"What was it?"
"The Star of Bethlehem."
"You are right, my brother," said the man, extending his hand for the grip.
"This rotten star-and-brother rigmarole's making me sick," muttered Shorty, with a hasty glance to see that the man was alone, and grasping his hand with a grip of iron, while with his left he clutched the sentry's throat. Before the man could utter a groan he wrenched him around and started him back for Si. Arriving there he flung him under the trees, saying in a loud whisper:
"First sucker o' this Spring's run. String him. Si."
Lieut. Bigelow had come up in the meanwhile with the other squad, and they all moved cautiously forward to where they could get a dim sight of the lodge through the intervals between the trees. For a log house it was quite a large building, and stood in the center of a small clearing which had been made to furnish logs for its erection. Faint gleams of light came through the badly-chinked walls, and the hum of voices showed that there was a large crowd gathered inside.
"There's likely to be from 100 to 150 in there," said the Lieutenant, after a moment's consideration. "We've got 27 or 28. We'll jump them, though, if they're a thousand. Corporal Elliott, you go forward and make your way inside, if you can, and see what they are doing. If you can get inside, stay 10 or 15 minutes, and come out and report. If you can't get out, or you think they are ripe for jumping, whistle, and we'll pile in.
Sergeant Klegg, you hold your squad together and move down as near the door as you can without being seen and be ready for a rush. Find a rail or a log to smash the door in if they try to hold it against us.
Sergeant Ramsey, deploy your men quietly around to the rear there to cut off retreat, but be ready to rally again and help Sergeant Klegg out if he strikes a big snag. You make the circuit of the house and post yourself where you can see what's going on, and signal your men.
Everybody keep under the shadow of the trees and make no noise. Go on to the house, Corporal."
Shorty left the cover of the trees and walked directly toward the front door. No one appeared or halted him until he pushed the front door open.
Then a man who seemed more intent on what was going on inside than the new arrival, bent his head over to catch the farrago about the star, and put out his hand for the grip.
"Come on in, but don't make a noise," he whispered. "They're givin' the obligation, and I want to hear it."
Shorty stood beside him for a moment, and then watched his opportunity, and pressed by him, to where he could see into the room. It was entirely dark except for the light of a single candle, shaded so that its rays fell upon a rude altar in the center of the room, draped with a rebel flag. Upon this lay a naked sword, skull and cross-bones. Behind the altar stood a masked man, draped in a long shroud, who was mouthing in a sepulchral tone the obligation to several men kneeling in front of the altar. The dim light faintly revealed other masked and shrouded figures stationed at various places about the room and looming above the seated audience.
"You solemnly swear," droned the chief actor, "to resist to the death every attempt to place the nigger above the white man and destroy the Government of our fathers."
"We do," responded those kneeling at the altar.
"Let it be so recorded," said a sepulchral voice from the other extremity of the room. A gong sounded dismally and a glare of lurid red light filled the room.
"Regler Sons o' Malty biziniss, like I seen in St. Looyey," commented Shorty to himself. "Masks, shrouds, red fire and gong, all the same. But where've I heard that croakin' voice before?"
"You solemnly promise and swear," resumed the sepulchral tones of the chief actor, "to do all in your power to restore the Constitution and laws of this country to what were established by the fathers and resist the efforts of nigger-loving Abolitionists and evil-minded fanatics to subvert them."
"We do," responded the kneeling men.
Again the grewsome gong sounded, the red fire glared forth and the hollow voice announced that it was so recorded.
"I'll bet six bits to a picayune," said Shorty to himself, "that I know the rooster who's doin' them high priest antics. Where'd I hear his voice before?"
"And, finally, brethren," resumed the chief actor, "do you solemnly promise and swear to cheerfully obey all orders given you by officers regularly appointed over you according to the rules and regulations of this great order and military discipline?"
There was a little hesitation about this, but the kneeling ones were nudged and whispered to, and finally responded:
Again it was funereally announced to the accompaniment of flashes of red fire and the gong that it was duly recorded.
"Great Jehosephat, if it ain't old Billings himself that's doin' that heavy tragedy act," said Shorty, slapping himself on the thigh. "The old dregs o' the bottomless pit! Is there any deviltry that he won't git into?"
His decision was confirmed a minute or two later, when, after some more fanfarronade the initiation ended, the officers removed their masks and shrouds, and the candles in the sconces around the room were relighted.
Billings took his seat on the platform at the end of the room farthest from the door, picked up the gavel and rapped for order.
"Now, brethren," said he, "having witnessed the solemn initiation of several brave, true men into our rapidly-swelling ranks and welcomed them as real patriots who have united with us to resist to the bitter end the cruel tyrannies of the Abolition despot at Washington--the vulgar railsplitter of the Sangamon, who is filling this once happy land with the graves of his victims, we will proceed to the regular business for which we have assembled. I regret that our gallant Captain has not yet arrived with the supply of arms and ammunition that he went to Jeffersonville to secure. I thought I heard the whistle of the train some time ago, and have been expecting him every minute. He may be here yet."
"Not if that guard at the switch 'tends to his little business, he won't," Shorty chuckled to himself.
"When he gets here," continued Billings, "we shall have enough weapons to finish our outfit, and give every member, including them initiated tonight, a good, serviceable arm, as effective as any in the hands of our enemies. We shall then be in shape to carry out the several projects which we have before discussed and planned. We shall be ready to strike at any moment. When we do strike success is sure. The Southern armies, which have so long bravely battled for the Constitution and the laws and white men's rights, are again advancing from every point. Every mail brings me glad good news of the organization of our brave friends throughout this State and Illinois. They're impatient to begin. The first shot fired will be the signal for an uprising that'll sweep over the land like a prairie fire and--"
He stopped abruptly, contracted his brows, and gazed fixedly at Shorty.
"Brother Walker," said Billings, "there's a tall man settin' close by the door that I seem to've seen before, and yit I don't exactly recognize. Please hold that candle nigh his face till I can see it more plainly."
Shorty happened to be looking at another man that minute, and did not at first catch the drift of Billings's remarks. When he did, he hesitated an instant whether to whistle or try to get out. Before he could decide, Eph Glick, whom he had raided at Jeffersonville, struck him a heavy blow on the side of his head and yelled:
"He's a traitor! He's a spy! Kill the infernal, egg-suckin' hound!"
There was a rush of infuriated men, which carried Shorty over and made him the object of a storm of blows and kicks. So many piled on him at once that they struck and kicked one another in their confusion. The door was torn out, and its pieces fell with the tumble of cursing, striking, kicking men that rolled outside.
Si rushed forward with his squad, and in an instant they were knocking right and left with their gun-barrels. So many fell on top of Shorty that he was unable to rise and extricate himself.
Not exactly comprehending what was going on, but thinking that the time for them to act had come, the four boys to whom Si had given the duty of making the rush with the log to break down the door, came bolting up, shouting to their comrades:
"Open out, there, for us."
[Illustration: "THE PRISONERS HAD TOO MUCH SOLICITUDE ABOUT THEIR GARMENTS TO THINK OF ANYTHING ELSE." 185]
Their battering-ram cleaned off the rest of those still pommeling Shorty, and drove back those who were swarming in the door.
Shorty sprang up and gave a rib-breaking kick to the prostrate Eph Glick.
The crowd inside at first recoiled at the sight of the soldiers, but, frightened for his own safety, Billings shouted, as he sheltered himself behind the altar:
"Don't give way, men. There's only a few o' them. Draw your revolvers and shoot down the scum. Drive 'em away."
A score of shots were fired in obedience, but Si, making his voice ring above the noise, called out:
"Stop that firing, or I'll kill every man in the house. If there's another shot fired we'll open on you and keep it up till you're every one dead. Surrender at once!"
"Go at 'em with the bayonet, Si," yelled Shorty. "I'm goin' around to ketch old Billings. He's in there, and'll try to sneak out the back way."
As Shorty ran around the corner he came face-to-face with a stalwart Irishman, one of the pluckiest of the squad brought from Jeffersonville.
His face was drawn and white with fright, and he fumbled at his beads.
"O, Corpril," he said, with chattering teeth, "Oi've jist sane the very divil himself, so Oi have. Oi started to run up t' the house whin the ruction begun, when suddintly the ground opened up at me very fate, an'
out kim a ghost, tin fate hoigh, wid oyes av foire, and brathing flames, an' he shtarted for me, an' oi--"