"I never knew you to fail, Captain. I consider your task as done already."
"Thanks, Harry. You're a noble optimist. If we fail, it will not be for lack of trying. Forward, my lads, and we'll reach the Potomac some time to-night."
They rode on through the same silence and desolation. They had no doubt that eyes watched them from groves and fence corners, keeping cautiously out of the way, because it was sometimes difficult now to tell Federals from Confederates. But it did not matter to Sherburne. He kept a straight course for the Potomac, at least half of his men knowing thoroughly every foot of the way.
"What time can we reach the river and the place at which they say McClellan is going to cross?" asked Harry.
"By midnight anyway," replied Sherburne. "Of course, we'll have to slow down as we draw near, or we may run square into an ambush. Do you see that grove about two miles ahead? We'll go into that first, rest our horses, and take some food."
It was a fine oak grove, covering about an acre, with no undergrowth and a fair amount of grass, still green under the shade, on which the horses could graze. The trunks of the trees also were close enough together to hide them from anyone else who was not very near. Here the men ate cold food from their haversacks and let their horses nibble the grass for a half hour.
They emerged refreshed and resumed their course toward the Potomac. In the very height of the afternoon blaze they saw a horseman on the crest of a hill, watching them intently through glasses. Sherburne instantly raised his own glasses to his eyes.
"A Yankee scout," he said. "He sees us and knows us for what we are, but he doesn't know what we're about."
"But he's trying to guess," said Harry, who was also using glasses. "I can't see his face well enough to tell, but I know that in his place I'd be guessing."
"As we don't want him hanging on to our heels and watching us, I think we'd better charge him."
"Have the whole troop turn aside and chase him?"
"No; Harry, you and I and eight men will do it. Marlowe, take the rest of the company straight along the road at an easy gait. But keep well behind the hedge that you see ahead."
Marlowe was his second in command, and taking the lead he continued with the troop.
Marlowe rode behind one of the hedges, where they were hidden from the lone horseman on the hill, and Sherburne and Harry and the eight men followed. While they were yet hidden, Sherburne and his chosen band suddenly detached themselves from the others at a break in the hedge and galloped toward the horseman who was still standing on the hill, gazing intently toward the point where he had last seen the troop riding.
Sherburne, Harry and the privates rode at a gallop across the field, straight for the Union sentinel. He did not see them until they had covered nearly half the distance, and then with aggravating slowness he turned and rode over the opposite side of the hill. Harry had been watching him intently, and when he had come much nearer the figure seemed familiar to him. At first he could not recall it to mind, but a moment or two later he turned excitedly to Sherburne.
"I know that man, although I've never seen him before in a uniform," he said. "I met him when President Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery and I saw him again at Washington. His name is Shepard, the most skillful and daring of all the Union spies."
"I've heard you speak of that fellow before," said Sherburne, "and since we've put him to flight, I think we'd better stop. Ten to one, if we follow him over the brow of the hill, he'll lead us into an ambush."
"I think you're right, Captain, and it's likely, too, that he'll come back soon with a heavy cavalry detachment. I've no doubt that thousands of Union horsemen are this side of the river."
Sherburne was impressed by Harry's words, and the little detachment, returning at a gallop, joined the main troop, which was now close to a considerable stretch of forest.
"Ah, there they are!" exclaimed Harry, looking back at the hill on which he had seen the lone horseman.
A powerful body of cavalry showed for a moment against the sun, which was burning low and red in the west. The background was so intense and vivid that the horsemen did not form a mass, but every figure stood detached, a black outline against the sky. Harry judged that they were at least a thousand in number.
"Too strong a force for us to meet," said Sherburne. "They must outnumber us five to one, and since they've had practice the Northern cavalry has improved a lot. It must be a part of the big force that made the scout toward our lines. Good thing the forest is just ahead."
"And a good thing, too, that night is not far off."
"Right, my boy, we need 'em both, the forest and the dark. The Union cavalry is going to pursue us, and I don't mean to turn back. General Jackson sent us to find about McClellan's crossing, and we've got to do it."
"I wouldn't dare go back to Old Jack without the information we're sent to get."
"Nor I. Hurry up the men, Marlowe. We've got to lose the Union cavalry in the forest somehow."
The men urged their horses forward at a gallop and quickly reached the trees. But when Harry looked back he saw the thousand in blue about a mile away, coming at a pace equal to their own. He felt much apprehension. The road through the forest led straight before them, but the trail of two hundred horses could not be hidden even by night. They could turn into the forest and elude their pursuers, but, as Sherburne said, that meant abandoning their errand, and no one in all the group thought of such a thing.
Sherburne increased the pace a little now, while he tried to think of some way out. Harry rode by his side in silence, and he, too, was seeking a solution. Through the trees, now nearly leafless, they saw the blue line still coming, and the perplexities of the brave young captain grew fast.
But the night was coming down, and suddenly the long, lean figure of a man on the long, lean figure of a horse shot from the trees on their right and drew up by the side of Sherburne and Harry.
"Lankford, sir, Jim Lankford is my name," he said to Sherburne, touching one finger to his forehead in a queer kind of salute.
Harry saw that the man had a thin, clean-shaven face with a strong nose and chin.
"I 'low you're runnin' away from the Yankees," said Lankford to Sherburne.
Sherburne flushed, but no anger showed in his voice as he replied:
"You're right, but we run for two reasons. They're five to our one, and we have business elsewhere that mustn't be interrupted by fighting."
"First reason is enough. A man who fights five to one is five times a fool. I'm a good Johnny Reb myself, though I keep off the fightin' lines. I live back there in a house among the trees, just off the road. You'd have seen it when you passed by, if you hadn't been in such a hurry. Just settin' down to take a smoke when Mandy, my wife, tells me she hears the feet of many horses thunderin' on the road. In a moment I hear 'em, too. Run to the front porch, and see Confederate cavalry coming at a gallop, followed by a big Yankee force. Mandy and me didn't like the sight, and we agree that I take a hand. Now I'm takin' it."
"How do you intend to help us?"
"I'm gettin' to that. I saddled my big horse quick as lightnin', and takin' a runnin' jump out of the woods, landed beside you. Now, listen, Captain; I reckon you're on some sort of scoutin' trip, and want to go on toward the river."
"You reckon right."
"About a mile further on we dip into a little valley. A creek, wide but shallow and with a bed all rocks, takes up most of the width of that valley. It goes nearly to the north, and at last reaches the Potomac. A half mile from the crossin' ahead it runs through steep, high banks that come right down to its edges, but the creek bottom is smooth enough for the horses. I 'low I make myself plain enough, don't I, Mr. Captain?"
"You do, Mr. Lankford, and you're an angel in homespun. Without you we could never do what we want to do. Lead the way to that blessed creek. We don't want any of the Yankee vanguard to see us when we turn and follow its stream."
"We can make it easy. They might guess that we're ridin' in the water to hide our tracks, but the bottom is so rocky they won't know whether we've gone up or down the stream. And if they guessed the right way, and followed it, they'd be likely to turn back at the cliffs, anyhow."
They urged their horses now to the uttermost, and Harry soon saw the waters of the creek shining through the darkness. Everything was falling out as Lankford had said. The pursuit was unseen and unheard behind them, but they knew it was there.
"Slow now, boys," said Sherburne, as they rode into the stream. "We don't want to make too much noise splashing the water. Are there many boulders in here, Mr. Lankford?"
"Not enough to hurt."
"Then you lead the way. The men can come four abreast."
The water was about a foot deep, and despite their care eight hundred hoofs made a considerable splashing, but the creek soon turned around a hill and led on through dense forest. Sherburne and Harry were satisfied that no Union horseman had either seen or heard them, and they followed Lankford with absolute confidence. Now and then the hoofs of a stumbling horse would grind on the stones, but there was no other noise save the steady marching of two hundred men through water.
The things that Lankford had asserted continued to come true. The creek presently flowed between banks fifty feet high, rocky and steep as a wall. But the stone bed of the creek was almost as smooth as a floor, and they stopped here a while to rest and let their horses drink.
The enclosing walls were not more than fifty or sixty feet across the top and it was very dark in the gorge. Harry saw overhead a slice of dusky sky, lit by only a few stars, but it was pitchy black where he sat on his horse, and listened to his contented gurglings as he drank. He could merely make out the outlines of his comrades, but he knew that Sherburne was on one side of him and Lankford on the other. He could not hear the slightest sound of pursuit, and he was convinced that the Union cavalry had lost their trail. So was Sherburne.
"We owe you a big debt, Mr. Lankford," said the captain.