Joseph A Altsheler – Civil War 05 – Star Of Gettysburg. Chapter 11, 12
CHAPTER XI. THE CAVALRY COMBAT
Harry was a fine sleeper. One learns to be in long campaigns. Most of those about him slept as well, and the ten thousand horses, which had been ridden hard in the great display during the day, also sank into quiet. The restless hoofs ceased to move. Now and then there was a snort or a neigh, but the noise was slight on Fleetwood Hill or in the surrounding forests.
A man came through the thickets soon after midnight and moved with the greatest caution toward the hill on which the artillery was ranged. He was in neither blue nor gray, just the plain garb of a civilian, but he was of strong figure and his smoothly shaven face, with its great width between the eyes and massive chin, expressed character and uncommon resolution.
The intruder-he was obviously such, because he sought with the minutest care to escape observation-never left the shelter of the bushes. He had all the skill of the old forest runners, because his footsteps made no sound as he passed and he knew how to keep his figure always in the shadows until it became a common blur with them.
His was a most delicate task, in which discovery was certain death, but he never faltered. His heart beat steadily and strong. It was an old risk to him, and he had the advantage of great natural aptitude, fortified by long training in a school of practice where a single misstep meant death.
The sharp eyes of the spy missed nothing. He counted the thirty pieces of artillery on the hill. He estimated with amazing accuracy the number of Stuart’s horsemen. He saw a thousand proofs that the heavy firing he had heard in the course of the day was not due to battle with Northern troops. Although he stopped at times for longer looks, he made a wide circuit about the Confederate camp, and he was satisfied that Stuart, vigilant and daring though he might be, was not expecting an enemy.
Shepard’s heart for the first time beat a little faster. He had felt as much as any general the Northern defeats and humiliations in the east, but, like officers and soldiers, he was not crushed by them. He even felt that the tide might be about to turn. Lee, invading the North, would find before him many of the difficulties which had faced the Northern generals attacking the South. Shepard, a man of supreme courage, resolved that he would spare no effort in the service to which he had devoted himself.
He spent fully four hours in the thickets, and then, feeling that he had achieved his task, bore away toward the river. Taking off his coat and belt with pistols in it, and fastening them about his neck, he swam with bold strokes to the other side of the stream. However, had anyone been on the watch at that very point, it was not likely that he would have been seen. It was the approach of dawn and heavy mists were rising on the Rappahannock, as they had risen at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Shepard gave the countersign to the pickets and was shown at once to General Pleasanton, an alert, vigorous man, who was awaiting him. His report was satisfactory, because the cavalry general smiled and began to send quick orders to his leaders of divisions.
But the peace in Stuart’s command was not broken that night. No one had seen the figure of the spy sliding through the thickets, and Harry and his comrades in the Inn of the Greenwood Tree were very warm and snug in their blankets. As day came he yawned, stretched, closed his eyes again, thinking that he might have another precious fifteen minutes, but, recalling his resolution, sprang to his feet and began to rub his eyes clear.
He had slept fully dressed, like all the rest, and he intended to go down to a brook in a few minutes and bathe his face. But he first gave Sherburne a malicious shove with his foot and bade him wake up, telling him that it was too late for an alert cavalry captain to be sleeping.