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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER V.FIRE-EATING COLONEL.
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urrender! You’re our prisoner!’ cried several of the soldiers, running up and presenting their bayonets at Ephraim’s chest.
‘Waal, I ain’t denyin’ it,’ said Ephraim coolly. ‘Reckon I kin1 master thet fact ’thout ye drivin’ it inter2 me with them nasty spikes3. Take ’em away.’
The men laughed, and most of them dropped the points of their weapons; but an officer, who just then came up, demanded roughly: ‘Who are you? How and why do you come here?’
Ephraim considered the speaker earnestly before replying, and in that moment took his measure accurately4. ‘He’s a hard un,’ thought Grizzly5. ‘He’ll make things hum fer us ef he gits his way.’ Aloud he said, pointing to the balloon: ‘Ye see how we came; and ez fer why we came, it war because we couldn’t help it.’
‘None of your insolence6,’ said the officer threateningly. ‘What do you mean by you couldn’t help it?’
‘Jest what I sez,’ returned Ephraim, ‘and I hadn’t no idee of bein’ insolent7 nuther. Ye don’t ’magine we came fer the pleasure er bein’ took prisoner.—I won’t rile him willin’,’ he added within himself.
‘Will we haul down this yer balloon, cunnel, and see if she carries anything?’ asked a sergeant8 at this stage.
The colonel nodded. ‘Now then, you fellow,’ he said to Ephraim in a bullying10 tone, ‘tell me instantly what brought you here?’
‘The balloon,’ replied Ephraim without a pause.
‘Don’t humbug11 me,’ foamed12 the colonel; ‘I see your dodge13 plainly enough. You are trying to gain time in order to invent a lie of some sort. But I’d have you know I’m master here, and I’ll have the truth out of you before I’m done with you.’
‘Ez fur ez that goes,’ began Ephraim, when a voice at his elbow said in clear, distinct tones: ‘It is you who are insolent. Southern gentlemen do not lie.’
Ephraim started. He had taken all the colonel’s remarks as addressed to himself, supposing that Lucius was still lying on the ground behind him. But, unknown to his friend, the younger boy had risen on the approach of the colonel, and taken his stand at Grizzly’s side. To give way when surrounded by dangers of such a novel and unimagined order as those from which he had just escaped was one thing; but with his feet once more on terra firma, Luce’s courage returned, and, if he felt any uneasiness at the predicament they were in, he certainly did not intend to betray it before the enemies he had been taught to despise as well as to detest14. Therefore, in a very emphatic15 manner he delivered himself of the remark just quoted.
Ephraim turned and looked at Lucius. The boy was standing16 in an easy attitude, a slight flush upon his cheeks, and a defiant17 light in his eyes. All trace of his recent emotion was gone; and as he stood firmly planted—his shoulders squared, his well-knit, youthful figure gracefully18 poised—his whole bearing formed such a contrast to that of the red-faced, swaggering bully9 whom he faced, that Ephraim could not repress a cry of admiration19.
The poor Grizzly had suffered a good deal in the last half-hour. The fright of Lucius in the balloon he could understand, for he had been thoroughly20 frightened himself; but the utter collapse21 of his hero was beyond him. Not only had he known Lucius heretofore as a sturdy, manly22 boy, but he had always set him upon a pinnacle23 above every one else in the world, and worshipped him as a superior being, endowed with every grace and virtue24 under the sun. Therefore, when mastering his own fears, he had boldly faced a terrible danger and overcome it by his presence of mind, the abject25, grovelling26 cowardice27 of Lucius had come upon him with a painful shock. He had caught a glimpse of the feet of his idol28, and, lo! they were of clay. But he covered them reverently29 up, humiliated30 rather than proud that the accident of opportunity should have lifted him so high, and loyally making all manner of excuses for his comrade’s conduct. All the same, he had felt very miserable31 over it; but now, when he heard the ringing scornful voice, and noted32 how fearlessly Lucius faced the colonel, all his pain fled, his doubts were swallowed up, and a great wave of joy flooded his honest heart. He had been right after all—his hero was his hero still, and gold from crown to heel.
‘Whoop!’ he shouted in his delight. ‘Air ye thar, Luce? I didn’t see ez ye riz up; but I might hev known ye wouldn’t be behind when ye orter be in front. Thet’s the way ter talk ter him.—A Southern gentleman don’t lie, mister; thet’s what he said. By time! ho! ho! ho!’
‘Silence, you dog!’ vociferated the enraged33 Federal, his dark face aflame with passion, while at the same time he menaced Ephraim with his revolver. ‘I’ll blow your brains out if you say another word.’
‘Ez ter thet,’ retorted Ephraim, his new-born joy overcoming his prudence35, ‘I han’t been doin’ the high trapeze a thousand miles up in the sky ter be skeert the moment I come down by a pesky, bunkum Yank, sech ez I jedge ye ter be.’
The colonel ground his teeth with rage, but before he could reply, Lucius pushed Ephraim unceremoniously to one side.
‘Shut up, Grizzly,’ he said; ‘I’ll do the talking.—I’ll tell you the truth, if you care to listen to it,’ he added to the colonel.
‘Tell it then, and be quick about it,’ said the latter, casting a furious glance at Ephraim. ‘And talk more civilly than that low hound there, or it will be the worse for you.’
Ephraim opened his mouth, but Lucius silenced him with a look, and answered quietly:
‘We left Staunton early this morning in our balloon. We only intended to have some fun; but we were nearly killed up there’—he pointed36 to the sky—‘and were glad enough to descend37 anywhere. We had no idea but what we were close home. Certainly, if we’d thought your army was anywhere around, we wouldn’t 68have been fools enough to drop right into the middle of it. That’s all.’
The Federal colonel looked darkly at him.
‘That’s all, is it?’ he sneered38. ‘A likely story. I’ll see for myself.’ He turned and walked to the balloon, round which the sergeant and half a dozen men were grouped, having hauled it down and secured it firmly to the log. ‘What have you found here, sergeant?’ he demanded.
The sergeant saluted39, and pointed silently to a small heap of articles which had been taken out of the car and laid upon the ground. There were some bread and meat, a bottle of milk and another of water, a telescope, a revolver and a box of cartridges40, a small gun—the same which Ephraim had been engaged in making when the war broke out—two bags with powder and shot, and, most compromising of all, the tiny rebel flag with its stars and bars, within the folds of which was concealed41 a drawing block fitted with a lead pencil.
Lucius stared in astonishment42 as his eyes fell upon this collection, of the existence of which—save for the flag—he had till then been unaware43; for at first the darkness had concealed them from him, and afterwards, when day dawned, his terror had been too great and absorbing to allow him to notice anything. Mutely questioning, he looked at Ephraim, who, vaguely44 conscious of coming trouble, muttered hastily: ‘It’s all right, Luce. I put ’em thar. I’ll tell him wanst I git the chance.’
‘Be quiet,’ answered Lucius in the same low tone. ‘Let me speak.’
‘Stop that whispering,’ cried the colonel, coming back. ‘You came out for fun, I think you said,’ he went on with an ugly grin on his face, ‘in a balloon, too, and in time of war. May I ask, then, to what use you intended to put this armament—and this?’ He held up the sketching45 block.
Lucius was silent, not knowing, indeed, what to answer, for the full significance of the last article had not yet dawned upon him.
‘A Southern gentleman does not lie,’ mimicked46 the colonel, a baleful light in his eyes. ‘You do well to be silent, you couple of rascally47 spies.’
Lucius started violently. ‘What!’ he ejaculated in profound astonishment. ‘Spies!’
‘Ah!’ said the colonel, ‘I thought I should corner you.—Search them,’ he added to the sergeant.
Nothing but a few odds48 and ends such as any boy might carry were found upon Lucius, but from Ephraim’s pocket was drawn49 a piece of paper on which he had scribbled50 a précis of the news which had reached Staunton during the last three weeks, and also a road map of the valley, which he had brought with him in order that they might have some indication of their whereabouts if they were forced to descend in an out-of-the-way place.
‘Ha!’ exclaimed the colonel, when these were brought to light. ‘A precious pair of jokers.—Now, will you persist in your denial, my fine young Southern—gentleman?’ He laid a sneering51 emphasis upon the last word.
‘I haven’t denied anything yet,’ returned Lucius. ‘I’ve never had the chance. I tell you we are a couple of boys out for a spree, and that’s all.’
‘You’ll find it a precious unpleasant spree before I 70get through with you,’ said the colonel. ‘You may be a boy,’ he added dubiously52, as though the fact were not self-evident; ‘but I’d like to know what you call him!’ He glanced malevolently53 at Ephraim.
‘He’s only nineteen,’ answered Lucius, earnestly wishing that Grizzly had followed his oft-repeated advice, and razed54 the compromising indications of manhood from his face.
‘What!’ scoffed55 the colonel. ‘Nineteen do you call him, with a monkey face like that?’
‘Shave him, then, and you’ll see,’ answered Lucius, at which remark the soldiers roared, though the boy was perfectly56 serious.
‘Silence!’ commanded the colonel, going on to observe caustically57: ‘Since when have the rebels—I beg your pardon; I have no doubt that a Southern gentleman would prefer that I should speak of Confederates—since when, then, have the Confederates employed boys to ascertain58 the movements of the National troops?’
The insolence of his tone fired Luce’s blood, and he answered scornfully: ‘I do not know. Perhaps if you had not been so busy running away from them for the last three weeks, you might have been able to discover for yourself.’
Now, a more unfortunate remark Lucius could not just then have made; for it so happened that in the series of retrograde movements in which the Federals had lately been indulging in consequence of Jackson’s smashing flank attacks, the colonel had taken a somewhat too prominent part. Indeed in the last melee59, while gallantly60 leading his men out of action—very far ahead of them—he had somehow become separated from his command, and when the balloon descended61, 71had been making his way back to the Federal lines along with a number of stragglers, whom he had picked up en route. So now, when Lucius, amid the suppressed laughter of the men, made his ill-timed observation, the doughty62 warrior’s feelings overflowed63, and his fury knew no bounds.
‘I’ll teach you to insult your betters, you rebel scum,’ he shouted. ‘I heard of a balloon having been lost from our lines on the Potomac. That’s it, I’ll take my oath. You’ve stolen it for your poverty-stricken, rascally, rebel friends. That’s what you’ve done.’
‘We didn’t,’ protested Lucius, edging in a word. ‘He made it.’ He indicated Ephraim.
‘Did he?’ stormed the colonel. ‘Where did he learn to make balloons, the hairy-faced baboon64? Anyhow, if you did or if you didn’t steal it, I’ve proof enough of your object, and I’ll show you how to dance upon nothing. Cut a couple of ropes from that balloon and string these cubs65 up to a tree!’ he shouted to the men.
Lucius paled swiftly, but the colour rushed back again into his face at once, and he stood with folded arms, scornfully fronting the colonel. Ephraim, however, took a step forward.
‘Ye dassn’t do it, ye dirty fire-eater,’ he cried. ‘Ye dassn’t do it, ’thout’n a trial or nuthin’. Take us ter the ginrul, boys; he’ll hear what we’ve got ter say.’
‘String them up, I say,’ roared the colonel, more incensed66 than ever at this defiance67. ‘String them up, and be sharp about it. I ‘ll let you know,’ he ground out at Lucius, ‘how the gentlemen of the North treat the gentlemen of the South when they catch them acting68 as pestilential spies.’
‘I should think it’s precious little you know of gentlemen anywhere,’ Lucius answered boldly back. ‘I’ve seen a good many Northerners, and they are brave men, if they are fighting an unjust war. But what you were before they let you put on a uniform, I don’t know; though it wouldn’t be hard to guess from the look of you. Why, your men are ashamed of you.’
Two of the men moved slowly towards the balloon. The boy’s courage appealed to them. They were soldiers, and brave soldiers too, though they were smitten69 with a panic now and then as brave soldiers have been before and since. They were willing enough to fight, but not to soil their hands with such a horrid70 deed as this. Therefore they moved slowly and reluctantly, hoping for a reversal of the order. But Ephraim changed his tone.
‘See hyar,’ he said submissively, ‘I didn’t orter hev spoke71 ez I did. I beg your pardon. Jest ye hear me a moment.’
But the colonel would hear nothing. He was beside himself with wrath72, and could not listen to reason. The men had stopped when Ephraim began to speak, and now their commander turned furiously upon them.
‘Why don’t you obey orders?’ he shouted at them. ‘I’ll have you shot for mutiny if you stand gaping73 there much longer. Up with them, I say.’
‘Cunnel!’ shrieked74 Ephraim in an agony of unselfish fear. ‘Cunnel, don’t do it. As ye’re a Christian75 man, don’t do it. Ye may string me up, and willin’. I’m a outrageous76 rebel. I’m a spy. I’m whatever you like. I came ter make observations. I’m a spy, I tell ye. Hang me up. But don’t you tech Luce. He ain’t done nuthin’. He on’y came because I told him I wuz 73goin’ fer a trip. He knows nuthin’—he’s done nuthin’. Let him go! Let him go!’
‘Pah!’ ejaculated the colonel. ‘Do you suppose I don’t see your game? You can’t take me in with your heroics, you filthy77 cur, you.’ And he spurned78 Ephraim with his foot.
A mist swam before Luce’s eyes. His blood boiled over, and, regardless of the consequences, he rushed forward.
‘You lie!’ he shouted. ‘It is for me he wants to die. This is the second time to-day. Take that!’ and before the astonished colonel could comprehend or step aside, the infuriated boy struck him twice sharply in the face.
A look as though he were possessed79 came into the colonel’s eyes, and his fingers closed nervously80 upon his revolver; but ere he could use it, if indeed it were his intention to do so, Ephraim stooped suddenly, and catching81 him round the legs, flung him sprawling82 on his back. Then, with a wild yell of ‘Run! Luce, run!’ he rushed for the shelter of the woods.
After him dashed Lucius, hard upon his heels, as the colonel, foaming83 and spluttering, staggered to his feet and discharged his revolver at random84.
‘Follow them!’ he roared. And the men, alarmed at what might be the consequences to themselves if they refused, hastened in pursuit. But they had no heart for the game, and once out of sight among the trees, halted or scattered85, and presently the fugitives86, doubling like hares in and out of the dark boles, heard the noise of following footsteps die away, and sank, panting and exhausted87, on the mossy carpet beneath an aged34 oak.

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