Bob slept but little that night for excitement, and dreaming about the glorious things that might be in store for him, kept him awake. He and Lester were up long before the sun, and as soon as they had eaten breakfast, they mounted their horses and rode off in the direction of Godfrey Evans's house. Early as it was when they arrived there, they found the cabin deserted by all save Dan, who sat on the bench by the door. David was hastening through the woods toward his father's camp, intent on finding the pointer, and Mrs. Evans had gone to her daily labor.
"He's just went over to the General's house, Dave has," said Dan, in reply to a question from Lester; and he thought he told the truth, for we know that David went in that direction on purpose to mislead his brother. "Yes, he's went up thar, an' 'tain't no ways likely that he'll be to hum afore dark."
The visitors turned their horses about and rode away, and as soon as they were out of sight of the cabin, they struck into the woods to make one more effort to find David's traps, if he had set any. But, as usual, they met with no success, and Lester again gave it as his opinion, that David had no intention of trying to trap the quails. Bob thought so too; but in less than half an hour, they received positive proof that they were mistaken. They were riding around the rear of one of the General's fields, on their way home, when they happened to cast their eyes through the bushes that lined the fence, and saw something that surprised them greatly, and caused them to draw rein at once. There was a wagon in the field, and Don and Bert Gordon were passing back and forth between it and a little thicket of bushes and briers that stood a short distance away. They left the wagon with empty hands, and when they came back, they brought their arms full of something, which they stowed away in a box. While Lester and Bob were looking at them, a small, dark object suddenly arose from the box and came toward them, passing swiftly over their heads and disappearing in the woods.
"That's a quail!" exclaimed Bob. "It escaped from Don's hands."
"Yes, sir, and we have made a discovery," said Lester. "Dave Evans hasn't given up trapping the quails after all. He's catching them every day, and Don and Bert are helping him."
"It's just like them," replied Bob, in great disgust. "They're always poking their noses into other people's business. But I don't feel as badly over it as I did a short time ago."
"I know what you are counting on. You are as sure of that mail carrier's berth as you would be if you were to ride the route for the first time to-day; but if you should happen to slip up on it, you'd be glad to have the seventy-five dollars to fall back on."
"O, I am willing to work for it," replied Bob, quickly, "not only because I want it myself, but because I don't want Dave Evans to have it. What's to be done?"
"That trap must have been as full as it could hold," said Lester, thoughtfully. "They have made five or six trips between the wagon and that clump of bushes since we have been here. We know where one of the traps is set now, and that will guide us in finding the rest. When we do find them, we'll carry out our plan of robbing them every day. They must have trapped some birds before, and if we watch them when they go home we can find out where they keep them. What do you say to that?"
Bob replied that he was willing, and so the two dismounted, and having hitched their horses, set themselves to watch the wagon. They followed it at a respectful distance, as it made the rounds of the traps (they did not know that they also were followed by somebody, who kept a sharp eye on all their movements), and Bob grew angry every time he saw more quails added to those already in the coop.
"Those fellows are always lucky," he growled. "I'll warrant that if we visit those traps we set yesterday, we'll not find a single bird in them. Don and Bert are hauling them in by dozens."
"So much the better for us," returned his companion. "Every quail they catch makes it just so much easier for us to earn seventy-five dollars apiece."
Bob, feeling somewhat mollified by this view of the case, turned his attention to Don and his brother, who, having visited all their traps by this time, climbed into the wagon and drove toward home.
DON'S HOUNDS TREE SOMETHING.
Lester and his companion followed the wagon at a safe distance and saw it driven to the negro quarters, which were located about half a mile below the General's house. It stopped in front of one of the cabins, and Don and Bert began the work of transferring the quails from the coop to the building in which they were to remain until they were sent up the river. Bob and Lester counted the number of trips they made between the wagon and the door of the cabin, and made a rough estimate of the number of birds they had caught that morning.
"They've got at least a hundred," said Lester, when the wagon was driven toward the house, "and that is just one-sixth of the number they want. At that rate that beggar Dave will be rich in a week more."
"Not if we can help it!" exclaimed Bob, angrily. "That cabin will burn as well as the shooting-box did!"
"But we don't want to do too much of that sort of work," answered Lester. "We may get the settlement aroused, and that wouldn't suit us. I'd rather steal the birds, wouldn't you?"
Bob replied that he would, but hinted that if they attempted it they might have a bigger job on their hands than they had bargained for. In the first place, there were Don's hounds.
"But we braved them once—that was on the night we borrowed Don's boat to go up and burn his shooting-box—and we are not afraid to do it again," said Lester. "We didn't alarm them then."
Bob acknowledged the fact, but said he was afraid they might not be so lucky the next time. And even if they succeeded in breaking into the cabin without arousing the dogs, how were they to carry away a hundred live quails? The only thing they could do would be to put them in bags, and it was probable that half of them would die for want of air before they could get them home. They would be obliged to make two or three trips to the cabin in order to secure them all, and each time they would run the risk of being discovered by the hounds.
While the two friends were talking these matters over, they were walking slowly toward the place where they had left their horses. Having mounted, they started for home again, and the very first person they saw when they rode out of the woods into the road was David Evans, who had just been up to the shop to restore the pointer to his owner.
"There he is!" said Bob, in a low whisper. "He is dressed up in his best, too."
"Best!" sneered Lester. "Why, I wouldn't be seen at work in the fields in such clothes as those!"
"Nor in any other, I guess. They are the best he can afford," said Bob, who had some soft spots in his heart, if he was a bad boy, "and I don't believe in making fun of him."
"You believe in cheating him out of a nice little sum of money though, if you can," retorted Lester.
"No, I don't. I am working to keep him from cheating me out of it. If he will keep his place among the niggers, where fellows of his stamp belong, I'll be the last one to say or do anything against him; but when he tries to shove himself up among white folks, and swindle me out of a new shot-gun and get appointed mail carrier over my head, it's something I won't stand. Say, Dave," he added, drawing rein, as the subject of his remarks approached, "can you spare us just about two minutes for a little private conversation?"
"I reckon," replied David. "Have you joined that sportsman's club, and are you going to prosecute me for being a pot-hunter?"
"Lester has already told you what we are going to do about that, and you may rest assured that we shall do it," answered Bob, sharply. "What we say, we always stand to. What we want to talk to you about now is this: We know, as well as you do, that your father is hiding out here in the cane, and that he dare not show himself in the settlement for fear he will be arrested. You wouldn't like to see him sent to jail, would you?"
"I know what you mean," replied David. "My father may have been foolish, but he has done nothing that the law can touch him for."
When he said this he was thinking of Clarence Gordon and the barrel with the eighty thousand dollars in it. He did not know that Godfrey was guilty of highway robbery, and he forgot that he had also committed an assault upon Don, and that he had received and cared for stolen property, knowing it to be stolen.
"Hasn't he, though!" cried Bob. "He got into my father's smoke-house last night and stole some meal and bacon. He forced a lock to do it, too. The law can touch him for that, can't it?"
David leaned against the fence and looked at the two boys without speaking. He did not doubt Bob's story. He had been expecting to hear of such things for a long time. He had told himself more than once that when his father grew tired of living on squirrels, somebody's smoke-house and corn-crib would be sure to suffer. Godfrey was getting worse every day, and something told David that he would yet perform an act that would set every man in the settlement on his track.
"We can send him to prison," continued Bob. "You would not like that, of course, and you can prevent it if you feel like it. Lester and I are the only ones who know that he robbed my father last night, and we will keep it to ourselves on one condition."
"I know what it is," said David. "You want me to promise that I will trap no more quails. Perhaps you want the money yourselves."
"That's the very idea," said Lester.
"It isn't the money we care about," exclaimed Bob, quickly. "We've set out to put down this business of trapping birds and shipping them out of the country, and we're going to do it. You think that because Don and Bert are backing you up, you can do just as you please; but we'll show you that they don't run this settlement. You're getting above your business, Dave, and it is high time you were taught a lesson you will remember the longest day you live. What do you say? Will you trap any more quails?"
"Yes, I will," replied David, without an instant's hesitation.
"Don't forget that we can put the constable on your father's track to-morrow morning," said Bob, his voice trembling with rage.
"I wasn't thinking of my father. He has made his bed and he must lie in it. I was thinking of my mother. She must have something to eat and wear this winter, and how is she to get it, if I give up this chance of making a little money?"
"Just listen to you, now!" Bob almost shouted. "One would think to hear you talk that you are used to handling greenbacks by the bushel. You are a pretty looking ragamuffin to call a hundred and fifty dollars 'a little money,' are you not? It's more than your old shantee and all you've got in it are worth. Go on!" he yelled, shaking his riding whip at David, as the latter hurried down the road toward home. "I'll send you word when to come down to the landing and see your father go off to jail."
"I never saw such independence exhibited by a fellow in his circumstances," said Lester, as he and Bob rode away together. "One would think he was worth a million dollars."
"He thinks he will soon be worth a hundred and fifty, and that's what ails him," answered Bob, whose face was pale with fury. "But there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, as he will find before he is many days older. I'll tell my father to-night what Godfrey Evans did, and as soon as it grows dark we'll go down to that cabin and carry off all the birds we can catch. The rest we will liberate."
A part of this programme was duly carried out. As soon as they reached home Bob told his father what had happened the night before, and was a good deal surprised as well as disgusted, because Mr. Owens did not grow very angry, and declare that Godfrey should be punished to the full extent of the law.
"A bag of meal and a side of bacon are hardly worth making a fuss about," said Bob's father. "I will put a new lock on the smoke-house. But how does it come that you boys did not tell me of this at once?"
"Because we wanted to make something out of it," replied Bob. "If it hadn't been for Dave, Lester and I would have pocketed a nice little sum of spending money; but he's gone and got the job of trapping the quails, or rather that meddlesome Don Gordon got it for him, and, not satisfied with that, he has the cheek to run against me when I am trying to be appointed mail carrier."
"Well," said Mr. Owens.
"Well," repeated Bob, "I told him his father was a thief, and I could prove it, but I would say nothing about it if he would agree not to trap any more quails. If he had done that, I should have brought up this matter of carrying the mail, and made him promise to leave me a clear field there, too; but he wouldn't listen to anything."
"I am glad you told me this," said Mr. Owens, after thinking a moment, "and it is just as well that you did not say anything to David about the mail. No one knows that I am going to put in a bid for the contract, and I don't want it known; so be careful what you say. Gordon will never get that mail route for David, for the authorities will think twice before appointing the son of a thief to so responsible a situation."
"But are you going to do nothing to Godfrey?"
"I'll keep him in mind, and if it becomes necessary I'll put the constable after him, and tell him that the more fuss he makes in capturing him, the better it will suit me."
The first thing the two boys did after they had eaten their dinner, was to fit up one of the unoccupied negro cabins for the reception of the birds they intended to steal that night. There were a good many holes to be patched in the roof where the shingles had been blown off, and numerous others to be boarded up in the walls where the chinking had fallen out, and the afternoon was half gone before their work was done. They still had time to visit their traps, but all the birds they took out of them could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Bob looked at them a moment, then thought of the big box full he had seen Don and Bert take home that morning, and grew very angry over his ill luck. He proposed to wring the necks of the captives and have them served up for breakfast the next morning, but Lester would not consent. Every one helped, he said, and these five birds, added to the forty or fifty they were to steal that night, would make a good start toward the fifty dozen they wanted.
After the boys had eaten supper, they secured four meal bags, which they hid away in a fence corner, so that they could find them again when they wanted them, and then adjourned to the wagon-shed to lay their plans for the night's campaign. Of course their expedition could not be undertaken until everybody about the General's plantation was abed and asleep. That would not be before ten or twelve o'clock—the negroes kept late hours since they gained their freedom, Bob said—and they dared not go to sleep for fear that they would not awake again before morning. They hardly knew what to do with themselves until bed time came. They spent an hour in talking over their plans, then went into the house and played checkers, and were glad indeed when the hour for retiring arrived. They made a show of going to bed, but they removed nothing but their boots, which they slammed down on the floor with more noise than usual. They heard the clock in the kitchen strike every hour, and when it struck twelve they began to bestir themselves.
Bob's room being located on the first floor, in one of the wings of the house, it was a matter of no difficulty for him and his companion to leave it without arousing any of the family. All they had to do was to open one of the windows, drop to the ground, pull on their boots and be off; and this they did in about the same time that it takes to tell it. They picked up their meal bags as they passed along the fence, and in half an hour more were inside General Gordon's fence, and moving cautiously along the lane that led toward the negro quarters. A few steps brought them into the midst of the cabins, which were as dark and silent as though they had been deserted. Some of them were deserted, while others were occupied by the field hands. The one in which the quails were confined stood on the outskirts of the quarters, and Bob, who had taken particular pains to mark the building, so that he would know it again, had no difficulty in finding it. It was the only cabin that was provided with a covered porch; and that same porch, or rather the posts which supported the roof, came very handy to the young prowlers a few minutes later. They walked around the building two or three times to make sure that there was no one near it, and then Bob cautiously mounted the steps and tried the door. The patter of little feet and the shrill notes of alarm that sounded from the inside told him that he had aroused the prisoners.
"Just listen to that," whispered Lester, greatly amazed. "The cabin must be full of them."
"We'll soon know how many there are," answered Bob. "I'd give something if I could see Don Gordon's face when he comes down here in the morning."
As Bob spoke, he opened one of the meal bags and drew from it the iron strap, which Godfrey Evans had used in prying open the door of the smoke-house two nights before. Lester struck a match on his coat sleeve, and when it blazed up, so that Bob could see how to work, he placed the strap between the hasp and the door, and exerted all his strength in the effort to draw out the staple with which it was confined. But that staple was put there to stay. It was made by the plantation blacksmith under Don's personal supervision, and as it was long enough to be clinched on the inside of the door, Bob made no progress whatever in his efforts to force an entrance.
"We can do nothing here," said he, after he had pulled and pushed until the inside of his hands seemed to be on fire. "We must try the window."
"But that is so high you can't reach it," said Lester.
"Not from the ground, I know. You will have to hold me up."
Descending from the porch with noiseless footsteps, the boys passed around to the rear of the cabin, and when Lester had stationed himself under the window, Bob quickly mounted to his shoulders. He examined the window as well as he could in the dark, and began to grow discouraged. It was boarded up with two-inch planks, and they were held in their places by the largest spikes Don could find at Mr. Jones's store. Bob pushed his lever under one of the planks, but when he laid out his strength upon it, Lester rocked about in so alarming a manner, that Bob lost his balance, and to save himself from falling, jumped to the ground.
"We might as well go home," said he, rubbing his elbow, which, owing to Lester's unsteadiness, he had scratched pretty severely on the rough planks. "If we only had a bundle of straw we'd start a bonfire."
"It's a pity to go home and leave all these birds here," replied Lester. "Let's get up on the roof and tear off some of the shingles. We can climb up by those posts that support the roof of the porch."
"O, it is easy enough to get up there, but what good will it do to tear off the shingles? We couldn't get the birds out unless one of us went down after them, and it wouldn't be me, I tell you!"
"We'll not try to get the birds at all. We'll leave the holes open so that they can escape. Wouldn't that be better than allowing them to stay here for Dave Evans to make money out of?"
"I should say it would," exclaimed Bob, who always grew angry whenever anything was said about David's chances of making money. "But we'll first make one more effort to get the birds ourselves. Hold me up again and don't wobble about as you did before."
In a few seconds more Bob was again perched upon his companion's shoulders, and this time he was sure that his efforts would be crowned with success. The planks were fastened to the window casing, which, on one side, was too badly decayed to hold the spikes. He started some of them with the first pull he made at his lever, and, encouraged by his progress, was about to prepare for a greater effort, when Lester uttered an exclamation of alarm and jumped from under him.
"Great Moses!" exclaimed Bob, who came to the ground with fearful violence. "Do you want to kill a fellow?"
"No," said Lester, whose voice trembled so that it was almost inaudible. "There's somebody coming!"
Before Bob could ask any more questions, a loud, shrill whistle, which sounded only a little distance away, rang through the quarters, followed almost immediately by the impatient yelp of a hound. The young prowlers were frightened almost out of their senses. Before they could make up their minds what ought to be done, a voice shouted:
"Here they be! Take 'em, fellers! Take 'em down!"
Another impatient yelp and the rush of feet on the hard road told the boys that Don Gordon's hounds were coming. This aroused them, and showed them the necessity of making an effort to escape. It was useless to run; the only place of safety was the roof of the cabin, and they made the most frantic efforts to reach it. They darted quickly around the corner of the building, sprang upon the porch and squirmed up the posts with the agility of monkeys. But with all their haste they did not have a second to spare. They had scarcely left the porch before the hounds bounded up the steps and a pair of gleaming jaws came together with a snap close to Lester's foot, which he drew out of the way just in time to escape being caught. Panting and almost breathless with terror the two boys crept cautiously up the roof—the moss-covered shingles were so slippery that it was all they could do to keep from sliding off among the hounds—and seating themselves on the ridge-pole looked at each other and at the savage brutes from which they had so narrowly escaped. Then they looked all around to find the person who had set the dogs upon them, but could see nothing of him.
"Where has he gone, I wonder?" said Lester, who was the first to speak.
"Haven't the least idea," replied Bob.
"Who was it?"
"Don't know that, either. It didn't sound to me like Don's voice, but it sounded like his whistle, and if it was him, I wish he'd come and call the dogs off. I am willing to give up now, Lester. Luck is always on his side, and if he will let us go home without making any fuss about it, I'll promise to leave him alone in future."
Lester could not find fault with his companion for losing his courage and talking in this strain, for he was frightened half to death himself, and he would have made all sorts of promises if he could only have climbed down from that roof and sneaked off to bed without being seen by anybody. Don did not show himself, although they called his name as loudly as they dared, and neither did the hounds grow tired and go away, as Lester hoped they would. They were much too well trained for that. It not unfrequently happened while Don and Bert were hunting 'coons and 'possums at night, that the game took refuge in a tree much too large to be cut down in any reasonable time by such choppers as they were. In that case Don would order the hounds to watch the tree, and he and Bert would go home, knowing that when daylight came they would find the dogs still on duty and the game closely guarded. The animals seemed to be perfectly satisfied when they found that Lester and Bob had taken refuge on the top of the cabin. They walked around the building two or three times, as if to make sure that there was no way of escape, and then laid down on the ground and prepared to take matters very easily until their master should come out to them in the morning. When Bob saw that, he lost all heart.
"If we never were in a scrape before, we're in one now," said he. "We may as well make up our minds to stay here all night."
"O, we can't do that," replied Lester, greatly alarmed. "Some one will certainly see us."
"Of course they will. How can we help it?"
"I should never dare show my face in the settlement again, if this night's work should become known," continued Lester, who was almost ready to cry with vexation. "It would ruin me completely, and you, too. Don and Bert would ask no better fun than to spread it all over, and your chances of carrying the mail would be knocked higher than a kite. Let's pull off some of these shingles and throw them at the dogs. Perhaps we can drive them away."
"You don't know them as well as I do. They'll not drive worth a cent. We're here, and here we must stay until somebody comes and calls them away. We'll hail the first nigger we see in the morning, and perhaps we can hire him to help us and keep his mouth shut."
This was poor consolation for Lester, but it was the best Bob had to offer. Things turned out just as he said they would. They sat there on the ridge pole for more than four hours, Lester racking his brain, in the hope of conjuring up some plan for driving the dogs away, and Bob grumbling lustily over the ill luck which met him at every turn.
At last, when they had grown so cold that they could scarcely talk, and Lester began to be really afraid that he should freeze to death, the gray streaks of dawn appeared in the east. Shortly afterward the door of the nearest cabin opened, and a negro came out and stood on the steps, stretching his arms and yawning.
"It's the luckiest thing that ever happened to us," said Bob, speaking only after a great effort. "That's the hostler. He knows me and will help us if anybody will. Say, Sam," he added, raising his voice. "Sam!"
"Who dar?" asked the negro, looking all around, as if he could not make up his mind where the voice came from. "Who's dat callin' Sam?"
"It's me. Here I am, up here on top of this cabin," replied Bob, slapping the shingles with his open hand to show the negro where he was.
"Wal, if dat ain't de beatenest thing!" exclaimed Sam. "What you two gemmen doin' up dar?"
"O, we were coming through here last night, taking a short cut through the fields, you know, and the dogs discovered us and drove us up here."
"I thought I heerd 'em fursin," said Sam; "but I thought mebbe they'd done cotch a 'coon."
"Well, call 'em off and let us go home," exclaimed Lester, impatiently.
"Dat's impossible, dat is. Dem dar dogs don't keer no mo' fur us black uns dan nuffin, dem dogs don't. Can't call 'em off, kase why, dey won't mind us. Have to go arter some of de white folks, suah!"
"Go on and get somebody, then, and be quick about it," said Bob, desperately. "And, Sam, if you can find Bert send him down. We want to see him particularly, and it will save us walking up to the house."
The negro went back into his cabin, but came out again a few minutes later and started up the road toward the house.
Bob and his companion were so utterly disheartened, and so nearly overcome with the cold, that they no longer looked upon exposure as the worst thing that could happen to them. They had made up their minds that it could not be avoided, and told themselves that the sooner it was over and they were allowed to leave their airy perch the sooner they would breathe easily again. They could not talk now. They could only sit and gaze in the direction in which the hostler had disappeared, and wait for somebody to come and call off the dogs. Bob hoped that somebody would be Bert. He was a simple-minded little fellow, and might be persuaded to believe the story that Bob had told the hostler. But Bert did not come to their relief; it was his father. When Bob saw him he wished most heartily that the roof would open and let him down out of sight.
"Why, boys, what is the meaning of this?" asked the General, as soon as he came within speaking distance.
"It means that we have been up here since midnight and are nearly frozen," replied Bob, trying to smile and looking as innocent as a guilty boy could. "We were out 'coon-hunting in the river bottoms and came through your fields, because that was the nearest way home; but the dogs saw us and drove us up here."
The General had but to use his eyes to find all the evidence he needed to prove this story false. The meal bags, in which the boys expected to carry away the stolen quails, were lying on the ground in plain sight, one of them having fallen in such a position that the owner's name, which was painted on it in large black letters, was plainly visible. More than that, under one of the planks which protected the window, was the iron lever with which Bob had tried to force an entrance into the cabin. He left it sticking there when he fell off Lester's shoulders.
"Well, you may come down now," said the General. "The hounds will not trouble you."
It was easy enough to say come down, but it was not so easy to do it, as the boys found when they began working their way over the frosty roof. The shingles were as slippery as glass, and their hands seemed to have lost all their strength; but they reached the ground without any mishap, and were about to hurry away as fast as their cramped legs would carry them, when the General asked:
"Hadn't you better go up to the house and get warm?"
"O, no, thank you, sir," replied Bob. "We'll go directly home. Our folks will wonder what has become of us."
"Are these your bags?"
"No, sir," replied Bob, promptly. "One doesn't usually carry meal bags to bring home 'coons in."
"I am aware of that fact," said the General, "but couldn't they be used to carry quails in? These bags have you father's name on them, and you had better come and get them."
These words were uttered in a tone of command, and Bob thought it best to obey. He snatched up the bags, and with Lester by his side made his way down the lane with all possible haste. When they were safe in the road, Bob drew a long breath and remarked:
"That's the end of that scrape."
"I don't see it," returned Lester. "It is only the beginning of it. Everybody in the settlement will know it before night."
"Who cares if they do?" cried Bob, who began to feel like himself, now that he was on solid ground once more. "They can't prove that we went there to steal the quails, and we'll not confess it."
"No, sir," replied Lester, emphatically. "You're a sharp one, Bob, to make up such a plausible story on the spur of the moment, but I know the General did not believe a word of it."
"So do I, but what's the odds? Let's see him prove that I didn't tell him the truth. Now the next thing is something else; we must make up a story to tell my folks when we get home."
"Can't we run back to the house and go to bed before any of the family are up?"
"I am afraid to try it. A better plan would be to go back in the woods and build a fire and get warm. Then we'll go home, and if anybody asks us where we have been, we'll say we couldn't sleep, and so we got up and went 'coon-hunting."
"I wish we had one or two 'coons to back up the story," said Lester.
"O, that wouldn't help us any. People often go hunting and return empty-handed, you know."
Leaving Bob and his friend to get out of their difficulties as best they can, we will go back to Godfrey's cabin and see what the two boys who live there are doing. The day of rest, which Don said would work such wonders in David, did not seem to be of much benefit to him after all. He had been somewhat encouraged by Bert's cheering words and the knowledge that influential friends were working for him, and, like Bob Owens, he had indulged in some rosy dreams of the future; but that short interview with the young horsemen who met him in the road below the General's house, reminded him that he had active enemies, who would not hesitate to injure him by every means in their power. He thought about his father all day, and wondered if there was anything he could do that would bring him back home where he belonged, and make a respectable man of him. He had ample leisure to turn this problem over in his mind, for he was alone the most of the day. As soon as he reached the cabin, Dan, who acted as if he did not want to be in his brother's company, shouldered his rifle and went off by himself; and it was while he was roaming through the woods that he made a discovery which did much to bring about some of the events we have already described.
Dan felt so mean and sneaking that he did not want to see anybody, if he could help it; and when he accidentally encountered Bob Owens and Lester Brigham in the woods, he darted into the bushes and concealed himself. He watched them while they were watching Don and Bert, and when he saw them hitch their horses and creep along the fence in pursuit of the wagon, he suddenly recalled some scraps of a conversation he had overheard a few days before. He knew that Lester was working against David, and believing from his stealthy movements and Bob's that there was mischief afoot, he followed them with the determination of putting in a word, and perhaps a blow, if he found that David's interests were in jeopardy. He saw every move the two boys made. He was lying in the bushes not more than fifty yards from them, while they were watching Don and Bert put the captured quails into the cabin, and when they went back to the place where they had left their horses, they passed so close to him that he caught some of their conversation. When they were out of sight and hearing Dan arose and sat down on the nearest log to make up his mind what he was going to do about it.
"I'll bet a hoss you don't steal them quail nor set fire to the cabin, nuther," said he, to himself. "Thar's a heap of birds in thar—seems to me that they had oughter ketched 'most as many as they want by this time—an' they shan't be pestered; kase if they be, what'll become of my shar' of them hundred an' fifty dollars? It'll be up a holler stump, whar I thought it had gone long ago!"
Dan knew that if Lester and his friend had any designs upon the cabin and the quails that were in it, they would not attempt to carry them out before night; but the fear that something might happen if he went home again troubled him greatly, and he resolved that he would not lose sight of the cabin for a few hours at least. He did not know what he would do to Lester and Bob if he caught them in the act of trying to steal the quails; that was a point on which he could not make up his mind until something happened to suggest an idea to him. While he was sitting in his place of concealment, thinking busily, he heard a rustling in the bushes and looked up to see one of Don's hounds approaching.
In the days gone by, before Dan became such a rascal as he was now, he had often accompanied Don and Bert on their 'coon and 'possum hunting expeditions, and the old dogs in the pack were almost as well acquainted with him as they were with their master. Bose recognised him at once, and appeared to be glad to see him.
"I want you to stay here with me till it comes dark, ole feller," said Dan, patting the animal's head. (He never kicked the hounds, as he did the pointer. He knew better.) "If them fellers comes we'll make things lively fur 'em. You hear me?"
Dan waited almost twelve hours before he had an opportunity to carry out the plan he had so suddenly formed. When he became tired of sitting still and began to feel the cravings of appetite, he went into the woods and shot four squirrels which Bose treed for him. These he roasted over a fire and divided with his four-footed friend. When it began to grow dark he went back to his hiding-place, where he remained until he thought it time to take up a new position. This was by the side of the road, and a short distance from the big gate, which opened into the lane leading to the negro quarters. There Dan lay for almost four hours, stretched out behind a log, with the hound by his side. He saw several negroes pass in and out of the gate, and, although some of them walked by within ten feet of him, no one saw him, and the well-trained hound never betrayed his presence by so much as a whimper.
Finally, to Dan's great relief, the lights in the General's house were put out, then a door or two was slammed loudly in the quarters, and after that all was still. Dan had grown tired of watching and must have fallen asleep, for he knew nothing more until a low growl from the hound aroused him. He was wide awake in an instant, and having quieted the animal by placing his hand on his neck, he looked all around to see what it was that had disturbed him. He heard footsteps in the field on the opposite side of the road, and presently two figures appeared and clambered over the fence. They crossed to the gate, which they opened and closed very carefully and went down the lane.
"Them's our fellers, Bose," whispered Dan, who was highly excited. "They've got bags slung over their shoulders, an' they think they're goin' to play smash stealin' them birds of our'n; but me and you will see how many they'll get, won't we?"
As soon as Bob and Lester were out of hearing Dan arose, and holding the hound firmly by the neck with one hand he opened the gate with the other, and moved noiselessly down the lane toward the quarters. His plan was to make sure that Bob and his friend had come there to force an entrance into the cabin in which the quails were confined, and if he found that that was their object, he would make a pretence of setting Bose upon them. He did not intend to do so in reality, for he knew the dog too well. The animal always did serious work when he began to use his teeth, and Dan didn't want either of the young thieves killed or maimed. He knew that if he could excite the hound and induce him to give tongue, the rest of the pack would be on the ground in two minutes' time; and as they were all young dogs (Carlo was shut up in the barn every night to do guard duty there), they would not be likely to take hold of the boys, if left to themselves. They would not permit them to escape, either. They would surround them and keep them there until morning, and that was what Dan wanted. He could not afford to watch the cabin every night, and he thought it would be a good plan to give Bob and his friend a lesson they would not forget.
That the prowlers had come there to force an entrance into the cabin, was quickly made plain to even Dan's dull comprehension. He saw them try the door, and then go around to the other side of the building and attempt to pry off the planks that covered the window. Dan heard something crack as Bob laid out his strength on the lever he was using, and believing that the thieves were on the point of accomplishing their object, he uttered a loud whistle to let the rest of the pack know that they were wanted, and shouted:
"Here they be! Take 'em, fellers! Take 'em down!"
Bose, who had been growing more and more impatient every moment, was quite ready to obey. Uttering a loud yelp, which was almost immediately answered by the rest of the pack, he raised himself upon his hind legs, and struggled so furiously to escape that Dan was obliged to drop his rifle and seize him with both hands. But when the brute was thoroughly aroused, it was hard to restrain him. The thick, loose skin on the back of his neck did not afford Dan a very good hold, and almost before he knew it, Bose slipped from his grasp, and bounded toward the cabin. At the same instant, a chorus of loud bays sounding close at hand announced that the rest of the pack were coming at the top of their speed. Bob and Lester had never before been in so much danger as they were at that moment.
Dan, who began to fear that the plan he had adopted for protecting the quails was about to result in a terrible tragedy, was very badly frightened. He stood for a few seconds as if he had been deprived of all power of action, and then caught up his rifle and took to his heels. He ran as if the pack were after him instead of Bob and Lester, and never slackened his pace until he was out of hearing of their angry voices. He crept home like a thief and got into bed without arousing either David or his mother. But he could not sleep. He was haunted by the fear that something dreadful had happened down there in the quarters, and that there would be a great uproar in the settlement the next morning. He felt that he could never be himself again until he knew the worst, so a little while before daylight he put on his clothes, slipped quietly out of the cabin and bent his steps toward the big gate near which he had been concealed the night before. By the time he reached it there, was light enough for him to distinguish objects at a considerable distance, and we can imagine how greatly relieved he was when he discovered Bob and Lester perched upon the ridge pole of the cabin. At first, he thought his eyes were deceiving him, but a second look told him that there was no mistake about it. He would have been glad to know if either of them had been injured by the hounds before they got there, but that was something he could not find out just then. They had not been torn in pieces, as he feared, and that was a great comfort to him.
"They never had a closer shave, that thar is sartin," thought Dan, as he turned about and trudged toward home. "I wonder what pap would say if he knowed what a smart trick I played onto 'em! I wish I could go an' tell him, but I am a'most afeared, kase he must be jest a bilin' over with madness. He's lost the pinter—I reckon Dave must have stole him, kase I don't see how else he could have got him—an' I don't keer to go nigh him ag'in, till I kin kinder quiet his feelin's by tellin' him some good news 'bout them hundred an' fifty dollars."
The events of this night were the last of any interest that transpired in the settlement for more than two weeks. Affairs seemed to take a turn for the better now, and the boy trapper and his two friends were left to carry out their plans without any opposition. Bob and Lester kept out of sight altogether; but they need not have been so careful to do that, for the General was the only one who was the wiser for what they had done, and he never said a word about it to anybody. They could not even muster up energy enough to go out of nights to rob David's traps; and perhaps it was just as well that they did not attempt it, for they might have run against Dan Evans in the dark. The latter spent very little time at home now. He was sometimes absent for two days and nights, and David and his mother did not know what to make of it. He had built a camp near the field in which the traps were set, and there he lived by himself, subsisting upon the squirrels and wild turkeys that fell to his rifle.
Things went on smoothly for a week, and during this time David and his friends were as busy as they could be. Quails were more abundant than they had ever known them to be before. They seemed to flock into the General's fields on purpose to be caught, and before many days had passed, it became necessary to fit up another cabin for the reception of the prisoners. In the meantime the General's timber and nails were used up rapidly. The boys had the hardest part of their work to do now, and that was to build a sufficient number of coops to hold all the birds. Silas Jones said that the Emma Deane was expected down every day, and Don declared that the birds must be shipped on her when she came back from New Orleans, if it took every man and woman on the plantation to get them ready. She came at last, and Don was at the landing to meet her. He held a short interview with her captain and Silas Jones, who was freight agent as well as express agent and post-master, and when it was ended he jumped on his pony and rode homeward as if his life depended upon the speed he made. When he arrived within sight of the field where the traps were set, he saw his brother and David coming in with another wagon load of birds.
"How many this morning?" asked Don.
"We have enough now to make fifty-five dozen altogether," replied Bert.
"Hurrah for our side!" cried Don. "We'll ship them all. Some may die on the way, you know, and that man must have the number he advertised for. Captain Morgan will stop and get the birds when he comes back. He will see them shipped on the railroad at Cairo, and all we have to do is to be sure that the game is at the landing in time."
"Did he say how much it would cost to send them off?" asked David.
"No. He will put in his bill when he comes down again. He carries freight by the hundred, you know. He will pay the railroad charges, too, and add that to his own bill."
"But what shall I do if both bills amount to more than ten dollars?" asked David, with some anxiety.
Don did not seem to hear the question, for he paid no attention to it. The truth was he had arranged matters so that David would not be required to use any of his ten dollars. Silas Jones was to foot all the bills and pay himself out of David's money when it was forwarded to him by the agent at S——, the place where the quails were going. But Don couldn't stop to explain this just now. He told his brother and David to make haste and put the quails into the cabin; and when that was done and they came into the shop, he set them at work on the coops. There was much yet to be done, but they had ample time to do it in, with more than a day to spare. When the next Wednesday night arrived fifty-five dozen quails, boxed and marked ready for shipment, were at the landing, waiting to begin the journey to their new home in the North, and Don carried in his pocket a letter addressed to the advertiser, which Captain Morgan was to mail at Cairo.
The boys camped at the landing that night to keep guard over their property. They pitched a little tent on the bank, built a roaring fire in front of it, and in company with Fred and Joe Packard, who came down to stay with them, passed the hours very pleasantly. The Emma Deane came up the next afternoon, and when the freight had been carried aboard and she backed out into the stream again, David drew a long breath, expressive of the deepest satisfaction. His task was done, and he hoped in a few days more to reap the reward of his labor.
The boys felt like resting now. They had worked long and faithfully, and they were all relieved to know that their time was their own. Don and Bert paid daily visits to their bear trap, hunted wild turkeys and drove the ridges for deer, while David stayed at home and made himself useful there, until he began to think it time to hear from somebody, and then he took to hanging about the post-office as persistently as ever his father had done. Finally, his anxiety was relieved by the arrival of the first letter that had ever been addressed to himself. He tore it open with eager hands, and read that the quails had been received in good order, and that the money, amounting to one hundred and ninety-two dollars and fifty cents, had been paid over to the agent from whom they were received. David could hardly believe it. The man had paid him for the extra five dozen birds; he was to receive forty-two dollars more than he expected; and there had been no freight charges deducted. David could not understand that, and there was no one of whom he could ask an explanation, for Don and Bert had gone over to Coldwater that morning, and were not to be back for a week. He had a long talk with his mother about it that night, and when he went to bed never closed his eyes in slumber. Every succeeding day found him at the landing waiting for his money, and so little did he know about business that he could not imagine who was to give it to him.
At last the Emma Deane came down again. David stood around with the rest and watched her while she was putting off her freight, and having seen her back out into the stream, was about to start for home, when Silas Jones came up and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Don't go away," said he. "I want to see you." David waited an hour before Silas was ready to tell him what he wanted of him. By that time the most of the hangers-on had dispersed; and when the last customer finished his trading, Silas stepped behind his desk and opened his safe.
"There it is," said he, slapping a package of greenbacks on the desk and then holding it up to David's view. "How do you like the looks of it?"
David's eyes opened to their widest extent. He had never seen so large a package of money before. He looked hastily about the store to see if Dan was anywhere in sight, and was greatly relieved to find that he was not. There were three, or four men standing by, and they appeared to be enjoying David's astonishment.
"Is—is it mine, Mr. Jones?" he managed to ask.
"Some of it is, and some of it is mine. There are a hundred and ninety-two dollars and a half here, and twenty-eight of it belongs to me. Freight bills, you know. The coops you put those birds in were as heavy as lead. If you had put less timber in them your expenses would not have been so heavy."
"Don thought it best to have them strong, so that they would not be broken in handling," said David.
"That was all right. Now let me see," added Silas, consulting his books; "fifty-five dozen live quails at three fifty per dozen—one ninety-two, fifty; less twenty-eight, leaves one sixty-four, fifty. Just step around here and sign this receipt."
David obeyed like one in a dream. He put his name to the receipt, and, scarcely knowing what he was about, thrust the package of money which Silas handed him into his pocket and walked out of the store.
"There goes the proudest boy in the United States," said the grocer.
Yes, David was proud, but he was grateful, too. He was indebted to Don and Bert for his good fortune, and he was sorry that he could do nothing but thank them when they came home. He went straight to the cabin, and to his great surprise and joy found his mother there. She was alone in the house, but David, profiting by his past experience, made a thorough examination of the premises before he said a word to her. Having thus made sure that Dan was not about, he pulled out his package of greenbacks and laid it in his mother's lap.
There was joy in the cabin that day. If David had never before realized that it is worth while to keep trying, no matter how hard one's luck may be, he realized it now. We will leave him in the full enjoyment of his success, promising to bring him to the notice of the reader again at no distant day, in the concluding volume of this series, which will be entitled THE MAIL CARRIER.