"Knowin' you was so anxious to see 'em, they've come up the road to meet you," interjected Shorty.
"It looks," continued Si, "as if they'd got news of the train and slipped out here to take it away from us. They may attack it at any minute after we start agin. Now, we mustn't let 'em git it. It's too valuable to the Government to lose and too valuable to them to git. We mustn't let 'em have it, I tell you. Now, I want you to load your guns carefully, handle 'em very carefully after they are loaded, git back in the cars, stop skylarkin', keep very quiet, listen for orders, and when you git 'em, obey 'em to the letter--no more, no less."
[Illustration: WATCHING THE BRIDGE BURNERS AT WORK 259]
"Can't we go back on top o' the cars, where we kin watch for 'em, and git the first pop at 'em?" said Harry Joslyn, in a pleading tone.
"No; that's too dangerous, and you'll lose time in gittin' together,"
answered Si. "You must all come into the cars with me."
"Sergeant," said Shorty, "let me have a couple to go on the engine with me."
"Le' me go. Le' me go," they all seemed to shout at once, holding up their hands in eager school-boy fashion.
"I can't take but two o' you," said Shorty; "more'd be in the way."
They all pressed forward. "Count out. That's the only fair way," shouted the boys in the center.
"That's so," said Harry Joslyn. "Stand still till I count. Imry, Ory, Ickery, Ann, Quevy, Quavy, Irish Navy, Filleson, Folleson, Nicholas--Buck! That's me. I'm it!"
He rapidly repeated the magic formula, and pronounced Gid Mackall "it."
"He didn't count fair! He didn't count fair! He never counts fair,"
protested the others; but Si hustled them into the cars and the train started.
It had grown quite dark. The boys sat silent and anxiously expectant on their seats, clutching their loaded guns, held stiffly upright, and watching Si's face as well as they could by the dim light of the single oil lamp. Si leaned against the side of the door and watched intently.
Only little Pete Skidmore was unrepressed by the gravity of the situation. Rather, it seemed to spur his feet, his hands and his mouth to nimbler activity. He was everywhere--at one moment by Si's side in the door of the car, at the next climbing up to peer out of the window; and then clambering to the top of the car, seeing legions of guerrillas in the bushes, until sternly ordered back by Si. Then he would drop the butt of his musket on the floor with a crash which would start every one of the taut nerves to throbbing. And the questions that he asked:
"Say, Sergeant, will the guerrillas holler before they shoot, or shoot before they holler?"
"Sometimes one and sometimes the other," responded Si, absently. "Keep quiet, Pete."
Quiet for a minute, and then:
"Shall we holler before we shoot or shoot before we holler?"
"Neither. Keep perfectly quiet, and 'tend strictly to your little business."
"I think we ought to holler some. Makes it livelier. What sort o' guns has the guerrillas?"
"Every kind--shot-guns, pistols, rifles, flint-locks, cap-locks--every kind. Now, you mustn't ask me any more questions. Don't bother me."
"Yes, sir; I won't."
Quiet for at least five seconds. Then:
"Have the guerrillas guns that'll shoot through the sides of the cars?"
"Then I'd ruther be on top, where I kin see something. Kin they shoot through the sides o' the tender, and let all the water out and stop the engine?"
"Haven't they any real big guns that will?"
"Kin we plug up the holes, anyway, then, and start agin?"
"Hain't the engineer got an iron shield that he kin git behind, so they can't shoot him?"
"Can't he turn the steam onto 'em, and scald 'em if they try to git at him?"
"What'll happen if they shoot the head-light out?"
"Why wouldn't it be a good idee to put a lot o' us on the cow-ketcher, with fixed bayonets, and then let the engineer crack on a full head o'
steam and run us right into 'em?"
"Great Scott, Pete, you must stop askin' questions," said Si desperately. "Don't you see Pm busy?"
Pete was silent for another minute. Then he could hold in no longer:
"Sergeant, jest one question more, and then I'll keep quiet."
"Well, what is it?"
"If the rebels shoot the bell, won't it make a noise that they kin hear clear back at Nashville?"
The engine suddenly stopped, and gave two long whistles. Above the screech they heard shots from Shorty and the two boys with him.
"Here they are, boys," said Si, springing out and running up the bank.
"All out, boys. Come up here and form."
As he reached the top of the bank a yell and a volley came from the other side of the creek. Shorty joined him at once, bringing the two boys on the engine with him.
"We've bin runnin' through this deep cut," he explained, "and jest come out onto the approach to the bridge, when we see a little fire away ahead, and the head-light showed some men runnin' down on to the bank on the other side o' the crick. We see in a moment what was up. They've jest got to the road and started a fire on the bridge that's about a mile ahead. Their game was to burn that bridge, and when this train stopped, burn this one behind us, ketch us, whip us, and take the train.
We shot at the men we see on the bank, but probably didn't do 'em no harm. They're all pilin' down now to the other bank to whip us out and git the train. You'd better deploy the boys along the top o' the bank here and open on 'em. We can't save that bridge, but we kin this and the train, by keepin' 'em on the other side o' the crick. I'll take charge o' the p'int here with two or three boys, and drive off any o' them that tries to set fire to the bridge, and you kin look out for the rest o'
the line. It's goin' to be longtaw work, for you see the crick's purty wide, but our guns 'll carry further'n theirs, and if we keep the boys well in hand I think we kin stand 'em off without much trouble."
"Sure," said Si confidently. "You watch the other side o' the bridge and I'll look out for the rest."
The eager boys had already begun firing, entering into the spirit of the thing with the zest of a Fame of town-ball. Shorty took Gid Mackall and Harry Joslyn down to the cover of some large stones, behind which they could lie and command the approach to the other end of the bridge with their rifles. Si took the other boys and placed them behind rocks and stumps along the crest and instructed them to fire with as good aim as possible at the flashes from the other side. In a minute or two he had a fine skirmish-line in operation, with the boys firing as deliberately and accurately as veterans. The engineer had backed the train under the cover of the cut, and presently he and the conductor came up with guns and joined the firing-line.
"I say, Shorty," said Si, coming down to where that worthy was stationed, "what d' you think o' the boys now? They take to this like a duck to water. They think it's more fun than squirrel-huntin'. Listen."