"The Scout's Narration" - a fictional story

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Aug 20, 2008
The Scout's Narration
Harper's Weekly, January 9, 1864

It was in the bleak mountain country of East Tennessee; the evening was growing late, and the camp-fire was smouldering lower and lower, but we still sat around it, for the spell of the scout’s marvelous gift of story-telling we were none of us willing to dissolve. Captain Charlie Leighton had been a Lieutenant in a Michigan Battery at the commencement of the war, but a natural love of excitement and restlessness of soul had early prompted him to seek employment as a scout, in which he soon rose to unusual eminence. He is a man of much refinement, well educated, and of a "quick, inventive brain." The tale I am about to relate is my best recollection of it as it fell from his lips, and if there is aught of elegance in its diction as here presented it is all his own. He had been delighting us with incidents of the war, most of which were derived from his own experience, when I expressed a desire to know something of his first attempt at scouting. He willingly assented, took a long pull at my brandy flask, and commenced his yarn; and I thought that I had never seen a handsomer man than Charlie Leighton the scout, as he carelessly lounged there, with the ruddy gleams of the dying camp-fire occasionally flickering over his strongly-marked intelligent face, and his curling black hair waving fitfully in the night wind, which now came down from the mountain fresher and chillier.

It happened in Western Virginia, said he. I had been personally acquainted with our commander, General R., before the war commenced, and having intimated, a short time previous to the date of my story, that I desired to try my luck in the scouting service—of which a vast deal was required to counteract the guerrillas with which the Blue Ridge fairly teemed at that time—one night, late in the fall of the year, I was delighted to receive orders to report at his head-quarters. The General was a man of few words, and my instructions were brief.

"Listen," said he. "My only reliable scout (Mackworth) was killed last night at the lower ford; and General F. (the rebel commander) has his head-quarters at the Sedley Mansion on the Romney road."
"Very well," said I, beginning to feel a little queer.
"I want you to go to the Sedley Mansion," was the cool rejoinder.
"To go there! Why it’s in the heart of the enemy’s position!" was my amazed ejaculation.
"Just the reason I want it done," resumed the General. "Listen: I attack to-morrow at daybreak. F. knows it, or half suspects it, and will mass either on the centre or the left wing. I must know which.

The task is thick with danger—regular life and death. Two miles from here, midway to the enemy’s outposts, and six paces beyond the second mile-stone, are two rockets propped on the inside of a hollow stump. Mackworth placed them there yesterday. You are to slip to F.’s quarters to-night, learn what I want, and hurry back to the hollow stump. If he masses on the centre, let off one rocket; if on the left, let off both. This duty, I repeat, abounds with danger. You must start immediately, and alone. Will you go?"

Every thing considered, I think I voted in the affirmative pretty readily, but it required a slight struggle. Nevertheless, consent I did, and immediately left the tent to make ready.

It was nearly ten o’clock when, having received a few additional words of advice from the chief, I set forth on my perilous ride. The country was quite familiar to me, so I had little fear of losing my way, which was no inconsiderable advantage, I can tell you.

Riding slowly at first, as soon as I had passed our last outpost, I put spurs to my horse (a glorious gray thorough-bred which the General had lent me for the occasion) and fled down the mountain at a breakneck pace. It was a cool, misty, uncertain night—almost frosty, and the country was wild and desolate. Mountains and ravines were the ruling features, with now and then that diversification of the broomy, irregular plateau with which our mountain scenery is occasionally softened. I continued my rapid pace with but little caution until I arrived at the further extremity of one of these plateaux.

Here I brought up sharply beside a block of granite, which I recognized as the second mile-stone. Dismounting, I proceeded to the hollow stump which the General had intimated, and finding the rockets there, examined them well to make sure of their efficiency—remounted, and was away again. But now I exercised much more caution in my movements. I rode more slowly, kept my horse on the turf at the edge of the road, in order to deaden the hoof-beats, and also shortened the chain of my sabre, binding the scabbard with my knee to prevent its jingling.

Still I was not satisfied, but tore my handkerchief in two and made fast to either heel the rowel of my spurs, which otherwise had a little tinkle of their own. Then I kept wide awake, with my eyes every where at once in the hope of catching a glimpse of some clew or landmark—the glimmer of a campfire—a tent-top in the moonlight, which now began to shine faintly—or to hear the snort of a steed, the signal of a picket—any thing, any thing to guide me or to give warning of the lurking foe. But no: if there had been any camp-fires they were dead; if there had been any tents they were struck. Not a sign—not a sound. Every thing was quiet as the tomb. The great mountains rose around me in their mantles of pine and hoods of mist, cheerless and repelling, as if their solitude had never been broken.

The moon was driving through a weird and ragged sky, with something desolate and solemn in her haggard face that seemed like an omen of ill. And in spite of my efforts to be cheerful I felt the iron loneliness and sense of danger creep through my flesh and touch the bones.

None but those who have actually experienced it can properly conceive of the apprehensions which throng the breast of him, howsoever brave, who knows himself to be alone in the midst of enemies who are invisible. The lion-hunter of Abyssinia is encompassed with peril when he makes a pillow of his gun in the desert; and our own pioneer slumbers but lightly in his new cabin when he knows that the savage, whose monomania is vengeance, is prowling the forest that skirts his clearing. But the lion is not always hungry; and even the Indian may be conciliated. The hunter confronts his terrible antagonist with something deadlier than ferocity. The hand that levels and the eye that directs the rifled tube are nerved and fired by "the mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark," which, in this case, is indeed a "tower of strength." And the settler, with promises and alcohol, may have won the savage to himself. But to the solitary scout, at midnight, every turn of the road may conceal a finger on a hair-trigger; every stump or bush may hold a foe in waiting. If he rides through a forest it is only in the deepest shadow that he dares ride upright; and should he cross an open glade, where the starlight or moonshine drops freely, he crouches low on the saddle and hurries across, for every second he feels he may be a target. His senses are painfully alive, his faculties strained to their utmost tensions.

By way of a little episode, I knew a very successful scout, who met his death, however, on the Peninsula, who would always require a long sleep immediately after an expedition of peril, if it had lasted but a few hours, and had apparently called forth no more muscular exertion than was necessary to sit the saddle. But, strange as it may see, he would complain of overpowering fatigue, and immediately drop into the most profound slumber. And I have been informed that this is very frequently the case. I can only attribute it to the fact that, owing to the extreme and almost abnormal vivacity—I think of no better word—of the faculties and senses, a man on these momentous occasions lives twice or thrice as fast as ordinarily; and the usual nerve-play and wakefulness of a day and night may thus be concentrated in the brief period of a few hours.

But to resume: I felt to the full this apprehension, this anxiety, this exhaustion, but the knowledge of my position and the issues at stake kept my blood flowing. I had come to the termination of the last plateau or plain, when the road led me down the side of a ravine, with a prospect ahead of nothing but darkness. Here, too, I was compelled to make more noise, as there was no sod for my horse to read on, and the road was flinty and rough in the extreme. But kept on as cautiously as possible, when suddenly, just at the bottom of the ravine, where the road began to ascend the opposite declivity, I came to a dead halt, confronted by a group of several horsemen, so suddenly that they seemed to have sprung from the earth like phantoms.

"Why do you return so slowly?" said on of them, impatiently. "What have you seen? Did you meet Colonel Craig?"
For a moment—a brief one—I gave myself up for lost; but, with the rapid reflection and keen invention which a desperate strait will sometimes superinduce, I grasped the language of the speaker, and formed my plan accordingly. "Why do you return so slowly?" I had been sent somewhere, then. "What have you seen?" I had been sent as a spy, then. "Did you meet Colonel Craig?" Oho! I thought, I will be Colonel Craig. No, I won’t: I will be Colonel Craig’s orderly. So I spoke out boldly:
"Colonel Craig met your messenger, who had seen nothing, and advised him to scout down the edge of the creek for half a mile. But he dispatched me, his orderly, to say that the enemy appear to be retreating in heavy masses. I am also to convey this intelligence to General F.,"
The troopers had started at the tones of a strange voice, but seemed to listen with interest and without suspicion.

"Did the Colonel think the movement a real retreat or only a feint? asked the leader.

"He was uncertain," I replied, beginning to feel secure and roguish at the same time; "but he bade me to say that he would ascertain; and in an hour or two, if you should see one rocket up to the northern there, you might conclude that the Yankees were retreating; if you should see two, then you might guess that they were not retreating, but stationary, with likelihood of remaining inert for another day.

"Good!" cried the rebel. Do you know the way to the General’s quarters?"

"I think I can find it," said I; "although I am not familiar with this side of the mountain."
"It’s a mile this side of Sedley Mansion," said the trooper. "You will find some pickets at the head of the road. You must there leave your horse, and climb the steep, when you will see a farm-house, and fifteen minutes’ walk toward it will bring you to the General’s tent. I will go with you to the top of the road." And, setting off at a gallop, the speaker left me to follow, which I hesitated not to do. Now, owing to their mistake, the countersign had not been thought of; but the next picket would not be likely to swallow the same dose of silence, and it was a lucky thing that the trooper led the way, for he would reach them first, and I would have a chance to catch the pass-word from his lips. But he passed the picket so quickly, and dropped the precious syllables so indistinctly, that I only caught the first of them—"Tally"—while the remainder might as well have been Greek. Tally, tally, tally what? Good God! Thought I, what can it be? Tally, tally—here I am almost up to the pickets!—what can it be? Tallyho? No, that’s English. Talleyrand? No, that’s French. God help me! Tally, tally
"Tallahassee!" I yelled, with the inspiration of despair, as I dashed through the picket, and their leveled carbines sank toothless before that wonderful spell—the Countersign.

Blessing my stars, and without further mishap, I reached the place indicated by the trooper, which was high up on the side of the mountain—so high that clouds were forming in the deep valley below. Making my bridle fast, I clambered with some difficulty the still ascending slope on my left.

Extraordinary caution was required. I almost crept toward the farm-house, and soon perceived the tent of the rebel chief. A solitary guard was pacing between it and me—probably a hundred yards from the tent. Perceiving that boldness was my only plan, I sauntered up to him with as free-and-easy an air as I could muster.
"Who goes there?"
"A friend."
"Advance and give the countersign."
I advanced as near as was safe, and whispered "Tallahassee," with some fears as to the result.
"It’s a d—d lie!" said the sentry, bringing his piece to the shoulder in the twinkle of an eye. "That answers the pickets but not me." Click, click, went the rising hammer of the musket.

I am a dead man, thought I to myself; I am a dead man unless the cap fails. Wonderful, marvelous to relate, the cap did fail. The hammer dropped with a dull, harmless thug on the nipple. With the rapidity of thought and the stealth of a panther I glided forward and clutched his windpipe, forcing him to his knees, while the gun slipped to the ground. There was a fierce but silent struggle. The fellow could not speak for my hand on his throat; but he was a powerful man, with a bowie-knife in his belt, if he could only get at it. But I got it first, hesitated a moment, and then drove it in his midriff to the hilt; and just at that instant his grinders closed on my arm and bit to the bone.

Restraining a cry with the utmost difficulty, I got in another blow, this time home, and the jaws of the rebel flew apart with a start, for my blade had pressed the spring of the casket. Breathless from the struggle, I lay still to collect my thoughts, and listened to know if the inmates of the tent had been disturbed. But no; a light was shining through the canvas, and I could hear the low murmur of voices from within, which I had before noticed, and which seemed to be those of a number of men in earnest consultation. I look at the corpse of the rebel remorsefully. The slouched hat had fallen off in the scuffle, and the pale face of the dead man was upturned to the scant moonlight. It was a young, noble, and exceedingly handsome face, and I notice that the hands and feet were small and beautifully shaped; while every thing about the body denoted it to have been the mansion of a gallant, gentle soul. Was it a fair fight? Did I attack him justly? thought I; and, in the sudden contrition of my heart, I almost knelt to the ground. But the sense of my great peril recurred to me, stifling every thing else, however worthy. I took off the dead man’s overcoat and put it on, threw my cap away and replaced it with the fallen sombrero, and then dragged the corpse behind an outhouse of the farm that stood close by. Returning, I picked up the gun, and began to saunter up and down in a very commendable way indeed; but a sharp observer might have notice a furtiveness and anxiety in the frequent glances I threw at the tent, which would not have augured well for my safety. I drew nearer and nearer to the tent at every turn, until I could almost distinguish the voice within; and presently after taking a most minute survey of the premises, I crept up to the tent, crouched down to the bottom of the trench, and listened with all my might. I could also see under the canvas.

There were half a dozen rebel chieftains within, and a map was spread on a table in the centre of the apartment. At length the consultation was at an end, and the company rose to depart. I ran back to my place, and resumed the watchful saunter of the guard with as indifferent an air as possible, drawing the hat well over my eyes.

The generals came outside of the tent and looked about a little before they disappeared. Two of them came close to me and passed almost within a yard of the sentry’s body. But they passed on, and I drew a deep breath of relief. A light still glimmered through the tent, but presently that, too, vanished, and all as still. But occasionally I would hear the voice of a fellow sentry, or perhaps the rattle of a halter in so me distant manger.

I looked at my watch. It was two o’clock—would be five before I could fire the signal, and the attack was to be at daybreak.

Cautiously as before, I started on my return, reaching my horse without accident. Here I abandoned the gun and overcoat, remounted, and started down the mountain. "Tallahassee" let me through the first picket again, but something was wrong when I cantered down the ravine to the troopers to whom I had been so confidentially dispatched by Colonel Craig. Probably the genuine messenger, or perhaps the gallant Colonel himself had paid them a visit during my absence. At any rate, I saw that something unpleasant was up, but resolved to make the best of it.

"Tallahassee!" I cried, as I began to descend the ravine.
"Halt, or you’re a dead man!" roared the leading trooper. "He’s a Yank!" "Cut him down!" chimed in the others.
"Tallahassee! Tallahassee!" I yelled. And committing my soul to God, I plunged down the gully with sabre and revolver in either hand.
Click—bang! Something grazed my cheek like a hot iron. Click—bang again! Something whistled by my ear with an ugly intonation. And then I was in their midst, shooting, stabbing, slashing, and swearing like a fiend. The rim of my hat flopped over my face from a sabre cut, and I felt blood trickling down my neck. But I burst away from them, up the bank of the ravine, and along the bare plateau, all the time yelling "Tallahassee! Tallahassee!" without knowing why. I could hear the alarm spread back over the mountain by halloos and drums, and presently the clatter of pursuing steeds. But I fled onward like a whirlwind, almost fainting from excitement and loss of blood, until I reeled off at the hollow stump.

Fiz, fiz! One, two! And my heart leaped with exultation as the rushing rockets followed each other in quick succession to the zenith, and burst on the gloom in glittering showers. Emptying the remaining tubes of my pistol at the nearest pursuer, now but fifty yards off, I was in the saddle and away again, without waiting to see the result of my aim. It was a ride for life for a few moments; but I pressed as noble a steed as ever spurned the footstool, and as we neared the Union lines the pursuit dropped off.

When I attained the summit of the first ridge of our position, and saw the day break faintly and rosily beyond the pine-tops and along the crags, the air fluttered violently in my face, the solid earth quivered beneath my feet, as a hundred cannon opened simultaneously above, below, and around me. Serried columns of men were swinging irresistibly down the mountain toward the opposite slope; flying field-pieces were dashing off into position; long lines of cavalry were haunting the gullies, or hovering like vultures on the steep; and the blare of bugles rose above the roar of the artillery with a wild, victorious peal. The two rockets had been answered, and the veterans of the Union were bearing down upon the enemy’s weakened centre like an avalanche of fire.

"So that is all," said the scout, rising and yawning. "The battle had begun in earnest. And maybe I didn’t dine with General R. when it was over and the victory gained. Let’s go to bed."

Harper's Weekly, January 9, 1864

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