A young officer in dingy Confederate gray rode slowly on a powerfulbay horse through a forest of oak. It was a noble woodland, clear ofundergrowth, the fine trees standing in rows, like those of a park. Theywere bare of leaves but the winter had been mild so far, and a carpet ofshort grass, yet green, covered the ground. To the rider's right floweda small river of clear water, one of the beautiful streams of the greatVirginia valleys.
Harry Kenton threw his head back a little and drew deep breaths of thecool, crisp air. The light wind had the touch of life in it. As thecool puffs blew upon him and filled his lungs his chest expanded andhis strong pulses beat more strongly. But a boy in years, he had alreadydone a man's work, and he had been through those deeps of passion anddespair which war alone brings.
A year spent in the open and with few nights under roof had enlargedHarry Kenton's frame and had colored his face a deep red. His greatancestor, Henry Ware, had been very fair, and Harry, like him, becamescarlet of cheek under the beat of wind and rain.
Had anyone with a discerning eye been there, to see, he would havecalled this youth one of the finest types of the South that rode forthso boldly to war. He sat his saddle with the ease and grace that comeonly of long practice, and he controlled his horse with the slightesttouch of the rein. The open, frank face showed hate of nobody, althoughthe soul behind it was devoted without any reserve to the cause forwhich he fought.
Harry was on scout duty. Although an officer on the staff of ColonelTalbot, commander of the Invincibles, originally a South Carolinaregiment, he had developed so much skill in forest and field, he hadsuch acuteness of eye and ear, that he was sent often to seek the campsof the enemy or to discover his plans. His friends said that theseforest powers were inherited, that they came from some far-away ancestorwho had spent his life in the wilderness, and Harry knew that what theysaid was true.
Despite the peaceful aspect of the forest and the lack of human presencesave his own, he rode now on an errand that was full of danger. TheUnion camp must lie on the other side of that little river, not manymiles farther on, and he might meet, at any moment, the pickets of thefoe. He meant to take the uttermost risk, but he had no notion of beingcaptured. He would suffer anything, any chance, rather than that. He hadlately come into contact with a man who had breathed into him the fireand spirit belonging to legendary heroes. To this man, short of wordsand plain of dress, nothing was impossible, and Harry caught from himnot merely the belief, but the conviction also.
Late in the autumn the Invincibles, who had suffered severely at BullRun and afterward had been cut down greatly in several small actions inthe mountains, had been transferred to the command of Stonewall Jacksonin the Shenandoah Valley. Disease and the hospital had reduced theregiment to less than three hundred, but their spirits were as high asever. Their ranks were renewed partly with Virginians. Colonel Talbotand Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire had recovered from small wounds, andSt. Clair and Langdon were whole and as hard as iron. After a period ofwaiting they were now longing for action.
There was some complaint among the Invincibles when they were detachedfrom the main army to the service of Jackson, but Harry did not sharein it. When he heard of the order he remembered that dread afternoon atBull Run, when all seemed lost, and the most vivid of his memories wasthe calm figure riding back and forth just beyond the pines among whichhe stood, and gathering for a fresh charge the stern ranks of his menwho were to turn almost sure defeat into absolutely sure victory. Thepicture of the man in the heart of that red glare among the showers ofbullets had been burned so deeply into Harry's memory that he could callit up, almost as vivid as life itself at any time. Surely that was aleader to follow, and he, at least, would wish to ride where Stonewallled.
But action did not come as soon as he had expected. Jackson was held bycommands from Richmond. The great army of the South waited, because thegreat army of the North, under McClellan, also waited and temporizedwhile the autumn was passing fast.
But Jackson, while held in the bonds of orders, did not sleep. The mostactive youth of his command rode day and night toward the northernend of the valley, where the forces of the Union were gathering. Themovements of Banks and Kelly and the other Northern commanders werewatched continually by keen eyes trained in the southern forests. Slimstriplings passed in the night through the little towns, and the people,intensely loyal to the South, gave them the news of everything.
Harry had seen the whole autumn pass and winter come, and the war, savefor a fitful skirmish now and then, stood at a pause in the valley. Yethe rode incessantly, both with the others and alone, on scouting duty.He knew every square mile of the country over a wide range, and he hadpassed whole nights in the forest, when hail or snow was whistling by.But these had been few. Mostly mild winds blew and the hoofs of hishorse fell on green turf.
Harry was intensely alert now. He was far from his command, and he knewthat he must see and hear everything or he would soon be in the hands ofthe enemy. He rode on rather slowly, and amid continued silence. He sawon his left a white house with green shutters and a portico. But theshutters were closed tightly and no smoke rose from the chimneys.Although house and grounds showed no touch of harm, they seemed to bearthe brand of desolation. The owners had fled, knowing that the sinistermarch of war would pass here.
Harry's mood changed suddenly from gladness to depression. Thedesolate house brought home to him the terrible nature of war. It meantdestruction, wounds and death, and they were all the worse because itwas a nation divided against itself, people of the same blood and thesame traditions fighting one another.
But youth cannot stay gloomy long, and his spirits presently flowedback. There was too much tang and life in that crisp wind from the westfor his body to droop, and a lad could not be sad long, with brilliantsunshine around him and that shining little river before him.
The thrill of high adventure shot up from his soul. He had ceased tohate the Northern soldiers, if he had ever hated them at all. Nowthey were merely brave opponents, with whom he contended, and successdemanded of either skill, daring and energy to the utmost degree. He wasresolved not to fail in any of these qualities.
He left the desolate house a mile behind, and then the river curved alittle. The woods on the farther shore came down in dense masses to theedge of the stream, and despite the lack of foliage Harry could not seefar into them. The strong, inherited instincts leaped up. His nostrilsexpanded and a warning note was sounded somewhere in the back of hisbrain.
He turned his horse to the left and entered the forest on his own sideof the river. They were ancient trees that he rode among, with manydrooping and twisted boughs, and he was concealed well, although hecould yet see from his covert the river and the forest on the othershore.
The song of a trumpet suddenly came from the deep woodland across theshining stream. It was a musical song, mellow and triumphant on everykey, and the forest and hills on either shore gave it back, soft andbeautiful on its dying echoes. It seemed to Harry that the volume ofsound, rounded and full, must come from a trumpet of pure gold. He hadread the old romances of the Round Table, and for the moment hishead was full of them. Some knight in the thicket was sending forth achallenge to him.
But Harry gave no answering defiance. Now the medieval glow was gone,and he was modern and watchful to the core. He had felt instinctivelythat it was a trumpet of the foe, and the Northern trumpets were notlikely to sing there in Virginia unless many Northern horsemen rodetogether.
Then he saw their arms glinting among the trees, the brilliant beams ofthe sun dancing on the polished steel of saber hilt and rifle barrel.A minute more, and three hundred Union horsemen emerged from the forestand rode, in beautiful order, down to the edge of the stream.
Harry regarded them with an admiration which was touched by no hate.They were heavily built, strong young men, riding powerful horses, andit was easy for anyone to see that they had been drilled long and well.Their clothes and arms were in perfect order, every horse had beentended as if it were to be entered in a ring for a prize. It was histhought that they were not really enemies, but worthy foes. That ancientspirit of the tournament, where men strove for the sake of striving,came to him again.
The Union horsemen rode along the edge of the stream a little space,and then plunged into a ford. The water rose to their saddle skirts, butthey preserved their even line and Harry still admired. When all were onhis own shore the golden trumpet sang merrily again, and they turned theheads of their horses southward.
Harry rode deeper into the ancient wood. They might throw out scouts orskirmishers and he had no mind to be taken. It was his belief that theycame from Romney, where a Northern army had gathered in great force andwould eventually march toward Jackson at Winchester. But whatever theirerrand, here was something for him to watch, and he meant to know whatthey intended.
The Northern troop, youths also, the average of their age not much morethan twenty, rode briskly along the edge of the little river, which wasa shining one for them, too, as well as Harry. They knew that no enemyin force was near, and they did not suspect that a single horsemanfollowed, keeping in the edge of the woods, his eyes missing nothingthat they did.
As for themselves, they were in the open now and the brilliant sunshinequickened their blood. Some of them had been at Bull Run, but the stingof that day was going with time. They were now in powerful force at thehead of the great Virginia valleys, and they would sweep down them withsuch impact that nothing could stand before them. The trumpet sang itsmellow triumphant note again, and from across a far range of hills cameits like, a low mellow note, faint, almost an echo, but a certain reply.It was the answer from another troop of their men who rode on a parallelline several miles away.
The lone lad in the edge of the forest heard the distant note also, buthe gave it no heed. His eyes were always for the troop before him. Hehad already learned from Stonewall Jackson that you cannot do two thingsat once, but the one thing that you do you must do with all your might.
The troop presently left the river and entered the fields from whichthe crops had been reaped long since. When the horsemen came to a fencetwelve men dismounted and threw down enough panels for the others toride through without breaking their formation. Everything was done withorder and precision. Harry could not keep from admiring. It was notoften that he saw so early in the war troops who were drilled sobeautifully, and who marched so well together.
Harry always kept on the far side of the fields, and as the fences wereof rails with stakes and riders he was able by bending very low in thesaddle to keep hidden behind them. Nevertheless it was delicate work. Hewas sure that if seen he could escape to the forest through the speedof his horse. But he did not want to be driven off. He wished to followthat troop to its ultimate destination.
Another mile or two and the Union force bore away to the right, enteringthe forest and following a road, where the men rode in files, sixabreast. They did not make much noise, beyond the steady beating of thehoofs, but they did not seem to seek concealment. Harry made the obviousdeduction that they thought themselves too far beyond the range of theSouthern scouts to be noticed. He felt a thrill of satisfaction, becausehe was there and he had seen them.
He rode in the forest parallel with the troop and at a distance of aboutfour hundred yards. There was scattered undergrowth, enough to hidehim, but not enough to conceal those three hundred men who rode in closefiles along a well-used road.
Harry soon saw the forest thinning ahead of him and then the trumpetsang its mellow, golden note again. From a point perhaps a mile aheadcame a reply, also the musical call of the trumpet. Not an echo, butthe voice of a second trumpet, and now Harry knew that another force wascoming to join the first. All his pulses began to beat hard, notwith nervousness, but with intense eagerness to know what was afoot.Evidently it must be something of importance or strong bodies of Unioncavalry would not be meeting in the woods in this manner.
After the reply neither trumpet sounded again, and the troop that Harrywas following stopped while yet in the woods. He rode his horse behind atall and dense clump of bushes, where, well hidden, he could yet see allthat might happen, and waited.
He heard in a few minutes the beat of many hoofs upon the hard road,advancing with the precision and regularity of trained cavalry. He sawthe head of a column emerge upon the road and an officer ride forwardto meet the commander of the first troop. They exchanged a few words andthen the united force rode southward through the open woods, with thewatchful lad always hanging on their rear.
Harry judged that the new troop numbered about five hundred men, andeight hundred cavalry would not march on any mere scouting expedition.His opinion that this was a ride of importance now became a conviction,and he hardened his purpose to follow them to the end, no matter whatthe risk.
It was now about noon, and the sun became warm despite the December day.The turf softened under the rays and the Union cavalry left an immensewide trail through the forest. It was impossible to miss it, and Harry,careful not to ride into an ambush of rear guard pickets, dropped back alittle, and also kept slightly to the left of the great trail. He couldnot see the soldiers now, but occasionally he heard the deep sound of somany hoofs sinking into the soft turf. Beyond that turfy sigh no soundfrom the marching men came to him.
The Union troop halted about two o'clock in the afternoon, and the menate cold food from the knapsacks. They also rested a full hour, andHarry, watching from a distance, felt sure that their lack of hurryindicated a night attack of some kind. They had altered their courseslightly, twice, and when they started anew they did so a third time.
Now their purpose occurred suddenly to Harry. It came in a flash ofintuition, and he did not again doubt it for a moment. The head of thecolumn was pointed straight toward a tiny village in which food andammunition for Stonewall Jackson were stored. The place did not havemore than a dozen houses, but one of them was a huge tobacco barnstuffed with powder, lead, medicines, which were already worth theirweight in gold in the Confederacy, and other invaluable supplies. It hadbeen planned to begin their removal on the morrow to the Southern campat Winchester, but it would be too late unless he intervened.
If he did not intervene! He, a boy, riding alone through the forest, todefeat the energies of so many men, equipped splendidly! The Confederacywas almost wholly agricultural, and was able to produce few suchsupplies of its own. Nor could it obtain them in great quantities fromEurope as the Northern navy was drawing its belt of steel about theSouthern coasts. That huge tobacco barn contained a treasure beyondprice, and Harry was resolved to save it.
He did not yet know how he would save it, but he felt that he would. Allthe courage of those border ancestors who won every new day of lifeas the prize of skill and courage sprang up in him. It was no vainheritage. Happy chance must aid those who trusted, and, taking adeep curve to the left, he galloped through the woods. His horsecomparatively fresh after easy riding, went many miles without showingany signs of weariness.
The boy knew the country well, and it was the object of his circuit totake him ahead of the Union troop and to the village which held asmall guard of perhaps two hundred men. If the happy chance in which hetrusted should fail him after all, these men could carry off a part ofthe supplies, and the rest could be destroyed to keep them from fallinginto Northern hands.
He gave his horse a little breathing space and then galloped harderthan ever, reckoning that he would reach the village in another hour. Heturned from the woods into one of the narrow roads between farms, justwide enough for wagons, and increased his speed.
The afternoon sun was declining, filling the west with dusky gold, andHarry still rode at a great pace along the rough road, wondering allthe while what would be the nature of the lucky chance, in which he wastrusting so firmly. Lower sank the sun and the broad band of dusky goldwas narrowing before the advance of the twilight. The village was notnow more than two miles away, and the road dipped down before him.Sounds like that made by the force behind him, the rattle of arms, thecreak of leather and the beat of hoofs, came suddenly to his ears.
Harry halted abruptly and reined his horse into some bushes beside theroad. Then he heard the sounds more plainly. They were made by cavalry,riding slowly. The great pulses in his throat leaped in quick alarm.Was it possible that they had sent a portion of their force swiftly byanother route, and that it was now between him and the village?
He listened again and with every faculty strained. The cavalrymen wereriding toward him and they could not be a part of the Union force. Thenthey must be of his own South. Surely this was the happy chance of whichhe had dreamed! Again the great pulses leaped, but with a differentemotion.
Scorning every risk, he reined his horse back into the road and rodestraight forward. The heads of men were just topping the rise, and a fewmoments later they and the horses they bestrode came into full view. Itwas a thankful thrill that shot through him now. The sun, almost sunk,sent a last golden shower across them and disclosed the dingy gray oftheir uniforms and the lean, tanned faces.
Uttering a shout of joy and holding up a hand to show that he was afriend, Harry galloped forward. A young man at the head of the troop, acaptain by his uniform, and evidently the leader, gave the signal to hismen to stop, and received the boy who came alone.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I'm Harry Kenton, a lieutenant in the army of Stonewall Jackson, andan aide on the staff of Colonel Leonidas Talbot, colonel of the regimentknown as the Invincibles.”
“I've heard of that regiment. South Carolinians at first, but now mostlyVirginians.”
“The Virginians filled up the gaps that were made on the battlefield.”
Harry spoke proudly, and the young captain smiled. The boy regardedhim with increasing interest. Somehow he was reminded of Jeb Stuart,although this man was younger, not having passed his boyhood long.
It was evident that he was tall. Thick, yellow curls showed from underthe edge of his cap. His face, like Harry's, had turned red before windand rain. His dress was a marvel, made of the finest gray without a spotor stain. A sash of light blue silk encircled his waist, and the costlygray cloak thrown back a little from his shoulders revealed a silklining of the same delicate blue tint. His gauntlets were made of thefinest buckskin, and a gold-hilted small sword swung from his sash.
“A dandy,” thought Harry, “but the bravest of the brave, for all that.”
“My name's Sherburne, Captain Philip Sherburne,” said the young leader.“I'm from the Valley of Virginia, and so are my men. We belong toStonewall Jackson's army, too, but we've been away most of the time onscouting duty. That's the reason you don't know us. We're going towardWinchester, after another of our fruitless rides.”
“But it won't be fruitless this time!” exclaimed Harry, eagerly. “AUnion force of nearly a thousand men is on its way to destroy thestores at the village, the stores that were to be moved to a safer placeto-morrow!”
“How do you know?”
“I've seen 'em. I was behind 'em at first and followed 'em for a longtime before I guessed their purpose. Then I curved about 'em, gallopedthrough the woods, and rode on here, hoping for the lucky chance thathas come with you.”
Harry, as he spoke, saw the eyes of the young captain leap and flame,and he knew he was in the presence of one of those knightly souls,thrown up so often in the war, most often by the border States. Theywere youths who rode forth to battle in the spirit of high romance.
“You ask us to go back to the village and help defend the stores?” saidPhilip Sherburne.
“That's just what I do ask--and expect.”
“Of course. We'd have done it without the asking, and glad of it. What achance for us, as well as for you!”
He turned and faced his men. The golden glow of the sun was gone now,but a silver tint from the twilight touched his face. Harry saw therethe blaze of the knightly spirit that craved adventure.
“Men,” he said in clear, happy tones, “we've ridden for days and days inquests that brought nothing. Now the enemy is at hand, nearly a thousandstrong, and means to destroy our stores. There are two hundred of youand there are two hundred more guarding the stores. If there's a singleone among you who says he must ride on to Winchester, let him hold uphis hand.”
Not a hand was raised, and the bold young captain laughed.
“I don't need to put the other side of the question,” he said to Harry.“They're as eager as I am to scorch the faces of the Yankees.”
The order was given to turn and ride. The “men,” not one of whom wasover twenty-five, obeyed it eagerly, and galloped for the village, everyheart throbbing with the desire for action. They were all from the richfarms in the valleys. Splendid horsemen, fine marksmen, and alive withyouth and courage, no deed was too great for them. Harry was proudto ride with them, and he told more of the story to Sherburne as theycovered the short distance to the village.
“Old Jack would order us to do just what we're doing,” said Sherburne.“He wants his officers to obey orders, but he wants them to think, too.”
Harry saw his eyes flash again, and something in his own mind answeredto the spirit of adventure which burned so brightly in this young man.He looked over the troop, and as far as he could see the faces of allwere flushed with the same hope. He knew with sudden certainty that theUnion forces would never take that warehouse and its precious contents.These were the very flower of that cavalry of the South destined tobecome so famous.
“You know the village?” said Sherburne to Harry.
“Yes, I passed there last night.”
“What defense has it?”
“About two hundred men. They are strangers to the region, drawn from theTidewater country, and I don't think they're as good as most of GeneralJackson's men.”
“Lack of discipline, you think?”
“Yes, but the material is fine.”
“All right. Then we'll see that they acquire discipline. Nothing likethe enemy's fire to teach men what war is.”
They were riding at good speed toward the village, while they talked,and Harry had become at once the friend and lieutenant of young CaptainSherburne. His manner was so pleasant, so intimate, so full of charm,that he did not have the power or the will to resist it.
They soon saw Hertford, a village so little that it was not able to putitself on the map. It stood on the crest of a low hill, and the tobaccobarn was about as large as all the other buildings combined. Thetwilight had now merged into night, but there was a bright sky andplenty of stars, and they saw well.
Captain Sherburne stopped his troop at a distance of three or fourhundred yards, while they were still under cover of the forest.
“What's the name of the commander there?” he asked.
“McGee,” Harry replied. “Means well, but rather obstinate.”
“That's the way with most of these untrained men. We mustn't risk beingshot up by those whom we've come to help. Lasley, give them a call fromthe bugle. Make it low and soft though. We don't want those behind us tohear it.”
Lasley, a boy no older than Harry, rode forward a dozen yards in frontof the troop, put his bugle to his lips and blew a soft, warning call.Harry had been stirred by the first sound of a hostile trumpet hoursbefore, and now this, the note of a friend, thrilled him again. He gazedintently at the village, knowing that the pickets would be on watch, andpresently he saw men appear at the edge of the hill just in front ofthe great warehouse. They were the pickets, beyond a doubt, because thesilver starshine glinted along the blades of their bayonets.
The bugler gave one more call. It was a soft and pleasing sound. It saidvery plainly that the one who blew and those with him were friends.Two men in uniform joined the pickets beside the warehouse, and lookedtoward the point whence the note of the bugle came.
“Forward!” said Captain Philip Sherburne, himself leading the way, Harryby his side. The troops, wheeling back into the road and marching byfours in perfect order, rode straight toward the village.
“Who comes?” was the stern hail.
“A troop of Stonewall Jackson's cavalry to help you,” replied Sherburne.“You are about to be attacked by a Northern division eight hundredstrong.”
“Who says so?” came the question in a tone tinged with unbelief, andHarry knew that it was the stubborn and dogmatic McGee who spoke.
“Lieutenant Harry Kenton of the Invincibles, one of Stonewall Jackson'sbest regiments, has seen them. You know him; he was here yesterday.”
As he spoke, Captain Sherburne sprang from his horse and pointed toHarry.
“You remember me, Captain McGee,” said Harry. “I stopped with you aminute yesterday. I rode on a scouting expedition, and I have seen theUnion force myself. It outnumbers us at least two to one, but we'll havethe advantage of the defense.”
“Yes, I know you,” said McGee, his heavy and strong, but not veryintelligent face, brightening a little. “But it's a great responsibilityI've got here. We ought to have had more troops to defend such valuablestores. I've got two hundred men, captain, and I should say that you'veabout the same.”
It was then that Captain Philip Sherburne showed his knightly character,speaking words that made Harry's admiration of him immense.
“I haven't any men, Captain McGee,” he said, “but you have four hundred,and I'll help my commander as much as I can.”
McGee's eyes gleamed. Harry saw that while not of alert mind he wasnevertheless a gentleman.
“We work together, Captain Sherburne,” he said gratefully, “and I thankGod you've come. What splendid men you have!”
Captain Sherburne's eyes gleamed also. This troop of his was his pride,and he sought always to keep it bright and sharp like a polished swordblade.
“Whatever you wish, Captain McGee. But it will take us all to repelthe enemy. Kenton here, who saw them well, says they have a fine,disciplined force.”
The men now dismounted and led their horses to a little grove just inthe rear of the warehouse, where they were tethered under the guard ofthe villagers, all red-hot partisans of the South. Then the four hundredmen, armed with rifles and carbines, disposed themselves about thewarehouse, the bulk of them watching the road along which the attackingforce was almost sure to come.
Harry took his place with Sherburne, and once more he was compelledto admire the young captain's tact and charm of manner. He directedeverything by example and suggestion, but all the while he made theheavy Captain McGee think that he himself was doing it.
Sherburne and Harry walked down the road a little distance.
“Aren't you glad to be here, Kenton?” asked the captain in a somewhatwhimsical tone.
“I'm glad to help, of course.”
“Yes, but there's more. When I came to war I came to fight. And if wesave the stores look how we'll stand in Old Jack's mind. Lord, Kenton,but he's a queer man! You'd never take any notice of him, if you didn'tknow who he was, but I'd rather have one flash of approval from thosesolemn eyes of his than whole dictionaries of praise from all the othergenerals I know.”
“I saw him at Bull Run, when he saved the day.”
“So did I. The regiment that I was with didn't come up until near theclose, but our baptism of battle was pretty thorough, all the same.Hark! did you think you heard anything, Kenton?”
Harry listened attentively.
“Yes, I hear something,” he replied. “It's very soft, but I should saythat it's the distant beat of hoofs.”
“And of many hoofs.”
“So I think.”
“Then it's our friends of the North, coming to take what we want tokeep. A few minutes more, Kenton, and they'll be here.”
They slipped back toward the warehouse, and Harry's heart began to throbheavily. He knew that Sherburne's words would soon come true.