The man was gone; there was no doubt of that; and now came the harrowing question, who was he? Winn had not seen his face. It could not have been the owner of the Whatnot, because, with his wooden leg, he could not swim. It was not Solon, for the head had been that of a white man. Could it have been his mother's only brother, his Uncle Billy, the brave, merry young fellow who was to have been his raftmate? Winn had already learned to love as well as to admire Billy Brackett, though how much he had not known, until now that he believed him to be gone out of his life forever.
He tried to believe that it was some one else, but in vain. The girl whom he had just rescued was certainly Sabella, so of course the boat that he had seen crushed like an egg-shell must have been the Whatnot. Oh, if he had only been a little closer, or if the fog had not been so thick! The boat was almost certain to have been the Whatnot though, and in that case the brave swimmer, who had missed safety by a hair's-breadth must have been—
Here a moan diverted Winn's attention from his own unhappiness, and caused him to spring to the side of the little girl. She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Oh, Sabella!" he cried, "tell me who saved you? Was it Mr. Brackett—my Uncle Billy, you know?"
"My Uncle Billy," she murmured faintly; then she again closed her eyes wearily, and seemed to sleep.
"It was he, then; it was he!" And Winn, breaking down, sobbed aloud. "And all my fault that he came on this trip! My fault, my fault!" he repeated over and over again.
At length he became conscious of the selfishness of thus giving way to his feelings while Sabella was still in such urgent need of his aid.
"I must get her to the raft at once!" he exclaimed, starting up and looking about him. But there was no raft, nor was there any steamboat. There was nothing but the skiff with themselves in it, a small circle of brown water, and the fog. He had no idea of direction, not even whether his skiff was heading up-stream or down, or drifting broadside to the current. If the fog would only lift! It had been so kind to him, but now was so dreadful.
The boy took off his coat, folded it, and put it under Sabella's head. Then he sat beside her and rubbed her cold hands. He knew of nothing else that he could do for her, and so he waited—waited for the fog to lift or for help to come.
At length he began to hear sounds from every direction, the sound of whistles, bells, and hundreds of other noises. He must have reached St. Louis, and it would never do to drift past it. Besides, the danger of being run down was now greater than ever. So the boy took to his oars, and began to pull in the direction from which the loudest sound of whistles appeared to come.
Suddenly he was hailed. "Look out dar, boss!"
"Hold on!" shouted Winn. "I am in trouble, and will give you a dollar to pilot me ashore."
A skiff came alongside. It contained but a single occupant, a negro, who appeared nearly as old as Solon. He listened with open-mouthed wonder to the boy's hurriedly told story, and not only expressed a ready sympathy, but promised to have "de young gen'l'man an' der lilly lady lamb on de sho' in free minutes. Ole Clod, him know de way. De frog can't fool him on desh yer ribber."
With renewed hope Winn followed closely behind his dusky pilot, and in another minute caught sight of the welcome land. It was East St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the river, at that time a great railroad terminus, and Clod's little cabin stood at the edge of high-water-mark; for he was a boatman, and gained his living from the river.
"Now, young marse, you mus' come up to my house, whar my ole 'oman fixin' de lilly gal all right in no time." So saying, the negro lifted Sabella in his strong arms and started towards his cabin, to which Winn was only too glad to follow him. The boy had never felt so utterly helpless and forlorn.
He no longer thought of taking matters into his own hands, but was thankful to accept even the humble guidance of this negro. Under the circumstances he could not have fallen into better hands. Not only was Clod strong, willing, and possessed of a shrewd knowledge gained by rough experience, but his "ole 'oman," Aunt Viney, a motherly soul of ample proportions, was accounted the best all-round nurse of the neighborhood. She was never happier than when bustling about in a service like the present; and within five minutes Sabella was nestled in the snowy centre of a huge bed, with Aunt Viney crooning over her like a brooding tenderness, and rapidly restoring the color to the child's pallid cheeks.
At the same time Winn was sitting by the kitchen stove in a cloud of steam from his own wet clothing, absorbing warmth and comfort, and relating his adventures at length to the sympathetic old man.
Clod's interest and wonder at the boy's story were shown by uplifted hands, rolling eyes, and such ejaculations as "How yo' talk, chile!" "Well, I nebber!" "Dat's so, bress de Lawd!" "Ef dat ar ain't de beatenest!"
At length Aunt Viney tiptoed heavily into the kitchen with the joyful announcement that Sabella, fully restored to consciousness, was sleeping naturally and quietly.
"When she wakin she be all right an' hongry, de honey lamb! An' I reckin dis young gen'l'man hongry now, an' ef he ain't he orter be, for eatin' am de bestes t'ing in de worl' when yo' is in trouble," she added, as she bustled softly about, making preparations for a simple meal.
Winn did not think he could eat a mouthful, so full was he of grief and trouble; but on making the attempt, merely to gratify the kindly soul, found that he not only could but did dispose of as hearty a meal of bread and milk, coffee, bacon, and sweet-potatoes, as any he had ever eaten in his life. Not only that, but as his faintness from hunger disappeared his hopefulness returned, and by the time he had finished eating fully half of his troubles had vanished. He was still overwhelmed with grief at the supposed loss of his brave young uncle, but he had already resolved upon a plan of action, and felt better for having done so. He would send a telegram to his father hinting at the great sorrow that had overtaken them, and asking him to come on at once. Then he would notify the police of the collision, with its probable loss of at least three lives, and ask them to keep a watch for the bodies. He would also tell them of the lost raft.
After great searching, Clod finally produced an old pen, some very thick ink, and a few sheets of paper quite yellow with age. Then he watched with respectful admiration the writing of the telegram, for penmanship was an art he had never acquired. He offered to take the message to the telegraph office while Winn was preparing a statement for the police, and as he was evidently anxious to be of service, the boy allowed him to do so.
The nearest telegraph office was in the railway station, and as Clod approached it he found himself involved in the crowd of passengers just brought in by a newly-arrived train from the North. He dodged here and there among them, but finally, in escaping a truck-load of baggage, he stumbled over the chain by which a gentleman was leading a dog, and plumped full into the arms of a white-headed negro who was close behind it.
"Scuse me, sah!" began poor Clod, most politely. Then he stared, stammered, tried to speak, but only choked in the effort, and threw his arms about the neck of the old negro, laughing and sobbing in the same breath.
"Doesn't yo' know me, Solom?" he gasped. "Doesn't yo' know yer own br'er Clod? Doesn't yo' 'member de ole plantashun 'way down in Lou'siana, befo' de wah, an' Clod?—yo' own br'er Clod?"
Then Solon recognized his only brother, long mourned as dead, and the two old men embraced, and wept, and held each other off at arm's-length to get a better look at the other's changed but still familiar face. The hurrying passengers smiled at this spectacle at once so ridiculous and so pathetic, but good-naturedly made way for the old men, while Bim, sharing the general excitement, barked and danced about, until his chain was entangled with the legs of at least half a dozen persons at once.
BIM BRINGS ABOUT A JOYFUL MEETING.
Even with Bim's aid, Billy Brackett failed to find the man who had escaped him in Alton by running through the store and out of its back door. The young engineer was convinced that he was one of those who had stolen the raft, and it was certainly very trying to recover the trail, as he had just done, only to lose it again immediately. So loath was he to abandon the search that it was very nearly noon before he did so, and retraced his steps to the river. As he approached the place where the Whatnot had been moored, he was surprised not to see the boat, and turned towards a group of men, all of whom seemed to be talking at once, to make inquiries. At that moment the group opened, and from it Cap'n Cod, red-faced and anxious, came hastily stumping in his direction.
"Where is the Whatnot?" asked Billy Brackett.
"That's what I want to know," replied the other, excitedly. "And where have you been all this time? I have been here, and in a state of mind, for more than an hour, not knowing what to do. Some of these men say they saw three fellows go off with the boat soon after we left here, and of course I thought they must be you, Winn, and Solon; but I couldn't understand it at all. Now that you are here, I understand it still less. Where is Winn?" Here the old man paused, quite out of breath, but still questioning his companion with anxious eyes.
"I haven't seen anything of Winn since we all left the boat," replied Billy Brackett, who could hardly comprehend the startling information just given him. "Do you mean to say that the Whatnot has been stolen? Great Scott! I wonder if those fellows can have had a hand in it?"
Then Billy Brackett told of his fleeting glimpse of Plater, and of his consequent belief that the raft and all three of the "river-traders" must be in that vicinity.
"There's a raft, with three men aboard it, who call themselves 'river-traders,' moored at the edge of that timber, just below the city," volunteered one of the by-standers, who had overheard the young man's remarks.
"Will you go with me and point it out?" asked Billy Brackett, eagerly.
"Yes, I don't mind, seeing that this weather makes a bit of slack time," replied the man.
So requesting Cap'n Cod to wait there until his return, and promising to be back as quickly as possible, the young engineer and his guide, followed by several curiosity-seekers, started in search of the raft. It is needless to say that they failed to find it, though another hour elapsed before Billy Brackett returned. He was disappointed, but was possessed of a theory.
"I believe Winn has found that raft," he said to Cap'n Cod, as they sat together in the small hotel to which they had repaired for a consultation and dinner. "But he probably discovered it just as those fellows, alarmed at meeting me, were putting off for another run down the river. Then he hurried back here, and not finding us, took the responsibility of starting after them in the Whatnot, hoping in that way to keep them in sight. It was a crazy performance, though just such a one as that boy would undertake. He is a splendid fellow, with the one conspicuous failing of believing that he knows what to do under any circumstances just a little better than any one else. So he has persuaded Solon that it is their duty to keep that raft in sight until it is tied up again, and then he'll telegraph to us. It is more than likely that the raft will stop at St. Louis, in which case they must be nearly there by this time, and we ought to hear from Winn very soon. That is my theory, and now I'll run up to the telegraph office and see if a despatch has come."
There was no message for any one named Brackett, and so, after leaving word to have anything that came for him sent to the hotel, the young man hastened back. An up-river steamboat had just made fast to the levee, and the two anxious men went down to see if her pilot had seen anything of the Whatnot. As they approached they saw by her splintered bows that she had been in a collision. Others had noticed this also, and already a crowd of people was gathered about her gang-plank to learn the news. Forcing a way through for himself and Cap'n Cod, Billy Brackett boarded the boat, and went directly to the Captain's room.
The Captain was inclined to be ugly and uncommunicative; but, with a happy thought, Billy Brackett displayed the badge with which Sheriff Riley had provided him. At sight of it the man at once expressed his readiness to impart all the information they might require.
Yes, he had been in collision with a trading-scow, but there were no lives lost, and the damage had already been satisfactorily settled. It happened a couple of miles above St. Louis, and the fog was so thick that she was not seen until they were right on her. She was crossing the channel, and they struck her amidship, sinking her almost instantly.
Her name? Why, according to this paper, it was the Whatnot. Queer sort of a name, and she looked to be a queer sort of craft.
At this Billy Brackett's face grew very pale, while poor Cap'n Cod sank into a chair and groaned.
"No lives lost, you say? What then became of the people who were on board that trading-scow?"
"There were only three," answered the Captain; "her owner, a Mr. Caspar, a deck hand, and the cook, a black fellow. The first two saved themselves by leaping aboard this boat just as she struck, and we picked the nigger up in the skiff that we immediately lowered to look for survivors."
"You say the owner was a Mr. Caspar?"
"Yes, here is the name signed to this paper. You see, though we were in no way to blame, they might have sued for heavy damages and bothered us considerably. So when her owner offered to compromise and waive all claims for three hundred dollars, I thought it was the cheapest way out of the scrape, and took him up. I had this paper prepared by a lawyer who is on board, and witnessed before a notary, so that it is all square and ship-shape. See, here is Mr. Caspar's signature."
Sure enough, there at the bottom of the paper exhibited by the Captain was the name "Winn Caspar," written clearly and boldly. It certainly looked like Winn's signature.
Billy Brackett was staggered. What could it all mean? Something was evidently wrong; but what it was he could not determine.
"Where is this Mr. Caspar now?" he asked.
"Went ashore the moment we touched here," was the reply. "Said he must hurry back to St. Louis. Took his man with him."
"Was he a young fellow; a mere boy, in fact?"
"Oh, bless you, no! He was past middle-age. Small, thin man, with a smooth face; and the other was a big man with a beard."
"And what became of the cook, the negro, whom you rescued?"
"He's down below somewhere, getting dry. I told the mate to look after him."
"But where is my niece Sabella? The little girl that was on board the Whatnot," asked Cap'n Cod, with a pitiful quaver in his voice.
"Little girl?" repeated the steamboat Captain, in surprise. "There wasn't any girl on board. This is the first mention I have heard of any such person, and Mr. Caspar would surely have spoken of her if she had existed. What are you men driving at, anyway?"
With a forced calmness, and ignoring this question, Billy Brackett asked if they might see the rescued negro.
"Certainly, I've no objections. Only you'll have to be spry about it, for I'm going to pull out of here inside of a couple of minutes. I only stopped to land Mr. Caspar."
They found Solon just getting into his dried clothing, and the faithful fellow's face lighted as he saw them. There was, however, a reproachful tone in his voice as he exclaimed, "T'ank de Lawd, yo' is safe, Marse Cap'n, an' Marse Brack. Ole Solon feelin' mighty bad when yo' ain't comin' to see him, an' Marse Winn too. But dese yeah folk ain't tellin' me nuffin of Missy Sabel. She gettin' saved same as de res' of us, ain't she? Say de good word, Marse Cap'n, an' don't tell de ole man dat honey lamb done got drownded. Don't tell him dat ar?"
There was no time for explanations then, so they hurried Solon ashore and up to the hotel. There his replies to their questions, and his questions in turn, only served to deepen the mystery in which the fate of the Whatnot's passengers had become involved. He could not be persuaded that they had not been on board at the time of the accident. Sabella had boon talking to him of what her "Uncle Billy" had just told her only a few minutes before it occurred. He was also positive that Winn had been on board the ill-fated craft. He was certain that Reward died at his post of duty, though of Don Blossom's fate he knew nothing. How he himself had escaped he could not explain, for he remembered nothing after the shock of the collision.
"It is evident," said Billy Brackett, at length, "that we must get to St. Louis as quickly as possible, and strive to unravel this mystery there."
Cap'n Cod agreed that this seemed the best thing to be done, and as there was a train about to leave for the South, they hurried to the station.
As Bim was forced to ride in the baggage-car, and his master declined to leave him, both Cap'n Cod and Solon rode there as well. All three spent the hour's run to East St. Louis in discussing the strange occurrences of the day, and trying to discover some ground for belief that either Winn or Sabella, or both, might still be alive. In this effort they met with so little success that, by the time they reached their destination, they had wellnigh abandoned all hope of ever again seeing either the boy or girl who were so dearly loved.
Poor Cap'n Cod was broken-hearted, while Billy Brackett resolutely refused to think of the sad telegram he must send back to Caspar's Mill.
If it had not been that Bim compelled them to ride in the baggage-car, they might have discovered the two "river-traders," Grimshaw and Plater, who were also on the train. Bim did discover them on the platform at East St. Louis, and he was in the act of springing towards Mr. Plater, when the old negro Clod stumbled over his chain and into Solon's arms.
In his joyful excitement at this wonderful meeting with the brother whom he had never expected to see again, Clod allowed a slip of paper to fall unheeded to the ground, and Billy Brackett picked it up. He glanced carelessly at it, and then his shout of amazement as he saw written on it the name "Winn Caspar" startled not only his companions, but every one on the station platform.
Two minutes later four excited men, accompanied by a white bull-dog straining at his chain and barking as joyfully as though he understood the whole situation, were hurrying with all speed in the direction of Clod's cabin on the river-bank.
IN CLOD'S CABIN.
Aunt Viney heard Bim's joyful voice, and glancing anxiously towards the door of the room in which Sabella lay, she muttered, "Drat dat ar dorg! He sholy wake up missy wif he barkin'."
The barking did waken Sabella, and as she lifted her head to listen, she whispered wonderingly to herself, "It's Bim! It's dear old Bim. I know his voice."
Winn, bending wearily over the statement he was preparing for the police, heard the barking, and looked up with a startled expression on his troubled face. "If I didn't know that it couldn't be, I should say that was Bim's bark. Poor old dog!" he thought.
The next instant he sprang to his feet with a cry. Could the dead come to life? Could the drowned be resurrected? Could the handsome, smiling, eager figure in the doorway be that of the young uncle whose untimely death he had so truly mourned? A quick step, a joyful shout, and the two were face to face, with hand clasped in hand.
"It has been a terrible lesson, Uncle Billy, but I think I have learned it," said Winn.
"Thank God, my dear boy, that the experience has been gained so cheaply; for I feared it had cost you your life."
"But where is my little one, my Sabella?" asked Cap'n Cod, anxiously. "They told me she was here."
"Here I am, Uncle Aleck," came the dear voice from the inner room. Then there was another glad reunion of those who had thought never again to meet in this life; while the old man counted as nothing the loss of all he had possessed, so long as this child was left to him.
When Aunt Viney was told who Solon was, she made him a deep courtesy, and then, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she began to sing:
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."
Before she finished the first line they were all singing with her, and never did this grand old hymn of thanksgiving find a more fervent utterance.
As for Bim, there never was a happier bull-dog in this world. He barked as long as his voice held out, and jumped up on every one, and tore wildly about the room until his chain fastened itself to a table leg. Then, with a few spoke-like revolutions, he became completely wound up, and lay panting on the floor, only waiting to be released that he might again go through with the entire performance.
After comparative quiet had been restored, though every one was still talking at once, the questions arose, "Who saved Sabella? Was any one drowned? If so, who was it? Did Winn bring the Whatnot down the river? If not, how did he reach the scene of the catastrophe? How did the boy's signature happen to be attached to the paper in possession of the steamboat Captain?" These and a dozen other questions were asked in a breath, and then all began to answer them at once. Finally, Billy Brackett called the meeting to order, and asked each one to tell his story in turn, beginning with Cap'n Cod.
The most interesting stories, and those throwing the most light on the situation, were Winn's and Sabella's. At first they were all puzzled to know who Mr. Gresham could have been. Then Sabella said, "Why, don't you know, Uncle Aleck? He was the one who sold you the canoe, and the one Winn said was a bad man. He brought Don Blossom back, and I told him all about Mr. Brackett and Winn and the raft and everything, and he was so glad he started right off to find them. Then he came back with two other men, and said you were all on the raft, and they borrowed the Whatnot to go and find you with. He was one of the very nicest and kindest and best men I ever knew, and was going to be my 'Uncle Billy,' so I could have one as well as Winn, and now he's drowned, and—"
Here the little girl began to sob bitterly, while Billy Brackett and Winn and Cap'n Cod looked at each other, and almost simultaneously pronounced the name "Gilder."
They did not speak it very loud, for the last splendid act of the man's life had won for him the right to an unstained name. Hereafter they would only remember him as William Gresham the hero.
Thus was cleared up most of the mystery that, like the fog, had enveloped the proceedings of that memorable day.
Now what was to be done next? Where was the raft, and was it the Venture or not? At one moment Winn was certain that it was, while the next found him again doubtful.
At length it was decided that Solon should remain with his brother for the present, while the others should go to a hotel in the city across the river. From there Billy Brackett would telegraph to the authorities of towns farther down, asking them to watch for an abandoned raft, and if they found it to hold it until he could go on and prove ownership. The raft being described as belonging to a Major Caspar, Winn's name was signed to all these despatches, in order to prevent confusion.
From the hotel Billy Brackett also thought it best to telegraph Major Caspar of their safe arrival in St. Louis, though, as they had not yet recovered the raft, it would be unnecessary for him to come on, and a promise to write full particulars at once. In the Major's absence from home this despatch was opened by Mrs. Caspar, who had been growing very anxious of late concerning the voyagers on the great river. The moment she read it she sat down and wrote another despatch to her husband, who was in Chicago. It was:
"Raftmates in St. Louis. Southern Hotel. Please join them immediately."
"Just ten words," she said to herself, with a complacent sigh, as she handed this to the waiting messenger. "Now if John acts promptly, he may catch those crazy boys before they have the chance to start off on any other absurd expedition. I only hope to goodness that he'll have the sense to bring them home, and let that wretched raft drift where it likes."
Major Caspar could not start for St. Louis the next day, but he did so on the following morning, and late that same evening he walked into the office of the Southern Hotel. He was beginning to make inquiries at the desk, when his hand was seized and violently shaken. Turning quickly, he at once recognized his faithful old army friend Cap'n Cod, and gave him a cordial greeting.
"But where are the others?" he inquired at length.
"Gone down the river an hour ago, by the Short Line," was the unexpected reply. "You see, we only got word this evening that an abandoned raft, answering our description, had just been picked up near Cairo, and Mr. Brackett thought it best that he and Winn should go on at once to indentify it. It was also decided that Sabella and I should remain here until we heard from them, because it might not be the Venture, you know, and then I'm not sure that we want to go any farther down the river, anyway. You see, since losing the Whatnot, I've rather lost interest—"
"Losing the Whatnot!" interrupted the Major. "What do you mean?"
"Why, haven't you heard?" Then they sat down, and the old man related all that had happened to the Whatnot and her passengers since leaving Dubuque.
When the recital was ended, the Major drew a long breath, and exclaimed, "Well, for mysterious happenings, incidents, and rapid changes of scene, that beats anything in the line of Mississippi rafting that ever I heard of. So now they are off again, and goodness knows what scrapes they will get into next; while here I am, as helpless to prevent them as an old hen with a brood of ducklings. There is one thing I can do, though. I must return to Caspar's Mill at once, and I want you and your niece to go with me. With my recently increased business, I need just such a man as you to look after my home interests, while my daughter Elta, needs just such a girl as your Sabella is described to be for a companion."
Tears stood in the old soldier's eyes as he realized all that this offer meant to him and to the girl who was so dear to him; and, in accepting it, he blessed the kindly heart by which it had been prompted.
The Major sent a despatch to the address in Cairo left by Billy Brackett, directing that young man to dispose of the raft as he thought best, to take care of Winn, come home as soon as they could, and telling of his plans for Cap'n Cod and Sabella. He also telegraphed to Mrs. Caspar that he should be at home the next day but one, bringing strangers with him.
She, of course, thought he meant the "raftmates," as she had called Winn and Billy Brackett from the first, and was amazed to see an old man and a young girl seated in the carriage with her husband as it drove up to the house. At first she was greatly disappointed, but within a few days she became reconciled to the new arrangement, for she could not help loving the gentle old man who was so fond of her boy, nor rejoicing in the warm friendship that almost immediately sprang up between Elta and Sabella.
In the mean time Billy Brackett and Winn reached Cairo early in the morning, and after breakfast at a hotel, they called on the City Marshal, who had sent the despatch relating to the raft. To their surprise, he received them coldly, and informed them that Mr. Caspar had already been there, had expressed his willingness to pay a hundred dollars reward for the recovery of his raft, and had just gone down to take possession of it.
This was an astounding bit of information, and Winn was about to let his rapidly rising indignation break forth, when Billy Brackett restrained him, and asked, mildly, if the Marshal had any objections to their looking at the raft in question simply to gratify their curiosity.
"Oh no. You can look at her as much as you like, and you will find her just around the point there, in possession of the two young men who picked her up—that is, if they haven't already turned her over to her rightful owner."
Again Winn would have exploded, but again his companion restrained him, at the same time leading him from the office.
They found the raft without much difficulty, and walked on board. Just then the broken door of the "shanty" opened, and two young fellows, hardly older than Winn, stepped out. As they did so one of them turned and said, politely, "Well, good-bye, and a pleasant voyage to you, Mr. Caspar." Then they both faced the new-comers.
Such an expression of blank amazement as flashed over their faces Winn thought he had never seen. For an instant they stood spellbound. Then there was a yell of recognition, or rather a chorus of yells from both sides.
"Billy Brackett, as I'm a sinner! Whoop! Hooray for the Baldheads and the Second Division!"
"Billy Brackett, or his ghost!"
"Glen Eddy! Grip, old man! How? When? Where? Why?
"'Oh, gimminy crack, come hold me tight. It makes me laugh and shout. It fills my heart with gay delight When—'"
CAMPMATES TURN RAFTMATES.
"Wow wow w-o-w-w!" howled Bim, with his ridiculous nose uplifted and a most melancholy expression of countenance. He felt in duty bound to accompany his master's singing, but on this occasion, at least, he brought it to a sudden conclusion, for no one could possibly sing in face of the uproarious laughter that greeted his outburst.
"That's always the way," remarked Billy Brackett, with a comical expression. "I never am allowed to prove what I am really capable of in the vocal line. But what are you boys doing here? Where did you come from, where are you going, and how in the name of all that is obscure and remarkable do you happen to be on board our raft?"
"Your raft?" echoed Glen Elting. "What do you mean by your raft? We called it our raft until a few minutes ago, and now we call it Mr. Caspar's raft."
"Yes, I know. Major Caspar's raft. But it's all the same as ours, for I am his brother-in-law, and have his written authority to dispose of it as I see fit. Besides, this is his son, and we have been hunting this raft for the best part of a month. By-the-way, Winn, these are two old, or rather two young, campmates of mine, Mr. Glen Eddy—I mean Matherson; no, I beg pardon—Elting is the name at present, I believe."
"Do you know him intimately?" interrupted Winn, slyly.
Billy Brackett made a dive at the boy, but as the latter leaped nimbly aside, he continued: "And Mr. Binney Gibbs, popularly known as 'Grip.' Gentlemen, this impudent young vil-ly-an is my nephew, Mr. Winn Caspar."
Instead of acknowledging this introduction, Glen and Binney looked curiously at each other. Then the former said, "There seems to be something wrong here, Billy, for we have just turned this raft over to its owner, Mr. Winn Caspar, and he is in the house here at this moment."
"That's all right," replied Billy Brackett. "I rather expected to find that gentleman here, and now we will go inside for an interview with him." So saying, he tried to open the door, but found it fastened. In spite of its splintered condition, it was secured so firmly that it took them several minutes to force it open. When this was accomplished, and an entrance was effected, the four gazed blankly about them and at each other. The large room was empty. So were the two smaller ones beyond, while an open window in the last showed the manner in which Messrs. Plater and Grimshaw had effected their escape.
"It's too bad," said Billy Brackett; "for having had several interesting interviews with those gentlemen, I should have been glad of another. I think Winn would have been pleased to meet his namesake too."
"Indeed I should," replied the boy. "I'd like to collect rent for the use of my signature, and find out where he learned to copy it so perfectly."
"But I don't understand all this at all," said Glen Elting. "If this raft isn't theirs, why did they want it badly enough to pay three hundred dollars reward for its recovery?"
"Whom did they pay it to?" asked Billy Brackett.
"A hundred to the City Marshal, and a hundred each to Binney and me. We didn't want to take it, but they insisted, and said they should feel hurt if we refused. So, of course, rather than hurt their feelings— But really, Billy, they are most gentlemanly fellows, and I think behaved very handsomely."
"Will you let me see the hundred dollars they gave you?" asked the young engineer.
"Certainly," replied Glen, with an air of surprise, and adding, rather stiffly, "though I didn't think, Billy, that you would require proof of my truthfulness."
"I don't, my dear boy, I don't!" exclaimed Billy Brackett. "I would believe your unsupported word quicker than the sworn statement of most men. I want to look at that money for a very different purpose."
So a roll of brand-new bills was handed to him, and he examined them one by one with the utmost care.
"There are two hundred dollars here," he said at length. "Is this Binney's share of the reward as well as your own?"
"No. I had a hundred-dollar bill, and Mr. Caspar seeing it, asked if I would mind taking small bills for it, as he wanted one of that amount to send off by mail; so, of course, I let him have it."
"Oh, my children! my children!" murmured Billy Brackett, "why will you persist in attempting to travel through this wicked world without a guardian? Of all the scrapes from which I have been called to rescue you, this might have proved the most serious."
"I don't see how," said both Glen and Binney.
Winn knew, and he smiled a little self-complacent smile as he reflected, "This is a little worse than any mess I ever got into."
"You would have seen quickly enough if you had tried to spend this money," said Billy Brackett, "for you would undoubtedly have been arrested on the charge of counterfeiting. Those same fellows put Winn here in that fix a short time since, besides getting away with a thousand dollars' worth of wheat that he had in charge, and now they have come very near serving you the same trick."
Here Winn's smile faded away rather suddenly, while Glen exclaimed,
"Do you mean to say that these bills are counterfeit?"
"I do," replied Billy Brackett; "and if you doubt it, take them to the first bank you come across and ask the cashier."
"But the City Marshal took some just like them," argued Glen, catching at the only straw of hope in sight.
"So much the worse for the City Marshal, and I for one shall let him suffer the consequences. He had no business to accept a reward for performing a simple act of duty, in the first place; and in the second, the readiness with which he delivered this raft to the first claimants who came along makes it look very much as though he could be bribed."
"Well," said Glen, in a despairing tone, "if what you say is true, and I know it must be, we are in a fix. That hundred dollars was to pay our expenses to New Orleans; now I don't know how we shall get there."
"New Orleans! Are you bound for New Orleans?"
"Yes, and that's how we happened to be here, and to find this raft. You see, my father, General Elting, you know, is going to Central America to make a survey for the Nicaragua Canal, and Binney and I are to go with him. The party is to sail from New Orleans some time in January, but he had to go to New York first. As there were a lot of instruments and heavy things to be sent to New Orleans, he thought it best to ship them by boat; and as we wanted to take the river trip, he let us come in charge of them. We knew we should have to transfer from the Ohio River boat at this point, but we didn't know until we got here that we must wait three days for the New Orleans packet. As there wasn't anything else to do, we have put in the time hunting and fishing, and last evening we ran across this abandoned raft about a mile up the Mississippi. We had a time getting it in here, I can tell you. When we did, and reported it to the City Marshal, he showed us a telegram from a Mr. Winn Caspar, asking him to look out for just such a raft. We knew this must be the one, for we had found this book lying on the table, with the name 'Winn Caspar' written all over the fly-leaf, as though some one had been practising the signature. Sure enough, a man who said his name was 'Winn Caspar' turned up this morning, bringing a friend with him. They told a straight enough story of how their raft had been stolen near St. Louis, and described it perfectly. They even described the interior of this 'shanty' and everything in it, including this identical book, as though they had lived here all their lives. So, of course, both the Marshal and we thought it was all right; and I don't see even now, if this is your raft, how those fellows knew all about it as they did. The only thing they slipped up on was the broken door, and they owned they couldn't account for that. It seems as if some one must have boarded the raft before we did and broken into the 'shanty.' The men said there wasn't anything missing, though. Perhaps you can tell us what has been stolen."
"No," replied Billy Brackett, "I can't tell that, but I can tell who broke in that door. I can also relate a tale of adventure and misadventure in connection with this raft that would excite the envy of any member of the Second Division, including even the Baldheads, and you, who were the most reckless young scapegrace of the lot."
Whereupon the young engineer told these interested listeners the whole history of the Venture from the time the raft was put together down to the present moment. In it he included the Whatnot, Cap'n Cod, Sabella, Solon, Reward, and Don Blossom, Sheriff Riley, the "river-traders," Clod, Aunt Viney, and, above all, Bim, who barked loudly, and rushed wildly about the room at this honorable mention of his name.
When the story was finished, Glen Elting heaved a deep sigh, and said to Winn, "Well, you have had a good time. I thought we had about the best times any fellows could have when we crossed the plains with Billy Brackett last year, but it seems to me that you are having just about as much fun right here on this muddy old river as we had out there. I only wish we had a raft." Then turning to Billy Brackett, he asked, "What are you going to do next?"
"I don't know," was the reply. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
"Then lend me your ears. You want to get to New Orleans, and so do we."
"Do we?" interrupted Winn, in surprise, looking up from the book of travels on the title-page of which his name was written so many times, and which was the very one he had been reading the last evening he had spent on this raft.
"You do!" exclaimed both Glen and Binney.
"Certainly," was the calm reply. "It is the only market for timber rafts that I know of south of St. Louis, and as we can't go back, we are bound to go ahead. So, as I was saying when rudely interrupted, both you and we want to go to New Orleans. You have no money—real money, I mean—with which to get there, and we need at least two extra pair of hands to help us get this raft there. So why not ship your stuff on board here, and help us navigate this craft to our common destination?"
"Do you truly mean it, Billy Brackett?"
"I truly mean it. And if you are willing to go as raftmates with us—"
"Are we willing? Well, I should smile! Are we willing? Why, Billy Brackett, we'd rather go to New Orleans as raftmates with you and Winn Caspar than to do anything else in the whole world just at present. Eh, 'Grip'?"
"Well, rather!" answered Binney Gibbs.
THE "RIVER-TRADERS" ATTEMPT TO REGAIN POSSESSION.
So it was settled that the three who had been campmates together on the plains should now, with Winn Caspar to complete the quartet, become raftmates on a voyage of nearly a thousand miles down the great river. It is hard to say which of the four was happiest during the busy day that followed the making of this arrangement. Winn was overjoyed at recovering the raft lost through his over-confidence in his own wisdom, and at the prospect of taking a trip so much longer than he had anticipated at the outset. He had also conceived a great fancy for the two manly young fellows whose fortunes had become so strangely connected with those of the Venture, and was glad they were to be his companions on the voyage.
Billy Brackett was not only rejoiced that he had at length been successful in finding both Winn and the raft, but was delighted to meet again those with whom he had already shared so much of peril and pleasure. That they had again become his mates in such a peculiar manner, and amid such different scenes, was proof, as he quaintly expressed it, that "Truth can give the most expert fiction points, and still beat it at its own game."
Glen and Binney were raised from a depth of dismay, caused by the loss of their money and the resulting predicament into which they were thrown, to a height of felicity at the prospect of a raft voyage down the Mississippi, under the leadership of their beloved campmate, Billy Brackett. They also liked Winn; and, judging from what had already happened to him, regarded him as a boy in whose company a variety of adventures might reasonably be hoped for.
Owing to their past experience with the "river-traders," Billy Brackett and Winn were somewhat uneasy at the presence of Grimshaw and Plater in town, and their manifest desire to regain possession of the raft. They were puzzled by this, and wondered what reason the men could still have for wanting the raft. Certainly their connection with it was now too well known for them to hope to make any further use of it in pursuing their unlawful business. Nor did it seem likely that they would choose it merely as a conveyance down the river. No; it must be that they had hoped to sell the Venture, and realize a considerable sum by the transaction. This was the conclusion finally reached by our raftmates, though it was not one with which they were entirely satisfied.
Still, they felt that, as they were now four to two, they might reasonably hope to be left in undisturbed possession of the raft for the future, and so did not allow thought of the "river-traders" to trouble them to any great extent. They decided that two of them should stay constantly on board the raft, at least so long as they remained in that locality, and that Bim should also be added to the protective force.
To begin with, Binney and Winn remained on guard while Billy Brackett and Glen went into the town to telegraph for Solon, send down the instruments, and make other arrangements for the voyage. It had been decided that as their crew was incomplete without a cook, Solon should be sent for, and that they could not make a start until he arrived, which would probably be early the next morning.
Winn and Binney found plenty to occupy them during the absence of the others in becoming acquainted, learning each other's history, and arranging the interior of the "shanty." From Binney, Winn learned what a splendid fellow his young uncle was, and how much he was respected as well as admired by all who were so fortunate as to be counted among his friends. "He is a fellow," concluded Binney, "who couldn't do a mean thing if he tried. One thing I like especially about him is that he is just as careful in his attention to trifles, if they come in the line of his duty, as he is to big things, and Billy has already had some pretty important positions too, I can tell you. He is full of fun, and was the life and soul of the Second Division all the time they were crossing the plains. Glen knows him better than I do, though, because they were 'bunkies' together, and from what he has told me I regard myself as mighty lucky to have the chance of taking a trip in his company."
"He has told me a good deal about you and Glen on that trip," said Winn, "but I don't remember hearing anything about his own adventures."
"That's just what makes fellows like him. He is always ready to listen to what they have to say, or to tell of anything they have done, if it is worth telling; but he never puts himself forward as one who knows it all or has done it all and can't be taught anything."
This conversation set Winn to thinking, with the result that in one instance, at least, he had been too hasty in his conclusions. He had been somewhat ashamed that his uncle should act the part of showman with a river panorama, and had supposed that it was done from a desire to display his own accomplishments. Now he wondered if, after all, this was not the one delicate and unobtrusive way in which Cap'n Cod's poor little undertaking could have been saved from a ridiculous and mortifying failure. He had been inclined to regard his young relative as rather frivolous; but perhaps there were depths to Billy Brackett's character that he was not yet wise enough to fathom. He would study it more carefully hereafter, and how doubly thankful he now was that his chance to do so had not been lost with the wreck of the Whatnot.
Although the interior of the Venture's "shanty" still seemed unfamiliar to Winn, he could no longer doubt that the raft was his father's. In the small room that he was to have occupied he now found most of his own possessions just where he had left them. Among the things that he was particularly glad thus to find were several changes of clothing, of which he stood greatly in need.
The "shanty" was in great disorder; but the two boys worked so faithfully at sweeping, cleaning, and putting things to rights, that by the time the others returned with a dray-load of freight the interior was thoroughly clean and inviting. The afternoon was spent in laying in a store of provisions for the voyage, repairing the splintered door, and mending one of the sweeps, which was on the point of breaking.
By sunset everything was in readiness for a start, and all hands were gathered about the galley stove, each superintending the cooking of his specialty for supper. Billy Brackett could make griddle-cakes, or "nip-naps," as he called them. He fried them in an iron spider, and the deftness with which he turned them, by tossing them in the air, so excited the admiration of his raftmates that they immediately wished to engage him as regular cook for the trip.
"This isn't a circumstance to what I can do in the culinary line," remarked Billy Brackett, modestly. "To know me at my best, you ought to be around when I make biscuit. My heavy biscuit are simply monuments of the baker's art. They are warranted to withstand any climate, and defy the ravaging tooth of time. They can turn the edge of sarcasm, and have that quality of mercy which endureth forever. A quartz-crusher turns pale at sight of them, and they supply a permanent filling for aching voids or long-felt wants. In fact, gentlemen, it is universally acknowledged that my biscuit can't be beat."
"Neither can a bad egg," said Glen, who was trying to make an omelet.
"Let us defer the biscuit for this time, and have a smoking dish of corn-meal mush instead," suggested Winn. "It is one of the hardest things in the world to cook, but I know the trick to perfection."
"Mush, mush, mush, tooral-i-addy," sang Binney. At that moment Bim began to growl, and to sniff at the bottom of the door. They opened it and looked out. No one was there, nor did they hear a sound. Darkness had already set in, and they could see nothing. Bim ran to the edge of the raft, barked once or twice, and then returned to his place near the stove.
"It must have been your singing that excited him, Grip," remarked Billy Brackett. "He generally acts that way when a person sings, and I have heretofore attributed it to envy, though I don't see how it could have been in this case."
After supper Billy Brackett went into town to call on the telegraph operator, with whom he had established friendly relations, and to receive some despatches that he was expecting. He had not been gone long before Bim, who had been left behind, again began to show signs of uneasiness, and intimate a desire to be let out.
Again the door was opened for him, and again he rushed out into the darkness. This time retreating footsteps and the rustling of bushes on the bank were distinctly heard. With a low growl Bim sprang ashore and disappeared. The next instant the boys saw a flash of lantern-light a few rods below the raft, heard a smothered yelp, the sounds of a confused struggle, and a moment later a loud splash in the water. Then all was again buried in darkness and silence.
"Something has happened to Bim!" exclaimed Winn, in a low but excited tone, "and I am going to find out what it is." With this the boy leaped ashore, and hurried in the direction from which the sounds had come.
"It's a mighty foolish thing to do, but you sha'n't go alone," said Glen Elting, quietly, as he started after Winn, adding, as he left the raft, "You stay behind and stand guard, Binney."
The boy, thus suddenly left alone, stood guard for about fifteen seconds, when all at once two dark figures sprang aboard the raft from the bank, and he had barely time to utter a single cry of warning before he was engaged in a furious struggle with one of them, who had seized him from behind.
"Drop him overboard!"
Although the command was given in a low tone, Binney heard and understood it. Then the strong arms in which he was struggling lifted him as they would a child, and bore him towards the edge of the raft.
WHERE IS BIM?
Billy Brackett was in a particularly contented frame of mind, and whistled softly to himself as he tramped through the muddy streets of one of the muddiest cities in the United States, towards the telegraph office. He was well satisfied with the results of his expedition thus far, and with its prospects of a successful termination. He did not notice the curious looks with which several persons regarded him as the bright light from a store window fell on his face, nor would he have cared if he had. His conscience was clear, and he had nothing to fear from observation, curious or otherwise.
As he entered the telegraph office, the operator glanced up with a nod of recognition. A few seconds later, having finished sending the despatch with which he had been busy, he turned his key over to an assistant and said,
"Will you step this way a moment, sir? I wish to speak to you in private." With this he led the way into a room behind the office, where, after the other had entered, he closed the door.
"What's up?" asked the young engineer, wondering at these proceedings.
"Have you or any of your companions any counterfeit money in your possession?" asked the operator, abruptly.
"No—that is, yes. One of my friends has quite a lot of it that was passed on him for genuine this morning, and I have a few samples for purposes of comparison."
"But you haven't passed, or tried to pass, any of it in this place?"
"Certainly not! Why do you ask such a question?"
"Because I have taken a liking to you. Have not you in your possession a note of identification from a certain Iowa Sheriff?"
"Yes; I have such a note from a Sheriff named Riley, of Dubuque; but how did you know anything about it?" asked Billy Brackett, greatly surprised.
"In a very simple way. Sheriff Riley happens to be my brother, and he wrote to me all about your little affair up the river. So I know you to be an honest man, and want to give you a warning. You may be very sure, however, that I should not do so were I not confident of your innocence."
"Innocence of what?"
"Passing counterfeit money. A good bit of it has suddenly appeared in circulation here, and your raft has been identified by some men from up-river as one on which suspicion has already fallen in connection with a similar state of affairs elsewhere. You have made a good many purchases to-day, and at least one bad bill has been traced directly to you. Of course you may have received it in change, and passed it again unknowingly. I believe that is how it happened. If I did not, I should hold my tongue and let you suffer the consequences. In addition to this, all sorts of queer stories regarding you have been circulated about town to-day, and such a feeling has been aroused against you that a number of the worst characters in the place have determined to pay your raft a visit to-night. I don't know what they intend doing, nor do I think they know themselves, but I am certain if they find you the result will be most unpleasant. They are to be led by a couple of strangers, who have been secretly watching you all day. These men claim to be 'river-traders,' who have suffered serious losses through you, including that of the raft now in your possession, which, they say, was stolen from them. I can't tell you how I gained all this information, but it is at your disposal. If I were in your place, I would take advantage of the darkness to drop down the river, and I wouldn't lose any time about it either."
"You advise me to run away like a coward, instead of remaining to defend myself against these abominable and absolutely unfounded charges!" exclaimed Billy Brackett, indignantly. "I shall do nothing of the kind."
"Not 'run away;' simply continue your voyage before it is unpleasantly interrupted," returned the other, with a smile. "If you remain until morning, your raft, with its contents, will certainly be destroyed by an unreasoning mob, at whose hands you and your companions may suffer bodily injury. In this case action would come first and inquiry afterwards. I am convinced you could easily prove your innocence, but doubt if you could obtain any redress for the losses you would have suffered in the mean time. Now I must get back to my desk. You will of course act as you think best, but I sincerely hope that you will accept my advice, and decide that an honorable retreat is better than a lost battle."
"But there is Solon, the man whom I telegraphed to join us here. I don't expect him before morning."
"Why, he is here already! Haven't you met him! He arrived on the evening train, and came in here to inquire where you could be found. I gave him directions, and started him off not fifteen minutes ago."
"I don't see how he managed it," said Billy Brackett, who had been thinking rapidly while the other spoke; "but if he is already on board there is no reason why our departure should be delayed. Therefore I am almost inclined to accept your advice, for which, as well as for your timely warning, I am sincerely grateful. I will, at any rate, get back to the raft at once."
With this the young man shook hands with the operator, and left the office.
"There!" exclaimed the other, looking after him with a relieved sigh; "I believe I have done that young fellow a good turn. At the same time I have given myself a chance to capture the thousand-dollar reward that Ned wrote about, and which I was afraid this chap was after for himself."
As for Billy Brackett, the more he reflected upon the situation, as he hastened towards the place where the raft was moored, the more puzzled he became as to what course he ought to pursue. He now had not only Winn, the raft, and himself to consider, but Glen and Binney, and the valuable instruments belonging to General Elting. Certainly it would not do to allow these to fall into the hands of an excited and irresponsible mob. Still, the thought of running away was hateful.
As he neared the raft an undefined apprehension caused him to quicken his steps; and at the sound of Binney Gibbs's shout of warning, he broke into a run. Then he heard another shout of "Hol' on, Marse Winn! I comin'!" and the noise of a struggle, in another moment he was in the thick of it.
Solon had reached the raft just in time to save Binney, who he thought was Winn, from being dropped overboard by Plater, the "river-trader." The old negro attacked the big man so furiously with tooth and nail that the latter gave the lad in his arms a fling to one side, sending him crashing with stunning force against the "shanty," and devoted his entire attention to this new assailant. He had just stretched Solon on the deck with a vicious blow of his powerful fist, when Billy Brackett appeared and sprang eagerly into the fray. Even Plater's brute strength was no match for the young engineer's science, and the latter would have gained a speedy victory, had not Grimshaw, who had been engaged in casting off the lines that held the raft to the bank, come to his partner's assistance.
Now, with such odds against him, Billy Brackett was slowly but surely forced backward towards the edge of the raft. In another moment he would have been in the river, when all at once two dripping figures emerged from it, scrambled aboard, and with a yell like a war-whoop, ranged themselves on the weaker side. A few well-planted blows, a determined rush, and the struggle for the possession of the raft was ended. The fighting ardor of Messrs. Plater and Grimshaw was being rapidly cooled in the icy waters through which they found themselves swimming towards the shore. At the same time the Venture was gaining speed with each moment, as, borne on by the resistless current, it drifted out over the mingling floods of the Ohio and Mississippi. Billy Brackett, still panting from his exertions, was bending over Binney Gibbs, who was struggling back to consciousness. Solon was sitting up, tenderly feeling of his swollen features, and declaring, "Dat ar man hab a fis' lak de hin laig ob a mewel."
Glen and Winn had manned one of the sweeps, and were trying to get the raft properly headed with the current. Thus the voyage was really begun, and the young engineer, who hated to run away, was spared the necessity of making a decision. It was a start, too, with all hands on board. To be sure, two of them were battered and bruised, while two more were soaked to the skin; but all were there, and none was greatly the worse for the recent exciting experience.
Suddenly Billy Brackett spoke up and asked:
"But where is Bim? Is it possible that we have left him behind?"
For a moment no one answered. Then Winn said: "That's what Glen and I were ashore for. We are afraid he is lost."
"Lost! Bim wouldn't get lost! He has too much sense."
"I expect he is this time, though," said Glen, "and we don't believe he will ever be found again, either." Then he told of Bim's rushing ashore, the smothered yelp, the loud splash that followed, and of their unsuccessful search for him in the darkness. "So it looks as though the poor dog were done for," concluded Glen, "and I expect it was by a trick of those same fellows who tried to capture the raft."
Billy Brackett listened closely, without a word, and when he had heard all there was to tell, he turned abruptly away and walked into the "shanty," muttering through his clinched teeth, "The scoundrels."
It certainly would have gone hard with the "river-traders" could the stalwart young engineer have laid hands on them at that moment.
A BLAZE ON THE RIVER.
As Messrs. Plater and Grimshaw will not appear again in this story, it may be as well to dismiss them at once. The well-conceived and desperate effort to gain possession of the raft just described was their last attempt in that direction. They had watched Billy Brackett leave it, had enticed the ever-faithful Bim from it, and when, from a place of concealment, they heard two of its remaining defenders go ashore in search of the brave dog, their satisfaction was complete. Now they were sure of the prize for which they were willing to risk so much. Stealing silently to the raft without attracting Binny Gibbs's attention, they leaped aboard, proceeded to dispose of him, and at the same time to set the Venture adrift. Had not Binney's shout guided Solon to the scene, success would have crowned their efforts.
The old negro was not a fighter by nature, but in defence of those he loved he could be bold as a lion. Consequently he rushed to the rescue of the boy whom he supposed was Winn Caspar without hesitation, and careless of the odds against him. His coming, followed so quickly by that of Billy Brackett and the arrival of the two boys, turned the tide of battle. Glen and Winn were compelled to plunge overboard and swim for the raft, as it was already a rod or so from shore when they regained the place where it had been tied.
The "river-traders" were unwillingly compelled to take the same plunge a moment later, and as they swam towards the shore, which, fortunately for them, was still near at hand, their hearts were filled with bitterness at their defeat, while plans for future vengeance were already forming in their minds. But these were never carried out, for the reason that, as they were making their dripping way into town, they came across the mob bent on a deed of destruction that they themselves had instigated. With it was Joe Riley, the operator, and as these were the very men he was most desirous of meeting just then, he persuaded his associates to devote a few minutes of attention to them.
As a result of this interview with one who knew so much about them and their business, their career as "river-traders" ended then and there. A few days later they left Cairo in company with Sheriff Riley, of Dubuque, who had come down the river on purpose to escort them north. Why they had been so anxious to recover possession of the Venture was for a long time an unsolved puzzle to the crew of that interesting raft. That the reason was finally explained will be made as clear to us as it was to our raft mates before the end of this story of their unique voyage down the great river. When it is, we shall probably wonder, as they did, that so simple a solution of the mystery had not occurred to us before.
In the mean time the raft, once more in full possession of its rightful crew, is gliding swiftly with the mighty current through the starlit darkness. Billy Brackett, with a heart full of sorrow over the loss of his four-footed but dearly loved companion, is on watch. The lantern, lighted and run to the top of the flag-staff, sends forth a clear beam of warning to all steamboats. In the "shanty," which looks very bright and cosey in comparison with the outside darkness, Binney Gibbs is lying comfortably in one of the bunks, Solon is making himself acquainted with the arrangements of his new galley, and the other two are changing their wet clothing, while carrying on an animated conversation regarding the stirring events just recorded.
"How jolly this would all be if it wasn't for poor Billy's melancholy over the loss of his dog," remarked Glen Elting, as he turned the steaming garments hanging in front of the galley stove. "It was a splendid start, wasn't it, Grip?"
"Yes, I suppose so," answered Binney, a little doubtfully; "though I don't believe it would seem quite so fine to you if you ached all over as I do."
"Perhaps not, old man. But you'll be all right again to-morrow, after a good night in 'dream-bags;' and anyway, you must admit that this beats steamboating all to nothing. Just think, if we hadn't been lucky enough to fall in with this blessed raft, and Billy and Winn, and all the rest, we should at this very moment be just ordinary ten-o'clock-at-night passengers, shivering on the Cairo wharf-boat, and waiting for the New Orleans packet to come along. She's due there some time this evening, yon know."
"Yes; and instead of that, here I am—"
"Here you are," interrupted Glen, seeing that his friend was about to utter a complaint; "and thankful you ought to be to find yourself here, too. Why, we'll be as merry as this muddy old river is long, as soon as Billy ceases to mourn for his dog. I'm a little surprised that he should take it so much to heart, though. It isn't like Billy B. to be cast down over trifles."
"Trifles!" cried Winn. "When you call dear old Bim a 'trifle,' you are making one of the big mistakes of your life, and you wouldn't do it either if you had known him as well as I did. There never was another dog like him for wisdom and gentleness and pluck and—well, and everything that makes a dog lovely. Why, that Bim would reason his way out of scrapes that would stump a man, and the word 'fear' was never printed in his dictionary. Somehow I can't help thinking that he'll turn up all right, bright and smiling, yet."
"I don't see how," said Glen.
"Neither can I, and I don't suppose I could if I were in his place; but unless Bim is uncommonly dead, I'll guarantee that he'll come to life again somehow and somewhere. In fact, I shouldn't be one bit surprised to see him aboard this very raft again before our voyage is ended."
"I must confess that I should," said Glen.
"That's because you don't know him," responded Winn. "Isn't it, Solon?"
"I 'spec's hit must be, Marse Winn," answered the old negro.
"And wasn't he the very wisest dog you ever knew?"
"Yes, sah, he suttinly was, all 'ceptin' one, an' hit war a yallar 'coon dawg wha' I uster own down in ole Lou'siana. I 'spec's he war jes a teenty mite more knowin' dan eben Marse Brack's Bim dawg. He name war Bijah."
"How did he ever prove his wisdom?" asked Winn, incredulously.
"How him provin' it!" exclaimed the old negro, warming to his subject. "Why, sah, him provin' it ebbery day ob he life more ways 'n one."
"Well, give us an example, if you can remember one."
"Yes, sah, I kin. An' I tell you-all one ob de berry simples' t'ings what dat ar Bijah ebber done. He war jest a ornery, stumpy-tail, 'coon dawg, Bijah war, an' him know he warn't nuffin else. Dat's why he won't go fer nuffin 'ceptin' 'coons—no rabbits, ner 'possum, ner fox, ner b'ar, ner nuffin—jes 'coons. But 'coons! Don' talk, gen'l'men! I reckin dat ar Bijah done know ebbery 'coon in twenty mile ob de Moss Back plantashun. An' he knowed some fer 'coons wha' didn' 'low dey war 'coons no way."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Winn.
"Dat's wha' I comin' to, Marse Winn, but yo' mus'n' hurry de ole man. One day I takin' de ole kyart inter town wif a load er wood, an' Bijah he gwine erlong. When we comin' to der place whar de wood kyarts stops, I onyoked, an' Bijah he lyin', sleepylike, ondur de kyart. I passin' de time er day 'long some udder cullud fellers, an' tellin' wha' kind ob a 'coon dawg Bijah war, an' how he ain't know nuffin no way 'ceptin' 'coons. Suddint I see dat ar dawg kin' er wink he eye, an' raise up an' sniff de yair, an' den lite out licketty cut down erlong. Dey ain't nuffin on de road 'ceptin' jes a cullud gal, an' she a-turnin' inter de sto'.
"Dem fellers laff fit to bus' deirselfs, an' say, 'Hi dar! wha' dat fine 'coon dawg gwine fer now?'
"I say, 'Him gwine fer a 'coon, gen'l'men, he suttinly am.' Yo' see, I jes nacherly 'bleeged ter say so. Same time, I kin' er jubious.
"Afo' we comin' ter de sto', I heah ole Bijah gibbin tongue lak mad, an' I say, 'Him treed um' gen'l'men! him treed um fer sho'. But when we comin' dar, an' look in der do', I feelin' mighty sick. Dat ar cullud gill she up in er cheer er-shyin' she umbrel at Bijah, an' him jes a dancin' 'roun', an' er-yelpin'.
"Well, ef dem fellers ain't laff! Dey jes roll deirselfs in de dus'.
"'Whar yo' 'coon dawg now? Whar yo' 'coon dawg?' dey axin; but I kep' on sayin' nuffin. I know dat gal, an' when I hit Bijah er clip to stop he noise, I say, berry polite, 'Mawnin', Lize. Yo' got any 'coon 'bout yo' pusson?'
"Den she say, snappylike, 'How I gwine get 'coon, yo' fool nigger! No, sah, I ain't got no 'coon 'ceptin' my ole man wha' I marry yistiddy he name Coon.'"
The shout of laughter that greeted this story was interrupted by the appearance of Billy Brackett at the door.
"Come out here, boys!" he cried. "There's a steamboat on fire and coming down the river!"
This startling announcement emptied the "shanty" in a hurry. Even Binney Gibbs forgot his aches and joined his mates outside.
There was no doubt as to the meaning of the column of flame that turned the darkness into day behind them. It was so near that they could hear its ominous roar, while the black forest walls on either side of the river were bathed in a crimson glow from its baleful light. A vast cloud of smoke, through which shot millions of sparks, trailed and eddied above it, while, with the hoarse voice of escaping steam, the blazing craft sounded its own death-note.
As the monster came tearing down the channel of crimson and gold that opened and ever widened before it, our raftmates were fascinated by the sight of its sublime but awful approach. They stood motionless and speechless until roused to a sudden activity by Billy Brackett's shout of "Man the sweeps, fellows! She is unmanageable, and headed for us as straight as an arrow. If we can't get out of the way she'll be on top of us inside of two minutes more!"
Like young tigers the boys tugged at the heavy sweeps; but they might as well have tried to extinguish the floating volcano that threatened them with destruction as to remove that mass of timber beyond reach of danger within the time allowed them. The task was an impossible one; and as they realized this fact, the crew of the Venture prepared to launch their skiff, abandon the raft, and row for their lives.
As the burning steamboat swept down towards the low-lying raft the destruction of the latter appeared so certain that its crew abandoned all hope of saving it; and, taking to their skiff, sought by its means to escape the threatened danger. It was a forlorn hope, and promised but little. Even with Billy Brackett's strong arms tugging at its oars, the heavily laden skiff seemed to move so slowly, that but for the ever-widening space between them and the raft they would have deemed it at a stand-still. They gazed in silence and with fascinated eyes at the on-coming terror. At length, with a sigh of thankfulness, they saw that they were beyond its track, and Billy Brackett's labors were somewhat relaxed.
Suddenly, as though endowed with a fiendish intelligence, the blazing fabric took a sheer to port, and headed for the skiff. A hoarse cry broke from the old negro, whose face was ashen gray with fright. It was echoed by Binney Gibbs. The others kept silence, but their faces were bloodless.
By a mighty effort Billy Brackett spun the skiff around, and with the energy of despair pulled back towards the raft. The stout oars bent like whips. If one of them had given way nothing could have saved our raftmates from destruction. Had the tough blades been of other than home make, and fashioned from the best product of the Caspar Mill, they must have yielded. With each stroke Billy Brackett rose slightly from his seat. Arms, body, and legs made splendid response to the demands of the invincible will. Years of careful training and right living were concentrated into that supreme moment. Another might have sought personal safety by plunging overboard and diving deep into the river. Glen and Winn might have followed such an example. Binney and Solon, being unable to swim, could not. But Billy Brackett was too true an American to consider such a thing for an instant. Generations of Yankee ancestors had taught him never to desert a friend nor yield to a foe; never to court a danger nor to fear one; to fight in a righteous cause with his latest breath; to snatch victory from defeat.
As the skiff dashed alongside the Venture the vast, glowing, seething mass of flame, smoke, and crashing timbers swept by so close that the raftmates were obliged to seek a shelter in the cool waters from its deadly heat. Clinging to the edge of the raft, with their bodies entirely submerged, they gazed breathlessly and with blinded eyes at the grandest and most awful sight to be seen on the Mississippi. It was a huge lower-river packet, and was completely enveloped in roaring flames that poured from every opening, and streamed furiously from the tall chimneys the trailing banners of the fire-fiend. The boat was under a full head of steam, her machinery was still intact, and the great wheels, churning the glowing waters into a crimson foam, forced her ahead with the speed of a locomotive. The back draught thus caused kept the forward end of her lower deck free from flame. Here, as she rushed past, the boys caught a glimpse of the only sign of life they could discover aboard the ill-fated packet. It was a dog leaping from side to side, and barking furiously.
They had hardly noted his presence when a curious thing happened. There came an explosion of steam, a crash, and the starboard wheel dropped from its shaft. Thus crippled, the blazing craft made a grand sweep of half a circle in front of the raft. Then, as the other wheel also became disabled and ceased its mad churnings, the boat lay with her head up-stream, drifting helplessly with the current. The packet was not more than a couple of hundred feet from the raft when its wild progress was thus checked, and now the barkings of the dog, that had already attracted the boy's attention, were heard more plainly than before.
All at once Billy Brackett, who had regained the wave-washed deck of the raft, called out, "It's Bim! I know his voice!"
With this he again sprang into the skiff, with the evident intention of attempting to rescue his four-footed comrade. Winn Caspar was just in time to scramble in over the stern as the skiff shot away. "I may be of some help," he said.
As they neared the burning boat, they saw that the dog was indeed Bim. He answered their calls with frantic barks of joy, but refused to leap into the skiff or into the water, as they urged him to.
He would run back out of their sight instead, and then reappear, barking frantically all the while. Once he seemed to be dragging something, and trying to hold it up for their inspection.
"The dear old dog has some good reason for acting in that way," said Billy Brackett, "and I must go to him."
Winn had not the heart to remonstrate against an attempt to aid Bim, even though its extreme danger was obvious. The blazing hull, from which most of the upper works were now burned away, was liable to plunge to the bottom at any moment, and the boy shuddered at the thought of being engulfed in the seething whirlpool which would thus be created. He involuntarily cringed, too, at the thought of the red-hot boilers ready to burst and deluge all surrounding objects with scalding steam and hissing water. Still, he would not have spoken a single word to deter Billy Brackett from his daring project even had he known it would be heeded.
While these thoughts flashed through Winn's mind, his companion was clambering up over the low guards, and Bim's joyful welcome of his master was pitiful in its extravagance. The dog seemed to say, "I knew you would come if I only waited patiently and barked loud enough. Now you see why I couldn't leave."
The object to which Bim thus directed attention, as plainly as though possessed of speech, was a little curly-haired puppy, a Gordon setter, so young that its eyes were not yet opened.
Billy Brackett picked it up and dropped it over the side into Winn's arms. Then he tried to do the same by Bim; but, with a loud bark, the nimble dog eluded his grasp, and dashed away into the thick of the smoke. Tongues of flame were licking their cruel way through it, and as Bim emerged, his hair was scorched in yellow patches. He dragged out a dead puppy, laid it at his master's feet, and before he could be restrained had once more dashed back into the stifling smoke. Again he appeared, this time weak and staggering, every trace of his white coat gone. He was singed and blackened beyond recognition; but he was a four-footed hero, who had nobly performed a self-imposed duty. As he feebly dragged another little dead puppy to his master's feet, Billy Brackett seized the brave dog in his arms, and sprang over the side of the doomed steamboat into the waiting skiff. Tears stood in the young man's eyes as the suffering creature licked his face, and he exclaimed, "I tell you what, Winn Caspar, if this blessed dog isn't possessed of a soul, then I'm not, that's all!"
Meanwhile Winn was pulling the skiff swiftly beyond reach of danger. It was none too soon; for before they reached the raft, the glowing mass behind them reared itself on end as though making a frantic effort to escape its fate. Then, with a hissing plunge, it disappeared beneath the turbid flood of the great river. A second later there came a muffled explosion, and a column of water, capped by a cloud of steam, shot upward. At the same time the scene was shrouded in a darkness made absolute by the sudden extinguishing of the fierce light, while the silence that immediately succeeded the recent uproar seemed unbroken.
Then the momentary hush was invaded by the sound of many voices, some of which were uttering groans and cries of pain. A score of fortunates from the burned packet, who had been driven by the flames to the extreme after-end of the boat, where they were hidden from the view of those on the raft, had leaped into the water as they were swept past, and managed to reach it while Billy Brackett and Winn were away.
Now, by means of the skiff, others whose cries for help located them in the darkness were picked up. Many persons had escaped soon after the breaking out of the fire by means of the small boats and life-raft carried by the packet; while still others, comprising nearly half the ship's company, were lost. It was one the most terrible of the many similar disasters recorded in the history of steamboating on the Mississippi; and to this day the burning of the Lytle is a favorite theme of conversation among old river men.
When Glen Elting learned the name of the ill-fated craft, he started and turned pale. "The very packet for which we were waiting!" he cried, with bated breath. "Oh, Binney, how many things we have to be thankful for!"
"Indeed we have," answered the boy; "and not the least of them is that we are in a position to help these poor people, who have been overtaken by the misfortune that was reaching out for us."
These two were tearing sheets into bandage strips, and dressing wounds with the salve and ointments found in Major Caspar's medicine chest. Solon was providing a plentiful supply of hot-water over a roaring fire in the galley stove, and bustling about among the forlorn assembly, that, drenched and shivering, had been so suddenly intrusted to his kindly care. Billy Brackett and Winn rowed in every direction about the raft so long as there was the slightest hope of picking up a struggling swimmer.
Their last rescue was that of a man clinging to a state-room door, and so benumbed with the chill of the water that in a few moments more his hold must have relaxed. Beside him swam a dog, also nearly exhausted.
When the man was carried into the "shanty," the dog followed him, and was there seen to be of the same markings and breed as the puppy saved by Bim. Noting this, Winn hunted it up and brought it to her. It was hers, and no human mother could have shown more extravagant joy than did this dog mother at so unexpectedly finding one of her lost babies. She actually cried with happiness, and fondled her little one until it protested with all the strength of its feeble voice. Then she lay down with the puppy cuddled close to her, and one paw thrown protectingly across it, the picture of perfect content.
Bim had been almost as excited as she, and in spite of his burns, had circled about the two, and barked until the puppy persuaded its mother to be quiet. Then Bim and she lay down, nose to nose, and while the former told his friend how he had found her deserted babies on the boat and had determined to save them, and how his own dear master had come in answer to his barks for assistance, she told him how she had been in the after-part of the boat getting her supper when the flames broke out, and had gone nearly crazy at finding herself separated from her little ones. She assured him she would have gone through fire and water to reach them had not her master thrown her overboard, and immediately afterwards jumped into the river himself. Then she believed that all was lost, for in her distress of mind she had entirely forgotten her brave friend Bim. If she had only remembered him, she would have been quite at ease, knowing, of course, that he would find some way of saving at least one of her puppies, which, under the circumstances, was all that could be expected.
At which Bim jumped up and barked for pure happiness, until his master said, "That will do, Bim, for the present."
THE MASTER OF MOSS BANK.
The Gordon setter's name was Nanita, while that of her master was Mr. Guy Manton, of New York. Within a short time after the final plunge of the burned packet, several steamboats, attracted by the blaze, reached the raft, and offered to carry the survivors of the disaster to the nearest town. This offer was accepted by all except Mr. Manton, who asked, as a favor, that he and his dogs might be allowed to remain on board the Venture, at least until morning. Of course the raftmates willingly consented to this, for Mr. Manton was so grateful to them, besides proving such an agreeable companion, that they could not help but like him.
From him they learned how Bim happened to be on board the ill-fated steamboat, a situation over which they had all puzzled, but concerning which they had heretofore found no opportunity of inquiring. According to Mr. Manton's story, he was on his way to a plantation on the Mississippi, in Louisiana, which he had recently purchased, but had not yet seen.