This was the plan upon which the young engineer decided to act, and immediately after breakfast he proceeded to put it into execution.
There was no paper published in the place, but it did contain a makeshift sort of a printing-office, and towards this Billy Brackett directed his steps, after learning at what hour the next down-river boat was expected. Here he spent some time in composing a small circular, of which he ordered five hundred copies to be struck off, and distributed broadcast. His boat came along and he had to leave before this was ready for press; but he had engaged the services of his new acquaintance the night-watchman, who promised to place the bills wherever they would do good.
Poor Bim, tied up on the wharf-boat, and nearly heart-broken at his master's desertion, was also left in charge of this man. Billy Brackett was desirous of establishing friendly relations with the raftsmen when he should overtake them, and feared that would be impossible in case they should recognize him. This they would certainly do if he were accompanied by the bull-dog, whom one of them at least had reason to remember so well.
At another small landing, nearly a hundred miles farther down the river, Messrs. Gilder, Grimshaw, and Plater were rendered somewhat uneasy, late on the following day, by the appearance on board their raft of a young man who asked questions. Billy Brackett had experienced considerable difficulty in finding this raft, and was greatly disappointed that his search in this direction should prove fruitless. The raftsmen had never heard of Major Caspar, nor of Winn Caspar, his son. They were lumbermen from far up on the Wisconsin River, and were taking this raft to New Orleans as a speculation. They knew nothing of Sheriff Riley or his skiff. Yes, they had picked up an empty skiff two days before, but it had been taken away and another left in its place by a young fellow with a dog, who had boarded their raft without invitation, set his dog on one of them, and then skipped. They would like to meet that party again—yes, they would—and they'd make things pretty lively for him.
Then they began asking questions in turn, and assuming such a hostile tone that Billy Brackett concluded he might as well leave then as later. So, after asking them to keep a sharp lookout for a raft with three "shanties," two of which were filled with wheat, he bade them good-evening, and started back up the river by rail.
In the mean time the Whatnot had reached the town to which he was returning, and was now tied up just below the wharf-boat. It had been decided that the first exhibition of the "Floating Panoramic Show" should be given here, and Cap'n Cod went up into the town as soon as they arrived to have some bills printed. Winn, at the same time, started along the water-front to search for traces of his lost raft; and Sabella, who was very fond of dogs, went aboard the wharf-boat to make the acquaintance of a fine bull-dog she had noticed there as they passed.
At supper-time they all gathered again in the living-room of the Whatnot, where Sabella reported her new friend to be the most splendid bull-dog she had ever seen, and that his name was Bim.
This name at once attracted Winn's attention, and he said he had an uncle somewhere out in California who owned a dog named Bim. Then the boy reported that nothing had been seen or heard of his raft, though he did not tell them he had discovered Sheriff Riley's skiff.
Cap'n Cod remarked that if he could only claim all the rewards he had just seen offered, he could afford to run the Whatnot by steam. "There is one of a thousand dollars," he said, "for any information that will lead to the capture of a gang of counterfeiters, supposed to be operating in this vicinity. Then there is one of a hundred dollars for the arrest of the fellow who ran off with Sheriff Riley's skiff, and who is supposed to be a member of the same gang. There is still another, of an equal amount, for any information as to the whereabouts, if he is still living, or for the recovery of the body of a boy named Caspar, the only son of my old friend, Major John Caspar, of Caspar's Mill, in Wisconsin. He has disappeared most unaccountably, together with a raft owned by his father. By-the-way, his first name is the same as your last one, which is a little odd, for Winn is not a common name. That's what it is, though, 'Winn Caspar.'"
A CURIOUS COMPLICATION.
"So that is what I was arrested for, is it?" thought Winn. "I was supposed to be one of a gang of counterfeiters, and a pretty desperate sort of a character. That will be a pretty good joke to tell father. But I wonder who is offering a reward for me as plain every-day Winn Caspar, besides the one that would be paid for the young counterfeiter who ran off with the Sheriff's boat?"
This is what Winn thought. What he said was, "My! but that is a lot of money! Wouldn't it be fine if we could earn those twelve hundred dollars?"
"Indeed it would," answered the old man. "Even one of the smaller rewards would buy us a mule."
"Who is offering them?" asked Winn.
"The Government offers the first, Sheriff Riley the second, and the third is offered by some one named Brickell. 'W. Brickell,' the bills are signed. I saw them up at the printing-office, but they are being distributed all over the place."
Sure enough, in that wretched little printing-office the compositor had made "Brickell" out of Brackett, and as he was his own proof-reader, the mistake was not discovered.
"Brickell," repeated Winn, slowly. "That is a queer name, and one that I never heard before."
"Yes, it is one that has puzzled me a good deal," said Cap'n Cod. "I'm sure I never heard Major Caspar mention any such person."
"You know this Major Caspar, then?"
"Know him! Well, I should say I did. We were in the same regiment all through the war, and a better officer never commanded men. Know him! I know him to the extent of a leg, lost when I was standing so close beside him that if I hadn't been there the ball would have taken his instead of mine. Know him! Didn't I know him for three months in the hospital, where he came to see me every day? Indeed I do know Major Caspar, and I should be mighty glad to know of any way in which I could help him out of his present trouble."
"It is strange that I never heard father speak of any Aleck Fifield," thought Winn. He was about to ask some more questions, but was restrained by the remembrance of his present peculiar position. The same thought checked his inclination to say, "I am Winn Caspar, sir, the son of your friend Major Caspar, of Caspar's Mill." Instead of that he said to himself, "I will wait until we get away from this place; or, at any rate, until I can receive a letter from home that will prove who I am. Otherwise he might find out about the Sheriff's skiff, and think I had made up the story to escape arrest as a thief."
So Winn held his peace, and only asked his host if he would furnish him the materials for writing a letter home. Provided with these, he wrote to his mother as follows:
"MY OWN DEAR MOTHER,—I write to you instead of to father, as I suppose he must be somewhere on the river hunting for me by this time, though I have not seen him yet.
"I am all right, and having a fine time, but have lost the raft. I am on board a boat called the Whatnot, with some very kind people—a gentleman named Fifield, a girl named Sabella, a funny old darky named Solon, and a monkey named Don Blossom. I am bound to find the raft again if it is still afloat, and am going to keep on down the river in this boat until we catch up with it.
"I shall be here long enough for you to answer this letter; and send me some money, please, and tell me all about everybody. Give my dear love to Elta, and tell her I wish she knew Sabella and Don Blossom. She is just the kind of a girl, and he is just the kind of a monkey, a fellow likes to know.
"Now it is late, and I must turn in, for I am working my passage on this boat, and Solon and I must take the place of a mule to-morrow, and till we can earn money enough to buy one. So good-bye, from your affectionate son,——WINN."
While the boy was writing, Cap'n Cod went ashore, and when the former took his letter to the post-office, he met his host there with two letters in his hand. They followed Winn's into the box, but he did not see the address on either of them. If he had, he would have been more troubled than ever, for one was addressed to the Sheriff of Dubuque County, and the other to his own father.
The old man had seen and recognized the skiff that he had built for Sheriff Riley as it lay tied to the wharf-boat, but had thought it best to keep this discovery to himself until he could communicate with its owner. By cautious inquiries he learned that the skiff had been left there by a young man calling himself Brackett, who had gone on down the river, but was expected back in a day or two. Cap'n Cod would have telegraphed to Sheriff Riley but for the fact that the wires had not yet been extended to Mandrake. So he wrote and begged the Sheriff to hasten down the river by first boat.
He also wrote to Major Caspar, expressing his sympathy, telling him that he was now travelling down the Mississippi in his own boat, the Whatnot, asking for full particulars concerning the lost boy, and offering to make every effort to discover his whereabouts.
On the morning of that very day, just before his departure from Mandrake, Billy Brackett had also written and mailed a letter that read as follows:
"MY DEAR SISTER,—I am up a stump just at present, but hope to climb down very soon. In other words, your boy is smarter than I took him to be. He has not only managed to hide the raft, but himself as well, and both so completely that thus far I have had but little success in tracing them. I have reason to believe that he and I spent some time very close to each other on an island the night I left you, but before daylight he had again disappeared, leaving no trace. After that I learned nothing concerning him until reaching this place, when I again struck the trail. I am now following a warm scent, and expect to run the young fox to earth within a few hours.
"So much for the boy. As for the raft, its disappearance is even more complete and unaccountable than his. There is absolutely nothing to report concerning it. I have boarded several rafts, but none of them bears the slightest resemblance to the Venture, which I am certain I should recognize at a glance. However, when I find Winn he will of course be able to put me on the right track, and the subsequent recovery of the raft will prove an easy matter.
"If you have any news, send it to me at this place, where I shall remain until I hear from you.
"Love to Elta. Tell her that last evening I ran across the queerest craft I ever saw, with the queerest name I ever heard of. It is called the Whatnot. Of course its Captain knew nothing of Winn, and I did not expect he would; but I make it my business to inquire of every one I meet or pass.
"Hoping to be able to send you better news within a day or two, I am your loving brother,
As this letter reached Caspar's Mill in the same mail with those from Winn and the owner of the Whatnot, who, in writing to the Major, had used his old army name, and signed himself "Respectfully yours, Cap'n Cod," it may easily be imagined that Billy Brackett's perplexity was as nothing compared to that of his sister. What could it all mean? Winn was alive and well; his letter brought that comfort. But what did he mean by stating that he was on board that boat with the absurd name, when both William and Captain Cod stated that he was not there. Then, too, how could it be possible for those three persons, each of whom was anxious to find one of the others, to be in a small place, such as this Mandrake must be, for several days without running across each other? Such stupidity was incredible, and could only be accounted for by the fact that all three were of the masculine sex. Well, she would soon set things to rights, and the fond mother smiled to herself to think that it was left for her, who had remained quietly at home, to discover the missing boy after all.
She had but a few minutes in which to catch the return mail; but when it left, it bore three notes in her handwriting. The one directed to Mr. Winn Caspar, Mandrake, Iowa, read as follows:
"MY DARLING BOY,—How could you leave us as you did? And why don't you come home? Don't lose a minute in hunting up your Uncle Billy, who is now in Mandrake. He will supply you with money, and tell you what to do.
"Ever lovingly, but in great haste,
"YOUR OWN MOTHER."
To the Captain of the Whatnot Mrs. Caspar wrote:
"Sir,—In the absence of my husband, I took the liberty of opening your note to him of the 1st inst. In it you write that you are anxious to discover our boy's whereabouts, when, by the same mail, I am advised by him that he is on board the very boat of which you claim to be Captain and owner. I of course take my boy's word in preference to that of any stranger. Having thus detected the hollowness of your sympathy, and the falseness of your pretended friendship for my husband, I must request you to refrain from further meddling in this matter. Yours etc.,——ELLEN CASPAR."
Fortunately, as this letter was addressed to Captain Cod, Esq., instead of to Mr. Aleck Fifield, the old man never received it, and in due time it was returned to the writer from the Dead-letter Office.
To Billy Brackett Mrs. Caspar wrote:
"MY DEAR GOOSE OF A BROTHER,—I have just received a letter from Winn written at Mandrake. He is on the Mantel-piece, and out of money. Please supply him with whatever he needs, and bring him home to me as quickly as possible. As for the raft, I am sorry, of course, that you cannot find it; but so long as Winn is safe, nothing else seems to matter.
"John writes full of enthusiasm concerning the contract, and I shall tell him nothing of your absurd doings until you and Winn are safely back here. Ever lovingly your sister,——ELLEN."
During the following day, while these letters were on their way to the little Iowa town in which the principal actors in this story were playing at such cross-purposes, active preparations were being made on board the Whatnot for the first exhibition of its panorama. In those days the panorama filled the place now taken by the stereopticon; and though its crude pictures lacked the photographic truth of lantern slides, they were by no means devoid of interest. In fact, their gorgeousness of color, and the vagueness of detail that allowed each to represent several scenes, according to the pleasure of the lecturer, rendered them quite as popular, if not so instructive, as their modern successors.
The success of a panorama, however, depended largely upon the person who explained its pictures. If he were witty, and knew how to tell the good story of which each one was certain to remind him, all went well, and the fame of that panorama spread far and wide. If, on the other hand, he was prosy, and offered only dry explanations of his pictures, the impatient river-town audience did not hesitate to express their dissatisfaction, and the exhibition was apt to close with a riot.
All this was well known to Cap'n Cod; but twenty years of absence from the stage had caused him to lose sight of his first and only humiliating appearance before an audience, and had restored all his youthful confidence in his own abilities. He was therefore to be the lecturer of his own show, while Winn and Solon were to enter the treadmill, and supply, as well as they could, the place of a mule in furnishing power to move the heavy roll of paintings. Sabella was also to remain out of sight, but was to grind out music from the hand-organ whenever it might be needed. This was only a temporary position, and would be filled by either Winn or Solon after a mule had been obtained for the treadmill. Sabella's real duty was to dress Don Blossom, and see that he went on the stage at the proper time.
The hour for giving these arrangements a public test finally arrived. By eight o'clock the exhibition hall of the Whatnot was packed with an audience that contained a number of raftsmen and steamboat hands from the water-front. These were good-naturedly noisy, and indulged in cat-calls, stampings, and other manifestations of their impatience for the curtain to rise. An occasional lull in the tumult allowed the droning notes of the "Sweet By-and-By," then new and extremely popular, to be heard, as they were slowly ground out from the hand-organ by the invisible Sabella.
At length they ceased; the little drop-curtain was slowly rolled up so as to expose the first picture, and Cap'n Cod, pointer in hand, in all the glory of the blue swallow-tail with brass buttons, stepped on the stage. His appearance was greeted with a silence that was almost painful in its contrast with the previous tumult.
Now for the neat introductory speech that the old man had prepared so carefully and rehearsed until he knew every word by heart. He stepped forward, and gazed appealingly at the silent audience; but no word came from his dry lips. He swallowed convulsively, and appeared to be struggling with himself. A titter of laughter sounded from the back of the room. The old man's face became fiery red and then deathly pale. He looked helplessly and pitifully from side to side.
"Wind him up!" shouted a voice.
"He's stopped short, never to go again," called another.
"He's an old fraud, and his show's a fake!"
"No; a song! Let old dot-and-carry-one give us a song!"
"Oh, shut up! Don't you see he's a ballet-dancer?"
And so the derisive jeerings of this audience, like those of another twenty years before, hailed Cap'n Cod's second failure. His confidence in himself, his years of experience, the memory of what he ought to say, all vanished the moment he faced that mass of upturned faces, and he was once more the dumb, trembling Codringhampton of twenty years before. A mist swam before his eyes, he groped blindly with his hands, the derisive yells of the river-men, who were endeavoring to secure their money's worth of amusement from this pitiful spectacle, grew fainter and fainter in his ears. He tottered backward, and would have fallen, had not a young man from the audience sprang to his assistance.
Very tenderly he helped the old man from the stage and into the friendly shadows of the side scenes. In another moment he reappeared. With flashing eyes he stepped in front of the turbulent audience and held up his hand. The curiosity of the river-men was sufficient to produce an almost instant silence, which in another second might have changed into an angry roar.
Who was this young fellow? What business had he to interfere with their fun? What was he going to say? He'd better be careful! They were not in a humor to be trifled with.
For a moment he looked steadily at them.
Then he said:
"Boys, I am surprised, and if I thought for a moment that you really meant to worry that old man, I should be ashamed of you. But I know you didn't. It was only your fun. He has been a soldier, and lost a leg fighting for you and me and to preserve the glorious Union, that you and I are prouder of than anything else in life. He has a daughter in there too—a young girl, for whom he is trying to make a living with this show. I saw her just now, and if you could have seen the look of distress and terror on her face as she sprang to the old man's side you would feel as I do about this business. Yon would know, as I do, that this was no fake, but a square—A, number one—show, packed full and running over with good things, worth ten times the price of admission. You'd know that it was just the bulliest show ever seen on this little old river, and you'd turn in with a will to help me prove it. I am a stranger, just arrived in town, and never set eyes on this outfit before; but I'm willing to put up my last dollar on the fact that this show is so much better than I've said that as soon as you've seen it once, you'll want to see it right over again, you'll come to it every evening that it stays here, and then you'll follow it down the river on the chance of seeing it again. Hello, inside! Turn on your steam, and set your whirligig to moving."
By this time the good-nature of the audience was fully restored, and, amid encouraging cries of "That's the talk!" "Ring the jingle-bell and give her a full head!" "Sweep her out into the current and toot your horn, stranger!" the panorama began slowly to unroll. The young man picked up the pointer, and the moment the second picture—a lurid scene that Cap'n Cod had entitled "The Burning of Moscow"—was fully exposed to view, he began:
"There you have it, gentlemen! One of the most thrilling events of this century. The great San Francisco fire of '55. City swept clean from the face of the earth, and built up again, finer than before, inside of a month. I tell you, fellows, those Californians are rustlers! Why, I met a man out in 'Frisco last month whom I knew, two years ago, as a raftsman on this very river at twenty a month and found. To-day he is worth a cool million of dollars, and if you want to know how he made it, I'll let you into the secret."
And so the young stranger rattled on with story and joke, never pausing to study the panoramic scenes as they moved slowly along, but giving each the first title that suggested itself, and working in descriptions to fit the titles. He kept it up for more than an hour; and when Sabella, who was watching him from the side scenes with admiring wonder, called out softly that the picture he was then describing was the last, he gracefully dismissed as delighted an audience as ever attended a river show, and disappeared with them.
Billy Brackett had come up the Illinois side of the river by rail and stage, and had been ferried across to Mandrake just in time to be attracted by the incipient riot aboard the Whatnot. Led to the scene by curiosity, his generous indignation was aroused by the sight of the helpless old man and his tormentors. Now, to avoid being thanked for what he had done, he hurried away, released Bim from his confinement on the wharf-boat, to that bow-legged animal's intense joy, and went to the hotel for the night.
The next morning, when he came down into the office, the clerk handed him Mrs. Caspar's letter. He stood by the desk and read it. Then he read it again, with a frown of perplexity deepening on his forehead. "Winn here, on board the Mantel-piece, and out of money! What can Ellen mean? She must be losing her mind."
The young man was so engrossed with this letter that he paid no attention to the other occupants of the room. Thus he did not see Cap'n Cod and his niece enter the front door, nor notice that the former was greeted by two men who had been talking earnestly together and watching him with great interest. Nor did he see Sabella stoop to pat Bim, who had gone to meet her. He did not notice the entrance a moment later of a boy with a very puzzled expression of countenance and an open letter in his hand. Neither did he see that the boy was accompanied by the printer who had furnished his reward notices, and who now pointed in his direction, saying, "That's him there. That's Mr. Brickell."
At the same moment Sabella exclaimed, "Oh, Winn, here's Bim! Isn't he a dear dog?" Then she too caught sight of Billy Brackett, and pulling Cap'n Cod by the sleeve, whispered, "There he is, uncle. That is the gentleman you have come to thank for helping us so splendidly last evening."
While she was thus whispering into one ear, the night watchman of the wharf-boat, who stood on the other side of the old man, was saying, in a low tone, "Yes, sir. As I was just telling the Sheriff, that's the man as stole his skiff, for I saw him when he landed here in it."
Sheriff Riley, who had only reached Mandrake half an hour before, was staring at Winn, and saying to himself, "There's the young rascal now. I knew it wasn't that other fellow, though somehow his face is strangely familiar too."
There was a momentary hesitation on all sides. Then, as though moved by a single impulse, Winn started towards Billy Brackett to ask him if his name was Brickell, Cap'n Cod stepped up to express his heart-felt gratitude for what he had done the evening before, and Sheriff Riley moved towards Winn with the intention of arresting him. At this Bim, recognizing the Sheriff, stationed himself in front of his preoccupied master, erected the bristles on the back of his neck, and growled.
EVERY ONE EXPLAINS.
At Bim's growl, Billy Brackett said "Be quiet, sir!" and looked up. He wondered somewhat at the number of persons advancing towards him, and was also surprised to note that, with one exception, they were all people whom he knew. He recognized Sabella and her uncle, the wharf-boat man, the printer, and even the Sheriff of Dubuque County. The only one of the group whom he had not seen before was the gentlemanly and thoroughly honest-looking young fellow upon whose shoulder the Sheriff had just laid his hand, saying,
"I want you, my boy."
"I expect I want him more than you do, Sheriff," remarked Billy Brackett, quietly, stepping forward and laying a hand on Winn's other shoulder. "You take him to be a thief, while I take him to be my nephew; and, of course, if he is the one, he can't be the other. Isn't your name Winn Caspar? Answer me that, you young rascal!"
"Yes," replied Winn, slowly, "that is my name. But what a stupid I have been!"
"You mean in allowing yourself to be carried off by the raft, and then losing it, and getting arrested, and running off with the Sheriff's skiff, and letting it go adrift with your coat in it, and shipping aboard some craft that your dear mother calls the Mantel-piece for a cruise down the river, instead of getting along home and relieving the anxiety of your distressed parents, to say nothing of that of your aged uncle. Yes, it does seem to me that in this instance the general brilliancy of the family is somewhat clouded."
"I don't mean anything of the kind," answered Winn, stoutly. "All these things might have happened to any one, even to an uncle of your advanced years and wisdom. So I am sure I don't consider them proofs of stupidity. The only stupid thing that I am willing to acknowledge is that I didn't recognize Bim, after I'd been told there was a dog of that name here, too. That's the thing I can't get over."
"But you had never seen him!" exclaimed Billy Brackett.
"That makes no difference," was the calm reply. "I'd heard so much about him that I ought to have known him, and I can't forgive myself that I didn't."
"How about running off with my boat?" queried the Sheriff, who did not at all understand the situation.
"I didn't run off with your boat. It ran off with me first, and ran away from me afterwards. If you hadn't taken the oars out I should have rowed into Dubuque and sent some one back to the island with her. As it was, I had to go wherever she chose to take me, until she set me ashore on a tow-head, and went on down the river by herself. I'm glad of it, though, for if she hadn't, I should never have found the Whatnot."
"The Whatnot!" exclaimed Billy Brackett. "Are you living on board the Whatnot?"
"Yes, sir, this young gentleman is a guest on board of my boat," said Cap'n Cod, who now found his first chance to speak; "and glad as I have been to have him, it would have made me many times happier to know that he was the son of my old friend and commander. Why didn't you tell me the truth in the first place, boy?" And the veteran gazed reproachfully at Winn.
"I did tell you the truth so far as I told you anything. I didn't dare tell you any more, because I heard you say you were a friend of Sheriff Riley, and knew his skiff. So I was afraid you would have me arrested for running off with it, and in that way delay me so that I would never find the raft. Besides, I wanted to wait until I could get a letter from home to prove who I am, and I hadn't a chance to write until we got here."
"With me, the simple word of Major Caspar's son would have been stronger than all the proof in the world," said the loyal old soldier; "and though you did, as you say, tell the truth so far as you told anything, you did not tell the whole truth, as your father certainly would have done had he been in your place."
"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," quoted the Sheriff, in his most official tone. "But look here, Cap'n Cod," he continued, "you haven't yet explained what you know of this young fellow, and his suspicious, or, to say the least, queer performances on the river."
"Cap'n Cod!" interrupted Winn. "Is your name Cap'n Cod?"
"It is a name that I have been known to answer to," replied the owner of the Whatnot; "and after my performance of last evening I don't suppose I shall ever be allowed to claim any other."
"If you had only told me all your names in the first place," said Winn, with a sly twinkle in his eyes, "I should probably have done the same. I have so often heard my father speak of Cap'n Cod's goodness and honesty and bravery, that I should have been perfectly willing to trust him; though I was a bit suspicious of the Sheriff's friend, Mr. Aleck Fifield."
"It's not the Sheriff's friends you need be suspicious of, my lad, but his enemies," interrupted Mr. Riley; "and I wonder if you haven't fallen in with them already. As I now understand this case, you came down the river on a raft until you reached the island near which I found you. What became of your raft at that point?"
"That is what I would like to know," replied the boy.
"What!" cried Billy Brackett. "Do you mean to say that you don't know where the raft is?"
"No more than I know how you happen to be here instead of out in California, where I supposed you were until five minutes ago. I haven't set eyes on the Venture, nor found a trace of her, since the first morning out from home."
"Well, if that doesn't beat everything!" said the young engineer, with a comical tone of despair. "I thought that after finding you the discovery of the raft would follow as a matter of course; but now it begins to look farther away than ever."
"But in finding me," said Winn, "you have found some one to help you find the raft."
"You?" said the other, quizzically. "Why, I was thinking of sending you home to your mother; that is, if the Sheriff here will allow you to go."
"I don't know about that," said the officer. "It seems to me that I still know very little about this young man. Who is to prove to me that he is the son of Major Caspar?"
"Oh, I can speak for that," replied Billy Brackett.
"And I suppose he is ready to vouch for you; but that won't do. You see, you are both suspicious characters, and unless some one whom I know as well as I do Cap'n Cod here can identify you, I must take you both back to Dubuque."
"Captain Cod," repeated Billy Brackett, thoughtfully. "I seem to have heard that name before. Why, yes, I have a note of introduction from Major Caspar to a Captain Cod, and I shouldn't wonder if you were the very man. Here it is now."
"I am proud to make your acquaintance, sir," said the veteran, heartily, after glancing over the note thus handed to him. "It's all right, Sheriff. This is certainly the Major's handwriting, for I know it as I do my own, and I don't want any better proof that this gentleman is the person he claims to be."
"Would you be willing to go on his bond for a thousand dollars?" asked Mr. Riley.
"I would, and for as much more as my own property, together with what I hold in trust for my niece, would bring," answered the old man, earnestly.
"And would you be willing that your money should be risked on any such a venture?" asked the Sheriff, turning to Sabella with a smile.
"Indeed I would," answered the girl, promptly. "After the splendid way Mr. Brackett helped us last evening, I know whatever he says must be so."
"That will do," said Mr. Riley. "With such sureties I am well content, and am willing to make public acknowledgment that these gentlemen are what they represent themselves to be. Now, for their future guidance, I will tell them what I have not yet hinted to a living soul. It is that their raft has probably been stolen and taken down the river by the most noted gang of counterfeiters that has ever operated in this part of the country. There are three of them, and I thought I had surely run them to earth when I traced them to the island just above Dubuque. You must have seen them there, didn't you?"
"No, sir," replied Winn, to whom this question was addressed. "I only saw one man on the island. He said he was a river-trader, and would help me float the raft. We went to look for his partners, and when I came back, it and he were both gone. After that I did not see a soul until you came along and arrested me."
"That confirms my belief that they have appropriated your raft to their own uses," said the Sheriff; "and it is a mighty good scheme on their part, too. We were watching all the steamboats, and even the trading scows, but never thought of finding them on a raft. They have probably disguised it, and themselves too, long before this, so that to trail them will be very difficult. I suppose you will try to follow them, though?"
"Certainly I shall," answered Billy Brackett, promptly. "I haven't undertaken this job only to give it up after a week's trial. As for Winn, though, I don't know but what I really ought to send him home."
"Now look here, Uncle Billy. You know you don't mean that. You know that, much as I want to see mother and Elta, I simply must find that raft, or, at any rate, help you do it. You couldn't send me home, either, unless you borrowed a pair of handcuffs from the Sheriff and put me in irons. Anyway, I don't believe you'd have the heart. If I thought for a moment that you had, I'd—well, I'd disappear again, that's all."
"All right," laughed Billy Brackett. "I'm willing you should go with us if Bim is. What do you say, old dog? Speak, sir!"
And Bim spoke till the echoes rang again.
A "MEWEL" NAMED "REWARD."
It being thus settled that the search for the raft was to be continued, the Sheriff said: "I wish I could go with you, Mr. Brackett, and see this affair through; but those fellows are beyond my hunting-ground now, and I've got important business to attend to up the river. I'll tell you what I will do, though. I'll appoint you a deputy, and give you a bit of writing witnessed by a notary, as well as a badge. The paper will identify you, and state that you are engaged on government business, which entitles you to official aid wherever you may demand it. I will also give you samples of the bills those fellows are circulating. They are fives and tens, and by far the best specimens of that kind of work I have ever seen. Of course, if you don't catch them it will be all right; but if you do, perhaps you'll remember old friends when the reward is paid."
Billy Brackett thanked Mr. Riley, and accepted these friendly offers, though he afterwards remarked to Winn that as they were searching for a lost raft, and not for a gang of counterfeiters, he thought it unlikely that he should ever play the part of Sheriff.
"But you'd try for that reward if you had the chance, wouldn't you?" asked Winn.
"No, I would not," was the prompt reply. "Man-hunting, and especially man-hunting for money, is not in my line. It is a duty that Sheriffs are obliged to perform, but, thank goodness, I am not a Sheriff."
At the conclusion of all these explanations and arrangements, the entire party adjourned to the Whatnot, to which Sabella had already returned, and where they were to dine, by Cap'n Cod's invitation.
What a good dinner it was, and what a merry one! How Solon, who in a speckless white apron waited at table, grinned at the praises bestowed upon his cooking! How they all chaffed each other! Winn was ironically praised for his success in losing rafts, and the Sheriff for his in capturing counterfeiters; Cap'n Cod was gravely congratulated upon the result of his efforts to entertain the public, and even Sabella was highly praised for her skilful performance on the hand-organ. With all this banter, Cap'n Cod did not lose sight of the obligation under which Billy Brackett had placed him the evening before, and so sincerely regretted that he and Winn were not to continue their voyage down the river on the Whatnot, that the former finally said:
"Well, sir, if you really want us to, I don't see why we shouldn't travel with you until we overhaul our raft. I am rather taken with this show business myself, and have always had a desire to appear on the stage. As for Winn, and that other young monkey, Don Blossom—"
"All right," laughed Winn. "I'd rather take the part of monkey than of mule, any day."
"Other young monkey," continued Billy Brackett, gravely, without noticing this interruption, "we'll hitch them together and exhibit them as Siamese twins. Oh, I tell you, gentlemen, we'll give a show such as never was seen on this little old river. I don't suppose this craft is as fast as some of the larger steamboats, but she can certainly overtake a raft, and we might just as well have some fun out of the trip as not."
"But she is not a steamboat," confessed Cap'n Cod.
"Not a steamboat! What is she then, and how do you propel her?"
"She is only a mule-boat, and at present, as we have no mule, we merely drift with the current."
At this Billy Brackett became thoughtful, and asked to be shown into the engine-room. He had not appreciated Winn's reference to acting the part of a mule until now; but at sight of the treadmill, and a sudden realization of the part his nephew had taken in the performance of the preceding evening, he laughed until the tears filled his eyes, and the others laughed in sympathy.
"Oh, Winn, Winn!" he cried. "You'll be the death of me yet! I wonder if ever an uncle was blessed with such an absurd nephew before?"
"That's all right, Uncle Billy," said Winn; "but you just step in and work that treadmill for an hour. Then see if you'll laugh. Eh, Solon?"
"No, sah. Ole Solom he don' git in dere no mo'. He gwine strike, he am, agin dish yer mewel bizness."
"Look here, Winn," said Billy Brackett, when he had recovered his gravity, "didn't I offer a reward for your discovery?"
"To be sure you did; and I meant to claim it, too. That's what I got the printer to point out Mr. 'Brickell' for. So I'll take it now, if you please."
"That is one of the rewards I expected to earn," remarked Cap'n Cod. "And I wrote to your father for full particulars concerning your disappearance; but I don't suppose there is any chance for me now, so long as you have discovered yourself, unless you could make it convenient to get lost again."
"I was rather expecting to come in for that reward myself," said the Sheriff.
"While I," said Billy Brackett, "had about concluded that if any one was entitled to it, it was the young rascal's worthy uncle. But I'll tell you how we will settle these several claims. Solon here is almost the only one who has not applied for the reward, though I am convinced that he is as well entitled to it as any of us. Therefore I am going to pay it to him—"
At this the old negro's eyes grew wide as saucers. He had never been possessed of a hundred dollars in his life.
"On condition," continued the young engineer, "that he immediately invests it in a mule, which he shall offer to our friend Cap'n Cod as a substitute for himself and Winn in the treadmill. I shall receive my reward by being permitted to travel on the Whatnot and study for the stage, while the Sheriff shall be rewarded by being allowed to name the mule."
Although they all laughed at this scheme and considered, it a good joke, Billy Brackett was deeply in earnest beneath all his assumed frivolity. He realized that finding the raft and taking possession of it were no longer one and the same thing. The fact that it was in the hands of a gang of men who were at once shrewd and desperate rendered its recovery an affair requiring all the discretion and skill that he could command. For the purpose in view, a boat like the Whatnot, with which he could stop when and where he pleased, as well as visit places unattainable by larger craft, was much better suited than a steamboat that would only touch at certain fixed points. Then again he and Winn would be less likely to arouse the suspicion of those whom they sought if attached to Cap'n Cod's show than if they appeared to have no definite business or object in view. He calculated that by using mule-power in the daytime and drifting with the current at night the Whatnot could be made to reach St. Louis as soon as the raft, and still allow time for several exhibitions of the panorama on the way. From the outset he had expected to take the raft at least as far as St. Louis, and now was perfectly willing that its present crew should have the labor of navigating it to that point. Thus the plan of travelling by the Whatnot commended itself strongly to his judgment, besides proving highly satisfactory to all those interested in it.
Even Bim approved of it, for in addition to showing a decided appreciation of Sabella's friendship, this intelligent animal evinced a desire to become more intimately acquainted with Don Blossom, who was the first of his race he had ever encountered.
The mule selected by Solon, and guaranteed by that expert in mules to be "a turrible wukker, 'kase I sees hit in he eye," was purchased that very afternoon, and immediately introduced to the scene of his future labors.
Sheriff Riley named him "Reward." Then bidding these strangely found friends good-bye, and taking his recovered property with him, he boarded an up-bound steamboat and started for home.
As there was no reason why the others should not also begin their journey at once, the Whatnot was got under way at the same time, and headed down the stream.
Cap'n Cod proudly occupied the pilot-house; Solon attended to the four-legged engine; Sabella was making preparations for supper; while the two who would be raftmates, provided they only had a raft, paced slowly back and forth on the upper deck, enjoying the scenery and discussing their plans.
"If we only knew how those fellows had disguised the raft, and what she looked like now!" remarked Billy Brackett.
"I'm certain that I should recognize it under any disguise," asserted Winn, positively.
"That may be, but it would simplify matters if we could have some definite description of the craft. Now we shall have to board every raft we overhaul, on some pretence or other, and make inquiries. And that reminds me that the Whatnot does not seem to be provided with a skiff."
"Yes, Solon said there was one on this deck, covered with canvas. That must be it there," replied Winn. As he spoke he lifted an edge of the bit of old sail that protected some bulky object from the weather, and looked beneath it. Then he uttered a cry of amazement, and tore the canvas completely off.
"It's my canoe, as sure as I'm standing here!" he shouted. "The very one that was carried off on the raft!"
REWARD RUNS AWAY WITH THE PANORAMA.
There was not the slightest doubt that the canoe, covered by a bit of canvas, which had rested all this time on the upper deck of the Whatnot, was the very one whose loss had grieved Winn almost as much as that of the raft itself. If he had needed proof other than his certain knowledge of the little craft, it was at hand; for, as he pointed out to Billy Brackett, there were his initials, rudely cut with a jack-knife, just inside the gunwale. How well he remembered carving them, one sunny afternoon, when he and Elta were drifting down the creek! Yes, indeed, it was his canoe fast enough, but how came it there? There was but one way to obtain an answer, and in another minute Cap'n Cod was being plied with eager questions as to when, where, and how he came into possession of the dugout.
"That canoe?" he questioned slowly, looking from one to the other, and wondering at their eagerness. "Why, I bought it off a raft just before leaving Dubuque. You see, I didn't have any skiff, and didn't feel that I could afford to buy one. So I was calculating to build one after we'd got started. Then a raft came along, and the fellows on it must have been awfully hard up, for they offered to sell their canoe so cheap that I just had to take it. Two dollars was all I gave for it; and though it isn't exactly—"
"But what sort of a raft was it?" anxiously interrupted Winn.
"Just an ordinary timber raft with a 'shanty' and a tent on it, and—"
"You mean three 'shanties,' don't you?"
"No; one 'shanty' and a tent. I took particular notice, because as there were only three men aboard, I wondered why the 'shanty,' which looked to be real roomy, wasn't enough."
"Three men!" exclaimed Billy Brackett—"a big man, a middle-sized man, and a little man, like the bears in the story-book. Why Winn, that's our raft, and I've been aboard it twice within the last four days."
"You have! Where? How? Why didn't you tell me? Where is it now?"
"Oh, I have been aboard it here and there. Didn't mention it because I haven't been acquainted with you long enough to post you in every detail of my previous history, and now that raft is somewhere down the river, between here and St. Louis." Then changing his bantering tone, the young engineer gave a full explanation of how he happened to board the Venture twice, and when he finished, Winn said,
"But you haven't mentioned the wheat. Didn't you notice it?"
"Wheat! Oh yes. I do remember your father saying he had put some wheat aboard as a speculation; but I didn't see anything of any wheat, nor was there any place where it could have been concealed."
"Then they must have thrown it overboard, as I was afraid they had, and there was a thousand dollars' worth of it, too."
"Whew! Was there as much as that?" said Billy Brackett, thoughtfully. "So those rascals first stole it, and then threw it away, and now there is a thousand dollars reward offered for information that will lead to their capture. I declare, Winn, circumstances do sometimes alter cases."
"Indeed they do, and I think we ought to accept that reward, for father's sake. I know I feel as if I owed him at least a thousand dollars."
"Did you ever cook a rabbit before you caught it, Winn?"
"Of course not. How absurd! Oh, I see what you mean, but I don't think it's the same thing at all. We can't help finding the raft, now that we know where it is, and just what it looks like."
Billy Brackett only laughed at this, and then, in obedience to Sabella's call, they went down to supper. The engine was stopped that it also might be fed, and for an hour the Whatnot was allowed to drift with only Solon on deck. Then Reward was again set to work, and until ten o'clock the unique craft spun merrily down-stream. From that hour the engine was allowed to rest until morning; and while they drifted, the crew divided the watches of the night between them, Cap'n Cod and Winn taking one, and Billy Brackett with Solon for company the other.
At midnight Sabella had a lunch ready for the watch just coming below, as well as for the one about to turn out; and then, wrapped warmly in a blanket, she sat for an hour on the upper deck with Cap'n Cod and Winn, fascinated by the novelty of drifting down the great river at night. The lights that twinkled here and there along the shores earlier in the evening had disappeared, and the whole world seemed asleep. The brooding stillness was only broken by the distant hooting of owls, or the musical complainings of the swift waters as they chafed impatiently against some snag, reef, or bar.
They talked in hushed voices, and Sabella related how the man from whom her uncle purchased Winn's canoe had told her that she reminded him of his own little daughter, who lived so far away that she didn't even know where her father was. "He loves her dearly, though," added Sabella. "I know from the way he talked about her; but I can't think what he meant when he said I ought to be very grateful because I didn't have any father, and that it would be much better for his little girl if she hadn't one either."
"I suppose he meant because he is such a bad man," suggested Winn.
"I don't believe he is a bad man," protested Sabella. "If he was, he just couldn't talk the way he did."
"But he stole our raft, and he is a counterfeiter, and there's a reward offered for him."
"How do you know? Only yesterday some people thought you had stolen a boat, and were a counterfeiter, and there were two rewards offered for you," laughed Sabella. "So perhaps this man isn't any worse than you were. Anyhow, I'm going to like him for his little girl's sake, until I find out that he is really a bad man."
"I wonder if it could have been Mr. Gilder?" thought Winn, as he remembered how that gentleman had won his confidence. Then he entertained Cap'n Cod and Sabella by relating the incident of his warm reception to the first and only one of the "river-traders" whom he had met.
By noon of the next day they reached the point at which Billy Brackett had last seen the raft, and they knew that here their search for it must begin in earnest. For five days more they swept on down the mighty river at the rate of nearly a hundred miles a day. They no longer ran at night, for fear of passing the raft in the darkness, but from sunrise to sunset they hurried southward with all possible speed. They made inquiries at every town and ferry landing; they scanned critically every raft they passed, and boarded several that appeared to be about the size of the Venture, though none of them showed a tent in addition to its "shanty." During every minute of daylight either Billy Brackett or Winn watched the river from the upper deck, but at the end of five days they had not discovered the slightest trace of the missing raft.
Cap'n Cod became so interested in the chase that he would willingly have kept it up by night as well as by day, without stopping to give exhibitions anywhere; but this Billy Brackett would not allow.
"We are certainly travelling faster than they," he argued, "even if they are not making any stops, which is improbable, considering the nature of their business. So we must overtake them sooner or later, and we can't afford the risk of missing them by running at night. Besides, this is a show-boat, and not a police patrol boat. Its reputation must be sustained, and though we don't take time enough at any one place to advertise, and so attract a crowd, we can at least pay expenses."
So the panorama was exhibited every evening, and Billy Brackett, acting as lecturer, pointed out the beauties of the "composite" paintings, in his own witty, happy-go-lucky way, to such audiences as could be collected.
At one of these exhibitions, given at Alton, only twenty miles from St. Louis, and just above the point where the clear waters of the Mississippi disappear in the turbid flood of the greater Missouri, an incident occurred that, while only regarded as amusing at the time, was productive of most important results to our friends. At Billy Brackett's suggestion, Don Blossom, dressed to represent the lecturer, had been trained to slip slyly on the stage after the panorama was well under way. Provided with a bit of stick, he would walk behind the lecturer, and gravely point at the picture in exact imitation of the other's movements. For a minute or so Billy Brackett would continue his remarks as though nothing unusual were happening. At length, when he had allowed sufficient time to elapse for an audience to fully appreciate the situation, he would turn as though to learn the cause of their uproarious mirth, discover the monkey, and chase him from the stage with every sign of anger.
In rehearsal, this act had been done to perfection; but the first time Don Blossom heard the storm of cheers, yells, and laughter, with which his appearance was greeted by a genuine river audience, he became so terrified, that without waiting to be driven from the stage he fled from it. Darting behind the scenes and on through the living-room, he finally took refuge in the darkest corner of the engine-room, where Reward was drowsily working his treadmill. The monkey was so frightened that a moment later, when Sabella went to find him, he sprang away from her, and with a prodigious leap landed squarely on Reward's head, where, chattering and screaming, he clung desperately to the long ears.
The next instant a frantic mule was performing the almost impossible feat of running away on a treadmill. At the same time, to Billy Brackett's dismay and to the astonishment of his audience, the several pictures of the panorama were flitting by in a bewildering stream of color, the effect of which was kaleidoscopic and amazing.
This was Don Blossom's first and last appearance on the stage in public, for he was so thoroughly frightened that, after being rescued from his unhappy position, nothing could induce him to enter either the exhibition hall or the engine-room again. An hour later he managed to evade the watchfulness of his young mistress, slip from the boat, and scamper away through the darkness. His absence was not discovered until the next morning, and at first it was supposed that he was in hiding somewhere on board. When a thorough search failed to produce the little rascal, all except Sabella declared he would never be found, and they must proceed down the river without him. Against this decision the little girl, who had become deeply attached to her pet, protested so earnestly that Cap'n Cod finally agreed to devote an hour to searching the town and making inquiries for the lost monkey. In order to make the search as thorough as possible, he, Billy Brackett, Winn, and Solon went ashore and started in different directions, leaving Sabella alone on the Whatnot.
WINN DISCOVERS HIS LONG-LOST RAFT.
The morning was gray and chill. The low-hanging clouds were charged with moisture, and a thick fog hung above the river. Sabella was so filled with anxiety concerning the fate of Don Blossom that she was unable to settle down to any of the light domestic duties with which she generally occupied her mornings. She wandered restlessly from door to window, with the vague hope that her missing pet might be somewhere in sight. If the weather had not been so unpleasant, she would have started out on a private search for him in the immediate vicinity of the landing. All at once, as she was gazing from the window of her own little room on the upper deck at the dreary-looking houses of the river-front, and as far as she could see up the one muddy street that came within her range of vision, she heard shouting and laughter, and saw a group of persons approaching the boat.
For a few minutes she could not make out who they were, or what they were doing. Then she saw that the one taller than the others was a man, and that he was surrounded by a group of boys. Several of them ran backward in front of him, and all of them seemed greatly excited over something that he bore in his arms. It was a red bundle that squirmed and struggled as though it was alive. Sabella looked for a moment longer, then she darted down the short flight of steps leading to the living-room, and flung open the outer door.
"It's Don Blossom! It's my own dear, sweet Don Blossom!" she cried, almost snatching the trembling little animal from the man's arms in her eagerness.
The man stepped inside, and closed the door to shut out the boys, who, after lingering a few minutes, gradually dispersed.
"Oh, you dear monkey! How could you run away? You naughty, naughty Don Blossom! Was he cold and wet and hungry and frightened? But he's safe now, and he shall have his breakfast directly; so he shall, the dear blessed!"
While Sabella was so much engrossed with her pet as to be unmindful of all else, the man who had restored him to her stood just within the doorway and watched her, with an amused smile.
"So he is your monkey, is he? I thought he must be when I first saw him," he said at length.
"Yes, indeed, he is; and I have been feeling so badly at losing him. But where did you find him, and how did you know he was mine?" Here the little girl looked for the first time into the stranger's face. "Why, you are the very same one—"
"Yes," he replied, quietly, "I am the very same one whom you reminded of his own little girl, and who has thought of you very often since. I didn't know that you had reached this place, or I should have come to see you before. I found this monkey a little while ago in possession of some boys who were teasing him, and thought I recognized him as soon as I saw him. I became certain he was yours when some of the boys said they had seen him on a show-boat last evening, and that, after they had had some fun with him, they were going to bring him down here and claim a reward. As I wanted the pleasure of bringing him back to you myself, I bought him of them, and here he is."
"Then you are not a bad man, as Winn said, but a very good one, as I told him, and now I can prove it!" exclaimed Sabella, with a note of joyous triumph in her voice. "I'm ever and ever so much obliged to you, and I only wish I could see your little girl to tell her what a splendid father she has."
"Who is Winn? And what makes him think I am a bad man?" inquired the stranger, curiously.
"Oh, he's a boy, a big boy, that has lost a raft that we are helping him find, and he thinks you stole it. So he says you are a bad man; but I know you are not, and you wouldn't do such a mean thing as to steal a boy's raft, would you?"
"Well, no," hesitated the stranger, greatly taken aback by this unexpected disclosure and abrupt question. "No, of course not," he added, recovering himself. "I wouldn't steal a raft, or anything else, from a boy, though I might occasionally borrow a thing that I needed very much. But where is this Winn boy now? And where is your uncle?"
"They have gone out to find Don Blossom, and Mr. Brackett and Solon have gone too, but they'll all be back directly, and then you can tell them that you only borrowed Winn's raft, and where you have left it. Oh, I am so glad it was you that found Don Blossom!"
"Who is Mr. Brackett?" inquired the stranger, glancing uneasily out of the window.
"Mr. Brackett? Why, he is Winn's uncle, though you wouldn't think he was an uncle, or any older than Winn, he is so funny, and he is helping find the raft. But you'll see him in a few minutes, for they said they'd only be gone an hour."
"I think I'll go and find them, and tell them they needn't hunt any longer for the monkey," said the stranger, hurriedly.
Then, before Sabella could remonstrate, he had bent down and kissed her, saying, "Good-bye, and God bless you, little one," opened the door, and was gone.
"Seems to me that is very foolish, when he might have seen them by just waiting a few minutes," said Sabella to herself, as she pulled off Don Blossom's gay but soaked and mud-bespattered coat. "Now perhaps he will miss them after all."
The stranger had hardly disappeared before Solon returned to the boat, grumbling at the weather, the mud, and, above all, at the rheumatism that forbade him to remain out in the wet any longer.
"Hit hain't no use, honey," he said, as he opened the door, "dat ar Don monkey gone fur good an' all dish yer time. Yo' nebber see him no mo'. Wha—wha—whar yo fin' him? He ben yeah all de time, while ole Solon ben er traipsin' fro de mud, an' er huntin', an' er huntin'?"
"No, indeed, he hasn't!" cried Sabella, laughing merrily, as she held Don Blossom up to the astonished gaze of the old negro. "He has just come home." Then she explained at length how her pet had been brought back to her by such a good kind man.
"Well, ef dat ar ain't a beater!" ejaculated Solon. "I's mighty glad de lil rasc'l is foun', anyway, 'kase now we kin be gittin' outen dish yer rheumatizy place. I'll go an' hitch up dat mewel, so to hab him ready to start when de Cap'n come."
Upon leaving the Whatnot, Cap'n Cod had turned to the left, or up along the river-front of the town; Billy Brackett had plunged directly into its business portion, intending to keep on until he reached the hills beyond, on which stood the better class of residences; and Winn had turned to the right.
The young engineer, closely followed by Bim, walked for several blocks without seeing or hearing anything of the runaway monkey. Suddenly, with a low growl, Bim started across the street. His master was just in time to see a man spring into the open doorway of a store, and slam the door to as the dog leaped furiously against it.
The glimpse he caught of the man's face was like a lightning flash, but it was enough. He knew him to be the raftsman who had kicked Bim, and whom he had rescued from the dog's teeth at Mandrake, more than a week before. "He is one of those scoundrels who stole the Venture, and if I can only trace him I'll find the raft," thought the young man, as he dashed across the street after Bim.
Seizing the dog's collar, and bidding him be quiet, he opened the door of the store and stepped inside. There was no one to be seen, save the proprietor and two or three startled-looking clerks.
"Where is he?" demanded Billy Brackett, hurriedly. "The man, I mean, who ran in here just now!"
"That dog ought to be killed, and if you don't take him out of here at once I'll call the police," said the proprietor of the store, indignantly. "It's an outrage to allow such brutes to run at large."
"That's the reason I'm holding him," said Billy Brackett; "but where is the man?"
"I don't know; but I hope he has gone for his gun, and will know how to use it too. If he don't, I—"
The young engineer did not wait to hear more, for at that moment he spied a back door standing partly open. That was where his man had gone, and without paying any further attention to the irate shopkeeper, he dashed out through it with Bim at his heels.
Winn searched high and low, with the utmost faithfulness, until he reached the outskirts of the town, but without finding a trace of the missing Don Blossom. There was a growth of timber lining the river-bank, just beyond the houses, and the boy ventured a little way into this, arguing that a monkey would naturally take to trees. It was so wet and dripping in the timber that he only remained there a few minutes; but as he turned to retrace his steps, his attention was diverted by a new object of interest.
He was on a bank of the river, beside which was moored a raft. It was a timber raft, with a single large "shanty," that had a strangely familiar look, standing amidship.
"It isn't the Venture, of course," thought Winn; "but I'll just step aboard and inquire if they have seen anything of a raft with a 'shanty' and a tent on it. It will save us some time when we get started down the river again."
So thinking, the boy stepped lightly aboard. His footfalls were deadened by the wet, so that he gained the forward end of the "shanty" without attracting attention. The door was closed, and Winn was startled to note how very familiar that gable end of the building looked. He raised his hand to knock at the door, when suddenly it was flung open, and a harsh voice asked, "What do you want? and what are you doing here, young man?"
As Winn was about to reply his glance penetrated the interior of the "shanty," and for an instant he stood speechless.
THE RAFT AND THE SHOW-BOAT CHANGE CREWS.
It must be remembered that while Winn would have recognized Mr. Gilder, he had not seen the other "river-traders," Plater and Grimshaw. Of these two, the former had not set eyes on the lad whose raft they had stolen; but the latter had caught a glimpse of him, and now, as he noted Winn's startled glance into the interior of the "shanty," it flashed into his mind who this intrusive boy was.
The "river-traders" had not really expected Winn to follow them. They imagined that after he escaped from the island, which they hoped he would not do for several days, he would be glad enough to make the best of his way home. Still, they had taken the precaution of disguising the Venture by throwing the wheat overboard, tearing down the buildings in which it had been stowed, and erecting a tent in place of one of them. As they were well provided with various changes of wigs and beards, they felt quite safe until Billy Brackett boarded the raft for the second time, and made inquiries for one having three "shanties." Then they realized that a search was being made for them, or, at least, for the craft from which they were operating.
They felt somewhat easier when one of their number, detailed to watch the movements of their unwelcome visitor, returned and reported that he had gone back up the river. Still, they thought it well to again alter the appearance of the raft by removing the tent, and so lengthening the "shanty" as to materially change its aspect. They also allowed the raft to drift night and day for nearly five hundred miles without a pause. Then, again feeling safe from pursuit, they tied up just below the City of Alton, Illinois, and prepared to resume their dishonest business.
Their plan of operations was to purchase goods wherever they stopped, but always in such small quantities that for the bills they tendered in payment they received a certain amount of good money in change. A little farther along they would offer the goods thus accumulated for sale so cheaply that they readily disposed of them. In this way they not only did a thriving business, but kept up the appearance of being what they claimed to be—"river-traders" and raftsmen.
In this wicked scheme of cheating and stealing, Plater and Grimshaw felt no scruples nor regrets; but with Mr. Gilder, especially after his meeting with Sabella, the case was different. He was a man of gentlemanly instincts, and was a skilful engraver, who had worked in the Government Printing-office at Washington for several years. There he was extravagant, got into debt, yielded to the temptation to make a fortune easily, and became a counterfeiter. The present undertaking was his first experience in that line of wickedness, and he was already heartily sick of it. While on the island, where his part of the work was engraving and printing, he had not realized the contemptible nature of his unlawful business. He had merely been filled with pride in his own skill, which feeling his associates took good care to encourage by artful praise.
When he met Sabella, it flashed across him for the first time that his own little girl, far away in an eastern city, was the daughter of a criminal, and from that moment he was a changed man. Through the long days and longer nights, as the raft drifted down the great river, these thoughts were ever with him: "What will she say when she finds it out? How will she act? Will she ever kiss me, or even speak to me again? I have made her very name a disgrace. What shall I do to wipe it out? What shall I do?"
His companions noticed his strange mood, and jeered at him, but failed to change it. Finally they became suspicious, and held secret consultations as to how they should rid themselves of him. They finally determined to accomplish this in some way at St. Louis, and so matters stood when they made their stop at Alton. Here they intended remaining until they had transacted a satisfactory amount of business. Thus, on the foggy morning following Don Blossom's escape from the Whatnot, Messrs Gilder and Plater had gone into the town to familiarize themselves with its localities, while Grimshaw was left to look out for the raft. Now Winn Caspar had accidentally discovered it, and recognized it as the Venture.
He did not know the man standing in the doorway and looking so curiously at him, nor did he suppose himself known by the other. So, with a great effort, he strove to conceal the tumult of his feelings, and to appear natural and self-possessed. He answered the man's curt inquiry regarding his business there by saying, in as pleasant a tone as he could command, that he was searching for a lost monkey, which he thought might have taken to the timber beside which this raft was moored. "You startled me by throwing open your door so suddenly just as I was about to knock," he continued; "but you haven't seen anything of a stray monkey this morning, have you?"
"Not until this moment," answered the man, surlily, "and I don't want to see any more of him. Good-day."
With this he slammed the door in the boy's face, and then, stealing on tiptoe to a window, watched for his departure from the raft.
To say that Mr. Grimshaw was rendered uneasy and apprehensive by this sudden appearance of one whom he suppose to be hundreds of miles away, and who was also the very person he was most anxious to avoid, would by no means express his feelings. He was so terrified and unnerved that for a moment he thought of leaving the raft to its fate, and making good his own escape while he had time. Then he wondered if it would not be better to cast it loose and drift away through the fog to some new hiding-place. It would never do to go without his partners, though; for, in the first place, he could not manage the raft alone, and in the second there was no knowing what Gilder would do if he thought himself deserted and perhaps betrayed. No, he must find his associates without delay, and warn them of this unexpected danger. He wondered if the boy were alone. Perhaps he had friends in hiding near by, to whom he had gone to report. In that case his own safety demanded that he discover them before they reached the raft. The boy had already disappeared in the timber, and there was no time to be lost in following him.
Thus reasoning, Grimshaw left the "shanty," locking its door behind him as he did so, and springing ashore, hastened up the trail, along which Winn had disappeared a few seconds before. It took him about three minutes to reach the far edge of the timber and outskirts of the town. Here several streets began, and as he could not follow them all, he was brought to a halt. Which way should he go now? He had seen nothing of the boy, whom he certainly ought to have overtaken before this, nor of any other person. Could he have passed them? Where should he look for Gilder and Plater? Would it not be better, after all, to await their return on the raft? Of course it would. He had been a fool to leave it, and now his best plan was to get back to it as quickly as possible.
These thoughts occupied less than a minute, and so impatient was the man to regain the raft he had just left that inside of two minutes more he again stood on the river-bank. He had been gone barely five minutes, and in that time he had not seen a human being. Now he could not see the raft. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. He could see a few rods of water, but beyond that the fog was impenetrable. He shouted, but there was no answer. Perhaps this was not the place. He ran a little way up the shore, and then as far in the opposite direction, but without success. Then he returned to his starting-point, and found the end of a rope. It was attached to a tree, and had been cut. It was a bit of the line that had held the raft, and the raft was gone.
The blow was a heavy one, and for a few minutes Grimshaw stood like one who is stunned. The loss of that raft, under the circumstances, meant ruin. It meant the loss of everything he had or cared for in the world. At first the realization of this loss rendered him speechless. Then he began to rave and revile his own carelessness. After a few minutes devoted to this he again started up the trail. He was determined to procure some craft and start in instant pursuit of the raft. He would go in company with his partners if he ran across them, but alone if he did not. Before he reached the far edge of the timber he met Plater running and breathless.
"Get back to the raft!" shouted the new-comer. "They're after us!"
"They've got us," was the bitter answer. "At least they've got the raft, and we must hunt some boat in which to follow them at once."
A few words more explained the situation, and, angry as he was, Plater did not stop to waste time in idle reproaches just then. He only said, "It's that sneak Gilder's doings, I'll bet my pile."
Grimshaw agreed to this, and as they hurried along they both thought of their partner as floating down the river on the raft in company with their enemies and glorying over their discomfiture.
"We'll get even with him, though," growled Plater.
"Yes, we will," snarled Grimshaw.
And then they met the object of their anger hurrying away from the levee which they were approaching.
"Where are you fellows going?" he cried, and then, in a lower tone, he added, "We've got to get out of here in a hurry, for they are in this very town and looking for us. I've just come from their boat."
"Who have they left aboard?" asked Grimshaw.
"Only a child," was the answer.
"Let us take a look at it, then, so we will know it as well as you the next time we see it."
So Mr. Gilder went back to point out the Whatnot to his companions, and when they sprang aboard and began to cast off the lines that held it to the levee he followed them, with a vague idea of protecting Sabella.
The next moment, Solon, who had just finished hitching up Reward, was startled by the ringing of the engine-room bell. It was the signal to go ahead. Thinking that the others must have returned and were ready to start, he obeyed it. Thus the Whatnot, in full possession of the "river-traders," moved slowly out into the stream, and again started in pursuit of the raft she had followed for so long.
A DISASTROUS COLLISION.
The running off with that boat from the waterfront of a city in broad daylight was a bold thing to do. But these men were accustomed to taking desperate risks, and had done many more reckless things than this in the course of their lawless careers; besides, they expected to overtake the raft within an hour or so, when they would send the boat back to its owner, or leave it where he could find it. They did not yet understand the connection between Cap'n Cod, whom they knew as the proprietor of the Whatnot, and those who were interested in the recovery of the raft. That made no difference, however. It was enough that this boat had been used in their pursuit, and that by taking it they might delay this pursuit until they should recover the raft and make good their escape. Besides, it happened to be the only available boat lying at the levee just then, and they would have taken it even though they had been obliged to use force to gain its possession, so eager were they to recapture the Venture.
This was the reasoning of two of the "river-traders;" while the third sprang aboard because the others did, and without stopping to reason. Grimshaw made his way at once to the pilothouse, where Mr. Gilder followed him, in order to learn his plans. Plater walked aft, and through the engine-room window saw that the mule was already in his treadmill, where Solon had just completed his harnessing. Without alarming the negro by making his presence known, the big man stole away, and gaining the pilot-house, rang the engine-room bell that meant "Go ahead." To the great satisfaction of at least two of the "river-traders" this order was promptly obeyed. Within a couple of minutes the city had disappeared, and the Whatnot was slipping down the fog-enshrouded river.
"What is the meaning of this?" demanded Mr. Gilder, as he followed Grimshaw into the pilot-house. "Are you crazy that you are going off with this boat and leaving the raft behind? Or do you mean to run in to where it is, take our stuff aboard, and continue the cruise in this craft? Because if you do, you can count me out. This is too conspicuous a boat for my use. Why, man, she'll be spotted by the police inside of twenty-four hours!"
"I expect it's about time we counted you out, anyway," answered the other, gruffly. "Plater and I have about made up our minds that you are playing a double game, and had some hand in the disappearance of the raft."
"The disappearance of the raft?" exclaimed the other, blankly. "What do you mean? How did the raft disappear? And when did it disappear? And where were you, whom we left to look after it? If you have lost that raft you'll answer to me for my share in it, and I'll see that you make it good too, you sneaking—"
"Come, come, Gilder! Simmer down!" interrupted Plater, who had entered the pilot-house in time to hear these angry words. "This isn't the time nor place for us to quarrel. We've too much at stake. The raft has gone, and we are after it. That's all Grim and I know. Whatever information you can give concerning its disappearance will be gratefully received."
The interchange of high words that followed had almost led to blows, when Mr. Gilder suddenly became silent, and stepped quickly to the pilot-house door. He had just caught sight of Sabella holding Don Blossom in her arms, and staring through the open doorway with an expression of frightened bewilderment. She had expected to find her uncle and Billy Brackett and Winn, and had hastened to announce the joyful news of Don Blossom's safety.
Now as Mr. Gilder led her aft and down into the living-room, he strove to banish that frightened look by gentle words and reassuring promises.
"But where is my Uncle Aleck? And where are Mr. Brackett and Winn? I can't find them anywhere. Solon said they were in the pilot-house."
"They are on the raft, and we are going to find them," was the answer.
"Oh, I'm so glad they've got the raft again! And I'm glad you gave it back to them, too. Now, Winn can't say you are a bad man any longer. But you've only borrowed the Whatnot for a little while, haven't you?"
"Yes, only for a little while."
"I don't think those others are very nice-looking men, and I was awfully afraid until I saw you. Then I knew it must be all right."
"It is all right, little one, and there is nothing for you to be afraid of. No harm shall come to you so long as I am here, and I promise to see you safe with your friends again before leaving you. You see, I am making believe that you are my own little girl, and I want you to feel just as safe and happy as she would if she were here in your place."
"Of course I feel safe now," answered Sabella, promptly. "I have, ever since I found out it was you who had borrowed the Whatnot. For a minute, though, I was afraid those disagreeable—" Here the child hesitated. She did not want to hurt her new friend's feelings. "I mean," she added, hastily, "that those other gentlemen had stolen it. And I will make believe I am your own little girl, for I haven't any papa, and only one uncle in the world. I wish you would tell me your name, though. I don't think I ever knew any one so well before without knowing his name."
The man hesitated, and looked curiously at the sweet face upturned to his. Then, as though arrived at a sudden conclusion, he said,
"My name is Gresham, William Gresham, but my little girl calls me 'Papa Billy.'"
"Then we'll make a bargain!" exclaimed Sabella, joyfully. "That's the very name of Winn's uncle; and if I make believe you are my uncle, I shall have an Uncle Billy as well as he. I think that's better, too, because you know a girl couldn't have but one own papa, but she might have a hundred uncles if she wanted. So we'll make that a bargain, and I'll give you a kiss if you like, because Uncle Aleck says that's always the other part of a bargain."
With the kiss of the innocent child warm on his lips, William Gresham returned to the upper deck. His heart was very tender at that moment, and though he did not express any resolve in words, he knew that a black page of his life had just been closed, never to be reopened. He met Plater coming to find him, for he was wanted to aid in keeping the sharp lookout that the fog rendered necessary.
With all their senses alert and strained, the "river-traders" kept on for two hours without discovering a trace of the raft. Then they knew they must have passed it, and so headed the Whatnot up-stream again, hoping to meet it. Now they barely held their own, without making any progress, for they knew the raft would drift in the channel with the strongest current, and therefore that where the water ran swiftest they must await its coming.
Solon, fully occupied with his duties as engineer and with preparations for dinner, paid little heed to Sabella when she looked in at the galley door to inform him that her Uncle Billy said everything was all right.
"I specs so, honey, I specs so, an' of co'se hit's all right ef yo' Unc' Billy say so. Him a mighty knowin' young gen'l'man, dat ar Unc' Billy am, fo' shuah."
As the day advanced, there were occasional rifts in the fog, and in one of these Mr. Gilder, as we will still call him, caught a momentary glimpse of the raft. It was drifting at some distance to the right of them, and in a few moments would be again out of sight. His first impulse was to announce this discovery to his companions, and his second was to remain silent. He acted upon the second, and was almost doubtful if he had really seen the raft at all, so quickly did it again disappear. Suddenly there came a sound of blows, as though some one were chopping wood on board the raft.
There was an exulting shout from the pilot-house, the steering-wheel was put hard over, and the boat began to swing slowly at right angles to the current. She was headed in the direction of the raft, and Mr. Gilder knew that, owing to those ill-timed blows, it had been discovered. Yes. Now he could see it again. There it was, not a hundred yards away, and the Whatnot was headed so as to intercept it as it came down. What should he do? It would be foolish to struggle for possession of the wheel against the two desperate men in the pilot-house. He could stop the machinery though, or, better still, reverse it, and so give the raft a chance to drift past and again disappear in the mist. For Sabella's sake he would make the attempt.
He had already started for the lower deck, when his steps were arrested by a second shout from the pilot-house, and another sound that smote on his ear like a death-knell. It was the hoarse note of a deep-toned whistle apparently at his side. There was a jangling of bells, a wild yelling, the roar of escaping steam, and then the dim form of a great up-river packet loomed above the little craft on which he stood like some awful fog monster intent upon its destruction.
The man stood at the head of the steps leading down into the living-room, where Sabella, unconscious of the impending peril, was singing a quaint old hymn as she set the table for dinner. He had heard his mother sing that hymn when he was a boy at home. So long ago, and so far away. A second more and this sweet young life would be blotted out, and the little body, crushed beyond recognition, would be buried deep beneath the waters of the great river, while he would be safe on the lower deck of that steamboat. He could easily spring to it from the upper deck of the Whatnot, as he saw Plater and Grimshaw were about to do.
"I promise to see you safe with your friends again." That was what he had said, and it was to that child he had said it. In another instant the man had entered the living-room, seized Sabella in his powerful arms, and had gained the outer door on the side farthest from the steamboat.
Then came the shock. There was a moment of horrible grinding, crashing, and splintering, a mad surging of brown waters, and then the little showboat passed beneath the monster that had crushed out its life. It was gone as utterly as the flame of a candle is extinguished by a puff of wind, and the great river was its grave, as it has been of thousands of other craft, and will be of thousands yet unbuilt.
IS THIS OUR RAFT OR NOT?
So anxious was Winn Caspar for the recovery of the raft lost through his carelessness and over-confidence in his own ability that, having found it again, he could not bear to lose sight of it, even though he had no idea of how he might regain its possession. Therefore, as he stepped ashore after his rebuff by Grimshaw, he only went so far up the trail through the timber as to be concealed from the man's view. Then he darted into the undergrowth and crept back to the river-bank. He reached it just in time to see Grimshaw lock the door of the "shanty," leave the raft, and start up the trail that he himself had taken but a minute before.
How long would the man be gone? Was there any one left on the raft? These were the questions that came into the boy's mind. There was no sign of life on the Venture, and by running a short distance up the trail Winn became convinced that the man had gone at least as far as the edge of the timber. Would he ever again have so good a chance of recovering his father's property? Besides, what a fine thing it would be for him to recapture the raft alone, without the aid of Billy Bracket! or any one else. This latter thought decided the boy, and caused him to hastily retrace his steps.
Never had Winn been so excited! As he sprang aboard the raft and tried to cast off its fastenings he momentarily expected to hear a shout from the bank or a gruff demand from the interior of the "shanty" as to what he was about. Perhaps the summons would take the form of a pistol-shot, for men who would steal a raft and destroy a thousand dollars' worth of wheat would not be likely to hesitate at anything. At this last thought Winn seemed to feel the deadly sting of a bullet, and in his nervousness only made more intricate the knot he was trying to untie. At length he whipped out his jack-knife and cut the rope.
Now to head the raft out into the stream. He picked up a long set-pole, thrust one end into the bank, braced himself, and began to push. Oh, how he strained and panted! How the veins stood out on his forehead! Still the great mass of timber seemed immovable. Again and again he tried, and at length felt a slight yield. A more desperate effort than before, and he could take a step; then another, and another, until he had walked half the length of the pole. The head of the raft was swinging off, at first so slowly that the motion was almost imperceptible, then faster, until finally it felt the full force of the current. Now for one more effort! If he could only work her out from the bank and into the friendly shelter of the fog without discovery, he would feel safe even from pistol-shots. For two minutes Winn labored as never before in all his life. But the minutes seemed hours, and he felt that he might as well attempt to push away the bank itself as the mass of timber on which he stood. Suddenly he heard that which he expected and dreaded, a shout, so loud that it seemed to be uttered on the raft. The set-polo fell from his nerveless grasp as he looked up, fully expecting to gaze into the black muzzle of a pistol.
At first he saw—nothing. He must be turned around. No; the view of the opposite direction was equally blank. Then, for an instant, he caught a glimpse of shadowy tree-tops just dissolving into formless mist. The blessed fog had folded its protecting arms about him, and he was safe.
Hurrah! he was once more in undisputed possession of the raft, and once more floating on it down the great river.
Wildly happy, the exhausted boy flung himself down on the wet planks, and yielded to pleasant reflections. It was only twenty miles to St. Louis. The current was carrying him at the rate of five miles an hour, so that he ought to reach the city soon after noon. There he would hail some steamboat or tug, and get it to tow his raft to a safe mooring-place. Then he would telegraph to both his father and his Uncle Billy. After that he would engage some stout man to help guard the raft until his friends arrived. Or perhaps he would buy a revolver and guard it himself, and when his father and Uncle Billy came along, he would challenge them before allowing them to step on board. Yes, that would be the scheme, and the boy became very proud of himself as he thought of the praises in store for him.
At length Winn rose from his moist resting-place, and began to examine his surroundings. How strange the raft did look, to be sure. He wouldn't have believed its appearance could have been so altered, and now wondered that he had ever recognized it. In fact, the only feature that seemed at all familiar, as he studied it, was the forward gable end of the "shanty." But somehow the building itself appeared much longer than when he last saw it. Still, there was that interior. He had seen the partition, with its door leading into his own little room, and he never heard of a raft "shanty" with a partition in it until this one was built. He must have another look at that interior.
The locked door baffled him. It was of such solid construction, and its lock was so well made, that it resisted all his efforts to force it. The windows were provided with heavy wooden shutters that were fastened on the inside. For an hour Winn busied himself with vain efforts to effect an entrance. At the end of that time he was discouraged. He was also uneasy. He had heard steamboats pass him, but could see nothing of them on account of the fog. The last one passed very close. The next might run him down. How he wished the raft were safely tied to some bank or levee. It was awful to be thus blindly drifting, right in the track of steamboats. The fog hung so low over the water that their pilots were lifted well above it, and could see the landmarks by which they were guided. They could also see other steamboats; but such things as scows and rafts had no business to be moving at such a time. They were supposed to be snugly tied up, and consequently no pilot would be on the lookout for them. Winn knew this as well as any one, and the knowledge did not tend to reassure him.
If he only had some one with him to help work the heavy sweeps by which the raft's course might be directed, or even to advise him what to do. It was dreadful to be alone. What a foolish thing he had done, after all, in attempting to manage this affair by himself. If he had only gone back for Billy Brackett. But his boyish pride in his own ability had again overcome his judgment, and now he must abide by the consequences.
"I only hope, if I do get run down and killed, they will find out who I am," thought the poor boy. "It would be horrid to disappear and have folks say I was a coward, who had run away for fear father would be angry with me for losing his raft. As if my father would ever do anything to make me afraid of him! And mother! How badly she would feel if I should disappear without ever giving her the comfort of knowing I was dead. There is Elta, too, and the very last time I saw her I was ugly to her. Oh dear! I wish—well, I wish, for one thing, that I could get inside that 'shanty,' and out of this miserable drizzle. I wonder if I can't pick the lock?"
Full of this new idea, Winn obtained a bit of stiff wire from the handle of a lantern that stood outside the "shanty." This he bent as well as he could into the rude form of a key, and thus equipped, he worked patiently at the lock for another hour. At length he threw away the useless implement in disgust.
"I was never cut out for a burglar, that's certain!" he exclaimed. "There's one thing I can do, though, and I will, too. I can smash down the door, and get inside that way."
An axe lay beside a pile of wood near the forward end of the raft; and armed with this, the boy began to rain vigorous blows upon the stout door. Before these it quickly yielded, and he thus gained the interior.
Once inside, he gazed about him blankly. Nothing looked familiar; nothing was as he had expected to find it. There was the partition, with a door in it, to be sure, and there was the small room beyond the main one; but there was also another partition, and another door beyond this. There had been but two rooms in the Venture's "shanty," while here were three. Then again the "shanty" that he had helped to build was only boarded up on the outside, while the interior had been left unceiled, with the frame exposed. The interior on which he now gazed was wholly ceiled, so as to make the walls of double thickness, and conceal every bit of the framing.
The perplexed boy noticed these details at a glance; and as he stood staring blankly about him, the uncomfortable suspicion began to force itself into his mind that perhaps this was not the Venture after all.
"If I have run off with some one else's raft, I declare I shall just want to disappear!" he exclaimed to himself. "I do believe I shall be too ashamed ever to go home again. Oh dear! There is another steamboat."
The notes of a deep-voiced whistle, evidently near at hand, caused the boy to hasten outside. He could see a huge confused mass dimly looming out of the fog ahead, and a little to one side of him. At the same moment he heard the wild jangling of bells, the terrified shoutings, and then the awful crash that denoted a collision. A big up-bound steamboat had run down and sunk a smaller boat of some kind. That much he could see, and he was filled with horror at the nearness and magnitude of the disaster.
He had heard agonized screams, and knew that lives had been sacrificed. One shrill cry that came to his ears with startling distinctness sounded as though uttered by a woman or a girl, and Winn shuddered at the thought of her fate.
The raft was drifting rapidly away from the scene of the catastrophe, and the dimly discerned steamboat was just disappearing from his view, when the boy thought he heard a gurgling cry from the water. Could some bold swimmer have escaped? He bent his head to the water's edge and listened. Again he heard the cry. And this time it seemed nearer. Some human being was struggling in the river. Now, if ever, was the time for his promptest action, and with Winn thought and action went hand in hand.
In another moment he was in the skiff belonging to the raft, and pulling with all the strength of his stout young arms in the direction of the cries.
THE RESCUE OF SABELLA.
Strongly as Winn pulled, the cries grew very faint and almost inaudible during the few seconds that elapsed before he discovered the struggling forms from which they proceeded. A glance over his shoulder showed him a man swimming with one arm, while the other supported a child—apparently a girl.
With a final powerful stroke the skiff shot alongside the drowning figures, the oars were jerked in, and Winn, leaning over the side, seized the girl's arm. At the same moment the man grasped the gunwale of the skiff. It was no slight task for Winn to get the girl into the boat, for she was unconscious, and formed a dead weight, that was made heavier by her soaked clothing. He finally succeeded; and as he laid the limp form in the bottom of the skiff and took his first good look at her face, he uttered a cry of amazement, and doubted the evidence of his senses. How was it possible that Sabella could be there, and in such a predicament? Could the boat that had just been run into be the Whatnot? If so, who was this man? He turned to look, and to help him into the skiff; but, to his horror, the man had disappeared.
William Gresham had redeemed his promise with his life. From a cruel wound, made by a splintered timber, he had bled so freely that his fast-failing strength was barely able to hold Sabella's head above the surface until Winn came to her rescue. He recognized the boy, and as the little girl was lifted from his arms, he closed his eyes with the peaceful expression of one who is weary and would sleep. Then his grasp of the skiff relaxed, and without a struggle he slipped across the invisible line dividing time from eternity. The hurrying waters closed about him as gently as a mother's arms, and who shall say that in his death the man had not atoned for his life, or that in the tawny flood of the great river his sin was not washed away as though it had never been?
As for Winn, he was overwhelmed and stunned. It was so sudden, so terrible, and so pitiful. At one moment the man was there, and in the next he was gone without a word. In vain did the boy look over both sides of the skiff and over its stern in the hope that the man might still be clinging to it. Only the swift-flowing waters met his gaze, and seemed to mock at his efforts to wrest their secret.