Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Along the Rio Grande

Although it was December, it was intensely hot along the Rio Grande, and at Saltillo, where General Wool's division was encamped, the troops were glad to seek the shadow of tents or wagons in order to escape the glare of the mid-day sun. Captain Lee was in his tent, writing at a little table, when Captain William D. Fraser, his assistant in the Engineer Corps, entered. He removed his heavy hat and seated himself on the ground, so that what breeze there was stirring might fan him as it came in under the flap of the canvas tent.

"Strange sort of weather for Christmas, Captain Lee," he remarked. "I'd give a good deal to hear the jingle of sleigh-bells and to have a touch of old Massachusetts just now. I have just finished my Christmas letters, and I think I have begun them all with complaints about the weather. Don't let me interrupt your writing. I suppose you're doing the same thing."

Lee glanced down at the paper on the rough table before him. He had just begun a letter addressed to his two eldest sons, for he was now the father of six children. His eldest boy was thirteen and the second was nine years of age.

"You hit it exactly, Fraser," he said. "I think always, no matter where we may be, our thoughts turn homeward at this season of the year. But don't go, you're not interrupting me. I want to talk with you. Has there been any news of the enemy brought in within the last twenty-four hours?"

"Everything is about as indefinite as ever," the captain replied. "The outposts reported yesterday that they had seen, towards evening, some of the mounted scouts, and that large columns of dust were rising also to the southward across the ridge in the direction of the pass. I hope they won't disturb us to-morrow, for, despite the temperature and the climate, we have arranged for quite a spread. Don't forget that you have promised to attend. I was told to hide all your maps and insist on your sharing in what promises to be rather a jolly evening."

He pointed under the flap of the tent. "See those two chickens over there tied up by the legs? They're pretty fat for Mexico, aren't they?"

"No reason why they shouldn't be," returned Captain Lee, laughing, "when you've fed them every day yourself for a week. I believe a good share of your rations have gone down those chickens' throats."

"I fear I'll miss them terribly," responded Fraser; "I've grown quite attached to them. But still I'm not so soft-hearted that it will interfere with my appetite. That big fellow over there is plump as a goose, and you remember what he was when I first got him. Heard the news? The quartermaster secured a turkey yesterday. But I won't keep you from your letters. Remember to-morrow night!"

He ducked under the flap of the tent and walked over to the sorry-looking fowls and weighed each one in his hand.

"Must have gained half an ounce since yesterday," he shouted back.

Lee smiled again and went on with his writing. And this is the letter just as he wrote it, dated December 24th, the day before Christmas:

"I hope good Santa Claus will fill my Rob's stocking to-night; that Mildred's, Agnes's, and Anna's may break down with good things. I do not know what he may have for you and Mary, but if he only leaves for you one-half of what I wish, you will want for nothing. I have frequently thought that if I had one of you on each side of me riding on ponies, such as I could get you, I would be comparatively happy."

But the next day, Christmas, was not to pass uneventfully. Just after the troops had breakfasted the bugles rang through the camp, and the men hastily formed in ranks and waited anxiously. A mounted Texan had arrived with the news that the Mexican army was on the move and marching northward. It looked as if there might be an action any moment. The artillery was hurriedly sent out, the horses plunging and stumbling through the heavy sand as they dragged the guns along the river-bank.

For the second time Captain Lee had been interrupted in finishing his Christmas correspondence. Just after breakfast he had begun a letter to his wife, a letter that he finished that evening by the light of a candle, for he did not wish to miss the post for the North that left camp on the following morning, and as this letter tells the story of this Christmas Day and also has some reference to Captain Fraser's chickens, perhaps it might be well to include it, in part, as we have included the letter to his sons:

"The troops stood to their arms," he writes, "and I lay on the grass with my sorrel mare saddled by my side and telescope directed to the pass of the mountain through which the road approached. The Mexicans, however, did not make their appearance. Many regrets were expressed at Santa Anna's having spoiled our Christmas dinner, for which ample preparations had been made. The little roasters remained tied to the tent-pins, wondering at their deferred fate, and the headless turkeys retained their plumage unscathed. Finding the enemy did not come, preparations were made for dinner.

We have had many Christmases together. It is the first time we have been entirely separated at this holy time since our marriage. I hope it does not interfere with your happiness, surrounded as you are by father, mother, children, and dear friends. I therefore trust you are happy, and that this is the last time I shall be absent from you during my life. May God bless you till then and forever after is my constant prayer."

This letter reached Arlington at the same time that the other one did that rejoiced the hearts of two little boys who spelled their epistle out before the fire, wishing with all their hearts that they were with their father and riding beside him along the Rio Grande. As for the young mother, she dried her tears quickly, and, as was her wont, wrote a cheerful, gossipy letter in reply, that, however, did not reach the soldier-husband for many a long week, and then when he was in very different surroundings and amid scenes that threatened danger to him and grief to the Arlington household more than once. The sphere of Captain Lee's activities were to be suddenly shifted his first great chance was to come. But before we leave the army of General wool, there was an adventure that befell our hero that proved his strongest point was not his proficiency with pen or pencil. Something happened that showed he possessed a spirit that must have rendered the dry and exacting work of an engineer exceedingly galling at times to his nature. It was in February, not long before the battle of Buena Vista.

The whereabouts of Santa Anna's main force was a puzzle to the American headquarters. Every day, almost, the outposts of mounted troops exchanged shots with his scouts and raiding parties; but the large number of Mexican infantry and cavalry kept themselves hidden in the barren and broken country south of the river.

A great soldier once said that "Scouts, like poets, were born, not made." And true it is you cannot force a man to exceeding excellence in anything mediocrity in scouting, like the same quality in poetry, is useless or nearly so. The gifts of a born scout are simple, and yet are not always found in conjunction. He, first of all, must combine fearlessness with caution; he must be able to mix a modicum of imagination with a large amount of assimilated fact, and make a clear and swift deduction; he must possess that rare gift of unconscious observation and the still rarer one of a memory that never fails, not only to retain but to classify. Besides all this, he must enjoy his work and shirk no part of it for reason of its difficulty or danger, and he must, moreover, have still in his blood some instincts of the primitive man who hunted for his living and was hunted for his life. He must live in the open; he must know nature, judge distance, and possess a born sense of direction. Physically he must be strong, mentally he must be balanced. Every experience must enhance the value of his natural bent and intelligence, until what other men might do after long thought he would do naturally without stopping to think at all.

Robert E. Lee was a born scout. He may, at this time, never have known it, but, as we shall see subsequently, he proved it; and he learned early what some field-officers learn all too late—the value of accurate scouting and absolute information. But to come back to the adventure.

General Wool was complaining at mess one day that no sooner did he get an experienced man than he was taken from him and sent to some one else's command. His forces were mostly volunteers, unused to frontier life for the most part. General Taylor had with him the majority of Texas troops and regulars. General Scott was at Lobos, on the Gulf, assembling his army for the invasion of Mexico from the eastward, and Wool feared that his staff would soon be depleted of his best officers. He had been informed that Captain Lee would be taken from him to accompany the expedition soon to set sail to the south.

"Lee," said he one day, "I would give more than I could tell to know in what force the enemy are on our front. No one brings in the truth. Some days we hear they are within sight of our outposts. At other times they have moved to the east and are concentrating before Taylor. But only yesterday a frightened lieutenant of volunteers brought in word that he had seen a great body of cavalry, with guns and wagons, going westward. He had ridden, so he states, some twelve miles beyond our outposts. What am I to believe? My orders are not to bring on an engagement, so I am afraid to advance the pickets. What am I to do?"

"General," replied Lee, "give me a guide who knows the country and two days' leave and I may find out something."

"It is scarcely the work for an engineer," replied General Wool. "Your services are too valuable to us. I could not allow you to risk your life."

"Let me go, sir. I think I can be of more use to you in the saddle than anywhere else just at present," replied Lee, eagerly. "I will assume the responsibility—give me two days."

The general thought for a moment. "Be back here on Thursday night, then," he said at last; "and if anything should happen to you, I shall never forgive myself."

"Thanks, general; I shall be here," said Lee, quietly; and half an hour later he was mounted on his sorrel mare riding out to the advanced line. By his side rode a little, brown-skinned, wizened man—a half-breed Mexican who had been employed as guide on several expeditions, and whose loyalty to the Northern forces had been fairly proved. It was told that he was an escaped Mexican soldier and that his life was forfeit for a murder of one of Santa Anna's officers.

By five o'clock in the afternoon Lee and his guide had penetrated the broken country south of the American line, and were but five or six miles from a low range of hills beyond which lay the mesa, or flat table-land, supposed to be held by the left wing of the Mexican army. It was along these hills that the American scouts had most often reported seeing the enemy.

Captain Lee spoke a little Spanish, but the Mexican, Pedro, was a taciturn fellow and had given but short replies to Lee's questions. The latter mistrusted him from the start, and soon he was given evidence that his suspicions were well founded.

Pedro all at once halted, reining in his horse with a jangle of the heavy bit.

"Mexicanos," he said, nodding towards the line of hills.

Lee looked in the direction of the guide's intently fixed gaze. Sure enough, along the sky-line was moving a cloud of dust, and just then, clearly in sight, two figures on horseback appeared, standing perfectly still as if watching the plain below. The sun was an hour high above the horizon and the day was intensely hot.

Lee suddenly shifted his glance to the Mexican's cunning, wolf-like face. Something he read there confirmed his previous doubts of the man's integrity, for the Mexican was looking not at the distant hills now, but at Lee, as if trying to discover what kind of a man he had to deal with. Lee read the meaning of that look; there flashed across him the recollection of how, once, when he had been riding out of camp with some troopers, he had seen what appeared to be a mounted force confronting them, and that the officer with him was for returning at once to camp with the information. But Lee had seen the wonderful mirage before, and after some trouble he convinced his companion that it was their own figures they were looking at, reflected, distorted, and multiplied ahead of them by the atmosphere and the shimmering heat-waves.

Without replying to Pedro's exclamation, he moved his horse to the right one of the mounted figures did the same. He lifted his hand—the gesture was followed. Without a word he brought his whip down smartly on the flanks of the Mexican's pony, and, touching his mare with his spurs, he and his companion were soon at a gallop towards the hills, the mirage in the air charging down to meet them. In a few seconds the ghostly horsemen had disappeared.

But Lee had made a discovery; he did not have to deal with treachery, but cowardice. The Mexican was simply a lazy coward. He had known well enough that the two figures that had apparently halted on the hill-crest were due only to the mirage, but he had hoped that Lee might have been deceived as others had been before, and that he might return to camp satisfied that he had seen the enemy. Pedro perceived that he had to deal with a man who knew something; he was, therefore, much chagrined, and tried to cover his mortification by lying.

"It was the dust, senor," he said, turning in his saddle and looking at Lee with something akin to admiration. "It was the dust, not the mirage."

"We will find out what the dust means, Pedro," Lee replied. "And look here, if you leave me or hesitate for an instant to follow me and to obey me, I will leave you for the big, black birds to pick."

He touched his pistols. The Mexican understood and blanched beneath his yellow skin, for the look that had accompanied the gesture proved that it was no idle threat.

Shortly after sunset they reached the hills, and here they off-saddled for an hour in order to rest their horses; and then, before the moon rose, they were climbing up, over a rough trail, to the summit. So far as he knew, none of the American scouts had gone so far south as this, and Lee might well have been satisfied with his work and returned to camp that night. But definite information was what he was seeking. The adventurous side of his nature was awakened. The charm of danger, that to some natures acts almost as an intoxication, tempted him to proceed, but not blindly or rashly. He used every caution as he approached the top of the hill, where he knew the trail led to the right into a rounded hollow, just the place for a Mexican outpost. All this he had studied carefully from below with his field-glass while there was yet daylight, and, although it was now dark, he had kept his bearings and was sure of his whereabouts.

Dismounting and leaving the horses with the Mexican, Lee, on foot, began a steep climb up the hill, and just as the moon, almost at the full, rose above the mesa he found himself on a shelf of rock on a level with the wide plateau and over-looking the hollow. The shadows made it difficult for him to discern objects below him at first, and he waited until he could clearly see that the place was deserted; there was nothing to be seen, either, on the wide floor of the table-land before him, and he had made a very important discovery. The trail by which he and Pedro had proceeded so far appeared to be the only way of gaining the higher ground that is, the only way up which horses might travel—and with the practised eye of the engineer he saw that very little work with pick and spade would make it practicable for artillery. This was an important point. General Wool had been informed that a long and tedious detour of five days, after fording the stream before his camp, would be necessary before he could reach the upland, and that he would probably meet with strong opposition. Here, however, within twelve hours' march, lay an easy way out of the trouble if a strong force of sappers and road-makers could work unmolested for a day or so preparing the trail that led to the hollow. Whether there was an exit thence to the level land above was the question. But, thoroughly satisfied that there was no danger in proceeding, and quite thrilled with his discovery, Lee left his point of vantage and slid and clambered back to the spot where he had left Pedro and the horses.

He found the Mexican with his teeth chattering, almost on the point of making a run for it. He had mounted the sorrel mare and had taken the bridle off the pony and tied up the stirrups preparatory to driving the beast before him back to camp. His relief upon seeing Lee was evident. In broken words he told the captain that he was sure that he had been captured. Lee had not left his pistols in the holsters, but had tucked them in his belt when he began his climb; again he touched them significantly. If Pedro had deserted him he would have found himself in a predicament, for all the water and food he possessed were attached to his saddle, and, as we said before, it was a long ride back to the river.

But the most important part of his work lay before him—to discover if there was a way out of the hollow that was now less than a half-mile ahead of them. On he pressed, leading his horse, the Mexican still in terror at his heels. They came to a place where the trail made an abrupt turn and entered the little valley, and here, to Lee's delight, he found that the path continued broadening as it mounted the western slopes until it debouched upon the plain. Another very important thing he found also: in a deep watercourse, that was entirely dry where he had crossed it some distance below, he perceived a silvery gleam, and there was a deep pool of rain-water caught from a recent freshet. That the place had been recently occupied by either Mexicans or Indians was evident, for the remains of several campfires were there, making black patches among the gray-white stones.

Lee did not pause long to investigate. He mounted quickly, and, ordering Pedro to ride ahead, he galloped up the trail and came out of the shadows onto the open, moonlit plain. For another hour he rode south and then halted. The ground was covered with stunted mesquite-bushes, but in the soft sand were the marks of many hoofs. Pedro examined them and declared that they had been made since the last rainstorm, that had taken place but three days before; possibly they were forty-eight hours old.

Captain Lee now proceeded with great caution, stopping every now and then to examine the direction of the hoof-prints that led southeast away from the line of hills.

Suddenly a muttered exclamation from Pedro called his attention. The Mexican's sharp eyes had detected something that had again aroused his fears. A dim little flicker of light, like the distant flame of a small encampment, glowed among some trees that evidently grew along a distant watercourse. The moon, that had gone behind a cloud, now burst forth, and in the flooding light a long line of grayish-white objects could be made out among the bushes, not more than a mile ahead.

Pedro's fears mastered him; he besought Lee to turn back, insisting that they would both be taken prisoners, and that he would be hanged as a deserter and a traitor for assisting to guide the hated Americanos.

Lee had recourse to the pistols again; drawing one from the holster, he presented it at the coward's head, and threatened him with instant death if he did not ride forward and obey him. Some of the mysterious objects could be seen moving, and all at once something darted from behind a bush, almost under the nose of the sorrel mare. At the same time a shrouded, black figure rose almost at Lee's stirrup, and a voice, in great fear, gave a smothered exclamation in Spanish. It was startling, but Lee's calm nerves had allowed no distortion of his judgment.

The first object he had seen to be an innocent sheep, and the tattered figure trembling beside him he saw not to be a sentry of Santa Anna's army, but an equally innocent herder evidently aroused from sleep.

The man at first was too badly frightened to reply to his captor's questions, for Lee had caught him by the collar of his ragged shirt before the fellow had a chance to take to his heels. After repeated assurances that his life was in no danger, he found his tongue and replied to Pedro's questioning. The news he gave was of great importance and yet disquieting. The Mexican outposts were not over an hour's ride away, and Santa Anna intended to advance in two days he was waiting for his artillery, that had been delayed; but in two days—the herder was sure of the time—he would move northward towards the river. The fire that had first attracted the attention of the little scouting party of two was where some of the Mexican cavalry outposts had cooked their supper. They had then ridden back to the main body, that, as the herder stated, could not be more than ten miles distant.

This was enough for Lee. He had accomplished his purpose, in that he had practically established touch with the enemy, and there was nothing to be gained by accepting further risks. Pedro had been instructed by Lee that in case they should fall in with any of the stragglers or camp-followers of the enemy in the dark they should represent themselves as belonging to Santa Anna's army. Lee's uniform was shrouded under a heavy cloak, and it was evident that the herder, after his first fright, had believed the story, especially as, much to Pedro's discomfiture, Lee had ridden some distance in the direction of the still-flickering campfire before turning to the north again.

When he was sure that he was out of earshot, Lee gave the sorrel mare her head, and, despite the roughness of the ground and the danger of a fall, rode at full speed for the hills. His scouting instinct stood him in good stead. Without having to cast to the left or to the right, he found himself where the trail sank out of the plateau into the slope of the hollow. Still at a trot, he urged his scrambling horse through the gorge, and just as the moon went down and the gray dawn began to appear in the east he found himself on the plain below, with twenty miles to ride before he would be once more back in the American lines. Lee had snatched a few minutes time to water the horses at the pool in the hollow, but still the sorrel mare could scarcely drag one weary leg after the other when, at seven o'clock in the morning, they arrived at the outpost. The Mexican's pony, strange to relate, had stood the distance better than the thoroughbred, and fell to nibbling the grass as soon as Pedro had removed the heavy saddle. Lee at once sent one of the troopers with a note to General Wool, giving him the information he had gathered, which was of tremendous importance at that moment. He also requested that a squadron of dragoons be sent him with rations for three days, and he requested permission to ride forward and take possession of the trail, for the point was of such strategic value that Lee in his note stated he could not overestimate it. When the note was despatched Lee threw himself on the ground under the shelter of a blanket spread over a bush and fell asleep. He had been fourteen hours in the saddle, had ridden between sixty and seventy miles, and had had no sleep for almost forty-eight hours. But in less than three he was up again and mounted on a big, brown charger that General Wool had sent him; he was guiding the squadron over the plain at a gallop, and by noon he had occupied the hollow and established the bivouac. The very next day pick and shovel were at work transforming the rough trail, that had been used only by the arrieros, to a military road. The truth of the sheep-herder's story about the movement of Santa Anna's army was very soon confirmed, for on the second day shots were exchanged between the outposts; but the Mexicans, seeing the advantage the Americans possessed in holding the pass, did not advance in force.

It was, perhaps, the success of Lee's first experiment in scouting that led him subsequently into further experiments of the same sort. But they were to be made under different circumstances and for another leader. Things happened just as General wool had predicted: orders had been received for Lee to join General Scott, and to proceed with him from Lobos down the Gulf to a point off the city of Vera Cruz, that had been selected as the first objective of General Scott's invasion.

Although the orders meant an opportunity for advancement, and were in themselves more or less of a promotion, Lee regretted very much leaving General wool, for whom he entertained feelings of the most sincere friendship, and the general was almost in despair at having to part with so useful a member of his staff. The inexperienced volunteers had been a constant source of worry to him, and he knew he would miss the cool judgment and the soldierly qualities of Lee. Nevertheless, at the battle of Buena Vista, on February 23d, despite Wool's pessimism, his division distinguished itself, as history proves.