As he did so a hostile shell, first that had ever come so near, burst just in front of his guns. A big lump of metal struck one of them on the chase, glanced, clipped off half the low top of his forage-cap and struck in the trunk of an oak behind him, and as his good horse flinched and quivered he looked unwillingly from the page toward a puff of white smoke on a distant hill, and with a broad smile said—a mere nonsense word; but the humor of such things has an absurd valuation and persistency in camps, and for months afterward, “Ah-r?—indeed!” was the battery’s gay response to every startling sound. He had luck in catchwords, this Hilary. He fought the scrimmage through with those unread pages folded slim between a thumb and forefinger, often using them to point out things, and when after it he had reopened them and read them through—and through again—to their dizzying close, the battery surgeon came murmuring privately—
“Cap, what’s wrong; bad news?”
“Oh!” said Hilary, looking up from a third reading, “what, this? No-o! nothing wrong in this. I was wrong. I’m all right now.”
“No, you’re not, Captain. You come along now and lie down. The windage of that chunk of iron has—”
“Why, Doc, I shouldn’t wonder! If you’ll just keep everybody away from me awhile, yourself included, I will lie down,” said the unnerved commander, and presently, alone and supine, softly asked himself with grim humor, “Which chunk of iron?”
The actual text of Anna’s chunk was never divulged, even to Flora. We do not need it. Neither did Flora. One of its later effects was to give the slender correspondence which crawled after it much more historical value to the battery and the battery’s beloved home city than otherwise it might have had. From Virginia it told spiritedly of men, policies, and movements; sketched cabinet officers, the president, and the great leaders and subleaders in the field—Stuart, Gordon, Fitzhugh Lee. It gave droll, picturesque accounts of the artillerist’s daily life; of the hard, scant fare and the lucky feast now and then on a rabbit or a squirrel, turtles’ eggs, or wild strawberries. It depicted moonlight rides to dance with Shenandoah girls; the playing of camp charades; and the singing of war, home, and love songs around the late camp fire, timed to the antic banjo or the sentimental guitar. Drolly, yet with tenderness for others, it portrayed mountain storm, valley freshet, and heart-breaking night marches beside tottering guns in the straining, sucking, leaden-heavy, red clay, and then, raptly, the glories of sunrise and sunset over the contours of the Blue Ridge. And it explained the countless things which happily enable a commander to keep himself as busy as a mud-dauber, however idle the camp or however torn his own heart.