Stuart's brilliant figure was seen no more in the ballroom that night, but he disappeared so quietly that his absence created no alarm at first. There was a low call for Sherburne, and the great cavalry leader and his most daring horsemen were soon up and away. Harry and Dalton, standing under the boughs of an oak, near the edge of the grounds, saw them depart, but the dancers, at least the women and girls, knew nothing.
Another cannon shot came from some distant point along the stream, and its somber echoes rolled and died away among the hills, but the music of the band in the ballroom did not cease. It was the Acadians who were playing now, some strange old dance tune that they had brought from far Louisiana, taken thence by the way of Nova Scotia from its origin in old France.
"They don't know yet," said Harry, "but I'm thinking it will be the last dance for many a day."
"Looks like it," said Dalton. "What time is it, Harry?"
"Past two in the morning, and here comes Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant- Colonel St. Hilaire."
The two colonels walked out on the lawn. Military cloaks were thrown over their shoulders and all signs of merry-making were gone from their faces. They stood side by side and with military glasses were sweeping the horizon toward the river. Presently they saw Harry and Dalton standing under the boughs of the oak, and beckoned to them.
"You know?" said Colonel Talbot.
"Yes, sir, we do," replied Harry. "We saw General Stuart and his staff ride away, because a messenger had come, stating that divisions of Hooker's army were about to cross the Rappahannock."
"That is true, but we wish no panic here. Go back in the house, lads, and dance. Officers are scarcer there than they were a half hour ago. But you two lads will return to General Jackson before dawn, while Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire and I will gather up our young men and return to our own place."
Harry and Dalton obeyed promptly, and took their places again in the dancing, but they soon discovered that the spirit was gone from it. The absence of Stuart, Sherburne and others almost as conspicuous was soon noted, and although those who knew gave various excuses, they were not satisfactory. Gradually the belief spread that the long vacation was over. After Fredericksburg the armies had spent four months in peace along the Rappahannock, but there was a certainty in the minds of all that the armed peace had passed.
The music ceased bye and bye, the girls and the women went away in their carriages or on horseback, the lights were put out, and the heroes of the ballroom, veterans of the battlefield, too, went quietly to their commands once more. The youths, including their new friend, Julien de Langeais, parted shortly before dawn, and their parting was characteristic.
"See you again, I think, at the edge of the Wilderness, where we'll be holding converse with Hooker," said St. Clair.
"At any rate you can look for me in the White House with my boots on," said Happy Tom, returning to his original boast.
Then they shook hands and hurried away to join the two colonels, leaving de Langeais with Dalton and Harry.
"Gallant spirits," said the young Louisianian. "I like them."
"As fine as silk, both of them," said Harry with enthusiasm. "I'm glad we've met you, de Langeais, and I hope you'll be equally glad you've met us. We'll see you again after the battle, whenever and wherever it may be."
"Many thanks," said de Langeais. "It gives me much pride to be taken into your company. My command is several miles away, and therefore I must ride. Adieu."
He was holding his horse's reins as he spoke. Then he leaped lightly into the saddle and was gone.
"A brave and true spirit, if I know one," said Harry. "And now come, George, the sooner we get back to Old Jack's headquarters the better it will be for us."
"Do you think Hooker's army can cross?" asked Dalton, looking at the black river.
"Of course it can. Remember that they have four hundred guns with which they can cover a passage. Didn't Burnside build his bridges and force the crossing in our face, when we had twenty thousand more men than we have now, and the Union army had twenty thousand less? Their line is so long and they are so much superior in numbers that we can't guard all the river. As I take it, Lee and Old Jack will not make any great opposition to the crossing, but there will be a thunderation of a time after it's made."
It was sunrise when they reached their own headquarters and entered the great mess tent, where some of the officers who had not gone to the ball were already eating breakfast. They said that the general had been awake more than two hours and that he was taking his breakfast, too, in the hunting lodge. He sent for various officers from time to time, and presently Harry's turn came.
Jackson was sitting at a small table, upon which his breakfast had been laid. But all that had been cleared away long ago. He was reading in a small book when Harry entered, a book that the youth knew well. It was a copy of Napoleon's Maxims, which Jackson invariably carried with him and read often. But he closed it quickly and put it in his pocket. During the long rest Jackson's face had become somewhat fuller, but the blue eyes under the heavy brows were as deep and thoughtful as ever. He nodded to Harry and said:
"You were present when General Stuart received the message that the enemy was advancing? Was anything more ascertained at the time? Did any other messenger come?"
"No, sir. General Stuart mounted and rode at once. I remained at the ball until its close. No other messenger came there for him. Of that I am sure."
"Very well, very well," said Jackson to himself, rather than to the young lieutenant. "One message was enough. Stuart has acted promptly, as he always does. You, Mr. Kenton, I judge have been up all night dancing?"
"Most all of it, sir."
"We must get ready now for another and less pleasant kind of dancing. But nothing will happen to-day. You'd better sleep. If you are needed you will be called."
Harry saluted and withdrew. At the door he glanced back. Jackson had taken out Napoleon's Maxims and was reading the volume again. The brow was seamed with thought, but his countenance was grave and steady. Harry never forgot any look or act of his great chief in those days when the shadow of Chancellorsville was hovering near.
A dozen officers were in the mess tent, and they talked earnestly of various things, but Harry, unheeding their voices, lay down in a corner without taking off his clothes and went quietly to sleep. Many came into the tent or went out of it in the course of the morning, but none of them disturbed him. A man in the army slept when he could, and there was none wicked enough to awaken him until the right time for it.
He slept heavily nearly all through the day, and shortly after he awoke Sherburne and two other officers, their horses splashed with mud, rode up to the hunting lodge. Jackson was standing in the door, and with a rising inflection he uttered one word:
"It's true, General," said Sherburne. "The enemy is advancing in heavy force toward Kelly's Ford. We saw them with our own eyes. General Stuart asked me to tell you this. He did not come himself, because, as well as we can ascertain, General Hooker has separated his army into two or three great divisions and they are seeking the crossing at different fords or ferries."
"As I thought," said Jackson. "It's the advantage given them by their great numbers and powerful artillery. Ride back to General Stuart, Captain, and tell him that I thank him, and you, too, for your diligence."
Sherburne, flushing deep with gratification, took off his cap and bowed. But he knew too well to waste any time in words.
That night the Union army laid its pontoon bridges again across the Rappahannock near Fredericksburg and began to cross in great force. Hooker, like Burnside four months before, was favored by thick fogs, but he met with practically no resistance. At dawn a strong force under Sedgwick was across at Deep Run, and another as strong had made the passage at Kelly's Ford.
The advanced riflemen of Sedgwick were engaged in scattered firing with those of Jackson before the fog had yet lifted, but the main force had made no movement. Dalton had been sent at dawn with a message telling Lee that Sedgwick was over the river. Dalton, some time after his return, told Harry of his ride and reception.
"When I rode up," he said, "General Lee was in his tent. An aide took me in and I gave him the message. He did not show any emotion. Several others were present, some of them staff officers as young as myself. He turned to them and said, smiling a little: 'Well, I heard firing not long since, and I had concluded that it was about time for some of you young idlers to come and tell me what it was all about. Go back to General Jackson, Mr. Dalton, and tell him that I send him no orders now. He knows as well what to do in the face of the enemy as I do.' I brought this message, word for word, just as General Lee delivered it to me, and General Jackson smiled a little, just as General Lee had done. It's my opinion, Harry, that Lee and Old Jack haven't the slightest fear of the enemy."
Harry was convinced of it, too, but he felt also the steadily hardening quality of the Army of the Potomac. Whatever Hooker might be he was neither dilatory nor afraid. He and his comrades saw the corps of Sedgwick entrenching on the Confederate side of the river, and they also saw the great batteries still frowning from Stafford Heights, ready to protect their men on the plain near Fredericksburg.
But Jackson made no movement. He watched the enemy calmly, and meanwhile messengers passed between him and Lee. Both were waiting to see what their enemy, who was displaying unusual energy, would do. In the evening they received news that the Union troops had crossed the river at two more points. They still remained stationary, waiting, and without alarm.
Cavalrymen on both sides were active, ranging over a wide area. Stuart came the next morning, having taken prisoners from whom he learned that three more Union corps led by Meade, Slocum and Howard, all famous names, had crossed the river and were advancing toward a little place called Chancellorsville on the edge of a region known as the Wilderness. The Southern general, Anderson, with a much smaller force, was falling back before them.
The Northern leaders had now shown the energy and celerity which hitherto had so often marked the Southern. Hooker, with seventy thousand splendid troops, had gone behind Lee and now three divisions were united in the forest close to Chancellorsville. Sedgwick, with his formidable corps, lay in the plain of Fredericksburg, facing Jackson, and thousands of Northern cavalry rode on the Southern flanks.
Harry was bewildered, and so were many officers of much higher rank than he. It seemed that the Confederate army, surrounded by overwhelming numbers, was about to be crushed. The exultation of Hooker at the success of his movements against such able foes was justified for the moment. He issued to his army a general order, which said:
It is with heartfelt satisfaction that the commanding general announces to his army that the operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defences, and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.
Hooker, it can be said again, had cause for exultation. He was closing in with more than a hundred thousand stern fighters, and ten thousand splendid cavalrymen under Stoneman were hanging on the Southern flank, ready to cut off retreat. Besides, there were reserves, and he could also join to the artillery the great batteries on Stafford Heights, on the left bank of the river, which had done such good service for the Army of the Potomac. He could go into action with men and guns outnumbering his enemy more than two to one, and Lee and Jackson would have no such hills and intrenchments as those which had protected them while they cut down the army of Burnside at Fredericksburg.
Harry and his young comrades were lost in the mists and doubts of uncertainty. Nothing could shake their confidence in Lee and Jackson, but yet they were only human beings. Had the time come when there was more to be done than any men, great and brilliant as they might be, could do? Yet they refused to express their apprehensions to one another, and waited, their hearts now and then beating heavily.
Thus the last day of April passed, and for Harry it was more fully surcharged with suspense and anxiety than any other that he had yet known. The forests and the fields were flush with the green of early spring. Little wild flowers were peeping up in the thickets, and now and then a bird, full throated, sang on a bough, indifferent to passing armies.
But Harry saw a red tint over everything. The spirit of his great ancestor had descended upon him again. The acute sense which warned him of mighty and tragic events soon to come was alive and active. His mind traveled backward too. Sometimes he did not see the men around him, but saw instead Pendleton, the boys playing in the fields, and his father. He also saw again that log house in the Kentucky mountains, and the old, old woman who had known his great-grandfather, Henry Ware. Once more he heard like a whisper in his ears her parting words: "You will come again, and you will be thin and pale and in rags, and you will fall at the door. I see you coming with these two eyes of mine."
What did they mean? What did those strange words mean? It was the first time in a year, perhaps, that he had thought of that old, old woman, and the log house in the mountains. But he saw her now, and she was strangely vivid for one so old and so withered. Then she vanished, and for the time was forgotten completely, because Lee and Jackson were riding past, one on Traveler and the other on Little Sorrel, and it was no time to be dreaming of glens in the mountains and their peace, because mighty armies were closing in, bent upon the destruction of each other.
All that afternoon Harry heard in a half circle about him the distant moaning of cannon, and he caught glimpses of galloping horsemen. Stuart, equally at home on the floor of the ballroom or the field of battle, was leading his troopers in a daring circuit. When he saw that the Army of the Potomac was moving toward Chancellorsville he had cut in on its right flank, taking prisoners, and when a Union regiment had stood in his way, attempting to bar his path to his own army, he had ridden over it and gone.
All the time the sinister moaning of the guns on the far horizon never ceased. It was this distant threat that oppressed Harry more than anything else. It beat softly on the drums of his ears, and it said to him continually that his army must make a supreme effort or perish. General Jackson did not call upon him to do anything, and once he rode forward with Dalton and looked at Sedgwick's Union masses upon the plains of Fredericksburg, still protected by the batteries which had not yet been moved from Stafford Heights. Harry thought, for a while, that Lee and Jackson would certainly attack there, but night came and they had made no movement for that purpose.
But before the sun had set Harry with his glasses had been able to command a wide view. He saw high up in the air three captive balloons, from which some of Hooker's officers looked upon the Southern intrenchments. Hooker also had signalmen on every height, and an ample field telegraph. What Harry did not see he learned from the Southern scouts. It seemed impossible that Lee and Jackson could break through the circle of steel, and Hooker thought so, too.
When the red sun set on that last day of April the confidence of the Northern general was at its height. He had sent word to Sedgwick to keep a close watch upon the enemy in his front, and if he exposed a weak point to attack and destroy him. And if he showed signs of retreat, also to follow and attack with the utmost vigor.
The moaning of the cannon ceased with the night, and it brought Harry intense relief. He was glad that those guns were silent for a while, although he knew that they would be far busier on the morrow. The bands of red and yellow left by the sun sank away, and as the cool, spring night came down, a pleasant breeze began to blow through the forest. Harry felt all the thrill of a mighty movement which was at hand, but the nature of which he did not yet know.
He had no wish to sleep. The feeling of tremendous events impending was too strong and his nervous system was keyed too highly for such thoughts to enter his mind. He was used to great battles now, but there was a mystery, a weirdness about the one near at hand that sometimes turned the blood in his veins to ice.
They were not far from Fredericksburg, but the country about them looked wild and lonely, despite the fact that nearly two hundred thousand men were moving somewhere in those shades and thickets, preparing for desperate combat. Harry knew that just back of them lay the Wilderness, a desolate and somber region. Dalton, a Virginian, had been there, and he told Harry that in ordinary times one could walk through it for many miles without meeting a single human being.
"And they say that Hooker is along its edge with the bulk of his army," said Dalton. "He is in our rear ready to attack with his veterans. What conclusion do you draw from it, Harry?"
"I infer that Lee and Jackson will not attack Sedgwick at Fredericksburg. They will go for Hooker. They will strike where the enemy is strongest. It's their way, isn't it?"
"Right, of course, Harry. We'll be marching against Hooker long before the dawn."
Dalton's prediction came true earlier than he had expected. Jackson marched at midnight from his position on the Massaponnax Hills to join the small command of Anderson, which alone faced Hooker. He was as silent as ever, the figure bent forward a little and the brow knitted with thought. Close behind him came his staff, Harry and Dalton knee to knee. They had known as soon as Jackson mounted his horse and turned his head southwestward that they were marching toward the Wilderness and against Hooker. Sedgwick at Fredericksburg might do as he pleased.
Harry and Dalton were glad. They were quite sure now that Lee and Jackson had formed their plan, and, as they had formed it, it must be good. It was a long ride under the moon and stars. There was but little talk along the lines. The noises were those of marching feet and not of men's voices. All the troops felt the mystery and solemnity of the night and the deep import of their unknown mission.
The dawn found them still marching, but that dawn was again heavy with the fogs and mists that rose from the broad river. The three Northern balloons could see nothing. The signalmen were of no avail. The clouds of vapor rolled over the ruins of Fredericksburg and along the hills south of the river. Neither Sedgwick and his men nor any of the Union officers on the other shore knew that Jackson had gone, leaving only a rear guard behind. Before the fog had cleared away Jackson with his fighting generals had joined Anderson and they were forming a powerful line of battle near Chancellorsville and facing Hooker.
Harry now heard much of this name Chancellorsville, destined to become so famous, and he said it over and over again to himself. And yet it was not a town, nor even a village. Here stood a large house, with the usual pillared porticoes, built long since by the Chancellor family and inhabited by them in their generation, but now turned into a country inn. Yet it had importance. Roads ran from it in various directions and in territories very unlike, including the strange and weird region known as the Wilderness.
Hooker had come through the Wilderness with his main force, and was now forming a line of battle in front of it in the open country, when for some reason never fully known he fell back on Chancellorsville and began to concentrate his army in the edge of the Wilderness.
Harry, riding with Dalton and some others to inspect the enemy's front through their glasses, saw this gloomy forest, destined to such a terrible fame not alone from the coming battle, but from others as great. Nature could have chosen no more fitting spot for the mighty sacrifice to save the Union, because here everything is dark, solemn and desolate.
For twenty miles one way and fifteen the other the Wilderness stretched its somber expanse. The ancient forest had been cut away long since and the thin, light soil had produced a sea of scrub and thickets in its place, in which most of the houses were the huts of charcoal burners. The undergrowth and jungle were often impenetrable, save by some lone hunter or wild animal. The gnarled and knotted oaks were distorted and the bushes, even in the flush of a May morning, were black and ugly. At evening it was indescribably desolate, and save when the armies came there was no sound but the lone cry of the whip-poor-will, one of the saddest of all notes.
It was upon this forest that Harry looked, and he wondered, as many officers much older and much higher in rank than he wondered, that Hooker, with forces so much superior, should draw back into its shades. And many of the Union generals, too, had protested in vain against Hooker's orders. They knew, as the Confederate generals knew, that Hooker was a brave man, and they never understood it then or afterwards.
"It gives us our chance," said Dalton, with sudden intuition, to Harry. "We'll carry the battle to them in the forest, and there numbers will not count so much."
"Look!" exclaimed Harry. "They're withdrawing farther into the Wilderness. There go the last bayonets!"
"It's so," said Dalton. "I can still see a few of them moving among the trees and thickets. Now they're all gone. What does it mean?"
"It means that Old Jack will follow into the Wilderness, as sure as you and I are here. He isn't the man to let an enemy retreat in peace."
"That's so. There are the bugles calling, and it's time for us to rejoin Old Jack."
Jackson was not more than a hundred yards away, and they were soon just behind him, riding slowly forward, while he swept the forest with his glasses. Riflemen sent far in advance began to fire, and from the forest came replies. Harry saw bits of earth and grass kicked up by the bullets, and now and then a man fell or, wounded, limped to the rear. There was no fog here and the day had become beautiful and brilliant, as became the first morning in May. The little white puffs of smoke arose all along the edges of the Wilderness, and, sailing above the trees and bushes, dissolved into the blue sky. It was yet only a skirmish between the Southern vanguard and the Northern vanguard, but the riflemen increased to hundreds and they made a steady volume of sound. Now and then the lighter guns were fired and the like replied from the thickets.
Harry gazed intently at Jackson. Would he with his relatively small force follow Hooker into the Wilderness, despising the dangers of ambush and the possibility that his foe might turn upon him in overwhelming numbers? Lee was with the troops elsewhere, and Jackson for the present must rely upon his own judgment.
But Jackson never hesitated. While the fire of the riflemen deepened he plunged into the Wilderness in pursuit of Hooker, who for some inscrutable reason was concentrating his masses about the Chancellor House for pitched battle. They advanced by two ways, a pike and a plank road, with Jackson himself on the plank road.
Harry felt a strange prickling at the roots of his hair as the Wilderness closed in on pursuer and pursued, but it was only for a moment. The enemy far down the plank road held his attention. Many riflemen were there and they were sending back bullets, most of which fell short. Now and then a curving shell struck among the bushes, burst, and hurt no one.
It had grown darker when they entered the Wilderness. The scrub forest, not lofty enough for dignity and nobility, was nevertheless dense enough to shut out most of the sunlight. Despite the blaze of the firing, both pursuer and pursued were enveloped in heavy shadows.
Harry had nothing to do but to keep near his general, in case he was wanted. But he watched everything with the utmost interest. Once he looked back and saw the Invincibles, few in number, but still preserving their regiment, marching in brave style along the plank road. Colonel Talbot and Lieutenant-Colonel St. Hilaire were riding side by side at its head, and in all the army there were not two more erect and soldierly figures than theirs.
They soon heard heavy artillery discharges from the other force on the pike, and the fire in front of them increased heavily. Nevertheless both forces pushed resolutely onward. Harry had no idea what it all meant. The movements of Hooker were a mystery to him, but he felt the presence of an enveloping danger, through which, however, he felt sure that the sword of Jackson could slash.
He saw that the generals were neglecting no precautions. The scouts and hardy riflemen were now pressing through all the forests and thickets, like Indians trailing in the Wilderness. They kept the two forces, the one on the plank road and the other on the pike, in touch. McLaws, who had shown so much spirit and judgment at Antietam, led on the pike.
Now the fighting increased on both roads. Batteries faced batteries and cavalry charged. But Harry felt all the time that these were not supreme efforts. The opposing force seemed to be merely a curtain before Hooker, and as the Southern army advanced the curtain was drawn steadily back, but it was always there.
One of the encounters rose almost to the dignity of a battle. A heavy division of Northern regulars drove in all the Southern skirmishers, but Jackson, sending forward a strong force, pushed back the regulars in their turn. Harry watched the fighting most of the time, but at other times he watched his general's face. It was the usual impenetrable mask, but late in the afternoon Harry saw a sudden sparkle in the blue eye. He always believed that at that moment the general divined the enemy's intentions, but the boy never had any way of knowing.
Scouts came in presently and reported that another heavy column was marching from the Rappahannock to join Hooker in the Wilderness, and now the advance of the Southern force became slower. It was obvious to Harry that Jackson, while resolute to follow Hooker, intended to guard against all possibility of ambush. Harry knew nothing then of the Chancellor House, but Dalton told him.
"It's a big place," he said, "standing on a heavy ridge surrounded by thick timber, and it's a natural presumption that Hooker will stop there. From the timbered ridge his cannon can sweep every approach."
Harry had no doubt that Hooker would halt at the Chancellor House. It was incredible that a great army of brave and veteran troops should continue to retreat before a force which his scouts had surely informed Hooker was far smaller, and only a portion of the Confederate army. It must be merely a part of some comprehensive plan, and he was confirmed in his belief by the increasing stubbornness of the defense.
There was not sufficient room on either the plank road or the pike for all the Confederate infantry, and masses were toiling through the dense thickets of bushes and briars and creeping vines. The afternoon was growing late, and while it was yet brilliant sunshine in the open, it was dark and somber in the Wilderness.
The division of Jackson seemed almost lost in the forest and undergrowth. The cavalry riding along some of the narrow paths were checked by large forces in front, and fell back under the protection of their own infantry. On another path a strong body of Southern skirmishers drove back those of the North, but were checked in their turn by a heavy fire of artillery.
Harry witnessed the repulse of the Southern riflemen and saw them crowding back down the path and through the bushes which lined it on either side. He also saw the usually calm and imperturbable face of Jackson show annoyance. The general signed to his staff, and, galloping forward a hundred yards or so, joined Stuart, who was just in front. Stuart also showed annoyance, but, more emotional than Jackson, he expressed it in a much greater degree. His face was red with anger. Harry, who as usual kept close behind his commander, heard their talk.
"General Stuart," said General Jackson, "we must find some position from which we can open a flanking fire upon that Northern battery."
"Aye, sir," said Stuart. "Nothing would delight me more. The narrowness of the road, and their place at the head of it, give them an immense advantage. Ah, sir, here is a bridle path leading to the right. Maybe it will give us a chance."
The two generals, followed by their staffs and a battery, turned from the main body into the narrow path and pushed their way between the masses of thick undergrowth, bearing steadily toward the right. But the road was so narrow that not more than two could go abreast, the generals in their eagerness still leading the way.
Harry, rising up in his stirrups, tried to see over the dense undergrowth, but patches of saplings and scrub oaks farther on hid the view. Nevertheless he caught the flash of heavy guns and saw many columns of smoke rising. It was toward their left now, and they would soon be parallel with it, whence their own guns would open a flanking fire, if any open spot or elevation could be found.
They had gone about a half mile, when Stuart uttered an exclamation and pointed to a hillock. It was not necessary to say anything, because everyone knew that this was the place for the guns.
"Now we'll drop a few shells of our own among those Yankee gunners and see how they like it," said Dalton.
The cannon were unlimbering rapidly, but the open space on the hillock was so small that only one gun could be brought up, and it sent a shot toward the Union lines. The Union artillery, superb as always, marked the spot whence the shot came, and in an instant two batteries, masked by the woods, poured a terrible fire upon the hillock and those about it.
So deadly was the steel rain that the little force was put out of action at once. Harry had never beheld a more terrifying scene. Most of the horses and men around the first cannon were killed. One horse and one gunner fell dead across its wheels. Other horses, wounded and screaming with pain and fright, rushed into the dense undergrowth and were caught by the trailing vines and thrown down. Some of the cavalrymen themselves were knocked out of the saddle by the fleeing horses, but they quickly regained their seats.
A second discharge from many guns sent another rain equally as deadly upon the hillock and its vicinity. More men and horses fell, and a scene of wild confusion followed. Attempting to turn about and escape from that spot of death, the cannon crashed together. There was not room for all the men and horses and guns. Most of them were compelled to plunge into the undergrowth and struggle desperately through it for shelter.
But Harry did not forget the two generals who were worth so much to the South. It would be fate's bitterest irony if Jackson and Stuart were killed in a small flanking movement, when, as was obvious to everyone, a battle of the first magnitude was just before them. And yet, while fragments of steel, hot and hissing, fell all around them, Jackson and Stuart and all the members of their staffs escaped without hurt.
The deadly fire followed them as they retreated, but the two generals rode on, unharmed. Harry and Dalton breathed deep sighs of relief when they were out of range.
"If a bullet had gone through my left side," said Dalton, "it wouldn't have come near my heart."
"Because my heart was in my mouth. In fact, I don't think it has gone back yet to its natural place. The Yankees certainly have the guns."
"And the gunners who know how to use them. But doesn't it feel good, George, to be back on the plank road?"
"It does. I'll take my chance in open battle, but when I'm tangled up among bushes and vines and briars, I do hate to have a hundred-pound shell fired from an invisible gun burst suddenly on the top of my head. What's all that firing off there to the left and farther on?"
"It means that some of our people have got deeper into the Wilderness than we have, and are feeling out Hooker. I imagine we won't go much farther. Look how the night's dropping down. I'd hate to pass a night alone in such a place as this Wilderness. It would be like sleeping in a graveyard."
"You won't have to spend the night alone here. I wish I was as sure of Heaven as that. You'll have something like two hundred thousand near neighbors."
The sun set and darkness swept over the Wilderness, but it was still lighted at many points by the flash of the firing and, after that ceased, by the campfires. Jackson's advance was at an end for the time. He was fully in touch with his enemy and understood him. Hooker had retreated as far as he would go. When the fog cleared away in the morning the men in the captive balloons had informed him that heavy Southern columns were marching toward Chancellorsville. He was sure now that the full strength of the Southern army was before him, and he continued to fortify the Chancellor House and the plateau of Hazel Grove. He also threw up log breastworks through the heavily wooded country, and his lines, bristling with artillery and defended now by six score thousand men, extended along a front of six miles.
Jackson's division lay in the Wilderness before Hooker, but out of cannon shot. All along that vast front hundreds and hundreds of pickets and riflemen on either side were keeping a vigilant watch. Jackson and his staff had dismounted and were eating their suppers around one of the campfires. The general was again impassive.
After the supper Harry walked a little distance and found the Invincibles, resting comfortably on the trodden undergrowth. The two colonels had preserved the neatness of their attire, and whatever they felt, neither showed any anxiety. But St. Clair and Langdon were free of speech.
"Well, Harry," said Happy Tom, "is Old Jack going to send us up against intrenchments and four to one?"
"He hasn't confided in me, but I don't think he means to do any such thing. He remembers, as even a thick-head like you, Happy, would remember, how the splendid army of Burnside beat itself to pieces against our works at Fredericksburg."
"Well, then, why are we here?"
"There's sense in your question, Tom, but I can't answer it."
"No, there isn't any sense in it," interrupted St. Clair. "Do you suppose for an instant that Lee and Jackson would bring us here if they didn't have a mighty good reason for it?"
"That's so," admitted Happy Tom; "but General Lee isn't here. Yes, he is! Listen to the cheering!"
They sprang to their feet and saw Lee coming through the woods on his white horse, Traveler, a roar of cheers greeting him as he advanced. Behind him came new brigades, and Harry believed that the whole Southern army was now united before Hooker.
Lee dismounted and Jackson went forward to meet his chief. The staffs stood at a respectful distance as the two men met and began to talk, glancing now and then toward the distant lights that showed where the army of Hooker stood.