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Chapter 9: a Leap for freedom.

  • A Leap for freedom.
  • -- our wardrobe. -- a friendly alligator. -- traveling by night

About the first of October Tom and I found the opportunity to suit us. The train was loaded and guarded about as the wrecked one. We received two days ration-a piece of corn bread about the size of a brick to each man — no meat this time. Only one guard in our car, and four or five on top.

It was about eleven o'clock. The train was running ten or twelve miles per hour. The men were quarreling, growling and swearing because they were too weak and tired to stand, and had not room enough to [86] lie down. The guard had braced himself against one side of the open door. There were no lights on the train except on the engine and caboose. All the rest was dark as any other freight train. Tom and I worked ourselves over close to the door. We stood and looked out at the star-light night. We tried to seem indifferent, and growled for room, like the rest. But I felt strangely depressed. Some demon of cowardice would keep whispering to me: “You will probably dash your brains out; or you will be seen by the guard and shot to death; or may be you will only break a few bones, so you can't get away, and you will linger and die a cripple, and your friends will never know what has become of you.”

These dark probabilities would keep presenting themselves, and I had to fight them back. Finally we sat down in the door. We put our feet out-then drew them in, and squatted there; then hung them out again. We talked of many things to those next to us; but all the time we thought of only one thing. We were sitting side by side on the floor, with our feet hanging out at the door. [87] The guard saw us, but paid no attention. He doubtless thought we had more sense than to jump off a running train. We ran into a cut twelve or fifteen feet deep. It was dark. I nudged Tom. He nodded. I put my hands on the edge of the floor and dropped off. I struck in the ditch. The motion of the train hurled me violently against the ground, but it was soft mud and water. I lay very still till the train went by. When it got two or three hundred yards up the road I got up. I was not hurt. All those presentiments of danger had miscarried. My feelings arose accordingly. I was sure now that I would reach our lines. I walked along the railroad in the direction the train had gone. Tom was about two hundred yards from where I fell. I asked why he didn't jump out sooner. He said the train seemed to him to go faster after I jumped. He fell on harder ground, and had bruised his shoulder.

We climbed out of the cut, sat on the fence, and looked at the north starthat friend universal of wandering man. Now for fear hundred miles of star-light [88] walking, bearing ever a little west of that star. Tom had a pair of miserable old boots. I was barefooted. We each had a blouse and pants in tolerable preservation. Our shirts were worn out. We had no baggage, no tools — not even a pocket-knife. We were outlaws. Not a crime in the catalogue would so surely alienate us from everybody and debar us from sympathy, as the fact that we were U. S. soldiers in Dixie.

We jumped off the fence and started. Our hearts were stout, if our legs were a little shaky. We traveled across corn and cotton fields till gray light streaked the eastern horizon, then entered a thicket, and as it grew light we worked our way into it. It proved to be a large cypress swamp, surrounded by a dense thicket. By the edge of the oozy swamp we broke off twigs and branches of trees, and made us a bed, and as the sun mounted up the sky, we stretched our weary limbs and slept.

We agreed to watch and sleep by turns; but I think the watcher slept as soundly as the sleeper. The one thing we dreaded was [89] the possibility of prowling hounds tracking us up and calling attention to us by their bark; but here we felt safe, for on a log, not more than fifty feet away in the swamp, lay an alligator about ten feet long, and we knew no hound would care to hunt along the shore of that swamp. The reptile lay there for two hours about the middle of the day, and we regarded him as a friend, although we did not desire any closer intimacy.

In the afternoon we ate one ration of our bread, and before the sun went down we worked our way through the jungle to its northwest end; from which, as soon as it grew dark, we again set forth on our journey, crossing, fields, woods, roads and streams. We traveled quietly. When we came onto a road, we stopped, listened, and if we heard no sound we crossed it quickly. Even if it ran our course we would not follow it, for fear of meeting a patrolman.

During this second night we came onto a field of sweet potatoes. We dug and ate some of them, and put some in our blouse pockets for next day. We traveled well [90] that night, going probably twenty miles; but before day we ran into a swamp on our track, and being tired, we stopped and waited for light, when we worked into it, and spent the second day much as we did our first. We ate the last of our bread and as much new sweet potato as we dared.

The third night we had a hard time. Our course lay mostly through woods, and we ran into three or four swamps, and had to make wide detours to pass around them. We did not make many miles headway that night. The next day we were still in such thickets and forests, and after sleeping three or four hours we traveled in daylight, moving cautiously, and keeping well under cover of the thickets, as we slipped along. We came across a tree full of ripe persimmons, and ate a large mess There is a good deal of food in this fruit. It satisfied our hunger and strengthened us. I think I never enjoyed a meal more. We kept on till the sound of chopping wood and the crowing of fowls warned us that we were approaching an inhabited country when we hid in the bushes and waited for [91] the friendly darkness to renew our journey. The fourth night we passed so close to a house that the dogs barked at us, and we ran our best away from it. We were again bothered by swamp. About midnight we ran into one, backed out, flanked to the right about half a mile, and tried again. Couldn't make it. Went a half mile farther, and again failed. [92]

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