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    Chapter 22

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    Chapter 23
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    THE SIGNALS IN THE DARK

    The Tennessee River passed, the Riverlawns, with the other cavalry, preceded the Twentieth Army Corps to Winston's Gap, not far from Valley Head, at the base of Lookout Mountain, and some thirty-five miles south of Chattanooga. At the same time the other troops came over Sand and Raccoon mountains, and through various gaps, until, on the 6th of September, the army lay along the base of Lookout, from Valley Head, just mentioned, northward to Wauhatchee, several miles above Chattanooga.

    The passage of Sand Mountain was a trying one, never to be forgotten by about half of Captain Abbey's company, who were riding in advance of the regular body of cavalry. The Engineering Corps had had the roads repaired, but the ascent was steep, and in certain spots the trail was but wide enough for one horseman to pass at a time. The provisions were brought along on pack mules, and the artillery had to take a roundabout route twelve miles longer.

    Captain Abbey was at the head of his men, and several hundred feet in advance of any other body of cavalry, when, without warning, thirty-two of the Riverlawns were caught on a mountain trail not over six feet broad, having on one side a wall or cliff nearly a hundred feet high, and on the other a sheer descent of twice that number of feet into a hollow filled with jagged rocks.

    The accident which brought this condition of affairs about was in reality as simple as it was serious. The trail wound around the mountain in the shape of a horseshoe, and the cavalrymen were journeying slowly along at the bottom of the curve, when some rocks and sand far above them began to slide down. The rumble was heard in time to allow the riders to escape the landslide, but immediately the trail before and behind them was choked up with boulders and sand to the height, or depth, of fifteen feet or more.

    It cannot be denied that the members of the first company who were thus caught were greatly alarmed. Second Lieutenant Burton was with Captain Abbey, and he yelled out that the mountain was coming down. For several minutes a score of cries and yells filled the air, but gradually these died away, and when the landslide stopped, and the dust had rolled away, the cavalrymen looked about them to see what damage had been done.

    "Nobody hurt," announced Captain Abbey. "That was the most fortunate landslide I ever saw."

    "We'll have to go back," said Lieutenant Burton, who had surveyed the disaster ahead. "We can't climb over that mass of rocks,--it wouldn't be safe."

    "I'd like to know how we are going back," put in one of the sergeants. "We are blocked in the rear as well as in front. That stuff came from the top of yonder ridge, and half of it slid down on this side of the curve and half on the other. We are hemmed in."

    This announcement made all feel very uneasy, and more than one cavalryman turned slightly pale. If they couldn't advance or retreat what were they to do?

    "Let us make a careful investigation of our condition first," said Captain Abbey, who was as calm as anybody in the detachment. "If we can do nothing better, we can clear that rubbish off the trail."

    At this Lieutenant Burton shook his head.

    "That would be a dangerous undertaking, Captain. When rocks and sand once begin to slide there is no telling when they will stop."

    "But this stuff can only slide into the valley below, Burton."

    "This stuff can, that's true; but it may bring down ten times as much on our heads."

    At this Captain Abbey shrugged his shoulders. "Well, we'll investigate first and lay plans afterward. We can't stay here forever. In a couple of hours more it will be dark."

    A cry now arose from other portions of the trail, front and back, asking if anybody had been hurt. The answer was reassuring: and then the captain began looking over the ground, moving cautiously around on foot, followed by the lieutenant and the sergeant. As the trail was so narrow, the other cavalrymen remained where they were, continually on the watch to see if more of the ridge above was liable to break away.

    There was no doubt but that the platoon was in a "tight fix," to use Lieutenant Burton's way of expressing it. The boulders in the pathway were four and five feet in diameter, and several of them were wedged together, all covered with sand and a sort of shell-rock. The blockade in the front was as bad as that in the rear; indeed, there seemed to be no choice between the two.

    "Well, we're treed," remarked the lieutenant.

    "I should say we were shelved," answered the captain, with a faint smile.

    "We're in a bad box," added the sergeant. "What's to do?"

    "I think we might tackle that blockade in the rear, and thus open the way to join the rest of the regiment. Then, if Colonel Lyon says so, we'll clear the blockade ahead." The captain spoke thus of Colonel Lyon, for that officer once more occupied his position with the Riverlawns, having just about recovered, but no more.

    With extreme caution Captain Abbey advanced to the landslide in the rear, and managed, with his lieutenant's aid, to reach the ground just above the blockade. It was shaky and uncertain, and he sank into the sand up to his ankles.

    "If we had a lever of some sort we might pry those rocks over the edge of the cliff," he observed. "I don't believe much more would come down outside of sand and small stones, and that we could shovel away. Let us try to find a pole, or--Hullo, Major!" he added, suddenly, "how did you get here?"

    "Climbed up from the other side of the fallen mass," answered Major Deck Lyon, for the new arrival was he. "Here's a pretty how-do-you-do, eh?"

    "That's right, Major. I was just saying we might pry these rocks off with a heavy pole, if we had the pole."

    "I thought as much, Captain, and have already sent back for the heaviest wagon pole the train possesses," responded Deck. "It will be here as soon as the boys can bring it up. The problem will be, can we get enough strength on one end of the lever to move the weight at the other end?"

    "The boys are strong, if only they can get a hold."

    "But they may not be able to get a hold,--in which case we'll have to try some other plan. To be sure, the men might climb back in this direction, but that won't be saving the horses, or opening the trail again," concluded Deck.

    The problem on foot interested him, and as soon as the heavy wagon pole put into appearance he had it slid up on the rocks, and one end was inserted between the largest of the boulders, and that next to it. The major, captain, and sergeant tugged with might and main, but the upper stone did not budge, and it looked as if ten men could not do the work.

    "I reckon that rock is there to stay," remarked Captain Abbey, as he wiped the perspiration from his face. "This is nigger's work; and I'm done."

    Deck studied the problem for a moment. "Well, 'as the mountain wouldn't come to Mahomet, Mahomet went to the mountain,'" he quoted. "As this rock refuses to budge, I don't know but that it is solid enough to remain where it is, and we can fix up a trail right over it."

    "By Jove! that's so!" cried Captain Abbey. "It's fairly flat on top. All we need is a slope from the front and the back."

    A number of men were now called forward, and under Deck's directions the upper surface of the landslide was cleared away. Everything in the shape of a flat stone was placed before and behind the big rock, and the sand and fine shell-rock was shovelled into the cracks between. Inside of an hour, a new footway was formed at the spot, rising five feet in the centre and sloping off fifteen feet in either direction. It was made easy for the horses, and the animals went over it without hesitation.

    In the meantime the other obstruction had been attacked by another body of workers. Here the heavy pole came into good play, and rock after rock was sent tumbling into the valley below. The sand was shovelled after it, and by the time the rear obstruction was taken care of, the other was likewise a thing of the past.

    "You had better join the Engineering Corps, Dexter," remarked Colonel Lyon, as he came up, having been to the rear in consultation with the commander of the cavalry forces.

    "It was a work of necessity, father," answered the major. "The platoon of the first company was stuck, and it would never have done to have abandoned those horses. We haven't a single animal to spare, even though we did round up those others in Alabama."

    "I know we haven't any to spare, Dexter. By the way, how do you like that black charger you have chosen?"

    "Oh, he seems to be all right. But he isn't Ceph,--not by a good deal."

    "No, you won't find one horse in a thousand like Ceph, my son. I'm afraid the loss of that noble animal will handicap you in making those famous leaps on the heads of Confederate officers, such as you have made in the past."

    "No, this horse would never do such work--I wouldn't dare to try him," answered the major. "He is of ordinary intelligence, and of good speed and endurance; and that is all I can say of him."

    "I have just been in consultation with the general commanding," went on Colonel Lyon, after a pause. "He wishes a special piece of work done, and says he would like Major Dexter Lyon to do it."

    "I am ready, sir. What is the work?"

    "As you know, we are to move up to Winston's Gap. The general imagines a detachment of Wheeler's cavalry is located somewhere at this side of the Gap, or near Valley Head, strongly intrenched, to take us unaware. You are to learn the truth of the situation."

    "I will do my best."

    "It was agreed between us that you should take a detachment of six men with you, and one of the number was to be Captain Knox."

    "That just suits me."

    "The other men are to be sharpshooters from Captain's Knox's company."

    "That will also be satisfactory."

    "Before you go you are to come to the general for instructions. He is just below here, at the Knob, as it is called. You must remember passing the spot."

    "Yes, I remember," answered Deck.

    It was supper time, but the major did not wait for the meal. Calling a negro orderly aside, he procured a bite and a strong cup of coffee, and having swallowed both, set off on a gallop.

    The conference with General Mitchell occupied the best part of quarter of an hour. Deck was instructed to take the road leading to the headwaters of Town Creek, to the northwest of Valley Head. He was to pass over the creek or around it, and note with care all of the approaches to Lookout Mountain in that vicinity. The mission might prove dangerous, and the sharpshooters were to do their best to avoid a capture by the enemy, should the Confederates develop in force and surprise them.

    With these instructions well understood, Deck returned to the Riverlawns and summoned Life. The selection of the five sharpshooters was left to the tall Kentuckian, and it is needless to state that the captain picked out the most able fellows his company afforded. The horses had already been watered and groomed, and the men had had supper; so after Deck's own steed was cared for, they set off, the major and the captain side by side, and the sharpshooters by column of twos in the rear.

    At about eight o'clock the mountain was passed, and the seven cavalrymen found themselves in a small valley, with rocks upon one side, and a woods backed up by a small creek on the other. The trail lay along the bank of the creek, and was easy to follow, even in the gathering darkness.

    "How long do you propose to travel--all night?" asked Life, presently.

    "That will depend upon circumstances," answered Deck. "We may as well push along while the trail is as clear as it is here."

    "But we can't locate any enemy in the dark."

    "I doubt very much if any Confederates are so close to us. I was thinking, however, we might spot a camp-fire before midnight."

    "If they have any camp-fires."

    "They won't do without them in this fall weather unless ordered especially to that effect, Life. An Alabama mountaineer loves his camp-fire almost as well as he loves his moonshine whiskey."

    "But the mountaineers are not exactly what we are after," insisted the Kentuckian, who wanted to "corner" his companion, if he could, just for the fun of it.

    "A mountaineer can tell a lot of things, if you can make him talk," was the major's significant response. "If Wheeler's cavalry is in this vicinity you can lay odds on it that all the inhabitants of this wild territory know it."

    "Well, I reckon you are about right,--as you always are, Deck. If we--Hullo, what's the meaning of that?"

    Life drew rein suddenly, and pointed toward the rocky elevation to one side of the trail. Deck looked in the direction, but could make out nothing unusual.

    "What are you pointing at, Life?"

    "It's gone now. It was--There it is again!"

    Deck now saw that which had attracted his companion's attention. A light had appeared, evidently a pine torch. It was swung around in a circle several times, then moved up and down,--and then it vanished as before.

    "It's a signal, Life!"

    "They moved it that way before," answered the captain of the seventh company. "What can it mean?"

    "It means that one detachment of the Confederates is signalling to another," ejaculated Deck. "Come ahead; I am going to learn the particulars of this movement if I can."
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