The Shades of the Wilderness by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. In the Wagon
He ran at first, reckless of impediments, and there was a sound of crashing as he sped through the bushes. He was not in the least afraid of Haskell. He had his rifle and pistols and in the woods he was infinitely the superior. He did not even believe that Haskell would pursue, but he wanted to get far beyond any possible Federal sentinels as soon as possible.
After a flight of a few hundred yards he slackened speed, and began to go silently. The old instincts and skill of the forester returned to him. He knew that he was safe from immediate pursuit and now he would approach his own lines carefully. He was grateful for the chance or series of chances that always took him toward Lee. It seemed now that his enemies had merely succeeded in driving him at an increased pace in the way he wanted to go.
He was descending a slope, thickly clothed with undergrowth. A few hundred yards farther his knees suddenly crumpled under him and he sank down, seized at the same time with a fit of nervous trembling. He had passed through so many ordeals that strong and seasoned as he was and high though his spirits, the collapse came all at once. He knew what was the matter and, quietly stretching himself out, he lay still that the spell might pass.
The lonesome owl, probably the same one that he had heard earlier, began to hoot, and now it was near by. Harry thought he could make out its dim figure on a branch and he was sure that the red eyes, closed by day, were watching him, doubtless with a certain contempt at his weakness.
"Old man, if you had been chased by the fowler as often as I have," were the words behind his teeth, addressed to the dim and fluffy figure, "you wouldn't be sitting up there so calm and cocky. Your tired head would sink down between your legs, your feathers would be wet with perspiration and you'd be so tired you'd hardly be able to hang on to the tree."
Came again the lonesome hoot of the owl, spreading like a sinister omen through the forest. It made Harry angry, and, raising himself up a little, he shook his fist again at the figure on the branch, now growing clearer in outline.
"'Bird or devil?'" he quoted.
The owl hooted once more, the strange ominous cry carrying far in the silence of the night.
"Devil it is," said Harry, "and quoth your evil majesty 'never more.' I won't be scared by a big owl playing the part of the raven. It's not 'nevermore' with me. I've many a good day ahead and don't you dare tell me I haven't."
Came the solemn and changeless hoot of the owl in reply.
Harry's exertions and excitement had brought too much blood to his head and he was seeing red. He raised himself upon his elbows and stared at the owl which stared back from red rimmed eyes, cold, emotionless, implacable. He had been terribly shaken, and now a superstitious fright overcame him. The raven and the albatross were in his mind and he murmured under his breath passages from their ominous poems. The scholar had his raven, the mariner had his albatross and now he alone in the forest had his owl, to his mind the most terrible bird of the three.
Came again that solemn and warning cry, the most depressing of all in the wilderness, while the changeless and sinister eyes stared steadily at him. Then Harry remembered that he had a rifle, and he sat up. He would slay this winged monster. There was light enough for him to draw a bead, and he was too good a marksman to miss.
He dropped the muzzle of the rifle in a sudden access of fear as he remembered the albatross. A shiver ran through every nerve and muscle, and so heavily was he oppressed that he felt as if he had just escaped committing murder. He rubbed his hand across his damp forehead and the act brought him out of that dim world in which he had been living for the last ten or fifteen minutes.
"Bird of whatever omen you may be, I'll not shoot you. That's certain," he said, "but I'll leave you to your melancholy predictions just as soon as I can."
He stood up somewhat unsteadily, and renewed the descent of the slope. Near its foot he came to a brook and bathing his face plentifully in the cool water he felt wonderfully refreshed. All his strength was flowing back swiftly.
Then he entered the valley, pressing straight toward the west, and soon heard the tread of horses. He knew that they must be the cavalry of his own army, but he withdrew into the bushes until he was assured. A dozen men riding slowly and warily came into view, and though the moonlight was wan he recognized them at once. When they were opposite him he stepped from his ambush and said:
"A happy night to you, Colonel Talbot."
Colonel Leonidas Talbot was a brave man, but seldom in his life had he been so shaken.
"Good God, Hector!" he cried. "It's Harry Kenton's ghost!"
Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire turned pale.
"I don't believe in ghosts, Leonidas," he said, "but this one certainly looks like that of Harry Kenton."
"Colonel Talbot," called Harry, "I'm not a ghost. I'm the real Harry Kenton, hunting for our army."
"Pale but substantial," said St. Clair, who rode just behind the two colonels. "He's our old Harry himself, and I'd know him anywhere."
"No ghost at all and the Yankee bullets can't make him one," said Happy Tom.
A weakness seized Harry and a blackness came before his eyes. When he recovered St. Clair was holding him up, and Colonel Talbot was trying to pour strong waters down his throat.
"How long have I been this way?" he asked anxiously.
"About sixty seconds," replied Colonel Talbot, "but what difference does it make?"
"Because I'm in a big hurry to get to General Lee! Oh! Colonel! Colonel! You must speed me on my way! I've got a message from Colonel Sherburne to General Lee that means everything, and on the road I captured another from General Meade to General Pleasanton. Put me on a horse, won't you, and gallop me to the commander-in-chief!"
"Are you strong enough to ride alone?"
"I'm strong enough to do anything now."
"Then up with you! Here, on Carter's horse! Carter can ride behind Hubbell! St. Clair, you and Langdon ride on either side of him! You should reach the commander-in-chief in three-quarters of an hour, Harry!"
"And there is no Yankee cavalry in between?"
"No, they're thick on the slopes above us! You knew that, but here you're inside our own lines. Judging by your looks you've had quite a time, Harry. Now hurry on with him, boys!"
"So I have had, Colonel, but the appearance of you, Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire and the boys was like a light from Heaven. Good-by!"
"Good-by!" the two colonels called back, but their voices were already dying in the distance as Harry and his comrades were now riding rapidly down the valley, knee to knee, because St. Clair and Langdon meant to keep very close to him. They saw that he was a little unsteady, and that his eyes were unnaturally bright. They knew, too, that if he said he had great news for General Lee he told the truth, and they meant that he should get there with it in the least time possible.
The valley opened out before them, broadening considerably as they advanced. The night was far gone, there was not much moonlight, but their eyes had grown used to the dark, and they could see well. They passed sentinels and small detachments of cavalry, to whom St. Clair and Langdon gave the quick password. They saw fields of wheat stubble and pastures and crossed two brooks. The curiosity of Langdon and St. Clair was overwhelming but they restrained it for a long time. They could tell by his appearance that he had passed through unimaginable hardships, but they were loath to ask questions.
An owl on their right hooted, and both of them saw Harry shiver.
"What makes an owl's cry disturb you so, Harry?" asked Langdon.
"Because one of them tried to put the hoodoo on me as they say down in your country, Happy. I was lying back there in the forest on the hill and the biggest and reddest-eyed owl that was ever born sat on a bough over head, and kept telling me that I was finished, right at the end of my rope. But he was a liar, because here I am, with you fellows on either side of me, inside our lines and riding to the camp of the commander-in-chief."
"I think you're a bit shaky, Harry," said St. Clair, "and I don't wonder at it. If I had been through all I think you've been through I'd tumble off that horse into the road and die."
"Has any messenger come from Colonel Sherburne at the river to General Lee?"
"Not that I've heard of. No, I'm sure that none's come," replied St. Clair.
"Then I'll get to him first. Don't think, Arthur, it's just a foolish ambition of mine to lead, but the sooner some one reaches the general the better."
"We'll see that you're first old man," said Langdon. "It's not more than a half-hour now."
But Harry reeled in his saddle. The singular weakness that he had felt a while back returned, and the road grew dark before him. With a mighty effort he steadied himself in the saddle and St. Clair heard him say in a fierce undertone: "I will go through with it!" St. Clair looked across at Langdon and the signaling look of Happy Tom replied. They drew in just a little closer. Now and then they talked to him sharply and briskly, rousing him again and again from the lethargy into which he was fast sinking.
"Look! In the woods over there, Harry!" exclaimed St. Clair. "See the men stretched asleep on the grass! They're the survivors of Pickett's brigades that charged at Gettysburg."
"And I was there!" said Harry. "I saw the greatest charge ever made in the history of the world!"
He reeled a little toward St. Clair, who caught him by the shoulder and straightened him in the saddle.
"Of course you had a pleasant, easy ride from the Potomac," said Happy Tom, "but I don't understand how as good a horseman as you lost your horse. I suppose he ran away while you were picking berries by the roadside."
"Me pick berries by the roadside, while I'm on such a mission!" exclaimed Harry indignantly, rousing himself up until his eyes flashed, which was just what Happy wished. "I didn't see any berries! Besides I didn't start on a horse. I left in a boat."
"A boat? Now, Harry, I know you've turned romancer. I guess your mystic troubles with the owl--if you really saw an owl--have been a sort of spur to your fancy."
"Do you mean to say, Tom Langdon, that I didn't see an owl and talk with him? I tell you I did, and his conversation was a lot more intelligent than yours, even if it was unpleasant."
"Of course it was," said St. Clair. "Happy's chief joy in life is talking. You know how he chatters away, Harry. He hates to sleep, because then he loses good time that he might use in talk. I'll wager you anything against anything, Harry, that when the Angel Gabriel blows his horn Happy will rise out of his grave, shaking his shroud and furious with anger. He'll hold up the whole resurrection while he argues with Gabriel that he blew his horn either too late or too early, or that it was a mighty poor sort of a horn anyhow."
"I may do all that, Harry," said Happy, "but Arthur is sure to be the one who will raise the trouble about the shroud. You know how finicky he is about his clothes. He'll find fault with the quality of his shroud, and he'll say that it's cut either too short or too long. Then he'll insist, while all the billions wait, on draping the shroud in the finest Greek or Roman toga style, before he marches up to his place on the golden cloud and receives his harp."
"That'll be old Arthur, sure," he said. Then his head drooped again. Fatigue was overpowering him. St. Clair and Langdon put a hand on either shoulder and held him erect, but Harry was so far sunk in lethargy that he was not conscious of their grasp. Men looked curiously at the three young officers riding rapidly forward, the one in the center apparently held on his horse by the other two.
St. Clair took prompt measures.
"Harry Kenton!" he called sharply.
"Do you know what they do with a sentinel caught asleep?"
"They shoot him!"
"What of a messenger, bearing great news who has ridden two or three days and nights through a thousand dangers, and then becomes unconscious in his saddle within five hundred yards of his journey's end?"
"The stake wouldn't be too good for him," replied Harry as with a mighty effort he shook himself, both body and mind. Once more his eyes cleared and once more he sat erect in his saddle without help.
"I won't fail, Arthur," he said. "Show the way."
"There's a big tree by the roadside almost straight ahead," said St. Clair. "General Lee is asleep under that, but he'll be as wide awake as any man can be a half-minute after you arrive."
They sprang from their horses, St. Clair spoke quickly with a watching officer who went at once to awaken Lee. Harry dimly saw the form of the general who was sleeping on a blanket, spread over small boughs. Near him a man in brilliant uniform was walking softly back and forth, and now and then impatiently striking the tops of his high yellow-topped boots with a little riding whip. Harry knew at once that it was Stuart, but the cavalry leader had not yet noticed him.
Harry saw the officer bend over the commander-in-chief, who rose in an instant to his feet. He was fully dressed and he showed gray in the dusky light, but he seemed as ever calm and grave. Harry felt instantly the same swell of courage that the presence of Jackson had always brought to him. It was Lee, the indomitable, the man of genius, who could not be beaten. He heard him say to the officer who had awakened him, "Bring him immediately!" and he stepped forward, strengthening himself anew and filled with pride that he should be the first to arrive, as he felt that he certainly now was.
"Lieutenant Kenton!" said Lee.
"Yes, sir," said Harry, lifting his cap.
"You were sent with Colonel Sherburne to see about the fords of the Potomac."
"I was, sir."
"And he has sent you back with the report?"
"He has, sir. He did not give me any written report for fear that I might be captured. He did me the honor to say that my verbal message would be believed."
"It will. I know you, as I do the other members of my staff. Proceed."
"The Potomac is in great flood, sir, and the bridge is destroyed. It can't be crossed until it runs down to its normal depth."
Harry saw other generals of high rank drawing near. One he recognized as Longstreet. They were all silent and eager.
"Colonel Sherburne ordered me to say to you, sir," continued Harry, "that the best fords would be between Williamsport and Hagerstown when the river ran down."
"When did you leave him?"
"Nearly two days ago, sir."
"You have made good speed through a country swarming with our enemy. You are entitled to rest."
"It's not all, sir?"
"On my way I captured a messenger with a letter from General Meade to General Pleasanton. I have the message, sir."
He brought forth the paper from his blouse and extended it to General Lee, who took it eagerly. Some one held up a torch and he read it aloud to his generals.
"And so Meade means to trap me," he said, "by coming down on our flank!"
"Since the river is unfordable he'll have plenty of time to attack us there," said Longstreet.
"But will he dare to attack?" said Stuart defiantly. "He was able to hold his own in defense at Gettysburg, but it's another thing to take the offensive. We hear that General Meade is cautious and that he makes many complaints to his government. A complainer is not the kind of man who can destroy the Army of Northern Virginia."
"Sometimes it's well to be cautious, General," said Lee.
Then he turned to Harry and said:
"Again I commend you."
Harry saluted proudly, and then fell unconscious at the feet of General Lee.
When the young staff officer awoke, he was lying in a wagon which was moving slowly, with many jolts over a very rough road. It was perhaps one of these jolts that awoke him, because his eyes still felt very heavy with sleep. His position was comfortable as he lay on a heap of blankets, and the sides of the wagon looked familiar. Moreover the broad back of the driver was not that of a stranger. Moving his head into a higher place on the blankets he called.
"Hey you, Dick Jones, where are you taking me?"
Jones turned his rubicund and kindly face.
"Don't it beat all how things come about?" he said. "This wagon wasn't built for passengers, but I have you once and then I have you twice, sleepin' like a prince on them blankets. I guess if the road wasn't so rough you'd have slept all the way to Virginia. But I'm proud to have you as a passenger. They say you've been coverin' yourself with glory. I don't know about that, but I never before saw a man who was so all fired tuckered out."
"Where did you find me?"
"I didn't exactly find you myself. They say you saluted General Lee so deep and so strong that you just fell down at his feet an' didn't move, as if you intended to stay there forever. But four of your friends brought you to my wagon feet foremost, with orders from General Lee if I didn't treat you right that I'd get a thousand lashes, be tarred an' feathered, an' hung an' shot an' burned, an' then be buried alive. For all of which there was no need, as I'm your friend and would treat you right anyway."
"I know you would," laughed Harry. "You can't afford to lose your best passenger. How long have I been sleeping in this rough train of yours?"
"Since about three o'clock in the morning."
"And what time might it be now."
"Well it might be ten o'clock in the morning or it might be noon, but it ain't either."
"Well, then, what time is it?"
"It's about six o'clock in the afternoon, Mr. Kenton, and I judge that you've slept nigh on to fifteen hours, which is mighty good for a man who was as tired as you was."
"And what has the army been doing while I slept?"
"Oh, it's been marchin' an' marchin' an' marchin'. Can't you hear the wagons an' the cannons clinkin' an' clankin'? An' the hoofs of the horses beatin' in the road? An the feet of forty or fifty thousand men comin' down ker-plunk! ker-plunk! an' all them thousands talkin' off an' on? Yes, we're still marchin', Mr. Kenton, but we're retreatin' with all our teeth showin' an' our claws out, sharpened specially. Most of the boys don't care if Meade would attack us. They'd be glad of the chance to get even for Gettysburg."
There was a beat of hoofs and St. Clair rode up by the side of the wagon.
"All right again, Harry?" he said cheerfully. "I'm mighty glad of it. Other messengers have got through from Sherburne, confirming what you said, but you were the first to arrive and the army already was on the march because of the news you brought. Dalton arrived about noon, dead beat. Happy is coming with a horse for you, and you can rejoin the staff now."
"Before I leave I'll have to thank Mr. Jones once more," said Harry. "He runs the best passenger service that I know."
"Welcome to it any time, either you or your friend," said Jones, saluting with his whip.