Before they reached the brook they hailed Sergeant Carrick lest they should be fired upon as enemies, and when his answer came they dropped into a walk, still panting and wiping the perspiration from damp foreheads. They bathed their faces freely in the brook, and sat down on the bank to rest. The sergeant, a regular and a veteran of many border campaigns against the Indians, regarded them benevolently.
"I heard firing in front," he said, "and I thought you might be concerned in it. If it hadn't been for my orders I'd have come forward with some of the men."
"Sergeant," said St. Clair, "if you were in the west again, and you were all alone in the hills or on the plains and a band of yelling Sioux or Blackfeet were to set after you with fell designs upon your scalp, what would you do?"
"I'd run, sir, with all my might. I'd run faster than I ever ran before. I'd run so fast, sir, that my feet wouldn't touch the ground more than once every forty yards. It would be the wisest thing one could do under the circumstances, the only thing, in fact."
"I'm glad to hear you say so, Sergeant Carrick, because you are a man of experience and magnificent sense. What you say proves that Harry and I are full of wisdom. They weren't Sioux or Blackfeet back there and I don't suppose they'd have scalped us, but they were Yankees and their intentions weren't exactly peaceful. So we took your advice before you gave it. If you'll examine the earth out there tomorrow you'll find our footprints only five times to the mile."
Far to the right and left other scattering shots had been fired, where skirmishers in the night came in touch with one another. Hence the adventure of Harry and St. Clair attracted but little attention. Shots at long range were fired nearly every night, and sometimes it was difficult to keep the raw recruits from pulling trigger merely for the pleasure of hearing the report.
But when Harry and St. Clair related the incident the next morning to Colonel Talbot, he spoke with gravity.
"There are many young men of birth and family in our army," he said, "and they must learn that war is a serious business. It is more than that; it is a deadly business, the most deadly business of all. If the Yankees had caught you two, it would have served you right."
"They scared us badly enough as it was, sir," said St. Clair.
Colonel Leonidas Talbot smiled slightly.
"That part of it at least will do you good," he said. "You young men don't know what war is, and you are growing fat and saucy in a pleasant country in June. But there is something ahead that will take a little of the starch out of you and teach you sense. No, you needn't look inquiringly at me, because I'm not going to tell you what it is, but go get some sleep, which you will need badly, and be ready at four o'clock this afternoon, because the Invincibles march then and you march with them."
Harry and St. Clair saluted and retired. They knew that it was not worth while to ask Colonel Talbot any questions. Since he had met him again in Virginia, Harry had recognized a difference in this South Carolina colonel. The kindliness was still there, but there was a new sternness also. The friend was being merged into the commander.
They chose a tent in order to shut out the noise and make sleep possible, but on their way to it they were waylaid by Langdon, who had heard something of their adventure the night before, and who felt chagrin because he had lacked a part in it.
"Although everything generally happens for the best, there is a slip sometimes," he said, "and I want to be in on the next move, whatever it is. There is a rumor that the Invincibles are to march. You have been before the colonel, and you ought to know. Is it true?"
"It is," replied Harry, "but that's all we do know. He was pretty sharp with us, Tom, and among our three selves, we are not going to get any favors from Colonel Leonidas Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel Hector St. Hilaire because we're friends of theirs and would be likely to meet in the same drawing-rooms, if there were no war."
Harry and St. Clair slept well, despite the noises of a camp, but they were ready at the appointed time, very precise in their new uniforms. Langdon was with them and the three were eager for the movement, the nature of which officers alone seemed to know.
The Invincibles were an infantry regiment and the three youths, like the men, were on foot. They filed off to the left behind the front line of the Southern army, and marched steadily westward, inclining slightly to the north. Many of the men, or rather boys, not yet fast in the bonds of discipline, began to talk, and guess together about their errand. But Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire rode along the line and sternly commanded silence, once or twice making the menace of the sword. The lads scarcely understood it, but they were awed into silence. Then there was no noise but the rattle of their weapons and the steady tread of eight hundred men.
The young troops had been kept in splendid condition, drilling steadily, and they marched well. They passed to the extreme western end of the Confederate camp, and continued into the hills. The sun had passed its zenith when they started and a pleasant, cool breeze blew from the slopes of the western mountains. The sun set late, but the twilight began to fall at last, and they saw about them many places suitable for a camp and supper. But Colonel Talbot, who was now at the head of the line, rode on and gave no sign.
"If I were riding a bay horse fifteen hands high I could go on, too, forever," whispered Langdon to Harry.
"Remember your belief that everything happens for the best and just keep on marching."
The twilight retreated before the dark, but the regiment continued. Harry saw a dusky colonel on a dusky horse at the head of the line, and nearer by was Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, also riding, silent and stern. The Invincibles were weary. It was now nine o'clock, and they had marched many hours without a rest, but they did not dare to murmur, at least not loud enough to be heard by Colonel Leonidas Talbot and his lieutenant-colonel, Hector St. Hilaire.
"I wonder if this is going on all night," whispered Langdon.
"Very likely," returned Harry, "but remember that everything is for the best."
Langdon gave him a reproachful look, but trudged sturdily on. They halted about an hour later, but only for fifteen or twenty minutes. They had now come into much rougher country, steep, with high hills and populated thinly. Westward, the mountains seemed very near in the clear moonlight. No explanation was given to the Invincibles, but the officers rode among the groups and made a careful inspection of arms and equipment. Then the word to march once more was given.
They did not stop, except for short rests, until about three o'clock in the morning, when they came to the crest of a high ridge, covered with dense forest, but without undergrowth. Then the officers dismounted, and the word was passed to the men that they would remain there until dawn, but before they lay down on the ground Colonel Talbot told them what was expected of them, which was much.
"A strong Northern force is encamped on the slope beyond," he said. "It is in a position from which the left flank of our main army can be threatened. Our enemies there are fortified with earthworks and they have cannon. If they hold the place they are likely to increase heavily in numbers. It is our business to drive them out."
The colonel told some of the officers within Harry's hearing that they could attack before dawn, but night assaults, unless with veteran troops, generally defeated themselves through confusion and uncertainty. Nevertheless, he hoped to surprise the Northern soldiers over their coffee. For that reason the men were compelled to lie down in their blankets in the dark. Not a single light was permitted, but they were allowed to eat some cold food, which they brought in their knapsacks.
Although it was June, the night was chill on the high hills, and Harry and his two friends, after their duties were done, wrapped their blankets closely around themselves as they sat on the ground, with their backs against a big tree. The physical relaxation after such hard marching and the sharp wind of the night made Harry shiver, despite his blanket. St. Clair and Langdon shivered, too. They did not know that part of it was that three-o'clock-in-the-morning feeling.
Harry, sensitive, keenly alive to impressions, was oppressed by a certain heavy and uncanny feeling. They were going into battle in the morning--and with men whom he did not hate. The attacks on the Star of the West and Sumter had been bombardments, distant affairs, where he did not see the face of his enemy, but here it would be another matter. The real shock of battle would come, and the eyes of men seeking to kill would look into the eyes of others who also sought to kill.
He and St. Clair were not sleepy, as they had slept through most of the day, but Langdon was already nodding. Most of the soldiers also had fallen asleep through exhaustion, and Harry saw them in the dusk lying in long rows. The faint moon throwing a ghostly light over so many motionless forms made the whole scene weird and unreal to Harry. He shook himself to cast off the spell, and, closing his eyes, sought sleep.
But sleep would not come and the obstinate lids lifted again. It had turned a little darker and the motionless forms at the far end of the line were hidden. But those nearer were so still that they seemed to have been put there to stay forever. St. Clair had yielded at last to weariness and with his back against the tree slept by Harry's side.
He saw four figures moving up and down like ghosts through the shadows. They were Colonel Talbot, Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, and two captains watching their men, seeing that silence and caution were preserved. Harry knew that sentinels were posted further down the ridge, but he could not see them from where he lay. Although it was a long time, the forest and human figures wavered at last, and he dozed for a while. But he soon awoke and saw a faint tint of gray low down in the east, the first timid herald of dawn.
The young soldiers were awakened. They started to rise with a cheerful exchange of chatter, but were sternly commanded to silence. Nevertheless, they talked in whispers and told one another how they would wipe the Yankees off the face of the earth. Workers from the shops in the big cities of the North could not stand before them, the open air sons of the South. They stretched their long limbs, felt their big muscles, and wondered why they were not led forward at once.
But before they marched they were ordered to take food from their knapsacks and eat. Five minutes at most were allowed, and there was to be no nonsense, no loud talking. Some who had come north with negro servants stared at these officers who dared to talk to them as if they were slaves. But the words of anger stopped at their lips. They would take their revenge instead on the Yankees.
Harry and his two friends had fitted themselves already into military discipline and military ways. They ate, not because they were hungry, but because they knew it was a necessity. Meanwhile, the faint gray band in the east was broadening. The note of a bugle, distant, mellow, and musical, came from a point down the slope.
"The Yankee fort," said Langdon. "They're waking up, too. But I'm looking for the best, boys, and inside of two hours that Yankee fort will be a Confederate fort."
The note of the bugle seemed to decide the Southern officers. The men were ordered to see to their arms and march. The officers dismounted as the way would be rough and left their horses behind. The troops formed into several columns and four light guns went down the slope with them. Scouts who had been out in the night came back and reported that the fort, consisting wholly of earthworks, had a garrison of a thousand men with eight guns. They were New York and New England troops and they did not suspect the presence of an enemy. They were just lighting their breakfast fires.
The Southern columns moved forward in quiet, still hidden by the forest, which also yet hid the Northern fort. Harry's heart began to beat heavily, but he forced himself to preserve the appearance of calmness. Pride stiffened his will and backbone. He was a veteran. He had been at Sumter. He had seen the great bombardment, and he had taken a part in it. He must show these raw men how a soldier bore himself in battle, and, moreover, he was an officer whose business it was to lead.
The deep forest endured as they advanced in a diagonal line down the slope. The great civil war of North America was fought mostly in the forest, and often the men were not aware of the presence of one another until they came face to face.
They were almost at the bottom where the valley opened out in grass land, and were turning northward when Harry saw two figures ahead of them among the trees. They were men in blue uniforms with rifles in their hands, and they were staring in surprise at the advancing columns in gray. But their surprise lasted only a moment. Then they lifted their rifles, fired straight at the Invincibles, and with warning shouts darted among the trees toward their own troops.
"Forward, lads!" shouted Colonel Talbot. "We're within four hundred yards of the fort, and we must rush it! Officers, to your places!"
Their own bugle sang stirring music, and the men gathered themselves for the forward rush. Up shot the sun, casting a sharp, vivid light over the slopes and valley. The soldiers, feeling that victory was just ahead, advanced with so much speed that the officers began to check them a little, fearing that the Invincibles would be thrown into confusion.
The forest ended. Before them lay a slope, from which the bushes had been cut away and beyond were trenches, and walls of fresh earth, from which the mouths of cannon protruded. Soldiers in blue, sentinels and seekers of wood for the fires, were hurrying into the earthworks, on the crests of which stood men, dressed in the uniforms of officers.
"Forward, my lads!" shouted Colonel Leonidas Talbot, who was near the front rank, brandishing his sword until the light glittered along its sharp blade. "Into the fort! Into the fort!"
The sun, rising higher, flooded the slopes, the valley, and the fort with brilliant beams. Everything seemed to Harry's excited mind to stand out gigantic and magnified. Black specks began to dance in myriads before his eyes. He heard beside him the sharp, panting breath of his comrades, and the beat of many feet as they rushed on.
He saw the Northern officers on the earthwork disappear, dropping down behind, and the young Southern soldiers raised a great shout of triumph which, as it sank on its dying note, was merged into a tremendous crash. The whole fort seemed to Harry to blaze with red fire, as the heavy guns were fired straight into the faces of the Invincibles. The roar of the cannon was so near that Harry, for an instant, was deafened by the crash. Then he heard groans and cries and saw men falling around him.
In another moment came the swish of rifle bullets, and the ranks of the Invincibles were cut and torn with lead. The young recruits were receiving their baptism of fire and it was accompanied by many wounds and death.
The earthworks in front were hidden for a little while by drifting smoke, but the Invincibles, mad with pain and rage, rushed through it. They were anxious to get at those who were stinging them so terribly, and fortunately for them the defenders did not have time to pour in another volley. Harry saw Colonel Talbot still in front, waving his sword, and near him Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire, also with an uplifted sword, which he pointed straight toward the earthwork.
"On, lads, on!" shouted the colonel. "It is nothing! Another moment and the fort is ours!"
Harry heard the hissing of heavy missiles above him. The light guns of the Invincibles had unlimbered on the slope, and fired once over their heads into the fort. But they did not dare to fire again, as the next instant the recruits, dripping red, but still wild with rage, were at the earthworks, and driven on with rage climbed them and fired at the huddled mass they saw below.
Harry stumbled as he went down into the fort, but quickly recovered himself and leaped to his feet again. He saw through the flame and smoke faces much like his own, the faces of youth, startled and aghast, scarcely yet comprehending that this was war and that war meant pain and death. The Invincibles, despite the single close volley that had been poured into them, had the advantage of surprise and their officers were men of skill and experience. They had left a long red trail of the fallen as they entered the fort, but after their own single volley they pressed hard with the bayonet. Little as was their military knowledge, those against them had less, and they also had less experience of the woods and hills.
As the Invincibles hurled themselves upon them the defenders slowly gave way and were driven out of the fort. But they carried two of their cannon with them, and when they reached the wood opened a heavy fire upon the pursuing Southern troops, which made the youngsters shiver and reel back.
"They, too, have some regular officers," said Colonel Talbot to Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire. "It's a safe wager that several of our old comrades of Mexico are there."
Thus did West Pointers speak with respect of their fellow West Pointers.
Exulting in their capture of the fort and still driven by rage, the Invincibles attempted to rush the enemy, but they were met by such a deadly fire that many fell, and their officers drew them back to the shelter of the captured earthworks, where they were joined by their own light guns that had been hurried down the slope. Another volley was fired at them, when they went over the earthen walls, and Harry, as he threw himself upon the ground, heard the ferocious whine of the bullets over his head, a sound to which he would grow used through years terribly long.
Harry rose to his feet and began to feel of himself to see if he were wounded. So great had been the tension and so rapid their movements that he had not been conscious of any physical feeling.
"All right, Harry?" asked a voice by his side.
He saw Langdon with a broad red stripe down his cheek. The stripe was of such even width that it seemed to have been painted there, and Harry stared at it in a sort of fascination.
"I know I'm not beautiful, Harry," said Langdon, "neither am I killed or mortally wounded. But my feelings are hurt. That bullet, fired by some mill hand who probably never pulled a trigger before, just grazed the top of my head, but it has pumped enough out of my veins to irrigate my face with a beautiful scarlet flow."
"The mill hands may never have pulled trigger before," said Harry, "but it looks as if they were learning how fast enough. Down, Tom!"
Again the smoke and fire burst from the forest, and the bullets whined in hundreds over their heads. Two heavier crashes showed that the cannon were also coming into play, and one shell striking within the fort, exploded, wounding a half dozen men.
"I suppose that everything happens for the best," said Langdon, "but having got into the fort, it looks as if we couldn't get out again. With the help of the earthwork I can hide from the bullets, but how are you to dodge a shell which can come in a curve over the highest kind of a wall, drop right in the middle of the crowd, burst, and send pieces in a hundred directions?"
"You can't," said St. Clair, who appeared suddenly.
He was covered with dirt and his fine new uniform was torn.
"What has happened to you?" asked Harry.
"I've just had practical proof that it's hard to dodge a bursting shell," replied St. Clair calmly. "I'm in luck that no part of the shell itself hit me, but it sent the dirt flying against me so hard that it stung, and I think that some pieces of gravel have played havoc with my coat and trousers."
"Hark! there go our cannon!" exclaimed Harry. "We'll drive them out of those woods."
"None too soon for me," said St. Clair, looking ruefully at his torn uniform. "I'd take it as a politeness on their part if they used bullets only and not shells."
They had not yet come down to the stern discipline of war, but their talk was stopped speedily by the senior officers, who put them to work arranging the young recruits along the earthworks, whence they could reply with comparative safety to the fire from the wood. But Harry noted that the raking fire of their own cannon had been effective. The Northern troops had retreated to a more distant point in the forest, where they were beyond the range of rifles, but it seemed that they had no intention of going any further, as from time to time a shell from their cannon still curved and fell in the fort or near it. The Southern guns, including those that had been captured, replied, but, of necessity, shot and shell were sent at random into the forest which now hid the whole Northern force.
"It seems to me," said St. Clair to Harry, "that while we have taken the fort we have merely made an exchange. Instead of being besiegers we have turned ourselves into the besieged."
"And while I'm expecting everything to turn out for the best," said Langdon, "I don't know that we've made anything at all by the exchange. We're in the fort, but the mechanics and mill hands are on the slope in a good position to pepper us."
"Or to wait for reinforcements," said Harry.
"I hadn't thought of that," said St. Clair. "They may send up into the mountains and bring four or five times our numbers. Patterson's army must be somewhere near."
"But we'll hope that they won't," said Langdon.
The Northern troops ceased their fire presently, but the officers, examining the woods with their glasses, said they were still there. Then came the grim task of burying the dead, which was done inside the earthworks. Nearly two score of the Invincibles had fallen to rise no more, and about a hundred were wounded. It was no small loss even for a veteran force, and Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire looked grave. Many of the recruits had turned white, and they had strange, sinking sensations.
There was little laughter or display of triumph inside the earthworks, nor was there any increase of cheer when the recruits saw the senior officers draw aside and engage in anxious talk.
"I'm thinking that idea of yours, Harry, about Yankee reinforcements, must have occurred to Colonel Talbot also," said Langdon. "It seems that we have nothing else to fear. The Yankees that we drove out are not strong enough to come back and drive us out. So they must be looking for a heavy force from Patterson's army."
The conference of the officers was quickly over, and then the men were put to work building higher the walls of earth and deepening the ditches. Many picks and spades had been captured in the fort, and others used bayonets. All, besides the guard, toiled hard two or three hours without interruption.
It was now noon, and food was served. An abundance of water in barrels had been found in the fort and the men drank it eagerly as the sun was warm and the work with spade and shovel made them very thirsty. The three boys, despite their rank, had been taking turns with the men and they leaned wearily against the earthwork.
The clatter of tools had ceased. The men ate and drank in silence. No sound came from the Northern troops in the wood. A heavy, ominous silence brooded over the little valley which had seen so much battle and passion. Harry felt relaxed and for the moment nerveless. His eyes wandered to the new earth, beneath which the dead lay, and he shivered. The wounded were lying patiently on their blankets and those of their comrades and they did not complain. The surgeons had done their best for them and the more skillful among the soldiers had helped.
The silence was very heavy upon Harry's nerves. Overhead great birds hovered on black wings, and when he saw them he shuddered. St. Clair saw them, too.
"No pleasant sight," he said. "I feel stronger since I've had food and water, Harry, but I'm thinking that we're going to be besieged in this fort, and we're not overburdened with supplies. I wonder what the colonel will do."
"He'll try to hold it," said Langdon. "He was sent here for that purpose, and we all know what the colonel is."
"He will certainly stay," said Harry.
After a good rest they resumed work with pick, shovel, and bayonet, throwing the earthworks higher and ever higher. It was clear to the three lads that Colonel Talbot expected a heavy attack.
"Perhaps we have underrated our mill hands and mechanics," said St. Clair, in his precise, dandyish way. "They may not ride as well or shoot as well as we do, but they seem to be in no hurry about going back to their factories."
Harry glanced at him. St. Clair was always extremely particular about his dress. It was a matter to which he gave time and thought freely. Now, despite all his digging, he was again trim, immaculate, and showed no signs of perspiration. He would have died rather than betray nervousness or excitement.
"I've no doubt that we've underrated them," said Harry. "Just as the people up North have underrated us. Colonel Talbot told me long ago that this was going to be a terribly big war, and now I know he was right."
A long time passed without any demonstration on the part of the enemy. The sun reached the zenith and blazed redly upon the men in the fort. Harry looked longingly at the dark green woods. He remembered cool brooks, swelling into deep pools here and there in just such woods as these, in which he used to bathe when he was a little boy. An intense wish to swim again in the cool waters seized him. He believed it was so intense because those beautiful woods there on the slope, where the running water must be, were filled with the Northern riflemen.
Three scouts, sent out by Colonel Talbot, returned with reports that justified his suspicions. A heavy force, evidently from Patterson's army operating in the hills and mountains, was marching down the valley to join those who had been driven from the fort. The junction would be formed within an hour. Harry was present when the report was made and he understood its significance. He rejoiced that the walls of earth had been thrown so much higher and that the trenches had been dug so much deeper.
In the middle of the afternoon, when the cool shade was beginning to fall on the eastern forest, they noticed a movement in the woods. They saw the swaying of bushes and the officers, who had glasses, caught glimpses of the men moving in the undergrowth. Then came a mighty crash and the shells from a battery of great guns sang in the air and burst about them. It was well for the Invincibles that they had dug their trenches deep, as two of the shells burst inside the fort. Harry was with Colonel Talbot, now acting as an aide, and he heard the leader's quiet comment:
"The reinforcements have brought more big guns. They will deliver a heavy cannonade and then under cover of the smoke they will charge. Lieutenant Kenton, tell our gunners that it is my positive orders that they are not to fire a single shot until I give the word. The Yankees can see us, but we cannot see them, and we'll save our ammunition for their charge. Keep well down in the trench, Lieutenant Kenton!"
The Invincibles hugged their shelter gladly enough while the fire from the great guns continued. A second battery opened from a point further down the slope, and the fort was swept by a cross-fire of ball and shell. Yet the loss of life was small. The trenches were so deep and so well constructed that only chance pieces of shell struck human targets.
Harry remained with Colonel Talbot, ready to carry any order that he might give. The colonel peered over the earthwork at intervals and searched the woods closely with a powerful pair of glasses. His face was very grave, but Harry presently saw him smile a little. He wondered, but he had learned enough of discipline now not to ask questions of his commanding officer. At length he heard the colonel mutter:
"It is Carrington! It surely must be Carrington!" A third battery now opened at a point almost midway between the other two, and the smile of the colonel came again, but now it lingered longer.
"It is bound to be Carrington!" he said. "It cannot possibly be any other! That way of opening with a battery on one flank, then on the other, and then with a third midway between was always his, and the accuracy of aim is his, too! Heavens, what an artillery officer! I doubt whether there is such another in either army, or in the world! And he is better, too, than ever!"
He caught Harry looking at him in wonder, and he smiled once more.
"A friend of mine commands the Northern artillery," he said. "I have not seen him, of course, but he is making all the signs and using all the passwords. We are exactly the same age, and we were chums at West Point. We were together in the Indian wars, and together in all the battles from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico. It's John Carrington, and he's from New York! He's perfectly wonderful with the guns! Lord, lad, look how he lives up to his reputation! Not a shot misses! He must have been training those gunners for months! Thunder, but that was magnificent!"
A huge shell struck squarely in the center of the earthwork, burst with a terrible crash, and sent steel splinters and fragments flying in every direction. A rain of dirt followed the rain of steel, and, when the colonel wiped the last mote from his eye, he said triumphantly and joyously:
"It's Carrington! Not a shadow of doubt can be left! Only such gunners as those he trains can plump shells squarely among us at that range! Oh, I tell you, Harry, he's a marvel. Has the wonderful mathematical and engineering eye!"
The eyes of Colonel Leonidas Talbot beamed with admiration of his old comrade, mingled with a strong affection. Nevertheless, he did not relax his vigilance and caution for an instant. He made the circuit of the fort and saw that everything was ready. The Southern riflemen lined every earthwork, and the guns had been wheeled into the best positions, with the gunners ready. Then he returned to his old place.
"The charge will come soon, Lieutenant Kenton," he said to Harry. "Their cannonade serves a double purpose. It keeps us busy dodging ball and shell, and it creates a bank of smoke through which their infantry can advance almost to the fort and yet remain hidden. See how the smoke covers the whole side of the mountain. Oh, Carrington is doing splendidly! I have never known him to do better!"
Harry wished that Carrington would not do quite so well. He was tired of crouching in a ditch. He was growing somewhat used to the hideous howling of the shells, but it was still unsafe anywhere except in the trenches. It seemed to him, too, that the cannon fire was increasing in volume. The slopes and the valley gave back a continuous crash of rolling thunder. Heavier and heavier grew the bank of smoke over and against the forest. It was impossible to see what was going on there, but Harry had no doubt that the Northern regiments were massing themselves for the attack.
The youth remained with Colonel Talbot, being held by the latter to carry orders when needed to other points in the fort. St. Clair and Langdon were kept near for a similar use and they were crouching in the same trench.
"If everything happens for the best it's time it was happening," said Langdon in an impatient whisper. "These shells and cannon balls flying over me make my head ache and scare me to death besides. If the Yankees don't hurry up and charge, they'll find me dead, killed by the collapse of worn-out nerves."
"I intend to be ready when they come," said St. Clair. "I've made every preparation that I can call to mind."
"Which means that your coat must be setting just right and that your collar isn't ruffled," rejoined Langdon. "Yes, Arthur, you are ready now. You are certainly the neatest and best dressed man in the regiment. If the Yankees take us they can't say that they captured a slovenly prisoner."
"Then," said St. Clair, smiling, "let them come on."
"Their cannon fire is sinking!" exclaimed Colonel Talbot. "In a minute it will cease and then will come the charge! 'Tis Carrington's way, and a good way! Hark! Listen to it! The signal! Ready, men! Ready! Here they come!"
The great cannonade ceased so abruptly that for a few moments the stillness was more awful than the thunder of the guns had been. The recruits could hear the great pulses in their temples throbbing. Then the silence was pierced by the shrill notes of a brazen bugle, steadily rising higher and always calling insistently to the men to come. Then they heard the heavy thud of many men advancing with swiftness and regularity.
The Southern troops were at the earthworks in double rows, and the gunners were at the guns, all eager, all watching intently for what might come out of the smoke. But the rising breeze suddenly caught the great bank of mists and vapors and whirled the whole aside. Then Harry saw. He saw a long line of men, their front bristling with the blue steel of bayonets, and behind them other lines and yet other lines.
It seemed to Harry that the points of the bayonets were almost in his face, and then, at the shouted command, the whole earthwork burst into a blaze. The cannon and hundreds of rifles sent their deadly volleys into the blue masses at short range. The fort had turned into a volcano, pouring forth a rain of fire and deadly missiles. The front line of the Northern force was shot away, but the next line took its place and rushed at the fort with those behind pressing close after them. The defenders loaded and fired as fast as they could and the high walls of earth helped them. The loose dirt gave away as the Northern men attempted to climb them, and dirt and men fell together back to the bottom. The Northern gunners in the rear of the attack could not fire for fear of hitting their own troops, but the Southern cannon at the embrasures had a clear target. Shot and shell crashed into the Northern ranks, and the deadly hail of bullets beat upon them without ceasing. But still they came.
"The mechanics and mill hands are as good as anybody, it appears!" shouted St. Clair in Harry's ear, and Harry nodded.
But the defenses of the fort were too strong. The charge, driven home with reckless courage, beat in vain upon those high earthen walls, behind which the defenders, standing upon narrow platforms, sent showers of bullets into ranks so close that few could miss. The assailants broke at last and once more the shrill notes of the brazen bugle pierced the air. But instead of saying come, it said: "Fall back! Fall back!" and the great clouds of smoke that had protected the Northern advance now covered the Northern retreat.
The firing had been so rapid and so heavy that the whole field in front of the fort was covered with smoke, through which they caught only the gleam of bayonets and glimpses of battle flags. But they knew that the Northern troops were retiring, carrying with them their wounded, but leaving the dead behind. Harry, excited and eager, was about to leap upon the crest of the earthwork, but Colonel Talbot sharply ordered him down.
"You'd be killed inside of a minute!" he cried. "Carrington is out there with the guns! As soon as their troops are far enough back he'll open on us with the cannon, and he'll rake this fort like a hurricane beating upon a forest. Only the earthworks will protect us from certain destruction."
He sent the order, fierce and sharp, along the line, for every one to keep under cover, and there was ample proof soon that he knew his man. The Northern infantry had retired and the smoke in front was beginning to lift, when the figure of a tall man in blue appeared on a hillock at the edge of the forest. Harry, who had snatched up a rifle, levelled it instantly and took aim. But before his finger could pull the trigger Colonel Talbot knocked it down again.
"My God!" he exclaimed. "I was barely in time to save him! It was Carrington himself!"
"But he is our enemy! Our powerful enemy!"
"Our enemy! Our official enemy, yes! But my friend! My life-long friend! We were boys together at West Point! We slept under the same blanket on the icy plateaux of Mexico. No, Harry, I could not let you or any other slay him!"
The figure disappeared from the hillock and the next moment the great guns opened again from the forest. The orders of Colonel Talbot had not been given a moment too soon. Huge shells and balls raked the fort once more and the defenders crouched lower than ever in the trenches. Harry surmised that the new cannonade was intended mainly to prevent a possible return attack by the Southern troops, but they were too cautious to venture from their earthworks. The Invincibles had grown many years older in a few hours.
When it became evident that no sally would be made from the fort, the fire of the cannon in front ceased, and the smoke lifted, disclosing a field black with the slain. Harry looked, shuddered and refused to look again. But Colonel Talbot examined field and forest long and anxiously through his glasses.
"They are there yet, and they will remain," he announced at last. "We have beaten back the assault. They may hold us here until a great army comes, and with heavy loss to them, but we are yet besieged. Carrington will not let us rest. He will send a shell to some part of this fort every three or four minutes. You will see."
They heard a roar and hiss a minute later, and a shell burst inside the walls. Through all the afternoon Carrington played upon the shaken nerves of the Invincibles. It seemed that he could make his shells hit wherever he wished. If a recruit left a trench it was only to make a rush for another. If their nerves settled down for a moment, that solemn boom from the forest and the shriek of the shell made them jump again.
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" murmured Colonel Talbot, "but terribly trying to new men! Carrington certainly grows better with the years."
Harry tried to compose himself and rest, as he lay in the trench with St. Clair and Langdon. They had had their battle face to face and all three of them were terribly shaken, but they recovered themselves at last, despite the shells which burst at short but irregular intervals inside the fort. Thus the last hours of the afternoon waned, and as the twilight came, they went more freely about the fort.
Colonel Talbot called a conference of the senior officers in a corner of the enclosure well under the shelter of the earthen walls, and after some minutes of anxious talking they sent for the three youths. Harry, St. Clair and Langdon responded with alacrity, sure that something of the utmost importance was afoot.