"I've tried to serve my side," said Lankford, "though, as I told you, I'm not goin' on the firin' line. It's not worth while for all of us to get killed. Later on this country will need some people who are not dead."
"You're right about that, Mr. Lankford," said Sherburne, with a little laugh, "and you, for one, although you haven't gone on the firing lines, have earned the right to live. You've done us a great service, sir."
"I reckon I have," said Lankford with calm egotism, "but it was necessary for me to do it. I've got an inquirin' mind, I have, and also a calculatin' one. When I saw your little troop comin', an' then that big troop of the Yankees comin' on behind, I knowed that you needed help. I knowed that this creek run down a gorge, and that I could lead you into the gorge and escape pursuit. I figgered, too, that you were on your way to see about McClellan crossin' the Potomac, an' I figgered next that you meant to keep straight on, no matter what happened. So I'm goin' to lead you out of the gorge, and some miles further ahead you'll come to the Potomac, where I guess you can use your own eyes and see all you want to see."
"The horses are all right now and I think we'd better be moving, Mr. Lankford."
They started, but did not go faster than a walk while they were in the gorge. Harry's eyes had grown somewhat used to the darkness, and he could make out the rocky walls, crested with trees, the higher branches of which seemed almost to meet over the chasm.
It was a weird passage, but time and place did not oppress Harry. He felt instead a certain surge of the spirits. They had thrown off the pursuit—there could be no doubt of it—and the first step in their mission was accomplished. They were now in the midst of action, action thrilling and of the highest importance, and his soul rose to the issue.
He had no doubt that some great movement, possibly like that of the Second Manassas, hung upon their mission, and Lee and Jackson might be together at that very moment, planning the mighty enterprise which would be shaped according to their news.
They emerged from the gorge and rode up a low, sloping bank which gave back but little sound to the tread of the horses, and here Lankford said that he would leave them. Sherburne reached over his gauntleted hand and gave him a powerful grasp.
"We won't forget this service, Mr. Lankford," he said.
"I ain't goin' to let you forget it. Keep straight ahead an' you'll strike a cross-country road in 'bout a quarter of a mile. It leads you to the Potomac, an' I reckon from now on you'll have to take care of yourselves."
Lankford melted away in the darkness as he rode back up the gorge, and the troop went on at a good pace across a country, half field, half forest. They came to a road which was smooth and hard, and increased their speed. They soon reached a region which several of their horsemen knew, and, as the night lightened a little, they rode fast toward the Potomac.
Harry looked at his watch and saw that it was not much past midnight. They would have ample opportunity for observation before morning. A half hour later they discerned dim lights ahead and they knew that the Potomac could not be far away.
They drew to one side in a bit of forest, and Sherburne again detached himself, Harry and eight others from the troop, which he left as before under the command of Marlowe.
"Wait here in the wood for us," he said to his second in command. "We should be back by dawn. Of course, if any force of the enemy threatens you, you'll have to do what seems best, and we'll ride back to General Jackson alone."
The ten went on a bit farther, using extreme care lest they run into a Northern picket. Fortunately the fringe of wood, in which they found shelter, continued to a point near the river, and as they went forward quietly they saw many lights. They heard also a great tumult, a mixture of many noises, the rumbling of cannon and wagon wheels, the cracking of drivers' whips by the hundreds and hundreds, the sounds of drivers swearing many oaths, but swearing together and in an unbroken stream.
They rode to the crest of the hill, where they were well hidden among oaks and beeches, and there the whole scene burst upon them. The late moon had brightened, and many stars had come out as if for their especial benefit. They saw the broad stream of the Potomac shining like silver and spanned by a bridge of boats, on which a great force, horse, foot, artillery, and wagons, was crossing.
"That's McClellan's army," said Harry.
"And coming into Virginia," said Sherburne. "Well, we can't help their entering the state, but we can make it a very uncomfortable resting place for them."
"How many men do you suppose they have?"
"A hundred thousand here at the least, and others must be crossing elsewhere. But don't you worry, Harry. We've got seventy thousand men of our own, and Lee and Jackson, who, as you have been told before, are equal to a hundred thousand more. McClellan will march out again faster than he has marched in."
"Still, he's shown more capacity than the other Union generals in the East, and his soldiers are devoted to him."
"But he isn't swift, Harry. While he's thinking, Lee and Jackson have thought and are acting. Queer, isn't it, that a young general should be slow, and older ones so much swifter. Why, General Lee must be nearly old enough to be General McClellan's father."
"It's so, Captain, but those men are crossing fast. Listen how the cannon wheels rumble! And I know that a thousand whips are cracking at once. They'll all be on our soil to-morrow."
"So they will, but long before that time we'll be back at General Jackson's tent with the news of their coming."
"If nothing gets in the way. Do you remember that man whom we saw on the hill watching, the one who I said was Shepard, the ablest and most daring of all their spies?"
"I haven't forgotten him."
"This man Shepard, Captain, is one of the most dangerous of all our enemies. The Union could much more easily spare one of its generals than Shepard. He's omniscient. He's a lineal descendant of Argus, and has all the old man's hundred eyes, with a few extra ones added in convenient places. He's a witch doctor, medicine man, and other things beside. I believe he's followed us, that some way he's picked up our trail somewhere. He may have been hanging on the rear of the troop when we came through the gorge."
"Nonsense, Harry, you're turning the man into a supernatural being."
"That's just the way I feel about him."
"Then, if that's the case, we'd better be clearing out as fast as we can. We've seen enough, anyhow. We'll go straight back to the company and ride hard for the camp."
They reached the troop, which was waiting silently under the command of the faithful Marlowe. But before they could gallop back toward the south, the loud, clear call of a trumpet came from a point near by, and it was followed quickly by the beat of many hoofs.
"I see him! It's Shepard," exclaimed Harry excitedly.
He had beheld what was almost the ghost of a horseman galloping among the trees, followed in an instant by the more solid rush of the cavalry.
It was evident to both Sherburne and Harry that the Federal pickets and outriders had acquired much skill and alertness, and they urged the troop to its greatest speed. Even if they should be able to defeat their immediate pursuers, it was no place for them to engage in battle, as the enemy could soon come up in thousands.
As they galloped down the road they heard bullets kicking up the dust behind, and the sound made them go faster. But they were still out of range and the pursuit did not make any gain in the next few minutes. But Harry, looking back, saw that the Union cavalry was hanging on grimly, and he surmised also that other forces might appear soon on their flanks.
"We've got to use every effort," he said to Sherburne.
"That's apparent. You were right about your man Shepard, Harry. He has certainly inherited all the eyes of his ancestor, Argus, and about three times as many besides. He's omniscient, right enough."
"Are they gaining?"
"Not yet. But they will, as fresh pursuers come up on the flank. Some of us must fall or be taken, but then at least one of us must get back to Old Jack with the news. So we're bound to scatter. When we reach that patch of woods on the left running down to the road, you're to leave us, gallop into it and make your way back through the gorge. I'll throw off the other messengers as we go on."
"Must I be the first to go?"
"Yes, you're under my orders now, and I think you the most trustworthy. Now, Harry, off with you, and remember that luck is with him who tries the hardest."
They were within the dark shade of the trees and Harry turned at a gallop among them, guiding his horse between the trunks, pausing a moment further on to hear the pursuit thunder by, and then resuming his race for the gorge.
He continued to ride at a great pace, meeting no enemy, and at last reached the creek. He was a good observer and he was confident that he could ride back up it without trouble. He feared nothing but Shepard. A single horseman in the darkness could throw off any pursuit by cavalry, but the terrible spy might turn at once to the creek and the gorge. He had the consolation, though, of knowing that Shepard could not follow him and all the others at the same time.
Harry paused a moment at the water's edge and listened for the sounds of pursuit. None came. Then he plunged boldly in and rode against the stream, passing into the depths of the gorge. It was darker now, being near to that darkest hour before the dawn, and the slit of sky above was somber.
But he rode on at a good walk until he was about half way through the gorge. Then he heard sounds above, and drawing his horse in by the cliff he stopped and waited. Voices came down to him, and once or twice he caught the partial silhouette of a horse against the dark sky.
He felt quite sure that it was a body of Union cavalry riding practically at random—if they were led by Shepard they would have come up the gorge itself.
Presently something splashed heavily in the water near him. A stone had been rolled over the brink. He drew his horse and himself more closely against the wall. Another stone fell near and a laugh came from above. Evidently the lads in blue had pushed the stones over merely to hear the splash, because Harry ceased to hear the voices and he was quite sure that they had ridden away.
He waited a little while for precaution, and then resumed his own careful journey through the gorge. Just as the dawn was breaking he emerged from the stream and entered the forest. It was a cold dawn, that of late October, white with frost, and Harry shivered. There was still food in his knapsack, and he ate hungrily as he rode through the deserted country, and wondered what had become of Shepard and the others.
It was not yet full day. The grass was still white with frost. The early wind, blowing out of the north, brought an increased chill. The food Harry had eaten defended him somewhat against the cold, but his body had been weakened by so much riding and loss of sleep that he found it wise to unroll his blanket and wrap it around his shoulders and chest.
He was, perhaps, affected by the cold and anxiety, but the country seemed singularly lonesome and depressing. Sweeping the whole circle of the horizon with his glasses, he saw several farm houses, but no smoke was rising from their chimneys. Silent and cold, they added to his own feeling of desolation. He wondered what had become of his comrades. Perhaps Sherburne had been taken, or killed. He was not one to surrender, even to overwhelming numbers, without a fight.