The Sword of Antietam by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. The Mournful Forest
As the night settled down, heavy and dark, and the sounds of firing died away along the great line, Dick again sank to the ground exhausted. Although the battle itself had ceased, it seemed to him that the drums of his ears still reproduced its thunder and roar, or at least the echo of it was left upon the brain.
He lay upon the dry grass, and although the night was again hot and breathless, surcharged with smoke and dust and fire, he felt a chill that went to the bone, and he trembled all over. Then a cold perspiration broke out upon him. It was the collapse after two days of tremendous exertion, excitement and anxiety. He did not move for eight or ten minutes, blind to everything that was going on about him, and then through the darkness he saw Colonel Winchester standing by and looking down at him.
"Are you all right, Dick, my boy?" the colonel asked.
"Yes, sir," replied Dick, as his pride made him drag himself to his feet. "I'm not wounded at all. I was just clean played out."
"You're lucky to get off so well," said the colonel, smiling sadly. "We've lost many thousands and we've lost the battle, too. The killed or wounded in my regiment number more than two-thirds."
"Have you seen anything of Warner and Pennington, sir? I lost sight of them in that last terrible attack."
"Pennington is here. He has had a bullet through the fleshy part of his left arm, but he's so healthy it won't take him long to get well. I'm sorry to say that Warner is missing."
"Missing, sir? You don't say that George has been killed?"
"I don't say it. I'm hoping instead that he's been captured."
Dick knew what the colonel meant. In Colonel Winchester's opinion only two things, death or capture, could keep Warner from being with them.
"Maybe he will come in yet," he said. "We were mixed up a good deal when the darkness fell, and he may have trouble in finding our position."
"That's true. There are not so many of us left, and we do not cover any great area of ground. Lie still, Dick, and take a little rest. We don't know what's going to happen in the night. We may have to do more fighting yet, despite the darkness."
The colonel's figure disappeared in the shadow, and Dick, following his advice, lay quiet. All around him were other forms stretched upon the earth, motionless. But Dick knew they were not dead, merely sleeping. His own nervous system was being restored by youth and the habit of courage. Yet he felt a personal grief, and it grew stronger with returning physical strength. Warner, his comrade, knitted to him by ties of hardship and danger, was missing, dead no doubt in the battle. For the moment he forgot about the defeat. All his thoughts were for the brave youth who lay out there somewhere, stretched on the dusty field.
Dick strained his eyes into the darkness, as if by straining he might see where Warner lay. He saw, indeed, dim fires here and there along a long line, marking where the Confederates now stood, or rather lay. Then a bitter pang came. It was ground upon which the Union army had stood in the morning.
The rifle fire, which had died down, began again in a fitful way. Far off, skirmishers, not satisfied with the slaughter of the day, were seeing what harm they could do in the dark. Somewhere the plumed and unresting Stuart was charging with his horsemen, driving back some portion of the Union army that the Confederate forces might be on their flank in the morning.
But Dick, as he lay quietly and felt his strength, mental and physical, returning, was taking a resolution. Down there in front of them and in the darkness was the wood upon which they had made five great assaults, all to fail. In front of that mournful forest, and within its edge, more than ten thousand men had fallen. He had no doubt that Warner was among them.
His sense of direction was good, and, as his blurred faculties regained their normal keenness, he could mark the exact line by which they had advanced, and the exact line by which they had retreated. Warner unquestionably lay near the edge of the wood and he must seek him. Were it the other way, Warner would do the same.
Dick stood up. He was no longer dizzy, and every muscle felt steady and strong. He did not know what had become of Colonel Winchester, and his comrades still lay upon the ground in a deep stupor.
It could not be a night of order and precision, with every man numbered and in his place, as if they were going to begin a battle instead of just having finished one, and Dick, leaving his comrades, walked calmly toward the wood. He passed one sentinel, but a few words satisfied him, and he continued to advance. Far to right and left he still heard the sound of firing and saw the flash of guns, but these facts did not disturb him. In front of him lay darkness and silence, with the horizon bounded by that saddest of all woods where the heaped dead lay.
Dick looked back toward the Henry Hill, on the slopes of which were the fragments of his own regiment. Lights were moving there, but they were so dim they showed nothing. Then he turned his face toward the enemy's position and did not look back again.
The character of the night was changing. It had come on dark and heavy. Hot and breathless like the one before, he had taken no notice of the change save for the increased darkness. Now he felt a sudden damp touch on his face, as if a wet finger had been laid there. The faintest of winds had blown for a moment or two, and when Dick looked up, he saw that the sky was covered with black clouds. The saddest of woods had moved far away, but by some sort of optical illusion he could yet see it.
Save for the distant flash of random firing, the darkness was intense. Every star was gone, and Dick moved without any guide. But he needed none. His course was fixed. He could not miss the mournful wood hanging there like a pall on the horizon.
His feet struck against something. It was a man, but he was past all feeling, and Dick went on, striking by and by against many more. It was impossible at the moment to see Warner's face, but he began to feel of the figures with his hands. There was none so long and slender as Warner's, and he continued his search, moving steadily toward the wood.
He saw presently a lantern moving over the field, and he walked toward it. Three men were with the lantern, and the one who carried it held it up as he approached. The beams fell directly upon Dick, revealing his pale face and torn and dusty uniform.
"What do you want, Yank?" called the man.
"I'm looking for a friend of mine who must have fallen somewhere near here."
The man laughed, but it was not a laugh of joy or irony. It was a laugh of pity and sadness.
"You've shorely got a big look comin'," he said. "They're scattered all around here, coverin' acres an' acres, just like dead leaves shook by a storm from the trees. But j'in us, Yank. You can't do nothin' in the darkness all by yourself. We're Johnny Rebs, good and true, and I may be shootin' straight at you to-morrow mornin', but I reckon I've got nothin' ag'in you now. We're lookin' for a brother o' mine."
Dick joined them, and the four, the three in gray and the one in blue, moved on. A friendly current had passed between him and them, and there would be no thought of hostility until the morning, when it would come again. It was often so in this war, when men of the same blood met in the night between battles.
"What sort of a fellow is it that you're lookin' for?" asked the man with the lantern.
"About my age. Very tall and thin. You could mark him by his height."
"It takes different kinds of people to make the world. My brother ain't like him a-tall. Sam's short, an' thick as a buffalo. Weighs two twenty with no fat on him. What crowd do you belong to, youngster?"
"The division on our right. We attacked the wood there."
"Well, you're a bully boy. Give me your hand, if you are a Yank. You shorely came right up there and looked us in the eyes. How often did you charge us?"
"Five times, I think. But I may be mistaken. You know it wasn't a day when a fellow could be very particular about his count."
"Guess you're right there. I made it five. What do you say, Jim?"
"Five she was."
"That settles it. Jim kin always count up to five an' never make a mistake. What you fellers goin' to do in the mornin'?"
"I don't know."
"Pope ain't asked you yet what to do. Well, Bobby Lee and Old Stonewall ain't been lookin' for me either to get my advice, but, Yank, you fellers do just what I tell you."
"Pack up your clothes before daylight, say good-bye, and go back to Washington. You needn't think you kin ever lick Marse Bobby an' Stonewall Jackson."
"But what if we do think it? We've got a big army back there yet, and more are always coming to us. We'll beat you yet."
"There seems to be a pow'ful wide difference in our opinions, an' I can't persuade you an' you can't persuade me. We'll just let the question rip. I'm glad, after all, Yank, it's so dark. I don't want to see ten thousand dead men stretched out in rows."
"We're going to get a wettin'," said the man to Jim. "The air's already damp on my face. Thar, do you hear that thunder growlin' in the southwest? Tremenjously like cannon far away, but it's thunder all the same."
"What do we care 'bout a wettin', Jim? Fur the last few days this young Yank here an' his comrades have shot at me 'bout a million cannon balls an' shells, an' more 'n a hundred million rifle bullets. Leastways I felt as if they was all aimed at me, which is just as bad. After bein' drenched fur two days with a storm of steel an' lead an' fire, what do you think I care for a summer shower of rain, just drops of rain?"
"But I don't like to get wet after havin' fit so hard. It's unhealthy, likely to give me a cold."
"Never min' 'bout ketchin' cold. You're goin' to get wet, shore. Thunder, but I thought fur a second that was the flash of a hull battery aimed at me. Fellers, if you wasn't with me I'd be plumb scared, prowlin' 'roun' here in a big storm on the biggest graveyard in the world. Keep close, Yank, we don't want to lose you in the dark."
A tremendous flash of lightning had cut the sky down the middle, as if it intended to divide the world in two halves, but after its passage the darkness closed in thicker and heavier than ever. The sinister sound of thunder muttering on the horizon now went on without ceasing.
Dick was awed. Like many another his brain exposed to such tremendous pressure for two or three days, was not quite normal. It was quickly heated and excited by fancies, and time and place alone were enough to weigh down even the coolest and most seasoned. He pressed close to his Confederate friends, whose names he never knew, and who never knew his, and they, feeling the same influence, never for an instant left the man who held the lantern.
The muttering thunder now came closer and broke in terrible crashes. The lightning flashed again and again so vividly that Dick, with involuntary motion, threw up his hands to shelter his eyes. But he could see before him the mournful forest, where so many good men had fallen, and, turned red in the gleam of the lightning, it was more terrifying than it had been in the mere black of the night. The wind, too, was now blowing, and the forest gave forth what Dick's ears turned into a long despairing wail.
"She's about to bust," said the lantern bearer, looking up at the menacing sky. "Jim, you'll have to take your wettin' as it comes."
A moment later the storm burst in fact. The rain rushed down on them, soaking them through in an instant, but Dick, so far from caring, liked it. It cooled his heated body and brain, and he knew that it was more likely to help than hurt the wounded who yet lay on the ground.
The lightning ceased before the sweep of the rain, but the lantern was well protected by its glass cover, and they still searched. The lantern bearer suddenly uttered a low cry.
"Boys!" he said, "Here's Sam!"
A thick and uncommonly powerful man lay doubled up against a bush. His face was white. Dick saw that blood had just been washed from it by the rain. But he could see no rising and falling of the chest, and he concluded that he was dead.
"Take the lantern, Jim," said the leader. Then he knelt down and put his finger on his brother's wrist.
"He ain't dead," he said at last. "His pulse is beatin' an' he'll come to soon. The rain helped him. Whar was he hit? By gum, here it is! A bullet has ploughed all along the side of his head, runnin' 'roun' his skull. Here, you Yank, did you think you could kill Sam by shootin' him in the head with a bullet? We've stood him up in front of our lines, and let you fellows break fifty pound shells on his head. You never done him no harm, 'cept once when two solid shot struck him at the same time an' he had a headache nigh until sundown. Besides havin' natural thickness of the skull Sam trained his head by buttin' with the black boys when he was young."
Dick saw that the man really felt deep emotion and was chattering, partly to hide it. He was glad that they had found his brother, and he helped them to lift him. Then they rubbed Sam's wrists and poured a stimulant down his throat. In a few minutes he stood alone on his feet, yawned mightily, and by the light of the dim lantern gazed at them in a sort of stupid wonder.
"What's happened?" he asked.
"What's happened?" replied his brother. "You was always late with the news, Sam. Of course you've been takin' a nap, but a lot has happened. We met the Yankees an' we've been fightin' 'em for two days. Tremenjous big battle, an' we've whipped 'em. 'Scuse me, Yank, I forgot you was with us. Well, nigh onto a million have been killed, which ought to be enough for anybody. I love my country, but I don't care to love another at such a price. But resumin' 'bout you pussonally, Sam, you stopped so many shells an' solid shot with that thick head of yourn that the concussion at last put you to sleep, an' we've found you so we kin take you in out of the wet an' let you sleep in a dry place. Kin you walk?"
Sam made an effort, but staggered badly.
"Jim, you an' Dave take him by each shoulder an' walk him back to camp," said the lantern bearer. "You jest keep straight ahead an' you'll butt into Marse Bob or old Stonewall, one or the other."
"You lead the way with the lantern."
"Never you mind about me or the lantern."
"What you goin' to do?"
"Me? I'm goin' to keep this lantern an' help Yank here find his friend. Ain't he done stuck with us till we found Sam, an' I reckon I'll stick with him till he gits the boy he's lookin for, dead or alive. Now, you keep Sam straight, and walk him back to camp. He ain't hurt. Why, that bullet didn't dent his skull. It said to itself when it came smack up against the bone: 'This is too tough for me, I guess I'll go 'roun'.' An' it did go 'roun'. You can see whar it come out of the flesh on the other side. Why, by the time Sam was fourteen years old we quit splittin' old boards with an axe or a hatchet. We jest let Sam set on a log an' we split 'em over his head. Everybody was suited. Sam could make himself pow'ful useful without havin' to work."
Nevertheless, the lantern bearer gave his brother the tenderest care, and watched him until he and the men on either side of him were lost in the darkness as they walked toward the Southern camp.
"I jest had to come an' find old Sam, dead or alive," he said. "Now, which way, Yank, do you think this friend of yours is layin'?"
"But you're comin' with us," repeated Jim.
"No, I'm not. Didn't Yank here help us find Sam? An' are we to let the Yanks give us lessons in manners? I reckon not. 'Sides, he's only a boy, an' I'm goin' to see him through."
"I thank you," said Dick, much moved.
"Don't thank me too much, 'cause while I'm walkin' 'roun' with you friendly like to-night I may shoot you to-morrow."
"I thank you, all the same," said Dick, his gratitude in nowise diminished.
"Them that will stir no more are layin' mighty thick 'roun' here, but we ought to find your friend pretty soon. By gum, how it rains! W'all, it'll wash away some big stains, that wouldn't look nice in the mornin'. Say, sonny, what started this rumpus, anyway?"
"I don't know."
"An' I don't, either, so I guess it's hoss an' hoss with you an' me. But, sonny, I'll bet you a cracker ag'in a barrel of beef that none of them that did start the rumpus are a-layin' on this field to-night. What kind of lookin' feller did you say your young friend was?"
"Very tall, very thin, and about my age or perhaps a year or two older."
"Take a good look, an' see if this ain't him."
He held up the lantern and the beams fell upon a long figure half raised upon an elbow. The figure was turned toward the light and stared unknowing at Dick and the Southerner. There was a great clot of blood upon his right breast and shoulder, but it was Warner. Dick swallowed hard.
"Yes," he said, "it's my comrade, but he's hurt badly."
"So bad that he don't know you or anybody else. He's clean out of his head."
They leaned over him, and Dick called:
"George! George! It's Dick Mason, your comrade, come to help you back to camp!"
But Warner merely stared with feverish, unseeing eyes.
"He's out of his head, as I told you, an' he's like to be for many hours," said the lantern bearer. "It's a shore thing that I won't shoot him to-morrow, nor he won't shoot me."
He leaned over Warner and carefully examined the wound.
"He's lucky, after all," he said, "the bullet went in just under the right shoulder, but it curved, as bullets have a way of doin' sometimes, an' has come out on the side. There ain't no lead in him now, which is good. He was pow'ful lucky, too, in not bein' hit in the head, 'cause he ain't got no such skull as Sam has, not within a mile of it. His skull wouldn't have turned no bullet. He has lost a power of blood, but if you kin get him back to camp, an' use the med'cines which you Yanks have in such lots an' which we haven't, he may get well."
"That's good advice," said Dick. "Help me up with him."
"Take him on your back. That's the best way to carry a sick man."
He set down his lantern, took up Warner bodily and put him on Dick's back.
"I guess you can carry him all right," he said. "I'd light you with the lantern a piece of the way, but I've been out here long enough. Marse Bob an' old Stonewall will get tired waitin' fur me to tell 'em how to end this war in a month."
Dick, holding Warner in place with one hand, held out the other, and said:
"You're a white man, through and through, Johnny Reb. Shake!"
"So are you, Yank. There's nothin' wrong with you 'cept that you happened to get on the wrong side, an' I don't hold that ag'in you. I guess it was an innercent mistake."
"Good-bye. Keep straight ahead an' you'll strike that camp of yourn that we're goin' to take in the mornin'. Gosh, how it rains!"
Dick retained his idea of direction, and he walked straight through the darkness toward the Northern camp. George was a heavy load, but he did not struggle. His head sank down against his comrade's and Dick felt that it was burning with fever.
"Good old George," he murmured to himself rather than to his comrade, "I'll save you."
Excitement and resolve had given him a strength twice the normal, a strength that would last the fifteen or twenty minutes needed until this task was finished. Despite the darkness and the driving rain, he could now see the lights in his own camp, and bending forward a little to support the dead weight on his back, he walked in a straight course toward them.
"Halt! Who are you?"
The form of a sentinel, rifle raised, rose up before him in the darkness and the rain.
"Lieutenant Richard Mason of Colonel Winchester's regiment, bringing in Lieutenant George Warner of the same regiment, who is badly wounded."
The sentinel lowered his rifle and looked at them sympathetically.
"Hangs like he's dead, but he ain't," he said. "You'll find a sort of hospital over thar in the big tents among them trees."
Dick found the improvised hospital, and put George down on a rude cot, within the shelter of one of the tents.
"He's my friend," he said to a young doctor, "and I wish you'd save him."
"There are hundreds of others who have friends also, but I'll do my best. Shot just under the right shoulder, but the bullet, luckily, has turned and gone out. It's loss of blood that hurt him most. You soldiers kill more men than we doctors can save. I'm bound to say that. But your friend won't die. I'll see to it."
"Thank you," said Dick. He saw that the doctor was kind-hearted, and a marvel of endurance and industry. He could not ask for more at such a time, and he went out of the tent, leaving George to his care.
It was still raining, but the soldiers managed to keep many fires going, despite it, and Dick passed between them as he sought Colonel Winchester, and the fragments of his regiment. He found the colonel wrapped in a greatcoat, leaning against a tree under a few feet of canvas supported on sticks. Pennington, sound asleep, sat on a root of the same tree, also under the canvas, but with the rain beating on his left arm and shoulder.
Colonel Winchester looked inquiringly at Dick, but said nothing.
"I've been away without leave, sir," said Dick, "but I think I have sufficient excuse."
"What is it?"
"I've brought in Warner."
"Ah! Is he dead?"
"No, sir. He's had a bullet through him and he's feverish and unconscious, but the doctor says that with care he'll get well."
"Where did you find him?"
"Over there by the edge of the wood, sir, within what is now the Confederate lines."
"A credit to your courage and to your heart. Sit down here. There's a little more shelter under the canvas, and go to sleep. You're too much hardened now to be hurt seriously by wet clothes."
Dick sat down with his back against the tree, and, despite his soaked condition, slept as soundly as Pennington. When he awoke in the morning the hot sun was shining again, and his clothes soon dried on him. He felt a little stiffness and awkwardness at first, but in a few minutes it passed away. Then breakfast restored his strength, and he looked curiously about him.
Around him was the Northern army, and before him was the vast battlefield, now occupied by the foe. He heard sounds of distant rifle shots, indicating that the skirmishers were still restless, but it was no more now than the buzzing of flies. Pennington, coming back from the hospital, hailed him.
"George has come to," he said. "Great deed of yours last night, Dick. Wish I'd done it myself. They let old George talk just a little, but he's his real old Vermont self again. Says chances were ninety-nine and a half per cent that he would die there on the battlefield, but that the half per cent, which was yourself, won. Fancy being only half of one per cent, and doing a thing like that. No, you can't see him. Only one visitor was allowed, and that's me. His fever is leaving him, and he swallowed a little soup. Now, he's going to sleep."
Dick felt very grateful. Pennington had been up some time, and as they sat down in the sun he gave Dick the news.
"It was a bad night," he said. "After you staggered in with George, the rebels, in spite of the rain, harassed us. I was waked up after midnight, and the colonel began to believe that we would have to fight again before morning, though the need didn't come, so far as we were concerned. But we were terribly worried on the flanks. They say it was Stuart and his cavalry who were bothering us."
"What's the outlook for to-day?"
"I don't know. I hear that General Pope has sent a dispatch saying that the enemy is badly whipped, and that we'll hold our own here. But between you and me, Dick, I don't believe it. We've been driven out of all our positions, so we can hardly call it a victory for our side."
"But we may hold on where we are and win a victory yet. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac may come. Anyway, we can get big reinforcements."
Pennington clasped his arms over his knees and sang:
"The race is not to him that's got The longest legs to run, Nor the battle to those people That shoot the biggest gun."
"Where did you get that song?" asked Dick. "I'll allow, under the circumstances, that there seems to be some sense in it."
"A Texan that we captured last night sang it to us. He was a funny kind of fellow. Didn't seem to be worried a bit because he was taken. Said if his own people didn't retake him that he'd escape in a week, anyhow. Likely enough he will, too. But he was good company, and he sang us that song. Impudent, wasn't he?"
"But true so far, at least in the east. I fancy from what you say, Frank, that we'll be here a day longer anyhow. I hope so, I want to rest."
"So do I. I won't fight to-day, unless I'm ordered to do it. But I'm thinking with you, Dick, that we'll retreat. We were outmaneuvered by Lee and Jackson. That circuit of Jackson's through Thoroughfare Gap and the attack from the rear undid us. It comes of being kept in the dark by the enemy, instead of your keeping him in the dark. We never knew where the blow was going to fall, and when it fell a lot of us weren't there. But, Dick, old boy, we're going to win, in the end, aren't we, in spite of Lee, in spite of Jackson, and in spite of everybody and everything?"
"As surely as the rising and setting of the sun, Frank."
Although Dick had little to do that day, events were occurring. It was in the minds of Lee and Jackson that they might yet destroy the army which they had already defeated, and heavy divisions of the Southern army were moving. Dick heard about night that Jackson had marched ten miles, through fields deep in mud, and meant to fall on Pope's flank or rear again. Stuart and his unresting cavalry were also on their right flank and in the rear, doing damage everywhere. Longstreet had sent a brigade across Bull Run, and at many points the enemy was pressing closer.
The next morning, Pope, alarmed by all the sinister movements on his flanks and in his rear, gathered up his army and retreated. It was full time or the vise would have shut down on him again. Late that day the division under Kearney came into contact with Jackson's flanking force in the forest. A short but fierce battle ensued, fought in the night and amid new torrents of driving rain. General Kearney was killed by a skirmisher, but the night and the rain grew so dense, and they were in such a tangle of thickets and forests that both sides drew off, and Pope's army passed on.
Dick was not in this battle, but he heard it's crash and roar above the sweep of the storm. He and the balance of the regiment were helping to guard the long train of the wounded. Now and then, he leaned from his horse and looked at Warner who lay in one of the covered wagons.
"I'm getting along all right, Dick, old man," said Warner. "What's all that firing off toward the woods?"
"A battle, but it won't stop us. We retreated in time."
"And we've been defeated. Well, we can stand it. It takes a good nation to stand big defeats. You know I taught school once, Dick, and I learned that the biggest nation the world has ever known was the one that suffered the biggest defeats. Look at the terrible knocks the Romans got! Why the Gauls nearly ate 'em alive two or three times, and for years Hannibal whipped 'em every time he could get at 'em. But they ended by whipping everybody who had whipped them. They whipped the whole world, and they kept it whipped until they played out from old age."
Dick laughed cheerily.
"Now, you shut up, George," he said. "You've talked too much. What's the use of going back as far as the old Romans for comfort. We can win without having to copy a lot of old timers."
He dropped the flap of canvas and rode on listening to the sounds of the combat. A powerful figure stepped out of the bushes and stood beside his horse. It was Sergeant Whitley, who had passed through the battle without a scratch.
"What has happened, Sergeant?" asked Dick, as he sat in the rain and listened to the dying fire.
"There has been a fight, and both are quitting because they can't see enough to carry it on any longer. But General Kearney has been killed."
The retreat continued until they reached the Potomac and were in the great fortifications before Washington. Then Pope resigned, and the star of McClellan rose again. The command of the armies about Washington was entrusted to him, and the North gathered itself anew for the mighty struggle.