Si's weakness made him peevish and fretful, and Shorty was not a great deal better.
"It's an awful risk to have an old man and a civilian come down here into camp," Si complained. "And he oughtn't to go about alone. He's always been used to mingling with the quiet, honest, respectable people.
Up home the people are as honest as the day is long. They're religious and peaceable, and Pap's never knowed no other kind. He wouldn't harm nobody for the world, and none o' them'd harm him. He's only a child among these toughs down here. I wisht one of us was able to be with him all the time."
"That father o' yours is certainly quite an innocent old party," Shorty answered, consolingly, "and the things he don't know about army life'd make more'n a pamphlet. But he has a way of wakin' up to the situation that is sometimes very surprisin'. I wisht I was able to go about with him, but I think he's fully able to take care o' himself around in camp.
There's always somebody about who won't see an old man and a citizen imposed on. But what I'm afraid of is that he's wandered out in the country, huntin' for somethin' for us to eat, and the guerrillas've got him."
And he and Si shuddered at the thought of that good old man in the hands of the merciless scoundrels who infested the mountains and woods beyond the camps.
"Yes," mourned Si, "Pap's likely to mosey out into the country, jest like he would on Bean Blossom Crick, and stop at the first house he come to, and set down with 'em on the porch, and talk about the weather, and the crops, and the measles in the neighborhood, and the revivals, and the price o' pork and corn, and whether they'd better hold their wheat till Spring, and who was comin' up for office, and all the time the bushwhackers'd be sneakin' up on him, an' him know no more 'bout it than where the blackbirds was roostin'. He's jest that innocent and unsuspiciouslike."
"If they've ketched him," said Shorty fiercely, "we'll find out about it, and when we git able, we'll go out there and kill and burn everything for five miles around. I'll do it, if I have to spend the rest o' my life at hard labor on the Dry Tortugas."
They heard the rattle of light wheels on the frozen ground outside, and the hoof-beats of a quickly-moving horse.
"Buggy or spring-wagon," muttered Si with a farmer boy's instinctive interpretation of such sounds. "What's it doin' in camp? Strange horse.
In better condition than any around here."
The vehicle stopped in front of the corn-crib at the Deacon's command, "Whoa!"
"Gracious--there's Pap now," ejaculated Si, with whom memory went in a bound to the many times he had listened for his father's coming and heard that order.
"Hello, boys," called out the Deacon. "How are you? Shorty, come out here."
Shorty sprang up with something of his old-time alacrity, and Si made an effort to rise, but was too weak.
"Throw a piece o' that fat pine on the fire. Shorty," said the Deacon, "and let's see what I've got."
By the light of the blazing pine, the Deacon pulled off the cedar boughs and developed his store. The boughs had kept in the heat, so that the food was not yet quite cold, though it had a resinous flavor, from its covering. The Deacon broke one of the cornpones in two and gave half of it to Shorty, with as much as he thought he should have of the meat and vegetables. Then he fed Si, who relished the new diet almost as much as he had relished the chicken broth. The Deacon made a hearty supper himself, and then stored away the rest in his "cellar" under the crib, rolling up some more large stones as an additional precaution.
"Well, you beat me," said Shorty admiringly, as he studied over the Deacon's booty. "I used to think I was as slick a forager as there was in the army, but I simply ain't in the same class with a man that kin go out in this Sahara Desert o' starvation and bring in a four-year-old horse and a wagon-load o' cooked vittles. I'd never even see the distance pole runnin' with him. Gen. Rosecrans ought to know you. He'd appoint you Commissary-General o' the army at once. When I get a little stronger I want you to take me out and learn me the ABC's o' foragin'.
To think that me and Si wuz grievin' about your being ketched by the guerrillas. What fools we wuz. It wuz lucky for the guerrillas that you didn't run acrost 'em, for you'd a ketched 'em, instid o' 'em you."
"That's what I come purty nigh doin'," chuckled the Deacon. "But what in the world 'm I goin' to do with that hoss and buckboard? I must hunt around and find that poor beast some corn for tonight. He's bin driven purty sharp, and he needs his supper jest as bad as I did mine, and I won't feel right unless he has it. Then I must try to git him back to his owner termorrer."
"If he's here to-morrer," said Shorty, looking at the animal carefully, "it'll be a miracle. That's too good a hoss to be kept in this camp by anybody lower'n a Brigadier-General. The boys'll steal him, the Captains take him, the Colonels seize him, and the Brigadier-Generals appropriate him for the Government's service. They'll call it by different names, but the horse goes all the same. I don't see how you're goin' to keep him till mornin'. You can't put him in your cellar. If they don't steal him, it's because it's too dark to see him. I'm sorry to say there's an awful lot o' thieves in the Army o' the Cumberland."
And Shorty looked very grieved over the deplorable lack of regard in the army for the rights of property. He seemed to mourn this way for several minutes, and then broke out with:
"Say, Mr. Klegg, I've an idee. That Quartermaster o' the Maumee Muskrats is a sport from way back. He'd give his vary eyes for a good hoss--one that kin beat everybody else's. The way the horses are run down now this one kin carry a heavy handicap, and beat any one in camp.
I'll bet I kin take this hoss over to him and git $150 in greenbacks for him, for he kin win a bushel o' money with him the very first day."
"Shorty," said the Deacon, in a tone that made that worthy start, "necessity and the stress o' circumstances may force me to do many things which are agin my conscience, and for which I shall repent in sackcloth and ashes, if needs be, but I hain't yit bin reduced to sellin' stolen property. The Lord save me from that. That hoss and wagon's got to go back to the owner, if I risk my life in takin' 'em."
Shorty wisely kept his reply to himself, but he thought how absurd it was to have men about the army who were too old and set in their ideas to learn army ways. He muttered to himself:
"If he succeeds in gittin' that hoss outen camp agin, I'll expect to see the back o' my neck, or something else quite as wonderful."
The Deacon finally succeeded in getting a couple of ears of corn and a handful of fodder for the horse's supper, and it was decided that Shorty should watch him the first part of the night, and the Deacon from thence till morning.
As the Deacon pondered over the matter in the early morning hours, he saw that his only chance of getting the horse back was to start with him before daylight revealed him to the men in camp.
[Illustration: WELL, I'LL BE DUMBED, MUTTERED THE DEACON. 35]
"I'll drive him well outside our lines, and as near to the house as I think it prudent to go, and then turn him loose," he said to himself.
"If he's got the sense o' the horses up North he'll go straight home, and then my conscience will be clear. If he don't, I'll have done all I could. The Lord don't ask unreasonable things of us, even in atonement."
So he cooked as good a breakfast for the boys as he could prepare from his materials, woke up Shorty and put him in charge, and an hour before daybreak turned the horse's head toward the pontoon bridge, and started him on a lively trot.
He had only fairly started when a stern voice called out to him from a large tent:
"Here, you, stop that trotting. What do you mean? Don't you know that it's strictly against orders to trot horses in their present condition?"
"Excuse me. Captain," said the Deacon. "I"
"Blank your Captain," roared the voice; "I'm no Captain."
"Major," said the Deacon deprecatingly.
"To thunder with your Majors, you ignorant fool. You"
"I beg your pardon, Colonel. I was"
"What's the matter with you, you ignoramus?" roared the voice, more indignantly than ever. "Don't you know Brigade Headquarters when you see them? Don't you know your own officers when you hear their voices?"
"Rayly, General," said the Deacon, much disturbed, "I didn't mean to insult you. I'm only a citizen, and a stranger in the camp, and--"
"A citizen and a stranger," echoed the voice. "What are you doing in here, anyway? Orderly, bring that man in here till I see him."
The Orderly started to obey, when a regiment which had been ordered to report at Headquarters came up at quick step, halted, and ordered arms with much clatter. The frightened horse bounded off down the road, with the Deacon sawing on the lines and trying to stop him.
He only slowed down when he came up near a corral of other horses, to which he turned for companionship and sympathy.
"Frosty mornin' makes that hoss purty frisky," said the Deacon, as he readjusted his hat, and got himself in shape after his jolting. "Lucky, though. I didn't like that old General's voice. I'm afraid he had it in for me, and would 've made me trouble for lowerin' his dignity by callin' him Captain. Big officers are awfully tetchy."
"Here, who are you? And what are you doin' out there?" came the stem inquiry from the dark depths of one of the sheds.
"Excuse me. General," answered the Deacon hastily, "I"
"General? Who are you callin' General, you fool? Don't try to be funny with me. You know I'm no General."
"I meant Colonel," the Deacon started to explain.
"The blazes you did. You expect Colonels to run hoss-corrals, and manage mule boarding-houses, do you? stop your blimmed nonsense and answer my questions."
"Major, I was tryin' to say"
"I'll Major you when I git my boots on and git out there. Don't think to shut my eye up callin' me big titles."