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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XII IN THE COVE
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 General Sheridan permitted the Winchester men to rest a long time, or rather he ordered them to do so. No regiment had distinguished itself more at Cedar Creek or in the previous battles, and it was best for it to lie by a while, and recover its physical strength—strength of the spirit it had never lost. It also gave a needed chance to the sixteen slight wounds accumulated by Dick, Pennington and Warner to heal perfectly.  
"Unless something further happens," said Warner, regretfully, "I won't have a single honorable scar to take back with me and show in Vermont."
"I'll have one slight, though honorable, scar, but I won't be able to show it," said Pennington, also with regret.
"I trust that it's in front, Frank," said Dick.
"It is, all right. Don't worry about that. But what about you, Dick?"
"I had hopes of a place on my left arm just above the elbow. A bullet, traveling at the rate of a million miles a minute, broke the skin there and took a thin flake of flesh with it, but I'm so terribly healthy it's healed up without leaving a trace."
"There's no hope for us," said Warner, sighing. "We can never point to the proof of our warlike deeds. You didn't find your cousin among the prisoners?"
"No, nor was he among their fallen whom we buried. Nor any of his friends either. I'm quite sure that he escaped. My intuition tells me so."
"It's not your intuition at all," said Warner reprovingly. "It's a reasonable opinion, formed in your mind by antecedent conditions. You call it intuition, because you don't take the trouble to discover the circumstances that led to its production. It's only lazy minds that fall back upon second sight, mind-reading and such things."
"Isn't he the big-word man?" said Pennington admiringly. "I tell you what, George, General Early is still alive somewhere, and we're going to send you to talk him to death. They say he's a splendid swearer, one of the greatest that ever lived, but he won't be able to get out a single cuss, with you standing before him, and spouting the whole unabridged dictionary to him."
"At least when I talk I say something," replied Warner sternly. "It seems strange to me, Frank Pennington, that your life on the plains, where conditions, for the present at least, are hard, has permitted you to have so much frivolity in your nature."
"It's not frivolity, George. It's a gay and bright spirit, in the rays of which you may bask without price. It will do you good."
"Do you know what's to be our next duty?"
"No, I don't, and I'm not going to bother about it. I'll leave that directly to Colonel Winchester, and indirectly to General Sheridan. When you rest, put your mind at rest. Concentration on whatever you are doing is the secret of continued success."
They were lying on blankets near the foot of the mountain, and the time was late October. The days were growing cold and the nights colder, but a fine big fire was blazing before them, and they rejoiced in the warmth and brightness, shed from the flames and the heaps of glowing coals.
"I'll venture the prediction," said Pennington, "that our next march is not against an army, but against guerrillas. They say that up there in the Alleghanies Slade and Skelly are doing a lot of harm. They may have to be hunted out and the Winchester men have the best reputation in the army for that sort of work. We earned it by our work against these very fellows in Tennessee."
"For which most of the credit is due to Sergeant Whitley," said Dick. "He's a grand trailer, and he can lead us with certainty, when other regiments can't find the way."
Dick gazed westward beyond the dim blue line of the Alleghanies, and he knew that he would feel no surprise if Pennington's prediction should come true. The nest of difficult mountains was a good shelter for outlaws, and the Winchesters, with the sergeant picking up the trail, were the very men to hunt them.
He knew too that, unless the task was begun soon, it would prove a supreme test of endurance, and there would be dangers in plenty. Snow would be falling before long on the mountains, and they would become a frozen wilderness, almost as wild and savage as they were before the white man came.
But it seemed for a while that the intuition of both Dick and Pennington had failed. They spent many days in the valley trying to catch the evasive Mosby and his men, although they had little success. Mosby's rangers knowing the country thoroughly made many daring raids, although they could not become a serious menace.
When they returned through Winchester from the last of these expeditions the Winchester men were wrapped in heavy army cloaks, for the wind from the mountains could now cut through uniforms alone. Dick, glancing toward the Alleghanies, saw a ribbon of white above their blue line.
"Look, fellows! The first snow!" he said.
"I see," said Warner. "It snows on the just and the unjust, the unjust being Slade and Skelly, who are surely up there."
"Just before we went out," sad Pennington, "the news of some fresh and special atrocity of theirs came in. I'm thinking the time is near when we'll be sent after them."
"We'll need snow shoes," said Warner, shivering as he looked. "I can see that the snow is increasing. Which way is the wind blowing, Dick?"
"Toward us."
"Then we're likely to get a little of that snow. The clouds will blow off the mountains and sprinkle us with flakes in the valley."
"I like winter in peace, but not in war," said Pennington. "It makes campaigning hard. It's no fun marching at night in a driving storm of snow or hail."
"But what we can't help we must stand," said Warner with resignation.
Both predictions, the one about the snow and the other concerning the duty that would be assigned to them, quickly came to pass. Before sunset the blue line of the Alleghanies was lost wholly in mist and vapor. Then great flakes began to fall on the camp, and the young officers were glad to find refuge in their tents.
It was not a heavy snow fall where they were, but it blew down at intervals all through the night, and the next morning it lay upon the ground to the depth of an inch or so. Then the second part of the prophecy was justified. Colonel Winchester himself aroused all his staff and heads of companies.
"A fine crisp winter morning for us to take a ride," he said cheerfully. "General Sheridan has become vexed beyond endurance over the doings of Slade and Skelly, and he has chosen his best band of guerrilla-hunters to seek 'em out in their lairs and annihilate 'em."
"I knew it," groaned Pennington in an undertone to Dick. "I was as certain of it as if I had read the order already." But aloud he said as he saluted: "We're glad we're chosen for the honor, sir. I speak for Mr. Mason, Mr. Warner and myself."
"I'm glad you're thankful," laughed the colonel. "A grateful and resolute heart always prepares one for hardships, and we'll have plenty of them over there in the high mountains, where the snow lies deep. But we have new horses, furnished especially for this expedition, and Sergeant Whitley and Mr. Shepard will guide us. The sergeant can hear or see anything within a quarter of a mile of him, and Mr. Shepard, being a native of the valley, knows also all the mountains that close it in."
The young lieutenants were sincerely glad the sergeant and Shepard were to go along, as with them they felt comparatively safe from ambush, a danger to be dreaded where Slade and Skelly were concerned.
"We agreed that General Sheridan was worth ten thousand men," said Warner, "and I believe that the battle of Cedar Creek proved it. Now if Sheridan is worth ten thousand, the sergeant and Shepard are certainly worth a thousand each. It's a simple algebraic problem which I could demonstrate to you by the liberal use of x and y, but in your case it's not necessary. You must accept my word for it."
"We'll do it! We'll do it! say no more!" exclaimed Pennington hastily.
It was a splendid column of men that rode out from the union camp and General Sheridan himself saw them off. Colonel Winchester at their head was a man of fine face and figure, and he had never looked more martial. The hardships of war had left no mark upon him. His face was tanned a deep red by the winds of summer and winter, and although a year or two over forty he seemed to be several years less. Behind him came Dick, Pennington and Warner, hardy and well knit, who had passed through the most terrible of all schools, three and a half years of incessant war, and who although youths were nevertheless stronger and more resourceful than most men.
Near them rode the sergeant, happy in his capacity as scout and guide, and welcoming the responsibility that he knew would be his, as soon as they reached the mountains, looming so near and white. He felt as if he were back upon the plains, leading a troop in a great blizzard, and guarding it with eye and ear and all his five senses against Sioux or Cheyenne ambush. He was not a mere trainer of a squad of men, he was, in a real sense, a leader of an army.
Shepard, the spy, also felt a great uplift of the spirits. He was a man of high ideals, whose real nature the people about him were just beginning to learn. He did not like his trade of a spy, but being aware that he was peculiarly fitted for it intense patriotism had caused him to accept its duties. Now he felt that most of his work in such a capacity was over. He could freely ride with the other men and fight openly as they did. But if emergency demanded that he renew his secret service he would do so instantly and without hesitation.
Colonel Winchester looked back with pride at his column. Like most of the regiments at that period of the war it was small, three hundred sinewy well-mounted young men, who had endured every kind of hardship and who could endure the like again. All of them were wrapped in heavy overcoats over their uniforms, and they rode the best of horses, animals that Colonel Winchester had been allowed to choose.
The colonel felt so good that he took out his little silver whistle, and blew upon it a mellow hunting call. The column broke into a trot and the snow flew behind the beating hoofs in a long white trail. Spontaneously the men burst into a cheer, and the cold wind blowing past them merely whipped their blood into high exaltation.
But as they rode across the valley Dick could not help feeling some depression over its ruined and desolate appearance, worse now in winter than in summer. No friendly smoke rose from any chimney, there were no horses nor cattle in the fields, the rails of the fences had gone long since to make fires for the soldiers and the roads rutted deep by the rains had been untouched. Silence and loneliness were supreme everywhere.
He was glad when they left it all behind, and entered the mountains through a pass fairly broad and sufficient for horsemen. He did not feel so much oppression here. It was natural for mountains to be lonely and silent also, particularly in winter, and his spirits rose again as they rode between the white ridges.
At the entrance to the pass a mountaineer named Reed met them. It was he who had brought the news of the latest exploit by Slade and Skelly, but he had returned quickly to warn some friends of his in the foothills and was back again in time to meet the soldiers. He was a long thin man of middle age, riding a large black mule. An immense gray shawl was pinned about his shoulders, and woollen leggings came high over his trousers. As he talked much he chewed tobacco vigorously. But Dick saw at once that like many of the mountaineers he was a shrewd man, and, despite lack of education, was able to look, see and judge.
Reed glanced over the column, showed his teeth, yellowed by the constant use of tobacco, and the glint of a smile appeared in his eyes.
"Look like good men. I couldn't hev picked 'em better myself, colonel," he said, with the easy familiarity of the hills.
"They've been in many battles, and they've never failed," said the colonel with some pride.
"You'll hev to do somethin' more than fight up thar on the high ridges," said the mountaineer, showing his yellow teeth again. "You'll hev to look out fur traps, snares an' ambushes. Slade an' Skelly ain't soldiers that come out an' fight fa'r an' squar' in the open. No, sirree, they're rattlesnakes, a pair uv 'em an' full uv p'ison. We've got to find our rattlesnakes an' ketch 'em. Ef we don't, they'll be stingin' jest the same after you've gone."
"That's just the way I look at it, Mr. Reed. Sergeant Whitley here is a specialist in rattlesnakes. He used to hunt down and kill the big bloated ones on the plains, and even the snow won't keep him from tracing 'em to their dens here in the mountains."
Reed, after the custom of his kind, looked the sergeant up and down with a frank stare.
"'Pears to be a good man," he said, "hefty in build an' quick in the eye. Glad to know you, Mr. Whitley. You an' me may take part in a shootin' bee together an' this old long-barreled firearm uv mine kin give a good account uv herself."
He patted his rifle affectionately, a weapon of ancient type, with a long slender barrel of blue steel, and a heavy carved stock. It was just such a rifle as the frontiersmen used. Dick's mind, in an instant, traveled back into the wilderness and he was once more with the great hunters and scouts who fought for the fair land of Kain-tuck-ee. His imagination was so vivid that it required only a touch to stir it into life, and the aspect of the mountains, wild and lonely and clothed in snow, heightened the illusion.
"I s'pose from what you tell us that you'll have the chance to use it, Mr. Reed," said the sergeant.
"I reckon so," replied the mountaineer emphatically. "'Bout five miles up this pass you'll come to a cove in which Jim Johnson's house stood. Some uv them gorillers attacked it, three nights ago. Jim held 'em off with his double-barreled shotgun, 'til his wife an' children could git out the back way. Then he skedaddled hisself. They plundered the house uv everythin' wuth carryin' off an' then they burned it plum' to the groun'. Jim an' his people near froze to death on the mounting, but they got at last to the cabin uv some uv their kin, whar they are now. Then they've carried off all the hosses an' cattle they kin find in the valleys an' besides robbin' everybody they've shot some good men. Thar is shorely a good dose uv lead comin' to every feller in that band."
The mountaineer's face for a moment contracted violently. Dick saw that he was fairly burning for revenge. Among his people the code of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth still prevailed, unquestioned, and there would be no pity for the guerrilla who might come under the muzzle of his rifle. But his feelings were shown only for the moment. In another instant, he was a stoic like the Indians whom he had displaced. After a little silence he added:
"That man Slade, who is the brains uv the outfit, is plum' devil. So fur ez his doin's in these mountings are concerned he ain't human at all. He hez no mercy fur nuthin' at no time."
His words found an echo in Dick's own mind. He remembered how venomously Slade had hunted for his own life in the Southern marshes, and chance, since then, had brought them into opposition more than once. Just as Harry had felt that there was a long contest between Shepard and himself, Dick felt that Slade and he were now to be pitted in a long and mortal combat. But Shepard was a patriot, while Slade was a demon, if ever a man was. If he were to have a particular enemy he was willing that it should be Slade, as he could see in him no redeeming quality that would cause him to stay his hand, if his own chance came.
"Have you any idea where the guerrillas are camped now?" asked Colonel Winchester.
"When we last heard uv 'em they wuz in Burton's Cove," replied the mountaineer, "though uv course they may hev moved sence then. Still, the snow may hev held 'em. It's a-layin' right deep on the mountings, an' even the gorillers ain't so anxious to plough thar way through it."
"How long will it take us to reach Burton's Cove?"
"It's jest ez the weather sez, colonel. Ef the snow holds off we might make it tomorrow afore dark, but ef the snow makes up its mind to come tumblin' down ag'in, it's the day after that, fur shore."
"At any rate, another fall of snow is no harder for us than it is for them," said the colonel, who showed the spirit of a true leader. "Now, Mr. Reed, do you think we can find anybody on this road who will tell us where the band has gone?"
"It ain't much uv a road an' thar ain't many people to ride on it in the best uv times, so I reckon our chance uv meetin' a traveler who knows much is jest about ez good as our chance uv findin' a peck uv gold in the next snowdrift."
"Which means there's no chance at all."
"I reckon that's 'bout the size uv it. But, colonel, we don't hev to look to the road fur the word."
"What do you mean?"
"We'll turn our eyes upward, to the mounting heights. Some uv us who are jest bound to save the union are settin' up on top uv high ridges, whar that p'ison band can't go, waitin' to tell us whar _we_ ought to go. They've got some home-made flags, an' they'll wave 'em to me."
"Mr. Reed, you're a man of foresight and perception."
"Foresight? I know what that is. It's the opposite uv hindsight, but I ain't made the acquaintance uv perception."
"Perception is what you see after you think, and I know that you're a man who thinks."
"Thank you, colonel, but I reckon that in sech a war ez this a man hez jest got to set right plum' down, an' think sometimes. It's naterally forced upon him. Them that starts a war mebbe don't do much thinkin', but them that fights it hev to do a power uv it."
"Your logic is sound, Mr. Reed."
"I hev a pow'ful good eye, colonel, an' I think I see a man on top uv that high ridge to the right. But my eye ............
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