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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER XV.ANY PORT IN A STORM.
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 To say that Ephraim was astonished as this sympathetic remark fell upon his ear, would be to convey a very faint idea of his sensations. For the moment he was simply bewildered. The voice was the voice of a friend, and where in all that great army should he look for a friend just now?  
‘Who air ye?’ he attempted to say; but his tongue clove1 to his mouth, and no sound came from his lips.
He groped for the corporal’s canteen and took a drink. ‘Who air ye?’ he said at last. ‘Who air ye thet speak ter me like thet?’
His legs began to tremble under him. He sat down upon the ground and took another sip2 of water from the canteen. It refreshed him, and he listened eagerly for the reply.
‘A friend,’ answered the sentry3. ‘Don’t ye be down in the mouth, Eph Sykes. I’m hyar ter help ye. On’y we must go cautious, ye know.’
‘Who air ye?’ repeated Ephraim. ‘Who air ye?’ He said it over and over again monotonously4, like a parrot repeating the words.
‘Sh! What’s the matter with ye? Don’t ye know me? I thort ye would. I’m Jake Summers. Ye know me now, don’t ye?’
‘Ah! I do thet,’ answered Ephraim with cold contempt. ‘Jake Summers, the Southern Yankee. The man who quit old Virginny when the war broke out, and took sides agin her. I know ye well enuff now. And ye call yerself a friend. Yah! Git out and leave me alone.’
‘Oh, shet yer head, Grizzly5,’ was the retort, given without a spice of ill-humour. ‘What do you know? I reckon we’ve all got our own opinions, and may be allowed ter keep ’em. I’m not the on’y one by a long sight ez couldn’t make up his mind to cut loose from the old union, ez ye know well enough. I ’magine ye won’t deny a man the right ter foller the call er his conscience in this onnatural war.’
‘Couldn’t ye hev hung on ter the union ’thout firin’ bullets inter6 old Virginny, ef thet’s the way ye felt about it,’ answered Ephraim. ‘Anyway, ye kin7 settle up with yer conscience the best way ye please, so long as ye git out er thet. Quit!’
‘Eph,’ said the man earnestly, ‘don’t make sech a pizen noise, onless ye want ter wake up them ez doesn’t feel fer ye ez I do. I tell ye I want ter be yer friend ef ye’ll let me, and not be a fool.’
‘Garn away,’ replied Ephraim dismally8, but not so roughly as before. ‘What kin ye do?’
‘I’ll show ye ef ye’ll git up and come over hyar, whar I kin talk ter ye ’thout bein’ heard all over the camp,’ said the man.—‘Eph, d’ye remember little Toots?’
‘Ah, I remember him,’ answered Ephraim. ‘What ye bringin’ him up fer?’
‘Little Toots, my little b’y Toots,’ went on the man with a catch in his voice. ‘The on’y one me and Jenny ever had. D’ye remember, Eph, after we thort he war gittin’ well from the dipthery, how ye useter come and see him, and bring him toys ye’d made yerself. One time it war a little gun, one time it war a Noah’s ark ye’d cut him outern a block er pine, and another time it war a Jack-in-the-box thet useter frighten him every time it come out, and then make him larf till we thort he’d never stop?’ The rough voice died away in a sob9.
‘I don’t see what yer meanin’ is,’ said Ephraim uncomfortably, for he hated to be reminded of his little charities.
‘Don’t ye? I’ll larn ye soon. When we quit Staunton, Jenny and Toots and me, the little b’y he sorter sickened after the old home, and he got weaker and weaker. We’d lost everything, Eph, and we couldn’t git him the little comforts he wanted, the pore lamb, and thar we hed ter sit and see him wastin’ before our eyes, me and Jenny. Eph, I tell ye, he war always singin’ out fer you. “I want Grizzly,” says he. “I want him ter bring me a toy.” And when he died, Eph, he war jest huggin’ yer old Jack-in-the-box ter his breast, ez ef he loved it too much ter leave it behind him. So we put it in with him, Eph, fer we couldn’t bear ter take it from him.’ His voice choked again, and he stopped abruptly10.
‘Pore little Toots!’ murmured Ephraim sympathetically. ‘And so ye lost him, Jake?’
‘We did,’ answered Jake; ‘and we thort our hearts 242war broke, we did, me and Jenny. And then ter-night, jest now when the corporal brought ye along and sot ye in thar with me ter look after ye, I couldn’t believe it fer a spell. And then I thort how good ye’d been ter little Toots, makin’ his little life thet happy, and how fond he war er ye and all. And I sez ter myself, I dunno what Eph Sykes hez been up ter; but I reckon ef harm comes ter him while I’m hyar ter keep it off’n him, I’ll never be able ter look little Toots in the face when wanst I meet him again. Now ye kin tell, Grizzly, ef I’m yer friend or ef I ain’t.’
Ephraim made no answer; but in the dark he groped for Jake’s hand and wrung11 it hard.
‘I’ve got a plan, Eph,’ said Jake, returning the pressure. ‘It’s ez simple ez hoein’ a row. On’y we must be quick.’
‘No, Jake, I can’t let ye do it,’ answered Ephraim at last. ‘Ye can’t help me ’thout hurtin’ yerself, and I can’t save my life et the price er another man’s, ’ceptin’ in a fair fight. It’s good er ye, Jake, and it’s like what I remember ye in the old days. But I can’t let ye do it; though I’m obleeged ter ye, all the same.’
‘Shucks!’ exclaimed Jake impatiently. ‘Don’t ye consarn yerself over me. I reckon I like a whole skin ez well ez any man. Thar’ll be a court-martial12 and thet; but they won’t be able to prove anythin’. Don’t waste time. Hev ye got a knife?’
‘On’y a little wan,’ replied Ephraim, yielding to his persuasion13.
‘Then take mine, and open the big blade. Now then, rip a great hole in the back er the tent. Do it soft, now. Don’t make no noise. Hev ye done it?’
‘Yes,’ answered Ephraim. ‘Am I ter git out thet way?’
‘My land! no. Ye’d be stopped before ye’d gone ten paces. It’s on’y fer a blind, thet. Now come over hyar. Put yer hands behind yer back ez ef they war tied, and step out alongside me. See hyar, Eph, this has got ter be smartly done, fer I must git back ter my post without loss er time. I’ll take the resk. I can’t do everythin’ I’d like ter do; but I’ll pilot ye through the camp, and then ye must make a break fer the woods on yer own account. Ef ye let ’em nab ye agen, ye’re not the man I take ye fer. Air ye ready? Then come along.’
With considerable difficulty Ephraim clasped his hands behind his back, owing to the stiffness in his shoulder; but he set his teeth and bore the pain, and while Jake grasped him by the arm, the two of them set out with soft but rapid steps through the slumbering14 camp.
Here and there a head was sleepily lifted; but the sight of a prisoner at any hour of the day or night was altogether too common to attract serious attention, and only once did Jake open his mouth to inform a sentry that he was taking his charge to the provost-marshal.
Presently they reached the tent where the stern dispenser of martial law slept in blissful unconsciousness that his prey15 was on the point of slipping through his fingers. Needless to say they did not enter his tent, which was at the extreme end of the camp near the river, but making a slight detour16, slipped past it, and almost immediately afterwards Jake came to a halt.
‘Thet’s all I kin do fer ye, Grizzly,’ he whispered. ‘Ye must trust ter luck fer the rest. God send ye git safe in. Give a kind thort ter Uncle Sam sometimes fer this night’s work.’ And before Ephraim could utter a word of the thanks that rushed to his lips, his benefactor17 had turned and left him.
‘Waal,’ thought Ephraim, as he cast himself at full length upon the ground in order to escape observation, ‘thet Jake Summers is a man down ter his boots. To think of the few toys I give little Toots bringin’ about all this. I never thort when I made him thet Jack-in-the-box thet it war ter be the savin’ er my life. My land! I kin sca’cely onderstand it.’
As he lay, he rapidly revolved18 plan after plan for his further procedure, rejecting them all, till at last he made up his mind to attempt to reach the hut in the forest, and conceal19 himself therein until the day broke.
‘It’s resky,’ he thought to himself; ‘but then everythin’s resky jest now. And it’s better than wanderin’ round in the dark, when I might plump up against a Yank before I knew whar I war. Thet window is so handy, too. Onless they come on me from all sides at wanst, I kin slip through it nicely and away inter the woods.’
He stole across the fields, bending almost to the ground lest any prowling Federal or lynx-eyed sentry should catch sight of him; nor did he pause to take breath until he reached the long ditch, at the far end of which he had waged that memorable20 battle with Sergeant21 Mason, which had, after all, resulted so disastrously22 for himself.
‘I wonder whether the corporal has found the despatch23,’ he thought, as he rested his back against 245the sloping side of the ditch. ‘It must hev dropped out somewhar thar. He’s a good man, thet corporal, and ef I git cl’ar of this scrape, I won’t hev so many hard things ter say agin the Yanks after ter-night. ’Ceptin’, of co’se, that pesky Cunnel Spriggs. But then, I reckon, he sorter stands alone, bein’, as Ginrul Shields said, a disgrace ter everybody. I wonder whar he is, the critter! Layin’ on ter be lookin’ fer us, when all he wants is ter be quit er the fight ter-morrer, or ter-day, for I guess it’s been ter-day this two hours back. I wonder ef thar will be a battle. It’ll simplify matters a good deal fer me ef thar is, fer the Yanks will hev enuff ter do ’thout huntin’ me. I wonder whar Luce kin be? I hope he’s made our lines all right. My land! I’d jest better quit wonderin’ and ‘tend ter business.’
He started off again, going warily25, and anon reached, without accident, the short arm of the wood, through which he groped cautiously until he came opposite to the back of the hut. Here he paused again, and throwing himself down, crawled on his hands and knees across the short strip of intervening ground. At the window he raised himself up cautiously and listened intently. Not a sound broke the stillness, and satisfied at last, he edged his way round to the front.
‘All cl’ar,’ he thought. ‘Thet’s well. Now I’ll set down jest inside the door, and then ef anybody comes I kin slip in and away through the window, or out across the open ez the case may be. It’s oncomfortably nigh the camp, this cabin; but I ’magine it’s the safest place till the mornin’ breaks.’
He sat down at the door of the cabin, and pulling 246out a piece of the corporal’s biscuit, ate it with relish26. Half an hour passed, and the deep stillness acting27 soothingly28 upon his tired nerves, he began to feel drowsy29, and actually nodded once or twice.
‘This won’t do,’ he muttered. ‘I must keep awake; it’——Another nod, and then he sprang noiselessly to his feet, wide awake and quivering in every limb. He heard, or thought he heard, a scratching sound at the window of the hut.
He strained his ears to listen, ready the instant that doubt became certainty to flee across the open into the fields once more.
Again that faint scratching sound, this time a little louder, and accompanied by a gentle tapping.
‘It’s a squirr’l, I reckon,’ thought Ephraim, much relieved. ‘He has maybe got a knot hole on the roof.’
‘Whippo-wil! whippo-wil! whippo-wil!’
Ephraim stiffened30 into attention again. There was nothing extraordinary about the sound. It was night, or rather very early morning, the time when the whip-poor-wills took their exercise and screamed out their loud, clear notes; but there was something else. In the old days at Staunton, which the startling events of the last four and twenty hours had crowded so far into the background that they seemed removed by a distance of years from the present, it had been Luce’s custom to come whip-poor-willing down the little back street where Ephraim lived, to give his friend timely notice of his approach. Therefore the sound had a greater significance for the Grizzly.
‘Hear thet bird!’ he said to himself. ‘It’s jest what Luce use ter do. My! I wonder will I ever git back to the old home again.’
‘Whippo-wil! whippo-wil! whippo-wil! Tap, tap, tap!’
Now a whip-poor-will may sing its song at night, but it does not usually perch31 upon a window-sill and lightly tap to attract attention, and this was borne home to Ephraim when for the third time the cry was repeated, followed by the mysterious rapping.
Ephraim’s heart gave a great leap. ‘It can’t be!’ he said, in the silence of his brain. ‘It can’t be! I reckon I must find out, though.’
He crept noiselessly round the cabin and peered beyond the angle of the wall in the direction of the window.
The space at the back of the hut was darker than that at the front, for the nearness of the woods threw an additional gloom; but Ephraim, staring into the dark, could just make out a figure standing32 at a little distance from the window with outstretched arm, which rose and fell rhythmically33, and at every movement came the light tap, tap of a switch upon the sill.
‘Whippo-wil! whippo’——
There was a rush through the darkness, the shock of a violent meeting, and panting, trembling, almost sobbing34 with joy, the two friends clung to one another in a fervent35 embrace.
‘Luce!’ whispered the Grizzly, the words falling in broken syllables36 from his lips. ‘What ye doin’ hyar? I thought ye would be safe and fur away.’
‘I didn’t know what had become of you,’ whispered Lucius back; ‘but I imagined that if you had got 248away you would make for the cabin. It seemed the most likely place. Oh, I’m so glad! I’m so glad!’
‘I’m glad too; but I’m sorry ez well, fer I thought ye would be well within our lines. Ugh! Ah!’
‘What is the matter?’ asked Lucius in alarm, as at another friendly hug Ephraim uttered a low cry of pain.
‘It’s nuthin’, bub. On’y I got it in the shoulder, and ye gripped me thar. Come into the cabin. We’ll be safer thet way.’
‘What! Are you wounded?’ inquired Lucius anxiously, as he followed Ephraim in through the window.
‘Jest a scrape on the shoulder. Never mind it. Tell me what happened after ye left me. I reckon ye ran back the way ye had come. I heard ye shoutin’.’
‘No, I didn’t,’ answered Lucius. ‘At least, only for a few steps, and then I mad............
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