The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter III. Beside the River
Dick was on duty early in the morning when he saw a horseman coming at a gallop toward the Rapidan. The man was in civilian clothing, but his figure seemed familiar. The boy raised his glasses, and he saw at once that it was Shepard. He saw, too, that he was urging his horse to its utmost speed.
The boy's heart suddenly began to throb, and there was a cold, prickling sensation at the roots of his hair. Shepard had made an extraordinary impression upon him and he did not believe that the man would be coming at such a pace unless he came with great news.
He saw Shepard stop, give the pass word to the pickets, then gallop on, ford the river and come straight toward the heart of the army. Dick ran forward and met him.
"What is it?" he cried.
"General Pope's tent! Where it is! I can't wait a minute."
Dick pointed toward a big marquee, standing in an open space, and Shepard leaping from his horse and abandoning it entirely, ran toward the marquee. A word or two to the sentinels, and he disappeared inside.
Dick, devoured with curiosity and anxiety, went to Colonel Winchester with the story of what he had seen.
"I know of Shepard," said the colonel. "He is the best and most daring spy in the whole service of the North. I think you're right in inferring that he rides so fast for good cause."
Shepard remained with the commander-in-chief a quarter of an hour. When he came forth from the tent he regained his horse and rode away without a word, going in the direction of Clark's Mountain. But his news was quickly known, because it was of a kind that could not be concealed. Pennington came running with it to the regiment, his face flushed and his eyes big.
"Look! Look at the mountain!" he exclaimed.
"I see it," said Warner. "I saw it there yesterday, too, in exactly the same place."
"So did I, but there's something behind it. Lee and Jackson are there with sixty or eighty thousand men! The whole Southern army is only six or seven miles away."
Even Warner's face changed.
"How do you know this?" he asked.
"A spy has seen their army. They say he is a man whose reports are never false. At any rate orders have already been issued for us to retreat and I hear that we're going back until we reach the Rappahannock, behind which we will camp."
Dick knew very well now that it was Shepard who brought the news, and Pennington's report about the retreat was also soon verified. The whole army was soon in motion and a feeling of depression replaced the optimism of the night before. The advance had been turned into a retreat. Were they to go back and forth in this manner forever? But Colonel Winchester spoke hopefully to his young aides and said that the retreat was right.
"We're drawing out of a trap," he said, "and time is always on our side. The South to win has to hit hard and fast, and in this case the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Virginia may join before Lee and Jackson can come up."
The lads tried to reconcile themselves, but nevertheless they did not like retreat. Dick with his powerful glasses often looked back toward the dark bulk of Clark's Mountain. He saw nothing there, nor anything in the low country between, save the rear ranks of the Union army marching on.
But Shepard had been right. Lee and Jackson, advancing silently and with every avenue of news guarded, were there behind the mountain with sixty thousand men, flushed with victories, and putting a supreme faith in their great commanders who so well deserved their trust. The men of the valley and the Seven Days, wholly confident, asked only to be led against Pope and his army, and most of them expected a battle that very day, while the Northern commander was slipping from the well-laid trap.
Pope's judgment in this case was good and fortune, too, favored him. Before the last of his men had left the Rapidan Lee himself, with his staff officers, climbed to the summit of Clark's Mountain. They were armed with the best of glasses, but drifting fogs coming down from the north spread along the whole side of the mountain and hung like a curtain between it and the retreating army. None of their glasses could pierce the veil, and it was not until nearly night that rising winds caught the fog and took it away. Then Lee and his generals saw a vast cloud of dust in the northwest and they knew that under it marched Pope's retreating army.
The Southern army was at once ordered forward in pursuit and in the night the vanguard, wading the Rapidan, followed eagerly. Dick and his comrades did not know then that they were followed so closely, but they were destined to know it before morning. The regiment of Colonel Winchester, one of the best and bravest in the whole service, formed a part of the rearguard, and Dick, Warner and Pennington rode with their chief.
The country was broken and they crossed small streams. Sometimes they were in open fields, and again they passed through long stretches of forest. There was a strong force of cavalry with the regiment, and the beat of the horses' hoofs made a steady rolling sound which was not unpleasant.
But Dick found the night full of sinister omens. They had left the Rapidan in such haste that there was still a certain confusion of impressions. The gigantic scale of everything took hold of him. One hundred and fifty thousand men, or near it, were marching northward in two armies which could not be many miles apart. The darkness and the feeling of tragedy soon to come oppressed him.
He listened eagerly for the sounds of pursuit, but the long hours passed and he heard nothing. The rear guard did not talk. The men wasted no strength that way, but marched stolidly on in the moonlight. Midnight passed and after a while it grew darker. Colonel Winchester and his young officers rode at the very rear, and Pennington suddenly held up his hand.
"What is it?" asked Colonel Winchester.
"Somebody following us, sir. I was trained out on the plains to take notice of such things. May I get down and put my ear to the ground? I may look ridiculous, sir, but I can make sure."
"Certainly. Go ahead."
Pennington sprang down and put his ear to the road. He did not listen long, but when he stood up again he said:
"Horsemen are coming. I can't tell how many, but several hundreds at least."
"As we're the very last of our own army, they must be Southern cavalry," said Colonel Winchester. "If they want to attack, I dare say our boys are willing."
Very soon they heard clearly the gallop of the cavalry, and the men heard it also. They looked up and turned their faces toward those who must be foes. Despite the dimness Dick saw their eyes brighten. Colonel Winchester had judged rightly. The boys were willing.
The rear guard turned back and waited, and in a few minutes the Southern horsemen came in sight, opening fire at once. Their infantry, too, soon appeared in the woods and fields and the dark hours before the dawn were filled with the crackle of small arms.
Dick kept close to Colonel Winchester who anxiously watched the pursuit, throwing his own regiment across the road, and keeping up a heavy fire on the enemy. The Union loss was not great as most of the firing in the dusk, of necessity, was at random, and Dick heard bullets whistling all about him. Some times the bark flew from trees and now and then there was a rain of twigs, shorn from the branches by the showers of missiles.
It was arduous work. The men were worn by the darkness, the uncertainty and the incessant pursuit. The Northern rear guard presented a strong front, retreating slowly with its face to the enemy, and always disputing the road. Dick meanwhile could hear through the crash of the firing the deep rumble of Pope's great army with its artillery and thousands of wagons continually marching toward the Rappahannock. His mind became absorbed in a vital question. Would Lee and Jackson come up before they could reach the bigger river? Would a battle be forced the next day while the Union army was in retreat? He confided his anxieties to Warner who rode by his side.
"I take it that it's only a vanguard that's pursuing us," said the Vermonter. "If they were in great force they'd have been pushing harder and harder. We must have got a good start before Lee and Jackson found us out. We know our Jackson, Dick, and he'd have been right on top of us without delay."
"That's right, George. It must be their cavalry mostly. I suppose Jeb Stuart is there leading them. At any rate we'll soon know better what's doing. Look there toward the east. Don't you see a ray of light behind that hill?"
"I see it, Dick."
"Is it the first ray of the morning, or is it just a low star?"
"It's the dawn, Dick, and mighty glad I am to see it. Look how fast it comes!"
The sun shot up, over the hill. The sky turning to silver soon gave way to gold, and the clear August light poured in a flood over the rolling country.
Dick saw ahead of him a vast cloud of dust extending miles from east to west, marking where the army of Pope pushed on its retreat to the Rappahannock. There was no need to search for the Northern force. The newest recruit would know that it was here.
The Southern vanguard was behind them and not many hundred yards away. Dick distinctly saw the cavalry, riding along the road, and hundreds of skirmishers pushing through the woods and fields. He judged that the force did not number many thousands and that it could not think of assailing the whole Union army. But with the coming of day the vigor of the attack increased. The skirmishers fired from the shelter of every tree stump, fence or hillock and the bullets pattered about Dick and his comrades.
The Union rear guard maintained its answering fire, but as it was retreating it was at a disadvantage. The regiments began to suffer. Many men were wounded. The fire became most galling. A sudden charge by the rearguard was ordered and it was made with spirit. The Southern van was driven back, but when the retreat was resumed the skirmishers and the cavalry came forward again, always firing at their retreating foe.
"I judge that it's going to be a very hot morning," said Colonel Winchester, wiping away a few drops of blood, where a bullet had barely touched his face. "I think the wind of that bullet hurt me more than its kiss. There will be no great battle to-day. We can see now that they are not yet in strong enough force, but we'll never know a minute's rest until we're behind the Rappahannock. Oh, Dick, if McClellan's army were only here also! This business of retreating is as bitter as death itself!"
Dick saw the pain on his colonel's face and it was reflected on his own.
"I feel it, sir, in the same way. Our men are just as eager as the Johnnies to fight and they are as brave and tenacious. What do you think will happen, sir?"
"We'll reach the Rappahannock and take refuge behind it. We command the railroad bridge there, and can cross and destroy it afterward. But the river is broad and deep with high banks and the army of the enemy cannot possibly force the passage in any way while we defend it."
"And after that, sir?"
"God alone knows. Look out, Dick, those men are aiming at us!"
Colonel Winchester seized the bridle of Dick's horse and pulled him violently to one side, pulling his own horse in the same direction in the same manner. The bullets of half a dozen Southern skirmishers, standing under the boughs of a beech tree less than two hundred yards away, hissed angrily by them.
"A close call," said the colonel. "There, they've been scattered by our own riflemen and one of them remains to pay the toll."
The reply of the Northern skirmishers had been quick, and the gray figure lying prone by the trunk of the tree told Dick that the colonel had been right. He was shaken by a momentary shudder, but he could not long remember one among so many. They rode on, leaving the prone figure out of sight, and the Southern cavalry and skirmishers pressed forward afresh.
Many of the Union men had food in their saddle bags, and supplies were sent back for those who did not have it. Colonel Winchester who was now thoroughly cool, advised his officers to eat, even if they felt no hunger.
"I'm hungry enough," said Pennington to Dick. "Out on the plains, where the air is so fresh and so full of life I was always hungry, and I suppose I brought my appetite here with me. Dick, I've opened a can of cove oysters, and that's a great deal for a fellow on horseback to do. Here, take your share, and they'll help out that dry bread you're munching."
Dick accepted with thanks. He learned that he, too, could eat with a good appetite while bullets were knocking up dust only twenty yards away. Meanwhile there was a steady flash of firing from every wood and cornfield behind them.
As he ate he watched and he saw an amazing panorama. Miles in front the great cloud of dust, cutting across from horizon to horizon swelled slowly on toward the Rappahannock. Behind them rode the Southern cavalry and masses of infantry were pressing forward, too. Far off on either flank rolled the pleasant country, its beauty heightened by the loom of blue mountains.
Colonel Winchester had predicted truly. The fighting between the Northern rearguard, and the Southern vanguard never ceased. Every moment the bullets were whistling, and occasionally a cannon lent its deep roar to the crackling fire of the rifles. Daring detachments of the Southern cavalry often galloped up and charged lagging regiments. And they were driven off with equal courage and daring.
The three boys took especial notice of those cavalry bands and began to believe at last that they could identify the very men in them. Dick looked for his cousin, Harry Kenton. He was sure that he would be there in the front--but he did not see him. Instead he saw after a while an extraordinary figure on a large black horse, a large man in magnificent uniform, with a great plume in his hat. He was nearer to them than any other Southern horseman, and he seemed to be indifferent to danger.
"Look! look! There's Jeb Stuart!" exclaimed Dick. He had heard so much about the famous Stuart and his gorgeous uniform that he knew him instinctively, and, Warner and Pennington, as their eyes followed his pointing finger felt the same conviction.
Three of the Northern riflemen fired at once at the conspicuous target, and Dick breathed a little sigh of relief when all their bullets missed. Then the brilliant figure turned to one side and was lost in the smoke.
"Well," said Pennington. "We've seen Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart both in battle against us. I wonder who will come next."
"Lee is due," said Warner, "but I doubt whether his men will let him expose himself in such a way. We'll have to slip under cover to get a chance of seeing him."
The hours went on, and the fight between rear guard and vanguard never ceased. That column of dust miles long was at the same distance in front, continuing in its slow course for the river, but the foes in contact were having plenty of dust showers of their own. Dick's throat and mouth burned with the dust and heat of the pitiless August day, and his bones ached with the tension and the long hours in the saddle. But his spirit was high. They were holding off the Southern cavalry and he felt that they would continue to do so.
About noon he ate more cold food, and then rode on, while the sun blazed and blazed and the dust whirled in clouds like the "dust devils" of the desert, continually spitting forth bullets instead of sand. Late in the afternoon he heard the sound of many trumpets, and saw the Southern cavalry getting together in a great mass. A warning ran instantly among the Union troops and the horsemen in blue and one or two infantry regiments drew closer together.
"They're going to charge in force," said Colonel Winchester to Dick. "See, our rearguard has lost touch with our main army, leaving a side opening between. They see this chance and intend to make the most of it."
"But our men are willing and anxious to meet them," said Dick. "You can see it in their faces."
He had made no mistake, as the fire in their rear deepened, and they saw the gathering squadrons of gray cavalry, a fierce anger seized the retreating Union rearguard. Those wasps had been buzzing and stinging them all day long and they had had enough of it. They could fight, and they would, if their officers would let them. Now it seemed that the officers were willing.
A deep and menacing mutter of satisfaction ran along the whole line. They would show the Southerners what kind of men they were. Colonel Winchester drew his infantry regiment into a small wood which at that point skirted the road.
"There is no doubt that we've found it at the right time," said Warner.
Both knew that the forest would protect the infantry from the fierce charges of the Southern cavalry, while proving no obstacle to the Northern defense. His own cavalry was gathering in the road ready to meet Jeb Stuart and his squadrons.
The three boys sat on their horses within the covering of the trees, and watched eagerly, while the hostile forces massed for battle. The Southern cavalry was supported by infantry also on its flanks, and once again Dick caught sight of Jeb Stuart with his floating plume. But that time he was too far away for any of the Northern riflemen to reach him with a bullet, and as before he disappeared quickly in the clouds of dust and smoke which never ceased to float over both forces.
"Look out! The charge!" suddenly exclaimed Colonel Winchester.
They heard the thunder of the galloping horses, and also the flash of many rifles and carbines. Cavalry met cavalry but the men in gray reeled back, and as they retreated the Northern infantry in the wood sent a deadly fire into the flank of the attacking force. The Southern infantry replied, and a fierce battle raged along the road and through the woods. Dick heard once more the rattling of bullets on bark, and felt the twigs falling upon his face as they were shorn off by the missiles.
"We hold the road and we'll hold it for a while," exclaimed Colonel Winchester, exultation showing in his tone.
"Why can't we hold it all the time?" Dick could not refrain from asking.
"Because we are retreating and the Southerners are continually coming up, while our army wishes to go away."
Dick glanced through the trees and saw that great clouds of dust still were rolling toward the northwest. It must be almost at the Rappahannock now, and he began to appreciate what this desperate combat in the woods meant. They were holding back the Southern army, while their men could cross the river and reform behind it.
The battle swayed back and forth, and it was most desperate between the cavalry. The bugles again and again called the gray horsemen to the charge, and although the blue infantry supported their own horsemen with a heavy rifle fire, and held the wood undaunted, the Northern rear guard was forced to give way at last before the pressure of numbers and attacks that would not cease.
Their own bugles sounded the retreat and they began to retire slowly.
"Do we run again?" exclaimed Pennington, a tear ploughing its way through the smoky grime on his cheek.
"No, we don't run," replied Warner calmly, "We're forced back, and the rebels will claim a victory but we haven't fought for nothing. Lee and Jackson will never get up in time to attack our army before it's over the river."
The regiment began its slow retreat. It had not suffered much, owing to the shelter of the forest, and, full of courage and resolution, it was a formidable support on the flank of the slowly retreating cavalry.
The evening was now at hand. The sun was setting once more over the Virginia hills destined to be scarred so deeply by battle, but attack and defense went on. As night came the thudding of cannon added to the tumult, and then the three boys saw the Rappahannock, a deep and wide stream flowing between high banks crested with timber. Ahead of them Pope's army was crossing on the bridge and in boats, and masses of infantry supported by heavy batteries had turned to protect the crossing. The Southern vanguard could not assail such a powerful force, and before the night was over the whole Union army passed to the Northern side of the Rappahannock.
Dick felt a mixture of chagrin and satisfaction as he crossed the river, chagrin that this great army should draw back, as McClellan's had been forced to draw back at the Seven Days, and satisfaction that they were safe for the time being and could prepare for a new start.
But the feeling of exultation soon passed and gave way wholly to chagrin. They were retreating before an army not exceeding their own, in numbers, perhaps less. They had another great force, the Army of the Potomac, which should have been there, and then they could have bade defiance to Lee and Jackson. The North with its great numbers, its fine courage and its splendid patriotism should never be retreating. He felt once more as thousands of others felt that the hand on the reins was neither strong nor sure, and that the great trouble lay there. They ought not to be hiding behind a river. Lee and Jackson did not do it. Dick remembered that grim commander in the West, the silent Grant, and he did not believe he would be retreating.
Long after darkness came the firing continued between skirmishers across the stream, but finally it, too, waned and Dick was permitted to throw himself upon the ground and sleep with the sleeping thousands. Warner and Pennington slept near him and not far away was the brave sergeant. Even he was overpowered by fatigue and he slept like one dead, never stirring.
Dick was awakened next morning by the booming of cannon. He had become so much used to such sounds that he would have slept on had not the crashes been so irregular. He stood up, rubbed his eyes and then looked in the direction whence came the cannonade. He saw from the crest of a hill great numbers of Confederate troops on the other side of the river, the August sun glittering over thousands of bayonets and rifle barrels, and along the somber batteries of great guns. The firing, so far as he could determine, was merely to feel out or annoy the Northern army.
It was a strange sight to Dick, one that is not looked upon often, two great armies gazing across a river at each other, and, sure to meet, sooner or later, in mortal combat. It was thrilling, awe-inspiring, but it made his heart miss a beat or two at the thought of the wounds and death to come, all the more terrible because those who fought together were of the same blood, and the same nation.
Warner and Pennington joined him on the height where he stood, and they saw that in the early hours before dawn the Northern generals had not been idle. The whole army of Pope was massed along the left bank of the river and every high point was crowned with heavy batteries of artillery. There had been a long drought, and at some points the Rappahannock could be forded, but not in the face of such a defence as the North here offered.
Colonel Winchester himself came a moment or two later and joined them as they gazed at the two armies and the river between. Both he and the boys used their glasses and they distinctly saw the Southern masses.
"Will they try to cross, sir?" asked Dick of the colonel.
"I don't think so, but if they do we ought to beat them back. Meanwhile, Dick, my boy, every day's delay is a fresh card in our hand. McClellan is landing his army at Aquia Creek, whence it can march in two days to a junction with us, when we would become overwhelming and irresistible. But I wish it didn't take so long to disembark an army!"
The note of anxiety in his voice did not escape Dick. "You wish then to be sure of the junction between our two armies before Lee and Jackson strike?"
"Yes, Dick. That is what is on my mind. The retreat of this army, although it may have caused us chagrin, was most opportune. It gave us two chances, when we had but one before. But, Dick, I'm afraid. I wouldn't say this to anybody but you and you must not repeat me. I wish I could divine what is in the mind of those two men, Lee and Jackson. They surely have a plan of some kind, but what is it?"
"Have we any definite news from the other side, sir?"
"Shepard came in this morning. But little ever escapes him, and he says that the whole Southern army is up. All their best leaders are there. Lee and Jackson and Longstreet and the Hills and Early and Lawton and the others. He says that they are all flushed with confidence in their own courage and fighting powers and the ability of their leaders. Oh, if only the Army of the Potomac would come! If we could only stave off battle long enough for it to reach us!"
"Don't you think we could do it, sir? Couldn't General Pope retreat on Washington then, and, as they continued to follow us, we could turn and spring on them with both armies."
But Colonel Winchester shook his head.
"It would never do," he said. "All Europe, eager to see the Union split, would then help the Confederacy in every possible manner. The old monarchies would say that despite our superior numbers we're not able to maintain ourselves outside the defenses of Washington. And these things would injure us in ways that we cannot afford. Remember, Dick, my boy, that this republic is the hope of the world, and that we must save it."
"It will be done, sir," said Dick, almost in the tone of a young prophet. "I know the spirit of the men. No matter how many defeats are inflicted upon us by our own brethren we'll triumph in the end."
"It's my own feeling, Dick. It cannot, it must not be any other way!"
Dick remained upborne by a confidence in the future rather than in the present, and throughout the morning he remained with his comrades, under arms, but doing little, save to hear the fitful firing which ran along a front of several miles. But later in the day a heavy crash came from a ford further up the stream.
Under cover of a great artillery fire Stuart's cavalry dashed into the ford, and drove off the infantry and a battery posted to defend it. Then they triumphantly placed heavy lines of pickets about the ford on the Union side.
It was more than the Union lads could stand. A heavy mass of infantry, Colonel Winchester's regiment in the very front of it, marched forward to drive back these impertinent horsemen. They charged with so much impetuosity that Stuart's cavalry abandoned such dangerous ground. All the pickets were drawn in and they retreated in haste across the stream, the water foaming up in spurts about them beneath the pursuing bullets.
Then came a silence and a great looking back and forth. The threatening armies stared at each other across the water, but throughout the afternoon they lay idle. The pitiless August sun burned on and the dust that had been trodden up by the scores of thousands hung in clouds low, but almost motionless.
Dick went down into a little creek, emptying into the Rappahannock, and bathed his face and hands. Hundreds of others were doing the same. The water brought a great relief. Then he went back to Colonel Winchester and his comrades, and waited patiently with them until evening.
He remembered Colonel Winchester's words earlier in the day, and, as the darkness came, he began to wonder what Lee and Jackson were thinking. He believed that two such redoubtable commanders must have formed a plan by this time, and, perhaps in the end, it would be worth a hundred thousand men to know it. But he could only stare into the darkness and guess and guess. And one guess was as good as another.
The night seemed portentous to him. It was full of sinister omens. He strove to pierce the darkness on the other shore with his eyes, and see what was going on there, but he distinguished only a black background and the dim light of fires.
Dick was not wrong. The Confederate commanders did have a plan and the omens which seemed sinister to him were sinister in fact. Jackson with his forces was marching up his side of the Rappahannock and the great brain under the old slouch hat was working hard.
When Lee and Jackson found that the Union army on the Rapidan had slipped away from them they felt that they had wasted a great opportunity to strike the retreating force before it reached the Rappahannock, and that, as they followed, the situation of the Confederacy would become most critical. They would leave McClellan and the Army of the Potomac nearer to Richmond, their own capital, than they were. Nevertheless Lee, full of daring despite his years, followed, and the dangers were growing thicker every hour around Pope.
Dick, with his regiment, moved the next morning up the river. The enemy was in plain view beyond the stream, and Shepard and the other spies reported that the Southern army showed no signs of retiring. But Shepard had said also that he would not be able to cross the river again. The hostile scouts and sharpshooters had become too vigilant. Yet he was sure that Lee and Jackson would attempt to force a passage higher up, where the drought had made good fords.
"It's well that we're showing vigilance," said Colonel Winchester to Dick. He had fallen into the habit of talking much and confidentially to the boy, because he liked and trusted him, and for another reason which to Dick was yet in the background.
"Do you feel sure that the rebels will attempt the crossing?" asked Dick.
"Beyond a doubt. They have every reason to strike before the Army of the Potomac can come. Besides, it is in accord with the character of their generals. Both Lee and Jackson are always for the swift offensive, and Early, Longstreet and the Hills are the same way. Hear that booming ahead! They're attacking one of the fords now!"
At a ford a mile above and also at another a mile or two further on, the Southern troops had begun a heavy fire, and gathered in strong masses were threatening every moment to attempt the passage. But the Union guns posted on hills made a vigorous reply and the time passed in heavy cannonades. Colonel Winchester, his brows knitted and anxious, watched the fire of the cannon. He confided at last to his favorite aide his belief that what lay behind the cannonade was more important than the cannonade itself.
"It must be a feint or a blind," he said. "They fire a great deal, but they don't make any dash for the stream. Now, the rebels haven't ammunition to waste."
"Then what do you think they're up to, sir?"
"They must be sending a heavy force higher up the river to cross where there is no resistance. And we must meet them there, with my regiment only, if we can obtain no other men."
The colonel obtained leave to go up the Rappahannock until nightfall, but only his own regiment, now reduced to less than four hundred men, was allotted to him. In truth his division commander thought his purpose useless, but yielded to the insistence of Winchester who was known to be an officer of great merit. It seemed to the Union generals that they must defend the fords where the Southern army lay massed before them.
Dick learned that there was a little place called Sulphur Springs some miles ahead, and that the river there was spanned by a bridge which the Union cavalry had wrecked the day before. He divined at once that Colonel Winchester had that ford in mind, and he was glad to be with him on the march to it.
They left behind them the sound of the cannonade which they learned afterward was being carried on by Longstreet, and followed the course of the stream as fast as they could over the hills and through the woods. But with so many obstacles they made slow progress, and, in the close heat, the men soon grew breathless. It was also late in the afternoon and Dick was quite sure that they would not reach Sulphur Springs before nightfall.
"I've felt exactly this same air on the great plains," said Pennington, as they stopped on the crest of a hill for the troops to rest a little. "It's heavy and close as if it were being all crowded together. It makes your lungs work twice as hard as usual, and it's also a sign."
"Tell your sign, old weather sharp," said Warner.
"It's simple enough. The sign may not be so strong here, but it applies just as it does on the great plains. It means that a storm is coming. Anybody could tell that. Look there, in the southwest. See that cloud edging itself over the horizon. Things will turn loose to-night. Don't you say the same, sergeant? You've been out in my country."
Sergeant Whitley was standing near them regarding the cloud attentively.
"Yes, Mr. Pennington," he replied. "I was out there a long time and I'd rather be there now fighting the Indians, instead of fighting our own people, although no other choice was left me. I've seen some terrible hurricanes on the plains, winds that would cut the earth as if it was done with a ploughshare, and these armies are going to be rained on mighty hard to-night."
Dick smiled a little at the sergeant's solemn tone, and formal words, but he saw that he was very much in earnest. Nor was he one to underrate weather effects upon movements in war.
"What will it mean to the two armies, sergeant?" he asked.
"Depends upon what happens before she busts. If a rebel force is then across it's bad for us, but if it ain't the more water between us an' them the better. This, I take it, is the end of the drought, and a flood will come tumbling down from the mountains."
The sun now darkened and the clouds gathered heavily on the Western horizon. Colonel Winchester's anxiety increased fast. It became evident that the regiment could not reach Sulphur Springs until far into the night, and, still full of alarms, he resolved to take a small detachment, chiefly of his staff, and ride forward at the utmost speed.
He chose about twenty men, including Dick, Warner, Pennington, Sergeant Whitley, and another veteran who were mounted on the horses of junior officers left behind, and pressed forward with speed. A West Virginian named Shattuck knew something of the country, and led them.
"What is this place, Sulphur Springs?" asked Colonel Winchester of Shattuck.
"Some big sulphur springs spout out of the bank and run down to the river. They are fine and healthy to drink an' there's a lot of cottages built up by people who come there to stay a while. But I guess them people have gone away. It ain't no place for health just at this time."
"That's a certainty," said Colonel Winchester.
"An' then there's the bridge, which, as we know, the cavalry has broke down."
"Fortunately. But can't we go a little faster, boys?"
There was a well defined road and Shattuck now led them at a gallop. As they approached the springs they checked their speed, owing to the increasing darkness. But Dick's good ears soon told him that something was happening at the springs. He heard faintly the sound of voices, and the clank and rattle which many men with weapons cannot keep from making now and then.
"I'm afraid, sir," he said to Colonel Winchester, "that they're already across."
The little troop stopped at the command of its leader and all listened intently. It was very dark now and the wood was moaning, but the columns of air came directly from the wood, bearing clearly upon their crest the noises made by regiments.
"You're right, Dick," said Colonel Winchester, bitter mortification showing in his tone. "They're there, and they're on our side of the river. Oh, we might have known it! They say that Stonewall Jackson never sleeps, and they make no mistake, when they call his infantry foot cavalry!"
Dick was silent. He shared his leader's intense disappointment, but he knew that it was not for him to speak at this moment.
"Mr. Shattuck," said Colonel Winchester, "how near do you think we can approach without being seen?"
"I know a neck of woods leading within a hundred yards of the cottages. If we was to leave our horses here with a couple of men we could slip down among the trees and bushes, and there ain't one chance in ten that we'd be seen on so dark a night."
"Then you lead us. Pawley, you and Woodfall hold the horses. Now follow softly, lads! All of you have hunted the 'coon and 'possum at night, and you should know how to step without making noise."
Shattuck advanced with certainty, and the others, true to their training, came behind him in single file, and without noise. But as they advanced the sounds of an army ahead of them increased, and when they reached the edge of the covert they saw a great Confederate division on their side of the stream, in full possession of the cottages and occupying all the ground about them. Many men were at work, restoring the wrecked bridge, but the others were eating their suppers or were at rest.
"There must be seven or eight thousand men here," said Dick, who did not miss the full significance of the fact.
"So it seems," said Warner, "and I'm afraid it bodes ill for General Pope."