"Hold hard, lads, and come and help," he yelled.
The help came; and, with the dogs barking furiously and getting in every one's way, Nic and Pete, tightly embraced, were dragged over into the bottom of the boat, the blacks, as soon as this was done, standing shivering, and with a peculiar grey look about the lips.
At that moment there was a distant hail from the landing-stage, and the big smith pulled himself together and hailed in reply.
"Ah, look!" he cried; "you white fellow lose one oar. Quick, sharp! come and pull. Massa Saunders make trebble bobbery if we lose dat."
The oars were seized, and with two of the prisoners helping to row, the oar was recovered from where it was floating away with the tide, the others trying what they could do to restore the couple, who lay apparently lifeless; while the dog which had behaved so strangely earlier in the day stood snuffing about Nic, ending by planting his great paws upon the poor fellow's chest, licking his face two or three times, and then throwing up his muzzle to utter a deep-toned, dismal howl, in which the others joined.
"Say, um bofe dead," groaned the big smith. "Pull, boy; all pull you bess, and get back to the massa. Oh, lorimee! lorimee! what massa will say along wi' dat whip, all acause we drown two good men, and couldn't help it a bit. Oh, pull, pull, pull! Shub de boat along. What will massa say?"
FISHING FOR MEN.
Those with the boat had been too much occupied in their own adventure to heed what had taken place at the landing-stage; and, even had they glanced in that direction, the distance the swift tide had carried them up-stream would have made every movement indistinct.
But busy moments had passed there, for the overseer was a man of action, and prompt to take measures toward saving the life of the drowning man. For a human life was valuable in those early days of the American colonies, especially the life of a strong, healthy slave who could work in the broiling sunshine to win the harvest of the rich, fertile soil.
So, as the boat drifted away, he gave his orders sharply, and the black slaves, who had stood helplessly staring, rushed to the help of their companion, who was hanging by the boat-hook, half in the water, afraid to stir lest the iron should give way and the tide carry him off to where, as he well knew, there were dangers which made his lips turn grey with dread.
The help came just as the poor fellow was ready to lose his hold and slip back into the river, and in another minute he was shivering on the stage.
"Take hold of that boat-hook," cried the overseer, speaking with his eyes fixed upon one spot, where the water ran eddying and forming tiny whirlpools, and not daring to look round for fear of losing sight of the place where it seemed to him that his white slave had gone down like a stone; and this had kept him from giving much heed to the proceedings in the boat.
One of the men seized the pole and waited for the next order.
"He went down there," cried the overseer, pointing. "Sound with the pole, and try how deep it is."
The man obeyed, the pole touching the muddy bottom about four feet below the surface.
"That's right; jump in," cried Saunders.
The man started, and then remained motionless, gazing piteously at his companions.
"Do you hear? Quick!" roared the overseer.
"There big 'gator, sah—'gator gar, sah," cried the man piteously.
"Bah! In with you," cried the overseer fiercely, and he cracked his whip, with the result that the man lowered the pole again, and then half-slipped, half-jumped down into the water, which rose breast-high, and he had to hold on by the boat-hook to keep himself from being swept away.
But the next moment he steadied himself.
"There, wade out," cried Saunders; "quick, before it is too late. Quick, sir; do you hear?"
He cracked his whip loudly as he spoke, and the man raised the pole after separating his legs to increase his support, as he leaned to his left to bear against the rushing tide, which threatened to sweep him from his feet. Then, reaching out, he thrust down the boat-hook again to get another support before taking a step farther from the staging.
But it was in vain. The water deepened so suddenly that as he took the step the water rose to his nostrils, and he uttered a yell, for the current swept him from his feet to fall over sidewise, and the next moment lay, as it were, upon the surface, with only one side of his face visible; but he was not borne away.
The other blacks, and even the overseer, stared in wonder, for there the man lay, with the tide rushing by him, anchored, as it were, in the stream, rising and falling gently like a buoy for a few moments before beginning to glide with the current.
"It's of no use," said the overseer sharply; "the hound's dead before now. Clumsy fool! Two of you jump in, and one reach out to get hold of Xerxes; we must give the new fellow up."
The men shrank, but they obeyed, lowering themselves into the water and joining hands, one of them taking hold of the end of the staging, while the other waded a step or two and reached out, as he clung to his fellow's extended hand till he was just able to get hold of the cotton jacket.
That was sufficient; the black was drawn a trifle shoreward, and then came more and more, as if dragging with him whatever it was that had anchored him to the bottom.
That mystery was soon explained, for the pole of the boat-hook, to which the poor fellow clung, appeared level with the surface, and as the drag was increased more and more of the pole appeared, till all three were close up to the piles; after which first one and then another climbed out to drag at the long stout staff, till, to the surprise of all, they found that what it was hitched into was the clothes of Humpy Dee, who had lain nearly where he had sunk, anchored by the weight of his irons, in some hole where the pressure of the current was not so great as at the surface.
In another minute the heavy figure had been hauled upon the platform, to lie there apparently dead; while the blacks began, after their homely, clumsy fashion, to try and crush out any tiny spark of life which might remain, and kept on rolling the heavy body to and fro with all their might.
"It's no good, boys," said the overseer, frowning down at the prisoner. "Keep on for a bit, though;" and he turned away to watch the coming of the boat, just as Pete sat up, looking dazed and strange, and Nic rose to his knees, and then painfully seated himself in his old place.
"Better than I thought for," muttered the overseer. "One gone instead of three—pull, boys," he shouted.
The blacks needed no telling, for they were exerting themselves to the utmost, and in a few minutes one of the blacks on the landing-stage caught the prow with the hook, and the boat was drawn alongside of the woodwork, the dogs having quietly settled themselves in their place behind the stern seat as soon as the two half-drowned men had shown signs of recovery.
The overseer scanned the two dripping figures hard, uttered a grunt, and turned once more to where the blacks were busy still with the heavy figure of Humpy Dee, which they were rolling and rubbing unmercifully, with the water trickling between the boards, and the sunset light giving a peculiarly warm glow to the man's bronzed skin.
"Well," cried the overseer, "is he quite dead?"
"No, sah; am t'ink he quite 'livo," said one of the blacks.
"Eh? What makes you think that?"
"Him bit warm, massa—and just now him say whuzz, whuzz when we rub um front."
"No," said the overseer; "impossible. He was under the water too long. Here, what are you doing?"
The black had laid his ear against the patient's breast, but he started up again.
"Lissum; hear whever him dead, massa. You come, put your head down heah, and you hear um go wob, wob berry soffly."
Saunders bent down and laid his head against the man's bull-throat, to keep it there for a few moments.
"No go wob, wob, sah?" cried the black. "You two and me gib um big shake. Um go den."
"No, no; let him be," cried the overseer; and the blacks looked on in perfect silence till their tyrant rose slowly to his feet, scowling.
"Clumsy brute," he said, "causing all this trouble and hindrance. Nearly drowned two men. There, two of you take him by his head and heels and drop him in."
"Tie big 'tone to um head first, massa?"
"What!" roared the overseer, so sharply that the black jumped to his feet. "What do you mean?"
"Make um go to de bottom, sah, and neber come up no more."
"Bah! you grinning black idiot. Didn't you tell me he was alive?"
"Yes, sah; quite 'livo, sah."
"Drop him in the boat, then, and hurry about it, or we shan't get up to the farm before the tide turns. There, four of you take him; and you below there, ease him down. Don't let him go overboard again, if you want to keep whole skins."
The men seized the heavy figure by the hands and legs, and bearing it quite to the edge, lowered it down to the others, room being made at the bottom of the boat, where it was deposited with about as much ceremony as a sack of corn. Then, in obedience to another order, the blacks descended, and the overseer stepped down last, to seat himself with his back to the dogs; while the smith and his assistant once more took up their guns and their places as guards. Then the boat was pushed off. Four of the blacks seized the oars, the boat's head swung round, and the next minute, with but little effort, she was gliding rapidly up the muddy stream.
It was dangerous work to begin talking, but as Nic sat there in silence, with his head growing clearer, and gazing compassionately at the prostrate figure, two of the prisoners put their heads together and began to whisper.
"Close shave for old Humpy," said one. "Think he'll come round again?"
"Dunno; but if he does, I'm not going to help in any more games about going off. This job has made me sick."
"He won't want you to; this must have pretty well sickened him if he comes to."
"Mind what you're saying. That there black image is trying to hear every word."
"He can't understand. But I say, the gaffer didn't know how it happened, after all. Thought it was an accident."
"So it was," said the other man, with a grim smile, "for old Humpy. Here, Pete, old man, how are you now?"
Pete looked at the speaker in wonder, then nodded, and said quietly:
"Bit stiff and achey about the back of the neck."
"Mind shaking hands, mate?" said the man in a faint whisper.
"What for?" said Pete sourly.
"'Cause I like what you did, mate. It was acting like a man. But we're not friends over that other business of splitting on us about the salmon."
"Better wait a bit, then, my lad," said Pete. "It aren't good to shake hands with a man like me."
"But I say it is," said the other with emphasis. "The way you went overboard with them heavy irons on, to try and save young master here, sent my heart up in my mouth."
Nic, who had sat listening moodily to the whispered conversation, suddenly looked up in a quick, eager way.
"Say that again," he whispered huskily.
"Say what agen?"
"Did Pete Burge jump in to save my life?"
"Course he did—like a man."
"Oh!" gasped Nic, turning to look Pete wonderingly in the face.
"Silence there!" roared the overseer savagely. "Do you think you've come out here for a holiday, you insolent dogs?"
At the last words the three animals behind the speaker took it to themselves, and began to bark.
"Down! Quiet!" roared the overseer, and the barking of the dogs and his loud command came echoing back from a wood of great overhanging trees, as the boat now passed a curve of the river.
Nic glanced at the overseer, then to right and left of him, before letting his eyes drop on the swiftly-flowing river, to try and think out clearly the answers to a couple of questions which seemed to be buzzing in his brain: "Where are we going? How is this to end?"
But there was no answer. All seemed black ahead as the rapidly-coming night.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
IN ALLIGATOR LAND.
As the night grew darker, and Nic sat in the forepart of the boat in his drenched clothes, which at first felt pleasantly cool, and then by degrees grew colder until he shivered, his head grew clearer and he became more himself. He was able to grasp more fully his position and how hardly fate had dealt with him.
It was clear enough now; he had been sent off in that terrible blunder as one of the salmon-poachers; and he was there, sold or hired to one of the colonists, to work upon a plantation until he could make his position known to some one in authority, and then all would be right. He felt that it would be of no use to appeal to this brutal slave-driver who had him and his fellow-unfortunates in charge. What he had to do was to wait patiently and make the best of things till then.
His head was rapidly growing so clear now that he could piece the disconnected fragments of his experience together, few as they were, and broken up by his sufferings from the injuries he had received; and, as he sat there in the darkness, he became more calm, and rejoiced in the thought that he was growing stronger, and would, without doubt, soon be fully recovered and able to act. Till then he made up his mind to wait.
When he had arrived at this point he began to think about his position in connection with the rough ne'er-do-wells who were his companions. He shivered involuntarily at the thought of being in such close touch with men of this class; but he softened a little as he dwelt upon the fact that, bad as he was, Pete Burge had behaved bravely, and that he had to thank him for twice-over saving his life. He might have said three times, but he was unaware of the patient attention he had received from the man during the feverish hours produced by his contusions and wound. But, still, there was a feeling of revulsion which made him shrink from contact with one whom he felt to be the cause of all his sufferings, and he hardened himself against the man more than against the others.
Then, with a sigh of relief, he cast all thoughts of self away, after coming to the conclusion that, as soon as his father realised what had happened, he would never rest till the authorities had had him found and brought back, even if a ship was purposely despatched.
For this thought was very comforting. He had only to wait, he felt, little thinking that the old Captain was lying in peril of his life from the genuine trouble which had come upon him, as he mourned over the loss of the son whom he believed to be dead, and for the recovery of whose body he had offered a heavy reward to the fishermen.
For he said to Solly, "One of these days they will find him cast up on the shore."
It was very dark; the cloudy sky seemed to be hanging low over the heads of those in the boat, as the men rowed on till the overseer made a change in his crew; the four blacks who had been rowing taking the places of those who had been guards and steersman, while the rowers took the muskets in turn.
The fresh crew pulled steadily and well, and the boat glided on along the winding river, whose banks grew more and more wooded until they seemed to be going through a thick forest, whose closely-growing trees formed dense, high walls, above which there was a strip of dark, almost black, sky.
Then another change was made, just when Nic was suffering from a fresh anxiety; for after he had proved to himself, by kneeling in the boat and touching him, that Humpy Dee was alive and regaining consciousness, his companions had suddenly grown very quiet, and the dread had assailed Nic that the man was dead, for he had been left to take his chance as far as the overseer was concerned; and when twice-over the prisoners had begun to trouble themselves about their comrade's state, Nic setting the example by kneeling down to raise Humpy's head, a stern command came from the stern of the boat, and this threat:
"Look here, you fellows; if I hear any more talking or shuffling about there I shall fire."
Nic felt that the man would act up to his threat; but after a time, when a groan came from Humpy, the whispering and movements recommenced in the efforts made to succour the sufferer.
"I don't speak again," roared the overseer; and Nic started and shuddered, but felt fiercely indignant the next moment as he heard the ominous click! click! of a pistol-lock from out of the darkness astern.
At last came the order for a fresh change of rowers, and four of the captives went climbing over the thwarts, with their irons clanking and striking against the seats as they took their places, all being men who had been accustomed to the handling of an oar.
Nic took advantage of the noise to sink upon his knees beside Humpy in the bottom of the boat to try if he could not do something for him; he was no longer the hated, brutal ruffian, but a suffering fellow-creature. As Nic felt about in the dark he found that the man had somehow shifted his position and slightly rolled over, so that his face was partly in the water which had collected for want of baling; and doubtless, in his helpless, semi-insensible state, but for Nic's efforts, Humpy Dee's career would after all have been at an end.
It was only a fresh instance of how strangely we are all dependent upon one another, and the way in which enemies perform deeds which they themselves would previously have looked upon as impossible. And without doubt big, brutal Humpy Dee would have stared in wonder, could he have opened his eyes in daylight, to see what took place in the pitch-darkness—to wit, the feeble, suffering young man, whom he had struck down and tried to drown in the Devon salmon-pool, kneeling in the wash-water, making a pillow of his knees for his companion's rough, coarse head.
Still, for hours this was Nic's position, while the boat was rowed by the white slaves along the winding river, until another change was made, the blacks taking the oars, when Pete, being the first of the rowers to come back to his seat, found what had taken place, and insisted upon relieving Nic of his task.
"On'y to think of it, zur," he said; "on'y to think o' your doing o' that, and you so bad!"
Nic said nothing, but had to be helped back to his seat, the position he had occupied having cramped him; and then once more he sat gazing at the great black wall opposite to him as the blacks sent the boat along, till suddenly, about midnight, there was heard a deep bark from somewhere ashore.
The three dogs, which had been curled up asleep, sprang to their feet and answered in chorus, when another chorus rose from the right and came nearer and nearer. Then the black wall on the same side dropped away, and amidst the baying of the great hounds the boat's speed was slackened, and it was turned into a narrow creek. Here the oars were laid in, and progress was continued for about a hundred yards by a couple of the blacks poling the boat along towards a light which suddenly appeared, the bearer hailing and coming alongside to begin talking to the overseer.
It was dark enough still; but another lanthorn was brought, the prisoners were ordered to step out, and were then marched to a barn-like place, where, as they entered a door, Nic felt the soft rustling of Indian-corn leaves beneath his feet.
"In with you, boys," cried the overseer; and the three dogs, and the others which had saluted them, scampered in. "Watch 'em, boys, and give it to them if they try to get away. There, lie down."
The man held up the lanthorn he had taken as he spoke, and Nic saw that seven of the great hounds settled themselves in a heap of leaves close to the door, while quite a stack was close to where he was standing with his companions.
"There's your bed, my lads," cried the overseer. "You heard what I said. Lie down, all of you, at once. There will be a sentry with a musket outside, and you can guess what his orders are."
The man strode out; the door was banged to, there was the noise of a big bar being thrown across and the rattling of a padlock, followed by the clink of fetters as their wearers lay down in the heap of sweet-smelling corn-stalks and leaves; and for a few moments no one spoke.
Nic had sunk down in the darkness, glad to be in a restful posture, and began to wonder whether Humpy Dee had been carried in by the blacks, for he had been one of the first to leave the boat, and had seen hardly anything by the light of the lanthorns.
"Poor wretch!" he sighed. "I hope he is not dead."
Just then one of the other men said, in the broad Devon burr:
"Zay, lads, bean't they going to give uz zum'at to eat?"
"Brakfus-time," said another. "Zay, Humpy, how is it with ye? Not thuzty, are you? Oughtn't to be, after all that water."
"I'm going to make zumun pay for all this," came in the man's familiar growl. "Why didn't you get hold o' me and pull me in? Zet o' vools. Had your chance; and we might ha' got away."
"Why, it was all your fault," said another. "We was waitin' for you. What did you go and stop zo long under water for?"
"Did I?" said Humpy confusedly.
"Course you did. We was too good mates to go and leave you behind."
There was a heavy bang at the door, as if from the butt of a musket, and the dogs leaped up and began to growl.
"Lie down, boys," cried a thick voice, the words sounding as if spoken through a big keyhole. "An' I say, you chaps, look heah; de massa say you make a row in dah I got to shoot."
"All right, blackie," said one of the prisoners; "don't shoot. Good-night, boys. I'm going to sleep."
Just at that moment Nic started, for there was a snuffling noise close to him, the leaves rustled, and he felt the hot breath of one of the dogs on his face.
But it was a friendly visit, for the great brute turned round two or three times to trample down the dense bed of leaves, and settled itself into a comfortable curve, with its big head upon the poor fellow's chest, making Nic wonder whether it was the dog which had been friendly before.
He risked it: raising his hand, he laid it gently between the animal's soft ears, and there was a low muttering sound that was a big sigh of satisfaction, not a growl; and Nic felt as if the companionship of the dog was pleasant in his terrible loneliness and despair. It was warm and soothing, too, and seemed like the beginning of something hopeful— he knew not what. Then he began to think of home, and a sensation of prayerful thankfulness came over him as he felt that his head was growing clearer. The next minute all trouble, pain, and weariness were forgotten in a deep and dreamless sleep.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
REACHING THE PLANTATION.
A deep growl and a loud burst of barking roused Nic Revel from his deep sleep, free from fever, calm and refreshed, to lie listening to the dogs, wondering what it all meant.
The sun was up, and horizontal rays were streaming in between ill-fitting boards and holes from which knots had fallen consequent upon the shrinking of the wood. There was a feeling of cool freshness in the air, too, that was exhilarating; but for a few moments Nic could not make out where he was.
Then the slight confusion passed away, as he heard the rustling of leaves, and turned to see his companions stirring and yawning, while at the same moment a dog's great head was butted at him as if its owner were a playful sheep, and it then drew back, swinging its tail slowly from side to side.
The next minute the heavy bar was swung down, the great padlock rattled, and the door was drawn open, to let in a flood of light, followed by the two blacks who had fitted on the irons, but who now bore a huge loaf of bread and a pitcher of water; while two more blacks, each shouldering a musket, closed in behind them, to stand as if framed in the doorway.
"Heah, jump up," cried the big smith. "Make has'e; eat your brakfas' 'fore you go to de boat."
As he spoke he turned an empty barrel with its head upward, banged the loaf down upon it, drew a knife from its sheath in his belt, and counted the prisoners over with the point of the blade. He then drew a few imaginary lines upon the top of the loaf, paused to rub his woolly head with the haft, looking puzzled and as if cutting the loaf into as many pieces as there were prisoners bothered him, and ended by making a dash at his task.
He cut the loaf in half, then divided it into quarters, and went on working hard as he made these eighths, and finally sixteenths.
By this time the top of the barrel was covered.
"Now, den, 'tan' in a row," he cried importantly.
The men scowled, but they were hungry, and obeyed, the black sticking the point of his knife into the chunks he had cut, and handing a piece to each in turn, beginning with Humpy Dee, who did not seem any the worse for his immersion, and ending with Nic.
After this he began again with Humpy, went down the line again, and had begun for the third time when it suddenly struck him that there would not be enough to go round, and he snatched the piece back.
Humpy Dee uttered a furious growl, and made a step forward to recover it; but the big black presented the point of the knife at him and shouted:
"Ah, what dat? You back, sah, 'fore set de dog at you."
Humpy growled like one of the beasts, and resumed his place in the line, and the black went on calmly dividing the remaining pieces, distributed them, and called up the dogs to catch what remained.
The water was then passed round, the blacks went off leaving the sentries in position, and the prisoners sat amongst the Indian-corn leaves, to eat their breakfast ravenously enough.
Before they had finished, the barking of the dogs announced the coming of the overseer, who came in, whip in hand, to run his eye over his prisoners, nodding his satisfaction as he saw that he was not going back minus any of them, and went out again.
Then, as Nic sat eating the remainder of his bread, the entry was darkened a little, and he saw a couple of women peer in—one a middle-aged, comely body, the other a young girl.
There was a pitying expression upon their faces; and, obeying a sudden impulse, Nic stood up to go to speak to them, for it seemed to him that his chance had come. But at his first movement Humpy Dee leaped up, with his fetters clinking, to intercept him, a sour look upon his face, and the frightened women ran away.
"No, you don't," growled Humpy; "not if I knows it, m'lad."
"You, sah—you go back and eat your brakfas', sah," came from the door; and Humpy turned sharply, to see that their guards were standing, each with his musket steadied against a doorpost, taking aim at him and Nic.
"Yah, you old pot and kettle," cried Humpy scornfully; "you couldn't hit a haystack;" but he went back to his place and sat down, Nic giving up with a sigh and following his example.
Half-an-hour after the overseer was back with the dogs, the order was given, and the prisoners marched out, to find the blacks waiting. Nic saw now that there was a roomy log-house, fenced round with a patch of garden; and in a group by the rough pine-wood porch a burly-looking man was standing with the two women; and half-a-dozen black slaves were at the far end of the place, each shouldering a big clumsy hoe, and watching, evidently with the greatest interest, the prisoners on their way to the boat.
In his hasty glance round, Nic could see that the farm was newly won from the wilderness, and encumbered with the stumps of the great trees which had been felled, some to be used as logs, others to be cut up into planks; but the place had a rough beauty of its own, while the wistful glances that fell upon him from the occupants of the porch sent a thrill through his breast, and raised a hope that if ever he came that way he might find help.
But his heart sank again as his eyes wandered to the black labourers, and then to a couple of huge dogs similar to those which followed behind with the overseer; for he knew that he was among slave-owners, and in his despondency he could not help asking himself what chance he would have, an escaped prisoner, if he tried to get away.
He had little time for thought, but he took in the surroundings of the place quickly, noting that the house and out-buildings stood well raised upon a mound, round one side of which the creek they had turned into ran; while through the trees some little distance away there was the river, and across it the forest, rising from the farther bank, not black and forbidding now, but beautiful in the early morning sunshine.
The overseer shouted a hearty good-bye to the people by the porch, and there was a friendly reply, as they marched on to where the boat lay fastened to a stump; the dogs sprang in to retake their places, barking their farewell to the others which trotted down to look on; a big basket of provisions was next put on board by the smith and his assistant, and then the prisoners were sent forward to their old places, Pete glancing once at Nic, whose eyes were wandering here and there; but Nic avoided the glance.
"Now you, sir," cried the overseer; "don't stand staring about. In with you."
Nic obeyed as soon as there was room, and the overseer took his place astern.
A minute later they were being poled along the creek, which was here and there overarched by the spreading boughs of the trees, and soon after they were out in the main stream, with the blacks rowing steadily in water which seemed to be very slack; the little settlement was seen as a bright spot for a few minutes, and then disappeared behind the trees, which began upon the left bank, and became once more a great green wall to shut out everything else.
And then hour after hour the boat was rowed onward, the river winding far less than on the previous evening, and seeming to form a highroad into the interior, upon which they were the only travellers. It varied little in its width at first, but towards afternoon Nic noted that it was beginning to narrow considerably; but it ran always through forest. As thoughts of escape would intrude, and the poor fellow scanned the banks, he quickly grasped the fact that if an attempt were made it must be by the river, for the forest on either side seemed to be impassable, and how far it ran inland was impossible to say.
A change was made every hour or so, the prisoners taking their turn with the oars; and before the morning was far advanced the overseer ordered Nic into one of the places, watching him intently as he obeyed and fell into stroke at once, rowing hard for a few minutes in the hot sunshine without a murmur. Then all at once the trees on the bank began to sail round, the oar slipped from his hand, and he fell backward into Pete's arms.
When he opened his eyes again he was sitting forward in the bottom of the boat, with one of the blacks supporting him and splashing water from over the side in his face, while the overseer stood looking down grimly.
"You needn't take another turn," he said gruffly; "I wanted to see whether you could do your share."
The rest of the day Nic sat watching their progress, a good deal of it through the gloomy shades of a great swamp, through which the river ran at times almost in twilight, the faint current being marked by the difference in colour and the freedom from the vegetation which marked the waters of the great lagoon spreading away to right and left among the trees, which grew and fell and rotted as far as eye could penetrate.
The vegetation, was rich, but it seemed to be that of a dying forest which had been inundated by the stream, for bank there was none. Huge cypresses stood out at every angle, many having fallen as far as they could, but only to be supported by their fellows. And as the boat went swiftly on in obedience to the sturdily-tugged oars, Nic forgot his troubles in wonder at the strangeness of the scene through which he passed, for it was dreary, horrible, and beautiful all in one. Rotting vegetation supplied the rich, muddy soil from which rose vine and creeper to climb far on high, and then, finding no further support, throw themselves into the air, to hang and swing where the bright sunshine penetrated. Wherever it was shadowy the trees were draped with hanging curtains of moss; while all around Nic looked down vistas of light and shade, whose atmosphere was now golden, now of a score of different delicious greens.
There was something so new and strange about the swamp that it had a fascination for Nic, and he was leaning over the bows, resting his chin upon his hand, when he had his first glance at one of its inhabitants; for, as the boat was being steered past a moss-covered, rotting stump, the gnarled wood suddenly seemed to become animated, a portion of it rising a little and then gliding away with a heavy splash into the water.
Before he could realise what it was, there was another movement just beyond, and this time he made out plainly enough the gaping mouth, prominent eyes, and rugged back of a great alligator, followed by its waving tail, as it dived down from a cluster of tree-roots out of sight.
After this the reptiles became common enough, for the swamp swarmed with them, and Nic realised that it might be a strangely-perilous task to make his way through the forest unless provided with a boat.
The men whispered to themselves as the reptiles scuttled about in their eagerness to escape, and shook their heads; and as Nic turned from observing them to gaze aft he became conscious of the fact that the overseer was watching them with a grim smile upon his lips, reading their thoughts respecting the dangers of an attempt to escape.
The dogs were evidently familiar with the sight of the reptiles, rarely paying any heed to them save when the boat approached quietly and aroused a sleeper, which in its surprise raised its great jaws menacingly, when one of the dogs would set up the hair about its neck, growl, and make a savage snap at the reptile; and after a while the prisoners grew in turn accustomed to the loathsome-looking creatures.
"But we might seize the boat," thought Nic, "in the case of no help coming;" and he sat there more and more grasping the fact that after all he might be forced to depend upon the aid and companionship of those around him, and be compelled to master the dislike and repulsion which they inspired.
Another stoppage at a woodland farm for the night, and then on again for a fresh day's toil as monotonous as the last.
At the different changes made, the rowers left their oars dripping with perspiration, for the swamp seemed breathless and the heat intense; but towards evening a faint breeze sprang up, and instead of its growing darker there was a lightening in the appearance of the place; the setting sun sent a red glow among the trees, and then they passed out of the forest into a lovely, dreamy, open country, stretching for miles and miles towards where a range of hills ran right across their course, beyond which, pale orange by the fading light, another range of greater height appeared. Soon after they passed the mouth of a clear stream, and at the end of another mile the boat was turned suddenly off to their right into a little river of the clearest water, which ran meandering through a lightly-wooded slope rising towards the hills; and as Nic was gazing at the fairy-like scene, whose atmospheric effects seemed, even in his despondent state, far more beautiful than anything he had ever seen at home, the boat swept round a curve whose banks were thickly set with trees, and once more there was a human habitation in sight, in the shape of a well-built, farm-like house upon a knoll, and the agitation amongst the dogs warned the prisoners that here was their resting-place for the night.
The next minute, as the dogs were barking, the boat was steered close inshore, and the brutes bounded over into the shallow water, to scramble up the bank, and set off as fast as they could go towards the house, from which figures could be seen issuing; and at last, as Nic scanned the signs of cultivation around, the growing crops roughly fenced, and the out-buildings, the thought struck him that this might be their destination.
While he was wondering whether this were so, the boat was run into a little creek only big enough to let it pass for about a couple of hundred yards before it grounded where a track came down to some posts; and as the boat was secured to one of these the overseer sprang ashore to meet a tall, sun-browned, grey-haired man, whose keen eyes were directed towards the bows of the boat.
"Back again, then, Saunders!" he said sharply. "Well, what sort of a lot do they seem?"
"Rough, but strong," replied the overseer; "all but one young fellow who has been knocked about, but he seems as if he'll soon come round."
"Like so many horses or bullocks," said Nic to himself bitterly, "and I am the one with broken knees."
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
"This, then, is my owner," thought Nic, scanning the settler narrowly as he stood apart talking in a quick, decisive manner to the overseer, who seemed to treat him with great respect, while the blacks stood apart waiting for their orders.
These were not long in coming, for the man turned sharply upon them.
"Clear the boat," he said; and the blacks ran to the bows, a couple of them holding the vessel steady while the prisoners stepped clanking out, to stand in a row on the bank, with their new master scanning them sharply.
"Here, Saunders," he said, "why is that boy not in irons?"
"That is the sick one, sir. Weak as a rat."
"Oh!—Here, what's the matter with you, boy?" cried the settler. "No disease, have you?"
"No, sir," said Nic, speaking out firmly, for his time seemed to have come. "I was beaten about the head, and received a wound from a cutlass on the night these men were seized during an outrage, and—"
"That will do. I don't want a sermon," said the settler brutally.
"Nor I to preach one, sir; but I was seized with these men by mistake."
"Ah, yes," said the settler, frowning; "some bad mistakes of this sort are made. That will do."
"But I appeal to you, sir. I was hurried on board a ship while stunned, and I only recovered my senses when I reached this place."
"Then you were a long time without them, my lad; but you are wrong."
"I do not understand you, sir."
"Well, I'll tell you," said the settler, sharply. "You lost your senses before you got into trouble."
"I was only defending my father's property, sir," cried Nic passionately. "I am a gentleman—a gentleman's son."
"Yes, we get a good many over here in the plantation, my lad; they are the biggest scamps sent over to rid the old country of a nuisance; but we do them good with some honest work and make decent men of them."
"But I assure you, sir, I am speaking the truth. I appeal to you, men. Tell this gentleman I was not one of your party."
"Hor, hor," roared Humpy, derisively. "What a sneak you are, Nic Revel. Take your dose like we do—like a man."
"I appeal to you, Pete Burge. Tell this gentleman that I was brought out here by mistake."
"Yes, it was all a mistake, master," cried the man.
Humpy roared with laughter again. "Don't you believe him, master," he cried; "that there Pete Burge is the biggest liar we have in our parts. He'd say anything."
"Men, men!" cried Nic, wildly, to the others; "speak the truth, for Heaven's sake."
"Course we will," cried Humpy quickly. "It's all right, master. Don't you show more favour to one than another. We was all took together after a bit o' poaching and a fight. Youngster there got a crack on the head which knocked him silly, and he's hatched up this here cockamaroo story in his fright at being sent out. Do him good—do all on us good, and we're all glad to ha' got with such a good master; aren't we, lads?"
"That will do," said the settler. "You have got too much grease on your tongue, my man."
"But, sir," cried Nic.
"You will let me write to my friends?"
"We don't want you to write to us, mate," cried Humpy grinning; "we can't none on us read. You can tell us what you want to say."
"Silence, you, sir," said the settler, sternly; "I keep a cat here, and that man who saw to your irons knows how to use it. Hold your tongue, once for all."
"Oh, all right master; I on'y—"
Humpy gave his mouth a slap, as if to shut it, and the settler turned to Nic.
"Look here, young man," he said; "I have only your word for your story, and it seems likely enough to be as your fellow-prisoner says, something hatched up from fear. You are sent out here for your good."
"You don't believe me, sir?" cried Nic, wildly.
"Not a word of it," replied the settler. "We get too much of that sort of thing out here. Every man, according to his own account, is as innocent as a lamb. You were sent out of your country, and came in a king's ship. You are assigned to me for a labourer, and if you—and all of you," he cried, turning to the others, "behave well, and work well, you'll find me a good master. You shall be well fed, have decent quarters and clothes, and though you are slaves I won't make slaves of you, but treat you as well as I do my blacks. Look at them; they're as healthy a set of men as you can see."
The blacks grinned and seemed contented enough.
"That's one side of the case—my part," continued the settler; "now for the other. I've had a deal of experience with such men as you are, and I know how to treat them. If you play any pranks with me, there's the lash. If you attack me I'll shoot you down as I would a panther. If you try to escape: out north there are the mountains where you'll starve; out south and east there is the swamp, where the 'gators will pull you down and eat you, if you are not drowned or stifled in the mud; if you take to the open country those bloodhounds will run you to earth in no time. Do you hear?" he said meaningly, "run you to earth; for when they have done there'll be nothing to do but for some of my blacks to make a hole for you and cover you up. Now, then, you know what's open to you. Your country has cast you out; but we want labour here; and, rough and bad as you are, we take you and make better men of you."
"Thank ye, master," cried Humpy; "that's fair enough, mates."
The settler gave him a look which made the man lower his eyes.
"Now then," said the settler, "I am going to begin, and begin fairly with you.—Samson."
"Yes, massa," cried the big black.
"Take off their irons.—And if you all behave yourselves you'll never have to wear them again."
The basket was at hand; the assistant brought out the little anvil, and the task of filing and then drawing out the rivets began, with the dogs looking on.
"As for you, my lad," said the settler, "I can see you look weak and ill; you can take it easy for a few days till you get up your strength."
"But you will make some inquiries, sir?" pleaded Nic.
"Not one, boy. I know enough. I take the word of the king's people; so say no more."
He turned his back upon his white slave, and it was as if the old confusion of intellect had suddenly come back: Nic's brain swam, black specks danced before his eyes, and he staggered and would have fallen but for Pete Burge's arm, as the man caught him and whispered:
"Hold up, Master Nic; never say die!"
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
"Aren't you a bit hard on me, Master Nic?" said Pete, busy at his task in the plantation of hoeing the weeds, which seemed to take root and begin to grow again directly they were cut down.
He did not look up, but spoke with his head bent over his work, conscious as he was that they might be keenly watched.
"I have said nothing harsh to you," said Nic coldly.
"No, zir; but I thought that when you got a bit better, zeeing as we're both in the zame trouble, working together like them niggers, you might ha' got a bit more friendly."
"Friendly!" said Nic bitterly.
"I don't mean reg'lar friendly, but ready to say a word to a man now and then, seeing how he wants to help you."
"You can't help me," said Nic sadly. "I seem to be tied down to this weary life for always, and for no fault of mine—no fault of mine."
"And it's no fault o' mine, Master Nic. You don't believe it, but I couldn't help coming that night; and I did try all I could to keep Humpy Dee from hurtin' you."
"Don't talk about it, please."
"No, zur, I won't; but you're hot and tired. You haven't got your strength up yet, though you are a zight better. Wish I could do all the work for you. Here, I know."
They were hoeing a couple of rows of corn, and Pete was some feet ahead of his companion, who looked at him wonderingly, as, after a quick glance round, he stepped across and back to where Nic was toiling.
"Quick," he said, "you get on to my row and keep moving your hoe and resting till I ketch up."
"But—" began Nic.
"Quick," growled Pete fiercely; and he gave the lagger a sharp thrust with his elbow. "If they zee us talking and moving, old Zaunders'll come across."
That meant a fierce bullying, as Nic knew, and he hesitated no longer, but stepped into Pete's row.
"I don't like this; it is too full of deceit," said Nic. "You will be blamed for not doing more work."
"Nay; I shan't," replied Pete, "because I shall work harder. We're a-going to do it this way; they won't notice it, and if I keep pulling you up a bit level with me it'll make your work easier."
"But I have no right to let you."
"'Taren't nought to do wi' you; it's for the zake of the old country. When you get stronger and more used to the hoeing you'll do more than I can, p'raps, and help me."
For the prisoners had been compelled to settle down at the plantation; and men who had never been used to regular hard toil, but had lived by fishing and salmon-spearing, and any odd task which offered, now slaved away among the sugar-canes or the Indian-corn, the rice cultivation being allotted to the blacks.
The settler had kept his word as to the behaviour to his white servants, treating them with what he considered stern justice; but every effort Nic had made to obtain a hearing failed, the last producing threats which roused the young man's pride, and determined him to fight out the cruel battle as fate seemed to have ordained.
Three months had passed since the boat reached the place that night, and there had been little to chronicle, for the prisoners' life had been most monotonous, embraced as it was in rising early, toiling in the plantation in the hot sunshine all the day, with the regular halts for meals, and the barn-like shed at night, with the men's roughly-made bunks, a blanket, and a bag of husks of Indian-corn.
The life suited Nic, though, for after the first fortnight he rapidly began to gain strength, and soon after he was sent out with the rest of the men.
There had been no open trouble; the prisoners shared the same building, and their meals were served out to them together; but there was a complete division between them which was kept up whenever possible; and one day out in the field Pete began about it to Nic, who took no heed of either party.
"Zee Humpy Dee look at me, Master Nic?" said Pete.
"Know why, don't you?"
"You do: I telled you. He zays, as you heered, that I set the zailors on 'em to get 'em brought out here."
Nic said nothing.
"He means to kill me one o' these days. He'll hit me on the head, or pitch me into the river, or zomething; and the others won't interfere."
Nic looked up at the speaker quickly.
"Comes hard on me," continued Pete. "I never done nothing, and they keeps me off, and don't speak; and you don't, Master Nic, zo I zeem all alone like. It makes me feel zometimes as if I must make mates o' the blacks, but I s'pose they wouldn't care for me. Wish I'd got drowned."
Nic raised his head to look in the man's face; but the old trouble rankled in his breast. His heart would not go out to him, fellow-sufferers though they were.
It was so several times over, Pete trying hard to show what goodwill he could under their painful circumstances; but it was not until that day out in the corn-rows, when Pete helped him with his work at a time when the heat was trying his barely-recovered strength, that Nic felt that perhaps there was some truth in the man's story. At any rate, he was showing himself repentant if guilty, and the prisoner recalled how Pete had nursed him and without doubt had saved his life.
Pete went on hoeing till he had worked level with Nic, and then he worked harder to get as far ahead as he could before slipping back to his own row, for Nic to return to his with once more a good start, and a feeling of gratitude for his companion's kindness, which softened his voice next time he spoke, and delighted Pete, who began talking at once.
"Know where they keep the boat, Master Nic?" he said, as they worked away.
"No. Do you?"
A few hours earlier Nic would have said, "No," and nothing more.
"Think I do," said Pete, brightening up. "I mean to get it out of the niggers zomehow. We never zee it go after they've been out in it. They tie it up at night, and next morning it's always gone."
"Yes," said Nic; "I have noticed that."
"It's that Zamson and old Xerxes who take it away zomewhere in the night, and walk or zwim back."
"Very likely, Pete."
"Yes, Master Nic; that's it; but keep on hoeing. I've laid awake nights thinking about it, for we must have that boat. I don't mean Humpy Dee and his lot when I zay 'we,' because you will go off wi' me if I zee a chance?"
"I—I think not, Pete."
"Well, yes, then; I will."
"Hab, my lad; you zeem to ha' put life into a man. There's zummat to live for now. I've thought and thought till I've felt zick; but that's the on'y way. I could risk running for it; but there's the dogs—the dogs—Pst! look out!"
The warning was needed, for there were steps coming in their direction, and directly after the overseer strode up.
"I thought so," he said; "I've had my eye on you—you scoundrel! Every now and then your hoe has stopped, and I could tell from your manner that you were talking, and wasting your time. Here are you a good six feet behind this weak young fellow. Get on, and catch up to him."
Nic felt stunned, and he turned to speak and exculpate his fellow-slave; but there was such an agonised, imploring look in Pete's eyes that he was silent, and felt compelled to join in the little deception.
"Yes," said the overseer, "a good six feet behind you, my lad, when it ought to be the other way on. Get on, you, sir, get on."
"Yes, zur; zoon pull up, zur."
"Zur and zoon!" cried the overseer. "Bah! what a savage burr you have."
He went on, followed by one of the two dogs which accompanied him, the other hanging back to look up at Nic with its tail wagging slowly, till its absence was noticed and a shrill whistle rang out, which fetched it along with a rush, doubtless caused by recollections of the whip.
"Oh, Pete!" whispered Nic reproachfully.
"It's all right, lad," said the man, laughing merrily. "What a game it was. I didn't mind a bit."
"Then don't, Master Nic, zur. I can't have you wear yourself out. We've got to 'scape, my lad, and the boat's the thing; but if you could get t'other two dogs as friendly as that one, we'd make for the woods. But anyhow, you've got to grow as strong as me; we can't do nothing without. Master Nic—"
"If it was the last words I'd got to zay, I did fight for you that night, and it waren't my fault you was took."
"I begin to believe it now, Pete," was the reply.
"Do, zur: do try hard. I aren't a bragger, Master Nic, but it's just truth what I zay. I want to get you back again to the old country; and I can't think o' nought else night or day. If I can get you off, and come with you, o' course I should like; but if I can't, and I can get you off—there, I'll lie down and die to do it, lad. But look here, we must only trust ourselves. If the other lot, who are making some plan of their own, knew it, they'd tell upon us and spoil us. Master Nic, can't you believe in me!"
Nic was silent for a few moments as he turned to look in the man's eyes.
"Yes," he said at last; "I do believe in you."
"And you'll trust me, zur?"
Again there was a momentary hesitation before Nic answered, "Yes."
"Hoe, Master Nic, hoe," whispered Pete excitedly; "he's been watching us, and he's sent the dogs at us for not being at work."
As proof thereof the two fierce-looking brutes came rushing down one of the rows, open-mouthed, and Pete raised his hoe as if to strike.
"Me first, Master Nic," panted Pete. "I aren't afeared. Let him do what he likes after; I'll kill one or both on 'em before they shall touch you."
At that moment there was a savage growling from the dogs not thirty yards away, and they came rushing at the poor fellows as hard as they could tear.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
A LURKING PERIL.
In obedience to the order which had despatched them, the two well-trained bloodhounds of the overseer tore on till they were about to bound upon the prisoners, when a sharp, shrill whistle arrested their rush on the instant, and they stopped, growling fiercely, their white teeth menacing, and their eyes red, as with a smouldering fire.
The next moment a different note was blown from a distance, a shrill, chirruping note which made the dogs turn and bark. Then one of them set off at a steady trot, while the other, as if its duty were done, approached Nic in the most friendly way, with its tail waving from side to side.
The whistle chirruped again, and the dog gave vent to a sharp bark, as much as to say, "All right, I'm coming—" and bounded after its companion.
"Well, we're out of that job, Master Nic. I did wonder at that dog coming at you zo fierce."
"Set at me, Pete," said Nic quietly, "and education was stronger than nature. Keep on working now, and pray let me do my hoeing myself."
Pete grunted, and was silent, as he chopped away with his hoe till a horn was blown up at the house, when the tools were shouldered, and, hot and weary, the two companions trudged back to their barrack, to partake of their evening meal together, Humpy Dee and his party sitting quite aloof, for the feud was stronger than ever.
From that day a change seemed to have come over Nic. It was partly due to the feeling of returning health, but as much to his growing belief in Pete's sincerity, and to the conviction that under the fellow's rough shell there was an earnest desire to serve him and help him to escape from his terrible position.
The despondency to which he had given way seemed cowardly now, and as the days rolled on he worked as one works who is determined to make the best of his position. All the same, though, he joined heart and soul with Pete in the plans made for getting away.
Drawn closer together as they were now, the subject was more and more discussed, and in the long talks they had in whispers of a night, they could not help dwelling on the difficulties they would have to encounter even if they did manage to escape.
"But we will, Master Nic; you zee if we don't. They both talk about shooting us, and that zets me up. I don't want to hurt anybody; but when a man zays he's going to fire at me as if I was a wild beast, I don't feel to mind what I do to him. Don't you be downhearted; we shall do it yet."
"But," said Nic, "it is the getting taken in a ship if we manage to find our way to the coast."
"If we find our way? We've on'y to get that boat. The river will show us the way down to the zea; and as to getting away then, all we've got to do is to try and find a ship that wants men."
"They will not take us, Pete; we shall be looked upon as criminals."
"Not if the skipper wants men," said Pete, laughing softly. "Long as a man can work hard, and is strong, and behaves himself, he won't ask any questions."
The time went on, and there seemed to be no likelihood of any captain asking questions; for in spite of keeping a sharp watch, neither Nic nor Pete could obtain the information they wanted. The boat seemed to disappear in the most mysterious way after being used by the settler or his overseer, and Nic grew more and more puzzled, and said so to his companion.
"Yes, it gets over me zometimes, Master," said Pete; "but one has no chance. You see, there's always people watching you. It aren't as if it were on'y the masters and the dogs, and the niggers who are ready to do anything to please old Zaunders; there's old Humpy Dee and the others. Humpy's always on the lookout to do me a bad turn; and he hates you just as much. He's always thinking we're going to get away, and he means to stop it."
"And this all means," said Nic, with a sigh, "that we must be content to stay as we are."
"Don't mean nothing o' the kind," said Pete shortly. "It's a nice enough place, and there's nothing I should like better than staying here a bit, if we could go about the river and swamp and woods, fishing and shooting, and hunting or trapping; but one gets too much zun on one's back, and when it's always chopping weeds with a hoe, and the weeds grow faster than you can chop, one gets tired of it. Pretty country, Master Nic; most as good as home, only zun is a bit too warm."
"That's 'cause you wants to write letters and get 'em sent, Master Nic, I know; but don't you worry 'bout that. You can't send letters here like you do at home, so it aren't no use to worry about what you can't do. Worry 'bout finding the boat, dear lad; that's better than letters."
"I have worried about it," said Nic, "but it is of no use till we get a chance to go and wander about to try and discover where it is kept."
"And that the skipper and old Zaunders won't let us do, you zee," said Pete quietly. "They're a wicked pair, both on 'em. Might let us loose a bit on Zundays; but not they. Zunday and week-days all the zame. They've got us, and they mean to have their penn'orth out on us. Never thought as I should have all my strength turned into sugar for some one else to eat. There, work away; old Humpy's watching us, and he'll go and tell the skipper we're hatching eggs."
Nic smiled, for his companion's good temper and patience were contagious, but he could not repress a sigh from time to time as he thought of home; and the beauty of the country, the waving fields of tasselled Indian-corn or beautiful sugar-cane, with the silver river beyond, the glorious slopes leading up to the distant blue mountains, and the gloomy, green, mysterious attraction of the swampy forest enhancing its attractions to an explorer, did not compensate for the absence of liberty, though Nic was fain to confess that the plantation would have been a glorious place for a few months' visit.
The blacks were not friendly, as Nic soon found; but he attributed it to the stern orders they had received; but now and then one or another made a little advance, by offering, on the sly, fish or flesh in the shape of bird or 'possum which he had caught or trapped during the moonlight nights. For Saunders seemed to pay no heed to the black slaves slipping away of a night on some excursion.
"'Nuff to make a man wish for a kettle o' tar, or a pot o' black paint," said Pete one day. "What for, sir? Just to put on a coat of it, and change the colour of one's skin. They'd treat us better than they do. Makes me wish I was a nigger for a bit, so long as I could wash white when I got away."
"Master Nic," said Pete one night when they were alone in their bunks, "I aren't going to share that bit o' 'possum."
"What bit of 'possum?" asked Nic, as he lay listening to the low murmur arising from where Humpy Dee was talking to his fellow-prisoners, who were all chewing some tobacco-leaf which the former had managed to secrete.
"Why, you know; that bit old Zamson give me, wrapped up in one o' them big leaves."
"Oh yes; I had forgotten. Eat it, then; I don't mind."
"Likely, aren't it?" grumbled Pete. "Good as it smells, for them black fellows do know how to cook a thing brown and make it smell nice. Can't you zee what I mean?"
"Want it for the dogs. I'm going to slip off after that boat as soon as it's a bit later."
"Impossible, Pete. Don't try; you'll be shot at. There is sure to be one of the blacks outside the door with a musket."
"Let him stop there, then. I aren't going by the door."
"Climb up here to where I've got a couple o' them split wooden tiles— shingles, as they call 'em—loose."
"But you can't climb up there."
"Can't I? Oh yes, my lad. There's them knot-holes, and I've got some pegs cut as fits into 'em, ready to stand on. I can get up easy enough."
"But the dogs?"
"Well, I smuggled a knife and sharpened it up, and it's tied to my leg in a sheath I made out of a bit o' bamboo cane."
"But it would be madness to fight the poor brutes, and the noise would bring out Saunders with a gun."
"Just what I thought, my lad," said Pete, laughing softly; "so I went on the other tack this month past."
"I don't understand you, Pete."
"I'll tell you, then, my lad," said Pete softly. "I made up my mind to get you back to the old country, and the on'y way to do it seems to be to make friends."
"That's it. Way that big dog, Gripper, took to you zet me thinking. If he was zet at you he'd lay hold, 'cause he's been taught to obey orders. He wouldn't want to, no more than a soldier might want to shoot a man; but if it was orders he'd do it. Well, I've thought a deal about them dogs, and dogs is dogs—eh, Master Nic?"
"Of course," said the young man, smiling to himself.
"And dogs has got zweet tooths, Master Nic; on'y the sugar they likes is a bit o' salt."
"You mean you wanted that piece of roast 'possum to give the dogs if they came at you."
"That's right, Master Nic. If old Zaunders was shouting 'em on, they wouldn't take no notice of the meat; but if he waren't there they'd be friends at once, and eat it. So I'm ready for 'em if they comes after me."
"And you're going to try if you can find where they keep the boat to-night?"
"Sn-n-n-ork!" said Pete, pinching his arm, and as the deep, low, snoring went on, Nic grasped the reason.
For there was a faint rustling of the dry corn-leaves, which stopped, and went on again in the utter darkness, while beyond it the low murmur of talking continued.
"The talking kept on to cover Humpy's movements," thought Nic. "He has heard us, and is coming to listen."
Pete snored again, moved uneasily, and began to mutter in a low tone:
"Couldn't throw Humpy Dee?" he said. "Let you see. Better wrastler than him. Snore—snurrk!"
The rustling ceased, and then went on again.
"Where's that there moog o' zyder, lads?" muttered Pete in a dull, stupid way. "Where's the huff-cap?"
Then he smacked his lips, and said "Hah!" softly, turned himself over, yawned, and began to snore, keeping it up steadily, while the rustling went on; but it sounded now as if the man who made it was retiring.
Nic listened, with every nerve on the strain, while Pete kept on the snoring, and a minute later he made out clearly enough that Humpy Dee had returned to his companions, and distinctly heard the change in the conversation, as the man whispered the result of his investigation.
Pete's snore was lower now, and sounded as if it would last; but it did not, for the next moment Nic was conscious that his comrade was leaning over him; a pair of lips touched his ear, and a voice whispered:
"He thinks he's clever, but we can be too sharp for him."
"Don't talk any more," whispered Nic softly, "or he'll come back."
"Right," said Pete, and the snoring recommenced. And as Nic lay there in the darkness, thinking over his companion's words, and feeling that it would have been madness to have made any attempt to leave the barrack-like shed, with watchful enemies both within and without, and the certainty in his mind that Humpy Dee's intention was to betray Pete so as to get him flogged for attempting to escape, the snoring went on, with a strange lulling effect. He had toiled hard that day in the burning sunshine, and had lain down after his supper with that pleasant sensation of weariness which comes to the healthy and strong; and he had been feeling a glow of satisfaction and thankfulness for the full recovery of all his faculties, when Pete had spoken as he did. It was not surprising, then, that the heavy breathing of his companion should have the effect it had, and that, just when he was in the midst of pleasant thoughts of the possibility of escape, he should suddenly pass from extreme wakefulness into deep sleep, in which he saw the red cliffs of Devon again, with the sparkling sea, and listened to the soft murmur of the falls low down in the combe. Back home once more.
Then he opened his eyes with a start.
"I've been asleep," he said to himself, as he listened to Pete's heavy breathing; "not for many minutes, though," he mused; and then he wondered and stared, for he could see the cracks and knot-holes of the wooden building against the grey dawn of the rapidly-coming day.
"Why, I must have been asleep for hours and hours!" he mentally ejaculated.
Proof came the next moment that it must have been eight hours at least, for the dull booming bellow of the great conch shell blown by one of the blacks rang out, and Pete started up in his bunk to stare at Nic and rub his calf softly.
"Had a good night, Pete?" said the lad.
"Tidy," said the man softly; "but one o' the dogs had me by the leg."
"What! Surely you didn't go?"
"Ay, but I did. He let go, though, when he smelt the roast meat. Smelt better than raw."
"Pete!" ejaculated Nic, in his surprise.
"Now then, rouse up, all on you," shouted Humpy Dee, "or they'll be sending in the dogs for us, and the cat for some one else."
"Oh," thought Nic, as a pang of agony shot through him; "that wretch must have been on the watch."
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX.
PETE THINKS HE HAS FOUND IT.
In the morning, as the eternal hoeing went on, Pete found his opportunity for telling of his adventures during the night. Humpy Dee had evidently heard nothing.
"Keep at it, Master Nic," he said; "this here stuff's growed up zo that there's no telling when they're coming on to you. It's all right though, now."
"Tell me, then, quickly. You got out?"
"Zure I did. I meant to, and had a good long night of it."
"And you're sure the dog hasn't hurt you much?"
"Nay, on'y a pinch; I had the meat ready to shove in his face, But there aren't much to tell you."
"I was afraid so. We must be patient, Pete, and live on hope."
"Can't live on hope, master. Hope's on'y the salt as makes the rest o' life tasty. Want zome'at else as well. But don't you be down. We've got to get away, and we'll do it afore we've done."
"Then you found out nothing?"
"Oh yes, I did," said Pete dryly. "I found out that it didn't matter which way I went there waren't what I wanted."
"You mean the boat?"
"That's right, master. I went as far as I could get along the river one way, and it waren't there; and I went as far as I could get t'other way, and it waren't there. Old Zam must get in and paddle it right away zomewheres. There now, if I haven't found it after all!"
"What! Where it is hidden?"
"I believe I have; zeemed to turn it over and find it under this here clod I'm breaking up with the hoe. Wish I'd looked when we was aboard."
"Looked at what?"
"Her bottom. She's got a big bung-hole in her zomewhere, and he must pole her along into a deep part, and take the bung out, and let her fill and zink. Then he zinks the painter with a stone."
"But she wouldn't sink, Pete."
"Oh yes, she would, with ballast enough, sir; and all we've got to do now is to find out where she is."
Nic shook his head sadly, for he was not convinced.
"Don't you do that, my lad; that's not the way to get home. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think I'm right, and I dare zay, if we knowed where to look, she's just close handy zomewhere. Zay, Master Nic, s'pose I get old Zamson down and kneel on his chest, and pull out my knife. I could show my teeth and look savage, and pretend I was going to cut his head off if he didn't tell me. That would make him speak—eh?"
"Yes, to Saunders; and you would be punished, and we should be worse off than ever."
"That's about it, sir. I'm afraid I did no good last night."
Pete chopped and broke clods, and muttered to himself in a way which suggested that he was by no means satisfied with his investigations. Then all at once he said:
"What do you zay to our going quietly down to the water some night, dropping in, and zwimming for it?"
"Into the jaws of the great alligators, Pete?"
"Didn't think o' that. Could hear 'em, too, as I walked along. One whacker went off from just under my feet once. I 'most fell over him, and he roared out like a bull calf. I thought he meant my legs. No, we couldn't do that, Master Nic. We must get hold o' that boat. I'll have another try to-night."
"Better not," said Nic. "Some of the others will hear you."
"And old Humpy be on'y too glad to get me in a row. Well, I mean to have it zomehow."
But Pete did not go upon any nocturnal excursion that night. Nature was too much for him. He dropped asleep, and did not wake till the conch shell sounded its braying note; and Nic rose once more to go to his labour in the fields, asking himself if it was not all a dream.
The next time the settler came that way the young man made an appeal to him for permission to send off a letter to some one in authority; but the angry refusal he received, coupled with a stern order to go on with his work, taught him plainly enough not to place any confidence in obtaining his liberty through his employer, so he tried to move the overseer the next time he came by.
Nic fared worse.
"Look here, my lad," said Saunders; "your country said you were better out of it, and we've taken you, and mean to try and make something decent of you. We're going to do it, too."
"But that was all a mistake, sir, as I told you," pleaded Nic.
"And this is a bigger one. Who is to believe your word? Get on with your work, and if you worry me again with your whining I'll shorten your rations, and keep you on the hardest jobs about the plantation."
"It's of no use, Pete," said Nic as soon as he could speak unobserved; "there is nothing to hope for here. We must escape somehow, or else die in trying."
"That's sense, Master Nic, all but the last part. I don't see any fun in dying for ever so long. I'm going out to-night to find that boat, and if I do, next thing is to zave up some prog and be off. There's one thing to do, though, 'fore we start."
"Borrow a couple o' guns and some powder and shot."
"Impossible, Pete. No; I think I could manage it."
"How, my lad? It has bothered me."
"There are two ways. Get at the guns one day when Samson is cleaning them; or else creep to the house some hot night, risk all, and climb in by one of the windows. I think in time I shall know whereabouts they are kept."
"Risk getting zeen and shot?"
"We must risk something, Pete," said Nic quietly. "It is for liberty. I should leave it to the last moment, and get them when the boat was all ready; then, if I were heard there would be somewhere to make for, and once afloat we should be safe. But there, we have not found out where the boat is yet."
"And," said Pete thoughtfully, "there's zomething else we haven't took count of."
"What's that?" said Nic eagerly.
"The dogs, my lad; the dogs!"
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN.
A FIGHT WITH MORPHEUS.
Nic had no faith in his companion's notions about the boat lying sunk in the creek or river; but as the time wore on he could suggest no better idea.
Still, he did find out where the guns were kept one day when, in company with a man of Humpy Dee's party, he was ordered up to help in stowing some bales of tobacco-leaf in a kind of store at the back of the low wooden building.
The work was pretty hard, but Nic hardly felt it, for in going to and fro he had to pass an open door which led into the place used by the settler and Saunders for their dining and sitting room. It was a very rough spot, and the furniture was all home-made—that is to say, it was manufactured by the blacks. But Nic hardly heeded its contents after seeing a series of hooks driven into the wall, and upon each pair a musket, with powder-flask and bullet-pouch attached.
He could think of nothing else as he walked away, for these weapons meant a supply of food if he and Pete took to the woods, and that night he communicated the discovery to his companion.
"It ought to be easy to borrow a couple of them," said Pete quietly—"zome night when the two gaffers are asleep. On'y one thing to hinder it, as I zee, for I don't believe they shut themselves up, feeling as they do that we're under lock and key."
"What is to prevent me creeping in and getting them, Pete?"
"Dogs," said the man quietly. "Now, if we was at home I could walk into Plymouth and go to a druggist's shop, and for twopence buy zomething I knows of as would zend those dogs to sleep till we'd done what we wanted; but there aren't no shops in the woods here."
"And we haven't found the boat, Pete."
"And we haven't found the boat, my lad. But here's a little bit of a tool here I've got for you at last. Better one than mine. One of the blacks had been cutting up zome meat with it yesterday, and left it out on the bench—forgetted all about it—they're good ones at forgetting; and zo I scrambled back and got hold of it, sharpened it up at the point, and made a wooden sheath for it, so as you can wear it in your belt under your shirt."
"A knife!" whispered Nic excitedly as Pete thrust the weapon into his hand. "No; I don't want to shed blood."
"I didn't say it was to kill men with, did I? S'pose one of them dogs had you by the throat, wouldn't it be useful then? or to kill a deer out in the woods? or skin a 'possum? Might even be useful to stick into a 'gator's throat. Better take it, master."
Nic's hand closed upon the handle of the keen blade, and he transferred it to his belt; when, as the hard sheath pressed against his side, he felt that, after all, it was one step towards liberty.
The next morning Pete told him that he had had another good hunt by the river-side, going as far as he dared, but without result.
"And 'twix' you and me, Master Nic, I suppose it's being a bit of a coward, but I dursen't go no more. I aren't afraid o' things you can see; but when you're down by the water o' nights listening to the strange birds making queer noises, and the big bats whuzzing round you, to say nothing of the 'gators walloping about at the edge, and other gashly things zeeming to be lying wait for you, it's a bit too much for me."
"It must be very nervous work, Pete."
"Last night about settled me that we must go right up-country or through the woods, for I trod on a big snake, and felt it twissen round my leg. Ugh! I don't mind a conger, because, even if he bites you, it's on'y a bite, and it gets well; but a snake! Why, they tell me—leastwise one of the blacks did—as a bite from one of the rattlesnakes'll finish you off in 'bout an hour."
"But you were not bitten?"
"S'pose not, and I've been thinking since I must ha' trod on the gashly thing's head. Anyhow it did scare me, and I mean to chop every one I zee while I'm hoeing. I have killed four since we've been here."
"You must not try it again, Pete," said Nic.
"Then we shall have to take to the woods, master, for I don't zee any chance o' getting the boat."
That day, while the two prisoners were hoeing together, the settler came round, stood watching them for a time, and then came nearer and examined their work, saw nothing to complain of, but still being dissatisfied, he turned upon Pete.
"Here, you get chattering too much with this lad," he cried; "be off across to the long corn-field behind the house and join that gang. Work with them, and send black Jupe here to take your place."
"Yes, master," said Pete quietly; and as he shouldered his hoe and the settler walked away, he made an offer at him with the hoe, when one of the dogs growled savagely.
Suspicious of danger, the settler turned sharply, to see Pete slouching away with his eyes on the ground; so, after an angry word or two at the dog, the master went on again, leaving Nic hoeing away, thinking how dreary the days would pass if he were to have no better companionship than that of the black.
Half-an-hour passed before the slave came slowly along the row Nic was hoeing—for the waving growth completely shut them from sight—and upon reaching his fellow-prisoner's side he made a few scrapes with his hoe and then stopped, with his black face shining as he showed his teeth.
"You had better go on with your work," said Nic quietly; "the master will be back."
"Not a day, sah," said the black. "Him going get boat and go up ribber 'long o' Massa Saunder."
Nic looked at the man sharply as he uttered the word boat. Wouldn't it be possible to hear from him where the boat was kept?
"Berry hot. Take four boy row de boat, and tell Sam and Zerks load de gun and shoot ebbery white body who done work."
"Ah!" said Nic.
"Dat so, sah," said the man, laughing. "No shoot black fellow."
He said no more, but went on chopping away in the hot sunshine far faster than Nic could manage, and the intense heat did not seem to affect him. For it was so hot that the prisoner felt exhausted, early as it was in the day, the tall growth around keeping off the breeze.
But he worked away, with the perspiration streaming down his face, thinking what an opportunity this would be for taking to the woods or the open country, but with his heart sinking as he dwelt upon the possibility of Humpy Dee and the others fighting against such a plan from pure malice. And besides, Pete was not there to discuss the matter. There were the armed blacks, too, and the dogs.
Nic went to the end of his row, turned, and worked away back, forgetful of his black companion, till he was half-way along the return row, when a peculiar sound startled him, and stepping aside among the canes, his heart gave a big throb, for the black seemed to have fallen from exhaustion. The next minute he smiled, for he realised that the man was fast asleep.
And how hot it was! Nic's throat was dry, his tongue parched, while only some three hundred yards from where he toiled there was the green band of cane and reed jungle, and just beyond that the bright, cool waters of the river.
Oh, if he could only be where he could lie down and take one long, deep draught!
The thought of it increased his thirst.
Well, why not? The black had shown him that there was no danger. Their tyrants had started in the boat by now, or the idle rascal would not have lain down so coolly to sleep, and this terrible thirst—
"Oh, I must go and have a drink," muttered Nic wearily; and then, laying down his hoe, he walked swiftly to the end of the row, turned at right angles along by the ditch which divided the field from the next field, and, satisfied that he could not be seen from the house, kept on and on, startled more than once by the rustle of a gliding snake, till the narrow patch of jungle was reached, and he plunged into it, to force his way along to the edge of the river.
The reeds and dense water-growth ended suddenly, and he was about to peer out, up and down, to make sure that he was not seen, thinking the while of how easy escape seemed, when he drew back and stood watching with starting eyes.
But it was not at the alligator six feet long which lay between him and the gliding river, nor yet at that other, a dozen yards away, sunning itself at the surface of the water; but at the black woolly head of a swimmer nearly at the other side, making easily and well for the mouth of an overhung creek nearly opposite to where Nic crouched, and quite regardless of the dangerous reptiles which might be near.
The feeling of thirst died out as Nic watched, seeing that there was a way of escape after all by the river; for if that man dared trust himself to swim in open daylight to the other side, surely he and Pete might venture, even if the place did swarm with reptiles?
Nic's heart beat with a strange feeling of satisfaction. Here, then, was one of his unfortunate companions taking advantage of the master's absence to escape. Why was not Pete there to join him, and they might all get away together?
In another minute Nic would have been on his way back to try and get speech with Pete, and tell him what he had seen. He might, he thought, elude Samson's watchfulness, when, to his astonishment, the man reached the farther shore, stepped out, and shook himself, when Nic felt that he must be dreaming, for it was Samson himself.
The next minute Nic saw him plunge into the thick growth overhanging the narrow creek and disappear.
"Left his musket behind because he felt doubtful about getting it across," thought Nic, and once more he was about to hurry back, when a strange rustling sound caught his ear, followed by the rattle as of a pole; and directly after the mystery of the boat's hiding-place was laid bare, for it glided out from among the waving canes, and there was Samson standing upright, dipping the pole first on one side, then on the other, sending the boat across as it glided down with the stream, passed the watcher, and evidently was being directed for the other creek.
"Poor old Pete, how glad he'll be!" thought Nic. "That's it, plain enough; kept over there because they think no one would dare to swim across; but we dare."
"Dare we?" said Nic to himself the next minute, as he saw an unusually large alligator make a swirl in the water and dart by; and he shuddered as the thought occurred to him that, though the reptiles might not touch the blacks, with a white man it might mean something very different.
"Ugh! you little beast," he muttered, as there was a rustle in the moist patch of jungle, and he caught sight of the loathsome blunt muzzle of what looked like a monstrous eft staring hard at him, not a couple of yards distant.
A quick movement sent the reptile scuffling away; then there was a splash, and forgetful entirely of his thirst, Nic hurried back, feeling a lingering doubt as to whether the settler or his overseer might not have been to the field during his absence, as they were certainly not gone.
But upon reaching the place where he had left his hoe, there it lay with the handle too hot to hold, and the slave close at hand, shining and happy, fast asleep, with his mouth open, and the red lips attracting the flies, as if it were some huge ugly red blossom from which they might sip.
That day seemed as if it would never come to an end. But at sunset the conch shell was blown, and the black started up, just as Nic straightened his weary back, and came slowly towards him down the row he had hoed.
"Um tink um been fass 'sleep, sah," said the black, grinning. "You tell Mass' Saunder? No, you not tell um, and me shut de eye nex' time you go 'sleep."
"I shan't tell tales," said Nic good-humouredly. "But I say, do you ever think about running away?"
"Run away? What for? No use run away. Set dogs to catch you 'gain. An' if dogs not catch um, where run to? Plantations all alike."
"To you," thought Nic. "Yes; where could he run to—back to Africa? What then? Only to be caught and sold again. Poor wretch! Worse off than I. There is no pleasant Devon for him to reach, as we must and will reach it some day. Yes, there are slaves far worse off than I. What can the dear old dad have thought when he found me gone? There is only one answer to that," said Nic, with a weary sigh—"that I was drowned in the pool struggle and swept out to sea."
The next minute Pete came into sight, and their eyes met, Nic giving the man so long and intent a look that he did not see Humpy Dee watching him, only that Pete's face worked a little, as if he grasped the fact that his companion had some news to impart.
But they had no chance of communicating then, for Samson and Xerxes were ready to count them as they went up to their shed; the dogs looking on and trotting about busily, as if helping two black shepherds by rounding up their flock.
It was hard work to eat that night, and the evening meal seemed more than ever to resemble a mash prepared for fattening cattle such as they seemed to be.
But Nic felt that food meant strength when the time for escaping came, and he forced himself to devour his portion as if ravenously.
The night soon came there, and they were locked up once more, Nic eagerly waiting for the chance to tell all he knew.
As he lay in his bunk listening, it was evident, from the low, guarded tone in which their companions talked, that they were in ignorance of the fact that their masters were absent, and all was very still outside, till one of the men spoke out angrily. Then a bang on the door from the butt of a musket, followed by a burst of deep-toned barking, told plainly enough that proper precautions were taken, Samson's voice coming loudly and hoarsely with an order to keep quiet and lie down before he had to shoot.
"But there's light ahead," thought Nic; and he waited till he thought he could communicate his news to Pete; but, to his disgust, the deep, low breathing close at hand told that he was asleep.
"Worn out with his weary toil last night," thought Nic. "Well, I'll keep watch to-night until he wakes, and tell him then."
But hour after hour went sluggishly by, with the watcher trying to think out the plan by which they could escape in the easiest way.
In spite of the excitement produced by the knowledge that a door was open by which they could get away, there was a hindrance to his thoughts coming clearly. That long day's toil in the burning sun made his plans run together till they were in a strange confusion; and at last he was swimming the river to reach the boat, when a dozen of the reptiles which haunted the water seemed to be tugging at him to drag him down, barking fiercely the while. Then he started up, to find that he had been fast asleep, and that the dogs were barking loudly because of their master's return.
"What's the row about?" Nic heard Humpy Dee growl.
"Then I was right," said another of the men. "The gaffers have been off somewhere, and have just come back. I thought so, because neither of them showed up in the fields after quite early."
"Why didn't you tell me?" growled Humpy; and he whispered to his companions very earnestly.
Just then the voices of the settler and the overseer were heard talking to Samson; the dogs came smelling about the door, and the sentry spoke loudly to them to get away. Then by degrees all grew silent again, and a rustling sound told Nic that Pete was moving in his bunk.
"Couldn't help it, lad," he whispered; "I was zo worn out, I went off fast. You've got zome'at to tell me?"
"I knowed it; but if I'd had to save my life I couldn't ha' kep' my eyes open. What is it?"
Nic told him, whispering earnestly in his excitement.
"What a vool—what a vool!" whispered Pete. "On'y to think o' me never thinking o' that. Then it's all right, Master Nic. We can just get together enough prog to last us, borrow the guns, pick out the night that zuits us, and then go quietly off."
"But would you dare to swim across the river—the alligators?"
"Yes," said Pete; "if they was twice as big; and if they touch me—well, they'll find out what an edge and point I've given my knife. It's all right, Master Nic, and I'm glad it's you as found out the way."
"Hist!" whispered Nic, laying a hand on the man's mouth.
For there was a rustling not far from where they lay; and Nic felt as if a hand were catching at his throat, for the thought came to thrill him through and through that Humpy Dee had crept nearer to hear what, in their eager excitement, they had said; and if he had heard—
Pete put it this way:
"If he knows, the game's at an end."
Nic slept little more that night; not that he and Pete talked again about their plans, but because his brain was full of the momentous question:
Had their treacherous companion heard?
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT.
THE TIME AT LAST.
It was nervous work during the next few days, neither Nic nor Pete daring to take any step towards making their escape, for the feeling was strong upon both that they were in their enemy's hands, and that he was only waiting his time before betraying them to the overseer.
"That's his way, Master Nic, and it always was. Once he had a grudge agen a man he'd never forgive him," said Pete one night, "and he'd wait his chance to serve him out. I never liked Humpy, and he never liked me; zo, after all, it was six o' one and half-a-dozen o' the other."
"I can't help thinking that we are worrying ourselves about nothing, Pete," replied Nic. "It's a case of the guilty conscience needing no accuser."
"That it aren't, sir," said the man sturdily. "I aren't going to believe you've got any guilty conscience, and there aren't nothing worse on mine than a bit o' zalmon."
Nic smiled in the darkness, and Pete went on:
"Well, if you think like that, Master Nic, let's risk it. Old Humpy's cunning enough, but p'raps two heads'll be better than one, and we can beat him. What do you zay to trying, then?"
"Anything is better than this terrible suspense, Pete," said Nic. "I did manage to bear my fate before, but the thought now of that boat lying ready to carry us down the river is too much for me, and there are moments when I feel as if I must say to you, 'Come on; let's run down to the river and dash in, risking everything.'"
"What! and them zee us go, Master Nic?"
"Yes; I am getting desperate with waiting."
"Wouldn't do, my lad. They'd chivvy us, them and the blacks and Humpy and t'others. Why, bless you, nothing old Humpy would like better."
"I'm afraid so."
"That's it, zir, whether you're 'fraid or whether you bean't. And s'posing we got the boat, what then, zir? Them seeing us and going along by the bank shooting at us."
"We might lie down, Pete."
"Yes; and they'd send in half-a-dozen niggers to zwim to the boat and bring it ashore. What do you say to that, zir?"
"That I'm half-mad to propose such a thing," replied Nic.
"Talk lower, zir. I can't hear old Humpy; but let's be on the lookout."
"Better give up all thought of getting away," said Nic despondently.
"Bah! Never zay die, Master Nic. Why, there's the old place at home seeming to hold out its finger to us, beckoning-like, and zaying 'Come,' and once I do get back, you'll never ketch me meddling with no one's zalmon again. But look here, zir, we thought it all out before, and I don't see as we can better it."
"I feel hopeless, Pete."
"And I feel as if I've got 'nough o' that stuff in me for both. Wish we could be hoeing together again, so as we could talk it over."
"I wish so too, Pete."
"It aren't half so pleasant hoeing along with the blacks as it is with you, zir."
"Thank you, Pete," said Nic, smiling to himself.
"I aren't got nought agen 'em. They can't help having black skins and them thick lips, and they're wonderful good-tempered. Just big children, that's what they are. Fancy a man being a zlave and ready to zing and dance 'cause the moon zhines, ready to go out hunting the coons and 'possums as if there was nothing the matter."
"It's their nature to be light-hearted," said Nic.
"Light-hearted, zir? Why, there's one o' the gang along with me as allus seems as if you were tickling him. Only to-day he drops hisself down and rolls about in the hot sun, and does nothing but laugh, just because he's happy. Why, I couldn't laugh now if I tried."
"Wait, Pete; perhaps you may again some day."
"I want to laugh to-morrow night, zir."
"When we've got a couple o' guns aboard that boat, and we're going down the river," whispered Pete excitedly. "I can laugh then."
"We couldn't do it, Pete."
"We could, zir, if we zaid we would."
"There is the risk of that man watching us and telling."
"He'd better!" growled Pete. "Look here, zir; let's have no more shilly-shallying. Say you'll go to-morrow night, and risk it."
"Why not wait for a good opportunity?"
"'Cause if we do it mayn't never come."
"But food—provisions?" said Nic, whose heart was beginning to throb with excitement.
"Eat all we can to-morrow, and chance what we can get in the woods, or go without a bit. I'd starve two days for the sake of getting away. Will you risk it, zir?"
For answer Nic stretched out his hand and grasped Pete's, having his own half-crushed in return.
"That settles it, then," whispered Pete hoarsely. "Zave a bit of bread-cake if you can. May come in useful. To-morrow night, then."
"Are you two going to keep on talking till to-morrow morning?" growled a deep voice. "Zum on us want a bit o' sleep. Look here, mates; I'm going to speak to the gaffer to-morrow, to ax if them two chatterin' old women can't be put somewheres else."
Nic turned cold, and Pete uttered a deep sigh, for if this were done they would, he knew, have to begin making their plans again.
But hope cheered them both as the next day dawned and passed on without incident. Humpy Dee's was evidently only an empty threat, and as evening drew on Nic's excitement increased, and with it came a sensation of strength such as he had not enjoyed for months.
It was as if his companion had endowed him with a portion of his own elastic temperament, and success was going to attend their efforts. All the weary despondency had passed away, and in imagination Nic saw the boat floating down the river towards the sea, where, hope whispered, it must be very easy to find some British ship whose captain would be ready to listen to their unhappy story, and let them hide on board till he set sail, and then let them work their passage home. "For," argued Nic now in his excitement, "no Englishman could be so hardhearted as to refuse help to a white slave."
He saw nothing of Pete after they had started for their day's work, their duties taking them to different parts of the plantation; but that was no more than he expected, and he toiled away with his hoe, telling himself that this was the last time he would handle it, for they would— they must—escape; and he wondered now that he could have hesitated so long, and have let the notion that Humpy Dee was quietly trying to undermine them act like a bugbear.
One thing was difficult, though, and that was to eat heartily in readiness for what might be a long fast. Nic ate all he could force down, however, and hid away the rest. But how long that hot day seemed, before the darkness closed in and the strange sounds began to rise from the woods and river!
Never had all these sounded so loudly before; and when at last Nic lay down in his rustling bunk, and the place had been locked and the black sentry placed at the door, it seemed to the listener as if the great goat-suckers were whirring about just outside, and the bull-frogs had come in a body to the very edge of the woods and up the ditches of the plantation to croak.
Humpy Dee and his companions were talking together; the black sentry yawned, and began to hum an air to himself; and soon after the voices of the settler and the overseer passed, discussing some plan in connection with the crops; but Nic did not hear either of the dogs bark, neither did the one which had shown friendliness towards him come snuffling about the entrance of the low shed.
"Why doesn't Pete say something?" thought Nic, who began to wonder at the silence of his companion, not a word having passed since they met at the rough supper; and now, for the first time that day, Nic's heart sank a little, for it seemed to him that his fellow-plotter had shrunk from the risks they would have to encounter—risks which might mean being shot at, worried by the dogs, dragged down by the alligators to a horrible death, perhaps fever and starvation in the swamp, or being drowned at sea, if they reached the river's mouth, and were swept away by one of the fierce currents along the shore.