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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER IX AT GRIPS WITH EARLY
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 Dick felt great excitement and elation as he rode before dawn with Colonel Winchester and the spy to see Sheridan. They found him sitting by a small fire receiving or sending reports, and talking with a half-dozen of his generals. It was not yet day, but the flames lighted up the commander's thin, eager face, and made him look more boyish than ever.  
Dick felt as he had felt before that he was in the presence of a man. He had had the same impression when he stood near Grant and Thomas. Did strong men send off electric currents of will and power which were communicated to other men, by which they could know them, or was it the effect of deeds achieved? He could not decide the question for himself, but he knew that he believed implicitly in their leader.
Colonel Winchester paused near Sheridan, but the general's keen eye caught him at once.
"Good morning, Colonel Winchester!" he exclaimed. "You bring news of value. I can tell it by your face!"
"I do, sir," replied the colonel, "but it was Mr. Shepard here, whom you know, and Lieutenant Mason who obtained it. Mr. Shepard, show General Sheridan the map."
It was characteristic of Colonel Winchester, a man of the finest feelings, that he should have Shepard instead of himself carry the map to General Sheridan. He wanted the spy to have the full measure of credit, including the outward show, for the triumph he had achieved with the aid of his sister. And Shepard's swift glance of thanks showed that he appreciated it. He drew the map from his pocket and handed it to the general.
Sheridan held it down, where the full glow of the flames fell upon it, and he seemed to comprehend at once the meaning of the lines. A great light sprang up in his eyes.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "The location of the Confederate forces and the openings between them and the mountains! This is important! Splendid! Did you make it yourself, Mr. Shepard?"
"No, sir. It was made by my sister who came from Richmond. We met her on the mountain."
Sheridan looked at Shepard and the eyes of general and spy met in complete understanding.
"I know of her," the general murmured. "A noble woman! There are many such as she who have done great service to our cause that can never be repaid! But this is a stroke of fortune!"
"Look, Merritt, Averill and all of you," he said aloud. "Here lies our path! Mr. Shepard, you will go over the details of this with us and, Colonel Winchester, you and your aide remain also to help."
Dick felt complimented, and so did Colonel Winchester. Sheridan knew how to handle men. While the sentinels, rifle on shoulder, walked up and down a little distance away, a dozen eager faces were soon poring over the map, Shepard filling in details as to the last little hill or brook.
"Since we know where they are and how many they are," said Sheridan, "we'll make a big demonstration in front of Fisher's Hill, where Early's works are too strong to be carried, and while we keep him occupied there we'll turn his left flank with a powerful force, marching it just here into the open space that Mr. Shepard's map shows. Tomorrow—or rather today, for I see the dawn comes—will be a day of great noise and of much burning of powder. But behind the curtain of smoke we'll make our movements. Merritt with his cavalry shall go to the right and Averill will go with him. Crook shall take his two divisions and hold the north bank of Cedar Creek, and later on Crook shall be the first to strike. Gentlemen, we've won one victory, and I know that all of you appreciate the value of a second and a third. The opportunity of the war lies here before us. We can uncover the entire left flank of the Confederacy here in Virginia, and who knows what will follow!"
He looked up, his eyes glowing and his confidence was communicated to them all. They were mostly young men and they responded in kind to his burning words. Sheridan knew that he could command from them the utmost fidelity and energy, and he uttered a little exclamation of confidence.
"I shall consider the victory already won," he said.
The generals left for their commands, and Sheridan again thanked Colonel Winchester, Dick and Shepard.
"I recommend that all three of you take some rest," he said, "you won't have much to do this morning."
They saluted, mounted and rode back. "You take his advice, Dick, and roll yourself in your blanket," said Colonel Winchester, when they were on the way.
"I will, sir," said Dick, "although I know that great history is being made now."
"I feel that way, too," said the colonel. "Look, the sun is coming up, and you can see the Confederate outposts."
The thin, clear air of September was brilliant with morning light, and through glasses the Confederate outposts and works around Fisher's Hill were quite clear and distinct. Some of the Northern and Southern sentinels were already exchanging compliments with one another, and they heard the faint popping of rifles. But Dick well knew from Sheridan's words that this early firing meant nothing. It would grow much heavier bye and bye and it would yet be but the cover for something else.
He found Warner and Pennington already sound asleep, and wrapping himself in his blanket he lay down under a tree and fell asleep to the distant crackle of rifles and the occasional thud of great guns. He slept on through the morning while the fire increased, and great volumes of smoke rolled, as the wind shifted up or down the valley. But it did not disturb him, nor did he dream. His slumbers were as sound as if he lay in his distant bed in Pendleton.
While Dick and his comrades slept Sheridan was moving the men on his chess board. Young in years, but great in experience, he was never more eager and never more clear of mind than on this, one of the most eventful days of his life. He saw the opportunity, and he was resolved that it should not escape him. Two great reputations were made in the valley by men very unlike, Stonewall Jackson and Little Phil Sheridan. In the earlier years of the war the union armies had suffered many disasters there at the hands of the leader under the old slouch hat, and now Sheridan was resolved to retrieve everything, not with one victory alone, but with many.
There was firing in the valley all day long, the crackling of the rifles, the thudding of the great guns, and the occasional charge of horsemen. The curtain of smoke hung nearly always. Sometimes it grew thicker, and sometimes it became thinner, but Sheridan's mind was not upon these things, they were merely the veil before him, while behind it, as a screen, he arranged the men on his chess board. When night came his whole line was pushed forward. His vanguard held the northern part of the little town of Strasburg, while Early's held the southern part, only a few hundred yards away. In the night the large force under Crook was moved into the thick forest along Cedar Creek, where it was to lie silent and hidden until it received the word of command.
All the next day the movements were continued, while Crook's force, intended to be the striking arm, was still concealed in the timber. Yet before dark there was a heavy combat, in which the Southern troops were driven out of Strasburg, enabling the Northern batteries to advance to strong positions. That night Crook's whole strength was brought across Cedar Creek, but was hidden again in heavy timber. To the great pleasure of its colonel and other officers the Winchester regiment was sent to join it as a cavalry support.
It was quite dark when they rode their horses across the creek and Shepard was again with them as guide. Although he concealed it, the spy felt a great exultation. The map that he had brought from his sister had proved invaluable. Sheridan was using it every hour, and Shepard was giving further assistance through his thorough knowledge of the ground. Dick was glad to ride beside him and whisper with him, now and then.
"I haven't known things to go so well before," Dick said, when they were across the creek.
"They're going well, Mr. Mason," said Shepard, "because everything is arranged. There is provision against every unlucky chance. It's leadership. The difference between a good general and a bad general is about fifty thousand men."
The entire division moved forward in the dusk at a fair pace, but so many troops with cavalry and guns could not keep from making some noise. Dick with Shepard and the sergeant rode off in the woods towards the open valley to see if the enemy were observing them. Dick's chief apprehensions were in regard to Slade and Skelly, but they found no trace of the guerrillas, nor of any other foes.
The night was fairly bright, and from the edge of the wood they saw far over hills and fields, dotted with two opposing lines of camp fires. A dark outline was Fisher's Hill, and lights burned there too. From a point in front of it a gun boomed now and then, and there was still an intermittent fire of skirmishers and sharpshooters.
"That hill will be ours inside of twenty-four hours," said Shepard. "We'll fall upon Early from three sides and he'll have to retreat to save himself. He hasn't numbers enough to stand against an army driven forward by a hand like that of General Sheridan."
* * * *
While Dick, the sergeant and the spy looked from the woods upon the lights of Fisher's Hill the Invincibles lay in an earthwork before it facing their enemy. Harry Kenton sat with St. Clair, Langdon and Dalton. The two colonels were not far away. For almost the first time, Harry's heart failed him. He did not wish to depreciate Early, but he felt that he was not the great Jackson or anything approaching him. He knew that the troops felt the same way. They missed the mighty spirit and the unfaltering mind that had led them in earlier years to victory. They were ragged and tired, too, and had but little food.
Happy Tom, who concealed under a light manner uncommonly keen perceptions, noticed Harry's depression.
"What are you thinking about, Harry?" he asked.
"Several things, Happy. Among them, the days when we rode here with Stonewall from one victory to another."
"We'll have to think of something else. Cheer up. Remember the old saying that the darkest hour is just before the dawn."
"Whose dawn?"
"That's not like you, Harry. You've usually put up the boldest front of us all."
"Happy's giving you good advice," said St. Clair.
"So he is," said Harry, as he shook himself. "We'll fight 'em off tomorrow. They can't beat us again. The spirit of Old Jack will hover over us."
"If we only had more men," said Dalton. "Then we could spread out and cover the slopes of the mountains on either side. I wish I knew whether those dark fringes hid anything we ought to know."
"They hide rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, birds and maybe a black bear or two," said Happy Tom. "When we shatter Sheridan's army and drive the fragments across the Potomac I think I'll come back here and do a little hunting, leaving to Lee the task of cleaning up the Army of the Potomac."
"I'd like to come with you," said St. Clair, "but I wouldn't bring any gun. I'd just roam through the woods for a week and disturb nothing. If I saw a bear I'd point my finger at him and say: 'Go away, young fellow, I won't bother you if you won't bother me,' and then he'd amble off peacefully in one direction, and I'd amble off peacefully in another. I wouldn't want to hear a gun fired during all that week. I'd just rest, rest, rest my nerves and my soul. I wouldn't break a bough or a bush. I'd even be careful how hard I stepped on the leaves. Birds could walk all over me if they liked. I'd drink from those clear streams, and I'd sleep in my blanket on a bed of leaves."
"But suppose it rained, Arthur?"
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