[Frontispiece: "Now, we are in for it," said Charlie, as he found a seat in the fork of a limb. Page 229.]
The Boy Chums
In the Forest
Hunting for Plume Birds in the Florida Everglades
BY WILMER M. ELY
Author of "The Boy Chums on Indian River," "The Boy Chums on Haunted Island," "The Boy Chums' Perilous Cruise," "The Boy Chums in the Gulf of Mexico."
A. L. BURT COMPANY
BY A. L. BURT COMPANY
Under the Title of The Young Plume Hunters
THE BOY CHUMS IN THE FOREST
I. [Transcriber's note: no title] II. ON THE WAY III. WOODCRAFT IV. A LESSON V. THE 'GATOR HUNTERS VI. SOME SURPRISES VII. THE QUAGMIRE VIII. THE BATTLE IX. THE BEES AND THE BEAR X. SHOOTING A THIEF XI. THE PAWPAWS XII. CHARLEY'S MISTAKE XIII. THE BATTLE XIV. THE VICTIMS XV. A FLAG OF TRUCE XVI. THE RETREAT XVII. THE FLIGHT BY NIGHT XVIII. CAPTURED XIX. THE SWAMP XX. SAVED XXI. THE TREASURE XXII. DISAPPOINTMENT XXIII. MORE MYSTERY XXIV. MORE SURPRISES XXV. THE CHAPEL XXVI. PREPARATIONS XXVII. A TERRIBLE NIGHT XXVIII. PREPARATIONS XXIX. THE ENEMY XXX. THE ATTACK XXXI. THE PARLEY XXXII. HELP XXXIII. THE SEMINOLES XXXIV. THE RETURN
THE BOY CHUMS IN THE FOREST
Hunting for Plume Birds in the Florida Everglades.
Night had fallen upon a wild Florida forest, and all was still save for the hooting of a distant owl and the occasional plaintive call of a whip-poor-will. In a little clearing by the side of a faint bridle-path a huge fire of fat pine knots roared and crackled, lighting up the small cleared space and throwing its flickering rays in amongst the dark, gloomy pines.
At the edge of the clearing, two wiry little Florida ponies, tethered with rawhide ropes, browsed upon the short, dry wire-grass.
Nearer to the fire lay a neatly done-up pack, and beside it a high-pommeled Mexican saddle, while the firelight gleamed on the polished barrels of a fine shotgun and rifle leaning against the pack.
Close to the blaze a heap of glowing coals had been raked a little to one side, and upon them rested a coffee-pot and large frying-pan from which stole forth appetizing odors of steaming coffee and frying bacon.
The man bending over the coals was heavily bearded and past middle age, but his broad shoulders and huge frame still gave evidence of great strength and endurance. There was about him an air of anxious expectancy, and from time to time he rose from his crouching position and with hand to ear listened intently.
"I sort o' wonder if they'll all fail me," he muttered, as he removed the frying-pan from the coals but set it near enough to keep the contents hot.
As if in answer to his soliloquy, there rose above the crackling of the fire, the muffled distant thud of galloping hoofs. A few moments later a well-built, sturdy lad astride a mettlesome pony dashed into the circle of firelight.
Throwing the reins over the pony's head, the rider leaped from the saddle and with a rush had the elderly man clasped in his arms in an affectionate hug.
"Captain Westfield!" he shouted in boyish delight.
"Charley West," cried the man, "glad to see you, lad, glad to see you. My! you have grown. How are you, boy?"
"Fine, Captain, couldn't be better. But wait 'till I 'tend to my pony, and we will have a good, long powwow."
With sure swift movements, the newcomer removed saddle, pack, and guns, and staked his pony out near the others. This done he returned to the fire.
"What's in the wind?" he began, firing in the questions with the speed of a Maxim. "Something worth while, judging from that mysterious letter of yours. What is the scheme? Why this secret meeting in the forest instead of in town? Why"—but the man he called captain interrupted him with a chuckle.
"Hold a minute, lad. Just bowse your jib for a bit. You must be hungry, boy."
"Starved as a wolf. I could even eat a razorback, if I didn't have to see it before it was cooked."
The captain forked out a quantity of crisp bacon upon a tin plate and filled a big granite cup with fragrant coffee, for Charlie West, and from his saddle-bags brought out a bag of hardtack. Helping himself also, both fell to with a will.
"What were you doin' when you got my letter, Charley?" asked the captain between mouthfuls.
"Nothing, just kicking myself and brooding away in the city." The lad's bright, clear eyes looked frankly into the captain's as he continued. "I have been making a fool of myself, Captain. Got into some mischief with a crowd of fellows at school. Of course, I got caught and had to bear the whole blame for the silly joke we had played. The faculty has suspended me for a term. I would have got off with only a reprimand if I would have told the names of the other fellows, but I couldn't do that, you know."
"No," nodded the captain, approvingly, "that would have been sneakish. But how are you fixed for money, Charley?"
The lad's face fell. "I spent it at first as though there was no end to my little pile," he said. "I had pulled up when your letter came, but I only had enough left to pay my way back to Florida, buy this pony, and the outfit you suggested. There's nothing left. The fellows tried to get me to stay and work in the city until the next school term opens, but I told them, no! that I was going back to the best friend a boy ever had, back to the man who had been just as good as a father to me ever since my own folks died and left me a young boy alone in Florida. I told them of some of the adventures we had been through together, and what dandy chums we've been for such a long time."
"You told them city fellows all that?" exclaimed the delighted captain, "you talked to 'em like that, Charley?"
"Certainly, it was only the truth," said the lad, stoutly. "But it is your turn now, Captain. I am wild with curiosity."
"Lay to for a while, lad; I am expectin' another member for our crew any time now, and it's no use spinnin' the same yarn twice."
Charley's open face clouded a trifle, and he hesitated before he said, "I am not questioning your judgment, Captain, but you and I have camped out enough to know that a good camp-mate is about the scarcest article to be found. If we take in a stranger on this trip, which I surmise from the outfits is going to be a long one, the chances are more than even that he will turn out a quitter or a shirker."
The captain knocked the ashes from his pipe as he inquired, "Now who would you select for a third member, Charley?"
"I do not know anyone in Florida I would want to take a chance on for a long trip. I only know two fellows I would like to have along, and we can't get them. One is Walter Hazard, the Ohio boy who chummed with us down here for so long. The other is that little Bahama darky, Chris, whom Walter insisted on taking back north with him and putting in a school. There wasn't a yellow streak in either one, and Chris was a wonderful camp-fire cook."
"I wrote to Walt two days afore I wrote to you," observed the captain, calmly.
Charley stared at the simple old sailor in frank amazement. "You surely don't imagine he'll drop whatever he is doing and travel a thousand miles just for a trip with you and I?" he at last recovered himself enough to demand.
The captain nodded complacently. "I've sort of got a feelin' that way, an' if I ain't mistaken, them's his pony's hoofs comin' now—someway they sound different from what yours did, though."
Both adventurers rose to their feet and stood eagerly peering into the darkness from which there came the thud of rapidly approaching hoofs.
A moment later and two ponies were reined up in the circle of fire-light. As Charley recognized one less robust than himself, he gave a shout of delight and with a rush dragged him from his saddle in an affectionate embrace, while the captain, his eyes dancing with pleasure, was wringing the hand of a widely-grinning little darky who had dismounted from the other animal.
"Go easy, Charley," said the newcomer with a happy grin, "you're squeezing all the wind out of my body, and that is all there is in it now. Chris and I had to hustle to make connections and get here on time. We haven't had a bite to eat to-day."
"Walter Hazard, you are the one person I would have picked out for this trip," Charley cried joyfully, "and Chris, too, it seems almost too good to be true. But come over to the fire, and we will cure that empty feeling in a minute. The captain is helping Chris put the ponies up."
Charley quickly routed out a clean plate, and heaped it up with bacon and hardtack, reserving, however, a generous portion for Chris.
"Fall to and don't wait," he commanded, and Walter lingered for no second bidding.
In a few minutes they were joined by the captain and the little negro, who was quickly helped to the balance of the bacon and coffee.
As the two munched away, the captain and Charley plied them with questions which the hungry newcomers answered between mouthfuls.
"How was you gettin' along when that thar letter of mine reached you, Walt," asked the captain, gravely.
"Good and bad both," said the youth, draining his cup with a sigh of satisfaction. "Some time before I had bought up the mortgage on the farm without saying a word to father or mother. I was selfish, I guess, but I wanted the pleasure of their surprise." His eyes sparkled moistly. "My! it was great. It was worth every cent, although it took nearly every dollar of my little pile. You had ought to have been up there to see them the morning the mortgage fell due. Their faces were sad, enough to have made you cry. Thirty years they had worked and lived on that farm, and I guess there is no spot on earth quite the same to them. When mother lifted up her plate and saw the canceled mortgage underneath, it was some time before she grasped its meaning, and then she just broke down and cried. There were tears of joy in father's eyes, too, and I began to feel a lump in my throat, so I just got up and streaked it out for the barn, where I stayed until things calmed down a bit. But I am making a long story out of how my money went. I went to work in a store after that, but it wasn't long before I began to run down and the doctor would have long talks with father and mother. Then your letter came, and—well, here I am."
"And Chris, how did he happen to come?" inquired Charley.
"Trace chains couldn't have held him back when he heard I was coming back to join you. They wouldn't give him a vacation, but they would not keep him in the school after he began to have regular violent fits," said Walter, dryly.
"Fits," exclaimed Charley, with a glance at the grinning ebony face, the very picture of health. "He never had a real fit in his life."
"Maybe not, Massa Charley," admitted the vain little darky, "but, golly, I couldn't let you chillens go off alone widout Chris to look after you. Dey was powerful like real fits, anyway. I used to get berry sick, too, chewin' up de soap to make de foam. Reckon dis nigger made a martyr of hisself just to come along and look out for you-alls."
Charley turned to the captain to hide his grin. "It's your turn now, Captain. We've all showed our colors, even to Chris. It's up to you now to explain this business."
The captain knocked the ashes from the bowl of his pipe before remarking sagely, "I've noticed as how fish will bite at a good many kinds of bait, but if you want to make sartin sho' of a boy, thar's only one bait to use, and that's a good big chunk of mystery."
He glanced around at the suddenly crestfallen faces about him, and hastened to continue, "Don't look so down, lads. I ain't brought all of you so fer just for a joke. I just wanted to make sure of you and I didn't want the town people nosin' around and askin' questions, that's why I named this meetin' place."
The three faces brightened again. "Go on, Captain, come to the point," urged Walter, eagerly.
But the captain was enjoying their suspense, and with a twinkle in his eye proceeded slowly, "I was sort of loafin' around town one day about two weeks ago when I come across a Seminole, who, I reckon, had been sent in by his squaw to trade for red calico and beads," he paused for a moment and Charley exclaimed impatiently—
"Bother the Indian, we are not bound for the Everglades to fight them, are we?"
"He was about the drunkest brave I ever saw," continued the captain, calmly ignoring the interruption. "When I came across him he was sittin' on the end of a waterin' trough declaimin' what a great Injun he was, givin' war-whoops, an' cryin' by turns. One of his remarks sorter interested me and I didn't lose no time in makin' friends. Lads, I couldn't have stuck no closer to that redskin if he had been my long lost brother. I kept him away from other folks, an' by an' by I tipped him into the waterin' trough, kinder accident-like. The water sorter sobered him up a little an' pretty soon he began to want to hit the trail for home. I helped him out of town an' started him back for camp, where, I reckon, his old lady was waitin' to give him fits for forgettin' the calico and beads." The captain paused as if his tale was completed.
"For goodness' sake, Captain, what has your drunken Indian got to do with us?" demanded Charley, his patience at an end.
The captain lowered his voice dramatically. "Lads, that Seminole was carryin' around on him over five hundred dollars' worth of white and pink aigret plumes."
"Whew!" whistled the boys, half incredulously.
"Yes," affirmed the captain, "an' I found out where he got them, too. He let out that he bagged them all out by the Upper St. John's River, due west of here. He declared the birds were as thick as the stars at night, but I reckon some allowance has to be made for poetic license and the red liquor he had in him."
Three boyish faces were shining, now, and questions and answers mingled in eager confusion.
"How far is it to the river?"
"Two long days' travel."
"What kind of birds bear the plumes?"
"The blue heron, and the pink and white egret."
"What are the plumes worth?"
"Five dollars an ounce for perfect ones."
"Whew, it will be just like finding money."
Likely the eager young hunters would have talked the entire night away, but the captain soon interrupted their flow of questions.
"Plenty of time to talk to-morrow, lads. Get to bed now, for we want to start at daybreak."
The boys promptly obeyed. Blankets were spread out near the fire, and with their saddles for pillows the little party were soon in the land of dreams, blissfully unaware of the terrible experiences through which they were soon to pass.
ON THE WAY.
It seemed to the boys that they had only just fallen asleep when a crash like that of mighty thunder brought them startled out of the land of dreams. Instinctively both reached for their belts and pistols, which they had placed close to their hands on retiring. There was no need for their use, however, for the author of the deafening racket was only Chris who, with a grin on his face, was beating on a tin-pan close to their heads.
"You little imp, I thought it was an earthquake," cried Charley as he hurled a shoe at the little darky, who dodged it nimbly.
"Just couldn't wake you no other way," grinned Chris. "Time to get up, Massas, daylight dun come."
The sky in the east was glowing rosy-red, and the boys lost no time in slipping into their outer clothes and strapping on their pistol belts, which completed their attire.
The captain was already astir, busily engaged in strapping the packs on the animals, while, early as it was, Chris had breakfast ready.
"I tell you what it is," declared Charley, while munching his hardtack and bacon, "we'll soon tire of this fare. We must get some fresh meat very soon."
"A wild turkey roasted over the coals would go pretty well," suggested Walter.
"Deer foah dis nigger," declared Chris, "you-alls just ought to taste de venison steaks when I dun broil 'em."
"I like bear steaks, sizzling brown," said Charley, thoughtfully.
"Oh, keep still, you gluttons," laughed the captain. "We ain't likely to get any of those things unless we stop and have a regular hunt, an' I don't like to take the time for it. Maybe we'll pick up somethin' or other on our way. But now hurry up, boys, it's time we were startin'."
After taking the precaution to cover their fire with sand, all were soon in the saddle, and with Charley in the lead, took up the trail just as the sun rose above the distant tree-tops.
After half an hour's riding, Charley reined in his pony. "Trail's come to an end," he announced.
"Good!" cried Walter, with all of a boy's delight in the unknown, "that means we are getting beyond the range of hunters. Hurrah for the land beyond."
The captain produced a small compass and handed it to Charley. "Steer due west as near as you can," he directed.
Then followed hours of twisting and winding in and out amongst the big trees, now headed one way, now another, but keeping the general westerly direction. All hands kept their guns ready, but, although they saw evidences of big game on every hand, the noise of their advance must have frightened the wild creatures to their hiding-places long before our hunters came in sight.
As the party advanced the forest grew denser, the trees closer together. At last, when they began to fear that further progress would be impossible, they burst suddenly into a stretch of open country extending as far as the eye could see.
"Isn't it great!" exclaimed Walter; "just look at those pretty little lakes, you can see one no matter in what direction you look."
"It is pretty," agreed Charley, "but I am thinking more of dinner than scenery. I suppose it has got to be bacon and hardtack again. I'm—" but Charley did not finish the sentence. His pony had put its foot in a hole and stumbled, while Charley, taken unawares, pitched over the animal's head and landed on all fours in a little heap of sand beside the hole that had caused the mischief. To the surprise of his companions, he did not rise, but remained in the position in which he had fallen, staring at the hole.
"Are you hurt, Charley?" cried the captain, anxiously.
"Not a bit," grinned Charley as he regained a sitting position on the sand-heap. "I'm just holding down our dinner," he added calmly. "Get off, gents, and help me finish the job."
"Now, Chris," he directed, when they had dismounted, "do you see that tall slender sapling over there? It's just the thing I want. Please take the axe and get it for me, and don't cut off all the limbs."
Chris obeyed with alacrity, for experience had taught him that Charley never made useless demands. In a few minutes he was back dragging the sapling after him.
With a few strokes of the axe, Charley lopped off all the branches save one close to the small end of the trunk. This one he cut off so as to leave a projecting stub of about four inches, thus making of the end of his sapling a sort of rude harpoon.
His companions looked on with curiosity, but asked no questions, for they knew their chum delighted in surprises.
The pole finished, Charley poked the barbed end down into the hole. Down, down it went, fifteen, twenty feet, then struck with a dull thud. He began twisting the sapling over and over, then drew it slowly and gently up, but the end came into view with nothing adhering to it. Again and again was the fruitless operation repeated, and a look of disappointment had begun to settle on Charley's face when at last his harpoon came into view with a dark mass clinging to it.
"A turtle," exclaimed Walter in delight.
"No, a gopher, but I'll admit it is a kind of land turtle, although it feeds entirely on grass and never goes near the water," explained Charley, proud of his capture. "Chris, ride on to that first little lake yonder and get a fire started. We'll be there in a few minutes."
Charley fastened a buckskin thong to one of the gopher's flippers and hung it from his saddle-horn, then all remounted and turned their ponies toward the place where Chris had disappeared among the trees fringing the lake.
They had covered part of the distance when there came a yell and Chris' pony broke from the trees and bore down upon them at a run. The little darky was clinging to its back, his face ashen and his eyes bulging with terror.
"Go back, Massas," he shouted, "hit's a lake of blood, hit's a lake of blood!"
Walter grabbed the flying pony's rein and brought the animal to a halt. "Nonsense," he said, roughly, "you're crazy, Chris. Come on all, let's see what's scared him so." He spurred forward followed by the others and still retaining his hold upon the bridle of Chris' pony, in spite of the little darky's chattering, "Let me go, Massa Walt. Please let me go."
In a few moments the little party entered the fringe of timber and reined in their horses on the shore of the tiny lake. For a moment they sat speechless in their saddles, and truly there was in the sight excuse for Chris' chattering teeth. The little wavelets which broke at their feet were the color of blood, while the lake itself lay like a giant ruby in its setting of green; glistening and sparkling in the sun's bright rays.
Charley dismounted from his horse and from his saddle-bags produced a small medicine glass, which he filled with the liquid and held up to the light. The fluid sparkled clear as crystal and of a beautiful crimson hue.
"It beats me," he announced, "I thought it might be the bottom gave it that color, but whatever it is, it is in the water itself."
Walter wheeled his horse and studied the encircling trees carefully. "I've got it," he announced, "do you notice all these trees are of one kind?"
"You're right," Charley exclaimed, "they are all red bays. It's their roots that color the water."
The boys turned to chaff Chris, but he had slipped away at the first words of the explanation. Soon he reappeared with an armful of dry wood. His face was still ashen, but his teeth had stopped chattering.
"Golly," he exclaimed, pompously, "reckon dis nigger had you-alls scart dis time. Dis nigger shore had de joke on you dis time."
The boys glanced at each other and grinned. "I wouldn't try it again, Chris," Charley chuckled; "you might throw a fit next time, you act so real."
While Chris was making a fire and preparing a bed of coals, Charley cleaned the gopher.
This animal is very much like a turtle, but the tissue which unites the upper and lower shells is so hardened as to be impervious to a knife. Charley solved the problem by wedging it in the fork of a fallen tree, and after two or three attempts he succeeded in separating the shells with an axe.
"Let me finish hit, Massa Charley," pleaded Chris; "dis nigger knows just how to fix him now you got him open."
Charley was nothing loath to turn over the disagreeable task of cleaning to the little darky, who swiftly completed it. He removed the meat from the shell, skinned the edible portions, and threw the offal far from the fire. Next he washed both meat and shells carefully, salted and peppered the meat, and replaced it in the shell, laying on top of it a few thin slices of pork. Then, he bound both shells tightly together with wisps of green palmetto leaves. Lastly, he wrapped another green leaf around the shell and buried it in the bed of glowing coals now ready.
"That's a new idea," grinned Walter, "making your game supply its own cooking-pot. My! but it smells good, though."
In a very short time, Chris pronounced the gopher done and it was lifted from the coals and the shells cut apart revealing the steaming, juicy meat within.
Our hungry party pronounced the meat far sweeter and more tender than chicken, and the empty shells soon bore evidence to their sincerity.
After a brief rest, they mounted and again took up the trail, soon leaving behind their halting-place, which the boys named Lake Christopher, much to the vain little darky's chagrin. He had a shrewd suspicion that he would not hear the last of his fright for many a day.
For a while the little party rode forward in silence, winding in and out between pretty lakes and bunches of timber, with no path to guide them, but with the help of the compass, managing to edge slowly to the west. Charley still maintained the lead, but in the open country through which they were traveling it was possible to ride abreast, and Walter soon spurred up beside his chum.
"Do you know, Charley, I begin to feel like a babe in the woods," he confessed. "I suspect you are the only one of us who knows anything about woodcraft. I know nothing about it, I am sure Chris doesn't, and I suspect the captain is far more at home reefing a top-sail. You have got to be our guide and leader, I guess."
"I have hunted a good deal, and a fellow can't help but learn a few things if he is long in the woods," said Charley, modestly, "but I've never been so far into the interior before. I wish, Walt," he continued gravely, "that there was someone along with us that knew the country we are going to better than I, or else that we were safely back in town once more."
"Why?" demanded Walter in astonishment.
"I dread the responsibility, and," lowering his voice so the others could not hear, "I have seen something I do not like."
"What?" queried his chum, eagerly.
Charley produced a square plug of black chewing tobacco from his pocket. "I picked that up in the edge of the clearing this morning," he explained. "It wasn't even damp, so it must have been dropped after the dew settled last night."
"Some lone hunter passed by in the night," suggested Walter, cheerfully.
"I wish I could think so," said Charley anxiously. "But you know as well as I that there are some gangs of lawless men in Florida, gathered from all quarters of the globe, and, Walter," lowering his voice to a whisper, "I saw signs that there was more than one man near our camp last night."
"What kind of signs?" his chum demanded.
"Broken bushes, the marks of horses' hoofs, and a dozen other little things of no importance when considered separately."
"A fig for your signs, you old croaker," laughed Walter, "you'll be seeing ghosts next. I didn't see any of the signs you talk about. Besides, if anyone had wished to do us harm they could have done so without hindrance last night."
"I know it," Charley admitted, "and that's what puzzles me. As for the signs, your not noticing them proves nothing. It's the little things that make up the science of woodcraft. The little things that one does not usually notice."
"My eyes are pretty good, and I don't go around with them shut all the time," began Walter hotly, but Charley only smiled.
"Look around and tell me what you see, Walt," he requested.
"A flat, level country, covered with saw palmetto, dotted with pretty little lakes, what looks like a couple of acres of prairie ahead, and, oh yes, a lot of gopher holes all around us like the one you robbed this morning."
"We'll begin with the gopher holes," Charley said with a smile. "Tell me what is in each hole as we pass it."
"Why, gophers, I suppose."
Charley reined in his horse before four large holes and pointed at them with his riding-whip. "Gopher in that one," he declared without hesitation. "Mr. Gopher is away from the next one, out getting his dinner likely; a coon lives in the next, but he is away from home. Rattlesnake, and a big one, lives in the fourth, but he is also away from home, I am glad to say."
Chris and the captain had ridden up to the boys, and they with Walter, stood staring at Charley in silent wonder.
"It's easy to see," explained the young woodsman. "When a gopher goes down his hole, he simply draws in his flippers and slides, but when he wants to get out he has to claw his way up. You'll see the first hole has the sand pressed smooth at the entrance, while the sand in the other hole shows the mark of the flippers. That third hole is easy, too; you can see the coon tracks if you look close, and you will notice that the claws point outward. The last hole is equally simple, you can see the trail of the snake's body in the soft sand and those little spots here and there made by his rattles show which way he was traveling."
The captain brought his hand down on his knee with a hard slap. "I reckon I can handle any ship that was ever built," he said, "but I'm a lubber on land, boys. Charley's our pilot from now on, an' we must mind him, lads, like a ship minds her helm."
"If I'm going to be pilot, I'll make you all captains on the spot," laughed Charley, as he spurred forward again into the lead.
"Do those wonderful eyes see anything more?" mocked Walter, as he once more ranged alongside.
"Don't make fun of me, Walt," said his chum, seriously. "What I have done is nothing. It's just noting little things and putting two and two together. You can easily do the same if you will train yourself to observe things closely."
"Do you really think I could?" asked Walter, eagerly.
"Certainly you can, and now for the first lesson. Look closely at all the bushes as we pass them and see if you notice anything out of the way."
They rode on in silence for a few minutes, Walter scanning the scrub in passing with a puzzled expression growing upon his face.
"Well, what do you make of it?" Charley asked.
"I don't know what to make of it," Walter confessed. "Every few hundred feet there are branches partly broken off and left hanging. Queer, isn't it?"
"Look closer and see if you can notice anything peculiar about those branches."
"They haven't been broken off very long, for they are not very much withered. I should say it was done about ten days ago."
"Good," exclaimed Charley, approvingly, "notice anything else?"
"Yes," declared Walter, his wits sharpening by his success, "although those boughs seem to be broken accidentally, yet all are caught in amongst other twigs so that each one points in the same direction—the way we are going. What does it mean, Charley, if it means anything?"
"My color is wrong to tell you all that those broken branches mean, but I can tell you a little. About ten days ago a party of Indians passed through this way bound in the same direction we are. They expected another party of their people to follow later so they marked the way for them as you have seen. If I were a Seminole, I could tell from those broken twigs the number of the first party, whither they were bound, what was the object of their journey, and a dozen other things hidden from me on account of my ignorance of their sign language."
"Indians, Seminoles," said Walter, bewildered, "I had almost forgotten there were any in the state."
"There isn't, legally. Years ago the United States rounded them all up and started to transport them out west to a reservation. But at St. Augustine a few hundred made their escape and fled back to the Everglades, where they have lived ever since without help or protection, and ignored by the United States government."
"What kind of a race are they?" asked Walter, curiously.
"The finest race of savages I ever saw," declared Charley, warmly; "tall, splendidly-built, cleanly, honest, and with the manners of gentlemen—look out!" he shouted, warningly.
Walter's horse had reared back upon his haunches with a snort of terror. Walter, though taken by surprise, was a good horseman, and slipped from the saddle to avoid being crushed by a fall.
A few feet in front of the frightened pony lay coiled a gigantic rattlesnake, its ugly head and tail raised and its rattles singing ominously. Two more steps and the pony would have been upon it.
"Don't shoot," pleaded Walter as Charley drew his revolver. "I know where I can sell that skin for $25.00, if there's no holes in it."
"Let me shoot it, Walt," pleaded Charley, anxiously, "they're awfully dangerous."
"Aye, lad," seconded the captain, who, with Chris, had reached the spot, "better let him shoot it, those things are too dangerous to take chances with."
But Walter's obstinacy was roused. "Keep back, I'll fix him," he declared confidently. "I'm going to have that skin and that $25.00."
Breaking off a dead bough from a scrub oak he approached the snake cautiously while the rest sat in their saddles silently anxious, and Charley edged his restive pony a little closer to the repulsive reptile.
Slowly Walter moved forward, his gaze fixed intently upon the slowly waving head before him with its glistening little diamond eyes. Nearer and nearer he crept till only a few feet separated him from that venomous head with its malignant unwinking eyes.
"Strike, boy, strike, you're getting too close," shouted the captain.
"Oh, golly," shrieked Chris, "look at him, look at him."
Walter had stopped as though frozen in his tracks. His face had gone deathly pale, and great drops of sweat stood on his forehead. The hand that held the stick unclasped, and it rattled unheeded to the ground.
"He's charmed," cried the captain.
"Jump to one side, Walt, jump," Charley shouted, "for God's sake, jump. It's going to strike."
The reptile's swaying head had drawn back and the huge snake launched itself forward from its coils straight for the dazed lad only a few feet in front of it.
Quick as was its spring, Charley was quicker. He dug his spur cruelly into his little pony's flank. With a neigh of pain the animal leaped forward. For a moment there was a tangle of striking hoofs and wriggling coils of the foiled reptile, while Charley leaning over in his saddle struck with the butt-end of his riding whip at the writhing coils. Though it seemed an eternity to the helpless watchers it was really only a few seconds ere the pony sprang away from its loathsome enemy and Charley with difficulty reined him in a few paces away. The snake with a broken neck lay lifeless on the ground, while Walter, sobbing dryly, had sunk into the arms of the captain, who had flung himself from his horse with surprising agility for a man of his age.
With a glance at the group, Charley dismounted, and petting and soothing his trembling horse, ran his keen eyes over the animal's legs and flanks. From the little pony's left foreleg trickled a tiny stream of scarlet.
"Bring up the packhorse, quick, Chris," he commanded, with a break in his usually steady voice.
Quickly he removed pack, saddle and bridle from his mount. Rapidly as he worked, he had only just removed the bridle when the pony sank to its knees, struggled for a moment to rise, then sank slowly to the ground, where it lay looking up at its master with dumb appealing eyes.
Something welled up in Charley's throat. He flung himself on the ground beside his pony and put his arms around its neck.
"Good-bye, Billy," he whispered. "We haven't known each other long but I've got mighty fond of you, Billy, and when the time came you didn't fail me. You acted like a gentleman, old man."
Poor Billy's legs kicked restlessly to and fro as the tremors went through him.
With a mist in his eyes, Charley arose and looked down on the faithful animal. The wounded leg had already swollen to twice its natural size, the body was twitching with spasms, and the large brown eyes were eloquent with pain and suffering.
"I've got to do it, Billy. It's to save you torture, old fellow, just to save you useless suffering, Billy." He drew his pistol from his belt, took careful aim just behind the pony's ear, and, turning his head away, pulled the trigger.
With never a backward glance at the still form, he strode over to the pack pony and removing the pack transferred his own saddle to the animal.
The pack was quickly broken up into smaller packages and distributed equally amongst the party, and soon all were moving forward again on their westerly course.
It was a still, white, and shaken Walter who once more rode beside his silent chum.
"You saved my life, Charley, and it's a poor return to merely thank you," he said earnestly.
"Don't say anything about it," protested Charley, cheerfully. "The shoe may be on the other foot next time, and I know you will do the same for me then."
But Walter had not finished. "I want to say," he continued, "that you are the only one of us qualified to lead this party. Hereafter, what you say goes with me. I know it will with Captain Westfield too."
"There's Chris," said Charley with a smile. "I fear he will have to have his little lesson before he gets in that frame of mind. Walt," he continued earnestly, "I do not want the responsibility but I am not going to shirk it now that it is thrust upon me. Frankly, though, I can't help wishing that this trip was over and we were safe back in town once more."
"Thinking about our visitors of the other night!" Walter inquired.
Charley nodded. "If they meant any good to us, why did they not make their presence known to us," he reasoned. "Mark my words, we have not seen the last of them,—but hush, here comes the captain and Chris, there is no need to worry them with vague conjectures."
"See that prairie ahead, Charley?" asked the captain. "Chris says there's a big bird in the middle of it, but I can't see anything but grass."
The party was now only a few hundred yards from the small prairie-like patch. Charley rose in his stirrups and scanned it carefully.
"Chris is right," he said. "It's a big sand-hill crane."
"Good to eat, Massa Charley?" demanded the little darky, eagerly.
"I have eaten some that were equal to the finest turkey."
"Dat settles it," Chris shouted. "Golly, I reckon dis nigger goin' to show you chillens how to shoot some. My shot, I seed him first."
"Don't shoot, Chris," said Charley, gently, "you can't get it and it won't be fit to eat if you do."
But Chris' obstinacy and pompous vanity were aroused. "Tink dis nigger can't shoot, eh? You-alls just watch an' Chris will show you chillens somfin'."
Charley said nothing more but his mouth set in a grim line. "Time for his lesson," he murmured to Walter.
Chris waited until they had come within a hundred yards of the crane when he unslung his rifle and dismounted while the others reined in to watch the outcome.
The little darky rested his gun on his saddle and took careful aim. The crack of his rifle was followed by a hoarse squawk and the tall bird tumbled over lifeless.
Chris danced with delight. "I got 'em, I'se got 'em," he cried. Like a flash he was on his pony and galloping towards the dead bird.
"Come back, Chris," shouted Charley, but the little darky galloped on unheeding.
And now the rest of the party beheld a curious thing. Chris' pony had reached the edge of the grass and had stopped so suddenly as to nearly throw its rider over its head. In vain did the little negro apply whip and spur. Not a step further would the animal budge. They saw Chris at last throw the reins over the pony's head and leaping from his saddle plunge into the grass. Only the top of his head was visible but they could trace his progress by that and it was very, very slow. At last he reached the crane and slinging it over his shoulder began to retrace his footsteps. His return was infinitely slow, but at last he regained his pony and dragging himself and his burden into the saddle headed back towards the group of curious watchers. As he drew nearer they stared in silent amazement. He was wet from head to foot, his clothing was in tatters, and the blood flowed freely from a hundred cuts on face, hands and arms.
He rode up to Charley with a sickly smile. "I got 'em, Massa Charley," he boasted weakly.
Without a word Charley reached over and took the crane from him. Stripping away the feathers, he exposed the body of the great bird and held it up to view. The captain and Walter gave an exclamation of disgust. The body was merely a framework of bones with the skin hanging loosely from it.
"It's their moulting season," he explained simply.
"Why you doan tell me dat place full of water, dat grass cut like knife, an' dat ole mister crane wasn't no good nohow," Chris demanded, hotly.
Charley gazed at the pathetic, wretched, little figure and his conscience smote him.
"I told you not to go, Chris," he said gently, "but you would do it. This time there was plenty of time to explain to you that what you thought was merely a plot of grass was really a saw-grass pond, and that sand-hill cranes are not fit for use this season of the year; but suppose that a danger suddenly threatened us. Is it likely, Chris, that I would always have time to stop and explain just why I wanted you to do this or that?"
But Chris was suffering too much pain and humiliation to be soothed by Charley's explanation. With a snort of anger he dug the spurs into his pony's flanks and soon was far ahead of the rest of the party. In a few minutes he came tearing back to them, his face shining with excitement.
"River ahead, river ahead," he shouted.
"It's the St. Johns," declared Captain Westfield, scarcely less excited. "There's no other river in these parts."
Although they spurred forward their jaded steeds the animals were so worn out that it was dusk before they reached the river bank, and they went into camp immediately.
After the supper was over, Chris approached Charley, who was sitting apart from the rest, grave, silent, and evidently buried in deepest thought. The little darky began awkwardly, "Massa Charley, Massa Cap say you de leader an' he going to do just what you say widout axin' no questions, Massa Walt say same ting, an' I guess Chris better say same, now. Golly, I jus' reckon dis nigger made a big fool of hisself over dat bird."
But although he answered Chris lightly and kindly, Charley was not elated over his unsought leadership. Vague suspicions were flitting through his mind, and his new responsibility was weighing heavily upon his young shoulders. As the evening wore on he still sat silent, buried in thought. The captain was reading aloud from an old newspaper he had brought along. Suddenly Charley straightened up, and a swift glance passed between him and Walter.
THE 'GATOR HUNTERS.
The captain was laboriously spelling out the scare-head articles by the flickering firelight.
"Desperadoes at large."
"Last night twelve convicts, all of them life prisoners, escaped from E. B. Richardson's turpentine camp near Turnbull. The escape was effected by their overpowering the guards while their supper was being served them. One guard was killed and the balance were gagged and tied up to posts in the barracks. The revolters stripped their prisoners of arms, ammunition and what money they had. Next they broke into the commissary, taking a large amount of clothing and provisions and wantonly destroying the rest. They then made their escape on horses belonging to the guards. As soon as their absence was discovered, bloodhounds were put upon the trail which led towards the interior. The dogs were soon completely baffled, however, for the fugitives had evidently taken to water whenever they came near a pond or creek. This ruse, as well as the whole uprising, is believed to have been the headwork of 'Indian Charley,' one of the escaped prisoners, who, it will be remembered, was drummed out of his tribe and sentenced by the courts for the murder of a white settler last spring. Small outlying settlements will rejoice when this body of hardened desperate men are once more in the grasp of the law."
"I've got it!" exclaimed Charley, so suddenly that the captain looked up in mild surprise.
"Got what?" he inquired.
"A pretty bad attack of sleepiness," Charley said with assumed lightness. "I feel all done up to-night. Guess I'll turn in."
But although he was first to turn in, it was along in the wee small hours of morning before slumber crept in on his tired brain.
He was awakened by Walter shaking him vigorously.
"Get up, you lazy rascal, get up. The sun is half an hour high, and breakfast is ready. Get up and gaze upon the beautiful St. Johns."
"What does it look like?" inquired Charley, sleepily, as he buckled on his heavy leggins and strapped on his pistol belt.
"For a dismal, wretched, man-forsaken stretch of country it beats anything I ever saw," Walter exclaimed in disgust. "The river itself is about a half mile wide, but it twists, turns, and forks every few yards so as to puzzle a corporation lawyer. The shores for half a mile back from the water are nothing but boggy marsh, with here and there a wooded island. Ugh, the sight of it is enough to make a man homesick."
"Not giving out already, Walt," Charley said, cheerfully, as he made his way through the boggy marsh to the water to wash, followed by his chum.
"Not much," said Walter grimly, "I for one am not going back empty-handed after coming so far. But I'm beginning to realize that this is not going to be all a pleasure trip. You noticed the article that the captain read last evening about the convicts escaping. Can it be they are the party you saw signs of?"
"I believe they are," agreed his chum as they turned back towards the camp where the captain and Chris were patiently waiting breakfast. "I may be wrong, but I thought it all over last night and I decided it was only fair to tell the others what I suspect."
"The captain will want us all to pack right back home," said Walter, glumly.
His fears proved true, for when Charley related his suspicions over the frugal breakfast, the captain was visibly worried.
"I'm the cause of leading you into trouble again, boys," he reproached himself. "However, I reckon thar ain't nothing to be gained by regrets. As soon as we have finished eating, we'll pack up and head back for the coast."
But Charley opposed the plan of returning decidedly. "They have had plenty of chance to kill us off easily on the way here if they had wanted to," he argued. "Why they haven't done so puzzles me. Perhaps they fear a searching party would be sent after us if we do not return promptly. I have a feeling, though, that they are after bigger game, although I have not the slightest idea what it can be. Anyway, I am not going back, now, empty-handed, if there were twice as many jail-birds at my heels."
"I am with you, Charley," Walter said quickly.
"Me too, Massa," grinned Chris, who was plucky enough when he understood the nature of the threatened danger. "Golly, I jest reckon dis nigger got to stay and look out for you chillens."
The captain, whose only concern had been for the boys, brought his hand down on his knee earnestly. "Then I'm with you, lads, till the last mast carries away. You're the pilot in these waters, Charley. What course shall we steer now, lad?"
"I think," suggested Charley, modestly, "that the first thing is to fix up a shelter in case of rain. We must be careful, and if we come into contact with any of those fellows we must not let them see that we suspect what they are. That would cause trouble right away, I am sure."
"Go ahead and give your orders, lad; we will carry them out."
"Then I'll deputize Chris to see if he can't get us some fresh fish," said Charley with a smile.
Chris, his face beaming, darted away to his saddlebags after his fishing-tackle. If there was one thing the little darky liked above all others it was fishing, and wherever he might be, his tackle was never far away.
As soon as he had departed, Charley, accompanied by the others, set about selecting a site for their permanent camp.
"You see," Charley explained, "we want a place that we can stand a show of defending if we should be attacked, and at the same time a place from which we can escape by water if we have to."
They did not have to go far before they found the very place they were hunting for, a long, narrow, scantily grassed point that penetrated through the marsh far out into the river.
"It's just the thing," Charley declared. "We will lead the ponies out to the end and then fell a few pines across the neck here. That will form a kind of a fence and keep them from straying away. There's grass enough on the point to keep them busy for a week at least."
Within half an hour the three eager workers had felled enough pines across the neck of the point to form a kind of rude stockade. Then they moved out to the end of the point and began the erection of their shelter. It was quite primitive and simple. Two saplings about twelve feet apart were selected as the uprights, and to them, about eight feet from the ground, two poles were lashed securely with buckskin thongs, the other ends of the pole being imbedded in the ground. Other smaller saplings were trimmed and laid across the slanting poles, and on them were piled layer after layer of fan-like palmetto leaves. In a short space of time they had completed a lean-to which would protect them from any storm they were likely to experience at this season of the year.
"Have you noticed that, Charley?" inquired Walter, as they placed the last leaves on the lean-to. He pointed to a point, similar to their own, scarce two thousand yards away, from which rose a thick column of smoke.
"Yes, I've been watching it for some time," Charley said. "I guess it's our friends, the convicts. They are late risers. Somehow or other, Walt, I've got what prospectors call a 'hunch' that they are not after us and will not bother us as long as they think we are ignorant of their true character."
"I'll never trouble trouble 'till trouble troubles me," hummed Walter, cheerfully.
"A good motto," said his chum gravely, "but nevertheless it's better still to be ready for trouble if it does come. Now we must provide a means of retreat. Come, let's open packs one and two, we'll need their contents soon anyway."
Packs one and two, when opened, revealed bundles of numbered pieces of tough, thin flexible steel and packages of thick water-proofed canvas. Under the captain's skilled direction, the steel was quickly framed together, the canvas stretched over it, and in a short time two canvas canoes were floating lightly at their painters at the end of the point.
All had been too engrossed in their labors to note the passage of time until the captain snapped open his old-fashioned silver watch.
"One o'clock," he exclaimed in surprise.
Charley and Walter looked at each other apprehensively. "What can be keeping Chris?" Walter cried.
"Maybe he is having good luck and hates to quit," suggested Charley. "Let's give him a while longer."
But two o'clock came and no Chris appeared.
"Get your guns, boys," commanded the captain. "We must go hunt him. Something's the matter."
Loosening their pistols in their holsters, and grabbing up their guns, the little party struck out in the direction in which Chris had disappeared.
They were proceeding almost at a run when Charley checked their headlong speed.
"Let's go slow," he panted, "it may be that the convicts have got him and we may be running right into an ambush."
He but voiced the fear in the minds of the others, and they slackened their advance to a slow walk, keeping a cautious eye on every bush or tree large enough to conceal an enemy.
Trampled marsh grass and broken twigs gave them an easy trail to follow, and in a few minutes they were in sight of the river bank. Charley, who was in the lead, suddenly stopped short with an exclamation of relief and disgust.
"Just look at that," he said.
On a little grassy knoll close to the water was Chris flat on his back, his mouth open, fast asleep. A half dozen fine bass lay on the grass beside him, the end of his fishing line was tied to one ebony leg, and a coil of slack line lay upon the turf.
"Let's give him a scare for causing us so much worry," Walter suggested.
"Wait a minute," cautioned the captain, "he's gettin' a bite, let's see what he will do."
The little party drew in behind some bushes, where they could peep out at the slumbering little darky.
The slack was running out rapidly, and at last the line tauted with a jerk on the sleeper's leg.
Chris sat up with a start, rubbed his eyes and looked at the sun, then at the pile of fish beside him. The continued jerking of the line at his leg seemed to bring him out of his drowsiness. With a broad grin he began pulling in the line, hand over hand.
The three watchers stood peeping eagerly through the bushes, expecting to see another fine bass appear.
As the hooked victim was drawn in close to the knoll, Chris gave a hearty yank and landed it on the grass beside him.
But the result was not what the watchers expected. With a howl of terror the little darky leaped to his feet and dashed away at a bounding, leaping run, breaking through the undergrowth as though it were reeds. One glance, as he flew by the watchers without seeing them, caused them to hold their sides and double up with laughter. The line was still fastened to Chris' leg, and drew after it the captive of his hook. One glance behind and Chris began to holler, "Help, help, Massa Walt, help, Massa Charley. De snake's goin' to get dis nigger. Oh golly, oh golly!"
The line caught on a bush and broke short off, but Chris was making for the lean-to with championship speed and knew it not.
Charley picked up the severed line and held up the prize to view.
"The biggest, fattest eel I ever saw," he declared exultantly. "Guess it must have been the first one Chris ever saw. They certainly do look like snakes."
"Keep it out of sight till we hear what he says," Walter said, and Charley with a smile agreed.
The captain gathered up the fish and stringing them upon a cord slung them over his shoulder.
In a few minutes they were back at the camp, where they found Chris stretched out on the ground breathing heavily, his face an ashen hue.
"Why you-alls doan come when Chris hollers for help?" he demanded indignantly. "'Pears like you don't care if dis nigger's killed."
"We came as soon as we could, Chris," said Walter, soothingly, "what was the trouble, anyway?"
Chris, mollified, sat up. "Done got into nest ob snakes," he declared, "reckon I killed fifty of 'em, but more and more kept coming so I had to run. Golly, I 'spect thar was mighty nigh a hundred chased me most to camp. Dat's why I yells for you-alls."
The captain smilingly laid down the string of fish, and Chris' countenance fell.
Charley swung the eel into view. "It isn't a snake, Chris," he explained, "it's an eel; they are not poisonous, and are mighty good eating."
For once the little darky was fairly caught without chance of evasion. Without a word he started building a fire, gutted the fish, washed them clean, and without removing head or scales, thrust them into the glowing coals. In twenty minutes they were done, the heads were cut away, the skin with its load of scales peeled off, and our hungry hunters sat down to a dish fit for a king.
They were in the midst of the meal when Charley arose and getting his rifle put it down by his side. "Get your guns quick and keep them close to you. We are going to have visitors," he said.
The bushes were crackling loudly at the neck of the point and a moment later a body of men came into view. As they clambered over the barricade, Charley counted them. They were twelve in number, one of them an Indian, his face disfigured by a long scar that gave to it a sinister, malignant expression.
"Keep close together and your guns handy," counseled Charley, as the band approached. "I declare, if they aren't all unarmed," he added.
"What in the world is the matter with them?" whispered Walter in amazement; "see, some of them can hardly walk."
As the men drew nearer, our little party's wonder grew. Most of them dragged themselves forward with stumbling footsteps. Their faces were haggard, their hands moving restlessly and their features twitching. They looked like men who had been for days undergoing severe mental and physical strain and were on the verge of collapse.
Our hunters drew close together with their guns, close to hand and awaited the convicts' coming with lessened apprehension as they saw that they carried no guns.
The leader staggered in front, the balance following him like starved sheep. He stopped before the captain and sank to a seat on a stump. The perspiration stood in great drops on his face and he was breathing heavily.
"Strangers," he said hoarsely, "if you've got any tobacco, fer mercy' sake, loan us some. We haven't had a scrap for two days."
The boys had hard work to restrain a laugh, but the captain hastily unbuckled the flap of his saddle-bags and brought out a huge package of plug tobacco which he passed over to the spokesman.
"I brought it along to give to the Indians in case we met any, but I reckon you need it a heap sight worse," he said mildly.
Without a word of thanks the man tore the package open and distributed the plugs amongst his followers, and in a moment jaws and pipes were going vigorously on the enslaving weed.
In five minutes a change was visible; slouching backs began to straighten, dull eyes commenced to brighten, and the color to steal back into haggard faces.
"I'm glad I never got into the habit of using it, now I have seen what a slave it can make of a strong man," whispered Walter in disgust.
"Some of our soldier boys in Cuba went crazy for a while when deprived of the use of it," said Charley. "None of it for me. It doesn't do a young growing fellow any good."
As his muscles and nerves relaxed under the influence of the powerful narcotic, the leader of the convicts removed his pipe from his mouth with a sigh of relief.
"You sho' saved our lives that time, partner," he cried; "we done forgot the bacca when we wus getting up our supplies, an' didn't find it out until we'd come too far to go back. Jim thar," (with a glare at the culprit,) "had a sizeable piece, but he had to go and lose it on the way."
"Out for a hunt?" inquired the captain politely.
"'Gators. We're just plain, honest 'gator hunters, working powerful hard for a mighty poor living," declared the ruffian. "An' you-alls, I reckon one guess will hit it, arter plumes, I allow."
"We haven't said so," said Charley quickly.
The ruffian favored him with an appraising leer. "Don't have to say so," he drawled, "if you ain't, what have you-alls got them dinky little canoes for, an' if you were after 'gators you'd be packing big rifles 'stead of them fancy guns. You ain't got no call to deny it, for I was aiming to give you a bit of neighborly advice."
"What is it?" inquired Walter curiously.
"That it ain't no use for you-alls to stop here. The Injuns have got this section combed out clean. You couldn't get enough plumes around here to pay for your bacon. Now, I knows of a tidy little island 'bout twelve miles south of here where there's stacks of the birds. If you start right now you'll hit it before them pesky varmints of redskins find it. I'm telling you in pay for that tobacco. Max Hilliard ain't the kind of man to take nothing without paying for it," he concluded, grandly.
"Them Indians don't seem to be bringing many plumes into town," said the captain.
"'Cause why? 'Cause they have to turn the bulk of what they get over to their chiefs for tribute, an' them varmints are getting so foxy they just hoards 'em up. They know the price is goin' up right along. Oh, them pesky varmints are getting cunning these days. But come, boys, we must be getting back to camp."
The reinvigorated gang of cut-throats arose and with awkward, surly thanks stamped away.
Their leader lingered behind for a moment. "Better pack right up and get out for that island right now, partners," he advised. "Thar's a gang of Injins coming down the river day after to-morrow, an' they'll be sure to clean it out." His voice grew low and menacing. "Anyway, you fellows want to get out of here afore day after to-morrow."
Before any of the hunters could question him, he was gone.
"He seems set on our leaving here," said Walter, anxiously.
"I reckon it was sort of an error of judgment that we didn't tie them fellows up while we had the chance. They was too plum wore out to put up much of a fight," said the captain, regretfully.
Charley said nothing, but his expression was that of one who after long puzzling has solved a troublesome problem, and has found the solution not that which he desired. The outlaws' statement that there was a party of Indians on their way from the Everglades had given him the key.
It was already late when the convicts departed, and our hunters immediately began their preparations for their first trial with the plume birds.
"I wonder where we had better strike in at first," said the captain, "there seems a powerful lot of them islands, an' they 'pear to me pretty much alike."
"I have been keeping a kind of eye out all day," Charley answered, "and it seems to me that there has been a lot of birds flying around that little island of dead trees in the marsh right across from us. Suppose we try that first."
The others readily agreed, and, while Chris was cooking supper, the boys prepared a number of torches from fat pitch pine and looked over their fowling-pieces carefully.
As soon as it was dark, Charley and Walter entered one of the canoes and the captain the other. Chris begged hard to be taken, but Charley was firm in his refusal.
"We will have to take turn about at tending camp, and you'll have to stay to-night, Chris," he said. "It won't do to leave the camp alone. You'll have to keep a sharp lookout to guard against any possible surprise from wild animals or men. Keep up the fire so we can find our way back, and have some hot coffee ready. We'll need it when we get back. Keep a sharp eye out, Chris," he concluded. "It isn't everyone I would choose for such a responsible place."
"Golly, Massa Charley," exclaimed the little darky, the bald flattery tickling his great racial vanity, "I jus' reckon nothin' goin' to get past dis nigger, though I sure 'spects I'd ought to go along so as to watch out for you chillens."
"We'll be careful," Charley assured him gravely. "If anything troubles you or you see anything wrong, fire off your gun twice, and we will hustle back. Shove her off, Walt."
Walter obeyed with a vigor that nearly upset their frail craft. "My, but she's cranky," he exclaimed.
"She is pretty ticklish," Charley admitted, "but just the craft for our purpose. She's so light she will float on a good heavy dew, and then she's so easy to take to pieces and pack away. But we'd better stop our chattering, for we are getting near the island now."
The moon was shining brightly, giving to the dead whitened trees on the little island a peculiar ghostly appearance. The canoes soon grounded in the marsh grass, and, fastening them to paddles, stuck down in the mud, our hunters shouldered their fowling-pieces and trudged ahead through the mire. They had prepared themselves well for the trip and each wore a pair of rubber boots reaching to the hip drawn on over their rawhide boots and legging.
"I guess we are on the right track," grinned Charley, ere they had proceeded far.
"Goodness, it's awful," exclaimed Walter. "I wish I had a clothes-pin on my nose. Smells just like as island of Limburger cheese set in a lake of broken spoiled eggs."
"I reckon that's comin' it a little strong, Walt," chuckled the captain. "I guess though we've stumbled onto a good big rookery for sure. That smell comes mostly from the dead baby birds, broken eggs, an' such like. But let's keep quiet, lads, we're nearly there now."
A few minutes more and the hunters entered the fringe of dead trees. By the time they reached the center of the little island where the dead trees were thickest, the little party was nearly overcome by the horrible stench. At every step they crushed in nestfuls of decayed eggs which sent up their protests to high heavens.
At last Charley commanded a halt. "We've gone far enough," he whispered. "Let's light up our torches together and make as short work of it as possible. Gee, but I'm sick for a mouthful of sweet, fresh air."
The fat pine-sticks flared up as though saturated with oil, their flickering blaze lighting up a weird scene; the gaunt, bare, white trees, ghosts of a departed forest, the miry ground strewn with eggs of all sizes, shapes and colors, and dead birds of many kinds, in amongst which writhed and twisted dirty-looking, repulsive water moccasins and brilliant yellow and black swamp snakes, while overhead on the whitened limbs, roosted hundreds of birds partly roused from their sleep by the glare of the torches.
"We'll have to shoot with one hand and hold our torches with the other," said Charley.
The guns were very light fowling-pieces, and the birds were clustered too thickly together to be easily missed. The three guns belched out their deadly message almost together and a score of birds fell to the ground. Again and again were the volleys repeated before the dazed birds recovered their senses enough to take to their wings.
The hunters paused only long enough to pluck from the backs of the fallen birds the long, silky plumes, which they carefully placed in a stiff leather valise, then hastened on to another part of the island where the same performance was repeated.
At first all three hunters stuck close together, but they soon separated, each picking out for himself what seemed to be choice places in the little wood. Yielding to the incessant firing the birds began to desert their roosts in great flocks until at last but few lingered on the barren limbs. Charley was about to call his companions together and propose a return to camp when a sudden cry sent the blood tingling through his veins. It was Walter's voice, and its tone was that of fear and horror unutterable. Pausing a second to locate the direction of the sound, Charley bounded away for it at the top of his speed. As he passed a thick clump of trees the captain broke out from among them and lumbered on in his wake.
"What's the trouble, Charley?" he panted.
"Something's happened to Walt," he shouted back, "something terrible, too—just hear him calling."
The cries rose again with redoubled vigor, a world of dread in their cadence.
The island was small, and in a few minutes Charley was close to the scene of the cries with the captain right at his heels. Suddenly they broke out of the underbrush into a small open space perhaps forty feet across. Near the center of this place was Walter, waving his torch frantically back and forth. He ceased his cries as their lights flashed into view. "Stop, stop!" he shouted, "don't come a step further. I am sinking a foot a minute. The ground is rotten here. I guess it's up to me to say good-bye, chums," he continued in a voice he strove vainly to make steady. "You can't help me, and I'm sinking deeper every minute."
"Cheer up, lad, we'll find a way," declared the old sailor, with a hopefulness he was far from feeling, for he knew well, by hearsay, of the terrible swamp quagmires that swiftly suck their victims down to a horrible death in the foul mud.
Already Walter had sunk to his waist, and it was only a question of minutes ere the slimy ooze would close over his head. It was a situation that demanded instant action. For a moment Charley stood silent beside the captain gazing hopelessly at his doomed chum. Then he turned swiftly and darted away like an arrow.
"Throw branches, boughs, anything that is light," he shouted back; "I am going to get the canvas painters."
Frantically the old sailor tore down dead limbs and flung them to the entombed lad. His labor was in vain, for as each branch struck the quagmire its own weight sunk it out of sight in the liquid mud.
"Better give it up, Captain," advised Walter, cheerfully. "They are doing no good, and Charley will soon be back with the ropes."
The captain measured the distance to the helpless lad with a practised eye, and groaned in despair. "They'll fall short by a dozen feet," he murmured hopelessly. "God forgive me, for bringing him to this plight."
In a moment Charley was back with the painters from the two canvas canoes knotted together. His first toss confirmed the captain's fears, the rope foil ten feet short.
Charley's face grew sickly pale under the torch light, and he stood for a space like one in a daze. The captain near him was kneeling praying fervently.
Of the three, Walter was the coolest. He had resigned himself to his fate at the failure of the first cast of the rope. Already the mire had sucked him down so that he had to throw his head far back to keep the filthy stuff from entering his mouth.
"Good-bye, old chums," he called cheerfully, "we've made our last camp together. Don't feel too down, Charley. Remember what the jockeys say, 'There's nothing to a race but the finish.'"
Charley roused from his momentary trance. "You shan't die," he cried wildly, "you shan't, you shan't,—you shan't."
All around the quagmire were the skeletons of what had once been great lusty trees with far-spreading limbs. As Charley uttered his defiance, his glance rested for a moment on the most advanced of these and a gleam of hope lit up his face. Although this dead giant of the island was many feet from the sinking lad, yet in its youth it had sent out nearly over him one long, slender, tapering limb. In a second Charley's quick eyes had taken in the possibility and the risk, the next moment he had skirted round the quagmire at the top of his speed and was swinging up the giant trunk.
The captain was not slow in divining his intention, "Come back, Charley," he called wildly. "It'll break with you, lad. Come back, come back."
Walter managed to twist his head around until he obtained a glimpse of what was going on. "Don't try it, Charley," he implored, "or there will be two of us gone instead of one."
But Charley was smiling now and confident. He knew the kind of tree he was climbing up. It was a black mangrove and among the toughest of woods when well seasoned. To him it had become merely a question of reaching the end of that limb before the mire closed over his chum's head. Never did sailor go aloft more quickly than he swung himself up from branch to branch. Quickly he reached the overhanging bough. At its juncture with the trunk he paused for a second to catch his breath, then swung himself out on it cautiously, hand over hand. The bough creaked and cracked ominously, but did not break. Near the end of the limb he stopped, and throwing a leg over to free his hands, he knotted one end of the rope to the branch and flung the other end to his chum.
"You'll have to pull yourself out, Walt," he sang down cheerily, "this limb will not bear two."
Fortunately Walter had managed to keep his arms above the mire. He caught the rope and began to pull. He had occasion now to bless the years of hard work that had made his body vigorous and his muscles hard and strong. Slowly he drew himself up out of the clinging ooze which closed behind him with a sickening, sucking sound. Once clear of the mud, it was an easy feat to go up the rope hand over hand and soon he was standing beside Charley at the foot of the tree where they were speedily joined by the delighted captain.
"Let us thank God, boys, for your wonderful escape. He put that plan into Charley's head and gave him the courage and daring to carry it out," the captain said.
Devoutly the two boys knelt at the foot of the tree, while the old sailor in simple, uncouth speech, offered up a little prayer of humble thanks for the deliverance of the two lads he loved so well.
As they arose from their knees, Walter caught Charley's hand and wrung it vigorously. "You saved my life again, old chum," he cried.
But Charley, embarrassed and blushing like a girl, pulled his hand away. "I guess we'd better be getting back to camp," he stammered, eager to change the subject.
"Ever modest are the brave," quoted Walter with a laugh. "But you are right about getting back to camp. I, for one, have had enough slaughter and adventure for one night."
The guns and plumes were quickly gathered together and, guided by the light of the camp-fire, the two canoes were soon made fast again at the point and their occupants were soon busy removing their rubber boots and drying themselves before the roaring fire.
Chris' eyes shone with delight when they spread out to view the beautiful feathery pink, white and blue plumes.
"Sixty-three of 'em," he announced after a hurried count. "Golly, guess dis nigger goin' to be a rich man afore we get back home."
The captain rummaged in his saddle-bags and brought out a small pair of steelyards. The plumes were tied carefully together in a bunch and suspended from the hook.
"Twenty ounces," he announced. "At five dollars an ounce that makes one hundred dollars, lads. That ain't half bad for our first night's work."
But in spite of their success the boys' faces were grave and depressed.
The captain glanced shrewdly from one to the other. "I reckon you-alls are thinkin' now of just what I've been studyin' on. You're thinkin' of all them poor innocent birds we've killed to get them feathers. You're thinkin' of them and of the dozens you only wounded which are bound to die a lingerin', sufferin' death, poor things."
Charley shuddered, "I killed one and it didn't fall," he explained, "I climbed up and looked, and it was resting on a nest containing five, cute, little fluffy ones."
"We can't go on with it," declared Walter with deep feeling. "It's fit work for brutes like those convicts but not for us."
"Pulling out the plumes won't kill 'em, an' I don't think it hurts 'em much," said the captain, thoughtfully. "Maybe we can rig up some sort of trap that will do the work without killin' 'em. It's time for bed, now, lads, but think it over and, perhaps, we can hit on some scheme. Had we better take turns at keeping watch, Charley?"
"I don't think we'll be bothered for a while yet, at any rate," said Charley, thoughtfully, as he stretched out on his couch and pulled his blanket over him. "Good-night, all; here goes for the land of dreams."
Although he closed his eyes and endeavored to sleep, it was a long time before it visited his excited brain. He was only a boy in years and the responsibility for the safety of the little party now trustfully thrust upon him bore heavily upon his young shoulders. It would not have been so bad were it not for the close proximity of that band of twelve, armed, desperate, escaped murderers. Their attitude towards the hunters, together with scraps of conversation they had uttered, had bred in Charley's active mind a theory for their actions and object, a theory involving a crime so vile and atrocious as to stagger belief.
"I'll be getting flighty if I keep brooding on this thing by myself much longer," Charley mused. "I am beginning to fear my own judgment is wrong. I'll confide it all to someone else to-morrow and see if their opinion agrees with mine." With little reflection, he decided on Walter as the fittest one to tell. This resolve lifted a burden from his mind and he soon drifted off into healthy slumber.
"I've got something I want to talk over with you, Walt," he found a chance to whisper while breakfast was cooking next morning. "Let's get away somewhere where the captain and Chris will not hear us," he cautioned.
Their chance came soon after breakfast while Chris was cleaning up the things and the captain was engaged in sorting out and packing away the plumes in the tin boxes they had brought with them.
The two boys strolled off slowly and carelessly together, but did not stop until they had reached the grassy knoll by the river.
"Hurry up, tell me what it is, you have got me half wild with curiosity," cried Walter, flinging himself at full length upon the turf.
Charley smiled as he pointed at a thin wisp of smoke rising from the convicts' camp. "It is about our neighbors," he said.
"Have you learned anything new?" Walter demanded eagerly.
"No, but I've been putting two and two together concerning them again and again until I'm uncertain whether I've got the proper answer or have got everything distorted by long brooding over them. I want to know what the conclusion would be to a mind that is fresh."
"Good," said Walter, gleefully, "sounds just like a lawyer, go ahead, I'll be the judge."
"First," said Charley, gravely, "we can admit as an undisputed fact, that those fellows over there were either close behind or ahead of us at least part of the way here."
Walter nodded assent, too interested to interrupt.
"From the closeness with which they tally to that newspaper account, even down to the renegade Indian, we are, I think, justified in assuming that they are the escaped convicts."
"Their faces would convict them without any evidence," Walter declared.
Charley was now so absorbed in his chain of reasoning that he scarcely heeded the interruption. "Twelve life convicts, which by the laws of this state means twelve murderers, men without mercy, who would hesitate at nothing, are for several days and nights close to a party of four who do not even keep a watch at night. Why do they not kill off the four and help themselves to several things that would make them more comfortable?"
"I give it up," said his puzzled chum.
"Again," said Charley following his line of reasoning, "what do bodies of men who have broken prison always do when they escape? Separate as soon as possible, and scatter in all directions, make their way to small, isolated places, change their appearance as much as possible, and each shift for himself. To remain together increases the risk of capture for each and all. There must be some powerful motive to make them take such risks. Such men risk nothing except for money. But there are no banks here to be looted, no strangers to be waylaid in dark alleys, not even a blind beggar to steal pennies from."
"Then, for goodness' sake, what is their object?" demanded the mystified Walter.
Charley's voice lowered in its seriousness. "I know there is a party of Indians on the river now. I found traces on the shore, where they had embarked in boats, they are likely the same party that were hunting in the woods and have now returned to the Everglades. By the signs I pointed out to you there is another party following. I told you I could tell but little from the signs, but there is among the convicts one of their race who can read their signs like an open book."
"But the Indians are poor," Walter objected. "I don't see the connection."
"Remember what the leader of the convicts said yesterday, that each Indian had to give the larger portion of his plumes to his chief as tribute. Consider a party of expert hunters after a long hunt of weeks; why, the chief's share must run up into the hundreds of dollars to say nothing of each brave's individual portion."
"What a diabolical scheme!" cried Walter in horror, "they mean to slaughter the Indians for their plumes as they come down the river from the 'Glades.'"
"That's the conclusion I reached," said Charley coolly. "I am glad that you prove I am not going crazy brooding over the matter."
THE BEES AND THE BEAR.
Walter's first feeling was of horror and indignation, mingled with frank admiration for the cleverness with which Charley had reasoned the matter out to its logical conclusion.
"You have got a great head on you, old chap," he said, affectionately. "It certainly seems as though you have hit the nail on the head this time. I understand, now, why their leader was so anxious to have us move away. They expect to encounter the Indians somewhere in this neighborhood and they do not want any witnesses. What shall we do, Charley?"
"We are in an unpleasant fix," said his chum, musingly. "The only safe thing to do, I guess, is to take that convict's advice and move away at once. If we interfere with their plans or even let on that we know what they are, it will mean fight, with us outnumbered three to one."
"But we can't leave here and let those fiends ambush and murder those unsuspecting Indians," said Walter indignantly.
"Certainly not," said his chum, heartily. "But we must be prepared to take some risks. We can't fight that crowd in the open, they are too many for us. We'll have to outwit them and put the Indians on their guard without letting the convicts suspect that we have had a finger in the pie. It would be an easy trick to turn if it were not for that renegade Indian with them. I guess there isn't anything much that escapes those black, beady eyes of his."
"You have a plan then?" said Walter eagerly.
"One, such as it is. You see, we are between those fellows over there and the Everglades. A party of savages coming from the Glades would have to pass us before coming in rifle range of the convicts' camp. Now we could halt them here and explain matters, but that would give us dead away to the enemy."
Walter's face fell. "They would be sure to catch on," he admitted.
Charley pointed far to the south where, half a mile distant, another long point jutted out through the marsh into the river. "That is the key to the situation," he declared. "The Seminoles are not expected until to-morrow, if that man's remarks are true. Well, beginning to-morrow morning early, one of us will be on that point while daylight lasts,—Indians do not generally travel at night, and when we sight them we will signal and warn them, and the convicts will be none the wiser. The Seminoles are no cowards and we can join them and wipe that scum of humanity off the face of the earth."
"Splendid," approved Walter enthusiastically. "But let's head for camp now. The others will be wondering what has become of us."
At the camp a surprise awaited the two boys. The captain was stumping back and forth near the fire, his usually good-natured face nearly purple with suppressed anger, while, squatting on his heels before the fire, sat Indian Charley, his face impassive but his keen beady eyes watching the irate sailor's slightest movement.
At the sight of the boys, the captain lumbered towards them, waving a dirty piece of paper. "Read that," he roared, "just brought in by that copper-faced, shoe-button-eyed son of a sea cook."
It was a piece torn evidently from a paper bag and on it was scrawled in big, almost undecipherable characters.
"The shootin' an' racket you-alls are doin' air drivin' the 'gators away. You-alls have got to move. This is our huntin' ground. For sake of that tobacco, which comes mighty handy, we'll give you-alls 'till to-morrow noon to move peaceable afore we comes down on you, hands and feet."
"How's that for gall?" demanded the captain, his wrath increasing, but Charley silenced him with a shake of his head and turned to the impassive redskin. "Tell your leader, that we are figuring on making a move to-morrow," he said, courteously. The Seminole's beady orbs met his in a suspicious glance, then he turned without a word and glided noiselessly away among the bushes.
Walter and Charley exchanged significant glances. "That means they do not expect them before to-morrow afternoon," Charley commented.
"Who! expecting who? Don't talk in riddles, lads," exclaimed the captain, testily, his temper still suffering from the unaccustomed restraint he had put upon it.
In a few words Charley related his suspicions to him and Chris, and detailed the plan he and Walter had agreed upon.
The captain's face beamed with unenvious admiration as he gave Charley a hearty thump on the back that well-nigh drove the breath out of the lad's body.
"Reasoned out plain an' fair as day," he exclaimed, "I reckon you've hit it right plum center first shot, lad. You bet we'll be on the watch to warn them poor Indians, an' if there's any fightin' we'll sho' help to rid this country of them ornary, low-down, murderin', cut-throats. It's a great head you've got for young shoulders, Charley. You've reasoned it out like a detective and made your plans like a general."
Charley blushed with pleasure. "It looks logical and I hope it will work out all right," he said, secretly pleased at the tribute to his mental powers. But, as a great detective or general sometimes does, Charley had passed over the simple, vital, obvious point that was the most important of all and from its omission, destined to be far reaching and terrible to hunters, Indians and convicts.
"There's nothing special to do this morning," said Walter, "so let us make a trip to that point and pick out a good place for our lookout."
"Judging from their actions and their note, our neighbors don't intend to make a move against us until to-morrow, so I guess it will be safe for all of us to go," said Charley. "We will take the guns and make a kind of all day hunting trip."
"Den, I spect dis nigger's got to rustle around an' fix up some lunch," said Chris, his face falling. "Golly, I spect you-alls going to be powerful hungry nigh noon."
"No, this is going to be a holiday for all of us," declared Walter with boyish enthusiasm. "For one day let's all be just like the Indians, get our food with out guns and not even take a frying-pan with us."
To Chris' great delight the others gave ready assent to the plan. The horses were watered and staked in fresh spots, and, with guns over shoulders, our party followed their point in to shore, then struck off southward along the margin of the marsh toward the distant point, destined to be Point Lookout.
They found it much like their own point, but somewhat more heavily wooded.
"Here's the very place for our lookout," exclaimed Walter, pausing beside a clump of great oaks. "See, it couldn't be better if it had been made to order. This knoll commands a good view of the marshes and river towards the Everglades, while those trees will hide the watcher from our point, and of course from the convicts' camp. I have got a big, red, bandanna handkerchief which we can use as a flag. When the one on watch sees the Indians coming, he can fasten it to that dead sapling further out. That will be a signal to those in camp to get ready for a hot time."
"Bravo," said the captain approvingly. "You have got the right course logged out to a point by the compass. Steer as you are going, lad, and you'll have stored in your head as well packed and sorted a cargo as good as Charley's here."
"Or me, or me, Massa Captain," chimed in Chris. "Golly, I reckon you-alls don't know what a smart nigger I is when I gets de chance."
"We are all wonders, in our own minds," laughed Charley. "We have got a chance to show our smartness right now. I, for one, am getting mighty hungry and we haven't bagged anything for dinner yet."
"We are for the woods, then," cried Walter, "on, noble leader. Shall we separate or go together?"
"We must stick together, provided you will try to keep that mouth of yours closed and quit guying me," Charley retorted. "If not, I shall feel it my duty to take you across my knee and give you a good spanking."
Walter checked the ready sally which was on his tongue's end, for they had been moving on while talking and Charley was now leading them into the dense forest where silence was absolutely necessary if they hoped to secure any game.
For some time they picked their way carefully through the forest, warily avoiding dry twigs, and maintaining an absolute silence. But although they saw numerous signs of game, both large and small, not a glimpse of even a rabbit or squirrel rewarded their eager watchfulness.
At last when all were beginning to get a bit discouraged, Charley called a halt. "Now, all of you listen hard as you can for a few minutes and then tell me what you hear," he said.
For a full minute his companions listened intently, then the captain gave an exclamation of disgust. "Can't hear anything out of the usual," he declared.
"Once or twice I thought I heard something, but I guess it was only my imagination," said Walter.
"And you, Chris?" inquired Charley of the little darky, whose face wore a puzzled expression.
"Golly, dis nigger hear something powerful plain but he can't just make it out. Don't sound like anything he ever heard, afore. Now hit sounds like a big dog growling an' then again hit sounds like one whinin'."
"Your ears are pretty good, Chris," Charley commented. "I guess we'll follow up that sound for a little while."
SHOOTING A THIEF.
"Are you working one of your little surprises on us?" Walter inquired eagerly of his chum as the little party again advanced in the direction Chris indicated. "Come, confess now that you know what is ahead of us."
"I am all at sea this time," admitted Charley. "I heard just what Chris described, but I can't fit the sounds to any animal I know. It's getting plainer now, surely you can hear it."
"Yes," said Walter, with a puzzled frown, "but what under the sun, moon, and stars can it be?"
"A few minutes will settle the question. It's only a little ways off now. My! it's getting to be a terrible din, we must be close at hand." Charley's prophecy soon proved true for they suddenly came out of the forest into a space which had evidently been fire-swept years before, for it was bare of undergrowth and of the former mighty pines nothing remained but the white, lifeless trunks.
For a moment the hunters stood in the edge of the clearing, gazing in speechless astonishment at the sight before them.
Close to one of the largest of the dead pines was a large black bear, reared back on his haunches and striking with both paws viciously at some unseen foe. The hair of muzzle, head and paws was matted and plastered with some thick liquid, giving him a curious frowsy appearance. He was evidently in a towering rage but it was also apparent that he was suffering great pain, his ferocious growls being interspersed with long, low, pathetic whines.