The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XV. Beside the Brook
When the slow retreat began Dick looked for the sergeant. But a stalwart figure, a red bandage around the head, rose up and confronted him. It was Sergeant Whitley himself, a little unsteady yet on his feet, but soon to be as good as ever.
"Thank you for looking for me, Mr. Mason," he said, "but I came to, some time ago. I guess the bullet found my skull too hard, 'cause it just ran 'roun' it, and came out on the other side. I won't even be scarred, as my hair covers up the place."
"Can you walk all right?" asked Dick, overjoyed to find the sergeant was not hurt badly.
"Of course I can, Mr. Mason, an' I'm proud to have been with General Thomas in such a battle. I didn't think human bein's could do what our men have done."
"Nor did I. It was impossible, but we've done it all the same."
Colonel Winchester rejoiced no less than the lads over the sergeant's escape. All the officers of the regiment liked him, and they had an infinite respect for his wisdom, particularly when danger was running high. They were glad for his own sake that he was alive, and they were glad to have him with them as they retreated into Chattanooga, because the night still had its perils.
The moon, though clouded, was out as they withdrew slowly. On their flanks there was still firing, as strong detachments skirmished with one another, but the Winchester men as yet paid little attention to it. They said grimly to one another that two days in the infernal regions were enough for one time. They looked back at the vast battlefield and the clumps of pines burning now like funeral torches, and shuddered.
The retreat of Thomas was harried incessantly. Longstreet and Forrest were eager to push the attack that night and the next day and make the victory complete. They and men of less rank dreamed of a triumph which should restore the fortunes of the Confederacy to the full, but Bragg was cautious. He did not wish to incur the uttermost risk, and the roll of his vast losses might well give him pause also.
Nevertheless Southern infantry and cavalry hung on the flanks and rear of the withdrawing Union force. The cloudy moon gave sufficient light for the sharpshooters, whose rifles flashed continuously. The lighter field guns moved from the forests and bushes, and the troops of Thomas were compelled to turn again and again to fight them off.
The Winchester regiment was on the extreme flank, where the men were exposed to the fiercest attacks, but fortunately the thickets and hills gave them much shelter. At times they lay down and returned the fire of the enemy until they beat him off. Then they would rise and march on again.
All the officers had lost their horses, and Colonel Winchester strode at the head of his men. Just behind were Dick, Pennington and some other members of his staff. The rest had fallen. Further back was Sergeant Whitley, his head in a red bandage, but all his faculties returned. In this dire emergency he was taking upon himself the duties of a commissioned officer, and there was none to disobey him. Once more was the wise veteran showing himself a very bulwark of strength.
Despite the coolness of the night, they had all suffered on the second day of the battle from a burning thirst. And now after their immense exertions it grew fiercer than ever. Dick's throat and mouth were parched, and he felt as if he were breathing fire. He felt that he must have water or die. All the men around him were panting, and he knew they were suffering the same torture.
"This country ought to be full of brooks and creeks," he said to Pennington. "If I see water I mean to make a dash for it, Johnnies or no Johnnies. I'm perfectly willing to risk my life for a drink."
"So am I," said Warner, who overheard him, "and so are all who are left in this regiment. If they see the flash of water nothing can hold them back, not even Bragg's whole army. How those skirmishers hang on to us! Whizz-z! there went their bullets right over our head!"
The Winchesters turned, delivered a heavy volley into a thicket, whence the bullets had come, and marched on, looking eagerly now for water. They began to talk about it. They spoke of the cool brooks, "branches" they called them, that they had known at home, and they told how, when they found one, they would first drink of it, and then lie down in its bed and let its water flow over them.
But Dick's thirst could not wholly take his mind from the tremendous scenes accompanying that sullen and defiant retreat. Hills and mountains were in deepest gloom, save when the signal lights of the Southern armies flashed back and forth. The clouded moon touched everything nearer by with somber gray. The fire of cannon rolled through the forest and gorges with redoubled echoes.
A shout suddenly came from the head of the Winchester column.
"Water! Water!" they cried. A young boy had caught a glimpse of silver through some bushes, and he knew that it was made by the swift current of a brook. In an instant the regiment broke into a run for the water. Colonel Winchester could not have stopped them if he had tried, and he did not try. He knew how great was their need.
"We're off!" cried Pennington.
"I see it! The water!" shouted Dick.
"I do, too!" exclaimed Warner, "and it's the most beautiful water that ever flowed!"
But they stopped in their rush and dropped down in the thickets. Sergeant Whitley had given the warning shout, and fortunately most of a volley from a point about a hundred yards beyond the stream swept over their heads. A few men were wounded, and they not badly.
Dick crawled to the head of the column. The sergeant was already there, whispering to Colonel Winchester.
"They've taken to cover, too, sir," said the sergeant.
"How many do you suppose they are?" asked the colonel.
"Not more than we are, sir."
"They run a great risk when they attack us in this manner."
"Maybe, sir," said Dick, "they, too, were coming for the water."
Colonel Winchester looked at Sergeant Whitley.
"I'm of the opinion, sir," said the sergeant, "that Mr. Mason is right."
"I think so, too," said Colonel Winchester. "It's a pity that men should kill each other over a drink of water when there's enough for all. Has any man a handkerchief?"
"Here, sir," said Warner; "it's ragged and not very clean, but I hope it will do."
The Colonel raised the handkerchief on the point of his sword and gave a hail. The bulk of the two armies had passed on, and now there was silence in the woods as the two little forces confronted each other across the stream.
Dick saw a tall form in Confederate gray rise up from the bushes on the other side of the brook.
"Are you wanting to surrender?" the man called in a long, soft drawl.
"Not by any means. We want a drink of water, and we're just bound to have it."
"You don't want it any more than we do, and you're not any more bound to have it than we are."
The colonel hesitated a moment, and then, influenced by a generous impulse, said:
"If you won't fire, we won't."
The tall, elderly Southerner, evidently a colonel, also said:
"It's a fair proposition, sir. My men have been working so hard the last two days licking you Yanks that they're plum' burnt up with thirst."
"I don't admit the licking, although it's obvious that you've gained the advantage so far, but is it agreed that we shall have a truce for a quarter of an hour?"
"It is, sir; the truce of the water, and may we drink well! Come on, boys!"
Colonel Winchester gave a similar order to his men, and each side rose from the thickets, and made a rush for the brook. It was a beautiful little stream, the most beautiful in the world just then to Dick and his friends. Clear and cold, the color of silver in the moonlight, it rushed down from the mountains. On one side knelt the men in blue, and on the other the men in gray, and the pure water was like the elixir of heaven to their parched and burning throats.
Dick drank long, and then as he raised his face from the stream he saw opposite him a tall, lean youth, evidently from the far South, Louisiana perhaps, a lad with a tanned face and a wide mouth stretched in a friendly grin.
"Tastes good, doesn't it, Yank?" he said.
"Yes, it does, Reb," replied Dick. "I felt that I was drying up and just crumbling away like old dead wood. As soon as the gallon that I've drunk has percolated thoroughly through my system I intend to hoist aboard another gallon."
"I don't know what percolate means, but I reckon it has something to do with travelin' about through your system. I think I need a couple of gallons myself. Say, will you give a fair answer to a fair question?"
"Yes, go ahead."
"Don't you Yanks feel powerful bad over the thrashing we've given you?"
"Not so bad. Besides I wouldn't call it a thrashing. It's just a temporary advantage. And you wait. We'll take it away from you."
"I don't know about that, but I can't argue with you now. I'm due for my second gallon."
"So am I."
Each bent down and drank again a long, life-giving draught from the rushing stream. For a distance of a hundred yards or more heads black, brown and sometimes yellow were bent over the brook. Far off, both to east and west, the cannon thundered in the darkness, but with the drinkers it was a peaceful interlude of a quarter of an hour. Such moments often occurred in this war when the men on both sides were blood brethren.
Colonel Winchester stood up, and the grizzled Confederate colonel stood up on the other side of the stream, facing him. Their hands rose in a simultaneous salute of respect.
"Sir," said Colonel Winchester, "I'm happy to have met you in this manner."
"Sir," said the Southern colonel ornately, "we are happy to have drunk from the same stream with such brave foes, and now, sir, I propose as we retire that neither regiment shall fire a shot within the next five minutes."
"Agreed," said Colonel Winchester, and then as the colonels gave the signals the two regiments withdrew beyond their respective thickets. The truce of the water was over, but these foes did not meet again that night.
The regiment had left a great proportion of its numbers dead upon the field. Half the others were wounded more or less, but the slightly wounded marched on with the unhurt. Many of them were now barely conscious. They were either asleep upon their feet or in a daze. Nevertheless they soon rejoined the main command.
Dick, having his pride as an officer, sought to keep himself active and alert. He passed among the lads of his own age, and encouraged them. He told them how the older men were already speaking of the wonders they had done, and presently he saw Thomas himself riding along with the young general, Garfield, who had been with him throughout the afternoon. All the Winchester men saw their commander, and, worn as they were, they stopped and gave a mighty cheer. Thomas was moved. Under the cloudy moon Dick saw him show emotion for the first time. He took off his hat.
"Gentlemen, comrades," he said, "we have lost the battle of Chickamauga, but if all our regiments fight as you fought to-day the war is won."
Another cheer, enthusiastic and spontaneous, burst from the regiment, and Thomas rode on. Dick had never heard him make another speech so long.
When they reached the little town of Chattanooga within its mountains they began to realize the full grandeur of their exploit. The remainder of the army of Rosecrans was almost a mob, and brave as he undoubtedly was he was soon removed to another field, leaving Thomas in supreme command until Grant should come.
Dick had no rest until the next night, when tents were set for the battered remains of the Winchester regiment. He, Warner, Pennington and three others were assigned to one of the larger tents. He had been without sleep for two days and two nights, and the tremendous tension that had kept him up so long was relaxing fast. He felt that he must sleep or die. Yet they talked together a little before they stretched themselves upon their blankets.
"Do you think Bragg will attack us in Chattanooga, Dick?" asked Pennington.
"I don't. Our position here is too strong, and, as he was the assailant, his losses must be something awful. Moreover, the rivers are always ours and reinforcements will soon pour in to us. I think that General Thomas saved the Union. What have you to say, George?"
"Just about what you are saying, Dick. We've been beaten, but not enough to suit the Johnnies. They have on their side present victory. We have on ours present but not total defeat. You might say they have x, while we have x + y. Wait until I look into my algebra, and I can find further mathematical and beautiful propositions proving my contention beyond the shadow of a doubt."
He took out his algebra and opened it. A bullet fell from the leaves into his lap. Warner picked it up and examined it carefully. Then he looked at the book.
"It went half way through," he said in tones of genuine solemnity. "If it had gone all the way it would have pierced my heart and I could never have known how this war is going to end. It has saved my life, and I shall always keep it over my heart until we go back home."
Dick was asleep the next minute, and they did not wake him for twelve hours. When he came from the tent he stood blinking in the sun, and a tall lean youth hailed him with a joyous shout:
"Why, it's Mason--Mason of Kentucky!" exclaimed the lad, extending a hardened hand. "I'm glad you're alive. How are those friends of yours, Warner and Pennington?"
"Well, save for scratches, Ohio. They're about somewhere."
They shook hands again, hunted up the others, and celebrated their escape from death.
Dick learned later that all the Woodvilles were still alive and that Colonel Kenton, although wounded, was recovering fast. Slade, with troublesome raids, soon gave evidence of his own continued existence.
Then, as they expected, reinforcements poured in. Grant came, and Dick and his comrades took part in the fight at Missionary Ridge and the battle "above the clouds" on Lookout Mountain. He witnessed great triumphs and he had a share in them.
He saw Bragg's army broken up, and he rejoiced with the others when the news came that Grant for his brilliant successes had been made commander of all the armies of the Union, and would go east to match himself against the mighty Lee. The Winchester regiment would go with him and Dick, Warner, Pennington and Sergeant Whitley, who was entirely recovered, talked of it gravely:
"We've been in the East before," said Pennington, "but we won't be under any doubting general now."
"I fancy it will be the death grapple," said Warner.
"And the continent will shake with it," said Dick.
The three, as if by the same impulse, turned and faced the distant East, where the shades were already gathering over the Wilderness.