So Maurice went ashore, and, seeking the store, was cordially greeted by the proprietor.
"Made up yuh mind tuh trade with me, sah?" asked Mr. Stallings, as he thrust out his lean brown hand in greeting.
"We have up to five dollars. My chum refuses to get any deeper in debt. And if you have no objections we'll carry off a slab of breakfast bacon and some grits right now," returned Maurice.
"Right glad you settled it that way. I'd ben sorry tuh see yuh go on without some provisions, sah. Pick out just what yuh want, an' I'll make a note o' it. But if so be ten dollars 'd seem better tuh yuh, don't hang back," went on the generous Southerner.
"I wouldn't dare go one cent beyond the five, or Thad would be after my scalp. And he'll want to see the bill, too, depend on that."
Maurice quickly returned to the boat, bearing the bacon and grits; for without the same their breakfast would have been slim, indeed.
Afterward they locked the cabin, and both ventured over to the general store; for Thad was determined that since the precious packet had to be delivered to George that morning, he was not going to let his chum have all the pleasure of bringing joy into the life of the poor family.
"Besides," he added, when making his plea, "who knows what trouble you might meet up with on the road? If the storekeeper hinted that it wasn't right safe for strangers to be wandering around, perhaps you might be held up by some thieves. Two would be better than one if that happened, you know."
Maurice was well satisfied that it should be so; though he had not brought the subject forward, he hardly fancied the idea of taking that four mile jaunt and back, alone.
Besides, the possession of so much money was apt to arouse fears that might never have occurred to him otherwise.
So he had readily assented to the proposition of his chum.
Mr. Stallings was pleased to meet the second lad; and Thad quite took to the Southern storekeeper and woodyard proprietor at sight.
They remained long enough to get full directions concerning the road that would bring them to the desolate little home of George.
"I'd advise yuh tuh keep an eye out along the swamp, boys. They's a few bad coons somewhar in that thar place. The sheriff he 'lows tuh git 'em right soon, an' any day weuns hyah 'spect tuh see 'im drift in wid some prisoners. I heard as how he had collected his posse three days back. Keep that gun right handy, son; an' if so be yuh have tuh shoot, make her tell!"
All of which might be interesting news; but it was hardly calculated to quiet the nerves of the two boys.
However, they were not the kind to give up any cherished object simply because it involved peril.
"Thank you, Mr. Stallings. You said you'd keep an eye on our boat while we were gone, didn't you? It isn't much of a beauty, but you see it's all we've got; and we calculate that it'll just have to carry both of us to Orleans," remarked Maurice, as they started away.
"Don't yuh think of any harm acomin' tuh the boat, sah. I'll give yuh my word they wont. And if so be yuh choose tuh stay over night, I'll use the key yuh left with me, an' put a man inside tuh keep guard, a man who would as soon shoot a thief as eat his bacon."
So the two chums started off.
The morning was delightfully fresh, with the sun shining overhead, and just a tank of frost in the air, enough to make them tramp along with a spring to their steps.
But before they had gone beyond the last cabin Thad gave utterance to an ejaculation of dismay.
"What's the matter now; forgot something? Hope the Marlin is loaded, and you picked up a few more shells for your pocket?" said his comrade, as they both stopped short.
"Oh, sure, I saw to all that. It's a different matter," mumbled Thad, who seemed to be staring hard at something to one side.
Turning, Maurice discovered a tumble-down shack, around which several dirty white children were playing.
"What is it?" he asked; "didn't think you saw a ghost, again, eh?"
Thad shook his head.
"Nope. This was a live ghost, I reckon. And he had a fiery red-top in the bargain," he said positively.
Immediately Maurice understood what ailed him.
"A man with a red head of hair; and you think it might be the same fellow that tried to rob us yesterday up-river? Is that it?"
"Sure it is," replied Thad.
"But you know there are lots of men with red hair?" protested his comrade.
"Yes, but not with that nasty laugh. You heard it when he paddled away, thinkin' he had the stuff; and I heard him give the same kind of laugh just when he dodged into that shack."
"He did, eh? Funny I didn't happen to hear it. What made him laugh this time, d'ye suppose, Thad?"
"Ask me something easy, will you? P'raps he was tickled to see old friends again. Then, again, mebbe the notion struck him that after all the fish that got away the other time was comin' straight into his net. All I know is he laughed; and that it's the same critter!"
When Thad was positive it took mountains to change his opinion.
But then Maurice did not see that there was anything improbable in the idea, since the thief who had visited them had rowed down river, and just as likely as not had his home at Morehead.
"Well, come along, pard. Even if it is our old acquaintance, he'd better think twice before trying to hold us up," he remarked, giving a pull at the other's sleeve.
"But he knows what we've got along. He may tell some others just as tough as himself; and how could we hold up our end if half a dozen tackled us?" grumbled Thad, as he stalked along at the side of his chum.
"Shall we go back, then?" asked the other.
"Nixy. I don't care if there's a dozen coming, we're going to get to George all right. You hear me, Maurice."
"That's the right way to speak. But, after all, perhaps we won't have the least bit of trouble. Didn't you hear Mr. Stallings say the sheriff was abroad with a posse, looking for rascals. Strikes me that this wouldn't be a good time for our friend to try any of his tricks. They use a rope down here for a remedy. Jails are played out. There's no need of bothering any, Thad."
So they walked briskly along the road, which was, after all, not much of a thoroughfare, and required close watching lest they stray away and lose themselves.
But the storekeeper had given plain directions, so that with proper diligence they should not have any trouble about keeping along the right path.
Although Thad had appeared to agree with his chum that there was no need for worry, it might be noticed that he let Maurice do most of the looking for the right signs that were to safeguard their course. On his part he felt that necessity demanded that he twist his head just one in so often and scan the rear.
Maurice knew what he was doing, but made no complaint. Indeed, in secret, he was almost as anxious as Thad, even though he had not seen the man with the red head with his own eyes; and had tried to laugh at the idea of his being the same scoundrel who had tried to rob the shanty-boat further up the river.
After they had placed Morehead Landing some distance in the rear they found themselves in a very lonely place, indeed.
Evidently they must be approaching the swamp spoken of by the friendly storekeeper. Here and there they could see trailing streamers of Spanish moss clinging to the branches of the trees; and the further they went the more desolate their surroundings became.
"Say, ain't it enough to give a feller the shivers?" observed Thad, when an owl began to hoot in a mournful way back from the road.
"I must say it doesn't seem to be particularly cheerful around this region. But we must be more'n half way there; and nothing's happened yet," returned Maurice, stoutly.
"There, what was that?" asked his chum, coming to a sudden stop.
"Where?" demanded Maurice, who had taken his turn at carrying the gun; and as he spoke bringing it half way up to his shoulder, while his thumb played with one of the hammers.
"I saw something moving ahead; sure I did!" declared Thad, shaking that obstinate head of his the whole.
"Perhaps so, but that's not saying it was a MAN! Did it have red hair, do you know, Thad?"
"There you go, Maurice, always making fun of me. I didn't see any head, so I can't say; but it looked like a man creeping off."
"Right where, son?"
"Do you see that clump of bushes, the ones with the bully red leaves? Well, it was close to them. It moved just when I happened to look that way. I give you my word, Maurice."
"All right. We'll find out quick enough, I reckon," remarked the other, with that decisive ring in his voice which Thad knew so well.
"Now what are you goin' to do, pard? Don't be too rash. Remember what Mr. Stallings, said," and Thad laid a restraining hand on his chum's arm.
But Maurice was not to be daunted.
"Fall in behind me, then. I'm going up to the bushes and see for myself what it was. Ten to one it must have been a muskrat out of the swamp; or perhaps a fox, prowling around for his grub."
He cocked both barrels of the Marlin, and the act must have instilled new courage in the heart of Thad, for he immediately removed his detaining hand.
"All right, then; go ahead. If he jumps for you, poke the old gun in his face."
He stooped down and secured possession of a stout cudgel himself, as though he felt inclined to back up his comrade after a fashion.
In this manner they slowly approached the clump of bushes, where the frost had turned the leaves to rusty red color.
Maurice was on the alert for any sign of trouble. He even passed partly around the clump, without discovering anything to indicate the presence of an enemy.
When he had made sure that the bushes did not conceal a lurking figure, he turned to Thad with a grin.
"Went off in smoke, I reckon. A fellow who can see a hanging coon in a bundle of burlap strung up to a tree might imagine anything, it seems to me," he said a little sarcastically.
Thad looked somewhat sheepish.
He allowed his head to droop, and shrugged his shoulders.
"I did see something move, I tell you. It seemed to skip back out of sight, like it didn't want me to get my peepers on it," he said, with a conviction that would not be denied.
"All right. I hear you; but please show me the animal or human being. I'm willing to be convinced, Thad."
The other started to smile.
"I reckon I can't show you the thing that was here, Maurice, but I might do the next best thing," he said, eagerly.
"What's that—point out it's shadow?" jeered the other, still skeptical.
"A smoke ghost don't leave any marks behind, does it?"
"Well, I don't know. I wouldn't like to say, since I never ran up against one. But why do you make that remark, brother?"
Thad dramatically pointed down at his feet as he spoke, and Maurice, turning his gaze in that quarter, instantly saw something that caused him to draw in a quick breath and involuntarily clutch the gun with a gesture of alarm.
There were plain marks on the ground, and even as inexperienced woodsmen as the two boys could easily see that these had undoubtedly been made by the big feet of a shuffling man!
AN UNEXPECTED MEETING.
"He was here, all right!" said Thad, in an awed tone, as he looked all around him.
Maurice took several steps forward, as if mechanically starting to follow the plain imprints of those big shoes.
"Hold on, there, pard; you wouldn't want to chase after that critter, now, would you? We haven't lost anybody, that I know about. The best thing for us is to keep right along the road, and mind our own business. Ain't I right?" demanded Thad.
"I reckon you are, son; and don't think I was so silly as to try and follow that creeper. I'm not anxious to see him. Come on, the quicker we get moving the better."
With that Maurice turned on his heel and started off.
"I don't want him to get the notion in his head we're scared about it," he muttered; "but all the same I think we'd better shinny on our own side, and move along."
"Keep that gun ready for business, Maurice," admonished the other, who flourished his stick in a belligerent way while bringing up the rear.
"Don't you fear about that, my friend. If anybody jumps out at us I'm ready to give him a warm reception!"
Maurice spoke aloud. It was his hope that if the man might be lingering near he would overhear the words, and take warning accordingly.
They hurried along the dimly defined road. It must have been quite some time since vehicles used this, for the marks of wheels were in many places utterly obliterated by the rains of summer and fall.
Three times they really got off the trail; but fortunately their united vigilance told them of the fact before it was too late to remedy it easily.
"Must be getting near George's place," grunted Thad, at last, for he was almost out of breath, what with their haste, and the necessity for keeping that head of his at all angles, so as to forestall any treachery on the part of the enemy, whom he felt sure must be dodging their trail all this time, waiting for a chance to get in a telling blow.
"I'm afraid not. Seems to me Mr. Stallings said it was nearly a mile past the swamp; and you see we've just got to the worst of that."
"All right, then; keep hoofing it, pard. We've just made up our minds that we're going to see George at home, and nothing ain't going to stop us. Get that?" declared Thad.
"Just what I say. Come on again, if you've caught your wind."
Again they pushed on.
Their surroundings seemed even more dreadful than ever; and Maurice realized for the first time what a fearful place a swamp may seem, especially when danger is hovering about, and a hostile figure may spring out from behind any tree.
Even the sudden harsh cawing of a crow that sprang up from the ground and lodged on a branch startled Thad; and when a rabbit bounded away through the brush alongside the road, Maurice involuntarily threw his Marlin half way up to his shoulder as though inclined to press the triggers.
"I hope we left him behind," said Thad, presently, when, for the fiftieth time, he turned his head to look.
"But I don't believe we did," replied the other instantly. "See here, you found that other footprint; what d'ye think of this?"
"He's been here ahead of us, as sure as you live. Oh, look! That little twig jumped up into place right before my very eyes. Don't you see what that means, Maurice? He passed along here only a minute or so ahead of us. That twig didn't have time enough to get back to its position up to now. Phew! Perhaps he's laying for us further on."
"Well, what if he is? Do we go on?"
"Well, I guess yes. Let me carry the shooter now!" said Thad, as he reached out his eager if trembling hand.
"Oh, no! What's the use changing? I'm as fresh as a daisy; and besides, that stick just fits your hand. I'll give him a scare if he tries to jump at us, never fear."
"Just as you say, Maurice; only PLEASE don't get excited and fill me up with birdshot, instead of the thief."
"No danger, if you keep where you belong, in the rear. There's some pretty suspicious looking trees ahead there, on both sides of the road. We want to watch close now, Thad. Once we get by here, I've a hunch the going may be better."
"Yes," said Thad, whirling his shillalah around in a lively way, as a token of what he meant to do in case of an emergency.
By the time they reached the spot where the trees joined branches across the dimly defined road both boys were in somewhat of a feverish state of apprehension. They looked at each hoary old trunk as if they believed every tree might conceal a crouching enemy, ready to leap out and attack them.
Yet, strange to say, neither of them once thought of craning their necks in order to survey what lay above.
Perhaps, had Thad done so, he might have received more or less of a shock just about that time.
"Hark!" exclaimed Maurice, pulling up.
"That was a shout, wasn't it?" demanded his chum, his eyes seeking those of the other instantly.
"I'm dead sure it was, and not an owl," replied Maurice.
"And it came from ahead there; didn't you think so?"
"It certainly did. Listen, there's more of the same kind. Now what d'ye make of all that?" muttered Maurice.
"Somebody's coming this way, for I can hear the sound of running. Say, perhaps it's the coons he told us about, the outlaws that live in the swamp! Mebbe the sheriff's posse has stirred 'em up like a hornet's nest, and they're on the jump!"
Maurice looked annoyed.
"If that's the case we ought to be hiding ourselves," he declared. "Yes, but just remember, boy, that there's another thing bothering us just now. What if we ran plump into the arms of that red-top who's laying for us?"
"Well, then, let's drop down here behind a couple of these trees. Perhaps they'll go past and never get a peep of us," suggested the one who carried the double-barrel gun.
"No use," chirped Thad, immediately.
"And why not?" asked Maurice.
"They saw us; they know we're here; that's why."
"How do you know that?"
"I just saw a feller bob up along the road there. He swung his arms over his head as he dropped down into another hollow. And look, ain't that some more of the bunch, topping the rise? I tell you, it's all off, Maurice; they've got us caged. Why, we can't run away, and all that's left is to stay here, grin and bear it."
Thad sat down as though he believed it absolutely useless to take the least step toward seeking safety in flight, but, indeed, both of them were already partly winded with their efforts, so that anything in the line of running might be deemed mere madness.
"Hide the packet then, quick! Stick it under that root there, while no one is looking. Perhaps we can fool them yet!" hissed Maurice, as a brilliant idea flashed through his brain.
"Bully for you, my boy! That's the ticket."
While he was speaking Thad drew the small package from his inside pocket, where he had been carefully keeping it since leaving the boat, and with one quick nervous movement thrust the same out of sight under the convenient root.
No sign remained of his action, and he was fain to believe that no human eyes save his own and those of Maurice could have witnessed the act.
But it was not so.
"Say, they're coming on the jump!" exclaimed Maurice, who had remained on his feet while the other squatted, the better to carry out the process of secreting the precious packet.
"How many?" asked Thad, between quick breaths, induced by the tremendous excitement of the occasion.
"Don't know, but a whole lot of 'em. And every mother's son seems to be armed with some sort of gun. A fine chance we'd have against such a husky bunch, if we showed signs of fight. Yet it does go hard against the grain to give up without striking a blow."
Maurice gnashed his teeth and frowned while speaking, fingering the lock of his Marlin nervously.
By this time Thad had risen to his knees, an overwhelming sense of curiosity urging him on.
"Why, Maurice, that's funny!" he exclaimed, immediately
"I don't see it; what's struck you now, Thad?"
"Why, don't you remember what Mr. Stallings told us?"
"Sure I do—that these swamp rats were about as ugly a crowd to handle as he had ever heard tell of; and I guess he was right; for if I ever saw a tough lot of fellow citizens they're coming down on us right now, five, six of 'em. Ugh!" growled Maurice.
"I think you'll live to take that back, old fellow," chuckled Thad, who seemed to be far less alarmed than he had been a brief time previously, though still excited.
"What ails you?" asked the other, querulously.
"Look for yourself. Are those chaps white men or coons?"
"Why, I reckon they all seem to be white, so far as I can see—oh! I declare, I remember now—"
"The storekeeper told us those bad men were niggers!"
"Right; that's what he said. Still, these may be another lot, connected with your friend with the sorrel-top!" declared Maurice, who died hard.
"Rats! You know now just as well as I do that yonder is the sheriff and his posse! Perhaps they think we're some of the riffraff they've been chasing, and that's why they keep aiming their blamed old guns at us that way. Hadn't we better hold up our arms, Maurice, and give 'em to understand that we surrender? Some fool might think it fine to take a snapshot at us and explain afterwards he thought we meant to fight!"
"That's right, Thad; a clever idea. So up you go, my boy."
Maurice, as he spoke, allowed the gun to fall at his feet, and elevated both hands as high as he could get them. Thad hastened to follow suit, and it might be he unconsciously cast his eyes upward at the same instant, as though eager to see just how his chum held his.
A sudden spasm seemed to shoot through the frame of Thad, and his companion heard him give utterance to an exclamation; but being so intensely interested in the coming of the runners, who were now very close, he made no comment, nor did he ask questions.
The men quickly closed in around them.
Maurice realized that what his chum had guessed must surely be the truth. He even decided which of the six was the sheriff; for the storekeeper at Morehead Landing had described this individual to him, so that he might know him if they ever met.
"Hello, Mr. Jerrold! Glad to meet up with you, sir. Mr. Stallings told us you were out after some game. But he said it was black meat you wanted, not white," sang out Maurice, cheerily; and when he chose to make himself agreeable the young Kentuckian could win over nearly any man.
"Seems like yuh know me, youngster. Who-all be yuh, anyhow, and what yuh doin' thisaways. I'd like tuh know right well?"
But the sheriff had at the same time made a motion to his men, and all show of weapons vanished. He knew that there was no need of violence in this case.
Maurice quickly told him who they were, and that, desiring to see George Stormway, bearing good news from the North, they had been directed along the road by the friendly storekeeper.
"Don't s'pose now, boys, yuh seen anything o' a pair o' black sheep? We done skeered 'em up outen the swamp, an' when our dawgs gits heah we s'pect tuh track 'em down once foh all," observed the sheriff, now apparently ready to shake hands with the two voyagers.
"No; we haven't met a single person, black or white, on the trail; but we have reason to believe that there's a man hiding around here who wanted to waylay us and rob us."
Thereupon, as the sheriff asked the reason he had for believing such a thing, Maurice started in to explain. He told of finding something of value on the boat that belonged to George Stormway's wife, Bunny Badgeley that was—how the man with the red-top had tried to steal the packet and was baffled by reason of Thad's cunning trick; how his chum had seen him just outside the hamlet of Morehead Landing, the tracks on the road, and finally the figure seen by the clump of bushes.
"Yes," broke in Thad just then, and his chum saw that an expansive grin covered his face as he spoke, "and if the gentlemen will only take a squint up over their heads they will see the party in question squattin' on that limb right above us, where he hid himself, I reckon, thinkin' to just drop down on whichever held the gun!"
Then there was an immediate craning of necks; and loud laughs from the members of the Mississippi sheriff's posse attested to the fact that they had discovered what strange fruit that live oak bore.
THE GREAT GOOD NEWS.
"It's a big fat 'possom!" shouted one of the posse, swinging his gun upward, as though getting ready to shoot."
"You're away off, Dexter; look closer and you can see the ringed tail of a 'coon!" jeered a second.
"If we had the dawgs hyah we'd have a heap o' sport, gents; but as it is, I reckon as how we'll jest have tuh fill him full o' lead, an' let her go at that!" exclaimed a third member of the party.
These various remarks, while evidently spoken in a spirit of levity, aroused strenuous opposition above. There was an immediate movement of the object straddling the limb. Then two arms waved vigorously, and a high-pitched voice sounded:
"Hold on, thar, yo-uns! I ain't a 'coon, but I'm acomin' down right smart, all the samee. Don't let loose on me, boys; I ain't wuth the powder. I jest wants some un tuh kick me for bein' sech a fool as tuh think you-uns was thet bunch o' swamp-hiders!"
The speaker slid along the limb to the body of the tree and began to make his way toward the ground.
Maurice looked at Thad, and there was perplexity in his eyes. He understood the sly tactics of the red-headed man, and wondered whether they would succeed in hoodwinking the sheriff and his posse.
The question was soon answered, for hardly had the cracker reached the ground than Sheriff Jerrold stepped up to him, that piercing eye fastened on the ugly face of the climber.
"Yer under arrest, Jeff Corbley!" he said, making a motion to one of the others to bind the fellow.
"Me? What fur, sheriff? I declar I jest clim' thet tree 'cause I was skeered. I hed a squint o' yer crowd acomin' over the rise, an' I spected 'twar them coons hustling out fur grub. They got it in fur me, an' I jest het up ther tree quicker nor lightnin'."
But the sheriff was not so easily deceived.
"What's this yer grippin' in yer hand, Jeff? A rock big enough to knock a man silly. Thought tuh drap in down on the head o' this hyah youngster, didn't yuh? Easy way tuh git the upper hand o' him, yuh spected. Shucks! Don't yuh open that mouth o' yourn tuh say another word. We been watchin' yuh a long time, Jeff, an' this time yah make tracks outen the county, OR PAY THE FREIGHT!"
The sheriff made a suggestive motion with his hand in the direction of his neck. Evidently the red-headed man understood.
"Oh, I'll go, all right, sheriff. I kinder hed a sneakin' notion fur a long time thet yuh hed it in fur me. How long do I git?" he whined, as his hands were bound fast behind his back.
"We'll give yuh jest twelve hours arter we git tuh Morehead. Ef so be yuh ain't outen the county by then it's touch an' go with yuh. A hundred dollars tuh the man as draps yuh," remarked the official, with a dreadful calmness.
"Twelve hours is a might short time tuh do it hin, sheriff; but I'll make the try, sho. I'm sick o' this place, anyway."
"And the place are sure sick o' you, Jeff; so it's even all 'round," replied the sheriff, turning his back on Jeff.
The two boys had listened to these little pleasantries with mingled feelings. It was really the first time they had ever been so close to a possible tragedy, and when they found that these grim men did not mean to hang the wretched Jeff both breathed easier.
He had been something of a thorn in their flesh and doubtless was an evil bird whichever way he might be looked at; still, they had no desire to see him meet such a terrible end.
"I heard the dawgs along over there, Kurnel," remarked one of the posse, just about this time.
The sheriff brightened up immediately. He had evidently set his mind on the job of cleaning up the band of black thieves who had for so long a time sheltered themselves in the swamp, and preyed upon the neighboring planters; and the coming of the dogs promised to add to the chances of ultimate success.
"Then we must be hiking, boys. Glad tuh have met you both, an' wish yuh all success. If so be as yuh say, theys some good news foh George, jest congratulate him foh me, will yuh? He's a good feller, George is, an' has heaps o' friends hyahabouts."
He shook hands gravely with each of the boys, after which Sheriff Jerrold started along the dimly defined road. The prisoner, Jeff, was in the middle of the squad, and did not manifest any great enthusiasm about hastening away; but being a victim of circumstances he just had to run when his captors chose.
Maurice looked at his chum and laughed.
"Say, wasn't that the funniest thing ever?" he exclaimed. "Just to think of that scamp settling himself up there among the leaves of that tree, intending to jump us unawares!"
"Yes," observed Thad, with a shrug of his shoulders, "and he meant to drop that big dornick on your head, because you had the gun. Then, while I was stunned with surprise, I reckon he expected to let go and jump me. I'm not a bit sorry that Jeff is going to get his medicine. If ever a man's face told his character his does. And ten to one he's a big bully, and a wife beater, at home."
"But how did you happen to get on to his trick, for it was you who first discovered him sitting there, and told the rest?"
"Well," said Thad, reflectively. It just happened, that's all. When you said how we ought to hold up our hands—"
"Hold on; it was you spoke about that same thing first," corrected his chum.
"Well, you were the first to do it, and when I followed suit, seemed as if my eyes followed my hands up like I wanted to see that I did it the same as you. That was the luckiest thing ever, for you see I just happened to spy him move his leg. Looked like he was kind of afraid that he might be seen, and was hitchin' along to get behind more leaves."
"But you didn't say anything right away, Thad?"
"Just couldn't, that's why; I was so knocked slabwise and full of laugh. But I knew I ought to let that sheriff into the secret, 'cause he was so mighty anxious to grab some feller. So I opened up. My! But didn't Jeff come down quick?" and now Thad chuckled over the recollection of that hurried descent.
"He just had to; because, you see, he was afraid all the time one of the boys might take a notion to shoot. But as the thing is all over, suppose we shove along," suggested Maurice.
"Good. My mind is easy now, with that sneaker out of the way. What d'ye suppose Jeff meant to do?" asked the other, as he fell in at the side of his chum when Maurice started off.
"Rob us, that's clear. He saw that money, all right, when he peeked in at the window of the shanty-boat, and was wild to get it. Then, after his bully little rush when we were ashore, to find that he had been fooled made him madder than a wet hen; and this time he wanted to make sure."
Thad drew a long sigh, but made no answer. His thoughts were doubtless serious enough, as he recollected that heavy stone which Jeff had not dared drop while descending from the tree; also the ugly look of the desperado's face.
Just as Maurice had predicted, the country began to assume a more cheerful appearance after they had left the swamp behind. It was not long before they came to a cabin, where the smoke was rising above the low roof and several dirty-faced children played before the door, where several lean hogs were grunting in the mud.
"Is this George's place?" queried Thad, in some dismay; for somehow he had been mentally picturing a far different scene.
"I reckon not. I was told that his wife was a superior woman, who once on a time used to teach school. She wouldn't be apt to let her youngsters look like this, even if money was scarce. Wait up, and I'll put the question."
Maurice approached the door. A yellow dog began to bark furiously, the three children ran like frightened sheep, since they seldom saw strangers there, and immediately a slatternly looking woman with the customary thin face of the "poor white trash" of the South made her appearance at the door.
"There's a snuff-dipper for you," said Maurice in a whisper to his chum, as he noted the signs about the mouth of the squatter's wife.
The woman was surveying them with wonder, and not a little awe.
"We want to find George Stormway's place; can you tell us how far along it lies?" asked the boy, politely.
It was wonderful how her tired face brightened up. Perhaps she had not heard such a pleasant voice for ages; and dim echoes of some far off past had been awakened.
"Sho I kin, stranger. It be the second house 'long. Hyah, Danny, yuh gwine tuh show these hyah gentlemen the Stormway place. Git a move on yuh, now, er I'll peel the hide from yuh back, sho. Yuh see," she added, turning once more to the visitors, "Danny, he's ben over tuh take his lesson from Missus Stormway once a week. He kin read tuh beat the band. Git erlong, Danny, an' yuh 'member what I sez!"
Of course there was no necessity for a guide, since they were so near their destination. Maurice believed he could understand the motive that influenced the woman of the house—she hoped these strangers might be liberal enough to bestow a nickel upon Danny for his services; and possibly her stock of snuff was running low.
But they were so glad to know that the journey was nearly over that they made no objection. Maurice believed he could spare a nickel to square accounts.
Danny trotted on ahead. He was a shy little chap, barefooted, of course, and with a ragged shirt and baggy trousers that had evidently been made from a gunny-sack.
Maurice happened to have an old newspaper in his pocket, which contained a few illustrations. It might serve the budding genius as a means for advancing his reading abilities; and so he called Danny back, to present it to him, at the same time also handing over the coveted coin.
For they had passed another shack, where the squalor was even more positive than in the former case, and come in sight of George's home.
"Bully!" Thad could not help saying, as soon as his eager eyes alighted on the little cabin.
Maurice understood just how he felt; indeed, he was experiencing the same sense of relief; for the sight of filth and poverty combined is a terrible thing.
But the Stormway cabin was different. Everywhere could be seen evidences of a woman's hand. Flowers adorned the beds in front, and in the rear there were vegetables calculated to give the family many a meal.
Here, as everywhere, a couple of dogs barked in noisy greeting; but to the boys even these yellow curs seemed of a different breed from those guarding other shacks where poverty abounded.
And while the three children playing before the door were barefooted and had soiled faces, still, as Thad expressed it, this was "clean dirt," by which he meant that they undoubtedly must have accumulated it inside of an hour or two, for there was abundant evidence that water was freely used at this place.
Eagerly the boys waited to see what the daughter of old The. Badgeley looked like. No woman could stand such a life of care and want without showing the lines on her face; but when she came to the door to see what all the racket meant, Thad just threw up his hat and let out a genuine whoop, he was so glad.
Even in her cheap calico dress the woman showed her caliber. Dirt and Mrs. Stormway evidently were at daggers' points, and could not live peaceably together under the same roof. It was a relief just to look at her face, after what they had recently seen.
And when she talked, while there was the Southern accent to some extent, they missed that twang and peculiar type of expression so common among the poor whites.
"This is Mrs. Stormway, I reckon?" said Maurice, as he came up.
"Yes, that is my name, sir," she replied, while her face lighted up with some sort of expectancy.
"My name is Thad Tucker, and I'm from Kentucky, ma'am!"
"Oh! Thad Tucker! Then you are the boy father used to write about? What on earth brings you away down here? Have you come to see me?"
She was holding his hand now, plainly excited.
A man had followed her to the door. He was white and thin, but had a face that Maurice liked at first sight. If this was George, as he believed, then it was worth while that they go to all this trouble to bring him good news.
"This is my friend, Maurice Pemberton. He's from old Kentucky, too. You see," said Thad, hardly able to phrase a connected story in his excitement, "the folks he was livin' with broke up, and he was left with nary a home. Now, I'd been keepin' house on the shanty-boat old The.—I mean your father, give me when he was carried off to the hospital. Maurice he got a letter from his Uncle Ambrose, telling him to be in New Orleans in February, and he'd give him a berth on the big tramp steamer he's captain of. So Maurice and me we made up our minds to drift down South on our shanty-boat."
"And on your way you determined to stop over and see me. How good of you, Thad Tucker. Oh, I am so glad to see you! Now I can hear about my poor father's passing. All I know was contained in a short letter from the authorities of the hospital, saying he had been taken there and died. There was money enough found on his person to pay for burying him, but that was all. Come here, George, I want you to meet my father's young friend, Thad Tucker. You remember reading about him."
The thin man advanced with rather tottering steps, but a pleasant smile on his face. Maurice wondered whether what Kim. Stallings had said would prove true; and if this man, racked by malaria, could regain his health if he changed his home to higher ground.
"But you see I didn't know where you were all this time, only that it was somewhere down South. It was only the other day that, just by some luck, I happened to be hunting a lost trap, when I found something that told us where you lived," explained Thad, fumbling in his pocket.
"And," went on Maurice, taking up the story where his chum faltered, "as we were only a short distance up the river from Morehead, we made up our minds that we must meet with Bunny."
"And give her this," with which words Thad fished out the packet and thrust it hurriedly into the woman's hands.
"Oh, what is it?" she asked, beginning to tremble, not with fear, but delicious eagerness and anticipation.
"Something your dad wanted to get to you. He tried to tell me about it just when he was took, but I couldn't understand him. It was lyin' in a hole back of the lining of the boat, and just where he kept the few muskrat traps he owned," finished Thad.
Mrs. Stormway began to undo the string, though her hands trembled so she could hardly make much progress. Finally George himself had to take possession and cut the cord with a knife.
When he opened the little rusty covered diary and those beautiful yellowback government gold notes fluttered to the ground there was a tense silence. Both George and his wife could not believe their eyes. Perhaps, to tell the truth, they had never before seen even one yellowback note, and hardly understood what they were.
"There's just three hundred and thirty dollars, all in good gold bills issued by the United States Government. And he meant it for you, ma'am, 'cause he says so in his diary. I reckon he wanted to fetch it down when he came in the winter; but he never made the ripple."
While Thad was explaining in this manner George and Maurice were picking up the precious bills. The man was so excited he could hardly speak; but when he stood there with the little book in his hand, he looked at his wife and she at him. Then they rushed into each others' arms, while the boys winked hard to keep the tears from flowing. It was an affecting sight, indeed.
"Now we can get away from here. Now we can go on a farm in the uplands, where you will get strong and well, George. Oh, I am so happy I hardly know what to do! And to think that father saved all this money for me! And that you brought it to us, just when it looked so dark that even I was beginning to be afraid!"
Before Thad knew what she meant to do George's wife was kissing him, and George shaking his hand furiously. Maurice came in for a second edition of the grateful couple's thanksgiving; but on the whole both boys stood the ordeal fairly well.
"Come in and rest yourselves, my dear boys. You have brought me blessed news today, and I shall never forget it; never. You must stay over night with us, because there is so much I want to know about him. We haven't much to offer you in the way of food, but George here can borrow Captain Peek's mule and go to the store for things."
"Not for us," said Maurice, decidedly; "we will be only too glad to stop over with you one night, since you insist, for, of course, there is lots my chum can tell you. And, by the way, Mr. Stallings sent this package to Mrs. Stormway. I think it's got some coffee in anyhow, for we smelled it. He knew we had some good news for you, and wanted to say that he was mighty glad George would have a chance to pull up stakes and get out of this lowland."
The package did contain several articles in the line of groceries, which the good-hearted storekeeper judged the Stormways would be out of, and when she saw this evidence of his thoughtfulness the eyes of George's wife filled with tears, even though she laughed and appeared light-hearted.
ONCE MORE AFLOAT.
The balance of that day and the evening would long be remembered by the boys. Maurice found the three children bright and interesting; nor was that to be wondered at when they had so intelligent a mother to guide them along the way.
George had considered the future so often, in case he ever had the chance to get on an upland farm, that he had his plans all laid out.
He looked ten per cent better by the time night settled in around that little shack in the wilderness, and even doubting Thad made up his mind that George was going to get well.
And that night was one of pleasant intercourse. There were scant rations in the cabin, but then Bunny knew how to cook, and what they had was a treat to the boys, accustomed to looking after themselves so long. The hoe cake was browned just right and tasted better than anything the boys had eaten for a long while, and somehow the coffee was better than they had been able to brew.
In the morning George took the boys aside.
"I'm agoin' to ask you boys to do me a great favor," he said, mysteriously.
Maurice looked at Thad and the latter turned white. He feared that George meant to insist upon their sharing his little pile, and neither of them would have touched one cent on any account.
"Yes, what's that, George?" asked Maurice, who on second thought remembered that that subject had been threshed over on the preceding night, when the good woman had tried to make them accept a gift to help them along and they had firmly declined.
"Why, you see, I'm that afraid of bein' robbed now that it worried me a heap. Suppose I jest hold out that odd thirty and let you take the three hundred over to Kim Stallings to keep for me till I want it? I'd be mighty much easier in my mind, boys, if you would oblige."
Thad waited for his chum to say, for in a ease of this kind he always deferred to Maurice as being better able to decide.
"To be sure, we will, George; I didn't want to mention it to you, but was a little afraid something might happen to the money. Are you able to leave home today? Could you borrow that mule you spoke of and go with us to Morehead? It would be better to get some paper from Kim to secure you?"
George thought he could make the journey, especially with the mule. And besides, there were some things he would dearly love to fetch back with him—things that Bunny had long gone without, for the boys had seen that she was barefooted.
So it was arranged, to the delight of the good woman and the three young Stormways. This had been a great event in the lives of the boy and two girls, and they never wearied of hanging about the young fellow who had known "mon's daddy."
The mule was borrowed from the obliging neighbor, and about nine in the morning they started for Morehead, George being mounted on the back of the animal, though he tried to insist upon their taking turns.
But at this both boys laughed in scorn. Why, that five miles would only be a "flea bite," as Thad declared, to them; and they really needed the exercise, after being cooped up so long aboard the little old Tramp,
Bunny saw them depart with considerable emotion. Thad was afraid she would insist on kissing him again, but the good woman contented herself with squeezing his hands and telling him once more what a blessing he had brought to her poor little home.
George was interested in the tree that had contained such queer fruit, and as they halted under its branches for a brief spell the boys had to relate the story over again.
They had reached a point nearly two-thirds of the way to the river hamlet when they heard a great barking and baying of dogs. The sound appeared to come from over beyond the big timber.
"Seeds like the sheriff he's barking up the tree at last. I jedge he's got them coons separated from ther hook in the swamp, an' if that's so they ain't agoin' to 'scape him this time," remarked George, as they stopped to listen.
The sounds grew fainter, however, showing that the chase must be leading away from the road they followed.
"I'm right glad of that," remarked Thad, "for d'ye know, Maurice, I'd sure hate to see any more prisoners in the hands of that posse."
"Reckon there wouldn't be much danger o' that," remarked George, with a significant nod, which Maurice took to mean that if caught those black criminals might meet with a short shrift.
He could hardly believe that, however, since Sheriff Jerrold was a duly authorized officer of the law and sworn to see it carried out in the proper manner.
They arrived at the river before noon.
"There she is!" exclaimed Thad, eagerly pointing, and George saw that it was a little squatty shanty-boat he meant.
"Why, I hope you didn't think anybody would be so mean as to steal our Tramp?" demanded Maurice, although he, too, experienced more or less lively satisfaction to once more set eyes on the clumsy craft that had so long been their home.
"Well, down in this country nobody can tell. They say that if a man does anything wrong his first idea is to hook a boat, no matter what kind, the nearest he can lay hands on, and cut downstream. But the sheriff is stirring things up just now, and bad men must lie low. Anyhow, there's our bully old Tramp, right side up with care."
Kim Stallings was glad to see George again, and when he heard what glorious luck had befallen him, there was genuine warmth in the handshake he thrust upon the weak man.
Of course, he was only too willing to act as custodian for the three hundred dollars, and gave George a receipt for the money. When he had settled on the upland farm he meant to rent, he could easily get what the store-keeper was holding for him.
And now it was high time our boys once more started on their voyage.
Hundreds of miles still separated them from their destination, and no one could prophesy what difficulties must be faced and overcome before they eventually brought up in New Orleans.
It was just noon when they let go and pushed out upon the friendly bosom of the mighty Mississippi.
Kim and George gave them a parting salute, which the voyagers sent back with a good will. Then shortly a bend cut them off from view, and the little episode was numbered with the past.
"Anyhow, it was a bully time we had there," said Thad, as he started to knock some sort of lunch together, while his chum looked after piloting the boat.
"You bet it was, and neither of us will ever forget it. When Bunny and Greorge saw that bunch of yellow boys, didn't they stare though? I came near blubbering myself, honest, Thad, I was that worked up," confessed Maurice, frankly.
"Oh! I slobbered right over, only you didn't see me, because I got behind. I'm right glad we did it; and wasn't that a hunky-dory find, though? Every time I set eyes on that hole I'll just have to think of the great luck we had."
The old life was taken up again. Borne along on the rapid current of the powerful river, they made mile after mile as the day wore on.
Nothing of moment occurred to disturb the serenity of the scene, and as evening approached they hunted as usual for a good place where the shanty-boat could be tied up for the night.
Once they thought this had been found when what seemed to be the mouth of a stream was sighted ahead; but as they pushed in it was only to find that another floating family had pre-empted the place.
The boys might have even remained had they seemed to be anything like Bob Archiable, for instance, the clock mender of earlier days, but the looks of the three men they saw quite discouraged them.
"Out we go again," muttered Maurice, as they cleared the mouth of the creek, followed by shouts from the owners of the other craft, who called to them to pull in and "have a good time."
Our boys knew only too well what that implied, for liquor and cards must form the sum total of what these rough characters called a "good time," and they wanted none of that.
So it was just about dark before they found a chance to tie up to a friendly tree that chanced to be close enough to the edge of the bank to take their short cable.
Supper was prepared as usual. The provisions secured from the warm-hearted storekeeper of Morehead Landing enabled them to spread themselves to some extent. And Thad declared that life was worth living again, as he sat there after eating, and lighted his pipe for a smoke.
"What so sober about, Thad?" asked the other, when he had been watching his chum's face for some little time.
Thad looked up, and grinned in his usual happy way.
"Oh! it ain't that I'm feeling bad, for I reckon if any feller has a right to call himself lucky that's me. Where would I be now if it hadn't been for you inviting me to make this cruise—"
"Here, don't you get to harping along like that again, my boy. Didn't you promise to call it square? And do you suppose for one little minute that I'd be here unless you were? Why, in the first place the boat belonged to you. I didn't have half enough money to take me all the way to Orleans; and I just reckon I'd had a tough deal trying to negotiate more, the way things went at our home town. Now, just what were you thinking about? I bet I can give a guess."
"Well, what?" demanded Thad, quickly.
"It wasn't about George and Bunny, because then you'd have had a smile on that face of yours. Seems to me you must have been wondering if they got 'em!"
"Meanin' the coons of the swamp? Yes, that's what I had on my mind. I never saw one of 'em, and yet somehow I keep a-wonderin' whether they had a square show. Oh! well, it ain't any of our business; and I reckon they must've been a bad lot, from what Kim said. But I'm right glad they didn't get 'em while we happened to be there, Maurice."
"That's me, every time. But forget it, and let's talk about what we expect to do down below. Here's the charts, such as they are, and none too reliable at the best. We ought to study 'em time and again, because we may want to take a cut-off and save twenty miles or more."
"Don't they say that's dangerous work?" asked Thad.
"Well, yes, it is, sometimes; but there are several places where all the drifters pass through. You know our bully good friend. Bob Archiable, marked two on the map. He's used 'em several years in succession, he said."
"Yes, that's so; but seems to me he said we'd better keep our eyes and ears open all the way down, and ask questions. Sometimes these cut-offs fill up, and then a shanty-boat gets lost in a heap of cross canals. He says they're like hen tracks sometimes."
"Well," remarked Maurice, thoughtfully, "it would be a pretty tough deal if WE ever got mixed up in one of those puzzles. We're short of grub, and there's only a few dozen shells left. Yes, I reckon we will go mighty slow about leaving the old creek and dipping into any of these tempting canals."
So they chatted and exchanged views as they sat there until both grew sleepy, when the cozy bunks coaxed them into retiring.
Nothing occurred to annoy them during the night; though once Thad awoke suddenly and sat up with a low cry on his lips.
Maurice never heard what the nature of his dream might be; but he could give a good guess and felt that it must in some way be connected with those fugitive blacks of the swamp, and the coming of that sheriff's posse with the fierce dogs.
In the morning they were early astir.
It seemed as though they had been away from home a long time after that one night spent with the Stormways. Thad remarked how natural it was to get breakfast again; and Maurice said something along the same lines as he went ashore to gather up a supply of firewood for future use.
Again they moved with the current, always heading south. Every mile passed over counted, since it took them nearer the point for which they were aiming.
Thus several days glided along.
Bad weather alternated with good, but they were wise enough to prepare in peace for war; and thus did not get caught napping when trouble descended upon them.
As the days passed they talked less and less of what had gone by, and began to take a keener interest in what lay ahead.
Now and then the little old Marlin was called on to supply them with a game supper; and never did it fail to do its duty when the chances were right; so that, on the whole, they fared pretty well, and had no complaint coming.
When two weeks had passed since that night with George Stormways and his family, they were down in the neighborhood made famous during the Civil War; for Vicksburg lay not more than ten miles ahead.
They had been wonderfully favored during this time, and no accident had occurred to mar the run, the weather being on the whole fair, though one cold storm caught them unprepared and gave them a bad night.
That was a time when Thad's prophecies failed to save them from inconvenience; but those who endeavor to read the weather are not bothered by an occasional upset in their calculations, and on the very next occasion he came to time just as smiling as ever.
The river seemed to be growing with each passing day, and stretched so far into the west that there were times when they could dimly see the opposite bank, which Maurice declared must be ten miles distant; though again it would not be anything like that to the Arkansas shore.
But they had now passed the southern border of the state, and he announced that the land they were gazing at far over the tumbling waters was that of Louisiana, the very state for which they were bound.
From this time on they could not expect to make such good progress, because of the unusual care that must be taken in order to keep them from losing themselves in one of the false channels.
Again and again would they be tempted to shorten their day's trip by cutting into one of these enticing necks; but Maurice had resolved that he would not allow such a thing, and in the end it proved a wise precaution.
He believed that an ounce of prevention was better than a pound of cure, as it certainly is under all circumstances, and especially during a water voyage down such a treacherous stream as the Mississippi.
They began to have adventures with strolling darkies who visited them after they had tied up for the night; and once when a noisy crowd had threatened to do them bodily harm because the boys had declined to make them a present of tobacco and strong drink, both of them had to do guard duty during the night for fear of an attack.
All these things told them that they were now getting down into the sunny South, and that they would meet with disappointments there as well as in other places, for true it is things seem more alluring at a distance. But both boys were sturdy in body and determined in spirit, so that they were not apt to be discouraged by a few backsets of this character.
ON A PLANTATION IN DIXIE LAND.
Once below Vicksburg and the two boys felt that they were doing well.
True, many difficulties had arisen to give them a chance to show their grit and backbone. Maurice was of the opinion that they had come out of these conflicts with flying colors, and each victory seemed to renew their self confidence, as though that were the true reason for the encounter.
There was no lack of shooting in this region, for ducks traded between the river and adjacent lagoons at all hours of the day, and many times Maurice was able to bring down a feathered pilgrim of the air with a shot from the deck of the shanty-boat itself, retrieving the same with a nail fastened to the end of one of the poles.
What interested the boys most were the cotton fields that they began to see.
Of course, both were familiar with cotton: in many of its aspects, having been born and brought up close to the Kentucky border; but these big fields where they could see myriads of the open bolls not yet culled, late as the season was, caused them much pleasure.
And the negroes became more jovial the farther south they went. It seemed as if the black man in migrating north left his natural condition behind, and assumed many of the cares of the white man. Down in the cotton country he was at his best, full of laughter, careless of tomorrow so long as he had a dime in his ragged trousers, and of course light-fingered when he saw a chance to lift anything and no one appeared to be looking.
The boys had a lot of fun with some of these good natured darkies who came about the fire they were accustomed to starting on shore when the occasion allowed.
Sometimes they bribed them to dance a hoedown, or sing songs as the spirit moved.
Maurice was surprised to find that they favored the sentimental songs of the day, such as were being sung in the North. He wondered so at this that finally he asked one fellow, a gray- headed old chap, what had become of the negro melodies once so famous, and now so seldom heard.
Then he learned that the negro of the South had reached a stage of progress wherein he did not wish to be reminded of the fact that he was once a slave and the property of a white master; and as most of those dear old songs are along that line he gives them the go-by when choosing his minstrel lays.
But by a little species of bribery they managed to induce some of their visitors to sing the "S'wanee Ribber," "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Groun'," "Black Joe," and others of a similar nature.
"Dear Ole Hom'ny Corn" seemed to be a prime favorite among them, and the boys themselves never tired of joining in the chorus.
After they had lost several articles from some of these blacks pilfering they learned to keep the cabin door locked when going ashore. If bent on stealing, the southern negro can accomplish his purpose in spite of watchful eyes, since there will come a moment when attention is directed in another quarter, and like a shadow he will creep aboard and accomplish his end.
Another thing began to trouble them about now, and this was the fact that their slender stock of money had entirely given out, with some weeks ahead before Uncle Ambrose could be expected to come to the rescue.
Hence it became necessary that they find some means of earning something.
Thad could fall back upon his experience as a carpenter, and if he could get employment now and then might bring in enough of the needful to supply them with the necessities of life.
Maurice on his part would only too willingly have done anything in his line if he could find a chance. He was a pretty fair bookkeeper, but it did not seem likely that he would run across any one in this part of the country who wanted his books balanced.
Still both of them began to be on the lookout for opportunities, determined to do whatever their hand came in contact with.
It was at Gibson's Landing that Thad struck his first chance.
Things were getting rather low, and they had not enjoyed a cup of coffee for two days, on account of a lack of supplies or the wherewithal to purchase the same.
Maurice was cleaning some fish they had taken that day when he saw Thad coming at an unusually swift pace, and a look on his face that spoke volumes.
"And now what!?" he demanded, as his partner sprang aboard.
"Bully news—I've struck a job. Last a week or so, and give us enough cash to carry us through with careful nursing. And that ain't the whole of it, either," was the way he broke loose.
"It's good as far as you've gone; now what else can there be to make you feel so fine!" demanded Maurice.
"Mr. Simon Buckley—"
"Who's Mr. Simon Buckley?"
"Why, I was just going to tell you—he's a rich planter back here a bit. I happened to mention the fact that I was a carpenter looking for a job and he jumped on to me and said he was looking for just such a man."
"Hurrah!" broke in the other, his face full of smiles.
"Then we got to talking," Thad continued, "and I told him all about what we were trying to do, and he seemed interested and asked questions, principally about you. What d'ye think; he knows your Uncle Ambrose; why once, many years ago they were together in Cuba? And he wants both of us to come with him tomorrow when he starts back to his home; because he says he's got his books in a terrible muss, and would be mighty glad to have you straighten 'em out; and what d'ye think of all that, eh!"
Maurice smiled at his enthusiasm, but was certainly feeling a bit the same way himself.
"Why, all I can say is what you're so fond of shouting whenever any good luck floats our way—bully, bully, bully all around! I felt sure we'd strike something before the worst came; and as usual it was you who had to run across it. But how are we going to leave our floating home while we pay this week's visit to the plantation of Mr. Buckleyl"
"I thought of that when he said you must come, too, and when I spoke of it to him he told me of a man he knew living on the river—that's his shanty you see below there, with the chimney on the outside—who would look after the boat and Dixie for a dollar and be glad of the chance. It's all fixed, my boy, and you needn't worry a bit. We'll be sure of our grub for a week, see something of a simon-true Southern plantation, earn twenty dollars between us, and get in great shape for business. Say, is it all right?"
Maurice, of course, declared that it was, and thereupon Thad did one of his regular hornpipes, to the amusement of some darkies on the shore, who began mocking him, but in a way that did not give offense.
So that night they made arrangement with the man Mr. Buckley recommended to have him keep their boat in his care, along with the yellow dog.
In the morning they again bade farewell to their comfortable floating home for a brief time, and meeting the planter, joined him in a ride to the interior where his plantation was located.
Mr. Simon Buckley was a character very interesting to Maurice.
He had been something of a soldier of fortune since the Civil War and drifted pretty much around the whole world, so that he was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge upon almost any subject.
What interested Maurice most of all was his association with Uncle Ambrose in Cuba many years before. It was with considerable surprise that the lad learned how his steady-going relative had once upon a time been a wild blade, an adventurer as it were, ready to take up with anything that promised excitement, and a hope of gain in a fairly decent way.
Simon Buckley had been very fond of Anthony, it would seem, and his delight at running across a nephew of his old comrade was unmistakable.
The voyagers had never met with a luckier bit of fortune than when Thad chanced to interview this veteran.
Mr. Buckley had long ago settled down to a humdrum life as a planter, having wedded the daughter of a big man in the parish. When the old spirit of turbulence grew too strong within him to resist lie had to work it off by a bear hunt in the Mississippi canebrakes, or perhaps a lynching bee—he did not state this latter positively, but there was something in the wink he gave the boys while speaking of such things that told them the truth.
They were too wise to think of starting an argument with a Southern man upon a subject of which they had a very small amount of information, and which entered upon his daily life, so they said nothing while he was present.
That ride was one long to be remembered, for they saw things that might never have come under their observation otherwise.
Various plantations were passed, and collections of negro cabins, around which hosts of youngsters were playing, as free from care as the rabbit that ran across the road—indeed, much more so, for Bunny had to look sharp lest he afford a meal for one of his many enemies, while these pickaninnies had their daily wants supplied, and grew up like so many puppies.
Along about noon they reached their destination.
The Buckley plantation was well known in that section as one of the best in western Mississippi.
Of course, the main staple was cotton, king of the South; but there were various other products that the owner raised. He had a grinding mill and produced a large amount of sugar and molasses in season. Then on some lowlands he grew rice of a superior quality. His ambition being to constantly improve on what had been produced the preceding season, his experience all over the world proved of value to him now, when he could calmly review what he had seen and profit by it.
The place seemed an ideal Southern plantation to Maurice, and he soon wished he had a camera along with which to secure some views that he could carry with him wherever he went. As the owner had a weakness that way, the want was supplied before they had been there two days, and when the tune came to depart, lo, Maurice had a dozen or two pictures in his possession to show "Old Ambrose," as the planter said.
Indeed, it took Maurice just two days to straighten the books out, and then Mr. Buckley kept him busy with that camera; for he had had miserable success himself in handling it, and was just hoping some one would come along with a better knowledge of such things than himself.
A NIGHT HUNT FOR COONS.
"What do you think," said Thad, one afternoon, after they had been nearly a week at the plantation, "tonight the major's going to take us out on a regular old 'coon hunt. I've tried to get 'coons that way lots of times up home, but never had the right kind of dog. But that yellow Spider of his is the best in the county, he says, while Crusoe is a good second."
"That sounds fine, and I sure will be glad to go along. But is it Robinson Crusoe he means when he calls that poor white dub?" asked Maurice, looking up from the book he was reading after work hours.
"Yes; you see he found the poor chap with a broken leg on an island in the swamp. He would have starved to death only Mr. Buckley happened along in a canoe. And so he named him Crusoe. They make a splendid pair for the business, he says," went on the excited Thad.
"Who says—Crusoe?" asked the other. "Oh, shucks! You know I mean the major. Now, there's his bear dogs, they're a different proposition, eh; all of 'em big and fierce, just like you'd expect to find when it comes to stopping a black bear in the canebrake. And he says we might try a chance with him tomorrow after Bruin. He's got a rifle to loan us apiece!"
"I suppose you mean the major has, and not the bear. All right, I'm in anything like that. Never saw a wild bear in my life, and perhaps I'll be so scared that I won't know which end of the gun to aim at him; but I'm game to try, Thad; just let him give me a chance."
"Here he comes now," declared Thad.
"Good gracious! the bear?" cried his chum, in pretended alarm.
"Rats! Major Buckley, of course."
The planter was never tired of the company of the two boys. He had no children of his own and enjoyed the coming of these two bright lads so much that he declared it was quite a revelation to him.
"I don't see how I'm going to stand it after you leave here, boys, he said, as he came up; "I never before realized what it meant to have young blood around. Tell you what I proposed to the missus last night after you went to bed. I've got some nephews and nieces down in Natchez, children of my younger brother, Larry. Don't believe they're getting along as well as they might since poor Larry lost his life while out duck hunting in a bayou four years back. I'm thinking seriously of running down to see my kith and kin, and, if I fancy 'em as much as I think I will from the pictures they sent me awhile back, I'm going to bring 'em here, bag and baggage, to make their home with us. And that's what comes of knowing you two lads. They'll have to thank you for their good fortune."
"But we never even heard of them, major," protested Maurice.
"That's so, my lad, but you've made such an impression on my old heart that my eyes are opened, and I see it isn't right for us to live on in this fine place while poor old Larry's children and widow are possibly in want. My mind is quite made up on that score, and if they don't come it won't be my fault," the planter went on.
"Then I'm glad for one that we visited your plantation," asserted Maurice.
"Here, too," echoed his chum, immediately.
Then they fell to talking of the anticipated night's sport with the 'coon pack in the woods.
"It's late for the best hunting in that line," remarked the owner of Crusoe and Spider; "you see the 'coons are fattest along about the ripe corn full moon, and that's when we go after 'em most. Still, I reckon we can scare up a few, though our way of finding 'em may be off color a bit. But I thought you wouldn't mind that, so long as you saw how it was done."
Both boys immediately declared that they were indebted to him for thinking so much about their pleasure.
"Humbug!" said the gentleman, vigorously; "why, your coming has given me more pleasure than I could ever return. It's wakened me up, my wife says, and given me a new lease of life. Why, just to meet one of old Ambrose's nephews has been a tonic for me. Haven't I spent nearly every evening in retailing old stories of our doings over on that blessed island of Cuba, when we were with the insurrectos and fighting against the power of Spain? No, I just couldn't do too much for such fine lads as you are."
Such talk was enough to make both boys blush. But they were growing to like Major Buckley more and more with each passing day, and the recollection of their delightful experiences while his guests would always remain as a happy era in their southward voyage.
"No use going out right after supper, boys. Better wait a little. It's true that the half moon will have about set by then, but we can use torches just as well. Besides, I always think they add to the picturesque character of the hunt. I've had them all prepared of pitch pine, full of resin, and able to give us all the light we want."
Of course, both boys knew considerable about 'coon hunting at night—they would not have been true sons of old Kentucky otherwise. But it happened that neither had ever been fortunate enough to participate in a genuine chase, and the chance appealed to them vigorously.
About nine o'clock the major announced that it was time to make a start.
The barking of the eager dogs that scented the coming fun told that time was passing slowly for them as well. Soon the little party had assembled and started for the edge of the big cornfield. Here several shocks of the white corn had been left as a tempting bait for a late hunt, and it was at such a point they anticipated having the dogs pick up the scent.
Besides the major and the boys there were three colored brothers. One of these was named Black Joe, and he was a faithful old white- headed negro, who had served the major's father through the civil war. When Buckley married and settled down, Ms first act had been to hunt up old Joe and bring him to his plantation as a sort of major-domo or general overseer, and Joe made good every time.
He was a quaint darky, with a fund of original observations that sometimes made it hard for the boys to keep straight faces. Besides, this Black Joe could quote Scripture by the yard, and nothing ever happened but what he had a verse ready. Why, one day when Thad was walking with him over some newly cleared ground, old Joe suddenly clutched his arm, drawing him back and pointing to a little but ugly ground adder that lay in the path, instantly said:
"Man mus' watch as well as pray!"
And no one could manage the 'coon pack as well as Black Joe. When the excitement raged, and the best trained dogs were frantic, the master might command without obtaining obedience; but let old Joe tell a dog to stop barking, or to get out of sight, and it was simply wonderful how his words bore fruit.
A trail was immediately struck by the first shock of corn—this was the flint variety, and as such generally used for hominy throughout the entire south.
Away went the pack with a chorus of eager yelps, while the hunters trailed after them.
"No hurry, boys," said the major, leisurely; "when they get him treed they'll let us know. Then's the time for us to get near and decide whether the tree shall be chopped or a nigger climb up to knock the critter down to the dogs. We never shoot a 'coon 'less the dogs prove unable to master him."
"Then that does sometimes happen, sir?" questioned Thad.
"Occasionally, but not often. A big 'coon may have unusually sharp claws and tear the dogs bad. Then he jumps another tree before they can stop him. After that we think it best to knock him down, rather than risk the lives of the dogs. They's plenty of 'coons, you see, but mighty few good dogs,"
Maurice smiled at the sentiment expressed, and yet it covered the ground from the standpoint of the man. The 'coon's opinion was not worth asking, it seemed.
Suddenly the yelping changed its tenor.
"Does that mean that the 'coon has got away?" asked Maurice.
"Not by a jug full. He's taken to a tree. I reckon they hit it up so fast after him he couldn't reach his own tree, so he bounced up the nearest one. We'll soon see," said the major, as they moved in the direction of the clamor.
"What if he gets to his home tree?" continued Thad, who wanted to know it all, even though not from Missouri.
"That we call good luck, because, you see, boys, sometimes we get three or four varmints out of the one stand. Why, I remember once we kept smoking 'em out till nine had been shook by the dogs. It was what I called the colony tree," laughed the planter.
Presently they drew close to the spot where the racket was being maintained by the dogs. The 'coon was silent, but doubtless his eyes glowed maliciously as he squatted on a limb or in'a fork and surveyed the yelping crew below.
"I sees 'im!" exclaimed one of the negroes, pointing upward, 'right on dat 'ere limb nigh whar it fo'ks, sah. Dat Mistah Coon, foh suah, 'deed it am!" exclaimed the discoverer.
"You're right, Klem," said the major, upon looking closely; "see, boys, you can detect the yellow gleam of his eyes as he watches us; but not a blessed movement does he make. Hey, Klem, you saw him first, and it's your chance to climb up and knock him out."
The negro hardly waited for permission, knowing the rules under which his master usually hunted at night. He had a club in his hand, which he transferred to his teeth as he started to climb.
The tree was rather large and would have taken too much time to fell for one coon; so another method was resorted to in order to get the animal down to where the eager dogs could pounce upon him.
"Look at the dogs!" said Maurice to his chum, while the climber was cautiously approaching the animal on the limb, so as to prevent it from ascending higher into the tree.
They were almost frantic, licking their chops, whining and actually shivering with eagerness. Well did they know that presently there would come to the ground a furry mass with sharp claws and teeth, on which they were expected to leap and finish with a few bites directed either at the throat or the backbone.
"Watch out dar!" came in a thrilling tone from above.
Klem was now close upon the coon, which had retreated further out on the limb. When the negro climber had gone as far as he dared he suddenly gave a shake that sent the wretched animal in a struggling heap down through space.
The dogs were waiting. They saw the coon coming and were on the spot ere he landed, so that almost before he could attempt any resistance both Crusoe and Spider were at his throat.
There was a short, if furious, tussle, for a coon is gifted with considerable strength and agility, though seldom a match for the right, kind of a dog.
Then it was all over.
The major lifted the still quivering animal.
"Pretty fat critter. A few more like him will pay us for coming out, boys," he declared.
Then they once more returned to the cornfield, where the keen nosed dogs speedily caught up another scent.
Again the party followed leisurely until the signal came that the quarry had been safely treed. This time they found that it was only a small tree, so it was cut down.
"I want you to see all the phases of coon hunting, boys," explained the planter, while the chips were flying under the axes of Klein and Cudjo.
Of course, the instant the swaying tree commenced to topple the animal made a frantic leap; but those sharp eyes of the dogs had never once lost track of the quarry, and they were quickly after the coon, which, unable to scurry up another tree, had to turn at bay.
It was soon over, and a second victim had been added to the score, much to the delight of the blacks, who knew they would surely have their share of the spoils of the night hunt.
The next coon turned out to be a fat 'possum, and loud were the exclamations of joy on the part of Klem and his comrades when this fact was made plain. Indeed, Maurice believed he would not have taken any great stock in this method of hunting, which seemed so unfair to the game, only on account of the chances it gave the negroes for a square meal in the line of the greatest delicacies they knew. So the hunt went on for several hours.
When about midnight they concluded to return to the house, seven coons and two 'possums were loaded upon the shoulders of the three attendants. And the dogs lagged behind, quite tired out with their exertions; though ready to prick up their ears at ike slightest suspicious sound from the gloomy woods around them.
"How did you like it, Maurice," asked Thad later on, as they were getting ready for bed.
"Oh, it was an interesting experience," returned the other; "but I don't know that I'd give much to repeat the dose."
And Thad was of the same mind. "But that bear hunt will be something different, you bet," he observed.
SHIPMATES FOR A ROUND THE WORLD CRUISE
Each passing day presented some new and attractive feature along the banks of the great river; and under other conditions Maurice would have been delighted to go ashore and witness the operation of grinding sugarcane, or baling cotton where the cotton gin worked. But these things would have to keep until another occasion, for destiny now beckoned to the two lads, and they felt that their fortunes were wrapped up in this anticipated meeting with the old sailor.
On the twelfth of February, at two in the afternoon, they arrived at the upper stretch of the river metropolis, and from that time on they kept fully on the alert so as to avoid a collision with some passing boat.
At the same time they were also looking for a certain boatyard, to which they had been recommended by Mr. Buckley, who knew the proprietor well, and for whom a letter was reposing in the pocket of Maurice's coat.
Luckily this boatyard was near the upper part of the city, so that they did not have to pass along the entire water front, in constant danger of a spill from the many vessels moving about, great tows of coal barges such as they had seen on the river many times, ocean steamers, ferry boats, sailboats and numerous other river craft propelled by steam, gasoline or sails.
The proprietor of the boatyard looked at them a bit suspiciously as they drew the ungainly craft that had served them as a home during the long cruise, into his "pocket;" but upon reading the letter Maurice presented his face changed in its expression and he shook hands with both lads heartily.
And thus early in their experience in the world our boys realized what a splendid thing it is at any and all times to have a friend at court, ready to speak a good work in one's favor.
They could tie up in the yard, and he would see to keeping the shanty-boat with some things aboard, to be given to their friend, Bob Archiable, when he arrived.
And yet Maurice and his friend looked at the Tramp with regret in their eyes when they were saying good-by to the craft; for they had enjoyed many good times aboard the faithful little floating home since leaving the Indiana town, and would have many pleasant memories in the dim future to look back upon.
Mr. Buckley had insisted upon Maurice taking the little snapshot camera along with him when he departed, saying that he had ordered a larger and more expensive one; and that it was worth it to be shown how to develop and print in the clever manner Maurice had done.
So, as there was a roll of film in the camera, Maurice had used it in taking pictures of the boat and Dixie while they were floating downstream; and if these turned out well they would always have a reminder of their staunch craft and the little yellow cur that had helped to brighten the voyage, now given over to the friendly boat builder, who had conceived a fancy for him.
But that night they spent in their old quarters, getting things in shape for a move in the morning, when they expected to find some boarding place where they could put up until the arrival of the Campertown.
It was one of the worst nights of the trip, for the sounds that came to them from the city streets were so strange to their ears that, as Thad declared, they seemed to be near some boiler factory. Of course this was mostly because they had been off by themselves for months, and the night meant a time of solemn silence, save for the murmur of the wind through the trees, or the splash of the waves upon the shore, or against the side of the boat.
When day came both boys felt a bit rocky, having rested wretchedly; but after fixing up and sallying forth they found a restaurant where the demands of the inner man could be satisfied, and then things began to assume a brighter aspect in their eyes.
Maurice purchased a paper and looked up the nautical news to see whether the steamer of his uncle had arrived, or was spoken outside the mouth of the river.
To his delight he discovered that she was expected on the following morning, and during the day he and Thad found their way to the identical spot where the Campertown would be apt to lay up when releasing her cargo and taking on another.
They spent the better part of the day in seeing the city, now in holiday attire, for it was the last of the Mardi Gras festivities, as Lent was close at hand.
That night was a banner one to the two lads, who had never been in a great city before, and especially at a time when the whole population seemed to have given itself up to gaiety.
They spent the time upon the streets until past midnight, watching the floats go by in gorgeous procession, and mixing up with the festive maskers bent upon having all the fun possible, since tomorrow they must begin to mourn.
Thoroughly tired out, our boys finally said good-by to these riotous sounds and hied away to the quiet house where they had a room. Once abed there was no need on this night to toss and turn, for they hardly hit the pillow before they lost all track of time and were sound asleep.
Another dawn found them up and eager to get down to the river.
They could hardly wait to get their breakfast before putting out at full speed.
The steamer had come in during the night, and with emotions that would be indeed difficult to define they read the word Campertown.
How big she looked to them—for they had never seen anything larger than a river steamboat until the preceding day; and to think that this palatial vessel (for such the tramp appeared in their eyes) might be their home for months, yes, years to come.
Maurice boldly asked for the captain, and was told that he was asleep, and on no condition could he be seen until ten; so they had to content themselves with wandering around and talking about what the chances were for success.
Thad was very nervous, for it must be understood that as yet good Uncle Ambrose did not even know that such a fellow existed on earth, and his future was, to say the least, uncertain.
The possibility of being separated by a cruel fate from this chum whom he loved so well was beginning to give Thad a heartache; and his hands trembled in spite of his smiling face, every time he looked at Maurice.
The time that elapsed until the hour of ten arrived was about as weary a stretch as either of our lads ever knew; indeed, Thad afterward declared that it was worse than on the occasion when they had to put in an hour of dreadful suspense in the cabin of the shanty-boat while the storm raged on the river, and it was doubtful whether they would ever see daylight again.
But finally the time came for them to go aboard; and mustering their courage to the fore they went up the gang plank.
A sailor directed them to the captain's room and here Maurice discovered a big man in a uniform, whose bearded face had a kindly look, and who at his entrance jumped up, stared at him a couple of seconds and then pounced upon him like a great grizzly bear, grasping both his hands and roaring:
"Jim's boy for all the world—he very image of his dad as I remember him, I'm mighty glad to see you, Maurice, and at first sight I know we're going to get on fine together. And you're come down to go with old Uncle Ambrose to foreign ports, eh? That's great. I tell you this does me good, just to see you, lad. I've been getting kind of homesick lately—ought to have been ashamed of myself for not looking you up sooner; but a fellow who's in all parts of the world loses his grip on things sometimes; but never mind, I'm going to make it up to you from now on. But who's this with you, son?"
That made the desired opening; so Thad was introduced as the finest fellow in all the world, and before Maurice knew it he had launched out on a narrative of their long cruise down the great river, in which Thad had borne himself as a true American boy should, always ready to take his turn at duty, never shirking peril or stress, and cooking the most delightful meals that anybody ever ate.
Captain Haddon's eyes gleamed with humor as he heard the virtues of the modest Thad thus extolled to the skies; he knew what was coming, but it pleased him to keep the boys on the anxious seat a while, for this was a every amusing happening to the old salt.
And then, when they told how they had spent a week and more with his old "bunky" Simon Buckley, he was intensely interested; whereupon Maurice saw fit to bring out the letter of recommendation wherein the said Simon declared that Thad was certainly a good, conscientious carpenter, and he could wager his old friend would never regret it if he saw fit to give the lad a chance on board his vessel.
Then the captain looked at Thad, sizing him up from the crown of his head to his toes, after which he thrust out his hand and said heartily:
"Tip us your fin, Thad, my lad. It would be cruelty to separate two such good shanty-boat mates as you. I'll find something for you to do aboard, and by thunder you'll see the world together. That cruise was immense, and I'd have enjoyed nothing better myself than to have been along with you. I expect to hear many a yarn concerning those happenings as we sail across the big pond; for our next port call is going to be Liverpool, where we take on a cargo for Australia, and then to Japan, so you see before you're a year older both of you may have gone almost around the world; for we're likely to bring up at 'Frisco. Thad, consider that you're as good as booked for the trip. And now go about your business for a time. Here, Maurice, take this little amount for expenses, and be back on board by evening. Tomorrow I'll start you in at your work under my present man, who is quitting us by the time we leave Orleans."
Maurice could hardly find words to thank him, and Thad was in the same boat; but then the old sea-dog understood boys, and he knew just how they felt, so that as each of them shook hands with him and looked mutely in his face he only grinned and nodded and said:
"I know all about it, lads, how you feel. But you've made me happier than you are yourselves. I was beginning to get into a rut, and seemed to have nothing to live for. The sight of you, my boy, has made me ten years younger. Bun along now, and don't get into any mischief; but I can see with one eye that neither of you have any use for grog, and there's little chance for trouble when that is avoided."
They went ashore with light hearts; indeed, it seemed as though they must be treading on air, and they could hardly refrain from hugging each other, the world looked so bright in their eyes.
It was a ten dollar bill the rugged old captain had thrust into the hand of Maurice; and one of the first things he did was to go to a photographer and have some prints made of the films exposed during the latter part of the voyage; for already he was feeling some signs of homesickness in connection with the poor old Tramp, and desirous of showing his uncle what a "bully old floater" she was, as Thad said.
What they did not do the balance of the day would be easier to tell than any attempt to describe the many things they saw and experienced; but taken in all it was a red letter time, never to be forgotten.
The future beckoned with enticing fingers, and the horizon looked red with the glowing promise of hope; but at the same time as they glanced backward they would always have tender feelings for every memory connected with that river trip, and the shanty-boat on which the voyage had been made.