Chapter 2

 

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Up | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

THE GUNS OF BULL RUN

A STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR'S EVE

by JOSEPH A. ALTSHELER

   II.    A COURIER TO THE SOUTH

 Harry was awakened by his father shaking his shoulder.  It was yet dark outside, but a small lamp burned on his table.

"It is time for you to go, Harry," said Colonel Kenton, somewhat unsteadily.  "Your horse, bridle and saddle on, is waiting.  Your breakfast has been cooked for you, and everything else is ready."

Harry dressed rapidly in his heaviest and warmest clothing.  He and his father ate breakfast by lamplight, and when he finished it was not yet dawn.  Then the Colonel himself brought him his overcoat, comforter, overshoes, and fur cap.

"The saddlebags are already on your horse," he said, "and they are filled with the things you will need.  In this pocket-book you will find five hundred dollars, and here is, also, an order on a bank in Charleston for more.  See that you keep both money and order safely. I trust to you to spend the money in the proper manner."

Harry put both in an inside pocket of his waistcoat, and then his father handed him a heavy sealed letter.

"This you must guard with your life," he said.  "It is not addressed to anybody, but you can give it to Senator Yancey, who is probably in Charleston, or Governor Pickens, of South Carolina, or General Beauregard, who, I understand, is coming to command the troops there, and whom I knew in former days, or to General Ripley.  It contains Kentucky's promise to South Carolina, and it is signed by many of us. And now, Harry, let prudence watch over action.  It is no common errand upon which you ride."

The colonel walked with him to the gate where the horse stood.  Harry did not know who had brought the animal there, but he believed that his father had done so with his own hand.  The boy sprang into the saddle, Colonel Kenton gave him a strong grasp of the hand, undertook to say something but, as he did so, the words choked in his throat, and he walked hastily toward the house.

Harry spoke to his horse, but a hundred yards away, before he came to the first curve in the road, he stopped and looked back.  Colonel Kenton was standing in the doorway, his figure made bright in the moonlight. Harry waved his hand and a hand was waved in return.  Tears arose to his own eyes, but he was youth in the saddle, with the world before him, and the mist was gone quickly.

The snow was six or eight inches deep, and lay unbroken in the road. But the horse was powerful, shod carefully for snow and ice, and Harry had been almost from infancy an expert rider.  His spirits rose. He had no fear of the stillness and the dark.  But one could scarcely call it the dark, since brilliant stars rode high in a bright blue heaven, and the forest on either side of him was a vast and intricate tracery of white touched with silver.

He examined his saddle bags, and found in them a silver-mounted pistol and cartridges which he transferred to his belt.  The line of the mountains lay near the road, and he remembered Bill Skelly and those like him.  The weapon gave him new strength.  Skelly and his comrades might come on any pretext they chose.

The road lay straight toward the south, edged on either side by forest. Now and then he passed a silent farm house, set back among the trees, and once a dog barked, but there was no sound, save the tread of the horse's feet in the snow, and his occasional puff when he blew the steam from his nostrils.  Harry did not feel the cold.  The heavy overcoat protected his body, and the strong action of the heart, pouring the blood in a full tide through his veins, kept him warm.

The east whitened.  Dawn came.  Thin spires of smoke began to rise from distant houses in the woods or fields.  Harry was already many miles from Pendleton, and then something rose in his throat again.  He remembered his father standing in the portico, and, strangely enough, the Tacitus lying in his locked desk at the academy.  But he crushed it down.  His abounding youth made him consider as weak and unworthy, an emotion which a man would merely have reckoned as natural.

The station at Winton was a full twenty miles from Pendleton and, with such heavy snow, Harry did not expect to arrive until late in the afternoon.  Nor would there be any need for him to get there earlier, as no train for Nashville reached that place until half past six in the evening.  His horse showed no signs of weariness, but he checked his speed, and went on at an easy walk.

The road curved nearer to a line of blue hills, which sloped gradually upward for scores of miles, until they became mountains.  All were clothed with forest, and every tree was heavy with snow.  A line between the trees showed where a path turned off from the main road and entered the hills.  As Harry approached it, he heard the crunching of horses' hoofs in the snow.  A warning instinct caused him to urge his own horse forward, just as four riders came into view.

He saw that the men in the saddles, who were forty or fifty yards away, were mountaineers, like Skelly.  They wore fur caps; heavy blanket shawls were drooped about their shoulders and every one carried a rifle. As soon as they saw the boy they shouted to him to halt.

Harry's alert senses took alarm.  They must have gained some knowledge of his errand and its nature.  Perhaps word had been sent from Pendleton by those who were arraying themselves on the other side that he be intercepted.  When they cried to him to stop, he struck his horse sharply, shouted to him, and bent far over against his neck.  Colonel Kenton had chosen well.  The horse responded instantly.  He seemed to gather his whole powerful frame compactly together, and shot forward. The nearest mountaineer fired, but the bullet merely whistled where the horse and rider had been, and sent snow flying from the bushes on the other side of the road.  A second rifle cracked but it, too, missed the flying target, and the mountaineers, turning into the main road, gave pursuit.

Harry felt a cold shiver along his spine when the leading man pulled trigger.  It was the first time in his life that any one had ever fired upon him, and the shiver returned with the second shot.  And since they had missed, confidence came.  He knew that they could not overtake him, and they would not dare to pursue him long.  He glanced back.  They were a full hundred yards in the rear, riding all four abreast.  He remembered his own pistol, and, drawing it from his belt, he sent a bullet toward the pursuit.  It was too long a range for serious work, but he intended it as a warning that he, too, was armed and would fight.

The road still ran through the forest with the hills close on the left. Up went the sun, casting a golden glory over the white earth.  Harry beheld afar only a single spire of smoke.  The houses were few in that region, and he might go four or five miles without seeing a single human being, save those who pursued.  But he was not afraid.  His confidence lay chiefly in the powerful animal that he rode, and he saw the distance between him and the four men lengthen from a hundred to two hundred yards.  One of them fired another shot at him, but it only shook the snow from a tree fifteen feet away.  He could not keep from sending back a taunting cry.

On went the sun up the curve of the heavens, and the brilliant light grew.  The forest thinned away.  The line of hills retreated, and before him lay fields, extending to both right and left.  The eye ranged over a great distance and he counted the smoke of five farm houses.  He believed that the men would not pursue him into the open country, but he urged his horse to greater speed, and did not turn in his saddle for a quarter of an hour.  When he finally looked back the mountaineers were gone.  He could see clearly a half-mile, and he knew now that his surmise had come true.  They dared to pursue only in the forest, and having failed, they would withdraw into the hills.

He drew his horse down to a walk, patted his shoulder, and spoke to him words of approval.  He was not sorry now that he had passed through the adventure.  It would harden him to risks and dangers to come.  He made up his mind, also, to say nothing about it.  He could send a warning back from Winton, but the men in Pendleton knew how to protect themselves, and the message might fall into wrong hands.

His journey continued in such peace that it was hard to believe men had fired upon him, and in the middle of the afternoon he reached Winton. He left his horse, saddle and bridle at a livery stable, stating that they would be called for by Colonel Kenton, who was known throughout the region, and sought food at the crude little wooden hotel.  He was glad that he saw no one whom he knew, because, after the fashion of the country, they would ask him many questions, and he felt relief, too, when the train arrived.

Dark had already come when Harry entered the car.  There were no coaches for sleepers, and he must make himself comfortable as best he could on the red plush seat, sprinkled thickly with ashes and cinders from the engine.  Fortunately, he had the seat alone, although there were many people in the car.

The train, pouring out a huge volume of black smoke, pulled out of the station with a great clatter that never ceased.  Now Harry felt an ebb of the spirits and melancholy.  He was leaving behind Pendleton and all that he had known.  In the day the excitement, the cold air, and the free world about him had kept him up.  Now the swaying and jarring of the train, crude like most others in that early time of railways, gave him a sense of illness.  The window at his elbow rattled incessantly, and the ashes and cinders sifted in, blackening his face and hands.  Three or four smoking lamps, hung from the ceiling, lighted the car dimly, and disclosed but partly the faces of the people around him.  Some were asleep already.  Others ate their suppers from baskets. Harry felt of his pockets at intervals to see that his money and letters were safe, and he kept his saddle bags closely on the seat beside him.

The nausea created by the motion of the train passed away soon.  He put his face against the dusty window pane and tried to see the country. But he could catch only glimpses of snowy woods and fields, and, once or twice, flashes of water as they crossed rivers.  The effort yielded little, and he turned his attention to the people.  He noted only one who differed in aspect from the ordinary country passenger.

A man of middle years sat rigidly erect at the far end of the car. He wore a black hat, broad of brim, and all his clothing was black and precise.  His face was shaven smoothly, save for a long gray mustache with an upward curve.  While the people about him talked in a miscellaneous fashion, he did not join them, and his manner did not invite approach even in those easy times.

Harry was interested greatly.  The stranger presently opened a valise, took out some food and ate delicately.  Then he drew a small silver cup from the same valise, filled it at the drinking stand, drank and returned it to the valise.  Without a crumb having fallen on clothing or floor, he resumed his seat and gazed straight before him.

Harry's interest in the stranger increased.  He had a fine face, cut clearly, and of a somewhat severe and melancholy cast.  Always he gazed straight before him, and his mind seemed to be far from the people in the car.  It was obvious that he was not the ordinary traveler, and the boy spent some time in trying to guess his identity.  Then he gave it up, because he was growing sleepy.

Excitement and the long physical strain were now telling upon Harry. He leaned his head against the corner of the seat and the wall, drew his overcoat as a blanket about his body and shoulders, and let his eyelids droop.  The dim train grew dimmer, and he slept.

The train was due at Nashville between midnight and morning, and Harry was awakened by the conductor a half hour before he reached the city. He shook himself, put on his overcoat that he had used as a blanket, and tried to look through the window.  He saw only darkness rushing past, but he knew that he had left Kentucky behind, and it seemed to him that he had come into an alien land, a land of future friends, no doubt, but as yet, the land of the stranger.

All the people in the train were awakening, and were gathering their baggage sleepily about them.  But the stranger, who drank from the silver cup, seemed not to have been asleep at all.  He still sat rigidly erect, and his melancholy look had not abated.  His valise lay on the seat beside him.  Harry noticed that it was large and strong, with metal clasps at the corners.

The engine was whistling already for Nashville, and Harry threw his saddle bags over his arm.  He was fully awake now, alert and eager. This town of Nashville was full of promise.  It had been the home of the great Andrew Jackson, and it was one of the important cities of the South, where cities were measured by influence rather than population, because all, except New Orleans, were small.

As the train slowed down, Harry arose and stood in the aisle.  The stranger also stood up, and Harry noticed that his bearing was military. He looked around, his eyes met Harry's--perhaps he had been observing him in the night--and he smiled.  It was a rare, illuminating smile that made him wonderfully attractive, and Harry smiled back.  He did not know it, but he was growing lonely, with the loneliness of youth, and he wanted a friend.

"You are stopping in Nashville?" said the man with the friendliness of the time.

"For a day only.  I am then going further south."

Harry had answered without hesitation.  He did not believe it possible that this man could be planning anything against him or his errand. The tall stranger looked upon him with approval.

"I noticed you in the train last night when you slept," he said, speaking in the soft, musical accents of the seaboard South.  "Your sleep was very deep, almost like collapse.  You showed that you had been through great physical and mental strain, and even before you fell asleep your anxious look indicated that you rode on an errand of importance."

Harry gazed at him in surprise, mingled with a little alarm.  The strange man laughed musically and with satisfaction.

"I am neither a detective nor a conspirator," he said.  "These are times when men travel upon anxious journeys.  I go upon one myself, but since we are in Tennessee, well south of the Mason and Dixon line, I make no secret of it.  I am Leonidas Talbot, of South Carolina, until a week ago a colonel in the American army, but now bound for my home in Charleston. You boarded this train at a station in Kentucky, either the nearest or among the nearest to Pendleton.  A resemblance, real or fancied, has caused me to notice you closely."

The man was looking at him with frank blue eyes set well apart, and Harry saw no need of concealing his identity.

"My name is Kenton, Henry Kenton--though people generally call me Harry--and I live at Pendleton in Kentucky," he replied.

Now the smile of Leonidas Talbot, late colonel U. S. A., became rarely sweet.

"I should have guessed it," he said.  "The place where you joined us and the strong resemblance should have made me know.  You must be the son of Colonel George Kenton."

"Yes," said Harry.

"Then, young sir, let me shake your hand."

His manner seemed so warm and natural that Harry held out his hand, and Colonel Talbot gave it a strong clasp.

"Your father and I have served together," he said.  "We were in the same class at West Point, and we fought in the same command against the Indians on the plains.  I saw him again at Cerro Gordo, and we were side by side at Contreras, Molino del Rey, and the storming of Chapultepec. He left the service some time after we came back from Mexico, but I remained in it, until--recent events.  It is fitting that I should meet his son here, when we go upon errands which are, perhaps, similar in nature.  I infer that your destination is Charleston!"

"Yes," said Harry impulsively, and he was not sorry that he had obeyed the impulse.

"Then we shall go together," said Colonel Talbot.  "I take it that many other people are now on their way to this same city of Charleston, which since the secession of South Carolina has become the most famous in the Union."

"I shall be glad if you will take me with you," said Harry.  "I know little of Charleston and the lower South, and I need company."

"Then we will go to a hotel," said Colonel Talbot.  "On a journey like this two together are better than one alone.  I know Nashville fairly well, and while it is of the undoubted South, it will be best for us, while we are here, to keep quiet tongues in our heads.  We cannot get a train out of the city until the afternoon."

They were now in the station and everybody was going out.  It was not much past midnight, and a cold wind blowing across the hills and the Cumberland River made Harry shiver in his overcoat.  Once more he was glad of his new comradeship with a man so much his superior in years and worldly wisdom.

Snow lay on the ground, but not so deep as in Kentucky.  Houses, mostly of wood, and low, showed dimly through the dusk.  No carriages met the train, and the people were melting away already to their destinations.

"I'll lead the way," said Colonel Talbot.  "I know the best hotel, and for travelers who need rest the best is always none too good."  He led briskly through the silent and lonely streets, until they came to a large brick building with several lights shining from the wide and open door.  They entered the lobby of the hotel, one carrying his saddle bags, the other his valise, and registered in the book that the sleepy clerk shoved toward them.  Several loungers still sat in cane-bottomed chairs along the wall, and they cast curious glances at Harry and the colonel.

The hotel was crowded, the clerk said.  People had been crowding into town in the last few days, as there was a great stir in the country owing to the news from Charleston.  He could give them only one room, but it had two beds.

"It will do," said the colonel, in his soft but positive voice.  "My young friend and I have been traveling hard and we need rest."

Harry would have preferred a room alone, but his trust in Colonel Talbot had already become absolute.  This man must be what he claimed to be. There was no trace of deceit about him.  His heart had never before warmed so much to a stranger.

Colonel Talbot closed and locked the door of their room.  It was a large bare apartment with two windows overlooking the town, and two small beds against opposite walls.  The colonel put his valise at the foot of one bed, and walked to the window.  The night had lightened somewhat and he saw the roofs of buildings, the dim line of the yellow river, and the dusky haze of hills beyond.  He turned his head and looked steadily in the direction in which lay Charleston.  A look of ineffable sadness overspread his face.

The light on the table was none too bright, but Harry saw Colonel Talbot's melancholy eyes, and he could not refrain from asking:

"What's the trouble, colonel?"

The South Carolinian turned from the window, sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled.  It was an illuminating smile, almost the smile of youth.

"I'm afraid that everything's the matter, Harry, boy," he said.  "South Carolina, the state that I love even more than the Union to which it belongs, or belonged, has gone out, and, Harry, because I'm a son of South Carolina I must go with it--and I don't want to go.  But I've been a soldier all my life.  I know little of politics.  I have grown up with the feeling that I must stay with my people through all things.  I must be kin by blood to half the white people in Charleston.  How could I desert them?"

"You couldn't," said Harry emphatically.

Colonel Leonidas Talbot smiled.  It is possible that, at the moment, he wished for the sanguine decision of youth, which could choose a side and find only wrong in the other.

"In my heart," he continued, "I do not wish to see the Union broken up, although the violence of New England orators and the raid of John Brown has appalled me.  But, Harry, pay good heed to me when I say it is not a mere matter of going out of the Union.  It may not be possible for South Carolina and the states that follow her to stay out."

"I don't understand you," said the boy.

"It means war!  It means war, as surely as the rising of the sun in the morning.  Many think that it does not; that the new republic will be formed in peace, but I know better.  A great and terrible war is coming. Many of our colored people in Charleston and along the Carolina coast came by the way of the West Indies.  They have strange superstitions. They believe that some of their number have the gift of second sight. In my childhood I knew two old women who claimed the power, and they gave apparent proofs that were extraordinary.  I feel just now as if I had the gift myself, and I tell you, Harry, although you can see only a dark horizon from the window, I see one that is blood red all the way to the zenith.  Alas, our poor country!"

Harry stared at him in amazement.  The colonel, although he had called his name, seemed to have forgotten his presence.  A vivid and powerful imagination had carried him not only from the room, but far into the future.  He recovered himself with an abrupt little shrug of the shoulders.

"I am too old a man to be talking such foolishness to a boy," he said, briskly.  "To bed, Harry!  To bed!  Your sleep on the train was brief and you need more!  So do I!"

Harry undressed quickly, and put himself under the covers, and the colonel also retired, although somewhat more leisurely.  The boy could not sleep for some time.  One vision was present in his mind, that of Charleston, the famous city to which they were going.  The effect of Colonel Talbot's ominous words had worn off.  He would soon see the city which had been so long a leader in Southern thought and action, and he would see, too, the men who had so boldly taken matters in their own hands.  He admired their courage and daring.

It was late when Harry awoke, and the colonel was already up and dressed.  But the man waited quietly until the boy was dressed also, and they went down to breakfast together.  Despite the lateness of the hour the dining-room was still crowded, and the room buzzed with animated talk.  Harry knew very well that Charleston was the absorbing topic, just as it had been the one great thought in his own mind. The people about him seemed to be wholly of Southern sympathies, and he knew very well that Tennessee, although she might take her own time about it, would follow South Carolina out of the Union.

They found two vacant seats at a table, where three men already sat. One was a member of the Legislature, who talked somewhat loudly; the second was a country merchant of middle age, and the third was a young man of twenty-five, who had very little to say.  The legislator, whose name was Ramsay, soon learned Colonel Talbot's identity, and he would have proclaimed it to everybody about him, had not the colonel begged him not to do so.

"But you will at least permit me to shake your hand, Colonel Talbot," he said.  "One who can give up his commission in the army and come back to us as you have done is the kind of man we need."

Colonel Talbot gave a reluctant hand.

"I am proud to have felt the grasp of one who will win many honors in the coming war," said Ramsay.

"Or more likely fill a grave," said Colonel Talbot, dryly.

The silent young man across the table looked at the South Carolinian with interest, and Harry in his turn examined this stranger.  He was built well, shaven smoothly, and did not look like a Tennesseean. His thin lips, often pressed closely together, seemed to indicate a capacity for silence, but when he saw Harry looking at him he smiled and said:

"I gather from your conversation that you are going to Charleston. All southern roads seem to lead to that town, and I, too, am going there.  My name is Shepard, William J. Shepard, of St. Louis."

Colonel Talbot turned a measuring look upon him. It was so intent and comprehensive that the young man flushed slightly, and moved a little in his seat.

"So you are from St. Louis?" said the colonel.  "That is a great city, and you must know something about the feeling there.  Can you tell me whether Missouri will go out?"

"I cannot," replied Shepard.  "No man can.  But many of us are at work."

"What do you think?" persisted Colonel Talbot.

"I am hoping.  Missouri is really a Southern state, the daughter of Kentucky, and she ought to join her Southern sisters.  As the others go out one by one, I think she will follow.  The North will not fight, and we will form a peaceful Southern republic."

Colonel Leonidas Talbot of South Carolina swept him once more with that intent and comprehensive gaze.

"The North will fight," he said.  "As I told my young friend here last night, a great and terrible war is coming."

"Do you think so?" asked Shepard, and it seemed to Harry that his tone had become one of overwhelming interest.  "Then Charleston, as its center and origin, ought to be ready.  How are they prepared there for defense?"

Colonel Talbot's eyes never left Shepard's face and a faint pink tint appeared again in the young man's cheeks.

"There are the forts--Sumter, Moultrie, Johnson and Pinckney," replied the South Carolinian, "and I heard to-day that they are building earthworks, also.  All are helping and it is said that Toutant Beauregard is going there to take command."

"A good officer," said Shepard, musingly.  "I believe you said you were leaving for Charleston this afternoon?"

"No, I did not say when," replied Colonel Talbot, somewhat sharply. "It is possible that Harry and I may linger a while in Nashville. They do not need us yet in Charleston, although their tempers are pretty warm.  There has been so much fiery talk, cumulative for so many years, that they regard northern men with extremely hostile eyes.  It would not take much to cause trouble."

Colonel Talbot continued to gaze steadily at Shepard, but the Missourian looked down into his plate.  It seemed to Harry that there was some sort of play between them, or rather a thread of suspicion, a fine thread in truth, but strong enough to sustain something.  He could see, too, that Colonel Talbot was giving Shepard a warning, a warning, veiled and vague, but nevertheless a warning.  But the boy liked Shepard.  His face seemed to him frank and honest, and he would have trusted him.

They rose presently and went into the lobby, where the colonel evaded Shepard, as the place was now crowded.  More news had come from Charleston and evidently it was to their liking.  There was a great amount of talk.  Many of the older men sprinkled their words with expressive oaths.  The oaths came so naturally that it seemed to be a habit with them.  They chewed tobacco freely, and now and then their white shirt fronts were stained with it.  All those who seemed to be of prominence wore long black coats, waistcoats cut low, and trousers of a lighter color.

Near the wall stood a man of heavy build with a great shaggy head and thick black hair all over his face.  He was dressed in a suit of rough gray jeans, with his trousers stuffed into high boots.  He carried in his right hand a short, thick riding whip, with which he occasionally switched the tops of his own boots.

Harry spoke to him civilly, after the custom of the time and place. He took him for a mountaineer, and he judged by the heavy whip he carried, that he was a horse or cattle trader.

"They talk of Charleston," said Harry.

"Yes, they talk an' talk," said the man, biting his words, "an' they do nothin'."

"You think they ought to take Tennessee out right away?"

"No, I'm ag'in it.  I don't want to bust up this here Union.  But I reckon Tennessee is goin' out, an' most all the other Southern states will go out, too.  I 'low the South will get whipped like all tarnation, but if she does I'm a Southerner myself, an' I'll have to git whipped along with her.  But talkin' don't do no good fur nobody.  If the South goes out, it's hittin' that'll count, an' them that hits fastest, hardest, truest an' longest will win."

The man was rough in appearance and illiterate in speech, but his manner impressed Harry in an extraordinary manner.  It was direct and wonderfully convincing.  The boy recognized at once a mind that would steer straight through things toward its goal.

"My name is Harry Kenton," he said politely.  "I'm from Kentucky, and my father used to be a colonel in the army."

"Mine," said the mountaineer, "is Nat Forrest, Nathan Bedford Forrest for full and long.  I'm a trader in live stock, an' I thought I'd look in here at Nashville an' see what the smart folks was doin'.  I'd tell 'em not to let Tennessee go out of the Union, but they wouldn't pay any 'tention to a hoss-tradin' mountaineer, who his neighbors say can't write his name."

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Forrest," said Harry, "but I'm afraid we're on different sides of the question."

"Mebbe we are 'til things come to a head," said the mountaineer, laughing, "but, as I said, if Tennessee goes out, I reckon I'll go with her.  It's hard to go ag'in your own gang.  Leastways, 't ain't in me to do it. Now I've had enough of this gab, an' I'm goin' to skip out. Good-bye, young feller.  I wish you well."

Bringing his whip once more, and sharply this time, across the tops of his own boots, he strode out of the hotel.  His walk was like his talk, straight and decisive.  Harry saw Shepard in the lobby making friends, but, imitating his older comrade, he avoided him, and late that afternoon Colonel Talbot and he left for Charleston.

 

 

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