THE HOUSE BOAT BOYS
OR DRIFTING DOWN TO THE SUNNY SOUTH
BY ST. GEORGE RATHBORNE
Author of "CANOE MATES IN CANADA", "CHUMS IN DIXIE" "THE YOUNG FUR TAKERS", Etc.
THE HOUSE BOAT BOYS; OR A VOYAGE TO THE GULF.
WHAT A LETTER FROM A TRAMP STEAMER DID.
"I say, what's gone wrong now, Maurice, old fel?"
The speaker, a roughly clad boy of about fifteen or over, caught hold of his companion's sleeve and looked sympathetically in his face.
The lad whom he called Maurice was better dressed, and he seemed to carry with him a certain air of refinement that was lacking in his friend, who was of a rougher nature. Despite this difference he and Thad Tucker were the closest of chums, sharing each other's joys and disappointments, small though they might be.
They had met just now at the post-office of a little country town not many miles below Evansville, Indiana, as the afternoon mail was being sorted.
The yellow flood of the great Ohio River could be seen from where they stood, glowing in the early November sunshine.
Upon being greeted with these words Maurice Pemberton shook his head dolefully.
"It's come, just as I've been half expecting it these four months, Thad. The old couple I live with have sold their house and leave for Chicago in a week. That turns me out into the Streets, for you know they've given me a home ever since mother, who was a friend of Mrs. Jasper, died; and in return I've tried to make good by doing all their gardening and other work between school hours. Now a son has sent for them to come and make their home with him. Pretty tough on a fellow not to know where he's going to sleep after a single week."
But Thad was smiling now, as though an idea had flashed into his head that gave him reason for something akin to pleasure.
"Well, I don't know; if it comes to the worst, Pard Maurice, you're a dozen times welcome to share my old bunky on the shanty- boat. I'd just love to make another cot like mine, and have you there. Say, wouldn't it be grand? Of course, though, you'd find it a pretty poor contraption alongside the house you've lived in; but if it was a thousand dollar launch still you'd be just as welcome, and you know it," he said with a heartiness that could not be misunderstood.
The other looked at him affectionately, and was about to say something in return when the window of the post-office was thrown open as a signal that the mail had been distributed. So Maurice stepped up to secure the usual papers, together with an occasional letter, that came for the Jaspers.
Thad saw him start and look curiously at one letter, and then begin to tear the end off as though it were meant for him.
Watching curiously, all unaware how history was making at that identical moment for himself and Maurice, he saw the other smile and nod his head, while an expression of delight gradually crept over his face.
Then Maurice remembered that his chum was standing there waiting for him to come, and together they passed out of the little office.
"If that doesn't beat the Dutch!" Maurice was saying, half to himself, as he looked at the letter he was holding in a hand that trembled a little despite his efforts to seem composed.
"It cert does," declared Thad, positively; and then both laughed.
"Excuse me, old fellow, for not speaking up and letting you into the facts; but you can see for yourself that the thing's kind of staggering me a bit. Just to think of its coming today of all times, when I'm most in need of a home. Talk to me about chance; I guess there's something better than accident about this."
"All right; I agree with you, Pard Maurice; but suppose you let a little light in on my dumb brain. Where's the letter from, and what does she say?" observed the other, eyeing the envelope dubiously, for he had a sudden fear that it meant the sundering of the ties that bound them together.
"New Orleans, and it comes from Uncle Ambrose—you've often heard me speak of him, and that he was a captain on a tramp steamer that went all over the world picking up cargoes. For three years I've lost track of him, but he hasn't quite forgotten his nephew Maurice it seems. Listen to what he says, after telling me how he's beginning to feel lonely without a relative near, and growing old all the time. Sit down here where we can look out on the bully old river, while I read."
Thad dropped beside him on a stone, and cuddled his arms around his knees in a favorite attitude of his, while he prepared to listen.
"We are billed to be back here in New Orleans about the fifteenth of February, and if you can make it, my boy, I'd like to see you here then. I've got a berth as supercargo open to you, and there's a fine chance to see something of the world; for in the course of three years we are apt to visit the seven seas, and many strange countries. Be sure and come if you care to take up with your old uncle. The older I grow the stronger the ties that bind to the past appeal to me, and it will make me happier to have one of my own blood aboard to share my travels. From your affectionate uncle. AMBBOSE HADDON.
"On board the Campertown.
"Bully! That's just fine for you, Maurice; but don't you think the captain forgot one thing?" declared Thad.
"What's that?" asked his friend, looking puzzled.
"Why didn't he think to enclose the price of a ticket from here to New Orleans? He might have known money didn't grow on bushes around here."
"I always heard Uncle Ambrose was forgetful of small things, and I guess it's true. Never once entered his head when he was writing. Perhaps it may later, and he'll think to enclose the money from some foreign port. Why, would you believe it, he didn't even mention where the steamer was going to next; only remarked that they sailed in a day or so. But the tone of the letter is warm, and—why, of course I must accept the invitation. It just seems to come in now at the one time I need it most. You wouldn't want me to let it pass, would you, Thad?"
"I should say not, even if it does hurt some to think of you going away and me staying in this bum old place," said his friend, quickly giving Maurice an affectionate look that spoke volumes.
"If I could only go, too. I'm dead sure uncle would be glad to have you with me on board; and think of the glorious times we could have. Why, it seems too good to be true, doesn't it?"
"I guess it does for me. I'd like to go the worst kind, but where would I pick up the money to pay my way? Of course I might float down the Mississippi on the Tramp all right, given time enough; but that would be kind of lonely business for one; now if you could only—say, I wonder—oh, bosh, of course you wouldn't want to even think of it," and he dropped his head dejectedly.
"Wouldn't think of what? Why don't you go on and finish? You've got some sort of a fine scheme in your head, so explain," demanded Maurice, quickly.
"I was just thinking, that's all, what a great time we might have if we did start out in my little bum boat to make New Orleans. There's three months ahead of us, and scores of shanty-boats float down from Cincinnati to Orleans every fall and winter—you know that. Gee! what fun we could have!" and the two boys started at each other for half a dozen seconds without saying a word; but those looks were more eloquent than all the language ever uttered.
Then Maurice thrust out his hand impulsively.
"Shake! Do you really think we could do it, Thad?" he exclaimed.
"Do I? Why, it would be as easy as pie. Think of it; all you have to do is to let the current carry you along. It's a snap, that's what!" cried the other, brimming over with enthusiasm.
Ah! Thad was yet to learn that a thousand unforeseen difficulties lay in wait for those floating craft that drifted down the great water highway every winter; but "in the bright lexicon of youth there is no such word as fail," and to his eyes the enterprise was a veritable voyage of pleasure, nothing less.
"Then we'll go!" declared Maurice, with vim, shaking his chum's hand furiously. "Given a week to get my traps together, sell what I don't want, lay in some provisions, buy a few things, like a flannel shirt and corduroy trousers after the style of those you wear, and I'll be ready. Say, Thad, what a day this has turned out after all, and I was just thinking it the blackest ever."
"It's made me mighty happy, I know," asserted Thad, with tears in his honest blue eyes; "for I'd just hated to lose you, old boy, sure I would."
"Just to think of our launching on that great old river and starting for such a long voyage; it's immense, that's what. I've always wanted to see something of the old Mississippi and to think that the chance has come. Why, it's like magic, that's what. A flip of the hand and everything is changed. The opening of Uncle Ambrose's letter must have been the turning point in my life—our lives, Thad. Oh, I am so glad I hardly know what to do." "Ditto here. On my part I'll put the week in tinkering on the old barge, for she can stand some improvement, I guess. When that fisherman gave her to me on going to the hospital, from which the poor fellow never came back, he said he always intended dropping down the river to the gulf in her; but I never dreamed I'd be the one to navigate the Tramp that way. I can hardly wait to get back. I want to be at work making those changes, and building your bunk."
"Just like you, Thad, always ready to do something for another fellow," declared his chum, affectionately.
"Oh! shucks! that's where the best part of the fun comes in. And how lucky it is you've got a gun, Maurice, for there will be lots of chances while we travel down stream to pick up a mess of ducks, some snipe, and perhaps a big goose or two. Bob Fletcher told me he had shot 'em off the bars down the Mississippi."
"Right you are, Thad," cried the other.
"And if our supplies and money run out, why, we can sure stop in some place and get work, I reckon. Then there's fish to be had for the catching, and you know I'm up to all the wrinkles about that job, seeing that I've been supplying many families here with the finnies during the summer and fall. Say, can you come down tonight, and talk it all over aboard our palatial houseboat? We can arrange all the things we want to do, make out a list of supplies that are sure to be needed, no flimsies or luxuries allowed, and in the morning I'll get to work."
"Of course I'll come, after supper. Still in the old cove, are you?"
"Yes. I've got a stout lock on the door now, and every time I leave the shanty I drag my little canoe, as I call it, into the house. If I didn't some thief would run off with it sure. They're a tough crowd around here, the boys I mean. Wonder if we'll run up against many as bad when we journey along?" remarked Thad; and in good time he would learn that the Ohio and Mississippi rivers constitute what might easily be termed the "Rogues' Highway," since hundreds of tough characters make use of the current, in order to slip from one borough that has grown too hot for their comfort to another where they are not known.
But perhaps it is just as well that we do not see the difficulties that lie in our path, lest they daunt us by their multitude; coming one at a time we are enabled to wrestle with the trials and tribulations, and overcome them gradually.
Filled with enthusiasm the two lads plunged into the task they had laid out, and long ere the seven days had expired were ready for the voyage over unknown waters; the little shanty-boat had been thoroughly repaired, and changes in her interior made, looking to the comfort of the crew, and all supplies brought aboard that the limited means of the boys would allow; so that on the tenth of November all was in readiness for the launching.
THE FIKST NIGHT AFLOAT.
It was a frosty morning, but something more than that would be needed to dampen the enthusiasm and ardor of the two lads who pushed out from the river bank where a little creek flowed into the Ohio's flood, and started upon what was to be a momentous voyage.
Several of Maurice's boy friends were on hand to wish them the best of luck, and with the cheers of these fellows ringing in their ears they moved out upon the swift current of the river.
When the group of boys had vanished and the cruisers found themselves beyond the confines of the town they had called home for some years, all attention was given to what lay before them.
The boat had been urged out into the stream by a dexterous use of the sweep made for that purpose, and which, with the exception of a couple of long poles, was the only method aboard for steering the craft; and as it was not their design to get too far away from shore until they were better versed in the navigable qualities of the Tramp, the boys sat in comfortable positions and talked, watching the panorama as they drifted along.
Indeed, there always is something fascinating about such a method of travel that must appeal to almost any boy; for in spite of the uplifting tendencies of education, and the refining influences of homes, there remains in the hearts of most lads, and men as well, a peculiar longing for a spell of tramp existence—it is satisfied after a short period in the open and the wilds, when the comforts of home appeal just as strongly to the exile.
No doubt this yearning for getting close to the heart of Nature is an inherited trait, coming down to us from our remote ancestors, and will never be wholly eradicated from our systems.
And these two lads could enjoy it to the full, for neither of them had known the delights of a real home for many years—in fact Thad, never.
They made many plans while sitting there, and as time passed and new views were constantly opening before them, both seemed agreed that it had been an inspiration that had caused Thad to suggest this voyage, with the far-away Crescent City as their goal.
Thad had, indeed, done fairly creditable work in fixing up the interior of the house upon the float.
There were a couple of bunks that in the daytime could be raised so that they lay flat against the wall, and out of the way, since room was at a premium inside the shanty, with a cook stove, a table, a trunk and various other things filling space.
From numerous hooks in a couple of corners their clothes hung; then about the little stove, which was to give them warmth and furnish the heat to cook their meals, several frying pans and tin kettles hung, while a tea kettle sung a soft song of contentment that seemed to fit in with the spirit possessing the two cruisers.
A supply of firewood occupied a box arranged for its accommodation, and there was considerable more of the same outside; while a new axe gave promise of any needed amount, dependent only upon willing muscles, and an ability to swing the same freely.
There was the gun Thad had mentioned, hanging from a couple of nails—true, it might not be called a beauty, for it was an old type Marlin, and much battered by service; but then Maurice had on many occasions proved its shooting qualities, and that, after all, is the true test of a firearm.
It was a double-barrel twelve bore, capable of knocking down even a big goose, provided the right charge was in the shell, and the eye that glanced along the tubes knew its business and could hold on the moving game.
At noon they were passing Henderson, Ky., and changing their course to the west, for the river makes a tremendous sweep before getting anywhere near Mt. Vernon, forming a gigantic horseshoe as it were, the last part of the turn bringing the voyager with his face into the northeast.
Throughout the whole livelong day the little shanty-boat continued to sweep along with the current, which was something like four miles an hour at this point though it exceeds that considerably when the river rises, or the wind comes out of the north and east.
About 4 o'clock they passed Mt. Vernon, for which both boys were glad, as they did not enjoy the thought of tying up on this, their first night afloat, close to a strange town.
They were apt to be pestered by curious visitors, and perhaps boys bent on pranks that might cost the travelers dear, since some of these fellows would not think anything about setting fire to a boat, and laugh to watch the frantic efforts of the owners to extinguish the flames.
When the dusk was beginning to gather on the moving waters, Thad spied what seemed to be the mouth of a good-sized creek below.
As they were just then skirting the shore with the intention of pulling in at the first chance, it was not much of an effort to turn the boat so that they could pole into the mouth of the stream and go up it some distance.
Thad's steering oar seemed to work to a charm, and he was more than a little pleased with his work in that direction; for much of the pleasure of the long voyage was apt to depend upon the ability with which they could guide their clumsy craft when an emergency arose.
Fortunately the creek seemed quite deserted; they had feared lest some other boat like their own might have preempted their claim, and the owners endeavor to make it disagreeable for them.
Not that either of the boys felt timid, for they were both built along the line of fighters, and ready to hold their own with any chap of their size, or larger; but until they became used to this strange method of living they would rather not run into any trouble if it could be decently avoided.
Once the boat was secured to a tree ashore, they began to get busy with preparations for supper.
While floating down-stream Thad, who was a born fisherman, and always looking for a chance to snatch a mess of the finny tribe out of the water, had kept a couple of baited lines dangling behind; and during the afternoon several bites had resulted in a couple of captures, both being of an edible variety, known along the Ohio as buffalo fish, the two weighing possibly four pounds.
Thus they were supplied with the substantial end of a meal without the cost of a penny.
Thad had cleaned the fish as fast as caught, so that all they had to do now was to slap them on the frying pan, after a bit of salt pork had been allowed to simmer, salt and pepper to taste, and then turn when necessary.
Meanwhile Maurice had made a pot of coffee, and set the table.
A cloth would have been the height of absurdity on such a trip as this. Maurice had settled that part of the business by tacking white oilcloth over their single table, and this answered the purpose admirably, besides being easily kept clean.
"Ain't it great, Captain?" asked Thad, as they sat there enjoying the meal by the light of the two lanterns hanging from hooks in the rafters of the cabin roof.
Thad had insisted that Maurice be the skipper of the expedition, because of his superior knowledge of boats in general, and also his possessing the chart of the rivers.
For himself he wanted to be called the Cook, and declared that he felt proud of his ability to fling flapjacks and do various stunts in connection with getting up appetizing meals.
Nevertheless, it might be noticed that just as frequently the Captain insisted on taking his turn at the fire or washing the tin dishes after the meal; while the Cook was able and willing to stand his "trick at the wheel" when the occasion arose. This was, of course, stretching the imagination pretty far, since their only means of propulsion or steering rested in that sweep.
Maurice admitted that it was indeed delightful, and the look on his face quite satisfied the anxious Thad that as yet he could not see the slightest cloud on the horizon to make him regret starting.
For bread they had brought several loaves along; neither of them had the nerve to think of baking the staff of life in that disreputable oven, even had they known how.
Later on, however, Maurice did turn out some "pretty fair" biscuits—that is, the boys thought them good, and they were the ones to say, since it was their appetites that had to be satisfied, not those of some finicky girl who might have turned up her nose in horror at the "abominations" these lads called fine.
Thad smoked, while Maurice had never taken to the habit as yet; but he did not dislike the odor of tobacco, and hence his chum was not compelled to always enjoy the solace of his pipe outdoors in uncongenial weather, though as a rule he preferred to sit there by the rudder and puff away, while his thoughts ran riot, as those of a boy usually will.
When the meal was over and the dishes washed, marking the close of their first day, the lights were extinguished and the boys sat outside for a short time.
With the gathering of night, however, the air was growing colder again, so that they were soon glad to seek the shelter of the cabin.
Maurice made sure to draw the shades fully over the windows, for he did not wish to advertise the fact of their being in that cove to every passerby.
They knew that a road ran close to the water, having heard a wagon passing over a bridge not fifty feet away earlier in the evening.
One thing they had been wise in doing—while the little boat that trailed behind the larger craft could not be said to possess any particular pecuniary value, it was of considerable necessity to the travelers, and represented their only means of getting around in a hurry, or going ashore when the water was too shallow to admit of the flat reaching the bank.
In order to prevent possible loss from some prank of mischievous boys or thieving negroes, Maurice had secured a long and stout chain, with a padlock, and at night this was so attached to the dinky that no one could sneak the stumpy little craft away without the use of a hatchet to chop out the staple; and while this was being done the owners of the Tramp would surely be getting extremely busy also with gun and axe.
"How does it go?" asked the owner of the shanty-boat, as he saw Maurice settle down in his bunk, and draw the blankets around him with the air of one who did not expect to be disturbed for a long spell.
"Hunky-dory. Beats my old bed at home by a long shot. There's no use talking, Thad, you're built for a carpenter, sure pop, and if there's any vacancy aboard the CAMPERTOWN in that line I'm going to induce Uncle Ambrose to let you fill it. Douse the glim whenever you're ready, Cook. I hope I won't have to crawl out of this bully berth until morning," was the reply of the other, that brought a smile of satisfaction to Thad's face, for it is always pleasant to know that one's labor is appreciated.
So Thad blew out the one lantern which they had been using since coming in the second time, and then crawled into his own bunk. As he had been occupying this for half a year or more of course he was very familiar with its features, both good and poor and made no comment as he retired.
The two boys soon passed into the land of slumber, and as the hours drew on no sound arose to waken them; indeed, outside all was still save the gurgle of the great river near at hand, the swishing of running water against the sturdy bow of the shanty-boat, a hoarse cry from some bird that fluttered along the shore looking for food, possibly a night heron passing over, and once or twice the hoarse whistle of some steamboat breasting the current of the mighty Ohio.
And the first night of their eventful cruise passed away, with everything well when the peep of dawn aroused them from slumber to a new day.
The call came from Thad, who had been the first to step outdoors after getting into his clothes.
"What now?" came the muffled answer, for Maurice was pulling a sweater over his head at the moment.
"Come out here, will you. We're in a peck of trouble, I reckon," continued the voice from beyond the door; and accordingly Maurice made haste to leave the cabin.
He found Thad with a pole in his hand, shoving against the bank until he was as red as a turkey gobbler in the face.
"What's doing here—why all this scrimmage?" naturally sprang from the lips of the mystified one.
"Stuck fast—river taken a sudden notion to go down while we snoozed, and has left us on the mud. I don't seem able to budge the thing an inch; but perhaps the two of us might," returned Thad, grinning sheepishly as he contemplated the result of their indiscretion.
Maurice grasped the significance of the situation and looked grave.
The river, as he well knew, was always a freakish thing, and apt to rise or fall at any time, according to the amount of rainfall along its feeders.
Just now it had commenced to rapidly decline, and as a result the shanty-boat had been grounded.
As it was a heavy affair, once let it fairly settle upon the ooze of the creek bed and no power they could bring to bear would be sufficient to start it on its way; and hence they must stay there, marooned, until the river took a notion to rise again, which might be in a day, a week or three months.
That was a pleasant lookout for a couple of boys bound south, and with winter close upon their heels—in a week or two they might be frozen in so securely that there would be no possibility of release until spring.
No wonder, then, that Maurice looked serious as he sprang to the side of the boat and stared over at the water of the creek.
It was running out—they should have known of the danger upon hearing the gurgle during the night; but somehow, lacking experience, they had thought nothing of it save that the sound was a musical lullaby, soothing them to slumber.
They would know better another time, and not fasten their craft to the shore in a shallow creek when the river was at a stand or falling; it takes experience to learn some of the tricky ways of these western rivers; but once understood the cruiser is not apt to be caught a second time. Maurice snatched up the second pole and threw his weight upon it, while Thad also strained himself to the utmost; they could feel the boat move ever so little, but it was most discouraging, to be sure.
Some other means must be employed if they hoped to get the Tramp off the slimy bed before she settled there for good.
Maurice was equal to the occasion.
"The block and tackle does it!" he exclaimed, darting into the cabin.
What mattered it if the rope was second hand, and the block creaked for want of grease—that last fault was speedily rectified; and having fastened one end of the line to a tree on the opposite side of the creek, the boys secured a purchase and then exerted themselves to the utmost.
It was a success, for now they had a firm foundation, whereas with the poles it was partly a case of lost force, the soft nature of the ground preventing them from doing their best.
Impulsive Thad gave a cheer when the boat began to move in response to their united endeavor, and presently glided off her slippery bed into the deeper channel of the creek.
"A close shave," declared Maurice, wiping the perspiration from his forehead, and surveying the late resting place of the shanty-boat with satisfaction.
"I should remark," echoed his chum, dancing a hornpipe on the deck; "just think what if we had been stuck here a week or two; all our grub gone, and the dickens to pay with our plans. Never again for me. I'm going to be the most careful chap when it comes to lying up to a bank with this craft you ever saw."
"I'll get the line loose while you start up the fire. Then we'll push out of here and cook breakfast while we float downstream. Every mile made now may save us trouble later; for you know what old Pap Larkin told us about sudden freezes coming sometimes in November, and we want to get in the big river before we strike anything like that."
In less than ten minutes they were moving out of the mouth of the creek, with the river, half wreathed in fog, lying before them.
"We'll have to keep a good lookout, unless we want to run a chance of cutting down some river steamer coming upstream," laughed Thad.
"Oh, that's easily avoided by keeping close in by the shore until this mist rises, which I calculate it will do by 9 o'clock or so," replied Maurice, using his pole to advantage, so as to send the boat out upon the current of the river, where they were speedily moving merrily along.
It was a delight to cook breakfast with such surroundings, and a constantly changing panorama along the shore.
Never did bacon have such a delicious odor; and when the coffee boiled up, sending its fragrance throughout the cabin and out of the partly open door, Maurice, who was attending to the steering part of the business at the time, loudly bewailed the fact that he must wait five long minutes more ere satisfying the craving appetite that these suggestions of breakfast put on edge.
While they were still eating they passed a place on the Kentucky side that from the map they believed to be Uniontown, which proved that they were making fair progress while sitting around—which is one of the finest things in connection with drifting south.
As Maurice said it reminded him of a garden that grew while the proprietor slept, for they could count on so many miles a day with ordinary good luck, and not a hand put out to urge the craft along.
While both these boys had spent much of their lives upon the banks of the Ohio, and were accustomed to the various sights familiar to all river dwellers, at the same time things had a vastly different appearance now that they were afloat and actually drawing a little nearer and nearer to the sunny southland with each passing hour.
They were in good spirits all the time, and hailed other voyagers with the customary salutations suitable to the occasion.
It became no unusual thing to see one or two flatboats with cabins something like their own, either drifting lazily along the stream or tied up close to the bank; for, as has been said before, the river is a muchly traveled highway, and the types of people that make use of it in their annual pilgrimages south must prove of tremendous interest to any one fond of studying humanity.
It was a banner day for the travelers, clear and fairly pleasant, one that in the rougher times ahead would always be looked back to as a period to be envied.
They made great progress, too, and when the afternoon sun waning in the west warned them that it was time to keep their eyes about for a decent place in which to pass the night, Maurice calculated that they had come all of forty miles since morning, which was making quite a gap in the distance separating them from the junction of the two rivers.
The air was growing colder, and Thad, who professed to be something of a weather sharp, declared that they were in for a touch of winter very speedily, which made them both long to get out of the clutches of the Ohio before ice formed and impeded their progress.
Maurice scouted any chance of this happening; it might have been more serious had they been cruising in a small boat which must find a safe harbor every night in some creek; because it might grow cold enough to freeze such a craft in some night, or at least shut those harbors of refuge to entrance; but with such a big and stanch craft they could tie up to the shore and pay little attention to the in-rolling waves cast by the suction of passing steam-boats.
This night they found a chance to secure the shanty-boat to some rocks; and as the neighborhood seemed lonely, they chose to go ashore and build a fire on the sandy stretch that ran under the shelving bank.
Just for a change they cooked supper ashore, too, for it would be seldom that this sort of an opportunity might come to them, and they felt that they ought to take advantage of it while it lasted.
Already had the wind shifted to the northwest, and it was cold enough to make them seek the leeward side of the fire while eating supper.
They had gone aboard to see about the fire, and Maurice was lying on a bed of dead grass and moss looking into the glowing depths of the fire and allowing his thoughts to go out to the wonderful possibilities of the beckoning future, with Uncle Ambrose as the good fairy who was to lead him into strange lands that he had always wanted to see, when a bit of turf falling upon his arm caused him to suddenly glance upward.
To his surprise and a little to his consternation he beheld three black faces surveying him from over the edge of the bank; nor did he fancy the expression that could be seen upon the said countenances.
Upon seeing that their presence was no longer unknown to the boy below, the trio of darkies dropped over the bank.
Closer inspection failed to add to the good opinion of Maurice, for the fellows bore all the earmarks of desperadoes, possibly belonging to that class of nomads who prowl along the shores of these western rivers, picking up a living by doing odd jobs, and stealing whenever they think it can be done with safety.
"Hello, boss! Done takin' it easy, I spects. Got any 'jections ter weuns warmin' up a little by dat fiah? Gittin' powful cold, boss, an' it jes' happens we ain't got nary a match in our clo's, dat's a fack," said the leader, advancing eagerly and holding out his hands toward the blaze.
"Why, of course not, boys; make yourselves at home. I was just going aboard anyway, and the fire's yours," remarked Maurice, rising.
He saw the three roughs looks quickly toward each other, and noted that one of them had slipped between him and the boat, as though it might be their intention to prevent his leaving.
It was evident that there was trouble brewing, and unless it was nipped in the bud something of a fight would take place.
That they would stand no show whatever in the hands of these rascals, alone as they were in this isolated place, Maurice knew full well, but he would not allow himself to show any sign of fear lest in this way he precipitate the trouble.
Perhaps these men had been watching them for some time, and knew there were only a couple of boys on the shanty-boat, so that it would be useless to call out as if several husky men constituted the crew.
Maurice did not wish to come within arms' length of the negro who had slipped between himself and the boat, lest the fellow seize upon him, so that he was in a quandary how to act in order to gain his haven of refuge.
The puzzle was solved in a way he had not anticipated, for just as the wicked-looking black tramp was putting out his hand to grasp him, as he pulled back, a voice broke upon the silence, the voice of his comrade Thad, saying:
"I'd be mighty careful how I laid a hand on that boy, you there!"
A LITTLE RUN IN THE NIGHT.
When Thad thus broke in upon the little drama being enacted upon the strip of beach under the overhanging bank of the river the three negroes, as well as Maurice, looked toward the deck of the boat.
By the light of the fire on the sand Thad was seen holding the old Marlin in his hands, and keeping the frowning muzzles of the two- barrel gun pointed in the direction of the black tramp who had seemed about to interfere with the passage of Maurice to the boat.
Evidently none of the fellows were armed, at least with shooting irons, for it was almost ludicrous to see the rapidity with which they threw up their arms and showed signs of surrender.
"Don't let dat little buster go off, mister. We ain't meanin' yuh no ha'm, 'deed we ain't now, We's jes' de most innercentest coons yuh eber seed, we is. All we asks is a chanct tuh wawm our fingers by dis ere blaze, an' I reckons yuh won't keer 'bout dat, massa," exclaimed the leader, in a whining tone.
Maurice took advantage of the opportunity to walk around the fellow who had interfered with his free passage, and gain the deck of the boat, when Thad immediately turned the gun over to him.
Evidently the boys were in for a bad time of it.
These wandering blacks might want to lie around the fire all night, and sleep would be impossible for both lads at the same time, since there must be a watch kept lest the rascals rob them during the hours of darkness.
Maurice knew that it was best to take the situation in hand right then and there in the start; he also was aware of the fact that these negroes only yielded to force, and that any attempt to gain their good will would be absolutely wasted; for Southern boys learn that early in life, and so it is they can manage the shiftless population that is employed to work on the plantations, while Northern men make the mistake of treating such negroes too well.
Accordingly Maurice took the bull by the horns.
"See here, you fellows, we don't object to your having all the fire you want, but we're not going to stand having you camp right there all night. Go down the shore or up a hundred yards or so, and take some of the fire with you. Then one of you come back here and get a big fish we have no use for. I reckon you know how to cook it without a pan. Anyhow, it's all we can let you have, for we're on short rations ourselves. Dye understand, boys?" he said.
Maurice could assume quite an air of authority when he chose; it seemed to be a portion of his birthright; and these lazy blacks are quick to recognize this vein in the voice of anyone with whom they come in contact.
"All right, boss. We don't wanter tuh disturb yuh, an' we'll go up de sho' er bit. Dat fish he taste mighty fine, I reckons, mister, an' we sho' be powful glad tug git 'im, dat's so. Hyah, yuh lazy good-for-nothin' brack niggah, pick up some ob dat fiah an' tote it up yander whah de p'int juts out. Dat look good enuff fur dis chile. An' boss, ef yuh gut dat ere fish handy I cud kerry hit wid me right now," remarked the strapping leader.
"Get it, Thad," said Maurice, in a low tone, not wishing to take his eye off the trio of desperadoes for a moment, not knowing what they might attempt, for if ever he had seen jailbirds loose it was just then.
So Thad stepped around the cabin and took down the big "buffalo" that was hanging by a cord so that the night air would keep it in decent condition; it had come in on one of his lines that afternoon, and they really had little use for such a quantity of fish; indeed, both boys were already a little tired of a diet of the products of the river, and yearned for different fare.
The darky ashore caught the finny prize, and his eyes glistened at its size; but Maurice knew full well that this act of benevolence on their part would not serve to protect them a particle from the thieving propensities of the nomads if a chance were given to purloin anything.
In ten minutes they could see a fire up on the point of land and hear the loud voices of the three blacks disputing over various things—evidently they were a noisy crowd, and the prospects for a quiet night did not loom up very brilliantly. Maurice listened and his brow clouded over.
"I don't like the prospect a little bit, Thad," he remarked, as a louder burst of profanity than usual marked a near fight above.
"We're in for a tough night, it seems," sighed his chum, dismally.
"Oh! as to that, I don't know. It all depends whether we have the nerve to cut the Gordian knot," observed Maurice, grimly.
His friend looked hastily at him, for the fire was still burning fitfully on the shore, though robbed of its best brands by the negroes.
"What dye think of doing—running those critters off—gee, it's a big proposition for a couple of boys, Maurice."
"The running's all right, but you get the cart before the horse. It's us who are to do the skipping, while they enjoy that fish a little later. All depends on whether we care to take the chances of floating down a mile or two further in the dark, and finding a place to tie up. If we don't it's a case of floating on all night, and running the risk of a collision."
"I say go. Why, we've got an anchor, you know, and the current ain't so very swift near shore but what it'd hold when we chose to drop her over. If we stay here one of us has to be on guard all night, and even then I believe those black jailbirds would be ugly enough to try and burn us up or something like that—steal our pumpkin-seed boat perhaps. Yes, I'm in favor of cutting loose," declared Thad, eagerly.
"All right; consider it settled. We'll just wait until we think they're busy with the fish and then one of us must go ashore while the other covers him with the gun, and undo the line from those rocks. After that it will be easy."
Half an hour passed away.
Then, as the sounds had died out above, they fancied the trio of unwelcome neighbors must be busily employed in eating, so Thad volunteered to drop ashore and get the rope loose from its anchorage.
Maurice was a little skeptical about the apparent freedom from surveillance, and stood on deck with the shotgun in his hands ready to spring to the assistance of his pard at the slightest sign of trouble.
But Thad met with no opposition when he climbed to where the loop of the rope was secured over the pinnacle of rock, and in a minute he had freed the line, tossing it down on the beach where it could be pulled aboard.
When his comrade was again alongside, Maurice breathed easier; this was their first adventure, and it was apt to make a deep impression on both lads.
A dozen pulls sufficed to bring the rope aboard and then the poles were taken in hand with the idea of shoving off from the shore.
They had been careful not to let the boat ground, remembering their experience of the previous night, so this part of the job was not difficult at all.
Just as they began to move with the current they heard a loud yell from the shore, and looking up saw one of their late visitors standing there, surveying the vanishing shanty-boat with manifest dismay and anger.
His shout was evidently understood by the others, for they could be heard tearing along down the shale heading for the scene.
But our boys had now pushed the boat far enough out into the stream to avoid any possibility of being boarded, no matter how bold the desperadoes might be; and it gave them no concern that the trio howled and swore and threatened all manner of things for being deserted in this manner, just when they thought they had a good soft snap for a breakfast, and perhaps fat pickings.
Thanks to the friendly current, the boys were quickly beyond earshot of the loud-tongued and chagrined blacks on the shore.
"Ugh! that wasn't a pleasant experience, was it? Did you ever set eyes on three more villainous mugs in all your life? Those scoundrels are sure doomed to meet with a noose before they're many months older, for if they haven't done murder up to now they're going to before long. I'm glad we gave them the slip. It was well done all around. Now to float on for an hour or so, and then see if we have any luck finding an anchorage."
Maurice contented himself with these words, but Thad had to skip around on the deck in his usual exuberant style before he could settle down to taking his trick at the steering apparatus.
Thus the shanty-boat floated on through the darkness, and the minutes slipped along until the hour set had been exhausted; then, when they were thinking of coming to a halt, the lights of a town appeared close by, and it became necessary to navigate with caution lest they strike some obstruction in the shape of an anchored boat or a dock where steamboats landed.
It was decided to drop down a little distance below the place and tie up, for as some of their provision were already getting low, it would be necessary to go ashore and lay in more bread at least.
When a jutting point shut out the last of the town lights, they poled in closer to the shore, and began to cast about for some friendly tree to which the hawser could be attached.
"There's a shanty-boat tied up yonder," whispered Thad, suddenly, pointing to a place where the gleam of a light through a small window could be seen.
"Let her float down a bit farther. We don't want too close neighbors, especially when we know nothing about them. There, listen to that dog bark; the little rat sees us all right. That's where we made a mistake not to get a dog to go with us on the trip; they're good company, and fine for guarding the boat. First chance I get I mean to have one, no matter if it's a mongrel yellow cur."
A man stepped out of the cabin of the boat that was tied up and looked across the little stretch of water separating them.
"Hello!" he said, as if seeing them clearly. "Going to tie up below?"
Maurice rather liked the ring of his voice, and so he made answer.
"We want to—is there good holding ground or a convenient tree, do you know?" he asked.
"Yes, half a dozen of 'em. I saw the lot before dark; and the swing of the current pushes in toward the bank. Don't get too far in, as she's lowering right along," continued the friendly flatboatman.
Maurice thanked him, for it was a pleasure to run across a chap so different from the usual type of selfish, envious and profligate drifters.
They quickly sighted the trees, and Thad, jumping ashore, soon had a line fast around one that would hold them safely until daylight.
The man on the other boat had glimpsed them sufficiently to have his interest aroused, for they could hear him throwing a pair of oars into a small boat, and sure enough he quickly came alongside.
"Anything I can do to help you, boys?" he asked with so much heartiness that Maurice warmed toward him immediately.
Of course there was really no need of assistance, since everything had been already accomplished; but Maurice asked the other to come aboard and join them in a friendly little chat.
The trip promised to be lonely enough, with suspicions directed toward nearly all those encountered, so that it was a real pleasure to run across a good fellow like this who felt some interest in them.
HARD PUT TO KEEP WARM.
The big, broad-shouldered man proved to be a machinist and clock mender, who was in the habit of plying his trade along the river every winter; he had his family aboard the boat that served him as a workshop, and there were certain localities on his route where they looked for him regularly—he was, it seemed, a jack-of-all- trades, and could after a fashion even tune a piano if pushed.
Our two boys enjoyed an hour or two in his company very much, and learned considerable about matters connected with the lower river that might possibly prove valuable to them later on.
In return, of course, they told Bob Archiable all about their project, and he wished them a pleasant voyage to the Crescent City, with much luck when Uncle Ambrose came to port.
The itinerant machinist told them they had undoubtedly done a wise thing in quitting their harbor up the river after the advent of those three roughs. He believed he knew who the trio might be, and if he was right they were the ugliest set of desperadoes in that vicinity, who would not hesitate to attempt any sort of dark deed, provided the reward seemed sufficient to compensate for the risk involved.
It was a real pleasure to run across such a pleasant and manly fellow as Archiable, and the meeting, brought about in so queer a manner, would always remain in the memory of the two boys as one of the bright spots of their cruise down the river.
The night passed quietly.
One of the boys came out on deck now and again, as they happened to be awake; for the incident of the early evening seemed to have made them somewhat nervous; but nothing happened, and morning came along in due season, with a lowering sky and a feeling of snow in the air.
Maurice went back to the town for supplies after they had eaten breakfast, while Thad took the dinky and paddled up to where the other boat was tied to enjoy a little more talk with the jolly owner.
He met Bob's wife, a little woman who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the strange experience of being a pilgrim half the year.
There were also a couple of boys, one six and the other eight, sturdy little chaps, who looked like chips of the old block, and only eager for the time to come when they could put their shoulders to the wheel and help "dad."
Finally they got away and waved a farewell to this friendly couple, who had conceived a sudden and abiding interest in the future of the two young voyagers starting out in the big world to seek their fortunes.
"We're going to get it in the neck today, I reckon," remarked Thad; and if his words were lacking in elegance, they certainly conveyed a proper notion of what he meant to his comrade, for the air was biting, and the waves dashed up against the starboard side of the shanty-boat in a way that was suggestive of storm and little progress.
So it must always be in making a trip down these inland waters, where one is at the mercy of a capricious current save when a favorite of fortune chances to own a motor boat that scorns the usual drifting process, and speeds along at a ten-mile-an-hour clip, regardless of baffling head winds.
One day excellent progress may be made, and then come several during which it seems as though every deterring influence in the calendar arises to keep the voyager from making his expected distance during the hours of daylight.
It is just as well in the start to decide that nothing that can arise will disturb one's temper, and that with equally good nature the bad will be accepted with the good.
By ten o'clock it was snowing furiously, and the tang of the bitter wind that swept across from the far distant Indiana shore seemed to penetrate to the very marrow, so that the boys were constantly exchanging places, one bobbing inside the cabin to get warm while the other held the steering apparatus.
The snow became so furious that soon they were unable to see even the Kentucky bank, and then Maurice began to think they had better haul up before losing their bearings; it would be a serious matter to find themselves adrift on the wide river without knowing whether they were in the middle of the stream or not.
"We'd better haul in closer to the shore, and come to a halt, I think, Thad. It may be all right to run along in the midst of this storm, but I don't like it a little bit. In fact, that cabin seems good enough for me today. How do you feel about it, old man?" he asked, rubbing his hands, which, even when covered with a pair of woolen gloves, felt the stinging cold.
"Couldn't please me better," answered his chum, picking up a pole and feeling to ascertain the depth of the water.
With that wind blowing them toward shore there was little difficulty in making a landing, and after skirting the edge for some distance they found a chance to get a purchase on a convenient tree, when the trick was done.
All the balance of the day they hugged the fire; nor were they any too warm at that, for the furious blast seemed to find cracks and crannies in the wall of the flimsy cabin through which to gain entrance.
At times it fairly howled around them, and Thad suggested the advisability of their tying down the cabin with a spare cable, for fear less some tremendous blast of wind tear it from its foundations and send it flying among the treetops ashore; but Maurice declared he did not believe it to be quite so bad as all that.
As the supply of fuel was growing low it became necessary for one of them at a time to go ashore and use the ax to a purpose, so that during the afternoon the pile was replenished bountifully in this manner.
Such a night as that was—the boys had never passed a more unpleasant one in all their previous experience.
It became very cold in the cabin, despite the half-way decent fire they kept going all night, and their blankets did not seem to be sufficient covering to induce warmth, for Maurice was shivering most of the time.
A flimsy boat like the one they were on can seem like an iceberg during a heavy wind that sweeps across a wide stretch of rough water, and comes straight out of the Alaska region; then, the waves that were kicked up by its passage across the river dashed against the side of the boat and flew in spray over the very top of the cabin, freezing upon the wall in great icicles, and adding to the general discomfort, for in the morning they had difficulty in breaking their way out of the door.
About four o'clock Maurice could not stand it any longer, and getting up, he pulled on his sweater and sat down to make the stove red hot, after which it became fairly comfortable in the cabin and Thad slept on.
Luckily the storm was of short duration, and with the morning the wind seemed to have gone down considerably, with promise of a further mitigation of the cold during the day.
Of course, neither of the boys enjoyed such an experience, but they were of a philosophical turn of mind and ready to accept things as they eame along, making the most of the good and enduring the evil when it could not be avoided.
Lucky the lad who has been blessed with a disposition after this kind, for life will have a bountiful supply of pleasures in store for him, out of which no temporary adversity may cheat him.
They started downstream again after breakfast, for the snow had ceased and it was easily possible to see their course.
The morning packet breasting the current hove in sight a short time after they cut loose from their night's anchorage, and it was always a pleasure for them to wave to those aboard these boats— never did the pilot aloft in his little house wfeere he handled the wheel fail to respond to the waving of a handkerchief—it was the custom of the river, and one would be lacking in common politeness if he refused to answer such a friendly greeting.
By noon they were making great progress again, and Maurice began to have hopes of bringing up at Paducah by night; but there were so many twists and turns to the river he had not counted on that when the afternoon drew near its close and they saw a town at the mouth of a river coming in on the Kentucky side, he knew it must be Smithland lying at the junction of the Cumberland with the Ohio.
Once again they floated past a town, unwilling to put in for fear of trouble with some of the rough characters usually found along the river front in all of these places.
Fortunately, after experiencing some difficulty in crossing the mouth of the Cumberland, which was belching forth a volume of yellow water that carried the shanty-boat out some distance, despite their efforts, they finally managed to find a place to stay for the night.
It was in striking contrast to the previous experience, for there was no wind, and the cold had moderated wonderfully, so that it seemed as though rain might be the next thing on the program.
They were a bit too close to the town for quiet, as sounds frequently came to their ears from a number of flatboats anchored just below the mouth of the smaller river that emptied its volume of water into the Ohio; these people were evidently engaged in having a high old time, probably with plenty of liquor, for they kept the racket going more than half the night.
Fortunately, however, they knew nothing of the nearness of the shanty-boat that had gone past just at dusk, and while our boys kept the door locked and slept on their arms, so to speak, they were not disturbed at all.
They were glad to get away in the morning without meeting any of the rough element belonging to those anchored shanty-boats.
Paducah showed up during the morning, after which they had a long stretch before them straight away into the west as it seemed, at the end of which they could expect to find the big junction city of Cairo.
Here they would make a sudden turn to the left and begin to glide down the waters of the wonderful Mississippi, heading really south at last.
But they could not hope to make it on this day, though a favorable run seemed to be the order of things; it actually did rain, as Thad predicted, and each of the boys, clad in oilskins, took turns at the rudder as the boat swung along downstream, not far away from the Kentucky shore.
Taking it in all they had experienced but little decent weather thus far; that would come, they hoped, when they managed to get further along in the direction of Dixie, where the warm breezes would thaw them out, and allow of lying on the deck taking a sun bath.
The shore was mighty uninviting along here and seemed low in most places and marshy.
Ducks were numerous and the gun was kept handy in case they had a chance to knock down a couple, for it would be an agreeable change in their fare to have game for supper.
The rain stopped about three, and Maurice, who had been looking ahead, declared that if he could only get ashore he believed it was possible to crawl through the brush and get a shot at a bunch of ducks in a cove ahead; so the boat was brought to a stop by means of the anchor, and jumping into the little dinky, gun in hand, he made for the shore.
Thad waited after he had disappeared, being anxious to see how the adventure panned out.
About ten minutes later he heard a shot, followed by a second, and then Maurice came hurrying along to the little boat into which he jumped and set out in hot chase of his game, which was floating away on the current.
Thad pulled in the anchor and floated downstream; he saw his chum drag several ducks aboard, and so of course Thad had to do the Highland fling as usual.
IN THE GAME COUNTRY.
It proved that Maurice had knocked down three of the feathered prizes, and as they were fat teal, it looked like a genuine treat in store for the river travelers on the shanty-boat.
Thad was at work plucking the fowl before they had gone fifty yards down the stream, and announcing that they would have them for dinner that very night—at least a couple, for he believed one apiece ought to satisfy the demand.
"When I heard you shoot I knew we were in for a treat, and with the second shot I said it must be two; but you went me one better, Pal Maurice. That little old gun is as good as ever, I do believe, and my conscience, how she does penetrate. These bones are knocked into flinters in places. How many were there in that flock?"
"Just three," returned Maurice, smiling.
"I thought so, and you bagged the whole lot. I reckon no fellow could have done better than that, at least so you could notice," quoth Thad, holding up the first victim of his labors so that the shooter could see how plump the bird was.
"Yum, yum," went on Thad, swinging it to and fro, and gloating over the tempting appearance of the game; "don't I just wish it was time to sound the gong for supper and these boys browned and ready to be devoured. But three mortal hours must crawl along before then. How can I ever stand it?" he groaned.
Maurice was accustomed to these ludicrous actions of his chum, and only laughed at the wry face he made; but, to tell the truth, he would not be sorry himself when the night had settled down over the river, and they were lying in some snug sheltered nook, sniffing the cooking meal.
The birds seemed to be young, and it was decided to try the oven upon them; so Thad went in, after he had them both ready.
Once when the other glanced through the partly open door he saw him trying to make some stuffing out of bread crumbs. Then the fire was attended to, so that there would be an abundance of heat, after which Thad appeared with the look of a victor on his face.
An hour later and the first scent of dinner began to ooze from the door; whereupon Thad darted in and began to baste the fowl with tender solicitude.
He came out making motions with his lips as though his mouth were fairly watering, and shaking his head in a suggestive way that made Maurice roar.
Meanwhile the boat had been steadily heading down the river, and the same dismal prospect confronted them along the shore—marshy land, with higher ground further back, an ideal place for ducks, great flocks of which could be seen at this hour flying from the river to some favorite sleeping place in the marsh.
"If this were a hunting expedition, which it is not, we would not need to go a bit further than this place. Just imagine the shooting a fellow could have in the swampy land beyond—with some decoys he could bang away for hours at fresh flocks passing back and forth all day trading. Well, I mean to pick up quite a few now and then, unless we get tired of duck as we did of fish," Maurice observed, while watching these bunches of feathered squawkers sailing swiftly past the boat and heading shoreward.
"Tired of duck—why, you could never get me to say that. I could eat it every meal and every day for a month," announced Thad, sniffing the air, which was now becoming very strongly impregnated with a delicious odor that announced the nearness to completion of the baking birds.
And when finally they found a place to anchor the shanty-boat—for trees there were none within reach of their longest cable—and the shades of evening began to gather around them, Thad went inside to see if dinner were ready for serving.
Well, that was a feast the boys enjoyed to the limit—the ducks were tender, delightfully browned, and possessed of a flavor our young and hungry cruisers had never seen equaled; the stuffing proved to be a success; the coffee was as tasty as usual, and, in fact, they fairly reveled in good things until nature called a halt, and the board was cleared.
The night proved very quiet, and as there was now a moon of fair size, the early part of it was not wholly dark and forbidding.
And such a variety of queer sounds as came to their ears from the adjacent marshes, most of which must have been made by the aquatic birds that spent the night there; but there were also mysterious grunts and squawks that kept both boys guessing for the longest time, while they sat on deck, Thad smoking his pet pipe and Maurice just bundled up in a blanket, taking it easy.
"I rather think if a fellow hunted around in that place he'd find 'coons and 'possums galore, besides a fox or two prowling around in search of a fat duck, for you know, Thad, they're like you, and can eat one at every meal, day in and day out. A funny assortment of sounds to woo a chap to sleep, eh? If you wake up in the night please don't think you're in a menagerie and shout for me to jump in and pull you out. To speak of it makes me feel that I'm pretty sleepy and that a turn of a few hours in that cozy bunk of mine wouldn't go amiss. What say?"
It turned out that Thad was about as sleepy as his chum, so after looking to the anchor to see that it had good holding ground, for a sudden storm coming out of the east would be apt to sweep them down the big river, extremely dangerous at this point, they retired inside the cabin.
The night passed without any storm, breaking over their devoted heads, for which both boys were thankful when morning came, and they looked out to see the sun painting the heavens red with his advance couriers.
Maurice was washing his face in the only little tin basin they owned when he heard an exclamation from his friend—whenever anything out of the usual occurred Thad always began growling and talking to himself as though he had an audience which was waiting to be addressed.
"Well, it's gone sure enough, and that's all there is to it. Now, hang it, how could a fox have come aboard our boat with twenty feet of water separating us from the shore? That's a conundrum I give up," Thad was saying to himself.
"Hey what all this row about—who's been aboard during the night, and what do you miss, Mr. Cook? You remember we ate those two ducks last night; did you expect they would turn up again this morning to be devoured over again?" laughed the Captain, still dashing the cold water in his face, and finally snatching up the coarse huck towel to rub his skin dry.
"That's all right, but it's the other chap I'm after now—perhaps you'll be so obliging as to tell me where I can put my paws on him. I hung the duck from this nail—the cord was good and strong, and it couldn't have broken loose. You see it ain't there now. So the question is did the blamed bird come to life again and skedaddle off, or was one of your friends the foxes aboard while we snoozed, to make way with my fat duck? Anyhow, it's gone, dead sure, and that's no lie."
"I see it is. Certain, are you, that it hung there when we went to bed?"
"One of the last things I did was to slip around here and nip it to make sure it was as tender as those jolly birds we had for supper. There wasn't any wind to whip it around and twist the cord till it broke. Yet where is it now?" and he shook his head dolefully, looked at his friend as if confident Maurice could in some way explain the mystery.
Maurice went at things in a far different way from his chum; instead of calling it an unfathomable mystery he stepped forward and took hold of the piece of cord that still hung from the nail.
Thad saw him closely examine it.
"Could a fox swim aboard and climb on top of the cabin to reach over and down to where that duck was hanging, and cut the cord with his sharp teeth, and then sling the bird over his shoulder to swim back again to—" he began.
"Stop!" exclaimed Maurice. "You're on the wrong track. It wasn't a fox!"
"'Coon, 'possum, wildcat, whatever could it have been?"
"A two-legged thief," announced Maurice, quietly.
"Shucks! you don't say so? How'd he ever get here, and if he wanted to steal why didn't he run off with something more valuable than a poor little teal?"
"H'm, will you tell me what he could have taken, with everything nailed down, the cabin door locked and even the little dinky fastened with a chain and lock. This cord was cut with a knife and never twisted apart. Do you know that once in the night I awoke and thought I heard something knock against the side of the boat— that must have been his skiff when he came aboard, and I thought it was only a floating log. Well, our teal is gone; but think of the lot over in the marsh yonder. The fellow must have been mighty hungry, and with no way of shooting a dinner. Why, while you cook breakfast I'm going to see what I can do with taking toll of our neighbors who kept serenading us all night."
Which he did.
Once in the marsh with the little boat and his gun, Maurice found that it would be the easiest thing in the world to knock over a dozen ducks if he wanted them, and indeed he held his fire from the first because he believed he could get several victims with the one shot.
Four times he pulled the trigger inside of ten minutes, and when Thad looked out to see if he were in sight, so as to wave to him that breakfast was ready, the lone hunter was just in the act of throwing a couple of plump birds upon the deck.
"Two—wow, that's good!" cried Cookey, in his usual ornate style, darting out to pick the game up.
"Four!" exclaimed Maurice, suiting the action to the word, and landing a second brace beside the first.
As Thad stooped down to feel of these he received a shock, for a third couple struck him on the head.
"Six?" he ejaculated, almost afraid to believe his eyes.
"That's not all. I'm determined to keep you on a duck diet for a week, so there's another brace, and for good measure count these as ten!" announced the mighty Nimrod, climbing over the gunwhale himself, gun in hand.
It was a pretty assortment of game, six of them teal, three mallards and one of an unknown breed, which Maurice thought might be a broadbill, though he had an idea that class of divers kept near the salt water in its migration.
"I forgive that wretched thief; he's welcome to the lone duck he took. Why, it looks like you'd enjoy nothing better than to agree to supply food for all the families in Evansville at this rate; and I believe you could do it, too, down here, for every time you shot, a million or two ducks sprang up above that marsh, and their wings made a roar like thunder. Say, I like this country around here. Given a good old gun like this Marlin, plenty of ammunition, a fishing outfit, and some cooking things and matches—yes, and a little tobacco for a fellow's pipe, and I think I could exist here forever without needing a cent. I'm awful glad I came, ain't you, pal?"
"Don't I look like it, Cook? See anything like regret on my phiz? I'm just as happy as I look, and the end isn't yet, for we've got several months of this before us; of course, there'll be troubles and setbacks, but in spite of all we're sure to keep making steady progress into Dixieland, and long before Uncle Ambrose gets into port again we'll be waiting for him in New Orleans. It was just the finest thing in the world that his letter should have reached me on that black day; and then to think how you had this inspiration, too—why, I consider that we're two of the luckiest fellows on earth this morning," said Maurice, earnestly.
"Bully for you, old pal; my sentiments exactly; and now, come in to breakfast."
A WILD BLOW.
"How does it look to you—think we can make the riffle today?" asked Thad, as they floated down the stream, very broad and swollen at this point, as the low shores allowed the water just that much more expanse—further up, the Ohio is confined by hills that prevent its spreading to any great extent, even in the spring freshets.
Maurice knew what he meant, for they had only the one thought in mind just now, and that was getting into the Mississippi.
He drew out his charts and studied them to make sure he was right, though from frequent use he knew the same by heart.
"I can see no reason why we shouldn't. As near as I can make out we're now something like twenty-three miles above Cairo, and at the rate we're sailing along we ought to pass there shortly after noon—say by two o'clock anyway. That will give us time to move down a few miles and have our first night on the greatest of American rivers," he remarked.
"I'm a little bit worried as to how we'll get on. You see I've heard so much about the tricks of the big river that I'm nervous," admitted Thad.
"Oh, rats! It can't be much worse than the old Ohio when she gets on a bender, and we've seen some pretty big ones in my time. We'll come out all right, never fear, old chap. Every day will have to look out for itself. What's the use of borrowing trouble? Not any for me. Now, what could be finer than this view, for instance?" sweeping his hand around to include land and water, with the sun dimpling the little waves.
"Nothing on earth; it's just grand, that's a fact, and I'm a fool for thinking anything can get the better of a couple of fellows like you and me when we've got our war clothes on. Hurrah for We, Us and Company, not forgetting the old Tramp. Say, she's behaving herself some, eh, pard," laughed Thad, his face all wreathed in genial smiles again.
"She's all right, and a credit to you. A little cool and inclined to be draughty on a windy night, but taken all in all a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Here's to her—may it be many a moon before she's broken up into hindling wood."
So they joked and chatted as the day wore along.
Nothing escaped their eagle eyes on the shore, and from time to time one would draw the attention of the other to some point of especial interest.
Now it might be the peculiar formation of a point of land, some trees, a swamp with hanging Spanish moss, which, however, was nothing to what they would see further south—or anon perhaps it was some negro cabin on an elevation, with the pickaninnies playing by the door, and the strapping woman of the household leaning against the post, always smoking her clay pipe.
Maurice, with the hunter instinct, watched the flight of an osprey that was circling the river brink with an eye to dinner; and later on observed an eagle drop down into a fluttering flock of ducks, from which he evidently took his usual toll, as presently he flew heavily away, with some dark object dangling below.
About noon they had a little lunch, Thad making a pot of coffee, and otherwise the meal was called in local parlance a "snack," which would seem to mean a pickup affair that could be eaten standing if necessary.
They wished to get this duty out of the way, for by the signs it was believed that they must be approaching Cairo, and as the junction of the two rivers is a turbulent place, with considerable craft moving about, the boys considered it wise to have their full attention fixed upon their movements.
After all, it was a mere nothing—they simply turned a point and found themselves upon a much wider stretch of water—and this was the famous Mississippi!
Now they were really heading south, and no matter how much colder the weather grew, it could not freeze them in and stop their flight to the desired port.
Just as Maurice had figured, it was two in the afternoon when they could really and truly say they were afloat on the big river.
In about a couple of hours they began to cast their eyes along the shore seeking a favorable place to tie up for the coming night— the mere thought of being adrift upon that immense yellow flood after sunset was appalling to them, though possibly by degrees they might become so accustomed to the rolling tide that it would cease to have the same sensation of alarm for them.
It was almost dark before they discovered a convenient tree close enough to the water's edge to serve their purpose; for evidently the river during its periodical seasons of flood had torn nearly all growth on the lower banks away.
Thad climbed up to this friendly trunk and slipped the cable around its base.
The boys sat there on deck for some little time watching the last flickering red die out of the western heavens; and when the panorama had come to its logical conclusion, with a sigh they entered the cabin to prepare supper.
In this manner did they spend their first night upon the Father of Waters, and it was as peaceful as any they ever knew. The river sang merrily as its little wavelets washed up against the sides of the shanty-boat, the air was almost balmy in its touch, coming from the south where the cotton fields and wilderness of pines lay; and all together the boys felt that they had been exceedingly foolish to imagine that anything terrible could await them upon the bosom of this majestic stream.
Ah! wait until the same river is seen under different conditions, and perhaps the old dread may be revived with redoubled force; for the Mississippi in the throes of a westerly storm is a sight to appall the stoutest heart.
When morning came they were soon under way again, and reaching out for another stretch toward that genial clime that seemed beckoning them onward.
Now they could notice quite a difference in the stage of the current, for with the increased volume of water it seemed that they were being borne onward faster than at any other time in the past.
All the way down it was policy on their part to hug the eastern shore; indeed, to attempt to cross that billowing flood with such a frail craft would have seemed the height of foolishness, both boys thought, nor would they have any object in so doing.
The river makes many wonderful twists and turns, sometimes seeming to flow almost due north as it follows its intricate channel; for it is a law of nature that water always pursues the easiest route, and seeks its own level.
Maurice had during the morning commented on the balmy feeling in the air, whereupon the weather sharp, Thad, had warned him solemnly that there was a great change coming within twenty hours, perhaps much less, for all signs pointed to cold and windy weather.
So much faith did Maurice place in this prediction of his chum that he insisted upon tying up earlier than usual that afternoon so that they could lay in an abundance of firewood.
It is not often that a weather prophet has so much honor in his own family, and really Maurice never did a wiser thing in his life than when he thus provided for a bad spell to come on the strength of Thad's knowledge of floating clouds and such signs.
For the storm descended upon them that very night, and coming off the river, gave them something of a fright lest they be wrecked thus early in their voyage down the big water.
Given two miles of river over which to sweep with fury, and a forty-mile-an-hour gale can kick up a tremendous sea, besides penetrating every crack and cranny to be found in a flimsy cabin, chilling the very marrow of the sleepers.
It was about two in the morning when Maurice awoke to find the boat pitching violently and himself shivering with cold, for they had let the fire die out on retiring, such was the heat of the cabin.
"Hi there, show a leg, Thad. There's something doing, and I rather reckon your plagued old storm's arrived ahead of time. D'ye want to freeze to death, boy? Pile out and let's get a fire started. Then we'd better make sure our cable's going to hold, for if we broke loose in this howling sea it'd be good-by to our boat, perhaps to us, too." was the way he brought his chum out of the bunk, "all standing," rubbing his eyes as the candle which Maurice had lighted pictured the scene.
Hurriedly dressing while their teeth chattered, the boys started a blaze in the stove, and after a bit thawed out sufficiently to go outside, muffled in sweaters and coats, to see what all this racket meant.
They found a wild scene there, with the waves rushing down the river most furiously. Already the atmosphere had grown so frigid that ice was forming on the side of the cabin where this spud and foam dashed.
Looking out upon the raging waters the boys shivered at the sight, even with scanty light from the heavenly bodies that were part of the time obscured behind masses of black clouds.
It was frittering snow, and the prospect of a spell of bad weather looked very promising.
"Let me catch you making any more predictions of storms; won't there be trouble headed your way?" shouted Maurice, with mock severity; whereat the weather sharp laughed and began to feel of the rope that fastened them to the shore.
"If the wind should change there might be a chance of our being smashed against the shore here. If it was light I'd say it would pay us to get the anchor out yonder to kind of hold the boat off; but to look at that water I don't think our little dinky would hold out five minutes," continued Maurice, shaking his head.
It was finally concluded to retire to the warmth of the cabin and wait until the morning broke, when they could decide what should be done.
For some time they sat there, now dozing by the stove, and anon starting up as some unusually weird contortion on the part of the boat gave them the impression that the end had come, and they were about to be tossed into the raging flood.
Maurice was just sinking into some sort of condition resembling sleep when there was a sudden wilder rush of wind than at any time previously.
And as he started up, thrilled with a sensation of coming peril, he felt a new motion to the shanty-boat that portended trouble.
"The cable's broken, pard, and we're afloat!" he shouted, as the equally bewildered Thad struggled up alongside him.
THE TERRORS OF THE STORM.
After that one feeling of horror both the boys recovered more or less of their ordinary ability to meet danger, and overcome it.
It was Maurice who sprang to the door, and threw it open.
As he pushed out upon the narrow deck of the float he could not but be appalled by the sight that met his wondering eyes.
Just as he had suspected so strongly, they had broken away from the anchorage. Doubtless the rope had been frayed by some sharp- edged stone, and when that unusual gust swooped down upon them it gave at the weakest part.
Out on the river little could be seen save a jumble of foamy waters, that seemed to be tumbling wildly over and over, driven by the furious blast from the north.
Maurice turned his eyes toward the other side, for it was in that quarter his deepest interest lay.
Back of the clouds there was a pretty good-sized moon still above the western horizon, so that this helped lighten what would otherwise have been inky darkness.
Hence, Maurice could make out the tops of the trees on the bank of the river, as they were outlined against the lighter heavens.
"We're just humming along!" he shouted, as he noticed how the tree-tops seemed to be constantly shifting, owing to the progress of the boat downstream.
"The worst of it is we seem to be drifting out all the while!" was what Thad called, as he, too, sized up the situation.
Both of them knew what this meant.
Once they were swept far out upon the bosom of that madly agitated flood, and the chances of the gallant old shanty-boat remaining right-side-up would be very scanty.
"We must fight against that with all our might!" yelled the other, as he pushed back to where the sweep was to be found. They set to work with every pound of force they could bring to the front. Again and again was the long oar dipped into the water, and made to press against the rush of the current.
"How is it?" gasped Maurice, after they had been employed in this manner for some five minutes, each sixty seconds filled with anxiety.
"I think we are about holding our own!" replied Thad.
"Is that all? Then how can we ever get her in nearer the shore?" demanded his chum, forlornly, as he continued to tug away.
"Have to trust to luck for that," came the immediate reply.
"Tell me how?" implored Maurice, who somehow failed to grasp the situation quite as accurately as the other.
"The shore lines change constantly, you know."
"Yes, that's so; but we might open up a big pocket at any time, as soon as strike a point sticking out," suggested Maurice.
"Sure. That's what I meant when I said we'd have to stick everlastingly at it, and trust to luck for the rest," replied his comrade.
Perhaps it was because Thad had been up against hard knocks more than his friends, but one thing was evident—when trouble of this kind came he seemed able to show a better and more hopeful spirit than Maurice.
Another short space of time passed.
"Say, this is working our passage all right!" came from Maurice.
"But so long as we hold our own we ain't got a thing to say. And I think we're doing that, don't you, Maurice?"
"I did a minute ago, but just now it strikes me the trees kind of look further away."
"That's a fact, they do; but mebbe it's only a little bay before we strike that point, you know," continued the other lad.
They dared not halt a single minute in their labor, for fear lest the boat be carried further out on the raging river.
"How are you—feel cold?" asked Thad, a little later.
"Not much—I'm as warm as toast, all but my hands, and they're freezing. But where's the land, Thad? Can you see anything of those bully old trees, partner?"
"Mighty little just now; but I'm hoping they ain't going to give us the shake just yet. That would be mighty mean, when we think so much of 'em!" said the second willing worker, as he tugged and strained with all his power.
It really looked more perilous than ever around the bobbing shanty-boat, which was now being tossed about on the water very much after the style of a cork.
And if the waves ran so high close to the shore what must they be far, far out yonder toward the middle of the mighty stream?
Neither of the tugging lads wanted to picture the scene; indeed, they had all they could manage in considering how the wabbly craft might be piloted so as to once more hug the friendly shore.
Presently a shout from Maurice, rather feeble it must be confessed, for he was short of breath just then, announced that he had made some sort of happy discovery.
"Land! land!" he exclaimed, hoarsely, just as a shipwrecked sailor on a floating raft might cry as an island hove in sight.
And Thad could easily see the tree-tops again, outlined against the gray heavens; yes, they were closer than for some time, and to his excited imagination seemed to be even looming up more and more positively.
"We're getting there, old chap; give her another good dig, and follow it up with yet another!" he managed to cry.
"Hurrah! that's the way to do it! Again, my hearty, and all together with a will! She moves in, Thad; we're going to make the ripple!"
"Wait!" said the more cautious Thad; "don't shout till you're out of the woods."
But nevertheless he too seemed to feel that more than half the battle was won, since they had passed over a wide bayou without any accident, and were now once again close to the land.
How eagerly their young eyes hung upon those shifting tree-tops, as they hurried by; never before had the dry land seemed quite so glorious as at that particular moment; and they felt that it would be a happy event if they could but plant their feet again on it.
Maurice knew something of the river, but Thad had studied the oddities of the Ohio for many a moon, while living upon its breast.
He knew, for instance, that when a bayou was struck the chances were there would be a point of land jutting out immediately below it, formed by the dirt swept out by the erratic current.
And this was just what he was hoping to find now.
Of course the swift tide would never allow them to land on the upper side of that cape; but if they could only take advantage of its inward sweep beyond, they might succeed in getting into comparatively still water, where the anchor would hold.
They fought "tooth and nail," as Thad said, to accomplish such a result.
"We're passing the point!" shouted Maurice, ending with a groan.
"Keep working! The current sets in just below, and we want to ride along with it," answered his chum.
Then Maurice saw a great light, and realized what his comrade had in mind.
"The trees are further away!" he could not help saying.
"Yes, but the water ain't near so sassy; don't you see how we are pushing the old tub in closer all the while? When I say the word you jump for the anchor, and let her slide!"
Maurice was encouraged to work again with renewed vigor, for hope had once more found a lodgment in his soul.
Hardly had ten seconds passed before the voice of Thad rang out above the clamor of the wind, and the breaking of the waves against the stern of the laboring shanty-boat.
"Now! do it!"
And Maurice, dropping away from the sweep, made a hasty jump for the place where the anchor and its cable lay.
In his haste he must have made a misstep, for suddenly Thad saw him stumble and vanish over the side into the boiling waters of the Mississippi!
A feeling of horror shot through the heart of the boy as he thus witnessed the catastrophe that had overtaken his chum.
He forgot all necessity for remaining on guard at the sweep, in order to prevent the boat from being carried out; but abandoning his trust he sprang toward the spot where he had last seen Maurice.
Throwing himself down on his chest he endeavored to penetrate the almost inky darkness that rested upon the water at that particular place.
But not a thing could he see at first; it was as though those treacherous waters had swallowed up his friend forever!
And just then he became aware of the fact that there was a sudden change in the movement of the shanty-boat, which instead of continuing to whirl down-stream seemed to be brought to a stop, and was tugging violently at some object that persisted in restraining her onward progress!
Yes, in his plunge Maurice must have knocked this over the side, and the heavy object, swiftly reaching bottom in that shallow spot, had brought the wild cruise of the craft to an abrupt conclusion.
But Maurice—dear would the safety of the old boat have been purchased, had he been swept away, to be possibly drowned in the flood, encumbered as he was with all his clothes.
Thad heard this sound, although he could see nothing; and a thrill shot through him at the consciousness that it must have been made by his chum.
"Where are you, Maurice?" he shrilled, eager to lend what assistance lay in his limited power.
"Holding on to the cable of the anchor, and swallowing a pint of yellow stuff every breath!" came back in broken sentences, as though the speaker might be ejecting some of the surplus fluid whenever the opportunity offered.
So Thad gripped the rope and tried to shorten the extent of its holding; but he found this a greater task than he had bargained for, and indeed, utterly impossible, with all that sweep of the river to buck against him.
"Wait! it's all right, and I'm coming!" he again heard the other say; and this time it seemed as though the voice must be much closer.
Then he caught his first glimpse of Maurice, amid all the foam in the rear of the boat, where the onrushing flood failed to start the anchored craft from her moorings.
In another minute he could reach out a helping hand, which being seized upon by the imperiled lad, Maurice was soon brought close enough, to admit of his climbing over the low gunwale.