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   Chapter 4 No.4

Frank on the Lower Mississippi By Harry Castlemon Characters: 17125

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


A Mark for the Union.

et us now return to Frank, whom we left setting out for the house, after having given Archie emphatic instructions to remain behind the tree until his return. He did not feel at all at his ease after he had left his cousin, for he might have stationed him in the most dangerous place that could have been found; and what if Archie should be discovered and captured? He was well enough acquainted with his cousin's disposition to know that he would not surrender without a fight; but what could he do when opposed by a regiment of veteran rebels? Frank thought not of his own peril, for that was something he had fully expected to encounter before he started. This was not the first time he had voluntarily placed himself in danger; but with Archie the case was different; and Frank was several times on the point of returning to his cousin and making use of his authority, as commander of the expedition, to send him back to the boat. By the time these thoughts had passed through his mind, he had reached a log-cabin which stood at a little distance from the house; and as he halted behind it, to shelter himself from the storm, still debating upon the course he ought to pursue in regard to Archie, some one inside the cabin commenced singing-

"I'll lay ten dollars down

And chuck 'em up one by one!"

If there was any more of the song, the rebel evidently did not know it, for he kept singing these two lines over and over, now and then varying the monotony of the performance by whistling. Frank stood for some moments listening to him, and finally began moving cautiously around the cabin, to find some opening through which he could look and see what was going on inside. He presently discovered a hole between the logs, and, upon looking in, saw a man seated on the floor before a fire-place, in which burned some pine knots, engaged in whittling out an oar with his bowie-knife. On the floor near him lay one evidently just finished. At the opposite side of the room stood a bag, from the mouth of which peeped several letters.

A thought struck Frank-which would be of the most benefit, to burn the house or to capture the mail, which might contain information of the greatest importance? Undoubtedly the latter would be of the most consequence. Then he debated long and earnestly upon the chances of escaping with the mail, should he attempt its capture. The man who had charge of it was a most powerful-looking fellow, who knowing the importance of his trust, and the certainty of receiving prompt and effective assistance from his comrades, would, no doubt, fight most desperately, unless he could be taken at disadvantage and secured before he had time to think of resistance. Besides, the cabin was scarcely fifty feet distant from the house, which Frank knew was filled with men, for he could hear them walking about the rooms and talking to each other. The least unusual noise would certainly alarm them, in which case escape would be entirely out of the question Frank, we say, thought over all these things, and finally coming to the conclusion that it would be worse than useless to attempt the capture of the mail, turned his attention to the house. How was he to set fire to it?

Frank, we know, was not wanting in courage, but he had learned, by experience, that there are times when "discretion is the better part of valor." When he proposed the expedition, he had not expected to find the entire regiment quartered in the house. He had supposed that the men would find sleeping-rooms in the negro quarters, which were nearly a half mile back, while the house would be reserved for the officers. But the rebels surely would not remain up all night, and when they had all gone to bed would be the time to execute his purpose. He would not abandon his project until he had given it a trial, or fully satisfied himself that the undertaking was utterly impracticable. For the present, he would remain where he was; something might "turn up" which would be to his advantage.

At this moment a man entered the cabin, the door of which stood open, and inquired:

"Going over to-night, Stiles?"

Frank was thunderstruck, and he now saw the necessity of attempting nothing unless it promised complete success. As the reader has already learned, he was among his old enemies, the Wildcats. Upon making this discovery he was both astonished and alarmed-astonished, for it seemed to him that he could scarcely make a move in any direction without being confronted by the redoubtable Wild-cats. This was the second time he had found himself among them before he was aware of it. He was alarmed, because he knew, by experience, the treatment he would receive if he should fall into their hands without the prospect of an immediate exchange.

But his attention was again drawn to the men in the cabin.

"Yes," replied Stiles, in answer to his companion's question, "I'm going over to-night-allers makin' due 'lowance for bein' ketched by the Yanks."

"Here's some mail, then," continued the man, thrusting several letters into the bag. "How soon do you start?"

"Jest as soon as Tibbs comes with the up-country mail, an' I get the kernel's letters. Was you takin' a chaw of tobaker, Bob?"

"No, I wasn't," replied the other, quickly thrusting his hand into his pocket, as if to protect the precious article. "Tobacco is scarce."

"Now, Bob," said Stiles, "I know you've got some. Me an' you's allers been good friends."

The rebel could not withstand this appeal, although he produced his "plug" very reluctantly, and as he handed it to his companion, said:

"Stiles, you're a dead beat. Go easy on that, now, if you please, because it's all there is in the regiment."

The rebel cut off a huge piece of the weed, and, thrusting it into his cheek, went on with his work, while Bob returned to his quarters. He had scarcely quitted the cabin before Frank had all his plans laid. He would go back after Archie, and together they would lie in wait on the bank of the river, and, if possible, capture that mail. With this determination, he was moving slowly away from the cabin, when a door, which he had not before noticed, suddenly opened, and Stiles came out, and turning the corner, stood face to face with Frank, and scarcely an arm's length from him. With the latter, retreat without discovery was, of course, impossible. There was but one course he could pursue, and that presented but a small chance for success. He was, however, allowed no time for deliberation, for the rebel, quickly recovering from his surprise, turned to run; but with one bound Frank overtook him, and throwing him to the ground, caught him by the throat, stifling a cry for help that arose to his lips. This it was that had alarmed the colonel and Archie; and had the former investigated the matter, Frank would again have been a prisoner in the hands of the Wild-cats.

Stiles struggled desperately to free himself from the strong grasp that held him, until Frank pulled one of his revolvers from the pocket of his pea-jacket and presented it at his head.

"Do you surrender?" he asked, releasing his hold of the rebel's throat.

"Yes," replied Stiles, faintly. "Don't shoot, Yank!"

"You shall not be harmed if you behave yourself. Have you any weapons?"

"No! They are all in the shanty!"

Frank, after searching the rebel's pockets and satisfying himself of the truth of this statement, continued:

"Get up! Now, I know you have friends all around you, but if you have the least desire to live, you'll not make any noise; although you may alarm the camp, it will not save you. Do you understand?"

"Have I got a pair of ears?" asked the rebel.

"Well, if you have, you hear what I say," returned Frank. "Now go this way," he added, pointing toward the river.

The rebel, who had a wholesome fear of the revolver which Frank held in his hand, ready cocked, obeyed, without the slightest hesitation, and they reached the bank of the river, where the cutter lay, without being discovered.

"Now," said Frank, "I want to ask you a few questions. Where do you keep the boat in which you were going to carry that mail?"

"In the creek, jest above where that ar' gunboat lies, replied Stiles."

"How many of you were to go?"

"Two-me an' another feller."

"Well, now, the colonel won't find you when he wants you. What will he do?"

"Oh, he'll send some body else. The mail must go, an' it makes no odds who takes it, so long as he don't get ketched."

"That's all I want to know," sa

id Frank. Then, going to the top of the bank, he called out:

"Tom, come up here!"

The coxswain soon made his appearance, and Frank said:

"Now, Stiles, you're a prisoner."

"Dog gone ef I keer," he replied, "so long as I get plenty of grub an' tobaker."

The rebel was marched down the bank, and Frank again bent his steps toward the house, intending to find his cousin, and, with his assistance, to capture the mail. When he arrived at the tree where he had left Archie, the latter was not to be seen. This, however, did not give him any uneasiness, for Archie, he thought, had doubtless gone back to the cutter. Frank had already made up his mind to go back after him, when he saw a man walk up to the cabin in which he had first discovered the man who was now his prisoner, and heard him call out:

"Massa Stiles! de mail all ready, sar!"

Receiving no answer, the negro walked into the cabin, but finding it vacant, went out to make the report to the colonel that Stiles was not to be found. From this Frank knew that he had no time to lose. Stiles had told him that some one else would be sent with the mail, and as it was all ready, a man would soon be found to take his place. If he went back after Archie, he might be too late. He must attempt it alone, and unaided. Walking out from behind the tree, he started toward the creek, where lay the boat in which the mail was to be carried.

The creek he found without difficulty; but the boat was evidently hidden away, for he searched up and down the bank for it without success. If he found it, it was his intention to cut it loose, and allow it to drift out into the river, thus depriving the rebels of the means of carrying their mail. But failing in this, he ran up the bank, and awaited the coming of the rebels. It was a hazardous undertaking to attempt the capture of two men, both of whom were, no doubt, well armed; but Frank had great confidence in the looks of his revolvers, and hoped to accomplish his object without alarming the rebels in the house.

He had waited perhaps a quarter of an hour, when he heard footsteps approaching, and presently he discovered the two men for whom he had been watching. One carried the mail-bags, and the other a pair of oars, the same, no doubt, which Stiles had but a short time before completed. Frank waited until they were almost upon him, and then sprang up with a revolver in each hand, which he pointed straight at the heads of the men, exclaiming:

"You're my prisoners. Don't make any resistance."

The rebels were astonished, and the man who carried the mail-bags threw them down and held his arms above his head, in token of surrender. But the other, after regarding the officer for a moment, as if to make sure that it was a human being with whom he had to deal, dropped his oars, and before his captor was aware of his intention, drew a pistol and fired. Frank felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder, and the revolver which he held in that hand fell from his grasp. He had received his first wound, but although thoroughly frightened, he did not lose his presence of mind. If he had, he would soon have been recalled to a sense of his dangerous situation, for the rebel again cocked his revolver; but this time Frank fired first, and the rebel sank to the ground with a loud yell. In an instant Frank turned upon the other; but he appeared to be too much under the influence of fear to lend his comrade any assistance.

All thought of concealment was now out of the question. The rebels in the house had, of course, been alarmed, and Frank's only chance for escape with his prisoner and the mail was to reach the cutter as soon as possible, and pull off to the vessel. Hastily relieving the prisoner of his weapons, he directed him to pick up the mail and follow the course he pointed out.

The prisoner did as he was ordered; but they had not gone far when a loud yelling announced that the rebels in the house had been alarmed, and were in pursuit. Frank kept close behind his prisoner, who, through fear of the revolver, ran at a rapid rate, but they had further to run to reach the cutter than the guerrillas, and the latter gained rapidly. The prisoner, who was not long in discovering this, slackened his pace considerably, although he appeared to be doing his utmost. Frank, however, was not deceived. Thrusting his revolver into his pocket, he seized the rebel by the nape of the neck, and helped him over the ground in a manner more rapid than agreeable. Had the man been aware of the fact that his captor had but one arm that he could use, he might not have submitted so quietly as he did. Frank, whose whole mind was wrapped up in the idea of saving his prisoner and the mail, did not stop to think of this, but pushed his man ahead to such good advantage that they succeeded in reaching the cutter before their pursuers. He marched the rebel down the bank in the most lively manner, and tumbled him into the boat, where he was instantly seized and secured.

The sailors, who had heard the noise of the pursuit, and waited impatiently for the appearance of their officer, were all in their places, and as Frank sprang in, he shouted:

"Shove off-lively now, lads!"

The cutter was speedily pushed from the shore, and the oars got out and handled by twelve strong fellows, all good oarsmen.

"Let fall-give away together," again commanded Frank, who, in spite of the pain of his wound, began to chuckle over his good luck in securing the mail. "The rebs will give us a volley," he continued, "unless we get out of sight in the darkness before they reach the bank. So, pick her up, lads, and walk right away with her."

The sailors, understanding the order, and rejoicing in the escape of their young officer, whose safety and well-being they regarded as infinitely of more importance than their own, gave way manfully on the muffled oars, which made no sound as they bent beneath the sturdy strokes, and the cutter flew noiselessly through the water, The rebels reached the bank but a few moments after the cutter had left, but neither seeing nor hearing any thing of her, they contented themselves with uttering their yells, and firing a volley into the darkness in the direction they supposed the boat had gone.

But their attention was soon called to another quarter, for a bright flame shot up from the house. The boat's crew saw it, and could scarcely refrain hurrahing; but knowing that they were not yet out of range of the guerrillas' rifles, they gave vent to their jubilant feelings by redoubling their efforts at the oars.

"Mr. Nelson," whispered the coxswain, "may I be allowed to say that was well done, sir!"

"I didn't do that, Tom," answered Frank, in a faint voice, as he gazed in surprise at the burning house, and thought of his cousin. "Is Paymaster Winters in the cutter?"

Frank hardly dared to ask the question, for if his cousin had been in the boat he would have known it before that time.

"The paymaster!" repeated the coxswain; "no, sir. He went away with you, sir, and I haven't seen him since. He's missing, that's a fact."

Frank felt ready to faint on hearing this, and very bitterly did he censure himself for allowing his cousin to accompany him! But regrets were useless; the mischief had been done, and could not be undone. He had one hope, however, to which he still clung-that Archie might be on board the vessel. Perhaps, not daring to attempt to find his way back to the cutter, through fear of capture, he had swam on board and was now safe. He would soon know.

In a few moments they had reached the Boxer, and as the cutter came along side, Frank seized the mail-bags and sprang out. After giving the officer of the deck, who met him at the gangway, instructions in regard to the prisoners, he ran up the stairs that led to the wardroom. Here he met the captain, who, taking him familiarly by the arm, led him into the cabin, exclaiming:

"Mr. Nelson, I congratulate you, sir; it was well done, sir! The house is all in a blaze."

"Captain," said Frank, "I didn't do that, sir. Is the paymaster on board?

"Why, no, sir; not unless he came with you."

"I haven't seen him, captain, since I left him within a short distance of that house. If he is not on board, sir, he's out there yet, and he has fired the building."

"Why, Mr. Nelson," exclaimed the captain, for the first time noticing Frank's pale face and useless hand, from which the blood was dripping, "you are wounded, sir. Orderly, orderly, send the doctor here at once."

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