The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. Through the Bluegrass
Dick's horse had had a good rest, and he was fighting for his head before they were clear of the outskirts of Pendleton. When the road emerged once more into the deep woods the boy gave him the rein. It was well past midnight now, and he wished to reach the army before dawn.
Soon the great horse was galloping, and Dick felt exhilaration as the cool air of early October rushed past. The heat in both east and west had been so long and intense, that year, that the coming of autumn was full of tonic. Yet the uncommon dryness, the least rainy summer and autumn in two generations, still prevailed. The hoofs of Dick's horse left a cloud of dust behind him. The leaves of the trees were falling already, rustling dryly as they fell. Brooks that were old friends of his and that he had never known to go dry before were merely chains of yellow pools in a shallow bed.
He watered his horse at one or two of the creeks that still flowed in good volume, and then went on again, sometimes at a gallop. He passed but one horseman, a farmer who evidently had taken an unusually early start for a mill, as a sack of corn lay across his saddle behind him. Dick nodded but the farmer stared open-mouthed at the youth in the blue uniform who flew past him.
Dick never looked back and by dawn he was with the army. He found Colonel Winchester taking breakfast under the thin shade of an oak, and joined him.
"What did you find, Dick?" asked the colonel, striving to hide the note of anxiety in his voice.
"I found all right at the house, but I did not see mother."
"What had become of her?"
"I learned from a friend that in order to be out of the path of the army or of prowling bands she had gone to relatives of ours in Danville. Then I came away."
"She did well," said Colonel Winchester. "The rebels are concentrating about Lexington, but the battle, I think, will take place far south of that city."
Before the day was old they heard news that changed their opinion for the time at least. A scout brought news that a division of the Confederate army was much nearer than Lexington; in fact, that it was at Frankfort, the capital of the state. And the news was heightened in interest by the statement that the division was there to assist in the inauguration of a Confederate government of the state, so little of which the Confederate army held.
Colonel Winchester at once applied to General Buell for permission for a few officers like himself, natives of Kentucky and familiar with the region, to ride forward and see what the enemy was really doing. Dick was present at the interview and it was characteristic.
"If you leave, what of your regiment, Colonel Winchester?" said General Buell.
"I shall certainly rejoin it in time for battle."
"Suppose the enemy should prevent you?"
"He cannot do so."
"I remember you at Shiloh. You did good work there."
"Thank you, sir."
"And this lad, Lieutenant Mason, he has also done well. But he is young."
"I can vouch for him, sir."
"Then take twenty of your bravest and most intelligent men and ride toward Frankfort. It may be that we shall have to take a part in this inauguration, which I hear is scheduled for to-morrow."
"It may be so, sir," said Colonel Winchester, returning General Buell's grim smile. Then he and Dick saluted and withdrew.
But it did not take the colonel long to make his preparations. Among his twenty men all were natives of Kentucky except Warner, Pennington and Sergeant Whitley. Two were from Frankfort itself, and they were confident that they could approach through the hills with comparative security, the little capital nestling in its little valley.
They rode rapidly and by nightfall drew near to the rough Benson Hills, which suddenly shooting up in a beautiful rolling country, hem in the capital. Although it was now the third day of October the little party marked anew the extreme dryness and the shrunken condition of everything. It was all the more remarkable as no region in the world is better watered than Kentucky, with many great rivers, more small ones, and innumerable creeks and brooks. There are few points in the state where a man can be more than a mile from running water.
The dryness impressed Dick. They had dust here, as they had had it in Virginia, but there it was trampled up by great armies. Here it was raised by their own little party, and as the October winds swept across the dry fields it filled their eyes with particles. Yet it was one of the finest regions of the world, underlaid with vitalizing limestone, a land where the grass grows thick and long and does not die even in winter.
"If one were superstitious," said Dick, "he could think it was a punishment sent upon us all for fighting so much, and for killing so many men about questions that lots of us don't understand, and that at least could have been settled in some other way."
"It's easy enough to imagine it so," said Warner in his precise way, "but after all, despite the reasons against it, here we are fighting and killing one another with a persistence that has never been surpassed. It's a perfectly simple question in mathematics. Let x equal the anger of the South, let y equal the anger of the North, let 10 equal the percentage of reason, 100, of course, being the whole, then you have x + y + 10 equalling 100. The anger of the two sections is consequently x + y, equalling 100 - 10, or 90. When anger constitutes 90 per cent., what chance has reason, which is only 10 per cent., or one-ninth of anger?"
"No chance at all," replied Dick. "That has already been proved without the aid of algebra. Here is a man in a cornfield signaling to us. I wonder what he wants?"
As Dick spoke, Colonel Winchester, who had already noticed the man, gave an order to stop. The stranger, bent and knotted by hard work on the farm, hurried toward them. He leaned against the fence a moment, gasping for breath, and then said:
"You're Union men, ain't you? It's no disguise?"
"Yes," replied Colonel Winchester, "we're Union men, and it's no disguise that we're wearing, Malachi White. I've seen you several times in Frankfort, selling hay."
The farmer, who had climbed upon the fence and who was sitting on the top rail, hands on his knees, stared at him open-mouthed.
"You've got my name right. Malachi White it is," he said, "suah enough, but I don't know yours. 'Pears to me, however, that they's somethin' familiar about you. Mebbe it's the way you throw back your shoulders an' look a fellow squah in the eyes."
Colonel Winchester smiled. No man is insensible to a compliment which is obviously spontaneous.
"I spent a night once at your house, Mr. White," he said. "I was going to Frankfort on horseback. I was overtaken at dusk by a storm and I reached your place just in time. I remember that I slept on a mighty soft feather bed, and ate a splendid breakfast in the morning."
Malachi White was not insensible to compliments either. He smiled, and the smile which merely showed his middle front teeth at first, gradually broadened until it showed all of them. Then it rippled and stretched in little waves, until it stopped somewhere near his ears. Dick regarded him with delight. It was the broadest and finest smile that he had seen in many a long month.
"Now I know you," said Malachi White, looking intently at the colonel. "I ain't as strong on faces as some people, though I reckon I'm right strong on 'em, too, but I'm pow'ful strong on recollectin' hear'in', that is, the voice and the trick of it. It was fo' yea's ago when you stopped at my house. You had a curious trick of pronouncin' r's when they wasn't no r's. You'd say door, an' hour, when ev'body knowed it was doah, an' houah, but I don't hold it ag'in you fo' not knowin' how to pronounce them wo'ds. Yoh name is Ahthuh Winchestuh."
"As right as right can be," said Colonel Winchester, reaching over and giving him a hearty hand. "I'm a colonel in the Union army now, and these are my officers and men. What was it you wanted to tell us?"
"Not to ride on fuhthah. It ain't mo' than fifteen miles to Frankfort. The place is plum full of the Johnnies. I seed 'em thah myself. Ki'by Smith, an' a sma't gen'ral he is, too, is thah, an' so's Bragg, who I don't know much 'bout. They's as thick as black be'ies in a patch, an' they's all gettin ready fo' a gran' ma'ch an' display to-mo'ow when they sweah in the new Southe'n gove'nuh, Mistah Hawes. They've got out scouts, too, colonel, an' if you go on you'll run right squah into 'em an' be took, which I allow you don't want to happen, nohow."
"No, Malachi, I don't, nor do any of us, but we're going on and we don't mean to be taken. Most of the men know this country well. Two of them, in fact, were born in Frankfort."
"Then mebbe you kin look out fo' yo'selves, bein' as you are Kentuckians. I'm mighty strong fo' the Union myself, but a lot of them officers that came down from the no'th 'pear to tu'n into pow'ful fools when they git away from home, knowin' nothin' 'bout the country, an' not willin' to lea'n. Always walkin' into traps. I guess they've nevah missed a single trap the rebels have planted. Sometimes I've been so mad 'bout it that I've felt like quittin' bein' a Yank an' tu'nin' to a Johnny. But somehow I've nevah been able to make up my mind to go ag'in my principles. Is Gen'ral Grant leadin' you?"
"No, General Buell."
"I'm so'y of that. Gen'ral Buell, f'om all I heah, is a good fightah, but slow. Liable to git thar, an' hit like all ta'nation, when it's a little mite too late. He's one of ouah own Kentuckians, an' I won't say anything ag'in him; not a wo'd, colonel, don't think that, but I've been pow'ful took with this fellow Grant. I ain't any sojah, myself, but I like the tales I heah 'bout him. When a fellow hits him he hits back ha'dah, then the fellow comes back with anothah ha'dah still, an' then Grant up an' hits him a wallop that you heah a mile, an' so on an' so on."
"You're right, Malachi. I was with him at Donelson and Shiloh and that's the way he did."
"I reckon it's the right way. Is it true, colonel, that he taps the ba'el?"
"Taps the barrel? What do you mean, Malachi?"
White put his hands hollowed out like a scoop to his mouth and turned up his face.
"I see," said Colonel Winchester, "and I'm glad to say no, Malachi. If he takes anything he takes water just like the rest of us."
"Pow'ful glad to heah it, but it ain't easy to get too much good watah this yeah. Nevah knowed such a dry season befoah, an' I was fifty-two yeahs old, three weeks an' one day ago yestuhday."
"Thank you, Malachi, for your warning. We'll be doubly careful, because of it, and I hope after this war is over to share your fine hospitality once more."
"You'll sho'ly be welcome an' ev'y man an' boy with you will be welcome, too. Fuhthah on, 'bout foah hund'ed yahds, you'll come to a path leadin' into the woods. You take that path, colonel. It'll be sundown soon, an' you follow it th'ough the night."
The two men shook hands again, and then the soldiers rode on at a brisk trot. Malachi White sat on the fence, looking at them from under the brim of his old straw hat, until they came to the path that he had indicated and disappeared in the woods. Then he sighed and walked back slowly to his house in the cornfield. Malachi White had no education, but he had much judgment and he was a philosopher.
But Dick and the others rode on through the forest, penetrating into the high and rough hills which were sparsely inhabited. The nights, as it was now October, were cool, despite the heat and dust of the day, and they rode in a grateful silence. It was more than an hour after dark when Powell, one of the Frankforters, spoke:
"We can hit the old town by midnight easy enough," he said. "Unless they've stretched pretty wide lines of pickets I can lead you, sir, within four hundred yards of Frankfort, where you can stay under cover yourself and look right down into it. I guess by this good moonlight I could point out old Bragg himself, if he should be up and walking around the streets."
"That suits us, Powell," said Colonel Winchester. "You and May lead the way."
May was the other Frankforter and they took the task eagerly. They were about to look down upon home after an absence of more than a year, a year that was more than a normal ten. They were both young, not over twenty, and after a while they turned out of the path and led into the deep woods.
"It's open forest through here, no underbrush, colonel," said Powell, "and it makes easy riding. Besides, about a mile on there's a creek running down to the Kentucky that will have deep water in it, no matter how dry the season has been. Tom May and I have swum in it many a time, and I reckon our horses need water, colonel."
"So they do, and so do we. We'll stop a bit at this creek of yours, Powell."
The creek was all that the two Frankfort lads had claimed for it. It was two feet deep, clear, cold and swift, shadowed by great primeval trees. Men and horses drank eagerly, and at last Colonel Winchester, feeling that there was neither danger nor the need of hurry, permitted them to undress and take a quick bath, which was a heavenly relief and stimulant, allowing them to get clear of the dust and dirt of the day.
"It's a beauty of a creek," said Powell to Dick. "About a half mile further down the stream is a tremendous tree on which is cut with a penknife, 'Dan'l Boone killed a bar here, June 26, 1781.' I found it myself, and I cut away enough of the bark growth with a penknife for it to show clearly. I imagine the great Daniel and Simon Kenton and Harrod and the rest killed lots of bears in these hills."
"I'd go and see that inscription in the morning," said Dick, "if I didn't have a bit of war on my hands."
"Maybe you'll have a chance later on. But I'm feeling bully after this cold bath. Dick, I came into the creek weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds, one hundred and fifty pounds of human being and seventy-five pounds of dust and dirt. I'm back to one hundred and fifty now. Besides, I was fifty years old when I entered the stream, and I've returned to twenty."
"That just about describes me, too, but the colonel is whistling for us to come. Rush your jacket on and jump for your horse."
They had stayed about a half-hour at the creek, and about two o'clock in the morning Powell and May led them through a dense wood to the edge of a high hill.
"There's Frankfort below you," said May in a voice that trembled.
The night was brilliant, almost like day, and they saw the little city clustered along the banks of the Kentucky which flowed, a dark ribbon of blue. Their powerful glasses brought out everything distinctly. They saw the old state house, its trees, and in the open spaces, tents standing by the dozens and scores. It was the division of Kirby Smith that occupied the town, and Bragg himself had made a triumphant entry. Dick wondered which house sheltered him. It was undoubtedly that of some prominent citizen, proud of the honor.
"Isn't it the snuggest and sweetest little place you ever saw?" said May. "Lend me your glasses a minute, please, Dick."
Dick handed them to him, and May took a long look, Dick noticed that the glasses remained directed toward a house among some trees near the river.
"You're looking at your home, are you not?" he asked.
"I surely am. It's that cottage among the oaks. It's bigger than it looks from here. Front porch and back porch, too. You go from the back porch straight down to the river. I've swum across the Kentucky there at night many and many a time. My father and mother are sure to be there now, staying inside with the doors closed, because they're red hot for the Union. Farther up the street, the low red brick house with the iron fence around the yard is Jim Powell's home. You don't mind letting Jim have a look through the glasses, do you?"
"Of course not."
The glasses were handed in turn to Powell, who, as May had done, took a long, long look. He made no comment, when he gave the glasses back to Dick, merely saying: "Thank you." But Dick knew that Powell was deeply moved.
"It may be, lads," said Colonel Winchester, "that you will be able to enter your homes by the front doors in a day or two. Evidently the Southerners intend to make it a big day to-morrow when they inaugurate Hawes, their governor."
"A governor who's a governor only when he is surrounded by an army, won't be much of a governor," said Pennington. "This state refused to secede, and I guess that stands."
"Beyond a doubt it does," said Colonel Winchester, "but they've made great preparations, nevertheless. There are Confederate flags on the Capitol and the buildings back of it, and I see scaffolding for seats outside. Are there other places from which we can get good looks, lads?"
"Plenty of them," May and Powell responded together, and they led them from hill to hill, all covered with dense forest. Several times they saw Southern sentinels on the slopes near the edge of the woods, but May and Powell knew the ground so thoroughly that they were always able to keep the little troop under cover without interfering with their own scouting operations.
Buell had given final instructions to the colonel to come back with all the information possible, and, led by his capable guides, the colonel used his opportunities to the utmost. He made a half circle about Frankfort, going to the river, and then back again. With the aid of the glasses and the brilliancy of the night he was able to see that the division of Kirby Smith was not strong enough to hold the town under any circumstances, if the main Union army under Buell came up, and the colonel was resolved that it should come.
It was a singular coincidence that the Southerners were making a military occupation of Frankfort with a Union army only a day's march away. The colonel found a certain grim irony in it as he took his last look and turned away to join Buell.
A half mile into the forest and they heard the crashing of hoofs in the brushwood. Colonel Winchester drew up his little troop abruptly as a band of men in gray emerged into an open space.
"Confederate cavalry!" exclaimed Dick.
"Yes," said the colonel.
But the gray troopers were not much more numerous than the blue. Evidently they were a scouting party, too, and for a few minutes they stared at each other across a space of a couple of hundred yards or so. Both parties fired a few random rifle shots, more from a sense of duty than a desire to harm. Then they fell away, as if by mutual consent, the gray riding toward Frankfort and the blue toward the Union army.
"Was it a misfortune to meet them?" asked Dick.
"I don't think so," replied Colonel Winchester. "They had probably found out already that our army was near. Of course they had out scouts. Kirby Smith, I know, is an alert man, and anyway, the march of an army as large as ours could not be hidden."
It was dawn again when the colonel's little party reached the Union camp, and when he made his report the heavy columns advanced at once. But the alarm had already spread about at Frankfort. The morning there looked upon a scene even more lively than the one that had occurred in Buell's camp. The scouts brought in the news that the Union army in great force was at hand. They had met some of their cavalry patrols in the night, on the very edge of the city. Resistance to the great Union force was out of the question, because Bragg had committed the error that the Union generals had been committing so often in the east. He had been dividing and scattering his forces so much that he could not now concentrate them and fight at the point where they were needed most.
The division of the Southern army that occupied Frankfort hastily gathered up its arms and supplies and departed, taking with it the governor who was never inaugurated, and soon afterward the Union men marched in. Both May and Powell had the satisfaction of entering their homes by the front doors, and seeing the parents who did not know until then whether they were dead or alive.
Dick had a few hours' leave and he walked about the town. He had made friends when he was there in the course of that memorable struggle over secession, and he saw again all of them who had not gone to the war.
Harry and his father were much present in his mind then, because he had recently seen Colonel Kenton, and because the year before, all three of them had talked together in these very places.
But he could not dwell too much in the past. He was too young for it, and the bustle of war was too great. It was said that Bragg's forces had turned toward the southeast, but were still divided. It was reported that the Bishop-General, Polk, had been ordered to attack the Northern force in or near Frankfort, but the attack did not come. Colonel Winchester said it was because Polk recognized the superior strength of his enemy, and was waiting until he could co-operate with Bragg and Hardee.
But whatever it was Dick soon found himself leaving Frankfort and marching into the heart of the Bluegrass. He began to have the feeling, or rather instinct warned him, that battle was near. Yet he did not fear for the Northern army as he had feared in Virginia and Maryland. He never felt that such men as Lee and Jackson were before them. He felt instead that the Southern commanders were doubtful and hesitating. They now had there no such leaders as Albert Sidney Johnston, who fell at Shiloh when victory was in Southern hands and before it had time to slip from their grasp.
So the army dropped slowly down eastward and southward through the Bluegrass. May and Powell had obtained but a brief glimpse of their home town, before they were on their way again with a purpose which had little to do with such peaceful things as home.
Dick saw with dismay that the concentric march of the armies was bringing them toward the very region into which his mother had fled for refuge. She was at Danville, which is in the county of Boyle, and he heard now that the Confederate army, or at least a large division of it, was gathering at a group of splendid springs near a village called Perryville in the same county. But second thought told him that she would be safe yet in Danville, as he began to feel sure now that the meeting of the armies would be at Perryville.
Dick's certainty grew out of the fact that the great springs were about Perryville. The extraordinary drouth and the remarkable phenomenon of brooks drying up in Kentucky had continued. Water, cool and fresh for many thousands of men, was wanted or typhoid would come.
This need of vast quantities of water fresh and cool from the earth, was obvious to everybody, and the men marched gladly toward the springs. The march would serve two purposes: it would quench their thirst, and it would bring on the battle they wanted to clear Kentucky of the enemy.
"Fine country, this of yours, Dick," said Warner as they rode side by side. "I don't think I ever saw dust of a higher quality. It sifts through everything, fills your eyes, nose and mouth and then goes down under your collar and gives you a neat and continuous dust bath."
"You mustn't judge us by this phenomenon," said Dick. "It has not happened before since the white man came, and it won't happen again in a hundred years."
"You may speak with certainty of the past, Dickie, my lad, but I don't think we can tell much about the next century. I'll grant the fact, however, that fifty or a hundred thousand men marching through a dry country anywhere are likely to raise a lot of dust. Still, Dickie, my boy, I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but if I live through this, as I mean to do, I intend to call it the Dusty Campaign."
"Call it what you like if in the end you call it victory."
"The dust doesn't hurt me," said Pennington. "I've seen it as dry as a bone on the plains with great clouds of it rolling away behind the buffalo herds. There's nothing the matter with dust. Country dust is one of the cleanest things in the world."
"That's so," said Warner, "but it tickles and makes you hot. I should say that despite its cleanly qualities, of which you speak, Frank, my friend, its power to annoy is unsurpassed. Remember that bath we took in the creek the night we went to Frankfort. Did you ever before see such cool running water, and Dickie, old boy, remember how much there was of it! It was just as deep and cool and fine after we left it."
"George," said Dick, as he wiped his dusty face, "if you say anything more about the creek and its cool water this army will lose a capable lieutenant, and it will lose him mighty soon. It will be necessary, too, to bury him very far from his home in Vermont."
"Keep cool, Dickie boy, and let who will be dusty. Brooks may fail once in a hundred years in Kentucky, but they haven't failed in a thousand in Vermont. You need not remind me that the white man has been there only two or three hundred years. My information comes straight from a very old Indian chief who was the depository of tribal recollections absolutely unassailable. The streams even in midsummer come down as full and cold as ever from the mountains."
"We'll have water and plenty of it in a day or two. The scouts say that the Confederate force at the springs is not strong enough to withstand us."
"But General Buell, not knowing exactly what General Bragg intends with his divided force, has divided his own in order to meet him at all points."
"Has he done that?" exclaimed Dick aghast. Like other young officers he felt perfectly competent to criticize anybody.
"He has, and it seems to me that when the enemy divided was the time for us to unite or remain united. Then we could scoop him up in detail. Why, Dick, with an army of sixty thousand men or so, made of such material as ours has shown itself to be, we could surely beat any Southern force in Kentucky!"
"Especially as we have no Lees and Stonewall Jacksons to fight."
"Maybe General Buell has divided his force in order to obtain plenty of water," said Pennington. "We fellows ought to be fair to him."
"Perhaps you're right," said Warner, "and you're right when you say we ought to be fair to him. I know it will be a great relief to General Buell to find that we three are supporting his management of this army. Shall I go and tell him, Frank?"
"Not now, but you can a little later on. Suppose you wait until a day or two after the battle which we all believe is coming."
The three boys were really in high spirits. Little troubled them but the dryness and the dust. They had tasted so much of defeat and drawn battle in the east that they had an actual physical sense of better things in the west. The horizons were wider, the mountains were lower, and there was not so much enveloping forest. They did not have the strangling sensation, mental only, which came from the fear that hostile armies would suddenly rush from the woods and fall upon their flank.
Besides, there was Shiloh. After all, they had won Shiloh, and the coming of this very Buell who led them now had enabled them to win it. And Shiloh was the only great battle that they had yet really won.
They camped that night in the dry fields. The Winchester regiment was a part of the division under McCook, while Buell with the rest of the army was some miles away. It was still warm, although October was now seven days old, and Dick had never before heard the grass and leaves rustle so dryly under the wind. Off in the direction of Perryville they saw the dim gleam of red, and they knew it came from the camp-fires of the Southern army. Buell had in his detached divisions sixty thousand men, most of them veterans and Dick believed that if they were brought together victory was absolutely sure on the morrow.
The troops around the Winchester regiment were lads from Ohio, and they affiliated readily. Most of the new men were in these Ohio regiments, and Dick, Warner and Frank felt themselves ancient veterans who could talk to the recruits and give them good advice. And the recruits took it in the proper spirit. They looked up with admiration to those who had been at Shiloh, and the Second Manassas and Antietam.
Dick thought their spirit remarkable. They were not daunted at all by the great failures in the east. They did not discount the valor of the Southern troops, but they asked to be led against them.
"Come over here," said one of the Ohio boys to Dick. "Ahead of us and on the side there's rough ground with thick woods and deep ravines. I'll show you something just at the edge of the woods. Bring your friends with you."
The twilight had already turned to night and Dick, calling Warner and Pennington, went with his new friend. There, flowing from under a great stone, shaded by a huge oak, was a tiny stream of pure cold water a couple of inches deep but seven or eight inches broad. Under the stone a beautiful basin a foot and a half across and about as deep had been chiselled out.
"A lot of us found it here," said the Ohio boy, "and we found, too, a tin cup chained to a staple driven into the stone. See, it's here still. We haven't broken the chain. I suppose it belongs to some farmer close by. The boys brought other tin cups and we drank so fast that the brook itself became dry. The water never got any further than the pool. I suppose it's just started again. Drink."
The boys drank deeply and gratefully. No such refreshing stream had ever flowed down their throats before.
"Ohio," said Dick, "you're a lovely, dirty angel."
"I guess I am," said Ohio, "'cause I found the spring. It turned me from an old man back to a boy again. Cold as ice, ain't it? I can tell you why. This spring starts right at the North Pole, right under the pole itself, dives away down into the earth, comes under Bering Sea and then under British America, and then under the lakes, and then under Ohio, and then under a part of Kentucky, and then comes out here especially to oblige us, this being a dry season."
"I believe every word you say, Ohio," said Warner, "since your statements are proved by the quality of the water. I could easily demonstrate it as a mathematical proposition."
"Don't you pay any attention to him, Ohio," said Dick. "He's from Vermont, and he's so full of big words that he's bound to get rid of some of them."
"I'm not doubting you, Vermont," said Ohio. "As you believe every word I said, I believe every word you said."
"There's nothing extraordinary about them things," said another Ohio boy belonging to a different brigade, who was sitting near. "Do you know that we swallowed a whole river coming down here? We began swallowing it when we crossed the Ohio, just like a big snake swallowing a snake not quite so big, taking down his head first, then keeping on swallowing him until the last tip of his tail disappeared inside. It was a good big stream when we started, water up to our knees, but we formed across it in a line five hundred men deep and then began to drink as we marched forward. Of course, a lot of water got past the first four hundred lines or so, but the five hundredth always swallowed up the last drop."
"We marched against that stream for something like a hundred and fifty miles. No water ever got past us. We left a perfectly dry bed behind. Up in the northern part of the state not a drop of water came down the river in a month. We followed it, or at least a lot of us did, clean to its source in some hills a piece back of us. We drank it dry up to a place like this, only bigger, and do you know, a fellow of our company named Jim Lambert was following it up under the rocks, and we had to pull him out by the feet to keep him from being suffocated. That was four days ago, and we had a field telegram yesterday from a place near the Ohio, saying that a full head of water had come down the river again, three feet deep from bank to bank and running as if there had been a cloudburst in the hills. Mighty glad they were to see it, too."
There was a silence, but at length a solemn youth sitting near said in very serious tones:
"I've thought over that story very thoroughly, and I believe it's a lie."
"Vermont," said the first Ohio lad, "don't you have faith in my friend's narrative?"
"I believe every word of it," said Warner warmly. "Our friend here, who I see can see, despite the dim light, has a countenance which one could justly say indicates a doubtful and disputatious nature, wishes to discredit it because he has not heard of such a thing before. Now, I ask you, gentlemen, intelligent and fair-minded as I know you are, where would we be, where would civilization be if we assumed the attitude of our friend here. If a thing is ever seen at all somebody sees it first, else it would never be seen. Quod erat demonstrandum. You remember your schooldays, of course. I thank you for your applause, gentlemen, but I'm not through yet. We have passed the question of things seen, and we now come to the question of things done, which is perhaps more important. It is obvious even to the doubtful or carping mind that if a new thing is done it is done by somebody first. Others will do it afterward, but there must and always will be a first.
"Nobody ever swallowed a river before, beginning at its mouth and swallowing it clean down to its source, but a division of gallant young troops from Ohio have done so. They are the first, and they must and always will be the first. Doubtless, other rivers will be swallowed later on. As the population increases, larger rivers will be swallowed, but the credit for initiating the first and greatest pure-water drinking movement in the history of the world will always belong to a brave army division from the state of Ohio."
A roar of applause burst forth, and Warner, standing up, bowed gracefully with his hand upon his heart. Then came a dead silence, as a hand fell upon the Vermonter's shoulder. Warner looked around and his jaw fell. General McCook, who commanded this part of the army, was standing beside him.
"Excuse me, sir, I--" began Warner.
"Never mind," said the general. "I had come for a drink of water, and hearing your debate I stopped for a few moments behind a tree to listen. I don't know your name, young gentleman."
"Warner, sir, George Warner, first lieutenant in the regiment of Colonel Winchester."
"I merely wished to say, Lieutenant Warner, that I listened to your speech from the first word to the last, and I found it very cogent and powerful. As you say, things must have beginnings. If there is no first, there can be no second or third. I am entirely convinced by your argument that our army swallowed a river as it marched southward. In fact, I have often felt so thirsty that I felt as if I could have swallowed it myself all alone."
There was another roar of applause, and as a dozen cups filled with water were pushed at the general, he drank deeply and often, and then retired amid further applause.
"They'll fight well for him, to-morrow," said Dick.
"No doubt of it," said Warner.
They went into the edge of the wood and sought sleep and rest. But there was much merry chatter first among these lads, for many of whom death had already spread its somber wings.