But these days of toil were ended at last, and when the old soldiers who lived in Bridgeport came out and inspected the works, and declared with one voice that, in everything except extent, they were equal to any with which the Confederates had surrounded Vicksburg and Richmond, the boys felt that they were in some measure repaid for their labor. They made the most of the days of recreation that followed. Passes were freely granted, and every boy who went outside the lines made it a point to bring back something for his mess-table.
One day, while Don was lounging in his tent, Egan appeared at the door and beckoned him to come out. In one hand he carried a huge yellow poster, which he passed over to Don, with the request that the latter would read it at his leisure, and at the same time he held up the forefinger of the other hand as if he were listening to something. Don listened also, and presently the breeze bore to his ear the enlivening strains of martial music.
“They’ve come,” said Egan, “and they are now making their street parade. Are you ready?”
“I am,” answered Don.
“Well, say one o’clock, then. I shall be busy with my reports until – ”
“Why, man alive,” interrupted Don, “are we going to run the guard in broad daylight?”
“How in the world are we going to help it?” demanded Egan, in reply.
“We ought to have gone out last night when we would have had the darkness to aid us,” said Don, who began to think that his chances for seeing that wonderful leaper were very slim indeed.
“I couldn’t have gone last night, for I was busy; and, as I told you, I don’t want to be out of camp when my class is under instruction. I shall be busy until about one o’clock; but after my work is done, I am going to that show. Are you going with me?”
Don answered, very decidedly, that he was.
“I don’t deny that we shall have a tight squeak for it,” continued the sergeant, pulling off his cap and scratching his head in deep perplexity. “You see, there used to be a little ridge out there in the upper end of the camp, that ran close by the side of post No. 2. It was thickly lined with bushes, under cover of which a fellow who was at all cautious in his movements, could creep by the sentry very easily; but when these earth-works were built that ridge was cut away, and I haven’t yet been able to decide how we are going to get out, although I have reconnoitered every part of the camp more than a dozen times.”
“Look here,” said Don. “Perhaps one of the sentries could be prevailed upon to keep his back turned when – ”
“No, he couldn’t,” interrupted Egan, who knew very well what Don was about to say. “There isn’t a boy in camp who wouldn’t report his best friend, if he had the chance, just for the sake of getting a joke on him.”
Just then Hopkins and Curtis came hurrying by. Their faces wore a pleased expression, and each held in his hand a piece of paper which he flourished exultantly over his head.
“We’re going to see the elephants, and the lions, and tigers, and all the other things,” said Curtis.
Don and Egan replied that they had concluded not to ask for passes on that particular day, and Hopkins and his friend hurried on to their tents to exchange their fatigue suits for their dress uniforms.
“I haven’t yet been able to decide how we are going to get out,” repeated the sergeant, when he and Don were left alone, “but don’t you worry about that. I’ll hit upon something before the time for action arrives.”
“All right,” replied Don. “I’ll be ready when you want me.”
Egan turned toward his tent, and Don went back into his. He spent the time until dinner in reading the poster the sergeant had given him, hundreds of which had that morning been distributed about the camp by village boys who were hired for that purpose, and then he made his toilet and waited for the hands on his watch to travel around to one o’clock. They had scarcely got there before Sergeant Egan put in an appearance, carrying in his hand a small tin pail. He seemed somewhat disconcerted when he looked into Don’s tent, for it was full of boys.
“Come in, sergeant,” said Bert, pleasantly.
“Where are you going?” inquired Don. “To the spring after some fresh water, I suppose. Hold on till I get a bucket, and I will go with you.”
“So will I,” said Bert.
That wouldn’t do at all. The sergeant looked perplexed, but Don was equal to the emergency.
“Bert,” said he, “you stay here till I come back, and I will have something to tell you.”
The confiding Bert was good-natured enough to submit without any argument, and Don, having secured a bucket, walked off with the sergeant. To his great surprise Egan led the way directly to the principal gate, and the sentry who was on duty there allowed them to pass without a word of protest. He had no business to do it, and if they had exhibited the least timidity, or been at all uncertain in their movements, they would have been halted on the instant; but, as it was, their audacity carried them safely through. If Don had been alone he would have been stopped beyond a doubt; but the fact that he was in the company of a non-commissioned officer, who, however, had no more right to go outside the lines than a private had, disarmed the sentry of all suspicion.
The two deserters, astonished and delighted at the ease with which their escape had been effected, but showing no outward signs of exultation, walked slowly toward the spring, which bubbled up among the rocks about fifty yards from the gate, their every movement being closely watched by the sentry, who began to wonder if he had done just right in permitting them to pass. They made a great show of washing out their pails, stopping now and then to point out to each other objects of interest on the opposite side of the creek, all of which they had seen a hundred times before; and at last, pretending to discover something at a little distance that they considered to be worthy of close examination, they set down their buckets and moved down the bank of the stream. That movement aroused the sentry, who now began to see through the little game that had been so neatly played upon him.
“Halt!” he shouted, bringing his musket to “arms port.”
“Now for it, Gordon,” said Egan, in an excited whisper. “Leg bail is all that will save us.”
Suiting the action to the word, the sergeant pulled his fatigue cap down over his ears and darted through the bushes like a frightened hare, Don following close at his heels.
“Halt!” shouted the sentry. “Corporal of the guard No. 1.”
“This is a regular game of ‘follow the leader,’ Gordon,” said Egan, looking back over his shoulder. “Are you good at that?”
“I used to be,” answered Don.
“They’ll be after us in less than no time,” continued the sergeant; “and as there are some splendid runners among the fellows, who will give us more than we want to do if they come up with us, our game must be to keep out of sight. We can’t run much further in this direction, for the river will stop us; so that the best thing we can do is – ”
Here Egan turned like a flash and jumped as far as he could toward the middle of the creek. The water was deep enough to let him down out of sight, but he arose to the surface almost immediately, and struck out for the opposite shore. Don was astonished, but he did not hesitate an instant to “follow his leader.” Settling his cap firmly on his head, he dove from the bank, and swimming rapidly under the water, passed Egan, much to that young gentleman’s surprise, and came up a long way ahead of him. A few long, steady strokes carried them across the stream, and while they were climbing out by the aid of the bushes that hung over the water, voices and footsteps sounded from the bank they had just left, and presently ejaculations indicative of the greatest amazement came to their ears, followed by ringing peals of laughter.
“Ha! ha! ha! I say, you, Egan – ha! ha! ha! and Gordon – O, dear, O, dear! This will be the death of me, I just know – ha! ha! Halt!” was the command that was shouted at them from the other side of the creek; and looking over their shoulders they saw on the bank a party of their pursuers, some of whom stamped about and flourished their arms over their heads as if they were fighting off a swarm of bumble-bees, while the others rolled on the ground or stood in a crouching attitude, holding their hands firmly against their sides. They were all convulsed with laughter, and the corporal who commanded the squad, and who thought he had never before seen so ludicrous a sight as the deserters presented in their dripping uniforms, was so completely overcome with merriment that he could not speak again. He stood there on the bank shaking his head and slapping his knees until Egan and his companion disappeared in the woods.
“Well, Gordon, what do you think of the situation?” asked the sergeant, throwing himself flat on his back and holding his feet aloft so that the water could run out of his boots.
“I’m seeing lots of fun,” answered Don, wiping the tears from his eyes; for he had laughed as heartily as any of the corporal’s men. “But do you think we can get through?”
“We must get through,” replied the sergeant, earnestly. “If we should be caught and taken back after what we have done, the boys never would quit joking us. That corporal is a good fellow to keep out of the way of. He’s as sharp as any detective, as fleet as an antelope, and if he once gets a grip on a deserter’s collar, he don’t let up. He’s a bad one, and if he isn’t recalled, he will follow us all over the country.”
“If he is as persevering as that, what’s the reason he did not swim the creek in pursuit of us?” asked Don.
“He wouldn’t have made anything by it,” answered the sergeant, “and, besides, he wouldn’t care to go tramping about the country in his wet clothes. He will follow a better plan than that. He will cross at the bridge and go over to the main road and try to ambush us. You see if he don’t.”
Having wrung a little of the water out of their clothes, Don and his companion continued their flight, threading their way rapidly but cautiously through the thick woods; but before they had gone two hundred yards, the sergeant, who was acting as guide, stopped all on a sudden and pointed silently before him. Don looked and saw that they had barely escaped running into an ambuscade that had been prepared for them. Having crossed the creek at the bridge, Corporal Mack and his men had made the best of their way to the main road and were now hidden in the bushes on each side of it, awaiting the approach of the deserters. Don could see their uniform caps, and he counted a dozen of them in all.
“Mack knows that we are going to the show, and he will exert himself to the utmost to prevent it,” said the sergeant, after he and Don had made a wide detour and safely passed the ambuscade. “We must hurry on now, for we are not safe so long as we wear these uniforms.”
It would have been much easier walking in the main road, which was in plain sight of them, but the sergeant dared not follow it, for he and Don were in no condition, weighed down as they were by their wet clothing, to engage in a foot-race with the fleet and persevering corporal, who would be sure to see them the moment they came out of their concealment. So they kept to the bushes, and at the end of a quarter of an hour came to a halt in the rear of a snug little farm-house, which was the home of one Asa Peters, who had agreed, for a suitable consideration, to furnish them with disguises whenever they might stand in need of them. Asa was chopping wood in the back yard, and Egan had no difficulty in attracting his attention. Hearing his name pronounced in a cautious tone, Asa threw down his axe, and after looking all around to make sure that his movements were not observed, he climbed the fence and joined the deserters behind the smoke-house, where they had stopped for concealment. He was a stalwart young rustic with a red head, a peaked nose, and a freckled face – very homely, in short, but with a most exalted opinion of his personal appearance.
“I say, Asa,” said Egan, hurriedly. “We want those clothes now. Is there any way for us to get into the house without being seen?”
Asa leaned against the smoke-house and twirled his thumbs, but said nothing.
“What’s the matter?” asked Egan, in some alarm. “You are not going back from your word, are you? You agreed to furnish each of us with a suit of your clothes for a dollar apiece, and we expect you to live up to your bargain.”
“Wal,” drawled Asa.“ You see – Sally, she – ”
He blushed and hesitated.
“Well, go on; what about Sally?” asked Don, impatiently. “She doesn’t want to borrow your clothes, does she?”
“Eh? No,” said Asa, indignantly. “But she wants to go to the show, an’ how am I goin’ to take her when I aint got no duds to go in? That’s what’s been a botherin’ me. An’, you see, if I don’t take her, ’Bijah Sawin will.”
“Well, let ’Bijah have her,” said Don.
“Not by a long shot.”
Asa glared savagely at Don as he said this, and brought his fist down into his open palm with a sounding whack. The idea of allowing a rival to walk off with his sweetheart was not to be entertained for a moment. Don looked blank; but Egan, who had had dealings with Asa before, thought he knew a sure road to his heart.
“Now, Asa,” said he, coaxingly, “listen to me for a moment. I know that Sally is a beauty (Egan had never seen the girl in his life), but there are plenty of others in the world who are just as handsome, and a dashing, good-looking young fellow like yourself can always take his pick.”
Asa stroked the yellow down on his chin and grinned complacently.
“Besides, we’ll make it worth your while to stick to your bargain,” continued Egan, closely watching the effect of his words. “We will give you a dollar extra for the use of your clothes.”
Asa opened his eyes and looked interested.
“We mean by that, a dollar extra for the use of each suit,” put in Don. “And if you want it, we will pay you half the money in advance.”
It was evident from the expression on the face of Asa Peters that there was a severe conflict going on in his mind – a conflict between his love of money and his deep-rooted affection for Sally; but avarice conquered at last, and without saying a word Asa climbed the fence and led the way toward the house, followed by the deserters, who exchanged many a wink, and laughed silently at the boy who was willing to give up his sweetheart for two dollars.
Asa led the deserters up the back stairs and into his room, whose front window, which was open, looked out upon the road. While he was taking from his trunk his cherished wearing apparel, the judicious selection of which had occasioned him infinite trouble and perplexity, Don glanced out at the window and saw Corporal Mack and his men approaching.
“I declare, Egan,” said he, “we’re cornered.”
“O, no,” said the latter, who was making all haste to get out of his wet uniform. “Mack doesn’t know that we are here, and even if he suspected it, he has no right to search the house.”
Having placed his best suits of clothes in orderly array upon the bed (the deep sighs he uttered while he was thus engaged proved that Sally was not yet wholly forgotten), Asa seated himself on his trunk and looked out of the window, while Don and his companion proceeded to put on their disguises. And disguises they proved to be in every sense of the word. It is doubtful if even the sharp eyes of Corporal Mack could have penetrated them. The boys looked for all the world like a couple of green country fellows who were out for a holiday; and when Don, after disarranging his hair, and assuming an expression of countenance that would have done credit to Mark Twain’s “Inspired Idiot,” walked across the floor after the manner of a plantation darkey, Egan, who never could control himself when he wanted to laugh, rolled on the bed convulsed with merriment. Nothing but the near approach of Corporal Mack and his men kept him from shouting at the top of his voice.
“Look here, Gordon,” said he, as soon as he could speak. “No more of that. You will give us away, sure. Mack is a Southern boy, and he knows the negro style of progression as well as you do. So mind what you are about.”
Just then the clear tones of Corporal Mack sounded under the window. “Hallo, Asa,” said he. “Seen any of our boys around here lately?”
“Wal, yes,” drawled Asa, in reply. “I seed a power of ’em yesterday.”
“Have you seen any of them to-day?”
“Wal, yes; but I seed a right smart sprinklin’ of ’em yesterday.”
“Don’t say that again, Asa,” whispered Egan, excitedly. “If you do you will let the cat out of the bag, sure. That boy is sharper than a steel trap, and you must be careful how you talk to him.”
“You say you have seen some of our boys to-day,” continued the corporal. “Were their names Egan and Gordon? I thought so. Well, where are they now?”
“I don’t rightly know jest where they be,” answered Asa; and he didn’t either, for his back was turned toward the two boys in question.
“I see very plainly that there is nothing to be gained by questioning you,” said the corporal, whose suspicions had been aroused. “You know where those two fellows are, and when you see them again you may tell them that we are going to the show, too.”
Asa said he would, and the corporal and his squad moved off.
“What did I tell you?” exclaimed Egan. “Didn’t I say that if he wasn’t recalled, he would follow us all over the country? Now, let’s be moving. We’ll keep out of sight as much as possible until we reach the village, and after we have got into the crowd, we shall be comparatively safe. But remember this: If you are separated from me by any mischance, dodge every fellow in uniform you see, no matter whether he wears a bayonet by his side or not. Even Hop and Curtis would report us to the corporal if they should see and recognize us.”
Don had never engaged in an undertaking that was more to his liking. It was one that required the exercise of all the skill and cunning he possessed, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that while he was working to the utmost to accomplish his object, he was violating no rule, and was in no danger of being taken to task when he returned to camp.
Having paid Asa a portion of the money they had agreed to give him for the use of his clothes, Don and his companion made the best of their way toward Bridgeport, which was filled to overflowing with people from the surrounding country who had flocked in to see the sights. They mingled with the crowd and acted their parts as rustics to perfection. They gazed with open mouth and eyes at every thing they saw, munched apples and gingerbread as they walked along, and tried to beat down the price of candy as often as they stopped to purchase. They went into all the side-shows to see the curiosities on exhibition, and manfully bore their part in the crush and jam that took place when the ticket-wagon was opened.
Up to this time they had succeeded in keeping out of the way of their fellow-students, all of whom, having been warned by the corporal, were keeping a sharp look-out for them; but now they ran against some of them almost before they knew it. Having secured their tickets after a terrific struggle, they moved with the crowd toward the entrance to the “grand pavilion,” and all on a sudden found themselves face to face with four of the corporal’s men. Don and his friend knew that they belonged to Mack’s squad, for they wore bayonets by their sides to show that they were on duty. They stood two on each side of the entrance, and looked closely at everybody who went in. The situation was growing interesting; and it grew still more interesting before the afternoon was over, and some of the village people afterward declared that Don and Corporal Mack furnished the best part of the entertainment.
“Now for it, Gordon,” said Egan, in an excited whisper. “See how they stare at everybody. That proves that they either know or suspect that we are disguised. It would be a pity if we were to be gobbled right here in the presence of all these people. How everybody would laugh at us!”
But both the boys were equal to the emergency. Egan, trusting entirely to his disguise, kept straight ahead without looking at the sentries, while Don, throwing all the stupidity he could into an unusually intelligent countenance, gazed about him with a frightened air, and clung to his friend’s coat-tails as if he were afraid of being lost. That move came very near being fatal to them. Egan laughed audibly, in spite of himself, and hurried on, dragging Don after him; while the four guards exchanged significant glances, and one of them hurried out to find Corporal Mack. The deserters did not know it, but from that moment they were under surveillance.
Having taken a look at the animals they went into the second tent, picked out a good seat, invested a portion of their pocket-money in peanuts, and waited patiently for the performance to begin. They did not pay much attention to the stale jokes of the clowns, but they were really interested in the riding and leaping – so much so that they did not notice that Corporal Mack was improving the opportunity to station his men so that they could not escape. Finally the trick mule was brought in, and after he had gone through with his antics and thrown the darkey who tried to ride him, some of the spectators went out, while those who had purchased tickets for the musical entertainment, moved over to the other side of the tent. Among the latter were Don and Egan.