It meant waiting two hours at least before they could begin their attempt; but still Nic wanted to get rid of the oppression which troubled him, and to feel that they really were going to make their escape; but the murmuring of their companions' voices went on, and still Pete made no sign.
At last Nic could contain himself no longer. He was all eagerness now; and, if they were not going to make the attempt, he wanted to know the worst. He spoke in a whisper:
"Phew! how hot—how hot!" muttered the man.
"Pete!" whispered Nic again.
"I wish you wouldn't keep on talking," said Pete loudly. "You know how it set them grumbling last night."
Nic drew a deep breath through his teeth, as he lay there in the hot, oppressive darkness. They were not going, then. It was the way with a man of Pete's class to pick a quarrel upon some other subject when he wanted to find an excuse and back out of an arrangement.
"Ay, you had a narrow escape on it," said one of the men surlily. "Old Humpy was pretty nigh going to the gaffer to-day."
"It's all over," thought Nic, as a feeling of bitterness ran through him. Only four-and-twenty hours earlier he had been ready to give up and accept his position. Then Pete had touched the right chord in his nature, and roused him up to a readiness to run any risk, and make a brave dash for liberty; while now the man seemed to have shrunk back into his shell, and to be completely giving up just when the call was about to be made upon his energies.
At another time Nic might have argued differently; but, strung up as he had been, his companion's surly indifference was crushing, and it seemed that the wild, exciting adventures of the night were to give place to a cowardly, sordid sleep.
"If anything big is to be done, one must depend upon one's-self," thought Nic at last; and, angry with the whole world, bitter at his own helplessness, as he felt how mad it would be to attempt the venture alone, he turned over in his bunk, throwing out one hand in the movement, and it came in contact with Pete's, to be gripped fast.
In an instant the blood was dancing through his veins, and a choking sensation as of impending suffocation troubled him; the arteries in his temples beat painfully, and he lay breathing hard.
For it was to be after all, and this conduct was his companion's way of showing him that it was better to lie in silence, waiting till the time arrived for commencing their task.
Nic lay there listening to the low murmur of his fellow-prisoners' voices and the chorus of strange sounds from the forest and river; and in the stillness of the night, every now and then, a faint splash came plainly to where he lay, sending a thrill through him, as he thought that, if all went well, before very long he might be swimming across the river, running the gauntlet of the horrible-looking reptiles, and his left hand stole down to his belt to grasp the handle of the sharpened knife, while he wondered whether the skin of the alligators would be horny or tough enough to turn the point.
How long, how long it seemed before all was perfectly still in the long, low shed, and not a sound could be heard outside but the faint humming noise made by the black sentry!
Then all at once there were steps.
Some one had come up, and in a low whisper Nic heard the words:
Then the steps passed away again, and Pete gripped Nic's hand as he lay straining his hearing to try and ascertain whether the overseer had entered the house; but the barking or croaking of reptiles was the only sound.
Another hour must have passed, and then Nic's blood rushed through his veins, for a hand touched his again lightly, and seemed to seek for the other. Directly after he felt a hot breath upon his face, and lips to his ear, uttering the one word:
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE.
FOR LIFE AND LIBERTY.
Before Nic Revel's mental sight the difficulties rose like a great black rock, but he did not shrink. He rose softly from his bunk, striving hard to keep the corn-stalks from crackling, and felt Pete as the man took a couple of steps from his sleeping-place and stood with his face to the back of the shed.
Then, in the midst of a very faint rustling, Nic knew that his companion had thrust a couple of pegs into the knot-holes in the stout planks, and raised himself by hand and foot till he could softly draw the wooden shingles of the roof aside, and the cool, moist air of the night came down. Then for a moment or two Nic saw a bright star, which was blotted out by something dark as the faint rustling continued.
Nic turned to listen, but all was well within the shed. He could hear the deep breathing of sleepers, and the low humming song of the sentry outside the door.
"How long will it be?" thought Nic, who was trembling with excitement; but the suspense was soon over. All at once there was a dull sound, such as might be made by two bare feet alighting on the earth outside, and he knew that his turn had come.
He was lightly enough clothed, merely in short-sleeved, striped cotton shirt, and breeches which did not reach the knee, and his feet were bare, so that there was nothing to hinder his efforts as he reached up till he could place one foot upon the first peg. Then, seeking for the other, he seized it in his hand, and drew himself into a standing position upon the first, reached up to the rafters, drew himself farther up till he could rest his foot on the second peg and pass his head and shoulders through the hole in the roof; then, resting a hand on either side, he drew his legs through, turned and lowered himself down, and dropped upon the ground almost without a sound.
It was intensely dark, but every step was familiar enough, and there was no need for words: their plans had been too well made. But as they moved off towards the house, one thought was in both minds as presenting the greatest obstacle they had to dread:
Where were the dogs? If loose, and their approach were heard, the great brutes would set up a fierce baying directly, preliminary to a savage attack; and then—
They neither of them cared to reckon more in advance than that, and went softly on, to receive proof directly that the dogs were not loose, for there came from the back of the house the rattle of a chain being drawn over wood, followed by a low, muttering growl, as if one of the animals was uneasy.
This ceased directly; and, treading cautiously, Nic went straight up to the front of the building, feeling as if, at any moment, he might see the flash of a musket and hear its roar.
But the place was dark and still, and the croaking and other sounds which came in chorus were quite loud enough to drown their light footsteps as they approached.
The door was closed, but the two long, low windows in the veranda proved to be open; and, as Nic approached the one upon his right and listened, he could distinctly hear the heavy breathing of a sleeper. He drew cautiously back, to come in contact with Pete, who was taken by surprise at the sudden movement made.
Then they stood with hearts thumping against their ribs, feeling certain that they must have been heard; but not a sound followed. After waiting nearly a minute, a fresh movement was made, Nic stepping softly to the window on his left, the perspiration streaming down his face, for the heat was intense.
He listened here, with Pete close behind, but all was still, the window wide open to admit the air; and he knew that all he had to do was to pass softly in, take down a couple of the guns, passing one out at a time through the window to Pete, beat a retreat, and then all would be as easy as possible. It was only cool, quiet action—that was all; but Nic for a time could not move, only stand there, breathing heavily, in the full expectation of hearing his companion say something to urge him on.
Pete did not stir: he felt that he must trust to his companion's common-sense, and leave him to act as was best.
Then the power to act seemed to come, and Nic softly grasped the window-sill, passed one leg in, then the other, and stood upon the bare floor, fully expecting to hear a bullet whiz past his head, even if it did not strike.
But he could hear nothing; the house might have been unoccupied; and, drawing a deep breath, he acted quickly now, turned to his left, raised his hands, and pressed forward till they touched one of the weapons hanging upon the wall.
A sudden feeling of elation now came over him, for it all seemed to be so astonishingly easy, as he stepped softly to the window to pass out a musket with its flask and pouch, feeling it taken from his hand directly.
The next minute he was in front of the other pieces, and took down a second musket, felt that the flask and pouch were attached to it, and, with his pulses hard at work, he was about to make for the window when every drop of blood in his veins seemed to stand still. For there was a sharp, angry oath, a quick start, and the overseer, who had been sleeping upon a rough couch, rose to a sitting position.
It was too dark for Nic to make out anything more than a shadowy figure within ten feet of him; and he stood as if petrified, holding the musket, meaning to use it as a club at the first attack; one which seemed to be strangely deferred, for the figure sat as if staring at him in astonishment.
How long this pause lasted it is impossible to say, but to the intruder it seemed like minutes before he heard a faint rustling movement as if the overseer was about to lie down again.
"He can't see me," thought Nic. "It is too dark."
Then his heart seemed to stand still again, as the horrible thought occurred that the rustling meant getting something out of a pocket, and that something must be a pistol.
Instinct taught the listener that to save his life he must spring at his enemy before he could take aim, and, nerving himself for a leap forward to dash the musket he held upon the man's face, he was almost in the act of bounding across the room when there was a low gurgling sound, and his nerves and muscles relaxed, for he realised the fact—the overseer had awoke suddenly from some nightmare-like dream, and it was no pistol he had taken out, but a flask of spirits.
It was plain enough now—the gurgling of the flask, the smack of the lips in the darkness, and the long, satisfied breath taken, before the bottle was replaced and its owner sank back upon his couch.
In another minute the breathing had grown deeper and sounded stertorous; and, without pausing longer, Nic stepped to the window, handed out the gun, and felt it taken quickly from his hands.
Just then there was a faint muttering which almost paralysed Nic, who turned to meet an attack; but none came, and in another instant or two he had slipped out of the window and was following Pete, who had handed back one gun, with the warning to beware of the dogs.
Pete's stooping figure was just visible as Nic followed, him in silence till they were about a hundred yards away, making for the spot where the boat was hidden, when one of the dogs barked loudly.
"Mustn't stop to load," whispered Pete. "Let's get to the water, and then they can't take up the scent."
They hurried on, listening the while; but the dog quieted down again; and with his spirits rising, Nic closed up alongside of his companion.
"That was a near touch, master," whispered Pete. "I waited ready to jump in and help you, for I zomehow thought it was too dark in there for him to zee you, and you hadn't made any noise. Lucky for him he lay down again."
Nic made no reply, but he thought a great deal; and no more was said till they had crossed a couple of the great fields and knew by the sounds they heard that they must be close to the long, low band of reedy growth which ran by the river-side.
"You lead now, my lad," whispered Pete. "Get as nigh as you can to where you think the creek is on the other side."
"It is so dark," whispered Nic; "but I think we are right."
He went to the front, assailed by a horrible doubt now that he had taken the wrong way, and was some distance farther up the river; but, as he bent down to part the low growth, to peer through over the dark water, there was a scuffle and a splash, telling of some reptile taking flight, and he shrank back.
But he hardly heeded it, for he had dimly made out a solitary tree across the river, some eighty or a hundred yards away, which he had marked down for bearings.
"This is the place, Pete," he whispered. "If you stand here and look across, the creek is a little way up to the right."
"That is good, my lad; I was beginning to be feared that we should have to wait for daylight, and be missed. Now then, take my gun and the tackle, and while I'm gone you load both on 'em."
"While you are gone?" whispered Nic excitedly. "You are not going; I know the way, and I'll fetch the boat."
"That you don't, Master Nic," said the man sturdily. "That there water's full o' them great brutes, and one of 'em might pull you down."
"I know it is; and one of them might pull you down."
"He'd be zorry for it if he did, for I'd zoon zend my knife through his carcass. It's my job, zir, and I'm going."
"I tell you I know just where it is, and I'm going to fetch it."
"That you aren't, zir. I won't have you risk it."
"Then we'll swim the river together, Pete."
"And what about the guns?"
"Leave them on the bank, and come back and fetch them."
"Never find 'em again in the darkness and hurry, my lad. Now, do be zensible."
"I'm master, and I order you to stay."
"Which you aren't master, zir, for we're both zlaves, and if you talk so loud you'll be bringing down the dogs and I'm off."
Almost before Nic could realise it, Pete had slipped across the narrow space, lowered himself into the water, and swum away, leaving his companion horrified at the sounds he heard. For directly after the man had struck out there was a tremendous wallowing splash, which Nic felt certain had been caused by some monstrous reptile; and he crouched there grasping the guns, with a chilly perspiration breaking out over his brow.
It was some minutes before he thought of the loading, and when he did he could not follow out his instructions for listening and staring across the dark, gliding water, which was full of life, startling him with the belief that Pete had been attacked when some louder splash than usual came from the direction the man had taken. Then the horrible thought came that the poor fellow had been seized the moment he plunged in, and that that loud wallowing noise was when he was dragged underneath. For, though he listened so hard, there was nothing to prove that his comrade was still swimming across the river; and his heart sank at the thought of what would be a most horrible death.
Everything served to depress him more as he crouched there in the enforced inaction; he could hear rustlings in the low water-growth as of reptiles creeping along, the splashes in the river, and all about him the croaking, hooting, and barking of the nocturnal creatures which made the place their home; while, as if these were not sufficient, there was the dread of pursuit, with their enemies hounding on the savage dogs, which might spring upon him at any moment.
"Not without giving notice, though," he said to himself. "What a nervous coward all this has made me! Why, the hounds would begin to bay as soon as they took up the scent."
He listened again; but all was still save a splash or two, and he bitterly repented that they had not thought of some signal—a whistle or the like—to give warning that the river had been successfully crossed.
"He would do it," thought Nic, trying to be firm. "He is a splendid swimmer. Why, it was wonderful what I believe he did when he tried to save me—in irons, too."
Nic paused for a few moments longer to listen to the splashing which went on; and then, recalling once more his companion's words, he prepared to load the muskets.
But the first he tried proved to be loaded, and, on replacing the ramrod and opening the pan, he found the priming all right. The next proved to be in the same condition; and, once more laying the pieces down, he crouched with his ear near the water to listen to the lapping and splashing which went on. But there was nothing that he could interpret to mean the movement of an oar or pole on a boat, and his heart began to sink again lower and lower, till wild thoughts arose about his companion's fate.
He would not give harbour to the suggestion that he had been dragged down by the reptiles, but fancied that the boat might be securely padlocked, or that Pete had got it out, and, not knowing the force of the stream, had been swept away past where he should have landed, and with so big and heavy a boat he might not be able to get back. If this were the case Pete would escape, and he would have to go back to his prison.
"No, he would not forsake me," muttered Nic, with a strange glow about his heart as he thought of the man's fidelity to his cause; and he had just come to this conclusion when he heard a rustling behind him as of some creature creeping up. It was forgotten, though, the next moment, for unmistakably there was the sound of an oar whishing about in the water, as if someone had it over the stern and, fisherman fashions was sculling the boat towards the bank.
Then for a moment Nic was doubtful, for the sound ceased.
"It was one of the alligators," he muttered through his teeth, "and the poor fellow—"
There was a faint chirrup off the river, and once more Nic's heart beat wildly as he answered the signal. Then the sculling began again, the rustling was repeated somewhere behind where Nic crouched, and he felt for the muskets to take them up.
"Whatever it is, I shall be aboard in a moment or two," he thought, with a strangely wild feeling of exultation; for he heard the oar drawn in, the head of the boat suddenly appeared close at hand, and it was run into the muddy, reedy bank a couple of yards away, while Pete leaped ashore with the painter.
"Now!" cried a loud voice, when, with a rush, half-a-dozen men sprang upon them from the bed of reeds and a fierce struggle began.
MAKING FRIENDS OF ENEMIES.
The struggle was very fierce but short. Nic fought his best, and, in spite of the excitement, wondered at his strength. He was encouraged, too, by Pete, whom he heard raging and tearing about; and, hard pressed as he was, he yet had a thought for his companion.
"Never mind me, Master Nic," he shouted. "Zwim for it—the boat. Never mind me."
Then his voice was smothered, and there was the sound of a heavy fall, but the struggle went on.
"Hold on!" came the voice of the overseer, giving his orders; and then that of the settler:
"Give in, you scoundrels!" he raged out. Then fiercely, "Hold their heads under water, boys, if they don't give in."
"All done now, sah," panted Samson, with his lips close to Nic's head, for he was across his prisoner's chest, and a couple of the blacks were holding his legs.
"Yes, we must give up, Master Nic," cried Pete. "I've got five loads o' black stuff sitting on me."
"Have you your whip with you, Saunders?" cried the settler.
"No, sir; I wish I had. But it is hanging by the door, and we can give them a better taste by daylight."
"You use it on him," roared Pete fiercely, "and I'll kill you."
"Silence, you scoundrel!" cried the settler, "or I'll have you gagged as well as ironed. I warned you both of what would happen if you tried to escape."
"Lucky for them I let loose the black dogs instead of the brown," cried the overseer. "We should not have had the trouble of taking them back. Tie their hands behind their backs, Samson, and have the irons ready as soon as we get to the house."
"Got no rope, sah."
"What!" cried the settler. "Why didn't you bring some, you black fool?"
"No time, sah," said the black humbly. "Soon as dat ugly ruffyum, Humpy, come knock at door and say dey 'scape, Zerk call me quite sharp, an' I come tell you, and dey fetch de boy and have 'em back. Me no t'ink 'bout no rope, sah; on'y t'ink dey go swim for de boat and catch 'em first."
"Quite right," said the settler more calmly. "There, one of you go in front of each man, and two others take fast hold of a wrist on each side. Cock your pistols, Saunders."
There was a sharp clicking sound.
"Walk behind that big scoundrel, and if he makes the slightest attempt to escape send a bullet through him. I'll look after this one. Pity we didn't stop to loose the dogs. Ready?"
"Iss, sah," came from Samson, as Nic felt a strong hand like a live handcuff upon each wrist.
"Lead on, then."
"You be very careful, please, massa; no make mistake and shoot dis boy."
"Oh yes, I'll take care."
The march back began, and at the second step Nic felt that a cold ring of iron had been pressed between his shoulders—the pistol-muzzle resting upon his skin where the shirt had been torn down from neck to waist.
He could not suppress a shiver, for the heat and passion of the struggle had passed away, leaving him weary, aching, and depressed.
But in a few minutes the pistol-muzzle was withdrawn, it being awkward for the holder to walk over the rough ground and keep it there; and the prisoner marched on between his black warders as patiently as Pete in front, thinking perhaps the same ideas.
For he felt that they had not taken warning by the hints they had received. Humpy Dee had been on the watch, and, in his malignity, let them get away before giving notice to the sentry, that they might be caught, ironed, and flogged, or perhaps meet their death in the struggle.
But Nic had yet to find that Humpy Dee's designs were deeper than this.
The walk back was not long enough for a hundredth part of the bitter thoughts that crowded into Nic Revel's brain; neither would they have got a hearing had the distance been a thousand times the length, on account of the one dominant horror which filled his brain: "Will they flog us?—will they flog us?" That question was always repeating itself, and, when the prisoner heard Pete utter a low groan, he was convinced that the poor fellow was possessed by similar thoughts.
Only so short a time before that they had left their quarters, and now they were back in the darkness, their plans crushed, and only the punishment to look forward to.
"Now, Sam, be sharp with a couple of lanthorns and those irons," cried the overseer.
"Prisoners been quiet?" whispered the settler to the sentry.
"Iss, sah, berry quiet; all fass asleep;" and the man let his musket fall down upon the ground with an ominous thud as, in obedience to an order, he unlocked the shed-door and lowered the huge bar before drawing it open.
"Now then," muttered the overseer, "how long is he going to be with that lanthorn? Here, in with them, boys; but don't loose your hold till I tell you."
Nic and Pete were hurried on; and, as soon as they were inside, the settler and his lieutenant stood in the doorway, pistol in hand, while Nic's face was involuntarily turned in the direction of the corner where Humpy Dee's bunk lay, in the full expectation of hearing some bantering sneer.
But the man made no sign, and directly after the pad, pad of Samson's feet was heard, and a faint light threw up the figures of those at the doorway. Then Samson's big black face appeared, lit up by the lanthorns he swung, one in each hand.
"I take in de light, sah, and den go fetch de irons?"
"Yes; look sharp," cried Saunders.
He made way for the black to pass, and the man raised one of the lanthorns to hang it upon a hook. He did not do this, but raised the other lanthorn and hurriedly took a few steps in the direction of the bunks, to begin shouting directly:
"Hyah!" he cried, "whar dem oder white fellow? You, Zerk, what you go and done wid de oder man?"
"What!" roared the settler and the overseer in a breath as they rushed forward, pistol in hand.
"All gone, sah," cried Samson, beginning to tremble.
"Bah! you 'most fass 'sleep," cried Xerxes, who had come in at the call of his companion; "dey all tuck under de corn-'talk."
"You black idiot!" roared the overseer, turning upon the sentry so savagely that the man's knees began to knock together; he let go his hold of his musket, and it fell on the floor with a thud, followed by a flash and an explosion, while the man escaped a knockdown blow by ducking.
"Here, quick!" cried the settler, who had seized one of the lanthorns from Samson and convinced himself that the other prisoners had taken advantage of the hole made by Pete, and, as soon as the chase began, climbed quietly out in turn. "All of you follow. Pick up that musket and load it again, you black fool!"
"No 'top clap irons on dese two, sah?" cried Samson.
"No. Here, Saunders, fetch another musket. Samson, you and Nero guard these two while we're gone; and if you let them escape I'll shoot you."
"No, no," said Saunders quickly; "I'll manage them. We want all our men. Here, Sam; go and let loose the dogs."
"But these two?" cried the settler impatiently.
"Well, the dogs will watch them."
"We want them, man, to track the other scoundrels."
"We can do that ourselves. They followed us, for a hundred pounds, and have taken the boat by now."
The settler uttered a furious oath and stamped his foot.
"Sharper than we are," he roared. "Yes, that is right."
Just then the dogs, newly set at liberty, came bounding up, followed by Samson; and the overseer went up to the two prisoners.
"There, lie down in your kennels," he snarled. "We shall not be long, and it depends upon yourselves whether we find you when we come back. I warn you that if you move the hounds will tear you to pieces."
"Saunders!" whispered the settler.
"Their lives will be in their own hands, sir," cried the overseer warmly. "Let me have my own way, please; it is the only thing to do."
The settler shrugged his shoulders, and the blacks all stood there round-eyed and staring, while the two unfortunates lay down in their bunks, and the overseer called up the dogs and bade them couch.
"Watch," he said fiercely, and a deep-toned growl arose. "Stay there and watch."
"Now, sir," he said coldly, "the sooner we are off the better. Out with you, boys, and bring the lights."
The blacks ran out, the settler followed, and the overseer went to the door last.
"I've warned you," he said fiercely, as he turned to face the prisoners. "Make the slightest movement, and those hounds will be at your throats and rend you limb from limb. Good dogs, then—watch," he shouted; then he banged the door, locked and barred it, and just then the settler's voice was heard at a little distance.
"Here, Saunders," he cried; "two of the loaded muskets have been taken from the hooks."
"Hor, hor!" laughed Pete savagely; "just found that out?"
He ceased, for three dogs sprang to their feet, uttering a furious barking trio which made his heart seem to leap to his throat.
In the intense desire to save himself, Nic sprang up into a sitting position and spoke quickly and gently, calling to the dog which had shown a friendly disposition towards him from the first.
"Don't do that, Master Nic," said Pete hoarsely.
But even as the man spoke the dog was upon Nic's bunk, whining, pawing at him, and thrusting its great muzzle in his hand, uttering the while a low, eager bark.
The others barked too, and, as if in imitation of their companion, made at Nic as well, favouring him with their clumsy caresses, and ending by sitting close up to him, panting loudly.
"Have they killed you, Master Nic?" whispered Pete hoarsely, eliciting a fierce growl from one of the brutes.
"Quiet," cried Nic loudly, and the growling ceased; while the next moment from out of the darkness a great head began to nestle upon his shoulder. "Good dog, then!" cried Nic, patting and stroking its head. "There, I think you may venture to talk, Pete."
"Do you, zir? If I waren't beginning to think they'd done for you. Aren't you hurt, then?"
"No; they are used to us now, and I don't think there's anything to fear. Look here; do you dare to reach out your hand and pat him?"
"No, zir; I'm too great a coward. I was always feared of a dog's bite; not of the dog."
Nic was silent for a few moments, and then he began to pat first one dog and then another heavily, the great brutes submitting to the familiarities evidently with satisfaction, one of them beginning to bound about the shed, and returning to be caressed again.
"You order me to come close and pat one of 'em, Master Nic, and I will," said Pete hoarsely.
"Come on, then."
The man drew a deep breath and made the venture, with so much success attending it that he tried it upon the others.
"Master Nic," he whispered excitedly, "what do you think of that?"
"Here's one of 'em licking my face. Oh, I zay, it don't mean tasting me first to zee whether I'm good, do it?"
"No; the poor brutes believe we are friends, I suppose, from being shut up with us. But, Pete, they've all gone off after the others. Couldn't we try to escape again?"
"Nay; t'others have got the boat."
"But the high ground yonder, or the woods?"
"Nay; they'd hunt us down with the dogs. The beggars would go at us if they hounded 'em on."
Nic was silenced for a few moments, and he sat with a dog on either side and his arms on their necks.
"But we could get out again; the shingles must be off the roof."
"Yes; that's how Humpy and the others got out, zir. They must ha' known all our plans."
"Let's creep out, then; the dogs couldn't follow."
"S'pose not, zir; but they'd make howl enough to bring the gaffers back to lay 'em on our scent. I don't think it's any use to try. I'd face it and the dogs too with my knife; they never took it away from me. Did they take yourn?"
"I don't know, Pete. No: here it is."
"And it would be too hard on you to have to face 'em. Best not to try. We had our go and missed; p'raps we'd better take what they give us and not grumble."
"Impossible, Pete. I'd rather face the dogs than the lash. But I don't believe they'd hurt us now."
"P'raps not, zir," said Pete sadly. "This here one's as playful as a puppy. He's 'tending to bite my arm, but he don't hurt a bit."
There was silence again for a few minutes, during which time Nic sat with his heart beating hard, listening to the familiar sounds which came from the forest, while the passionate desire to flee grew and grew till it swept everything before it.
"Pete," he cried at last, "we must escape. Better starve in the woods than lead such a life as this. We shall be flogged to-morrow, and it will kill me, I know."
"The dogs'll hunt us down if we go, lad, and we shall get it worse. Better face what we've got to have."
"I will not; I cannot, Pete. The way is open, man. Let's try for our liberty before these wretches come back."
"Zay the word, then, Master Nic; but the dogs is friends now, as long as we're quiet; they won't let us go."
"Ah, I know!" cried Nic wildly. "Why didn't I think of it before?"
"Think of what, zir?"
"This. Perhaps they might attack us if they thought they were going to be left."
"And if we got away they'd be laid on our track."
"O' course, zir."
"Then we will not give Saunders the chance."
"I dunno what you mean, zir; but I'm ready for anything you tell me to do. What is it?"
"Take the dogs with us, man. I believe they'll follow us now."
"Take 'em with us?" panted Pete. "Why, o' course! I never thought o' that. But we can't, Master Nic; we're locked in."
"The roof's open. Look here, Pete; I'm going to climb out at once. The dogs will begin to bay at this, but as soon as I'm on the roof, ready to drop down, you get up, put your hands against the boards, and lay a-back. Then I'll call them. They'll scramble up, and I'll help them through. You come last."
"Think they'll do it?" said Pete, panting like one of the hounds.
"I'm sure they will."
"Be worse than the flogging," cried Pete excitedly; "they'll tear all the skin off my back. But I don't care; I'm ready. They'll leave the bones."
"Ready, then?" cried Nic. "The moment there's room make a back for the dogs."
The eager talking excited the great animals, and they began to sniff at the speakers and growl; but Nic's blood was up, and he was ready to risk an attack on the chance of his scheme succeeding.
"A dog is a dog, whether it's here or at home, and I know their nature pretty well."
The next moment he was proving it by leaping to his feet.
"Hey, boys, then!" he cried loudly; "the woods—a run in the woods!"
The dogs sprang round him, and began leaping up, barking excitedly.
"Come on, then," he shouted, though his heart leaped with a choking sensation at his mouth; and, scrambling up to the opening by means of the pegs, he was the next minute squeezing himself through, the dogs bounding up at him as he went, and nearly causing him to fall. For one moment he felt he was being dragged back, and shuddered at the thought of what might happen if the excited animals got him down.
But the dread passed away as quickly as it had come. He tore off another of the shingles to widen the opening, and shouted down into the shed:
"Come on, then. Come on."
Already the hounds were growing savage in their disappointment, and baying and growling with tremendous clamour, as they kept on leaping over each other and dropping back.
But at the words of encouragement from above one of them awoke to the fact that there was a step all ready in the darkness, and, leaping upon it, the great creature reached up, got its paws on the sides of the opening, scrambled through without help from Nic, as he sat on the roof, and leaped down.
That was enough; the others followed quickly, and the next minute Pete was up, seated by Nic's side, the dogs now leaping at them from below, barking loudly.
"Hurt?" panted Nic.
"Not a bit. Durst us jump down?"
"We must," cried Nic firmly; and, shouting to the dogs, he lowered himself down, dropped to the ground, and was followed by Pete.
"Hie on, boys! Forward, then!" cried Nic, as the dogs leaped and bounded around him, and he began to trot away from the river.
"Which way?" said Pete, who was as excited now as his companion.
"Wherever the dogs lead us," replied Nic. "Anywhere away from this slavery and death. Forward, then, boys! Hie on!"
The dogs ceased barking and began dashing on through the plantation leading to the nearest wood. The hunt was up, and Nic had rightly weighed their nature. They were off in chase of something; that was enough, and the two men followed, feeling that at last they were on the highroad to freedom, with their most dreaded enemies turned to friends.
"Master Nic," said Pete hoarsely as they trotted on, step for step following the sound made by the heavy dogs, "I aren't never been a 'ligious sort of a chap, but would it be any harm if, instead o' kneeling down proper, I was to try and say a prayer as we run?"
"Harm, Pete?" cried Nic, with a wild, hysterical ring in his voice; "it could not be. Why, I've been praying for help ever since I leaped down among those savage beasts. I could not have ventured but for that."
Sound travels far during the night, and, though the fugitives were not aware of it, their attempt to escape was known. For, just when the dogs were free of the shed and were baying their loudest, the settler, at the head of his men, turned to Saunders:
"Hear that?" he said hoarsely.
"Yes. They've risked it, and the dogs are running them down. Well, they have only themselves to thank; I wash my hands of it all."
The settler shuddered, for his companion's words had brought up a thought that was full of horror; and for a moment he was about to order his blacks to turn back. But just then the overseer whispered:
"Keep up, sir; not a sound, please. We shall have them now."
"No firing," said the settler quickly; "they will be unarmed."
"I don't know that," said the overseer; "but we shall soon know. Hadn't we better deal with them as they deal with us? Hark! the dogs are quiet now. They've got their prisoners, and, if I'm not wrong, in a few minutes we shall have taken ours."
"Heah dat, Zerk?" whispered Samson.
There was a grunt.
"You an' me's gwan to have de arm-ache to-morrow morn' wid all dat lot to flog."
"Iss," whispered Xerxes; "and den got to go and bury dem oder one bones."
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.
A NIGHT'S MUDDLE.
On went the dogs, apparently following the track of some animal; and, as they seemed to be leading the fugitives farther and farther away from the plantation, nothing Nic felt, could be better.
For, in spite of the long imprisonment at the settler's place, the knowledge of the prisoners was confined to the river and the clearings about the house. Certainly they had had a view of the distant hills; but all beyond the plantation, save towards the swamp, was unknown land.
"We can't do better than go on, Pete," said Nic, after following the dogs for about an hour.
"Don't see as we can, zir. They're hunting after zomething they've got the zmell of, and maybe, if we cross their scent, they may begin hunting us; zo I zay let 'em go. You zee, they're mostly kep' chained up in them gashly kennels o' theirs; and they're enjoying a run in the woods. Any idee where we be?"
"Not the slightest, Pete; but at any rate we're free."
"Till we're ketched again, Master Nic. But I zay, you'll show fight if they should catch up to uz?"
"Yes, Pete; I should feel so desperate that I should be ready to die sooner than give up now."
"That's me all over, lad," said Pete. "I zay, though; couldn't get to be more friends still wi' the dogs, and make 'em fight for uz, could we?"
Nic laughed bitterly, and then stopped short, for the yelping had ceased.
"Can you hear the hounds now?"
A sharp burst of barking a short distance away told of their direction, and after wandering in and out among the trees for a few minutes, they found the three great creatures apparently waiting for them to come up before starting off again.
This went on for a full hour longer, the dogs leading them on and on, evidently getting scent of one of the little animals the blacks hunted from time to time; but from their clumsiness, and the activity of the little quarry, each run being without result.
"Where are we now?" said Pete at last, after the yelping of the little pack had ceased.
"It is impossible to say," replied Nic. "It is all so much alike here in the darkness that I have felt helpless ever since we started; but we must be many miles away from the plantation, and I hardly know how the night has gone in this excitement; but it must be near morning."
"Must be," said Pete, "for my clothes are quite dry again, and I'm getting thirsty. What are we going to do now?"
"Keep on, and coax the dogs more and more away. We must not let them go back."
"No; that wouldn't do, Master Nic. On'y if they don't ketch anything they'll get hungry, and if they gets hungry they'll grow zavage; and if they grow zavage, what's going to happen then?"
"Wait till the trouble comes, Pete," replied Nic; "then we'll see."
"That's good zense, Master Nic; and I b'lieve them brutes are lying down and resting zomewhere. Shall I give a whistle?"
"Yes; it would do no harm."
Pete uttered a low, piping sound such as would be given by a bird, and it was answered by a bark which showed the direction; and, on turning towards it, a minute had not elapsed before they heard the heavy panting of the three animals, which sprang up and came to them, lolling out their tongues to be caressed.
"Good old dogs, then," said Nic, patting their heads. "Go on, and take us right away, and when it gets daylight you may all have a good sleep. Hie on, then, boys; hie on! Right away."
The dogs threw up their heads, snuffed about a bit, and then started off once more at a steady pace, which soon slowed down, and made the task of following them in the darkness much less difficult. Then all at once one of them uttered a low, whining sound and sprang off a little faster.
For the ground was more open here, the trees bigger, and the undergrowth—the great hindrance—scarce.
"Better going here, Master Nic, if it waren't for the great roots sticking out. Now, if the day would only break we should be able to zee better what we were doing. My word! if we could only come across a good wild-apple orchard it wouldn't be amiss."
"And that we shall not find."
"Never mind, zir; we'll find zum'at else—toadstools on the trees, or wild berries, or zomething; and if them dogs don't run down anything good for a roast, why, they don't come up to one of our old Devon lurchers. If this was one of our woods we shouldn't be long without something between our teeth. Don't you be downhearted; I'll find zome'at we can eat."
"I am not downhearted, Pete; and, if we can do so in safety, we'll go on walking all day."
"That's right; on'y we don't want to run upon no more plantations."
"No; we must trust to the wild country, Pete, till we can reach the sea."
"And not feel zafe when we get there, zir. Zay, Master Nic, I don't think much of a country where they has zlaves, whether they're white or whether they're black."
"Never mind that now, Pete; we have escaped."
"And without my having a chance to thrash Humpy Dee, and giving Master Zaunders one for his nob."
"Hist! what's that?" whispered Nic, as a peculiar sound came through the trees.
"Water!" said Pete excitedly. "The dogs lapping. Come on, zir. My mouth's as if it was full of dust. The very thing we want."
The next minute the darkness seemed to be less intense, and in another they were close to a little stream, where the dogs were drinking deeply; but they left the edge as the fugitives came up, shook themselves, and stood by while Pete sought for a place a little higher up.
"Here you are, Master Nic," he said. "They might ha' let uz have first go; but I forgive 'em for finding it. Lie down on your face and drink."
Nic needed no incitement, and Pete followed his example, both enjoying the sweetest, most refreshing draught that had ever passed their lips.
"Hall!" ejaculated Pete as he raised himself into a sitting posture. "Can't drink any more. Hope we aren't zwallowed no young 'gators or a snake; but if we have, zir, it'll be vittles as well as drink, and do uz good."
"Ugh! don't talk about it," said Nic. "But where are the dogs?"
"Eh? Gone on, I s'pose; and we must trot on too. I'm ready for anything now."
"Look, Pete. Yonder's the east."
"That's our way then, zir."
"And the sun will not be long before it's up. It is getting light fast. Come along and find the dogs. We came up from the left; they will go right on to the right. We should have heard them if they had crossed the stream."
"That's right, lad. What a good—" Pete was going to say poacher, but he checked himself—"wood-man you'd have made. Forward, then. It's all open yonder."
A minute later they had stopped short, to see the three dogs walking across a clearing, plainly seen in the grey dawn, while to the left the stream had widened out.
It was only a momentary pause, and then the fugitives shrank back into cover, chilled to the heart by the dreadful truth.
The dogs, quite at home in the neighbouring forest, had taken them a long round, and brought them back to the plantation; and now, wearied out, they were making their way to their kennel at the back of the house and sheds.
The night's labour seemed to have been all in vain; and Nic laid his hand upon his companion's shoulder as he said, with a bitter sigh:
"Pete, Pete, it is hopeless. We shall never see the old home again."
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO.
NEVER SAY DIE.
"What zay?" cried Pete sharply. "Never zay die, lad. English lads are never beat. Look at that!"
He pointed through the trees at where the streamlet widened into the little creek where they had first landed, and Nic rubbed his eyes, refusing to believe in what he saw.
But there it was plain enough in the dim, grey dawn—the boat lying tied up to the post; and a great sob rose to the poor fellow's lips, while for a few moments he could not stir.
Then a thrill of excitement ran through him as he looked round and saw that the dogs had passed out of sight beyond the long, low shed which had been their jail.
It came like a flash to him now what must have taken place—one of those guesses at the truth which hit the mark. He knew that his enemies had dashed off in pursuit of the men who had made for the boat.
They must have been overtaken during the night, brought back, and were doubtless at that moment shut up in their old quarters.
Nic hurriedly told Pete his impression, and the latter slapped his leg.
"That's it," he said, "and zarve 'em right, zir. That's tumbling into the hole you made for zomebody else, isn't it? That's why they've not blown the old shell yet and didn't put the boat back. Been out all night."
"Could we make sure by trying to see whether there is any one on guard at the barrack-door?"
"Zoon do that, zir," said Pete; and, going down upon hands and knees, he crawled away among the bushes, to be back in a few minutes.
"Old Zamson and Zerk both there at the door, zir, with guns."
"Then they have caught them," said Nic excitedly. "But the blacks are both sitting down, fast asleep, zir."
"Worn out with their night's work, Pete; but the prisoners will be well ironed and safe enough."
"Ay, zir, or they'd have had the boat by now."
"Now then, can we crawl to it under cover? We must be off at once."
"Couldn't on'y crawl half-way, zir, and then it's all open, and we might be shot at if they zaw us from the house. Better make a dash for it at once and chance it."
"Come on, then," cried Nic; and they ran as quickly as they could down by the side of the creek, reached the boat in safety, found that the poles and oars were in their places, and jumped in.
There was no stopping to untie the rope which ran across the gunwale. Pete's knife flew out and sawed through it in a moment or two. Then one vigorous thrust sent the craft into the stream; but before they had cleared the creek there was a shout, followed by the whiz of a bullet and the report of a musket.
"All right; fire away. Shouldn't come back if you was a ridgment of zojers," cried Pete, who was sending the boat along vigorously with the pole. "Lie down, Master Nic; they're going to shoot again."
"And leave you there?" cried Nic. "No."
Instead of screening himself by the boat's side, Nic seized two oars, got them over the rowlocks, and as soon as they were in the river he began to pull with all his might, watching the figure of Saunders limping slowly down after them and stopping from time to time for a shot; Samson and Xerxes, wakened by the firing, hurrying up, handing him a fresh musket, and reloading each time.
"Don't see nothing of the gaffer," said Pete coolly; "he must have been hurt too, or he'd have been after us. There come the blacks. Hear that?"
Plainly enough, for the whistle was very shrill, and it was answered by the dogs, which came tearing round the end of the shed to follow the overseer.
"Row faster than they can zwim," said Pete, laying down the pole. "Here, give us one oar, Master Nic," he continued; and, taking his seat, the oar was handed to him, and, aided by the current, the boat began to move more swiftly.
"Why, there's the gaffer," cried Pete suddenly; and Nic saw that the settler was coming down from the house by the help of a stick, while the dogs stood close by Saunders, barking loudly.
"There must have been a desperate fight in the night, Pete," cried Nic. "Look, there are two of the blacks with their heads tied up."
"And jolly glad I am, Master Nic. I shouldn't have cried much if they'd all killed one another and left nothing but the bones. There, put that gun away, stoopid; you can't hit us at this distance."
The overseer seemed to have thought so too, for he lowered the musket, and Nic just caught sight of him striking savagely with it at the dogs, which began to bay and make rushes at him. But Nic saw no more, for a bend in the river, with a clump of trees thereon, hid the plantation from their sight; while Pete began to sing an old West-country ditty, something about a clever moneyless adventurer who, no matter what task he undertook, always succeeded in getting the best of his adversaries.
The words were absurd and often childish, but there was a ring in the familiar old melody that went straight to Nic's heart and brought a strange moisture to his eyes, for it thrilled him with hope, and brought up memories of the far-away home that he began to feel now he might see again. And that feeling of hope drove away the horrible dread and the miserable sensation of weariness, sending vigour through every nerve, and making him bend to his oar to take a full grip of the water and swing back at the same moment as Pete, making the river ripple and plash beneath the bows and driving the boat merrily along, just as if the two fugitives were moved by the same spirit.
"Zome zaid a penny, but I zaid five poun'. The wager was laid, but the money not down. Zinging right fol de ree, fol de riddle lee While I am a-zinging I'd five poun' free,"
chanted Pete in a fine, round, musical bass voice, and the trees on one side echoed it back, while the ungreased rowlocks, as the oars swung to and fro, seemed to Nic's excited fancy to keep on saying, "Dev-on, Dev-on, Dev-on," in cheery reiteration.
"Zinging right fol de ree!" cried Pete. "Zay, Master Nic, why don't you join in chorus? You know that old zong."
"Ay, Pete, I know it," said Nic; "but my heart's too full for singing."
"Nay, not it, lad. Do you good. That's why I began. Mine felt so full that it was ready to burst out, and if I hadn't begun to zing I should ha' broken zomething. I zay, Master Nic, get out o' stroke and hit me a good whack or two with your oar and fisties, right in the back."
"To waken me up. I'm dreaming, I'm afraid, and I'd rather be roused up than go on in a dream like this. It's zo hearty, you zee, and makes me feel as if I could go on rowing for a month without getting tired."
"So do I now, Pete."
"Well, that's real, Master Nic. I dunno, though; p'raps it aren't, and I want it cut short. It would be horrid to wake up and find it all zleep-hatching; but the longer I go on the worse I shall be. It's dreaming, aren't it, and we didn't get away?"
"You know it is not a dream, Pete," replied Nic. "We have escaped—I mean, we have begun to escape."
"Begun, lad? Why, we've half-done it," cried Pete, who was wild with excitement. "Pull away, and let's zhow 'em what West-country muscles can do. Pull lad, pull, and keep me at it, or I zhall be getting up and dancing zailor's hornpipe all over the boat, and without music. Music! Who wants music? My heart's full of music and zinging of home again, and I don't know what's come to my eyes. Master Nic, all this river, and the trees, and fog rising on each zide through the trees, looks zo beautiful that I must be dreaming. Zay, lad, do tell me I ra-ally am awake."
"Yes, Pete, awake—wide awake; and I am feeling just the same. My heart's beating with hope as it never beat before."
"Hooroar for Master Nic's heart!" cried the big fellow wildly. "Beat away, good old heart, for we're going to do it, and it'll be just as easy as kissing your hand."
"We mustn't be too sanguine."
"Oh yes, we must, lad. I don't know what being zangwing is, but if it's anything to do with fancying we shall get away, I zay let's be as zangwing as we can. None of your getting into the dumps and 'shan't do it' now. We're free, my lad—free; and I should just like to have a cut at any one as zays we aren't. Zlaves, indeed! White zlaves! But I knowed it couldn't last. You can't make a zlave of an Englishman, Master Nic. You may call him one, and put irons on him, or shut him up like zyder in a cask, and hammer the bung in; but zooner or later he'll zend the bung out flying, or burst the hoops and scatter the staves. It was only waiting our chance, and we've got it; and here we are rowing down this here river in the boat, and they may hoe the old plantation themselves. Zay, Master Nic."
"Don't it zeem strange what a differ a black skin makes in a man?"
"What do you mean—in the colour?"
"Nay-ay-ay-ay, lad! I mean 'bout being a zlave. Here's these niggers brought here and made zlaves of, and they zettles down to it as happy-go-lucky as can be. They don't zeem to mind. They eat and drink all they can, and zleep as much as they can, and they do as little work as they can. Why, I zometimes did three times as much hoeing as one o' they in a day; and that aren't bragging."
"No, Pete; they took it very easy."
"I should just think they did, my lad; and then the way they'd laugh! I never zee any one laugh as they could. I s'pose that's what makes their mouths zo big and their teeth zo white. Gets 'em bleached by opening their mouths zo wide."
"Look, Pete!" whispered Nic. "Wasn't that something moving on the right bank?"
"Yes; I zee it, Master Nic. Dunno what it was, but it waren't a man on the watch. Zay; they aren't got another boat anywhere, have they?"
"Oh no; I feel sure they have not," said Nic sharply.
"Then we're all right. This water's running zwift, and we're making the boat move pretty fast. They can't zwim half as fast as we're going, and they've no horses, and the dogs can't smell on the river, even if they made a raft of the trees they've got cut down yonder."
"It would take them a day, Pete."
"Ay, it would, Master Nic; and going on as we're going, we shall be a long way on at the end of a day."
"Yes; we shall be some distance towards the mouth. I begin to think, Pete, that we shall really manage to escape."
"Yes, we've done it this time, Master Nic; and we only want a veal-pie, a cold zalmon, a couple o' loaves, and a stone bottle o' zyder, to be 'bout as happy as any one could be."
"But do you think we can reach the mouth of the river without being stopped?"
"Don't zee who's to stop uz, zir," said Pete coolly. "What we've got to do is to row a steady stroke till we come to a place where we can get zome'at to eat; and then we'll row right out to zea, and get ourselves picked up by the first ship we can board. But we zeem to want that there veal-pie, cold zalmon, two loaves, and the stone bottle."
"Yes, we want provisions, Pete. Are you keeping a good, sharp lookout?"
"I just am, Master Nic. I'm afraid it's taking zome of the bark off when I look among the trees. But we needn't; nobody can't overtake uz unless we tie the boat up to a tree on the bank and lie down to go to zleep."
"And that we shall not even think of doing, Pete."
"That's zo, Master Nic. But by-and-by, when the zun gets hot and you're a bit tired, we'll get ashore zomewhere to break off a few good leafy boughs and make a bit of a shelter in the stern of the boat, zo as you can lie down and have a zleep."
"Or you, Pete."
"When it's my turn, Master Nic. We'll take watch and watch, as the zailors call it, zo as to keep the boat going till we get aboard a ship. I zay, how far do you make it to the landing-place where we come aboard the boat?"
"I can't say, Pete," replied Nic. "I was in such a confused state that I have lost all count."
"And I aren't much better, zir. You zee, we landed and slept on the road, and that took up time; but I've allowed us three days and nights as being plenty to get down to the zea; and that means tying up to the bank when the river's again' uz—I mean, when we come to where the tide runs, for we should knock ourzelves up trying to pull this heavy, lumbering old boat against the stream."
Nic nodded, as he kept on looking anxiously astern; but he said nothing, and they rowed steadily on.
"Zay, Master Nic," said Pete suddenly.
"Getting hot, aren't it?"
"Well, I can't zay that, zir, because the zun aren't shining now on a zlave's back; it's on a free man's, and that makes all the differ. But what are you thinking about?"
"The possibility of seeing another boat coming round the bend of the river."
"It's unpossible, zir. The gaffer hadn't got no other boat to come in. I believe we was the only other planters up the river, and that there'll be no boat till we come to the places where we stayed of a night, and it's a zight nearer the zea. I keep on thinking, though, a deal."
"What about—our escaping?"
"Nay. It's very queer, Master Nic, and I s'pose it's because I'm zo empty."
"Thinking of food, Pete?" said Nic sadly.
"Yes, Master Nic. More I tries not to, more I keeps on 'bout veal-pie, cold zalmon, and zyder."
"Ah yes, we must contrive to get some provisions after a bit."
They rowed on in silence for some time, with the sun gathering power and beating down upon their heads, and flashing back from the surface of the river, till at last Pete said suddenly:
"We must run the boat ashore close to those trees, Master Nic, or we shall be going queer in the head for want of cover."
"Yes; I feel giddy now, Pete. Do you think we could tie a few leaves together for hats?"
"You'll zee, my lad," said the man. "I could do it best with rushes, but I'll work zomething to keep off the zun."
The boat was run in under the shade of a tree whose boughs hung down and dipped in the running stream; and as Pete laid in his oar he glanced down over the side and saw fish gliding away, deep down in the transparent water.
"Zee um, zir?" said Pete.
"Yes; there are some good-sized fish, Pete."
"And either of 'em would make uz a dinner if we'd got a line."
"And bait, Pete."
"Oh, I'll manage a bait, Master Nic. Dessay they'd take a fly, a beetle, or a berry, or a worm, but I aren't got neither hook nor line. I'm going to have one, though, zoon, for the way I'm thinking o' cold zalmon is just horrid. I could eat it raw, or live even, without waiting for it to be cooked. These aren't zalmon, but they're vish."
Nic said little, for he could think of nothing but the overseer coming into sight with musket and dogs, and his eyes were constantly directed up the river.
But Pete took it all more calmly. He had dragged the boat beneath the shade of the overhanging tree, secured it to one of the boughs with the remains of the rope, several feet having fortunately been passed through the ring-bolt to lie loose in the bottom; and while Nic kept watch he roughed out something in the shape of a couple of basket-like caps, wove in and out a few leaves, and ended by placing them before his companion.
"They aren't very han'some, Master Nic," he said, "but they'll keep the zun off. What do you zay now to lying down and having a nap while I take the watch?"
"No, no," cried Nic excitedly; "let's go on at once."
"I'm ready, Master Nic, but, if you could take both oars, I've been thinking that I could cut off one sleeve of my shirt, loosen and pull out the threads, and then twissen 'em up into a sort o' fishing-line, paying it over with some of the soft pitch here at the bottom of the boat, so as it would hold together a bit."
"And what about a fish-hook?" asked Nic.
"Ah, that's what bothers me, master. I've been thinking that when we get on into that great big marsh of a place where the river runs through the trees we might stop and vish, for there must be plenty there, or else the 'gators wouldn't be so plentiful. I did zee one big fellow, close to the top, in the clear water where it looked like wine. I thought it was a pike as we come up, and I felt as if I should like to try for him; but how to do it without a hook's more than I can tell. But we must have zomething to eat, Master Nic, or we shall be starved, and never get away after all."
"Go on making your line," said Nic thoughtfully. "I'll row."
As Nic took both oars Pete unfastened the piece of rope, and the boat began to glide along with the stream, while the latter burst into a low and hearty laugh.
"On'y think o' that now, Master Nic. There's no need for me to spoil my shirt when there's a vishing-line half-made, and a hook waiting to be finished."
"Where? What do you mean?" cried Nic excitedly. "Why, here in the bows, lad. I've on'y got to unlay this piece o' rope—it's nearly new— and then I can twist up yards o' line."
"But the hook, man—the hook?"
"There it be, Master Nic—the ring in the bolt. I've on'y got to zaw it through with my knife, bend it to get it out, and then hammer one part out straight, ready to tie on to the line, and there you are."
"Oh, I know; it won't be as good as a cod-hook, because it won't have no point nor no barb, but I'll tie a big frog or a bit o' zomething on to it, and if I don't yank a vish out with it afore night I never caught a zalmon."
Nic winced a little at the word "salmon," but he kept his thoughts to himself and went on rowing; while Pete set to work with such goodwill that he soon had plenty of the rope unlaid, and began to plait the hempen threads into a coarse line, which grew rapidly between his clever fingers. But many hours had passed, and they were gliding through the interminable shades of the cypress swamp before he prepared to saw at the ring.
It was Nic who made the next suggestion.
"Pete," he said quickly, "why not take the head off the pole? It is very small for a boat-hook, and it is quite bright. There's a hole for you to fasten the line to, and a big pike-like fish might run at it as it is drawn through the water."
"Of course it might, lad. Well, that is a good idea. Why waren't I born clever?"
Pete set to work at once, and after a great deal of hard work he managed to cut away the wood from the nail-like rivet which held the head on to the shaft, after which a few blows sufficed to break the iron hook away, with the cross rivet still in place, ready to serve as a hold for the newly-made line.
"Wonder whether a vish'll take it, Master Nic," said Pete as he stood up in the boat. "Now if it was one o' them 'gators I could lash my knife on to the end of the pole and spear a little un, but I s'pose it wouldn't be good to eat."
Nic shook his head.
"Might manage one to-morrow, zir, if we don't ketch a vish."
Nic shook his head again.
"I mean, zir, when we're nex' door to starvation-point. Don't feel as if I could touch one to-day."
"Don't talk about the horrible reptiles, Pete," said Nic, with a shudder.
"Right, Master Nic, I won't, for horrid they be; and I don't mind telling you that when I zwimmed across to get this boat I was in such a fright all the time that I felt all of a zweat. I don't know whether I was, for it don't zeem nat'ral-like for a man to come all over wet when he's all wet already; but that's how I felt. There we are, then. I'm ready, Master Nic, if you'll go on steady, on'y taking a dip now and then to keep her head straight."
He held up the iron hook, which began to spin round, and he chuckled aloud.
"I wouldn't be zuch a vool as to throw a thing like that into the water at home, Master Nic," he said, "for no vish would be zuch a vool as to run at it; but out here the vish are only zavages, and don't know any better. That's what I hopes."
Nic began to dip an oar now and then, so as to avoid the rotten stumps, snags, and half-fallen trees, as the stream carried them on, so that he had little opportunity for noting the occupants of this dismal swamp; but Pete's eyes were sharp, and he saw a good deal of the hideous, great lizard-like creatures lying about on the mud or upon rotten trunks, with their horny sides glistening in the pencils of light which pierced the foliage overhead, or made sunny patches where, for the most part, all was a dim twilight, terribly suggestive of what a man's fate might be if he overbalanced himself and fell out of the boat.
"I believe them great 'gators are zo hungry," said Pete to himself, "that they'd rush at one altogether and finish a fellow, bones and all."
At last: "Looks a reg'lar vishy place, Master Nic; zo here goes."
Pete gave the bright hook a swing and cast it half-a-dozen yards from the boat to where it fell with a splash, which was followed by a curious movement of the amber-hued water; and then he began to snatch with the line, so as to make the bright iron play about.
Then there was a sudden check.
"Back water, Master Nic," cried Pete. "I'm fast in zomething."
"Yes," said Nic, obeying his order; "you're caught in a sunken tree. Mind, or you'll break your line."
"That's what I'm feared on, Master Nic, but it's 'bout the liveliest tree I ever felt. Look where the line's going. I'm feared it's gone."
The line was cutting the water and gliding through Pete's fingers till he checked it at the end, when a black tail rose above the surface and fell with a splash, and the line slackened and was hauled in.
"Hook aren't gone, zir," said Pete as he drew it over the side. "Rum vishing that there. Why, it were one o' them 'gators, five or six foot long. Let's try lower down."
They tried as Pete suggested, and there was another boil in the water, but the hook was drawn in without a touch; and Pete tried again and again, till he felt the glistening iron seized by something which held on fast.
"Got him this time, zir," said Pete, with his face lighting up. "It's a vish now. One o' they pike things, and not zo very big."
"Haul in quick," cried Nic.
It was an unnecessary order, for the line was rapidly drawn close inboard, and Pete lowered one hand to take a short grip and swing his captive out of the water. But he put too much vigour into the effort, and flung his prize right over just as it shook itself clear of the hook, and fell upon the gunwale before glancing off back into the water. No fish, but an alligator about thirty inches long.
"Ugh!" ejaculated Pete; "and I thought I'd got a vish. Never mind, Master Nic. We'll have zomething good yet."
His companion did not feel hopeful. It was evident that the water swarmed with the reptiles, and in spite of the terribly faint sensation of hunger that was increasing fast, Nic felt disposed to tell his companion to give up trying, when suddenly there was a fierce rush after the glistening hook as it was being dragged through the water, a sudden check, and the water boiled again as Pete hauled in the line, sea fishing fashion, to get his captive into the boat before it could struggle free from the clumsy hook.
This time success attended Pete's efforts. He got hold of the line close to the iron, and with a vigorous swing threw his prize into the boat just as the hook came away, leaving the fish to begin leaping about, till Nic stunned it with a heavy blow from the boat-hook pole.
"I knowed we should do it, Master Nic," said Pete triumphantly. "There now, aren't it zummat like one of our big pike at home? Now, that's good to eat; and the next game's tie up to the zhore where there's some dry wood, and we'll light a fire."
"Yes," said Nic as he bent over their prize. "I suppose it's what they call the alligator-gar, Pete."
"Dessay it is, zir; but I don't care what they calls it—Ah, would you?" cried Pete, stamping his bare foot upon the great fish as it made a leap to escape. Nic too was on the alert, and he thrust the ragged head of the pole between the teeth-armed, gaping jaws, which closed upon it fiercely and held on.
But Pete's knife was out next moment, and a well-directed cut put the savage creature beyond the power to do mischief.
"A twenty-pounder, Master Nic. Wish it were one o' your zalmon. There, I'll zoon clean him, while you run the boat in at a good place."
"But how are we to get a fire, Pete?" said Nic anxiously, for an intense feeling of hunger now set in.
"I'll zoon show you that, lad," replied Pete; and he did. In a very short time after, by means of a little flint he carried in company with his pocket-knife, the back of the blade, and some dry touchwood from a rotting tree, he soon had a fire glowing, then blazing, for there was dead-wood enough to make campfires for an army.
Another quarter of an hour passed, and the big fish was hissing and spluttering on a wooden spit over the glowing embers; and at last they were able to fall to and eat of the whitest, juiciest flesh—as it seemed to them—that they had ever tasted.
"Bit o' zalt'd be worth anything now, Master Nic, and I wouldn't turn up my nose at a good thick bit o' bread and butter, and a drop o' zyder'd be better than river water; but, take it all together, I zay as zalmon's nothing to this here, and we've got enough to last uz for a couple or three days to come."
"Now for a few big leaves to wrap the rest in," said Nic at last, after they had thoroughly satisfied their hunger.
"Right, Master Nic; but I must have a good drink o' water first."
"Yes," said Nic, suddenly awakening to the fact that he was extremely thirsty, and he rose to his feet to utter a cry of horror.
"Pete—Pete! The boat! the boat!"
Pete leaped up and stared aghast, for the action of the running stream had loosened the thin remnants of the rope with which they had moored their boat. These had parted, and the craft was gliding rapidly away, a quarter of a mile down the river.
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE.
"Oh, why didn't I watch it?" groaned Pete, in agony; and his next glance was along the bank of the river, with the idea of running till opposite the boat.
He groaned again as he grasped the fact that he could not run, only walk for two or three yards before the dense tangle of the forest commenced, and progress through that was impossible.
"Means zwim for it, Master Nic," he cried, with an attempt at being cheery; "but look here, lad, if you zee me pulled down by them 'gators or vish, let it be a lesson to you. Don't you try the water."
Then to himself, as he plunged in:
"Why, o' course he wouldn't. What's the good o' saying that?"
The water was deep and clear close in to the overhanging bank, and Pete dived out of sight, scaring some occupant of the river, which swept itself away with as much commotion in the water as was caused by the man's dive; but when he rose to the surface, yards away, shook his head, and glanced back over his left shoulder, it was to see Nic's head rise a short distance behind him, for the younger man had followed on the instant.
Pete ceased swimming, to allow his companion to come abreast.
"Oh, Master Nic!" he cried, "you zhouldn't ha' done that;" and he glanced wildly about him as if expecting to see the rugged head of an alligator rise close by. "Go back, lad; go back. It's on'y one man's work."
"Go back? No," said Nic firmly. "We must fight it out, shoulders together, Pete. Come on."
Pete gave vent to something like a sob, and his face grew wrinkled; but the next moment he forced a smile.
"Well, you're master," he said cheerily; "zo now for it, zir. You zwim lighter than I do, but I'll race you down to the boat. Virst to lay a hand on gunwale wins."
"Come on," said Nic, fighting hard to master the horrible feeling that at any moment they might be attacked from beneath by one or other of the fierce creatures which inhabited the stream—Nic's dread being mostly respecting the shark-like gar-fish, which he knew must be abundant.
Pete shared his dread, but they both kept their thoughts to themselves as they swam on with strong, steady strokes, their light clothing of shirt and short drawers impeding them but slightly. Life from childhood on the seashore had conduced to making them expert swimmers; the swift stream helped them famously; and, keeping well away towards the middle to avoid the eddies near the shore, they went on steadily after the boat.
But this, in its light state, was being swept rapidly on, and had so good a start that for some time the swimmers did not seem to gain upon it in the least, and at last, as the distance still remained about the same, a feeling of despair began to attack them.
Pete saw the change in his fellow-swimmer's countenance.
"Take it easy, Master Nic. Long ztroke and zlow. We could keep this up all day. On'y got to zwim steady: river does all the work."
"We must swim faster, Pete, or we shall never reach the boat," cried Nic.
"Nay, lad; if we zwim hard we shall get tired out, and lose ground then. Easy as you can. She may get closer in and be caught by zome of the branches."
Nic said no more, but swam on, keeping his straining eyes fixed upon the ever-distant boat, till at last hope began to rise again, for the craft did happen to be taken by the eddy formed by a stream which joined the river, and directly after they saw it being driven towards one of the huge trees which dipped its pendent boughs far out in the water.
The feeling of excitement made Nic's breath come thick and fast as he saw the boat brush against the leafage, pause for a few moments, and the young man was ready to utter a cry of joy, but it died out in a low groan, for the boat continued its progress, the twigs swept over it, and the power of the stream mastered. But it was caught again, and they saw it heel over a little, free itself, and then, swaying a little, it seemed to bound on faster than ever.
"Never mind, lad," said Pete coolly; "it'll catch again soon."
Pete was right; the boat was nearer to the wall of verdure, and it once more seemed to be entangled in some boughs which dipped below the surface and hung there, while the swimmers reduced the distance between them and the boat forty or fifty yards. Then, with a swift gliding motion, it was off again.
"That's twice," cried Pete. "Third time does it. Zay, Master Nic, aren't the water nice and cold?"
The look which Nic gave the speaker in his despair checked Pete's efforts to make the best of things.
"A beast!" he muttered to himself. "I should like to drive my hoof through her planks. Heavy boat? Why, she dances over the water like a cork."
At that moment Nic could not suppress a sharp cry, and he made a spasmodic dash through the water.
"Eh, my lad, what is it?" cried Pete, who was startled.
"One of the great fishes or reptiles made a dash at me and struck me on the leg," gasped Nic.
"Nay, nay, don't zay that, lad. You kicked again a floating log. There's hunderds allus going down to the zea."
Nic shook his head, and Pete felt that he was right, for the next minute he was swimming on with his keen-edged knife held in his teeth, ready for the emergency which he felt might come; but they suffered no further alarm. Disappointment followed disappointment, and weariness steadily set in; but they swam steadily on, till Nic's strength began to fail. He would not speak, though, till, feeling that he had done all that was possible, he turned his despairing eyes to Pete.
Before he could speak the latter cried:
"I knowed it, Master Nic, and expected it ever so long past. Now, you just turn inshore along with me; then you shall lie down and rest while I go on and ketch the boat. But how I'm to pull her back again' this zwiff stream, back to you, my lad, is more'n I know."
Nic made no reply, but, breathing hard, he swam with Pete to an open spot at the side, and had just strength to draw himself out by a hanging branch, and then drop down exhausted, with the water streaming from him.
"No, no; don't leave me, Pete," he cried hoarsely.
"Must, my lad, must;" cried the man, preparing to turn and swim away. "You stop there, and I can zee you when I come back."
"It is impossible to overtake it. We must try and get down through the trees. You can't do it, I tell you."
"Must, and will, my lad," cried Pete. "Never zay die."
Nic sank back and watched the brave fellow as he swam away more vigorously than ever. At every stroke Pete's shoulders rose well above the surface, and, to all appearance, he was as fresh as when he started.
But there was the boat gliding down the stream, far enough away now, and beginning to look small between the towering trees rising on either side of the straight reach along which Nic gazed; and the watcher's agony grew intense.
"He'll swim till he gives up and sinks," said Nic to himself; "or else one of those horrid reptiles will drag him down."
He drew breath a little more hopefully, though, as he saw a bright flash of light glance from where Pete was swimming, for it told that the keen knife was held ready in the strong man's teeth; and he knew that the arm was vigorous that would deliver thrust after thrust at any enemy which attempted to drag him down.
With the cessation of his exertion, Nic's breath began to come more easily, and he sat up to watch the head of the swimmer getting rapidly farther away, feeling that he had been a hindrance to the brave fellow, who had been studying his companion's powers all the time. But how much farther off the boat seemed still!—far enough to make Nic's heart sink lower and lower, and the loneliness of his situation to grow so terrible that it seemed more than he could bear.
For a full half-hour he sat watching the dazzling water, from which the sun flashed, while he was in the shade. Pete had not reached the boat, but he seemed now to be getting very near, though Nic knew how deceptive the distance was, and gazed on, with a pain coming behind his eyes, till all at once his heart leaped with joy, as now he could just make out that the boat was very near the shore, apparently touching some drooping boughs. Then his heart sank again, for he told himself that it was only fancy; and he shivered again as he felt how utterly exhausted Pete must be. Every moment he felt sure that he would see that little, dark speck disappear, but still it was there; and at last the watcher's heart began to throb, for the boat must have caught against those boughs. It was not moving.
The watcher would not believe this for a long time, but at last he uttered a cry of joy, followed by a groan; for, though the boat was there, the dark speck which represented Pete's head had disappeared; and, to make the watcher's despair more profound, the boat began to move once more, unmistakably gliding from beside the trees. All was over now, for Nic felt that to struggle longer was hopeless: there was nothing more to be done but lie down and die.
He held his hands over his brows, straining his failing, aching eyes to keep the boat in sight as long as he could; and then a strange choking sensation came into his throat, and he rose to his knees, for there was a flash of light from the water close to the boat, and another, and another. There was a strange, indistinct something, too, above the tiny line made by the gunwale, and it could only mean one thing: Pete had overtaken it, climbed in, and the flashes of light came from the disturbed surface of the river.
Pete must be trying to row her back to take him up.
The intense sensation of relief at knowing that the brave fellow was alive and safe seemed more than Nic could bear. He was already upon his knees. His face was bowed down upon his hands, and for a few minutes he did not stir.
At last, with a wave of strength and confidence seeming to run through every fibre of his body, Nic rose up, feeling fully rested; and, as he shaded his eyes once more to gaze down the river at the boat, the cloud of despair had floated away, and the long reach of glistening water looked like the way back to the bright world of hope and love—the way to home; while the thought of lying down there to die was but the filmy vapour of some fevered dream.
Pete was coming back to him: there could be no mistake about that, for Nic could see more clearly now, and there were moments when he could distinctly see the flashing of the water when the oars were dipped.
"Oh!" cried Nic, with his excitement rising now to the highest pitch, "and there was a time when I looked upon that brave, true-hearted fellow with contempt and disgust. How he is slaving there to send the great, heavy boat along!"
Nic watched till his eyes ached; and once more his heart began to sink, for the truth was rapidly being forced upon him that, in spite of Pete's efforts, the boat remained nearly motionless—the poor fellow was exhausting himself in his efforts to achieve the impossible.
What to do?
Nic was not long in making up his mind. He knew that Pete would try till he dropped back in the boat, and it would have been all in vain. The pair of them could hardly have rowed that heavy boat up-stream, and they were as yet far above the reach of the tide, or Pete might have waited and then come up. There was only one thing to do—go down to him.
A minute or two's trial proved to Nic that he could not tear his way through the dense growth on the bank till he was opposite his companion and could hail him to come ashore. There was only one thing to be done—swim down, and that he dared not do without help.
But the help was near, and he set to work.
He still had his keen knife, and the next moment he was hewing away at a patch of stout canes growing in the water, and as he attacked them he shuddered, for there was a wallowing rush, and he caught a glimpse of a small alligator's tail.
He did not stop, though. He knew that he had frightened the reptile, and this knowledge that the creatures did fear men gave him encouragement, making him work hard till he had cut a great bundle, ample to sustain him in the water. This he firmly bound with cane, and when this was done he once more gazed at the distant boat, which did not seem to have moved an inch.
How to make Pete grasp the fact that he was coming to join him? For even if he saw something floating down he would never think that it was his companion.
This task too was easy.
Cutting the longest cane he could reach, he cut off the leafy top, made a notch in what was left, and then inserting the point of his knife in the remaining sleeve of his shirt, he tore it off, ripped up the seam, and after dragging one end down through the knot and slit in the cane, he bound up the end with a strip of cotton, stuck the base firmly in the bundle or truss he had bound together, and so formed a little white flag.
"If he sees that he'll know," said Nic triumphantly; and without a moment's hesitation he thrust off from the bank with his cane bundle under one arm, and struck out with the other, finding plenty of support, and nothing more to do than fight his way out to where the stream ran most swiftly.
The scrap of white cotton fluttered bravely now and then, as, forcing himself not to think of the dangers that might be around, Nic watched and watched. He soon began to see the boat more distinctly, and in good time made out that his companion in misfortune grasped the position, rowing himself to the nearest drooping tree, making fast to a bough, and then laying in one oar and fixing the other up astern as a signal for his companion's guidance.
How short the time seemed then, and how easily Nic glided down, till he became aware of the fact that Pete was leaning over the side, knife in hand, watching eagerly. This sent a shudder through the swimmer, setting him thinking again of the perils that might be near, and how unlikely any effort of Pete's would be to save him should one of the reptiles attack.
The dread, however, soon passed off, for Nic's every nerve was strained to force the bundle of canes across the stream, so that it might drift right down upon the boat.
He could only succeed in part, and it soon became evident that he would float by yards away; but Pete was on the alert. He cast the boat adrift from where he had secured it to a drooping bough, and giving a few vigorous pulls with one oar, in another minute he had leaned over the bows, grasped his companion's hands, dragged him into the boat, and then, as the buoyant bundle of canes floated away, the poor fellow sank back in the bottom of the boat and lay staring helplessly.
"Don't you take no notice o' me, Master Nic," he said hoarsely. "Just put an oar over the ztarn and keep her head ztraight. Zhe'll go down fast enough. We ought to row up to fetch that fish we left, but we couldn't do it, zir; for I'm dead beat trying to get to you—just dead beat."
He closed his eyes, and then opened them again as he felt the warm grasp of Nic's hand, smiled at him, till his eyelids dropped again, and then sank into a deep stupor more than sleep.
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR.
The sun sank lower and disappeared behind the trees straight away as the boat drifted on; the sky turned of a glorious amber, darkened quickly, and then it was black night, with the eerie cries of the birds rising on either side, and the margins of the swift river waking up into life with the hoarse bellowings and croakings of the reptiles which swarmed upon the banks. Every now and then there was a rush or a splash, or the heavy beating of the water, as some noisome creature sought its prey; and Nic sat there watching and listening, wakeful enough, and always on the alert to catch the breathing of his companion, who for hours had not stirred.
"Beat out," said Nic to himself; "utterly exhausted, poor fellow! If I could only feel that it was a natural sleep."
He was thoroughly done-up himself, and in spite of his efforts to keep awake, and the dread inspired by the movements of the strange creatures splashing about in the water, and often enough apparently close at hand, he could not keep from dozing off time after time, but only to start up in an agony of fear. He hardly lost consciousness, and at such times the startling noises and movements around him in the darkness seemed to be continued in the wild dreams which instantly commenced.
Now in imagination he saw through the transparent darkness some huge alligator making for the boat, where it reared itself up, curved over, and seemed about to seize upon Pete, when he raised the oar with which he was keeping the boat's head straight and struck at the monster with all his might, and in the act awoke.
Another time Nic dropped off, to imagine that they were slowly gliding beneath the far-spreading boughs of a gigantic forest tree; and, as they swept on, something soft and heavy suddenly hung down into the boat, began crawling about, and at last stopped its progress by coiling itself round one of the thwarts, and then raising its head high in the air and beginning to dart its tongue, now at Nic, now at the motionless body of Pete, who still lay sleeping soundly.
Nic felt powerless, and lay watching the approach of the huge boa, seeing it plainly in spite of the darkness and suffering an agony of horror as he felt that he could not move, but must lie there, quite at the mercy of the powerful reptile, which drew the boat over so much on one side that the water, as it rippled by, rose apparently higher and higher till it was about to pour in.
Ripple, ripple, ripple, against the sides, while the boughs of a tree swept over his face, the touch awakening the dreamer, who uttered a low gasp of relief as he realised how much the water and the brushing of the leaves over his face had had to do with the dream from which he had just been roused.
Morning at last, with the east all aglow, and the beauties of river and tree sweeping away the horrors of the black night.
Pete awoke as if by instinct, and started into a sitting position, to stare hard at his companion.
"Why, Master Nic, you aren't never gone and let me sleep all night?"
"Indeed, but I have, Pete," replied Nic. "Feel better?"
"No, zir. Never felt so 'shamed of myself in my life. Oh dear! oh dear! To think of my doing that! Where are we, zir? 'Most got to that t'other zattlement, aren't uz?"
"What! where we rested for the night, Pete? No; I don't think we are near that yet."
"Then get nigh we must," cried Pete, putting out his oar. "We've got to find some braxfuss there. What we had yes'day don't zeem to count a bit. I zay, though, you don't think they got another boat and passed us while we were asleep, do you?"
"No, Pete," replied Nic, smiling; "and I don't think that we shall dare to land at that plantation lower down. The man there would know we are escaped slaves, and stop us."
"He'd better not," said Pete, with a curious look in his eyes. "He's the only man there."
"There are several blacks."
"Blacks!" cried Pete contemptuously. "I'm not afraid o' them. It's o' no use, Master Nic; I've tried hard to bear it, and I can bear a deal, but when it comes to starvation it's again' my natur'. I must eat, and if he calls twenty blacks to stop me I mean to have zomething, and zo shall you. Why, lad, you look as if you're half-dead wi' want o' zleep and a morsel o' food. Nay, nay; you leave that oar alone, and cover your head up with those leaves while you have a good rest. By that time p'raps we may get a bit o' braxfuss."
"I'm not sleepy, Pete," said Nic sadly.
"P'raps not, zir; but man must eat and he must zleep, so you lie back in the bottom of the boat. Now, no fighting agen it, zir; you worked all night, zo I must work all day."
"Well, I'll lie down for an hour, Pete, for I do feel very weary. As soon as you think an hour's gone, you wake me up."
"Right, Master Nic, I will," cried Pete heartily; and after a glance up and down the river, the young man sank back in the bottom of the boat, settled the leafy cap and veil in one over his face to shield it from the sun, and the next minute—to him—he unclosed his eyes to find that Pete was kneeling beside him with a hand on each shoulder as if he had been shaking the sleeper.
"Hullo! Yes; all right, Pete, I've had such a sleep. Why, Pete, it must be getting on for noon."
"Ay, that it is, my lad; noon to-morrow. But don't bully me, zir; you was zleeping just lovely, and I couldn't waken you. Here we are at that farm-place, and I don't zee the man about, but yonder's the two women."
"And the dogs, Pete?"
"Nay, don't zee no dogs. Maybe they're gone along wi' the master. Come on, lad; I've tied the boat up to this post, and we'll go up and ask the women yonder to give us a bit o' zomething to eat."
The place looked very familiar as Nic glanced round and recalled the time when he reached there, and their departure the next morning, with the looks of sympathy the two women had bestowed.
Just as he recalled this he caught sight of the younger woman, who came from the door of the roughly-built house, darted back and returned with her mother, both standing gazing at their visitors as they landed from the boat.
"Must go up to the house quiet-like, Master Nic, or we shall scare 'em," said Pete. "Just you wave your hand a bit to show 'em you know 'em. Dessay they 'members we."
Nic slowly waved his hand, and then shrugged his shoulders as he glanced down at his thin cotton rags; and his piteous plight made him ready to groan.
"We must go up to them as beggars, Pete," he said.
"That's right enough for me, Master Nic; but you're a gentleman, zir, and they'll know it soon as you begin to speak. Let's go on, zir. I'm that hungry I could almost eat you."
Nic said nothing, but began to walk on towards the house by his companion's side, anxiously watching the two women the while, in the full expectation that they would retreat and shut the door against their visitors.
But neither stirred, and the fugitives were half-way to the house, when suddenly there was a growl and a rush.
"Knives, Master Nic," cried Pete, for three great dogs came charging from the back of the low shed which had given the slaves shelter on their journey up the river. The dogs had evidently been basking in the sunshine till they had caught sight of the strangers, and came on baying furiously.
Nic followed his companion's example and drew his knife, feeling excited by the coming encounter; but before the dogs reached them the two women came running from the door, crying out angrily at the fierce beasts, whose loud barking dropped into angry growls as they obeyed the calls of their mistresses—the younger woman coming up first, apron in hand, to beat off the pack and drive them before her, back to one of the out-buildings, while her mother remained gazing compassionately at the visitors.
"Thank you," said Nic, putting back his knife. "Your dogs took us for thieves. We are only beggars, madam, asking for a little bread."
"Have you—have you escaped from up yonder?" said the woman, sinking her voice.
"Yes," said Nic frankly. "I was forced away from home for no cause whatever. I am trying to get back."
"It is very shocking," said the woman sadly, as her daughter came running up breathlessly. "Some of the men they have there are bad and wicked, and I suppose they deserve it; but Ann and I felt so sorry for you when you came that night months ago. You seemed so different."
"You remember us, then?" said Nic, smiling sadly.
"Oh yes," cried the younger woman eagerly. "But they are hungry, mother. Bring them up to the house; I've shut-in the dogs."
"I don't know what your father would say if he knew what we did," said the woman sadly. "It's against the law to help slaves to escape."
"It isn't against the law to give starving people something to eat, mother."
"It can't be; can it, dear?" said the woman. "And we needn't help them to escape."
"No," said Pete; "we can manage that if you'll give us a bit o' bread. I won't ask for meat, missus; but if you give us a bit, too, I'd thank you kindly."
"Bring them up, mother," said the girl; "and if father ever knows I'll say it was all my fault."
"Yes; come up to the house," said the elder woman. "I can't bear to see you poor white men taken for slaves."
"God bless you for that!" cried Nic, catching at the woman's hand; but his action was so sudden that she started away in alarm.
"Oh mother!" cried the girl; "can't you see what he meant?"
The woman held out her hand directly, and Nic caught it. The next moment he had clasped the girl's hands, which were extended to him; but she snatched them away directly with a sob, and ran into the house, while the mother bade the pair sit down on a rough bench to rest.
The girl was not long absent; but when she returned with a big loaf and a piece of bacon her eyes looked very red.
"There," she said, setting the provisions before them; "you'd better take this and go, in case father should come back and see you. Don't, please, tell us which way you're going, and we won't look; for we shouldn't like to know and be obliged to tell. Oh!"
The girl finished her speech with a cry of horror; for how he had approached no one could have said, but the planter suddenly came up with a gun over his shoulder, and stood looking on as, with a quick movement, Pete snatched at the loaf and thrust it under one arm.
"Hullo!" said the man quietly as he looked from one to the other; "where are the dogs?"
"I shut 'em up, father, so as they shouldn't hurt these two poor men."
"An' s'pose these two poor men wanted to hurt you; what then?"
"But they didn't, father," said the girl, as the mother stood shivering. "They were hungry, and only wanted something to eat."
"Yes, that's right, master," said Pete stoutly. "We shouldn't hurt no one."
"Let's see," said the planter; "I've seen you both before. My neighbour brought you up months ago."
"Yes," said Nic firmly; "but he had no right to detain us as slaves."
"Humph! S'pose not," said the planter, glancing sharply from one to the other. "So you're both runaways?"
"We are trying for our liberty," replied Nic, who was well upon his guard; but the man's reply disarmed him.
"Well, it's quite nat'ral," said the planter, with a chuckle. "Hot work hoeing the rows, eh? Took the boat, I s'pose, and rowed down?"
"Yes," said Pete gruffly.
"Hungry too, eh?"
"Yes," said Pete again.
"Course you would be. Quite nat'ral. They've give you a bit to eat, I see. Well, then, you'd better come and sit down out o' the sun and eat it, and then be off, for your overseer won't be long before he's down here after you. He's a sharp un, Master Saunders, aren't he?"