Wishing to learn something of the great river on a bank of which his property lay, he had come by way of St. Louis, and there boarded the fine New Orleans packet Lytle. He had brought with him a supply of machinery, provisions, and tools for the plantation, all of which were now either consumed by fire or lay at the bottom of the river. He had also brought his favorite setter Nanita and her litter of three young puppies, which he had proposed to establish at his new winter home.
During the stop of the packet at Cairo he had taken Nanita ashore for a run. On their way back to the boat he discovered that she was not following him, and anxiously retracing his steps a short distance, found her in company with a white bulldog, to whom she was evidently communicating some matter of great interest.
Mr. Manton saw that the strange dog was a valuable one, and when it showed an inclination to follow them, tried to persuade it to return to its home, which he supposed was somewhere in the town. As the dog disappeared, he thought he had succeeded, and was afterwards surprised to find it on the boat, in company with Nanita and her little ones. Believing, of course, that the bull-dog's owner was also on board, he gave the matter but little thought, and soon after called Nanita aft to be fed.
While he was attending to her wants, the cry of "fire" was raised. The flames burst out somewhere near the centre of the boat, in the vicinity of the engine-room, and had already gained such headway as to interpose an effectual barrier between him and the forward deck. He supposed that the boat would at once be headed for the nearest bank, but found to his dismay that almost with the first outbreak of flame the steering-gear had been rendered useless. At the same time the engineers had been driven from their post of duty, and thus the splendid packet, freighted with death and destruction, continued to rush headlong down the river, without guidance or check.
Amid the terrible scenes that ensued, Mr. Manton, followed by his faithful dog, was barely able to reach his own stateroom, secure his money and some important papers, wrench the door from its hinges, throw it and Nanita overboard, and then leap for his own life into the dark waters.
At this point the grateful man again tried to express his sense of obligation to his rescuers, but was interrupted by Billy Brackett, who could not bear to be thanked for performing so obvious and simple an act of duty. To change the subject the young engineer told of Bim's act of real heroism in saving one and attempting to save the other members of the little family, which he evidently considered had been left in his charge.
To this story Mr. Manton listened with the deepest interest; and when it was concluded, he said, "He is a dear dog, and most certainly a hero, if there ever was one. I shall always love him for this night's work."
Then Bim, who was now covered with healing ointment and swathed in bandages, was petted and praised until even Nanita grew jealous, and insisted on receiving a share of her master's attention.
All the while the brave bull-dog looked into the faces of those gathered about him with such a pleading air of intelligence and such meaning barks that his longing to tell of what had happened to him after he started from the raft in pursuit of the odious "river-trader" who had once kicked him was evident to them all. If he only could have spoken, he would have told of the cruel blow by which he was momentarily stunned, of finding himself in a bag in the river, of how he had succeeded by a desperate struggle in escaping from it and finally reaching the shore, of his distress at not finding the raft, and the sad search for his master through the town, of his meeting with Nanita, and of his decision to accept her advice and take passage with her down the river, in which direction he was certain his floating home had gone. All this Bim would have communicated to his friends if he could; but as they were too dull of comprehension to understand him, they have remained in ignorance to this day of that thrilling chapter of his adventures.
Besides telling the raftmates of his cruel experience, Mr. Manton related some of the incidents of a canoe voyage even then being made down the river by his only son Worth and the boy's most intimate friend, Sumner Rankin. These two had made a canoe cruise together through the Everglades of Florida the winter before, and had enjoyed it so much, that when Mr. Manton proposed that they should accompany him to Louisiana, they had begged to be allowed to make the trip in their canoes.
"They started from Memphis," continued Mr. Manton, "and have had some fine duck and turkey shooting among the Coahoma sloughs and cane-brakes. With them is a colored man named Quorum, who crossed the Everglades with them, and who now accompanies them, in a skiff that they purchased in Memphis, as cook and general adviser. I have heard from them several times by letter, and so know of their progress. It has been so good that unless I make haste they will reach Moss Bank before me. That is the name of our new home," he added, by way of explanation.
"Wha' dat yo' say, sah?" exclaimed Solon, who had been an interested listener. "Yo' callin' dat ar plantashun Moss Back?"
"Yes, 'Moss Bank' is the name it has always borne, I believe," replied Mr. Manton. "But why do you ask? Do you know the place?"
"Does I know um! Does I know de place I war borned an' brung up in? Why, sah, dat ar' my onlies home befo' de wah. Ole Marse Rankim own um, an' me an' he boy, de young marse, hab de same mammy. So him my froster-brudder. He gwine away fer a sailor ossifer, an' den de wah comin' on, an' ebberyt'ing gwine ter smash. He name 'Summer.' Yo' know dat young gen'l'man?"
"Yes," replied Mr. Manton, "I knew him intimately. He has been dead for several years; but I am well acquainted with his family, and it is his son who is now travelling down the river in company with my boy. In fact, it was through him that I came to purchase this old plantation, with a view to making it our winter home."
"Praise de Lawd, I gwine ter see a Rankim once mo'!" exclaimed the old negro. "Yo' is gwine stop at de ole Moss Back place, Marse Winn? Yo' sholy is?"
"Why, yes; if Mr. Manton would like to have us, I think we should be very happy to stop there when we reach it," said Winn.
"Stop! Of course you will," exclaimed Nanita's master. "I have already planned for that, and should feel terribly disappointed if you did not. I want to see more of you, and I want you to meet and know my boys. Besides, I was going to ask you to allow Nanita and her pup to complete their journey down the river on this raft in company with Bim, who will, I know, take good care of them. If you should consent to this plan, of course you will be obliged to stop at Moss Bank to land them.
"We shall be delighted to have them," said Billy Brackett; "and, on behalf of Bim, I hereby extend a formal invitation to them to become his raftmates for the remainder of the cruise. At the same time, I am certain that my companions, as well as myself, will be most happy to visit you in your new home, and there make the acquaintance of your boys."
By the time this arrangement was concluded it was daylight, and Mr. Manton insisted on the raftmates turning in for a nap, while he and Solon kept watch. He remained on board the Venture all that day, and by sunset the current had borne the raft forward so rapidly that they were able to tie up near Columbus, Kentucky. At this point the owner of Moss Bank bade his new-made friends au revoir, and started by rail for his Louisiana home.
After his departure, and during the month of drifting that followed, the raftmates talked so much of Moss Bank, and listened to so many stories concerning it from Solon, that to their minds it grew to be the objective point of their trip, and seemed as though it must be the one place towards which their whole voyage was tending. Much as they anticipated the reaching of this far-southern plantation, however, they would have been greatly surprised and decidedly incredulous had any one told them that it was indeed to mark the limit of their voyage, and that there the good raft Venture, from Wisconsin for New Orleans, was destined to vanish, and become but a fading memory. But so it was, as they found out, and as we shall see.
Through the last week of November and the first three of December our raftmates drifted steadily southward down the great river. Although it was the most unpleasant season of the year, and they encountered both cold rains and bitter winds that chilled them to the marrow, the boys thoroughly enjoyed their experience. They could always retreat to the "shanty," which Solon kept well filled with warmth and comfort, and they had the satisfaction of an uninterrupted progress. The management of the raft called for a vast amount of hard and monotonous work; but it gave them splendid muscles and tremendous appetites. They were obliged to maintain a constant lookout for bars, reefs, snags, and up-bound river craft, and by means of the long sweeps at either end of the raft head it this way or that to avoid these obstacles and keep the channel. They were always on the move from sunrise to sunset, and generally travelled on moonlit nights as well. If the night promised to be dark or stormy they tied up at the nearest bank.
At such times the outside blackness, the howling wind, driving rain-squalls, and dashing waves only heightened the interior cosiness, the light, warmth, and general comfort of their floating home. In it they played games, sang songs to the accompaniment of Solon's banjo, told stories, taught the dogs tricks; or, under Billy Brackett's direction, pegged away at engineering problems, such as are constantly arising in the course of railway construction. Even Winn tried his hand at these; for under the stimulus of his companions' enthusiasm he was beginning to regard the career of an engineer as one of the most desirable and manly in which a young fellow could embark.
This voyage into the world, with such guides and associates as Billy Brackett, Glen Elting, and Binney Gibbs, was proving of inestimable value to this boy. Not only were his ideas of life broadened and his stock of general information increased by it, but he was rapidly learning to appreciate the beauty of modest pretensions, and a self-reliance based upon knowledge and strength, as compared with the boastfulness and self-conceit of ignorance.
Sometimes the Venture was tied up for the night near other rafts, and its crew exchanged visits with theirs. The regular river raftsmen were generally powerful young giants, rough and unlettered, but a good-natured, happy-go-lucky lot, full of tales of adventure in the woods or on the river, to which the boys listened with a never-failing delight. Nor were the raftmates at all behindhand in this interchange of good stories; for they could tell of life on the Plains or in California, of Indians, buffalo, mountains, deserts, and gold-mines, to which their auditors listened with wide-open eyes and gaping mouths. During the pauses Solon was always ready with some account of the wonderful performances of his long-ago 'coon dog Bijah.
So wise did our raftmates become concerning 'coons and their habits, from Solon's teachings, that finally nothing would satisfy them but a 'coon hunt of their own. Billy Brackett was certain that Bim, who by this time had fully recovered from the effects of his burns, would prove as good at finding 'coons as he had at everything else in which he had been given a chance. Solon was doubtful, because of Bim's color and the length of his tail.
"I hain't nebber see no fust-class 'coon dawg wha' warn't yallar an' stumpy tail lak my Bijah war," he would remark, gazing reflectively at Bim, and shaking his head. "Of cose dish yer Bim dawg uncommon knowin', an' maybe him tree a 'coon 'mos' ez good ez Bijah; but hit's a gif, an' a mighty skurce gif 'mong dawgs."
"Oh, come off, Solon!" Billy Brackett would answer. "You just wait till you see Bim tree a 'coon. He'll do it so quick, after we once get into a 'coon neighborhood, that your Bijah would be left a thousand miles behind, and you won't ever want to mention his name again."
So one night when the Venture was well down towards the lower end of the State of Arkansas a grand 'coon hunt was arranged. They drew lots to decide who should be left behind in charge of the raft, and, much to his disgust, the unwelcome task fell to Glen. So he remained on board with Nanita and Cherub, as the pup had been named in honor of Bim, though it was generally called "Cheer-up," and the others sallied forth into the woods.
They were well provided with fat pine torches and armed with axes. Bim was full of eager excitement, and dashed away into the darkness the moment they set foot on shore. His incessant barking showed him to be first on this side and then on that, while once in a while they caught a glimpse of his white form glancing across the outer rim of their circle of torchlight.
"Isn't he hunting splendidly?" cried Billy Brackett, with enthusiasm.
"Yes, sah," replied Solon; "but him huntin' too loud. We ain't gettin' to de place yet, an' ef he don' quit he barkin', him skeer off all de 'coon in de State."
So Bim was called in, and restrained with a bit of rope until a corn-field was reached that Solon pronounced the right kind of a place from which to make a start. Then the eager dog was again set free, and in less than a minute was heard giving utterance to the peculiar yelping note that announced his game as "treed."
"What did I tell you?" shouted Billy Brackett, triumphantly, as he started on a run for the point from which the sounds proceeded. "How's that for—" but at that instant the speaker tripped over a root, and measured his length on the ground with a crash that knocked both breath and powers of speech from his body. The others were so close behind that they fell on top of him like a row of bricks, and in the resulting confusion their torch was extinguished.
Hastily picking themselves up, and without pausing to relight the pine splinters, they rushed pell-mell towards the sound of barking, bumping into trees, stumbling over logs, scratching their faces and tearing their clothes on thorny vines. But no one minded. Bim had treed a 'coon in the shortest time on record, and now if they could only get it, the triumph would be ample reward for all their trials.
Finally, bruised, battered, and ragged, they reached the tree which Bim, with wild leapings, was endeavoring to climb. Their first move was to illumine the scene with a huge bonfire. By its light they proceeded to a closer examination of the situation. The tree was a huge moss-hung water-oak, evidently too large to be chopped down, as all the 'coon trees of Solon's stories had been. So Winn offered to climb it and shake out the 'coon. As yet they had not discovered the animal, but Bim was so confident of its presence that they took his word for it.
Solon had raised a false alarm as the first gleam of firelight penetrated the dark mass of foliage above them by exclaiming:
"Dar he! Me see um! Lookee, Marse Brack, in dat ar crutch!"
But what the old negro saw proved to be a bunch of mistletoe, and when Winn began his climb the 'coon's place of concealment was still unknown. Up went the boy higher and higher, carefully examining each limb as he passed it, until he was among the very topmost branches of the tree. The others stood on opposite sides of the trunk, with axes or clubs uplifted, and gazed anxiously upward until their necks ached.
At length Winn became aware that from the outermost end of a slender branch just above his head a pair of green eyes were glaring at him. The glare was accompanied by an angry spitting sound. "I've found him, fellows! Look out below!" he shouted, and began a vigorous shaking of the branch. All at once the animal uttered a sound that caused a sudden cessation of his efforts. It also caused Winn to produce a match from his pocket, light it, and hold the tiny flame high above his head. Then, without a word, he began to descend the tree.
As he dropped to the ground the others exclaimed in amazement, "What's the matter, Winn? Where's the 'coon? Why didn't you shake him down?"
"He's up there," replied Winn, "but I don't want him. If any of you do, you'd better go up and shake him down. I'd advise you to take a torch along, though."
Not another word of explanation would he give them, and finally Binney Gibbs, greatly provoked at the other's stubbornness, declared he would go up and shake that 'coon down—in a hurry, too. He so far accepted Winn's advice as to provide himself with a blazing knot, and then up he started. In a few minutes he too returned to the ground, saying that he guessed Winn was about right, and they didn't want that 'coon after all.
"What in the name of all foolishness do you mean?" cried Billy Brackett, impatiently. "Speak out, man, and tell us, can't you?"
But Binney acted precisely as Winn had done, and advised any one who wanted that 'coon to go and get it.
"Well, I will!" exclaimed the young engineer, almost angrily; "and I only hope I can manage to drop him on top of one of your heads."
With this he started up the tree, and disappeared among its thick brandies. He quickly made his way to the top. Then the rustling of leaves ceased, there was a moment of silence, followed by a muttered exclamation, and Billy Brackett came hastily down to where the others were expectantly awaiting him.
"Let's go home, boys," he said, as he picked up his axe and started in the direction of the river. "Come, Bim; your reputation as a 'coon dog is so well established that there is no need to test it any further."
Poor Solon, who was too old and stiff to climb the tree, was completely mystified by these strange proceedings; but his expostulation of,
"Wha—wha's de meanin' ob dish yer—!" was cut short by the departure of his companions, and he was obliged to hasten after them.
A few minutes after the 'coon hunters had gone a big boy, and a little girl with a tear-stained face, who had come from a house just beyond the corn-field, reached the spot, to which they had been attracted by the firelight. As they did so, the child uttered a cry of joy, sprang to the water-oak, and caught up a frightened-looking little black and white kitten that was cautiously descending the big trunk backward.
To this day the outcome of that 'coon hunt remains a sealed mystery to poor Solon, while Bim has never been invited to go on another.
THE GREAT RIVER AND ITS MISCHIEF.
The scenery amid which the good raft Venture performed its long and eventful voyage changed almost with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope, but was ever fascinating and full of pleasant surprises. The flaming autumnal foliage of the forest-lined banks through which the first hundred miles or so were made, gave way to masses of sombre browns or rich purples, and these in turn to the flecked white of cotton-fields, the dark green of live-oaks, and the silver gray of Spanish moss. The picturesque cliffs of the upper river, rising in places to almost mountainous heights, were merged into the lowlands of canebrakes and swamps, broken by ranges of bluffs along the eastern bank after the Ohio was passed. On these bluffs were perched many cities and towns that were full of interest to our raftmates; among them, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge. Every here and there in the low bottom lands of the "Delta" below Memphis they saw the rounded tops of great mounds, raised by prehistoric dwellers in that region as places of refuge during seasons of flood. They passed from the great northern wheat region into that of corn, then into the broad cotton belt, and finally to the land of sugar-cane and rice, orange-trees, glossy-leaved magnolias, and gaunt moss-hung cypresses.
Of more immediate interest even than these ever-changing features of the land was the varied and teeming life of the mighty river itself. The boys were never tired of watching the streams of strange craft constantly passing up or down. Here a splendid packet in all the glory of fresh paint, gleaming brass, gay bunting, and crowds of passengers rushed swiftly southward with the current in mid-channel; or, up-bound, ploughed a mighty furrow against it, while the hoarse coughings of its high-pressure engines echoed along many a mile of forest wall.
Smaller up-bound boats hugged the banks in search of slack water. Most of the main-stream packets were side-wheelers; but those of lighter draught, bound far up the Red, the Arkansas, the Yazoo, the Sunflower, or other tributary rivers, were provided with great stern wheels that made them look like exaggerated wheelbarrows. Then there were the tow-boats, pushing dozens of sooty coal-barges from the Ohio; freight-boats so piled with cotton-bales that only their pilot-houses and chimneys were visible; trading-scows and "Jo-boats;" floating dance-houses and theatres; ferryboats driven by steam, or propelled by mule-power, like the Whatnot; some large enough to carry a whole train of cars from shore to shore, and others with a capacity of but a single team. There were skiffs, canoes, pirogues, and rafts of all sizes and description.
Most interesting of all, however, were the Government snag-boats, which constantly patrolled the river, on the lookout for obstructions that they might remove. These boats were doubled-hulled; and when one of them straddled a snag, no matter if it was the largest tree that ever grew, it was bound to disappear. With great steam-driven saws it would be cut into sections, that were lifted and swung aside by powerful derricks planted near the bows. These useful snag-boats also gave relief to distressed craft of all kinds; blew up or removed dangerous wrecks; dislodged rafts of drift that threatened to form inconvenient bars; and in a thousand ways acted the part of an ever-vigilant police for this grandest of American highways.
And the great restless river needed watching. It was as full of mischievous pranks as a youthful giant experimenting with his new-found strength. It thought nothing of biting out a few hundred acres of land from one bank and depositing them miles below on the other. If these acres were occupied by houses or cultivated fields, so much the more fun for the river. For years it would flow peacefully in a well-known channel around some great bend, then decide to make a change, and in a single night cut a new channel straight across the loop of land. By such a prank not only were all the river pilots thoroughly bewildered, but a large slice of one State, with its inhabitants and buildings, would be transferred to another. If at the same time an important river-town could be stranded and left far inland, the happiness of the mischief-making giant was complete; and for many miles it would swirl and eddy and boil and ripple with exuberant glee over the success of its efforts.
Above all it delighted in secretly gathering to itself from tributary streams their vast accumulations of protracted rains or melting snows, until it was swollen to twice its ordinary size, and endowed with a strength that nothing could withstand. Then with mighty leaps it would overflow its banks, cover whole counties with its tawny floods, burst through levees, and riot over thousands of cultivated fields, sweep away houses, uproot trees, and drown every unfortunate creature on which it could lay its clutching fingers. Whenever its fleeing victims managed to reach some little mound or bit of high land that it could not climb, then it found equal pleasure in surrounding them and mocking them with its plashing chuckles, while they suffered the pangs of slow starvation.
At these times of overflow not only the snag-boats but such other craft as could be pressed into the service were despatched in every direction to the relief of the river giant's victims. While on this duty they carried provisions, clothing, and other necessaries of life into the most remote districts; effected rescues from floating houses, or those whose roofs alone rose above the flood and afforded uncertain refuge for their inmates; removed human beings and live-stock from little muddy islands miles away from the main channel of the river, carried them miles farther before reaching places of safety, and in every way strove with all their might to mitigate the calamity of unfettered waters.
Our raftmates had witnessed the effect of all these freaks and caprices, except that of a widespread and devastating flood, during their voyage, and as they drew near its end they became aware that an acquaintance with this most terrible of all the river's efforts at destruction was to be added to their experience. The drought of summer had been followed by an almost unprecedented rainfall during the autumn. The earth in every direction was like an oversoaked sponge, and the surplus water was pouring in turbid torrents into the rivers. From every quarter of the vast Mississippi Valley these watery legions were hurried forward to join the all-conquering forces of the great river.
It had been high-water in the Ohio when the Venture lay at Cairo. When it passed the mouth of the Arkansas its crew were amazed at the mighty volume of its muddy flood. From this on they floated in company with ever-increasing masses of drift—trees, fences, farming implements, straw-stacks, cotton-bales, out-buildings, and every now and then a house, lifted bodily from its foundations, and borne away in the resistless arms of the ever-swelling tide. Most of the houses were empty, but from several of them the ready skiff of the Venture effected rescues, now of a solitary individual driven to the verge of despair by the lonely terrors of his situation, and then of whole wretched families who had lost everything in the world except their lives. A cow, several pigs, and dozens of barn-yard fowls also found an asylum on the friendly raft, until, as Billy Brackett said, it reminded one of the original and only Noah's ark menagerie.
Besides supplying the raft with passengers, the river helped to feed them. Floating straw-stacks and shocks of corn were always in sight, while fresh milk and eggs, pork and chickens, drifted with the current on all sides. In vain were these passengers landed at the nearest accessible points. A new lot was always found to take the place of those who had left, and for ten days the raft resembled a combination of floating hotel, nursery, hospital, and farm-yard. The resources of our raftmates were taxed to their utmost during this time to provide for the manifold wants of their welcome but uninvited guests, while Solon declared, "I hain't nebber done sich a sight er cooken durin' all de days ob my life."
By the time the mouth of the Red River was reached, half of Concordia Parish was flooded, and but for the forest trees rising from the water, the boys would have thought themselves afloat on a vast inland sea. The low bluffs on which the capital of Louisiana is seated, and beyond which the cane lands extend in almost a dead level to the Gulf, were occupied by the tents and rude shelters of hundreds of refugees from the drowned districts. Here our raftmates began to entertain fears for the safety of their friends at the Moss Bank plantation, which lay but a day's journey farther down the river.
At Baton Rouge they cleared the raft of its living encumbrances, and then pushed ahead. From this point to the Gulf the great river is enclosed between massive levees, or embankments of earth, behind which the level of the far-reaching cane-fields is much lower than the surface of high-water. Thus the raft was borne swiftly along at such an elevation that its crew could look over the top of the eastern levee and down over a vast area of plantation lands. These were dotted with dark clumps of live-oaks or magnolias, and at wide intervals with little settlements of whitewashed negro quarters, grouped behind the broad-verandaed dwellings of the planters. Near each was the mill in which the cane from the broad fields was crushed and its sweet juices converted into sugar. These mills were surmounted by tall iron smoke-stacks, and near each stood the square, tower-like bagasse (refuse) burner, built of stone, and looking like the keep of some ancient castle.
All along the levee they saw gangs of men at work strengthening the embankments and raising them still higher. They were often hailed and asked to lend assistance, but they felt that their own friends might be in need of them, and so passed on without answer. So changed was the aspect of the country since Solon had last seen it, and so excited did the old man become as he neared the scenes of former years, that it was evident he could not be depended upon to recognize Moss Bank when they should reach it.
The day was nearly spent before they arrived at what they felt sure must be its immediate vicinity. They had decided to tie up at the first good place, and there wait for morning, when Winn called out:
"What is that just ahead? I thought it was a log; but it seems to be moving towards us, and I believe it is some sort of a small boat with a man in it."
The object to which their attention was thus directed proved to be a decked canoe, the very daintiest craft any of them had ever seen, bearing the name Psyche in gold letters on either bow. In it sat a boy of about Winn's age, urging it forward with vigorous strokes of a double-bladed paddle.
The raft was close to the levee as he shot alongside.
"Hello!" he shouted; "is this the raft Venture?"
"Yes. Are you Worth Manton?"
"No; but I am Sumner Rankin. Worth is down there with his father and all the hands we could raise, working on the levee; but we are afraid it can't stand much longer. I have been out here hailing every raft that passed, and watching for you for the last three days. I'm awfully glad you've come, for our men are discouraged, and about ready to give up. Now, perhaps you will help us."
"Of course we will! Come right aboard and show us where to tie up," answered Billy Brackett, heartily.
By the time the raft was made fast near the scene of greatest danger, and Mr. Manton, with Worth, had come aboard, the night was as dark as pitch. The lanterns of the working gang glancing here and there like so many fire-flies were feebly reflected in the angry waters that slid stealthily by with uncanny gurglings and muttered growls.
"If the bank will only hold until morning!" said Mr. Manton, about midnight, as he and Billy Brackett entered the Venture's cosey "shanty" for a brief rest. All but these two and Solon were asleep, laying in a stock of strength for the labors of the next day.
Suddenly there came a frightened shouting from the bank. Then all other sounds were drowned in the furious roar of rushing waters, while the raft seemed to be lifted bodily and hurled into space.
HURLED THROUGH THE CREVASSE AND WRECKED.
During the earlier hours of that eventful night Billy Brackett had brought all his engineering skill to bear upon the problem of how to save the Moss Bank levee. His cheery presence, and the evident knowledge that he displayed, inspired all hands with confidence and a new energy. Under his direction the raftmates worked like beavers, and Mr. Manton was more hopeful that the levee could be made to withstand the terrible pressure of swollen waters than he had been from the beginning. But it was very old and had been neglected for years. By daylight the young engineer might have noted its weak spots, and strengthened them. He would have seen the thin streams that silently, but steadily and in ever-increasing volume, were working their way through the embankment near its base. In the inky blackness of the night they were unheeded; and while spade and pick were plied with unflagging zeal to strengthen the higher portions, these insidious foes were equally busy undermining its foundations.
Shortly before midnight everything seemed so secure that the boys were sent to the Venture's "shanty" to get a few hours of sleep. Then Billy Brackett and Mr. Manton came in for the hot coffee Solon was preparing for them. They had hardly seated themselves at the table when the catastrophe occurred. Without warning, a quarter of a mile of the water-soaked levee sank out of sight, and dissolved like so much wet sugar. Into the huge gap thus opened the exulting waters leaped with the rush and roar of a cataract. On the foaming crest of this tawny flood the stout timber raft was borne and whirled like an autumn leaf. A few of the working gang managed to reach it and save themselves, but others were swept away like thistle-down.
The boys thus rudely awakened from a sound sleep sprang up with frightened questionings, while Solon sank to his knees, paralyzed with terror. Nanita stood guard over her puppy, while Bim, with a single bark of defiance, leaped to his master's side and looked into his face for orders.
"Steady, boys! Steady!" shouted Billy Brackett, as coolly as though nothing unusual were happening. "No, not outside. Keep that door closed. It is safer in here. We can do nothing but wait patiently until the raft fetches up against something solid or grounds. Hear the waves boiling over the deck? There's a big chance of being swept off and dashed to bits out there."
For five minutes the raft was hurled forward and tossed with sickening plunges, as though in a heavy seaway, until its occupants were nearly prostrated with nausea. Then came a crash and a shock that piled them in headlong confusion on one side of the room. There was a grinding and groaning of timbers. One side of the raft was lifted, and the other forced down, until the floor of the "shanty" sloped steeply. With a single impulse all hands rushed to the door and into the open air.
The raft seemed to be stranded at the base of a rocky cliff that towered directly above it to an unknown height. Against it the mad waters were dashing savagely. Beneath their feet the stout timbers quivered with such uneasy movements that it seemed as though the end of the Venture had come, and that a few more seconds or minutes must witness its total destruction. Still they clung to it and to each other, for they had no other refuge, and in the absolute darkness surrounding them it would have been worse than folly to seek one.
After a while the first rush of waters passed, and they settled into a strong smooth flow like that of the great river from which they came. The uneasy movements of the raft ceased, and its shivering occupants again began to breath freely.
"I guess it is all right, boys!" called out Billy Brackett. "I believe we are stranded at the foot of the bagasse-burner; but the old craft has evidently made up its mind to hold together for a while longer, at any rate. So I move that we crawl into the 'shanty' again. It's a good deal warmer and more comfortable in there than it is out here."
So, very cautiously, to prevent themselves from slipping off the steeply-sloping deck, our raftmates worked their way back into the little house that had for so long been their home. They found the lower side of the floor about two feet under water.
All hands were greatly depressed by the calamity that had overtaken them. Mr. Manton, Worth, Sumner, and old Solon grieved over the ruin of Moss Bank. Glen and Binney feared for the safety of General Elting's valuable instruments. Billy Brackett wondered if Major Caspar, or any one else, would ever again have confidence in him as the leader of an expedition, while Winn, who had never ceased to reproach himself for the manner in which the voyage of the Venture had been begun, was now filled with dismay at its disastrous termination.
He, as well as the others, realized that the raft was a fixture in its present position, that it would never again float on the bosom of the great river, and that all dreams of selling it in New Orleans must now be abandoned. He knew how greatly his father was in need of the money he had hoped to receive from it. He knew what a blow the loss of the wheat had been. Now the raft was lost as well. As the unhappy boy's thoughts travelled back over the incidents of the trip, and he remembered that but for him the wheat would not have been lost, and but for him the raft would probably have been sold in St. Louis, his self-accusations found their way to his eyes, and trickled slowly down his cheeks in the shape of hot tears. The others could not see them in the darkness, and he would not have cared much if they could.
But Billy Brackett was not giving way to his grief. There was too much to be done for that. He was trying to set up the overturned stove, and make things more comfortable. At the same time his cheery tones were raising the low spirits of his companions, and causing them to take a brighter view of the situation.
The young engineer, with Glen and Solon to aid him, worked in darkness, for the lamp had rolled from the table when the raft struck the stone tower, and been extinguished in the water that flooded part of the "shanty." In spite of this drawback, they finally succeeded in getting the stove into position. Then they began to feel for fuel with which to make a fire. Everything was wet. Some one proposed breaking up a chair, but Billy Brackett exclaimed,
"Hold on! I have thought of something better."
With this he caught hold of one of the thin boards used by the "river-traders" to ceil the room, and, with a powerful wrench, tore it off. This particular board happened to be near where Winn was sitting on the floor, so filled with his own sad thoughts that he paid but slight attention to what was going on about him. As the board was torn from its place several soft objects fell near him, and one of them struck his hand. It seemed to be paper, and when Billy Brackett sung out for some paper with which to start the fire, Winn said, "Here's a wad that's dry," and tossed the package in the direction of the stove. The young engineer slipped it under the wood, struck a match, and lighted it. The next instant he uttered a startled exclamation, snatched the package from the stove, and beat out the flame that was rapidly eating into it.
"What is the matter?" asked Winn.
"Matter?" returned Billy Brackett. "Oh, nothing at all; only I can't quite afford to warm myself at fires fed with bank-bills. Not just yet. I wouldn't hesitate to dissolve all my spare pearls in vinegar, if I felt an inclination for that kind of a drink, but I must draw a line at greenback fuel. Where did you get them? Whose are they? And why in the name of poverty do you want them burned up? Has your wealth become a burden to you?"
"Are they really bills?" asked Winn, incredulously.
For answer Billy Brackett struck another match, and all saw that he indeed held a package of bank-notes with charred ends. The same light showed Winn to be surrounded by a number of similar packages.
The expression of complete bewilderment that appeared on the boy's face as he saw these was so ludicrous that, as the match went out, a shout of laughter rang through the "shanty."
"As long as they are so plenty, I guess we might as well burn them, after all," said Billy Brackett, quietly. With this he struck another match, relighted the little bundle of bills in his hand, and again thrust it into the stove.
For a moment the others believed him to have lost his senses. Winn made a wild dash at the stove door, but Billy Brackett caught his arm.
"It's all right, and I'm not half so big a fool as I may appear," he said, laughing. "Do you remember our late friends the 'river-traders'? And that they were counterfeiters? And that they occupied this very 'shanty' for several weeks? And that, after losing it, they made desperate attempts to regain its possession? And that we wondered why they had ceiled this room; also, what had become of their stock in trade?"
To each of these questions Winn gave an affirmative answer.
"Well," continued Billy Brackett, "the mystery is a mystery no longer. They ceiled this room to provide a safe and very ingenious hiding-place for their goods; they wished to regain possession of the raft, that they might recover them. They failed, and so lost them. Now, by the merest accident, we have found them."
"Do you mean—" began Winn, slowly.
"I mean," said Billy Bracket, "that while we are apparently possessed of abundant wealth, it is but the shadow of the substance. In other words, every one of those bills is a counterfeit, and the sooner they are destroyed the better."
In spite of this disappointing announcement, the desire of the raftmates to discover the full extent of the "river-traders'" secret hoard was so great that, having found a candle, they proceeded by its light to tear off the whole of the interior sheathing of the room. They found a quantity of the counterfeit money, which Billy Brackett, sustained by Mr. Manton, insisted upon burning then and there. They also found, carefully hidden by itself, a package containing exactly one hundred genuine one-hundred-dollar bills.
"Enough," said Billy Brackett, quietly, "to refund the hundred they got from Glen and Binney, to repay Major Caspar for the wheat they dumped overboard, and to make good the loss of the Whatnot, which so nearly broke the heart of our brave old friend Cap'n Cod."
The justice of this disposition of the money was so evident that not a single dissenting voice was raised among those who had found it, for they all knew that an effort to trace it to its rightful owners would not only be fruitless, but would cost more than the entire amount.
The knowledge that his father was thus to be recompensed for the loss of which he had been the direct cause so raised Winn Caspar's spirits that when daylight came, although their situation remained unchanged, he felt himself to be one of the very happiest boys in all Louisiana.
The coming of daylight, while gladly hailed by the occupants of the wrecked raft, also disclosed the extent of the devastation caused by the flood. As they had surmised, the Venture was stranded at the foot of the huge stone bagasse-burner. The mill near by was partly demolished. The great house, standing amid its clumps of shrubbery and stately trees, a quarter of a mile away, was surrounded by water that rose nearly to the top of the stone piers by which it was supported. The quarters and other out-buildings had disappeared. Even at that distance they could see a throng of refugees on the verandas and at the windows of the great house.
"Unless speedy relief comes they will starve," said Mr. Manton, anxiously, "for our provisions had nearly run out yesterday."
"We are in about the same fix," said Billy Brackett, who had been in earnest consultation with Solon. "I didn't realize until this minute that we had given away nearly the whole of our own supply. Now I find that the few things we had left are under water, and most of them are spoiled."
At this announcement every one suddenly discovered that he was intensely hungry; while Bim, seated on his haunches and waving his fore-paws, began to "speak" vigorously for his breakfast.
A MEETING OF MATES.
With starvation staring our raftmates in the face, the problem of how they were to escape from their present predicament became a most important one. The first suggestion was that they construct a small and easily managed raft from a portion of the material contained in the Venture. They foresaw that it would be impossible for them to propel even this against the swift current and reach the river, where they might procure relief from some passing boat. Still, even to drift with the current, or at the best to work their way diagonally across it, with the hope of reaching some source of food supply, seemed better than to remain where they were, and accordingly they began to collect material for a raft.
They had hardly started at this when Worth called out that he saw a canoe lodged in a clump of shrubbery.
They all looked where he pointed, and all saw it. Although it was not more than a hundred yards from them, the full force of the current must be encountered for the entire distance before one could reach it.
All were agreed that they must obtain it, if possible, and that their very lives might depend upon getting that canoe. First Billy Brackett threw off his clothing, and plunging into the chill waters, attempted to swim to it. He had not covered half the distance before he was compelled to turn back utterly exhausted. Then Glen Elting and Sumner undertook the task together, but splendid swimmers as they were, they could no more stem that resistless flood than they could have flown to the canoe.
As they were dejectedly resuming their clothing in the "shanty" they were startled by a shout from outside. Winn Caspar had solved the problem. While the others were watching the fruitless struggles of Glen and Sumner from one side of the raft he had slipped overboard from the other, and swam diagonally across the current to a hedge of oleanders, the tops of which were still above water. This hedge extended to the river, and passed within fifty yards of the shrubbery in which the canoe was caught.
When Winn reached the oleanders he was considerably below the raft, and of course nearly twice as far from the canoe as when he started. He had anticipated this, however, and now began to work his way back against the current by pulling himself from one bush to another. When he reached a point abreast the raft the others saw him and shouted. He only waved his hand in reply and kept on, while they watched him with eager interest. As he gained a position opposite the canoe they shouted again, but still he kept on, until he was nearly a hundred yards above it.
Then, after a long rest, he left the friendly oleanders, and struck out with brave strokes for the coveted object. He was now again swimming diagonally across the current, and knew that even should he miss the canoe, he would be borne down to the raft. But he did not miss it. He had calculated too well for that; and when he again reached the raft, he brought the Psyche with him.
He was chilled to the bone, numb, and sick with exhaustion; but for such a royal cheer as greeted him, and the praises that his companions showered upon him, he would have dared and suffered twice as much. At the same moment, as if to encourage such brave deeds, the sun shone out warm and bright, transforming the whole character of the scene with its cheery warmth.
Sumner Rankin was ready, and with a light heart he stepped into his beloved craft. Then, with vigorous strokes of his double-bladed paddle, he shot away towards the river, where he was to remain until he could persuade a boat of some kind to come to the relief of his fellow-sufferers.
In spite of the sunlight and their hopes of rescue, the long hours passed slowly aboard the Venture. There was little to do, and nothing to eat, though Solon did succeed in making a pot of coffee, which they drank without sugar or milk. In one respect, however, it was the most successful day of the Venture's entire cruise; for during those tedious hours Billy Brackett and Winn accomplished the object for which it had been undertaken. They sold the raft. In gazing over his flooded plantation and planning for its future, Mr. Manton realized that with the subsidence of the waters he would have immediate use for a large quantity of lumber.
"Why not buy ours?" suggested Winn.
"Why not?" answered Mr. Manton.
Five minutes later the bargain was completed that transferred the ownership of the Venture, and crowned Major Caspar's undertaking with success. It was such a satisfactory arrangement that they only wondered they had not thought of it before.
"Here the lumber is, just where I want it, and not a cent of freight to pay," said Mr. Manton.
"Now you and I can get back to Caspar's Mill, and help your father out with that contract; and it is high time we were there too," said Billy Brackett to Winn. "Hello! What's this? The Psyche coming back again? If it is, young Rankin must be having a fit, for he's black in the face."
"It's Quorum!" shouted Worth. "In the Cupid, too! Of all things, that is the very last I should ever have expected to see!"
Sure enough, it was the faithful negro progressing slowly and with such awkwardness that the anxious spectators expected to see him upset at each moment. Nevertheless, he finally succeeded in reaching the raft; and as they hauled him aboard he gasped, with thankfulness,
"Dat de seckon time dish yer nigger ebber bin in one ob dem ar cooners, an' him hope he be good an' daid befo' him ebber sperimentin' wif um agen!"
Quorum had come from the great house, where the Cupid was the sole craft to be had. It was only after hours of persuasion and semi-starvation that he had been induced by the other refugees to make the trip to the raft, which they had discovered soon after daylight. He described a pitiful state of affairs as existing among the hungry throng he had just left, and declared that another day without food would witness great suffering in the crowded house.
Even as he related his story, those gathered about him were startled by the shrill note of a steam-whistle coming from the direction of the river. Sumner had found relief, and was bringing it to them.
During the hours that passed so slowly on the raft, the brave little Psyche had cruised here and there over the broad Mississippi sea, now hailing some boat that refused to stop, and then chasing another that it failed to overtake. Finally, late in the afternoon, Sumner discovered a trail of black smoke coming up-stream and towards him. As he anxiously watched it, trying to decide which way he should go to head it off, he discovered a white banner with a scarlet cross flying out cheerily just beneath the trail of smoke. Then he knew that help was at hand, and no matter what other boats might do, that one would stop at his signal.
As it drew near, he was amazed to see that instead of a river steamer, such as he had expected, the red-cross boat was a fine sea-going yacht; and as she came dashing towards him, her sharp stem cleaving the brown waters like a knife, her shining black hull, varnished houses, polished metal, and plate-glass flashing in the light of the setting sun, this sailor son of a sailor father thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. She slowed down at his signal, and in another minute he was alongside.
A line was flung to him, and making it fast to the Psyche's painter, he clambered up a ladder that had been dropped from the gangway. As he reached the deck, a fine-looking young fellow, apparently but little older than himself, and wearing a natty yachting uniform, stepped forward to meet him.
Sumner briefly explained his errand, and pointing to the red-cross flag at the foremast-head, added that he believed aid might be expected from those who sailed under it.
"Indeed it may," responded the other, heartily; "and our present business is to discover just such cases as you describe. Although the Merab is, as you see, a private yacht, in which we happened to put into New Orleans during a winter cruise to the southward, she is at present in the service of the Red Cross Society, of which I am a member, and devoted to the relief of sufferers by this awful flood. May I ask your name? Mine is Coffin—Tristram Coffin; though I am better known as Breeze McCloud, and that of my friend (here he turned to another young man, also in navy blue) is Mr. Wolfe Brady."
Half an hour later the beautiful Merab lay at anchor as near the stranded raft as it was safe to venture, and its occupants were being transferred to her hospitable deck by one of her boats. Another boat, laden with provisions, was on its way to the starving refugees in the great house.
The young owner of the Merab insisted that all those who came from the raft should be his guests, at least for that night.
The invitation was accepted as promptly and heartily as it had been given, and soon afterwards two very hungry but very merry parties sat down to bountiful dinners in two entirely distinct parts of the yacht.
Along the mess-table of the galley—or the "camboose," as the yacht's cook insisted upon calling it—were ranged three gentlemen of color, each of whom treated his companions with the greatest deference, though at the same time believing himself to be just a little better posted in culinary matters than either of the others.
"Dish yer wha' I calls a mighty scrumptious repas'," exclaimed Solon, after a long silence devoted to appeasing the pangs of his hunger. "But fo' de true ole-time cookin' gib me de Moss Back kitchin befo' de wah."
"I specs dat ar' berry good in hits way," remarked Quorum; "same time I hain't nebber eat nuffin kin compare wif de cookin' er dem Seminyole Injuns what libs in de Ebberglades. Dat's whar I takin my lesson."
"Sho, gen'l'muns! 'pears to me lak you don't nebber go on er deep-sea v'yge whar you gets de genuwine joe-flogger, an' de plum-duff, an' sich like," said Nimbus, the yacht's cook. "Ef you had, you wouldn' talk."
In the luminous after-saloon the other party was seated at a table white with snowy damask, and gleaming with silver, which was at once the pride and care of old Mateo, the Portuguese steward.
It was a party so overflowing with merriment and laughter, jokes and stories, that from one end of the table the young owner of the yacht was moved to call to his friend at the other,
"I say, Wolfe, this reminds me of the mess aboard the old Fish Hawk, when we were 'Dorymates' together off Iceland."
"It reminds me," said Glen Elting, "of the jolly mess of the Second Division, when Billy Brackett and Binney and I were 'Campmates' together in New Mexico."
Said Sumner Rankin, "It reminds me of the cabin mess of the Transit, when we went 'Canoemates' together, through the Everglades. Eh, Worth?"
"While I," chimed in Winn Caspar, "am reminded of the happy mess-table of the good ship Venture, on which we 'Raftmates' have just floated for more than a thousand miles down the great river."
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Manton, rising, and holding high a glass filled with amber-colored river-water, "as I seem to have become a shipmate of Dorymates, Campmates, Canoemates, and Raftmates, I am moved to propose a toast. It is, 'Long life and prosperity, health and happiness, now and forever, to all true mates.'"