The train slowed and chugged noisily up the hill. As it approached an incline, it puffed out thick clouds of black smoke which scattered with the cold evening wind. The train was long, pulling several passenger and freight cars towards the Union Army of West Tennessee. A thin mist of March rain fell, splattering the closed windows. A few miserable soldiers sat on top of the cars, shivering under wool blankets with rifles cradled in their laps.
The expressman had the door of his car ajar and lit a cigar. He studied the rolling hills dotted with budding trees and thick underbrush. He had heard that Tennessee could be dangerous since guerilla fighters had already attacked several trains along this route. This time, he assured himself, there was nothing to worry about, since the train was well-guarded by over fifty Union soldiers. Looking back into the car, he saw the strongbox that was being used by his fellow expressman as a footrest. He thought to himself that there was enough gold there to buy off the entire Secesh army. The other man was reading a newspaper with a trail of cigar smoke rising from behind the sheaves of paper. As the train reached the crest of the hill, the expressman flicked his cigar out the door and craned his neck towards the front of the train. The engine disappeared over the hill, and the cars began to gather speed as they were pulled over the incline.
Suddenly the engine blew out a long warning whistle. The brakes were then applied hard enough to cause the expressman to slam the side of his head roughly against the frame of the door. The guards on top of the train were pitched forward; some even slipped between the cars to be cut to ribbons by the iron wheels. With a grinding crash, the engine suddenly left the tracks and toppled sideways on the embankment, carrying the heavily loaded cars with it.
As the train derailed, Major Gardner watched happily through his field glasses. What he saw did not surprise him since an hour earlier this part of the iron rails had been removed by his men. It was a spectacular sight to see the bent iron and cracking of wood as the train rolled on its side like some mythical, wounded beast. Steam billowed from the engine, hiding the broken cars with a cloudy mist. The train had now stopped its death throes, and the cries of the wounded could be heard from the twisted wreckage.
Gardner raised his arm and motioned his small band of men to move forward. It was a ragged bunch of soldiers that crawled out of the underbrush. They looked more like scarecrows than soldiers, but they held their pistols with expert hands. “Remember, don’t bother to shoot the wounded unless they start making trouble,” he called out. “And only kill the rest of the blue-bellied bastards if they shoot back.” His two dozen soldiers then began rushing towards the wrecked train, shouting the rebel yell at the top of their lungs.
A few dazed Union soldiers crawled out of the damaged cars with their rifles at the ready. They tried to put up a feeble defense, but they were quickly cut down by a barrage of bullets. The remaining survivors soon raised their hands in surrender.
“Sergeant Raines, tell your men I want those Union boys rounded up and put under guard.” A shabbily dressed man in a dirty grey coat gave him a lazy salute and began shouting orders at the men. Gardner grimaced and thought it was time to get some of his boys cleaned up. But even though they looked like tramps, he knew they were the best fighters in the world. Nonetheless, he still wished for a bit more spit and polish. A little pride would have gone a long way in making these country boys even better fighters. He shrugged those thoughts away and made his way towards the destroyed train.
His soldiers were already looting the broken cases strewn from the wrecked cars - stealing shoes, coats and as much food and drink as they could carry. He was happy to note that Raines had pushed enough men away from the throng to stand guard over the remaining Union soldiers who had the strength to crawl clear of the wreckage.
To his delight, the expresscar was still standing upright. Its walls were twisted at an angle, showing a crack of splintered wood that went the length of the body. It had somehow survived destruction relatively intact, leaving the side door slightly open. As Gardner cautiously approached, the barrel of a shotgun slid out from the door and pointed in his direction.
“Don’t shoot,” Gardner cried out before he dove to the right. His shin painfully struck a rock, sending a burst of pain through his leg. He said through gritted teeth, “There’s no reason to die for your cargo.” As he spoke, he pulled out his Le Mat Revolver and took aim.
An angry voice answered from the car and said, “I saw what you did to those boys – you shot them in cold blood.”
“Now hold on there,” Gardner shouted. He saw Raines coming forward and signaled for him to stop. “We had no choice in the matter.”
“Well, I’m not coming out until you leave,” the voice answered back. The shotgun still pointed at Gardner threateningly.
Sliding his pistol back into his holder, the major took a step back with arms held wide since he did not want the expressman to panic and take a shot. Once he got next to Raines he said in a low voice, “I want that bastard out of there. Round up some men and take care of him.”
Raines nodded, a hard smile set on his face. He walked back to the soldiers who were still busy looting what they could. He then began to push some of his least favorite soldiers into line. When he had a half-dozen men, he said, “I need some volunteers to take care of that guard back there. Any takers?”
No one stepped forward. “Well, boys,” Gardner said angrily, “it’s time to earn your keep with this outfit. If there are any slackers, I’ll be sure to shoot you down where you stand. Now I need that guard out of there, so we can get the gold and get out of here!”
Upon hearing the word gold, the drawn faces of the six soldiers brightened in anticipation. Pistols were now drawn eagerly.
Raines added, “You heard what I said. Now move it!”
The men scrambled towards the broken express car and began to fire in unison at the battered wood. A shotgun blast answered back, making one of the guerillas fall to the broken ground like a rag doll. Another hurried blast of buckshot ricocheted off the stony ground, causing a few pellets to strike an unlucky man in the leg. He went down on his knees but continued to fire back.
The crescendo of pistol fire rose and fell as men began the process of reloading - paper cartridges were bit off and stuffed into the open chambers. Then measured black powder, a lead ball, and wad were dropped into the cylinders. A short ramrod was squeezed into the barrel, pushing the ball tight against the powder charge. A thin line of grease was placed on the cylinders to stop chain-fires - where the firing of one cylinder could spark the others. Such an explosion could blow a man’s hand off if he wasn’t careful. Firing caps were then hurriedly placed in front of the loaded chambers. Once the hammer dropped on the cylinder, it would fire the cap, ignite the gunpowder and fire the lead ball. It was a slow, laborious process, but an experienced man could reload his pistol in less than a minute.
Gardner watched as the stream of bullets tore into the wood. Black powder smoke from all the firing rose high in the misty air. He then nodded towards Raines who started to wave his hands at his men, signaling them to stop the assault.
“Stop firing, stop firing!” he shouted. The men grudgingly stopped peppering the express car with lead.
A faint voice could be heard coming from the gap of the door. “I surrender – stop shooting.”
Sergeant Raines ran towards the car and pulled the door back. There lay the expressman, lying on the floor with his shotgun lying underneath him. A puddle of the wounded man's blood pooled on the wooden floor. He had been shot in his right arm and in the shoulder. He began to moan. Raines grabbed him by the collar and pulled the wounded man off of the car. The expressman landed heavily on the ground with a grunt and rolled over on his stomach, gasping in pain.
With a tug to his holster, Gardner pulled out his Le Mat and flipped the lever at the end of the hammer. This switched the firing mechanism from the cylinders of the revolver to the single sixteen gauge smoothbore barrel loaded with shot. He pointed it at the expressman and said sternly, “You made a mistake trying to fight us off.”
The wounded man began to sob in a panic and tried to feebly crawl away. The guerilla soldiers stepped back as Gardner brought up his pistol and fired. The single blast of buckshot tore open the man’s head, leaving a ragged hole. With a final violent jerk, the expressman was dead.
Facing his men, Gardner said, “Now let that be a lesson to everyone of you. If you listen to me, you’ll get through this was alive. Now Raines, get that strongbox out and opened.”
Sergeant Raines motioned to his men, and they crowded aboard the damaged car. Inside was an already dead expressman, his neck bent at an impossible angle. The battered body was sprawled on top of an iron-edged strongbox. Raines rolled the corpse off. The rebels then worked together and soon pulled the heavy strongbox out into the open, where it landed heavily on the rocky surface. Searching through the pockets of the dead expressman, Raines soon found the key and hurried over to open the iron box. With Gardner waiting impatiently, the sergeant fitted the key to the lock and opened the heavy lid.
Gardner smiled when he saw the stacked gunny sacks inside. With shaking hands, he took the closest sack, untied the top and poured the contents out. The twenty dollar gold coins fell heavily into his hand. The soldiers around him began to murmur excitedly. This was worth the trouble of cutting the rail line, Gardner thought. This was worth the trouble since the Federal government would miss this gold and try by any means to retrieve it. Everything was going to plan.
Raines smiled at Gardner and said, “You were right about them carrying the gold, sir. The boys will be happy.”
Gardner nodded and said, “Get this packed away. We will be moving out as soon as you are ready.”
“What about the prisoners, sir?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure they are taken care of.” He looked over his soldiers who were greedily eying the gold-packed strongbox. He said to them, “Now just a little warning, gentlemen, this gold is for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. Don’t get any ideas about taking some for yourself.” He gave them a cold smile and paused before adding, “I know the amount of this down to the last dollar. If any of it goes missing, I’ll have the whole lot of you strung up. I’m sure Sergeant Raines here would gladly assist me in the exercise.”
He let the words seep in and a look of dismay came across the soldier’s faces. “So it’s your job to keep an eye on your companions to make sure none of it goes missing. Understand? But don't worry, once we deliver this gold, we'll all be heroes.”
There was a flurry of agreement as men nodded and began warily eying their neighbors. Gardner knew the men were all robbers at heart, but they also knew that he was a man of his word and would make good his threat.
“Sergeant, carry on.”
Raines saluted and began pulling the gold-laden bags out of the strongbox. He began handing two of them to each soldier who carefully knotted the ends together. In this manner the gold was to be split up and carried by each man on the journey back to camp.
Walking past his guards, Gardner went to where the prisoners were being kept. There were some twenty of them, some who were heavily bruised from their unexpected ride off the rails. They looked at him with hatred in their eyes. The low sound of moans could be heard from the nearby wrecked passenger cars.
Eying them with distaste, Gardner said, “We have come for what we wanted. Now I suggest you start walking back, because we don’t want you in Tennessee anymore.”
The prisoners stood to make their leave, but one asked, “What about them? What are you going to do with our wounded friends?”
“They will be taken care off,” Gardner replied stoically.
With those words, the prisoners began to shuffle slowly down the line as the rain continued to fall. Gardner caught the eye of one of his men and gave him a nod. The man nodded and lifted his rifle to fire. With the squeeze of the trigger, the shot struck one of the prisoners in the back. The rest of the guerillas joined in and opened fire on the bedraggled group. The remaining Unions soldiers began to run and a few of the guerillas gave chase, hooting and hollering at the easy prey.
“Raines!” Gardner called out. He waited impatiently for the harried sergeant to run up.
“We’re ready to go, sir. The gold has been dispersed to the men and they are ready to move.”
“Set fire to the cars.”
“Sir?” Raines looked over the cars and shook his head. The sound of gunfire began to abate as the last of the prisoners had been hunted down.
“I gave you an order, sergeant. I want those Union boys to fear us. I want them to curse our names and have every man ride against us. The more men we draw to us, the less they have to fight General Johnston. Now go to it.”
“But those men are wounded.”
“If you don’t follow my orders, then I’ll find someone else who will.”
“Very well, sir, I will see that it is done.” Raines face looked gray as he ordered a few of his men to gather some broken oil lanterns. It took some pushing and threats, but the men eventually complied. Though it was raining lightly, the wooden cars were soon ablaze. The panicked shouts of the wounded inside rose in tempo as the smoke rolled higher in the rain-choked sky.
With a shout and wave, the guerilla soldiers were soon running back to their mounts hidden deep in the trees of the forest. There they saddled up. They left, following a grinning Major Gardner. A cloud of smoke hung heavily behind them as the rain misted on the mud-soaked trail. He was happy to strike a blow against the hated Northerners. Soon his name would be known throughout the land. The north would revile his name while in the south he would be known forever as a hero.