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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER XI.LUCIUS BRINGS THE BOAT ASHORE.
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 For a moment Ephraim was, as he would himself have expressed it, ‘sot back,’ but he was not one to remain so long, and seizing his rifle, he grasped it by the barrel, and using the butt1 as a paddle, endeavoured to guide the course of the boat.  
‘Quick, Luce!’ he exclaimed. ‘Take yourn, and we’ll see what kin2 be done. The pesky Yank! Of co’se he’d hid the oars4 somewhar in the bresh, so as nobody could steal his boat. By time! What an or’nery fool I war not ter hev thort er thet before.’
‘No; it was I who was the fool,’ corrected Lucius, labouring away with his makeshift oar3. ‘You had quite enough to do with the letter and the rifles. I should have looked to see if everything was right.’
‘Waal, thar’s a pair of us, then, ef ye will hev it so,’ returned Ephraim gloomily. ‘Ennyway, it don’t matter a corn cob now whose fault it war. The mischief’s done. I wouldn’t so much keer,’ he added, beating the water furiously with his rifle-butt, ‘on’y when that clever captain comes back and finds the oars whar he left ’em, he’ll nat’ally know we must 159be down stream, and they won’t be long gittin’ on our trail.’
Twilight5 was fast settling over the valley; for the high mountains which surrounded the cup of land in which this living drama was being enacted6, effectually shut out the sun as the day declined, and Lucius remarked hopefully that it would soon be dark.
‘It’ll not be so dark ez all thet comes ter on a June night,’ responded Ephraim in a cheerless tone. ‘Thar’ll be plenty er light fer them ter take potshots et us ez we drift along. Yit it ain’t so much fer thet I’m keerin’. I’m thinkin’ er the despatch7 and the importance it ’ud be ter old Stonewall ter git it before mornin’.—I’m afraid we ain’t doin’ much good with the guns, Luce.’
The crafty8 captain had removed not only the oars but the rowlocks, and consequently they had no support for their extemporised oars, but were obliged to paddle with them Indian fashion, holding the barrel high and sweeping9 the butt through the water on either side of the boat. But the rounded, highly polished wood offered little resistance to the rushing stream, and the current swept them steadily10 down, all their efforts to turn the boat’s head proving ineffectual.
‘We’ll make the Potomac at this rate, ef we go on long enough,’ said Ephraim grimly, the sweat pouring off his face as he strove desperately11 with his clumsy implement12; ‘and then all we hev ter do is ter float gracefully13 down and give ’em howdy in Washin’ton city.’ He laughed in the very bitterness of his spirit.
They were swirling14 along only about twenty yards from the south bank; but as Ephraim remarked, they might as well have been a mile away, for by no possibility could they reach it, and he looked longingly15 at the boughs16 that dipped into the rushing waters, thinking how different matters would be if only he could lay hold of them.
Suddenly there was a spurt17 of flame, followed instantly by a loud crack. Ephraim’s cap soared into the air, mounted for a moment and then fell with a dull splash into the river, while its owner, with a shrill19 yell, tumbled over into the bottom of the boat.
As Ephraim fell, his gun slipped from his nerveless fingers and sank instantly out of sight, and Lucius, hastily drawing his on board, bent20 terror-stricken over his friend.
‘Oh, Grizzly21!’ he cried in piteous tones. ‘What is the matter? Are you shot?’
An inarticulate gurgle from Ephraim was the only reply.
‘Speak to me!’ Lucius almost shrieked23. ‘Oh! oh! Surely you are not killed. Speak to me, Grizzly! Speak to me! Oh! oh! Whatever shall I do?’
Thus adjured24, Ephraim slowly opened his eyes and looking up into the anxious face bent over him, remarked quaintly25, though without the least intention of being humorous: ‘Hello, Luce! Is thar a hole right through my head, or what?’
So great was his relief that Lucius broke into a joyous26 laugh. ‘Grizzly,’ he demanded with mock severity, ‘if you were not shot, what did you mean by tumbling over; and if you are not killed, what are you lying in the bottom of the boat for?’
‘Ye may say thet, Luce,’ returned Ephraim, uncoiling 161his long length and struggling into a sitting posture27. ‘It war a mighty28 close thing, I reckon. Look at thet.’
He lifted his face as he spoke29, and Lucius, with an exclamation30 of dismay, saw that his forehead was blackened with powder, and that one of his eyebrows31 and part of his front hair were singed32 off.
‘Ye see,’ said Ephraim, gingerly touching33 the raw and tender skin, ‘a leetle more and ye’d hev had ter steer34 yer way home alone. I reckon it’s a powerful frightenin’ sort er thing, a gun bustin’ off et ye when ye least expect it.’
‘But what happened?’ asked Lucius. ‘I wasn’t looking. That is, I looked up in time to see your cap go off and the gun slip out of your hand. The next I knew you were on your back.’ He gripped Grizzly’s hand and added earnestly: ‘I’m so glad you weren’t killed, old Grizzly.’
‘I’m obleeged ter ye,’ answered Ephraim, still very white about the lips. ‘So am I.’ His voice shook a little as he tried to explain the matter to his comrade. ‘Ye see,’ he went on, ‘this is how I put it up. Ez I war splashin’ around with the gun-butt in the water, the trigger must hev got caught, or the hammer drawn35 back by a bolt and let go agen. The next thing I knowed war a rush er blindin’ light past my eyes, a wave like the breath er a bit of iron from a blacksmith’s furnace on my forehead, and thet’s all. I went down et thet, and didn’t feel like stoppin’ ter arsk questions.’
‘Was that the way of it?’ said Lucius. ‘At first I thought that somebody had fired at you from the bank.’
‘By time!’ exclaimed Ephraim, the colour rushing back into his face, and his nerves steeling again as he heard this. ‘I tell ye, bub, that’s ezackly what they will be doin’ before very long. Why, don’t ye know, the sound er that rifle-shot’ll bring the Yanks down on us quicker ’n ennything. Luce, we must do suthin’.’
‘What are we to do?’ asked Lucius helplessly. ‘If we could not manage the boat when we had both guns, what shall we do now that we have only one?’
‘Waal, then,’ inquired Ephraim drily, ‘do ye want ter set still hyar while the Yanks make a target er ye? I tell ye I don’t feel that way myself.’ He made a wry37 face at the thought of his recent experience.
‘I don’t either, you may be sure,’ answered Lucius. ‘But something must be done.—I have it, Grizzly; I have it.’
‘What hev ye struck?’ queried38 Ephraim, roused by the hope in his voice.
‘Why, of course,’ replied Lucius, ‘let us swim ashore39 and leave the ugly old boat to take care of herself.’
‘Bullee!’ cried Ephraim, unbuckling his cartridge40 belt and flinging it into the bottom of the boat. ‘Bullee! So we will. Let’s——Thar’s just one thing agin it, though, Luce,’ he broke off dismally41.
‘What’s that?’ demanded Lucius, who had already removed his belts and taken off his coat. ‘What’s against it?’
‘Why,’ answered Ephraim, looking as shamefaced as if he had been confessing to a grievous sin, ‘it ain’t much, maybe; but I reckon it’s enuff. I can’t swim.’
At this plain statement of an unpleasant fact, Lucius looked aghast. ‘Why, of course you can’t,’ he said. ‘I’d forgotten that.’ Then recovering himself, he added cheerily: ‘Well, never mind, Grizzly; I’ll do the swimming. You just grab me lightly round the back and kick out well behind, and I’ll get you there. Tisn’t far.’
Ephraim shook his head. ‘It isn’t ez fur ez all thet, Luce, I ’low,’ he said; ‘but thar’s a tur’ble strong current. Ef I drew ye under by my weight and felt myself drownin’, I might ketch hold on ye and drown ye ez well. A man couldn’t well know what he war about in sarkumstances like thet, ye see. So I’m obleeged ter ye fer thinkin’ er it; but ef it’s all the same, I’d ruther not resk it.’
‘There’s no risk,’ urged Lucius. ‘All you have to do is to hold on tight.’ But Ephraim was obdurate42.
‘Well, what are we to do, then?’ asked Lucius disconsolately43. ‘Every minute is precious.’
‘I know thet,’ answered Ephraim, ‘and the best thing ter be done is this. Ye swim ashore ez soon ez ye kin. I’ll drift on in the boat, and maybe it’ll be dark afore they find me, and I may run agin a spit or suthin,’ and so git ashore. Thar’s no use lettin’ ’em cotch the two er us. Now, is thar?’ But he looked down as he made the suggestion.
‘I don’t wonder you are ashamed of yourself to propose such a disgraceful thing,’ cried Lucius indignantly. ‘To think for a moment that I would leave you in the lurch44 just on the chance of saving my own skin, after all you’ve done for me. Oh, Grizzly, what a shame to suppose I would do it!’
‘I didn’t think ye’d do it, Luce,’ mumbled45 Ephraim, looking a very crestfallen46 Grizzly indeed. ‘On’y I thort’——
‘I don’t want to hear what you thought,’ interrupted 164Lucius, who was undressing himself while he talked. ‘I’ve made up my mind what to do, and I’m going to do it. So there.’
‘What mought thet be?’ inquired Ephraim, eyeing him curiously47.
‘I’ll show you fast enough,’ answered Lucius, now stripped to his shirt. ‘If you are afraid to trust yourself in the water along with me’——
‘Fer fear of drownin’ ye, Luce; fer fear of drownin ye,’ put in Ephraim deprecatingly.
‘Of course. What else? I didn’t suppose you were thinking of yourself. I’ve had teaching enough to know that’s not your way. If you’re afraid of drowning me, then there’s only one thing to be done—I must swim ashore myself and tow the boat after me, with you in it.’
‘See hyar,’ began Ephraim, but Lucius cut him short.
‘Come on, now. Don’t waste time in talking. Fasten the painter round me. You can tie a better knot than I can.’
‘It’ll hurt ye monstrous48, Luce,’ said Ephraim.
‘Nonsense! It will not hurt at all, tied around my shirt; and if it should, what matter? It’s better than being shot, I should say. Oh, do be quick! Don’t you see this gives the best chance to both of us to get off scot-free? Tie it tight now. Don’t be afraid.’
Under this incessant49 urging, Ephraim fastened the rope round Lucius with fingers that trembled a good deal from excitement and apprehensions50 for the safety of his young comrade. But at last it was done, and Lucius turned and faced him.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘you can see that the current is very 165strong by the rate at which we are travelling. We are not far off the shore; but it may take a long time to get there. I think that I can do it, though; but if not, if I call out to you, or if I should sink, haul me on board again. That’s all you have to do, besides helping51 as much as you can with the butt of my rifle.’
‘I wish ye wouldn’t, Luce,’ implored52 Ephraim. ‘The light is goin’ fast, and thar’s no rumpus yit, ez fur ez I kin hear. Ef we hev good luck, they’ll miss us altogether. But ef they come and pop at ye while ye’re in the water’——
‘Pooh!’ interrupted Lucius, ‘I shall be all right. Just you keep a sharp lookout53 along the bank, and be ready to haul me in if necessary. Good-bye! I’m off!’ He waved his hand, and slipped noiselessly off the gunwale of the boat, feet foremost, into the river.
Meantime a very different scene was being enacted at the Federal camp. Hardly had General Shields informed himself that the scare created by the boys was a false one, and that he had at present nothing to fear from the dreaded54 and ubiquitous Jackson, than his attention was arrested by the sudden appearance of his ‘admirable civilian55,’ Captain Hopkins, who with disordered dress, flushed features, and breathless from running, rushed unceremoniously into the presence of his commanding officer.
‘Captain Hopkins!’ exclaimed General Shields in astonishment56. ‘Back already. Why, you’ve been gone little more than an hour.’ Then as his eye fell upon the captain’s untidy dress and general look of tribulation57, he added anxiously: ‘There is nothing wrong, is there?’
‘The despatch!’ panted Hopkins. ‘I ‘——
‘Don’t tell me anything has happened to that,’ interrupted Shields vehemently58. ‘Surely not. Surely not.’
‘No,’ got out the captain between his struggles for breath; ‘only a leather-headed sentry59—a question of identity—won’t let me pass—send some one back with me.’
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