THE YOUNGSTERS KEEP THEM BUSY WHILE THE TRAIN MOVES SOUTH.
THE long fast had sharpened the zest the boys had for their first "soldier-breakfast." Until they got down to "real soldier-living" they could not feel that they were actually in the service. To have this formal initiation in the historic city of Nashville, far in the interior of the Southern Confederacy, was an exhiliarating event. The coarse fare became viands of rare appetency.
"Gracious, how good these beans taste," murmured Harry Joslyn, calling for a second plateful; "never knowed beans to taste so good before.
Wonder how they cook 'em? We'll have to learn how, Gid, so's to cook 'em for ourselves, and when we git back home won't we astonish our mothers and sisters?"
"And sich coffee," echoed Gid. "I'll never drink cream in my coffee agin. I hadn't no idee cream spiled coffee so. Why, this coffee's the best stuff I ever drunk. Beats maple sap, or cider through a straw, all holler. That's good enough for boys. This 's what men and soldiers drink."
"You know those old gods and goddesses," put in Montmorency Scruggs, a pale, studious boy, for shortness called "Monty," and who had a great likeness for ancient history and expected to be a lawyer, "drunk what they called nectar. Maybe it was something like this."
"But we haven't had any hardtack yet," complained Albert Russell, a youth somewhat finicky as to dress, and who had ambitions of becoming a doctor. "They've only given us baker's bread, same as we got on the other side of the river, only better-tasting. Why don't they give us real soldier bread? I've heard Uncle Bob laugh at the 'soft-bread snoozers,'
who never got near enough the front to know the taste of hardtack."
"Well, I'm going to eat all I can of it while I can get it," said little Pete Skidmore, the youngest and smallest of the lot, who had only passed the Mustering Officer by exhibiting such a vehement desire to enter the service as to make up for his probable lack of years and quite evident lack of inches. "I've heard Uncle Will say that he was always mighty glad to get back where he could get soft bread for a change, after he'd worn his grinders down to the quick chawing hardtack. It tastes awful good, anyway."
"The Government must pay big wages to the men it hires to do its cooking," philosophized Harry Joslyn, "same as it does to its lawyers and Congressmen and Generals. No common men could cook grub that way.
Mebbe it took the cooks away from the Astor House and Delmonico's."
"The boys are certainly making up for lost time," complacently remarked Shorty, as, having taken off the edge of his own hunger with a plateful of pork-and-beans and a half loaf of bread, he stopped for a moment to survey the havoc that his young charges, ranged at a long, rough counter, were making in the Commissary stores. "They're eatin' as if this was the last square meal they expected to git till the rebellion's put down."
"Yes," laughed Si, emptying his second cup of coffee, "I used to think that we had appetites that'd browse a five-acre lot off clean every meal, but these kids kin distance us. If they live off the country its bones 'll be picked mighty white when they pass. That lean, lank Gid Mackall seems to be as holler as a sassidge-skin. Even that wouldn't give room for all that he's stowin' away."
"Harry Joslyn 's runnin' nose-and-nose with him. There ain't the width o' their forelocks difference. Harry's yelled for more beans at the same second that Gid has. In fact, not one of 'em has lagged. They're a great gang, I tell you, but I wouldn't want to board any one of 'em for six bits a week."
Maj. Oglesvie came up.
"Serg't Klegg," said he, "the Quartermaster says that he's got a train load of ammunition to send forward, but he's scarce of guards. I thought of your squad. Don't you think you could take charge of it? I don't imagine there is much need of a guard, for things have been pretty quiet down the road for some weeks. Still, it isn't right to send off so important a train without any protection."
"Only be too glad of the dooty, sir," answered Si, saluting. "It'll give the boys something to think of besides hanging guerrillas. Besides, they're just crazy to git hold o' guns. Where kin I git muskets for 'em?"
"March them right over to that shed there," said the Major, "and the Quartermaster will issue them muskets and equipments, which you can turn over again when you reach Chattanooga. Good-by. I hope you'll have a pleasant trip. Remember me to the boys of the old brigade and tell them I'll be with them before they start out for Atlanta."
"Purty slouchy bizniss that, givin' these kids guns before they've had any drill at all--don't know even the facin's, let alone the manual of arms," remarked Shorty doubtfully, as they marched over to the shed.
"They'll be shooting holes through each others' heads and the tops o'
the cars, and'll waste more ammynition than a six-mule team kin haul.
They'll make a regler Fourth o' July from here to Chattynoogy."
"Don't be worried about them boys," Si reassured him. "Every one of 'em is used to handlin' guns. Then, we kin keep the catridges ourselves and not issue any till they're needed, which they mayn't be."
The boys were in a buzz of delight at getting the guns they had so longed for, and Si's first duty was to end an exuberant bayonet fencing match between Gid and Harry which was imitated all along the line.
"Stop that," he called. "Put your minds to learnin' to load and shoot first. It'll be some time before you git a chance to prod a rebel with a bayonet. Rebels are as wild as crows. You'll be lucky to git as close to 'em as the other side of a 40-acre field."
"But s'posin' a rebel runs at you with his bayonet," expostulated Harry Joslyn, "oughtn't you to know how to ward him off and settle him?"
"The best way's to settle him jest as he comes over the hill, half-a-mile away, with an ounce o' cold lead put where he lives. That'll take the pint offen his bayonet mighty certainly."
Si and Shorty showed the boys how to put on the belts carrying the cap- and cartridge-boxes, and gave them a little dumb-show instruction in loading and firing, ending with exhibiting to them a cartridge, and the method of tearing it with the teeth and putting it in the gun.
"Now give us some catridges," clamored the boys, "and let us do some real shooting."
"No," said Si; "we'll keep the catridges ourselves, and issue them to you when the enemy comes in sight."
"Nice time to give out catridges then," grumbled Harry Joslyn. "When we see the rebels we want to begin shootin' instid o' botherin' you with questions. You wouldn't kill many coons if you had to run back to the house for your powder and lead after you saw the coon before you could shoot him."
"Well, you can't have no catridges now," said Si decisively. "We're not likely to see any coons before we git to Murfreesboro. Then we'll see how things look further down the road. Take off your bayonets, all o'
you, and pile into them rear cars there. Stow yourselves around and be as comfortable as you kin."
The boys preferred the tops of the cars to the inside, and scattered themselves along the length of the train to view the war-worn country of which they had heard so much from their relatives who had campaigned there. Si settled himself down in the car to read the morning papers which he had gotten in Nashville, and Shorty, producing a pack of new cards, began a studious practice, with reference to future operations in Chattanooga.
The train was slowing down for the bridge near Lavergne, when there came a single shot, followed by a splutter of them and loud yells.
[Illustration: THERE WAS A CHORUS OF YELLS, AND THEN ANOTHER VOLLEY.
Exceedingly startled, Si and Shorty sprang up, seized their guns, bounded to the door and looked out. They could see nothing to justify the alarm. There was not a rebel, mounted or unmounted, in sight. In the road below were two or three army teams dragging their slow way along, with their drivers yelling and laughing at a negro, whose mule was careering wildly across the fenceless field. The negro had been apparently jogging along, with a collection of plunder he had picked up in an abandoned camp strung upon his mule, when the latter had become alarmed at the firing and scattered his burden in every direction. The rider was succeeding in holding on by clinging desperately to the mule's neck.
Si set his gun down and clambered up the side of the car.
"What's all that shootin' about?" he demanded of Harry Joslyn.
"I didn't mean it, sir," Harry explained. "I was just aiming my gun at things I see along the road--just trying the sights like. A turkey-buzzard lighted on a stump out there, and I guess I must have forgot myself and cocked my gun, for it went off. Then Gid, seeing me miss, tried to show he was a better shot, and he banged away and missed, too, and then the other boys, they had to try their hands, and they belted away, one after another, and they all missed. I guess we didn't count as we ougther've done on the goin' forward o' the train, because we all struck much nearer than we expected to that nigger on a mule, and scared his mule nigh out o' his skin. We really didn't intend no harm."
"Where did you git catridges?" demanded Si.
"Why, that box that Alf Russell got was half full. He tried to keep 'em all hisself, and intended to shoot 'em off, one by one, to make the rest of us envious. Alf always was a pig in school, and never would divide his apples or doughnuts with the other boys. But we see them almost as quick as he did, an' Gid and me set down on him suddently, as he was lying on the roof, and took away all his catridges, and give 'em around to the rest o' the boys, one a-piece."
"Are they all gone now?"
"Yes, sir; every one shot away," answered Harry regretfully.
Si looked through several of the boxes and at some of the guns to assure himself of this. He gave those near him a lecture on their offense, and then climbed down into the car and resumed his paper, while Shorty was soon immersed again in the abstruse study of the relation of the cross-barred designs on the back of the cards to the numbers and suits of their faces.
They had passed Lavergne, and were approaching Stewart's Creek, when another startling rattle of musketry broke out, this time from the forepart of the train.
"Now, great Scott, what's up?" said Si angrily, as he quickly surveyed the surrounding country. He saw that they were not attacked, and then clambered to the top of the car, where he noticed little wreaths of powder-smoke lingering around the squad in which were Jim Humphreys, little Pete Skidmore and Wes. Brown.
"What're you young whelps shootin' for?" demanded Si. They were all so abashed at his sternness that they could not find their tongues for reply, until little Pete piped up:
"Why we've bin talkin' to the train men, and they said they wuz shot at wunst, about a year ago, from that swamp back there, and we got some catridges from them, and we thought we saw something moving in there, though Jim Humphreys said it wuz only burned stumps that we took for men, and them other boys back there had bin shootin' off their gunn and tryin' 'em, and we thought we could too--"
"You little brats," said Si; "didn't you hear my orders about firin'
before we started? If another boy shoots without my orders I'll tie him up by the thumbs! Got any more catridges? Give me every one of 'em."
The boys all protested that every cartridge was gone. Si assured himself of this by examination, savagely scored the train men for giving them ammunition and threatened trouble if any more was, and having relieved his mind returned to his paper in the caboose-car.
The train ran on to a switch where there was another carrying a regiment going home on veteran furlough. Si and Shorty knew some of the men, and in the pleasure of meeting them and in hearing all the news from the front forgot that their boys were mingling with the others and being filled full of the preposterous stories with which veterans delight to stuff new recruits. Finally the whistles gave notice that the trains would move. Si got his boys back on the cars, and renewing his caution about taking care of themselves, holding on tightly and looking out for overhanging branches, returned with Shorty to their car and their occupations.