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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER V AN OLD ENEMY
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 Despite the brilliant sunset the night came on very dark and heavy with damp. The road through the gap was none too good and the lofty slopes clothed in forest looked menacing. Many sharpshooters might lurk there, and the three colonels were anxious to reach Sheridan with their force intact, at least without further loss after the battle with Colonel Talbot's command.  
The column was halted and it was decided to send out another scouting party to see if the way was clear. Twenty men, of whom the best for such work were Shepard and Whitley, were chosen, and Dick, owing to his experience, was put in nominal command, although he knew in his heart that the spy and the sergeant would be the real leaders, a fact which he did not resent. Warner and Pennington begged to go too, but they were left behind.
Shepard had received a remount, and, as all of them rode good horses, they advanced at a swift trot through the great gap. The spy, who knew the pass, led the way. The column behind, although it was coming forward at a good pace, disappeared with remarkable quickness. Dick, looking back, saw a dusky line of horsemen, and then he saw nothing. He did not look back again. His eyes were wholly for Shepard and the dim path ahead.
The aspect of the mountains, which had been so inviting before they came to them, changed wholly. Dick did not long so much for green foliage now, as a chill wind began to blow. All of them carried cloaks or overcoats rolled tightly and tied to their saddles, which they loosed and put on. The wind rose, and, confined within the narrow limits of the pass, it began to groan loudly. A thin sheet of rain came on its edge, and the drops were almost as cold as those of winter.
Dick's first sensation of uneasiness and discomfort disappeared quickly. Like his cousin, Harry, he had inherited a feeling for the wilderness. His own ancestor, Paul Cotter, had been a great woodsman too, and, as he drew on the buckskin gauntlets and wrapped the heavy cloak about his body, his second sensation was one of actual physical pleasure. Why should he regard the forest with a hostile eye? His ancestors had lived in it and often its darkness had saved them from death by torture.
He looked up at the dark slopes, but he could see only the black masses of foliage and the thin sheets of driven rain. For a little while, at least, his mind reproduced the wilderness. It was there in all its savage loneliness and majesty. He could readily imagine that the Indians were lurking in the brush, and that the bears and panthers were seeking shelter in their dens. But his own feeling of safety and of mental and physical pleasure in the face of obstacles deepened.
"I've been just that way myself," said Sergeant Whitley, who was riding beside him and who could both see and read his face. "On the plains when we were so well wrapped up that the icy winds whistling around us couldn't get at us then we felt all the better. But it was best when we were inside the fort and the winter blizzard was howling."
"A lot of us were talking a little while back about what they were going to do after the war. What's your plan, sergeant, if you have any?"
"I do have a plan, Mr. Mason. I was a lumberman, as you know, before I entered the regular army, and when the fighting's done I think I'll go back to it. I can swing an axe with the best of 'em, but I mean after a while to have others swinging axes for me. If I can I'm going to become a big lumberman. I'd rather be that than anything else."
"It's a just and fine ambition, sergeant, I feel sure that you're going to become a man of money and power. Mr. Warner means to become president of Harvard, twenty or twenty-five years from now, and my cousin Harry Kenton, a reconstructed rebel, is going to deliver an address there to the new president's young men, while Mr. Pennington and I, as the president's guests, are going to sit on the stage and smile. Right now, and with authority from Mr. Warner, I'm going to invite you as the lumber king of the Northwest to sit on the stage with us on that occasion, as the guest of President Warner, and smile with us."
"If I become what you predict I'll accept," said the sergeant.
The chances were a thousand to one against the prophecy, but it all came true, just as they wished.
The rain increased a little, although it was not yet able to penetrate Dick's heavy coat, but they were compelled to go more slowly on account of the thickening darkness. They reached very soon the crest of the pass and halted there a little while to see or hear any sign of a human being. But no sound came to them and they resumed the scout in the darkness, riding now down the slope which would end before long in a great valley.
The ground softened by the rain deadened the footsteps of their horses, and they made little noise as they rode down the narrow pass, examining as well as they could the dripping forest on either side of the road. Shepard was a bit ahead, and Dick and the sergeant, riding side by side, came next. Behind were the troopers, a small picked band, daring horsemen, used to every kind of danger.
They did not really anticipate the presence of an enemy in the pass. They knew that Colonel Talbot's command had turned toward the southwest. All the other Confederate forces must be gathering far up the valley to meet Sheridan, and the South was too much reduced to raise new men. Yet after a half hour's moderate riding down the slope Dick became sure that some one was in the narrow belt of forest on their right, where the slope was less steep than on their left.
At first it seemed to be an intuition, merely a feeling brought on waves of air that men, enemies, were in the wood. Then he knew that the feeling was due to sounds as of someone moving lightly through a wet thicket, but unable to keep the boughs from giving forth a rustle. He was about to call to Shepard, but before he could do so the spy stopped. Then all the others stopped also.
"Did you hear it?" Dick whispered to Sergeant Whitley.
"Yes," replied the sergeant. "Men are moving in the thicket on our right. I couldn't hear much, but they must be as numerous as we are. They're enemies or they'd have come out. They're on foot, too, as they couldn't manage horses in those deep woods. Likely they've left their mounts with a guard on top of a ridge, as men on foot wouldn't be abroad at such a time on such a night."
"Then it's an ambush!" said Dick, and he added in a sharp voice:
"Pull away to the left, men, under cover!"
Shepard was the first to turn and all the others followed instantly. Three jumps of the horses and they were among the bushes and trees on the left. It was lucky for them that they had heard the sound of the wet bushes rustling together, as a dozen rifles flashed in the dusk on the other side of the road. Bullets cut the leaves about them. Two or three buried themselves with a plunk in the trunks of trees, one killed a horse, the trooper springing clear without hurt, and one man was wounded slightly in the arm.
"Take cover," called Dick, "but don't lose your horses!"
They dismounted and concealed themselves behind the trunks of trees. Some hastily tethered their horses to bushes, but others hung the bridle over an arm. They knew that if a combat was to occur it must be fought on foot, but, for the present, they were compelled to wait. Yet if their enemy was hidden from them they also were hidden from him. All the conditions of an old Indian battle in darkness and ambush were reproduced, and Dick was deeply grateful that he had at his elbow two redoubtable champions like Whitley and Shepard. They were peculiarly fitted for such work as that which lay before them, and he was ready and willing to take advice from either.
"It's a small party," whispered Shepard, "probably not much larger than ours. They must have expected to make a complete ambush, but we heard them too soon."
"It's surely not a part of Colonel Talbot's command," said Dick. "If so, Harry Kenton and his friends would certainly be there and I shouldn't like to be in battle with them again."
"Never a fear of that," said Sergeant Whitley. "It's more likely to be some guerrilla band, roaming around as it pleases. The condition of the country and these mountains give such fellows a chance. I'm going to lie down and creep forward as we used to do on the plains. I want to get a sight of those fellows, that is, if you say so, sir."
"Of course," said Dick, "but don't take too big risks, sergeant. We can't afford to let you be shot."
"Never fear," said the sergeant, dropping almost flat upon his face, and creeping slowly forward.
The dusky figure worming itself through the bushes heightened the illusion of an old Indian combat. The sergeant was a scout and trailer feeling for the enemy and he reminded Dick of his famous ancestor, Paul Cotter. Several more shots were fired by the foe, but they did not hurt anybody, all of them flying overhead. Dick's men were anxious to send random bullets in reply into the thickets, but he restrained them. It would be only a waste, and while it was annoying to be held there, it could not be helped. Some of the horses reared and plunged with fright at the shots, but silence soon came.
Dick still watched the sergeant as he edged forward, inch by inch. Had not his eyes been following the dusky figure he could not have picked it out from the general darkness. But he still saw it faintly, a darker blur against the dark earth. Yielding a little to his own anxiety, he handed the bridle of his horse to his orderly, and moved toward the edge of the woodland strip, bending low, and using the tree trunks for shelter.
At the last tree he knelt and looked for those on the other side. The sergeant was already beyond cover, but he lay so low in the grass that Dick himself could scarcely discern him.
The wind was still driving the thin sheets of rain before it, and was keeping up a howling and whistling in the pass, a most sinister sound to one not used to the forest and darkness, although Dick paid no attention to it.
Twice the clouds parted slightly and showed a bit of moonlight, but the gleam was so brief that it was gone in a second or two. Nevertheless at the second ray Dick saw crouched beside a tree at the far side of the road a small hunched figure holding a rifle, the head crowned by an enormous flap-brimmed hat. His imagination also made him see small, close-set, menacing red eyes, and he knew at once that it was Slade, the same guerrilla leader who had once pursued him with such deadly vindictiveness through the Mississippi forest and swamps. He had heard that he had come farther north and had united his band with that of Skelly, who pretended to be on the other side. But one could never tell about these outlaws. When they were distant from the regular armies nobody was safe from them.
"Did you see?" whispered Dick to the sergeant who had crept to his side.
"Yes, I caught a glimpse of him. It was Slade, who tried so hard to kill you down there in the Vicksburg campaign. If we get another ray of the moonlight I'll pick him off, that is if you say so, sir."
"I've no objection, sergeant. Such a man as Slade cumbers the earth. Besides, he'll do everything he can now to kill us."
The sergeant knelt, carbine raised, and waited for the ray of moonlight. He was a dead shot, and he believed that he would not miss, but when the ray came at last Slade was not there. Whitley uttered a low exclamation of disgust.
"A good chance gone," he said, "and it may never come again. I'd have saved the lives of a lot of good men."
But a flash came from the thicket, and the sergeant from the grass replied. A cry followed his shot, showing that some one had received his bullet, but Dick knew instinctively that it was not Slade, the crafty leader he was sure now being safe behind the trunk of a tree.
Presently the sergeant fired from another point, and then crept hastily away lest the flash of his rifle betray him. A dozen shots were fired by Slade's band, but no harm was done, and then, the sergeant coming back, Dick held a consultation with his two lieutenants and advisers.
"Perhaps we may flank them," he said. "We can divide our force, and taking them by surprise drive them out of the wood."
But Sergeant Whitley, wary and weatherwise, was against it.
"The risk would be too great, sir," he said. "We can afford to wait while they can't. Our whole column will be up in time, while it's not likely that anybody can come to help Slade. It's true too, sir, that this rain is going to stop. The clouds are beginning to clear away, and when there's light we'll have a fair chance at 'em."
"I think," said Dick, "that it will be best for Mr. Shepard to return and hurry up a relieving column. What do you say?"
"I think so too, sir," said Shepard. "I can lead my horse back some distance through the forest, then mount and gallop up the road. They may be gone before I come again, but if they are not we can soon drive them away."
"We'll cover you with our rifles against any rush made by Slade's men," said Dick.
But it did not become necessary to fire. Shepard was able to lead his horse through the woods without noise, until he was at least three hundred yards on the return journey. Then he mounted and galloped at great speed up the pass. Dick heard the distant thud of hoofs growing fainter and fainter until they died away altogether, and he knew that Slade must have heard them too. And a man as acute and experienced as the guerrilla chief would easily divine their meaning.
The rain ceased, and the moaning and whistling of the wind in the pass became a murmur. The clouds parted and sank away toward every horizon, leaving the full dome of the sky, shot with a bright moon and millions of dancing stars. A silvery light over the woods and thickets drove away the deep darkness, and when Sergeant Whitley crept forward again to spy out the enemy he found that they were gone. He trailed them up the lofty slope and discovered, as he had surmised, that they had left their horses there while they attempted the ambush. He was sure now that they were far away, and he returned with his story, just as Shepard arrived with the vanguard of the column, led by Colonel Winchester.
"And so it was Slade!" said the Colonel.
"Undoubtedly, sir," said Dick. "I saw him plainly, and so did Sergeant Whitley."
"I'm not sorry he's here," said Colonel Winchester thoughtfully, "and I hope the story that he and Skelly have joined bands is true, because if they are in this region they're so far away from Pendleton that your people are safe from mischief at their hands."
"I hadn't thought of it in that way, sir, but it's just as you say. I'd rather have to fight them here than have them attacking our innocent people at home. In the early part of the war Skelly called himself a unionist, did he not?"
"Yes, and he may do so yet, but names are nothing to him. He'd rob, and murder, too, with equal zest under either flag."
"It's so," said Dick, and he felt the full truth as he thought of Pendleton, and his beautiful young mother, alone in her house, save for the gigantic and faithful Juliana. But Juliana was an armed host herself, and Dick smiled at the recollection of the strong and honest black face that had bent over him so often. He prayed without words that these ruthless guerrillas, no matter what flag they bore, should never come to Pendleton.
"I don't think our column on its present march need fear anything from Slade and his band," said Colonel Winchester. "Such as he can operate only from ambush, and so far as Virginia is concerned, in the mountains. Shepard says we'll be out of the pass in another hour, and by that time it will be day. I'll be glad, too, as the cold rain and the darkness and the long ride are beginning to affect the men."
The column resumed its march, Dick rode by the side of Colonel Winchester. Time, propinquity, genuine esteem, and a fourth influence which Dick did not as yet suspect, were fast knitting these two, despite the difference in age, into a friendship which nothing could break. The meeting with Slade was forgotten quickly, by all except those concerned, and by most of those too, so vast was the war and so little space did it afford for the memory of brief events. Yet it lingered a while with Dick. Twice now he had met Slade and he felt that he would meet him yet again at points far apart.
Dawn came slow and gray in a cloudy sky, but the sun soon broke through. The heat returned and the earth began to dry. The three colonels felt it necessary to give their men rest and food, and let them dry their uniforms, which had become wet in many cases, despite their overcoats and heavy cloaks.
They were now in a deep cove of the great Valley of Virginia, with the steep mountains just behind them, and far beyond the dim blue outline of other mountains enclosing it on the west. As the fires blazed up and the men made coffee and cooked their breakfasts, Dick's heart leaped. This was the great valley once more, where so much history had been made. Lee and Grant were deadlocked in the trenches before Petersburg, but here in the valley history would be made again. It was the finest part of Virginia, the greatest state of the Confederacy, and Dick knew in his heart that some heavy blows would soon be struck, where fields already had been won and lost in desperate strife.
But the men were very cheerful. The little band of skirmishers or sharpshooters under Slade had been brushed aside easily, and now that they were in the valley they did not foresee any further attempt to stop their march to Sheridan. The three colonels shared in the view, and when the men had finished breakfast and dried themselves at their fires they remounted and rode away gaily. High spirits rose again in youthful veins, and some lad of a mellow voice began to sing. By and by all joined and a thousand voices thundered out:
"Oh, share my cottage, gentle maid,
         It only waits for thee
To give a sweetness to its shade
         And happiness to me.
"Here from the splendid, gay parade
         Of noise and folly free
No sorrows can my peace invade
         If only blessed with thee.
"Then share my cottage, gentle maid,
         It only waits for thee
To give a sweetness to its shade
         And happiness to me."
Colonel Hertford made no attempt to check them as they rode across the fields, yet green here, despite the summer's heat.
"They're bravest when they sing," he said to Colonel Winchester.
"It encourages them," said Colonel Winchester, "and I like to hear it myself. It's a wonderful effect, a thousand or more strong lads singing, as they sweep over the valley toward battle."
Dick, Pennington and Warner had joined in the song, but the youth some distance ahead of them was leader. They finished "Gentle Maid" and then, with the same lad leading them, swung into a song that made Dick start and that for a moment made other mountains and another valley stand out before him, sharp and clear.
"Soft o'er the fountain, ling'ring falls the Southern moon
Far o'er the mountain, breaks the day too soon.
In thy dark eyes' splendor, where the warm light loves to dwell,
Weary looks, yet tender, speak their fond farewell.
Nita! Juanita! Ask thy soul if we should part,
Nita! Juanita! Lean thou on my heart.
"When in thy dreaming moons like these shall shine again,
And daylight beaming prove thy dreams are vain,
Wilt thou not, relenting, for thy absent lover sigh?
In thy heart consenting to a prayer gone by!
Nita! Juanita! Let me linger by thy side.
Nita! Juanita! Be my own fair bride."
They put tremendous heart and energy into the haunting old song as they sang, and Dick still saw Sam Jarvis, the singer of the hills, and his valley, where the paths of Harry Kenton and himself had crossed, though at times far apart.
"Now!" shouted the young leader, "The last verse again!" and with increased heart and energy they thundered out:
"When in thy dreaming moons like these shall shine again,
And daylight beaming prove thy dreams are vain,
Wilt thou not, relenting, for thy absent lover sigh?
In thy heart consenting to a prayer gone by!
Nita! Juanita! Let me linger by thy side.
Nita! Juanita! Be my own fair bride."
The mighty chorus sank away and the hills gave it back in echoes until the last one died.
"It's sung mostly in the South," said Dick to Warner and Pennington.
"True," said Warner, "but before the war songs were not confined to one section. They were the common property of both. We've as much right to sing Juanita as the Johnnies have."
All that day they rode and sang, going north toward Halltown, where the forces of Sheridan were gathering, and the valley, although lone and desolate, continually unfolded its beauty before them. The mountains were green near by and blue in the distance, and the fertile floor that they enclosed, like walls, was cut by many streams. Here, indeed, was a region that had bloomed before the war, and that would bloom again, no matter what war might do.
They found inhabited houses now and then, but all the men of military age were gone away and the old men, the women and the children would answer nothing. The women were not afraid to tell the Yankees what they thought of them, and in this war which was never a war on women the troopers merely laughed, or, if they felt anger, they hid it.
On they went through night and day, and now they drew near to Sheridan. Scouts in blue met them and the gallant column shook their sabers and saluted. Yes, it was true, they said, that Sheridan was gathering a fine army and he and all of his men were eager to march, but Colonel Hertford's force, sent by General Grant to help, would be welcomed with shouts. The fame of its three colonels had gone on before.
It was bright noon when they approached the northern end of the valley, and Dick saw a horseman followed by a group of about twenty men galloping toward them. The leader was a short, slender man, sitting firmly in his saddle.
"General Sheridan!" exclaimed Shepard.
Colonel Hertford instantly ordered his trumpeter to sound a signal, and the troopers, stopping and drawing up in a long line, awaited the man who was to command them, and who was coming on so fast. Again Dick examined him closely through his glasses, and he saw the young, tanned face under the broad brim of his hat, and the keen, flashing eyes. He noticed also how small he was. Sheridan was but five feet five inches in height and he weighed in the momentous campaign now about to begin, only one hundred and fifteen pounds! As slight as a young boy, he gave, nevertheless, an impression of the greatest vigor and endurance.
He reined in his horse a score of yards in front of the long line and was about to speak to Colonel Hertford, who sat his saddle before it, Colonel Winchester and Colonel Bedford on either side of him, but there was a sudden interruption.
Fifteen hundred sabers flashed aloft, the blazing sunlight glittering for a moment on their broad blades. Then they swept in mighty curves, all together, and from fifteen hundred throats thundered:
"Sheridan! Sheridan! Sheridan!"
The sabers made another flashing curve, sank back into their scabbards, and the men were silent.
Sheridan's tanned face flushed deeply, and a great light leaped up in his eyes, as he received the magnificent salute. His own sword sprang out, and made the salute in reply. Then, riding a little closer, he said in a loud, clear tone that all could hear:
"Men, I have been looking for you! I have come forward to meet you! I knew that you were great horsemen, gallant soldiers, but I see that you are even greater and more gallant men than I had hoped. The Army of the Potomac has sent its best as a gift to the Army of the Shenandoah. Men, I thank you for this welcome, the warmest I have ever received!"
Again the sabers flashed aloft, made their glittering curve, and again from muscular throats came the thunderous cheer:
"Sheridan! Sheridan! Sheridan!"
Then the young general shook hands heartily with the three colonels, the young aides were introduced, and with Sheridan himself at their head the whole column swept off toward the north, and to the camp of the Army of the Shenandoah which lay but a little distance away.

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