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A TRIP ON A RAFT
The talk of the three Confederates had filled the young major with interest. Evidently they had belonged to the troops just defeated, and they were now on their way to escape to the south of Rutherford Creek, as the main body on the retreat had gone.
But this was not all. A raft had been mentioned, also some cases of ammunition, and something had been spoken of that sounded as if it might have been meant for a field-piece. This looked as if the three Confederates intended to transfer some army property as well as themselves to a safer locality for men and goods.
It was too dark for either Deck or Life to make out the uniforms of the enemies, but they were inclined to believe that they belonged to some Southern battery which Wheeler had brought along, but which the Confederate commander had been unable to bring into use. It instantly crossed Deck's mind that it would be a big thing to bag the men, and even a bigger thing to seize the ammunition and the field-piece.
But now a difficulty arose--a difficulty which must be met and settled on the spot. One of the Confederates was coming toward them. What was to be done with the man?
Deck did not doubt but that Life and himself were more than a match for the half-starved upholder of a mistaken cause. They could easily compel him to surrender at the point of the pistol, or they might throw him down and gag him before he had any chance to make an outcry.
But would this be doing just the right thing, all circumstances considered? Might not the loss of one of their number frighten off the two others, and if the cases of ammunition and the field-piece were hidden away, could Life and himself find the things in that woods, filled as it was with rocks and brush? More than likely the articles had been hidden away with care, especially the boxes of ammunition.
To Deck's way of thinking, the only thing to do was to escape the observation of the fellow called Bolder, and then follow him up to where the army stores and the gun were hidden. After this it would be time enough to close in on the enemy, bring them to terms, and confiscate all they were in charge of that was of value.
Doubtless Captain Knox's thoughts were similar to those of Deck's, for as the Confederate artillerist advanced, he looked inquiringly at his companion, and uttered the monosyllable, "Well?"
"We must not be discovered," whispered the major. "Turn to the left. Easy, Ceph, easy!"
The horse understood the words of caution and moved off as silently as a shadow of the night, to another clump of bushes. Life followed, and his steed, also well trained, made no more noise than did Ceph. The course of the pair took them out of the semicircle Bolder had started to make around the patch of woods, and the Confederate passed fifty or sixty feet to their left.
"Now we will follow him," whispered Deck, when Bolder's back was partly turned upon them. "Be on your guard against a surprise, Life; there may be more Confederates in this vicinity."
"I'm always on my guard," was the laconic reply, as both horses moved off with care.
The course around the woods was a rugged one, and the journey took the best part of twenty minutes. At times they lost sight of Bolder, but never more than for half a minute at a time. Once they caught the Confederate looking behind him and promptly disappeared from view into a ditch, where flowed several inches of water.
The detour on the part of the enemy having come to an end, Bolder struck out for the centre of the thicket. Here it was impossible to ride without making considerable noise, and the major and Life dismounted and fastened the animals to a tree.
"Is that you, Bolder?" came in the voice of Lieutenant Blackrook, as the scout came into a clearing near the centre of the woods and at a point where there was a fair-sized inlet from the creek.
"Not a soul in sight, Leftenant. I guess our boys are further up the stream, and the Yankees are below."
"I don't care where the Yanks are--so long as they don't come here," muttered the Confederate officer. "Hurry up, or we'll be all night at this job."
"Is the raft here?"
"Yes, under yonder bushes. Help Peters carry down the three boxes of ammunition, and then the three of us can see what we can do with the field-piece. I'm afraid it is pretty well stuck in the mud, and we may have to use a log or two to budge her."
"How about hosses on the other side?" asked Bolder. "We can't drag the gun by hand, even if she is light."
"We'll find horses, never fear. Come, get to work, and I'll take a hand myself."
Deck was in hopes that the Confederates would bring forth their ammunition and the field-piece without delay; but such was not the case. They first went to work on the raft, a clumsy affair built of two logs and a dozen rough two-inch hemlock planks. The raft had become wedged in under the brush overgrowing the bank of the inlet, and the trio tugged and strained at a rope to bring her away. Evidently, like many other Southerners, they were not used to work, and the task proceeded with many growls from all hands.
The raft brought over to the inner end of the inlet, the three Confederates took a breathing spell and passed around a bottle which the lieutenant carried. A plug of tobacco also went the round, each whittling off a piece to suit himself, with his jack-knife. Then the three started along a dry gully just above the inlet. A thrashing around in some brush followed.
"Here we are!" cried the lieutenant. "What a pity we didn't have a chance to use that gun and the canister against the Yanks!"
"Never mind, we'll use 'em another time," answered Peters. "Catch hold, Bolder," and he began to handle one of the ammunition cases.
Deck had seen enough, and now he touched Life on the arm, and the two retreated to a distance where it would be safe to talk. "We've spotted the things," he said. "What do you advise as the next move to make?"
"That is for you to say, Major."
"See here, Life, don't major me so much. You used to call me Deck. Perhaps I had better address you as captain in the future."
"Don't you do it, Deck," pleaded the Kentuckian. "I won't say major again, excepting when we are in the ranks."
"All right. Now, what do you think? I want your advice."
"Well, I reckon we want to capture the gun and the ammunition."
"That goes without saying."
"And we likewise want to take the fellows prisoners."
"Certainly, if it can be done--and I think it can."
"Then what more is there to say, Majo--, I mean Deck?"
"Something quite important. Shall we move against them at once, or wait until the gun and the ammunition are loaded on the raft?"
Life Knox stared at the speaker for a moment in perplexity. Then a grin overspread his good-natured face. "Reckon we'll let them do the work, seeing that the stuff will be better on the raft than off it. We can't do anything in the woods with such heavy luggage; but we might pole that raft to some safe place in the Union territory."
"Now you've struck it, Life--just what was passing in my own mind. Come, we'll watch the work, and I'll give the signal to open the ball with them."
When they reached their first point of observation, they discovered that two cases of ammunition had already been transferred to the raft. The third followed, and then a rope was attached to the field-piece, a small affair, but one capable of doing good execution in the hands of a skilful gunner.
The men strained and swore at the hard work, and Deck and Life were glad they had concluded to let the enemy undertake it instead of themselves. To the rope two logs were added as implements by which to start the piece, and at last it rolled over a rock in front of it, and they hauled it to the water's edge. Here arose another difficulty, and the piece was not placed on board until it had run the risk of dropping to the bottom of the inlet. The weight of the gun sent the top of the raft under water, and the lower box of ammunition received a wetting. The others, having been placed on top of the first, remained uninjured.
"Take the lieutenant and cover him well, Life!" whispered Deck; and it must be confessed that he was growing excited. "I will cover the man we followed around the woods. All ready?"
"Wait till I take to the other side of the inlet," answered the captain of the seventh company of the Riverlawns. He moved off immediately.
A low whistle told Deck when he was ready, and the major aimed his pistol at the Confederate lieutenant, who was assisting in casting off the rope which held the raft to the shore. The man Life was covering stood on the raft, with his comrade, ready to pole the craft out into the creek.
"Surrender!" The word rang out loudly, and its force covered up any nervousness Deck may have felt.
The command took the three Confederates completely by surprise. One of them dropped his pole, and the lieutenant let go the rope and straightened up.
"What's that?" he queried, as if he had not heard aright.
"Surrender!" repeated Life Knox, from the opposite side of the inlet. "If you don't, every one of you is a dead man!"
"Throw down your pistols," went on Deck, and the men turned again toward the spot from which the first voice had come. Of course the major and the captain kept themselves well concealed from view, and the Confederates saw nothing in the gloom.
"Who are you?" questioned Lieutenant Blackrook, grating his teeth in chagrin.
"We're a detachment of Union troops--true blue Kentucky cavalry--and each man a crack shot. Do you surrender, or do you prefer to be bored full of holes?"
"For Heaven's sake, don't shoot me down like a dog!" burst out Bolder, whose name belied his nature.
"Shut up, Bolder!" yelled the lieutenant. "How many of you out there?" he went on, and at the same moment leaped on the raft with the evident intention of hiding behind the boxes of ammunition.
"Halt! I'll give you five seconds in which to throw down your arms," went on Deck, and began to count off the seconds. More frightened than ever, Bolder flung his pistol in the brush at Deck's feet, and, seeing this, Peters did the same, and followed the pistol up with a sword he carried.
The Confederate lieutenant, however, was game, and dodging behind the boxes of ammunition made a leap from the inlet into the creek proper. Deck immediately fired at him, but owing to the darkness, the major's aim was poor and the bullet passed harmlessly by. Life Knox also took a shot, with no better result. Listening, they heard the lieutenant come up and strike out for the opposite shore. But he kept as far under the surface as his necessary breathing allowed, and the darkness speedily hid him entirely from view.
Satisfied that Bolder and Peters had no other weapons than those thrown down, Deck and Life came out into the open. As they did this, however, Deck turned back, as if speaking to others in the brush. "You fellows keep back until I tell you to come out," he said, and the two Confederates immediately felt certain that a detachment of at least eight or ten Yankees had surrounded them.
"Are you willing to submit quietly?" demanded the major, approaching Peters, for he felt sure Bolder would do nothing of his own account.
"Can't help myself, Cap'n," answered Peters, who had not yet discovered the young officer's rank.
"Are there any more of your kind about here?"
"I don't reckon there are, Cap'n."
"Where have the others gone?"
"Don't know as I kin answer that question, Major. Say, this is a right handsome bit of work for an officer as young as you, Major."
"I want to know how close your nearest troops are to us?"
Before Peters could answer, a pistol cracked out from the opposite shore of the creek. The ball whistled through the trees over Deck's head.
Crack! It was Life Knox's weapon in reply, but whether or not any damage was done could not be determined.
"We must leave this spot, Deck!" cried the tall Kentuckian. "Whoever fired that shot has our range here."
"It must be that lieutenant," answered Deck, and he was right. Lieutenant Blackrook had swum directly across the creek and was now firing as rapidly as possible.
"Tell the rascal to stop, or he may hit you," said Life to the two Confederates.
"Stop that firing!" roared Bolder. "Don't hit your friends!"
"Take to the water, you cowards!" came in the lieutenant's voice, and he fired again, a shot that both Deck and Life returned.
Nobody was touched, and now Deck ordered the Confederates to pole the raft into the creek and down that watercourse, as he remembered what had been said about the Southern forces being further up. All he desired at present was to get out of reach of the enemy, and remain so until he could get reŽnforcements.
Inside of two minutes the raft was out of the inlet, and the trip down the stream began. The flow of the current was in their favor, and soon the woods was left behind, and they came out between meadow banks on both sides. The Confederates remained passive enough, and Deck gave his whole attention to discovering a suitable landing place--one which might put him within easy call of assistance.
As has been said, it had grown dark, and now a fog began to creep over the meadows and the creek, gradually shutting every object but those close at hand, from view. The fog was very penetrating, and all on board began to shiver with the cold.
"Where are you goin' to take us?" asked Bolder, presently.
"To a safe place, my man," answered Life. "Better not ask any more questions."
"We are booked for a Northern prison, I reckon," said Peters, gloomily. "If those prisons are as bad as I've been told they are, I'd rather be shot than taken to one."
"All right; we'll shoot you if you say so," rejoined the Kentuckian; and then the Confederates relapsed once more into silence.
"There seems to be a bend here--" began Deck, a moment later. "The fog is so thick I can't see if we are turning to the left or the right. If we--"
He got no further, for a shock told him that the raft had grounded. A cry of consternation escaped his lips. They were on the Confederate side of the swollen stream.
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