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AN UNEXPECTED SET-BACK
Deck Lyon was mounted on his famous horse Ceph, so nicknamed after the even more famous charger ridden in ancient days by Alexander the Great. The young major had trained Ceph from ponyhood, and rider and beast understood each other perfectly. On more than one occasion Ceph had performed in a truly wonderful fashion on the battlefield, and once, when being promoted, Deck had declared that the honor of the occasion rested with his equine comrade and not himself.
As the small body of whites and negroes moved onward in the direction of the Belthorpe plantation, Deck took the lead, with Artie and the faithful Levi close behind him. In the rear came the armed slaves riding in two ranks of three men each. The men could hardly be termed soldiers, yet during the time that Noah Lyon had been away from Riverlawn the overseer had drilled them thoroughly, both in horsemanship and in carbine practice, and they were, consequently, a long way removed from raw recruits. Moreover, upon the occasion of the attack upon Riverlawn, they had been under fire and had not flinched, so it was known that they could be depended upon even in a hazardous emergency.
Even without such a fine bit of horseflesh under him, Deck would have been anxious to go to the front. The note received by Levi filled him with alarm, and in his mind all sorts of troublesome thoughts ran riot. The Belthorpe sisters were at home alone, two of Morgan's guerillas were in possession of Lyndhall, and a whole company were soon expected. What indignities might not the sisters suffer, not to say anything of the confiscation and ruin of Mr. Belthorpe's property?
"This is certainly rough on Kate," observed Artie, as he advanced to his cousin's side. "We ought to have Captain Gadbury with us--for Margie's sake."
"If only those ruffians don't attempt to carry Margie and Kate off," half groaned the major, biting the lip upon which a faint mustache was beginning to show. "I suppose the major would be at Lyndhall, only father didn't think it wise to let so many officers off at one time. Levi, what did the negro who delivered the note have to say?"
"Not a word?" queried Artie.
"Absolutely not a word--and for the best reason in the world: he was deaf and dumb," and the overseer smiled broadly. "I tried to question him, but he only shook his head and pointed to his tongue."
"Humph! I didn't know there was a deaf and dumb negro around Lyndhall," mused Deck. "Forward, boys, we mustn't lag!" he shouted to the ranks in the rear.
"We's comin', Mars'r, jest as fast as we kin come!" answered the servant called General, who was the "high private" of the occasion. "Come, don't yo' go fo' to drap behind, Clinker!" he cried out to the heaviest man of the crowd, the blacksmith and horseshoer at Riverlawn.
"Ain't drappin' behind," growled Clinker. "I'll git to Lyndhall afore yo' do, yo' don't look out," and away he galloped after Deck and the others.
The day was frosty but clear, an ideal one for a ride, and mile after mile was passed, between the now almost barren fields, and through long groves of leafless trees. The horses from Riverlawn had always been boasted of as being the best in that section of the country, and now they were proving their worth.
The mansion home of the Belthorpes stood near the road, with the plantation extending to both sides and to the rear. At a distance up the highway upon which Major Deck and the others were travelling was a grove of walnut trees, and as soon as this grove was reached the young commander of the forces called a halt.
"We don't want to run into an ambush," he explained to Levi and Artie. "For all we know to the contrary, that whole company of guerillas may be in possession of Lyndhall, and if they have got wind of the fact that word has been sent out for assistance, it may go hard with us, if we are caught napping. I'll go on a scout, and if the coast is clear I'll come back and tell you. If I get into trouble a couple of pistol shots will notify you."
To carry out his object, the major dismounted and turned Ceph over to one of the servants. Then, examining his pistol to see that it was in proper condition for use, he struck out boldly, along a path which ran through the walnuts and came up over a lawn fringed by magnolias, to the south of the mansion.
Deck did not slacken his pace until the magnolias were reached. Here, from an opening, he looked toward the house. Not a soul was in sight, and pistol in hand, he crept along the line of trees until he was within fifty feet of a side veranda.
At this moment the door to the veranda opened and a girl stepped out, clad in a house dress, with a cape thrown around her shoulders and a worsted shawl caught over her head in bonnet fashion. Deck did not have to look twice to convince himself that the girl was Kate Belthorpe.
"Kate!" he cried, softly and half involuntarily. "Kate!"
The girl, hearing his voice, stopped short and stared around her in amazement. Then, as he waved his hand to her, she ran down the steps of the veranda, and reaching him, almost embraced him.
"Oh, Deck! Why I--I didn't know you were coming here!" she stammered, with a blush. "Are you home on a furlough?"
"Yes--fortunately, Kate," he answered, remembering that they had kissed before, yet hardly daring to do so now--since, to him at least, his intentions were becoming serious. "I--I trust they haven't harmed you and Margie any? Where are the ruffians? Have the whole company arrived yet?"
The girl started and stared at him. "Why, Deck, what are you talking about? I know nothing of any ruffians."
The major was nearly dumfounded by this announcement. "You don't know?" he queried slowly. "Then what does this mean? Levi Bedford received it less than three hours ago."
It took but a moment for Kate Belthorpe to master the contents of the note. "I don't know what it means," she said. "I don't believe Margie ever wrote it. Come in, she is in the sitting room, writing a letter to brother Tom."
With his mind in a whirl the young major followed Kate into Lyndhall mansion. Margie was found as described, and was equally astonished to see him. The situation was explained, and she glanced at the note.
"It is a forgery, and is not even in my hand-writing, Deck," she said quickly. "There is some underhanded work here."
"Yes, and I know what it is!" cried Deck. "That note was penned with the intention of getting Levi and the negroes away from Riverlawn. My father's place may even now be suffering an attack. I must get home without an instant's delay!"
"Oh, I trust you are mistaken, Deck!" murmured Kate, her beautiful eyes filling with tears. "What will your mother and your sisters do?"
"Heaven alone knows, Kate," he answered, his voice growing curiously husky. "Artie and I were going home when we met Levi and six of the slaves on the road. Four or five other slaves were to follow, so it is safe to say that out of about fifteen men who can use firearms two-thirds are now away from Riverlawn and awaiting me in the walnut grove just below here. Good-by!" and he held out his hand.
"Good-by, and take care of yourself!" burst in Margie, and gave him a warm brotherly kiss. Seeing this, Kate did not hold back, and Deck sped from the mansion with the warm contact of her sweet lips still haunting him.
But now was no time for sentiment, however delightful it might prove, and the young major burst into the grove all out of breath with running.
"Quick, to Riverlawn!" he shouted, as he leaped again into the saddle. "We have not a moment to lose! The note was a decoy, to get Levi and the others to leave our house. Pray Heaven we may reach there before mother and the others are subjected to insult, or before any damage is done!"
"A decoy!" gasped Levi Bedford. He could scarcely believe his ears. "Then that negro was not dumb, I'll wager! Boys," he turned to the slaves, "did any of you see that fellow who brought Mrs. Lyon the note this morning?"
"'Deed I did, sah!" came from Clinker.
"So did I, sah," put in Woolly, another of the body.
"Did either of you hear him speak?"
Clinker shook his head. Woolly, however, smiled shrewdly. "I dun racken I did, Mars'r Bedford, when he crossed de creek bridge. But I dunno wot he said, fo' I was a right smart step off."
"It doesn't matter what he said," replied Levi. He turned to Deck. "You are right. I have been badly fooled, and don't deserve to hold the position with which your father entrusted me--that of taking care of his family and his property."
"Don't blame yourself, Levi," Deck hastened to say, seeing how bad the overseer felt. "You did what you thought was right, and what I should have done under the circumstances. The best we can do is to get over the ground just as lively as we can, and if you know of any short cuts to take, so much the better."
They were already going ahead at full speed, Deck and Levi in the lead and Artie and the negroes following as rapidly as possible. "I was thinking, we might take the trail through Charwell meadow--the ground is stiff enough to hold horseflesh," observed the manager of Riverlawn. "But that may make us miss the four or five fellows who were to follow us, and if anything is wrong at Riverlawn, we may want all the help we can gather."
"How much will the Charwell trail shorten the ride?"
"A good mile and three-quarters, possibly two miles, if the ground at the lower end is hard."
"Then let us take that short cut, all but Clinker, who can take the regular road and turn back the second detachment as soon as it comes up," answered the young major, unconsciously speaking in military terms, as was now his usual habit.
"Good! You've got a long head--just as you always had!" cried Levi, and in a minute more Clinker was instructed into the new order of things. Shortly after this the others left the road and took to a well-defined trail running through a woods and then across the meadow previously described. At the end of the meadow the party came out upon the road running almost parallel with the creek, but at a considerable distance above the spot where the bridge to Colonel Lyon's domain was located.
"Halt!" cried Deck, as the horsemen reached the edge of the clearing. "Don't show yourselves until I give the order."
"I think Levi and I ought to go forward with you, Deck," interposed Artie, who was thinking of his sister, as well as of his Aunt Ruth and his Cousin Hope.
"Well, you can go; but we must be careful not to expose ourselves to the enemy," was the ready reply of the major, who had unconsciously taken command of the expedition.
"Supposing we separate," went on Artie. "One can go up to the bridge, one down to where the logs are usually tied up, and one over to the bend. That will give us three points of observation."
"Right you are, Artie. General Thomas couldn't have planned it better," answered Deck. "I'll go to the bridge, and you can go down to the logs. Levi, is there a raft handy?"
"There is, just above the logs, and there is a canoe up at the bend. We used it day before yesterday, when Faraway and I went over and came back by the bridge."
"Then it will be an easy matter for us to make an advance all along the line. What of Fort Bedford?" continued the major, referring to the ice-house which, during the early troubles at Riverlawn, had been turned into an arsenal. The so-styled fort was built along the creek, almost opposite the point where the logs and the raft rested.
"It's still there, but it contains little outside of a few guns and two boxes of ammunition."
"I was thinking, if those rascals are here, and the worst comes to the worst, it will be a good thing if we can take possession of the fort, and use it in defending my mother and the girls and ourselves."
"If the coast is clear, I'll move for the fort without delay," said Artie. "One man can hold that place, if the doors and the portholes are properly secured."
"That's so, but don't do anything rash, Artie," said Deck, gravely. "Remember what Ripley said--those guerillas of Morgan's are the worst cut-throats Kentucky has ever seen."
"Artie might wait until I can help him," suggested Levi. "If the fort isn't occupied now, it won't take long to get the boys over to it in the canoe and with a small raft in tow."
And so it was arranged that the young captain should wait on the movements of the overseer, and this decided, the three set off on their various missions.
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