yestiddy evenin’, they 'll skeercely walk back, I reck’n. Ez fur us bein’ trompled on, I don’t reck’n anybody ’ll take the trouble to climb up here to do it. We all’s party safe out o’ the way, ’pears like. Now, that’s my rip-pinion.”
The oldest-looking of the old women here put in her pipe.
“ I ’ve heared er thing or two in my time,” said she, “ ’bout purty nigh ev’rything. Battles, they ain’t no frolicking sho ’s my name s ’Lizy Downs ! My gran’f’er, he fit ’long with Gin’ral Washin’ton. Many’s the time I ’se heared him tell 'bout it. Lord! I rim-member. The wust o’ layin’ wownded, he said, wuz the thirst. Ez the blood runs out, the ragin’ thirst, hit ketches ’em. The sun’s like fire to-day. I lay thar’s er-many down thar this blessid time with tongues out, black, er-hollerin’. T’ others rides an’ fights right over them that goes down. They’ve jest got to do it, ’thout so much ez 'How ’re you, dawg ? ’ Then sometimes, when it comes to the buryin’, they ’ll dig one great big pit. In sich weather ez this here it can’t be dug too soon, nuther. I’ve heared my gran’f’er tell ’bout how once in Gin’ral Washin’ton’s war ” —
But that which followed we will not repeat. It was such a morsel of traditionary horror as is often dearly relished by folk like these, with the vague fascination of “ fur-back times " adding interest to present possibilities. Ailsey Dawson moistened her dry lips as she listened, and once put a hand to her side. Presently she broke out again : —
“ You think I hain’t studied over all that er-many er night? You want to sheer me, you ole buzzards, er-gloatin’ over kyarcases! You think I hain’t sensed the risk? But I ’ll tell you this minute, — Steve Bell, ole ’Liza, all of ye, — I 'm proud an’ glad my man’s there er-fightin’. If he’s layin’ dead this minute, I would n’t have him’live an’whole an’ standin’ here. I sent him off to Cap’n Westmo’. I made him go. When he sez to me, 'Ailsey,’ sez he, ' ken you git erlong without me ? ’ then I sez, ‘ I ken git erlong, Nat, an’, 'fore God, I will.' That ’s what he said to me, an’ that wuz my rip-ply.”
Her hearers looked at one another with a significant smile. " Oh, ya-as, Ailsey,” said Stephen Bell, with a nod and a leer, “ I reck’n you mout make er shift to git erlong ’thout Nat.”
Nat Dawson was by no means looked up to as a pattern of industry or thrift among his neighbors. Ailsey herself, though always fiercely loyal to him, was well acquainted with this fact. None the less she frowned blackly, the red spots spreading in her cheeks. “ My man’s ez much account ” — she began, but there came an interruption. The girl, Lizzie Haws, cried out, “ Mercy on us ! If thar ain’t Nat! ”
Ailsey turned with a mighty start. It was her husband, sure enough. Every eye followed hers. A sudden expectant hush fell upon each and every one, broken only by the sound of the far-off guns, as Nat Dawson came slowly around the house, up the hill, toward them. He had gone away on foot; he returned on horseback. He had marched off gay and confident; he came back evidently in no pleasant mood. Plainly the battle was not yet over ; but there was Nat Dawson, still alive, upon his native hill.
As he rode up and stopped close to the little group, a kind of forced sullen bravado mingled curiously in his countenance with hang-dog shame, with apprehension of somewhat or somebody. He was a good-looking man, so far as general outlines go, but with smallish light blue eyes, a little too shallow and shifty, and a pinched low forehead. His usual sunburn seemed to have somehow faded into a sickly yellow paleness, and there were marks of both suffering and exhaustion about him, which under other circumstances would have met with naught but pity, kindness, comfort, from Ailsey. Now she hardly noticed them. His soldier’s cap hung with a battered droop over his eyes. The hands that clutched the bridle were grimy with dust and powder-smoke, and smeared as with blood. Over his shoulders and body, his head thrust through the slit in its middle, hung a square of shining black oilcloth, — a shield against rain, grotesquely unsuited to cloudless midsummer weather. The horse that he rode was a fine black animal, very handsomely saddled and bridled, though looking sadly spent and coated thick with dust. And through all the dust and sweat-stain there showed adown his side, just in front of the rider’s knee, an ugly reddish streak.
It is probable that Ailsey Dawson at once guessed the truth, for strong emotion is often a wonderful intuitive quickener of understanding. By the lightning flash of feeling on life’s way we see the cold gray milestone, fact. We doubt if such a realization, such a swift fall of pride in the dust, could have held more pain and shame for the highest-born lady in the land than for this woman. She stood stock-still, erect, her hands hanging at her sides. All the others were looking at her ; she looked only at her husband. The red died out of her face, leaving it as gray as ashes. The light in her eyes seemed to contract and sharpen into two glittering points. Her lips thinned and straightened pitilessly. Short and hard came her question : —
“ What ’s you er-doin’ here? ”
The man’s face grew more sulky, more defiant, at her tone, its suggestion of piteous appeal withdrawing as behind a mask. Rallying hardihood steadied his voice, his wavering glance. " That’s mo’ my own biz’ness ’an anybody else’s,’’ said he.
An audible chuckle from old Stephen Bell greeted this answer. Ailsey Dawson felt that her neighbors were enjoying the situation immensely ; and this did not soften her mood.
“ You’ve come away from the battle,” she said, speaking a little lower than usual, yet with harsh, vibrant distinctness.
“ You 've rode up here, safe an’ sound, without even waitin’ to see how it turned out. You’ve come away an’ left them others, our men, there er-fightin’.”
舠 Fightin’ ! ” was the sullen reply.
“ Fightin’! Blamed if I keer how long they fights or how it turns out, nuther !
I’ve seed too much fightin’ this day. I seed men shot down like dawgs. I seed Cap’n Westmo’ kilt dead in his tracks jest afront o’ me. It made me dawgsick. I fit with the rest on ’em till he went down ; then I put out, first chance. I 'll fight with my fists or er hick’ry stick long ez anybody, but blame me if I kin stand any sich devil’s doin’s ez that! ”
“ Cap’n Westmo’ ! ” came in chorus from the listening mountaineers. “ Cap’n Westmo’ kilt ! Lord A’mighty ! ”
Ailsey Dawson shuddered, her face a shade grayer. She was thinking of the captain’s lady. But she went on no whit less mercilessly, without once looking round: —
“Cap’n Westmo’ wuz er brave gentleman, an’ no po’ white mountain coon. I wish to God you’d been kilt, too, 'fore you ever started back here. You re er coward, Nat Dawson. I never thought befo’ that you wuz nothin’ but er mean sneakin’ coward. You runned away from the fight, — it must ha,’ been hours ago. You runned away ! ”
“ I did n’t run. I rode,” said Nat Dawson defiantly ; yet still, being human, he winced.
“Where did you git that hawse?” asked his wife.
“ Thar’s plenty hawses nickerin’ round yonder 'thout anybody on 'em,” was the answer. “ I ketched this feller in the bushes, — little way this side the Run. I ’lowed’t wuz easier to come home ridin’ ’an to drag in dust knee-deep.”
“ I s’pose you stole that thing you’ve got round you off some dead person or wownded,” was Ailsey’s next bitter taunt.
“ ’T wuz tied on behind the saddle,” he muttered, and added something about “ keepin’ off some o’ the heat.” Then for several moments this pair were silent, eying each other. The man’s countenance fell and quivered a little. Once or twice he half opened his lips, as if to tell something more, add some softening revelation or appeal. It, would probably have been in vain just then. The humiliation he had brought upon poor Ailsey was too fresh, too unspeakably bitter. Still he said nothing. Little Malvina Jane began to whimper, “ Daddy ! Mammy ! catching her mother’s skirt, who took no notice. Old Stephen whistled softly under his breath. The women whispered together.
At last Ailsey Dawson spoke, her voice nowise relenting.
“ Will you go straight back there and help 'em out ? " said she. “ Will you go back an’ fight, if they’s still at it when you git there, or help with the dead an’ dyin’ ? Will you show yo’self that much er man ? ”
“ Well, s’pose I do go,” said her husband, with a lowering frown, “ an’ s’pose I never come back ergin. How ’ll that suit ye ? ”
She broke out shrilly upon him in her rage. “ I don 't keer er finger’s snappin’ if you never come back,”she cried, “ jest so you go 'long! It you does n’t choose to go back yonder, go out o’ my sight, anyhow. One thing I tell you : I ’ll never touch you any mo’, or look at or speak to you, or let the chihl’en speak to you, if you don’t show some braveness to make up for this. Did n’t you know me better ’an to come back-creepin’ here this-er-way ? I’d ruther see you layin’ dead, honor’ble, at my feet, this blessid minute, 'an to know you wuz er sneak. You ken go where you chooses.”
“ I ’m er-goin’,” said Nat Dawson.
Without another word he turned the horse’s head around, stiffly, slowly, and rode off by the way he had come. He gave one long look, as he went, at the cabin, the garden, the spring lower down under a tall chestnut-tree, where Bill and Tom were splashing in the cool water, unconscious of “ daddy’s ” being anywhere near. He had not seen the familiar spot, or the little ones, or his old grandmother indoors for more than a month. A lazy, merry creature was he, by natural turn ; fond of children, kind to old people, soft-hearted, affectionate. The garish glamour of war, the uniforms, the music, the marching, which had tickled his childish, ignorant fancy at first, had now quite faded away, and he was going back to its hideous reality. That parting look must have caused a cruel pang; but whatever yearning or foreboding poor Nat may have felt, he kept on, past the house, through the bar-gap, into the woods again, out of sight. Old Stephen screeched after him : “ Hain’t ye got no news to tell ? Come an’ go home with me, if you wanter, boy ! ” But he did not pause or answer.
Various comments were flung at Ailsey, as she stood, statue-like, watching his retreat. Out of what a feast had her fierce promptness cheated their eager and very natural curiosity ! It was too much. “ Party way fur er woman to treat her husban’ ! ” said old Eliza Downs. The young men swore they would never be so walked over by any woman alive. Lizzie Haws remarked : " He looks powerful bad. Don’t ’pear to me like he ’d hold out to git thar. ’Pears to me mighty like that wuz blood had runned down his leg onto the hawse. Mebbe he’s been hurted. I think I 'd ha’ give him er drink o’ water, anyhow, if he wuz my man, even if he had n’t showed hisself the bravest one goin’. Some folks has got mo’ pride ’an they has feelin’, that’s all.”
However, Ailsey deigned neither word nor look in reply to all this, as, with head still high and step steady, she took Malvina Jane by the hand and walked down the slope into her cabin.
The firing had died away soon after Nat’s departure. The battle was ended, one way or another. Old Stephen and his company had saunteringly withdrawn into the upper woods, behind which, presently, the sun also disappeared, glimmering backward for a while blood-red through dusky treetops. There were various evening tasks to be done. Ailsey made haste. Her cow was milked ; her pigs and chickens were fed. Granny Dawson and the children sat eating their supper together. Once the old woman burst out with a shrill, sudden question, — “ Whar’s my Natty boy ? Whar’s Nat ? ” But when her granddaughter answered huskily, “ Ne’ mind, ole lady. Eat yo’ supper, an’ don’t study ’bout him,” she seemed well enough satisfied. With a promise to return before very long, or send word why she did not come if anything should keep her, Ailsey took off her shoes, for freer and swifter walking, and started on her way down the mountain.
The poor soul would not acknowledge to herself that she was following her husband, but the underlying impulse to do so was probably one of many which urged and drew her steps away. She must go down to the open highway to see and to hear something ; to feel the pulse of lowland excitement from whose throbbing the mountain top stood so aloof in sympathy. Maybe she would see Mrs. Westmore, though that idea now gave nothing but added pain. Perhaps she might tramp on clear to the battlefield. She was still bitter against Nat Dawson, but many softening memories began to mingle with that, feeling and tug painfully at her heartstrings. Darting thoughts would persist in coming to her of the time when they had picked huckleberries together, or climbed chestnuttrees, or snared rabbits ; also of later days of courtship. Nat bad been the best looking young man on the whole mountain, Ailsey by no means the prettiest girl; but how loyal to her he had been ! How much pains he had taken to get a real gold ring and a marriage license, and, at her desire, considered so unreasonable by most of their neighbors, to find a real, “ sure enough ” preacher to marry them! How good-natured and generally manageable she had always found him ! Her tears fell fast, big, scalding, bitter; life-drops of wounded love and pride. She almost wished she had never heard of this cruel war, of fighting for the country.
A singular hush now brooded over the evening. The listening suspense of noontide seemed deepened, intensified, amid absolute silence, to a breathless, yearning anguish. Who had lost or won, who was alive or dead, who exulting in victory or moaning in mortal pain, — how many pale lips were then fearfully questioning ! Even the usual sunset stir and freshening of nature seemed lacking. As Ailsey went down the steep, rough, winding path, under the motionless trees, the crackling of a dry twig, the slipping of a stone, sounded strangely loud and, as it were, irreverent. On either hand, the huckleberry and blackberry bushes, purpling with ripe fruit, brushed against her skirts. The wild dittany, the pennyroyal, wood fern, and short, sparse mountain grass, in mingled patches underfoot, sent up a subtle sunburnt odor. The woman remembered it all, could " sense " it all over again, for many a long day afterward.
At the foot of this mountain ridge the skirting woodland straggled away irregularly into open parklike reaches, or thickets, edging outer wastes of broomsedge. The footpath, after falling from its first steepness, widened presently into a cart road leading straight eastward. The gray snake fence which bounded it was half hidden by sumach, green bramble, and poison oak. Outside, a few tall trees rose here and there above the undergrowth. Though the time was now verging on twilight, all objects before and around were still plainly visible.
She had gone some distance along this way when she saw a horse grazing in the fence-corner, not far ahead of her; the same horse, as she knew at a glance, that Nat had ridden that day. The saddle was still upon him, the bridle rein trailing from his head in the grass. Just beyond ran a little shallow stream slantingly across the road, and close by this stream, with one foot limply hanging over the water, lay Nat Dawson.
He was lying in a huddled, helpless attitude, on one side, evidently just as he had fallen, the black oilcloth in a crumple around him, his cap crushed beneath his head. One hand was starkly outstretched in the roadside greenery. His eyes were closed and sunken. His face was very white, rather placid than painful, yet exceedingly piteous to behold.
The horse lifted his head when Ailsey swiftly passed him, and glanced at her with mild, weary eyes. The man neither looked nor stirred. Her eyes and her lips were dry as she stopped and stood there gazing down. She had loved Nat Dawson truly, in her own way. It was not an amiable or demonstrative way, being the outcome of her general nature, a repressed, stubborn passionateness. Yet true wife and loving had Ailsey been till the afternoon of that day. Now death seemed stamped upon the face before her. Some remnant of her recent fierce contempt, some dawning of remorseful awe, mingled with a natural shrinking from the worst, made it very hard for her to touch him then. Nevertheless, at last, with a mighty effort she ventured. Brow and lips and hand were ominously cold and stiff. Pulse there was none. Then an idea flashed across her brain. She lifted the crumpled oilcloth, and saw what it had hidden. There was a gunshot wound in the man’s left shoulder. A slight one it must have been, when he himself had bandaged it, and rode more than ten miles afterward that day. The neighborhood doctor and surgeon explained, later on, exactly how that fall from the horse had been fatal in this case. It was probably in a sudden faint, brought on by loss of blood and weariness, that the accident happened. The shock which tore open and deepened the wound had lacerated an artery (the doctor said) barely missed in its first infliction. Nat Dawson lay and bled to death in the shadow of that mountain refuge which he had vainly sought. He must have been dead several hours when his wife thus found him.
When Ailsey Dawson laid down the cloth and carefully straightened it, some moments later, while she took off her apron and covered the still face, there was a strangely uplifted look upon her own. Each feature shone with an almost transfiguring light. Her love was saved, after all ; pride was wrung from anguish. From her new-gained point of view, Nat had “ made up ” for all temporary wavering or cowardice. He was justified, accepted, glorified. He was one of the heroes, the “ gentle-men,” who had fought and fallen that day.
Bethinking herself, with calm clearness. that she must have help to carry him home, she hitched the horse to the fence, and then set off, walking quickly down the road. About a half mile beyond, well out of the woodland, stood a cross - roads tavern. It was a popular place of neighborhood resort. Even on Sunday — certainly on such a Sunday as this — she would find somebody there. Her step was steadier than when she came down the mountain side. Weariness had fled. Only her breath came a little sharp and hard.
On coming in sight of her destination, she beheld several persons sitting or standing upon the long whitewashed porch of the building. It was a sleepylooking place, where several big oaktrees already made dusk of twilight in the background; but the white porch and those there assembled stood out distinctly. There were three or four old men, some children, one woman (the storekeeper’s wife) with a baby in her arms, and one middle-aged man, an invalid. Ailsey knew them all by sight and name. Nobody was looking her way. Every eye seemed bent on the opposite road. She could see each eager face in profile, strained forward as if listening, yearning, toward some approaching sound ; and suddenly she stopped, a little way off, to listen, too.
It was the sound of a horse’s feet trotting rapidly, evenly, tramp, tramp, tramp, up the dusty highway ; and very soon horse and rider came into view around a slight bend that had hidden them. Ailsey recognized a young man of those parts, a hunchback and lame, who but for these defects would have been with most of his male contemporaries in the Southern army. His little body was drawn up as straight in the saddle as Nature’s heavy hand would allow. His pinched, delicate face was white with fatigue and excitement; his eyes blazed. Seeing the group of watchers he snatched off his hat and waved it again and again, at arm’s length, as he came on. Then his cry broke out, sharp and tense as a woman’s: —
“ Victory ! Victory ! They ’re beat ! We’ve whipped ’em! They ’re gone back a-running to Washington, the last one that could clip it! ’Rah for Secesh and Virginia ! Virginia! Virginia! Virginia ! ”
The woman on the porch shrilled out, " Glory to God ! ” clasped her child closer to her breast, and burst into tears. The children began to dance and clap hands instinctively in time to this triumph song. The men ran down into the roadway. They shouted, they sobbed, they wrung one another’s hands ; they crowded round the messenger with questions and exclamations ; they patted the dusty, sweat-stained beast that brought him and his good news so soon.
Honor where honor is due, — to the loyal native spirit that thus spoke forth its joy when invasion was driven back. Call them rebels, traitors, who will, — these honestly believed that their sons and brothers had fought, were fighting, for the right. Let no generous, unprejudiced soul in any part of our land, North, South, East, or West, grudge them that hour.
This outburst had subsided into somewhat connected though eager talk when Ailsey Dawson came forward and spoke. The men stared at her, surprised. It was a striking figure before them, so tensely erect, the blood-red dress vividly catching tone and meaning from that white sharp face, those tragical eyes. “ Gentle-men,” said she ; then her voice broke a little, but she mastered It and proceeded, — “ gentle-men, my man, Nat Dawson, is er-layin’ in the road back yonder. He wuz in the battle this mornin’. He got hurted an’ come home ” —
“ Could n’t ha’ been much hurt, then.” interrupted one of the old men grimly ; muttering half under his breath, “ Like one o’ these mountain tacks.”
The woman went on: “ I did n’t know he wuz hurted when he come. He never tole me. I wuz mad with him about comin’. I talked sharp to him, an’ said if he did n’t go back an’ fight I ’d never look at him or speak to him ergin. I never even give him er drink o’ water. He started back, gentlemen. I make sho’ he wuz goin’ straight back, but he fell off’n his hawse, — the hawse he wuz ridin’, — an’ bled to death. I found him jest now. He ’s er-layin’ there dead. He fought with the rest of ’em at first this mornin’, an’ he ’s made up now for runnin’ away. He’s died for Virginny ez well ez Cap’n Westmo’ an’ them others you ’s talkin’ 'bout. I want somebody to come help me tote him home.”
Not long after this Ailsey Dawson left the mountain, and became a favored tenant on Mrs. Westmore’s estate. The husband of one of these women had met death bravely, — a gallant gentleman leading his company in fight. The other had been overtaken while ignominiously shirking a duty only half understood.
Neither nature nor training nor any traditionary incitement had fitted Nat Dawson for the heroism that poor Ailsey would fain have thrust upon him. Still, between her and the lady there existed that “ tie of blood ” which then drew all classes together in the beleaguered South. In the sad and perilous times which followed they were much help to each other, and they have continued stanch friends to this day.
A. M. Ewell.