Chapter XII. An Affair of the Mountains
 

Although they were on board one of the fastest steamers in the Union service, Dick and his comrades had a long journey by river. But it was not unpleasant. They enjoyed the rest and ease after the weeks of fighting and service in the trenches before Vicksburg. The absence of war and the roar of cannon and rifles was like a happy dream between days of fighting. As they went northward on the great river it almost seemed as if peace had returned.

Warner studied his algebra and two other books of mathematics which he was lucky enough to find on board. Pennington slept a great deal of the time.

"I learned it on the plains from the Indians," he said. "When they don't have anything to do they sleep and gather strength for the hour of need. I think the time is coming soon when they won't let me sleep at all, and then I can draw on the great supply I have in stock."

"Likely enough it's near," said Dick dreamily. "They say Bragg has a great army now, and you know that, while Rosecrans is slow he's pretty sure. Thomas and McCook and the others are with him, too. I expect to see 'Pap' Thomas again. He's a general to my liking."

"And to mine, too," said Pennington, "but we can talk about him later on, because I'm going to sleep again inside of a minute."

Dick was not averse to silence, as he, too, was half asleep; that is, he was in a dreamy stage, and he was at peace with the world and his fellow men. From under drooping eyelids he was vaguely watching the low shores of the Mississippi, and the great mass of yellow waters moving onward from the far vague forests of the North in their journey of four thousand miles to the gulf.

Like all boys of the great valley, Dick always felt the romance and spell of the Mississippi. It was to him and them one of the greatest facts in the natural world, the grave of De Soto, the stream on which their fathers and forefathers had explored and traded and fought since their beginnings. Now it was fulfilling its titanic role again, and the Union fleets upon its bosom were splitting the Confederacy asunder.

He, too, fell asleep before long. Warner glanced at his comrades who slept so well on a hard bench, and his look was rather envious. He returned his beloved algebra to his pocket, leaned back on the bench also, and, although he had not believed it possible, slept also inside of five minutes. Colonel Winchester passing smiled sympathetically, but his glance lingered longest on Dick.

After days on the water the regiment disembarked, marched more days across the country, joining other regiments on the way, and reached the rear guard of the army of Rosecrans, which was already marching southward in the direction of Chattanooga to meet that of Bragg. They advanced now over the Cumberland mountains through a country wild and thinly inhabited. The summer was waning, but it was cool on the mountains and in the passes, nor was it so dry as the year before, when they fought that terrible battle at Perryville in Kentucky.

Dick was glad to be again in the high country, the land of firm soil and of many clear, rushing streams. Heart and lungs expanded, when he looked upon the long ridges, clothed in deep forest, and breathed the pure air that blew down from their summits. Yet his dream of peace was over. As they advanced through the forests and passes they were harassed incessantly by sharpshooters on the slopes, who melted away before them, but who returned on the very heels of the vain pursuit to vex them again with bullets.

They heard soon that the most daring of these bands was led by a man named Slade, and Dick's pulse took a jump. He felt in a curious sort of way that this man Slade was still following him. It seemed more than a decree of chance that their fates should be intertwined. He hoped that Slade would never hear how he had been hidden in that hole in the ravine with the Woodvilles. Trouble could come of it for gallant young Victor Woodville, and even for his uncle. He was sure that Victor was now with Bragg and they might meet face to face again.

As they rode through a defile and came into a wide valley they saw before them an extensive Union camp, and they were overjoyed to learn that it was the division of Thomas, the general to whom they were to report. Dick had once received the personal thanks of Thomas, and the grave, able man inspired him with immense respect, mingled with affection.

He stood before Thomas in his tent that evening, Colonel Winchester having yielded to his request to take him with him when he reported the arrival of his regiment. Thomas, usually so taciturn, delighted the soul of the lad by remembering him at once.

"It was you, Lieutenant Mason, who came to me there in the Kentucky mountains with the dispatches," he said, "and you were also with us at Perryville and Stone River."

"I was, sir," said Dick, flushing with pride.

"And you were with General Grant at the taking of Vicksburg! It was a great exploit, and it has lifted us up mightily. But I'm glad to have you back along with Colonel Winchester and the rest of his brave lads. I think you'll see action before long, action perhaps on a greater scale than any witnessed hitherto in the West."

Dick saluted and withdrew. He knew that a young lieutenant must not stay too long in the presence of a commanding general and he quickly rejoined Warner and Pennington.

"How's the old man?" asked Pennington, with the familiarity of youth, which was not disrespectful in the absence of the "old man."

"'Pap' Thomas is looking well," replied Dick. "I fancy that his digestion was never better. He did not act in a belligerent way, but I think he's hunting for a fight."

"Since you and Warner and I have arrived he can begin it."

"I think it's coming," said Dick earnestly. "Often you can feel when things are moving to some end, and I'm sure that we'll measure strength again with Bragg before the autumn has gone far."

The valley in which the camp lay was green and beautiful, and a deep, clear little river from the mountains, ran rushing, through it. The three lads lay on their blankets near the bank and listened to the musical sweep of the stream. Pennington suddenly sprang up and hailed:

"Hey, Ohio, is that you? Come here!"

A tall youth emerged from the dusk and looked at them inquiringly.

"Ohio," said Pennington, "don't you remember your friends?"

The long, lean lad looked again, and then he was enthusiastically shaking hands with each in turn.

"Remember you!" he exclaimed. "Of course I do. If it hadn't been so dark I'd have seen you and called to you first. I'm glad you're alive. It's a lot to live in these times. I tried to find out about you fellows but couldn't. We came in a detachment ahead of you. But if you'll invite me, I'll stay awhile with you and talk."

They offered him a blanket and he stretched out upon it, turning his eyes up to the sky, in which the stars were now coming.

"What are you thinking about, Ohio?" asked Dick.

"I'm thinking how fast I'm growing old. Two years and a half in the war, but it's twenty-five years in fact. I hadn't finished school when I left home and here I am, a veteran of more battles than any soldiers have fought since the days of old Bonaparte. If I happen to live through this war, which I mean to do, I wonder how I'll ever settle down at home again. Father will say to me: 'Get the plough and break up the five-acre field for corn,' and me, maybe a veteran of a dozen pitched battles in every one of which anywhere from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand men have been engaged, not to mention fifty or a hundred smaller battles and four or five hundred skirmishes.

"When the flies begin to buzz around me I'll think they make a mighty poor noise compared with the roar of three or four hundred big cannon and a hundred thousand rifles that I've listened to so often. If a yellow jacket should sting me, I'd say what a little thing it is, compared with the piece of shrapnel that hit me at some battle not yet fought. Maybe I'd find things so quiet I just couldn't stand it. Wars are mighty unsettling."

"I'm thinking," said Dick, "that before this war is over all of us will get enough of it to last a lifetime. We've got the edge on 'em now, since Vicksburg and Gettysburg, but the Graybacks are not yet beaten by a long shot. We've heard how Lee drew off from Gettysburg carrying all his guns and supplies, and even with Gettysburg we haven't been doing so well in the East as we have in the West. You know that, Ohio?"

"Of course, I do. But I think the Johnnies have made their high-water mark. Great work our army did down there at Vicksburg, and we'll have the chance to do just as well against Bragg. We'll defeat him, of course. Now, Mason, notice that light flickering on the mountain up there!"

He pointed to the crest of a ridge two or three miles away, where Dick saw a point of flame appearing and reappearing, and answered by another point farther down, which flickered in the same manner.

"Signals of some kind, I suppose," replied Dick, "but I don't know who makes them or what they mean."

"I don't know what they mean, either," said Ohio; "but I can guess pretty well who's making them. That's Slade."

"Slade!" said Dick.

"Yes, you seem to have heard of him?"

"So I have, and I've seen him, also. I heard, too, that he was up here making things unhappy for our side. He was in Vicksburg, although you may not have heard of him there, but he got out before the surrender. A cunning fellow. A sort of land pirate."

"He's all of that. Since we've been coming through the mountains he and his band have picked off a lot of our men. Those signals must mean that they're preparing for another raid. I shouldn't like to be a half-mile from our lines to-night."

"Why can't we smoke him out, Ohio?"

"Because when we're half way up the slope he and his men are gone on the other side. Besides, they can rake us with bullets from ambush, while we're climbing up the ridge. And when we get there, they're gone. It's these mountains that give the irregulars their chance. See, two lights are winking at each other now!"

"How far apart would you say they are, Ohio?"

"A mile, maybe, but one is much higher than the other up the mountain. The lower light, doubtless, is signaling information about us to the higher. I see your colonel and our colonel talking together. Maybe we're going to set a trap. It would be a good thing if we could clean out those fellows."

"I'm thinking that your guess is a good one," said Dick, as he rose to his feet, "because Colonel Winchester is beckoning to me now."

"And there's a call for me, too," said Ohio, rising. "Talk of a thing and it happens. We're surely going for those lights."

They had reckoned right. General Thomas, when he saw the signals, had summoned some of his best officers and they had talked together earnestly. The general had not said much before, but the incessant sharpshooting from the bushes and slopes as they marched southward had caused him intense annoyance, and, if continued, he knew that it would hurt the spirit of the troops.

"We shall try to trap Slade's band to-night," said Colonel Winchester to Dick and the other young officers who gathered around him. "We think he has three or four hundred men and my regiment can deal with that number. We will defile to the right without noise and make our way up the mountain. An Ohio regiment, which can also deal with Slade if it catches him, will defile to the left. Maybe we can trap these irregulars between us. Sergeant Whitley will guide my force."

The sergeant stepped forward, proud of the honor and trust. Dick, looking at him in the moonlight, said to himself for the hundredth time that he was a magnificent specimen of American manhood, thick, powerful, intelligent, respectful to his superior officers, who often knew less than he did, a veteran from whom woods, hills, and plains hid few secrets. He thought it a good thing that the sergeant was to be their guide, because he would lead them into no ambush.

As Dick turned away for departure Ohio said to him:

"We'll meet on the mountain side, and I hope we'll catch our game, but don't you fellows fire into us in the dark."

Dick promised and his regiment marched away toward the slope. All were on foot, of course, and they had received strict instructions to make no noise. They turned northward, left the camp behind them, and were soon hidden in the dark.

Dick was at the head of the column with Colonel Winchester and the sergeant. Warner and Pennington were further back. The darkness was heavy in the shadow of the slope and among the bushes, but, looking backward, Dick clearly saw the camp of General Thomas with its thousands of men and dozens of fires. Figures passed and repassed before the flames, and the fused noises of a great camp came from the valley.

Dick took only a glance or two. His whole attention now was for the sergeant, who was looking here and there and sniffing the air, like a great hound seeking the trail. The soldier had melted into the scout, and Colonel Winchester, knowing him so well, had, in effect, turned the regiment over to him.

Dick and other young officers were sent back through the column to see that they marched without noise. It was not difficult to enforce the orders, as the men were filled with the ardor of the hunt, and would do everything to insure its success. When Dick came back to the head of the column he merely heard the tread of feet and the rustling of uniforms against the bushes behind them.

The sergeant led on with unerring skill and instinct. They were rising fast on the slope, and the great forest received and hid them as if they were its wild children returned to their home. The foliage was so dense that Dick caught only flitting glimpses of the camp below, although many fires were yet burning there.

The wisdom of putting the regiment into the hands of the sergeant was now shown. Rising to the trust, he called up all his reserves of wilderness lore. He listened attentively to the voice of every night bird, because it might not be real, but instead the imitation call of man to man. He searched in every opening under the moonlight for traces of footsteps, which he alone could have seen, and, when at last he found them, Dick, despite the dusk, saw his figure expand and his eyes flash. He had been kneeling down examining the imprints and when he arose the colonel asked:

"What is it, Whitley?"

"Men have passed here, sir, and, as they couldn't have been ours, they were the enemy. The tracks lead south on the slope, and they must have been going that way to join Slade's command."

"Then you think, Sergeant, we should follow this trail?"

"Undoubtedly, sir, but we must look out for an ambush. These men know the mountains thoroughly, and if we were to walk into their trap they might cut us to pieces."

"Then we won't walk into it. Lead on, Sergeant. If the enemy is near, I know that you will find him in time."

The sergeant's brown face flushed with pride, but he followed on the trail without a word and behind him came the whole regiment, implicit in its trust, and winding without noise like a great coiling serpent through the forest.

Dick was a woodsman himself, and he kept close to the sergeant, watching his methods, and seeking also what he could find. While they lost the trail now and then, he saw the sergeant recover it in the openings. He noted, too, that it was increasing in size. Little trails were flowing into the big one like brooks into a river, and the main course was uniformly south, but bearing slightly upward on the slope.

The sergeant stopped at the melancholy cry of an owl, apparently three or four hundred yards ahead. Both he and Dick raised their heads and listened for the answer, which they felt sure was ready. The long, sinister hoot in reply came from a point considerably farther away, but at about the same height on the slope.

"They have two forces, sir," said the sergeant to Colonel Winchester, "and I think they're about to unite."

"As a wilderness fighter, what would you suggest, Sergeant?"

"To wait here a little and lie hidden in the brush. We're rightly afraid of an ambush if we go on, then why not make the same danger theirs? I think it likely that the other force is coming this way. Anyway, we can tell in a minute or two, 'cause them owls are sure to hoot again. If I'm right, we can catch 'em napping."

"An excellent idea, Sergeant. Ah! there are the signals you predicted!"

The owl hooted again from the same point directly in front, and then came the reply of the other, now nearer. The sergeant drew a deep breath of satisfaction.

"Yes, sir, I was right," he said. "Their meeting place is straight in front. Will you let me slip forward a little through the brush and see?"

"Go ahead, Sergeant. We need all the information we can get, but don't walk into any trap yourself, leaving us here without eyes or ears."

"Never fear, sir. I won't be caught."

Then he disappeared with a suddenness that made the colonel and Dick gasp. He was with them, and then he was not. But he returned in ten minutes, and, although Dick could not see it in his face, he was triumphant.

"There's a glade not more'n four hundred yards ahead," he whispered to the colonel, "and about a hundred and fifty men, armed with long rifles, are lying down in it waiting for a second force, which I judge from the cry of the owl will be there inside of five minutes."

"Then," said Colonel Winchester, breathing fast, "we'll wait ten minutes and attack. It would be a great stroke to wipe out Slade's band. I'm sorry for those Ohio fellows, but the luck's ours to-night, or I should say that the sergeant's skill as a trailer has given us the chance."

It was soon known along the black, winding line that the enemy was at hand, and the men were eager to attack, but they were ordered to have patience for a little while. Their leader wished to destroy Slade's whole force at one stroke.

Colonel Winchester took out his watch and held it before him in the faint moonlight. He would not move until the ten minutes exactly had passed. Then he closed the watch and gave the signal, but stationed officers along the line to see that the men made as little noise as possible. The long black column moved again through the forest and Dick, full of excitement was at its head with the colonel and the sergeant.

They reached a slope, crept up it, and then spread out, as they knew that the valley and the enemy were within rifle shot. Dick, glancing through the bushes, saw the glitter of steel and caught the murmur of voices. He knew that their presence was not yet suspected, and he did not like the idea of firing from ambush upon anybody, but there was no occasion for testing his scruples, as the advance of so many men created noise sufficient to reach the alert ears in the glade.

"Up, men! The enemy!" he heard a voice shout. Colonel Winchester at the same moment ordered his men to fire and charge with the bayonet.

A terrible volley was poured into the valley, and it seemed to Dick that half of Slade's force went down, but as they rushed forward to finish the task they met a fire that caused many of the Union soldiers to drop. Slade was evidently a man of ability. Dick saw him springing about and blowing a little silver whistle, which he knew was a call to rally.

But the surprise was too sudden and great. The irregulars, fighting hard, were driven out of the valley and into the woods on the upper side of the glade. Sheltered in the underbrush, they might have made a good defense there, but a sudden tremendous cheer arose, and they were charged in the flank by the Ohio regiment, coming up on the run.

Spurred by emulation the Winchester men also rushed into the underbrush, and those of Slade's men who had not fallen quickly threw down their arms. But they did not catch the leader, nor did they know what had become of him, until Dick caught sight of a little, weazened figure under an enormous wide-brimmed hat running with three or four others along the mountain-side.

"Slade! Slade!" he cried, pointing, and instantly a score, Dick and the sergeant among them, were hotfoot after the fugitives. Several shots were fired, but none hit, and the chase lengthened out.

Sergeant Whitley exclaimed to Dick:

"We catch the pack, but if we don't catch the leader there'll be another pack soon."

"Right you are! We must have that little man under the big hat!"

Dick heard panting breaths, and Warner and Pennington drew up by his side.

"Slade's about to escape!" exclaimed Dick. "We must get him!"

"I'm running my best," said Warner. "Look out!" Slade suddenly faced about and fired a heavy pistol. Dick had dropped down at Warner's warning cry and the bullet sang over his head. The sergeant fired in return, but the light was too faint, and Slade and the three who were with him ran on unharmed.

The pursuit, conducted with such vigor, soon led to the top of the mountain, and they began the descent of the far side. Several more shots were fired, but they did no damage, and neither side was able to gain. Two of the fugitives turned aside into the woods, but the pursuit kept straight after Slade, and his remaining companion, a slender, youthful figure.

"I think we'll get 'em," panted the sergeant. As he spoke one of the little mountain rivers so numerous in that region came into view. It was narrow, but deep, and without hesitating an instant the fugitives sprang into it and shot down the stream, swimming with all their strength, and helped by the powerful current.

Slade was in advance, and he was already disappearing in the shadows on the far bank, but his comrade, he of the slender figure, was still in the moonlight, which fell across his face for a moment. A soldier raised his rifle to fire, but Dick stumbled and fell against him and the bullet went high in the air.

The moment had been long enough for Dick to recognize Victor Woodville. He did not know how he happened to be with Slade, but he did not intend that he should be shot there in the water, and his impulse was quick enough to save Victor's life. In another moment the young Mississippian was gone also in the shadows, and although several of the Union men swam the river they could discover no trace of either.

"I'm sorry," said the sergeant as they walked back to the other side of the mountain, "that they got away."

"Yes," said Dick, "it was too bad that Slade escaped."