His Hero by Margaret Minor

It was an October afternoon, and through Indian summer's tulle-like haze a low-swinging sun sent shafts of scarlet light at the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge. The sweet-gum leaves looked like blood-colored stars as they floated slowly to the ground, and brown chestnuts gleamed satin-like through their gaping burs; while over all there rested a dense stillness, cut now and then by the sharp yelp of a dog as he scurried through the bushes after a rabbit.

Surrounded by this splendid autumn beauty stood Mountain Top Inn, near the crest of the Blue Ridge in Rockfish Gap, its historical value dating from the time when Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, after a long and spirited discussion in one of its low-ceiled rooms, decided upon the location of the University of Virginia.

On the porch of this old inn there now sat a little boy, idly swinging a pair of sun-tanned legs. Occasionally he tickled an old liver-colored hound that lay dozing in a limp heap; but being rewarded only by toothless snaps at very long intervals, he finally grew tired of this amusement, and stretching himself out on his back, he began to dream with wide-open eyes. At these dream-times, when he let his thoughts loose, they always bore him to the very same field, and here his fancy painted pictures with the vivid colors of a boy's imagination: pictures so strong that they left him flushed and tingling with pride; again, pictures that brought a cool, choking feeling to his throat; and at times pictures that made his childish mouth quiver and droop. Among all of these thought-born scenes, at intervals there would stand out the real ones, scenes that were etched on the clean walls of his memory in everlasting strokes.

He never tired thinking of that first morning—that morning when all the world seemed gilded with sunshine and throbbing with martial music. His grandfather had lifted him up on one of the "big gate" posts to see the soldiers march by. With mingled feelings of admiration and childish envy he had watched them drill for many weeks, but they had never seemed such real, grand soldiers until now, as they came marching by with quick, firm steps, keeping time to the clear, staccato notes, marching off to real battle-fields. It was all so beautiful, splendid, and gay—the music, the soldiers, the people, the hurrahing! It stirred his sentient little body through and through with a kind of joy, and he thought it so strange that his mother's eyes were full of tears.

Just a few days later he had listened eagerly to the sharp, crackling sound of guns and the rumbling thunder of cannon, so near that the air seemed to vibrate. He and another little boy had stood and talked in high, quick tones, bragging and predicting breathlessly the result of the battle as they used the term "our men."

Finally they climbed the tallest oak on the lawn, and strained their young eyes to see which was "gettin' whipped."

A little while after this he remembered following his father through the long hospital ward. Over the first bed he saw him stoop and loosen the white cotton bandages of a wounded man. On the next narrow cot there was a slender boy of fifteen, who lay with clenched hands watching the work of the surgeon. Then they passed a woman, who was gently bathing the forehead of a man whose soldier days seemed likely to come to an early end.

Some weeks had gone by, when one day he followed a party of men to Marye's Heights. It was a short time after the battle of Fredericksburg. A light snow had fallen the night before, which the wind whirled and sifted about the dead, in a way that made them appear to be shuddering. Once a sharp gust blew the snow off a body lying on its face, and the boy's eyes filled. He scarcely heeded the talk of the men with whom he had gone. His thoughts were held fast by the awful scene which lay spread before his young eyes.

How often since then had the boy pictured himself a grown man, seated on just such a fine horse and following Lee! It was always Lee; in his dreamland through the heart of the battle he always followed General Robert E. Lee, his hero, whom he had never seen, but whom he had carried halo-crowned in his heart ever since he could remember.

And then the very saddest day in his life had come—the day when the first news of Lee's surrender lay heavy on the hearts of the household. For a while he had followed his mother as she went silently, with closed white lips, from one duty to another. Finally he went out to seek comfort from Uncle Jake, whom he found sitting with his back propped against the side of the corn-crib, drawing little quick puffs of smoke from his pipe.

"Uncle Jake," he said, "Lee's just had to s'render."

"Yes, honey." And as he looked into Uncle Jake's little red, watery eyes, he saw no comfort there, and turned away.

Seven months had gone by since the war had ended; still, on this October afternoon, as the boy lay stretched out on the porch of the old inn, he dreamed his boyish dreams of romance and heroism.

Suddenly his attention was attracted by the sound of hoofs, and turning his head he saw a man riding slowly down the road. A new arrival at the inn was always most interesting. An eager light came into the boy's eyes as he watched the rider, who was now near enough for him to see how firmly he sat in his saddle. The man seemed a very part of the strongly built horse, which carried him with an ease that indicated long habit.

A wiry little negro had also seen the approaching horseman, and was now hurrying across the lawn to meet him.

"May I spend the night here, my man?" asked the stranger.

"Yessuh—yessuh!" answered Uncle Jake, quickly, and opening the gate he stepped out and caught the bridle near the bit, as the horseman swung out of the creaking saddle to the ground.

"Uncle Jake, take the horse around to the stable!" called out the boy, who felt that the honors of hospitality rested on him, there being no one else in sight. Then he ran briskly down the walk to meet the stranger, who extended his fine, strong hand with a little smile, and said very kindly:

"How do you do, sir?"

"I'm well," replied the boy.

"And what is your name?"

"Jimmy."

"Jimmy? Well, Jimmy is a nice name," he said. Then he turned, and still held the boy's hand as he watched the little old negro, who stood with his head under the saddle-skirt, tiptoeing and straining in his effort to unfasten the girth. Finally, when he succeeded, he flung the saddle on the ground, and the horse, feeling relieved of his burden, first shook himself violently, and then expressed his comfort again and again in deep chest-tones.

During all this time Jimmy's eyes had been fastened on the stranger's spurs, and a peculiar feeling of incredulity gradually filled his mind.

Silver, indeed! He could not fool him! No one was rich enough to have real silver spurs! So sternly did he resent what he thought to be an attempt at deception that he drew his small brown hand slowly out of the stranger's gentle clasp.

After slipping off the bridle from the horse's head and dropping it by the saddle, Uncle Jake led him away by his forelock to the stable, and Jimmy walked toward the inn with his guest, who said as they reached the steps:

"Jimmy, we will sit here for a while, and then I will go over to the stable and see about my horse."

As they sat down the old hound came cautiously down the steps, wheezing out a husky greeting.

"She is too old to hurt any one," said Jimmy.

"Is she yours?"

"No, sir. Tip's mine. Listen!" he exclaimed, as the sharp yelp of a dog again broke the stillness. "That's Tip! He goes off and runs rabbits all by himself."

"Perhaps he is after a fox."

"No, sir; Tip won't run a fox."

"Jimmy, can you tell from a dog's cry whether he is running a fox or a rabbit?"

"No, sir."

"Well, if he is trailing a rabbit he does not bark continually, but if he is after a fox he does; so you can always tell if you listen carefully."

"Never heard about that before," replied Jimmy, with a smile.

After this there followed a long pause, during which the stranger looked about inquiringly, then said:

"Jimmy, how long have you been living here?"

"Not very long. We refugeed over in North Carolina the first part of the war. Then we came back to Spottsylvania County while father was in prison. Why, we just came here after the s'render. You remember when Lee just had to s'render?" he asked, looking up into the stranger's face.

"'YOU REMEMBER WHEN LEE JUST HAD TO S'RENDER?' ASKED JIMMY" "'YOU REMEMBER WHEN LEE JUST HAD TO S'RENDER?' ASKED JIMMY."


 

The boy's mouth, as usual, quivered as he uttered the word "s'render," but the man did not appear to see this. He seemed to be looking at a far-off mountain peak. After a pause he replied, "Yes, I remember," as he arose and started toward the stable.

"I'll show you the way," said Jimmy.

"Thank you, sir," he answered gravely.

When they entered the stable the big gray horse greeted his master with some soft little nickerings. "Oh, he knows you without even looking!" exclaimed Jimmy, in tones expressing delight and surprise.

"Yes, he knows me pretty well," the man replied, as he looked with anxious sympathy at a saddle-galled place on the horse's back.

Jimmy had climbed up on the side of the stall, and was also looking with much interest. Suddenly he exclaimed: "I know what's good for that! Some stuff down in the bottom of the chalybeate spring."

He pronounced each syllable of the word "chalybeate" very clearly, for it was a newly learned word, and he was proud of his ability to use it.

"Why, yes; the iron in it ought to be healing. How far is the spring?"

"Oh, just a little way; I'll show you," Jimmy replied, jumping to the ground and quickly opening the stable door. "Let me lead him," he added.

"Hadn't you rather ride him, Jimmy?"

"Yes, sir," he replied, in rather shy but pleased tones.

"All right," said the man, as he swung the little fellow up on the horse. "There! Sit farther back, so you will not hurt that galled place. Now I'll lead him, and you tell me in which direction to go."

"Down the road there, just on the other side of the ice-pond," said Jimmy, pointing in that direction as they moved off.

The boy was happy as he cupped his bare legs close around the body of the horse, and watched the square shoulders of the man who walked slowly ahead. He thought him exceedingly nice and kind, and his feelings in regard to the spurs were not nearly so intense. The desire to ask if they were real silver, though, was strong, but he felt that perhaps it would not be polite, so he said nothing.

After they had gone some distance Jimmy exclaimed, "There's the spring!" Then he slid quickly to the ground, and without other words knelt down and, baring one arm, dipped out of the bottom of the spring a handful of rust-colored flakes.

"This is what you put on his back," he said. "Just lay it right on. It doesn't hurt; it just feels cool."

The directions were quietly obeyed, and the horse made no movement, save a slight quiver of the skin, as if to shake off a fly.

"Uncle Jake says that doctors can't make any finer medicine than this," he said, as he scooped up another handful.

"Well, Jimmy, I am very much obliged to you, and I'm sure that my horse is also," said the stranger, as they started on back to the stable.

In the meantime the saddle left by Uncle Jake near the horse-rack had attracted the attention of a young man as he came through the front gate. After looking at it for a few minutes, idle curiosity prompted him to turn it over with his foot, and as he did so three bright brass letters—"R. E. L."—greeted him. He looked sharply at them at first, then his eyes dilated, and a little prickly thrill ran through him. "I wonder if it can be!" he said. Suddenly some convincing feeling seemed to fill his mind, and then he almost ran to the house. On reaching the steps, he sprang up them two at a time, and entered the hall, where he met Mrs. Claverly.

"Mrs. Claverly—" he began, and stopped.

"Well?" she asked, smiling at his hesitation. "What is it, Charley?"

"Ah, do you know, Mrs. Claverly, I think that General Lee is here." His voice was husky with excitement.

"General Lee! Where?" But without waiting for a reply, she stepped quickly to the door of the old-fashioned parlor, and exclaimed in soft, suppressed tones to a group of women sitting there:

"They think that General Lee is here!"

"What makes them think so?" asked a thin, gray-haired woman, as she hastily arose.

"Why," replied the young man, his tones now quite positive, "his saddle with 'R. E. L.' on it is out there by the gate."

"There he comes now," said one of the group, eagerly; "at least, I suppose that it is he."

"Let me see," said Mrs. Claverly, going rapidly to the window. "I saw him once at the Greenbrier White, and I am sure that I would know him. Yes, it is he!" she exclaimed, as she looked at the man coming slowly across the lawn, talking earnestly to the barefoot boy at his side. His thoughts were so completely occupied by what he was saying that not until he was quite near the inn did he see the group on the porch, and his face flushed slightly as he realized that they were there to greet him. Lifting his hat, he ascended the steps with bared head. Mrs. Claverly walked quickly forward, and extended her slim white hand.

"General Lee, I believe."

"Yes, madam," he replied gravely, as he bowed low over her hand.

At the sound of Lee's name Jimmy's eyes grew round, and filled with astonishment. For one brief moment he stood gazing up at the stately old soldier, whom every one was greeting, then he backed slowly away until he reached the door. There he stood another moment, seeing nothing but his hero.

Suddenly he turned and darted down the long hall, up the stairway, and into his mother's room.

"Mother!" he exclaimed in breathless wonderment, "mother! General Lee is downstairs, and he is just splendid, and—er—mother, he's just exactly like anybody else!"