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HOME > Classical Novels > The Blue Balloon > CHAPTER XIII.HOW THE DESPATCH WAS BROUGHT TO STONEWALL JACKSON.
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CHAPTER XIII.HOW THE DESPATCH WAS BROUGHT TO STONEWALL JACKSON.
 hile this frightful1 battle raged, Lucius stood some little distance off, in an agony of apprehension2 for the safety of his friend. At the first clank of the meeting steel he had risen to his feet, and strained his eager eyes to see what was about to happen; but, even though he drew a little nearer, he could distinguish nothing clearly. Only in the dusk a pair of tall forms dashed from right to left, or bounded from side to side, meeting, recoiling3, and meeting again. But if he could not see, he could hear; and at each jarring clank of the clashing bayonets his heart leaped, and his hair rose on his head, for he could not believe that Ephraim would win the fight. Oh for a gun! he thought, as he ran wildly backwards4 and forwards, groping along the ground, in the hope that he might come upon some straggler’s discarded piece. All at once he heard shouts and the noise of rushing footsteps. From the river bank, from the woods, from the pickets6 behind him—from every direction—men were hastening to the scene of the conflict. Then that furious cry from 200the Grizzly7, and the dull crash as the sergeant8 fell under his powerful stroke. Finally silence for a little space around the combatants.  
Lucius did not know which had fallen: he could just see that one was down—that was all—and his fears told him that it must be Grizzly. A dull, apathetic9 feeling stole over him. He did not try to move. He knew that in a few minutes more he must be a prisoner, and he did not care. A mournful voice seemed to chant in his ears, slow and solemn as a dirge10, ‘The Grizzly is dead! the Grizzly is dead!’ And all concern for himself vanished in the presence of this overwhelming sorrow.
 
Then, as he stood, the sound of the well-known voice thrilled him like an electric shock, jarring his whole frame with the one pregnant monosyllable, ‘Run!’ And, without stopping to question or to reason, he turned his face and fled. Fled at first madly, unthinkingly, right in the teeth of the advancing enemy. He had no knowledge of Ephraim’s whereabouts—whether he was ahead of him or behind him. He was alive—that was just enough then—and on went Lucius like the wind.
 
When two people are running at top speed in the same line, but from opposite extremes, it stands to reason that, sooner or later, they will meet. And this is exactly what happened now. They met, Lucius and the leading man of the racing11 sentinels—met with a crash, like two charging footballers—with the result that both went down in a heap upon the ground.
 
Lucius was the first to recover himself, and the shock seemed to clear his brain, so that he realised sharply what he was doing in thus throwing himself into the arms of his foes12. He was a slow thinker as a rule—or, rather, he seldom troubled himself to think at all; but now his plans were formed upon the instant, such a stimulus13 is necessity.
 
Tearing himself free from the man upon the ground, he leaped to his feet, and running a few paces, still towards the advancing crowd, wheeled round suddenly, and with a loud shout of ‘This way! Over here!’ rushed back by the way he had come, only at a much slower pace.
 
Fortunate it was for him that it was so dark. Guided by his voice, the soldiers hurried after him, surrounded him, noted14 him running in their midst in the same direction as themselves, and—passed him by.
 
Still Lucius held on, slowing down at every stride, till the last man of the supports, puffing15 and blowing, shot ahead of him, and then he turned in his tracks once more, and sped like a deer towards the Confederate lines.
 
He took a diagonal path, making by instinct for the corner of the wood, which more than once that day had been their means of salvation16, and reaching it after a tearing run of nearly a mile, plunged17 just inside its border and flung himself face downwards18 to recover his wind.
 
All at once, as he lay, a sharp pang19 shot through him. The Grizzly! Where was he? Was he, too, running for his life in the open? Had he reached the wood? Or, bitter thought, had he been captured after all? The bare possibility stung Lucius into action, and he leaped again to his feet, glaring wildly round him in the dark.
 
What would they do with him if he were taken? 202Would they shoot him then and there? Or would they take him back to the camp, and after a mere20 formality of a trial, hang him like a dog? Lucius strained his ears until they pained him, listening for the fatal shot. But he heard nothing. ‘Oh, Grizzly,’ he thought bitterly, ‘if you are taken, if you are shot, and I have run away and left you to your fate!’
 
He was hardly fair to himself in his sharp self-upbraiding. To run had been the Grizzly’s own command, and he had obeyed implicitly21. He began to take a little comfort. Perhaps they had only missed one another in the dark. Perhaps the Grizzly was even now in safety, waiting opportunity to make a dash for the Confederate lines. He would go on. Then again the cruel thought, ‘What if he be a captive while I am free?’ ‘Go on and save yourself, at all events,’ whispered self-preservation. ‘It is what he himself would have you do.’
 
‘And just because it is what he would have me do,’ answered the spirit of manliness22 in the boy’s breast, ‘I will not do it. I will go back and find him, if I have to march right into the Federal camp.’
 
He was almost beside himself with pain and grief, but the one idea took possession of him, and in his brain the words repeated themselves over and over again: ‘Go back and find him! Go back and find him!’
 
‘Oh, if I had but a gun!’ he sighed, ‘I would make somebody pay for this.’
 
His hands struck against his cartridge23 belt. ‘Pah!’ he said in disgust, opening the pouch24. ‘What is the use of you without a gun?’ Then a gasp25 of astonishment26 escaped him. His fingers, idly groping in the 203pouch, had encountered a piece of folded paper—two pieces.
 
For a moment he could not understand it, and then the meaning flashed across him, and everything became clear. In the dark of the cave he had picked up and assumed Ephraim’s belt instead of his own. The papers were General Shields’s despatch27 to General Frémont, and the written order to Colonel Spriggs regarding the escaped prisoners.
 
Luce’s first feeling was one of joy that, even if the Grizzly were taken, at all events nothing compromising would be found upon him. His second, a wild impulse to fling away the despatch, and rid himself of its dangerous companionship. But something restrained him in the very act, and the thought crossed him: ‘The fate of an army may depend upon that paper, and that army your own. You must carry it to General Jackson.’
 
Poor Lucius! He was on the horns of a dreadful dilemma28. If he were caught with that paper upon him, it would be short shrift, he knew, and few questions asked. Yet if he did not deliver it, the consequences to the Confederates might be fearfully disastrous30. And yet again, if he did attempt to carry it through, he must turn his back upon his friend, presuming him to be a prisoner, and after the thoughts of self-preservation in which he had indulged, how could he do that without laying himself open to the charge of grasping an excuse to ensure his own safety by an attempt to reach the Confederate lines?
 
He wrung31 his hands together in the extremity32 of his despair. Which was the right thing to do? Who would help him in this desperate strait?
 
He leaned against a tree, his head throbbing33 and his whole mind bewildered in the presence of the most serious problem he had ever had to face. Then once again came to him one of those mysterious, silent promptings, so frequent in the last anguished34 quarter of an hour. And this time it was as if Ephraim spoke35: ‘Do yer duty, Luce, and never mind me.’
 
‘I will,’ he cried aloud, dashing the tears from his eyes. ‘I will. But I’ll come back and find you afterwards, Grizzly, if I die for it!’
 
He braced36 himself up to consider the best means to carry out his dual37 resolve. He knew very well that, no matter how many men might have been detached to the aid of the sentry38 at the ditch, the Federal outposts would still remain in their place, with beyond them the last line of sentinels on the side of Jackson’s army. To reach his goal he must first pass this obstacle, and he realised that in the ferment39 raised by the present crisis, the time for further stratagem40 had passed, and that his only hope lay in making a rush for it.
 
A sense of uneasiness was everywhere, and the outposts were especially alert. Not only had the rumour41 spread of the presence in camp and subsequent escape therefrom of a supposed rebel spy, but there was a pretty well defined feeling that the morrow would not pass without an attack on the part of Jackson, though exactly how or where the blow would be delivered, no man could say. Therefore the outposts kept even stricter watch than usual, ready at the first sign of the advance of the enemy to give the alarm and fall back upon the camp, where, on that night, the Federal soldiers lay on their arms.
 
The uneasy feeling was justified42 by what was happening in the Confederate camp. The night had descended43 upon another Federal repulse44. The veteran Ewell had hurled45 back Frémont at Cross Keys, and driven him from the field after a long and desperate conflict. Then, when the darkness put a stop to the operations, Jackson recalled the troops of Ewell, and leaving a strong rearguard in front of Frémont, returned to Port Republic. Here he hastily constructed a foot-bridge, by means of wagons46 placed end to end, over the south fork of the Shenandoah, and gave orders that at dawn his infantry47 were to cross and try conclusions with Shields at Lewiston. He then retired48 to snatch a few hours of well-earned repose49. Shields, meanwhile, had managed to get a second despatch conveyed to Frémont, laying before him a plan of operations which differed little from those set forth50 in the lost despatch; for as Ephraim had shrewdly surmised51, there was but scant52 time to alter the disposition53 of an entire army; and, moreover, Shields, sanguine54 to the last, could not bring himself to believe that, from a camp so strongly guarded, the spy had really been able to make good his escape. He was convinced that if accident did not deliver the bold rebel into his hands during the night, his capture would certainly be accomplished55 in the morning. That there were two people concerned in this escapade he had never fully29 realised, and that the despatch had passed from one hand to another, he never even dreamed.
 
Fully alive to the dangers of the situation, Lucius moved cautiously along, feeling the edge of the wood lest he should lose himself in its gloomy depths, and every moment drawing nearer to the Federal outposts. A white glow on the hill-tops warned him that the moon was rising, and he prayed earnestly that the clouds which were driving across the sky would form up and shut behind them the silver light which would make the difficulties of his perilous56 advance so much greater.
 
Suddenly he pulled up short. Not far away he heard a sound, a suppressed cough. There it was again, its owner evidently doing his best to stifle57 it. Lucius surmised clearly enough from whom the sound proceeded. It was one of the communicating sentries58 between the outposts and their reserves. He felt rather than heard that the man was walking in his direction, and with the painful thought troubling him, ‘What if I were to cough or sneeze?’ drew close behind a tree to wait till he had passed by. Standing59 there, he heard another sound—the measured tramp of feet, as if a body of men were stealthily approaching him. The sentry heard it too, for he halted a few paces from Lucius and prepared to act.
 
‘Halt!’ he challenged in a guarded voice, at the same time bringing his rifle to the charge. ‘Who comes there?’
 
‘Patrol!’ was the reply, also given in an undertone.
 
‘Stand, patrol! Advance one and give the countersign60!’
 
Some one stepped forward to the point of the sentry’s bayonet, and answered in a tone so low as to be almost a whisper: ‘Winchester!’
 
‘So,’ thought Lucius, who caught the word, ‘the countersign has been changed. That is how Grizzly 207came to be stopped at the ditch. Well, it won’t do me any good, for I dare not try it on now.’
 
‘Pass, patrol! All’s well!’ said the sentry, still keeping his rifle at the charge.
 
The patrol moved on, the officer in charge turning back to inquire: ‘Any sign of the spy?’
 
‘No, sir,’ replied the sentry, and Luce’s heart thrilled with joy at the word.
 
Presently the sentry resumed his beat, and Lucius slipped past and continued his heedful advance. The most difficult part of his work lay before him, for the outposts were in strength, and their advanced sentries had also to be negotiated. Still he thought that, once past the outposts, he would be able to show the sentinels a clean pair of heels. But there was one thing on which he had not reckoned, and presently he came upon a sight which took his breath away. A line of light lay right across his path—the bivouac fires of the pickets.
 
They extended as far as he could see on either hand, and the boy’s heart sank within him as he wondered how he should pass across that line of radiant light without being discovered. However, on closer investigation61, he saw to his intense relief that, though the fires were not very far apart, yet between each was a dark space, and through one of these he trusted to be able to slip. Moreover, he noted that, while most of the men were lying down, some few were standing up or walking about, and so was led to hope that his upright figure, if observed at all, would not attract attention.
 
There was no help for it—it had to be done; so drawing a long breath he set his teeth hard, and making 208carefully for the dark path between two of the fires, advanced with firm and deliberate step.
 
Some one spoke to him as he came on. He did not hear the question, but he was conscious of returning an answer of some sort, though a moment afterwards he could not have told what he had said.
 
He reached the coveted62 path between the two fires, and again a soldier who was reclining by one of them hailed him.
 
‘That yew63, Dick?’ asked the man. ‘Why can’t yew keep still? I believe yew’re a funk.’
 
Lucius spared a thought to bless the restless Dick, and strode on.
 
‘Dick,’ said the man again, ‘did yew hear that?—Why, Dick! Look at him! By’——
 
For Lucius had passed beyond the line, and casting all idea of further concealment64 to the winds, leaped forward like a startled hare.
 
In a moment all was bustle65 and confusion. The pickets sprang to arms, orders were shouted in rapid succession, and twenty men darted66 upon the track of the fugitive67, while the advance sentries, hearing the commotion68, stopped on their beat, eagerly waiting the explanation of the unusual disturbance69, which, so far as they were concerned, seemed to come from the wrong quarter.
 
The very energy of the pursuit saved Lucius; for sentries, pursuers, and pursued were all mixed up in one inextricable tangle70 in the darkness, and the noise the soldiers made in following him of itself prevented them from getting any clear idea of his whereabouts.
 
On he dashed. Shots were fired here and there at 209random; but if any one was hit it was not Lucius, and in less than five minutes he plumped into the middle of a Confederate picket5, under arms, and ready for an affair of outposts, if that were what the noise presaged71.
 
‘I surrender! I surrender!’ panted Lucius. ‘Take me prisoner! Quick!’
 
‘I reckon ef thet’s what ye’ve come fer, ye’ve got yer way,’ said a Confederate soldier gruffly, at the same time seizing him by the arm. ‘Air thar enny more er you uns on the road?’
 
‘No,’ gasped72 Lucius; ‘there’s only me. Take me to the General. Quick! Oh, do be quick!’
 
‘Take ye to the Ginrul! Thet’s good! Ho! ho!’ The men around broke into loud laughter; but an ............
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