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Tom Strong, Lincoln's Scout By Alfred Bishop Mason Characters: 17499

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Tom Goes West-Wilkes Booth Hunts Him-Dr. Hans Rolf Saves Him-He Delivers Dispatches to General Grant.

At the end of the next month, April, 1862, Admiral Farragut gallantly forced open the closed mouth of the Mississippi. He took his wooden ships into action against forts and iron-clad gunboats and captured New Orleans. Within fifteen months thereafter, the North was in practical control of the whole Mississippi. By July, 1863, the Confederacy had been split into two parts, east and west of the "Father of Waters." That was the poetic Indian name of the Mississippi. Farragut's fleet began the driving of the wedge. Grant's army drove it home. When the driving home had just begun, Tom, to his intense delight, was sent West with dispatches for Grant. He left on an hour's notice.

ADMIRAL FARRAGUT

During that hour, a colored servant employed in the White House, whose heart was blacker than his sooty skin, had left the mansion, had sought a tumble-down tenement in the slums, and had found there a vulture of a man, very white as to face, very black as to the masses of hair that fell to his shoulders.

"Dat dar boy Strong, he's dun sure goin'," said the darkey, "wid papers fur dat General Grant out West."

"How do you know?"

"Coz I listened to de door, when dey-uns wuz a-talkin'."

"He'll have to go West by Baltimore," mused the white man. "The next train leaves in half an hour. I can make it. Here, Reub, here's your pay."

He took a five-dollar gold piece from his pocket. The negro clutched at it. Then what was left of his conscience stirred within him. He said, pleadingly, hesitatingly:

"Massa, you knows I'se doin' dis coz old Massa told me to. You ain't a-goin' to hurt dat boy Strong, is you? He's a nice boy. Eberybody lubs him up dar."

"What is it to you, confound you!" snarled the man, "whether I hurt him or not? What's a boy's life to winning the war? You keep on doing what old Massa told you to do, or I'll cut your black heart out."

With a savage gesture, he thrust the trembling negro out of the dingy room. With savage haste, he packed his scanty belongings. With a pistol in his hip pocket, with a bowie-knife slung over his left breast beneath his waistcoat, with a vial of chloroform in his valise, Wilkes Booth left Washington on the trail of Tom Strong.

* * *

Hunter and hunted were in the same car. Tom little dreamed that a few seats behind him sat a deadly foe, who would stick at nothing to get the precious papers he carried. Washington swarmed with Confederate spies. The face of everybody at the White House was well known to every spy. The hunter did not have to guess where the hunted sat.

General Grant had begun his career of victory in the West. It was all-important to the Confederacy to know where his next blow was to be aimed. The papers in the scout's possession would tell that great secret. Wilkes Booth meant to have those papers soon. As the train bumped over the rough iron rails, towards Baltimore, Booth went to the forward end of the car for a glass of water and as he walked back along the aisle with a slow, lounging step, he stopped where Tom sat and held out his hand, saying:

"How do you do, Mr. Strong? I'm Mr. Barnard. I have had the pleasure of seeing you about the White House sometimes, when I have been calling on our great President. Lincoln will crush these accursed rebels soon!"

It was a trifle overdone, a trifle theatrical. Wilkes Booth could never help being theatrical. His greeting was one of the few times Tom had ever been called "Mister." He felt flattered and took the proffered hand willingly, but he searched his memory in vain for any real recollection of the striking face of the man who spoke to him. There was some vague stirring of memory about it, but certainly this had no relation to that happy life at the White House. Something evil was connected with it. Puzzled, he wondered. He had seen Booth under arms at John Brown's scaffold, but he did not remember that.

The alleged Mr. Barnard slipped into the seat beside him and began to talk. He talked well. Little by little, suspicion fell asleep in Tom's mind as his companion told of adventures on sea and land. Booth was trying to seem to talk with very great frankness, in order to lure Tom into a similar frankness about himself. He larded all his talk with protestations of fervent loyalty to the Union. Tom bethought himself of a favorite quotation his father often used from Shakespeare's great play of "Hamlet." The conscience-stricken queen says to Hamlet, her son:

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Wilkes Booth was protesting too much. The drowsy suspicion in Tom's mind stirred again. But he was but a boy and Booth was a man, skilled in all the craft of the stage. Once more his easy, brilliant talk lulled caution to sleep. Tom, questioned so skillfully that he did not know he was being drawn out, little by little told the story of his short life. But the story ended with his saying he was going to Harrisburg "on business." He was still enough on his guard not to admit he was going further than Harrisburg.

"You're pretty young to be on the way to the State Capitol on business," said the skillful actor, hoping to hear more details in answer to the half-implied sneer. But just then Tom remembered what his father had advised: "Never say anything to anybody, unless you are sure the President would wish you to say it." He shut up like a clam. Booth could get nothing more out of him. But he meant to get those dispatches out of him. They were either in the boy's pocket or his valise, probably in his pocket. When he fell asleep, the spy's time would come. So the spy waited.

Darkness came. Two smoky oil-lamps gave such light as they could. The train rumbled on in the night. There were no sleeping cars then. People slept in their seats, if they slept at all. Booth's tones grew soothing, almost tender. They served as a lullaby. Tom slept. The spy beside him drew a long, triumphant breath. His time had come.

Some time before, he had shifted his traveling-bag to this seat. Now he drew from it, gently, quietly, the little bottle of chloroform and a small sponge, which he saturated with the stupefying drug. Then he slipped his arm under the sleeping boy's head, drew him a little closer to himself, and glanced through the dusky car. Nearly everybody was asleep. Those who were not were trying to go to sleep. No one was watching. Booth pressed the sponge to Tom's nostrils. Tom stirred uneasily. "Sh-sh, Tom," purred the actor, "go to sleep; all's well." The drug soon did its work. The boy was dead to the world for awhile. Only a shock could rouse him.

The shock came. Booth's long, sensitive, skilled fingers-the fingers of a musician-ransacked his coat and waistcoat pockets swiftly, finding nothing. But beneath the waistcoat their tell-tale touches had detected the longed-for papers. The waistcoat was deftly unbuttoned-it could have been stripped off without arousing the unconscious boy-and a triumphant thrill shot through Booth's black heart as he drew from an inner pocket the long, official envelope that he knew must hold what he had stealthily sought. He was just about to slip it into his own pocket and then to leave his stupefied victim to sleep off the drug while he himself sought safety at the next station, when one of those little things which have big results occurred. The sturdy man who was snoring in the seat behind this one happened to be a surgeon. He was returning from Washington, whither he had gone to operate on a dear friend, a wounded officer. Chloroform had of course been used, but the patient had died under the knife. It had been a terrible experience for the operator. It had made his sleep uneasy. A mere whiff from the sponge Booth had used reached the surgeon's sensitive nostril. It revived the poignant memories of the last few hours. He awoke with a start that brought him to his feet. And there, just in front of him, he saw by the dim light a boy sunk in stupefied slumber and a man glancing guiltily back as he tried to thrust a stiff and crackling paper into his pocket. The sponge had fallen to the floor, but its fumes, far-spreading now, told to the practiced surgeon a story of foul play. He grabbed the man by the shoulder and awoke most of the travelers, but not Tom, with a stentorian shout: "What are you doing, you scoundrel?"

The scoundrel leaped to his feet, throwing off the doctor's hand, and sprang into the aisle, clutching the long envelope in his left hand, while his right held a revolver. He rushed for the door, pursued by half a dozen men, headed by the doctor. Close pressed, he whirled about and leveled his pistol at his

unarmed pursuers. They fell back a pace. He whirled again, stumbled over a bag in the aisle, fell, sprang to his feet once more. A brakeman opened the door. He was hurrying to see what this clamor meant. Wilkes Booth fired at him pointblank. The bullet missed, but it made the brakeman give way. Booth rushed by him, gained the platform and leaped from the slow train into the sheltering night.

The shock that waked Tom was the sound of the shot. Weak, dizzy, and sick, he knew only that some terrible thing was happening. Instinctively, his hand sought that inner pocket, only to find it empty. Then, indeed, he was wide awake. The horror of his loss burned through his brain. He shouted: "Stop him! Stop thief!" and collapsed again into his seat.

He was in fact a very sick boy. The dose of chloroform that had been given him would have been an overdose for a man. Notwithstanding his awakening, he might have relapsed into sleep and death, had not the skillful surgeon been there to devote himself to him. An antidote was forced down his throat. Willing volunteers, for of course the whole car was now awake in a hurly-burly of question and answer, rubbed life back into him. When he was a bit better, he was kept walking up and down the aisle, while two strong men held him up and his head swayed helplessly from side to side. But the final cure came when the surgeon who had kept catlike watch upon him saw that he could now begin to understand things.

"Here is something of yours," he whispered into the lad's half-unconscious ear. "That scoundrel stole it from you. When he fell, he must have dropped it on the floor. I found it there after he had jumped off the platform."

Tom's hand closed over the fateful envelope. His trembling fingers ran along its edges. It had not been opened. He had not betrayed his trust. A profound thankfulness and joy stirred within him. Within an hour he was practically himself again. Then he poured out his heart in thanks to the sturdy surgeon who had saved not only his life, but his honor. He asked his name and started at his reply:

"Dr. Hans Rolf, of York, Pennsylvania."

"Dr. Hans Rolf," repeated Tom, "but perhaps you are the grandson of the Hans Rolf I've heard about all my life. My father is always telling me of things Hans Rolf did for my grandfather and great-grandfather."

"And what is your name?" queried the doctor, surprised as may be imagined that this unknown boy should know him so well.

"Tom Strong."

"By the Powers," shouted the hearty doctor, seizing the boy's hand and wringing it as his grandfather used to wring the hand of the Tom Strongs he knew, "By the Powers, next to my own name there's none I know so well as yours. My grandfather never wearied of talking about the two Tom Strongs, father and son. The last day he lived, he told me how your great-grandfather saved his life."

"And you know he saved great-grandfather's, too," answered Tom, "and now you have saved mine."

He looked shyly at his preserver. He was still weak with the after-effects of the drug that had been given him. The Hans Rolf he saw was a bit blurred by the unshed tears through which he saw him.

"Nonsense," said the surgeon, "whatever I've done is just in the day's work. But you must stop at York and rest. I can't let my patient travel just yet, you know. And this may be your last chance to see me at home. I go into the army next month."

However, Tom was not to be persuaded to stop. Duty called him Westward and to the West he went, as fast as the slow trains of those days could carry him. But when Hans Rolf and he parted, a few hours after they had met, they were friends for life.

It took Tom two days to get from Harrisburg to Cairo, the southernmost town in Illinois. It lies at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The latter pours a mass of beautiful blue water-the early French explorers named the Ohio "the beautiful river"-into the muddy flood of the Mississippi. For miles below Cairo the blue and yellow streams seem to flow side by side. Then the yellow swallows the blue and the mighty Mississippi rolls its murky way to the Gulf of Mexico. A gunboat took the young messenger from Cairo to General Grant's headquarters.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER GUNBOATS

A Western gunboat was an odd thing. James B. Eads, an eminent engineer, who after the war built the St. Louis bridge and the New Orleans jetties, which keep the mouth of the Mississippi open, had launched a flotilla of gunboats for the government within four months of the time when the trees which went to their making were growing in the forests. On a flat-boat of the ordinary Western-river type, Mr. Eads put a long cabin, framed of stout timbers, cut portholes in the sides, front and rear of it, mounted cannon inside it, covered it with rails outside (later armor-plate was used), and behold, a gunboat. The one which sped swiftly with Tom down the Mississippi and waddled slowly with him up the Tennessee, against the current of the Spring freshets, finally landed him at Grant's headquarters.

Tom approached the tent over which headquarters' flag was flying with a beating heart. It beat against the long envelope that lay in the inner pocket of his waistcoat. He was about to finish his task and he was about to see the one successful soldier of the Union, up to that time. The Northern armies had not done well in the East-the defeat had been disgraceful and the panic sickening with the raw troops at Bull Run, Virginia, and little had been gained elsewhere-but in the West Grant was hammering out success. All eyes turned to him.

* * *

Upon the top of a low knoll, half a dozen packing-boxes were grouped in front of the tent. Two or three officers, most of them spick and span, sat upon each box except one. Upon that one there lounged a man, thick-set, bearded, his faded blue trousers thrust into the tops of dusty boots, his blue flannel shirt open at the throat, his worn blue coat carrying on each shoulder the single star of a brigadier-general.

It was General Grant, Hiram Ulysses Grant, now known as U. S. Grant. When the Confederate commander of Fort Donelson had asked him for terms of surrender, he had answered practically in two words: "unconditional surrender." The curt phrase caught the public fancy, and gave his initials a new meaning. He was long known as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant.

Born in Ohio, he had been educated at West Point, had fought well in our unjust war against Mexico, had resigned in the piping times of peace that followed, had been a commercial failure, and was running an insignificant business as a farmer in Galena, Illinois, an obscure and unimportant citizen of that unimportant town, when the Civil War began. Eight years afterwards, he became President of the United States and served as such for eight years, doing his dogged best, but far less successful as a statesman than he had been as a soldier. He was a patriot and a good man. In the last years of his life, ruined financially by a wicked partner and tortured by the cancer that finally killed him, he wrote his famous memoirs, which netted his family a fortune after the grave had closed upon this great American. He ran a race with Death to write his life. And he won the grim race.

The young second-lieutenant saluted and explained his mission. The long envelope, deeply dented with the mark of Wilkes Booth's dirty thumb and finger, had reached its destination at last. Grant took it, opened it, read it without even a slight change of expression, though it contained not only orders for the future, but Lincoln's warm-hearted thanks for the past and the news of his own promotion to be major-general. Not only Tom, but every member of his staff was watching him. The saturnine face told no one anything. The little he said at the moment was said to Tom.

"The President tells me he would like to have you given a glimpse of the front. Have you had any experience?"

"No, sir."

"When were you commissioned?"

"A week ago, sir."

"Are all the Eastern boys of your age in the army?"

"They would like to be, sir."

"Well," said Grant, with a kindly smile, "perhaps a little experience at the front may make up for the years you lack. Send him to General Mitchell, Captain," he added, turning to a spruce aide who rose from his packing-box seat to acknowledge the command.

"Pray come with me, Mr. Strong," said the captain.

Tom saluted, turned, and followed his guide. A backward glance showed him the general, his eyes now bent sternly upon Lincoln's letter, his staff eyeing him, a group of quiet, silent figures. And that was all that Tom saw, at that time, of the greatest general of our Civil War.

* * *

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