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"What's up, Bulger?" demanded the outlaw leader.
"The best chance you've had for a coon's age, Jess, and right at hand !" panted the youth. "Just got wind of it from my brother, who is the railroad telegraph operator at Winston."
"Yes, yes; out with it!"
"A train with but one passenger car will be at Winston in an hour. Rest of the cars met with an accident in the Gap three hours ago. Express messenger on train with a big pile John's sure of it. Passengers, few, and for the most part women."
An anxious hush suddenly fell on the majority of the band, while the James brothers looked at each other, exchanging calculating glances.
There were few, even in that desperate band, so cold and hardened in vice as they. Among most of them the first proposition to fresh crime had still its chilling effect.
"What are you hesitatin' for, Jess?" suddenly shouted Jim Cummings, with an oath. "Of course, you're goin' for the job, it'll get our hands in for the bigger 'un at the end of the month."
"Of course, we are !" cried Jess, with a voice like a steel bell. "I was only calculatin' the general arrangement. Masks in readiness! Bustle 'em out, Jim ! Frank, you look after the greenhorns and strangers."
I found a moment later, as we began to move out of the hollow two and two, that the last word applied to George Sheppard and me. We were placed in line among the country boys. Dick Little, however, rode directly behind us, with, I felt, a watchful eye on our every movement.
We were soon on the high road, and a sharp gallop of four miles brought us in the neighborhood of Winston station.
Here we halted by the railroad track at the edge of a wood. At the order of Jesse James, the entire band, with the exception of myself, then put on masks, which they had in readiness, the masks being made of several thicknesses of stiff cotton, with holes cut for the eyes and mouth. We at first closed ranks, and there was a silent review of our number and efficiency by the outlaw leader. Then the country boys, with Sheppard and me among them, were stationed on either side of the track, while the rest of the gang began to pile up stones between the rails.
We were ordered to make a great noise as soon as the train should be brought to a standstill, and to fire eighteen or twenty shots, but not to shoot any one unless compelled to, and not to use up all our ammunition.
"You needn't do anything but look on, doe," said Jesse to me, while making his last round of inspection. "I'm sorry to have mixed you up in this thing, but there was no help for it."
Then I heard him say to Sheppard:
"Strep, an old hand like you must feel mean at being put to one side here among the greenies, but you know you are still on your second probation with the gang."
Sheppard made some sort of an accommodating reply, and just then the rumble and roar of the approaching train was heard in the distance.
Jesse James and his veterans had before this dismounted, while we at the side of the track remained still in the saddle. Jesse now stood in the center of the track, bearing in his hand a red lantern, which one of the Youngers had obtained at their farmhouse. He waved it three times over his head as the train approached, and it came to a stop within a dozen feet of the stone heap on which he was standing.
"Off that engine or you're a dead man !" shouted Jim Cummings and Cole Younger, springing toward the engineer and fireman, who were peering out from the side of the locomotive.
With the pistols covering them, they obeyed in an instant.
"Oh, Lord !- It isn't Jess James' gang, is it ?" exclaimed the engineer, with his knees knocking together.
"You can bet on that, old man !" said Jess, springing past him, followed by his crime-trained comrades.
In another instant the conductor and the two brakemen were in the hands of the desperadoes, with pistols at their heads, while Jesse and Frank James battered in the door of the express car and ordered the messenger to come out of it on pain of instant death.
The latter was not disposed to surrender his charge without a show of fight, and drew his revolver. But two or three bullets that were sent singing by his ears brought him to terms. The next moment his revolver was snatched from him, and he was in the car, tremblingly opening the receptacle of his treasures, with the revolvers of the James boys nudging him in the back of the head, and the gleam of the red lantern flashing in his face.
In the meantime my immediate companions, agreeable to their instructions, were banging away with their firearms, at a great rate, and cursing and shouting under the windows of the passenger car at the top of their lungs.
While this was going on the rest of the gang, headed by John and Bob Younger, were going through the crowded passenger car, pistol in hand.
All was dark outside, but I could see plainly into the lighted car, and note the confusion and terror that were taking place. It was such a scene as, under other circumstances, would have had its ludicrous features, the men groaning and throwing up their hands under the menacing muzzles of the revolvers, the women screaming and grasping their wraps, and the young fellows outside shooting and swearing until you would have thought the foul fiend and all his imps had suddenly broken from their confines to make a pandemonium on earth.
In less than ten minutes, however, the entire robbery had been effected.
Jesse James and his comrades jumped off the train, and the conductor and engineer were ordered to "move along."
This they did in a hurry, after a few minutes spent in clearing the track of the obstructions.
"How did the passengers pan out, Bob?" called out Jesse, as he hastily remounted, after stuffing his saddlebags with something that Frank and he were carrying.
"Poor enough, Jess," was Bob Younger's response. "There wasn't more'n a dozen men in the car, and I didn't feel like makin' the women shell out."
"Good enough," said Jesse. "We've never yet been so hard up as to rob the dear creatures. Boys," he added, turning to the band, who were now grouped around him, "of course, I can't tell yet how much we've skinned the express company out of. You'll trust Frank and me to count it, ready for a division, won't you?"
"Yes, yes. Take your time," answered a dozen voices.
"Meet us at our mother's house a week from to-day then, and the division shall be made," said Jesse. "That will be safest, because they'll never think of looking for us there. But be sure to come straggling up singly throughout the entire day. Break up now. It's every man for himself till a week from to-day."
The dispersion was effected quickly and quietly.
Only Jesse and Frank James, George Sheppard, Cole Younger and I remained together. In a few minutes we had regained the high road, galloped along it a considerable distance, turned off into a narrow, rocky path leading through the woods, and were making our way rapidly through the wild region in the direction of the log farmhouse.
We did not venture to return thither that night, however, as neither Jesse nor Frank deemed it would be safe. My companions seemed perfectly familiar with every foot of the way. We had nothing but the light of the stars to guide us, but they shaped their course across the country without a stumble, and as unerringly as if they were proceeding in broad daylight.
We presently came to a deserted hut in a grassy glade of the forest. Here it was announced we should tarry for the night. We dismounted, turning our horses loose upon the grass, and the Jameses and Younger entered the hut, while Sheppard and I were told to gather up fagots for a fire.
"I say," whispered Sheppard to me, when we were thus engaged in the woods for a few minutes later, "you're also on the lookout for the little boy that Jess is said to keep hidden away, ain't you?"
"Yes," I replied, in the same tone.
"Well, if you ever find him at all, it'll be somewhere's about the Younger homestead. Them precious twins is only kept there, instead of bein' sent to school, as a sort of cover for the more vallyble young one you're lookin' for. Hush! Don't reply."
I fortunately heeded the injunction. At that moment there was heard a stealthy tread behind us. I was not surprised, upon turning my head, to perceive that Jesse James had followed us, and that his eyes were regarding us like those of a beast of prey through the darkness.
When Sheppard had carried into the cabin the fuel we had jointly collected, the outlaw laid a not unkind hand upon my arm and detained me.
"What do you think of my chances for reformation by this time?" said he.
"They're certainly not brilliant, Jess," was my reply.
"Let me tell you something to reinforce from the past what you've already seen," said he. "I, as a mere boy, belonged to Quantrell's guerrilla force during the war, as you must have heard. It wasn't a hundred miles from this spot that a large detachment of us, under Bill Anderson, captured a railway train, containing two hundred invalid soldiers on their way to St. Louis for hospital treatment. Bill Anderson shot them all through the heart with his own hand, one after the other, I aligning them up before him, and his men supplying him with a fresh revolver as fast as he emptied the one in his hand. This is gospel truth. What do you think of it?"
"I've heard of it before," said I, with an inward shudder.
"He had hardly finished with the sick men," he continued, "before a detachment of a hundred blue-coats came
in sight over the hill. They surrendered-to our superior force, and all shared the fate of the invalids."*
"I have heard of that before, also."
"Judge, then, if there can be any reformation, any redemption, for such as me!" said the outlaw. "Judge if it is possible, even upon the dying injunction of the first woman I ever loved. However," he added, with his short, hard laugh, "you've got to stay with us now till we quit the country. There's no help for it."
A bright fire had been lighted in the fireplace of the hut when we entered it, and the other men were engaged in frying some bacon, which they had obtained from a small cupboard. In fact, there were many other evidences of the hut being frequently used for the purpose of temporary hiding, to which it was now being put.
We ate heartily, slept all night on the floor with one or other of the chief trio constantly on guard on the outside, and at an early hour on the following morning took up our journey again, with our steeds even more refreshed than we.
Jesse James' horse, Dancer, however, sustained a sprain by stumbling into a gully soon after we had started, and this put his rider in a very bad humor.
As we came in view of the log farmhouse we saw a single horseman awaiting us by the porch. Jesse directed Sheppard and me to follow more leisurely, and then he and his companions galloped on ahead.
They had all dismounted, and were apparently talking carelessly together, with Jesse's and Frank's wives standing in the porch, when Sheppard and I rode up, and likewise dismounted.
My feet had no sooner touched the ground, however, than the four men, Jesse and Frank James, Cole Younger and the newcomer, who was the callow desperado, Cutts, precipitated themselves upon me with a fierce shout.
In less time than I can tell it, they had me overpowered, and bound fast, with my back against one of the vinecurtained pillars of the porch.
"What in thunder's the meaning of this ?" I gasped, as soon as I could find a voice.
"You've deceived me !" said Jess, the outlaw, in a cold, deadly tone. "Cutts here has been to Booneville, and found out all about you. You ain't no doctor at all. One!" - -
He drew his revolver as he spoke, the three others imitating his example. Then the four muzzles were aimed at my heart.
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