The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. At the Capital
The Southern cavalry was seen almost at the same time by many men in the regiments, and nervous and hasty, as was natural at such a time, they opened a scattering fire. The horsemen did not return the fire, but seemed to melt away in the darkness.
But the shrewdest of the officers, among whom was Colonel Winchester, took alarm at this sudden appearance and disappearance. Dick would have divined from their manner, even without their talk, that they believed Jackson was at hand. Action followed quickly. The army stopped and began to seek a strong position in the wood. Cannon were drawn up, their mouths turned to the side on which the horsemen had appeared, and the worn regiments assumed the attitude of defense. Dick's heart throbbed with pride when he saw that they were as ready as ever to fight, although they had suffered great losses and the bitterest of disappointments.
"What I said I've got to say over again," said Pennington ruefully: "the night's no time for fighting. It's heathenish in Stonewall Jackson to follow us, and annoy us in such a way."
"Such a way! Such a way!" said Dick impatiently. "We've got to learn to fight as he does. Good God, Frank, think of all the sacrifices we are making to save our Union, the great republic! Think how the hateful old monarchies will sneer and rejoice if we fall, and here in the East our generals just throw our men away! They divide and scatter our armies in such a manner that we simply ask to be beaten."
"Sh! sh!" said Warner, as he listened to the violent outbreak, so unusual on the part of the reserved and self-contained lad. "Here come two generals."
"Two too many," muttered Dick. A moment or two later he was ashamed of himself, not because of what he had said, but because he had said it. Then Warner seized him by the arm and pointed.
"A new general, bigger than all the rest, has come," he said, "and although I've never seen him before I know with mathematical certainty that it's General John Pope, commander-in-chief of the Army of Virginia."
Both Dick and Pennington knew instinctively that Warner was right. General Pope, a strongly built man in early middle years, surrounded by a brilliant staff, rode into a little glade in the midst of the troops, and summoned to him the leading officers who had taken part in the battle.
Dick and his two comrades stood on one side, but they could not keep from hearing what was said and done. In truth they did not seek to avoid hearing, nor did many of the young privates who stood near and who considered themselves quite as good as their officers.
Pope, florid and full-faced, was in a fine humor. He complimented the officers on their valor, spoke as if they had won a victory--which would have been a fact had others done their duty--and talked slightingly of Jackson. The men of the west would show this man his match in the art of war.
Dick listened to it all with bitterness in his heart. He had no doubt that Pope was brave, and he could see that he was confident. Yet it took something more than confidence to defeat an able enemy. What had become of those gray horsemen in the bush? They had appeared once and they could appear again. He had believed that Jackson himself was at hand, and he still believed it. His eyes shifted from Pope to the dark woods, which, with their thick foliage, turned back the moonlight.
"George," he whispered to Warner, "do you think you can see anything among those trees?"
"I can make out dimly one or two figures, which no doubt are our scouts. Ah-h!"
The long "Ah-h!" was drawn by a flash and the report of a rifle. A second and a third report came, and then the crash of a heavy fire. The scouts and sentinels came running in, reporting that a great force with batteries, presumably the whole army of Jackson, was at hand.
A deep murmur ran through the Union army, but there was no confusion. The long hours of fighting had habituated them to danger. They were also too tired to become excited, and in addition, they were of as stern stuff at night as they had been in the morning. They were ready to fight again.
Formidable columns of troops appeared through the woods, their bayonets glistening in the moonlight. The heavy rifle fire began once more, although it was nearly midnight, and then came the deep thunder of cannon, sending round shot and shells among the Union troops. But the men in blue, harried beyond endurance, fought back fiercely. They shared the feelings of Pennington. They felt that they had been persecuted, that this thing had grown inhuman, and they used rifles and cannon with astonishing vigor and energy.
Two heavy Union batteries replied to the Southern cannon, raking the woods with shell, round shot and grape, and Dick concluded that in the face of so much resolution Jackson would not press an attack at night, when every kind of disaster might happen in the darkness. His own regiment had lain down among the leaves, and the men were firing at the flashes on their right. Dick looked for General Pope and his brilliant staff, but he did not see them.
"Gone to bring up the reserves," whispered Warner, who saw Dick's inquiring look.
But the Vermonter's slur was not wholly true. Pope was on his way to his main force, doubtless not really believing that Jackson himself was at hand. But the little army that he left behind fighting with renewed energy and valor broke away from the Southern grasp and continued its march toward that court house, in which the boys could see no merit. Jackson himself, knowing what great numbers were ahead, was content to swing away and seek for prey elsewhere.
They emerged from the wood toward morning and saw ahead of them great masses of troops in blue. They would have shouted with joy, but they were too tired. Besides, nearly two thousand of their men were killed or wounded, and they had no victory to celebrate.
Dick ate breakfast with his comrades. The Northern armies nearly always had an abundance of provisions, and now they were served in plenty. For the moment, the physical overcame the mental in Dick. It was enough to eat and to rest and to feel secure. Thousands of friendly faces were around them, and they would not have to fight in either day or dark for their lives. Their bones ceased to ache, and the good food and the good coffee began to rebuild the worn tissues. What did the rest matter?
After breakfast these men who had marched and fought for nearly twenty hours were told to sleep. Only one command was needed. It was August, and the dry grass and the soft earth were good enough for anybody. The three lads, each with an arm under his head, slept side by side. At noon they were still sleeping, and Colonel Winchester, as he was passing, looked at the three, but longest at Dick. His gaze was half affection, half protection, but it was not the boy alone whom he saw. He saw also his fair-haired young mother in that little town on the other side of the mountains.
While Dick still slept, the minds of men were at work. Pope's army, hitherto separated, was now called together by a battle. Troops from every direction were pouring upon the common center. The little army which had fought so gallantly the day before now amounted to only one-fourth of the whole. McDowell, Sigel and many other generals joined Pope, who, with the strange faculty of always seeing his enemy too small, while McClellan always saw him too large, began to feed upon his own sanguine anticipations, and to regard as won the great victory that he intended to win. He sent telegrams to Washington announcing that his triumph at Cedar Run was only the first of a series that his army would soon achieve.
It was late in the afternoon when Dick awoke, and he was amazed to see that the sun was far down the western sky. But he rubbed his eyes and, remembering, knew that he had slept at least ten hours. He looked down at the relaxed figures of Warner and Pennington on either side of him. They still slumbered soundly, but he decided that they had slept long enough.
"Here, you," he exclaimed, seizing Warner by the collar and dragging him to a sitting position, "look at the sun! Do you realize that you've lost a day out of your bright young life?"
Then he seized Pennington by the collar also and dragged him up. Both Warner and Pennington yawned prodigiously.
"If I've lost a day, and it would seem that I have, then I'm glad of it," replied Warner. "I could afford to lose several in such a pleasant manner. I suppose a lot of Stonewall Jackson's men were shooting at me while I slept, but I was lucky and didn't know about it."
"You talk too long," said Pennington. "That comes of your having taught school. You could talk all day to boys younger than yourself, and they were afraid to answer back."
"Shut up, both of you," said Dick. "Here comes the sergeant, and I think from his look he has something to say worth hearing."
Sergeant Whitley had cleansed the blood and dust from his face, and a handkerchief tied neatly around his head covered up the small wound there. He looked trim and entirely restored, both mentally and physically.
"Well, sergeant," said Dick ingratiatingly, "if any thing has happened in this army you're sure to know of it. We'd have known it ourselves, but we had an important engagement with Morpheus, a world away, and we had to keep it. Now what is the news?"
"I don't know who Morpheus is," replied the sergeant, laughing, "but I'd guess from your looks that he is another name for sleep. There is no news of anything big happenin'. We've got a great army here, and Jackson remains near our battlefield of yesterday. I should say that we number at least fifty thousand men, or about twice the rebels."
"Then why don't we march against 'em at once?"
The sergeant shrugged his shoulders. It was not for him to tell why generals did not do things.
"I think," he said, "that we're likely to stay here a day or two."
"Which means," said Dick, his alert mind interpreting at once, "that our generals don't know what to do. Why is it that they always seem paralyzed when they get in front of Stonewall Jackson? He's only a man like the rest of them!"
He spoke with perfect freedom in the presence of Sergeant Whitley, knowing that he would repeat nothing.
"A man, yes," said Warner, in his precise manner, "but not exactly like the others. He seems to have more of the lightning flash about him. What a pity such a leader should be on the wrong side! Perhaps we'll have his equal in time."
"Is Jackson's army just sitting still?" asked Dick.
"So far as scouts can gather, an' I've been one of them," replied Sergeant Whitley, "it seems to be just campin'. But I wish I knew which way it was goin' to jump. I don't trust Jackson when he seems to be nappin'."
But the good sergeant's doubts were to remain for two days at least. The two armies sat still, only two miles apart, and sentinels, as was common throughout the great war, became friendly with one another. Often they met in the woods and exchanged news and abundant criticism of generals. At last there was a truce to bury the dead who still lay upon the sanguinary field of Cedar Run.
Dick was in charge of one of these burial parties, and toward the close of the day he saw a familiar figure, also in command of a burial party, although it was in a gray uniform. His heart began to thump, and he uttered a cry of joy. The unexpected, but not the unnatural, had happened.
"Oh, Harry! Harry!" he shouted.
The strong young figure in the uniform of a lieutenant in the Southern army turned in surprise at the sound of a familiar voice, and stood, staring.
"Dick! Dick Mason!" he cried. Then the two sprang forward and grasped the hands of each other. There was no display of emotion--they were of the stern American stock, taught not to show its feelings--but their eyes showed their gladness.
"Harry," said Dick, "I knew that you had been with Jackson, but I had no way of knowing until a moment ago that you were yet alive."
"Nor I you, Dick. I thought you were in the west."
"I was, but after Shiloh, some of us came east to help. It seemed after the Seven Days that we were needed more here than in the west."
"You never said truer words, Dick. They'll need you and many more thousands like you. Why, Dick, we're not led here by a man, we're led by a thunderbolt. I'm on his staff, I see him every day. He talks to me, and I talk to him. I tell you, Dick, it's a wonderful thing to serve such a genius. You can't beat him! His kind appears only a few times in the ages. He always knows what's to be done and he does it. Even if your generals knew what ought to be done, most likely they'd do something else."
Harry's face glowed with enthusiasm as he spoke of his hero, and Dick, looking at him, shook his head sadly.
"I'm afraid that what you say is true for the present at least, Harry," he said. "You beat us now here in the east, but don't forget that we're winning in the west. And don't forget that here in the east even, you can never wear us out. We'll be coming, always coming."
"All right, old Sober Sides, we won't quarrel about it. We'll let time settle it. Here come some friends of mine whom I want you to know. Curious that you should meet them at such a time."
Two other young lieutenants in gray uniforms at the head of burial parties came near in the course of their work, and Harry called to them.
"Tom! Arthur! A moment, please! This is my cousin, Dick Mason, a Yankee, though I think he's honest in his folly. Dick, this is Arthur St. Clair, and this is Tom Langdon, both friends of mine from South Carolina."
They shook hands warmly. There was no animosity between them. Dick liked the looks and manners of Harry's friends. He could have been their friend, too.
"Harry has talked about you often," said Happy Tom Langdon. "Says you're a great scholar, and a good fellow, all right every way, except the crack in your head that makes you a Yankee. I hope you won't get hurt in this unpleasantness, and when our victorious army comes into Washington we'll take good care of you and release you soon."
Dick smiled. He liked this youth who could keep up the spirit of fun among such scenes.
"Don't you pay any attention to Langdon, Mr. Mason," said St. Clair. "If he'd only fight as well and fast as he talks there'd be no need for the rest of us."
"You know you couldn't win the war without me," said Langdon.
They talked a little more together, then trumpets blew, the work was done and they must withdraw to their own armies. They had been engaged in a grewsome task, but Dick was glad to the bottom of his heart to have been sent upon it. He had learned that Harry still lived, and he had met him. He did not understand until then how dear his cousin was to him. They were more like brothers than cousins. It was like the affection their great-grandfathers, Henry Ware and Paul Cotter, had felt for each other, although those famous heroes of the border had always fought side by side, while their descendants were compelled to face each other across a gulf.
They shook hands and withdrew slowly. At the edge of the field, Dick turned to wave another farewell, and he found that Harry, actuated by the same motive at the same time, had also turned to make a like gesture. Each waved twice, instead of once, and then they disappeared among the woods. Dick returned to Colonel Winchester.
"While we were under the flag of truce I met my cousin, Harry Kenton," he said.
"One of the lucky fortunes of war."
"Yes, sir, I was very glad to see him. I did not know how glad I was until I came away. He says that we can never beat Jackson, that nothing but death can ever stop him."
"Youth often deceives itself, nor is age any exception. Never lose hope, Dick."
"I don't mean to do so, sir."
The next morning, when Dick was with one of the outposts, a man of powerful build, wonderfully quick and alert in his movements, appeared. His coming was so quick and silent that he seemed to rise from the earth, and Dick was startled. The man's face was uncommon. His features were of great strength, the eyes being singularly vivid and penetrating. He was in civilian's dress, but he promptly showed a pass from General Pope, and Dick volunteered to take him to headquarters, where he said he wished to go.
Dick became conscious as they walked along that the man was examining him minutely with those searching eyes of his which seemed to look one through and through.
"You are Lieutenant Richard Mason," said the stranger presently, "and you have a cousin, Harry Kenton, also a lieutenant, but in the army of Stonewall Jackson."
Dick stared at him in amazement.
"Everything you say is true," he said, "but how did you know it?"
"It's my business to know. Knowledge is my sole pursuit in this great war, and a most engrossing and dangerous task I find it. Yet, I would not leave it. My name is Shepard, and I am a spy. You needn't shrink. I'm not ashamed of my occupation. Why should I be? I don't kill. I don't commit any violence. I'm a guide and educator. I and my kind are the eyes of an army. We show the generals where the enemy is, and we tell them his plans. An able and daring spy is worth more than many a general. Besides, he takes the risk of execution, and he can win no glory, for he must always remain obscure, if not wholly unknown. Which, then, makes the greater sacrifice for his country, the spy or the general?"
"You give me a new point of view. I had not thought before how spies risked so much for so little reward."
Shepard smiled. He saw that in spite of his logic Dick yet retained that slight feeling of aversion. The boy left him, when they arrived at headquarters, but the news that Shepard brought was soon known to the whole army.
Jackson had left his camp. He was gone again, disappeared into the ether. "Retreated" was the word that Pope at once seized upon, and he sent forth happy bulletins. Shepard and other scouts and spies reported a day or two later that Jackson's army was on the Rapidan, one of the numerous Virginia rivers. Then Dick accompanied Colonel Winchester, who was sent by rail to Washington with dispatches.
He did not find in the capital the optimism that reigned in the mind of Pope. McClellan was withdrawing his army from Virginia, but the eyes of the nation were turned toward Pope. Many who had taken deep thought of the times and of men, were more alarmed about Pope than he was about himself. They did not like those jubilant dispatches from "Headquarters in the Saddle." There was ominous news that Lee himself was marching north, and that he and Jackson would soon be together. Anxious eyes scanned the hills about Washington. The enemy had been very near once before, and he might soon be near again.
Dick had an hour of leisure, and he wandered into an old hotel, at which many great men had lived. They would point to Henry Clay's famous chair in the lobby, and the whole place was thick with memories of Webster, Calhoun and others who had seemed almost demigods to their own generation.
But a different crowd was there now. They were mostly paunchy men who talked of contracts and profits. One, to whom the others paid deference, was fat, heavy and of middle age, with a fat, heavy face and pouches under his eyes. His small eyes were set close together, but they sparkled with shrewdness and cunning.
The big man presently noticed the lad who was sitting quietly in one of the chairs against the wall. Dick's was an alien presence there, and doubtless this fact had attracted his attention.
"Good day to you," said the stranger in a bluff, deep voice. "I take it from your uniform, your tan and your thinness that you've come from active service."
"In both the west and the east," replied Dick politely. "I was at Shiloh, but soon afterward I was transferred with my regiment to the east."
"Ah, then, of course, you know what is going on in Virginia?"
"No more than the general public does. I was at Cedar Run, which both we and the rebels claim as a victory."
The man instantly showed a great increase of interest.
"Were you?" he said. "My own information says that Banks and Pope were surprised by Jackson and that the rebel general has merely drawn off to make a bigger jump. Did you get that impression?"
"Will you tell me why you ask me these questions?" said Dick in the same polite tone.
"Because I've a big stake in the results out there. My name is John Watson, and I'm supplying vast quantities of shoes and clothing to our troops."
Dick turned up the sole of one of his shoes and picked thoughtfully at a hole half way through the sole. Little pieces of paper came out.
"I bought these, Mr. Watson, from a sutler in General Pope's army," he said. "I wonder if they came from you?"
A deeper tint flushed the contractor's cheeks, but in a moment he threw off anger.
"A good joke," he said jovially. "I see that you're ready of wit, despite your youth. No, those are not my shoes. I know dishonest men are making great sums out of supplies that are defective or short. A great war gives such people many opportunities, but I scorn them. I'll not deny that I seek a fair profit, but my chief object is to serve my country. Do you ever reflect, my young friend, that the men who clothe and feed an army have almost as much to do with winning the victory as the men who fight?"
"I've thought of it," said Dick, wondering what the contractor had in mind.
"What regiment do you belong to, if I may ask? My motive in asking these questions is wholly good."
"One commanded by Colonel Winchester, recently sent from the west. We've been in only one battle in the east, that fought at Cedar Run against Jackson."
Watson again looked at Dick intently. The boy felt that he was being measured and weighed by a man of uncommon perceptions. Whatever might be his moral quality there could be no question of his ability.
"I am, as I told you before," said Watson, "a servant of my country. A man who feeds and clothes the soldiers well is a patriot, while he who feeds and clothes them badly is a mere money grubber."
He paused, as if he expected Dick to say something, but the boy was silent and he went on:
"It is to the interest of the country that it be served well in all departments, particularly in the tremendous crisis that we now face. Yet the best patriot cannot always get a chance to serve. He needs friends at court, as they say. Now this colonel of yours, Colonel Winchester--I've observed both him and you, although I approached you as if I'd never heard of either of you before--is a man of character and influence. Certain words from him at the right time would be of great value, nor would his favorite aide suffer through bringing the matter to his attention."
Dick saw clearly now, but he was not impulsive. Experience was teaching him, while yet a boy, to speak softly.
"The young aide of whom you speak," he said, "would never think of mentioning such a matter to the colonel, of whom you also speak, and even if he should, the colonel wouldn't listen to him for a moment."
Watson shrugged his shoulders slightly, but made no other gesture of displeasure.
"Doubtless you are well informed about this aide and this colonel," he said, "but it's a pity. If more food is thrown to the sparrows than they can eat, is it any harm for other birds to eat the remainder?"
"I scarcely regard it as a study in ornithology."
"Ornithology? That's a big word, but I suppose it will serve. We'll drop the matter, and if at any time my words here should be quoted I'll promptly deny them. It's a bad thing for a boy to have his statements disputed by a man of years who can command wealth and other powerful influences. Unless he had witnesses nobody would believe the boy. I tell you this, my lad, partly for your own good, because I'm inclined to like you."
Dick stared. There was nothing insulting in the man's tone. He seemed to be thoroughly in earnest. Perhaps he regarded his point of view as right, and Dick, a boy of thought and resource, saw that it was not worth while to make a quarrel. But he resolved to remember Watson, feeling that the course of events might bring them together again.
"I suppose it's as you say," he said. "You're a man of affairs and you ought to know."
Watson smiled at him. Dick felt that the contractor had been telling the truth when he said that he was inclined to like him. Perhaps he was honest and supplied good materials, when others supplied bad.
"You will shake hands with me, Mr. Mason," he said. "You think that I will be hostile to you, but maybe some day I can prove myself your friend. Young soldiers often need friends."
His eyes twinkled and his smile widened. In spite of his appearance and his proposition, something winning had suddenly appeared in the manner of this man. Dick found himself shaking hands with him.
"Good-bye, Mr. Mason," said Watson. "It may be that we shall meet on the field, although I shall not be within range of the guns."
He left the lobby of the hotel, and Dick was rather puzzled. It was his first thought to tell Colonel Winchester about him, but he finally decided that Watson's own advice to him to keep silent was best. He and Colonel Winchester took the train from Washington the next day, and on the day after were with Pope's army on the Rapidan.
Dick detected at once a feeling of excitement or tension in this army, at least among the young officers with whom he associated most. They felt that a storm of some kind was gathering, either in front or on their flank. McClellan's army was now on the transports, leaving behind the Virginia that he had failed to conquer, and Pope's, with a new commander, was not yet in shape. The moment was propitious for Lee and Jackson to strike, and the elusive Jackson was lost again.
"Our scouts discover nothing," said Warner to Dick. "The country is chockfull of hostility to us. Not a soul will tell us a word. We have to see a thing with our own eyes before we know it's there, but the people, the little children even, take news to the rebels. A veil is hung before us, but there is none before them."
"There is one man who is sure to find out about Jackson."
Dick's only answer was a shake of the head. But he was thinking of Shepard. He did not see him about the camp, and he had no doubt that he was gone on another of his dangerous missions. Meanwhile newspapers from New York and other great cities reflected the doubts of the North. They spoke of Pope's grandiloquent dispatches, and they wondered what had become of Lee and Jackson.
Dick, an intense patriot, passed many bitter moments. He, like others, felt that the hand upon the reins was not sure. Instead of finding the enemy and assailing him with all their strength, they were waiting in doubt and alarm to fend off a stroke that would come from some unknown point out of the dark.
The army now lay in one of the finest parts of Virginia, a region of picturesque mountains, wide and fertile valleys, and of many clear creeks and rivers coming down from the peaks and ridges. To one side lay a great forest, known as the Wilderness, destined, with the country near it, to become the greatest battlefield of the world. Here, the terrible battles of the Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and others less sanguinary, but great struggles, nevertheless, were to be fought.
But these were yet in the future, and Dick, much as his eyes had been opened, did not yet dream how tremendous the epic combat was to be. He only knew that to-day it was the middle of August, the valleys were very hot, but it was shady and cool on the hills and mountains. He knew, too, that he was young, and that pessimism and gloom could not abide long with him.
He and Warner and Pennington had good horses, in place of those that they had lost at Cedar Run, and often they rode to the front to see what might be seen of the enemy, which at present was nothing. Their battlefield at Cedar Run had been reoccupied by Northern troops and Pope was now confirmed in his belief that his men had won a victory there. And this victory was to be merely a prelude to another and far greater one.
As they rode here and there in search of the enemy, Dick came upon familiar ground. Once more he saw the field of Manassas which had been lost so hardly the year before. He remembered every hill and brook and curve of the little river, because they had been etched into his brain with steel and fire. How could anyone forget that day?
"Looks as if we might fight our battle of last year over again, but on a much bigger scale," he said to Warner.
"Here or hereabouts," said the Vermonter, "and I think we ought to win. They've got the better generals, but we've got more men. Besides, our troops are becoming experienced and they've shown their mettle. Dick, here's a farmer gathering corn. Let's ask him some questions, but I'll wager you a hundred to one before we begin that he knows absolutely nothing about the rebel army. In fact, I doubt that he will know of its existence."
"I won't take your bet," said Dick.
They called to the man, a typical Virginia farmer in his shirt sleeves, tall and spare, short whiskers growing under his chin. There was not much difference between him and his brother farmer in New England.
"Good-day," said Warner.
"You seem to be working hard."
"I've need to do it. Farm hands are scarce these days."
"Farming is hard work."
"Yes; but it's a lot safer than some other kinds men are doin' nowadays."
"True, no doubt, but have you seen anything of the army?"
"The one under Lee and Jackson, the rebel army."
"I ain't heard of no rebel army, mister. I don't know of any such people as rebels."
"You call it the Confederate army. Can you tell us anything about the Confederate army?"
"What Confederate army, mister? I heard last month when I went in to the court house that there was more than one of them."
"I mean the one under Lee and Jackson."
"That's cur'us. A man come ridin' 'long here three or four weeks ago. Mebbe he was a lightnin' rod agent an' mebbe he had patent medicines to sell, he didn't say, but he did tell me that General Jackson was in one place an General Lee was in another. Now which army do you mean?"
"That was nearly a month ago. They are together now."
"Then, mister, if you know so much more about it than I do, what are you askin' me questions for?"
"But I want to know about Lee and Jackson. Have you seen them?"
"Lord bless you, mister, them big generals don't come visitin' the likes o' me. You kin see my house over thar among the trees. You kin search it if you want to, but you won't find nothin'."
"I don't want to search your house. You can't hide a great army in a house. I want to know if you've seen the Southern Army. I want to know if you've heard anything about it."
"I ain't seed it. My sight's none too good, mister. Sometimes the blazin' sun gits in my eyes and kinder blinds me for a long time. Then, too, I'm bad of hearin'; but I'm a powerful good sleeper. When I sleep I don't hear nothin', of course, an' nothin' wakes me up. I just sleep on, sometimes dreamin' beautiful dreams. A million men wouldn't wake me, an' mebbe a dozen armies or so have passed in the night while I was sleepin' so good. I'd tell you anything I know, but them that knows nothin' has nothin' to tell."
Warner's temper, although he had always practiced self-control, had begun to rise, but he checked it, seeing that it would be a mere foolish display of weakness in the face of the blank wall that confronted him.
"My friend," he said with gravity, "I judge from the extreme ignorance you display concerning great affairs that you sleep a large part of the time."
"Mebbe so, an' mebbe not. I most gen'ally sleep when I'm sleepy. I've heard tell there was a big war goin' on in these parts, but this is my land, an' I'm goin' to stay on it."
"A good farmer, if not a good patriot. Good day."
They rode on and, in spite of themselves, laughed.
"I'm willing to wager that he knows a lot about Lee and Jackson," said Warner, "but the days of the rack and the thumbscrew passed long ago, and there is no way to make him tell."
"No," said Dick, "but we ought to find out for ourselves."
Nevertheless, they discovered nothing. They saw no trace of a Southern soldier, nor did they hear news of any, and toward nightfall they rode back toward the army, much disappointed. The sunset was of uncommon beauty. The hot day was growing cool. Pleasant shadows were creeping up in the east. In the west a round mountain shouldered its black bulk against the sky. Dick looked at it vaguely. He had heard it called Clark's Mountain, and it was about seven miles away from the Union army which lay behind the Rapidan River.
Dick liked mountains, and the peak looked beautiful against the red and yellow bars of the western horizon.
"Have you ever been over there?" he said to Pennington and Warner.
"No; but a lot of our scouts have," replied Pennington. "It's just a mountain and nothing more. Funny how all those peaks and ridges crop up suddenly around here out of what seems meant to have been a level country."
"I like it better because it isn't level," said Dick. "I'm afraid George and I wouldn't care much for your prairie country which just rolls on forever, almost without trees and clear running streams."
"You would care for it," said Pennington stoutly. "You'd miss at first the clear rivers and creeks, but then the spell of it would take hold of you. The air you breathe isn't like the air you breathe anywhere else."
"We've got some air of our own in Vermont that we could brag about, if we wanted to," said Warner, defiantly.
"It's good, but not as good as ours. And then the vast distances, the great spaces take hold of you. And there's the sky so high and so clear. When you come away from the great plains you feel cooped up anywhere else."
Pennington spoke with enthusiasm, his nostrils dilating and his eyes flashing. Dick was impressed.
"When the war's over I'm going out there to see your plains," he said.
"Then you're coming to see me!" exclaimed Pennington, with all the impulsive warmth of youth. "And George here is coming with you. I won't show you any mountains like the one over there, but boys, west of the Platte River, when I was with my father and some other men I watched for three days a buffalo herd passing. The herd was going north and all the time it stretched so far from east to west that it sank under each horizon. There must have been millions of them. Don't you think that was something worth seeing?"
"We're surely coming," said Dick, "and you be equally sure to have your buffalo herd ready for us when we come."
"It'll be there."
"Meanwhile, here we are at the Rapidan," said the practical Warner, "and beyond it is our army. Look at that long line of fires, boys. Aren't they cheering? A fine big army like ours ought to beat off anything. We almost held our own with Jackson himself at Cedar Run, and he had two to one."
"We will win! We're bound to win!" said Dick, with sudden access of hope. "We'll crush Lee and Jackson, and next summer you and I, George, will be out on the western plains with Frank, watching the buffalo millions go thundering by!"
They forded the Rapidan and rejoined their regiment with nothing to tell. But it was cheerful about the fires. Optimism reigned once more in the Army of Virginia. McClellan had sent word to Pope that he would have plenty of soldiers to face the attack that now seemed to be threatened by the South. Brigades from the Army of the Potomac would make the Army of Virginia invincible.
Dick having nothing particular to do, sat late with his comrades before one of the finest of the fires, and he read only cheerful omens in the flames. It was a beautiful night. The moon seemed large and near, and the sky was full of dancing stars. In the clear night Dick saw the black bulk of Clark's Mountain off there against the horizon, but he could not see what was behind it.