Read CHAPTER IV of Chasing an Iron Horse / A Boy's Adventures in the Civil War, free online book, by Edward Robins, on ReadCentral.com.

PLOT AND PLOTTERS

In after years George could never quite understand how he and his companions reached the Chattanooga shore. He retained a vivid recollection of tempestuous waves, of a boat buffeted here and there, and of Ned Jackson muttering all manner of unkind things at his passengers and the turbulent stream. They did at last reach their destination, and bade farewell to the ferryman, whom they loaded down with Confederate notes.

No sooner was the latter embarked on the return voyage than Watson said: “That was a clever ruse of yours, George. That Jackson was a brave man at heart, and you put him on his mettle. He wanted to show us that he wasn’t afraid of the water and he succeeded.”

George laughed. He explained that it was a remark of his father’s which had put the idea into his own head, and then he wondered where that same father could be. Was he dead or was he still living, perhaps in some prison?

It was not long before the party reached the railroad station at Chattanooga. Here they purchased their tickets for Marietta, and were soon in the train bound southward for the latter place. The sun had nearly set as the engine pulled slowly out of the depot. The car in which they sat was filled with men on their way down South, some of them being soldiers in uniform and the rest civilians. Macgreggor, Watson and Jenks were at the rear end of the car, while George had to find a seat at the other end, next to a very thin man who wore the uniform of a Confederate captain.

“Isn’t it strange?” thought the boy. “To-morrow morning we will be reversing our journey on this railroad, and burning bridges on our way back to Chattanooga. But how are we to steal a train? I wonder if Andrews and the rest of the party will be on hand to-night at Marietta.” Then, as he realized that he was in a car filled with men who would treat him as a spy, if they knew the nature of his errand to the South, there came over him a great wave of homesickness. He had lived all his life among friends; it was for him a new sensation to feel that he was secretly opposed to his fellow-travelers.

The thin Captain who sat next to him turned and curiously regarded Waggie, who was lying on his master’s lap. He had shrewd gray eyes, had this Captain, and there was a week’s growth of beard upon his weazened face.

“Where did you get your dog from, lad?” he asked, giving Waggie a pat with one of his skeleton-like hands. It was a pat to which the little animal paid no attention.

“From home Cincinnati.”

George had answered on the spur of the moment, thoughtlessly, carelessly, before he had a chance to detect what a blunder he was making. The next second he could have bitten out his tongue in very vexation; he felt that his face was burning a bright red; he had a choking sensation at the throat.

The emaciated Captain was staring at him in a curiously surprised fashion. “From Cincinnati? Cincinnati, Ohio?” he asked, fixing his lynx-like eyes attentively upon his companion.

Poor George! Every idea seemed to have left him in his sudden confusion; he was only conscious that the Confederate officer continued to regard him in the same intent manner. “I say,” repeated the latter, “is your home in Ohio?”

“Yes, Cincinnati, Ohio,” said the boy boldly. “After all,” as he thought, “I had better put a frank face on this stupidity of mine; a stammering answer will only make this fellow the more suspicious.”

“So then you’re a Northerner, are you, my son?” observed the Captain. “I thought you spoke with a bit of a Yankee accent!”

“Yes, I’m a Northerner,” answered George. As he felt himself plunging deeper and deeper into hot water he was trying to devise some plausible story to tell the officer. But how to invent one while he was being subjected to that close scrutiny. One thing, at least, was certain. Once he had admitted that his home was in Ohio he could not make any use of the oft repeated Kentucky yarn.

“And what are you doing down here?” asked the Captain. He spoke very quietly, but there was an inflection in his voice which seemed to say: “Give a good account of yourself for your presence in this part of the country is curious, if nothing more.”

George understood that he must think quickly, and decide on some plan of action to cover up, if he could, any bad results from his blunder. He was once more cool, and he returned the piercing look of the officer with steadfast eyes. His mind was clear as to one thing. There was no need of his trying to invent a story, on the spur of the moment, with a man like the Captain quite ready to pick it to pieces. For it was plain that this Confederate was shrewd and a trifle suspicious. The boy must pursue a different course.

“My being down South is my own concern,” he said, pretending to be virtuously offended at the curiosity of his inquisitor.

The Captain drew himself up with an injured air. “Heigh ho!” he muttered; “my young infant wants me to mind my own business, eh?”

George flushed; he considered himself very much of a man, and he did not relish being called an “infant.” But he kept his temper; he foresaw that everything depended upon his remaining cool. He treated the remark with contemptuous silence.

The officer turned away from him, to look out of the window of the car. Yet it was evident that he paid little or no attention to the rapidly moving landscape. He was thinking hard. Not a word was spoken between the two for ten minutes. Most of the other passengers were talking excitedly among themselves. Occasionally a remark could be understood above the rattle of the train. George heard enough to know they were discussing the battle of Shiloh, which had been fought so recently.

“I tell you,” cried a soldier, “the battle was a great Confederate victory.”

“That may be,” answered some one, “but if we have many more such victories we Southerners will have a lost cause on our hands, and Abe Lincoln will be eating his supper in Richmond before many months are gone.”

At this there was a chorus of angry dissent, and several cries of “Traitor!” George listened eagerly. He would dearly have liked to look behind him, to see what his three companions were doing, or hear what they were saying, at the other end of the car. But he was not supposed to know them. He could only surmise (correctly enough, as it happened) that they were acting their part of Southerners, although doing as little as possible to attract attention. One thing worried the young adventurer. He distrusted the continued silence of the Captain.

It was a silence that the officer finally broke, by looking squarely into George’s face, and saying, in a low tone: “When a Northerner travels down South these times he must give an account of himself. If you won’t tell me who you are, my friend, I may find means of making you!”

As he spoke the train was slowing up, and in another minute it had stopped at a little station.

“Now or never,” thought George. He arose, stuffed Waggie into his pocket, and said to the Captain: “If you want to find out about me, write me. This is my station. Good-bye!”

The next instant he had stepped out of the car, and was on the platform. He and an elderly lady were the only two passengers who alighted. No sooner had they touched the platform than the train moved on its way, leaving the Captain in a state of angry surprise, as he wondered whether he should not have made some effort to detain the boy. It was too late to do anything now, and the officer, as he is carried away on the train, is likewise carried out of our story.

What were the feelings of Watson, and Jenks, and Macgreggor as they saw George leave the car, and the train rattled away? They were afraid to make any sign; and even if they had thought it prudent to call out to the lad, or seek to detain him, they would not have found time to put their purpose into execution, so quickly had the whole thing happened. Not daring to utter a sound, they could only look at one another in blank amazement. “What was the boy up to,” thought Watson, “and what’s to become of him?” He was already devotedly attached to George, so that he felt sick at heart when he pictured him alone and unprotected at a little wayside village in the heart of an enemy’s country. Nor were the other two men less solicitous. Had George suddenly put on wings, and flown up through the roof of the car, they could not have been more horrified than they were at this moment. Meanwhile the train went rumbling on, as it got farther and farther away from the little station. It was now almost dark; the brakeman came into the car and lighted two sickly lamps. Some of the passengers leaned back in their seats and prepared to doze, while others, in heated, angry tones, kept up the discussion as to the battle of Shiloh. The civilian who had hinted that the engagement was not a signal victory for the Confederates got up and walked into a forward car, to rid himself of the abuse and arguments of several of his companions.

Watson was sorely tempted to pull the check rope of the train, jump out, and walk back on the track until he found the missing boy; but when he reflected on the possible consequences of such a proceeding he unwillingly admitted to himself that to attempt it would be the part of madness. He would only bring the notice of every one in the train upon himself; suspicion would be aroused; he and his companions might be arrested; the whole plot for burning the bridges might be upset.

“What can have gotten into George’s head?” he said to himself a hundred times. Jenks and Macgreggor were asking themselves the same question. Steadily the train went on, while the sky grew darker and darker. In time most of the passengers fell asleep. Occasionally a stop would be made at some station. Marietta, in Georgia, would not be reached until nearly midnight.

“Where had George gone?” the reader will ask. The question is not so hard to answer as it may seem. The moment that the Captain had become inquisitive the boy had made up his mind that the sooner he could get away from that gentleman the better it would be for the success of Andrews’ expedition. He saw that the train stopped at different stations along the road, and he began to map out a scheme for escape. Thus, when the cars came to the place already spoken of, he jumped out, as we have described, and stood on the platform with the elderly lady who had alighted almost at the same instant. The latter passed on into the station, and left the platform deserted, except for George. Hardly had she disappeared before the conductor pulled the check-rope, and the train began to move. As it slowly passed by him the boy quickly jumped upon the track, caught hold of the coupling of the last car, and hung there, with his knees lifted up almost to his chin. In another second he had grasped the iron railing above him; within a minute he had raised himself and clambered upon the platform. The train was now speeding along at the customary rate. As George sat down on the platform, he gave a sigh of relief. No one had seen him board the car. For all that the inquisitive Captain knew he might still be standing in front of the station. And what were Watson, Jenks and Macgreggor thinking about his sudden exit from the scene? George laughed, in spite of himself, as he pictured their amazement. He would give them a pleasant surprise later on, when they reached Marietta. In the meantime he would stay just where he was, if he were not disturbed, until they arrived at that town. Then it would be late at night, when he could evade the lynx-eyed Confederate officer.

Having settled his plans comfortably in his mind George was about to put his hand in his coat pocket to give a reassuring pat to Waggie (who had been sadly shaken up by his master’s scramble) when the door of the car opened. A man put out his head, and stared at the boy.

“What are you doing here, youngster?” asked the man. George recognized him as the conductor of the train.

“Only trying to get a breath of fresh air,” replied the lad, at the same time producing his railroad ticket and showing it in the dusk. The conductor flashed the lantern he was holding in George’s face, and then glanced at the ticket.

“Well, don’t fall off,” he observed, evidently satisfied by the scrutiny. “You were in one of the forward cars, weren’t you? Where’s your dog? In your pocket, eh?” He turned around, shut the door, and went back into the car without waiting for an answer.

“One danger is over,” whispered George to himself. Then he began to pat Waggie. “You and I are having an exciting time of it, aren’t we?” he laughed. “Well, there’s one consolation; they can’t hang you for a spy, anyway, even if they should hang me!”

So the night passed on, as George clung to the railing of the platform, while the train rumbled along in the darkness to the Southward. The conductor did not appear again; he had evidently forgotten all about the boy. At last, when Waggie and his master were both feeling cold, and hungry, and forlorn, there came a welcome cry from the brakeman: “Marietta! All out for Marietta!”

In a short time the passengers for Marietta had left the train. Watson, Jenks and Macgreggor were soon in a little hotel near the station, which was to be the rendezvous for Andrews and his party. As they entered the office of the hostelry all their enthusiasm for the coming escapade seemed to have vanished. The mysterious disappearance of George had dampened their ardor; they feared to think where he could be, or what might have become of him.

The office was brilliantly lighted in spite of the lateness of the hour. In it were lounging eight or nine men. The pulses of the three newcomers beat the quicker as they recognized in them members of the proposed bridge-burning expedition. Among them was Andrews.

“Yes,” he was saying, in a perfectly natural manner, to the hotel clerk, who stood behind a desk; “we Kentuckians must push on early tomorrow morning. The South has need of all the men she can muster.”

“That’s true,” answered the clerk; “Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis have both found out by this time that this war won’t be any child’s play. It’ll last a couple of years yet, or my name’s not Dan Sanderson.”

Macgreggor and Jenks walked up to the register on the desk, without showing any sign of recognition, and put down their names respectively as “Henry Fielding, Memphis, Tennessee,” and “Major Thomas Brown, Chattanooga.” The latter, it will be remembered, wore a Confederate uniform. Watson wrote his real name, in a bold, round hand, and added: “Fleming County, Kentucky.” Then he turned towards Andrews. “Well, stranger,” he said, “did I hear you say you were from Kentucky? I’m a Kentuckian myself. What’s your county?”

He extended his right hand and greeted Andrews with the air of a man who would like to cultivate a new acquaintance. Andrews rose, of course, to the occasion, by answering: “I’m always glad to meet a man from my own state. I’m from Fleming County.”

“Well, I’ll be struck!” cried Watson. “That’s my county, too! What part of it do you live in?”

After a little more of this conversation, which was given in loud tones, the two men withdrew to a corner and sat down. “We are all here now except two of our men,” said Andrews, in a low voice. “Half of the fellows have gone to bed, thoroughly tired out. But where’s George? Isn’t he with you?”

“It makes me sick to think where he is,” whispered Watson, “for ”

Before he could finish his sentence George entered the office, followed by Waggie. He had lingered about the Marietta Station, after leaving the platform of the car, until he was safe from meeting the Captain, in case that gentleman should have alighted at this place. Then he had cautiously made his way to the hotel.

Watson rose as quietly as if the appearance of George was just what he had been expecting. “What did you lag behind at the station for, George?” he asked. Then, turning to Andrews, he said: “Here’s another Kentuckian, sir a nephew of mine. He wants to join the Confederate army, too.”

George, as he shook hands with Andrews quite as if they had never met each other before, could not help admiring the presence of mind of Watson.

“You young rascal,” whispered the latter, “you have given me some miserable minutes.”

“Hush!” commanded Andrews, in the same tone of voice. “We must not talk together any more. As soon as you go up-stairs to bed you must come to my room number 10, on the second floor, and get your instructions for to-morrow. Everything has gone very smoothly so far, and we are all here excepting two of us, although some of us have had a pretty ticklish time in getting through to this town. Remember Room Number 10.”

Andrews moved away. Soon all the members of the party assembled at the hotel were in their rooms up-stairs, presumably asleep, with the exception of George and his three companions. They were able, after considerable coaxing, to get admittance into the dining-room. Thereby they secured a nocturnal meal of tough ham, better eggs, and some muddy “coffee.” The latter was in reality a concoction consisting of about seven-eights of chickory, and the other eighth, but what the remaining eighth was only the cook could have told. The meal tasted like a Delmonico feast to the famished wanderers, nor was it the less acceptable because they saw it nearly consumed before their hungry eyes; for Waggie, who had a power of observation that would have done credit to a detective, and a scent of which a hound might well have been proud, made his way into the dining-room in advance of the party, and jumped upon the table while the negro waiter’s back was turned. As George entered, the dog was about to pounce upon the large plate of ham. Mr. Wag cast one sheepish look upon his master, and then retired under the table, where he had his supper later on.

After they had finished their meal, the four conspirators were taken up-stairs by a sleepy bell-boy, and shown into a large room containing two double beds. The servant lighted a kerosene lamp that stood on a centre table, and then shuffled down to the office.

Macgreggor lifted the lamp to take a survey of the room. “Take a good look at those beds, fellows,” he said, with a grim chuckle; “it may be a long time before you sleep on such comfortable ones again. For if we come to grief in this expedition ”

“Pshaw!” interrupted Jenks impatiently, but in subdued tones. “Don’t borrow trouble. We are bound to succeed.”

Macgreggor placed the lamp on the centre table, and began to take off his shoes. “I’m just as ready as any of you for this scheme,” he answered, “but I can’t shut my eyes to the risks we are running. Did you notice on your way down that the railroad sidings between Chattanooga and Marietta were filled with freight cars? That means, to begin with, that we won’t have a clear track for our operations to the Northward.”

Watson smiled rather grimly. “The more we appreciate the breakers ahead of us,” he whispered, “the less likely are we to get stranded on the beach. But we really can’t judge anything about the outlook for to-morrow until we get our detailed instructions from Andrews.”

As he spoke there was a very faint tap at the door. The next moment Andrews had cautiously entered the room. He was in stocking feet, and wore neither coat nor waistcoat.

“I thought it better to hunt you fellows up,” he explained, in a voice that they could just hear, “instead of letting you try to find me. I was listening when the boy showed you up to this room.” He proceeded to sit upon one of the beds, while his companions gathered silently around him. “Listen,” he continued, “and get your instructions for to-morrow for after we separate to-night there will be no time for plotting.

“To-morrow we must reverse our journey and take the early morning train to the northward, on this Georgia State Railroad. In order to avoid suspicion, we must not all buy tickets for the same station. In point of fact we are only to go as far as Big Shanty station, near the foot of Kenesaw Mountain, a distance of eight miles. Here passengers and railroad employees get off for breakfast, and this is why I have selected the place for the seizure of the train. Furthermore, there is no telegraph station there from which our robbery could be reported. When we board the train at Marietta we must get in by different doors, but contrive to come together in one car the passenger car nearest the engine. After all, or nearly all but ourselves have left the cars at Big Shanty for breakfast, I will give the signal, when the coast is clear, and we will begin the great work of the day that of stealing the locomotive.”

Here Andrews went into a detailed description of what each man in the expedition (he had now twenty-one men, including himself, and not counting George) would do when the fateful moment arrived. George, who sat listening with open mouth, felt as if he were drinking in a romantic tale from the “Arabian Nights,” or, at least, from a modern version of the “Nights,” where Federal soldiers and steam engines would not be out of place. He thrilled with admiration at the nicety with which Andrews had made all his arrangements. It was like a general entering into elaborate preparations for a battle. The two soldiers who were to act as engineers, those who were to play brakemen, and the man who was to be fireman, had their work carefully mapped out for them. The other men were to form a guard who would stand near the cars that were to be seized; they were to have their revolvers ready and must shoot down any one who attempted to interfere.

“We must get off as quickly as possible,” went on the intrepid Andrews. “From what I hear to-night it is evident that General Mitchell captured Huntsville to-day, which is one day sooner than we expected him to do it. We must cut all telegraph wires and then run the train northward to Chattanooga, and from there westward until we meet Mitchell advancing towards Chattanooga on his way from Huntsville. I have obtained a copy of the time-table showing the movement of trains on the Georgia State Railroad, and I find we have only two to meet on our race. These two won’t trouble us, for I know just where to look for them. There is also a local freight-train which can be passed if we are careful to run according to the schedule of the captured train until we come up to it. Having gotten by this local freight we can put on full steam, and speed on to the Oostenaula and Chickamauga bridges, burn them, and run on through Chattanooga to Mitchell. There’s a glorious plan for you fellows. What do you think of it?”

There was a ring of pride in his lowered voice as he concluded.

“Admirable!” whispered Walter Jenks, “It’s a sure thing, and the man who invented the scheme has more brains than half the generals in the war!”

As George pictured to himself the stolen train flying along the tracks, in the very heart of the enemy’s country, he could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. “It’s grand!” he murmured. Had he dared he would have given a great cheer.

The leader smiled as he saw, in the dim lamplight, the radiant face of the boy. “You have lots of grit, my lad,” he said, in a kindly fashion, “and God grant you may come out of this business in safety.” Then, turning to Watson, he asked: “How does my plan, as now arranged, impress you, Watson?”

After a minute’s silence, during which the others in the room gazed intently at Watson, that soldier said: “I have as great an admiration for James Andrews as any one of our party, and I am ready to follow wherever he leads. Whatever my faults may be, I’m not a coward. But we should look carefully on each side of a question and I can’t help thinking that owing to circumstances which we have not taken into account our expedition stands a very decided chance of failure.”

“What are those circumstances?” asked Andrews.

“In the first place,” was the reply, “I find that there is a large encampment of Confederate troops at Big Shanty. Escape in a captured train would have been very easy while those soldiers were elsewhere; but, being there, do you suppose that the sentries of the camp will stand idly by when we seize cars and locomotive and attempt to steam away to the northward? In the second place and this is no less important the railroad seems to be obstructed by numerous freight trains, probably not on the schedule, and flying along the track towards Chattanooga will not be as plain sailing as you believe. One unlooked-for delay might be fatal. We are in the midst of enemies, and should there be one hitch, one change in our program, the result will be failure, and perhaps death, for all of us.”

There was a painful silence. At last Andrews said, very quietly, but with an air of strong conviction: “I think the very objections you urge, my dear Watson, are advantages in disguise. I know, as well as you, that there’s a big encampment at Big Shanty, but what of it? No one dreams for one second that there is any plot to capture a train, and no one, therefore, will be on the lookout. The thing will be done so suddenly that there will be no chance for an alarm until we are steaming off from the station and then we can laugh. If we strike any unscheduled trains, they too will be to our advantage; for they will make such confusion on the road that they will detract attention from the rather suspicious appearance of our own train.”

“Perhaps you are right,” answered Watson, rather dubiously.

Andrews arose from the bed, and solemnly shook hands with each of his four companions. Then he said, very impressively: “I am confident of the success of our enterprise, and I will either go through with it or leave my bones to bleach in ‘Dixieland.’ But I don’t want to persuade any one against his own judgment. If any one of you thinks the scheme too dangerous if you are convinced beforehand of its failure you are at perfect liberty to take the train in any direction, and work your way home to the Union camp as best you can. Nor shall I have one word of reproach, either in my mind or on my lips, for a man whose prudence, or whose want of confidence in his leader, induces him to draw back.”

Andrews was an adroit student of men. No speech could have better served his purpose of inducing his followers to remain with him. It was as if he declared: “You may all desert me, but I will remain true to my flag.”

“You can count on me to the very last,” said Watson stoutly. He was always ready to face danger, but he liked to have the privilege of grumbling at times. In his heart, too, was a conviction that his leader was about to play a very desperate game. The chances were all against them.

“Thank you, Watson,” answered Andrews, gratefully. “I never could doubt your bravery. And are the rest of you willing?”

There were hearty murmurs of assent from Jenks, George and Macgreggor. Jenks and the boy were very sanguine; Macgreggor was rather skeptical as to future success, but he sternly resolved to banish all doubts from his mind.

“Well, George,” said Andrews, as he was about to leave the room, “if you get through this railroad ride in safety you will have something interesting to remember all your life.” In another moment he had gone. The time for action had almost arrived.