CHASING AN IRON HORSE Or A Boy's Adventures in the Civil War
By EDWARD ROBINS
Author of "With Washington in Braddock's Campaign," "A Boy in Early Virginia," etc.
PHILADELPHIA GEORGE W. JACOBS & CO. PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1902, By GEORGE W. JACOBS & Co.
Published August, 1902.
The locomotive chase in Georgia, which forms what may be called the background of this story, was an actual occurrence of the great Civil War. But I wish to emphasize the fact that the following pages belong to the realm of fiction. Some of the incidents, and the character of Andrews, are historic, whilst other incidents and characters are imaginary. The reader who would like to procure an account of the chase as it really happened should consult the narrative of the Reverend William Pittenger. Mr. Pittenger took part in the expedition organized by Andrews, and his record of it is a graphic contribution to the annals of the conflict between North and South.
CHAPTER PAGE I. HAZARDOUS PLANS 7 II. NEARING THE GOAL 27 III. MINGLING WITH THE ENEMY 56 IV. PLOT AND PLOTTERS 95 V. ON THE RAIL 121 VI. AN UNPLEASANT SURPRISE 156 VII. ENERGETIC PURSUIT 188 VIII. TWO WEARY WANDERERS 206 IX. IN GREATEST PERIL 232 X. FINAL TRIALS 263
"The Next Moment was a blank" Frontispiece The Major merely changed the position of his legs 82 Fuller was steaming to the northward with "The Yonah" 192 None too soon had he executed this manoeuvre 214 Watson placed his hand over the man's mouth 270
CHASING AN IRON HORSE
The lightning flashes, the mutterings of thunder, like the low growls of some angry animal, and the shrieking of the wind through swaying branches, gave a weird, uncanny effect to a scene which was being enacted, on a certain April night of the year 1862, in a secluded piece of woodland a mile or more east of the village of Shelbyville, Tennessee. In the centre of a small clearing hemmed in by trees stood a tall, full-bearded man of distinguished bearing. Around him were grouped twenty sturdy fellows who listened intently, despite the stir of the elements, to something that he was saying in a low, serious tone of voice. None of them, strangely enough, wore a uniform, although they were all loyal Union soldiers belonging to the division of troops commanded by General O. M. Mitchell, then encamped on the banks of Duck River, only a couple of miles away. For the country was now engaged in the life-and-death struggle of the Civil War, when Northerner fought against Southerner—sometimes brother against brother—and no one could predict whether the result would be a divided or a reunited nation.
"My friends," the speaker was solemnly saying, as a new flash from the darkened heavens lit up the landscape for a second, and showed how resolute were the lines of his face; "my friends, if you go into this scheme with me, you are taking your lives into your hands. It's only fair that I should impress this upon you, and give any and all of you a chance to drop out."
There was a quick, sharp clap of thunder, which was not loud enough, however, to drown the earnest protest of every listener. "We're not cowards, Andrews!" "We'll stick to you through thick and thin!" "Nobody's going to draw back!" These were among the fervent answers which greeted the leader addressed as Andrews. The latter was evidently pleased, though by no means surprised. He was dealing with brave men, and he knew his audience.
"All the better, boys," he went on, with a complacent ring in his soft but penetrating voice. "You see, this is the situation. The Confederates are concentrating at Corinth, Mississippi, and Generals Grant and Buell are advancing by different routes against them. Now, our own General Mitchell finds himself in a position to press into East Tennessee as far as possible, and he hopes soon to seize Chattanooga, after he has taken Huntsville, Alabama. But to do this he must cut off Chattanooga from all railroad communication to the south and east, and therefore all aid. In other words, we men are to enter the enemy's country in disguise, capture a train on the Georgia State railroad, steam off with it, and burn the bridges leading in the direction of Chattanooga, on the northern end of the road. It is one of the most daring ideas ever conceived, and its execution will be full of difficulties. If we fail we shall be hanged as spies! If we succeed, there will be promotion and glory for all of us, and our names will go down into history."
There was a murmur of encouragement from the men, as one said: "We must succeed, if only to save our necks." The next moment the barking of a dog could be heard above the whistling of the wind.
"Be careful," cried Andrews, warningly; "some one may be listening."
Hardly had he spoken before two figures bounded from the encircling trees into the open space wherein stood the startled conspirators. While flashes of lightning played through the branches, and gave fitful illumination to the scene, the men saw revealed a lad of about fifteen or sixteen years of age, flushed and breathless, and at his heels a tiny Yorkshire terrier, bright of face, and with an inquiring glance that seemed to say: "What is all this fuss about?" As the animal danced around the boy it was evident that the latter was by no means frightened, or even surprised, by the strangeness of this meeting in the forest. His regular, handsome features and intelligent, sparkling gray eyes denoted excitement rather than fear. He sprang forward, and, pulling a letter from an inner pocket of his blue jacket, made straight for Andrews.
"Why, if it isn't George Knight," muttered one soldier, "and his chum, Waggie."
The dog, hearing his own name, came up and fawned upon the man who had spoken, while the boy thrust into the hands of the leader the letter which he had so carefully guarded.
"This is from General Mitchell," explained young Knight. "He said it was most urgent—and I was to fetch it to you as soon as possible."
Andrews opened the letter, as he replied kindly to the lad: "You look out of breath, George. Did you have a hard time reaching here?"
"As Waggie and I were hurrying up the Shelbyville road in the darkness," returned George Knight, "we ran into a company of Confederate guerrillas. They paid us the compliment of firing at us—and we had to run for our lives. But we gave the fellows the slip."
Thereupon Waggie gave a growl. Andrews, who was about to read the letter from General Mitchell, assumed a listening attitude. So did every one else. Out on the highroad, not a hundred yards away, could be heard the tramping of horses. Involuntarily the men put their hands towards the pockets which contained their revolvers.
"The guerrillas!" muttered the boy, as Andrews gave him a questioning look.
"How many are there of them?" asked the leader.
"Hard to tell in the dark," answered George. "I think there were a dozen or so."
"Oh, if that's all, let's give 'em a scare, boys!" laughed Andrews. Suiting the action to his words, he pulled out a pistol from his hip pocket, and fired it in the direction of the highroad. His companions, nothing loath, quickly followed his example. George and his canine chum looked on expectantly, as if regretting that neither of them possessed a weapon. Now there came the clatter of hoofs, like a stampede, and the guerrillas seemed to be engaged in a wild scramble to get away. They were an intrepid party, without doubt, but the sudden volley from the mysterious and darkened recesses of the woods (which might come, for all the Southerners knew, from a whole regiment of troops) demoralized them. In another instant they were scampering off, and the sound of the horses on the road was soon lost in the distance.
Andrews replaced his revolver, with a little chuckle of amusement.
"They are a daring lot to venture so near our army," he said. Then he began to read the letter, with the aid of a dark lantern provided by one of his companions.
While he is engaged in this occupation let us ask two questions. Who is Andrews, and who is George Knight? James Andrews, though a Virginian by birth, has lived in the mountains of Kentucky for many years, and is now a spy of the Union army, in the employ of General Buell. The war is only fairly begun, but already more than once has the spy courted death by penetrating into the lines of the Confederacy, in the guise of a merchant, and bringing back to the Northern forces much valuable information. He is a man of fine education and polished manners, despite his life in the wilds, and is tall, aristocratic-looking, and full of a quiet courage which, in his own dangerous profession, answers far better than the greatest impetuosity. He has plenty of daring, but it is a daring tempered with prudence. Although he has masqueraded among the enemy at times when the slightest slip of the tongue might have betrayed him, he has thus far returned to the Union lines in safety. How long, some of his friends ask anxiously, will he be able to continue in so perilous an enterprise? Yet here he is, planning, with the consent of General Mitchell, a scheme bolder than anything yet dreamed of in the annals of the war.
And what of George Knight? He is an active, healthy-minded drummer boy belonging to one of the Ohio regiments in General Mitchell's division. His mother had died in his infancy. At the outbreak of the war, a year before the opening of our story, he was living in Cincinnati with his father. The latter suddenly gave up a prosperous law practice to go to the help of the North, secured a commission as a captain of volunteers, went to the front, and was either captured or killed by the Confederates. Since the preceding Christmas nothing had been heard of him. George, with an aching heart, stayed at home with an uncle, and chafed grievously as he saw company after company of militia pass through his native town on the way to the South. Where was his father? This he asked himself twenty times a day. And must he, the son, stand idly by whilst thousands of the flower of the land were rushing forward to fight on one side or the other in the great conflict? "I must enlist!" George had cried, more than once. "Pshaw!" replied his uncle; "you are too young—a mere child." But one fine day George Knight had himself enrolled as a drummer boy in a regiment then being recruited in Cincinnati, and, as his uncle had a large family of his own, with no very strong affection to spare for his nephew, there was not as much objection as might have been expected. So the lad went to the war. He had now become a particular protege of General Mitchell, who had taken him into his own service as an assistant secretary—a position in which George had already shown much natural cleverness.
After reading the letter just brought to him, Andrews tears it into a hundred little pieces which he scatters to the winds.
"What's the matter?" ask several of the men, as they crowd around him.
"Hurry's the matter," laughs the leader, as unconcernedly as if he were speaking of nothing more dangerous than a picnic. "The General tells me we must start at once, if we want to accomplish anything. To-morrow [Tuesday] morning he takes his army straight south to Huntsville. If he captures the town by Friday, as he expects to do, he can move eastwards, to Chattanooga. So we will do our bridge-burning and our train-stealing on Friday, before the railroad is obstructed with trains bringing Confederate reinforcements to the latter city."
Even in the darkness one could detect the gleam in the eyes of the men as they saw before them, with pleasure rather than fear, the risky part they were to play in the drama of warfare. The eyes of George sparkled, likewise.
"If I could only go with them," he thought. What was camp life compared to the delight of such an adventure? Waggie gave a bark. Even he seemed to scent something interesting.
"You soldiers," continued Andrews, "must break into detachments, make your way eastward into the Cumberland Mountains, and then southward, well into the Confederate lines. There you can take the cars, and by next Thursday night you must all meet me down at Marietta, Georgia. The next morning according to a plan which you will learn at Marietta, (which is on the Georgia State Railroad) we will put our little ruse into effect—and may providence smile on it."
"But what will the men pretend to be while on their way down to Marietta?" asked George, who could scarce contain either his curiosity or his enthusiasm.
"Look here, my boy," said Andrews, in a quick though not in an unkindly way. "I don't know that you should be hearing all this."
Had the scene been less dark one might have seen the flush on the boy's face.
"I didn't think I was playing eavesdropper," he retorted.
Andrews put his right hand on George's shoulder. "Come," he said, in a spirit of friendliness; "I didn't exactly mean that. I know you're to be trusted, from what General Mitchell has said of you. But you must keep a tight rein on your tongue, and not say a syllable, even in camp, of this expedition. There's no reason why the whole army should be discussing it—until the thing's done. Then you can talk about it as much as you want."
George no longer felt offended. "You can depend on me," he said manfully. "I won't even tell the General."
At this there was a peal of laughter from the men, which seemed to be answered, the next instant, by a blinding fork of lightning, and then a fresh outburst of thunder. Andrews lifted up his hand warningly. He was very grave, as befitted a man on the verge of a mighty responsibility.
"Not so loud," he protested. "You boys must impersonate Kentuckians who are trying to get down south to join the Confederate army. A great many fellows have gone from Kentucky to throw in their lot with the Confederacy, and if you are prudent you will have no trouble in making people believe you. If any of you fall under suspicion on the way, and are arrested, you can enlist in the Confederate army, and then escape from it at the first opportunity. The Southerners are glad to get all the recruits they can, suspicious or otherwise. But I hope you will all reach Marietta in safety. Pray be careful of one thing. If you meet me as we are traveling, don't recognize me unless you are sure no one is watching us. At Marietta we will contrive to meet in the hotel near the railroad station, where I will tell you all that is to be done the next morning."
"We have no money for the journey," interposed a young volunteer. "Uncle Sam doesn't pay us privates very large salaries, you know, Mr. Andrews."
Andrews produced a large wallet from the inner pocket of his overcoat. It was fairly bulging with paper money.
"I've seen to that," he explained. "Here's a whole wad of Confederate currency which will pay your expenses through the Southern lines." And with that he began to deal out the bills to the men, who hastily stowed away the money in their own pockets.
"Now, boys," went on the leader, "I want you to divide yourselves into parties of three or four, so that you may travel in separate groups, and thus avoid the suspicion which might be aroused if you all went in a body. And remember! One party must have nothing to do with another."
Thereupon, in the gloomy woods, the future spies formed themselves, as their inclinations directed, into six parties or detachments, four containing three men each, and two containing four. Andrews was to proceed southward alone, without an escort. Poor George Knight and Waggie appeared to be left out in the cold. George was burning to join the expedition. Even the rain which suddenly began to fall could not quench his ardor.
"Mr. Andrews," he said, coming up close to the leader, and speaking in a whisper, "can't I go to Marietta, too?"
Andrews peered at the boy in admiring surprise. "By Jove," he answered, "you're not afraid of danger, even if you are little more than a child. It's bad enough for grown men to risk their lives—and bad enough for me to drag them into such a position,—without getting a plucky boy into the scrape also. No! Don't ask me to do that."
"But I won't be in any more danger in the South than I am here," pleaded George. "If I stay here I may be shot in battle, while if I go to Marietta I——"
"If you go to Marietta, and are found out, you may be hanged as a spy," interrupted Andrews. "I'd rather see you shot than strung up with a rope."
"The Confederates would never hang me if I am little more than a child, as you call me," urged the lad.
Andrews was evidently impressed by George's persistence, but he hastened to say: "Anyway, I have no authority to send you off on this chase. You are a member of General Mitchell's military household, and he alone could give you the permission."
"Then promise me that if I get his permission you will let me go."
The spy hesitated. He could just discern the earnest, pleading expression in the upturned face of the boy, upon which the rain-drops were pouring almost unnoticed.
"Well," he said, at last, "I am going back to camp now, and I start out before daylight. If you can induce the General to let you accompany us before that time I'll make no objection."
George gave a little exclamation of delight. "Come," he said, snapping his fingers at Waggie, "let us see what we can do to talk the old General into it."
The rain was now coming down in torrents, while the sharp, almost deafening cracks of thunder sounded as if the whole artillery of the Union army were engaged in practice. Soon all the conspirators were hurrying back to camp. Andrews was the very last to leave the woods where he had divulged his plans.
"Heaven forgive me," he mused, half sadly, "if I am leading these boys into a death trap." But as a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the wet landscape, as with the brightness of day, there came into the leader's strong face a look of calm resolution. "It's worth all the danger," he added.
* * * * *
An hour later George Knight came running into the tent which Andrews occupied in the camp on Duck River. The leader was enveloped in a woolen overcoat, and on his well-shaped head was a slouch hat of the kind generally worn by Southerners. By the dim, sickly light of the candle which sputtered on a camp stool it could be seen that he had been writing, for pen, ink and a sealed letter were spread out upon the top of a leathern army trunk.
"Well," cried Andrews, picking up the candle from its tin socket and flashing it in the radiant face of the boy. "Ah! No need to ask you! I see by your dancing eyes that you have wheedled old Mitchell into allowing you to do a foolish thing."
The smile on the lad's face vanished. "Don't you want me to go along with you?" he asked, in an injured tone.
The leader replaced the candle in the socket and then took one of George's hands between his own strong palms. "George," he said cordially, "you're a boy after my own heart, and I'd like nothing better than to have you for a companion; but it's because I do like you that I'm sorry you are about to run such a risk—and that's the truth. How did you contrive to persuade the General?"
George seated himself on Andrews' bed, and laughed. "It was hard work at first," he explained, "but after he had refused me twice I said to him: 'General, if you were a boy in my place, and had heard of this expedition, what would you do?' 'By all the stars,' he said, 'I would run away to it rather than miss it—and get shot afterwards as a deserter, I suppose.' 'Then don't put me under the temptation of running away,' said I. At this the General laughed. Then he said: 'Well, tell Andrews you can go—and that I'll never forgive him if he lets anything happen to you. After all, the Confederates would never hang a child like you.'"
"So he too calls you a child!" laughed Andrews.
"Of course I'm not a child," cried George proudly, as he jumped from the bed and stood up very straight, to make himself look as tall as possible; "but the General may call me a six-weeks' old baby if he only lets me go along with you."
"There is no time to waste," announced Andrews. "In the third tent from mine, to the right, you will find Privates Macgreggor and Watson, of the Second Ohio Volunteers. They have just offered to go with us, and I have accepted them in addition to the rest. Go to them, ask them to get you a suit of plain clothes, put it on instead of your uniform, and stick to them closely from the moment you leave camp until you meet me, as I hope you will, at Marietta. And be particularly careful to have nothing about you which could in any way lead to your identification as a Union soldier in case you should be arrested and searched."
"Hurrah!" said George, half under his breath.
"May we all be hurrahing this time next week," returned Andrews. "Here, George, as you go out give this letter to the sentry outside, to be sent off to-morrow in the camp mail." As he spoke he took the sealed note from the army trunk, and handed it to the boy. "It is written to the young woman I am engaged to marry," he explained, "and if we all get out of this bridge-burning business with our heads on our shoulders you can come dance at my wedding, and be my best man."
"I'd dance at twenty weddings for you," enthusiastically cried George, who was beginning to have a great admiration for his new friend.
"You don't want me to be married twenty times, do you, my boy?" protested Andrews, smiling.
"I would do a great deal to oblige you," retorted George. Then, after warmly grasping his leader by the hand, he bounded out of the tent. The night was black, and the rain was still descending in a veritable torrent, but to the lad everything seemed clear and rosy. He only saw before him a mighty adventure—and that, to his ardent, youthful spirit, made the whole world appear charming.
NEARING THE GOAL
It was the Thursday afternoon succeeding the Monday night described in the former chapter. On the north bank of the Tennessee River, not far from the town of Jasper, three drenched figures might be discerned. They were looking somewhat longingly in the direction of a white frame house not fifty yards away from the stream, which, swollen by the recent storms, was in a particularly turbulent mood. There was nothing very attractive about the building save that it suggested shelter from the rain without, and that the smoke curling up from its large chimney held forth vague hopes of a palatable supper. Certainly there was little in the landscape itself to tempt any one to remain outdoors. The three wanderers seemed to be of this opinion, for they suddenly made a move towards the house. They were roughly dressed, their clothes were soaking, and their high boots bore the evidence of a long, muddy tramp across country.
"Well," grumbled one of them, a thick-set, middle-aged man, with a good-humored expression and a four-days' growth of iron-gray beard on his face; "why did I leave home and home cooking to enlist in the army and then wander over the earth like this?"
"Mr. Watson!" exclaimed the person next to him, in a tone of boyish surprise; "how can you talk like that? Why, I am having the time of my life."
The speaker was George Knight. There was mud on his face, and the natty drummer boy in blue uniform had given place to a young fellow who outwardly resembled an ordinary farm hand. But there could be no doubt, from the light which shone in his bright eyes, that he was enjoying himself to the full.
"Humph!" returned Watson. "When you get as old as I am, my boy, you won't take such keen delight in walking through mire."
The boy laughed, and turned to the third member of the party. "Are you tired, too, Macgreggor?" he asked.
Macgreggor, a compactly built, athletic young man of twenty-seven or thereabouts, with a light-brown beard and mustache which made him look older than he really was, shook the rain from his hat and said cheerily, "I've done a good deal of mountain climbing since Tuesday morning, but I'm not too tired to eat a good supper, if we are lucky enough to find one in this place."
It need hardly be repeated that Watson and Macgreggor were the two men in whose care Andrews had placed George Knight. They were both brave, resourceful men. During their long trudge across the mountainous country between Shelbyville and the Tennessee, Watson had uttered many a grumble, but his complaints meant nothing more than a desire to hear himself talk. When it came to fording a stream, climbing a precipice, or fairly wading through the slush, he was quite as willing and energetic as the other two members of his party.
George knocked loudly at the door of the house, as he and his companions hastily sheltered themselves under the little piazza which ran along the front of the place.
"Be on your guard, boys," whispered Watson. "Stick to your story about our being Kentuckians, and say nothing imprudent that may arouse suspicion. Remember! we must be in Marietta by to-morrow night."
The meeting at Marietta had, at the very last moment, been postponed by Andrews from Thursday night to Friday night. "It is well he did postpone it," thought Macgreggor; "we are far enough from Marietta as it is."
The door was suddenly thrown open by an old negro "aunty" behind whom stood a neat, bustling little white woman. The latter was evidently engaged in the business of preparing supper, if one might judge from the fact that her bare arms were almost encaked in flour.
"We are three Kentuckians from Fleming County on our way to enlist in Chattanooga," spoke out Macgreggor, in a voice which seemed to have the ring of truth in it. "Can we spend the night here, so that we can cross the river in the morning?"
The expression of the woman, which had at first been one of surprise and irritation at being stopped in her work, softened immediately. "Come in," she said, quickly; "my husband's only a farmer, and we can't give you anything very fine, but it was never said of Mandy Hare that she turned away from her house any loyal friend of the South."
With that she led her gratified visitors through a scantily-furnished parlor into a kitchen which seemed to them like a Paradise. Over the roaring fire in the great hearth several vessels were simmering and emitting the most delightful odors, while a table near by was already set for the coming meal. On a chair facing the fire a fat, white cat was purring blissfully. The room was delightfully warm; the whole scene had an irresistible attraction and air of domesticity.
"Make yourselves at home," commanded Mrs. Hare, cheerfully. "My husband will be home from Jasper in a few minutes, and then you'll have something to eat—such as 'tis."
At this instant there was a querulous little bark, which appeared to come from the region of George Knight's heart. Mrs. Hare looked around in surprise; the white cat stirred uneasily. The next second the boy had shaken his overcoat, and from out of a large side pocket jumped the diminutive Waggie. The cat, with one bound, took a flying leap to the kitchen stairs, and brushing past the half-opened door at the bottom of the flight, fairly tore up to the second story, where she disappeared. Waggie gave a shrill yelp of emotion, but evidently concluded that it was safer not to chase a strange and muscular cat in a strange house.
"Gracious me," cried Mrs. Hare; "did you bring that little fellow all the way from Kentucky?"
"When I came away he followed me," replied George. He spoke the truth, although he did not add that he "came away" from a Union camp rather than from Kentucky. Waggie had been consigned to a member of General Mitchell's staff, to remain with him during his owner's absence, but George had not proceeded five miles on his journey before he heard a joyous bark behind him—and there frisked and capered Waggie. "You'll have to turn spy now," George said. It was too late to send him back. Thus the dog joined the party, much to the pleasure of all concerned.
Hardly had Waggie made his theatrical entrance into the kitchen before a lean, prematurely shriveled man of fifty, whose long shaggy beard proclaimed him a veritable countryman, came shambling into the room. At sight of the three strangers a curious look came into his restless eyes. It was almost as if the look was one of triumph. George, observing it, shivered, although he could hardly say why he did so.
"This is my husband," explained Mrs. Hare, with an awkward attempt at courtesy. "These men," she continued, addressing her lord and master, "have the good of the Southern cause at heart, and are on their way to Chattanooga, to enlist in the Confederate army." She cast such an approving glance upon the wanderers as she spoke, and was so good-natured, that George's heart smote him at the deception which was being practised upon her. He was a frank, honest boy, who hated the very idea of appearing anywhere under false pretences. But he realized that he was playing a part for the good of his General, and his General's cause, and he resolved to maintain, as well as he could, his new character of a Southern sympathizer.
Farmer Hare gave to each of the visitors a surly recognition. Waggie walked up to him, sniffed about his boots, and uttered a low growl. It was plain that the dog did not approve of the master of the house.
"You fellows are taking a pretty long journey to serve the South," remarked Mr. Hare at last, in a nasal tone sadly at variance with the customary soft Southern cadence.
"Can he suspect us?" thought Watson. The same thought went through the mind of Macgreggor, but he merely said: "We are nearly at our journey's end now. By to-morrow we will be in Chattanooga."
"Sit down and make yourselves comfortable," snarled Hare, with the air of an unwilling host. The visitors took the chairs which Mrs. Hare had placed for them at the supper-table. They were joined by husband and wife, and the negro "aunty" was soon serving a delicious meal of corn bread, Irish stew, and other good things. They all ate with a will, including Waggie, who was given a private lot of bones by the fireside. When the supper was over the farmer arose abruptly. "I s'pose you fellows have had a pretty long tramp, and want to go to bed," he said. "We keep good hours in this house, anyway, and turn in early at night—so that we may turn out early in the morning."
"Give them a chance to dry themselves before the fire," urged Mrs. Hare.
"Let 'em dry themselves in bed," muttered the farmer. Whereupon he lighted a candle, and turned towards the door leading to the second story. He was evidently in a great hurry to get his guests up-stairs. Watson, Macgreggor and George looked at one another, as if trying to fathom the cause of their peculiar reception at the hands of Farmer Hare. But each one silently decided that their only cue was to be as polite as possible, and refrain from any altercation with their host.
"After all," thought Watson, "if we can spend the night here we will be off again at dawn—and then let our surly host take himself to Kamchatka, for all we care."
Half an hour later Watson and Macgreggor, thoroughly tired out, were sound asleep, in one of the small rooms in the second-story of the house. George, however, lay tossing from side to side on a bed in the adjoining room, directly over the kitchen, with Waggie curled up on the floor close by. The more he thought of the strange behavior of Hare the more uneasy he became. Why had the farmer regarded him and his two companions with such a suspicious glance? Then George suddenly recollected where he had seen that face before. Yes! There could be no mistake. While he, Macgreggor and Watson were dining that day at the village tavern in Jasper, Hare was loitering on the porch of the place. But what of that? The three pretended Kentuckians had told their usual story, and professed their love for the Confederacy, and no one there had seemed to doubt their truthfulness for a moment.
In vain the boy tried to fall asleep. At last, hearing voices in the kitchen, he rose quietly from his bed, stole out of his room, and stealthily walked to the little hallway that led to the kitchen stairway. At the head of the staircase he halted. It was clear that Farmer Hare was saying something emphatic, while his wife was entering a feeble protest. An intuition told the listener that his own party was the subject of discussion. Slowly, cautiously, he crept down the stairway, until he almost touched the closed door which led from it to the kitchen.
"I tell you, woman," Hare was saying, "these three fellows are spies of some sort, and the sooner we have them under arrest the better."
"I can't believe it," murmured the wife.
"I don't care whether you believe it or not," rejoined the husband, in a harsh tone. "Don't I tell you that when these two men, and the boy, were at the tavern in Jasper to-day, one of the men was recognized by John Henderson. Henderson is a spy in the service of General Beauregard, and was in the camp of General Mitchell only a few days ago, disguised as a trader. There he saw this fellow—the one with the brown beard—and he swears there's no mistake. But he didn't tell us in time—the three disappeared. No; there's mischief of some sort brewing here, and I intend to stop it, if my name's Hare. We don't want any spies around here."
"Spies!" exclaimed the woman. "Then if they are caught within our lines they will be shot!" It seemed as if she shuddered as she spoke.
"Or hanged," added the farmer, with an unpleasant laugh.
"Let them go," whispered Mrs. Hare, pleadingly. "I'm just as good a Confederate as you are, Jake, but don't let us have the blood of these fellows on our hands. That nice little chap with the dog—I would as soon see my own son get into trouble, if I was lucky enough to have one, as that bright-eyed boy. Turn 'em out of the house, Jake, if you suspect them—tell them to go about their business—but don't set a trap for them." Her voice became almost plaintive. It was evident that the strangers had made a favorable impression upon Mrs. Hare, and that her woman's feelings revolted at the idea of betraying them, even though they were the secret enemies of her cause. "I hate war, anyway," she added. "It sets friend against friend, brother against brother, father against son, state against state. All this trouble between the North and South might have been fixed up without fighting, if there'd been a little more patience on both sides."
"Don't preach," muttered Hare. "There ain't time for it. Where's Uncle Daniel?"
The listening George did not know that "Uncle Daniel" was the black farm-hand who helped Hare, but, from the name, he felt sure that a slave was meant.
"Uncle Daniel is out in the barn, I reckon," answered the wife. "What do you want him for?"
"Wait and see," rejoined her husband, gruffly. With that enigmatical reply he opened a door leading to the barn, stalked out, and disappeared. There was a half-stifled cry from Mrs. Hare, but she apparently made no effort to detain him. "The Vigilants! Oh! the Vigilants!" she repeated, in accents of distress.
"The sooner we get out of this the better for our necks," thought George. He had no sense of fear; he was only filled with one consuming idea. He must get word to his two companions, and at once. Just what Hare contemplated in the way of a trap he could not tell, yet it was evident that the sooner Watson and Macgreggor were awakened the more chance would all three have for escaping from whatever fate the farmer had in store for them.
Cautiously George crept back until he was at the door of the room where the two men were heavily sleeping. His first impulse was to rattle at the knob; but he recollected in time that this would make a noise that might bring Mrs. Hare to the scene. He stood still and reflected. It would be foolish to invite the attention of her husband or herself before a plan of action could be decided upon. For nearly five minutes he stood in the hallway, wondering how he could awaken his tired fellows without making a disturbance.
"I wonder if I'm very stupid," thought the boy. He could hear the kitchen door open, as Hare came back into the house, and began talking to his wife in low tones. He could distinguish but one word. It was "Vigilants!"
At last he gave a faint exclamation of satisfaction, and stole back to his own room. Waggie, who was now lying on the bed, moved uneasily. George lighted a candle and examined the plastered wall which ran between his room and the one where the unconscious Watson and Macgreggor were gently snoring. He knew that the bed on which they slept was directly on the other side of this wall, and he judged that the partition itself was very thin. In this theory he was correct: the laths and their plaster covering formed a mere shell, which was not much thicker than an ordinary wooden partition. Taking a large jack knife from his waistcoat he began to cut into the wall, about four feet from the floor. Before long he had made a small hole, not bigger than the dimensions of a five-dollar gold piece, straight through the plaster. Looking through it, with the aid of his candle, he saw that Watson and Macgreggor were stretched out in bed on the other side, each half-dressed and each sleeping as if there were no such thing in the world as war or danger.
"They deserve a good sleep," said the boy to himself; "but it can't be helped, so here goes!" At the same moment he extinguished his candle, pulled it out of the candlestick, and poked it through the hole. He directed it in such a way that it fell squarely on the face of Macgreggor. The man suddenly stopped snoring, turned his body from one side to the other, and then started up in the bed, in a half-sitting posture.
"Macgreggor! Mac!" whispered George; "it's I, George Knight. Don't speak loud."
"Where on earth are you?" asked the newly-awakened sleeper, in a startled voice.
"Never mind where I am," answered George. "Only don't make a noise. But get up, light your candle, and open your door for me without letting them hear you down-stairs."
By this time Watson was awake too, and had jumped to the floor. When Macgreggor lighted his candle, and saw the little hole in the wall, at which appeared one of George's eyes, he almost gave a cry of surprise; but prudence restrained him, and he merely touched Watson's arm, pointed to the hole, and then quietly unlocked the door of their room. George soon crept carefully in, and proceeded, in as low a voice as he could command, to tell the two men what he had heard from the kitchen.
"The Vigilants!" whispered Watson. "Why, don't you know what that means? When we were in Jasper to-day I saw some of them standing around the village grocery store, and even talked with them. They thought I was a good 'Confed,' and I found out that they are organized into a band to arrest suspicious characters, keep things in order in this section of the county and even turn guerrillas when they are wanted."
"I see the whole thing," said Macgreggor. "This Hare has sent his negro over to Jasper to bring the Vigilants here to take charge of us, and to string us up, no doubt, to the first convenient tree. The sooner we get away from here the better for our lives. Jasper is only two miles off, and the Vigilants will be riding over here before we have time to say Jack Robinson."
"There's still time," said George, "and as there's only one man here against us now—I mean Hare—we can seize him, tie him to something, and then escape into the darkness."
"So we can, my boy," replied Watson, who was thinking as deeply and as calmly as if a game of chess, rather than a matter of life and death, were the issue. "There's no trouble as to our escaping. But remember this. It's pitch dark and raining again like cats and dogs; we don't know our way; we are sure to get lost before we have run fifty yards from the house, and these Vigilants, who understand every foot of the country, will divide into small parties, and hunt us down, as sure as fate. And if they can't, they will put hounds on our track—and then we'll be beautifully carved up into beefsteaks. I have seen hounds, and I know how they appreciate a nice little man hunt." Watson smiled grimly.
Macgreggor walked silently to one of the windows, opened the sash just a crack, and listened. He could hear nothing but the downpour of the rain. Yet it would not be long before the Vigilants dashed up to the house. No doubt they had all been telling anecdotes in the corner grocery store, and they would take but a short time for the mounting of their horses. Cautiously closing the window he returned to the centre of the room.
"It's a dark night," he said, "and all the better for a plan I have to propose. We are each secretly armed with pistols, are we not? Well, then, let us put out this candle, and open the window to the left, looking out towards the highroad to Jasper. When the Vigilants come riding up the road and get in front of the house we will suddenly fire on them. This may cause a panic, as the fellows will not be able to tell just where the enemy are, and then——"
"Pshaw!" interrupted Watson. "You don't know whom you're dealing with. These Vigilants are as brave as they are reckless, and there are at least twenty-five or thirty of them. Three men can't frighten them. They would only get us in the end, even if we did succeed in disabling one or two of them in the first surprise."
"Then what are we to do?" asked George eagerly. Watson was so composed that the boy felt sure he must have some better plan for escape.
"I have a scheme," said Watson, quite simply. "I have been hatching it in my brain while we were talking. But the quicker it's put to the test, the quicker will we save our necks. Are you willing to trust me blindly?"
There was a whispered "yes" from both the other conspirators. Watson inspired confidence by his assurance.
"Then let us get all our clothes, shoes, everything on at once, and walk boldly down-stairs."
Three minutes later the trio were marching down-stairs into the kitchen. Hare and his wife were standing at the fireplace, looking the picture of surprise, as their guests burst into the room, with the irrepressible Waggie at their heels. The old negro "aunty," who had been dozing on a stool near the hearth, jumped to her rheumatic feet in consternation. "Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" she cried, throwing her withered arms above her turbaned head. For the guests held revolvers in their hands, and the "aunty's" heart always sank at the thought of gunpowder.
The farmer took a step forward, as if uncertain what to do or say. At last he said, trying to smile, yet only succeeding in looking hypocritical: "You ain't going to leave us this time of night, are you? Wait till morning, and get some breakfast."
"It's a nice breakfast you'd give us in the morning," laughed Watson, with a significant look at their host. "A halter stew, or some roast bullets, I guess!"
Hare jumped backward with such suddenness that he almost knocked into the fire his frightened wife who had been standing directly behind him. "What do you mean?" he hissed.
"You know perfectly well what I mean, Mr. Hare," said Watson, looking him straight in the face, whilst the other spectators listened in breathless interest. "You have sent word to the Jasper Vigilants to ride over here and arrest us, on the suspicion of being spies."
Had the heavens suddenly fallen, the countenances of the Hares could not have shown more dismay.
"How did you find that out?" asked the farmer, quite forgetting to play his part of amiable host.
"Never mind how," cried George, who was burning to play his part. "Only it's a pity you haven't as much mercy in you as your wife has."
"Listen," said Watson, as he motioned the others in the room to be silent. "George, you will watch this old negress, and if she attempts to make a sound, or to leave the room before we are ready, give her a hint from your revolver."
With a scream of fright, comical in its intensity, the "aunty" sank back on her stool near the hearth, and covered her dark face with her hands. There she sat, as if she expected to be murdered at any moment.
"And you, Macgreggor," continued Watson impressively, "will keep the same sort of watch over Mrs. Hare. Happen what may, there is not to be a sound from either woman."
Mrs. Hare started in confusion. Her husband made a bound for the kitchen door. With another bound no less quick Watson darted forward, caught the farmer, pushed him back at the point of the pistol, and bolted the door.
"What do you want to do?" demanded Hare. "Are we to be murdered?"
"No," cried Watson, "but——"
Then there came the sound of horses' hoofs in the distance. Every one listened eagerly, and none more so than the farmer.
"You're done for," he said slowly, casting a half-malevolent, half-triumphant glance at the three Northerners.
"Not by a great deal," said Watson. "March with me to the parlor, open the front door just a crack, and, when the Vigilants come up, say to them that we three men have escaped from the house, stolen a flatboat, and started to row across the Tennessee River. Send them away and shut the door. I will be standing near you, behind the door, with my pistol leveled at your head. Make one movement to escape, or say anything but what I have told you to say, and you are a dead man!"
The patter of the horses was becoming more and more distinct.
"Will you do as I tell you?" asked Watson, very coolly, as he toyed with his revolver.
"If I won't?" asked Hare. His face was now convulsed by a variety of emotions—fear, rage, craftiness, and disappointment.
"I give you three seconds to choose," said Watson. "If you refuse, you will be stretched out on that floor."
Mrs. Hare, with white cheeks, leaned forward, and whispered to her husband: "Do as he tells you, Jake. Better let these Yankees go, and save your own life."
"One—two——" counted Watson.
Hare held up his right hand, and then dropped it listlessly by his side.
"I give in," he said sullenly. "You've got the better of me." He looked, for all the world, like a whipped cur.
There was not a second to lose. The horsemen were riding up to the house. Watson motioned to the farmer, who walked into the parlor, which was unlighted, closely followed by the soldier. There were sounds without, as of horses being reined in, and of men's gruff voices. Hare opened the parlor door a few inches, while Watson, safe from observation, stationed himself within a few feet of him, with cocked revolver. "Remember!" he whispered, significantly.
"Is that you, boys?" shouted Hare. "Those three spies I sent word about escaped from here ten minutes ago, stole a boat on the bank, down by the landing, and started to row across the river."
"They will never reach the other side a night like this," called out some one.
"What did you let 'em get away from you for?" asked another of the Vigilants.
"How could I help it?" growled the farmer. "They were well armed—and 'twas three men against one."
"Pah! You've brought us out on a wild-goose chase, and on a durned bad night," came a voice from the wet and darkness.
"Perhaps they'll drift back to this side of the river, and can be caught," one Vigilant suggested. But this idea evidently met with little approval. It was plain, from what Watson could hear of the discussion which ensued, that the Vigilants were disgusted. They were ready, indeed, to give up the chase, on the supposition that the three fugitives would either drift down in midstream, or else be capsized and find a watery grave.
"Come, we'll get home again," commanded a horseman, who appeared to be the leader. "And no thanks to you, Jake Hare, for making us waste our time."
"Say Jake, won't you ask us in to have something warm to drink?" cried another Vigilant.
Watson edged a trifle nearer to Hare, and whispered: "Send 'em away at once, or else——"
Once bring the Vigilants into the house, as the soldier knew, and capture or death would be the result.
Hare could almost feel the cold muzzle of the revolver near his head.
"Go away, fellows," he called, "You know I ain't got nothing for you."
A jeer, and a few sarcastic groans greeted this remark. "I always reckoned you was a skinflint," yelled one of the party.
There was a derisive cheer at this sally. Then, at a word of command, the Vigilants turned their horses and cantered back towards Jasper. The sound of hoofs became fainter and fainter.
"Shut the door," ordered Watson, "and go back to the kitchen."
Sullenly the farmer obeyed. When the two were once more by the blazing hearth, George and Macgreggor, who had been guarding Mrs. Hare and the negress, rushed forward to grasp the hands of their deliverer. They were about to congratulate him upon his successful nerve and diplomacy when he interrupted them.
"Don't bother about that," he said; "let us get away from here as soon as possible, before our kind host has a chance to play us any more tricks."
"I suppose you think yourself pretty smart, don't you?" snapped Hare, casting a spiteful glance at Watson.
"So smart," put in George, "that if you don't want to be laughed at from now until the day of your death you'd better not tell the citizens of Jasper about to-night's occurrences."
"Come, boys, let us be going," exclaimed Watson impatiently, as he offered his hand to Mrs. Hare, and said to that lady: "Thank you for the best supper we've had since we left—home."
Mrs. Hare refused to shake hands, but she regarded Watson with an admiring expression. "I won't shake hands with you," she replied, half smiling, "for you may be an enemy of the South, but I'm glad you've escaped hanging. You've too much grit for that. As for you, Jake, don't ever pretend to us again that you're the brainiest man in the county."
"Hold your tongue, woman," cried the amiable farmer.
In a couple of minutes the three travelers were striking out from the back of the house into the slush, and rain, and blackness of the night. Waggie was occupying his usual place inside a pocket of George's overcoat. He had supped regally at the Hares on bacon and bones, and he felt warm and at peace with the world.
Before the party had more than emerged from the garden (a task by no means easy in itself, on account of the darkness), something whistled by them, to the accompaniment of a sharp report. Looking behind them they saw the meagre form of Hare standing in the kitchen doorway. He held a rifle in his right hand. The kitchen fire made him plainly visible.
"Pretty good aim, old boy," shouted Macgreggor, "considering you could hardly see us. But I can see you plainly enough."
As he spoke he drew his revolver. Hare was already putting the rifle to his shoulder, preparing for another shot. He had hardly had a chance to adjust the gun, however, before he dropped it with a cry of pain and ran into the house. A bullet had come whizzing from Macgreggor, and struck the farmer in his right arm.
"Just a little souvenir to remember me by," laughed the lucky marksman.
"Hurry up!" cried Watson. "To-morrow night we must be in Marietta. We are still many miles away, and in a hostile, unknown country."
So the three pushed on into the gloom. The prospect of meeting James Andrews at the appointed place was not reassuring. Their only hope was to keep on along the bank of the Tennessee River until they reached Chattanooga. From there they could take a train for Marietta.
"Shall we make it?" thought George. Waggie gave a muffled bark which seemed to say: "Courage!"
MINGLING WITH THE ENEMY
It was weary work, this tramping along the Tennessee shore, through mud, or fields of stubble, over rocks, or amid dripping trees; but the three kept on towards Chattanooga for a couple of hours, until all the good effects of their warming at Farmer Hare's were quite vanished. Watson, having showed by his mother-wit and presence of mind that he was a man to be relied upon, had now resumed his privilege of growling, and gave vent to many angry words at the roughness and unutterable dreariness of the way.
"Why was America ever discovered by that inquisitive, prying old Christopher Columbus?" he grunted, after he had tripped over the stump of a cottonwood-tree, and fallen flat with his face in the slime. "If he had never discovered America there would never have been any United States; had there never been any United States there would never have been any war between North and South; had there never been any war between North and South I wouldn't be making a fool of myself by being down here. I wish that fellow Columbus had never been born—or, if he was born, that he had never been allowed to sail off for America. Ugh!"
In a few minutes they reached a log cabin situated on an angle of land where a little stream emptied itself into the now stormy waters of the Tennessee River. There was no light nor sign of life about the mean abode, and the travelers were almost upon it before they saw its low outline in the dense gloom.
"Look here," said Watson, calling a halt. "There's no use in our trying to go further to-night. It's too dark to make any sort of time. And we are far enough away now from Jasper to avoid any danger of pursuit—even if our amiable friend Mr. Hare should inform the Vigilants."
"Don't be afraid of that," said Macgreggor and George in the same breath. Hare was not likely to relate a joke so much at his own expense as their clever escape had proved. Even if he did, they reasoned, the chances of capture were now rather slim, whatever they might have been when the three fugitives were nearer Jasper.
"Then let us get a few hours' sleep in this cabin," urged Watson. "Some negro probably lives here—and we can tell him our usual Kentucky story. Give the door a pound, George, and wake him up."
George used first his hands and then his boots on the door, in a vain effort to make some one hear. He took Waggie out of his pocket, and the shrill little barks of the dog added to the noise as he jumped around his master's feet.
"Let's break the door down," urged Macgreggor. "The seven sleepers must live here. We might pound all night and not get in."
With one accord the three threw themselves vigorously against the door. They expected to meet with some resistance, due to a bolt or two; but, instead of that, the door flew open so suddenly that they were precipitated into the cabin, and lay sprawling on the ground. It had been latched but neither locked nor bolted.
"We were too smart that time," growled Watson, as the three picked themselves up, to the great excitement of Waggie. "The place must be deserted. So much the better for us. We can get a little sleep without having to go into explanations."
He drew from inside his greatcoat, with much care, three or four matches. By lighting, first one and then the others, he was able to grope around until he found the hearth of the cabin. Cold ashes marked the remains of a fire long since extinguished. His foot struck against something which proved to be a small piece of dry pine-wood. With the flame from his last match Watson succeeded in lighting this remnant of kindling. He carefully nursed the new flame until the stick blazed forth like a torch. Then the travelers had a chance to examine the one room which formed the whole interior of the lonely place. The cabin was deserted. It contained not a bit of furniture; nothing, indeed, save bare walls of logs, and rude mortar, and a clean pine floor.
"This palace can't be renting at a very high price," remarked Macgreggor, sarcastically.
"It will do us well enough for a few hours' sleep," said George.
Watson nodded his head in assent. "It's a shelter from the rain, at least," he said, "and that's something on such a pesky night." While he was speaking the rush of the rain without confirmed the truth of his words, and suggested that any roof was better than none. Ere long the pine stick burned itself out; the intruders were left in absolute darkness. But they quickly disposed themselves on the floor, where, worn out by the fatigues of the day and the stirring adventure of the evening, they were soon fast asleep. They had closed the door, near which Waggie had settled his little body in the capacity of a sentinel. George dreamed of his father. He saw him standing at the window of a prison, as he stretched his hands through the bars and cried out: "George, I am here—here! Help me!" Then the boy's dream changed. He was back in the dark woods near Shelbyville, listening to Andrews as the leader outlined the expedition in which they were now engaged. In the middle of the conference some one cried: "The Confederates are on us!" George tried to run, but something pinned him to the ground—a wild animal was at his throat.
He awoke with a start, to find that Waggie was leaping upon his chest, barking furiously.
"Hush up, you little rascal!" ordered George. He felt very sleepy, and he was angry at being aroused. But Waggie went on barking until he had succeeded in awakening Macgreggor and Watson, and convincing his master that something was wrong.
"What's the trouble?" demanded Watson.
"Listen," said George, softly. He was on his feet in an instant, as he ran first to one and then to the other of the two windows which graced the cabin. These windows, however, were barricaded with shutters. He hurried to the door, which he opened a few inches. The rain had now stopped, and he could hear, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, the sound of horses moving cautiously through the mud, along the river bank. In a twinkling Watson and Macgreggor were at his side, straining their ears.
"Can it be cavalry?" asked Macgreggor.
"Mounted men at least," whispered Watson. "Perhaps the Vigilants are on our track, bad luck to them!"
"Can Hare have told them, after all?" queried George.
"Don't know about that," muttered Watson, "but I think we have the gentlemen from Jasper to deal with once again."
"Let's decamp into the darkness before it's too late," said Macgreggor.
"Come, come," whispered Watson impatiently. "If they are on the scent, and we leave this hut, they will only run us to earth like hounds after a fox."
The baying of dogs which were evidently accompanying the party gave a sudden and terrible effect to the force of Watson's argument. And now the Vigilants, if such they were, came nearer and nearer. The three Northerners who listened so anxiously at the doorway could already detect the sound of voices.
"There's but one thing for us to do," quickly murmured Watson. "We must stay in this cabin."
"But they won't pass the place by," urged Macgreggor. "If they know it to be deserted by a tenant this is the very reason for their looking in to see if we are hiding here. And when it comes to defending ourselves, how can we put up any sort of barricade?"
"When you can't use force, or hide yourself, try a little strategy," answered the soldier. "Can either of you fellows talk like a darky?"
"Not I," said Macgreggor. Had he been asked if he could speak Hebrew, he would not have been more surprised.
"Can you, George?" asked Watson, as he shut the door.
"I might," whispered George. "When I was up in Cincinnati we boys used——"
"Never mind what you boys did—only do as I tell you, and if you can give a good imitation you may save us from arrest, and worse!"
The horsemen now seemed to be within a few yards of the cabin. They had evidently halted for consultation. Meanwhile Watson was whispering some instructions to George. After he had finished he leaned against the door with his whole weight, and indicated to Macgreggor that he was to do the same thing. The latter obeyed in silence.
The horsemen without made a great deal of clatter. If they were pursuing the fugitives they did not seem to think secrecy of movement very necessary. "Whose cabin is this?" demanded one of them.
"It did belong to old Sam Curtis, but he's moved away, down to Alabama," some one answered.
"Some darky may live in it now, eh?" said the first voice.
"Perhaps it's empty, and these tarnation spies are in it," was the rejoinder in a lower tone.
The men moved their horses closer to the house, which they quickly surrounded. No chance now for any one to escape; it seemed as if the three men in the cabin must inevitably be caught like rats in a trap. Yet they waited courageously, breathlessly. It was a tense moment. Another minute would decide their fate. Would they remain free men, or would they fall into the hands of their pursuers, with all the consequences that such a capture implied?
Already one of the Vigilants, evidently the leader, had dismounted. Approaching the door of the cabin, he gave it a push as if he expected it would open at once. But there was no yielding; Watson and Macgreggor were still leaning firmly against the other side.
The leader began to knock on the door with a revolver. "Here, here," he shouted; "if there's any one in this cabin, come out—or we'll have you out!"
At first there was no response, save a bark from Waggie. The leader rattled savagely at the door. "Let's break in," he cried to his companions, "and see if the place has any one in it!"
The Vigilants were about to follow the example of their leader, and dismount when there came a wheedling voice—apparently the voice of a negress—from within the cabin.
"What you gemmen want dis time o' night wid poor Aunty Dinah?"
"A nigger's living here," muttered the leader, in surprise.
"What for you gwyne to disturb an ole niggah at dis hour?" asked the voice from within.
"It's all right, aunty," called out the leader. "We only want some information. Come to the door."
"In one minute I be with you," was the answer. "I'se a nursin' my old man here—he done gone and took the smallpox—and——"
The smallpox! Had the voice announced that a million Union troops were descending upon the party the consternation would not have been half as great. The smallpox! At the mention of that dreaded name, and at the thought that they were so close to contagion, the Vigilants, with one accord, put spurs into their horses and rushed madly away. The leader, dropping his revolver in his excitement, and not even stopping to pick it up, leaped upon his horse and joined in the inglorious retreat. On, on, dashed the men until they reached the town of Jasper, tired and provoked. Like many other men, North or South, they were brave enough when it came to gunpowder, but were quickly vanquished at the idea of pestilential disease.
"Bah!" cried the leader, as they all reined up in front of the village tavern, which now looked dark and uninviting; "those three spies, if spies they are, can go to Guinea for all I care. I shall hunt them no more."
There was a general murmur of assent to this fervent remark. One of the Vigilants said, in an injured tone: "I wish Jake Hare was at the bottom of the ocean!"
In explanation of which charitable sentiment it may be explained that Farmer Hare, on the departure of Watson, Macgreggor and George Knight, had run all the way to Jasper. Here he told the Vigilants that the three men had returned in the boat (which he had previously declared they had taken) and landed on the bank of the river. They could be easily caught, he said. He carefully suppressed any account of the way in which he had been outwitted by Watson. The fact was that Hare made up his mind, logically enough, that the fugitives would keep along the Tennessee until morning came, and as he had seen the direction they had taken he determined to set the Vigilants on their track. His scheme, as we have seen, was nearly crowned with success.
* * * * *
"A miss is as good as a mile," laughed Watson, as he stood with his two companions in the pitch black interior of the cabin, listening to the last faint sounds of the retreating Vigilants.
"There's nothing like smallpox, eh?" said George.
"Or nothing like a boy who can imitate a darky's voice," put in Macgreggor. "Where did you learn the art, George?"
"We boys in Cincinnati had a minstrel company of our own," the boy explained, "and I used to play negro parts."
"I'll never call the minstrels stupid again," said Watson. "They have been instrumental in saving our lives."
"Rather say it was your own brains that did it," interposed George.
So they talked until daybreak, for they found it impossible to sleep. Meanwhile the weather had changed. When the sun came peeping over the horizon, between tearful clouds, as if afraid that it was almost too damp for him to be out, the trio were pushing cautiously along the bank of the Tennessee, in the direction of Chattanooga.
"I don't know who brought the Vigilants out for us the second time, unless it was our dear friend Hare, and I don't know whether they will give us another chase this morning," said Watson, as they were laboriously ascending one of the mountain spurs which led down to the river shore, "but we must go steadily on, and trust to luck. To delay would be fatal. This is Friday—and we must be in Marietta by this evening."
On they trudged, over rocks and paths that would have taxed the ability of a nimble-footed chamois, as they wondered how the rest of their friends were faring, and where might be the intrepid Andrews. Sometimes Waggie scampered joyously on; sometimes he reposed in his master's overcoat. The clouds had now cleared away; the sun was shining serenely over the swollen and boisterous waters of the crooked Tennessee. Nature was once more preparing to smile.
"I'm getting frightfully hungry," cried George, about noon-time. "I wouldn't mind a bit of breakfast."
"There's where we may get some," said Macgreggor. He pointed to an old-fashioned colonial house of brick, with a white portico, which they could see in the centre of a large open tract about a quarter of a mile back of the river. The smoke was curling peacefully from one of the two great chimneys, as if offering a mute invitation to a stranger to enter the house and partake of what was being cooked within. In a field in front of the mansion cattle were grazing, and the jingle of their bells sounded sweetly in the distance. No one would dream, to look at such an attractive picture, that the grim Spectre of War stalked in the land.
"Shall we go up to the house, and ask for something?" suggested Macgreggor, who was blessed with a healthy appetite.
Watson looked a little doubtful. "There's no use in our showing ourselves any more than is necessary," he said. "Rather than risk our necks, we had better go on empty stomachs till we reach Chattanooga."
But such a look of disappointment crept over the faces of George and Macgreggor, and even seemed to be reflected in the shaggy countenance of Waggie, that Watson relented.
"After all," he said, "there's no reason why there should be any more danger here than in Chattanooga or Marietta. Let's make a break for the house, and ask for a meal."
Hardly had he spoken before they were all three hurrying towards the mansion. When at last they stood under the portico, George seized the quaint brass knocker of the front door, and gave it a brisk rap. After some delay a very fat negress opened the door, and eyed the strangers rather suspiciously. Their tramp over the country had not improved their appearance, and her supercilious, inquisitive look was not strange, under the circumstances.
"What you folks want?" she asked, putting her big arms akimbo in an uncompromising attitude. Watson was about to reply when an attractive voice, with the soft accent so characteristic of the Southerners, called: "What is it, Ethiopia? Any one to see me?"
The next instant a kindly-faced gentlewoman of about fifty stood in the doorway.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked pleasantly.
Macgreggor proceeded to tell the customary story about their being on their way from Kentucky to join the Confederate army further south. His heart smote him as he did so, for she was so gentle and sympathetic in her manner that he loathed to practice any deception, however necessary; but there was no help for it. So he ended by asking for something to eat.
"Come in," said the mistress of the mansion, for such she proved to be, "and take any poor hospitality I can offer you. My husband, Mr. Page, and both my children are away, fighting under General Lee, and I am only too glad to do anything I can for others who are helping the great cause." She smiled sweetly at George, and patted his dog. The boy regarded her almost sheepishly; he, too, hated the idea of imposing on so cordial a hostess.
Mrs. Page led the party into a great colonial hallway, embellished with family portraits. "By-the-way," she added, "there is a Confederate officer in the house now—Major Lightfoot, of the —th Virginia Regiment. He reached here this morning from Richmond and goes to Chattanooga this afternoon on a special mission."
Watson bit his lip. "We're coming to too close quarters with the enemy," he thought, and he felt like retreating from the mansion with his companions. But it was too late. Such a move would only excite suspicion, or, worse still, lead to pursuit. "We must face the thing through," he muttered, "and trust to our wits."
Mrs. Page ushered the strangers, including the delighted Waggie, into a large, handsomely paneled dining-room on the left of the hallway. She made them gather around an unset table. "Sit here for a few minutes," she said, "and the servants will bring you the best that Page Manor can offer you. In the meantime, I'll send Major Lightfoot to see you. He may be able to help you in some way."
She closed the door and was gone. "I wish this Major Lightfoot, whoever he is, was in Patagonia at the present moment," whispered Watson. "It's easy enough to deceive the Southern country bumpkins, and make them think you are Confederates, but when you get among people with more intelligence, like officers——"
"What difference does it make?" interrupted Macgreggor, looking longingly at a mahogany sideboard. "Didn't you hear Mrs. Page say the Major was a Virginian? He doesn't know anything about Kentucky."
"That's lucky," laughed Watson, "for we don't either."
"Hush!" came the warning from George. The door opened, and several negro servants began to bring in a cold dinner. What a meal it was too, when the time came to partake of it, and how grateful the three hungry travelers felt to the mistress of the house. When it had been disposed of, and the servants had left the dining-room, George said, almost under his breath: "Hadn't we better be off? We have a good number of miles yet, between here and Marietta."
Watson was about to rise from the table when the door opened to admit a tall, stalwart man of about thirty, whose cold, gray-blue eyes and resolute mouth denoted one who was not to be trifled with. He was dressed in the gray uniform of a Confederate officer, but he had, presumably, left his sword and pistols in another room. The visitors stood up as he entered.
"Glad to see you, my men," he said, shaking hands with each one.
"Is this Major Lightfoot?" asked Watson, trying to look delighted, but not making a brilliant success of it.
"Yes," returned the Major. "I hear you boys are Kentuckians."
"We are," said Macgreggor stoutly; "we are ready to die for our country, and so we are journeying southward to enlist."
"You're a pretty young chap to take up arms," observed the Major, eyeing George keenly.
"One is never too young to do that," answered the boy. He was determined to put a bold face on the affair, and he saw no reason why the Confederate officer should suspect him if he spoke up unhesitatingly.
"The South has need of all her loyal sons," remarked Watson, who felt no compunction in deceiving the Major, whatever might have been his sentiments as to hoodwinking Mrs. Page.
"So you all come from Kentucky?" went on the officer. "That interests me, for I come from Kentucky myself!"
The jaws of the three strangers dropped simultaneously. Had a bomb fallen at their feet they could not have been more disconcerted. What did they know about Kentucky, if they had to be put through a series of cross-questions by a native! But there was no reason, after all, why the Major should dwell on the subject.
"I thought Mrs. Page said you belonged to a Virginia regiment," exclaimed Macgreggor, almost involuntarily.
"So I do," replied the Major, "but I only settled in Virginia two years ago. I was born and bred in Kentucky, and there's no state like it—now is there?"
"No!" cried the trio, with a well-feigned attempt at enthusiasm. They felt that they were treading on dangerous ground, and resolved to play their parts as well as they could.
"Do you all come from the same part of Kentucky?" queried the Major, as he sat down on a chair, evidently prepared for a pleasant chat.
"From Fleming County," said Watson carelessly, quite as if he knew every other county in the State. "I fear, sir, we must be moving on towards Chattanooga. We are in a hurry to enlist, and we have already been delayed too long."
The Major completely ignored the latter part of this sentence. "From Fleming County," he said. "Well, that's pleasant news. I know Fleming County like a book. There is where my father lived and died. What part of the county do you come from?"
Had the Major asked them to tell the area of the United States in square inches he could not have propounded a more puzzling question.
"Dunder and blitzen;" thought Watson. "If I only knew more of Kentucky geography I might get myself out of this scrape."
"We come from the southeastern part of the county," said Macgreggor, after an awkward pause.
"Near what town?"
Another pause. Oh, for the name of a town in the southeastern part of Fleming County, Kentucky. The Major was looking at the visitors curiously. Why this sudden reticence on their part?
At last Watson spoke up, although evasively. "We were a long distance from any town; we worked on adjoining farms, and when the call to arms came we determined to rush to the rescue of our beloved Southland."
The Major gave Watson one searching look. "Humph!" said he, "that's all very pretty, and I'm glad you are so patriotic—but that won't do. What is the nearest town to the places you live in?"
The name of Carlisle flashed through Watson's mind. He recalled that it was somewhere in the part of Kentucky in which Fleming County was situated. A man he knew had once lived there. He would risk it.
"The nearest town is Carlisle," he said shortly. "And now, Major, we really must be off! Good-bye!"
He started for the door, followed by George and Macgreggor, who were both devoutly wishing that such a state as Kentucky had never existed.
"Wait a second," suddenly commanded the Southerner, stepping in front of the door to bar the way. "You seem to be strangely ignorant of your own county. Carlisle happens to be in the adjoining county."
"Here, sir, we're not here to be examined by you, as if we were in the witness box," cried Watson, who hoped to carry the situation through with a strong hand. He would try a little bluster.
A sarcastic smile crossed the firm face of Major Lightfoot. "Don't try to bluff me," he said quietly but sternly; "for it won't work. I see very clearly that you fellows have never been in Fleming County, nor do I think you have ever been in Kentucky at all, for the matter of that. You certainly talk more like Yankees than Kentuckians."
"Then you don't believe us?" asked Macgreggor, trying to assume an air of injured innocence.
"Certainly not," answered the Major. He folded his arms, and regarded the visitors as if he were trying to read their inmost thoughts. "You are lying to me! And as you've lied to me about coming from Kentucky, it's quite as likely you've lied to me about your being on your way to enlist in the Confederate army. For all I know you may be Union spies. In short, my friends, you are acting in the most suspicious way, and I put you under arrest!"
George's heart sank within him. He was not afraid of being arrested, but to think that he might never take part in the bridge-burning expedition. Lightfoot turned the key in the door.
Watson walked up to the Major, and tapped him on the shoulder. "Look here," he said, in the tone of a man who is quite sure of his position. "You talk about putting us under arrest, but you're only playing a game of bluff yourself. We are three to your one—and I'd like to know what is to prevent our walking out of this house, and knocking you down, too—or, if you prefer, shooting you—if you attempt to stop us?"
Lightfoot laughed, in a superior sort of way. "Go, if you want," he said curtly; "but I don't think you'll go very far." His eyes glistened, as if he thought the whole scene rather a good joke. "Half a mile back of this mansion there's a squadron of Confederate cavalry picketed. If I give them the alarm they'll scour the whole countryside for you, and you'll all be in their hands within an hour."
Watson turned pale. It was the paleness of vexation rather than of fear. "Why were we fools enough to come to this house," he thought. He knew how quickly they could be caught by cavalrymen.
The Major smiled in a tantalizing manner. "I think you will take my advice and surrender," he said, sitting down carelessly in a chair and swinging one of his long legs over the other. "If, on investigation, it proves that you are not spies, you will be allowed to go on your way. If there's any doubt about it, however, you will be sent to Richmond."
Macgreggor, with a bound, leaped in front of the Confederate, and, pulling out a revolver, pointed it at Lightfoot's head. "Unless you promise not to have us followed, you shan't leave this room alive!" he cried with the tone of a man daring everything for liberty. George fully expected to see the officer falter, for he had seen that the Major was unarmed.
But Lightfoot did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, he gave one of his provoking laughs. "Don't go into heroics," he said, pushing Macgreggor away as though he were "shoohing" off a cat. "You know I would promise anything, and the second your backs were turned I'd give the alarm. You don't think I would be fool enough to see you fellows walking away without making a trial to get you back?"
Macgreggor hesitated, as he looked at George and Watson. Then he answered fiercely, handling his pistol ominously the meanwhile: "We've but one chance—and we'll take it! We will never let you leave this room alive, promise or no promise. You are unarmed, and there are three of us, armed."
The Major did not seem to be at all startled. He merely changed the position of his legs, as he answered: "Killing me wouldn't do you any good, my boy! If you do shoot me before I can escape from the room the shooting would only alarm the house—the cavalry would be summoned by Mrs. Page, and you would find yourself worse off even than you are now."
Watson touched Macgreggor on the shoulder. "The Major's right," he said; "we would only be shooting down a man in cold blood, and gaining nothing by it. He has trapped us—and, so long as those plagued cavalrymen are so near, we had better submit. I think I've got as much courage as the next man, but I don't believe in butting one's head against a stone wall."
Macgreggor sullenly replaced his pistol. He could not but see the force of Watson's reasoning. The Major rose to his feet. He was smiling away again, as if he were enjoying himself.
"We surrender!" announced Watson with a woebegone expression on his strong face.
"You'll admit," said Lightfoot, "that I was too clever for you?"
There was no answer. George picked up Waggie. "Can I take my dog along with us, wherever we go?" he asked.
The Major suddenly advanced towards George, and patted the tiny animal. "Hello! Waggie, how are you, old man?" he cried.
George gasped. "How on earth did you know Waggie's name?" he asked. For Waggie had been chewing at a bone on the floor ever since the entrance of the Confederate, and his master had not addressed a word to him during that time.
"I know his name almost as well as I do yours, George Knight," said Lightfoot.
In his excitement George dropped Waggie on a chair. The three Northerners heard this last announcement with open-mouthed astonishment.
Lightfoot burst into a great laugh that made the mystery the more intense. "Why, comrades," he cried, "I ought to go on the stage; I had no idea I was such a good actor. Don't you know your friend, Walter Jenks?" The Southern accent of the speaker had suddenly disappeared.
The listeners stood dumfounded. Then the whole situation dawned upon them. They had been most gloriously and successfully duped. This Major Lightfoot was none other than Walter Jenks, a sergeant from General Mitchell's camp, whom Andrews had sent out on the bridge-burning party. He had shaved off his beard, and assumed a Southern accent (something he was able to do because he was a Marylander), so that the guests at the Page mansion had failed to recognize him.
Jenks shook the three warmly by the hand. "It was a mean trick to play on you fellows," he explained, lowering his voice, "but for the life of me I couldn't resist the temptation."
"How on earth did you turn up here in the guise of a Confederate officer?" asked Watson, who now felt a sense of exhilaration in knowing that he might yet join Andrews at Marietta.
"It is too long a story to tell," whispered Jenks. "I'll only say here that I got lost from the other two fellows I was traveling with—was suspected of being a spy in one of the villages I passed through—and, to avoid pursuit, had to shave off my beard and disguise myself in this Confederate uniform, which I was lucky enough to 'appropriate.' I was nearly starved—stumbled across this place or my way down—told a plausible story (Heaven forgive me for deceiving so delightful a lady as Mrs. Page)—and here I am! And the sooner we set off from here, the sooner we will meet at the appointed town."
"When the war's over," remarked Macgreggor, "you can earn a fortune on the stage."
Half an hour later the four Northerners had taken a grateful farewell of the unsuspecting Mrs. Page, and were hurrying along the bank of the Tennessee. By four o'clock in the afternoon they had reached a point directly opposite Chattanooga. Here they found a ferryman, just as they had been given to expect, with his flat "horse-boat" moored to the shore. He was a fat, comfortable-looking fellow, as he sat in tailor-fashion on the little wharf, smoking a corncob pipe as unconcernedly as though he had nothing to do all day but enjoy tobacco.
Watson approached the man. "We want to get across the river as soon as possible," he explained, pointing to his companions. "This officer (indicating Walter Jenks, who retained his Confederate uniform) and the rest of us must be in Chattanooga within half an hour."
The ferryman took his pipe from his mouth and regarded the party quizzically. "You may want to be in Chattanooga in half an hour," he said, in a drawling, lazy fashion, "but I reckon the river's got somethin' to say as to that!" He waved one hand slowly in the direction of the stream, which was, without a shadow of doubt, an angry picture to gaze upon. Its waters were turbulent enough to suggest that a passage across them at this moment would be attended by great risk.
But to the anxious travelers any risk, however great, seemed preferable to waiting. If they missed the evening train from Chattanooga to Marietta their usefulness was ended. No bridge-burning adventure for them!
"I tell you we must get over to-night," urged Jenks, who hoped that his uniform would give him a certain prestige in the eyes of the ferryman. "I am Major Lightfoot, of the —th Virginia, and I'm on an important mission. Every minute is precious!"
"That may be true enough, Colonel," replied the man, ignoring the title of "major," and taking a whiff from his pipe. "That may be true enough, but I calculate nature's got somethin' to say in this world. And I calculate I ain't a-going to risk my life, and the happiness of my wife and five children, by tryin' to stem the Tennessee in this turmoil."
George's heart sank within him. To be so near the realization of his dream of adventure, and to be stopped at the eleventh hour by this stupid, cautious boatman! Waggie, who had been frisking near him, suddenly became solemn.
Watson pulled from his coat a large pack of Confederate money. "There's money for you," he cried, "if you'll take us over!"
The ferryman eyed him in a sleepy way, and took another pull at that provoking pipe.
"Money!" he said, after a long pause, during which the Northerners gazed at him as if their very lives depended on his decision. "Money! What's the use to me of money, if we all get drowned crossing over?"
As he spoke the river roared and rushed downwards on its course with a heedlessness that quite justified him in his hesitation. "Wait till to-morrow morning, and the Tennessee will be quieter. Then I'll help you out."
"Wait till doomsday, why don't you say?" thundered Jenks. "We must take the risk—and I order you to take us over, at once!"
"You may be a very big man in the army," answered the ferryman, "but your orders don't go here!" He produced a small tin box from the tail of his coat, leisurely poured from it into his pipe some strong tobacco, and slowly lighted the stuff. Then he arose, walked to the edge of the wharf, and beckoned to a lad of nine or ten years old who was half asleep in the boat. The boy jumped up, leaped upon the wharf, and ran off along the river's bank in the opposite direction from which the four strangers had come. He had received a mysterious order from the ferryman.