Chapter XI - John Brown's Body

All morning horsemen had been galloping through Six-Cross-Roads, sometimes singly, oftener in company. At one-o'clock the last posse passed through on its return to the county-seat, and after that there was a long, complete silence, while the miry corners were undisturbed by a single hoof-beat. No unkempt colt nickered from his musty stall; the sparse young corn that was used to rasp and chuckle greenly stood rigid in the fields. Up the Plattville pike despairingly cackled one old hen, with her wabbling sailor run, smit with a superstitious horror of nothing, in the stillness; she hid herself in the shadow underneath a rickety barn, and her shrieking ceased.

Only on the Wimby farm were there signs of life. The old lady who had sent Harkless roses sat by the window all morning and wiped her eyes, watching the horsemen ride by; sometimes they would hail her and tell her there was nothing yet. About two-o'clock, her husband rattled up in a buckboard, and got out the late, and more authentic, Mr. Wimby's shot-gun, which he carefully cleaned and oiled, in spite of its hammerless and quite useless condition, sitting, meanwhile, by the window opposite his wife, and often looking up from his work to shake his weak fist at his neighbors' domiciles and creak decrepit curses and denunciations.

But the Cross-Roads was ready. It knew what was coming now. Frightened, desperate, sullen, it was ready.

The afternoon wore on, and lengthening shadows fell upon a peaceful--one would have said, a sleeping--country. The sun-dried pike, already dusty, stretched its serene length between green borders flecked with purple and yellow and white weedflowers; and the tree shadows were not shade, but warm blue and lavender glows in the general pervasion of still, bright light, the sky curving its deep, unburnished, penetrable blue over all, with no single drift of fleece upon it to be reflected in the creek that wound along past willow and sycamore. A woodpecker's telegraphy broke the quiet like a volley of pistol shots.

But far eastward on the pike there slowly developed a soft, white haze. It grew denser and larger. Gradually it rolled nearer. Dimly behind it could be discerned a darker, moving nucleus that extended far back upon the road. A heavy tremor began to stir the air--faint manifold sounds, a waxing, increasing, multitudinous rumor.

The pike ascended a long, slight slope leading west up to the Cross-Roads. From a thicket of iron-weed at the foot of this slope was thrust the hard, lean visage of an undersized girl of fourteen. Her fierce eyes examined the approaching cloud of dust intently. A redness rose under the burnt yellow skin and colored the wizened cheeks.

They were coming.

She stepped quickly out of the tangle, and darted up the road, running with the speed of a fleet little terrier, not opening her lips, not calling out, but holding her two thin hands high above her head. That was all. But Birnam wood was come to Dunsinane at last, and the messenger sped. Out of the weeds in the corners of the snake fence, in the upper part of the rise, silently lifted the heads of men whose sallowness became a sickish white as the child flew by.

The mob was carefully organized. They had taken their time and had prepared everything deliberately, knowing that nothing could stop them. No one had any thought of concealment; it was all as open as the light of day, all done in the broad sunshine. Nothing had been determined as to what was to be done at the Cross-Roads more definite than that the place was to be wiped out. That was comprehensive enough; the details were quite certain to occur. They were all on foot, marching in fairly regular ranks. In front walked Mr. Watts, the man Harkless had abhorred in a public spirit and befriended in private--to-day he was a hero and a leader, marching to avenge his professional oppressor and personal brother. Cool, unruffled, and, to outward vision, unarmed, marching the miles in his brown frock coat and generous linen, his carefully creased trousers neatly turned up out of the dust, he led the way. On one side of him were the two Bowlders, on the other was Lige Willetts, Mr. Watts preserving peace between the two young men with perfect tact and sang-froid.

They kept good order and a similitude of quiet for so many, except far to the rear, where old Wilkerson was bringing up the tail of the procession, dragging a wretched yellow dog by a slip-noose fastened around the poor cur's protesting neck, the knot carefully arranged under his right ear. In spite of every command and protest, Wilkerson had marched the whole way uproariously singing, "John Brown's Body."

The sun was in the west when they came in sight of the Cross-Roads, and the cabins on the low slope stood out angularly against the radiance beyond. As they beheld the hated settlement, the heretofore orderly ranks showed a disposition to depart from the steady advance and rush the shanties. Willetts, the Bowlders, Parker, Ross, Schofield, and fifty others did, in fact, break away and set a sharp pace up the slope.

Watts tried to call them back. "What's the use your gettin' killed?" he shouted.

"Why not?" answered Lige, who, like the others, was increasing his speed when old "Wimby" rose up suddenly from the roadside ahead of them, and motioned them frantically to go back. "They're laid out along the fence, waitin' fer ye," he warned them. "Git out the road. Come by the fields. Per the Lord's sake, spread!" Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he dropped down into the weeds again. Lige and those with him paused, and the whole body came to a halt while the leaders consulted. There was a sound of metallic clicking and a thin rattle of steel. From far to the rear came the voice of old Wilkerson:

A few near him, as they stood waiting, began to take up the burden of the song, singing in slow time like a dirge; then those further away took it up; it spread, reached the leaders; they, too, began to sing, taking off their hats as they joined in; and soon the whole concourse, solemn, earnest, and uncovered, was singing--a thunderous requiem for John Harkless.

The sun was swinging lower and the edges of the world were embroidered with gold while that deep volume of sound shook the air, the song of a stern, savage, just cause--sung, perhaps, as some of the ancestors of these men sang with Hampden before the bristling walls of a hostile city. It had iron and steel in it. The men lying on their guns in the ambuscade along the fence heard the dirge rise and grow to its mighty fulness, and they shivered. One of them, posted nearest the advance, had his rifle carefully levelled at Lige Willetts, a fair target in the road. When he heard the singing, he turned to the man next behind him and laughed harshly: "I reckon we'll see a big jamboree in hell to-night, huh?"

The huge murmur of the chorus expanded, and gathered in rhythmic strength, and swelled to power, and rolled and thundered across the plain.

A gun spat from the higher ground, and Willetts dropped where he stood, but was up again in a second, with a red line across his forehead where the ball had grazed his temple. Then the mob spread out like a fan, hundreds of men climbing the fence and beginning the advance through the fields, dosing on the ambuscade from both sides. Mr. Watts, wading through the high grass in the field north of the road, perceived the barrel of a gun shining from a bush some distance in front of him, and, although in the same second no weapon was seen in his hand, discharged a revolver at the bush behind the gun. Instantly ten or twelve men leaped from their hiding-places along the fences of both fields, and, firing hurriedly and harmlessly into the scattered ranks of the oncoming mob, broke for the shelter of the houses, where their fellows were posted. Taken on the flanks and from the rear, there was but one thing for them to do to keep from being hemmed in and shot or captured. (They excessively preferred being shot.) With a wild, high, joyous yell, sounding like the bay of young hounds breaking into view of their quarry, the Plattville men followed.

The most eastward of the debilitated edifices of Six-Cross-Roads was the saloon, which bore the painted legends: on the west wall, "Last Chance"; on the east wall, "First Chance." Next to this, and separated by two or three acres of weedy vacancy from the corners where the population centred thickest, stood-if one may so predicate of a building which leaned in seven directions-the house of Mr. Robert Skillett, the proprietor of the saloon. Both buildings were shut up as tight as their state of repair permitted. As they were furthest to the east, they formed the nearest shelter, and to them the Cross-Roaders bent their flight, though they stopped not here, but disappeared behind Skillett's shanty, putting it between them and their pursuers, whose guns were beginning to speak. The fugitives had a good start, and, being the picked runners of the CrossRoads, they crossed the open, weedy acres in safety and made for their homes. Every house had become a fort, and the defenders would have to be fought and torn out one by one. As the guns sounded, a woman in a shanty near the forge began to scream, and kept on screaming.

On came the farmers and the men of Plattville. They took the saloon at a run; battered down the crazy doors with a fence-rail, and swarmed inside like busy insects, making the place hum like a hive, but with the hotter industries of destruction. It was empty of life as a tomb, but they beat and tore and battered and broke and hammered and shattered like madmen; they reduced the tawdry interior to a mere chaos, and came pouring forth laden with trophies of ruin. And then there was a charry smell in the air, and a slender feather of smoke floated up from a second-story window.

At the same time Watts led an assault on the adjoining house--an assault which came to a sudden pause, for, from cracks in the front wall, a squirrel-rifle and a shot-gun snapped and banged, and the crowd fell back in disorder. Homer Tibbs had a hat blown away, full of buck-shot holes, while Mr. Watts solicitously examined a small aperture in the skirts of his brown coat. The house commanded the road, and the rush of the mob into the village was checked, but only for the instant.

A rickety woodshed, which formed a portion of the Skillett mansion, closely joined the "Last Chance" side of the family place of business. Scarcely had the guns of the defenders sounded, when, with a loud shout, Lige Willetts leaped from an upper window on that side of the burning saloon and landed on the woodshed, and, immediately climbing the roof of the house itself, applied a fiery brand to the time-worn clapboards. Ross Schofield dropped on the shed, close behind him, his arm lovingly enfolding a gallon jug of whiskey, which he emptied (not without evident regret) upon the clapboards as Lige fired them. Flames burst forth almost instantly, and the smoke, uniting with that now rolling out of every window of the saloon, went up to heaven in a cumbrous, gray column.

As the flames began to spread, there was a rapid fusillade from the rear of the house, and a hundred men and more, who had kept on through the fields to the north, assailed it from behind. Their shots passed clear through the flimsy partitions, and there was a horrid screeching, like a beast's howls, from within. The front door was thrown open, and a lean, fierce-eyed girl, with a case-knife in her hand, ran out in the face of the mob. At sound of the shots in the rear they had begun to advance on the house a second time, and Hartley Bowlder was the nearest man to the girl. With awful words, and shrieking inconceivably, she made straight at Hartley, and attacked him with the knife. She struck at him again and again, and, in her anguish of hate and fear, was so extraordinary a spectacle that she gained for her companions the four or five seconds they needed to escape from the house. As she hurled herself alone at the oncoming torrent, they sped from the door unnoticed, sprang over the fence, and reached the open lots to the west before they were seen by Willetts from the roof.

"Don't let 'em fool you!" he shouted. "Look to I your left! There they go! Don't let 'em get away."

The Cross-Readers were running across the field. They were Bob Skillett and his younger brother, and Mr. Skillett was badly damaged: he seemed to be holding his jaw on his face with both hands. The girl turned, and sped after them. She was over the fence almost as soon as they were, and the three ran in single file, the girl last. She was either magnificently sacrificial and fearless, or she cunningly calculated that the regulators would take no chances of killing a woman-child, for she kept between their guns and her two companions, trying to cover and shield the latter with her frail body.

"Shoot, Lige," called Watts. "If we fire from here we'll hit the girl. Shoot!"

Willetts and Ross Schofield were still standing on the roof, at the edge, out of the smoke, and both fired at the same time. The fugitives did not turn; they kept on running, and they had nearly reached the other side of the field, when suddenly, without any premonitory gesture, the elder Skillett dropped flat on his face. The Cross-Roaders stood by each other that day, for four or five men ran out of the nearest shanty into the open, lifted the prostrate figure from the ground, and began to carry it back with them. But Mr. Skillett was alive; his curses were heard above all other sounds. Lige and Schofield fired again, and one of the rescuers staggered. Nevertheless, as the two men slid down from the roof, the burdened Cross-Readers were seen to break into a run; and at that, with another yell, fiercer, wilder, more joyous than the first, the Plattville men followed.

The yell rang loudly in the ears of old Wilkerson, who had remained back in the road, and at the same instant he heard another shout behind him. Mr. Wilkerson had not shared in the attack, but, greatly preoccupied with his own histrionic affairs, was proceeding up the pike alone--except for the unhappy yellow mongrel, still dragged along by the slip-noose--and alternating, as was his natural wont, from one fence to the other; crouching behind every bush to fire an imaginary rifle at his dog, and then springing out, with triumphant bellowings, to fall prone upon the terrified animal. It was after one of these victories that a shout of warning was raised behind him, and Mr. Wilkerson, by grace of the god Bacchus, rolling out of the way in time to save his life, saw a horse dash by him--a big, black horse whose polished flanks were dripping with lather. Warren Smith was the rider. He was waving a slip of yellow paper high in the air.

He rode up the slope, and drew rein beyond the burning buildings, just ahead of those foremost in the pursuit. He threw his horse across the road to oppose their progress, rose in his stirrups, and waved the paper over his head. "Stop!" he roared, "Give me one minute. Stop!" He had a grand voice; and he was known in many parts of the State for the great bass roar with which he startled his juries. To be heard at a distance most men lift the pitch of their voices; Smith lowered his an octave or two, and the result was like an earthquake playing an organ in a catacomb.

"Stop!" he thundered. "Stop!"

In answer, one of the flying Cross-Roaders turned and sent a bullet whistling close to him. The lawyer paused long enough to bow deeply in satirical response; then, flourishing the paper, he roared again: "Stop! A mistake! I have news! Stop, I say! Homer has got them!"

To make himself heard over that tempestuous advance was a feat; for him, moreover, whose counsels had so lately been derided, to interest the pursuers at such a moment enough to make them listen--to find the word-- was a greater; and by the word, and by gestures at once vehemently imperious and imploring, to stop them was still greater; but he did it. He had come at just the moment before the moment that would have been too late. They all heard him. They all knew, too, he was not trying to save the Cross-Roads as a matter of duty, because he had given that up before the mob left Plattville. Indeed, it was a question if, at the last, he had not tacitly approved; and no one feared indictments for the day's work. It would do no harm to listen to what he had to say. The work could wait; it would "keep" for five minutes. They began to gather around him, excited, flushed, perspiring, and smelling of smoke. Hartley Bowlder, won by Lige's desperation and intrepidity, was helping the latter tie up his head; no one else was hurt.

"What is it?" they clamored impatiently. "Speak quick!" There was another harmless shot from a fugitive, and then the Cross-Roaders, divining that the diversion was in their favor, secured themselves in their decrepit fastnesses and held their fire. Meanwhile, the flames crackled cheerfully in Plattville ears. No matter what the prosecutor had to say, at least the Skillett saloon and homestead were gone, and Bob Skillett and one other would be sick enough to be good for a while.

"Listen," cried Warren Smith, and, rising in his stirrups again, read the missive in his hand, a Western Union telegraph form. "Warren Smith, Plattville," was the direction. "Found both shell-men. Police familiar with both, and both wanted here. One arrested at noon in a second-hand clothes store, wearing Harkless's hat, also trying dispose torn full-dress coat known to have been worn by Harkless last night. Stains on lining believed blood. Second man found later at freight-yards in empty lumber car left Plattville 1 P.M., badly hurt, shot, and bruised. Supposed Harkless made hard fight. Hurt man taken to hospital unconscious. Will die. Hope able question him first and discover whereabouts body. Other man refuses talk so far. Check any movement Cross-Roads. This clears Skillett, etc. Come over on 9.15."

The telegram was signed by Homer and by Barrett, the superintendent of police at Rouen.

"It's all a mistake, boys," the lawyer said, as he handed the paper to Watts and Parker for inspection. "The ladies at the judge's were mistaken, that's all, and this proves it. It's easy enough to understand: they were frightened by the storm, and, watching a fence a quarter-mile away by flashes of lightning, any one would have been confused, and imagined all the horrors on earth. I don't deny but what I believed it for a while, and I don't deny but the Cross-Roads is pretty tough, but you've done a good deal here already, to-day, and we're saved in time from a mistake that would have turned out mighty bad. This settles it. Homer got a wire from Rouen to come over there, soon as they got track of the first man; that was when we saw him on the Rouen accommodation."

A slightly cracked voice, yet a huskily tuneful one, was lifted quaveringly on the air from the roadside, where an old man and a yellow dog sat in the dust together, the latter reprieved at the last moment, his surprised head rakishly garnished with a hasty wreath of dog-fennel daisies.

Three-quarters of an hour later, the inhabitants of the Cross-Roads, saved, they knew not how; guilty; knowing nothing of the fantastic pendulum of opinion, which, swung by the events of the day, had marked the fatal moment of guilt, now on others, now on them, who deserved it--these natives and refugees, conscious of atrocity, dumfounded by a miracle, thinking the world gone mad, hovered together in a dark, ragged mass at the crossing corners, while the skeleton of the rotting buggy in the slough rose behind them against the face of the west. They peered with stupified eyes through the smoky twilight.

From afar, faintly through the gloaming, came mournfully to their ears the many-voiced refrain--fainter, fainter:

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground--"

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
His soul goes marching on!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul goes marching on!"

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
While we go marching on!"

"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the ground.
John Brown's body lies--mould--
. . . . . we go march . . . . on."