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Incidents of a night scout in Custer's rear.

All was quiet now ahead. Skirmishers had disappeared for the night. Riding on briskly toward our objective point now in view on the bank of the Shenandoah (it had been our home during the last two weeks), the servants were just emerging from the cellar along with the turkeys as we approached. Supper was just served, they told us, when the Yankee flood burst on them an hour before—officers entered and sat down to eat. But in the middle of the feast there was a cry outside, ‘The Rebs! The Rebs are coming.’ Up and [103] away, mounting in haste—and the Confederates next moment coming up, sat down and finished the meal.

With a lunch in our hands, proceeding wearily down the riverside a mile, when we reached the little hilltop at Brunk's garden, we observed two horsemen straight ahead of us across the hollow on the elevation in the field beyond, motionless, observing us. It proved to be their outpost.

“They look like our men,” N. said. ‘Hold my rein, and we shall soon see.’ Dismounting, he took deliberate rest and aim at them against the garden fence. The men did not move for this. The distance was probably 175 yards. Then after some delay, he pulled trigger. The cap had only exploded with the usual sharp report. Still the men looked like statues.

“There is something more in this than we see,” I said; ‘get on your horse.’ He appeared to feel so, too, and just as he sprung into his saddle, out into the road fifty yards away down in front of us, in the hollow from behind outbuildings or trees, sprang a dozen men, bringing up their pieces as they sprang, and fired point-blank at us.

A swish of balls tore past us as we put spurs to our horses. And looking over our shoulders as we disappeared from them behind the hill, we saw them ‘put their scrapers to it,’ to reach the top of the hill and give us another volley.

We lost no time. We hurried to put as much distance between us as we could before the second salute, which did come, and in a very brief space of time, we thought.

Well, we must cross the river at a higher ford. And so, crossing at Alger's about dark, we threaded our way past Squire Will's and on down northward, pursuing private ways.

On our way in the darkness at one place there shone out a bright light through an open hall door, the door being cut across the middle, the lower half of it closed. Hitching and tip-toeing up, half expecting a Yankee visitor inside, camp sounds being quite distinct to our right, we found only an elderly man, his wife, and grown daughter.

But the Yankees had been there. The good wife was still lamenting her losses. She sat there telling how they went through her bureau drawers, removing her pipe now and then and spitting viciously back upon her carpet, forgetting in her delirium, we suppose, the large blazing hearth just in front of her. I do not think she had a barn to lose; but this bureau was her grief. Every heart knows its own bitterness. For the time it eclipsed the awful calamity [104] abroad and left no room for thought of country. She insisted on our going in to see. We had not time. The poor old man was both sympathetic and indignant as he heard her recital. He could not say much—he had run out in the bushes at the approach of the soldiers. But he ventured at one very exasperating point in her tale of woe to quietly put in, looking significantly towards us: ‘If I had been here——.’ He was not permitted to say what he would have done. ‘Yes,’ broke in the old lady, ‘if you had been here your * * * * .’ We leave this unfinished. But her very original and even startling speech stampeded us, and her daughter also.

Our safest way now lay around the base of a great wooded hill. Opening a pair of bars we entered these pathless woods and picked our way along, groping in the darkness. It was an hour when we emerged at last, breathing free again as we came out on a little field with another house lighted up. It was a long hour of most painstaking progress, and tangle-bushes and brush and stumbling with led horses. Hitching once more, we removed our jingling spurs, and approached stealthily for directions to the road, when lo! we enter the very same house we had left an hour before! We noticed the divided door again as we approached, but so completely were we turned round it did not dawn on us until we actually saw their faces—they were still up. It was too bad—the night was going —we must have encircled that hill.

At another place we were detained by your narrator going to sleep on his post. We were approaching an important cross-road, where we would very likely run against a picket, just west of Custer's camp. It was in the woods. Holding my comrade's horse as I sat on my own, he went forward to investigate. I fell asleep after the day's experiences, being but a youth. He returning and feeling about in the thick darkness, ‘for an age,’ he said, he could not find me nor the horses. Finally, in some interval of my slumbers, I did hear his whispered calls, and we set forward once more.

Further on, leaving our horses in the woods, we walked across fields to the homestead of a well-known citizen north of Timberville.

Do you see that pile of straw six feet high piled against the big barn doors? That is a tell-tale. Then here is a Yankee horse in the stall below. That means a guard in the house to protect private property. A few minutes later we are told by a fair inmate of that house, whom we contrived to awake without awakening that guard, [105] and who delivered in whispers to us all her guard had disclosed of the things we sought to know.

We were now close on Custer's men. One field lay between us; coarse voices, camp songs, laughter, blazing camp-fires, and now and then the ringing sounds of the axe cutting rails.

Custer had already taken the middle road. General Torbert and staff were still further down the road in a small house, asleep, without a single sentinel, all the staff horses picketed in the yard. Here was a temptation. But we did not have time now to carry their fine horses with us. The night was far spent. Already some streaks of light began to lace the eastern sky.

Our fair young friend, too, had begged us not to touch the guardsman's horse lest he should then burn her father's barn. Poor child! we said, ‘know that your barn is as good as burned right now—the preparation was all made by your noble guard before he went upstairs to pleasant sleep last night.’ Our words were verified next morning.

Thus ended a fearful day in the Valley of Virginia—a day neither of us and none of our little band can ever forget in all its scenes and incidents and sounds to the latest day of life. The plaintive lowing of kine, the bleating of sheep driven from their hillside, the rude shouts of foreign voices, and the tramp of cavalry, the blazing buildings everywhere, the blackened sites of once spacious barns, the smoke that all that day obscured the sun, and flying cinders of shingle and of straw; the countenances of women and little children, holding them by the hand, looking on!

And then that night. From one fine point of observation on that ride, for miles glowing spots of still burning buildings visible—tongues of flame still licking about heavy beams and sills—flames sometimes of many colors from burning grain and forage. These, with the numerous camp-fires lying nearer, bright-spotting the black face of night, it seemed to us the firmament had descended—the stars had fallen. It looked just that way. Think of it, we said: Looking downward to see the stars! The sight was unique, wonderful, awe-inspiring. Until this day no such desolation had been witnessed since the war began. What were we coming to? What would all this end in?

We found General Rosser before sunrise at a mill near the appointed place. This done, your friend was ordered to return posthaste to Harrisonburg and fix up his office and the wires again. [106] That long black office table, the telegrapher's key still attached to it, is still in existence in Rockingham. It is alive with reminiscences of the Valley campaigns; of the Laurel Brigade and its brave dashing commander; of Fitzhugh Lee, and the lamented Ashby, and of Breckinridge, and a host of other splendid men; of Jubal A. Early, the imperturbable, who often desired of his young friend a little spirits and complained sometimas it had a ‘taste of rotten apples,’ in his high-pitched, drawling voice.

Custer's rear guard opened fire on our men that morning across the roof of the residence of Dr. M. from the lofty bluff beyond the river. The enemy soon drew off, however, as Rosser advanced in pursuit—and Major M., of Rosser's staff, dismounting a moment, begged the little maid whose home was here to play for us all before we parted on the first piano ever brought to Rockingnam and sing this song, then sung so much because it was in everybody's heart:

When this cruel war is over,
Praying them to meet again.

N. M. Burkholder. June 27, 1900.

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