The Rock of Chickamauga by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. Forrest
Dick dashed after the fugitive, but he had disappeared utterly, and the dense bushes impeded the pursuer. He was hot and angry that he had been deluded so cleverly, but then came the consolation that, after all, he had won in the fistic encounter with an antagonist worthy of anybody. And after this came a second thought that caused him to halt abruptly.
He and Woodville had fought it out fairly. Their fists had printed upon the faces of each other the stamp of a mutual liking. Why should he strive to take young Woodville before Colonel Winchester? Nothing was to be gained by it, and, as the Mississippian was in civilian's garb, he might incur the punishment of a spy. He realized in a flash that, since he had vindicated his own prowess, he was glad of Woodville's escape.
He turned and walked thoughtfully back up the ravine. Very little noise came from the house and the thin spires of smoke had disappeared. He knew now that the fires had been put out with ease, thanks to his quick warning. Before starting he had recovered both his own pistol and Woodville's, and he was particularly glad to find the latter because it would be proof of his story, if proof were needed. The rain had not ceased nor had the heavy darkness lifted, but the looming shadow of the big house was sufficient guide. He found the place where he had slipped down the bank and the torn bushes and grass showed that he had made a fine trail. He pulled himself back up by the bushes and reentered the garden, where he was halted at once by two watchful sentries.
"Lieutenant Richard Mason of Colonel Winchester's staff," he said, "returning from the pursuit of a fugitive."
The men knew him and they said promptly:
"Pass Lieutenant Mason."
But despite the dark they stared at him very curiously, and when he walked on toward the piazza one of them muttered to the other:
"I guess he must have overtook that fugitive he was chasin'."
Dick walked up the steps upon the piazza, where some one had lighted a small lamp, near which stood Colonel Winchester and his staff.
"Here's Dick!" exclaimed Warner in a tone of great relief.
"And we thought we had lost him," said Colonel Winchester, gladness showing in his voice. Then he added: "My God, Dick, what have you been doing to yourself?"
"Yes, what kind of a transformation is this?" added a major. "You've certainly come back with a face very different from the one with which you left us!"
Dick turned fiery red. He suddenly became conscious that he had a left ear of enormous size, purple and swollen, that his left eye was closing fast, that the blood was dripping from cuts on either cheek, that the blood had flowed down the middle of his forehead and had formed a little stalactite on the end of his nose, that his chin had been gashed in five places by a strong fist, and that he had contributed his share to the bloodshed of the war.
"If I didn't know these were modern times," said Warner, "I'd say that he had just emerged from a sanguinary encounter bare-handed in the Roman arena with a leopard."
Dick glared at him.
"It was you who gave the alarm of fire, was it not?" asked Colonel Winchester.
"Yes, sir. I saw the man who set the fires and I pursued him through the garden and into the ravine that runs behind it."
"Your appearance indicates that you overtook him."
Dick flushed again.
"I did, sir," he replied. "I know I'm no beauty at present, but neither is he."
"It looks as if it had been a matter of fists?"
"It was, sir. Both of us fired our pistols, but missed. Then we threw our weapons to one side and clashed. It was a hard and long fight, sir. He hit like a pile driver, and he was as active as a deer. But I was lucky enough to knock him out at last."
"Then why does your face look like a huge piece of pickled beef?" asked the incorrigible Warner mischievously.
"You wait and I'll make yours look the same!" retorted Dick.
"Shut up," said Colonel Winchester. "If I catch you two fighting I may have you both shot as an example."
Dick and Warner grinned good-naturedly at each other. They knew that Colonel Winchester did not dream of carrying out such a threat, and they knew also that they had no intention of fighting.
"And after you knocked him out what happened?" asked the colonel.
Dick looked sheepish.
"He lay so still I was afraid he was dead," he replied. "I ran down to a brook, filled my cap with water, and returned with it in the hope of reviving him. I got there just in time to see him vanishing in the bushes. Pursuit was hopeless."
"He was clever," said the Colonel. "Have you any idea who he was?"
"He told me. He was Victor Woodville, the son of Colonel John Woodville, C.S.A., the owner of this house."
"Ah!" said Colonel Winchester, and then after a moment's thought he added: "It's just as well he escaped. I should not have known what to do with him. But we have you, Dick, to thank for giving the alarm. Now, go inside and change to some dry clothes, if you have any in your baggage, and if not dry yourself before a fire they're going to build in the kitchen."
"Will you pardon me for speaking of something, sir?"
"Certainly. Go ahead."
"I think the appearance of young Woodville here indicates the nearness of Forrest or some other strong cavalry force."
"You're right, Dick, my officers and I are agreed upon it. I have doubled the watch, but now get yourself to that fire and then to sleep."
Dick obeyed gladly enough. The night had turned raw and chill, and the cold water dripped from his clothes as he walked. But first he produced Woodville's pistol and handed it to Colonel Winchester.
"There's my antagonist's pistol, sir," he said. "You'll see his initials on it."
"Yes, here they are," said Colonel Winchester: "'V.W., C.S.A.' It's a fine weapon, but it's yours, Dick, as you captured it."
Dick took it and went to the kitchen, where the big fire had just begun to blaze. He was lucky enough to be the possessor of an extra uniform, and before he changed into it--they slept with their clothes on--he roasted himself before those glorious coals. Then, as he was putting on the fresh uniform, Warner and Pennington appeared.
"What would you recommend as best for the patient, Doctor," said Warner gravely to Pennington.
"I think such a distinguished surgeon as you will agree with me that his wounds should first be washed and bathed thoroughly in cold water."
"And after that a plentiful application of soothing liniment."
"Yes, Doctor. That is the best we can do with the simple medicines we have, but it especially behooves us to reduce the size of that left ear, or some of the boys will say that we have a case of elephantiasis on our hands."
"While you're reducing the size of it you might also reduce the pain in it," said Dick.
"We will," said Pennington; "we've got some fine horse liniment here. I brought it all the way from Nebraska with me, and if it's good for horses it ought to be good for prize fighters, too. That was surely a hefty chap who fought you. If you didn't have his pistol as proof I'd say that he gave you a durned good licking. Isn't this a pretty cut down the right cheek bone, George?"
"Undoubtedly, but nothing can take away the glory of that left ear. Why, if Dick could only work his ears he could fan himself with it beautifully. When I meet that Woodville boy I'm going to congratulate him. He was certainly handy with his fists."
"Go on, fellows," said Dick, good-naturedly. "In a week I won't have a wound or a sign of a scar. Then I'll remember what you've said to me and I'll lick you both, one after the other."
"Patient is growing delirious, don't you think so, Doctor?" said Warner to Pennington.
"Beyond a doubt. Violent talk is always proof of it. Better put him to bed. Spread his two blankets before the fire, and he can sleep there, while every particle of cold and stiffness is being roasted out of him."
"You boys are very good to me," said Dick gratefully.
"It's done merely in the hope that your gratitude will keep you from giving us the licking you promised," said Pennington.
Then they left him and Dick slept soundly until he was awakened the next day by Warner. The fire was out, the rain had ceased long since and the sun was shining brilliantly.
"Hop up, Dick," said Warner briskly. "Breakfast's ready. Owing to your wound we let you sleep until the last moment. Come now, take the foaming coffee and the luscious bacon, and we'll be off, leaving Bellevue again to its masters, if they will come and claim it."
"Has anything happened in the night?"
"Nothing since you ran your face against a pile driver, but Sergeant Daniel Whitley, who reads the signs of earth and air and wood and water, thinks that something is going to happen."
"Is it Forrest?"
"Don't know, but it's somebody or something. As soon as we can eat our luxurious breakfasts we mean to mount and ride hard toward Grant. We're scouts, but according to Whitley the scouts are scouted, and this is a bad country to be trapped in."
Dick was so strong and his blood was so pure that he felt his wounds but little now. The cuts and bruises were healing fast and he ate with a keen appetite. He heard then of the signs that Whitley had seen. He had found two broad trails, one three miles from the house, and the other about four miles. Each indicated the passage of several hundred men, but he had no way of knowing whether they belonged to the same force. They were bound to be Confederate cavalry as Colonel Winchester's regiment was known to be the only Union force in that section.
Dick knew their position to be dangerous. Colonel Winchester had done his duty in discovering that Forrest and Wheeler were raiding through Mississippi, and that a heavy force was gathering in the rear of Grant, who intended the siege of Vicksburg. It behooved him now to reach Grant as soon as he could with his news.
Refreshed and watchful, the regiment rode away from Bellevue. Dick looked back at the broad roof and the great piazzas, and then he thought of young Woodville with a certain sympathy. They had fought a good fight against each other, and he hoped they would meet after the war and be friends.
It was about an hour after sunrise, and the day was bright and warm. The beads of water that stood on every leaf and blade of grass were drying fast, and the air, despite its warmth, was pure and bracing. Dick, as he looked at the eight hundred men, tanned, experienced and thoroughly armed, under capable leaders, felt that they were a match for any roving Southern force.
"Just let Forrest come on," he said. "I know that the Colonel is aching to get back at him for that surprise in Tennessee, and I believe we could whip him."
"You're showing great spirit for a man who was beaten up in the prize ring as you were last night. I thought you'd want to rest for a few days."
"Drop it, George. I did get some pretty severe cuts and bruises, but I was lucky enough to have the services of two very skillful and devoted young physicians. Their treatment was so fine that I'm all right to-day."
"Unless I miss my guess, we'll need the services of doctors again before night comes. No mountains are here, but this is a great country for ambush. It's mostly in forest, and even in the open the grass is already very tall. Besides, there are so many streams, bayous, and ponds. Notice how far out on the flanks the skirmishers and scouts are riding, and others ride just as far ahead."
Two miles from Bellevue and they came to a small hill, covered with forest, from the protection of which the officers examined the country long and minutely, while their men remained hidden among the deep foliaged trees. Dick had glasses of his own which he put to his eyes, bringing nearer the wilderness, broken here and there by open spaces that indicated cotton fields. Yet the forest was so dense and there was so much of it that a great force might easily be hidden within its depths only a mile away.
"Have we any information at all about Forrest's strength?" whispered Pennington to Dick.
"His full force isn't down here. It is believed he has not more than a thousand or twelve hundred men. But he and his officers know the country thoroughly, and of course the inhabitants, being in full sympathy with them, will give them all the information they need. The news of every movement of ours has been carried straight to the rebel general."
"And yet the country seems to have no people at all. We come to but few houses, and those few are deserted."
"So they are. What was that? Did you see it, Frank?"
"What was what?"
"I forgot that you are not using glasses. I caught a momentary glitter in the woods. I think it was a sunbeam passing through the leaves and striking upon the polished barrel of a rifle. Ah! there it is again! And Colonel Winchester has seen it too."
The colonel and his senior officers were now gazing intently at the point in the wood where Dick had twice seen the gleam, and, keener-eyed than they, he continued to search the leafy screen through his own glasses. Soon he saw bayonets, rifles, horses and men advancing swiftly, and then came two of their own scouts galloping.
"The enemy is advancing!" they cried. "It's Forrest!"
A thrill shot through Dick. The name of Forrest was redoubtable, but he knew that every man in the regiment was glad to meet him again. He glanced at Colonel Winchester and saw that his face had flushed. He knew that the colonel was more than gratified at this chance.
"We'll make our stand here," said Colonel Winchester. "The hill runs to the right, and, as you see over there, it is covered with forest without undergrowth. Thus we can secure protection, and at the same time be able to maneuver, mounted."
The regiment was posted rapidly in two long lines, the second to fire between the intervals of the first. They carried carbines and heavy cavalry sabers, and they were the best mounted regiment in the Northern service.
Yet these men, brave and skillful as they were, were bound to feel trepidation, although they did not show it. They were far in the Southern forest, cut off from their army, and Forrest, in addition to his own cavalry, might have brought with him fresh reserves of the enemy.
Dick, Warner, and Pennington, as usual, remained close to their colonel, and Sergeant Daniel Whitley was not far away. But Colonel Winchester presently rode along the double line of his veterans, and he spoke to them quietly but with emphasis and conviction:
"My lads," he said, "you see Forrest's men coming through the woods to attack us. Forrest is the greatest cavalry leader the South has, west of the Alleghanies. Some of you were with me when we were surprised and cut up by him in Tennessee. But you will not be surprised by him now, nor will you be cut up by him. All of you have become great riders, a match for Forrest's own, and as I look upon your faces here I know that there is no fear in a single heart. You have served under Grant, and you have served under Thomas. They are two generals who always set their faces toward the front and never turn them toward the rear. You will this day prove yourselves worthy of Grant and Thomas."
They were about to cheer, but he checked it with the simple gesture of a raised hand. Then they did a thing that only a beloved leader could inspire. Every man in the regiment, resting his carbine across the pommel of his saddle, drew his heavy cavalry saber and made it whirl in coils of glittering light about his head.
The great pulse in Dick's throat leaped as he saw. The long double line seemed to give back a double flash of flame. Not a word was said, and then eight hundred sabers rattled together as they were dropped back into their scabbards. Colonel Winchester's face flushed deeply at the splendid salute, but he did not speak either. He took off his cap and swept it in a wide curve to all his men. Then he turned his face toward the enemy.
The Southern trumpet was singing in the forest, and the force of Forrest, about twelve hundred strong, was emerging into view. Dick, through his glasses, saw and recognized the famous leader, a powerful, bearded man, riding a great bay horse. He had heard many descriptions of him and he knew him instinctively. He also recognized the fact that the Winchester regiment had before it the most desperate work any men could do, if it beat off Forrest when he came in his own country with superior numbers.
Neither side had artillery, not even the light guns that could be carried horse- or muleback. It must be left to carbine and saber. Colonel Winchester carefully watched his formidable foe, trying to divine every trick and expedient that he might use. He had a memory to avenge. He had news to carry to Grant, and Forrest must not keep him from carrying it. Moreover, his regiment and he would gain great prestige if they could beat off Forrest. There would be glory for the whole Union cavalry if they drove back the Southern attack. Dick saw the glitter of his colonel's eye and the sharp compression of his lips.
But the men of Forrest, although nearly within rifle shot, did not charge. Their bugle sang again, but Dick did not know what the tune meant. Then they melted away into the deep forest on their flank, and some of the troop thought they had gone, daunted by the firm front of their foe.
But Dick knew better. Forrest would never retreat before an inferior force, and he was full of wiles and stratagems. Dick felt like a primitive man who knew that he was being stalked by a saber-toothed tiger through the dense forest.
Colonel Winchester beckoned to Sergeant Whitley. "Pick a half-dozen sharp-eyed men," he said, "and ride into those woods. You're experienced in this kind of war, Whitley, and before you go tell me what you think."
"General Forrest, sir, besides fighting as a white man fights, fights like an Indian, too; that is, he uses an Indian's cunning, which is always meant for ambush and surprise. He isn't dreaming of going away. They're coming back through the thick woods."
"So I think. But let me know as soon as you can."
Ten minutes after the sergeant had ridden forward with his comrades they heard the sound of rapid rifle shots, and then they saw the little band galloping back.
"They're coming, sir," reported the sergeant. "Forrest has dismounted several hundred of his men, and they are creeping forward from tree to tree with their rifles, while the others hold their horses in the rear."
"Then it's an Indian fight for the present," said Colonel Winchester. "We'll do the same."
He rapidly changed his lines of battle. The entire front rank was dismounted, while those behind held their horses. The four hundred in front, spreading out in as long a line as possible in order to protect their flanks, took shelter behind the trees and awaited the onset.
The attack was not long in coming. The Southern sharpshooters, creeping from tree to tree, began to fire. Scores of rifles cracked and Dick, from a convenient place behind a tree, saw the spouts of flame appearing along a line of four or five hundred yards. Bullets whizzed about him, and, knowing that he would not be needed at present for any message, he hugged the friendly bark more tightly.
"It's lucky we have plenty of trees," said a voice from the shelter of the tree next to him. "We have at least one for every officer and man."
It was Warner who spoke and he was quite cheerful. Like Colonel Winchester, he seemed to look forward to the combat with a certain joy, and he added:
"You'll take notice, Dick, old man, that we've not been surprised. Forrest hasn't galloped over us as he did before. He's taking the trouble to make the approach with protected riflemen. Now what is the sergeant up to?"
Sergeant Whitley, after whispering a little with Colonel Winchester, had stolen off toward the right with fifty picked riflemen. When they reached the verge of the open space that lay between the two sides they threw themselves down in the thick, tall grass. Neither Dick nor Warner could see them now. They beheld only the stems of the grass waving as if under a gentle wind. But Dick knew that the rippling movement marked the passage of the riflemen.
Meanwhile the attack in their front was growing hotter. At least six or seven hundred sharpshooters were sending a fire which would have annihilated them if it had not been for the trees. As it was, fragments of bark, twigs, and leaves showered about them. The whistling of the bullets and their chugging as they struck the trees made a continuous sinister note.
The Union men were not silent under this fire. Their own rifles were replying fast, but Colonel Winchester continually urged them to take aim, and, while death and wounds were inflicted on the Union ranks, the Southern were suffering in the same manner.
Dick turned his eyes toward the right flank, where the fifty picked riflemen, Sergeant Whitley at their head, were crawling through the tall grass. He knew that they were making toward a little corner of the forest, thrust farther forward than the rest, and presently when the rippling in the grass ceased he was sure that they had reached it. Then the fifty rifles cracked together and the Southern flank was swept by fifty well-aimed bullets. Lying in their covert, Whitley's men reloaded their breech-loading rifles and again sent in a deadly fire.
The main Northern force redoubled its efforts at the same time. The men in blue sent in swarms of whistling bullets and Dick saw the front line of the South retreating.
"We're rousing the wolves from their lairs," explained Pennington exultantly as he sprang from his tree, just in time for a bullet to send his hat flying from his head. Fortunately, it clipped only a lock of hair, but he received in a good spirit Warner's admonishing words:
"Don't go wild, Frank. We've merely repelled the present attack. You don't think that Forrest with superior forces is going to let us alone, do you?"
"No, I don't," replied Pennington, "and don't you get behind that tree. It's mine, and I'm coming back to it. I've earned it. I held it against all kinds of bullets. Look at the scars made on each side of it by rebel lead."
The firing now died. Whitley's flank movement had proved wholly successful, and Colonel Winchester reinforced him in the little forest peninsula with fifty more picked men, where they lay well hidden, a formidable force for any assailant.
The silence now became complete, save for the stamping of the impatient horses and the drone of insects in the woods and grass. Dick, lying on his stomach and using his glasses, could see nothing in the forest before them. It was to him in all its aspects an Indian battle, and he believed in spite of what Warner had said that the enemy had retired permanently.
Colonel Winchester and all the officers rose to their feet presently and walked among the trees. No bullets came to tell them that they were rash and then the senior officers held a conference, while all the men remounted, save a dozen or so who would ride no more. But the colonel did not abate one whit of his craft or caution.
They resumed the march toward Grant, but they avoided every field or open space. They would make curves and lose time in order to keep in the dense wood, but, as Dick knew, Colonel Winchester still suspected that Forrest was hovering somewhere on his flank, covered by the great forest and awaiting a favorable opportunity to attack.
They approached one of the deep and narrow streams that ultimately find their way to the Mississippi. It had only one ford, and the scouts galloping back informed them that the farther shore was held by a powerful force of cavalry.
"It's Forrest," said Colonel Winchester with quiet conviction. "Knowing every path of the woods, they've gone ahead of us, and they mean to cut us off from Grant. Nevertheless we'll make a way."
He spoke firmly, but the junior officers of the staff did not exactly see how they were going to force a ford defended by a larger number of cavalry under the redoubtable Forrest.
"I didn't think Forrest would let us alone, and he hasn't," said Pennington.
"No, he hasn't," said Warner, "and it seems that he's checkmated us, too. Why, that river is swollen by the rains so much that it's a hard job to cross it if no enemy were on the other side. But you'll note, also, that the enemy, having got to the other side, can't come back again in our face to attack us."
"But we want to go on and they don't," said Dick. "They're satisfied with the enforced status quo, and we're not. Am I right, Professor?"
"You certainly are," replied Warner. "Now, our colonel is puzzled, as you can tell by his looks, and so would I be, despite my great natural military talents."
The Winchester regiment fell back into the woods, leaving the two forces out of rifle shot of each other. Sentinels were posted by both commanders not far from the river and the rest, dismounting, took their ease, save the officers, who again went into close conference.
Afterward they sat among the trees and waited. It was low ground, with the earth yet soaked from the heavy rain of the night before, and the heat grew heavy and intense. The insects began to drone again, and once more mosquitoes made life miserable. But the soldiers did not complain. It was noon now, and they ate food from their knapsacks. Two springs of clear water were found a little distance from the river and all drank there. Then they went back to their weary waiting.
On the other side of the river they could see the dismounted troopers, playing cards, sleeping or currying their horses. They seemed to be in no hurry at all. Colonel Winchester sent divisions of scouts up and down the stream, and, both returning after a while, reported that the river was not fordable anywhere.
Colonel Winchester sat down under a tree and smoked his pipe. The longer he smoked the more corrugated his brow became. He looked angrily at the ford, but it would be folly to attempt a passage there, and, containing himself as best he could, he waited while the long afternoon waned. His men at least would get a good rest.
Dick and his comrades, selecting the dryest place they could find, spread their blankets and lay down. Protecting their faces from the mosquitoes with green leaves, they sank into a deep quiet. Dick even drowsed for a while. He could not think of a way out of the trap, and he was glad it was the duty of older men like Colonel Winchester and the majors and captains to save them.
The heat of the day increased with the coming of afternoon, and Dick's eyelids grew heavier. He had become so thoroughly hardened to march and battle that the presence of the enemy on the other side of a river did not disturb him. What was the use of bothering about the rebels as long as they did not wish to fire upon one?
His eyes closed for a few minutes, and then his dreaming mind traversed space with incredible rapidity. He was back in Pendleton, sitting on the portico with his mother, watching the flowers on the lawn nod in the gentle wind. His cousin Harry Kenton saluted him with a halloo and came bounding toward the porch, and the halloo caused Dick to awake and sit up. He rubbed his eyes violently and looked around a little bit ashamed. But two captains older than himself were sound asleep with their backs against trees.
Dick stood up and shook himself violently. Whatever others might do he must not allow himself to relax so much. He saw that the sun was slowly descending and that the full heat of the afternoon was passing. Colonel Winchester had withdrawn somewhat among the trees and he beckoned to him. Sergeant Whitley was standing beside the colonel.
"Dick," said Colonel Winchester, "colored men have brought us news that Colonel Grierson of our army, with a strong raiding force of nearly two thousand cavalry is less than a day's march away and on the same side of this river that we are. We have received the news from three separate sources and it must be true. Probably Forrest's men know it, too, but expect Grierson to pass on, wholly ignorant that we're here. I have chosen you and Sergeant Whitley to bring Grierson to our relief. The horses are ready. Now go, and God speed you. The sergeant will tell you what we know as you ride."
Dick sprang at once into the saddle, and with a brief good-bye he and the sergeant were soon in the forest riding toward the southeast. Dick was alive and energetic again. All that laziness of mind and body was gone. He rode on a great ride and every sense was alert.
"Tell me," he said, "just about what the news is."
"Three men," replied the sergeant, "came in at different times with tales, but the three tales agree. Grierson has made a great raid, even further down than we have gone. He has more than double our numbers, and if we can unite with him it's likely that we can turn Forrest into the pursued instead of the pursuer. They say we can hit his trail about twenty-five miles from here, and if that's so we'll bring him up to the ford by noon to-morrow. Doesn't it look promising to you, Lieutenant Mason?"
"It does look promising, Sergeant Whitley, if we don't happen to be taken by the Johnnies who infest this region. Besides, you'll have to guide through the dark to-night. You're trained to that sort of thing."
"You can see pretty well in the dark yourself, sir; and since our way lies almost wholly through forest I see no reason why we should be captured."
"That's so, sergeant. I'm just as much of an optimist as you are. You keep the course, and I'm with you to the finish."
They rode rather fast at first as the sun had not yet set, picking their way through the woods, and soon left their comrades out of sight. The twilight now came fast, adding a mournful and somber red to the vast expanse of wilderness. The simile of an Indian fight returned to Dick with increased force. This was not like any battle with white men in the open fields. It was a combat of raiders who advanced secretly under cover of the vast wilderness.
The twilight died with the rapidity of the South, and the darkness, thick at the early hours, passed over the curve of the earth. For a time Dick and the sergeant could not see many yards in front and they rode very slowly. After a while, as the sky lightened somewhat and their eyes also grew keen, they made better speed. Then they struck a path through the woods leading in the right direction, and they broke into a trot.
The earth was so soft that their horses' feet gave back but little sound, and both were confident they would not meet any enemy in the night at least.
"Straight southeast," said the sergeant, "and we're bound to strike Grierson's tracks. After that we'd be blind if we couldn't follow the trail made by nearly two thousand horsemen."
The path still led in the direction they wished and they rode on silently for hours. Once they saw a farmhouse set back in the woods, and they were in fear lest dogs come out and bark alarm, but there was no sound and they soon left it far behind.
They passed many streams, some of which were up to their saddle girths, and then they entered a road which was often so deep in mud that they were compelled to turn into the woods on the side. But no human being had interfered with their journey, and their hopes rose to the zenith.
They came, finally, into an open region of cotton fields, and the sergeant now began to watch closely for the great trail they hoped to find. A force as large as Grierson's would not attempt a passage through the woods, but would seek some broad road and Sergeant Whitley expected to find it long before morning.
It was now an hour after midnight and they reckoned that they had come about the right distance. There was a good moon and plenty of stars and the sergeant gave himself only a half-hour to find the trail.
"There's bound to be a wide road somewhere among these fields, the kind we call a county road."
"It's over there beyond that rail fence," said Dick. They urged their horses into a trot, and soon found that Dick was right. A road of red clay soft from the rains stretched before them.
"A man doesn't have to look twice here for a trail. See," said the sergeant.
The road from side to side was plowed deep with the hoofs of horses, every footprint pointing northward.
"Grierson's cavalry," said Dick.
"I take it that it can't be anything else. There is certainly in these parts no rebel force of cavalry large enough to make this trail."
"How old would you say these tracks are?"
"Hard to tell, but they can't have been made many hours ago. We'll press forward, lieutenant, and we can save time going through the fields on the edge of the road."
Although they had to take down fences they made good speed and just as the sun was rising they saw the light of a low campfire among some trees, lining either bank of a small creek. They approached warily, until they saw the faded blue uniforms. Then they galloped forward, shouting that they were friends, and in a few minutes were in the presence of Grierson himself.
He had been making a great raid, but he was eager now for the opportunity to strike at Forrest. He must give his horses a short rest, and then Dick and the sergeant should guide him at speed to the ford where the opposing forces stood.
"It's twenty-five miles, you tell me?" said Grierson to Dick.
"As nearly as I can calculate, sir. It's through swampy country, but I think we ought to be there in three or four hours."
"Then lead the way," said Grierson. "Like your colonel, I'll be glad to have a try at Forrest."
Sergeant Whitley rode in advance. A lumberman first and then a soldier of the plains, he had noted even in the darkness every landmark and he could lead the way back infallibly. But he warned Grierson that such a man as Forrest would be likely to have out scouts, even if they had to swim the river. It was likely that they could not get nearer by three or four miles to Colonel Winchester without being seen.
"Then," said Grierson, who had the spirit of a Stuart or a Forrest, "we'll ride straight on, brushing these watchers out of our way, and if by any chance their whole force should cross, we'll just meet and fight it."
"The little river is falling fast," said the sergeant. "It's likely that it'll be fordable almost anywhere by noon."
"Then," said Grierson, "it'll be all the easier for us to get at the enemy."
Dick, just behind Grierson, heard these words and he liked them. Here was a spirit like Colonel Winchester's own, or like that of the great Southern cavalry leaders. The Southerners were born on horseback, but the Northern men were acquiring the same trick of hard riding. Dick glanced back at the long column. Armed with carbine and saber the men were riding their trained horses like Comanches. Eager and resolute it was a formidable force, and his heart swelled with pride and anticipation. He believed that they were going to give Forrest all he wanted and maybe a little more.
Up rose the sun. Hot beams poured over forest and field, but the cavalrymen still rode fast, the scent of battle in their nostrils. Dick knew that these Southern streams, flooded by torrents of rain, rose fast and also fell fast.
"How much further now, sergeant?" asked Grierson, as they turned from a path into the deep woods.
"Not more than three miles, sir."
"And they know we're coming. Listen to that!"
Several rifles cracked among the trees and bullets whizzed by them. Forrest's skirmishers and scouts were on the south side of the stream. As they had foreseen, the river had sunk so much that it was fordable now at many points. Dick was devoutly grateful that they had found Grierson. Otherwise the Winchester regiment would have been flanked, and its destruction would have followed.
Skirmishers were detached from Grierson's command and drove off the Southern riflemen. Dick heard the rattling fire of their rifles in the deep wood, but he seldom saw a figure. Then he heard another fire, heavy and continuous, in their front, coming quite clearly on a breeze that blew toward them.
"Your whole regiment is engaged," exclaimed Grierson. "Forrest must have forded the river elsewhere!"
He turned and shook aloft his saber.
"Forward, lads!" he shouted. "Gallant men of our own army will be overwhelmed unless we get up in time!"
The whole force broke into a gallop through the woods, the fire in their front rapidly growing heavier. In ten minutes they would be there, but rifles suddenly blazed from the forest on their flank and many saddles were emptied. Nothing upsets like surprise, and for a few moments the whole command was in disorder. It was evident that Forrest was attacking Winchester with only a part of his force, while he formed an ambush for Grierson.
But the Northern cavalrymen had not learned in vain through disaster and experience. Grierson quickly restored order and drew his men back into the forest. As the enemy followed the Northern carbines began to flash fast. The troopers in gray were unable to flank them or drive them back. Grierson, sure of his superior numbers, pushed on toward Winchester, while fighting off the foe at the same time.
Dick and the sergeant kept in the van, and presently they came within sight of Colonel Winchester's men, who, dismounted, were holding off as best they could the overwhelming attack of Forrest. The Southern leader, after sending the majority of his men to a new crossing lower down had forced the ford before the Winchester regiment, and would have crushed it if it had not been for the opportune arrival of Grierson.
But a tremendous cheer arose as the Northern cavalry leader, who was already proving his greatness, charged into the battle with his grim troopers. The men in blue were now more numerous, and, fighting with the resolve to win or die, they gradually forced back Forrest. Dick began to foresee a victory won over the great Southern cavalryman.
But the astute Forrest, seeing that the odds were now heavily against him, ordered a retreat. The trumpets sang the recall and suddenly the Southern horsemen, carrying their dead with them, vanished in the forest, where the Northern cavalry, fearful of ambushes and new forces, did not dare to pursue.
But Winchester and Grierson were shaking hands, and Winchester thanked the other in brief but emphatic words.
"Say no more, colonel," exclaimed Grierson. "We're all trying to serve our common country. You'd help me just the same if we had the chance, and I think you'll find the road clear to Grant. While the siege of Vicksburg was determined on long ago, as you know, I believe that he is now moving toward Grand Gulf. You know he has to deal with the armies of Johnston and Pemberton."
"We'll find him," said Winchester.
A quarter of an hour later his regiment was galloping toward Grant, while Grierson's command rode eastward to deal with other forces of the Confederacy.