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HOME > Classical Novels > The Tree of Appomattox or A Story of the Civil War's End > CHAPTER XIV THE MOUNTAIN SHARPSHOOTER
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 Colonel Winchester's own mellow whistle finally recalled his men, as he did not wish them to become scattered among the mountains in pursuit of detached guerrillas. Although the escape of both Slade and Skelly was a great disappointment the victory nevertheless was complete. The two leaders could not rally the brigand force again, because it had ceased to exist. Nearly half, caught between the jaws of the union vise, had fallen, and most of the others were taken. Perhaps not more than fifty had got away, and they would be lucky if they were not captured by the mountaineers.  
Dick's head was bound up hastily but skillfully by Sergeant Whitley and Shepard. Slade's bullet had merely cut under the hair a little, and the bandage stopped the flow of blood. The sting, too, left, or in his triumph he did not notice it. His elation, in truth, was great, as he had succeeded in carrying out the hardest part of a difficult and delicate operation.
As he led his men back toward the valley, their prisoners driven before them, he felt no weariness from his great exertions, and both his head and his feet were light. At the rim of the valley Colonel Winchester met him, shook his hand with great heartiness, and congratulated him on his success, and Warner and Pennington, who were wholly without envy, added their own praise.
"I think it will be Captain Mason before long," said Warner. "Lots of boys under twenty are captains and some are colonels. Your right to promotion is a mathematical certainty, and I can demonstrate it with numerous formulae from the little algebra which even now is in the inside pocket of my tunic."
"Don't draw the algebra!" exclaimed Pennington. "We take your word for it, of course."
"I shouldn't want to be a captain," said Dick sincerely, "unless you fellows became captains too."
Further talk was interrupted by the necessity for care in making the steep descent into the valley, where the fires were blazing anew from the fresh wood which the young soldiers in their triumph had thrown upon the coals. Nor did Colonel Winchester and his senior officers make any effort to restrain them, knowing that a little exultation was good for youth, after deeds well done.
It was still snowing lazily, but the flames from a dozen big fires filled the valley with light and warmth and illuminated the sullen faces of the captives. They were a sinister lot, arrayed in faded union or Confederate uniforms, the refuse of highland and lowland, gathered together for robbery and murder, under the protecting shadow of war. Their hair was long and unkempt, their faces unshaven and dirty, and they watched their captors with the restless, evasive eyes of guilt. They were herded in the center of the valley, and Colonel Winchester did not hesitate to bind the arms of the most evil looking.
"What are you going to do with us?" asked one bold, black-browed villain.
"I'm going to take you to General Sheridan," replied the colonel. "I'm glad I don't have the responsibility of deciding your fate, but I think it very likely that he'll hang some of you, and that all of you richly deserve it."
The man muttered savage oaths under his breath and the colonel added:
"Meanwhile you'll be surrounded by at least fifty guards with rifles of the latest style, rifles that they can shoot very fast, and they are instructed to use them if you make the slightest sign of an attempt to escape. I warn you that they will obey with eagerness."
The man ceased his mutterings and he and the other captives cowered by the fire, as if their blood had suddenly grown so thin that they must almost touch the coals to secure warmth. Then Colonel Winchester ordered the cooks to prepare food and coffee again for his troopers, who had done so well, while a surgeon, with amateur but competent assistants, attended to the hurt.
While they ate and drank and basked in the heat, the mountaineer, Reed, came again to Colonel Winchester. Dick, who was standing by, observed his air of deep satisfaction, and he wondered again at the curious mixture of mountain character, its strong religious strain, mingled with its merciless hatred of a foe. He knew that much of Reed's great content came from his slaying of the two traitors, but he did not feel that he had a right, at such a time, to question the man's motives and actions.
"Colonel," said Reed, "it's lucky that my men brought along plenty of axes, an' that your men ez well ez mine know how to use 'em."
"Why so, Mr. Reed?"
"'Cause it's growin' warmer."
"But that doesn't hurt us. We're certainly not asking for more cold."
"It will hurt us, ef we don't take some shelter ag'in it. It's snowin' now, colonel, an' ef it gits a little warmer it'll turn to rain, an' it kin rain pow'ful hard in these mountings."
"Thank you for calling my attention to it, Mr. Reed. I can't afford to have the troops soaked by winter rains. Not knowing what we had to expect in the mountains I fortunately ordered about twenty of my own men to bring axes at their saddlebows. We'll put 'em all at work."
In a few minutes thirty good axmen were cutting down trees, saplings and bushes, and more than a hundred others were strengthening the lean-tos, thatching roofs, and making rude but serviceable floors. Dick, owing to his slight wound, but much against his wish, was ordered into the house, where he spread his blankets near a window, although he could not yet sleep, all the heat of the battle and pursuit not yet having left him. His nerves still tingling with excitement, he stood at the window and looked out.
He saw the great fire blazing and many persons passing and repassing before the red glow. He saw the captives crouching together, and the red gleam on the bayonets of the men who guarded them. He saw Warner and Pendleton go into one of the lean-tos, and he saw Colonel Winchester, accompanied by Shepard and the sergeant, go down the valley toward the exit.
After a while the prisoners moved to the lean-tos, and then everybody took shelter. The crackle of the big fires changed to a hiss, and more smoke arose from them. The reason was obvious. The big flakes of snow had ceased to fall, and big drops of rain were falling in their place. Reed had been a true prophet, and he had not given his warning too soon.
The rain increased. Dick heard it driving on the window panes and beating on the roof. All the fires in the valley were out now, and rising mists and vapors hid nearly everything. The faint, sliding sound of more snow-falls precipitated by the rain came to his ears. He realized suddenly how fine a thing it was to be inside four walls, and with it came a great feeling of comfort. It was the same feeling that he had known often in childhood, when he lay in his bed and heard the storm beat against the house.
There were others in the room—the floor was almost covered with them—but all of them were asleep already, and Dick, wrapping himself in his blanket, joined them, the last thing that he remembered being the swish of the rain against the glass. He slept heavily and was not awakened until nearly noon, when he saw through the window a world entirely changed. The rain had melted only a portion of the snow, and when it ceased after sunrise the day had turned much colder, freezing every thing hard and tight. The surface of valley, slopes and ridges was covered with a thick armor of ice, smooth as glass, and giving back the rays of a brilliant sun in colors as vivid and varied as those of a rainbow. Every tree and bush, to the last little twig, was sheathed also in silver, and along the slopes the forests of dwarfed cedar and pines were a vast field of delicate and complex tracery.
It was a glittering and beautiful world, but cold and merciless. Dick saw at once that the whole force, captors and captured, was shut in for the time. It was impossible for horses to advance over a field of ice, and it was too difficult even for men to be considered seriously. There was nothing to do but remain in the valley until circumstances allowed them to move, and reflection told him they would not lose much by it. They had done the errand on which they were sent, and there was little work left in the great valley itself.
The big fires had been lighted again, the cove furnishing wood enough for many days, and within its limited area they brought back glow and cheeriness. Dick went outside and found all the men in high spirits. They expected to be held there until a thaw came, but there would be no difficulty, except to obtain forage for the horses, which they must dig from under the snow, or which some of the surest footed mountaineers must bring over the ridge. He heard that Colonel Winchester was already making arrangements with Reed, and he was too light-hearted to bother himself any more about it.
Warner and Pennington saluted him with bows as a coming captain, and declared that he looked extremely interesting with a white bandage around his head.
"It's merely to prevent bleeding," said Dick. "The bullet didn't really hurt me, and it won't leave a scar under the hair."
"Then since you're not even an invalid," said Pennington, "come on and take your bath. The boys have broken the ice for a long distance on the creek and all of us early risers have gone there for a plunge, and a short swim. It'll do you a world of good, Dick, but don't stay in too long."
"Not over a half hour," said Warner.
"O, a quarter of an hour will be long enough," said Pennington, "but I'd advise you to rub yourself down thoroughly, Dick."
"I'll do just as you did," laughed Dick.
"And what's that?"
"I'll go to the edge of the creek, look at it, and shiver when I see how cold its waters are. Then I'll kneel down on the bank, bathe my face, and come away."
"You've estimated him correctly, Dick," said Warner, "but you don't have to shiver as much as Frank did."
The cold bath, although it was confined to the face only, made his blood leap and sparkle. He was not a coming captain but a boy again, and he began to think about pleasant ways of passing the time while the ice held them. After his breakfast he joined Colonel Winchester, who debated the question further with a group of officers. But there was only one conclusion to which they could come, and that had presented itself already to Dick's mind, namely, to wait as patiently as they could for a thaw, while Shepard, the sergeant and two or three others made their way on foot into the Shenandoah valley to inform Sheridan of what had transpired.
The messengers departed as soon as the conference closed, and the little army was left to pass the time as it chose in the cove. But time did not weigh heavily upon the young troops. As it grew colder and colder they added to the walls and roofs of their improvised shelters. There was scarcely a man among them who had not been bred to the ax, and the forest in the valley rang continually with their skillful strokes. Then the logs were notched and in a day or two rude but real cabins were raised, in which they slept, dry and warm.
The fires outside were never permitted to die down, the flames always leaped up from great beds of coals, and warmth and the comforts that follow were diffused everywhere. The lads, when they were not working on the houses, mended their saddles and bridles or their clothes, and when they had nothing else to do they sang war songs or the sentimental ballads of home. It was a fine place for singing—Warner described the acoustics of the valley as perfect—and the ridges and gorges gave back the greatest series of echoes any of them had ever heard.
"If this place didn't have a name already," said Pennington, "I'd call it Echo Cove, and the echoes are flattering, too. Whenever George sings his voice always comes back in highly improved tones, something that we can stand very well."
"My voice may not be as mellow as Mario's," said Warner calmly, "but my technique is perfect. Music is chiefly an affair of mathematics, as everybody knows, or at least it is eighty per cent, the rest being voice, a mere gift of birth. So, as I am unassailable in mathematics, I'm a much better singer than the common and vulgar lot who merely have voice."
"That being the case," said Pennington, "you should sing for yourself only and admire your own wonderful technique."
"I never sing unless I'm asked to do so," said Warner, with his old invincible calm, "and then the competent few who have made an exhaustive study of this most complex science appreciate my achievement. As I said, I should consider it a mark of cheapness if I pleased the low, vulgar and common herd."
"With that iron face and satisfied mind of yours you ought to go far, George," said Pennington.
"Everything is arranged already. I will go far," said Warner in even tones.
"I wonder what's happening outside in the big valley," said Dick.
"Whatever it is it's happening without us," said Warner. "But I fancy that General Sheridan will be more uneasy about us than we are about him. We know what we have done, that our task is finished, but for all he knows we may have been trapped and destroyed."
"But Shepard or the sergeant will get through to him."
"Not for three or four days anyhow. Not even men on foot can travel fast on a glassy sheet of ice. Every time I look at it on the mountain it seems to grow smoother. If I were standing on top of that ridge and were to slip I'd come like a catapult clear into the camp."
"Nothing could tempt me to go up there now," said Dick.
"Maybe not, nor me either, but as I live somebody is on top of that ridge now."
Dick's eyes followed his pointing finger, saw a black dot on the utmost summit, and then he snatched up his glasses.
"It's Slade, his very self!" he exclaimed in excitement. "I'd know that hat anywhere. Now, how under the sun did he come there!"
"It's more important to know why he has come," said Warner, using his own glasses. "I see him clearly and there is no doubt that it's the same robber, traitor and assassin who, unfortunately, escaped when we shot his horde to pieces."
"He has a rifle with him, and as sure as we live he's sitting down on the ice, and picking out a target here in the valley."
"A risky business for Slade. Shooting upward we can take better aim at him than he can at us."
There was a great stir in the valley, as others saw the figure on the mountain and read Slade's intentions. Fifty men sprang to their feet and seized their rifles. But the guerrilla moved swiftly along the knife-edge of the ridge, obviously sure of his footing, and before any of them could fire, dropped down behind a little group of cedars. Every stem and bough was cased in a sheath of silver mail, but they hid him well. Dick, with his glasses, could not discern a single outline of the man behind the glittering tracery.
But as they looked, a head of red appeared suddenly in the silver, smoke floated away, and............
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