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Dick was a fine swimmer, he had a good stout plank, and the waters of the river were warm. He felt that the chief dangers were passed, and that the muddy Mississippi would now bear him safely to the blockading fleet below. He gave the plank another shove, sending it farther out into the stream, and then raised himself up until his elbows rested upon it. He could thus float gently with a little propulsion from his legs to the place where he wanted to go.
He saw lights along the bluff and the bar below, and then, with a sudden shoot of alarm he noticed a dim shadow move slowly from the shore. It was a long boat, holding a dozen rowers, and several men armed with rifles, and it was coming toward him. He did not know whether it was merely an ordinary patrol, or whether they had seen the darker blot on the stream that he and the plank made, but in any event the result would be the same.
He slipped his arm off the plank and sank in the stream to the chin. Then, propelling it gently and without any splashing of the water, he continued to move down the stream. He was hopeful that the riflemen would mistake him and his plank for one of those stumps or logs which the Mississippi carries so often on its bosom.
The head of the boat turned from him a little, and he felt sure now that he would drift away unnoticed, but one of the soldiers suddenly raised his rifle and fired. Dick heard the bullet clip the water close beside him, and he swam as hard as he could for a few moments. Then he settled again into quiet, as he saw the boat was not coming toward him. Doubtless the man had merely fired the shot to satisfy himself that it was really a log, and if Dick allowed it to float naturally he would be convinced.
It was a tremendous trial of nerves to run the gantlet in this way, but as it was that or nothing he exerted all his will upon his body, and let himself float slowly, sunk again to the mouth and with his head thrown back, so it would present only a few inches above the surface.
The boat turned, and seemed once upon the point of coming toward him. He could hear the creaking of the oars and the men talking, but they turned again suddenly and rowed up the stream. Again, his fate had hung on a chance impulse. He drifted slowly on until the town and the bluffs sank in the darkness. Then he drew himself upon his plank and swam, doubling his speed. He knew that some of the Union gunboats lay not far below, and, when he rounded a curve, he saw a light in the stream, but near the shore.
He approached cautiously, knowing that the men on the vessel would be on guard against secret attack, and presently he discerned the outlines of a sidewheel steamer, converted into a warship and bearing guns. He dropped down by the side of his plank until he was quite close, and then, raising himself upon it again, he shouted with all his voice: "Ship ahoy!"
He did not know whether that was the customary method of hailing on the Mississippi, but it was a memory from his nautical reading, and so he shouted a second and yet a third time at the top of his voice: "Ship ahoy!" Figures bearing rifles appeared at the side, and a rough voice demanded in language highly unparliamentary who was there and what he, she or it wanted.
Dick was in a genial mood. He had escaped with an ease that surprised him, and the warmth of the water in which he was immersed had saved him from cramp or chill. The spirit of recklessness seized him again. He threw himself astride his plank, and called out:
"A detachment of the army of the United States escaped from captivity in Vicksburg, and wishing to rejoin it. It's infantry, not marines, and it needs land."
"Then advance infantry and give the countersign."
"Grant and Victory," replied Dick in a loud, clear voice.
A laugh came from the steamer, and the rough voice said again:
"Let the detachment advance again, and holding up its hands, show itself."
Dick paddled closer and, steadying himself as well as he could, threw up his hands. The light of a ship's lantern was thrown directly on his face, and the same voice ordered men to take a small boat and get him.
When Dick stepped upon the deck of the steamer, water streaming from his clothes, several men looked at him curiously. One in a dingy blue uniform he believed to be the owner of the rough voice. But his face was not rough.
"Who are you?" asked the man.
"Lieutenant Richard Mason of Colonel Winchester's regiment in the army of General Grant, sent several days ago with a message to the fleet, but driven by Confederate scouts and skirmishers into Vicksburg, where he lay hidden, seeking a chance of escape."
"And he found it to-night, coming down the river like a big catfish."
"He did, sir. He could find no other way, and he arrived on the useful board which is now floating away on the current."
"What proof have you that you are what you say."
"That I saw you before you saw me and hailed you."
"It's not enough."
"Then here is the message that I was to have delivered to the commander of the fleet. It's pretty wet, but I think you can make it out."
He drew the dispatch from the inside pocket of his waistcoat. It was soaked through, but when they turned the ship's lantern upon it the captain could make out its tenor and the names. Doubt could exist no longer and he clapped his hands heartily upon the lad's shoulder.
"Come into the cabin and have something to eat and dry clothes," he said. "This is the converted steamer Union, and I'm its commander, Captain William Hays. I judge that you've had an extraordinary time."
"I have, captain, and the hardest of it all was when I saw our army repulsed to-day."
"It was bad and the wounded are still lying on the field, but it doesn't mean that Vicksburg will have a single moment of rest. Listen to that, will you, lieutenant?"
The far boom of a cannon came, and Dick knew that its shell would break over the unhappy town. But he had grown so used to the cannonade that it made little impression upon him, and, shrugging his shoulders, he descended the gangway with the captain.
Clothing that would fit him well enough was found, and once more he was dry and warm. Hot coffee and good food were brought him, and while he ate and drank Captain Hays asked him many questions. What was the rebel strength in Vicksburg? Were they exultant over their victory of the day? Did they think they could hold out? What food supply did they have?
Dick answered all the questions openly and frankly as far as he could. He really knew little or nothing about those of importance, and, as for himself, he merely said that he had hid in a cave, many of which had been dug in Vicksburg. He did not mention Colonel Woodville or his daughter.
"Now," said Captain Hays, when he finished his supper, "you can have a bunk. Yes, lieutenant, you must take it. I could put you ashore to-night, but it's not worth while. Get a good night's sleep, and we'll see to-morrow."
Dick knew that he was right, and, quelling his impatience, he lay down in one of the bunks and slept until morning.
Then, after a solid breakfast, he went ashore with the good wishes of Captain Hays, and, a few hours later, he was with the Union army and his own regiment. Again he was welcomed as one dead and his own heart was full of rejoicing because all of his friends were alive. Warner alone had been wounded, a bullet cutting into his shoulder, but not hurting him much. He wore a bandage, his face had a becoming pallor, and Pennington charged that he was making the most of it.
"But it was an awful day," said Warner, "and there's a lot of gloom in the camp. Still, we're not moving away and the reinforcements are coming."
Dick explained to Colonel Winchester why he had failed in his mission, and the colonel promised to report in turn to the commander that the hand of God had intervened. Dick's conscience was now at rest, and he resumed at once his duties with the regiment.
Many days passed. While Grant did not make any other attack upon Vicksburg his circle of steel grew tighter, and the rain of shells and bombs upon the devoted town never ceased. Reinforcements poured forward. His army rose to nearly eighty thousand men, and Johnston, hovering near, gathering together what men he could, did not dare to strike. Dick was reminded more than once of Caesar's famous siege of Alesia, about which he had read not so long ago in Dr. Russell's academy at Pendleton.
There were long, long days of intrenching, skirmishing and idleness. May turned into June, and still the steel coil enclosed Vicksburg. Here the Union men were hopeful, but the news from the East was bad. Not much filtered through, and none of it struck a happy note. Lee, with his invincible legions, was still sweeping northward. Doubtless the Confederate hosts now trod the soil of a free State, and Dick and his comrades feared in their very souls that Lee was marching to another great victory.
"I wish I could hear from Harry Kenton," said Dick to Warner. "I'd like to know whether he passed through Chancellorsville safely."
"Don't you worry about him," said Warner. "That rebel cousin of yours has luck. He also has skill. Let x equal luck and y skill. Now x plus y equals the combination of luck and skill, which is safety. That proves to me mathematically that he is unharmed and that he is riding northward-- to defeat, I hope."
"We've got to win here," said Dick. "If we don't, I'm thinking the cause of the Union will be more than doubtful. We don't seem to have the generals in the East that we have in the West. Our leaders hang on here and they don't overestimate the enemy."
"That's so," said Pennington. "Now, I wonder what 'Pap' Thomas is doing."
"He's somewhere in Tennessee, I suppose, watching Bragg," said Dick. "That's a man I like, and, I think, after this affair here is over, we may go back to his command. If we do succeed in taking Vicksburg, it seems likely to me that the heavy fighting will be up there in Tennessee, where Bragg's army is."
"Do you know if your uncle, Colonel Kenton, is in Vicksburg?"
"I don't think so. In fact, I'm sure he isn't. His regiment is with Bragg. Well, George, what does your algebra tell us?"
Warner had taken out his little volume again and was studying it intently. But he raised his head long enough to reply.
"I have just achieved the solution of a very important mathematical problem," he answered in precise tones. "An army of about thirty-five thousand men occupies a town located on a river. It is besieged by another army of about seventy-five thousand men flushed with victory. The besiegers occupy the river with a strong fleet. They are also led by a general who has shown skill and extraordinary tenacity, while the commander of the besieged has not shown much of either quality and must feel great discouragement."
"But you're only stating the side of the besieged."
"Don't interrupt. It's impolite. I mean to be thoroughly fair. Now come the factors favoring the besieged. The assailing army, despite its superior numbers, is far in the enemy's country. It may be attacked at any time by another army outside, small, but led by a very able general. Now, you have both sides presented to you, but I have already arrived at the determining factor. What would you say it is, Dick?"
"I don't know."
"You haven't used your reasoning powers. Remember that the man who not merely thinks, but who thinks hard and continuously always wins. It's very simple. The answer is in four letters, f-o-o-d, food. As we know positively, Pemberton was able to provision Vicksburg for five or six weeks. We can't break in and he can't break out. When his food is exhausted, as it soon will be, he'll have to give up. The siege of Vicksburg is over. I know everything, except the exact date."
Dick was inclined to believe that Warner was right, but he forgot about his prediction, because a mail came down the river that afternoon, and he received a letter from his mother, his beautiful young mother, who often seemed just like an elder sister.
She was in Pendleton, she wrote, staying comfortably in their home. The town was occupied by three companies of veteran Union troops who behaved well. They were always glad to have a garrison of good soldiers whether Federal or Confederate--sometimes it was one and sometimes the other. But she thought the present Union force would remain quite a while, as she did not look for the reappearance of the Southern army in Kentucky. But if the town were left without troops she would go back to her relatives in the Bluegrass, as Bill Skelly's band to the eastward in the mountains was raiding and plundering and had become a great menace. Guerillas were increasing in numbers in those doubtful regions.
"The regular troops will have to deal with those fellows later on," said Dick.
"Dr. Russell has had a letter from Harry Kenton," continued Mrs. Mason. "It was written from some point near the Pennsylvania line, and, while Harry did not say so in his letter, I know that General Lee is expecting a great victory in the North. Harry was not hurt at Chancellorsville, but he says he does not see how he escaped, the fire of the cannon and rifles being more awful than any that he had ever seen before. He was present when General Jackson was mortally wounded, and he seems to have been deeply affected by it. He writes that the Confederacy could better have lost a hundred thousand men."
There was more in the letter, but it was strictly personal to Dick, and it closed with her heartfelt prayer that God, who had led him safely so far, would lead him safely through all.
After reading it several times he put it in a hidden pocket. Soldiers did not receive many letters and they always treasured them. Ah, his dear, beautiful young mother! How could anyone ever harm her! Yet the thought of Skelly and his outlaws made him uneasy. He hoped that the Union garrison would remain in Pendleton permanently.
His mind was soon compelled to turn back to the siege. They were digging trenches and creeping closer and closer. Warner had made no mistake in his mathematics. The army and the people in Vicksburg had begun to suffer from a lack of food. They were down to half rations. They had neither tea nor coffee, and medicines were exhausted. Many and many a time they looked forth from their hills and prayed for Johnston, but he could not come. Always the Union flag floated before them, and the ring of steel so strong and broad was contracting inch by inch.
The Northern engineers ran mines under the Confederate works. They used every device of ingenious minds to push the siege. Spies brought word that all food would soon be gone in Vicksburg, and Grant, grim of purpose, took another hitch in the steel belt about the hopeless town. The hostile earthworks and trenches were now so near that the men could hear one another talking. Sometimes in a lull of the firing they would come out and exchange tobacco or news. It was impossible for the officers to prevent it, and they really did not seek to do so, as the men fought just as well when they returned to their works.
June now drew to a close and the great heats of July were at hand. Dick was convinced that the defense of Vicksburg was drawing to a like close. They had proof that some of the irregulars in Vicksburg had escaped through the lines and he was convinced that Slade would be among them. They were the rats and Vicksburg was the sinking ship.
They heard that Johnston had gathered together twenty-five thousand men and was at last marching to the relief of the town. Dick believed that Grant must have laughed one of his grimmest laughs. They knew that Johnston's men were worn and half-starved, and had been harassed by other Union troops. Johnston was skillful, but he would only be a lean and hungry wolf attacking a grizzly bear. He was sure that all danger from him had passed.
Now, as they closed in the Northern guns increased their fire. It seemed to Dick that they could have blown away the whole plateau of Vicksburg by this time. The storm of shells raked the town, and he was glad that the people had been able to dig caves for refuge. Colonel Woodville must be doing some of his greatest swearing now. Dick thought of him with sympathy and friendliness.
"I don't think it can last much longer, Mr. Mason," said Sergeant Daniel Whitley on the morning of the second of July. "Their guns don't answer ours often and it means that they're out of ammunition, or almost. Besides, you can stand shells and bullets easier than lack of food. 'Pears to me I can nearly feel 'em crumpling up before us."
Trumpets blew the next morning. All the firing ceased suddenly and the three lads saw a Southern general with several officers of lower rank, riding forward under a white flag. It was Bowen, who came out to meet Grant.
Dick drew a deep, long breath. He knew that this was the end. So did his comrades. A cheer started and swept part of the way along the lines, but the officers quickly stopped it.
"Vicksburg is ours," said Dick.
"Looks like it," said Warner.
But Grant told Bowen that he would treat only with Pemberton, and after delays General Pemberton came out. General Grant went forward to meet him. The two stood alone under a tree within seventy yards of the Confederate lines and talked.
Chance or fortune presented a startling coincidence. Almost at the very moment that Grant and Pemberton met under the tree Pickett's men were rising to their feet and preparing for the immortal but fatal charge at Gettysburg. While the cannon had ceased suddenly at Vicksburg they were thundering from many score mouths at Gettysburg. Fortune was launching two thunderbolts upon the Confederacy at the same moment. They were to strike upon fields a thousand miles apart, and the double blow was to be mortal.
But Dick knew nothing of Gettysburg then, nor was he to know anything until days afterward. He certainly had no thought of the East while he watched the two generals under the tree. Dick's comrades were with him, but so intense was their curiosity that none of them spoke. Thousands of men were gazing with the same eagerness, and the Southern earthworks were covered with the defenders.
It was one of the most dramatic scenes in Dick's life, the two men under the tree, and the tens of thousands who watched. Nobody moved. It seemed that they scarcely breathed. After the continuous roar of firing the sudden silence was oppressive, and Dick felt the blood pounding in his ears.
The heat was close and heavy. Black clouds were floating up in the west, and lightning glimmered now and then on the horizon. Although the storm threatened no one noticed. All eyes were still for Grant and Pemberton. After a while each returned to his own command, and there was an armistice until the next day, when the full surrender was made, and Grant and his officers rode into Vicksburg. At the same time Lee was gathering his men for the retreat into the South from the stricken field of Gettysburg. It was the Fourth of July, the eighty-seventh anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and no one could have possibly conceived a more striking celebration.
As soon as Dick was free for a little space he hurried to the ravine, and, as before, found there the open door. He passed in without hesitation.
The light as of old filtered into the room, and Colonel Woodville lay just as before in bed with his great bald head upon the pillow. Miss Woodville sat beside the bed, reading aloud from Addison. Dick's step was light, but the colonel heard him and held up a finger. The lad paused until Miss Woodville, finishing a long sentence, closed the book. Then the colonel, raising a little the great white thatch of his eyebrows, said:
"Young sir, you have returned again, and, personally, you are welcome, but I do not conceive how you can stand the company you keep. My daughter informs me that the Yankees are in Vicksburg, and I have no reason to doubt the statement."
He paused, and Dick said:
"Yes, Colonel, it's true."
"I suppose we must endure it. I should have gone myself and have offered my sword to General Grant, but this confounded leg of mine is still weak."
"At least, sir, we come with something besides arms. May I bring you rations?"
"You are generous, young man, and my daughter and I appreciate the obvious nature of your errand here. Speaking for both of us, a little food will not be unwelcome."
"Tell me first, what has become of your nephew. Has he escaped from the city?"
"He slipped out nearly a week ago, and will join his father's regiment in Bragg's command. That scoundrel, Slade, is gone too. Since the city had to be surrendered I would gladly have made you a present of Slade, but it's out of my power now."
Dick soon returned with ample food for them and helped them later, when they moved to quarters outside in the shell-torn city. Dick saw that they were comfortable, and then his mind turned toward Tennessee. Detachments from Grant's army were to be sent to that of Rosecrans, who was now heavily threatened by Bragg, and the Winchester regiment, which really belonged with him, was sure to go.
The order to march soon came, and it was welcome. The regiment, or rather what was left of it, promptly embarked upon one of the river steamers and started northward.
As they stood on the deck and looked down at the yellow waters in which Dick had swum on his trusty plank Warner said:
"I've news of importance. It arrived in a telegram to General Grant, and I heard it just as we were coming on board."
"What is it?" asked Dick.
"General Lee was defeated in a great battle at a little place called Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and has retreated into Virginia."
"Gettysburg and Vicksburg!" exclaimed Dick. "The wheel has turned nearly 'round. The Confederacy is doomed now."
"I think so, too," said Warner.
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