"Thought I'd git the joke on you," he said, when he stopped laughing. "The road's been slantin' into the mountains, without you knowin' it, and Townsville is cut off by the cliffs. You'll find it gettin' wilder now 'till we start down the slope on the other side. Lucky our hosses are strong, 'cause the mud is deeper than I thought it would be."
It was not really a road that they were following, merely a path, and the going was painful. Under Petty's instructions they stopped their mounts now and then for a rest, and a mile further on they began to feel a rising wind.
"It's the wind that I told you of," said Petty. "It's sucked through six or seven miles of pass, an' it will blow straight in our faces all the way. As we'll be goin' up for a long distance you'll find it growin' colder, too. But you've got to remember that after you pass them cold winds an' go down the slope you'll strike another warm little valley, the one in which Hubbard is layin' so neat an' so snug."
Dick had already noticed the increasing coldness and so had the sergeant. Whitley, from his long experience on the plains, had the keenest kind of an eye for climatic changes. He noticed with some apprehension that the higher peaks were clothed in thick, cold fog, but he said nothing to the brave boy whom he had grown to love like a son. But both he and Dick drew their heavy coats closer and were thankful for the buckskin gloves, without which their hands would have stiffened on the reins.
Now they rode in silence with their heads bent well forward, because the wind was becoming fiercer and fiercer. Over the peaks the fogs were growing thicker and darker and after a while the sharp edge of the wind was wet with rain. It stung their faces, and they drew their hat brims lower and their coat collars higher to protect themselves from such a cutting blast.
"Told you we might have trouble," called Petty, cheerfully, "but if you ride right on through trouble you'll leave trouble behind. Nor this ain't nothin' either to what we kin expect before we git to the top of the pass. Cur'us what a pow'ful lot human bein's kin stand when they make up their minds to it."
"Are the horses well shod?" asked Whitley.
"Best shod in the world, 'cause I done it myself. That's my trade, blacksmith, an' I'm a good one if I do say it. I heard before we started that you had been a soldier in the west. I s'pose that you had to look mighty close to your hosses then. A man couldn't afford to be ridin' a hoss made lame by bad shoein' when ten thousand yellin' Sioux or Blackfeet was after him."
"No, you couldn't," replied the sergeant. "Out there you had to watch every detail. That's one of the things that fightin' Indians taught. You had to be watchin' all the time an' I reckon the trainin' will be of value in this war. Are we mighty near to the top of the pass, Mr. Petty?"
"Got two or three miles yet. The slope is steeper on the other side. We rise a lot more before we hit the top."
The wind grew stronger with every rod they ascended, and the horses began to pant with their severe exertions. At Petty's suggestion the three riders dismounted and walked for a while, leading their horses. The rain turned to a fine hail and stung their faces. Had it not been for his two good comrades Dick would have found his situation inexpressibly lonely and dreary. The heavy fog now enveloped all the peaks and ridges and filled every valley and chasm. He could see only fifteen or twenty yards ahead along the muddy path, and the fine hail which gave every promise of becoming a storm of sleet stung continually. The wind confined in the narrow gorge also uttered a hideous shrieking and moaning.
"Tests your nerve!" shouted Petty to Dick. "There are hard things besides battles to stand, an' this is goin' to be one of the hard ones, but if you go through it all right you kin go through any number of the same kind all right, too. Likely the sleet will be so thick that it will make a sheet of slippery ice for us comin' back. Now, hosses that ain't got calks on thar shoes are pretty shore to slip an' fall, breakin' a leg or two, an' mebbe breakin' the necks of thar riders."
Dick looked at him with some amazement. Despite his announcement of dire disaster the man's eyes twinkled merrily and the round, red outline of his bushy head in the scarlet comforter made a cheerful blaze.
"It's jest as I told you," said Petty, meeting the boy's look. "Without calks on thar shoes our hosses are pretty shore to slip on the ice and break theirselves up, or fall down a cliff an' break themselves up more."
"Then why in thunder, Blaze," exclaimed Whitley, "did we start without calks on the shoes of our horses?"
Red Blaze broke into a deep mellow laugh, starting from the bottom of his diaphragm, swelling as it passed through his chest, swelling again as it passed through throat and mouth, and bursting upon the open air in a mighty diapason that rose cheerfully above the shrieking and moaning of the wind.
"We didn't start without em," he replied. "The twelve feet of these three hosses have on 'em the finest calked shoes in all these mountains. I put 'em on myself, beginnin' the job this mornin' before you was awake, your colonel, on the advice of the people of Townsville who know me as one of its leadin' an' trusted citizens, havin' selected me as the guide of this trip. I was jest tellin' you what would happen to you if I didn't justify the confidence of the people of Townsville."
"I allow, Red Blaze," said the sergeant with confidence, "that you ain't no fool, an' that you're lookin' out for our best interests. Lead on."
Red Blaze's mellow and pleased laugh rose once more above the whistling of the wind.
"You kin ride ag'in now, boys," he said. "The hosses are pretty well rested."
They resumed the saddle gladly and now mounted toward the crest of the pass. The sleet turned to snow, which was a relief to their faces, and Dick, with the constant beating of wind and snow, began to feel a certain physical exhilaration. He realized the truth of Red Blaze's assertion that if you stiffen your back and push your way through troubles you leave troubles behind.
They rode now in silence for quite a while, and then Red Blaze suddenly announced:
"We're at the top, boys."
CHAPTER IV. THE FIGHT IN THE PASS
The three halted their horses and stood for a minute or two on the very crest of the pass. The fierce wind out of the northwest blew directly in their faces and both riders and horses alike were covered with snow. But Dick felt a wonderful thrill as he gazed upon the vast white wilderness. East and west, north and south he saw the driving snow and the lofty peaks and ridges showing through it, white themselves. The towns below and the cabins that snuggled in the coves were completely hidden. They could see no sign of human life on slope or in valley.
"Looks as wild as the Rockies," said the sergeant tersely.
"But you won't find any Injuns here to ambush you," said Red Blaze, "though I don't make any guarantee against bushwhackers and guerillas, who'll change sides as often as two or three times a day, if it will suit their convenience. They could hide in the woods along the road an' pick us off as easy as I'd shoot a squirrel out of a tree. They'd like to have our arms an' our big coats. I tell you what, friends, a mighty civil war like ours gives a tremenjeous opportunity to bad men. They're all comin' to the top. Every rascal in the mountains an' in the lowlands, too, I guess, is out lookin' for plunder an' wuss."
"You're right, Red Blaze," said the sergeant with emphasis, "an' it won't be stopped until the generals on both sides begin to hang an' shoot the plunderers an' murderers."
"But they can't ketch 'em all," said Red Blaze. "A Yankee general with a hundred thousand men will be out lookin' for what? Not for a gang of robbers, not by a jugful. He'll be lookin' for a rebel general with another hundred thousand men, an' the rebel general with a hundred thousand men will be lookin' for that Yankee general with his hundred thousand. So there you are, an' while they're lookin' for each other an' then fightin' each other to a standstill, the robbers will be plunderin' an' murderin'. But don't you worry about bein' ambushed. I was jest tellin' you what might happen, but wouldn't happen. We kin go down hill fast now, and we'll soon be in Hubbard, which is the other side of all that fallin' snow."
The road down the mountain was also better than the one by which they had ascended, and as the horses with their calked shoes were swift of foot they made rapid progress. As they descended, the wind lowered fast and there was much less snow. Red Blaze said it was probably not snowing in the valley at all.
"See that shinin' in the sun," he said. "That's the tin coverin' on the steeple of the new church in Hubbard. The sun strikes squar'ly on it, an' now I know I'm right 'bout it not snowin' down thar. Wait 'til we turn 'roun' this big rock. Yes, thar's Hubbard, layin' out in the valley without a drop of snow on her. It looks good, don't it, friends, with the smoke comin' out of the chimneys. That little red house over thar is the railroad an' telegraph station, an' we'll go straight for it, 'cause we ain't got no time to waste."
They emerged into the valley and rode rapidly for the station. Farmers on the outskirts and villagers looked wonderingly at them, but they did not pause to answer questions. They galloped their tired mounts straight for the little red building, which was the station. Dick sprang first from his horse, and leaving it to stand at the door, ran inside. A telegraph instrument was clicking mournfully in the corner. A hot stove was in another corner, and sitting near it was a lad of about Dick's age, clad in mountain jeans, and lounging in an old cane-bottomed chair. But Dick's quick glance saw that the boy was bright of face and keen of eye. He promptly drew out his papers and said:
"I'm an aide from the Northern regiment of Colonel Newcomb at Townsville. Here are duplicate dispatches, one set for the President of the United States and the other for the Secretary of War. They tell of a successful fight that we had last night with Southern troops, presumably the cavalrymen of Turner Ashby. I wish you to send them at once."
"He's speakin' the exact truth, Jim," said Red Blaze, who had come in behind Dick, "an' I've brought him an' the sergeant here over the mountains to tell about it."
The boy sprang to his instrument. But he stopped a moment to ask one question.
"Did you really beat 'em off?" he asked as he looked up with shining eye.
"We certainly did," replied Dick.
"I'll send it faster than I ever sent anything before," said the boy. "To think of me, Jim Johnson, sending a dispatch to Abraham Lincoln, telling of a victory!"
"I reckon you're right, Jim, it's your chance," said Red Blaze.
Jim bent over the instrument which now began to click steadily and fast.
"You're to wait for answers," said Dick.
The boy nodded, but his shining eyes remained bent over the instrument. Dick went to the door, brushed off the snow, came back and sat down by the stove. Sergeant Whitley, who had tied the horses to hitching posts, came in, pulled up an empty box and sat down by him. Red Blaze slipped away unnoticed. But he came back very soon, and men and women came with him, bringing food and smoking coffee. There was enough for twenty.
Red Blaze had spread among the villagers, every one of whom he knew, the news that the Union arms had won a victory. Nor had it suffered anything in the telling. Colonel Newcomb's regiment, by the most desperate feats of gallantry, had beaten off at least ten thousand Southerners, and the boy and the man in uniform, who were resting by the fire in the station, had been the greatest two heroes of a battle waged for a whole night.
Curious eyes gazed at Dick and the sergeant as they sat there by the stove. Dick himself, warm, relaxed, and the needs of his body satisfied, felt like going to sleep. But he watched the boy operator, who presently finished his two dispatches and then lifted his head for the first time.
"They've gone straight into Washington," he said. "We ought to get an answer soon."
"We'll wait here for it," said Dick.
The three messengers were now thoroughly warmed at the stove, they had eaten heartily of the best the village could furnish, and a great feeling of comfort pervaded them. While they were waiting for the reply that they hoped would come from Washington, Dick Mason and Sergeant Whitley went outside. No snow was falling in the valley, but off on the mountain crest they still saw the white veil, blown by the wind.
Red Blaze joined them and was everywhere their guide and herald. He ascribed to them such deeds of skill and valor that they were compelled to call him the best romancer they had met in a long time.
"I suppose that if Mr. Warner were here," said the sergeant, "he would reduce these statements to mathematics, ten per cent fact an' ninety per cent fancy."
"Just about that," said Dick.
Red Blaze came to them presently, bristling with news.
"A farmer from a hollow further to the west," he said, "has just come in, an' he says that a band of guerillas is ridin' through the hills. 'Bout twenty of them, he said, led by a big dark fellow, his face covered with black beard. They've been liftin' hosses an' takin' other things, but they're strangers in these parts. Tom Sykes, who was held up by them an' robbed of his hoss, says that the rest of 'em called their leader Skelly. Tom seemed to think that mebbe they came from somewhere in the Kentucky mountains. They called themselves a scoutin' party of the Southern army."
Dick started violently.
"Why, I know this man Skelly," he said. "He lives in the mountains to the eastward of my home in Kentucky. He organized a band at the beginning of the war, but over there he said he was fightin' for the North."
"He'll be fightin' for his own hand," said the sergeant sternly. "But he can't play double all the time. That sort of thing will bring a man to the end of a rope, with clear air under his feet."
"I'm glad you've told me this," said Red Blaze. "Skelly might have come ridin' in here, claimin' that he an' his men was Northern troops, an' then when we wasn't suspectin' might have held up the whole town. I'll warn 'em. Thar ain't a house here that hasn't got two or three rifles an' shotguns in it, an' with the farmers from the valley joinin' in Hubbard could wipe out the whole gang."
"Tell them to be on guard all the time, Red Blaze," said Whitley with strong emphasis. "In war you've got to watch, watch, watch. Always know what the other fellow is doin', if you can."
"Let's go back to the station," said Dick. "Maybe we'll have an answer soon."
They found the young operator hanging over his instrument, his eyes still shining. He had been in that position ever since they left him, and Dick knew that his eagerness to get an answer from Washington kept him there, mind and body waiting for the tick of the key.
Dick, the sergeant, and Red Blaze sat down by the stove again, and rested there quietly for a quarter of an hour. Red Blaze was thinking that it would be another cold ride back over the pass. The sergeant, although he was not sleepy, closed his eyes and saw again the vast rolling plains, the herds of buffalo spreading to the horizon, and the bands of Sioux and Cheyennes galloping down, their great war bonnets making splashes of color against the thin blue sky. Dick was thinking of Pendleton, the peaceful little town in Kentucky that was his home, and of his cousin, Harry Kenton. He did not know now where Harry was, and he did not even know whether he was dead or alive.
Dick sighed a little, and just at that moment the telegraph key began to click.
"The answer is coming!" exclaimed the young operator excitedly and then he bent closer over the key to take it. The three chairs straightened up, and they, too, bent toward the key. The boy wrote rapidly, but the clicking did not go on long. When it ceased he straightened up with his finished message in his hand. His face was flushed and his eyes still shining. He folded the paper and handed it to Dick.
"It's for you, Mr. Mason," he said.
Dick unfolded it and read aloud:
"Colonel John D. Newcomb:
"Congratulations on your success and fine management of your troops. Victory worth much to us. Read dispatch to regiment and continue westward to original destination.
Dick's face glowed, and the sergeant's teeth came together with a little click of satisfaction.
"When I saw that it was to be read to the regiment I thought it no harm to read it to the rest of you," said Dick, as he refolded the precious dispatch and put it in his safest pocket. "Now, sergeant, I think we ought to be off at full speed."
"Not a minute to waste," said Sergeant Whitley.
Their horses had been fed and were rested well. The three bade farewell to the young operator, then to almost all of Hubbard and proceeded in a trot for the pass. They did not speak until they were on the first slope, and then the sergeant, looking up at the heights, asked:
"Shall we have snow again on our return, Red Blaze? I hope not. It's important for us to get back to Townsville without any waste of time."
"I hate to bring bad news," replied Red Blaze, "but we'll shore have more snow. See them clouds, sailin' up an' always sailin' up from the southwest, an' see that white mist 'roun' the highest peaks. That's snow, an' it'll hit the pass just as it did when we was comin' over. But we've got this in favor of ourselves an' our hosses now: The wind is on our backs."
They rode hard now. Dick had received the precious message from the President, and it would be a proud moment for him when he put it in the hands of the colonel. He did not wish that moment to be delayed. Several times he patted the pocket in which the paper lay.
As they ascended, the wind increased in strength, but being on their backs now it seemed to help them along. They were soon high up on the slopes and then they naturally turned for a parting look at Hubbard in its valley, a twin to that of Townsville. It looked from afar neat and given up to peace, but Dick knew that it had been stirred deeply by the visit of his comrades and himself.
"It seems," he said, "that the war would pass by these little mountain nests."
"But it don't," said Red Blaze. "War, I guess, is like a mad an' kickin' mule, hoofs lashin' out everywhar, an' you can't tell what they're goin' to hit. Boys, we're makin' good time. That wind on our backs fairly lifts us up the mountain side."
Petty had all the easy familiarity of the backwoods. He treated the boy and man who rode with him as comrades of at least a year's standing, and they felt in return that he was one of them, a man to be trusted. They retained all the buoyancy which the receipt of the dispatch had given them, and Dick, his heart beating high, scarcely felt the wind and cold.
"In another quarter of an hour we'll be at the top," said Petty. Then he added after a moment's pause: "If I'm not mistook, we'll have company. See that path, leadin' out of the west, an' runnin' along the slope. It comes into the main road, two or three hundred yards further on, an' I think I can see the top of a horseman's head ridin' in it. What do you say, sergeant?"
"I say that you are right, Red Blaze. I plainly see the head of a big man, wearing a fur cap, an' there are others behind him, ridin' in single file. What's your opinion, Mr. Mason?"
"The same as yours and Red Blaze's. I, too, can see the big man with the fur cap on his head and at least a dozen following behind. Do you think it likely, Red Blaze, that they'll reach the main road before we pass the mouth of the path?"
A sudden thought had leaped up in Dick's mind and it set his pulses to beating hard. He remembered some earlier words of Red Blaze's.
"We'll go by before they reach the main road," replied Red Blaze, "unless they make their hosses travel a lot faster than they're travelin' now."
"Then suppose we whip up a little," said Dick.
Both Red Blaze and the sergeant gave him searching glances.
"Do you mean—" began Whitley.
"Yes, I mean it. I know it. The man in front wearing the fur cap is Bill Skelly. He and his men made an attack upon the home of my uncle, Colonel Kenton, who is a Southern leader in Kentucky. He and his band were Northerners there, but they will be Southerners here, if it suits their purpose."
"An' it will shorely suit their purpose to be Southerners now," said Red Blaze. "We three are ridin' mighty good hoss flesh. Me an' the sergeant have good rifles an' pistols, you have good pistols, an' we all have good, big overcoats. This is a lonely mountain side with war flyin' all about us. Easy's the place an' easy's the deed. That is if we'd let 'em, which we ain't goin' to do."
"Not by a long shot," said Sergeant Whitley, resting his rifle across the pommel of his saddle. "They've got to follow straight behind. The ground is too rough for them to ride around an' flank us."
Dick said nothing, but his gauntleted hand moved down to the butt of one of his pistols. His heart throbbed, but he preserved the appearance of coolness. He was fast becoming inured to danger. Owing to the slope they could not increase the speed of their horses greatly, but they were beyond the mouth of the path before they were seen by Skelly and his band. Then the big mountaineer uttered a great shout and began to wave his hand at them.
"The road curves here a little among the rocks," said the sergeant, who unconsciously took command. "Suppose we stop, sheltered by the curve, and ask them what they want."
"The very thing to do," said Dick.
"Sass 'em, sergeant! Sass 'em!" said Red Blaze.
They drew their horses back partially in the shadow of the rocky curve, but the sergeant was a little further forward than the others. Dick saw Skelly and a score of men emerge into the road and come rapidly toward them. They were a wild-looking crew, mounted on tough mountain ponies, all of them carrying loot, and all armed heavily.
The sergeant threw up his rifle, and with a steady hand aimed straight at Skelly's heart.
"Halt!" he cried sharply, "and tell me who you are!"
The whole crew seemed to reel back except Skelly, who, though stopping his horse, remained in the center of the road.
"What do you mean?" he cried. "We're peaceful travelers. What business is it of yours who we are?"
"Judgin' by your looks you're not peaceful travelers at all. Besides these ain't peaceful times an' we take the right to demand who you are. If you come on another foot, I shoot."
The sergeant's tones were sharp with resolve.
"Your name!" he continued.
"Ramsdell, David Ramsdell," replied the leader of the band.
"That's a lie," said Sergeant Whitley. "Your name is Bill Skelly, an' you're a mountaineer from Eastern Kentucky, claimin' to belong first to one side and then to the other as suits you."
"Who says so?" exclaimed Skelly defiantly.
The sergeant beckoned Dick, who rode forward a little.
"I do," said the boy in a loud, clear voice. "My name is Dick Mason, and I live at Pendleton in Kentucky. I saw you more than once before the war, and I know that you tried to burn down the house of Colonel Kenton there, and kill him and his friends. I'm on the other side, but I'm not for such things as that."
Skelly distinctly saw Dick sitting on his horse in the pass, and he knew him well. Rage tore at his heart. Although on "the other side" this boy, too, was a lowlander and in a way a member of that vile Kenton brood. He hated him, too, because he belonged to those who had more of prosperity and education than himself. But Skelly was a man of resource and not a coward.
"You're right," he cried, "I'm Bill Skelly, an' we want your horses an' arms. We need 'em in our business. Now, just hop down an' deliver. We're twenty to three."
"You come forward at your own risk!" cried the sergeant, and Skelly, despite the numbers at his back, wavered. He saw that the man who held the rifle aimed at his heart had nerves of steel, and he did not dare advance knowing that he would be shot at once from the saddle. A victory won by Skelly's men with Skelly dead was no victory at all to Skelly.
The guerilla reined back his horse, and his men retreated with him. But the three knew well that it was no withdrawal. The mountaineers rode among some scrub that grew between the road and the cliff; and Whitley exclaimed to his two comrades:
"Come boys, we must ride for it! It's our business to get back with the dispatches to Colonel Newcomb as soon as possible, an' not let ourselves be delayed by this gang."
"That is certainly true," said Dick. "Lead on, Mr. Petty, and we'll cross the mountain as fast as we can."
Red Blaze started at once in a gallop, and Dick and the sergeant followed swiftly after. But Sergeant Whitley held his cocked rifle in hand and he cast many backward glances. A great shout came from Skelly and his band when they saw the three take to flight, and the sergeant's face grew grimmer as the sound reached his ears.
"Keep right in the middle of the road, boys," he said. "We can't afford to have our horses slip. I'll hang back just a little and send in a bullet if they come too near. This rifle of mine carries pretty far, farther, I expect, than any of theirs."
"I'm somethin' on the shoot myself," said Red Blaze. "I love peace, but it hurts my feelin's if anybody shoots at me. Them fellers are likely to do it, an' me havin' a rifle in my hands I won't be able to stop the temptation to fire back."
As he spoke the raiders fired. There was a crackling of rifles, little curls of blue smoke rose in the pass, and bullets struck on the frozen earth, while two made the snow fly from bushes by the side of the road. The sergeant raised his own rifle, longer of barrel than the average army weapon, and pulled the trigger. He had aimed at Skelly, but the leader swerved, and a man behind him rolled off his horse. The others, although slowing their speed a little, in order to be out of the range of that deadly rifle, continued to come.
The pursuit at first seemed futile to Dick, because they would soon descend into Townsville's valley, and the raiders could not follow them into the midst of an entire regiment. But presently he saw their plan. The pass now widened out with a few hundred yards of level space on either side of the road thickly covered with forest. The branches of the trees were bare, but the undergrowth was so dense that horsemen could be hidden in it. Bands of the raiders darted into the woods both to right and left, and he knew that advancing on a straight line one or the other of the parties expected to catch the fugitives who must follow the curves of the road.
The advantage of the pursuit was soon shown as a shot from the right whistled by them. Red Blaze, quick as lightning, fired at the flash of the rifle.
"I don't know whether I hit him or not," he said, judicially, "but the chances are pow'ful good that I did. Still it looks as if they meant to hang on an' likely we kin soon expect shots from the other side, too. Then if they know the country as well as they 'pear to do they'll have us clamped in a vise."
As he spoke his eyes twinkled cheerfully out of his flaming countenance.
"You certainly seem to take it easy," said Dick.
"I take it easy, 'cause the jaws of that vise ain't goin' to clamp down. Bein' somewhat interested in a run for your life you haven't noticed how dark it's gettin' up here on the heights an' how hard it's snowin'. It's comin' down a lot thicker than it was when we crossed the first time."
It was true. Dick noticed now that the snow was pouring down, and that all the peaks and ridges were lost in the white whirlwind.
"I told you that I had been a traveler," said Red Blaze. "I've been as far as fifty miles from Townsville, and I know all the country in every direction, twenty miles from it, inch by inch. Inside five minutes the snowstorm will be on us full blast, an' we won't be able to see more'n twenty yards away. An' that crowd that's follerin' won't be able to see either. An' me knowin' the ground inch by inch I'll take you straight back to your regiment while they'll get lost in the storm."
There was room now in the road for the three to ride abreast, and they kept close together. They heard once a shout behind them and saw the flash of a firearm in the white hurricane, but no bullet struck them, and they kept steadily on their course, Red Blaze directing with the sure instinct that comes of long use and habit.
Heavier and heavier grew the snow. There was but little wind now, and it came straight down. It seemed to Dick that the whole earth was blotted out by the white fall. He and the sergeant resigned themselves completely to the guidance of Red Blaze, who never veered an inch from the right path.
"If I didn't know the way my hoss would," he said. "I'd just give him his head an' he'd take us straight to his warm stable in Townsville, an' the two bundles of oats that I mean to give him. I reckon it was pretty smart of me, wasn't it, to order a snowstorm an' have it come just when it was needed."
Again the cheerful eyes twinkled in the flaming face.
"You're certainly a winner," said Dick, "and you win for us all."
The snow was now so deep in the pass that they could not proceed at great speed, but they did the best they could, and, as Red Blaze said, their best, although it might be somewhat slow, was certainly better than that of Skelly and his men. Dick believed in fact that the raiders had been compelled to abandon the pursuit.
When they reached a lower level, where the snow was far less dense, they stopped and listened. The sergeant's ears had been trained to uncommon keenness by his life on the plains, and he could hear nothing but the sigh of the falling snow. Nor could Petty, who had fine ears himself.
They descended still further, and made another stop. It was snowing here also, but it was merely an ordinary fall, and they could get a long view back up the pass. They saw nothing there but earth and trees covered with snow. Looking in the other direction they saw the sunshine gleaming for a moment on a roof in Townsville.
"We're all safe now," said Red Blaze, "an' we'll be with the soldiers in another half hour. But just you two remember that mebbe the next time I couldn't call up a snowstorm to cover us an' save our lives."
"Once is enough," said Dick, "and, Mr. Petty, Sergeant Whitley and I want to thank you."
Mittened hands met buckskinned ones in the strong grasp of friendship, and now, as they rode on, the whole village emerged into sight. There was the long train standing on the track, the smoke rising in spires from the neat houses, and then the figures of human beings.
The fall of snow was light in the valley and as soon as they reached the levels the three proceeded at a gallop. Dick saw Colonel Newcomb standing by the train, and springing from his horse he handed him the dispatch. The colonel opened it, and as he read Dick saw the glow appear upon his face.
"Fire up!" he said to Canby, the engineer, who stood near. "We start at once!"
The troops who were ready and waiting were hurried into the coaches, and the engine whistled for departure.
CHAPTER V. THE SINGER OF THE HILLS
As the engine whistled for the last time Dick sprang upon a car-step, one hand holding to the rail while with the other he returned the powerful grip of Red Blaze, who with his own unconfined hand grasped the bridles of the three horses, which had served them so well. Petty had received a reward thrust upon him by Colonel Newcomb, but Dick knew that the mountaineer's chief recompense was the success achieved in the perilous task chosen for him.
"Good-bye, Mr. Mason," said Red Blaze, "I'm proud to have knowed you an' the sergeant, an' to have been your comrade in a work for the Union."
"Without you we should have failed."
"It jest happened that I knowed the way. It seems to me that there's a heap, a tremenjeous heap, in knowin' the way. It gives you an awful advantage. Now you an' your regiment are goin' down thar in them Kentucky mountains. They're mighty wild, winter's here an' the marchin' will be about as bad as it could be. Them's mostly Pennsylvania men with you, an' they don't know a thing 'bout that thar region. Like as not you'll be walkin' right straight into an ambush, an' that'll be the end of you an' them Pennsylvanians."
"You're a cheerful prophet, Red Blaze."
"I meant if you didn't take care of yourselves an' keep a good lookout, which I know, of course, that you're goin' to do. I was jest statin' the other side of the proposition, tellin' what would happen to keerless people, but Colonel Newcomb an' Major Hertford ain't keerless people. Good-bye, Mr. Mason. Mebbe I'll see you ag'in before this war is over."
"Good-bye, Red Blaze. I truly hope so."
The train was moving now and with a last powerful grasp of a friendly hand Dick went into the coach. It was the first in the train. Colonel Newcomb and Major Hertford sat near the head of it, and Warner was just sitting down not far behind them. Dick took the other half of the seat with the young Vermonter, who said, speaking in a whimsical tone:
"You fill me with envy, Dick. Why wasn't it my luck to go with you, Sergeant Whitley, and the man they call Red Blaze on that errand and help bring back with you the message of President Lincoln? But I heard what our red friend said to you at the car-step. There's a powerful lot in knowing the way, knowing where you're going, and what's along every inch of the road. My arithmetic tells me that it is often fifty per cent of marching and fighting."
"I think you are right," said Dick.
A little later he was sound asleep in his seat, and at the command of Colonel Newcomb he was not disturbed. His had been a task, taxing to the utmost both body and mind, and, despite his youth and strength, it would take nature some time to replace what had been worn away.
He slept on while the boys in the train talked and laughed. Stern discipline was not yet enforced in either army, nor did Colonel Newcomb consider it necessary here. These lads, so lately from the schools and farms, had won a victory and they had received the thanks of the President. They had a right to talk about it among themselves and a little vocal enthusiasm now might build up courage and spirit for a greater crisis later.
The colonel, moreover, gave glances of approval and sympathy to his gallant young aide, who in the seat next to the window with his head against the wall slept so soundly. All the afternoon Dick slept on, his breathing regular and steady. The train rattled and rumbled through the high mountains, and on the upper levels the snow was falling fast.
Darkness came, and supper was served to the troops, but at the colonel's command Dick was not awakened. Nature had not yet finished her task of repairing. There was worn tissue still to be replaced, and the nerves had not yet recovered their full steadiness.
So Dick slept on, while the night deepened and the snow continued to drive against the window panes. Nor did he awake until morning, when the train stopped at a tiny station in the hills. There was no snow here, but the sun, just rising, threw no heat, and icicles were hanging from every cliff. Dispatches were waiting for Colonel Newcomb, and after breakfast he announced to his staff:
"I have orders from Washington to divide my regiment. The Southern forces are operating at three points in Kentucky. They are gathering at Columbus on the Mississippi, at Bowling Green in the south, and here in the mountains there is a strong division under an officer named Zollicoffer. Scattered forces of our men, the principal one led by a Virginian named Thomas, are endeavoring to deal with Zollicoffer. The Secretary of War regrets the division of the regiment, but he thinks it necessary, as all our detached forces must be strengthened. I go on with the main body of the regiment to join Grant, near the mouth of the Ohio. You, Major Hertford, will take three companies and march south in search of Thomas, but be careful that you are not snapped up by the rebels on the way. And if you can get volunteers and join Thomas with your force increased threefold, so much the better."
"I shall try my best, sir," said Major Hertford, "and thank you for this honor."
Dick and Warner stood by without a word, but Dick cast an appealing look at Colonel Newcomb.
"Yes, I know," said the Colonel, who caught the glance. "This is your state, and you wish to go with Major Hertford. You are to do so. So is your friend, Lieutenant Warner, and, Major Hertford, I also lend to you Sergeant Whitley, who is a man of much experience and who has already proved himself to be of great value."
The three saluted and were grateful. They longed for action, which they believed would come more quickly with Major Hertford's column. A little later, when military form permitted it, the two boys thanked Colonel Newcomb in words.
"Maybe you won't thank me a few days from now," said the colonel a little grimly, "but I am hopeful that our plans here in Eastern Kentucky will prove successful, and that before long you will be able to join the great forces in the western part of the state. You are both good boys and now, good-bye."
The preparations for the mountain column, as Dick and Warner soon called it, had been completed. They were on foot, but they were well armed, well clothed, and they had supplies loaded in several wagons, purchased hastily in the village. A dozen of the strong mountaineers volunteered to be drivers and guides, and the major was glad to have them. Later, several horses were secured for the officers, but, meanwhile, the train was ready to depart.
Colonel Newcomb waved them farewell, the faithful and valiant Canby opened the throttle, and the train steamed away. The men in the little column, although eager for their new task, watched its departure with a certain sadness at parting with their comrades. The train became smaller and smaller, then it was only a spiral of smoke, and that, too, soon died on the clear western horizon.
"And now to find Thomas!" said Major Hertford, who retained Dick and Warner on his staff, practically its only members, in fact. "It looks odd to hunt through the mountains for a general and his army, but we've got it to do, and we'll do it."
The horses for the officers were obtained at the suggestion of Sergeant Whitley, and the little column turned southward through the wintry forest. Dick and Warner were riding strong mountain ponies, but at times, and in order to show that they considered themselves no better than the others, they dismounted and walked over the frozen ground. The greatest tasks were with the wagons containing the ammunition and supplies. The mountain roads were little more than trails, sometimes half blocked with ice or snow and then again deep in mud. The winter was severe. Storms of rain, hail, sleet and snow poured upon them, but, fortunately, they were marching through continuous forests, and the skilled mountaineers, under any circumstances, knew how to build fires, by the side of which they could dry themselves, and sleep warmly at night.
They also heard much gossip as they advanced to meet General Thomas, who had been sent from Louisville to command the Northern troops in the Kentucky mountains. Thomas was a Virginian, a member of the old regular army, a valiant, able, and cautious man, who chose to abide by the Union. Many other Virginians, some destined to be as famous as he, and a few more so, wondered why he had not gone with his seceding state, and criticised him much, but Thomas, chary of speech, hung to his belief, and proved it by action.
Dick learned, too, that the Southern force operating against Thomas, while actively led by Zollicoffer, was under the nominal command of one of his own Kentucky Crittendens. Here he saw again how terribly his beloved state was divided, like other border states. General Crittenden's father was a member of the Federal Congress at Washington, and one of his brothers was a general also, but on the other side. But he was to see such cases over and over again, and he was to see them to a still greater and a wholesale degree, when the First Maryland regiment of the North and the First Maryland regiment of the South, recruited from the same district, should meet face to face upon the terrible field of Antietam.
But Antietam was far in the future, and Dick's mind turned from the cases of brother against brother to the problems of the icy wilderness through which they were moving, in a more or less uncertain manner. Sometimes they were sent on false trails, but their loyal mountaineers brought them back again. They also found volunteers, and Major Hertford's little force swelled from three hundred to six hundred. In the main, the mountaineers were sympathetic, partly through devotion to the Union, and partly through jealousy of the more prosperous lowlanders.
One day Major Hertford sent Dick, Warner, and Sergeant Whitley, ahead to scout. He had recognized the ability of the two lads, and also their great friendship for Sergeant Whitley. It seemed fitting to him that the three should be nearly always together, and he watched them with confidence, as they rode ahead on the icy mountain trail and then disappeared from sight.
Dick and his friends had learned, at mountain cabins which they had passed, that the country opened out further on into a fine little valley, and when they reached the crest of a hill somewhat higher than the others, they verified the truth of the statement. Before them lay the coziest nook they had yet seen in the mountains, and in the center of it rose a warm curl of smoke from the chimney of a house, much superior to that of the average mountaineer. The meadows and corn lands on either side of a noble creek were enclosed in good fences. Everything was trim and neat.
The three rode down the slope toward the house, but halfway to the bottom they reined in their ponies and listened. Some one was singing. On the thin wintry air a deep mellow voice rose and they distinctly heard the words:
Soft o'er the fountain, ling'ring falls the southern moon, Far o'er the mountain breaks the day too soon. In thy dark eyes' splendor, where the warm light loves to dwell, Weary looks yet tender, speak their fond farewell. 'Nita, Juanita! Ask thy soul if we should part, 'Nita, Juanita! Lean thou on my heart.
It was a wonderful voice that they heard, deep, full, and mellow, all the more wonderful because they heard it there in those lone mountains. The ridges took up the echo, and gave it back in tones softened but exquisitely haunting.
The three paused and looked at one another. They could not see the singer. He was hidden from them by the dips and swells of the valley, but they felt that here was no common man. No common mind, or at least no common heart, could infuse such feeling into music. As they listened the remainder of the pathetic old air rose and swelled through the ridges:
When in thy dreaming, moons like these shall shine again, And daylight beaming prove thy dreams are vain, Wilt thou not, relenting, for thy absent lover sigh? In thy heart consenting to a prayer gone by! 'Nita, Juanita! Let me linger by thy side! 'Nita, Juanita! Be thou my own fair bride.
"I'm curious to see that singer," said Warner. "I heard grand opera once in Boston, just before I started to the war, but I never heard anything that sounds finer than this. Maybe time and place help to the extent of fifty per cent, but, at any rate, the effect is just the same."
"Come on," said Dick, "and we'll soon find our singer, whoever he is."
The three rode at a rapid pace until they reached the valley. There they drew rein, as they saw near them a tall man, apparently about forty years of age, mending a fence, helped by a boy of heavy build and powerful arms. The man glanced up, saw the blue uniforms worn by the three horsemen, and went peacefully on with his fence-mending. He also continued to sing, throwing his soul into the song, and both work and song proceeded as if no one was near.
He lifted the rails into place with mighty arms, but never ceased to sing. The boy who helped him seemed almost his equal in strength, but he neither sang nor spoke. Yet he smiled most of the time, showing rows of exceedingly strong, white teeth.
"They seem to me to be of rather superior type," said Dick. "Maybe we can get useful information from them."
"I judge that the singer will talk about almost everything except what we want to know," said the shrewd and experienced sergeant, "but we can certainly do no harm by speaking to him. Of course they have seen us. No doubt they saw us before we saw them."
The three rode forward, saluted politely and the fence-menders, stopping their work, saluted in the same polite fashion. Then they stood expectant.
"We belong to a detachment which is marching southward to join the Union army under General Thomas," said Dick. "Perhaps you could tell us the best road."
"I might an' ag'in I mightn't, stranger. If you don't talk much you never have much to take back. If I knew where that army is it would be easy for me to tell you, but if I didn't know I couldn't. Now, the question is, do I know or don't I know? Do you think you can decide it for me stranger?"
It was impossible for Dick or the sergeant to take offense. The man's gaze was perfectly frank and open and his eyes twinkled as he spoke. The boy with him smiled widely, showing both rows of his powerful white teeth.
"We can't decide it until we know you better," said Dick in a light tone.
"I'm willin' to tell you who I am. My name is Sam Jarvis, an' this lunkhead here is my nephew, Ike Simmons, the son of my sister, who keeps my house. Now I want to tell you, young stranger, that since this war began and the Yankees and the Johnnies have taken a notion to shoot up one another, people who would never have thought of doin' it before, have come wanderin' into these mountains. But you can get a hint about 'em sometimes. Young man, do you want me to tell you your name?"
"Tell me my name!" responded Dick in astonishment. "Of course you can't do it! You never saw or heard of me before."
"Mebbe no," replied Jarvis, with calm confidence, "but all the same your name is Dick Mason, and you come from a town in Kentucky called Pendleton. You've been serving with the Yanks in the East, an' you've a cousin, named Harry Kenton, who's been servin' there also, but with the Johnnies. Now, am I a good guesser or am I just a plum' ignorant fool?"
Dick stared at him in deepening amazement.
"You do more than guess," he replied. "You know. Everything that you said is true."
"Tell me this," said Jarvis. "Was that cousin of yours, Harry Kenton, killed in the big battle at Bull Run? I've been tremenjeously anxious about him ever since I heard of that terrible fight."
"He was not. I have not seen him since, but I have definite news now that he passed safely through the battle."
Sam Jarvis and his nephew Ike breathed deep sighs of relief.
"I'm mighty glad to hear it," said Jarvis, "I shorely liked that boy, Harry, an' I think I'll like you about as well. It don't matter to me that you're on different sides, bein' as I ain't on any side at all myself, nor is this lunkhead, Ike, my nephew."
"How on earth did you know me?"
"'Light, an' come into the house an' I'll tell you. You an' your pardners look cold an' hungry. There ain't danger of anybody taking your hosses, 'cause you can hitch 'em right at the front door. Besides, I've got an old grandmother in the house, who'd like mighty well to see you, Mr. Mason."
Dick concluded that it was useless to ask any more questions just yet, and he, Warner and the sergeant, dismounting and leading their horses, walked toward the house with Jarvis and Ike. Jarvis, who seemed singularly cheerful, lifted up his voice and sang:
Thou wilt come no more, gentle Annie, Like a flower, thy spirit did depart, Thou art gone, alas! like the many That have bloomed in the summer of my heart. Shall we never more behold thee? Never hear thy winning voice again? When the spring time comes, gentle Annie? When the wild flowers are scattered o'er the plain?
It seemed to Dick that the man sang spontaneously, and the deep, mellow voice always came back in faint and dying echoes that moved him in a singular manner. All at once the war with its passions and carnage floated away. Here was a little valley fenced in from the battle-world in which he had been living. He breathed deeply and as the eyes of Jarvis caught his a sympathetic glance passed between them.
"Yes," said Jarvis, as if he understood completely, "the war goes around us. There is nothing to fight about here. But come into the house. This is my sister, the mother of that lunkhead, Ike, and here is my grandmother."
He paused before the bent figure of an old, old woman, sitting in a rocking chair beside the chimney, beside which a fire glowed and blazed. Her chin rested on one hand, and she was staring into the coals.
"Grandmother," said Jarvis very gently, "the great-grandson of the great Henry Ware that you used to know was here last spring, and now the great-grandson of his friend, Paul Cotter, has come, too."
The withered form straightened and she stood up. Fire came into the old, old eyes that regarded Dick so intently.
"Aye," she said, "you speak the truth, grandson. It is Paul Cotter's own face. A gentle man he was, but brave, and the greatest scholar. I should have known that when Henry Ware's great-grandson came Paul Cotter's, too, would come soon. I am proud for this house to have sheltered you both."
She put both her hands on his shoulders, and stood up very straight, her face close to his. She was a tall woman, above the average height of man, and her eyes were on a level with Dick's.
"It is true," she said, "it is he over again. The eyes are his, and the mouth and the nose are the same. This house is yours while you choose to remain, and my grandchildren and my great-grandson will do for you whatever you wish."
Dick noticed that her grammar and intonation were perfect. Many of the Virginians and Marylanders who emigrated to Kentucky in that far-off border time were people of cultivation and refinement.
After these words of welcome she turned from him, sat down in her chair and gazed steadily into the coals. Everything about her seemed to float away. Doubtless her thoughts ran on those dim early days, when the Indians lurked in the canebrake and only the great borderers stood between the settlers and sure death.
Dick began to gather from the old woman's words a dim idea of what had occurred. Harry Kenton must have passed there, and as they went into the next room where food and coffee were placed before them, Jarvis explained.
"Your cousin, Harry Kenton, came through here last spring on his way to Virginia," he said. "He came with me an' this lunkhead, Ike, all the way from Frankfort and mostly up the Kentucky River. Grandmother was dreaming and she took him at first for Henry Ware, his very self. She saluted him and called him the great governor. It was a wonderful thing to see, and it made me feel just a little bit creepy for a second or two. Mebbe you an' your cousin, Harry Kenton, are Henry Ware an' Paul Cotter, their very selves come back to earth. It looks curious that both of you should wander to this little place hid deep in the mountains. But it's happened all the same. I s'pose you've just been moved 'round that way by the Supreme Power that's bigger than all of us, an' that shifts us about to suit plans made long ago. But how I'm runnin' on! Fall to, friends—I can't call you strangers, an' eat an' drink. The winter air on the mountains is powerful nippin' an' your blood needs warmin' often."
The boys and the sergeant obeyed him literally and with energy. Jarvis sat by approvingly, taking an occasional bite or drink with them. Meanwhile they gathered valuable information from him. A Northern commander named Garfield had defeated the Southern forces under Humphrey Marshall in a smart little battle at a place called Middle Creek. Dick knew this Humphrey Marshall well. He lived at Louisville and was a great friend of his uncle, Colonel Kenton. He had been a brilliant and daring cavalry officer in the Mexican War, doing great deeds at Buena Vista, but now he was elderly and so enormously stout that he lacked efficiency.
Jarvis added that after their defeat at Middle Creek the Southerners had gathered their forces on or near the Cumberland River about Mill Spring and that they had ten thousand men. Thomas with a strong Northern force, coming all the way from the central part of the state, was already deep in the mountains, preparing to meet him.
"Remember," said Jarvis, "that I ain't takin' no sides in this war myself. If people come along an' ask me to tell what I know I tell it to 'em, be they Yank or Reb. Now, I wish good luck to you, Mr. Mason, an' I wish the same to your cousin, Mr. Kenton."
Dick, Warner and the sergeant finished the refreshments and rose for the return journey. They thanked Jarvis, and when they saw that he would take no pay, they did not insist, knowing that it would offend him. Dick said good-bye to the ancient woman and once again she rose, put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes.
"Paul Cotter was a good man," she said, "and you who have his blood in your veins are good, too. I can see it in something that lies back in your eyes."
She said not another word, but sat down in the chair and stared once more into the coals, dreaming of the far day when the great borderers saved her and others like her from the savages, and thinking little of the mighty war that raged at the base of her hills.
The boys and the sergeant rode fast on the return trail. They knew that Major Hertford would push forward at all speed to join Thomas, whom they could now locate without much difficulty. Jarvis and Ike had resumed their fence-mending, but when the trees hid the valley from them a mighty, rolling song came to the ears of Dick, Warner and the sergeant:
They bore him away when the day had fled, And the storm was rolling high, And they laid him down in his lonely bed By the light of an angry sky. The lightning flashed, and the wild sea lashed The shore with its foaming wave, And the thunder passed on the rushing blast As it howled o'er the rover's grave.
"That man's no fool," said Dick.
"No, he ain't," said the sergeant, with decision, "nor is that nephew Ike of his that he calls a lunkhead. Did you notice, Mr. Mason, that the boy never spoke a word while we was there? Them that don't say anything never have anything to take back."
They rode hard now, and soon reached Major Hertford with their news. On the third day thereafter they entered a strong Union camp, commanded by a man named Garfield, the young officer who had won the victory at Middle Creek.
CHAPTER VI. MILL SPRING
Garfield's camp was on a little group of hills in a very strong position, and his men, flushed with victory, were eager for another encounter with the enemy. They had plenty of good tents to fend them from the winter weather which had often been bitter. Throughout the camp burned large fires for which they had an almost unbroken wilderness to furnish fuel. The whole aspect of the place was pleasing to the men who had marched far and hard.
Major Hertford and his aides, Richard Mason and George Warner, were received in Colonel Garfield's tent. A slim young man, writing dispatches at a rude little pine table, rose to receive them. He did not seem to Dick to be more than thirty, and he had the thin, scholarly face of a student. His manner was attractive, he shook hands warmly with all three of them and said:
"Reinforcements are most welcome indeed. My own work here seems to be largely done, but you will reach General Thomas in another day, and he needs you. Take my chair, Major Hertford. To you two lads I can offer only stumps."
The tent had been pitched over a spot where three stumps had been smoothed off carefully until they made acceptable seats. One end of the tent was entirely open, facing a glowing fire of oak logs. Dick and Warner sat down on the stumps and spread out their hands to the blaze. Beyond the flames they saw the wintry forest and mountains, seemingly as wild as they were when the first white man came.
The usual coffee and food were brought, and while they ate and drank Major Hertford answered the numerous and pertinent questions of Colonel Garfield. He listened attentively to the account of the fight in the mountains, and to all the news that they could tell him of Washington.
"We have been cut off in these mountains," he said. "I know very little of what is going on, but what you say only confirms my own opinion. The war is rapidly spreading over a much greater area, and I believe that its scope will far exceed any of our earlier calculations."
A grave and rather sad expression occupied for a moment the mobile face. He interested Dick greatly. He seemed to him scholar and thinker as well as soldier. He and Warner long afterward attended the inauguration of this man as President of the United States.
After a brief rest, and good wishes from Garfield, Major Hertford and his command soon reached the main camp under Thomas. Here they were received by a man very different in appearance and manner from Garfield.
General George H. Thomas, who was to receive the famous title, "The Rock of Chickamauga," was then in middle years. Heavily built and bearded, he was chary of words. He merely nodded approval when Major Hertford told of their march.
"I will assign your troops to a brigade," he said, "and I don't think you'll have long to wait. We're expecting a battle in a few days with Crittenden and Zollicoffer."
"Not much to say," remarked Dick to Warner, as they went away.
"That's true," said Warner, thoughtfully, "but didn't you get an impression of strength from his very silence? I should say that in his make-up he is five per cent talk, twenty-five per cent patience and seventy per cent action; total, one hundred per cent."
The region in which they lay was west of the higher mountains, which they had now crossed, but it was very rough and hilly. Not far from them was a little town called Somerset, which Dick had visited once, and near by, too, was the deep and swift Cumberland River, with much floating ice at its edges. When the two lads lay by a campfire that night Sergeant Whitley came to them with the news of the situation, which he had picked up in his usual deft and quiet way.
"The Southern army is on the banks of the Cumberland," he said. "It has not been able to get its provisions by land through Cumberland Gap. Instead they have been brought by boats on the river. As I hear it, Crittenden and Zollicoffer are afraid that our general will advance to the river an' cut off these supplies. So they mean to attack us as soon as they can. If I may venture to say so, Mr. Mason, I'd advise that you and Lieutenant Warner get as good a rest as you can, and as soon as you can."
They ate a hearty supper and being told by Major Hertford that they would not be wanted until the next day, they rolled themselves in heavy blankets, and, pointing their feet toward a good fire, slept on the ground. The night was very cold, because it was now the middle of January, but the blankets and fire kept them warm.
Dick did not fall to sleep for some time, because he knew that he was going into battle again in a few days. He was on the soil of his native state now. He had already seen many Kentuckians in the army of Thomas and he knew that they would be numerous, too, in that of Crittenden and Zollicoffer. To some extent it would be a battle of brother against brother. He was glad that Harry Kenton was in the east. He did not wish in the height of battle to see his own cousin again on the opposite side.
But when he did fall asleep his slumber was sound and restful, and he was ready and eager the next morning, when the sergeant, Warner, and he were detached for duty in a scouting party.
"The general has asked that you be sent owing to your experience in the mountains," said Major Hertford, "and I have agreed gladly. I hope that you're as glad as I am."
"We are, sir," said the two boys together. The sergeant stood quietly by and smiled.
The detachment numbered a hundred men, all young, strong, and well mounted. They were commanded by a young captain, John Markham, in whom Dick recognized a distant relative. In those days nearly all Kentuckians were more or less akin. The kinship was sufficient for Markham to keep the two boys on either side of him with Sergeant Whitley just behind. Markham lived in Frankfort and he had marched with Thomas from the cantonments at Lebanon to their present camp.
"John," said Dick, addressing him familiarly and in right of kinship, "you've been for months in our own county. You've surely heard something from Pendleton?"
He could not disguise the anxiety in his voice, and the young captain regarded him with sympathy.
"I had news from there about a month ago, Dick," he replied. "Your mother was well then, as I have no doubt she is now. The place was not troubled by guerillas who are hanging on the fringe of the armies here in Eastern, or in Southern and Western Kentucky. The war for the present at least has passed around Pendleton. Colonel Kenton was at Bowling Green with Albert Sidney Johnston, and his son, Harry, your cousin, is still in the East."
It was a rapid and condensed statement, but it was very satisfying to Dick who now rode on for a long time in silence. The road was as bad as a road could be. Snow and ice were mixed with the deep mud which pulled hard at the hoofs of their horses. The country was rough, sterile, and inhabited but thinly. They rode many miles without meeting a single human being. About the third hour they saw a man and a boy on a hillside several hundred yards away, but when Captain Markham and a chosen few galloped towards them they disappeared so deftly among the woods that not a trace of them could be found.
"People in this region are certainly bashful," said Captain Markham with a vexed laugh. "We meant them no harm, but they wouldn't stay to see us."
"But they don't know that," said Dick with the familiarity of kinship, even though distant. "I fancy that the people hereabouts wish both Northerners and Southerners would go away."
Two miles further on they came to a large, double cabin standing back a little distance from the road. Smoke was rising from the chimney, and Captain Markham felt sure that they could obtain information from its inmates. Dick, at his direction, beat on the door with the butt of a small riding whip. There was no response. He beat again rapidly and heavily, and no answer coming he pushed in the door.
A fire was burning on the hearth, but the house was abandoned. Nor had the owners been gone long. Besides the fire to prove it, clothing was hanging on hooks in the wall, and there was food in the cupboard. Captain Markham sighed.
"Again they're afraid of us," he said. "I've no doubt the signal has been passed ahead of us, and that we'll not get within speaking distance of a single native. Curious, too, because this region in the main is for the North."
"Perhaps somebody has been robbing and plundering in our name," said Dick. "Skelly and his raiders have been through these parts."
"That's so," said Markham, thoughtfully. "I'm afraid those guerillas who claim to be our allies are going to do us a great deal of harm. Well, we'll turn back into the road, if you can call this stream of icy mud a road, and go on."
Another mile and they caught the gleam of water among the wintry boughs. Dick knew that it was the Cumberland which was now a Southern artery, bringing stores and arms for the army of Crittenden and Zollicoffer. Even here, hundreds of miles from its mouth, it was a stream of great depth, easily navigable, and far down its current they saw faintly the smoke of two steamers.
"They bear supplies for the Southern army," said Captain Markham. "We can cut off the passage of boats on this river and for that reason, so General Thomas concludes, the Southern army is going to attack us. What do you think of his reasoning, sergeant?"
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, for passin' an opinion upon my general," replied Sergeant Whitley, "but I think his reasons are good. Here it is the dead of winter, with more mud in the roads than I ever saw before anywhere, but there's bound to be a battle right away. Men will fight, sir, to keep from losin' their grub."
A man rode forward from the ranks, saluted and asked leave to speak. He was a native of the next county and knew that region well. Two miles east of them and running parallel with the road over which they had come was another and much wider road, the one that they called the big road.
"Which means, I suppose, that it contains more mud than this one," said Captain Markham.
"True, sir," replied the man, "but if the rebel army is advancing it is likely to be on that road."
"That is certainly sound logic. At least we'll go there and see. Can you lead us through these woods to it?"
"I can take you straight across," replied the man whose name was Carpenter. "But on the way we'll have to ford a creek which is likely to be pretty deep at this time of the year."
"Show the way," said Captain Markham briskly.
They plunged into the deep woods, and Carpenter guided them well. The creek, of which he had told, was running bankful of icy water, but their horses swam it and they kept straight ahead until Carpenter, who was a little in advance, held up a warning hand.
Captain Markham ordered his whole troop to stop and keep as quiet as possible. Then he, Dick, Warner, Sergeant Whitley and Carpenter rode slowly forward. Before they had gone many yards Dick heard the heavy clank of metal, the cracking of whips, the swearing of men, and the sound of horses' feet splashing in the mud. He knew by the amount and variety of the noises that a great force was passing.
They advanced a little further and reined into a clump of bushes which despite their lack of leaves were dense enough to shelter them from observation. As the bushes grew on a hillock they had a downward and good look into the road, which was fairly packed with men in the gray of the Confederate army, some on horseback, but mostly afoot, their cannon, ammunition and supply wagons sinking almost to the hub in the mud. As far as Dick could see the gray columns extended.
"There must be six or seven thousand men here," he said to Captain Markham.
"Undoubtedly," replied Markham, "this is the main Confederate army advancing to attack ours, but the badness of the roads operates against the offense. We shall reach General Thomas with the word that they are coming long before they are there."
They watched the marching army for a half hour longer in order to be sure of everything, and then turning they rode as fast as they could toward Thomas, elated at their success. They swam the creek again, but at another point. Carpenter told them that the Southern army would cross it on a bridge, and Markham lamented that he could not turn and destroy this bridge, but such an attempt would have been folly.
They finally turned into the main road along which the Southern army was coming, although they were now miles ahead of it, and, covered from head to foot with the red mud of the hills, they urged on their worn horses toward the camp of Thomas.
"I haven't had much experience in fighting, but I should imagine that complete preparation had a great deal to do with success," said Captain Markham.
"I'd put it at sixty per cent," said Warner.
"I should say," added Dick, "that the road makes at least eighty per cent of our difficulty in getting back to Thomas."
In fact, the road was so bad that they were compelled after a while to ride into the woods and let their ponies rest. Here they were fired upon by Confederate skirmishers from a hill two or three hundred yards away. Their numbers were small, however, and Captain Markham's force charging them drove them off without loss.
Then they resumed their weary journey, but the rest had not fully restored the horses and they were compelled at times to walk by the side of the road, leading their mounts. Sergeant Whitley, with his age and experience, was most useful now in restraining the impatient young men. Although of but humble rank he kept them from exhausting either themselves or their horses.
"It will be long after dark before we can reach camp," said Captain Markham, sighing deeply. "Confound such roads. Why not call them morasses and have done with it!"
"No, we can't make it much before midnight," said Dick, "but, after all, that will be early enough. If I judge him right, even midnight won't catch General Thomas asleep."
"You've judged him right," said Markham. "I've been with 'Pap' Thomas some time—we call him 'Pap' because he takes such good care of us—and I think he is going to be one of the biggest generals in this war. Always silent, and sometimes slow about making up his mind he strikes like a sledge-hammer when he does strike."
"He'll certainly have the opportunity to give blow for blow," said Dick, as he remembered that marching army behind them. "How far do you think it is yet to the general's camp?"
"Not more than a half dozen miles, but it will be dark in a few minutes, and at the rate we're going it will take us two full hours more to get there."
The wintry days were short and the sun slid down the gray, cold sky, leaving forest and hills in darkness. But the little band toiled patiently on, while the night deepened and darkened, and a chill wind whistled down from the ridges. The officers were silent now, but they looked eagerly for the first glimpse of the campfires of Thomas. At last they saw the little pink dots in the darkness, and then they pushed forward with new zeal, urging their weary horses into a run.
When Captain Markham, Dick and Warner galloped into camp, ahead of the others, a thickset strong figure walked forward to meet them. They leaped from their horses and saluted.
"Well?" said General Thomas.
"The enemy is advancing upon us in full force, sir," replied Captain Markham.
"You scouted thoroughly?"
"We saw their whole army upon the road."
"When do you think they could reach us?"
"About dawn, sir."
"Very good. We shall be ready. You and your men have done well. Now, find food and rest. You will be awakened in time for the battle."
Dick walked away with his friends. Troopers took their horses and cared for them. The boy glanced back at the thickset, powerful figure, standing by one of the fires and looking gravely into the coals. More than ever the man with the strong, patient look inspired confidence in him. He was sure now that they would win on the morrow. Markham and Warner felt the same confidence.
"There's a lot in having a good general," said Warner, who had also glanced back at the strong figure. "Do you remember, Dick, what it was that Napoleon said about generals?"
"A general is everything, an army nothing or something like that."
"Yes, that was it. Of course, he didn't mean it just exactly as he said it. A general can't be one hundred per cent and an army none. It was a figure of speech so to say, but I imagine that a general is about forty per cent. If we had had such leadership at Bull Run we'd have won."
Dick and Warner, worn out by their long ride, soon slept but there was movement all around them during the late hours of the night. Thomas with his cautious, measuring mind was rectifying his lines in the wintry darkness. He occupied a crossing of the roads, and he posted a strong battery of artillery to cover the Southern approach. Around him were men from Kentucky, the mountains of Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Minnesota. The Minnesota troops were sun-tanned men who had come more than a thousand miles from an Indian-infested border to defend the Union.
All through the night Thomas worked. He directed men with spades to throw up more intrenchments. He saw that the guns of the battery were placed exactly right. He ordered that food should be ready for all very early in the morning, and then, when nothing more remained to be done, save to wait for the decree of battle, he sat before his tent wrapped in a heavy military overcoat, silent and watchful. Scouts had brought in additional news that the Southern army was still marching steadily along the muddy roads, and that Captain Markham's calculation of its arrival about dawn would undoubtedly prove correct.
Dick awoke while it was yet dark, and throwing off the heavy blankets stood up.
Although the dawn had not come, the night was now fairly light and Dick could see a long distance over the camp which stretched to left and right along a great front. Near him was the battery with most of the men sleeping beside their guns, and not far away was the tent. Although he could not see the general, he knew instinctively that he was not asleep.
It was cold and singularly still, considering the presence of so many thousands of men. He did not hear the sound of human voices and there was no stamp of horses' feet. They, too, were weary and resting. Then Dick was conscious of a tall, thin figure beside him. Warner had awakened, too.
"Dick," he said, "it can't be more than an hour till dawn."
"Just about that I should say."
"And the scene, that is as far as we can see it, is most peaceful."
Dick made no answer, but stood a long time listening. Then he said:
"My ears are pretty good, George, and sound will carry very far in this silence just before the dawn. I thought I heard a faint sound like the clank of a cannon."
"I think I hear it, too," said Warner, "and here is the dawn closer at hand than we thought. Look at those cold rays over there, behind that hill in the east. They are the vanguard of the sun."
"So they are. And this is the vanguard of the Southern army!"
He spoke the last words quickly and with excitement.
In front of them down the road they heard the crackle of a dozen rifle shots. The Southern advance undoubtedly had come into contact with the Union sentinels and skirmishers. After the first shots there was a moment's breathless silence, and then came a scattered and rapid fire, as if at least a hundred rifles were at work.
Dick's pulse began to beat hard, and he strained his eyes through the darkness, but he could not yet see the enemy. He saw instead little jets of fire like red dots appearing on the horizon, and then the sound of the rifles came again. Warner was with him and both stood by the side of Major Hertford, ready to receive and deliver his orders. Dick now heard besides the firing in front the confused murmur and moving of the Union army.
Few of these troops had been in battle before—the same could be said of the soldiers on the other side—and this attack in the half-light troubled them. They wished to see the men who were going to shoot at them, in order that they might have a fair target in return. Fighting in the night was scarcely fair. One never knew what to do. But Thomas, the future "Rock of Chickamauga," was already showing himself a tower of strength. He reassured his nervous troops, he borrowed Dick and Warner and sent them along the line with messages from himself that they had nothing to do but stand firm and the victory was theirs.
Meanwhile the line of red dots in front was lengthening. It stretched farther to left and right than Dick could see, and was rapidly coming nearer. Already the sentinels and skirmishers were waging a sharp conflict, and the shouts of the combatants increased in volume. Then the cold sun swung clear of the earth, and its wintry beams lighted up both forest and open. The whole Southern army appeared, advancing in masses, and Dick, who was now with Major Hertford again, saw the pale rays falling on rifles and bayonets, and the faces of his own countrymen as they marched upon the Union camp.
"There's danger for our army! Lots of it!" said Warner, as he watched the steady advance of the Southern brigades.
Dick remembered Bull Run, but his thoughts ran back to the iron general who commanded now.
"Thomas will save us," he said.
The skirmishers on both sides were driven in. Their scattered fire ceased, but a moment later the whole front of the Southern army burst into flame. It seemed to Dick that one vast sheet of light like a sword blade suddenly shot forward, and then a storm of lead, bearing many messengers of death, beat upon the Northern army, shattering its front lines and carrying confusion among its young troops. But the officers and a few old regulars like Sergeant Whitley steadied them and they returned the fire.
Major Hertford, Dick and Warner were all on foot, and their own little band, already tried in battle, yielded not an inch. They formed a core of resistance around which others rallied and Thomas himself was passing along the line, giving heart to the lads fresh from the farms.
But the Southern army fired again, and shouting the long fierce rebel yell, charged with all its strength. Dick saw before him a vast cloud of smoke, through which fire flashed and bullets whistled. He heard men around him uttering short cries of pain, and he saw others fall, mostly sinking forward on their faces. But those who stood, held fast and loaded and fired until the barrels of their rifles burned to the touch.
Dick felt many tremors at first, but soon the passion of battle seized him. He carried no rifle, but holding his officer's small sword in his hand he ran up and down the line crying to the men to stand firm, that they would surely beat back the enemy. That film of fire and smoke was yet before his eyes, but he saw through it the faces of his countrymen still coming on. He heard to his right the thudding of the great guns that Thomas had planted on a low hill, but the rifle fire was like the beat of hail, a crackling and hissing that never ceased.
The farm lads, their rifles loaded afresh, fired anew at the enemy, almost in their faces, and the Southern line here reeled back against so firm and deadly a front.
But an alarming report ran down the line that their left was driven back, and it was true. The valiant Zollicoffer leading his brigade in person, had rushed upon this portion of the Northern army which was standing upon another low hill and struck it with great violence. It was wavering and would give way soon. But Thomas, showing the singular calm that always marked him in battle, noticed the weak spot. The general was then near Major Hertford. He quickly wrote a dispatch and beckoned to Dick:
"Here," he said, "jump on the horse that the sergeant is holding for me, and bring up our reserve, the brigade under General Carter. They are to meet the attack there on the hill, where our troops are wavering!"
Dick, aflame with excitement, leaped into the saddle, and while the roar of battle was still in his ears reached the brigade of Carter, already marching toward the thick of the conflict. One entire regiment, composed wholly of Kentuckians, was detached to help the Indiana troops who were being driven fiercely by Zollicoffer.
Dick rode at the head of the Kentuckians, but a bullet struck his horse in the chest. The boy felt the animal shiver beneath him, and he leaped clear just in time, the horse falling heavily and lying quite still. But Dick alighted on his feet, and still brandishing his sword, and shouting at the top of his voice, ran on.
In an instant they reached the Indiana troops, who turned with them, and the combined forces hurled themselves upon the enemy. The Southerners, refusing to yield the ground they had gained, received them, and there began a confused and terrible combat, shoulder to shoulder and hand to hand. Elsewhere the battle continued, but here it raged the fiercest. Both commanders knew that they were to win or lose upon this hill, and they poured in fresh troops who swelled the area of conflict and deepened its intensity.
Dick saw Warner by his side, but he did not know how he had come there, and just beyond him the thick and powerful figure of Sergeant Whitley showed through the hot haze of smoke. The back of Warner's hand had been grazed by a bullet. He had not noticed it himself, but the slow drip, drip of the blood held Dick for a moment with a sort of hideous fascination. Then he broke his gaze violently away and turned it upon the enemy, who were pouring upon them in all their massed strength.
Thomas had sent the Kentuckians to the aid of the Indiana men just in time. The hill was a vast bank of smoke and fire, filled with whistling bullets and shouts of men fighting face to face. Some one reeled and fell against Dick, and for a moment, he was in horror lest it should be Warner, but a glance showed him that it was a stranger. Then he rushed on again, filled with a mad excitement, waving his small sword, and shouting to the men to charge.
From right to left the roar of battle came to his ears, but on the hill where he stood the struggle was at its height. The lines of Federals and Confederates, face to face at first, now became mixed, but neither side gained. In the fiery struggle a Union officer, Fry, saw Zollicoffer only a few feet away. Snatching out his pistol he shot him dead. The Southerners seeing the fall of the general who was so popular among them hesitated and then gave back. Thomas, watching everything with keen and steady gaze, hurled an Ohio regiment from the right flank upon the Southern center, causing it to give way yet further under the shock.
"We win! We win!" shouted Dick in his ardor, as he saw the Southern line yielding. But the victory was not yet achieved. Crittenden, who was really Zollicoffer's superior in the command, displayed the most heroic courage throughout the battle. He brought up fresh troops to help his weakened center. He reformed his lines and was about to restore the battle, but Thomas, silent and ever watchful, now rushed in a brigade of Tennessee mountaineers, and as they struck with all their weight, the new line of the South was compelled to give way. Success seen and felt filled the veins of the soldiers with fresh fire. Dick and the men about him saw the whole Southern line crumble up before them. The triumphant Union army rushed forward shouting, and the Confederates were forced to give way at all points.
Dick and Warner, with the watchful sergeant near, were in the very front of the advance. The two young aides carried away by success and the fire of battle, waved their swords continually and rushed at the enemy's lines.
Dick's face was covered with smoke, his lips were burnt, and his throat was raw from so much shouting. But he was conscious only of great elation. "This is not another Bull Run!" he cried to Warner, and Warner cried back: "Not by a long shot!"
Thomas, still cool, watchful, and able to judge of results amid all the thunder and confusion of battle, hurried every man into the attack. He was showing upon this, his first independent field, all the great qualities he was destined later to manifest so brilliantly in some of the greatest battles of modern times.
The Southern lines were smashed completely by those heavy and continuous blows. Driven hard on every side they now retreated rapidly, and their triumphant enemies seized prisoners and cannon.