[Frontispiece: "There he comes right now, Larry; and he's holding up some game you like right well."]
Chums In Dixie
THE STRANGE CRUISE OF A MOTORBOAT
ST. GEORGE RATHBORNE
"THE HOUSE BOAT BOYS," "THE YOUNG FUR-TAKERS," "CANOE MATES IN CANADA," Etc.
M. A. DONOHUE & CO.,
M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
I. THE VOYAGE BEGUN II. A BOY OF THE SWAMPS III. THE SQUATTERS OF THE CYPRESS TRACT IV. DOWN THE SWIFT CURRENT V. WHAT HAPPENED ON THE FIRST NIGHT VI. "SAVING THE BACON" VII. LARRY CATCHES THE FEVER VIII. HELD FAST IX. THE SECOND NIGHT OUT X. WHEN THE SLEEPER AWOKE XI. AN UNINVITED GUEST XII. THE SHERIFF AND HIS "DAWGS" XIII. IN THE CYPRESS COUNTRY XIV. LARRY PICKS UP SOME MORE POINTERS XV. A RIDE ON AN ALLIGATOR XVI. UNDER THE TWISTED LIVE OAK XVII. TALKING IT OVER XVIII. THE COMING OF THE TERRIBLE McGEE XIX. TAKEN PRISONER XX. AMONG THE SHINGLE-MAKERS XXI. A GLOOMY OUTLOOK XXII. PHIL SHOOTS HIS BOLT—AND LOSES! XXIII. THE WINGED MESSENGER
CHUMS IN DIXIE
The Strange Cruise of a Motor Boat
By ST. GEORGE RATHBORNE
THE VOYAGE BEGUN
"Phil, oh! Phil, won't you please hurry up? I'll go to sleep pretty soon, if we don't get a move on us."
"Just give me five minutes more, Larry, and I promise you we're going to leave this place, and start on our cruise down to the big Gulf. I've got a couple of nuts to put on again, and then you'll hear the little motor begin to hum."
The last speaker was bending over the engine of a fair-sized motor boat, which had a stationary roof, and adjustable curtains that in time of need could be made to enclose the entire vessel.
This modern craft was tied up against the bank of one of those narrow but swift streams that, having their source in southern Georgia or Alabama, find their way to the Gulf of Mexico, after passing through many miles of Florida cypress swamps that are next to unknown territory to the outside world.
Phil Lancing was the son of a well-to-do Northern physician, who had some time previously come into possession of a very large tract of territory in Northern Florida. Considerable of this property was in vast swamps; and here squatters had settled many years back, cutting the trees at their pleasure, and making vast quantities of cypress shingles, which were floated down the river to markets along the gulf.
The second occupant of the brave launch Aurora was a rather chubby specimen of a half grown lad, with a rosy face, and laughing blue eyes. Larry Densmore expected to become a lawyer some fine day, and in evidence of his fitness for the business he was constantly asking questions, and finding debatable points in such matters as naturally came up.
Phil being an amateur naturalist, knew considerable about the woods and their numerous denizens. Larry was an utter greenhorn, and apt many times to display his gross ignorance concerning the habits of game; as well as the thousand and one things a woodsman is supposed to be acquainted with. But his good-nature was really without limit; and one could hardly ever get provoked with Larry, even when he committed the most stupendous of blunders.
Upon hearing these consoling words from his chum, Larry, who was sitting well up in the bow of the boat, yawned and stretched himself. The southern sun was inclined to be warm, and Larry had not slept very well the two nights he had been aboard the motor boat. But then it was nothing very singular to see the chubby lad yawning at any time of the day.
"I'm real glad we've got all our supplies aboard," he said, aloud, just to pass the time away, and to keep awake while Phil was fussing with the engine preparatory to starting on their trip down-stream. "I'm tired of this dead little village that they call a town. And tired of hearing what an awful lot of trouble we're bound to buck up against when we get two-thirds of the way down to the gulf. Wonder what they'd say if they knew your dad owned most all of that property along this crazy old creek they call a river. And that you even expect to stop off to interview that terrible McGee they talk about! Oh, my! what was that, now?"
Larry ceased to stretch himself. He even sat up, his eyes wide open now, as if he had noticed something away out of the usual; and they were fastened on the stern of the boat, where he had certainly seen something slip over the gunwale, and vanish under a pile of blankets that had been airing.
Phil raised his head. He did not even glance at his chum, but seemed to be listening intently.
"Now what d'ye suppose all that shouting means?" he exclaimed. "Seems to be coming this way too, and mighty fast at that. There, look, Larry, don't you see them running through the woods? As sure as you live they're coming this way! I wonder if it's a fox hunt, or what?"
"Mebbe—" began Larry; and then his comrade interrupted him before he could say what was on his mind.
"They're heading right for us; and there's that big Colonel Brashears at their head, the fellow who told us all those awful stories about the shingle-makers of the swamps. Here they come, seven of 'em; and look, Larry, as many as four have got ugly whips in their hands! Something's up, I tell you."
Again did Larry open his mouth as though to say something; and for the second time, after a swift glance toward the blankets, he closed it again resolutely.
The seven men who were running speedily drew near. Most of them were out of breath, and all looked very much excited. The leader, who was quite a character in the Southern town, and a fierce appearing individual, with a military swagger, which Phil believed to be wholly assumed, immediately addressed himself to the two young Northerners on the new-fangled motor boat, which had been the wonder of the townspeople ever since it was dropped off the cars to be launched in the so-called "river" at their doors.
"Seen anything of him acomin' this aways, sah?" he asked, in a high pitched, raspy voice. "We done chased him through the woods, and he's give us the slip. Thinkin' he mout have come in this direction, we changed our course to put the question to yuh."
"What was it—a fox?" asked Phil, innocently enough.
"No, sah, it was not a fox, but a miserable whelp of a boy!" exclaimed the indignant colonel, drawing his military figure up, and cracking his whip with a vindictive report that sounded like the discharge of a pistol.
"A boy?" ejaculated Phil, astonished at all this display of force under such peculiar conditions.
"A boy!" echoed Larry, some of the color leaving his face, and a look of genuine concern taking its place.
"A mighty sassy and desp'rit critter at that," the colonel went on. "One of that McGee tribe from down-river way. He's been loafin' 'round town some days, I'm told, an' we're lucky not to have our homes robbed o' everything wuth while. My Bob met him on the street a while back; an' jest like boys, they had words that led to blows. The miserable beggar actually had the nerve to lick my Bob; foh yuh see I reckon he's just like a wildcat in a fight. When I seen the black eye and bloody nose he give my Bob I jest natchally ached to lay it on him; and organizin' a posse o' my neighbors, who has reason to hate them McGees like cold pizen, we started out to lay hands on the cub an' tan his hide black an' blue."
"But he managed to escape after all, you say?" asked Phil, who had some difficulty in keeping a grin of satisfaction from showing on his face; for the idea of these seven stalwart men chasing one puny little chap was pretty close to ridiculous in his eyes.
"He was too slick foh us, I reckons, sah," the colonel went on, snapping off the heads of a few wild flowers with the lash of his constantly moving whip. "We done lost sight of him in the woods, and thought as how possibly you mout aseen him thisaways. And so we turned aside to ask you that question, sah."
Phil shook his head in the negative.
"I give you my word, Colonel Brashears, I haven't seen the least sign of any boy for the last five hours," he said, positively, and with truth. "I've been busy making a few changes in my engine here; and we expect to start down the river inside of five minutes or so."
"Thet's all right, sah," returned the other, with a slight bow. "And such bein' the case me and my posse had better be turnin' our attention in another quarter. We're gwine tuh find that little scamp yet, and tickle his hide foh him. When he goes back tuh his kind below, they'll understand that weuns up-river don't tolerate thieves and brawlers in ouh town. Good day, sah, and we sure hope you-all may have a pleasant voyage; but we done warn yuh tuh look sharp when yuh gets nigh the stampin' place o' the terrible McGee!"
The posse turned away, and went trooping back into the open woods. Larry had listened to all that was being said with his mouth half open, and a look of real concern on his face. He saw with a thrill that once the leader of the crowd seemed to pause, as if to dispute with his men as to what their next best course might be.
"Oh, do hurry, Phil!" cried the watching lad, as he jumped up from his seat, and going ashore, started to unfasten the cable that held the motor boat to a tree.
"In a minute or two, Chum Larry!" sang out; the other. "What's your haste? Upon my word, I never knew you to act like that before. Generally you're the last one to want to rush things. See here, was it the visit of those fellows that upset you, Larry?"
"Yes, yes," answered the other, with a voice that actually trembled with anxiety; "that Colonel Brashears is such a fierce fire-eater, and he cracked that awful whip just like he itched to lay it on the bare back of that poor little chap. Let's get out of this before they can come back. Why, they might even want to search our boat, you know!"
"Oh! I guess there's no danger of that," laughed Phil. "Anyway, you can see that they've gone into the woods again."
"And headed down-stream; notice that, Phil," went on the stout boy, nervously. "Say, I'm going to unfasten the rope now, and let her swing off on the current. It will give us a start, you know, and make me feel easier."
"All right, let her slip," answered the engineer; "I'm just about ready to turn the engine, and get power on her. Come aboard, Larry. We're off!"
Phil waved his hat, and gave a little cheer as the Aurora began to move through the dark water of the stream, with her nose pointing due south. The merry popping of her unmuffled exhaust told that the engine was busily at work, even if turned on at part speed.
When he saw the shore slipping rapidly by Larry seemed to breathe easier. Still, he kept his gaze fastened upon the woods, as though not quite sure that the posse might not unexpectedly heave in sight again, with a new demand.
For a short time there was silence aboard the rapidly speeding boat. Phil busied himself with his engine, watching its performance with more or less satisfaction; for his heart was set on mechanics, and he anticipated great things of the motor he had put into his boat before sending her south for this especial trip.
Larry on the other hand never once turned to look at the shore along the larboard quarter; that which he knew sheltered the seven burly boy hunters claimed all his attention.
"I wonder will they find the poor little chap?" Phil finally remarked; showing that after all his thoughts were not wholly taken up with the working of the engine at which he was gazing so proudly.
"Say, did you hear what he said about the swamp boy licking his Bob?" demanded Larry, with sudden glee. "Don't you remember what we thought of that big loafer; and how he seemed to lord it over all the other boys of the town, when they came out in a bunch to see what our boat looked like? I'm awful glad he got his, ain't you, Phil?"
"Sure I am," grinned the other. "Thought at one time I'd have to tackle Bob on my own account, when he got so sassy; but I knew his dad would make it rough for us, and I managed to hold in. Yes, he got only what he deserved, I guess. And if I ever meet up with that swamp boy, I declare I'd like to shake hands with him, and tell him he is all right for doing what he did. It took some nerve to tackle Bob—just like a little rooster going next door and licking the cock of the barnyard."
"Would you really like to tell him that?" exclaimed Larry, as he clutched the shoulder of his chum; and Phil, looking up was astonished to see how his eyes danced.
"Give you my word I would," he declared, vehemently.
"Good!" ejaculated the other, with a nervous laugh; and springing over to a spot nearer the stern of the boat he called out: "You might as well come out now. The colonel and his crowd are far away, and we want to see what you look like!"
Thereupon, to the immense amazement of Phil Lancing, the blankets began to heave; and being speedily tossed aside, behold there came forth the figure of a tattered, half-grown boy—a boy with a face as brown as that of an Indian, and with a pair of defiant black eyes that flashed fire as he looked straight at the owner of the motor boat.
And Phil realized that he was gazing upon the boy belonging to the terrible McGee tribe from down-river, who had just licked the big Brashears cub in his own home town!
A BOY OF THE SWAMPS
"Well, if this don't beat all creation!" exclaimed Phil, as he continued to stare at the uninvited passenger on board the Aurora. "See here, Larry, own up now that you saw him crawl aboard our boat?"
"That's just what I did," chuckled the other, as though he enjoyed the joke. "If you hark back a bit, perhaps you'll remember my calling out, just at the time you discovered moving figures through the trees? That was because I had caught just a glimpse of something, I didn't know what, slipping under the blankets.
"Now I can understand why you were so nervous, and wanted to hurry off," said Phil. "You were afraid the fierce colonel would come back, and search our craft for stowaways."
"Sure I was; I admit it," echoed Larry. "But Phil, you really meant what you said just now, didn't you—about wanting to shake hands with the boy who knocked Bob Brashears galley west, you know?"
Phil turned to the sallow-faced, defiant figure that was observing their every action. The boy looked as though ready to brave them to their face, if so be they turned out to be new enemies; or even take a header over the side, should they show signs of wanting to detain him against his will.
But as soon as he looked into the smiling countenance of Phil he must have realized that in taking this liberty of boarding the motor boat, when so hard pressed by his enemies, he had made a lucky move indeed. For in those friendly eyes he saw genuine warmth.
"Shake hands, won't you, my friend?" said Phil, thrusting out his own digits in the free and easy fashion customary with boys. "I'm glad you punched that Bob Brashears. I hope his black eye will hang to him for a month. And I'd have given a heap to have seen the mill when you licked him. I'm only surprised he dared tackle you alone, big cub that he is."
"Huh!" the boy broke out with, as a glimmer of a smile appeared flickering athwart his thin, serious looking face; "they was two of 'em, mister. But t'other, he run like a scart rabbit the first crack he got under his ear."
Then Larry insisted on also squeezing his hand warmly.
"When I heard that man say they were chasing a boy," he remarked, "I knew what it was I'd seen scramble under the blankets; and I made up my mind that they wasn't going to get you, if we had to fight for it. Just to think of seven hulking men after one small boy. But we're too far away now for any of them to get you; and perhaps you'd like to stay aboard till we reach your home below; because we expect to pass all the way to the gulf, you see. He'd be welcome, wouldn't he, Phil?"
"Sure he would," affirmed the other, heartily, as he eyed the boy; and perhaps a dim suspicion that he might find the fugitive valuable as a guide began to flit through his mind then and there.
"We've got oceans of grub aboard; and perhaps you wouldn't mind helping out in the cooking line; because, you see, I'm the one in charge of that part of the game; while Phil, he takes care of the running gear. Anyhow, no matter, you're welcome to stay with us on the trip. We're glad to know the fellow who dared lick that big bully of a Bob Brashears, see?"
The boy let his head drop. Perhaps it was because he did not want to let these generous fellows see the tear in his eye, and of which he was possibly ashamed, though without reason.
"Say, that's right kind of you both," he exclaimed presently, when he could look them in the eyes without winking. "And I'm gwine to say yes right away. I wanted to stay up here yet a while; but I saw the town was gettin' too hot foh me; and I made a fix with a friend I got thar, so's I could know how it all came out. Yep, I'll stick with you, and be glad in the bargain."
"What might your name be?" asked Larry, frankly.
"Tony," came the immediate answer; but although it might be supposed that the swamp boy had another name besides, he somehow did not seem to think it worth while to mention the same—or else had some reason for keeping it unspoken.
"Well," remarked Phil, who had listened to the way the other spoke with more or less surprise; "I must say that if you do live in the swamp, and your folks are a wild lot, according to what these people around here say, you talk better than any of the boys we've yet run across since we struck this place. Ten to one you've been to school a time, Tony?"
The swamp boy smiled, and shook his head in the negative.
"Never seen the inside of a school in my born days till we come up here a while back, me an' little Madge. But my mother didn't always live in the swamps. Once she taught school down in Pensacola. Dad met her when he was ferryin' shingles, an' that's how it came around. She says as how her children ain't a-goin' to grow up like heathen, if they does have little but rags to wear. And so she showed me how to read, and I'm wantin' to get more books. Looky here, this is one I bought since we kim up the river," and as he spoke he drew out from the inside of his faded and torn flannel shirt a rather soiled volume.
"Robinson Crusoe!" exclaimed Phil, as he vividly remembered the time away back when he too had treasured the volume so dear to the heart of the average boy at a certain age. "Well, Tony, I'm going to make you a promise, that when I get home again there's going to come down this way a box of books that will make you happy. Just to think of it, a boy who longs to know what is going on in this big world, and kept back to spend his life in a swamp. Why, we've got a few aboard here right now, that you shall have when we say good-by to you."
Tony hardly knew whether he might be dreaming or hearing a blessed truth. The look he bent on the kind-hearted Northern lad told how his soul had been stirred by these totally unexpected acts of friendly regard.
"That's awful good of you, sah!" he murmured, as his eyes dropped again—perhaps because he felt them moist once more; and according to a swamp boy's notions it was a silly thing to give way to weakness like this.
"But whatever made you come up here, Tony, so far away from your home?" Larry asked. "You must have known how the people in this town hated your folks; and that if they found out you came from the McGee settlement of squatters they'd make it hard for you."
"Yes, I knowed all that," replied the other, slowly; "but you see, somebody jest had to come along with Madge; an' dad he dassent, 'case they had it in foh him."
"Madge—that means your little sister, doesn't it, Tony?" queried Larry.
"Yep. She's jest so high, an' she's been blind a long time. Last year a gent from the No'th that called hisself a professor, happened to git lost in the swamps, and some of our folks they fetched him in. He was took good care of, an' after a bit was guided out of the swamps. He seen Madge, an' he told dad an' mam that if only she could be treated by a friend o' his'n, who was a very great eye doctor up No'th, he believed Madge, she'd git her sight back ag'in."
Phil started, and looked more closely at the boy as he heard this; but he did not say anything, leaving it to his chum to learn all there was to know about the mission of Tony from the swamps, to the town of those who hated his clan so bitterly.
"And you brought your little blind sister all the way up here, did you?" asked Larry, with a ring of real sympathy in his cheery voice.
"Sho! that want nawthin' much," declared the other, scornfully. "I had a little dugout, which I paddled easy. I spected to stay 'roun' till the doctor he kim, which was to be at a sartin day; but yuh see they run me out. But I gotter a chanct to fix it all up. Madge, she's stoppin' at the cabin o' a man dad used to know. His name is Badger, an' he's got a boy Tom, jest my age."
"That's nice now," remarked Phil, taking a hand in the talk. "And is she going to stay there till this Northern eye doctor arrives, to perform the operation?"
"Yep; but mam guv me the money to let her into the horspittal, so she c'n stay thar, and be looked arter till she's well. Mam sets a heap of store by Madge; an' dad too, I reckon. They ain't gwine to sleep much till they knows whether the operation pans out right or not."
"But how will you know, now that you have been chased out of town?" asked Larry. "Perhaps this Tom Badger will go down the river to carry the news?"
"Shucks, no," said the other, with a flash of pride coming over his thin face; "I fixed that up all right. He's gwine to send a message to weuns just as soon as he knows what's what; and we'll git the news sure inside o' a few hours."
"But say, you don't mean to tell me there's a telegraph station in the swamps?" ejaculated the astonished Larry.
"Nope," replied Tony, instantly. "Jest a pigeon. Tom, he knows how to write, and he's gwine to tuck a little letter under the wing o' the bird I fetched up."
"A carrier pigeon, you mean!" cried Larry. "Why, how fine you planned it, Tony. Just to think of it, having the news flashed straight home, over miles and miles of swamps. But what if a hawk got your bird, what then?"
"I tuck up three of 'em, so's to make sure," Tony made answer. "He promised to set 'em all free one after t'other, and each carryin' the news. So you see, sah, one of 'em's jest bound to sure git home."
"But see here, where under the sun did you ever get carrier pigeons? That's the last thing I'd expect to find away down in the Florida swamps," Phil asked.
"A man in Pensacola, as knowed my mam afore she married dad, sent a pair home to her last time they took shingles down thar, which was a year back. I made a coop foh the birds an' they hatched out a heap o' young uns. These hyah three is the pick o' the flock; an' I sure has hopes o' seein' one of 'em right soon after Tom he starts 'em loose."
"Well, you've interested me a heap," declared Larry. "Why, it's just like a story, you see. The good doctor comes, restores the sight to your sweet little sister's eyes; and then the glorious news is flashed home by a dove of peace and good tidings. Of course it'll be good news, Tony. Didn't the dove bring that kind back to old Noah in the ark? I'm awful glad you just happened to hit our boat when you wanted some place to hide. Why, I wouldn't have missed meeting you for a whole lot. Have you had anything to eat this morning, Tony?"
When he learned that their guest was really hungry, Larry immediately started to get something going. He drew out a little square black tin box; this, on being opened disclosed a brass contrivance which turned out to be a German Jewel kerosene gas stove. This was quickly started, and began a cheery song, as though inviting a kettle to accept of its genial warmth.
Evidently the swamp boy had never in all his life seen anything like this, to judge from the way he gazed. Nor had he ever scented coffee that had the aroma such as was soon filling the air about them; for he could not help sniffing eagerly every little while, to the secret amusement of Larry.
All this while the boat had been speeding down the narrow but deep stream. Phil could look after the wheel and the engine at the same time; though as a rule he depended on his chum to stand in the bow, and warn him of any floating log or snag, such as might play the mischief with the cedar sheathing of the modern motor boat.
When Larry announced that lunch was ready Phil slowed down, and presently came alongside the bank, at a place where a cable could be warped around a convenient tree. For, since they were in no particular hurry, they did not feel that it was necessary to keep on the move while eating.
Larry had heated up a mess of Boston baked beans. Besides this they had some soda biscuits which had been purchased from a woman in the town; some cheese; and a can of sardines; the whole to be topped off with a dish of prunes, cooked on the preceding evening, and only partly eaten.
When Tony received his share he ate ravenously. Perhaps the boy had seldom tasted such a fine variety of food, for the canned stuffs likely to reach these squatters of the big cypress swamps were apt to be of the cheapest variety.
They were sitting thus as the lunch drew near its conclusion when, in addressing his chum in some laughing way, Larry happened to mention his name in full.
The effect upon Tony was singular. He started as though he had been shot, and immediately stared at Phil; while a troubled look came over his sallow face; just as though he had recognized a name that was being held up to derision and execration down in the settlement of the McGee squatters!
A short time later, and once more Larry loosened the rope that held the motor boat to the bank; so that the swift current taking hold, commenced to carry the craft down stream. Then Phil started operations; and the merry popping of the noisy exhaust told that they were being urged on at a faster gait than the movement of the stream could boast.
Tony had curled up in the sun, just like a dog might have done. He seemed to be asleep; and the two other boys talked in low tones as they continued to glide on down the winding river; now under heavy trees, and again passing through an open stretch, where the turpentine industry had killed the pines years back; so that only a new growth was coming on.
Perhaps Phil might have thought it a bit singular had he known that Tony did not sleep for a single minute as he lay there; but was from time to time observing his new friends from the shelter of his arms, on which his head lay.
Phil had reached under the deck of the boat and brought forth a splendid gun of the latest model. It was a Marlin repeater, known among hunters as a pump gun; and could be fired six times without reloading, the empty shells being thrown out from the side instead of in the marksman's face.
This fine weapon had been a present to the boy from his father on the preceding summer, when he had a birthday; and as yet he had found no opportunity to test its shooting qualities. Still, his father had once been something of a true sportsman, and knew more or less about the value of firearms; so that Phil never feared but that it would prove to be an excellent tool.
"I've got some buckshot shells along with me, you remember, Larry," he was saying as he guided the boat, and tried to keep her in the middle of the widening stream. "And I fetched them in the hope of meeting up with a Florida deer, or perhaps a panther; which animal is found down here. If a fellow can't carry a rifle these buckshot shells answer pretty well. I got my deer up in the Adirondacks last year with one, fired from my old double-barrel."
"How about grizzly bears and wildcats and coons?" asked Larry, not in the least ashamed to show his utter ignorance about all such matters, in his quest of knowledge.
At that Phil laughed out loud.
"The bobcat and coon part is all O. K., Larry," he said; "but you're away off when you think we're going to rub up against a grizzly bear down in Florida. They have got a specimen of the breed here, but it's only a small black fellow, and not particularly ferocious, they tell me. But we'll ask Tony about all these things later on; he ought to know."
"Yes, and perhaps he can help us go ashore, and get a fine deer once in a while!" exclaimed Larry, who loved to enjoy the good things of life almost as much as he did to exploit his ability as a cook. "Yum! yum, a real venison steak, cooked on the spot where the animal was shot—what a treat for hungry fellows, eh?"
"Wait," said the other, nodding. "You may change your mind before a great while. For instance, venison ought to hang quite a time before being eaten. I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed, Larry, and that if we're lucky enough to get a deer you'll find it as tough and dry as all get-out."
"Then things ain't all they're cracked up to be," declared the other. "I always read that things tasted just dandy in camp; and here you spoil all my illusions right off the reel."
"They taste good because the appetite is there," remarked Phil. "A fellow gets as hungry as a bear in the spring after he comes out from his hibernating. But already you ought to know that, because you're eating half again as much as you do up home. And of your own cooking too."
"That stamps it gilt-edged, A Number One," laughed Larry. "But here's Tony beginning to wake up. Come and join us, Tony. We want to ask you heaps of things about the animals of the timber and the swamps; also something about your people. You see, we ain't down here just for our health or the fun of ft. Phil here has got a mission to perform, that concerns the terrible McGee they told us about up in the river town."
Again did Tony send that questioning look at Phil Lancing; and there was something besides inquiry in his manner. Doubtless the words so carelessly uttered by good-natured Larry had stirred up mingled emotions in the breast of the swamp boy, and he was wondering what sort of a message the son of the man who now owned all that wild country below, could be carrying to the giant shingle-maker, leader of the whole McGee clan.
"If I c'n tell you anything jest ask me, sah!" he remarked, in his singularly smooth and even voice. "I sure ought tuh be ready tuh 'blige after all yuh done foh me. But I wisht you'd done never come down thisaways, case they's hard men, the McGees, an' I reckons as how they ain't got any reason tuh think kindly o' your governor."
As he said this bluntly, Tony looked squarely into the face of Phil; who however only smiled as he made reply.
"I see you have heard my name before, Tony? Well, you never heard anything bad in connection with it, I'll be bound. It's true that my father did come into possession of ten thousand acres or more of land and swamp, lying along this same little river a year or two ago. And he's taken a notion that something ought to be done to make it more profitable than it seems to be now. That's one of the reasons I'm down here. My father don't like the idea of having squatters on his lands. He wants to make a change."
Tony squirmed uneasily, and the look on his face was really painful to see. At one instant it seemed as though defiance ruled; only to give way to distress; as in imagination he saw these new-found friends, who had been so very kind to him, in the hands of his infuriated clansmen, and being roughly treated.
"Better not keep on down-river, sah!" he muttered. "They all knows that name o' Lancing. Sure I've heard many a shingle-maker curse it, an' say what he'd do tuh the new owner, if ever he dared show his face on the river. An' what they'd do tuh your dad they'd like enough do tuh you. That's why I asks yuh to turn aroun' an' go back, while yuh has the chanct."
"Why, you don't mean to say your people would try to harm us?" asked Larry, his round face showing signs of uneasiness.
"They sure would, if they knowed his name was Lancing," replied the other, doggedly. "They's a tough lot, seein' as how they lead a hard life, an' they think they got a right to the land they built ther shanties on. More'n once the sheriff he tried tuh git his man down yonder. Sho! they jest rode him on a rail, an' warned him if ever he showed his face thar again they'd sure tar and feather him. An' let me tell yuh, he ain't come back from that day to this'n."
"Well," Phil went on, coolly, "I've heard all those things from the people of the town. They haven't one good word to say for McGee and his tribe. But somehow I've got a notion that your folks ain't as black as they're painted. And I'm banking on that idea just enough to take the risk of going on down there, even if it is bearding the lion in his den."
Tony shook his head dismally, and looked disappointed.
"Wisht yuh wouldn't," he muttered. "Yuh been good to me, an' I'd hate tuh know anything happened."
"Oh! that's all right, Tony," said Phil, cheerfully. "Nothing's going to happen—nothing bad, I mean. I'm not afraid to meet the terrible McGee face to face. I just want to tell him something that will make him change his mind pretty quick, I guess."
"And when they see that we've been good friends to you, Tony," remarked Larry, "they couldn't think to injure us. We come not in war but in peace. Phil, my chum, has got an idea he can fix up this whole matter without a fight; and that when he comes away again, there won't be a single squatter on the ten thousand acres his dad owns."
"Perhaps yuh mean well, but they wouldn't understand," said the swamp boy, laying a hand on the sleeve of Phil. "If yuh kept your name secret nothin' might happen; but oh! just as soon as they learn that Dr. Lancing is your dad they're sure tuh go crazy. Then it'll be too late. Even the McGee himself couldn't hold 'em back then, big as he is, and the strongest man in all Florida."
His pleading did not seem to have any effect however. Evidently Phil had the utmost confidence in himself, and his mission as well. He knew what he was carrying in his pocket, and had faith to believe that it would win for him a welcome entirely the opposite of the rough greeting Tony predicted. But then Phil had never met the lawless McGees, who snapped their impudent fingers at the sheriff of the county, and did just about as they liked; owning allegiance only to their terrible leader, whose name was the most hated one known along the upper reaches of the river.
"There seems to be something of war between your people and these folks up in this section of the country," Phil remarked, wishing to change the conversation. "Has that always been so, and do they come to actual blows occasionally?"
"Huh! none o' the McGees ever comes up thisaways; they knows better. And they ain't a single critter belongin' tuh the upper river as dast show so much as the tip o' his nose down thar. They'd string him up; or give him a coat o' feathers. That's why my dad, he let me bring the little sister up; when he said as how he'd come hisself, mam and all the rest wouldn't hear o' it nohow; case they just knowed they'd never see him any more. If the sheriff didn't git him, some o' these cowards would, with a bullet."
"Your father, then, must be hated almost as much as the McGee himself?" observed Larry.
The swamp boy looked confused, and then hastily muttered:
"I reckons as how he is, more p'raps."
"And you've never been up in this region before, Tony?" asked Larry.
"Never has, sah. I wuks with the men, cuttin' shingles. It's the on'y way we has of getting money. Twict a yeah a boat creeps up the river from the gulf and we loads the stacks o' shingles on her. More'n a few times it been a tug that kim arter the cypress bunches. Onct I went down on a boat; and dad he took me tuh Pensacola. That's sure been the on'y time I ever was in a city. I got two books thar."
He said this last as though it might have been the most important part of his visit to civilization; and Phil smiled as he watched the varying emotions on the eager face of the swamp boy whom he only knew as Tony.
Then, as though he might have some reason for so doing, Phil once more returned to the subject that seemed to be of prime importance in his sight.
"Now about this big McGee," he remarked; "is he such a terrible fellow, of whom even his own family keeps in terror?"
"That's what every one says, sah," returned the boy, quickly; "but 'taint right tuh jedge a man by what his enemies tells. McGee is a big man, a giant; he's strong as an ox; and his people they looks up tuh him right smart. He's knocked a man down more'n once, with a blow from his fist; but 'twas when he needed a lesson. The McGee has a heart, sah, I give yuh my word on that. He keers a heap foh his wife and his chillen."
"Oh! then he has a wife and children?" remarked Phil, "and he thinks considerable of them, does he? Perhaps, after all, he may be more sinned against than sinning. You know of your own account that he cares for these children, do you?"
"Sure I do," replied the other, eagerly, and for the moment forgetting his caution. "I tell yuh, sah, that if it hadn't been foh all o' the lot that wrastled with him, he would a-come up hisself with the little gal, 'stead o' lettin' me do that same."
"Oh! you mean with Madge, your sister Madge?" cried Phil.
The boy nodded his head, a little sullenly, as though realizing what a mess he had made of the secret he had thought to keep a while longer, at least.
"But why should the terrible McGee bother his head about you and Madge?" Phil demanded, smiling in Tony's face.
Thereupon the swamp boy drew himself up proudly, as though he were about to announce himself the descendant of a race of kings, while he replied:
"Because, sah, the McGee is Madge's dad, an' mine! I'm Tony McGee!"
DOWN THE SWIFT CURRENT
Evidently Phil was not so very much surprised after all, at this formidable announcement on the part of the boy with the sallow face. Perhaps he had even suspected something of the kind for quite a little time back. At least such a thing would account for the way in which he had been leading Tony along, until he unwittingly, in defending his father, gave his secret away.
From the look on his face it seemed as though the boy half feared that these new friends would turn against him when they learned how McGee was his father. He was therefore considerably surprised to have Phil reach out, and grasp his hand in a warm clutch.
"You knew my name as soon as you heard it, Tony," he said, with a smile that went straight to the heart of the ragged lad. "And ever since you've been trying to get me to give up this mission of mine. It tells me that you've already begun to think something of Phil Lancing. And it encourages me to think your father will do the same, after he gets to know me."
But Tony shook his head, as if in great doubt.
"Oh! if you knowed just how he's come to hate that name, you wouldn't dast let him see yuh," he said. "All sorts o' things has been told 'bout how your dad meant tuh chase weuns off'n his land. Some even says as how the soldiers was agwine tuh be used tuh hunt the squatters through the swamps whar they has lived always, an' which is the on'y home they got."
"All of which is a lie made out of whole cloth," declared Phil, indignantly, "my father isn't that sort of man. Why, he wanted to come down here himself and meet the McGee face to face; but he had an important lot of business on hand. Perhaps he may show up yet! And when your father once comes to know him, he'll never have cause to feel sore toward Dr. Gideon Lancing, because he happens to be a rich man."
"I've heard 'em talkin' about it heaps," said Tony, "an' they 'spect to have tuh fight sooner or later. They's a hard lot, and live a wild life. Yuh couldn't blame 'em much for hatin' the name of the man they look on as their enemy."
"Wait a little while, Tony. I'm bound to meet your father, and see if I can't change that stubborn mind of his. Perhaps I've got some magic about me. Perhaps I could show him something that would change a foe into a friend. Anyhow, all you say doesn't alter my mind a mite," and Phil smiled into the troubled face of the swamp boy as he spoke.
Larry had listened to all this with the greatest interest. While he might to some extent share the confidence of his chum, still he did not feel quite so positive about the warmth of their welcome by the lawless band of shingle-makers peopling the lower reaches of the river that emptied into the gulf.
So they occasionally chatted as they moved along down the stream. Phil asked a great variety of questions concerning the possibilities of the country they were now passing through, as a game preserve.
"They's deer tuh be had aplenty," Tony had answered, readily enough; "an' now an' then a b'ar. Cats and coons c'n be run across any old time. Once in a long spell yuh see a painter. Turkeys lie on the sunny sides o' the swales an' ridges. Then in heaps o' places yuh c'n scare up flocks o' pa'tridges as fat as butter."
"They call quail by that name down here," remarked Phil, turning to Larry; "just as they call our black bass of the big mouth species a 'trout' in Florida. You have to understand these things, or else you'll get badly mixed up. And Tony, my chum here wants to know how about squirrels; for he thinks he could bag a few of that species of small game, given a chance, with my Marlin pump-gun."
"Sho! no end o' 'em along the hamaks, both grays an' fox squirrels," replied the swamp boy; "they's a tough lot though; and weuns always boils a squirrel fust before we fries him."
"I've done that many a time myself," laughed Phil; "so I guess the frisky little nut-crackers are about the same, North and South. But they make a good stew all right, when a fellow's sharp set with hunger. I can remember eating a mess, and thinking it the finest supper ever."
A good many miles had been covered by the time the afternoon waned; although not a great deal of southing may have been made. That river was the greatest thing to curve, and twist back on its course, Phil had ever met with. He declared that in some places he could throw a stone across a neck of land into the water which the boat had passed over half an hour back.
"Makes me think of a great big snake moving along over the ground," Larry had declared as he discussed this feature of the stream with the others.
But Tony assured them that as they progressed further this peculiarity would for the most part gradually vanish, and the river, growing wider and deeper, act in a more sensible manner.
The country was certainly as wild as heart could wish.
"Just to think," Larry had remarked, "outside of a few shanties below the town we haven't set eyes on the first sign of a man all afternoon. Why, a feller might imagine himself in the heart of Africa, or some other tropical country. Look at that big blue heron wading in the water ahead, would you? There he flaps his wings, and is off, with his long legs sticking out from under him like a fishing pole."
"Which is just about what they are," returned Phil; "since he has to use them to get his regular fish dinner right along. There's a white crane; and what d'ye call that other handsome white bird that just got up, Tony?"
"Ibis. Ain't so many 'round hyah nowadays as they used tuh be. Some fellers gits on tuh their roosts and nestin' places, an' kills the birds when they got young uns. My dad just hates them critters like pizen. He caught a cracker onct as done it, an' they give him a coat, all right. He never dast shoot another bird ag'in, I'm tellin' yuh."
"Meaning that they tarred and feathered him?" said Phil, who was better able to grasp the meaning of the swamp boy than innocent Larry, to whom all such language was like Hebrew or Greek. "Well, I'm glad to hear that your father has such notions. And it tells me he isn't the savage some of these up-river people tried to make us believe. For any man who would shoot the mother birds, and leave the young to starve in the nests, just for the sake of a dollar or two, ought to get tarred and feathered! Them's my sentiments, Tony!"
"Hear! hear! ditto! Count me in!" chirped Larry, nodding his head positively; for he had a tender heart; and the plaintive cry of starving nestlings would appeal to him strongly—even though he had never as yet heard such a thing.
"I believe that a true sportsman ought to never destroy more game than he can make use of," Phil continued, for the subject was one very close to his heart. "My father taught me that long ago; and I've grown to think more of it right along. I've known men to throw trout by dozens up on the bank, when their creel was as full as it could hold. They seemed to think that unless a fish was killed there could be no fun in capturing it."
"Say, don't they call those kind of chaps game butchers?" asked Larry.
"Right you are, Larry; and I'm glad to see that you've got the breed sized up to a dot. I'd let a deer trot past me without pulling trigger if I knew we had all the meat we could use in camp."
"But just now that doesn't happen to apply," remarked the other, pointedly.
"Hold the wheel for a minute, Larry, quick!" said Phil, in a low, thrilling tone.
He instantly snatched up the repeating gun as soon as his chum's fingers had closed upon the steering wheel. Larry turned his eyes to look ahead, for he realized that his companion must have seen something.
A crashing sound was heard. Then he had a glimpse of a dun colored object flitting through the scrub palmettoes under the pines.
"Oh! that was a deer, wasn't it?" Larry exclaimed.
Phil had lowered his gun, with an expression akin to disappointment on his face.
"Just what it was," he said; "and he got away scot free, all right, thanks to that scrub interfering with my aim. Well, better luck next time, Larry. I think I'm safe in saying you will have venison before long."
"But," interrupted the other, as he worked valiantly at the wheel, for they had come to an abrupt turn of the river, "I saw him skip past. Why didn't you shoot anyhow and take chances?"
"I might if I'd had a rifle," answered Phil; "but the distance was so far that I knew there was a mighty poor show of my bringing him down with scattering buckshot. I'd hate to just wound the poor beast, and have him suffer. If we could have come closer before he scampered off, it would have been different."
Possibly few boys would have allowed themselves to hesitate under such conditions; but as Phil said, he had been taught what he knew of woodcraft by a father who was very careful about taking the life he could never give back again.
After that Larry kept constantly on the alert watching ahead, in the hope of discovering another deer, which might be brought down by his quick acting chum.
"Of course we won't try to run along after night sets in," remarked Larry, as he noted how low in the west the glowing sun had fallen.
"Well, not if we know it," laughed Phil. "It's all a fellow can do now, with the broad daylight to help him guide this boat around the corners, and avoiding snags. Look at that half submerged log ahead there, will you? Suppose we ran full tilt on that now, what a fine hole there would be punched in the bow of the Aurora, to let the river in. No, we're going to stop pretty soon."
"That means to tie up for the night, don't it?" queried Larry, always wanting to know.
"If we can find a tree handy, which will always be the case along the river, I take it," Phil replied. "We carry an anchor of course; but I don't expect to use that till we get to the big gulf. Tony, suppose you keep an eye out for the right tying-up place, will you?"
The two chums had talked the matter over when they had a chance, while Tony happened to be at the other end of the boat; and thus decided to coax the swamp boy to don some extra clothes they had along with them. He was not so much smaller than Phil, and if he was to make one of their party they felt that it would look better for him to discard the rags he was then wearing.
Tony took it in the right spirit, and after a bath in the river that evening he said he would be only too glad to deck himself out in the trousers, flannel shirt and moccasins which Phil offered. The big red M on the breast of Larry's shirt, which was to become his property, seemed to take the eye of the swamp lad more than anything else. Of course it stood for Madison, the name of the baseball club the Northern boy belonged to; but it was easy to feel that it also represented the magic name of McGee.
Tony presently called out that their stopping place was just ahead. So Phil shut off power, after he had gently swung the boat in near the left bank. The setting pole, which every boat cruising in Florida waters invariably carries, was brought into use, and in this way the nose of the Aurora touched the shore.
Larry immediately tumbled over the side, rope in hand, whipping the same around a sentinel tree that stood close to the water's edge, as if for the special use of voyagers.
Once the boat was "snubbed" the current swung her around until her bow pointed up stream; and in this position she would rest easy during the night. But Phil made doubly sure against accidents by going ashore, and seeing that Larry had fashioned the proper sort of hitch knot with the stout cable.
"There's still half an hour of daylight, fellows," sang out Phil, as he picked up his gun, together with the belt of shells; "and while you amuse yourselves here, I think I'll take a little walk around. Possibly another deer might heave in sight, or even a wild turkey."
"Yum! yum! you make my mouth water, Phil," mumbled Larry, who was already getting out some fishing tackle, with the idea of trying for a bass in the brownish waters below the tied-up launch.
"Keep an eye out for rattlers!" warned Tony.
"You just believe I will," called Phil, over his shoulder. "I've got my leather leggins on though, which would be some protection. But I don't care to interview the fangs of a big diamondback. So-long, boys; see you later!"
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE FIRST NIGHT
When Phil walked away from the spot where the power boat was secured, with his two companions aboard, he did not mean to go far. Night would soon swoop down on the wilderness; and from former unpleasant experiences the young hunter knew what it was to be lost.
This was his first experience in Florida sport, and he knew that he had lots to learn; but he was a boy who always kept his eyes and ears open; and besides, had a general knowledge of the many things peculiar to the country.
He had mapped out a little turn in his mind. By moving directly east for perhaps ten minutes, then turning sharply north, and proceeding for the same length of time, after which he would swing into the southwest, Phil believed he might cover quite a stretch of territory, and stand few chances of missing the river.
He pushed on through patches of the ever-present saw palmetto, with its queer roots thrust out of the ground, and as large as a man's leg. Phil never ceased to be interested in this strange product of the southern zone, even if he did manage to stumble over the up-lifted roots more than once.
The pine woods proved rather open, since they had halted for the first night in a region where there was something of a swamp on one side of the river, and high land on the other. Tony had of course selected the latter for their stopping place.
Phil noticed that he had the breeze on the left as he advanced; and it was toward this quarter in particular that he kept his eyes turned; for if he was to get near a feeding deer it would have to be with the animal toward the wind.
When he made his first turn, and headed north, the conditions were still more favorable, since he was now walking directly into the breeze.
Once he heard the whirr of little wings. He had flushed a covey of quail; but as his mind was at the time set on nobler game, and the chance for a shot not particularly good, he did not attempt to fire; though naturally his gun flew up to his shoulder through the hunter instinct.
"Looks good to me ahead there?" he muttered, as he noticed some patches of green in open spots or little glades. "If there's a deer around, I ought to find him feeding at this hour of the afternoon."
With this idea pressing upon his mind he began to advance cautiously in the direction of the glades; keeping his body sheltered by the scrub, and his eyes on the alert for a moving red form.
Five, ten minutes he employed in making his "creep," but he found that it was time well spent; for as he finally reached the spot he had been aiming for, he discovered a deer within easy gunshot, calmly feeding.
Phil repressed any emotion that would have overcome a greenhorn at the fine prospect for a shot. He saw that the animal was a bit suspicious, since it frequently raised its head to sniff the air, and look timidly around.
That meant a quick shot, while the chance remained. Once the animal took the alarm it would bound away on wings of fear; and Phil knew that it was not so easy to hit a leaping deer, especially when trees and scrub intervened.
So he raised his Marlin at a time when the deer's head was lowered. Perhaps even this cautious movement may have stirred some leaf, for he saw that graceful head quickly raised. The deer was looking straight at him.
No sooner had Phil fired than he sent the empty shell flying with one swift movement of the forearm; and by another action brought a fresh shell into place. Thus he was instantly ready to shoot again, so marvelously did the clever mechanism of the up-to-date firearm work.
No second shot, however, was needed. One look convinced the young Nimrod of that pleasant fact. The deer had fallen, and seemed to be kicking its last on the grass.
Phil hastily advanced, still holding his gun in readiness for instant action in case of necessity; for he had heard of wounded deer jumping up, and in a rage attacking the hunter.
When he reached the side of his quarry, however, the last movement had ceased; and Phil knew he had secured the game for which Larry had been pining so long.
"My! what a little chap!" he exclaimed. "Now I wonder if it can be a youngster; and yet look at the full-fledged antlers, would you? But then it seems to me I was told the deer down South were all much smaller than up in the Adirondacks. I believe I can carry this fellow to the boat without any help."
He soon lifted the game, and swung it to his back. Then, managing to grip his gun in one hand, he took his bearings again, and started off.
Phil was too experienced a woodsman to easily get lost. And he had fixed the points of the compass so well in his mind that, just as he expected, he actually struck the river a short distance above the tied-up motor boat.
Larry was still fishing away, and so engrossed in playing a bass that had taken his bait that he did not at first notice the returning hunter. Having finally succeeded in dragging his prize aboard, with the help of Tony, he was made aware of the coming of his chum through low words spoken by the swamp boy.
One look Larry gave; then seeing what it really was Phil carried on his shoulders he let out a whoop that might have been heard a mile.
"Venison for supper, with fish! Wow! ain't we going to live high, though? Delmonico isn't in it with we, us and company tonight. See, I've caught three fine bass, Phil; and didn't they pull like sixty, though? My arms are real sore after the job of getting them in. And I didn't break your nice pole, either."
"Which was very kind of you, old fellow," said Phil. "Somebody please take my gun, so I can dump this deer on the ground. I bled him, Tony; but when we cut the venison up, we don't want to make a mess aboard. And that limb up yonder will be just the ticket to hang him from over-night, to keep our meat away from any prowling cats."
Larry drew in his line and put away his fishing rod, which of course was to him only a "pole." He immediately busied himself in getting ready to cook supper. And presently everybody seemed hard at work. Tony was cleaning the fish, Phil getting some slices from the haunch of the deer; and Larry peeling potatoes which they had secured in the river town that morning.
A couple of lanterns gave all the light needed when night gathered around them. And after all it was not so dark; for the moon happened to be more than half full, and being nearly overhead, shone down nicely.
Phil pounded the steaks he had cut off, hoping in this way to make them somewhat more tender. A fire was built ashore, since they had need to save their kerosene when it could be just as well done as not.
Over this Larry got busy. He had all the assistance he required; for as soon as the coffee got to boiling, the fish to frying, after being placed in a pan where some salt pork had been tried out; and the venison to browning, the mingled odors caused every fellow to realize that he was mighty hungry.
As long as he lived Larry would probably never forget that first supper in the wilderness. It seemed to him as though he might be living in an enchanted land; with that silvery moon shining overhead, the fire sparkling near by, and all those delightful dishes awaiting attention.
Food never tasted one half so delicious as it did right then; for already was Larry beginning to get the hunter's zest, what with the ozone in the air, and the prospect for happy days ahead.
And when they could eat no more there was still quite a quantity of the cooked food left over, which Larry stowed away in a couple of pans against breakfast.
With Tony's help Phil managed to draw the carcass of the deer up some ten feet from the ground. It looked quite weird swinging there in the moonlight; but Larry chuckled with pleasure every time his eyes roved that way.
He had declared the venison was all that he had expected it to be; and vowed it equaled any ordinary beefsteak he had ever eaten.
"Next time we try it, though," Larry said, "I'm going to fry a mess of those nice big onions we've got along. Always did have a weakness for steak with onions."
"Let's talk about something else besides eating," remarked Phil.
"Well, how d'ye like your coffee then, with this evaporated cream in it?" asked the cook, as he lifted his tin cup, and proceeded to drain it.
"It's all to the good, and touches the right spot," Phil laughed; and then added, to get his chum's mind off the subject: "How many more days journey lie ahead of us, Tony, before we strike the region where the shingle-makers live?"
The swamp boy seemed to consider.
"If we make good time tomorrow, it ought to be only one more day after that," he remarked, with convincing positiveness.
"Well, we don't expect to rush things," said Phil; "but since there's an ugly piece of business ahead, I mean to get it over with as soon as I can, with reason. One more night, and then we'll come in touch with your people, eh?"
"If yuh don't change your mind some, an' turn back," replied the other; with a vein of pleading in his smooth Southern voice that quite touched Phil.
He knew what influenced the swamp boy; who was fearful lest some harm befall the new-found friend who had become so dear to him, even though a span of a day would cover their acquaintance.
"How about our being disturbed tonight by some hungry wildcat that might scent fresh blood, and think to dine on our fine deer up yonder?" and Phil nodded his head up toward the swaying bundle—for the game had been partly skinned, and was now wrapped up in the hide.
"That might be," returned the other, carelessly. "All depends if thar be a hungry cat aroun'. Hear 'em, and get a shot."
"Oh! my! do you really think such a thing could happen?" exclaimed Larry, a bit uneasily as though he wondered whether an agile wildcat might not take a notion to jump into the launch while up in the overhanging tree.
"Don't worry about it, Chum Larry," said Phil soothingly. "This stationary top would keep him from getting aboard, you see. But in case you hear a shot during the night, just remember what we've been talking about."
"All right, I will," Larry observed; and later on when making preparations for sleeping he was unusually careful to tuck himself well in, and draw down the curtains close to him, fastening them securely with the grummets that were meant to clutch the round-headed screws along the side.
Phil himself was secretly wishing a hungry cat might come sneaking along, to climb up in the tree, and tackle their meat; for he wanted to have the satisfaction of saying he had shot a Florida bobcat; and in protecting their stores he could find plenty of excuses for making war on such a beast.
So he arranged things when laying down, in order to allow of a peep at any time he woke up. As long as the moon remained above the horizon, which would be until after midnight, he could plainly see that dark object swinging from the limb of the tree above.
None of them dreamed of the various things that were fated to come to pass ere the journey's end was reached. Could stout hearted Phil have had a fleeting vision of what lay before them, even he might have hesitated about going on. But he fully believed that he was carrying an olive branch of peace that could not fail to subdue the truculent nature of the dreaded McGee. And it was in that confident spirit he fell asleep.
Possibly a couple of hours may have passed when he awakened, feeling rather cramped from lying on one side so long. Before turning over, he remembered his intention to take occasional peeps up at the meat that had been swung aloft; and raising the flap of the loose curtain he cast his eyes in that quarter.
The moon was lower now, but still shone brightly. And he could without any particular trouble make out the dark object which he knew must be the suspended package of venison. Nothing seemed to be near it, save the usual branches of the tree; and Phil was about to give a satisfied grunt, after which he would roll over the other way, when somehow he became convinced that the bundle appeared much larger than previously.
Watching closely he made a startling discovery. There was some object flattened out on top of the deer, for he plainly saw it move, as though a head were being raised. And what was evidently the truth burst upon him. A wildcat had climbed the tree while they slept, and was now trying to get at the venison!
"SAVING THE BACON!"
Phil reached for his gun. Luckily he had it close by, even though hardly expecting to make use of it during the night.
He fancied he heard a low snarking sound; possibly it may have been pure imagination; though so wary an animal as a wildcat might have detected a movement down below, where its human enemies held forth, and signified by this means its displeasure at being disturbed in a feast.
Now the gun was being carefully pushed forth, advantage being taken of the opening under the canvas cover, where Phil had released a couple of the grummets. He wondered just how he was to get the butt against his shoulder, under such peculiar conditions; but where there's a will there nearly always can be found a way; and in the end this difficulty was bridged over.
Then he thought of Larry. What a fright the sudden roar of the gun in the confined space under the canopy would give his chum. But Phil had warned him against being alarmed in case of a shot during the night.
Was the cat still there?
Looking closely he could see a movement as though the animal might have finally reached the meat through the covering, and was busily engaged chewing at it.
"Think of the nerve of the thing!" Phil was saying under his breath, as he got ready to fire.
The report quickly followed. Phil, once he was ready, began to have a fear lest the animal take sudden alarm, and make a leap that would carry it beyond his range of vision. And the more he thought over the thing the greater became his desire to punish the beast for its audacity.
"Thunder!" shouted Larry, as he came floundering off his made-up bed, landing in a struggling heap in the bottom of the motor boat.
"Oh! no, not quite so bad as that," laughed Phil, himself gaining an upright position; and trying the best he could to throw out the old shell, so that he might have the pump-gun in serviceable shape again.
Tony seemed to be the least disturbed of the lot. Familiarity with alarms had considerable to do with it, no doubt. He had started to open the flap of the canvas cover nearest him, so that he could thrust his head out.
"What happened, Phil?" asked Larry, as he sat up on the floor of the boat.
"Why, I just saved our bacon; or to be plainer, our venison," laughed the other.
"Oh! was something running away with it, then?" demanded Larry, beginning to get upon his knees as the first step toward rising.
"Something was making way with it, which is about the same thing," replied Phil.
"W-was it a bobcat?" continued Larry.
As Phil said this one word they could hear a fierce growling, accompanied by a strange scurrying sound. It came from the shore close to the boat.
"Will it come in here after us, Phil?" asked the more timid member of the firm, as he tried to find the hatchet which he remembered seeing somewhere close by at the time he lay down on his cot.
"How about that, Tony; do you think there's any danger of such a thing happening?" queried Phil, turning to the swamp boy.
"Getting weaker all the time," came the ready reply. "I think yuh give him all in the gun. Kick the bucket purty soon now."
Tony thrust the curtains more fully aside. Then he crept out and reached the shore; nor was Phil far behind him. The latter, however, not being quite so confident as Tony, insisted on carrying his Marlin repeater along. If the dying cat gave evidence of a desire to attack them, he wanted to be in shape to finish matters on the spot.
There was really no need. Even as he arrived on the scene the stricken animal gave one last convulsive shudder, and stiffened out.
"Good shot that!" remarked Tony, admiringly, as he bent over to see where Phil had struck the midnight marauder.
"Wow! what a savage looking pussy!" exclaimed Larry, joining the others. "I'd everlastingly hate to run up against such a customer in the pine woods. Say, if a fellow like that pounced down on my back some time, what ought I to do?"
"Lie down, and roll," laughed Phil; who knew that down here in this warm country, where food is plenty, no wildcat would be bold enough to openly attack a human being without provocation.
Tony immediately started to shin up the tree, desirous of ascertaining the extent of damage done. When he came down he announced that the beast had just succeeded in tearing a way in to the venison; but had eaten very little of it, thanks to Phil chancing to awaken when he did.
So, as the night air felt rather chilly, they soon bundled back into the boat again, and sought to secure more sleep.
There was no further alarm that night, and Larry was glad when his chum aroused him by saying that morning had arrived.
The sun was beginning to gild the eastern heavens when they started to get breakfast. Larry took a look all around, after what he fancied would be the manner of an old sea dog; and then gravely announced his opinion as to the weather.
"Guess we're going to have another fine day of it. No sign of red in that sunrise; and the few fleecy white clouds don't whisper rain. You know, Phil, I'm taking considerable interest in weather predictions these days. Got an old almanac along, to compare notes. I hazard a guess first, and then look up what old Jerold says we're going to have."
"Well, how do his predictions pan out?" asked Phil.
"Oh! nine times out of ten it happens just the opposite to what he says. That's the fun of the thing. He knows how to tell what the weather ain't going to be; and to my mind that's going some. Now, what shall we eat this morning?"
"Any of those fresh eggs left we bought from that old cracker just outside the town limits?" asked the head of the expedition. "Half a dozen, you say? Good! Suppose you give us an omelet for a change. They might get broken, anyway; and we'd better have the use of 'em."
"What will you do with that awful beast out there, Phil?"
"Tony is going to look after him for me," replied the one who had shot the bobcat thief. "He says it is a very fine skin, and that sometime I'll be glad to have it made into a little door mat. He knows how to take it off, and stretch it on a contrivance he expects to make. You see, he's handy at all such things. Necessity is a great teacher. If you just had to go hungry for two whole days, Larry, I really believe you could do it."
"Perhaps I could," sighed the other; "but thank goodness, just at present there's no need of fasting, while we've got all these bully stores aboard, and that haunch of prime venison hanging up there. Suppose you drop it down, Tony, if you don't mind climbing the tree again. Two eggs apiece ain't going to fill the bill; and the taste I had of that venison last night haunts me still."
At that Phil chuckled.
"Seems to me, just before we went to bed I saw you getting away with the surplus we put in that pan," he remarked.
"Oh! that was only a little snack," replied the unabashed Larry. "This air seems to tone up a fellow's appetite some. Given a week or two of the open life, and I have hopes that my usual appetite will come back to me again."
Of course the breakfast was a success. Larry could cook, even if he did lack many of the qualities that should be found in a woodsman; and was woefully ignorant as to the thousand and one things connected with the great outdoors.
Still, Phil had hopes of him. From time to time he kept dinning certain facts into the ears of his chum. These concerned the secrets of the open, and which at times are so important to any one who dares venture into the woods.
He explained for instance, to his boat mate, just how to learn the direction of the compass from the sun, the marks on the trees, and even his watch, if put to it. He showed him how to make a fire without a match, by the use of friction, after the manner of savage tribes who never knew flint and steel, or a brimstone stick. He explained to Larry how easy it was to cook game, by making a fire in a hole until it had become very hot, and then placing the meat therein; sealing the oven until hours had elapsed; which backwoods method of cooking was really the first fireless cooker known.
In these and dozens of other ways Phil daily taught his chum. Larry evinced considerable interest in the matter so long as his comrade was speaking; but that was about as far as it went. He did not have the spirit in him; and the seed fell on barren ground. Larry would never in all his life make a genuine woodsman. But if he kept on, he might in time get a job in a restaurant over the grill, so Phil assured him, as he complimented Larry on the fine omelet.
An hour later they left the place which Larry called "Wildcat Camp" in his log of the motor boat cruise.
Larry was full of high spirits. Indeed, it was hard for him to keep from showing his bubbling good nature at any and all times. Phil too seemed quite contented with the way things were moving along. Only the swamp boy gave evidence of increasing uneasiness.
Tony would sit there as if lost in thought, his eyes fastened on the frank face of the young fellow for whom he had come to entertain such a lively sense of friendship in the short time he had known him. Then he would sigh, and shake his head dolefully, as though he foresaw troubles arising which he would fain ward off, if only Phil would accept his earnest advice, and turn around before it was too late.
But Phil believed he had that on his person which would change the terrible McGee from a bitter enemy into a good friend; and confident in his own honorable intentions he never dreamed of turning back.
LARRY CATCHES THE FEVER
"Looks like there ought to be some game around here!"
Strange to say it was Larry who made this remark. They had tied up at noon, and made a fire ashore, at which the midday meal was prepared. Phil seemed in no particular hurry to proceed afterward; and Larry, who had been "mousing" around, as he called it, surprised his chum by declaring that the appearance of the country indicated the presence of game.
Perhaps the many talks of Phil were beginning to bear fruit. Then again it might be Larry rather envied his chum the glory of killing that marauding bobcat; the skin of which at some future day Phil would have made a fine mat, at which he could point, and carelessly speak of the "time when he knocked that beast out of a tree, while the moon was shining, and his companions sound asleep."
More likely than either of these, however, Phil believed his chum was yearning for a variety in the bill of fare. Quail on toast would strike Larry about right; or even rabbit or squirrel stew; provided the meat for the pot were the product of his skill as a Nimrod.
"Suppose you take the gun, and prowl around a bit!" he suggested, more as a joke than because he dreamed lazy Larry would accept the proposition.
"All right!" exclaimed the other, with surprising alacrity. "Me to do the sneaking act, and see if I can hit a flock of barns. You know I did manage to break one of those bottles you threw up that day, Phil, even if you said I shut my eyes every time I pulled the trigger. All the more credit to me. It takes a smart marksman to hit a flying object with his eyes shut. Just think what a miracle I'd be if I kept 'em open! Gimme the gun, and let me hie forth. Quail for supper wouldn't go bad; but if it should be wild turkey, why, I suppose we'll just have to stand it."
Phil hardly knew whether he was doing right to let Larry saunter forth. Even after he had handed the Marlin over, he shook his head dubiously.
"Don't go far, now," he said, warningly; "and try and be back here inside of an hour. If you ain't, we'll look you up. And remember, Larry, if you should get lost don't go to wandering everlastingly about. Just stop short, make a fire, and get all the black smoke rising you can. This fat pine makes a great smudge, you know, and might guide us to you."
"Huh! Lost, me?" cried Larry, pretending to be very indignant. "Why, after all you've been and told me it would be simply impossible! I'll know where I am every time."
"Oh! yes," laughed Phil; "just like the Indian did, we read about, eh?"
"How was that?" demanded Larry, as he buckled the belt of shells around his generous waist.
"Why, once upon a time an old Indian actually wandered around several days without being able to locate his home. That's pretty hard to believe, but the story runs that way. Then some white men came across him, hungry and tired. They asked him if he was lost, and the old fellow got mad right away. Smacking himself on his chest proudly, he said: 'Injun lost? No, Injun not lost; wigwam lost—Injun here!' And that's the way it would be with you. Now get along, and be sure you bring in the game. I changed the buckshot shells for birdshot; but put these heavy loads in your pocket in case you need them."
So Larry trotted gaily forth. He fancied he looked every inch a Nimrod in his new corduroy suit, and with the gun under his arm, carried in the same way he had seen his chum do it many a time. But then Larry did not know that the hunter who wears an old jacket, with a patch on the right shoulder where a hole has been worn by constant friction from carrying a gun, is most apt to inspire respect in the minds of those who can size the true sportsman up.
Phil was rather sleepy, for he had not secured all the rest he wanted on the preceding night. So he stretched out on the ground, and dozed.
Every little while he would arouse himself, and consult his little nickel timepiece. Tony was busy scraping the hide of the wildcat, and fixing it on a stretcher which he had ingeniously fashioned out of a heavy strip of bark, straightened out flat, and held so by a couple of sticks secured to the back.
"Time that greenhorn was back, Tony," Phil finally remarked, as he sat up. "By the way, did you hear a shot a little while ago, perhaps half an hour?"
Tony said he had, and he could also tell the exact direction from whence it had sprung.
"How far away was it, do you think?" continued Phil, seriously.
"'Bout half mile, I reckons," came the reply, without hesitation.
"The air is from that quarter too, I notice; and of course you take that into consideration when you figure on the distance?"
"Oh! yes, I know," nodded Tony.
"But half a mile—he ought to have been back before now. We'll wait a little while longer, and then if he don't show up I guess we'll just have to go after him."
Tony did not reply; but judging from the little smile that crossed his face, it was evident that the swamp boy felt pretty confident they would have to take up the hunt. He had sized Larry up pretty readily as a failure in woodcraft, and a sure enough tenderfoot of the worst type.
"No signs of him yet," announced Phil after a bit, rising to his feet; while a look of growing concern began to come upon his face. "I was silly to let him take the risk. Ought to have known Larry would bungle it, if there was half a chance. And now, Tony, what had we better do, follow his tracks, or head straight in the direction that shot came from."
"Follow trail," the other answered promptly.
"You are sure we will be able to keep on it, all right?" continued Phil.
"I think so," replied the swamp boy, with a smile of assurance; as though he looked upon such a test as of little moment; for what had he been learning all of his life if not to accomplish just such tasks?
"All right then; let's get busy."
First of all Phil dashed off a few lines on a scrap of paper, telling Larry, if he hit camp while they were absent, to settle down by the boat, and wait for them. This he stuck in the cleft of a dead palmetto leaf stem, which in turn he thrust in the ground in front of the tied-up motor boat.
Then he followed Tony into the scrub. The swamp boy walked along with his head bent slightly over. His keen eyes were doubtless picking up the plain marks made by clumsy Larry as he wandered forth in search of the coveted quail, which he hoped to adorn sundry pieces of toast that evening.
Phil too was keeping tabs on the trail, though he realized that if there arose any knotty problem that Tony could not solve, his own knowledge would hardly avail.
It was a very erratic line of tracks. Larry evidently had no particular plan of campaign marked out when he sallied forth. If he gradually bore to the left it was because of that well known failing that all greenhorns tracking through the forest, or over the open prairie, fall heir too; in which the right side of their bodies being the stronger, they gradually veer to the left, until, given time enough, they may even make a complete circle.
Tony pointed out just where the hunter, fancying he had sighted game, began to sneak up on it. Why, he could read every movement Larry had made from the marks left behind, just as readily as though he were actually watching him.
"But he didn't shoot here, after all?" said Phil.
"No, p'raps game fly away; or mebbe all a mistake," Tony replied. "See no empty shell near where he kneel in sand. He go on further, this aways," and he once more led off through the woods.
After a while Phil believed they must be close to the place where his chum had discharged his gun just once. Nor was he much surprised when Tony suddenly darted sideways, and picked up an empty shell.
"Here shoot all right; camp over thar!" said the swamp boy, pointing without hesitation through the timber; doubtless the direction of the wind aided him in thus fixing the location of the boat in his mind.
"But what could he have shot at?" exclaimed Phil. "I don't see any sign of game around here, do you?"
"Start on run fast," remarked Tony, pointing down to the ground, as though he had read that fact there in the change of the footprints.
"Then perhaps he did hit something!" exclaimed Phil. "Let's follow and see if there's any sign. It may have been only a hamak fox squirrel he saw, and thought to bag, so he wouldn't have to come in with empty hands."
"No, wild turkey!" declared Tony, holding up a feather his quick eye had detected on the ground.
"Well, however in the wide world d'ye suppose that clumsy chum of mine ever managed to get close enough to such wary game to knock a feather from it?" laughed Phil; "but he must have wounded the bird, for he's gone headlong through the woods here in full chase."
They followed on for some time. Phil began to wonder how Larry ever kept up the pace. Truly the hunter instinct must have been aroused at last in the fat boy to have caused him to thus wildly exert himself. And in the excitement he doubtless forgot all about the directions given him by his chum.
"Why, he's going further and further away from camp all the time!" announced Phil presently.
"Heap game Larry," grinned the swamp boy, who doubtless understood the new spirit that was urging the other on, with his wounded game constantly tantalizing him.
"Hark!" cried Phil, as he held up his hand warningly. "Did you hear that?"
"Help! oh! help!" came faintly from some point away ahead.
When Larry started out upon this, his very first hunt alone, he was filled with a newborn ambition. But before he had wandered for ten minutes he began to feel the heat, and wished he had not been so silly as to imagine he were cut out for a mighty Nimrod.
Several times he stumbled over unseen roots of the ever-present saw palmetto. Fortunately he did not have the hammer of his gun raised at the time, or there might have been a premature explosion.
When twenty minutes had gone he was beginning to feel angry at himself because he had voluntarily undertaken this task, for which nature had never fitted him.
Still, he was possessed of some grit, and disliked very much the idea of showing the white feather. At any rate, he would keep away the full hour, and then try to locate the camp. Phil could not then have the laugh on him; for even the best of hunters have their hard luck days.
Several times he saw frisky squirrels looking curiously at him around some tree. He was even tempted to try and bag a few of these little fellows, for after all they were game; and perhaps more in his line than swift flying quail, or the bounding deer. But every time he thus decided, the squirrel seemed to guess his hostile intentions; for it vanished from sight, running up the other side of the live oak, and losing itself amid the abundant foliage.