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AN IMPORTANT CAPTURE ON THE MOUNTAINS
Major Deck Lyon felt certain that they had not only made a discovery of importance, but that this discovery, if followed up, would lead to something of still more value to know.
He felt, however, that not a moment was to be lost. Already the shades of night had fallen across Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain, casting deep patches of gloom among the several valleys. In the darkness, the trail would become dangerous, if it was not already so.
The five sharpshooters were halted, and the situation was explained to them. Then two were sent on the back trail, to cover their rear, two were sent up the creek, one on either side, and the remaining man accompanied Deck and Life to the base of the rocky hill from which the signal had been flashed.
"You will take care of our horses, Clefton," said the major, to the last sharpshooter. "If an enemy appears, keep out of the way if you can. I want to learn just what is going on before an alarm is given."
In a minute more, the major and the captain were crawling over the rocks and through the brush, directly for the place whence the signal-light had appeared. No answering signal had been discovered, and Deck concluded that the second signal station was out of the range of the valley bottom.
The distance from the trail to the spot from which the light had flashed was calculated by Life Knox to be not over five hundred yards, that is, about a quarter of a mile, and the tall Kentuckian was not the man to make a mistake in calculating such a distance. But the way was rugged, and often a gully or a wall of rock brought the pair to a halt. Yet the gullies were not so wide but that each could be covered by a stiff jump, and they helped one another up the steep places. The Kentuckian advanced with hardly any noise, and Deck followed his example, although not so familiar with woodcraft.
Three-quarters of the distance to the top of the rocky hill had been covered when each clutched the other by the arm. Both had made a discovery, whether of importance or not, they could not just then tell. They had found three horses, tethered in a spot through which ran a trail running east and west, diagonally to the course they were pursuing.
"Hist, somebody is coming," whispered Deck, as Life started to speak; and both shrunk back in the shadow of a clump of bushes.
They could hear the low murmur of three voices, and presently they distinguished three Confederates, attired in the uniform of the signal corps. Each man carried a pair of field-glasses and some sort of an apparatus strapped to his back.
"They are the fellows we are after, sure enough," whispered Life. "Three to two. What shall we do?"
"Wait; and see to your pistol," answered the major, in an equally low voice.
"Captain, what did you make that last signal out to mean?" asked one of the Confederates.
"It meant that the Yankees have crossed Sand Mountain and are assembling along Lookout."
"But what of the cavalry?"
"They are on the extreme right of their troops."
"Then they must be in this neighborhood. It's a good thing for General Wheeler that we have learned this. I suppose they'll come close to Alpine."
"More than likely they'll strike right through to Summerville."
"Then they mean to turn our left if they can," put in the third signalman, who had not spoken heretofore. "What do you suppose General Bragg will do?"
"He'll come out of Chattanooga and fight 'em, that's what he'll do, Simpler. To my notion it was foolish not to offer them a fight right on the bank of the Tennessee."
Speaking in this strain, the three signalmen turned in at the spot where they had left their horses, and began to untie the animals. While they were doing this, Life leaned over to Deck.
"Well?" he asked in a whisper.
"Do you think we can manage them, Life?"
"Why not? We have the drop of them, if we keep behind the trees."
"I should like to make them prisoners."
"Let us try it; I don't think we'll come off second best," answered the matter-of-fact captain of the seventh company.
Deck raised his pistol and Life did the same. "I'll cover the fellow beside the white horse," he explained.
"Correct; I'll cover both of the others," was Life's reply, as he produced another weapon.
The next moment Deck called upon the three signalmen to surrender. His command started the three very much, and they stopped their talk and gazed around them in bewilderment.
"What's that?" questioned the captain, nervously.
"I call on you to surrender. Down with your arms or you are dead men."
"Who are you?"
"A major in the Union army, in command of a detachment of sharpshooters," answered Deck, telling the exact truth.
"Stand ready to fire, boys," he continued, as if addressing a full company behind him.
"We surrender," said the leader of the signalmen, promptly.
"Throw down your arms."
One after another the weapons of the Confederates were cast away.
"Keep them well covered, boys," said Deck, and going forward he gathered the pistols up, also the captain's sword.
"Now march down the hillside in that direction," went on the major; "and no treachery, or you'll be dead men inside of ten seconds." He raised his voice. "Forward, boys! Captain Knox, take command!"
"All right, Major," answered Knox, gruffly. He turned around. "Forward, boys, and keep them covered," and then as the Confederates moved off, he also moved, making as much noise as a dozen men. The ruse was completely successful, even more so than it had been at the time the cannon on the raft was captured.
At the foot of the hill Clefton, the sharpshooter, was called up, and sent to notify the others. Soon the detachment of seven was assembled, and then all surrounded the prisoners.
"You don't mean to say this is all the men you have?" demanded the leader of the signalmen.
"I haven't any others very near," said Deck.
"Well, that's the time I was fooled for fair. I thought you had a full company stuck up there among the trees."
"Are you prepared to go along peaceably?" asked Deck, to change the subject.
"Being unarmed, how can we help ourselves?"
"I see you have a large stock of common sense, even if you were captured," said Deck, with a laugh. "All right, you shall ride, but your animals must be chained to our own, or they might run away with you in the darkness."
"Which means that we might try to run away on them."
"I didn't put it quite so pointedly, Captain."
"But you meant it, nevertheless. Well, it's all right,--'fortune of war,' so to speak, and I shan't complain. Who are you?"
"Major Deck Lyon, of the Riverlawn Cavalry of Kentucky."
"And I am Captain Vallingham, of the South Carolina volunteers,--now on detached duty."
"You seem to have been running a sort of a signal station up there, Captain Vallingham."
"Oh, we have been amusing ourselves."
"Do you think the persons who were signalled to were likewise amused?"
"How do you know we were signalling to anybody?"
"I take it for granted you didn't wave those pine knots to the stars. You are too intelligent a man to believe in negro voodooism."
"Perhaps I am not as intelligent as you imagine, Major. Remember, I surrendered when I should have fought. We were three to two, and it would have been a pretty fair contest."
"But we had the drop on you."
"True, but it was pretty dark."
"Yes, and it is too dark now to suit me, Captain. Life, let us light up a bit."
"Here is an opening in the brush, Major," answered the Kentuckian, who imagined he understood what the young commander had in mind.
Evidently the leader of the signalmen also understood, or thought he did, for as the group turned into the clearing Life had mentioned, he was observed by the watchful major to throw a small note-book over the bushes.
"Halt!" cried Deck. "Brady, let me have that lantern you brought along."
The sharpshooter addressed complied, the lantern was lit, and the major began a hunt. The note-book lay wide open on some short brush, and was easily discovered, along with two letters beside it. With the articles in his hand, Deck returned to the Confederate signalmen.
"Captain Vallingham, I am sorry to see you throw away your property in this fashion," he remarked.
"You're altogether too sharp!" growled the signalman, and now his pleasant manner deserted him.
"In order to prevent you from throwing away anything more of value, I'll have you searched. Clefton, go through the man from hat to boots, and don't let anything escape you."
"Are you going to rob me?"
"Yes,--of information, if any more is to be had."
"I haven't anything beside that note-book and the two letters. The letters are from my mother,--private correspondence."
"You give me your word of honor as a gentleman to that?"
"Then there you are, Captain. I have no desire to pry into your personal affairs. I am working solely in the interests of the United States of America."
A flush came over the Confederate's face, and he crammed the letters into a pocket Clefton had just turned inside out. "Much obliged; I am glad to learn a Yankee can still be a gentleman in some respects."
"In all respects, Captain Vallingham. Clefton, anything else of value to our general?"
"Haven't pulled off his boots yet, Major."
"Do you think I carry the secrets of the Confederate army in my foot-wear?" demanded the captain.
"I am not thinking; I am trying to find out," answered Deck, calmly.
"I'm not used to going barefooted."
"We won't keep you barefooted. Now, Clefton--Ah, what's that?"
For from the top of Captain Vallingham's stocking an edge of paper had protruded. The paper was pinned fast, but easily released, and Deck unfolded it, and held it so that the light of the lantern might fall upon it.
"A map of this vicinity, and of the approaches to Chattanooga," he said. "Very good. Life, here is where that other signal corps was stationed, in the direction of Alpine. Is that all, Clefton?"
"Seems to be, Major Lyon."
"Now examine the other prisoners."
The order was carried out with despatch and care, and one other map was brought to light, along with an order from a member of General Wheeler's staff, directing the movements of the signalmen. The order was dated at Lafayette, a town about midway between where the detachment was now stationed and Chattanooga.
Deck gave the note-book a scanty inspection and found it contained the signal code for that campaign, and also a diary of the work performed. There was also a note speaking of the forces under General Wharton, commanding one division of Wheeler's cavalry. This showed that the Confederate cavalry were watching for General Mitchell's troops to the north of Lafayette.
Shoving the note-book and maps into his pocket, Deck ordered his men on the return, the prisoners to ride behind himself and Life, with the five sharpshooters in the rear. He felt that he had gained sufficient information to warrant his return. To use an old phrase, "the cat was out of the bag," and it would not be long before General Bragg would bring out his troops from Chattanooga and vicinity to do the Army of the Cumberland battle.
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