He devoted himself to entertaining the sheriff and his posse with accounts of the various adventures that had fallen to the lot of himself and comrades during their race for the Dixie cup.
"It's a great little job, this heah race of youahs, boyees," the sheriff remarked, after he had heard about the contest; "but you-all was saying somethin' 'bout a brace of bank robbers that bothered you. What happened to the same, if you are in a position to say? As an officer of the law I'm interested in all such doings, you understand, suh."
So Jack told of that night when the two escaping thieves, having their own motor boat smashed by a collision on the rocks, attempted to take possession of the little Tramp. He had the three men listening breathlessly until he announced the delivery of the two rascals into the safe keeping of the officers who came out to meet the boat from Covington.
"Shake again, young feller," the sheriff said, as he held out that lean hand.
"I will, if you'll promise not to squeeze quite so hard. You see I've got lots of use for that hand before this trip's done," laughed Jack.
Then he showed the few lines which had been given by the officer, in case the boys had any need to prove their honesty further down the river.
The ham now being ready, the trio of hunters started in. By the time they had satisfied their hunger the stock of provisions connected with the expedition had visibly decreased. But every one was satisfied. Even Nick glowed with ardor, for he was never happier than when watching someone "filling up"—next to eating himself, he liked to see others so employed.
Of course the three men were in a very happy mood when the breakfast had been concluded. They had not dreamed of such a feast half an hour before.
"Nevah will forget this, boyees, nevah," declared the sheriff, as he arose, and allowed his belt to loosen a bit. "It was clever of ye to treat us white. If so be the chance ever comes when we kin return the favor, call on us; eh, fellers?"
Both the others added their rude but well meant thanks. The delight of that coffee would doubtless remain a pleasant memory with them for a long time to come.
"Now we must git along," remarked the sheriff, as he picked up his rifle. "You see, we're after a passel o' convicts that broke loose from a camp back country a bit, where they was farmed out to a planter. We larnd they hit foh the river, like every rascal down hyah does as soon as he runs; and we 'spect to cornah the same with these fine dawgs this mawnin'. So long, boyees, and thank ye again foh the feed."
Jack waited to see if the discovery he feared would come. The two men unfastened the tied dogs, and when the animals tried to pull toward the oak they jerked the other way.
"Cum along thisaways, yuh fool dawgs!" one of them shouted angrily, as he again jerked savagely at the leather thong. "Down the river's the way we'uns mean tuh travel, d'ye heah? Nothin' doin' thatways; and the scrub's too thick. Git a move on yuh, Kaiser. We 'spect tuh raise a hot trail 'tween hyah an' Trotter's Point."
And so they moved off, the sheriff turning ere they vanished from view down the bank of the river, to wave his hand in farewell; to which the boys of course made a similar reply.
Then, when the posse had faded from view, the four turned and looked at each other.
"That's the time we were in the swim, Buster," said George, nodding, as if more than pleased. "You see it pays to stick close to these lucky fellows. If we'd gone on ahead now we'd have missed all this circus.
"Ain't I just glad we didn't though," declared the fat boy. "Don't care if they did clean up the last of my nice little ham; plenty more where that came from, so long as we've got the spuds in our jeans pockets. My! ain't I glad they don't happen to be chasing after me, that's all. Did you see the teeth of those hounds, fellows? I bet you they'd make short work of a poor escaping convict, unless he took to a tree like a squirrel, and waited to be pulled in."
"That's the way we all feel, I think," remarked Jack, as they stood there listening to the baying of the hounds, gradually becoming less distinct as the posse pushed further along the bank of the river. "They weren't just hunting for Erastus, it seems; but given half a chance and they'd have pulled him in. On the whole I'm not sorry we did what we did."
"I say the same," declared Nick, positively.
"Count me in, by the powers," remarked Jimmie. "Sure I know what it manes till be hungry; and I can understand in me moind how it fales till be hunted wid such savage beasts. Yis, I'm glad we gave the poor divile a chanct."
"Oh! well, I guess I feel that way too," observed George. "Only, you know, my dad happens to be a lawyer, and he's always taught me to be mighty shy about assisting a fugitive from justice, or as he calls it, compounding a felony. But in this case we believe Erastus to be innocent. That's right, boys, ain't it?"
"It just is," remarked Jack. "And if I thought the fellow would ever have the nerve to come back here to this spot, I'd be tempted to leave something for him—a dollar perhaps, to keep him from starving while he was getting out of the country."
"Well, time is getting along, and perhaps we'd better be packing up so as to be ready to start at eight sharp. Tonight we ought to make that place at the mouth of the Sunflower river, opposite the island in the big water, which is marked down as Station Number Five in the race."
George, as he spoke, whirled around on his heel. As he did so, the others heard him ewe utterance to a cry of astonishment.
"Look there, fellows, at what is in my boat!" he cried, pointing.
And the others, upon following the direction of his extended finger, could only stare at what they saw. Seated in the body of the Wireless and holding George's rifle, which had been incautiously left aboard while they ate breakfast, was a big coal-black negro, whom they could easily guess must be the accused house burner, Erastus!
AT THE MOUTH OF THE SUNFLOWER.
No one moved immediately.
Nick was gasping for breath; and the sound was not unlike that made by a porpoise in swishing through the water while rolling. Jack happened to have his gun in his hand, having just picked it up. But somehow he hesitated to raise it against a human being. And presently he was glad the idea had not taken possession of him.
The man in the boat waved his hand toward them, beckoning, Jack believed.
"Cum long ober hyah, sah. I'se done wanter say sumpin tuh youse all."
He called this out, with one quick glance toward the section of woods where the sheriff and his posse had last been seen.
Well, that did not seem very hostile, at any rate. Jack started toward the two boats, and seeing him carrying his Marlin, the negro immediately elevated both of his arms as high as he could.
"Dat means I ain't agwine tuh do yuh no dirt, sah." He hastened to call out, "I cud a stole dis yeah leetle boat, if I wanted tuh. Boss, dar's yuh gun. I might er held yuh off till I got clar; but I didn't wanter, sah. 'Case I done heerd all dat was sed, an' I knows as how yuh ain't gwine tuh gib a pore innercent niggah over tuh be hung foh sumpin' he nebber did do."
They reached his side, and Jack was more than impressed with the truth written on the fugitive's black face. Frightened Erastus certainly was, and with good reason; but he did not look like a bad man, Jack felt.
"Where were you all the time the sheriff and his men were here?" asked Jack, as a sudden suspicion flashed through his mind, remembering the frantic actions of the two dogs to get over to the big live oak tree.
The negro grinned until he showed two rows of snowy ivories.
"Right up dar in dat tree, boss," he admitted, "shiverin' all de time, 'case I 'spected dem dawgs'd break loose, and begin yelpin' at de foot ob de same. If dat had happened it'd be de end ob pore old 'Rastus, shore."
"Well, now, if that don't beat the Dutch," said Nick. "Say, Jack, there's some ham left in the pan, and some more coffee in the pot—shall I give the poor fellow the lot? Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, you know."
"Go ahead," was the reply. "Do you really mean what you tried to tell us in that little note, Erastus, and are you innocent of house burning?"
The negro assumed a very serious look.
"Mars," he said, half raising his hand as though upon the witness stand, and about to take the oath to tell the entire truth, "I reckons I's done stoled some chickens in mah time; an' p'haps done udder tings along dem lines, as I reckons I ortenter; but, boss, clar tuh goodness if ever I sot fire tuh a house, or eben a pigpen in all my life. Cross my heart if I done it."
"You said a cousin was guilty—was that right?" asked Jack.
"He done tole me he done it, boss. Dat's all I knows. But dey got arter me, an' w'en dat happens down heah, a pore nigger he better say hes prayers, 'case he's as good as daid. If I cud on'y git tuh nigh Friar's Point, mars, I'se gut frien's dat'd see me acrost tuh Arkansaw, whar I'd be safe. But dat sheriff, he between, an' dem dawgs, dey'd smell me right quick. If I on'y had a boat I cud do it, boss."
"All right, Erastus. Sit down, and eat what there is here. I'm going to talk it over with my friends. Perhaps we can think up some way to help you along. Because I'm of the opinion that a live Erastus over in Arkansaw would be better than a dead one in Mississippi."
So the negro set to work like a starved dog, waited on by Nick, who watched every mouthful taken, as though filled with envy and awe at the array of shining teeth and the capacity shown for cutting off a large wedge of bread and butter.
"Now, what sort of harum-scarum trick have you got up your sleeve, Jack?" questioned George, uneasily, as the three gathered in a group.
"I'll tell you," replied the other, positively. "I believe this poor fellow is innocent of any serious wrong-doing, but the fact that he's a cousin of the guilty party will get him in trouble if he's caught. Perhaps they'll string him up to save the expense of a trial."
"Well, that is a fact," admitted George, "because I've heard my father telling about it. As a lawyer he doesn't believe in such things, you know. But I can see you're thinking of assisting this coon down to the place he wants to reach. Sure you ain't going too strong when you do that, Jack?"
"I've thought it over," came the steady reply. "And I've made up my mind that in doing it I'd only be acting in the interest of humanity. The poor fellow is being hunted like a dog. If he could have a square show when caught I'd never interfere a bit; but you and I know he would never get it. As he says, once let a negro get the name down here, no matter how wrongly, and the game is sure to follow."
"And you propose taking him in your boat, to put him ashore above Friar's Point—is that it, Jack?" continued the other.
"Just what I do," came the reply.
"All right," remarked George at once. "If my boat was larger I'd say put him in the Wireless. I don't altogether approve of this compounding a felony business; but I'm dead sure my dad would tell me it was better to take the chances that way that have the nasty feeling that by your actions you've helped hang an innocent person."
"Shake, George!" exclaimed Jack, pleased at this sudden change of mind on the part of his careful chum, son of a lawyer as he was.
It was so arranged; and when the fugitive was through eating he heard the decision of the boys with tears streaming down his ebony cheeks.
"Clar tuh goodness I never done no house burnin' in all my life, boss. An' if I'se kin on'y git clar ob dis kentry I nebber kim back no moah, nebber. I'se gut a brudder out nigh Little Rock, an' he owns a farm. I'll stay dar, an' wuk foh him till I kin send foh my fambly," he said, brokenly, as he kissed the hands of each one of the boys.
So Jack had him lie down in the bottom of the boat, where he could be hidden under some loose stuff. After that the start was made at exactly eight; and when they sped down the river at a rapid pace the negro from time to time poked his head out from his coverings to look in amazement at the buzzing little motor; and once even ventured to raise it until he could see how swiftly they were spinning along.
A short time after starting they had heard shouts and had seen their friends of the sheriff's posse waving from the bank. Jack had spoken to the concealed black; and for fully fifteen minutes the alarmed Erastus never so much as moved a finger, lest he in some way betray his hiding place to keen eyes on the bank.
Before noon came George, who had been in the van, fell back to say that from the indications he believed they were now not more than five miles above Friar's Point and that Erastus ought to be put ashore at the first available chance.
About a mile further on Jack discovered what seemed to be a secluded cove, and thinking that this might afford a fine chance for the hidden fugitive to go ashore unseen, the two boats steered for it.
Before having the black man leave, Jack thrust some money in his hand.
"There's an address on a slip of paper—no name, but just the number of the house in a certain town up north," he said. "And Erastus, if after you get settled, you care to write and let us know how you're coming on, we'd be glad to have you. We have taken big chances in helping you, and it would please us to find out that it wasn't a mistake."
Then Erastus gravely shook hands all around, after which he faded from their sight in the heavy timber.
"Wonder if we ever will hear from him again?" speculated George.
"If he gets safely across the river I believe we will," replied Jack, with a positive ring to his voice. "For he looks honest to me, though perhaps I've had only a small chance to know the Southern black. But we took the chance, fellows, and something tells me we won't be sorry."
They ate lunch ashore, seeing that they were together, and wanted to have some apparent excuse for landing. But no one disturbed them, and a little later the interrupted voyage was resumed again.
George stuck close to the Tramp all the balance of that day.
"Don't seem to pay to run ahead all the time," he remarked when Jack joked him on this score. "And, besides, it does seem as though you fellows have a monopoly of all the adventure. Hang the cup, anyway. It will remain a trophy for the club, no matter who wins. For all of me the blooming old Comfort may come in ahead yet, because, you know, we agreed on her having a big handicap on account of her well known slowness. I'm going to hang by you much of the rest of the trip, fellows."
"Well," remarked Jack, when the hour for the close of the day's run drew near; "I can see something away below there that looks like the mouth of the Sunflower river. We're getting in the neighborhood of that place, anyhow. Take a look yourself, Skipper George, and say what's what."
Upon doing so the other pilot agreed with him.
"There's the big island ahead, you see, and, according to my map, the river empties into the Mississippi exactly opposite that. Then, right along here is where we expect to make Station Number Five; and wait up for the rest."
As customary they now drew in closer to the shore, and looked for some favorable nook in which the boats could have a secure harbor during their stay, be it long or short.
And once that was found, not far from the junction of the two rivers, Jack made for a point where he set the red flag that, if seen by the pilot of the Comfort, would inform him that he had arrived at a stopping place, and that his comrades of the Dixie cup race were nearby.
Having attended to that duty Jack proceeded to take things easy; while the two rival cooks started to wrestle with the problem of what to have for the next meal; always a matter of more or less consideration among campers.
IN THE LAND OF COTTON.
"Another day to be spent in idleness," remarked George the next morning, after the four campers had passed a comfortable night.
"Well, that was a part of the figuring when we started on this race," observed Jack. "We knew Herb and his jolly old Comfort would always be tagging behind. Besides, there's no particular hurry, since I only have to be in New Orleans by the beginning of December. To tell the truth, I'll be sorry that the long cruise must soon come to an end."
"Yes, that's a fact," admitted the other. "It has been a great thing for us all. I'm learning new things every day; and as for you fellows it's been a picnic. Perhaps there may be something stirring for Nick and myself before the end comes."
There was, plenty of it, as will be presently mentioned.
At ten o'clock the cry arose that the Comfort was in sight.
"What's that?" cried George, who was fishing around a corner, and had no opportunity to look up-stream. "You must be mistaken, Jimmie; or else Herb has taken to running out of hours. Why, that would throw him only a couple of hours behind our run of the two days."
"Well," laughed Jack, "if you could see how the big boat is booming along out there near the middle of the river on the swift current, you'd understand it all. Why, he's got on to it that he can add many miles a day to his run by avoiding the slower water near the shore."
"I remember they tell us that fools and babes venture where even angels fear to tread," remarked George.
"I wouldn't apply that remark to Herb and Josh," said Jack, seriously. "On the contrary I think it shows wisdom. Their big and safe boat can run out there in perfect safety; but for you to do much of it, would be inviting trouble and a spill. But we must attract them in here, or they may go whirling past on the other side of the island."
So Jack fired his gun twice, while Jimmie and Nick set up a most dreadful squawking with the several horns possessed by the campers.
"They see us," announced Jack, immediately. "I caught something waving. And listen to Josh almost bursting his lungs to blow that battered old horn."
"And they've headed in, too," declared George, who by this time had his own marine glasses in use.
The skipper and crew of the Comfort arrived in fairly good humor.
"We're already picking up on you fellows," declared Herb, as he stepped ashore to stretch his stiffened limbs a short time. "From this on look out; I give you all fair warning. The Comfort is hot on your trail, and you've got to hump yourselves to keep on even terms with us. As the current grows fiercer so our chances improve. Once more allow me to state that the race is not always to the swift."
"Glad to find you so cheerful, Herb," laughed Jack. "As for George here, he's already arrived at the sensible conclusion that, no matter who wins the cup, it's going to remain club property, and will likely be kept at the club house, when we get one."
"Say, has Buster been able to swim across the river yet?" asked Josh, who never allowed a chance to get in a sly dig at the fat boy to pass him.
"Well, I was thinking about doing that job," returned the fat boy, calmly, but with a knowing wink at his companions; "but George here wouldn't hold up long enough for me to try it. When I want to paddle around, he says I've just got to have a rope tied under my arms so he can yank me back if I get too venturesome."
"That accounts for it, fellows," cried Josh. "I just had a suspicion that Pudding might be to blame for all the trouble that old chap told me about when I went ashore at noon today."
"Me to blame for what?" demanded the other, pretending to be annoyed.
"Why, you see," Josh went on blandly, "he says to me that when he was settin' there on the bank try in' to pull in a few buffalo fish for his dinner, along came a tremendous wave. He vowed that it nigh washed him away, and called it a cloudburst or something like that; but now I understand just what it was."
"Sho! you don't say," Nick remarked scornfully; "then suppose you tell the rest of us about this bright idea that came to you, the only one you ever had, I guess."
"Why, you see, that wave was started when you stepped into the river for your little sportive paddle. It kept growing bigger all the time as it rolled down the stream, till it nigh swamped the old fisherman. I'm almost afraid to hear what calamity may have happened to some of the lower parishes," grinned Josh.
"But what's this, Jack, you're saying about Erastus?" asked Herb. "Do you mean to say you chaps have run up against another adventure, while we were just sailing down on the breast of the bully old river?"
So after that the story had to be told, and Josh listened with open mouth as he heard about the sheriff and his posse, not to mention the dogs.
"Oh! what we do miss, Herb," he lamented. "That all comes of being on a slow coach boat. Next time I'm going to try my luck with one of the others, and let Buster have this soft snap."
"Hurray!" cried the fat boy. "If it wasn't for breaking up the race I'd go you right now. My! but wouldn't I have room to turn around in when aboard the Comfort? It's a case of a round man in a square hole right now, fellows. But he ain't going to stay round much longer, because, you see, he's getting all the fat rubbed off and will soon be a living skeleton. I'm going to look out for a job in some freak museum after this trip."
"If you do then, it'll be as a champion eater or the fat boy," laughed George. "Your appetite keeps on growing frightfully, and I'd like to bet you weigh ten pounds more now than when you left home. I can tell it by the way my boat groans whenever you step aboard. And she sinks below the line I marked when we started, in spite of the half ton of grub we've devoured."
"Oh! George, you frighten me," declared Nick, in mock alarm.
"Well, what's the programme for today, fellows?" asked Josh.
"It's Saturday," said Jack.
"Yes, and we agreed not to run on Sunday if we could avoid it by being together," George added.
"This is a fine camp," Jack continued. "And we're only a few miles below Friar's Point, in case we need a few supplies in the way of eggs, butter and such things," Josh cut in.
"What say, fellows, shall we camp right here until we are ready for a fresh start on Monday morning? Buster, are you willing to remain?" Jack went on, as the president of the motor boat club.
"Me? Oh! I could squat here for a week, provided of course that there was always plenty of provisions to keep us alive," came the immediate reply.
"George, what do you say?"
"And Josh, Herb, Jimmie, are you willing to make it unanimous?" Jack went on.
"Sure I am," replied Josh; "and both Herb and Jimmie are nodding their heads. So that settles it. Hurrah for Sunflower Camp, and a good rest."
They always looked back on that camp as one of the peaceful ones of the trip. Nothing out of the way happened to disturb them. Jack and George took a run up to Friar's Point to pick up a few needed things; but in reality to learn in a quiet way if anything had been heard of Erastus, the fugitive whom they had assisted because of their tender hearts.
Finding the friend whose name Erastus had given them, they made cautious inquiries and were pleased to learn that he had just returned from a visit across the big river in a dilapidated sailboat he owned, and which neither of the white boys would have ever dared navigate out upon the broad bosom of the Mississippi. That was as much as Henry would say, but they could read between the lines that the fugitive was safe over in Arkansas, where his life would not be in danger.
While here in this camp of course Nick insisted on having some more swimming lessons. He was the happiest fellow in the wide world when he actually found that he was able to make progress, still aided by Jack and the cork life preserver. By degrees, however, his teacher meant to insist upon his depending entirely on his own powers; and it would not be long before the cork would be discarded and Nick a full-fledged swimmer.
Monday came, and with it a cold storm. But they had made up their minds, and were not to be kept back by such a little thing. So at eight a start was made, all of them donning their oilskins, and Nick also wearing a most expansive grin. Josh was forever calling it the "smile that won't come off," and everyone knew that it was the pride of being able to keep himself afloat that made Buster so happy.
George was tempted to speed ahead, forgetting his resolve. So presently each of the three boats moved along in lonely state, miles separating them by the time afternoon arrived.
Jack and Jimmie found shelter in one of the false channels or cut-offs that had now begun to be frequent sights along the way. It was a very wild night they put in, and more than a few times Jack wondered how their comrades might be faring, only hoping that they were as comfortable as himself and Jimmie.
All night long the heavy seas banged up against the shore, driven by a strong northwest wind that reached the proportions of a gale at times. The boys were more than thankful that they were not exposed to the fury of the storm, but had a snug harbor where they could ride it out in safety.
THE CASTAWAYS OF THE SWAMP.
"Looks like we made a big mistake in trying to navigate that short cut the planter told us about, Jimmie!"
"How long we been in this scrape, I'd loike to know, Jack?"
"Well, this is the third day now we've been pushing and poling around, sometimes thinking we must be getting back to the river again, and then finding ourselves deeper and deeper in the slough. The worst of it is our grub heap looks mighty low, Jimmie," and Jack glanced seriously at his companion.
They had been tempted to take the advice of a friendly planter on the day after the big storm. In fact, to tell the truth, it was Jimmie's urging that had influenced the skipper of the Tramp to enter the opening that yawned before them, and allow the current to swing them along at a swift pace.
But by degrees, after twisting and turning until they lost all trace of their bearings, that treacherous current had died away until they found themselves in a lagoon that seemed as still as death.
They had tried to navigate by means of their propeller. Then, fearful that the supply of gasolene might become exhausted they had resorted to the pole. Two days had passed and so far as they could see they were worse off than ever.
Now and then they came to dry ground on which they set foot with renewed hopes that were soon dashed again. Jack managed to pot a few gray squirrels, and they cooked them by a fire made in a hickory ridge. If it came to the worst Jack said they could catch fish, or shoot some of the numerous raccoons that eyed them inquisitively.
"Then there are plenty of muskrats in sight," he had added; at which Jimmie held up his hands in horror, until Jack explained that if properly cooked the "musquash" of the Indian was considered very good food and eaten by many French Canadian trappers in the Northwest and Canada.
"Of course," Jack went on, when Jimmie became curious as to how they had lost the right channel, "it's of much more importance how we're ever going to get out of this network of watercourses than how we came here. But, honestly, I'm afraid we made a mistake in the beginning."
"Took the wrong cut-off, do ye mane?" asked the other.
"That's just what struck me, Jimmie. And now, here's the third night ahead of us and we no nearer escape than in the beginning."
"Sure I do be thinkin' they ought to be happy," remarked the Irish lad, after they had gone on pushing for another half hour.
"Who do you mean?" asked Jack.
"Herbie and Josh. Don't ye say, Jack, all this time we're flounderin' around in this place the Comfort is gaining eight hours ivery day."
"That's so, on us," Jack went on, thoughtfully. "But then there's George to contend with. I suppose they're all waiting at the next station and wondering what under the sun has happened to the steadygoing Tramp. The only thing I'm bothering about is the chance of our being stuck in here for weeks. That would keep me from being present when that plagued will is read, and I'd lose my share of uncle's money."
"Oh! don't worry about that, me bye," returned the cheery Irish lad. "Sure, we're bound to run acrost some native cracker sooner or later, who will be moighty glad for a few dollars to guide us out of this nasty place. But howld on, Jack, me arrms are that tired wid pushing through the mud they fale riddy to drop off."
"And as night is coming along I suppose we'd better try and find some patch of land on which to camp. A fire would cheer us up. How many matches have we got with us, Jimmie?"
"Och! that's the silly thing for me, Jack. I meant till till yees whin ye wint shoppin' in that little place of Friar's Point till lay in another stock; and sure it shlipped me moind intoirely. The supply is bastely low, so it is. I don't think we've got more'n a dozen or so lift roight now."
"That's bad," remarked Jack; and immediately added, seeing the gloom on Jimmie's freckled face, because it had been his fault: "But we won't worry about it. If it comes to it I believe I know how to make a fire without matches. I've seen an Indian do it, and even succeeded myself once with a bow, a pointed stick and some tinder to ignite. Besides, long before a dozen days we expect to be out of here."
"If we only had Buster along I wouldn't moind so much," remarked Jimmie, with one of his old time flashes of humor. "For do ye say, he'd last a week or more in a pinch."
When they finally discovered a dry piece of ground the night was almost upon them. The moon, more than half full, hung up in the heavens; but on account of the thick growth of cypress and other trees they could not expect much light from that source.
"Looks more like a real swamp than anything we've struck yet," declared Jack, as he looked around at their ghostly surroundings, with the trailing Spanish moss festooning many of the trees.
"Wow! what's that?" shouted Jimmie, as something went into the dark water with a tremendous splash.
"I didn't see exactly," replied Jack, immediately; "but honestly I believe that must have been our first alligator taking a plunge."
"An alligator, was it?" echoed the other, nervously. "But why did he want till make all that splash, Jack, darlint?"
"Why, we scared him when he was snooping on the bank, and he thought the safest thing to do was to dive. Right now perhaps he's floating on the surface of that black looking lagoon yonder, watching us. He never saw a motor boat before, and perhaps we're the first whites that have invaded his home here. But jump ashore and take this line, Jimmie."
"Sure, do ye be thinkin' there moight be another of the same waitin' till grab me by the lig? I'm towld they loike an Irish lad betther than anything, save a black wan."
"Oh, rats! Here, wait for me," and with the words Jack was on the shore, ready to make the hawser fast to a convenient tree.
Then Jimmie, shamed by the boldness of his boatmate, consented to join him. A fire soon flashed up, fed with some of the handy fuel.
"Things don't look quite so bad with a cheery blaze, eh, Jimmie?" asked the skipper of the marooned Tramp, as he glanced around at the weird picture that met his eyes in every direction.
"Troth, they moight be worse, I suppose," the other admitted grudgingly; for already they were on short rations, and it may be remembered that Jimmie was blessed with an appetite second only to the wonderful capacity of Nick.
"Tomorrow, remember," Jack went on, as he busied himself in various ways, "I'm going to begin to hunt in earnest all the while we're looking for an outlet. We may even find a fat wild turkey on one of these same hard timber ridges. I understand they're known to frequent such places."
"What if we happen till run acrost a bear?" suggested Jimmie, anxiously.
"Well, the chances are the bear would be ten times more scared than either of us, and put for the canebrake at top speed. Even if he tried to attack us, you must remember that a charge of shot delivered at close quarters can penetrate almost as well as a bullet. And I should aim for his eyes, or back of his fore leg."
Jimmie sighed heavily.
"Sure, I'd loike a bear steak just as much as Buster said he would; but p'raps, Jack, darlint, we'd better be contint wid 'possum, 'coon or muskrats."
"Oh! just as you say, Jimmie. But we haven't run across our bear yet, so we can't tell just what we'd do. In cases like that, you know, a fellow has to be governed by circumstances. Suppose the beast was mad, and insisted on coming at us on his hind legs, ready to squeeze us like they often do? I would have to shoot then, wouldn't I?"
The supper was soon in progress. Jimmie begrudged everything that they were compelled to cook. He would remark that the coffee was only going to last for five more meals; that the rice seemed low, and as for sugar, he doubted whether it would hold out much longer.
But Jack was not to be disheartened, and had a laughing answer for each one of these dismal prophecies.
"I do belave that the less ye have to ate the better it tastes," declared Jimmie, as he sat there polishing his pannikin, in which he had just had a third helping of rice, eaten without either milk or sugar this time.
"That's right," laughed Jack. "And the smaller the amount of grub, the more you think you feel the gnawings of hunger. Suppose, now, we were cruising on a salt lagoon and our drinking water ran low—why, your throat would feel parched all the time, just from imagination."
"Well," grinned the other, as he glanced around, "shmall danger of that botherin' us here, Jack, darlint. We do same till have plinty of wather. And there do be fish in it, for I seen 'em jump."
"Oh! we'll not starve, make up your mind to that. There are wild ducks in places, too, and lots of squirrels on the hamaks, after the nuts. We could live here two months, Jimmie, and thrive. I know a few things that would come in useful; just put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"Well, I fale better, now that I've had me fill," declared Jimmie, getting to his feet to step over to the boat; but he had not gone five paces than Jack heard him give a shrill yell, as though he had stepped on a rattlesnake or been jumped on by some hungry wildcat that had been concealed among the dense branches of the live oak tree under which the camp fire burned.
And as Jack sprang hurriedly to his feet, snatching up the handy Marlin gun, he saw Jimmie leaping toward him, wildly waving his arms like flails.
BUSTER FACES STARVATION.
"Look out, Jack! They's wan acomin' for us roight now! And he's a big wan, I'm tillin' yees!" cried Jimmie, gasping for breath.
"One what?" demanded Jack, failing to see any dreadful dragon in sight, either on the land or the near-by water of the black lagoon.
"An alligator, it is, and sure the granddaddy of the tribe. I jist had a squint of the baste sneakin' along through the wather. He manes till surprise us, and it's a foine supper he'll be afther havin' I'm thinkin'," Jimmie went on, hurriedly.
"Where was this?" Jack asked, wondering whether the Irish boy could be joking, or if he had really seen something to excite him.
"Look beyant the stump on the idge of the wather, over yander. There, did ye be savin' that now? Don't till me I'm blind agin, Jack. It's movin' this way; sure it do be comin' right along. Och I wirra, listen till that, would yees?"
No wonder Jimmie fell back in dismay, for a most outrageous noise suddenly broke forth, such as certainly could never have been heard in that swamp before. But Jack immediately recognized it as the attempt of Nick to blow the old tin horn that was carried aboard the Wireless.
He shouted at the top of his sturdy voice in reply, and saw the shadowy moving object head straight for the fire.
"Here's a couple of poor chaps lost in the wilderness," laughed Jack as the other boat came closer.
"Oh! we've only come to find you," retorted Herb.
"Have you finished supper, fellows?" bellowed the fat boy.
Jimmie had by now recovered from his fright. He even pretended that it had all been assumed, and that he knew from the start the nature of the suspicious black object which he had discovered creeping toward the fire.
"Listen till him, would ye, Jack?" he exclaimed, coming forward to where the speed boat meant to land. "Did ye iver know such a gossoon in all your loife? Is it supper ye're afther wantin? Sure, ye'll not foind anny too much grub aboard the Tramp roight now. But such as it is, ye're as wilcome to as the flowers in May."
Whereupon he started in at once to cook another supply.
"It's lucky ye kim, me byes," he remarked presently, while the others were sitting about, warming their hands at the fire, and waiting for supper. "Now, by the same token, we'll not be facin' starvation so soon."
"Don't count too much on that, Jimmie," observed George, making a face. "I guess you forget who was with me these three days, and how he can stow away stuff? Why, we're cleaned out of everything. I was even talking of cooking our moccasins for soup a while back. For, you see, my gun's a rifle, and somehow I haven't been able to knock over much with bullets. We hoped to see a deer or a bear; but nixey up to now."
"Glory be!" exclaimed the sorely dismayed cook of the Tramp, as he considered what an enormous amount it took to keep Nick going, and he remembered the scanty stores still remaining in the larder.
"What brought you in this out-of-the-way place, George?" asked Jack. "Now, don't go to joshing and pretending you knew we were here, because you didn't. Ten to one you met that planter, too."
"Meaning Mr. Tweed, the gentleman with the crooked nose, and the long, thin mustache?" George went on.
"That's the man," laughed Jack. "You quizzed him, too, about a short-cut, and he posted you. Then, just as we did a little later, you made a blunder and ran into the wrong channel. Confess now."
"That's just what we did," grinned George. "And ever since I've been listening to the complainings of Buster. Oh! he's starved to death twenty times, in imagination of course, since we blundered into that false cut-off. I had to finally threaten to tie him up and gag him if he didn't stop. And after that he watched me like a hawk. I guess he thought I meant to eat him up."
"Well, it was very suspicious," admitted Nick, soberly, "because, you see, he even pinched me several times; and I got a horrible notion in my head that he was trying to see how fat I was."
Then the others burst into a roar, in which Nick himself finally joined, unable to keep a straight face longer.
They sat up long that night, trying to lay plans that gave some promise of fulfillment, and take them out of the labyrinth of channels.
"If we stay here much longer Herb is going to have a walkover about winning the silver cup," George remarked, half complainingly.
"Sure, perhaps he do be matin' up wid the same smooth spoken Mr. Twade," observed Jimmie, with a broad grin.
His suggestion brought out another round of laughter.
"Then be on the lookout tonight, Jimmie," warned George. "And if you see anything that looks like a big alligator swimming toward us, don't pour in a broadside too soon, for it may be the old Comfort. Misery likes company, they say. And just to think of us running across you fellows here, when our last grain of grub had gone."
"Not much danger of them striking the planter, for they keep to the middle of the river, while we hugged the shore," Jack observed. "But when morning comes, I'm going to try the plan I spoke of last."
"I think it a bully one, Jack," affirmed Nick, always full of confidence in the leader of the expedition. "And if anybody can pull us out of here it's going to be you. The worst of it is I dasen't go swimming in this black water. It's just cram full of snakes."
"Well," remarked Jack, seriously, "I wouldn't advise you to try it. Those snakes with the mottled yellow and brown backs are water moccasins. They are a nasty lot, and can strike to beat the band. They say that they poison a fellow so that he may never get over having a running sore. I hit every one I see on the head with my setting pole."
"And I will, after this," declared Nick.
"Well, if you know what's good for you, I just guess you'll be satisfied to sit quiet, and let me do the pushing," remarked George, meaningly. "For every time I gave you the job we came near having a turn over. Excuse me from a swim in this horrible looking water."
During the night there were several alarms. Once an alligator did actually try to invade the camp, doubtless under the impression that it might secure something worth while devouring. It happened, too, that Jimmie was on guard at the time. His yells, accompanied by the double discharge of the shotgun, brought the others to their feet in wild dismay.
They were loth to accept the word of the sentinel that he had actually shot at a scaly invader until he pointed out the spot. Then Jack, with a brand from the fire, made a hasty examination.
"Jimmie, you're a truthful boy," he declared, "for I can see where a lot of the shot ploughed up the ground; and here's where claws dug into it. Yes, and as sure as anything, you hit him, too, for here's a trail of blood leading to the water's edge. I thought I heard a splash as I jumped up."
And Jimmie, with this complete vindication, drew himself up proudly, as if to dare any one to doubt his veracity after that.
"But if you see another alligator," Jack went on, "please don't shoot at him, when a shout or a firebrand will chase him back to the water just as well. Because, you see, we may need every shell I have along, in order to keep the wolf from our door. They count for just so many 'possums, 'coons or muskrats."
That worried Jimmie very much, and he looked sad. For to shorten their chances of securing game would mean a scanty supply in the larder; and Jimmie's appetite persisted in calling out at least three times a day for attention.
Morning found them in a more cheerful frame of mind. Breakfast was eaten, and now that four had to be fed from the scanty stock of provisions—George declared that Jimmie and Buster made it equal to six at the very least—the hole made was shocking.
"I move we don't have another meal today," was the startling announcement from Nick, as he finished the last morsel left in the kettle.
"Well," said George, "you'll find the rest of us willing enough. But let's get a move on. We must find a way out of this today sure."
They started out, filled with confidence. Jack's plan was tried in several different places; but without any success.
"Say, there don't seem to be any current at all," remarked Nick, as he watched the dead leaf that had been thrown on the water, and which failed to move save as the faint breeze dictated.
"But we're going to keep on trying all the same," declared George, firmly. "Sooner or later we'll strike a place where it does show life. Then we'll just follow after it, and in that way discover an opening where this water joins the river again."
"That's the talk," said Nick. "I like to hear that kind of stuff. It shows that George is there with the goods. Just see how he uses that pole. I tell him he'd make a bully old gondolier over in Venice."
"Oh! yes, you're a regular old jollier, Buster," scoffed George, who had seen the fat boy wink slyly toward Jack. "You just think to keep me in a good humor while I slave away, and you sit there like a king, giving orders."
"Well, you won't let me stand up and push," complained the other.
"Not unless I'm hankering for a spill. Lead the way, Jack. You know more about these things than the rest of the bunch. It's up to you to be our Moses and get us out of the bullrushes."
"Oh, joy! she moves!"
It was late in the afternoon when Nick gave utterance to this shout. For the twentieth time the test had been made, and they could see the leaf traveling away from the side of the Tramp.
Evidently there was a gentle but decided movement to the water, and this could not be caused by the breeze, because that had long since died away.
So, with hope once more stirred into life, they started to follow the drifting messenger. Its speed gradually increased. In half an hour there did not seem to any longer be the slightest doubt but that it was in a genuine current.
When the night began to settle in they were so eager that Jack lighted one of his acetylene lamps, and kept the now quickly moving leaf under observation.
"Listen!" exclaimed George, suddenly.
"It's the music of the river, that's what!" cried Nick.
And that turned out to be the truth. None of them had ever believed they would welcome the sight of that vast billowy flood with one-half the joy that possessed them as they broke through the overhanging branches and saw the moonlight falling on the mighty Mississippi.
So they pulled back a bit, and made themselves just as comfortable as the conditions allowed. There was now no longer any fear of a great famine in the land. In their pockets they had money; and somewhere not a great distance below they would strike Greenville, where, doubtless, supplies could be purchased in any quantity.
So the little Juwel gas stove, and the battery of lamps on board the Wireless were put to splendid service in getting up a supper to celebrate this rediscovery of the Mississippi.
"I don't believe De Soto ever felt one-half the happiness that we experience," Jack remarked, as they sat in their respective boats, fastened side by side, and discussed the meal.
"That's right," declared Nick, between mouthfuls. "Because, you know, he wasn't used to much, and in no danger of having his supplies cut off. It comes harder on a fellow of today to starve than it used to. That is, it seems so to me."
Nobody objected to his way of putting it; for truth to tell every one of the quartette felt delighted with the final outcome of their adventure.
They made an early start, for after all there was hardly enough food left to provide for a scanty breakfast—at least Nick called it that, though the others felt that they had had quite enough.
Arriving at Greenville, a committee was appointed, consisting of Jack and Nick, to go ashore and lay in some fresh supplies as well as have gasolene ordered brought down to the boats. Jack also made inquiries, and learned that a boat answering to the description of the Comfort had been noticed passing down in the middle of the river several days back.
"The tortoise has gotten ahead, fellows," he reported, when he once more joined his chums, laden down with supplies, as was also the willing Buster.
Nobody cared much now. Somehow the fever of the race had departed from George's veins. He even declared that from now on he meant to stick with Jack and enjoy the pleasure of some company besides that of a fellow whose one thought was cramming.
"But you see that I'm not infallible as a guide," laughed Jack. "Don't I strike the wrong channel as well as you?"
"That's so," returned George; and then he added gallantly: "But you got us all out of the blessed hole neatly, Jack. Goodness knows what would have become of Buster and me if we hadn't struck you."
"Now, I know what you're thinking about when you look sideways at me," declared Nick, pretending to show alarm. "And after this I ain't never going to allow myself to get alone with George Rollins. I tell you, fellows, he's got cannibal blood in his veins. He scares me, the way he acts."
It was not a great ways after noon when they saw a red flag waving at a point ashore. Then came a blast from the fog horn owned by Josh. He and Herb played it for all they were worth, because this was the very first chance they had had on the entire trip to welcome their comrades to a camping site.
Great was the joshing that followed the landing of the two missing boats. And the skipper of the staunch Comfort, as well as the crew thereof, laughed as though they would take a fit when they heard what a mess of it the others had made in trying the cut-off so warmly recommended by the planter, Mr. Tweed, who meant well, of course, but came near wrecking the whole expedition.
Their next stop would be in Vicksburg; and when the start was made in the morning George never got out of hailing distance of the Tramp. Sometimes he would be ahead; but if so, he would slow down and allow the other to overtake him.
Another strange thing occurred on this day's run. At no time was the big Comfort hull down in the distance. It seemed that, by taking advantage of the swift water away out there in the middle of the river, Herb's craft could overcome the difference in speed between the Tramp and herself.
And when at about half-past three the leaders found a place to draw in for the night, reliable old Comfort came booming along not fifteen minutes later.
Apparently, then, there was now no reason for their separating. This idea pleased them all, for they liked the social life of the camp, where they could exchange yarns, compare notes, josh each other as the whim seized them, and lay plans for future cruises of the motor boat club.
Vicksburg was reached without mishap on the next leg of the journey, although on account of staying in camp over Sunday, it was Monday afternoon when they looked upon the city made famous during the Civil War by Grant's persistence and strategy.
At the mouth of the big Yazoo George came near having a serious time of it; for his cranky little speed boat was caught in a swirl of mingling waters, and came within an ace of swamping. Only for the action of the frightened Nick in throwing his great bulk the other way, just by instinct, the Wireless would have gone completely over.
And Nick was always proud of what he was pleased to term his quick wit in an emergency. It took the place of those wonderful "wings" in his conversation; and often George had to threaten dire things unless he called a halt in his boasting.
On Tuesday they put out together, and that night lay over about half way down to what had been marked as Station Number Eight. Here a storm kept them shut up a full day, so that it was Thursday again before they proceeded.
On Saturday afternoon Jack announced the glad tidings that he believed they had crossed the border of Louisiana. The others celebrated that night with an extra grand feed, since Nick had managed to purchase a couple of chickens from a man he met when George was tinkering with his engine, and the crew had gone ashore to stretch his dumpy legs.
Now that George did not try to push his speed boat to its limit he seemed to be having an easy time with the engine. Either that, or else the machinist up at Memphis had done a "corking good job," as the master often declared. And on the whole George was coming to realize that there could be much more pleasure and satisfaction in taking things moderately, than in being in a constant rush and nervous turmoil.
Nick was in an especially fine humor that evening. Jack had been in the water with him after they arrived at the camping place, and, to the great delight of the fat boy, he had discovered that he could actually swim about as he pleased, and without wearing that cork contraption at that. He was fairly hilarious with joy.
George had been noticing him, with something like a smile on his face. Whatever was on his mind, he did not say anything until supper had been dispatched, and they were grouped around the fire, chatting as usual.
Then George gave Jack a nudge on the sly.
"Watch me," he whispered.
A minute later he called out to Nick, who had just climbed to his feet to go after his blanket, as he said the ground seemed cold.
"Wait a minute, Buster," he said; "if you're going aboard, just get that book of funny jokes for me, will you? I think it's in the cubbyhole where we keep our oilskins, you know. And if you don't feel it at first, hunt around, even if you have to pull everything there is in there out."
Just three minutes afterward there was a whoop, and an excited fat boy came skipping off the deck of the speed boat, waving something wildly above his head.
"I've found 'em! Just to think of me putting the blessed wings so carefully away in that same cubbyhole, and then forgetting all about it? But you knew they were there all the time, I'm dead sure you did, George! And how cruel of you to let me waste away to skin and bone, mourning for them!"
"Well, you never asked me if I knew where you stuck 'em," retorted the skipper, with a big grin. "And, after all, I rather liked to hear you grunt about losing 'em."
"Yes, a whole lot you did, when you threatened to eat me, or throw me to the alligators if I kept it up. But I guess you were only bluffing, George. I don't think you could be quite that barbarous," said Nick, reproachfully.
"Well, what are you going to do with them now?" demanded the other. "You know how to swim the best ever; and sure you wouldn't be guilty of wearing those silly wings. And I refuse to carry the cargo any further. How about it, Buster?"
"Yes; we want to know," added Jack.
"They'll do for babies, but not fellows who have mastered the noble art of swimming, so make up your mind," said Josh, grandly.
Nick took one last look at the affairs he had once deemed so essential to his happiness. Then he calmly strode over, and amid the shouts of the rest, dropped the swimming wings upon the fire, where they were speedily reduced to ashes.
"You're right," he observed, moving his arms like a swimmer; "a fellow who has graduated has no need for artificial fins. I'm in your class now!"
THE WINNER OF THE CUP—CONCLUSION.
"Can anybody tell me what day of the month this is?" asked Nick, who was making up some sort of private log, which would possibly afford his companions more or less merriment in future days.
"Why, that's easy," smiled Jack, who had been keeping the official log of the progress of events, partly because he was at the head of the club; and then again because he had a right good cause to know how time flew, since he was due in the Crescent City by December first. "This is Saturday, and we stay here until Monday, which will mark the twenty-first of November."
"That gives you another ten days to make the balance of the journey, and land a winner?" observed George.
"Yes," said Jack, "we'll take our time this week, moving along, and seeing all the queer sights of the levees that have been built to keep out the river when it is on the flood stage. Since we may never have the chance to get down here again we ought to learn all we can about things."
"And then pull into New Orleans next Saturday; is that the official program?" asked Herb, from across the fire.
They soon started talking of other things; and so the time flew until George finally discovered that Nick had actually gone to sleep resting on one of the skipper's feet.
"I wondered what ailed me," complained poor George, "and began to think I was getting paralyzed. Won't somebody please give this elephant a punch, and wake him up? He's got me pinned down so I'm just helpless."
Buster was finally aroused, and convinced that there were softer spots in which to take his nap than resting on somebody's feet. Then by degrees the camp became silent, save for the heavy breathing of Nick, who, whenever he lay on his back, was in the habit of producing the strangest noises ever heard, and which would have actually frightened almost any one, unless they knew the cause.
Sunday was always a quiet day with the boys. They just lounged around and rested up for the morrow. With Nick and Jimmie it meant a glorious opportunity to try new dishes; or to partake of something which Josh, the best cook in the whole outfit, got together.
Promptly on Monday they again started south.
There was no haste now. Dixieland had been reached, the air seemed balmy; and with the time allowance that had been given to the Comfort it was already an assured fact that Herb would carry off the prize.
Jack was secretly pleased. As his father had given the silver cup, he felt that he could not well carry it off with a clear conscience. And George really did not deserve it, after all the mishaps that had come about as a result of his lack of wisdom. On the whole, Herb had played the most consistent game, and done the best with the material he had in hand.
He often tried to get Jack to acknowledge that he had purposely lost himself in that false cut-off, just so as to eliminate himself from the race. On such occasions Jack would drag Jimmie forward to prove that they had discussed the chances of making a miss, and concluded to take the risk.
For several days they just moved along almost with the current, going ashore as the whim urged them, to see how cotton was grown and harvested, make the acquaintance of the Louisiana darkies, a different breed from any they had known on their long trip, and in the case of Nick, to pick up a few chickens, or buy some roasting ears that had survived the touch of frost.
It was thus on Saturday that the little flotilla came to New Orleans, and the race for the Dixie cup was officially declared to have ended, with Herb the winner in his steady, reliable big boat, the Comfort.
Monday, the twenty-ninth, Jack hunted up the lawyer with whom he had been in correspondence, and made his presence in the city legally known. At the proper time he wended his way with the judge to a quaint old house, where a few persons had gathered to hear the last will and testament of the singular gentleman who happened to be Jack's mother's brother, read.
Well, no matter what Jack came in for, it was a handsome sum, and many times what he had ever anticipated. Certainly, as the lawyer said, while warmly congratulating the boy from the north, it was worth coming after.
Considering what a glorious time he had had cruising down the Father of Waters, Jack believed that he would have been well paid to have even his expenses of the trip settled; but to get a fortune was a streak of great luck.
The six boys did not mean to cruise back again. The current of that mighty river was too sturdy to buck against in a little twenty-three-foot motor boat. When they had exhausted the pleasures of the famous Crescent City they made an arrangement whereby the three boats would be freighted back home.
That left them free to go where they pleased; and hence, after some wiring back home to get permission, they took a little run down through Forida [Transcriber's note: Florida?] as the guests of the fortunate heir to the fortune.
School would open after New Years, so they had to count on getting back before then. The sight of the beautiful Indian river inspired them with a desire to some day come again to the sunny south, and spend a month or more nosing about on the shallow waters of that remarkable series of lagoons stretching along the entire east coast.
But meanwhile they had other plans in view for the coming summer, when, free from the trammels of school, they would be able to once more take their several boats, starting out on a delightful cruise in quest of adventure, and perhaps in the line of exploration.
To the delight of Jack, later on that winter he received a long letter from Erastus, written by his daughter, who, it seemed, had had considerable schooling, and was intending to be a teacher in the negro college at Tuskegee.
Erastus had his family with him, and was prospering finely. He declared he would never forget what the boys had done for him, and his entire family signed their names to the communication, which the boys put in the frame that held the other letter from the fugitive black, found pinned to the live oak after they had left food for him during the night he was being hunted.
By the time the participants of the race reached the home town again, they found that every boy within five miles was eager to hear of what strange things had befallen them during the long journey.
Not one had ever been further down the Mississippi than St. Louis, and then on a steamboat; so that the mystery of living close to the waters was unknown to the entire bunch. During the whole of that winter Nick was kept busy retailing the amazing things he claimed to have seen and done; until finally the rest of the club had to pass a resolution declaring that unless he brought this yarn-spinning to a stop he would surely be drafted to be George's partner again the next summer in the speed boat. And really Buster had such a horror of such a dreadful thing happening that from then on no one could get him to open his lips with regard to the Mississippi cruise.
"It's too much of a temptation for George," he used to say, after getting as far away from the skipper of the Wireless as he could, in the club room. "You see, he just can't help having that cannibal blood in him, for he was born so. But it's wicked in our tempting the poor chap so. Now, if he has a thin, scrawny fellow, say, like Josh here, along, he'll gradually overcome this savage appetite. Me for the bully old Comfort the next time this motor boat club goes on its vacation. You hear me say it, all. Herb and I have got that settled, haven't we, Herb?"
And the placid skipper of the big launch would laugh as he replied:
"Well, you did say that you admired my boat, because there was so much room to stow things away, particularly lockers for grub galore. But I guess you'll fit better in with me than in either of the other boats; so let's call it a go. Though I'll miss the fine cooking of Josh, I tell you."
"Oh! next time we'll probably cruise and camp together, and then we all can enjoy some of his wonderful cooking," Nick hastened to add, feeling that it might pay to flatter his old enemy a little, if he expected to profit by it in the future.
And here for the present we must take leave of our motor boat chums, in the belief that the record of their adventurous dash for the Dixie cup may have proved pleasant reading to our boys, who will be only too glad to meet them once again in the succeeding volume of this series, now published under the name of "The Motor Boat Boys on the St. Lawrence; or, Solving a Mystery of the Thousand Islands."
Shortly after the return of the club from their Mississippi cruise Jack and Jimmie had the pleasure of being invited over to take dinner with Mr. Gregory, the president of the Waverly bank. He gave them a copy of a resolution of thanks passed by the board of directors after his return with all the missing funds and securities that had been stolen.
There were also two checks, each of twenty-five hundred dollars, for the boys, Jack having insisted that it must be share and share alike between himself and Jimmie.
The boys deposited their money in a savings bank, where it would lie at compound interest, and be handy in case they were in need of funds at any future time.
AN AWAKENING AT ALVIN.
Alvin is a small town in eastern Illinois, a short distance north of Danville, and is a junction of a branch of the Wabash system with the Chicago & Eastern Illinois railroad. The place is large enough to stand the racket of a small brass band, but not of sufficient consequence to support a hotel or bakery. It was evident that either the postal clerk running on the Wabash branch or some person in the Alvin post-office was stealing ordinary letters and rifling registers.
After a two-hours' consultation on the case by a committee of three, Henshaw, "Judge" Bedell, and myself, it was unanimously decided that the work was not being done by the postal clerk. It was too well performed. No living being on a railroad train, by any known or unknown art, could cut and reseal a registered package envelope as artistically as these had been cut and resealed. There was no record of any work of the kind that approached it.
Could it be the postmaster at Alvin? It certainly had that appearance, but he was a man who seemed as far above a crime of this kind as conception could conceive. He had not been disturbed. No one had written to him and nobody had called. His suspicions, if he had any, had never been aroused. But there was certain information about the office we must possess, and we must know more about him and his methods. Yet, it would not answer for an Inspector to call on him on any pretense whatever. What should be done?
The postmaster was a druggist, and sold cigars; so we decided to fit out Bedell as a cigar agent and let him call in the regular course of business and do a little drumming and pumping. A fancy case was borrowed of a regular Chicago dealer, into which was neatly packed a sample box each of McConnel's Perfectos, Con. Mehoney's Shamrocks, Mrs. Kelly's Pappooses, Carter Harrison's Best, Fred Hill's Favorites, and Tol. Lawrence's Prides. A team was procured two stations north of Alvin, and down into the sleepy hamlet Mr. Brooks, the agent of Chesterfield, Schoolcraft & Browning, quietly wended his way and presented his card at the Alvin drug store and post-office.
It was harvest time and mid-day trade was quiet, so of course Mr. Brooks found abundant opportunity to do business without being jostled about by applicants for tobacco and tanglefoot for medical purposes. His prices were the most reasonable of any agent who had called since the war; but that was explained by the fact that this house always surprised its customers with good goods and low prices, and this was Mr. Brook's first trip through that section, and his first visit to Alvin. As a result he remained three hours, sold two dozen boxes of Perfectos, four dozen Pappooses, a whole case of Lawrence's Prides, and went to dinner with the postmaster.
When he reached Danville about four o'clock that afternoon, where he was to report to Henshaw and myself, he was radiant with the enthusiasm of well earned success. He had studied the Alvin postmaster as thoroughly as he did the ten commandments when a child; was present when the Wabash mail arrived and saw the postmaster distribute it alone for the Eastern Illinois going north; sold him a fine bill of goods, which was not to be delivered on account of the pressing business of the house for two weeks; saw the postmaster lock up the office and went to dinner with him, after which he returned to the office and saw the postmaster endorse the registers and lock out the mail for the Eastern Illinois, north; and everything had been done by the postmaster exactly as a thoroughly honest, upright, conscientious postmaster would do it.
There had not been the first false motion, word or suspicious circumstance, and he would wager his entire lot of samples that the postmaster was one of God's noblest works—an honest man.
He admitted, however, that the facts of the losses were stubborn and that the circumstances were peculiar, and, having now a good knowledge of all the conditions he thought the tests should be applied. It was accordingly arranged to remove from the Wabash mail every day for a week every registered letter of natural origin that would pass through the Alvin office, and substitute decoy or test letters.
These would remain in the Alvin office about two hours, when they would be placed in the postal car going north on the Eastern Illinois, where they could be hastily examined. It was more of a difficult task than the reader can imagine. The work of preparing the test letters, so that they would appear exactly like genuine ones that had been mailed at the various offices along the line of the road, occupied several days, but by the end of the week we were ready to begin on the following Monday.
Two lists of the letters to be sent through each day for six days, and a minute description of the contents of each letter, were prepared. Henshaw, who was to go along the Wabash and attend to the delicate task of removing the genuine and substituting the false ones, took one of the lists, and the other was retained by Bedell and myself, who were to examine the letters when they came from the office and were placed in the north bound car. It would necessarily become our duty also, in case anything was wrong, to strike while the iron was hot and secure the transgressor.
On Monday the letters came through in good condition. Tuesday and Wednesday brought no good results. By making haste we could usually get them out of the pouch and have them examined before the train left the Alvin station. By so doing it would give us an opportunity to step off the train, and thereby save time, if the examination proved that the letters had been meddled with.
On Thursday, while the train was still standing at the depot, we found our letters, examined them, and, as usual, pronounced them correct. The train pulled out and had proceeded probably a mile before we had opened the letters to examine the contents, when, to our surprise, we discovered that two of the eight had been rifled and the money was missing.
Quick as lightning the bell cord was pulled, and long before the engineer had come to a full stop, Bedell and myself could be seen walking hurriedly down the track toward the station. We entered the post-office as coolly as though we had called for a prescription instead of a thief, and found the postmaster handing out the mail that had just been assorted. Bedell did not look as Brooks did and so he was not recognized.
We waited patiently, listening to the torturing discords of the Alvin Silver Cornet Band that was practicing in the room above the store, till finally the patrons had departed, when I approached the postmaster and informed him of my unpleasant mission, which, was, in effect, that some person in the Alvin postoffice had, within the last three hours, abstracted $67 from the two registered letters that I held in my hand, and that my friend and myself had called to recover the money.
"Merciful God," said the postmaster, "it is impossible. No person handled those letters but myself; there is my endorsement; so help me, I did not open them, and I swear with uplifted hand before my Maker that this is the truth." As I turned to Bedell, as much as to ask if he ever heard such a falsehood, the gentle summer breeze wafted in something that admonished us that the silver cornets were trying to catch the air of "Dan Tucker." Bedell, feeling sorry for the postmaster, the band, and me, turned to find relief by reading the labels on the bottles.
I told the postmaster that while I did not charge him with the crime I would like to have him satisfy, if he could, that the money taken from the letters was not then in his possession. To this he most cheerfully assented, and search was made not only through his clothes, but through every conceivable place about the office and store where it could possibly have been secreted.
At length we became satisfied the money was not there, but, of course, not satisfied that the postmaster had not taken it. I asked him if any person other than himself ever assisted in handling the mails, and he answered: "No one." "Does not some person other than yourself have a key that will unlock either of your store doors?" "Yes." "Who is that person?" "It is George Havens, the leader of the band." Turning quickly to Bedell, I said: "The leader of the band has a key to the rear door, and he steals in while the postmaster is at dinner."
Five minutes later the horn that once through Alvin's hall the soul of discord shed, now hung as mute on the band-room wall, as though that soul had fled, and George Havens had been called to account for appropriating to himself certain funds that had not been contributed for the purpose of buying instruments, music, and flashy uniforms. But George had been around the world some himself, and had learned a few airs and quicksteps not mentioned in the books. He was a hard nut to crack.
We labored incessantly with him till sundown, and had taken the horns and band-room apart, had been through his residence, with his wife's permission, from the bottom of the well to the top of the lightning rod; had torn up the floors of several neighboring buildings; had been through the brick-yard and the burying ground, and, in brief, had completely upset everything in Alvin looking for the $67 which we did not find.
There could be but one conclusion. Either the leader of the band or the postmaster had the money, and we were agreed that it was not the latter. As a last resort we decided to take Havens to Chicago, and, possibly on the trip up, or during the night in Chicago, we might get something from him that would clear away the mists.
We reached the city at ten o'clock, without obtaining anything except the ride, and by 10:30 we had reached the office, where Stuart, whom we had informed of our coming by wire, was anxiously waiting to relieve us and spend the night with Havens. About four o'clock in the morning, Stuart's burning eloquence began to be felt, and, by sunrise, Havens in tears had confessed everything he had been charged with, and told how he stealthily entered the rear door of the office and committed the depredations while the postmaster was at dinner.
Stuart and Havens left for Alvin on an early tram to secure the money; and as they were digging it up in a grove a few rods back of the Alvin post-office, the friends of Havens, who up to this time insisted that he was innocent, concluded, from the appearance of the valuable articles that were unearthed, that the treasures of Captain Kyd had at last been found.
The postmaster, who was one of the finest gentlemen I ever met, was so effected by this terrible affair that soon afterward he sold his business and moved away. Brooks gave his remaining samples to Stuart, while poor Havens went to play B flat in prison.
CAUGHT WITH A SCRAP OF PAPER.
The post-office at Attica, Indiana, had been robbed. Unknown persons had entered it through a rear window sometime during Sunday night, and on Monday morning when the mailing clerk arrived, the stove was scattered in fragments around the floor, the letter boxes had been emptied, the safe blown open, its entire contents missing, and the room still retained a strong odor of powder.
It was a genuine robbery, and, for a place of the breadth and thickness of Attica, it was something much more than an ordinary, every-day affair. The postmaster had barely enough money left to wire for help.
When I arrived on Wednesday he informed me that no strange persons were seen in town prior to the robbery, but that on Monday morning about six o'clock, two young men called at the residence of Mr. James Beasley, a farmer residing about six miles eastward, and wanted to engage him to take them to Thorntown, a distance of about twenty miles as an Indiana crow flies. Beasley was a busy farmer, and, not being in the livery business, declined.
They than asked the distance to the nearest station on the Wabash railroad, and when Beasely informed them, they told him if he would hitch up and take them over they would give him a dollar and a half for his trouble.
Beasley said he would do it, just to be accommodating, and by so doing made a blunder. If he had told them he would do it for two dollars and a half he would have been engaged just the same, and Beasley saw his mistake, as a great many others do, when it was too late.
The only vehicle handy that morning was a small buggy containing one seat, and into this the three men placed themselves, Beasley in the middle, and proceeded to ride to the railroad. While Beasley was hitching up it occurred to him that it was very singular that two fine-looking, well-dressed gentlemen should call at his house so early in the morning and want to hire him to take them to Thorntown, and finally be satisfied with a mile and a half ride for dollar and a half, which was a dollar a mile, to another place.
His curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and when he got into the buggy with them he intended to look them over very closely indeed, and give them a few questions to crack.
Scarcely had they started before he asked them how it happened that they came along so early. "Have not been walking all night, have you?" he asked with a laugh.
The larger one of the two then told Beasley about his lovely home in Kansas; about his poor mother dying in Ohio; about being on the way to her funeral; about meeting Mr. Cushman, the other gentleman, on the train; about Mr. Cushman being on his way to Cornell University, and last, though not least, about the wreck on the I. B. & W., which compelled them to leave the train and get across the country to the Big Four or the Wabash. The reason he mentioned Thorntown particularly was because he had a wealthy aunt residing there, and he was thinking some of stopping to make her a short visit.
"But what do you carry in that roll, wrapped in light paper, sticking up through your inside coat pocket?" asked Beasley.
"A present for my aunt," was the laconic reply.
Turning to Mr. Cushman, the quiet gentleman who was on his way to college, Beasley asked: "What are you carrying those iron articles for in your overcoat pocket, that I'm sitting on; you are not going to open a hardware store in connection with the school, are you?"
Just then they came to a bend in the highway and the depot was visible only a short distance ahead, and just at that instant, without stopping to answer the question, Mr. Cushman and the big fellow jumped out, and the big fellow said they guessed they would walk the remainder of the way.
"All right," said Beasley, who stopped his horse and commenced to look for a good place to turn around. On his way back he said to himself: "they are a queer pair." They were soon out of his mind however, and in a few minutes more he was home attending to his chores, just as though he had not received one-fifty for almost nothing.
Tuesday morning the weather was a little lowering, so he concluded to drive into town and learn how many were killed in the I. B. & W. wreck. When he learned that there had been no wreck on the I. B. & W. or on any other railroad, he said to Mrs. Beasley: "How could those fellows, whom I carried yesterday morning, have had the audacity to tell me such a cold-blooded falsehood?"
A few minutes later when Mrs. Beasley had heard of the robbery, she answered the question.
In my interview with Beasley, he informed me that he looked the young men over very closely, and so firmly were their features impressed upon his mind that he could pick them out of ten or fifteen thousand. I had never met a more sanguine man. I arranged with him to take a few days' vacation, and, in less than an hour and a half after my arrival in Attica, I was waiting at the railroad station with Beasley for a train to take us to Indianapolis.
Thorntown, from Beasley's house was directly on a line toward Indianapolis, and, while there were many other stations nearer to Beasley's, Thorntown was the only one between LaFayette and Indianapolis, where every train that passed over the road was sure to stop. Here was a water tank whose supply was never exhausted, and this fact we assumed the robbers knew, as well as some others. They knew if they could reach Thorntown by Monday night they would be able to catch a south-bound freight that would land them in Indianapolis, and no one would be the wiser.
All day Thursday, we looked for the mysterious strangers in Indianapolis. We went everywhere where such persons would likely be. A thousand men I saw who looked something like them, but every time I called Beasley's attention to them, he would say, "No." To the captains of the police Beasley described the men minutely. They could think of none who answered the descriptions in every particular. Beasley examined the pictures in the rogue's gallery and in every other gallery, and all without success.
The captains said they would wager their lives that the men did not belong to Indianapolis. If they were looking for them they should go straightway to Dayton, Ohio, "where," said they, "more thieves hang out than in any place in North America, with the possible exception of Windsor, Canada." It is true if these men belonged to Dayton, they would have taken exactly the same course to reach home that they would have taken to reach Indianapolis.
Friday morning bright and early found us in Dayton, waiting for an interview with the Chief. Presently he came, and to him and two of his assistants I told the story and Beasley described the men. They had a man there who answered the description of Cushman, the quiet gentleman, and they also knew one who answered for the large one, but they had not heard that he was out of prison yet.
Handing Beasley an album, containing the pictures of a few of the well-known notables, the chief asked him to see if he could recognize any of them. Scarcely had Beasley commenced to turn the leaves of the book before his eye caught a familiar face, and, jumping from his seat, he said: "That's the big fellow."
"This was Tettman," they said, "one of the most accomplished safe workers in the State, and the little red-headed fellow, whom you describe, is Reddy Jackson, a quiet hard-working robber, though not as renowned as the former."
The officers assured us that it these men were in Dayton, they would be only too happy to find and deliver them to us, and with this end in view every policeman in Dayton was notified to search for them, and to run them in if possible, while Beasley in high glee took a position on a prominent corner to scan the passing throngs.
About seven o'clock that evening word came over the wire to head-quarters that Tettman and Jackson had been safely landed in one of the station houses. It was quickly arranged to remove them to the county jail, a more secure place, and it was desired to have Beasley stand just outside the door of the station house, so that when the prisoners were marched out to enter the patrol wagon, he might get a good look at them under an electric light, and thereby make sure that they were the ones we wanted.
When they passed him he turned to the crowd, and with much complacency said: "Them's the fellows."
Afterward, while interviewing one of the officers who made the arrest, as the men were coming out of a notorious saloon, he told us that when he told Tettman that he wanted him, Tettman instantly put a piece of paper in his mouth and commenced to chew it. The officer did not like the looks of the operation and he grabbed the man by the throat and ordered him not to attempt to swallow what he was chewing.
After considerable of a struggle he secured a portion of the piece of paper, which he handed to me saying: "I don't know as it amounts to anything, but I was afraid it might, and so took the precaution to prevent its destruction; sorry I was not quick enough to get it all." The little scrap of paper contained the following memoranda:
12,427 at 2c. 248.54 3,240 " 4c. 129. 747 " 5c. 3 892 " 10c. 165 speci 400 du
On the preliminary examination before the commissioner in Dayton they fought bravely. Their case was managed by the best counsel that could be obtained, who attempted to prove that Tettman and Jackson were in Dayton the day before the robbery in Attica, the day of the robbery, as well as the day after.
In fact there was very little proof necessary for their side that they did not produce, but the quality, unfortunately for them, did not equal the quantity.
Beasley's straightforward story was accepted by everybody, and when we proved by the postmaster from Attica that the number and the denomination of the stamps stolen from his safe corresponded precisely with the number and the denomination as noted by Tettman on the little slip of paper, which he attempted to swallow, the case was closed and the prisoners were sent to Indianapolis for trial.
On the trial the same character of evidence was introduced by the defendants. Ours was also similar, though in addition to that introduced in Dayton, we proved that a novel and ingenious brace found on Tettman's premises in Dayton, which contained irregular and unnatural features, and which left the same impressions on the safe, was the only brace in existence that could have performed the work which the Chief of Police in Attica pronounced "exquisite."
The jury was out just five minutes, and two hours later the two distinguished travelers, who mistook Beasley for a chump, were enjoying a free ride to Michigan City, where they are still industriously working for the State, cracking pig iron instead of safes.