"Daylight is coming," thought the boy, "and it is high time for me to be off." He was glad of an excuse for leaving a place that had all at once become filled with such unexplained terrors. Feeling his way cautiously to the river-bank, he reached the little raft without mishap. It took him some time to get it clear of the boom; but at length he succeeded, and with a very decided feeling of relief he pushed off into the current, and proceeded on his journey.
Winn's spirits rose as his clumsy craft moved out from the heavy shadows of the island, and he began to whistle to convince himself that he had not been afraid of anything after all. Suddenly he heard low voices close beside him, a dark object dashed up to his raft, and a dazzling light was flashed full in his face. The next instant two men sprang to his side, threw him down, searched him for arms, secured his knife, which was the only thing resembling a weapon that he possessed, and forced him into a large skiff containing several other men.
"Close the lantern," ordered one of these in a low but stern voice, "and pull for that fire on shore. No doubt we'll bag some more of them there." Then to Winn the man said, "So you thought you could give us the slip, did you, young fellow? Well, you found us up too early, didn't you? Now the best thing you can do is to afford us all possible aid in capturing the rest of your gang. It'll count big in your favor with the Judge, I can tell you. How many are there on the island?"
"I don't know what you mean—" began Winn, indignantly; but a heavy hand was instantly clapped over his mouth.
"Shut up!" whispered the man, hoarsely, but with terrible distinctness. "If you speak another loud word I'll brain you. You'll find out what I mean when we've landed you safely in Dubuque jail. Now answer me in a whisper. How many of your pals are on the island?"
"I haven't any pals," replied Winn, putting as much force into his whisper as he dared, "and there isn't any one on the island. This is an outrage, and—"
"That will do," answered the man, sternly. "If that's the tone you are going to take, we don't want to hear any more of it."
Just then the bow of the skiff was run on the bank, and the man, grasping Winn's arm, stepped ashore, saying, "Now make yourself useful, young fellow, and lead us to your mint or den or whatever you call it. If you don't want to I'll find a way to compel you, and if you try any low-down tricks, I'll make you wish you'd never been born."
"Do you mean the log-hut?" asked Winn.
"Yes, if that's what you call it; but you want to get a move onto you in a hurry."
Bewildered and indignant as he was, Winn was yet cool enough to realize the folly of resistance. He also reflected that when these men found the hut deserted, and that there was no one besides themselves on the island, they would be willing to listen to his story. At any rate, so long as he was in their power it was best to do as they directed. So, with the leader's hand still grasping his arm, the boy led the way into the narrow trail that he had already traversed so often.
Proceeding slowly, and with such extreme caution that not a sound betrayed their presence, the men followed in single file. At the edge of the little clearing Winn halted, and was about to speak, when a hand was again clapped over his mouth with the force of a blow.
"Whisper!" came the order.
"Well there's your hut," whispered the boy, as soon as he was given the chance, "and if you find any one in it, then I'm a liar, that's all."
The hut was plainly visible by the firelight that streamed from its open window. Winn wondered at the brightness of this light, for it seemed as though the fire he had left there the evening before ought to have burned out long ago. He also wondered that he did not remember having closed the door. As no light came from its direction, it certainly appeared to be closed now. As these thoughts flashed through the boy's mind, the man who held him, and who was evidently the leader of the party, whispered,
"You say there isn't anybody in there, but it looks to me as if there was. Anyhow, we'll find out in another minute, and if you've led us into a trap or played us false, I'll see that you swing for it, or my name's not Riley. Bill, you stay here and see that this chap doesn't put up any game on us while we surround that den of thieves. Have your guns ready for use, men."
Although all this was spoken in a whisper, inaudible beyond its immediate group of hearers, there was no mistaking the man's stern meaning, and Winn experienced an uneasy dread such as he had not heretofore felt throughout this strange adventure.
Suppose there should be some one in the hut? Suppose the "river-traders" had returned to the island and should resent this intrusion even to the point of resisting it? In such a case what would happen to him? If his captors were triumphant they would declare he had led them into a trap, for doing which they had promised to hang him. If, on the other hand, the "river-traders" had returned and should make a successful fight, would not their wrath also be directed towards him for leading their assailants to the hut? In either case, it seemed to the bewildered boy that his position was decidedly unpleasant, and he awaited the immediate developments of the situation with no little anxiety.
Those who had followed him had disappeared like shadows, and Winn could not detect a sound save the suppressed breathing of the man who had been detailed to guard him, and who now held his arm.
Suddenly a dog's bark broke the stillness, and a loud challenge, followed by a pistol shot, rang out through the night air. There was a confused trampling; the forest echoed with a roar of guns; the door of the hut was burst open, and a furious rush was made for the interior.
In his excitement Winn's guard loosed his hold of the boy's arm and took a step forward, the better to distinguish what was going on.
Winn was free, and acting upon the impulse of the moment, he slipped behind a great tree-trunk, stole noiselessly a few paces farther, and then dashed away with the speed of a deer back over the trail leading to the river. He did not pause when he reached the camp in which he had passed the night so unhappily, but bounded down the bank to the water's edge. Here he cast loose the painter of the skiff that had brought Mr. Riley and his men to the island, and, with a mighty shove towards the channel, gave a spring that landed him at full length in its bottom. Here he lay breathless and almost motionless for the next thirty minutes, or until his craft had drifted below the tail of the island, and was spinning down the main channel of the great river.
BILLY BRACKETT'S SURPRISING SITUATION.
When Billy Brackett set forth on his search for a nephew and a runaway raft he did not anticipate any difficulty in finding them. The appearance of the raft had been minutely described to him, and, according to this description, it was too distinctive in its character to be mistaken for anything else. Three shanties, and they of unusual construction, on a raft of that size formed a peculiarity sufficient to arrest the immediate attention of all river men. Thus the young engineer felt certain that by making an occasional inquiry and proceeding at a speed at least double that of the raft, he could easily trace and overtake it, even though it should not run aground, which he thought more than likely to happen early in its voyage.
So Billy Brackett rowed down the creek without a trace of anxiety to mar the pleasure of the adventure into which he had so unexpectedly tumbled. One peculiarity of this light-hearted young man was that no proposition to leave a beaten track and strike into an unexplored trail, even though it led in exactly the opposite direction, could be too absurd or unexpected to meet with his ready approval, always providing it promised plenty of adventure. At the same time he never lost sight of the fact that he had a living to earn, besides a professional reputation to win and maintain. Consequently he generally managed to make his adventures keep step with his duties. In the present instance he felt that Major Caspar's aid was necessary to the fulfilling of his timber contract. He also realized that the only way to obtain it was by taking his brother-in-law's place in searching for the lost raft and navigating it down the river to a market. He had no family ties to bind him to times or places, and with Bim for company he was ready to start at any moment for any portion of the globe.
"Bim" was a diminutive of Cherubim, a name bestowed by its present owner upon the wretched puppy that he had rescued from an abandoned emigrant wagon high up in the California Sierras, because like Cherubim and Seraphim he "continually did cry." The little one was nearly dead, and its mother, lying beside it, was quite so, when they were discovered by the tender-hearted engineer. He had fought his way through a blinding snowstorm and high-piled drifts to the abandoned wagon on the chance of finding human beings in distress. When he discovered only a forlorn little bull-pup, he buttoned it warmly under his blanket overcoat and fought his way back to camp. During that struggle the helpless creature won its way to Billy Brackett's heart, as all young things, human or animal, were sure to do, and assumed a place there that had never since been resigned.
From that day Bim, or "U-Bim," as he was sometimes called, had so thrived under good feeding, kind care, and judicious training that when he started with his master to voyage down the great river he was as fine a specimen of a full-blooded bull-dog as could be found in the country. He was pure white, bow-legged, and broad-chested. His upper lip was drawn slightly back, so as to display his teeth; but this expression of ferocity was relieved by the almost human intelligence of his eyes. He was absolutely fearless, but as loving and gentle as he was brave. He understood every word spoken within his hearing, and his master declared that for his wisdom he ought to be named "Solomon." He never made an unprovoked assault upon a living creature, and would stand any amount of abuse from children or those weaker than himself. Let an indignity be offered to his beloved master in his presence, though, and his fury was as terrible as that of a young lion. Then woe to the unfortunate in whose flesh those gleaming teeth were once fastened. From the vise-like grip of the powerful jaws behind them nothing but death or Billy Brackett's command could effect a release.
Such were the occupants of the skiff that soon after dusk shot out from the mouth of the Caspar Creek on the broad bosom of the great river. Billy Brackett talked to his dog as he would to a human companion, and at that moment he was saying:
"Look here, Bim, I've a great mind to play a joke on that young nephew of ours when we find him. You see, he won't know us from Adam, and probably doesn't remember that he has an Uncle William in the world. Now what is to hinder us from working the stranger racket on him? Wrecked, or broke, or something, and want to earn a passage down the river on a raft, it being easier as well as more sociable and pleasanter in every way than a steamboat. What's to hinder us from doing it, eh? Nothing? Right you are, old dog, and we'll do it, too, if we get the chance. Thus will we discover what sort of stuff he is made of, and get acquainted with his inside self, as Glen Eddy used to say. So you understand, U-Bim, that you are not to give us away or let on that we are any kin to the Caspars. Sabe? All right. Now for a twenty-mile spin down-stream, and then we'll hunt a place to lie by for the night."
With this the young man bent lustily to his oars, while Bim sat in the stern of the skiff, alert to every movement made by his master, and swaying his body like that of a genuine cockswain.
Billy Brackett recognized the "Slant Crossing," when they reached it, from the description he had received of its length and direction; but below that point the river for a thousand miles was a blank so far as his personal knowledge of it was concerned.
Although the night was dark, and there were but few guide-lights on the river in those days, he found no difficulty in keeping the channel until the skiff passed through the chute at the head of Winn's island. At this point the false channel seemed, in the darkness, to be as wide and desirable as the true one, and for a minute he was puzzled as to which he should take. "Not that I suppose it would make any great difference," he remarked to Bim. "It's about time to tie up, though, and we want to be sure to do that on the main channel, so as not to miss a chance of seeing the raft at daylight."
For answer Bim left his seat, ran to the bow of the boat, uttered a short bark, and fixed his gaze pointedly down-stream.
"A light, as sure as you are a dog of wisdom!" cried Billy Brackett, looking in the direction thus indicated. "I vow, Bim, your name ought to be 'Solomon Minerva,' and I must have a 'howl' engraved on your collar the first chance I get. That is, if you ever arrive at the dignity of owning any collar besides that old strap. Your light looks as though it might proceed from a camp-fire, and I reckon it's on the main channel too. At any rate, we'll pull down there and make inquiries."
A few minutes later the skiff was run ashore near the beacon blaze that Winn Caspar had left on the eastern side of the island, and its occupants were searching the vicinity for those whom Billy Brackett had so confidently expected to find near it.
"It is very strange," he muttered. "Some one must have built this fire; but why he did so if he didn't want to camp beside it beats me. Hello! What's this? Hooray; we are on the right track after all! But what foolishness is that boy up to? and what can he be doing on this island? Thirdly, where is the raft? Eh, Bim! You haven't seen a stray raft round here, have you? No. I thought you would have mentioned it if you had. So he is on this island is he? and leaves word that we can find him by following the trail? Perhaps the trail leads to the raft; but where is the trail? Hello! you've struck it, have you? Good dog! Here, let me tie this bit of twine to your collar. There, now you're better than a lantern."
As we all know, the trail upon which Billy Brackett and Bim were thus started led directly to the log-hut in the forest. When the former discovered this, he fully expected to find his nephew within. To his surprise, although a fire smouldered on the hearth, there was no other sign of human occupancy. Then the young man searched in vain for some hit of writing, such as had guided him to this point.
"I declare!" he exclaimed at length; "the corollary is worse than the theorem, and things are becoming so decidedly mixed that we must begin to go slow. I for one propose to replenish that fire, and then bunk down right here for the rest of the night."
With this the young man went out into the darkness and began groping about for wood with which to keep up the fire until morning.
In the mean time, Bim, left to his own devices, had struck the trail leading from the hut to Winn's camp, and started along it, probably thinking that his master was following him as before. The dog soon discovered Winn, and undertook to establish friendly relations with him by rubbing his cold nose against the boy's cheek. The suddenness with which Winn started up caused the dog to spring back into the darkness, from the shelter of which he regarded his new acquaintance distrustfully. Just then Billy Brackett, to cheer the loneliness of his log-hut, began to chant the ballad of "The Baldheaded Man," and Bim, hearing his master's voice, darted off in that direction.
Now Billy Brackett, though very fond of music, and possessed of an inextinguishable longing to produce melodious sounds, could not sing any more than Bim could. His efforts in this line had so often been greeted with derisive shouts and unkind remarks by his engineering comrades that he no longer attempted to sing in public. When alone, however, and out of hearing of his fellows, he still sometimes broke forth into song. Bim always howled in sympathy, but the effect of their combined efforts had never been so surprising as upon the present occasion, when they caused the precipitate flight from the island of the very nephew for whom the young engineer was searching.
In blissful ignorance of this unfortunate result of their performance, Billy Brackett and Bim sang and howled in concert, until their repertory was exhausted, when they lay down on the floor of the hut, and with the facility of those to whom camp life has become a second nature, were quickly asleep. From this slumber Billy Brackett was startlingly awakened, some time later, by Bim's bark, and a pistol shot that rang out from the profound stillness of the forest like a thunder-clap. He grasped the dog's collar and sat up. Before he could rise any farther there came a roar of guns, a trampling of feet, a confusion of voices, a rush, and a crashing of wood. The next instant the door of his hut was burst in, and the room was filled with armed men, every one of whom seemed to be pointing a rifle or a pistol straight at his devoted head.
THE TRAPPERS TRAPPED.
When the leader of the party by whom Winn had been made prisoner (as related in the last chapter but one) peered cautiously in at the open window of the log-hut to make certain that it was occupied, he was disappointed to discover but one man, where he had confidently expected to find several.
This leader, who had told Winn that his name was Riley, was a Sheriff, though such a new one that this was his first important undertaking since assuming office. Consequently he was most anxious for its success, and also somewhat nervous from anxiety. He had laid his plans well, the hut was completely surrounded, and he was elated at the thought of the prize so surely within his grasp, as well as of the glory that would be his for effecting this important capture. He expected to find several men in the hut, and counted upon their being desperate characters who would make a stout resistance before yielding themselves prisoners. The Sheriff had therefore prepared his followers for a fight, and made all his arrangements with this in prospect. Now, to discover but one man, and he peacefully sleeping, caused these warlike preparations to appear ridiculous, and called for a decided modification of Mr. Riley's plans.
Having satisfied himself by a careful survey that the man had no companions, and that the hut contained no rifles nor other fire-arms, the Sheriff retired noiselessly from the window and rejoined his followers. He explained the situation in a whisper, and then proposed that as they could not fight a single unarmed man, they should paralyze him with terror. As the Sheriff expressed it, they would "scare him stiff" by a general discharge of guns, a yell, and a rush for the door. These were to follow a signal that he would give from his post at the open window, through which he would cover the sleeping man with his revolver.
The new programme being understood, the Sheriff returned to his station, pointed his pistol at Billy Brackett's head, and was about to order him to throw up his hands and surrender, when he made a slight movement that aroused Bim. This faithful sentinel sprang up with a loud bark. In the dim light Sheriff Riley had not noticed the dog, and he was so much upset by this unexpected challenge that his finger closed on the hair-trigger of his revolver. Fortunately his aim was so wild that no harm was done by the shot that followed. It was all the signal that the Sheriff's followers needed, and they immediately carried out their part of the programme to the letter.
When the tumult subsided, the situation was as already described. Billy Brackett sat on the floor, grasping Bim's collar, and awaiting further developments as calmly as though he were merely a disinterested spectator of this unique performance. The dog, with teeth displayed to an alarming extent, stood ready to fly at the invaders whenever he should be released. In front of this group, and a few paces from it, stood half a dozen men, all of whom held guns that were pointed at the young engineer. The form of the Sheriff, with pistol still levelled at his prisoner, appeared at the open window.
"Do you surrender?" he demanded.
"Certainly," replied Billy Brackett, cheerfully; "if you desire it. I'm always ready to accommodate, especially when it's no trouble to do so."
"Throw up your hands, then," commanded the Sheriff.
"To do that," argued the prisoner, without moving, "I shall be obliged to let go my hold of this bull-dog. The moment I do so our friends with the empty guns will be apt to fancy that about a yard of particularly hot and well-greased lightning has been forged for their especial benefit. Still, if you insist—"
"Oh, hang your dog!" exclaimed Mr. Riley. "You must hold on to him, of course, until we can find a rope to tie him with. Where are your pals?"
"This is the only one I have at present," answered Billy Brackett, indicating him by a glance; "but I am in search of another, and have reason to believe that he is on this island at this very minute. Haven't seen anything of him, have you? He is a young fellow, about sixteen, named Caspar, son of Major Caspar, of Caspar's Mill, up the river a bit. He left home yesterday on a raft, and I was to join him hereabouts."
"What sort of a raft?" asked the Sheriff.
"Big timber raft. Two sweeps at each end, and three shanties on it, two of them filled with wheat."
"No," replied Mr. Riley, in a relieved tone; for on hearing the well-known name of Caspar his men had exchanged meaning looks and smiles, which indicated their belief that the Sheriff might be getting into hot-water. "I did arrest a young rascal of about that age half an hour ago," he continued, "just as he was leaving this island on a raft; but it was only a small affair, built of two or three logs, and not at all such a raft as you describe. I've got the boy out here now, and I believe him to be one of your pals, in spite of your cheeky talk. Yon don't want to give me any more of it, either," he concluded, in a fierce tone, assumed to reassert the dignity of his office. "So just cork up, and come along quietly, or you may find yourself in trouble."
"All right," replied Billy Brackett, calmly; "but first, perhaps you'll be kind enough to tell me who you are, why you are taking such an interest in me, and where you want me to go."
"I am the Sheriff of Dubuque County, Iowa," was the answer. "I have a warrant for your arrest as a member of the most dangerous gang of counterfeiters that has ever operated in this section of country, and I want you to go with me to the county jail, which will be only a stopping-place on your journey to State-prison."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Sheriff, and obliged for your courtesy," said Billy Brackett, politely. "Now if you will do me the favor to read the names mentioned in your warrant, I shall have nothing further to request."
"William Gresham, alias Gilder, et al.," replied Mr. Riley.
"Good. But suppose I can prove to you that I am not the person you take me to be, and that my name is neither Gresham nor Gilder, et al., but that I am a civil engineer, William Brackett by name, brother-in-law of Major Caspar, whom I am certain you must know, and that you are making a rather sizable mistake in connection with this business. Supposing, also, I state that I am just now engaged on an important mission which will not admit of delay, and that in case you insist on taking me to jail, I can and will make you suffer, even to the extent of losing your office."
By this time Billy Brackett was standing up, while Bim, reluctantly obeying his stern command, lay motionless at his feet. The men of the Sheriff's posse had ceased to level their guns at the young engineer, and even Mr. Riley was so impressed with this bold attitude and declaration of innocence that he consented to come inside the hut and examine the papers offered for his inspection. He was about to declare his satisfaction with them, and admit that perhaps he had made a mistake, when the man whom he had left to guard Winn rushed up with the announcement that his prisoner had escaped.
At this the Sheriff's face clouded angrily. "We'll find him if he is still on the island!" he exclaimed. "If he has left it we'll follow him; and, at any rate, Mr. Brackett, I must now insist upon your coming to Dubuque, where you will be granted every opportunity for proving what you please. In the mean time, you and I will await here the result of the search for the escaped prisoner that my men will at once proceed to make."
To this Billy Brackett returned no answer, but stood silently considering how he should avoid the vexatious delay that now appeared inevitable. While he was thus cudgelling his brains, one of the searching party returned to report that the skiff in which they had come up the river was missing.
The Sheriff became furious. "I don't believe it!" he cried. "Here, you! Stop and guard this prisoner, while I go and take charge of the search myself."
As Mr. Riley departed, the new guard entered the hut, leaned his rifle against the wall, and took a seat near the door.
Then Billy Brackett stooped and whispered to his ever-faithful comrade, "Watch him, Bim!" and the dog answered with a low growl that spoke volumes. Turning to the guard the young engineer said, "My friend, if you make the slightest motion or shout for help, that bull-dog will fly at your throat. I am going to leave you alone with him for a minute, and as you value your life, I beg of you to keep perfectly quiet until you hear from me." With this the prisoner leaped lightly from the window and disappeared.
For two minutes the guard sat as motionless as though carved from stone, his fascinated gaze fixed on the gleaming teeth and bloodshot eyes of the bull-dog that stood rigidly before him. Then a shrill whistle rang out on the still air, and at its sound the dog, dashing past him, disappeared like a flash. In another minute Billy Brackett's lusty strokes were sending his own skiff dancing out towards the middle of the main channel, while Bim, thumping with his tail in appreciation of his master's praises, occupied the stern seat as calmly as though with him such events as those just recorded were of every-day occurrence.
WINN'S LONELY CRUISE.
During the half-hour that Winn allowed to elapse before he considered it safe to rise from his recumbent position in the bottom of the skiff, he had ample opportunity to recover his breath, and reflect upon the new situation into which he had been so strangely forced. At first he fancied that he heard sounds of pursuit, and momentarily expected to be greeted by a stern order from the bank to bring the skiff ashore. He wondered if a failure to comply would be followed by a rifle-shot, and then began to calculate the chances of being hit in such a case. But why should he be shot at? What had he done that he should be arrested, threatened with jail and hanging, and treated like an outlaw generally? Whom did these men take him for? and who were they? By the manner in which they had spoken of a judge, they must represent the law in some way; but why he should be an object of their pursuit puzzled the boy more than a little.
To be sure, he had now laid himself open to the suspicion of being a river thief, by carrying off their skiff. Would it not be well to return it at once? He could talk to them, and explain how he happened to be on the island, while still at such a distance from shore as to be beyond their reach. They might shoot, though, and if they really considered him the rascal they pretended, it was almost certain that they would. No, that plan would not work. The only thing left to be done was to take the skiff to Dubuque, telegraph to his father from there, or try and find one of the Major's friends in that city who would do so for him, and at the same time provide him with food and shelter until his father came. Yes, that was the best plan.
Having reached this determination, Winn sat up and looked about him. The light which he had mistaken for dawn was that of a late-rising moon, and it hardly penetrated the mist hanging low over the river. There was nothing in sight; not even the dark mass of timber on the island. Winn might have been in the middle of the ocean for all that he could see or hear. Never in his life had the boy felt so utterly forsaken and alone. He decided to pull diagonally across the current towards shore, the mere sight of which would be reassuring. But where were the oars? Until this moment he had not noticed that there were none in the boat. For some unknown reason they had been taken from it when the party landed on the island; and now the lonely navigator was utterly without the means of propelling or even guiding his craft. He tried to tear up one of the floor boards, with the idea of using it as a paddle; but it was nailed in place so firmly as to resist his utmost efforts. Finally, faint for want of food, exhausted, and disheartened, the poor boy threw himself in the bottom of the skiff and yielded to his despair. At length he fell asleep.
So the dawn of Winn's second day on the river caught him napping, as the first had done. In its gray light the skiff drifted past the little city of Dubuque, perched high on the bluffs of the western bank, but no one saw it. There were several steamboats and trading scows tied to the narrow levee, but their crews were still buried in slumber. Even had they been awake they would hardly have noticed the little craft far out in the stream, drifting with the hurrying waters. In a few minutes it was gone, and the sleeping city was none the wiser for its passing. So for hours it drifted, now bow on, then broadside to, and as often stern first; here caught and spun round by an eddy, then tossed aside and allowed to proceed on its unguided course. The cotton-woods on the tow-heads beckoned to it with their trembling fingers; but it paid no heed. Grim snags lay in wait for it, but it nimbly avoided them, and as the hours passed each one of them saw the drifting skiff some miles farther away from the island at which this strange voyage was begun.
When Winn finally awoke, he was so bewildered, and so much at a loss to account for his surroundings, that for a minute he lay motionless, collecting his scattered senses. It certainly was late in the day, for the sun was shining full upon him from high in the heavens. He had that comfort at least; but oh! how he ached from lying on that hard floor, and how faint he was from hunger.
The boy's head rested on a thwart, and he faced the after-end of the skiff. As he was about to rise, his glance fell on something wrapped in newspaper and tucked under the stern seat. If it should only prove to be food of any description, "even burned mush," thought Winn, grimly, how happy it would make him! In another second he was undoing, with eager fingers, the lunch of crackers and cheese that Sheriff Riley's wife had so thoughtfully thrust into her husband's hands as he left the house the morning before, and which he had as thoughtfully tucked under the stern seat of his skiff. He was probably thinking of it, and wishing he had it, at this very moment. As for Winn, he was eating it as fast as possible, and thinking that he had never tasted such good crackers or such a fine piece of cheese in his life. With each mouthful his spirits rose and his strength returned, until, when the last crumb had disappeared and been washed down with a double handful of sweet river-water, the boy's pluck and cheerfulness were fully restored.
Now what should he do? He did not know that he had passed Dubuque, though he feared that such might be the case. Thinking of it brought to mind the island with those upon whom he had so recently turned the tables, and left as prisoners within its limits. He even laughed aloud as he pictured them toiling, as he had toiled the evening before, to construct a raft on which to escape. "I wonder if they found any one in that log-hut," he thought, recalling its lighted window. "And, oh! if it should have been father! It might have been. He might have seen my signal-fire, found my message, and got as far as the hut. Now what will he do? Oh, how I wish I could get back! Why didn't I think of all this before leaving the island? That was a horrid sound in the woods, though. And that animal! I wonder what it could have been?"
By this time the current had carried the skiff close in to the drowned bottom-lands of the Illinois shore. They were covered with a heavy growth of timber, and Winn knew that in many places the wellnigh impassable swamps which this concealed extended back a mile or more from the channel. Otherwise he would have abandoned the skiff and made the attempt to swim ashore.
The Iowa bluffs rose invitingly on the opposite side of the river. On them he saw a few scattered settlements, but they were too far away, and he must wait until the current set him in that direction before thinking of making a landing. He saw an occasional ferry-boat making its slow way across the river, but it was always either too far above him or too far below him for his signals to be noticed, and so the hours dragged on until it was late afternoon, and Winn was again beginning to feel the pangs of hunger.
"I can't spend another night in this wretched boat!" he exclaimed aloud, when he saw that the sun was within an hour of its setting. "I'll swim the whole width of the river first!"
During the day he had passed a number of small islands, but had not cared to attempt a landing on them. He knew that he would be even worse off on an island than in the skiff, and so he had watched them glide by without giving them any particular thought. Suddenly it occurred to him that on any one of these islands he might pick up an oar, a paddle, or at least something that would answer in place of these, and from that instant they acquired a new interest.
The next one that he approached was only a tow-head, which is a sand-bar on which has sprung up a thick growth of slender cotton-woods, or other quick-shooting, water-loving trees.
"I might find what I want there as well as on a larger island," thought Winn, "and, at any rate, I'll make a try for it." So when the skiff had drifted as near the tow-head as it seemed likely to, and was rapidly sliding past it, the boy threw off his coat, kicked off his shoes, and, taking one end of the skiff's painter with him, plunged overboard and began to swim towards the desired point.
The distance was not more than a hundred feet, but the current swept him down so much more rapidly than he expected that he was barely able to catch one of the very last of the tow-head saplings and cling to it. While his own progress was thus checked, that of the skiff was not, and in a second the painter was jerked from his hand.
Exhausted as he was, Winn was on the point of letting go his hold on the sapling and making a desperate effort to overtake the rapidly receding skiff. Fortunately he had enough practical sense, though this is not generally credited to sixteen-year-old boys, to restrain him from such a rash act. So he crawled out on the sand beach, and sat there watching what he considered to be his only hope grow smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared. As it did so, the sun slowly sank behind the western bluffs; and though the boy did not look up from the wet sand on which he had flung himself, he knew instinctively that another night, with its darkness, its chill, and its nameless terrors, was upon him.
He was so numbed by this latest disaster that he had not the heart even to seek a place of shelter for the night. What good would anything that he could find or construct do him? He had neither matches nor food, dry clothing nor bedding. What did it matter, though? He would probably be dead before the sun rose again, anyway. So the poor lad nursed his misery, and might, in truth, have lain on those wet sands until he perished, so despairing was he, when all at once he was aroused by a sound so strange to hear in that place that, though he raised his head to listen, he thought he must be dreaming. He wasn't, though, for there came again to his ears, as distinct as anything ever heard in his life, a merry peal of clear girlish laughter. Not only that, but it sounded so close at hand that the boy sprang to his feet and gazed eagerly in the direction from which it came, fully expecting to see its author standing near him.
A PEAL OF GIRLISH LAUGHTER.
In vain did Winn gaze in every direction, up and down the river, across its darkening waters, and into the shadowy thicket behind him. There were no objects in sight, save those with which he was already only too familiar. Again he began to doubt the evidence of his senses, and wonder if his mind had not become somewhat unsettled by his misfortunes. But no, there was the ringing peal of laughter again. This time it was accompanied by a strange chattering sound such as he had never heard before. At the same moment a most delicious whiff of frying bacon reached the hungry boy, mingled with the unmistakable and equally enticing odor of coffee. There was no doubt as to the direction from which these came, and plunging into the cotton-wood thicket, Winn made his way diagonally up and across the tow-head.
In less than a minute he reached its opposite side, where he halted to gaze with amazement at the very strangest-looking craft he had ever seen. At first he thought it a small stern-wheeled steamboat. She certainly had such a wheel, but then there was no chimney. Perhaps she was a trading-scow. Who ever heard, though, of a trading-scow with a pilot-house such as this nondescript craft had on the forward end of its upper deck? Besides, there were no sweeps, nor was she in the least like any trading-scow Winn had ever seen. A low house occupied her entire width, and extended along her whole length except at the curve of her bows, where there was room left for a small deck. A structure with a door and windows, that was somewhat larger than the pilot-house, rose from the upper deck near its after-end. There were three doors on each side of the main house, a large one well forward, a small one nearly amidship, and another large one well aft. There were also six small windows on each side, and from three of those nearest Winn a cheerful light was streaming, while the other three were dark. There was a name painted on the boat's side in such large black letters that even in the fading twilight Winn managed to read it—"W-H-A-T-N-O-T," he spelled slowly—"Whatnot! Well, if that isn't the queerest name for a boat I ever heard of!"
Just then, however, there were things of far greater importance to a boy in his situation than queer names. The tantalizing odors that were pouring from that after-window, for instance, and the sound of voices that rang out merrily from the two just beyond it. The boat was moored to a tree, with her bows pointed up-stream, and had swung in so close to shore that by standing on a half-submerged log, which served as a fender to keep her off a few feet from the bank, Winn could look into one of the open windows. It was evidently that of the galley, for the odor of frying came from it, and half hidden in a cloud of fragrant steam was the form of a negro bending over a small stove.
This was a welcome and comforting sight; but hungry as he was, Winn's curiosity was stronger than his appetite. He must see into those other windows, and discover the source of the merry laughter that had so suddenly banished his loneliness and despair of a few minutes before. Cautiously advancing a few steps along the slippery log, he reached a point that commanded a view of the room or compartment next forward of the galley. It was of good size, and occupied the entire width of the boat.
In the centre of this room was a table spread for supper, and beside it, so as to take advantage of its bright lamp, was a group that to Winn appeared both extraordinary and fascinating. A white-haired old man was seated before an easel, on which was stretched a large canvas. A young girl stood near him watching the movements of his brush with deep interest, and at the same time evidently restraining, with gentle but firm hands, the impatient struggles of something which she addressed as "Don Blossom," but whether it was a child or an animal Winn could not see. In his effort to do so he stood on tiptoe, and just as the old man began to say, "There, Sabella, that will do for this sitting," the boy's treacherous footing slipped from under him.
With a half-suppressed cry and a loud splash he was plunged headlong into the narrow space of water between the boat and the shore.
A frightened exclamation came from the interior of the boat, and then the small door on that side was flung open. At the same instant a woolly head was thrust out of the galley window, and a trembling voice cried, "Golly, Marse Cap'n! Wha' dat ar? Yo' heah um?"
"Yes, Solon, I heard it, and you want to come here as quick as you can. Some one is in trouble," answered the old man, who was standing with the girl in the open doorway. He held a lamp above his head, and was peering anxiously in the direction of the splashings and flounderings that Winn, sitting in the shallow water, but tightly wedged between the log and the boat, was making in his efforts to extricate himself.
"Who's there?" cried the old man, who could not yet make out what was taking place; "and what are you doing?"
"It's me!" returned Winn, regardless of his grammar; "and I am sinking in this awful mud. Hurry up and push your boat away from the log, or I shall be drowned!"
While the old man and the negro exerted all their strength at the pole, with which they finally succeeded in pushing the boat a foot or so out into the stream, Sabella was also busy. Though greatly excited, and somewhat alarmed by the unexpected appearance of a human being in that place, and his perilous situation, she still had presence of mind enough to run for a rope, one end of which she fastened to the table. She carried the other end out through the door, and tossed it over the side just in time for Winn to catch it, as the moving of the boat once more gave him freedom of action.
Hauling himself up by this welcome rope, and at the same time being assisted by the two men, the boy quickly gained the open doorway, where he stood blinking in the bright lamplight, while mud and water ran from him in streams. He faced the occupants of the boat, who, standing a few steps back in the room, regarded him with undisguised wonder, not unmixed with suspicion. On the table behind them stood a small, gaudily-dressed object, that Winn at first took to be a child. Upon his appearance it remained motionless for a few seconds, and then, with a frightened cry, it sprang to the little girl's shoulder, from which it peered at the stranger, chattering angrily all the while.
"Well, I am blest if this isn't a most extraordinary situation!" exclaimed the old man. "It suggests a tableau of Venus rising from the sea."
"Or a alligator," said the negro.
Sabella wanted to laugh at the comical spectacle presented by the dripping, coatless, hatless, bare-footed, and generally woe-begone boy; but pitying his evident embarrassment, she exclaimed:
"Uncle, how can you! Don't you see that he is shivering? You must go at once and find him some dry clothes. Solon, show this boy to the engine-room, where he can change his wet things. Don Blossom, be quiet, sir! Aren't you ashamed of yourself!" Then, turning to Winn with a cheery smile, she said, "We are very sorry for your accident, and should like to know all about it after you are dry again. If you will go with Solon to the engine-room, he will do everything he can for you."
The Captain had already hastened away on his quest for dry clothing. As he left the room, Winn noticed that he had a wooden leg. It was not one of the modern kind, so carefully constructed as to closely resemble the real article, but an old-fashioned, iron-shod stick of timber strapped to his right knee.
As Sabella finished speaking, she too left the room, running after the Captain, and smiling cheerfully as she went at the mud-streaked boy, who still stood speechless and motionless in the doorway.
Now, at Solon's invitation he followed the negro into what had been called the engine-room, though to Winn's eye it looked as little like an engine-room as any place he had ever known. At one side was a horse-power treadmill, such as he had often seen used for the sawing of wood. Half of it was sunk below the level of the deck, and covered with a removable floor. It was geared in the most direct and simple manner to a shaft that disappeared through the rear wall of the room, and presumably connected with the stern wheel he had previously noticed. There was also a belt extending to a shaft pulley overhead, but beyond this there was no trace of machinery, nor was there either boiler or furnace. There was what looked like a stall at one end of the room, but it contained only bales of hay and sacks of oats.
"Yes, sah, we uses a mewel-ingine when we hab um. We hain't got no mewel at de present time, but we 'specs ter contrac' fer one shortly," explained the negro, noting Winn's inquiring glances, as he assisted him to remove his wet garments.
Before the boy had a chance to ask the questions that were at his tongue's end, he, as well as the other occupants of the boat, was startled by a loud hail from the river.
"Hello! What steamer is that?"
"The Whatnot, of Dubuque," was the answer.
"Do you know the Sheriff of Dubuque County?"
"Who—Riley? Yes, I know him."
"Do you know his skiff?"
"As well as I know my own boat, for I built it."
"Have you seen it pass down the river to-day, containing only a boy between sixteen and seventeen years old?"
"No. Haven't seen it or any other skiff. What's the matter? Has it been stolen?"
"That'll do, thank you. Good-night," came the reply, without an answer to this last question, and then the stranger passed out of hearing down the river.
"CAP'N COD," SABELLA, AND THE WHATNOT.
In order to explain the presence beside that tow-head of the queer craft on board which Winn had found shelter, and of its several occupants, who were making such kindly efforts to relieve his distress, it is necessary to take a twenty-year glance backward. At that time Aleck Fifield, a Yankee jack-of-all-trades, who had been by turns a school-teacher, sailor, mechanic, boat-builder, and several other things as well, found himself employed as stage-carpenter in a Boston theatre. He had always been possessed of artistic tastes, though they had never carried him beyond sign-painting, and of dramatic longings, which had thus far been satisfied with a diligent reading of Shakespeare and attending the theatre at every opportunity. Now, being regularly connected with the stage, both these tastes expanded, until through one of them he blossomed into a very passable scene-painter. Through the other he overwhelmed himself with despair, and convulsed an audience with laughter, by appearing once, and once only, as Captain Thomas Codringhampton in the popular sea drama of "Blue Billows." His failure as an actor was so dismal and complete as to be notorious. Unkind comparisons of other bad acting with that of Cap'n Cod became stock jokes in every theatre of the country. From that day the stage name clung to him; and though it galled at first, the passage of time soothed the wound, until finally Aleck Fifield became proud of the name. As he grew older, it represented to him the fame for which he had longed when young. When the war broke out and he became one of the bravest defenders of the Union, he was everywhere known as "Cap'n Cod." After the war, in which he managed to lose a leg, he went to Iowa to live with his only relative, a widowed niece, who had but one child, a little girl.
Between this child, Sabella, and the white-haired veteran, who could tell more tales than a fairy-book, and construct more toys than Santa Claus ever dreamed of, there sprang up an affection that could not have been stronger had they been father and daughter. On one side it was based upon boundless love and admiration, and on the other upon admiration and boundless love. When Sabella went to school, the Captain's business kept him within sight of the school-house; and when school was out, the little girl was nowhere happier than in his company. For her sake he was the friend of her friends, and among the children of Dubuque no one was so popular as Cap'n Cod. They did not live in the city, but on a small farm a few miles from it, and this Cap'n Cod was supposed to manage. Farming was, however, the one occupation for which he had no taste, and but for his capable niece the annual crops would not have paid the expense of raising them.
When Sabella was twelve years old and rapidly developing into beautiful girlhood, her mother died, leaving her and her little property to the unrestricted guardianship of Cap'n Cod. Now matters went from bad to worse so far as the farm was concerned, until, to save it from the hammer, it was deemed best to rent it to a more practical farmer than the child's devoted guardian.
This gave Cap'n Cod the opportunity and an excuse for carrying out a cherished scheme that, but for the opposition of his niece, he would have put into operation long before. It was the painting of a panorama, the building of a boat to hold it, and thus equipped, to float away down the great river in search of fame and fortune. Now Sabella must of course be included in the plan; for not only did she and Cap'n Cod consider it impossible to get along without each other, but the latter declared that such a bit of travel would be the very best kind of an education for his grand-niece.
This scheme had been in the old man's mind for so long that the panorama, worked on at odd moments for more than two years, was nearly finished at the time of his niece's death. With his own savings, and largely by his own labor, he now built his boat, the Whatnot. When she was completed, his money was gone. But what of that? Was he not prepared to realize a fortune? He knew that it would shortly be theirs, and Sabella's faith was strong as his. She never for a moment doubted that her dear guardian was the artist he claimed to be, or that the panorama he had painted was the most perfect thing of its kind ever seen. So she was as enthusiastic concerning the project as the old man himself, and eagerly aided in his preparations to the full extent of her ability. There was but one point on which they disagreed. When Cap'n Cod had exhausted his own resources, and the motive power of the Whatnot still remained unprovided, Sabella begged that he would draw some of her money from the bank and use it, but this the old man firmly declined to do.
"No, Sabella," he would say; "what is mine is yours; but what is yours is your own, and it would be as bad as stealing for me to touch it."
"But it is mine," the girl would argue; "and if I want to give it to you, more than I want to do anything else with it, I don't see why you shouldn't let me."
"No, dear," her guardian would reply. "It is not yours. It is only held in trust for you until you become of age, by which time you will have many other uses for money besides gratifying an old man's whim."
"But you will pay it back long before then."
"I might, and then again I might not. There is nothing more uncertain than the things we think we are sure of."
Then the girl would throw her arms about his neck and exclaim, "Oh, you dear old stupid! How horridly honest you are! and what a beautiful world this would be if everybody in it was just like you."
"Yes, my dear; Stupidity and Honesty are apt to be comrades, and undoubtedly they would make a beautiful world if left to themselves; but it would be frightfully dull. Now don't you worry your pretty head about the mule, for we can drift with the current until we have given two or three exhibitions, and so made money enough to buy one. Then, having earned him, how much more shall we enjoy him than if he were only a borrowed mule?"
Cap'n Cod would have preferred a steamboat to one propelled by mule-power, but the expenses of machinery and an engineer were too great to be considered. He made the Whatnot look as much like a steamboat as he could, and even proposed ornamenting her with an imitation chimney as soon as he could afford such a luxury. He also hoped soon to be able to engage some active young fellow as deck hand and general assistant. In the mean time the Whatnot's crew consisted of himself, Sabella, and Solon, an old negro who had been cook of the mess to which Cap'n Cod had belonged in the army, and who had followed his fortunes ever since.
As nearly every one in Dubuque who was at all interested in such things had seen the panorama during its painting and construction, and as Cap'n Cod's dramatic reputation was well known there, he deemed it advisable to give the first exhibitions of his show in some smaller and less critical places. He called it a "show," because, even at the outset, it contained two attractions besides the panorama, and he hoped in the course of time to add still others.
Those already on hand were a monkey and a hand-organ, both of which were much greater rarities in the Mississippi Valley at that time than they are now. They formerly belonged to an Italian, who, sick, penniless, and friendless, had sunk exhausted by the road-side a few miles from Dubuque. Several persons passed him without heeding his feeble appeals for aid before Cap'n Cod happened along and discovered him. The old soldier at once engaged a team, carried the dying stranger home, and there, with Sabella's pitying aid, cared for him until the end, which came a few days later. During these last days his monkey was the man's inseparable companion. It cuddled beside him in bed, and answered his feeble terms of endearment with voluble chatterings. With his latest breath the dying stranger consigned his helpless pet to the same pitying care that had helped him over the bitterest of all human journeys. He said, "Monka, Don Bolossi, you keep-a him alway."
So Don Bolossi, Americanized to "Don Blossom," transferred all his affections to Sabella, and with the hand-organ, for which no claimant could be found, was added to the attractions of "Cap'n Cod's Great Panoramic Show."
One of the Captain's last bits of work in Dubuque was to build a skiff for Sheriff Riley, and with the money thus earned to defray immediate expenses, the Whatnot started on her voyage down the river at sunrise of the very morning on which Winn Caspar unconsciously drifted past Dubuque in that very skiff. Being deeper in the water, the show-boat drifted somewhat faster than the skiff, and so had nearly caught up with it by the time the tow-head was reached. Here Cap'n Cod determined to tie up for the night, as he did not wish to stop at a town until his final preparations for an exhibition were made.
Among these was the painting of a life-sized representation of Don Blossom hanging by his tail from the limb of a tree, which was to be displayed on the outside of the boat as an advertisement. This was the labor upon which the Captain was engaged when Winn Caspar discovered the Whatnot. Sabella had undertaken to hold the restless little model from which the white-headed artist was painting, and the peals of laughter that attracted Winn's attention were called forth by the absurdities of this situation.
BIM MAKES AN ENEMY.
Billy Brackett's satisfaction at his escape from a situation that promised to cause him a vexatious delay was tinged with a new anxiety concerning Winn. As he pulled swiftly across the river, so as to be lost to view from the island as quickly as possible, he expressed his feelings aloud to Bim:
"What new scrape can that young rascal have got into now—eh, old dog? It was bad enough to start down the river alone on a big raft without even bidding his folks good-bye; but now he seems to have lost the raft somewhere, to have landed on that island, to have been arrested for something, to have escaped, and to have run off with the Sheriff's boat. It looks as though he had the same happy faculty for getting into scrapes that distinguished my young friend Glen Eddy. Somehow I have a fellow-feeling for such boys. It is strange, too, for I can't remember ever getting into any scrapes myself. We must put a stop to it, though, in Winn's case. It will never do for him to be cavorting about in this scandalous manner, so long as we are responsible for his decent behavior and safe return. We shall surely find him, and probably the raft also, at Dubuque. Then we will take our nephew in hand, and by simple force of example instruct him in that dignity of deportment that steers clear of scrapes. Eh, Bimsey?"
At this Bim sprang from his seat, and made such a violent effort to lick his master's face that the latter was very nearly tumbled over backward. By the time order was restored, daylight was beginning to appear, and the young man saw that he was far enough below the island for it to be safe to again cross the river and head for Dubuque. He reached this place soon after sunrise, or about an hour after Winn passed it, and a few minutes after the departure of the Whatnot.
A hasty inspection of the various craft lining the water-front of the city convinced him that the raft was not among them. He found several persons who knew Sheriff Riley's skiff, but none of them had seen it that morning. This, however, did not discourage the young engineer, for a skiff is so much smaller than a raft as to be easily overlooked. He would make a more thorough search after visiting the hotel, where he hoped Winn might also have gone for breakfast.
On his way he stopped at the telegraph office, and sent the following despatch to both Mrs. Caspar and to the Major at Madison:
"Have heard of Winn, and am on his track. The boy is all right.——W. B."
"That is true so far as it goes," soliloquized Billy Brackett, "and will relieve their present anxiety. By to-morrow, or perhaps within a few minutes, I shall certainly have something more definite to wire."
At the hotel he was greatly disappointed to find no trace of the missing lad, and after eating a hearty breakfast he made a thorough search of the water-front, though of course without avail. He had intended dropping a hint here and there of the predicament in which he had left Sheriff Riley and his followers, but on second thoughts concluded to let them work out their own plan of escape from the island, rather than run the risk of further delay.
By noon he was ready to depart from Dubuque, satisfied that there was no information to be gained in that place concerning either Winn or the raft. Although he was not discouraged, he was puzzled, and was even beginning to feel anxious at the strange aspect this affair of the lost Venture was assuming.
Until sunset he rowed steadily and swiftly downstream, hailing the ferrymen as he passed, and stopping at the settlements on both sides of the river to make inquiries. He also hailed passing boats, and boarded several rafts that he discovered tied to the western bank, but all in vain. He failed to learn anything about Winn, and heard that but one raft had passed down the river the day before. It was described as having a single "shanty," a tent, and a crew of three men. As that was not the kind of a raft he was looking for, this information only added to the young man's perplexity. It never occurred to him that the raft might have been stolen and disguised. So, as he was certain he had not passed it, there was but one solution to the problem. The Venture must have been wrecked and gone to pieces during the storm of that first night, and Winn must have escaped to the island.
Even with this explanation the mystery of Winn's second disappearance remained as great as ever, and by the time Billy Brackett hailed the Whatnot, as has already been noted, he was as thoroughly bewildered as ever in his life. Nor could he decide on any plan of action that seemed in the least satisfactory. He knew there was a town a mile or so below where the Whatnot lay, and there he had determined to spend the night. But for his desire to reach this place before darkness should wholly shut in, he would have boarded the Whatnot merely to gratify the curiosity excited by her strange appearance. As it was, he felt that he had no time to spare, and so hastened on.
It was quite dark as he approached the lights marking the town he was seeking; but as he drew near he discovered what appeared like a part of the levee slowly moving out from shore. Above it rose dimly a white object that he had taken for a house, and still above this shown a lantern. In a moment he saw that it was a raft resuming its voyage down the river, and he determined to make an inquiry from its crew before landing.
Pulling his skiff alongside, the young man sprang aboard. As he did so he noticed that the white object was a tent, and that there was a single "shanty" amidship. It was the very raft that had been described to him as being the only one to pass down the river the day before. These details so occupied his attention that he did not notice a skiff made fast to the side of the raft just forward of where he tied his own. Not seeing it, he did not, of course, ask any questions concerning it. If he had, he might have learned that the raftsmen had just picked it up, floating, empty and ownerless, down the river. There had been no oars in it, but they had rowed it to the raft with an extra pair from their own skiff. In their preparations for departure they had not yet found time to examine it, and knew nothing of its contents.
As Billy Brackett walked towards the "shanty," there was a sudden commotion at its entrance. A gruff voice exclaimed,
"Get out of here, you cur!"
This command was evidently accompanied by a savage kick, which was immediately followed by a yell and a heavy fall as Bim's white teeth sank deep in the calf of one of Mr. Plater's legs.
The dog, tired of his long confinement in the skiff, had eagerly leaped aboard the raft, and with friendly inquisitiveness had poked his nose into the open doorway of the "shanty" just as Plater was emerging from it.
Bim's master realized in a moment what had happened, and sprang to the scene just as two other figures came running in the same direction from the forward end of the raft.
Mr. Plater, though on his back, had nearly succeeded in drawing a pistol from his hip pocket. In a few seconds more poor Bim's earthly career would have been ended, but his owner's movements were quick enough to save him, and before the pistol could be drawn, Billy Brackett had seized the dog's collar.
"Let go, sir!" he ordered, sternly, and Bim instantly obeyed the command. Then realizing that discretion is the better part of valor when the odds are three to one, the young engineer, with the dog in his arms, ran to the side of the raft, sprang into the skiff, and shoved off. He was followed by a storm of threats and angry imprecations, at which he only smiled, as he took to his oars and pulled through the friendly darkness towards the landing from which the raft had already drifted quite a distance.
Making his way to the wharf-boat, and giving the watchman a quarter to look out for his skiff until morning, Billy Brackett, weary and disheartened, sought such accommodation as the only hotel of the little town afforded. All night he tossed sleeplessly on his uncomfortable bed, striving in vain to unravel the mystery in which the fate of his nephew and of Major Caspar's raft had become enshrouded.
In the morning he strolled undecidedly down to the wharf-boat, and, missing his skiff, asked the watchman, who was just going off duty, what he had done with it.
"Why, there it is, sir, just where you left it," answered the man, in a surprised tone, pointing to a skiff that Billy Brackett was certain he had never seen before.
"That is not my boat," he said.
"It is the one you came in last night," answered the watchman. "And here is the coat you left in it. I took the liberty of bringing it in out of the dew."
The young engineer looked at the coat the man was holding towards him, and shook his head.
"That is not mine, either," he said.
"Whose is it, then?"
"I'm sure I don't know. You'd better look in the pockets. They may contain some clew."
Acting upon this suggestion the watchman thrust his hand into a breast-pocket of the coat and drew forth a note-book. He opened it.
"Here's something writ in it," he said; "but as I'm not quick at making out strange writing, maybe you'll read it, sir."
Taking the book from the man's hand, and glancing carelessly at its title-page, Billy Brackett uttered a cry of amazement. There, written in a clear boyish hand, was the inscription:
"Winn Caspar. His Book."
THE TRUTH, BUT NOT THE WHOLE TRUTH.
Winn was greatly perturbed by hearing from the Whatnot's engine-room the inquiries concerning Sheriff Riley's skiff, and Cap'n Cod's replies. He had not meant to steal the boat, of course, but it now seemed that he was regarded as having done so, and was being hotly pursued by some one interested in its recovery. It was not the Sheriff himself, for the voice was a strange one; so it was probably one of his men, who undoubtedly had one or more companions. Winn was too ignorant of the world to know whether escaping from a sheriff who had unjustly arrested him, and running off with his boat, would be considered a serious offence or not. He only knew that while perfectly conscious of his own innocence, he yet felt very much as though he were fleeing from justice. He had not even known until that minute that his late captor was a sheriff, nor could he imagine why he had been arrested. What he did know was that some one well acquainted with the fact that he had taken a skiff not his own was now searching for it and for him. This was sufficient to alarm him and fill his mind with visions of arrest, imprisonment, and fines which his father would be compelled to pay.
Then, too, the Captain of this strange craft on which he had just found an asylum, but from which he would already be glad to escape, had declared himself to be a friend of Sheriff Riley, and well acquainted with his boat. Of course, then, he would gladly aid his friend in recovering his property, and would not hesitate to make a prisoner of the person who had run off with it. In that case he would be taken back to Dubuque in disgrace, his father would have to be sent for—and who knew where he might be by this time?—and there would be a long delay that he would probably have to endure in prison. In the mean time what would become of the raft lost through his carelessness and self-conceit?
Decidedly all this must be prevented if possible; and though the boy would have scorned to tell a lie even to save his life, he determined to tell as little of the truth as would be necessary to answer the questions that he knew would shortly be put to him.
While Winn was puzzling over this situation, and trying to frame a plausible story that would account for his presence on the tow-head without overstepping the bounds of truth, the door of the engine-room opened, and Cap'n Cod stumped in. He brought an armful of dry clothing, and was beaming with the satisfaction that he always felt when engaged in helping any one out of trouble.
"Well, my muddy young friend," he exclaimed, good-naturedly, "how are you getting on? Has Solon taken good care of you? Here are some clothes that, I guess, you will have to make the best of until your own can be dried. They probably won't come within a mile of fitting, but clothing does not make the man, you know, and we are not very critical as to appearances aboard the Whatnot. By-the-way, my name is Fifield—Aleck Fifield. What did you say yours was?"
"I don't think I said," answered the boy, slipping into a woollen shirt many sizes too large for him; "but it is Winn."
"Winn, eh? Good name. Belong to the Massachusetts Winns?"
"My parents came from there, but I was born in Wisconsin."
"Yes, yes. Just so. But, there! I musn't hinder you. Supper is ready, and if you haven't any better place to go to, we should be most happy to have you join us."
"Thank you, sir," replied Winn. "I shall be only too glad to do so, for I haven't had any supper, and the raft to which I belong has probably gone off down the river without me."
"So you belong to a raft, eh? And what happened? Did you tumble overboard from it?"
"No, sir. I came to this island in the skiff, and was trying to make a line fast, when the skiff got away from me."
"And they didn't notice it through the gloom until it was too late to do anything, and so you got left! Yes, yes. I see just how it all happened! Such accidents are of common occurrence on the river, and you were very fortunate to find us here. I shall be delighted to have you for a guest tonight, and in the morning your friends will undoubtedly return to look for you."
As he thus rattled on in cheery fashion, Cap'n Cod gathered up Winn's wet clothing, preparatory to taking them to the galley to be dried. Not finding either coat or shoes in the water-soaked pile, he inquired if the boy had left the raft without them.
"No, sir," replied Winn; "but I took them off, and left them in the skiff."
"You did! That's bad; for when your friends find the skiff with your clothes in it, they will be apt to imagine you are drowned. Then they'll search the river below here for your body, instead of coming back to look for you. Never mind, though," he added quickly, mistaking the expression of relief which this suggestion brought to Winn's face for one of dismay, "we'll soon relieve their anxiety. We'll get a mule, and put him in here as quick as our show earns his price. Then we'll go humming down the river faster than any raft that ever drifted. We may be several days in overtaking them, but I shall be only too happy to have you remain with us for that length of time, and longer, too, if you will. I am greatly in need of an assistant to help me run the show. So if you are willing to take hold and work with us, the obligation will be wholly on my side."
"Of course I will, sir!" exclaimed Winn, whose spirits were rising as the difficulties of his situation began to disappear. "I will do anything I can, only I didn't know this was a show-boat, and I'm afraid I am pretty ignorant about shows anyway."
"That will be all right," replied the Captain. "My own experience in the dramatic line has been so extensive that I shall have no difficulty in posting you. I am surprised, though, that you did not recognize this boat as having been built by one of the profession, and especially adapted to its requirements. There are certain features about the Whatnot—which, by the way, I consider a most original and attractive name—that are intended to indicate—"
"Suppah, sah! An' Missy Sabel awaitin'," interrupted Solon, thrusting his woolly head into the doorway at that moment.
Glad as Winn was of this diversion, and though he was as thankful as only a famished boy can be that a bountiful meal awaited him, he would willingly have gone hungry a little longer rather than enter that dining-room just then. Although the engine-room did not afford a mirror, he was conscious that he must present about as absurd a figure as can well be conceived. He was bare-footed, and the left leg of his trousers was turned up to keep it from the floor, while the right, owing to the Captain's misfortune, barely reached his ankle. A checkered woolen shirt hung about him in folds, and over it he wore a garment that Cap'n Cod was pleased to style his "professional coat." It was a blue swallow-tail, with bright brass buttons. As worn by Winn the tails hung nearly to the floor, the cuffs were turned back over his wrists, and the collar rubbed against his ears.
"A pretty costume in which to appear before a strange girl," thought poor Winn, who was noted at home for being fastidious concerning his dress and personal appearance. "I know I must look like a guy, and she can't help laughing, of course; but if she does, I'll never speak to her as long as I live, and I'll leave this craft the very first chance I get."
While these thoughts were crowding fast upon one another, the boy was being dragged into the dining-room by Cap'n Cod, and formally presented as "Mr. Winn, of Massachusetts," to "my grand-niece Sabella, sir."
Winn will never know whether the girl laughed or not, for at that moment Don Blossom, who had been seated on the floor daintily nibbling a sweet biscuit, sprang chattering to her shoulder and buried his face in her hair, as he had done upon the boy's first appearance. This episode formed such a seasonable diversion that by the time the girl succeeded in freeing herself from the clutches of her pet, Winn was seated at the table with the most conspicuous portion of his absurd costume concealed beneath its friendly shelter.
During the meal Winn and Sabella exchanged furtive glances, which each hoped the other would not notice, and the boy, at least, blushed furiously whenever one of his was detected. Although neither of them said much, the meal was by no means a silent one; for the Captain maintained a steady and cheerful flow of conversation from its beginning to its end. He told Sabella a thrilling tale of Winn's narrow escape from drowning, and how his friends were at that moment drifting far away down the river, anxiously speculating as to his fate. Then he told Winn of the painting of the panorama, the building of the Whatnot, and of his plans for the future.
When the meal finally came to an end, on account of Winn's inability to eat any more, the boy was surprised to find how much at home he had been made to feel by the unaffected simplicity and unobtrusive kindness of these strangers.
While Sabella and Solon cleared the table, the Captain lighted a lantern and showed him over the boat. Thus the boy discovered that while its after-part was devoted to the engine-room and quarters for an animated, one-mule-power engine, a galley, and the general living-room, the remainder of the house was arranged as an entertainment hall, with a small curtained stage at one end, and seats for one hundred spectators. Cap'n Cod informed him that this was to be his sleeping apartment so long as he remained with them. The Captain slept in the pilot-house, while Sabella's dainty little room was in the after-house on the upper deck, and was connected with the living-room by a flight of inside stairs.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL.
The next morning, when Winn opened his eyes after the first night of undisturbed sleep he had enjoyed since leaving home, he was for a moment greatly puzzled to account for his surroundings. His bed had been made down in the exhibition hall on two benches drawn close together, and as he awoke, he found himself staring at a most marvellous painting that occupied the full height and nearly the entire width of the stage at the farther end of the hall. It was a lurid scene, but so filled with black shadows that to a vivid imagination it might represent any one of many things. While the boy was wondering if the young woman in yellow who appeared in the upper corner of the picture, with outstretched arms and dishevelled hair, was about to commit suicide by flinging herself from the second story of the factory, and only hesitated for fear of crushing the badly frightened young man in red who from the street below had evidently just discovered his peril, a door opened, and his host of the evening before tiptoed into the room.
The expression "tiptoed" is here used to indicate the extreme caution of Cap'n Cod's entrance, and his evident desire to effect it as noiselessly as possible. As he could only tiptoe on one foot, however, and had neglected to muffle the iron-shod peg that served him in place of the other, his progress was attended with more than its usual amount of noise. He appeared relieved to find Winn awake, and advancing with a cordial greeting, he laid the boy's own clothing, now cleaned and dried, within his reach. "I should have sent Solon in with these," he explained, "but for fear he might make a noise that would rouse you, and I noticed last evening that you were sadly in need of sleep. So, if you had not been awake, I should have stolen away as noiselessly as I entered, and left you to have your nap out. Now, however, I think you had better come to breakfast, for Sabella and I finished ours some time ago."
"Thank you, sir," said Winn. "I will be out in half a minute; but will you please explain that painting? I have been studying it ever since I woke."
"That," replied the Captain, with an accent of honest pride, "is what I consider one of my chef-dovers. I term it a 'Shakespearian composite.' In order to please the tastes of certain audiences, I shall describe it as the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet. Yon may note Romeo's mandolin lying at his feet, while over the whole falls the melancholy light of a full moon rising behind the palace. To suit a less-intelligent class, it would perhaps be described as the escape of a Turkish captive by leaping from the upper floor of the Sultan's seraglio into the arms of her gallant rescuer, who would be American, British, French, German, or Spanish, according to the predominating nationality of my audience. Or it might be called 'A Thrilling Incident of the Great New York Fire,' in which case Juliet's moonlight would be spoken of as 'devastating flames,' and Romeo's mandolin would figure as a fireman's helmet. It is a painting of infinite possibilities, any one of which may be impressed upon an audience by a judiciously selected title and the skilful directing of their imagination. Although I am proud of this picture, I have a number of other 'composites' that are even more startling than this in the variety of scenes that they can be made to illustrate. By studying them you will learn that the whole secret of artistic success lies in the selection of titles that appeal to and direct the imagination of the critic, the spectator, or the would-be purchaser. I would gladly exhibit and explain them to you now, but business before pleasure; so, if you are dressed, let us to breakfast."
While Winn was eating his late breakfast, Billy Brackett, only a couple of miles away, was gazing with an expression of the blankest amazement at his nephew's note-book. "How in the name of all that is mysterious and improbable did this book happen to be in that coat, that coat in that skiff, that skiff on that raft, and that raft here? It certainly seems as though I had brought the skiff from the raft—at least this man says I did. You are certain that I came in that identical boat, are you?"
"Certain, sir," replied the watchman to whom this question was addressed.
"No one else could have come in this skiff, and then gone off in mine by mistake?"
"Impossible, sir. I have been wide-awake all night, and there has not been another soul aboard this wharf-boat until just now. Besides, I took that coat from the skiff just after you left it last evening."
"Then," said Billy Brackett, "the chain of evidence seems to be unbroken, incredible as it may appear, and it stretches from here straight away down the river—book coat, coat skiff, skiff raft, raft Winn. Now, in order to bring its ends together, and recover my long-lost nephew, I must again overtake that raft. I must start as soon as possible after breakfast, too. I don't know whether the game Winn and I are playing is blind-man's-buff or hide-and-seek, but it certainly resembles both."
Musing over this new aspect of the situation, the young engineer hastened back to his hotel and breakfast. In the dining-room, a few minutes later, a waiter was leaning over him, and asking, for the third time, "Tea or coffee, sir, an' how'll you have your eggs?" when the inattentive guest suddenly caused him to jump as though galvanized, by bringing his fist down on the table with a crash, and exclaiming, "No, by the great hornspoon, it can't be that way either! What's that you say? Oh yes, of course. Coffee, soft-boiled, and as quick as you can." Having delivered this order, the young man fixed his intent gaze on a brown spot ornamenting the table-cloth, and resumed his thinking.
It had just occurred to him that, according to all accounts, the raft from which he had taken that skiff had come down the river to this point two days before. So how could Winn Caspar, who had only escaped from the island a few minutes before he and Bim made good their own retreat, have reached the same place and joined that raft without attracting attention? Both the day and night watchmen at the wharf-boat had assured him that no such boy as he described had been seen on the water-front. They also said that the raft had been there all the day before, and that when it left it held only the three men who came with it. "Of course he might have been inside the 'shanty' when I was aboard, though I can't see how he got there, nor why he should join a strange raft anyway," argued the young man. "At any rate, it's my business to find out whether or not he is aboard it now. How about using the skiff, though? If it is the one Winn ran off with, it belongs to that Sheriff fellow. Like as not, he has already sent word down the river to have it picked up. In that case, if I was picked up in it, I might be accused of stealing it, which would never do in the world. No; to be on the safe side I must leave the skiff here, and take the first down-river steamboat that stops at this landing. First, though, I'll advertise for Winn in this town, and if I don't find him on the raft, there may be news waiting for me here when I come back."