The whole Confederate army continued its swift retreat until it reached its intrenchments, where the officers rallied the men and turned to face their enemy. But the cautious Thomas stopped. He had no intention of losing his victory by an attack upon an intrenched foe, and drew off for the present. His army encamped out of range and began to attend to the wounded and bury the dead.
Dick, feeling the reaction after so much exertion and excitement, sat down on a fallen tree trunk and drew long, panting breaths. He saw Warner near and remembered the blood that had been dripping from his hand.
"Do you know that you are wounded, George?" he said. "Look at the back of your hand."
Warner glanced at it and noticed the red stripe. It had ceased to bleed.
"Now, that's curious," he said. "I never felt it. My blood and brain were both so hot that the flick of a bullet created no sensation. I have figured it out, Dick, and I have concluded that seventy per cent of our bravery in battle is excitement, leaving twenty per cent to will and ten per cent to chance."
"I suppose your calculation is close enough."
"It's not close merely. It's exact."
Both sprang to their feet and saluted as Major Hertford approached. He had escaped without harm and he saw with pleasure that the lads were alive and well, except for Warner's slight wound.
"You can rest now, boys," he said, "I won't need you for some time. But I can tell you that I don't think General Thomas means to quit. He will follow up his victory."
But Dick and Warner had been sure of that already. The army, flushed with triumph, was eager to be led on, even to make a night attack on the intrenchments of the enemy, but Thomas held them, knowing that another brigade of Northern troops was marching to his aid. The brigade came, but it was now dark and he would not risk a night attack. But some of the guns were brought up and they sent a dozen heavy cannon shot into the intrenchments of the enemy. There was no reply and neither of the boys, although they strained ears, could hear anything in the defeated camp.
"I shouldn't be surprised if we found them gone in the morning," said Major Hertford to Dick. "But I think our general is right in not making any attack upon their works. What do you say to that, Sergeant Whitley? You've had a lot of experience."
Sergeant Whitley was standing beside them, also trying to pierce the darkness with trained eyes, although he could not see the Confederate intrenchments.
"If a sergeant may offer an opinion I agree with you fully, sir," he said. "A night attack is always risky, an' most of all, sir, when troops are new like ours, although they're as brave as anybody. More'n likely if we was to rush on 'em our troops would be shootin' into one another in the darkness."
"Good logic," said Major Hertford, "and as it is quite certain that they are not in any condition to come out and attack us we'll stand by and wait till morning. So the general orders."
They walked back toward the place where the victorious troops were lighting the fires, out of the range of the cannon in the Confederate intrenchments. They were exultant, but they were not boasting unduly. Night, cold and dark, had shut down upon them and was taking the heat out of their blood. Hundreds of men were at work building fires, and Dick and Warner, with the permission of Major Hertford, joined them.
Both boys felt that the work would be a relief. Wood was to be had in abundance. The forest stretched on all sides of them in almost unbroken miles, and the earth was littered with dead wood fallen a year or years before. They merely kept away from the side on which the Confederate intrenchments lay, and brought in the wood in great quantities. A row of lights a half mile long sprang up, giving forth heat and warmth. Then arose the cheerful sound of tin and iron dishes and cups rattling against one another. A quarter of an hour later they were eating a victorious supper, and a little later most of them slept.
But in the night the Confederate troops abandoned their camp, leaving in it ten cannon and fifteen hundred wagons and crossed the river in boats, which they destroyed when they reached the other side. Then, their defeat being so severe, and they but volunteers, they scattered in the mountains to seek food and shelter for the remainder of the winter.
This army of the South ceased to exist.
CHAPTER VII. THE MESSENGER
Victory, overwhelming and complete, had been won, but General Thomas could not follow into the deep mountains where his army might be cut off. So he remained where he was for a little while and on the second day he sent for Dick.
The general was seated alone in a tent, an open end of which faced a fire, as it was now extremely cold. General Thomas had shown no undue elation over his victory. He was as silent as ever, and now, as always, he made upon Dick the impression of strength and indomitable courage.
"Sit down," he said, waving his hand toward a camp stool.
Dick, after saluting, sat down in silence.
"I hear," said the general, "that you behaved very well in the battle, and that you are a lad of courage and intelligence. Courage is common, intelligence, real intelligence, is rare. You were at Bull Run also, so I hear."
"I was, and the army fought well there too, but late in the day it was seized with a sudden panic."
"Something that may happen at any time to raw troops. But we'll pass to the question in hand. The campaign here in the mountains is ended for this winter, but great matters are afoot further west. A courier arrived last night stating that General Grant and Commodore Foote were preparing to advance by water from Cairo, Illinois, and attempt the reduction of the Confederate forts on the Cumberland and Tennessee. General Buell, one of your own Kentuckians, is advancing southward with a strong Union force, and in a few days his outposts will be on Green River. It will be of great advantage to Buell to know that the Confederate army in the eastern part of the state is destroyed. He can advance with freedom and, on the other hand, the Southern leader, Albert Sidney Johnston, will be compelled to throw a portion of his force to the eastward to protect his flank which has been uncovered by our victory at Mill Spring. Do you understand?"
"I do, sir."
"Then you are to carry dispatches of the utmost importance from me to General Buell. After you reach his camp—if you reach it—you will, of course, be subject to his orders. I have learned that you know the country well between here and Green River. Because of that, and because of your intelligence, real intelligence, I mean, you are chosen for this task. You are to change to citizen's clothes at once, and a horse of great power and endurance has been selected for you. But you must use all your faculties all the time. I warn you that the journey is full of danger."
"I can carry it out," replied Dick with quiet confidence, "and I thank you for choosing me."
"I believe you will succeed," said the general, who liked his tone. "Return here in an hour with all your preparations made, and I will give you the dispatches."
Warner was filled with envy that his comrade was to go on a secret mission of great importance, but he generously wished him a full measure of success.
"Remember," he said, "that on an errand like yours, presence of mind counts for at least fifty per cent. Have a quick tongue. Always be ready with a tale that looks true."
"An' remember, too," said Sergeant Whitley, "that however tight a place you get into you can get into one tighter. Think of that and it will encourage you to pull right out of the hole."
The two wrung his hand and Major Hertford also gave him his warmest wishes. The horse chosen for him was a bay of tremendous power, and Dick knew that he would serve him well. He carried double blankets strapped to the saddle, pistols in holsters with another in his belt, an abundance of ammunition, and food for several days in his saddle bags. Then he returned to General Thomas, who handed him a thin strip of tissue paper.
"It is written in indelible ink," he said, "and it contains a statement of our forces and their positions here in the eastern part of the state. It also tells General Buell what reinforcements he can expect. If you are in imminent danger of capture destroy the paper, but to provide for such a chance, in case you escape afterward, I will read the dispatches to you."
He read them over several times and then questioned Dick. But the boy's memory was good. In fact, every word of the dispatches was burnt into his brain, and nothing could make him forget them.
"And now, my lad," said General Thomas, giving him his hand, "you may help us greatly. I would not send a boy upon such an errand, but the demands of war are terrible and must be obeyed."
The strong grasp of the general's hand imparted fresh enthusiasm to Dick, and for the present he did not have the slightest doubt that he would get safely through. He wore a strong suit of home-made brown jeans, a black felt cap with ear-flaps, and high boots. The dispatch was pinned into a small inside pocket of his vest.
He rode quickly out of camp, giving the sentinels the pass word, and the head of the horse was pointed west slightly by north. The ground was now frozen and he did not have the mud to hold him back.
The horse evidently had been longing for action. Such thews and sinews as his needed exercise. He stretched out his long neck, neighed joyously, and broke of his own accord into an easy canter. It was a lonely road, and Dick was glad that it was so. The fewer people he met the better it was in every way for him.
He shared the vigor and spirit of his horse. His breath turned to smoke, but the cold whipped his blood into a quicker torrent. He hummed snatches of the songs that he had heard Samuel Jarvis sing, and went on mile after mile through the high hills toward the low hills of Kentucky.
Dick did not pass many people. The ancient name of his state—the Dark and Bloody Ground—came back to him. He knew that war in one of its worst forms existed in this wild sweep of hills. Here the guerillas rode, choosing their sides as suited them best, and robbing as paid them most. Nor did these rough men hesitate at murder. So he rode most of the time with his hand on the butt of the pistol at his belt, and whenever he went through woods, which was most of the time, he kept a wary watch to right and to left.
The first person whom he passed was a boy riding on a sack of grain to mill. Dick greeted him cheerfully and the boy with the fearlessness of youth replied in the same manner.
"Any news your way?" asked Dick.
"Nothin' at all," replied the boy, his eyes enlarging with excitement, "but from the way you are comin' we heard tell there was a great battle, hundreds of thousands of men on each side an' that the Yankees won. Is it so, Mister?"
"It is true," replied Dick. "A dozen people have told me of it, but the armies were not quite so large as you heard. It is true also that the Yankees won."
"I'll tell that at the mill. It will be big news to them. An' which way be you goin', Mister?" said the boy with all the frankness of the hills.
"I'm on my way to the middle part of the state. I've been looking after some land that my people own in the mountains. Looks like a lonesome road, this. Will I reach any house soon?"
"Thar's Ben Trimble's three miles further on, but take my advice an' don't stop thar. Ben says he ain't goin' to be troubled in these war times by visitors, an' he's likely to meet you at the door with his double-barreled shotgun."
"I won't knock on Ben's door, so he needn't take down his double-barreled shotgun. What's next beyond Ben's house?"
"A half mile further on you come to Hungry Creek. It ain't much in the middle of summer, but right now it's full of cold water, 'nough of it to come right up to your hoss's body. You go through it keerful."
"Thank you for your good advice," said Dick. "I'll follow it, too. Good-bye."
He waved his gauntleted hand and rode on. A hundred yards further and he glanced back. The boy had stopped on the crest of a hill, and was looking at him. But Dick knew that it was only the natural curiosity of the hills and he renewed his journey without apprehension.
At the appointed time he saw the stout log cabin of Ben Trimble by the roadside with the warm smoke rising from the chimney, but true to his word he gave Ben and his shotgun no trouble, and continued straight ahead over the frozen road until he came to the banks of Hungry Creek. Here, too, the words of the boy came true. The water was both deep and cold, and Dick looked at it doubtfully.
He urged his great horse into the stream at last, and it appeared that the creek had risen somewhat since the boy had last seen it. In the middle the horse was compelled to swim, but it was no task for such a powerful animal, and Dick, holding his feet high, came dry to the shore that he sought.
The road led on through high hills, covered with oak and beech and cedar and pine, all the deciduous trees bare of leaves, their boughs rustling dryly whenever the wind blew. He saw the smoke of three cabins nestling in snug coves, but it was a full three hours before he met anybody else in the road. Then he saw two men riding toward him, but he could not tell much about them as they were wrapped in heavy gray shawls, and wore broad brimmed felt hats, pulled well down over their foreheads.
Dick knew that he could not exercise too much caution in this debatable land, and his right hand dropped cautiously to the butt of his pistol in such a manner that it was concealed by his heavy overcoat. His left hand rested lightly on the reins as he rode forward at an even pace. But he did not fail to take careful note of the two men who were now examining him in a manner that he did not like.
Dick saw that the strangers openly carried pistols in their belts, which was not of overwhelming significance in such times in such a region, but they did not have the look of mountaineers riding on peaceful business, and he reined his horse to the very edge of the road that he might pass them.
He noted with rising apprehension that they checked the pace of their horses as they approached, and that they reined to either side of the road to compel him to go between them. But he pulled his own horse out still further, and as they could not pass on both sides of him without an overt act of hostility they drew together again in the middle of the road.
"Mornin' stranger," they said together, when they were a few yards away.
"Good morning," said Dick, riding straight on, without checking his speed. But one of the men drew his horse across the road and said:
"What's your hurry? It ain't friendly to ride by without passin' the time o' day."
Now at close range, Dick liked their looks less than ever. They might be members of that very band of Skelly's which had already made so much trouble for both sides, and he summoned all his faculties in order to meet them at any game that they might try to play.
"I've been on land business in the mountains," he said, "and I'm anxious to get back to my home. Besides the day is very cold, and the two facts deprive me of the pleasure of a long conversation with you, gentlemen. Good-day."
"Wait just a little," said the spokesman, who still kept his horse reined across the road. "These be war times an' it's important to know what a fellow is. Be you for the Union or are you with the Secesh?"
Dick was quite sure that whatever he answered they would immediately claim to be on the opposite side. Then would follow robbery and perhaps murder.
"Which is your side?" he asked.
"But we put the question first," the fellow replied.
Dick no longer had any doubts. The second man was drawing his horse up by the side of him, as if to seize him, while the first continued to bar the way. He was alarmed, deeply alarmed, but he lost neither his courage nor his presence of mind. Luckily he had already summoned every faculty for instant action, and now he acted. He uttered a sudden shout, and raked the side of his horse with both spurs.
His horse was not only large and powerful but of a most high spirit. When he heard that shout and felt the burning slash of the spurs he made a blind but mighty leap forward. The horse of the first stranger, smitten by so great a weight, fell in the road and his rider went down with him. The enraged horse then leaped clear of both and darted forward at headlong speed.
As his horse sprang Dick threw himself flat upon his neck, and the bullet that the second man fired whistled over his head. By impulse he drew his own pistol and fired back. He saw the man's pistol arm fall as if broken, and he heard a loud cry. That was a lucky shot indeed, and rising a little in his saddle he shouted again and again to the great horse that served him so well.
The gallant animal responded in full. He stretched out his long neck and the road flew fast behind him. Sparks flashed from the stones where the shod hoofs struck, and Dick exulting felt the cold air rush past. Another shot was fired at long range, but the bullet did not strike anywhere near.
Dick took only a single backward glance. He saw the two men on their horses, but drooping as if weak from hurts, and he knew that for the present at least he was safe from any hurt from them. But he allowed his horse his head for a long time, and then he gradually slowed him down. No human being was in sight now and he spoke to the noble animal soothingly.
"Good old boy," he said; "the strongest, the swiftest, the bravest, and the truest. I was sorry to make those red stripes on your sides, but it had to be done. Only quickness saved us."
The horse neighed. He was still quivering from excitement and exertion. So was Dick for that matter. The men might have been robbers merely—they were at least that bad—but they might have deprived him also of his precious dispatch. He was proud of the confidence put in him by General Thomas, and he meant to deserve it. It was this sense of responsibility and pride that had attuned his faculties to so high a pitch and that had made his action so swift, sudden and decisive.
But he steadied himself presently. The victory, for victory it certainly was, increased his strength and confidence. He stopped soon at a brook—they seemed to occur every mile—and bathed with cold water the red streaks his spurs had made on either side of his horse. Again he spoke soothing words and regretted the necessity that had caused him to make such wounds, slight though they were.
He also bathed his own face and hands and, as it was now about noon, ate of the cold ham and bread that he carried in his knapsack, meanwhile keeping constant watch on the road over which he had come. But he did not believe that the men would pursue, and he saw no sign of them. Mounting again he rode forward.
The remainder of the afternoon went by without interruption. He passed three or four people, but they were obviously natives of that region, and they asked him only innocent questions. The wintry day was short, and the twilight was soon at hand. He was riding over one of the bare ridges, when first he noticed how late the day had grown. All the sky was gray and chill and the cold sun was setting behind the western mountains. A breeze sprang up, rustling among the leafless branches, and Dick shivered in the saddle. A new necessity was pressed suddenly upon him. He must find shelter for the night. Even with his warm double blankets he could not sleep in the forest on such a night. Besides the horse would need food.
He rode on briskly for a full hour, anxiously watching both sides of the road for a cabin or cabin smoke. By that time night had come fully, though fortunately it was clear but very cold. He saw then on the right a faint coil of smoke rising against the dusky sky and he rode straight for it.
The smoke came from a strong double cabin, standing about four hundred yards from the road, and the sight of the heavy log walls made Dick all the more anxious to get inside them. The cold had grown bitter and even his horse shivered.
As he approached two yellow curs rushed forth and began to bark furiously, snapping at the horse's heels, the usual mountain welcome. But when a kick from the horse grazed the ear of one of them they kept at a respectful distance.
"Hello! Hello!" called Dick loudly.
This also was the usual mountain notification that a guest had come, and the heavy board door of the house opened inward. A man, elderly, but dark and strong, with the high cheek bones of an Indian stood in the door, the light of a fire blazing in the fireplace on the opposite side of the wall throwing him in relief. His hair was coal black, long and coarse, increasing his resemblance to an Indian.
Dick rode close to the door, and, without hesitation, asked for a night's shelter and food. This was his inalienable right in the hills or mountains of his state, and he would be a strange man indeed who would refuse it.
The man sharply bade the dogs be silent and they retreated behind the house, their tails drooping. Then he said to Dick in a tone that was not without hospitality:
"'Light, stranger, an' we'll put up your horse. Mandy will have supper ready by the time we finish the job."
Dick sprang down gladly, but staggered a little at first from the stiffness of his legs.
"You've rid far, stranger," said the man, who Dick knew at once had a keen eye and a keen brain, "an' you're young, too."
"But not younger than many who have gone to the war," replied Dick. "In fact, you see many who are not older than fifteen or sixteen."
He had spoken hastily and incautiously and he realized it at once. The man's keen gaze was turned upon him again.
"You've seen the armies, then?" he said. "Mebbe you're a sojer yourself?"
"I've been in the mountains, looking after some land that belongs to my family," said Dick. "My name is Mason, Richard Mason, and I live near Pendleton, which is something like a hundred miles from here."
He deemed it best to give his right name, as it would have no significance there.
"You must have seen armies," persisted the man, "or you wouldn't hev knowed 'bout so many boys of fifteen or sixteen bein' in them."
"I saw both the Federal and Confederate armies in Eastern Kentucky. My business took me near them, but I was always glad to get away from them, too."
"I heard tell today that there was a big battle."
"You heard right. It was fought near a little place called Mill Spring, and resulted in a complete victory for the Northern forces under General Thomas."
"That was what I heard. It will be good news to some, an' bad news to others. 'Pears to me, Mr. Mason, that you can't fight a battle that will suit everybody."
"I never heard of one that did."
"An' never will, I reckon. Mighty good hoss that you're ridin'. I never seed one with better shoulders. My name's Leffingwell, Seth Leffingwell, an' I live here alone, 'ceptin' my old woman, Mandy. All we ask of people is to let us be. Lots of us in the mountain feel that way. Let them lowlanders shoot one another up ez long ez they please, but up here there ain't no slaves, an' there ain't nothin' else to fight about."
The stable was a good one, better than usual in that country. Dick saw stalls for four horses, but no horses. They put his own horse in one of the stalls, and gave him corn and hay. Then they walked back to the house, and entered a large room, where a stalwart woman of middle age had just finished cooking supper.
"Whew, but the night's goin' to be cold," said Leffingwell, as he shut the door behind them, and cut off an icy blast. "It'll make the fire an' supper all the better. We're just plain mountain people, but you're welcome to the best we have. Ma, this is Mr. Mason, who has been on lan' business in the mountains, an' is back on his way to his home at Pendleton."
Leffingwell's wife, a powerful woman, as large as her husband, and with a pleasant face, gave Dick a large hand and a friendly grasp.
"It's a good night to be indoors," she said. "Supper's ready, Seth. Will you an' the stranger set?"
She had placed the pine table in the middle of the room, and Dick noticed that it was large enough for five or six persons. He put his saddle bags and blankets in a corner and he and the man drew up chairs.
He had seldom beheld a more cheerful scene. In a great fireplace ten feet wide big logs roared and crackled. Corn cakes, vegetables, and two kinds of meat were cooking over the coals and a great pot of coffee boiled and bubbled. No candles had been lighted, but they were not needed. The flames gave sufficient illumination.
"Set, young man," said Leffingwell heartily, "an' see who's teeth are sharper, yourn or mine."
Dick sat down gladly, and they fell to. The woman alternately waited on them and ate with them. For a time the two masculine human beings ate and drank with so much vigor that there was no time for talk. Leffingwell was the first to break silence.
"I kin see you growin'," he said.
"Yes, growin', you're eatin' so much, you're enjoyin' it so much, an' you're digestin' it so fast. You are already taller than you was when you set, an' you're broader 'cross the chest. No, 'tain't wuth while to 'pologize. You've got a right to be hungry, an' you mustn't forget Ma's cookin' either. She's never had her beat in all these mountains."
"Shut up, Seth," said Mrs. Leffingwell, genially, "you'll make the young stranger think you're plum' foolish, which won't be wide of the mark either."
"I'm grateful," said Dick falling into the spirit of it, "but what pains me, Mrs. Leffingwell, is the fact that Mr. Leffingwell will only nibble at your food. I don't understand it, as he looks like a healthy man."
"'Twouldn't do for me to be too hearty," said Leffingwell, "or I'd keep Mandy here cookin' all the time."
They seemed pleasant people to Dick, good, honest mountain types, and he was glad that he had found their house. The room in which they sat was large, apparently used for all purposes, kitchen, dining-room, sitting-room, and bedroom. An old-fashioned squirrel rifle lay on hooks projecting from the wall, but there was no other sign of a weapon. There was a bed at one end of the room and another at the other, which could be hidden by a rough woolen curtain running on a cord. Dick surmised that this bed would be assigned to him.
Their appetites grew lax and finally ceased. Then Leffingwell yawned and stretched his arms.
"Stranger," he said, "we rise early an' go to bed early in these parts. Thar ain't nothin' to keep us up in the evenin's, an' as you've had a hard, long ride I guess you're just achin' fur sleep."
Dick, although he had been unwilling to say so, was in fact very sleepy. The heavy supper and the heat of the room pulled so hard on his eyelids that he could scarcely keep them up. He murmured his excuses and said he believed he would like to retire.
"Don't you be bashful about sayin' so," exclaimed Leffingwell heartily, "'cause I don't think I could keep up more'n a half hour longer."
Mrs. Leffingwell drew the curtain shutting off one bed and a small space around it. Dick, used to primitive customs, said good-night and retired within his alcove, taking his saddle bags. There was a small window near the foot of the room, and when he noticed it he resolved to let in a little air later on. The mountaineers liked hot rooms all the time, but he did not. This window contained no glass, but was closed with a broad shutter.
The boy undressed and got into bed, placing his saddle bags on the foot of it, and the pistol that he carried in his belt under his head. He fell asleep almost immediately and had he been asked beforehand he would have said that nothing could awake him before morning. Nevertheless he awoke before midnight, and it was a very slight thing that caused him to come out of sleep. Despite the languor produced by food and heat a certain nervous apprehension had been at work in the boy's mind, and it followed him into the unknown regions of sleep. His body was dead for a time and his mind too, but this nervous power worked on, almost independently of him. It had noted the sound of voices nearby, and awakened him, as if he had been shaken by a rough hand.
He sat up in his bed and became conscious of a hot and aching head. Then he remembered the window, and softly drawing two pegs that fastened it in order that he might not awaken his good hosts, he opened it inward a few inches.
The cold air poured in at the crevice and felt like heaven on his face. His temples quit throbbing and his head ceased to ache. He had not noticed at first the cause that really awakened him, but as he settled back into bed, grateful for the fresh air, the same mysterious power gave him a second warning signal.
He heard the hum of voices and sat up again. It was merely the Leffingwells in the bed at the far end of the room, talking! Perhaps he had not been asleep more than an hour, and it was natural that they should lie awake a while, talking about the coming of this young stranger or any other event of the day that interested them. Then he caught a tone or an inflection that he did not remember to have been used by either of the Leffingwells. A third signal of alarm was promptly registered on his brain.
He leaned from the bed and pulling aside the curtain a half an inch or so, looked into the room. The fire had died down except a few coals which cast but a faint light. Yet it was sufficient to show Dick that the two Leffingwells had not gone to bed. They were sitting fully clothed before the fireplace, and three other persons were with them.
As Dick stared his eyes grew more used to the half dusk and he saw clearly. The three strangers were young men, all armed heavily, and the resemblance of two of them to the Leffingwells was so striking that he had no doubt they were their sons. Now he understood about those empty stalls. The third man, who had been sitting with his shoulder toward Dick, turned his face presently, and the boy with difficulty repressed an exclamation. It was the one who had reined his horse across the road to stop him. A fourth and conclusive signal of alarm was registered upon his brain.
He began to dress rapidly and without noise. Meanwhile he listened intently and could hear the words they spoke. The woman was pleading with them to let him go. He was only a harmless lad, and while these were dark days, a crime committed now might yet be punished.
"A harmless boy," said the strange man. "He's quick, an' strong enough, I tell you. You should have seen how he rode me down, and then shot Garmon in the arm."
"I'd like to have that hoss of his," said the elder Leffingwell. "He's the finest brute I ever laid eyes on. Sech power an' sech action. I noticed him at once, when Mason come ridin' up. S'pose we jest take the hoss and send the boy on."
"A hoss like that would be knowed," protested the woman. "What if sojers come lookin' fur him!"
"We could run him off in the hills an' keep him there a while," said Leffingwell. "I know places where sojers wouldn't find that hoss in a thousand years. What do you say to that, Kerins?"
"Good as fur as it goes," replied Kerins, "but it don't go fur enough by a long shot. The Yanks whipped the Johnnies in a big battle at Mill Spring. Me an' my pardners have been hangin' 'roun' in the woods, seein' what would happen. Now, we know that this boy rode straight from the tent of General Thomas hisself. He's a Union sojer, an' young as he is, he's an officer. He wouldn't be sent out by General Thomas hisself 'less it was on big business. He's got messages, dispatches of some kind that are worth a heap to somebody. With all the armies gatherin' in the south an' west of the state it stands to reason that them dispatches mean a lot. Now, we've got to get 'em an' get the full worth of 'em from them to whom they're worth the most."
"He's got a pistol," said the elder Leffingwell, "I seed it in his belt. If he wakes before we grab him he'll shoot."
The man Kerins laughed.
"He'll never get a chance to shoot," he said. "Why, after all he went through today, he'll sleep like a log till mornin'."
"That's so," said one of the young Leffingwells, "an' Kerins is right. We ought to grab them dispatches. Likely in one way or another we kin git a heap fur 'em."
"Shut up, Jim, you fool," said his mother sharply. "Do you want murder on your hands? Stealin' hosses is bad enough, but if that boy has got the big dispatches you say he has, an' he's missin', don't you think that sojers will come after him? An' they'll trace him to this house, an' I tell you that in war trials don't last long. Besides, he's a nice boy an' he spoke nice all the time to pap an' me."
But her words did not seem to make any impression upon the others, except her husband, who protested again that it would be enough to take the horse. As for the dispatches it wasn't wise for them to fool with such things. But Kerins insisted on going the whole route and the young Leffingwells were with him.
Meanwhile Dick had dressed with more rapidity than ever before in his life, fully alive to the great dangers that threatened. But his fear was greatest lest he might lose the precious dispatches that he bore. For a few moments he did not know what to do. He might take his pistols and fight, but he could not fight them all with success. Then that pleasant flood of cold air gave him the key.
While they were still talking he put his saddle bags over his arm, opened the shutter its full width, and dropped quietly to the ground outside, remembering to take the precaution of closing the shutter behind him, lest the sudden inrush of cold startle the Leffingwells and their friends.
It was an icy night, but Dick did not stop to notice it. He ran to the stable, saddled and bridled his horse in two minutes, and in another minute was flying westward over the flinty road, careless whether or not they heard the beat of his horse's hoofs.
CHAPTER VIII. A MEETING AT NIGHT
Dick heard above the thundering hoofbeats only a single shout, and then, as he glanced backward, the house was lost in the moonlight. When he secured his own horse he had noticed that all the empty stalls were now filled, no doubt by the horses of the young Leffingwells and Kerins, but he was secure in his confidence that none could overtake the one he rode.
He felt of that inside pocket of his vest. The precious dispatch was there, tightly pinned into its hidden refuge, and as for himself, refreshed, warm, and strong after food, rest, and sleep, he felt equal to any emergency. He had everything with him. The stout saddle bags were lying across the saddle. He had thrust the holster of pistols into them, but he took it out now, and hung it in its own place, also across the saddle.
Although he was quite sure there would be no pursuit—the elder Leffingwells would certainly keep their sons from joining it—he sent his great horse straight ahead at a good pace for a long time, the road being fairly good. His excitement and rapid motion kept him from noticing at first the great bitterness of the cold.
When he had gone five or six miles he drew his horse down to a walk. Then, feeling the intensity of the cold as the mercury was far below zero, he dismounted, looped the reins over his arms, and walked a while. For further precaution he took his blanket-roll and wrapped the two blankets about his body, especially protecting his neck and ears.
He found that the walking, besides keeping him warmer, took all the stiffness out of his muscles, and he continued on foot several miles. He passed two brooks and a creek, all frozen over so solidly that the horse passed on them without breaking the ice. It was an extremely difficult task to make the animal try the ice, but after much delicate coaxing and urging he always succeeded.
He saw two more cabins at the roadside, but he did not think of asking hospitality at either. The night was now far advanced and he wished to put many more miles between him and the Leffingwell home before he sought rest again.
He mounted his horse once more, and increased his speed. Now the reaction came after so much exertion and excitement. He began to feel depressed. He was very young and he had no comrade. The loneliness of the winter night in a country full of dangers was appalling. It seemed to him, as his heart sank, that all things had conspired against him. But the moment of despair was brief. He summoned his courage anew and rode on bravely, although the sense of loneliness in its full power remained.
The moonlight was quite bright. The sky was a deep silky blue, in which myriads of cold stars shone and danced. By and by he skirted for a while the banks of a small river, which he knew flowed southward into the Cumberland, and which would not cross his path. The rays of the moonlight on its frozen surface looked like darts of cold steel.
He left the river presently and the road bent a little toward the north. Then the skies darkened somewhat but lightened again as the dawn began to come. The red but cold edge of the sun appeared above the mountains that he had left behind, and then the morning came, pale and cold.
Dick stopped at a little brook, broke the ice and drank, letting his horse drink after him. Then he ate heartily of the cold bread and meat in his knapsack. Pitying his horse he searched until he found a little grass not yet killed by winter in the lee of the hill, and waited until he cropped it all.
He mounted and resumed his journey through a country in which the hills were steadily becoming lower, with larger stretches of level land appearing between them. By night he should be beyond the last low swell of the mountains and into the hill region proper. As he calculated distances his heart gave a great thump. He was to locate Buell some distance north of Green River, and his journey would take him close to Pendleton.
The boy was torn by great and conflicting emotions. He would carry out with his life the task that Thomas had assigned to him, and yet he wished to stop near Pendleton, if only for an hour.
Yes an hour would do! And it could not interfere with his duty! But Pendleton was a Southern stronghold. Everybody there knew him, and they all knew, too, that he was in the service of the North. How could he pass by without being seen and what might happen then? The terrible conflict went on in his mind, and it was stilled only when he decided to leave it to time and chance.
He rode that day almost without interruption, securing an ample dinner, where no one chose to ask questions, accepting him at his own statement of himself and probably believing it. He heard that a small Southern force was to the southward, probably marching toward Bowling Green, where a great Confederate army under Albert Sidney Johnston was said to be concentrated. But the news gave him no alarm. His own road was still leading west slightly by north.
When night came he was in the pleasant and fertile hill country, dotted with double brick houses, and others of wood, all with wide porticos, supported by white pillars. It looked smiling and prosperous even in winter. The war had done no ravages here, and he saw men at work about the great barns.
He slept in the house of a big farmer, who liked the frank voice and eyes of the lad, and who cared nothing for any errand upon which he might be riding. He slept, too, without dreams, and without awakening until the morning, when he shared a solid breakfast with the family.
Dick obtained at the farmhouse a fresh supply of cold food for his saddle bags, to be held against an emergency, although it was likely now that he could obtain all he needed at houses as he passed. Receiving the good wishes of his hosts he rode on through the hills. The intense cold which kept troops from marching much really served him, as the detachments about the little towns stayed in their camps.
The day was quite clear, with the mercury still well below zero, but his heavy clothing kept him warm and comfortable. His great horse showed no signs of weariness. Apparently his sinews were made of steel.
Noon came, but Dick did not seek any farmhouse for what was called dinner in that region. Instead he ate from his saddle bags as he rode on. He did not wish to waste time, and, moreover, he had taken his resolution. He would go near Pendleton. It was on his most direct route, but he would pass in the night.
As the cold twilight descended he came into familiar regions. Like all other young Kentuckians he was a great horseman, and with Harry Kenton and other lads of his age he had ridden nearly everywhere in a circuit of thirty miles around Pendleton.
It was with many a throb of the heart that he now recognized familiar scenes. He knew the fields, the forests and the houses. But he was glad that the night had come. Others would know him, and he did not wish to be seen when he rode on such an errand. He had been saving his horse in the afternoon, but now he pushed him forward at a much faster gait. The great horse responded willingly and Dick felt the powerful body working beneath him, smooth and tireless like a perfect machine.
He passed nobody on the road. People hugged their fires on such a cold night, and he rode hour after hour without interruption. It was nearly midnight when he stopped on a high hill, free of forest, and looked down upon Pendleton. The wonderful clearness of the winter night helped him. All the stars known to man were out, and helped to illuminate the world with a clear but cold radiance.
Although a long distance away Dick could see Pendleton clearly. There was no foliage on the trees now, and nearly every house was visible. The great pulse in his throat throbbed hard as he looked. He saw the steeples of the churches, the white pillars of the court house, and off to one side the academy in which he and Harry Kenton had gone to school together. He saw further away Colonel Kenton's own house on another hill. It, too, had porticos, supported by white pillars which gleamed in the moonlight.
Then his eyes traveled again around the half circle before him. The place for which he was looking could not be seen. But he knew that it would be so. It was a low house, and the evergreens about it, the pines and cedars would hide it at any time. But he knew the exact spot, and he wanted his eyes to linger there a little before he rode straight for it.
Now the great pulse in his throat leaped, and something like a sob came from him. But it was not a sob of unhappiness. He clucked to his horse and turned from the main road into a narrower one that led by the low house among the evergreens. Yet he was a boy of powerful will, and despite his eagerness, he restrained his horse and advanced very slowly. Sometimes he turned the animal upon the dead turf by the side of the road in order that his footsteps might make no sound.
He drew slowly nearer, and when he saw the roof and eaves of the low house among the evergreens the great pulse in his throat leaped so hard that it was almost unbearable. He reached the edge of the lawn that came down to the road, and hidden by the clipped cone of a pine he saw a faint light shining.
He dismounted, opened the gate softly, and led his horse upon the lawn, hitching him between two pines that grew close together, concealing him perfectly.
"Be quiet, old fellow," he whispered, stroking the great intelligent head. "Nobody will find you here and I'll come back for you."
The horse rubbed his nose against his arm but made no other movement. Then Dick walked softly toward the house, pulses beating hard and paused just at the edge of a portico, where he stood in the shadow of a pillar. He saw the light clearly now. It shone from a window of the low second story. It came from her window and her room. Doubtless she was thinking at that very moment of him. His throat ached and tears came into his eyes. The light, clear and red, shone steadily from the window and made a band across the lawn.
He picked a handful of sand from the walk that led to the front door and threw it against the window. He knew that she was brave and would respond, but waiting only a moment or two he threw a second handful fully and fairly against the glass.
The lower half of the window was thrown open and a head appeared, where the moonlight fell clearly upon it. It was the head of a beautiful woman, framed in thick, silken yellow hair, the eyes deep blue, and the skin of the wonderful fairness so often found in that state. The face was that of a woman about thirty-seven or eight years of age, and without a wrinkle or flaw.
"Mother!" called Dick in a low voice as he stepped from the shadow of the pillar.
There was a cry and the face disappeared like a flash from the window. But he had only a few moments to wait. Her swift feet brought her from the room, down the stairway, and along the hall to the door, which she threw open. The next instant Mrs. Mason had her son in her arms.
"Oh, Dick, Dicky, boy, how did you come!" she exclaimed. "You were here under my window, and I did not even know that you were alive!"
Her tears of joy fell upon his face and he was moved profoundly. Dick loved his beautiful young mother devoutly, and her widowhood had bound them all the more closely together.
"I've come a long distance, and I've come in many ways, mother," he replied, "by train, by horseback, and I have even walked."
"You have come here on foot?"
"No, mother. I rode directly over your own smooth lawn on one of the biggest horses you ever saw, and he's tied now between two of the pine trees. Come, we must go in the house. It's too cold for you out here. Do you know that the mercury is about ten degrees below zero."
"What a man you have grown! Why, you must be two inches taller than you were, when you went away, and how sunburned and weather-beaten you are, too! Oh, Dicky, this terrible, terrible war! Not a word from you in months has got through to me!"
"Nor a word from you to me, mother, but I have not suffered so much so far. I was at Bull Run, where we lost, and I was at Mill Spring, where we won, but I was unhurt."
"Perhaps you have come back to stay," she said hopefully.
"No, mother, not to stay. I took a chance in coming by here to see you, but I couldn't go on without a few minutes. Inside now, mother, your hands are growing cold."
They went in at the door, and closed it behind them. But there was another faithful soul on guard that night. In the dusky hail loomed a gigantic black figure in a blue checked dress, blue turban on head.
"Marse Dick?" she said.
"Juliana!" he exclaimed. "How did you know that I was here?"
"Ain't I done heard Miss Em'ly cry out, me always sleepin' so light, an' I hears her run down the hail. An' then I dresses an' comes an' sees you two through the crack o' the do', an' then I waits till you come in."
Dick gave her a most affectionate greeting, knowing that she was as true as steel. She rejoiced in her flowery name, as many other colored women rejoiced in theirs, but her heart inhabited exactly the right spot in her huge anatomy. She drew mother and son into the sitting-room, where low coals still burned on the hearth. Then she went up to Mrs. Mason's bedroom and put out the light, after which she came back to the sitting-room, and, standing by a window in silence, watched over the two over whom she had watched so long.
"Why is it that you can stay such a little while?" asked Mrs. Mason.
"Mother," replied Dick in a low tone, "General Thomas, who won the battle at Mill Spring, has trusted me. I bear a dispatch of great importance. It is to go to General Buell, and it has to do with the gathering of the Union troops in the western and southern parts of our state, and in Tennessee. I must get through with it, and in war, mother, time counts almost as much as battles. I can stop only a few minutes even for you."
"I suppose it is so. But oh, Dicky, won't this terrible war be over soon?"
"I don't think so, mother. It's scarcely begun yet."
Mrs. Mason said nothing, but stared into the coals. The great negress, Juliana, standing at the window, did not move.
"I suppose you are right, Dick," she said at last with a sigh, "but it is awful that our people should be arrayed so against one another. There is your cousin, Harry Kenton, a good boy, too, on the other side."
"Yes, mother, I caught a glimpse of him at Bull Run. We came almost face to face in the smoke. But it was only for an instant. Then the smoke rushed in between. I don't think anything serious has happened to him."
Mrs. Mason shuddered.
"I should mourn him next to you," she said, "and my brother-in-law, Colonel Kenton, has been very good. He left orders with his people to watch over us here. Pendleton is strongly Southern as you know, but nobody would do us any harm, unless it was the rough people from the hills."
Colonel Kenton's wife had been Mrs. Mason's elder sister, and Dick, as he also sat staring into the coals, wondered why people who were united so closely should yet be divided so much.
"Mother," he said, "when I came through the mountains with my friends we stopped at a house in which lived an old, old woman. She must have been nearly a hundred. She knew your ancestor and mine, the famous and learned Paul Cotter, from whom you and I are descended, and she also knew his friend and comrade, the mighty scout and hunter, Henry Ware, who became the great governor of Kentucky."
"But the strangest is yet to be told. Harry Kenton, when he went east to join Beauregard before Bull Run, stopped at the same house, and when she first saw him she only looked into the far past. She thought it was Henry Ware himself, and she saluted him as the governor. What do you think of that, mother?"
"It's a startling coincidence."
"But may it not be an omen? I'm not superstitious, mother, but when things come together in such a queer fashion it's bound to make you think. When Harry's paths and mine cross in such a manner maybe it means that we shall all come together again, and be united as we were."
"At any rate," said Dick with a little laugh, "we'll hope that it does."
While the boy was not noticing his mother had made a sign to Juliana, who had crept out of the room. Now she returned, bearing food upon a tray, and Dick, although he was not hungry, ate to please his mother.
"You will stay until morning?" she said.
"No, mother. I can't afford to be seen here. I must leave in the dark."
"Then until it is nearly morning."
"Nor that either, mother. My time is about up already. I could never betray the trust that General Thomas has put in me. My dispatches not only tell of the gathering of our own troops, but they contain invaluable information concerning the Confederate concentration which General Thomas learned from his scouts and spies. Mother, I think a great battle is coming here in the west."
She shuddered, but she did not seek again to delay him in his duty.
"I am proud," she said, "that you have won the confidence of your general, and that you ride upon such an important errand. I should have been glad if you had stayed at home, Dick, but since you have chosen to be a soldier, I am rejoiced that you have risen in the esteem of your officers. Write to me as often as you can. Maybe none of your letters will reach me, but at least start them. I shall start mine, too."
"Of course, mother," said Dick, "and now it's time for me to ride hard."
"Why, you have been here only a half hour!"
"Nearer an hour, mother, and on this journey of mine time means a lot. I must say good-bye now to you and Juliana."
The two women followed him down the lawn to the point where his horse was hitched between the two big pines. Mrs. Mason patted the horse's great head and murmured to him to carry her son well.
"Did you ever see a finer horse, mother?" said Dick proudly. "He's the very pick of the army."
He threw his arms around her neck, kissed her more than once, sprang into the saddle and rode away in the darkness.
The two women, the black and the white, sisters in grief, and yet happy that he had come, went slowly back into the house to wait, while the boy, a man's soul in him, strode on to war.
Dick was far from Pendleton when the dawn broke, and now he had full need of caution. His horse was bearing him fast into debatable ground, where every man suspected his neighbor, and it remained for force alone to tell to which side the region belonged. But the extreme delicacy of the tension came to Dick's aid. People hesitated to ask questions, lest questions equally difficult be asked of them in return. It was a great time to mind one's own business.
He rode on, fortune with him for the present, and his course was still west slightly by north. He slept under roofs, and he learned that in the country into which he had now come the Union sympathizers were more numerous than the Confederate. The majority of the Kentuckians, whatever their personal feelings, were not willing to shatter the republic.
He heard definitely that here in the west the North was gathering armies greater than any that he had supposed. Besides the troops from the three states just across the Ohio River the hardy lumbermen and pioneers were pouring down from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Hunters in deerskin suits and buffalo moccasins had already come from the far Nebraska Territory.
The power of the west and the northwest was converging upon his state, which gave eighty thousand of its men to the Northern cause, while half as many more went away to the Southern armies, particularly to the one under the brilliant and daring Albert Sidney Johnston, which hung a sinister menace before the Northern front. One hundred and twenty thousand troops sent to the two armies by a state that contained but little more than a million people! It was said at the time that as Kentucky went, so would go the fortunes of the Union and in the end it was so.
But these facts and reckonings were not much in Dick's mind just then. He was thinking of Buell's camp and of the message that he bore. Again and again he felt of that little inside pocket of his vest to see that it was there, although he knew that by no chance could he have lost it.
When he was within fifteen miles of Buell's camp a heavy snow began to fall. But he did not mind it. The powerful horse that had borne him so well carried him safely on to his destination, and before the sundown of that day the young messenger was standing before General Don Carlos Buell, one of the most puzzling characters whom he was to meet in the whole course of the war. He had found Thomas a silent man, but he found Buell even more so. He received Dick in an ordinary tent, thanked him as he saluted and handed him the dispatch, and then read General Thomas' message.
Dick saw before him a shortish, thickset man, grim of feature, who did not ask him a word until he had finished the dispatch.
"You know what this contains?" he said, when he came to the end.
"Yes, General Thomas made me memorize it, that I might destroy it if I were too hard pressed."
"He tells us that Johnston is preparing for some great blow and he gives the numbers and present location of the hostile forces. Valuable information for us, if it is used. You have done well, Mr. Mason. To what force were you attached?"
"A small division of Pennsylvania troops under Major Hertford. They were to be sent by General Thomas to General Grant at Cairo, Illinois."
"And you would like to join them."
"If you please, sir."
"In view of your services your wish is granted. It is likely that General Grant will need all the men whom he can get. A detachment leaves here early in the morning for Elizabethtown, where it takes the train for Louisville, proceeding thence by water to Cairo. You shall go with these men. They are commanded by Colonel Winchester. You may go now, Mr. Mason."
He turned back to his papers and Dick, thinking his manner somewhat curt, left his tent. But he was pleased to hear that the detail was commanded by Colonel Winchester. Arthur Winchester was a man of forty-one or two who lived about thirty miles north of Pendleton. He was a great landowner, of high character and pleasant manners. Dick had met him frequently in his childhood, and the Colonel received him with much warmth.
"I'm glad to know, Dick," he said familiarly, "that you're going with us. I'm fond of Pendleton, and I like to have one of the Pendleton boys in my command. If all that we hear of this man Grant is true, we'll see action, action hot and continuous."
They rode to Elizabethtown, where Dick was compelled to leave his great horse for Buell's men, and went by train to Louisville, going thence by steamer down the Ohio River to Cairo, at its junction with the Mississippi, where they stood at last in the presence of that general whose name was beginning to be known in the west.
CHAPTER IX. TAKING A FORT
Dick was with Colonel Winchester when he was admitted to the presence of the general who had already done much to strengthen the Union cause in the west, and he found him the plainest and simplest of men, under forty, short in stature, and careless in attire. He thanked Colonel Winchester for the reinforcement that he had brought him, and then turned with some curiosity to Dick.
"So you were at the battle of Mill Spring," he said. "It was hot, was it not?"
"Hot enough for me," replied Dick frankly.
"They caught a Tartar in George Thomas," he said, "and I fancy that others who try to catch him will be glad enough to let him go."
"He is a great man, sir," said Dick with conviction.
Then Grant asked him more questions about the troops and the situation in Eastern Kentucky, and Dick noticed that all were sharp and penetrating.
"Your former immediate commander, Major Hertford, and some of his men are due here today," said Grant. "General Thomas, knowing that his own campaign was over, sent them north to Cincinnati and they have come down the river to Cairo. When they reach here they will be attached to the regiment of Colonel Winchester."
Dick was overjoyed. He had formed a strong liking for Major Hertford and he was quite sure that Warner and Sergeant Whitley would be with him. Once more they would be reunited, reunited for battle. He could not doubt that they would go to speedy action as the little town at the junction of the mighty rivers resounded with preparation.
When Colonel Winchester and the boy had saluted and retired from General Grant's tent they saw the smoke pouring from the funnels of numerous steamers in the Mississippi, and they saw thousands of troops encamped in tents along the shores of both the Ohio and Mississippi. Heavy cannon were drawn up on the wharves, and ammunition and supplies were being transferred from hundreds of wagons to the steamers. It was evident to any one that this expedition, whatever it might be, was to proceed by water. It was a land of mighty rivers, close together, and a steamer might go anywhere.
As Dick and Colonel Winchester, on whose staff he would now be, were watching this active scene, a small steamer, coming down the Ohio, drew in to a wharf, and a number of soldiers in faded blue disembarked. The boy uttered a shout of joy.
"What is it, Dick?" asked Colonel Winchester.
"Why, sir, there's my former commander, Colonel Newcomb, and just behind him is my comrade, Lieutenant George Warner of Vermont, and not far away is Sergeant Whitley, late of the regular army, one of the best soldiers in the world. Can I greet them, colonel?"
Dick rushed forward and saluted Colonel Newcomb, who grasped him warmly by the hand.
"So you got safely through, my lad," he said. "Major Hertford, who came down the Kentucky with his detachment and joined us at Carrollton at the mouth of that river, told us of your mission. The major is bringing up the rear of our column, but here are other friends of yours."
Dick the next moment was wringing the hand of the Vermont boy and was receiving an equally powerful grip in return.
"I believed that we would meet you here," said Warner, "I calculated that with your courage, skill and knowledge of the country the chances were at least eighty per cent in favor of your getting through to Buell. And if you did get through to Buell I knew that at least ninety per cent of the circumstances would represent your desire and effort to come here. That was a net percentage of seventy-two in favor of meeting you here in Cairo, and the seventy-two per cent has prevailed, as it usually does."
"Nothing is so bad that it can't be worse," said Sergeant Whitley, as he too gave Dick's hand an iron grasp, "and I knew that when we lost you we'd be pretty glad to see you again. Here you are safe an' sound, an' here we are safe an' sound, a most satisfactory condition in war."
"But not likely to remain so long, judging from what we see here," said Warner. "We hear that this man Grant is a restless sort of a person who thinks that the way to beat the enemy is just to go in and beat him."
Major Hertford came up at that moment, and he, too, gave Dick a welcome that warmed his heart. But the boy did not get to remain long with his old comrades. The Pennsylvania regiment had been much cut down through the necessity of leaving detachments as guards at various places along the river, but it was yet enough to make a skeleton and its entity was preserved, forming a little eastern band among so many westerners.
Dick, at General Grant's order, was transferred permanently to the staff of Colonel Winchester, and he and the other officers slept that night in a small building in the outskirts of Cairo. He knew that a great movement was at hand, but he was becoming so thoroughly inured to danger and hardship that he slept soundly all through the night.
They heard early the next morning the sound of many trumpets and Colonel Winchester's regiment formed for embarkation. All the puffing steamers were now in the Ohio, and Dick saw with them many other vessels which were not used for carrying soldiers. He saw broad, low boats, with flat bottoms, their sides sheathed in iron plates. They were floating batteries moved by powerful engines beneath. Then there were eight huge mortars, a foot across the muzzle, every one mounted separately upon a strong barge and towed. Some of the steamers were sheathed in iron also.
Dick's heart throbbed hard when he saw the great equipment. The fighting ships were under the command of Commodore Foote, an able man, but General Grant and his lieutenants, General McClernand and General Smith, commanded the army aboard the transports. On the transport next to them Dick saw the Pennsylvanians and he waved his hand to his friends who stood on the deck. They waved back, and Dick felt powerfully the sense of comradeship. It warmed his heart for them all to be together again, and it was a source of strength, too.
The steamer that bore his regiment was named the River Queen, and many of her cabins had been torn away to make more room for the troops who would sleep in rows on her decks, as thick as buffaloes in a herd. The soldiers, like all the others whom he saw, were mostly boys. The average could not be over twenty, and some were not over sixteen. But they had the adaptability of youth. They had scattered themselves about in easy positions. One was playing an accordion, and another a fiddle. The officers did not interrupt them.
As Dick looked over the side at the yellow torrent some one said beside him:
"This is a whopping big river. You don't see them as deep as this where I come from."
Dick glanced at the speaker, and saw a lad of about his own age, of medium height, but powerfully built, with shoulders uncommonly thick. His face was tanned brown, but his eyes were blue and his natural complexion was fair. He was clad completely in deerskin, mocassins on his feet and a raccoon skin cap on his head. Dick had noticed the Nebraska hunters in such garb, but he was surprised to see this boy dressed in similar fashion among the Kentuckians.
The youth smiled when he saw Dick's glance of surprise.
"I know I look odd among you," he said, "and you take me for one of the Nebraska hunters. So I am, but I'm a Kentuckian, too, and I've a right to a place with you fellows. My name is Frank Pennington. I was born about forty miles north of Pendleton, but when I was six months old my parents went out on the plains, where I've hunted buffalo, and where I've fought Indians, too. But I'm a Kentuckian by right of birth just as you are, and I asked to be assigned to the regiment raised in the region from which we came."
"And mighty welcome you are, too," said Dick, offering his hand. "You belong with us, and we'll stick together on this campaign."
The two youths, one officer and one private, became fast friends in a moment. Events move swiftly in war. Both now felt the great engines throbbing faster beneath them, and the flotilla, well into the mouth of the Ohio, was leaving the Mississippi behind them. But the Ohio here for a distance is apparently the mightier stream, and they gazed with interest and a certain awe at the vast yellow sheet enclosed by shores, somber in the gray garb of winter. It was the beginning of February, and cold winds swept down from the Illinois prairies. Cairo had been left behind and there was no sign of human habitation. Some wild fowl, careless of winter, flew over the stream, dipped toward the water, and then flew away again.
As far as the eye was concerned the wilderness circled about them and enclosed them. The air was cold and flakes of snow dropped upon the decks and the river, but were gone in an instant. The skies were an unbroken sheet of gray. The scene so lonely and desolate contained a majesty that impressed them all, heightened for these youths by the knowledge that many of them were going on a campaign from which they would never return.
"Looks as wild as the great plains on which I've hunted with my father," said Pennington.
"But we hunt bigger game than buffalo," said Dick.
"Game that is likely to turn and hunt us."
"Do you know where we're going?"
"Not exactly, but I can make a good guess. I know that we've taken on Tennessee River pilots, and I'm sure that we'll turn into the mouth of that river at Paducah. I infer that we're to attack Fort Henry, which the Confederates have erected some distance up the Tennessee to guard that river."
"Looks likely. Do you know much about the fort?"
"I've heard of it only since I came to Cairo. I know that it stands on low, marshy ground facing the Tennessee, and that it contains seventeen big guns. I haven't heard anything about the size of its garrison."
"But we'll have a fight, that's sure," said young Pennington. "I've been in battle only once—at Columbus—but the Johnny Rebs don't give up forts in a hurry."
"There's another fort, a much bigger one, named Donelson, on the Cumberland," said Dick. "Both the forts are in Tennessee, but as the two rivers run parallel here in the western parts of the two states, Fort Donelson and Fort Henry are not far apart. I risk a guess that we attack both."
"You don't risk much. I tell you, Dick, that man Grant is a holy terror. He isn't much to look at, but he's a marcher and a fighter. We fellows in the ranks soon learn what kind of a man is over us. I suppose it's like the horse feeling through the bit the temper of his rider. President Lincoln has stationed General Halleck at St. Louis with general command here in the West. General Halleck thinks that General Grant is a meek subordinate without ambition, and will always be sending back to him for instructions, which is just what General Halleck likes, but we in the ranks have learned to know our Grant better."
Dick's eyes glistened.
"So you think, then," he said, "that General Grant will push this campaign home, and that he'll soon be where he can't get instructions from General Halleck?"
"Looks that way to a man up a tree," said Pennington slowly, and solemnly winking his left eye.
They were officer and private, but they were only lads together, and they talked freely with each other. Dick, after a while, returned to his commanding officer, Colonel Winchester, but there was little to do, and he sat on the deck with him, looking out over the fleet, the transports, the floating batteries, the mortar boats, and the iron-clads. He saw that the North, besides being vastly superior in numbers and resources, was the supreme master on the water through her equipment and the mechanical skill of her people. The South had no advantage save the defensive, and the mighty generals of genius who appeared chiefly on her Virginia line.
Dick had inherited a thoughtful temperament from his famous ancestor, Paul Cotter, whose learning had appeared almost superhuman to the people of his time, and he was extremely sensitive to impressions. His mind would register them with instant truth. As he looked now upon this floating army he felt that the Union cause must win. On land the Confederates might be invincible or almost so, but the waters of the rivers and the sea upheld the Union cause.
The fleet steamed on at an even pace. Foote, the commodore who had daringly reconnoitered Fort Henry from a single gunboat in the Tennessee, managed everything with alertness and skill. The transports were in the center of the stream. The armed and armored vessels kept on the flanks.
The river, a vast yellow sheet, sometimes turning gray under the gray, wintry skies, seemed alone save for themselves. Not a single canoe or skiff disturbed its surface. Toward evening the flakes of snow came again, and the bitter wind blew once more from the Illinois prairies. All the troops who were not under shelter were wrapped in blankets or overcoats. Dick and the colonel, with the heavy coats over their uniforms, did not suffer. Instead, they enjoyed the cold, crisp air, which filled their lungs and seemed to increase their power.
"When shall we reach the Tennessee?" asked Dick.
"You will probably wake up in the morning to find yourself some distance up that stream."
"I've never seen the Tennessee."
"Though not the equal of the Ohio, it would be called a giant river in many countries. The whole fleet, if it wanted to do it, could go up it hundreds of miles. Why, Dick, these boats can go clear down into Alabama, into the very heart of the Confederacy, into the very state at the capital of which Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the seceding states."
"I was thinking of that some time ago," said Dick. "The water is with us."
"Yes, the water is with us, and will stay with us."
They were silent a little while longer and watched the coming of the early winter twilight over the waters and the lonely land. The sky was so heavy with clouds that the gray seemed to melt into the brown. The low banks slipped back into the dark. They saw only the near surface of the river, the dark hulls of the fleet, occasional showers of sparks from smoke stacks, and an immense black cloud made by the smoke of the fleet, trailing behind them far down the river.
"Dick," said Colonel Winchester suddenly, "as you came across Kentucky from Mill Spring, and passed so near Pendleton it must have been a great temptation to you to stop and see your mother."
"It was. It was so great that I yielded to it. I was at our home about midnight for nearly an hour. I hope I did nothing wrong, colonel."
"No, Dick, my boy. Some martinets might find fault with you, but I should blame you had you not stopped for those few moments. A noble woman, your mother, Dick. I hope that she is watched over well."
Dick glanced at the colonel, but he could not see his face in the deepening twilight.
"My uncle, Colonel Kenton, has directed his people to give her help in case of need," he replied, "but that means physical help against raiders and guerillas. Otherwise she has sufficient for her support."
"That is well. War is terrible on women. And now, Dick, my lad, we'll get our supper. This nipping air makes me hungry, and the Northern troops do not suffer for lack of food."
The officers ate in one of the cabins, and when the supper was finished deep night had come over the river, but Dick, standing on the deck, heard the heavy throb of many engines, and he knew that a great army was still around him, driven on by the will of one man, deep into the country of the foe.
The decks, every foot of plank it seemed, were already covered with the sleeping boys, wrapped in their blankets and overcoats. He saw his friend, the young hunter from Nebraska, lying with his head on his arm, sound asleep, a smile on his face.
Dick watched until the first darkness thinned somewhat, and the stars came out. Then he retired to one of the cabins, which he shared with three or four others, and slept soundly until he was aroused for breakfast. He had not undressed, and, bathing his face, he went out at once on the deck. Many of the soldiers were up, there was a hum of talk, and all were looking curiously at the river up which they were steaming.
They were in the Tennessee, having passed in the night the little town of Paducah—now an important city—at its mouth. It was not so broad as the Ohio, but it was broad, nevertheless, and it had the aspect of great depth. But here, as on the Ohio, they seemed to be steaming through the wilderness. The banks were densely wooded, and the few houses that may have been near were hidden by the trees. No human beings appeared upon the banks.
Dick knew why the men did not come forth to see the ships. The southwestern part of the state, the old Jackson's Purchase, and the region immediately adjacent, was almost solidly for the South. They would not find here that division of sentiment, with the majority inclined to the North, that prevailed in the higher regions of Kentucky. The country itself was different. It was low and the waters that came into the Tennessee flowed more sluggishly.
But Dick was sure that keen eyes were watching the fleet from the undergrowth, and he had no doubt that every vessel had long since been counted and that every detail of the fleet had been carried to the Southern garrisons in the fort.
The cold was as sharp as on the day before, and Dick, like the others, rejoiced in the hot and abundant breakfast. The boats, an hour or two later, stopped at a little landing, and many of the lads would gladly have gone ashore for a few moments, risking possible sharpshooters in the woods, but not one was allowed to leave the vessels. But Dick's steamer lay so close to the one carrying the Pennsylvanians that he could talk across the few intervening feet of water with Warner and Whitley. He also took the opportunity to introduce his new friend Pennington, of Nebraska.
"Are you the son of John Pennington, who lived for a little while at Fort Omaha?" asked the sergeant.
"Right you are," replied the young hunter, "I'm his third son."
"Then you're the third son of a brave man. I was in the regular army and often we helped the pioneers against the Indians. I remember being in one fight with him against the Sioux on the Platte, and in another against the Northern Cheyennes in the Jumping Sand Hills."
"Hurrah!" cried Pennington. "I'm sorry I can't jump over a section of the Tennessee River and shake hands with you."
"We'll have our chance later," said the sergeant. At that moment the fleet started again, and the boats swung apart. Through Dick's earnest solicitation young Pennington was taken out of the ranks and attached to the staff of Colonel Winchester as an orderly. He was well educated, already a fine campaigner, and beyond a doubt he would prove extremely useful.
They steamed the entire day without interruption. Now and then the river narrowed and they ran between high banks. The scenery became romantic and beautiful, but always wild. The river, deep at any time, was now swollen fifteen feet more by floods on its upper courses, and the water always lapped at the base of the forest.
Dick and Pennington, standing side by side, saw the second sun set over their voyage, and it was as wild and lonely as the first. There was a yellow river again, and hills covered with a bare forest. Heavy gray clouds trooped across the sky, and the sun was lost among them before it sank behind the hills in the west.
Dick and Pennington, wrapped in their blankets and overcoats, slept upon the deck that night, with scores of others strewed about them. They were awakened after eleven o'clock by a sputter of rifle shots. Dick sat up in a daze and heard a bullet hum by his ear. Then he heard a powerful voice shouting: "Down! Down, all of you! It's only some skirmishers in the woods!" Then a cannon on one of the armor clads thundered, and a shell ripped its way through the underbrush on the west bank. Many exclamations were uttered by the half-awakened lads.
"What is it? Has an army attacked us?"
"Are we before the fort and under fire?"
"Take your foot off me, you big buffalo!"
It was Colonel Winchester who had commanded them to keep down, but Dick, a staff officer, knew that it did not apply to him. Instead he sprang erect and assisted the senior officers in compelling the others to lie flat upon the decks. He saw several flashes of fire in the undergrowth, but he had logic enough to know that it could only be a small Southern band. Three or four more shells raked the woods, and then there was no reply.
The boats steamed steadily on. Only one or two of the young soldiers had been hurt and they but lightly. All rolled themselves again in their blankets and coats and went back to sleep.
The second awakening was about half way between midnight and dawn. Something cold was continually dropping on Dick's face and he awoke to find hundreds of sheeted and silent white forms lying motionless upon the deck. Snow was falling swiftly out of a dark sky, and the fleet was moving slowly. In the darkness and stillness the engines throbbed powerfully, and the night was lighted fitfully by the showers of sparks that gushed now and then from the smoke stacks.
Dick thought of rising and brushing the snow from his blankets, but he was so warm inside them that he yawned once or twice and went to sleep again. When he awoke it was morning again, the snow had ceased and the men were brushing it from themselves and the decks.
The young soldiers, as they ate breakfast, spoke of the rifle shots that had been fired at them the night before and, since little damage had been done, they appreciated the small spice of danger. The wildness and mystery of their situation appealed to them, too. They were like explorers, penetrating new regions.
"To most of us it's something like the great plains," said Pennington to Dick. "There you seldom know what you're coming to; maybe a blizzard, maybe a buffalo herd, and maybe a band of Indians, and you take a pleasure in the uncertainty. But I suppose it's not the same to you, this being your state."
"I don't know much about Western Kentucky," said Dick, "my part lies to the center and east, but anyway, our work is to be done in Tennessee. Those two forts, which I'm sure we're after, lie in that state."
"And when do you think we'll reach 'em?"
"Tomorrow, I suppose."
The day passed without any interruption to the advance of the fleet, although there was occasional firing, but not of a serious nature. Now and then small bands of Confederate skirmishers sent rifle shots from high points along the bank toward the fleet, but they did no damage and the ships steamed steadily on.
The third night out came, and again the young soldiers slept soundly, but the next morning, soon after breakfast, the whole fleet stopped in the middle of the river. A thrill of excitement ran through the army when the news filtered from ship to ship that they were now in Tennessee, and that Fort Henry, which they were to attack, was just ahead.
Nevertheless, they seemed to be yet in the wilderness. The Tennessee, in flood, spread its yellow waters through forest and undergrowth, and the chill gray sky still gave a uniform somber, gray tint to everything. Bugles blew in the boats, and every soldier began to put himself and his weapons in order. The command to make a landing had been given, and Commodore Foote was feeling about for a place.
Dick now realized the enormous advantage of supremacy upon the water. Had the Confederates possessed armored ships to meet them, the landing of a great army under fire would be impossible, but now they chose their own time and went about it unvexed.
A place was found at last, a rude wharf was constructed hastily, and the fleet disgorged the army, boat by boat. Vast quantities of stores and heavy cannon were also brought ashore. Despite the cold, Dick and his comrades perspired all the morning over their labors and were covered with mud when the camp was finally constructed at some distance back of the Tennessee, on the high ground beyond the overflow. The transports remained at anchor, but the fighting boats were to drop down the stream and attack the fort at noon the next day from the front, while the army assailed it at the same time from the rear.
The detachment of Pennsylvanians was by the side of Colonel Winchester's Kentucky regiment, and Colonel Newcomb and his staff messed with Colonel Winchester and his officers. There was water everywhere, and before they ate they washed the mud off themselves as best they could.
"I suppose," said Warner, "that seventy per cent of our work henceforth will be marching through the mud, and thirty per cent of it will be fighting the rebels in Fort Henry. I hear that we're not to attack until tomorrow, so I mean to sleep on top of a cannon tonight, lest I sink out of sight in the mud while I'm asleep."
"There's some pleasure," said Pennington, "in knowing that we won't die of thirst. You could hardly call this a parched and burning desert."
But as they worked all the remainder of the day on the construction of the camp, they did not care where they slept. When their work was over they simply dropped where they stood and slumbered soundly until morning.
The day opened with a mixture of rain, snow, and fiercely cold winds. Grant's army moved out of its camp to make the attack, but it was hampered by the terrible weather and the vast swamp through which its course must lead. Colonel Winchester, who knew the country better than any other high officer, was sent ahead on horseback with a small detachment to examine the way. He naturally took Dick and Pennington, who were on his staff, and by request, Colonel Newcomb, Major Hertford, Warner and Sergeant Whitley went also. The whole party numbered about a hundred men.
Dick and the other lads rejoiced over their mission. It was better to ride ahead than to remain with an army that was pulling itself along slowly through the mud. The fort itself was only about three miles away, and as it stood upon low, marshy ground, the backwater from the flooded Tennessee had almost surrounded it.
Despite their horses, Winchester's men found their own advance slow. They had to make many a twist and turn to avoid marshes and deep water before they came within the sight of the fort, and then Dick's watch told him that it was nearly noon, the time for the concerted attacks of army and fleet. But it was certain now that the army could not get up until several hours later, and he wondered what would happen.