One cool summer afternoon Hiram Baker, David Payne, and Simeon Grogan came out of the hotel in Elizabethton, Eastern Tennessee, to the front porch. As each emerged from the barroom he drew the back of his horny hand across his mouth and sighed contentedly.
Every one of the trio was past three-score, lank, stoop-shouldered, but tough, wiry and powerful of muscle and build. They wore slouch hats, hickory shirts, without coat or waistcoat, and the trousers of Baker were tucked in the tops of his boots. The other two had coarse, heavy unblackened shoes, and the hair of all was long and straggling. Hi Baker showed a grizzled moustache and long goatee. Dave Payne and Sim Grogan's beard covered their faces almost to the eyes and came down over their chests. In every instance it was plentifully sprinkled with gray. Despite the rough, outdoor life led by the party, they certainly showed their years.
Hi Baker lived in East Tennessee all through the great Civil War, had scouted among the mountains and helped to burn the bridges of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, an act, in the circumstances, contrary to the usages of war, and for which more than one Unionist underwent death by hanging or shooting. Dave Payne and Sim Grogan were ex-Confederates, who had helped hunt down the Unionists, and, incidentally, met with more than one narrow escape themselves while engaged in the work.
Hi Baker placed his back against one of the columns of the hotel, slung his left foot in front of the right ankle, and rested it on the toe of the boot. In this pose he smoked his corn-cob pipe, thrust his hands in his trousers pockets, and bent his keen gray eyes, under his shaggy brows, upon the faces of his companions. Dave Payne crossed his legs, leaned back in his dilapidated armchair and smoked a twisted black cigar, whose odor was ranker than that of the corn-cob pipe. Sim Grogan rested his feet on top of the railing, and, taking out his jack-knife, slowly whittled a piece of pine. He was not smoking, because he had done little else but smoke since dinner, and didn't feel any special call to indulge for a coming half hour or so.
"Hi, do you know what this arternoon minds me of?" asked Grogan, contracting his left eyebrow and squinting at the neighbor who stood on his feet.
"I sholy don't," replied Hi, without removing his pipe.
"The burning of the railroad bridge at Zollicoffer."
"That was late in the fall, Sim, instid of summer."
"Ye're right, but the weather was powerful like summer fur a part of the time. I b'leve yo' had a hand in that, Hi?"
Baker removed his pipe and grinned.
"I reckon yo' ain't a thousand miles from the truth, Sim; helped a right smart to send that bridge up in smoke, likewise several others in this part of the world."
"Who started the bus'ness, Hi?" asked Dave Payne; "I've heerd all sorts of stories, but warn't ever quite sartin; I reckon yo' oughter know some as to how it come about."
Hi smoked a minute in silence. Then he shifted his left foot to the floor and rested the other foot on its toe. Seeing that his pipe was burning so freely that it would run a while, he replied:
"It sholy oughter be knowed purty well; the chap who set the bus'ness on foot was Carter, the gospel sharp."
"You mean William B., of Elizabethton."
"The same; he was the brother of General Carter. The preacher was eighty odd years old when he died (July, 1902). He took powerful good care to keep the names of us all a secret till long after the war, when no harm could come from telling who they was."
"The Yank government went back on you, Hi," remarked Dave Payne, with a chuckle.
"Yo're right; if we had knowed how we was going to be sarved, there wouldn't have been a bridge hurt. But we didn't lay it up agin the government, for you'uns kept it so busy in other parts that they couldn't send us the troops they promised."
"Reckon we did make things rather lively," remarked Grogan.
The statement of Baker, the Union scout, was true. The burning of the bridges of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad was the conception of the Rev. William B. Carter, of Elizabethton, Tenn., and was sanctioned by President Lincoln and the War Department, who promised to send a strong military force into the section, but were unable to do so.
I have not the space to give even a summary of the history of the burning of the railway bridges in East Tennessee. Some six or eight were destroyed, the work being carried out with the utmost secrecy, for those who took part knew the risk each man ran.
"Up to within twenty-four hours of the burning of the bridge at Zollicoffer (now Bluff City) only four men knew of it," said Hi. "They were Dan Stover, Sam Cunningham, Harrison, Hendrix, and his son, who was only a boy. Colonel Stover picked out thirty men, and I was one of 'em, though I wasn't much more than a kid at the time. All come from the neighborhood of Elizabethton, and we was swore into the military service at Reuben Miller's barn, at the head of Injin Creek. Colonel Stover explained the plan to us, adding that we was all to be paid for our work, and General Thomas, who was believed to be near the borders of East Tennessee, would advance to our protection, finish the destruction of the bridges and take care of all of us against you Johnnies. Wal, as I remarked, he didn't do it.
"Doc Cameron furnished the turpentine, and we had about a cord of fat pine knots with us. We crossed the Watauga at Drake's Ford, a mile east of Elizabethton, went through Turkey Town and down Injin Creek, where some more men j'ined us. When we got within a half mile of Zollicoffer we halted and dismounted near a stretch of woods. The horses was hidden and guarded by Elijah Simerley, Pleasant Williams, and Ben Treadway. Colonel Stover told the men what was to be done, and said he wished no one to go with him who was afraid of the risk he would have to run. Several fell out of line. Colonel Stover and Gilson Collins had masks over their faces, but no others of us was disguised in any way.
"We went forward like so many Injin scouts. Reaching the south end of the bridge, we didn't see any guards at first. There some of the men were faced up the river and others down the river. I was one of the six or eight who hurried through the bridge almost to the north end. Two guards was under the bridge. Finding themselves caught, they surrendered and begged not to be shot. Several of our men wished to kill them, but the officers wouldn't allow it.
"Wal, the bus'ness didn't take us long. We made a big pile of knots, poured the turpentine over 'em, touched 'em off and then hurried back to where we had left our horses. We took one of the guards with us."
"He was that onery cuss, __________ _________," interrupted Dave Payne.
"He was that identical dog. There warn't any doubt that he had recognized several of us. We hadn't rode far when we stopped to decide what to do with him. One of our party was Jonas Keen had once worked for him, and the two spoke to each other as old acquaintances. Nearly all the party urged that should be shot. They said he would be sure to betray us if released, and their lives would pay for it. Two things saved him. Keen himself interceded for him, and the cur dropped on his knees, swore that nothing in the world could induce him to give us away, and begged and whined and made so many promises that we let him go."
"And how did he sarve yo'?" asked Grogan with another grin.
"As soon as he got out of our reach, he nearly broke his neck hurrying back to your lines, where he told the name of every one that he knew, and, to make good measure, added the names of several chaps who warn't with us."
At this point in his story, Hi Baker found his pipe had been neglected so long that the fire was out. He drew a big match, with its trailing line of sulphur smoke, along the sides of his linsey-woolseys, punched down the tobacco with his forefinger, and smoked so vigorously that the tiny flame quickly caught. Observing the interested expression on the faces of his friends, he continued:
"______ made oath of his story to the Confederate authorities. The first man arrested was young Hendrix. Although he, afterward the captain, as you know, was one of the most active in burning the Zollicoffer bridge, he offered a good alibi, and was released under promise to stay within the Confederate lines and to report twice a day. He broke his promise, got away, and warned Keen and others of their danger in time for them to escape."
"What yo' say about ________ is right," remarked Payne. "I was nigh enough to hear him swear to the names of the chaps that burned that bridge. Yours was among em."
"I knowed it," said Baker, "and you started out to fetch me in.
"Correct agin, except so fur as fetching in; them was the official orders, but it was understood that we needn't be very partic'lar about fetching yo' in, so we got yo'."
"Of course, that was the rule on each side; it was so easy to draw bead onto a chap and give him the witch's parole, that it was done oftener than most folks think. If I ain't mistook, Dave," said Hi with a grin, yo come nigh gettin' me too."
"As sure as a gun. Up in the Gap, just at dusk, I seen yo' a-settin' on a log, and not thinking nothing. How was it, Hi, that jest as I war bringing my old Betsey to a level you dropped on tother side of the old tree, where I couldn't get a show at yo'?"
"I fell off; I was clean wore out; I'd been on the tramp for the most of two days and nights, and when I nodded a leetle too much, I dived off the log, kerfiummix to the ground. That made me wide awake. I sorter felt it was a warning, and I peeped over the tree to lam whether anything wrong was going on. I catched a glimpse of yo' standing up and looking round, as if yo' didn't understand what it ill meant. Then I drawed bead on yo' and let fly, but I was in too much of a hurry, and too tired to make good aim."
"Yo' come as near as I cared to have yo' come; see that?"
Payne turned his head sideways and pulled at the lobe of his ear. A piece the size of a dime had been nipped off many a long year before.
"Couldn't have come much nigher without h'isting me over the big Divide."
"Does look a leetle that way," commented Baker, resuming his smoke.
Grogan slowly let down his feet from the railing, stopped whittling, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair, so that his shoulders were hunched up, twisted down his left eyebrow, as he was in the habit of doing, and drawled:
"Things was powerful mixed in these parts during them times. Yo' shorely didn't know who yo' could trust. Me and Jim Dady took each other for home-bred Yanks, and didn't find out our mistake till we had exchanged three shots and I catched him in the leg."
"I reckon, Sirn, there warn't ho mistake when you and Dick Swinton and Bob Orrix set out to scoop me in, eh, Sim?" asked Baker.
"There was the biggest kind of a mistake, Hi; we three was laying 'long the road not a half mile from Carter's Station, waiting for yo', for we knowed it was about time for yo' to visit yo'r home to See the old folks. It was so near dark that we couldn't see very plain, but we was all shore it was yo'rself when yo' rid round the corner jest beyant that patch o' woods. I riz up and sung out for yo' to throw up yo'r hands, but yo' turned and dashed off, as hard as yo'r critter could go. The other two fired; I'd done the same, but yo' pitched out of the saddle afore I could draw bead.
We run forrid from where we was laying in ambush, and when we got to the side of the road, with yo'r horse running like mad, we seed it warn't yo', but Len Demarest, one of our own friends."
"I've heerd of that leetle mistake, Sim; it was lucky for me that Len Demarest went up the road that day ahead of me, for I was close behind."
"Yes; lucky for yo', but not very lucky for Len," said Grogan grimly; "Len was one of the hottest secesh in Tennessee; and expected to be app'inted a captain that same week. We was mighty cut up over it. After talking it over, it was agreed that Dick and Bob would tote the body home, while I went ahead and made it right with his ole woman. I couldn't think of what was best to say, but when I seen his wife washing in her front yard I talked with her a few minutes, keeping putting off the unpleasant duty, till I catched sight of Dick and Bob coming up the road with the body. Then I braced and told her I had to apologize for a little mistake we boys had made, but it looked to me as if she had the laugh onto us. We'd shot her husband Len by mistake for Hi Baker. She remarked that we oughter be ashamed of ourselves for being such fools, and then resumed her washining. Howsumever," added Grogan, with a lugubrious look and a deep sigh, "the widder got her revenge onto me."
"She married me. Boys, let's have a
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