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Press Webb, a Born Scout
PRESS WEBB was a born scout crossed upon a highlander. He had the eyes of an eagle and the endurance of the red deer. He first taught himself coolness, and then he taught it to others. In traveling he did not travel twice the same road. Many more were like him in this—so practicing the same kind of woodcraft and cunning—until the enemy began to say: “That man Quantrell has a thousand eyes.”
Press Webb was ordered to take with him one day Sim Whitsett, George Maddox, Harrison Trow and Noah Webster and hide himself anywhere in the vicinity of Kansas City that would give him a good view of the main roads leading east, and a reasonably accurate insight into the comings and going of the Federal troops.
The weather was very cold. Some snow had fallen the week before and melted, and the ground was frozen again until all over the country the ground was glazed with ice and traveling was made well nigh impossible. The Guerrillas, however, prepared themselves and their horses well for the expedition. Other cavalrymen were forced to remain comparatively inactive, but Quantrell’s men were coming and going daily and killing here and there.
On the march to his field of operation, Webb overtook two Kansas infantrymen five miles west of Independence194 on the old Independence road. The load under which each soldier staggered proved that their foraging expedition had been successful. One had a goose, two turkeys, a sack of dried apples, some yarn socks, a basket full of eggs and the half of a cheese; while the other, more powerful or more greedy than the first—toiled slowly homeward, carrying carefully over the slippery highway a huge bag miscellaneously filled with butter, sausages, roasted and unroasted coffee, the head of a recently killed hog, some wheaten biscuits not remarkably well cooked, more cheese and probably a peck of green Jenniton apples. As Webb and his four men rode up the foragers halted and set their loads on the ground as if to rest. Piled about them, each load was about as large as a forager.
Webb remarked that they were not armed and inquired of the nearest forager—him with the dried apples—why he ventured so far from headquarters without his gun.
“There is no need of a gun,” was the reply, “because the fighting rebels are all out of the country and the stay-at-homes are all subjugated. What we want we take, and we generally want a good deal.”
“A blind man might see that,” Webb rather grimly replied, “but suppose some of Quantrell’s cut-throats were to ride up to you as we have done, stop to talk with you as we have done, draw out a pistol as I am doing this minute, cover you thus, and bid you surrender now195 as I do, you infernal thief and son of a thief, what would you say then?”
“Say!”—and the look of simple surprise yet cool indifference which came to the Jayhawker’s face was the strongest feature of the tragedy—“what could I say but that you are the cut-throat and I am the victim? Caught fairly, I can understand the balance. Be quick.”
Then the Jayhawker rose up from the midst of his spoils with a sort of quiet dignity, lifted his hat as if to let his brow feel the north wind, and faced without a tremor the pistol which covered him.
“I cannot kill you so,” Webb faltered, “nor do I know whether I can kill you at all. We must take a vote first.”
Then to himself: “To shoot an unarmed man, and a brave man at that, is awful.”
There amid the sausages and cheese, the turkeys and the coffee grains, the dried apples and the green, five men sat down in judgment upon two. Whitsett held the hat; Webster fashioned the ballots. No arguments were had. The five self-appointed jurors were five among Quantrell’s best and bravest. In extremity they had always stood forth ready to fight to the death; in the way of killing they had done their share. The two Kansas Jayhawkers came close together as if in the final summing up they might find in the mere act of dying together some solace. One by one the196 Guerrillas put into the hat of Whitsett a piece of paper upon which was written his vote. All had voted. Harrison Trow drew forth the ballots silently. As he unfolded the first and read from it deliberately; “Death,” the younger Jayhawker blanched to his chin and put a hand on the shoulder of his comrade. The two listened to the count, with every human faculty roused and abnormally impressionable. Should any one not understanding the scene pass, they would not be able to comprehend the situation—one man standing bareheaded, solemnly, and all the eyes bent keenly forward as another man drew from a hat a dirty slip of folded paper and read therefrom something that was short like a monosyllable and sepulchral like a shroud.
“Life,” said the second ballot, and “Life” said the third. The fourth was for death and made a tie. Something like the beating of a strong man’s heart might have been heard, and something as though a brave man were breathing painfully through his teeth lest a sigh escape him. Whitsett cried out: “One more ballot yet to be opened. Let it tell the tale, Trow, and make an end to this thing speedily.” Trow, with scarcely any more emotion than a surgeon has when he probes a bullet wound, unfolded the remaining slip of paper, and read, “Life”!
197 The younger Jayhawker fell upon his knees and the elder ejaculated solemnly: “Thank God, how glad my wife will be.”
Webb breathed as one from whose breast a great load had been lifted and put back into its scabbard his revolver. The verdict surprised him all the more because it was so totally unexpected, and yet the two men there—Jayhawkers though they were and loaded with spoils of plundered farm houses—were as free to go as the north wind that blew or the stream that was running by.
As they rode away the Guerrillas did not even suggest to one another the virtue of the parole. At the two extremities of their peculiar warfare there was either life or death. Having chosen deliberately as between the two, no middle ground was known to them.
Press Webb approached to within sight of Kansas City from the old Independence road, made a complete circle about the place, as difficult as the traveling was, entered Westport notwithstandin............
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