A Rebellion in Dixie
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“It looks mighty suspicious,” continued Mr. Sprague. “But I can’t give you that mule. It is not my business, anyway. It belongs to the quartermaster’s department, and he is the man you must see.”
Mr. Sprague turned on his heel and went away to inspect one of the wagons, and Leon and Dawson continued their walk toward Roberts’ lean-to. To say that Leon was surprised to hear his father talk in this way would not express his feelings.
“I tell you your father can’t be too strict when it comes to the pinch,” said Dawson. “I didn’t know he had so much in him. Well, you see he is high in authority, and it won’t do to let ordinary men talk to him as that Newman did. Say, that fellow knew something he did not want to speak about.”
“That’s my idea exactly,” said Leon. “I’ll keep watch on him, and if I find anything out of the way with him I’ll arrest him and take him before father.”
“If you do that he’ll shoot him.”
“My gracious! Has it come to that?” exclaimed Leon, astonished beyond measure.
“Of course it has. I have seen three men shot to death because they tried to desert the army, and you have got to come down to that way of doing business here. You will have to be stricter, too, than they are in the army, for you have got less power to back you up. Oh, you’re not going to have a picnic, I’ll tell you that.”
Leon was thunderstruck, for he did not believe that such things could take place in Jones county. While he was thinking about it they came up with Roberts, who had borrowed a mule to take the place of the one that had dropped dead during his rapid flight, and was engaged in packing things into his wagon. He said he was going deeper into the swamp.
“You see these houses are right on the main road, and the rebels who come in will come from Perry county,” said he. “I don’t propose to have what things I own burned up, and so I am going to take them where it will cost the Confederates some trouble to get at them.”
“Well, say, Mr. Roberts, what do you suppose they would do to you if they should succeed in getting their hands on you?” asked Leon.
“I deserted to the enemy, didn’t I?” asked Roberts.
“Yes, you did.”
“And I had my rebel clothes on when I left their camp?”
Leon nodded; and Roberts, after looking at him a moment, made a turn of a rope around his neck, drew it up with his left hand and allowed his head to fall over on one side.
“That’s what they would do with me,” said Roberts, with a laugh. “I don’t suppose they would shoot me, but they must catch me first. I’m not going to be taken prisoner. And Dawson, there, would come in for something of the kind.”
Dawson smiled and said he well knew what was coming if he allowed himself to be taken prisoner, and thrust out his hand, adding:
“Well, I don’t suppose I shall see you again until we get into our first fight. I am going after my mother to-night.”
“So-long, old boy, and remember and don’t let those Graybacks get a grip on you.”
“I’ll stay right there on the field until I drop,” said Dawson, earnestly.“You’ll never hear of my being hung.”
They turned off to find their horses, after which they drew a bee-line for Tom’s camp. Leon didn’t have much to say. When men like Dawson and Roberts could talk as they did about falling into the hands of their old comrades, it made him feel kind of anxious. And if they would serve the deserters that way, what would they do with him? He was a traitor to the cause of Southern independence, everybody on the Pascagoula river from the swamps down knew who he was, and if he should unfortunately fall into the hands of the Confederates a captive, they would without a doubt hang him without giving him any trial at all. He had never been able to look at it in this light before, and it made him feel rather desperate. But here was a fellow who would take ample revenge for his death if such a thing should happen. It was Tom Howe, who, when they found him, was sitting at the foot of a tree, and he had just been disposing of a substantial breakfast which somebody had provided for him.
“Halloo, Leon! And you, Dawson, halloo!” said Tom, getting upon his feet. “Well, if you are going home now I am going with you. I have been around that muel forty times, as that man told me to, petting her and fooling in various ways, and she never offered to kick me. But what’s the matter with you, Leon? You act as though your last friends had been gobbled up by the rebels.”
“Well, they haven’t been gobbled up yet, but I am just thinking of what would happen to them if they were gobbled,” said Leon. “Do you know what they would do with you if they caught you?”
“Hang me, I suppose. But you see, Leon, these swamps are mighty big.”
“But you are going right among them to-night.”
“Oh, no,” said Dawson, quickly. “We’ll not see a rebel from the time we leave here until we get back. I’m not going to get you in any fuss. If I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t go myself.”
“But we are liable to be mistaken, you know.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Dawson. “I’ll ride on ahead, and the first glimpse I see of anything suspicious I’ll warn you. You certainly will not be captured in that way.”
Tom struck up a whistle, as if to show how much he cared what the rebels might think it worth while to do, and went to work about the mule as though he had always owned her, strapped a piece of gunny-sack to serve in lieu of a saddle, felt his revolvers to make sure that they were safe, and then announced that he was ready. Their ride would have been gloomy enough, for they did not meet a single person on the way, had it not been for Dawson, who was fairly alive with stories. He was two or three years older than Leon, but, like all boys who had lived much out-of-doors, he was almost big enough to be considered a man. He was young enough in his boyish tastes and habits to be hail-fellow with Leon and Tom, and reckless enough to add a spice of danger to everything he engaged in. They did not think they had been on their way a great while before the plantation-house was in view. Leon did not see anybody about. The doors of the negro quarters were closed, and so were the rear doors of the house; and even the pickaninnies, who were usually the first to welcome him when he rode up to the bars, were nowhere in sight.
“I wonder what’s been going on here?” said Leon, involuntarily sinking his voice to a whisper. “There are more people than this in the house.”
“I should say there ought to be,” said Tom. “We haven’t seen any, yet.”
“If it was a little nearer the lower end of the county I should say that some rebels had been calling here,” said Dawson, in an anxious tone of voice. “I have seen many a house look that way.”
Filled with forebodings, Leon hurried on until he came opposite the front bars, and on the way he saw a man lying down behind a log with a rifle in his hand, and it was pointed toward the other bank of the stream, which here ran through Mr. Sprague’s property. The moment the topmost bars rattled the front door opened and his mother came out on the porch. Thank goodness she was safe.
“Why, mother, what’s up?” cried Leon, throwing himself off his horse and rushing up the steps with arms spread out. “When I saw the house closed I supposed something had happened.”
“Something has happened,” replied his mother; and although her face was very pale, her tightly-closed lips and the way in which her hands trembled showed that she was trying to keep down some rising emotion. “The rebels are at it already.”
“At what?” asked Leon, while the other boys got up close to her to hear what she had to say.
“There have been two men over on the other side of the creek, and they have got a complete map made out of all the streams and the places where they are fordable,” said his mother.
“Why, how did you find it out?” asked Leon.
“One of the darkies discovered them, and I slipped out very quietly and told Mr. Giddings of it.”
“Wasn’t it lucky that I brought Giddings here? I knew I was proposing a good thing when I advised him to come. Well, what did Giddings do?”
“He took down his rifle and shot one of the men,” said Mrs. Sprague, at the same time clinging to Leon as if she were afraid that the ghost of the slain man might come back. “This war is going to be a horrible thing. I wouldn’t see the thing happen again for all the money the United States is worth. It was the first thing of the kind I ever saw done – ”
“Why did you stay here and look at it?” asked Leon. “How did he know that he had a map? What made him shoot him, in the first place?”
“Well, he was acting very sly, making use of every tree and stump to cover him, so Mr. Giddings thought he would shoot them both. He went over there in our boat and got the man, and he is out there now in one of our negro cabins. And he hadn’t any more than brought him over here before the other fellow shot at him.”
“He didn’t hit him, I suppose?”
“No; but he made the bullet sing pretty close to his head.”
“I reckon that Giddings had better stay here to-night and protect you,” said Leon, after thinking a moment. “I am not coming home to-night, and neither is father. We had some work day before yesterday,” he added, as if trying to draw her away from the melancholy event she had witnessed. “We captured forty wagons without firing a shot. Here’s a man who was with them. Mother, let me introduce Mr. Dawson. He is going back into the country for his mother to-night, and wants Tom and me to go with him.”
Mrs. Sprague smiled for the first time, shook Dawson by the hand, said she was glad to see him on the Union side if he did wear those clothes on his back, and then she turned to Tom Howe, who had just come in from hitching the horses.
“As those rebels didn’t fire a shot at you the other day you don’t know how it feels,” said Mrs. Sprague.
“Who? Me? No, ma’am. I just covered a driver’s head with my rifle and told him to hold up his hands, and he put them into his pockets and brought out his revolvers, which he handed to me. There they are,” said Tom, putting his hands behind him and bringing out a pistol in each. “You see Leon had a revolver and I had none, and I just put these into my clothes and said nothing about it. If I am going to be a soldier I’ll soon learn how to steal as well as anybody.”
“Let’s go out there and see what Giddings is doing,” said Leon. “Mother, can you get us up some dinner? We have a long way to ride to-night, and we want to give our horses a little rest after we get back to Ellisville.”
His mother said that dinner would be ready by the time he wanted it, and Leon walked around the house toward the place he had seen Giddings lying in ambush, followed by his companions. Giddings was on his feet now, and was standing behind a corn-crib, looking cautiously around the corner of it.
“Howdy, Leon?” he exclaimed, when he saw the boys approaching. “You had better get something between you and the woods over there, for that chap is a tolerable fair shot. I don’t like the way he sent his bullet a-flying past my head.”
“He didn’t hit you, though,” said Leon, as the boys drew up beside the mountaineer from Tennessee. They kept an eye on the woods, but all danger from that source had passed. The rebel who had been left alive had taken advantage of the bushes, crawled among them until he was out of sight, and so got himself safe off.
“And the only reason he didn’t make a better shot was because he had a revolver,” said Giddings. “I tell you, Leon, we are going to have trouble now. Those fellows are making a map of this whole country.”
“Perhaps they are looking, too, for that wagon-train we stole from them,” said Leon. “There were forty wagons in the lot, and we captured the last one of them.”
“Sho!” exclaimed Giddings in disgust. “And I wasn’t there to help. But let’s go in and look at that man. Perhaps you know who he is.”
The boys followed the man into the negro cabin with slight quakings of conscience, all except Dawson, who had seen so many dead men that he thought nothing of it. He lay there on the floor covered with a blanket, never to move again in this life, with bushy black whiskers spread all down his breast, and dressed in a uniform that had a couple of bars on the collar. He was a fine-looking man, and Leon was wondering how many hearts would break when they heard of his death.
“I hit him right in the heart,” said Giddings, pointing out the mark of his bullet on his coat with as much indifference as he would have shown if it had been a deer instead of a man that was stretched out before him. “Know him, any of you?”
“No, he is a stranger to me. I think the best thing you can do, Mr. Giddings,” said Leon, reverently spreading the blanket over the dead man’s face again, “is to stay here and keep an eye on mother. I didn’t think the rebels would ever trouble her up here.”
“Did you steal much of them?” asked Giddings.
Leon replied that to the best of his knowledge it was pretty near half a million dollars’ worth.
“A half a million? Pshaw! They will be all over this county looking for them goods, and you will have to go deeper into the swamp to be rid of them. When the rebels come they won’t leave a shingle of this house that you can use. They will burn them all.”
“Where’s the map he made out?”
“Your mother has got that, and his weapons, too. Yes, I guess the best thing I can do is to stay here. There may be some more of these Confederates where these came from.”
Leon went out, spent a few moments in exchanging compliments with Giddings’ wife, who was very comfortably settled in her new quarters, and went into the house to ask his mother for the map the rebel had made. While the dinner was being made ready the boys spent their time in looking it over. They were astonished to find all the streams, as far up as he had time to go, were correctly drawn, and still more amazed to see that the little creek which marked the boundary-line between their county and Perry, which was so deep at the place where the bridge extended across it, could be forded in five different localities.
“That man must have been a civil engineer,” said Dawson. “No one, without he had some knowledge of the business, could go over those streams in the short time he has and make such a complete map of them.”
At the end of half an hour the boys had eaten their dinner and were well on their way toward Ellisville, Leon having the map, for which the man in the rebel army had given his life, safely stowed away in one of his pockets. He wasn’t as happy now as he was when he came that way before. Dawson’s stories of his adventures had made him a little reckless, and he felt as though he would like to go through some of them himself; but unfortunately it did not come to him in quite that way. Here was his mother liable to see more adventures than he was, and how did he know but a squad of rebel cavalry would come down on her, kill her guard and carry her off to some Southern prison-pen? Another thing, the Union men had been very careful to hold a force on the main road which extended into Perry county, so as to meet the Confederate troops when they came there, and now the rebels had been at work operating in their rear. It told Leon that they had got something to do before they could establish their independence.
“I know what you are thinking of, Leon,” said Dawson. “I don’t care how strongly a place is fortified or how closely it is watched, the enemy will get in and make a map of it. They know right where the strongest works are, and all about it.”
“What do they do with a man they catch making those maps?”
“That depends. If he is in citizens’ clothes they take him and shut him up; but if he is in uniform, then it’s good-bye, John.”
“Do they shoot him?”
“No; they hang him just as surely as they can get their hands upon him. So you see that that rebel up to your house got what he deserved. He knew what was going to happen to him in case he was caught, and he would rather be shot than hung.”
Before the boys had gone a great way on their road to Ellisville they met a party of perhaps a hundred men, some with an axe on one shoulder and a rifle on the other, accompanied by three or four wagons loaded with their household furniture. They were going up into the swamp to build boats, so that their families would not be cut off when the time came for them to retreat.
“The President sent us, but I don’t look for much trouble up here,” said the leader of the party, leaning on his rifle. “But then it is well to be on the safe side.”
“Don’t fool yourselves,” said Leon. “The rebels won’t come along the main road.”
“Sho! How do you know?”
“Because they have got men around in your rear working at maps, and all that sort of thing,” said Leon. “Here’s a map that was taken off a dead rebel this morning.”
As Leon produced the book the men crowded around in eagerness to see it. They looked at it in surprise, but they little thought it was a plan that would lead the attacking force miles behind them, and that when they turned they would find five hundred men in front of them, and that they could drive them pell-mell across the little stream before spoken of, and into the hands of another Confederate party who were concealed there in the bushes waiting for them. It was a scheme to clean out the Union party at one fell swoop, and nothing but Leon’s going home that morning saved them from it.
“There’s the little creek right there which divides our county from Perry,” said Leon, pointing it out with his riding-whip, “and that map shows that it is fordable in five different places – above and below the bridge.”
“Well, sir, it’s amazing how he got all the little streams down there in the little time that he has had,” said the leader. “Who shot this rebel?”
“Mr. Giddings. He is lying in one of father’s negro cabins. I tell you this that you need not be caught napping,” said Leon, putting the book where it belonged. “There may be more rebels where these came from, and you don’t want to let them see what you are doing. Good-bye, and good luck to you.”
Ellisville was livelier now than they had ever seen it, except on the day of the convention. There were men scattered all over it, but the greatest number of them were around the hotel. All the chief men were there inspecting the wagons to see what there was in them, and as fast as one wagon was found to contain provisions it was pushed off on one side, to be hitched up directly and taken away into the swamp. It seemed strange that when one of them had been doing such good work, and when all the men about him were so deeply interested in what was going on before them, that there was one among them who ached for an opportunity to “throw it all into the ditch.” It was Newman. He was waiting to see the quartermaster. He was going to get a mule if he could; if not, he was “going to bust up the whole thing.”