The desultory firing troubled the
ears of Talbot as he trod to and fro on his self-imposed
task, as he could not see the use of it. The day
for fighting and the night for sleep and rest was
the perfect division of a soldier’s life.
The tail of the battle writhed on
without regard for his feelings or theories, though
its efforts became gradually feebler, and he hoped
that by and by the decent part of both armies would
settle into lethargy, leaving the night to the skirmishers,
who never sleep and are without conscience.
He went back a little to an open spot
where a detail of about twenty men were posted.
But he did not remain with them long. Securing
a rifle, he returned toward the enemy, resolved to
watch on his own account a voluntary picket.
Talbot was not troubled for his friends
alone. The brigade had been beaten and driven
back upon the river, and with the press of numbers
against it he feared that the next day would bring
its destruction. The coming of the night, covering
friend and foe alike and making activity hazardous,
was opportune, since it would give his comrades time
to rest and gather their strength for the stand in
the morning. He could hear behind him even now
the heavy tread of the beaten companies as they sought
their places in the darkness, the clank of gun wheels,
and now and then the neigh of a tired horse.
The crash of a volley and another
volley which answered came from his right, and then
there was a spatter of musketry, stray shots following
each other and quickly dying away. Talbot saw
the flash of the guns, and the smell of burnt gunpowder
came to his nostrils. He made a movement of impatience,
for the powder poisoned the pure air. He heard
the shouts of men, but they ceased in a few moments,
and then farther away a cannon boomed. More volleys
of rifle shots and the noise of the cheering or its
echo came from his left; but unable to draw meaning
from the tumult, he concluded at last it was only
the smouldering embers of the battle and continued
to walk his voluntary beat with steady step.
The night advanced and the rumbling
in the encampment behind him did not cease at all,
the sounds remaining the same as they were earlier
in the evening that is, the drum of many
feet upon the earth, the rattle of metal and the hum
of many voices. Talbot concluded that the men
would never go to sleep, but presently a light shot
up in the darkness behind him, rising eight or ten
feet above the earth and tapering at the top to a
blue-and-pink point. Presently another arose beside
it, and then others and still others, until there
were thirty, forty, fifty or more.
Talbot knew these were the campfires
and he wondered why they had not been lighted before.
At last the men would go to sleep beside the cheerful
blaze. The fires comforted him, too, and he looked
upon the rosy flame of each, shining there in the
darkness, as he would have looked upon a personal
friend. They took away much of his lonely feeling,
and as they bent a little before the wind seemed to
nod to him a kind of encouragement in the dangerous
work upon which he had set himself. He could
see only the tops of these rosy cones; all below was
hidden by the bushes that grew between. He could
not see even the dim figure of a soldier, but he knew
that they were there, stretched out in long rows before
the fires, asleep in their blankets, while others stood
by on their arms, ready for defense should the pickets
be driven in.
The troublesome skirmishers seemed
to be resting just then, for no one fired at him and
he could not hear them moving in the woods. The
scattering shots down the creek ceased and the noises
in the camp began to die. It seemed as if night
were about to claim her own at last and put everybody
to rest. The fires rose high and burned with a
A stick broke under his feet with
a crackling noise as he walked to and fro, and a bullet
sang through the darkness past his ear. He fired
at the flash of the rifle, and as he ran back and
forth fired five or six times more, slipping in the
bullets as quickly as he could, for he wished to create
an illusion that the patrol consisted of at least a
dozen men. The opposing skirmishers returned his
fire with spirit, and Talbot heard their bullets clipping
the twigs and pattering among the leaves, but he felt
no great alarm, since the night covered him and only
a chance ball could strike him.
His opponents were wary, and only
two or three times did he see the shadows which he
knew to be their moving figures. He fired at these
but no answering cry came, and Talbot could not tell
whether any of his bullets struck, though it did not
matter. His lead served well enough as a warning,
and the skirmishers must know that the nearer they
came the better aim they would have to face.
Presently their fire ceased and he was disappointed,
as his blood had risen to fever heat and he was in
The night went on its slow way, and
Talbot, stopping a moment to rest and listen for the
skirmishers, calculated that it was not more than two
hours until day. The long period through which
he had watched began to press upon him. Weights
dragged at his feet, and he noticed that his rifle
when he shifted it from one shoulder to the other appeared
many pounds heavier than before. His knees grew
stiff and he felt like an old man; but he allowed
himself no rest, continuing his walk back and forth
at a slower pace, for he believed he could feel his
joints grate as he stepped. He looked at the
fires with longing and was tempted to go; but no,
he must atone for the neglect of that chief of brigade.
Just when the night seemed to be darkest
the skirmishers made another attack, rushing forward
in a body, firing with great vigour and shouting,
though hitherto they had fought chiefly in silence.
Talbot considered it an attempt to demoralize him
and was ready for it. He retreated a little,
sheltered himself behind a tree and opened fire, skipping
between shots from one tree to another in order that
he might protect the whole of his battle line and
keep his apparent numbers at their height.
His assailants were so near now that
he could see some of them springing about, and one
of his shots was followed by a cry of pain and the
disappearance of the figure. After that the fire
of his antagonists diminished and soon ceased.
They had shown much courage, but seemed to think that
the defenders were in superior numbers and a further
advance would mean their own destruction.
Again silence came, save for the hum
of the camp. The fires burnt brightly behind
him, and far off in front he saw the flickering fires
of the enemy. As the wind increased the lights
wavered and the cones split into many streams of flame
before it. The leaves and boughs whistled in
the rush of air and the waters of the creek sang a
minor chord on the shallows. Talbot had heard
these sounds a hundred times when a boy in the wilderness
of the deep woods, and it was easy enough for him to
carry himself back there, with no army or soldier near.
But he quickly dismissed such thoughts as would lull
him only into neglect of his watch. After having
kept it so long and so well it would be the height
of weakness to fail now, when day could not be much
more than two hours distant.
The silence remained unbroken.
An hour passed and then another, and in the east he
saw a faint shade of dark gray showing through the
black as if through a veil.
The gray tint brightened and the black
veil became thinner. Soon it parted and a bar
of light shot across the eastern horizon, broadening
rapidly till the world of hills, fields and forests
rose up from the darkness. A trumpet sounded
in the hostile camp.
Skirmishers filled the woods in front
of Talbot and pressed toward him in a swarm.
“Surrender!” cried out
one of them, an officer. “It is useless
for you to resist! We are a hundred and you are
one! Don’t you see?”
Talbot turned and looked back at the
fires burning in the empty camp of his comrades.
The light of the morning showed everything, even to
the last boat-load of the beaten brigade landing on
the farther shore; he understood all.
“Yes, I will surrender,”
he said, as his eyes gleamed with sudden comprehension
of his great triumph, “but I’ve held you
back till the last company of our division has passed
the river and is safe.”