Andrews made no answer to George; instead he shouted a command to the engineer: "Reverse your engine, and move backwards at full speed!"
The engineer, without asking any questions, did as he was told. Jenks ran through to the second car and contrived, after some delay caused by the roughness of the motion, to uncouple it from the third. This last car was now entirely loose from the train, and would have been left behind had it not been that the engine had already begun to go back. Faster and faster moved "The General" to the rear.
"Go forward again," finally ordered Andrews. The engine slowly came to a standstill, and then plunged forward once more. Now George could see the meaning of this manoeuvre. The third car, being uncoupled, went running back towards the enemy's tender. Andrews hoped to effect a collision.
But the engineer of the pursuing locomotive was evidently ready for such an emergency. He reversed his engine, and was soon running backwards. When the baggage car struck the tender no harm was done; the shock must have been very slight. In another minute the enemy's engine was puffing onward again in the wake of the fugitives, while the car was being pushed along in front of the tender.
"That didn't work very well," said Andrews, placidly. "Let's try them again."
Once more "The General" was reversed. This time the second car was uncoupled and sent flying back. "The General" was now hauling only the tender and the one baggage car in which the majority of the members of the party were confined. The second attempt, however, met with no better result than the first: the enemy pursued the same tactics as before; reversing the locomotive, and avoiding a serious collision. It now started anew on the pursuit, pushing the two unattached cars ahead of it, apparently little hampered as to speed by the incumbrance. And now, unfortunately enough, the bridge was in plain view, only a few hundred yards ahead. As the enemy turned a new curve George caught a view of the tender. A dozen men, armed with rifles, were standing up in it; he could see the gleam of the rifle barrels.
"More oil," ordered Andrews. The boy seized the can, and poured some more of the greasy liquid into the fiery furnace. He knew that the wood was almost exhausted, and that it would soon be impossible to hold the present rate of progress. Oh, if there only would be time to burn the bridge, and thus check the pursuers! But he saw that he was hoping for the impracticable.
"Shall we stop on the bridge?" asked the engineer, in a hoarse voice.
"It's too late," answered Andrews. "Keep her flying."
Over the bridge went the engine, with the pursuers only a short distance behind.
"Let us have some of that kindling-wood for the furnace," shouted Andrews to the men in the baggage car. The men began to pitch wood from the door of the car into the tender, and George transferred some of it to the furnace.
"That's better," cried the engineer. "We need wood more than we need a kingdom!"
"Throw out some of those cross-ties," thundered the leader. The men dropped a tie here and there on the track, so that a temporary obstruction might be presented to the pursuing locomotive.
"That's some help," said Andrews, as he craned his neck out of the cab window and looked back along the line. "Those ties will make them stop a while, any way." In fact the enemy had already stopped upon encountering the first log; two men from the tender were moving it from the track.
"We've a good fighting chance yet," cried Andrews, whose enthusiasm had suddenly returned. "If we can burn another bridge, and block these fellows, the day is ours!"
"The water in the boiler is almost gone!" announced the engineer.
George's heart sank. What meant all the wood in the world without a good supply of water? But Andrews was equal to the emergency. "Can you hold out for another mile or so?" he asked.
"Just about that, and no more," came the answer.
"All right. We are about to run by Tilton station. A little beyond that, if I remember rightly, is a water tank." Andrews, in his capacity as a spy within the Southern lines, knew Georgia well, and had frequently traveled over this particular railroad. It was his acquaintance with the line, indeed, that had enabled him to get through thus far without failure.
Past Tilton ran "The General," as it nearly swept two frightened rustics from the platform. Then the engine began to slow up, until it finally rested at the water tank.
"I was right," said Andrews. He leaped from the cab, and gazed down the line. "The enemy is not in sight now," he cried. "Those ties are giving them trouble. Put some more on the track, boys. George, try some more wire-cutting. Brown, get your boiler filled."
In an incredibly short space of time the telegraph wire had been cut, the engine was provided with water, and some more ties had been placed upon the track in the rear. What a curious scene the party presented; how tired, and dirty, yet how courageous they all looked.
"Shall we take up a rail?" demanded Macgreggor. Scarcely had the words left his lips before the whistle of the enemy was again heard.
"No time," shouted the leader. "Let's be off!"
Off went the train—the grimy, panting engine, the tender, and the one baggage car, which was now literally torn to pieces in the frantic endeavor to provide kindling-wood.
"We want more wood," George shouted back to the men after they had proceeded a couple of miles. Some wood was thrown into the tender from the baggage car, with the gloomy news: "This is all we have left!"
"No more wood after this," explained George.
"All right," answered Andrews, very cheerfully. "Tell them to throw out a few more ties on the track—as long as they're too big to burn in our furnace."
The order was shouted back to the car. It was instantly obeyed. There was now another obstruction for the enemy; but George wondered how Andrews, full of resources though he might be, would find more wood for the engine. But Andrews was equal even to this.
"Stop!" cried the leader, after they had passed up the line about a mile from where the ties had been last thrown out. "The General" was soon motionless, breathing and quivering like some blooded horse which had been suddenly reined in during a race.
"Here's more work for you, boys," cried Andrews. He was already on the ground, pointing to the wooden fences which encompassed the fields on both sides of the track. The men needed no further prompting. In less than three minutes a large number of rails were reposing in the tender. George regarded them with an expression of professional pride, as befitted the fireman of the train.
"No trouble about wood or water now," he said, as "The General" tore onward again.
"No," replied the leader. "We will beat those Southerners yet!" He positively refused to think of failure at this late stage of the game. Yet it was a game that did not seem to promise certain success.
Thus the race continued, with "The General" sometimes rocking and reeling like a drunken man. On they rushed, past small stations, swinging around curves with the men in the car sitting on the floor and clinging to one another for fear they would be knocked out by the roughness of the motion. As George thought of this terrible journey in after years he wondered why it was that engine, car and passengers were not hurled headlong from the track.
"We are coming to Dalton," suddenly announced Andrews. Dalton was a good-sized town twenty-two miles above Calhoun, and formed a junction with the line running to Cleveland, Tennessee.
"We must be careful here," said Andrews, "for we don't know who may be waiting to receive us. If a telegram was sent via the coast up to Richmond, and then down to Dalton, our real character may be known. Brown, be ready to reverse your engine if I give the signal—then we'll back out of the town, abandon the train, and take to the open fields."
George wondered if, by doing this, they would not fall into the hands of their pursuers. But there was no chance for argument.
The speed of "The General" was now slackened, so that the engine approached the station at a rate of not more than fifteen miles an hour. Andrews saw nothing unusual on the platform; no soldiers; no preparations for arrest.
"Go ahead," he said, "and stop at the platform. The coast's clear so far."
It was necessary that a stop should be made at Dalton for the reason that there were switches at this point, owing to the junction of the Cleveland line, and it would be impossible to run by the station without risking a bad accident. It was necessary, furthermore, that this stop should be as brief as possible, for the dilapidated looks of the broken baggage car and the general appearance of the party were such as to invite suspicion upon too close a scrutiny. Then, worse still, the enemy might arrive at any moment. Andrews was again equal to the occasion. As the forlorn train drew up at the station he assumed the air and bearing of a major-general, told some plausible story about being on his way with dispatches for Beauregard, and ordered that the switches should be immediately changed so that he could continue on to Chattanooga. Once again did his confident manner hoodwink the railroad officials. The switch was changed, and "The General" was quickly steaming out of Dalton. The citizens on the platform looked after the party as if they could not quite understand what the whole thing meant.
"Shall we cut a wire?" asked George.
"What is the good?" returned Andrews. "The enemy's engine will reach Dalton in a minute or two—perhaps they are there now—and they can telegraph on to Chattanooga by way of the wires on the Cleveland line. It's a roundabout way, but it will answer their purpose just as well."
"Then we dare not keep on to Chattanooga?" asked George, in a tone of keen regret. He had fondly pictured a triumphant run through Chattanooga, and an ultimate meeting with the forces of Mitchell somewhere to the westward, accompanied by the applause of the troops and many kind words from the General.
"Not now," answered the leader. "We may yet burn a bridge or two, and then take to the woods. It would be folly to enter Chattanooga only to be caught."
At last Andrews saw that he must change his plans. He had hoped, by burning a bridge, to head off the pursuing engine before now; his failure to do this, and the complication caused by the telegraph line to Cleveland, told him that he must come to a halt before reaching Chattanooga. To run into that city would be to jump deliberately into the lion's mouth.
"Let us see if there's time to break a rail," suddenly said the leader. The train was stopped, within sight of a small camp of Confederate troops, and the men started to loosen one of the rails. But hardly had they begun their work when there came the hated whistling from the pursuing engine. The adventurers abandoned their attempt, leaped to their places in cab and car, and "The General" again sped onward. There were no cross-ties remaining; this form of obstruction could no longer be used. It was now raining hard; all the fates seemed to be combining against the plucky little band of Northerners.
Andrews began at last to see that the situation was growing desperate.
"There's still one chance," he muttered. He knew that he would soon pass a bridge, and he went on to elaborate in his mind an ingenious plan by which the structure might be burned without making delay necessary, or risking a meeting with the pursuers. He scrambled his way carefully back to the baggage car.
"Boys," he said, "I want you to set fire to this car, and then all of you crawl into the tender."
There was a bustle in the car at once, although no one asked a question. The men made a valiant effort to ignite what was left of the splintered walls and roof of the car. But it was hard work. The rain, combined with the wind produced by the rapid motion of the train, made it impossible to set anything on fire even by a very plentiful use of matches.
"We'll have to get something better than matches," growled Watson. He had just been saved from pitching out upon the roadside by the quick efforts of one of his companions, who had seized him around the waist in the nick of time. Andrews went to the forward platform of the car.
"Can't you get us a piece of burning wood over here," he called to George.
The lad took a fence rail from the tender, placed it in the furnace, until one end was blazing, and then contrived to hand it to the leader from the rear of the tender. Andrews seized it, and applied the firebrand to several places in the car. But it was no easy task to make a conflagration; it seemed as if the rail would merely smoulder.
"Stop the engine," he ordered. "The General" was brought to a halt, and then, when the artificial wind had ceased, the rail flared up. Soon the torn walls and roof of the car burst into flames.
"Into the tender, boys," cried Andrews. The men needed no second bidding. The fire was already burning fiercely enough, despite the rain, to make their surroundings anything but comfortable. They scrambled into the tender. The engineer put his hand to the lever, pulled the throttle, and the party were again on the wing although at a slow and constantly lessening rate of speed. At last they scarcely moved.
"The General" was now passing over the bridge—a covered structure of wood. Andrews uncoupled the blazing car, and climbed back into the tender. The engine again sped on, leaving the burning car in the middle of the bridge. The scheme of the leader was apparent; he hoped that the flames would be communicated to the roof of the bridge, and so to the entire wood-work, including the railroad ties and lower beams.
"At last!" thought Andrews. He would have the satisfaction of destroying one bridge at least—and he would put an impassable barrier between the enemy and himself. His joy was, however, only too short lived. The Confederates boldly ran towards the bridge.
"They won't dare to tackle that car," said George, as "The General" kept moving onward. Yet the pursuing engine, instead of putting on brakes, glided through the bridge, pushing the burning car in front of it. When it reached the other side of the stream the car was switched off on a siding, and the enemy prepared to sweep onwards. The bridge was saved; Andrews' plan had failed. The Northerners gave groans of disappointment as they fled along in front.
Finally it was resolved to make a last stop, and to attempt to pull up a rail. The enemy was now some distance behind, having been delayed by the time necessarily consumed in switching off the car, so that there seemed a reasonable chance of executing this piece of strategy. When the men had again alighted on firm ground several of them felt actually seasick from the jolting of the engine and tender. It was now that one of the party made a novel proposition to Andrews. The plan seemed to have a good deal to recommend it, considering how desperate was the present situation.
"Let us run the engine on," he said, "until we are out of sight of the enemy, and are near some of the bushes which dot the track. Then we can tear up a rail, or obstruct the track in some way, and quickly hide ourselves in the bushes. The engineer will stay in 'The General,' and, as soon as the enemy comes in sight, can continue up the road, just as if we were all on board. When the Confederates reach the broken rail, and prepare to fix it, we can all rush out at them and fire our revolvers. They will be taken by surprise—we will have the advantage."
"That sounds logical enough," observed Andrews; "it's worth trying, if——"
Again the enemy's whistle sounded ominously near. There was no chance to argue about anything now. The men leaped to their places, and "The General" was quickly gotten under way.
Watson looked at Jenks, next to whom he was huddled in the tender.
"How long is this sort of thing to be kept up?" he asked. "I'd far rather get out and fight the fellows than run along this way!"
Jenks brushed the rain from his grimy face but made no answer.
"This all comes from that fatal delay at Kingston," announced Macgreggor. "We would be just an hour ahead if it hadn't been for those wretched freight trains."
The enemy's engine gave an exultant whistle. "Vic-to-ry! Vic-to-ry!" it seemed to shriek.
Who were pursuing the Northern adventurers, and how did they learn the story of the stolen engine? To answer these questions let us go back to Big Shanty at the moment when the train having the conspirators on board reached that station from Marietta. The conductor, William Fuller, the engineer, Jefferson Cain,—and Anthony Murphy, a railroad official from Atlanta, were among those who went into the "Shanty" to enjoy breakfast. They were naturally unsuspicious of any plot; the deserted engine seemed absolutely secure as it stood within very sight of an encampment of the Confederate army.
Suddenly Murphy heard something that sounded like escaping steam. "Why, some one is at your engine," he cried to Fuller, as he jumped from his seat. Quick as a flash Fuller ran to the door of the dining-room.
"Some one's stealing our train!" he shouted. "Come on, Cain!" The passengers rushed from their half-tasted meal to the platform. The conductor began to run up the track, followed by his two companions, as the train moved rapidly away.
"Jerusha!" laughed one of the passengers, a gouty-looking old gentleman; "do those fellows expect to beat an engine that way?"
The crowd joined in the fun of the thing, and wondered what the whole scene could mean. Perhaps it was but the prank of mischievous boys who were intent on taking an exciting ride.
"What's up, anyway?" asked Murphy, as the three went skimming along on the railroad ties, and the train drew farther and farther away from them.
"I'll bet some conscripts have deserted from camp," cried Fuller. "They'll run up the line a mile or two, then leave the engine and escape into the woods." He did not imagine, as yet, that his train was in the hands of Northern soldiers.
On, on, went the trio until they reached the point where George had cut the wire.
"Look here," said Cain; "they've cut the wire! And look at the broken rail!"
One glance was sufficient to show that the engine thieves, whoever they might be, knew their business pretty well. There was something more in this affair than a mere escape of conscripts.
"Look up the road," said Murphy. He pointed to some workmen who had a hand-car near the track, not far above him. Hurrying on, the trio soon reached these men, explained to them what had happened, and impressed them into the service of pursuit. In two or three minutes the whole party were flying up the line on the hand-car.
"Kingston is nearly thirty miles away," explained Fuller, as they bowled along. "I don't know who the fellows are, but they'll be blocked by freight when they get there, and we may manage to reach them somehow." Even if the unknown enemy got beyond Kingston, he thought he might yet reach them if he could only find an engine. The whole escapade was a puzzle, but the three men were determined to bring back "The General."
Thus they swept anxiously but smoothly on until—presto! The whole party suddenly leaped into the air, and then descended into a ditch, with the hand-car falling after them. They had reached the place where the telegraph pole obstructed the track. They had turned a sharp curve, and were on it, before they realized the danger.
"No one hurt, boys?" asked Murphy.
No one was hurt, strange to say.
"Up with the car," cried Fuller. The hand-car was lifted to the track, beyond the telegraph pole, and the journey was resumed.
"Shall we find an engine here?" thought Fuller, as the car approached Etowah station.
"There are iron furnaces near here," said Murphy, "and I know that an engine named 'The Yonah' has been built to drag material from the station to the furnaces. It's one of the finest locomotives in the South."
"I hope that hasn't been stolen too," said Cain.
Now they were at the station. They knew that it would be impossible to make the necessary speed with a hand-car. If they were to reach the runaways they must obtain an engine, and quickly at that.
"By all that's lucky," shouted Murphy; "there's 'The Yonah'!"
There, right alongside the platform, was the welcome engine. It was about to start on a trip to the iron furnaces. The steam was up; the fire was burning brightly.
Etowah was ablaze with excitement as soon as the pursuers explained what had happened.
"I must have 'The Yonah,'" cried Fuller, "and I want some armed men to go along with me!" No question now about seizing the engine; no question as to the armed men. With hardly any delay Fuller was steaming to the northward with "The Yonah," and the tender was crowded with plucky Southerners carrying loaded rifles. The speed of the engine was at the rate of a mile a minute, and how it did fly, to be sure. Yet it seemed as if Kingston would never be reached.
When, at last, they did glide up to the station, Fuller learned that the alleged Confederate train bearing powder to General Beauregard had left but a few minutes before. Great was the amazement when he announced that the story of the leader was all a blind, invented to cover up one of the boldest escapades of the war.
But now Fuller was obliged to leave the faithful "Yonah." The blockade of trains at Kingston was such that it would have required some time before the engine could get through any farther on the main track. He seized another engine, which could quickly be given the right of way, and rushed forward. Two cars were attached to the tender; in it were more armed men, hastily recruited at Kingston. They were ready for desperate work.
"'The Yonah' was a better engine than this one," said Murphy, regretfully, before they had run more than two or three miles. He spoke the truth; the new engine had not the speed of "The Yonah." The difference was quite apparent.
"We must do the best we can with her," said Fuller. "Put a little engine oil into the furnace. We'll give her a gentle stimulant."
His order was promptly obeyed, but the locomotive could not be made to go faster than at the rate of forty miles an hour. Murphy and Cain were both at the lever, keeping their eyes fixed as far up the line as possible, so that they might stop the train in good time should they see any obstruction on the track. Thus they jogged along for some miles until the two men made a simultaneous exclamation, and reversed the engine. In front of them, not more than a hundred yards away, was a large gap in the track. It marked the place where the Northerners had taken up the rails south of Adairsville.
"Jupiter! That was a close shave!" cried Murphy. For the train had been halted within less than five feet of the break. Out jumped the whole party, Fuller, Cain and Murphy from the cab, and the armed men from the cars. The delay, it was supposed, would be only temporary; there were track-laying instruments in the car; the rails could soon be reset. But when it was seen that each of the rails had disappeared (for our adventurers had carried them off with them) there was a murmur of disgust and disappointment.
"Why not tear up some rails in the rear of the train, and lay them in the break," suggested one of the Southerners.
"That will take too long," cried Fuller, and to this statement Murphy readily assented. As it was, the stolen "General" was far enough ahead of them; too far ahead, indeed. If the pursuers waited here for such a complicated piece of work as this tearing up and re-laying of the track, they might lose the race altogether. The conductor and Murphy started once more to run up the road-bed (just as they had footed it earlier in the morning at Big Shanty), and left the rest of the party to mend the track.
Were they merely running on in an aimless way? Not by any means. They had not gone very far before the freight train which Andrews had encountered at Adairsville came groaning down the track. The two men made violent gesticulations as signals to the engineer, and the train was slowly stopped.
"Did you meet 'The General'?" cried Fuller.
The freight engineer told the story of the impressed powder-train that was hurrying on to Beauregard, and of the fine-looking, imperious Confederate who was in command.
"Well, that Confederate is a Yankee," came the explanation.
The freight engineer made use of some expressions which were rather uncomplimentary to Andrews. To think that the supposed Confederate, who had acted as if he owned the whole State of Georgia, was an enemy—a spy! Why, the thought was provoking enough to ruffle the most placid temper. And the engineer's natural temper was by no means placid.
"I must have your engine to catch these fellows!" said Fuller. Naturally there was no dissent to this command. He quickly backed the train to Adairsville, where the freight cars were dropped. Then Fuller, with engine and tender still reversed (for there was no turn-table available), hurried northward on the way to Calhoun station.
"This engine is a great sight better than the last one I had," said the conductor, in a tone of exultation, to Bracken, his new engineer.
"Ah, 'The Texas' is the finest engine in the whole state," answered Bracken, with the air of a proud father speaking of a child.
They were tearing along at a terrific speed when Bracken suddenly reversed "The Texas" and brought her to a halt with a shock that would have thrown less experienced men out of the cab. On the track in front of them were some of the cross-ties which the fugitives had thrown out of their car. Fortunately Fuller had just taken his position on the tender in front and gave the signal the instant he saw the ties. As "The Texas" stood there, all quivering and panting, the conductor jumped to the ground and threw the ties from the track; then he mounted the tender again, and the engine kept on to the northward with its smoke-stack and headlight pointed in the opposite direction. The same program was repeated later on, where more ties were encountered.
When "The Texas" dashed into Calhoun it had run a distance of ten miles, including the time spent in removing cross-ties, in exactly twelve minutes.
"I'm after the Yankees who're in my stolen engine," cried Fuller to the idlers on the platform. "I want armed volunteers!" He wasted no words; the story was complete as he thus told it; the effect was magical. Men with rifles were soon clambering into the tender. As "The Texas" glided away from the platform Fuller stretched out his sturdy right arm to a boy standing thereon and pulled him, with a vigorous jerk, into the cab. The next minute the engine was gone. The lad was a young telegraph operator whom the conductor had recognized. There was no employment for him as yet, because the wires were cut along the line, but there might be need for him later.
Fuller was now aglow with hope. He was brave, energetic and full of expedients, as we have seen, and he was warming up more and more as the possibility of overtaking "The General" became the greater. From what he had learned at Calhoun he knew that the Northerners were only a short distance ahead. His promptness seemed about to be crowned with a glorious reward. He might even make prisoners of the reckless train-robbers.
And there, not more than a mile in front of him, was "The General"! He saw the engine and the three baggage cars, and his heart bounded at the welcome sight. Then he espied the men working on the track, and saw them, later, as they rapidly boarded their train. The Southerners in the tender of "The Texas" cheered, and held firmly to their rifles. At any second now might their weapons be needed in a fight at close quarters.
Of the chase from this point to Dalton we already know. Before Fuller reached that station he knew that it would be possible to send a telegram to Chattanooga, by way of Cleveland, even if the Northerners should cut the wires on the main line.
"Here," he said to the young telegraph operator, "I want you to send a telegram to General Leadbetter, commanding general at Chattanooga, as soon as we get to Dalton. Put it through both ways if you can, but by the Cleveland line at any rate." The conductor took a paper from his wallet and wrote a few words of warning to General Leadbetter, telling him not to let "The General" and its crew get past Chattanooga. "My train was captured this morning at Big Shanty, evidently by Federal soldiers in disguise," he penciled.
On the arrival at Dalton this telegram was sent, exactly as the shrewd Andrews had prophesied. Then "The Texas" fled away from Dalton and the chase continued, as we have seen in the previous chapter, until a point of the railroad about thirteen miles from Chattanooga was reached.
In the cab of "The General" Andrews was standing with his head bowed down; his stock of hopefulness had suddenly vanished. At last he saw that the expedition, of which he had cherished such high expectations, was a complete failure. A few miles in front was Chattanooga, where capture awaited them, while a mile in the rear were well-armed men.
"There's only one thing left to do," he said mournfully to George, who was regarding his chief with anxious interest. "We must abandon the engine, scatter, and get back to General Mitchell's lines as best we can, each in his own way!"
Then the leader put his hand on the engineer's shoulder. "Stop the engine," he said; "the game is up; the dance is over!"
The engineer knew only too well what Andrews meant. He obeyed the order, and the tired "General," which had faithfully carried the party for about a hundred miles, panted and palpitated like a dying horse. The great locomotive was, indeed, in a pitiable condition. The brass of the journals and boxes was melted by the heat; the steel tires were actually red-hot, and the steam issued from all the loosened joints.
Andrews turned to the men who were huddled together in the tender.
"Every man for himself, boys," he cried. "You must scatter and do the best you can to steal into the Federal lines. I've led you as well as I could—but the fates were against us. God bless you, boys, and may we all meet again!"
As he spoke the leader—now a leader no longer—threw some papers into the furnace of the locomotive. In a twinkling they were reduced to ashes. They were Federal documents. One of them was a letter from General Mitchell which, had it been found upon Andrews by the Confederates, would in itself have proved evidence enough to convict him as a spy.
The men in the tender jumped to the ground. So, likewise, did George, the engineer and his assistant. Andrews remained standing in the cab. He looked like some sea captain who was waiting to sink beneath the waves in his deserted ship. He worked at the lever and touched the valve, and then leaped from his post to the roadbed. The next moment "The General" was moving backwards towards the oncoming "Texas."
"We'll give them a little taste of collision!" he cried. His companions turned their eyes towards the departing "General." If the engine would only run with sufficient force into the enemy, the latter might—well, it was hard to predict what might not happen. Much depended on the next minute.
There was a whistle from "The Texas." "The General" kept on to the rear, but at a slow pace. No longer did the staunch machine respond to the throttle. The fire in the furnace was burning low; there was little or no steam; the iron horse was spent and lame.
The adventurers looked on, first expectantly, then gloomily. They saw that "The General" was incapacitated; they saw, too, that the enemy reversed their own engine, and ran backwards until the poor "General" came to a complete standstill. Pursuit was thus delayed, but by no means checked.
"That's no good," sighed Andrews. "Come, comrades, while there is still time, and off with us in different parties. Push to the westward, and we may come up to Mitchell's forces on the other side of Chattanooga."
Soon the men were running to the shelter of a neighboring wood. George seemed glued to the sight of the departing "General." He felt as if an old friend was leaving him, and so he was one of the last to move. As he, too, finally ran off, Waggie, who had been released from his master's pocket, bounded by his side as if the whole proceeding were an enjoyable picnic. When George reached the wood many of the men were already invisible. He found Watson leaning against a tree, pale and breathless.
"What's the matter?" asked the boy anxiously.
"Nothing," said Watson. "This rough journey over this crooked railroad has shaken me up a bit. I'll be all right in a minute. Just wait and we'll go along together. I wouldn't like to see any harm happen to you, youngster, while I have an arm to protect you.
"Come on," he continued, when he had regained his breath; "we can't stay here. I wonder why Mitchell didn't push on and capture Chattanooga. Then we would not have had to desert the old engine."
The fact was that General Mitchell, after capturing Huntsville on April the 11th, had moved into the country to the northeastward until he came within thirty miles of Chattanooga. At this point he waited, hoping to hear that Andrews and his companions had destroyed the railroad communications from Chattanooga. No such news reached him, however; he feared that the party had failed, and he was unable to advance farther, under the circumstances, without receiving reinforcements. But of all this Watson was ignorant.
The man and boy stole out of the wet woods, and thence a short distance to the westward until they reached the bottom of a steep hill which was surmounted by some straggling oaks. They started to walk briskly up the incline, followed by Waggie. Suddenly they heard a sound that instinctively sent a chill running up and down George's spine.
"What's that?" he asked. "Some animal?"
Watson gave a grim, unpleasant laugh. "It's a hound," he answered. "Come on; we don't want that sort of gentleman after us. He'd be a rougher animal to handle than Waggie."
George redoubled his pace. But his steps began to lag; his brain was in a whirl; he began to feel as if he was acting a part in some horrible dream. Nothing about him seemed real; it was as if his sensations were those of another person.
"Anything wrong?" asked Watson, as he saw that the lad was falling behind him.
"Nothing; I'm coming," was the plucky answer. But fatigue and hunger, and exposure to the rain, had done their work. George tottered, clutched at the air, and then sank on the hillside, inert and unconscious. In a moment Waggie was licking his face, with a pathetic expression of inquiry in his little brown eyes, and Watson was bending over him. Again came the bay from the hound and the distant cry from a human voice.
TWO WEARY WANDERERS
"Poor boy," muttered Watson. "He is done out." He saw that George's collapse was due to a fainting spell, which in itself was nothing dangerous. But when he heard the distant baying of the dog, and heard, too, the voices of men—no doubt some of the armed Southerners from the pursuing train—he saw the peril that encompassed both himself and the boy. Here they were almost on top of a hill, near the enemy, and with no means of escape should they be unfortunate enough to be seen by the Southerners or tracked by the hound. If George could be gotten at once to the other side of the hill he would be screened from view—otherwise he and Watson would soon——But the soldier did not stop to think what might happen. He jumped quickly to his feet, seized the unconscious George, and ran with him, as one might have run with some helpless infant, to the top of the hill, and then down on the other side. Waggie came barking after them; he seemed to ask why it was that his master had gone to sleep in this sudden fashion. Watson paused for a few seconds at the bottom of the hill, and placed his burden on the wet grass. There was as yet no sign of returning life. Once more came that uncanny bay. The man again took George in his arms.
"We can't stay here," he said. He himself was ready to drop from the fatigue and excitement of the day, but hope of escape gave him strength, and he ran on through an open field until he reached some bottom-land covered by a few unhealthy-looking pine-trees. Here he paused, panting almost as hard as the poor vanished "General" had done in the last stages of its journey. He next deposited his charge on the sodden earth. They were both still in imminent danger of pursuit, but for the time being they were screened from view.
Watson bent tenderly over the boy, whilst Waggie pulled at his sleeve as he had been accustomed to do far away at home when he wanted to wake up his master. George finally opened his eyes and looked around him, first dreamily, then with a startled air.
"It's all right, my lad," whispered Watson cheerily. "You only fainted away, just for variety, but now you are chipper enough again."
George stretched his arms, raised himself to a sitting posture, and then sank back wearily on the ground.
"I'm so tired," he said. "Can't I go to sleep?" He was utterly weary; he cared not if a whole army of men and dogs was after him; his one idea was rest—rest.
"This won't do," said Watson firmly. "We can't stay here." He produced from his pocket a little flask, poured some of the contents down the boy's throat, and then took a liberal drink himself. George began to revive, as he asked how he had been brought to his present resting-place.
"In my arms," exclaimed Watson. "But I can't keep that sort of thing up forever. We must get away from here. Every moment is precious."
As if to emphasize the truth of this warning, the baying of the dog and the cries of men began to sound nearer. Watson sprang to his feet. The increase of the danger gave him new nerve; he no longer looked the tired, haggard man of five minutes ago.
"We can't stay here," he said, calmly but impressively; "it would be certain capture!"
George was up in an instant. The draught from the flask had invested him with new vigor.
"Where shall we go?" he asked. "I'm all right again."
"To the river," answered Watson. He pointed eagerly to the right of the pines, where they could see, in the darkening light of the afternoon, a swollen stream rushing madly past. It might originally have been a small river, but now, owing to the spring rains and freshets, it looked turbulent and dangerous. It was difficult to cross, yet for that very reason it would make a barrier between pursued and pursuers. Should the former try the experiment?
"Can you swim?" asked Watson.
"Then we'll risk it. After all, the water's safer for us than the land."
Out through the pines they ran until they were at the water's edge. The sight was not encouraging. The river foamed like an angry ocean, and a strong current was sweeping down to the northward.
The soldier looked at the boy in kindly anxiety. "The water is a little treacherous, George," he said. "Do you think you're strong enough to venture across?"
"Of course I am!" answered George, proudly. He felt more like himself now; he even betrayed a mild indignation at the doubts of his friend.
"Well," began Watson, "we had—but listen! By Jove, those rascals have discovered us! They're making this way!"
It was true; the barking of the dog and the sound of many voices came nearer and nearer. Waggie began to growl fiercely, quite as if he were large enough to try a bout with a whole Confederate regiment.
"Take off your shoes, George," cried Watson. "Your coat and vest, too."
Both the fugitives divested themselves of boots, coats and vests; their hats they had already lost in their flight from "The General." In their trousers pockets they stuffed their watches and some Confederate money.
A sudden thought crossed George's mind. It was a painful thought.
"What's to become of Waggie?" he asked. "I can't leave him here." He would as soon have left a dear relative stranded on the bank of the river.
"I'm afraid you'll have to leave him," said Watson.
"I can't," replied George. There was a second's pause—but it seemed like the suspense of an hour. Then the lad had a lucky inspiration. He leaned down and drew from a side pocket of his discarded coat a roll of strong cord which had been used when he climbed the telegraph poles. Pulling a knife from a pocket in his trousers he cut a piece of the cord about two yards in length, tied one end around his waist and attached the other end to Waggie's collar. The next instant he had plunged into the icy water, dragging the dog in after him. Watson followed, and struck out into the torrent with the vigor of an athlete.
George found at once that his work meant something more than keeping himself afloat. The current was rapid, and it required all his power to keep from being carried down the river like a helpless log. Waggie was sputtering and pawing the water in his master's wake.
"Keep going," shouted Watson. "This current's no joke!" Even he was having no child's play.
Just then George had his mouth full of water; he could only go on battling manfully. But he began to feel a great weakness. Was he about to faint again? He dared not think of it. There was a loosening of the cord around his waist. He looked to his left and there was Waggie floating down the stream like a tiny piece of wood. His head had slipped from his collar.
Watson tried to grab the dog as he floated by, but it was too late. He might as well have tried to change the tide.
"Go on, George, go on!" he urged, breathlessly. The boy struggled onward, but he had already overtaxed his strength. He became dizzy; his arms and legs refused to work.
"What's the matter?" sputtered his companion, who was now alongside of him.
"Go on; don't mind me," said George, in a choking voice.
"Put your hand on my belt," sternly commanded Watson. The young swimmer obeyed, scarcely knowing what he did. Watson kept on like a giant fish, sometimes in danger of being swept away, and sometimes drawing a few feet nearer to the opposite bank.
* * * * *
The next thing that George knew was when he found himself lying on the river's edge. Watson was peering at him anxiously.
"That's right; open your eyes," he said. "We had a narrow escape, but we're over the river at last. I just got you over in time, for when we neared shore you let go of me, and I had to pull you in by the hair of your head."
"How can I ever thank you," said George, feebly but gratefully.
"By not trying," answered Watson. "Come, there's not a second to lose. Don't you hear our enemies?"
There was no doubt as to the answer to that question. Across the river sounded the baying and the harsh human voices. Almost before George realized what had happened Watson had pulled him a dozen yards away to a spot behind a large boulder.
"Keep on your back!" he ordered. "The men are on the other bank."
None too soon had he executed this manoeuvre. He and George could hear, above the noise of the rushing stream, the tones of their pursuers. They had just reached the river, and must be searching for the two Northerners. More than once the hound gave a loud whine, as if he were baffled or disappointed.
"They can't be here," came a voice from across the river. "We had better go back; they may be down the railroad track."
"Perhaps they swam across the stream," urged some one else.
"That would be certain death!" answered the first voice.
There was a whining from the dog, as if he had discovered a scent. Then a simultaneous cry from several sturdy lungs. "Look at these coats and boots!" "They did try to cross, after all." "Well, they never got over in this current!" "They must have been carried down the Chickamauga and been drowned!" Such were the exclamations which were wafted to the ears of the two fugitives behind the rock.
"The Chickamauga," said Watson, under his breath. "So that's the name of the river, eh?"
There was evidently some heated discussion going on among the unseen pursuers. At length one of them cried: "Well, comrades, as there's not one of us who wants to swim over the river in its present state, and as the fools may even be drowned by this time, I move we go home. The whole countryside will be on the lookout for the rest of the engine thieves by to-morrow—and they won't escape us before then."
"Nonsense," interrupted a voice, "don't you know night's just the time which they will take for escape?"
"Are you ready, then, to swim across the Chickamauga?"
"Then go home, and don't talk nonsense! To-morrow, when the river is less angry, we will be up by dawn—and then for a good hunt!"
Apparently the advice of the last speaker was considered wise, for the men left the river bank. At last their voices could be no longer heard in the distance. The shades of twilight began to fall, and the rain ceased. Then Watson and his companion crawled cautiously from behind the boulder. They were two as dilapidated creatures as ever drew breath under a southern sky. With soaking shirts and trousers, and without coats, vests, or shoes, they looked the picture of destitution. And their feelings! They were hungry, dispirited, exhausted. All the pleasure seemed to have gone out of life.
"We can't stay in this charming spot all night," said Watson, sarcastically.
"I suppose a rock is as good as anything else we can find," answered the boy gloomily. "Poor Waggie! Why did I try to drag him across the river?"
"Poor little midget," said Watson. "I'll never forget the appealing look in his eyes as he went sailing past me."
"Do you hear that?" cried George.
"Hear what? Some one after us again?"
"No; it's a dog barking!"
"Why, it sounds like Waggie, but it can't be he. He's gone to another world."
"No, he hasn't," answered George. He forgot his weakness, and started to run down the bank, in the direction whence the sound proceeded. Watson remained behind; he could not believe that it was the dog.
In the course of several minutes George came running back. He was holding in his hands a little animal that resembled a drowned rat. It was Waggie—very wet, very bedraggled, but still alive.
"Well, if that isn't a miracle!" cried Watson. He stroked the dripping back of the rescued dog, whereupon Waggie looked up at him with a grateful gleam in his eyes.
"I found him just below here, lying on a bit of rock out in the water a few feet away from the bank," enthusiastically explained George. "He must have been hurled there, by the current."
"Well, Waggie," he said, "we make three wet looking tramps, don't we? And I guess you are just as hungry as the rest."
Waggie wagged his tail with great violence.
"Think of a warm, comfortable bed," observed the boy, with a sort of grim humor; "and a nice supper beforehand of meat—and eggs——"
"And hot coffee—and biscuits—and a pipe of tobacco for me, after the supper," went on Watson. He turned from the river and peered into the rapidly increasing gloom. About a mile inland, almost directly in front of him, there shone a cheerful light.
George, who also saw the gleam, rubbed his hands across his empty stomach, in a comical fashion.
"There must be supper there," he said, pointing to the house.
"But we don't dare eat it," replied his friend. "The people within fifty miles of here will be on the lookout for any of Andrews' party—and the mere appearance of us will be enough to arouse suspicion—and yet——"
Watson hesitated; he was in a quandary. He was not a bit frightened, but he felt that the chances of escape for George and himself were at the ratio of one to a thousand. He knew actually nothing of the geography of the surrounding country, and he felt that as soon as morning arrived the neighborhood would be searched far and wide. Had he been alone he might have tried to walk throughout the night until he had placed fifteen or twenty miles between himself and his pursuers. But when he thought of George's condition he realized that it would be a physical impossibility to drag the tired lad very far.
Finally Watson started away towards the distant light.
"Stay here till I get back," he said to George; "I'm going to explore."
In less than an hour he had returned to the river's bank.
"We're in luck," he said joyously. "I stole across to where that light is, and found it came from a little stone house. I crept into the garden on my hands and knees—there was no dog there, thank heaven—and managed to get a glimpse into the parlor through a half-closed blind. There sat a sweet-faced, white-haired old gentleman, evidently a minister of the gospel, reading a chapter from the scriptures to an elderly lady and two girls—his wife and children I suppose. He can't have heard anything about our business yet—for I heard him ask one of the girls, after he stopped reading, what all the blowing of locomotive whistles meant this afternoon—and she didn't know. So we can drop in on them to-night, ask for supper and a bed, and be off at daybreak to-morrow before the old fellow has gotten wind of anything."
Soon they were off, Watson, George and Waggie, and covered the fields leading to the house in unusually quick time for such tired wanderers. When they reached the gate of the little garden in front of the place George asked: "What story are we to tell?"
"The usual yarn, I suppose," answered Watson. "Fleming County, Kentucky—anxious to join the Confederate forces—et cetera. Bah! I loathe all this subterfuge and deceit. I wish I were back fighting the enemy in the open day!"
They walked boldly up to the door of the house and knocked. The old gentleman whom Watson had seen soon stood before them. The lamp which he held above him shone upon a face full of benignity and peacefulness. His features were handsome; his eyes twinkled genially, as if he loved all his fellow-men.
Watson told his Kentucky story, and asked food and lodgings for George and himself until the early morning.
"Come in," said the old man, simply but cordially, "any friend of the South is a friend of mine."
The minister (for he proved to be a country preacher who rode from church to church "on circuit"), ushered the two Northerners and the dog into his cozy sitting-room and introduced them to his wife and two daughters. The wife seemed as kindly as her husband; the daughters were pretty girls just growing into womanhood.
"Here, children," said the old man, "get these poor fellows some supper. They're on a journey to Atlanta, all the way from Kentucky, to enlist. And I'll see if I can't rake you up a couple of coats and some old shoes."
He disappeared up-stairs, and soon returned with two half-worn coats and two pairs of old shoes, which he insisted upon presenting to the fugitives.
"They belong to my son, who has gone to the war," he said, "but he'd be glad to have such patriots as you use them. How did you both get so bare of clothes?"
"We had to swim across a stream, and leave some of our things behind," explained Watson. He spoke but the simple truth. He was glad that he did, for he hated to deceive a man who stood gazing upon him with such gentle, unsuspecting eyes.
It was not long before Watson and George had gone into the kitchen, where they found a table laden with a profusion of plain but welcome food. Waggie, who had been given some milk, was lying fast asleep by the hearth.
George looked about him, when he had finished his supper, and asked himself why he could not have a week of such quiet, peaceful life as this? Yet he knew that he was, figuratively, on the brink of a precipice. At any moment he might be shown in his true light. But how much better he felt since he had eaten. He was comfortable and drowsy. The minister and his family, who had been bustling around attending to the wants of their guests, began to grow dim in his weary eyes. Watson, who was sitting opposite to him, looked blurred, indistinct. He was vaguely conscious that the old gentleman was saying: "These are times that try our souls." Then the boy sank back in his chair, sound asleep. He began to dream. He was on the cowcatcher of an engine. Andrews was tearing along in front on a horse, beckoning to him to come on. The engine sped on faster and faster, but it could not catch up to the horseman. At last Andrews and the horse faded away altogether; and the boy was swimming across the Chickamauga River. He heard a great shout from the opposite bank—and awoke.
Watson had risen from the table; the pipe of tobacco which the minister had given him as a sort of dessert was lying broken on the hearth. There was a despairing look on his face. It was the look that one might expect to see in a hunted animal at bay. Near him stood the old man, who seemed to be the incarnation of mournful perplexity, his wife, who was no less disturbed, and the two daughters. One of the latter, a girl with dark hair and snapping black eyes, was regarding Watson with an expression of anger. On the table was an opened letter.
"I am in your power," Watson was saying to the minister.
What had been happening during the half hour which George had devoted to a nap?
"Poor, dear boy, he's dropped off to sleep," murmured the minister's wife, when she saw George sink back in his chair. She went into the sitting-room and returned with a cushion which she proceeded to place under his head. "He is much too young to go to the war," she said, turning towards Watson.
"There was no keeping him from going South," answered his companion. "He would go." Which was quite true.
The minister handed a pipe filled with Virginia tobacco to Watson, and lighted one for himself.
"It's my only vice," he laughed pleasantly.
"I can well believe you," rejoined the Northerner, as he gratefully glanced at the spiritual countenance of his host. "Why should this old gentleman and I be enemies?" he thought. "I wish the war was over, and that North and South were once more firm friends." He proceeded to light his pipe.
They began to talk agreeably, and the minister told several quaint stories of plantation life, while they smoked on, and the women cleared off the food from the table.
At last there came a knocking at the front door. The host left the kitchen, went into the hallway, and opened the door. He had a brief parley with some one; then the door closed, and he reentered the room. Watson thought he could distinguish the sound of a horse's hoofs as an unseen person rode away.
"Who's coming to see you this kind of night?" asked the wife. It was a natural question. It had once more begun to rain; there were flashes of lightning and occasional rumbles of thunder.
"A note of some kind from Farmer Jason," explained the clergyman. "I hope his daughter is not sick again."
"Perhaps the horse has the colic," suggested one of the girls, who had gentle blue eyes like her father's, "and he wants some of your 'Equine Pills.'"
"Who brought the letter?" enquired the wife.
"Jason's hired man—he said he hadn't time to wait—had to be off with another letter to Farmer Lovejoy—said this letter would explain everything."
"Then why don't you open it, pa, instead of standing there looking at the outside; you act as if you were afraid of it," spoke up the dark-eyed girl, who was evidently a damsel of some spirit.
"Here, you may read it yourself, Cynthia," said her father, quite meekly, as if he had committed some grave offense. He handed the envelope to the dark-eyed girl. She tore it open, and glanced over the single sheet of paper inside. Then she gave a sharp cry of surprise, and darted a quick, penetrating glance at Watson. He felt uneasy, although he could not explain why he did.
"What's the matter?" asked the minister. "Anything wrong at the Jasons'?"
"Anything wrong at the Jasons'," Miss Cynthia repeated, contemptuously. "No; there's something wrong, but it isn't over at Jasons'. Listen to this!" She held out the paper at arm's length, as if she feared it, and read these lines:
"This is to notify you as how I just have had news that a party of Yankee spies is at large, right in our neighborhood. They stole a train to-day at Big Shanty, but they were obleeged to jump off only a few miles from here. So you must keep on the lookout—they are around—leastwise a boy and grown man have been seen, although most of the others seem to have gotten away. One of my sons—Esau—caught sight of this man and boy on the edge of the river late this afternoon. He says the boy had a dog.
"Yours, "Charles Jason."
After Miss Cynthia finished the reading of this letter there was a silence in the room almost tragic in its intensity. Watson sprang to his feet, as he threw his pipe on the hearth. Waggie woke up with a whine. The Reverend Mr. Buckley looked at Watson, and then at the sleeping boy in a dazed way—not angrily, but simply like one who is grievously disappointed. So, too, did Mrs. Buckley and her blue-eyed daughter.
Finally Miss Cynthia broke the silence.
"So you are Northern spies, are you?" she hissed. "And you come here telling us a story about your being so fond of the South that you must travel all the way from Kentucky to fight for her." She threw the letter on the supper-table, while her eyes flashed.
Watson saw that the time of concealment had passed. His identity was apparent; he was in the very centre of the enemy's country; his life hung in the balance. He could not even defend himself save by his hands, for the pistol which he carried in his hip-pocket had been rendered temporarily useless by his passage across the river. Even if he had possessed a whole brace of pistols, he would not have harmed one hair of this kindly minister's head.
"I am a Northerner," said Watson, "and I am one of the men who stole a train at Big Shanty this morning. We got within a few miles of Chattanooga, and then had to abandon our engine, because we were trapped. We tried to burn bridges, but we failed. We did no more than any Southerners would have done in the North under the same circumstances."
It was at this point that George awoke. He saw at once that something was wrong but he prudently held his tongue, and listened.
"You are a spy," reiterated Miss Cynthia, "and you know what the punishment for that must be—North or South!"
"Of course I know the punishment," said Watson, with deliberation. "A scaffold—and a piece of rope."
The minister shuddered. "They wouldn't hang the boy, would they?" asked his wife anxiously.
Mr. Buckley was about to answer, when Miss Cynthia suddenly cried, "Listen!"
Her sharp ears had detected some noise outside the house. She left the room, ran to the front door, and was back again in a minute.
"Some of the neighbors are out with dogs and lanterns, looking, I'm sure, for the spies," she announced excitedly, "and they are coming up the lane!"
The first impulse of Watson was to seize George, and run from the house. But he realized, the next instant, how useless this would be; he could even picture the boy being shot down by an overwhelming force of pursuers.
"They are coming this way," said Mr. Buckley, almost mournfully, as the sound of voices could now be plainly heard from the cozy kitchen.
"We are in your hands," said Watson, calmly. He turned to the minister.
"You are fighting against my country, which I love more dearly than life itself," answered Mr. Buckley. "I can have no sympathy for you!" His face was very white; there was a troubled look in his kindly eyes.
"But they will be hung, father!" cried the blue-eyed daughter.
"I'm ashamed of you, Rachel," said Miss Cynthia. Mrs. Buckley said nothing. She seemed to be struggling with a hundred conflicting emotions. Waggie ran to her, as if he considered her a friend, and put his forepaws on her dress.
"Are you going to give us up?" asked Watson.
"I am a loyal Southerner," returned the minister, very slowly, "and I know what my duty is. Why should I shield you?"
Watson turned to George.
"It was bound to come," he said. "It might as well be to-night as to-morrow, or the next day." The pursuers were almost at the door.
"All right," said George, pluckily.
"Father," said Miss Cynthia, "the men are at the door! Shall I let them in?"
Mrs. Buckley turned away her head, for there were tears in her eyes.
IN GREATEST PERIL
"Wait!" commanded the minister. There was a new look, one of decision, upon his face. "Heaven forgive me," he said, "if I am not doing right—but I cannot send a man to the gallows!"
He took a step towards the door leading to the entry.
"Not a word, Cynthia," he ordered. He opened a large closet, filled with groceries and preserving jars, quickly pushed George and Watson into it, and closed the door.
"Now, Rachel," he said, "let the men in." The girl departed. Within the space of a minute nearly a dozen neighbors, all of them carrying muskets, trooped into the kitchen. They were sturdy planters, and they looked wet and out of humor.
"Well, Dominie," exclaimed one of them, walking up to the fire and warming his hands, "you can thank your stars you're not out a mean night like this. Have you heard about the big engine steal?"
"Friend Jason has written me about it," replied Mr. Buckley.
"Why, it was the most daring thing I ever heard tell on," cried another of the party. "A lot of Yankees actually seized Fuller's train when he was eating his breakfast at Big Shanty, and ran it almost to Chattanooga. They had pluck, that's certain!"
"We're not here to praise their pluck," interrupted another man. "We are here to find out if any of 'em have been seen around your place. We've been scouring the country for two hours, but there's no trace of any of 'em so far—not even of the man with the boy and the dog, as Jason's son said he saw."
"Why didn't Jason's son tackle the fellows?" asked a voice.
"Pooh," said the man at the fireplace; "Jason's son ain't no 'count. All he's fit for is to dance with the girls. It's well our army doesn't depend on such milksops as him. He would run away from a mosquito—and cry about it afterwards!"
"You haven't seen any one suspicious about here, have you, parson?" asked a farmer.
The minister hesitated. He had never told a deliberate falsehood in his life. Was he to begin now?
"Seen no suspicious characters?" echoed the man at the fireplace. "No boy with a dog?"
The tongue of the good clergyman seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth. He could see the eagle glance of Miss Cynthia fixed upon him. Just then Waggie, who had been sniffing at the closet door, returned to the fireplace.
"Why, since when have you started to keep dogs, parson?" asked the last speaker.
The minister had an inspiration.
"That dog walked in here this evening," he said. "I believe him to be the dog of the boy you speak of." He spoke truth, but he had evaded answering the leading question.
"Great George!" cried the man at the fireplace. "Then some of the spies are in the neighborhood yet!" There were shouts of assent from his companions.
"When did the dog stray in?" was asked.
"More than an hour ago," said Mr. Buckley.
"Come, let's try another hunt!" called out a young planter. The men were out of the house the next minute, separating into groups of two and three to scour the countryside. The lights of their lanterns, which had shone out in the rain like will-o'-the-wisps, grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.
As the front door closed the minister sat down near the table, and buried his face in his hands.
"I wonder if I did wrong," he said, almost to himself. "But I could not take a life—and that is what it would have been if I had given them up."
"Pa, you're too soft-hearted for this world," snapped Miss Cynthia.
Mrs. Buckley looked at her daughter reprovingly.
"Your father is a minister of the gospel," she said solemnly, "and he has shown that he can do good even to his enemies."
Mr. Buckley arose, and listened to the sound of the retreating neighbors. Then he opened the door of the closet. Watson and George jumped out joyfully, half smothered though they were, and began to overwhelm the old man with thanks for their deliverance.
He drew himself up, however, and refused their proffered hand shakes. There was a stern look on his usually gentle face.
"I may have saved your necks," he said, "because I would sacrifice no human life voluntarily, but I do not forget that you are enemies who have entered the South to do us all the harm you can."
"Come," said Watson, "it's a mere difference of opinion. I don't care what happens, George and I will never be anything else than your best friends!"
"That is true," cried George; "you can't call us enemies!"
The manner of the minister softened visibly; even Miss Cynthia looked less aggressive than before.
"Well, we won't discuss politics," answered Mr. Buckley. "You have as much right to your opinions as I have to mine. But I think I have done all I could be expected to do for you. Here, take this key, which unlocks the door of my barn, and crawl up into the hayloft where you can spend the night. If you are there, however, when I come to feed the horse, at seven o'clock to-morrow morning, I will not consider it necessary to keep silent to my neighbors."
"Never fear," said Watson, in genial tones; "we'll be away by daylight. Good-bye, and God bless you. You have done something to-night that will earn our everlasting gratitude, little as that means. Some day this wretched war will be over—and then I hope to have the honor of shaking you by the hand, and calling you my friend."
Watson and George were soon safely ensconced for the night in the minister's hayloft, with Waggie slumbering peacefully on top of a mound of straw.
"I think we are more comfortable than our pursuers who are running around the country," said George. He was stretched out next to Watson on the hay, and over him was an old horse-blanket.
"Thanks to dear old Buckley," answered Watson. "He is a real Southerner—generous and kind of heart. Ah, George, it's a shame that the Americans of one section can't be friends with the Americans of the other section."
Then they went to sleep, and passed as dreamless and refreshing a night as if there were no dangers for the morrow. At the break of day they were up again, and out of the barn, after leaving the key in the door.
"I feel like a general who has no plan of campaign whatever," observed Watson, as he gazed at the minister's residence, in the uncanny morning light, and saw that no one had as yet arisen.
"I guess the campaign will have to develop itself," answered George. The night's rest, and the good supper before it, had made a new boy of him. Twelve hours previously he had been exhausted; now he felt in the mood to undergo anything.
The two walked out of the garden, accompanied by Waggie, and so on until they reached an open field. Here they sat down, on the limb of a dead and stricken tree, and discussed what they were to do.
"We don't know," mused Watson, "whether any of our party have been caught or not. But one thing is as certain as sunrise. Just as soon as the morning is well advanced the pursuers will begin their work again, and they will have all the advantage—you and I all the disadvantage."
"The men will be on horseback, too," added George, "while we will be on foot. We must remember that."
"Jove," cried Watson, giving his knee a vigorous slap. "I've got an idea."
"Out with it," said George.
"Listen," went on his friend. "Here is the situation. If we try to push to the westward, to join Mitchell's forces, in broad daylight, or even at night, we are pretty sure to be captured if we try to palm ourselves off as Kentucky Southerners. If we hide in the woods, and keep away from people, we will simply starve to death—and that won't be much of an improvement. That Kentucky story won't work now; it has been used too much as it is. Therefore, if we are to escape arrest, we must change our characters."
"Change our characters?" repeated George, in wonderment.
"Exactly. Suppose that we boldly move through the country as two professional beggars, and thus gradually edge our way to the westward, without appearing to do so. You can sing negro songs, can't you?"
"Yes; and other songs, too."
"That's good. And Waggie has some tricks, hasn't he?"
"He can play dead dog—and say his prayers—and howl when I sing—and do some other tricks."
"Then I've got the whole scheme in my mind," said Watson, with enthusiasm. "Let me play a blind man, with you as my leader. I think I can fix my eyes in the right way. We can go from farm to farm, from house to house, begging a meal, and you can sing, and put the dog through his tricks. People are not apt to ask the previous history of beggars—nor do I think any one will be likely to connect us with the train-robbers."
George clapped his hands.
"That's fine!" he said. There was a novelty about the proposed plan that strongly appealed to his spirit of adventure.
Watson's face suddenly clouded.
"Come to think of it," he observed, "the combination of a man, a boy and a dog will be rather suspicious, even under our new disguise. Remember Farmer Jason's letter last night."
"That's all very well," retorted George, who had fallen in love with the beggar scheme, "but if we get away from this particular neighborhood the people won't have heard anything about a dog or a boy. They will only know that some Northern spies are at large—and they won't be suspicious of a blind man and his friends."
"I reckon you're right," said Watson, after a little thought. "Let us get away from here, before it grows lighter, and put the neighbors behind us."
The man and boy, and the telltale dog, jumped to their feet.
"Good-bye, Mr. Buckley," murmured Watson, as he took a last look at the minister's house, "and heaven bless you for one of the best men that ever lived!"
They were hurrying on the next moment, nor did they stop until they had put six or seven miles between themselves and the Buckley home. The sun, directly away from which they had been moving, was now shining brightly in the heavens, as it looked down benevolently upon the well-soaked earth. They had now reached a plantation of some two hundred acres or more, in the centre of which was a low, long brick house with a white portico in front. They quickly passed from the roadway into the place, and moved up an avenue of magnolia trees. When they reached the portico a lazy looking negro came shuffling out of the front door. He gazed, in a supercilious fashion, at the two whites and the dog.
"Wha' foah you fellows gwine come heh foah?" he demanded, in a rich, pleasant voice, but with an unwelcome scowl upon his face.
"We just want a little breakfast," answered Watson. He was holding the boy's arm, and looked the picture of a blind mendicant.
The darky gave them a scornful glance. "Git away from heh, yoh white trash," he commanded. "We doan want no beggars 'round heh!"
Watson was about to flare up angrily, at the impudent tone of this order, but when he thought of the wretched appearance which he and George presented he was not surprised at the coolness of their reception. For not only were their clothes remarkable to look upon, but they were without hats. Even Waggie seemed a bedraggled little vagabond.
But George rose valiantly to the occasion. He began to sing "Old Folks at Home," in a clear sweet voice, and, when he had finished, he gave a spirited rendition of "Dixie." When "Dixie" was over he made a signal to Waggie, who walked up and down the pathway on his hind legs with a comical air of pride.
The expression of the pompous negro had undergone a great change. His black face was wreathed in smiles; his eyes glistened with delight; his large white teeth shone in the morning light like so many miniature tombstones.
"Ya! ya! ya!" he laughed. "Doan go way. Ya! ya! Look at de dog! Ho! ho!"
He reentered the house, but was soon back on the portico. With him came a handsome middle-aged man, evidently the master of the house, and a troop of children. They were seven in all, four girls and three boys, and they ranged in ages all the way from five to seventeen years.
No sooner did he see them than George began another song—"Nicodemus, the Slave." This he followed by "Massa's in the cold, cold ground." As he ended the second number the children clapped their hands, and the master of the house shouted "Bravo!" Then the boy proceeded to put Waggie through his tricks. The dog rolled over and lay flat on the ground, with his paws in the air as if he were quite dead; then at a signal from his master he sprang to his feet and began to dance. He also performed many other clever tricks that sent the children into an ecstasy of delight. Watson nearly forgot his role of blind man, more than once, in his desire to see the accomplishments of the terrier. But he saved himself just in time, and contrived to impart to his usually keen eyes a dull, staring expression.
By the time Waggie had given his last trick the young people had left the portico and were crowding around him with many terms of endearment. One of them, seizing the tiny animal in her arms, ran with him into the house, where he must have been given a most generous meal, for he could eat nothing more for the next twenty-four hours.
The handsome man came off the portico and looked at the two supposed beggars with an expression of sympathy.
"You have a nice voice, my boy," he said, turning to George. "Can't you make better use of it than this? Why don't you join the army, and sing to the soldiers?"
George might have answered that he already belonged to one army, and did not feel like joining another, but he naturally thought he had better not mention this. He evaded the question, and asked if he and the "blind man" might have some breakfast.
"That you can!" said the master, very cordially. "Here, Pompey, take these fellows around to the kitchen and tell Black Dinah to give them a good meal. And when they are through bring them into my study. I want the boy to sing some more."
The black man with the white teeth escorted the strangers to the kitchen of the mansion, where an ebony cook treated them to a typical southern feast. It was well that Black Dinah had no unusual powers of reasoning or perception, for the beggars forgot, more than once, to keep up their assumed roles. Watson found no difficulty in eating, despite his supposed infirmity, and George came within an inch of presenting a Confederate bill to Madame Dinah. But he suddenly reflected that paupers were not supposed to "tip" servants, and he stuffed the money back into his trousers pocket.
When they had finished Pompey escorted them to the study of the master of the house. It was a large room, filled with books and family portraits, and in it were assembled the host (Mr. Carter Peyton) and his children. The latter were still engaged in petting Waggie, who began to look a trifle bored. From the manner in which they ruled the house it was plain that their father was a widower. At the request of Mr. Peyton, George sang his whole repertoire of melodies, and the dog once more repeated his tricks. Watson was given a seat in one corner of the study. "It's time we were off," he thought.
As Waggie finished his performance Watson rose, and stretched out his hand towards George.
"Let's be going," he said.
"All right," answered George. He was about to say good-bye, and lead his companion to the door, when a turbaned negress entered the room.
"Massa Peyton, Massa Charles Jason done ride oveh heh ta see you."
"Is he here now?" asked Mr. Peyton. "Then show him in. I wonder what's the matter? It is not often that Jason gets this far away from home." The girl retired.
Charles Jason! Where had the two Northerners heard that name? Then it flashed upon them almost at the same instant. Charles Jason was the name of the farmer who had warned Mr. Buckley about them. If he saw them both, and in company with the dog, they would be under suspicion at once.
George drew nearer to Watson and whispered one word: "Danger!" He picked up Waggie and put him in his pocket.
"We must be going," reiterated Watson, moving towards the door with unusual celerity for a blind man who had found himself in an unfamiliar apartment.
"Don't go yet," urged Mr. Peyton, seeking to detain the supposed vagabonds; "I want Mr. Jason to hear some of these plantation songs. I'll pay you well for your trouble, my boy—and you can take away all the food you want."
"I'm sorry," began George, "but——"
As the last word was uttered Farmer Charles Jason was ushered into the study. He was a chubby little man of fifty or fifty-five, with red hair, red face and a body which suggested the figure of a plump sparrow—a kindly man, no doubt, in the ordinary course of events, but the last person on earth that the two fugitives wanted to see.
"Well, this is a surprise," said the master of the house, very cordially. "It's not often you favor us with a visit as far down the highway as this."
"When a fellow has gout as much as I have nowadays," returned Jason, "he doesn't get away from home a great deal. But something important made me come out to-day."
"Nothing wrong, I hope?" asked Mr. Peyton.
George took hold of Watson's left hand, and edged towards the open door. But Mr. Peyton, not waiting for Jason to answer his question, leaped forward and barred the way.
"You fellows must not go until Mr. Jason has heard those negro melodies."
Owing to the number of people in the room (for all the children were there), Jason had not singled out the Northerners for any attention. But now he naturally looked at them. There was nothing suspicious in his glance; it was merely good-natured and patronizing.
"Yes, don't go," cried one of the children, a pretty little girl of ten or eleven. "Show Mr. Jason how the doggie can say his prayers." She hauled Waggie from George's coat, and held him in front of the farmer. George seized Waggie and returned him to his pocket. There was an angry flush on the boy's face. He had no kind feelings for pretty Miss Peyton.
Jason's expression underwent a complete transformation when he saw the dog. An idea seemed to strike him with an unexpected but irresistible force. The sight of the dog had changed the whole current of his thoughts. He stared first at Watson, and then at George, with a frown that grew deeper and deeper. Then he turned to Mr. Peyton.
"I came over to tell you about the Yankee spies who are loose in the county," he cried quickly, in excited tones. "One of them was a boy with a dog. My son saw them—and I believe this to be the lad. I——"
The farmer got no further.
"Come, George!" suddenly shouted Watson.
At the back of the study there was a large glass door leading out to the rear porch of the house. He ran to this, found that it would not open, and so deliberately hit some of the panes a great blow with his foot.
Crash! The glass flew here and there in a hundred pieces. The next moment the ex-blind man had pushed through the ragged edges of the remaining glass, and was scurrying across a garden at the back of the house. After him tore George. In going through the door he had cut his cheek on one of the projecting splinters, but in the excitement he was quite unconscious of the fact. The children and their father stood looking at Jason in a dazed, enquiring way. They had not heard of the locomotive chase; they knew nothing of Northern spies; they did not understand that the farmer had suddenly jumped at a very correct but startling conclusion.
"After them!" shouted Jason. "They are spies!"
By this time the whole house was in an uproar. Most of the children were in tears (being frightened out of their wits at the mention of terrible spies), and the servants were running to and fro wringing their hands helplessly, without understanding exactly what had happened. Jason tore to the broken door, broke off some more glass with the end of the riding whip he held in his hand, and was quickly past this bristling barrier and out on the back porch. Mr. Peyton was behind him.
At the end of the garden, nearly a hundred yards away, was an old-fashioned hedge of box, which had reached, in the course of many years, a height of twelve feet or more. A little distance beyond this box was a wood of pine-trees. As Jason reached the porch he could see the two Northerners fairly squeeze their way through the hedge, and disappear on the other side. He leaped from the porch, and started to run down the garden. But his enemy, the gout, gave him a warning twinge, and he was quickly outdistanced by Mr. Peyton, who sped onward, with several negroes at his heels.
The party continued down the garden until they reached the hedge; then they ran to the right for a short distance, scurried through an arched opening in the green box, and thus reached the outskirts of the pine woods. Next they began to search through the trees. But not a sight of the fugitives could they obtain. After they had tramped over the whole woods, which covered about forty acres, they emerged into open fields. Not a trace of the runaways! They went back and made a fresh search among the pines; they sent negroes in every direction; yet the result was the same. When Mr. Peyton returned, very hot and disgusted, to his usually quiet study he found Charles Jason lying on the sofa in an agony of gout. Several of the children were near him.
"Oh, papa, I hope you did not catch them," cried one of the latter. She was the little girl who had pulled Waggie from George's pocket.
Mr. Peyton laughed, in spite of himself.
"Have you fallen in love with the boy who sang, Laura?" he asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
"No," said Miss Laura, indignantly, "but Mr. Jason says they were spies—and spies are always hung—and I wouldn't like to see that nice dog hung."
The father burst into a peal of merriment.
"Don't worry," he said; "I reckon the dog would be pardoned—on the ground that he was led astray by others older than himself. Anyway, the rascals have gotten away as completely as if they had disappeared from the face of the earth."
Jason groaned. Whether the sound was caused by pain, or disappointment at the escape of the spies, or both, it would have been hard to tell. When he was taken to his home, not until the next day, he vowed he would never more chase anything, be it even a chicken.
And where were the missing man, boy, and dog? Much nearer to the Peyton house than any of its inmates fancied. When Watson and George ran down the garden their only idea was to get as far off from the house as possible, although they believed that they were pretty sure to be captured in the end. Their pistols were still useless; they did not know the geography of the neighborhood; there were enemies everywhere. But after they squeezed through the hedge, they found in front of them, between the box and the edge of the woods, a little patch of muddy, uncultivated land, devoted to the refuse of a farm. A trash heap, a broken plough, empty boxes, barrels, broken china, and other useless things betokened a sort of rustic junk-shop—a receptacle for objects which had seen their best days.
Among this collection, the quick eye of Watson caught sight of a large molasses hogshead, now empty and with its open end turned upwards. He pulled George by the sleeve, pointed to the hogshead, and then looked at the hedge, as he said, breathlessly: "This is big enough to hold us both; jump in—the hedge is so high they can't see us from the house!"
There was no chance to say more. In a twinkling the two had vaulted into the huge barrel, and were fairly squatting at the bottom. Above them was the open sky and the warm sun. Any pursuer who chose to stand on tiptoe and look in would have been rewarded for his pains. But Watson calculated that no one would think of the hogshead for the very reason that it stood out so prominently amid all the trash of this dumping ground. No one, in fact, gave a thought to the spot; it suggested nothing in the way of a hiding-place. Once a negro who had joined the hunt brushed by the hogshead, much to the terror of its occupants, but he gave it no heed. A few minutes later Mr. Peyton stopped within a few feet of it, to speak to his white overseer.
"We have searched the wood thoroughly," said the overseer, "but they are gone—that's sure."
"Well, they have gotten out of the place," observed the master. "But they won't get many miles away. I want you to take the sorrel mare and spread the alarm through the neighborhood."
Hardly had Mr. Peyton and his overseer hurried away before Waggie indulged in a little yelp, to ease his own feelings. He found things rather cramped at the bottom of the hogshead, to which he had been transferred from George's pocket; he longed to have more leeway for his tiny legs.
"If you had given that bark a minute ago," muttered George, "you would have betrayed us, Master Waggie."
"Oh! oh! oh!" whispered Watson; "I am so cramped and stiff I don't know what will become of me. This is the most painful experience of the war."
There would have been something amusing in the position of the hiders if it had seemed less dangerous. Watson was now sitting with legs crossed, in tailor fashion; on his lap was George; and upon George's knee jumped Waggie.
"You're getting tired too soon," said George. "We will be here some time yet."
He was quite right, for it was not until dusk that they dared leave their curious refuge. Sometimes they stood up, when they got absolutely desperate, and had it not been that the tall hedge protected him, the head of Watson would assuredly have been seen from the Peyton mansion. At last they cautiously abandoned the hogshead, and crept into the pines in front of them. When it was pitch dark the fugitives pushed forward in a northwestwardly direction, until they reached a log cabin, at a distance of about four miles from their point of departure. Within the place a light was cheerily burning.
"Shall we knock at the door?" asked Watson, in some doubt.
"I'm very hungry," laughed George. "I think I could risk knocking anywhere—if I could only get something to eat."
"Well, we might as well be hung for sheep as lambs," observed Watson. "Let us try it."
He had begun to think that it was only the question of a few hours before he and George would be in the hands of the enemy.