THE RIDE BY NIGHT

Mr. Adam Baines is a little gray about the temples, but still looks so
young that few could suppose him to have been one of the fifty-three
thousand Canadians who served Abraham Lincoln’s cause in the Civil War.
Indeed, he was in the army less than a year. How he went out of it he
told me in some such words as these:—

An orderly from the direction of Meade’s headquarters galloped into our
parade ground, and straight for the man on guard before the colonel’s
tent. That was pretty late in the afternoon of a bright March day in
1865, but the parade ground was all red mud with shallow pools. I
remember well how the hind hoofs of the orderly’s galloper threw away
great chunks of earth as he splashed diagonally across the open.

His rider never slowed till he brought his horse to its haunches before
the sentry. There he flung himself off instantly, caught up his sabre,
and ran through the middle opening of the high screen of sapling pines
stuck on end, side by side, all around the acre or so occupied by the
officers’ quarters.

The day, though sunny, was not warm, and nearly all the men of my
regiment were in their huts when that galloping was heard. Then they
hurried out like bees from rows of hives, ran up the lanes between the
lines of huts, and collected, each company separately, on the edge of
the parade ground opposite the officers’ quarters.

You see we had a notion that the orderly had brought the word to break
camp. For five months the Army of the Potomac had been in winter
quarters, and for weeks nothing more exciting than vidette duty had
broken the monotony of our brigade. We understood that Sheridan had
received command of all Grant’s cavalry, but did not know but the
orderly had rushed from Sheridan himself. Yet we awaited the man’s
re-appearance with intense curiosity.

Soon, instead of the orderly, out ran our first lieutenant, a small,
wiry, long-haired man named Miller. He was in undress uniform,—just a
blouse and trousers,—and bare-headed. Though he wore low shoes, he
dashed through mud and water toward us, plainly in a great hurry.

“Sergeant Kennedy, I want ten men at once—mounted,” Miller said.
“Choose the ten best able for a long ride, and give them the best horses
in the company. You understand,—no matter whose the ten best horses
are, give ’em to the ten best riders.”

“I understand, sir,” said Kennedy.

By this time half the company had started for the stables, for fully
half considered themselves among the best riders. The lieutenant
laughed at their eagerness.

“Halt, boys!” he cried. “Sergeant, I’ll pick out four myself. Come
yourself, and bring Corporal Crowfoot, Private Bader, and Private
Absalom Gray.”

Crowfoot, Bader, and Gray had been running for the stables with the
rest. Now these three old soldiers grinned and walked, as much as to
say, “We needn’t hurry; we’re picked anyhow;” while the others hurried
on. I remained near Kennedy, for I was so young and green a soldier
that I supposed I had no chance to go.

“Hurry up! parade as soon as possible. One day’s rations; light
marching order—no blankets—fetch over-coats and ponchos,” said Miller,
turning; “and in choosing your men, favor light weights.”

That was, no doubt, the remark which brought me in. I was lanky, light,
bred among horses, and one of the best in the regiment had fallen to my
lot. Kennedy wheeled, and his eye fell on me.

“Saddle up, Adam, boy,” said he; “I guess you’ll do.”

Lieutenant Miller ran back to his quarters, his long hair flying wide.
When he reappeared fifteen minutes later, we were trotting across the
parade ground to meet him. He was mounted, not on his own charger, but
on the colonel’s famous thorough-bred bay. Then we knew a hard ride
must be in prospect.

“What! one of the boys?” cried Miller, as he saw me. “He’s too young.”

“He’s very light, sir; tough as hickory. I guess he’ll do,” said
Kennedy.

“Well, no time to change now. Follow me! But, hang it, you’ve got your
carbines! Oh, I forgot! Keep pistols only! throw down your sabres and
carbines—anywhere—never mind the mud!”

As we still hesitated to throw down our clean guns, he shouted: “Down
with them—anywhere! Now, boys, after me, by twos! Trot—gallop!”

Away we went, not a man jack of us knew for where or what. The colonel
and officers, standing grouped before regimental headquarters, volleyed
a cheer at us. It was taken up by the whole regiment; it was taken up
by the brigade; it was repeated by regiment after regiment of infantry
as we galloped through the great camp toward the left front of the army.
The speed at which Miller led over a rough corduroy road was
extraordinary, and all the men suspected some desperate enterprise
afoot.

Red and brazen was the set of the sun. I remember it well, after we got
clear of the forts, clear of the breastworks, clear of the reserves,
down the long slope and across the wide ford of Grimthorpe’s Creek,
never drawing rein.

The lieutenant led by ten yards or so. He had ordered each two to take
as much distance from the other two in advance; but we rode so fast that
the water from the heels of his horse and from the heels of each two
splashed into the faces of the following men.

From the ford we loped up a hill, and passed the most advanced infantry
pickets, who laughed and chaffed us, asking us for locks of our hair,
and if our mothers knew we were out, and promising to report our last
words faithfully to the folks at home.

Soon we turned to the left again, swept close by several cavalry
videttes, and knew then that we were bound for a ride through a country
that might or might not be within Lee’s outer lines, at that time
extended so thinly in many places that his pickets were far out of touch
with one another. To this day I do not know precisely where we went,
nor precisely what for. Soldiers are seldom informed of the meaning of
their movements.

What I do know is what we did while I was in the ride. As we were
approaching dense pine woods the lieutenant turned in his saddle,
slacked pace a little, and shouted, “Boys, bunch up near me!”

He screwed round in his saddle so far that we could all see and hear,
and said:—

“Boys, the order is to follow this road as fast as we can till our
horses drop, or else the Johnnies drop us, or else we drop upon three
brigades of our own infantry. I guess they’ve got astray somehow; but I
don’t know myself what the trouble is. Our orders are plain. The
brigades are supposed to be somewhere on this road. I guess we shall do
a big thing if we reach those men to-night. All we’ve got to do is to
ride and deliver this despatch to the general in command. You all
understand?”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”

“It’s necessary you all should. Hark, now! We are not likely to strike
the enemy in force, but we are likely to run up against small parties.
Now, Kennedy, if they down me, you are to stop just long enough to grab
the despatch from my breast; then away you go,—always on the main road.
If they down you after you’ve got the paper, the man who can grab it
first is to take it and hurry forward. So on right to the last man. If
they down him, and he’s got his senses when he falls, he’s to tear the
paper up, and scatter it as widely as he can. You all understand?”

“Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”

“All right, then. String out again!”

He touched the big bay with the spur, and shot quickly ahead.

With the long rest of the winter our horses were in prime spirits,
though mostly a little too fleshy for perfect condition. I had cared
well for my horse; he was fast and sound in wind and limb. I was
certainly the lightest rider of the eleven.

I was still thinking of the probability that I should get further on the
way than any comrade except the lieutenant, or perhaps Crowfoot and
Bader, whose horses were in great shape; I was thinking myself likely to
win promotion before morning, when a cry came out of the darkness ahead.
The words of the challenge I was not able to catch, but I heard Miller
shout, “Forward, boys!”

We shook out more speed just as a rifle spat its long flash at us from
about a hundred yards ahead. For one moment I plainly saw the
Southerner’s figure. Kennedy reeled beside me, flung up his hands with
a scream, and fell. His horse stopped at once. In a moment the
lieutenant had ridden the sentry down.

Then from the right side of the road a party, who must have been lying
round the camp-fire that we faintly saw in among the pines, let fly at
us. They had surely been surprised in their sleep. I clearly saw them
as their guns flashed.

“Forward! Don’t shoot! Ride on,” shouted Miller. “Bushwhackers!
Thank God, not mounted! Any of you make out horses with them?”

“No, sir! No, sir!”

“Who yelled? who went down?”

“Kennedy, sir,” I cried.

“Too bad! Any one else?”

“No, sir.”

“All safe?”

“I’m touched in my right arm; but it’s nothing,” I said. The twinge was
slight, and in the fleshy place in front of my shoulder. I could not
make out that I was losing blood, and the pain from the hurt was
scarcely perceptible.

“Good boy! Keep up, Adam!” called the lieutenant with a kind tone. I
remember my delight that he spoke my front name. On we flew.

Possibly the shots had been heard by the party half a mile further on,
for they greeted us with a volley. A horse coughed hard and pitched
down behind me. His rider yelled as he fell. Then two more shots came:
Crowfoot reeled in front of me, and somehow checked his horse. I saw
him no more. Next moment we were upon the group with our pistols.

“Forward, men! Don’t stop to fight!” roared Miller, as he got clear. A
rifle was fired so close to my head that the flame burned my back hair,
and my ears rang for half an hour or more. My bay leaped high and
dashed down a man. In a few seconds I was fairly out of the scrimmage.

How many of my comrades had gone down I knew not, nor beside whom I was
riding. Suddenly our horses plunged into a hole; his stumbled, the man
pitched forward, and was left behind. Then I heard a shot, the clatter
of another falling horse, the angry yell of another thrown rider.

On we went,—the relics of us. Now we rushed, out of the pine forest
into broad moonlight, and I saw two riders between me and the
lieutenant,—one man almost at my shoulder, and another galloping ten
yards behind. Very gradually this man dropped to the rear. We had lost
five men already, and still the night was young.

Bader and Absalom Gray were nearest me. Neither spoke a word till we
struck upon a space of sandy road. Then I could hear, far behind the
rear man, a sound of galloping on the hard highway.

“They’re after us, lieutenant!” shouted Bader.

“Many?” He slacked speed, and we listened attentively.

“Only one,” cried Miller. “He’s coming fast.”

The pursuer gained so rapidly that we looked to our pistols again. Then
Absalom Gray cried:

“It’s only a horse!”

In a few moments the great gray of fallen Corporal Crowfoot overtook us,
went ahead, and slacked speed by the lieutenant.

“Good! He’ll be fresh when the rest go down!” shouted Miller. “Let the
last man mount the gray!”

By this time we had begun to think ourselves clear of the enemy, and
doomed to race on till the horses should fall.

Suddenly the hoofs of Crowfoot’s gray and the lieutenant’s bay thundered
upon a plank road whose hollow noise, when we all reached it, should
have been heard far. It took us through wide orchard lands into a
low-lying mist by the banks of a great marsh, till we passed through
that fog, strode heavily up a slope, and saw the shimmer of roofs under
the moon. Straight through the main street we pounded along.

Whether it was wholly deserted I know not, but not a human being was in
the streets, nor any face visible at the black windows. Not even a dog
barked. I noticed no living thing except some turkeys roosting on a
fence, and a white cat that sprang upon the pillar of a gateway and
thence to a tree.

Some of the houses seemed to have been ruined by a cannonade. I suppose
it was one of the places almost destroyed in Willoughby’s recent raid.
Here we thundered, expecting ambush and conflict every moment, while the
loneliness of the street imposed on me such a sense as might come of
galloping through a long cemetery of the dead.

Out of the village we went off the planks again upon sand. I began to
suspect that I was losing a good deal of blood. My brain was on fire
with whirling thoughts and wonder where all was to end. Out of this
daze I came, in amazement to find that we were quickly overtaking our
lieutenant’s thoroughbred.

Had he been hit in the fray, and bled to weakness? I only know that,
still galloping while we gained, the famous horse lurched forward,
almost turned a somersault, and fell on his rider.

“Stop—the paper!” shouted Bader.

We drew rein, turned, dismounted, and found Miller’s left leg under the
big bay’s shoulder. The horse was quite dead, the rider’s long hair lay
on the sand, his face was white under the moon!

We stopped long enough to extricate him, and he came to his senses just
as we made out that his left leg was broken.

“Forward!” he groaned. “What in thunder are you stopped for? Oh, the
despatch! Here! away you go! Good-bye.”

In attending to Miller we had forgotten the rider who had been long
gradually dropping behind. Now as we galloped away,—Bader, Absalom
Gray, myself, and Crowfoot’s riderless horse,—I looked behind for that
comrade; but he was not to be seen or heard. We three were left of the
eleven.

From the loss of so many comrades the importance of our mission seemed
huge. With the speed, the noise, the deaths, the strangeness of the
gallop through that forsaken village, the wonder how all would end, the
increasing belief that thousands of lives depended on our success, and
the longing to win, my brain was wild. A raging desire to be first held
me, and I galloped as if in a dream.

Bader led; the riderless gray thundered beside him; Absalom rode stirrup
to stirrup with me. He was a veteran of the whole war. Where it was
that his sorrel rolled over I do not remember at all, though I perfectly
remember how Absalom sprang up, staggered, shouted, “My foot is
sprained!” and fell as I turned to look at him and went racing on.

[Illustration: ABSALOM SPRANG UP, STAGGERED, SHOUTED]

Then I heard above the sound of our hoofs the voice of the veteran of
the war. Down as he was, his spirit was unbroken. In the favorite song
of the army his voice rose clear and gay and piercing:—

“Hurrah for the Union!
Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Shouting the battle-cry of freedom!”

We turned our heads and cheered him as we flew, for there was something
indescribably inspiring in the gallant and cheerful lilt of the fallen
man. It was as if he flung us, from the grief of utter defeat, a soul
unconquerable; and I felt the life in me strengthened by the tone.

Old Bader and I for it! He led by a hundred yards, and Crowfoot’s gray
kept his stride. Was I gaining on them? How was it that I could see his
figure outlined more clearly against the horizon? Surely dawn was not
coming on!

No; I looked round on a world of naked peach-orchards, and corn-fields
ragged with last year’s stalks, all dimly lit by a moon that showed far
from midnight; and that faint light on the horizon was not in the east,
but in the west. The truth flashed on me,—I was looking at such an
illumination of the sky as would be caused by the camp-fires of an army.

“The missing brigade!” I shouted.

“Or a Southern division!” Bader cried. “Come on!”

“Come on!” I was certainly gaining on him, but very slowly. Before the
nose of my bay was beyond the tail of his roan, the wide illuminations
had become more distinct; and still not a vidette, not a picket, not a
sound of the proximity of an army.

Bader and I now rode side by side, and Crowfoot’s gray easily kept the
pace. My horse was in plain distress, but Bader’s was nearly done.

“Take the paper, Adam,” he said; “my roan won’t go much further.
Good-bye, youngster. Away you go!” and I drew now quickly ahead.

Still Bader rode on behind me. In a few minutes he was considerably
behind. Perhaps the sense of being alone increased my feeling of
weakness. Was I going to reel out of the saddle? Had I lost so much
blood as that? Still I could hear Bader riding on. I turned to look at
him. Already he was scarcely visible. Soon he dropped out of sight; but
still I heard the laborious pounding of his desperate horse.

My bay was gasping horribly. How far was that faintly yellow sky ahead?
It might be two, it might be five miles. Were Union or Southern
soldiers beneath it? Could it be conceived that no troops of the enemy
were between me and it?

Never mind; my orders were clear. I rode straight on, and I was still
riding straight on, marking no increase in the distress of my bay, when
he stopped as if shot, staggered, fell on his knees, tried to rise,
rolled to his side, groaned and lay.

I was so weak I could not clear myself. I remember my right spur
catching in my saddle-cloth as I tried to free my foot; then I pitched
forward and fell. Not yet senseless, I clutched at my breast for the
despatch, meaning to tear it to pieces; but there my brain failed, and
in full view of the goal of the night I lay unconscious.

When I came to, I rose on my left elbow, and looked around. Near my
feet my poor bay lay, stone dead. Crowfoot’s gray!—where was Crowfoot’s
gray? It flashed on me that I might mount the fresh horse and ride on.
But where was the gray? As I peered round I heard faintly the sound of
a galloper. Was he coming my way? No; faintly and more faintly I heard
the hoofs.

Had the gray gone on then, without the despatch? I clutched at my
breast. My coat was unbuttoned—the paper was gone!

Well, sir, I cheered. My God! but it was comforting to hear those
far-away hoofs, and know that Bader must have come up, taken the papers,
and mounted Crowfoot’s gray, still good for a ten-mile ride! The
despatch was gone forward; we had not all fallen in vain; maybe the
brigades would be saved!

How purely the stars shone! When I stifled my groaning they seemed to
tell me of a great peace to come. How still was the night! and I
thought of the silence of the multitudes who had died for the Union.

Now the galloping had quite died away. There was not a sound,—a slight
breeze blew, but there were no leaves to rustle. I put my head down on
the neck of my dead horse. Extreme fatigue was benumbing the pain of my
now swelling arm; perhaps sleep was near, perhaps I was swooning.

But a sound came that somewhat revived me. Far, low, joyful, it crept on
the air. I sat up, wide awake. The sound, at first faint, died as the
little breeze fell, then grew in the lull, and came ever more clearly as
the wind arose. It was a sound never to be forgotten,—the sound of the
distant cheering of thousands of men.

Then I knew that Bader had galloped into the Union lines, delivered the
despatch, and told a story which had quickly passed through wakeful
brigades.

Bader I never saw again, nor Lieutenant Miller, nor any man with whom I
rode that night. When I came to my senses I was in hospital at City
Point. Thence I went home invalided. No surgeon, no nurse, no soldier
at the hospital could tell me of my regiment, or how or why I was where
I was. All they could tell me was that Richmond was taken, the army far
away in pursuit of Lee, and a rumor flying that the great commander of
the South had surrendered near Appomattox Court House.