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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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"We can make traps for the birds," Walter suggested. "I know how to rig up a figure-four trap that will fool the wisest of them."

"Well, we will not bother with traps this trip," Charley said. "We have got enough birds for the present. We can come again to-morrow and fix up for them."

"What shall we do with these?" Walter inquired. "We don't want to turn back yet, and they are too heavy to carry with comfort."

"Leave them tied up in the first tree we come to and get them on our way back," his chum answered.

With this object in view, the two boys turned their steps towards the nearest clump of timber. At their first step amongst its dry twigs and branches, there was a crash amongst the bushes and a form of yellowish brown shot past them like an arrow.

Charley's rifle flew to his shoulder and its sharp crack woke the echoes in the little wood. "It's a deer and I have got it," he exclaimed, dashing off after the animal which was staggering and wavering as it ran.

Walter paused only to hang his birds high up in the crotch of a big tree, and followed after his chum.

But the deer, though wounded and losing blood at every step, was really running faster than either of the boys calculated. It soon became evident to both that they would have to work hard to overhaul the wounded creature before it entered the main forest on the other side of the prairie. Once amongst the dense growth, it would soon lose its pursuers.

Walter was only a few feet in the rear of his chum and running at the top of his speed when Charley stopped so short and unexpectedly that he collided with him with such force as to bring both to the ground.

"Look," exclaimed Charley breathlessly, as he pointed ahead, "did you ever see such a repulsive sight?"

Charley had stopped just in time, not fifteen feet from where the two had fallen, was a deep, saucer-like depression in the ground. In its center, where the ground was soft, and muddy, was a writhing, twisting, tangled mass of snakes of dozens of kinds, though the dirty, sickening-looking, stump-tailed moccasin predominated. There must have been thousands of serpents in the mass which covered a space twenty by thirty feet, from which came the sibilant hiss of puff adders, and a strong, nauseating odor.

"It's an awful sight," shuddered Walter after one glance, "and just think how close you were to running into that mass. You would never have got out alive."

"I would never know what struck me," Charley agreed. "I expect there's a full quart of the deadliest of poisons distributed among those beauties."

"Ugh," said Walter, "the sight of them makes me sick. Come away, Charley."

"They have done us considerable damage anyway," Charley said, as they pressed on giving the snake-hole a wide berth. "I cannot see anything of the deer, can you?"

"No, I expect he got safe into the forest while we were delayed. We might as well follow up his tracks for a ways although I guess it's but little use."

The fugitive had left a thread of scarlet blood behind him so the boys had no trouble in following the trail.

At the very edge of the forest, the boys stopped with a cry of delight. A motionless heap of yellowish brown lay half in half out of the fringe of trees, the shelter of which the poor creature had striven so gallantly to gain.

The boys wasted no time in rejoicing but at once fell to work with their hunting-knives to remove the skin. This done, they cut off the valuable parts of the carcass and bound them up in the hide for transportation back to camp. When the task was completed the noon hour had been reached and the boys kindled a fire and broiled some of the venison.

"That was a lucky kill for us," observed Charley as he attacked another juicy steak. "It will give us fresh meat for several days. What we cannot use before it spoils, we can cut thin and dry. The hide properly prepared will furnish us with a couple of stout fishing lines and a shirt for one of us."

After a brief rest the boys resumed their exploration. They had no present need for more game and were loath to waste any more ammunition. The wild folks of the forest seemed to be aware of the fact and showed themselves fearlessly.

"We won't starve for lack of game," declared Walter, "in the last half mile, I have seen coons, possums, deer, and a wild-cat, to say nothing of the thousands of birds."

"Yes, it's a sportsman's paradise," agreed Charley, "it has probably not been hunted since the Spaniards' time. Likely these wild creatures have never seen a human being before."

The boys had been pushing onward into the forest as they talked. By the growing denseness of the jungle they surmised that they were approaching the island's shore. This surmise proved correct, for about a quarter of an hour after leaving their lunching place, they came out on the bank directly opposite where they had landed on the island.

This shore was very much like the other and the boys soon began to retrace their steps.

As they neared the place where they had left their venison hung in a tree, their ears were greeted with a curious sound of mingled grunt and growl.

With their guns ready for instant use, the boys crept cautiously forward. An exclamation burst from them as they came in sight of the tree. Squatted round it in an angry, eager circle was a drove of at least twenty wild boars; great, fierce-looking animals with dangerous looking tusks. They were sniffing longingly, and looking up at the suspended meat.

"Don't shoot, Walt," cried Charley, but his warning came too late.

Without pausing to think, Walter had discharged both barrels of his shotgun at the huddled animals.

The effect was not what he had anticipated. The shot glanced harmlessly off their thick hides, and with grunts of rage, the whole drove charged for the smoke and sound.

"Get up a tree," shouted Charley, as he noted the effects of the shot.

Walter did not wait for a second bidding but swung himself up the nearest tree which happened to be a huge spreading live oak. Charley swarmed up after him in such haste that he dropped his rifle at the foot of the tree. He was not a moment too soon for a large boar made a lunge for his legs just as he drew them up.

"Now we are in for it," he exclaimed in disgust as he found a comfortable seat in the fork of a limb.

"Oh, I guess they'll soon get tired and go away," Walter said cheerfully.

But the boars seemed to have no such intention. They ranged themselves around the foot of the tree as they had around the venison and sat looking longingly up among the branches.

"I am going to try a shot at that big fellow that seems to be the boss of the gang," said Walter after an hour had dragged away without the animals showing any signs of leaving.

"Don't do it," Charley advised, "you can't kill him with that small calibered revolver, and it will only make them madder than ever."

Walter put back his revolver with a sigh. "I guess you're right," he admitted, "but, I declare, it makes me mad the way that big brute is leering up at me."

Wearily the hours dragged away, the boys getting cramped and weary in the tree, and the besiegers showing no sign of abatement in their interest.

The darkness found two, very tired, hungry boys seated in the tree while the boars still grunted in a circle around them.

With the rising of the moon came the distant tolling of the chapel bell and the boys looked worriedly at each other.

"The captain and Chris will be frightened to death with that thing tolling and we absent," Walter said.

"Yes, the captain will be sure to believe that we are all dead," Charley agreed. "There is something unearthly about that ringing, but of course there is a natural cause for it if we could only discover it."

"After our experience last night I am almost ready to agree with the captain and Chris," said Walter.

"Except for its worrying those two, I would not mind it in the least," Charley declared. "I am more upset by our position here. I guess we will have to stay all night, those fellows below show no signs of leaving."

"What's that?" cried Walter, excitedly.



CHAPTER XXVII.

A TERRIBLE NIGHT.

A shrill piercing scream, like the cry of a tortured soul, rang out of the forest, rising clear and trembling above the tolling of the bell and the noises of the night.

The boys looked at each other with white, frightened faces.

"A panther," Charley cried, "a panther, and we penned up here helpless as babes."

"Look," said Walter, eagerly, "look at the boars."

The great animals were stirring uneasily and their hoarse, threatening grunts had dropped to a kind of frightened whine. Again the scream rose shrill and clear, and, with a grunt of fear, the big leader charged into the forest followed by the rest.

"They are afraid of the panther, and I don't blame them," Charley exclaimed. "Come, we must get out of here in a hurry."

The boys slid to the ground as fast as their stiffened limbs would permit, picked up Charley's rifle, and hastily cutting down the venison, plunged out of the forest onto the prairie.

The screams, rapidly drawing nearer, hastened their footsteps, but, fast as they traveled, the sound continued to draw closer.

"It has got a sniff of the venison and is following us up," Charley declared. "We can never get away from it, and there is small chance of our being able to kill it in the dark. We may as well stop right here where there is a little wood and build a fire, that is our only chance."

Charley had chosen this halting place wisely, for a large dead tree lay on the ground, where he had stopped.

Hastily the boys tore up a heap of dry grass and piling broken limbs on it, lit the pile with a match.

The dry stuff roared up with a flame not a minute too soon, the flickering light revealed a crouching form not thirty feet away. With a snarl of rage the creature retreated from the blaze and began circling the fire from a distance. The soft pattering footfalls could be easily heard.

The boys crouched close to the fire filled with apprehension that gradually decreased as they saw the panther feared to approach. Thrice Charley fired at the dim skulking form, but, in the darkness, his bullets went wide of the mark, and he stopped wasting more ammunition.

"Let's set fire to the tree itself," Walter suggested, "it will make a bigger fire, last a long time, and save us the trouble of gathering wood."

"Good," exclaimed Charley, and seizing a couple of blazing brands he thrust them under the tree's trunk. The dry wood caught like tinder and soon the whole tree was aflame.

"I hope they will see it at the camp," Walter said. "If they do, they will know we are still alive."

As their fear of the panther decreased, the boys began to feel hungry and tired. The venison was unwrapped and some thick steaks were cut off and broiled over the fire, and from them the lads made a hearty meal.

They felt greatly refreshed after their hearty repast but they were still very tired and sleepy. They strove to converse together and keep awake but the fatigue of the day, the heavy meal, and the warmth of the fire proved too much for them and every now and then one would catch the other nodding.

"There's no use of both of us sitting up all night, when one is all that is necessary to keep an eye on the fire," said Charley, sleepily. "Let's make up a bed of the prairie grass and take turn about sleeping and keeping watch."

Walter heartily agreed to the suggestion and they proceeded to make up their couch without loss of time. They did not have to go outside the circle of firelight for their mattress, for the wild rice grew all around the blazing tree. All they had to do was to pull it up in great handfuls and stack it before the fire.

Suddenly Charley gave an exclamation and leaped back out of the grass. "Come out of that grass, Walt," he cried, "I have been bitten by a puff adder. I heard it hiss."

"Oh, Charley," cried his chum in terror, "what can we do?"

"Quick," commanded Charley, "open one of your shotgun shells and take out the shot." While he had been speaking the lad had slipped one leg out of his pants and exposed the wound to view. It was only a tiny red puncture of the skin midway between knee and hip, but the bitten one knew that tiny place was more dangerous than a rifle ball. Like a flash, he drew his hunting-knife and cut out a chunk of flesh as big as a hen egg where the wound had been. "Give me that cartridge," he commanded, his teeth gritting with pain.

Walter passed over the open shell and Charley emptied its contents of powder into the open cut. Quickly, he applied a match to the black grains and they caught with a hiss, there was a tiny cloud of black smoke and a whiff of burning flesh.

Walter sprang to his chum's side and caught him, as he staggered and reeled under the awful pain.

"Gee, but that was a plucky thing to do," he cried.

"I guess I got it done in time," murmured Charley, through pale lips. "It was the only thing to do. I would have been dead in half an hour otherwise—and such a death. But I guess I've got the best of it, I cut out that piece before the poison had a chance to get into the circulation, I think. Give me a hand to bind up the cut before anything gets into it."

Walter hastened to comply and bound up the gaping cut as well as he could with the means at his command. While Charley lay back and gritted his teeth to keep back the moans of pain.

"Strange the place don't bleed any," said Walter, curiously.

"The heat of the powder flash cauterized the cut ends of the veins and closed them up," Charley explained. "I have seen the same thing done before and the wound never bled."

"Is it always a good thing to do?" his chum inquired.

"It is useless in some cases. It all depends upon the kind of snake and where the person is struck. I never knew a case of a person recovering when hit by a genuine Florida rattlesnake. Puff adders and moccasins are deadly enough, but they are mild beside the rattler. The rattler's fangs are so long that they strike deep and the quantity of venom injected is enormous, some of it is almost instantly taken up by the veins punctured. I do not believe that anything but instant amputation would save the life of one struck. But all bitten do not die equally soon. I have known a man struck in the ankle where the circulation was poor, to live for several hours, while another struck in the neck while bending over a flower, died almost instantly. The poor fellow did not have time to straighten up even. But he was lucky in dying quickly. There is no death more painful and horrible than that from a rattlesnake bite."

"What loathsome creatures," shuddered Walt, "and the state is accursed with them."

"They are few in number compared with what they used to be," Charley remarked, "and I'll bet you can't guess what has thinned them out so."

"The clearing up of the state and their wholesale destruction by settlers," Walter suggested.

Charley smiled in spite of his pain. "What settlers destroy in a year do not amount to a ten thousandth part of the number born. Each mother snake has upward of twenty-five little ones at a time. Birds, especially the blue jay, kill a great many but their worst enemy is the Florida hog."

"The hog?" exclaimed Walter, in surprise.

"Yes," Charley affirmed. "If you want to clear a patch of ground of snakes, just turn in a drove of hogs, they will do the work for you in short order. They kill and eat the most poisonous snakes without the slightest hurt to themselves. Either their thick hide saves them, or else they are immune from the venom."

"No more Florida pork on my bill-of-fare," declared Walter in disgust.

Pain and excitement had driven all thought of sleep from both boys' minds and they sat close together by the fire and talked the night away.

As the slow minutes slipped away, Walter watched his chum's face in an agony of apprehension for any sign that the subtle venom was getting in its deadly work. But the hours passed by and, although Charley was suffering considerable pain, there was no indication that any of the poison had passed into his system—the lad's prompt act had saved his life.

Dawn came at last and found two weary waiting boys, one of them weak, pale, and haggard.

As soon as it was light enough to see, Walter made his way back to the edge of the forest, and cut a strong forked limb to serve as a crutch for his chum.

Before leaving the fire, the boys cooked and ate a couple more venison steaks which gave them fresh strength and courage.

Walter shouldered the guns and venison and staggered on in the lead under his heavy load, while Charley hobbled painfully on behind.

They had just crossed the remainder of the prairie and were resting a bit before plunging into the forest on the other side, when Chris and the captain broke out from the clump of trees and hailed them with shouts of joy.

Chris relieved Walter of a part of his load while the captain assisted Charley forward, and the little party made good time on their homeward way and before long reached the clearing.

Chris' and the captain's haggard faces showed they had passed as sleepless a night as the two lads.

"Golly," said Chris, gravely, "when night comes an' you chillens don't show up, an' de haunts begin a-tollin' dat bell, I spects Massa Captain an' dis nigger went most crazy. When we seed you-alls' fire a little later, we feels some better, but, Massas, I jes' tell you dat daylight seemed powerful long comin' to dis nigger."

Amid the others' breathless interest, Walter related the adventures of the night. When the captain learned of Charley's accident, he brought out the brandy bottle and insisted on his drinking what remained of the liquor. His wound was then bathed, clean and bandaged again and he was made to lay down upon his couch in the hut, while Walter stretched out on his own bed for a nap.

"Good," exclaimed Charley, as he caught sight of the windows and door, "you and Chris made a good job of those, captain."

The captain nodded in satisfaction. "I reckon it will take some battering to get in there," he observed.

Inside the hut, the two workers had planted large posts of palmetto that effectually blocked the windows save for the cracks between the posts. The door was similarly barricaded, save for one post left out for present ingress and egress. It stood close to hand, however, ready to be slipped into the hole provided for it, at an instant's notice.

Charley suddenly staggered to his feet. "I can't waste time lying here," he exclaimed. "Why, this is the day we expect the outlaw."



CHAPTER XXVIII.

PREPARATIONS.

"Sit down, Charley," said the captain sternly, "are you crazy, lad? You can do nothing in your present state, and if you go and make yourself sick, you will cause us all a deal of trouble and worry."

Charley sank back upon his couch. "But there is so much to be done, Captain," he protested.

"Now look here, lad," said the old sailor, "say those fellows have got their boat finished and start for that island we left this morning, it will take them quite a while to get there and I expect they will look it over a bit before following us. Take the time spent there and the time it will take them to reach here, an' I reckon it will be late in the afternoon before we see anything of them."

"It won't do to take any chances, Captain. We had ought to be ready now."

"Go ahead and say what you want done and we will do it while you sleep," said the captain. "But if you persist in getting up, I'll be hanged if I'll do a stroke of work, outlaws or no outlaws."

"Me neither," chimed in Chris.

"Better go to sleep, Charley," advised his chum. "I am going to get a nap, myself. I know I'll be able to work better for it."

Charley gave in with an unwilling sigh. "All right, I suppose I'll have to do as you all say."

"Tell us your plans and we will see that they are carried out," the captain said.

"We cannot keep those fellows from landing on the island," said the young leader, thoughtfully. "There are so many places where they can come ashore, and we are too few to guard the entire coast. I do not think we can even hold the walls against so many. There are more gaps in them than we could defend. I have thought it all over and I believe that all we can do is to confine the defense to this house. We ought to be able to hold this place until the Indians come."

"My ideas exactly," approved the captain.

"It's the only sensible thing to do," Walter agreed.

"To be successful, it is necessary for us to have a good supply of food and water. I intended to dry the venison, but there is not time to do that, you will have to cut it into thin strips and smoke it, that will not take long and it will keep for several days. That big copper and all the gourds should be filled with water and brought inside. When that is all done, we will have food and drink to last us a week with care."

"Chris and I will see to it all," said the captain arising. "Is that all, lad?"

"We had ought to keep a lookout at the landing so as to know when they come and be ready for them."

"We'll 'tend to that when we get the other chores done. It's too early to expect them yet, anyway. Now you lie down and get a nap, lads, and don't worry, Chris and I will look out for everything."

Charley laid back and closed his eyes, obediently, while Chris and the captain passed out of the hut to attend to the tasks set them.

The two boys were soon fast asleep.

It was noon before Walter awoke, sat up, and looked around him. He noted that the workers had already completed their tasks; long strings of smoked venison strips were hung down from the roof, gourds and copper kettle were brimming full of sweet, clean water, and all of the guns had been freshly cleaned and oiled.

Treading softly so as not to awaken his chum, Walter passed out of the hut.

The captain and Chris were busily engaged in trying to dispatch a pot of venison stewed with yams, and Walter lost no time in joining them.

"Well, we are all through," observed the captain as he took a second helping of stew. "We would have called you to dinner, but I reckoned the sleep would do you more good. How do you feel now?"

"All right," Walter answered. "You should have left some of that work for us to do, Captain."

"I reckon you will have enough to do before we get a chance to leave this island," said the old sailor with a sigh. "If you are through, Chris, take your gun and go down to the landing and keep a sharp lookout. Those fellows had ought to be here this afternoon, some time. I will come down and spell you in a couple of hours."

"You had better go in and get a nap yourself, Captain, while there is nothing doing," said Walter. "It may be all hands on deck to-night."

"I reckon I'll take your advice, lad. I was awake all last night worrying about you boys and I can't stand loss of sleep now like you young fellows. I will just take forty winks. Call me when it is time to spell Chris."

Walter sat waiting until the old sailor's loud snoring proclaimed he was asleep. Then filling a small gourd with water from the spring, he made his way into the fort, where he righted one of the overturned canoes and fished out a large package from under the stern and undid its fastenings. "I wonder they did not notice it when they carried the canoe up," he muttered.

For a long time he was busily engaged with the contents of the package and the gourd of water. At last he gave a sigh of triumphant satisfaction which died away as he heard Charley's voice calling his name from the hut.

With an exclamation of impatience, he emptied out the water, quickly bound up the package again, and thrust it back in its old place under the canoe's stern deck, then turning the canoe again bottom up, he passed out of the fort whistling, carelessly.

Charley in the door of the hut eyed him curiously as he approached. "What has happened to you?" he exclaimed, "you look as happy as if you had discovered a gold mine."

"Well, I haven't," laughed his chum, "how's your leg now?"

"Stiff as a ramrod, and, whew, how it hurts," Charley said with a grimace of pain. "I can't bear my weight on it."

"You don't want to try to," said Walter, severely. "Just go back to your bunk and keep still. All the work is done, now, and I am going down to the landing right off to relieve Chris so that he can get a little sleep."

Charley obeyed and Walter made his way down to the landing where he found Chris sitting on a log watching intently.

Walter took the gun from the tired little darky and sent him up to the hut to rest.

The hours passed swiftly by without any signs of the outlaws. When darkness fell, Walter abandoned his now useless post and made his way up to the hut where he found his three companions gathered around the camp-fire outside.

"Have you seen anything of them?" Charley inquired anxiously as he came in sight. "Not a sign," Walter answered. "I think you have done wrong in lighting that fire," he continued gravely. "There was a bare chance that they would have given up the chase after not finding us at the chief's island. If they are anywhere near, though, that fire will give us dead away."

"They would not have given up the chance of getting the plumes they have worked so hard to obtain as easily as all that," said his chum decidedly. "Remember, they believe that Big Tiger and his son are still with us and that the rest of the Indians are far away. No, they would not have given up so easily after the trouble they have been to."

Walter said no more but helped himself to an ear of corn and a piece of fish and fell to eating.

The silence that had fallen upon the party was broken by an exclamation from Chris.

"Golly, dar dey is," he cried.

Far off in the direction of the chief's island, a tiny shaft of light pierced the darkness.

"They are on the island we left," exclaimed Charley, "that's their camp-fire."

"No, no," said Walter. "See, it is getting bigger, I bet they have fired the wigwam."

In a few minutes all the party agreed with Walter, there was no mistaking the cause of the pillar of flame that rose high in the air on the distant island.

They watched it in silence until it died down and nothing remained but a faint glare.

"Let's go to bed," said Charley at last. "If they are on the chief's island, they will not bother us to-night."

But after a short discussion, it was decided to stand guard and watch, Charley and Walter to stand on guard until midnight, and then to be relieved by Chris and the captain.

The two sentinels climbed up on a portion of the wall that lay in the shadow of a big tree and from which they could command a good view of the rest of the wall and inclosure itself.

"I have been thinking that the unsavory reputation of this island may keep those fellows from coming here," Walter observed in an undertone.

"It will likely keep Indian Charley away, and I am more afraid of him than all the balance. I do not think it will stop the rest though," Charley answered, and they lapsed again into cautious silence.

The minutes had lengthened into an hour when there fell upon their ears the now familiar tolling of the bell.

"I am going to have another look in that chapel," declared Walter, as he slipped down from his perch.

"I'd like to go with you," said Charley, wistfully, "but my game leg won't carry me that far." He watched his chum until he disappeared in the shadow of the church.

Walter hesitated for a moment at the chapel doorway. It required more courage to enter that gloomy, black, mysterious interior, alone, than it had when he and Charley were together. Summoning up all his resolution he passed through the gaping doorway into the blackness beyond. All was dark and still inside, the bright moonlight shining through the high little windows threw patches of ghostly light upon the white, ghastly walls. Walter felt his flesh creep as he made his way through the darkness up towards the bell.

He stumbled often and bruised his knees against the stone seats but at last he reached the little platform and stood beneath the little tower. He could not see up into its gloomy interior, but the great bell above him tolled mournfully on.

For a space Walter stood silent, a superstitious dread creeping over him. "Dreaming, dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." A horror grew upon him, a feeling that something, some being antagonistic, repugnant to his very nature was sharing the darkness with him. The strokes of the bell above him seemed to grow horribly menacing to his feverish fancy. He struggled with himself to throw off the mantle of terror descending upon him but the feeling grew and grew. With a rush of unreasoning anger he flung up his gun and fired at the swaying bell.

A shrill, human-like cry rang out, the bell ceased tolling, and a heavy body crashed down at the terrified lad's feet.

Throwing out his arms Walter sank to the floor in a dead faint.

He opened his eyes again to see Charley bending over, examining him by the light of a flaring torch.

"What, what was it?" he whispered.

Charley shifted the torch and held it close to a dark figure stretched out on the stone floor.

Its glare lit up a face strangely human, and bearing the apparent mark of centuries in its furrowed features and wrinkled skin.

"A big monkey," gasped Walter in astonishment.

"Yes," said Charley gently, "an old man monkey, old, old, very, very old."



CHAPTER XXIX.

THE ENEMY.

Walter broke into a weak, hysterical laugh, "and I took that for a spirit," he exclaimed. "Well, our mystery is solved now."

"Yes," his chum admitted, looking down at the dead bell-ringer with a kind of regret, "still there are some points about it which still remain a mystery, and always will. There is no record of there ever being monkeys found in this state. It must have been brought here by one of the Spanish gentlemen as a pet and taught the trick of ringing the bell, and yet, that theory is unbelieveable. Consider, Walter, if such is the case, this creature has reached an incredible age."

Walter bent down and flashed the torch in the monkey's face. "He looks as though he had lived for centuries," he exclaimed, "his face is like that of a shriveled mummy, and see, that look of cunning and aged-wisdom in his features. Charley," continued the tender-hearted boy with a break in his voice, "I feel as badly about it as I would if I had shot a man. Think of the poor, harmless creature, remaining true year after year to the one task he knew how to perform, and then to be shot down at last while doing it."

"Nonsense, this is no time for sentiment. We must get back to our post, we have left it altogether too long. You will have to help me back, I guess, Walt," Charley said.

"How did you get here?" demanded his chum, the current of his thoughts suddenly changed. "Why, your trousers' leg is wet with blood and you are as pale as a ghost."

"I couldn't have walked a hundred feet under ordinary circumstances, but that scream brought me here on the run. Now that the excitement is over I feel weak as a kitten," Charley answered.

"You're going back to bed and stay there until that wound is completely healed," declared Walter as he put his arm around his chum and assisted him out of the chapel.

Before he could get the exhausted lad to the hut, he had become a dead weight in Walter's arms. Walter let him down gently upon the ground and ran to the hut where he aroused Chris and the captain, and the three bore Charley inside and laid him on his couch.

Captain Westfield bathed the wound and bandaged it afresh. His face was very grave as he examined the unconscious lad's skin and pulse. "He has a high fever," he declared anxiously. "I thought yesterday from the way he was yawning and stretching that he was in for an attack of swamp fever. With a dose of it on top of this hole in his leg it is likely to go hard with the poor lad. I'd give a sight now for some brandy and quinine." He glanced up at Walter's haggard face. "You get to bed this minute or we will have two on our hands," he commanded. "Chris and I have had a good nap and we'll keep watch the balance of the night, though, I 'low, there ain't much use in doing it."

Walter was too near collapse, himself, to offer objections and dropping down on his couch was soon sleeping the sleep of exhaustion. He woke again just as the sun arose feeling rested and quite his old vigorous self, but his spirits soon fell as his chum's meanings fell upon his ears.

Charley was tossing restfully upon his couch in a high fever and the wounded leg was greatly swollen and flushed an angry red.

There was nothing he could do to relieve the sufferer, so Walter with a heavy heart stole out of the hut.

The captain and Chris were busy over the fire preparing breakfast. They greeted Walter with grave faces for Charley's condition was resting heavily upon them.

"If I only had some quinine I could check that fever," sighed the old sailor. "He is healthy and clean-blooded and I reckon he'd get over that bad leg in time, but he can't fight them both. How in the world did he come to start the wound to bleeding again?"

Sadly Walter recounted the adventures of the night. He told of their previous discovery of the bell, their first fruitless search of the chapel, and of his venturing in alone and the shooting of the bell-ringer.

As he proceeded with his narrative the captain's face grew crimson with mortification and chagrin, as he saw his much-asserted ghostly theories shattered.

The effect on Chris' humorous nature was different. The first expression of relief on his little ebony face was succeeded by a broad grin.

"Golly," he giggled, "an' me an' Massa Capt was scart nigh to death by a poor ole harmless monkey."

Few men like to be placed in a ridiculous position and the captain turned on the little darky in a rage.

"Shut up, you grinning little imp," he shouted, "or I'll thrash you so you can't sit down for a week. What call have you got to be giggling over the death of one of your ancestors?"

Chris checked the flow of words on his tongue, but sat rocking back and forth in glee muttering, "Golly, only a monkey. A poor, old, he-monkey," until the irate captain chased him out of ear-shot.

Leaving the captain and Chris to the settlement of their trouble, Walter took one of the canoes' paddles and proceeded to the chapel. Just outside its wall he dug a deep grave, and carrying the faithful old monkey to it he lowered him gently to the bottom and filling up the grave again, heaped a little pile of stones on the mound.

To the tender-hearted lad there was something pathetic and touching in the way the poor creature had met its death.

Charley's illness cast a gloom over even the irrepressible Chris, and breakfast was eaten in sad silence.

As soon as he had finished, Chris shouldered one of the rifles and headed for the landing to watch for the outlaws, while the captain and Walter repaired to the hut to attend to the stricken lad.

There was little they could do to relieve his sufferings beyond sponging his hot body with a wet cloth and giving him sparingly of the water that he called for incessantly. At last he sank into a kind of a stupor and the heavy-hearted watchers stole outside for a breath of fresh air.

Walter at last broke the silence that hung like a cloud upon them. "I've been thinking," he said, "that it might not be a bad plan to meet the outlaws at the landing. We could dispose of several before they could get on shore."

"No," said his companion decidedly, "they would only land in some other place and maybe cut us off from the hut. You mark my words, lad, Charley thought over every side of this question before he laid his plans an' we can't do better than follow them. The most we can hope to do is to hold this hut until Little Tiger comes with his people."

Their further discussion was cut short by the sudden appearance of Chris.

"Dey's comin', Massa, dey's comin'," shouted the excited little darky. "Dey ain't more dan a half mile away."

Gathering together the cooking utensils scattered around the fire, the three entered the hut and soon had the last post secured in its hole, effectually barring the doorway.

Through the cracks in the windows and door, the hunters watched for the appearance of the foe.

An hour of suspense passed slowly by, then suddenly there came the noise of a falling stone and an evil face peeped cautiously over the wall.

Walter fired quickly but missed, and the face disappeared with ludicrous haste.

For some minutes the outlaws remained quiet, no doubt conferring together, then a tiny square of white was hoisted above the wall, to be quickly followed by the youngest outlaw who dropped coolly down into the inclosure bearing the flag in his hand.

"We can't fire upon him," declared Walter as Chris raised his gun. "He bears a truce flag and is unarmed. You keep a sharp watch on the others and I will talk with this fellow. If I am not mistaken, it is the one Charley was so impressed by."

The young outlaw approached the hut at a careless sauntering walk, waving the flag jauntily in his hand. He noted the barred openings and protruding rifle barrel with a cool smile and strolled around to the door.

"Hallo in there," he called, cheerfully. "I want to talk to you."

"Go ahead," Walter answered grimly, "we're listening."

"Come now, that's no way to receive a visitor," said the young fellow, lightly. "I want to talk with that bright-eyed chap I talked with before."

"You can't," Walter said, sadly. "He's dying of fever."

"Why don't you cure him up?" demanded the envoy, sharply, "the swamp fever is nothing if it's treated right."

"We haven't a grain of medicine," Walter replied. "But state your errand," he added sharply.

"Look here," said the young outlaw after a short pause. "I talked those fellows into this conference idea so as to get a good chance to speak with you fellows. I am sick of that gang. I am not as bad as they, and I am clean disgusted with them. I want to join forces with you fellows. I know they are bound to finish you sooner or later, but I would rather die with gentlemen than to live with murderers."

"We cannot afford to take any chances," Walter said decidedly.

"But you are taking chances, chances on the life of your friend," said the outlaw sharply. "I can cure him, I tell you. I studied medicine and I have a few things in my bag."

"Can we risk it?" said Walter, wavering, and turning to the captain for advice.

"We can risk anything for Charley's sake," said the old sailor, eagerly. "We can shoot him at the first sign of treachery. Let him in, Walt."

"I have got to go back for my things," interrupted the outlaw, whose keen ears had caught the low conversation. "I'll be back again in a minute. I'll fix up some excuse to return. I guess pretending that you are considering surrendering will do as well as anything else."

Walter gazed after the young fellow's retreating form with reluctant admiration. "He moves like a trained athlete and he hasn't got a bad face," he admitted. "I pray he does not prove to be our undoing."

"We must take the chance, lad," said the captain. "Better remove the post so he can get inside quick."

In a few minutes the outlaw strolled carelessly back towards the hut. A yell of rage went up from the convicts behind the wall as he darted through the opening into the building.

Walter quickly replaced the post and turned to watch the newcomer.

Without a word, he had marched over to where Charley lay and knelt by his side with his finger on the lad's pulse and his keen eyes searching his face.

After a moment's examination he turned to face the others. "Your friend is nearly dead," he said quietly.



CHAPTER XXX

THE ATTACK.

"He has a bare chance yet," declared the outlaw, noting their looks of grief. "I will do what I can for him, but I wish I'd been here an hour sooner."

He took a little package from the bosom of his shirt and spread the contents out upon the table. "I couldn't bring much without arousing suspicion," he said regretfully, "but I guess I can make out with what I've brought."

With deft fingers, the newcomer measured out a powder from one of his packages and administered it to the unconscious lad and next turned his attention to the wounded leg. Emptying a spoonful of liquid from one of his bottles into a gourd of water he began to bathe the inflamed limb.

The hunters could not but admire the deftness and skill with which the stranger worked. His long tapering fingers seemed to have the suppleness and deftness of a woman's and his whole attention seemed concentrated upon his patient.

The hours passed slowly away, each seeming a day in length to the anxious hunters. The convicts remained hidden behind the wall and there was nothing to do but to keep a sharp lookout. At noon the watchers made a light lunch on the smoked venison and water, but the young outlaw waved away the offered food and remained engrossed by the patient's side. At intervals of a few minutes all during the afternoon, he administered medicine to the sufferer and repeatedly bathed the wounded leg with the solution he had prepared.

The sun was barely an hour high, when he arose from the side of the couch with a weary sigh. "I think he will live," he announced, "he was almost gone for a while, though. I gave him enough strychnine during the first few hours to have killed a normal man, but his heart had weakened so that the stimulant hardly raised his pulse a single beat. The heart action is better now, and with close attention he had ought to pull through."

"How can we ever repay you for what you have done?" said the old sailor, with tears of thankfulness in his eyes, while Walter wrung the stranger's hand warmly.

"The saving of many lives will hardly atone for one I took once, though the deed was done in self-defense," said the outlaw gravely. "I am glad to have been of help in this case." He glanced around the room with a return of his former light careless manner and nodded approvingly as he noted the stores of provisions and water. "Good," he exclaimed, "you are better prepared than I expected and certainly in much better shape than my former gentle companions dream. Why, it will be impossible for them to take this place by force."

"Can you tell us of their plans, Mr.——," inquired Walter, hesitating for want of a name.

"You may call me Ritter, James Ritter," supplied the outlaw promptly. "I am not ashamed of my real name but my relatives had cause to be ashamed of its owner in his present condition. Their plans are almost self-evident, my lad. They will wait until dark and then slip over the wall, some will stop in that big building while the balance will make their way around to a building on the other side of you. They will then have you surrounded and have only to watch and wait to starve you out. They have plenty of provisions with them and can get that spring behind the fort without exposing themselves. It is only a question of time before you will have to give up, and then may the Lord grant us all a speedy death."

"Don't be too sure of it, friend," observed the captain. "The Lord never deserts those who fully believe and trust him. Those villains may be defeated yet."

The outlaw grinned as he looked around the room. "My dear friends are badly fooled," he chuckled with glee. "They believe the chief is with you, and he is not here. Why, they have already spent, in imagination, the money that they are going to derive from the sale of his plumes. What a shock it will be to them when they learn that the bird has flown. I wish I could see their faces when they hear the news."

"The chief is dead," said Walter, "do you think they would go away if they knew the truth?"

"No, I do not," replied Ritter, after a moment's thought, "in spite of all you might say, they would have a suspicion that you had secured the plumes yourselves, and, anyway, they are so mad that they will not leave until they have finished the job."

The hunters were favorably impressed with the frankness of the former outlaw. He had the speech and the manners of a gentleman, and his earnestness and apparent sincerity went far towards removing their suspicions, and, much to their surprise, they found themselves soon talking to him with the freedom of old acquaintances.

Ritter chuckled with delight when they told him of the young chief going for aid. "That gives us a fighting chance," he declared, joyfully. "We must put ourselves on short rations and try to hold out until they come."

"Where is Indian Charley?" asked Walter, "is he with the others?"

"No, they could not induce him to set foot on the island. The place evidently has a bad name among the Indians and I am not surprised after what I have seen. Even the convicts are puzzled and a little alarmed by the walls, courts, and buildings. They none of them know enough about history to lay them to the Spaniards as you folks have probably done. Charley, the Indian, swears that there is a mysterious bell which tolls every night. Have you heard anything of the kind?"

Walter briefly related their adventure with the bell-ringer, omitting any reference to the captain's superstitious fears, much to the old sailor's relief.

Further conversation was interrupted by darkness and preparations for the night.

Chris built a little fire near the door where the smoke would pass out through the cracks and prepared a stew of venison and some broth for Charley.

Taking turns the besieged made a hearty meal which did wonders in renewing hope and courage.

It was decided that they should take short shifts of watching during the night, two in each watch. It fell to Walter to share the watch with the young outlaw, for which he was not at all displeased, for he was greatly interested in the strange character, and their turns at the watch passed quickly in pleasant conversation.

The outlaw spoke freely of the incident that had brought him to the convict gang, claiming firmly that the deed which had made him a felon had been done in self-defense, but, owing to lack of witnesses and to a well-known enmity between him and the dead man, the jury had brought in a verdict of murder in the second degree.

Walter, under the spell of the man's attractive, strong personality, could not but believe his assertion.

At the end of their watch, Walter awoke Chris and the captain and stretched out for a nap, but the outlaw never closed his eyes during the long uneventful night. When not watching, he was hovering over Charley's bedside administering medicine or working over the bitten leg. Yet daylight found him as cool and fresh as ever, apparently unaffected by his long vigil.

To the hunters' great delight, day found Charley visibly improved. He had fallen into a deep sleep, his body was wet with profuse perspiration, and the swelling of the limb had greatly decreased.

They showered thanks upon the outlaw until he was visibly embarrassed and begged them to say no more.

The morning passed as had the night, without any hostile demonstration by the convicts. Smoke curling up from the fort and from a building on the other side of them told the besieged that the enemy had taken up their positions during the night as Ritter had prophesied. Evidently they were willing to wait for their triumph rather than risk any lives by trying to take their victims by assault.

When Chris started to make a stew for dinner, Ritter stopped him. "We can't spare any more water for cooking," he declared. "I have used a good deal on the patient, and the gourds are already almost empty. Our only hope of life is in husbanding our water and it would be wise to put ourselves on an allowance now. I figure that there is enough in that big copper to allow each of us a pint and a half per day for ten days."

The others saw the wisdom of his proposal and immediately agreed to it, and they made their dinner of roasted yams, smoked venison broiled before the fire, and a few swallows of water.

Once during the afternoon a convict tried a shot at a crack between the posts barricading the window. The bullet passed through, missing Ritter's head by a scant two inches. The former outlaw never winced but began singing mockingly, "Teasing, teasing, I was only teasing you."

A perfect storm of bullets answered his taunt.

"The rascals don't appreciate good singing," he said with a grin.

Charley's condition continued to steadily improve under the outlaw's careful ministrations and by nightfall, he was conscious once more and comparatively free from pain.

Night brought no change in the condition of the besieged. Watches were arranged as on the night before, and those off duty retired as soon as darkness had fallen.

"Do you believe in premonitions," asked Ritter, gravely, as he and Walter stood peering out of the windows. "Do you believe that coming events cast their shadows before them?"

"I hardly know," answered Walter, thoughtfully, "sometimes I almost believe that we are given warnings of coming events, but I can never quite convince myself that the happenings confirming, for instance, say a dream, are anything more than coincidences."

"A few days ago I would have laughed at such an idea, but all day I have had a vague presentiment of coming evil which I have found impossible to shake off," explained his companion.

"It's your liver, I dare say," said Walter cheerfully, "for my part, I feel that we are going to get out of this hole all right, and live happy ever after as the story books say."

"There can be but little happiness for me in the future, however, if we come out of this affair," said his companion sorrowfully. "Death, I sometimes think, would be the best thing that could befall me. I am a life convict, you remember, found guilty by a jury, and condemned to pass a life at hard, degrading labor in company with ruffians of the lowest, most debased type. It is not a future to look forward to with pleasure!"

Walter remained silent, he could not but admit the truth of the man's words and reflect upon the misery of such a life would naturally bring to a man of education and refinement like this one. "You might escape, go to some other state, and begin life anew," he at last suggested. "After what you have done for us, and believing you innocent as we now do, we should do all we could to help you to get away."

"The life of a fugitive would be worse than that of a convict," declared the other bitterly. "In every face I would read suspicion, and dread of detection and arrest would haunt me all the time."

Walter could say nothing more to encourage this strange, unfortunate character, and with an effort the other shook off the black mood that had fallen upon him.

"I guess you're right, it must be my liver," he said lightly. "After all there is something in the old jockey saying, "There is nothing to a race but the finish." If I live a convict I can at least die a gentleman."

A sympathetic silence fell upon the two that lasted unbroken until their watch ended.



CHAPTER XXXI.

THE PARLEY.

Only once during the night were the watchers disturbed. Two convicts endeavored to worm their way up to the hut unseen but were quickly spotted by the captain who emptied his revolver at them without any other effect than to cause them to take to their heels. Aside from this incident the besieged were not disturbed.

The convicts were evidently keeping as keen a watch as the besieged to guard against the possibility of any of them escaping. A hat which Chris squeezed out through a crack between the posts was promptly riddled with bullets.

Morning found the hunters and their new friend weary with suspense and their long inactivity. All longed for a stroll in the open air, a chance to stretch their legs, and an unlimited supply of water to drink. It almost seemed that their meager allowance of a pint and a half each for the twenty-four hours did little more than increase their thirst. They could not safely alter their unpleasant situation, however, and they wisely made the best of it and did not grumble.

They had one great consolation in Charley's rapid progress towards health. He was gaining with astonishing rapidity and bid fair to be completely recovered in a few days.

With the coming of another day, the convicts opened an irregular fire upon the doors and windows of the hut. Many of their bullets passed between the cracks in the post barricades and imbedded themselves in the walls. The defenders husbanded their ammunition, firing only when a convict exposed arm or leg. They were satisfied now of the impregnability of their building and their main concern was to keep out of the way of chance bullets.

The morning was well advanced when Walter, who was watching at a window, felt a curious sensation in the soles of his feet, and, startled, looked down to find that he was standing in a tiny pool of water. With a cry of alarm he sprang to where the big copper sat. A glance confirmed his worst fears; a stray bullet had torn a great hole in the vessel near the bottom, and of their precious store of water barely a cupful remained.

It was a staggering blow to all. Food they could exist without for several days, but in that warm, humid climate life could not be sustained without water for any length of time. Before forty-eight hours had passed they would be confronted by the alternatives of surrendering to the convicts, or to suffering the awful tortures of thirst.

"We must hold out as long as we can," declared Ritter, "something may turn up. Even death by thirst would be better than torture at the hands of those fiends. What little water is left, I would suggest that we save for the sick lad. We can stand thirst longer than he."

The rest agreed heartily to this proposal and the little water remaining was poured into an empty gourd and placed where it would be safe from bullets. By tacit consent they agreed that their loss should be concealed from Charley, who had slept throughout the incident. They knew him well enough to be sure that he would not touch the little water remaining if he knew they were suffering from thirst.

To add to the troubles of the little party, the day proved very hot and sultry, not a breath of air stirring. By noon all were very thirsty, and when night came without bringing any relief from the heat, they began to suffer severely for lack of water.

The hot night dragged slowly away to bring another breathless sultry day, the close of which found the little party almost at the limits of their endurance. Since the night before they had been unable to eat the dry venison as it greatly increased their thirst. Their tongues and throats were dry and swollen and every nerve and atom of their heated bodies clamored for water.

As night fell, Ritter got out the punctured copper and busied himself in plugging up the hole.

"What are you doing that for?" Walter inquired.

"I'll tell you when the rest are asleep," whispered the young outlaw, "there is no use alarming them."

It was late in the night before the others, tortured by fear and thirst, fell into uneasy slumber, and Walter and Ritter were free to continue their conversation.

"We are in a desperate condition," declared Ritter. "In this heat we cannot exist very much longer without water. Something has got to be done at once if we are to hold out another forty-eight hours."

"But what can we do?" said Walter, hopelessly. "It's sure death to venture outside."

"I am not so sure about that," said the other, "anyway, I am going to try it, anything is better than the tortures we will soon be suffering."

"You'll be killed," exclaimed Walter. "I'll go, Ritter, I can be spared better than you."

"Death by bullet is better than death by thirst," said his companion coolly, "and you cannot be spared as well as I. Your companions are fond of you and your death would be a terrible blow to them, while I am only an unknown convict whom no one will miss. But I am getting tragic," he continued, lightly. "I really think there is a good chance of success, the night is dark, and the very boldness of the attempt will be in its favor. They will not dream of one of us venturing right under the shadow of their fort."

Although he spoke with apparent sincerity, Walter was not deceived. Both knew the hopelessness of such an attempt. In vain did Walter attempt to dissuade the other, Ritter remained firm.

"We will remove a post from the doorway as quietly as possible and you do your best to protect me with your rifle," he said.

With a heavy heart, Walter assisted the other to remove the post. He had grown very fond of Ritter in the few days they had been together. He admired him for his bravery and the cheeriness and sweetness of his disposition under trials and suffering. He gave the outlaw's hand a long, friendly clasp at parting.

"May God bring you back safe and sound," he whispered, brokenly.

With a return pressure of the hand, Ritter dropped to his hands and knees and wound his way out of the doorway into the darkness. Walter watched his progress from the doorway with an anxious heart. He saw him crawl a considerable distance from the hut, then rise to his feet and saunter carelessly towards the fort. The very boldness of the act made it successful. The convict on guard no doubt thought the figure one of his companions, needlessly exposing himself to a bullet from the hut, and only wondered vaguely at his taking needless risks and perhaps speculated dully as to what was the nature of the large object he bore.

Carelessly, Ritter sauntered slowly past the fort and approached the spring. There was no guard posted on that side of the fort and he partly filled the copper and kneeling by the cool water took a deep drink and bathed his feverish face in the refreshing liquid. Half of his mad task was performed, but, as he fully realized, the riskiest part was yet to come.

Taking another long drink, he lifted the heavy copper and, bearing it in front of him so as to conceal it as much as possible by his person, he walked slowly back towards the hut.

Two-thirds of the return was covered in safety when the convict guard shouted with an oath, "Come back, you fool, do you want to get the daylights shot out of you?"

Ritter's answer was a taunting laugh as he bounded towards the hut.

The guard's rifle cracked and the fleeing man staggered drunkenly but sped on, while the convict working the lever of his Winchester with remorseless cruelty, emptied its contents after the fleeing figure.

At the doorway of the hut, Ritter crumpled to his knees.

"Take the copper," he cried to Walter, "I'm hit." Walter quickly placed the vessel inside, then, heedless of the rain of bullets, dragged the wounded man inside.

The others had been awakened by the noise and were quickly at his side.

"Chris, give me a hand to lay him on my bed; Captain, replace the post in the doorway," Walter commanded with heartsore calmness.

The wounded man opened his eyes as they laid him gently on the couch.

"It's no use bothering with me, old chap," he said, quietly. "I'm hit in a dozen places and I'm doctor enough to know that I'm going fast."

Walter buried his head by the dying man's side and sobbed dryly.

"There, there," the other said, soothingly, "don't feel bad about it. It's just what I wished for. I'm going to die like a gentleman."

Walter hushed his sobs with an effort to catch the feebly spoken words.

The wounded man's eyes closed, and Walter held his breath for a second thinking him dead, but in a moment he opened them again and smiled faintly, "There's nothing to a race but the finish," he whispered.

A little longer he lay still breathing heavily. Suddenly by a mighty effort he raised himself on his elbow, his eyes shining with a strange light. "Not guilty, your honor," he said in a firm voice, then sank back still and white.

"He's dead," said Walter, brokenly. "He had his wish; he died like a hero."

They covered the still form reverently with a blanket, and the silence of bitter grief settled on the little party. The others had not become so intimate with the dead man as Walter, but they had grown to admire him greatly, and the thought that he had given up his life in their service added to their grief.

Walter's suffering was intense and it was well that his mind was of necessity soon forced into other channels.

The convicts, exasperated at the way they had been outwitted, opened a heavy continuous fire upon the hut, under cover of which several attempts were made to carry the hut by assault. But the assaulting parties were easily discouraged by the steady fire that met them at each attempt.

"It looks as if they were getting desperate," said the captain. "I reckon they know now that we can hold out for a long time yet, and they are gettin' discouraged," and his companions agreed with him.

Towards morning the convicts' fire slackened and gradually ceased.

Just as day was breaking, the distant report of a rifle was borne to the ears of the besieged.

Charley, who was now able to leave his bed, listened eagerly. "It's Indian Charley's rifle. I know the sound," he declared, "ten shots; I wonder what it means."

From the fort, came an answering volley of ten rifle shots.

"It's a signal," cried Walter. "I wonder what it's for."

"Hallo there in the but, we want a parley," hailed a rough voice from the fort.

"All right," answered Charley, "send forward one man, unarmed."

A convict emerged from the fort and advanced towards the hut with fearful, hesitating footsteps.

"Don't be afraid, we won't hurt you," Walter called to him encouragingly.



CHAPTER XXXII.

HELP.

"Say what you want and be quick about it," said Charley sharply, as the convict halted close to the hut.

"Me and my mates want to know if you are ready to call this thing quits," the man growled. "We agree to leave you the island all to yourselves right off if you won't fire on us while we are leaving."

Charley turned to the others for counsel.

"There's something in the wind," he declared in a low tone. "This proposal coming so soon after that signal means something. Maybe the Indians are coming."

"We can't bank on that, it's hardly time for them yet," observed the captain. "Better agree to their offer, lads. I guess they are just tired of the game."

"We can't well stop them if they have taken a notion to leave," said Walter. "I agree with the captain. Let them go."

Charley turned to the man. "We agree, provided you leave at once," he said.

The convict, with a surly growl, turned and rapidly retraced his steps to the fort.

The convicts were in evident haste to be gone, for their envoy had hardly got inside before they began to file out, each bearing his gun and other belongings.

Within ten minutes from the envoy's visit the last of the outlaws had scaled the walls and was lost to sight.

The hunters waited for half an hour before they removed the barricade from the door and let the fresh cool morning breeze into their stuffy prison. Even then they did not venture outside, for they still feared some trick on the part of the convicts. As the moments, passed quietly by, however, without any sign of their foes, their fears began to decrease.

"I am going to find out what has become of them," Walter at last declared. "Unless we make certain now of what they are up to, we will be afraid to venture outside for a week to come."

His companions in vain tried to dissuade him from his rash project, his mind was made up and he turned a deaf ear to their words.

Shouldering one of the rifles, he made his way to the wall, clambered over it nimbly and disappeared on the other side.

It was over half an hour before Walter returned. His companions had begun to feel uneasy about him when he appeared on the top of the wall and dropped down inside with a hearty cheer.

"Come out, all of you," he shouted, "there's nothing more to fear from the convicts."

The little party crowded around him with eager questions.

"I followed them down to the landing," he said. "They had just shoved off in their dugout and were headed back for their old camp and paddling away for dear life.

"I had not long to wait before I discovered the reason for their haste. Far up the stream was a big fleet of Indian dugouts coming down, there must have been forty of them at least. Then all was as plain as print: the convicts were aiming to get back to their ponies and make their escape on them. Likely they would have done so if Indian Charley had only warned them a little sooner, but they were too late."

"Go on," said Charley, eagerly, as Walter paused in his story.

"They had only got as far as that little island near this one, when another big fleet of canoes appeared just ahead of them. I guess they realized that they stood no show to make a successful fight for it, crowded up as they were in the dugout; anyway, they ran ashore on that little island and threw up mounds of sand and are lying behind them."

"Have the Indians attacked them?" Charley demanded.

"Not a shot has been fired. The Indians have formed a circle around the island with their canoes just out of good gunshot and seem to be waiting."

"Let's all go down to the landing," proposed Charley, eagerly, as Walter concluded his account.

The others were as excited as Charley and readily agreed to the proposal.

They found the situation just as Walter had described, the little island with the band of convicts on it with the circle of canoes around it.

"They won't stand much show if the Indians attack them in earnest," observed the captain, "there ain't a bit of shelter on that island and it ain't hardly a foot above water."

As the little party gazed eagerly upon the scene, the next act in the grim tragedy occurred.

"Look," exclaimed Charley, "they didn't fasten their canoe and it is drifting away. They are so busy watching the Indians that they haven't noticed it yet."

A yell of dismay from the convicts soon told that they had discovered their loss. A few dashed down to the water as though they would plunge in after the drifting craft, but they evidently lacked the courage to face the bullets that would surely greet them if they ventured the act, for they stopped at the water's edge and soon returned to the breastworks of sand.

An Indian paddled out from the circle of canoes and securing the drifting craft, towed it back to the others.

"Just look," exclaimed Walter, "I wonder what the Seminoles mean by that move."

The others gazed eagerly with many exclamations of astonishment.

The circle of besieging canoes was breaking up, first one dropped out of the circle, then another, until the whole fleet had formed in one long, unbroken line. Paddles flashed in the water and the long line came sweeping gracefully on past the little island.

"You may hang me to the cross-trees, if they ain't agoin' to let them scoundrels go," cried the captain in disgust.

"It certainly looks like it," admitted Charley, sadly. "All they have to do is to swim to shore and make their way out on foot."

The big fleet came sweeping steadily on, headed directly for the landing where the little party stood.

An exultant yell burst from the convicts as they saw the dreaded attack so quickly abandoned.

A hundred yards from the landing, the fleet of canoes seemed to slacken speed, many of the Indians stopped paddling, and the long line was thrown into confusion.

An Indian in the leading canoe stood up and seemed to be haranguing the others.

"That's Little Tiger," said Walter eagerly, as he recognized the orator. "He's making a speech."

The hunters could, of course, make nothing of the speaker's words, but the tone of his voice told him that the young Indian was terribly in earnest. His clear, resonant voice seemed to now ring with despairing scorn, now sink to touching appeal.

"My, but he's a born orator!" exclaimed Charley in admiration. "It sounds as though he was lashing them up to some desperate undertaking."

The Indian at last ceased speaking and resuming his paddle sent his craft forward, his companions following in his wake.

He grounded his rude canoe at the hunters' feet and sprang out with the light, lithe leap of a panther.

"How," he said, gravely, extending his hand to each in turn.

The hunters shook the small, shapely hand with genuine pleasure. They were all struck by the change in the young Indian. In the short time since they had seen him last he had changed from a care-free stripling to a thoughtful chief whose word was law with his people. His manner had become grave and reserved, and there was about him an air of conscious power that well became his manly bearing.

He glanced from one to the other of the little party with keen eyes. "It is well," he said, in his clear, musical voice. "All here, none missing, not even the little one with a face like night. The Little Tiger's heart was heavy with fear lest he should come too late. But neither the jackal's tribe nor the spirits of the night have harmed his friends."

"Did not the young chief fear to land on the island of the spirits?" asked Charley with a smile.

The Indian drew himself up proudly. "Shall a Seminole fear to follow where the paleface dares to tread?" he demanded.

"Even the palefaces were filled with fear," said Charley, quickly, regretting his attempt at pleasantry, "but they found that they had been only children frightened at shadows. They have slain that which made the noises full of mystery."

"Does the young white chief speak with the tongue of truth?" asked the Seminole, eagerly.

"Even as he would be spoken to," answered Charley, gravely. "If the Little Tiger will come with his paleface friends, they will show him many wonderful things."

For a moment the young Indian hesitated, the fears bred in him by tradition struggling with his curiosity, but curiosity conquered. Turning to his followers, who had all drawn in to the landing, he gave some sharp commands in his own language. They stepped ashore with evident reluctance and there was considerable murmuring amongst them. The chief looked them over with a scornful eye.

"Some of my warriors are not men, but squaws in men's clothing," he said, bitterly. "Their blood is like water in their veins with fear."

The murmuring Seminoles grew silent under their chief's scornful gaze, and when he moved forward with his white friends they followed closely in the rear.

On the way up to the wall, Charley explained to the young Indian about the bell and its nightly ringer.

The chief listened with relief and satisfaction on his face and quickly communicated the news in his own tongue to his followers. Immobile as were the Indians' faces, they could not conceal entirely their relief and pleasure at the explanation of what had been to them a life-long, fearful mystery.

Little Tiger was astonished when he saw the ancient road through the forest, and, at the sight of walls and buildings of stone, he exhibited a childish delight. "This is an island worthy of being the home of a great chief," he declared. "In the big wigwam of stone (the fort) the Little Tiger will rest in peace when not on the hunt, and the squaws shall make of this dirt of black, great fields of yams and waving corn. It is good, that which the palefaces have done; how can their red brother reward them?"

"By lending them one of his warriors to guide them back to where their ponies and goods are waiting," answered Charley, promptly.

"It shall be done," said the chief, "though the hearts of their red brothers will be heavy at parting. Their hearts were filled with gladness with the hope that the palefaces would bide with them and take unto them squaws from among the Seminoles."

The captain was on the point of exploding with indignation at the thought of an Indian squaw, but Charley spoke up quickly.

"Little Tiger does his friends great honor, yet, though their hearts are heavy at the thought of parting, they must go." Charley glanced at the captain and added mischievously, "He with the gray hair on face and head has, without doubt, many squaws amongst his people whose hearts are longing for his return."

The old sailor glared at the speaker in speechless indignation.

"There cannot be too many hands to till the fields," observed the chief, gravely. "I will give him another squaw to take back with him to his wigwam."

Charley silenced the embarrassed captain with a shake of his head. "The chief is kind," he said, "but squaws are not as men, there would be great enmity and hair-pulling between the white squaws and the red, and when squaws quarrel the wigwam is sad for the warrior."

The chief nodded gravely. "The young white chief speaks truly," he said.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE SEMINOLES.

The conversation on the part of the hunters had so far been conducted by Charley. Walter had remained silent, busily thinking over the wrongs that had been done them by the convicts. He could not forget the still, cold form in the hut that had been robbed of life by the murderers' bullets. He was not usually a vindictive boy, but, as he thought of Ritter's noble act and sudden death, his passion steadily grew and at last he turned scornfully to the young chief.

"Little Tiger speaks with the tongue of a man, but his deeds are those of a squaw," he declared, bitterly. "Are he and his braves afraid of the murderers of his people and the slayers of his father that they leave them to escape in peace and safety?"

"They will not escape," said the young Indian, his face darkening with anger at the savage taunt. "A man's death for a man, but jackals shall die like jackals. With hearts of terror and blood turned to water in their fear, they shall die a death more horrible than the palefaces can give them."

"You have offended him, Walter," said Charley, as the young savage walked proudly away. "Why couldn't you be more patient? I have felt all along that he had some plan for dealing with the convicts."

"I suppose I have put my foot in it," said Walter regretfully, "but it's no use crying about it now."

The Indians were already lighting fires and preparing breakfast, but the hunters had a task before them which they felt they must perform before they could touch food, and they immediately set about it.

In the shade of a majestic live oak, they dug a deep grave and in it laid to rest the body of the unfortunate Ritter. Their eyes were moist as the earth covered the remains of the young hero.

Little Tiger rose to meet them as they approached the group of Indians.

Walter walked up to him with outstretched hand. "I am sorry for my angry, foolish words," he said. "When sorrow bears heavy on the heart, the tongue grows bitter."

The young Seminole grasped the offered hand with evident pleasure. "Even squaws forgive and forget, and a warrior should be nobler than a squaw," he said, sagely. "The palefaces shall be seated and share the food of their red brothers."

The hunters would gladly have declined, but could not well do so without giving offense, so they seated themselves in the circle surrounding the steaming kettle containing the food and with inward qualms partook lightly of the stew.

There was a kettle to every fifteen Indians, and their manner of eating left much to be desired. Spoons and forks they had none, but they solved the problem by dipping their hands into the pot and fishing out the portions desired. With true courtesy, the guests were given the first dip into the pot.

As they ate, the hunters had an opportunity to study their hosts more carefully than they had yet done.

They were all splendid specimens of savage manhood. Not one was less than six feet tall, and each was shaped and muscled like an athlete. All wore the usual Seminole dress, a long shirt belted in at the waist, moccasins, and turbans of tightly wound red handkerchiefs. They were extremely neat and cleanly in appearance, a virtue not common with Indian tribes.

There were a few squaws among the company, but they did not tempt a second glance. They were wooden-faced, slovenly-looking creatures almost disgusting in appearance. They were loaded with string upon string of colored beads forming a solid mass, like a huge collar, from the point of their chins down to their chests.

"Which one have you picked out for your own, Captain?" whispered Charley. "That big one over there seems to have her eye upon you."

The old sailor flushed with embarrassment. "Look out or they'll have you," he cautioned fearfully, "I kinder feel that big one has singled me out, an' I don't want to encourage her none."

The Indians seemed to regard the day as a holiday to celebrate the laying out of the spirits and the adding of a large fertile island to their domain.

The morning was given over to feasting and to running, jumping and wrestling matches. Only the young Indians indulged in these contests, the warriors sitting gravely looking on.

Our young hunters tried their strength and skill with the Indian lads, but, although they were stronger and more nimble than most boys of their age, they found that they were no match for the young Seminoles.

While the boys were enjoying the contests, the captain sat moodily apart, keeping a worried eye upon the squaws.

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Charley drew aside one of the Seminole lads, whom he had found could speak English, and whispered eagerly to him.

The Indian lad's bright, beady eyes twinkled as he listened, and, when Charley concluded, he nodded his head and slipped away into the group around the fire.

"Look, Walt, oh, look," shouted Charley a moment later, "look at the captain, oh my, oh my," and Charley rolled on the grass in wicked glee.

The young Indian had done his work well. A dozen of the squaws had formed a ring around the old sailor and were slowly closing in. The captain had struggled to his feet and with red face and horrified eyes was waving his arms frantically, shouting, "Go away, go away," much as one would shoo a flock of chickens.

"Don't be afraid, captain," called Charley, "they only want to embrace you."

"I won't be embraced, I won't, I won't," cried the old sailor, frantically.

"Come, Captain, do the Hobson act," said Walter, "the ladies expect it."

"Help, help," shouted the captain appealingly, as the circle of grave-faced squaws steadily advanced, "I won't be embraced, I won't."

With a sudden howl of terror the squaws turned and fled.

In his fear, the captain had opened his mouth a little too far and his false teeth had tumbled out. The old sailor caught them in his hand and continued to wave his arms. "I won't be embraced," he shouted.

But there was no need of the defiance; the squaws would not, for untold beads, have come near the strange being with the movable teeth.

"Shame, Captain," said Charley severely, as the two boys approached the old sailor. "You must have been flirting with those ladies to make them act like that."

"I guess they was just attracted by my appearance," said the captain modestly, "I always was a favorite with the ladies."

"Looks as if they were headed this way again," said Walter.

With a cry of fright the old sailor turned and dashed away for the shelter of the hut as fast as he could run.

The boys shouted with laughter, and even the grave warriors smiled at the scene.

After dinner the celebration was renewed, but this time the youths formed the audience while their elders held shooting matches and more sober contests of skill and strength.

The captain did not emerge from the hut until nearly sundown, and when he did appear he carried both upper and lower teeth in his hand. Whenever a squaw approached anywhere near him he would open his mouth to its fullest extent and wave the teeth in the air.

"They will get used to seeing you without them and soon think you as beautiful as ever," Charley said to him, gravely.

"Charley," said the old sailor, solemnly, "for good or ill, we leave this island to-morrow. It ain't often them Injin women meets with a man of my looks, an' it has drove 'em plum crazy. It ain't safe for me to stay longer."

"I'm wondering what that widow lady in Shelbourne will say when she hears of this," said Walter musingly. "She will naturally think that you must have given them great encouragement."

"If either of you lads breathe a word of this in town, I'll throttle you," declared the apprehensive old sailor.

"We won't say a word," said Charley, severely, "but I must say you have been setting Walter and I a terrible example, captain."

After this parting shot, the two tormentors retired quickly, for the old sailor was almost at the exploding point with indignation.

The captain was not the only one to whom the afternoon had brought trials. Chris had not been without his share of troubles. The Seminoles treated him with marked disdain and would not even permit him to eat with the others.

"The Indians consider the darky as an inferior being," Charley had confided to Walter in a whisper. "There are rumors that there is more than one negro slave in the heart of the Everglades. The Seminoles have a proverb, 'White man, Indian, dog, nigger,' which expresses their opinion of the colored race."

Chris' troubles reached their climax when the little party was seated around the fire with the Indians in the evening.

The chief, who had been watching the little darky closely all day, turned to Charley: "Me buy 'em," he said, indicating Chris with a wave of his hand. "Me buy nigger."

"I ain't no nigger," shouted Chris in a rage, "I'se a free-born black Englishman, dat's what I is."

Charley silenced the indignant little darky with a wave of his hand.

"He already has a master and is therefore not ours to sell," he said, while Chris bristled with indignation.

"Who master?" inquired the Seminole with an appraising glance at the sturdy little darky.

"A man called King Edward," said Charley gravely, and Chris' indignation subsided.

"Too bad," grunted the chief, and dropped the subject.

"What's that?" exclaimed Walter suddenly, as distant rifle shots echoed in the air, were repeated irregularly and finally ceased.

"The convicts, I guess," whispered Charley, "I don't understand why they are firing, though. All the Indians are here."

Significant glances passed between the Indians.

"Jackals are dead," said the chief, a fierce exultation in his face.

"Who killed them?" cried Charley.

"Crocodiles," said the Seminole, briefly.

The little party stared at each other in horror. They understood now why the Seminoles had not made an attack, and had showed so much confidence in the convicts not being able to escape.

Much as the hunters hated the men who had persecuted them, they felt shocked and horror-stricken at the horrible fate that had overtaken them.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

THE RETURN.

The hunters soon withdrew from the circle around the fire and made their way to their hut.

"This has been a queer trip," said Charley musingly. "I do not believe I care to make another like it. Look at all we have been through, and what have we gained by it? Nothing."

"We might stop on the St. Johns on our way back and hunt again for plumes," suggested Walter.

But the others negatived the proposal decidedly.

"It would be like tempting Providence, after the dangers we have been spared from," the captain declared.

"Dis nigger wants to get out ob a kentry where a black Englishman is called a nigger," said Chris.

"Don't mention plumes to me," exclaimed Charley, "I am sick of everything connected with this trip."

Walter smiled. "I am quite sure that I would not feel at all bad if I knew we were carrying back several thousand dollars' worth of plumes with us," he said.

"Oh, quit your dreaming and go to bed," exclaimed Charley, testily, "instead of carrying back a few thousand dollars' worth of plumes with us, we will all have to hunt for a job, when we get to the coast."

But in spite of Charley's dire prophecy, Walter was smiling as he undressed in the dark.

The hunters were astir at break of day and preparing for an early start. They cooked and ate a hasty breakfast and then carried their canoes down to the water.

The Indian whom the chief had assigned as their guide was already patiently waiting in his dugout.

It did not take the hunters long to stow away their few belongings and they were soon ready for their departure.

The chief followed them to the water accompanied by all his band.

The hunters parted with the young Seminole with genuine regret, and he, for his part, seemed greatly affected.

"The Little Tiger hopes that his white brothers will return again to the Glades," he said as he shook hands with each. "His wigwam will be always open to them. Will not he with the hair like the Spanish moss, consider again, and choose from among them one of the squaws to cheer his wigwam?"

"No, thank ye, chief," said the old sailor hastily, "it would only make the rest of 'em jealous."

The rest of the Indians gathered around and each shook hands with the little party, gravely saying "How," the only English many of them knew.

The hunters stepped aboard their canoes, and took up their paddles. The Indian guide in his dugout took the lead and with flashing blades the hunters followed closely in his wake.

As they passed the little island where the convicts had met their death, the hunters could not repress a shudder of horror. Around it lay the repulsive-looking crocodiles, placidly sleeping on the water, and amongst them floated a man's straw hat. It was all that remained of the cruel, merciless band.

"They deserved death, but the death they met was too awful for any human being," Charley murmured.

"I wonder what became of Indian Charley," said Walter. "He was not with the others."

Their guide's quick ears had caught the question. "He tied to tree in swamp for mosquitoes to eat," he volunteered pleasantly.

"I think," remarked Charley, after a long pause, "I think I would rather be a Seminole's friend than his enemy."

"Aye, lad," agreed the captain, "they are savages still in their loves and hates."

The Seminole guide led them out of the Everglades by a short cut, and the hunters sighed with relief when the great swamp was left behind.

For two days they traveled while daylight lasted, making camp at night on some convenient point. On the morning of the third day they reached their old camp where their things were buried. Here they went into camp again while the Seminole scoured the woods for their ponies. He returned triumphant the second day riding one of the horses and driving the others. The animals were sleek and fat from rich feeding and long inactivity.

The hunters made their guide presents of a couple of clasp knives and a revolver with its ammunition and sent him away delighted.

"I wanted to wait until we got home to give you a big surprise, but I can't keep it concealed any longer," said Walter regretfully, as his companions began to take the canoes apart preparatory to stowing them in the packs.

While the others gazed at him in surprise, he drew out a bundle from under the thwart of one of the canoes. Undoing it he took out a long feathery plume.

"Where did you get that?" exclaimed Charley in surprise.

"It's one of those we dug up on the chief's island," explained Walter. "You see I used to work in a store where they used to handle such things, and I got an idea when we first opened the package that those plumes were not in as bad shape as they appeared. I did not say anything about it, because I did not want to run the risk of possibly causing more disappointment, but I put the box in the canoe and the first chance I got on the island I took a weak solution of vinegar and water and went to work on them. I had only time to clean two or three, but I am sure that at least three-fourths of them can be made saleable."

"Walter, you're a trump," exclaimed Charley in delight, and the others were not much behind in expressing their admiration and joy.

Owing to Walter's thoughtfulness, it was a gay, happy party that took up the trail back for the coast.

The return trip was made without any uncommon incident and the little party arrived safely at the little seacoast town of Shelbourne. Here they sold their ponies and arms, and renting a little house, went busily to work cleaning and preparing the damaged plumes for market. When the task was finished and the last plume sold, they found themselves the happy possessors of the not insignificant sum of $3,200, which divided between them gave each a capital of $800.

With the first money they received from their plumes, they purchased a handsome repeating rifle which they despatched to their friend, Little Tiger, by an Indian who had come into town to trade.

A couple of weeks after, the hunters received a visit from the Seminole who had acted as their guide. He was the bearer of a bundle of beautifully tanned deer-skins, a present from the chief.

"The Little Tiger mourns for his white brothers," said the chief's messenger, "the beautiful rifle speaks to him like a message from them. He bids them when they will to return and end their days in the shelter of his wigwam. He says, if the gray-haired one desires, the offer of a squaw is still open."

The joke on the captain was too good to keep, and the boys have told it to the widow lady whom the captain is interested in. She sometimes tasks him with having given the dusky ladies too great encouragement, and the old sailor gets very red and protests that such was not the case; that he couldn't help it; that he always was a great favorite with the ladies. At first, he used to call upon Walter and Charley to prove the truth of his statements, but they would only shake their heads ominously and remain gravely silent.

Upon their return the hunters had prepared a full statement of the death of the convicts and mailed it to the proper authorities, but, much to their indignation, their story was not believed but was regarded as an attempt to secure the reward money that had been offered.

Chris is just now greatly incensed over a song that every one seems to be humming. We believe the chorus runs, "Coon, coon, coon, how I wish my color would fade." He regards "coon" as a much more offensive title even than nigger, and contends that it is no name to be applied to a free-born black English gentleman.

Just now all our hunters are resting up from their terrible experiences. One would think that they had passed through enough to discourage them from undertaking another hazardous trip, but adventures breed a love for adventure, and the free, open air calls loudly to those who have followed stream and forest.

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