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   Chapter 5 No.5

Tom Strong, Lincoln's Scout By Alfred Bishop Mason Characters: 25523

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Inside the Confederate Lines-"Sairey" Warns Tom-Old Man Tomblin's "Settlemint"-Stealing a Locomotive-Wilkes Booth Gives the Alarm-A Wild Dash for the Union Lines.

Three days afterwards, Tom found himself "on special service," on the staff of Gen. O. M. Mitchell, whose troops were pushing towards Huntsville, Alabama. They occupied that delightfully sleepy old town, the center of a group of rich plantations, April 12, 1862, but Tom was not then with the column. Five days before, with Mitchell's permission, he had volunteered for a gallant foray into the enemy's country. He had taken prompt advantage of Lincoln's hint that he might fight a bit if he wanted to do so. He was to have his fill of fighting now.

Tom was one of twenty-two volunteers who left camp before dawn on April 7, under the command of James J. Andrews, a daredevil of a man, who had persuaded General Mitchell to let him try to slip across the lines with a handful of soldiers disguised as Confederates in order to steal a locomotive and rush it back to the Union front, burning all the railroad bridges it passed. The railroads to be crippled were those which ran from the South to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and from the East through Chattanooga and Huntsville to Memphis. A few miles from camp, Andrews gave his men their orders. They were to separate and singly or in groups of two or three were to make their way to the station of Big Shanty, Georgia, where they were to meet on the morning of Saturday, April 12. Andrews took Tom with him. For two days they hid in the wooded hills by day and traveled by night, guided by a compass and by the stars. Then their scanty supply of food was exhausted and they had to take to the open. Their rough clothing, stained a dusty yellow with the oil of the butternut, the chief dye-stuff the South then had, their belts with "C.S.A."-"Confederate States of America"-upon them, their Confederate rifles (part of the spoils of Fort Donelson), and their gray slouched hats made them look like the Confederate scouts they had to pretend to be.

Danger lurked about them and detection meant death. They did their best to talk in the soft Southern drawl when they stopped at huts in the hills and asked for food, but the drawl was hard for a Northern tongue to master and more than one bent old woman or shy and smiling girl started with suspicion at the strange accents of these "furriners." The men of the hills were all in the army or all in hiding. On the fourth day they reached a log-hut or rather a home made of two log-huts, with a floored and roofed space between them, a sort of open-air room where all the household life went on when good weather permitted. An old, old woman sat in the sunshine, her hands busy with a rag quilt, her toothless gums busy with holding her blackened clay pipe. Behind her sat her granddaughter, busy too with her spinning wheel. The two women with their home as a background made a pleasing and a peaceful picture.

"Howdy," said Andrews.

The wheel stopped. The quilt lay untouched upon the old woman's lap. She took her pipe from her mouth.

"Howdy," said she.

The conversation stopped. The hill-folk are not quick of speech.

"Please, ma'am, may I have a drink of milk?" asked Tom.

"Sairey," called the old dame, "you git sum milk."

Sairey started up from her spinning wheel, trying to hide her bare feet with her short skirt and not succeeding, and walked back of the house to the "spring-house," a square cupboard built over a neighboring spring. It was dark and cool and was the only refrigerator the hill-folk knew. While she was away, her grandmother began to talk. The man and boy would much rather she had kept still. For she peered at them suspiciously, and said:

"How duz I know you uns ain't Yankees? I hearn thar wuz a right smart heap o' Yankee sojers not fur off'n hereabouts."

At this moment Sairey fortunately returned. She brought in her brown hand an old glass goblet, without a standard, but filled to the brim with a foaming mixture that looked like delicious milk. Alas! Tom, who loathed buttermilk, was now to learn that in the hills "milk" meant "buttermilk." He should have asked for "sweet milk." Sairey handed him the goblet with a shy grace, blushing a little as the boy's hand touched hers. He lifted it eagerly to his thirsty lips, took a long draught, and sputtered and gagged. But the mistake was in his asking and the girl had gone a hundred yards to get him what she thought he wanted. He was a boy, but he was a gentleman. He swallowed the nauseous stuff to the last drop, and made his best bow as he thanked her. Suddenly the old woman said to him:

"Where wuz you born, bub?"

"New-New--" stammered Tom. His tongue did not lend itself readily to a lie, even in his country's cause. When he was still too young to understand what the words meant, his mother had told him: "A lie soils a boy's mouth." As he grew older, she had dinned that big truth into his small mind. Now, taken by surprise, the habit of his young life asserted itself and the tell-tale truth that he had been born in New York was on his unsoiled lips, when Andrews finished the sentence for him.

"New Orleans," said Andrews, coolly.

"He don't talk that-a-way," grumbled the old beldam.

"He was raised up No'th," Andrews explained, "but soon as this yer onpleasantness began, he cum Souf to fight for we-uns."

Andrews had overdone his dialect.

"Sairey," commanded the old woman, "put up the flag."

"Why, granma," pleaded Sairey from where she had taken refuge behind her grandmother's chair, "what's the use?"

"Chile, you hear me? You put up the flag."

From her refuge, Sairey held out her hands in a warning gesture, and then, before she entered one of the log-houses, she pointed to a cart-track that wound up the hill before the hut. She came out with a Confederate flag, made of part of an old red petticoat with white stripes sewn across it. It was fastened upon a long sapling. She put the staff into a rude socket in front of the platform. As she passed Tom in order to do this, she whispered to him: "You-uns run!"

"What wuz you sayin' to Bub, thar?" her grandmother asked in anger.

"I wuzn't sayin' nuthin' to nobuddy," Sarah replied.

But Andrews' ears, sharper than the old woman's, sharpened by fear, had caught the words.

"We-uns'll haf to go," he remarked. "You-uns haz bin right down good to us. Thanky, ma'am."

"Jes' wait a minute," the old woman answered. "I'll give you somethin' fer yer to eat as ye mosey 'long."

She walked slowly, apparently with pain, into the dark log-room. Sairey wrung her hand and whispered: "Run, run. Take the cart-track." Instantly the grandmother appeared on the threshold, her old eyes flashing, a double-barreled shot-gun in her shaking hands. She tried to cover both man and boy, as she screamed at them:

"You-uns stay in yer tracks, you Yankees! My man'll know what to do with you-uns."

Their guns were at her feet. There was no way to get them, even if they would have used them against a woman.

"Run!" shouted Andrews and bounded towards the cart-track.

Tom sprang after him, but not in time to escape a few birdshot which the old woman's gun sent flying after him. The sharp sting of them redoubled his speed. The second barrel sent its load far astray. They had run just in time, for from another hilltop behind the hut a dozen armed men came plunging down to the house, shouting after the scared fugitives. The raising of the flag had been the agreed-upon signal for their coming. Sairey's father and several other men had taken to the nearby hills to avoid being impressed into the Confederate army, but they adored the Confederacy, up to the point of fighting for it, and they would have rejoiced to capture Andrews and Tom. The old woman's eyes and ears had pierced the thin disguise of the raiders. So she had forced her granddaughter to fly the flag and the girl, afraid to disobey her fierce old grandmother but loath to see the boy she had liked at first sight captured, had warned him to flee. Man and boy were out of gunshot, but still in sight, when their pursuers reached the house, yelled with joy to see the abandoned guns, and ran up the cart-track like hounds hot upon the scent. As Tom and Andrews panted to the hilltop, they saw why Sairey had bidden them take the cart-track. At the summit, it branched into half a dozen lanes which wound through a pine forest. Lanes and woodlands were covered with pineneedles, the deposit of years, which rose elastic under their flying feet and left no marks by which they could be tracked. And beyond the forest was a vast laurel-brake in which a regiment could have hidden, screened from discovery save by chance. It gave the fugitives shelter and safety. Once they heard the far-off voices of their pursuers, but only once. Ere many hours they had the added security of the night.

When they found a hiding-place, beside a tiny brook that flowed at the roots of the laurel-bushes, Tom found that his wound, forgotten in the fierce excitement of the flight, had begun to pain him. His left shoulder grew stiff. When Andrews examined it, all it needed was a little care. Three or four birdshot had gone through clothing and skin, but they lay close beneath the skin, little blue lumps, with tiny smears of red blood in the skin's smooth whiteness. They were picked out with the point of a knife. The cool water of the brook washed away the blood and stopped the bleeding. Andrews tore off a bit of his own shirt, soaked it in the brook, and bandaged the shoulder in quite a good first-aid-to-the-injured way. Tom and he were none the worse, except for the loss of their guns. And that was the less serious because both knives and pistols were still in their belts.

They slept that night in the laurel-brake, forgetting their hunger in the soundness of their sleep. Just after dawn, they were startled to hear a human voice. But it was the voice of a gentle girl. It kept calling aloud "Coo, boss, coo, boss," while every now and then it said in lower tones: "Is you Yanks hyar? Hyar's suthin' to eat." At first they thought it was a trap and lay still. Finally, however, spurred by hunger, they crept out of their hiding-place and found it was Sairey who was calling them. When she saw them, she ran towards them, while the cows she had collected from their pasture stared with dull amazement.

"Is you-uns hurt?" she asked, clasping her hands in anxiety.

Reassured as to this, she produced the cold cornbread and bacon she had taken from the spring-house when she left home that morning for her daily task of gathering the family cows. Man and boy bolted down the food.

"You're good to us, Sairey," said Tom.

"Dunno as I ought to help you-uns," the girl replied, peering slyly out of her big sunbonnet and digging her brown toes into the earth, "but I dun it, kase-kase-I jes' had to. Kin you get away today?"

"We'll try."

"Whar be you goin'?"

Should they tell her where they were going? It was a risk, but they took it. They were glad they did, for Sairey was not only eager to help them on their way, but could be of real aid. Once in her life she had been at Big Shanty. She told them of a short cut through the hills, by which they would pass only one "settlemint," as the infrequent clearings in the hills were called.

"When you-uns git to Old Man Tomblin's settlemint," said Sairey, "I 'low you-uns better stand at the fence corner and holler. Old Man Tomblin's spry with his gun sometimes, when furriners don't do no hollerin'. But when he comes out, you-uns tell him Old Man Gernt's Sairey told you he'd take care of you-uns. 'N he will. 'N you kin tell Bud Tomblin-no, you-uns needn't tell Bud nothin'. Good-by."

The hill-girl held out her hand. She looked up to Andrews and smiled as she shook hands. She looked down at Tom-she was half a head taller than he-and smiled again as she shook hands. Then suddenly she stooped and kissed the startled boy. Then she fled back along the lane by which she had come, leaving the placid cows and the thankful man and boy behind her. With a flutter of butternut skirt and a twinkle of bare, brown feet, she vanished from their sight.

Thanks to her directions, they found Old Man Tomblin's settlemint without difficulty. They duly stood at the corner of the sagging rail fence and there duly "hollered." Old Man Tomblin and Bud Tomblin came out of the cabin, each with a gun, and were proceeding to study the "furriners" before letting them come in, when Andrews repeated what Old Man Gernt's Sairey had told them to say. There was an instant welcome. Bud Tomblin was even more anxious than his father to do anything Sair

ey Gernt wanted done. The fugitives' story that they had been scouting near General Mitchell's line of march and had lost their guns and nearly lost themselves in a raid by Northern cavalry was accepted without demur. Old Mrs. Tomblin, decrepit with the early decrepitude of the hill-folk, whose hard living conditions make women old at forty and venerable at fifty, cackled a welcome to them from the corner of the fireplace where she sat "dipping" snuff. "Lidy" Tomblin, the eldest daughter, helped and hindered by the rest of a brood of children, took care of their comfort. They feasted on the best the humble household had to offer. They slept soundly, albeit eight other people, including Mr. and Mrs. Tomblin and Lidy, slept in the same room. In the morning they were given a bountiful breakfast and were bidden good-by as old friends.

"I hate to deceive good people like the Tomblins," said Tom, when they were out of earshot.

"Sometimes the truth is too precious to be told," laughed Andrews.

But Tom continued to be troubled in mind as he tramped along. He made up his mind to fight for his country, the next time he had a chance, in some other way. Telling a lie and living a lie were hateful to him.

The next morning found them at Big Shanty, a tiny Georgia village, which the war had made a great Confederate camp. It was the appointed day, Saturday, April 12, 1862. Of the twenty-two men who had started with Andrews, eighteen met that morning at Big Shanty. The train for Chattanooga stopped there for breakfast on those infrequent days when it did not arrive so late that its stop was for dinner. It was what is called a "mixed" train, both freight and passenger, with many freight cars following the engine and a tail of a couple of shabby passenger cars. On this particular morning it surprised everybody, including its own train-crew, by being on time. Passengers and crew swarmed in to breakfast. The train was deserted. The time for the great adventure had come.

Before the train was seized, one thing must be done. The telegraph wire between Big Shanty and Chattanooga must be cut. If this were left intact, their flight, sure to be discovered as soon as the train-crew finished their brief breakfast, would end at the next station, put on guard by a telegram. To Tom, as the youngest and most agile of the party, the task of cutting the wire had been assigned. He was already at the spot selected for the attempt, a clump of trees a hundred yards from the station, where the wire was screened from sight by the foliage. As soon as the train came in, Tom started to climb the telegraph-pole. He had just started when he heard a most unwelcome sound.

"Hey, thar! What's you doin'?"

He turned his head and saw a Confederate sentry close beside him. He recognized him as a man with whom he had been chatting around a camp-fire early that morning. His name was Bill Coombs. Tom's ready wit stood by him.

"Why, Bill," he said, "glad to see you. Somethin's wrong with the wire. The Cunnel's sent me to fix it. Give me a boost, will ye?"

The unsuspicious Bill gave him a boost and watched him without a thought of his doing anything wrong while Tom climbed to the top of the rickety pole, cut the one wire it carried, fastened the ends to the pole so that from the ground nobody could tell it was cut, and climbed down. Bill urged him to stay and talk awhile, but Tom reminded him that sentries mustn't talk, then he strolled at first and soon ran towards the station. He had to run to catch the train. The instant Andrews saw him returning, he sprang into the cab of the locomotive.

The Locomotive Tom Helped to Steal

One of his men had already uncoupled the first three freight cars from the rest of the train. All the men jumped into the cab or the tender or swarmed up the freight-car ladders. Andrews jerked the throttle wide open. The engine jumped forward, the tender and the three cars bounding after it. The crowd upon the platform gaped after the retreating train, without the slightest idea of what was happening under their very noses. A boy came running like an antelope from the end of the platform. He jumped for the iron step of the locomotive, was clutched by a half-dozen hands and drawn aboard. But as he jumped, he heard a voice he had reason to remember call out:

"They're Yanks. That's Lieutenant Strong, a Yankee! Stop 'em! Shoot 'em!"

Livid with rage, his long black hair streaming in the wind as he ran after them, Wilkes Booth fired his pistol at them, while the motley crowd his cry had aroused sent a scattering volley after the train. Nobody was hurt then, but the danger to everybody had just begun.

There was instant pursuit. The train-crew, startled by the sound of the departing train, came running from the station. They actually started to run along the track after the flying locomotive. They jerked a hand-car off a siding and chased the fugitives with that. At a station not far off, they found a locomotive lying with steam up. They seized that and thundered ahead. Now hunters and hunted were on more even terms. The hunters reached Kingston, Georgia, within four minutes after the hunted had left. The latter had had to make frequent stops, to cut the wires, to take on fuel, to bundle into the freight cars ties that could be used to start fires for the burning of bridges, and to tear up an occasional rail. This last expedient delayed their pursuers but little. When a missing rail was sighted, the Confederates stopped, tore up a rail behind them, slipped it into the vacant place, and rushed ahead again.

Andrews was running the captured train on its regular time schedule, so he could not exceed a certain speed. From Kingston, however, where the only other train of the day met this one, he expected a free road and plenty of time to burn every bridge he passed. He did meet the regular train at Kingston, but alas! it carried on its engine a red flag. That meant that a second section of the same train was coming behind it. There was nothing to do but to wait for this second section. The railroad was single-track, so trains could pass only where there was a siding. But in every moment of waiting there lurked the danger of detection. Southerners, soldiers, and civilians, crowded about the locomotive as she lay helplessly still on the Kingston sidetrack, puffing away precious steam and precious time.

"Whar's yer passengers?" asked one man. "I cum hyar to meet up with Cunnel Tompkins. Whar's he'n the rest of 'em?"

"We were ordered to drop everything at Big Shanty," explained Andrews, "except these three cars. They're full of powder. I'm on General Beauregard's staff and am taking the stuff to him at Corinth. Jove, there's the whistle of the second section. I'm glad to hear it."

He was indeed glad. At one of his stops, he had bundled most of his men into the freight cars. The cars were battered old things without any locks. If a carelessly curious hand were to slide back one of the doors and reveal within, not powder, but armed men, all their lives would pay the forfeit. Andrews was in the cab with engineer, fireman, and Tom, who had been helping the fireman feed wood into the maw of the furnace on every mile of the run. His young back ached with the strain of the unaccustomed toil. His young neck felt the touch of the noose that threatened them all.

"Tom, you run ahead and throw that switch for us as soon as the other train pulls in," said Andrews. "We mustn't keep General Beauregard waiting for this powder a minute longer than we can help. He needs it to blow the Yankees to smithereens."

So Tom ran ahead, stood by the switch as the second section came in, and promptly threw the switch as it passed. But his train did not move and a brakeman jumped off the rear platform of the caboose of the second section, as it slowed down, told Tom he was an ass and a fool, pushed him out of the way and reset the switch.

"You plum fool," shouted the brakeman, after much stronger expressions, "didn't ye see the flag fur section three?"

Tom had not seen it, had not looked for it, but it was too true that the engine of section two also bore the red flag that meant that section three was coming behind it.

Again there was a long wait, again the sense of danger closing in upon them, again the thought of scaffold and rope, again the necessity of playing their parts with laughter and good-natured chaff amid the foes who thought them friends. The slow minutes ticked themselves away. At last the third section came whistling and lumbering in. Thank fortune, it bore no red flag. This time Tom threw the switch unchecked and then jumped on the puffing engine as she reached the main-track and sped onwards.

"Free, by Jove!" said Andrews, with a deep breath of deep relief. "Now we can burn Johnny Reb's bridges for him!"

* * *

Four minutes later, while section three of the train that had so long delayed them was still at Kingston, a shrieking locomotive rushed into the station. Its occupants, shouting a story of explanation that put Kingston into a frenzy, ran from it to an engine that lay upon a second sidetrack, steam up and ready to start. They had reached Kingston so speedily by using their last pint of water and their last stick of wood. They saved precious minutes by changing engines.

Five seconds after their arrival, the station-agent had been at the telegraph-key, frantically pounding out the call of a station beyond Andrews's fleeing train. There was no reply.

"Wire cut!" he shouted, running out of the station. Of course that had been done by the fugitives just out of sight of Kingston. "Wire cut! I kain't git no message through."

"We'll take the message!" answered the Confederate commander, from the cab of the locomotive that was already swaying with her speed, as she darted ahead.

They came near delivering the message within four miles of Kingston. Andrews's men, with a most comforting sense of safety had stopped and were pulling up a rail, when they heard the whistle of their avenging pursuer.

"Quick, boys, all aboard," Andrews called. "They're closer'n I like to have 'em."

Quickly replacing the rail, the Confederates came closer still. Around the next curve, quite hidden from sight until close upon it, the fugitives had put a rail across the track. It delayed the pursuit not one second. Whether the cowcatcher of the engine thrust it aside or broke it or whether the engine actually jumped it, nobody knew then in the wild excitement of the chase and nobody knows now. The one thing certain is that there was no delay. Very likely the rail broke. Rails of those days were of iron, not steel, and throughout the South they were in such condition that at the close of the Civil War one of the chief Southern railroads was said to consist of "a right-of-way and two streaks of rust." The locomotive whistled triumphantly and sped on.

On the Union train, Tom had crept back to the rear car along the rolling, jumping carroofs, with orders to set it on fire and stand ready to cut it off. The men inside arranged a pile of ties, thrust fat pine kindling among them, and touched the mass with a match. It burst into flame as they scuttled to the roof and passed to the car ahead. A long covered wooden bridge loomed up before them. Halfway across it, Andrews stopped, dropped the flaming car, and started ahead again. In a very few minutes the bridge would have been a burning mass, but the few minutes were not to be had. The Confederate locomotive was now close upon them. It dashed upon the bridge, drove the burning car across the bridge before it, pushed it upon a neighboring sidetrack and again whistled triumphantly as it took up the fierce chase. The two remaining cars were detached, one by one, but in vain. The game was up.

"Guess we're gone," said Andrews, tranquilly, as he looked back over the tender, now almost empty of wood, to the smokestack that was belching sooty vapor within a mile of them. "By this time, they've got a telegram ahead of us. Stop 'round that next curve in those woods. We must take to the woods. Don't try to keep together. Scatter. Steer by the North Star. Make the Union lines if you can. We've done our best."

The engine checked its mad pace, slowed, stopped.

"Good-by, boys," shouted Andrews, as he sprang from the engine and disappeared in the forest that there bordered the track. "We'll meet again."

Seven of them did meet him again. It was upon a Confederate scaffold, where he and they were hung. The other six of the fourteen who were captured were exchanged, a few months later. Three others reached the Union lines within a fortnight, unhurt. But where was Tom Strong?

* * *

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