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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XVIII THE FINAL RECKONING
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 They rode a long time through a war-torn country, and the days bound the young men together so closely that, at times, it seemed to them they had fought on the same side all through the war. Sergeant Whitley was usually their guide and he was an expert to bargain for food and forage. He exhibited then all the qualities that afterward raised him so high in the commercial world.  
Although they were saddened often by the spectacle of the ruin the long war had made, they kept their spirits, on the whole, wonderfully well. The two colonels, excellent horsemen, were an unfailing source of cheerfulness. When they alluded to the war they remembered only the great victories the South had won, and invariably they spoke of its end as a compromise. They also began to talk of Charleston, toward which their hearts now turned, and a certain handsome Madame Delaunay whom Harry Kenton remembered well.
As they left Virginia and entered North Carolina they heard that the Confederate troops everywhere were surrendering. The war, which had been so terrible and sanguinary only two or three months before, ended absolutely with the South's complete exhaustion. Already the troops were going home by the scores of thousands. They saw men who had just taken off their uniforms guiding the ploughs in the furrows. Smoke rose once more from the chimneys of the abandoned homes, and the boys who had faced the cannon's mouth were rebuilding rail fences. The odor of grass and newly turned earth was poignant and pleasant. The two colonels expanded.
"Though my years have been devoted to military pursuits, Hector," said Colonel Leonidas Talbot, "the agricultural life is noble, and many of the hardy virtues of the South are due to the fact that we are chiefly a rural population."
"Truly spoken, Leonidas, but for four years agriculture has not had much chance with us, and perhaps agriculture is not all. It was the mechanical genius of the North that kept us from taking New York and Boston."
"Which reminds me, Happy," said St. Clair to Langdon, "that, after all, you didn't sleep in the White House at Washington with your boots on."
"I changed my mind," replied Happy easily. "I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings."
Soon they entered the mountains, and they met many Confederate soldiers returning to their homes. Harry always sought from them news of his father, and he learned at last that he was somewhere in the western part of the state. Then he heard, a day or two later, that a band of guerrillas to the south of them were plundering and sometimes murdering. They believed from what details they could gather that it was Slade and Skelly with a new force, and they thought it advisable to turn much farther toward the west.
"The longest way 'round is sometimes the shortest way through," said Sergeant Whitley, and the others agreed with him. They came into a country settled then but little. The mountains were clothed in deep forest, now in the full glory of early spring, and the log cabins were few. Usually they slept, the nights through, in the forest, and they helped out their food supply with game. The sergeant shot two deer, and they secured wild turkeys and quantities of smaller game.
Although they heard that the guerrillas were moving farther west, which necessitated the continuation of their own course in that direction, they seemed to have entered another world. Where they were, at least, there was nothing but peace, the peace of the wilderness which made a strong appeal to all of them. In the evenings by their campfire in the forest De Langeais would often play for them on his violin, and the great trees about them seemed to rustle with approval, as a haunting melody came back in echoes from the valleys.
They had been riding a week through a wilderness almost unbroken when, just before sunset, they heard a distant singing sound, singularly like that of De Langeais' violin.
"It is a violin," said De Langeais, "but it's not mine. The sound comes from a point at the head of the cove before us."
They rode into the little valley and the song of the violin grew louder. It was somebody vigorously playing "Old Dan Tucker," and as the woods opened they saw a stout log cabin, a brook and some fields. The musician, a stalwart young man, sat in the doorway of the house. A handsome young woman was cooking outside, and a little child was playing happily on the grass.
"I'll ride forward and speak to them," said Harry Kenton. "That man and I are old friends."
The violin ceased, as the thud of hoofs drew near, but Harry, springing from his horse, held out his hand to the man and said:
"How are you, Dick Jones? I see that the prophecy has come true!"
The man stared at him a moment or two in astonishment, and then grasped his hand.
"It's Mr. Kenton!" he cried, "an' them's your friends behind you. 'Light, strangers, 'light! Yes, Mr. Kenton, it's come true. I've been back home a week, an' not a scratch on me, though I've fit into nigh onto a thousand battles. I reckon my wife, that's Mandy there, wished so hard fur me to come back that the Lord let her have her way. But 'light, strangers! 'Light an' hev supper!"
"We will," said Harry, "but we're not going to crowd you out of your house. We've plenty of food with us, and we're accustomed to sleeping out of doors."
Nevertheless the hospitality of Dick Jones and his wife, Mandy, was unbounded. It was arranged that the two colonels should sleep inside, while the others took to the grass with their blankets. Liberal contributions were made to the common larder by the travelers, and they had an abundant supper, after which the men sat outside, the colonels smoking good old North Carolina weed, and Mrs. Jones knitting in the dusk.
"Don't you and your family get lonesome here sometimes, Mr. Jones?" asked Harry.
"Never," replied the mountaineer. "You see I've had enough o' noise an' multitudes. More than once I've seen two hundred thousand men fightin', and I've heard the cannon roarin', days without stoppin'. I still git to dreamin' at night 'bout all them battles, an' when I awake, an' set up sudden like an' hear nothin' outside but the tricklin' o' the branch an' the wind in the leaves, I'm thankful that them four years are over, an' nobody is shootin' at nobody else. An' it's hard now an' then to b'lieve that they're really an' truly over."
"But how about Mrs. Jones?"
"She an' the baby stayed here four whole years without me, but we've got neighbors, though you can't see 'em fur the trees. Jest over the ridge lives her mother, an' down Jones' Creek, into which the branch runs, lives her married sister, an' my own father ain't more'n four miles away. The settlements are right thick 'roun' here, an' we hev good times."
Mrs. Jones nodded her emphatic assent.
"Which way do you-all 'low to be goin' tomorrow?" asked Jones.
"We think we'd better keep to the west," replied Colonel Talbot. "We've heard of a guerrilla band under two men, Slade and Skelly, who are making trouble to the southward."
"I've heard of 'em too," said Jones, "an' I reckon they're 'bout the meanest scum the war hez throwed up. The troops will be after 'em afore long, an' will clean 'em out, but I guess they'll do a lot o' damage afore then. You gen'lemen will be wise to stick to your plan, an' keep on toward the west."
They departed the next morning, taking with them the memory of a very pleasant meeting, and once more pursued their way through the wilderness. Harry, despite inquiries at every possible place, heard nothing more of his father, and concluded that, after the surrender, he must have gone at once to Kentucky, expecting his son to come there by another way.
But the reports of Slade and Skelly were so numerous and so sinister that they made a complete change of plan. The colonels, St. Clair and Langdon, would not try to go direct to South Carolina, but the whole party would cling together, ride to Kentucky, and then those who lived farther south could return home chiefly by rail. It seemed, on the whole, much the wiser way, and, curving back a little to the north, they entered by and by the high mountains on the line between Virginia and Kentucky. Other returning soldiers had joined them and their party now numbered thirty brave, well-armed men.
They entered Kentucky at a point near the old Wilderness Road, and, from a lofty crest, looked down upon a sea of ridges, heavy with green forest, and narrow valleys between, in which sparkled brooks or little rivers. The hearts of Harry and Dick beat high. They were going home. What awaited them at Pendleton? Neither had heard from the town or anybody in it for a long time. Anticipation was not unmingled with anxiety.
Two days later they entered a valley, and when they stopped at noon for their usual rest Harry Kenton rode some distance up a creek, thinking that he might rouse a deer out of the underbrush. Although the country looked extremely wild and particularly suited to game, he found none, but unwilling to give up he continued the hunt, riding much farther than he was aware.
He was just thinking of the return, when he heard a rustling in a thicket to his right, and paused, thinking that it might be the deer he wanted. Instead, a gigantic figure with thick black hair and beard rose up in the bush. Harry uttered a startled exclamation. It was Skelly, and beside him stood a little man with an evil face, hidden partly by an enormous flap-brimmed hat. Both carried rifles, and before Harry could take his own weapon from his shoulder Skelly fired. Harry's horse threw up his head in alarm, and the bullet, instead of hitting the rider, took the poor animal in the brain.
As the horse fell, Harry sprang instinctively and alighted upon his feet, although he staggered. Then Slade pulled trigger, and a searing, burning pain shot through his left shoulder. Dizzy and weak he raised his rifle, nevertheless, and fired at the hairy face of the big man. He saw the huge figure topple and fall; he heard another shot, and again felt the thrill of pain, this time in the head, heard a shrill whistle repeated over and over, and did not remember anything definite until some time afterward.
When his head became clear once more Harry believed that he had wandered a long distance from that brief but fierce combat, but he did not know in what direction his steps had taken him. Nearly all his strength was gone, and his head ached fearfully. He had dropped his rifle, but where he did not know nor care. He sat down on the ground with his back against a tree, and put his right hand to his head. The wound there had quit bleeding, clogged up with its own blood. He was experienced enough to know that it was merely a flesh wound, and that any possible scar would be hidden by his hair.
But the wound in his left shoulder was more serious. The bullet had gone entirely through, for which he was glad, b............
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