"What damned nonsense is this, O'Brien?" asked Shorty angrily. "Are you drunk, or jest naturally addled? Come along with me and we'll--"
"Not for a thousand loives," groaned the Irishman. "Howly saints, fwhat is old Clootie after me for? Is it for atin' that little taste o' ham last Friday? Holy Mary, save me; there he is again!"
"Where, you flannel-mouthed Mick?" asked Shorty savagely. "Where do you see the devil?"
"There! There! That white thing. Don't you say it yersilf?" groaned the Irishman, dropping on his knees, and calling on all the saints.
"That white thing. That's only a sycamore stump, you superstitious bog-trotter," said Shorty, with angry contempt, as he bent his eyes on the white object. Then he added in the next breath:
"But blamed if that stump ain't walkin' off. Funny stump."
He gave a leap forward for closer investigation. At the crash of his footsteps the stump actually turned around and gave a sepulchral groan.
Then, seeing that it was not a soldier pursuing, a very natural human voice proceeded from it.
"Is that you, Brother Welch? I thought at first it was a soldier. I motioned you when the trouble first begun to follow me through the underground passage. There was enough others there to make the fight, and it'd never do for us to be taken by the Lincolnites. We're too valuable to the cause just now, and, then, if the Lincolnites get hold of me they'll certainly make me a martyr. Come right over this way. We kin strike a path near here that'll take us right out."
"Great Jehosephat," said Shorty, "if it ain't old Billings, masqueradin'
in his Sons o' Malty rig."
He made another leap or two, clapped his hand on Billings's shoulder, and shoved the muzzle of his revolver against the mask and demanded:
"Halt and surrender, you barrel-headed, splayfooted son of a sardine.
Come along with me, or I'll blow that whole earthquake rig offen you."
Shorty marched his prisoner back to the house, and as he neared it saw by the light of a fire O'Brien, who had apparently recovered from his fright, for he was having a lively bout with a large young fellow who was trying to make his escape. It seemed an even thing for a minute or two, but the Irishman finally downed his antagonist by a heavy blow with his massive fist.
"Here, O'Brien," said Shorty, "I've ketched your devil and brung him back to you. When a boss shies at anything the best way's to lead him square up to it and let him smell it. So I want you to take charge o'
this prisoner and hold him safe till the scrimmage is over."
O'Brien looked at the figure with rage and disgust. He gave Billings a savage clout with his open hand, saying:
"Ye imp o' the divil--ye unblest scab of an odmahoun. Oi'll brake ivery bone av yer body for goin' around by noights in thim wake-duds, scaring daysint folks out av their siven sinses."
The fighting had been quite a severe tussle for the soldiers. There had not been much shooting, but a great deal of clubbing with gun-barrels and sticks, which left a good many bloody heads and aching arms and shoulders. About half of those in the meeting had succeeded in getting away, but this still left some 75 prisoners in the hands of Lieut.
Bigelow, and he was delighted with his success.
It was decided to hold all the prisoners in the lodge until morning, and two of the boys who had gotten pretty badly banged about the head were sent back to the railroad to relieve and assist the guard left there.
"I find about 10 or 15 birds in the flock," said the Deputy Provost, who was also Deputy Sheriff, when they looked over the prisoners in the morning, "that we have warrants and complaints for, for everything from plain assault and battery to horse-stealing. It would save the military much trouble and serve the ends of justice better if we could send them over to the County seat and put them in jail, where the civil authorities could get a whack at them. I'd go there myself if I could walk, but this bullet in my shin disables me."
"I'd like to do it," answered Lieut. Bigelow, "but I haven't the guard to spare. So many of my men got disabled that I won't have more than enough to guard the cars on the way back and keep these whelps from jumping the train or being rescued by their friends when we stop at the stations. The news of this affair is all over the country by this time, and their friends will all be out."
"How fur is it to the County seat?" asked Shorty.
"About 15 miles," answered the Deputy Provost.
"Me and Si Klegg'll march 'em over there, and obligate ourselves not to lose a rooster of 'em," said Shorty.
"That'll be a pretty big contract," said the Lieutenant doubtfully.
"All right. We're big enough for it. We'll take every one of 'em in if we have to haul some of 'em feet foremost in a wagon."
"It'll be a great help in many ways," considered Lieut. Bigelow. "The crowd'll be looking for us at the stations and not think of these others. Those are two very solid men, and will do just what they promise. I think I'll let them try it. It would be well for you to tell those men that any monkey business with them will be unhealthy. They'd better trust to getting away from the grand jury than from them."
But as the Deputy Provost went over them more carefully he found more that were "wanted" by the civil authorities, and presently had selected 25 very evil-looking fellows, whose arrest would have been justified on general appearances.
"Haint we bit off more'n we kin chaw. Shorty?" asked Si, as he looked over the increasing gang. "Hadn't we better ask for some help?"
"Not a bit of it," answered Shorty, confidently. "That'll look like weakenin' to the Lieutenant and the Provo. We kin manage this gang, or we'll leave 'em dead in the brush."
"All right," assented Si, who had as little taste as his partner for seeming to weaken. "Here goes for a fight or a foot-race."
While the Deputy was making out a list of the men and writing a note to the Sheriff, Shorty went through the gang and searched each man for arms. Then he took out his knife and carefully cut the suspender buttons from every one of their pantaloons.
"Now we've got 'em, Si," he said gleefully, as he returned to his partner's side, with his hand full of buttons. "They'll have to use both hands to hold their britches on, so they kin neither run nor fight.
They'll be as peaceable as lambs."
"Shorty," said Si, in tones of fervent admiration, "I wuz afeared that crack you got on your head softened your brains. But now I see it made you brighter'n ever. You'll be wearin' a General's stars before this war is over."
"Bob Ramsey was a-blowin' about knowin' how to handle men," answered Shorty. "I'm just goin' to bring him over here and show him this trick that he never dreamed of."
After he had gloated over Sergeant Ramsey, Shorty got his men into the road ready to start. Si placed himself in front of the squad and deliberately loaded his musket in their sight. Shorty took his place in the rear, and gave out:
"Now, you roosters, you see I've two revolvers, and I'm a dead shot with either hand. I'm good for 12 of you at the first jump and my partner kin 'tend to the rest. Now, if I see a man so much as make a motion toward the side o' the road I'll drop him. Give the command. Sergeant Klegg."
"Forward--march!" ordered Si.
It was as Shorty predicted. The prisoners had entirely too much solicitude about their garments to think of anything else, and the march was made without incident. Late in the afternoon they reached the County seat, and marched directly for the public square, in which the jail was situated. There were a few people on the streets, who gathered on the sidewalks to watch the queer procession. Shorty, with both hands on his revolvers, had his eyes fixed on the squad, apprehensive of an attempt to bolt and mix with the crowd. He looked neither to the right nor the left, but was conscious that they were passing a corner on which stood some ladies. Then he heard a voice which set his heart to throbbing call out:
"Hello, Si Klegg! Si Klegg! Look this way. Where'd you come from?"
"Great Jehosephat! Maria!" said Shorty to himself. But he dared not take his eyes a moment from the squad to look toward her.
CHAPTER XIV. GUARDING THE KNIGHTS
SI AND SHORTY STAND OFF A MOB AT THE JAIL.
HAVING seen their prisoners safely behind the bars, Si and Shorty breathed more freely than they had since starting out in the morning, and Si remarked, as he folded up the receipt for them and placed it in his pocket-book:
"That drove's safely marketed, without the loss of a runaway or a played-out. Purty good job o' drovin', that. Pap couldn't do better'n that with his hogs. I'm hungrier'n a wolf. So must you be, Shorty. Le's hunt up Maria, and she'll take us where we kin git a square meal. Then we kin talk. I've got a hundred questions I want to ask you, but ain't goin' to do it on an empty gizzard. Come on."
Shorty had dropped on to a bench, and fixed his eyes on the stone wall opposite, as if desperately striving to read there some hint of extrication from his perplexities. The thought of encountering Maria's bright eyes, and seeing there even more than her sharp tongue would express, numbed his heart.
"Yit, how kin I git away from Si, now?" he murmured to himself. "And yit I'm so dead hungry to see her again that I'd be willin' to be a'most skinned alive to do it. Was ever anybody else so big a fool about a girl? I've plagued other fellers, and now I've got it worse'n anybody else. It's a judgment on me. But, then, nobody else ever seen such a girl as that. There's some sense in bein' a fool about her."
"Come on, Shorty," called Si from the door. "What are you dreamin' on?