Son of Light Horse Harry - James Barnes

Father and Sons

Colonel Henry Lee was walking up the main street of Alexandria. There was not a man, nor a woman, nor a child nor negro slave, for that matter who did not know him by sight. Although his figure had grown stouter since the days when as Light Horse Harry he had passed ten hours out of the twenty-four in the saddle, his eyes were bright, and in them, on occasions, shone flashes of the old-time fire. His ruddy cheeks glowed with health, and the fact that he was still fond of horseback riding was proved by the fact that he wore a heavy pair of buckskin riding-trousers and his top-boots, with silver spurs at the heels, were sprinkled with splashes from the muddy Virginia road.

Beside him walked two little boys, one nine years of age and the other a child of five or six. It was all the little one could do to keep pace with the father's quick, sturdy strides, but with head thrown back he plodded on manfully beside him.

Suddenly the colonel looked down.

"Going too fast for you, Robert, my son?" he asked.

"No, sir; I'll keep up with you," replied the boy, panting slightly.

A smile passed between them. The colonel, extending his hand to the little fellow, slowed his gait.

"I was thinking hard, my son," he said, "and I have noticed that when a person thinks hard he works hard, and walks hard."

"I do that myself sometimes," the elder boy put in, "and sometimes I get thinking so quick I have to run."

"And what are you thinking about then?" asked the father.

"What I want to do some day, sir."

"And what is that?"

"Oh, so many things, I couldn't tell you them all; but principally I think how I would like to be a sailor."

"I want to be a soldier, panted the small one, suddenly.

The colonel laughed. "And what kind of a soldier, my son?"

"One like yourself, father," the boy replied, taking a fresh hold of one of the colonel's sturdy fingers.

They had reached the gateway of the fine old place that had come into the colonel's possession a short time before, and to which he had moved from the old family mansion of Stratford, in Westmoreland County, that had been associated for generations with the family name of Lee.

Standing at the entrance as they approached was a tall, spare man in a faded blue coat, a great, old-fashioned, three-cornered hat came down to his ears, and his gray hair was braided in a tightly wrapped queue that reached down to his thin shoulder-blades. Although at least seventy, the tall man's figure was very straight, and his light-blue eyes under his shaggy eye-brows gleamed brightly. As the colonel saw him the old man's hand flew to his forehead, and he stood stiff and rigid in the attitude of salute. The colonel returned it, and then his face lit up.

"Powell, how are you?" he said, extending his hand cordially.

"Very well, colonel, for one of my years," was the reply. "I am pleased you remembered me, sir."

"I never forget the face of an old friend, Powell. And what brings you to this part of the country?"

"I came up to Washington to see about my pension. The old wound still troubles me at times. But now I hear there is going to be another war. I think I might still be fit for service."

"If there is anything I can do for you I'll do it, Powell; but I don't go to Washington very often now. I have some friends there, however."

It was true that just at this time the colonel was a little on the outs on some political question with the administration, and being a man who concealed neither his friendships nor his animosities, he cared little who knew it. Yet they intended making him a general in case of trouble with England, for the country was then on the border of the War of 1812. Perhaps the old soldier had heard something of the matter, for he thanked the colonel kindly and informed him that his only object in crossing the Potomac was to see his old commander once again and to ask if he could serve him.

"There are plenty of young men to do all the fighting, Powell," replied the colonel, "but if war should come—and I am afraid it will if the old legion is ordered into service, I can promise you that we'll be together again."

"Thank you for speaking me so fair," replied the old man. "I can fling a leg over a horse's back, but I fear my sword-arm is not what it used to be, yet I'd rather be with you once again, riding after the redcoats, if I could, than to draw a general's pension."

"I'm sure you would, Powell, and my hand on that," returned the colonel, his eyes moistening.

With some embarrassment the old trooper took the extended hand.

Colonel Lee suddenly felt a pull at his coat-tail. He understood at once.

"This is my son Sydney, Powell," he said. "And this is Robert, my youngest." Then to the boys, "Mr. Powell was with me—let's see, how many years was it?"

"From the beginning to the end of the war, colonel." Again the old man saluted.

As he fell in beside his old commander it was noticed that the man limped slightly.

"You were wounded at the Deep River, if I remember rightly," said the colonel.

"The first time, sir. Yes, and again the day of the affair with Colonel Pyle, sir. I suppose the young gentlemen have heard you tell of that often."

The boys said nothing. Many stories had their father told them, and they had pored over his written accounts and published memoirs by the hour. Sydney knew something of that to which the old soldier had referred, but he determined to hear the story once again and at first hand. So, late that afternoon, as they and their father were sitting together on the broad veranda of the old house, and the old soldier had left, Sydney opened the subject frankly.

"Tell me about Colonel Pyle and what Mr. Powell had to do with it, father," he requested.

The colonel, nothing loath, leaned back in his chair, and, as the elder nestled at his knee and Robert climbed to the shelter of his arms, he began this story:

"It was while I was pursuing my old enemy, Colonel Tarleton, that the incident occurred to which our friend Powell referred. Two or three times I had supposed that I had him safe, and every time he had escaped me. North Carolina, during the days of the Revolution, was much divided in its sentiments, as you know, and many hundreds of the country people were not only loyal in their sentiments to the British government, but served the crown in every way in their power. There were Tory bands that disbanded in one place to meet in another scattered all through the State, and Colonel Tarleton and the bold English cavalrymen never at any time lacked for guides who knew every inch of the country and every bypath of the wilderness.

"It was while I was crossing the Haw River, near Hillsboro, that I heard that Tarleton was in camp but four miles in front, and probably unaware of our position. Finding a countryman by the road-side whom one of the troopers recognized as a friend of liberty, we sent him on ahead to ascertain, if possible, the condition of the British camp and the position of the forces. In a very little time he returned with the information that Colonel Tarleton's men were resting by the road-side and only the usual pickets placed in the meadow where the horses were grazing. The colonel and his officers were in a farm-house some little distance from the road, and were at that moment breakfasting.

"Now, Tarleton at this time had more cavalry than we had, and in addition possessed two small field-pieces, while we had none of the latter. However, in infantry, including the militia who were then serving with us, we possessed probably a hundred men more than the British. With a great deal of care we advanced down the road for a mile or so and then deployed into the woods. Our progress was slow, however, and when we reached the meadow and the lane our game had flown. But riding up swiftly to the farm-house we succeeded in capturing two of Tarleton's officers. From them we learned that Colonel Tarleton must have called his command together just after our informant, the countryman, had started to return. I was so chagrined and disappointed at not getting hold of the man whom I had so much wanted to meet that I proposed to Colonel Pickens a plan that might bring us together. The uniform of the legion I commanded was very much like that of the British—a short green coat with red trimmings—and our men were very similar in appearance. Although it was very risky we decided to' pass off the command as a British detachment following to join the main body on the road ahead. As soon as this was decided I rode out at the head of the cavalry and proceeded leisurely down the road, the two prisoners under charge of this same man Powell, who was then a sergeant, being warned not to disclose our character under penalty of death, for war often has to use extreme measures, as you know. Well, we had not gone far down the road when we met two mounted countrymen standing in the bushes. One of them rode out and, taking off his hat awkwardly, bowed and spoke to the officer who was riding about a hundred paces in front leading the vanguard.

"'We have just come from Colonel Pyle, who is not far down the road, and we are looking for Colonel Tarleton's camp, sir,' he said.

"This Colonel Pyle, I might mention, was quite a wealthy man and loyal to the British crown. It had been rumored for a long time that he had been gathering the Tories of the immediate neighborhood, and he had come to be regarded by the Federalists as a dangerous person indeed. It was fortunate that the young officer to whom they spoke was both clever and quick-witted, for without a moment's hesitation he turned to a man at his elbow, who had overheard what the countryman had said, and told him to ride back to the colonel with the information. He detained the young men for a minute or so, and then allowed them to ride back towards where I was standing at the head of the halted column. The dragoon to whom the message had been intrusted was no fool either, and he told me what had occurred and in such a manner that I was completely warned and could act accordingly. Before the two messengers from Colonel Pyle had arrived within speaking distance, I sent back a message to Brigadier Pickens, requesting him to place his riflemen out of sight on the left flank in the thick woods. It was necessary to do this, for the militia were readily distinguished by the green twigs they wore in their hats, while the mounted men of the legion, as I told you before, resembled very much Tarleton's dragoons. The two prisoners we had taken at the house were also hurried to the rear. This was hardly done before the two countrymen had reached me, and the very first word that one of them said determined my course of action, for he addressed me by no other name than Colonel Tarleton. It was not the proper time to inform him of his mistake, and I let it pass.

"The other fellow, who was mounted on a fine gray horse, broke in now with a long account of the laudable spirit that had actuated Colonel Pyle in gathering together such a fine band of mounted men to help put down the rebels, and he expressed the hope that I would soon be able to capture that 'arch-traitor Lee.' I almost smiled when he spoke of me in this fashion, but I replied, thanking him for all his loyal sentiment and expressing much gratitude at the news that he had brought. Delay, however, was dangerous. Every minute counted now; we had to act quickly, so I determined upon a bold expedient. Sending one of the troopers back to the rear with orders for the column to close up and keep well together, I requested the young man who had first spoken to ride ahead with one of my officers, the same one that had had charge of the vanguard, and to request Colonel Pyle, with Colonel Tarleton's compliments, to draw his men up by the side of the road and allow me to pass by, as my troops and horses were tired and we wished to get into camp immediately. What puzzled me was that they had missed meeting the real Tarleton, who was not above an hour ahead of us on the road. The reason, however, I soon saw, for Colonel Pyle's company had ridden into the highway from a lumber road and across some newly broken country. It was just by luck that his messenger had gone south instead of north, and he could not have, missed seeing Tarleton's rear-guard by more than a few minutes at least. My officer and Colonel Pyle's young trooper had galloped ahead out of sight. The man on the gray horse I kept with me, and he talked on incessantly in praise of Colonel Pyle, and was insistent in expressing hopes that the rebels would soon be dancing at the end of a rope, or, as he suggested, be sent to sea in leaky ships and sunk, as the quickest way to get rid of them. He adapted his conversation to the supposed character of the man he was addressing, but I never saw a mild-eyed youth indulge in such blood-thirsty rhetoric.

"Turning in my saddle I looked back and saw that my men were following quietly and in good order, but I noticed that they had drawn their sabres and were carrying them as if ready to make a passing salute. A turn in the road brought us in sight of a long line of mounted men forming, as I had suggested, with their left to the advancing column, which, of course, meant that I would find Colonel Pyle at the farther end that is, on the right.

"There was an added danger, perhaps, in that my men had to pass the whole length of the Tory line, and yet it gave me an advantage from the fact that, should any treachery or surprise take place, we would be in a better position to meet it. I had not the slightest idea whether Colonel Pyle knew Colonel Tarleton by sight, the garrulous countrymen by my side not being able to give me the information. It was my intention, however, upon getting an opportunity, to speak to the Tory leader, to make known our real character at once and give him my solemn assurance that he and his followers would be exempt from all harm if they would put down their arms and return to their respective homes. I also intended to give him an opportunity for a more generous action, and urge him to throw in his lot with us instead of with those who were then the enemies of our country and of liberty.

"I soon saw my officer returning, and, as I halted the column for a moment I was delighted at the news he brought, for it was reassuring and showed that Colonel Pyle suspected nothing. It was a trying moment when we rode by the first line of young men on their shaggy, unkempt farm-horses. I kept talking to my guide and looking out at the Tories as I passed by. They were much like our militia in appearance, and, in fact, were in some cases friends and neighbors. They were armed with rifles, muskets, and not a few with fowling-pieces, but they were a sturdy lot, and it was a nervous moment for me when the head of the column drew past the flank. Every foot, of course, that we progressed increased the chances of success. My men had been cautioned not to speak, and with set faces and a stiff attitude of regular dragoons, their sword-hilts at their hips, they rode on.

"I saw a man sitting on a big brown horse in the middle of the road to the right of the line, and my guide informed me that it was Colonel Pyle. He urged his horse a few steps forward on a walk, and, leaning with his hand outstretched, began to speak. What he said I could not clearly make out, but I knew that he addressed me as Colonel Tarleton. It was on my lips to stop him, when suddenly there came two shots from down on the left of the line, followed by four or five others, some quite near to us, and then a great shout. We had been discovered! Without any order being given by me, and by none from the officers with me, the line of troopers whirled and attacked Pyle's men, who were almost at sword's-point distance. One of the latter made a stroke at me with the butt of his rifle. Had not our friend Powell who was just here parried the blow and received part of the force of it on his shoulder, I should not have been here, my son.

"There was cutting and slashing up and down the line, and not a few shots exchanged at close quarters, but in the main the Tories had been taken by surprise, and it was but a one-sided fight. In the mean time, Tarleton, hearing the noise, had moved on quickly and escaped across the river. It was the second time that he had slipped through my fingers in twenty-four hours."

As the boys listened to the story the elder concealed with some difficulty his excitement, and when his father had finished he said nothing for a few minutes, then he grasped his father's hand.

"I'm glad you told me that story, sir," he said, quietly.

"Why, especially, my son?" asked the colonel. "Because I wished to know the truth about it all."

The colonel put his hand upon his son's head and laughed.

Here little Robert spoke. "I don't like stories that are not true ones," he said, looking up into his father's face.

"I think you always want to know the truth about everything, my boy," replied the colonel. "It is sometimes hard to tell it when you hear it, and sometimes hard to tell it when you have to speak it. But there used to be an adage in our family that should always hold true—'Lees never lie!'

As long as he could remember, from the time his youngest son was a prattling little child of three, the colonel had never received else than a straightforward answer to a question. The old adage of the family seemed born in the boy's very fibre. Even at the age of six he had a grave, quiet way about him. Colonel Lee looked down with a glance of pride and affection at the boy's thoughtful face.

However, as it was growing dark, the father and his sons arose and entered the house. The boys stopped at the window and stood there alone. Sydney was glad his father had told him the story, because not long before he had heard a different version of it told at the house of one of the neighbors, a man who had been known to have had British sympathies during the Revolution. And although no names had been mentioned, and he did not know altogether how much his father had to do with it, he resented the tale of Colonel Pyle's having been decoyed into a bad position and his men massacred in cold blood. He knew what to say now if the subject was ever brought up again.

As for Robert, child though he was, he never forgot his father's words.