By this time Don had the satisfaction of knowing that he had made himself an object of interest to the people about him, who told one another that he was the greenest specimen of a country boy they had ever seen. When he moved with the rest over to the opposite side of the tent, he could not resist the temptation to give a specimen of old Jordan’s style of locomotion; and he did it so perfectly that he excited the laughter of some and the sincere pity of others, who believed that that was his usual way of walking. There was one, however, who was keeping a sharp eye on all his movements, and who was not deceived – a spruce young soldier, who elbowed his way through the crowd, and, to the surprise of everybody, laid hold of the young countryman’s collar.
“That’s most too attenuated,” said he, with a laugh. “No white fellow ever had so outlandish a gait. Gordon, I know you, and I have come for you, too.”
Corporal Mack had never yet failed to capture the deserter of whom he had been sent in pursuit. He was noted for his grip, he had confidence in it, and when he placed his hand on Don’s collar he thought he had him, sure; but, as it happened, he didn’t know the boy he was trying to arrest.
Don wheeled as quick as thought, tore himself lose from the detaining hand and took to his heels, darting like a flash through the crowd of spectators who, astonished beyond measure to see the awkward clown, who had moved so slowly and painfully over the ground, suddenly transformed into a fleet-footed runner, parted right and left to give him room, and cheered him lustily as he passed through their ranks. Corporal Mack started in hot pursuit. His men, who had been stationed around the outside of the tent, drew in upon the fugitive from all sides; while Egan, seeing that no attention was paid to himself, crawled through between the seats, raised the canvas and took himself safely off.
It was an amusing as well as an exciting race that came off in that tent that afternoon, and the shouts of laughter and yells of encouragement that arose on all sides were almost deafening. Don, in his ill-fitting clothes and big cowhide boots, looked clumsy enough, but he got over the ground at an astonishing rate. Seeing that every way of escape, except one, was closed against him, he dashed straight across the ring toward the seats that had just been vacated. He ascended to the topmost one in half a dozen jumps, and diving through the opening between the top of the tent and the side, he dropped lightly to the ground and continued his flight, the cheers and laughter of the amused spectators ringing in his ears as he went.
There were two long freight trains standing on the railroad track, which was close at hand. Toward these Don bent his steps, intent on getting out of sight as soon as possible; and without pausing to consider the risk he ran in so doing, he crawled under one of the cars to the opposite side of the track. Corporal Mack followed him without loss of time; but when he arose to an upright position, after crawling under the car, Don was not to be seen.
“Well, my young friend, you seem to be in good humor,” said a pleasant voice.
Don looked up and saw before him an old gentleman leaning on his cane and beaming at him over his gold spectacles.
“Yes, sir,” said he, respectfully, at the same time imitating Asa’s drawl. “I’ve been to the show.”
“Ah! indeed. And you saw the clowns, I suppose?”
“Yes, sir, but I didn’t care for them. I seen the tigers and the elephants and the boy-constructors and all them things; and I seen that there mu-el throw that there nigger – ”
Here Don went off into another paroxysm of laughter. The old gentleman laughed too and passed on, marveling greatly at the boy’s innocence, and wondering where in the world he came from.
After taking time to cool off a little and to recover his breath, Don got upon his feet and walked away. All the fun was over now so far as the show was concerned. His disguise being known, it would be dangerous for him to stay about the village, and the only thing he could do was to go back to the home of Asa Peters, where he hoped to find his friend Egan.
“I hope he wasn’t captured,” thought Don, “for I should find it very lonely roaming about the woods all by myself. Besides, I don’t know where those trout-streams are that he said would afford us so much sport. There’s one thing about it: I am out, and I shall not go back until I get ready.”
Don would doubtless have been very much surprised if any one had told him that when he got ready to go back to camp he would not be allowed to do so; but such was the case, as he found when he made the attempt.
Just before dark Don came within sight of Asa’s home. As he was hurrying along the road, not dreaming of danger, he heard a familiar voice calling to him; and looking in the direction from which it came, he saw his missing friend Egan snugly hidden away among the bushes in a fence-corner. When he saw that he had attracted Don’s attention he broke out into a hearty peal of laughter.
“You’re a good one, Gordon,” said he, “and I would give something to know how Corporal Mack feels over his failure to make a prisoner of you. I never knew a boy to get away before when once Mack got a good grip on his collar, and neither did I ever see No. 10 cowhide boots climb over the ground so rapidly. You have done something worth boasting of.”
“What are you doing there?” asked Don.
“Waiting for you. Come over here. I struck out for this place as soon as I could get out of the tent,” said the sergeant, as Don climbed the fence, “hoping to secure possession of our uniforms before the corporal could get here; but he and his men hired a wagon and a span of horses and got ahead of me.”
“Do you mean to say that they are guarding the house now?” exclaimed Don.
“Certainly I do, and you would have run right into their clutches if I hadn’t been here to warn you. They’ll get supper and sleep there to-night, and we must look elsewhere for grub and lodging. Asa will be in a fearful way about his good clothes, but we can’t help that. We can’t get our uniforms while Mack is prowling around.”
Egan, who was well acquainted in the neighborhood, had no difficulty in finding food and shelter for himself and his companion. Another farm-house opened its hospitable doors to them, and there they passed the night, setting out bright and early the next morning to try one of the trout-streams of which Egan had spoken. Late in the afternoon they secured an interview with Asa, who, after telling them that Corporal Mack had been recalled that morning, growled lustily at them for keeping his clothes so long. In order to silence him and make sure of other disguises in future, in case they should need them, they gave him an extra dollar, and paid his mother the same amount for drying and pressing out their uniforms.
During the next two days the deserters thoroughly enjoyed themselves, living on the fat of the land, and catching as many fish as they could dispose of. On the afternoon of the third day they began to talk of returning to camp. They took supper with Asa that night, and as soon as darkness came to conceal their movements they set out for the works, hoping to creep by the sentries and reach the shelter of their tents without arousing anybody, thus winding up their exploits in the most approved style; but they did not get into the camp as easily as they thought they would. While they were passing through a piece of thick woods on their way to the bridge, they were suddenly surrounded by a multitude of dark forms which seemed to rise out of the ground on all sides of them, and before they could resist or cry out, they were seized by strong hands and hurried away through the darkness.
“Squad, halt! No. 4.”
It was Thursday afternoon, and the relief was going its rounds. When his number was called Bert Gordon stepped forward, and holding his musket at “arms port,” prepared to receive the orders which the sentry whom he was about to relieve had to pass, while the two corporals stood by and listened.
“My instructions are to stop anybody who may attempt to go out of the lines without a pass, and to keep a good lookout for prowlers,” said the sentry.
“For prowlers!” echoed Bert. “What is the meaning of that order?”
“I give it up,” replied the sentry. “I pass the command to you just as it was given to me. If you see anybody prowling about on the other side of the creek, call the corporal.”
The sentry fell into place in the rear of the squad, and the relief passed on, leaving Bert alone on his post.
“Prowlers,” he repeated, over and over again. “I don’t understand it. Why should there be any more danger from prowlers now than at any other time? O!” he added, an idea suddenly occurring to him. “Perhaps they think that Don and Egan will try to work their way back to camp this afternoon. Well, if they do, they’ll not get by me.”
So saying, Bert settled his musket firmly on his shoulder and began pacing his beat, casting suspicious and searching glances now and then toward the bushes on the opposite side of the creek.
When Bert first learned that his brother and Egan had deserted the camp he was almost overwhelmed with surprise and mortification. He supposed they had committed a serious offence, one that would be sure to bring disgrace and punishment upon them, and took it so much to heart that the boys were obliged to explain matters to him. They assured him that the deserters had not lowered their standing or forfeited the good-will of the teachers, and that all they had to do to make heroes of themselves was to outrun or outwit the parties that were sent in pursuit of them, and make their way back to camp without being caught.
“They are heroes already,” said one of the students, with great enthusiasm, “for didn’t they swim the creek during their flight? That’s something that none of the fellows ever did before. I wish they might get back all right, but the superintendent has sent Mack after them, and he’s a bad one. He’s bound to catch them.”
This seemed to be the opinion of all the students; and consequently when Corporal Mack returned to camp and reported that he had found Don Gordon at the show disguised as a country boy, and had actually had his hand on his collar, and Don had broken away and beaten him in a fair race, notwithstanding the fact that he was incumbered by heavy boots that were many sizes too large for him – when the corporal reported all this, the boys were not a little surprised.
“It would have made you laugh to see him,” said the corporal, who had the greatest respect for the boy who had so neatly outwitted him. “He looked and acted so much like a born simpleton that I couldn’t make up my mind that it was Don Gordon until he revealed his identity by walking like a field-negro. Then I knew in a moment that he was the fellow I wanted, and I – well, I didn’t get him, but I would have got him if I hadn’t been recalled. He had a suit of Asa Peter’s clothes on, and I had Asa’s house guarded so that he couldn’t get his uniform.”
Why he had been recalled so soon, and at a time too when he had the deserters “just where he wanted them,” the corporal could not imagine; and neither could the rest of the students understand why their liberty had been stopped so suddenly. On the day following that on which the seven-elephant railroad show had pitched its tent in Bridgeport all passes had been refused, and since that time no one had been outside the gates except the mess-cooks. They were permitted to go to the spring three times every day, and they always went under guard too. Such a regulation had never been established before, and the students were at a loss to know the meaning of it.
“It’s all Gordon’s fault and Egan’s,” said one of the boys. “They have shown that a fellow can desert under the eye of a sentry, if he sees fit to do so, and the superintendent is afraid that some of us will follow their example. That’s the reason he sends a guard with the mess-cooks when they go to the spring after water.”
“There’s where you are mistaken,” said one of the first-class sergeants, in reply. “We are in the enemy’s country – ”
The boys who were standing around laughed uproariously, and turning on their heels, walked away. They had heard quite enough of such talk as that, and wanted to know some good reason for the stopping of their liberty.
While Bert Gordon paced his beat on this particular afternoon, he kept one eye directed toward the bushes on the opposite side of the creek, and the other turned toward the camp. The huge tent that had been erected the day before for the accommodation of visitors, was already pretty well filled; and from his lofty perch on the embankment Bert could see his school-fellows strolling about in company with their parents, or with their brothers and sisters, who had come hundreds of miles to see the students in their summer quarters. Every now and then one of the village hacks would drive in at the south gate and deposit a load of ladies and gentlemen before the door of the superintendent’s marquee. Every train that steamed up to the station brought a fresh influx of visitors, and finally the camp began to present quite a holiday appearance.
“Don’t I wish that my father and mother were among them!” thought Bert, who began to feel lonely when he saw that almost every boy who was off duty had hastened to the tent to receive some relative or friend who had come there to see him. “If they didn’t live so far away they would certainly be here; but, as it is – ”
Bert suddenly stopped, and shading his eyes with his hand, looked intently at something on the other side of the creek. He was certain that the bushes toward which he directed his gaze, were suddenly and violently agitated, as if some heavy body were working its way through them. A moment later something that looked like a head crowned with feathers was thrust cautiously into view; then a dark brown face appeared and a pair of glittering eyes looked straight at him.
“What in the world is that?” muttered Bert, after he had winked hard and looked again to make sure that he had not been deceived. “It can’t be a head, and yet – it is a head and nothing else. Corporal of the guard No. 4!”
The head, or whatever it was, bobbed down out of sight in an instant, and presently the corporal came hurrying up.
“There’s something or other over there in the bushes,” began Bert, in response to the non-commissioned officer’s inquiries.
“And it looked like a head with feathers on it, I suppose,” interrupted the corporal, with some impatience in his tones. “I don’t see what is the matter with everybody this afternoon. You are the third one who has called me out for nothing.”
“But I didn’t call you out for nothing,” protested Bert. “My eyes never went back on me yet, and I know that there is somebody over there in the bushes.”
“I don’t dispute that. It is probably your brother or Egan who is watching for a chance to creep by some of you sentries.”
“But they wouldn’t have feathers on their heads, would they?” demanded Bert.
“O, get out!” exclaimed the corporal. “You didn’t see any feathers. You only dreamed it.”
“Do you suppose that I have been asleep?” cried Bert.
“It looks like it, for I declare I don’t see how any boy who is wide awake – Well, well, have it your own way,” said the corporal, who noticed that Bert’s cheek began to flush and his eye to sparkle as if he were growing indignant. “Just keep your eye on him and see that he doesn’t get into camp; that’s all you’ve got to do. But I say, Gordon, we are in for a good time to-night, are we not? Did you ever see so many visitors before?”
“I never did,” answered Bert. “This is my first camp, you know.”
“Well, fellows who have been here during four camps say that they never saw such a crowd at this stage of the proceedings,” continued the corporal. “Our friends generally put in an appearance a day or two before we break camp, and stay with us during the examination and over commencement; and what it was that brought them here so early in the day this year, I can’t imagine. But we are glad to see them all the same, and we’re going to have a smashing hop to-night. Some of the fellows have sent to town for the music.”
“You didn’t hear anybody inquiring for me, did you?” asked Bert, with some hesitation.
“I did not. In fact, I didn’t hear anybody asked for. I took time to kiss my mother and say ‘hallo’ to my big brother, and that’s all the visiting I can do until I go off duty. Good-by, but don’t call me out to look at any more feathers unless you can show them to me.”
“I saw them, I know I did,” said Bert, to himself, as the sentry walked away. “No one can make me believe that I could be so badly fooled in broad daylight. I wish I could have another look at them.”
Once more Bert turned his eyes toward the opposite bank of the stream; but the head with the crown of feathers did not again show itself, and he finally resumed his walk, feeling very lonely and homesick. Almost every boy in camp had company – in fact he could not see a single student wandering about alone – but no one had been heard to ask for him. He would have been glad to see anybody from Rochdale. Even the sight of Dan Evans’s tan-colored face would have been most welcome.
Bert stood his time out without seeing anything more of the feathers, and finally the relief came around. Having stacked their muskets in the guard-tent the sentries, some of whom had received notice of the arrival of their friends, scattered in all directions, leaving Bert alone. He strolled slowly along the street, lifting his cap whenever he met a fellow-student accompanied by his mother or sister, and finally reached the door of his own tent, which was crowded with the relatives and friends of his mess-mates. He was about to pass on with a word of apology, when a lady, whom he did not see until that moment, arose from the camp-chair in which she was sitting, and a second later Bert was clasped in the arms of his mother. General Gordon was there, too. He had been visiting with his old friend and preceptor, the superintendent, and was now looking over the fortifications in company with Mr. Egan, Mr. Hopkins, and Mr. Curtis, all of whom were veteran soldiers. He came into the tent in a few minutes, and when he had greeted Bert warmly, he asked for Don.
“I’m sorry to say that I don’t know where he is,” replied Bert, who then went on to give a hurried history of Don’s exploits at the show, as reported by Corporal Mack. Mrs. Gordon listened with a shade of anxiety on her face, but the general laughed heartily.
“Boys will be boys,” said he. “And so long as Don doesn’t break any of the rules of the school, or carry his fun too far, where is the harm? The superintendent thinks that he and Egan have played their parts as deserters very well, and I think so, too. I should like very much to see him, but I suppose I shall have to wait until he gets ready to come in.”
“You will not go home until you do see him, will you?” said Bert.
“O, no. We shall not return to Mississippi until you and Don can go with us, and then we shall have company. Young Egan, Hopkins, and Curtis are to spend a month at our house. I have just been talking with their fathers about it.”
Bert was delighted to hear that this matter had been definitely settled, and he wished that Don had been there to hear it too. He little dreamed that his brother and Egan, who were at that very moment laying their plans for getting into camp, were destined to be waylaid and taken captive by those who had every reason for holding fast to them; but such was the fact.
As Bert was to be off duty until midnight he had ample opportunity to visit with his father and mother. He walked about the fortifications with them, told them amusing and interesting stories of his life at the academy, and ate supper with them in the big tent. When all had satisfied their appetites with the good things that had been provided for them, the tables were taken out, the Chinese lanterns that hung suspended from the wires overhead were lighted, the music struck up and the dancing began. Everybody, young and old, seemed bent on having a good time, and the fun grew fast and furious. For an hour everything passed off smoothly, and then there came a most unexpected and alarming interruption – the ringing report of a musket, followed it made the cold chills creep over every one who heard it. The music ceased, and the dancers stood still in their places and looked at one another. There was a moment’s hush, and then a whole chorus of blood-curdling yells, such as no one in that company had ever heard before, rang out on the still air. They seemed to come from all sides of the camp, and their effect was most startling. The ladies screamed and ran to their husbands for protection; the gentlemen stood irresolute, each one gazing inquiringly into the face of his neighbor, and the students were thrown into a stupor from which they were quickly aroused by the roll of the drum, and loud cries of “Fall in! Fall in!”