Chapter IV. Dick's Mission
 

The night came down warm and heavy. Spring was far advanced in that Southern region, and foliage and grass were already rich and heavy. Dick, from his dozing position beside a camp fire, saw a great mass of tall grass and green bushes beyond which lay the deep waters of a still creek or bayou. The air, although thick and close, conduced to rest and the peace that reigned after the battle was soothing to his soul.

His friends, the two lads, who were knitted to him by so many hardships and dangers shared, were sound asleep, and he could see their tanned faces when the light of the flickering fires fell upon them. Good old Warner! Good old Pennington! The comradeship of war knitted youth together with ties that never could be broken.

He moved into an easier position. He lay upon the soft turf and he had doubled his blanket under his head as a pillow. At first the droning noises of camp or preparation had come from afar, but soon they ceased and now the frogs down by the sluggish waters began to croak.

It was a musical sound, one that he had heard often in his native state, and, singularly enough, the lad drew encouragement from it. "Be of good cheer! Be of good cheer! Trust in the future! Trust in the future!" said all those voices down among the swamps and reeds. And then Dick said to himself: "I will trust and I will have hope!" He remembered his last glimpse of Grant's short, strong figure and the confidence that this man inspired in him. He, with tens of thousands of others, Abraham Lincoln at their head, had been looking for a man, they had looked long and in vain for such a man, but Dick was beginning to believe that they had found him at last.

It would take much of a man to stand before the genius of Lee, but it might be Grant. Dick's faith in the star of his country, shattered so often for the moment, began to rise that night and never sank again.

He fell asleep to the homely music of the frogs among the reeds, and slept without stir until nearly dawn.

Just as the first strip of gray showed in the east Colonel Winchester walked toward the spot where Dick and his comrades lay. The colonel had not slept that night. His fine face was worn and thin, but the blue eyes were alight with strength and energy. He had just left a conference of high officers, and he came upon a mission. He reached the three lads, and looked down at them with a sort of pity. He knew that it was his duty to awake them at once and send them upon a perilous errand, but they were so young, and they had already been through so much that he hesitated.

He put his hand upon Dick's shoulder and shook him. But it took more than one shake to awaken the lad, and it was fully a minute before he opened his eyes and sat up. Dick conscious but partly and rubbing his sleepy eyes, asked:

"What is it? Are we to go into battle again? Yes, sir! Yes, sir! I'm ready!"

"Not that, Dick, but I've orders for you."

Dick now awoke completely and saw that it was Colonel Winchester. He sprang to his feet and saluted.

"We'll wake up Warner and Pennington next," said the colonel, "because they go also on the kind of duty to which you're assigned."

"I'm glad of that," said Dick warmly.

Warner and Pennington were aroused with difficulty, but, as soon as they realized that Colonel Winchester was before them and that they were selected for a grave duty, they became at once keen and alert.

"Lads," said the colonel briefly, "you've all felt that we're now led by a great commander. But energy and daring on the part of a leader demand energy and daring on the part of his men. General Grant is about to undertake a great enterprise, one that demands the concentration of his troops. I want you, Warner, to go to General Sherman with this dispatch, and here is one for you, Pennington, to take to General Banks."

He paused a moment and Dick asked:

"Am I to be left out?"

Colonel Winchester smiled.

He liked this eagerness on the part of his boys, and yet there was sadness in his smile, too. Young lieutenants who rode forth on errands often failed to come back.

"You're included, Dick," he said, "and I think that yours is the most perilous mission of them all. Pennington, you and Warner can be making ready and I'll tell Dick what he's to do."

The Vermonter and the Nebraskan hurried away and Colonel Winchester, taking Dick by the arm, walked with him beyond the circle of firelight.

"Dick," he said gently, "they asked me to choose the one in my command whom I thought most fit for this duty to be done, and I've selected you, although I'm sending you into a great peril."

Dick flushed with pride at the trust. Youth blinded him at present to its perils.

"Thank you, sir," he said simply.

"You will recall Major Hertford, who was with us in Kentucky before the Shiloh days?"

"I could not forget him, sir. One of our most gallant officers."

"You speak truly. He is one of our bravest, and also one of our ablest. I speak of him as Major Hertford, but he has lately been promoted to the rank of colonel, and he is operating toward the East with a large body of cavalry, partly in conjunction with Grierson, who saved us at the ford."

"And you want me to reach him, sir!"

"You've divined it. He is near Jackson, the capital of this state, and, incidentally, you're to discover as much as you can about Jackson and the Confederate dispositions in that direction. We wish Hertford to join General Grant's advance, which will presently move toward Jackson, and we rely upon you to find him."

"I'll do it, if he's to be found at all," said Dick fervently.

"I knew it, but, Dick, you're to go in your uniform. I'll not have you executed as a spy in case you're taken. Nor are you to carry any written message to Colonel Hertford. He knows you well, and he'll accept your word at once as truth. Now, this is a ride that will call for woodcraft as well as soldiership."

"I start at once, do I not, sir?"

"You do. Warner and Pennington are ready now, and your own horse is waiting for you. Here is a small map which I have reason to believe is accurate, at least fairly so, although few of our men know much of this country. But use it, lad, as best you can."

It was a sheet of thick fibrous paper about six inches square and, after a hasty glance at it, Dick folded it up carefully and put it in his pocket. Warner and Pennington appeared then, mounted and armed and ready to tell him good-bye. He and Colonel Winchester watched them a moment or two as they rode away, and then an orderly appeared with Dick's own horse, a fine bay, saddled, bridled, saddlebags filled with food, pistols in holsters, and a breech-loading rifle strapped to the saddle.

"I've made your equipment the best I could," said Colonel Winchester, "and after you start, lad, you must use your own judgment."

He wrung the hand of the boy, for whom his affection was genuine and deep, and Dick sprang into the saddle.

"Good-bye, colonel," he said, "I thank you for this trust, and I won't fail."

It was not a boast. It was courage speaking from the heart of youth and, as Dick rode out of the camp on his good horse, he considered himself equal to any task. He felt an enormous pride because he was chosen for such an important and perilous mission, and he summoned every faculty to meet its hardships and dangers.

He had the password, and the sentinels wished him good luck. So did the men who were gathering firewood. One, a small, weazened fellow, gave him an envious look.

"Wish I was going riding with you," he said. "It's fine in the woods now."

Dick laughed through sheer exuberance of spirits.

"Maybe it is and maybe it isn't," he said. "Perhaps the forest is filled with rebel sharpshooters."

"If you ride toward Jackson you're likely to strike Confederate bands."

"I didn't say where I'm going, but you may be certain I'll keep a watch for those bands wherever I may be."

The little man was uncommonly strong nevertheless, as he carried on his shoulder a heavy log which he threw down by one of the fires, but Dick, absorbed in his journey, forgot the desire of the soldier to be riding through the forest too.

He soon left the camp behind. He looked back at it only once, and beheld the luminous glow of the campfires. Then the forest shut it out and he rode on through a region almost abandoned by its people owing to the converging armies. He did not yet look at his map, because he knew that he would soon come into the main road to Jackson. It would be sufficient to determine his course then.

Dick was not familiar with the farther South, which was a very different region from his own Kentucky. His home was a region of firm land, hills and clear streams, but here the ground lay low, the soil was soft and the waters dark and sluggish. But his instincts as a woodsman were fortified by much youthful training, and he felt that he could find the way.

It gave him now great joy to leave the army and ride away through the deep woods. He was tired of battle and the sight of wounds and death. The noises of the camp were painful to his ear, and in the forest he found peace.

He was absolutely alone in his world, and glad of it. The woods were in all the depth and richness of a Southern spring. Vast masses of green foliage billowed away to right and left. Great festoons of moss hung from the oaks, and trailing vines wrapped many of the trees almost to their tops. Wild flowers, pink, yellow and blue, unknown by name to Dick, bloomed in the open spaces.

The air of early morning was crisp with the breath of life. He had come upon a low ridge of hard ground, away from the vast current and low, sodden shores of the Mississippi. Here was a clean atmosphere, and the forest, the forest everywhere. A mockingbird, perched on a bough almost over his head, began to pour forth his liquid song, and from another far away came the same song like an echo. Dick looked up but he could not see the bird among the branches. Nevertheless he waved his hand toward the place from which the melody came and gave a little trill in reply. Then he said aloud:

"It's a happy omen that you give me. I march away to the sound of innocent music."

Then he increased his speed a little and rode without stopping until he came to the main road to Jackson. There he examined his map upon which were marked many rivers, creeks, lagoons and bayous, with extensive shaded areas meaning forests. In the southeastern corner of the map was Jackson, close to which he meant to go.

He rode on at a fair pace, keeping an extremely careful watch ahead and on either side of the road. He meant to turn aside soon into the woods, but for the present he thought himself safe in the road--it was not likely that Southern raiders would come so near to the Union camp.

His feeling of peace deepened. He was so far away now that no warlike sound could reach him. Instead the song of the mockingbird pursued him. Dick, full of youth and life, began to whistle the tune with the songster, and his horse perhaps soothed too by the rhythm broke into the gentle pace which is so easy for the rider.

It was early dawn, and the west was not yet wholly light. The east was full of gold, but the silver lingered on the opposite horizon, and the hot sun of Mississippi did not yet shed its rays over the earth. Instead, a cool breeze blew on Dick's face, and the quick blood was still leaping in his veins. The road dipped down and he came to a brook, which was clear despite its proximity to the mighty yellow trench of the Mississippi.

He let his horse drink freely, and, while he drank, he surveyed the country as well as he could. On his left he saw through a fringe of woods a field of young corn and showing dimly beyond it a small house. Unbroken forest stretched away on his right, but in field as well as forest there was no sign of a human being.

He studied his map again, noting the great number of water courses, which in the spring season were likely to be at the flood, and, for the first time, he realized the extreme difficulty of his mission. Mississippi was in the very heart of the Confederacy. He could not expect any sympathetic farmers to help him or show him the way. More likely as he advanced toward Jackson he would find the country swarming with the friends of the Confederacy, and to pass through them would demand the last resource of skill and courage. Perhaps it would have been wiser had he put on citizens clothes and taken his chances as a spy! He did not know that Colonel Winchester would have ordered the disguise had the one who rode on this most perilous mission been any other than he.

The realization brought with it extreme caution. Growing up in a country which was still mainly in forest, not differing much from its primitive condition, save for the absence of Indians and big game, he had learned to be at home in the woods, and now he turned from the path, riding among the trees.

He kept a course some distance from the road, where he was sheltered by the deep foliage and could yet see what was passing along the main artery of travel. The ground at times was spongy, making traveling hard, and twice his horse swam deep creeks. He would have turned into the road at these points but the bridges were broken down and he had no other choice.

The morning waned, and the coolness departed. The sun hung overhead, blazing hot, and the air in the forest grew dense and heavy. He would have been glad to turn back into the road, in the hope of finding a breeze in the open space, but caution still kept him in the forest. He soon saw two men in brown jeans riding mules, farmers perhaps, but carrying rifles on their shoulders, and, drawing his horse behind a big tree, he waited until they passed.

They rode on unseeing and he resumed his journey, to stop an hour later and eat cold food, while he permitted his horse to graze in an opening. He had seen only three houses, one a large colonial mansion, with the smoke rising from several chimneys, and the others small log structures inhabited by poor farmers, but nobody was at work in the fields.

When he resumed the journey he was thankful that he had kept to the woods as a body of Confederate cavalry, coming out of a path from the north, turned into the main road and advanced at a good pace toward Jackson. They seemed to be in good spirits, as he could hear them talking and laughing, but he was glad when they were out of sight as these Southerners had keen eyes and a pair of them might have discerned him in the brush.

He went deeper into the woods and made another long study of his map. It seemed to him now that he knew every hill and lagoon and road and path, and he resolved to ride a straight course through the forest. There was a point, distinctly marked north of Jackson, where he was to find Hertford if he arrived in time, or to wait for him if he got there ahead of time, and he believed that with the aid of the map he could reach it through the woods.

He rode now by the sun and he saw neither path nor fields. He was in the deep wilderness once more. The mockingbirds sang around him again and through the rifts in the leaves he saw the sailing hawks seeking their prey. Three huge owls sitting in a row on a bough slept undisturbed while he passed. He took it as an omen that the wilderness was deserted, and his confidence was strong.

But the firm ground ceased and he rode through a region of swamps. The hoofs of his horse splashed through mud and water. Now and then a snake drew away its slimy length and Dick shuddered. He could not help it. Snakes, even the harmless, always gave him shivers.

The wilderness now had an evil beauty. The vegetation was almost tropical in its luxuriance, but Dick liked better the tender green of his more northern state. Great beds of sunflowers nodded in the light breeze. Vast masses of vines and creepers pulled down the trees, and on many of the vines deep red roses were blooming. Then came areas of solemn live oaks and gloomy cypresses, where no mockingbirds were singing.

He rode for half a mile along a deep lagoon or bayou, he did not know which, and saw hawks swoop down and draw fish from its dark surface. The whole scene was ugly and cruel, and he was glad when he left it and entered the woods again. Once he thought he heard the mellow voice of a negro singing, but that was the only sound, save the flitting of small wild animals through the undergrowth.

He came, mid-afternoon, to a river, which he made his horse swim boldly and then entered forest that seemed more dense than ever. But the ground here was firmer and he was glad of a chance to rest both himself and his mount. He dismounted, tethered the horse and stretched his own limbs, weary from riding.

It was a pretty little glade, surrounded by high forest, fitted for rest and peace, but his horse reared suddenly and tried to break loose. There was a heavy crashing in the undergrowth and a deer, wild with alarm, darting within a dozen feet of Dick, disappeared in the forest, running madly.

He knew there were many deer in the Mississippi woods, but he was observant and the flight aroused his attention. His first thought that he and his horse had scared the deer could not be true, because it had come from a point directly behind and had rushed past them. Then its alarm must have been caused by some other human being near by in the forest or by a panther. His theory inclined to the human being.

Dick was troubled. The more he thought of the incident the less he liked it. He made no effort to hide from himself the dangers that surrounded him in the land of the enemy, and remounting he rode briskly forward. As the ground was firm and the forest was free enough from undergrowth to permit of speed he finally broke into a gallop which he maintained for a half-hour.

He struck marsh again and was a long time in passing through it. But when he was a half-mile on the other side he drew into a dense cluster of bushes and waited. He could not get the flight of the deer out of his mind, and knowing that it was well in the wilderness to obey premonitions he watched more closely.

Dick sat on his horse behind the bush a full five minutes, and presently he became conscious that his heart was pounding heavily. He exerted his will and called himself foolish, but in vain. The flight of the deer persisted in his mind. It was a warning that somebody else was in the woods not far behind him, and, while he waited, he saw a shadow among the trees.

It was only a shadow, but it was like the figure of a man. A single glimpse and he was gone. The stranger, whoever he was, had darted back in the undergrowth. Dick waited another five minutes, but the shadow did not reappear. He felt a measure of relief because all doubts were gone now. He was sure that he was followed, but by whom?

He knew that his danger had increased manifold. Some Southern scout or skirmisher had discovered his presence and, in such a quest, the trailer had the advantage of the trailed. Yet he did not hesitate. He knew his general direction and, shifting the pistols from the saddle-holsters to his belt he again urged his horse forward.

When they came to good ground he walked, leading his mount, as the animal was much exhausted by the effort the marshes needed. But whenever the undergrowth grew dense he stopped to look and listen. He did not see the shadow and he heard nothing save the ordinary sounds of the woods, but either instinct or imagination told him that the stranger still followed.

The sun was far down the westward slope, but it was still very hot in the woods. There was no breeze. Not a leaf, nor a blade of grass stirred. Dick heard his heart still pounding. The unseen pursuit--he had no doubt it was there--was becoming a terrible strain upon his nerves. The perspiration ran down his face, and he sought with angry eyes for a sight of the fellow who presumed to hang upon his tracks.

He began to wonder what he would do when the night came. There would be no rest, no sleep for him, even in the darkness. Twice he curved from his course and hid in the undergrowth to see his pursuer come up, but there was nothing. Then he reasoned with himself. He had not really seen the flitting figure of a man. It was merely the effect of an alarmed imagination, and he told himself to ride straight on, looking ahead, not back. But reason again yielded to instinct and he curved once more into the deep forest, where the tangle of vines and undergrowth also was so thick that it would take a keen eye to find him.

Dick looked back along the path which he had come and he was confident that he saw some of the tall bushes shake a little. It could not be wind, because the air was absolutely still, and soon he was convinced that his instinct had been right all the time. Fancy had played him no trick and the shadow that he had seen was a human figure.

He felt with all the force of conviction that he was in great danger, but he did not know what to do. So he did nothing, but sat quietly on his horse among the bushes. The heat was intense there and innumerable flies, gnats, and mosquitoes assailed him. The mosquitoes were so fierce that they drew blood from his face a half-dozen times.

Alone in the heat of the deep marshy wilderness he felt fear more than in battle. Danger threatened here in a mysterious, invisible fashion and he could only wait.

He saw a bush move again, but much nearer, and then came the crack of a rifle. If his horse, alarmed perhaps, had not thrown up his head suddenly, and received the bullet himself the lad's career would have ended there.

The horse made a convulsive leap, then staggered for a few seconds, giving his rider time to spring clear, and fell among the bushes. Dick dropped down behind him and quickly unstrapped the rifle from the saddle, meaning to use the animal's body as a breastwork against renewed attack.

His fear, the kind of fear that the bravest feel, had been driven away by rage. The killing of his innocent horse, although the bullet was intended for him, angered him as much as if he had received a wound himself. The spirit of his ancestor, the shrewd and wary Indian fighter, descended upon him again, and, lying upon his stomach behind the horse, with the rifle ready he was anxious for the attack to come.

Dick was firmly convinced that he had but a single enemy. Otherwise he would have been attacked in force earlier, and more than one shot would have been fired. But the report of the rifle was succeeded by deep silence. The forest was absolutely still, not a breath of wind stirring. His enemy remained invisible, but the besieged youth was confident that he was lying quiet, awaiting another chance. Dick, still hot with anger, would wait too.

But other enemies were far more reckless than the hidden marksman. The swarm of gnats, flies, and mosquitoes assailed him again and he could have cried out in pain. His only consolation lay in the fact that the other man might be suffering just as much.

He was aware that his enemy might try a circling movement in order to reach him on the flank or from behind, but he believed that his ear would be keen enough to detect him if he came near. Moreover he lay in a slight dip with the body of the horse in front of him, and it would require an uncommon sharpshooter to reach him with a bullet. If he could only stand those terrible mosquitoes an hour he felt that he might get away, because then the night would be at hand.

He saw with immense relief that the sun was already very low. The heat, gathered in the woods, was at its worst, and over his head the mosquitoes buzzed and buzzed incessantly. It seemed to him a horrible sort of irony that he might presently be forced from his shelter by mosquitoes and be killed in flight to another refuge.

But he was endowed with great patience and tenacity and he clung to his shelter, relying rather upon ear than eye to note the approach of an enemy. Meanwhile the sun sank down to the rim of the wood, and the twilight thickened rapidly in the east. Then a shot was fired from the point from which the first had come. Dick heard the bullet singing over his head, but it gave him satisfaction because he was able to locate his enemy.

He sought no return fire, but lay in the dip, wary and patient. The sun sank beyond the rim, the western sky flamed blood red for a few moments, and then the Southern night swept down so suddenly that it seemed to come with violence. Dick believed that his escape was now at hand, but he still showed an infinite patience.

He did not stir from his place until the night was almost black, and then, carrying his weapons and the saddlebag of provisions, he crept among the thickets.

When he stood up he found himself stiff from lying long in a cramped position. His face burned from the bites of the mosquitoes, which still hung in swarms about him, and he felt dizzy.

But Dick remembered his mission, and his resolve to perform it was not shaken a particle. He had lost his horse, but he could walk. Perhaps his chance of success would be greater on foot in such a dangerous country.

He advanced now with extreme caution, feeling the way carefully and testing the ground before he put his foot down solidly. Still trusting to his ears he stopped now and then, and listened for some sound from his enemy in pursuit. But nothing came, and soon he became quite sure that he had shaken him off. He was merely a dot in the wilderness in the dark, and, feeling secure now, he pressed forward with more speed.

He was hoping to get to a piece of firm, high ground, where he might secure a measure of protection from those terrible mosquitoes which still buzzed angrily about his head. In an hour chance favored him, as he reached a low ridge much rockier than usual in that region. He would have built a little smudge fire to protect himself from the mosquitoes, but it would be sure to draw the lurking sharpshooter, and instead he found a nook in the ridge, under the low boughs of a great oak. Then he took a light blanket which he carried tied to his saddlebags, and wrapped it around his neck and face, covering everything but his mouth and eyes.

He sank into the nook with his back against the turf, and the reclining position was wonderfully easy. The mosquitoes, apparently finding the points of exposure too small, left him alone and went away. His face still burned from numerous stings, but he forgot it in present comfort. There was food in the saddlebags, and he ate enough for his needs. Then he laid the saddlebags beside him and the rifle across his knees and stared out into the darkness.

He felt a great relief after his extreme danger and long exertions. It was both physical and mental, and sitting there alone in a sunken wilderness he was nevertheless happy. Believing that the mosquitoes would not come back, he wrapped the blanket about his whole body by and by, and pulled his cap down over his eyes.

Dick had no plans for the night. He did not know whether he intended to remain there long or not, but nature settled doubts for him. His head drooped, and soon he slept as easily and peacefully as if he had been at home at Pendleton in his own bed.

Then the wilderness blotted him out for the time. The little wild animals scurried through the grass or ran up trees. In the far distance an owl hooted solemnly at nothing, and he slept the mighty sleep of exhaustion.