The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. Tests of Courage
Harry did not know how the woods had been set on fire, and he never knew. He did not credit it to the intent of Michael and his comrades, but he thought it likely that some of these men, ignorant of the forest, had built a campfire. His first thought was of himself, and his second was regret that so fine a stretch of timber should be burned over for nothing.
But he knew that he must hurry. Nor could he choose his way. He must get out of that forest even if he ran directly into the middle of a Union brigade. The wind was bringing the fire fast. It leaped from one tree to another, despite the recent rains, gathering volume and power as it came. Sparks flew in showers, and fragments of burned twigs rained down. Twice Harry's face was scorched lightly and he had a fear that one of the blazing twigs would set his hair on fire. He made another effort, and ran a little faster, knowing full well that his life was at stake.
The fire was like a huge beast, and it reached out threatening red claws to catch him. He was like primeval man, fleeing from one of the vast monsters, now happily gone from the earth. He was conscious soon that another not far from him was running in the same way, a man in a faded blue uniform who had dropped his rifle in the rapidity of his flight.
Harry kept one eye on him but the stranger did not see him until they were nearly out of the wood. Then Harry, with a clear purpose in view, veered toward him. He saw that they would escape from the fire. Open fields showed not far ahead, and while the sparks were numerous and sometimes scorched, the roaring red monster behind them would soon be at the end of his race. He could not follow them into the open fields.
When the two emerged from the forest Harry was not more than fifteen feet from the stranger, who evidently took him for a friend and who was glad to have a comrade at such a time. They raced across fields in which the wheat had been cut, and then sank down four or five hundred yards from the fire, which was crackling and roaring in the woods with great violence, and sending up leaping flames.
"I was glad enough to get out of that. Do you think the rebels set it on fire?"
"I don't think so, but I was as pleased as you to escape from it, Mr. Haskell."
"Why, how did you know my name?" exclaimed the man in wonder.
"Why should I forget you? I've seen you often enough. Your name is John Haskell and you belong to the Fifth Pennsylvania."
"That's right, but I don't seem to recall you."
"It takes a lot of us some time to clear up our minds wholly after such a battle as Gettysburg. In some ways I've been in a sort of confused state myself. I dare say you've seen me often enough."
"Pity you had your horse shot under you, Mr. Haskell. A man who is carrying important messages at a time like this can't do very well without his horse."
"How did you know I'd lost my horse?"
"Oh, I'm a mind reader. I can tell you a lot now. You carry your dispatch in the left-hand pocket of your waistcoat, just over your heart. And it hasn't been long, either, since you lost your horse, perhaps not more than an hour."
Haskell stared at him, but Harry's face was innocent. Nevertheless he had read Haskell's name and regiment on his canteen, cut there with his own knife. It was a mere guess that he was a dispatch bearer, but he had located the dispatch, because at the mention of the word "message" the man's hand had involuntarily gone to his left breast to see if the dispatch were still there. Boots with little dirt on them indicated that he had been riding.
"A mind reader!" said Haskell, with suspicion. "What business has a mind reader in this war?"
"He could be of enormous value. If he were a real mind reader he could tell his general exactly what the opposing general intended to do. I'm employed at a gigantic salary for that particular purpose."
"I guess you're trying to be funny. Why do you carry both a rifle and a shotgun?"
"In order to hit the target with one, if the other misses. I always use the rifle first, because if the bullet doesn't get home the shotgun, spreading its charge over a much wider area, is likely to do something."
"Now I know you're trying to be funny. As I'm going about my business as fast as I can, I'll leave you here."
"I like you so well that I can't bear to see you go. Don't move. My rifle covers your heart exactly and you are not more than ten feet away. I shall have no possible need of the shotgun. Keep your hands away from your belt. You're in a dangerous position, Mr. Haskell."
"I believe you're an infernal rebel."
"Take out the objectionable adjective 'infernal' and you're right. Keep those hands still, I tell you."
"What do you want?"
"Your dispatches! Oh, I must have 'em. Unbutton your coat and waistcoat and hand 'em to me at once. I hate to take human life, but war demands a terrible service, and I mean what I say!"
His voice rang with determination. The man slowly unbuttoned his waistcoat and took out a folded dispatch.
"Put it on the ground in front of you. That's right, and don't you reach for it again. Now, lay your canteen beside it!"
"What in thunder do you want with my canteen? It's empty!"
"I can fill it again. This is a well watered country. That's right; put it beside the dispatch. Now you walk about one hundred yards to the right with your back to me. If you look around at all I fire, and I'm a good marksman. Stand there ten minutes, and then you can move on! That's right! Now march!"
The man walked away slowly and when he had gone about half the distance Harry, picking up the dispatch, took flight again across the fields. Climbing a fence, he looked back and saw the figure of John Haskell, standing motionless on a hill. He knew that the man was not likely to remain in that position more than half the allotted time. It was certain that he would soon turn, despite the risk, but Harry was already beyond his reach.
He leaped from the fence, crossed another field and entered a wood. There he paused among the trees and saw Haskell returning. But when he had come a little distance, he shook his head doubtfully, and then walked toward the north.
"A counsel of wisdom," chuckled Harry, who was going in quite another direction. "I think I'll read my dispatch now."
He opened it and blessed his luck. It was from Meade to Pleasanton, directing him to cut in with all the cavalry he could gather on the enemy's flank. The Potomac was in great flood and the Army of Northern Virginia could not possibly cross. If it were harried to the utmost by the Union cavalry the task of destroying it would be much easier.
"So it would," said Harry to himself. "But Pleasanton won't get this dispatch. Providence has not deserted me yet; and it's true that fortune favors the brave. I'm John Haskell of the Fifth Pennsylvania and I can prove it."
He had put the canteen over his shoulder and the name upon it was a powerful witness in his favor. The dispatch itself was another, and his faded uniform told nothing.
Harry had passed through so much that a reckless spirit was growing upon him, and he had succeeded in so much that he believed he would continue to succeed. Regretfully he threw the shotgun away, as it would not appear natural for a messenger to carry it and a rifle too.
He went forward boldly now, and, when an hour later he saw a detachment of Union cavalry in a road, he took no measures to avoid them. Instead he went directly toward the horsemen and hailed them in a loud voice. They stopped and their leader, a captain, looked inquiringly at Harry, who was approaching rapidly.
Harry held up both hands as a sign that he was a friend, and called in a loud voice:
"I want a horse! And at once, if you please, sir!"
He had noticed that three led horses with empty saddles, probably the result of a brush with the enemy, and he meant to be astride one of them within a few minutes.
"You're a cool one," said the captain. "You come walking across the field, and without a word of explanation you say you want a horse. Don't you want a carriage too?"
"I don't need it. But I must have a horse, Captain. I ride with a message and it must be of great importance because I was told to go with it at all speed and risk my life for it. I've risked my life already. My horse was shot by a band of rebels, but luckily it was in the woods and I escaped on foot."
As he spoke he craftily moved the canteen around until the inscription showed clearly in the bright sunlight. The quick eyes of the captain caught it at once.
"You do belong to the Fifth Pennsylvania," he said. "Well, you're a long way from your regiment. It's back of that low mountain over there, a full forty miles from here, I should say."
Harry felt a throb of relief. It was his only fear that these men themselves should belong to the Fifth Pennsylvania, a long chance, but if it should happen to go against him, fatal to all his plans.
"I don't want to join my regiment," he said. "I'm looking for General Pleasanton."
"General Pleasanton! What can you happen to want with him?"
Harry gave the officer a wary and suspicious look, and then his eyes brightened as if he were satisfied.
"I told you I was riding with a message," he said, "and that message is for General Pleasanton. It's from General Meade himself and it's no harm for me to show it to so good a patriot as you."
"No, I think not," said the captain, flattered by the proof of respect and confidence.
Harry took the letter from his pocket. It had been sealed at first, but the warmth of the original bearer's body with a little help from Harry later had caused it to come open.
"Look at that," said Harry proudly as he took out the paper.
The captain read it, and was mightily impressed. He was, as Harry had surmised, a thoroughly staunch supporter of the Union. He would not only furnish this valiant messenger with a good horse, but he would help him otherwise on his way.
"Dexter," he called to an orderly, "bring the sorrel mare. She was ridden by a good man, Mr. Haskell, but he met a sharpshooter's bullet. Jump up."
Harry sprang into the saddle, and, astride such a fine piece of horseflesh, he foresaw a speedy arrival in the camp of General Lee.
"I'll not only mount you," said the captain, "but we'll see you on the way. General Pleasanton is on Lee's left flank and, as our course is in that direction, we'll ride with you, and protect you from stray rebel sharpshooters."
Harry could have shouted aloud in anger and disappointment. While the captain trusted him fully, he would not be much more than a prisoner, nevertheless.
"Thank you very much, Captain," he said, "but you needn't trouble yourself about me. Perhaps I'd better go on ahead. One rides faster alone."
"Don't be afraid that we'll hold you back," said the captain, smiling. "We're one of the hardest riding detachments in General Pleasanton's whole cavalry corps, and we won't delay you a second. On the contrary, we know the road so well that we'll save you wandering about and losing time."
Harry did not dare to say more. And so Providence, which had been watching over him so well, had decided now to leave him and watch over the other fellow. But he had at least one consolation. Pleasanton was on Lee's flank and their ride did not turn him from the line of his true objective. Every beat of his horse's hoofs would bring him nearer to Lee. Invincible youth was invincibly in the saddle again, and he said confidently to the captain:
"All right. You keep by my side, Haskell. You appear to be brave and intelligent and I want to ask you questions."
The tone, though well meant, was patronizing, but Harry did not resent it.
"This troop is made up of Massachusetts men, and I'm from Massachusetts too," continued the captain. "My name is Lester, and I had just graduated from Harvard when the war began."
"Good stock up there in Massachusetts," said Harry boldly, "but I've one objection to you."
"Everything wonderful in our history was done by you. No chance was left for anybody else."
"Well, not everything, but almost everything. Good old Massachusetts! As Webster said, 'There she stands!'"
"It was mostly New York and Pennsylvania that stood at Gettysburg."
"Yes, you did very well there."
"Don't you think, Captain, that a nation or a state is often lucky in its possession of writers?"
"I don't catch your drift exactly."
"I'll make an illustration. I've often wondered what were the Persian accounts of Marathon and Thermopylae, of Salamis and Plataea. Now most of our history has been written by Massachusetts men."
"And you insinuate that they have glorified my state unduly?"
"The expression is a trifle severe. Let's say that they have dwelled rather long upon the achievements of Massachusetts and not so long upon those of New York and Pennsylvania."
"Then let New York and Pennsylvania go get great writers. No state can be truly great without them. There's another detachment of ours just ahead, but we'll talk to them only a minute or two."
The second detachment reported that Pleasanton, with a heavy cavalry force, was about six miles farther west and that there was a fair road all the way. They should overtake him in an hour.
Harry's heart beat hard. Unless something happened within that hour he would never reach Lee, and his brain began to work with extraordinary activity. Plans passed in review before it as rapidly as pictures on a film, but all were rejected. He was in despair. They were trotting rapidly down a smooth road. A quarter of an hour passed and then a half-hour. A low bare hill appeared immediately on their right, and Harry saw beyond it the tops of trees.
"Captain Lester," he said, "suppose that you and I ride to the crest of the hill. You have strong glasses, so have I, and we may see something worth while. The men will ride on, but we can easily overtake them."
"Not a bad idea, Haskell," said the captain, still in that slightly patronizing tone. "I judge by your speech that you're a well educated man, and you appear to think."
They rode quickly to the summit, and Lester, putting his glasses to his eyes, gazed westward over a vast expanse of cultivated country. But Harry looking immediately down the slope, saw the forest that he wished.
Lester swept the glasses in a wide circle, looking for Union troops. His own troop was about a hundred yards ahead and the hoofbeats were growing fainter. Then Harry's courage almost failed him, but necessity was instant and cruel. Still he modified the blow, nor did he use any weapon, save one that nature had given him.
"Look out!" he cried, and as Lester turned in astonishment he struck him on the point of the jaw. Even as his fist flashed forward he held back a little and his full strength was not in the blow.
Nevertheless it was sufficient to strike Lester senseless, and he slid from his horse. Harry caught him by the shoulder and eased him in his fall. Then he lay stretched on his back in the grass like one asleep, with his horse staring at him. Harry knew that he would revive in a minute or two, and with a "Farewell, Captain Lester," he galloped down the slope and into the covering woods.
He knew that Lester's men, finding that they did not follow, would quickly come back, and he raced his horse among the trees as fast as he dared. A couple of miles between him and the hill and he felt safe, at least so far as the troop of Captain Lester was concerned. Fortune seemed to have made him a favorite again, but he knew that dangers were still as thick around him as leaves in Vallombrosa.
He tied his horse, climbed a tree, and used his glasses. Two miles to the west the bright sun flashed on long lines of mounted men, obviously the horsemen of Pleasanton. How was he to get through that cavalry screen and reach Lee? He did not see a way, but he knew that to find, one must seek. His desire to get through, intense as it always had been, was now doubled. He not only carried the news to Lee about the possible ford, but he also bore Meade's dispatch to Pleasanton, directing a movement which, if successful, must be most dangerous to the Army of Northern Virginia.
He descended the tree and waited a while in the forest. He found a spring at which he drank, and he filled the canteen. It was a precious canteen with the name of John Haskell engraved upon it, and he meant that it should carry him through all dangers into his camp. But he did not mean to use it yet. If he rode into Pleasanton's ranks they would merely take his letter to the general, and that would be the failure of his real mission.
Night was now not far distant, and, concluding that he had a much better chance to run the gantlet under its cover, he still waited in the wood until the twilight came.
Wrapped in a coil of dangers he was ready to risk anything. Quickness, resource and boldness, of which the last had been most valuable, had brought him so far, and, encouraged by success, he rode forward full of confidence.
On his right was a small house standing among the usual shade trees, and, approaching it without hesitation, he spoke to a man who stood in the yard.
"Which way is General Pleasanton?" he asked.
The man hesitated.
"I belong to the Fifth Pennsylvania," said Harry, pointing to the name on the canteen, still visible in the twilight. The man's eyes brightened and he replied:
"Down there," pointing toward the southwest.
"I've a message for him and I don't want to run into any of the rebel raiders."
"Then you keep away from there," he said, pointing due west.
"What's the trouble in that direction?"
"Jim Hurley was here about an hour ago. The whole country is terribly excited about these big armies marching over it, and he said that our cavalry was riding on fast. A lot of it was ahead of the rebel army, but straight there in the west some of the rebel horsemen had spread out on their own flank. If you went that way in the night you'd be sure to run right into a nest of 'em."
"So the Johnnies are west of us, your friend Hurley said. Tell me again what particular point I have to watch in order to keep away from them."
"Almost as straight west as you can make it. A valley running east and west cuts in there and it's full of the rebels. It's the only place all along here where they are."
"And consequently the only place for me to avoid. Thanks. Your information may save me from capture. Good night."
"Good night and good luck."
Harry rode toward the southwest until a dip in the valley hid him from possible view of the man at the house. Then he turned and rode due west, determined to reach as soon as possible those "rebel raiders" in the valley, but fully aware that he must yet use every resource of skill, courage and patience.
The twilight turned into night, clear, dry and bright. Unless it was raining in the mountains the flood in the Potomac could not be increasing. Here, at last, the conditions were all that he wished. The captured haversack still contained plenty of food, and, as he rode, he ate. He had learned long ago that food was as necessary as weapons to a soldier, and that one should eat when one could. Moreover, he was always hungry.
He kept among trees wherever possible, and, as the night grew, and the stars came out in the dusky blue, he enjoyed the peace. Even though he searched with his glasses he could not see soldiers anywhere, although he knew they were in the hollows and the forests. A pleasant breeze blew, and an owl, reckless of armies, sent forth its lonesome hoot.
But he kept his horse's head straight for the narrow valley where the "rebel raiders" rode. He met presently a small detachment of Connecticut men, but the sight of his canteen and letter was sufficient for them. Again he rode southwest, merely to turn due west once more, after he had passed from their sight, and near the head of the valley he encountered two men in blue on horseback watching. They were alert, well-built fellows and examined Harry closely, a process to which long usage had reconciled him.
"I hear that the rebels are down in that valley, comrade," he said.
"So they are," replied the elder and larger of the men. "We've got to ask you who you are and which way you're going."
"John Haskell, Fifth Pennsylvania, with dispatches from General Meade to General Pleasanton. They're tremendously important, too, and I've got to be in a hurry."
"More haste less speed. You know the old saying. In a time like this it's sometimes better for a man to know where he's going than it is to get there, 'cause he may arrive at the wrong place."
"Good logic, comrade, but I must hurry just the same. Which is my best way to find General Pleasanton?"
"Southwest. But I'm bound to tell you a few things first."
"All right. What are they?"
"You and I must be kinsfolk."
"How do you make that out?"
"Because my name is William Haskell, and I belong to the Fifth Pennsylvania, the same regiment that you do."
"Is that so? It's strange that we haven't met before. But funny things happen in war."
"So they do. Awfully funny. Now my brother's name is John Haskell, and you happen to be carrying his canteen, but you've changed looks a lot in the last few days, Brother John."
Haskell's voice had been growing more menacing, and Harry, with native quickness, was ready to act. When he saw the man's pistol flash from his belt he went over the side of his horse and the bullet whistled where his body had been. His own rifle cracked in reply, but Haskell's horse, not he, took the bullet, and, screaming with pain and fright, ran into the woods as the rider slipped from his back.
Harry, realizing that his peril was imminent and deadly, fired one of his pistols at the second man, who fell from his horse, too badly wounded in the shoulder to take any further part in the fight.
But Harry found in Haskell an opponent worthy of all his skill and courage. The Union soldier threw himself upon the ground and fired at Harry's horse, which instantly jerked the bridle from his hand and fled as the other had done. Harry dropped flat in the grass and leaves and listened, his heart thumping.
But luck had favored him again. He lay in a slight depression and any bullet fired at him would be sure to go over him unless he raised his head. He could not see his enemies, but he could depend upon his wonderful power of hearing, inherited and cultivated, which gave him an advantage over his opponents.
He heard the wounded man groan ever so lightly, and then the other whisper to him, "Are you much hurt, Bill?" The reply came in a moment: "My right shoulder is put out for the time, and I can't help you now." Presently he heard the slight sound of the other crawling toward him. Evidently this Haskell was a fearless fellow, bound to get him, and he called from the shadow in which he lay.
"You'd better stop, Haskell! I've got the best pair of ears in all this region, and I hear you coming! Crawl another step and you meet a bullet! But I want to tell you first that your interesting brother John is all right. I didn't kill him. I merely robbed him."
"Robbed him of what?"
"Oh, of several things."
"They don't concern you, Haskell. These are matters somewhat above you."
"They are, are they? Well, maybe they are, but I'm going to see that you don't get away with the proceeds of your robbery."
Harry didn't like his tone. It was fierce and resolute, and he realized once more that he had a man of quality before him. If Haskell had behaved properly he would have withdrawn with his wounded comrade. But then he was an obstinate Yankee.
He raised up ever so little and glanced across the intervening space, seeing the muzzle of a rifle not many yards away. There could be no doubt that Haskell was watchful and would continue watching. He drew his head back again and said:
"Let's call it a draw. You go back to your army, Mr. Haskell, and I'll go back to mine."
"Couldn't think of it. As a matter of fact, I'm with my army now; that is, I'm in its lines, while you can't reach yours. All I've got to do is to hold you here, and in the course of time some of our people will come along and take you."
"Do you think I'm worth so much trouble?"
"In a way it's a sort of personal affair with me. You admit having robbed my brother, and I feel that I must avenge him. He has been acting as a dispatch rider, and I can make a pretty shrewd guess about what you took from him. So I think I'll stay here."
Harry blamed himself bitterly for his careless and unfortunate expressions. He did not fear the result of a duel with this man, being the master of woodcraft that he was, but he was losing time, valuable time, time more precious than gold and diamonds, time heavy with the fate of armies and a nation. He grew furiously angry at everything, and angriest at Haskell.
"Mr. Haskell," he called, "I'm getting tired of your society, and I make you a polite request to go away."
"Oh, no, you're not tired. You merely think you are, and I couldn't consider conceding to your request. It's for your good more than mine. My society is elevating to any Johnny Reb."
"Then I warn you that I may have to hurt you."
"How about getting hurt yourself?"
Harry was silent. His acute ears brought him the sound of Haskell moving a little in his own particular hollow. The lonesome owl hooted twice more, but there was no sound to betoken the approach of Union troops in the forest. The duel of weapons and wits would have to be fought out alone by Haskell and himself.
He went over everything again and again and he concluded that he must rely upon his superior keenness of ear. He could hear Haskell, but Haskell could not hear him, and there was Providence once more taking him into favor. Summer clouds began to drift before the moon, and many of the stars were veiled. It was possible that Haskell's eyes also were not as keen as his own.
When the darkness increased, he began to crawl from the little shallow. Despite extreme precautions he made a slight noise. A pistol flashed and a bullet passed over him. It made his muscles quiver, but he called in a calm voice:
"Why did you do such a foolish thing as that? You wasted a perfectly good bullet."
"Weren't you trying to escape? I thought I heard a movement in the grass."
"Wasn't thinking of such a thing. I'm just waiting here to see what you'll do. Why don't you come on and attack?"
"I'm satisfied with things as they are. I'll hold you until morning and then our men will be sure to come and pick you up."
"Maybe it will be our men who will come and pick you up."
"Oh, no; they're too busy leaving Gettysburg behind 'em."
Harry nevertheless had succeeded in leaving the shallow and was now lying on its farther bank. Then he resumed the task of crawling forward on his face, and without making any noise, one of the most difficult feats that a human being is ever called upon to do.
At the end of a dozen feet, he paused both to rest and to listen. His acute ears told him that Haskell had not moved from his own place, and his eyes showed him that the darkness was increasing. Those wonderful, kindly clouds were thickening before the moon, and the stars in troops were going out of sight.
But he did not relax his caution. He knew that he could not afford to make any sound that would arouse the suspicions of Haskell, and it was a quarter of an hour before he felt himself absolutely safe. Then he passed around a big tree and arose behind its trunk, appreciating what a tremendous luxury it was to be a man and to stand upon one's own feet.
He had triumphed again! The stars surely were with him. They might play little tricks upon him now and then to tantalize him, but in the more important matters they were on his side. He stretched himself again and again to relieve the terrible stiffness caused by such long and painful crawling, and then, unable to resist an exultant impulse, he called loudly:
There was a startled exclamation and a bullet fired at random cut the leaves twenty yards away. Harry, making no reply, fled swiftly through the forest toward the valley where the rebel raiders rode.