Then Marched the Brave/Chapter III
CHAPTER IIITHE CROWNING OF ANDY McNEAL
Sam White's burial was a very simple affair. In that time of need and anxiety men were off upon their country's business. Few could stay to mourn. The pastor himself read the simple service in a voice of pride, broken by a father's grief. He said that God would not let the sacrifice pass unheeded. Since Sam had heard the call, and then had been so suddenly taken away, another would be raised up to do his work; another who, through Sam, might be touched more than in any other way.
Andy, standing in the little group about the open grave, at this raised his eyes, and he found Ruth's wide, tearless gaze fixed upon him. Andy smiled bravely back at her, for his heart was strong within him.
After it was over and the few neighbors gone, Andy and Ruth remained to scatter flowers upon the young hero's bed, and cover up the bareness of the place.
"Ruth," said Andy in a whisper, "I think my chance has come!"
"Your chance, Andy?"
"Aye. I have been thinking that Sam's being taken has aroused me, and given me courage, just as your father said, and—and last night the chance began!" Then he told her of much that had occurred. Ruth knelt among the flowers, her young face glowing.
"Oh! I shall have some one to watch," she panted, "some one to help while he works. Oh! Andy, you do not know how I long to help, and be part of this great time. I go on long walks, and I hear and see so much. Down on the Bowery I heard a group say the other day that General Washington was going to burn the town and order the people to flee. One man said, did he order such a thing, he, for one, would go over to the British; and, Andy, there was a great shout from the other men! I felt my heart burn, for did our General order me to go, then would I go whither and where he ordered; nor would I question, so great is my trust in him. And did he burn all, even my home, yet would I gladly obey, for I would know he was doing wisely. So greatly do I honor him that I think, next to God, I trust our General!"
The young face glowed and quivered, and Andy, with the spirit of hero-worship growing upon his recent experiences, panted in excitement as she spoke.
"I, too, would follow, and never question," he said. "Never fear, Ruth; what the General expects of me, that will I do. Not even death do I fear—it comes but once!" The boyish voice rang clear.
Suddenly, Ruth started toward the house. "Wait," she said, "I have something for you." She was back in a moment, bearing Sam's cap. "The time has come," she faltered, and there were tears in her eyes. "I—I want to crown you, Andy McNeal." She removed Andy's rough cap and replaced it with Sam's.
"I'll keep the old one," she said, "and—and if you should fail to do bravely, you can have your own!" Then she dashed away the tears. "Forgive me, Andy McNeal!" she sobbed; "you will never fail. There is hero blood in your body, I know, and it may be that your lameness will aid you in accomplishing tasks that a lusty lad could never attempt."
Andy raised his head proudly and the new crown set not badly on his boyish curls.
"I must go," he breathed. "I will come every day unless—you know, Ruth?"
The girl nodded, and so they parted silently, Ruth pressing the old hat to her aching heart, and taking up the woman's part in those troubling times; the part of the watching, waiting one.
The days following became filled with one longing for Andy. The longing for Washington's messenger. Unless he came soon, the boy feared that he would be too late. During his own recent explorations beyond the lines, he heard much that warned him that the British were planning something of grave importance.
Andy had told his mother and Ruth nothing of Washington's anticipated messenger. They knew merely that Andy had ferried the great General across the river—was that not enough? Had they known for what the boy was eagerly watching, they could not have done their own daily tasks.
"He has an eager, watchful air," Janie confided to Ruth. "I am thinking the lad expects the General to pass this way again. Lightning and such happenings do not strike twice in the same spot."
Ruth smiled gently. "I do not think Andy walks as lame as he did," she mused, watching the boy disappearing down a woody path.
"He is always on the go," Janie broke in. "He practices walking without his crutch more than I think wise; but one can do little with men-folk!" Janie tossed her head proudly. Andy was a growing delight to her.
"It may do him good," Ruth added; "he looks stronger and—and gladder."
"He has gone beyond me," the mother sighed. "I—I begin to know, lass, the happy feeling a mother has when her heart aches with loneliness and—and pride! What ails you, lass?" For Ruth had started and given a short cry.
"Why—why—" laughed the girl, "I am thinking my eyes are playing me false. I was watching Andy up the path, and I saw him as clear as I see you this minute—and then he was gone!"
"Do not get flighty, Ruth." Janie came close, however, and peered up the path. "You and Andy will drive me daft. The path is a straight, clean one; had Andy been on it, he would still be in sight. I'm thinking he turned before he came to the brook bed. You did not notice, but your thoughts kept agoing on."
"Perhaps," nodded Ruth, but Janie knew she was unconvinced.
On her way home soon after, Ruth began to ponder. Once clear of Janie's observant eye, the girl turned back through the shrubbery, and ran to the spot where she had last seen Andy. All was as silent as a breathless summer day could make it. There was no side-path; no broken bushes.
"He was here," breathed the girl, "and he disappeared like a flash!"
Then she knelt down and tried to trace footprints in the mossy earth. "Ah!" she smiled, for there was a crushed space at the edge of a brambly cluster of bushes. She quietly drew aside the branches, and a look of wonder grew in the bright eyes. So cunningly concealed, that even her native-bred keenness might never have espied it, lay a path, and among the bushes, Andy's crutch! Should she follow? In the old days Ruth would not have paused. But these were not play-days; Andy might be upon grave business. Reverently she drew back, and replaced the disorder she had caused among the parted leaves. Suddenly a step startled her. She turned sharply. Up the path came a British soldier, whistling a gay tune and eyeing her boldly.
More than once had Ruth encountered these most ungallant gentlemen, and she was alert at resenting any familiarity, but a fear grew in her heart now. Andy's path must not be discovered! She must do her part.
"Good-day, my pretty lass!" The man halted. Under ordinary circumstances Ruth would have taken to her fleet feet at this, but Andy might return too soon, and emerge while yet the enemy could discover him.
"Berrying?" grinned the fellow; "August is early for berries, is it not? The man was suspicious, perhaps, and Ruth was on guard.
"For some kinds," she answered, lightly.
"What kind are you hunting?"
"One that you British do not know," she replied; "it's a kind that grows only in America and thrives upon freedom."
The soldier leered unpleasantly. "Come, I will help you hunt," he cried; "if we find a berry I cannot name, you may ask what reward you choose, and if I succeed then will I take a kiss from your red lips, eh, my girl?"
Ruth darted an angry look upward. If they hunted, the cane would be discovered, and yet if she refused—well, she must act quickly.
"Is it a bargain?"
"Yes;" the word came bravely from a trembling courage.
The two knelt and began the search. Ruth pressed the bushes so as to cover Andy's cane, but as her keen eyes fell upon the spot where it had been, to her surprise and joy, she saw that it was gone!
A cry broke from her, for, as she realized that that danger was past, she saw, near at hand, a plant so rare even to her woodland eyes, that it was precious. Thanks to her learned father, she knew its name, and the spray of waxen berries was her salvation.
"See!" she cried, "you have brought good luck. 'Tis a rare find. Now I pray you, sir, name the berry I hold in my hand."
The man was searching the underbrush, and turned half angrily. "What have you?" he snarled. Ruth knew that Andy was near, but no breath was heard.
"Name the berry, sir, or I claim my advantage!" Ruth stood upright with the spray in her hand.
"Wintergreen," ventured the fellow, wildly.
"Wrong!" sneered Ruth, "and there is no second trial."
"How can you prove me wrong?" jeered the man, coming insolently close; "who is to decide?"
"Your head officer, sir," flashed Ruth; "lead on, I will gladly leave it to him. After he has heard the tale from me—from me, mark—I will leave it to him. Perhaps there is one gentleman in the king's troops. Lead on! Why stand staring when your stake is so high!" A dignity and fearlessness came to the angry girl.
"Do you lead, or shall I?" she asked.
"I—I beg your pardon!" cringed the fellow, "I will abide by your decision."
"Go, then!" cried Ruth, her temper breaking bounds, "and if you are a sample of my Lord Howe's men, I am thinking our General will have but a short tussle. Go!"
The man retraced his steps, sulkily. He had been foraging on his own account, and had unearthed bigger game than he could manage.
Ruth watched the man until he passed from sight. As she turned about she faced Andy sitting among the bushes. She jumped, then laughed nervously.
"How did you get your cane?" she asked.
"I was not six feet away." Andy's voice was strangely calm. "I hope you know, Ruth," he faltered, 'that had things turned out differently, I would have been with you. You know that?"
"Yes, Andy." A flush came to the pale face. "I think I feared you would come more than anything else. But I do not trust that fellow. He will come back. I know he was suspicious. Choose another way—next time!"
"Aye, and I'll stop up this trail. Good-by, Ruth. Hurry, I will wait until you are safe, and this passage made harmless."
For a few days longer Andy remained near home, not caring to run the risk of seeking the longer path of which he knew, while the Britisher's suspicions might still be alert. Once or twice he had met the fellow on the public highway, and he feared to arouse any further cause for watchfulness. He had discovered, also, that the man had gone back to the spot where he had encountered Ruth, but Andy laughed, when he recalled how cunningly he had hidden the trail. But now the boy could wait no longer, he must try to get near the lines and listen.
Taking the longer way, he left his crutch hidden inside a cave-like opening. He would never again trust the outside. Then in true Indian fashion he crept along through the rocky passage. He reached the other end and for an hour or more waited patiently, but only the passing of a lonely sentinel rewarded him, and he guessed that no news would come that way.
He dared not emerge from his shelter, for the day was too bright and clear, the sentinel would surely spy him, and better no news than to give away the secret of the passage. Disappointedly he crept back, and at the other end put his hand cautiously forth to grasp his crutch. Then he became instantly aware that he was discovered, for his hand was grasped in a firm, unyielding clutch.
Andy's heart stood still. He had no doubt but that Ruth's annoyer had dogged his steps and had captured him. But there was little of the coward about Andy; he would face the worst. He pushed through the tangle of leaves, trying to free his hand, but the clasp was like iron. The captor was not the Britisher, but a man of quite another sort. He was young, handsome, splendidly formed. As he lay at full length upon the moss Andy thought he had never seen so tall a man. He wore velvet knee-breeches, long blue coat, and a wide-brimmed hat, which shielded a pair of friendly, laughing eyes. One glance and Andy lost all fear.
"Now that you have come from your hole, you young mole, good-morning to you, and where have you fared?" The voice was ringing and full of cheer.
"Good-morning, sir," Andy made answer.
"And where have you fared?"
"That I cannot tell you, sir."
"You cannot tell me!" the man sighed, impatiently. "Now, do you know, for a moment I fancied that you were just the lad who could guide me over your interesting island. What with all this excitement, a peaceful traveler has no show above-ground. I hoped you might lead me mole-fashion."
"I will gladly show you through the pass, sir, as far as the gate a mile or so below."
"As far as the gate! Always as far as something! I want to go beyond—'as far!' What care I for countersigns and passports. I want the freedom of the island, and a chance to study its rocks and flowers and very interesting weeds. Boys often know paths unknown to any one else—except Indians!"
"But I am a lame boy much dependent upon a crutch."
"You can dispense with it at times," laughed the stranger. "For a good two hours you did without it to-day. It and I have been keeping company. I followed you at a distance, thinking easily to overtake you, when piff! you were gone, and I and the crutch—for you see I searched the hole—were alone!"
For some moments Andy's hand had been free, and now as he looked at the speaker he saw that he was holding in his open palm the charm which last he had beheld that glorious morning by the riverside.
With a glad cry he sprang up. "I am Andy McNeal!" he said, and he doffed Sam's hat, which was his only martial possession.
"And I—am the schoolmaster!"
The two clasped hands. That was the beginning. Through the following days the master abode in Janie's house. The good woman asked no questions. Her curiosity burned and burned, but wisdom held it in check. Enough that Andy was the companion of this mighty person. Enough that her humble roof sheltered him, and her able hands served him faithfully. It was wonderful, and—enough. Ruth, too, throbbed with excitement, but went her ways calmly as if it were a common enough thing for a splendid schoolmaster to suddenly undertake Andy's neglected education, and pay for his lodging and board by instructing the hostess's son.
This was what was going on. Book in hand the two walked abroad quite openly. Sometimes it would be rocks or flowers they were bent upon understanding, at other times the intricacies of the English language were the paths they followed. Occasionally Ruth would be asked to join in the walks and talks, but oftener they were alone. There were real lessons. Andy pondered upon them deeply, and his hungry mind fed upon the feast. Of course, so fine a master walking abroad with the lame boy, aroused the notice of the sentinels, but to their questions he answered so glibly, that there remained nothing to do but ask more. The game became tiresome.
The tutor and his pupil kept within bounds, so there was no excuse for interference. But one day, quite lost in abstraction, the two passed beyond the gate at the end of the pass, and strolled down the road patroled by the British. Suddenly a loud "Halt!" made Andy jump. A look of surprise passed over the master's face as a bayonet was thrust in front of him.
The soldier was the one who had accosted Ruth; Andy knew him at once.
"Dear me! dear me!" cried the master, querulously, "after seeing us pass to and fro so often, one would not think it necessary to resort to such rudeness. Pray, good fellow, is not this his Majesty's highway, and free to all?"
"No," grumbled the sentinel, lowering his weapon; "what's your business?"
"I do not mean that. I see you prodding around rocks and weeds with your noses in books, but I want to know what you mean on this road?"
"I desire to take a walk on it. I have no weapon, I am a peaceful person. May I pass?"
"You better turn back. This road is sentineled all the way to camp. You're too simple to go alone. You are an American?"
"Certainly. Born and bred in the colonies."
"A rebel, I say?"
"I am loyal to the heart's core!" the master replied. "Come, Andy, the way back is doubtless more pleasant for peaceful folk than the way before. Conjugate to live, Andy."
Once beyond sight and hearing of the foe, the master bared his head. "Loyal we are, and we know to whom! But how long it takes to disarm their doubts!"