Not a word about the burnt bridges or the stolen train! Tom listened eagerly. These people were coming from the direction of Ringgold, and certainly they would be talking about the havoc the Yanks had raised—if they knew of it. When the wagon had disappeared around the bend, Tom came out on the road again. Until the news spread over the countryside he was safe from interference.
After an hour's walking he came to a scattering of houses at a cross-roads. Over one was a sign "General Store," painted in sprawling, uneven letters. It would probably be his last chance before the chase began to buy the things he needed. He opened the door and entered the dimly lighted store. An old man came out from the back room.
"Good evening," said Tom. "I want to buy a shirt."
"Evenin'," replied the man. "Shirt? Well.... Shirt? Don't think I've ever seen you before. D'you live around this a-way, young man?"
"No, I'm just going through to Chattanooga."
"Mary," called the man, "bring that light." A woman in the back room mumbled in response. Tom dreaded the light. In the dusk of the store he could hide his appearance, but with the lamp they would see how disheveled and dirty he was. And, if they had heard any rumors of what had happened during the day, they would suspect him instantly. He looked around at the door and picked his course between the barrels and boxes which lay strewn about the floor.
The woman entered with the light. "Well, I declare!" she exclaimed, looking at Tom. He was, indeed, a strange looking specimen. His face was streaked with black, for his attempts at rubbing himself clean with his handkerchief had been unevenly distributed. His black eyelids, as he blinked in the light, made him grotesque. "What's happened to you?" demanded the woman.
"I've been fighting a fire," answered Tom. He was ready to jump for the door.
"A fire! Where?"
That was encouraging. "Down south of Ringgold," Tom replied. "The bridge caught on fire from a locomotive."
"Y' don't say so!" exclaimed the man. "Y' don't say so!"
"Jeb!" screeched the woman.
"Yes'm," came the response from the back room. A small boy straggled into the store.
"Whyfor you don't tell us there's a fire down Ringgold way?" asked the woman.
"There wa'n't no fire when I left," he answered.
"When did you leave?" asked Tom.
"I guess you just missed it," replied Tom. He was on fairly safe ground now. "The fire didn't start until after one o'clock."
"Huh!" grunted the boy.
"Y' don't say so!" exclaimed the man again. "What happened?"
"Let's have a shirt," said Tom. "I'll tell you about it while you're finding the shirts." The old man turned toward the littered shelves and commenced pawing over the merchandise which had accumulated there. The woman and the boy drew closer, waiting anxiously for the news. "I was waiting for the passenger train at Ringgold," continued Tom. "But the train didn't come. After a while we saw some smoke to the southward and we thought that was the train. But it wasn't. The smoke just stayed in one spot."
"Y' don't say so!" exclaimed the man, stopping his search.
"Yep," answered Tom, "but find the shirt for me. After a few minutes the station agent...."
"Morrison," interjected the woman.
"Yes, I believe his name was Morrison, come to think of it," replied Tom. "Well, Morrison got on the hand car."
"I rode on the hand car once," said the boy.
"Shut up!" ordered the woman. Her husband stopped again in the search to glare at the offender.
"Come on, find that shirt for me," said Tom. He was talking with one eye on the door, fearing the entrance of someone who would spoil his story. "The agent got on the hand car and went a piece down the track. Pretty soon he came back a-flying. 'The bridge is on fire!' he yelled. So we got on the hand car, and went down to the bridge. There the passenger train stood, with all the passengers and the train crew fighting the fire. They were trying to put it out so the train could get across. Can't you find it?" This last to the old man.
"We don't sell many shirts," he answered. "Don't pay. Most of the people makes 'em 'emselves. Have we got any shirts, Mary?"
"I ain't never seen any," she replied. "I bin here twenty years."
"Then sell me one of yours," Tom said.
"Can't do that."
"If you won't sell me a shirt, I can't waste my time here talking." Tom started impatiently towards the door.
"Here, young man," said the woman, "you come back here with me. I reckon we can find something for you." She picked up the lamp and led the way into the back room. It was the combined living-room, bedroom, and dining-room of the family. One door led to the yard behind the house, the other into a lean-to shanty which served as a kitchen. Tom, by way of precaution, took it in rapidly.
"Tell us about the bridge," urged the boy.
Tom continued on a rambling story of how he had helped to fight the fire, how sparks had fallen on him, and how he had to tear his shirt off because it was in flames. He gave a lurid description of the scene. The woman clucked her tongue at intervals, the man exclaimed, "Don't say so!" repeatedly, and the boy grunted his appreciation. Tom talked on and on, reserving the end of his story. At last the woman held a shirt out to him—it seemed to Tom to represent everything which stood between him and his ultimate triumphal return to the Union lines. Without a shirt he could no nothing; with it there was some chance of having his story believed. He took it from her.
"And finally the bridge went down," he continued. "The flames shot hundreds of feet in the air, and the sparks fell down for five minutes afterwards. The passenger train went back to Dalton, and I decided that I'd go to Chattanooga on foot."
"Don't say so!"
Through the door to the kitchen Tom could see a kettle of water steaming on the stove. "I'd like to wash some of this soot off," he said.
The woman led him to the kitchen and gave him a tin basin. "When the door was closed behind her, he stripped off the cape and coat, and fell to scrubbing with the hot water and soap. Then he dried himself and pulled on the shirt. It was several sizes too small for him, but it was better than nothing at all. He could hear the two old people and the boy discussing the fire. Probably, he thought, they would talk of little else until they heard the real story. He thanked his stars that he had struck this one quiet spot in the chaos of war to prepare himself for the adventures of the next few days. It was providential. Now he was ready to meet the world.
"I'd like to buy something to eat," he said as he stepped from the kitchen.
"We ain't got much," answered the woman.
"I'll pay you well," he replied. "I'll have to carry it with me. It's getting dark and I must he getting on to Chattanooga."
"Will some ham an' some bread do?"
She went into the kitchen.
"How did you say that bridge caught on fire?" asked the old man.
"Sparks from a locomotive, I suppose."
"You don't say so—in all this rain!"
Five minutes later he left the store and disappeared down the road which led to Chattanooga. Then he climbed a fence and made his way across the fields to a road which ran north. For a half-hour he plodded through the mud. The strain of the long day was commencing to tell upon him, and each step forward cost a mighty effort. The hunks of mud which accumulated on his shoes felt like blocks of lead weighing him down.
"About enough for this day," he mumbled to himself. Ahead of him he saw a barn, standing a few yards from the road. Farther along, perhaps a hundred yards, was the house with its lighted windows. He walked close to the rail fence and approached the barn cautiously, listening for dogs; then he crawled under the fence and squatted there, waiting. It was still light enough for him to be seen from the house, and so he decided not to make the rush for the barn until later. Several minutes passed, then he heard the sound of boots splashing along the muddy road, and the mumble of voices. He threw himself on the wet sod and lay there, hidden by the weeds and darkness. The voices came near.
Tom caught the words "...some damage anyhow."
"Yes," replied the other man, "but if Andrews had only...."
Tom did not wait any longer. "Shadrack!" he called. The two men stopped as though they had been struck. "Over here by the fence. It's Tom Burns."
"You, Tom! You scared the life out of me."
"Who's with you?"
"Hello, there. Crawl through. I'm waiting for it to get dark enough so that I can make the barn." They shook hands. "I recognized your voice, Shadrack. How are you, Wilson?"
"All right enough. Have you seen any of the others!"
"Not a soul. Wonder what happened to them?"
"Scattered all over two miles by the locomotive," answered Shadrack. "Probably some of them went on the other side of the tracks, making for Mitchel's lines. We decided to go straight north and get across the Tennessee just as fast as we can."
"So did I," answered Tom. "Let's get over to the barn now. It's dark enough."
They hurried across the short open space. A farm wagon standing at the end of the barn formed a step to the hay mow. By standing on the edge of the wagon box, Tom could reach the floor. He pulled himself up and struggled inside. Then he helped Shadrack and Wilson to come after him.
"Whew!" breathed Shadrack. "Just like home." He chuckled.
"It does me good to hear that laugh again," said Tom. He gave Shadrack a dig in the ribs. "I don't suppose you're hungry, are you?"
"Don't talk to me until I get through eating this hay."
"Leave enough for us to sleep on," protested Wilson.
"Smell this," said Tom. He opened the package of ham and bread. Shadrack moaned. Tom took out his knife and divided the food; then they had supper.
"We ought to be out of this before daybreak," said Tom, throwing himself back on the hay. "I hope one of us wakes up. I feel as though I could sleep forever."
It was just dawn when Tom awoke. From his head to his feet, he was sore and stiff. He sat up, rubbing his legs and stretching painfully. "Hey, Wilson! Shadrack! Come on. It's getting light." He went to the door and looked out. "If we drop straight down between the barn and the wagon, they can't see us from the house." He slid over the edge, hung by his fingers and dropped to the ground. The others followed, silently. A minute later they were on the road again.
"Do you know exactly where this road is taking us?" asked Wilson presently.
"No," answered Tom, "but so long as it doesn't take us into Chattanooga, I'm satisfied. We're going north and the river is about twenty miles ahead of us."
"And we're going about one mile an hour," replied Shadrack, slipping in the mud.
It was nearly noon when they heard the sound of horses galloping along the road toward them. They jumped into the bushes and waited breathlessly. A few seconds later, four horsemen, each of them carrying a rifle over his arm, went riding past.
"They're after us," said Wilson.
Tom nodded. "What do you think we'd better do? I'm for staying to the road."
"If it wasn't so blamed muddy we could go across the fields," said Shadrack, "but we'd get bogged again."
"The road's our one chance," added Wilson. "Let's get to work."
During the remainder of the afternoon they worked their way up along the edge of the road, hiding in the bushes time after time. Several small bodies of armed men passed them, and once they caught a scrap of conversation about "Yank bridge burners." The hunt was on.
The command came from behind. They whipped about and found themselves facing a raised rifle. The man was a civilian, tall and lanky. He waved the rifle from one to the other.
"Where're you going?" he demanded.
"Chattanooga," answered Tom. He said it coolly but it required an effort.
"And yer going with me," replied the man.
"That so?" asked Wilson. "I can think of better company if you're going to keep that rifle waving around in the air. What's the matter with you?"
"Put your hands up, an' keep 'em up," ordered the man.
"Well, this way we won't take the wrong road again," said Tom. "I'd rather walk at the end of a rifle than drown in this mud. The folks at home'll laugh when they hear that we were held up just as soon as we got in the South."
"Hey? What's that?" demanded the man.
"If you're after our money you won't get much," Tom replied.
"I ain't after yer money," said the man. "I'm after you."
"What sort of a Yank trick is this!" demanded Wilson.
"I'm asking what sort of a Yank trick this is? Are you a Southerner or are you a Yank?"
"I'll unload this gun into your head if you call me a Yank," answered the man.
"Then what do you want?"
"I'm arresting you in the name of the law for burning bridges. That's what I want."
"Burning bridges!" shouted the man. "An' don't stand there the rest of the day talking, either."
"You seem to be running the talking match," said Tom. "What do you want us to do? Want us to run so's you can have a good excuse for taking a shot at us with that gun?"
"And you might have the decency," answered Wilson, "to ask us who we are before you go any further."
"Well, then, who are you?"
"We're from Kentucky and we've sneaked through the Union lines to enlist. If you want to show us the way to Chattanooga we'll be much obliged to you. But if you're going to the trouble of arresting us for burning.... What was it we burned, Tom?"
"Bridges," replied Tom, laughing.
"Yes—for burning bridges, then you're wasting your time."
"Maybe," answered the man. "But you're a-going with me all the same."
"Then let's go," said Tom. "What's the use of standing here in the mud?"
"I'll walk you back to Judson, an' you can tell yer story there. I ain't believing you and I ain't disbelieving you. Turn around the way you was a-going, an' keep yer hands out of yer pockets. I'll let a bullet go smack into the first man that makes a move he shouldn't."
Here was a man they couldn't talk down. He was probably a good shot, and ready to keep his threat. If only they could get him at a disadvantage, and pull their revolvers before he could fire. But such hopes were shattered a few minutes later when two horsemen pulled up before them. They yelled when they saw the three prisoners.
"Good work, Alf!" said one of the men. "Three of 'em. Hello there, Yanks."
"You're a Yank yourself," answered Tom hotly.
"We're no more Yanks than you are. We were on our way to enlist in the army at Chattanooga, and this is the way we get handled."
"Don't believe 'em," said Alf. "Let's search 'em."
"Why not wait until we get back to Judson? Easier to do it there."
"All right," replied Alf. "You two ride along beside 'em. I'm done up totin' this gun."
The procession started again. Tom heard Wilson whisper to Shadrack: "Keep to the story!"
"No talking, there!" ordered one of the horsemen. "You can do all your talking when you get to Judson."
It was nearly six o'clock when they reached the little town of Judson. As they went down the main street, men and boys tagged along beside them, plying the guards with questions. The guards waved them aside, and answered, "Don't know if it's them or not. Picked 'em up a piece down the road."
They stopped at a two-story frame building labeled "Hotel." One of the guards went in, then motioned to the others to bring the prisoners. Presently they found themselves in a big room, lighted by two lamps which hung from the ceiling. The air was cloudy with smoke. A dozen men sat about at the tables. Instantly there was commotion. Everyone commenced talking.
"Got three of 'em!" shouted Alf. "Three of 'em, Judge."
"He thinks he has," said Wilson.
"You better keep your mouth shut," yelled Alf.
"No use talkin' like that, Alf," said the man addressed as Judge. "Where did you find them?"
"Down the Ringgold road about five miles."
A murmur arose from the men.
"I can tell a Yank one mile off," boasted Alf.
"I can tell a fool just as far away as I can see you," interrupted Wilson.
"Now, Alf, keep quiet," said the Judge. "What were you men doing down the Ringgold road?"
"We were trying to get to Chattanooga," Tom replied, "We got started on the wrong road this morning."
Wilson broke in: "We tried to tell this wild man with his rifle that we were going to enlist in the army. We've sneaked through the Union lines from Kentucky, and came across the Tennessee yesterday. Then we got on the wrong road. This fellow held us up and arrested us in the name of the law for something-or-other. I don't know yet what we're arrested for."
"For burning bridges," yelled Alf. "That's what I arrested you for."
"All right," answered Wilson. "We're arrested for burning bridges. Whose bridges? What bridges?"
"We're getting a whole lot of encouragement to fight for the South," said Tom.
"He's crazier than any Yank I've ever seen in my life," remarked Shadrack, nodding toward Alf.
"Search 'em," demanded Alf. "That'll show you whether I'm right or not."
"Now, Alf," said the Judge, "you go on out to the kitchen and get something to eat. I'll examine these prisoners and I'll see that you get the credit for capturing them if they are the Yanks. Go on, now." He pushed Alf gently toward the door. Alf, still protesting, disappeared reluctantly into the kitchen. The Judge shook his head, laughing.
"That man acts a little crazy," said Tom.
"Oh, he's hot-headed," said the Judge. "He gets one idea and he can't think of anything else. Lock the door, Joe, so we won't be disturbed. And lock the kitchen door, too, or Alf'll be back. Now let's search these men, and see what we can find."
Tom, Shadrack, and Wilson held their arms up, while the men dumped the contents of their pockets on a table. Three revolvers, handkerchiefs, Confederate money.... They found nothing of importance.
"Now let's sit down here and talk this thing over," said the Judge. "Where do you men say you come from!"
"From Fleming County, Kentucky," replied Wilson. "We were getting tired of the way the Yanks were running things and so we decided that we'd go and fight for the South. We started out last week and made our way through the lines. It was easy. We didn't see a single Union sentry."
"Where did you come across the river?" demanded the Judge.
"A few miles this side of Decatur," said Tom.
One of the men beside the Judge interrupted: "There aren't any ferries running up there."
"I know there aren't," answered Tom. "We were afraid to tell anyone what we were going to do until we got across the river, and so we had to build a raft."
"A raft!" exclaimed the Judge.
"Yes, out of logs. I got washed overboard and I grabbed on to one of the logs and held there. Look at my hands." He spread his hands out upon the table, palms up. They had been torn and bruised by the logs he had yanked from the tender.
"Hm-m-m!" grunted the Judge, "must have whipped you around some in that current!"
"Once it whirled me right over, and I thought my wrists would break before I could get another grip. They were trying to pull me aboard, but every time they came to help me the raft tilted so that they had to crawl back."
"And finally," said Wilson, "I got down on my stomach and held to his wrists, while Shadrack sat on the other side and balanced us."
"I came mighty near going overboard myself, then," added Shadrack.
It was a good yarn, and they enlarged upon it.
"And so you're going to enlist, eh?" asked the Judge finally.
"Yes," answered Wilson. "We thought that Chattanooga would be a good place for us. It's near Beauregard and we'll probably get into action pretty soon."
"It's not so near to Beauregard as you think," the Judge answered. "The Yanks have taken a bite out of the railroad between there and Corinth."
"They have?" asked Tom. "Is that what this man Alf was so excited about!"
"No—not exactly," replied the Judge. "Some Yanks stole a train on the Georgia State Railroad yesterday and burned a bridge."
"Stole a train!"
"That's what they did!" He gave them a wild and inaccurate account of what Andrews' raiders had done. "A daring bit of work!" he ended.
"Judge, we're famished," said Wilson. "Do you think we could get some supper here?"
"Joe, run out to the kitchen and see if Mrs. James can give these boys some dinner. And tell Alf that I don't want to be disturbed."
Dinner came and they ate ravenously. The Judge sat across the table from them, talking with some of his friends. Obviously, the atmosphere had changed, now that Alf was no longer there to incite trouble, but they noticed that the Judge took good care to keep the revolvers out of their reach. What did he think? Did he believe their story? Were they to be set free again, or would they be taken to Chattanooga?
"Now, boys," said the Judge as they pushed back from the table, "I want you to stay here in this hotel for the night. Tomorrow you can go to Chattanooga and enlist." It was a request which amounted to a command.
"Well, sir," replied Wilson, "we'll be glad to stay here and have a good night's rest. We need it."
"Joe, you show them their rooms. I'll keep these for the present, if you don't mind." He motioned towards the revolvers. "You can take the other things."
They nodded and said good-night. Joe handed them candles and they followed him upstairs. "Here's one room," he said. "Two of you can sleep there."
"You and Shadrack take it," said Tom to Wilson. "Good-night." They shook hands.
"Here's the other," said Joe, leading the way down the corridor. Tom entered his room, said good-night to Joe, then closed the door and commenced to investigate. It was a narrow room with one window looking out upon the yard. He opened the window and looked down. In the dim light which came from the room in which they had been sitting downstairs he could see a wagon drawn up beside the house; there was a stack of farm tools against the wagon, and the ground was strewn with objects he could not make out. Just a mixture of things which had been thrown there for want of a better place, he thought. The window of the next room was within a foot of his own window. He leaned over and peered in, but he could see nothing. Then he put his ear against the thin wall and listened. He could hear no sound but the mumble of voices from the room downstairs; those he could hear distinctly. He glanced about the floor, wondering if the sound was coming up through a crack. A patch of tin caught his eye and he carried the candle over to examine it. It was about a foot square, covering a stove-pipe hole, and was held in place by four tacks. He pulled out his knife, loosened one tack and bent the corner up. Then he put his ear down and listened.
Alf had just returned to the room. "Why not take 'em to Chattanooga now?" he was demanding. "Turn 'em over to the authorities."
"Now, Alf," said the Judge, "I'm taking care of this. The men are upstairs going to bed, and Joe is in the hall on guard. If they've come all the way from Kentucky to fight for the South, we don't want to make them hate the South so much that they'll be sorry they came. If they are Yanks we'll have plenty of time to deal with them tomorrow. I'm going over to Chattanooga with them in the morning and turn them over to the authorities. They can do whatever they think best."
"I'd take 'em over tonight," answered Alf.
The conversation, carried along upon those lines, lasted for half an hour, with the Judge dominating. One of the men said, finally, "Oh, for Lord's sake, Alf, shut up!" For a minute it seemed that the two men would fight, but the Judge quieted them. They called for drinks and cards, and commenced playing.
Tom left the hole, and continued his investigations. With Joe on guard in the hall, there seemed to be no chance of warning Wilson and Shadrack. But perhaps Joe might leave for a moment. Then he could run down the hall, enter their room and spend the night, plotting out a way of escaping. He decided to remain at the hole, listening for Joe's voice. But first he barred the door with a chair.
A half-hour passed. Then the door of the room downstairs opened with a bang. The man who had entered announced: "They've captured two of the engine stealers over at Julian's Gap! They confessed to it, but first they told a cock-and-bull yarn about coming from Fleming County, Kentucky, to join the Southern troops!"
"What!" yelled the Judge.
"There you are!" Alf shouted triumphantly. "Get 'em!"
Tom jumped to his feet. There was no time to warn Wilson and Shadrack. He could hear the boots pounding up the stairs. He sprang to the window and threw it open. To jump on that mess of farm tools below him would probably mean a broken leg. Leaning far out, he reached around and pushed up the window of the next room, climbed in and closed his own window. Through the wall he could hear them banging at his door.
Tom stood in the center of the dark room and listened to the tumult in the corridor. They were pounding at the door of the room he had just deserted, wrenching at the knob.
"Open up there!" yelled Alf. "Open up!"
Then came a crash as the door splintered. Alf's voice sounded in rage of fury: "Gone!"
Tom heard him bolt from the room and up the corridor, screaming: "Is he in there with the other two? Have you got them?"
Then the Judge's voice: "We've got these two. Where's the other?"
"Gone!" answered Alf. "Escaped! I told you...."
"Joe!" boomed the Judge.
"Here I am, sir."
"Have you been here all the time?"
"The dirty rat let him escape...."
"Shut up, Alf! Have you been here all the time, Joe?"
"Yes, sir. I've been right here, sir. I didn't leave for a second."
Alf yelled: "Look out the window! He jumped out the window! Run around outside!" He came bounding down the hall again, entered the room, and threw open the window.
Tom could see his head in the candle light. He shifted back closer to the wall, his heart pounding. "Look through them bushes," yelled Alf to the men who had run into the yard. He let the window slam shut and went up the hall. Then: "Where'd that other one go? Come on! Out with it! You know!"
"Don't try any of that," said the Judge. "You're wasting your time. These men don't know anything about it. Joe was here in the corridor."
A few seconds later, Tom heard Alf's voice in the yard: "He's got away. Get horses! If we only had a pack of dogs...." The noise in the corridor ceased, and the men clumped down the stairs, leading Wilson and Shadrack with them. The sound of voices in the yard grew indistinct and far away.
Tom began quietly to investigate his new room. It was on the corner of the house, and there were two windows—the one through which Tom had entered, and another which looked out to the rear. He felt his way along the wall and came to a wash-stand and a chair. He took the chair and wedged it silently under the door-knob; then stole across to the rear window. It was black dark outside. After a few minutes, he raised the window and listened. Men were yelling in the distance. Apparently they were starting on a wild night chase in the hopes of finding him on the road.
"If you had more sense and less energy, Alf," muttered Tom, "you might get me." The vision of Andrews' calmness during the raid flashed across his mind. "Let them get excited," he said to himself; "you keep your wits."
Then he heard the Judge's voice, booming in front of the hotel: "Tell them to get that wagon around here in a hurry—we'll get these two engine stealers started for Chattanooga, and hunt down the other one when it's light."
Tom left the window and snatched up the bedclothes, knotted the blankets together and tied them around the leg of the bed. They would shorten his drop to a few feet, so that the noise would not be heard above the general commotion. Then he waited until he heard the wagon creak up before the hotel and stop. The crowd followed the prisoners and their guards out to watch the departure.
Tom opened the window and tossed the blankets down; then he squirmed to the sill, clutched the blankets with his hands and knees, and slid. He dropped to the ground noiselessly, and stood for a moment scanning the yard for obstacles. Thirty or forty yards ahead of him there was a row of bushes which led into the woods south of the village. That would be the best way, he decided.
Then he changed his mind, for it was too obviously the best way—others would think of it too, and look for him there. To the bushes, then, and across the road to the north at the first opportunity. He took off his shoes, tied them together through a button-hole so that he could not drop them, and raced, crouching, across the open space. In the bushes, he stopped and listened. The crowd was yelling and talking in front of the hotel. Regardless of the stones and twigs which cut into his feet, he pressed on through the bushes as rapidly as he dared, skirting the yard and avoiding the woods which lay to his left. A dog yipped frantically, and Tom stopped; then he decided that the dog was aimlessly sharing in the excitement, and went forward again.
Five minutes later, he sat on the ground and began scraping the accumulation of mud and twigs from his socks. He pulled his shoes on, laced and tied them; then he stood up and began to make his calculations. In leaving the hotel he had gone west; now, with the village on his right, he was facing northward, and the Tennessee River was directly ahead of him, probably four or five miles. The sky was heavily clouded and there were no stars by which he could set his course through the fields and woods which lay between him and the river. There was a road going northward from the hotel, but it would be inviting capture to follow it. The best he could do, he decided, was to parallel the road, stealing to the right every half-hour or so until he came to it, then stealing back again until he was under cover.
Presently he heard the wagon creaking, its wheels sinking through the mud and grinding upon the solid ground beneath. Men were talking, but he could not distinguish what they said. Poor Wilson and Shadrack! Prisoners, and bound for Chattanooga under heavy guard! As he stood there listening, a sense of utter helplessness wrenched at him. He could do nothing but fight his own way back to the lines. Plans for going to their rescue tumbled over each other in his mind, but all of them were hopelessly inadequate.
When the wagon had passed, he walked to the Chattanooga road and crossed, plunging into the bushes on the other side. Once again he took his bearings, and hurried northward as quietly as he could. The branches whipped in his face; sometimes he stumbled and fell. Once he walked into a ditch half-filled with water, and sprawled on the slippery mud of the bank. Then he came to a field where his feet sank in the gumbo over his shoe-tops. His feet accumulated mud until he was obliged to stop and scrape it off with his hands. But he labored forward, step after step.
After an hour, he turned to the right and went towards the road to make sure of his course. He reached it after more than a half-hour's walk.
"Must have veered off to the left," he muttered; then he silently retraced his steps for ten minutes, and turned northward again.
Ahead of him he made out a farmhouse, so he went on a long detour to avoid arousing the dogs. An hour later, he struck back toward the road again, and found it after fifteen minutes' walking.
"That's better," he said. He was puffing from the exertion of dragging himself through the mud, so he sat near the road and rested. His ears caught the sound of horses' hoofs. He worked his way to the roadside and waited there to overhear a scrap of the conversation, for the riders were talking.
"...trying to tell Alf," were the first words he caught.
"He's too crazy to listen," answered the other. "Can't find a man on a night like this. He won't be fool enough to travel on the road, anyhow. Better wait until daylight, I says to Alf, but he goes raving 'round like a mad dog into the woods."
"Well, we'll go to the river an' lay low there. Probably he'll come popping out along 'bout noon."
"Can't get across the river, anyhow, can he!"
"Can't tell about a Yank. Who'd have thought they'd have stole an engine!"
"Yeh, that's right...."
So they were posting a guard along the river! That was valuable information. And Alf was in the woods!
At three o'clock in the morning Tom spread his cape upon the ground and sank down to rest. The long struggle through the mud had become a nightmare. He was too exhausted to care greatly if the man-hunt ended with him a prisoner—if it would only end. To be out of this sea of jelly-like mud would be enough. He lay there breathing heavily, his body aching and throbbing. Minutes passed. Then he became vaguely aware of a faint roaring. He listened for a moment, but it meant nothing to him. Presently the sound came to his ears again, and he sat up.
"The river!" he exclaimed at last. He forgot his exhaustion and sprang to his feet. During the past two hours he had been straining to catch that sound, and now he wanted to rush forward, recklessly. But he held himself in check, remembering the conversation he had overheard, and approached slowly, choosing each step of the way. Many times he paused to listen; the noise of the rushing water seemed nearer, but always far away, just out of his reach. It was maddening. Again and again he felt himself becoming unnerved by the mud and the darkness and the idea of being hunted.
The clouds were breaking, and a faint blue light seeped through the rifts. It was as though the trees and bushes had grown magically from the blackness, only to dissolve in blackness again as the rifts closed. For a moment he paused, thinking that he had heard the sound of voices. Ten minutes passed while he crouched in the mud, listening. There was another brief instant of moonlight, this time brighter, and the shadows cast by the trees seemed living, moving things. Tom could feel his heart thumping.
"Don't get excited," he muttered to himself. It was encouraging and comforting to hear the sound of his own voice: "Don't be a fool and lose your wits—and spoil your chances."
To his left was a forest, and directly ahead of him ran a long row of bushes. He wanted to avoid the forest, so he hurried as fast as he could across the field during the next interval of darkness. Then came another wait of five minutes, and another dash forward. He gained the bushes and discovered that he had come to a road. It bordered the river, he decided, for now the rush of the water seemed directly before him. Just as he was about to cross the road, he caught the beat of a horse's hoofs upon the mud. A minute later the horse galloped past; Tom had a brief glimpse of the rider, with his rifle held in the crook of his arm.
Tom crossed the road and entered the thicket on the other side. Now the river sounded below him, and he decided that he must be close to the edge of an embankment. He crept forward slowly on his hands and knees through the tangle of branches, feeling the ground before him. One hand went off into space, and he groped about. Then he drew back and waited for another moment of moonlight to show him his position. When it came, a few minutes later, he saw the Tennessee, swollen and tossing, forty feet below him. He was on the edge of a sheer embankment.
"Can't do it here," he said, moving away. He crawled back to the road, crossed it, and walked in the direction of Chattanooga. Presently he heard someone yelling in the distance. He decided that it was the horseman calling a farmer from his bed and warning him of the escaped Yankee.
After a half-hour of slow traveling, he made his way towards the river again. Now the dawn was coming, and the water rippled luminously as Tom looked over the embankment. At this point, the descent to the water's edge was more gradual—a straight drop of twelve feet, then a slope of gravel. Once down there, he would have no choice but to swim the river, and swimming in such a current was no easy matter. Would it be better, he asked himself, to go farther down, to risk another half-hour in exploring!
His thoughts were interrupted suddenly by voices on the road, twenty yards behind him. A man said: "Reckon this is as good a spot as any. Out there I can see as far up as Johnson's and a mile down."
"Suit yourself," answered the other; "you know the country. I'll go down an' get Phipps out if nobody else has. Then I'll be back along up this way and tell the boys that you're here."
"You say this Yank's a young man?"
"'Bout twenty, I'd say."
"How many of them were there that stole the train?"
"The stories are all different. Some say five and some say fifty. Can't tell. Well, I'll see you later."
Tom swung over the edge of the embankment and dropped. He struck the loose gravel and rolled down with the gravel sliding after him in a great wave. It seemed incredible that the men should not hear him, but he trusted to the noise of the river and ran down along the water's edge. Presently he came to a large rock projecting from the embankment and dodged behind it. There he sank down to get breath for his next move.
FIGHTING THE RIVER
Tom began to explore the rock behind which he had taken refuge. It projected several feet from the side of the embankment, and the wash of the water in former days when the river was even higher than at present had carried away the dirt on the down-stream side, forming a small pocket. In the darkness, he ran his hands over the wall of it. There was room enough for him there if he sat with his knees drawn up under his chin. He squeezed himself in, and fell to considering what he had better do next.
He decided that it would be hopeless to try swimming the river at this point, after his night-long struggle through the mud. He was too tired, and the current would simply toss him about. On the other hand, it was too dangerously near dawn to attempt going farther down the river in hopes of finding a place where the current was not so strong. If he spent the day here would he be stronger when night came again after having gone twenty-four hours without food? But with the next night clear before him, there was at least a slight chance that he might find some means of getting across. It wasn't quite clear in his mind what such means might be. However, luck had been with him in escaping from the hotel. Poor Wilson and Shadrack! They were in Chattanooga by this time. At any event, swimming was out of the question for the present. Sleep was the most important thing. The thoughts which had been hammering through his head were lost as he dozed off. Then, a few minutes later, he awoke with a start. Every muscle in his body was cramped and aching. He shook himself awake, felt around until he came to a large flat stone. With this he scraped away several feet of dirt at the side of the pocket. Then he climbed in again, braced himself against the wall and kicked more dirt loose with his heels. Alternating with the rock and his heels, he made the pocket long enough so that he could stretch out comfortably. Then he scraped away the back wall, so that there was no danger of being seen from above, and piled rocks along the edge of the pocket, so that he could not easily be seen from the opposite bank. That completed, he crawled in and scooped out dirt with his hands, to make the bottom of the pocket conform to his body. Then, with a sigh which expressed his weariness and comfort in a breath, he plunged into sleep.
It was noon when he awoke. He raised himself on one elbow and glanced out over the rocks at the river. His joints protested at every move, and his muscles seemed bruised and hurt. He was thoroughly chilled, and yet his head felt hot.
"Hmmm, a little fever," he said. He stripped off some of his clothes and began chafing his body; then he lay back and flexed his arms and legs in the scant room of the pocket. After a half-hour of this he could feel the blood flowing through him again.
From the pocket, he could see across the river and down, where the embankment sloped towards Chattanooga. He peered cautiously out, trying to decide what he should do when night fell; but there seemed to be no choice except to swim, for he could see nothing that gave him an atom of encouragement. And the swift current of the river swept on as far as his eyes could reach.
He settled himself again on the floor of his hiding-place. Hunger was gnawing at him, and which was more difficult to bear, he was thirsty. He shut his eyes and lay quietly. After a few minutes he sat up, and fell to rubbing his body again. Towards the middle of the afternoon he drifted off into an uneasy, troubled sleep. People—friends from home, his companions on the raid—approached him in his dreams, and promised to bring water; then they went away, talking and laughing, and forgot to come back. Again and again he asked them, and always they promised. He awakened himself by crying, "Please! Please!"
His body ached and throbbed; it was painful to move. His throat was parched, and his tongue felt swollen. After he had pounded and rubbed his muscles again, he sat up and looked out. The sun was setting, and the river appeared to be a long shimmering ribbon of gold. He let his eyes wander along it slowly. A large oblong thing, which rested near the water's edge about three-quarters of a mile below him, caught his attention. At first it seemed a mere trick of the shadows; then, as he watched it more closely, he wondered if it could be a flatboat, drawn out of the water. He sat gazing at it anxiously. The minutes passed and he forgot that he was hungry and thirsty.
"It's a flatboat or a raft," he said to himself.
Finally the sun set, and Tom waited in an agony of suspense while the dusk slowly turned into darkness. As the time for him to move approached, his thirst became almost unbearable. The rush of the water, which was the only noise he could hear, was tantalizing, maddening. His body felt as though it were being consumed by a slow fire, which mounted steadily to his head, sickening him and making him dizzy. He wanted to kick the stones away, spring from his hiding-place and rush down to the water's edge, plunge his face into the cool water and take great gulps of it.... Yet he sat quietly, his hands clenched, forcing his mind to think of other things. Across the river, the embankment became a soft blue-green blur, which turned darker and darker. The ripples of the river caught the last rays of light, flashing as though the surface were in flames.
"I'll get out," he said to himself, "when I can't see the water." Then, grimly: "And not before." He looked down the river again towards the oblong object which had caught his attention, but it was lost in the night.
"Must be careful when I go to drink," he muttered. "Just a sip at first. Then another sip in a minute or so."
He began to take the stones away from the opening of the pocket; then he swung his feet out and sat on the edge. He glanced up: there was no moon, and the sky was filled with heavy clouds. The rim of the embankment where the guards had spent the day watching for him was scarcely distinguishable. He got to his feet and leaned weakly against the rock.
"Whew! Weak as a baby! Water'll make me feel better." The effort of rising had made him dizzy, and his legs were like soft rubber beneath him. His knees seemed to bend in all directions under his weight. "Better crawl," he muttered; then he sank to his hands and knees. He found himself laughing as he made his way to the water, and it struck him suddenly that he was delirious. That realization had the effect of clearing his mind instantly. "Careful about drinking," he cautioned himself. "Just one sip."
Water! He put his face in it, took a mouthful and let some of it trickle down his throat. He spat the rest out and pushed back from the stream. Presently he was at the edge again, bathing his face and taking little sips. Dizziness came over him like a great wave which caught him up and spun him around. He lay flat and waited for it to pass; then he felt better.
After a few minutes he arose and commenced to walk back and forth over a small strip of sand, limbering his muscles. Finally he stripped off the damp clothes and stood naked in the shelter of the rock, pounding and chafing his body until it glowed. Gradually he overcame the paralysis of the cold. "Legs," he said, rubbing and beating them savagely, "when I tell you to move, don't take five minutes about it. Now, move!" While the legs did not respond with alacrity, they showed improvement. His nervous system, which transmitted the orders of his mind to his body, seemed asleep—or broken like the telegraph lines they had torn down along the route of the raid. But slowly his nerves awoke, and strength replaced the numbness.
Hunger seized him, and so, remembering the stories he had heard of Indians tightening their belts during famines, he wound his underdrawers about his stomach, pulling the legs taut, then tying them. "Poor substitute for a meal," he mumbled, laughing. At least, he could laugh now, and that counted for something. He dressed and went to the water for another drink; then he began to pace slowly along the strip of sand, not daring to sit down and risk becoming numbed again.
"Better wait here for a few hours," he said. "They'll probably get sick of watching and seeing nothing but black night. Later I'll go down and see what that thing is. If it's a flatboat or a raft, I'll try to get across on that. If it isn't, I'll climb up the bank and get a log. Then I'll try swimming across holding to it. That'll keep me up if I get a cramp. Lord, I'm hungry! Guess I'd better not think about it. I'm talking to myself as though I'd reached my second childhood. Oh, well...." He paused and looked up toward the embankment. "You thought you'd get me, didn't you, Alf? Not this Yankee!"
So the next two hours passed, while Tom walked back and forth, keeping the blood stirring in his veins, talking to himself. At last he decided that the time had come for him to go down the river. He took up a small stick to help him feel the way along the shore, pulled his sodden felt hat down securely on his head, and started, picking his way carefully and silently among the stones. After a few minutes he began to zig-zag along the bank so that he could not possibly miss that oblong thing for which he was searching. He was wondering if he had passed it, or if, after all, it had just been a trick of the shadows, when his stick sounded hollowly against a wooden object. He leaned forward and felt of it. It was a flatboat!
In the darkness he walked about it, running his hands along the edge. It measured about ten feet by fourteen feet, he decided. Then he climbed in and felt of the bottom. At one corner there was a hole. The boat had probably been washed loose from its mooring during some previous flood time, and had come ashore here, striking the rocks. Certainly it had not been in the water for a long time, for the bottom boards were warped, with gaping seams between them.
"But it's a boat," said Tom, as he got out. He went to the water; the end of the flatboat was two yards from the river. Then he went back, clutched the end and tried to move it. Exerting all his strength, the boat barely stirred.
"Whew! Too heavy for me." He tried again, but with no better success. "Have to get a lever," he panted.
He spent the next ten minutes feeling about the beach, hoping that he would come upon something which he could use to pry the boat forward. But there was nothing; the beach was bare of everything except rocks and sand. For a moment he stood there, too keenly disappointed to know what he should do next. Then he turned toward the embankment.
Halfway up, a stone upon which he was standing became dislodged and tumbled to the bottom, carrying a rush of gravel with it. Tom, clinging to an exposed root, waited breathlessly, expecting an outcry from some guard who had heard the noise. He secured another footing, reached higher on the root, and dragged himself up another foot. Presently his head came over the edge; then he found a little tree which would bear his weight, swung a leg over and squirmed to the top. Again he waited, listening and getting his breath.
He crawled through the bushes on his hands and knees, pressing down the branches and selecting each inch of the way. Presently he came to the road. Another wait to catch the sound of a guard. Then forward again.
"There!" he exclaimed, as his hand touched a rail fence. He arose and pressed down on the top rail, testing it for strength. It bent too easily under his weight, so he tried the one underneath. That was stronger. Silently he disengaged the ends of the top rail and laid it on the ground; then he took up the rail he wanted, held it above his head and swung it over the bushes until it pointed towards the river. He made his way to the center of it, balanced it carefully over one shoulder and started creeping for the river again.
The barking of a dog stopped him just as he crossed the road. The suddenness of the barking made it seem as though the dog were at his heels, but he realized, as he collected himself, that the animal was a considerable distance away. Probably it was at the farm where the horseman had recruited a guard the night before, Tom decided. He hurried through the bushes and narrowly escaped tumbling over the edge of the embankment. He went down again, pulling the rail after him and letting it slip to the bottom.
"Now I'll move you," he said to the flatboat. First he rolled stones away, clearing the path to the water; next he went behind the boat, shoved the rail under and heaved upward. The rail curved under the strain, then the boat slid forward, grinding on the sand. One foot nearer the water. Tom took off his coat, threw it aboard, and worked the boat forward another foot. At last the forward end was in the river, with the water lapping against it. He stopped for breath.
Once again he heard the barking of a dog, this time nearer. Then again, still nearer. Presently he heard a man shouting, and another man answer him. They were on the road above him, and the dog was yipping with excitement.
Tom drew back to the embankment, every nerve throbbing. So they were chasing him with dogs!
Then a man's voice: "Don't see nothing here. That good-for-nothing cur—bringing us out in the middle of the night to chase squirrels. Come here, Stub!" Tom heard the yelp of the dog as the man kicked it. "Teach ye to git us up in the middle of the night fer nothing." Again the dog yelped.
"Ain't this about where Saunders' old boat is?" asked the other man.
"Yeh, I reckon so. There you can see it—right down there."
"Ain't it nearer the water? Say, you don't s'pose...?"
"Naw, that's because the water's high—mighty near as high as it was three years ago. Get out of here, you mangy cur!" Another yelp. "He couldn't get across in that sieve. Couldn't get it into the water, for one thing. Come on, let's go back. I tell ye that Yank ain't...." The rest of his words were lost as they left the embankment and went back to the road.
Tom, breathing more easily, waited for five minutes, then picked up his rail and shoved it under the boat. "If you had as much sense as your dog, mister, you'd be all right." That was his parting shot at the two men as he gave another heave at the rail. Water was pouring into the boat, so he stuffed his coat into the hole. That would keep the boat from filling so rapidly, at least.
Two more heaves at the rail and the current caught the forward end, swinging it around slightly. Another heave; and he jumped aboard, dragging the rail after him. He stood up and poled the boat away from the shore. The current turned it end for end; he changed his rail to the other side, reached down for the bottom and gave another shove, which sent him out into the full flow of the Tennessee River.
The flatboat had shipped about two inches of water, and more was entering just as fast as it could flow through the cracks. "But it's a boat," Tom repeated. "And she'll be a boat until she sinks—and then I'm a swimmer."
He tried to reach the bottom of the river with his rail, but the water washed it aside; then he tried to steer by holding the rail against the upstream side, but the old boat was in no mood to answer a helm. She veered about in the current, twisting, turning, going sideways, wallowing in the uneven water. Tom, squatting in the center, watched its aimless, crazy actions, wondering what he could do to get it edging towards the opposite shore. The water was mounting higher; the boat was half-filled now, and the waves were splashing over. But still she careened, as though enjoying her new freedom, down the Tennessee.
Tom glanced up, and saw, to his amazement, the lights of Chattanooga glowing like dim yellow stars in the darkness. Chattanooga! And he was passing it in the darkness! He sat speechless watching the city as the current carried him along.
Below Chattanooga there was a sharp bend in the river where it turned to the northward. He remembered that from studying the map. Would he be washed up on the same side of the river from which he had just escaped? Would it be better to jump overboard and swim, letting the boat drift wherever it pleased her? But there was no time for considering what might happen, and what he might do: he was already at the bend. The flat-boat, caught in the eddy, was whirling about dizzily. Tom snatched up the rail and reached for the bottom, poling her off towards midstream whenever he could get the rail down. Gradually the boat drifted into the current, and started north. It had sunk far down in the water, and the waves slopped over the sides.
"If you'll last to the next turn!" exclaimed Tom prayerfully. He was sitting waist-deep in water, and his teeth were chattering. He was becoming numb again, but there was no opportunity for exercise now. The old flatboat seemed ready to slide from under him at any minute.
The next bend of the river, where it turned southward again, was only a few miles from where Tom had crossed in the ferryboat on his way to Chattanooga and Marietta. From that point he knew his way north. But the first necessity was food. Hunger had become a sharp pain which tore at his stomach. He reached inside his shirt, and wound the knot of under-drawers until it hurt. That pain was preferable to the other.
The moon, half-hidden behind a bank of clouds, was beginning to flood the world with its light, showing the course of the river. Ahead of him, Tom could see the bend, where the stream seemed to end in the black shore. He reached along the bottom of the boat until he touched his coat, pulled it out of the hole; then he stripped off his clothes and wrapped them together in his cape. With this soggy bundle tied around his neck he waited, shivering, as the boat swung out of the main current toward the north bank. Then he jumped.
It seemed hours before he could get his legs and arms working; then, as he started to swim, he felt a wrenching pain in his stomach. His arms worked spasmodically, beating against the water, dragging him slowly ahead. An eddy caught him and rolled him over. He righted himself and put his legs down; his toes touched the bottom for an instant, then lost it. The bundle of clothes seemed to press him down, deeper and deeper into the water. Then he felt his feet squarely on the bottom, and he struggled out of the water. At last, he was across the Tennessee.
NORTH OF THE TENNESSEE
Dawn found Tom near the house of the ferryman who had taken him across on his trip South. Rather than risk another walk through fields and woods, he had chosen to follow the bank of the river until he came to a road. That course, even though it was longer, made less demand upon his strength, for the walking was easier.
He skirted the ferryman's house and took to the road. For a little while at least he would be safe from interference; then, when light came, he would forage for food. Food.... It had been thirty-six hours since he had eaten—so long ago that the pains in his stomach had stopped. He was weak and dizzy, and the importance of ever reaching the Union lines shrunk as he thought of finding something to eat—anything. Security? What good was security if it meant starvation? "Oh, shut up, and keep your legs moving," he said to himself wrathfully, shaking such thoughts from his head. He took another twist at the improvised hunger belt. It really did help, he decided.
At his left he saw Murdock's house, and the words of the negro boy came back to him: "He keeps dawgs." Dogs for tracking down escaping slaves or Yankees. Now, for the first time, it seemed to Tom that the rain which had fallen during the past week was befriending him. The ground was too wet to hold a scent. If Murdock's "dawgs" were brought out to chase him, they would become hopelessly muddled and lost. Nevertheless, his step quickened. After he had walked another mile, the faster pace began to tell upon him and he lagged.
"Have to rest, I guess," he said, and he entered the woods. A chill seized him as soon as he sat down. He arose, and remarked: "If I sit down, I'm finished, and I can't walk much farther. I wonder...."
He had been fighting the idea of going to the Beecham's, or, rather, to Marjorie. She was the one person he knew south of the lines who would help him, yet he had been trying to keep the thought of going to her out of his mind. It might involve her in danger. Three miles above the Beecham's there was another farm. He had planned to go there, to tell them that he had just come through the Union lines to enlist with the South, and ask for food. But now he realized that he could not walk four miles—one mile to the Beecham's, then three more to the farm. If his legs would carry him for one mile, they would be doing well. It was difficult even to stand, and the woods and sky lurched and whirled about him.
"I'll go to Marjorie," he muttered. "Get word to her some way. She'll help." He started for the road, then stopped. If an alarm were raised, and Murdock's dogs were brought out, they might track him along the road. Somewhere behind the Beecham's house, running through the woods, there was a small stream. It came within three hundred yards of the house; then there was a long row of thick bushes which led up to the garden. The negroes' shanties were far to the other side. He had taken all of them in at a glance when he rode away. It seemed that years had passed since that day.
He stumbled through the woods until he came to the stream; then he splashed along through the water. That would kill the scent. He had read of slaves wading through streams to throw dogs off. He was just like an escaping slave now, he thought. It was curious that he should know all the dread and terror that they felt, that he should be experiencing the same sort of man-hunt. He felt sick at the thought of all the brutality men were showing to each other—the killing, the destruction of war, the gigantic effort to bring ruin down upon each other. Such ideas went streaking through his mind as he stumbled along the rough bed of the stream. It was incredible, unbelievable. The railroad raid seemed like some sick man's dream, crazy, tortured, and awful.
He knelt down in the water and splashed it over his face, took a drink. His head became clear again. He pulled himself to his feet.
Through the trees he could see the Beecham's house, stark white in the early morning light. It was after seven o'clock, he thought, and the family would soon be at breakfast. A small stream of smoke drifted up from the kitchen chimney, wavering and drooping in the still air.
Tom left the stream and entered the bushes. When he was within fifty yards of the house, he dropped to the ground. An instant later, he felt himself going to sleep. It was like whirling through a great dark space to oblivion.
He awoke two hours later, and felt the warm sun beating down upon him. He raised his head and glanced about, recollecting how he had come here. Then he squirmed through the branches and looked toward the house. There, in the garden, stood Marjorie, snipping at a rose bush with a pair of scissors.
"Marjorie!" he called hoarsely. She glanced at the house, as though she thought that someone there had called her. "Marjorie!" She turned in his direction. "It's Tom Burns—over here. Down at the end of this row—in the bushes." Her scissors dropped to the ground and her hands went to her throat in a gesture of alarm. "Come here," he said. "But slowly—so that they won't know."
She recovered the scissors hurriedly and came toward him. "Where are you?" she gasped.
"Here—hiding. Stop at that last rose bush and pretend to be working."
"Oh, Tom—you escaped! You got away!"
"Yes, but I'm famished. Crossed the Tennessee last night—nothing to eat since night before last. Can you...?"
"Yes, I'll get you something," she gasped. "I'm so glad you escaped. I've been worried.... Wait there."
She walked toward the house and entered. Presently she came out of the kitchen door and sauntered into the garden again.
"I told Mattie, the cook," she said as she came near him and went to trimming the rose bush again. "She understands. Her little boy is going to bring you something to eat. Here he comes."
He looked out and saw the little colored boy, Jasper, running to the stable. He entered and appeared a second later out of the rear door; then he made a wide detour to avoid being seen from the house, and disappeared in the woods.
"As soon as he comes, go back until you're out of sight of the house. I'll meet you there. Watch for me."
She turned away, walked idly through the garden, and entered the kitchen again. Presently Tom heard the crackle of branches, and Jasper, his eyes and mouth wide open, came through the bushes.
"Here, Jasper," said Tom. "Come on—I won't hurt you." The boy had stopped, suddenly terror-stricken. "Come on, Jasper." He approached cautiously, step by step, holding a package before him. He dropped it when Tom put his hand out, and hurried back a few feet. "Now, Jasper, you go right back to your mammy again," said Tom. "Don't say a word to anyone."
Jasper nodded vigorously, then fled.
In the package Tom found bread and chicken. At first he revolted at the odor of food, then his appetite awoke and he wanted to wolf it down. But he ate slowly, making his way toward the wood as Marjorie had said. He stopped beside the stream, where he could watch for her.
Soon he caught a glimpse of her white dress, and he called. She hurried toward him.
"I read all about it in the Atlanta paper," she said. "You were in the railroad raid, weren't you?"
"I knew.... Oh, you're all wet. What happened to you? Oh, Tom!"
"Wet?" he said. "I've been wet for so long I've forgotten about it. You sit down there where you can see if anyone is coming." He pointed to a log. "I'll lie here and rest." He wrapped his cape about him, and stretched out on the ground. "I didn't want to come here, Marjorie, for fear I'd get you into trouble, but I was starved into it. Will you forgive me?"
"Oh, I'm glad you came. I've been worrying ever since you left. I didn't know what you were going to do, and I was afraid you'd be caught. Then the news of the raid and the stolen engine came. I knew that you were one of the men. Uncle didn't guess it until yesterday when he read about it in the Atlanta paper. Tell me about it—please!"
"What did your uncle say? How did he guess that I was one of them?"
"The paper said that some of the men were captured, and that they told the story about coming from Kentucky. When Uncle read that, he ... he...."
"What did he do?"
"He swore terribly," answered Marjorie. "Aunty sent me from the room. But tell me about it. Oh, what's the matter, Tom?"
He had risen on his elbows, then fallen back on the ground. "Nothing," he said. "I'm dizzy, that's all. Every once in a while it strikes me. Wait a second, and I'll be all right."
She knelt beside him and touched his forehead. "You're feverish," she said. "Oh, Tom ... I ... can't I do anything?"
"Feverish!" exclaimed Tom. "I'm so cold that I can't move. I'm frozen!" His teeth were chattering, and he commenced to shiver. "I'll be all right in a minute. Guess I'd better get up." He arose, then sat down abruptly on the log, for his legs felt too weak to support him. "I'm sorry, Marjorie," he said. "I'm pretty tired."
She watched him, too alarmed to speak. She exclaimed: "But you are feverish, Tom. Oh, I didn't know. I might have seen that you were sick...."
The rest of her words were lost in the great buzzing noise which filled his head. Everything turned black before him—black filled with a thousand shooting colors; then the world gave a vicious lurch which toppled him over. He awoke, flat on the ground, with Marjorie leaning above him, crying and dabbing his forehead with a wet handkerchief.
"Fainted!" he mumbled disgustedly. "Fool to faint!" He closed his eyes again to rid himself of dizziness. "Big baby! Sorry, Marjorie."
"You must come to the house, Tom," cried Marjorie. "It doesn't make any difference about Uncle. I'll tell him that he must take you in. He must!... he must!"
"No—be all right in a minute. Terribly hot! Take this cape off." He tried to get out of the cape, but she stopped him. "It's too hot," he protested, but he let her draw the cape up more tightly about him.
"Won't you let me take you to the house?" she begged.
"No—have to get back to the lines."
"But you can't, Tom. You're sick. It's the fever that makes you hot. Oh, Tom...."
"Got to get back to the lines," he interrupted. "Start in a few minutes. I guess ... sleep a little first. Mustn't be captured. You wake me up if anyone comes. Murdock's dogs...."
It was night when his brain cleared again. He was wrapped in blankets, lying comfortably on the ground. Overhead the branches of the trees, black against the sky, waved solemnly.
"You 'wake, massah?"
Tom started at the voice. An old negro was sitting beside him.
"You jes' rest quiet," said the negro. "Ev'thing's all right. Miss Marjorie, she comin' soon."
Tom closed his eyes and began to unravel the tangle of the day's events. He could remember voices which had circled around him, babbling endlessly; two negroes who had taken off his wet clothes, put him in dry things and wrapped him in blankets; and Matty, the cook, who had soothed him and given him hot drinks. Then Marjorie had come. Twice he had awakened and found her sitting there. The afternoon was all confusion, like some half-forgotten thing of his imagination. But he was comfortable now, and he didn't care.
He drifted off into an untroubled sleep, and awoke again with the sound of voices in his ears. In the faint light of the moon, he saw two negroes squatting near him. They were talking in whispers. One of them was saying:
"Ol' Murdock's dawgs is a-cryin' and a-moanin'—"
And the other answered: "Oh, Lor'!"
"An' ol' mammy, she's a-looking at the tea grounds in a cup."
"What she say?"
"She don' say nothing." He paused to give his words effect. "She got a rabbit foot."
"Oh, Lor'!" The negro glanced fearfully about them. "Oh, Lor'!" he repeated. "Oh, Lor'! Oh, Lor'!" It had become a wail of terror now, a wail so piteous and so moving that Tom felt as though an icy cold hand had reached out for him, taking away all his strength. The stark trees of the lonely, shadow-infested woods seemed to press in upon them like an army of fantastic giants. The fear which was torturing the negroes came over him in a spasm, then passed away.
"What's the trouble there?" he demanded sharply.
The negroes gasped audibly. "Nothin'," answered one of them presently. It was the negro who had been talking about Murdock's dogs and the rabbit's foot.
"What are you getting scared about?"
"Nothin'," came the muttered response.
"Then don't lose your heads," replied Tom. He sat upright and sagged forward weakly. The strength seemed to flow suddenly from his body; his legs and arms felt flabby and useless. "Whew!" he exclaimed. "I'll have to do better than this. Weak as a baby!" Bracing himself on one arm, he flexed the other slowly. The negroes watched him.
"Oh, Lor'!" wailed the older negro again.
"Shut up!" said Tom.
"O Lor'—der's horses on de road! Now der a-coming!"
Tom listened and heard a faint clatter of hoofs, growing louder and louder. It stopped for a moment as the horsemen pulled up to round the bend into the Beecham's farm. Then a man yelled, "Hey, Beecham! Beecham! Hey, Beecham! Come down for a minute. This is Kirby talking. We're on a Yank hunt. Want you to help." There came a muffled response from the house, the yelling ceased and the night was quiet again.
Tom found himself on his feet, without knowing how he managed to get up. He was clinging to the trunk of a tree for support. "Here, you," he said to the negroes. "They're after me. Take these blankets and get back to your huts. If they catch me they won't catch me here." Whimpering, the negroes scooped up the blankets.
"Wait!" ordered Tom. "How about these clothes? Where're mine? If I'm caught in these things...." The negroes collected his clothes, which had been spread out to dry, and he changed rapidly. "Take everything and get back as quickly as you can. Come just as soon as it's daylight to be sure you haven't left anything. Tell Miss Marjorie that I've gone...."
They jumped at the crackling of some underbrush near them. It was Marjorie.
THE LAST DASH
"Here we are, Marjorie." He went forward to meet her. "Thanks a thousand times for all you've done. You must go back now. I'm going on—so that they won't catch me here."
"No, Tom, you can't go this way," she answered, crying. "I won't let you. Here!—Joe and Sam—put those things down and stay here. Oh, Tom, they'll surely catch you if you try it." She clutched his arm as though to hold him from running into the woods.
"But, Marjorie, there's nothing we can do," he protested. "Please go back. Don't you see what it'll mean if I'm found near here? If I had my horse, the one I sent back from the ferry that day...."
"It's in the far pasture—three miles away," she answered. "Kirby'll have the whole country looking for you by the time we could get it. You'll have to stay here, Tom. I'll hide you in the house—Matty'll hide you over the kitchen. Let me do that for you—let me take the risk. Please!"
"No! If they get me, they'll get me in the open. No, Marjorie. Go on back."
"Then take a horse from the stable. Take my horse."
"Yes. Uncle gave him to me, and I give him to you. You must...."
"But they'll know...."
"No, they won't...."
"But tomorrow when they find...."
She was facing him squarely, holding to his arms and shaking him. "Matty's husband is the stableman. He knows about you. He'll say that he turned the horse into the pasture. You must.... Joe! Sam! Go up to the stable and saddle my horse and bring him here. Run!"
"Yassum," replied the negroes in a breath. They disappeared into the darkness. Tom's protest was smothered under Marjorie's hand. The wave of excitement which had kept him on his feet passed, and it was as though he had been caught in a powerful undertow which swept his legs from under him. He sank down on the fallen log where they had been sitting together earlier in the day.
"Can you ride? Are you strong enough?" she asked anxiously.
"Yes—if I once get my legs wrapped around him I can stick there. Marjorie, if you're caught at this, all the raid will seem like an immense failure."
"But I won't be caught, and I will always be proud that you came to me when you needed me, when I could help you."
"You're worth a dozen soldiers!" he exclaimed.
There was a moment of silence. "Poor Tom!" she said softly. "It's all so terrible, isn't it? And so wonderful! You men have left the whole South gasping at your bravery. Even Uncle—and he hates everything from the North—says it's the most daring thing he's ever heard of."
"But you—you're from the North."
"Yes," she answered. "We don't talk about the war. He just takes it for granted that I believe everything he believes. I've been here two years now. When mother and father were alive I lived in Albany. I'm going back just as soon as I can. Listen!"
There were more horses on the road.
"They're coming to join Kirby," she said. "I heard him say that more men were coming. When Uncle went down to let them in, I went to the head of the stairs to hear what they were saying. Uncle took them into the dining-room to give them something to eat and drink; then I dressed and stole down."
"But how did they know that I was in this part of the country?"
"There was something about a boat. It was found ashore a few miles down the river, and there was a report from Chattanooga that the boat had been taken. I didn't wait to hear it all. Oh, I wish Joe and Sam would hurry! You must get started before they leave. Men are going out in all directions, and Kirby is taking the road to Wartrace. If you're ahead of him they'll never catch you. Star can run like the wind."
"My horse," she explained. "He's a beautiful horse.... Oh, I wish they'd hurry." There was anguish in her voice.
"They'll come just as fast as they can," replied Tom calmly. "Why don't you go back to the house now!"
"I can't until you're on the road."
"Why not? Please go back now."
"I-I'll have to wait until the men have gone. I wouldn't dare to go back until then. Then, too...." She faltered and stopped.
"You can't leave by the main road. I'm going to show you the way through the woods. Then there's a fence to jump. I'm going to take Star over it."
It was useless to protest, for she became calm again and determined. "I want to do it," she said. "You've come to me for help, and it's my right to help you all I can. And remember, I'll always be proud of it. Oh, so proud!" She slipped her hand into his and they sat there quietly, straining to catch the first sounds of the negroes returning.
"There they are—General Marjorie," he said presently.
She jumped up and ran to the horse. Tom could see her pressing her cheek to the horse's nose, stroking its head and neck. "Go back now," she said to the negroes. "Take everything with you. If Matty is up, tell her that I'll be home in a few minutes."
"Yas, Miss Marjorie." Again they took up the blankets and clothes, and the night swallowed them.
"Mount, Tom," ordered Marjorie. "No, don't argue! Hurry! You'll need all your strength."
Laboriously, he did as he was told to do. With Marjorie leading Star, they made their way through the woods. Once she stopped and listened. "They haven't started yet," she said.
A few minutes later she stopped again. "There's the fence," she said. "Let me mount now. You hold Star while I fix the stirrups." He slid to the ground and stood there, while she measured the straps with her arms and fixed the buckles. He could see her plainly now in the soft moonlight which was flooding the world. Ahead of them was the black wall of the rail fence.
"Now," she said, "if you'll help me mount." He held his hands braced against his knees so that they formed a step for her. She was up, adjusting herself to the saddle, stroking Star's neck, talking to him softly. "You climb the fence and wait on the other side," she ordered. Once again he did as he was told to do.
She brought Star to the fence at an easy trot, let him smell it and see it; then she tossed her handkerchief to Tom. "Put it on the top rail as a marker," she said, as she turned back for the run.
Tom spread the handkerchief on the fence—a tiny spot of white to guide Star over. Then he watched her, as she retreated into the black background of the woods, his heart thumping so that it hurt. She had thrown aside her cape when she mounted, and now she seemed so small and immature, sitting there on Star's great back.
Star's hoofs pounded upon the soft turf, then his body emerged from the shadows. Tom could see Marjorie crouching, riding to his gait, holding him down for the jump. At the fence there was an instant's pause; Star's forequarters rose slowly, deliberately; then, as easily as though he were a great projectile reaching the topmost limit of its flight, Star floated over the fence. He had cleared it by a foot.
Marjorie wheeled about, dismounted, and readjusted the stirrups. "There!" she said. "Now—now, go."
"I can never thank you," he began.
"Don't—please don't even try," she interrupted. "Good luck once again. Good-by, Star dear." She pressed her cheek against the horse's head. "Good-by, Tom. Remember me always."
He mounted and for a moment they delayed the parting. He reached down and took her hand. "Always, little soldier, always," he said. "Good-by."
"Listen!" The sounds of shouting came from the Beecham's. "They're starting. Go straight ahead until you come to the road, then to your left."
He gave Star the reins, and above the beat of hoofs heard her call: "Good luck, Tom!" He glanced back and saw her standing there, her arms raised above her head. Then he realized that he had her handkerchief, which he had taken from the fence, clutched in his hand, so he waved it as a last signal of parting before he crammed it in his pocket.
They came to the road suddenly; Star planted his feet and slid on the soft earth. Then, when they turned northward, Tom could feel all the strength of the fine, valiant animal he was riding. It was a strength which seemed to flow into the road, which carried him forward in long, swinging leaps.
"Go it, Star!" he said. "Go it, boy!" In his excitement he forgot that he had ever had the fever, that his legs had been too weak to carry him. He leaned forward, riding easily, peering ahead at the road.
Star was willing, but no horse could stand such a pace forever, so he reined in to a trot. After he had passed the first farmhouse, he brought the horse to a walk. "They'll stop there, old fellow," he confided. "You've shown them what a pair of hind hoofs look like."
He remembered the road vaguely from his trip southward, but the houses and the little towns looked different now in the moonlight. Through each settlement he walked Star quietly, but always ready to throw himself forward, dig his heels into the horse's flanks and race away. An hour passed ... two hours ... three hours. They pressed northward steadily, sometimes at a walk but usually at a comfortable, steady trot, and always saving energy for that last dash if the need arose.
The first light of dawn found him a mile south of Manchester. "Guess we'd better begin to step lively, Star," he said, reaching forward and stroking the horse's neck. Star snorted and shook his head. They trotted around a bend in the road. Ahead of them Tom distinguished a man who had dismounted and was standing beside his horse.
"Get ready, boy," he whispered, reining in slightly.
"Hey! You!" called the man. "Where're you going?"
Tom held his reins in his left hand, and took off his hat with his right hand.
"None of your business!" he replied. Then with his hat he slapped the man's horse on the head. He whooped, and dug his heels into Star's flanks. As they shot forward, he saw the other horse rear up, pawing the air. The man—he had the reins wrapped about his arm—was yanked from his feet and sent sprawling. Tom, flat against Star's neck, with the black mane whipping his face, sped down the road—past the spot where they had met Andrews that first day of the raid, past the Widow Fry's and down the one street of Manchester at a full gallop.
"Keep it up, Star!" he urged. "Go it, Star! We're almost there, old boy. Go it, Star!" But there was little need of urging; Star's forelegs were reaching out mechanically for the road, clipping it off in huge sections. Each leap seemed like a convulsion. His neck was outstretched and his head was thrust forward as though he were devouring the road.
Tom did not look back, but he cast out short, broken sentences to console his pursuer. "Huh! Race me—on that hunk o'—dog meat. Get a—horse! If you want to—race me—get a—horse. A horse that can—run! We'll race—anything that—wears four legs. Won't we—Star? Huh!"
Presently he eased Star's gait, for the horse was beginning to breath too heavily. "Guess they won't bother about us," he remarked. "Wonder how much ground we covered then. Must be pretty close...."
It was a cry that brought a yell of exultation to Tom's lips. There was no mistaking it. No civilian could say halt in that tone.
Tom pulled on the reins and Star planted his feet; they went sliding past the Sentry with his rifle glinting in the moonlight. "Halt there!" came the second warning as Star came to a stop. "Put your hands up!"
Tom dropped the reins and raised his hands. Star, almost winded, seemed propped upon his legs, rather than standing upon them. His head drooped and each breath came as a great heave.
"Who are you?" demanded the Sentry.
"Friend," answered Tom.
"Haven't got it. I'm...."
"Keep your hands up," interrupted the Sentry; then he bawled out: "Sergeant o' the gua-r-r-d. Post number-r six." The call was repeated as though by an echo.
"I'm one of the railroad raiders," continued Tom. "I'm...."
"What?" yelled the Sentry. "Are you one of them? Say! Put those hands down and let me shake 'em. Say!"
TOM REPORTS AT HEADQUARTERS
The Sergeant, with four men, came on the double quick, and found Tom and the Sentry standing in the middle of the road talking. The Sentry's gun stood neglected, leaning against a tree.
"What does this mean, Cummins?" demanded the Sergeant.
"Here's one of the raiders," answered the Sentry, as though that was enough to account for almost any negligence. And it was enough, for the Sergeant forgot the Sentry completely. He grabbed Tom's hand.
"That was a wonderful job you boys did down there," he said. "We've been waiting for you and watching all along the line."
"Am I the first one through?" asked Tom.
"I guess so. Are there any more behind you?"
"I don't know. I got separated from the others. There were three of us, and the other two were captured. Are you sure that none of them reached the line on the other side of Chattanooga?" he asked anxiously.
"We haven't heard of any," answered the Sergeant. "The whole country's waiting for you, and I guess we'd have heard of it if any had come through the lines. Say, when the news of the raid came out, the North just went crazy with excitement."
One of the men added: "And I guess the South did some going crazy, too."
"I have to sit down," remarked Tom suddenly. "Sorry, but my legs don't seem to be much good."
"We've got to be getting on and report to the Captain. You'd better climb on your horse," remarked the Sergeant.
"I'll walk the rest of the way, thanks," said Tom. "Star's done about enough work for one night. Wait a minute and I'll be all right."
"Have a hard time getting through?" asked one of the men.
"Oh, not so very hard," replied Tom. The memory of all the miseries of that long chase seemed dulled in his mind now. "The worst of it was that I was wet all the time, wet to the skin. Then I didn't have anything to eat for about two days. Got a little touch of the fever."