( Originally Published Early 1900's )
EIGHT thousand strong the Second Corps, Jubal Early at its head, left the region of the Chickahominy on the thirteenth of June, marched eighty-odd miles in four days, boarded at Charlottesville the Orange and Alexandria and so came south to Lynchburg. Here, Breckinridge being wounded, D. H. Hill, brought to this town on some duty, was found in command. He had earth-works and a motley force Breckinridge's handful, cavalry ready to fight dismounted, home guard, hospital convalescents, V. M. I. cadets. Noon of seventeenth in came Early with Ramseur's division, Gordon's following.
Hunter, having burned and harried Rockbridge and a corner of Botetourt, crossed the Blue Ridge and swept through Bedford toward Lynchburg, Imboden and McCausland skirmishing with him at New London, and again and heavily at the Quaker Meeting-House. From this point, cavalry fell back to Lynchburg, where with Breckinridge's men they held the Forrest road. On came the eighteen thousand and found breastworks across their path, and Ramseur and Gordon with artillery. Hunter halted, deployed, brought up artillery and thundered for an hour, then, night appearing in the east, went into camp over against the grey front. The next day and the next there was thunder of cannon and cavalry skirmishing, but no battle. Suddenly, on the night of the nineteenth, Hunter broke camp, and, facing about, marched away to the west-ward. His army doubled in numbers the grey force in his front. Why he went so hastily after nothing but a glancing blow or two the grey could not tell though Gordon states, "If I were asked for an opinion as to this utterly causeless fright and flight I should be tempted to say that conscience was harrowing General Hunter, and causing him to see an avenger wrapped in every grey jacket before him." Be that as it may, Hunter was gone at midnight, and the grey column took up the pursuit at dawn, moving by the Liberty turnpike. Behind the Second Corps lay the giant labour, giant weariness of Wilderness to Cold Harbour, and on this side of that the forced marching from Tidewater, and now, rolling on in a dream of weariness, the pursuit after Hunter, sixty miles in two days and a half.
It was a weary dream and yet it had its interest, for this was new country to the Second Corps, thrown this way for the first time in all the war. It knew much of Virginia so exceedingly well and here was a new road and the interests of a new road! Here and there in column it was not new country, it was to soldiers here and there land of old time, their part of Virginia. Some had had fur-loughs and had come back to it, once or twice or thrice; others had missed furloughs, had not seen these mountains and waters for so long a time that now they looked at them wistfully as we look with closed eyes at the landscapes of childhood. The thickness of a life seemed to lie between them and the countryside; one could not reckon all that had happened since they had marched from these blue mountains and these sunny fields marched to end in one battle the trouble between North and South!
Richard Cleave rode at the head of the Golden Brigade. There were now no full grey brigades, no complete grey regiments. All were worn to a wraith of their former seeming. They took not a half, often not a third, of the space of road they once had covered. The volume of sound of their marching was diminished, the flags were closer together. Had the dead come to life, taken their old places, there would have passed on the Liberty pike a very great army. But scattered like thistledown from the stem lay the dead in a thousand fields.
The living Sixty-fifth moved with jingle and clank through the heat and dust and glare. It had men and officers who were at home in this landscape seen through clefts in the dust cloud. What was left of the old Company A were all from the rolling hills, the vales between, the high blue mountains now rising before the column. Thunder Run men pointed out the Peaks of Otter; there ran a low talk of the James, of North Mountain and Purgatory, of Mill Creek and Back Creek and Craig Creek, of village and farm and cabin, smithy and mill. Company A did not feel tired, it was glad when the halts were ended, glad to hear the Column forward Matthew Coffin had been home twice since First Manassas; other men of the region had been home, Thunder Run had seen a furlough or two, but many of the living of Company A had not returned in four years' time. Allan Gold had not been back nor Dave and Billy Maydew.
The column was moving rapidly. Hunter had a few hours' start, but this was the " foot cavalry" that was pursuing him. The road was rough, the dust blinding, the heat exhausting, but on pressed the "foot cavalry." "Hot! Hot ! Hot!" said the rapid feet, so many of them half-shoeless. "Heat and dust! Heat and dust! There used to be springs in this country, springs to drink and creeks to wade in. . . . Then we were boys long ago - long ago "
Mouth furred with dust, throat baked with dust and cracked with thirst, much ground to cover in short time, the column for the most part kept its lips closed. It went steadily, rhythmically, bent on getting its business done, no more forever aught but veterans, seasoned, grey, determined. But in the short halts granted it between long times it spoke. It lay on the ground beside welcome waters and babbled of heaven and earth. That portion of the Sixty-fifth whose shores these were spoke as soldiers immemorially speak when after years the war road leads past home. The rests were short. Fall in ! Fall in ! and on after Hunter swung the Second Corps.
In the hot June dusk, in the small town of Liberty, twenty-five miles from Lynchburg, they found his rear guard. Ramseur charged and drove it through the place and out and on into the night. There sprang a sudden shriek of shells, rear guard joining main body, and the batteries opening on the grey, heard coming up in the night. The grey line halted; grey and blue, alike exhausted with much and sore travel, fell upon the warm earth and slept as they had been dead, through the short summer night. Grey was in column as the candles of heaven were going out on before them they heard the blue striking the flints on the Liberty and Salem turnpike.
The sun came up hot and glorious. Full before the column rose the Blue Ridge. The men, moving in a huge dust cloud, talked only between times. "Hunter's a swift Hunter or he wants to get away mighty bad! `Burner' Hunter!" "I could get right hot of heart but what's the use ? " "I don't bother about the use. You've got to have a heart like a hot coal sometimes, with everything blowing upon it!" "That's so! Life's right tragic." Press forward, men ! "Peaks of Otter! Boys from hereabouts say there's an awful fine view from the top." "Awful fine view ? Should think there was! When you're up there if you go alone you feel like you're halfway upstairs to God! Don't do to go with anybody they make a fuss and enjoy it." "We're going straight into the mountains." "Yes, straight into the mountains. Thunder Run Mountain's over there."
The road was now a climbing road. The column moved upon it like a gleaming dragon the head in thick woods lifting toward the heights, the rear far back in the rolling green land just north of Liberty. The Golden Brigade was near the head. The Sixty-fifth felt the world climb beneath its feet. Allan and Billy were thinking of Thunder Run; Matthew Coffin was thinking of the pale blue letter-paper girl. Allan's vision was now the toll-gate and now the school-house, and now, and at last persistently, the road up Thunder Run Mountain and Christianna Maydew walking on it. Blended with this vision of the road was a vision of the hospital in Richmond after Gaines's Mill. He lay again on a blanket on the floor in a corner of the ward, thirsty and in pain, with closed eyes, and Christianna came and knelt and gave him water.
The road climbed steeply. Above ran on to the sky long, wooded, purple slopes. At one point showed a break, a "gap." "That's where we're going! That's Buford's Gap!" On and on and up and up Halt ! rang out from the head of the column, and Halt ! Halt ! Halt ! ran from segment to segment of the mounting length.
Hunter, a week before, had not appeared on Thunder Run Mountain. No torch came near its scattered "valuable property." The few men left upon the mountain were not pressed or shot or marched away to Yankee prisons. Thunder Run Mountain saw burning buildings in the valleys below and heard tales of devastation, even heard wind of a rumour that Hunter's line of march lay across it, in which case it might expect to be burned with fire and sowed with salt. It was this rumour that sent Steve Dagg on a visit to a long-forgotten kinswoman in Bedford. And then the line of march had proved to be by the kinswoman's house!
Steve broke from a band of Federals speaking German and somewhat blindly plunged into the woods toward the Peaks. "Gawd! I reckon they ain't comin' to the top of Apple Orchard!"
With occasional descents to a hermit's cabin for food he lay out on Apple Orchard until he had seen the last horseman of the Federal column disappear, Lynchburg direction. It was warm and pleasant on Apple Orchard and the hermit was congenial. Steve stayed on to recuperate. And then, with suddenness, here again in the distance appeared the head of the Federal column coming back! Steve felt the nightmare redescending.
The hermit, who was really lame, went to the nearest hamlet and returned with news. "We got army at Lynchburg big army. Hunter's beaten stiff and running this way! He'll cross at Buford's again, and I reckon then he '11 keep to the woods and go west. You'd better wait right here "
"Thank you, I thought I would," said Steve. "A man can have a fightin' temper, 'n' yet back off from a locomotive "
Hunter's thousands disappeared, the last rear guard horseman of them. Steve was content. And then of a suddenness, there burst a quarrel with the hermit. He had a gun and a dog and Steve found it advisable to leave. It came into his head, "The Yanks ain't goin' to make any stop this side of Salem, if there! 'n' if the Second Corps comes along, it's goin' to hurry through. If it's after Hunter it won't have no time to come gallivantin' on Thunder Run! Old Jack would ha' rushed it through like greased lightning, 'n' I reckon Old Dick or Old Jube, or whatever darn fool 's riskin' his skin leadin', 'll rush it through too! I'll go back to Thunder Run."
He began to put his intention into execution, moving across miles of woodland with a certain caution, since there might just possibly be blue stragglers. He found none, however, and came in good spirits to a high point from which he could discern distances of the Liberty pike running southeast to Lynchburg. Upon it, quite far away, was a moving pillar of dust, moving toward him. Steve knew what it was well enough. "Second Corps," he grinned.
"Yaaih ! Yaaaihh ! Reckon I'll be travelling along!"
So sure was he that the road before him was clear, and he was in such good spirits from the consideration that the "foot cavalry" would hurry incontinently after Hunter, that he quite capered along the road that now climbed toward Buford's Gap. It was afternoon, warm, with a golden light. And then, suddenly, being almost in the gap, he observed something which gave him pause. It was nothing more or less than trees cut away from a rocky height overhanging the gorge through which passed the road, and some metal bores projecting from the ledges. Steve's breath came whistlingly. Gawd! Yankee battery!" In a moment he saw another, perched on a further ledge and masked by pine boughs. Steve panted. "Avalanche! Another minute 'n' they'd ha' seen me."
He was already deep in the woods beside the road, his face now turned quite away from his projected path. Indeed, when he came to himself he found that he was moving southward, and due, if he kept on, to meet that dust cloud and the Second Corps. His heart beating violently, he drew up beneath a hemlock, the vast brown trunk and a mile or so of blue air between him and the cannon-fringed crags. Here he slid down upon the scented earth and fell to thinking, his hand automatically beating to death with a small stick a broken-winged moth creeping over the needles. Steve thought at first with a countenance of blankness, and then with a strange, watery smile. His eyes lengthened and narrowed, his lips widened. "I got an idea," he whispered. "Make 'em like me."
Sitting there he rolled up his trouser leg, removed a rotten shoe and ragged sock, then took a knife from his pocket and after a shiver of apprehension scraped and abraded an old, small wound and sore until it bled afresh. Out of his pocket he took a roll of dirty band-age kept against just such an emergency as this. Having first care-fully stained it with blood, he rolled it around foot and shin, pinned it with a rusty pin, donned again sock and shoe, stood up and gave three minutes to the practice of an alternate limp and shuffle. This over he broke and trimmed a young dogwood for a staff, and with it in hand he went southward a considerable distance through the woods, then crossed to the road. Behind him, a good long way off, showed the gap where was planted the "avalanche." Before him came rolling the road from Liberty. The dust cloud on it was rapidly growing larger. Steve, leaning heavily on his stick, limped to meet it.
Cavalry ahead took his news, halted and sent back to Jubal Early. That commander spurred forward. "Avalanche?' What d' ye mean? Guns? Where? Up there? - - ! All right. Two can play at that game Battery forward!"
Steve conceived himself to be neglected. Carefully propped by his stick and a roadside boulder he hearkened to orders and marked manoevres until he was aweary. He had saved the Second Corps and it was n't noticing him! He grew palely dogged. "They got ter notice me. Gawd! I've seen a man thanked in General Orders 'n' promoted right up for less 'n I've done!" In addition to a sense of his dues a fascination kept him where he was. The unwonted feeling of superiority protected him from fear; no army would too closely question its saviour! The rag about his foot, as he assured himself every now and then with a glance, was good and bloody. So well fixed and with such a vantage-point, he gave way to a desire just to see how the boys looked after so long a time. Vanguard and artillery had gone forward; down the road he saw coming at a double an infantry brigade; further back the main body had been halted. He gathered from a comment of officers passing that there was a conviction that it was only Hunter's rear guard before them in the pass. Cavalry scouts spurring back, clattering down dangerous paths from adjoining crests, justified the conviction. The Federal main body was pressing on upon the Salem road while the rear guard gained time. And here the blue rear guard, observing from its crags that the ambuscade had been discovered, opened fire. The grey guns now in battery on a knoll of hemlocks answered. The Blue Ridge echoed the thunders.
It was near sunset and the brigade coming up was bathed in a slant and rich light. With a gasp Steve recognized the horse and rider at its head. He raised and bent his arm and hid his face, only looking forth with one frightened eye. Cleave and Dundee went by without recognizing him, without, as far as he could tell, glancing his way. Steve chose again to feel injury, "Gawd, Colonel! if I did ' try to get even with you once, ain't you a general now, 'n' ain't I jest saved your life 'n' all your men? 'n' you go by without lookin' at me any more'n if I was dirt! If you'd been a Christian 'n' stopped, I could ha' told you you were goin' home to find your house burned down 'n' your sister dyin'! I jest saved your life 'n' you don't know it! I jest saved this army 'n' don't any one know it. . . . O Gawd! here's the Sixty-fifth!"
Steve could not stand it. "Howdy, boys!" he said. "Howdy, howdy!" The water came into his eyes. He saw through a mist the colours and the slanted bayonets and the ragged hats or no hats and the thin, tanned faces. A drop gathered and rolled down his cheek. There was a momentary halt of the Sixty-fifth, the last rank abreast of the boulder by the road. Forward! and the regiment moved on, and Steve marched with it. "Yaas, you did n't know it, but I jest saved you boys 'n' the army! I was comin' along the road I got a sore foot 'n' I looked up 'n' seed the guns"
The sun went down and the night came, with the guns yet baying at one another, and the well-posted blue yet in possession of the rocks above the gorge. But in the middle of the night the blue with-drew, hurrying away upon the Salem road. McCausland, pursuing, captured prisoners and two pieces of artillery. But the great length of Hunter's column, wheeling from Salem toward Lewisburg, plunged into the mountains of western Virginia. From the grey administration's point of view it was better there than elsewhere. Early, under orders now for the main Valley, rested in Botetourt for one day, then took the pike for Staunton.
One day! Matthew Coffin spent it with the blue letter-paper young lady. Allan Gold and Billy and Dave Maydew covered with long strides the road to Thunder Run. Making all speed up and down, they might have the middle of the day for home-at-last. Richard Cleave rode to Fincastle and found in a house there his mother and sister. Miriam was sinking fast. She knew him, but immediately wandered off to talk of books, of Hector and Achilles and people in the " Morte d'Arthure." He had but two hours. At the end he knelt and kissed his sister's brow, then came out into the porch with his mother and held her in a parting embrace. She clung to him with passion. "Richard Richard! All is turned to iron and clay and blood and tears! Love itself is turning to pure pain"
Riding back to his troops he went by Three Oaks. There was only a great blackened chimney stack, a ragged third of a wall, a charred mass behind. He checked Dundee and stood long in the ragged gap where the gate had been and looked, then went on by the darkening road to the Golden Brigade.
Up on Thunder Run, throughout the morning, there was great restlessness at the toll-gate. Tom knew they could n't come this way yes, he knew it. Their road lay along other mountains he wished that he had the toll-gate at Buford's. Yes, he knew they would n't be likely to stop he knew that, too. He did n't expect to see any one. He could have borrowed the sawmill wagon and gone down the mountain and over to the Salem road and seen them pass just as well. No, he was n't too weak. He was n't weak at all only he wanted to see the army and Allan, He had n't ever seen the army and now he did n't reckon he would ever see it. Yes, he could imagine it imagine it just as well as any man but he did n't want to imagine it, he wanted to see it! And now he wouldn't ever see it never see it and never see Allan.
"Sho! you will," said Sairy. "You'll certainly see Allan."
But Tom did not believe it, and he wanted intensely to see the army. "I see it when I dream, and I see it often and often when I'm sitting here. I see it marching, marching, and I see it going into battle, and I see it bivouacking. But it won't look at me, and though sometimes I take the boys' hands there ain't any touch to them, and I can see the drums beating, but they don't give any sound "
Sairy looked away, out and over the great view below the toll-gate. "I know, Tom. Sometimes in the night-time I sit up an' say, `That was a bugle blowing.' An' I listen, but I can't hear it then. But the Lord tells us to be content, an' you'd better let him see you're tryin' to mind him! What good'll it do Allan or the army if I have to set up with you to-night an' your heart gives out? You'd better save yourself so's to see him when he does come home. My land! the lot of things he'll have to tell, settin' on the porch an' the war over, an' school takin' in again "
"Sairy," said Tom wistfully, "sometimes I get an awful fear that we ain't going to beat -"
"Sho!" said Sairy. "If we don't beat one way we will another! I ain't a-worryin' about that. Nothing's ever teetotally beaten, not even eggs when you make cake. It 's an awful safe universe."
"It ain't your day," said Tom, "for a clean apron, but you've got one on."
"I ain't never denied that there was a Sunday feel in the air! We may n't see the army and we may n't see Allan, but they're only a few miles from us."
"What's that I smell ? It's gingerbread baking!"
"I had a pint of molasses saved away an' a little sugar. I just thought I might as well make gingerbread. If Allan came he'd like it, an' if he didn't we could eat it talkin' of him an' sayin' we were keepin' his birthday."
She went into the kitchen. Tom rested his forehead on the knob of his cane. His lips moved. The wind rustled the leaves of the forest, the sun shone. Thunder Run sang, the bees hummed above the old blush roses, the yellow cat came up the path and rubbed against Tom's ankle. The smell of the gingerbread floated out hot and strong, a redbird in a gum tree broke into a clear, high carolling.
"O Lord, I'm an old man," whispered Tom. "I ain't got much fun or pleasure before me "
Sairy, coming back to the doorstep, stood a moment, then struck her hands together. "Allan 's coming up the road, Tom ! "
An hour of happiness had gone by. Then said Allan: "I've two hours yet and the last part of it I'm going to spend telling about the Wilderness and Spottsylvania and Cold Harbour. But now I want to go up the mountain and say `how d' ye do' to the Maydews."
"Yes, I reckon you'd better," said Tom. "Only don't stay too long. They've got Billy and Dave."
"Bring Christianna down the mountain with you," said Sairy. "Billy and Dave can tell her good-bye here just as well as there."
Up on the mountain Mrs. Maydew made a like suggestion. "Allan, I'd like to talk to you, but I've got to talk to Billy an' Dave. Violetta and Rosalinda they're gettin' somethin' for those boys to eat, they look so thin an' starved, an' grandpap an' the dawgs air jest sittin' gazin' for pure gladness! Christianna, you entertain Allan."
"I've got time," said Allan, "to go look at the school-house. That 's what I'd like to do."
The school-house was partly fallen down and the marigolds and larkspur that Allan had planted were all one with the tall grass, and a storm had broken off a great bough of the walnut tree. Allan and Christianna sat on the doorstep, and listened to a singing that was not of Thunder Run.
Allan took her hand. " Christianna, I was the stupidest teacher"
That night the Second Corps lay by the James, under the great shadow of the Blue Ridge, but at dawn it took the road for Staunton and thence for the lower Valley. It went to threaten Washington and to clutch with Sheridan, who was presently sent to the Valley with orders to lay it waste - orders which he obeyed to the letter.