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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER VIII THE MESSENGER FROM RICHMOND
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 It seemed that Dick and his comrades were to see an activity in the valley under Sheridan much like that which Harry and his friends had experienced under Stonewall Jackson earlier in the war. All of the men before they went to sleep that night had felt confirmed in the belief that a strong hand was over them, and that a powerful and clear mind was directing them. There would be no more prodigal waste of men and supplies. No more would a Southern general have an opportunity to beat scattered forces in detail. The union had given Sheridan a splendid army and a splendid equipment, and he would make the most of both.  
Their belief in Sheridan's activity and energy was justified fully, perhaps to their own discomfort, as the trumpets sounded before dawn, and they ate a hasty breakfast, while the valley was yet dark. Then they were ordered to saddle and ride at once.
"What, so early?" exclaimed Pennington. "Why, it's not daylight yet. Isn't this new general of ours overdoing it?"
"We wanted a general who would lead," said Warner, "and we've got him."
"But a battle a day! Isn't that too large an allowance?"
"No. We've a certain number of battles to fight, and the sooner we fight them the sooner the war will be over."
"Here comes the dawn," said Dick, "and the bugles are singing to us to march. It's the cavalry that are to show the way."
The long line of horsemen rode on southward, leaving behind them Winchester, the little city that had been beloved of Jackson, and approached the Massanuttons, the bold range that for a while divided the valley into two parts. The valley was twenty miles wide before they came to the Massanuttons, but after the division the western extension for some distance was not more than four miles across, and it was here that they were going. At the narrower part, on Fisher's Hill, Early had strong fortifications, defended by his finest infantry, and Colonel Winchester did not deem it likely that Sheridan would make a frontal attack upon a position so well defended.
It was about noon when the cavalry arrived before the Southern works. Dick, through his glasses, clearly saw the guns and columns of infantry, and also a body of Southern horse, drawn up on one flank of the hill. He fancied that the Invincibles were among them, but at the distance he could not pick them from the rest.
The regiment remained stationary, awaiting the orders of Sheridan, and Dick still used his glasses. He swept them again and again across the Confederate lines, and then he turned his attention to the mountains which here hemmed in the valley to such a straitened width. He saw a signal station of the enemy on a culminating ridge called Three Top Mountain, and as the flags there were waving industriously he knew that every movement of the union army would be communicated to Early's troops below.
Yet the whole scene despite the fact that it was war, red war, appealed to Dick's sense of the romantic and beautiful. The fertile valley looked picturesque with its woods and fields, and on either side rose the ranges as if to protect it. Mountains like trees always appealed to him, and the steep slopes were wooded densely. Lower down they were brown, with touches of green that yet lingered, but higher up the glowing reds and golds of autumn were beginning to appear. The wind that blew down from the crests was full of life.
Sheridan arrived and, riding before the center of his army, looked long and well at the Southern defenses. Then he called his generals, and some of the colonels, including Winchester, and held a brief council.
"It means," said Warner, while the colonel was yet away at the meeting, "that we won't fight any this afternoon, but that we'll do a lot of riding tonight. That position is too strong to be attacked. It would cost us too many men to take it straight away, but having seen a specimen of Little Phil's quality we know that he'll try something else."
"You mean get on their flank," said Dick. "Maybe we can make a passage along the slopes of the mountains."
"As the idea has occurred to me I take it that it will occur to Little Phil also," said Warner.
"Are you sure that he hasn't thought of it first?"
"My politeness forbids an answer. I am but a lieutenant and he is our commander."
The rest of the day was spent in massing the troops across the valley, the Winchester regiment being sent further west until it was against the base of the Massanuttons. Here Shepard came in the twilight and conferred with Colonel Winchester, who called Dick.
"Dick," he said, "Mr. Shepard thinks he can obtain information of value on the mountain. He has an idea that some fighting may occur, and so it's better for a small detachment to go with him. I've selected you to lead the party, because you're at home in the woods."
"May I take Lieutenant Warner and Lieutenant Pennington with me? It would hurt their feelings to be left behind."
"Yes. Under no circumstances must the feelings of those two young men be hurt," laughed Colonel Winchester.
"And Sergeant Whitley, too? He's probably the best scout in our army. He can follow a trail where there is no trail. He can see in the pitchy dark, and he can hear the leaves falling."
"High recommendations, but they're almost true. Take the sergeant by all means. I fancy you'll need him."
The whole party numbered about a dozen, and Shepard was the guide. It was dismounted, of course, as the first slope they intended to carry was too steep for a horse to climb. They were also heavily armed, it being absolutely certain that Southern riflemen were on Massanutton Mountain.
Dick and Shepard were in the lead, and, climbing up at a sharp angle, they quickly disappeared from the view of those below. It was as if night and the wilderness had blotted them out, but every member of the little party felt relief and actual pleasure in the expedition. Something mysterious and unknown lay before them, and they were anxious to find out what it was.
Shepard whispered to Dick of the care that they must take against their foes, and Warner whispered to Pennington that the mountain was really fine, although finer ridges could be found in Vermont.
Two hundred yards up, and Shepard, touching Dick's shoulder, pointed to the valley. The whole party stopped and looked back. Although themselves buried in brown foliage they saw the floor of the valley all the way to the mountains on the other side, and it was a wonderful sight, with its two opposing lines of camp fires that shot up redly and glowed across the fields. Now and then they saw figures of men moving against a crimson background, but no sound of the armies came to them. Peace and silence were yet supreme on the mountain.
"It makes you feel that you're not only above it in the body, but that you are not a part of it at all," said Shepard.
Dick was not surprised at his words. He had learned long since that the spy was an uncommon man, much above most of those who followed his calling.
"It gives me a similar feeling of detachment," he said, "but we know just the same that they're going to fight again tomorrow, and that we'll probably be in the thick of it. I hope, Mr. Shepard, that our victory yesterday marks the beginning of the end."
"I think it does, Mr. Mason. If we clean up the valley, and we'll do it, Lee's flank and Richmond will be exposed. He'll have to come out of his trenches then, and that will give Grant a chance to attack him with an overwhelming force. The Confederacy is as good as finished, but I've never doubted the result for a moment."
"I've worried a little at times. It seemed to me now and then that all those big defeats in Virginia might make our people too weary to go on. Why is that light flaring so high on Fisher's Hill?"
"It may be a signal. Possibly the Southerners are replying to it with another fiery signal on this mountain. We can't see the crest of Massanutton from this slope."
"You seem to know every inch of the ground in this region. How did you manage to learn it so thoroughly?"
"I was born in the valley not far from here. I've climbed over Massanutton many a time. Not far above us is a grove of splendid nut trees, and along the edge of it runs a ravine. I mean to lead the way up the ravine, Mr. Mason. It will give us shelter from the scouts and spies of the enemy."
"Shelter is what we want. I've no taste for being shot obscurely here on the side of the mountain."
"Then keep close behind me, all of you," said Shepard. "We're above the steepest part now, and I know a little path that leads to the ravine. Don't stumble if you can help it."
The path was nothing more than a trace, but it sufficed to give them a surer footing, and in eight or ten minutes they reached the ravine which ran in a diagonal line across the face of the mountain, gradually ascending to the summit. The ravine itself was not more than three or four feet deep, but as its banks were thickly lined with dwarfed cedar they were completely hidden unless they should chance to meet the Southern riflemen, coming down the mountain by the same way.
The ravine at one point led out on a bare shoulder of the slope, and looking over the little pines they clearly saw a fire blazing on the crest and waving flags silhouetted before its glow. Far below, at Fisher's Hill, flags were waving also.
"Quite a lively talk," whispered Shepard. "I suppose the lookouts are telling a lot about our army."
"But it won't make much difference," said Dick. "By the time they've spelled out from the flags what Sheridan is doing he'll be doing something else."
They resumed their climb and the ravine led again into dense forest. Sergeant Whitley had moved up by the side of Shepard, as they were now near the enemy, and his great scouting abilities were needed. It was a wise precaution, as presently he held up his hand, and then, at a signal from him, the whole party climbed softly out of the ravine, and crouched among the little cedars.
Now Dick himself heard what the sergeant had heard perhaps a half minute earlier, that is, the footsteps of two men coming swiftly down the ravine. In another minute they came in sight, Confederate troopers, obviously scouting. Luckily, the ravine being stony and the light bad, they did not see any trail, left by Shepard's troop, and they went on down the ravine.
"Shall we go on?" asked Dick.
"Not yet, sir," replied Shepard. "They don't suspect that we're up here, and it's likely they're trying for a good view of our army. But I fancy they'll be returning in a few minutes. We'd best be very quiet, sir."
Dick cautioned the men, and they lay as still as wild animals in their coverts. In about ten minutes the two riflemen came back up the ravine, and the hidden troopers could hear them talking.
"We'll try some other part of the slope, Jack," said one.
"Yes, that was a bad view," rejoined the other. "We couldn't tell a thing about the Yankee movements from down there. We can leave the ravine higher up, and I know a path that leads toward the north."
"There's not much good in finding out about 'em anyway. That fellow Sheridan is going to press us hard, and they have everything, numbers, arms, food, while we have next to nothing."
"But we'll fight 'em anyhow. Still, I wish old Stonewall was here."
"But he ain't here, and we'll have to do the best we can without him."
Their voices were lost, as they passed up the ravine and disappeared. Then Dick and his little party came out cautiously, and followed.
"I gather from what those two said that Early's men are depressed," said Dick.
"They've a right to be," replied Shepard. "Their army is in bad shape, besides being small, and now that we have a real leader we are, I think, sure to clean up the valley."
"But there'll be plenty of hard fighting."
"Yes. We'll have to win what we get."
The ravine widened and deepened a little, and they stopped. Sergeant Whitley in his capacity of chief scout and trailer climbed up the rocky side and looked about a little, while the others waited. He returned in two or three minutes, and Dick saw, by the moonlight, that his face expressed surprise.
"What is it, sergeant?" asked Dick.
"A woman is on the mountain. She passed by the ravine not long since, perhaps not a half hour ago."
"A woman at such a time? Why, sergeant, it's impossible!"
"No, sir, it isn't. See here!"
He opened his left hand. Within the palm lay a tiny bit of thin gray cloth.
"There may not be more than a dozen threads here," he said, "but I found 'em sticking to a thorn bush not twenty yards away. A half hour ago they were a part of a woman's dress. A thorn bush grows among the cedars above. She was in a hurry, and when her dress caught in it she jerked it loose."
"But how do you know it was only a half hour or less ago?" asked Dick.
"Because she broke two 'or three of the thorns when she jerked, and it was so late that their wounds are still bleeding, that is, a faint bit of sap is oozing out at the fractures."
"That sounds conclusive," said Dick, "but likely it was a mountain woman who lives somewhere along the slope."
The sergeant shook his head.
"No, sir, it was no mountain woman," he said. "When I found the cloth on the thorns I knelt and looked for a trail. It's hard ground mostly, but I thought I might find the trace of a footstep somewhere. I found several, and not one of them was made by the flat, broad shoe that mountain women wear. I found small rounded heel prints which the shoes worn by city women make."
"If any city woman is on this mountain she's a long way from home," said Warner.
"But I'm quite sure of what I say, sir," said the sergeant.
"And so am I," said Shepard, who had been listening with the keenest attention. "Will you mind letting me lead the way for a little while, sir?"
"Go ahead, of course," said Dick. "In such work as this we rely upon the sergeant and you."
"Then I'd like to take a look at those heel prints also."
Dick thought he detected a quiver of excitement or emotion in the voice of Shepard, always so calm and steady hitherto, and he wondered. Nevertheless he asked no questions as he led the way out of the ravine.
The sergeant showed the heel prints to Shepard, and beyond question they had been made by a woman. By careful scrutiny they found a half dozen more leading in a diagonal direction up the side of the mountain, but beyond that the ground was so hard and rocky that they could discover no further traces.
"You agree with me that the tracks have just been made?" said the sergeant to Shepard.
"I do," replied the spy, his voice showing growing excitement, "and I think I know who made them. I didn't believe it at first. It seemed incredible. I want to try a little experiment. Will all of you remain perfectly still?"
"Of course," said Dick.
He took a small whistle from his pocket and blew upon it. The sound was not shrill like that of Slade's whistle, but was very low, soft and musical. He blew only a few notes. Then he took the whistle from his lips and waited. Dick saw that his excitement was growing. It showed clearly in the spy's eyes, and he felt his own excitement increasing, too. He divined that something extraordinary was going to happen.............
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