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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER X AN UNBEATEN FOE
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 Dick's belief that he would not be allowed to sleep long was justified. In three or four hours the whole Winchester regiment was up, mounted and away again. Early and his army left the great valley pike, and took a road leading toward the Blue Ridge, where he eventually entered a gap, and fortified to await supplies and fresh men from Richmond, leaving all the great Valley of Virginia, where in former years the Northern armies had suffered so many humiliations, in the possession of Sheridan. It was the greatest and most solid triumph that the union had yet achieved and Dick and the youths with him rejoiced.  
After many days of marching and fighting they lay once more in the shadow of the mountains, within a great grove of oak and beech, hickory and maple. The men and then the horses had drunk at a large brook flowing near by, and both were content. The North, as always, sent forward food in abundance to its troops, and now, just as the twilight was coming, the fires were lighted and the pleasant aromas of supper were rising. Colonel Winchester and his young staff sat by one of the fires near the edge of the creek. They had not taken off their clothes in almost a week, and they felt as if they had been living like cave-men. Nevertheless the satisfaction that comes from deeds well done pervaded them, and as they lay upon the leaves and awaited their food and coffee they showed great good humor.
"Have you any objection, sir, to my taking a census?" said Warner to Colonel Winchester.
"No, Warner, but what kind of a census do you mean?"
"I want to count our wounds, separately and individually and then make up the grand total."
"All right, George, go ahead," said Colonel Winchester, laughing.
"Dick," said Warner, "what hurts have you sustained in the past week?"
"A bullet scratch on the shoulder, another on the side, a slight cut from a saber on my left arm, about healed now, a spent bullet that hit me on the head, raising a lump and ache for the time being, and a kick from one of our own horses that made me walk lame for a day."
"The kick from a horse, as it was one of our horses, doesn't go."
"I didn't put it forward seriously. I withdraw my claim on its account."
"That allows you four wounds. Now, Pennington, how about you?"
"First I had a terrible wound in the foot," replied the Nebraskan. "A bullet went right through my left shoe and cut the skin off the top of my little toe."
"Leave out the 'terrible.' That's no dreadful wound."
"No, but it burned like the sting of a wasp and bled in a most disgraceful manner all over my sock. Then my belt buckle was shot away."
"That doesn't count either. A wound's a wound only when you're hit yourself, not when some piece of your clothing is struck."
"All right. The belt buckle's barred, although it gave me a shock when the bullet met it. A small bullet went through the flesh of my left arm just above the elbow. It healed so fast that I've hardly noticed it, due, of course, to the very healthy and temperate life I've led. I suppose, George, it would have laid up a fellow of your habits for a week."
"Never mind about my habits, but go on with the list of your wounds. A great beauty of mathematics is that it compels you to keep to your subject. When you're solving one of those delightful problems in mathematics you can't digress and drag in irrelevant things. Algebra is the very thing for a confused mind like yours, Frank, one that doesn't coordinate. But get on with your list."
"When we were in pursuit my horse stumbled in a gully and fell so hard that I was thrown over his shoulder, giving my own shoulder a painful bruise that's just getting well."
"We'll allow that, since it happened in battle. What else now? Speak up!"
"That's all. Three good wounds, according to your own somewhat severe definition of a wound. I'm one behind Dick, but I believe that when I was thrown over my horse's head I was hurt worse than he was at any time."
"Frank Pennington, you're a good comrade, but you're a liar, an unmitigated liar."
"George, if I weren't so tired and so unwilling to be angry with anybody I'd get up and belt you on the left ear for that."
"But you're a liar, just the same. You're holding something back."
"What are you driving at, you chattering Green Mountaineer?"
"Why don't you tell something about the time the trooper fell from his horse wounded, and you, dismounting under the enemy's fire, helped him on your own horse, although you got two wounds in your body while doing it, and brought him off in safety? Didn't I say that you were a liar, a convicted liar from modesty?"
Pennington blushed.
"I didn't want to say anything about that," he muttered. "I had to do it."
"Lots of men wouldn't have had to do it. You go down for five good wounds, Frank Pennington."
"Now, then, what about yourself, George?" asked Dick.
"One in the arm, one on the shoulder and one across the ankle. I don't waste time in words, like you two, my verbose friends. That gives the three of us combined twelve wounds, a fair average of four apiece."
"And it's our great good luck that not one of the twelve is a disabling hurt," said Dick.
"But we get the credit for the full twelve, all the same," said Warner, "and we maintain our prestige in the army. Our consciences also are satisfied. But the last two or three weeks of battles and marches have fairly made me dizzy. I can't remember them or their sequence. All I know is that we've cleaned up the valley, and here we are ready at last to take a couple of minutes of well earned rest."
"Do you know," said Pennington, "there were times when I clear forgot to be hungry, and I've been renowned in our part of Nebraska for my appetite. But nature always gets even. For all those periods of forgetfulness memory is now rushing upon me. I'm hungry not only for the present but from the past. It'll take a lot to satisfy me."
The briskness of the night also sharpened Pennington's appetite. They were deep in autumn, and the winds from the mountains had an edge. The foliage had turned and it glowed in vivid reds and yellows on the slopes, although the intense colors were hidden now by the coming of night.
The wind was cold enough to make the fires feel good to their relaxed systems, and they spread out their hands to the welcome flames, as they had often done at home on wintry nights, when children. Beyond the trees the horses, under guard, were grazing on what was left of the late grass, but within the wood the men themselves, save those who were preparing food, were mostly lying down on the dry leaves or their blankets, and were talking of the things they had done, or the things they were going to do.
"I wonder what the bill of fare will be tonight," said Pennington, who was growing hungrier and hungrier.
"I had several engraved menus," said Warner, "but I lost them, and so we won't be able to order. We'll just have to take what they offer us."
"A month or so later they'll be having fresh sausage and spare ribs in old Kentucky," said Dick, "and I wish we had 'em here now."
"And a month later than that," said Pennington, "they'll be having a roasted bull buffalo weighing five thousand pounds for Christmas dinner in Nebraska."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Warner. "No buffalo ever weighed five thousand pounds."
Pennington looked at him pityingly.
"You have no romance or poetry after all, George," he said. "Why can't you let me put on an extra twenty-five hundred or three thousand pounds for the sake of effect?"
"Besides, you don't roast buffaloes whole and bring them in on a platter!"
"No, we don't, but that's no proof that we can't or won't. Now, what would you like to have, George?"
"After twelve or fifteen other things, I'd like to finish off with a whole pumpkin pie, and a few tin cups of cider would go along with it mighty well. That's the diet to make men, real men, I mean."
"Any way," said Dick, raising a tin cup of hot coffee, "here's to food. You may sleep without beds, and, in tropical climates, you may go without clothes, but in whatever part of the world you may be, you must have food. And it's best when you've ridden hard all day, and, in the cool of an October evening, to sit down by a roaring fire in the woods with the dry leaves beneath you, and the clear sky above you."
"Hear! hear!" said Warner. "Who's dithyrambic now? But you're right, Dick. War is a terrible thing. Besides being a ruthless slaughter it's an economic waste,—did you ever think of that, you reckless youngsters?—but it has a few minor compensations, and one of them is an evening like this. Why, everything tastes good to us. Nothing could taste bad. Our twelve wounds don't pain us in the least, and they'll heal absolutely in a few days, our blood being so healthy. The air we breathe is absolutely pure and the sky over our heads is all blue and silver, spangled with stars, a canopy stretched for our especial benefit, and upon which we have as much claim of ownership as anybody else has. We've lived out of doors so much and we've been through so much hard exercise that our bodies are now pretty nearly tempered steel. I doubt whether I'll ever be able to live indoors again, except in winter."
"I'm the luckiest of all," said Pennington. "Out on the plains we don't have to live indoors much anyway. I've lived mostly in the saddle since I was seven or eight years old, but the war has toughened me just the same. I'll be able to sleep out any time, except in the blizzards."
"As soon as you finish devouring the government stores," said a voice behind them, "it would be well for all of you to seek the sleep you're telling so much about."
It was Colonel Winchester who spoke, and they looked at him, inquiringly.
"Can I ask, sir, which way we ride?" said Dick.
"Northward with General Sheridan," replied the Colonel.
"But there is no enemy to the north, sir!"
"That's true, but we go that way, nevertheless. Although you're discreet young officers I'm not going to tell you any more. Now, as you've eaten enough food and drunk enough coffee, be off to your blankets. I want all of you to be fresh and strong in the morning."
Fresh and strong they were, and promptly General Sheridan rode away, taking with him all the cavalry, his course taking him toward Front Royal. The news soon spread among the horsemen that from Front Royal the general would go on to Washington for a conference with the War Department, while the cavalry would turn through a gap in the mountains, and then destroy railroads in order to cut off General Early's communications with Richmond.
"We're to be an escort and then a fighting and destroying force," said Dick. "But it's quite sure that we'll meet no enemy until we go through the gap. Meanwhile we'll enjoy a saunter along the valley."
But when they reached Front Royal a courier, riding hard, overtook them. He demanded to be taken at once to the presence of General Sheridan, and then he presented a copy of a dispatch which read:
To Lieutenant-General Early:
Be ready to move as soon as my forces join you, and we will
crush Sheridan.
Longstreet, Lieutenant-General.
Sheridan read the dispatch over and over again, and pondered it gravely. The courier informed him that it was the copy of a signal made by the Confederate flags on Three Top Mountain, and deciphered by union officers who had obtained the secret of the Confederate code. General Wright, whom he had left in command, had sent it to him in all haste for what it was worth.
The young general not only pondered the message gravely, but he pondered it long. Finally he called his chief officers around him and consulted with them. If the grim and bearded Longstreet were really coming into the valley with a formidable force, then indeed it would be the dance of death. Longstreet, although he did not have the genius of Stonewall Jackson, was a fierce and dangerous fighter. All of them knew how he had come upon the field of Chickamauga with his veterans from Virginia, and had turned the tide of battle. His presence in the valley might quickly turn all of Sheridan's great triumphs into withered laurels.
But Sheridan had a great doubt in his mind. The Confederate signal from Three Top Mountain that his own officers had read might not be real. It might have been intended to deceive, Early's signalmen learning that the union signalmen had deciphered their code, or it might be some sort of a grim joke. He did not believe that the Army of Northern Virginia could spare Longstreet and a large force, as it would be weakened so greatly that it could no longer stand before Grant, even with the aid of the trenches.
His belief that this dispatch, upon which so much turned, as they were to learn afterward, was false, became a conviction and most of his officers agreed with him. He decided at last that the coming of Longstreet with an army into the valley was an impossibility, and he would go on to Washington. But Sheridan made a reservation, and this, too, as the event showed, was highly important. He ordered all the cavalry back to General Wright, while he proceeded with a small escort to the capital.
It was Dick who first learned what had happened, and soon all knew. They discussed it fully as they rode back on their own tracks, and on the whole they were glad they were to return.
"I don't think I'd like to be tearing up railroads and destroying property," said Dick. "I prefer anyhow for the valley to be my home at present, although I believe that dispatch means nothing. Why, the Confederates can't possibly rally enough men to attack us!"
"I think as you do," said Warner. "I suppose it's best for the cavalry to go back, but I wish General Sheridan had taken me on to Washington with him. I'd like to see the lights of the capital again. Besides, I'd have given the President and the Secretary of War some excellent advice."
"He isn't jesting. He means it," said Pennington to Dick.
"Of course I do," said Warner calmly. "When General Sheridan failed to take me with him, the government lost a great opportunity."
But their hearts were light and they rode gaily back, unconscious of the singular event that was preparing for them.
* * * *
The army of Early had not been destroyed entirely. Sheridan, with all his energy, and with all the courage and zeal of his men could not absolutely crush his foe. Some portions of the hostile force were continually slipping away, and now Early, refusing to give up, was gathering them together again, and was meditating a daring counter stroke. The task might well have appalled any general and any troops, but if Early had one quality in preeminence it was the resolution to fight. And most of his officers and men were veterans. Many of them had ridden with Jackson on his marvelous campaigns. They were familiar with the taste of victory, and defeat had been very bitter to them. They burned to strike back, and they were willing to dare anything for the sake of it.
Orders had already gone to all the scattered and ragged fragments, and the men in gray were concentrating. Many of them were half starved. The great valley had been stripped of all its live stock, all its grain and of every other resource that would avail an army. Nothing could be obtained, except at Staunton, ninety miles back of Fisher's Hill, and wagons could not bring up food in time from such a distant place.
Nevertheless the men gleaned. They searched the fields for any corn that might be left, and ate it roasted or parched. Along the slopes of the mountains they found nuts already ripening, and these were prizes indeed.
Among the gleaners were Harry Kenton, the staunch young Presbyterian, Dalton, and the South Carolinians, St. Clair and Langdon. St. Clair alone was impeccable of uniform, absolutely trim, and Langdon alone deserved his nickname of Happy.
"Don't be discouraged, boys," he said as he pulled from the stalk an ear of corn that the hoofs of the Northern cavalry had failed to trample under. "Now this is a fine ear, a splendid ear, and if you boys search well you may be able to find others like it. All things come to him who looks long enough. Remember how Nebuchadnezzar ate grass, and he must have had to do some hunting too, because I understand grass didn't grow very freely in that part of the world, and then remember also that we are not down to grass yet. Corn, nuts and maybe a stray pumpkin or two. 'Tis a repast fit for the gods, noble sirs."
"I can go without, part of the time," said Harry, "but it hurts me to have to hunt through a big field for a nubbin of corn and then feel happy when I've got the wretched, dirty, insignificant little thing. My father often has a hundred acres of corn in a single field, producing fifty bushels to the acre."
"And my father," said Dalton, "has a single field of fifty acres that produces fifteen hundred bushels of wheat, but it's been a long time since I've seen a shock of wheat."
"Console yourself with the knowledge," said Harry, "that it's too late in the year for wheat to be in the stack."
"Or anywhere else, either, so far as we're concerned."
"Don't murmur," said Happy. "Mourners seldom find anything, but optimists find, often. Didn't I tell you so? Here's another ear."
Harry had approached the edge of the field and he saw something red gleaming through a fringe of woods beyond. The experienced eye of youth told him at once what it was, and he called to his comrades.
"Come on, boys," he said. "There's a little orchard beyond the wood. I know there is because I caught a glimpse of a red apple hanging from a tree. I suppose the skirt of forest kept the Yankee raiders from seeing i............
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