"We're comin' to Stewart's Crick, Shorty," said Si, looking up from his paper. "Recollect that hill ovyr there? That's where they had that battery that the Colonel thought we wuz goin' to git. Great Scott, the mud and briars in that old field!" "Yes," said Shorty, negligently, with his eyes fixed on the backs of the cards. "But that's ancient history.
Say, I've got these marks down fine at last. They're just as plain as A, B, C. You see, when that corner o' the square comes out clear to the edge it's clubs, every time, and there's just as many spots as there is of lines--"
He was interrupted by a volley, apparently from every gun on the roofs of the cars. Then a chorus of shrill, treble, boyish yells, and next instant another volley. The two sprang to the door and looked out. Not a sign of a rebel anywhere. Si went up one side of the car, Shorty the other. They ran along the tops of the cars, storming at the boys, kicking them and bumping their heads against the boards to make them stop. When they succeeded Si sternly ordered every one of them to leave the roofs and come down into the cars. When he had gathered them there he demanded:
"Now, I want to know at once what this means?" Little Pete Skidmore again became the spokesman of the abashed crowd.
"Why, them men back there on the switch cautioned us above all things not to let the rebels git the drop on us when we come to that crick; that we wouldn't see nothin' of 'em--nothin' but a low bank, behind which they wuz hid, with their guns pokin' through the brush, but the moment we see the bank breastwork throwed up along the crick we must let into it. That's what it's for. The rebels throwed it up to hide behind.
Them men said that the brush back there was as full o' rebels as a hound o' fleas, and that we must let into 'em the moment we see the bank, or they'd git the drop on us. They had an awful time there theirselves, and they gave us all the catridges they had left for us to use."
"You little numbskulls," said Si; "why didn't you come to use and tell us about this?"
"They told us to be partickeler and say nothin' to you. Your stayin'
back there in the car showed that you didn't know nothin' about it; you hadn't bin down this way for a long time and wasn't up to the latest improvements, and you wuz jest as like as not to run us into a hornets'
nest; that you wuzzent our real officers, anyway, and it didn't much matter to you what happened to us."
"Our own sins are comin' back on us. Shorty," remarked Si. "This is a judgment on you for the way you've filled up recruits at every chance you got."
"'Taint on me," said Shorty, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm not in command. You are."
"I shall be mighty glad when we git this outfit to Chattanoogy," sighed Si. "I'm gittin' older every minute that I have 'em on my hands."
CHAPTER XIX. THE FIRST SCRAPE
A LITTLE INITIATORY SKIRMISH WITH THE GUERRILLAS.
THE train passed Shelbyville in the course of the afternoon and halted on a switch. Tired of reading, Si was standing at the door of the car, looking out over the country and trying to identify places they had passed or camped at during the campaign of the previous Summer. Suddenly his far-seeing eyes became fixed on the intervals in the trees on the farthest hill-top. Without turning his head he called Shorty in a tone which made that worthy lose all interest in his inevitable pack of cards and spring to his side. Without speaking, Si pointed to the sky-line of the eminence, against which moving figures sketched themselves.
"Guerrillas," said Shorty.
Si nodded affirmatively.
"Skeetin' acrost the country to jump this train or some other,"
"This one, most likely," answered Si.
"Yes," accorded Shorty, with an estimating glance at the direction of the range of hills, "and'll aim at strikin' us at some bridge or deep cut about 10 miles from here."
"Where we'll probably git sometime after dark," assented Si.
"Yes. Let's talk to the conductor and engineer."
The train had started in the meanwhile, but presently the conductor came back into the caboose. He had been a soldier, but so severely wounded as to necessitate his discharge as incapable of further field service.
"I hardly think there's any danger," said Conductor Madden. "Things 've been very quiet this side of the Tennessee River ever since last October, when Crook, Wilder and Minty belted the life out of old Joe Wheeler down there at Farmington and Rodgersville. Our cavalry gave theirs an awful mauling, and them that were lucky enough to escape acrost the river have seemed purty well satisfied to stay on that side.
A hell's mint of 'em were drowned trying to get acrost the river.
Our cavalry's been patrolling the country ever since, but hasn't seen anything of consequence. Still, it is possible that some gang has managed to sneak acrost a blind-ford somewhere, and in hopes to catch a train. Guerrillas are always where you find 'em."
"Well, I'll bet a hatful o' red apples," said Si, "that them was guerrillas that we saw, and they're makin' for this train. The rebels in Nashville somehow got information to 'em about it."
"Them's guerrillas," affirmed Shorty, "sure's the right bower takes the left. None o' our cavalry's stringin' around over the hill-tops. Then, I made out some white horses, which our cavalry don't have. It's just as Si says, them Nashville spies 's put the rebel cavalry onto us."
"Them cowardly, sneaking, death-deserving rebels in Nashville," broke out Conductor Madden, with a torrent of oaths. "Every man in Nashville that wears citizen's clothes ought to be hung on sight, and half the women. They don't do nothing but lay around and take the oath of allegiance, watch every move we make like a cat does a mouse, and send information through the lines. You can't draw a ration of hardtack but they know it, and they're looking down your throat while you're eating it. They haint got the gravel in their craws to go out and fight themselves, and yet they've cost us a hundred times as many lives as if they had. Why does the General allow them to stay there? He ought to order rocks tied to the necks of every blasted one of 'em and fling 'em into the Cumberland River and then pour turpentine on the infernal old town and touch a match to it. That's what I'd do if I had my way.
There's more, brimstone trouble to the acre in Nashville than in any town on the footstool, not barring even Richmond."
"Nashville certainly is tough," sighed Shorty. "'Specially in gamblers.
Worst tin-horn crowd that ever fumbled a deck or skinned a greeny out o' the last cent o' his bounty. Say, Si, do you remember that tin-horny that I cleaned out o' his whole pile down there at Murfreesboro, with them cards that I'd clipped with a pair o' scissors, so's I'd know 'em by the feel, and he never ketched on till his last shinplaster was gone, and then I throwed the pack in the fire? Well, I seen him down there at the depot smellin' around for suckers. I told him to let our boys alone or I'd snap his neck off short. Great Jehosephat, but I wanted a chance to git up town and give some o' them cold-deckers a whirl."
"Well," said Conductor Madden, after some deliberation, "I believe what you boys say. You're not the kind to get rattled and make rebels out of cedar-bushes. All the same, there's nothing to do but go ahead. My orders were to take this train through to Chattanooga as quick as I could. I can't stop on a suspicion."
"No, indeed," assented Si and Shorty.
"There's no place to telegraph from till we get to Bridgeport, on the Tennessee, and if we could telegraph they wouldn't pay any attention to mere reports of having seen rebels at a distance. They want something more substantial than that."
"Of course they do, and very properly," said Si. "Is your engineer all right?"
"Game as they make 'em, and loyal as Abraham Lincoln himself," responded the conductor.
"Well, I believe our boys 's all right. They're green, and they're friskier than colts in a clover field, but they're all good stuff, and I believe we kin stand off any ordinary gang o' guerrillas. I'll chance it, anyhow. This's a mighty valuable train to risk, but it ought to go through, for we don't know how badly they may need it. You tell your engineer to go ahead carefully and give two long whistles if he sees anything dangerous."
"I'll go and git onto the engine with him," said Shorty.
"Wait a little," said Si. "We'll get the boys together, issue 'em catridges and give 'em a little preparation for a light, if we're to have one."
The sun had gone down and the night was at hand. The train had stopped to take on a supply of wood from a pile by the roadside. Some of the boys were helping pitch the heavy sticks onto the engine, the rest ware skylarking along the tops of the cars in the irrepressible exuberance of animal spirits of boys who had had plenty to eat and were without a care in the world. Harry Joslyn had been giving exhibitions of standing on his head on the runningboard. Gid Mackall had converted a piece of rope he had picked up into a lasso, and was trying to imitate the feats he had seen performed at the last circus. Monty Scruggs, the incipient lawyer, who was proud of his elocutionary talents, had vociferated at the woods they were passing, "Rienzi's Address to the Romans," "The Last Sigh of the Moor," "Absalom," "The Battle of Waterloo," and similar staples of Friday afternoon recitations. Alf Russell, the embryonic doctor, who sang a fine tenor, was rendering "Lily Dale" with much impressment, and little Pete Skidmore was "skipping" the flat hill-stones over an adjacent pond.
"'Tention!" shouted Si.
There was something so different in the tone from that in which Si had before spoken, that it arrested the attention of every one of them instantly.
"Git your guns and fall in two ranks on that sod, there, at once,"
commanded Si, in quick, curt accents.
An impalpable something in the tones and words stilled everybody into seriousness. This was deepened by the look they saw on Si's face.
They snatched up their guns and hurried into line on the spot indicated, looking into each other's countenances and into that of Si's for an explanation of what was up.
"Mackall and Joslyn," called Shorty from the car, "come here and take this box of catridges."
"Now," said Si, as they did this, "Joslyn, you and Mackall issue those to the boys. One of you walk down in front and the other behind and give each man two packages of catridges. You boys open the packages and put the catridges in your catridgeboxes, bullet-end up, and the caps in your capboxes."
The boys followed his directions with nervous eagerness, inspired by his words and manner, and then fixed their anxious gaze upon him for further impartment.
Si walked down in front, in the rear of the line, superintending the operation.
"Now, boys," said Si, taking his place in front and facing them, "you've bin talkin' about guerrillas ever since we crossed the Ohio, but now there's a prospect o' meetin' some. I hadn't expected to see any till after we'd reached Chattanoogy, but guerrillas's never where you expect 'em."