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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER XVI.OLD GRIZZLY’S SACRIFICE.
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CHAPTER XVI.OLD GRIZZLY’S SACRIFICE.
 As Ephraim saw their terrible enemy running towards them, followed by a number of soldiers, his heart, stout1 as it was, sank within him; for Lucius, in the spasm2 of unreasoning terror which the mere3 sight of the balloon had induced in him, hung back, a dead-weight, and refused to move in response to either force or persuasion4. It is said that a person in the grip of severe sea-sickness would, if informed that the ship was about to sink under him, calmly accept the fact, and welcome the change as a blessed relief from present suffering. If this be true, then Lucius was in very much the same state of mind. The recollection of his balloon experiences filled him with a hideous5, incapacitating fear. To ascend6, he believed, meant death. Death was behind him in another shape, but compared with the former it seemed absolutely enchanting7. These were his thoughts, if he thought at all, and in answer to Ephraim’s wild entreaty8 that he would hurry on, he did but hang back the more, while he muttered huskily words which fell in broken, meaningless syllables9 from his pale and trembling lips.  
While this struggle was going on, the colonel and his men drew nearer and nearer. Spriggs had not recognised the boys at first, but observing from his place of concealment10 two Federal soldiers, as he supposed, entering the open, had fixed11 his attention somewhat idly upon them. It was not until the argument began, and he got a good, though distant, look at Ephraim’s hairy face, that it was borne in upon him who these seeming Federals really were. A fierce joy filled his cruel heart. He should not have to return to camp empty-handed after all. ‘Don’t fire!’ he ordered his men. ‘Run them down and take them alive.’
 
Relaxing for a moment his efforts to drag Lucius to the balloon, Ephraim cast a glance over his shoulder. The colonel and his men were still a couple of hundred yards away, but coming on at top speed. Thirty paces ahead was the balloon—a veritable city of refuge. One vigorous spurt12, and they could reach it and be safe. Life was very sweet, and Ephraim could save his—if he went on alone.
 
But that was not the Grizzly13’s way. No such coward thought even entered his brain. Stooping down in front of Lucius, he drew the boy’s arms around his neck, humped him on to his back like a sack of potatoes, and staggering to his feet again, stumbled forward, his body bent14 almost double under the heavy weight and the effort to preserve the equilibrium15 of his well-nigh senseless burden.
 
‘Throttle me round the neck, Luce,’ he cried wildly. ‘Twine yer legs around me. Don’t give in, sonny! Keep up yer sperrits, and I’ll git ye thar!’
 
Scarcely conscious of what he was doing, Lucius 259obeyed, and Ephraim, straightening up under this better distribution of weight, rushed madly on with long, swinging strides.
 
On came the colonel. Another hundred yards and they were lost; but gasping16 and groaning17, Ephraim had reached the car, and with scant18 ceremony tumbled Lucius into its friendly shelter.
 
His eyes were bulging19 out of his head, and the sweat poured in big drops from off his face. His shoulder, too, was paining him terribly, and the tremendous exertion20 had caused the bandages to slip, and set the blood flowing again. But his nerves were steady and his wits clear, and he ran swiftly from side to side of the car, deftly21 unloosing the knots in the ropes that detained it.
 
Ping! ping! Two balls from the colonel’s revolver sang through the cordage, and passed clean through the balloon; but with a yell of triumph Ephraim scrambled22 into the car, and having cast off the loosened ropes, began madly to fling out the bags of ballast.
 
Out went the sand-bags, one after the other, till but one remained, and then, as if in response to Ephraim’s frantic23 invocations, old Blue Bag put forth24 all her remaining strength, and though she rose but slowly, yet after all she rose. Ephraim was wild with delight. He shouted and sang, without knowing in the least what he was doing, and regardless of the bullets, shook his fist at Spriggs as he came panting along. Then there was a slight jerk, and the shouts died away upon the Grizzly’s lips, as the balloon stood still. The grapnel, which Ephraim in his eager haste had only torn from its hold and flung to one side, had dragged again under the log, and now held fast.
 
Ephraim sprang at the rope where it was attached to the car, and tore at the fastening; but the knot was stiff and badly tied, and in spite of all his efforts, it refused to come undone25.
 
Colonel Spriggs took in the situation at a glance. ‘Ha! ha!’ he laughed savagely26; ‘I’ve got you this time. You don’t escape me again.—Hurry up there!’ he called to his men. ‘A dozen of you haul down this confounded balloon. The rest stand ready, and if the rope gives, fire a volley through the car.’
 
A rush was made towards the balloon, in which a number of men, who had suddenly issued from the woods under the command of a young captain, took part. The remainder of the colonel’s forces halted, and a row of deadly, gleaming tubes was instantly levelled at the car, where Ephraim, lost to all sense of personal danger in his anxiety to save Lucius, tugged27 and strained at the knot till his nails were split, and blood oozed28 from the points of his fingers. In vain: it would not yield.
 
‘Never mind,’ said a voice beside him. ‘We are as good as dead, anyway. Better face them and have done with it.’
 
Ephraim looked round, bewildered. Lucius was standing29 by his side, pale, certainly, but with a look rather of relief than otherwise upon his face.
 
‘By time!’ cried the Grizzly, losing patience for once. ‘I can’t onderstand ye, Luce. One moment ye’re as limp ez a lump er jelly, and the next ye’re ez stiff ez the rammer31 er a gun. Oh, ef I’d on’y kept Jake Summers’s knife!’
 
‘Haul them down!’ shouted the colonel, grinning like an ugly imp30.
 
He was standing immediately underneath32 the car, looking up at the boys. A wild storm of rage shook Ephraim from head to foot, and desisting from his useless struggle with the knot, he stooped to the bottom of the car, and raising the one heavy bag of ballast that remained, sent it with unerring aim full down upon his mocking enemy.
 
The sand-bag struck the colonel between the neck and shoulder, and felled him like a log; but as he measured his length upon the ground, the car sank to earth; strong hands seized and held it fast, and the young captain, who had been looking on in bewilderment at the singular scene, stepped forward, and parting the ropes, ordered the boys, not unkindly, to get out.
 
‘Whatever does this mean?’ he began. ‘Are you Federal soldiers, or’——But Colonel Spriggs, rising from the ground, advanced with a face that was absolutely contorted with rage.
 
‘Hold your tongue, sir!’ he shouted rudely to the captain. ‘I don’t know who you are, nor what you want here.—As for you, you scoundrel,’ he foamed35 at Ephraim. ‘You filthy36 rebel, you; I’ll teach you! You’ve played your last prank37.’ Then, maddened by the quiet smile upon the Grizzly’s face, he raised his arm and thrust his fist, guarded by the heavy hilt of his sword, violently in the lad’s mouth.
 
‘Take that, you dog,’ he cried. ‘What do you mean by grinning at me?’
 
Lucius uttered a cry of rage, and struggled violently with the men who held him on either side; but Ephraim, spitting out a mouthful of blood, coolly replied: ‘’Twould hev made a cat laugh ter see ye 262sprawlin’ thar. I on’y wish it had broken yer neck, ye or’nery skunk38.’
 
‘Colonel!’ exclaimed the young captain, stepping to the front. Then, seeing that his superior was temporarily out of his senses with wrath39, and fearful of some dire40 catastrophe41, he turned sharply upon the crowd of soldiers, and ordered them to fall in.
 
The men, drilled to prompt obedience42, obeyed at once; even those who were holding the balloon loosing their grasp and joining their comrades, the colonel’s men in one group, the captain’s in another. Instantly the balloon rose in the air, and the grapnel having been freed in the commotion43, soared higher and higher, till at last, caught by a current of wind, it floated over the tree tops towards the south. An hour later it astonished Jackson’s rearguard by descending44 suddenly among them, a collapsed45 and miserable46 wreck47.
 
The colonel was striding up and down, muttering furiously to himself. Now, when he looked up and saw the balloon drifting away, his wrath broke out afresh.
 
‘What did you let that balloon away for, you fools?’ he shouted. ‘Now we have no ropes to hang these dogs with. What did you do it for?’ He glared at the men, who naturally made no reply.
 
‘It was by a mistake, colonel,’ the young officer hastened to explain. ‘It was my fault. I gave the order to fall in.’
 
‘And who are you, sir, to give your orders while I am on the ground?’ stormed the colonel.
 
‘I addressed my own men,’ replied the officer respectfully; ‘I understand that I command my own company. Your men heard the order, and obeyed it at the same time. Hence the escape of the balloon.’
 
‘Who are you, sir?’ repeated the colonel. ‘Who are you with your “I command my own company?” You won’t command it much longer if you presume to take so much upon yourself in the presence of your superior officer. I tell you I won’t be answered back. I believe you let that balloon away on purpose.’
 
The captain flushed deeply. ‘My name is Peters, sir,’ he answered, ‘Captain Peters of the —— Vermont. I received orders to make a detour48 of these woods, to feel for an advance of the enemy. The scene which has just passed has considerably49 surprised me. I know nothing of these people, though, from the presence of the balloon, and the fact that they are wearing Federal uniforms, I am led to believe that they are those of whom all the camp is talking. I have no wish to hinder you in the execution of your duty. If you conceive it to be your duty to arrest these fellows, do so, by all means.’
 
‘I conceive it to be my duty,’ retorted the angry colonel, ‘to let you know that you are too free with your speech, young man. You don’t command anything or anybody while I am on the ground, and just you remember it.’
 
Captain Peters reddened again, but held his peace. He was a volunteer with little experience, and he really did not know whether he ought to be at the orders of a stray colonel, just because he was a colonel.
 
‘We’ve got a friend in the captain,’ whispered Ephraim to Lucius. ‘We won’t come to harm ef he kin33 git the whip hand.’ But this it did not seem that Captain Peters was likely to do.
 
‘He’ll kill us if he can,’ replied Lucius. ‘Look at his face.’
 
‘I reckon,’ returned Ephraim simply. ‘The old blunderbuss is mad.’
 
The colonel resumed his march up and down, probably wrestling with himself; for brute50 though he was, what manhood there was left in him could not but recoil51 from the deed he contemplated52. For several minutes there was silence, the men standing at ease, and the captain meditatively53 poking54 holes in the ground with the point of his sword, and ever and anon casting furtive55 glances at the two prisoners.
 
The stillness became oppressive. Only the colonel’s hurried footsteps broke it irregularly, and the sound jarred so much upon Ephraim’s tense nerves that he felt he must speak at whatever cost.
 
‘See hyar, cunnel,’ he called out. ‘It’s cruel ter keep us standing hyar. What ye goin’ ter do with us? Remember we ain’t done ye any harm, ’ceptin’ thet whack56 I ketched ye jest now, and any wan34 would hev done ez much, makin’ a break fer freedom.—Cunnel!’
 
Captain Peters made Ephraim a swift sign to be silent; but the colonel, after one prolonged and malevolent57 stare, continued his march as though he had not heard a word.
 
‘The pesky critter!’ muttered Ephraim. ‘Hold up, Luce. He dassn’t do nuthin’, and he knows it too, right well. Thet’s what’s makin’ him so mad. He’d like ter chaw us up inter58 little bits, on’y he dassn’t.’
 
He stopped obedient to the captain’s signals, but the next moment his roving eye caught the gleam of gun-barrels in among the trees in the section of wood they had left when they ran for the balloon, and here and there a face peeped out and was rapidly withdrawn59; 265so rapidly that the Grizzly rubbed his eyes and asked himself whether they had not deceived him. ‘It looked like ’em,’ he said to himself; ‘but it can’t be. How can it be? Oh, I reckon it’s some more Yanks comin’ ter see the fun.’ He held his tongue, however, and, for want of something better to do, took a piece of string from his pocket, and twisted it nervously61 round and round his fingers, the while he kept his eyes steadfastly63 fixed upon the forest opposite. But if he had seen anything, there was nothing to be seen now. Suddenly the colonel halted in his walk, turned, and approached them.
 
‘Now it’s comin’,’ thought Ephraim, twirling his string more rapidly than ever. Lucius stood perfectly64 still and erect65, his hands locked behind his back, and his eyes staring straight in front of him. Whatever his feelings, they did not appear upon the surface.
 
The colonel’s swarthy face was deeply flushed, his black, deep-set eyes glittered menacingly under their bushy, overhanging brows, and he gnawed66 persistently67 at his long moustache. It was evident that in the struggle which had been going on in his mind, the evil had conquered the good.
 
Captain Peters drew himself up as the colonel neared him, and waited silently at attention.
 
‘Captain Peters,’ began Spriggs, speaking rapidly in a husky voice, whether the result of shame o............
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