"What are you waiting for, George, I pray?
To scour your cross belts with fresh pipe clay?
To burnish your buttons, to brighten your guns?
Or wait for May-day, and warm spring suns?
Are you blowing your fingers because they're cold,
Or catching your breath ere you take a hold?
Is the mud knee-deep in valley and gorge?
What are you waiting for, Tardy George?"
"That's pretty bitter," said Harry, "but it must have been written before the Seven Days. You notice what the author says about waiting for May-day."
"Likely enough you're right, but it applies just the same or they wouldn't be reprinting it in their newspapers. Some of them claim a victory over us at Antietam, and nearly all are angry at McClellan because he wouldn't follow us into Virginia. They think he ought to have crossed the Potomac after us and smashed us."
"He might have got smashed himself."
"Which people are likely to debate all through this generation and the next. But they're bitter against McClellan, although he's done better than any other Yankee general in the east. Just listen to this verse, will you?
"Suppose for a moment, George, my friend,
Just for a moment you condescend
To use the means that are in your hands
The eager muskets and guns and brands;
Take one bold step on the Southern sod,
And leave the issue to watchful God!
For now the nation raises its gorge,
Waiting and watching you, Tardy George."
Harry carefully folded up the paper and put it back in his pocket. The contrast between these verses and the song that he had just heard ten thousand men sing, as they whirled around Stonewall Jackson's headquarters, impressed him deeply.
"It's hard, boys," he said, "for a general to see things like this printed about him, even if he should deserve them. McClellan, so all the prisoners say, has the confidence of his men. They believe that he can win."
"And we know that we can and do win!" exclaimed Langdon. "We've got the soldiers and the generals, too. Hurrah for Bobby Lee, and Stonewall Jackson and Jim Longstreet, and old Jubal Early, and A. P. Hill and D. H. Hill and Jeb Stuart and—and–"
"And for Happy Tom Langdon, the greatest soldier and general of them all," interrupted Dalton.
"That's true," said Langdon, "only people don't know it yet. Now, by the great horn spoon, what is that? What a day this is!"
A great uproar had begun suddenly, and, as if by magic, hundreds of men had risen from the ground and were running about like mad creatures. But the boys knew that they were not mad. They understood in an instant what it was all about as they heard innumerable voices crying, "Rabbit! Rabbit!"
Rabbits were numerous in the underbrush and they made good stew. The soldiers often surrounded them and caught them with their bare hands, but they dared not shoot at them, as, owing to the number of pursuers, somebody would certainly have been hurt.
Harry and his comrades instantly joined in the chase, which led into the deep woods. The rabbit, frightened into unusual speed by the shouts, darted into the thick brush and escaped them all.
"Poor little rascal," said Harry, "I'm glad he got away after all. What good would one rabbit be to an army corps of twenty-five thousand men?"
As they were returning to their place on the creek bank an orderly came for Harry, and he was summoned to the tent of Jackson. It was a large tent spread in the shade of an old oak, and Harry found that Captain Sherburne had already preceded him there. All signs of splendor were hidden completely. Jackson once more wore with ease his dingy old gray clothes, but the skin of his brow was drawn into a tiny knot in the center, as if he were concentrating thought with his utmost power.
"Sit down, Mr. Kenton," he said kindly. "I've already been speaking to Captain Sherburne and I'll tell you now what I want. General McClellan's army is still beyond the Potomac. As nearly as our spies can estimate it has, present and fit for duty, one hundred and thirty-five thousand men and three hundred and fifty cannon. McClellan, as we well know, is always overcautious and overestimates our numbers, but public opinion in the North will force him to action. They claim there that Antietam was a victory for them, and he will surely invade Virginia again. I shall send Captain Sherburne and his troop to find out where and when, and you are to go with him as my aide and personal representative."
"Thanks, sir," said Harry.
"When can you start?"
"Within five minutes."
"Good. I was going to allow you ten, but it's better to take only five. Captain Sherburne, you have your instructions already. Now go, and bear in mind, both of you, that you are to bring back what you are sent to get, no matter what the cost. Prepare no excuses."
There was a stern and ominous ring in his last words, and Harry and Sherburne, saluting, retired with all speed. Harry ran to his own tent, snatched up his arms and blanket-roll, saddled and bridled his horse, and well within five minutes was riding by the side of Captain Sherburne. He shouted to St. Clair, who had run forward in amazement:
"Gone on a mission for Old Jack. Will be back—some time."
The cavalry troop of two hundred splendid men, led by Sherburne, one of the finest of the younger leaders, trotted fast through the oak forest. They were fully refreshed and they were glad of action. The great heats of that famous summer, unusually hot alike in both east and west, were gone, and now the cool, crisp breezes of autumn blew in their faces.
"Have you heard at what point on the Potomac the Union army is gathered?" Harry asked.
"At a village called Berlin, so our spies say. You know McClellan really has some high qualities. We found a heavy reconnoitering force of cavalry not far in our front two or three days ago, and we did not know what it meant, but General Jackson now has an idea that McClellan wanted to find out whether we were near enough to the Potomac to dispute his passage."
"We are not."
"No, we're not, and I don't suppose General Lee and General Jackson wish to keep him on the other side. But, at any rate, we're sent to find out whether he is crossing."
"And we'll see."
"We surely will."
AHORSE WITH SHERBURNE
Harry was glad that General Jackson had detailed him for this task. He missed his comrades of the staff, but Sherburne was a host in himself, and he was greatly attached to him. He rode a good horse and there was pleasure in galloping with these men over the rolling country, and breathing the crisp and vital air of autumn.
They soon left the forest, and rode along a narrow road between fields. Their spirits rose continually. It was a singular fact that the Army of Northern Virginia was not depressed by Antietam. It had been a bitter disappointment to the Southern people, who expected to see Lee take Baltimore and Philadelphia, but the army itself was full of pride over its achievement in beating off numbers so much superior.
It was for these reasons that Sherburne and those who rode with him felt pride and elation. They had seen the ranks of the army fill up again. Lee had retreated across the Potomac after Antietam with less than forty thousand men. Now he had more than seventy thousand, and Sherburne and Harry felt certain that instead of waiting to be attacked by McClellan he himself would go forth to attack.
Harry had seldom seen a day more beautiful. That long hot, dry summer had been followed by a fine autumn, the most glorious of all seasons in North America, when the air has snap and life enough in it to make the old young again.
He was familiar now with the rolling country into which they rode after leaving the forest. Off in one direction lay the fields on which they had fought the First and Second Manassas, and off in another, behind the loom of the blue mountains, he had ridden with Stonewall Jackson on that marvelous campaign which seemed to Harry without an equal.
But the land about them was deserted now. There were no harvests in the fields. No smoke rose from the deserted farm houses. This soil had been trodden over and over again by great armies, and it would be a long time before it called again for the plough. The stone fences stood, as solid as ever, but those of wood had been used for fuel by the soldiers.
They watered their horses at a clear creek, and then Sherburne and Harry, from the summit of a low hill, scanned the country with their glasses.
They saw no human being. There was the rolling country, brown now with autumn, and the clear, cool streams flowing through almost every valley, but so far as man was concerned the scene was one of desolation.
"I should think that McClellan would have mounted scouts some distance this side of the Potomac," said Sherburne. "Certainly, if he were making the crossing, as our reports say, he would send them ahead."
"We're sure to strike 'em before we reach the river," said Harry.
"I think with you that we'll see 'em, but it's our business to avoid 'em. We're sent forth to see and not to fight. But if General Stuart could ride away up into Pennsylvania, make a complete circuit around the Union army and come back without loss, then we ought to be successful with our own task, which is an easier one."