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Set against a Florida background, this story tells of the adventures of Bill Picton and his young companions who trail a gang of moonshiners through the steaming, sluggish swamp-lands.
BUD HARTER laid his hoe against an orange tree, and reaching up to the big bucket of water which hung from a branch, filled the tin dipper and took a long drink.
Another boy who was working close by, looked up with a smile. "Leave some for me, Bud," he said.
"There's plenty," said Bud, filling the dipper again. "Say, Jacko, Pete's got the dogs all right for to-night."
"Good business!" declared Stan Jackson as he wiped the perspiration from his brown face. "Then we'll start the minute after supper."
"We'll start as soon as we can get off," replied Bud. "But I guess we'll have to wait for the new chum."
Stan whistled. "Phew, I'd forgotten the chap was coming this evening. I wonder what sort he is?"
Before the other could reply there was a loud crashing in the scrub which rimmed the orange grove.
"Stodge, I bet," said Bud dryly.
Next moment a plump youth of about sixteen, with a round pink face and big baby-blue eyes, came plunging down upon them. In his hurry he never saw the bucket and banged right into it, with the natural result that it tipped and discharged its whole contents over his head and shoulders.
"Ugh! Ah!" he panted and pulled up short, looking reproachfully at the other two who roared with laughter. "Did you do that?"
"No, old son," chuckled Bud. "You did it yourself, and now you can just go to the well, and bring us another bucketful."
"All right, but not now," answered the boy, mopping himself with a large red cotton handkerchief. "There isn't time. He's coming."
"The new chap. There's a buggy in sight down by the lake."
Jacko dropped his hoe. "Come on, Bud," he said.
Jacko and Bud made a dead heat of it down to the lake shore. Stodge panted a long way behind.
The grove faced upon a good-sized lake, and the road, a narrow sandy track, ran along the east side of it. Up this road was coming a double buggy drawn by a pair of fine Kentucky horses and driven by a negro.
"Some do, eh, Jacko?" said Bud as he watched the approaching vehicle.
Jacko grinned. "He's certainly doing it in style. But Bill said he had cash."
"Cash ain't everything," said Bud, a serious look crossing his keen face. "I'd a sight sooner he was a good sort."
"You're right, Bud. We're very happy as we are," answered Jacko. "But there's Pete opening the gate. Let's go and greet the newest addition to Picton's Pups."
The buggy drove in and pulled up. As its occupant got out Bud and Jacko fairly gasped. The new-comer, a tall dark boy, was got up in beautiful clean white drill with a white silk collar and a pale blue tie. On his head was a snowy pith helmet, with a large puggaree hanging down his back. He wore beautifully polished brown boots—and gloves.
"Is this—ah—Mr. Picton's place, my lad?" he demanded, addressing Bud.
Bud was an American, and it took a lot to upset him.
"This—ah—is Mr. Picton's place, my lord," he replied, with a perfect imitation of the other's manner.
The latter looked at him sharply. Bud, of course, was in working kit, consisting of an ancient flannel shirt, an absolutely ragged pair of trousers and an old felt hat. The new arrival took him for one of the helps, and unable to believe that he would dare to chaff him, went on graciously: "Will you—er—tell him that Mr. Fitzgordon has arrived and will be glad to see him?"
Bud winked at Jacko. "Come right along. I'll lead you to him," he said.
Mr. Fitzgordon came. He was a tall, well-built fellow, rather older than either of the others. He had quite good features and would have been good-looking but for his abominably conceited air.
Bud led him up a path through the scrub. Jacko followed and Stodge, while Pete Russ, the quaint little negro, who was man-of- all-work on the place, came behind. Pete's eyes were fairly bulging, and there was a look of intense expectancy on his shiny black face.
They passed the house, a big, one-storey wooden building. Behind it was a row of stabling and barns.
"Mr. Picton," sang out Bud. "Mr. Fitzgordon is right here."
A tall young man of about twenty-two, who was perched high on a rough scaffolding against the barn, looked round. He had a paint pot in one hand and a brush in the other. His clothes were no better than Bud's or Jacko's, and his sleeves were rolled back over his elbows, showing great, brown muscular arms.
When he saw the wonderful apparition in white drill, a flicker of amused surprise crossed his face. But he recovered in a moment.
"How d'ye do?" he said genially. "You're early. Didn't expect you before six. Wait a minute and I'll come down."
Fitzgordon made no answer. He merely stared. Bud and Jacko watching him were nearly bursting, yet their faces were as solemn as two mud turtles.
Bill Picton laid his paint pot on the scaffolding and came cautiously down the very dicky ladder.
"Had a good journey?" he asked, as he extended his hand.
Fitzgordon never moved. He looked as if he could not believe his eyes. "Are you Mr. Picton?" he asked at last.
"I am. What's the matter?"
"I—er—thought you would be—er—older."
Bill Picton's eyes twinkled. "Time will remedy that. Anyhow I'm old enough to run this show. Ask Jackson there—or Harter."
Fitz turned a vacant stare on Bud and Jacko. "Are they your pupils?" he asked blankly.
"Of course they are, and very good ones, too. You must remember we come here to work, and you can't work in white drill. But never mind that for the present. Come to the house, and I'll show you your room."
"Fitz is a peach from Peachville," whispered Bud to Jacko as they followed.
But Jacko shook his head. "I know his kind," he said. "He's going to be a poisonous nuisance."
"Don't you worry. We'll break him," was Bud's confident answer. "And, say, Why shouldn't we start right away? What price taking him out possum-hunting to-night?"
Jacko's face relaxed a little. "It might be a good idea," he allowed.
PICTON took Fitzgordon in by the front way. The two boys went up on to the back verandah, where they were met by a pretty fair-haired girl of fourteen. She was Mary Picton, Bill's young sister, and as nice a kid as ever lived. Jacko, Bud, and poor fat Stodge all adored her.
"Have you seen him? What's he like?" she asked eagerly.
"He's the prettiest thing you ever saw outside a show, Mary," answered Bud. "All dressed up and nowhere to go."
"I'm afraid he's a rotter," growled Jacko.
"He puts on side enough for six," added Stodge. Mary's face fell. "What a pity!" she said sadly. "I'm afraid he'll spoil everything."
"Don't you fret, Mary," said Bud. "We'll break his lordship. We'll teach him to plough and reap and hoe, and don't you forget it."
"But let's hurry up with supper," he added. "We're going to begin to-night. We're going to take him out possum-hunting, Mary."
"Then bring in some more wood, Bud," said Mary. "And Stan, you set the table. I've a cake in the oven, and I must watch it."
"I'll set the table," volunteered Stodge.
"No, Simmy," said Mary. "You broke two glasses last time. You can fill those kettles for me."
Fitzgordon came down to supper in a dinner-jacket and a boiled shirt, thereby startling poor Mary so badly that she turned quite pink and nearly dropped the teapot. Her brother was very silent, but Jacko and Bud were all honey.
"'Fraid you'll have to change if you're coming with us to- night," said Jacko sweetly. "We're going hunting."
"What—in the dark?" exclaimed Fitzgordon in evident amazement.
"Yes. Possums and coons move only at night. It's great sport. But perhaps you'd rather not come. It's a bit rough, of course."
"Oh, I'll come," answered the other quickly. "I ride a lot at home."
"You can't ride here at night," explained Jacko quietly. "It's more like beagles. We go afoot."
"I've done a lot with beagles," said Fitzgordon in a superior tone. "I daresay I can show you a tip or two."
"I'm sure you can," said Jacko sweetly.
Picton's lips twitched, but he made no objection. He knew very well that he would have to depend on his pupils to handle this latest addition to his establishment.
"You'll be back by twelve," was all he said.
"We'll try," promised Jacko. "Ah, there's Pete with the dogs. Put on something rough, Fitzgordon. We'll wait for you."
Fitzgordon went off to his own room, to return in a perfectly cut Norfolk coat and breeches, with pale grey stockings and brogue shoes. Bud and Jacko exchanged winks, but made no remark. Outside the house, Pete Russ was waiting with four great smooth- coated yellow hounds.
His eyes widened as they fell on Fitzgordon. "My land, boss," he said to Jacko. "Yo' tell dat boy he suah spoil dem pretty clothes down in dem woods."
"Don't you worry, Pete. He's gots heaps more," whispered Jacko. "And see here, we're going down into the big Dismal to- night."
Pete showed his brilliant teeth in a broad grin. "I got yo', Marse Jacko," he said, and started off.
"Good sport!" cried Picton from the door. "And I say, keep off Crudge's land."
"We're going into the swamp," shouted back Jacko. Then they were swallowed up in the darkness. Bill turned to his sister.
"They'll learn him, as Pete says," he said with a laugh.
"He certainly needs it," said Mary, with decision. "Bill, he's a pig—I'd love to sit up and see when he comes in."
"Too late for little girls," said her brother, pinching her arm. "Come and play to me a bit, my dear. Then you must go to bed."
THROUGH the intense blackness of the swamp came booming a deep hollow roar.
Maurice Fitzgordon caught Jacko sharply by the arm.
"I say, Jackson, what was that noise?" he asked in a voice which was not too steady.
"That. Oh, it's only an alligator," replied Jack carelessly.
"An alligator! But it's awfully close."
"It's in the creek. Heaps of 'em there. They won't bother you if you keep clear of the water."
Just then the dogs gave tongue, their baying crashing out startlingly loud under the huge cypress trees.
"Dey's treed one," cried Pete in great excitement. "Dis way. Come on, you all."
Jack and Bud rushed away after him, and Stodge, clumsy as he was, managed to keep close to their heels. But Fitzgordon had never in his life before been in a tropical swamp, and the very first thing he did was to get both feet tangled in a coil of tough bamboo vine, and come down flat on his face on the wet black "muck." The stuff was like rotten sponge, and just as full of water as it would hold. When he gained his feet again he was soaked from his knees to his neck, and the rest were clean out of sight.
But the dogs baying in the distance gave him a guide and he went plunging on through the sour-smelling gloom. He was hot, wet, dirty, furiously angry but very badly frightened. The darkness around seemed peopled with all sorts of horrors, and he vowed to himself that once he got out of this place nothing would ever tempt him to put his foot inside it again.
Suddenly he saw a glare of crimson light. Pete had lit a torch, and was thrusting it up into the branches of a huge live oak at the foot of which the dogs were baying frantically.
"He's up dah," he cried, "but I suah doan't know wedder he be a 'possum or a 'coon. And de tree's too big to cut down. What do yo' reckon we'd better do, Marse Harter?"
"One of us better climb up," answered Bud. "Here, I'll go."
He swung himself into the tree and vanished among the thick foliage. The others heard him scrambling up, while bits of bark and moss rained down. All about, the bull frogs were croaking, the crickets chirping, while from the creek came every now and then the deep hoarse bellow of a great bull alligator.
As for the dogs, they were nearly mad with excitement.
"I see him," came Bud's voice from far up. "Great Caesar's trousers, he's a whacker! Here, one of you pass up a torch."
A second torch was lit and Jacko took it up. Bud came back half-way for it. Its red glare lit the heart of the tree.
Suddenly from the heights came a terrifying sound. A deep, snarling growl.
Pete's eyes goggled. He snatched up his gun. "Good land!" he cried. "It's a painter!"
"A panther!" gasped Stodge.
"It's a panther!" yelled Bud from above. "Look out for yourselves."
There was a slight crackle from above, a thud on the ground close by. A tawny form flashed in the crimson torchlight. At the same instant the dogs, fairly yelling, hurled themselves in pursuit.
"He's down. He's gone!" shouted Jacko, and he and Bud together came sliding down almost as fast as the panther.
Jacko was the first to reach the bottom. "Come on!" he roared. "Come on, Stodge. Come on, Fitz."
"B-but isn't it dangerous?" began Fitz. No one heard him. They were all running. At that moment Bud dropped off a branch just above, and not seeing Fitz, came right on his shoulders and knocked him flat as a pancake.
"Sorry!" gasped Bud, springing to his feet. "Not hurt? That's all right. Smart, now. We've got to get that brute."
He was gone in a twinkling. Sore and savage, Fitzgordon staggered after. He would have gone straight home, but he didn't know the way. He had no choice but to follow.
"The rotter!" he growled under his breath. "I believe he did it on purpose. I'll fix him for this."
The chase went roaring through the swamp, the dogs racing far ahead. Their baying woke wild echoes through the aisles of the forest. They were out of the swamp and smashing through rough saw palmetto which ripped their clothes and gashed their skin. Then through the open pine woods where the ground was firm sand, and the pace increased.
Fitz, in the rags of his smart sport suit, with the perspiration pouring off him in streams, stumbled in the rear. His throat was as dry as a board; his legs ached, one of his shoes was untied and the other full of mud. But he dared not stop, for he was scared stiff of being left alone in this great solitary forest.
Suddenly the baying broke out louder than ever, and he saw the torch light flare up. He found himself up against a barbed wire fence which, like an ass, he tried to climb instead of getting under it. Leaving a square foot of superfine cheviot on the barbs, he staggered into a ring of light.
"We've treed him. We done treed him," yelled Pete.
"Steady, you idiot! Not so much row," growled Bud. "We're on Crudge's land. Next thing you know, we'll have the old son of a gun out on top of us."
"Phew, and Bill warned us," said Jacko. "I say, we'd best chuck it. We don't want a row with the swab."
"I'm blest if we chuck it," retorted Bud. "We don't get on to a panther every night. Here, Pete, give me the gun. I guess I can get him all right."
"Who's Crudge?" asked Fitz hoarsely of Pete.
"De meanest man in Florida, sah," replied the negro. "He's—" He broke off short. "Oh, great land, if dis ain't he a-coming!"
As he spoke a man came stalking out of the shadow into the torch light. A huge man well over six feet, with a great head covered with a shock of red hair, and a face beneath it like that of a heathen idol.
His eyes were pale blue and had an ugly glare in them, and in his great hands he held a double-barrelled shot-gun. At his heels slouched a monstrous bandog, a cross between a mastiff and a Cuban bloodhound, a brute even uglier than his master, but hardly more dangerous.
"I thought I'd get ye, ef I waited long enough," he said, and his voice was as bad as his looks.
There was a sinister smile on Crudge's unpleasant face as he stalked up towards the party who were grouped under the big oak.
"Wal, I been waiting a mighty long time," he remarked in a harsh dry voice that sounded like the creaking of an ungreased axle, "but I guess I got ye at last."
Jacko stepped forward. "Be a sport, Mr. Crudge. I know we're trespassing, but we haven't done a bit of harm. Be a sport, and let's finish our hunt."
Crudge fixed him with a baleful eye. "A sport, you says. Oh, I'm a sport right enough. Only the end of this yer hunt's a-going to be in my packing house. That's where yer stays ternight, and termorrow I'll fetch out the Sheriff and see what he's got ter say."
"What's he mean?" gasped Fitz in terrified tones. "What does he mean, Pete?"
Pete paid no attention. His eyes were on Jacko.
Jacko kept his head. "What's the use of fetching the Sheriff, Mr. Crudge? He's got nothing to do with it."
"Guess you won't feel so sure about that this time to-morrow," replied Crudge malevolently. "I got notices up a-warning folk off my land. It's a fifty dollar fine by State law, and there's five of you. Thet'll be two hundred and fifty dollars. And everyone o' you'll stay in calaboose ontil the money's paid, and don't forgit it."
Fitz suddenly stepped in front of Jacko. "Is it money you want, Mr. Crudge?" he enquired. "Because I'll pay now if you'll let me go."
"Shut up, Fitz," said Jacko sharply. But Crudge flung out his long arm and swept him aside.
"You bet it's money. Be you a-gwine to pay fer the lot?"
"No—no, of course not. But I'll pay my share if you'll let me go now."
"The dirty sneak!" growled Bud, who was standing right under the tree, with the gun in his hands. As for Jacko, his face expressed the most utter disgust, while Stodge Simmons was positively scowling.
"How much have ye got?" demanded Crudge with ill-suppressed eagerness.
Fitz pulled out a pocket-book which seemed to be bursting with notes. "You said twenty-five dollars. That's five pounds in English money."
Grudge's eyes were gleaming with greed. "Ah, but there's the costs. That'll mean another twenty-five. You gimme two o' them five pound notes and I'll let you go free."
But this was where Crudge struck a snag. "Twenty-five dollars was the bargain. I'll pay that and no more," retorted Fritz.
The two began wrangling like a pair of pawnbrokers, while the others looked on in utter disgust.
Pete edged quietly up to Bud, and whispered something in his ear. Bud nodded, and there was a quick gleam in his eyes. Quietly moving a little back so as to be out of Grudge's sight, he raised his gun to his shoulder.
Next moment the two barrels crashed out with a roar that made Crudge jump a good two feet into the air.
"Gol dem ye!" he growled, swinging round furiously on Bud. "I'll—"
But what threat he was going to utter no one ever knew, for with the report of the gun there came a savage snarl from up overhead, then with a series of thumps and crashes and amid a shower of twigs and bark a great beast came thudding down through the branches.
"Look out, you chaps!" yelled Bud as he hastily thrust fresh cartridges into the breech. "Look out! It's the panther."
Uttering a wild yell of terror, Fitz turned and ran like a streak. The panther landed on the ground with a shock that half dazed it. It was badly wounded and as savage as seventeen tom cats.
Before it could recover itself, Crudge's great hound was on it. But the panther was not too far gone to put up a good scrap, and in an instant a furious fight was raging.
"You done it a purpose. I'll hev it out o' yew fer this," bellowed Crudge, and pulling a pistol from his hip pocket, rushed forward.
"Now's our chance," hissed Bud. "Come on, Stodge."
In a flash Pete had flung down the torch, and all four were off, as hard as ever they could rip, bolting into the thick palmetto scrub which edges the little open space.
Bud stopped short just outside the fence, and Jacko, Stodge and Pete joined him. "Quiet, all of you," he whispered softly.
Jacko chuckled softly. "That was smart of you, Bud. Think we've cooked old Crudge's goose this journey."
"And dat awful great dog of his," added Pete. "My golly, yo' hear dat! I reckon dat panther's jest about chewing him up small."
At that moment came the sharp report of a pistol, then two more shots in rapid succession. Next, Crudge's voice shouting something—they couldn't hear what. After that—silence.
"Wait!" said Jacko breathlessly. "That finished it. Crudge has shot the panther. Now he'll be after us. We'd best hook it, and get home."
Bud caught him by the arm. "I guess not. We stay right here."
"You're crazy, Bud," retorted Jacko.
"No, I ain't. You listen again."
Somewhere in the distance there was a pounding and a crashing.
"Fitz," whispered Jacko.
"Fitz it is, and making row enough for six. Jacko, the lot of us stay right here, and let Crudge chase that swab."
Jacko chuckled again. "I believe you're right, Bud. Yes, by Jove, you are. There's Crudge off again."
"But s'pose dat big dawg ob his trails us?" suggested Pete, with a shiver.
"Take it from me, the dog's after Fitz—that is, if he's in shape to go after anyone," replied Bud. "If we sit tight we're safe enough."
They sat tight and listened. The night was very still, and though Crudge was a good way off, they could plainly hear his heavy frame crashing through the palmetto scrub and long wire grass. They could also hear some of his remarks, but those are better left unprinted.
There was a twang of wire. "There, he's through the fence," said Bud softly. "And a good hundred yards from us."
As he spoke he got up and started to climb back through the fence.
"What on earth are you up to?" demanded Jacko in amazement.
"What do you think? I'm going after that panther."
"Yo're sure crazy," exclaimed Pete in dismay.
"Crazy—nothing! Do you think we're going to leave that skin to Crudge?"
Jacko drew a quick breath. "You're right, Bud. We can't leave it to that swab. Why, he'll boast all over the country how he treed and killed it. And then he'll sell the skin for ten dollars."
"It's a mighty big risk," murmured Pete unhappily. Like all negroes, he was desperately afraid of Crudge's big dog. But he would not go back on the others, so followed them through the fence.
Bud led the way. The torch was still smouldering, and by its dim light they saw the tawny form of the panther lying under the tree. It was dead enough. But the dog was not there. Seemingly he had not been badly hurt.
Bud stood and listened. But all that could be heard was a chirring of crickets and the distant, mournful hooting of a little owl.
"Guess Crudge and Fitz have run clean out o' the county," he remarked dryly. "See here, boys. Best thing we can do is to carry the old catamount outside the fence."
"That's the tip," agreed Jacko. "Here, Pete, you take one end, and I'll take the other."
It was a fine male panther, nearly six feet long, and weighing as much as a twelve-year-old boy.
"My land, I jest wish I could see Marse Crudge's face when he finds dat dis here is gone," grinned Pete.
"It's your face will be worth seeing if you don't hurry up," retorted Jacko. "My goodness, the brute's heavy."
They got it to the fence, swung it over, and followed. Their own dogs, which they had tied outside the fence, strained at their leashes, but Pete managed to keep them quiet.
Bud looked at the panther. Then he glanced at his watch. "Say, boys, it's mighty nigh half-past eleven, and we told Bill we'd be back at twelve. Guess we better sling this feller up in a tree and come around for him in the morning. What do you say?"
"That's an idea," agreed Bud. "Up with him into this black- jack."
They slung the beast high and hid him well, then went off at the double for Lake Twinkle, and reached the house only a few minutes after twelve.
"Any luck, boys?" came Bill's deep voice as he picked himself out of a long chair on the verandah.
"All sorts, sir," answered Jacko. "I say, is the new chum back yet?"
"Fitzgordon, you mean—no. I haven't seen him."
"Gee!" exclaimed Bud. "Then Crudge has got him."
"Crudge got him!" repeated Picton, and his voice was deep and angry. "You young idiots, you don't mean to tell me you have been quarrelling with Crudge?"
THEY all stood silent, looking rather sheepish.
"Speak, one of you. You, Jacko, tell me what happened."
"We got on a panther, and ran him on to Crudge's ground and treed him. Crudge came up and threatened to gaol us all unless we paid fifty dollars apiece. Fitzgordon offered to pay—but for himself only.
"Just then Bud shot the panther and it fell down on top of us, and Crudge's big hound got on to it and there was a rare mix up. Fitz bolted, Crudge after him, and the rest of us got the panther, slung it over the fence, and hung it on a tree. We didn't see why Crudge should have it."
Picton shook his head. "I told you to keep off Crudge's land. It was Crudge who sold me this place. He did not think the land was any good, and he is furiously jealous because I have made it pay. So far, I have managed to avoid any trouble with him; now, you have given him a handle for a quarrel. I'm afraid this will prove to be a bad night's work for all of us."
"But why?" asked Jacko. "What can he do?"
"Much more than you think. The man is quite unscrupulous and will make a dangerous enemy. But I can't talk about this now. The immediate question is what has become of Fitzgordon. If Crudge has caught him, I'm afraid we are in for serious trouble. We must go and look for him. I'll get my boots."
Bud looked after him.
"Bill's cross," he said, pursuing his lips.
"Don't wonder," replied Jacko. "Wish Crudge hadn't spotted us. But here's Bill again. Now we've got to find Fitz."
"Darn Fitz anyway," growled Bud under his breath. "I've a notion this is only the beginning of trouble."
Picton had a lantern and a big sticky but, by his orders, the gun was left behind.
It didn't take long to reach the point from which Fitz had started, and the trail was easy enough to pick up. Indeed they found another large section of Fitz's pretty clothes on the barbed wire, where he had gone through in a hurry.
The tracks led straight back towards the swamp and into it. Bud, whose ears were quick as a weasel's, pulled up short.
"I hear him," he said softly.
"It's not Fitz, it's Crudge," answered Jacko.
"Yes, I recognize the soft accents of the gentle Crudge," said Picton, as he pushed forward.
Forcing their way through the dense thicket, they came down into the swamp itself, with its deep soft mire and pools of dark water.
Bud laid a hand on Picton's arm. "There they are," he said, pointing. "That's the glow of Crudge's pipe."
"I see. Now you leave this to me," was the answer. "Don't any of you interfere unless I tell you."
"I'll give you fifty dollars to let me down," came a voice out of the gloom.
"Crudge has treed him," whispered Jacko, trying not to laugh—"treed him like a blessed 'possum."
"A hundred's my price," answered Crudge, relentlessly.
Picton switched on his light. Just in front was a big cypress tree which overhung a deep gloomy pool of black, oily water. At its foot sat Crudge's huge hound gazing up with ugly eagerness into the branches. Close by towered Crudge's great gaunt figure.
Picton stepped quickly forward.
"Be good enough to call off that dog of yours, Mr. Crudge," he said, and though his voice was quiet and even courteous, there was a ring in it which none of the boys had ever heard before.
Crudge swung round and glared at the Englishman from beneath his bushy eyebrows. Then he looked at the dog, and his lips parted in an ugly grin.
"Guess you better do it yourself, ef you're so mighty anxious," he sneered.
Picton kept his temper. "He's your dog, Mr. Crudge. He'll come quietly for you. If I have to move him, I may hurt him."
Crudge chuckled aloud. "Hurt him! I guess it ain't the dawg as'll be hurt."
"Don't try it," begged Stodge, earnestly. "It's an awful brute."
"It's all right, lad," replied the other quietly, and stepped forward.
"To him, Yank!" snapped Crudge.
The great brute wheeled. His eyes glowed like carbuncles; his hideous fangs were bared. Gathering himself he leaped straight at Picton's throat.
The latter never budged, but stiffening himself for the shock, held his stick crossways, firmly grasped in both hands. The dog struck it with open jaws, and was flung back as if he had hit a wall.
He fell in a heap on the ground, and before he could pick himself up for a fresh attack, Picton had dropped his stick, stooped, seized him by his hind legs and whirling him in a great circle, flung him far into the pool.
He came up in a moment, but he had had enough. Instead of renewing the attack, he swam straight across, scrambled out the far side, and went off like a rabbit straight for home.
"Look out, sir!" cried Jacko, for the dog was hardly in the water before Crudge had rushed.
Picton sprang aside, and Crudge catching his foot on a root blundered on to hands and knees in the mud.
He was up in an instant.
"You gol-darned Britisher, I'll kill yew for that. I'll cut the liver out o' ye." His hand flew to his hip pocket, but again Bill was too quick for him, and snatching the pistol from him, flung that too into the pool.
"You'd better be quiet," he said sternly. "I've kept my hands off you so far, but I warn you I've had enough."
Crudge did not seem to hear. He had gone clean crazy. Rushing at the other, he delivered a kick which, if it had reached its mark, would very possibly have killed Picton.
A light of battle shone in Picton's eyes. Springing aside, he avoided Crudge's heavy boot, then as the man blundered past him hit him under the ear, knocking him clean off his legs.
Half stunned, Crudge lay flat on his back in the slime.
"Want any more?" asked Picton dryly.
Crudge got slowly to his feet, and if ever a man's face meant murder, his did.
"I'll kill yew fer this," he said slowly. "But first I'll ruin yew. I'll skin ye o' everything ye have until yew come praying to me to stop. Then I'll kill ye."
For a moment he stood looking at the Englishman with the same murderous glare in his eyes. Then turning, he followed his dog home.
Bill Picton watched him go. "And that's that," he said softly.
JACKO, down early, went out to get some wood for the stove. On coming in, he found Mary busy lighting the fire. "I told you how it would be, Jacko," she said in an unhappy whisper. "That horrid boy is spoiling everything."
Jacko laid a friendly hand on her arm. "He's a bit of a rotter, I'll admit, Mary, but don't you worry. There are plenty of us to handle him, and between us we'll knock some sense into his silly noddle. Did you hear of the rumpus last night?"
"Bill told me something," said Mary. "I wish he hadn't fallen out with that dreadful man Crudge."
It was not until after the others had all sat down to breakfast that Fitz made his appearance. He was wearing a clean suit of tropical drill, but his face and hands still showed signs of last night's adventure. He looked sulky, but somewhat subdued.
Bill made no reference to the previous night's doings, but talked of the work before them on the place. Just as they were getting up from the table, Pete Russ came running up to the house. "Boss, dere's a pilot snake in the sweet potato patch," he exclaimed. "Ah reckon dar's a rattler around."
"What does he mean?" questioned Fitz. "Why should there be a rattler about?"
"There nearly always is when a pilot snake is seen," Bill told him. "I can't tell you why, but the pilot or white-oak snake is a sure sign of a rattlesnake being about. And as a rattler is a dangerous brute, the sooner we find and kill it, the better. Jacko, get my gun down, will you?"
Pete had hurried back to the yam patch, and the others followed. Even Fitz was interested enough to come. "I done seed de rattler," Pete called to them. "A great big, black one."
"Where is he?" asked Bill.
"Gone down his hyah gopher hole," said Pete, as he poked a long slender stick down the hole.
"Gee, but he's there all right!" exclaimed Bud Harter. "He's a-humming like a whole swarm of bees. Listen to his old rattle a- going."
Sure enough, they could all hear the hum of the angry snake's rattle. Bill frowned. "We can't leave the brute, boys. We must dig him out. Pete, give me the shovel."
Jacko wanted to help, but Bill refused. It was not his way to let any of the others take risks which he could handle himself.
The gopher hole sloped at a shallow angle, and as the sandy soil flew under Bill's powerful digging, the buzz of the big snake's rattles grew louder and angrier. To most of them the killing of a rattler was nothing unusual, but Fitz, who had never seen a snake outside a Zoo, was quite interested.
"Better not stand too close, Fitzgordon," said Bill. "The hole slopes and is quite shallow."
Fitz stepped back, but a moment later was again quite close to Bill. "Be careful!" said Bill sharply, but the words were hardly out of his mouth before the loose soil caved beneath Fitzgordon's feet and down he went flop on his back. The yell that came from his lips might have been heard at the house.
Quick as a flash, Bill dropped his spade, and seizing Fitz by one arm, lifted him as if he had been a child, and swung him to one side. It was a wonderful exhibition of strength, and that and his quickness undoubtedly saved Fitz's life, for at that very moment the ugly triangular head of the rattler rose through the sand at the very spot where Fitz had fallen.
Crack came Jacko's stick on the head, and with a writhing of heavy coils the dangerous brute's life went out.
"I told you to be careful, Fitzgordon," said Bill severely. "If that snake had bitten you, we should have had a job to save your life. I hope you will be more careful in future."
Fitz pulled himself up slowly, and began dusting his clothes with his hands. He was scowling. Stodge could not restrain himself. "Aren't you going to say 'Thank you'?" he snapped out.
Fitz glared at him, then turning, stalked away in the direction of the house.
"Pig!" said Stodge, with emphasis.
"Guess he's all hog," agreed Bud with a shrug of his shoulders.
Bill smiled. "Wait, boys. We'll civilize him. Now let's get to work and do some hoeing. We must cut these weeds while the dry weather lasts. I expect we shall get rain in a day or two."
Just before twelve the bell at the house rang, and hanging up their hoes, all four raced for the bathing shed, stripped, plunged in, had a quick swim, then went into the house for lunch. There was cold meat and stewed fruit. Plain fare, but plenty of it. Fitz, who said he had been writing letters, was the only one who had not a furious appetite.
It was Bill's invariable rule to have an hour's rest after lunch. They were all out on the verandah, enjoying the breeze, when Bill sniffed suspiciously.
"What's up?" whispered Jacko, who was sitting next him.
"Smoke," said Bill curtly. "Don't make a fuss. I'll have a look round."
He went off, but was back in two minutes.
"Fire in the bay-head," he said aloud. "All you boys will have to lend a hand. The wind's carrying it straight down on us."
"But we've got a fine break," put in Stodge.
"A fat lot of good that will be with this wind," replied Bill. "Come on. Get wet sacks and axes. I rather fancy we're going to have a busy afternoon. Yes, I shall want you too, Fitzgordon."
Something in Bill's tone quelled any idea of refusal on Fitz's part. He took the sack he was offered and followed the rest.
"Mary," said her brother as he went off, "you'd better have plenty of cold tea ready. We shall need it." As the party turned the corner of the outbuildings they all saw a tall column of dark smoke rising from the bay-head to the south-east of the grove. There was a low but ominous crackling.
"Crudge, I guess," said Bud Harter to Jacko.
"Sure thing!" replied Jacko. "And he's chosen his time pretty cleverly. With this wind, it's going to be the mischief of a job to save our fences."
Bud nodded. But even he had no idea of what was before them.
An hour later he knew all right. By that time they all knew. The fire having left the bay-head a waste of blackened poles, was raging through the piney woods, licking up the wire grass, crackling and roaring as it reached each separate clump of saw palmetto. Many of the pines themselves were aflame, and every now and then would fall with an astonishing crash.
The wind had strengthened, and was carrying a great semicircle of flame right down upon the grove. The heat was frightful, but far worse than that was the smoke which half blinded the workers, making their eyes stream and catching their throats so that they choked and coughed.
Bud, Jacko and Bill had the worst of it. They were in the front, beating down the flames with wet sacks. Stodge and Pete with Fitzgordon were working along the fence with hoes, cutting away the grass from around the fence posts. These posts were all of yellow pine, and being dry as tinder, would burn like torches once the fire reached them. Stodge and Pete were slogging away like slaves, but Fitz was making a very poor hand at it. He hated the smoke and the heat, and his palms were already blistered. He stopped.
"I'm fed up with this," he told Stodge sulkily. "I'm going back to the house for a rest."
Stodge turned as if he could not believe his ears. "Going back?" he echoed.
"Yes. Can't you understand? I'm tired. Anyhow, I didn't come out here to do this sort of thing."
"But the fire will get into the grove," said Stodge.
"I can't help that. That's Mr. Picton's lookout." As he spoke, Fitz flung down his hoe, and started away.
"You miserable coward!" cried Stodge. "You low-down, good-for- nothing cur! Why there isn't a negro in all Florida who wouldn't cry shame on you!"
Fitz looked rather as if a rabbit had turned and bitten him. Then his nasty temper rose. "Confound you, you fat ass! What do you mean by speaking to me like that?" he roared, and struck out at Stodge viciously. Stodge ducked under the blow and drove his head into Fitz just where his fancy leather belt held his trousers. With a gasp Fitz doubled up and sat down heavily, Stodge on top of him.
Next moment Bill was on the spot. "What do you mean by this, Simmons?" he demanded, and for once he was really angry. "Have you two got nothing better to do than fight when the whole place is in danger?"
Pete Russ chipped in. "Marse Simmons was a-trying to stop dat boy from runnin' away, boss. He done said he was tired fighting fire." The contempt in his voice was stinging, and reached even through Fitz's thick hide.
"I was going to the house for drink," he said sulkily, as he scrambled to his feet.
Bill looked at him and his eyes were enough to make any man shrivel. "There is a bucket of water hanging under that orange tree," he said. "If you want a drink you can get it without wasting time. Now kindly continue with your work. Bud will take a turn with the hoe. You can use a sack for a while. Quickly now! We have no time to waste."
It was true. There was no time to waste, for the fire was coming down on a width of more than a quarter of a mile, and once it crossed the narrow fire break the whole fence was bound to go. Worse than that, for part of the grove was still unploughed and covered with dead grass. If the flames reached that, at least a couple of hundred pounds' worth of young orange trees would be scorched and destroyed. There was even danger to the buildings themselves, for the wind was carrying sparks far and wide.
If Fitz had thought the hoeing hard work, he soon knew that it was play compared with the actual fighting of the flames. The heat was scorching, and as fast as he beat the fire out in one place the flames kept starting up in another. His back ached, his hands were sore, his eyes burned, he had never been so hot or tired in all his spoilt life.
But Bill Picton had no mercy on him. His tongue cracked like a whip lash. "Quick, Fitzgordon! Don't go to sleep. Good Heavens, have you never done any work in your life? Why, a child of six could do better."
It was nearly two hours before the vital points were safe. Then the wind dropped, and the fire fighters were able at last to slack up a little, and take stock.
"Might be worse, boys," said Bill with his unconquerable cheerfulness. "About a dozen posts are burned through, but we'll cut some fresh ones to-morrow. Meantime the grove is safe, and you've all done good work. Yes, even you, Fitzgordon, have helped a little. A few more days like this, and you will begin to wake up."
Fitz, black as a sweep, and his drill suit full of charred holes, leaned against a tree, panting and exhausted. "I'll never do another day like this," he protested hoarsely. "I didn't come here to be treated like a slave. I tell you I won't do it, Mr. Picton. I'll leave and go somewhere else where I shall be treated with the consideration due to a gentleman."
The boys stared for an instant, then with one accord burst out laughing. "Say," said Bud, "His Highness has got the pip. Gents, I reckon we'll leave him to recover."
He walked off, and the others followed. Bill paused a moment. "You are simply making a laughing-stock of yourself, Fitzgordon," he said briefly. "All of us have been through this sort of thing time and time again. I should advise you to come down to the lake for a swim and by that time tea will be ready."
Then he went on, leaving Fitz to follow or not as he liked.
"IT was sucks for Crudge," said Jacko to Bud, as the two went up to bed that night in the room which they shared.
"Maybe so, but I wouldn't sleep too sound to-night," replied Bud dryly.
"Why, what's the trouble?" asked the other.
"Crudge has another card or two to play, if I'm not plumb off the track," said Bud. He went to the open window as he spoke and put his head out. "Gee, but he's started already!" he exclaimed. "Guess we won't get to bed just yet, Jacko. Put on your boots quick as you can."
"What's the matter?" demanded Jacko.
"Cattle," said Bud briefly. "There's a whole outfit of scrub cattle moving in just where that fence is broken. And I'll lay a dollar to a dime that Crudge is behind them."
Jacko whistled softly. "You're right, Bud. I hear 'em now." He laughed softly. "Another sell for Crudge. He started in too early and I'll bet he'll have a job to find his scrubs when we've done with them."
By this time he had his boots on, and slipping out of the room he warned Bill and Stodge of what was afoot.
Bill's lips tightened. "This is getting monotonous," he said. "Bring out Fitz as well. We shall all be needed."
Fitz who was lying on his bed, reading a novel, protested angrily at having to go out again. But Bill insisted. He and Jacko took electric lamps, the other two had torches of pinewood. Then they all ran out and made straight for the spot where the fence had been burnt.
Sure enough, the cattle were there. Fifty or more of them. They had been driven right through a gap and were already spreading into the grove. Though there was no moon, there was starlight enough to see them. They were gaunt, long-horned creatures, which, if they had been loose all night in the Picton place, would have bitten the young orange trees to the ground, destroyed the banana patch, and done no end of damage.
"Light up!" said Bill sharply. The two lamps flashed, and a match set the two pine torches flaring, then with a shout Jacko led the charge. The cattle began to mill, then as the lights came flashing down on them, they turned.
"Steady!" cried Bill. "Let them go easy through the gap."
Jacko, Bud and Simmons checked, but Fitz went charging on.
"Steady, there!" cried Bill again, but whether out of pure cussedness or because he thought it fun to chase the cattle, Fitz ran right at them, waving his torch. Before Bill could do anything to stop it, the mischief was done, and the whole bunch of cattle had stampeded in panic straight for the fence. There was a crash of posts snapping, a twanging of broken wires, a wild bellowing, then Jacko, who was nearest to Fitz, had caught and grabbed him. "You idiot!" he said bitterly. "Now yo've done it!"
"Let go. What do you mean by taking hold of me like that?" retorted Fitz, angrily shaking himself free. "Mr. Picton told us to chase the cattle."
"He told you to go steady, you fool," said Jacko, now really roused. "Now you've done it."
"Done what? And don't call me a fool. I won't have it."
"Fool indeed. It isn't a strong enough word. You ought to be back at a dame school, being well tanned by a matron."
Jacko's bitter words cut through the other's armour of self- conceit. He lost his temper completely, and swinging up his still blazing torch struck at Jacko's head.
Jacko just managed to dodge, and next instant his fist got home on Fitz's jaw with a force that knocked him spinning. Fitz's heels caught in a log and down he went with a force that knocked the wind out of him.
By this time Bill was on the spot. "Jackson, what do you mean by this?" he demanded sharply.
"I'm very sorry, sir," replied Jacko. "I lost my temper."
"I reckon Fitzgordon was asking for it," put in Bud dryly. "There's more than one of those cattle hurt."
Fitz scrambled to his feet. "I won't stand it. I won't be treated like this. I'll leave to-morrow," he shrieked. He was trembling with rage.
"I've half a mind to boot you out this very minute," replied Bill sternly. "If it wasn't that I know your mother and am sorry for her I would. By your idiocy you have probably killed or maimed several of those cattle, for which I shall have to pay. Get back at once to the house, and go to bed."
Fitz hesitated a moment, but he was afraid of Bill. He stalked off, muttering.
"We'd better see what the damage is," said Bill dryly. The fence was flat, the heavy barbed wire being broken and several posts snapped short off. But in the darkness they were unable to see what harm had been done to the cattle. Bill sent Stodge for a hammer and some staples, and by torchlight they nailed the wire to the trunks so as to keep any other intruders out just for the night. Then they went back to the house. Bill was very silent, and all he said was to wish them a brief good-night.
"Properly worked up," said Bud to Jacko, as they got back to their room.
"So am I," replied Jacko with a wry grin. "That fellow Fitz is the holy limit."
"And then some," agreed Bud. "I wish Bill had given him the push." He paused. "Say, I'll bet there's some of those cattle finished. I guess we better turn out early and have a look round. Bill will be plumb locoed if he finds any lying around dead."
Jacko agreed, and before sun-up the two were out and had slipped down into the neck of burnt woods. Two hundred yards out they found a cow with a loop of wire round her neck, dead beef. Bud shook his head. "Here's trouble, Jacko. If this comes to Crudge's ears, he'll raise the dickens for miles round, and there'll be shooting and all kinds of trouble."
Jacko looked very grave. He knew the country well enough to be aware that the one unpardonable sin was to kill stock belonging to another man. Yes, if this came to Crudge's ears there would be trouble of the very worst kind, for it would give the brute just the handle he wanted against Bill.
"We must get rid of it," said Jacko curtly, as he glanced at the body of the dead cow. "We can bury it before Bill comes out."
"We can't," replied Bud. "It would take an hour. Besides, anyone can tell where a cow's been buried."
"Then what can we do? We can't leave the body here," said Jacko.
"What's the matter with hauling it down to the lake? I guess there's alligators enough left to eat that much beef."
"Good idea!" said Jacko briefly. "You wait here. I'll fetch Mose."
Mose was the elderly mule who did the ploughing on the place. Jacko put on plough harness and was back with him in a very short time. The two boys then fastened the hind legs of the dead beast to the trace chains and so dragged the body down to the lake shore. They weighted it with some old iron and sank it in deep water, then feeling that a good job had been well done, went back to the house to help Mary with breakfast.
Bill met them. "Anything out there?" he asked, and though his manner was casual, there was a touch of anxiety in his voice.
"There's nothing there, sir," replied Jacko quietly.
"That's good," said Bill.
As Billy turned away Bud winked at the other. "Good lie, Jacko," he said.
"It wasn't a lie. There is nothing there—not now," answered Jacko quickly. Bud merely grinned, and went out to chop kindling.
After breakfast all hands worked at mending the fence. They also widened the fire break. Incidentally Bill set some buckets of water in the outbuildings. He was not taking any chances where Crudge was concerned.
He made Fitz take his share in the work. Fitz was sulky, but somewhat subdued. So far he had not got much change out of anybody, not even out of Stodge. And he was afraid of Bill. He didn't say much, and as for the rest no one spoke to him unless they had to. The cold-blooded way in which he had tried to quit during the fire on the previous day had finished him in their eyes.
Bill, the most kind-hearted man alive, began to feel sorry for him and at lunch time asked him if he rode.
"Yes, I've done a lot of riding at home," replied Fitz with some return of his patronizing manner.
"Would you like a ride this afternoon?" asked Bill.
"I didn't know there was anything to ride," said Fitz.
"There's my pony, Texas," Bill told him. "The English mail ought to be in, and if you like you can fetch it from the post office at Pinelake."
"I don't mind going," said Fitz, with such an air that Bill felt half inclined to rescind his invitation. Bud and Jacko generally took turns to go for the letters and he knew that they enjoyed the trip.
Fitz went up to his room, to return presently in Bedford cord breeches, canvas gaiters, brown boots and a tropical tweed coat. And on his head he wore—of all things in the world—a hard hat. But no one uttered a word of comment. Only Bill went with him to the stable to show him where to find the saddle and bridle.
Fitz was decidedly upset to find that he was expected to saddle and bridle the pony himself. He suggested that Pete might do the job.
"Pete is busy," said Bill calmly. "And in Florida everyone saddles their own horse. And groom and feed it, too. You'd better tighten those girths well if you don't want the saddle to slip."
The others, sitting on the verandah, presently saw Fitz riding by. The gate leading to the main road was on the far side of the grove, but there was another small gate which opened down by the lake shore, and it was this that Fitz made for.
Beyond the gate was a foot-path through longish grass running quite close to the lake. It was the very spot where Jacko and Bud had sunk the carcase of the scrub cow at dawn. The two exchanged glances. "He won't see it," whispered Jacko. "There's a good ten foot of water under the bank."
As he spoke there was a sudden scream from Mary, and the others looked up just in time to see Texas right up in the air, in the act of executing the most amazing buck-jump imaginable.
With such short stirrups such as Fitz used, not even a trick rider could have kept his seat under the circumstances, but as for Fitz, he looked as if he was going to fly. He was high above Texas' back, and as Texas came down Fitz followed. But the moment the pony touched the ground he gave another leap sideways, then bolted clean as a whistle, while Fitz, descending in a wonderful dive, pitched into the grass head-foremost.
Bill sprang to his feet. "What is the matter with Texas?" he began.
But Mary's eyes were quicker than his. "The alligator! Don't you see the alligator?" she cried.
"So it is!" gasped Bill, as he made one leap from the verandah and raced down the path.
Jacko was after him, but Bud caught him by the arm. "No use breaking your neck a-hurrying," he said in his dry way. "That 'gator's worse scared than Texas and nearly as much as Fitz." He broke off into a chuckle of laughter.
Meantime, Fitz had come down flop on top of the alligator, which was only a little beast, not six feet long and fairly harmless. But Fitz didn't know that, and anyhow his hard hat had been rammed down right over his eyes and jammed so tightly that he couldn't move it or see an inch. So there he was struggling in the grass, striking out wildly and yelling fit to crack his lungs.
By the time Bill and the boys reached the spot the alligator had vanished, but Fitz, still certain he was going to be devoured, was thrashing about with one arm and with the other hand vainly trying to get the hat off.
"Steady!" said Bill, but though he tried to speak soberly, his voice shook with laughter. "Steady, Fitzgordon. You're quite safe. Here, I'll take that hat off."
But the hat was so wedged that Bill had to use a good deal of his considerable strength before he got it off. Then at last the brim came away, leaving the crown still pasted tight on Fitz's head. The result was so perfectly absurd that even Bill couldn't keep a straight face, and as for the rest they were rocking and helpless with laughter.
Fitz was furious. "It's a plant," he raved. "You did it on purpose."
Bill pulled himself together. "Don't be silly, Fitzgordon. We don't keep pet alligators. But come now. You're more frightened than hurt. Get another hat, and meanwhile Stodge will catch Texas, and you can go and have your ride."
Fitz glared round. But as he really wanted to go into Pinelake he did not say much more. He went back to the house, got another hat and presently disappeared in the direction of Pinelake.
IT was nearly nine when Fitz got back. He made no apology for being late, merely said he had had supper at the Magnolia Hotel at Pinelake. "You might let me know next time you intend to be late," said Bill quietly. "Then we shall not keep anything hot for you. Is the pony bedded down?"
"Pete's doing that," replied Fitz.
Bill flushed slightly, and the other boys expected an outburst. It was an absolute rule that anyone who used the pony should water, feed and bed him down. But Bill restrained himself, and Fitz went off to his room.
"He's all hog," growled Jacko to Bud.
"I guess that's so," replied Bud more seriously than he usually spoke. "I wish Bill would give him the sack. I'm fed up with the gent."
Though he spoke in a whisper, Bill overheard. "I almost agree with you, Bud. But I'm bound to give the fellow a thorough try- out. His father was a great friend of our family. Unfortunately he died when Fitzgordon was a small child, and his mother has spoilt him abominably. But with you boys backing me, I don't despair."
"Oh, we'll do what we can," said Jacko.
"You bet we will," agreed Bud. "But if I'm driven to push his face in, you mustn't get too cross with me, Mr. Picton."
Bill smiled. "I know you will keep your temper as long as you can, Bud," he said. "Now I must read my letters."
The others noticed that his letters did not seem to agree with Bill. He frowned over them a good deal, and there was evidently something in them that worried him.
Later, in their room, Jacko spoke of it to Bud.
"Money, I guess," said Bud. "I reckon you know there's a mortgage on this place. Bill don't fancy owing money to Crudge, from whom he bought the land, and he's been trying to raise a loan from the Bank to pay it off. That letter was from old Mr. Worth, the President of the First National Bank. I know his writing."
"Then he won't lend the money?" said Jacko.
"Looks mighty like it, Jacko. But I reckon we'll get a fair crop this year, and then Bill will be able to fix things up all right."
"I hope so," said Jacko seriously. "I'd hate to see Bill go under. He's a jolly good sort."
Next morning Bill still looked troubled, but as he said nothing of his trouble to the boys they couldn't very well ask questions. But Jacko and Bud showed their sympathy by helping him in all sorts of small ways, and they could see plainly enough that he was not ungrateful.
About mid-morning, when they were all busy in the grove, Stodge spotted a man in the distance, riding up along the edge of the lake, and pointed him out to Jacko.
Jacko whistled softly. "Crudge, I expect," he said in a low voice. "Come to make inquiries about his beast."
Bud, shading his eyes with his hand from the sun glare, stared hard at the distant figure. "No, sir!" he said. "That's not Crudge. That pony he's riding is a dappled cream and Crudge rides a sorrel horse."
"Then I'll tell you who it is," said Jacko. "It's Saunders."
It was Bud's turn to look dismayed. Saunders was the Sheriff, and the same thought occurred to both the boys—that Crudge had sent him to enquire about his missing beast.
Jacko glanced round. Bill was some distance away and almost out of sight. "Let's go and meet Saunders," he said to Bud, and Bud nodded and hung his hoe on a branch.
The Sheriff was a squarely built man with a square sort of face, thinnish lips and grey-blue eyes, which seemed to look right through you. He had the reputation of being as hard as nails, yet very straight. He nodded to the boys as he rode up. "Mr. Picton 'round?" he asked briefly.
"He's somewhere about the place," said Jacko.
As Bill came up the boys moved away. "I don't reckon it's the cow after all," said Bud aside to Jacko. "More likely 'bootleggers,' if you ask me."
"Hope so, anyhow," Jacko answered. "Bill will tell us."
Presently the Sheriff rode off again, and Bill joined the boys. "More trouble," he said whimsically. Then seeing the scared look on Jacko's face, "Not our funeral this time, Jacko. The Sheriff says there's moonshining afoot. He's got a notion that the stuff is coming from somewhere round the lake, and has asked me to keep our eyes open. So if you see anything suspicious let me know."
"Rather!" said Jacko, and turned away quickly so that the other might not see the look of intense relief on his face.
All the same, Jacko was very silent and thoughtful for some time, and presently Bud noticed that he had stopped work and was gazing out across the big lake, which was blue as the sky and gently rippled by the light breeze.
"What's biting you?" asked Bud.
Jacko pointed to the dark belt of cypresses rising like a great black wall on the far side of the lake and to the giant plume of smoke curling upwards from its heart and drifting slowly away down wind. "Anything might be happening in there," he said.
Bud nodded. "That's so. And some day we'll go and see."
NEXT afternoon Fitz told Bill that he wanted to go into Pinelake to do some shopping.
"All right," said Bill, "only I'm afraid you'll have to walk. Texas has had all the work he can do the last two days."
Rather to Bill's surprise, Fitz did not turn sulky. "All right," he said, "I'll walk."
The others breathed more freely when Fitz was off the place. He never did a stroke of work unless he was driven to it, and at meals he sat and scowled until everyone else felt thoroughly uncomfortable. It was perhaps hardest on Mary, who was a good little housekeeper, and did her best to give everyone good cooking.
"I do hope he won't come back till after supper," she said to Jacko.
"Not he!" replied Jacko. "You won't see him before ten. Fitz is a towny bird. The pastoral life don't agree with him."
As Jacko had prophesied, there was no sign of Fitz at supper- time, but about nine they heard someone coming up to the house.
Jacko looked out. "Is it Fitzgordon?" asked Bill.
"Yes, sir, and on a horse."
"A pony, anyhow. Looks a pretty good one. I suppose he got tired and hired one from Bob Hyde at the livery stable."
"Funny!" said Bill. "You'd have thought he would have hired a buggy. Now I suppose we shall have to put this beast of his up for the night."
"There's the shed, sir," said Jacko, and just then Fitz arrived at the front door.
"Hulloa!" he said, with unusual cheerfulness, "what do you think of my new horse?"
Jacko started slightly. "You've bought him?" he asked.
"Yes. I don't care much about walking in this sand. Thought I might as well have a horse of my own."
Bill came out. "It would have been better to tell me before you invested," he said quietly. "We have no spare stalls, as you know."
"Oh, we can run up something. I'll pay for it," said Fitz with an air.
Bill bit his lip. "You can put the pony in the shed for the night," he said. "You had better put a halter on, for there is no door. You can give him a feed of oats from the bin."
Fitz nodded and rode away to the stable.
"Cheek!" growled Jacko.
Bill shrugged his shoulders. "I can't well object," he said. "But at any rate he will have to look after the animal himself. I'll take care he does it properly, too."
"I wonder what sort of beast it is. He's sure to have got stuck," said Bud with a grin.
"We'll see in the morning," said Bill.
"And good and early," chuckled Bud. "I'll see to that."
He did. Next morning he roused out Fitz at half-past six. Fitz was sleepy and sulky, but he did not dare to remonstrate.
The pony was a biggish bay, not a bad-looking animal, and did not seem to have been expensive at the hundred dollars which Fitz said he had paid for him.
"Take him down to the lake for a drink," said Bill. "Then you can groom and feed him. No, I don't think you need put a saddle on. He seems quiet enough, and I don't suppose you are afraid to ride him barebacked."
"Of course I'm not afraid," retorted Fitz, scrambling clumsily on to the pony's back. The others watched him as he rode down to the lake, to the shallow spot where they always watered the horses. Jacko jumped on Texas and followed.
Fitz's new mount went quietly down to the lake and walked into the water. "Whoa!" cried Fitz, but the pony did not stop, and as Fitz had no bridle, only a halter, he could not check it. "Whoa!" he yelled, tugging frantically at the halter. The pony paid not the faintest attention, but walked on until it was up to its belly, then began to drink. It drank a few mouthfuls, then quite suddenly plunged forward. Next moment it was swimming.
With a yell of dismay Fitz toppled off its back and disappeared beneath the surface.
Jacko burst out laughing. "Silly ass!" he remarked, and stood watching. Fitz's head came up, then with a gurgle went under again.
There came a shout from behind Jacko. "Pull him out, Jacko. Pull him out."
It had never occurred to Jacko that Fitz couldn't swim, for in Florida everyone swims as soon as they can walk. But now he realized with a distinct shock that Fitz was actually drowning, and jumping off Texas he dashed in.
Fitz had gone over the edge of the shallow into deep water, and Jacko saw him right down in the depths and dived after him. Next moment Fitz, crazy with terror, had gripped him round the neck so that he was perfectly helpless.
Jacko realized that there was only one thing to do. He went quite limp and both sank together to the white sand at the bottom. Jacko was good for a minute under water, and before that time was up Fitz was unconscious. For another thing Bill and Bud were both on the spot. Between them they dragged the wretched Fitz out. They soon got the water out of him, but when he came round he was very sick. They helped him to his bed and left him there. Then they finished their chores and went to breakfast.
It was dinner-time before Fitz appeared. He looked white and sullen. "You'll have to learn to swim, Fitzgordon," said Bill. "Do you know, if it hadn't been for Jackson, you would most certainly have been drowned."
Fitz glared at Bill. "It was all your fault," he said harshly. "You told me to take the pony in."
"But, good heavens, man, I had no idea you could not swim!" returned Bill, for once stirred out of his usual calmness.
"It was a rotten trick," snarled Fitz with a rudeness that fairly paralysed the rest.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," broke in Stodge angrily. "You've never thanked Jacko for saving your life. Makes me almost wish he'd left you there in the lake."
"Steady, lad!" said Bill quietly.
But Fitz was on his feet. "I hate you all," he roared, and flung out of the room slamming the door behind him.
"Sweet creature!" remarked Bud. No one else said anything.
Later when they were having their usual midday rest, they heard the drumming of horse's hoofs. Jacko looked up. "It's Fitz, He's gone off on his own."
"He'll come back," said Bill dryly. He was wrong. Bedtime came, and no sign of Fitz. And next morning there was still no sign of him.
"ANY news, sir?" asked Jacko as he met Bill at the gate, and opened it for him.
Bill slipped off Texas. His face was oddly white and drawn. "Yes," he answered quietly. "Crudge has got hold of Fitzgordon."
Jacko simply stared. For the moment he could find no words. Bud hurrying up behind him had heard what Bill said. "Crudge got Fitz!" he repeated. "What! You mean he's caught him?"
"He's caught him right enough," said Bill, grimly. "But Fitzgordon appears to have been a willing captive."
"I don't understand," said Jacko.
"Oh, it's simple enough," replied Bill with a shrug. "Every time that Fitzgordon has been in Pinelake he has been with Crudge. Crudge knowing that the fellow has money, has laid himself out to humbug him, and upon my word he has succeeded to perfection. The wretched boy has gone to live with him."
Jacko pursued his lips in a soundless whistle. "But this is an awful mess-up. What are we going to do?"
"Guess I'd leave him right there," said Bud quickly. "We're well shot of him."
Bill shook his head. "I can't do that, Bud," he answered. "Crudge is a blackguard of a most unpleasant and dangerous type, and will ruin the boy bodily and mentally. I have to think of his people, too, as well as himself."
Bud frowned, but did not speak. Jacko broke the silence. "But what can you do. You may be quite sure that Crudge will refuse to give him up."
"Then I must go to the Sheriff," replied Bill, but though he spoke quietly enough he was paler than usual.
Jacko understood. "But then, Crudge will come down on you," he blurted out.
Bill gave him a quick glance. "What do you know about this?" he asked quite sharply.
"I don't know anything, but I'm not blind. I've heard that Crudge holds a mortgage on this place, and I couldn't help seeing how your letters worried you the other evening."
Bill nodded. "Since you know so much, I may as well tell you the truth. Happily, I know that you and Bud can be trusted to keep your mouths shut. You are quite right. I bought this property from Crudge before I knew his real character. I could not pay the whole amount, so part of the purchase money remained on mortgage.
"This he can call in, if he wishes, at the end of the year. When we had that row with him the other day I fully expected to have a notice from him demanding the money, and I endeavoured, but without success, to borrow the amount.
"To my surprise, the notice has not come, but now I see the reason. Crudge planned from the first to get Fitzgordon away from me and will hold the mortgage over me to prevent my reclaiming him. That is how the case appears to me to stand at present."
"And I reckon that's just how it does stand," said Bud, who, in money matters, was as smart as most young Americans. "And I guess the best thing you can do is to sit tight and say nothing, but just watch how things will work out."
Bill smiled rather sadly. "From a business point of view your advice is good, Bud," he said. "But if you think it over you will agree with me that I cannot possibly allow Fitzgordon to remain where he is."
"Guess I wouldn't risk losing this place for fifty Fitzgordons," returned Bud stubbornly. "You leave him right there. I'll lay Crudge'll teach him something before he's done with him."
But Bill shook his head. "It can't be done, Bud. I shall go to Crudge's in the morning and bring the boy back."
When Bill spoke in that tone the others knew it was no use arguing. But both felt thoroughly miserable as they went back to their evening work about the house. "I wish we'd never seen the blighter," growled Jacko. "He's brought nothing but trouble since he came."
Jacko's lips tightened. "When Fitz does come back I'm going to tell him what I think of him," he went on. "And I only hope he tries to hit me."
Bud grinned. "I guess I'll be there to see," he remarked dryly.
It was with anything but happy feelings that Bud and Jacko saw Bill ride off next morning. They would both have gone with him, but he would not have them. They went out to work as usual, but found it almost impossible to stick to anything. They kept on watching the road by which Bill would return.
It was not, however, until long past dinner-time that he came riding back, and they saw that he was alone. Jacko and Bud both ran out to meet him.
They were dismayed at the expression on his face, and both waited, not liking to ask questions. He rode up to the stable, and dismounted. "It's no use," he said heavily. "Crudge has left the place, and taken Fitzgordon with him."
"Where's he gone?" asked Bud sharply.
"That is what I have been trying to find out. I rode on into Pinelake and saw the Sheriff. But he cannot help me. He says that since Fitzgordon appears to have gone to Crudge of his own accord I have no legal claim, and that the only one the law will recognize is a Power of Attorney from his mother."
"Then you'll have to get that, sir," said Jacko.
Bill looked at him. "It will take a month at least, and what will happen to the wretched boy in the meantime? Besides, think of what I must tell his unfortunate mother!"
"I hadn't thought of it that way," said Jacko unhappily.
THAT evening Bill wrote to Mrs. Fitzgordon, telling her of her son's disappearance, and then the three boys, with Mary, sat on the verandah, chatting, until it was time for Mary to go to bed.
Then Jacko got up. "I'll just go round to the stable and see that all's right," he said. "Then I'll turn in."
"Is Pete back?" called Bill through the open window.
"I'll see," answered Jacko, and strolled off. As he reached the barn he was aware of footsteps coming up the path from the lake and he stopped. Next moment the stumpy figure of Pete Russ came hurrying towards him. "Dat you, Marse Jackson?"
"Yes, what's up?"
"I don't rightly know, sah, but I reckon I got some news."
"What—about Mr. Fitzgordon?"
"Not about him, boss; it's about dat Crudge. I been down to de settlement dis evening, and dere was a coloured gen'leman dar who done told me something about dat Crudge."
He paused. "Out with it, Pete," said Jacko.
"Ef I tells you you mustn't repeat it to nobody," said Pete in a low voice.
"Not to Mr. Picton?"
"Yes, sah, yo' can tell him. But he mustn't tell de Sheriff."
"All right. I'll promise that," said Jacko. "Has this man told you where Crudge has gone?"
"Yes, boss. He reckons dat he's down in de big swamp."
"In the swamp! What's he doing there?"
Pete lowered his voice. "Dey do say he's busy wid some of dem moonshiners."
Jacko whistled softly. "So that's the little game! And just what we might have expected, if we'd only thought of it." He turned as he heard a step behind him. "Hulloa, Bud. That you?"
"I came to find what you and Pete were yarning about," said Bud.
"It's very hush-hush," Jacko said. "Can I tell him, Pete?"
"Yas, boss, yo' can tell Marse Bud."
Jacko told Bud, and Bud was keenly interested. "Say," he remarked as Jacko finished, "do you reckon Crudge has taken Fitz down there into the swamp?"
"It looks rather like it," Jacko answered. "Yet you'd fancy Crudge would think twice before letting a fool like that into the game. Well, let's go back to the house and tell Bill."
"Yo'll suah warn him not to let it go furder, boss," said Pete anxiously. "I doan't want to get into no trouble wid dem whiskey men."
"That'll be all right, Pete," promised Jacko. "Your name shan't be mentioned."
For half the distance back to the house neither of the boys spoke. Then suddenly Bud stopped short. "Jacko, I guess we won't tell Bill," he said shortly.
"But we must, Bud."
"No reason to. It'll only worry him a heap, and likely he'll want to go hunting for Fitz down there in the Big Cypress."
"Then if we don't tell him, what can we do?"
"Go ourselves," was Bud's brief answer.
Bud went on. "See here! Bill's promised us a shooting trip, and work's getting a bit slack on the place. What's the matter with asking him for three days' leave, and taking the boat and having a look round? Even if we don't find Crudge there's a chance we might pick up some news. And that would pay us mighty well."
"Pay us?" repeated Jacko. "I don't understand."
"Then I guess you haven't read the paper."
"No, I haven't looked at it."
"Well, I have. And in the 'Pinelake Sentinel' there's a reward of a thousand dollars offered by the State to anyone who'll get to the bottom of this moonshining business. Mind you, Jacko, this isn't bootlegging. It isn't stuff brought in from the sea up the creeks. They say that there's a crowd running a big distillery down in the Swamps, making corn whiskey, and selling it to the negroes."
"Then I, guess we'll do it," said Jacko. "And if we can get the reward, why it's going to be mighty handy for Bill. With that and the cash he'll get for his crop, I shouldn't wonder if he could pay the whole mortgage off pronto."
He gave a sudden chuckle. "But if we collar Crudge there wouldn't be anyone to pay it to," he added. "You see they'd put Crudge in gaol."
"And Fitz, too, likely," added Bud dryly.
Jacko started slightly. Then he laughed. "Well, we haven't got either of them yet," he said. "But I'm game for the trip if you are."
If Bill was surprised at Bud's request for three days' leave he did not say so. He gave his consent, and offered to help them with their preparations.
Bill had a boat, a good solid flat-bottomed affair, about eighteen feet long, and provided with a sail and lee boards. He lent them this for the trip, and provided them with cooking things, mosquito nets, and hammocks. Mary made a quantity of bread, and the boys themselves bought a supply of tinned things in Pinelake as well as coffee, sugar and baking powder.
A little case containing first-aid and quinine; an axe, their guns and fishing tackle completed the equipment, and early on the second morning after Pete's interesting communication the two boys said good-bye and set off across the big lake.
There was just breeze enough to fill the sail, and the boat ploughed steadily through the ripples, headed for the dark line of cypress in the distance. Bud steered and handled the sail; Jacko had out a spinner and every now and then there was a tug and he would haul aboard a big flapping bass. By the time they neared the far shore they had as much fish as they could eat while it kept fresh.
"There's the creek mouth," said Jacko at last, pointing to a narrow opening in the great wall of cypresses. Bud nodded and got the sail down. He also took the mast out of its step, and stowed it neatly. Then the two boys shipped their oars, and pulled into the creek.
This side of the lake was entirely different from theirs. It was all swamp, a swamp as big as an English county, unsurveyed and almost unknown. Here and there were islands of dry ground covered with magnolias, oaks and similar trees, but for the most part the swamp was a great morass of mud of unknown depth, in which grew giant cypresses and tall slender cabbage- palmettos.
The whole was intersected by sluggish creeks of deep, dark brown water. Along these creeks the cypress cutters had been at work; for cypress makes splendid shingles. The boys knew that there was an old cypress cutters' camp about a dozen miles down the main creek, and this was where they meant to make their headquarters.
In a few minutes after leaving the lake they had lost sight of it and were pulling along a sort of tunnel. Under them was the oily brown water, overhead the enormous cypress branches locked together, shutting out the sunlight, and the shade was made thicker by the festoons of grey Spanish moss which hung in long trails from every branch.
Cypresses throw out extraordinary buttress roots, almost big enough to build a house on. Upon these, hard-shell turtles were resting, and also here and there the boys noticed the rusty coils of the sluggish and poisonous water moccasin. Now and then an alligator, disturbed by their approach, would slip off the bank into the dark deep water.
But the main note of the vast swamp was its extraordinary silence. Even the slow beat of the oars sounded startlingly loud in the hothouse-like hush of the creek.
The boys took turns in rowing until they had been travelling for some hours into the swamp. Then Bud glanced at his wrist- watch. "Guess it's dinner time," he said briefly, and Jacko nodding turned the boat's head into the bank.
Bread, cold meat and fruit was the menu. The two were just finishing their meal when Jacko pricked up his ears. "Something coming," he said in a quick whisper.
For a moment or two the pair sat silent, then Jacko nodded. "Yes, a boat," he said. "Cypress cutters, most likely."
"Might be Crudge," said Bud with a half-grin. "Anyways, I guess we'll hide up."
"Might be as well," agreed Jacko looking round. "But I say, where shall we stick the boat?"
"It's right awkward," said Bud, "but we've got to push her out of sight somewhere. Say, there's a side creek just a little way up. If we go quiet they won't hear us." As he spoke he picked up an oar, pushed the boat out from among the cypress roots and sent her quietly across.
By this time the other boat was near enough for them to hear plainly the creak of the rowlocks. But Bud kept perfectly cool, and without the least hurry drove the boat into the little opening which he had noticed.
It was the merest little dark recess among the cypress roots, but luckily the branches came quite low to the water, and Jacko pulled them down over the boat so that it was quite hidden. Only just in time, for next moment the other boat swung into sight around the next bend, coming up the same way that the boys had come.
She was a big, heavy craft, and piled high with cargo which, however, was hidden by a big tarpaulin. But it was not her cargo that the boys noticed, it was her crew. There were three men aboard, two white, one black, and the two former about as unpleasant-looking brutes as Jacko and Bud had ever set eyes on.
One was huge, gaunt, with a rough beard and a shock of ill-cut hair hanging over the collar of his dirty shirt. His face was long and narrow with a large nose and great prominent teeth. The other, much shorter, was grossly fat with a flat, pallid, unwholesome-looking face, a slit of a mouth, and sharp, pig-like eyes.
The negro was pulling. It was very severe work for one man for the sweeps were long and heavy, and the negro was dripping with perspiration and evidently desperately tired.
Just as he got opposite to the spot where the boys were hidden he struck one oar against a sunken log, caught a crab and fell backwards. The fat man picked up a rawhide whip from the bottom of the boat and cut the poor fellow savagely. "Dern yore black hide!" he growled, "if ye do that again I'll skin ye fust, then chuck ye to the mud turtles."
Bud heard a slight movement behind and turned his head to see Jacko, his eyes fairly blazing and a red spot in the centre of each cheek. Bud held up a warning hand, and they watched in silence while the unfortunate negro got back on to his thwart and set to pulling again. The heavy boat lumbered slowly around the next bend and disappeared from view. Jacko was still quivering. As Bud knew, the one thing that made Stan Jackson absolutely wild was cruelty. "The brute!" he said hoarsely. "Bud, I'll take it out of that fellow with his own whip. I vow I will."
"You got to catch him first," Bud answered dryly.
"Let's go after them at once."
"Steady, old son," said Bud quietly. "This isn't a job to jump into without thinking. Do you know who the long fellow was?"
"He looked a pretty savage brute," said Jacko, "but it's the other who hit the negro."
"If the fat fellow is worse than the long one he must be the limit," said Bud. "The long man is Ty Barchard, and I guess he's the worst ever. He's the cracker that burnt the Barber's place over their ears and three children in the house."
"That swine!" exclaimed Jacko. "Why, the Sheriff has been looking for him for a year. And what's he doing here?"
"Moonshining, my son. That's what he's doing. Those were barrels under the tarpaulin."
"Then why didn't you say so, Bud? We might have held them up with our guns, and taken them out to Pinelake."
"We might, and we might not," replied Bud in his quietest drawl. "They do say that Ty is mighty handy with his gun. But what would have been the good? They're only part of the outfit. I reckoned it was Crudge we were after."
Jacko sat silent. When it came to a job of this sort he knew that Bud was the one to take the lead. "What are we to do?" he asked at last.
"I was reckoning we might follow them," said Bud. "If we could follow them without their knowing they'd lead us right to the place where they've got their distillery."
"And what then?" asked Jacko quickly.
"Why, then I guess we slip out as smart as we can and fetch the Sheriff. That way we get the whole bunch and the reward as well."
Jacko nodded, and sitting down picked up the sculls. Bud glanced at him and there was a very kindly look in those keen eyes of his. "I guess you know it's kind of risky, Jacko," he remarked.
"Hang the risk!" replied Jacko quickly. "So long as I get hold of that man who hit the negro, I'm not worrying about the risk."
Bud merely nodded and took the tiller. The boat driven by Jacko's long silent strokes shot away in pursuit of the moonshiners.
THE creek wound like a monstrous snake in and out among the black cypress trees. Here and there other creeks entered it or the main creek itself broke into different channels.
As both the boys knew, the big boat which they were pursuing might at any moment turn off into one of these other waterways, so it was necessary to keep near enough to hear the creak of her rowlocks. Yet at the same time it would never do to let her crew see the boat that was chasing them—or hear it either. If that happened it would spoil everything.
So Jacko had to pull as soundlessly as possible, and neither he nor Bud dared to speak in anything louder than a whisper.
Luckily the heavy boat could not go fast, so there was no difficulty in keeping up. The difficulty came in always keeping just one curve of the river behind her, and in avoiding the sunken logs which in many places lay just under the surface of the deep black water.
And so the hot silent afternoon dragged on until nearly two hours had passed. Bud leaned over and whispered, "Say, Jacko, we're off the main creek. I guess we better watch mighty careful which way we're going or likely we'll not find our way out again."
"I've noticed we're in a side creek," Jacko answered. "I know where we turned and I'm storing all up in my head as well as I can. I wonder how much farther they're going? Seems to me that if they're depending on that poor unfortunate negro, they won't get very far."
"Hst!" muttered Bud. "They've stopped." Jacko raised his oars and the two listened hard while the boat glided slowly and silently onwards.
Next moment the silence was broken by a hoarse voice. They could not distinguish what was said, but there was no doubt about the tone which was of savage anger. A pause of a second or two, then a scream of pain.
The two red spots lit in Jacko's cheeks. "The swine!" he said fiercely. "He's beating that man again."
Another scream, and now they could hear the sound of blows. "Bud, I can't stand this," said Jacko. "We've got to stop it."
Bud looked at his friend, and saw that he meant what he said. And he himself, though he did not show his feelings as plainly as the English boy, was inwardly raging. "Guess we have," he said briefly, and picking up his gun thrust a couple of cartridges into the breech.
Jacko needed nothing more. Next moment he was pulling like mad. At this time the first boat was two or three hundred yards ahead, but quite hidden around a bend in the creek. The bend was a sharp one and about half-way between the two boats. The creek here was narrow, and the actual waterway made narrower still by masses of the curious floating weed known as water lettuce.
A little farther on and the channel divided into two, the centre of the creek being completely blocked with weed. One channel ran close to the right bank and though in one place the weed was pretty thick it looked the wider of the two, so Bud took it.
By this time Jacko was pulling full out, and making the boat fairly hum through the water. Bud kept her in the very centre of the channel, and they were half-way up it and had just reached the weedy part, when there was a slight shock, the boat's bow shot upwards, and she came to rest with a jar that nearly sent Bud backwards over the stern.
But he was up in a moment and had the boat-hook. "She's on a log," he said. "A big one too."
"Quick! Get her off," panted Jacko as he jumped up and thrust one oar against the obstacle. Bud too got his boat-hook against it, and both shoved for all they were worth.
It was no use. The log was just far enough under water to have trapped the boat in such a position that she was fairly fixed, and shove as they liked they could not budge her an inch.
"No good, Jacko," said Bud. "Guess we'll have to lighten her." As he spoke he sat down and began pulling off his boots and socks.
Holding to the side of the boat they stepped out on to the log. It was the trunk of a cypress which had fallen across the river. It was only about a foot in diameter, but rounded, smooth and dreadfully slimy. All over it the water lettuce clung thickly. It was a mass of rotting vegetation smelling abominably, but that was not what troubled Bud. What was in his mind was the thought that this was just the place for water moccasins and in spite of his pluck his flesh crept at thought of his bare feet coming in contact with their bloated, deadly coils. He did not say a word because he was hoping that Jacko was not thinking of the same horrors.
Balanced on the narrow slippery log, knee-deep in the festering weeds, the two hauled the boat slowly forward until at last they had got over the obstruction, and were able to climb in again. But the job had taken the better part of ten minutes, and now they could no longer hear anything of the men they were after.
"I reckon they've gone on," said Bud. "But we can't be right sure. It's possible they might have heard us and be laying for us."
"Then we'd best go quietly," said Jacko, as without waiting to put his boots on, he began to row again.
Bud nodded. "Go slow, Jacko," he said. "The creek's open enough here, and I'll keep her close up under the trees."
Jacko's oars lifted and fell so softly that there was never a splash, and the boat moved up under the trees as far as the bend. Then Bud made a sign to Jacko to stop pulling.
Without a sound they crept to the corner from whence they got a view up the next reach.
Both gazed up it. "Not a blessed thing!" growled Bud.
"But where the mischief have they gone?" demanded Jacko. "The reach is all of five hundred yards long."
Bud frowned. "I guess they had plenty of time to get round the next bend," he said, "or maybe they've turned off again somewhere. I've never been up this place before."
"But we can't even hear them," said Jacko in a bitterly disappointed tone. Then his face hardened. "But I'm jolly well going after them," he added. "That wretched negro will be murdered if we don't save him. Very likely they've killed him already."
"I guess not," said Bud and pointed.
Looking in the direction in which Bud was pointing, Jacko saw a huge mass of cypress roots forming a sort of promontory which stuck out into the creek, and on them was huddled limply the negro who had been pulling the moonshiners' boat.
Jacko gasped. "They have killed him," he exclaimed.
"No, I saw him move," replied Bud coolly. "Pull on, Jacko. We've got to pick up the poor coon."
Jacko dug his oars into the water with all his strength, the boat shot up stream and in a very few minutes was alongside the cypress knoll.
The negro heard the bows scrape against the roots, and sat up suddenly. On his face was a look of such abject terror as made Jacko feel sick. "It's all right," he said quickly. "We're not going to hurt you."
The man sat staring at the boys. His face had the curious leaden hue which, in the coloured race means utter exhaustion or illness, but when he realized that the occupants of the boat were merely two boys, the glaze of terror in his eyes changed to a more intelligent expression.
Jacko jumped out on to the root. "Give me the brandy from the first-aid, Bud," he said. Bud did so, and pouring out a little of the strong spirit Jacko made the man swallow it. It revived him wonderfully, and there was real gratitude in his face as he looked up.
"You all is mighty kind," he said feebly.
"Can you get into the boat?" asked Jacko.
"Ah reckon so, boss. Seems to me like yo' must be de gen'l'men from Marse Picton's place."
"Yes, that's where we come from," said Jacko, "we're on a shooting and fishing trip."
The man shook his head. "Dis hyah's a mighty bad place fer shootin' or fishin', gents. Ah reckon yo' better get right home quick as ebber yo' can."
"We'll talk about that later," said Jacko. "Now then, into the boat with you."
The man was so weak that Jacko had to help him. His clothes were wringing wet, and his miserable ragged shirt saturated with blood. He dropped in a heap in the bottom of the boat and sat huddled there, breathing hard.
"How did you come there on that cypress?" asked Bud.
The man looked round with scared eyes. "Dey done throwed me in de creek, boss. Yo' see I was plumb tired. I couldn't row no more."
"Who threw you in?" continued Bud. The negro only shivered.
"Was it Ty Barchard?" demanded Bud.
"Dat's who it was," admitted the other hoarsely. "An' boss, for Hebben's sake yo' get away down de creek before dem debbils comes back arter me."
Bud whistled softly. "You reckon they'll come back?"
"I spec' dey will, sah. Yo' see dat Barchard he throwed me over 'cause he done got vexed wid me. But I do de cooking up to de camp, an' some ob dem is mighty likely to come back arter me."
Bud and Jacko exchanged glances. "What's your name?" asked Bud.
"Cicero Mack—dat's my name, boss."
"And you're cook up at the moonshiners' camp in there?"
Cicero shivered again. "What you know 'bout dat camp?" he asked shakily.
"More than you think," Bud answered curtly. "But there are one or two things we'd like to know. About Crudge, for instance?"
Cicero's face went grey again. "I ain't going to tell yo' nothing," he said with sudden obstinacy.
Bud looked at him. "Well, we can find out for ourselves," he said. "We're going right there now."
The effect of these words on Cicero was alarming. He gave a sort of moan. "Boss, ef yo' go ther they'll kill yo' for suah," he said, and he spoke with an almost terrible earnestness. "Dey'll put yo' in de fire pit. Doan't yo' do it."
His eyes were imploring like a dog's. Then all of a sudden he collapsed, and dropped back, insensible.
Bud glanced at him. "Say, Jacko, this is a right bad mess-up. What do you reckon we can do about it?"
Jacko who was bending over Cicero, looked up. He hesitated a moment, then shook his head. "The man's pretty bad, Bud," he said. "I'm very much afraid that the only thing is to take him back and get a doctor for him."
Bud nodded. "That was my notion, too, only I knew how keen you were to push on."
"We can't go on, with this chap half-dead on our hands," said Jacko despondently. "The brutes have nearly finished him. He's a mere bag of bones."
"I don't reckon you need worry about turning back," said Bud. "You've got to remember that if we can pull Cicero round we've got a mighty useful ally. He knows where the camp is, and all about it, and he will be able to act as guide."
Jacko brightened. "Yes, that's a good notion, Bud. Then we'd best turn back and get home as quick as we can."
Bud nodded again. "I reckon that's the best plan. Anyways, the sooner we're out of this particular locality, the better. If those chaps come back it's not going to be exactly healthy for us. I'll take the oars for a while. You steer. As for the negro, the best thing will be to let him lie quiet. When he comes round we'll give him some hot coffee."
As he spoke Bud settled himself at the oars and turning the boat began to pull back down the creek. Jacko steering noticed that Bud's eyes were fixed on the long stretch of creek behind them. "You're thinking they may come back to look for him," he said.
"I'm mighty sure they will," said Bud. "You can just bet they're not going to lose their cook. And if they come back in a light boat, and happened to spot us before we were clear I guess we'd have to fight for it."
Presently they were round the bend, and both breathed more freely. Cicero lay quiet in the bottom of the boat. He was still either insensible or sleeping, but he was breathing pretty well, and it seemed plain that what he wanted most was rest.
For the next hour Bud rowed steadily down the long tunnels of which the floor was water and the roof vast branches draped with grey moss. Afternoon was drawing towards evening, the sky had clouded up, and here deep under the giant cypresses the light was beginning to dim.
"Say, Jacko," remarked Bud presently, "I don't reckon we shall reach the lake before dark. It looks to me like we'd have to camp in the swamp."
Jacko's face showed some dismay. "That means spending the night in the boat," he said. "There's not an island or a bit of dry land where we can camp."
"I'm not so sure about that," Bud answered. "Seems to me I can remember an old Indian shell mound that's not a long way from here. It's up a side creek a bit off the main channel."
"But can you ever find it in this light?" asked Bud.
"I reckon so. There's a big dead cypress just by the mouth which makes a right good landmark. The opening's to the left going down. You watch out for it." Bud lengthened his stroke and the boat moved more rapidly.
The night life of the great swamp had not yet waked, and the silence was intense. Not a breath of wind moved and the air laden with the sour smell of rotting vegetation was heavy and oppressive.
Suddenly Jacko pointed. "There's a dead cypress—yes, and a side creek."
Bud turned and looked. "I guess that's all right," he said. "Shove her into it, Jacko."
The side creek was narrow and very crooked and progress was slow. In places it was too narrow to row and the boys had to pole up it. By dint of perseverance they go on about a quarter of a mile and then suddenly found their way blocked by an enormous tree which had fallen right across the creek. The trunk was at least a yard through so that it was out of the question to dream of cutting through it.
Bud uttered an impatient exclamation. "We're up against it, Jacko. Guess there's nothing to do, but to go back."
THERE was no doubt about it. Since it was flatly impossible to get on to Bud's promised camping-ground, the only thing was to turn and make back for the main stream. The creek was so narrow and so choked with weeds that even to turn was no easy job, but they managed it at last and after a lot of hard work got back into the main creek.
By this time it was pretty nearly dark, and they were both of them tired and very hungry.
"Whar you gwine, boss?" came a weak voice from the bottom of the boat, making both the boys start.
"So you've waked up, Cicero?" said Jacko. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, boss, but I'm suah mighty hungry and thirsty."
"Guess we are, too," observed Bud. "The trouble is that we can't find any place to camp." The negro sat up and looked round.
"Do you know any place near where we can land?" asked Jacko.
"No, sah. Dere ain't no island anywheres near. Ah reckon yo' best pull up on one ob dem cypress knees."
"Can we light a fire on one?" asked Jacko.
"Yes, boss, yo' can light a fire if yo' puts plenty ob wet moss underneath first."
"That's a right good notion," agreed Bud. "There's a big cypress just opposite, Jacko. Shove over to it. I reckon we can land there."
But Cicero objected. "No, sah, it ain't safe to light no fire right here on de main creek. Ef any ob dem men from de camp comes down a-looking for me, dey'll suah see it."
"Then where the mischief are we to go?" demanded Bud impatiently.
Cicero was equal to the question. "Yo' row down 'bout a quarter-mile, sah. De creek splits in two and dah's a branch loops round right-handed a good piece into de swamp. Ef yo' goes in dar I reckon yo' can light a fire and no one won't see it."
"All right," said Jacko, starting to pull again. "You tell me when we come to the branch, Cicero."
It was plain that the negro knew the swamp like the palm of his hand, for he piloted them into a side creek of which the mouth was almost invisible from the main stream. This curved round, just as Cicero had said, parallel with the main creek, and though narrow was deep and singularly clear of weed. After he had rowed a few hundred yards, Cicero stopped Jacko and pointed to an enormous cypress, the knees or buttresses of which made a regular island sticking out into the creek.
"This'll do fine," said Bud. "Light the lantern, Jacko. Guess we'd better make sure there are no moccasins or rattlers lying up here."
The gleam of the lantern showed the "knees" to be clear of any unpleasant reptiles, so they tied up the boat, and climbed ashore. Then, by Cicero's advice, they pulled down a quantity of the Spanish moss and soaked it to make a bed for their fire. This was very necessary, for these cypress knees are hollow and a fire started right on the roots will soon burn through and drop into the water below.
They had taken the precaution to bring some pine kindling, and with the aid of this they soon had a nice little fire burning, and a kettle boiling. Meantime, Cicero split and cleaned some of the fish and cut them into fillets which he rolled in corn meal. He put some lard in the frying-pan and as soon as it was hot laid the fillets in and fried them.
They were simply delicious, and these and bread and a big pot of hot coffee with condensed milk made a capital meal.
By this time the night life of the great swamp was all awake. All sorts of strange insects shrilled in the tree tops. Tree frogs bleated like lost lambs and bull frogs uttered their deep croaks. In the distance a big alligator bellowed like a bull.
The boat being flat-bottomed, gave room for three or even four people to sleep in the bottom of it, and in any case it was much safer than to sleep in the swamp where snakes were plentiful, and where bears and panthers prowled at night. So the three fixed up their beds in the bottom of the boat, and pushing the boat out into the creek anchored her there, and turned in. Protected by their nets from the mosquitoes, they were soon sound asleep.
How long he slept Jacko did not know, but he dreamed that he was in the moonshiners' camp, and that he and Bud were sentenced to be thrown into the Pit of Fire. The Pit was full of flames which roared and crackled terribly. He awoke badly frightened to find that the crackling was quite real, and sat up sharply.
The night was lurid with flame and suddenly he realized that the great cypress tree on the roots of which they had cooked their supper was all afire. The huge trunk was hollow and somehow sparks from their cooking fire must have caught the dry touchwood in the centre of it. Now the flames were roaring up it, spouting from every knot hole.
The whole swamp for hundreds of yards around was crimsoned with the glare, a wonderful and terrible sight. And even as he watched, a great branch burned through came crashing down close to the boat, hissing as it struck the water. Jacko realized that they were in terrible danger for at any moment the trunk itself might fall.
"Bud! Bud!" he shouted, as he sprang for the rope which held the anchor, and began to haul it up as quickly as possible. Bud was on his feet in a moment, rolling up the mosquito nets, and Cicero too got up stiffly and tried to help.
Jacko pulled in the little iron hook which did duty as anchor, and jumped for the oars. As he did so there came a hoarse shout. "There they be! Sharp, boys, and we've got 'em."
Cicero gave a groan of abject terror. "Oh, boss, we're done. Hyah's Ty Barchard a comin' and all de rest ob dem."
Cicero was right. With two men at the oars and a third steering, a small flat-bottomed boat was coming full pelt down the creek. Though still two hundred yards away, in the red glare of the blazing cypress Jacko could see every detail as plain as if it was broad daylight.
In a flash he realized what had happened. A party from the moonshiners' camp had been sent to pick up Cicero, they had seen the glare of the great fire, and knowing that such a fire meant strangers in the swamp had come to investigate. "Pull!" he cried. "Pull, Bud."
As he spoke, he snatched up one oar. Bud already had the other, and Cicero, weak as he was, had taken the tiller. The boat fairly leaped forward. There came a shout from the other boat. "Stop right there!" roared a great voice which rose high above the crackle of the fire.
"Dey's gwine to shoot," gasped Cicero and in his agony of terror he pulled the tiller over too far to the left. The boat's bow swung inwards and before either of the boys knew what was happening struck a submerged cypress root under the bank with a force that knocked both the boys backwards off their seats into the bottom of the boat.
They were up again at once, but the mischief was done. The boat's bow was hoisted almost out of water, and a yell of triumph from their pursuers showed that they too realized what had happened. Jacko had snatched up the boat-hook, and was pushing for all he was worth, while Bud had his oar against the bank, and was also shoving as hard as he could. But the boat was hard and fast. "Wait. I'll do it," panted Jacko, and leaped out on to the nearest cypress root. Nearly waist deep in the slimy water, he gave a huge lift, and as the boat slid back he sprang for it and caught the gunwale. The boat tipped so that it almost upset, but Bud balanced it, and somehow Jacko scrambled aboard again.
It was hopeless. The moonshiners' boat was barely fifty yards away, and both the boys knew that escape was now impossible. "Guess we'll have to fight 'em," snapped Bud between clenched teeth, and as he spoke he picked the double-barrelled gun from the bottom of the boat.
But in the glare of the fire his action was plainly seen by the men in the other boat. "You shoot, ye brat, and see what happens," came the same great roaring voice. "Stay where you be, the three of you. We got you covered, and if you tries any games it's you fer the alligators and the mud turtles."
"Doan' yo' shoot, Marse Harter," moaned Cicero, who was frightened almost out of his life. "Doan' yo' go for to shoot. That's Ty Barchard, an' he'll suah do what he says."
The pace of the other boat had slackened. Its occupants seemed to be enjoying the plight of their victims. In the great crimson glare Jacko could see the hard, brutal faces of their enemies, and his heart sank as he thought how little mercy he and Bud could expect at the hands of these swamp-dwellers.
"We can't do a thing," he heard Bud growl beneath his breath. He himself said nothing. He was too sick at heart.
And just then came a loud cracking sound and a fresh scream of terror from Cicero. "Look out! Look out! De tree's a- falling."
Jacko glanced up. Sure enough, the huge cypress, its hollow trunk sapped by the flames, was beginning to sway; it was going to fall, and if it fell across them their doom was sealed. Forgetting all about the ready pistols of Ty Barchard and his crew, he leaped again for his oar. "Pull, Bud! Pull!" he yelled.
Bud, too, had realized the danger, and was already in his place. Both oars dipped at once, and the boat fairly leaped out from under the bank into the centre of the stream. Seated as they were, facing the burning tree, the boys saw the monstrous shape of it slowly swaying outwards. The crunching and crackling of its ancient trunk drowned the roar of the flames, but even above all these sounds they could hear the yells of alarm from the other boat, and see its occupants tugging furiously at their oars as they turned back up the stream.
The lofty head of the great cypress, with its vast crown of moss-clad branches, leaned over towards the creek. It began to topple. Jacko and Bud strained every nerve to get out of its range, but in spite of their efforts the boat, its bows clogged with weed, seemed to barely crawl. It looked as if nothing could save them.
Faster and faster the cypress fell and louder and louder were the crashes as the tough fibres were wrenched apart. Its top which spread more than a hundred feet seemed to hang over the boat like a vast cloud.
It was one thing—one thing only that saved the boys. The height of the cypress was greater than the breadth of the creek, so when the trunk had reached an angle of forty-five degrees its top was caught in the dense branches of the trees on the opposite side. These could not bear its weight and, snapping with reports like rifle shots, broke away.
But in doing so they delayed the dying giant's fall, and before it reached the water the boys were just outside the radius of its longest branches.
With a sousing thud the trunk struck the creek, flinging up a shower of spray that soaked everything for yards around. Then with a hissing like the quenching of a thousand red-hot ploughshares, it sank and settled, and darkness fell over the scene. The boat heaved upwards on an oily wave, but the boys never ceased pulling for a second.
"We're saved, boss. We're saved," gasped Cicero hoarsely. "Dey can't nebber get ober dat dere great tree."
"Don't talk! Steer!" snapped Bud, and the negro recovering himself managed to keep the boat well in the centre of the stream and clear of the lettuce beds which bordered the banks on either side.
Not another word was said until the boat guided by Cicero had passed out of the backwater into the main creek. Then Bud raised his oar. "Guess I got to stop a minute, Jacko," he panted. "I'm plumb out of breath. But we're safe here, I reckon."
"I wouldn't bet on that," replied Jacko. "You've got to remember that Barchard and Co. know that we've got Cicero, and the very last thing they intend to do is to let us get off with him. Why, Bud," he added lowering his voice so that Cicero should not hear, "they're absolutely done if Cicero tells us where to find their headquarters. With a guide like that, the Sheriff can take a big posse into the swamp and clean up the whole show."
"That's so," agreed Bud. "Then what do you reckon they're doing now?"
"Shoving back around the other way as hard as they can bat."
Bud whistled softly. "There's always the chance that their boat got caught by the tree," he suggested. "I never saw a sign of it after the big cypress fell."
"No more did I, but I did see they had their boat turned round before it reached the water. No, I'm afraid we can't bank on any luck like that, Bud."
Cicero broke in. "You better go on moving, boss," he said to Jacko in a frightened tone. "I reckon Ty's right after us."
"But he's got a good deal farther to go," replied Jacko. "His boat has to go back round the head of the side creek."
"That's so, boss, but you got to remember that it's a light boat and they got three strong men in her," said the negro earnestly. "And they're not a-going to let up very easy. They're arter me—that's a suah thing."
"He's right," said Bud. "I guess we better be moving."
THE two started pulling again steadily. They had not had more than two or three hours sleep, and that after a very hard day, so they were both very tired. Also, navigating these creeks in the dark of the night was no easy job.
Alone, they would have been helpless. They would infallibly have taken a wrong turning and got hung up in some blind alley of a backwater in the thick of the swamp. But luckily for them Cicero had been up and down these hidden, twisting waterways so often that he knew every bend and turn and was acquainted even with most of the sunken snags and other hidden dangers and so was able to steer clear of them. And so they pulled steadily through the hot steamy darkness. Hardly a word was spoken, and there was no sound except the steady swing and splash of the oars and the slight creak of the rowlocks.
Now and then they stopped pulling and rested silent on their oars, straining their ears for any sound of pursuit. But except for the hum of insect life and the bleating of the tree frogs there was no other sound, and as time wore on they began to feel more confident.
"I reckon she was swamped after all, Jacko," said Bud during one of their short rests.
"I hope so," answered Jacko fervently. His voice was hoarse with fatigue, and as he spoke he swept the heavy drops of perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"I wouldn't trust to dat, sah," put in Cicero. "I reckon dey're a followin' us all de time."
"But we can't hear them," returned Bud rather sharply.
"Dey's got de oarlocks greased and de oars muffled," said Cicero. "And Ty, he's mighty cute. Like as not, he's hanging back, a-reckoning as yo' all will stop to rest."
"He must be a peach," observed Bud dryly. "Well, pull right on, Jacko. I guess we'll get out of this place some time. How far have we got to go before we reach the lake, Cicero?"
"Not a great ways," answered the negro.
It may not have been a great way, but it was several miles, and dawn was beginning to turn the eastern sky to a delicate pink when at last Cicero announced that they were nearing the lake.
As for the boys, by this time they were aching in every limb and so bitterly tired that they hardly cared what happened. Their eyes were half-closed, their mouths sore with fatigue, and their hands stiff and blistered.
An angry-looking sun was just rising when at last they shot from the mouth of the creek and saw before them the wide expanse of the lake, smooth as glass, and stretching away to the distant shore where they could just see the light reflected from the windows of their home.
"Gee, but I'm glad to be out of that," said Bud as he pulled his oar inboard. "No more swamp for me, thank you."
He broke off. "Say, what's the matter with you, Jacko?" he asked sharply, for Jacko was sitting bolt upright, listening intently.
"I'm afraid there'll be a heap more swamp for both of us, if we don't row on, Bud. I can hear them after us."
Bud groaned—absolutely groaned. "Jacko, I'm plumb wore out," he said. "I guess we'll get ashore somewhere and hide up."
Jacko shook his head. "There's no time for that, old man. Listen. You can hear them plainly."
It was only too true. Though the oars of the pursuing boat were, as Cicero had said, muffled, yet now they could hear them plainly. The boat was no distance behind. It was almost at the mouth of the creek.
"And there isn't no wind," said Cicero, voicing the thoughts of both the boys.
There was nothing for it but to row on, and the two boys started again, digging out so vigorously that, by the time their pursuers came out of the creek mouth they were a quarter of a mile away.
"We're out of shot, anyhow," muttered Jacko.
"Not for long, I guess," Bud answered hoarsely, and Jacko who was himself almost as nearly cooked as might be, realized that the plucky American boy was one shade nearer to utter exhaustion than himself.
Their pursuers had seen them, but now there was no shooting. But Jacko saw that the man who had been steering changed places swiftly with the one who was pulling bow, and he groaned inwardly. Ty Barchard's crew were three grown men, and they had been changing steadily all through the long hours of pursuit, so that one was always able to rest for a while while the others rowed.
He realized that once more his position and that of his companions was absolutely desperate and now there was no tree to fall between the two boats, nor—so far as he could see—anything in the world to save them. Not another boat was within sight on the lake which was six or seven miles in breadth. In any case the swamp side of the lake was always deserted. Its reputation was so bad that even the good fishing rarely tempted anyone that way.
The only hope was to keep on pulling, and that was no real hope, for the other boat was travelling faster and must, in the end, wear them down. The sun was now up but it shone through a great bank of angry red cloud, and the light was the strangest that Jacko had ever seen. The lake, calm as the surface of a looking-glass, except for here and there the ring of a rising fish, resembled a sheet of molten brass.
Suddenly Bud drew his oar in. "Sorry, Jacko, but I'm all out," he gasped. "I reckon the only chance is to fight 'em off." As he spoke he picked up the gun.
"No, not yet," panted Jacko. "We've got to wait till they start."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a spit of flame from the pursuing boat and with the vicious crack of Barchard's pistol a bullet struck the surface so close to Jacko that it splashed water in his face. Before the sound died away Bud fired both barrels slap at Barchard's boat. Yells of agony rang out mingled with savage oaths. "They didn't reckon I was loaded with swan shot," said Bud grimly, as he thrust two more cartridges into the breech.
For a moment Barchard and his men were thrown into absolute confusion by Bud's unexpected salute. But only for a moment. Heavy as the shot had been, the distance was too great for it to do much harm. No doubt it had caused some painful wounds and stung all the three ruffians up pretty badly, but that was the extent of the damage.
"Dat's done it," said Cicero in a tone of despair. "Dey'll suah kill us all now."
The boys said nothing. Bud was aiming again, but holding his fire for the moment until he knew what was going to happen.
At this critical moment Jacko felt a cool breath on his cheek and glancing round saw the mirrored surface of the lake ruffled with a cat's-paw.
"Wind!" he cried hoarsely. "Bud, there's a chance yet. Hold them off till I can get the sail up, and we'll do them down after all."
"I'll try," Bud answered, as Jacko seized the mast. But as he lifted it and jammed the butt end into the step forward Barchard realized what he was after, and Jacko heard him yell to his men to shoot.
Instantly a regular volley broke out and bullets came pinging and splashing in every direction. One actually struck the mast just above Jacko's head, knocking a splinter off it, while another smacked into the hull of the boat close to Cicero but luckily without harming him.
It was the first time in his life that Jacko had ever been under fire, but the result, oddly enough, was not to frighten him but rather to make him very angry. So angry that for the moment he forgot his aching tiredness and worked like mad to get the sail up.
Next moment bang! bang! went Bud's heavy twelve-bore, and two more charges of duck shot very well aimed ripped across Barchard's boat. Jacko heard Bud give a cry of triumph. "I've got one chap. He's dropped his oar," he said.
Jacko did not turn to look. All his energies were devoted to getting up the sail. The cat's-paw had been the forerunner of a real breeze and already the whole lake was a mass of dancing ripples.
"He's got his oar again!" snapped Bud. "Watch out, Jacko. Barchard's trying to get you."
Jacko, in the act of hauling up the sail, paid no attention. He got it up and instantly the boat heeled and began to move through the water. Bud was again reloading, but before he could finish doing so, Barchard was shooting. The big man knew that this was his last chance, and he meant to stop the fugitives if he could possibly do it.
Lying in the boat he aimed with care, and suddenly came the whip-like reports of six shots fired in rapid succession. Bud heard a thud, and glancing back saw Jacko lying in the bottom of the boat.
With a cry of furious anger, he fired again, then flinging down the gun sprang across to where Jacko lay. "Hold her to it, Cicero," he shouted, as he slipped his arms around Jacko and lifted him. "Where are you hit, old man?" he asked.
Jacko, who had at first seemed stunned, opened his eyes. "In the shoulder, Bud. I—I don't think it's much. You look after the boat. I shall be all right."
"Let me see, first," Bud answered. "Yes, here it is," as he noticed a crimson stain on Jacko's left shoulder. Whipping out his knife, he cut the shirt away and saw a small blue mark in the outer muscle, which was bleeding freely. Bud knew something of wounds. "Not much damage," he said quickly, "I'll fix it," and made a dive for the pack holding the first-aid case.
Their pursuers were still firing but by this time they had fallen a long way behind. They had no sail, and the boys' boat was running before the wind right down the lake at quite double the pace that Barchard's damaged crew could row. The breeze was freshening all the time, and the weather beginning to look decidedly ugly.
Bud got out boracic lint and a bandage and with quick cleverness tied up the ugly-looking wound. Then he got Jacko's coat. "Put this on," he said, "and sit tight. Cicero and I can handle the boat. I guess we're safe enough now."
Jacko looked back. "We're safe from those swabs," he said, "but I don't know so much about the rest of it. We're in for a gale, by the look of it."
Bud looked up at the sky. The sun had gone, all was grey, and already white caps were cresting the tops of the small waves. The wind was blowing right down the lake, not across, and the flat- bottomed boat flying before it was running not for home, but more in the direction of Pinelake settlement. As for Barchard, he had realized that pursuit was not only impossible but dangerous, and he and his two ruffianly companions were pulling back slowly and towards the creek mouth.
"Got rid of them anyhow," said Bud with a little bark of a laugh. "Guess I better get the leeboards down, Jacko. Then maybe we can make our own landing."
Spray was already beginning to fly over the boat as Bud finished his task. Then he took the tiller from Cicero and pointed the boat up in the direction of the Grove. But the moment she got the wind on the beam she began to heel dangerously.
Bud at once let the peak halliards loose so that the peak dropped. This rough and ready way of reefing diminished the sail area by nearly half, the boat righted and sped on at a somewhat reduced, but still considerable speed. "I reckon we'll do all right now," said Bud. "Jacko, can you use your good arm to reach me a biscuit? I'm so empty I feel as if I'd fold up."
"I'm a bit that way myself," replied Jacko as he went to work to find food. He got out biscuits and cheese and distributed them, and the three ate hungrily while the boat fled onwards with the spray flying over her and the wind whistling louder every minute.
The waves get up rapidly on these big shallow lakes, and presently Bud was having all he could do to hold the boat up to the wind and at the same time keep her from swamping. The water was washing right over her low side and Jacko was forced to bail with his one good arm. And still the gale increased in force.
Bud grew very anxious. If they swamped he was the only one who could swim. Cicero was too weak to keep afloat long, while one of Jacko's arms was useless, and even the strongest swimmer would have a hard time of it in these short, steep, breaking waves. He strained his eyes through the smoking spray mist. The far shore was still nearly two miles away, and the worst was to come, for this was the most open part of the lake.
The minutes wore on, the waves grew higher. Suddenly one larger than the rest curled up and in spite of Bud's best efforts broke aboard. Next moment everything in the boat was afloat.
Bud did the only thing possible. He put the helm down and let her run. Then grabbing up a tin, he set to bailing furiously while the boat, half-swamped, sped at frantic speed down the lake, and headed straight for the great banks of saw grass which bounded the far shore.
"Looks ugly," said Jacko briefly.
For once Bud had no reply. He knew what it meant if they were driven helpless into the saw grass. The boat would instantly swamp and sink and they would be left in at least six feet of water with the great wall of impenetrable vegetation between them and the shore.
THEY managed to bail out the water, and the boat rode more lightly again. Flying now dead before the gale, the pace was so great that there was not much danger of her swamping. The danger would come when they struck the saw grass. Both watched the tall grey-green wall loom nearer and nearer, and Jacko's heart sank as he watched it.
Bud saw this, and tried to cheer him. "Guess we're going so fast we'll rip right through it," he said.
"I'd like to think so, Bud," replied Jacko, "but you know as well as I do that it's too thick for that. Our only chance is to find an opening."
"There aren't a lot," allowed Bud. "Say, I suppose I couldn't put her up in the wind and try to lay to."
Jacko shook his head. "We'd be swamped before you could get her round." He paused and looked up. "I say, how jolly dark it's getting!"
"Some storm," agreed Bud, and almost as he spoke there came a flare of blue-white lightning, followed instantly by such a crack of thunder as almost deafened them. Next instant down came the rain not in drops but in sheets. Such rain that it flattened out the waves in an almost magical fashion and left them looking as if oil had been poured upon them.
"Now's our chance!" cried Jacko. "Round with her, Bud!"
But Bud had hardly waited for the words. He had already put the helm up and the boat came round and lay with her bow to the wind.
"Now, down with the sail," snapped Jacko. "Cicero, you take the tiller."
Between them, the two boys managed to get the sail down and stow it. Then Bud got out the oars, and began to pull.
The rest, short as it had been, had done Jacko good and the food had given him a little strength, and between them they managed to keep the boat fairly steady. Yet even so, it was still blowing so hard that they could make no headway.
Jacko insisted on relieving Bud of one oar, pulling with his sound arm, but they could hardly move the boat, and knew very well that it could not be long before they gave out under the strain.
"Afraid it's only delaying the end," said Jacko, grimly, as he tugged at the oar. The words were hardly out of his mouth before the lightning blazed again, and as the thunder bellowed the wind died away completely. "What the mischief?—" began Jacko, but Bud cut him short. "Watch out! We've struck the centre of the storm. She'll hit us again in a minute, but the wind'll be from the other side."
He was right. All in a flash the wind struck them from the south-east, and it was lucky they had their sail stowed or the force of the gust would certainly have upset the boat. As it was, it nearly wrenched the oars out of their hands. Next moment they were flying back not quite on the course they had come, but a little to the north of it.
"Hurray!" gasped Jacko. "We're all right, Bud. Keep her head a bit up and we'll make our own landing this time."
"We'll try mighty hard anyway," agreed Bud as he hauled the boat's head up. For a while they tore onwards at a splendid pace, but presently the lake grew rougher than ever, and the short steep waves began to splash over the stem. Cicero did his best to bail, but he was very feeble, and the boys' hearts were in their mouths as they saw the water getting deeper and deeper in the bottom of the boat. Yet they dared not stop or change oars, for if one of those waves pooped them full, the boat would swamp instantly.
It became a race as to whether they would gain the shore before they sank. "Jest yo' pull. I'll bail," said Cicero hoarsely. Weak as he was, he was full of pluck. "We's getting near," he added. "It's all right, boss."
Encouraged by his words, the boys tugged harder than ever at the oars, and with the gale almost aft the boat fairly fled.
"Pull to de right," cried Cicero presently, and they obeyed. The water was splashing all over the boat, and the roar of wind and waves was deafening. Breathless and aching all over, Jacko's head began to spin, and he hardly knew what was happening. He wondered vaguely how long he could last. Then all of a sudden he felt the boat's keel touch something, brush over it and next instant he realized that they were shooting through a break in the saw grass.
"We's all right. We's safe," cried Cicero, and as the boat drove into calm water behind the wall of the saw grass Jacko collapsed and dropped in a heap in the bottom of the boat.
The next thing he knew, strong hands were lifting him out, and he opened his eyes to see Bill's anxious face above him.
"Hulloa!" said Jacko vaguely. "I'm jolly glad to be back. How's Bud?"
"Bud's all right. Pete and Mary are helping him up to the house. Don't talk. I'll see to everything."
"But Cicero. The other negro—" began Jacko.
"He'll be all right. I'll look after him. Don't stop to explain anything now. Just lean on me, and I'll help you up to the house."
Jacko was so utterly done that he never remembered how he got to the house. He had some faint recollection of being stripped by Bill and rubbed down with a rough towel, then of swallowing a big cup of hot coffee, which tasted better than anything he could ever have dreamed of, and presently of being rolled in a blanket on his own cot. Inside half a minute he was deep asleep, and he never moved again for the rest of that day.
It was nearly dark when his eyes opened, and the first thing he noticed was that he was aching, stiff and sore, the second that he was ravenously hungry. He scrambled up, managed to put on some clothes and went into the big hall sitting-room.
"You, Jacko!" exclaimed Mary, coming in that minute from the direction of the dining-room. "But, Jacko, you ought not to have got up."
"Nonsense, Mary!" replied he cheerily. "I've had a wonderful sleep, and anyhow I want some supper. How's Bud?"
"Still asleep, I believe. You poor dears, what a dreadful time you must have had in that storm!"
"It wasn't the storm, old thing. It was the swamp. I say, what about Cicero?"
"He's in bed in Pete's cabin."
"But is he safe?" asked Jacko anxiously, and just as he spoke, Bill entered the room.
"What's the matter, Jacko?" he asked.
"It's Cicero I was asking about. Those toughs will be after him, sure as eggs. We shall have to look after him jolly sharp."
"Because he knows the secret of the swamp. He can tell us the way to Crudge's moonshining island in the swamp. The moonshiners know that, and they'll raise Cain to get him back."
Bill whistled softly. "So that's the state of the poll. You're right, Jacko. We shall have to be careful."
"It will never do to keep him here," said Jacko quickly. "The moonshiners might come down on us in force, and there wouldn't be enough of us to hold them off. He ought to be taken to Pinelake."
"He shall be," said Bill, "and meantime I will have him brought up to the house. I don't think they will try anything to- night. It blew hard nearly up to sunset, and I'm sure no boat could have crossed the lake. I will go across to Pete's place at once, and bring the man over. Then I should like to hear a little more about this queer business. Remember that I am still very much in the dark."
He went off, and Jacko talked to Mary while she laid the supper table. Mary was crazy to hear all about the adventure in the swamp, but Jacko laughingly refused to tell her anything about this until Bill got back.
Bill was not long. Before supper was ready he and Pete had brought Cicero up to the house and had put him in a little spare room, a sort of attic. By this time Bud was down. He was rather pale and red-eyed, but the sleep had done him all the good in the world and he was quite his old self again. "And hungry as seven horses," he announced, as Mary piled his plate with a big helping of dry hash made of beef, onions and sweet potatoes.
Bill waited until the boys had finished their first helping, then spoke. "And now, my young friends, I'd like to hear something of this business," he remarked quietly. "It seems to me that your alleged shooting expedition was really nothing of the sort, or to put it politely, shall we say camouflage for something quite different."
Bud grinned, Jacko looked a little uncomfortable, and there was a moment of awkward hesitation. "Out with it," said Bill smiling. "I credit you with perfectly good intentions."
"Guess our intentions were all right," said Bud. "It was this way. We knew that Crudge had Fitz somewhere down in the swamp, and we heard that Crudge was mixed up in this moonshining business. So we thought we'd kill two birds with one stone—get him and find out where the Moonshine Island was, and maybe rake in the reward as well."
Bill Picton whistled softly. "A bit of a contract," he remarked. "It strikes me that you were fairly lucky to get out of it alive. Well, what happened?"
"You tell, Jacko," said Bud, and Jacko at once proceeded to spin the yarn. Bill listened with keen attention. Stodge's mouth and eyes were equally wide open; as for Mary, she fairly shivered with excitement.
"So you see, sir," ended Jacko, "we didn't get to the moonshiners' place, but we've got Cicero Mack, who knows the way. And if he'll guide us we ought to be able to make things fairly unpleasant for Crudge."
Bill sat silent a moment or two. He was frowning thoughtfully. "You have done very well, Jacko—you and Bud. And as you say, I do think you have queered Crudge's pitch pretty thoroughly. But there is a good deal to do before we are out of the wood, or Crudge is in it. And it seems to me that the very first thing is to see that this man Cicero is put into some safe place. In my opinion, he ought to be in Pinelake, in the Sheriff's charge. He certainly is not safe here."
"Not by some chalks!" declared Bud emphatically. "I reckon Crudge and Barchard know the state of the poll all right, and they'll raise every sort of Cain to get the chap back into their hands."
"That is my idea," agreed Bill. "Then the first thing to do is to send word to Saunders of what has happened."
"I'll go right along," said Bud.
Stodge jumped up. "N-no, Bud," he exclaimed, stammering in his eagerness. "You and Jacko have had enough. You two have done everything up to now, and I expect you're both pretty nearly fagged out. Let me go. I can ride all right, if I can take Texas."
Bill gave the excited boy a kindly glance. "Yes, lad. I don't see any reason why you shouldn't go. Luckily the pony has done nothing to-day and will be quite fresh. The sooner you get off, the better."
Stodge was out of the room in a flash, and they heard him blundering down the steps outside in the dark.
"Hi!" shouted Bill after him. "You can't saddle up in the dark. Get a lantern, and don't go off till I've given you a note for the Sheriff."
Jacko looked a little serious. "Do you think it's safe?" he asked Bill.
"Why not? Stodge does blunder at times, but he can ride well enough, and he knows the road to Pinelake as well as you or Bud."
"I was wondering if some of Crudge's lot might not get on his track," said Jacko.
"Surely, that is not likely. They can only get out of the swamp by boat, and as I was telling you, it blew so hard all day that no boat could have crossed the lake. Besides, the men who chased you were driven back by the gale, and it would take them at least twenty-four hours to return to their headquarters and get reinforcements."
Jacko's face cleared a little. Bud cut in, "I reckon it's all right, Jacko. And I don't mind allowing I'm too stiff and sore to do much riding to-night."
Bill sat down to write his note to Saunders. By the time he had finished, Stodge had Texas saddled and was ready. The storm had now quite passed away, and it was a quiet, warm but dark night, with a thin fleece of cloud hiding the stars.
"Good luck, Stodge," said Jacko, as he opened the gate. "You'll come straight back, old chap?"
"Rather. I won't be more than a couple of hours," promised Stodge. "And very likely I'll bring the Sheriff with me."
STODGE was intensely pleased that he had been allowed to do something to help in this time of crisis. He held the pony well in until he reached the main road, then loosened the reins and let Texas, who was quite fresh, break into his easy canter. He and the pony knew the road equally well, and he did not anticipate trouble of any sort.
This road, so called, was merely a broad track at ordinary times deep in loose sand. But the heavy rain had wetted and hardened the sand, and made the going easier than usual. Texas kept on tirelessly at his usual nice lope.
The road ran down to the lake for a couple of miles, then cut inland through the piney woods. It was pretty dark among the trees, but Stodge did not draw rein. Another half-mile and the road which had risen a little dipped into a hollow at the bottom of which was a sink hole bordered by heavy scrub. Stodge had nearly reached this point when he suddenly heard the soft thud of horse's hoofs. Someone was galloping up behind him.
At once he felt uneasy. This track was little used at any time, but still less so at night. He rammed his heels in and Texas responded by breaking into a gallop. At once the thud of hoofs behind him quickened, and in a moment or two it was plain that they were gaining. Texas, breasting the rise beyond the sink hole, was forced to slacken his pace, and Stodge took the opportunity to glance back over his shoulder.
The moon had risen, and though it was still hidden by clouds there was light enough for Stodge to see a man on a big horse riding after him for all he was worth. The horse was twice the size of little Texas, and, of course, was gaining hand-over- fist.
Stodge's first feeling was naturally one of fright, but not so much for himself as his message. He could hardly doubt that this was one of Crudge's gang, that he knew the state of affairs and meant to stop any message reaching Pinelake. It would never do for Bill's note to get into this fellow's hands, and Stodge's first resolve was to destroy it before he could be caught.
But he was not caught yet, and did not mean to be if he could help it. "Get up, Texas!" he said, and the good little beast reaching the top of the slope broke into a rattling gallop.
"Stop!" came a harsh shout from behind. "Stop, or I'll put a hole through you."
Stodge's answer was to fling himself flat on the pony's neck, and cut the willing beast with his whip. Next moment the quiet of the sleeping woods was shattered by the crack of a heavy pistol, and a bullet sang its ugly song close over Stodge's head. Texas, terrified by the sudden report, simply raced away, and for the next minute or two managed to keep his distance.
But a small pony is no match for a big horse, and naturally as soon as the spurt was over the latter began to gain again. Stodge felt almost desperate. He did not know what to do. If he had had a pistol he would have turned and fought, but he had no weapon of any kind. And since he was still nearly three miles from Pinelake, it was quite plain that his pursuer was bound to catch him long before he got there.
"Stop!" roared the man again. "Stop, or I'll cut the liver out of you." Then he began to shoot again. He fired three shots in rapid succession, but it takes more than first-class marksmanship to hit a galloping pony by night in the pine forest, and not one of the bullets reached its mark. Their only result was to make Texas go faster.
The road curved again, and ran through a bit of thick hardwood forest which in Florida is called "hammock." Great magnolias and live oaks met overhead, so that the road was nothing but a tunnel with a roof of branches. For the moment Stodge was out of sight of his pursuer. His hopes began to rise again. It seemed that there might still be a chance of getting away.
And just then Texas put both forefeet into a mud-hole and came down. It was so unexpected that Stodge simply flew out of the saddle. He turned a somersault and landed flat on his back. The ground was soft, and he was not hurt, but before he could even begin to scramble up, Texas was on his feet and still terrified by the shooting, galloped straight away down the road.
All the wind had been knocked out of Stodge's body, and for the moment he lay gasping for breath.
Next instant came the thudding beat of the hoofs of his pursuer's horse, and rather with the idea of saving himself from being ridden over than from any other motive, Stodge rolled over hastily towards the side of the road.
As luck had it, a great mass of wild grape vine hung like a curtain from the trees above, and the boy found himself right under this. Before he could take a second thought, the pounding hoofs were alongside him, there was the rush of a horse going full speed, and Stodge realized that his enemy had passed. Passed, too, without even seeing him.
Another moment and horse and rider had swept round the next curve in the road, and were out of sight altogether.
Stodge sat up. "My word, what luck!" he said hoarsely. His first impulse was to dive into the thick stuff at the side of the track, but then it suddenly occurred to him that there was no need to. Texas was not going to stop, and without his rider he would go faster than ever.
Stodge chuckled outright. "The silly fool thinks I'm still ahead of him. He never saw me fall off. What a lucky break!"
The only question was whether there was a second man in pursuit, but after stopping and listening for a moment Stodge felt sure there was not, so started off quickly on foot. As soon as he was out of the hammock he left the road and took to the woods. It was a very wise precaution, for he had not got more than half a mile before he again heard sounds of galloping. Stodge simply took a header into the thickest clump of palmetto that he could find and crawling into the very centre of it waited breathlessly.
Now that the moon was above the clouds it was lighter and Stodge could see the man pretty plainly, a great, gaunt, rough- looking customer who rode a tall horse black with sweat. As he came opposite the spot where Stodge was hiding he pulled his horse to a walk and Stodge's heart was in his mouth. The fellow was looking first to one side of the road then the other, and muttering to himself in a fierce undertone. But it was evidently out of the question to search the whole of the woods, and presently he gave his horse a savage kick in the ribs and went on again at a fast pace.
Stodge waited until the hammock had swallowed him up, then crept out, and rising to his feet, set off running through the woods. Every now and then he would stop and listen, but he heard no more of his enemy, and in about half an hour saw the fights of Pinelake reflected in the big lake. Another five minutes and he was among houses, and safe.
He went straight to the Sheriff's house, and arrived there dripping with perspiration and badly blown.
Mrs. Saunders came to the door. "Why, Mr. Simmons, what is the matter?" she questioned anxiously.
"The Sheriff—we want him," panted Stodge.
"He's not at home, Mr. Simmons. He was telephoned for this morning to go to Orange City."
Stodge stood silent. He felt as if a bucket of cold water had suddenly been poured over him. This was an utterly unexpected misfortune, and one that he did not in the least know how to cope with. Help of some sort he must have, for since he knew now that at least one of Crudge's gang was on this side of the lake, there might be an attack on Bill's place at any time. "Will he be back soon?" he gasped out.
Mrs. Saunders shook her head. "It was the Governor of the State who sent for him. I don't reckon he'll be home till the day after to-morrow."
MRS. SAUNDERS saw the distress on the boy's round face and felt sorry for him. "Come in, Mr. Simmons," she said. "Come and rest yourself. You're all heated up."
Stodge shook his head. "I can't. I've got to get help."
"Help," repeated Mrs. Saunders. "Is there anything wrong out at your place?"
"There will be jolly soon," replied Stodge grimly. "The moonshiners are after us."
Mrs. Saunders took Simmons by the arm, drew him inside and closed the door. "You tell me quick, Mr. Simmons. My husband wouldn't ever forgive me if there was any chance of catching those folk, and I didn't let him know."
Stodge saw that she was very much in earnest, and so, as quickly as he could, told the story of Bud and Jacko's expedition into the swamp, of how they had brought back Cicero Mack, and of how he himself riding to Pinelake had been chased by one of the gang.
Mrs. Saunders listened eagerly. "It's a great chance, Mr. Simmons," she said quickly. "Now I tell you what I'll do. I'll telegraph to the Sheriff first thing in the morning and tell him to come right back."
"But that will be too late," objected Stodge. "Some of the gang are over this side already. Like as not, they'll try for Cicero to-night. Why, they may be attacking our place now."
"I don't reckon there's more than one of them over here yet," replied Mrs. Saunders. "But I tell you what you can do. You know where Josh Rogers lives?"
"Yes, on Orange Avenue," replied Stodge.
"That's so. Well, he's my husband's deputy. Now you go right to his place, tell him what you've told me, and get him to go straight out. He'll take a buggy, I reckon, and mebbe two or three men with him, and fetch this negro right into town."
Stodge brightened up. "I'll go at once," he said.
"Yes, don't you waste any time, Mr. Simmons," answered the good lady. "And my! won't the Sheriff be pleased if he can lay his hands on these moonshiners. I reckon they've near pestered him to death this last year."
Stodge turned away, grinning at the idea of anything pestering the Sheriff to death, for Saunders was noted as the toughest man in South Florida.
He found Josh Rogers on his verandah sitting on an old rocker, with his legs cocked up against a pillar. Josh was a large, sleepy-looking man, but when he had heard Stodge's story he woke up all right. "We'll go right out," he said briefly. "You got your pony, Mr. Simmons?"
"No, I haven't had time to think of him. I do hope he's all right."
"Whar do you put up when you come to town?"
"At Bob Hyer's stable, usually."
"Then you go right there, and I'll lay the little beggar will be waiting you. And say, I'll come along. I guess I'd best take a buggy to bring back that negro."
Rogers was right, and to Stodge's immense relief he found Texas was safe in Hyer's stable. "He come right in about half an hour ago," said the man in charge. "Walked in like he owned the place, and nickered for a feed."
Rogers's orders were brief and to the point, and within a very few minutes a double buggy was ready with two big Kentucky horses in the shafts. Rogers took a negro named Scipio to drive, and had picked up one of his posse, a long, lank Southerner named Abercrombie, to accompany him. Abercrombie was carrying a sawed- off shot-gun, which he told Stodge was loaded with buckshot. "A heap better'n a pistol," he said briefly.
Sleepy as Rogers looked, he did not waste any time, and it was not more than a quarter of an hour from the time that Stodge had first reached his house that the party was on the road to Bill's place.
Stodge rode close behind the buggy and kept his eyes very wide open, for he fully expected an attack. He was quite disappointed that none came. Indeed, during the whole journey they never met a living soul and when they got home the first thing Bill told them was that he, too, had seen nobody about.
"Guess that chap as tackled Mr. Simmons has give it up as a bad job," remarked Josh. "Likely there wasn't only one of the gang over this side. Now whar's this negro, Mr. Picton?"
"In the house. We haven't taken our eyes off him, Mr. Rogers."
"That's good. I'll take him right along, and lodge him in the calaboose. They won't get him out of thar in a hurry, I'll warrant. And as soon as ever the Sheriff comes back we'll fix up a posse, and go and chase these fellers. I'll sleep a heap easier when I knows we've got 'em all by the heels."
"And so shall I," replied Bill. "When will the Sheriff be back?"
"To-morrow night, I reckon, if we wire in the morning. Then we'll start out the next day." He paused. "Say, Mr. Picton, would you like me to leave Abercrombie just as a sort of protection?"
"I don't think we'll need him," replied Bill. "There are four of us, to say nothing of Russ, our negro. We've got guns and we ought to be able to beat off any attack."
Rogers nodded thoughtfully. "Wal, you keep your guns loaded, and your eyes peeled, Mister. This here crowd from the Swamps is plumb dangerous. And now I'll take that man and be moving."
Bill and the boys watched the buggy drive off, then went back to the house where Stodge had to tell the story of his adventures. The others all praised him, and the poor fat boy beamed with delight to feel that for once he had carried through without blundering.
They sat chatting till late, then Bill announced that they would have to split themselves into watches and keep guard all night. "I don't much expect there will be anything doing," he said, "but Rogers was right when he told us that we must keep our eyes open. This is an ugly, dangerous gang that we are up against."
Jacko volunteered to take first watch, Bud the second, and Bill the third. As for Stodge, he was sent off to bed.
The night, however, passed quietly enough, and next day they went about their work as usual. But Bill kept all of them pretty close to the house. In the afternoon a messenger came out from Pinelake, with a note from Rogers, telling them that he had had a telegram from the Sheriff, who could not get back until next day, and promising to let them know about plans. He added that Cicero was safe in a comfortable cell, with a doctor looking after him.
Bill grunted. "Another night's watch, boys," he said.
THAT night Bud took the first watch, Bill second, and Jacko was roused at three to take the morning watch. So far there had been nothing to disturb the quiet of the night.
Jacko began his watch with a stroll all round the house, the stable and the shed where the oranges were packed. Every now and then he stopped and listened, but he could hear nothing except the hum of the crickets and the croaking of the frogs down on the lake shore.
It was a very still night, with a film of cloud over the sky which covered the stars and made it very dark.
A whip-poor-will began to call. This queer bird calls only at night. It is a sort of nightjar. Usually it calls in the early part of the night, but now it was nearly four in the morning. The calling went on and on, and Jacko became a little suspicious. He began to think it possible that the sound was not made by birds, but was the work of a human throat. Then an owl began to hoot, and the hoot did not ring true in Jacko's ears.
He listened and thought that the sound came from a clump of black-jack oaks which grew on a little knoll close to the lake, and away to the left of the house. "I think I'll go and have a look," he said to himself, and gun in hand slipped into the orange grove and began moving slowly from tree to tree in the direction of the oaks.
Twice more he heard the hoot, then all was still. He came to the edge of the grove, and crept across a piece of scrubby ground towards the oaks. But now there was not a sound.
From where he stood he could see the lake a great calm plain stretching away into the darkness. There was not a ripple on its surface.
Suddenly he saw a dull red glimmer on the water, and for a moment he stared hard at it, wondering what on earth it meant. Next instant he realized that it was the reflection from a fire burning somewhere. He turned sharply to see a red glare rising above the dull green of the orange grove. "The packing house!" he gasped. "They lured me away on purpose, so that they could get at it."
Next moment he had fired one barrel of his gun, and was running full pelt back towards the house, shouting as he went.
The sandy soil of the grove was newly ploughed, and Jacko's feet sank ankle-deep in the loose stuff. It was impossible to run fast and before he could reach the house he heard the door burst open and Bill's shout, "What is it, Jackson?"
"Packing house afire," panted Jacko. "Rouse out the others!"
There was no need to do that. The report of Jacko's gun had brought Bud and Stodge flying out, and the four ran together past the stable to the packing shed. Sure enough it was well alight, the yellow pine of which it was built blazing like so much tinder.
Jacko and Bud both stopped at the stable to seize the full buckets which had been left there, and dashed their contents on the flames. Bill and Stodge also had buckets which they filled at the stable pump. Pete Russ came running up to help. But the fire had already got such a hold that they could not go near it. The heat was blistering and a column of flame thirty feet high spouted into the windless air, making the surroundings almost as light as day.
"It's no use," said Bill. "It's too late to do anything. We must save the stables. Get a ladder and pour water on the roof."
Jacko and Bud sprang to obey, and soon had the shingle roof sopped and dripping with water, so that, although sparks fell upon it in showers, they did no harm. Most luckily there was no wind and as the packing shed was a separate building there was no chance of the flames actually reaching the stable.
In a very short time the roof of the shed burned through, and the whole thing fell with a mighty crash, sending up a shower of sparks. Bill looked at the ruins. "It might have been worse," he said, "but how came you not to see them, Jackson?"
Jacko explained how he had been lured away. "I'm dreadfully sorry," he said.
"Not a bit. You couldn't help it," said Bill kindly.
Bud broke in. "It's mighty funny to me that they fired the shed instead of the stable," he said, frowning.
"I expect it was easier. Less chance of being seen from the house," suggested Stodge.
"Just so. The stable cuts off our sight of the house," said Bud. "I guess we better go and see that these fellows aren't trying any monkey tricks there."
Bill Picton started quite sharply, but steadied himself at once. "You forget, Bud. Mary is in charge. She would call out if anyone came near the house."
"I wonder if we'd hear her," replied Bud in his driest tone. "I guess I'll go and see."
He ran off, and Jacko filled with a sudden misgiving, hurried after him. Bill and Stodge followed more slowly. Bud and Jacko reached the house together. A lamp burning in the hall threw a bright light through the open door. "It's all right, Bud," said Jacko in a tone of relief.
Bud did not answer, but ran straight up the steps on to the verandah. The house, like all Florida houses, was raised above the ground on sections of tree trunks. "Mary!" he called. "Mary, say where are you?"
There was no answer, and again that unpleasant misgiving came upon Jacko. He sprang up the steps after Bud.
"Mary!" he shouted loudly, then as there was still no reply, he turned to Bud. "Where the mischief is she?" he demanded sharply.
Bud did not answer, but seizing a lamp ran up the stairs, and straight to the door of Mary's room on which he rapped loudly. "Mary, are you there?" he demanded, but still there was no answer and Bud hesitating no longer, flung open the door. The room was empty. Mary's pretty little white painted bed had had the bedclothes torn off it so that they lay upon the floor. Bud's face went white. "They've got her, Jacko!" he said in a hoarse, thick voice.
For a moment Jacko was almost stunned by the disaster, but only for a moment. Then he turned and ran downstairs. He met Bill in the hall, and the look upon his face told Bill instantly that something was terribly wrong. "What is it?" he snapped out.
"They've got her," Jacko answered. "They've got Mary."
BILL PICTON did not waste a single second, but turned and with two jumps was out of the house, and tearing down towards the landing. Jacko and Bud followed. It was now past five and dawn was just beginning to break. The sun was not up, but there was a grey light in the east. The four stood together on the landing, straining their eyes through the dim dawn twilight.
But there was nothing visible, there was no sound—nothing to relieve their frightful suspense or to tell them what had happened.
Bud spoke. "We've been a good hour over that fire," he said. "Depend on it, they were waiting down in the palmetto scrub and they're half-way across the lake by now."
"You're right, Bud," Bill answered in a strained, unnatural voice. "You must be right." He staggered slightly, for the blow had knocked him off his usual balance. Then with a fierce effort he turned to Jacko. "You are sure she is not in the house?"
Before Jacko could reply Stodge came running. "Here's a letter. I've found a letter." He thrust a sheet of paper into Bill's hand, and Bill taking an electric torch from his pocket, flashed it on the sheet.
It was a pencil scrawl written on a sheet torn from an account book. He read it aloud.
"We got your gal, and will keep her till you sends back the nigger. Ef you or the sheriff tries any monkey shines it's going to be bad fer you, and worse fer her."
Bill groaned and for a moment there was a death-like silence.
Bud was the first to speak. "Guess I better get the boat ready," he said quietly.
Bill pulled himself together. "Yes," he said with sudden energy. "You and Jacko get the boat loaded. Food and mosquito netting, the tent and plenty of cartridges. Stodge, put the saddle on Texas. You will have to ride to Pinelake and take a note to Rogers."
"Can't I come with you?" begged Stodge, almost weeping.
"No," answered Bill, but he spoke very kindly. "Some one must remain in charge of the place and three are enough for the boat. You and Pete must stay here and take care of the house. In any case, I am giving you responsible, and perhaps dangerous work to do. But I know that you will do it."
"I'll do it," Stodge promised earnestly, and hurried off to the stable.
Bud and Jacko at once set to their task of getting the boat in order. They worked in dead silence. Indeed, they were too anxious and upset to speak, but the rate at which they loaded up proved their intense keenness to get off. Writing the note took Bill barely five minutes, but Stodge was ready before him.
"I have asked Rogers to bring his full posse and come at once," said Bill. "He is to bring Cicero if possible. And you had better take the pistol. But don't use it unless you have to. Don't run any risks. Your job is to get the note into Rogers's hands."
"I'll do it," promised Stodge, and there was a ring in his voice which Bill at least had never heard before.
The boy went off at a smart canter, and disappeared among the trees. Then Bill after giving some brief directions to Pete hurried down to the boat.
"All ready," said Jacko curtly. "We have a pair of sculls as well as the oars, the sail, food for a week and the little medicine chest."
"And the guns?" questioned Bill.
"Yes. Two guns and your rifle, and plenty of cartridges."
The sun was just rising as the three started. They had to row, for the air was perfectly still and the lake like a vast mirror. As they shot out through the wall of saw grass, Bud who was steering, took a pair of field-glasses from their case and focusing them scanned the lake carefully in the direction of the Big Swamp.
"See anything?" asked Jacko, presently.
Bud nodded. "Yes, there's a boat out there. About three miles away, so far as I can judge. I reckon it's theirs."
"Three miles!" groaned Bill. "Oh, if we only had a wind!" But there was no wind or any sign of it, and nothing to do but go on pulling. The sun was soon above the fringe of forest, and as it rose the heat rapidly increased. Bill and Jacko were rowing desperately and already the perspiration was streaming down their faces.
"I guess you better take it a bit easier," said Bud gravely. "You'll wear yourselves plumb out if you work like that."
"But we've got to catch up," retorted Bill almost harshly. "If we don't we're done, for once they are in the swamp we don't know which way they will go."
"I've got a pretty good notion," said Bud.
"How? How do you mean?" demanded Bill. "You don't know where the hiding place of the gang lies, or how to get there."
"I reckon I do," answered Bud. "You see, I had a talk with Cicero before Josh took him away, and he told me quite a lot."
"You mean you got notes of the way from him?" questioned Bill sharply.
"I reckon I got more than that," replied Bud, taking a folded paper from his pocket. "I've got something mighty like a chart and notes of all the landmarks up to the Island. You see I reckoned it might be useful."
Bill gave a kind of gasp. "Useful! Heavens, Bud, it will be invaluable!"
"I wouldn't count too much on it," said Bud quietly. "Even if we know the way all right it's not likely they're going to let us take it."
"Yes, that is true enough, I'm afraid," agreed Bill, then devoted himself again to nothing but the rowing.
"Are we gaining at all?" asked Jacko after a time.
"A little mite, I reckon," allowed Bud. "Say, Jacko, you let me take a turn at the sculls." Then, as Jacko began to protest, "I sure mean it," added Bud. "I know I can't pull as fast as you, but it'll give you a chance to get your wind back."
The two changed, and though he would not confess it, Jacko was grateful for the rest. He took the glasses and had a look at the distant boat. But though they themselves had gained a little the other boat was still more than two miles ahead, and barring a miracle there was no possible chance of catching her before she entered the swamp. He gritted his teeth as he thought of poor little Mary in the hands of those ruffians, being dragged away into the depths of this dismal and dreadful place.
But if it was bad for him and for Bud, how much worse must it be for Bill! He glanced at Bill's grey set face, and almost shivered. In an hour Bill had grown to look ten years older.
A new thought came to him. "Bill," he asked, "what did you tell Rogers?"
"To come at once, with as many men as he could get hold of," Bill answered.
"Yes, of course. I told him we were starting at once. If Stodge is quick they ought to get off in an hour from now."
"They wouldn't be that long if Saunders was there," put in Bud.
"That's the worst of it," agreed Bill, frowning. "Rogers is a good enough man in his way, but he's not Saunders."
"Saunders will be along some time to-day," said Bud comfortingly. "And I guess we'll make things hum."
After that there was no more talking. The heat was increasing every minute, and though the three relieved one another at the sculls at fairly frequent intervals, the boat seemed to merely crawl like a beetle across the water. Another hour passed, and still not a breath of wind. Then Bud, who was in the stern and who had constantly kept the glasses on the moonshiners' boat, suddenly lowered them and laid them on the seat beside him.
Bill looked at him. "Out of sight?" he asked curtly.
"Yes, she's in the creek," replied Bud equally briefly.
Bill gave a little gasp as if in pain, but Jacko cut in. "Keep your glasses going, Bud. See if anyone is coming from Pinelake."
Once more Bud focused his glasses and turning them in the direction of the settlement, gazed long and earnestly across the water. Then he shook his head. "Nothing doing," he said.
"But Stodge must have got there long ago," said Billy sharply.
Bud did not answer but what he was wondering was whether poor Stodge had ever got to Pinelake at all. He caught Jacko's eye and realized that the same thought was in Jacko's mind.
The minutes dragged by and still the black line of cypress bordering the southern edge of the lake seemed terribly far distant. Then all of a sudden Bud felt a cool breath on his cheek, and looking out saw a ripple breaking the mirrored surface of the lake.
"Wind!" he cried and leaped to his feet. In less than no time the mast was stepped and as the big sail was unfurled a good puff filled it and sent the boat flying.
"If it had only come earlier!" Jacko heard Bill murmur under his breath. Jacko had the same thought. If only the breeze had sprung up half an hour earlier they might have overhauled Mary's kidnappers. But now the other boat was well out of sight in the creek, and regrets were useless.
The wind hardened and the boat tore along towards the creek mouth at three times her previous pace. But still there was no sign of any craft approaching from the direction of Pinelake, and this troubled Jacko a good deal.
"What's Rogers doing?" he whispered in Bud's ear. "He ought to have started long ago."
"That's a fact," agreed Bud. "I'm scared that Stodge never got to Pinelake."
"What are we to do then?" asked Jacko.
"I don't reckon Bill's going to wait," responded Bud, who was steering. "I guess we'll have to wait and see what he says."
They had not long to wait, for within another ten minutes the boat had reached the gap in the cypress wall where the sluggish creek emptied itself into the great lake. Bill was sitting with his eyes fixed upon the gloomy entrance, seemingly forgetful of anything else.
Jacko spoke. "There's no sign of Rogers. What are we going to do?"
Bill started slightly, and looked round at Jacko. His face was so grey and drawn that it hurt Jacko to look at it. Yet in spite of his dreadful anxiety, he could still think clearly. "We must wait," he said hoarsely. "We must wait till he comes."
Jacko stared. This was not the answer he had expected.
Bud cut in. "You're thinking of us, Bill," he said, and for once there was no trace of his ordinary half-humorous, half-dry tone or manner.
Bill started again, and fixed his eyes on Bud's face. "You are right, Bud," he answered. "It would not be fair. Two boys like you and Jackson—and I am responsible for you to your people."
"Guess I know what my folk would say—my dad, anyhow," answered Bud swiftly.
"And mine, too!" added Jacko. "If that's all you're waiting for, all I say is, don't."
Bill's eyes softened. "You are good lads, you two. But this is my own private business, and the risk is desperate. I could not allow you to take it."
"Private, you call it," retorted Bud, and now it was not a boy speaking to his master, but a man to a man. "Don't think it. I know you're fond of your sister, but I don't reckon you're a mite fonder of her than we are. If you think we're going to wait here and lose maybe our last chance, you're mighty well mistaken."
"And I agree with Bud," said Jacko firmly.
Bill Picton glanced again at the faces of the two boys, and saw the set look in their eyes. He hesitated no longer. "I accept your offer with gratitude. We will go on," he said.
Bud merely nodded, then began quickly to unstep the mast. Jacko helped and within a very few minutes all was ready.
"Bud and I will row, Bill," said Jacko. "You're a better shot than we are."
Bill merely nodded and took his seat at the tiller. His rifle ready loaded lay across his knees. The two boys bent to their work, and the boat shot out of the breeze and into the gloomy shade and silence beneath the interlacing branches of the giant cypress.
No one spoke, and the oars dipped and lifted as quietly as possible. All knew that their once chance was to catch Mary's kidnappers before they got too deep into the swamp. The pace at which, owing to the breeze, they had covered the last two miles of the journey gave them a fair chance of doing this, for it was hardly likely that the kidnappers had any idea how close their pursuers were to them.
For the first mile or so of its course the creek was fairly wide and open, and the boys, refreshed by their short rest, made very good speed. Presently Bill lifted his hand and signed to them to stop rowing. They did so, and the boat drifted onward soundlessly.
Bud's eyes gleamed. "You're right. I hear 'em," he whispered.
"And so do I," agreed Jacko. "They're only about a quarter of a mile ahead."
"Just around the next bend, I reckon," agreed Bud. "Pull hard, Jacko, but for any sake go quiet."
Two champion scullers could hardly have driven a boat more quickly or silently than the two boys did during the next few minutes, and as the sound of the oars of the other boat became more and more plain, it was evident that they were gaining on them.
Jacko was not conscious of any fear, but merely of a fierce thrill of triumph. His one idea was to close with these ruffians, wrench Mary from their grimy hands and punish them. How it was to be done he did not know—or care. His only desire was to get to close quarters.
The bend came nearer, he saw Bill craning forward, he felt the boat swinging. He noticed vaguely that Bill was holding her in close under the left bank and knew that his idea was to keep her out of sight as long as possible. He noticed something else, which was that he could no longer hear the ragged splashing of the oars of the moonshiners' boat.
"Steady!" whispered Bill sharply. "They've stopped rowing. I'm afraid they have heard us."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a muffled bang, and the stagnant air quivered under the shock of a heavy report. Following immediately on this there was a loud rending and crashing which went on for several seconds and ended in a tremendous plunging splash.
Bud gave a sharp exclamation. "A tree. They've felled a tree across the creek!" he said fiercely. "Pull, Jacko! Pull!"
THE boys pulled desperately, then as the boat shot swiftly round the curve they heard a groan from Bill. "You're right. There's a great tree down right across the creek."
The boys stopped rowing and looked round. Sure enough, an enormous cypress lay right across the creek no more than a hundred yards ahead, completely barring their further passage. Even as they looked, from behind the great pile of tumbled branches and thick grey moss came a mocking laugh.
"Thought you'd got us, did ye? Ha! ha! But we're not quite the fools you reckoned us. Now then, Britishers, what do you calculate to do about it?"
"It's Ty," said Bud curtly, and as he spoke the parchment yellow face of the great lank "cracker" rose in a gap among the broken branches of the fallen tree, and the man showed his blackened teeth in a hideous sneering grin.
"Can't you shoot him?" whispered Bud sharply to Bill, but Barchard seemed to divine exactly what was in their minds, for suddenly he ducked out of sight. But only to rise again, this time holding Mary in his long gorilla-like arms.
"Guess I wouldn't shoot," he jeered in that horrible creaking voice of his. "Not unless ye want to spoil this here pretty sister o' yours. And don't come no nearer," he added with a sudden savage note, "fer there isn't a thing to keep us from pumpin' lead inter you."
For a moment Bill could find no words. The sight of Mary and the fact that he was powerless to help her left him white and shaking.
Bud spoke up. "Say, Barchard, what do you reckon to get by this business?" he demanded. "It's true you've got Miss Picton, but that won't help you. Quite the contrary, for it will bring the whole countryside down on you."
"Haven't ye read the letter as I left over to your place?"
"Yes, we've read that," replied Bud.
"Then ye knows all I got to tell ye. We wants our nigger back and we're a-going to have him. Fetch him along, and ye can have the gal."
"The man's in the Sheriff's hands, not ours," said Bud.
"More fools you, then!" snapped Barchard. "Fer now you'll hev to get hold of him out of the Sheriff. Anyways we holds the gal till we has the nigger. That's flat."
"If you give her up now, we'll do our best for you with the Sheriff," replied Bud, speaking as coolly as ever.
Barchard's answer was a torrent of oaths. He would see them in a very hot place before he gave up the girl. Anyhow, what he said went, and he was going to have the negro first, and also a promise of immunity. "And ef we don't get the nigger inside of forty-eight hours delivered right here at this tree we'll hev a ransom as well," he added.
"I'll give you a thousand dollars if you will hand over my sister now," broke in Bill, desperately.
Barchard laughed vilely. "Ef ye offered five thousand it wouldn't be no good, Mister. It's the nigger we want, and the nigger we're a-going to have. You best go right back, and see Mr. Sheriff Saunders and fix it up with him. And as I said in my letter, no monkey business, or it'll be the gal who'll pay."
Bill dropped back. He was fairly at his wits' ends. Bud still kept his head and his temper. "If that's your last word, at any rate let us speak to Miss Picton," he asked.
"You can speak all you've a mind to, only she won't answer. 'Cause why. We're a going right on home, and she's a-coming with us. You take my advice, young feller, and fetch Cicero as soon as you can get him. And don't be too long about it. These here swamps is kind of feverish, and not right healthy for a young gal." His harsh cracked laugh rang out again, then he dropped out of sight and next moment the sound of oars proclaimed that his boat was again under way.
Jacko hardly dared look at Bill's face. He knew well what he must be suffering. "Can't we do anything, Bud?" he whispered in a sort of agony.
"I reckon to go right on and hunt them," said Bud coolly.
"But how can we? It'll take hours to cut out that tree and get the boat through."
"I don't reckon to take hours," replied Bud. "Did you reckon out how those chaps felled it?"
"Why, yes," said Jacko, wondering, "by the sound I fancy they used a dynamite cartridge."
"That's the way I reckon to bust our way through."
"But we haven't got any cartridges."
For answer, Bud stooped and rummaged in a pack. From this he produced a box and opened it. "Here's half-a-dozen anyway," he said.
Jacko gasped with relief. "You remember everything, Bud."
"It didn't take a heap of remembering. They were the last few left after we blew out those big pine-stumps last month, and they were right in the same drawer with the rifle cartridges."
"Then come on. Let's get to it at once," begged Jacko.
"I wouldn't hurry, son."
"Because we don't want Ty and his crowd to hear. We got to be right sure they're out of earshot before we start this game."
Jacko drew a deep breath. "Yes, of course. But I'm afraid sound will carry an awful long way in this swamp."
"Not so mighty far. You got to remember trees like these cut off sound. And it's not as if the creek ran straight. I don't reckon they'd hear much if once they're a mile away. Only that means two by water."
"Give them about half an hour then."
"All of that. But once we're through, we can shove on as fast as we like, and since they won't be expecting us there's the chance we may catch them again before dark."
The two had been talking in whispers. Now Jacko turned to tell Bill what they proposed to do. But instead of doing so he stopped short, listening keenly. Then he turned to Bud. "Another boat coming up the creek," he said sharply. "We'd best get under cover."
"I don't reckon there's any need to," Bud answered. "I reckon it's Josh."
"Josh, yes of course it must be Bill," he added in a louder tone, "there's a boat coming up the creek. We hope it's Josh Rogers."
Bill roused himself. "But he's too late," he said bitterly.
"They do say better late than never," remarked Bud dryly. "I guess a fresh hand at the oars won't do us any harm, specially as Jacko's shoulder isn't right well yet."
"Bud's got some dynamite cartridges," put in Jacko. "Only he thinks we must wait until Barchard's crowd are out of ear- shot."
The prospect of being able to do something put new life into Bill. "But we can begin the boring at once," he said. "Come on!"
"One minute," said Jacko. "Here's the boat coming right round the corner."
Almost as he spoke a boat shot into sight. But to their amazement and indeed dismay, it was only a little sailing canoe, a tiny thing with one man in it. They recognized him as Jim Lucas, a young Englishman who worked in the bank in Pinelake. He was a little, slight, fair man, rather delicate but full of pluck. Wielding his paddle deftly he came shooting up.
"I thought you must have come up the creek," he said rather breathlessly. "So I followed."
"But where's Rogers?" demanded Jacko.
Lucas looked grave. "I've a message from him," he said. "He won't be here to-day."
"WON'T be here to-day!" echoed Jacko in dismay.
"No, but don't blame him. It's not his fault. The fact is that this gang have been a bit too smart for him. Evidently they reckoned he was going to start after them to-day, and so he was. When Simmons arrived at Pinelake, Rogers had already got his posse together and was only waiting for Saunders so as to start. Simmon's news about Miss Picton decided Rogers to start at once, but when he and his men went down to the lake they found every one of the boats at the landing had been stove and sunk."
"The fool!" snapped Bill. "Why hadn't he put a guard over them? Saunders would."
Lucas shrugged his shoulders. "But Rogers isn't Saunders, Mr. Picton. And anyway, the damage is done. Some of the gang must have done it during the night. Luckily my canoe was locked up in my own boat-house, so I volunteered to come across and bring you the news."
"It's very good of you, Lucas," said Bill with an effort. "But what is Rogers doing?"
"Oh, he's got the two biggest boats out and he is repairing them. But it's bound to take some time." Bill groaned. "Then we can't hope for any help until they get them mended."
"I don't know whether I'm any good," said Lucas modestly, "but I'm game to try."
Bill glanced at the slight little man.
"No, Lucas, that canoe of yours would be no use up here, and we haven't room for another in this boat. I'm immensely grateful to you, but I think the best thing to be done is for you to go back at once, tell them what has happened so far, and urge them to come as quickly as they can."
"They won't want much urging," said Lucas dryly. "It isn't a Sheriff's posse that's coming along. It's a lynching party."
"That's just what we don't want," cut in Bud. "Say, Mr. Lucas, you tell Saunders we don't want a lot of men, but we want good ones, picked men well armed and with their heads screwed on properly. It's going to be a right tough job."
"I quite agree," said Bill, "but I think that Saunders can be trusted to bring the right men. Now, listen, please, Lucas, and I will tell you exactly what has happened so far."
He did so and Lucas listened in silence, merely nodding now and then. When Bill had finished, he spoke. "Then I take it, you are going on?"
"That is what we intend to do," replied Bill. "We reckon to blow out this cypress trunk, and make a big effort to catch Barchard's boat before it reaches this hidden island of theirs."
"And if you can't do that?" questioned Lucas.
"Then I can't say what we shall do," replied Bill. "We shall be guided by circumstances. But you can take it we shan't come out until we have got Mary, or until these brutes have finished us." His lips tightened as he spoke, and his face was grimmer than Jacko had ever dreamed it could be. He saw that Bill Picton had got over the first shock of Mary's disappearance and that now he was truly dangerous.
Bill went on, "Tell Saunders to come as quickly as he can. With Cicero's help he ought to be able to find the way. And if he does not find us, I beg him to look after Mary and send her back to England."
"I'll tell him," said Lucas quietly, "and if anything does go wrong, Mr. Picton, you can count on me to look after your sister."
"Thank you, Lucas," replied Bill warmly. "I am very grateful to you. And now, good-bye."
"Good-bye and good luck," said Lucas, and swinging his canoe went off at full pace. Bill watched him out of sight, then turned to the boys.
"We know where we are now. And at best it will be twenty-four hours before help can reach us. What do you think, you two? Shall we wait for Saunders or shall we go on?"
"Go on," said Bud and Jacko in one breath. "Guess it's our only chance," continued Bud. "If we wait till to-morrow I reckon they'll have the whole creek blocked good and proper, and likely chaps with guns on the banks, waiting to pick off anyone that comes along."
"That seems more than likely," agreed Bill. "Very well then. We go on. Jacko, have you an auger in the boat?"
"Bud put one in, sir. Here it is."
Bill nodded. "That's good. Then we'll get to work on the tree."
Two minutes later Bill was out of the boat and on the trunk, and the big inch-auger was biting its way into the tough timber, while Bud seated in the boat was fixing the fuse to the cartridge. The operation did not take long and very soon the hole was finished. Then the cartridge was placed in position and well tamped in and the fuse cut. Bud touched a match to it, then they pulled the boat quickly away.
They had barely reached a safe distance when the explosion took place. Not a loud crack, just a dull thud. A shower of splinters leaped into the air and the trunk broken clean in two sank away leaving a passage just wide enough for the boat to squeeze through.
"Bet they didn't hear that," said Bud cheerfully. "And now I reckon we got to row for all we're worth."
Bill and he set to work and the boat shot up the creek at a great pace. Jacko sat steering, with the rough chart on his knees. In about an hour they passed the side creek where they had camped that night when the big cypress had burned down; in another two they had gained the spot where they had picked up Cicero Mack, and still there was no sign of Ty Barchard's boat. Bud began to grow uneasy.
"Say, I wonder if they've taken some other channel," he remarked. "Seems to me we ought to have caught 'em up by now."
"Is there any other channel?" asked Jacko.
"I reckon there are plenty, but this is the main one all right."
"Then we can't do anything but shove on," said Jacko.
"Yes, but what if Ty gets behind us?" suggested Bud grimly. "That'll be a nice mess-up."
"We must chance it," said Bill. "It's no use thinking of hunting up every backwater. It would take a month, and the chances are that we should be lost before we'd gone far."
They began to pull again. They were on new water now—new at least to them, and Cicero's chart became more and more useful, for the creek curved and twisted like a great snake with all sorts of blind channels running off it in all directions.
"I should think we can't be far off the cypress cutters' camp," said Jacko, at last, and just then Bud held up his hand for silence.
"Guess we're near something else," he whispered. "Listen!"
The others stopped rowing and for a moment the thick heavy silence was broken only by the drip of water from the raised oar- blades. Then there came a flash of excitement in Jacko's eyes.
"You're right, Bud. They're not far ahead. I can hear the creak of their rowlocks quite plainly."
Jacko got up. "I'll take Bill's place," he said swiftly. "Bill, I think you had better get your rifle ready."
The change was made in a moment, then the boat shot on again at a rapid rate. But the two boys had muffled their oars with bits of canvas, and the boat moved as silently as a shadow.
As so often happens in Florida, clouds had banked up during the afternoon, and now a thunderstorm was threatening. The air was heavy and stagnant, so that the perspiration streamed down the faces of the two boys as they rowed. And through the dead calm the sound of the oars of Ty Barchard's rowers sounded constantly more and more clear.
The boat rounded a sharp bend, and to the right they saw a considerable clearing, and in the middle of it—standing on an old shell mound—a ruinous wooden building. It was the camp of the shingle cutters. Just beyond it the creek curved again, and by the sound they all felt certain that Barchard's boat had only just rounded it.
Bud signed to Bill to keep in close to the bank, and Bill understood and did so. They stole along close under the huge branches, with their great grey festoons of hanging moss. Jacko felt the tingle of keen excitement making the blood race in his veins. He longed to get to close quarters and felt that he would gladly tackle even the great Ty himself if he could only come near enough to do so.
The boat slipped round the big cypress which rose at the point of the curve, and Bill drew a quick breath.
"Steady, boys!" he whispered. "I can see them."
Yes, there was the moonshiners' boat—plain in view and only about a hundred yards ahead. There were four men in it, two pulling, one in the bow with a brush-hook in his hands ready to cut a way through the floating weed which at times blocked the creek. Ty Barchard sat in the stern, steering, and just in front of him, seated in the bottom of the boat on a pile of sacking, was poor little Mary.
Bill's face had gone white again, but there was a curious gleam in his eyes. Jacko had a feeling that he would not care to be Ty if Bill once got his hands on him. Jacko himself and Bud had just taken one glance back over their shoulders at the other boat; now they were watching Bill, waiting for his orders.
"Can we get closer without their seeing us?" Bill whispered tensely.
Bud glanced up the creek, but this particular stretch was wide and open, and there was no chance of concealment.
"It don't look like it, I'm afraid," he answered in an equally low voice. Bill did not speak, but the frown on his face showed that he was thinking desperately hard.
Jacko of course realized the difficulty. If they attacked openly Ty would use Mary as a shield as he had done before. The only chance was surprise, and that was going to be most horribly difficult.
"We must follow them till dark," he whispered. "Then perhaps we can sneak up and get to close quarters."
Bill nodded. "I suppose it's the only chance," he answered.
Then Bud cut in. "I guess I know a better. From the chart here, there's a loop a mile or two higher up. If we get into that and pull real hard, maybe we can get ahead of them, and ambush them as they come along."
A gleam of hope showed in Bill's eyes.
"Yes! Yes! That will be the best way. That is what we will try. Pull on."
"Guess we better wait till they're past the next bend," said Bud, and Bill nodded.
Close hidden under the thick branches, they watched the other boat out of sight, then Bill and Bud bent to their work again and they shot swiftly in pursuit.
Unhappily, there was one thing which the chart did not show—could not be expected to show. That was the sunken snags lying treacherously under the brown surface of the creek. Ty had a man in the bows to look out for these but the others had not a pair of eyes to spare for this task. Just before they reached the bend the boat crashed into one of these submerged logs with a force that knocked both the rowers backwards off their seats.
They were up again in a moment, but the damage was done.
"Afraid they are bound to have heard that," said Jacko swiftly. "Push her in under the bank again."
But the boat's bow was firmly wedged on the sodden, sunken log, so that the two rowers had to stand up and push with all their might to force her back. Just as she came off, but before they could get her back under cover of the trees, there came the sound of rapid oar-strokes, and the moonshiners' boat shot back around the bend.
"You was right, Ty," they heard a hard voice exclaim. "There they be."
"Well, I'll be dog-gone!" remarked Ty who was now in the bow of the boat, crouching down with a rifle at his shoulder. "So they got through that there tree." He laughed harshly. "You're smarter than I reckoned for, Mr. William Picton," he sneered. "But not quite smart enough to match Ty Barchard on his own ground."
"Don't talk, Ty. Shoot!" came the voice of one of his men from behind.
"Oh, I'm a-going to shoot all right, Ed," said Barchard with horrid deliberation. "You, Ed, hold the little gal up, so as her brother kin see her."
The brute seized Mary who had been trying to get behind Barchard and forced her in front. The sight made the two boys quiver with rage, but they could do nothing.
"Shoot, Bill! Shoot!" cried the plucky child. "Don't mind me."
Bill's fingers were quivering on the trigger, yet he dared not pull it. The moonshiners' boat was bow on, and he could not even aim at one of the men in the stern. Besides, even if he could have shot one of them, what was the good? There would be still three left alive, and able to take revenge on Mary. In any case the man Barchard had him covered.
Ty Barchard sensed Bill's dreadful dilemma, and he laughed again in his harsh, mirthless fashion. "You better lay down that there rifle," he advised. "I got the draw on all o' ye. Aye, and I'd shoot ye, like the dogs ye are, only I kin make more use of ye alive than dead. You better bear in mind as you've got to take that message I gave ye to Saunders. Time's a-running short, and this here foolishness on your part has give ye a lot more rowing to do. Now be you a-going right back, or be you not?"
"No!" growled Bill. "I'll see you hung first."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before Barchard's rifle cracked. But the man was not aiming at Bill, and his bullet crashed through the boat just below the water line, sending splinters flying in all directions.
"That's done it," muttered Bud as he hastily rolled up a handkerchief and thrust it into the hole through which the water was spouting.
Ty laughed once more. "That'll larn ye," he said. "Now ye'll hev to get back to the bank, an' mend up afore ye goes back for Saunders. And you mind me. Ef you don't go right back and do as I've told ye, it's going to be the worse fer you. Aye, an' fer the gal, too!"
With his eyes still on Bill he spoke to the men behind him. "Back her, boys. Back her till you reach the bend."
His men obeyed and his boat backed slowly away towards the next curve while Barchard himself, still protected by Mary, kept the muzzle of his rifle pointed unwaveringly upon the other boat. And Bill himself and the boys, all three half-crazy with rage and despair, were forced to remain where they were and watch their enemies carry Mary out of sight once more.
"WATER'S running in pretty fast." It was Bud who broke the silence. "I guess we'll have to get ashore, and patch up the boat some way."
"Better get back to the shingle cutters' camp," suggested Jacko. "It's the one place where we can haul her out."
Bill did not speak, but he picked up an oar, and pushed the boat's head round. The moment she began to move the water spouted through the gash made by Barchard's bullet. They had to pull down Spanish moss from an overhanging branch and plug the hole afresh. Even then the bottom boards were all awash before they could get back to the camp.
So far Bill had not said a word, and the boys respecting his grief had not asked any questions. In silence they unloaded the boat, and hauled her out. Then Bill examined the hole—holes rather, for the bullet had gone through the boat just at water line and through the bottom as well. "A good two hours' work," he said grimly. "Bud, you help me. Jacko, see if there is any stuff in the camp which will do to nail over the holes."
There were plenty of old shingles, and since cypress wood has the quality of being able to resist the weather, most were still sound. Jacko got an armful of stuff and brought it back to the boat. He trod carefully, for moccasins were plentiful. Their sluggish deadly coils showed in a score of different places. "Light a fire, Jacko," continued Bill. "Make a good smoke to keep off the mosquitoes, and you had better put on some coffee. It looks like rain, and we had better have something hot while we can."
Jacko glanced at Bill in some surprise. He was astonished to mark how calm and cool he was. But he noted his tight set lips and the deep lines on his face, and realized that now he had got good hold on himself. Whatever happened, he would not break down again. He got busy with the fire while Bud and Bill turned the boat upside down, and set to work to mend the holes.
Clouds had rolled up thickly and after a time a mutter of thunder shook the still and sultry air.
"Coffee's ready," said Jacko presently.
"Pour it out," said Bill, and he and Bud stopped just long enough to drink a mug each and eat a biscuit. Bill glanced at the threatening sky. "Jacko," he said. "You had better see if you can find a dry corner in the old camp. We're in for a wet night."
Jacko nodded and went off. On the shell mound stood the remains of the old building set up by the shingle cutters. Part of the roof was still sound, and Jacko cleared a place beneath, and carried in the stores and blankets and mosquito nets. He also collected some dry wood.
All this took some time, and before he had finished the thunder was booming heavily. Then shortly he heard the first great heavy drops come splashing on the roof. It was now almost too dark to see to work, and he went outside to see what the others were doing. At that moment they both came hurrying in. Only just in time, for next moment the storm broke with a roar of wind and rain and thunder.
"Did you finish, Bud?" asked Jacko.
"Just about. Say, we're mighty lucky to be under cover, Jacko. This is some storm."
"I wonder if Mary is out in it," said Jacko sadly, but Bud shook his head. "I guess Ty saw the storm coming. Anyway I reckon he'll look after Mary right enough. He may say he don't care a cuss for the whole county, but I guess he knows what's coming to him if she's hurt."
Purposely Bud spoke loud enough for Bill to hear and he was relieved to see that Bill did hear, and that his words evidently gave him a little comfort. Then Jacko and Bud set to work to get supper. They made fresh coffee and a stew of tinned beef and sweet potatoes and onions. A very good stew, too, and in spite of their anxiety all three made a good meal.
By the time they had finished and washed up, it was night. The worst of the storm was over, but the rain still fell heavily splashing down into the swollen creek. Every frog in the swamp was croaking at the top of its voice, and the noise was deafening, but not enough to keep the three awake, and rolling up in their blankets under the mosquito net they all slept.
Next morning dawned fine and clear. They were up at dawn, and before sunrise had the repairs finished and the boat in the water. Then they all ate a hearty breakfast, and got afloat. "Wonder if we hadn't better leave a note for Saunders," suggested Jacko, but Bud shook his head.
"I guess not. Lucas will have told him what we're going to do. Now I reckon we'll shove right along."
Bill spoke. "How far do you make it, Bud? To the island, I mean."
"About fifteen miles by water."
"Then we ought to get there before night?"
"Yes, if nothing happens," replied Bud rather dryly. Bill nodded. "That, of course. But Barchard will hardly reckon on our sticking to him. He thinks the boat was pretty well done for."
"I wouldn't reckon too much on what Barchard thinks. He's mighty cunning, and so is Kynch. We'll have to keep our eyes skinned if we want to get through."
Bill's lips tightened. "We'll get through somehow," he said briefly, as he dipped his oars.
For the first hour or two it was pleasant enough and they made fast progress. There was not a sign of life on either side of the creek, except for birds, alligators and turtles. But once, when they struck an open lagoon, they sighted the great plume of smoke rising silently and mysteriously into the calm air. It gave them a queer sensation, for now they were nearer to it than they had ever been, and it looked much bigger and more real than ever before.
Towards nine o'clock the sun began to get very hot and they were forced to slacken their pace a little. Half an hour later they became conscious of a new sound. It was that of voices in the distance.
"Saunders, at last!" said Jacko, but Bud looked doubtful.
"I wouldn't gamble on it," he said. "I guess we'd better hide up and watch."
"But it can't be anyone else," insisted Jacko.
"Why not? You don't reckon Ty has only one boat. Why I guess he's got maybe a dozen."
"But his men can't be behind us," argued Jacko.
"What's the matter with some of 'em having passed down in the night?" retorted Bud. "Anyway, it's no use taking risks. Let's find a place where we can hide up."
"Yes, we had much better not take risks," agreed Bill. "All the same this is an awkward spot to find a hiding place."
It was. Just here the trees bordering the creek were not cypresses but palmettos, very tall and with bare trunks running up fifty or sixty feet. There were no friendly branches covered with moss under which they might hide.
But the sound of oars was becoming clearer and clearer every moment, and it was plain that, if they did not soon get under cover, they would be in full view of the pursuing boat. They pulled desperately, then suddenly Jacko who was steering, pointed. "There's a little creek. Quick! We can just make it."
The boat's head veered round in the direction to which Jacko had pointed and in a minute or so she shot into the little opening.
But it was no creek mouth—nothing but a tiny blind inlet among the palmetto trunks, not much more than large enough to hold the boat. It was surrounded by thick brown mud which smelt abominably, but luckily there was enough undergrowth to screen the boat and its occupants from the sight of anyone in the open creek. Jacko sprang up, and pulled the branches across the stern of the boat, so as to hide her. "Just in time," he panted. "Here she comes!"
"Is it Saunders?" asked Bud sharply.
Jacko paused a moment in silence, then dropped quickly back. "No, by Jove, it isn't," he whispered. "It's Kynch with three of the most awful-looking brutes unhung. And, Bud, it's not a rowing-boat they're in but a launch!"
"A launch! Say, but that's a new game. Wish we had it."
"I'm jolly glad we're out of sight of the brutes," whispered Jacko. "They're as rough a looking lot as you could see in a month of Sundays."
"I just wonder what they're doing," growled Bud. "Do you reckon they're looking for us?"
"I don't know. Have a look at them," said Jacko. Bud did not answer or move, and Jacko turned to see what was the reason.
What he saw nearly paralysed him.
Bud was sitting absolutely stock-still, staring at something, and Jacko following the direction of Bud's stare saw that the something was an enormous rattlesnake which lay coiled on a blackened tree-trunk. A trunk which overhung the water and almost touched the boat.
The huge reptile—it was nearly seven feet long—was of the diamond variety, the great swamp rattler which is so deadly that its bite spells death in fifteen minutes. And its flat head with glassy unwinking eyes was barely a yard from Bud's face as he sat on the after thwart.
Bill Picton who was seated in the bow of the boat had not seen the reptile at all for a projecting branch quite hid it from him.
For an instant Jacko stood absolutely stock-still—as still as Bud who, himself, sat like a stone image, knowing as he did that the slightest movement on his part meant that the great snake would instantly strike. Then the snake's rattle began to quiver and the loud hum of it filled the surrounding air.
That sound somehow roused Jacko from his trance of horror. Jacko had his gun in his hands, for all the time that they had been in the swamp, the one of the three who was steering had held a gun or, in Bill's case, a rifle, so as to be ready for any emergency.
Jacko, looking hard at Bill, gave a tiny nod, then with the utmost caution he began to raise his gun. He did not bring it to his shoulder, for he feared that even the second or two of delay might make the difference; he merely raised the weapon under his arm so that the muzzle was pointing at the snake. And still the great brute went on rattling, its tail moving so swiftly that it seemed a mere blur. At the same time a curious odour like that of freshly cut cucumber filled the surrounding air. The rattling roused Bill to a knowledge of what was afoot, but he knew better than to move.
To Jacko's dying day he will never forget the agony of those few seconds—seconds, each of which was like a minute. As for the launch and its crew, he had forgotten them as utterly as if they had never existed.
At last he judged that the gun muzzle was full on the reptile's body, the forefinger of his right hand tightened on the trigger, and the gun crashed out with a startling roar of sound. The snake, with its wicked head blown to pulp, thrashed about on the log.
"Good for you, Jacko," said Bud hoarsely. "I sure thought I was a goner."
Before he could say anything else, there came a shout from the creek, and Jacko whirled round, thrusting a fresh cartridge into the breech as he did so. At the same time Bill snatched up his rifle.
"They'd passed, but they're coming back," said Jacko swiftly. "What are we going to do?"
In spite of the awful ordeal through which he had just passed, Bud still had all his wits about him. "Don't shoot!" he whispered quickly. "Get out of the boat, Jacko. You too, Bill. Hide behind the tree trunks. I've got a scheme."
It seemed a crazy business, but even Bill had learned by this time to trust the quick cleverness of the American boy. In a trice they were all out of the boat, Bud being the last to do so. Though the mud was deep and soft the trunks of dead trees lay in every direction, and there was not much difficulty in finding foothold. In a matter of seconds all three were hidden, each behind a palmetto trunk.
They were only just in time, for next moment the bows of the launch came poking in through the screen of bushes, and the huge thick-set frame of Caleb Kynch appeared in sight.
"It's Picton's boat, all right," he said, "but they must hev seed us a-coming, fer they've took to the swamp."
"I reckon this sees their finish," remarked one of his crew with an evil chuckle.
"Aye. I'll finish 'em all right," said Kynch vindictively. "Pass up a piece o' rope, Abe, and I'll fix it on to the boat. Then we kin tow her out."
The rope was passed, Kynch leaned forward to make it fast, and as he did so Jacko saw Bud make a quick movement, and throw something at Kynch. Something that looked like a length of thick rope, but was really the still writhing body of the huge rattlesnake. It took Kynch across the back of his thick neck, and the yell he gave might have been heard a mile. "A snake! I'm bit!" he howled, and staggering backwards caught his heels in something and fell on his back into the launch with a frightful crash. At the same instant Bud signed to Jacko, and Jacko and Bill leaped forward.
"Hands up!" cried Bill, his voice hard and cold as steel. "If any one of you moves I'll blow his head off."
He meant it, too, and luckily for them Kynch's men had sense enough to know it, and sat like stone images.
"Say, that's great," observed Bud cheerfully. "Keep your guns on them while I fix 'em up."
Quite fearlessly he jumped down into the launch, and taking out his knife picked up the rope which Kynch in his panic had dropped. With lengths of this he neatly and quickly tied up Kynch and his crew, leaving them helpless as so many sardines.
Even Bill smiled grimly as he noted the crestfallen looks of the four ruffians. "And what next, Bud?" he asked.
"Why, the victors take the spoils," replied Bud cheerfully. "I reckon the launch will be right handy for us to use. I was calculating to leave these chaps the boat and take the launch up stream. I can run her all right if she's got enough fuel."
"But they'll follow us," said Bill.
"I don't reckon they'll go far without oars," replied Bud tersely.
Bill looked doubtful. "They'll die if we leave them here alone in the swamp," he whispered.
Jacko cut in. "I've got a scheme. We passed a shell mound only a mile back. What's the matter with leaving them there? They can't get away, and we can send for them later."
"Yes, that will do," said Bill. "We shall keep them as hostages."
Kynch scowled sullenly, but did not speak. Indeed there was not a word from any of the prisoners until they were landed on the shell mound. Then the last of them, a small man with tow- coloured hair and red-rimmed eyes, made a sign that he wanted to speak to Bud. "But not so as the others kin hear," he whispered.
"Stumble!" whispered back Bud. "Pretend to fall down."
The man did so, and so was separated from the rest. He groaned as if he was hurt and lay rubbing his leg. Then he spoke swiftly. "You all will sure run yourselves into a trap if you goes on up the creek. And it's one as yew won't get out of alive."
"What about it?" demanded Bud coldly.
"I kin tell yew, but I won't do it onless I gits your promise as I kin go free," replied the man, and something in his voice and manner warned Bud that he was speaking the truth.
"Get him back into the boat," said Jacko swiftly to Bud. "Bill and I will join you in a minute."
Bud nodded, and led the red-eyed man back to the launch. In a very short time Jacko and Bill were back and pushed off quietly into the creek.
"We've left them tied," whispered Jack to Bud, "but that's only to keep them quiet till we're away. They can release themselves all right. Now what about this chap?" He turned as he spoke and indicated the prisoner.
The latter returned his gaze defiantly. "I'm not going to say nothing till we're out o' hearing o' them others," he stated.
So Bud started the engine, and the launch moved slowly away a little distance up stream. Then Bud stopped her. "Now," he said curtly. "What about it? First, what's your name?"
"Ezra Barber—that's what I'm called," replied the other in a voice that was half scared, half sulky. "And as fer the trap I told ye of, it's some ways up the creek."
"What is it?" demanded Bud.
"It's a wire as is hidden under the water. Ef a boat touches it there's a contact made, and you and the boat an' all will be blowed to blazes."
Jacko whistled softly. "Sounds cheerful." Then in a lower voice, "I wonder if he's telling the truth."
"I guess he is," replied Bud. "What do you say, Bill?"
"I agree with you," said Bill. "I think he is telling the truth. The only question is whether it's the whole truth."
Bud nodded. "I wouldn't trust him a yard. He's got a face on him like a swamp rat," he answered in a whisper. "But I'll talk to him a bit more and see what I can get out of him." He turned back to Barber. "See here, Barber, how do you reckon to get the boat past this wire?"
"I kin do that all right," replied Barber confidently. "There's a way as we always uses when we goes to and fro. But you wouldn't find it not if you was to look fer a year."
"And that's the way you'll take us?"
"Aye, ef we kin come to terms," replied Barber with a twisted grin.
"You're in good shape to talk about terms," retorted Bud. "You're our prisoner, and if we hand you over to Sheriff Saunders you know well what's coming to you."
Barber faced him. "Aye, I knows what's coming to me right enough, but I know a bit more than that. I knows you all are after the little gal, and you wants her right badly. What's more, I knows you can't get her without I helps you. So I reckon I got a right to put a price on my help."
Bud gazed at the little rat of a man, but Barber's eyes did not fall. And Bud had to realize that the fellow was speaking the truth. He turned to Bill. "You hear what Barber says, Bill. What do you reckon to do about it?"
"What does he want?" asked Bill. "What are his terms?"
"My terms is thet, arter I've showed ye the way to git round the trap, you lands me up on a shell mound this side o' Smoke Island and leaves me there till ye comes back. Then ye takes me out and turns me loose."
Bill looked doubtful. "It sounds reasonable, but I don't know what the Sheriff will say."
"I guess we can fix it up with Saunders," said Bud.
"I'm not worrying about Saunders," put in Barber. "Turn me loose anywhere outside the swamp, and I kin look arter myself."
"I agree to that, then," said Bill. "And I promise to do my best for you with the Sheriff."
"Then that's fixed, and I reckon we better shove right on," answered Barber.
"Can we get there before dark?" asked Jacko.
"Yes, in this here launch," was Barber's reply. "Whack her up, and ef ye ain't scared I'll steer her. I reckon I knows the creek a heap better'n you all."
"Yes, you can steer," said Bud. "Only don't go trying any fool tricks," he added significantly.
Barber laughed scornfully. "I warn't born yesterday," he retorted. "I knows when I'm bottom dog, I does." He took the tiller, Bud handled the engine, and the launch went plugging away up the creek.
It was a huge relief to the three to be free of the ever- lasting rowing. Pulling in this sullen heat had sapped all their strength, but now they were able to rest. Jacko busied himself in getting some coffee ready on the spirit stove. As he said, it was hardly likely that they would have time for supper, and it was just as well to eat and drink while they could.
They gave Barber a mugful, and the red-eyed man evidently enjoyed it. Barber had not been boasting when he said that he knew the creek, and it was a blessing to feel that they were in no danger of running the launch on the snags which lay everywhere just beneath the dark surface of the dead, oily-looking water.
Mile after mile the launch chugged steadily onwards, and always the great smoke plume grew nearer. It seemed to hang like a dark threat against the evening sky.
About an hour before sunset, Barber asked Bud to slack down the engine. Then he turned the launch abruptly towards the bank. For a moment Bud went tense all over, while Jacko suddenly gripped his rifle. Both of them had the same idea—that Barber meant to drive the launch ashore.
Then, just as her bow seemed to be almost touching the bank, a narrow passage opened beneath the thickly hanging branches, and the launch drove into a side creek so narrow that there was barely room for her, so narrow indeed that by stretching out their hands, any of the party could have touched the bank on either side.
"There, do you reckon you'd hev found that fer yourselves?" demanded Barber with his crooked grin.
"I guess not," admitted Bud. "Then the trap you told us of is in the main stream above this creek?"
"That's so. She's jest a-waiting thar fer any one as comes fooling around."
Jacko broke in. "What about the Sheriff's party, Bud?" he asked in a low voice. "Won't they get trapped there?"
"They will if we don't warn them," said Bud, "but I'm kind of reckoning to be back out of this before morning, and I don't think Saunders will be along until about this time to- morrow."
Barber overheard. "Ef you gits through at all, it'll be ter- night," he said. "And ef ye don't why there won't be nothing else to worry you in this life."
Bud laughed dryly. "Sounds healthy. Still I guess we'll take our chances."
The creek widened a trifle, but was still a mere tunnel entirely roofed in by the great gnarled branches of the cypress trees, from which hung long veils of the thick grey Spanish moss. But the water was deep and seemingly free from either weeds or snags. It was plain to Bud that it had been used a good deal—and recently. At reduced speed they worked steadily up it and had gone half a mile or so when they sighted rising ground to the left. It was another of these strange old shell mounds which are found all through the Florida swamps and which were no doubt originally refuges of the Seminole Indians, for they are full of old shells and pottery and similar remains.
Barber raised his hand. "Throttle down that engine," he whispered. "We got a mighty ugly bit ahead of us."
He was right, for here they came upon a small saw grass swamp where the channel wound in sharp curves in and out among the forest of tall, grey-green spikes. The water was shallow and Barber seemed to have difficulty in keeping the launch in the channel.
All of a sudden there was a slight grating under the bows, and the launch stopped short. "Dern it! She've gone aground," growled Barber. "I guess we'll hev to lighten her."
At the very first touch on the sandbank, Bud had stopped his engine. Now he reversed, but the screw merely churned up sand and water.
"It's no use," said Barber. "Some of us'll hev to get out." As he spoke he rose and stepped out into the water.
"It's all right," he added, "the bottom's good and sound."
Jacko too got out, and Bill was about to follow, but Jacko checked him. "Wait a minute. No use all of getting wet. Barber and I can shove her off." Then as he waded round to the bow of the launch to lift it and force her back there came a sudden shriek—a yell of agony and terror—and Barber was plucked over backwards and disappeared under the water.
Bud and Bill in the boat heard the shriek, saw Barber vanish, but neither realized for the moment what had happened. Even if they had, it is doubtful whether they could have helped. It was Jacko who saw the hideous head which had suddenly risen out of the dark water and the great scissor-like jaws which had seized Barber from behind.
Right under his hand in the bow of the launch was a boat-hook, a solid heavy thing with a stout spike of metal at the end of it. Quick as a flash, he grasped it, swung round and drove at the great reptile with all his force. So quick was he that the iron point went straight between the beast's horrid jaws and so deep into its throat that its grip relaxed before the crooked fangs had been driven home, and in spite of its great weight and size it was forced back.
Its body twisted in hideous contortions, its scaly tail lashed the water into foam, and its yellow eyes deep-set under brows of horn glared savagely at its assailant. But Jacko flung his whole weight upon the boat-hook, and though the long discoloured teeth grated on the handle of the boat-hook within a few inches of his fingers he kept on driving at the alligator with all his force.
Next instant Bill was out of the launch. He had his rifle in his hands and stepping forward placed the muzzle close against the alligator's eye and pulled the trigger. The heavy bullet tore right through the beast's skull, and the great lizard rolled over, flapping like a huge fish and presently sank quivering to the shallow bottom of the creek.
Meantime Bud had got Barber back into the boat.
"Is he badly hurt?" panted Jacko as he scrambled back into the launch, followed by Bill.
"I guess not. You were so mighty quick, Jacko."
"He sure was," said Barber hoarsely. "He saved me right enough, and I'm real obliged to him."
"Let's see how much you're damaged," said Jacko quietly as he got out the first-aid case. They stripped the man who was still shivering with fright, but to their surprise the alligator's teeth had not got home at all. There was one nasty gash down low on his left side, but no other injury to signify. This they disinfected and strapped up, and Bill gave the man a dose of brandy which helped to pull him together.
Bud looked over the edge of the launch. "Say, she's still aground," he remarked. "I kind of hope there ain't any more of these 'gators around."
Bill handed him the rifle. "You keep guard, Bud. Jacko and I will get her off," he said, and calmly stepped overboard. Jacko followed and between them they pushed the launch backwards off the bank. Barber declared he was able to take the tiller again and presently they were chugging steadily on their way again.
Bud leaned over and whispered to Jacko. "Say, Jacko, I never before heard of an alligator tackling a man, specially in broad daylight."
"It depends on what they've been fed on," replied Jacko quietly.
Bud stared. "What do you mean?"
"Mostly they live on fish," said Jacko, "but a diet of raw meat makes a lot of difference."
"Then you mean that Barchard and Co. have been specially feeding up these brutes?"
"That's exactly what I think."
Bud looked thoughtful. "Guess I don't half like it," he said. "Anyways I hope we don't strike any more."
"I'm sure I hope so too," agreed Jacko, "but I wouldn't bet on it. Where you find one there are likely to be more."
Just then Barber spoke to Jacko.
"Say, Mister, I'm real grateful to you," he said, and his voice had somehow a different and more genuine tone.
"Oh, that's all right," replied Jacko quickly. Like most boys, he hated to be thanked.
"But I means it," insisted Barber. "See here!" He stopped awkwardly, and the others wondered what he was after. "You listen to me," went on Barber with a rush. "That there was one o' Crudge's pets."
Jacko opened his eyes. "One of Crudge's pets!" he repeated.
"Aye, there's more o' them around the islands. And—and—" he gulped and looked embarrassed. "I—I weren't a-going to tell you, but now—wal now I guess I got to."
All the other three were listening now. Barber went on. "I've led ye round one o' Crudge's traps, but there's another and a worse one a-waiting for ye. And—and thet's the one you all was going to be cotched in." He looked round in a half-scared way, but none of the three moved or spoke, and then went on again. "Alligators they be. Like thet brute as nigh got me jest now. Crudge feeds 'em on raw meat, and there's scores all around the island. They'd hev got ye all, sure thing." He shut up and squinted oddly at Jacko.
Presently Jacko spoke. "But you can show us how to dodge them?" he said calmly.
"I kin," growled Barber, "but I reckon you don't understand. I weren't a-going to. I were going to let ye run plumb inter them."
"I understand very well," replied Jacko quietly. "It's rather decent of you."
Barber looked again at Jacko. He shook his tow-coloured head. "Yew Britishers!" he growled. "You're funny, ain't you?"
Jacko laughed outright. "It's all right, Barber," he said. "At any rate you and I understand one another. I'm trusting you to show us the ropes."
"Aye, I'll show ye," growled Barber. "Only ef Crudge gits us I'll thank ye to hand me a gun quick—or shoot me first. I'm not hankering to be chucked into that there fire pit."
"What is the fire pit?" Jacko asked.
Barber shuddered. "Gee, I reckon it's the mouth o' the bad place. I reckon you all had best shoot yourselves or one another afore Crudge puts ye in there." And after that the man turned silent, and refused to answer any more questions.
"TWO islands," muttered Bud. "Not one." The launch lay in the top of the creek, which they now saw drained a large lagoon, and in this lagoon they could dimly see the outlines of two islands. Dimly, because the sun had now set, and the cloud of smoke from the fire pit had settled down and hung in a throat-stinging haze over the great, gloomy expanse of water.
One island, the nearer of the two, was large and flat.
"That's where Crudge keeps his cattle," Barber explained in a whisper. "Fenced they be against the alligators. The other one's where he and the rest lives."
Jacko looked across to the further island which rose to some height above the lagoon. It was covered with great gloomy forest- trees from among which rolled up the ceaseless smoke that for years past had been a standing puzzle to the people of Pinelake and the country round. It struck him as the gloomiest place that he had ever seen, and then he remembered that it was somewhere on this desolate lump of land that young Mary was being kept prisoner.
He thought of her, all alone among these rough brutes and shivered. And glancing across at Bill he saw that his lips were tight set, and his forehead knitted with lines of pain, and realized that he was suffering horribly.
Yet in spite of his cruel anxiety, Bill Picton had all his wits about him. He turned to Barber. "These alligators—what do we do about them?" he asked in a curt whisper.
"Thar's only one thing to do, Mister, and thet's keep clear of them," replied Barber. "It's this way. The water's mighty shallow around them islands, and thar's only one spot on each of 'em whar you kin get a boat in alongside. And them spots is mighty carefully hid. Crudge isn't taking no chances, ye understand."
Bill nodded. "But are we safe, once we get ashore?"
"No, sirree. That ye are not," responded Barber emphatically. "Them beasts lies right up in the thick stuff all around the islands, and mighty short work they'd make of anyone as didn't know the way in. The islands is both fenced with steel wire and there's a way in fer them as knows it, but not fer anyone else."
Bud shook himself. "A fine chance we'd have stood if we'd been alone!" Jacko heard him mutter, and in his heart he fervently agreed.
Barber continued. "I guess, if ye wants to get the gal, the best thing ye can do is to wait till it's full dark, and then I'll show ye the landing."
Barber's advice was good. There could be no doubt about that. There was nothing for it but to wait, and that waiting was the most trying thing that any of the three had experienced since the start.
All that could be heard was the occasional movement of cattle on the nearer island, and a munching sound as they chewed the grass. From the farther island voices came occasionally and once a burst of harsh laughter. And always the smoke rose silently from among the dark trees, but though Jacko and Bud strained their ears they could hear no crackling or anything which was like an outburst of flame. There was, however, a faint glow on the smoke pillar, showing that beneath it there was fire of some sort.
There was not a breath of wind to move the smoke and it settled down into a fog which grew gradually thicker. It caught the throats of Bud and Bill and Jacko so that they had difficulty in keeping themselves from coughing. But Barber was not affected. He seemed to be quite accustomed to the reek.
The last of the daylight faded out, and night hung heavy over the dismal scene. Barber moved. "Reckon we better be getting along," he said. "But we'll hev to pole her across. If we starts the engine they'll sure be down to meet us at the landing."
It was a relief to move and do something, yet it was a creepy business to pole the launch across that sheet of shallow water which they knew teemed with hideous man-eating reptiles. As they skirted the larger island there were ominous rustlings in the thick vegetation along the shore and once or twice a sullen splash. But they did not see an alligator or any other living thing and hidden by the darkness and the smoke they came at last to the larger island.
Jacko's heart was beating rather quickly as they drew up to it, for he realized how entirely dependent they were upon Barber. Yet he did not really doubt the man's good faith. He had been so genuinely grateful and the way in which he had expressed his gratitude had pretty well convinced Jacko that he meant well by them.
The trouble might come if they ran into any of Crudge's people for then Barber might get the wind up and go over to his old associates, simply in order to save his skin.
But there was not much time for thoughts of this sort, for already Barber was pointing to a spot where a clump of heavy vegetation seemed to project from the shadowy bank. He turned the launch's bow in towards it, the bushes parted and they found themselves inside a tiny harbour so carefully screened that no one would have suspected its existence. In this small basin lay another launch and several boats large and small. Another minute and the launch had been tied up alongside a little wharf and the four scrambled ashore. Barber paused. "Guess one o' ye had best stay right here," he whispered, "so as to be ready to push off quick. Mister Harter kin run the engine, so he'd better stay."
Bud hated it, but obeyed, and the other three went forward. A path led up from the landing, fenced on either side with wire. Presently they came to a gate which Barber opened and they pushed through.
"I knows where the gal is," whispered Barber. "But I reckon the place is locked, and I don't know how you all will get in."
"Show us the place. That's all we ask," said Bill in a tone which, low as it was, held a fierce determination.
The trees were thick on either side of the path, but presently they opened out, and the three were standing on the edge of a cleared space. Beyond, lights showed from the windows of several buildings. It was too dark to see much, but they could hear voices in the distance.
"It's the second shack where the little gal is," whispered Barber.
Bill put his mouth to Barber's ear. "You wait here," he said. "It is not fair to drag you into this. Jackson and I will get her out. If we fail and are caught you go straight back to the landing and make your escape with Bud. You'll be dead safe with him."
"Thank 'ee, Mister. I guess I'll wait then," replied Barber.
The other two went forward. They could see the building which Barber had pointed out, and both thrilled at the idea of being so close to Mary. For the moment they had completely forgotten that Fitz was probably here too. Quietly as two mice they approached the shack which was built of roughly squared logs. They found the door and tried it, but it was locked. "It's a padlock," whispered Bill as he produced from his pocket a heavy steel wrench. "Stand by. I'll have it off."
He set to work, and Jacko was listening to the sucking sound of a big staple being slowly drawn out of wood when a dark shadow loomed up beside them. "Wal!" came Crudge's voice. "I can't say as I was expecting to see ye, but seeing as you're here, I'll make ye welcome."
At sound of Crudge's voice Jacko swung round swiftly, but only to find himself gazing straight into the black muzzle of Crudge's pistol. "No, ye don't!" snarled the big cracker in a savage tone. "Put your hands up, dern ye. Put your hands up, both of ye, or I'll blow the heads off of ye."
There was no help for it and, bitter as it was to yield, up went the hands of both Jacko and Bill.
Grudge stood looking at them, and his thin lips parted in a cruel grin. "Ty, he told me as he warned ye to get back, but I kind of reckoned that ye wouldn't take good advice. Though, by gum, I never thought as ye would get this fur. But, seeing as ye are here, I don't know as I'm sorry. I been wanting to learn ye a lesson, Mister Picton, ever since that night when ye hit me. I told ye then as I'd make you sorry you'd ever been born, and I generally keeps my word. I got ye to rights this time, and I'm a- going to make ye sweat. Now, where's the rest o' your crowd?"
"There!" said Bill sharply, and pointed.
Caught off his guard Crudge swung round. It was a fatal mistake on his part, for, the very instant his eyes were off his prisoners, Bill hit out with all his force. His fist met Crudge's bristly chin, catching it just at the dangerous angle. His pistol dropped from the man's nerveless fingers, and he went crashing down on the black peaty soil at the door of the hut.
"I hardly thought that Crudge was fool enough to be caught by an old trick like that," said Bill quietly.
"It was smashing, sir," replied Jacko with warm approval. "It would have caught anyone. What are we to do now?"
"Tie him up, Jacko. And, above all things, gag him. And then keep your eyes open while I finish the job. Just remember that we are not out of the wood yet. Barchard and Kynch cannot be far off, and if they turn up we can't handle them without shooting. And once shooting starts we shall have the whole lot down on us."
Crudge was quite insensible, and Jacko wasted no time in gagging him with a handkerchief. Then, with a small length of cord, he tied the man's wrists together behind his back and, leaving him lying on the ground, picked up his pistol and stood guard, waiting while Bill quietly went on with his job of removing the padlock.
The staple was very big and was firmly fixed in the hard pine timber, but Bill's wrench was a powerful one and presently the staple yielded and came away; then, lifting the latch, Bill was able to open the door.
"Mary," he said in a low voice.
"Bill! Bill! Is it you?" came the answer out of the black darkness within. "I can't come. I am tied up. Come in and untie me, Bill."
"Tied up!" The tone in which Bill repeated the words augured ill for the man who had done it. "Give me the torch, Jacko," he said. "You wait here on guard."
Taking the torch he hurried into the hut. Jacko heard Mary's low cry of delight as she flung her arms round her brother's neck, then he heard the snick of Bill's knife as the blade shore through a cord. A moment later Bill came out carrying Mary in his arms.
"Is she all right?" he asked quickly.
"What, you, Jacko!" answered Mary. "How splendid of you! But I always knew that Bill and you would come after me. Yes, I am quite all right, really. They didn't hurt me, and I had some food. But how are we going to get back?"
"Don't you worry about that, Mary dear," said Jacko. "Bud is waiting in a boat. We'll soon clear out and get away from this dump of a place." He turned to Bill: "What are we to do about Crudge?"
Bill flashed the torch in Crudge's face. The man's eyes were open; he had come to his senses again, but he was still half- dazed and there was a great blue mark on his chin.
Bill made up his mind in a flash. "Take him with us. He will make a useful hostage, and in any case Saunders will be delighted to see him. Help him to his feet, and don't be too tender with him."
"Get up!" Jacko ordered curtly, and, catching hold of Crudge by the collar of his greasy coat, dragged him to his feet. Crudge staggered giddily, but Jacko kept firm hold on him, and they started back towards the place where they had left the launch.
It was very dark and the smoke hung thick and heavy over the gloomy island. There was no sound of any kind to be heard, and it seemed that the rest of Crudge's gang must be asleep.
Very cautiously Bill and Jacko crossed the little open space and, walking down the path through the trees, presently reached the little landing. "That you, Bill?" came Bud's whisper out of the gloom.
"Yes, and I've got Mary," was the answer.
"Gee! but that's fine!" replied Bud in a tone of intense relief.
"And I've got Crudge," added Jacko, with a faint chuckle.
"Say, you don't mean it!"
Bill broke in. "Take Mary, Bud."
Bud stepped forward and lifted Mary into the launch. "Get right in, all of you," he said. "I guess we shift out of this mighty quick."
But Bill paused. "Mary," he said in a whisper, "did you see or hear anything of Fitzgordon?"
"I heard them say he was on the island, Bill," Mary answered. "But I don't know where."
"Don't waste time thinking about him," said Bud sharply. "I guess the sooner we're moving the healthier it's going to be for all of us."
"That is true enough, Bud," replied Bill. "But you must remember that, so long as these people hold Fitz, they have the pull over us. If we could only get him away—why, then, Saunders will have an absolutely free hand."
"Crudge would know where he was," whispered Jacko.
"Yes, of course he will," said Bill. "Take the gag out of his mouth. I'll hold the pistol to his head so that he won't try shouting."
Bud cut in. "Don't you do it, Bill," he said urgently. "I tell you we'd a sight better be satisfied with having got Mary. After all, the whole job is the fault of that Fitz fellow. He's made his bed. Let him lie on it."
"You don't understand, Bud," replied Bill patiently. "I am responsible for Fitzgordon, and, though I know he is to blame, I should never forgive myself if harm came to him that I was able to prevent. Jacko, take the gag out of Crudge's mouth."
Jacko did so, and Bill held the pistol hard against the man's head. "Listen to me, Crudge," he said in a low hard voice. "You are completely in our power and if you attempt to shout or give warning of any kind I shall not have the slightest hesitation in shooting you. Now, I want Fitzgordon, and you know where he is. If you hand him over to us that will be so much in your favour."
Crudge was shivering with terror but he still tried to bargain. "What do I get out of it ef I gives him over to ye?"
"A good word to Saunders. No, don't say any more. I have no time nor inclination to argue. Where is Fitzgordon?"
"Shut up in one of them shacks," replied Crudge sulkily.
"How far away?"
"Not a great ways. It's the next one beyond the one where the little gal was."
"Is it locked?"
"Aye, it's locked."
"Have you got the key?"
"No, but I know where it's hid."
"Very well then. You will lead us there. And remember: I have warned you against playing any tricks," added Bill, and there was a very grim edge to his voice as he spoke.
Bud cut in once more: "Don't you trust him, Bill. Leave well alone and be satisfied with what you've got. That fellow will fool you some way."
"I will be very careful, Bud," promised Bill. "But I feel I must get Fitzgordon. To you I will say that, if you hear anything suspicious or if we are not back inside fifteen minutes, you are to push off and lie at least out of pistol shot from the landing." He turned to Jacko. "Have you got Crudge safely, Jacko?"
"Quite safely," replied Jacko.
"Then come on."
"It's plumb foolishness," growled Bud as he watched them fade into the gloom among the trees.
Barber answered. "I reckon yo're right," he said.
JACKO held Crudge by one arm while Bill walked close behind him, the muzzle of his pistol jammed against the man's back. But, though Crudge, who was evidently badly shaken and scared stiff, went quietly enough, Jacko was not happy. He thoroughly disliked this business of going back after Fitzgordon. In his secret soul he thoroughly agreed with Bud, and it was only his loyalty to Bill that had prevented him from joining in Bud's remonstrance. He hated this dark smoky island, and longed intensely to be away from it. As for Fitz, he felt, like Bud, that the fellow deserved all he got and was not worth troubling about.
Yet, having started on the job, he would not turn back or in any way hinder Bill. The great thing was to get through with it as soon as possible, and get back to the launch.
They reached the hut from which they had rescued Mary, and went on across an open space to where a second shack loomed through the gloom. No lights were visible, and the gloomy silence of the ill-omened place was as deep and as thick as ever.
Crudge stopped beside the hut. "This here's the place," he growled under his breath. There was such bitter hatred in his tone that Jacko shivered slightly. But Bill was quite unmoved. "Where's the key?" he demanded in a curt whisper.
"It's a-hanging over the door," answered Crudge. "I kin git it for ye."
"You keep still," ordered Bill. "Show me where it is. I will get it."
"Up thar," snarled Crudge, pointing. "But ye won't find it very easy in the dark, and ef ye turn on your light I reckon ye'll be sorry."
"Take the pistol, Jacko," directed Bill. "I'll find the key."
Jacko took the pistol and Bill reached up over the door. The wall of the shack was made of unbarked logs, and it was far too dark to see so small an object as a key. Bill fumbled about for half a minute or more before his groping fingers touched some metal object. "I've got it," he whispered. Then he added: "What's the matter? I can't get it down."
"It's tied," said Crudge in his surly voice.
Bill gave a sharp pull, and the key came away. "That's all right," he said, and began feeling for the lock.
As in the case of Mary's prison, this door was secured by a heavy padlock, and while Bill fumbled for the keyhole Jacko could feel that Crudge was shaking as if he had a touch of ague. But he put it down to fright or anger and did not pay much attention. He heard the key click in the lock. "I've got it," said Bill beneath his breath, and the door swung back.
As it did so a blaze of light flashed out, a glare so intense that both Bill and Jacko were for the moment completely blinded. Instinctively Jacko raised his hand to protect his eyes and, as he did so, something caught him round the legs and pulled them from under him so that he fell heavily to the ground.
Before he could get up Crudge was on top of him. Jacko made a frantic attempt to level his pistol at the man, but Crudge had foreseen this danger and had him by the right wrist, forcing his arm back so that, struggle as he might, Jacko could do nothing.
Kneeling on his chest, Crudge flattened him on the ground. The man's yellow face, twisted with rage and triumph, was within a foot of his and his whiskey-laden breath hissed upon him. "Take that, ye dirty lot!" roared Crudge, and drove his fist down between Jacko's eyes, almost stunning him with the force of the blow. He was vaguely conscious that a violent struggle was going on near by. Several men had hold of Bill, who was fighting furiously. Then up went Crudge's gnarled fist again, to descend once more with cruel force on Jacko's face—coloured lights seemed to wheel before his eyes—then he knew no more.
When he came to himself again he was still lying on the soggy, peat-like ground. He felt sick and dazed, and his head was aching savagely. A clatter of angry voices was in his ears. He opened his eyes to realize that he was tied up, neck and crop, and that Bill, equally well tied, was lying beside him.
In a knot by the open door of the shack stood four men. They were Crudge, Ty Barchard and two others. Their gaunt figures clothed in rough jeans, their evil faces and every detail of the scene stood out strongly in the glare of a powerful acetylene lamp carried by one of the men. It had been this lamp which had blinded Bill and himself when the door was opened.
Ty Barchard was speaking harshly and angrily. "Put 'em in the pit, Ezra! What are ye talking about? They're wuth a dam sight more to us alive than dead."
"It's not safe to keep 'em alive," retorted Crudge as fiercely. "They're as slippery as two swamp eels. We won't have no rest so long as they're alive. Put 'em in the pit, quick. That's what I say. There won't be nothing left of 'em to tell the tale."
"You're crazy," answered Ty Barchard. "I asks you, Mortimore, and you, Mazell, whether they aren't worth more as prisoners than as ashes. There isn't no manner of doubt as this here Sheriff Saunders will be along afore any of us are much older. And since we've lost the gal we got to have something to bargain with."
"You're mighty right, Ty," declared the man called Mazell. "I votes for keeping them alive fer the present. Ef we puts 'em in the snake house I don't reckon they'll get away very quick."
"Lost the gal?" broke in Crudge bitterly. "Of course ye've lost her, fooling round jawing like this. Ef any of ye had had the sense to go straight down to the landing ye'd most like have caught her and that there Harter as well."
Ty Barchard gave a bark of a laugh. "Jawing, indeed!" he sneered. "I'd like to know who's been a-doing of the talking ef it hasn't been yew, Ezra. And then you wants to waste more time a-putting them two in the Fire Pit."
Barchard shook his head. "I reckon Harter heard this rumpus and is far enough off by now," he said. "Still, ye might take two or three of the boys and go on down and see."
"Aye, and ef ye can't catch 'em shoot 'em so long as they're in range," said Crudge with his usual savagery. But Mazell had already hurried off, and vanished into the gloom.
Jacko managed to roll over nearer to Bill. "Bud will have gone by now?" he whispered anxiously.
"I hope so, Jacko. Indeed I am sure of it. And, Jacko, forgive me for getting you into this mess."
"Don't say anything about it. Anyhow, we're not dead yet. And I don't think we are in any immediate danger either, for it's quite clear that Barchard means to keep us prisoners, whatever Crudge says." He paused. Crudge was still arguing venomously in favour of finishing off Bill and Jacko, but Barchard and Mortimore were dead against him, and presently he was forced to yield.
"All right," he snapped out at last. "Hev it your own way. But I'll lay you'll be sorry afore you've finished."
"I'll take my chances of that," replied Barchard grimly. "That is to say—ef they gets out of the Snake House."
Jacko whispered to Bill: "What is the Snake House?" he asked. Before Bill could answer Crudge had turned and, drawing back his heavy boot, kicked him cruelly in the ribs.
"Thought yourself smart," he sneered. "Fooled me once, did you, but I knowed I'd get back on ye, and ye fell for it like the fool ye are. Get up and come along, and afore I'm done with you, ye'll be praying fer me to put ye in the Pit and be done with it."
With savage violence Crudge yanked Bill to his feet. He cut the cords round his ankles so that he could walk, then drove him forward across the clearing. "Bring the brat along!" he flung over his shoulder to the others, and Ty Barchard, catching hold of Jacko, dragged him up and freed his feet.
Jacko was still so giddy from Crudge's cruel blows that he reeled and almost fell. With their wrists tied behind their backs he and Bill were both completely helpless, and they had to submit to being driven like cattle across the clearing.
On the far side the strong glare of the acetylene showed a bank of rising ground, and in it a low-browed opening, arched with rough timber. Under this arch Bill and Jacko were forced.
The arch was so low that they had to bend almost double to get under it, but farther in there was head room. The light showed it a small cave-like place about ten feet across and roughly circular. The floor was earth, the roof was rough timbering built up in a sort of beehive shape. To one side lay a heap of coarse swamp hay, and that was the only furniture which the place boasted. The odd point that struck Jacko at once was that there was no door.
Jacko looked round suspiciously. Evidently this was their prison, and presumably was what the outlaws called the Snake House. Yet, horribly close and hot as the place was, he could certainly see no sign of snakes.
Crudge spotted Jacko's look, and evidently understood it. He laughed his horrible grating laugh. "Looking for the snakes, be you? Wal, ye won't need to waste a long time a-looking. Mortimore, you fetch the box."
The man called Mortimore, who looked as savage and uncouth as the rest of the gang, nodded and went off, while Crudge stood guard at the mouth of the cavern with his pistol ready in his hand. Presently Mortimore came back, carrying a large flattish wooden box with a closed lid. "Here she be, Ezra," he said.
Crudge laughed again. "Put her down right here," he ordered, and Mortimore laid the box down in the entrance, just where the roof was lowest.
"Now ye kin go in and untie 'em," said Crudge. "Ye needn't be scared. I've took their guns, and I'm a-covering them."
Mortimore obeyed, but all the same he did not look very happy. He had already had some experience of the way in which Bill, even when unarmed, could fight.
But now, knowing that Crudge was only too anxious for a chance to kill him, Bill made no attempt to touch the man. Having cut the lashings which bound the prisoners' wrists Mortimore backed quickly out of the cave.
"I guess you're a-wondering what he's done that for," said Crudge with another of his hideous chuckles. "You're a-thinking that, once we're gone away, ye kin walk right out. Jest you try it. I'm kind of longing to see ye do it. But jest you watch me."
He approached the box and took hold of a piece of cord which was fastened to the lid, then, stepping back a few paces, pulled this sharply. As the lid was drawn back there came from the box a whirring sound like that of a giant grasshopper.
Jacko started slightly. "A rattler!" he said in a horrified whisper.
"Three of 'em. Three five-foot diamond-backs," chuckled Crudge in hideous glee. "And everyone as chock full o' pizon as an egg is of meat."
Jacko shrank back. The cold-blooded cruelty of the business made him feel absolutely sick.
Crudge went on: "Ye don't need to be scared. The box is made so they can't get out, and so long as you stays where you be you'll be safe enough. But if you values your lives, or what's left of 'em, don't you go too near. Ef them pizon chaps can't get out they kin strike up all right. I reckon they kin reach up off all of a yard. So my advice is to stay right where you be, then mebbe you'll be alive to eat your breakfast to-morrow morning. Good-night to ye."
He was still laughing as he went away, and as the sound of his hideous merriment died in the distance the prisoners were left alone in the thick hot darkness of their horrible prison.
"Do you think that Crudge was telling the truth?" asked Jacko of Bill in a voice that was by no means so steady as usual.
"For once in a way I believe he was," replied Bill grimly. "One thing is quite certain. He would not have left us here, in this place, without a door, unless he had been quite certain that we could not get out alive." He paused. "It's a bad business, Jacko," he went on presently. "I wish we had gone with Bud and Mary."
"It's no good thinking of that," replied Jacko wearily. "And so long as Bud and Mary are safe there's no need for us to feel so bad."
"Yes, but are they safe?" asked Bill sharply. "If these people have another launch they may run them down and catch them."
"I thought they hadn't," replied Jacko quickly. "I thought that one we got hold of was the only one."
"We don't know for certain," said Bill. "We—" He stopped short. "Listen!" he muttered.
Through the smoky darkness there came a sudden sound. It was undoubtedly the chug-chug of a motor-engine.
Bill groaned. "They have. That's a launch. Good Heavens! Then they're after the others."
"But Bud is no fool," said Jacko swiftly. "Don't give up hope. Barber knows the swamp, and the last thing he wants is to get caught. I feel sure that Bud will manage to hide somewhere. In any case he has a good start. The chances are that he will get clear and meet Saunders."
"I wish I could think it," answered Bill anxiously. "But I don't see how Bud can keep the channel in the dark. And if he goes aground that's the finish. And if they get Mary again!" His voice shook and he stopped abruptly.
For once Jacko could find no words of comfort. He himself was sore all over from Grudge's fists, and his head ached abominably. He was quite worn out, and without knowing it, slipped off to sleep.
Bill, hearing his regular breathing, realized what had happened and did not speak to him again, but he himself sat wide awake, racking his brain for some way out of this horrible tangle but finding none.
At last he, too, dropped off into a doze, and the two lay side by side, happily unconscious for a while of the dangers that surrounded them.
It was the grey dawn fight leaking into the cave that roused Jacko. The sun was not yet up and the fight was still very dim. Jacko stretched himself and rubbed his eyes. His head felt better and he was somewhat rested, but his throat and mouth were dry and he was dreadfully thirsty.
Outside all was quiet as death. The only sound that Jacko could hear was the slow regular breathing of Bill, who was still asleep.
The quiet outside roused in Jacko a fresh longing to escape. But there was the snake box lying in the entrance—an impassable barrier. He looked round and noticed that the roof was held in position by long thin branches twisted together. He stood up, and without much trouble managed to loosen one of them. He found himself in possession of a thin stick about six feet long.
"Now, if I can only push the box aside!" he muttered.
But when he tried this he found the box was far too heavy to be shifted in this fashion. The only result was to rouse up the inmates. Their vicious flat heads darted upwards. They hissed savagely and the sound of their rattling filled the cave.
Bill woke. "What's the matter? What are you doing, Jacko?"
"Trying to shift the box, but it's too heavy."
"Can't we find a heavier stake?" suggested Bill, getting to his feet. But though he used all his strength the main timbers were far too heavy to shift. Besides, they were planted deep in the ground. Bill's efforts only resulted in bringing down a quantity of earth.
"Steady on! Wait!" Jacko's voice was suddenly eager. "I have a notion. I believe we can manage it after all."
"What! How? Do you mean you can move the box?"
"No. I can do better than that. At least, I think so. Just wait a minute." As he spoke, Jacko was tying a handkerchief firmly to the end of his stick. Bill watched him, frowning slightly meanwhile. He was evidently puzzled.
Jacko finished his work, then thrust out the stick towards the box so that the handkerchief dangled over the top of it. Instantly one of the rattlesnakes struck savagely at it, driving his hooked fangs deep into the stuff. The moment the reptile did this Jacko jerked the stick like a fisherman striking with his rod to hook a fish. The snake was pulled almost out of the box, then dropped back.
"I see!" said Bill sharply. "I understand. You are trying to pull their fangs out."
"That's it," Jacko answered. Then, as he drew the handkerchief to him and examined it: "And I've done it too!" he added triumphantly. "Here are the fangs."
Sure enough, caught in the fabric of the handkerchief were two curved needle-like fangs, each oozing with clear yellow venom. They were broken clean off.
"Capital!" exclaimed Bill, his eyes lighting with sudden excitement. "An excellent idea. If only the others will take the bait!"
"They'll strike all right," Jacko assured him. "They're as mad as hornets with the shaking up I gave them."
He shook the perilous fangs aside and began to angle again. At once a second snake struck. Indeed two struck at once, but only one got its fangs into the handkerchief. Another sharp jerk, and this second brute was rendered harmless. Inside five minutes three pairs of broken fangs had been flung aside, and the three serpents rendered harmless as so many lizards.
Jacko turned eagerly to Bill. "We're all right. And all's quiet outside. Let's bolt."
"But where to? Wait a moment. We must make plans."
"A boat. Surely we can find a boat and get away in it."
"But we have no weapons, no food."
"We must take our chance," said Jacko firmly. "After all, Saunders must be on the way by now. If we can once get off this awful island surely we can find him."
Bill considered for a moment. "Very well," he said. "It's a slim chance, but better at any rate than staying here. We will make for the shore and try to get hold of a boat. But be careful, Jacko. There is always the chance that Crudge may have left some of his men on guard."
The rattlers, possibly conscious that their deadly powers were gone, did not even strike at Bill and Jacko as they plunged past, and the two found themselves outside their prison and standing in a small clearing. To the right they could vaguely see some buildings, but the air was dead-still and the smoke from the Fire Pit lay so thick that it was almost like a London fog.
"This is luck," whispered Jacko. "And anyhow there doesn't seem to be anyone astir. Which is the way to the water?"
Bill pointed: "That, I think. Quickly across the clearing. Once we're in the scrub we ought to be fairly safe."
On tiptoe, quiet as two shadows, the pair slipped across the clearing and into the bush beyond. They were lucky enough to strike a path, and this led them right down to the very spot where they had brought in the launch on the previous evening.
"There's a boat," Jacko whispered eagerly and pointed to where a boat lay moored a little distance out from the shore. "It's quite shallow. I'll get her."
Bill caught his arm in an iron grip. "Steady, Jacko! Steady, you lunatic! Have you forgotten the alligators? Look!" As he spoke there was a swirl in the calm brown water between the shore and the boat, and a hideous head the vast jaws of which were armed with yellow curved tusks showed for an instant above the surface, then vanished quickly as it had come.
Jacko shivered slightly. "Ugh, I'd quite forgotten!" he muttered. "But now what shall we do?" he added despairingly.
Bill shook his head. "It's a dreadful problem. If we could only entice the brutes away! But how, I can't imagine."
"But I can," replied Jacko swiftly. "Didn't Barber say that there were cattle on this island? Yes, by Jove, there's one now. If we could kill one of these beasts and throw its carcase into the water every alligator in the lagoon would be after it in no time."
"That is not a bad notion, Jacko," Bill answered in a low tone. "But, remember, we have nothing to kill the beast with, and time is passing. It cannot be long before some of these people are astir."
"It's our only chance," said Jacko grimly. "If we could find a calf we might manage to drive it in."
Billy shuddered. "A horrible business. No, we must kill it first, Jacko. At all costs we must kill it." Jacko nodded. "Well, come on," he said. "We have to find it before we can kill it."
The undergrowth on either side of the path was too thick to penetrate, so, in spite of the danger, the two were forced to return up the path down which they had come. They found another path leading to the left, parallel with the shore, and, rather than venture into the open, walked along this. Presently it led them into another clearing, covered with coarse grass, and here several cattle were grazing. They were the rough, long-horned scrub cattle which are found all over South Florida, wild-looking creatures. They raised their heads and gazed suspiciously at the intruders.
"We shall never be able to tackle one of those," said Jacko in despair. "In the first place we could never get near one, and even if we did we haven't as much as a knife."
Bill shook his head. "It's awkward, Jacko. I don't know what we shall do. In any case there is not a calf among them."
Jacko turned to the other. "Look here," he said desperately, "what about going back and tackling one of the huts? If we could catch Crudge or one of them asleep we might get his pistols and then we should have a chance of doing something."
"That would be a desperate business, Jacko," said Bill gravely. "It must be kept as a last resort. Come a little farther. I think I see a shed among the trees beyond the clearing. There's a chance we might find an axe or a knife there."
Crossing the clearing Jacko saw that Bill was right. There was a shed standing among some black-jack oaks. Also there was a smell, a very unpleasant smell.
"It's a slaughter-house," whispered Jacko sharply.
"I believe you are right. If only there is a carcase there!" replied Bill.
A cloud of filthy flies rose, buzzing, as they approached the place, and the very first thing they saw was a slaughtered beast, quartered, and hung from the rafters supporting the roof of the shed.
Jacko gave a gasp of delight. "I say, what luck! Now if we can only get that down to the water before anyone finds we're gone!"
"We'll have a precious good try," replied Bill dryly, and, standing under one of the great masses of meat, he got it on his shoulder. "Untie the cord, Jacko," he ordered.
"I can do better than that," replied Jacko. "Here's a butcher's knife." With this he cut the cord and, staggering a little under the immense weight, Bill set off towards the water. Luck was with them, for here the bush was thin enough to let them get through, and they only had to go about a hundred yards before they saw the flat brown water gleaming dully under the smoke.
Here, as elsewhere, the same stout wire ran all along the shore. It was quite clear that Crudge was not taking any chances with his hideous pets. But Jacko found a place where the water was fairly deep, just on the far side of the wire, and Bill, with a great effort, twisted the huge joint of beef over this, and it fell with a heavy splash into the lagoon.
Jacko watched anxiously as it settled towards the bottom. There was no doubt that the alligators would find it sooner or later; the question was: how soon. The light was steadily growing stronger, and he knew that the sun must be near the horizon. It could only be a question of a few minutes before the moonshiners were up and about.
Suddenly there was a ripple on the calm oily surface. Something was shooting along underneath with the speed of a great fish.
"Here is the first," remarked Bill, who was panting a little with his great exertion.
"He's got it too," replied Jacko in a sharp whisper. "I say, what a brute! He must be ten feet long. I say, he'll swallow the whole thing," he added in dismay.
"Not he! Here's Number Two," said Bill, as a second alligator nearly as big as the first came up at tremendous speed.
Next moment the whole of the lagoon was seamed with ripples as, one after another, the scaly horrors came racing to the feast. Within a minute the brown water was being churned into foam as a score of the great lizards fought savagely each to gain a share of the unexpected meal. Huge jaws clashed like steel traps and armour-clad tails were flung high in air, while the reek of musk that rose with the thick air was fairly suffocating.
"That's done the trick," said Bill. "Now for the boat. Don't waste another second, but run."
He started away as he spoke, with Jacko close behind him. From somewhere away to the left they heard a voice. "Say, you Mose, ain't you lit the fire yet?"
"Some of them are up," Jacko heard Bill mutter, and he ran faster than ever. Luckily the man, whoever he was, had not gone far from his sleeping quarters, for they saw nothing of him or of any of his fellows, and presently, breathing hard, were back at the landing.
Jacko was about to plunge in, but Bill stopped him. "No," he said in his curtest tones. "This is my job, Jacko." And, before Jacko could make any further objection, he was in the water and wading out towards the boat. It was shallow and luckily the bottom was fairly firm, yet even so Jacko's blood ran cold as he watched the other. If one of those alligators was still about! And he had seen already how fast they could move!
But, seemingly, they were all away at their grisly feast, for there was no attack on Bill. All the same it was with a sigh of relief that Jacko saw him seize hold of the clumsy flat-bottomed boat and push it back to the shore.
But as Bill came to shore again his face was full of dismay. "It's no use, Jacko," he said bitterly. "There are no oars in this wretched boat."
THE blow was a heavy one, and for the moment Jacko was so staggered that he could find nothing to say. After all they had done to get hold of the boat it did seem too cruel that there should be no means of getting her away.
And just then there came through the trees a sound of voices. They could not distinguish words, yet undoubtedly one of the moonshiners was shouting. And the voice sounded like that of Crudge.
Jacko's jaw set hard. He jumped into the boat and with a great effort pulled up one of the bottom boards. "Come on!" he said to Bill. "We can paddle with this. If we once get out of the lagoon and into the creek we can hide ourselves somewhere."
Again came the shout, and this time there was no doubt about it. The voice was that of Crudge. Bill waited no longer but jumped into the boat, and Jacko pushed off as quickly as possible. The lagoon was so shallow that he was able to use his board as a punt pole, and for a while made good progress. In a very short time the ugly island began to fade away in the haze of smoke, but now the noise of shouting grew louder, and it was clear that something was afoot.
"They've found out that we are gone," panted Jacko. "If they have they won't know where we are," replied Bill. "It will hardly occur to them that we have got hold of a boat."
"But they're bound to find out pretty soon," answered Jacko. "Someone will see that the boat has gone."
"Yes, but by that time we shall be in the creek. Cheer up, Jacko. If I could only be certain that Mary and Bud were all right I should not be worrying much about anything else."
"I feel sure they are all right," responded Jacko. "If they had been caught they'd have been brought back before now."
"I hope to goodness you are right," said Bill earnestly. "Now give me that plank. It is my turn to paddle."
They were in deeper water now and the plank would no longer reach the bottom, but Bill paddled strongly, and in a few moments more they were out of the lagoon and in the creek. The current, sluggish as it was, helped them a little, but still progress was terribly slow and they knew very well that once a boat with oars started in pursuit it could not be long before they were overtaken.
They reached the mouth of the side creek up which Barber had steered them in the launch on the previous day, and Bill hesitated. "I suppose we must go this way," he said. "If we try the other we shall run into the trap which Barber talked about."
"Yes, there's no help for it," Jacko answered. "The worst of it is that they are bound to know just where to look for us. I rather think the soundest thing to do would be to hide somewhere. They may not know that we have not got oars."
"I believe you are right," replied Bill. "I'm nearly sure you are. That shell mound we passed—if we got to that we might pull the boat up and hide it. Then they would probably pass us."
"Yes, that's as good as anything," agreed Jacko, and Bill pushed on. It was no great distance to the mound and they reached it safely. But the business of getting the boat under cover was not an easy one. She was a clumsy tub, and in the long run they were forced to haul her up out of the water and cover her with branches and moss. Then they climbed on to the mound and hid among the low brush which covered it.
Bill frowned. "Not a sign of anyone after us," he said. "I can't make it out. They must know we have gone."
"It beats me," agreed Jacko. "Perhaps they went down the main creek. But suppose you sleep a bit. I'll watch."
Bill lay back and soon was asleep. Jacko watched. The sun was now well up and it became very hot. Soon Jacko realized that he was dreadfully thirsty. But the swamp water was not fit to drink and they had no means of boiling it. And still there was no sign of the moonshiners.
In about two hours Bill woke up. "My word, I am thirsty," he remarked.
"So am I," replied Jacko ruefully. "Hungry too. I almost wish we had pushed straight on. There's not been a sign of anyone after us."
"You take a nap, Jacko," suggested Bill. "It's the best way of forgetting hunger and thirst."
So Jacko slept, and it was afternoon when he woke. And now his mouth and throat felt like dry leather. But he could see that Bill too was suffering badly, and he would not complain. Time dragged on. Dusk began to fall and the air grew a little cooler. "Surely Saunders ought to be here by now!" said Bill at last. The words were hardly out of his mouth before there, came a faint splashing sound from the distance.
Jacko started up. "A boat!" he said hoarsely. "Coming up stream, too. Hurray, it must be Saunders!" He was starting down towards the creek, but Bill caught his arm.
"Steady, Jacko. We can't be sure. Go quietly."
The two crept down and, hidden behind a great cypress trunk, peered down the creek. A boat crept into sight under the thick arch of greenery. Two pairs of oars rose and fell steadily. Jacko leaned forward, his heart thumping with excitement. Then a voice rang out hard, and harsh and angry. "Pull, ye lazy dogs. Pull, I tell ye. Think I got all night to waste?"
Jacko's knees gave under him. The disappointment was so cruel he could almost have cried. For the voice was that of their worst enemy, Ezra Crudge.
"IT'S plumb foolishness," said Bud again as he stared anxiously in the direction in which Bill and Jacko had disappeared with Crudge.
"It's suicide if you asks me," growled Barber. "Sure as we sets here, Crudge'll fool them some ways. You'd ought to have stopped 'em, Mr. Harter."
"Stop them," repeated Bud bitterly. "There isn't a man living can stop Bill Picton when he has made up his mind to a job."
Mary did not speak, but Bud saw that she was shivering with fright and excitement. He patted her arm comfortingly. "Guess Bill will pull through, Mary. Don't you worry too much."
Then all three sat silent, listening hard.
It was Mary who first saw the bright flash of light as the door of the cabin was flung open. She started up. "Oh, what is that?" she exclaimed.
"Say, Mary, don't talk that loud!" whispered Bud warningly. "They'll hear us."
"I guess they've heard all right," muttered Barber. "That's Grudge a-speaking."
Through the thick, smoky air Crudge's harsh tones carried plainly, and what he said filled the hearts of the three in the boat with a sick despair.
Mary started up again. "Oh, Bud, we must go and help them."
Bud hesitated. Every instinct warned him to go to the aid of Bill and Jacko, but then he remembered his promise to Bill and dropped back in his seat with a half-suppressed groan. "It's no use, Mary. I promised Bill, if there was trouble. I'd take you right away."
Mary caught his arm. "Bud, you can't—you can't! We must go and help. Oh, if they've got Bill and Jacko I don't want to live. I don't care what happens."
But Barber had already got hold of the pole and was pushing the launch across the lagoon.
"Sit down, Mary," ordered Bud desperately. "You must. I passed my word to your brother, and whatever happens I've got to keep it. We must go back and find Saunders, and bring him here."
"But it will be too late," moaned Mary. "They will have killed Bill and Jacko long before he comes."
"They won't," declared Bud. "They'll keep them as prisoners, just as they did you. That's so, isn't it, Barber?"
"Yes, that's so, Mister Harter. Yew can count on that all right," replied Barber who was poling vehemently. "Say, get a sweep out and help me. We got to hide up out o' sight, or they'll have us for sure."
Mary collapsed, crying bitterly, and Bud hastily got out a sweep. "Do you know any place to hide?" he asked in a sharp whisper.
"Aye—more'n one. I reckon we can shove her in where they won't see us. Then when they've passed, we can get the engine working and git right away."
The smoky darkness was so thick that, if Bud had been alone, he would have been helpless. But Barber knew every inch of the lagoon and of the swamp creeks, and within a very few minutes he had pushed the launch into a little bay where the thick branches came down so close that they completely hid the craft and those in her.
"Jest in time," muttered Barber as a light shone through the gloom, and they heard the chug of the engines of another launch.
"Say, she's coming right for us," whispered Bud in alarm.
"I guess not," Barber answered. "She's a-going down the creek. They reckon that we've made straight off fer home."
The light came closer. Someone was in the bow of the other launch with a pretty powerful electric torch which he was switching from side to side. Bud could almost hear his own heart beating. He crouched down, hardly daring to breathe. Once the light struck right into the nook where they were concealed, but the thick branches, with their heavy trails of Spanish moss, quite hid them, and Bud breathed again as the moonshiners passed.
"Fooled 'em," muttered Barber, "but I guess we'll lie low for quite a piece yet. We don't want to risk them hearing our engines."
"But what can we do?" asked Bud. "If we go down the creek after them, likely as not they'll turn round and run right into us."
"We'll take that there back creek as we came by," said Barber. "Guess they won't risk that at night. Anyways I'll be able to tell by the sound if they are anywheres near."
It was nearly half an hour before Barber would allow them to move. All that time he had been watching the island and listening. But all was quiet, and at last he told Bud that he thought it was safe to shift. But even then he would not allow the engine to be started. He insisted on poling some distance down the creek before getting under way. Then Bud started her up, and with Barber steering they crawled slowly through the black night down the narrow waterway.
For a long time no one spoke. Bud and Mary were too miserable to do so. Neither of them thought much of their own plight for their minds were full of Bill and Jacko. Bud, though he had done his best to console Mary by telling her that he believed Bill and Jacko to be in no immediate danger, was really in a terrible fright about them. He knew Crudge's venomous nature and realized how the brute craved for revenge. He shuddered as he thought that the two might already have been consigned to the depths of that horrible Fire Pit.
As for Barber, he was scared—badly scared, for well he knew what his fate would be if his former associates once got their hands on him. Death was the penalty for any of the gang who were even suspected of treachery. Still he kept his head sufficiently to steer, and though they had to go very slowly he held the launch steadily on her way.
Suddenly an ugly thought flashed into Bud's brain, and he turned quickly to Barber. "Say, I'd forgotten Kynch and that other chap that was with you—the two we marooned on the shell mound. I reckon that launch that's ahead of us will sure pick them up, and then they'll know that we've got you with us."
"That's jest what I've been a-thinking of this hour past," replied Barber. "I been reckoning to try another creek as runs back of that there mound. But I tell ye straight, it's a bad place, and I'm plumb doubtful ef we can get through."
IT was none too easy to find the mouth of the creek of which Barber spoke, but at last he did so, and they found themselves in a water lane which was even narrower and more twisting than the one down which they had been travelling. They were forced to creep as slowly as the engine would turn over. After a while the creek widened a little, and Bud ventured to slightly increase the speed.
Just then he became conscious of a curiously sweet smell which filled the heavy air and was in strong contrast to the sour odour of bog water and rotten vegetation which is the usual swamp smell. At first he thought it came from one of those huge magnolia trees, with blooms as big as a plate, which you find here and there in the swamps, yet it was not quite that. And while he was puzzling over it Barber's voice cut sharply into his thoughts.
"Watch out, Mister. I reckon we're a-running into a bed o' them dratted hyacinths."
Before Bud could stop the engine he felt the launch plunge into a mass of something thick and spongy which covered the whole creek from bank to bank. At the same time the fragrance rose so thick and heavy that it was as if a bottle of scent had been upset. It was simply overpowering.
"Darn it! We're in it!" muttered Barber. "Back out, Mister!"
Bud put in the reverse and tried to back out. But already the long sinuous floating roots were twisted all around the screw. The water hyacinth is a native of Central America, and was imported into Florida by someone who admired its lovely blue flowers and its exquisite scent. But whoever he was he forgot that it grows with amazing speed and rapidly chokes all sluggish waters. In Florida it has flourished astonishingly and wherever one root has found lodgment, there in a year or two whole lakes have been filled with the plant. Nothing can pass through it. The smallest row-boat and largest steamer are equally helpless.
Bud soon found that it was no use trying to back out. "We'll have to use the sweeps, Barber," he said. With these they managed to get back out of the tangle into clear water, but even then the screw was all choked, and Bud had to hang over the stern and, knife in hand, slowly cut the stuff away.
"And now what do you reckon we're going to do?" he asked Barber.
"Go back, I reckon. There isn't nothing else to do, for it's a sure thing we can't go forward."
"That means getting right into the main creek again," snapped Bud.
"That's so," agreed Barber helplessly. "But there isn't no other way round so fur as I knows."
Bud shrugged his shoulders. "It's a mighty poor look-out," he said in a low voice. "See here, Barber. I'm not going to blunder into that other launch in the dark. Strikes me the best thing we can do is to push back somewhere near to the mouth of this blind creek and lie up there till dawn. If the other launch passes back in the night we shall hear her. If she doesn't, why then we can wait till she does."
"I guess that's as good a notion as any," agreed Barber and with that they set to working the way back. Mary, quite worn out, was asleep. Bud had fixed a mosquito net over her and was only too glad to hear her quiet breathing.
It took a long time to get back and the sky was turning grey when at last they reached the spot where the back creek met the main one. This is the hour at which the swamp noises begin to die away. The frogs cease to croak, the crickets stop their chirring, and the air for a time becomes quite cool.
Bud and Barber brought the launch to rest in the narrow mouth of the creek and sat listening intently. "Quiet enough," whispered Bud.
"Aye, I can't hear nothing moving," replied Barber. "Mebbe them others hev gone back to the island."
"How far are we from the shell mound where we left Kynch?" enquired Bud.
"Not a great ways. Half a mile, I guess," Barber answered.
"Do you reckon it's safe to push on down the creek?"
Barber hesitated. "I kind of think we'd best wait a while," he suggested. "We could have a bite to eat while we're a- waiting."
"Not a bad notion," agreed Bud. "Tie her right alongside, and I'll put a kettle on and brew some coffee."
Barber pushed the launch up alongside a big cypress, and Bud put the kettle on the spirit stove. He was busy over that and Barber was getting out some food from the locker when a slight rustle made Bud look up.
It was too late. Like a pair of panthers two men sprang from the knotted roots of the cypress aboard the launch, and while one knocked Bud backwards into the bottom of the boat, the other struck Barber such a blow over the head as stunned him.
Bud heard a harsh laugh. "Crudge was right. He said it would work."
"It worked all right," replied Kynch with a chuckle as he tied Bud's wrists together with a length of cord. "We've worked in any way. Get the engine a-running, Chubb. I'm needing my breakfast right bad."
Bud dropped back into the bottom of the launch. To have been trapped like this cut him to the heart, and for the moment he was hopeless as well as helpless.
"HOLD up, Jacko," said Bill in a low voice. For Jacko, overcome by disappointment and partly too by fatigue and hunger, had staggered and nearly fallen. "Hold up, man!"
Jacko pulled himself together. "I'm all right," he declared. "But what are we going to do?"
"Hide," replied Bill curtly, as he drew Jacko back into thicker cover. "We're all right so far. Grudge must have gone down the main channel. Not finding us, he has come back this way. Keep your heart up, Jacko. It looks as if Bud had got safe away with Mary, and if that is the case they are sure to meet Saunders, and then we shall soon see the end of this business."
Jacko peered out again. Crudge's launch was now in plain view, only about fifty yards away. "No," he said in a voice of agony. "See. There are Bud and Mary, yes—and Barber—in the boat. The brute has caught them after all."
Bill's face went very white, and in his turn he staggered and clutched at a branch to save himself.
They heard Crudge speak again. "I'd give a barrel o' whiskey to know whar Picton and the pup hev hid theirselves," he growled. "I'm plumb sure they can't hev gone far fer they didn't have no oars."
"Yew can take it they come this way," replied Kynch. "Ef they'd hev gone down the big creek they'd sure hev hit the wire and been blowed up. Say, I wouldn't wonder if they'd hid up on that there shell mound."
"And I wouldn't wonder if you was right," replied Crudge. "Anyways we'll hev a look round. Shove her in close, Chubb."
Bill's grip on Jacko's arm tightened. "We've got to climb a tree, Jacko," he whispered. "That's our only chance."
Jacko nodded and pointed to a cypress of which the branches hung low. Next moment the two had swung themselves silently up into the thick, moss-hung heart of the tree. They were only just hidden before the launch touched the bank, and Crudge, Kynch and another man jumped ashore. They tramped here and there through the thick growth but Bill and Jacko were quite out of sight.
The search went on for a good ten minutes, then Crudge himself stopped right under the cypress where Bill and Jacko were hidden. "I can't see no sign of 'em," he growled angrily.
"I reckon they won't last long anyways," answered Kynch. "They got no grub, and they can't drink swamp water. They'll be dead afore another night comes."
"Dead!" snarled Crudge. "Aye, but I wants to see 'em die. There isn't no one has ever done what Picton's done to me and not paid for it. I wants to see his face when I shoves him over into the Pit."
Jacko felt Bill move, and glancing at him saw his eyes fixed on Crudge and his body tensed for a spring. "No, he's got a pistol," whispered Jacko, and Bill slowly relaxed.
At that moment came a shout from a little way off. "They're here all right. Here's the boat as they stole."
"That's done it," muttered Jacko in utter dismay and glanced again at Bill. Bill's face was tense and set, his eyes blazed. "Come on!" he said in a hissing whisper, and as he spoke swung to a branch and dropped. Dropped with so good an aim that he fell right on top of Crudge who went down in a heap on the ground.
Kynch who was with him, snatched out a pistol, but as he did so Jacko reached the ground and hit Kynch on the ear a blow that sent him sprawling. Then the two raced together down the slope for the launch.
Besides the prisoners, there was only one man aboard. He fired straight at Bill, but in his haste missed him completely. Next moment Bill had caught him and flung him overboard. He fell into the creek with a terrific splash.
Bud stared as if he could not believe his eyes, but next moment was his cool self again. "Cut me loose," he said to Jacko. "I'll start the engine."
As Jacko did so, Bill fiercely shoved the launch out from the bank. Bud leaped to the engine and cranked her. She sputtered, then fired. The screw began to turn. "Diddled them after all," cried Jacko as he seized the tiller. "Give her all the power you can, Bud. Some of those chaps may get their guns on us."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a shot rang out. Chubb was firing from the spot where he had found the boat. The bullet thudded into the planking of the launch.
Bill seized Mary and pushed her down. "Lie low, all of you. We shall soon be out of range," he cried.
Chubb fired again and this time his aim was better for his bullet struck Jacko in the fleshy part of the arm below the shoulder. The force of the blow made him twist his arm round and in doing so he unconsciously turned the tiller. The launch which was now going at full pace swung right in towards the bank.
Bill saw what was happening and made a frantic leap; but he had the whole length of the launch to cover, and he was just too late. The launch's bow drove heavily into the shore just below the shell mound, tilted right up among the cypress roots, and stuck.
Bill seized a pole and tried to shove her off again, but could not move her. Before anything could be done, Crudge and Kynch came rushing down to the shore.
Crudge lifted his heavy revolver and aimed it straight at Mary. "Ef any one o' ye moves, I'll shoot the gal dead," he roared.
Bill stiffened. His whole body seemed to turn to marble. Jacko and Bud stood equally still, for all three were definitely certain that, if they made any resistance, Crudge would not fail to carry out his horrible threat. Crudge stood quite still, a hideous sneer on his lips, and the pistol still pointed straight at Mary's head while his men drew up and surrounded the three.
"Tie 'em," snarled Crudge. "Tie 'em up tight. There's not one of 'em is ever going to have another chance of getting away." He himself watched while the job was done, then, helpless as so many logs, the three were flung into the stern of the launch, she was forced off the bank, and with Chubb at the engine, drove back up the creek through the thickening twilight towards the lagoon.
Ty Barchard was waiting at the landing. "I got 'em," said Crudge. "I got 'em all," and the cruel ring of triumph in his grating tones sent a shiver down Jacko's spine.
"I see ye have," answered Ty, "and I'm right glad of it. One o' the niggers has jest come up with news as Saunders is on the way. I guess it's as well fer our sakes as we've got the prisoners. Where be ye going to keep them?"
"Keep them," repeated Crudge. "In the Pit, ye fool." Then as Ty opened his mouth to protest, Crudge suddenly produced his great pistol. "Keep your mouth shut!" he ordered with an oath. "What I says goes. I reckon I'm boss here still."
Turning to Chubb, he ordered him to land Mary and have her locked up, then to take the launch straight across to the other island. Poor Mary broke down and screamed. Bill went white as death, and for a moment struggled desperately but uselessly. Then Mary suddenly collapsed and fainted, and one of the men lifted her out of the launch and carried her away.
Then the launch was turned towards the other, smaller island. Arrived there, Crudge gave orders for the ropes to be cut from the prisoners' ankles. He forced all three ashore at pistol point, and drove them up a path through the smoky gloom. "I got ye to rights this time, Mister William Picton," he said, and the hideous malignity in his voice and manner was beyond expression. "I told ye I always kept my promises. I said I'd make ye sorry ye was ever born."
The ground began to rise. The smoke was thicker. The heat too was intense, for the night had turned fearfully close and sultry and it seemed as though there was a storm brewing. With Crudge driving them like sheep, they stumbled up the bare side of a great mound which resembled an enormous bubble. The ground was soft and dry and they sank in it to their ankles. In front there rose a great column of dull smoke lit from below by a lurid glare.
At last they reached the top to find themselves standing on the edge of an immense pit which was perhaps a hundred yards across and fifty feet deep. The whole of the bottom of the horrible place was one great smoulder of fire over which tiny flames darted at intervals and then fell back. The heat and reek of it was terrific.
Jacko looked down. He could not help himself, for a sort of hideous fascination fixed his eyes on the depths. It looked like a great sponge of fire, yet even at that horrible moment he realized that it was not volcanic. This was simply a great mass of peat of unknown thickness which had risen bubble-like by gases generating within it, and had probably been fired by lightning. Such a mass would smoulder like this for perhaps a century before it burned out.
But he had not much time to consider the matter, for Crudge's voice was in his ears again. "Now then, which of ye is going first? Ye kin choose which of ye takes first jump."
There was hardly a second's pause before Bill spoke. "I shall go first, you murderer. But before I go," he added solemnly, "I tell you that you will die to-day."
Crudge winced as if he had been struck, then whirled in a fury on Bill and seizing him forced him forward towards the dreadful edge.
At that moment Ty Barchard strode forward and caught Crudge by the arm. "That's enough," he said roughly. "I guess you've scared 'em enough. Now we'll put 'em safe fer the night."
Crudge let Bill go, and turned furiously on Ty. "Think I'm fooling!" he bellowed. "By gum, if ye don't take your dirty hands off of me, it's you will go first inter the Pit."
"You're plumb crazy," retorted Ty. "If you wants to get your neck stretched, it's more'n I do. I told ye that there Sheriff was a-coming, and I reckon to hold these three as well as the gal. Then we kin talk on equal terms to Saunders." He turned to the others. "I reckon all of you sez the same."
"I does!" cried one.
"Same here," shouted another. But the others were silent.
By this time Crudge had gone clean crazy. "I'll show you who's boss, ye sneaking skunk," he shrieked, and sprang at Ty.
"Aye, Crudge is boss," shouted another man, and jumped on the man nearest Ty. All took sides, and there in the darkness and smoke, on the edge of the fire pit, a fierce battle began to rage.
BILL put his lips close to Jacko's ear. "Get back!" he whispered quickly. Bud, with his native quickness, was already backing away from the scene of the fight. Bill and Jacko followed.
But on this treacherous ground and with their wrists tied hard behind their backs they could move but slowly. Any attempt to run was hopeless. Jacko, already almost exhausted by the hardships of the past forty-eight hours, put his foot in a deep hole and fell. He tried to get up, but could not, and the others could do nothing to help him. "Leave me!" he said hoarsely. "You go and save Mary."
"It's all or none," snapped Bill. "Try again, Jacko."
"Try!" urged Bud. "Crudge's side is getting the better of Barchard's. They'll be after us again in two twos."
Jacko made another valiant attempt. He managed to get to his knees, but then the rotten ground gave, and he toppled right over again. "It's no use," he gasped. "For goodness sake, go on. Please—please do!"
From just above them came the thud of a blow, then a triumphant roar from Crudge. "That'll learn ye. That'll learn ye, Ty Barchard. Say another word, and I'll put ye over the edge."
This was the end. Bud felt it in his bones. And then, just as he and Bill had given up all hope, out of the smoke fog close beside them came stumbling a tall figure and a voice said, "What's the matter with you? Why don't you run while those swine are fighting?"
"Fitz!" gasped Bud so surprised that for once he quite lost his usual self-control.
"Fitzgordon's my name," said the other sourly. "What's the trouble? Oh, your hands are tied. Hold them up. I've got a knife."
Bud could hardly believe his luck to find his hands free, but the first use he made of them was to lift Jacko to his feet. Fitz cut Jacko's lashings and Bill's, and started away down the slope. "Hurry!" he said sulkily. "Hurry, or Crudge will get you."
Crudge was after them, and the night echoed with his ravings when he found they were gone. But luck was good to them for the smoke was so thick that he could not see them.
"This way," came a whisper from Fitz, and they found themselves creeping through thick scrub.
Crudge came crashing after. By this time he was practically insane with baffled fury, and fit to tear them to pieces if he caught them. His men were spread out after him. There came a brilliant flash, a roar that drowned even Crudge's bellowings, then the rain began to fall in torrents.
"That's good," gasped Jacko who was nearly dead with thirst.
"It'll clear the smoke," muttered Bud in an anxious tone. "And the lightning will show us up. Can't we get to the water?"
"And be eaten by those infernal alligators," growled Fitz, whose temper did not seem to have improved. "Better stay where we are."
"But they're bound to find us sooner or later," said Bill sharply.
The lightning glared again, and instantly someone shouted. "I see 'em. There they be, Crudge."
Bill caught Jacko by the arm. "Come this way!" he muttered, and bending double they ran through the sopping scrub. Bud and Fitz followed. The darkness shut down again, and for the moment they were safe.
"If we'd only got a gun!" moaned Bud. Jacko did not speak. His head was spinning, and he had a horrid feeling that he might faint at any time. All around men were crashing through the bushes and shouting. Loudest of all was Crudge's voice roaring and bellowing to his men to catch the prisoners.
Lightning again lit the gloom and showed the fugitives that they were right up against the wire fence which ran all round the island. It flared on the wide, dark lagoon pitted with a million raindrops. The rain had washed away the smoke and the air was terribly clear.
"They're somewheres this side," came the voice of Kynch. "Make a ring, you fellers. They can't get away."
"This is about the finish," Jacko heard Bill mutter. Again came the lightning followed by a crash of thunder. The moonshiners were obeying Kynch. They were coming along in a wide semicircle. It was only a matter of minutes before they would reach the wire, and the last gleam of hope died in the hearts of the fugitives. It was the finish and no mistake.
Through the bushes Jacko caught sight of a flash of light. A man with an electric torch was almost on them. Next instant the light fell full in Jacko's eyes. "Got 'em!" roared Kynch in a stentorian bellow. "Here they be, Crudge. Put your hands up, you lot!" he added with a savage oath.
Before even Jacko could obey, a shot crashed out from the direction of the lagoon, and Kynch shrieked, dropped his pistol and fell with a crash into a patch of palmetto.
"Saunders! It's Saunders," cried Bud in triumph. "Saunders," he shrieked at the top of his voice. "We're here, but Crudge's men are all round us. Shoot hard and keep them back."
A VOLLEY rang out, and bullets whistled through the scrub. Screams proved that one at least had found its mark. The moonshiners turned and ran. Then came Crudge's voice again. "This way, all o' ye. Foller me."
"There's the launch!" snapped Bud as a flash showed her close alongshore. She was a large flat-bottomed craft with about half a dozen men in her. "Here we are, Saunders," he cried aloud. "But watch out what you're doing. The lake is full of man-eating alligators."
"Guess we'll take our chance o' them," came back the Sheriff's voice. "Get aboard, sharp!"
The risk of alligators was forgotten as the four scrambled over the wire and into the launch.
"Are ye all there?" asked Saunders.
"No, they've got Mary," said Bud swiftly, "—on the other island."
"And that's where Crudge and the rest of 'em is going," put in Rogers from the stern.
"Know where the landing is?" demanded Saunders.
"Yes, I know," said Bud. "If you let me take the tiller, I can get her in."
"Sharp then! I hear their launch ahead of us," answered Saunders.
"And by gum I kin see 'em," cried Rogers as a blue glare showed the other launch crowded with men rushing at full speed for the larger island. As he spoke he fired five shots rapidly in the direction of the fleeing launch, and again the blackness rang with a yell of pain. "Got one anyways," said Rogers coolly. "Give her speed. We got to catch 'em afore they gets to their shacks."
They were right on top of the moonshiners as they reached the landing. The storm was passing and the stars gave a little light. Crudge's men fired a wild volley, then leaped ashore. Saunders and the rest followed hard at their heels. Bill, Bud and Jacko had been given pistols and joined in the chase. They rushed up the path hard at the heels of the gang. "Where's Fitz!" gasped Jacko in Bud's ear.
"Don't know. Keep your eyes on Bill. We got to find Mary. If Crudge gets her he will probably kill her out of sheer spite."
Shots were crashing in every direction. Saunders's men had their blood up and were shooting at every moonshiner they could see. Every last one of them was a picked shot. Bill kept straight up the path to the hut where they had first found Mary. Jacko and Bud, a little behind, saw a tall figure leap out of the bushes, and fire straight at Bill. Bill ducked, recovered himself, and before the man could fire a second time had closed. "It's Crudge!" panted Jacko. "Shoot him, Bud."
"Leave him alone! He's mine!" cried Bill, fiercely. As he spoke he forced Crudge's pistol up and back with such fearful force that the pistol fell from his hand and Crudge screamed with agony. But he fought like a savage, kicking and biting. Bill shifted his grip suddenly, got the great brute round the waist and by a splendid effort of strength, lifted him and hurled him backwards. Just behind lay a great log of wood, and as he fell Crudge's head struck this with a blow like a mallet striking a wedge. A quiver ran through his huge body, he relaxed and lay still. Bill stood over him.
"He's dead!" whispered Jacko.
"I told him he would die to-day," said Bill grimly, and went straight on.
The door of the hut was open. "Mary!" cried Bill as he rushed in. But there was no answer.
"They've got ahead of us," muttered Bud in Jacko's ear. "It's Barchard, I expect."
Bill heard. "If it's Barchard I'll kill him," he said fiercely, and dashed out again. The three searched here and there, regardless of the bullets that were whizzing all around. They tried one shack after another, but all were open and empty.
At last they found themselves in the clearing by the small house, and here too was Saunders with most of his men. "We've got 'em, Picton," said the Sheriff. "Seven are dead. The rest are rounded up in those two shacks, their cartridges are finished, and they're at our mercy."
"But Mary—my sister!" groaned Bill. "Where is she?"
"In there, I reckon. Don't worry. See, they're waving a handkerchief out of the window."
"They'd never surrender like that if they had Mary," said Bud to Jacko, and he was right, for when the wretched moonshiners, half of them wounded, came out one by one with their hands above their heads, Mary was not with them.
Nor was Barchard.
"I told you Ty had got her," said Bud sharply. "Get back to the landing. The chances are that he is carrying her away in a boat."
"I guess not," said Saunders. "We got every boat rounded up. He's bound to be somewheres on the island."
"But where—where?" groaned Bill. "He's almost as big a brute as Crudge himself, and the thought of Mary in his power drives me mad."
"Well, you go and look around," said Saunders, "and soon as ever we got these chaps roped up we'll give ye a hand."
Bill turned to Jacko. "We haven't been down by the slaughter- house. He might be there," he said.
"Come on then," said Jacko, but his voice was oddly weak and hoarse and suddenly he collapsed, and would have fallen, had not Bud caught him.
"He's all in," said Bud. "We must leave him here. I'll go with you."
"I'll look after him. It's grub he needs," said Saunders. "You two go ahead."
Bud and Bill were starting when Saunders spoke again. "Say, where's that there Fitzgordon? He was in the launch but I haven't seed him since."
"I don't know and I don't care," replied Bill harshly. "The whole business was started by him. It was his fault from the beginning."
"I guess that's him right now," said Bud suddenly and pointed to a figure staggering out of the gloom on the other side of the clearing. "And carrying something," he added sharply.
Bill looked; he gave a sudden shout. "It's Mary! It's Mary," he cried as he dashed across the open ground. Bud followed.
"Where did you find her?" panted Bill as he snatched his sister from Fitz's arms.
"That nasty fellow, Barchard, had her," replied Fitz whose face looked sickly white in the starlight.
"And you got her away from him?" demanded Bill.
"I—er—had to kill him first," replied Fitz in a queer thick voice. "I—er—shot him."
He wobbled, his knees gave way under him, and Bud caught him. "Gee!" cried Bud in sudden dismay, "he's all blood. Say, he's wounded."
Mary spoke. "He was splendid, Bill. Barchard was just taking me away in a canoe which was hidden in the reeds when Fitz came. Barchard shot him, but Fitz shot back, and—he hit him in the head—and—and— the alligators got him." She shuddered and was silent.
Bill gave her to Bud, and flinging himself down beside Fitz set to cutting away his shirty exposing a nasty wound in his side.
"Am I going to die?" asked Fitz quietly.
"Not you, my lad," replied Bill confidently. "It's only a broken rib. A fortnight in bed and you'll be as good as new. Lie still and I'll tie it up so that we can move you. Bud, take Mary back under shelter and leave her with Jacko. Then come and help me to bring Fitz in."
Fitz did not make a sound until Bill had finished dressing the wound. Then, "What has happened to Crudge?" he asked.
"He's dead," Bill replied briefly.
Fitz shivered slightly.
"I killed him," continued Bill.
"And now I should think you'd want to kill me," stated Fitz.
Bill laughed. "On the contrary, I want to finish the job that you yourself have started so well to-night."
"What's that," asked Fitz in evident surprise.
"Making a man of you."
Fitz was silent for a few moments. "All right," he said quite modestly. "And this time I'll do my best to help you."
Bill grasped his hand. "Good for you, Fitz. You are going to be one of us from now on. And since Crudge will trouble us no longer, I think it is going to be a very happy one."
Bud coming up heard the last words. "You bet it will," he added. "And a right rich one, too. Don't forget that it's we who claim the reward. That thousand dollars is going to be right useful, and don't you forget it."
Roy Glashan's Library
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