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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter81)

2006-09-08 20:02

  CHAPTER LXXXI The Hospital, the Prisoners, and Home

  There were wagons and buckboards to be had, but the road was rough, so the three changed off as litter-bearers and brought him to the lake where the swift and smooth canoe was ready, and two hours later they carried him into the hospital at Plattsburg.

  The leg was set at once, his wounds were dressed, he was warmed, cleaned, and fed; and when the morning sun shone in the room, it was a room of calm and peace.

  The general came and sat beside him for a time, and the words he spoke were ample, joyful compensation for his wounds. MacDonough, too, passed through the ward, and the warm vibrations of his presence drove death from many a bed whose inmate's force ebbed low, whose soul was walking on the brink, was near surrender.

  Rolf did not fully realize it then, but long afterward it was clear that this was the meaning of the well-worn words, "He filled them with a new spirit."

  There was not a man in the town but believed the war was over; there was not a man in the town who doubted that his country's cause was won.

  Three weeks is a long time to a youth near manhood, but there was much of joy to while away the hours. The mothers of the town came and read and talked. There was news from the front. There were victories on the high seas. His comrades came to sit beside him; Seymour, the sprinter, as merry a soul as ever hankered for the stage and the red cups of life; Fiske, the silent, and McGlassin, too, with his dry, humorous talk; these were the bright and funny hours. There were others. There came a bright-checked Vermont mother whose three sons had died in service at MacDonough's guns; and she told of it in a calm voice, as one who speaks of her proudest honour. Yes, she rejoiced that God had given her three such sons, and had taken again His gifts in such a day of glory. Had England's rulers only known, that this was the spirit of the land that spoke, how well they might have asked: "What boots it if we win a few battles, and burn a few towns; it is a little gain and passing; for there is one thing that no armies, ships, or laws, or power on earth, or hell itself can down or crush —— that alone is the thing that counts or endures —— the thing that permeates these men, that finds its focal centre in such souls as that of the Vermont mother, steadfast, proud, and rejoicing in her bereavement.

  But these were forms that came and went; there were two that seldom were away —— the tall and supple one of the dark face and the easy tread, and his yellow shadow —— the ever unpopular, snappish, prick-eared cur, that held by force of arms all territories at floor level contiguous to, under, comprised, and bounded by, the four square legs and corners of the bed.

  Quonab's nightly couch was a blanket not far away, and his daily, self-given task to watch the wounded and try by devious ways and plots to trick him into eating ever larger meals.

  Garrison duty was light now, so Quonab sought the woods where the flocks of partridge swarmed, with Skookum as his aid. It was the latter's joyful duty to find and tree the birds, and "yap" below, till Quonab came up quietly with bow and blunt arrows, to fill his game-bag; and thus the best of fare was ever by the invalid's bed.

  Rolf's was easily a winning fight from the first, and in a week he was eating well, sleeping well, and growing visibly daily stronger.

  Then on a fleckless dawn that heralded a sun triumphant, the Indian borrowed a drum from the bandsman, and, standing on the highest breastwork, he gazed across the dark waters to the whitening hills. There on a tiny fire he laid tobacco and kinnikinnik, as Gisiss the Shining One burnt the rugged world rim at Vermont, and, tapping softly with one stick, he gazed upward, after the sacrificial thread of smoke, and sang in his own tongue:

  "Father, I burn tobacco, I smoke to Thee. I sing for my heart is singing."

  Pleasant chatter of the East was current by Rolf's bedside. Stories of homes in the hills he heard, tales of hearths by far away lakes and streams, memories of golden haired children waiting for father's or brother's return from the wars. Wives came to claim their husbands, mothers to bring away their boys, to gain again their strength at home. And his own heart went back, and ever back, to the rugged farm on the shores of the noble George.

  In two weeks he was able to sit up. In three he could hobble, and he moved about the town when the days were warm.

  And now he made the acquaintance of the prisoners. They were closely guarded and numbered over a hundred. It gave him a peculiar sensation to see them there. It seemed un- American to hold a human captive; but he realized that it was necessary to keep them for use as hostages and exchanges.

  Some of them he found to be sullen brutes, but many were kind and friendly, and proved to be jolly good fellows.

  On the occasion of his second visit, a familiar voice saluted him with, "Well, Rolf! Comment ca va?" and he had the painful joy of greeting Francois la Colle.

  "You'll help me get away, Rolf, won't you?" and the little Frenchman whispered and winked. "I have seven little ones now on La Riviere, dat have no flour, and tinks dere pa is dead."

  "I'll do all I can, Francois," and the picture of the desolate home, brought a husk in his voice and a choke in his throat. He remembered too the musket ball that by intent had whistled harmless overhead. "But," he added in a shaky voice, "I cannot help my country's enemy to escape."

  Then Rolf took counsel with McGlassin, told him all about the affair at the mill, and McGlassin with a heart worthy of his mighty shoulders, entered into the spirit of the situation, went to General Macomb presenting such a tale and petition that six hours later Francis bearing a passport through the lines was trudging away to Canada, paroled for the rest of the war.

  There was another face that Rolf recognized —— hollow- cheeked, flabby-jowled and purplish-gray. The man was one of the oldest of the prisoners. He wore a white beard end moustache. He did not recognize Rolf, but Rolf knew him, for this was Micky Kittering. How he escaped from jail and joined the enemy was an episode of the war's first year. Rolf was shocked to see what a miserable wreck his uncle was. He could not do him any good. To identify him would have resulted in his being treated as a renegade, so on the plea that he was an old man, Rolf saw that the prisoner had extra accommodation and out of his own pocket kept him abundantly supplied with tobacco. Then in his heart he forgave him, and kept away. They never met again.

  The bulk of the militia had been disbanded after the great battle. A few of the scouts and enough men to garrison the fort and guard the prisoners were retained. Each day there were joyful partings —— the men with homes, going home. And the thought that ever waxed in Rolf came on in strength. He hobbled to headquarters. "General, can I get leave —— to go —— he hesitated —— "home?"

  "Why, Kittering, I didn't know you had a home. But, certainly, I'll give you a month's leave and pay to date."

  Champlain is the lake of the two winds; the north wind blows for six months with a few variations, and the south wind for the other six months with trifling.

  Next morning a bark canoe was seen skimming southward before as much north wind as it could stand, with Rolf reclining in the middle, Quonab at the stern, and Skookum in the bow.

  In two days they were at Ticonderoga. Here help was easily got at the portage and on the evening of the third day, Quonab put a rope on Skookum's neck and they landed at Hendrik's farm.

  The hickory logs were blazing bright, and the evening pot was reeking as they opened the door and found the family gathered for the meal.

  "I didn't know you had a home," the general had said. He should have been present now to see the wanderer's welcome. If war breeds such a spirit in the land, it is as much a blessing as a curse. The air was full of it, and the Van Trumpers, when they saw their hero hobble in, were melted. Love, pity, pride, and tenderness were surging in storms through every heart that knew. "Their brother, their son come back, wounded, but proven and glorious." Yes, Rolf had a home, and in that intoxicating realization he kissed them all, even Annette of the glowing cheeks and eyes; though in truth he paid for it, for it conjured up in her a shy aloofness that lasted many days.

  Old Hendrik sputtered around. "Och, I am smile; dis is goood, yah. Vere is that tam dog? Yah! tie him not, he shall dis time von chicken have for joy."

  "Marta," said Rolf, "you told me to come here if I got hurt. Well, I've come, and I've brought a boat-load of stuff in case I cannot do my share in the fields."

  "Press you, my poy you didn't oughter brung dot stuff; you know we loff you here, and effery time it is you coom I get gladsomer, and dot Annette she just cried ven you vent to de war."

  "Oh, mother, I did not; it was you and little Hendrick!" and Annette turned her scarlet cheeks away.

  October, with its trees of flame and gold, was on the hills; purple and orange, the oaks and the birches; blue blocked with white was the sky above, and the blue, bright lake was limpid.

  "Oh, God of my fathers," Quonab used to pray, "when I reach the Happy Hunting, let it be ever the Leaf-falling Moon, for that is the only perfect time." And in that unmarred month of sunny sky and woodlands purged of every plague, there is but one menace in the vales. For who can bring the glowing coal to the dry-leafed woods without these two begetting the dread red fury that devastates the hills?

  Who can bring the fire in touch with tow and wonder at the blaze? Who, indeed? And would any but a dreamer expect young manhood in its growing strength, and girlhood just across the blush-line, to meet in daily meals and talk and still keep up the brother and sister play? It needs only a Virginia on the sea-girt island to turn the comrade into Paul.

  "Marta, I tink dot Rolf an Annette don't quarrel bad, ain't it? "

  "Hendrik, you vas von blind old bat-mole," said Marta, "I fink dat farm next ours purty good, but Rolf he say 'No Lake George no good.' Better he like all his folk move over on dat Hudson."

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