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   Chapter 6 No.6

Tom Strong, Lincoln's Scout By Alfred Bishop Mason Characters: 10941

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Tom up a Tree-Did the Confederate Officer See Him?-A Fugitive Slave Guides Him-Buying a Boat in the Dark-Adrift in the Enemy's Country.

At first, Tom was up a tree. When he jumped from the abandoned locomotive, his mind was working as quickly as his body. He reasoned that the Confederates would expect them all to run as fast and as far away as they could; that they would run after them; that they would very probably catch him, utterly tired out as he was, so tired that even fear could not lend wings to his leaden feet; that the pursuit, however, would not last long, because the Confederates would wish to reach a station soon, in order both to report their success and to send out a general alarm and so start a general search for the fugitives; and that he would best hide as near at hand as might be. In other words, he thought, quite correctly, that the best thing to do is exactly what your enemy does not expect you to do. He picked out a big oak tree quite close to the track, its top a mass of thick-set leaves such as a Southern April brings to a Southern oak. He climbed it, nestled into a sheltered crotch high above the ground, and waited. He did not have to wait long. He could still hear the noise of his comrades plunging through the woods when the Confederate engine drew up beneath his feet. Before it stopped, the armed men who clustered thick upon locomotive and tender were on the ground and running into the woods. A gallant figure in Confederate gray led them. He heard the rush of them, then a shot or two, exultant yells, and ere long the tramp of returning feet. They came back in half a dozen groups, bringing with them three of his comrades in flight, less fortunate than he, at least less fortunate up to that time. Andrews was one of the prisoners. He had slipped and fallen, had strained a sinew, and had lain helpless until his pursuers reached him. Tom, peering cautiously through his leafy shelter, saw that his late leader was limping and was held upright by a kindly Confederate, who had passed his arm about him.

"'Tain't fur," said his captor, cheerily, "hyar's the injine."

"The Yank's goin' fur," sneered a soldier of another kind, "he's goin' to Kingdom Cum, blast him!" He lifted his fist to strike the helpless man, but the young officer in command caught the upraised arm.

"None of that," he said, sternly. "Americans don't treat prisoners that way. You're under arrest. Put down your gun and climb into the tender. Do it now and do it quick." Sulkily the brute obeyed. "Lift him in," went on the officer to the man who was supporting Andrews. This was gently done. The other two captives climbed in. So did the Confederates. Their officer turned to them.

"You've done your duty well," he said. "You've been chasing brave men. They've done their duty well too.

"'For such a gallant feat of arms

Was never seen before.'"

Tom started with surprise. The young officer was quoting from Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome." The boy had stood beside his mother's knee when she read him the "Lays" and had often since read them himself.

That start of surprise had almost been Tom's undoing. He had rustled the leaves about him. A tiny shower of pale green things fell to the ground.

"Captain, there's somebody up that tree," said a soldier, pointing straight at the point where Tom sat. "I heard him rustle."

The captain looked up. The boy always thought the officer saw him and spared him, partly because of his youth-he knew the fate the prisoners faced-and partly because of his admiration for "the gallant feat of arms." Be that as it may, he certainly took no step just then to make another prisoner. Instead he laughed and answered:

"That's a 'possum. We haven't time for a coon-hunt just now. Get ahead. We'll send an alarm from the next station and so bag all the Yankees."

The engine, pushing the recaptured one before it, started and disappeared around the end of the short curve upon which Andrews had made his final stop. For the moment at least, Tom was safe. But he knew the hue-and-cry would sweep the country. Everybody would be on the lookout for stray Yankees. And as everybody would think the estrays were all going North, Tom decided to go South. He slid down the tree, looked at his watch, studied the sunlight to learn the points of the compass, drew his belt tighter to master the hunger that now assailed him, and so began his southward tramp, a boy, alone, in the enemy's country.

That part of Georgia is a beautiful country and Tom loved beauty, but it did not appeal to him that afternoon. He was hungry; he was tired; the excitement that had upheld him through the hours of flight on the captured engine was over. He plodded through a little belt of forest and found himself in a broad valley, with a ribbon of water flowing through it. He stumbled across plowed fields to the little river. A dusty road, with few marks of travel, meandered beside the stream. He was evidently near no main highway. Not far away a planter's home, with a stately portico, gleamed in the sunlight through its screen of trees. In the distance lay a little village. There was food in both places and he must have food. To which should he go? It was decided for him that he was to go to neither. As he slipped down the river bank, to quench his burning thirst and to wash his dusty face and hands, he almost stepped upon a negro who lay full length at the foot of the bank, hidden b

ehind a tree that had been uprooted by the last flood and left stranded there. The boy was scared by the unexpected meeting, but not half as much as the negro.

"Oh, Massa," said the negro, on his knees with outstretched hands, "don' tell on me, Massa. I'll be your slabe, Massa. Jes' take me with you. Please don't tell on me. You kin make a lot o' money sellin' me, Massa. Please lemme go wid you."

"What is your name?" asked Tom.

"Morris, Massa."

"Where did you come from?"

"From dat house, Massa." He pointed to the big house nearby.

"And what are you doing here?"

Little by little, Morris (reassured when he found Tom was a Northern soldier and like himself a fugitive) told his story. He had been born on this plantation. Reared as a house-servant, he could read a little. He had learned from the newspapers his master took that a Northern army was not far away. He made up his mind to try for freedom. His master kept dogs to track runaways, but no dog can track a scent in running water. It was not probable his flight would be discovered until after nightfall. So he had stolen to his hiding-place in the afternoon, intending to wade down the tiny stream as soon as darkness came. Two miles below, the stream merged itself into a larger one. There he hoped to steal a boat, hide by day and paddle by night until he reached the Tennessee. "Dat ribber's plum full o' Massa Lincum's gunboats," he assured Tom.

"How are you going to live on the journey?" asked the boy.

"I spec' dey's hen-roosts about," quoth Morris with a chuckle, "and I'se got a-plenty to eat to start wid. Dis darkey don' reckon to starve none."

"Give me something to eat, quick!"

Morris willingly produced cornpone and bacon from a sack beside him. Tom wanted to eat it all, but he knew these precious supplies must be kept as long as possible, so he did not eat more than half of them. The two agreed to keep together in their flight for freedom. As soon as it was dark, they began their wading. The two miles seemed an endless distance. The noises of the night kept their senses on the jump. Once a distant bloodhound's bay scared Morris so much that his white teeth clattered like castanets. Once the "too-whit-too" of a nearby owl sent Tom into an ecstasy of terror. He fairly clung to Morris, who, just ahead of him, was guiding his steps through the shallow water. When he found he had been scared by an owl, he was so ashamed that he forced himself to be braver thereafter. At last they reached their first goal, the larger river. Here Morris's knowledge of the ground made him the temporary commander of the expedition. He knew of a little house nearby, the home of a "poor white," who earned part of his precarious livelihood by fishing. Morris knew just where he kept his boat. There was no light in the little house and no sound from it as they crept stealthily along the bank to the tree where the boat was tied. Tom drew his knife to cut the rope.

"No, Massa," whispered Morris. "Not dat-a-way. Ef it's cut, dey'll know it's bin tuck and dey'll s'picion us. Lemme untie it. Den dey'll t'ink it's cum loose and floated away. 'N dey'll not hurry after it. Dey'll t'ink dey kin fin' it in some cove any time tomorrer."

Morris was right. It did not take him long to untie the clumsy knot. Three oars and some fishing-tackle lay in the flat-bottomed boat. They got into it, pushed off, and floated down the current without a sound. Morris steered with an oar at the stern. Once out of earshot, they rowed as fast as the darkness, intensified by the shadows of the overhanging trees, permitted.

Just before they had pushed off, Tom had asked:

"What is this boat worth, Morris?"

"Old Massa paid five dollars fer a new one jest like it, dis lastest week."

Tom's conscience had told him that even though a fugitive for his life in the enemy's country he ought not to take the "poor white's" boat without paying for it. He unbuttoned an inside pocket in his shirt and drew out a precious store of five-dollar gold pieces. There were twenty of them, each wrapped in tissue-paper and the whole then bound together in a rouleau, wrapped in water-proofed silk, so that there would be no sound of clinking gold as he walked. He figured that the three oars and the sorry fishing tackle could not be worth more than the boat was, so he took out two coins and put them in a battered old pan that lay beside the stump to which the boat was tied. There the "cracker"-another name for the "poor white"-would be sure to see them in the morning. As a matter of fact he did. And they were worth so much more than his vanished property that he was inclined to think an angel, rather than a thief, had passed that way. Tom's conscientiousness spoiled Morris's plan of having the owner think the boat had floated away, but the "cracker" was glad to clutch the gold and start no hue-and-cry. He was afraid that if he recovered his boat, he would have to give up the gold. It was much cheaper to make another. So he kept still.

And still, very still, the fugitives kept as they paddled slowly down the stream until the first signs of dawn sent them into hiding. They hid the boat in the tall reeds that fringed the mouth of a tiny creek and they themselves crept a few yards into the forest, ate very much less than they wanted to eat of what was left of Morris's scanty store of food, and went to sleep. They slept until-but that is another story.

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