searing, a private soldier of general sherman's army, then confronting
the enemy at
kennesaw mountain, georgia, turned his back upon a small group of
officers with whom he had been talking in low tones, stepped across
line of earthworks, and disappeared in a forest. none of the men
in line behind the works had said a word to him, nor had he so much
nodded to them in passing, but all who saw understood that this brave
man had been intrusted with some perilous duty. jerome searing, though
a private, did not serve in the ranks; he was detailed for service
at division headquarters, being borne upon the rolls as an orderly. "orderly" is
a word covering a multitude of duties. an orderly may be a messenger,
a clerk, an officer's servant—anything. he may perform services
for which no provision is made in orders and army regulations. their
nature may depend upon his aptitude, upon favor, upon accident. private
searing, an incomparable marksman, young, hardy, intelligent and insensible
to fear, was a scout. the general commanding his division was not content
to obey orders blindly without knowing what was in his front, even
when his command was not on detached service, but formed a fraction
of the line of the army; nor was he satisfied to receive his knowledge
of his vis-à-vis through the customary channels; he wanted
to know more than he was apprised of by the corps commander and the
of pickets and skirmishers. hence jerome searing, with his extraordinary
daring, his woodcraft, his sharp eyes, and truthful tongue. on this
occasion his instructions were simple: to get as near the enemy's
lines as possible and learn all that he could.
in a few moments he had arrived at the picket-line, the men on duty
there lying in groups of two and four behind little banks of earth
scooped out of the slight depression in which they lay, their rifles
protruding from the green boughs with which they had masked their
small defenses. the forest extended without a break toward the front,
solemn and silent that only by an effort of the imagination could
it be conceived as populous with armed men, alert and vigilant—a
forest formidable with possibilities of battle. pausing a moment
in one of these rifle-pits to apprise the men of his intention searing
crept stealthily forward on his hands and knees and was soon lost
view in a dense thicket of underbrush.
"that is the last of him," said one of the men; "i
wish i had his rifle; those fellows will hurt some of us with it."
searing crept on, taking advantage of every accident of ground and
growth to give himself better cover. his eyes penetrated everywhere,
his ears took note of every sound. he stilled his breathing, and at
the cracking of a twig beneath his knee stopped his progress and hugged
the earth. it was slow work, but not tedious; the danger made it exciting,
but by no physical signs was the excitement manifest. his pulse was
as regular, his nerves were as steady as if he were trying to trap
"it seems a long time," he thought, "but i cannot have come
very far; i am still alive."
he smiled at his own method of estimating distance, and crept forward.
a moment later he suddenly flattened himself upon the earth and lay
motionless, minute after minute. through a narrow opening in the
bushes he had caught sight of a small mound of yellow clay—one
of the enemy's rifle-pits. after some little time he cautiously raised
head, inch by inch, then his body upon his hands, spread out on each
side of him, all the while intently regarding the hillock of clay.
in another moment he was upon his feet, rifle in hand, striding rapidly
forward with little attempt at concealment. he had rightly interpreted
the signs, whatever they were; the enemy was gone.
to assure himself beyond a doubt before going back to report upon
so important a matter, searing pushed forward across the line of
pits, running from cover to cover in the more open forest, his eyes
vigilant to discover possible stragglers. he came to the edge of
a plantation—one of those forlorn, deserted homesteads of the
last years of the war, upgrown with brambles, ugly with broken fences
desolate with vacant buildings having blank apertures in place of
doors and windows. after a keen reconnoissance from the safe seclusion
a clump of young pines searing ran lightly across a field and through
an orchard to a small structure which stood apart from the other
farm buildings, on a slight elevation. this he thought would enable
to overlook a large scope of country in the direction that he supposed
the enemy to have taken in withdrawing. this building, which had
originally consisted of a single room elevated upon four posts about
high, was now little more than a roof; the floor had fallen away,
the joists and planks loosely piled on the ground below or resting
at various angles, not wholly torn from their fastenings above. the
supporting posts were themselves no longer vertical. it looked as
if the whole edifice would go down at the touch of a finger.
concealing himself in the debris of joists and flooring searing looked
across the open ground between his point of view and a spur of kennesaw
mountain, a half-mile away. a road leading up and across this spur
was crowded with troops—the rear-guard of the retiring enemy,
their gun-barrels gleaming in the morning sunlight.
searing had now learned all that he could hope to know. it was his
duty to return to his own command with all possible speed and report
his discovery. but the gray column of confederates toiling up the
mountain road was singularly tempting. his rifle—an ordinary "springfield," but
fitted with a globe sight and hair-trigger—would easily send
its ounce and a quarter of lead hissing into their midst. that would
probably not affect the duration and result of the war, but it is the
business of a soldier to kill. it is also his habit if he is a good
soldier. searing cocked his rifle and "set" the trigger.
but it was decreed from the beginning of time that private searing
was not to murder anybody that bright summer morning, nor was the
confederate retreat to be announced by him. for countless ages events
so matching themselves together in that wondrous mosaic to some parts
of which, dimly discernible, we give the name of history, that the
acts which he had in will would have marred the harmony of the pattern.
some twenty-five years previously the power charged with the execution
of the work according to the design had provided against that mischance
by causing the birth of a certain male child in a little village
at the foot of the carpathian mountains, had carefully reared it,
its education, directed its desires into a military channel, and
in due time made it an officer of artillery. by the concurrence of
infinite number of favoring influences and their preponderance over
an infinite number of opposing ones, this officer of artillery had
been made to commit a breach of discipline and flee from his native
country to avoid punishment. he had been directed to new orleans
(instead of new york), where a recruiting officer awaited him on
he was enlisted and promoted, and things were so ordered that he
now commanded a confederate battery some two miles along the line
where jerome searing, the federal scout, stood cocking his rifle.
nothing had been neglected—at every step in the progress of
both these men's lives, and in the lives of their contemporaries
and in the lives of the contemporaries of their ancestors, the right
thing had been done to bring about the desired result. had anything
in all this vast concatenation been overlooked private searing might
have fired on the retreating confederates that morning, and would
perhaps have missed. as it fell out, a confederate captain of artillery,
nothing better to do while awaiting his turn to pull out and be off,
amused himself by sighting a field-piece obliquely to his right at
what he mistook for some federal officers on the crest of a hill,
and discharged it. the shot flew high of its mark.
as jerome searing drew back the hammer of his rifle and with his
eyes upon the distant confederates considered where he could plant
with the best hope of making a widow or an orphan or a childless
all three, for private searing, although he had repeatedly refused
promotion, was not without a certain kind of ambition,—he heard
a rushing sound in the air, like that made by the wings of a great
bird swooping down upon its prey. more quickly than he could apprehend
the gradation, it increased to a hoarse and horrible roar, as the
missile that made it sprang at him out of the sky, striking with
impact one of the posts supporting the confusion of timbers above
him, smashing it into matchwood, and bringing down the crazy edifice
a loud clatter, in clouds of blinding dust!
when jerome searing recovered consciousness he did not at once understand
what had occurred. it was, indeed, some time before he opened his
eyes. for a while he believed that he had died and been buried, and
to recall some portions of the burial service. he thought that his
wife was kneeling upon his grave, adding her weight to that of the
earth upon his breast. the two of them, widow and earth, had crushed
his coffin. unless the children should persuade her to go home he
would not much longer be able to breathe. he felt a sense of wrong. "i
cannot speak to her," he thought; "the dead have no voice;
and if i open my eyes i shall get them full of earth."
he opened his eyes. a great expanse of blue sky, rising from a fringe
of the tops of trees. in the foreground, shutting out some of the
trees, a high, dun mound, angular in outline and crossed by an intricate,
patternless system of straight lines; the whole an immeasurable distance
away—a distance so inconceivably great that it fatigued him,
and he closed his eyes. the moment that he did so he was conscious
of an insufferable light. a sound was in his ears like the low, rhythmic
thunder of a distant sea breaking in successive waves upon the beach,
and out of this noise, seeming a part of it, or possibly coming from
beyond it, and intermingled with its ceaseless undertone, came the
articulate words: "jerome searing, you are caught like a rat in
a trap—in a trap, trap, trap."
suddenly there fell a great silence, a black darkness, an infinite
tranquillity, and jerome searing, perfectly conscious of his rathood,
and well assured of the trap that he was in, remembering all and nowise
alarmed, again opened his eyes to reconnoitre, to note the strength
of his enemy, to plan his defense.
he was caught in a reclining posture, his back firmly supported by
a solid beam. another lay across his breast, but he had been able
to shrink a little away from it so that it no longer oppressed him,
it was immovable. a brace joining it at an angle had wedged him against
a pile of boards on his left, fastening the arm on that side. his
legs, slightly parted and straight along the ground, were covered
to the knees with a mass of debris which towered above his narrow
horizon. his head was as rigidly fixed as in a vise; he could move
his chin—no more. only his right arm was partly free. "you
must help us out of this," he said to it. but he could not get
it from under the heavy timber athwart his chest, nor move it outward
more than six inches at the elbow.
searing was not seriously injured, nor did he suffer pain. a smart
rap on the head from a flying fragment of the splintered post, incurred
simultaneously with the frightfully sudden shock to the nervous system,
had momentarily dazed him. his term of unconsciousness, including the
period of recovery, during which he had had the strange fancies, had
probably not exceeded a few seconds, for the dust of the wreck had
not wholly cleared away as he began an intelligent survey of the situation.
with his partly free right hand he now tried to get hold of the beam
that lay across, but not quite against, his breast. in no way could
he do so. he was unable to depress the shoulder so as to push the
elbow beyond that edge of the timber which was nearest his knees;
in that, he could not raise the forearm and hand to grasp the beam.
the brace that made an angle with it downward and backward prevented
him from doing anything in that direction, and between it and his
body the space was not half so wide as the length of his forearm.
he could not get his hand under the beam nor over it; the hand could
not, in fact, touch it at all. having demonstrated his inability,
he desisted, and began to think whether he could reach any of the
piled upon his legs.
in surveying the mass with a view to determining that point, his
attention was arrested by what seemed to be a ring of shining metal
in front of his eyes. it appeared to him at first to surround some
perfectly black substance, and it was somewhat more than a half-inch
in diameter. it suddenly occurred to his mind that the blackness
was simply shadow and that the ring was in fact the muzzle of his
protruding from the pile of débris. he was not long in satisfying
himself that this was so—if it was a satisfaction. by closing
either eye he could look a little way along the barrel—to the
point where it was hidden by the rubbish that held it. he could see
the one side, with the corresponding eye, at apparently the same
angle as the other side with the other eye. looking with the right
weapon seemed to be directed at a point to the left of his head,
and vice-versa. he was unable to see the upper surface of the barrel,
could see the under surface of the stock at a slight angle. the piece
was, in fact, aimed at the exact centre of his forehead.
in the perception of this circumstance, in the recollection that
just previously to the mischance of which this uncomfortable situation
the result he had cocked the rifle and set the trigger so that a
touch would discharge it, private searing was affected with a feeling
uneasiness. but that was as far as possible from fear; he was a brave
man, somewhat familiar with the aspect of rifles from that point
of view, and of cannon too. and now he recalled, with something like
an incident of his experience at the storming of missionary ridge,
where, walking up to one of the enemy's embrasures from which he
had seen a heavy gun throw charge after charge of grape among the
he had thought for a moment that the piece had been withdrawn; he
could see nothing in the opening but a brazen circle. what that was
understood just in time to step aside as it pitched another peck
of iron down that swarming slope. to face firearms is one of the
incidents in a soldier's life—firearms, too, with malevolent
eyes blazing behind them. that is what a soldier is for. still, private
searing did not altogether relish the situation, and turned away
after groping, aimless, with his right hand for a time he made an
ineffectual attempt to release his left. then he tried to disengage
his head, the
fixity of which was the more annoying from his ignorance of what
held it. next he tried to free his feet, but while exerting the powerful
muscles of his legs for that purpose it occurred to him that a disturbance
of the rubbish which held them might discharge the rifle; how it
have endured what had already befallen it he could not understand,
although memory assisted him with several instances in point. one
in particular he recalled, in which in a moment of mental abstraction
he had clubbed his rifle and beaten out another gentleman's brains,
observing afterward that the weapon which he had been diligently
by the muzzle was loaded, capped, and at full cock—knowledge
of which circumstance would doubtless have cheered his antagonist to
longer endurance. he had always smiled in recalling that blunder of
his "green and salad days" as a soldier, but now he did
not smile. he turned his eyes again to the muzzle of the rifle and
a moment fancied that it had moved; it seemed somewhat nearer.
again he looked away. the tops of the distant trees beyond the bounds
of the plantation interested him: he had not before observed how
light and feathery they were, nor how darkly blue the sky was, even
their branches, where they somewhat paled it with their green; above
him it appeared almost black. "it will be uncomfortably hot here," he
thought, "as the day advances. i wonder which way i am looking."
judging by such shadows as he could see, he decided that his face
was due north; he would at least not have the sun in his eyes, and
that was toward his wife and children.
"bah!" he exclaimed aloud, "what have they to do
he closed his eyes. "as i can't get out i may as well go to
sleep. the rebels are gone and some of our fellows are sure to stray
foraging. they'll find me."
but he did not sleep. gradually he became sensible of a pain in his
forehead—a dull ache, hardly perceptible at first, but growing
more and more uncomfortable. he opened his eyes and it was gone—closed
them and it returned. "the devil!" he said, irrelevantly,
and stared again at the sky. he heard the singing of birds, the strange
metallic note of the meadow lark, suggesting the clash of vibrant blades.
he fell into pleasant memories of his childhood, played again with
his brother and sister, raced across the fields, shouting to alarm
the sedentary larks, entered the sombre forest beyond and with timid
steps followed the faint path to ghost rock, standing at last with
audible heart-throbs before the dead man's cave and seeking to penetrate
its awful mystery. for the first time he observed that the opening
of the haunted cavern was encircled by a ring of metal. then all else
vanished and left him gazing into the barrel of his rifle as before.
but whereas before it had seemed nearer, it now seemed an inconceivable
distance away, and all the more sinister for that. he cried out and,
startled by something in his own voice—the note of fear—lied
to himself in denial: "if i don't sing out i may stay here till
he now made no further attempt to evade the menacing stare of the
gun barrel. if he turned away his eyes an instant it was to look
(although he could not see the ground on either side the ruin), and
he permitted them to return, obedient to the imperative fascination.
if he closed them it was from weariness, and instantly the poignant
pain in his forehead—the prophecy and menace of the bullet—forced
him to reopen them.
the tension of nerve and brain was too severe; nature came to his
relief with intervals of unconsciousness. reviving from one of these
sensible of a sharp, smarting pain in his right hand, and when he
worked his fingers together, or rubbed his palm with them, he could
they were wet and slippery. he could not see the hand, but he knew
the sensation; it was running blood. in his delirium he had beaten
it against the jagged fragments of the wreck, had clutched it full
of splinters. he resolved that he would meet his fate more manly.
he was a plain, common soldier, had no religion and not much philosophy;
he could not die like a hero, with great and wise last words, even
if there had been some one to hear them, but he could die "game," and
he would. but if he could only know when to expect the shot!
some rats which had probably inhabited the shed came sneaking and
scampering about. one of them mounted the pile of débris that held the
rifle; another followed and another. searing regarded them at first
with indifference, then with friendly interest; then, as the thought
flashed into his bewildered mind that they might touch the trigger
of his rifle, he cursed them and ordered them to go away. "it
is no business of yours," he cried.
the creatures went away; they would return later, attack his face,
gnaw away his nose, cut his throat—he knew that, but he hoped
by that time to be dead.
nothing could now unfix his gaze from the little ring of metal with
its black interior. the pain in his forehead was fierce and incessant.
he felt it gradually penetrating the brain more and more deeply,
until at last its progress was arrested by the wood at the back of
it grew momentarily more insufferable: he began wantonly beating
his lacerated hand against the splinters again to counteract that
ache. it seemed to throb with a slow, regular recurrence, each pulsation
sharper than the preceding, and sometimes he cried out, thinking
he felt the fatal bullet. no thoughts of home, of wife and children,
country, of glory. the whole record of memory was effaced. the world
had passed away—not a vestige remained. here in this confusion
of timbers and boards is the sole universe. here is immortality in
time—each pain an everlasting life. the throbs tick off eternities.
jerome searing, the man of courage, the formidable enemy, the strong,
resolute warrior, was as pale as a ghost. his jaw was fallen; his
eyes protruded; he trembled in every fibre; a cold sweat bathed his
body; he screamed with fear. he was not insane—he was terrified.
in groping about with his torn and bleeding hand he seized at last
a strip of board, and, pulling, felt it give way. it lay parallel with
his body, and by bending his elbow as much as the contracted space
would permit, he could draw it a few inches at a time. finally it was
altogether loosened from the wreckage covering his legs; he could lift
it clear of the ground its whole length. a great hope came into his
mind: perhaps he could work it upward, that is to say backward, far
enough to lift the end and push aside the rifle; or, if that were too
tightly wedged, so place the strip of board as to deflect the bullet.
with this object he passed it backward inch by inch, hardly daring
to breathe lest that act somehow defeat his intent, and more than ever
unable to remove his eyes from the rifle, which might perhaps now hasten
to improve its waning opportunity. something at least had been gained:
in the occupation of his mind in this attempt at self-defense he was
less sensible of the pain in his head and had ceased to wince. but
he was still dreadfully frightened and his teeth rattled like castanets.
the strip of board ceased to move to the suasion of his hand. he
tugged at it with all his strength, changed the direction of its
he could, but it had met some extended obstruction behind him and
the end in front was still too far away to clear the pile of débris
and reach the muzzle of the gun. it extended, indeed, nearly as far
as the trigger guard, which, uncovered by the rubbish, he could imperfectly
see with his right eye. he tried to break the strip with his hand,
but had no leverage. in his defeat, all his terror returned, augmented
tenfold. the black aperture of the rifle appeared to threaten a sharper
and more imminent death in punishment of his rebellion. the track
of the bullet through his head ached with an intenser anguish. he
to tremble again.
suddenly he became composed. his tremor subsided. he clenched his
teeth and drew down his eyebrows. he had not exhausted his means
a new design had shaped itself in his mind—another plan of
battle. raising the front end of the strip of board, he carefully
forward through the wreckage at the side of the rifle until it pressed
against the trigger guard. then he moved the end slowly outward until
he could feel that it had cleared it, then, closing his eyes, thrust
it against the trigger with all his strength! there was no explosion;
the rifle had been discharged as it dropped from his hand when the
building fell. but it did its work.
lieutenant adrian searing, in command of the picket-guard on that
part of the line through which his brother jerome had passed on his
sat with attentive ears in his breastwork behind the line. not the
faintest sound escaped him; the cry of a bird, the barking of a squirrel,
the noise of the wind among the pines—all were anxiously noted
by his overstrained sense. suddenly, directly in front of his line,
he heard a faint, confused rumble, like the clatter of a falling
building translated by distance. the lieutenant mechanically looked
at his watch.
six o'clock and eighteen minutes. at the same moment an officer approached
him on foot from the rear and saluted.
"lieutenant," said the officer, "the colonel directs
you to move forward your line and feel the enemy if you find him.
continue the advance until directed to halt. there is reason to think
that the enemy has retreated."
the lieutenant nodded and said nothing; the other officer retired.
in a moment the men, apprised of their duty by the non-commissioned
officers in low tones, had deployed from their rifle-pits and were
moving forward in skirmishing order, with set teeth and beating hearts.
this line of skirmishers sweeps across the plantation toward the mountain.
they pass on both sides of the wrecked building, observing nothing.
at a short distance in their rear their commander comes. he casts his
eyes curiously upon the ruin and sees a dead body half buried in boards
and timbers. it is so covered with dust that its clothing is confederate
gray. its face is yellowish white; the cheeks are fallen in, the temples
sunken, too, with sharp ridges about them, making the forehead forbiddingly
narrow; the upper lip, slightly lifted, shows the white teeth, rigidly
clenched. the hair is heavy with moisture, the face as wet as the dewy
grass all about. from his point of view the officer does not observe
the rifle; the man was apparently killed by the fall of the building.
"dead a week," said the officer curtly, moving on and absently
pulling out his watch as if to verify his estimate of time. six o'clock
and forty minutes.