The Scouts of Stonewall by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XI. The Night Ride
Harry was back with the general in a few hours, but now he was allowed a little time for himself. It seemed to occur suddenly to Jackson that the members of his staff, especially the more youthful ones, could not march and fight more than two or three days without food and rest.
"You've done well, Harry," he said--he was beginning to call the boy by his first name.
The words of praise were brief, and they were spoken in a dry tone, but they set Harry's blood aflame. He had been praised by Stonewall Jackson, the man who considered an ordinary human being's best not more than third rate. Harry, like all the others in the valley army, saw that Jackson was setting a new standard in warfare.
Tremendously elated he started in search of his friends. He found the Invincibles, that is, all who were left alive, stretched flat upon their sides or backs in the orchard. It seemed to him that St. Clair and Langdon had not moved a hair's breadth since he had seen them there before. But their faces were not so white now. Color was coming back.
He put the toe of his boot against Langdon's side and shoved gently but firmly. Langdon awoke and sat up indignantly.
"How dare you, Harry Kenton, disturb a gentleman who is occupied with his much-needed slumbers?" he asked.
"General Jackson wants you."
"Old Jack wants me! Now, what under the sun can he want with me?"
"He wants you to take some cavalry, gallop to Washington, go all around the city, inspect all its earthworks and report back here by nightfall."
"You're making that up, Harry; but for God's sake don't make that suggestion to Old Jack. He'd send me on that trip sure, and then have me hanged as an example in front of the whole army, when I failed."
"I won't say anything about it."
"You're a bright boy, Harry, and you're learning fast. But things could be a lot worse. We could have been licked instead of licking the enemy. I could be dead instead of lying here on the grass, tired but alive. But, Harry, I'm growing old fast."
"How old are you, Tom?"
"Last week I was nineteen, to-day I'm ninety-nine, and if this sort of thing keeps up I'll be a hundred and ninety-nine next week."
St. Clair also awoke and sat up. In some miraculous manner he had restored his uniform to order and he was as neat and precise as usual.
"You two talk too much," he said. "I was in the middle of a beautiful dream, when I heard you chattering away."
"What was your dream, Arthur?" asked Harry.
"I was in St. Andrew's Hall in Charleston, dancing with the most beautiful girl you ever saw. I don't know who she was, I didn't identify her in my dream. There were lots of other beautiful girls there dancing with fellows like myself, and the roses were everywhere, and the music rose and fell like the song of angels, and I was so happy and--I awoke to find myself here on a hillside with a ragged army that's been marching and fighting for days and weeks, and which, for all I know, will keep it up for years and years longer."
"I've a piece of advice for you, Arthur," said Langdon.
"What is it?"
"Quit dreaming. It's a bad habit, especially when you're in war. The dream is sure to be better than the real thing. You won't be dancing again in Charleston for a long time, nor will I. All those beautiful girls you were dreaming about but couldn't name will be without partners until we're a lot older than we are now."
Langdon spoke with a seriousness very uncommon in him, and lay back again on the ground, where he began to chew a grass stem meditatively.
"Go back to sleep, boys, you'll need it," said Harry lightly. "Our next march is to be a thousand miles, and we're to have a battle at every milestone."
"You mean that as a joke, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it came true," said Langdon, as he closed his eyes again.
Harry went on and found the two colonels sitting in the shadow of a stone fence. One of them had his arm in a sling, but he assured Harry the wound was slight. They gave him a glad and paternal welcome.
"In the kind of campaign we're waging," said Colonel Leonidas Talbot, "I assume that anybody is dead until I see him alive. Am I not right, eh, Hector?"
"Assuredly you're right, Leonidas," replied Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire. "Our young men don't get frightened because they don't have time to think about it. Before we can get excited over the battle in which we are engaged we've begun the next one. It is also a matter of personal pride to me that one of the best bodies of troops in the service of General Jackson is of French descent like myself."
"The Acadians, colonel," said Harry. "Grand troops they are."
"It is the French fighting blood," said Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire, with a little trace of the grandiloquent in his tone. "Slurs have been cast at the race from which I sprang since the rout and flight at Waterloo, but how undeserved they are! The French have burned more gunpowder and have won more great battles without the help of allies than any other nation in Europe. And their descendants in North America have shown their valor all the way from Quebec to New Orleans, although we are widely separated now, and scarcely know the speech of one another."
"It's true, Hector," said Colonel Leonidas Talbot. "I think I've heard you say as much before, but it will bear repeating. Do you think, Hector, that you happen to have about you a cigarette that has survived the campaign?"
"Several of them, Leonidas. Here, help yourself. Harry, I would offer one to you, but I do not recommend the cigarette to the young. You don't smoke! So much the better. It's a bad habit, permissible only to the old. Leonidas, do you happen to have a match?"
"Yes, Hector, I made sure about that before I asked you for the cigarettes. Be careful when you light it. There is only one match for the cigarettes of both."
"I'll bring you a coal from one of the campfires," said Harry, springing up.
But Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire waved him down courteously, though rather reprovingly.
"You would never fire a cannon shot to kill a butterfly," he said, "and neither will I ever light a delicate cigarette with a huge, shapeless coal from a campfire. It would be an insult to the cigarette, and after such an outrage I could never draw a particle of flavor from it. No, Harry, we thank you, you mean well, but we can do it better."
Harry sat down again. The two colonels, who had been through days of continuous marching and fighting, knelt in the lee of the fence, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire also shaded the operation with his hat as an additional protection. Colonel Leonidas Talbot carefully struck the match. The flame sputtered up and his friend brought his hat closer to protect it. Then both lighted their cigarettes, settled back against the fence, and a deep peace appeared upon their two faces.
"Hector," said Colonel Talbot, "only we old soldiers know how little it takes to make a man happy."
"You speak truly, Leonidas. In the last analysis it's a mere matter of food, clothes and shelter, with perhaps a cigarette or two. In Mexico, when we advanced from Vera Cruz to the capital, it was often very cold on the mountains. I can remember coming in from some battle, aching with weariness and cold, but after I had eaten good food and basked half an hour before a fire I would feel as if I owned the earth. Physical comfort, carried to the very highest degree, produces mental comfort also."
"Sound words, Hector. The starved, the cold and the shelterless can never be happy. God knows that I am no advocate of war, although it is my trade. It is a terrible thing for people to kill one another, but it does grind you down to the essentials. Because it is war you and I have an acute sense of luxury, lying here against a stone fence, smoking a couple of cigarettes."
"That is, Leonidas, we are happy when we have attained what we have needed a long time, and which we have been a long time without. It has occurred to me that the cave-man, in all his primitive nakedness, must have had some thrilling moments, moments of pleasures of the body, the mind and the imagination allied, which we modern beings cannot feel."
"To what moments do you allude, Hector?"
"Suppose that he has just eluded a monstrous saber-toothed tiger, and has slipped into his cave by the opening, entirely too small for any great beast of prey. He is in his home. A warm fire is burning on a flat stone. His wife--beautiful to him--is cooking savory meats for him. Around the walls are his arms and their supplies. They eat placidly while the huge tiger from which he has escaped by a foot or less roars and glowers without. The contrast between the danger and that house, which is the equivalent to a modern palace, comes home to him with a thrill more keen and penetrating than anything we can ever feel.
"The man and his wife eat their evening meal, and retire to their bed of dry leaves in the corner. They fall asleep while the frenzied and ferocious tiger is still snarling and growling. They know he cannot get at them, and his gnashings and roarings are merely a lullaby, soothing them to the sweetest of slumbers. You could not duplicate that in the age in which we live, Leonidas."
"No, Hector, we couldn't. But, as for me, I can spare such thrills. It seems to me that we have plenty of danger of our own just now. I must say, however, that you put these matters in a fine, poetic way. Have you ever written verses, Hector?"
"A few, but never for print, Leonidas. I am happy to think that a few sonnets and triolets of mine are cherished by middle-aged but yet handsome women of Charleston that we both know."
Harry left them still talking in rounded sentences and always in perfect agreement. He thought theirs a beautiful friendship, and he hoped that he should have friendships like it, when he was as old as they.
But he and all the other prophets were right. The restless Jackson soon took up the northward march again. He was drawing farther and farther away from McClellan and the Southern army before Richmond, and the great storm that was gathering there. The army of Banks was not yet wholly destroyed, and there were other Northern and undestroyed armies in the valley. His task there was not yet finished. Jackson pushed on toward Harper's Ferry on the Potomac. He was now, though to the westward, further north than Washington itself, and with other armies in his rear he was taking daring risks. But as usual, he kept his counsels to himself. All was hidden under that battered cap to become later an old slouch hat, and the men who followed him were content to go wherever he led.
The old Stonewall Brigade was in the van and Jackson and his staff were with it. The foot cavalry refreshed by a good rest were marching again at a great rate.
Harry was detached shortly after the start, and was sent to General Winder with orders for him to hurry forward with the fine troops under his command. Before he could leave Winder he ran into a strong Northern force at Charleston, and the Southern division attacked at once with all the dash and vigor that Jackson had imparted to his men. They had, too, the confidence bred by continuous victory, while the men in blue were depressed by unbroken defeats.
The Northern force was routed in fifteen or twenty minutes and fled toward the river, leaving behind it all its baggage and stores. Harry carried the news to Jackson and saw the general press his thin lips together more closely than ever. He knew that the hope of destroying Banks utterly was once more strong in the breast of their leader. The members of the staff were all sent flying again with messages to the regiments to hurry.
The whole army swung forward at increased pace. Jackson did not know what new troops had come for Banks, but soon he saw the heights south of Harper's Ferry, and the same glance told him that they were crowded with soldiers. General Saxton with seven thousand men and eighteen guns had undertaken to hold the place against his formidable opponent.
General Jackson held a brief council, and, when it was over, summoned Harry and Dalton to him.
"You are both well mounted and have had experience," he said. "You understand that the army before us is not by any means the only one that the Yankees have. Shields, Ord and Fremont are all leading armies against us. We can defeat Saxton's force, but we must not be caught in any trap. Say not a word of this to anybody, but ride in the direction I'm pointing and see if you can find the army of Shields. Other scouts are riding east and west, but you must do your best, nevertheless. Perhaps both of you will not come back, but one of you must. Take food in your saddle bags and don't neglect your arms."
He turned instantly to give orders to others and Harry and Dalton mounted and rode, proud of their trust, and resolved to fulfill it. Evening was coming as they left the army, and disappeared among the woods. They had only the vague direction given by Jackson, derived probably from reports, brought in by other scouts, but it was their mission to secure definite and exact information.
"You know this country, George, don't you?" asked Harry.
"I've ridden over all of it. They say that Shields with a large part of McDowell's army is approaching the valley through Manassas Gap. It's a long ride from here, Harry, but I think we'd better make for it. This horse of mine is one of the best ever bred in the valley. He could carry me a hundred miles by noon to-morrow."
"Mine's not exactly a plough horse," said Harry, as he stroked the mane of his own splendid bay, one especially detailed for him on this errand. "If yours can go a hundred miles by noon to-morrow so can mine."
"Suppose, then, we go a little faster."
The riders spoke a word or two. The two grand horses stretched out their necks, and they sped away southward. For a while they rode over the road by which they had come. It was yet early twilight and they saw many marks of their passage, a broken-down wagon, a dead horse, an exploded caisson, and now and then something from which they quickly turned away their eyes.
Dalton knew the roads well, and at nightfall they bore in toward the right. They had already come a long distance, and in the darkness they went more slowly.
"I think there's a farmhouse not much further on," said Dalton, "and we'll ask there for information. It's safe to do so because all the people through here are on our side. There, you can see the house now."
The moonlight disclosed a farmhouse, surrounded by a lawn that was well sprinkled with big trees, but as they approached Harry and Dalton simultaneously reined their horses back into the wood. They had seen a dozen troopers on the lawn, and the light was good enough to show that their uniforms were or had been blue. A woman was standing in the open door of the house, and one of the men, who seemed to be the leader, was talking to her.
"Yankee scouts," whispered Harry.
"Undoubtedly. The Yankee generals are waking up--Jackson has made 'em do it, but I didn't expect to find their scouts so far in the valley."
"Nor I. Suppose we wait here, George, until they leave."
"It's the thing to do."
They rode a little further into the woods where they were safe from observation, and yet could watch what was passing at the house. But they did not have to wait long. The troopers evidently got little satisfaction from the woman to whom they were talking and turned their horses. Harry saw her disappear inside, and he fairly heard the door slam when it closed. The men galloped southward down the road.
Harry heard a chuckle beside him and he turned in astonishment.
"I'm laughing," said Dalton, "because I've got a right to laugh. Here in the valley we are all kin to one another just as you people in Kentucky are all related. The woman who stood in the doorway is Cousin Eliza Pomeroy. She's about my seventh cousin, but she's my cousin just the same, and if we could have heard it we would have enjoyed what she was saying to those Yankees."
"Oughtn't we to stop also and get news, if we can?"
"Of course. We must have a talk with Cousin Eliza."
They emerged from the woods, opened the gate and rode upon the lawn. Not a ray of light came from the house anywhere. Every door and shutter was fast.
"Knock on the door with the hilt of your sword, Harry," said Dalton. "It will bring Cousin Eliza. She can't have gone to sleep yet."
Harry dismounted and holding the reins of his horse over his arm, knocked loudly. There was no reply.
"Beat harder, Harry. She's sure to hear."
Harry beat upon that door until he bruised the hilt of his sword. At last it was thrown open violently, and a powerful woman of middle years appeared.
"I thought you Yankees had gone forever!" she exclaimed. "You'd better hurry or Stonewall Jackson will get you before morning!"
"We're not Yankees, ma'am," said Harry, politely. "We're Southerners, Stonewall Jackson's own men, scouts from his army, here looking for news of the enemy."
"A fine tale, young man. You're trying to fool me with your gray uniform. Stonewall Jackson's men are fifteen miles north of here, chasing the Yankees by thousands into the Potomac. They say he does it just as well by night as by day, and that he never sleeps or rests."
"What my comrade tells you is true. Good evening, Cousin Eliza!" said a gentle voice beyond Harry.
The woman started and then stepped out of the door. Dalton rode forward a little where the full moonlight fell upon him.
"You remember that summer six years ago when you spanked me for stealing the big yellow apples in the orchard."
"George! Little George Dalton!" she cried, and as Dalton got off his horse she enclosed him in a powerful embrace, although he was little no longer.
"And have you come from Stonewall Jackson?" she asked breathless with eagerness.
"Straight from him. I'm on his staff and so is my friend here. This is Harry Kenton of Kentucky, Mrs. Pomeroy, and he's been through all the battles with us. We were watching from the woods and we saw those Yankees at your door. They didn't get any information, I know that, but I'm thinking that we will."
Cousin Eliza Pomeroy laughed a low, deep laugh of pride and satisfaction.
"Come into the house," she exclaimed. "I'm here with four children. Jim, my husband, is with Johnston's army before Richmond, but we've been able to take care of ourselves thus far, and I reckon we'll keep on being able. I can get hot coffee and good corn cakes ready for you inside of fifteen minutes."
"It's not food we want, Cousin Eliza," said Dalton. "We want something far better, what those Yankees came for--news. So I think we'd better stay outside and run no risk of surprise. The Yankees might come back."
"That's so. You'll grow up into a man with a heap of sense, George. I've got real news, and I was waiting for a chance to send it through to Stonewall Jackson. Billy! Billy!"
A small boy, not more than twelve, but clothed fully, darted from the inside of the house. He was well set up for his age, and his face was keen and eager.
"This is Billy Pomeroy, my oldest son," said Cousin Eliza Pomeroy, with a swelling of maternal pride. "I made him get in bed and cover himself up, boots and all, when the Yankees came. Billy has been riding to-day. He ain't very old, and he ain't very big, but put him on a horse and he's mighty nigh a man."
The small, eager face was shining.
"What did you see, Billy, when you rode so far?" asked Dalton.
"Yankees! Yankees, Cousin George, and lots of 'em, toward Manassas Gap! I saw some of their cavalry this side of the Gap, and I heard at the store that there was a big army on the other side, marching hard to come through it, and get in behind our Stonewall."
Harry looked at Dalton.
"That confirms the rumors we heard," he said.
"You can believe anything that Billy tells you," said Mrs. Pomeroy.
"I know it," said Dalton, "but we've got to go on and see these men for ourselves. Stonewall Jackson is a terrible man, Cousin Eliza. If we tell him that the Yankees are coming through Manassas Gap and closing in on his rear, he'll ask us how we know it, and when we reply that a boy told us he'll break us as unfit to be on his staff."
"And I reckon Stonewall Jackson will be about right!" said Cousin Eliza Pomeroy, who was evidently a woman of strong mind. "Billy, you lead these boys straight to Manassas Gap."
"Oh, no, Cousin Eliza!" exclaimed Dalton. "Billy's been riding hard all day, and we can find the way."
"What do you think Billy's made out of?" asked his mother contemptuously. "Ain't he a valley boy? Ain't he Jim Pomeroy's son and mine? I want you to understand that Billy can ride anything, and he can ride it all day long and all night long, too!"
"Make 'em let me go, ma!" exclaimed Billy, eagerly. "I can save time. I can show 'em the shortest way!"
Harry and George glanced at each other. Young Billy Pomeroy might be of great value to them. Moreover, the choice was already made for them, because Billy was now running to the stable for his horse.
"He goes with us, or rather he leads us, Cousin Eliza," said Dalton.
Billy appeared the next instant, with his horse saddled and bridled, and his own proud young self in the saddle.
"Billy, take 'em straight," said his Spartan mother, as she drew him down in the saddle and kissed him, and Billy, more swollen with pride than ever, promised that he would. But the mother's voice broke a little when she said to Dalton:
"He's to guide you wherever you want to go, but you must bring him back to me unhurt."
"We will, Cousin Eliza," said Dalton earnestly.
Then they galloped away in the dark with Billy leading and riding like a Comanche. He had taken a fresh horse from the stall and it was almost as powerful as those ridden by Harry and Dalton.
"See the mountains," said Billy, pointing eastward to a long dark line dimly visible in the moonlight. "That's the Blue Ridge, and further south is the Gap, but you can't see it at night until you come right close to it."
"Do you know any path through the woods, Billy?" asked Harry. "We don't want to run the risk of capture."
"I was just about to lead you into it," replied the boy, still rejoicing in the importance of his role. "Here it is."
He turned off from the road into a path leading into thick forest, wide enough for only one horse at a time. Billy, of course, led, Harry followed, and Dalton brought up the rear. The path, evidently a short cut used by farmers, was enclosed by great oaks, beeches and elms, now in full leaf, and it was dark there. Only a slit of moonlight showed from above, and the figures of the three riders grew shadowy.
"They'll never find us here, will they, Billy?" said Harry.
"Not one chance in a thousand. Them Yankees don't know a thing about the country. Anyway, if they should come into the path at the other end, we'd hear them long before they heard us."
"You're right, Billy, and as we ride on we'll all three listen with six good ears."
"Yes, sir," said Billy.
Harry, although only a boy himself, was so much older than Billy, who addressed him as "sir," that he felt himself quite a veteran.
"Billy," he said, "how did it happen that you were riding down this way, so far from home, to-day?"
"'Cause we heard there was Yanks in the Gap. Ma won't let me go an' fight with Stonewall Jackson. She says I ain't old enough an' big enough, but she told me herself to get on the horse an' ride down this way, an' see if what we heard was true. I saw 'em in little bunches, an' then that gang come to our house to-night, less 'n ten minutes after I come back. We'll be at a creek, sir, in less than five minutes. It runs down from the mountains, an' it's pretty deep with all them big spring rains. I guess we'll have to swim, sir. We could go lower down, where there's always a ford, but that's where the Yankees would be crossing."
"We'll swim, if necessary, Billy."
"When even the women and little children fight for us, the South will be hard to conquer," was Harry's thought, but he said no more until they reached the creek, which was indeed swollen by the heavy rains, and was running swiftly, a full ten feet in depth.
"Hold on, Billy, I'll lead the way," said Harry.
But Billy was already in the stream, his short legs drawn up, and his horse swimming strongly. Harry and Dalton followed without a word, and the three emerged safely on the eastern side.
"You're a brave swimmer, Billy," said Harry admiringly.
"'Tain't nothin, sir. I didn't swim. It was my horse. I guess he'd take me across the Mississippi itself. I wouldn't have anything to do but stick on his back. Look up, sir, an' you can see the mountains close by."
Harry and Dalton looked up through the rift in the trees, and saw almost over them the lofty outline of the Blue Ridge, the eastern rampart of the valley, heavy with forest from base to top.
"We must be near the Gap," said Dalton.
"We are," said Billy. "We've been coming fast. It's nigh on to fifteen miles from here to home."
"And must be a full thirty to Harper's Ferry," said Dalton.
"Does this path lead to some point overlooking the Gap," asked Harry, "where we can see the enemy if he's there, and he can't see us?"
"Yes, sir. We can ride on a slope not more than two miles from here and look right down into the Gap."
"And if troops are there we'll be sure to see their fires," said Dalton. "Lead on, Billy."
Billy led with boldness and certainty. It was the greatest night of his life, and he meant to fulfill to the utmost what he deemed to be his duty. The narrow path still wound among mighty trees, the branches of which met now and then over their heads, shutting out the moonlight entirely. It led at this point toward the north and they were rapidly ascending a shoulder of the mountain, leaving the Gap on their right.
Harry, riding on such an errand, felt to the full the weird quality of mountains and forest, over which darkness and silence brooded. The foliage was very heavy, and it rustled now and then as the stray winds wandered along the slopes of the Blue Ridge. But for that and the hoofbeats of their own horses, there was no sound save once, when they heard a scuttling on the bark of a tree. They saw nothing, but Billy pronounced it a wildcat, alarmed by their passage.
The three at length came out on a level place or tiny plateau. Billy, who rode in advance, stopped and the others stopped with him.
"Look," said the boy, pointing to the bottom of the valley, about five hundred feet below.
A fire burned there and they could discern men around it, with horses in the background.
"Yankees," said Billy. "Look at 'em through the glasses."
Harry raised his glasses and took a long look. They had the full moonlight where they stood and the fire in the valley below was also a help. He saw that the camp was made by a strong cavalry force. Many of them were asleep in their blankets, but the others sat by the fire and seemed to be talking.
Then he passed the glasses to Dalton, who also, after looking long and well, passed them to Billy, as a right belonging to one who had been their real leader, and who shared equally with them their hardships and dangers.
"How large would you say that force is, George?" asked Harry.
"Three or four hundred men at least. There's a great bunch of horses. I should judge, too, from the careless way they've camped, that they've no fear of being attacked. How many do you think they are, Billy?"
"Just about what you said, Cousin George. Are you going to attack them?"
Harry and Dalton laughed.
"No, Billy," replied Dalton. "You see we're only three, and there must be at least three hundred down there."
"But we've been hearin' that Stonewall Jackson's men never mind a hundred to one," said Billy, in an aggrieved tone. "We hear that's just about what they like."
"No, Billy, my boy. We don't fight a hundred to one. Nobody does, unless it's like Thermopylae and the Alamo."
"Then what are we going to do?" continued Billy in his disappointed tone.
"I think, Billy, that Harry and I are going to dismount, slip down the mountainside, see what we can see, hear what we can hear, and that you'll stay here, holding and guarding the horses until we come back."
"I won't!" exclaimed Billy in violent indignation. "I won't, Cousin George. I'm going down the mountain with you an' Mr. Kenton."
"Now, Billy," said Dalton soothingly, "you've got a most important job here. You're the reserve, and you also hold the means of flight. Suppose we're pursued hotly, we couldn't get away without the horses that you'll hold for us. Suppose we should be taken. Then it's for you to gallop back with the news that Shields' whole army will be in the pass in the morning, and under such circumstances, your mother would send you on to General Jackson with a message of such immense importance."
"That's so," said Billy with conviction, in the face of so much eloquence and logic, "but I don't want you fellows to be captured."
Dalton and Harry dismounting, gave the reins of their horses into the hands of Billy, and the small fingers clutched them tightly.
"Stay exactly where you are, Billy," said Harry. "We want to find you without trouble when we come back."
"I'll be here," said Billy proudly.
Harry and Dalton began the descent through the bushes and trees. They had not the slightest doubt that this was the vanguard of the Northern army which they heard was ten thousand strong, and that this force was merely a vanguard for McDowell, who had nearly forty thousand men. But they knew too well to go back to Stonewall Jackson with mere surmise, however plausible.
"We've got to find out some way or other whether their army is certainly at hand," whispered Dalton.
Harry nodded, and said:
"We must manage to overhear some of their talk, though it's risky business."
"But that's what we're here for. They don't seem to be very watchful, and as the woods and bushes are thick about 'em we may get a chance."
They continued their slow and careful descent. Harry glanced back once through an opening in the bushes and saw little Billy, holding the reins of the three horses and gazing intently after them. He knew that among all the soldiers of Jackson's army, no matter how full of valor and zeal they might be, there was not one who surpassed Billy in eagerness to serve.
They reached the bottom of the slope, and lay for a few minutes hidden among dense bushes. Both had been familiar with country life, they had hunted the 'possum and the coon many a dark night, and now their forest lore stood them in good stead. They made no sound as they passed among the bushes and trailing vines, and they knew that they were quite secure in their covert, although they lay within a hundred yards of one of the fires.
Harry judged that most of the men whom they saw were city bred. It was an advantage that the South had over the North in a mighty war, waged in a country covered then mostly with forest and cut by innumerable rivers and creeks, that her sons were familiar with such conditions, while many of those of the North, used to life in the cities, were at a loss, when the great campaigns took them into the wilderness.
Both he and Dalton, relying upon this knowledge, crept a little closer, but they stopped and lay very close, when they saw a man advancing to a hillock, carrying under his arm a bundle which they took to be rockets.
"Signals," whispered Dalton. "You just watch, Harry, and you'll see 'em answered from the eastward."
The officer on the summit of the hillock sent up three rockets, which curved beautifully against the blue heavens, then sank and died. Far to the eastward they saw three similar lights flame and die.
"How far away would you say those answering rockets were?" whispered Harry.
"It's hard to say about distances in the moonlight, but they may be three or four miles. I take it, Harry, that they are sent up by the Northern main force."
"So do I, but we've got to get actual evidence in words, or we've got to see this army. I'm afraid to go back to General Jackson with anything less. Now, we won't have time to go through the Gap, see the army and get back to the general before things begin to happen, so we've got to stick it out here, until we get what we want."
"True words, Harry, and we must risk going a little nearer. See that line of bushes running along there in the dark? It will cover us, and we're bound to take the chance. We must agree, too, Harry, that if we're discovered, neither must stop in an attempt to save the other. If one reaches Jackson it will be all right."
"Of course, George. We'll run for it with all our might, and if it's only one it's to be the better runner."
They lay almost flat on their stomachs, and passing through the grass, reached the line of bushes. Here they could rise from such an uncomfortable position, and stooping they came within fifty yards of the first fire, where they saw very clearly the men who were not asleep, and who yet moved about. Most of them were not yet sunburned, and Harry judged at once that they had come from the mills and workshops of New York or New England. As far as he could see they had no pickets, and he inferred their belief that no enemy was nearer than Jackson's army, at least thirty miles away. Perhaps the little band of horsemen who had knocked at Mrs. Pomeroy's door had brought them the information.
They lay there nearly an hour, not thinking of the danger, but consumed with impatience. Officers passed near them talking, but they could catch only scraps, not enough for their purpose. A set of signals was sent up again and was answered duly from the same point to the east of the Gap. But after long waiting, they were rewarded. Few of the officers or men ever went far from the fires. They seemed to be at a loss in the dark and silent wilderness which was absolute confirmation to Harry that they were city dwellers.
Two officers, captains or majors, stopped within twenty feet of the crouching scouts, and gazed for a long time through the Gap toward the west into the valley, at the northern end of which Jackson and his army lay.
"I tell you, Curtis," one of them said at last, "that if we get through the Gap to-morrow and Fremont and the others also come up, Jackson can't possibly get away. We'll have him and his whole force in a trap and with three or four to one in our favor, it will be all over."
"It's true, if it comes out as you say, Penfield," said the other, "but there are several 'ifs,' and as we have reason to know, it's hard to put your hand on Jackson. Why, when we thought he was lost in the mountains he came out of them like an avalanche, and some of our best troops were buried under that avalanche."
"You're too much of a pessimist, Curtis. We've learned a lot in the last few days. As sure as you and I stand here the fox will be trapped. Why, he's trapped already. We'll be through the Gap here with ten thousand men in the morning, squarely in Jackson's rear. To-morrow we'll have fifty or sixty thousand good troops between him and Richmond and Johnston. His army will be taken or destroyed, and the Confederacy will be split asunder. McClellan will be in Richmond with an overwhelming force, and within a month the war will be practically over."
"There's no doubt of that, if we catch Jackson, and it certainly looks as if the trap were closing down upon him. In defeating Banks and then following him to the Potomac he has ruined himself and his cause."
Harry felt a deadly fear gripping at his heart. What these men were saying was probably true. Every fact supported their claim. The tough and enduring North, ready to sustain any number of defeats and yet win, was pouring forward her troops with a devotion that would have wrung tears from a stone. And she was destined to do it again and again through dark and weary years.
The two men walked further away, still talking, but Harry and Dalton could no longer hear what they were saying. The rockets soared again in the pass, and were answered in the east, but now nearer, and the two knew that it was not worth while to linger any longer. They knew the vital fact that ten thousand men were advancing through the pass, and that all the rest was superfluity. And time had a value beyond price to their cause.