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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER III OVER THE HILLS
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 Dick and his little troop rode on through the silent country, and they were so watchful and thorough that they protected fully the right flank of the marching column. One or two shots were fired, but the reports came from such distant points that he knew the bullets had fallen short.  
But while he beat up the forests and fields for sharpshooters he was very thoughtful. He had a mind that looked far ahead, even in youth, and the incident at the house weighed upon him. He foresaw the coming triumph of the North and of the union, a triumph won after many great disasters, but he remembered what an old man at a blacksmith shop in Tennessee had told him and his comrades before the Battle of Stone River. Whatever happened, however badly the South might be defeated, the Southern soil would still be held by Southern people, and their bitterness would be intense for many a year to come. The victor forgives easily, the vanquished cannot forget. His imagination was active and vivid, often attaining truths that logic and reason do not reach, and he could understand what had happened at the house, where the ordinary mind would have been left wondering.
It is likely also that the sergeant had a perception of it, though not as sharp and clear as Dick's.
"When the war is over and the soldiers all go back, that is them that's livin'," he said, "it won't be them that fought that'll keep the grudge. It's the women who've lost their own that'll hate longest."
"I think what you say is true, Whitley," said Dick, "but let's not talk about it any more. It hurts."
"Me too," said the sergeant. "But don't you like this country that we're ridin' through, Mr. Mason?"
"Yes, it's fine, but most of it has been cropped too hard. I remember reading somewhere that George Washington himself said, away back in the last century, that slave labor, so careless and reckless, was ruining the soil of Virginia."
"Likely that's true, sir, but it won't have much chance to keep on ruinin' it. Wouldn't you say, sir, that was a Johnny on his horse up there?"
"I can soon tell you," said Dick, unslinging his glasses.
On their right was a hill towering above the rest. The slopes were wooded densely, but the crest was quite bare. Upon it sat a solitary figure on horseback, evidently watching the marching column.
Dick put his glasses to his eyes. The hill and the lone sentinel enlarged suddenly and came nearer. The pulses in his temples beat hard. Although he could not see the watcher's face clearly, because he too was using glasses, he knew him instantly. He would have known that heroic figure and the set of the shoulders and head anywhere. He felt astonishment at first, but it passed quickly. It was likely that they should meet again some time or other, since the field of battle had narrowed so much.
Sergeant Whitley, who invariably saw everything, had seen Dick's slight start.
"Someone you know, sir?" he asked.
"Yes, sergeant. It's my cousin, Harry Kenton. You've heard me talk of him often. A finer and braver and stronger fellow never lived. He's using glasses too and I've no doubt he's recognized me."
Dick suddenly waved his glasses aloft, and Harry Kenton replied in like manner.
"He sees and knows me!" cried Dick.
But the sergeant was very sober. He foresaw that these youths, bound by such ties of blood and affection, might come into battle against each other. The same thought was in Dick's mind, despite his pleasure at the distant view of Harry.
"We exchanged shots in the Manassas campaign," said Dick. "We were sheltered and we didn't know each other until several bullets had passed."
"Three more horsemen have joined him," said the sergeant.
"Those are his friends," said Dick, who had put the glasses back to his eyes. "Look how they stand out against the sun!"
The four horsemen in a row, at equal distances from one another, were enlarged against a brilliant background of red and gold. Their attitude was impressive, as they sat there, unmoving, like statues cut in stone. They were in truth Harry and Dalton, St. Clair and Happy Tom, and farther on the Invincibles were marching, the two colonels at their head, to the Valley of Virginia to reinforce Early, and to make headway, if possible, against Sheridan.
Harry was deeply moved. Kinship and the long comradeship of youth count for much. Perhaps for more in the South than anywhere else. Stirred by a sudden emotion he took off his cap and waved it as a signal of hail and farewell. The four removed their own caps and waved them also. Then they turned their horses in unison, rode over the hill and were gone from Dick's sight.
Sergeant Whitley was not educated, but his experience was vast, he knew men and he had the gift of sympathy. He understood Dick's feelings.
"All civil wars are cruel," he said. "The killing of one's own people is worst of all."
But as they went on, Dick's melancholy fell from him, and he had only pleasant recollections of the meeting. Besides, the continued movement and freedom were inspiriting in the highest degree to youth. Although it was August the day was cool, and the blue sky of Virginia was never brighter. A refreshing breeze blew from dim, blue mountains that they could see far ahead, and, as they entered a wide stretch of open country where ambush was impossible, the trumpets called in the flankers.
"We shall make the lower mountains about midnight, and we'd better camp then until dawn. Don't you think so, gentlemen?" asked Colonel Hertford of his associate colonels, Winchester and Bedford.
"The plan seems sound to me," replied Bedford, the Pennsylvanian. "Of course, we want to reach Sheridan as soon as possible, but if we push the horses too hard we'll break them down."
Dick had dropped back with Warner and Pennington, but he heard the colonels talking.
"We all saw General Sheridan at the great battles in the West," he said. "I particularly remember how he planted himself and the batteries at Perryville and saved us from defeat, but he seems to be looming up so much more now in the East."
"He's become the Stuart of our side," said Warner. "I've heard some of the people at Washington don't believe in him, but he has General Grant's confidence and that's enough for me. Not that I put military authority over civil rule, but war has to be fought by soldiers. I look for lively times in the Valley of Virginia."
"Anyway, the Lord has delivered me from the trenches at Petersburg," said Pennington. "Think of me, used to roaming over a thousand miles of plains, shut up between mud walls only four or five feet apart."
"I believe that, with Sheridan, you're going to have all the roaming you want," said Dick.
They passed silent farm houses, but took nothing from them. Ample provision was carried on extra horses or their own, and the three colonels were anxious not to inflame the country by useless seizures. Twilight came, and the low mountains sank away in the dusk. But they had already reached a higher region where nearly all the hills were covered with forest, and Colonel Hertford once more spread out the flankers, Dick and the sergeant, as before, taking the right with their little troop.
The night was fortunately clear, almost as light as day, with a burnished moon and brilliant stars, and they did not greatly fear ambush. Dick shrewdly reckoned that Early would need all his men in the valley, and, after the first day at sharpshooting, they would withdraw to meet greater demands.
Nevertheless he took a rather wide circuit and came into a lonely portion of the hills, where the forest was unbroken, save for the narrow path on which they rode. The sergeant dismounted once and examined the ground.
"Nothing has passed here," he said, "and the woods and thickets are so dense that men can't ride through 'em."
The path admitted of only two abreast, and the forest was so heavy that it shut out most of the moonlight. But they rode on confidently, Dick and the sergeant leading. If it had not been for the size of the trees, Dick would have thought that he was back in the Wilderness. They heard now and then the wings of night birds among the leaves, and occasionally some small animal would scuttle across the path. They forded a narrow but deep stream, its waters black from decayed vegetation, and continued to push on briskly through the unbroken forest, until the sergeant said in a low voice to Dick:
"I think I hear something ahead of us."
They pulled back on the reins so suddenly that those behind almost rode into them. Then they sat there, a solid, compact little group, while Dick and the sergeant listened intently.
"It's hoofbeats," said Dick, "very faint, because they are far away."
"I think you are right, sir," said the sergeant.
"But they're coming this way."
"Yes, and at a steady pace. No stops and no hesitation."
"Which shows that it's somebody who doesn't fear any harm."
"The beats are pretty solid. A heavy man on a heavy horse."
"About three hundred yards away, don't you think?"
"About that, sir."
"Maybe a farmer going home?"
"Maybe, but I don't think so, sir."
"At any rate, we'll soon see, because our unknown comes on without a break. There he is now!"
They had a comparatively clear view straight ahead, and the figure of a man and a horse emerged from the shadows.
The sergeant raised his rifle, but, as the man came on without fear, he dropped it again. Some strange effect of the moonlight exaggerated the rider and his horse, making both look gigantic, blending them together in such manner that a tremendous centaur seemed to be riding them down. In an instant or two the general effect vanished and as a clear beam fell upon the man's face Dick uttered an exclamation of relief.
"Shepard!" he said, and he felt then that he should have known before that it was Shepard who was coming. He, alone of all men, seemed to have the gift of omniscience and omnipresence. The spy drew his horse to a halt directly in front of him and saluted:
"Lieutenant Mason, sir?" he said.
"I'm glad it's you, Mr. Shepard," said Dick. "I think that in this wood we'll need the hundred eyes that once belonged to Argus, but which he has passed on to you."
"Thank you, sir," said Shepard.
But the man at whom he looked most was the sergeant, and the sergeant looked most at him. One was a sergeant and the other was a spy, but each recognized in the other a king among men. Eyes swept over powerful chests and shoulders and open, bold countenances, and signified approval. They had met before, but they were more than well met here in the loneliness and the dark, amid dangers, where skill and courage, and not rank, counted. Then they nodded without speaking, as an Indian chief would to an Indian chief, his equal.
"You were coming to meet us, Mr. Shepard?" said Dick.
"I expected to find you on this path."
"And you have something to tell?"
"A small Confederate force is in the mountains, awaiting Colonel Hertford. It is inferior to his in numbers, but it knows the country thoroughly and has the sympathy of all the inhabitants, who bring to it news of everything."
"Do you know these Confederate troops?"
"Yes, sir. Their corps is a regiment called in General Lee's army the Invincibles, but it includes two other skeleton regiments. Colonel Talbot who leads the Invincibles is the commander of them all. He has, I should say, slightly less than a thousand men."
"You know a good deal about this regiment called the Invincibles, do you not, Mr. Shepard?"
"I do, sir. Its colonel, Talbot, and its lieutenant-colonel, St. Hilaire, are as brave men as any that ever lived, and the regiment has an extraordinary reputation in the Southern army for courage. Two of General Lee's young staff officers are also with them now."
"Who are they?"
"Lieutenant Harry Kenton and Lieutenant George Dalton."
Dick with his troop rode at once to Colonel Hertford and reported.
Colonel Hertford listened and then glanced at Dick.
"Kenton is your cousin, I believe," he said.
"Yes, sir," replied Dick. "He has been in the East all the time. Once in the second Manassas campaign we came face to face and fired at each other, although we did not know who was who then."
"And now here you are in opposing forces again. With the war converging as it is, it was more than likely that you should confront each other once more."
"But I don't expect to be shooting at Harry, and I don't think he'll be shooting at me."
"Will you ride into the woods again on the right, Mr. Shepard?" said Colonel Hertford. "Perhaps you may get another view of this Confederate force. Dick, you go with him. Warner, you and Pennington come with me."
Dick and Shepard entered the woods side by side, and the youth who had a tendency toward self-analysis found that his liking and respect for the spy increased. The general profession of a spy might be disliked, but in Shepard it inspired no repulsion, rather it increased his heroic aspect, and Dick found himself relying upon him also. He felt intuitively that when he rode into the forest with Shepard he rode into no danger, or if by any chance he did ride into danger, they would, under the guidance of the spy, ride safely out of it again.
Shepard turned his horse toward the deeper forest, which lay on the left, and very soon they were out of sight of the main column, although the sound of hoofs and of arms, clinking against one another, still came faintly to them. Yet peace, the peace for which Dick longed so ardently, seemed to dwell there in the woods. The summer was well advanced and as the light winds blew, the leaves, already beginning to dry, rustled against one another. The sound was pleasant and soothing. He and Harry Kenton and other lads of their age had often heard it on autumn nights, when they roamed through the forests around Pendleton in search of the raccoon and the opossum. It all came back to him with astonishing vividness and force.
He was boy and man in one. But he could scarcely realize the three years and more of war that had made him a man. In one way it seemed a century, and in another it seemed but yesterday. The water rose in his eyes at the knowledge that this same cousin who was like a brother to him, one with whom he had hunted, fished, played and swum, was there in the woods less than a mile away, and that he might be in battle with him again before morning.
"You were thinking of your cousin, Mr. Kenton," said Shepard suddenly.
"Yes, but how did you know?" asked Dick in surprise.
"Because your face suddenly became melancholy—the moonlight is good, enabling me to read your look—and sadness is not your natural expression. You recall that your cousin, of whom you think so much, is at hand with your enemies, and the rest is an easy matter of putting two and two together."
"You're right in all you say, Mr. Shepard, but I wish Harry wasn't there."
Shepard was silent and then Dick added passionately:
"Why doesn't the South give up? She's worn down by attrition. She's blockaded hard and fast! When she loses troops in battle she can't find new men to take their places! She's short in food, ammunition, medicines, everything! The whole Confederacy can't be anything but a shell now! Why don't they quit!"
"Pride, and a lingering hope that the unexpected will happen. Yes, we've won the war, Mr. Mason, but it's yet far from finished. Many a good man will fall in this campaign ahead of us in the valley, and in other campaigns too, but, as I see it, the general result is already decided. Nothing can change it. Look between these trees, and you can see the Southern force now."
Dick from his horse gazed into a valley down which ran a good turnpike, looking white in the moonlight. Upon this road rode the Southern force in close ranks, but too far away, for any sound of their hoof beats to come to the watchers. The moon which was uncommonly bright now colored them all with silver, and Dick, with his imaginative mind, easily turned them into a train of the knights of old, clad in glittering mail. They created such a sense of illusion and distance, time as well as space, that the peace of the moment was not disturbed. It was a spectacle out of the past, rather than present war.
"You are familiar with the country, of course," said Dick.
"Yes," replied Shepard. "Our road, as you know, is now running parallel with that on which the Southern force is traveling, with a broad ridge between. But several miles farther on the ridge becomes narrower and the roads merge. We're sure to have a fight there. Like you, I'm sorry your cousin Harry Kenton is with them."
"It seems that you and he know a good deal of each other."
"Yes, circumstances have brought us into opposition again and again from the beginning of the war, but the same circumstances have made me know more about him than he does about me. Yet I mean that we shall be friends when peace comes, and I don't think he'll oppose my wish."
"He won't. Harry has a generous and noble nature. But he wouldn't stand being patronized, merely because he happened to be on the beaten side."
"I shouldn't think of trying to do such a thing. Now, we've seen enough, and I think we'd better go back to the colonels, with our news."
They rode through the woods again, and, for most of the distance, there was no sound from the marching troops. The wonderful feeling of peace returned. The sky was as blue and soft as velvet. The great stars glittered and danced, and the wind among the rustling leaves was like the soft singing of a violin. At one point they crossed a little brook which ran so swiftly down among the trees that it was a foam of water. They dismounted, drank hastily, and then let the horses take their fill.
"I like these hills and forests and their clear waters," said Dick, "and judging by the appearance it must be a fine country to which we're coming."
"It is. It's something like your Kentucky Blue Grass, although it's smaller and it's hemmed in by sharper and bolder mountains. But I should say that the Shenandoah Valley is close to a hundred and twenty miles long, and from twenty-five to forty miles wide, not including its spur, the Luray Valley, west of the Massanuttons."
"As large as one of the German Principalities."
"And as fine as any of them."
"It's where Stonewall Jackson made that first and famous campaign of his."
"And it's lucky for us that we don't have to face him there now. Early is a good general, they say, but he's no Stonewall Jackson."
"And we're to be led by Sheridan. I think he saved us at Perryville in Kentucky, but they say he's become a great cavalry commander. Do you know him, Mr. Shepard?"
"Well. A young man, and a little man. Why, you'd overtop him more than half a head, Mr. Mason, but he has a great soul for battle. He's the kind that will strike and strike, and keep on striking, and that's the kind we need now."
"Here are our own men just ahead. I see the three colonels riding together."
They went forward swiftly and told what they had seen, Shepard also describing the nature of the ground ahead, and the manner in which the two roads converged.
"Which column do you think will reach the junction first?" asked Colonel Hertford.
"They'll come to it about the same time," replied Shepard.
"And so a clash is unavoidable. It was not our purpose to fight before we reached General Sheridan, but since the enemy wants it, it must be that way."
Orders were issued for the column to advance as quietly as possible, while skirmishers were thrown out to prevent any ambush. Shepard rode again into the forest but Dick remained with Warner and Pennington. Warner as usual was as cool as ice, and spoke in the precise, scholarly way that he liked.
"We march parallel with the enemy," he said, "and yet we're bound to meet him and fight. It's a beautiful mathematical demonstration. The roads are not parallel in an exact sense but converge to a point. Hence, it is not our wish, but the convergence of these roads that brings us together in conflict. So we see that the greatest issues of our life are determined by mathematics. It's a splendid and romantic study. I wish you fellows would pay more attention to it."
"Mathematics beautiful and romantic!" exclaimed Pennington. "Why, George, you're out of your head! There's nothing in the world I hate more than the sight of an algebra!"
"The trouble is with you and not with the algebra. You were alluding in a depreciatory manner to my head but it's your own head that fails. When I said algebra was a beautiful and romantic study I used the adjectives purposely. Out of thousands of adjectives in the dictionary I selected those two to fit the case. What could be more delightful than an abstruse problem in algebra? You never know along what charming paths of the mind it will lead you. Moreover there is over it a veil of mystery. You can't surmise what delightful secrets it will reveal later on. What will the end be? What a powerful appeal such a question will always make to a highly intelligent and imaginative mind like mine! No poetry! No beauty! Why every algebraic problem from the very nature of its being is surcharged with it! It's like the mystery of life itself, only in this case we solve the mystery! And if I may change the metaphor, an algebraic formula is like a magnificent diamond, cutting its way through the thick and opaque glass, which represents the unknown! I long for the end of the war for many reasons, but chief among them is the fact that I may return to the romantic and illimitable fields of the mathematical problem!"
"I didn't know anyone could ever become dithyrambic about algebra," said Dick.
"What's dithyrambic?" asked Pennington.
"Spouting, Frank. But George, as we know, is a queer fellow. They grow 'em in Vermont, where they love steep mountains, deep ravines and hard mathematics."
They had been speaking in low tones, but now they ceased entirely. Shepard had come back from the forest, reporting that the junction of the roads was near, and the Confederate force was marching toward it at the utmost speed.
The hostile columns might be in conflict in a half hour now, and the men prepared themselves. Innumerable battles and skirmishes could never keep their hearts from beating harder when it became evident that they were to go under fire once more. After the few orders necessary, there was no sound save that of the march itself. Meanwhile the moon and stars were doing full duty, and the night remained as bright as ever.

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