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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER XII.A DUEL IN THE DARK.
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 s this alarming shout rang in their ears, Lucius, forgetting his fatigue1, sprang to the mouth of the hole and made as if he would dive again into the water. But Ephraim held him back.  
‘Steady, Luce!’ he exclaimed. ‘Lie low! It’s the boat he sees—not us.’
Thus restrained, Lucius withdrew, shivering with cold, to the farthest extremity2 of the hole, where he proceeded to rub himself down and dress. Ephraim, meanwhile, took his stand at the entrance, and listened intently for any indications of the whereabouts of the enemy.
They were not long in coming, for presently footsteps resounded3 on the bank above, and a voice eagerly questioned: ‘Where? Where did you see him?’
‘Well, I didn’t exactly see him,’ answered the first voice, much to Ephraim’s relief; ‘but there’s the boat, and I guess he won’t be far off.’
The corporal strained his eyes after the boat through the gathering4 darkness. ‘I guess it’s empty,’ he said after a long look. ‘However, squad5, attention! At one hundred yards, fire a volley! Ready! Present! Fire!’
Bang! crash! splinter! sputter6! as some of the balls struck the boat, and the rest fell like hailstones in the water round about her.
Ephraim chuckled7 softly, and rubbed his hands together in delight. ‘We air jest ez well out er thet, Luce,’ he whispered. ‘I reckon wan8 or two er them Yanks kin9 shoot straight.’
‘Load!’ ordered the corporal above. ‘You four,’ addressing his men, ‘follow that boat along the bank, and see if you can discover any signs of life in her. Fire at discretion10.—You, Whitson,’ to the man who had first caught sight of the boat, ‘stay here and show me where you think that boat came from. It was not in sight two or three minutes ago.’
Whitson pushed through the trees to the verge11 of the bank. ‘It seemed to come out of the bushes just here,’ he said, peering over; ‘but I don’t see anything.’
‘You don’t suppose the fellow is going to rise right up and look at you, do you?’ inquired the corporal with fine scorn, adding: ‘Did you hear anything?’
‘Not a sound,’ admitted Whitson.
‘Then it’s pretty certain there was no one in her,’ said the corporal. ‘Most likely she got caught on a snag and turned in here, broke loose, and drifted off again. The general was right—the fellow has either gone up the bank or struck inland. All the same, we’d better search the bank hereabouts.’
But the projecting roof of the hole offered a sure protection to the boys; and though more than once they could distinguish the trampling12 of the feet of the soldiers above their heads, their hiding-place remained undiscovered, and presently the search was discontinued.
‘It’s no use,’ said the corporal. ‘He is not here. Never was, I should say. We ‘re only wasting time. Let us go back to camp.—Hello! What do you suppose that is?’
That was Ephraim’s cap, which, supported by its own lightness and the water beneath it, hove in sight, floating gracefully13 down stream, some forty yards away.
Ephraim saw it at the same moment, and softly whispered to Lucius to come and see the fun.
‘It looks like a cap,’ answered Whitson, peering through the gloom. ‘Blamed if I don’t believe it is a cap.’
‘With a head inside it?’ pursued the corporal, also doing his best to see.
‘I can’t say. Shall I try and find out?’
The corporal nodded, and Whitson, throwing forward his rifle, fired. The ball struck the water some feet beyond the cap, which still moved unconcernedly along.
‘Missed!’ cried the corporal, firing his own rifle immediately afterwards. ‘That’s better. That wiped your eye.’
His bullet had struck the cap slantwise on the crown, turning it over, so that it immediately filled and sank to the bottom.
‘My!’ whispered Ephraim gleefully. ‘It’s ez good ez shootin’ et bottles et a fair.’
‘I guess it was only a cap,’ said the corporal, reloading his rifle; ‘but we can’t be sure. We’ll report the 178circumstance, anyhow.—Hello! What did you find?’ This to the four men who had returned.
‘No one in the boat, corporal,’ answered one of them. ‘We followed her down to the bend, and she ran on a shoal and turned over on her side. We could see right into her.’
‘We’ll report that too,’ said the corporal with military brevity.—‘Fall in! Squad, attention! Shoulder arms! Slope arms! Quick march!’
‘Thet’s one more down ter us,’ said Ephraim, with an air of relief, as the noise of footsteps died away in the distance. ‘Thet old boat served our turn well, after all. They won’t worry ter hunt up in this direction any more. Thar’s been a fuss, though, Luce. Did ye hear what he said about the ginrul? My! I reckon them Yanks will be ez lively ez a Juny-bug ter-night, looking fer us and all.’
‘So lively,’ returned Lucius, ‘that I think we may as well give up all hope of placing that packet in General Jackson’s hands. It is enough that we, or rather you, have prevented it from reaching Frémont.’
‘I reckon not,’ said Ephraim thoughtfully. ‘Shields is pretty sure ter try and git a message over ter him now thet this wan’s failed.’
‘Even so, he may change his plans,’ argued Lucius.
‘He han’t the time,’ answered Ephraim with considerable shrewdness. ‘Thet is, ef he’s on the lookout14 fer an attack to-morrer, and I reckon he is. Of co’se, he may alter ’em hyar and thar, jest ter try and bluff15 old Stonewall; but in the main I b’leeve he’ll hev ter abide16 by ’em.’
‘Well, what is it to be, then?’ asked Lucius, yawning. ‘I’m out for the day, so I may as well take a hand in 179the fun. If we’re caught with that despatch17 about us, we’re as good as done for. However, I suppose we may try for the sheep now that we’ve got the lamb.’
‘But we ain’t goin’ ter let them ketch us,’ said Ephraim. ‘Ye see, we’re a heap better off than we war this mornin’ or this afternoon, for we know the countersign18, and ef with thet we don’t manage ter slip past their sentries19, it’s a wonder. All the same, though,’ he went on, ‘we may ez well take a couple er hours’ rest. I’m about done, I own up ter thet, and I should say thet you wouldn’t be the worse fer it.’
‘Considering that I had four hours’ sleep this afternoon, thanks to you,’ answered Lucius, ‘I’m not so bad. I could eat something, though; so if you’ll produce the ham, we’ll lay the table.’
Ephraim laughed, and opening his coat, extracted the wedge of ham which he had carried there since the morning, and which, whatever it might have been at first, did not look very inviting20 now. However, hunger is the best sauce, and nearly dark as it was, the dishevelled appearance of the ham did not count against it; so between it and the biscuits the two boys made a very hearty21 meal, chatting merrily all the while, as if they had not a care in the world.
‘Now,’ said Lucius, when they had finished, ‘I feel as fresh as a daisy. You lie down and sleep for the first hour, and I’ll keep watch.’
‘Air ye shore ye kin hold out?’ asked Ephraim, who did indeed feel terribly sleepy.
‘Certain. Lie down, old Grizzly22. I’ll wake you when I think the hour is up.’
Ephraim took off his coat, and making a pillow of it, went to sleep almost instantly, so worn out was 180he; while Lucius, going to the mouth of the cave, sat down and looked over the river into the night.
It was almost dark, for the sky had clouded over, and every now and then a few drops of rain fell, but the soft light of the summer night prevailed to some extent, and Lucius, who could see the outlines of the steep heights across the river, fell to picturing the battle which had been waged beyond them that day, and wondering which side had gained the victory. He lost himself in his musings for a quarter of an hour, and then fumbled23 mechanically for his watch. ‘I wonder if the hour is up,’ he said to himself; ‘I’m beginning to feel drowsy24 now. Oh, I forgot. I left it at home.’
The word gave his thoughts a new turn, and in fancy he saw his mother grieving over his absence, and despairing of ever seeing him again. The idea distressed25 him, and presently conscience began to add her stings, and strive as he would to excuse his disobedience, his mood grew gloomier and gloomier. ‘I hate the dark,’ he muttered; ‘it always makes me feel so lonesome. Surely the hour must be up.’
As a matter of fact, he had kept watch but for twenty-minutes, but those who have tried it know how slowly the minutes drag themselves along in the dark, when the sense of time is, as it were, abolished, and the attention, with nothing else to attract it, is firmly fixed26 on the hours, whose wings seem to have been clipped for the occasion. It is the watched pot that never boils.
At last the lonesome feeling overcame Lucius to such an extent that he could bear it no longer; so rising to his feet, he stole softly across the cave and 181sat down beside the snoring Grizzly, for company, as he expressed it to himself. Sitting there in the deeper darkness, a gentle drowsiness27 fell upon him. He made one or two not very vigorous efforts to shake it off, and then, yielding to its delicious influence, sank into a refreshing28 sleep.
Scarcely a moment later, as it seemed to him, he was awakened29. A hand was laid upon his shoulder, and another pressed lightly over his mouth.
‘Hush, Luce,’ whispered Ephraim’s voice close to his ear. ‘Git up softly. It’s time we war out er this. They’re huntin’ fer us.’
‘Where?’ whispered Lucius back.
‘Thar’s a boat comin’ down the river. I jest caught sight er the flash of a lantern. They’re searchin’ the banks. Come, quick!’
They groped about in the dark until they found the rifle and their belts, which they put on, and stole to the mouth of the cave. Far up the river they saw a little twinkling light, which, as they watched it, grew slowly larger. Very slowly, for the search was a careful one, and the hunters were taking their time.
‘What a good thing you saw it!’ said Lucius in a low voice. ‘They might have walked right in upon us if you hadn’t. Oh, Grizzly,’ he added in a tone of deep self-reproach, ‘I went to sleep without waking you!’
‘Ye rolled over on me wanst ye war asleep, and thet woke me,’ answered Ephraim. ‘I let ye snooze ez long ez I dared. Never mind thet now. Let’s consider how we’re ter git out er this.’
At first sight it appeared to be no easy matter, for the bank shelved away on each side of them, and 182the overhanging roof of the cave projected so far over the floor that it was impossible to reach it, while to attempt to leap for it in the darkness would infallibly result in a ducking, if nothing worse, in the river.
‘Ef we on’y had a light,’ muttered Ephraim.
‘I have,’ said Lucius. ‘There are some matches in the pocket of these trousers.’
‘Ah, but we dassn’t show it,’ returned Ephraim. ‘We must think out some uther way.’
‘Could we not just drop into the stream?’ suggested Lucius. ‘It’s so close to the bank, we could not fail to reach it.’
‘We’ll do thet if the wust comes ter the wust,’ replied Ephraim; ‘but not ef thar’s enny uther line; fer we might git separated in the dark, and besides, we don’t know the depth.’
‘Be quick and think of something, then,’ said Lucius. ‘They are coming nearer.’
Ephraim was lying down at the mouth of the cave, leaning out as far as he could without overbalancing himself, and feeling along the face of the rock in all directions for a ledge30. At last he uttered a low grunt31 of satisfaction.
‘What is it?’ asked Lucius.
‘The face of the rock jest underneath32 us is rough and projecktin’,’ answered Ephraim. ‘I b’leeve we could work along it. Anyway, I’m goin’ ter try. Ketch hold er the gun.’
Lucius felt for the rifle with which Ephraim had been making investigations33, and took charge of it, while the Grizzly placed his hands upon the ledge formed by the floor of the cave, and cautiously swung himself over.
With dangling34 legs he explored the rocky wall until his feet struck the projection35 he thought he had felt, and resting them there, began to worm his way along. When he had reached the extreme angle of the cave, he stopped, and, clinging with one arm, thrust out the other to continue his explorations. It met the stout36 bough37 of a tree overhanging the river. Ephraim pulled with all his might. It held, and he determined38 to risk it. Letting go his hold of the ledge, he threw all his weight upon the bough, grasping it with his disengaged hand as he swung off into space. The bough bent39 beneath his weight, and his feet dipped into the river as he hung, but he struggled blindly on, and in another moment felt the firm earth under him as he struck the shelving bank.
‘Bullee!’ he said, as with an effort he regained40 his balance.—‘Luce! Air ye thar?’
‘Yes,’ answered Lucius. ‘Have you managed it?’
‘You bet,’ returned Ephraim cheerfully. ‘All ye hev ter do is ter hang on ter the ledge and feel with yer feet till you kin git a hold. Then work yerse’f along till ye come ter the end of the hold and grab fer a branch. Hang on ter thet, and ye’ll be safe.’
‘But the gun,’ said Lucius. ‘Shall I leave it behind?’
‘By time, no!’ exclaimed Ephraim. ‘It’s all we’ve got, and we don’t know when we may want it. Hyar, I’ll come back fer it, and ye kin pass it along.’
He felt for the friendly bough, and presuming that he had found it, threw his weight upon it. Instantly it cracked across, and down he went into the water with a great splash. Fortunately he fell close under 184the bank, and wildly grasping, caught a clump41 of bushes and dragged himself out.
‘It’s all right, Luce,’ he called up to the boy, who was listening anxiously. ‘I must hev caught the wrong one. I’m on’y wet about the legs.’
‘It’s all wrong,’ replied Lucius under his breath; ‘those fellows have heard the splash: I’m sure of it by the way the lantern is being moved about.’
‘Half a breath,’ said Ephraim. ‘We won’t leave the gun ef we kin help it. I’ll hev anuther try.’
He went to work again more cautiously, and this time got hold of the right bough.
‘Send her along, Luce,’ he said. ‘Careful now. We don’t want her goin’ orf like the first wan.’
Lucius cautiously extended the gun, which, after one or two ineffectual attempts, Ephraim caught and landed safely. For an active boy like Lucius the rest was easy, and in a very short time he joined the Grizzly on the bank.
‘Which way now?’ inquired Lucius, when once they had attained42 the level ground above.
‘Oh, up the river,’ answered Ephraim. ‘We must keep our faces towards old Stonewall’s camp. We’re all right now, I reckon, with these uniforms and the countersign. It’s lucky we’ve got thet.’
Alas44, poor Ephraim! He did not know of General Shields’s order, nor how anxiously his arrival was expected by every sentry45 along the line.
‘I wonder what time it is,’ said Lucius in the low tones they had learned of necessity to adopt.
‘It orter be about nine o’clock,’ answered Ephraim; ‘but we’ve no way of knowin’. Thar’s a moon, too, about midnight, I’m sorry ter say; but p’raps the clouds won’t let her through. I’m fond er the moon; but jest this wan night I’d do without her and willin’.’
‘It won’t be as dark outside this belt of trees as it is here,’ said Lucius, as they moved along.
‘All the wuss fer us,’ said Ephraim; ’fer outside ’em we must go. This belt is shore ter be full er sentries all along the river line. We must work our way down ter them fields we crossed this afternoon, and grub along through the ditch. That’ll be——Hush! Some one’s comin’. Lie down.’
He sank noiselessly to the ground among the underbrush as stealthy footsteps were heard approaching. Lucius followed his example, and the two lay side by side, scarcely daring to breathe.
General Shields had left nothing undone46 to recover his all important despatch, and the search was being vigorously prosecuted47 in every direction. A couple of boats had been procured48, one being sent up and the other down the river, while, at the same time, land parties patrolled the bank, so that the fugitive49, if discovered, would be caught, as it were, between two fires. Such a fate would have been inevitable50 for the boys, had not the vigilance of the Grizzly averted51 it, and Lucius blushed in the darkness as a pang52 of shame shot through him at the thought of the danger to which his self-indulgence in going to sleep upon his post had exposed them. He burned with affection at the recollection of Ephraim’s quiet self-abnegation in calmly accepting the inevitable and rising to take a double share of watch, and roundly resolved that when the next time of trial came he should not be found wanting. As it was, their position was precarious53 enough, for the footsteps drew nearer, and their eyes could catch the gleams of a lantern as it swung to and fro, while up from the river came the soft splashing of oars54, dipped gently by careful rowers.
Nearer and nearer came the lantern, and now by its light the anxious watchers could distinguish dimly the outlines of half a dozen soldiers, who stealthily followed their guide. Now and again a beam of the lantern light flashed upwards55 and was reflected back from the fixed bayonets of the party, and an uncomfortable thrill passed through Lucius as he wondered how it would feel to be skewered56 to the ground like a beetle57 with a pin stuck through it. He was rather fond of collecting things, and for the first time in his thoughtless existence he realised what must be the feelings of the ‘bugs,’ as he called them, which he was in the habit of treating so unceremoniously. However, he was quite content to realise it in imagination, and having no desire to experience the sensation in actual fact, kept his place as immovably as a statue thrown to the ground.
The search party was almost abreast58 of them now, keeping pace with the men in the boat, and the two lanterns, one flashing upwards, and the other downwards59, made a pool of light which came uncomfortably close.
Another moment of breathless
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