"Were you out late last night?"
"I was," replied the second-comer, scanning his interrogator.
"Did you see a star?"
"What star was it?"
"It was the Star of Bethlehem."
"Right, my brother," responded the other, putting out his hand in a peculiar way for the grip of the order.
Shorty, still feigning deep sleep, pricked up his ears and drank in every word. He had heard before of the greeting formula by which Knights of the Golden Circle recognized one another, and he tried, with only partial success, to see the grip.
He saw the two men whisper together and tap their carpet-sacks significantly. They seemed to come to a familiar understanding at once, but they talked so low that Shorty could not catch their words, except once when the first-comer raised his voice to penetrate the din as they crossed a bridge, and did not lower it quickly enough after passing, and Shorty heard;
"They'll all be certain to be there tonight."
And the other asked: "And the raid'll be made ter-morrer?"
The first-comer replied with a nod. At the next bridge the same thing occurred, and Shorty caught the words:
"They've no idee. We'll ketch 'em clean offen their guard."
"And the others'll come out?" asked the second-comer.
"Certainly," said the first, lowering his voice again, but the look on his face and the way he pointed indicated to Shorty that he was saying that other lodges scattered through the neighborhood were only waiting the striking of the first blow to rise in force and march on Indianapolis, release the rebel prisoners there and carry havoc generally.
"I see through it all," Shorty communed with himself. "They're goin'
to the same place that we are, and've got them carpet-bags filled with revolvers and cartridges. Somebody's goin' to have a little surprise party before he's a day older."
The sun had now gotten so high that Shorty could hardly pretend to sleep longer. He gave a tremendous yawn and sat up. The older man regarded him attentively, the other sullenly.
"You must've bin out late last night, stranger," said the first.
"I was," answered Shorty, giving him a meaning look.
"Did you see a star?" inquired the older man.
"I did," answered Shorty.
"What star was it?"
"The Star of Bethlehem," answered Shorty boldly.
"'You're right, my brother," said the man, putting out his hand for the grip. Shorty did the same, trying to imitate what he had seen. The car was lurching, and the grasp was imperfect. The man seemed only half satisfied. Shorty saw this, and with his customary impudence determined to put the onus of recognition on the other side. He drew his hand back as if disappointed, and turned a severe look upon the other man.
"Where are you from?" asked the first-comer. Shorty curtly indicated the other side of the Ohio by a nod.
"Where are you goin'?"
Shorty's face put on a severe look, as if his questioner was too inquisitive. "Jest up here to 'tend to some bizness," he answered briefly, and turned away as if to close the conversation.
"Say, I've got a right to know something about you," said the first new-comer. "I'm Captain of this District, and have general charge o'
things here, and men passin' through."
"All right," answered Shorty. "Have general charge. I don't know you, and I have bizness with men who roost a good deal higher'n you do."
He put his hands to his breast, as if assuring himself of the presence of important papers, and pulled out a little ways the official-looking envelope which contained his transportation and passes. This had its effect. The "Captain" weakened. "Are you from the Southern army?" he asked in a tone of respect.
"Before I answer any o' your questions," said Shorty authoritatively, "prove to me who you are." "O, I kin do that quick enough," said the "Captain" eagerly, displaying on his vest the silver star, which was the badge of his rank, and his floridly printed commission and a badly-thumb-marked copy of the ritual of the Knights of the Golden Circle.
"So far, so good," said Shorty. "Now give me the grip."
Shorty, by watching the motions of the other's hand, was skillful enough to catch on to the grip this time, and get it exactly. He expressed himself satisfied, and as the car lay on the siding waiting for another train to arrive and pass he favored his two companions with one of his finest fictions about his home in Tennessee, his service in the rebel army, the number of Yankee Abolitionists he had slain with his own hand, and his present mission with important communications to those "friends of the South in Illinois" who were organizing a movement to stop the bloody and brutal war upon his beloved Southland.
His volubility excited that of the "Captain," who related how he had been doing a prosperous business running a bar on a Lower Mississippi River boat, until Abolition fanaticism brought on the war; that he had then started a "grocery" in Jeffersonville, which the Provost-Marshal had wickedly suppressed, and now he was joining with others of his oppressed and patriotic fellow-citizens to stop the cruel and unnatural struggle against their brethren of the South.
"And we shall do it," he said warmly, bringing out the savage-looking dirk, throwing it open with a deft movement of his wrist, and shaving off a huge chew of tobacco. "We have a hundred thousand drilled and armed men here in the State of Injianny, jest waitin' the word, to throw off the shackles of tyranny and destroy the tyrants.
"There's another hundred thousand in Illinois and like numbers in other States. And they'll fight, too. They'll fight to the death, and every one of them is good for' at least three of the usurper Lincoln's minions. I'd like nothing better than to get a good opportunity at three or four o' 'em, armed with nothin' more'n this knife. I'd like nothin'
better than the chance to sock it into their black hearts. 'Twouldn't be the first time, nuther. The catfish around Jeffersonville could tell some stories if they could talk, about the Lincoln hounds I've fed to 'em. I only want a good chance at 'em agin. I may go, but I'll take several of 'em with me. I'll die in my tracks afore I'll stand this any longer. I hate everything that wears blue worse'n I do a mad-dog."
"And I promise you," said Shorty solemnly, "that you shall have all the chance you want sooner'n you think for. I know a great deal more'n I dare tell you now, but things is workin' to a head mighty fast, and you'll hear something drop before the next change o' the moon. You kin jest bet your shirt on that."
The day was passing, and as the evening approached the train was running through a wilder, heavily-wooded country. Shorty's companions took their seats on the opposite side of the car and peered anxiously out of the window to recognize features of the darkening landscape. They were evidently getting near their destination.
Shorty overheard the "Captain" say to his partner:
"The train'll stop for water in the middle of a big beech woods. We'll get off there and take a path that leads right to the lodge."
"How far'll we have to tote these heavy carpetbags?" grumbled the other.
Shorty slipped his hand into his pocket, grasped his revolvers and eased them around so that he could be certain to draw them when he wanted to.
He was determined that those men should not leave the train before the stopping place arranged for his fellow-soldiers. He felt confident of being able to handle the two, but did not know how many confederates might be in waiting for them.
"I'll go it if there's a million of 'em," said he to himself. "I'll save these two fellers anyway, if there's any good in 45-caliber bullets in their carcasses. I'm jest achin' to put a half-ounce o' lead jest where that old scoundrel hatches his devilment."
The engine whistled long and shrilly.
"That's the pumpin'-station," said the "Captain," rising and laying hold of the handles of the carpetbag.
"Drop that. You can't leave this car till I give the word," said Shorty, rising as the train stopped, and putting himself in the door.
"Can't, eh?" said the "Captain," with a look of rage as he comprehended the situation. His dirk came out and opened with a wicked snap. "I'll cut your black heart out, you infernal spy."
[Illustration: 'HOW DO YOU LIKE THE LOOKS OF THAT, OLD BUTTERNUT 169]