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Chapter 48

DETERMINATION TO ESCAPE--DIFFERENT PLANS AND THEIR MERITS--I PREFER THE
APPALACHICOLA ROUTE--PREPARATIONS FOR DEPARTURE--A HOT DAY--THE FENCE
PASSED SUCCESSFULLY PURSUED BY THE HOUNDS--CAUGHT --RETURNED TO THE
STOCKADE.

After Watt's death, I set earnestly about seeing what could be done in
the way of escape. Frank Harvey, of the First West Virginia Cavalry,
a boy of about my own age and disposition, joined with me in the scheme.
I was still possessed with my original plan of making my way down the
creeks to the Flint River, down the Flint River to where it emptied into
the Appalachicola River, and down that stream to its debauchure into the
bay that connected with the Gulf of Mexico. I was sure of finding my way
by this route, because, if nothing else offered, I could get astride of a
log and float down the current. The way to Sherman, in the other
direction, was long, torturous and difficult, with a fearful gauntlet of
blood-hounds, patrols and the scouts of Hood's Army to be run. I had but
little difficulty in persuading Harvey into an acceptance of my views,
and we began arranging for a solution of the first great problem--how to
get outside of the Hospital guards. As I have explained before, the
Hospital was surrounded by a board fence, with guards walking their beats
on the ground outside. A small creek flowed through the southern end of
the grounds, and at its lower end was used as a sink. The boards of the
fence came down to the surface of the water, where the Creek passed out,
but we found, by careful prodding with a stick, that the hole between the
boards and the bottom of the Creek was sufficiently large to allow the
passage of our bodies, and there had been no stakes driven or other
precautions used to prevent egress by this channel. A guard was posted
there, and probably ordered to stand at the edge of the stream, but it
smelled so vilely in those scorching days that he had consulted his
feelings and probably his health, by retiring to the top of the bank,
a rod or more distant. We watched night after night, and at last were
gratified to find that none went nearer the Creak than the top of this
bank.

Then we waited for the moon to come right, so that the first part of the
night should be dark. This took several days, but at last we knew that
the next night she would not rise until between 9 and 10 o'clock, which
would give us nearly two hours of the dense darkness of a moonless Summer
night in the South. We had first thought of saving up some rations for
the trip, but then reflected that these would be ruined by the filthy
water into which we must sink to go under the fence. It was not
difficult to abandon the food idea, since it was very hard to force
ourselves to lay by even the smallest portion of our scanty rations.

As the next day wore on, our minds were wrought up into exalted tension
by the rapid approach of the supreme moment, with all its chances and
consequences. The experience of the past few months was not such as to
mentally fit us for such a hazard. It prepared us for sullen,
uncomplaining endurance, for calmly contemplating the worst that could
come; but it did not strengthen that fiber of mind that leads to
venturesome activity and daring exploits. Doubtless the weakness of our
bodies reacted upon our spirits. We contemplated all the perils that
confronted us; perils that, now looming up with impending nearness, took
a clearer and more threatening shape than they had ever done before.

We considered the desperate chances of passing the guard unseen; or, if
noticed, of escaping his fire without death or severe wounds. But
supposing him fortunately evaded, then came the gauntlet of the hounds
and the patrols hunting deserters. After this, a long, weary journey,
with bare feet and almost naked bodies, through an unknown country
abounding with enemies; the dangers of assassination by the embittered
populace; the risks of dying with hunger and fatigue in the gloomy depths
of a swamp; the scanty hopes that, if we reached the seashore, we could
get to our vessels.

Not one of all these contingencies failed to expand itself to all its
alarming proportions, and unite with its fellows to form a dreadful
vista, like the valleys filled with demons and genii, dragons and malign
enchantments, which confront the heros of the "Arabian Nights," when they
set out to perform their exploits.

But behind us lay more miseries and horrors than a riotous imagination
could conceive; before us could certainly be nothing worse. We would put
life and freedom to the hazard of a touch, and win or lose it all.

The day had been intolerably hot. The sun's rays seemed to sear the
earth, like heated irons, and the air that lay on the burning sand was
broken by wavy lines, such as one sees indicate the radiation from a hot
stove.

Except the wretched chain-gang plodding torturously back and forward on
the hillside, not a soul nor an animal could be seen in motion outside
the Stockade. The hounds were panting in their kennel; the Rebel
officers, half or wholly drunken with villainous sorgum whisky, were
stretched at full length in the shade at headquarters; the half-caked
gunners crouched under the shadow of the embankments of the forts, the
guards hung limply over the Stockade in front of their little perches;
the thirty thousand boys inside the Stockade, prone or supine upon the
glowing sand, gasped for breath--for one draft of sweet, cool, wholesome
air that did not bear on its wings the subtle seeds of rank corruption
and death. Everywhere was the prostration of discomfort--the inertia of
sluggishness.

Only the sick moved; only the pain-racked cried out; only the dying
struggled; only the agonies of dissolution could make life assert itself
against the exhaustion of the heat.

Harvey and I, lying in the scanty shade of the trunk of a tall pine, and
with hearts filled with solicitude as to the outcome of what the evening
would bring us, looked out over the scene as we had done daily for long
months, and remained silent for hours, until the sun, as if weary with
torturing and slaying, began going down in the blazing West. The groans
of the thousands of sick around us, the shrieks of the rotting ones in
the gangrene wards rang incessantly in our ears.

As the sun disappeared, and the heat abated, the suspended activity was
restored. The Master of the Hounds came out with his yelping pack, and
started on his rounds; the Rebel officers aroused themselves from their
siesta and went lazily about their duties; the fifer produced his cracked
fife and piped forth his unvarying "Bonnie Blue Flag," as a signal for
dress parade, and drums beaten by unskilled hands in the camps of the
different regiments, repeated the signal. In time Stockade the mass of
humanity became full of motion as an ant hill, and resembled it very much
from our point of view, with the boys threading their way among the
burrows, tents and holes.

It was becoming dark quite rapidly. The moments seemed galloping onward
toward the time when we must make the decisive step. We drew from the
dirty rag in which it was wrapped the little piece of corn bread that we
had saved for our supper, carefully divided it into two equal parts,
and each took one and ate it in silence. This done, we held a final
consultation as to our plans, and went over each detail carefully, that
we might fully understand each other under all possible circumstances,
and act in concert. One point we laboriously impressed upon each other,
and that was; that under no circumstances were we to allow ourselves to
be tempted to leave the Creek until we reached its junction with the
Flint River. I then picked up two pine leaves, broke them off to unequal
lengths, rolled them in my hands behind my back for a second, and
presenting them to Harney with their ends sticking out of my closed hand,
said:

"The one that gets the longest one goes first."

Harvey reached forth and drew the longer one.

We made a tour of reconnaissance. Everything seemed as usual, and
wonderfully calm compared with the tumult in our minds. The Hospital
guards were pacing their beats lazily; those on the Stockade were
drawling listlessly the first "call around" of the evening:

"Post numbah foah! Half-past seven o'clock! and a-l-l's we-l-ll!"

Inside the Stockade was a Babel of sounds, above all of which rose the
melody of religious and patriotic songs, sung in various parts of the
camp. From the headquarters came the shouts and laughter of the Rebel
officers having a little "frolic" in the cool of the evening. The groans
of the sick around us were gradually hushing, as the abatement of the
terrible heat let all but the worst cases sink into a brief slumber,
from which they awoke before midnight to renew their outcries. But those
in the Gangrene wards seemed to be denied even this scanty blessing.
Apparently they never slept, for their shrieks never ceased. A multitude
of whip-poor-wills in the woods around us began their usual dismal cry,
which had never seemed so unearthly and full of dreadful presages as now.

It was, now quite dark, and we stole noiselessly down to the Creek and
reconnoitered. We listened. The guard was not pacing his beat, as we
could not hear his footsteps. A large, ill-shapen lump against the trunk
of one of the trees on the bank showed that he was leaning there resting
himself. We watched him for several minutes, but he did not move, and
the thought shot into our minds that he might be asleep; but it seemed
impossible: it was too early in the evening.

Now, if ever, was the opportunity. Harney squeezed my hand, stepped
noiselessly into the Creek, laid himself gently down into the filthy
water, and while my heart was beating so that I was certain it could be
heard some distance from me, began making toward the fence. He passed
under easily, and I raised my eyes toward the guard, while on my strained
ear fell the soft plashing made by Harvey as he pulled himself cautiously
forward. It seemed as if the sentinel must hear this; he could not help
it, and every second I expected to see the black lump address itself to
motion, and the musket flash out fiendishly. But he did not; the lump
remained motionless; the musket silent.

When I thought that Harvey had gained a sufficient distance I followed.
It seemed as if the disgusting water would smother me as I laid myself
down into it, and such was my agitation that it appeared almost
impossible that I should escape making such a noise as would attract the
guard's notice. Catching hold of the roots and limbs at the side of the
stream, I pulled myself slowly along, and as noiselessly as possible.

I passed under the fence without difficulty, and was outside, and within
fifteen feet of the guard. I had lain down into the creek upon my right
side, that my face might be toward the guard, and I could watch him
closely all the time.

As I came under the fence he was still leaning motionless against the
tree, but to my heated imagination he appeared to have turned and be
watching me. I hardly breathed; the filthy water rippling past me seemed
to roar to attract the guard's attention; I reached my hand out
cautiously to grasp a root to pull myself along by, and caught instead a
dry branch, which broke with a loud crack. My heart absolutely stood
still. The guard evidently heard the noise. The black lump separated
itself from the tree, and a straight line which I knew to be his musket
separated itself from the lump. In a brief instant I lived a year of
mortal apprehension. So certain was I that he had discovered me, and was
leveling his piece to fire, that I could scarcely restrain myself from
springing up and dashing away to avoid the shot. Then I heard him take a
step, and to my unutterable surprise and relief, he walked off farther
from the Creek, evidently to speak to the man whose beat joined his.

I pulled away more swiftly, but still with the greatest caution, until
after half-an-hour's painful effort I had gotten fully one hundred and
fifty yards away from the Hospital fence, and found Harney crouched on a
cypress knee, close to the water's edge, watching for me.

We waited there a few minutes, until I could rest, and calm my perturbed
nerves down to something nearer their normal equilibrium, and then
started on. We hoped that if we were as lucky in our next step as in the
first one we would reach the Flint River by daylight, and have a good
long start before the morning roll-call revealed our absence. We could
hear the hounds still baying in the distance, but this sound was too
customary to give us any uneasiness.

But our progress was terribly slow. Every step hurt fearfully. The
Creek bed was full of roots and snags, and briers, and vines trailed
across it. These caught and tore our bare feet and legs, rendered
abnormally tender by the scurvy. It seemed as if every step was marked
with blood. The vines tripped us, and we frequently fell headlong. We
struggled on determinedly for nearly an hour, and were perhaps a mile
from the Hospital.

The moon came up, and its light showed that the creek continued its
course through a dense jungle like that we had been traversing, while on
the high ground to our left were the open pine woods I have previously
described.

We stopped and debated for a few minutes. We recalled our promise to
keep in the Creek, the experience of other boys who had tried to escape
and been caught by the hounds. If we staid in the Creek we were sure the
hounds would not find our trail, but it was equally certain that at this
rate we would be exhausted and starved before we got out of sight of the
prison. It seemed that we had gone far enough to be out of reach of the
packs patrolling immediately around the Stockade, and there could be but
little risk in trying a short walk on the dry ground. We concluded to
take the chances, and, ascending the bank, we walked and ran as fast as
we could for about two miles further.

All at once it struck me that with all our progress the hounds sounded as
near as when we started. I shivered at the thought, and though nearly
ready to drop with fatigue, urged myself and Harney on.

An instant later their baying rang out on the still night air right
behind us, and with fearful distinctness. There was no mistake now; they
had found our trail, and were running us down. The change from fearful
apprehension to the crushing reality stopped us stock-still in our
tracks.

At the next breath the hounds came bursting through the woods in plain
sight, and in full cry. We obeyed our first impulse; rushed back into
the swamp, forced our way for a few yards through the flesh-tearing
impediments, until we gained a large cypress, upon whose great knees we
climbed--thoroughly exhausted--just as the yelping pack reached the edge
of the water, and stopped there and bayed at us. It was a physical
impossibility for us to go another step.

In a moment the low-browed villain who had charge of the hounds came
galloping up on his mule, tooting signals to his dogs as he came, on the
cow-horn slung from his shoulders.

He immediately discovered us, covered us with his revolver, and yelled
out:

"Come ashore, there, quick: you---- ---- ---- ----s!"

There was no help for it. We climbed down off the knees and started
towards the land. As we neared it, the hounds became almost frantic,
and it seemed as if we would be torn to pieces the moment they could
reach us. But the master dismounted and drove them back. He was surly
--even savage--to us, but seemed in too much hurry to get back to waste any
time annoying us with the dogs. He ordered us to get around in front of
the mule, and start back to camp. We moved as rapidly as our fatigue and
our lacerated feet would allow us, and before midnight were again in the
hospital, fatigued, filthy, torn, bruised and wretched beyond description
or conception.

The next morning we were turned back into the Stockade as punishment.

John McElroy