Once convinced of this, they took care to conceal themselves whenever they saw troops approaching, as they feared that questions might be addressed to them which they might find it difficult to answer. There was the less difficulty in their doing this as the country was for the most part thickly wooded, the roads sometimes running for miles through forests. Upon one occasion, when, just as it was dusk, they had gone in among the trees, having seen a Russian column moving along the road, they were astonished at being suddenly seized, gagged, and carried off through the wood. So suddenly had this been done, that they had time neither to cry nor struggle.
After being carried some distance, they were thrown down on the ground, and the men who had carried them hurried away. Just as they did so there was a sudden outburst of musketry, mingled with loud yells and shouts; then, after a moment’s pause, came the rattle of a rolling musketry fire. The first, Jack judged to be the fire of insurgents upon the column; the second, that of the troops. For a while the din of battle went on. Sharp ringing volleys, heavy irregular firing, the fierce, wild shouts of the insurgents, and occasionally the hoarse hurrah of Russian soldiery.
Presently the sounds grew fainter, and the lads judged by the direction that the Russian column was falling back in retreat. Ere long the sounds of firing ceased altogether, and in scattered knots of three and four, men came through the wood to the wide open space in which the midshipmen were lying bound. No attention was paid to them for some time, until a large body of men were collected. Then the lads were suddenly raised and carried to a large fire which was now-blazing in the centre of the clearing. Here the gags were taken from their mouths, and the cords unbound, and they saw confronting them a young man evidently by his dress and bearing a person of rank and authority, and, as they judged by the attitude of those standing round, the leader of the insurgent band.
“Where do you come from, and what are you doing here?” he asked in Polish.
The boys shook their heads in token of their ignorance of the language.
“I thought so,” he said angrily in Russian. “You are spies, Russian spies. I thought as much when the news came to me that two peasants had entered a village shop to buy goods, but had been unable to ask for them except by pointing to them, and had given a rouble note and allowed the woman who served them to take her own change. You are detected, sirs, and may prepare for the death you deserve. Hang them at once,” he said in Polish, to those standing near. “But first search them thoroughly, and see if they are the bearers of any documents.”
The lads in vain endeavored to explain, but their voices were drowned in the execrations of the angry peasants, fresh from the excitement of the battle, and in many cases bleeding from bullet and bayonet wounds, for the Polish peasants always rush to close quarters. Concealed in Dick’s waistband was found a heavy roll of Russian notes, and the yell which greeted its appearance showed that it was considered confirmatory of the guilt of the prisoners.