At the head of one rode General Brodnax. Hearing Hilary among his staff he sent for him and began to speak of Mandeville, long gone to Richmond on some official matter and daily expected back; and then he mentioned “this fellow Grant,” saying he had known him in Mexico. “And now,” he concluded, “he’s the toughest old he one they’ve got.”
On the face of either kinsman there came a fine smile that really made them look alike. “We’ll try our jaw-teeth on him to-morrow,” laughed the nephew.
“Hilary, you weren’t one of those singers last evening, were you?”
“Why, no, uncle, for once you’ll be pleased—”
“Not by a dam-site!” The smile was gone. “You know, my boy, that in such a time as this if a leader—and above all such a capering, high-kicking colt as you—begins to mope and droop like a cab-horse in the rain, his men will soon not be worth a—what?... Oh, blast the others, when you do so you’re moping, and whether your men can stand it or not, I can’t!—what?... Well, then, for God’s sake don’t! For there’s another point, Hilary: as long as you were every night a ‘ladies’ man’ and every day a laugher at death you could take those boys through hell-fire at any call; but if they once get the notion—which you came mighty near giving them yesterday—that you hold their lives cheap merely because you’re tired of your own, they’ll soon make you wish you’d never set eyes on a certain friend of ours, worse than you or they or I have ever wished it yet.”
“I’ve never wished it yet, uncle. I can’t. I’ve never believed one breath of all we’ve heard. It’s not true. It can’t be, simply because it can’t be.”
“Then why do you behave as if it were?” “I won’t, uncle. Honor bright! You watch me.” And next day, in front of Port Gibson, through all the patter, smoke, and crash, through all the charging, cheering and volleying, while the ever-thinning, shortening gray lines were being crowded back from rise to rise—back, back through field, grove, hedge, worm-fence and farmyard, clear back to Grindstone Ford, Bayou Pierre, and with the cavalry, Harper’s, cut off and driven up eastward through the town—the enraged old brigadier watched and saw. He saw far, saw close, with blasphemous exultation, how Hilary and his guns, called here, sent there, flashed, thundered, galloped, blazed, howled and held on with furious valor and bleeding tenacity yet always with a quick-sightedness which just avoided folly and ruin, and at length stood rock fast, honor bright, at North Fork and held it till, except the cavalry, the last gray column was over and the bridges safely burning.