[BOOK III] CHAPTER IV
WHEN Gaston reached Hambright the following day, and whispered to his mother the good news, he hastened to tell his friend Tom Camp. The young man's heart warmed toward the white-haired old soldier in this hour of his victory. With sparkling eyes, he told Tom of his stormy scene with the General, of its curious ending, and the hours he spent in heaven beneath the limbs of an old magnolia.
Tom listened with rapture. "Ah, didn't I tell you, if you hung on you'd get her by-and-by? So you bearded the General in his den did you? I'll bet his eyes blazed when he seed you! He's got an awful temper when you rile him. You ought to seed him one day when our brigade was ordered into a charge where three concealed batteries was cross firin' and men was fallin' like wheat under the knife. Geeminy but didn't he cuss! He wouldn't take the order fust from the orderly, and sent to know if the Major-General meant it. I tell you us fellers that was layin' there in the grass listenin' to them bullets singin' thought he was the finest cusser that ever ripped an oath.
"He reared and he charged, and he cussed, and he damned that man for tryin'
to butcher his men, and he never moved till the third order came. That was
the night ten thousand wounded men lay on the field, and me in the middle
of 'em with a Minie ball in my shoulder.
The Yankees and our men was all mixed up together, and just after dark the full moon came up through the trees and you could see as plain as day. I begun to sing the old hymn, "There is a land of pure delight," and you ought to have heard them ten thousand wounded men sing!
"While we was singing the General came through lookin' up his men. He seed me and said,
'Is that you, Tom Camp?'
"I looked up at him, and he was crying like a child, and he went on from man to man cryin' and cussin' the fool that sent us into that hell-hole. The General's a rough man, if you rub his fur the wrong way, but his heart's all right. He's all gold I tell you!"
"Well, I'm in for a tussle with him, Tom."
"Shucks, man, you can beat him with one hand tied behind you if you've got his gal's heart. She's got his fire, and a gal as purty as she is can just about do what she pleases in this world."
"I hope she can bring him around. I like the General. I'd much rather not fight him."
"Where's Flora?" cried Tom looking around in alarm.
"I saw her going toward the spring in the edge of the woods there a minute ago," replied Gaston.
Tom sprang up and began to hop and jump down the path toward the spring with incredible rapidity.
Flora was playing in the branch below the spring and Tom saw the form of a negro man passing over the opposite hill going along the spring path that led in that direction.
"Was you talkin' with that nigger, Flora?" asked Tom holding his hand on his side and trying to recover his breath.
"Yes, I said howdy, when he stopped to get a drink
of water, and he give me a whistle," she replied with a pout of her pretty lips and a frown.
Tom seized her by the arm and shook her. "Didn't I tell you to run every time you seed a nigger unless I was with you!"
"Yes, but he wasn't hurtin' me and you are!" she cried bursting into tears.
"I've a notion to whip you good for this!" Tom stormed.
"Don't Tom, she won't do it any more, will you Flora?" pleaded Gaston taking her in his arms and starting to the house with her. When they reached the house, Tom was still pale and trembling with excitement.
"Lord, there's so many triflin' niggers loafin' round the county now stealing and doin' all sorts of devilment, I'm scared to death about that child. She don't seem any more afraid of 'em than she is of a cat."
"I don't believe anybody would hurt Flora, Tom,—she's such a little angel," said Gaston kissing the tears from the child's face.
"She is cute—ain't she?" said Tom with pride. "I've wished many a time lately I'd gone out West with them Yankee fellers that took such a likin' to me in the war. They told me that a poor white man had a chance out there, and that there wern't a nigger in twenty miles of their home. But then I lost my leg, how could I go?
He sat dreaming with open eyes for a moment and continued, looking tenderly at Flora, "But, baby, don't you dare go nigh er nigger, or let one get nigh you no more 'n you would a rattlesnake!"
"I won't Pappy!" she cried with an incredulous smile at his warning of
danger that made Tom's heart sick. She was all joy and laughter, full of
health and bubbling
life. She believed with a child's simple faith that all nature was as innocent as her own heart.
Tom smoothed her curls and kissed her at least, and she slipped her arm around his neck and squeezed it tight.
"Ain't she purty and sweet now?" he exclaimed.
"Tom, you'll spoil her yet," warned Gaston as he smiled and took his leave, throwing a kiss to Flora as he passed through the little yard gate. Tom had built a fence close around his house when Flora was a baby to shut her in while he was at work.
Two days later about five o'clock in the afternoon as Gaston sat in his office writing a letter to his sweetheart, his face aglow with love and the certainty that she was his, as he read and re-read her last glowing words he was startled by the sudden clang of the court house bell. At first he did not move, only looking up from his paper. Sometimes mischievous boys rang the bell and ran down the steps before any one could catch them. But the bell continued its swift stroke seeming to grow louder and wilder every moment. He saw a man rush across the square, and then the bell of the Methodist, and then of the Baptist churches joined their clamour to the alarm.
He snapped the lid of his desk, snatched his hat and ran down the steps.
As he reached the street, he heard the long piercing cry of a woman's voice, high, strenuous, quivering!
"A lost child! A lost child!"
What a cry! He was never so thrilled and awed by a human voice. In it was trembling all the anguish of every mother's broken heart transmitted through the centuries!
At the court house door an excited group had gathered. A man was standing on the steps gesticulating wildly and telling the crowd all he knew about it. Over the din he caught the name,
"Tom Camp's Flora!"
He breathed hard, bit his lips and prayed instinctively.
"Lord have mercy on the poor old man! It will kill him!" A great fear brooded over the hearts of the crowd, and soon the tumult was hushed into an awed silence.
In Gaston's heart that fear became a horrible certainty from the first. Within a half hour a thousand white people were in the crowd. Gaston stood among them, cool and masterful, organising them in searching parties, and giving to each group the signals to be used.
In a moment the white race had fused into a homogeneous mass of love, sympathy, hate, and revenge. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the banker and the blacksmith, the great and the small, they were all one now. The sorrow of that old one-legged soldier was the sorrow of all, every heart beat with his, and his life was their life, and his child their child.
But at the end of an hour there was not a negro among them! By some subtle instinct they had recognised the secret feelings and fears of the crowd and had disappeared. Had they been beasts of the field the gulf between them would not have been deeper.
When Gaston reached Tom's house the crowd was divided into the groups agreed upon and a signal gun given to each. If the child was not dead when found two should be fired—if dead, but one.
He sought Tom to be sure there was no mistake and that the child had not fallen asleep about the house. He found the old man shut up in his room kneeling in the middle of the floor praying.
When Gaston laid his hand gently on his shoulder his lips ceased to move, and he looked at him in a dazed sort of way at first without speaking.
"Oh!—it's you, Charlie!" he sighed.
"Yes, Tom, tell me quick. Are you sure she is nowhere in the house?"
"Sure!—Sure?" he cried in a helpless stare. "Yes, yes, I found her bonnet at the spring. I looked everywhere for an hour before I called the neighbours!"
"Then I'm off with the searchers. The signal is two guns if they find her alive. One gun if she is dead. You will understand."
"Yes, Charlie," answered the old soldier in a faraway tone of voice, "and don't forget to help me pray while you look for her."
"I've tried already, Tom," he answered as he pressed his hand and left the house. All night long the search continued, and no signal gun was heard. Torches and lanterns gleamed from every field and wood, byway and hedge for miles in every direction.
Through every hour of this awful night Tom Camp was in his room praying—his face now streaming with tears, now dry and white with the unspoken terror that could stop the beat of his heart. His white hair and snow-white beard were dishevelled, as he unconsciously tore them with his trembling hands. Now he was crying in an agony of intensity,
"As thy servant of old wrestled with the angel of the Lord through the night, so, oh God, will I lie at Thy feet and wrestle and pray! I will not let Thee go until Thou bless me! Though I perish, let her live! I have lost all and praised Thee still. Lord, Thou canst not leave me desolate!"
From the pain of his wound and the exhaustion of soul and body he fainted once with his lips still moving in prayer. For more than an hour he lay as one dead. When he revived, he looked at his clock and it was but an hour till dawn.
Again he fell on his knees, and again the broken accents
of his husky voice could be heard wrestling with God. Now he would beg and plead like a child, and then he would rise in the unconscious dignity of an immortal soul in combat with the powers of the infinite and his language was in the sublime speech of the old Hebrew seers!
Just before the sun rose the signal gun pealed its message of life, ONE! TWO! in rapid succession.
Tom sprang to his feet with blazing eyes. One! Two! echoed the guns from another hill, and fainter grew its repeated call from group to group of the searchers.
"There! Glory to God!" He screamed at the top of his voice, the last note of his triumphant shout breaking into sobs. "God be praised! I knew they would find her—she's not dead, she's alive! alive! oh! my soul, lift up thy head!"
The tramp of swift feet as heard at the door and Gaston told him with husky stammering voice,
"She's alive Tom, but unconscious. I'll have her brought to the house. She was found just where your spring branch runs into the Flat Rock, not five hundred yards from here in those woods. Stay where you are. We will bring her in a minute."
Gaston bounded back to the scene.
Tom paid no attention to his orders to stay at home, but sprang after him jumping and falling and scrambling up again as he followed. Before they knew it he was upon the excited tearful group that stood in a circle around the child's body.
Gaston, who was standing on the opposite side from Tom's approach, saw him and shouted,
"My God, men, stop him! Don't let him see her yet!"
But Tom was too quick for them. He brushed aside the boy who caught at him, as though a feather, crying,
The circle of men fell away from the body and in a moment Tom stood over it transfixed with horror.
Flora lay on the ground with her clothes torn to shreds and stained with blood. Her beautiful yellow curls were matted across her forehead in a dark red lump beside a wound where her skull had been crushed. The stone lay at her side, the crimson mark of her life showing on its jagged edges.
With that stone the brute had tried to strike the death blow. She was lying on the edge of the hill with her head up the incline. It was too plain, the terrible crime that had been committed.
The poor father sank beside her body with an inarticulate groan as though some one had crushed his head with an axe. He seemed dazed for a moment, and looking around he shouted hoarsely,
"The doctor boys! The doctor quick! For God's sake, quick! She's not dead yet—we may save her—help—help!" he sank again to the ground limp and faint from pain and was soon insensible.
Gaston gathered the child tenderly in his arms and carried her to the house. The men hastily made a stretcher and carried Tom behind him.