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

TURNING THE TABLES

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover
Based on a painting by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)

TELLING HOW A GREENHORN PROVED HIS WORTH


Ex Libris

First published in Boys' Life, February 1912

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2023
Version Date: 2023-01-12

Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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

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DICKY GREEN reined up his horse at the door of a dingy wooden building which a board outside stated to be the "Magnolia Hotel."

A youngish man with smooth black hair was lounging in the doorway smoking a cigar.

"Could you tell me how far it is to the Holland place?" inquired Mr. Green, rather shyly.

The black-haired young man looked up and beheld a young man with a round, smooth face, and a complexion so fresh that it was plain that its experience of Florida sun had been of the shortest. He wore neat riding breeches, tan gaiters and boots, and a bulge under the back of his light coat seemed to show that he went "heeled."

"Why, certainly," he replied, politely. "It's somewheres about twelve miles from Pinelake. D'ye know the road, mister?"

"Can't say I do," said Dicky.

The other shook his sleek head. "It's a mighty bad one to find, and I reckon you won't reach there before dark."

Dicky looked troubled. "I suppose I couldn't get a guide?" he suggested.

"I guess not to-night. See here, why don't you get down and stay the night, and ride on in the morning?"

"Good idea," said Mr. Green, with evident relief. "If I can get a bed, that's just what I'll do."

His new friend stepped inside the door.

"Tod," he called. "Here's a gent wants to stay the night. Can you fix him up?"

A tall, lean man in shirt-sleeves stepped into sight. "That'll be all right," he said, "Come right in, mister. Tie your horse to the fence. Jake'll take him round presently. Supper's ready right now," he went on, hospitably. "Say, Randolph"—this to the sleek-headed young man—"you show the gent to the dining-room. I'm busy."

"My name is Green—Richard Green," said the newcomer, diffidently.

"And mine's Randolph Armitage," said the other, extending his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Green. Come this way."

"You're a stranger to Florida, I reckon," continued Armitage as they took their seats, and a negro waiter dumped down about a dozen small dishes in front of each.

"Yes, I only left New York a fortnight ago," answered Dicky, examining with puzzled face the amazing array of different kinds of food which were spread before him, and presently discovering with evident relief a boiled potato and a small piece of grilled steak.

"Thinking of settling?"

"Yes, if I like it."

"It's a mighty fine country," said Armitage. "Good for orange growing and fine for hunting."

"Hunting—do you get hunting?" asked Dicky, eagerly.

"A right smart lot. Quail and snipe and duck."

"But you can't hunt quail," objected Dicky.

"I don't see why not," returned Armitage. "All you need in a gun and a bird dog."

"Oh, we call that shooting up North," explained Dicky. "Hunting is going after big game, such as deer and moose."

"Is that so?" said Armitage, turning his head away to hide a grin.

At that minute another man came in. He was about the same age as Armitage, and had a freckled face and the most violently red hair that Dicky had ever seen.

"Howdy, Randolph?" he said, nodding, as he took a seat opposite.

Armitage returned the salute. "Bob," he said, "this is Mr. Green, of New York. Mr. Green, Mr. Robert Cherry."

"Pleased to meet you, sir," said Mr. Cherry, genially.

"Mr. Green is thinking of settling in Floridy," explained Armitage. "And I was telling him there's some mighty good hunting round here. He says that what they hunt up North is deer."

"Well, there's not many deer here," said Cherry. "We've no very large game, barring a bear once in a while."

"Then is shooting quail and snipe the only sport you've got in this country?" inquired Dicky.

Cherry laughed with scorn. "I reckon not. There's 'possum and coon hunting. And bear and wild cats down in the swamps."

Dicky's eyes gleamed.

"By Jove, I'd no notion there was big game here! I'd have brought a rifle if I'd known."

"You've got a shot-gun, haven't you?" asked Armitage.

"Oh, yes. I've got a gun—and a revolver," touching his hip pocket.

"The gun's all you need. A buckshot cartridge is good enough for bear or deer if you hit 'em right."

"I only hope I shall get the chance," said Dicky, fervently. "I've never shot anything bigger than a hare."

Unnoticed by Dicky, Bob Cherry exchanged a wink with Armitage.

"A coon gives better sport than a hare, I reckon," he suggested.

"What's a coon?" asked Dicky.

"A striped fellow about as big as a middle-sized dog. He'll beat a dog, too, in a fight."

"Do you shoot them?"

"Not unless we catch 'em in a chicken house. We hunt them with dogs."

"No, do you?" Dicky's eyes were agleam with interest. "What sort of dogs?"

"Nigger dogs, mostly. Any nigger dog'll hunt coon or 'possum."

"And do you ride?"

"Not unless you've a mind to break your neck. We hunt 'em by night."

"Do tell us about it," begged Dicky.

"I guess there ain't much to tell. You just get a pack of dogs and a nigger or two and start out in the woods any dark night. Moonlight's no good, for a coon's afraid of his own shadow—

"Say, Randolph," he broke off, suddenly. "There's no moon to-night. How'd it be to take Mr. Green out for a spell after coons?"

"If Mr. Green likes to come along, we'll fix up a hunt in about two twos," said Armitage.

"It would be most awfully good of you," said Dicky, delightedly.

Bob Cherry finished a large piece of custard-pie in two bites, stood up, brushed the crumbs from his clothes, and was gone.

"He's a right smart fellow is Bob," remarked Armitage, admiringly. "I reckon he'll show you some sport to-night."

The two went out on the verandah to await the arrival of Cherry.

It was not long before a yelping was heard down the sandy waste which Pinelake people called by courtesy Orange Avenue, and as Dicky sprang up excitedly, Bob Cherry reappeared, accompanied by five negroes and an equal number of dogs.

The latter were large, in colour rich tan, and of no breed known to Dicky. They belonged, in fact, to the class known throughout the South as "yaller" dogs.

Of the niggers two carried axes, one had a single-barrelled muzzle-loading gun with an enormously long barrel which was tied to the stock with a lashing of raw hide, and the other two were unarmed except for their sticks.

"Here's the outfit," sang out Cherry, cheerily. "You ready, Mr. Green?"

"Rather!" replied Dicky, knocking the ashes out of his pipe and jumping down off the verandah. "Where do we go?"

"Right out into the woods," replied Randolph. "I reckon we'll find a coon somewheres along by Cypress Creek, eh, Zeke!"

"Yo' bet yoah sweet life we do that, sah," replied the woolly headed Zeke, showing his ivories in a broad grin.

Ten minutes later they had passed the last house of the settlement, and the pine forest swallowed them up.

Where they were going Dicky had not the remotest idea. It was too dark to see anything except the tall, straight shafts of the pine-trunks rising on every side. But he was much too keen to care, and went stumbling along over tufts of wire grass and among clumps of stiff saw palmetto, taking his tumbles with the most serene good temper.

After a time he realized that they were going down hill; the ground underfoot became boggy, with pools of water here and there, and then there loomed up in front a huge forest of cypress, solid and black as a wall.

Suddenly the dogs began to yelp shrilly in the distance.

"Whoop!" roared Bob Cherry. "They're on a trail!" And the whole party broke into a run.

"You keep right alongside of me," said Bob to Dicky. "There's some right bad bogs around here."

It seemed to Dicky that Bob was not hurrying himself. He and Armitage jogged along at a very steady pace, and soon the negroes were out of sight and almost out of hearing.

"Hadn't we better hurry?" he suggested, anxiously.

"There's ain't no rush," said Bob. "They'll stop as soon as the critter goes down its hole."

"Oh, a coon goes to ground like a fox, does it?" said Dicky, whose knowledge of Floridian natural history was distinctly limited, and who had no idea that a coon was a strictly arboreal animal. Sure enough, the sounds of the chase became louder again, and presently they plunged into a thick grove of persimmon and scrub oak which grew on a little knoll not far from the edge of the swamp. Here Cherry and Armitage stopped.

Somewhere in the darkness ahead the dogs were barking frantically and the niggers shouting like wild creatures.

Cherry pulled up. "Zeke! Oh, Zeke!" he cried, shrilly.

The gentleman in question came bursting through the scrub, waving a blazing torch of resinous yellow pine.

Bob ran forward to meet him, and the two exchanged a few sentences in low tones.

Then Zeke came back to where Dicky and Armitage were standing, moving his torch to and fro across the ground.

Presently he stopped.

"Dis heah's de hole, boss," he said to Cherry.

Dicky, hurrying forward, saw the mouth of a good-sized burrow which ran slanting downwards into the sandy soil.

"Is this the coon earth?" he demanded, eagerly.

"The bolt-hole, Zeke reckons," explained Cherry, with a grave face, but a twinkling eye. "Now see here, Mr. Green, you take this net"—producing from his pocket a net like a rabbit-net—"and hold it across the hole. We'll go the other end, and rouse him out."

"But why not peg the net down?" suggested Dicky.

"Good land! He'd break it all to pieces. He's mighty strong is Brer Coon."

"All right," said Dicky. "I'll hold on to him. What do I do when he comes out?"

"Hold like wax and shout like thunder," said Armitage very quickly, and ending his sentence with a queer gulping noise, which, however, Dicky was too interested to notice.

Lying flat on his stomach, he adjusted the net over the hole with the greatest care, and while he did so the others hurried off through the scrub.

"Mind you keep real quiet," was Bob Cherry's last injunction. "A coon's mightily easily scared." Then they were gone, and Dicky was alone in the darkness.

The yelping and shouting died away, and after a while Dicky began to wonder what his friends were after. He fancied they must be digging, but though he strained his cars, he could hear nothing.

Still he stuck loyally to his post. The coon should not get away if he could help it.

He began to get stiff with lying so still, and at last ventured to move his legs a trifle.

A slight rustling sound became audible. Every nerve, in Dicky's body tingled, and he lay still as a mouse. The coon was coming at last.

But after a minute or two he became conscious that the animal was not coming up from below, but approaching above ground, and as he strained his eyes through the gloom a small squat creature came moving straight towards him.

The clouds had cleared away, and the big Southern stars gave light enough to see that the animal was oval in shape and waddled along very slowly on four absurdly short legs.

Dicky gasped. "Great Scott! it looks like an animated dish-cover," he muttered.

The thing came straight for the mouth of the hole, but the moment it touched the net it stopped short and became absolutely motionless.

Dicky cautiously put out a hand. The tips of his fingers touched something cold and hard as stone.

"I—it's a tortoise—a blooming tortoise!" he gasped.

Then he rose stiffly to his feet, and turned the creature over with his foot. Sure enough, it was nothing but a good-sized tortoise of the kind known in Florida as the "gopher."

Dicky thought hard for a moment or two, and slowly began to smell a rat. He lifted his voice and sent a loud "Halloa!" echoing through the silent night.

There was no response, and strain his ears as he might, he could catch nothing but the shrill chirp of crickets and the occasional boom of a bull-frog down in the swamp. He turned and tramped through the brush in the direction in which the others had vanished.

Not a sign of them.

Dickey paused. "Stung!" he said. "Done for a tenderfoot!" And being a youth of genial disposition, he burst out laughing.

But the echoes came back so queerly from the swamp that he stopped abruptly and began to consider what he had best do.

He quite saw that it was of no use to try to follow his false friends, and equally futile to attempt to find his way back. He had no more notion where he was than if he had been dropped from the clouds.

"Got to stick where I am till daylight. That's one thing very sure," he remarked aloud. And not being quite so verdant as his American acquaintance had deemed him, he felt in his pocket for matches, found a box, and, sitting down on a convenient log, filled and lit a pipe.

The sky had cleared, the dew was heavy, and soon he began to feel chilly. It occurred to him that a fire would be not only company, but comfortable.

Dry leaves and sticks were plentiful. He scraped together a pile, and soon a cheerful glow illuminated the moss-hung branches above and the grey palmettoes around him.

Presently Dicky found himself yawning. He looked at his watch. It was just eleven.

"More than six hours to daylight," said Dicky. "I can't sit on this beastly hard log all night. Don't see why I shouldn't have a snooze. Those big leaves look as if they might make a bed."

So he pulled out his knife, and with much labour hacked off a good-sized bundle of the tough palmetto fronds, spread them under the tree, made up his fire, and turned in all standing.

In five minutes he was sleeping as soundly as ever he had slept in his life.

He woke with a start. The fire had gone black out, and the first grey promise of dawn threw a dim twilight through the silvery mist which had risen from the swamp. Not a breath of air was stirring, and all was still as death.

Yet Dicky could have sworn that a noise of some sort had wakened him.

He lay perfectly still, listening with all his ears.

Whoosh! It was a heavy, grunting snort.

The sound had something vaguely familiar about it, yet for the moment Dicky could not place it. Only he knew that it was evidently made by some wild animal, and for the moment he was very badly frightened. So badly that he felt cold all over, and his teeth chattered slightly.

A stick cracked close by. This roused Dicky, and, mastering his terror with a strong effort, he slowly raised himself on one elbow. As he did so a head was thrust between two clumps of palmetto not five yards from where he lay.

The head was covered with black, glossy hair, and the nose was long and equally black. The pointed ears were pricked forward, and the eyes were very bright, and also, Dicky thought, very vicious-looking.

Now Dicky remembered where he had last heard that curious grunt. It was when he had stood in the bear-house in the Zoo.

For some seconds Dicky and the bear eyed one another in absolute silence. Then, all of a sudden, the bear, which was probably quite as much surprised at the encounter as Dicky himself, reared up on its hind legs.

This is a trick which bears have when puzzled, and implied no specially evil intention. Probably, if Dicky had stayed where he was, the brute would have wheeled round and retired in good order.

But this, of course, Dicky did not know, and the bear, erect on its hind legs with its great paws balancing clumsily, looked so huge and formidable that Dicky fully believed it meant mischief.

Determined to sell his life dearly, he at once pulled his brand-new pistol and fired point-blank at the great shaggy chest.

Now a thirty-two calibre pistol with a four-inch barrel throws high, and Dicky, who had owned this particular gun no more than forty-eight hours, did not make sufficient allowance for the kick.

His bullet hit the bear, not in the chest, but on the nose, and converted it from a moderately peaceful and rather scared wild animal into a quarter of a ton of raging bone and muscle.

Dropping on all fours, it uttered a bloodcurdling growl, and charged Dicky with agility amazing in so heavy a beast.

But Dicky with equal quickness sprang to his feet, and with one jump reached the shelter of the trunk of the oak under which he had slept.

As the bear wheeled Dicky let it have a second bullet, which, more by good luck than any skill on Dicky's part, shattered the bone of its left shoulder.

But even so the bear was far from finished, and really seemed to travel almost as fast on three legs as on four.

To Dicky, dodging madly round the tree-trunk, the world seemed all red tongue, gnashing teeth, and deep, furious growls.

But luckily for him he did not lose his head. In fact, the mere extremity of his danger steadied him, and presently his chance came, and he emptied the contents of the third chamber absolutely into the brute's mouth.

So close was his hand to the bear's head as he pulled the trigger, that its teeth closed on the barrel, and actually left their imprint in the polished steel.

The pistol was wrenched from Dicky's hand, but the bullet had done its business. The bear staggered, rolled over on its side, and, after a few convulsive grunts and struggles, lay still and lifeless.

Dicky's legs felt suddenly weak, and he had an odd sensation of emptiness at the pit of his stomach. He sat down flop on his log, and stared at the motionless body of his late antagonist. For quite a long time he sat there, while the sky slowly brightened in the east, and presently the sun hove its great red ball above the cypress wall, and its bright rays shone warmly through the mist.

At last Dicky got up, and, taking hold of the bear by the two front legs, tried to lift it. As it weighed somewhere between four and five hundred pounds, this was, of course, impossible.

But Dicky had no intention of returning without some trophy of the night's work, so taking out his big new hunting-knife, he set to work to try to skin the beast.

Skinning a bear is no light task, and so Dicky, who had never before skinned anything bigger than a rabbit, found it.

However, he worked away with a will, and had cut a tolerably straight line from chin to tail when a queer sound, a sort of muffled gasp, made him turn his head sharply.

Zeke, the nigger, was standing just behind him, with an expression of positively ludicrous amazement on his ebony face. His mouth was wide open, and his eyes goggled in a most absurd fashion.

"Good land, whar did you git dat b'ar, boss?" he stammered out.

"Shot him with my revolver," said Dicky, as coolly as though killing bears with a pistol was an everyday pastime.

"Yo' done shot dat b'ar wid a pistol!" said Zeke, so increduously that Dicky was nettled.

"You can dig the bullets out if you don't believe me," he answered sharply.

"Holy Moses, an' Marse Cherry done thought yo' was a tenderfoot!"

The man's words were balm to Dicky. "Oh, I'm not quite so green as my name," he said, with a laugh. "See here, can you skin him for me? I'll give you a dollar if you will."

"Jes' yo' lend me yoah knife, sah, an' I'll have dat hide off inside ob five minutes."

Zeke was almost as good as his word. In less than a quarter of an hour Bruin's pelt was stripped off, and then Zeke stepped over to the swamp, cut some length of tough grapevine, and he and Dicky between them slung the carcass clear of the ground into the thickest part of the oak tree.

"We'll bring de wagon for de meat, sah. I tell yo' b'ar steaks am mighty good." And Zeke licked his thick lips in anticipation.

"Talking of meat. I'm jolly near starving," said Dicky. "How far is it to Pinelake?"

"Jes' two mile, sah. Marse Cherry, he sent me to show you de way home." And Zeke showed his teeth in a huge grin.

Dicky, considering that the less reference to last night's hoax the better for the sake of his own dignity, made no reply. He waited till Zeke had rolled up the skin and shouldered it, and then followed him as he stepped briskly off through the long shadows cast by the new-risen sun.

He was surprised to find how short the distance was to Pinelake. In little more than half an hour they reached the outskirts of the village. Then he stopped Zeke.

"You keep a bit behind me, Zeke," he said. "I don't want you to be in sight when I reach the hotel."

Zeke nodded and obeyed. By the low chuckle which proceeded from his cavernous jaws he plainly appreciated the situation to its fullest extent.

Putting on a very weary air, Dicky came slowly up the steps leading to the verandah of the "Magnolia." Early as it was, Randolph Armitage, Bob Cherry, Tod Hammond, the hotel-keeper, and two or three other men were standing or sitting about.

All eyes were turned an Dicky as he limped stiffly towards the door.

"Hulloa, Mr. Green," said Cherry. "We thought you was lost. Did you get that coon?"

"Oh, I got the coon all right," replied Dicky, looking at Cherry with an air of innocent surprise.

"The mischief you did! One of the hardshell kind, wurn't it?"

A broad grin went round, but Dicky did not turn a hair.

"Hard shell?" he said, with a puzzled face. "No, it had hair and teeth and claws. It nearly ate me. I don't wonder you chaps were scared and cleared out."

It was Bob Cherry's turn to look puzzled. His companions, however, roared with laughter.

"I reckon the Yankee met a bob cat," suggested one.

"I don't know what a bob cat is," replied Dicky. "But this was a pretty big beast. It was lucky I had my pistol with me."

"Did ye kill it?" demanded Cherry.

"Oh, I killed it all right."

"What have ye done with it?"

"Zeke's bringing the skin along," replied Dicky. "Hi, Zeke, bring that hide up here. These gentlemen won't believe I killed the coon."

Round the corner came Zeke, bending under the heavy pelt, and slinging it off his shoulder, spread it wide on the verandah floor.

"A bear!" gasped the hotel-keeper. "A bear, and as big a one as ever I seed in my natural!"

And Dicky, glancing from one to another of the faces of the men who stood around, felt he was avenged.


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.