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The Boy Chums in the Forest - or Hunting for Plume Birds in the Florida Everglades
by Wilmer M. Ely
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"He acts as though he had gone crazy," exclaimed Walter, recovering his speech.

At sound of his voice, the bear's head turned in their direction. With a growl of fury he dropped to all fours and with incredible speed made for the hunters.

Charley had been quick to take in the meaning of the strange scene.

"Shoot and run," he shouted, as the maddened animal charged.

He, Walter and the captain shot almost at once. The shots struck home but the sorely wounded beast still lumbered forward at a rapid pace.

"Run," shouted Charley, striking into the forest at the top of his speed, closely followed by the captain and Walter. They had run but a few paces before Walter, who was in the rear, stopped suddenly. "Chris has stayed," he shouted to the others, "we can't leave him."

Almost as rapidly as they had fled, the three retraced their steps to the edge of the clearing.

"Stay where we are and watch," commanded Charley, with a grim smile. "The bear's too badly hurt to be dangerous. Watch him, fellows, just watch."

Chris had knelt where he had been standing when the bear charged, had rested his rifle on his knee, and was taking careful aim at the advancing beast. There was a look of stubborn determination on his little ebony face while his heart was beating with pride and exultation. Here was his great chance to turn the tables on his white companions. No longer would they dare tease him about running from the eel or about his adventure after the crane. He would be able now to twit them all, even the captain, with running away while he, Chris, stood his ground.

"Run, Chris, run," shouted Charley from the edge of the clearing, but the little darky ignored the warning.

His keen eyes could see that the bear was badly wounded and liable to drop at any minute. Already it was swaying drunkenly from side to side.

Now it was forty feet away, now thirty and almost ready to drop. Ten feet more and he would fire, Chris resolved. But that ten feet proved the ambitious little darky's undoing. A concentrated drop of buzzing liquid fire struck him above the eye, while hand and legs seemed splashed with molten fire. Down went the rifle with a thud and with a shrieked "Oh golly, oh golly, oh golly!" a black streak cleared the open ground with kangaroo-like leaps and shot into the forest.

"Run for the marsh and roll in the mud, Chris,"' shouted Charley after the streak.

The bear stumbled forward a few feet further, then sank slowly to the ground. Charley looked after the flying Chris, shaking with laughter, while the others stood beside him in silent amazement.

"Hold on a minute," said Charley, as the captain stepped forward toward the bear which was kicking, out in the last convulsive throes of death.

"Aye, aye," agreed the captain cheerfully, stopping short, "you're the pilot in these waters, lad."

"I promise you I will not keep you at anchor long, Captain," laughed Charlie, as with his hunting-knife he began hacking at a clump of scrub-palmetto.

A few minutes was all the time needed to accumulate a heap of the big, fan-like leaves. These Charley made into three torch-like bundles, taking care to place a dead dry leaf between each two green ones. Binding each bundle together with a wisp of green leaf, he struck a match and lit up the three, passing one to the captain and Walter, and keeping one himself.

The dry leaves blazed up like tinder but the green ones only smoldered, sending forth a volume of black, thick pungent smoke.

"Keep waving them about you," he cautioned, "that's the way. Now all ready. Forward, march."

As they drew nearer to the carcase of the hear, they became aware of a curious humming sound in the air. The cause was soon apparent and the mystery that had puzzled them was solved when they reached the beast. The carcase was covered with bees while close above it hummed a swarm of others watching for an exposed place to plant their stings.

A few minutes beating about with the smoking torches cleared the scene of the vicious little insects, those not stupefied by the smoke beating a hasty retreat back to their home in the hollow log which bruin had tried to despoil.

The hunters had now a chance to view their prize without being molested. It was only a common, black Florida bear, weighing not over four hundred pounds, but fat and in the pink of condition. Its thick, glossy fur had protected its body from the bees' assault, but swollen muzzle, eyes, and ears, told of the penalty it had paid in playing robber for its favorite food,—honey.

All fell to work with their hunting-knives and speedily had the heavy skin removed.

Walter smacked his lips as he cut away a couple of huge steaks with a thick rim of fat. "Gee, those are fit for a king," he exclaimed. "I wonder where our cook is. Do you suppose he has stopped running yet?"

Charley chuckled. "It's mean," he admitted, "but I can't help but laugh when I think of how he looked kneeling there in stern resolve to be covered with glory, and the transformation when he was covered with bees."

The three laughed heartily at the recollection, but Walter's laugh ended in a hungry sigh. "I wish he was here to cook these steaks. If he comes back, don't let's tease him, fellows. He's suffered enough for one time."

"I bet he will be back by the time we get this fellow cut up and a fire going," Charley said.

But the big animal was all cut up, what was not wanted for immediate use cut into thin strips for drying, and a roaring fire going, and still no sign of the missing one.

"Well, I guess we will have to cook some of it the best we can, although I expect we'll make a sorry mess of it without Chris. I guess broiling some of it will be the easiest way."

Each cut himself a long, green palmetto stem which would not take fire readily and sharpened one end to a point upon which he impaled a generous slice of steak. With flushed faces and singed fingers they kept turning the meat over and over before the blaze. It was an unsavory mess, burnt and ash covered, which they at last pronounced done and deposited upon a clean palmetto leaf. Hungry as wolves, each cut off a generous mouthful and began to chew. They chewed and chewed looking at each other with keen disappointment on their faces.

Walter at last spat out his mouthful in disgust. "It's tough as sole leather and about as tasteless. We even forgot the salt, too."

A little figure lurking behind a tree on the edge of the clearing evidently deemed this just the proper time to make its presence known, for it stepped boldly out from behind its shelter. Its right eye was closed tight by an enormous swelling, and its nose was twice its natural size, but it strode forward with head up and dignity in its tread.

"Chris," shouted in delight the three beside the fire.

The little darky looked down on the pile of burnt and ruined meat in disgust. "I knowed you chillen's would go an' spoil de best part ob my bear. Now you-all jis get out ob de way an' dis nigger goin' to show you how to cook b'ar meat."

"But it's so tough, Chris, that we can't chew it," Walter objected.

"You chillens jes get out of de way like I tells you," said the little negro vaingloriously. "Just come back in forty minutes an' dinner will be ready. Leave dis nigger alone 'till then 'cause he's powerful cross to-day."

Charley nudged the captain and Walter and the three withdrew to a little distance, leaving Chris in possession of the field.

"Chris will fix it up all right," Charley assured them. "While he's at it, let's have a try for some of the honey the bear was into," he suggested.

His two companions gave an eager assent.



CHAPTER XI.

THE PAWPAWS.

Three more torches of palmetto leaves were quickly made, lighted up, and, with extra handfuls of the green leaves, our party advanced towards the tree where they had first seen the bear. They were met by a buzzing horde of the workers who swarmed out to defend their homes, but these were soon silenced by the pungent smoke of the torches and our hunters soon stood by the tree where bruin had met his Waterloo.

A few feet from the ground was a massive limb and a little above it was a cavity in the trunk itself, around which more bees buzzed industriously. A few waves of the smoke torches quieted these, and Charley swung himself up on the limb beside the hole. A little more smoke completed the job and with his hunting-knife he dug out great squares of the clear, dripping comb, which he passed down to his companions who had stripped off a slab of hickory bark for its reception.

"That is more than we can eat," he at last declared, slipping to the ground, "besides I've got a 'hunch' that Chris has got that bear meat ready for us and I am hungry as a wolf."

"It may be cooked all right but it will still be too tough to eat," mourned Walter.

"Don't you believe it," chuckled Charley, "those bear steaks are going to be as tender as chicken. If you will not give me away to Chris, I will show you the reason why."

The captain and Walter eagerly gave the promise of secrecy.

"See that shrub?" said the instructor, pointing to a banana-like stalk of a tree-like shrub without branches, but from which protruded large, round glossy leaves with short stems. Close to its trunk near the crown hung a close cluster of golden fruit about the size of an apple.

Walter plucked one of the ripe fruit and bit into it hungrily, but spat out the mouthful in disgust.

"You have to acquire a taste for it, the same as you have to for turtle eggs, olives, and a dozen other things that taste unpleasant at first," Charley said. "You'll find that little tree scattered all over Florida where the soil is at all rich. It is called pawpaw by the natives, who regard it highly for the sake of its one peculiar virtue. A few drops of the juice of its ripe fruit spread over a tough Florida steak will in a few minutes, make it as tender as veal. The same results can be attained by wrapping the steak in the leaves and letting it lay a slightly longer time. The best of it is that meat treated in this manner is not injured in the slightest. In fact it seems to gain in flavor from the treatment. But there is Chris waving to us. Keep quiet about the pawpaws. I want to hear his explanation."

They were too hungry to lose any time in obeying Chris' signals. The little darky had arranged a kind of tablecloth of moss on the ground and had put upon it slabs of clean cut bark for plates, while upon each rude plate reposed a thick, juicy, bear steak, done to a turn. The steak was delicious and tender as chicken and with a taste all its own.

"You're a born cook, Chris," declared Walter, as he paused to take a full breath. "What makes it so tender, now? that which we cooked was tough as leather."

"You chillens doan know how to cook like dis nigger," declared the vain little darky, proudly. "Hit's all in de cookin', Massa Walter, hit's all in de cookin'."

Charley turned over a morsel of his steak, examined it closely and sniffed it critically, while Chris watched him with anxious suspicion, and Walter with mischief dancing in his eyes.

Slowly Charley's eyes took on an absent, far-away look, his arms and legs seemed to stiffen, and a tremor ran through his limbs. Chris watched him with distending eyeballs.

"I see," Charley said, in a low, hollow voice, "I see a tree, not a big tree, but a small one. It has round, green leaves and a cluster of golden fruit near the top. What is it I see creeping toward the tree, a monkey? No, not a monkey, though it looks like one. It's a boy, a small black boy. He nears the tree. He looks around to see if anyone is watching. He shins up the tree and breaks off several of the leaves. I see him again near a big fire. He still has the leaves. He is wrapping them around pieces of meat. As he does it, I can hear him chuckling to himself. I see——"

"Oh golly, stop him, stop him! He's got de 'haunts'!" cried Chris in terror, as he grabbed Charley by the shoulder and shook him wildly.

Charley seemed to come to with a start. "Where was I, what was I saying?" he murmured.

"You was filled wid de haunts," declared Chris solemnly. "You was jes' tellin' to yourself how dis shiftless, lying nigger got dem pawpaw leaves to make dis bar meat tender."

Walter and the captain were roaring with laughter, but Chris went on solemnly with his confession. "Golly, but dis nigger's been a powerful liar lots ob times, but you doan ketch him at it any more. You sho' is got de conjerer eye, Massa Charley, else how you know dat lake wid de crane on it was full of grass like knives, else how you see bees round dat bear when you is too far off to see 'em, else how you see Chris getting dem pawpaw leaves when you is clean out ob sight. I guess dis nigger doan lie any more when you is round, Massa Charley."

"Well, if you are all through, we had better make back for camp for the sun is getting low," said Charley, hurriedly, to forestall a lecture on the wickedness of lying, which he saw by the working of the captain's features, he was preparing to deliver to the little culprit.

Their things were quickly collected together and they were soon headed back to their point. With the passing of the excitement of the day, they all began to have vague alarms as to what might have happened during their absence, and to reproach themselves for leaving the place so long unguarded.

Their reproaches were wasted, however, for they found everything as they had left it, save stuck in the bark of a pine tree near the fire, was the badly scrawled notice. "Don't forget to pull out from these diggin's afore to-morrow noon."

"They evidently mean business," said Walter, as the hunters stood together reading the dirty, ill-written paper.

"And I'm not so sure but what we would be wiser if we obeyed their warning, but I hate to run away from such a crowd," observed Charley gravely.

"I feel the same way," agreed Walter, "but it would be cowardly to go now and leave the Seminoles to their fate."

"Aye, aye, lad, truly spoken," said the captain, firmly, "stay we must."

"Golly, I jis guess dis nigger ain't none scairt of their threatenings," chimed in Chris.

"Well, we seem to be pretty well agreed," Charley said, trying in vain to shake off the vague feeling of impending evil, that had suddenly settled over him. "Speaking for myself, I feel too keyed up and anxious to do anything much until we get this thing over with. I move we get all our gear into shape and try to plan some way to get the plume birds hereafter without killing. That will take us until dark, I guess. Then let's quietly take our blankets and move back into the forest a ways. Our neighbors may take a notion to pay us a visit without waiting for to-morrow."

The others readily agreed to this proposal and were soon busy trying to scheme out some means to take their feathered prey alive.

It was Chris who at last solved the problem.

"You know dat stuff we used puttin' dem boats together?" he demanded.

"A quick drying glue," exclaimed Charley, catching the idea at once.

"Golly, I should say hit was," grinned Chris, "hit dun stick my fingers together so tight that it peared like I'd never get 'em apart. Now doan you reckon by spreading hit thick-like on dem limbs whar dem birds roosts dat hit would hold 'em down till we-alls got ready to pry 'em off?"

"The lad's got the right idea, I reckon," allowed the captain. "We could fix the limbs up just before dusk and needn't bother about 'em any more until it was broad daylight."

The boys were unstinted in their praise of Chris' suggestion until the little darky forgot the humiliation of the day and was once more his bright, vain, cheery self.

As night shut down on the point, more wood was heaped upon the fire, a hasty lunch was made from the remains of dinner, and, taking their guns and blankets with them, our hunters stole off into the depths of the wood. They soon reached a little open spot that they had noted during the day. Their blankets were spread out upon the moss-covered ground close together so as to be encircled with the hair rope which Charley had brought to protect them from snakes while sleeping.

Before they wrapped themselves in their blankets, the captain offered up a fervent, simple prayer of thanks for past protection and a plea for blessings on the work before them on the morrow.

"How much of that glue stuff is there, Chris?" whispered Walter as they stretched out to rest.

"'Bout two quarts, I reckon."

"Pshaw, that will not last us any time," said Walter in disappointment. "It will be all gone in a week."

It was well for the lad's peace of mind that he could not look forward into the future and see how little of Chris's discovery was destined to be used.



CHAPTER XII.

CHARLEY'S MISTAKE.

All were awake early next morning, in fact, the captain and Charley had slept but little during the night. They were worried and anxious as to what the coming day would bring forth. As he lay awake during the long silent hours, Charley felt his burden of responsibility grow heavy indeed and doubts began to assail him as to the wisdom of the course he was pursuing. After all, there was yet time to retreat. He had only to say the word and his companions would willingly follow. His plans in remaining were built largely on guesswork and theory. If they worked out as he had reasoned, the Indians would be warned. With their aid the convicts could be surrounded, captured, and sent back to a coast town under guard. Some blood would likely be shed but not as much as if they were left free to run at large. But if his reasoning were wrong, if his plan for some unforeseen reason, failed,—the boy shuddered as he thought of himself and three companions pitted against twelve desperate ruffians, far away from any help or assistance. Deep down in his active brain some awakened cell was trying to send a message of warning, but it would not rise to his consciousness, he could not quite grasp it or its meaning. Thus tortured and worried, our young leader passed a weary night, and was relieved when dawn began to break and his companions to awaken.

As soon as it was light enough, they made their way back cautiously to the camp, where they found everything as they had left it. Evidently they had had no visitors during the night.

"Well, it was just as well to be on the safe side," Charley announced, "anything is liable to happen now. I guess while you make some coffee, Chris, I will stand guard at our wall. Walt, you make up two packages of provisions, say enough to do for a couple of days and put one in each of the canoes. Captain, if you will, please look over the outfits and pick out what we will be able to carry and what would be most useful to us if we should have to take to the canoes in a hurry. Don't be alarmed," he said cheerily, noting the grave look on the others' faces. "Things are going to go all right, but a good general always looks to it that he has a way of retreat ready. Now, as soon as Chris has coffee ready, we will have one last talk together about this thing." Shouldering his rifle, he made his way to the breastwork of fallen trees, where he paced back and forth until Chris came to relieve him for breakfast.

During the meal, Charley went over the whole puzzle again, explaining freely his doubts and fears, and the possibility of his whole chain of reasoning being wrong. "Now you know all I know about it," he concluded. "There is yet time to escape. If you say the word, we'll start in half an hour."

The captain shook his head gravely. "Your reasoning seems clear as print to me, lad. You have just brooded over it so long that it's natural you should begin to have doubts and fears. To me it's as sound as when you first gave it. That being so, we can't run an' leave them poor ignorant savages to be shot down maybe like snipe. It wouldn't be Christian like to go when that chance remains."

"Those are my sentiments exactly," said Walter eagerly.

"Good," Charley sighed in relief, "this shifts at least part of the responsibility from my shoulders. Now for our plans. Walter, I am going to put you to watch at Lookout Point to-day. If you see the Indians, signal them in and tell them of the whole plot against them,—there's sure to be one or more of them who understands English. As soon as you make them understand, lead them back through the woods till you get to the neck of the convicts' point, then post them behind trees and stumps so the convicts cannot get by them. Then fire two shots close together and we will be with you in ten minutes, and our birds will be caged. Have Chris fix you up a lunch, for the Indians are not likely to pass the point until afternoon." His voice sank from the crisp tone of command to a softer note, and his hand for a moment rested affectionately on his chum's shoulder as he continued. "I hate to send you out there alone, old chap, but I have got to stay here. The convicts may try to drive us out of this place this morning. No matter how much shooting you may hear, don't desert your post."

"But, if for some reason you want me, how am I to know?"

Charley reflected for a moment. "I have a couple of rockets in my saddle-bags," he said; "if I send up one, you may know it's a signal to come back. Now be sure to keep your eyes out for trouble as you near the point. No one can tell, now, what the situation may be."

The two chums silently clasped hands in a hearty, farewell grip, and Walter, picking up his rifle and some of the remnants from breakfast, vaulted the tree breastwork and with a cheery nod and wave of his hand to those left behind, quickly vanished in the forest.

Charley stood for a moment gazing after him with something like a mist in his honest brown eyes. "Dear old fellow," he murmured, "God grant that all will turn out well and that we may be safe together again before night falls."

The captain's voice brought him back from his musing. "Well, Charley," he sung out cheerily, "I've got together the things we can't well spare and distributed them between the canoes. I reckoned that was where you wanted 'em. What's the next orders, General?"

"Nothing, but to get our guns and all the spare ones, and take stands along the wall. Those fellows may try to drive us off this morning."

The captain grinned with satisfaction as he took his place behind the barricade.

"I reckon they'll have to be pretty smart to get on this point," he commented. "There's a tidy stretch of right open ground to be crossed before they reach here."

"I picked it out just for that reason," Charley admitted. "We can stand them off here during the day, but at night we cannot stop them, I fear."

"Aye, aye," nodded the captain thoughtfully, "that's the reason for fixing up the canoes."

Charley nodded in turn. "I hope we won't have to take to them," he said. "It would come hard to lose our ponies, our packs, and all that helps to make our camp life comfortable."

"We won't lose 'em," declared the captain, cheerfully. "This time to-morrow night we'll be safe and hearty sitting around the fire figuring up our share of the rewards they must be offering by this time for those pretty jail-birds."

This ended the conversation, for each took his position behind the tree barricade with all senses alert for any indications of an attack.

For long Charley kept shifting his gaze from the woods before him to the tall sapling on Lookout Point. At last a smudge of red showed near the sapling's top for a minute, then disappeared, and he gave a shout of relief. "Walter's there all right," he called to his companions, "I saw his signal."

The morning wore slowly away without a sign of their enemies.

"What have you figured out is the reason they ain't troubling us, Charley?" the captain called when the noon hour was at last reached.

"I have been studying over it for a long time, sir," the lad answered, "and have come to the conclusion that they have decided to postpone finishing us up until they have disposed of the Indians. I guess they are afraid that the noise of firearms would put the Seminoles on their guard if they happen to be within hearing. Anyway, I guess, we can spare Chris long enough to get us a lunch."

Chris lost no time in getting together a hasty dinner, which was as quickly disposed of by the sentinels.

From now on Charley kept his eyes anxiously on the distant point and sapling, hoping, longing, and expecting to catch a glimpse of the fluttering square of red which would wave the welcome news that Walter had sighted the Indian fleet.

One o'clock passed, two o'clock, three, and still no signal.

"Take it calm, lad, they'll be along soon," the captain said soothingly, to Charley, who was nervously pacing back and forth, his face drawn and anxious.

"For de Lawd sake, look over there by dem convicts' point. Oh, golly, oh golly!" cried Chris, suddenly.

Charley gave one glance and buried his face in his hands to shut out the coming horror. "Fool, fool that I was," he moaned. "Not to know that it would be the home-bound Indians loaded with plumes they would be laying for, not the empty handed ones coming out of the glades."

The captain was by his side in a second. "Don't take it hard, lad," he said, gently. "You done your best. We all stumbled into the same mistake. Look away for a minute, lad. It will soon be over, I dare say."

But Charley, though torn with regrets, took his hands from his face and gazed steadily at the tragedy nearing its climax.

Winding past the convicts' point in single file, came a long line of some thirty canoes, uncouth, shapeless things, each hewed out of a great cypress log. In the end of each an Indian stood erect plying a long pole which sent their clumsy looking crafts forward at surprising speed. Magnificent savages they were, not one less than six feet tall, framed like athletes, and lithe and supple as panthers.

One man in each boat was the rule, but in the leading canoe a young Indian lad was also squatted, in the bow.

With breathless suspense our hunters stood helpless to warn or help as the long line glided on to its fate.

Ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen stole past the point. Then the horror of horrors happened.



CHAPTER XIII.

THE BATTLE.

From the point burst out a sudden cloud of flame and smoke. Six of the canoes in the lead and six in the rear of the long procession came to a sudden halt. Of their occupants, some crumpled up where they had stood like bits of flame-swept paper. Others pitched forward in the bottom of their crafts, while still others stood for a minute swaying from left to right like drunken men, to finally crash over the sides like fallen trees, taking their cranky crafts over with them in their plunge of death.

Only for a second was there confusion amongst the remaining canoes. Before the volley could be repeated, they had drawn closer together. Each Indian had dropped his pole, and seizing his rifle crouched low in the bottom of his craft, his keen eyes searching the point.

"They're heroes, that's what they are," cried Charley, his eyes flashing and cheeks aflame, "they are as good as dead if they stay, and yet they will not flee."

"Suicide, I call it," said the captain harshly, to conceal his emotion of horror and admiration. "But there's one there who is going to save his skin. See that young lad who was in the first canoe. He is poling away now that his companion has fallen."

"But not willingly," said Charley, who had been watching the little by-play, "did you see him pick up his gun? He wanted to fight, but the rest shouted and made signs to him till he put it down. I've got it," he exclaimed, "it was the chief in that canoe. They are trying to cover his retreat, poor fellows. They are what I call men."

There had been no cessation in the fighting while the captain and Charley were talking; flame and smoke continued to burst out from the point in almost a continuous stream, while those in the canoes were not inactive. Where an arm or leg showed to their hawk-like eyes, their rifles cracked sharply, to be generally rewarded with a howl of pain from some cutthroat who had been winged. But there could be but one end to such a battle. The convicts were well protected behind big trees, while the flimsy sides of their canoes afforded the brave little band of Seminoles almost no protection. Still they fought stubbornly on, answering shot with shot until the point and canoes were shrouded in a fog of smoke.

"They see the young Indian, they see him," cried Charley in an agony of suspense. "Look, look, they are all shooting at him."

The young Indian had passed out of the smoke pall, but his flight had not been undetected; some of the convicts, with an eye out for just such escapes, had drawn back to higher ground where they could see above the smoke which hung close to the water. These at once gave the alarm, and a shower of bullets began to rain around the dugout.

The Indian lad stood stoically at his poling, not even glancing back, and paying no more attention to the hail of bullets than if they were so many flies. The little Seminole seemed to bear a charmed life, bullets struck the pole he was handling, and again and again they sent out splinters flying from the sides of the dugout itself, but still he shoved steadily ahead.

"By the ghost of the Flying Dutchman," shouted the captain, "he is going to get away from them. Two hundred feet more and their bullets won't hurt if they hit."

"He's hit," cried Charley, a second later; "watch him."

The Indian lad had given a sudden, involuntary start and one hand went to his head, he sank to his knees, struggled to rise, then slowly and gently slipped down; a huddled heap in the bottom of his canoe, while an exultant yell rose from the convicts' camp.

Charley's face was white and haggard, but his voice was steady and cool as he turned to the captain. "Please go to my saddle-bags. You'll find two rockets there. Set them both off; that will bring Walter, and we will have need of him soon. I am going after that Indian and bring him in dead or alive. You and Chris had better mount guard again at the wall; those cut-throats will be here soon."

One look at Charley's face convinced the captain that remonstrances were useless, so, with a hearty squeeze of the lad's hand, he turned away to his duties.

Charley unmoored one of the canvas canoes and, taking his place in the stern, with a mighty shove of the paddle drove it far out into the stream.

"Massa Charley, my own Massa Charley, going to be killed," wailed Chris, giving way to his fears and grief with the emotionalism of his race.

The captain shook him vigorously. "Shut up," he said, roughly, partly to hide his own feelings, "Charley's comin' back without a scratch. The good Lord, I reckon, don't make lads as true and white as he to be killed off by a pack of jail vermin. Come to the wall as he told us to. Maybe we'll get a shot at those murderers before the day is done. Come along an' stop that blubberin'," and he grabbed the soft-hearted little darky by the arm and dragged him to the post.

The convicts were quick to see and interpret Charley's action, and their guns were quickly turned upon his frail craft. As he drew nearer the drifting dugout and came within range, a perfect hail of bullets splashed the water into foam around him. He did not falter or hesitate, but with long clean strokes of the paddle, sent his light little craft flying towards his goal. Perhaps it was this very speed that saved his life. Bullet after bullet pierced the thin canvas sides and one struck a corner of his paddle, tingling his arm and side like an electric shock. A few minutes of this furious paddling brought him to the bow of the dugout. Seizing its rawhide painter, he fastened the end to a seat in his own boat. Then taking the paddle again, he headed back to the point. The leaden hail fell as thickly as ever, but by crouching low he was shielded somewhat by the high sides of his tow. His return progress was now slow, but gradually he worked the two crafts out of the range of the convicts.

Walter had lost no time in getting back to camp at the call of the rockets, and was waiting at the water's edge to receive his chum.

"Haul both boats in and make them fast," Charley ordered as he wearily paddled in.

Walter waded out knee deep, and seizing the bow of each boat as it came in reach, drew it up on the shore, and taking the painter, quickly made them fast to a nearby pine.

"We have got some heavy, quick work ahead of us," Charley said quickly enough to forestall the volley of eager questions on the tip of his excited chum's tongue. "Every minute counts now. I dare not call either Chris or the captain away from their posts. Help me into the lean-to with these poor fellows, then get your gun and join the captain. Those murderers may be over here any minute now. They are bound for their own safety to let no witness of their horrible crime escape."

As he rose from his cramped crouching position, Charley got his first glance of the interior of the dugout and his face grew dark with anger towards those who had brought this thing to pass.

Prone on his face in the bottom lay a magnificent specimen of savage manhood. His height, when standing, could not have been less than six feet three. His shoulders were broad and clothed with great, powerful muscles. His body sloped away gracefully to a slim waist and straight, muscular limbs—the ideal body, striven for by all athletes. His dress was that usual to Seminoles on a hunt—a long calico shirt belted in at the waist, limbs bare, moccasins of soft tanned deer-skin, and a head-dress made of many tightly-wound crimson handkerchiefs bound together by a broad, thin band of polished silver. In the turban, now dyed a richer hue from the blood flowing from the warrior's shoulder, was stuck a large eagle feather, the insignia of a chief. At his feet, where he had crumpled down under the enemy's bullets, lay the Indian lad in a huddled heap. It did not need the tiny eagle feather in the diminutive turban to convince Charley's observant eye that it was a case of father and son, a chief and son of a chief.

All that we have taken so long to describe, Charley had taken in at one swift glance.

"Both are still living," he declared. "Run to the lean-to, Walt, and get a blanket. We will have to drag that big one up to the camp. It will be pretty rough, but it's our only way. We cannot carry him."

In a minute Walter was back with a thick, strong horse-blanket, which he spread out on the turf close to the water.

It took every ounce of strength the two lads possessed to lift the heavy body from the dugout to the blanket, then each taking a forward end of the blanket, they drew it gently after them sled-wise up to the lean-to, avoiding rough places as much as possible. There, they had to exert themselves to the limit of their strength to lift their burden from the blanket to one of the couches.

Their second trip was easier. The Indian lad, though showing promise of great future strength, was still only a stripling, and they bore his limp body in their arms without difficulty.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE VICTIMS.

"Hurry back to the captain, Walt," urged his chum as soon as the Indian boy was laid on another conch. "He may need you any minute. Those demons will be here as soon as they finish off the Seminoles. Thank the Lord, the firing is still going on. I will do what I can for these poor chaps and be with you as soon as possible." His eye flashed and his face darkened as he added, "Tell the captain everyone must shoot at anything that shows itself—and shoot to kill."

As soon as his chum had gone, Charley turned his attention to the Seminole chief. From the clotted mass of blood, he guessed the location of the main wound, and with his hunting-knife he rapidly cut away the shirt, exposing the warrior's chest and back. As he drew back the blood-soaked cloth, he gave a sigh of relief. The bullet had passed clear through the body close to the lungs,—a serious wound, but one which perhaps with proper care need not prove fatal. The amateur surgeon had no antiseptic except common salt, but with that and water he quickly cleansed and sterilized the wounds and tearing up one of his own clean shirts, he first scraped a strip with an old case knife until he had a quantity of soft lint with which he stopped both the ugly holes made by the bullet, and then with other strips of the same, he neatly bandaged the wounds. Next he drew on one of the captain's shirts in the place of the one he had cut away. Lastly, he broke open a pack and took out a quart bottle of brandy. Pouring out a large drink he let it trickle slowly down between the Indian's set teeth.

The effect was noticeable at once. Slowly the warm blood flowed back into the dusky cheeks, the limbs began to twitch, the breathing grew audible, and the wounded man began to show signs of returning consciousness.

Before turning to his other patient, whom he reckoned as good as dead, Charley stepped outside the wigwam and cast a quick look around. A smile of satisfaction parted his lips as he noted the distant figures of his companions behind the tree barricade, each at his post, gun in hand, nervously alert. From them, his glance went on to the point, where the battle was still going on. To even an unobserving person, it was clear that the firing from the canoes was slackening rapidly, and with a sigh of regret and anxiety, the lad turned back into the lean-to.

When he bent over the Indian lad, he uttered an exclamation of joy; from the matted hair and abundance of blood he had believed him shot through the head. A closer examination showed, however, that the bullet had only ploughed a neat little furrow down to the skull. Charley washed the wound clean, forced some of the brandy down the boy's throat, and dashed a cup of cold water in his face. The effect was startling. In a few minutes the little Indian was sitting up, swaying drunkenly and in a half dazed way staring about the little shelter.

"You arc coming around all right, old chap," said Charley, cheerily.

His voice and face brought back to the Indian lad with a rush the memory of the recent ordeal he had been through. He gave one glance at the unconscious form on the other couch and his hand darted to the hunting-knife at his hip as he staggered, dizzily, to his feet.

"Stop, you are among friends," cried Charley, holding up both empty hands palm upward as a token of peace. "You were grazed on the head by a rifle bullet and it knocked you out for a few minutes, so I went out in my canoe and towed you in. Your father is hurt pretty bad, but I have fixed him up good as I can and I think he will pull through with care."

The little Indian lad's keen, beady eyes searched the white lad's open, smiling face, his hand dropped from his knife, and he sunk back weakly on the couch.

"My father over there, heap big chief," he declared proudly, in guttural English. "Name Big Tiger. Me, they call Little Tiger." A shade of suspicion crept over his face. "You white you say you friend. More whites hid behind trees and shoot and kill many of Big Tiger's braves," he said with an ironical smile.

Charley saw that now, if ever, was the time to clear his little party from the natural suspicion of the Seminole. He sat down on the couch opposite and his honest blue eyes met the other's keen, black ones unwaveringly. "The Seminoles, once a mighty people, have grown as few in number as the deer in the forest," he began, falling naturally into the speech of the Indians. "Yet, few though they became, there walked among them, at least, one of their race whose heart and mind was like the night when the moon shines not and clouds have hid the stars. One day this evil one rose up and slew a harmless white settler. The wise men of the tribe took counsel together, saying, 'times are changing, we will turn him over to the law of the white men.' The ears of the Little Tiger may have heard whispered the name of the white settler's slayer."

The Indian's eyes were gleaming with scorn and hatred. "Injun Charley," he hissed.

"The white men judged the slayer of the settler according to their laws. They sent him to ha shackled with chain and iron ball and do heavy, squaw-work in misery the balance of his years. They did not say because this Indian was bad that all Seminoles were slayers of white men."

The young Indian started up and began to speak, but Charley silenced him with a gesture and gravely continued.

"No, these judges were not fools to believe that a whole people should be judged by the crimes of one, or a few of its race. Among the paleface race were brother, squaw, and father murderers, in great numbers, not because the white race is worse than the red, but because they exceed the red men in number as the leaves exceed the trunks of the tree."

"With the bad Indian, serving out a lifetime of work and exile, were eleven white men just as bad. When those that watched them had their eyes turned away, the twelve plotted. One night they rose up and murdered the guards, took their guns and ponies, and, under the lead of the bad Indian, came as the crow flies for here, where were camped myself and three companions, seeking only the bird that bears plumes upon its back. The balance you know," he concluded, gravely. "As brother to brother, should the Seminoles be judged by the slayer of whites, or the white hunters by lawless murderers whose color is the same as theirs?"

During Charley's short argument, the suspicion had fled from the young chieftain's face. At the conclusion, he drew himself up proudly erect and extending his hand spoke the one English word he knew that stood with him for friendship and confidence,—"How."

"How," said Charley cheerfully, giving the offered hand a hearty shake. "Now let's get outside and take a look. As soon as they have finished with your followers, I expect the bad men to come down upon us."

Short as had been the time they had spent in the lean-to, a great change had taken place at the scene of the battle. The firing had ceased from all the canoes but one, and even as they looked, a rifle cracked, the canoe's occupant half rose, then crashed down over its side, and the last Seminole rifle was silenced.

The pall of smoke had drifted away from the point, revealing a terrible sight, twenty-nine canoes or dugouts drifted on the quiet water at the mercy of wind or current, some floated bottom upward, others' sides were punctured and splintered with innumerable bullets. Here and there was one splotched and spotted with the crimson life-blood of its heroic defender. Not a sign of life was visible amongst the little squadron. As Charley looked, one of the convicts ventured out from his place of concealment and with a long branch, drew the nearest canoe in to shore. With a coil of rope in one hand, he jumped in and shoved out amongst the drifting craft. His errand was easy to be guessed, to make fast to the drifting canoes and tow them all in to shore.

At the sight of the wiping out of the last of his comrades, the young Indian had sunk to a seat on a log and buried his face in his hands. Now, Charley tapped him gently on the shoulder. "It is not a time for the son of a chief to be grieving like a squaw," he said, "his followers are gone, but they died like brave men. Paleface history tells of no braver stand than they made to-day. It's not meet for the son of a chief to sit repining. His thought should be of punishment for the doers of the evil."

The young Indian sprang to his feet, his eyes gleaming fiercely. "How?" he demanded. "They have slain the pack. Will they not soon come for the leaders? Has the young white chieftain magic to work against their many guns and canoes?"

"When the blood runs hot is not the time to reason coolly," said Charley, calmly. "I go now to help my comrades. Go you into the wigwam and watch by your father; when he awakens tell him all. As soon as we may, we will all meet here in council, and the counsel of a chief will shed a light in the dark around us."

Without a word the young Seminole whirled on his heels and disappeared in the lean-to, while Charley hurried in to the barricade, where his presence was now sorely needed.



CHAPTER XV.

A FLAG OF TRUCE.

From the woods beyond the barricade the convicts were pouring in a rapid fire upon its defenders. Luckily the little band of hunters were so placed that the shower of bullets pinged harmlessly against the thick logs. Whenever a convict showed an arm or leg one of the defenders' rifles cracked and a howl of pain from the forest sometimes followed the report.

Charley crept to where Walter was crouching, his face flushed and eyes shining as he peered eagerly through a crack between the logs watching for a chance to shoot. "Gee, this is great sport," he exclaimed as he caught sight of his chum. "They are afraid to cross that open space and are hiding amongst the trees just wasting powder and lead on these logs."

Charley looked up thoughtfully at the sun, which was now less than two hours high. "You saw the killing of those innocent Indians," he said gravely. "It was terrible."

"It was grand the way they stayed to the last man and died that their chief might escape," declared Walter with boyish enthusiasm.

"Grand but terrible," his chum agreed. "But we must look out for ourselves, now. They are not going to let us get back to town, now, with our tale of their crime and whereabouts. We can keep them off from this barricade until night, but what then? They have boats now, and can attack by land and water at the same time. We are too few in numbers to defend both ends of the point."

"What can we do, then?" demanded the other.

Charley smiled grimly. "I am not going to trust my own judgment alone this time, after the terrible mistake I've made. We must scare those fellows off for a bit and then hold a council to decide on the wisest course. Thank goodness we have cartridges to burn. Fill your magazine full, and when you see me raise my hand pour all sixteen shots into the wood. I'll have the captain do the same at the same time. Chris and I will fire while you two are reloading. If we keep that up for a few minutes, I think we will drive them off long enough to talk over the situation."

Walter nodded comprehension and began stuffing shells into the magazine of his Winchester.

From him, Charley passed on to the captain and Chris, to whom he gave the same explanations and instructions. As he took his own place behind the barricade, the young Indian crawled quietly up beside him.

"Why did you not stay with your father?" said Charley, impatiently. The little Indian drew himself up proudly and recklessly to his full height, inviting a storm of bullets, all of which happily missed their mark. Before the volley could be repeated, Charley pulled him down on the turf beside him out of danger.

"The chief has awakened from his sleep," said the young Seminole with dignity. "Of the things you had told me and I had seen, I told him all and he believed. Then he bade me come forth, saying, 'Where the bullets sing is the place for the son of a chief.'"

"Then keep close to me and shoot when I do," Charley ordered. He raised his right hand in the air and the captain's and Chris' rifles sent thirty-two bullets zipping and singing in amongst the trees. Before the convicts recovered from their surprise, forty-eight more leaden messengers whined through the air above them. The effect was magical, the convicts ceased their fire, and puzzled and alarmed by the sudden leaden hail, sought shelter behind the largest trees they could find.

For ten minutes the hunters poured volley after volley of lead into the forest. Suddenly a white rag tied to a stick was thrust out from behind a tree.

Instantly Charley gave the signal to stop firing. As it ceased, a man stepped out into the open, bearing the flag of truce in his hand.

Charley laid down his smoking rifle and leaped lightly over the barricade.

"Don't go to meet him, Charley," Walter implored, "anyone of those murderers are likely to take a pot shot at you. Do come back."

"Better listen to the lad, Charley," said the captain, earnestly. "You can't count on that gang respecting a truce flag. Don't go, my boy."

But Charley only smiled determinedly. "I want to hear what he has to say, and I don't want him to see the weak points in our barricade," he said, "besides, the other day, I was noticing that fellow coming. Criminal he may be, but he is far too good for the company he's in. I've got a feeling that he would not stand to be a decoy. Here goes, anyway. Don't worry."

Midway of the open space the two met. The convict was a young man, with a dark, handsome face and bold, reckless eyes. He greeted the young hunter as coolly as though they were meeting for a pleasant social chat.

"I came because the rest were afraid," he explained, cheerfully, eyeing the other from head to foot with cool assurance. "They are so crooked and treacherous themselves that they think that your companions will do as they would do,—not hesitate to fire on the bearer of a white flag."

"They have a good chance at me now," said Charley with a smile.

The stranger grinned as he skilfully rolled a cigarette with one hand. "I gave them to understand before I left that they would have to reckon with me if they tried any such trick," he remarked, cheerfully. "I guess that will keep the brutes quiet for a while. But let's get down to business. I have," he said ironically, "the distinguished honor to be their messenger, but first let me say that, although with that gang of beasts, I am not of them. I've killed my man, but it was in fair fight, and not by a knife in the back. I have no kick coming over what the law dealt out to me. Furthermore, if I had known the animals, I would have to travel with, I would not have let my longing for freedom draw me away from the turpentine camp. Lord knows, I wish I was back there now." His voice, which had grown earnest, dropped again into a sarcastic note. "But I am wandering, as I said before, my noble, gallant friends have made me their messenger and agent. It will help you to understand their demands if I state that the afternoon's work has been far from satisfactory. So many of the canoes were overturned that the plumes secured will not amount to more than seven hundred dollars where my friends expected to reap as many thousand as the fruit of their labor."

"Come to the point," said Charley, impatiently, his eyes shifting anxiously to the declining sun.

The other's tone grew still more bitterly sarcastic. "We have been bitterly disappointed," he declared. "My brave, valiant companions have suffered sorely in body and spirit. You saw them engage a mighty fleet of a race whose color was an offense in their eyes. It was also rumored that the fleet contained many thousands of dollars in bird plumes which it was clearly wrong to leave in the possession of those who would not know how to spend the money intelligently.

"It is true my dear companions kept in the shelter of the largest trees, but the incautious ones,—there was an arm barked here and a leg scratched there, and pain stalked abroad in our midst. Then, when the battle was over, judge of the bitterness of mind of my noble comrades when they searched the canoes not overturned and found less than seven hundred dollars' worth of plumes, barely enough for one good right's drunk and carouse in town."

Charley was interested in spite of himself in this gay, humorous young outlaw, who was so evidently superior to his brutal companions, and he would have liked to let him come to the point in his own amusing way, but the sun was getting low, and he feared to waste more time. "Cut out your nonsense and come to the point," he said curtly. "What do you want with us?"

The other dropped his mocking tone. "We want that chief and his boy, whom you are harboring in your camp. According to our Indian companion, they own, or know of the hiding-place of, a fortune in plumes. If the plumes are not to be easily reached, we can still hold the chief and boy for a big ransom. His people will raise it quick enough, for he is a big man among them." He hesitated and then went on. "The gang said for me to tell you, if the chief and boy were given up, your party would not be troubled further."

Charley smiled incredulously. "And what do you say?" he demanded.

"That whether you give them up or not, you are all as good as dead," exclaimed the other in a burst of frankness. "Good Lord, boy, do you dream that they figure on letting any eyewitness escape to a town and set the officers of law on their trail? You can hold them off here until night, but when darkness comes you'll be wiped out like the blowing out of a candle."

Charley laid his hand on the other's arm. "You are too good for that gang, better come over to our side," he said, earnestly.

The young outlaw hesitated for the fraction of a second, then shook off the hand roughly. "No matter how bad they are, they are my comrades, and I am no traitor," he said curtly. "Your answer, please."

"Tell them we will not give up the chief or boy," said the young envoy earnestly. "Tell them that they have not got us yet by a long shot. Tell them that the one object we are going to work for from now on, is to get them back into the hands of the law."

The young outlaw gave him a look of admiration. "You've got the nerve, all right," he said. "Well, so long, till we meet again," and whirling around he sauntered slowly off in the direction of the forest, merrily whistling as he went.

Charley for a moment looked after him regretfully, then turning, he quickly rejoined his companions behind the barricade.



CHAPTER XVI.

THE RETREAT.

A few words gave his companions the substance of the conversation. "Now," he continued, "I wish we could all get together in the camp for a few minutes to talk this thing over, and decide on our next move, but it's too risky to leave the wall unguarded, although I don't believe they will try another assault before dark."

The young Seminole spoke up, "when the Big Tiger speaks, the whelp is silent, I will stay."

"Golly, I reckon dis nigger ain't no good at planning, spec I better stay here, too," observed Chris.

A parting volley was fired into the forest, and under cover of the smoke the rest retired quickly to the lean-to.

The wounded man was lying awake on his couch, his keen, black eyes burning with an unnatural light.

Although he must have been suffering intense pain from his wound, his features were calm and composed. He tried to rise as the hunters entered, but could not raise himself even on his elbow.

"Don't try to move," exclaimed Charley, hurrying to his side.

"How," said the sufferer, in greeting, extending a hand surprisingly small and well-formed for a man of his size.

Charley gave it a hearty shake and his companions crowding around, gravely followed his example.

The wounded man lay silent for a moment surveying the little party with shrewd, appraising eyes. A friendly gleam shone in his beady orbs as they lingered for a second on the captain's kindly, weather-beaten face. He looked a trifle longer at Walter's eager, open countenance, but his glance came back to rest on Charley's face, and to him his words were addressed.

"He, whom his people call the Big Tiger, was made as weak as a tiny papoose by the bullet of a jackal," he began in broken English. "The Little tiger has told me all; how the jackals would have taken their prey but for your coming in the canoe of cloth and bringing the helpless ones here. The jackals' bullet has sped true, and the Big Tiger will lead his followers no more in the hunt, but the son of a chief will remain and his life will be at the young white chieftain's command."

The stricken man burst into a fit of coughing, and Charley noted with pity that flecks of scarlet stained the sufferer's lips. "Shot through the lungs," he decided, but he allowed no trace of pity to show on his face.

"A chief of the Seminoles must be wise with the wisdom of the owl in council," he said, as soon as the fit of coughing had left its victim. "Payment from father or son we desire not, only the counsel of wisdom now. We are but braves in the hunt or fight, and great danger threatens, now, but the ripe wisdom of a great chief may be able to point out a path to safety."

Clearly and in few words, he described their present desperate position and the demands and threats of the outlaws.

The Indian listened in impassive silence and for some time after Charley finished, remained buried in profound meditation.

"The young white chief carries an old head on young shoulders," at last he said approvingly. "He speaks truly when he says that the air is thick with danger. When the blackness of night comes, then will come, also, those who make war from behind the trees of the forest. In the darkness, how is the young white and his friends to tell enemies from friends? The jackals will wriggle through and over the wall of trees like snakes through tall grass. After what they have seen, can my white friends expect mercy at hands already stained red?"

Charley shook his head. "Thou speakest my thoughts, but are we to be murdered in the dark by creatures such as those?"

"The mind of the young is ever quick and hasty in its flights," reproved the wounded chief, gravely. "What use for the medicine man to point out the sickness, unless he has the proper barks and plants?"

"Well," said Charley, "let the wisdom of one grown wise in councils tell us of the cure for this disease."

The wounded savage was again seized with a fit of coughing, and it was some moments before he could reply. "Between the glades and here—a swift half day's journey—a small island lies in the middle of the river. There, four men could stand off an army. If I commanded the paleface friends as I do my tribe, I would say, bury all things too heavy to carry away in the canoes of cloth, while it is yet light, turn the ponies loose that they may not starve. Put all else in the cloth boats. Let some keep up a noise and fire from the wall of trees to convince the white men without hearts that you are going to stay and fight. With the first darkness of night let all take to the boats. I with the Little Tiger will lead the way, then may come him you call captain with the little one whose face is like the night, lastly, may come you and the one with the eager face (Walter). Without noise must we go, and keep close to each other, for the river has many arms stretched out for the unwary stranger. At the island of which I spoke, you may camp in safety while we go on alone. I stop at my wigwam to die, alone, in peace and quietness with the great spirit, as becomes a chief of a long line of chiefs, but he, who will soon he chief, will travel quickly on gathering together my people. With them he will return, and of the twelve who murder from behind trees not one shall return to boast of his deeds. When the buzzards are feeding off their bones, then, may you return and secure that which you have buried, the ponies, and all of that which is yours. That is the counsel of one of a race of chiefs. What is the answer of the young white chief?"

"I must consult with those who share my dangers, Chief," said Charley gravely. "We talk not like squaws, and in five minutes you shall have our answer."

The Seminole rolled over on his side exhausted from his long speech and frequent coughing spells, while Charley beckoned the captain and Walter out of earshot.

"You have heard it all, now I want your opinion," he said simply. "After this last terrible mistake of mine, it will be long before I trust to my judgment again."

"We all fell into the same error, lad," said the captain, kindly. "The blame, if any, belongs to us all. Forget it, Charley, and don't let it weaken your self-confidence. Now what do you think of the plan of our red-skinned friend?"

"I believe it's our only chance for life," he answered regretfully, "those cut-throats have got us foul. It's run away or be killed."

"Then I'm for running. But, think you, he can be trusted to pilot us aright?"

"He will not pilot us far, I fear," said Charley, sadly. "I doubt if he will reach his wigwam. That bullet touched a lung all right. If he dies on the way we must look to the son; he is of the same spirit as the father, or I am no judge of character."

"They both speak English wonderfully well," said Walter musingly.

"So do most of the Seminoles," explained Charley. "They come in to the outlying towns at rare intervals to exchange their venison and skins for ammunition and cloth, and it's wonderful how quickly they pick up the language. But I am rambling. The question before us is, shall we abandon all our things and run away with a fair chance of escaping with whole skins, or stay and fight it out with the certainty of being killed, sooner or later?"

"Run," said the captain decisively, "and trust to luck and the chief to recover our things."

"Retreat," voted Walter regretfully.

Without another word, Charley turned back to the bedside of the suffering savage, whose pain-tortured eyes had never strayed from their faces during the conference.

"Chief, we have decided that your plan is the only one to follow," Charley said, simply.

Exultation showed for a second on the Indian's, set features. "Good," he exclaimed, "listen, young white chief. Do not mourn the loss of ponies and things such as you must leave behind. To-day you risked your life to save a stranger Indian and his boy. Great shall be your reward when this trouble is over. That with which to trade for many ponies shall be yours."

In his excitement the wounded man had partly raised himself on his elbow, but the exertion was too much; there was a rush of blood from his lips and he sank back on his couch in a dead faint. In a second Charley was by his side forcing down more brandy between the clenched teeth. The powerful stimulant acted quickly. In a moment the sufferer again opened his eyes to consciousness. Charley beckoned to his chum. "Go relieve his boy," he whispered, "and send him here. I want him to get his instructions from his father before there comes another attack. The captain and I will fix for our departure."

"Good," exclaimed the chief, whose keen ears had caught the low-whispered conversation, "we won't die yet, though. Die in our own wigwam when Great Spirit tolls the bell of mystery."

Walter was off like a shot, and the young Seminole soon stood by his father's couch. While the two indulged in earnest conversation in their own tongue, the captain and Charley worked hastily, for the sun was already setting. What things they dared risk carrying were hustled into the frail canoes. One of the couches was conveyed to the dugout and spread out in the bottom and two of the thickest blankets spread on top of the leaves. The ponies were cast loose to shift for themselves. Their remaining stuff was shoved into the water-proof bag and buried in a high spot. By the time this was done, the first shades of night had fallen. At Charley's suggestion, all hurried into the barricade, and for fifteen minutes poured a hail of bullets into the forest to convince the outlaws that they were still there and on the alert.

Then all hurried back to the camp. Many hands made easy and gentle work of conveying the wounded man from his couch to the comfortable bed in the dugout. The young Indian took his place in the stern of the ticklish craft, and with a single shove of his long pole sent it far out into the stream. The captain, with Chris, followed a few yards behind, paddling with soft noiseless strokes. A few yards in their wake came the last canoe containing Walter and Charley, and quickly the outline of the point was lost in the darkness behind.



CHAPTER XVII.

THE FLIGHT BY NIGHT.

As the canoes glided silently towards the convicts' camp the paddle strokes of the fugitives grew slower and more guarded, the blades of the paddles were no longer lifted clear of the water lest the falling drops from them should be heard by those on shore. The river narrowed suddenly opposite the point, and the canoes would be compelled to pass within a hundred feet of the enemy's camp. All of the convicts might be in the woods surrounding the hunters' camp, waiting to close in on their supposed victims, but there was a chance that they had had the foresight to count upon this very attempt at escape and had left some of their number on the point to cut off the retreat.

Charley thought of all this as he knelt in the stern of his little craft and plied the paddle slowly and with infinite caution, his every nerve tense, and sight and hearing strained to catch any sound of movement on the rapidly nearing point. Were it white men only that they were seeking to elude, he would have felt far less apprehension, but he recognized that in the person of Indian Charley they had to deal with a mind crafty and cunning, that would be likely to provide against the very move they were making. Even in his anxiety, Charley could not but notice and admire the marvelous skill with which the young Indian in the dugout handled his clumsy craft. He hugged close to the farther shore and glided along its border as noiselessly as a shadow. The captain, although but little used to the paddle, was also doing surprisingly well and was following closely in the wake of the dugout. Silently the dugout at last glided past the dangerous point, and a moment later the captain's canoe also slipped gently by.

Charley gave a sigh of relief. They were safely past and could laugh at any attempted pursuit in the clumsy dugouts the convicts possessed.

But that one unguarded moment of relief was disastrous in its result. In a deep, careless stroke, his paddle struck a submerged log and the slender blade snapped short off with a loud crack, the ticklish canoe careened suddenly to one side, then righted again with a sullen splash. At the sound the silent point quickly stirred with life. There was the hum of excited voices and a blinding flash of flame lit up the darkness, followed by the sharp crack of rifles and the hum of bullets,—they were discovered.

"Give way all," shouted Charley, as he fumbled in the darkness for the spare paddle, which he at last succeeded in finding. "Are you hurt, Walt?" he called anxiously to his companion.

"Not a bit," answered his chum cheerfully, "but hurry up or we will be getting another volley."

The canoe had drifted beyond the point before her way died out, but was still less than a hundred yards from it. By the splashing of water the boys could tell that the convicts were launching one of the dugouts in pursuit. With vigorous strokes Charley sent their light craft flying ahead; a few minutes and they would be out of rifle-shot and out of danger, but again there was the crack of rifles and Charley called to his chum with a voice hoarse with pain, "You'll have to take her, Walt, they got me that time."

"Bad?" cried Walter anxiously, as they changed places.

"In the shoulder," weakly, "but don't mind about me. Shove her ahead as fast as you can, the others have got quite a start of us, and we've got to catch them."

For half an hour Walter paddled silently on, putting all his strength into the strokes that sent the light craft leaping ahead, leaving the pursuing dugout far behind.

"Charley," he called at last, "isn't it time we were up with at least the chief's dugout?"

But only silence greeted his question, his plucky chum had fainted from pain and the loss of blood.

For a few moments Walter let the canoe drift, while he pondered as to what he should do. He felt sure that they had passed the captain and his companions—but how? In the excitement of the pursuit he must have passed unnoticed a point where the river branched and had taken the wrong fork. There were, he knew, dozens of such forks to the river and the mistake was one that might easily have been made under any circumstances. The question now was what to do about it. To return was to run the risk of falling into the hands of the convicts, and the chance of finding the stream the others had taken was exceedingly small. There might be a dozen tributaries between him and the convicts' point, and how was he to tell which was the right one? In desperation he crawled forward to his unconscious companion and sprinkled his face again and again with water from the river.

At last Charley opened his eyes with a moan of pain.

"We're lost," shouted Walter eagerly. "I can't find the captain or chief, what shall I do?" He bent his head to catch the feeble answer from the wounded lad's lips.

"Keep on, keep on. When the river forks, take the largest stream, and—" but Charley had fainted again.

With a heavy heart, Walter crept back to his place in the stern and resumed the paddle. It was a terrible situation for a young, inexperienced lad; lost on a great river in a frail canoe, pursued by relentless enemies, and alone, except for a wounded, and perhaps dying companion. It was enough to strike terror into one much older than our boy hunter.

Throughout the long night the despairing lad paddled steadily on, praying for the day to break. At last it came with a blaze of glory in the east. When it grew light enough to see, he rose cautiously and gazed around him.

The prospect was disheartening enough. The river had narrowed to less than a hundred yards in width and wound and twisted amongst the waste of marsh that stretched desolately ahead and astern as far as the eye could see. To the east and west the marsh extended back at least a mile before it met solid timbered land, here and there, and an occasional long point jutted out until it met the stream. Although the weary lad strained his eyes in all directions, not a sign could he see of the other canoes or of any human life. With a sigh of despair, he sank again to his knees and crawled forward to where his chum lay half unconscious and moaning in pain.

Dipping his handkerchief over the side, he gently sponged Charley's pale face with it.

The contact of the cold water seemed to revive the wounded lad. He opened his eyes and attempted to smile, although his lips were twitching with pain. "What a nuisance I am, old chap," he said faintly.

"Not a bit," declared Walter, cheerfully, overjoyed at his return to consciousness. "Here, take a drink of this cold water, and then I am going to have a look at your wound."

With his hunting-knife, Walter cut away the bloody shirt from the shoulder and exposed the gaping hole to view. It was still bleeding slightly, but he noted with satisfaction that the bullet had passed completely through the fleshy part of the shoulder without touching the bone, a painful wound, but not a fatal one. He washed it clean with river water and bound it up with strips from his own shirt. "You'll be all right in a few days," he declared cheerfully. "Now just lay quiet. I am going to paddle in to the nearest point and start a fire and make you some broth."

Walter's heart was lighter than it had been in many hours as he again resumed his paddle. Day had brought fresh hope and courage. Charley was getting along far better than he had dared to hope during the night. He soon would be well enough to take command, and then, thought Walter, they would soon find their friends. He had great confidence in Charley's ability to get them out of their present predicament.

Suddenly Walter paused in his paddling and sat staring at the point, which was now scarce a hundred yards distant. A thin wisp of smoke curled up above the thick growth of palmettos with which the point was covered.

"Charley," he called softly, "there is someone on the point; they have just started up a fire."

"Better sheer off and give it a wide berth, then," counseled his chum. "If it were the captain or the chief, you would see the canoes."

"But the boats may be pulled up among the mangrove bushes," Walter objected. "If it should be the captain and Chris, just think what our passing by them would mean. We might never see them again, Charley. I am going to have a look."

"All right," agreed his chum, "but be very careful, Walt."

The fire was located well in on the point, and Walter steered to land some distance out from it. A few strokes of the paddle sent the light canoe gliding in amongst the mangrove bushes that fringed the shore. Climbing out upon the curious gnarled roots, Walter pulled the canoe far enough in to effectually screen it from sight. Next he examined his pistols to see that they were properly loaded, and with a parting word of cheer for his chum, he made his way slowly and cautiously over the intervening roots to the shore.

He soon found that it was no easy task he had set himself. Between himself and the fire fifty yards away, intervened the heaviest growth of timber he had ever seen; palms, sweet gums, satinwoods, and pines mingled in close and wild confusion, while the ground beneath them was a matted mass of vines and creepers.

For a moment Walter hesitated. Some of the vines and creepers, he knew, were poisonous. To touch them meant sores, swellings, and suffering. But it was only for a moment he paused. The thought of how much might depend on his errand drove him on. Tearing two strips from his already tattered shirt, he wrapped them around either hand, and dropping on hands and knees he cautiously wound his way towards the fire.

His progress was slow and painful. Dangling brier vines drew blood from arms and face, and sharp thorns repeatedly lacerated hands and knees. At each move forward he had to pause and remove the dead branches and twigs from his path lest their cracking should betray him to the campers. At last, however, he could catch the sound of voices, and wriggling forward with infinite caution, he reached a place from which he could get a glimpse between the trees at the group gathered around the fire.

The sight was not reassuring. Near the blaze a half dozen of the convicts lay lounging at their ease, while another one was busily engaged in making coffee and frying bacon. The neighing of ponies in the background told the watcher how they had arrived at the point before him. They must have ridden most of the night to have covered the distance, and Walter felt a sinking of heart as he realized the determination of their pursuit. The conversation that came to his ears did not tend to reassure him.

The convicts were evidently tired and in bad humor, and a hot argument was raging.

"I tell you it's all foolishness, this losing sleep and wearing ourselves out," declared a tall, thin, pasty-faced individual. "Here's my plan: just break up into parties of two or three and each party strike out for a different town and catch a freight out of the state. I 'low we're just wasting time and making trouble for ourselves by following up them chaps."

"Bill Salino, you've got as little sense as courage," declared a man whom Walter recognized as the leader of the gang. "The time for scattering and getting out of the state has gone by. There will be men watching for us at every point, and to be caught means hanging for all hands now. We've got to lay quiet here for six months or so until they give up watching for us. We're safe enough here unless them chaps get away and bring the Indians or a sheriff's posse down on us; and they won't get away if I have to follow them into the heart of the Everglades," he declared vindictively.



CHAPTER XVIII.

CAPTURED.

From the expression on their faces, Walter judged that the other four convicts were in doubt as to which of the two plans they should lend their support to. "Are you sure we'll catch 'em, Cap?" inquired one, doubtfully, "there are so powerful many forks to this river, it's like hunting for a needle in a haystack."

"If we don't get 'em, Injin Charley will," declared the leader, confidently. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him show up with 'em any minute now. He's an Injin and knows just what course them redskins in the dugout will be likely to take."

Still the outlaws seemed to waver, and the leader shifted his arguments. "If you fellows take up with Salino's fool idea, just think what shape you'll be in, even if you don't get caught. You won't have no money and will have to go around like a hobo until you make a strike. Now if we catch this chief, I reckon we can torture him, till he tells us where his plumes are hid. Then when things have quieted down a bit we can send a man in to dispose of 'em and walk out of here like gentlemen with money in our pockets."

This argument seemed to appeal to his companions, and the murmuring ceased.

Walter decided that he had heard enough, and turning, started to retrace his way back to the canoe. His second movement forward, however, was his undoing. A large limb upon which he had trusted his weight broke noisily under him, and he was precipitated forward into a huge clump of briars. Before he could regain his feet, strong hands seized him and dragged him, still vainly struggling, out into the clearing.

"One of 'em," cried the leader triumphantly, "I reckon the rest ain't far off. Scatter and search the point for 'em, boys,—but wait a bit, maybe this young cub can save us trouble."

But Walter had been thinking rapidly. If he was to save his chum it was no time for nice scruples. With a silent prayer for forgiveness, he waited the outlaws' questions.

The leader drew a revolver, cocked it, and presented it at the lad's head. "You can tell me the truth now or I'll blow your head off," he growled.

Walter's face took on an expression of fear and cringing terror far greater than he was really feeling. The brutal ruffian eyed this appearance of fear with every evidence of satisfaction. "Now I guess you'll answer my questions truthfully," he said threateningly. "First, where are your companions?"

"They left us in the darkness and we could not catch up with them. They must be way up the river by now," Walter stammered.

His questioner swore loudly. "Got past us, did they? Well, no matter, we'll get them easily now, we know for sure which stream they took."

Walter could hardly conceal his delight at having put the ruffian upon a false trail, but he was ready for the next question, which came quickly.

"How did you get here?"

"The canoe struck a log, capsized, and sank. I swam ashore."

"What became of the fellow in the boat with you?"

"Drowned, I guess," said Walter with a sob.

The leader turned to the others. "I reckon he's too scairt to be lying," he said, "however, you had better take a look around the point. Be quick about it, though, for we will have to hurry to catch up with those other chaps. Here, tie this fellow up before you go."

Walter was seized, his hands tied behind him, and he was lashed with his back to a small satinwood tree.

He watched the departure of the ruffians with sinking heart. If they searched thoroughly, Charley and the canoe were sure to be discovered.

The outlaws soon returned, however, after a very careless search and reported nothing in sight. Truth to tell, tired as they were, they had quickly wearied of trying to force their way through the dense jungle.

After a hasty breakfast, the leader gave the order to mount. "You two stay here and wait for Injin Charley," he commanded, indicating two of the gang. "We have got to let him know what we've learned. I reckon we'll be back by night, if we ain't, you follow us in the morning."

"What shall we do with the kid?" inquired one of the men.

"Turn him over to Injin Charley when he comes in. I reckon he'll know what to do with him," said the leader with a grin so evil and suggestive that it made the helpless lad's blood run cold.

The four outlaws and their leader mounted their ponies and soon were lost to sight among the trees. The two left behind proceeded to make themselves comfortable without a thought for the exhausted lad whose tight bonds cut cruelly into arms and legs. They raked up beds of leaves upon which they spread their blankets and then proceeded to make up for the sleep they had lost during the night.

Walter was not only suffering much physically, but was in great mental distress as well. He feared that at any moment Charley, alarmed by his long absence, might call or fire off one of the guns and bring the outlaws to his hiding-place. How could he warn him of the danger he was in? Suddenly the bound lad was seized by an ingenious idea. Assuring himself by their deep breathing, that his captors were fast asleep, he began to whistle, softly at first, then gradually louder and louder till the weird, mournful strains of the "Funeral March" filled the air.

One of the guards tossed restlessly and woke up cursing. "Shut up that whistling," he shouted, "that blooming thing gets on my nerves."

Walter had no option but to obey, but the awesome tune had carried its doleful message. The mournful notes had reached the ears of the wounded lad in the canoe. Its message was plain to him. Walter was a captive, or in great danger. And now began a contest between will-power and pain and weakness from which many a man would have shrunken.

Three times Charley struggled to rise to his feet, only to sink back exhausted with great beads of sweat standing out on his brow. At last, abandoning the attempt, he began to wriggle back towards the stern of the canoe. His progress was slow and painful, and even in the short distance to be covered, he had often to lay quiet and rest. At last he succeeded in reaching the stern, but here his difficulties were by no means ended. Working awkwardly with his left hand he managed to draw his hunting-knife and slash open the pack of provisions they had brought with them. From these he selected a can of milk. It was slow work opening it with one hand, but at last he succeeded in removing the top. Part of the contents he swallowed as it was, the balance he diluted with water and broke hardtack up in it. By the time he had finished the food, a little color had crept back into his face. He was still very weak, however, and another attempt to rise met with failure. For a few minutes he lay quiet thinking, then rummaging in the pack he brought forth a pint bottle of brandy. With repugnance written on his face, he took several swallows of the fiery liquor. It ran through his veins like fire. Shoving the bottle into his pocket, he succeeded in staggering to his feet and slowly pulled himself up on one of the mangrove's roots, and, pausing frequently to rest, gradually worked his way to the shore.

Walter's captors slept heavily until the noon hour, when they awoke, stirred up the fire, and prepared some dinner; but they offered none of it to the unfortunate lad, who watched its preparation with hungry eyes. Their repast finished, the two ruffians enjoyed a long smoke, after which they played a few games of cards which ended in a violent dispute that nearly resulted in blows.

As the afternoon wore on without the appearance of the party they were expecting, they again composed themselves to slumber. Slowly the afternoon wore away and the two outlaws still slept on. The sun went down and night began to fall and still the two showed no signs of awakening.

Suddenly Walter felt the bonds that held him slip to the ground and Charley's voice whispered, "Drop on all fours, Walt, and work your way back into the thicket."

Walter did as he was bid as quickly as his stiffened limbs would permit and soon caught up with his chum, who had begun to retrace his steps as soon as he had severed the captive's bonds. In fact, he dared not wait or tarry, for the false strength engendered by the brandy was fast leaving him. To give out on the way would be fatal to both. He must reach the canoe before the last remnant of his strength gave out or all was lost.

Slowly the two boys wormed their way through the jungle, expecting every second to hear the sounds that would indicate that the prisoner was missed and pursuit begun.

At last they reached the clump of mangroves that concealed the canoe. Here outraged nature claimed its due and Charley sank on the edge of the shore unable to go further. It required nearly all of Walter's remaining strength to drag his insensible chum over the roots and lower him into the canoe. Precious as was each moment lost, Charley demanded instant attention, his wound had broken open again from his exertions and his tattered shirt was wet with blood. Walter stuffed bits of cloth into the hole and bound it up as well as he could in the darkness. This labor completed, he cast loose the canoe, and with a few strokes of the paddle sent her over to the other side of the stream. Here he laid aside his paddle and sank back to rest and think. The friendly darkness completely hid them from the gaze of anyone on the point. Until the moon rose they were as safe there as any place on the river. The plucky lad sorely needed rest and refreshment. For two days and a night he had been without sleep and for twenty-four hours without food. This, with the strenuous labor and excitement through which he had passed, had rendered him nearly as weak as his unconscious companion. Sleep was out of the question until they were safe from their enemies, but food was handy and he lost no time in making a hearty meal on a can of corned beef, crackers and a tin of milk. The repast brought fresh strength and courage, although his head felt very heavy and he could hardly keep his eyes open.

With the outlaws ahead and behind them, there was little choice of the direction in which they should flee, and Walter paddled steadily on up the river, keeping close to the opposite shore from the convicts.

Hour after hour passed and found him still paddling wearily onward, every muscle and nerve in his body aching with fatigue. At last a brightening of the sky in the east warned him of the rising of the moon. As its bright beams lit up the gloomy river and desolate marshes, Walter gave a cry of joy; directly ahead, right in the middle of the stream, lay a small island, its shores fringed with a dense growth of mangroves. As the canoe drew nearer, Walter surveyed it with increasing delight. Here was surely a safe place of refuge where they might stay as long as their provisions lasted and until their enemies tired of the pursuit. Where the island lay, the river had widened out into a fair sized lake and the nearest shore was out of gunshot. There was no way that the outlaws could reach them except by boat, and they had none with them.

With lightened heart, Walter ran the canoe far up into the mangroves and fastened it securely to a large root. Making his way ashore he soon found a small space of cleared ground, to which he speedily conveyed their blankets which he spread out on the dry sand. Returning to the boat he endeavored in vain to rouse Charley from the stupor into which he had fallen. At last he gave up the attempt and half carried and half dragged his chum ashore and laid him on his blanket, then quickly stretching himself out by his side, was soon fast asleep.

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