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- Frank on the Lower Mississippi - 4/23 -
"Well, Mr. Nelson, it shall be as you propose. If you succeed, I am certain that this guerrilla station will be broken up; if you fail, it will only be what many a good officer has done before you."
"I assure you, sir, I shall leave no plan untried to insure my success," replied Frank, as he left the cabin.
"What's the matter now?" inquired Archie, as his cousin entered the wardroom. "Been getting a blowing up already?"
"Oh, no!" replied Frank. "Come in here, and I'll tell you all about it;" and he drew Archie into the office, where he proceeded to tell him all that had been determined upon. When he had finished, the latter exclaimed:
"I want to go with you. Will you take me?"
Frank thought of Archie's behavior but a few moments before, and wondered what use he could posssibly be in an expedition like the one proposed.
"If you do go," he answered, at length, "you'll be sorry for it. It requires those who are accustomed to such business; and you have never been in an action in your life. The undertaking is dangerous."
"I don't care if it is," answered Archie. "That's just the reason why I want to go--to be with you; and I warrant you I'll stick to you as long as any body."
"Besides," began Frank, "if any thing should happen to you"--
"I'm just as likely to get back as you are," replied Archie, excitedly, "and I want to go."
After considerable urging, Frank finally asked and obtained permission for Archie to accompany the expedition, at which the latter was overjoyed. He was very far from realizing the danger there was in the undertaking, and had as little idea of what would be required of him as he had of the moon.
The cousins passed the afternoon in the pilothouse, watching the movements of the guerrillas through spy-glasses, studying the "lay of the land," the directions in which the different roads ran--in short, nothing was omitted which they thought might be useful for them to know. Just before night a storm set in; the wind blew, and the rain fell in torrents; and, although Frank regarded it as something in their favor, under any other circumstances he would have preferred tumbling into bed to venturing out in it. The hammocks were not piped as usual, but all hands were to remain on deck during the night, to be ready to lend assistance in case it was required. At ten o'clock the cutter lay alongside the vessel, the crew were in their places, and Frank and his cousin, surrounded by the officers who had assembled to see them off, stood on the guards ready to start.
"Paymaster," said Frank, turning to his cousin, "hadn't you better remain on board?" (He addressed him as paymaster, for, of course, it would have been contrary to naval rules to call him by his given name in the presence of the captain.)
"No, sir," answered Archie, quickly buttoning up his pea-jacket with a resolute air. "Do you suppose I'm going to back out now? If you do, you are mistaken. I'm not afraid of a little rain."
Frank made no reply, but, after shaking hands with the captain and officers, followed his cousin into the cutter, which floated off into the darkness amid the whispered wishes for "good luck" from all the ship's company who had witnessed its departure. Frank took the helm, and turned the boat down the river. Not an oar was used, for the young officer did not know but the rebels had posted sentries along the bank, whom the least splashing in the water would alarm. Archie sat beside his cousin, with his collar pulled up over his ears, and his hands thrust into the pockets of his pea-jacket, heartily wishing that Frank had chosen a pleasanter night for their expedition. For half an hour they floated along with the current in silence, until Frank, satisfied that he had gone far enough down the river to get below the sentries, if any were posted on the bank, gave the order to use the oars, and turned the cutter's head toward the shore, which they reached in a few moments.
The crew quietly disembarked, and as the sailors gathered about him, Frank said,
"Now, men, I'm going to leave you here until the paymaster and myself can go up to the house, and accomplish what we have come for. Tom," he added, turning to the coxswain of the cutter, "you will have charge of the boat, and remember you are in no case to leave her. We may be discovered, and get into a fight. If we do, and are cut off from the river and unable to get back, I'll whistle, and you will at once answer me, so that I may know that you hear me, and pull off to the vessel. We'll take care of ourselves. Do you understand?"
The crew of the cutter were old sailors--men who had followed the sea through storm and sunshine all their lives. They had been in more than one action, too, during the rebellion, and had gladly volunteered for the expedition, supposing that they were to accompany Frank wherever he went. During the short time the latter had been on board the Boxer, they had become very much attached to him. Although he was a very strict officer, and always expected every man to do his duty promptly, he always treated them with the greatest kindness, and never spoke harshly to them. This was so different from the treatment they had usually received at the hands of their officers, that it won their hearts; and, although they admired his courage, they would have felt much better pleased had they received orders to accompany him.
"Don't you understand, Tom?" again asked Frank, seeing that the coxswain hesitated.
"Oh, yes, sir," replied the sailor, touching his hat; "I understand, sir. But, Mr. Nelson, may I be so bold as to ask one question--one favor, I may say?"
"Certainly; speak it out," answered Frank, who little imagined what thoughts were passing through the minds of his men. "What is it? Do you wish to go back to the ship, and leave us here alone?"
"No, sir," answered all the men in a breath.
"Mr. Nelson," said the coxswain, "I never yet refused duty because there was danger in it, and I'm too old a man to begin now. You have here, sir, twelve as good men as ever trod a ship's deck, and you know, sir, that when you passed the word for volunteers for this expedition, you didn't have to call twice. But we all thought that we should go with you to the end; and, to tell the truth, sir, we don't like the idea of you and the paymaster going off alone among them rebels. You are sure to get into trouble, and we want to go with you."
On more than one occasion had Frank been made aware of the affection his men cherished for him, and he felt as proud of it as he did of the uniform he wore; but he had never been more affected than he was on the present occasion.
"Men," he answered, in a voice that was none of the steadiest, "I assure you I appreciate the interest you take in my welfare, and were I going to fight, I should certainly take you with me; but sometimes two can accomplish more than a dozen. Besides, I promised the captain that I would leave you here, and I must do so. Now, remember and pull off to the vessel if you hear me whistle."
"Yes, sir," replied the coxswain; "but it'll be the first time I ever deserted an officer in trouble."
The sailors were evidently far from being pleased with this arrangement, but they were allowed no opportunity to oppose it, even had they felt inclined to do so, for Frank and his cousin speedily disappeared in the darkness.
Archie in a Predicament.
As soon as the young officers had reached the top of the bank, they paused to take their bearings, and to select some landmark that would enable them to easily find the boat again. Away off in the darkness they saw the twinkling of a light, which they knew was in the house which the guerrillas were using as their head-quarters.
"Now, Archie," said Frank, "take a good look at this big tree here" (pointing to the object in question) "so that you will know it again. The boat lies in the river exactly in a line with that tree. Now, if you should be separated from me and discovered, make straight for the cutter. But if you are cut off from it, run up the river until you get a little above where the vessel lies, and then jump in and swim out to her. Do you understand?"
"Yes," replied Archie.
"Be careful of your weapons," continued his cousin, "and keep them dry and ready for instant use. Don't be captured--whatever you do, don't be captured!"
"I'll look out for that," answered Archie "But, Frank," he continued, "why did you tell the men to pull back to the vessel if we should be cut off from the river? I should think that would be just the time you would want them to remain."
"Why," replied Frank, "the very first thing the rebels would think of, if we were discovered, would be to capture our boat, and while part of them were after us, the others would run to the river and gobble up boat, crew, and all. Then they would know that we were still on shore, and would scour the country to find us. But if the boat goes off to the vessel, the rebels will be more than half inclined to believe that we have gone off too, and, consequently, will not take the pains to hunt us which they would do if they _knew_ we were still on shore. But let us be moving; we've no time to waste."
Frank started toward the house, carefully picking his way over the wet, slippery ground, now and then pausing to listen, and to reconnoiter as well as the darkness would permit, and finally stopped scarcely a stone's throw from the building. Not a guerrilla had they seen. Not dreaming that the "yankee gun-boatmen" would have the audacity to attack them when they knew the rebels were so far superior in numbers, the latter had neglected to post sentries, and Frank was satisfied that their approach had not been discovered.
"Now, Archie," said he, as they drew up behind a tree for concealment, "you stay here, and I'll see if I can set fire to that house."
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