"You must rank me as one of your own kind," I burst forth. "Now you listen to a plain word from me. If that was intended as an offer, I refuse it. When I first left the cabin, and came here on deck, I honestly believed I could talk with you, Kirby, appeal to your better nature, and gain some consideration for those two girls. Now I know better. From the start this has been the working out of a deliberately planned plot. You, and your confederate, have coolly robbed Beaucaire, and propose to get away with the spoils. Perhaps you will, but that end will not be accomplished through any assistance of mine. At first I only felt a slight interest in the affair, but from now on I am going to fight you fellows with every weapon I possess."
Kirby chuckled, apparently greatly amused.
"Quite glad, I am sure, for the declaration of war. Fighting has always agreed with me. Might I ask the nature of those weapons?"
"That remains for you to discover," I ejaculated sharply, exasperated by his evident contempt. "Carver, take your dirty hands off of me."
In spite of the fact of their threat, the ready pistol pressing against my ribs, the grip of Carver's fingers at my throat, I did not anticipate any actual assault. That either would really dare injure me seemed preposterous. Indeed my impression was, that Kirby felt such indifference toward my attempt to block his plan, that he would permit me to pass without opposition—certainly without the slightest resort to violence. The action of the two was so swift, so concerted, as though to some secret signal, that, almost before I realized their purpose, they held me helplessly struggling, and had forced me back against the low rail. Here I endeavored to break away, to shout an alarm, but was already too late. Carver's hands closed remorselessly on my throat, and, when I managed to strike out madly with one free fist, the butt of Kirby's pistol descended on my head, so lacerating my scalp the dripping blood blinded my eyes. The blow partially stunned me, and I half fell, clutching at the rail, yet dimly conscious that the two straining men were uplifting my useless body. Carver swearing viciously as he helped to thrust me outward over the wooden bar. The next instant I fell, the sneering cackle of Kirby's laugh of triumph echoing in my ears until drowned in the splash as I struck the black water below.
I came back to the surface dazed and weakened, yet sufficiently conscious to make an intelligent struggle for life. The over-hang of the rapidly passing boat still concealed me from the observation of those above on the deck, and the advantage of permitting them to believe that the blow on my head had resulted in drowning, together with the knowledge that I must swiftly get beyond the stroke of that deadly wheel, flashed instantly through my brain. It was like a tonic, reviving every energy. Waiting only to inhale one deep breath of air, I plunged back once more into the depths, and swam strongly under water. The effort proved successful, for when I again ventured to emerge, gasping and exhausted, the little Warrior had swept past, and become merely a shapeless outline, barely visible above the surface at the river. Even if the two men had rushed to the stern, seeking thus to ascertain what had happened to their victim, they could not have detected my presence in that darkness, or determined whether or not I had met death in the depths, or been crushed lifeless by those revolving paddles.
Slowly treading water, my lips held barely above the surface, I drew in deep draughts of cool night air, my mind becoming more active as hope returned. The blow I had received was a savage one, and pained dully, but the cold water in which I had been immersed had caused the bleeding to cease, and likewise revived all my faculties. The water was so icy, still fed by the winter snow of the north, as to make me conscious of chill, and awaken within me a fear of cramps. The steamer melted swiftly away into nothingness, and the last indication of its presence in the distance was the faint gleam of a stern light piercing the night shadows. The very fact that no effort was made to stop was sufficient proof that Thockmorton in the wheelhouse remained unconscious of what had occurred on the deck below. My fate might never be discovered, or suspected. I was alone, submerged in the great river, the stars overhead alone piercing the night shadows. They seemed cold, and far away, their dull glow barely sufficient to reveal the dim outline of the western shore; and even this would have remained invisible except for the trees lining the higher bank beyond, and silhouetted against the slightly lighter background of sky. In the other direction all was apparently water, a turbulent waste, and one glance deciding my action, I quickly struck out, partially breasting the downward sweep of the current, in a desperate struggle to attain land.
I discovered this to be no easy task, as the swirl of the river bore strongly toward the opposite shore, yet I had always been a powerful swimmer, and although now seriously hampered by boots, and heavy, sodden clothing, succeeded in making steady progress. A log swept by me, white bursts of spray illuminating its sides, and I grappled it gratefully, my fingers finding grip on the sodden bark. Using this for partial support, and ceasing to battle so desperately against the down-sweep of the current, I managed finally to work my way into an eddy, struggling onward until my feet at last touched bottom at the end of a low, out-cropping point of sand. This proved to be a mere spit, but I waded ashore, water streaming from my clothing, conscious now of such complete exhaustion that I sank instantly outstretched upon the sand, gasping painfully for breath, every muscle and nerve throbbing.
The night was intensely still, black, impenetrable. It seemed as though no human being could inhabit that desolate region. I lifted my head to listen for the slightest sound of life, and strained my eyes to detect the distant glimmer of a light in any direction. Nothing rewarded the effort. Yet surely along here on this long-settled west bank of the Mississippi I could not be far removed from those of my race, for I knew that all along this river shore were cultivated plantations and little frontier towns irregularly served by passing steamboats. We had not been far to the northward of St. Louis at midnight, and Thockmorton confidently expected to tie up the Warrior at the wharf before that city early the next morning. So, surely, somewhere near at hand, concealed amid the gloom, would be discovered the habitations of men—either the pretentious mansion of some prosperous planter, or the humble huts of his black slaves. Could I attain to either one I would be certain of welcome, for hospitality without questioning was the code of the frontier.
The night air increased in chilliness as the hours approached dawn, and I shivered in my wet clothes, although this only served to arouse me into immediate action. Realizing more than ever as I again attempted to move my weakness and exhaustion from struggle, I succeeded in gaining my feet, and stumbled forward along the narrow spit of sand, until I attained a bank of firm earth, up which I crept painfully, emerging at last upon a fairly level spot, softly carpeted with grass, and surrounded by a grove of forest trees. The shadows here were dense, but my feet encountered a depression in the soil, which I soon identified as a rather well-defined path leading inland. Assured that this must point the way to some door, as it was evidently no wild animal trail, I felt my way forward cautiously, eager to attain shelter, and the comfort of a fire.
The grove was of limited extent, and, as I emerged from beneath its shadow, I came suddenly to a patch of cultivated land, bisected by a small stream, the path I was following leading along its bank. Holding to this for guidance, within less than a hundred yards I came to the house I was seeking, a small, log structure, overshadowed by a gigantic oak, and standing isolated and alone. It appeared dark and silent, although evidently inhabited, as an axe stood leaning against the jamb of the door, while a variety of utensils were scattered about. Believing the place to be occupied by a slave, or possibly some white squatter, I advanced directly to the door, and called loudly to whoever might be within.
There was no response, and, believing the occupant asleep, I used the axe handle, rapping sharply. Still no voice answered, although I felt convinced of some movement inside, leading me to believe that the sleeper had slipped from his bed and was approaching the door. Again I rapped, this time with greater impatience over the delay, but not the slightest sound rewarded the effort Shivering there in my wet clothes, the stubborn obduracy of the fellow awakened my anger.
"Open up, there," I called commandingly, "or else I'll take this axe and break down your door."
In the darkness I had been unobservant of a narrow slide in the upper panel, but had scarcely uttered these words of threat when the flare of a discharge almost in my very face fairly blinded me, and I fell backward, aware of a burning sensation in one shoulder. The next instant I lay outstretched on the ground, and it seemed to me that life was fast ebbing from my body. Twice I endeavored vainly to rise, but at the second attempt my brain reeled dizzily and I sank back unconscious.
PICKING UP THE THREADS
I turned my head slightly on the hard shuck pillow and gazed curiously about. When my eyes had first opened all I could perceive was the section of log wall against which I rested, but now, after painfully turning over, the entire interior of the single-room cabin was revealed. It was humble enough in all its appointments, the walls quite bare, the few chairs fashioned from half-barrels, a packing box for a table, and the narrow bed on which I lay constructed from saplings lashed together, covered with a coarse ticking, packed with straw. The floor was of hard, dry clay; a few live coals remained, smoking in the open fireplace, while a number of garments, among them to be recognized my own clothing, dangled from wooden pegs driven into the chinks of the farther wall. I surveyed the entire circuit of the room wonderingly, a vague memory of what had lately occurred returning slowly to mind. To all appearances I was there alone, although close beside me stood a low stool, supporting a tin basin partially filled with water. As I moved I became conscious of a dull pain in my left shoulder, which I also discovered to be tightly bandaged. It was late in the day, for the rays of the sun streamed in through the single window, and lay a pool of gold along the center of the floor.
I presume it was not long, yet my thoughts were so busy it seemed as if I must have been lying there undisturbed for some time, before the door opened quietly, and I became aware of another occupant of the room. Paying no attention to me he crossed to the fireplace, stirred the few smouldering embers into flame, placing upon these some bits of dried wood, and then idly watched as they caught fire. The newcomer was a negro, gray-haired but still vigorous, evidently a powerful fellow judging from his breadth of shoulder, and possessing a face denoting considerable intelligence. Finally he straightened up and faced me, his eyes widening with interest as he caught mine fastened upon him, his thick lips instantly parting in a good-natured grin.
"De good Lord be praised!" he ejaculated, in undisguised delight. "Is yer really awake agin, honey? De docthar say he done thought ye'd cum round by terday sure, sah. Enyhow I's almighty glad fer ter see yer wid dem eyes open onct mor'—yas, sah, I sure am."
"The doctor?" I questioned in surprise, my voice sounding strange and far away. "Have I been here long?"
"Goin' on 'bout ten days, sah. Yer was powerful bad hurt an' out o' yer head, I reckon."
"What was it that happened? Did some one shoot me?"
The negro scratched his head, shuffling his bare feet uneasily on the dirt floor.
"Yas, sah, Mister Knox," he admitted with reluctance. "I's sure powerful sorry, sah, but I was de boy whut plugged yer. Yer see, sah, it done happened dis-a-way," and his black face registered genuine distress. "Thar's a mean gang o' white folks 'round yere thet's took it inter their heads ter lick every free nigger, an' when yer done come up ter my door in de middle ob de night, a cussin', an' a-threatenin' fer ter break in, I just nat'larly didn't wanter be licked, an'—an' so I blazed away. I's powerful sorry 'bout it now, sah."
"No doubt it was more my fault than yours. You are a free negro, then?"
"Yas, sah. I done belong onct ter Colonul Silas Carlton, sah, but afore he died, just because I done saved his boy frum drownin' in de ribber, de ol' Colonul he set me free, an' give me a patch o' lan' ter raise corn on."
"What is your name?"
"Pete, sah. Free Pete is whut mostly de white folks call me." He laughed, white teeth showing and the whites of his eyes. "Yer see, thar am a powerful lot o' Petes round 'bout yere, sah."
I drew a deep breath, conscious of weakness as I endeavored to change position.
"All right, Pete; now I want to understand things clearly. You shot me, supposing I was making an assault on you. Your bullet lodged in my shoulder. What happened then?"
"Well, after a while, sah, thar wan't no mor' noise, an' I reckoned I'd either done hit yer er else ye'd run away. An' thar ye wus, sah, a lyin' on yer back like ye wus ded. Just so soon as I saw ye, I know'd as how ye never wus no nigger-hunter, but a stranger in des yere parts. So I dragged ye inside de cabin, an' washed up yer hurts. But ye never got no bettah, so I got skeered, an' went hoofin' it down fer de docthar at Beaucaire Landin', sah, an' when he cum back along wid me he dug the bullet outer yer shoulder, an' left som truck fer me ter giv' yer. He's done been yere three times, sah."
"From Beaucaire Landing—is that a town?"
"A sorter a town, sah; 'bout four miles down ribber."
The mentioning of this familiar word brought back instantly to my darkened understanding all those main events leading up to my presence in this neighborhood. Complete memory returned, every separate incident sweeping through my brain—Kirby, Carver, the fateful game of cards in the cabin of the Warrior, the sudden death of the Judge, the mob anger I sought to curb, the struggle on deck, my being thrown overboard, and the danger threatening the two innocent daughters of Beaucaire. And I had actually been lying in this negro hut, burning up with fever, helplessly delirious, for ten days. What had already occurred in that space of time? What villainy had been concocted and carried out? What more did the negro know?—something surely, for now I remembered he had addressed me by name.
"Now see here, Pete," I began earnestly. "How did you learn what my name was?"
"De docthar he foun' dat out, sah. I reckon' he thought maybe he ought ter know; fearin' as how ye might die. He done looked through yer pockets, sah, an' he took two papers whut he foun' dar away wid him. He done tol' me as how yer wus an offercer in de army—a leftenant, er sumthin'—an' thet dem papers ought fer ter be sint ter de Gov'ner et onct. De las' time he wus yere he tol' me thet he wint down ter Saint Louee hisself, an' done gif bof dem papers ter Gov'ner Clark. So yer don't need worry none 'bout dem no mor'."
I sank back onto the hard pillow, greatly relieved by this information. The burden of official duty had been taken from me. I was now on furlough, and free to act as I pleased. I suddenly became conscious that I was hungry. I expressed this desire for food, and the negro instantly busied himself over the fire. I watched his movements with interest, although my thoughts quickly drifted to other matters.
"Have you picked up any news lately from the Beaucaire plantation?" I asked, at last.
He twisted his head about at sound of my voice.
"I heerd said dey done brought de body ob de ol' Jedge home, sah—he died mighty sudden sumwhar up de ribber. Thet's 'bout all I know."
"When was this?"
"'Bout a week maybe mor'n dat ago. De Warrior brought de body down, sah."
"The Warrior? Did anyone go ashore with it?"
"Pears like thar wus two men stopped off at de Landin'. I disremember de names, but one ob 'em wus an ol' friend ob de Jedge's."
I turned my head away silently, but only for a moment. The two men were in all probability Kirby and his satellite, Carver. Evidently they intended to lose no time. The accident, the period of my unconsciousness, had left the villains ample opportunity in which to carry out the details of their devilish plot. The silence had convinced them of my death, leaving them nothing to fear, no opposition to guard against. Doubtless the Beaucaire property was already legally in Kirby's possession, and any possible chance I might have once had to foil him in his nefarious purpose had now completely vanished.
To be sure I had reasoned out no definite means whereby I could circumvent his theft, except to take legal advice, confer with Governor Clark, and warn those threatened girls of their danger. But now it was too late even to do this. And yet it might not be. If Kirby and his confederate believed that I was dead, were convinced that I had perished beneath the waters of the river, they might feel safe in taking time to strengthen their position; might delay final action, hoping thus to make their case seem more plausible. If Kirby was really serious in his intention of marrying Beaucaire's daughter he would naturally hesitate immediately to acknowledge winning the property at cards, and thus indirectly being the cause of her father's death. He would be quite likely to keep this hidden from the girl for a while, until he tried his luck at love. If love failed, then the disclosure might be made to drive the young woman to him; a threat to render her complacent. The negro evidently knew very little as to what had occurred, merely the floating gossip of the slave quarters, and some few things the doctor had mentioned. But there was a man living at the Landing who would be informed as to all the facts.
"I believe the Judge left two daughters, did he not?"
"Yas, sah—mighty pretty gals dey am too."
"And they still remain in possession of the house?"
"I reckon dey do, sah. Pears like the dochtar sed sumthin' 'bout treating one ob 'em—Miss Eloise—one time he wus ober yere. Sure, deys dere all right."
"Do you know a lawyer named Haines?"
"Livin' down at de Landin'? Yas, sah."
I lifted myself up in the bed, too deeply interested to lie still any longer.
"Now listen, Pete," I explained earnestly. "I've got sufficient money to pay you well for all you do, and, just as soon as you get me something to eat, I want you to go down to the Landing and bring Lawyer Haines back here with you. Just tell him a sick white man wants to see him at once, and not a word to anyone else. You might tell Haines this is a private matter—you understand?"
"Yas, sah," the whites of his eyes rolling. "He done know ol' Pete, an' I'll sure bring him back yere."
It was dark when they came, the fire alone lighting up the interior of the dingy cabin with a fitful glow of red flame. I had managed to get out of bed and partially dress myself feeling stronger, and in less pain as I exercised my muscles. They found me seated before the fireplace, indulging in a pot of fresh coffee. Haines was a small, sandy-complexioned man, with a straggling beard and light blue eyes. He appeared competent enough, a bundle of nervous energy, and yet there was something about the fellow which instantly impressed me unfavorably—probably his short, jerky manner of speech, and his inability to look straight at you.
"Pete has been telling me who you are, Lieutenant," he said, as we shook hands, "and putting some other things together I can guess the rest. You came south on the Warrior."
"From Fort Armstrong—yes; who told you this?"
"Captain Thockmorton. I saw him in St. Louis, and he seemed deeply grieved by your sudden disappearance. No one on board was able to explain what had occurred."
"Yet there were two men on the boat who could have explained, if they had cared to do so," I answered drily. "I mean Kirby and Carver; they were the ones who threw me overboard."
He dropped into a chair, his keen, ferret eyes on my face.
"Kirby and Carver? They went ashore with the Judge's body at the Landing. So there is a story back of all this," he exclaimed jerkily. "Damn it, I thought as much. Was Beaucaire killed?"
"No—not at least by any violence. No doubt the shock of his loss hastened his death. Surely you must know that he risked all he possessed on a game of cards and lost?"
"Thockmorton knew something about it, and there were other rumors floating about the Landing, but I have heard no details."
"You did not see the two men, then?"
"No, I was not at home, and they went on down the river the next day on a keel-boat. You saw the play?"
"I saw the last part of the game and was convinced, as all the others present were, that the Judge was deliberately ruined for a purpose. I believe it was all planned beforehand, but of this we have no tangible proof."
"His opponent was Joe Kirby?"
"And a fellow named Carver, a mere hanger-on."
Haines wet his lips, his eyes narrowing to mere slits, his professional nature coming to the front.
"First, let me ask you why you believe Beaucaire was cheated?" he piped. "I know Joe Kirby, and consider him quite capable of such a trick, but we shall need more than suspicion to circumvent his scheme."
"I have every reason, Haines, to feel convinced that both Kirby and Carver trailed Beaucaire up the river with the intention of plucking him. Kirby practically confessed this to me, boastingly, afterwards. All the way down he was bantering the Judge to play. That last night he so manipulated the cards—or rather Carver did, for it was his deal—as to deceive Beaucaire into firmly believing that he held an absolutely unbeatable hand—he was dealt four aces and a king."
The lawyer leaned forward, breathing heavily.
"Four aces! Only one hand is better than that, and it would be impossible to get such a hand out of one pack."
"That is exactly true, Haines. I am no card player, but I do know that much about the game. Yet Kirby took the pot with a straight flush. Now, either he, or Carver, slipped an extra ace into the pack, or else Beaucaire did. In my opinion the Judge had no chance to work such a trick. And that's the case, as it stands."
Haines jumped to his feet and began pacing the dirt floor excitedly, his hands clasped behind his back.
"By God, man!" he cried, pausing suddenly. "Even if he did have a chance, the Judge never did it—never. He was a good sport, and always played a straight game. You say he bet everything he had?"
"To the last dollar—Kirby egged him on. Besides the money, a deed to his land, and a bill of sale for his negroes were on the table."
"The field hands, you mean?"
"Yes, and the house servants. Kirby insisted that he write these words, 'This includes every chattel slave legally belonging to me,' and made Beaucaire sign it in that form."
Haines' face was white, his eyes staring at me incredulously.
"God help us, man! Do you know what that means?" he gasped.
"I am almost afraid I do," I answered, yet startled by his manner. "That was why I sent for you. Would that include his son's daughter?"
He buried his face in his hands.
"Yes," he confessed brokenly. "To the best of my knowledge Rene Beaucaire is a slave."
I DECIDE MY DUTY
The silence following this blunt statement was sickening. Up to that moment, in spite of every fact brought to my knowledge, I had secretly believed this condition of affairs impossible. Surely somewhere, through some legal form, Judge Beaucaire had guarded the future safety of this young woman, whom he had admitted into his household. Any other conception seemed impossible, too monstrous, too preposterous for consideration. But now the solemn words of the lawyer, his own legal counselor, brought conviction, and for the moment all power of speech deserted me. It was actually true then—the girl was a slave, a thing belonging to Kirby. Nothing broke the stillness within the cabin, except the sharp crackling of flames in the open fireplace, and the heavy breathing of the negro. He was seated on the edge of the bed, his black face showing a greenish tint, and revealing puzzled amazement, with wide-opened eyes staring blankly at Haines, who stood motionless before the fire.
"Whut wus dat yer sed, Mister Haines?" he asked thickly. "You say as how Missus Rene Beaucaire is a slave, sah? Pears like I don't just rightfully understan'."
"Still that is true, Pete," and the lawyer lifted his head and surveyed us both. "She is the illegitimate daughter of Delia, Judge Beaucaire's housekeeper; her father was Adelbert Beaucaire, the Judge's only son. No one knows where he is, dead or alive."
"De good Lord! An' de ol' Jedge never set her free?"
The lawyer shook his head, words evidently failing him.
"But are you absolutely certain of this?" I broke in impatiently. "Have you searched the records?"
"Not only searched them, Knox, but, before he left for the north on this last trip, Beaucaire was in my office, and I practically forced him to acknowledge the negligence. He even authorized me to draw up the necessary papers for him to sign on his return—for both Delia and the girl. They are in my desk now, unexecuted. There is no mistake—Rene is legally a slave, together with her mother."
"My God!" I exclaimed. "What an indictment of slavery. Could anyone conceive a more horrible position! Here is a young girl, educated, refined, of more than ordinary attractiveness Thockmorton tells me, brought up amid every comfort, and led to believe herself the honored daughter of the house, awakening in an instant to the fact that she is a slave, with negro blood in her veins—a mere chattel, owned body and soul by a gambler, won in a card game, and to be sold to the highest bidder. Haines, I tell you Kirby knew all this."
"Kirby knew? Why do you say that?"
"He boasted of it. I thought little about what he said at the time, but I believe now one of his main objects was to gain possession of this girl. That would account for his insistence upon that peculiar clause in the bill of sale—he either suspected, or had discovered through some source, that Rene Beaucaire had never been set free. For some reason he desired possession of both Beaucaire girls; they meant more to him than either the money or the property. This card game gave him one; the other—"
"Eloise, you mean? Did the fellow threaten her?"
"Here is what he said sneeringly, you can judge yourself what he meant, 'She's worth fifty thousand dollars by her mother's will, and I intend to win her if I can, fair means or foul.'"
Haines did not speak for some moments, his eyes on my face. Then he paced back and forth across the floor, finally stopping before the fire.
"This is as near hell as anything I ever knew," he said, "and so far as I can see there is no legal way out of it. We are utterly helpless to assist."
"We are not," I answered hotly, "if we are men. There may be no legal way in which we can beat this villain, but there is an illegal one, unless we are already too late, and I propose to use it, whether you join me or not."
"You have a plan? What is it?"
"The only one feasible. I thought of its possibility before on the boat, when a suspicion of this situation first came to me. You are sure the girls are still at the plantation house? that they know nothing of this condition?"
"I have reason to believe so. Delia was buying provisions at the Landing yesterday; I talked with her a moment."
"And you said that Kirby and Carver were only in town for one night, leaving the next morning on a keel-boat for St. Louis. Probably they did not visit the plantation at all, unless it was to scout around. My idea is they were not quite ready to take possession; that they have gone to St. Louis to file the papers, and will come back with officers prepared to execute them. This means that we must work fast to get out of their way."
"What do you propose doing?"
"Let me ask a question first. Is it true that Eloise Beaucaire is heiress to fifty thousand dollars through her mother's estate?"
"Yes, I invested most of it."
"New Orleans property principally."
"Then it is safe enough whatever happens. The only thing we can do is this: Tell those girls and the mother the whole truth—tell them at once, before Kirby can return, and then help them to get out of this country. It is not necessary for Eloise to go, unless she desires to, but there is no other safe course for Delia and Rene. They must reach a northern state before Kirby can lay hands on them. Could Delia pass for a white woman?"
"Not in the South; still she could travel as Rene's maid. But I do not believe it is possible for the two to escape in that way, Knox. Understand I'd be willing to risk it if there were any show. How can it be done? On the average at this time of year there isn't a steamboat along here once a month. If we did get them onto a boat they would have to travel straight south as far as the Ohio. Kirby wouldn't be more than a day or two behind them, with friends on every boat on the river. Illinois is no free state for fugitive slaves—they might just as well be caught in Missouri as over there. There is not one chance in a thousand that they make it."
"And less than that, if they remain here for Kirby to get his hands on," I retorted bitterly. "Now look here, Haines. I am going to carry out this plan alone, if you will not back me in it. I am not talking about steamboats; they could travel by night, and hide along shore during the day. All they would need would be two negro oarsmen, sufficient food, and a boat big enough to carry them safely. You have small boats, surely?"
"I got one, Massa Knox," burst out Pete eagerly. "She's down by de mouth ob de creek, sah, an' she sure am a mighty good boat. We could load her up right here, an' I'd be one ob de niggers fer ter take dem ladies down ribber. I'se a free boy, an' nobody care whar I done go."
These unexpected words heartened me, strengthened my own resolve, and I obeyed the first impulse, instantly crossing the room and frankly extending my hand to the surprised negro.
"That sounds like a man, Pete," I exclaimed warmly. "Yes, of course I mean it—shake hands. You are white enough for me, boy, and I do not propose letting you do any more than I am willing to do. I'll go along with you on this trip. I have sixty days furlough."
I turned and faced the lawyer, my mind firmly settled on the scheme, and determined upon carrying it out instantly.
"And now, what about you, Haines?" I demanded. "Are you ready to help? Come, man, surely this is not something we have any time to debate. Kirby is liable to show up at any moment with full authority, and the sheriff to back him. It is still early in the evening and we must work tonight, if at all."
"You haven't the strength for such a venture," he protested.
"Haven't I?" and I laughed. "Oh, yes I have. I am young and this wound is nothing. I may be a bit stiff in the shoulder for a few days, but I can pull an oar with one hand. That never will stop me. Are you with us?"
He was slow in replying, and, as I eagerly watched his face, I could almost comprehend the working of the lawyer mind. He saw and argued every doubt, considered every danger.
"In spirit, yes," he answered at last, "but not physically. I believe under the circumstances you are justified, Knox. Perhaps I'd do the same thing if I was in your place and had your youth behind me. But I am a lawyer, fifty years old, and this is my home. If the story ever got out that I took part in nigger stealing, that would be the end of me in Missouri. As you say, you are a young man, and I reckon you were not brought up in the South either. That makes a difference. You can take the risk, but about all I can do will be to keep a quiet tongue in my head. Nobody will ever learn what has happened through me—I'll promise you that. But that is all I can promise."
"Yet you acknowledge this is the only way? No legal course is open to us?"
"Absolutely none. If there was I should never consent to be a party to this plan, or shield you in any way. Kirby has undoubtedly got the law with him. We cannot establish fraud; the property actually belongs to him—both mother and daughter are his slaves."
"And how about the other girl—Eloise?"
"He has no legal hold on her; she is a free white woman. He could only hope to overcome her resistance by threats. The plantation is irrevocably lost to the Beaucaires, but she possesses the power to defy him because of her mother's property. If Kirby marries her, it will only be through her consent."
He picked up his hat from the table, and a stout stick he had brought along with him, taking a step toward the door.
"I might as well tell you I consider this a mad scheme," he paused to add gravely, "and that it will probably fail. There is a possible chance of success, I admit, and for that reason I permit you to go ahead with it, and pledge myself to keep the secret. I was rather intimately associated with Beaucaire for a number of years, and to see his granddaughter sold into slavery, even if she does have a drop of nigger blood in her veins, is more than I can stand, without giving her a chance to get away. That is why I consent to abet a crime, and keep still about it. But beyond that I'll not go. I am a southerner, Knox; my father owned slaves. I believe in the system, and have always upheld it. Nobody in Missouri hates a Black Abolitionist worse than I do; if anyone had ever said I would help a nigger run away, I'd call him a liar in a minute. Do you understand the position this damned affair puts me into?"
"Yes, I do, Haines," and I held out my hand to him, with fresh cordiality. "It is uncommonly white of you to even go that far. On the other hand I was brought up to despise slavery. I'll pledge you this—for Pete here, as well as myself—that if we are caught, your name shall never be mentioned. Have you any advice to give?"
He paused uncertainly, his hand on the latch, the firelight flashing up into his face.
"Only this," he said slowly. "If I were you I'd never attempt to go south. Below St. Louis boats are numerous, and you would be almost certain to be discovered. If Kirby chases you—and I know him well enough to be sure he will—he will naturally take it for granted that you have headed for the Ohio. The very fact that the fugitives are women would convince him of this. To my mind the one chance of your getting away, lies to the north—up the Illinois."
"That thought was in my mind also," I admitted, thoroughly satisfied now that he was really friendly, and to be trusted. "I have been told that the settlers north of that stream came mostly from New England—is that true?"
"To a large extent. We have reason to believe there is an underground road in operation from the river to Canada, and many a runaway nigger makes the trip every year. That ought to be your best course, but there is no time now to put the women in the care of those men. Of course I don't know who they are—perhaps Pete does?"
"No, sah," protested the black quickly. "'Pears like I never heerd tell 'bout dem. I'se a free nigger, sah."
The lawyer's shrewd eyes twinkled.
"And that is exactly why, you black rascal, I believe you really do know. I reckon, Knox, he'll tell you what he wouldn't tell me. Anyhow, good luck to you both, and good night."
The door closed behind him, and the negro and I were alone. All at once I realized the desperate nature of this adventure I had undertaken, and its possible consequences. Haines' words had driven it home to my mind, causing me to comprehend the viewpoint of this neighborhood, the hatred men felt for a nigger-stealer, and what my fate would be if once caught in the act. Yet the die was already cast; I had pledged myself to action; was fully committed to the attempted rescue of Rene Beaucaire, and no thought of any retreat once occurred to me. I opened the door cautiously, glancing out into the night, to thus assure myself we were alone, closed it again, and came back. The negro still remained seated on the edge of the bed, digging his toes into the hard earth of the floor.
"Pete," I began earnestly. "You trust me, don't you? You do not suspect me of being any slave-hunter?"
"No, sah, Massa Knox, I ain't 'feared o' yer—yers one o' dem down-easterners."
"Well, not exactly that. I came from a slave state, but my family is of New England blood and breeding. I am just as much your friend as though you were white. Now you and I have got a hard job before us."
"Yas, sah, we sure has."
"And the first thing we have got to do, is to trust each other. Now I am going to ask you a question—is that the best way for us to go, up the Illinois?"
He was slow to answer, evidently turning the whole matter over in his mind. I waited impatiently, feeling the delay to be a serious loss of time.
"Well then, let me put this differently. Have you ever assisted any slaves to run away from Missouri?"
"Well, Massa Knox, I reckon thet maybe I knew'd 'bout som' gittin' a-way—'pears like I did, sah."
"And these escaped by way of the Illinois?"
His dumb, almost pathetic eyes met mine pleadingly, but some expression of my face served to yield him courage.
"I—I reckon I—I don't know much 'bout all dis, Massa Knox," he stammered doubtfully, his hands locking and unlocking nervously. "I—I sure don'; an' fer de mattah o' dat, ther ain't nobody whut does, sah. All I does know, fer sure, is dat if a nigger onct gets as fer as a certain white man up de ribber, 'bout whar de mouth ob de Illinois is, he's got a mighty good chance fer ter reach Canada. De next place whar he's most likely ter stop is Beardstown, long wid som' sorter preacher whut lives thar. An' thet's as fer as dey ever done tol' me, sah."
"About this first white man—the one near the mouth of the Illinois—do you know his name?"
Pete rose to his feet, and crossed the room to where I stood, bending down until his lips were close to my ear. His answer was spoken in a thick whisper.
"Massa Knox, I never did 'spect to say dis ter no white man, but it seems I just nat'larly got fer ter tell yer. I done heerd thet man say onct just whut yer did, thet a nigger wus just as much his frien' as though he wus white—thet it wan't de skin nohow what counted, but de heart. No, sah, I ain't feered fer ter tell yer, Massa Knox. He's got a cabin hid way back in de bluffs, whar nobody don't go, 'cept dem who know whar it is. I reckon he don't do nuthin' but hunt an' fish nohow—leastways he don't raise no corn, nor truck fer ter sell. He's a tall, lanky man, sah, sorter thin, with a long beard, an' his name wus Amos Shrunk. I reckon maybe he's a Black Abolitionist, sah."
"Quite likely, I should say. And you could take a boat from here to his place?"
"Sure, the darkest night yer ever see. Inter the mouth ob a crick, 'bout a hundred rods up de Illinois. Den thar's a path, a sorter path, whut goes ter de cabin; but most genir'ly he's down thar waitin' et night. Yer see dey never sure knows when som' nigger is goin' fer ter git away—only mostly it's at night."
This knowledge greatly simplified matters. If there was already in operation an organized scheme by means of which fugitives from this side of the great river were taken through to Canada, protected and assisted along the way by the friends of freedom, then all we would be required to do in this case would be to safely convey the unfortunate Rene and her mother in Pete's boat up the river, and there turn them over to the care of this Amos Shrunk. Undoubtedly he could be trusted to see to it that they were promptly forwarded to others, fanatics like himself, who would swiftly pass them along at night across the Illinois prairies, until beyond all danger of pursuit. Hundreds, no doubt, had traveled this route, and, once these two were in Shrunk's care our responsibility would be over with. It was to me a vast relief to realize this. The distance to the mouth of the Illinois could not be far, surely not to exceed fifty miles as the river ran. It ought not to prove difficult to baffle Kirby for that short distance, and then we would be free to return, and no one could prove any charge against us. Indeed it was my purpose to immediately proceed down the river on my furlough, and probably it would never so much as be suspected that the negro had been away. Ever since my boyhood I had listened to stories concerning the operation of Underground Railroads by means of which slaves were assisted to freedom, and now felt no hesitancy in confiding these two women to the care of their operators. The only important fact fronting us was that we must act quickly, before Kirby and his aides, armed with legal authority, could return—this very night.
"Pete," I said shortly, my tone unconsciously one of authority, "we must be out of here before daylight, and safely hidden somewhere up the river. The first thing to be done, and the hardest, is to explain to those women the situation, and persuade them to accompany us. They may not believe my story; that was why I was so anxious to have Haines go to the house. They would have confidence in him. Do they know you?"
"Lord love yer—ob course dey do. I'se knowed all ob 'em for a long while, sah. Why when I furst don' see dem Beaucaire gals dey wus just infants. Dey'll sure believe ol' Pete."
"Well, we can only try our best. Have you any conveyance here?"
"Any whut, sah?"
"Any wheeled vehicle in which we can ride to Beaucaire, and by means of which we can bring the women back? The distance is too far to walk."
"I'se got a sorter khart, an' an ol' muel, sah. Dey's out yonder in de bush."
"Hitch them up at once, while I put a few things we may need in the boat. Show me how to find it."
He pointed out the path, with the directions necessary, and disappeared, while I returned to the cabin, dragged a blanket from off the bed, and filled it with whatever miscellaneous articles of food I was able to discover about the place. My wound, now that I was busily engaged, troubled me very little, and, gathering the four corners of the blanket together, I easily transported this stock of provisions to the river bank, and safely stowed them away in the boat found there. I returned to discover the mule and cart ready, and a few moments later we were creaking slowly along a gloomy wood road, jolting over the stumps, with Pete walking beside the animal's head, whispering encouragement into the flapping ear. The great adventure had begun.
THE HOME OF JUDGE BEAUCAIRE
The road we followed appeared to be endless, and so rough that I soon climbed down from my seat, an unplaned board, uncomfortable enough under any conditions, in the swaying, bumping cart, and stumbled blindly along behind, tripping over stumps in the darkness, and wrenching my ankles painfully in deep ruts. Progress was slow, not only because of the difficulties of the passage, but equally on account of the obstinacy of the mule. Indeed, it required no small diplomacy on the part of the negro to induce the animal to proceed at all, and finally, despairing of the efficiency of words, he drew a club, evidently reserved for such emergencies, from the interior of the cart, and gave utterance to an ultimatum. Following this display of force our advance became a trifle more rapid.
I endeavored to think, to plan more definitely my course upon arriving at the Beaucaire plantation, but discovered it quite impossible to concentrate my mind upon anything. My entire attention had to be riveted on the intricacies of the road, which wound in and out among the bluffs, down one gully and up another, until I finally lost all sense of direction, and merely stumbled on after the dark outlines of the cart, through a black cave formed by the branches of over-arching trees.
It was considerably after ten o'clock when we emerged upon an open plateau, and a glimmer of stars overhead revealed to me afar off the silver thread of the great river. Even in that dim light I could trace its winding course along the valley, and the view by daylight from this point must have been a delight to the eye. Pete stopped the straining mule, a feat not at all difficult of accomplishment, the animal's sides rising and falling as he wheezed for breath, and came back to where I stood, staring about at the dimly perceived objects in the foreground.
"Out dar am de Beaucaire place," he announced, as soon as he could distinguish my presence, waving his arm to indicate the direction. "An' I reckon we bettah not ride no further, fer if Alick shud smell corn, he'd nat'larly raise dis whol' neighborhood—he's got a powerful voice, sah."
"Equal to his appetite no doubt."
"Yas, sah; that's mostly whut Alick am."
"How far away is the house?"
"Likely 'bout a hundred yards. Yer see dat light out yonder; well dat's it, an' I reckon de ladies mus' be up yet, keepin' de lamp burnin'. Here's de slave cabins 'long de edge ob de woods, but dey's all dark. What's yer a goin' fer ter do now, Massa Knox?"
I was conscious that my heart was beating rapidly, and that my mind was anything but clear. The problem fronting me did not appear so easily solved, now that I was fairly up against it, and yet there seemed only one natural method of procedure. I must go at my unpleasant task boldly, and in this case only the truth would serve. I was an officer in the United States Army, and had in my pocket papers to prove my identity. These would vouch for me as a gentleman, and yield me a measure of authority. And this fact, once established, ought to give me sufficient standing in the eyes of those girls to compel from them a respectful hearing. I would tell the story exactly as I knew it, concealing nothing, and adding no unnecessary word, outline my plan of action, and then leave them to decide what they thought best to do. This was the simple, sensible way, and I had implicit faith that they would accept my statement, and believe my offer of assistance an honest one. I could not perceive how they could do otherwise. Strange, unbelievable as the situation was, proof was not lacking. Delia could be compelled to acknowledge that Rene was her child—she would scarcely dare deny this truth in face of my positive knowledge—and she, at least, must know that Judge Beaucaire had never during his lifetime given her her freedom. This fact could be established beyond question, and then they must surely all comprehend the necessity of immediate flight—that there remained no other possible means of escape from hopeless slavery. Desperate as the chance appeared, it was the only one.
It was a disagreeable, heart-rending task which I had taken upon myself, but it could be no longer avoided. It dawned upon me now with more intense force than ever before the position in which I stood, and I shrank from the ordeal. A perfect stranger, not even a chance acquaintance of those directly involved in this tragedy, I would have to drag out from the closet, where it had been hidden away for years, this old Beaucaire skeleton, and rattle the dried bones of dishonor before the horrified understanding of these two innocent, unsuspecting girls. I knew nothing of their characters, or of how they would meet such a revelation, and yet they must be made to see, and thoroughly comprehend the situation; must be compelled to face the horror and disgrace of their position, and aroused to action. I had little thought then for the slave mother; doubtless she had been expecting some such exposure for years, and was, at least, partially steeled to meet it. But for the two girls, brought up as sisters, close companions since infancy, having no previous suspicion of the dreadful truth, this sudden revelation would be worse than death. Yet now concealment would be no kindness; indeed, the tenderest mercy I could show was to tell them in all frankness the whole miserable story of crime and neglect; and then point out to them the only remaining means of escape from the consequence of others' sins.
These thoughts, definite and compelling, flashed through my mind as I stood there in the darkness, vainly seeking to distinguish the distant outlines of the great house, from one window alone of which the glow of light streamed. In that moment of decision the conviction came to me that I had best do this alone; that the presence of the negro would hinder, rather than help the solution of the problem. I must appeal directly to the intelligence, the courage, of those so deeply involved, and trust my own personality to win their confidence. In this the negro would be useless.
"Pete," I said, measuring my words, my plan of action shaping itself even as I spoke. "What lies in there between us and the house?"
"A truck patch mostly, wid a fence 'round it. Den thar comes som' flower beds."
"Well, I done reckon as how thar might be a sorter path, sah, but you'd hardly find it in de dark. De bes' way'd be ter sorter feel 'long de fence, 'til yer git sight o' de front porch."
"All right, then. I am going to leave you here while I scout around. Keep your eyes open, and have the mule ready to leave at any minute."
"'Bout how lon' yer be gone, sah?"
"I cannot tell you that. As short a time as possible. It may require considerable explanation and urging to get those three women to trust me. However, all you have to do is wait, and be sure that no one sees you. If you should be needed for anything at the house, I'll get word to you some way; and if I should send Delia and Rene out here alone, without being able to come with them myself, load them into the cart at once, and drive to the boat. I'll manage to join you somewhere, and the important thing is to get them safely away. You understand all this?"
"Yas, sah; leastways I reckon I does. I'se ter take keer ob dem all, an' let yer take keer o' yerself."
"Exactly, because, you see, I haven't the slightest idea what I am going to run up against. There may be others in the house, and I might not dare to leave Miss Eloise behind alone without some protection. In a way she is in almost as much danger as the others if she falls into Kirby's hands. I shall endeavor to induce her to go to Haines at once."
Following some impulse I shook hands with him, and then plunged into the darkness, my only guidance at first that single ray of light streaming through the unshaded window. The ground underfoot was roughly irregular, cleared forest land evidently, as I occasionally stumbled over an unremoved stump, although there was nothing to seriously obstruct my passage until I reached the fence surrounding the garden. By this time the outlines of the house were plainly visible against the skyline beyond, and I realized that it was indeed quite a mansion for that country, a great square frame structure, two full stories in height, appearing black and deserted, except for that single window through which the light continued to stream. While this window was upon the lower floor, directly opposite where I stood, and no great distance away, it was still sufficiently elevated above the ground, and obscured by a small outside balcony, so as to afford me no glimpse within. All I could distinguish clearly was the ceiling of what appeared to be a rather large apartment.
As I advanced cautiously along the fence, a low structure built of rough rails, and thus approached more closely to the front of the main building, other lights began to reveal themselves, enabling me to perceive that the inner hallway was likewise illuminated, although not brilliantly. These dim lights proved sufficient, however, to unable me to trace the general form of the broad veranda in front, with its high roof upheld by pillars of wood—doubtless giant forest trees—and also the wide wooden steps leading down to a circling carriage drive. In spite of previous descriptions I had scarcely anticipated encountering so fine a home in this land which to me was wilderness. The contrast of what life had undoubtedly been to its inmates, and what it would now become through the medium of this unwelcome message I bore, struck me with new force. My mission became instantly a hateful thing, yet I only set my lips tighter, determined to end it as quickly as possible.
By groping about with my feet I succeeded in discovering the path of which Pete had spoken, and managed with difficulty to follow it slowly. Winding in and out amid shrubbery, and what may have been reserved for flower beds, this ended at a side door, which was locked. Discovering this fact, and that it resisted all efforts at opening, I turned once more toward the front, and advanced in that direction, securely hidden by the dense shadow of the house. All about me was silence, not even the sound of a voice or the flap of a wing breaking the intense stillness of the night. I almost imagined I heard the murmur of the distant river, but this was probably the night breeze sighing through the tree branches. I came below the veranda, still in the deep shadow, utterly unconscious of any other presence, when suddenly, from just above me, and certainly not six feet distant, a man spoke gruffly, the unexpected sound of his strange voice interrupted by the sharp grate of a chair's leg on the porch floor, and a half-smothered yawn.
"Say, Sheriff, how long are we all goin' ter set yere, do yer know? This don't look much like Saint Louee afore daylight ter me."
I stopped still, crouching low, my heart leaping into my throat, and every nerve tingling.
"No, it sure don't, Tim," replied another, and the fellow apparently got down from off his perch on the porch rail. "Yer see Kirby is bound he'll get hold o' them two missin' females furst, afore he'll let me round up the niggers."
"But yer told him yer wouldn't round the niggers up, an' stow 'em away in the boat."
"Not till I get service on the young lady. It wouldn't do no good."
"Whut's the idee?"
"Damned if I know exactly. All I know is whut I kin do accordin' ter law, an' whut I can't. The papers is all straight 'nough, but they've got ter be served afore we kin lay hands on a damned thing. The Jedge tol' me fer ter do everything just as Kirby sed, an' I aim ter do it, but just the same I got ter keep inside the law. I reckon thar's a hitch sumwhar', but thet's none o' my business. Kirby is liberal 'nough with his money, an' I dunno as it makes much difference when we strike the ol' town."
"'Tain't so much that, Sheriff. I kin stan' it fer ter be up all night, but Bill wus tellin' me we might hav' som' trouble down ter the Landin' unless we finished up our job yere afore mornin'."
"Oh, I reckon not; whut was it Bill said?"
"Quite a rigmarole frum furst ter last. Giv' me a light fer the pipe, will yer?"
There was a flare above me, and then darkness once more, and then the slow drawl of the man's voice as he resumed. "Some feller by the name ov McAdoo, down ter Saint Louee, who's just com' down frum the lead mines, tol' him thet Joe Kirby got all this yere property in a game o' kyards on the boat, an' thet it wan't no square game either. I didn't git it all straight, I reckon, but accordin' ter the deal handed me thar wus two dead men mixed up in the affair—Beaucaire, an' a young army offercer. Seems ter me his name wus Knox."
"I didn't hear that."
"Well, enyhow, that's the way Bill told it. Beaucaire he naturally fell dead—heart, er som'thin'—an' the other feller, this yere army man, he went out on deck fer ter see Kirby, an' he never cum' back. McAdoo sorter reckoned as how likely he wus slugged, an' throwed overboard. An' then, on top' all that, we're sent up yere in the night like a passel o' thieves ter take these niggers down ter Saint Louee. What do yer make ov it, Jake?"
"Wal," said the other slowly, his mouth evidently loaded with tobacco, "I ain't never asked no questions since I wus made sheriff. I'm doin' whut the court says. Hell! thar's trouble 'nough in this job without my buttin' in on other people's business. But this is how it stacks up ter me. Kirby's got the law on his side—no doubt 'bout that—but I reckon as how he knows it wus a damn mean trick, and so he's sorter skeered as ter how them fellers livin' down ter the Landin' might act. Thar's a lawyer thar named Haines, as sharp as a steel trap, who tended ter all the ol' Jedge's business, an' Joe he don't wanter run foul o' him. Thet's why we tied up ter the shore below town, in the mouth o' thet crick, an' then hed ter hoof it up yere in the dark. Of course we got the law with us, but we wanter pull this job off an' not stir up no fight—see?"
"Sure," disgustedly. "I reckon I know all that; I heerd the Jedge tell yer how we wus ter do the job. But why's Kirby in such a sweat ter git all these niggers down ter Saint Louee?"
"Ter sell 'em, an' git the cash. Onct they're outer the way there won't be no row. He'll let the land yere lie idle fer a year or two, an' by that time nobody'll care a whoop how he got it. But he's got ter git rid o' them niggers right away."
"Well, who the hell's goin' ter prevent? They're his'n, ain't they? Thar ain't no Black Abolitionists 'round yere, I reckon. I never know'd yer had ter run off your own niggers in the night, so's ter sell 'em down South. My Gawd, is this yere Mussury!"
"Seems sorter queer ter me," admitted the sheriff, "but I did get a little outer that feller Carver comin' up. He's a close-mouthed cuss, an' didn't say much, but puttin' it with what yer just told me, I reckon I kin sorter figger it out. Carver is som' sorter partner with Kirby—a capper I reckon—an' enyhow he had a hand in that kayrd game. 'Tain't the niggers thet are makin' the trouble—leastways not the black 'uns. Nobody's likely ter row over them. It seems that Beaucaire kept a quadroon housekeeper, a slave, o' course, an' a while back she giv' birth ter a child, the father o' the infant bein' Judge Beaucaire's son. Then the son skipped out, an' ain't ever bin heard frum since—dead most likely, fer all this wus twenty years ago. 'Course the child, which wus a girl, is as white as I am—maybe more so. I ain't never set eyes on her, but Carver he says she's damn good lookin'. Enyhow the Jedge he brought her up like his own daughter, sent her ter school in Saint Louee, an' nobody 'round yere even suspected she wus a nigger. I reckon she didn't know it herself."
"The hell you say."
"Yes, but that ain't all o' it. I don't know how it happened—maybe he forgot, er put it off too long, er aimed ter git revenge—but, it seems, he never executed no paper freein' either her or her mother."
"Yer mean the girl's still a slave?"
"Yer bet! That's the law, ain't it?"
"And Kirby knew about this?"
"I reckon he did. I sorter judge, Tim, frum whut Carver sed, that he wus more anxious fer ter git thet girl than all the rest o' the stuff; an' it's her he wants ter git away frum yere on the dead quiet, afore Haines er any o' them others down at the Landin' kin catch on."
"They couldn't do nuthin'; if thar ain't no papers, then she's his, accordin' ter law. I've seen that tried afore now."
"Of course; but what's the use o' runnin' eny risk? A smart lawyer like Haines could make a hell ov a lot o' trouble just the same, if he took a notion. That's Kirby's idee—ter cum' up yere in a boat, unbeknownst to enybody, tie up down thar at Saunders', an' run the whole bunch o' niggers off in the night. Then it's done an' over with afore the Landin' even wakes up. I reckon the Jedge told him that wus the best way."
There was a moment of silence, the first man evidently turning the situation over in his mind. The sheriff bent across the rail, and spat into the darkness below.
"The joke of it all is," he continued, with a short laugh, as he straightened up, "this didn't exactly work out 'cordin' ter schedule. When we dropped in yere we rounded up the niggers all right, an' we got the girl whar there's no chance fer her ter git away—"
"Is that the one back in the house?"
"I reckon so; leastways she tol' Kirby her name was Rene Beaucaire, an' that's how it reads in the papers. But thar ain't no trace ov her mother, ner ov the Jedge's daughter. They ain't in the house, ner the nigger cabins. Whar the hell they've gone, I don't know, an' the girl won't tell. Leaves me in a deuce ov a fix, fer I can't serve no papers less we find the daughter. Her name's Eloise; she's the heir et law, an' I ain't got no legal right fer ter take them niggers away till I do. Looks ter me like they'd skipped out."
"Maybe som'body blowed the whole thing."
"I dunno who it wud be. Then whut did they leave thet girl behind fer? She'd most likely be the furst ter run—thar's Kirby an' Carver, a comin' now, an' they're alone; ain't got no trace ov 'em, I reckon."
Where I crouched in the shadows I could gain no glimpse of the approaching figures, but I heard the crunch of their boots on the gravel of the driveway, and a moment later the sound of their feet as they mounted the wooden steps. Kirby must have perceived the forms of the other men as soon as he attained the porch level, and his naturally disagreeable voice had a snarly ring.
"That you, Donaldson? Have either of those women come back?"
"No," and I thought the sheriff's answer was barely cordial. "We ain't seen nobody. What did you learn down at the Landin'?"
"Nothing," savagely. "Haven't found a damn trace, except that Haines hasn't been home since before dark; some nigger came for him then. Is that girl safe inside?"
"Sure; just as you left her, but she won't talk. Tim tried her again, but it's no use; she wudn't even answer him."
"Well, by God! I'll find a way to make her open her mouth. She knows where those two are hiding. They haven't had no time to get far away, and I'll bring her to her senses before I am through. Come on, Carver; I'll show the wench who's master here, if I have to lick her like a common nigger."
The front door opened, and closed, leaving the two without standing in silence, the stillness between them finally broken by a muttered curse.
A GIRL AT BAY
I drew back hastily, but in silence, eager to get away before the sheriff and his deputy should return to their seats by the porch rail. My original plan of warning the women of the house of their peril was blocked, completely overturned by the presence of these men. The situation had thus been rendered more complicated, more difficult to solve, and I could only act on impulse, or as guided by these new conditions. Beyond all question, those I had hoped to serve were already aware of their position—someone had reached them before me—and two, at least, were already in hiding. Why the third, the one most deeply involved, had failed to accompany the others, could not be comprehended. The mystery only made my present task more difficult. Could the others have fled and deliberately left her to her fate? Had some mistake been made? or had some accident led to their absence, and her falling into the inhuman clutches of Kirby? Why should Delia, the slave, disappear in company with Eloise, the free, and leave her own daughter Rene behind to face a situation more terrible than death? I could not answer these questions; but, whatever the cause, the result had been the complete overthrow of the gambler's carefully prepared plans. Not that I believed he would hesitate for long, law or no law; but Donaldson, the sheriff, refused to be a party to any openly illegal act, and this would for the present tie the fellow's hands. Not until Miss Eloise was found and duly served with the eviction papers would Donaldson consent to take possession of a single slave. This might still give me time for action.
Kirby, angry and baffled, could rave and threaten; but to no end. Whether this condition of affairs had been attained as a result of legal advice, or through a mere accident, made no difference; the present inability to reach the daughter of the Judge—the legal heiress to his estate—completely blocked the conspiracy. Yet Kirby was not the kind to surrender without a fight, and a desperate one; all that was savagely brutal in the man had been aroused by this check. The very sound of his voice indicated his intention—he proposed to drive, with a whip if necessary, the helpless girl in his power to a full confession. She was his slave, his chattel, and, under the influence of ungoverned passion, he was capable of any degree of cruelty to attain his end. I knew—seemed to realize—all this in an instant, and as swiftly decided to risk life if need be in her defense. There was at that moment no thought in my mind of her stain of negro blood; she was not a slave to me, but merely a woman helpless and alone, fronting dishonor and degradation.
I slipped along in the shadow of the house, without definite plan of action, but with a firm purpose to act. The side door I knew to be securely locked, yet, first of all, it was essential that I attain to the interior. But one means to this end occurred to me—the unshaded window through which the glow of light continued to stream. I found I could reach the edge of the balcony with extended fingers, and drew myself slowly up, until I clung to the railing, with feet finding precarious support on the outer rim. This was accomplished noiselessly, and, from the vantage point thus obtained, I was enabled to survey a large portion of the room. The illumination came from a chandelier pendent from the center of the high ceiling, but only one lamp had been lighted, and the apartment was so large that both ends and sides remained in partial shadow. It might have been originally intended as either a sitting room or library, for there were bookcases against the walls, and a large writing table, holding books and writing material, stood directly beneath the chandelier, while on the sofa in one corner reposed a bit of women's sewing, where it had apparently been hastily dropped. A fireplace, black and gloomy, evidently unused for some time, yawned in a side wall, and above it hung a rifle and powder horn.
I clambered over the rail, assured by this first glance that the room was empty, and succeeded in lifting the heavy sash a few inches without any disturbing noise. Then it stuck, and, even as I ventured to exert my strength to greater extent to force it upward, the single door directly opposite, evidently leading into the hall, was flung violently open, and I sank back out of view, yet instantly aware that the first party to enter was Joe Kirby.
Without venturing to lift my eyes to the level of the opening, I could nevertheless imagine his movements, while the sound of his voice when he spoke was as distinct as though I stood beside him. He strode forward to the table, striking the wooden top angrily with his fist and knocking something crashing to the floor.
"You know where she is, don't you?" he asked, in the same threatening tone he had used without.
"Of course I do; didn't I help put her there?" It was Carver who replied, standing in the open doorway.
"Then bring the hussy in here. By God! I'll make the wench talk, if I have to choke it out of her; she'll learn what it means to be a nigger."
The door closed, and Kirby strode across to the fireplace, muttering to himself, and stood there, an arm on the mantel, nervously stirring up the dead ashes with one foot. Plainly enough the events of the night had overcome all his boasted self-control, his gambler's coolness, and the real underlying brutality of his nature demanded expression. He yearned to crush, and hurt something—something that would cringe before him. I ventured to raise my head cautiously, so as to gain a glimpse of the man, and was surprised to note the change in his face. It was as though he had removed a mask. Heretofore, always holding the winning hand, and able to sneer at opposition, he had always in my presence assumed an air of cold bravado, insolent and sarcastic; but now, baffled in his plans, checkmated by a girl, and believing himself unobserved, the gambler had given way to his true nature, both expression and manner exhibiting a temper beyond control.
I had but a moment in which to observe this new exhibit of the man's personality, for almost immediately Carver flung the door of the room open, and Kirby swung impatiently about to face the entrance. Except for a possibility of thus attracting the attention of the newcomer, I was in no special danger of being detected by those within. Nevertheless I sank lower, with eyes barely above the edge of the sill, eager to witness this meeting, and especially interested in gaining a first view of their prisoner. Carver thrust her forward, but remained himself blocking the doorway. I use the word thrust, for I noted the grip of his hand on her arm, yet in truth she instantly stepped forward herself, her bearing in no way devoid of pride and dignity, her head held erect, her eyes fearlessly seeking the face of Kirby. Their glances met, and she advanced to the table, the light of the swinging lamp full upon her. The impression she made is with me yet. Hers was a refined, patrician face, crowned by a wealth of dark hair. Indignant eyes of hazel brown, shadowed by long lashes, brightened a face whitened by intense emotion, and brought into agreeable contrast flushed cheeks, and red, scornful lips. A dimpled chin, a round, full throat, and the figure of young womanhood, slender and yet softly curved, altogether formed a picture so entrancing as to never again desert my imagination. With one bound my heart went out to her in sympathy, in admiration, in full and complete surrender. Yet, even in that instant, the knowledge of the truth, in all its unspeakable horror, assailed me—this girl, this proud, beautiful girl, was a slave; within her veins a cursed drop of negro blood stained her with dishonor, made of her a chattel; and the sneering brute she faced was by law her master. My hands clinched in the agony of the thought, the knowledge of my own impotence. Yet all this was but the flash of an instant. Before I could change posture, almost before I could draw fresh breath, her voice, trembling slightly with an emotion she was unable wholly to suppress, yet sounding clear as a bell, addressed the man confronting her.
"May I ask, sir, what this outrage means? I presume you are responsible for the insolence of this fellow who brought me here?"
Kirby laughed, but not altogether at ease.
"Well, not altogether," he answered, "as his methods are entirely his own. I merely told him to go after you."
"For what purpose?"
"So pretty a girl should not ask that. Carver, close the door, and wait outside."
I could mark the quick rise and fall of her bosom, And the look of fear she was unable to disguise. Yet not a limb moved as the door closed, nor did the glance of those brown eyes waver.
"You are not the same man I met here before," she began doubtfully. "He said he was connected with the sheriff's office. Who are you?"
"My name is Kirby; the sheriff is here under my orders."
"Well I play cards occasionally, and you have probably heard of me before. Even if you never had until tonight, it is pretty safe to bet that you do now. Donaldson, or his man, told you, so there is no use of my mincing matters any, nor of your pretence at ignorance."
"I know," she admitted, "that you won this property at cards, and have now come to take possession. Is that what you mean?"
"That, at least, is part of it," and he took a step toward her, his thin lips twisted into a smile. "But not all. Perhaps Donaldson failed to tell you the rest, and left me to break the news. Well, it won't hurt me any. Not only this plantation is mine, but every nigger on it as well. You are Rene Beaucaire?"
"Yes," she replied, slowly, almost under her breath, and hesitating ever so slightly, "I am Rene Beaucaire."
"And you don't know what that means, I suppose?" he insisted, savagely, angered by her coolness. "Perhaps the sheriff did not explain this. Yet, by God! I believe you do know. Someone spread the word before we ever got up here—that damn lawyer Haines likely enough. That is why the others have disappeared; why they have hidden themselves away. Who was it?"
"I cannot answer."
"Oh, I reckon you can. Why did they run off and leave you here?"
"I cannot answer."
"Damn you, stop that! Don't try any of your fine airs on me. Do you know who and what you are?"
She rested one hand on the table in support, and I could note the nervous trembling of the fingers, yet her low voice remained strangely firm.
"I know," she said distinctly, "I am no longer a free white woman; I am a negro, and a slave."
"Oh, so you know that, do you? Then you must also be aware that you are my property. Perhaps it will be well for you to remember this in answering my questions. Now tell me who informed you of all this?"
"I cannot answer."
"Cannot! You mean you will not. Well, young woman, I'll find means to make you, for I have handled your kind before. Drop this dignity business, and remember you are a slave, talking to your master. It will be better for you, if you do. Where is Eloise Beaucaire?"
"Why do you seek to find her? There is no slave blood in her veins."
"To serve the necessary papers, of course."
He spoke incautiously, urged on by his temper, and I marked how quickly her face brightened at this intelligence.
"To serve papers! They must be served then before—before you can take possession? That is what I understood the sheriff to say."
"Why, of course—the law requires that form."
"Then I am not really your slave—yet?" her voice deepening with earnestness and understanding. "Oh, so that is how it is—even if I am a negro, I do not belong to you until those papers have been served. If you touch me now you break the law. I may not be free, but I am free from you. Good God! but I am glad to know that!"
"And damn little good it is going to do you," he growled. "I was a fool to let you know that; but just the same you are here in my power, and I care mighty little what the law says. Sheriff, or no sheriff, my beauty, you are going to St. Louis with me tonight; so I advise you to keep a grip on that tongue of yours. Do you think I am going to be foiled altogether by a technical point of law? Then, by God! you don't know Joe Kirby. Possession is the main thing, and I have you where you can't get away. You hear me?"
She had not moved, although her form had straightened, and her hand no longer rested on the table. Kirby had stepped close in front of her, his eyes glowing with anger, his evident intention being to thus frighten the girl into compliance with his wishes, but her eyes, defiant and unafraid, looked him squarely in the face.
"I certainly hear," she replied calmly. "Your voice is sufficiently distinct. I am a slave, I suppose, and in your power; but I despise you, hate you—and you are not going to take me to St. Louis tonight."
"What can stop me?"
"That I am not obliged to tell you, sir."
"But what will prevent? The sheriff? Puh! a few dollars will take care of him. The Judge is a friend of mine."
"It is not the sheriff—nor the Judge; I place reliance on no friend of yours."
He grasped at her arm, but she stepped back quickly enough to avoid contact, and the red lips were pressed together in a thin line of determination. Kirby could not have seen what I did, or if he did see, failed to attach the same significance to the action. Her hand had suddenly disappeared within the folds of her skirt; but the angry man, apparently blinded by the violence of his passion, his eagerness to crush her spirit, thought only that she counted on outside aid for deliverance.
"You silly little fool," he snapped, his moustache bristling. "Why, what could you do to stop me? I could break your neck with one hand. So you imagine someone is going to save you. Well, who will it be? Those yokels down at the Landing? Haines, the lawyer? You have a surprise up your sleeve for me, I suppose! Hell! it makes me laugh; but you might as well have your lesson now, as any other time. Come here, you wench!"
He caught her arm this time, brutally jerking her toward him, but as instantly staggered backward, grasping at the table, the flash of anger in his eyes changing to a look of startled surprise. A pistol was leveled full in his face, the polished black barrel shining ominously in the light of the overhead lamp.
"Now perhaps you know what I mean," she said. "If you dare to touch me I will kill you like a dog. That is no threat; it is true as God's gospel," and the very tone of her voice carried conviction. "You say I am a slave—your slave! That may be so, but you will never possess me—never! Life means nothing to me any more, and I never expect to go out of this house alive; I do not even care to. So I am not afraid of you. Do you know why? Probably not, for men of your kind would be unable to understand. It is because I would rather die than have your dirty hand touch me—a thousand times rather. Do not drop your arms, you low-lived cur, for you have never been nearer death in all your miserable life than you are now. God knows I want to kill you; it is the one desire of my heart at this moment to rid the earth of such a beast. But I'll give you one chance—just one. Don't you dare call out, or answer me. Do what I say. Now step back—back along the table; that's it, a step at a time. Oh, I knew you were a cowardly bully. Go on—yes, clear to that window; don't lower those hands an inch until I say you may. I am a slave—yes, but I am also a Beaucaire. Now reach behind you, and pull up the sash—pull it up higher than that."
Her eyes dilated with sudden astonishment and terror. She had caught sight of me, emerging from the black shadow just behind her victim. Kirby also perceived the quick change in the face fronting him, read its expression of fright, and sought to twist his head so as to learn the truth. Yet before he could accomplish this, or his lips could give utterance to a sound, my hands closed on his throat, crushing him down to the sill, and throttling him into silence between the vise of my fingers.
TO SAVE A "NIGGER"
It proved to be a short, sharp struggle, from the first the advantage altogether with me. Kirby, jerked from off his feet from behind, his head forced down against the wooden sill, with throat gripped remorselessly in my clutch, could give utterance to no outcry, nor effectively exert his strength to break free. I throttled the very breath out of him, knowing that I must conquer then and there, silently, and with no thought of mercy. I was battling for her life, and my own. This was no time for compassion, nor had I the slightest wish to spare the man. With all the oldtime dislike in my heart, all the hatred aroused by what I had overheard, I closed down on his throat, rejoicing to see the purple of his flesh turn into a sickening black, as he fought desperately for breath, and as he lost consciousness, and ceased from struggle. I was conscious of a pang in my wounded shoulder, yet it seemed to rob me of no strength, but only added to my ferocity. The fellow rested limp in my hands. I believed I had killed him, and the belief was a joy, as I tossed the helpless body aside on the floor, and stepped through the open window into the room. Dead! he was better off dead.
I stood above him, staring down into the upturned face. It was breathless, mottled, hideously ugly, to all appearances the face of a dead man, but it brought to me no sense of remorse. The cur—"the unspeakable cur." In my heart I hoped he was dead, and in a sudden feeling of utter contempt, I struck the inert body with my foot. Then, as my eyes lifted, they encountered those of the girl. She had drawn back to the table, startled out of all reserve by this sudden apparition, unable to comprehend. Doubt, questioning, fright found expression in her face. The pistol yet remained clasped in her hand, while she stared at me as though a ghost confronted her.
"Who—who are you?" she managed to gasp, in a voice which barely reached my ears. "My God! who—who sent you here?"
"It must have been God," I answered, realizing instantly that I needed to make all clear in a word. "I came only to help you, and was just in time—no doubt God sent me."
"To help me? You came here to help me? But how could that be? I—I never saw you before—who are you?"
I stood straight before her, my eyes meeting her own frankly. I had forgotten the dead body at my feet, the incidents of struggle, the pain of my own wound, comprehending only the supreme importance of compelling her to grasp the truth.
"There is no time now to explain all this, Miss Rene. You must accept the bare facts—will you?"
"Yes—I—I suppose I must."
"Then listen, for you must know that every moment we waste here in talk only makes escape more difficult. I tell you the simple truth. I am Steven Knox, an officer in the army. It chanced I was a passenger on the boat when Judge Beaucaire lost his life. I witnessed the game of cards this man won, and afterwards, when I protested, was attacked, and flung overboard into the river by Kirby here, and that fellow who is outside guarding the door. They believe me to be dead; but I managed to reach shore, and was taken care of by a negro—'Free Pete' he calls himself; do you know him?"
"Yes—oh, yes; he was one of the Carlton slaves." Her face brightened slightly in its bewilderment.
"Well, I knew enough of what was bound to occur to feel an interest, and tonight he brought me here for the purpose of warning you—you, your mother, and Eloise Beaucaire. He has his cart and mule out yonder; we intended to transport you across the river, and thus start you safely on the way to Canada."
"Then," she said slowly, seeming to catch at her breath, her voice trembling, "then it must be really true what these men say—Delia is my mother? I—I am a slave?"
"You did not really know. You were not warned by anyone before their arrival?"
"No, there was no warning. Did anyone in this neighborhood understand?"
"Haines the lawyer did. He furnished me with much of the information I possess. But I am the one puzzled now. If the truth was not known to any of you, how does it happen the others are gone?"
"So far as I am aware that is merely an accident. They walked over to the old Carlton place early this evening; there is sickness in the family, and they hoped to be of help. That is everything I know. They were to return two hours ago, for I was here all alone, except for the negroes in their quarters. I cannot conceive what has occurred—unless they have learned in some way of the trouble here."
"That must be the explanation; they have hidden themselves. And these men told you why they came?"
"The only one I saw at first did. He came in all alone and claimed to be a deputy sheriff. I was terribly frightened at first, and did not at all understand; but I questioned him and the man liked to talk. So he told me all he knew. Perhaps I should have thought he was crazy, only—only some things had occurred of late which led me to half suspect the truth before. I—I wouldn't believe it then, but—but I made him repeat everything he had heard. Horrible as it was, I—I wanted to know all."
"And you acknowledged to him that you were Rene Beaucaire?"
Her dark eyes flashed up into my face questioningly.
"Why—why, of course. I—I could not deny that, could I?"
"Perhaps not; yet if none of them knew you, and you had claimed to be Eloise, they would never have dared to hold you prisoner."
"I never once thought of that; the only thing which occurred to me was how I could best protect the others. My plan was to send them warning in some way. Still, now I am very glad I said I was Rene."
"Because it seems it is Eloise they must find to serve their papers on. They dare not take away the slaves until this is done. As for me, I am nothing—nothing but a slave myself; is that not true?"
To look into her eyes, her face, and answer was a hard task, yet one I saw no way to evade.
"Yes; I am afraid it is true."
"And—and then Delia, the housekeeper, is actually my mother?"
"That is the story, as it has reached me."
She held tightly to the table for support, all the fresh color deserting her face, but the lips were firmly set and her head remained as proudly poised as ever above the round throat. Whatever might be the stain of alien blood in her veins, she was still a Beaucaire. Her eyes, filled with pain as they were, met mine unflinchingly.
"And—and knowing all this, convinced of its truth—that—that I am colored," she faltered, doubtfully. "You came here to help me?"
"I did; that can make no difference now."
"No difference! Why do you say that? Are you from the North, an Abolitionist?"
"No; at least I have never been called one or so thought of myself. I have never believed in slavery, yet I was born in a southern state. In this case I merely look upon you as a woman—as one of my own class. It—it does not seem as though I could ever consider you in any other way. You must believe this."
"Believe it! Why you and I are caught in the same net. I am a slave to be sold to the highest bidder; and you—you have killed a man to save me. Even if I was willing to remain and face my fate, I could not now, for that would mean you must suffer. And—and you have done this for me."
My eyes dropped to the upturned face of Kirby on which the rays of light rested. The flesh was no longer black and horrid, yet remained ghastly enough to increase my belief that the man was actually dead—had perished under my hand. He was not a pleasant sight to contemplate, flung as he had been in a shapeless heap, and the sight brought home to me anew the necessity of escape before those others of his party could learn what had occurred.
"From whatever reason the deed was done," I said, steadying my voice, "we must now face the consequences. As you say, it is true we both alike have reason to fear the law if caught. Flight is our only recourse. Will you go with me? Will you trust me?"
"Go—go with you? Where?"
"First across the river into Illinois; there is no possible safety here. Once over yonder we shall, at least, have time in which to think out the proper course, to plan what shall be best to do. In a way your danger is even more serious than mine. I have not been seen—even Kirby had no glimpse of my face—and might never be identified with the death of this man. But you will become a fugitive slave and could be hunted down anywhere this side of Canada."
"Then being with me would add to your danger."
"Whether it will or not counts nothing; I shall never let you go alone."
She pressed the palms of both her hands against her forehead as though in a motion of utter bewilderment.
"Oh, I cannot seem to realize," she exclaimed. "Everything is like a dream to me—impossible in its horror. This situation, is so terrible; it has come upon me so suddenly, I cannot decide, I cannot even comprehend what my duty is. You urge me to go away with you—alone?"
"I do; there is no other way left. You cannot remain here in the hands of these men; the result of such a step is too terrible to even contemplate. There are no means of determining where the others are—Delia and Miss Eloise. Perhaps they have had warning and fled already," I urged, desperately.
Her eyes were staring down at Kirby's body.
"Look, he—he is not dead," she sobbed, excitedly. "Did you see then, one of his limbs moved, and—and why he is beginning to gasp for breath."
"All the more reason why we should decide at once. If the fellow regains consciousness and lives, our danger will be all the greater."
"Yes, he would be merciless," her lips parted, her eyes eloquent of disgust and horror as she suddenly lifted them to my face. "I—I must not forget that I—I belong to him; I am his slave; he—he, that hideous thing there, can do anything he wishes with me—the law says he can." The indignant color mounted into her face. "He can sell me, or use me, or rent me; I am his chattel. Good God! think of it! Why, I am as white as he is, better educated, accustomed to every care, brought up to believe myself rich and happy—and now I belong to him; he owns me, body and soul." She paused suddenly, assailed by a new thought, a fresh consideration.
"Do you know the law?"
"I am no expert; what is it you would ask?"
"The truth of what they have told me. Is it so, is it the law that these men can take possession of nothing here until after Eloise has been found and their papers served upon her?"
"Yes, I believe it is," I said. "She is the legal heiress of Judge Beaucaire; the estate is hers by inheritance, as, I am told, there was no will. All this property, including the slaves, would legally remain in her possession until proper steps had been taken by others. Serving of the papers would be necessary. There is no doubt as to that—although, probably, after a certain length of time, the court might presume her dead and take other action to settle the estate."
"But not for several years?"
"No; I think I have heard how many, but have forgotten."
She drew a deep breath and stepped toward me, gazing straight into my face.
"I believe in you," she said firmly. "And I trust you. You look like a real man. You tell me you serve in the army—an officer?"
"A lieutenant of infantry."
She held out her hand and my own closed over it, the firm, warm clasp of her fingers sending a strange thrill through my whole body. An instant she looked directly into my eyes, down into the very soul of me, and what I read in the depths of her brown orbs could never find expression in words. I have thought of it often since—that great, dimly-lighted room, with the guard at the outer door; the inert, almost lifeless body huddled on the floor beside us, and Rene Beaucaire, her hand clasped in mine.
"Lieutenant Knox," she said softly, yet with a note of confidence in the low voice, "no woman was ever called upon to make a more important choice than this. Although I am a slave, now I am free to choose. I am going to trust you absolutely; there are reasons why I so decide which I cannot explain at this time. I have not known you long enough to venture that far. You must accept me just as I am—a runaway slave and a negress, but also a woman. Can you pledge such as I your word of honor—the word of a soldier and a gentleman?"
"I pledge it to you, Rene Beaucaire," I answered soberly.
"And I accept the pledge in all faith. From now on, whatever you say I will do."
I had but one immediate purpose in my mind—to escape from the house as quickly as possible, to attain Pete's cart at the edge of the woods and be several miles up the river, hidden away in some covert before daylight, leaving no trail behind. The first part of this hasty program would have to be carried out instantly, for any moment a suspicion might cause Carver to throw open the door leading into the hallway and expose our position. Kirby was already showing unmistakable symptoms of recovery, while those other men idling on the front porch might begin to wonder what was going on so long inside and proceed to investigate. By this time they must be nervously anxious to get away. Besides, it would prove decidedly to our advantage if I was not seen or recognized. The very mystery, the bewilderment as to who had so viciously attacked the gambler and then spirited away the girl, would serve to facilitate our escape. Theories as to how it had been accomplished would be endless and the pursuit delayed.