Read CHAPTER XXXV of Cudjo's Cave , free online book, by J. T. Trowbridge, on ReadCentral.com.

THE MOONLIGHT EXPEDITION.

Toby had been released. Mrs. Stackridge had been whipped by proxy, and had kept her husband’s secret. Gad, the spy, was still unaccountably absent. These three sources of information were, therefore, for the time, considered closed; and it was determined to have recourse to the fourth, namely, Carl.

Here it should, perhaps, be explained that the confederate government, informed of the position of armed resistance assumed by the little band of patriots, had immediately telegraphed orders to recapture the insurgents. Among the Union-loving mountaineers of East Tennessee the mutterings of a threatened rebellion against the new despotism had long been heard, and it was deemed expedient to suppress at once this outbreak.

“Try the ringleaders by drum-head court-martial, and, if guilty, hang them on the spot,” said a second despatch.

These instructions were purposely made public, in order to strike terror among the Unionists. They were discussed by the soldiers, and reached the ears of Carl.

“Hang them on the spot.” That meant Stackridge and Penn, and he knew not how many more. “And I,” said Carl, “have agreed to show the vay to the cave.”

He was sweating fearfully over the dilemma in which he had placed himself, when a sergeant and two men came to conduct him to head-quarters.

“Now it begins,” said Carl to himself, drawing a deep breath.

The irons remained on his wrists. In this plight he was brought into the presence of the red-faced colonel.

“I hate a damned Dutchman!” said Lysander, who happened to be at head-quarters.

He had had experience, and his prejudice was natural.

The colonel poised his cigar, and regarded Carl sternly. The boy’s heart throbbed anxiously, and he was afraid that he looked pale. Nevertheless, he stood calmly erect on his sturdy young legs, and answered the officer’s frown with an expression of placid and innocent wonder.

“Your name is Carl,” said the colonel.

“I sushpect that is true,” replied Carl, on his guard against making inadvertent admissions.

“Carl what?”

“Minnevich.”

“Minny-fish? That’s a scaly name. And they say you are a scaly fellow. What have you got those bracelets on for?”

“That is vat I should pe wery much glad to find out,” said Carl, affectionately regarding his handcuffs.

“You are the fellow that enlisted to save the schoolmaster’s neck, ain’t you?”

“I suppose that is true too.”

“Suppose? Don’t you know?”

“I thought I knowed, for you told me so; but as they vas hunting for him aftervards to hang him, I vas conwinced I vas mishtaken.”

This quiet reply, delivered in the lads quaint style, with perfect deliberation, and with a countenance shining with simplicity, was in effect a keen thrust at the perfidy of the confederate officers. The colonels face became a shade redder, if possible, and he frowningly exclaimed,

“And so you deserted!”

“That,” said Carl, “ish not quite so true.”

“What! you deny the fact?”

“I peg your pardon, it ish not a fact. I vas took prisoner.”

“And do you maintain that you did not go willingly?”

“I don’t know just vat you mean by villingly. Ven vun of them fellows puts his muzzle to my head and says, ’You come mit us, and make no noise or I plow out your prains,’ I vas prewailed upon to go. I vas more villing to go as I vas to have my prains spilt. If that is vat you mean by villing, I vas villing.”

“Why did they take you prisoner?”

“Pecause. I vill tell you. Gad vas shleeping like thunder: you know vat I mean shnoring. Nothing could make him vake up; so they let him shnore. But I vake up, and they say, I suppose, they must kill me or take me off, for if I vas left pehind I vould raise the alarm too soon.”

“Well, where did they take you?”

Carl was silent a moment, then looking Colonel Derring full in the face, he said earnestly,

“They make me shwear I vould not tell.”

“Minny-fish,” said the colonel, “this won’t do. The secret is out, and it is too late for you to try to keep it back. Toby betrayed it. Mrs. Stackridge has been arrested, and she has confessed that her husband and his friends are hid in a cave. We sent out a scout, who has come in and corroborated both their statements. Gad discovered the cave; but he has sprained his ankle. He describes the spot accurately, but he’s too lame to climb the hills again. What we want is a guide to go in his place. Now, Minny-fish, here’s a chance for you to earn a pardon, and prove your loyalty. You promised Captain Sprowl, did you not, that you would conduct him to the cave?”

Carl, overwhelmed by the colonels confident assertions, breathed a moment, then replied,

“I pelieve I vas making him some promise.”

“Notwithstanding your oath that you would not tell?” said Lysander, eager to cross and corner him.

“To show the vay, that is not to tell,” replied Carl. “I shwore I vould not tell, and I shall not tell. But if you vill go mit me to the cave, I vill go mit you and take you. Then I keep my promise to you and my oath to them. You see, I did not shwear not to take you,” he added, with a smile.

With a smile on his face, but with profound perturbations of the soul. For he saw himself sinking deeper and deeper into this miry difficulty, and how he was to extricate himself without dragging his friends down, was still a terrible enigma.

“I believe the boy is honest,” said Derring. “Sergeant, have those irons taken off. Captain Sprowl, you will manage the affair, and take this boy as your guide. I advise you to trust him. But until he has thoroughly proved his honesty, keep a careful eye on him, and if you become convinced that he is deceiving you, shoot him down on the spot. I say, shoot him on the spot,” repeated the colonel, impressively. “You both understand that. Do you, Minny-fish?”

“I vas never shot,” said Carl, “but I sushpect I know vat shooting is.” And he smiled again, with trouble in his heart, that would have quite disconcerted a youth of less nerve and phlegm.

“Well,” said Captain Sprowl, “if you don’t, you will know, if you undertake to play any of your Dutch tricks with me!”

“O, sir!” said Carl, humbly, “if I knowed any trick I vouldn’t ever think of playing it on you, you are so wery shmart!”

“How do you know I am?” said Lysander, who felt flattered, and thought it would be interesting to hear the lad’s reasons; for neither he, nor any one present, had perceived the craft and sarcasm concealed under that simple, earnest manner.

“How do I know you are shmart? Pecause,” replied Carl, “you have such a pig head. And such a pig nose. And such a pig mouth. That shows you are a pig man.”

This was said with an air of intense seriousness, which never changed amid the peals of laughter that followed. Nobody suspected Carl of an intentional joke; and the round-eyed innocent surprise with which he regarded the merriment added hugely to the humor of it. Everybody laughed except Lysander, who only grimaced a little to disguise his chagrin. This upstart officer was greatly disliked for his conceited ways, and it was not long before the “Dutch boy’s compliments” became the joke of the camp, and wherever Lysander appeared some whisper was sure to be heard concerning either the “pig mouth,” or “pig nose,” of that truly “pig man.”

As for Carl, he had something far more serious to do than to laugh. How to circumvent the designs of these men? That was the question.

In the first place, it is necessary to state that his conscience acquitted him entirely of all obligations to them or their cause. He was no secessionist. He had enlisted to save his benefactor and friend. He had said, “I will give you my services if you will give that man his life.” They had immediately afterwards broken the contract by seeking to kill his friend, and he felt that he no longer owed them anything. But they held him by force, against which he had no weapon but his own good wit. This, therefore, he determined to use, if possible, to their discomfiture, and the salvation of those to whom he owed everything. But how?

He had saved Toby from torture and confession by promising what he never intended literally to perform.

Once more in the guard-house, retained a prisoner until wanted as a guide, he reasoned with himself thus:

“If I do not go, then they vill make Gad go, lame or no lame, and he vill not be half so lucky to show the wrong road as I can be;” for Carl never suspected that what had been said with regard to Mrs. Stackridge’s arrest and confession, and Gad’s successful reconnoissance and return, was all a lie framed to induce him to undertake this very thing. “And if I did not make pelieve I vas villing to go, then they vould not give me my hands free, and some chances for myself. I think there vill be some chances. But Sprowl is to watch, and be ready to shoot me down?” He shook his head dubiously, and added, “That is vat I do not like quite so vell!”

He remained in a deep study until dusk. Then Captain Sprowl appeared, and said to him,

“Come! you are to go with me.”

Carls heart gave a great bound; but he answered with an air of indifference,

“To-night?”

“Yes. At once. Stir!”

“I have not quite finished my supper; but I can put some of it in my pockets, and be eating on the road.” And he added to himself, “I am glad it is in the night, for that vill be a wery good excuse if I should be so misfortunate as not to find the cave!”

“Here,” said Lysander, imperiously, giving him a twist and push, “march before me! And fast! Now, not a word unless you are spoken to; and don’t you dodge unless you want a shot.”

Thus instructed, Carl led the way. He did not speak, and he did not dodge. One circumstance overjoyed him. He saw no signs of a military expedition on foot. Was Lysander going alone with him to the mountains? “I sushpect I can find some trick for him, shmart as he is!” thought Carl.

They left the town behind them. They took to the fields; they entered the shadow of the mountains, the western sky above whose tops was yet silvery bright with the shining wake of the sunset. A few faint stars were visible, and just a glimmer of moonlight was becoming apparent in the still twilight gloom.

“We are going to have a quiet little adwenture together!” chuckled Carl. One thing was singular, however. Lysander did not tamely follow his lead: on the contrary, he directed him where to go; and Carl saw, to his dismay, that they were proceeding in a very direct route towards the cave.

“Never mind! Ven ve come to some conwenient place maybe something vill happen,” he said consolingly to himself.

Then suddenly consternation met him, as it were face to face. The enigma was solved. From the crest of a knoll over which Lysander drove him like a lamb, he saw, lying on the ground in a little glen before them, the dark forms of some forty men.

One of these rose to his feet and advanced to meet Lysander. It was Silas Ropes.

“All ready?” said Sprowl.

“Ready and waiting,” said Silas.

“Well, push on,” said the captain. “We’ll go to the dead bodies in the ravine first. Where’s Pepperill?”

“Here,” replied Ropes; and at a summons Dan appeared.

Carl’s heart sank within him. Toby in the guard-house had told him about the dead bodies, and he knew that they were not far from the cave. He was aware, too, that Pepperill knew far more than one of such shallow mental resources and feeble will, wearing that uniform, and now in the power of these men, ought to know.

There in the little moonlit glen they met and exchanged glances the sturdy, calm-faced boy, and the weak-kneed, trembling man. Pepperill had not recovered from the terror with which he had been inspired, when summoned to guide a reconnoitring party to the ravine. But he had not yet lisped a syllable of what he knew concerning the cave. Carl gave him a look, and turned his eyes away again indifferently. That look said, “Be wery careful, Dan, and leave a good deal to me.” And Dan, man as he was, felt somehow encouraged and strengthened by the presence of this boy.

“Now, Pepperill,” said Sprowl, “can you move ahead and make no mistake?”

“I kin try,” answered Pepperill, dismally. “But it’s a heap harder to find the way in the night so; durned if ’tain’t!”

“None o’ that, now, Dan,” said Ropes, “or you’ll git sunthin’ to put sperrit inter ye!”

Dan made no reply, but shivered. The mountain air was chill, the prospect dreary. Close by, the woods, blackened by the recent fire, lay shadowy and spectral in the moon. Far above, the dim summits towards which their course lay whitened silently. There was no noise but the low murmur of these men, bent on bloody purposes. No wonder Dan’s teeth chattered.

As for Carl, he killed a mosquito on his cheek, and smiled triumphantly.

“You got a shlap, you warmint!” he said, as if he had no other care on his mind than the insect’s slaughter.

“Who told you to speak?” said Lysander sharply.

“Vas that shpeaking?” Carl scratched his cheek complacently. “I vas only making a little obserwation to the mosquito.”

“Well, keep your observations to yourself!”

“That is vat I vill try to do.”

The order to march was given. Lysander proceeded a few paces in advance, accompanied by Ropes and the two guides. The troops followed in silence, with dull, irregular tramp, filing through obscure hollows, over barren ridges crowned by a few thistles and mulleins, and by the edges of thickets which the fires had not reached. At length they came to a tract of the burned woods. The word “halt!” was whispered. The sound of tramping feet was suddenly hushed, and the slender column of troops, winding like a dark serpent up the side of the mountain, became motionless.

“All right so far, Pepperill?”

“Wal, I hain’t made nary mistake yet, cap’m.”

Pepperill recognized the woods in which, when flying to the cave with Virginia, Penn, and Cudjo, they had found themselves surrounded by fires.

“How far is it now to your ravine?”

“Nigh on to half a mile, I reckon.”

“Shall we go through these woods?”

“It’s the nighest to go through ’em. But I s’pose we can git around if we try.”

“The moon sets early. We’d better take the nearest way,” said the captain. “Well, Dutchy,” for the first time deigning to consult Carl, “this route is taking us to the cave, too, ain’t it?”

“Wery certain,” said Carl, “prowided you go far enough, and turn often enough, and never lose the vay.”

“That’ll be your risk, Dutchy. Look out for the landmarks, so that when Pepperill stops you can keep on.”

“I vill look out, but if they have all been purnt up since I vas here, how wery wexing!”

This wood had been but partially consumed when the flames were checked by the rain. Many trunks were still standing, naked, charred, stretching their black despairing arms to the moon. The shadows of these ghostly trees slanted along the silent field of desolation, or lay entangled with the dark logs and limbs of trees which had fallen, and from which, at short distances, they were scarcely distinguishable. Here and there smouldered a heap of rubbish, its pallid smoke rising noiselessly in the bluish light. There were heaps of ashes still hot; half-burned brands sparkled in the darkness; and now and then a stump or branch emitted a still bright flame.

Through this scene of blackness and ruin, rendered gloomily picturesque by the moonlight, the men picked their way. Not a word was spoken; but occasionally a muttered curse told that some ill-protected foot had come in contact with live cinders, or that some unlucky leg had slumped down into one of those mines of fire, formed by roots of old dead stumps, eaten slowly away to ashes under ground.

Carl had hoped that the woods would prove impassable, and that the party would be compelled to turn back. That would gain for him time and opportunity. But the men pushed on. “Vill nothing happen?” he said to himself, in despair at seeing how directly they were travelling towards the cave. The burned tract was not extensive, and he soon saw, glimmering through the blackened columns, the clear moonlight on the slopes above.

Pepperill, not daring to assume the responsibility of misleading the party, knew no better than to go stumbling straight on.

“I vish he would shtumple and preak his shtupid neck!” thought Carl.

They emerged from the burned woods, and came out upon the ledges beyond; and now the lad saw plainly where they were. On the left, the deep and quiet gulf of shadow was the ravine. They had but to follow this up, he knew not just how far, to reach the cave. And still Pepperill advanced. Carl’s heart contracted. He knew that the critical moment of the night, for him and for his fugitive friends, was now at hand.

“Do you see any landmarks yet?” Sprowl whispered to him.

“I can almost see some,” answered Carl, peering earnestly over a moonlit bushy space. “Ve shall pe coming to them py and py.”

“Do you know this ravine?”

“I remember some rawines. I shouldn’t be wery much surprised if this vas vun of ’em.”

“Look here,” said Lysander. Carl looked, and saw a pistol-barrel. “Understand?” significantly.

“Is it for me?"’ And Carl extended his hand ingenuously.

“For you? yes.” But instead of giving the weapon to the boy, he returned it to his pocket, with a smile the boy did not like.

“Ah, yes! a goot joke!” And Carl smiled too, his good-humored face beaming in the moon.

At the same time he said to himself, “He hates me pecause I am Hapgood’s friend; and he vill be much pleased to have cause to shoot me.”

Just then Dan stopped. Lysander put up his hand as a signal. The troops halted.

“It’s somewhars down in hyar, cap’m,” Pepperill whispered.

“It’s a horrid place!” muttered Sprowl.

“It ar so, durned if ’tain’t!” said Dan, discouragingly.

Before them yawned the ravine, bristling with half-burned saplings, and but partially illumined by the moon. The babble of the brook flowing through its hidden depths was faintly audible.

“See the bodies anywhere?” said Lysander.

“Can’t see ary thing by this light,” replied Dan. “But we can go down and find ’em.”

Sprowl did not much fancy the idea of descending.

“It will be a waste of time to stop here,” he said to Silas. “The live traitors are of more consequence than the dead ones. Supposing we go to the cave first, and come back and find the bodies afterwards. Have you got your bearings yet, Carl?”

“I am peginning,” said Carl, staring about him, with his hands in his pockets. “I think I vill have ’em soon.”

Sprowl looked at him with suppressed rage. “How cussed provoking!” he muttered.

“It is wery prowoking!” said Carl, looking at the moon. “Aggrawating!”

“Well, make up your mind quick! What will you do?”

Then it seemed as if a bright idea occurred to Carl.

“I vill tell you. You go down and find the podies, and I vill be looking. Ven you come up again, I shouldn’t be surprised if I could see vair the cave is.”

“Ropes,” said Sprowl, “take a couple of men, and go down in there with Pepperill. I think it’s best to stay with this boy.”

This arrangement did not please Carl at all; but, as he could not reasonably complain of it, he said, stoically, “Yes, it vill be petter so.”

Ropes selected his two men, and left the rest concealed in the shadows of the thickets.

“If I could go up on the rocks there, I suppose I could see something,” said Carl.

“Well, I’ll go with you. I mean to give you a fair chance.” Carl felt a secret hope. Once more alone with this villain, would not some interesting thing occur? “Wait, though!” said Sprowl; and he called a corporal to his side. “Come with us. Keep close to this boy. At the first sign of his giving us the slip, put your bayonet through him.”

“I will,” said the corporal.

This was discouraging again. But Carl looked up at the captain and smiled his good-humored, placid smile.

“You do right. But you vill see I shall not give you the shlip. Now come, and be wery still.”

In the mean time, Pepperill, with the three rebels, descended into the ravine. The spot where the dead man and horse had been was soon found. But now no dead man was to be seen. The horse had been removed from the rocks between which his back was wedged, and rolled down lower into the ravine. A broad, shallow hole had been dug there, as if to bury him. But the work had been interrupted. There was a shovel lying on the heap of earth. Near by was another spot where the soil had been recently stirred a little mound: it was shaped like a grave.

“They’ve buried the poor cuss hyar,” said Dan.

“We’ll see.” Ropes took the shovel. “They can’t have put him in very deep, fur they’ve struck the rock in this yer t’other hole.”

He threw up a little dirt, then gave the shovel to one of the soldiers. The moon shone full upon the place. The man dug a few minutes, and came to something which was neither rock nor soil. He pulled it up. It was a man’s arm.

“You didn’t guess fur from right this time, Dan! Scrape off a little more dirt, and we’ll haul up the carcass. Needn’t be partic’lar ’bout scrapin’ very keerful, nuther. He’s a mean shoat, whoever he is; one o’ them cussed Union-shriekers. Wish they was all planted like he is! Hope we shall find five or six more. Ketch holt, Dan!”

Dan caught hold. The body was dragged from the lonely resting-place to which it had been consigned. Parts of it, which had not been protected by the superincumbent bulk of the horse, were hideously burned. Ropes rolled it over on the back, and kicked it, to knock off the dirt. He turned up the face in the moonlight a frightful face! One side was roasted; and what was left of the hair and beard was full of sand.

“Damn him!” said Ropes, giving it a wipe with the spade.

The eyes were open, and they too were full of sand.

But the features were still recognizable. The men started back with horror. They knew their comrade. It was the spy who had been sent out to watch the fugitives. It was “the sleeper,” whom nought could waken more. It was Gad.

“Wal, if I ain’t beat!” said Silas, with a ghastly look. “Fool! how did he come hyar?”

This question has never been satisfactorily answered. The fatal leap of the terrified horse with his rider is known; but how came Gad on the horse? Those who knew the character of the man account for it in this way: He had been something of a horse-thief in his day; and it is supposed that, finding Stackridge’s horse on the mountain, he fell once more into temptation. He was probably a little drunk at the time; and he was a man who would never walk if he could ride, especially when he was tipsy. So he mounted. But he had no sooner commenced the descent of the mountain, than the fire, which had been previously concealed from the animal by the clump of trees behind which he was hampered, burst upon his sight, and filled him with uncontrollable frenzy.

Dan, who had witnessed the flight and plunge, could have contributed an item towards the solution of the mystery. But he opened not his mouth.

“Them cussed traitors shall pay fur this!” said Ropes. This was the only consolatory thought that occurred to him. Having uttered it, he looked remorsefully at the spade with which he had rudely wiped the face of his dead friend. “I thought ‘twas one o’ them rotten scoundrels, or I But never mind! Kiver him up agin, boys! We can’t take him with us, and we’ve no time to lose.”

So they laid the corpse once more in the grave, and heaped the sand upon it.