"Gee! that was a close shave, though!" he gasped, as he sat up, the water pouring from him in rivulets.
Thad was pumping his hand like a machine, and almost crying in his hysterical delight.
"Oh! you gave me an awful scare, old fellow, you sure did! I thought you was a goner, and felt like jumping in, too, myself. It would be mighty tough to lose you, Maurice, mighty tough!" he kept saying as he squeezed the other's hand.
"Well, a miss is as good as a mile; and the only thing I'm thinking of just now is a way to get warm. My teeth are rattling together like the dickens. It was just comfortable in the water; but this air cuts through me like a knife!" said Maurice, getting up on his knees.
"You must go inside at once, and I'll have the fire booming in a jiffy. Never mind the boat; I reckon that rope will hold us here all right till morning. When you are warm I'm going to come out and see if I can put another anchor of some sort over. We've got a rope and that fine big stone, you know. Shoo, now, and get into the coop, you!"
In this fashion did Thad chase his chum indoors.
He busied himself with the fire, and it was not long before he had the interior of the cabin feeling comfortable.
And while the boat pitched and plunged, yet seemed to hold her own against the raging storm, Maurice changed his clothes, and was presently feeling none the worse for his involuntary bath.
Long before this the other had slipped out to fulfill his programme with regard to the second anchor.
GOOD OLD MARLIN.
When Thad came in later on he declared that the chances were now that the boat would hold her own during the balance of that stormy night.
"Always providing," he added, with due caution, "that it don't get any worse, and the wind shift to the northeast, which would be bad for us here."
So they started in again to try and keep watch-and-watch, one securing a little sleep while the other stood guard.
It was only a poor makeshift at best, for what Maurice called "cat-naps" were the best they could do at any time.
That night would not soon be forgotten by the boys, for it seemed to be about forty hours long.
And as time crept on at a snail pace the howling of the wintry gale continued unabated, with the roar of the wind through the tree-tops ashore, the dash of the waves on the point above, and the constant wabbling motion of the shanty-boat to remind them of their peril.
It may have been a couple of hours before the time for morning to come along that Thad, after a trip of investigation outside, returned with some news.
"Wind's shifted!" he announced, as he came staggering in again.
Maurice jumped up.
"Then we ought to get busy if we don't want to be dragged out of this comfortable pocket again!" he exclaimed.
"Hold on, old fellow; you don't catch on. The wind has taken a notion to back into the west, and is now whooping it up from across the old Mississip," said the other, sinking into a seat, and holding both shivering hands out to the cheery blaze.
"Oh! that's a different thing. I reckon then we're more in danger of going ashore, than being sent adrift again," admitted Maurice.
"I guess the anchors are good to hold, if only we don't get banged on a nasty rock. I've got a notion there are a lot around here, even if we can't see 'em. But the chances don't amount to much; and it's me for another little snooze."
With which Thad sought his bunk, and bundled in "all standing" in sea parlance, not even removing his boots, for he did not know but that he might have to turn out at any moment.
But the next thing he knew was when a most appetizing odor came stealing to his sense of smell, and he realized that his chum was cooking breakfast.
"Hello, there, going to have a midnight meal?" queried Thad, drowsily, as he sat up, rubbing his eyes.
Whereupon the other stepped to the little window, raised the shade and allowed the awakened sleeper to see that dawn was at hand, gray and forbidding, but daylight all the same.
"Well, all I can say, pard, is, that I'm mighty glad to see her come along. That was the most ding-dong night I ever spent, for a fact. And I guess I dreamed about you going in swimming with all your duds on, too. That was what woke me up just now with a jump."
Thad crawled out, stretching and yawning.
"Oh! you'll feel better after you've had a little coffee, and some bacon. Nothing like a hot breakfast to tone a fellow up after a bad night like that," remarked the cook, cheerily, as he started to transfer the various things from the stove to their table, with its clean white oilcloth cover.
Thad went outside to take an observation.
He found the storm still busy, and the sight out on the river was quite discouraging to a boy who wanted to get along toward the blamy Southland as speedily as possible.
Still, they had indeed much to be thankful for, with that snug craft to serve as a refuge while the gale lasted, plenty to eat aboard, and a supply of wood within reach.
"I guess the little dinghy would live between here and the shore," he remarked, as he came in presently.
"What's in the wind now?" demanded Maurice, already pouring out the amber liquid into the brace of tin cups that served them just as well as the dainty aluminum ones sported by some canoeists they had once known in their Kentucky home town.
"Well, you see, our wood isn't apt to hold out all day; and besides, there's another night coming for us in this place. One of us must go ashore later on and do some chopping."
"That'll be me, then, to start with. I'd like to get a few of the kinks out of my arms. Here, squat down, and begin work with that mess. Plenty more where that came from, and no bill to settle."
In this manner did the early morning meal progress, for the boys, having survived the perils of the night, were feeling quite like themselves again.
True to his promise, about nine o'clock as near as they could judge, Maurice climbed down into the dinghy, taking with him their only ax.
Thad had even been careful enough to fasten this with a piece of rope-end to the single thwart in the dump boat.
"If you should have a turn-over the blooming thing don't know enough to swim, like you do; and to lose it just now would put us in a fine old pickle," he explained, when Maurice joked him about the solicitude he was showing.
"That's it," remarked the occupant of the dinghy, as he balanced himself carefully in sitting down; "it might be hard to buy another ax down along here, and one as good as this daisy. Now, when I say the word, give me a dandy push, will you?"
"All right," and Thad braced himself for the exertion.
"I suppose it will be harder coming out again, with a load of wood. I'm glad you thought of that bully old scheme of dragging some of it aboard with a rope," said Maurice, taking up the paddle.
"I'll pay out the painter as you go along," remarked the one who was to remain on board the larger craft.
Having been given a fine start he plied his blade, and rapidly the little boat drew near the adjacent shore.
No accident befell Maurice, and he was able to land safely; after which he drew his small craft well up on the beach, before climbing the abrupt bank just beyond, by means of protruding roots of trees.
Thad listened until he heard the steady blows of the ax; and then he went back to some work he had been doing at the time.
It might have been about half an hour later that he suddenly caught what seemed to be an angry bark from the shore; and as the sound appeared to come directly from that quarter where he remembered Maurice had been at work, he immediately became quite concerned.
The sound came again almost immediately, and seemed even more savage than before. Following it he caught the voice of his pard raised in anger.
"Get out, you rascal! Hi! there, what d'ye mean jumping at me like that! Keep off, or I'll give you a dig with the ax. D'ye hear, you big fool?"
Apparently Maurice was in some sort of trouble, and as near as the boy on the shanty-boat could understand he had been attacked by some roving animal that had taken a fancy to try and assault the strange woodchopper.
Thad jumped into the cabin and came out with the little Marlin in his hands; but then he realized how utterly impotent he was to give his beleaguered chum a helping hand just then.
The boiling water lay between him and that shore for a distance of perhaps thirty feet or more; nor was it possible for even his sanguine spirit to bridge it.
True, there was the dinghy on the little beach, and the cable attached to its stern ran all the way to the larger boat, so that it was possible for him to tug away, and eventually bring it alongside.
Should he try it?
The sounds had grown even more furious, as though Maurice and the unseen dog might be engaged in something resembling a regular circus.
Suppose he pulled the dinghy away from the shore, and just then his chum appeared, eager to throw himself into it, his disappointment would be terrible.
But all the same Thad could not stand there helpless and listen to that terrible racket going on.
Why, for all he knew, poor old Maurice might be in hard luck, with the teeth of a savage hound threatening his very life.
And so Thad made up his mind in a hurry, for he was not the one to hesitate when an emergency called for speedy action.
He had laid the Marlin down on the deck, and applied both hands to the task of getting the small boat across that intervening stretch of water as quickly as human means could accomplish the job.
If anything was needed to urge him on to unusual haste it might have easily been found in the continual confusion of shouts, laughter, barks, and general confusion existing ashore.
Swiftly the tender of the shanty-boat came spinning through the water, until in a short time it bumped against the side.
Thad waited only long enough to deposit his precious gun in the bottom, and then crawling over the side himself, he seized upon the paddle, and dipped deeply.
No doubt he made the shore in much less time than it took Maurice; for there was need that he should.
The noise continued, from which Thad drew new hope; at least his beloved chum could not have been seriously injured, for just then he could almost positively declare that he heard him laugh again.
So there was a comical side to the adventure, it would seem.
Thad was in such a hurry to reach the spot that he must needs make an unfortunate miscalculation when attempting to climb up the steep bank, or else a root upon which he depended proved false to his trust.
However that might be the boy fell back again, landing in a heap at the base of the little bluff.
Taking warning from his mishap that speed is not always an indication of ultimate success, Thad became a little more careful; and as a consequence he soon had the satisfaction of finding himself on the top of the river bank.
Here Maurice had piled quite some wood, which doubtless he calculated fastening to the spare rope, so that it could be dragged aboard once he had joined his chum.
Smaller stuff he would stow away in the tender, and thus avoid getting the same wet.
But Thad was not bothering his head about the wood just then; he could still hear the barking, and the voice of his friend not far away, accompanied by various mysterious sounds that seemed to resemble the dropping of a heavy body on the ground.
So he gripped the gun and began to move forward, steeling his nerves for any sort of surprise possible.
In this fashion he presently reached what seemed to be a little glade, where at some time in the dim past the trees had gone down, either in a hurricane or before a settler's ax.
Then the show was before him!
His attention was immediately attracted to a moving object that continued to leap upward with wriggling movements, and then fall back again to the ground, to obtain new footing and try again.
And each attempt was being greeted by disdainful remarks from Maurice, who could be seen dangling his legs some seven feet or so up in a friendly tree.
Thad breathed freer.
He knew now that his chum had been wise enough to take refuge among the branches of this tree when he lost hold of the ax with which he had been defending himself.
And since he seemed so very merry now, it was evident that he had not been badly injured by the teeth of the brute.
Thad began to push his Marlin forward, as though he might mean business from the start.
He did not fancy the looks of the big dog, which was of a dingy yellow-color, and as large as a two-month-old calf.
Possibly he belonged to some farmer within a mile or so of the spot; or it might be that he was a stray beast, drawn back to the original state of his kind by the call of the wild.
Thad did not try to find out, and indeed, there was no possible way in which he could ascertain, since the dog could not talk.
Maurice had apparently become aware of his presence, for just then he called out.
"Take care, Thad, he's a holy terror of a brute. If you shoot be sure you get him, or he'll jump you like he did me. He's mad clear through. Hi! look out. he's scented you and he's coming!"
Thad needed no warning, for he had been watching the big buff dog every second of the time.
He dropped on one knee, and threw the Marlin up to his shoulder with a resolute air. Thad could hardly be said to be an expert shot, for his opportunities to go out hunting had never been very numerous; still, he possessed nerve, and could aim straight, which, after all, were qualities standing him in better stead just then than experience.
The beast was coming all right, there could be no doubt about that; and his appearance, with that hair bristling along above his shoulders, was anything but pacifying.
To the kneeling lad the rush of a lion in the African wilds could not have seemed more fierce.
He waited just three seconds, until Maurice, fearing that his chum might be almost paralyzed with fright, gave a shriek to startle him into action.
But Thad had done the wise thing after all; he wanted the dog to get close enough to warrant the bird-shot to possess all the deadly attributes of a bullet.
Of course there was more danger of his missing entirely; but Thad's mind was fully made up that he just could not and would not do any thing of the sort.
Then his finger pressed first one trigger, and almost simultaneously the other, of the double-barrel.
The deafening report was accompanied by what seemed to be a piercing yelp or two, after which there was silence.
Maurice had jumped down out of his tree as soon as the shots told that there was no further danger of his being hit by any stray leaden pellet; and seizing upon the handy ax he bounced across the glade toward the scene of hostilities.
"Thad!" he shouted eagerly, as he ran, waving the ax in the air, and ready to resume the battle, if so be it seemed necessary.
"All right here, old hoss!" came the cheery answer, that made the other experience immediate relief.
And then Maurice looked toward the spot where he had had his last glimpse of his late enemy.
Something was moving amid the snow that covered the ground.
"You got him, Thad; he's kicking his last!" yelled the excited Maurice, as he gazed with distended eyes at the feeble struggles that marked the passing of the powerful brute.
By the time the marksman had reached the spot the animal had given up the ghost; but even in death he presented a ferocious aspect that made Maurice shiver.
"Phew! that was an exciting little time," he said, wiping his forehead, as though somewhat overheated by his recent exertions.
"Where d'ye suppose he came from?" asked the other, as he bent over the victim of the steady-shooting gun, and shrugged his shoulders at sight of the bared white teeth, so wicked in appearance.
"I don't know. Looks to me like he might be a wild dog; but perhaps he belongs to some shanty-boat crowd below here. I wouldn't be too ready to tell about this until we're well away. It might breed trouble for us, you see," said Maurice, sagely.
"But he tackled you without cause, and any fellow is allowed to defend himself," expostulated the other.
"That's good logic, generally; but the owner of the dog never looks at things from the right side. He'd blame you for shooting, and say we ought to have chased the beast off with pea-shooters. Well, he kept me jumping right lively up to the time I lost my grip on this old ax. Then I got up in that blessed tree, though I'll never know just how I did the trick. H'm! that old gun of mine is some shooter, ain't she? My! how you knocked a hole in the critter. That was going some, for you. Thad, don't you forget it, son."
Now that he was ashore Thad assisted in getting the wood down to the edge of the water.
Here some of it was fastened to a spare rope which could be carried out to the floating boat, when the firewood might be hauled aboard.
Thad paddled out first, so as to draw the laden dinghy after him; then Maurice used the second rope to get it back ashore, loaded it with the results of his chopping, after which the other did his part.
In this fashion the entire amount of fuel was finally taken aboard.
"I think we have enough to last us for some time now," remarked Maurice, after he had in the end allowed Thad to draw him out just as the cargoes of wood had been taken aboard.
And as Thad once more pushed a couple of shells into the chambers of the little old Marlin he shook his head, observing:
"I'd hate to think what would have happened if I'd just missed that ugly customer when I pulled those triggers. For he was coming at me like a house afire, and with blood in his eyes. But, I didn't, all the same, and what's the use bothering over it? Is the storm going down any, d'ye think, Maurice?"
But Maurice could not say that it was in the least.
"NOT TODAY," SAID THAD.
"I wonder how long this measly old storm is going to keep us here?" Maurice was saying, that afternoon, as he stood on the after-deck of the anchored shanty-boat, and looked at the wild scene out on the raging river.
They had seen not a sign of life thus far around them, since dawn. Even the few boats moving at this late season of the year on the Father of Waters seemed to have been bottled up in such harbors as could be found conveniently near at the time the storm broke loose.
"You called me a weather sharp because I said it was due; and now you want me to give a guess about the end—is that it, Maurice?" asked the other, smiling.
"Well, if you can hit it as good this time, and encourage a poor ship-wrecked mariner I'd be obliged."
"Say, it ain't as bad as that. We've got a lot to be thankful for, I reckon, with this bully old boat to hold us, and keep out the cold. For one you don't hear me kicking," returned Thad, earnestly.
"Oh! come off; you know mighty well that I'm the last boy to run up the white flag. Everything's lovely, and the goose hangs high; anyhow, it will later on if I get a crack at one on a sandbar further down the river. But what do you think of the prospects for clearing?" went on Maurice, turning to his chum.
"Not good for anything today. P'raps the old storm will blow itself out tonight, and in the morning we may drop out of here.
"Oh! well, it's too late now to think of going on today, so after all it don't matter much We can pull some more wood on board before night, and laugh at the cold," remarked Maurice.
"Perhaps we'd better be doing it right away, then," observed Thad, with a glance at the west; "for dark comes sudden like at this time of year, you know."
"All right. Get the ax and I'll see to the gun, Thad."
"Thinking of more dogs, eh?"
"Well, no; to tell the truth I had the master of one dog in my mind right then," came the reply, as Maurice entered the cabin to take the Marlin off the hook on the wall.
Thad looked a bit thoughtful, but said nothing.
Perhaps they were not so very far away from some shanty-boat that had sought refuge in a friendly cove from the gale; and he knew the general habit of these floating people was to harbor at least one dog to each craft, sometimes half a dozen.
That gun might come in handy should they find themselves confronted by an angry dog owner, demanding the reason why they had shot his canine property.
So they left their home craft, and paddled ashore in the little tender, one at a time.
The ax was soon at work, and the chips flying under the lusty strokes of both boys by turns.
Thad had been more or less impressed by what his chum said. While Maurice worked with the ax he managed to sit by the fire they had started, seemingly to keep warm, but in reality because the shotgun had been leaned against a neighboring tree.
And ordinarily Thad was far from being timid by nature; so that it must have been some sort of prophetic warning that bade him stick to the camp.
"Guess we've got about enough, eh, Thad?" demanded the other, as he threw the tool down, and breathing heavily, sat alongside his chum on the convenient log near the blaze.
"As much as we can get aboard, anyhow. With night only an hour off the quicker we begin to navigate the better for us. Here goes," and with that Thad started to carry the chopped wood down to where the small boat awaited its cargo.
They were busily engaged in doing this, and had really managed to get most of the fuel aboard, with Maurice pulling from the deck of the anchored craft, and his chum doing the work ashore, when Thad heard crunching footsteps above the spot where he crouched.
Looking up he saw a bearded face thrust out from the bank; and almost instinctively he knew that the prediction of his companion was about to come true.
Was this the owner of the dead brute that lay not more than eighty or one hundred feet away?
Thad felt a sudden cold chill. He was certainly not a coward by nature, and had proved this at various times in the past; still, there was an ugly scowl on that red-bearded face that surely stood for new trouble.
And Thad was glad that he had insisted upon keeping the gun ashore with him while he performed his end of the duty of transporting the wood to the shanty-boat.
He also remembered that it was close beside him, where he could lay a hand on it quickly if need be.
Then the man spoke, and his voice was just as disagreeable as his face seemed to be—a heavy rumble with more or less of threat under the surface.
"So, here ye be, hey? Wot business hed yer ter shoot up my dawg; tell me that, consarn ye?"
Perhaps he said something much stronger than the concluding words; but that does not matter.
Thad gave the signal to his chum to pull, for he had the last of the wood stocked in the dinghy. Then he turned his attention to the man who had addressed him.
If his face was white it was only natural; but his voice did not quiver in the least.
"I admit that I shot the dog. He was trying to kill my friend, who was busy cutting wood. I'd do it again, and so would any one. What business have you letting such a savage dog loose?"
Even while talking he edged a trifle toward the spot where the gun was standing against the bank. The man might take a notion to slide down, with the intention of attacking him, and Thad wanted to make sure of his line of defense, like a wise general always should.
"Hey! wot's thet ye say? I got a boat just a leettle way below hyer, an' my dorg's got a right ter run loose. Ye owns up ye shooted ther pore critter, does yer? I gotter a notion right now ter give yer sumpin ter pay back fur wot ye done!"
He actually threw himself over the edge of the little bluff, being angered by such talk on the part of a boy.
Maurice gave a shout from the boat.
"Look out, there, what you're doing, or I'll shoot you full of holes!" was what he whooped; but since the only weapon they possessed was at that moment ashore it can be understood that he was only seeking to fill the man with sudden consternation.
Perhaps it did work to some extent, for the big fellow rather hesitated as he cast an apprehensive glance out toward the shanty- boat.
Those few seconds were worth much to Thad.
He had started for the place where the gun stood, and which, unfortunately, happened to be close to where the man had landed. Indeed, had the fellow been aware of the fact in the beginning he might easily have cut Thad off from his coveted weapon.
But knowing the absolute necessity for obtaining a grip on the Marlin, the boy plunged forward, regardless of the fact that in so doing he had to advance toward the enemy.
His aggressive movement rather puzzled the other, until he saw the gun leaning there against the bank. Then he gave a howl, and also projected his bulk forward, evidently with the expectation of reaching the firearm first.
But he was just three seconds too late.
Thad snatched the weapon up, and drawing back both hammers, held it in a threatening attitude.
"Keep back, there, or I'll do the same to you I did to your dog!" cried the excited but resolute boy.
The fellow saw something in the attitude of the lad to give him cause for prudence; and he immediately drew up, throwing out both hands in a sudden spasm of alarm.
"Hi! hold on thar, sonny, don't ye pull them triggers hard! It'd be jest murder, 'cause I ain't got nary weepon by me, I swar. I didn't go ter mean any thin' hard. Corse ye done right ter shoot the ornery dawg if he war atryin' ter eat yer pard up. Yuh see I didn't know ther hull facts in ther case, I didn't. Let up easy, now, bub; drap thet gun, won't yer?" he whined.
"Don't do it, Thad!" shouted Maurice, dancing about on the deck of the flat in his excitement; "don't you trust him an inch, I tell you! Make him vamoose the ranch—tell him to clear out, or you'll pepper his hide."
But Thad needed no such entreaty on the part of his chum to know only too well that not the slightest reliance could be placed on the honor of such a rough customer.
He continued to cover the man.
"If you take one step this way I'll let fly!" he said, impressively.
"But I ain't holdin' no grudge agin you-uns now 'bout thet dawg. Reckons it's better the critter's got his, 'cause the missus sez as how he acted like he wos agwine mad," expostulated the man; but there was a gleam in his eyes that Thad did not like, and he would not take chances.
"All right, if that's the case; but all the same you threatened me, and I'm not going to trust you close. Just back up along the beach, and if you make the first move to do anything I'm going to shoot. Now, twenty-three for yours, mister, skidoo! We don't want your company; not today," said Thad.
The man looked at him. He must have seen something in the determined manner of the lad to influence him in reaching a decision. That boy would keep his word; he was ready to shoot if crossed; and the way in which he had killed the brute of a dog proved his skill with the gun he was fondling now.
"Oh! all right, bub, I'll clear out, if yuh sez so; but if I ever get a chanct tuh even up this hyer score I'm gwine tuh do hit, sure's yer born!"
He moved away, muttering, and looking angrily toward the lad; but not once did the latter show signs of weakening.
When the big fellow had vanished from sight, Thad hastened to draw the dinghy, which Maurice had hastily emptied, back to the beach.
"Just sit in it and keep an eye toward the bank, Thad," sang out the chum on the boat, "and leave it to me to drag you out here. That chap means mischief, unless I'm mistaken."
Since his own thoughts coincided with those expressed by Maurice, Thad was satisfied to obey instructions. He squatted low in the small craft, handled the gun in a way that any one ashore could not help seeing, and kept watch along the line.
When he was almost there he saw the man break cover, almost directly opposite, and could even note the look of disappointment on his face as he discovered how the boy had eluded his clutches.
He shouted out something which neither of them wholly understood; but there could be no mistaking the ugly manner in which that fist was shaken toward them.
"Don't notice him, and he'll go away soon. It's getting dusk already, you know, and cold enough to freeze his red nose."
Maurice proved to be something of a prophet, for sure enough presently the man, finding that his derisive words met with no response, concluded that lingering in the vicinity did not pay.
"There, he's gone," announced Thad, finally.
"A good riddance of bad rubbish," echoed his chum.
"I hope we don't have visitors in the night," remarked Thad.
"Um; so that is what was on your mind. Well, now, I hardly think that fellow, or any of his crowd will have the nerve to come here and try to swim out to us; and you see they can't get aboard any other way, having no boat. Still—"
"You mean that we had better be on the safe side, and keep watch?" suggested Thad.
"I was just going to say something along that style. It wouldn't be a bad idea, you know."
"Well, I always did believe that it's better to keep from getting a cold, than to be able to cure one."
But evidently the man must have determined that, with a gun in their possession, the boys were not to be easily taken by surprise, for he did not show up during the entire night, much to the relief of both young shanty-boat cruisers.
Perhaps he had no companions to back him up in a desperate enterprise; or it may be that the comforts of his own cabin appealed too much to him on this stormy night.
Be the cause what it might, both lads were satisfied to have the night pass without any alarm; though several times when Thad was on guard some prowling raccoon or skunk on the shore gave him cause to fancy that the anticipated trouble was on the point of breaking loose.
Who the man was, and what manner of boat he possessed neither of them ever knew; for they caught no glimpse of any craft just below their stopping place when eventually the chance came to continue the voyage.
NEARING THE SUNNY SOUTH.
During the second night the storm began to die away, and when another dawn came the sun actually shone, though the country looked bleak and cold under the blanket of snow that had fallen.
Just as soon as it was advisable they broke away from their holding ground and once more started down the river, which was still pretty rough; but both boys were so sick and tired of that place they wanted to leave it for new scenes.
They were a little anxious lest in some way the rough owner of that miserable dog would bob up and give them trouble, and not until some miles had been navigated did they breathe freely.
And every mile they put behind them meant that they were so much closer to the genial sunny South, of which they had heard so much. After this frigid experience they were of the opinion that they could not reach that balmy region any too soon to suit them.
During the day the wind went down, and when afternoon was waning they sighted the town of Hickman, which was not a great distance from the Tennessee line—the mere mention of this fact caused Thad to give a cheer.
Now, they knew that it was not advisable to stop long at any river town, for fear of trouble with some of the rougher element that haunted the docks, but as some of their supplies had become low, and needed replenishing, they drew in, and Maurice went ashore to make a purchase, while Thad guarded the boat.
Contrary to their fears nothing happened to give them cause for alarm, and as for the fellows around the landing, Thad found them about on a par with the usual loungers, good-natured chaff predominating. Indeed, one of them even made him a present of a little yellow cur that had a pair of bright eyes and an affectionate muzzle, which tickled Thad immensely, he had longed so much for a pet.
They got away from Hickman at a quarter to four, with a clear sky and frosty atmosphere that promised good sailing weather on the morrow.
The yellow dog was immediately named Dixie, and took to his new title from the start, being a lively little chap, full of fun, and as frisky as they make them.
He promised to be great company for the boys, and something of a watchdog, too, when the occasion warranted it, for his sharp bark upon hearing any foreign sound was enough to arouse the heaviest sleeper.
Thad declared he would now be able to sleep with both eyes shut, for up to this time he had been compelled to keep one half open.
Just as Maurice feared they failed to find any place at which to tie up as darkness came on, and it looked as though they would finally have to depend on their anchor and a stout cable.
As they slowly floated along close to the shore Thad's sharp eyes finally detected an opening, which looked very much as though some stream entered the river at this point, and upon pushing in to investigate they found that it was indeed so.
And so they rested comfortably after all, though Maurice was a little fearful lest they be paid a visit by some of the rough characters floating around the levee at Hickman, and who would suppose the little shanty-boat could not have gone many miles down-stream before pulling up for the night.
Fortunately for their peace of mind this did not happen. Perhaps it was the cold night that deterred them, or it may have been that Thad had made friends with the Hickman fellows—no matter, they saw nothing of visitors, and in the morning got away in grand style, with Dixie barking a farewell to the creek that had served them so well as a harbor of refuge.
So they continued on their voyage, always making progress when it was at all possible; and with each day's setting sun drawing nearer the goal of their hopes, the great city on the lower Mississippi, where Maurice was to meet his uncle, and speak a good word for his chum.
It took them a full week to reach Memphis, for they had poor days as well as good ones, and there were various causes to delay them.
Maurice found a chance to use his gun again one evening when they had tied up in a convenient cove. It seemed that the ducks had a liking for that very spot and from tune to time a little flock would come spinning around the point with the intention of alighting there, where they would be protected from the strong wind that was blowing outside.
As soon as he discovered what was going on Maurice snatched up his gun and with a belt of shells dropped into the dinghy, paddling over to the point, where he landed, and hiding among some bushes awaited events.
They were not long in coming either, for in less than five minutes a venturesome band of half a dozen teal came swinging in. Too late they saw the boat tied up in the cove, and wheeled to depart, when there was a bang! bang! and several concluded to defer their departure.
Out came Maurice, and paddling around he picked up three birds, to the immense delight of Thad, who issued from the cabin at the sound of the reports, and of course executed one of his incomparable hornpipes on the deck at the prospect of another round of game for dinner.
But Maurice was not yet done; this was pretty fair for a start, but there should be more to follow; so he once again ensconced himself in the bushes and waited.
His patience was rewarded, for in less than another five minutes more birds began to head in, and he was kept busy banging away, with such success that after the battle was over eight lay upon the still water of the bayou, while several more had floated off down the stream.
Not wishing to let any get away after shooting them, the young sportsman put out in chase in his dinghy, and succeeded in finding two; meanwhile Thad, with one of the poles, succeeded in retrieving five of those in the lagoon.
Altogether it was a banner evening, and no wonder they felt joyful as they sat around the late supper; for Thad, with his mouth watering, so he said, for duck, insisted upon preparing a couple right away.
It is not often a fellow can make a fine meal from a duck that two hours previous has been plunging through the atmosphere from the north with a speed of possibly eighty miles an hour; but all manner of things may come to pass to those who voyage down the mighty Mississippi on a shanty-boat.
The night in this secluded cove was another pleasant experience which they must always look back to with delight; so it is a cruise of this sort is marked by its red and white stones, the one indicating trouble, the other joy unspeakable.
Maurice was not yet done with his business as a provider of viands for the table, and going ashore as the moonlight tempted him, gun in hand, he prowled around and presently had his suspicions confirmed, for he came upon a fat 'possum that yielded up the ghost at the summons of the Marlin gun.
Thad nearly had a fit when he saw what his chum was bringing aboard.
Once he had tasted the animal when with some darkies in the brush —they had gone 'coon hunting with a pack of dogs and unexpectedly running across a 'possum Thad was fortunate enough to get a few bites of the animal when done—it struck his fancy and he had never forgotten the sweet morsel.
"I bet you had that rascal in mind when you bought those sweet potatoes from the coon yesterday at Memphis," he declared, shaking his forefinger at the other.
Maurice pleaded innocent of the charge, and declared that the only one in the party at all able to prophesy regarding the weather or anything else was Thad himself.
"All the same I imagine they'll just about fit the crime, and tomorrow we'll see how you can get up a real Southern dinner. Now that we are entering Dixieland we must pay more attention to the fads that these people cater to, and 'possum heads the list," remarked Maurice, holding the plump animal up so that they could admire his proportions.
The way the little yellow dog jumped and barked made them suspect that he knew something about hunting 'coons and 'possum and indeed there are few canines in the South that do not; so Maurice declared that if the chance ever came he meant to try Dixie in that capacity.
There was one good thing about this voyage, and that was the fact of the ever moving current of the river—so long as they kept in its swing they could count on being wafted closer and closer to their destination.
What they had to beware of were the many false channels that led nowhere; or else after winding in and out for ten miles brought the traveler out upon the main stream just a mile below where he entered.
Closely each night Maurice studied his chart and at the same time kept in mind the warning he had received that this map was likely to prove wrong in many cases, so quickly does the mighty current cut new channels along its course.
THE LOST TRAP.
It was a quiet evening.
Outside, the moon was just creeping up over the trees, and shining from a cold looking sky.
Out upon the broad river the current swept past with its constant gurgle and swish, ever heading into the mysterious Southland, which our boys yearned to reach.
Maurice was doing some sort of writing at the table, by the light of the only lantern they possessed, and which did not afford any too generous a light.
Thad was rummaging about, looking everywhere for a steel trap he had once possessed, and which now seemed strangely missing.
"I wanted to try it ashore the worst kind tonight, because I've never stopped thinking of that fine 'possum we had; and from the signs where we picked up our wood I'm just dead sure a family of the ringtails hold out," he was saying, as he turned things over, and looked in the most inaccessible corners.
Thad was gifted with a streak of stubbornness; when he wanted anything badly he hated to give it up the worst kind.
Consequently, although he had apparently hunted that whole cabin over from one end to the other, he kept "nosing around," as his cruising mate observed, rooting here and there, and muttering his disgust.
"I've been told that there's such a thing as putting a thing away too carefully, and now I believe it," remarked Maurice, as he looked up for the tenth time to see the other bending far over, and actually pawing into a dark hole under the sheathing of the cabin side.
"But you remember seeing that trap after we started?" complained Thad.
"Sure I have; but since that early day you must have tucked it away in some place that's just disappeared. Joking aside, I wonder if it was that thing fell overboard the other day when you were romping about the deck with Dixie?" continued Maurice, as if a new idea had come to him.
Thad had a broad grin on his face as he turned around, still on his knees.
"What's this?" he remarked, holding some object up.
"Well, now," drawled the other, in his Kentucky way, "looks to me like it might be a trap; and since we only had one aboard it must be the missing muskrat gripper. Where'd you hit it?"
"In this blessed hole, and for the life of me I don't remember ever putting it in there. If I did it must have been while I was asleep and dreaming."
"Sure you didn't expect to get a rat, and try and call it a bally 'possum? Hey! what are you after now? Expect to find the mate to it perhaps. Think traps grow from seed like corn?" Maurice exclaimed, as he saw the other once more thrust his arm into the hole.
"Why, I tell you this ain't the trap I had at all. Must have been one poor old The Badgeley owned. P'raps he kept his traps in here. Say, wouldn't it open your eyes some now if I pulled out a second one of the same? Now, what d 'ye think of that?"
"I declare if it isn't another of the same kind. They do grow then. Any more where that came from, Thad?" demanded the boy at the table, beginning to show a decided interest.
"Oh! I don't know. Would you say that was anything like the breed?" and he continued to drag out objects which he held up until Maurice had counted five.
"Here, you've gone and loaded that hole to have the laugh on me; now just own up!" he exclaimed, finally, throwing up his hands as if surrendering.
"Honest Injun, I never set eyes on a single one of the lot before now. You can see they're awfully rusty, too, and need oiling, because they've been lyin' in that cubbyhole lots of months. I've had the Tramp nearly a year now, and the old fisherman built it himself, he told me, meaning some day to float down the Mississippi. Just to think that we're doing it instead of him."
"Sure there's no more of 'em inside that bully old cache?" demanded Maurice, laughing as he surveyed the pile of rusty traps, which no doubt has once been used by the former owner of the boat to add to his scanty income by supplying him with numerous pelts of muskrats in the swamp not far from the town on the Ohio.
"I reckon I got the whole bunch; but no harm in making one more try," and as he spoke Thad pushed his arm again into the dark opening.
Maurice watched him as if amused.
"Another, eh?" he laughed, as he saw Thad draw back, with an exclamation of surprise and wonder.
"No trap this time; but something else poor old The must have shoved in there for safe-keeping."
When he held the object up Maurice saw that it seemed to be a little packet, wrapped in a dingy piece of oiled cloth.
"Well, I declare, that's mighty queer. Looks like the old fellow used that hole for keeping his valuables in. Bring it over to the light, Thad, and let's take a peep at it."
Thad was only too eager to do so, for somehow the fact of finding a treasure-trove aboard the Tramp excited him not a little.
So he knelt down beside the rough little table that served them in so many capacities, yet which could be turned up against the cabin wall in case more room was needed at any time.
"Here, take my knife and cut that cord," said Maurice, when his chum had been clumsily fingering the wrapping that bound the odd little packet for what to him seemed an unnecessarily long time.
"Guess I'll just have to," observed Thad, with a grin; "since my fingers all seem like thumbs. Here she goes, then," and he started to use the keen edge of the steel blade.
"Wonder what it is," remarked the other, his eyes glued curiously on the packet, which was not more than five or six inches in length.
"Feels just like a book," returned Thad, starting to unwrap the cloth that bound the object in its waterproof folds.
"A book, eh? Like as not some sort of diary. I've never heard you talk much about the old fellow; was he educated at all, and could he write d'ye think?" demanded his comrade, with awakening interest.
"Sure he could. Well, what did I tell yo? It's a book all right, and p'raps old The kept a record of the fish and muskies he caught winter and summer. He was a queer old duck, though he did seem to think a heap of me. Wow! look at that, would you!"
Thad's startled exclamation was not in the least surprising, considering what had happened.
As he idly opened the book there was disclosed a little collection of genuine government yellowback bills, not one of which was less than ten dollars in its denomination. No wonder both boys stared, their eyes seemingly "as big as saucers," as Thad afterwards described it.
Mechanically Thad began to count the money that had come into their possession so miraculously.
"Three hundred and thirty dollars! Did you ever hear of such luck in all your born days?" he said, his face lighting up with delight.
"But it isn't ours, you know, Thad. He gave you the boat, but how do we know he ever meant you to have this money? Can't you just remember something that would explain it all? Didn't he say just a little to you at some time about it?"
Maurice looked anxiously from the pile of bills to Thad's sober face, as though urging him to exert himself to the limit to bring back to his mind some clue that would unravel the mystery.
And Thad suddenly became anxious himself; he cast a quick look toward the little window of the shanty-boat cabin, just as if oppressed with a fear that hostile eyes might even then fee fastened upon them.
So quickly does the possession of riches bring new troubles; up to that moment such a thing as a possible intruder had been far from occurring to Thad; but circumstances alter cases, and now they had something worth stealing—and he grew afraid.
So his first act was to push the money out of sight under an old magazine that Maurice had been reading, one they had secured from Bob Archiable, the itinerant clock mender, when aboard his floating home.
"I remember now that when I went to see poor old The at the hospital, when they sent for me, he told me that he wanted me to have the Tramp for my own. Then he started to say something more, but began to choke so he could hardly breathe. The nurse tried to ease him, but he died right there before me. I've never forgot how mournful like he looked at me. I always thought the old man was trying to tell me something more. And now I believe it was this!"
"That's right, old fellow. But let's look into the book. I see it has lots of writing in it, and perhaps we'll get a clue that way."
The book proved to be a rude sort of a diary, in which the river fisherman kept an account of the various little matters which concerned his rather monotonous life.
Now and then, however, there were references to his expectation of realizing some long anticipated pleasure; and the name of "Bunny" began to appear frequently.
"What do you make of it?" asked Thad, after they had read for half an hour; he relied upon the sagacity of his companion to solve what was proving a puzzle to him.
"Why, it seems to me that Bunny must have been some one dear to the old man. I kind of think it was a daughter who married and went down the river some time or other; for his thoughts seem to have always been bent on that coming trip away down in Dixie, when he grew too old to fish alone. But go on and read some more. I reckon we'll catch on sure before the end."
Maurice settled himself more comfortably to listen.
"Sounds good to me, what you say; and that's about my mind, too," observed the one who had discovered the treasure-trove, as he once more turned to the soiled diary to continue reading what the former owner of the shanty-boat had written, in his crabbed hand.
"Here it is, at last; just listen," he exclaimed, fully ten minutes afterward, and then he went on:
"I met a man today that had just come up from down-river way. And he knows George Stormway well. He told me Bunny was getting on right well, and had three children. Last time I heard there wa'nt but two mouths to feed. But he said George was laid up sometimes with the shakes, and money mighty scarce in their cabin. Time about for Old The to make up his mind to just drop in on Bunny, and surprise her. If I live to fall that's what I'm going to do, sure. I reckon if I left here in October I'd bring up at Morehead sometime about the end of November. But It'll be a long wait till then. As I get older I seem to want to see the gal and her kids more'n more,"
Maurice looked at Thad, and perhaps there was a suspicious moisture in his eyes as he winked violently several times.
"The poor old chap never hung out, Thad. If he had he would be on board this boat right now, carrying his little treasure down to his Bunny, to give her a surprise. That was a tough deal all right," he said, reaching out his hand for the charts they had secured of the lower Mississippi.
"What's up?" asked the other and his voice was rather husky, so that he had to cough several times to clear it.
"Why, d'ye know, I was wondering where that place might be. I don't remember having noticed it; and p'raps it is too small to be put on the map."
Thad went on reading in the diary, while his chum placed a forefinger on the chart, and ran it slowly down. "Here's where we are, right now," he was saying, half to himself; "and down below— well, I declare, if that ain't the queerest thing. What d'ye think, Thad, we must be only a day's run, above Morehead. It's on the map all right, even if it is only a wood station, where the river steamers stop to load up!"
Thad had to examine the location to make sure, and all the while he was saying eagerly:
"It's just like all this happened on purpose, Maurice—my wanting that trap so bad, and not finding it, and then looking in the hole in the side of the cabin, to strike this! I reckon old The's spirit must have been pushing me along; and Maurice, there ain't but one thing for us to do now."
"Yes," said the other, nodding his head with determination; "this money don't belong to us. Bunny needs it, and Bunny's going to get it, if we can find her out!"
"Shake on that, Pard Maurice. I knew you'd say it!" cried Thad.
And then and there they ratified the bargain with a grip that stood for everything that was loyal and true.
THE FACE AT THE WINDOW.
"What else did you find in what he wrote?" asked Maurice, after they had dropped each other's hand again.
"Nothing much. He keeps mentioning Bunny often, showing that she was getting more'n more on his mind. And twice he speaks about me, and how much he had come to think of me. I'm glad to read that. Here he even wonders if I'd like to go down river with him in the Fall. Ain't it a queer world, after all, Maurice? Just to think how things come around; for here we are right near the place poor old The wanted to visit, and carrying his little pile to Bunny?"
"Nothing else worth telling?" asked the other.
"He speaks here about feeling bad, and hopes it ain't his old trouble springing back on him again. Then the writing stops. I reckon he was taken sick about that time. I tried to nurse him, you know; but when he went out of his head I got scared, and ran for a doctor. Then they took him away to that fine hospital at Evansville, because he used to live there. After that it ended right soon."
"Well, I guess the best thing for us to do would be to hide the book and the money where you found it. All these months it's stayed in that black hole safe, and it can stand another day or so."
So, taking the advice of Maurice, Thad had placed the bills once more between the pages of the diary, which he carefully pushed into its former hiding place.
"Perhaps Bunny'll be glad to have his book, too. If she's his girl she'd like to read what he said about her," suggested Maurice.
"That's so," replied the other, getting up from his knees.
Maurice saw him look up instinctively toward the little window; and then spring hastily to his feet.
At the same moment he thought he heard some sound outside, as if a floating object had struck against the anchored shanty-boat.
It might be a log, as frequently happened, for there were many such drifting on the surface of the big river, washed from the banks above by some local flood.
Thad, without wasting any time in thought, sprang to the door. This had a faculty of catching sometimes, and requiring more or less labor before it could be thrown open; and of course it had to play Thad such a trick just then, when he seemed so desirous of making haste.
Maurice, seeming to scent trouble of some sort from the strange actions of his chum, waited to snatch up the old faithful Marlin twelve-bore. It had seen them through other scrapes, and might come in handy again.
Finally, after considerable exertion, Thad managed to open the stubborn door, after which he rushed out on deck, followed by his mate and the barking Dixie.
"What'd you think you saw?" demanded Maurice, as he discovered by the light of the moon that the deck was devoid of anything in the way of peril.
"A face at the window! Some man was aboard I Oh! I wonder if he saw me put that book away?" exclaimed the excited Thad.
"But where is he now?" and the speaker glanced toward the shore, which was a good twenty feet away, the gap being far too wide to allow of any man jumping it.
"There's something moving away below there in the shadow of the trees on the water!" exclaimed Thad.
"A log, p'raps," remarked the other, carelessly.
"But I did see a face, I'm sure of it; and if it was a man he just jumped into his skiff and put off before I could get out. I wish I knew for sure."
Thad made a move toward the little dinghy which lay upon the deck, fastened with a chain and padlock, so that it could not be stolen by any light-fingered coon.
"Hold on there, none of that. Let me catch you chasing down-river after an unknown man in a skiff. Why, he'd just as like as not upset you if you accused him of boarding our boat. Settle down and try to forget it all. I reckon it was only imagination after all."
But Thad continued to shake his head, and declare that he did not believe his eyes could play him such a trick.
"If it was a man, Maurice, and he once saw all that money, why he'd come back again to try and steal it," he said, solemnly.
"Oh, I guess not," laughed his chum, holding up the gun in a suggestive way; "at least not as long as we could defend our property with this bully old shooter. But better make up your mind it was a log, and let it go at that."
"Wish I could," grumbled Thad, shaking that stubborn head: of his.
"Well, how about that trapping expedition—plenty of steel in sight, and a nice fat young ringtail would be just the boss dish tomorrow. Anything doing?"
So Thad once more consented to drop the engrossing subject of old The Badgeley's treasure-trove, and pay attention to the matter of supplying their scanty larder with meat.
"Nothing to hinder my setting the whole outfit on the bank yonder, is there?" he demanded, entering the lighted cabin again, and thinking how snug it seemed after a short time on the cold deck.
"I don't reckon there is, Chum Thad. If one 'possum is good, two ought to some better, and as for three, oh! my!" and he smacked his lips as if in joy over the prospect of a feast.
Accordingly Thad carried out his plan. With some dripping from fried bacon he greased each trap until the jaws worked readily. Then he went ashore in the little tender, bearing the lantern in order to make sure of his work.
Maurice sat there and watched the shore.
There was no reason why he should fondle his gun all the while, but he persisted in doing so; which might be taken as an indication that the words of his companion had made a deeper impression on the scoffer than he would admit.
In half an hour Thad came aboard again, with cold fingers, but a satisfied air.
"It's only a question of how many," he observed, as he once more fastened the dinghy with the chain and lock.
"All right then. I'm going to make up my mouth for fat pig tomorrow, and look out for squalls if you disappoint me," and Maurice, as he spoke, led the way inside.
Thad was very particular how he saw to the fastenings of the door, an operation his chum watched with many a chuckle.
"Say, if he has as poor luck opening doors as some people I know, he never would get in here without arousing the dead; get that, Thad?"
"Well, you never can tell about doors. Just when you want them to open smart like, they won't budge. Then, when you'd like the pesky old thing to hang fire she slides open just like the track was greased with mutton tallow. I'm one of the kind that likes to make sure!"
"Oh! I reckon you are right. Anyhow, we used to write in school that it's no use locking the stable door after the horse is stolen. But looky here, do you know it's turning-in time—ten o'clock as near as I can tell. Me for the bunk, right quick!"
Thad sat there for some little time after his chum had crawled into his comfortable, if cramped nest.
Finally he, too, began to get ready to retire. On these cold nights the boys only partly undressed. They did not have any too many blankets or comfortables, and it did get mighty dreary in the cabin after the fire went out, with the wind sweeping over that wide stretch of flowing water that came out of the wintry North.
But before Thad put out the lantern, he placed it just where he could lay his hand on it at a second's notice and also made sure to have matches handy.
Nor was that all. He quietly picked up the old Marlin, and deposited it alongside his bunk.
Then came darkness, as he blew out the light. Thad heard a sound not unlike a chuckle from the opposite bunk; but although he imagined his comrade was laughing at all his preparations for trouble, the fact did not give him much concern.
When his mind was made up nothing could turn Thad aside.
No doubt he woke up at regular intervals during that night, and rising to his elbow listened eagerly to the various sounds coming from without.
The little window was well within the range of his vision, and as the moon shone brilliantly without he could see its entire dimensions plainly.
But long ago an iron bar had been fastened across the exact center of the opening, since the former owner of the shanty-boat did not enjoy the thought that roving boys might enter and pillage while he was on his route, peddling the buffalo fish he caught.
It would have to be a pretty small individual who could force his way through that window; and yet Thad's fears induced him to observe it with considerable apprehension.
But the night passed without any alarm.
If strangers landed on the deck of the shanty-boat while the young owners slept, they failed to make their presence known.
Morning came at last.
Both boys were early astir, as was their custom; the coming of daylight served to lure them from their bunks; and indeed on many occasions they would have been getting breakfast before, only that there was need of husbanding their scanty stock of oil.
Maurice, knowing that his chum was eager to learn whether any spoils had fallen to his traps, volunteered to cook the limited morning meal, while Thad paddled ashore.
He was almost through, and the coffee was giving a most appetizing odor to the surrounding air, when the trapper came paddling out.
Maurice watched operations with more or less interest.
First of all Thad threw the traps aboard, trying to look disappointed while so doing.
"Oh! come off, you!" cried his chum, who could see that there was something assumed in the actions of the returned sportsman; "think I don't just glimpse a tail like a round file sticking up over the gunnel? Just as you said last night, it's only a question of HOW MANY."
"One!" said Thad, as he tossed a young 'possum on deck.
"But that tail is still there!" cried his comrade.
"My! you make my mouth water some. That tail—"
"Three, and that takes your old tail. Now, what d'ye say to that for good hick. Ain't we going to live high for a while? I don't suppose you happened to see anything suspicious around?" and Thad, as he spoke, handed up the gun which he had made sure to carry with him "in case any more vicious dogs chanced to be roaming near by," he had explained at the time he departed.
"Why, no, of course not; but what makes you ask such a silly question as that, Thad?"
"Silly it may be, but I give you my word I heard a man cough just as I climbed into the dinghy," asserted Thad.
But Maurice only smiled. Truth to tell he felt positive that there had been nothing to the scare of the preceding night. Surely the ordinarily alert Dixie must have barked had any stranger been moving about on the deck while they sat in the cabin.
They were soon busy at the table. On the preceding day they had been fortunate enough to buy a loaf of bread from a woman on a canal-boat that was tied to the bank, her husband being temporarily employed at some work on shore.
Butter they had none, but the sharp appetites for which the outdoor life was responsible, craved none, and things tasted good at all times; the only anxiety that arose was in connection of quantity.
"Wood's mighty low, and as there's a chance of bad weather today, after that red in the sky this morning, I move we lay in a stock while we have the chance."
"Second the motion," quickly added Thad.
"All right. I'll rig up our endless carry then, while you clear the table, after you get enough to eat," and Maurice went out on the deck, where he could be heard working with the little tender.
Thad looked after him, and scratched his head. Then he did a most extraordinary thing, which was nothing more or less than reaching down and taking the packet from the hole in the wall, stripping the cover from the book, and wrapping up a piece of wood in its place.
Then he thrust the deception in the hole, and after a look about him hid the diary, with its precious contents, INSIDE THE COFFEEPOT, which he had emptied of its contents, and cleaned.
Perhaps he was playing a practical joke on his chum; but his face was too sober to indicate this.
The probability was that Thad felt uneasy, and as both of them were apt to be away from the craft at the same time, in the process of wood gathering, he intended to make things as secure as possible during his absence.
Which was conclusive evidence that at least he had not changed his mind concerning the fact of a human face having been pressed against that little window on the previous night.
When Thad came out he found that his comrade had gone ashore, taking the ax with him.
Indeed, the sound of lusty blows told that he was already hard at work, securing a supply of the necessary fuel.
Thad shut the door of the cabin.
He would have locked it, no doubt, only that it happened Maurice had the key in his pocket just then.
So Thad shrugged his shoulders, and dragging the little ferry-boat over the twenty feet of water he pulled himself ashore.
It was easy to locate the chopper by the sounds that arose; and so he soon joined his mate, ready to spell him in the labor entailed by the necessity for fuel.
The wood burned so quickly, with a strong draught always causing the stove to roar, that large quantities of fuel were absolutely necessary.
Both boys handled an ax first-rate, and indeed, Thad could equal many an experienced woodsman in the accuracy of his strokes; while Maurice was not far behind him.
When the chance came, and Maurice stopped for a breathing spell, the second relay came into action; and once more the chips flew as the fallen oak branches were cut into stove lengths.
By the time it came Thad's turn again to rest he wandered off, much to the amusement of Maurice, who knew whither his thoughts must be roving.
Just as he swung the ax above his head for a downward stroke he received an electric shock.
Thad was calling his name, calling in an excited tone, too, as if there was dire need of the other's presence.
"Bring the gun! bring the gun!"
That seemed to be the tenor of the shouts; and as he dropped his tool Maurice swooped up the Marlin, which was standing against an adjoining tree, and jumped for the river bank.
He knew that whatever had happened Thad wanted him at the water's edge; and it was in that direction he hastened as fast as his legs could carry him.
Twice in his haste he fell down, tripping over trailing vines; for the continued shouts of his chum startled him.
And when he burst out of the thicket, to stand on the river bank, close to where Thad was yelling, this was what he saw:
A row-boat was speeding down the river, urged on by the lusty movements of a red-headed man who was sitting in it; Thad danced about on the deck of the swamp, pointing after the fleeing party, and calling on Maurice to "give him both barrels, the thief!"
But Maurice knew that it was useless, since the other was by this time out of range, and the gun contained only small shot.
Nevertheless, urged on by the frantic appeals of Thad he did level the Marlin, and bang away, though he saw the man duck down before the reports came.
After the bombardment was over the redhead again poked into view, and the fugitive made a movement with his hand to indicate his poor opinion of such useless business.
Maurice, fearing the worst, began to drag the boat in to shore.
Dixie, having been drawn from his prowling around in search of game by the shouts and shots, leaped in even before the little dinghy had reached the bank.
By the time Maurice climbed out on the deck Thad seemed to have recovered from his excitement to some extent.
"Didn't I tell you I saw a face, and wasn't it a sorrel-top, too? Mebbe you'll believe me next time, my boy," he said, impressively.
"Where was he, and what was he doing?" demanded Maurice, showing signs of alarm, and looking a bit weak as he contemplated the grave consequences that might follow this raid.
"In the cabin, of course, and making himself at home. He had his boat on the other side there, so I never suspected anything wrong till he dashed out, jumped into it, and pulled like everything."
"Were you on board then?" asked Maurice.
"Just climbing on deck when he came jumping out like a whirlwind."
"Perhaps you disturbed him in his game then?" suggested Maurice making a bee-line for the open door.
When a few seconds later the other followed him it was to see Maurice on hands and knees before the little opening in the wall of the cabin, thrusting in his arm as far as he could.
"Oh! Thad, it's gone—the thief got away with poor Bunny's money!" he was exclaiming, his voice full of horror.
"Well, he would have hooked it, only for something I did that you'd have called silly if you'd seen me!"
And with this complacent remark Thad coolly walked over to the shelf where some of their cooking utensils stood, took down the battered old coffeepot, and throwing back the lid, thrust his hand inside.
The astonished eyes of his mate followed each little proceeding with rare interest; and when Maurice saw the well remembered diary of old appear, which being opened disclosed the lovely yellowbacks nestling within, he gave a shout twice repeated, while he swung his hat around his head.
"Bully for you, Thad! I take it all back, every word! It surely does pay to be cautious, even if people call you an old woman. Only for that he might have found the money; and then how mean we'd feel. Tell me what you did. He acted like he was satisfied he'd done a big thing."
"Well, perhaps he knows better now, if he's had time to tear open the package I put in place of this book; for it was a nice fat sliver of wood!" laughed Thad.
Thereupon Maurice grappled him with a bear-like hug, and waltzed him out on deck, to the intense delight of Dixie, who seemed to think all this demonstration must be for his benefit, for he set up a furious barking and snapped at the heels of the dancing boys.
When they went ashore again things were left differently. The cabin door was locked, with Dixie inside. They could depend on his snappy barking to give warning of any uninvited guest aboard.
But the wood-cutting proceeded without further alarm.
True, Thad was so nervous over the matter that he insisted on carrying what fuel they had cut down to the dinghy every little while, just so he could call out to the yellow cur, and have him give a reassuring bark.
And finally the several loads had been safely ferried across the watery gap, so that the cruisers were ready to start moving.
The anchor was raised by means of a primitive but effective derrick Maurice had devised. This he also made use of in handling the square fish net which could be dropped over the side, baited, and then lifted half an hour later, with more or less generous results. Of course this method of fishing was only to be enjoyed while they were at anchor. It is in general use along the Ohio river; and indeed, Maurice had even seen pictures of the same thing in the magazine lying on the table, and which illustrated queer doings far off in Uncle Sam's Philippine possessions.
Once again they were floating southward, with a moving panorama of shore to interest them.
Maurice was figuring on the swiftness of the current, just how many miles an hour it ran at this point, and when they were likely to bring up at Morehead.
"I think we ought to make it by sun-down, Thad," he finally announced, after finishing his complicated calculations.
"You make me feel good, partner, when you say that," returned his chum, who was handling the sweep and keeping the boat a certain distance from the shore, where they could get the full benefit of the current without taking undue risks of being swept out on the broad bosom of the majestic river.
"Yes, I know what's on your mind. You'd like to get rid of our responsibility, and hand that packet over to Bunny," remarked Maurice.
"Wonder what she's like; sounds as if she might be a little girl; but that couldn't be, for she was his daughter," Thad said.
"Yes, and has three kids, the book said. Oh! that must have been a pet name for her when she was little. The chances are well find her a strapping big woman, something like that one we bought our last loaf of bread from."
"Well, she won't take after her pa then, that's all, Maurice."
"Why, was he small," asked the other.
"I always thought so, for a man; not quite as tall as I am; and with a voice like a lady's. I liked old The; and I wish he had only lived long enough to deliver his own money to Bunny," Thad went on.
"I was wondering where that fellow came from, Thad."
"Who, our visitor of last night and this morning? Oh! I suppose he's got a shack somewhere below here, and was on the way home from an up-river town when he sighted our craft, and crept aboard to see if there was anything he could pick up."
"That's about the right thing. Say, I bet he was hopping mad when he tore open that package, and saw what he had drawn in the lottery, eh, Thad?"
"Mad would never fill the bill. I hope he don't wait up for us, and give us a shot or two wlien we sail past his cabin. I'd hate the worst kind to have my skin filled with shot; and nobody could ever prove who did it. That's one reason why I've steered further away from the bank than we generally keep, you notice, Maurice,"
"Well, that's level old head on your shoulders, my boy. The fellow who gets you napping will have to tumble out of bed right early in the morning, I reckon," laughed Maurice, patting his chum patronizingly on the shoulders.
"And I keep one eye on the shore, too, pretty much all the time. Just let me see anybody moving, and I'm ready to drop flat till the storm rolls by. What's that over there right now, Maurice?"
He pointed with quivering finger at some object that seemed to be bending down the bushes on a certain projecting point which they happened to be approaching.
"Don't worry; it's all right. That is only a cow, for you can see her horns from here, Thad."
"But seeing horns sometimes spells trouble. They say the devil mounts a fine pair, you know. A cow, Maurice, means human kind near by; that stands for a cabin; and how do we know but what our sorrel-top friend of this morning owns the ranch. Just lie down behind that box, or go into the cabin till we drift past. I'll feel easier when we leave the thing a mile above."
A hail from the shore presently came floating over the water; but it was a negro who called, and he only wanted to know if they had any coffee they would spare him.
Since their entire stock amounted to just enough for a scant week, with meagre chances for replenishing the caddy when exhausted, since their funds were very low, of course they had to reply in the negative.
The darky was inclined to be talkative, as is usually the case, and even followed them half a mile along the bank, trying to find some basis for a dicker.
"Thank goodness he can't cross that creek!" exclaimed Maurice, as they passed the mouth of quite a good sized stream that flowed into the enormous river, adding its mite to the gigantic flood.
The colored gentleman looked as though it would only require the least encouragement for him to step in and swim across; but as this was not forthcoming he waved his ebony arm in farewell and turned back again.
Thad breathed easier.
Nevertheless, for hours he continued to scan the shore-line ahead; and once, when some unseen hunter fired at some sort of game back from the river's edge, the sweep-tender was seen to duck his head mechanically, much to the amusement of his companion.
The day grew old, and they had made uninterrupted progress, not even stopping for the midday meal. While Thad held the long oar his mate slung some sort of a hot meal together, which satisfied their voracious appetites and warmed them as well.
"Where's your storm?" asked Thad, about the middle of the afternoon, as he glanced up at the sky.
"Here, you're squinting in the wrong direction, man. Suppose you look to the southward, a little veering toward the west. Don't you glimpse some dark clouds there?"
"Of course," Thad agreed; "but that's a poor sign. Why, you can nearly always see some clouds hanging low down there. It's been getting warmed right smart. That sun feels almost hot to me."
"That's a pretty good sign of rain, that seldom fails. But what do we care! Our roof don't leak, Thad!"
"No, but it will be tough if the downpour comes just when we want to look for George Stormways and Bunny. I suppose, though, we could tie up at Morehead and wait till it passes by."
"Hope we haven't passed it already," said Maurice, looking serious.
"Oh! I don't think that could be possible, do you? If the place is big enough to get marked on the chart, it ought to be of a size for two fellows to see it in passing. And the two landings we did notice were other settlements, for we asked their names. One man said Morehead was below a piece. I'm expecting to see it soon."
"Suppose we don't till dark?" remarked Thad, always on the lookout for trouble. "What are you going to do then?"
"Keep right along, sonny, until we see lights, when we can push in and tie up. It's Morehead or bust!"
"All right, you're the skipper, I told you, Maurice. The cook has ideas of his own, but he ain't going to run counter of an experienced navigator like the boss. But I hope we come across that station before dark. You know the moon don't rise till about nine now; so we can count on several hours of black sailing."
Thad said no more, neither did his comrade make any attempt to continue the argument; for both of them were still hoping that Morehead would consent to show up inside of another hour.
But for some reason distances seemed unduly lengthened on this particular day, and the gloaming swooped down upon them with the coveted goal still undiscovered ahead.
Maurice was grimly set upon keeping his word.
As a usual thing they discouraged night traveling on the great river, because of the aggravated perils involved; but this was a case that was out of the common.
Thad went in to look after the wood fire, and wrestle with the problem of what to have with the baked 'possum, that had been cooking much of the afternoon.
There were no sweet potatoes now, since the last one had been devoured on the preceding day; so after mature thought the cook was compelled to put on some "grits," as they fortunately still had quite a little stock of this famous Southern staple, which in the North goes by the name of hominy alone.
He hoped that by the time supper was ready they might have reached their haven; either that, or the determination of Maurice to keep moving have suffered a change. If it were otherwise they must eat one at a time, while the other attended to the sweep, and kept watch and ward.
He had things pretty well along when a welcome shout from the pilot outside came to his ears.
"What ho?" asked Thad, as he thrust his head out of the cabin door.
"Lights ahead on the shore, and I reckon we must be close on that old Morehead," returned Maurice.
"I can hear roustabouts chanting," said the cook, as he bent his ear; "and I bet you that's a steamboat getting wood aboard."
"Wouldn't be surprised. If it is, then that place is Morehead. Perhaps this George Stormways may be in charge of the woodyard. Anyhow I reckon we're going to learn something about him here; and now you see that my idea of keeping right along drifting was the correct one after all."
"I suppose so. I hope the steamer don't take a notion to move off while we're passing. I wouldn't like to take the responsibility of ramming and sinking her, you know, Maurice."
"Get in nearer the shore, and we'll drop anchor above the landing. If we do that we needn't worry, because you see she's bound to lean away from land when she starts. That's the ticket. Get in the push!"
Thad had picked up the pole with which they were able in shallow water to urge the shanty-boat toward the shore; he could reach bottom easily, and under his efforts, as well as the swing of the current, and the inclination of the sweep, the Tramp soon gained an offing in water that was not more than three feet in depth.
The two boys could easily see the exciting scene as a line of black ran on board the steam-boat, each carrying two or more sticks of wood on his head, and keeping rhythmic time to the droning chant which every man joined in.
Lanterns and blazing torches made of fat pine knots lit up the weird scene; and taking it in all, they would not have missed it for considerable.
"There goes the pilot's bell—they're off!" exclaimed Maurice, as the line ceased pouring over the guards of the steamboat; then came a loud and hoarse whistle, after which steam began to hiss and the stern wheel to churn the waters of the mighty Mississippi.
"Now it's our turn," laughed Maurice, prepared to drop down to the landing, where a fire burned and threw a glare around.
THAD GETS A SHOCK.
The arrival of the little Tramp did not create anything like the commotion which marked the landing of the big stern-wheel river steam-boat.
A few darkies idling on the shore drew near, filled with curiosity when they discovered that only two boys comprised the crew of the floating craft; and Dixie barked strenuously at them, as if to let the community know that while the shanty-boat failed to possess a whistle, it was not without some means of announcing its arrival.
Thad threw a rope ashore to one of these blacks, who whipped it about a post, and the boat presently lay alongside the landing.
"You go ashore and ask questions."
It was Thad who said this, because he knew his chum was so much better able to probe things than himself.
"All right," replied Maurice, readily, "and you can look after the boat; though likely enough none of these fellows will try to run away with it."
"Well, I don't mean to give them half a chance. Just think what would become of us if such a thing happened. We'd have to go to work on a cotton plantation, sure, to make money enough to get further along. I've got the good old Marlin handy, Maurice, and just let any thief try to come aboard, that's all. I'll pepper his hide for him, and salt it in the bargain," declared Thad, resolutely.
"I believe you would, boy," laughed his comrade, as he stepped from the deck to the shore.
He had already noted that Morehead did not appear to be much of a place. Indeed, beyond the piles of cordwood, and a few scattered cabins, there did not seem to be anything of a settlement.
"Only excuse it has for being on the map is that some steamers find it convenient to stop and wood up here. That woodyard is the whole thing," thought Maurice. He turned upon the negro who had whipped the cable around the post in an obliging way.
"Where can I find the man who runs the woodyard?" he asked.
"'Deed, I reckon he am in hees store dar, boss," came the reply.
"A store, eh? Where is it situated?" continued Maurice, bent on following up the clue.
"See dat flare up yander—dat am de light in de windy. Mars Kim he keep gen'ral 'sortment ob goods. On'y place to buy grits in ten mile," observed the other, pointing.
"What is his name?" asked the boy, deeming it only right that he should be fully armed with this much information before starting in to interview the other.
"Mars Kim, fuh sho'! Dat's wat we allers calls him, boss. Reckons, as how yuh haint gut sech a ting as some terbaccy 'bout yuh, now? I'se done clean out."
Maurice shook his head in the negative.
"I'm sorry, but you see, I don't smoke," he remarked.
He would have willingly tossed the moke a nickel for his readiness to assist them; but truth to tell, even such small coin happened to be at a premium with the voyagers just then—although they carried a small fortune in yellowbacks, not for worlds would they think of making use of a single bill for their own benefit—it was a sacred trust in their eyes.
He strode over to the building where the brilliant light in the window announced headquarters. Closer investigation disclosed the fact that the glow was caused by an acetylene lamp which piece of enterprise doubtless caused the storekeeper to assume a high place in the estimation of the lazy negroes, and shiftless "white trash" of the neighborhood.
It was a general country store.
Maurice had seen many such, though, as this one happened to be at a point much further south than the others, it doubtless contained features that stamped it unique in his eyes.
But they had no money to spend in groceries just then; and it was an entirely different errand that caused him to venture into the establishment.
Over the door he noticed a sign which he was just able to read.
It at least gave him the name of the proprietor.
Store, and Office of Woodyard. Kim. Stallings, Prop.
A gawky clerk, undoubtedly of the "cracker" persuasion, was waiting on several dusky customers, and vainly endeavoring to keep them in a clump, as if he feared to let the bunch scatter, lest certain unprotected articles vanish with their departure.
Looking further Maurice discovered that over in one quarter there seemed to be a sort of enclosure, over which was the significant notice "P. O."
He could see that some one was behind the gaudy brass grillwork; and believing that this was likely to be the proprietor, engaged in entering upon his books that late delivery of cordwood to the steamboat, the boy moved that way.
As he stood there in front of the little opening the man beyond looked up. He seemed surprised to see a stranger.
"Evenin', sah. What can I do foh you?" he asked politely, upon discovering that it was a white person.
"Is this Mr. Stallings?" asked Maurice.
"Yes, sah, that is my name," replied the other, curiously.
"I have just come off a shanty-boat that is tied up here. I have a chum with me on the boat. We want to find a man by the name of George Stormways. Can you tell me if he happens to live near by?"
The owner of the woodyard and country store bent forward still more and took a closer look at the speaker. It seemed to Maurice as though Mr. Stallings had suddenly become more deeply interested in the personality of the stranger, though he could not give even a guess just why that should be so.
"George Stormways," repeated Maurice, slowly and deliberately, as though he wanted the other to fully understand.
"Why, yes he gits his mail hyah, sah; leastways, he allers used tuh come hyah tuh trade, when he had any money. George worked foh me a long spell, till the shakes knocked him out," said the other, finally.
Maurice had been studying the man. He believed he could see honesty in his thin sallow face, but hesitated to say anything about the real motive that influenced himself and chum to stop in order to hunt up George Stormways.
Such a secret had better be confined to as few persons as possible. Still, that would not prevent him from saying that he had some good news for the man he sought.
"How far away from the Landing does he live, Mr. Stallings?" he asked, promptly.
"Reckons as how it air all o' fo' mile, sah. An' in the present disturbed condition o' the country, mebbe, sah, it would be wise foh you to defer yuh visit thah to mawnin'," came the reply.
"I reckon we'll have to, sir, if we can tie up below the landing without getting in the way. We want to see George and his wife the worst kind, and couldn't think of going on down the river without making a big effort to do so. Yes, we'll spend a day at Morehead, and get acquainted. I only wish we were better supplied with cash, so we might trade with you; but just now it happens we're on rock bottom."
The other seemed to be fairly consumed by curiosity. Never before had he known such a bright lad to be drifting south on a shanty- boat. Usually those aboard such craft were seasoned river travelers, men who lived on the water, "Mississippi tramps," as they are called, some of whom MIGHT be honest, though he judged the entire lot by the character of a few, and they the worst.
But here was a bright, wide-awake boy, with a face that somehow interested him, despite his inborn suspicion.
"What did yuh say yuh name might be, sah?" he asked.
"I didn't happen to mention it, but it is Maurice Pemberton. We are both natives of Kentucky, and on the way to New Orleans to meet my uncle, who is captain of a big steamer, due there in February."
"Would yuh please step around to the side, an' oblige me by coming in hyah. Seems like I feel an interest in yuh-all, and if yuh felt like tellin' me the story I'd be obliged."
Maurice was only too willing to oblige. At the same time he continued to hold to his resolution to handle the subject of the money with due caution. Mr. Stallings was undoubtedly perfectly trustworthy; but the information might get afoot, and cause trouble.
Of course he could not decline to make a friend of the storekeeper, who had taken an interest in the voyage of the little Tramp. Maurice was only a boy, but he knew that one could never have too many friends in this world.
So he followed directions, and was speedily seated alongside Kim. Stallings, telling him all about how the voyage happened to begin.
The man became greatly interested as he proceeded and read the wonderful letter from Uncle Ambrose with kindling eyes.
"Glad yuh stopped in hyah, Maurice; glad tuh have met up with yuh; and if so be yuh are short with cash, I wouldn't mind trustin' yuh foh some grits and such like. I reckons sho' yuh'd send the money aftah yuh met with this uncle. So don't yuh go tuh worryin' 'bout gettin' on short rations, my boy," remarked Kim. Stallings, after he had talked with the other for some little time.
"That's awful fine of you to say so, Mr. Stalling. Perhaps we'll take you up, though my chum is against running in debt a cent. But we have a long trip ahead of us yet, and to stop over and go to work to earn money enough to buy grub might keep us from getting down to Orleans in time to meet Uncle Ambrose."
Maurice insisted upon shaking the lean hand of the Dixie storekeeper as he said this, an operation to which the other did not seem in the least averse.
"But yuh said that yuh wanted to meet up with George Stromway the wust kind," continued the man, kindly; "in the mawnin' I'll start yuh right. P'raps one o' his kids might be 'round tuh take yuh through the woods, and 'round the swamps, foh it's ticklish travelin' with a stranger, sah."
"We have some good news for George," admitted the boy.
"Well, now, I'm glad tuh hyah that same. I reckon he needs it right bad around now. Nawthin' ain't a gwine tuh do pore George any lastin' good till he pulls up stakes an' gits outen this low kentry. If he was only on a farm up on higher land I reckon the shakes'd give the critter the go-by. But George, he cain't never raise the money he'd have tuh put up, tuh rent a farm an' buy the stock foh it."
"Would it take very much?" queried Maurice, trying to appear quite unconcerned, though he was really quivering with eagerness.
The storekeeper looked at him and smiled, as though he could read the boy's face like a printed book.
"Oh! not so very much, sah. I done reckons as how a couple o' hundred'd do the trick; but that means a heap o' money tuh a pore feller like George. He done tole me a year back that some relative o' hisn up-Nawth was a thinkin' o' comin' down with some cash, an' settin' o' him up on a farm; but it all seemed to blow over. He was nigh broke up about it, too, sah, I tell yuh."
Maurice could not hold in altogether.
"It was his wife's father, old The. Badgeley. My chum knew him well. He didn't come because he died. But he left something for his daughter. He called her Bunny, and I don't even know her name," he said.
"That sounds real good, sah; and I sure am glad tuh heah it. I've done all I could afford foh George; but he don't seem to hold out. Many times he's kim back to work foh me, an' broke down. It'll be a godsend foh the pore feller, if so be he kin pull out. I'll see that you git a fair start in the mawnin' sah, I shore will."
Maurice began to fear that his chum might be growing anxious about him, so he got up to leave.
"Nothin' yuh-uns 'd like tuh have to-night?" inquired Mr. Stallings, as he shook hands warmly at parting.
Maurice smiled and shook his head.
"There's lots we need," he said; "but I wouldn't dare think of accepting your kind offer without consulting Thad. He's queer about running up debts. But in the morning we'll both see you again."
So he said good night, and went out, resolutely shutting his eyes to the abundance of good things to eat that greeted him on every side.
Thad was eagerly waiting for him, and the other could see that he was brimming over with excitement.
"Say, if it wasn't for wanting to meet up with George so bad I'd be for dropping down river five miles, and giving this beastly old place the go-by," he said, as Maurice came aboard.
"Why, what on earth is the matter?" asked the other, dismayed.
"Then you didn't hear anything about it, eh? I reckon it's such a common occurrence around this part of the country they don't think anything about it," continued Thad, seriously.
"Why, whatever in the wide world are you talking about, son?" demanded Maurice, greatly puzzled to account for this new evidence of timidity on the part of his friend, who, as a usual thing, had always seemed bold enough.
"I don't like it so close, that's all. I bet you I dream of the thing tonight, and every time I look up it seems like my eyes always went straight there."
He pointed up the bank.
Maurice followed his extended forefinger to a point just a little further along, where some trees stood.
He could see some object that seemed to move to and fro like the exhausted pendulum of a clock.
Apparently it was suspended from a limb, and as Maurice caught the true significance of what his chum meant, he felt a cold chill pass through his frame.
"Say, do you mean to tell me that is a man hanging there?" he asked; and if his voice took on a sudden hoarseness, it was not to be wondered at under the circumstances.
"I just reckon it must be," returned Thad, pleased to note that his comrade seemed just as filled with horror as he himself had been.
"But do you KNOW it is—did any of those coons tell you so?" persisted the other.
"N-no, because, you see, Maurice, I never noticed it when they were around. The moon, managed to climb up while you were gone; and then I just happened to see it. Ugh! I've done mighty little else but stare at it ever since."
"But perhaps you may be mistaken, Thad."
"Sure; but don't forget that we're away down in Dixie, now; where they hang a darky without bothering trying him, if so be he's shot a white man. And don't it LOOK like it—tell me that, Maurice?" went on the late guardian of the shanty boat.
"Oh! I admit that it does, all right. But if you think I'm going to let the whole night go by without investigating this thing, you're away off."
Maurice turned resolutely around as he spoke.
"Where are you going?" demanded his chum, nervously.
"Ashore again to see. If that is a man, I rather think Mr. Stalling would have said something to me about it; though now that I think of it he did hint that it wasn't altogether safe for a stranger to go wandering off into the woods and swamps right now. Perhaps it's just as you say, and this is some black thief they caught. But I hope you're mistaken, Thad."
"I do, too, because you see I want some sleep tonight. But hold on."
"What's the matter now?" asked the other, as Thad caught his arm.
"I'm going with you, that's all," and accordingly he stepped ashore, carrying the gun along with him.
They approached the suspicious object with more or less display of valor; though doubtless the hearts of both lads beat like trip- hammers from the unwonted excitement.
The moon, which had been partly hidden by some fleecy, low-lying clouds, now took a sudden notion to sail into a clear patch of blue sky; and in consequence objects could be much more readily seen.
Both lads strained their eyes to discover how much truth there might be in the grim suspicions of Thad.
Not until they were close up to the strangely swaying object could they fully decide as to its character.
Then Thad gave a grunt, while Maurice laughed.
"That's the way with most ghosts, Thad; when you get close up they just turn out to be something awfully common and you feel sick to think what you imagined," remarked Maurice, as he put up his hand and took hold of the swinging object.
"Say, who'd imagine now that they'd hang up an old bundle of wraps off goods, like this?" said Thad, in disgust.
"But you can sleep all right now," remarked his friend, not a little relieved himself to find that they were not up against one of those grim tragedies that have been so common through the country of the lower Mississippi.
"That's right. Let's get back home. I want to hear what you picked up about George," declared Thad, a little confused.
And accordingly they once more went aboard the boat, seeking the comfortable interior of the cabin, where Maurice could spin his yarn, and a council of war be called to decide on many matters.
THE TROUBLE THAT WAS MET ON THE ROAD.
The night seemed unusually long to Thad.
They had locked the door of the cabin, and by this time he had come to the positive conclusion that no human being could ever climb in through the little window, as long as that stout iron bar remained across its center.
Nevertheless, half a dozen times Thad awoke, and on each and every occasion he seemed to deem it a solemn duty to get out of his bunk, pass over to the window, which was, of course, open for ventilation, and observe the whole of the shore that could be seen.
But the bright moonlight bathed the bank in its radiance, the soft night wind murmured among the trees, and possibly certain sounds, such as the hooting of owls, or the barking of some honest watchdog, disturbed the silence of the night, yet there was no cause for alarm.
Morning came at last.
It had been decided that they might accept the kind offer of the storekeeper to a limited extent. They would be foolish to allow a scruple to stand in the way. Besides, even as it was, they stood to run up against trouble below, from a shortage of provisions.