THE STAR OF GETTYSBURG
A STORY OF SOUTHERN HIGH TIDE
by JOSEPH A. ALTSHELER
II. AHORSE WITH SHERBURNE
Harry was glad that General Jackson had detailed him for this task. He missed his comrades of the staff, but Sherburne was a host in himself, and he was greatly attached to him. He rode a good horse and there was pleasure in galloping with these men over the rolling country, and breathing the crisp and vital air of autumn.
They soon left the forest, and rode along a narrow road between fields. Their spirits rose continually. It was a singular fact that the Army of Northern Virginia was not depressed by Antietam. It had been a bitter disappointment to the Southern people, who expected to see Lee take Baltimore and Philadelphia, but the army itself was full of pride over its achievement in beating off numbers so much superior.
It was for these reasons that Sherburne and those who rode with him felt pride and elation. They had seen the ranks of the army fill up again. Lee had retreated across the Potomac after Antietam with less than forty thousand men. Now he had more than seventy thousand, and Sherburne and Harry felt certain that instead of waiting to be attacked by
McClellan he himself would go forth to attack.
Harry had seldom seen a day more beautiful. That long hot, dry summer had been followed by a fine autumn, the most glorious of all seasons in North America, when the air has snap and life enough in it to make the old young again.
He was familiar now with the rolling country into which they rode after leaving the forest. Off in one direction lay the fields on which they had fought the First and Second Manassas, and off in another, behind the loom of the blue mountains, he had ridden with
Stonewall Jackson on that marvelous campaign which seemed to Harry without an equal.
But the land about them was deserted now. There were no harvests in the fields. No smoke rose from the deserted farm houses. This soil had been trodden over and over again by great armies, and it would be a long time before it called again for the plough. The stone fences stood, as solid as ever, but those of wood had been used for fuel by the soldiers.
They watered their horses at a clear creek, and then Sherburne and Harry, from the summit of a low hill, scanned the country with their glasses.
They saw no human being. There was the rolling country, brown now with autumn, and the clear, cool streams flowing through almost every valley, but so far as man was concerned the scene was one of desolation.
"I should think that
McClellan would have mounted scouts some distance this side of the Potomac," said Sherburne. "Certainly, if he were making the crossing, as our reports say, he would send them ahead."
"We're sure to strike 'em before we reach the river," said Harry.
"I think with you that we'll see 'em, but it's our business to avoid 'em. We're sent forth to see and not to fight. But if General Stuart could ride away up into Pennsylvania, make a complete circuit around the Union army and come back without loss, then we ought to be successful with our own task, which is an easier one."
"I never knew you to fail, Captain. I consider your task as done already."
"Thanks, Harry. You're a noble optimist. If we fail, it will not be for lack of trying. Forward, my lads, and we'll reach the Potomac some time to-night."
They rode on through the same silence and desolation. They had no doubt that eyes watched them from groves and fence corners, keeping cautiously out of the way, because it was sometimes difficult now to tell Federals from Confederates. But it did not matter to Sherburne. He kept a straight course for the Potomac, at least half of his men knowing thoroughly every foot of the way.
"What time can we reach the river and the place at which they say McClellan is going to cross?" asked Harry.
"By midnight anyway," replied Sherburne. "Of course, we'll have to slow down as we draw near, or we may run square into an ambush. Do you see that grove about two miles ahead? We'll go into that first, rest our horses, and take some food."
It was a fine oak grove, covering about an acre, with no undergrowth and a fair amount of grass, still green under the shade, on which the horses could graze. The trunks of the trees also were close enough together to hide them from anyone else who was not very near. Here the men ate cold food from their haversacks and let their horses nibble the grass for a half hour.
They emerged refreshed and resumed their course toward the Potomac. In the very height of the afternoon blaze they saw a horseman on the crest of a hill, watching them intently through glasses. Sherburne instantly raised his own glasses to his eyes.
"A Yankee scout," he said. "He sees us and knows us for what we are, but he doesn't know what we're about."
"But he's trying to guess," said Harry, who was also using glasses. "I can't see his face well enough to tell, but I know that in his place I'd be guessing." "As we don't want him hanging on to our heels and watching us, I think we'd better charge him."
"Have the whole troop turn aside and chase him?"
"No; Harry, you and I and eight men will do it. Marlowe, take the rest of the company straight along the road at an easy gait. But keep well behind the hedge that you see ahead."
Marlowe was his second in command, and taking the lead he continued with the troop.
Marlowe rode behind one of the hedges, where they were hidden from the lone horseman on the hill, and Sherburne and Harry and the eight men followed. While they were yet hidden, Sherburne and his chosen band suddenly detached themselves from the others at a break in the hedge and galloped toward the horseman who was still standing on the hill, gazing intently toward the point where he had last seen the troop riding.
Sherburne, Harry and the privates rode at a gallop across the field, straight for the Union sentinel. He did not see them until they had covered nearly half the distance, and then with aggravating slowness he turned and rode over the opposite side of the hill. Harry had been watching him intently, and when he had come much nearer the figure seemed familiar to him. At first he could not recall it to mind, but a moment or two later he turned excitedly to Sherburne.
"I know that man, although I've never seen him before in a uniform," he said. "I met him when
President Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery and I saw him again at Washington. His name is Shepard, the most skillful and daring of all the Union spies."
"I've heard you speak of that fellow before," said Sherburne, "and since we've put him to flight, I think we'd better stop. Ten to one, if we follow him over the brow of the hill, he'll lead us into an ambush."
"I think you're right, Captain, and it's likely, too, that he'll come back soon with a heavy cavalry detachment. I've no doubt that thousands of Union horsemen are this side of the river."
Sherburne was impressed by Harry's words, and the little detachment, returning at a gallop, joined the main troop, which was now close to a considerable stretch of forest.
"Ah, there they are!" exclaimed Harry, looking back at the hill on which he had seen the lone horseman.
A powerful body of cavalry showed for a moment against the sun, which was burning low and red in the west. The background was so intense and vivid that the horsemen did not form a mass, but every figure stood detached, a black outline against the sky. Harry judged that they were at least a thousand in number.
"Too strong a force for us to meet," said Sherburne. "They must outnumber us five to one, and since they've had practice the Northern cavalry has improved a lot. It must be a part of the big force that made the scout toward our lines. Good thing the forest is just ahead."
"And a good thing, too, that night is not far off."
"Right, my boy, we need 'em both, the forest and the dark. The Union cavalry is going to pursue us, and I don't mean to turn back. General Jackson sent us to find about
McClellan's crossing, and we've got to do it."
"I wouldn't dare go back to Old Jack without the information we're sent to get."
"Nor I. Hurry up the men, Marlowe. We've got to lose the Union cavalry in the forest somehow."
The men urged their horses forward at a gallop and quickly reached the trees. But when Harry looked back he saw the thousand in blue about a mile away, coming at a pace equal to their own. He felt much apprehension. The road through the forest led straight before them, but the trail of two hundred horses could not be hidden even by night. They could turn into the forest and elude their pursuers, but, as Sherburne said, that meant abandoning their errand, and no one in all the group thought of such a thing.
Sherburne increased the pace a little now, while he tried to think of some way out. Harry rode by his side in silence, and he, too, was seeking a solution. Through the trees, now nearly leafless, they saw the blue line still coming, and the perplexities of the brave young captain grew fast.
But the night was coming down, and suddenly the long, lean figure of a man on the long, lean figure of a horse shot from the trees on their right and drew up by the side of Sherburne and Harry.
"Lankford, sir, Jim Lankford is my name," he said to Sherburne, touching one finger to his forehead in a queer kind of salute.
Harry saw that the man had a thin, clean-shaven face with a strong nose and chin.
"I 'low you're runnin' away from the Yankees," said Lankford to Sherburne.
Sherburne flushed, but no anger showed in his voice as he replied:
"You're right, but we run for two reasons. They're five to our one, and we have business elsewhere that mustn't be interrupted by fighting."
"First reason is enough. A man who fights five to one is five times a fool. I'm a good Johnny Reb myself, though I keep off the fightin' lines. I live back there in a house among the trees, just off the road. You'd have seen it when you passed by, if you hadn't been in such a hurry. Just settin' down to take a smoke when Mandy, my wife, tells me she hears the feet of many horses thunderin' on the road. In a moment I hear 'em, too. Run to the front porch, and see Confederate cavalry coming at a gallop, followed by a big Yankee force. Mandy and me didn't like the sight, and we agree that I take a hand. Now I'm takin' it."
"How do you intend to help us?"
"I'm gettin' to that. I saddled my big horse quick as lightnin', and takin' a runnin' jump out of the woods, landed beside you. Now, listen, Captain; I reckon you're on some sort of scoutin' trip, and want to go on toward the river."
"You reckon right."
"About a mile further on we dip into a little valley. A creek, wide but shallow and with a bed all rocks, takes up most of the width of that valley. It goes nearly to the north, and at last reaches the Potomac. A half mile from the crossin' ahead it runs through steep, high banks that come right down to its edges, but the creek bottom is smooth enough for the horses. I 'low I make myself plain enough, don't I, Mr. Captain?"
"You do, Mr. Lankford, and you're an angel in homespun. Without you we could never do what we want to do. Lead the way to that blessed creek. We don't want any of the Yankee vanguard to see us when we turn and follow its stream."
"We can make it easy. They might guess that we're ridin' in the water to hide our tracks, but the bottom is so rocky they won't know whether we've gone up or down the stream. And if they guessed the right way, and followed it, they'd be likely to turn back at the cliffs, anyhow."
They urged their horses now to the uttermost, and Harry soon saw the waters of the creek shining through the darkness. Everything was falling out as Lankford had said. The pursuit was unseen and unheard behind them, but they knew it was there.
"Slow now, boys," said Sherburne, as they rode into the stream. "We don't want to make too much noise splashing the water. Are there many boulders in here, Mr. Lankford?"
"Not enough to hurt."
"Then you lead the way. The men can come four abreast."
The water was about a foot deep, and despite their care eight hundred hoofs made a considerable splashing, but the creek soon turned around a hill and led on through dense forest. Sherburne and Harry were satisfied that no Union horseman had either seen or heard them, and they followed Lankford with absolute confidence. Now and then the hoofs of a stumbling horse would grind on the stones, but there was no other noise save the steady marching of two hundred men through water.
The things that Lankford had asserted continued to come true. The creek presently flowed between banks fifty feet high, rocky and steep as a wall. But the stone bed of the creek was almost as smooth as a floor, and they stopped here a while to rest and let their horses drink.
The enclosing walls were not more than fifty or sixty feet across the top and it was very dark in the gorge. Harry saw overhead a slice of dusky sky, lit by only a few stars, but it was pitchy black where he sat on his horse, and listened to his contented gurglings as he drank. He could merely make out the outlines of his comrades, but he knew that Sherburne was on one side of him and Lankford on the other. He could not hear the slightest sound of pursuit, and he was convinced that the Union cavalry had lost their trail. So was Sherburne.
"We owe you a big debt, Mr. Lankford," said the captain.
"I've tried to serve my side," said Lankford, "though, as I told you, I'm not goin' on the firin' line. It's not worth while for all of us to get killed. Later on this country will need some people who are not dead."
"You're right about that, Mr. Lankford," said Sherburne, with a little laugh, "and you, for one, although you haven't gone on the firing lines, have earned the right to live. You've done us a great service, sir."
"I reckon I have," said Lankford with calm egotism, "but it was necessary for me to do it. I've got an inquirin' mind, I have, and also a calculatin' one. When I saw your little troop comin', an' then that big troop of the Yankees comin' on behind, I knowed that you needed help. I knowed that this creek run down a gorge, and that I could lead you into the gorge and escape pursuit. I figgered, too, that you were on your way to see about McClellan crossin' the Potomac, an' I figgered next that you meant to keep straight on, no matter what happened. So I'm goin' to lead you out of the gorge, and some miles further ahead you'll come to the Potomac, where I guess you can use your own eyes and see all you want to see."
"The horses are all right now and I think we'd better be moving, Mr. Lankford."
They started, but did not go faster than a walk while they were in the gorge. Harry's eyes had grown somewhat used to the darkness, and he could make out the rocky walls, crested with trees, the higher branches of which seemed almost to meet over the chasm.
It was a weird passage, but time and place did not oppress Harry. He felt instead a certain surge of the spirits. They had thrown off the pursuit--there could be no doubt of it--and the first step in their mission was accomplished. They were now in the midst of action, action thrilling and of the highest importance, and his soul rose to the issue.
He had no doubt that some great movement, possibly like that of the Second Manassas, hung upon their mission, and Lee and Jackson might be together at that very moment, planning the mighty enterprise which would be shaped according to their news.
They emerged from the gorge and rode up a low, sloping bank which gave back but little sound to the tread of the horses, and here Lankford said that he would leave them. Sherburne reached over his gauntleted hand and gave him a powerful grasp.
"We won't forget this service, Mr. Lankford," he said.
"I ain't goin' to let you forget it. Keep straight ahead an' you'll strike a cross-country road in 'bout a quarter of a mile. It leads you to the Potomac, an' I reckon from now on you'll have to take care of yourselves."
Lankford melted away in the darkness as he rode back up the gorge, and the troop went on at a good pace across a country, half field, half forest. They came to a road which was smooth and hard, and increased their speed. They soon reached a region which several of their horsemen knew, and, as the night lightened a little, they rode fast toward the Potomac.
Harry looked at his watch and saw that it was not much past midnight. They would have ample opportunity for observation before morning. A half hour later they discerned dim lights ahead and they knew that the Potomac could not be far away.
They drew to one side in a bit of forest, and Sherburne again detached himself, Harry and eight others from the troop, which he left as before under the command of Marlowe.
"Wait here in the wood for us," he said to his second in command. "We should be back by dawn. Of course, if any force of the enemy threatens you, you'll have to do what seems best, and we'll ride back to General Jackson alone."
The ten went on a bit farther, using extreme care lest they run into a Northern picket. Fortunately the fringe of wood, in which they found shelter, continued to a point near the river, and as they went forward quietly they saw many lights. They heard also a great tumult, a mixture of many noises, the rumbling of
cannon and wagon wheels, the cracking of drivers' whips by the hundreds and hundreds, the sounds of drivers swearing many oaths, but swearing together and in an unbroken stream.
They rode to the crest of the hill, where they were well hidden among oaks and beeches, and there the whole scene burst upon them. The late moon had brightened, and many stars had come out as if for their especial benefit. They saw the broad stream of the Potomac shining like silver and spanned by a bridge of boats, on which a great force, horse, foot, artillery, and wagons, was crossing.
"That's McClellan's army," said Harry.
"And coming into Virginia," said Sherburne. "Well, we can't help their entering the state, but we can make it a very uncomfortable resting place for them."
"How many men do you suppose they have?"
"A hundred thousand here at the least, and others must be crossing elsewhere. But don't you worry, Harry. We've got seventy thousand men of our own, and Lee and Jackson, who, as you have been told before, are equal to a hundred thousand more. McClellan will march out again faster than he has marched in."
"Still, he's shown more capacity than the other
Union generals in the East, and his soldiers are devoted to him."
"But he isn't swift, Harry. While he's thinking, Lee and Jackson have thought and are acting. Queer, isn't it, that a young general should be slow, and older ones so much swifter. Why, General Lee must be nearly old enough to be
General McClellan's father."
"It's so, Captain, but those men are crossing fast. Listen how the cannon wheels rumble! And I know that a thousand whips are cracking at once. They'll all be on our soil to-morrow."
"So they will, but long before that time we'll be back at General Jackson's tent with the news of their coming."
"If nothing gets in the way. Do you remember that man whom we saw on the hill watching, the one who I said was Shepard, the ablest and most daring of all their spies?"
"I haven't forgotten him."
"This man Shepard, Captain, is one of the most dangerous of all our enemies. The Union could much more easily spare one of its generals than Shepard. He's omniscient. He's a lineal descendant of Argus, and has all the old man's hundred eyes, with a few extra ones added in convenient places. He's a witch doctor, medicine man, and other things beside. I believe he's followed us, that some way he's picked up our trail somewhere. He may have been hanging on the rear of the troop when we came through the gorge."
"Nonsense, Harry, you're turning the man into a supernatural being."
"That's just the way I feel about him."
"Then, if that's the case, we'd better be clearing out as fast as we can. We've seen enough, anyhow. We'll go straight back to the company and ride hard for the camp."
They reached the troop, which was waiting silently under the command of the faithful Marlowe. But before they could gallop back toward the south, the loud, clear call of a trumpet came from a point near by, and it was followed quickly by the beat of many hoofs.
"I see him! It's Shepard," exclaimed Harry excitedly.
He had beheld what was almost the ghost of a horseman galloping among the trees, followed in an instant by the more solid rush of the cavalry.
It was evident to both Sherburne and Harry that the Federal pickets and outriders had acquired much skill and alertness, and they urged the troop to its greatest speed. Even if they should be able to defeat their immediate pursuers, it was no place for them to engage in battle, as the enemy could soon come up in thousands.
As they galloped down the road they heard bullets kicking up the dust behind, and the sound made them go faster. But they were still out of range and the pursuit did not make any gain in the next few minutes. But Harry, looking back, saw that the Union cavalry was hanging on grimly, and he surmised also that other forces might appear soon on their flanks.
"We've got to use every effort," he said to Sherburne.
"That's apparent. You were right about your man Shepard, Harry. He has certainly inherited all the eyes of his ancestor, Argus, and about three times as many besides. He's omniscient, right enough."
"Are they gaining?"
"Not yet. But they will, as fresh pursuers come up on the flank. Some of us must fall or be taken, but then at least one of us must get back to Old Jack with the news. So we're bound to scatter. When we reach that patch of woods on the left running down to the road, you're to leave us, gallop into it and make your way back through the gorge. I'll throw off the other messengers as we go on."
"Must I be the first to go?"
"Yes, you're under my orders now, and I think you the most trustworthy. Now, Harry, off with you, and remember that luck is with him who tries the hardest."
They were within the dark shade of the trees and Harry turned at a gallop among them, guiding his horse between the trunks, pausing a moment further on to hear the pursuit thunder by, and then resuming his race for the gorge.
He continued to ride at a great pace, meeting no enemy, and at last reached the creek. He was a good observer and he was confident that he could ride back up it without trouble. He feared nothing but Shepard. A single horseman in the darkness could throw off any pursuit by cavalry, but the terrible spy might turn at once to the creek and the gorge. He had the consolation, though, of knowing that Shepard could not follow him and all the others at the same time.
Harry paused a moment at the water's edge and listened for the sounds of pursuit. None came. Then he plunged boldly in and rode against the stream, passing into the depths of the gorge. It was darker now, being near to that darkest hour before the dawn, and the slit of sky above was somber.
But he rode on at a good walk until he was about half way through the gorge. Then he heard sounds above, and drawing his horse in by the cliff he stopped and waited. Voices came down to him, and once or twice he caught the partial silhouette of a horse against the dark sky.
He felt quite sure that it was a body of Union cavalry riding practically at random--if they were led by Shepard they would have come up the gorge itself.
Presently something splashed heavily in the water near him. A stone had been rolled over the brink. He drew his horse and himself more closely against the wall. Another stone fell near and a laugh came from above. Evidently the lads in blue had pushed the stones over merely to hear the splash, because Harry ceased to hear the voices and he was quite sure that they had ridden away.
He waited a little while for precaution, and then resumed his own careful journey through the gorge. Just as the dawn was breaking he emerged from the stream and entered the forest. It was a cold dawn, that of late October, white with frost, and Harry shivered. There was still food in his knapsack, and he ate hungrily as he rode through the deserted country, and wondered what had become of Shepard and the others.
It was not yet full day. The grass was still white with frost. The early wind, blowing out of the north, brought an increased chill. The food Harry had eaten defended him somewhat against the cold, but his body had been weakened by so much riding and loss of sleep that he found it wise to unroll his blanket and wrap it around his shoulders and chest.
He was, perhaps, affected by the cold and anxiety, but the country seemed singularly lonesome and depressing. Sweeping the whole circle of the horizon with his glasses, he saw several farm houses, but no smoke was rising from their chimneys. Silent and cold, they added to his own feeling of desolation. He wondered what had become of his comrades. Perhaps Sherburne had been taken, or killed. He was not one to surrender, even to overwhelming numbers, without a fight.
But he would go on. Drawing the blanket more tightly around his body, he turned into the narrow road by which he had come, and urged his horse into that easy Southern gait known as a pace. He would have been glad to go faster, but he was too wise to push a horse that had already been traveling twenty hours.
Harry did not yet feel secure by any means. The lads of the South, where the cities were few and small, had been used from childhood to the horse. They had become at once cavalry of the highest order; but the lads of the North were learning, too. He had no doubt that bands of Northern horsemen were now ranging the country to the very verge of the camps of Jackson and Lee.
The belief became a certainty when a score of riders in blue appeared on a hill behind him. One of their number blew a musical note on a trumpet, and then all of them, with a shout, urged their horses in pursuit of Harry, who felt as if it were for all the world a fox chase, with himself as the fox.
He knew that his danger was great, but he resolved to triumph over it. He must get through to Jackson with the news that the Army of the Potomac was in Virginia. Others from Sherburne's troop might arrive with the same news, but he did not know it. It was not his place to reckon on the possible achievements of others. So far as this errand was concerned, and so far as he was now concerned, there was nobody in the world but himself. Swiftly he reckoned the chances.
He changed the pace of his horse into an easy gallop and sped along the road. But the horse did not have sufficient reserve of strength to increase his speed and maintain the increase. He knew without looking back that the Union riders were gaining, and he continued to mature his plan.
Harry was now cool and deliberate. It was possible that a Confederate troop scouting in that direction might save him, but it was far from a certainty, and he could not take it into his calculations. He was now riding between two cornfields in which all the corn had been cut, but he saw forest on the right, about a half mile ahead.
He believed that his salvation lay in that forest. He hoped that it stretched far toward the right. He had never seen a finer forest, a more magnificent forest, one that looked more sheltering, and the nearer he came to it the better it looked.
He did not glance back, but he felt sure that the blue horsemen must still be gaining. Then came that mellow, hunting note of the trumpet, much nearer than before. Harry felt a thrill of anger. He remained the fox, and they remained the hunters. He could feel the good horse panting beneath him, and white foam was on his mouth.
Harry began to fear now that he would be overtaken before he could reach the trees. He glanced at the fields. If it had been only a few weeks earlier he might have sprung from his horse and have escaped in the thick and standing corn, but now he would be an easy target. He must gain the forest somehow. He said over and over to himself, "I must reach it! I must reach it! I must reach it!"
Now he heard the crack of rifles. Bullets whizzed past. They no longer kicked up the dust behind him, but on the side, and even in front. Men began to shout to him, and he heard certain words that meant surrender. Chance had kept the bullets away from him so far, but the same chance might turn them upon him at any moment. It was a risk that he must take.
The shouts grew louder. The rapid thudding of hoofs behind him beat on his ears in that minute of excitement like thunder. Nearer and nearer came the forest. The rifles behind him were now crashing faster. It seemed to him that he could almost smell their smoke, and still neither he nor his horse was hit. After making all due allowance for badness of aim at a gallop, it was almost a miracle, and he drew new courage from the fact.
He passed the cornfields and with a sharp jerk of the reins turned his weary horse into the woods on the right. The forest was thick with a considerable growth of underbrush, but Harry was a skillful and daring rider, and he guided his horse so expertly that in a few moments he was hidden from the view of the cavalry. But he knew that it could not continue so long. They would spread out, driving everything in front of them as they advanced. He was still the fox and they were still the hunters. Yet he had gained something. For a fugitive the forest was better than the open.
He maintained his direction toward Jackson's camp. His horse leaped a gully and he barely escaped being swept off on the farther side by the bough of a tree. Then some of his pursuers caught sight of him again, and a half dozen shots were fired. He was not touched, but he felt his horse shiver and he knew at once that the good, true animal had been hit. A few leaps more and the living machinery beneath him began to jar heavily.
Another thick clump of undergrowth hid him at that moment from the cavalrymen, and he did the only thing that was left to him. Throwing one leg over the saddle, he leaped clear and darted away. Before he had gone a dozen steps he heard his horse fall heavily, and he sighed for a true and faithful servant and comrade gone forever.
He heard the shouts of the Union horsemen who had overtaken the fallen horse, but not the rider. Then the shouts ceased, and for a little while there was no thud of hoofs. Evidently they were puzzled. They had no use for a dead horse, but they wanted his rider, and they did not know which way he had gone. Harry knew, however, that they would soon spread out to a yet greater extent, and being able to go much faster on horseback than he could on foot, they would have a certain advantage.
He had lost his blanket from his shoulders, but he still had his pistol, and he kept one hand on the butt, resolved not to be taken. He heard the horsemen crashing here and there among the bushes and calling to one another. He knew that they pursued him so persistently because they believed him to be one who had spied upon their army and it would be of great value to them that he be taken or slain.
He might have turned and run back toward the Potomac, doubling on his own track, as it were, a trick which would have deluded the Union cavalry, but his resolution held firm not only to escape, but also to reach Jackson with his news.
He stood at least a minute behind some thick bushes, and it was a precious minute to his panting lungs. The fresh air flowed in again and strength returned. His pulses leaped once more with courage and resolve, and he plunged anew into the deep wood. If he could only reach a part of the forest that was much roughened by outcroppings of rock or gulleyed by rains, he felt that his chance of escape would almost turn into a certainty. He presently came to one such gulley or ravine, and as he crossed it he felt that he had made a distinct gain. The horsemen would secure a passage lower down or higher up, but it gave him an advantage of two hundred yards at least.
Part of the gain he utilized for another rest, lying down this time behind a rocky ridge until he heard the cavalrymen calling to one another. Then he rose and ran forward again, slipping as quietly as he could among the trees and bushes. He still had the feeling of being the fox, with the hounds hot on his trail, but he was no longer making a random rush. He had become skillful and cunning like the real fox.
He knew that the horsemen were not trailers. They could not follow him by his footsteps on the hard ground, and he took full advantage of it. Yet they utilized their numbers and pursued in a long line. Once, two of them would have galloped directly upon him, but just before they came in sight he threw himself flat in a shallow gully and pulled over his body a mass of fallen leaves.
The two men rode within ten yards of him. Had they not been so eager they would have seen him, as his body was but partly covered. But they looked only in front, thinking that the fugitive was still running ahead of them through the forest, and galloped on.
As soon as they were out of sight Harry rose and followed. He deemed it best to keep directly in their track, because then no one was likely to come up behind him, and if they turned, he could turn, too.
He heard the two men crashing on ahead and once or twice he caught glimpses of them. Then he knew by the sounds of the hoofs that they were separating, and he followed the one who was bearing to the left, keeping a wary watch from side to side, lest others overhaul him.
In those moments of danger and daring enterprise the spirit of Harry's great ancestor descended upon him again. This flight through the forest and hiding among bushes and gulleys was more like the early days of the border than those of the great civil war in which he was now a young soldier.
Instincts and perceptions, atrophied by civilization, suddenly sprang up. He seemed to be able to read every sound. Not a whisper in the forest escaped his understanding, and this sudden flame of a great early life put into him new thoughts and a new intelligence.
Now a plan, astonishing in its boldness, formed itself in his mind. He saw through openings in the trees that the forest did not extend much farther, and he also saw not far ahead of him the single horseman whom he was following. The man had slowed down and was looking about as if puzzled. He rode a powerful horse that seemed but little wearied by the pursuit.
Harry picked up a long fragment of a fallen bough, and he ran toward the horseman, springing from the shelter of one tree trunk to that of another with all the deftness of a primitive Wyandot. He was almost upon the rider before the man turned with a startled exclamation.
Then Harry struck, and his was no light hand. The end of the stick met the man's head, and without a sound he rolled unconscious from the saddle. It was a tribute to Harry's humanity that he caught him and broke his fall. A single glance at his face as he lay upon the ground showed that he had no serious hurt, being merely stunned.
Then Harry grasped the bridle and sprang into the saddle that he had emptied, urging the horse directly through the opening toward the cleared ground. He relied with absolute faith upon his new mount and the temporary ignorance of the others that his horse had changed riders.
As he passed out of the forest he leaned low in the saddle to keep the color of his clothing from being seen too soon, and speaking encouraging words in his horse's ears, raced toward the south. He heard shouts behind him, but no shots, and he knew that the cavalrymen still believed him to be their own man following some new sign.
He was at least a half mile away before they discovered the difference. Perhaps some one had found their wounded comrade in the forest, or the man himself, reviving quickly, had told the tale.
In any event Harry heard a distant shout of anger and surprise.
Chance had favored him in giving him another splendid horse, and
now, as he rode like the wind, the waning pursuit sank out of
sight behind him.