THE OUTDOOR CHUMS ON THE GULF
Or, Rescuing the Lost Balloonists
CAPTAIN QUINCY ALLEN
Author of The Outdoor Chums, The Outdoor Chums on the Lake, The Outdoor Chums after Big Game, etc.
I UNDER SEALED ORDERS II CAUGHT IN A FIRE TRAP III HEADED SOUTH IV JERRY MEETS TROUBLE HALF WAY V THE FIRST CAMPFIRE VI THE SWAMP FUGITIVE VII A FLORIDA SHERIFF VIII WILL DOES IT IX THE MOTOR-BOAT AND THE PROWLERS X BLUFF'S FIRST 'GATOR XI ALL THE COMFORTS OF SALT WATER XII THE BREAKDOWN OF THE MOTOR XIII LOST IN THE FOG XIV A CRY ACROSS THE LAGOON XV A VISIT TO THE MYSTERIOUS SHARPIE XVI JOE XVII STUCK ON AN OYSTER BAR XVIII TROUBLE XIX WHAT HAPPENED TO JERRY XX LYING IN AMBUSH FOR BIG GAME XXI A STRENUOUS NIGHT XXII THE MESSAGE FROM THE AIR XXIII A DASH UPON THE GULF XXIV THE "NORTHER" XXV THE SECRET OF THE SEALED PACKET—CONCLUSION
UNDER SEALED ORDERS
"Now KEEP your word, Frank, and tell us the news!"
"Yes, you got us to come to your house tonight under a promise, remember. What wonderful thing has happened to make you look so tickled?"
"Talk to me about the Sphinx! Frank has the old relic beaten to a frazzle!"
Three boys gathered eagerly around the fourth as they bombarded him after this fashion. Frank Langdon looked at the faces of his chums and laughed again.
"Well, it would be a shame to keep you squirming on the anxious seat any longer, boys, and I'm going to take you into my confidence just as fast as I can. Sit down and hold your oars. Jerry, pull that stool up; Will, the settee must do for you and Bluff. Now, are you ready?" he asked, tantalizingly.
"Crazy to hear!" was the characteristic reply of Bluff, otherwise Richard Masters, son of Centerville's greatest lawyer.
"Tell me about that, will you?" exclaimed Jerry Wallington.
"Please go on before we explode!" begged Will Milton.
"These things always have a beginning, you know. This one happens to be founded on the fact that we are close to our annual Christmas vacation, and that this year it happens that we're going to enjoy two full weeks—you know that?" said Frank.
"Of course we do, thanks to that steam-heater getting out of order. But don't rehash old stuff. That's history by now. What we want is the meat in the cocoanut. Please hit for the bull's-eye, first chop," pleaded Will.
"I was wondering what we would do with ourselves during that time. There's old Jesse Wilcox, the trapper, who invited us up to spend a week with him and see how he runs out his string of traps in cold weather, catching muskrats, mink, 'coons, foxes and all such things in more or less abundance. We had about decided that we would accept, and I was even getting ready to go when something happened."
"Talk to me about your tantalizing chaps, did you ever meet up with one as bad as Frank can be when he knows the rest of us are so keen to hear?" cried Jerry.
"What was it?" demanded Bluff.
"I had a letter that changed my mind," replied Frank.
"Not from old Jesse?"
"Well, hardly, for I don't believe the old fellow can write. This was from one of my cousins, a fellow several years older than myself. You met him about a year ago when he stopped with us a few days."
"You must mean Archie Dunn," said Will.
"Go up head, Will. Archie it was. I was glad enough to get a letter from him, but when I read what he had to propose I thought I should have a fit."
"Just as we will, unless you hurry your yarn," growled Jerry, moving uneasily.
"Well, Archie wrote that he had laid out a plan for his amusement this winter. You know he is independent, having come into quite a snug fortune. He is as fond of outdoor life as any member of this club, and, having a tutor to accompany him, is able to do lots of splendid stunts that less fortunate chaps can only dream about."
"The lucky dog!" commented Bluff, enviously.
"It seems that this year he was about to carry out a long-cherished plan of his. He purchased a beautiful little motor-boat, about twenty-seven feet long, and carrying a twelve horse-power engine. He says she can make twelve miles an hour if pushed, but being beamy she is as steady as a church floor and mighty comfortable; just the kind of a craft for cruising along a river or the bays of a coast."
"You're killing me by inches! To tell us all this and then ask us to settle on going up there into the woods for a two-weeks' spin! It's a crime, that's what!" he exclaimed.
"Wait!" said Frank, mysteriously; and the others immediately drew a bit closer, almost holding their very breath with eagerness and anticipation.
"He had this boat taken to a Southern town on the railroad, where a navigable river flows through Northern Florida into the Gulf. Here he also shipped all his provisions, intending to make a start just before Christmas, when the unexpected happened. He had an accident—broke through the ice when skating, came near being drowned, and has been laid up with pneumonia ever since!"
"Poor chap! That's awful!" declared Bluff.
"But that isn't the worst by any means, from our standpoint, boys. His doctor has strictly forbidden him to take that voyage this winter and is sending him off with his tutor to some baths in Southern Europe or some old place where he may recover his strength."
The three boys groaned in concert.
"A rough deal all around," said Jerry.
"What a disappointment it must have been, and he with his heart set on the trip!" exclaimed Will.
"But they tell us that 'it's a poor wind that blows nobody good.' So he has written me this letter, making a proposal," went on Frank, calmly.
"What!" shouted Jerry, clutching the arm of his chum.
"Oh! he hates to leave his fine, dandy little launch there at that town, where there is really no accommodation for her, and would like to have some one take her over the course to Cedar Keys, Florida, to put her up with a boat builder he knows. And so he wrote to me," continued Frank.
"Do you mean he has asked you to go down there and take that boat, just as he intended doing?" gasped Bluff.
"Yes, only that instead of taking two months loitering along I could do the job in ten days, perhaps," was the answer.
"Oh! what a lucky dog you are," sighed Will; "think of the innumerable chances for taking magnificent snapshots along the way."
"Hold on. I didn't tell you that in his letter he says particularly, 'you and those bully good chums of yours, the whole three—plenty of sleeping accommodations for the lot aboard!'" cried Frank, with a smile.
Then there was a scene! Jerry gripped Bluff, and gave him a hug a bear might have envied, while Will was shaking Frank's hand as though it were a pump handle.
"The finest ever!"
"It beats the Dutch how Frank runs into snaps!"
This last, of course, from Jerry, who was taking his turn now at squeezing the hand of his chum.
"But, I'm afraid, fellows, that we won't ever get the consent of our parents," sighed Will. "My mother would hate to have me go so far away. You know she only has my twin sister Violet and myself. Oh! it's sure too good to be true."
"Now don't cross a river until you come to it, fellows. To tell you the truth, that part of the programme has already been attended to. My father and myself have been the rounds unbeknown to any of you, and got the consent of Will's mother, as well as the parents of Bluff and Jerry. It's a settled thing, boys!"
They sat there and stared at each other. Evidently none of them could fully grasp the wonderful proposition entirely. They thought they must be dreaming.
"Please don't wake me up; this is too bang-up for anything," said Will.
"Frank, your equal never existed. Talk to me about your chums, no fellows ever had such a boss comrade as your fellow-members of the Rod, Gun and Camera Club!" declared Jerry.
"When do we start?" demanded Bluff, as though ready to run for the train at that very minute.
"The day after to-morrow. School closes in one more day, and father thought it wouldn't matter much if we slipped off a bit ahead of time. He will fix it with the Head all right. So, now you've got to be as busy as bees getting your duffle in readiness between now and the time the train goes, eight A.M. sharp."
"That governor of yours is certainly the finest ever. How did it come that he fell in with the idea so quickly? Did you have to beg hard?" asked Will.
"That's the strangest part of it, as I'll tell you presently. He fairly jumped at the idea when I told him about Cedar Keys. But we must spend the whole evening settling just what we are to take along with us," ventured Frank.
"What did you say about grub?" queried Bluff, whose appetite never failed him.
"Archie wants us to accept all he has laid in, and encloses the list. I need add only a few little things that I happen to know one or the other of us fancies especially, and we are fixed for two weeks. You see there were two of them, and they expected to be afloat two months, so he laid in a large quantity of bacon, coffee, tea, sugar, and all substantials, much more than we can ever use; and I know Archie well enough to make sure they came from the best grocery in New York."
"Oh! the darling, won't we remember him in our prayers, boys, and hope he gets good and strong over at that cure in Europe? There will be never a meal but that our thanks will ascend for this good deed of Cousin Archie. He belongs to all of us; this club adopts him as its one honorary member; and I hereby propose three cheers for the biggest-hearted chap going. Hip, hip, hurray!"
Doubtless Frank's father and mother exchanged smiles when this hearty cheer came to their ears from Frank's den; but Mr. Langdon, even though a staid banker now, never forgot that he had once been a boy himself; and they understood the enthusiasm that must inevitably sweep over the three chums of Frank when they heard the glorious news.
So the boys proceeded to go into executive session, and jot down lists of such things as they would be apt to need on the outing.
"I understand that Archie had some heavy fishing tackle in his supplies, which we can count on to carry us through. Take your heavy rods only, and your guns, with proper ammunition," suggested Frank.
"And I'll lay in a stock of films and such things, for I expect to get lots of fine pictures among those wonderful Southern scenes. I've always wanted to see that Spanish moss trailing from the swamp trees like it is in all Southern views. I'm the happiest chap in Centerville tonight, Frank!" exclaimed Will.
"But see here," interrupted Bluff, "how about that matter connected with your good dad, Frank—why was he so pleased at the idea of you going to Cedar Keys?"
"Yes, tell us about that," burst out Jerry.
"It's a big mystery, fellows. Father smiled and nodded his head when I read him Archie's letter. 'What a remarkable coincidence. I was just thinking of going to that city myself, or sending a trusted messenger, and now you can do it all for me,' he said."
The boys exchanged looks.
"Don't it just beat all?" remarked Jerry, weakly.
"Why, we're having the luckiest streak of our lives, that's what. But see here, Frank, didn't he tell you more?" remarked Bluff, who always wanted to know, being the son of a lawyer.
"He gave me this little packet, done up in a stout manila envelope, and told me not to open it until I came in sight of Cedar Keys. Inside would be found full instructions as to what errand he wanted me to carry out."
"Better and better! We sail under sealed orders, fellows. That should add a little zest to the voyage. I know I'll be consumed with curiosity every minute of the time wanting to know what under the sun it can be that your good dad has waiting for you to do," said Will, seriously.
"Well," remarked Frank, "you see me put the packet away, not to be opened until the proper time; and now we'd better go on with our lists."
CAUGHT IN A FIRE TRAP
It was late that night ere the three visitors thought of going home. There was so much to talk over that it seemed as though they could never break away.
"Listen!" exclaimed Will, finally, as they were about to depart.
"That's the fire-bell, as sure as you live!" cried Bluff.
"Tell me about that, will you!" cried Jerry. "A cold night to get burned out!"
Frank snatched up his coat and cap.
"I'm going with you, fellows, as far as the corner, anyway, and see if it is a real fire, or a fake," he remarked.
Accordingly the quartette rushed out of the door and down the street. There was snow on the ground, and the air was pretty keen.
"It's a fire all right; look, you can see the light, and the smoke!" said Will.
"Say, fellows, isn't that the square, and doesn't it look like it might be the Sherman House?" asked Frank.
"As sure as you live," replied Bluff. "That would be a tough thing, for the people there to climb out near midnight, and the mercury hovering half way down to zero!"
"Hurry! Perhaps we can help some!" exclaimed good-hearted Jerry, and they increased their pace.
It was the hotel, beyond all doubt. As the boys came into the open square they saw a scene of confusion that thrilled them. Smoke was pouring out of the lower windows of the big frame building, and in some places it was accompanied by red tongues of flame, licking up the dry wood.
"She's a goner!" announced Jerry grimly.
They saw people come hastily out of the doorway, some scantily clad, and with blankets around their shoulders. Luckily there were only a few guests in the hotel, since the best trade came in summer.
Loud shouts told that the local fire company was coming with their hand-engine. Probably the Chemical Company would also be on hand, although it was too late for anything to be done but try and save adjoining buildings, none of which, fortunately enough, were very close to the doomed hotel.
Frank and his chums thought that possibly they might help out at pumping, or doing something of the sort. At a fire in a country town every one assists to carry out furniture, or work the machine, while the regular members of the organization enjoy the exclusive privilege of carrying the hose and smashing in windows.
Amid the greatest excitement the water was finally started. By this time one end of the building was all on fire, and every person knew it would be a complete wreck before the flames ceased feeding.
It chanced that the boys were standing near some of those who had issued forth from the hotel. Among them was the proprietor, plainly excited as he saw his property going up in smoke and flames, and still getting some consolation from the fact that he had a good insurance on it all.
Just then a man came limping and seized hold of the hotel proprietor.
"Have you seen my brother, the professor?" he demanded, in a trembling voice.
"Oh! that you, Mr. Smythe? Your brother—no, I don't remember seeing him. But I guess everybody got out all right. He must be around somewhere," replied the other.
"I've asked a dozen people, and nobody has seen him. I tell you, man, he's asleep up in that room yet, and will be burned to death!" exclaimed the gentleman, whom Jerry knew quite well. He was very lame and walked with difficulty.
His brother, a balloonist of national reputation, had been visiting him recently, and on account of some sickness at the house, had taken a room at the hotel.
"But no sane man could sleep through all this beastly row; and sure we haven't seen any one at the windows, have we, boys?" went on the fat hotel man.
"But you don't understand. I tell you he has been unable to sleep for several nights, and just before he left me early to-night he took a sleeping powder that he said would make him dead to the world for eight hours! He's up in his room yet, and will be lost unless some one goes and drags him out!" cried Mr. Smythe.
"Which is his room, Mr. Ten Eyck?" demanded an eager voice.
The stout hotel man looked at the speaker, who was none other than Jerry.
"You see that window over there at the end of the house, third floor—that's his room! But the stairs must be ablaze by now, boy! It would be suicide to think of trying to go up there!" he cried.
"Come on, Frank; we'll take a look in, anyhow!" shouted Jerry as he dashed off, followed by his chum, equally excited.
Still, Frank was ordinarily a cool-headed fellow, and accustomed to weighing chances somewhat before imperiling his life. In this case, of course, he knew that more or less risk must be taken if they hoped to save the sleeping balloonist.
One look they took in at the front door. The whole place was ablaze.
"Get out of the way, boys; we're going to put the hose in there!" cried one of the wearers of the fire-hats and coats, as he advanced.
"No chance there!" exclaimed Frank, in despair, as he moved back.
Jerry clutched his arm.
"Come along with me. Perhaps the back stairs may not be burning, yet. They happen to be further along toward the safe side. There's a chance!" he panted.
Half a minute later they had turned the corner, and were close to the rear exit.
"See, the smoke is coming out, but no fire. Shall we risk it?" asked the eager Jerry.
Frank swept a quick look above and around. He was weighing the thing in his mind, so that they might not be carried by impulse to their doom.
"It's worth while. At the worst we can jump into that tree from the window. And it's just terrible to think of the professor sleeping on until he is caught. Lead the way, Jerry; you know about it better than I do. Remember, on the third floor, and turn to the left!"
They darted in. Several persons near by shouted warnings, but the words fell on deaf ears, for already the daring lads were rushing up the narrow stairs. Around them the smoke was dense. It smarted their eyes dreadfully, so that they were compelled to rub them from time to time in order to see at all.
Reaching the first landing, Jerry turned to the left. Frank had hold of his chum's coat, for he did not want to get lost in that smoky interior, and Jerry was the one acquainted with the situation.
Now they had reached the second flight of stairs. A burst of red fire further along the hall served to show them for a brief space of time how matters stood. Up the stairs they stumbled, gaining the upper landing. Again Jerry turned to the left.
"He said the last room, didn't he?" he gasped.
"Yes, go on!" answered Frank, still gripping his comrade's garment.
"Then here's the door!"
"Yes, and locked, too! What shall we do?" exclaimed Jerry.
"Kick it in—any old way, but we must be quick!" answered the other.
Then the two threw themselves upon the door. It quickly gave way before their combined assault. They pushed into the room. The smoke had gained a footing here, but on account of the closed door it was not nearly so bad as in the halls.
Immediately they saw a figure stretched across the bed. The balloonist had evidently been overcome by sleep before he thought to undress, and dropped over just as he had come from his lame brother's house.
"Wake up, professor, the house is on fire!" shouted Frank in the ear of the man.
Jerry, meanwhile, was shaking him vigorously; but all their efforts seemed to be of no avail. The man slept on as peacefully as though a babe, such was the power of the drug he had taken.
"We can't stay here long," said Frank, as the smoke thickened in the room. "And as he won't wake up, why, we'll have to try and carry or drag him down."
Fortunately, the man was not a very large person, or they might have despaired of ever accomplishing such a thing.
"Take hold on that side, Jerry. Now, lift, and drag his heels. That's the only way we can do," exclaimed Frank, who feared that even short as their stay in that room had been they would find conditions changed for the worse when they again reached the hall.
The professor paid not the least attention to what they were doing. He had possibly taken an overdose of his sleeping-powder, and only for the coming of the two chums must have perished miserably, like a rat in a trap.
When Frank threw open the door of the room again he uttered a cry of alarm. The back stairway was a mass of flame. Although hardly more than two minutes had passed since they came up those stairs, it was now manifestly impossible to pass down again.
He slammed the door shut and found Jerry staring at him in the half light.
"Talk to me about your fiery furnaces, that beats them all!" exclaimed Frank's chum, as he let go the professor's shoulders. "What shall we do now?"
Frank ran over to the window and threw up the sash. He looked out and then came back to where Jerry stood, trembling with excitement. Frank was as cool as ever in his life.
"There's a chance, Jerry," he shouted. "No fire below! Take hold here; tear up these sheets and knot them into a rope. Work for your life, and if the fire only holds back we may be able to save both the professor and ourselves! But work! work!"
They did work with a vim, for the smoke was getting more oppressive with each passing second; and from the glimpse they had taken of the stairway it was plain to the boys that presently the fire would wrap the whole south end of the building in its grip, when their case would indeed be desperate.
Each tore and knotted until as if by magic a long rope was fashioned. True, it might betray them at the last and break, but Frank believed the sheets to be of good material and nearly new.
He had not time to even test the frail rope, but fastened it around the sleeping balloonist, under his arms.
"Now help me lift him over the window-sill," he cried.
They had little difficulty in doing that, for the professor was a small, slight man. Once he was passed over the ledge, they began to lower away.
Frank only hoped in his heart that the fire might restrain its fury for a brief space of time. If it darted out below it must catch the human burden which they were lowering so speedily.
Shouts were heard outside. It seemed as though fully an hundred voices were raised to applaud the daring feat of the two boys, as the figure of the professor was seen coming rapidly down at the end of the rope made of torn sheets.
"If it's only long enough!" gasped Jerry.
"Hurrah! they've got hold of him! He's saved!" roared Frank, as the tremendous pull suddenly ceased.
They had about reached the end of the rope, so that this happy event came just in the nick of time. Frank hurriedly fastened that end to the bed-post.
"Climb out, Jerry, and slide down. Not a word now, or we may lose our chance!"
Jerry had been about to object, wishing his chum to go first. He realized the truth of what Frank said, however, and how foolish it would be to stand back on a matter so small. Accordingly he clambered over the window-sill and vanished from view.
Frank got in position to follow, and only waited until he had reason to believe his chum had reached safety. The rope had done bravely, but it certainly could never stand the strain of two of them at the same time.
And even as he waited there was a flash of fire below, as the flames ate through the sheathing of the house. A tremendous yell went up.
"Come down, Frank—oh! quick!" he caught above the clamor, and he knew that it was Will's shrill voice he heard.
The fire was perilously close to the rope. In a second it might catch and be severed. Frank did not hesitate. He was accustomed to meeting emergencies promptly, and doing the right thing.
Down he slipped, passing the threatening flame, in fact shooting through it just as the rope began to be consumed in its hot breath. Frank had almost reached the point of safety when he felt his support collapse, and he dropped downward.
Something caught him, something that seemed endowed with life—the extended arms of his three chums eagerly fashioned into a net, and he was not injured, beyond a little singeing of his hair as he passed through the fiery torch.
The boys were glad to get away from the crowd of enthusiastic admirers who wanted to lift Frank and Jerry on their shoulders, and carry them around town in triumph, something that felt repulsive to the lads.
But the lame brother of the man they had saved, seized upon them ere they went off.
"A thousand thanks to you, for your brave deed!" he cried. "You have saved a human life to-night, boys, and one of more than ordinary value. My brother is employed by the Government to experiment with balloons and aeroplanes, and his discoveries may prove a great thing for our nation in case of a foreign war. To-morrow he will thank you himself, and from his heart. Your mothers have cause to be proud of their sons, and I shall tell them so myself."
From a distance the boys watched the hotel burn, and talked over the affair just as though they might have been casual watchers, and had no particular interest in the matter. And yet two of them had come very close to sacrificing their young lives in attempting to save that of another.
Both Bluff and Will had suffered tortures while their chums were inside the doomed structure. Their voices had led all the rest as the sheet-rope fell from the upper window, with the form of the professor dangling at the end, for they knew the daring plan of their mates had been a brilliant success.
The fire did not jump to any of the nearby dwellings or stores, thanks to the efficient labors of the department, the members of which worked like Trojans in order to confine it to its original field.
When it had died down the boys separated once more, and the hearty grip that passed between them was evidence of the sincere affection that bound this quartette of clean, manly fellows in common.
Neither Frank nor Jerry said a word to their parents about the heroic part they had played in the rescue of Professor Smythe. Imagine the astonishment of Frank's father when that gentleman, in company with his brother, a respected business man of Centerville, called at the house, the next morning after breakfast, and related the whole circumstance.
And when Frank and Jerry were called down from the den, where, in company with the others, they were doing some packing, they blushed under the hearty words of praise heaped upon them by the two gentlemen.
"Why, I'm going South myself, boys," declared the balloonist, when he heard of their contemplated trip, "and wouldn't it be a queer thing now if we happened to come across one another down in Dixieland? I'm heading for Atlanta, to steer my big balloon to the eastward at the first favorable chance, in order to settle some questions about air currents that have long been baffling us all. Depend on it, if I could do you any sort of a favor I'd go far out of my way to try and even up the debt I owe you."
Little did any of them suspect under what strange conditions their next meeting would really be.
All Centerville was ringing with the story of the brave exploit of Frank and Jerry. When the latter reached home that noon he was overwhelmed with hysterical words of praise from his mother; while his father had come home from his office, beset by a dozen acquaintances desirous of congratulating him on having a son of such heroic mould.
Jerry was very uneasy under all this favorable comment. He did not like to be looked upon as differing in any degree from other boys.
"Any fellow would have done the same thing. We were lucky enough to have the chance, that's all," he insisted, as his mother kissed him again and again, crying a little at the same time at the thought of what might have happened; while his father gripped his hand and patted him on the back affectionately.
By afternoon the boys decided that they had everything packed they could think of, and after that they began to try and possess their souls in patience.
"No sleep for me to-night, fellows," declared Jerry, as he prepared to go home, as supper-time came around.
"I'd advise you to try and get a few winks if you can. To-morrow night we'll be on the train, and not much chance then. It's a lucky thing that all of us know something about machinery. Our experience with our motor-cycles will come in good play now. And here's Jerry been studying up on the running of an automobile with that retired chauffeur, Garrison, who's teaching Andy Lasher how to run a car."
"Yes, but, Frank, how about you taking lessons about the engine of a motor-boat? I know you've got several books on the subject since your father half promised to put a little craft on Lake Camalot next season," remarked Jerry.
"Well," laughed Frank, fairly caught, "between the lot of us it'll be strange if we don't know how to handle that dandy boat of Cousin Archie's—the Jessamine he calls her."
"Three cheers for the Jessamine, then!" said Bluff.
They were given with a will, after which the boys separated. Since this would be their last night at home for two weeks they had sensibly decided to spend it in the bosom of their families. Everything was done, at any rate, so that it was useless to bother about that matter any more.
In spite of Frank's warning it is very unlikely that any one of the four slept very soundly. The near future beckoned to them with such grand possibilities concerning the sport they loved, that they could not get it out of their minds; and innumerable plans for the happy times ahead kept their brains busy the major portion of that last night under the parental roof-trees.
Finally the morning dawned, with a light snow falling. There was a bustle in at least four homes that day, and presently the intending travelers gathered at the station long before the train was due that would take them on to Philadelphia, and then, with a change of cars, to the beckoning sunny Southland.
And when finally the parting moment came, there were hurried good-byes, the bags were thrown into the baggage car, and as the train pulled out those of their school friends who had come down to see them off, as well as their relatives, waved a shower of handkerchiefs amid a chorus of shouts.
"Hurrah!" cried Bluff, as he settled down in his seat, "we're on the way to the greatest time of our lives!"'
JERRY MEETS TROUBLE HALF WAY
"Ain't she a beauty, though?"
"Finest thing ever put in the water! And to think we're going to live aboard her for nearly two weeks! It's the greatest luck ever!" observed Will.
"Talk to me about your automobiles and aeroplanes, give me a neat little motor-boat for mine. I wouldn't change places with King George just now."
Frank said nothing, but the smile on his face was a satisfied one. Indeed, it could not well be otherwise. Any boy who loved camping and cruising as much as he did must have been thrilled at the prospect of running that jaunty little craft for a spell, navigating new waterways and making discoveries constantly, such as are calculated to please the hearts of hunters and water-dogs in general.
The motor-boat was one of the most modern make. It had an automobile hood for the front, and this could be so extended that the entire boat was shielded. On the other hand, on sunny days it could be pushed back, allowing of perfect freedom.
The journey south had been effected without any accident. They were now stopping at a little hotel in this town on the river where the railroad crossed. It was a section of Northern Florida. The great and mysterious Gulf of Mexico, they knew, lay not a far stretch away toward the south. Indeed, Jerry had declared he could already smell salt water, though his chums laughed at him, and declared that it was more likely the odor of the mud along the bank of the narrow but deep stream down which they expected to cruise shortly.
"All the same, I'll be mighty glad to set eyes on that same gulf," said Jerry; "I've always wanted to see it, ever since I read about the doings of those old filibusters who used to lie in wait and seize the treasure ships going home from the Spanish Main."
"Listen to him, will you?" broke out Bluff, laughing. "Honest, now, I believe he expects to run across a few of those old fossil pirates, Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and their kind."
"Well, hardly, but it may be we'll meet up with a few up-to-date pirates before we get through—chaps who can charge ten prices for something you just feel you must have. The times are out of joint, boys. Things have changed a little, that's all, but the world is just as full of human sharks as ever," argued Jerry.
"I guess Jerry's right, fellows, and when that gaunt landlord of the inn presents his little bill perhaps you'll say that the buccaneer came sooner than you expected. Besides, who can say what lies before us? There are many swamps to be passed through, I'm told, and they say that more than one fugitive black, wanted for some crime, lives out in those places. We must keep our eyes open all the time."
"And depend on it, Frank knows. He's been picking up information right and left ever since we got here," remarked Will, who was, of course, carrying his beloved camera, with which he had taken many splendid pictures of the past exploits of the four chums.
"When do we get under way?" asked Bluff, eagerly, as he examined the provisions made for cooking, with a battery of little lamps fashioned to burn kerosene in the shape of gas—Bluff was always interested in all that pertained to the cooking parts of an expedition.
"Everything is ready now," remarked Frank. "We'll go back to the inn, all but Will, settle our score, and fetch what few things are left. I've got a rough chart of the river, you know, boys, on which we'll have to depend until we get to the gulf."
"And then?" asked Will.
"Oh, the Government charts will carry us, then, the rest of the way. They have everything down, up to several miles off shore, and all the bayous and cuts besides. Come on, Jerry and Bluff; get busy."
Left in charge of the boat for half an hour, Will sat there in the warm sunshine, trying to picture what it looked like up around cold, bleak Centerville just then. As he fondled his camera other memories were called up, in which it had done its share in the way of perpetuating the exciting events connected with the various outings enjoyed by the four chums.
While Will sits thus and lets his mind wander back to other scenes it may be just as well for us to take a quick survey of these same events, so as to understand something of the ties that held these four boys together.
They formed the Rod, Gun and Camera Club, and their first outing had been at the time a storm took part of the Academy roof off, allowing a short Fall vacation on the part of the scholars. At that time they had gone into the woods, and there encountered a variety of stirring adventures, as set forth in the initial volume of this series called: "The Outdoor Chums; or, The First Tour of the Rod, Gun and Camera Club."
At Thanksgiving time they planned for another little camping trip, over on Wildcat Island, which had quite a bad name on account of the ferocious animals known to exist in its dense thickets, and also because a wild man was said to have been seen there many times. What the four chums saw and did there, and the multitude of remarkable things that came to pass while they were off on this trip, from the robbery on the steamboat to the discovery about the wild man, are told in the second book of the series, entitled: "The Outdoor Chums on the Lake; or, Lively Adventures on Wildcat Island,"
In due time came the summer vacation, and as they had a couple of weeks to be together before going away to seashore or mountains with their parents, the boys arranged to spend this time in the Sunset Mountains, that lay ten miles back of Newtonport, which place was on the west shore of the lake, opposite Centerville. The rumor of a ghost that was said to haunt Oak Ridge did much to draw the boys, and it can be readily understood that before they left their camp in the hills they had succeeded in discovering the astonishing truth about that same spectre. Just how this was done, together with many other thrilling episodes, you will find in the record of the outing as given in the third volume, called: "The Outdoor Chums in the Forest; or, Laying the Ghost of Oak Ridge."
By the time Will had run the gamut of these adventures, some of which caused him to shiver, while others brought a smile on his face, he heard the voices of his chums drawing near.
They soon joined him, each burdened with some more of the outfit in the way of blankets, and clothes-bags made of waterproof canvas.
These were hastily stowed away, after which the boys began to get busy. Frank had, ere now, closely examined the engine of the launch, and even started it going so as to get "the hang of the thing," as he said. He felt that he had nothing to fear with regard to his ability to handle it.
"If anything does happen we will have to use the push-poles, and in that way float down on the swift current until we get to a town," he said, laughingly; but not one of them had the slightest fear.
"All aboard for the gulf!" called Will, as he stood by the rail watching Jerry unwarp the hawser that held the nose of the boat down-stream, another securing the stern above.
Just as soon as this latter was unfastened the boat would begin to move with the rapid current, and at that time Frank wanted his engine to be working.
"Ready, Frank?" called Jerry from astern.
He could cast off there, recovering the rope as they moved along.
The engine began to whirr.
"Say, doesn't that sound encouraging?" ventured Bluff, as the cheery cough smote the air, and announced the whole power of twelve horses to be at their disposal.
"I only hope she turns out one-half as good as she looks," remarked Frank, who believed that the proof of the pudding lay in the eating of it.
A minute later, satisfied that everything was working, he shouted:
"Let her go, Jerry!"
Immediately the motor-boat commenced to glide down-stream. Frank found that his engine worked like a charm. He could apparently do anything he wanted with it, and the whole apparatus seemed more like a plaything than a powerful motor.
"A good beginning. Hope it keeps up," remarked Bluff.
"Me for a life on the ocean wave," sang Jerry as he coiled the rope ship-shape, and then going forward climbed up on the bow to look out for "snags."
There were numerous abrupt bends to the river just below the Florida town, and with that swift current it was difficult to navigate around these places successfully. By degrees, of course, Frank expected to become more familiar with both the engine and the only way these things could be successfully met. He was always wide-awake, and eager to learn.
Jerry had perched himself on the forward rail, where he could survey the scenery. Will had his camera in his hand, and seemed ready to snap off any remarkable picture that presented itself to his vision. He was keen on taking some views that would embrace the weird, hanging Spanish moss, though Frank told him to have patience, and any number of these would come in time.
There was not the least warning when the shock came. The boat suddenly brought up with a bang on some hidden snag, and as Frank involuntarily shut off the power he had a rapid view of poor Jerry taking a header over the rail. Immediately after, a tremendous splash announced that he had struck the water all right; indeed, as he sprawled with hands and legs outstretched, one would half suspect it was a gigantic frog that leaped from the boat into the deep river.
THE FIRST CAMPFIRE
"Tell me about that, will you!" gasped Jerry, as he bobbed above the surface.
He was swimming industriously to keep from being swept down with the current.
Frank, finding that the motor worked smoothly, and no damage had been done by the concussion, started it backing just enough to keep the boat steady.
He darted to the bow, where Bluff and Will were already hanging.
"What was it?" called the swimmer, who, now that he was in, seemed disposed to make a picnic of the affair, after his usual joking way.
"A snag, of course. I thought you were going to sing out if we came on one?" said Frank.
"I did, and you all heard me yell," asserted Jerry.
"Yes, while you were passing through the air. Much good that would do," observed Bluff, disposed to refuse such evidence.
"But there was nothing in sight. The snag must have been down under the surface, and the water is so brown I couldn't see it. My! but that was a vault! Talk about your high divers, there never was a prettier leap than that."
"Just my luck, again!" whimpered Will. "What a magnificent picture of the Jumping Frog that would have made in our scrap-book. Why on earth didn't you tell me you were going to do it, and I could have been ready to snap you off?"
"Hear that man, with me down in this ooze, soaked to the skin! Wait till I find a chance to get at him!" groaned Jerry, shaking his fist upward, in mock anger, though at the time he was grinning amiably.
"While you are down there, pard, why not take a look, and see if we scraped the paint off the boat's nose when we banged that log," suggested practical Frank.
"That's so. Make the best of a bad bargain. Why, no; nothing doing, boys. This stem is made of solid brass, and could stand many a hard bump. I think Cousin Archie must have been warned in advance, and had her made doubly staunch," sang out Jerry.
"Can you see the snag anywhere around?" asked Frank.
"Not here. Perhaps we're down below it now."
"Or it may have been an alligator, fellows. Some of the natives told me there are a few in this old stream," observed Bluff.
"Yes, and there he is now!" shouted Will. "He crawled up on the bank to dry off, and is going to jump in again! Oh! why wasn't I ready! Look out, Jerry! He's coming for you!"
Jerry was already in motion. The notion of meeting an alligator might have appealed to him, but not under these circumstances. He struck out like a madman as he struggled to get to a point where he could reach up and clasp the eager hands extended down to him, for he had heard the splash that announced the reptile's taking to the water.
Of course, the little six-foot 'gator was by long odds the more scared of the two, but then Jerry, being a greenhorn, did not know that. When finally the others managed to drag him, dripping, one deck, he was panting like a tired dog and puffing like a grampus.
"Talk to me about your narrow squeaks, they don't appeal to me one little bit!" he gasped. "Where's the old alligator monster now, Will? Did you snap him off?"
"He never came up again. That's just my luck, you know."
"Better times coming, Will. You'll take many pictures of 'gators on logs and sunny banks before we finish this little trip," laughed Frank.
"Yes, I know what you're laughing at," grunted Jerry, "and I suppose I did look like a big frog as I sailed away off the bow. After this the lookout ought to be tied to his seat. It was lucky, though, you had so little headway on, Frank. We might have ended our cruise half an hour after we began it."
The air was balmy, and Jerry seemed nothing loth to sit there and dry off, as the journey was resumed down the river.
"Any game along here, do you think?" asked Will presently.
"They told me there was plenty, only you have to look sharp, and not get lost in the swamps. Men have gone out hunting and never come back again; though, of course, these were strangers, and not the natives. Nobody ever knew whether they were lost or fell into the hands of some black criminals who were hanging out hereabouts."
Jerry volunteered this information. He was always making inquiries in connection with the possibilities of game.
"I saw a blue heron just then, swinging downstream below us. And there's something snow-white over there. Yes, it must be a crane standing in the water, with his fishing-rod ready for business; and there goes a string of white birds, over yonder. Do you know what they are, Frank?" asked Will.
"I'm not sure, but I think they belong to the ibis family. Look at that 'coon scurrying up that log, running from the water. He's been trying to scoop out a dinner of fish, too. Nearly everything feeds on fish down here, even many of the wild ducks. Got him that time, did you, Will?"
"I think so," replied Will complacently, for he had snapped his camera while the striped "bushy-tail" was still moving up the slanting log.
They were making fair progress all the while. So the afternoon began to wear away. The current was almost enough to carry them on at the rate of several miles an hour. With the prospect of meeting hidden snags at any minute, Frank did not deem it wise to put on any speed. That would come when they were upon the open gulf, and obstacles no longer worried them.
They had entered a section that undoubtedly bordered on a swamp. The trees grew thicker, and shut out much of the light, so that it seemed actually like dusk. And to the delight of Will, the long streamers of Spanish moss hung everywhere.
"Say, perhaps we'd better pull up soon for the night. This sort of work needs all the eyesight we've got, and it's getting some gloomy just now. I wouldn't dare attempt an exposure with this shadow on everything," remarked Will.
"Always something wrong, eh, Will? However, putting the picture-getting aside, you'll admit that this is a mighty comfy position to be in. There's Bluff writing up the menu he expects to spring on us the first meal out," laughed Frank.
"I own up I was thinking of something along that line. Wish I had some of the fine oysters they tell us grow down South. Your sister Nellie gave me several recipes to try, and I'm going to spring them on you the first chance, see if I don't."
"Well, I only hope you have better success than the said Nellie usually has. My dad threatens to send her to cooking school before she kills off the entire family with her experiments. But as to the oysters, you must wait till we get out of the river. This is fresh water. Mussels or fresh-water clams grow in such places, but hardly oysters," observed Frank.
"I'm going to tell Nellie what you said, when we get back," declared Bluff.
"Well, it encourages me to know that you expect we will survive the operation. But then, ten to one they are recipes she clipped from some paper, and wants you to try for her. I'm going to keep an eye on you whenever you hang around the fire, remember. You can bear watching," Frank continued.
"Glad to hear that, for some people can't," remarked the other calmly.
At which the laugh was on Frank; but he took it good-naturedly, as always. It required a good deal to make him show signs of being provoked; but like most people of that temperament, if ever he did lose his temper, he was apt to be very angry indeed.
Presently they found what seemed to be a good place to tie up for the night. A small boat, called the dinghy, or dinky, was trailed behind. This might come in handy whenever they wanted to go ashore while the motor-boat was anchored; or one of the boys might wish to use it for fishing, gathering oysters, or shooting shore birds, later on.
The ground being high and dry just at that particular spot, they built a fire and determined to cook supper ashore. There would likely be plenty of opportunities for doing this aboard, later, and they could not resist that chance for an open campfire.
Bluff was assisted by Jerry in getting the first supper. It turned out to be appetizing. They had been in the woods so much now that even the poorest cook in the club, Will, was picking up quite a little knowledge of the art, and felt an occasional desire to show off.
The boys never got over joking poor Will about his first experience in cooking rice, however. He had put the entire four pounds in a pot while the rest were away. One of them, coming back to camp presently, found Will in distress. He had filled every kettle and pannikin with the swelling rice, and despite the glistening heaps the original kettle was still boiling up heaps of it, so that it threatened to even smother the fire.
He knew better now.
After the meal was over they sat around, taking things easy. Frank was writing in his logbook, Will monkeying with his camera, while Jerry and Bluff sat there discussing something that had to do with their respective lung power—a question never, as yet, fully settled, although they had had many a friendly contest to thresh out this rivalry.
"Frank, don't look up, please! Listen to me!" said Will in a low voice.
"Well, what is it?" asked the other, simply pausing in the act of writing a word.
"I saw something moving over behind that bunch of saw-palmettos on your left. Pretending not to be looking, I squinted out of the tail of my eye. What do you think I saw? The head of a black man raised—an awfully wicked-looking head, too, Frank. What had we better do about it?" went on Will, his whispering voice quivering.
"Nothing. Leave it to me. Don't show any signs of excitement, please, but just keep on with what you are doing," and Frank allowed his left hand to slowly creep in the direction where his shotgun lay on the ground.
THE SWAMP FUGITIVE
"Now, my friend behind the bunch of saw-palmetto, won't you join us?"
Frank had slowly risen, picking up his gun as he gained his feet. There was a movement in the quarter where his gaze seemed directed, then a human figure began to crawl into the camp, looking more like a great dog than a man.
"Great Caesar's ghost!" ejaculated Bluff.
"Tell me about that, will you!" exclaimed Jerry, making a dive for his own gun.
"Quiet, fellows! There's no need of any excitement. It's only a visitor from the swamp, come to have a cup of coffee with us," remarked Frank steadily.
He made no attempt to aim his weapon, being satisfied to let the negro see that he was armed, and ready for action. The wretched outcast was almost in tatters. He looked thin and haggard, in marked contrast with the sleek and well-fed darkies the boys had generally noticed since reaching the Sunny South.
Having reached a spot in front of Frank, the man arose to his full height. There was a look of trouble on his face. He had been hunted like a wolf for so long that naturally he believed every man's hand was against him.
But Frank saw at once that Will had been mistaken when he remarked upon the vicious look of the fugitive. He had taken the expression of fear for that of maliciousness.
"Well, who are you, and what do you want here?" Frank asked directly.
The black started, and looked at him a little eagerly.
"I's got lost in de swamp, boss, 'deedy I has, an' I smelled de vittals a-cookin', so's I couldn't keep away. Didn't mean to skeer yuh, suah I didn't. Yuh wouldn't hurt a pore ole brack man, would yuh, little marse?" he droned, still keeping his eyes fastened apprehensively on Frank and his gun.
"I guess it's a fairy story he's putting up, Frank. They told me about him up at the town. He answers the description of George Walden, all right," said Bluff.
Frank saw the man start at mention of the name, and shiver.
"That's your name, all right, I can see. Now, George, what have you been doing to make you hide out like this in the swamp?" demanded the other sternly.
"Reckons as how I ain't wanted 'round dis section, boss. Ain't done nothin' so very ba-ad, but seems like we-uns kain't git on. Some o' the white gentlemen dey got it in fo' me, an' it was either a case o' hidin' out er takin' a coat o' tar an' feathers. I reckoned I'd rather lay in de swamp a while. But, boss, I 'clar tuh Moses I'se mighty nigh starved tuh death, I is."
The man had evidently come to the conclusion that these Northern lads, with the motor-boat, could hardly be hunting fugitive blacks in the swamp. He was beginning to recover a little of his courage.
"How about that, Bluff? What did the people in the town say he had done?" asked Frank.
"Oh, nothing much, only, just as he says, he's an undesirable citizen around the place. I think they said he had a weakness for chickens, and could not keep from sneaking into a coop if half a chance presented itself," replied the other.
"Well, I believe that has never been called more than a weakness with a colored man, in the North. People who keep chickens should see to it that a poor fellow is not tempted beyond his strength. Locks are cheap enough. Then our friend George has not been doing anything particularly villainous?"
"'Deed an' 'deed I ain't, boss. I's only wantin' tuh git outen dis kentry. I's got a darter married, an' livin' at Chattanooga. If I kin on'y git up dar, she'd nigh die wid happiness. An' if I felt a little stronger I'd try an' walk de hull way, so I would, young marse!" exclaimed the other eagerly.
They could see him sniffing the air, after the manner of a hungry dog that scents a bone near by.
"Sit down, George. I'm going to make you a pot of coffee such as you never tasted in all your life," said Will at this juncture.
The negro turned his eyes upon him gratefully. He might be a ne'er-do-well, and a genuine nuisance around the town on the river where he had grown up, but to the generous-hearted lads from the North he was only a poor hungry human being, and fortune had been very good to them.
"And I'll cook him some bacon. I bet it's been a long time since he put a bit between his teeth," declared Bluff, wishing to be in the game.
"Good for you, boys! I think, myself, that this old fellow may have been more sinned against than sinning; though perhaps he's wise in wanting to make a change of base since they're all down on him around here. We ought to show our thanks for the many favors that have been showered on us, and the best way to do it is to help some less fortunate fellow."
"Talk to me about your Good Samaritan! We've got several of 'em right here in this camp, and as I don't want to be left out in the cold, I'm going to make George here a present of that shirt I took such a dislike to. He won't mind the objectionable color, I reckon," spoke up Jerry.
The black man sat there, grinning from ear to ear. He could hardly believe his hearing. These campers, whom he had at first feared were there to drag him back to town, so that he might afford sport for the young hotbloods, had turned out to be the only friends he had known for many a day.
He tried to express his gratitude, but, of course, stumbled so that they told him they were ready to take it all for granted.
When the meal was ready he ate until he could contain no more. Jerry watched him with a queer expression on his face, and for once he realized how near starvation a human being may get at times.
At the same time, George was a bit uneasy. He kept looking around, as though he feared lest others might appear who would not be so kindly disposed toward him. Hence, after he had finished his supper, he showed a disposition to depart, telling them that he had a shack in the swamp.
Frank did not attempt to hinder him, for he saw that the man could not wholly get over his suspicion that there might be some trick back of this generous hospitality. George had evidently been educated in the belief that no one ever assisted a black man unless he had an ax to grind.
Before he went they gave him some bacon and a little can of ground coffee. As Cousin Archie had supplied much more than they could ever use on the trip, all of them thought they could easily afford to be a bit generous, since the occasion had come to their very door, as it were.
When George had faded away in the shadows the boys resumed the tasks his coming had interrupted. Naturally enough, their conversation was in connection with the great questions which the South had had to struggle with since the emancipation proclamation had freed so many million blacks and placed them on their own responsibility.
"I don't suppose any of you want to get the single tent out and sleep ashore to-night?" said Frank finally, as he saw his comrades yawning, as if ready to turn in.
"Not me," answered Bluff immediately.
"Some time later on I'm going to try it, but I want to get used to these queer scenes first," remarked Will.
"He thinks an alligator might crawl up out of the river and gobble him up," laughed Jerry.
"Well, we haven't heard from you yet. Are you getting out the tent?" asked Frank.
"I would, only it's such a bother. On the whole, I'm contented with the snug little bunky on board," came the answer, at which Will shrugged his shoulders, as if to say he knew it would be so.
"All right, then; let's go aboard. I'll fix up the fire here so it will burn a few hours anyway. Kind of cheerful to see it as a fellow sits out his watch. This log, pushed over to the blaze, might answer," observed Frank, suiting the action to his words.
"Then we do keep a watch?" queried Bluff.
Frank looked around at their gloomy and impressive surroundings and then raised his eyebrows in an expressive manner.
"You just bet we do!" exclaimed Jerry. "Here's a swamp with all manner of wild animals in it, from alligators and wildcats to mosquitoes by the million. How do we know but what some of them might take a notion to come aboard in the night? I can see myself waking up to find a bobtailed cat cuddling up under my blanket with me; or a ten-foot 'gator sprawled out across Will, here, asking to have his picture taken. Tell me about that, will you, fellows?"
"And then there may be other coons in hiding here; chaps who are wanted for something far more desperate than poor old George. They might murder us all in our sleep. Oh, yes, let us have a watch, by all means. I agree to sit it out for the first two hours if Frank will take the second," cried Will.
So it was settled. They went aboard, and made preparations for sleep. Of course, there were no regular bunks aboard the Jessamine, since the space was too limited to admit of such luxuries. When the cruisers wanted to retire, two of them made beds of the seats, and the others found a suitable couch in the bottom. In case of rain, the automobile top would protect them; but in dry weather it could be left partly off, so as to insure more air.
Frank and Will had the seats first on this night, for it had been so arranged that they would change around each night, so as to give every fellow a chance. As Bluff put it, "just like we were playing a scrub game of ball, each one getting a chance to pitch and catch in turn."
Will took up his place on the side toward the shore. It was some little time before his comrades all settled down, but finally he knew they slept. He sat there, watching the fire burn near by, and thinking of many interesting things, until, on striking a match, and examining his watch, he found that it was time he awoke Frank.
He took the place of his chum when the other assumed the duties of guard, and being really sleepy by this time, quickly dropped off.
Frank sat there, with his gun across his knees, also watching the fire. He had little idea that there would anything occur to disturb the serenity of the night, but believed "an ounce of prevention better than a pound of cure."
"The old log seems to do its duty handsomely, after all. I wouldn't be surprised if it was still burning at daylight," he mused, as he continued to watch the fire creeping along the dry wood and slowly eating its way toward the other end.
Then Frank started, as he saw a distinct movement in a little shadowy spot. It happened that the firelight did not reach this particular place, so that, strive as he might, he could not see distinctly.
"There's something crawling along right there. I can see a dark figure move," he said to himself as he strained his eyesight the harder.
Of course, his first thought was of the negro whom they had just fed. Perhaps to an irresponsible fellow like poor old George the temptation to try and steal something had been irresistible, and he was now creeping toward the motor-boat with the intention of getting aboard and laying hands on anything of value.
Then, again, it might be another entirely, some rascal much more to be feared than George. Frank was not more than half a minute in making up his mind what the best course for him to pursue under the circumstances would be.
"I'll give him a shot, firing far over his head. Whoever it is, the report must make him skedaddle like hot cakes," he thought, for he could not bear the idea of doing a fellow human being any bodily harm, no matter whether he were white or black.
Having so decided, Frank raised his gun a trifle further, so that it bore on the tops of the cabbage palms beyond. Then his finger pressed the trigger, and with the sudden report he gave a tremendous yell.
A FLORIDA SHERIFF
There was an upheaval of various blankets, three faces peeped forth, and then came a wild scramble for weapons.
"Wow! What is it, Frank!" bellowed Bluff.
"My camera! Who took it away from where I placed it?"
"Talk to me about that, will you! That fellow will howl after his blooming box when he goes to cross the Styx after he dies," grunted Jerry.
Frank had paid no attention to his comrades. His eyes were glued upon the shadowy spot where he felt positive he had seen some creeping figure drawing closer to the boat, inch by inch.
They heard him laugh aloud, as though something he had seen amused him.
"Was it a thief? And did you shoot him?" asked Will, appalled.
"A thief, all right; but I didn't shoot the beggar. Wish I had, now," responded the watch, with regret in his voice.
"Then it couldn't have been a human thief, for you'd never say that. Did you see the critter go?" came from Jerry, as he peered forth, gun in hand.
"I fired high on purpose, for I was afraid it might be poor old George sneaking back to see if he could get away with any more of that fine bacon. Whatever it was, it made a flying leap back into the shadows. I thought I heard an angry or startled snarl, but you fellows made so much confusion as you bounced up that I couldn't be sure."
"Jumped away, eh? Then I take it the thing must have been a bobcat," said Jerry.
"Something along the cat family, anyway," replied Frank.
"Look here! You don't mean to say it was—a panther?" demanded the other.
"I'm not saying anything; but in the morning we'll go and take a look at the ground behind that second log over there. If there are any tracks, they ought to tell the story," remarked Frank, who, no matter how positive he might feel that this was just what he had seen, would not commit himself without some proof.
"That's what I get for waking Frank up so soon. Oh! why didn't I hold out a little while longer? Nothing ever happens when I'm on duty, it seems. I must be a Jonah, that's what!" sighed Will disconsolately.
"Why, what would you have done?" demanded Bluff.
"Shot the intruder, but by snapping the trigger of my little flashlight pistol, and in that way I'd have taken a picture of the beast as it crouched there. I sat here, holding that pistol, and my camera, ready, for two mortal hours, in vain. I'm the most unlucky dog going."
"Well, I notice that, after all, you manage to gather in your share of pictures. The trouble is, you want to corral everything going. Well, me to the bench again for another snooze. Wake me when you get tired of sitting up, Frank. If the critter comes again, let him have a charge," said Jerry.
"I certainly will, if I can make sure that it doesn't happen to be a man," was the reply of Frank.
Apparently, the report of the shotgun had alarmed the beast, for he certainly did not show himself again. Whatever it was, the attractive smell around the vicinity of the campfire must have drawn him out of the neighboring swamp, just as it had Black George, earlier in the night.
Both Jerry and Bluff took their turns, and in this way daylight found them undisturbed. Jerry had left his shotgun at home, and carried a rifle on this trip. He and Bluff had entered into many an argument because this new weapon was a six-shot gun; for Jerry had made all manner of fun over Bluff owning a shotgun built after the same principle, nor could they settle the dispute, Jerry claiming that it was all right in a rifle, as a man hunted big game with that, and his life might be in danger; while with the other weapon he usually only shot birds and inoffensive small animals; while Bluff declared that what was black for the pot was also black for the kettle.
Going ashore, soon after getting up, Frank knelt down alongside the log where he had seen the shadowy figure bound off.
"I say, Jerry!" he presently called out.
"Want me?" asked that worthy, folding up his blanket so that it could hang and get the breeze, whether they moved on or remained where they were.
"Yes. Come here. You'll be interested, I think."
Jerry quickly reached his side.
"What's doing?" he asked, eagerly searching with his eyes the ground near Frank.
"Bend lower, for the sign is rather faint. What d'ye make of that, and that? Is it the paw of a bobcat?" asked the one on his knees, with an expressive smile.
"Great Jehosaphat! No! Then it was a panther, after all!" cried Jerry.
"I think I'm safe in saying yes to that question," replied Frank.
"And now don't you wish you'd shot him?"
"Well, yes, if I had been positive, which I couldn't be, under the circumstances, you see. Perhaps I may be lucky enough to run across one of the breed again when there can be no uncertainty, for I would like very much to say I'd knocked over a panther," was the reply Frank made.
"Say! Shall we cook breakfast again on the shore?" called Will from on board the boat.
"We might as well. There will be plenty of occasions when we'll just have to do it aboard, and this fire seems cheerful like," replied Jerry.
Frank agreeing with him, they carried the necessary utensils ashore, and preparations were begun looking toward the getting of a bounteous meal.
"Wonder how our good friend, Black George, feels this morning? Hello! We're going to have visitors, I see. Look what's coming down the river, boys!"
As Bluff spoke they ceased eating and turned to gaze upstream. A boat was advancing rapidly, with the aid of the current and a pair of stout ashen oars. Several men occupied the craft which was quite roomy.
"Say, they've got some dogs there. Ain't those bloodhounds, Frank?" whispered Will, for the boat was now close by, the men craning their necks to look at the launch.
"I believe they are. Perhaps this is the sheriff on the run for our black friend, George," returned Frank.
"Oh! I hope not. I don't believe the poor chap is as dangerous as all that. I have an idea he's more sinned against than sinning," replied Will, who always looked on the better side of those he met, and hence was an easy mark for sharpers.
The men in the boat came ashore. Our friends then saw that the dogs were of a black-and-tan color, with long ears, and the aspect that distinguishes bloodhounds.
"Mornin', neighbors. Takin' a trip down the river, I see. That's right. Like to see youngsters enjyin' themselves. I'm the sheriff o' this heah county, an' these gentlemen is my deputies. We're a-lookin' fo' a desprit scoundrel thet hes been doin' heaps o' mischief 'round heah. His latest work was tuh rob the house o' a cotton planter named Davis, an' nigh about kill the old man. We want him, an' we're jest 'bout determined not tuh go back without the skunk. Don't s'pose yuh could 'a' set eyes on sech a pizen critter, gents?" said the leader.
He was a tall, lean man, with a hawklike nose and keen blue eyes. He wore a long frock coat, considerably the worse for wear, and this, with his slouch hat, gave him the appearance of a Western marshal, in the eyes of Jerry, at least.
"Who was this scoundrel?" asked Frank uneasily.
"His name is Bob Young, an' he's really the son o' a minister upcountry, but long ago his father cast him off as a scamp. He'll sure swing one o' these days," replied the sheriff, looking keenly at Frank, as though he suspected he might know something that he wanted to hear.
"Then he's a white man?" asked the other quickly, and with evident relief.
"Shore he is, an' the toughest ever. Seen any sign o' him, stranger?"
"Not a thing. We had a coon in camp last night, starving, and we fed him. He was Black George, the man they ran out of town some time back," ventured Frank.
He saw that the dogs were nosing about, and feared lest they should set out on the trail of the poor wretch by mistake.
The sheriff laughed.
"Oh, our time's too valuable to fool away with that black trash. He ain't wuth shootin'. Come on, then, boys. Like tuh sit up with yuh, friends, an' have a snack, but we got to be on the move afore the trail below gits cold. Yuh see, we hed word 'bout Bob, an' we wanter git him this clip, sure. So-long, an' good luck! Thet thar is sure the boss little boat yuh got."
And presently the sheriff and his posse faded from view under the long streamers of hanging Spanish moss that overshadowed the river below.
"I'm just as glad. He gave me the creeps. That eye of his was fierce," said Will.
"Oh, that's because you've got a guilty conscience, I guess," laughed Jerry. "Now to me he was a picture of a strong character that would have made a good showing in our album," and he looked severely at Will.
"Oh! What beastly luck! Why didn't I think of it in time? Another chance gone glimmering! I think you fellows are too mean for anything, not to remind me of these things in time. He would have embellished our album handsomely—and those dogs, too! How picturesque bloodhounds are! I feel sick."
Will jumped up, snatched his camera, and stalked off beyond the edge of the camp, as if to brood alone. Presently they heard him calling:
"Oh, Frank! Won't you come here for a minute? I'm just taking the picture of a big snake, and he's as angry as you please. There's a locust somewhere close by, too, keeping up a tremendous rattling. Please hurry! He won't wait long!"
Frank, followed by Jerry, was off like a shot. His face turned white with sudden apprehension as he ran. Coming upon Will, kneeling there, and watching, he seized him by the shoulders and whirled him back, exclaiming:
"Why, you greenhorn, don't you know that's a diamond-back rattler, coiled up and ready to launch himself at you?"
WILL DOES IT
"Talk to me about babes in the woods!" gasped jerry.
He was staring at the enormous rattler, that still kept up a buzzing with his rattle, and which sound poor Will had believed was made by a locust.
"Shoot the thing, Jerry! You've been wise enough to fetch your gun!" said Frank.
"That just suits me. Have you got all the snapshots you want, Will?" demanded Jerry, falling on one knee and elevating his rifle.
"There! He's reforming! You see, he did actually think of me, for once. Oh, yes. I snapped him three times. I rather think he didn't like the sound, for he darted his head at me wickedly. I suspected it might be a rattlesnake, though," replied the photographer calmly.
Then came a sharp report.
"Keep back!" called Jerry as the snake's folds suddenly flew out; but its head was almost blown from its body, and there was no more danger to be feared.
"I'll get the rattle, to remind you of your narrow squeak, Will," said Jerry.
"That's kind of you, now; but I rather think you are getting it to remind you of your first shot at game with the new rifle," remarked Will.
The others had by now come up to stare at the enormously thick snake, with more or less of a shudder.
"How about having that skin, to make a belt or something?" suggested Bluff.
"You're welcome to it, if you can take it off and properly dry if; but you're so squeamish about snakes I'd hardly think you'd care for the job," remarked Jerry.
"I'll see. I heard Nellie say she always wanted a belt made out of a skin like that, and perhaps I may try to get it," concluded Bluff.
"Are we going to proceed, or put in a day around here, fellows?" asked Frank.
"I say stay. We may not get another chance at a swamp before we reach the open gulf, and I want to snap a dozen fine views off around here. I mean to take the little dinghy and push into the swamp a bit," ventured Will.
"Say! he's getting real venturesome, ain't he?" laughed Jerry.
"Next thing he'll be getting lost, and we'll have a deuce of a time finding him again. Make him take a compass along, Frank, and that old revolver of yours," growled Bluff.
"Don't you worry about me, now. Perhaps you'll find I'm able to look out for myself far better than any of you give me credit for," returned the other, with a show of indignation.
He went aboard to get ready, taking another roll of films along, for, as he remarked, there could be no telling what might turn up.
"Try to keep your wits about you, Will, and don't venture too far away. If in doubt, fire the pistol three times, and we'll answer you," said Frank, who was not wholly easy about the exploring trip.
"Got some grub along?" asked Bluff, for that was a very essential part of any undertaking, in his eyes.
"Yes to everything. So-long, fellows! Don't let anybody run away with the motor-boat while I'm gone." And, with a merry laugh, Will dipped his paddle into the water, sending the little dinghy gliding toward the more quiet lagoons of the swamp.
He was soon under the spell of his surroundings. These were so weird that the ardent photographer really forgot everything else. As he paddled along he saw a dozen pictures around him, and when he thought the light fair enough he took a time exposure.
So an hour passed away. In all that time he had seen no evidence of life, save a few alligators, some wary 'coons, a 'possum hanging from a tree by its tail, and some birds, mostly crows or bluejays.
In the water he had noted a variety of snakes. Remembering what Frank had told him about these gliding reptiles, Will was careful not to bother with them; for in all probability they were water moccasins, whose bite, if not so deadly as that of the diamond-back rattler, would cause a wound that might never heal, since it seems to put a certain poison into the flesh that brings about a running sore.
Perhaps he ought to go back. He had succeeded in taking all of half a dozen good views, besides several of which he was not so certain.
Then it dawned upon Will that, after all, he was not so sure that he knew which way he ought to go. True, he had a compass, and could tell where the north lay, as well as all other cardinal points, but the question was, did the camp lie east or south of where he happened to be just then?
He cudgeled his brains to try to remember, so as to place himself.
"Say! Perhaps I am lost, all right," he remarked, with a laugh, for it did not look at all serious just then, but more like a joke.
Then he suddenly remembered that he had the only boat.
"If they wanted to hunt for me they couldn't do it. To move about in this swamp without a boat would be impossible; that is, for a stranger; and the launch could never come here. Guess I'll shoot up a few and get my points."
So saying, he banged away three times.
Presently there was an answering series of shots, but very far distant.
"Whew! I didn't dream I'd gone so far," he said, and having noted the direction from which the sounds seemed to come, he started to paddle hard.
After half an hour's work he halted, tired, and perspiring freely.
"This is no fun, I tell you. Wonder if I'm anywhere near? I might try again."
This time there was no answer. The wind possibly kept those in camp from hearing the fusilade. Will began to grow alarmed. It was now high noon, and he felt hungry, so he disposed of the lunch he had carried, at Bluff's suggestion. Incidentally, he blessed his chum for thinking of such a thing.
After that he paddled some more, until he grew very tired.
"This begins to look some serious. What if I have to spend a night here? Gee! I won't like that much, I guess. Hello! What's that over yonder? Seems to me it might be some sort of a shack, made of palmetto leaves. Wonder who lives there? Ugh! What if it turns out to be that desperado the sheriff is hunting—Bob?"
The idea oppressed him, and he felt like paddling away; but his case was desperate, and he determined to creep up and try to ascertain just who lived in the primitive-looking native shack.
So, finding a chance to land on the little island among the dark waters of the lagoon, he started to advance cautiously in the direction of the dwelling, which was really the first Will had seen made of leaves.
In spite of his fears, the fever of picture-taking was so strong in his breast that he had to stop once and level his camera at the picturesque shack. Then the familiar click announced that he had secured what he wanted.
Perhaps that sound may have reached other ears, and been misconstrued to mean something else. Will might have realized this much could he have seen the dark figure creeping up on him, and lying flat on his stomach most of the time.
As the boy reached the lonely shack he was about to put out his hand in an endeavor to draw aside some of the dry leaves so that he might peep within, when, without warning, a heavy form fell upon him, flattening him out on the sand.
THE MOTOR-BOAT AND THE PROWLERS
The unlucky young photographer gave a shriek. He could only think of that panther Frank had seen on the previous night, and believed that he was now in the power of the ferocious beast.
As he fell forward he managed to twist himself around so that he lay almost on his back. This enabled him to look up into the face of the man who was pinioning him down so fiercely to the earth.
"George!" he exclaimed.
It was the same fugitive black who had visited their camp on the preceding night. He stared hard at the face of the one he was holding down.
"Gorry! Am it you, young marse?" he exclaimed, as he released his savage clutch, and even attempted to help Will up.
"Yes. I'm lost, you see. Tried to do too much. Taking pictures in the swamp, and kind of got a little mixed. But I'm glad to meet you again, George. Is this the place where you hold out?"
The negro was breathing hard. He had evidently been greatly excited, under the belief that the creeping form had been one of his enemies, bent on effecting his capture, with the idea of furnishing sport for the idlers at the river town, through the medium of a little "tar and feathers party," so popular in some sections of the Southern backwoods.
"I heerd a sound like it wor a gun bein' cocked. Dat must 'a' been de black box heah, suh. Gorry! but I's glad it wan't dem white trash from de town. I's jest a-gittin' ready tuh vamoose outen heah right smart now. I's gwine tuh Chattanooga, tuh jine my darter. An' dat grub yuh guv me'll kerry me part o' the way."
"That's all right, George. Suppose you just take the time to paddle me back to our camp. I'll promise you a lot more provisions, and some money in the bargain. This is a serious scrape for me, and while my life may not amount to much, it does seem a pity to waste all the fine views I've taken in this old swamp. Will you go?"
"'Deed an' I will, right peart, suh. You-all hev bin mighty good tuh me, an' I ain't gwine tuh forgit dat you sed as how I mightn't be just as bad as dey paint me. Git into de leetle boat, young mars, an' I'll paddle yuh home," said the old negro, with alacrity.
"Hold on a minute, George! I want to shoot you first," observed Will.
"Gorry! Will it hurt, marse?" asked the other, beginning to look worried as he saw the mysterious black box being aimed at him.
"Not one-tenth as bad as having a tooth pulled out," laughed Will. "In fact, you probably would never know it. Please step back a little. You see, I'm trying to get the shack in, too. That's part of the game."
Will snapped the camera shutter.
"That's all. Didn't feel it, did you, George?"
"Not so's I kin notice, suh. An' will dat show me an' de leetle shack w'en it's done fixed?" asked the fugitive wonderingly, eyeing the camera with respect.
"Fine. And if you leave me your address, or that of your married daughter up in Chattanooga, I promise to send you a copy later on, George."
"Oh! I'll do dat, marse, 'deed I will! Nebber hed my pictur' took yet. My gal, she'll be sure surprised tuh see dat!" exclaimed the negro, still grinning.
"Well, we had better go now. Are you sure you can paddle me around to where the boat is tied up, George?"
"Easy as fallin' off'n a log, suh. Git dar in 'bout a hour er so." And George dipped deeply, with the air of one who was accustomed to the paddle.
Indeed, Will learned presently that he had a dugout canoe hidden near by, and in which he was accustomed to navigate the intricate channels of the great swamp. He had lived out here some time, and knew the place thoroughly.
Will was sensible enough not to mention the fact that the sheriff and his posse, together with the two bloodhounds, had passed along that morning. Had he done so, the negro might have taken the alarm, and declined to accompany him farther.
Things had turned out well, after all. If he had a faculty for tumbling into a scrape, at least he was usually fortunate enough to get out again all right.
Before the hour was really up they came out of the swamp, and in sight of the tied-up motorboat. At sight of the dinghy the three boys gave shouts of delight.
"Tell me about that, will you!" said Jerry, as he stared at Will, seated comfortably in the bow of the short little craft, while the old negro, crouching in a limited area farther aft, plied the spruce paddle. "He comes back in style, with a guide to show him the way!"
"Better that than to stay in that gloomy place, eh, Frank? Oh, I got lost, all right, but happened to find the shack of our good friend George, who rescued me."
"Ain't he the honest chap, though? Ready to acknowledge the corn, no matter what the consequences," declared Bluff.
"And I promised George some more of our extra provisions, if you have no objections, fellows. He's going to start for Chattanooga right off. I didn't mention about the sheriff and his posse, for I was afraid it might alarm the poor fellow. Better not say anything to him about it," remarked Will aside.
"And they don't want him, anyhow. Give George just what you and Frank think we can spare. I feel sorry for the old man, too. Say! did you get his photo this time, Will?" asked Jerry.
"Thank you, I did, and standing beside that wonderful shack, made of palmetto leaves. I'm glad to see that you're beginning to take an interest in my work. Keep it up, Jerry. We'll all enjoy the pictures later on," remarked Will.
The boys had eaten lunch, but that did not deter them from getting another ready, and both Will and the negro did full justice to it.
"Here, George, is the package of food for you to carry on your long trip. And I want you to take this, also. It's only five dollars, but it may help out on the way to Chattanooga," said Will, slipping the bill into the old fellow's black hand.
George looked at it as though he could not believe his eyes.
"Five dollahs! Gorry! dat am mo' dan I done see dis t'ree yeahs, suh! Five dollahs! If I kin on'y keep dat till I sees my gal, Cleopatrick, how her eyes'll stick out!" he said, scratching his white wool in delight, while his eyes glistened.
"Say that name again, will you?" murmured Jerry, gripping the arm of Frank as if taken suddenly ill.
"Cleopatrick. Dat's my darter, suh. She merried a right smart nigger, an' he's got a barber shop up dar. His name it am Samuel Parker White, an' if so be yuh ebber wants tuh send me one ob dat pictur', jest drap it dar. I's over-whelmed wid gratefulness, 'deed I is. Dey won't ebber be troubled wif George Duval 'round these diggin's ag'in, dat's so, suh."
"But think of the henroosts up there about poor old Chattanooga," said Jerry in Frank's ear, though the latter frowned at him for saying it.
After a short time old George took his departure on foot. He said that it was his intention to start immediately for the North. He had a few things at his shack he wanted to get, when he would depart from the soil of Florida forever.
"Happy Florida!" muttered the irrepressible Jerry.
Nevertheless, each of them shook the old darky's hand, in parting, and wished him the best of good luck.
"Well, what had we better do, boys?" asked Frank when they found themselves once more alone.
"I'm for getting out," said Will.
"That surprises me some, for it was you who wanted to stay," remarked Bluff.
"Well, we stayed, didn't we? I only want to mention the fact that I'm satisfied, if the rest of you are. I've secured all the swamp scenes I care for," retorted Will.
"I say move on. We can find a better place than this to sleep to-night. Why, the skeeters nearly carried me away last night," declared Jerry.
"And I'm beginning to be anxious, myself, for a glimpse of that wonderful gulf, not to say a taste of those delicious oysters," put in Bluff.
"That settles it, then. Let's get the things aboard, and drop downstream a few miles, anyway."
Frank suited his action to his words by picking up some of the cooking utensils and starting to clean them. This task was soon accomplished, and by degrees all their property that had been taken ashore was stowed away on the boat.
Then finally, Jerry, whose business it seemed to be to mind the hawsers, unfastened the rope that held the bow of the boat, still pointing with the current, just as they had stopped.
"Tell me when!" he called out as he stood by to repeat this maneuver with the second hawser at the stern.
The motor began to chug away cheerily.
"There's life about that sound, all right," laughed Will, who had been impressed with the dreadful monotony and stillness of the swamp.
"Let her loose!" called Frank, at the wheel.
So they once more started toward the open sea. There were still quite a few miles to be traversed, however, before they could set eyes on that same open water. The river was as "crooked as a New York alderman's record," as Jerry declared, and so it was that in order to advance five miles in a straight line they were compelled to navigate three times that distance on the water.
When the afternoon had waned they found a good place for a halt.
Again they cooked a royal supper. When four healthy boys are off on a lark of this sort the subject of eating is always one of their chief concerns, which must account for the space which it occupies in records of cruising and camping trips.
Will did not go ashore that evening. Indeed, somehow, none of them cared to stay alone, though Jerry did build up quite a roaring fire, just because he was fond of seeing the flames leap up in frolic.
As before, they divided the night into four watches, and this time Will chose to take the one that would bring him on deck from about midnight to two.
When it came his turn he sat there holding his camera faithfully, and hoping for something to happen; but it did not come, and he was finally forced to arouse Bluff to take his place.
The latter did so rather unwillingly. Bluff was unusually sleepy, it seemed, and inclined to believe that this watch business was all humbug, anyway. What did they need to fear? Possibly there was not a human being within five miles of where the motor-boat was tied up.
So Bluff grew a bit careless. Two or three times he napped while on duty, and as nothing came of it he made up his mind that there could not be any danger. So he settled himself more comfortably on the seat and allowed his eyes to close once more.
How long he slept Bluff never knew. He was awakened by some sound, but he could not tell what it was.
He did not move, but sat there trying to remember just where he was, and after satisfying his mind with regard to that point, wondered what it was that had disturbed his dreams.
Not hearing any repetition of the noise, he was about to drop off again, his eyes feeling very heavy, when he saw something move. Was that Frank, or one of the other boys, who had been ashore, climbing back to the boat?
Bluff gripped his gun, and kept on the watch. Whoever it might be, he evidently did not want to arouse the sleepers, for he was very careful how he stepped after he had come aboard.
Bluff caught a glimpse of the other's face as the dying fire on shore chanced to flare up. He made the alarming discovery that it was a white man, but a stranger; and then and there he remembered about the sheriff's hunt for the desperado!