A Rebellion in Dixie
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“Have you got some sentries out?” inquired Leon.
“We’ve got ten men down by that bridge, but this map you have shown me proves that they won’t do much good there. Now, when you come up with them – ”
Mr. Sprague took this as his starting-point, and went on to tell Leon just what he must do when he passed the sentries. It was new business to him, and he must be very careful how he acted. He must not attempt to run by them – Mr. Sprague thought that Dawson was rather careless, and was afraid he might do something to draw the sentries’ fire – but must do just as he was told. When ordered to dismount and bring the countersign, “Fidelity” – could he remember it? – he must be sure not to give it until the sentry was close upon him, and then utter it in tones so low that no one but the man for whom it was intended could hear it. Leon promised compliance, repeated the countersign over to be sure he had it in his mind, then shook his father warmly by the hand and went off to Tom Howe’s camp. In reply to their inquiring glances, Leon then went on to tell that his father had decided to see Mr. Knight before he determined what to do in regard to the men who had been operating in the rear, and described how he was going to work it to get by the sentries.
“That’s all right,” said Dawson. “We can’t attempt anything wrong there, although, to tell the truth, I have run by my own sentries more than once.”
“What would they do with you if they were to catch you in that business?” inquired Tom.
“Oh, if you hadn’t made any effort at deserting they would put you in the guard-house,” replied Dawson, with a laugh. “They would think it was merely a little fun on your part, and they wouldn’t punish you very severely. But if you were known to be a deserter, they would hang you in a minute. Now, I suppose we can wait here until it is pretty near dark, and then we must be up and doing. If you fellows don’t want to go say the word, and I’ll go alone.”
“I shall be with you when you see your mother,” said Leon.
“Here too,” said Tom. “You just bet I’ll stick close to Leon’s coat-tails. If he gets into a row I’ll be there to help.”
After that there was silence in the camp, for two of the boys had something at least to think about. They were about to begin soldiering in earnest. It is true that the events of the day before had infused new confidence into them, but the attacking Union party was a great deal stronger than the Confederate escort, and a battle, if one had taken place, could have ended in but one way. Now, they were going right in among those fellows, and who knew but they might run onto a squad of rebels who were numerically their superiors, and be all taken prisoners? That was what bothered Leon. He wasn’t afraid of being shot, but he was afraid of being hanged. There was something murderous about a rope and the men getting ready to haul away on it, but with a bullet the case was different.
“Well, if I am going to die I’ll show myself a man,” soliloquized Leon, as he rolled about under the trees watching Tom, who was getting an early supper for them.“How cool Dawson takes it.”
His rebel friend lay opposite to him, on the other side of the fire, with his saddle for a pillow and his hat drawn over his face, and the regular breathing that came to Leon’s ears told him he was fast asleep.
“Now, it seems to me that if I was going back among a lot of comrades who were just aching to hang me I should find something to think about to keep me awake,” muttered Leon. “Maybe it is all in a lifetime. Perhaps when I have been through as many dangers as he has I can go to sleep, too.”
Supper was ready at last, Dawson aroused to eat his share of it, and the moment he was settled with a plate of bacon and corn-bread before him, he became at once full of stories. He seemed surprised because Leon told him that he was asleep.
“Well, I couldn’t make the time pass quicker by staying awake, could I?” said Dawson. “You would have gone to sleep if you knew what’s before you. You may see the time when you will be glad to take a wink all by yourself.”
In half an hour more the boys rode out of the grove and turned their horses toward the bridge. In passing by the hotel Leon saw his father standing on the porch. He saluted him, but kept right on without stopping. Dawson was surprised, and remarked in his quiet way that Mr. Sprague was taking the separation very coolly.
“He must have unbounded confidence in you,” said he. “Most fathers would have come out to bid you good-bye.”
“I did that long ago,” said Leon. “My mother is the only one I am worrying about now. If the killing of that rebel will convince them that we have a body-guard out on all sides, I shall be more than pleased. They will come with a bigger force than two men to take a map next time.”
The ride through the woods was a lonely one, and, finally, just as it began to grow dark, they came within sight of the bridge, and saw a sentry pacing up and down there with his piece carried at shoulder arms. One thing was evident to Leon: his father had improved his time in giving the men some instruction, or else the squad was under a corporal who understood his business. The sentry halted when he heard the sound of their horses’ hoofs on the road, faced about, and brought his gun to arms port before he said a word.
“That fellow acts like an old sentinel, don’t he?” said Dawson. “He has been in the service before.”
“No, I reckon not,” said Leon. “So far as I know, everyone of these men is as green as I am myself.”
“Halt!” shouted the sentry. “Who comes there?”
“Friends with the countersign!” said Leon.
“Dismount, friends. Advance, one, with the countersign.”
So far everything was all right; but the next move was something that was not down in the tactics. No sooner had Leon’s voice answered the sentry than nine men came running from different parts of the woods and took up their stand directly behind the sentry. They held their guns in readiness, too, as if they meant to be on hand for anything that might happen.
“I tell you they meant to be ready for us, didn’t they?” said Dawson. “You won’t get the sentries in our army to answer a challenge like that.”
“What would they do?”
“They would keep out of sight in the bushes, and perhaps be ready to fire in case anything goes wrong.”
The boys had by this time dismounted, and Leon, leaving his horse for Dawson to hold, walked up to the sentry and whispered the countersign, “Fidelity,” in his ears.
“The countersign is correct,” said the man. “Why, Leon, where are you going? Don’t you know that you will be gobbled up if you go beyond that bend?”
“No,” said Leon, in amazement; “we are going down after Dawson’s mother.”
“Well,” said one of the men who stood behind the sentry, “you can go, but I won’t. A little while ago two or three of us happened to be out here, and we looked up and saw a fellow standing in the road watching us. We called to him, but he got into the bushes before we could shoot at him.”
This was something Leon had not bargained for. The other boys had come up in obedience to his signal, and they all heard what the man had to say about the spy who was watching them.
“Did you see more than one?” asked Dawson, who was utterly amazed to know the rebels had come between him and his mother. If that was the case he might as well go back, for all hope of bringing her into the Union camp was, as he expressed it, “up stump.”
“No, I didn’t see but one, and he was a Johnny, for the way he took to the bush was a caution,” said the man. “That was what brought us out here in such a hurry. We didn’t know but there might be others behind you, and we thought we would be ready for you.”
“Well, Dawson, I am going ahead if you are,” said Leon.
“Talk enough,” exclaimed Dawson, placing his foot in the stirrup and swinging himself upon his horse. “All I want is a little pluck to back me up, and I will have my mother up here before you see the sun rise.”
“You have got the old man’s grit, I can see that easy enough,” said the sentry. “Good-bye and good luck to you. We don’t want to say a word to dishearten you, but if you come back here at all, you’ll come a-flying. One sentry can’t stop you.”
The boys laughed, but anybody could see that it was forced, and in a few moments they were around the bend, out of sight. It was there that the rebel spy had been seen. They looked sharply into the woods as they passed along – every boy had his revolver drawn and hanging by his side – but the thickets were as silent as if nobody had ever been there. Leon and Tom were very pale, there was no mistake about that, but they kept as close at the heels of Dawson’s horse as they could possibly get. Not a word was said until the woods had been passed and they found themselves in the midst of a long cotton-field which stretched away on both sides of them, and in the distance was a row of buildings which Dawson pointed out to them.
“If we can get there inside of that house we are all right,” said he, and a person wouldn’t have thought from the way he spoke that he was thinking of his mother. “There is where she lives.”
“If that spy was in the bushes and saw us when we went by, what was the reason he didn’t jump out and grab us?” said Tom.
“Perhaps he was alone,” said Leon, who would have felt safer if that spy, whoever he was, had been among his friends. “He wants more help before he attempts to arrest us.”
“Now, boys, let’s keep perfectly still and ride up to the house as though we had a right there,” said Dawson. “You are not afraid to shoot, are you, Tom?”
“All I ask of you is to give me a chance,” returned Tom, indignantly. “Anything to keep from being made prisoner.”
The boys relapsed into silence again, and presently drew up before the gate which gave entrance into the door-yard. It was an old-fashioned gate, and was held in place by a wooden pin, which was thrust into an auger-hole. The horse Dawson rode showed that he was accustomed to that way of getting in, for he moved up close to the pin, so that his rider could pull it. The gate creaked loudly on its wooden hinges, whereupon they heard a little confusion in the house, the door opened, and by the aid of the light from the fireplace the boys saw a woman and two little children fill the door.
“Oh, Bo – ”
One of the children was on the point of shouting out Dawson’s name, but quicker than a flash the mother’s hand covered his mouth. It was no place to speak a person’s name out loud.
“Sh – ! Not a word out of you,” said Dawson, dismounting from his horse. “You will bring the rebels on me. That’s a little boy, but he is Union all over,” he added, turning to Leon. “Now you stay here and hold my horse, and I will go in and get things ready. I needn’t tell you to keep a good watch down the road. If you hear so much as a foot-step, I want to know it.”
“Now hold on a bit,” said Tom, dismounting and handing his reins to Leon to hold for him, “If you are going to leave us here in silence I must take care of my muel, else she will arouse the neighborhood. You hold her head, Leon, and I will look out for her tail.”
“Well, why don’t you take care of it, then?” asked Leon, when he saw Tom station himself in such a position that he could readily seize her tail in moments of emergency.
“Because she isn’t ready to bray yet,” said Tom. “Whenever she gets ready to let the people know she is here she will bob her tail up and down. Then I will be ready to take hold of it and keep it down. Oh, there’s a heap to be learned about muels the first thing you know.”
Dawson laughed – he couldn’t keep from laughing if he knew his mother was in danger – and went on into the house, the door of which was closed after him; so Leon didn’t hear much of that greeting. And he wouldn’t have learned much if he had heard it. His mother had lived in danger for the last year, and all she did was to kiss him and listen while he told of his capture.
“But I wanted to go,” said he, “and father and I promised each other that whoever got away first should go to Jones county, and the one that was left in the rebel ranks should come there as soon as he could. I got away first, and now I am come after you. Pack up everything you want and be ready to load it aboard the mule-team which I will bring here as soon as possible.”
“Will I be protected there?” asked his mother.
“You certainly will. There is a thousand men there, and they are growing every day. I wouldn’t ask you to stir a step if I didn’t think so. Your house is gone up.”
“Well, I can’t help that. But do you really think your father will be able to join us there?”
“He’s got to take his chances; that’s what I had to do. Now, mother, take everything you need and leave the rest behind for the rebels.”
This was all that was said, and Dawson left the house and went out to his companions; but he knew that his mother had gone hastily to work to bundle up such things as she needed and could not possibly do without. He took his bridle from Leon’s hand and with a whispered “follow me” led the way around behind a corn-crib, out of sight.
“Now I must leave you again, and you will take notice that your horses don’t let anyone know they are here,” said Dawson. “I am going to get a mule-team.”
“Your mother is going, is she?” asked Tom.
“Of course she’s going. She would look nice living in that house while she had a husband and son in the Yankee army! Of course we have seen the house for the last time. The rebels will burn it up the first time they come this way.”
While Dawson was getting ready to go out and get the mule-team the boys noticed that their horses raised their heads, and pricked their ears forward and looked down the road, as if there was some object down there that attracted their attention. Dawson was the first to notice it, and he straightway grabbed his horse by the bridle and forced his head down.
“Somebody’s coming,” said he.
Leon speedily dismounted and took up a position by his horse’s bridle, Tom gave his reins into his hand and occupied his old station by his mule’s tail, and all the boys held their breath and listened. It was faint and far off, but presently they could distinctly hear the sound of a multitude of horses’ hoofs upon the hard road. Nearer it came, until Dawson, who was experienced in such matters, informed his companions in a whisper that there must be a whole platoon of cavalry approaching. It came from the south, too, and that was the direction in which the rebel headquarters were situated.
“I tell you it’s lucky that we got here just in the nick of time,” said Tom. “Hold on there, old muel,” he continued, catching the mule’s tail and pulling it down. “You mustn’t let those folks know we’re here. Did you see how I stopped his braying?”
Leon and Dawson were too deeply interested in what was going on in the road to pay much attention to him, and finally they could see, through the cracks in the corn-crib where the chinking had fallen out, a number of men ride past the house, or, rather, the majority of them rode by, while three drew rein and stopped there.
“By gracious! I hope mother heard them, and that she had time to put her bundles away out of sight,” whispered Dawson. “Everything depends upon that.”
“Where do you suppose they are going?” asked Leon, who was so excited that he could scarcely speak.
“They are going up to Jones county to see how nearly ready for them we are,” said Dawson. “I reckon they’ll stop when they get to the bridge. There are some riflemen up there that act to me as if they were good shots.”
“Now, here’s a thing that bothers me,” said Leon. “You are talking about getting a mule-team to haul your mother’s things to our county, and I would like to know how we are to get it by those fellows? We’ll have to wait until they go back.”
Dawson did not answer at once, for he was much concerned about those three men who rode into the yard. He saw one of them dismount and go into the house, and his heart beat like a trip-hammer when he saw it. He waited for the confusion which he knew would follow when the bundles his mother had made up were exposed to view, but it did not come. In a few minutes the man came out and spoke to the two men he had left on horseback, and they went on, and the rebel turned and came directly toward the corn-crib.
“He’s coming here,” said Leon; and before anybody could say a word against it he had cocked his revolver, rested it in the crack, and pointed it at the man’s head. He was right in front of the open doorway, and of course Leon couldn’t have missed him at that distance. The rebel came on as though he knew where he was going, entered the doorway, placed his mouth close to the crack, and whispered:
“For goodness’ sake turn that revolver the other way!” whispered Dawson. “It is my father.”