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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

THE HEART OF THE SWAMP

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover
Based on a painting by Joseph Rusling Meeker (1827-1887)


A FLORIDA STORY

ILLUSTRATED BY C. SPARROW


Ex Libris

First published in The Captain, May 1908

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-10-23

Produced by Gordon Hobley and Roy Glashan

All content added by RGL is proprietary and protected by copyright.

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Title

I.

JIM FLETCHER was hard at it hoeing out his pineapple patch, and the dust rose so thickly in the hot still air that he never saw the man who came loping up the sandy track towards his fence.

"Hello, Jim, how's things?" came a cheery shout.

Jim started. Then, as he saw who it was sitting so easily on the buckskin pony, his face lighted up and he stretched a long arm over the fence.

"Uncommon glad to see you, Joe," he said. "Come to the house and have something cool."

"Reckon I will," said Joe, and, slipping off his pony, he hitched in the shade of a live oak and crawled through the barbed-wire fence.

The two friends were a strong contrast. Fletcher tall, lean, fair but sunburnt, a typical Britisher; Joe Garnett also tall but dark with black eyes and black hair, an equally typical Southerner. Joe was deputy sheriff of Pine County, Florida, and as good a man for his job as lived; Fletcher was an Englishman who was doing his best to wring a living out of Florida sand, and had come nearer to succeeding than most of his countrymen.

As they reached the house, Joe looked round admiringly.

"Mighty pretty place you've made, Jim."

"Not bad, is it?" said Fletcher, much gratified, as he squeezed a lime into a long tumbler.

"It's a coon's age since I last seed ye, Jim. Ain't ye got no news to tell a fellow? How's everything?"

"Pretty good," Jim answered. But the other caught more than the words conveyed.

"Say, Jim, what's wrong?"

"Not a lot." He paused. "Do you know Dave Grice?"

"You bet. That big, slab-sided critter as lives up to Lake Swindle. Ye ain't run against him, Jim?"

"Afraid I have. Some cattle got in here the other night. Swam round the end of my fence. I heard them and turned out. It was past midnight, misty and black as a hat. I drove them pretty hard, and some of the silly brutes charged the wire and broke through. Took a whole panel of the fence out. As soon as it was light I went out again. There was blood on the wire but not a sign of any of the cattle. Two nights afterwards I was riding home from Pinelake when some one took a pot at me from behind a tree. Bullet was in the pommel of my saddle when I got home."

"You think it's Grice?"

Fletcher nodded.

"Robertson who lives across the lake told me yesterday that those cattle belonged to Grice and that one of them broke its leg in my wire."

"The mischief!" exclaimed Garnett. "Have ye kept the bullet?"

Jim pulled a mangled lump of lead out of his trouser pocket and the other examined it carefully.

"That's right. A thirty-two Smith and Wesson. It's what Grice carries. He'll have ye yet, Jim, I'm afeard."

"I'm going over to talk to him this afternoon. Tell him I didn't know the cattle were his and offer to pay."

"Don't know but what it would be the best thing," Joe said, thoughtfully. "Only be keerful not to git your dander up if he don't speak exactly right. That man's real dangerous, Jim. Now I must be starting. I'm after them moonshiners. I'd like mighty well to get them. The State's offering two thousand dollars reward."


GRICE'S house was hidden among tall thick orange trees and oleanders. Fletcher had just ridden through the gate when loud shrieks made him dig in his heels and gallop up. The house, long, low, one-storied, and unbeautiful for lack of paint, had a narrow verandah along its whole front. At the far end of the verandah a big, burly, white man was thrashing a small elderly nigger with a length of old leather trace. The nigger writhed and struggled and begged piteously for mercy, but the other paid not the least attention. With one great hand he grasped the coloured man tightly, while in the other the heavy strap rose and fell with sickening thuds. The negro's shirt was in ribands, and his back was an ugly sight.

Even as Fletcher flung himself from his pony a girl ran out from the door, a slim, dark-eyed little thing, crying piteously, "Oh, father, don't beat him like that!"

She reached her father before Jim did, and seized his right arm with both hands.

"Git away, will ye!" shouted Grice furiously, and with a backward sweep of his arm he sent the girl flying against the wall. Jim heard the thud her slight body made as it struck the planking, and saw her collapse in a small white heap on the floor.

What happened next Jim hardly remembers. But Grice will not quickly forget the vigour with which the trace was wrested from him nor the blazing indignation on the face that confronted him. He, however, had played the bully too long to be cowed by this slight young Englishman, and he went for him like a bull. Grice was as tall as Fletcher and nearly twice as broad; and his breadth wasn't all fat, either. It was precious lucky for the Englishman that at Harrow he had learnt more about the use of his fists than the American had ever found occasion to. It was another stroke of fortune that Grice hadn't his pistol on him.

For the next three or four minutes there was a very pretty set-to which was watched with mute horror by the girl, who had picked herself up and stood with her hands tightly clasped, and with growing delight by the negro, as he saw his tyrant gradually getting the worst of it.


Illustration

For the next three or four minutes there was a very pretty set-to.

It was no one-sided battle, however. Fletcher got one smack on the forehead from Grice's heavy fist that sent him reeling dizzily again it the wall. Somehow he managed to dodge the following rush, and Grice split his knuckles on the weather- boards. Rage and pain sent the big man perfectly mad, and as Jim jumped away again, he made another crazy rush. Jim saw his chance, and his fist shot in under the whirling arms. There was a sharp clean crack, and Grice went flying backwards off the verandah. His head struck a log of firewood, and he lay quiet enough.

Jim, still giddy, jumped down, and finding the man was only stunned, said a word or two of comfort to the girl, and sprang on to his pony.

"I've done it now," he muttered grimly, as he rode away through the hot silence of the pines.

II

THE Corsican himself is no more revengeful than the Florida cracker, and Jim Fletcher had not long to wait before he learnt the form of Grice's revenge. One night he was wakened by a red glare shining on the ceiling through his uncurtained window, and as he sprang from his cot he heard the spitting crackle of flames. Rushing out, he found the woods afire on two sides of his place. Volumes of ruddy smoke rolled upwards, and clouds of sparks filled the hot air.

Grice had chosen his time well. It was May, and the rains had not yet broken. All vegetation was dry as tinder, and there was a breeze strong enough to send the fire along as fast almost as a man could run. Rushing through the long tufts of wire-grass, crackling like pistol-shots in the palmetto clumps, blazing fiercely as they seized a resinous pine-trunk, the flames bore down upon his fences along a breadth of more than three hundred yards. What could one man do?

Jim, armed with wet sacks, did all that one man could. But that was little enough. While he beat back the flames in one place, they advanced relentlessly in another. Presently the sparks fell thick as rain on the top of his pineapple shed. This shed had cost him a year's hard work and a hundred pounds in money. It was the pride of his heart. The space beneath was planted thick with choice varieties of pineapples. Within half an hour there was nothing left of shed or plantation but half an acre of black ash.


WHEN morning came, Jim, scorched, blistered and despairing, sat on his verandah too worn out to move. He had saved the house, but that was all. Fences, sheds, stable, and pineapple-patch, all were gone. He had no capital to rebuild. He was a ruined man. There was nothing for it but to abandon the place and try to find work of some sort. Of course he knew it was Grice's doing. But proof! No, never. The man was far too cute for that.

And while he sat there a figure came creeping cautiously through the woods on the unburnt side of the place, and presently Jim, hearing a slight rustle, looked up to find a small, elderly negro standing before him.


AN hour later, Joe Garnett, just finishing his breakfast, was amazed to see a sweating pony gallop through his gate. The buckboard behind it held a tall Englishman and a wizen-faced, elderly negro.

"What--you, Jim!" he cried.

"I--I've found out who did it," gasped Jim, and then told how he had been burnt out.

Joe Garnett nodded. "But yell never git proof, Jim!"

"I've got it!" said Jim, and swung the nigger into view. "This is Pete Russ. Grice locked him up overnight, but he got out. He tracked Grice and saw him fire the woods."

"Is that true?" demanded Garnett sternly of the negro.

"Yes, boss. Dat's true. I'll swar to it in any court."

"Then, by James, we've got him where we want him," exclaimed the sheriff. "Jim, go in and eat some breakfast while I hitch up the buggy. Eat hearty. Martha, see he don't shirk his grub. You, Pete, go round to the kitchen."

They were off in twenty minutes, and reached Lake Swindle under the hour, but too late. Grice, missing the negro on his return, had suspicioned trouble. Cora, his step-daughter, the pretty, slight girl whom Jim had seen on his previous visit, told them he had ridden off half an hour ago, she didn't know where. "No more do I," remarked Garnett grimly.

III

THEY were bitterly disappointed. The ground was powder-dry. There would be no tracking the fugitive who had hundreds of square miles of forest and swamp to hide in.

"I'll git the bloodhounds, but I don't reckon it'll be much use, Jim," observed the sheriff.

Jim said nothing, He was turning away in despair when someone pulled him by the sleeve. It was Pete Russ. "Say, boss," he whispered, "I reckon I knows where dat man Grice am gone."

Jim's eyes flashed.

"Where?"

The negro hesitated.

"I aint a-going to tell ye onless Mister Garnett'll swar there shan't come any harm to me."

Joe Garnett stared hard at the man.

"What hev ye done, Pete?"

"Nothing as I could help, boss. I ain't killed nobody, an' I ain't stole."

"Ef that's true I'll swear ye shall be all right."

Pete looked much relieved.

"Den I tell you whar I think him gone. It am to an island in de Big Cypress."

"The Wekiva swamp?"

"Dat's whar."

Joe glanced at his watch.

"Not ten yet. We'll do it before night. In ye git, both of ye."

In another minute the two Kentucky trotters were swinging down a sandy track through the flat woods.


TWELVE hours later Jim found himself and his two companions in a boat, pulling slowly down a narrow, twisty lane of a still, dark water. The moon shone bright above, but few of its rays penetrated the enormous mass of cypress branches which met in a mighty arch overhead and from which dangled long streamers of melancholy Spanish moss. The silence of the vast swamp was broken only by the slight plash of their oars, the chirr of crickets, and the occasional harsh cry of some night bird.

"No hurry," said Joe. "It ain't far now, and I don't reckon to tackle him till jest afore dawn." He stopped abruptly, and held up his hand. "Steady," he whispered. "Steer her in under them trees, Jim. Pull soft, Pete."

The boat glided noiselessly among the great grey trunks which stood deep in the edges of the stream. Then Jim heard what the sheriff's quick ears had noticed a minute earlier. The beat of oars. Presently a boat came into sight, gliding ghostlike through the gloom. She was a big craft heavily laden. A pile of cargo amidships was covered with a tarpaulin. Three men pulled and a fourth steered. They waited breathlessly till the strange craft had passed and vanished round a bend. Then Joe spoke.


Illustration

They waited breathlessly till the strange craft had passed.


"Pete, I reckon I know what your trouble is. Ye've been moonshining, ye black nigger."

"I couldn't help it, boss. Grice done made me."

"Went to my heart to let 'em go, Jim," said Garnett. "Ef it wasn't that I reckon we'll hit their headquarters I wouldn't hev done it. Pete, is this the island whar they make the stuff?"

"Dat's so," Pete answered soberly.


IN another hour they reached the island. It was up a backwater. A score of boats might have hunted for a month without finding the mouth of the channel, so thickly grew the branches across the hidden opening. A causeway built of rough-hewn trunks ran out across the mud into deep water. They tied up close by, and, in spite of the mosquitoes, Jim, quite worn out, slept.

When Garnett roused him a faint pink was in the sky, but under the trees the gloom was still profound. They landed on the wharf and stole on tip-toe up the causeway. On either hand lay fathomless depths of black mud from which a rank sour smell rose in the calm, misty air. The only living thing Jim saw was a fat blunt, reddish snake curled round a dead branch. It slipped silently into the water as he passed. Joe saw it too.

"Be keerful," he whispered, "the place is stiff with them varmints."

The ground rose a little, and suddenly they were out of the forest, in a small clearing. In the centre was a hut, squat and square, built of rough logs and roofed with cypress shingles. The door was on the near side, and a window was to one side of the door.

Signing to the others to lie down, Joe Garnett bent double and stole forward. It was wonderful how quietly the tall man stepped over the spongy log-covered ground. When he got near enough he raised himself and peered through the window. Crouching again, he beckoned the others to come up.

"Right, Jim," he whispered. "He's lying on the bed. Asleep, I reckon. You and Pete stand one each side the door. If he does anything to me, you tackle him. I don't see no one else in the place."

Jim began to remonstrate. It was his job to go in. But Garnett silenced him. "I'm the sheriff," he said. He tried the door softly. It was fast. There were stout bars across the window, no doubt to keep the bears out. Bears will wreck any place they can get into.

Garnett handed Jim his pistol and picked up a heavy chunk of wood.

"I'm going to bust them bars," he whispered. "Ef Grice makes trouble, shoot."

Jim nodded. As Garnett lifted the timber, Jim could hear Pete's teeth chattering. The mere presence of Grice had reduced the negro to a state of abject funk.

Crash! went the log on the bars. They splintered but still held.

Almost simultaneously came the snapping crack of a pistol from within. Garnett spun round and staggered back. Jim Fletcher pushed his pistol between the bars and began firing rapidly into the room. It was too dark to see where he was shooting. He could only aim at the flash.

Three times the man within replied. Jim's hat flew from his head. Then Garnett's voice rang out behind him. "Look out!"

The next instant the door burst open with a crash, and Grice's burly form bounded through. At the sight Pete turned and fled. Grice hurled his empty pistol at the negro and brought him down; then he was off like the wind in the direction of the causeway.


Illustration

Grice hurled his empty pistol at the negro and brought him down.

Jim fired his last cartridge at the flying figure, but missed.

"After him!" shouted Garnett, who was on his feet but leaning heavily against the side of the house.

When Grice reached the landing Jim was still a good distance behind. He saw Grice spring into the boat and stoop to loosen the painter.

It was not till then that he realised with a shock of positive horror that once Grice got away with the boat it was all up with them. They were hopelessly marooned on this unknown island. He strained every nerve to reach the spot before Grice could get loose. But you cannot make big speed on a narrow causeway of rough logs. He was just too late. Before he reached the landing Grice had sheered off and was in mid-stream.

Bitterly mortified, Jim could only stand and watch helplessly. True, he had Garnett's pistol, but it was empty, and Garnett had the cartridges. Plainly, Grice guessed as much. He laughed jeeringly as he dropped on the thwart and stooped for the oars.

Next instant he had leaped back with a yell that echoed far down the long misty waterway. He caught both heels on the thwart and fell with a heavy crash into the bottom of the boat.

Utterly amazed, Jim saw him scramble up again, his face livid, his eyes big with terror, and, springing into the bow of the boat, begin paddling violently back to the landing.

As he scrambled frantically ashore he cried in a lamentable voice, "Whisky! for the sake of heaven, whisky! I'm bit."

Then Jim understood. He looked, and in the stern a short, thick coil wriggled under the bilge boards. It was a cotton-mouth moccasin, deadliest of water vipers.

"I'll get it," he said, and turned and ran.


THEY saved Grice's life, but it was a near thing. Then they took him back to civilisation and incidentally to gaol. Jim and the negro did the pulling, for Garnett had a bullet through the muscle of his shoulder.

A sheriff's posse was at once put on the track of the distillers, and the lot were caught. Jim had seven hundred and fifty dollars of the reward, and his place looks prettier and neater than ever. There is some talk that he and Cora are engaged to be married. At any rate, her step-father won't be in any position to make further trouble for seven years to come.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.