Colonel Talbot, Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire and four other officers were in a deep alcove that had been dug just under the highest earthwork, where they were not likely to be interrupted in their deliberations by any fragment of an exploding shell. The only light was that of the stars and the early moon which had now come out, but it was sufficient to show faces oppressed by the utmost anxiety. Three other men also had been summoned to the council.
"We have chosen you six for an important errand," said Colonel Talbot, "but you are to go upon it singly, and not collectively. As you see, we are besieged here by a greatly superior force. Its assault has been repulsed, but it will not go away. It will bombard us incessantly, and, since we are not strong enough to break through their lines and have limited supplies of food and water, we must fall in a day or two, unless we get help. We want you to make your way over the hills tonight to General Beauregard's army and bring aid. Even should five be captured or slain the sixth may get through. Lieutenant Kenton, you will go first. You will recall that the horses of the officers were left on the crest of the mountain with a small guard. They may be there yet, and if you can secure a mount, so much the better. But the moment you leave this fort you must rely absolutely upon your own skill and judgment."
Harry bowed. It was a great trust and he felt elation because he had been chosen first. He was again a courier, and he would do his best.
"I should advise you not to take either a rifle or a sword," said Colonel Talbot, "as they will be in the way of speed. But you'd better have two pistols. Now, go! I send you upon a dangerous errand, but I hope that the son of George Kenton, my old friend, will succeed. Hark! There is Carrington again! How strangely this war arrays comrades against one another!"
A shell burst almost at the center of the fort, and, for a few moments, the air was full of earth and flying fragments of steel. But in another minute Harry made his preparations, dropped over the rear earthwork and crouched for a little while against it. Before him stretched an open space of several hundred yards and here he felt was his greatest danger. The Northern sharpshooters might be lurking at the edge of the forest, and he ran great danger of being picked off as he fled. He looked up hopefully at the skies and saw a few clouds, but they did not promise much. Starshine and moonshine together gave enough light for a good sharpshooter.
Bending until he was half stooped, he took his chance and ran across the clearing. His flesh quivered, fearing the sudden impact of a bullet upon it, but no crack of a rifle came and he darted into the protecting shades of the forest. He lay a few minutes among the trees, until his lungs filled with fresh air. Then he rose and advanced cautiously up the slope, which lay to the south of the fort. The besieging force was massed on the northern side of the fort, but it was probable that they had outposts here also, to guard against such errands as the one upon which Harry himself was bent.
Yet he felt sure of getting through. One youth in a forest was hard to find. The clouds at which he had looked so hopefully were really growing a little heavier now. It would take good eyes to find him and swift feet to catch him. He paused again halfway up the slope, and saw a flash of flame from the Northern forest. Then came the thunderous roar of one of Carrington's guns, all the louder in the still night, and he saw the shell burst just over the fort.
He knew that these guns would play all night on the Southern recruits, allowing them but little rest and sleep and shaking their nerves still further.
But he must not pause for the guns. A hundred yards further and he sank quietly into a clump of bushes. Voices had warned him and he lay quite still while a Northern officer and twenty soldiers passed. They were so near that he heard them talking and they spoke of the recapture of the fort within two days at least. When they were lost among the trees he rose and advanced more rapidly than before.
He met no interruption until he reached the crest of the mountain, when he ran almost into the arms of a sentinel. The man in the darkness did not see the color of his uniform and hailed him for news.
"Nothing," replied Harry hastily, as he darted away. "I carry a message from our commander to a detachment stationed further on!"
But the sentinel, catching sight of his uniform, and exclaiming: "A Johnny Reb!" threw up his rifle and fired. Luckily for Harry it was such a hurried shot that the bullet only made his flesh creep, and passed on, cutting the twigs. Then Harry lifted himself up and ran. Lifting himself up describes it truly. He had all the motives which can make a boy run, pressing danger, love of life, devotion to his cause, and a burning desire to do his errand. Hence he lifted his feet, spurned the earth behind him and fled down the slope at amazing speed. Several more shots were fired, but the bullets flew at random and did not come near him.
Harry did not stop until he was two or three miles from the fort, when he knew that he was safe from anything but a chance meeting with the Northern troops. Then he lay down under a big tree and panted. But his breathing soon became easy, and, rising, he examined the region. He always had a good idea of locality, and soon he found the road by which the Invincibles had come. No one could mistake the tracks made by the cannon wheels. He would retrace his steps on that road as fast as he could. He saw that it was useless now to look for the men with the horses. Fear of capture had compelled them to move long since, and a search would merely waste time.
He tightened his belt, squared his shoulders, and bending a little forward, ran at a long, easy gait along the trail. He was a strong and enduring youth, trained to the woods and hills, and, with occasional stops for rest, he knew that he could continue until he reached the camp at Manassas. He wondered if the others had got through. He hoped they had, but he was still anxious to be the first who should reach Beauregard, an ambition not unworthy on the part of youth.
He stopped after midnight for a longer rest than usual. Colonel Talbot, at the last moment, had made him take a small knapsack with some food in it, and now he was grateful for his commander's foresight. He ate, drank from a tiny brook that he heard trickling among the trees, and felt as if he had been made anew. He wisely protracted this stop to half an hour and then he went forward at an increased gait.
His flight, save for short rests, continued without interruption until morning. Always he looked about for a horse, intending in such an emergency to take a horse by force and gallop to Beauregard. But the country was populated very thinly and he saw none. He must continue to rely upon his own good lungs, strong muscles, and dauntless spirit.
Dawn came, bathing the hills in gray light and unveiling the green of the valleys below. Then the sun showed an edge of red fire in the east, and the full day was at hand. Harry saw below him many horsemen in smooth array. They seemed to have just started, as a huge campfire a little further up the valley was still burning.
To the weary and anxious boy it seemed a most gallant command, fresh as the dawn, splendid horses, splendid men, overflowing with life and strength and spirits. His eyes traveled to one who was a little in advance of all the others, and rested there. The figure that held his gaze was scarcely modern, it was more like that of a knight of old romance.
He saw a young man, tall, and built very powerfully, riding upon an immense black horse. His hair and beard were long and thick, of a golden brown that looked like pure flowing gold in the brilliant rays of the young sun. His coat had two rows of shining brass buttons down the front, and was sewn thickly with gold braid. Heavy gold braid covered the seams of his trousers and a great sash of yellow silk was tied around his waist. Spurs of gold gleamed in the sun. Long yellow gloves covered his hands. His hat was of the finest felt, the brim pinned back with a golden star, while a black ostrich plume waved over the crown.
Harry gazed at this singular and striking figure with wonder. He had seen in the pictures knights of old France wearing such a garb as this, and yet it did not seem so strange here. These were strange times. Everything was out of the normal, and the brilliant colors which would have seemed so dandyish to him at other times appealed to him now.
He suddenly recalled that these men were in gray uniforms, and he, too, wore a gray uniform. They were his own people, cavalry of the Southern army. Recovering his presence of mind, he ran forward, shouting and waving his hands. The leader was the first to notice him and gave the order to halt. The whole command stopped with beautiful precision, the ranks remaining even. Then the leader, looking more than ever like a mediaeval knight, rode slowly forward on his great black horse to meet the youth who was running to meet him.
When Harry came near he saw that the man was young, under thirty. He gazed steadily at the boy out of deep blue eyes, and his hair and beard rippled like molten gold under the light breeze.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Kenton, Henry Kenton, and I am a lieutenant in the regiment of the Invincibles, commanded by Colonel Leonidas Talbot! We were sent to take a fort on the other side of the mountain and took it, but the regiment is besieged there by a much larger Northern force, and I came through in the night for help."
The man stroked his golden beard and a light leaped up in his eye. Any dandyish or foppish quality that he might have seemed to have disappeared at once, and Harry saw only the soldier.
"Ah, I have heard of this expedition," he said, "and so the Invincibles are in a trap. We had started on another errand, but we will go to the relief of Colonel Talbot. My name is Stuart, lad, J. E. B. Stuart, and this is my command."
It was Harry's first meeting with the famous Jeb Stuart, the most picturesque of all the Southern cavalry leaders, although not superior to the illiterate man of genius, Forrest. Stuart inspired supreme confidence in him. His manner, the very brilliancy of his clothes, seemed to say that here was one who would dare anything.
"We have some extra horses," said Stuart, "you shall mount one and guide us."
"The country is very difficult for cavalry," said Harry. "The slopes are steep and are wooded heavily."
"For ordinary cavalry, yes," replied Stuart, proudly, "but these horsemen of mine can go anywhere. But we will not rely upon cavalry alone. I will send two men at full speed to the main army for infantry reinforcements. Meanwhile, we will hurry forward."
Mounted on a good horse, Harry felt like a new being, and his spirits rose rapidly as the whole troop set off at a swift pace. He rode by the side of Stuart, who asked him many questions. Harry saw that he was not only brilliant and dashing, but thorough. He was planning to relieve Colonel Talbot, but he had no intention of dashing into a trap.
Soon they were deep in the hills and here they picked up a weary youth, dodging about among the trees. It was St. Clair. He had run the gauntlet, but he had been pursued so hotly that he had been forced to lie hidden in the forest a long time. He had made his uniform look as spruce as possible and he held himself with dignity when the horsemen approached, but he could not conceal the fact that he was exhausted.
"I congratulate you, Harry," he said, when he also was astride a horse. "It is likely that you are the only one who has got through so far. I'm quite sure that Langdon was driven back, and I don't know what has become of the others. But it was great luck to find such a command as this."
He looked somewhat enviously at Jeb Stuart's magnificent raiment, and again pulled and brushed at his own.
"You cannot expect to equal it," said Harry, smiling.
"Not unless my opportunities improve greatly. I must say, also, that the colors are a little too bright for me, although they suit him. Everything must be in harmony, Harry, and it is certainly true of Stuart and his uniform that they are in perfect accord. Good clothes, Harry, give one courage and backbone."
Stuart and his men continued to advance rapidly, although they were now deep in the hills, and Harry realized to the full that it was a splendid command, splendid men and splendid horses, led by a cavalryman of genius. Stuart neglected no precaution. He sent scouts ahead and threw out flankers. When they reached the forest the ranks opened out, and, without losing touch, a thousand men rode among the trees as easily as they had ridden in the open fields.
They reached the crest of the last slope and Stuart, sitting his horse with Harry and St. Clair on either side, looked through his glasses at the valley below.
"Our people still hold it," he said. "I can see their gray uniforms and I have no doubt the besiegers are still in the forest. Yes, there's their signal!"
The heavy report of a cannon shot rolled up the valley and Harry saw a shell burst over the fort. Carrington was still at work, playing upon the nerves of the defenders.
"While we have ridden through the forest," said Stuart, "a cavalry charge here is not possible. We must dismount, leaving one man in every ten to hold the horses, signal to Colonel Talbot that help has come, and then attack on foot."
A bugler advanced on horseback at Stuart's command, blew a long and thrilling call, and then another man beside him broke out an immense Confederate flag.
"They see us in the fort and recognize us," said Stuart. "Hark to the cheer!"
The faint sound of many voices in unison came up from the valley, and Harry knew it to be the Invincibles expressing joy that help had come. The fort then opened with its own guns, and Stuart's dismounted horsemen, who were armed with carbines, advanced through the forest, using the trees for shelter, and attacking the Northern force on the flank. They and the Invincibles together were not strong enough to drive off the enemy, but the heavy skirmishing lasted until the middle of the afternoon, when a whole brigade of infantry came up from the main army. Then the Northern troops retreated slowly and defiantly, carrying with them all their wounded and every gun.
"I've got to take my hat off to the mill hands and mechanics," said St. Clair. "I think, Harry, that if it hadn't been for your skill and luck in getting through we would soon have been living our lives according to their will."
Colonel Talbot congratulated Harry, but his words were few.
"Lad," he said, "you have done well."
Then he and Stuart consulted. Harry, meanwhile, found Langdon, who had been driven back, as St Clair had suspected. He had also sustained a slight wound in the arm, but he was rejoicing over their final success.
"Everything happens for the best," he said. "You might have been driven back, Harry, as I was. You might not have met Stuart. This little wound in my arm might have been a big one in my heart. But none of those things happened. Here I am almost unhurt, and here we are victorious."
"Victorious, perhaps, but without spoils," said St. Clair. "We've got this fort, but we know it will take a big force to keep it. I don't like the way these mill hands and mechanics fight. They hang on too long. After we drove them out of the fort they ought to have retreated up the valley and left us in peace. If they act this way when they're raw, what'll they do when they are seasoned?"
After the conference with Colonel Talbot, Stuart and his cavalry pursued the Northern force up the valley, not for attack, but for observation. Stuart came back at nightfall and reported that their retreat was covered by the heavy guns, and, if they were attacked with much success, it must be done by at least five thousand men.
"Carrington again," said Colonel Talbot, smiling and rubbing his hands. "You and your horsemen, Stuart, could never get a chance at the Northern recruits, unless you rode first over Carrington's guns. From whatever point you approached their muzzles would be sure to face you."
"The colonel is undoubtedly right about his friend Carrington," said St. Clair to Harry and Langdon. "I guess those guns scared us more than anything else."
Stuart and his command left them about midnight. A brilliant moon and a myriad of stars made the night so bright that Harry saw for a long time the splendid man on the splendid horse, leading his men to some new task. Then he lay down and slept heavily until dawn. They remained in the fort two days longer, and then came an order from Beauregard for them to abandon it, and rejoin the main army. The shifting of forces had now made the place useless to either side, and the Invincibles and their new comrades gladly marched back over the mountain and into the lowlands.
Harry found a letter from his father awaiting him. Colonel Kenton was now in Tennessee, where he had been joined by a large number of recruits from Kentucky. He would have preferred to have his son with him, but he was far from sure of his own movements. The regiment might yet be sent to the east. There was great uncertainty about the western commanders, and the Confederate resistance there had not solidified as it had in the east.
Harry expected prompt action on the Virginia field, but it did not come. The two armies lay facing each other for many days. June deepened and the days grew hot. Off in the mountains to the west there were many skirmishes, with success divided about equally. So far as Harry could tell, these encounters meant nothing. Their own battle at the fort meant nothing, either. The fort was now useless, and the two sides faced each other as before. Some of the Invincibles, however, were gone forever. Harry missed young comrades whom he had learned to like. But in the great stir of war, when one day in its effects counted as ten, their memories faded fast. It was impossible, when a boy was a member of a great army facing another great army, to remember the fallen long. Although the long summer days passed without more fighting, there was something to do every hour. New troops were arriving almost daily and they must be broken in. Intrenchments were dug and abandoned for new intrenchments elsewhere, which were abandoned in their turn for intrenchments yet newer. They moved to successive camps, but meanwhile they became physically tougher and more enduring.
The life in the open air agreed with Harry wonderfully. He had already learned from Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire how to take care of himself, and he and St. Clair and Langdon suffered from none of the diseases to which young soldiers are so susceptible. But the long delays and uncertainties preyed upon them, although they made no complaint except among themselves, and then they showed irony rather than irritation.
"Sleeping out here under the trees is good," said Langdon, "but it isn't like sleeping in the White House at Washington, which, as I told you before, I've chosen as my boarding house for the coming autumn."
"There may be a delay in your plans, Tom," said Harry. "I'd make them flexible if I were you."
"I intend to carry 'em out sooner or later. What's that you're reading, Arthur?"
"A New York newspaper. I won't let you see it, Tom, but I'll read portions of it to you. I'll have to expurgate it or you'd have a rush of blood to the head, you're so excitable. It makes a lot of fun of us. Tells that old joke, 'hay foot, straw foot,' when we drill. Says the Yankees now have three hundred thousand men under the best of commanders, and that the Yankee fleet will soon close up all our ports. Says a belt of steel will be stretched about us."
"Then," said Langdon, "just as soon as they get that belt of steel stretched we'll break it in two in a half dozen places. But go on with those feats of fancy that you're reading from that paper."
"Makes fun of our government. Says McDowell will be in Richmond in a month."
"Just the time that Tom gives himself to get into Washington," interrupted Harry. "But go on."
"Makes fun of our army, too, especially of us South Carolinians. Says we've brought servants along to spread tents for us, load our guns for us, and take care of us generally. Says that even in war we won't work."
"They're right, so far as Tom is concerned," said Harry. "We're going to give him a watch as the laziest man among the Invincibles."
"It's not laziness, it's wisdom," said Langdon. "What's the use of working when you don't have to, especially in a June as hot as this one is? I conserve my energy. Besides, I'm going to take care of myself in ways that you fellows don't know anything about. Watch me."
He took his clasp-knife and dug a little hole in the ground. Then he repeated over it solemnly and slowly:
"God made man and man made money; God made the bee and the bee made honey; God made Satan and Satan made sin; God made a little hole to put the devil in."
"What do you mean by that, Tom?" asked Harry. "I learned it from some fellows over in a Maryland company. It's a charm that the children in that state have to ward off evil. I've a great belief in the instincts of children, and I'm protecting myself against cannon and rifles in the battle that's bound to come. Say, you fellows do it, too. I'm not superstitious, I wouldn't dream of depending on such things, but anyway, a charm don't hurt. Now go ahead; just to oblige me."
Harry and St. Clair dug their holes and repeated the lines. Langdon sighed with relief.
"It won't do any harm and it may do some good," he said.
They were interrupted by an orderly who summoned Harry to Colonel Talbot's tent. The colonel had complimented the boy on his energy and courage in bringing Stuart to his relief, when he was besieged in the fort, and he had also received the official thanks of General Beauregard. Proud of his success, he was anxious for some new duty of an active nature, and he hoped that it was at hand. Langdon and St. Clair looked at him enviously.
"He ought to have sent for us, too," said Langdon. "Colonel Talbot has too high an opinion of you, Harry."
"I've been lucky," said Harry, as he walked lightly away. He found that Colonel Talbot was not alone in his tent. General Beauregard was there also. "You have proved yourself, Lieutenant Kenton," said General Beauregard in flattering and persuasive tones. "You did well in the far south and you performed a great service when you took relief to Colonel Talbot. For that reason we have chosen you for a duty yet more arduous."
Beauregard paused as if he were weighing the effect of his words upon Harry. He had a singular charm of manner when he willed and now he used it all. Colonel Talbot looked keenly at the boy.
"You have shown coolness and judgment," continued Beauregard, "and they are invaluable qualities for such a task as the one we wish you to perform."
"I shall do my best, whatever it is," said Harry, proudly.
"You know that we have spent the month of June here, waiting," continued General Beauregard in those soft, persuasive tones, "and that the fighting, what there is of it, has been going on in the mountains to the west. But this state of affairs cannot endure much longer. We have reason to believe that the Northern advance in great force will soon be made, but we wish to know, meanwhile, what is going on behind their lines, what forces are coming down from Washington, what is the state of their defenses, and any other information that you may obtain. If you can get through their lines you can bring us news which may have vital results."
He paused and looked thoughtfully at the boy. His manner was that of one conferring a great honor, and the impression upon Harry was strong. But he remembered. This was the duty of a spy, or something like it. He recalled Shepard and the risk he ran. Spies die ingloriously. Yet he might do a great service. Beauregard read his mind.
"We ask you to be a scout, not a spy," he said. "You may ride in your own uniform, and, if you are taken, you will merely be a prisoner of war."
Harry's last doubt disappeared.
"I will do my best, sir," he said.
"No one can do more," said Beauregard.
"When do you wish me to start?"
"As soon as you can get ready. How long will that be? Your horse will be provided for you."
"In a half hour."
"Good," said Beauregard. "Now, I will leave you with Colonel Talbot, who will give you a few parting instructions."
He left the tent, but, as he went, gave Harry a strong clasp of the hand.
"Now, my boy," said Colonel Leonidas Talbot, when they were alone in the tent, "I've but little more to say to you. It is an arduous task that you've undertaken, and one full of danger. You must temper courage with caution. You will be of no use to our cause unless you come back. And, Harry, you are your father's son; I want to see you come back for your own sake, too. Good-bye, your horse will be waiting."
Harry quickly made ready. St. Clair and Langdon, burning with curiosity, besieged him with questions, but he merely replied that he was riding on an errand for Colonel Talbot. He did not know when he would come back, but if it should be a long time they must not forget him.
"A long time?" said St. Clair. "A long time, Harry, means that you've got a dangerous mission. We'll wish you safely through it, old fellow."
"And don't forget the charm!" exclaimed Langdon. "Of course I don't believe in such foolishness, I wouldn't think of it for a minute, but, anyway, they don't do any harm. Good-bye and God bless you, Harry."
"The same from me, Harry," said St. Clair.
The strong grip of their hands still thrilled his blood as he rode away. His pass carried him through the Southern lines, and then he went toward the northwest, intending to pass through the hills, and reach the rear of the Northern force. He carried no rifle, and his gray uniform, somewhat faded now, would not attract distant attention. Still, he did not care to be observed even by non-combatants, and he turned his horse into the first stretch of forest that he could reach.
Harry, being young, felt the full importance of his errand, but it was vague in its nature. He was to follow his own judgment and discover what was going on between the Northern army and Washington, no very great distance. When he was well hidden within the forest he stopped and considered. He might meet Federal scouts on errands like his own, but the horse they had given him was a powerful animal, and he had good weapons in his belt. It was Virginia soil, too, and the people, generally, were in sympathy with the South. He relied upon this fact more than upon any other.
The belt of forest into which he had ridden, ran along the crest of a hill, where the soil evidently had been considered too thin for profitable cultivation. Yet the growth of trees and bushes was heavy, and Harry decided to keep in the middle of it, as long as it continued northward in the direction in which he was going. He found a narrow path among the trees, and with his hand on a pistol butt he rode along it.
He expected to meet some one, but evidently the war had driven away all who used the path, and he continued in a welcome silence and desolation. Coming from an army where he always heard many sounds, this silence impressed him at last. Here in the woods there was a singular peace. The June sun had been hot that year in Virginia, but in the sheltered places the leaves were not burned. A moist, fresh greenness enclosed him and presently he heard the trickle of running water.
He came to a little brook, not more than a foot wide and only two or three inches deep, but running joyfully over its pebbly bottom. Both Harry and his horse drank of the water, which was cold, and then they went with the stream, which followed the slow downward slope of the hill toward the north. After a mile, he turned to the edge of the forest and looked over the valley. He caught his breath at the great panorama of green hills and of armies upon them that was spread out before him. Down there under the southern horizon were the long lines of his own people, and toward Washington, but much nearer to him, were the lines of a detachment of the Northern army. Between, he caught the flash of water from Bull Run, Young's Branch and the lesser streams. Behind the Northern force the sun glinted on a long line of bayonets and he knew that it was made by a regiment marching to join the others. The spectacle, with all the somber aspects of war, softened by the distance, was inspiring. Harry drew a long breath and then another. It was in truth more like a spectacle than war's actuality. He counted five colonial houses, white and pillared, standing among green trees and shrubbery. Smoke was rising from their chimneys, as if the people who lived in them were going about their peaceful occupations.
He turned back into the forest, and rode until he came to its end, two or three miles further on. Here the brook darted down through pasture land to merge its waters finally into those of Bull Run. Harry left it regretfully. It had been a good comrade with its pleasant chatter over the pebbles.
Two miles of open country lay before him, and beyond was another cloak of trees. He decided to ride for the forest, and remain there until dark. He would not then be more than fifteen miles from Washington, and he could make the remaining distance under the cover of darkness. He followed a narrow road between two fields, in one of which he saw a farmer ploughing, an old man, gnarled and knotty, whose mind seemed bent wholly upon his work. He was ploughing young corn, and although he could not keep from seeing Harry, he took no apparent notice of him.
The boy rode on, but the picture of the grim old man ploughing between the two armies lingered with him. The fence enclosing the two fields was high, staked, and ridered, and presently he was glad of it. He beheld on a hill to his right, about a half mile away, four horsemen, and the color of their uniforms was blue. He bent low over his horse that they might not see him, and rode on, the pulses in his temples beating heavily. He was glad that gray was not an assertive color, and he was glad that his own gray had been faded by the hot June sun.
Half way to the protecting wood he saw one of the men on the hill, undoubtedly an officer, put glasses to his eyes. Harry was sure at first that he had been discovered, but the man turned the glasses on Beauregard's camp, and the boy rode on unnoticed, praying that the same luck would attend him in the other half of the distance.