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They heard Monty Scruggs's baritone call:
"Say, Alf, did you see me salt that feller that's bin yellin' and cussin' at me over there? He's cussin' now for something else. I think I got him right where he lived."
"I wasn't paying any attention to you," Alf's fine tenor replied, as his rammer rang in his barrel. "I've got business o' my own to 'tend to.
There's a feller over there that's firing buckshot at me that I've got to settle, and here goes."
"The 200th Injianny Volunteers couldn't put up a purtier skirmish than this," murmured Si, in accents of pride, as he raised his gun and fired at a series of flashes on the farther bank.
"I say, tell that engineer to uncouple his engine and bring it back up here where the head-light'll cover the other side," said Shorty. "It'll make the other side as light as day and we kin see every move, while we'll be in the dark."
"Good idee," said Si, hastening to find the engineer.
He was none too soon. As the engine rolled up, flooding its advance with light, it brought a storm of bullets from the other side, but revealed three men creeping toward the other end of the bridge. Two were carrying pine knots, and the third, walking behind, had a stick of blazing pine, which he was trying to shield from observation with his hat.
"Take the front man, Harry. Take the second one, Gid. I'll take the man with the light," commanded Shorty.
The three rifles cracked in quick succession and the three men dropped.
"Bully, boys," e.j.a.c.u.l.a.t.ed Shorty, as he reloaded. "You'll do. The 200th Injianny's proud o' you."
"I hit my man in the leg," said Harry, flushing with delight, as he bit off another cartridge. "Jerusalem, I wish they'd send another one down."
"I drawed on my man's bundle o' wood," said Gid, "and then dropped a little, so's to git him where he was biggest and make sure o' him."
"Well, my man's beauty's spiled forever," said Shorty. "The light flared up on his face and I let him have it there."
"But Linden saw another light.
When beat the drums at dead of night, Commanding fires of death to hight The darkness of her scenery,"
recited Monty Scruggs. "Gracious, I'm hit!"
"Where?" asked Si, running up to him.
"Through my leg," answered Monty.
"Kin you walk?"
"I guess so."
"Well, make your way back to the cars and git in and lay down."
"Not much," answered Monty determinedly. "It don't hurt much, and I'm going to stay and see this thing out. I can tie it up with my handkerchief."
"Scatter again, boys," Si warned several, who had rushed up; "don't make too big a mark for the fellers on the other side. Go back and 'tend to your bizniss. I'll help him tie up his wound. I'm afeared, though, that some o' the boys are runnin' out o' catridges, they have bin shootin' so rapidly. I want a couple o' you to run back to the cars and git another box."
"Let me and Sandy go," pleaded little Pete Skidmore. "The big boys went before."
"All right; skip out. Break the lid o' the box off before you take it out o' the car. We haven't anything here to do it with. Leave your guns here."
"No, we'll take 'em along," pleaded Pete, with a boyish love for his rifle. "We mightn't be able to find 'em agin."
The firing from the opposite bank became fitful, died down, and then ceased altogether. Then a couple of shots rang out from far in the rear in the direction of the train. This seemed to rouse the rebels to another volley, and then all became quiet. The shots in the rear disturbed Si, who started back to see what they meant, but met Pete Skidmore and Sandy Baker coming panting up, carrying a box of cartridges between them.
"We got back as quick as we could," Pete explained as he got his breath.
"Just as we was coming to the train we see a rebel who was carrying a fat-pine torch, and making for the train to set it on fire. We shot him.
Was that all right?"
"Perfectly," said Si. "Was there any more with him?"
"No. We looked around for others, but couldn't find none. That's what kept up so long."
"The Johnnies have given it up and gone," said Shorty, coming up. "I went over to a place where I could see 'em skippin' out by the light o'
the burnin' o' the other bridge. We might as well put out guards here and go into camp till mornin'."
"All right," a.s.sented Si. "We've saved the train and bridge, and that's all we kin do."
CHAPTER XX. AFTER THE SKIRMISH
WILD SHOOTING WAS ALL THAT SAVED A SURPRISED COLORED MAN.
THOUGH Si and Shorty were certain that the trouble was over and the rebels all gone, it was impossible to convince the boys of this. The sudden appearance of the guerrillas had been so mysterious that they could not rid themselves of the idea that the dark depths beyond the creek were yet filled with vicious foemen animated by dire intents.
Si and Shorty gathered the boys together on the bank above the railroad cut, had fires built, posted a few guards, and ordered the rest of the boys to lie down and go to sleep. They set the example by unrolling their own blankets at the foot of a little jack-oat, whose thickly-growing branches, still bearing a full burden of rusty-brown leaves, made an excellent subst.i.tute for a tent.
"Crawl in. Si, and git some sleep," said Shorty, filling his pipe. "I'll take a smoke and set up for an hour or two. If it looks worth while then, I'll wake you up and let you take a trick o' keepin' awake. But if everything looks all right I'll jest crawl in beside you and start a snorin'-match."
But neither orders nor example could calm down the nerves of boys who had just had their first experience under fire. There was as little rest for them as for a nest of hornets which had been rudely shaken. They lay down at Si's order, but the next minute they were buzzing together in groups about the fires, or out with their guns to vantage points on the bank, looking for more enemies. Their excited imaginations made the opposite bank of the creek alive with men, moving in ma.s.ses, squads and singly, with the sounds of footsteps, harsh commands, and of portentous movements.
Two or three times Shorty repressed them and sharply ordered them to lie down and go to sleep. Then he decided to let them wear themselves out, braced his back against a sapling near the fire, pulled out from his pocket the piece of Maria's dress, and became lost in a swarm of thoughts that traveled north of the Ohio River.
He was recalled by Harry Joslyn and Gid Mackall appearing before him.
"Say, Corpril," inquired Harry, "what's to be done with them rebels over there at the end o' the bridge?"
"Them that we shot?" said Shorty carelessly, feeling around for his tobacco to refill his pipe. "Nothin'. I guess we've done enough for 'em already."
"Don't we do nothin' more?" repeated Harry.
"No," answered Shorty, as he rubbed the whittlings from his plug to powder in the hollow of his hand.
"Just plug at 'em as you would at a crow, and then go on your way whistlin'?" persisted Harry.
"Certainly," answered Shorty, filling his pipe and looking around for a sliver with which to light it. "What're you thinkin' about?"
"I don't hardly know," hesitated Harry. "It seems awful strange just to blaze away at men and then pay no more attention to 'em. They mayn't be knocked out at all--only 'possumin'."
"No 'possumin' about them fellers," said Shorty sententiously, as he lighted his pipe. "Feller that gits an ounce o' lead from a Springfield rifle anywhere in his carkiss don't play off nor purtend. He's got something real to occupy his attention, if he's got any attention left to occupy. You needn't bother any more about them fellers over there.