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CHAPTER I
Scott Burton sat on the porch of the little cabin on the edge of the forest and looked absently out across the wide beach at the restless waters of the Gulf of Mexico. No one ever would have guessed from his expression now how crazy he had been to see that gulf only the day before. He apparently did not see the water at all. The big waves boomed on the beach unheard and even the little oyster schooner, which glided across the picture on its way to port, failed to catch his attention. He had sat motionless for so long that a great big fox-squirrel, afraid but drawn on irresistibly by his curiosity, had crept nervously up within a few feet of him.

Suddenly Scott shook his head to rid himself of a bothersome fly and the frightened chatter of the squirrel as it whisked behind the nearest tree broke the spell. He gave the intruder a quick glance and turned his attention once more to the open letter which he held in his hand. He had read that letter dozens of times, in fact he knew every word on the typewritten page by heart, but he read it again now in the hope of finding some additional meaning between the lines.
“Washington, D. C.
“September 3, 1913.
“Mr. Scott Burton,
“Okalatchee, Fla.
“Dear Mr. Burton:

“Your remarkable work in cleaning up the trouble with the sheepmen on the Cormorant Forest last summer has led us to select you for some special work of a rather delicate character on the Okalatchee. There have been some timber thieves at work on that forest for some time, and so far our officers have been unable to catch them or effectually put a stop to their work. It will be your particular duty to see that these thefts are stopped and the trespassers brought to justice.

“In order that you may have ample authority, you have been appointed deputy supervisor under Mr. Graham and will be given every possible assistance.

“You will report directly to this office.
“Very truly yours,
“Martin Spear,
“Chief of Personnel.”

No, he could not see any more in it, and yet it seemed mighty little to tell a man who had been looking forward to that letter for a week and had traveled two thousand miles to get it. He turned the paper over thoughtfully as though he hoped to find some further instructions on the back of it, and then proceeded to review once more the whole situation.

He had been fortunate enough to earn considerable distinction in Arizona, where he had been working as a patrolman, by clearing out a gang of grafters who had been running sheep on the Forest without a permit. This achievement had won for him the chance of an appointment as a ranger, but he had asked for the opportunity to obtain a little more experience as a patrolman before taking up a more responsible position. His request had been granted and he had spent the summer very profitably on the district he had cleaned up so creditably in the spring.

Suddenly, without the slightest warning, he had received a telegram from the Washington office.

“Report Okalatchee, Fla., at once. You will find instructions there.”

He had become attached to the Southwest and had looked forward contentedly to a permanent location there, but he was possessed of even more than the usual young man’s love of travel, and Florida had always been a country of his dreams, a country of fairy tales that he had hardly even dared hope to see. The sudden realization that he was actually going there had driven everything else from his mind, and an hour after he had received the message he was in the saddle on his way to town.

It was only when he was on the train speeding across the vast expanse of Texas, with plenty of opportunity to think, that he had begun to burn with a consuming curiosity to know what his instructions would be. The longer he had traveled the higher his air castles had grown and the more anxious he had become to see those instructions. By the time he had reached New Orleans he was in such a hurry that he could hardly enjoy his ten-hour wait there, though it was the first southern city he had ever been in and a place which he had always longed to see.

The sight of the tall palmetto palms and the moss-covered live oaks drove his imagination to even more fantastic efforts, and finally arrived in Okalatchee he had almost run directly from the train to the postoffice to get those precious instructions. And this letter was all that he had found. He had found that the supervisor’s headquarters were five miles away through the pine woods and the telephone gave him no answer. He had hired an old negro to drive him over. There was no one there, but the door was not locked and he had decided to stay there till some one came. He was not much better off than before he had obtained the letter.

“Well,” Scott thought, “there is nothing to do but wait till the supervisor turns up,” and he proceeded to investigate his new surroundings.

The little three-room cabin, built of rough lumber with battens over the cracks, was exactly like numbers of other ranger cabins he had seen, but its location had been selected with more than the usual attention to beauty and comfort. It nestled just within the edge of a very dense stand of tall, longleaf pines and the little front yard ran out to meet the broad sand beach. Flowerbeds of hibiscus and groups of oleanders lined the walk of crushed oyster shells, and plants with which Scott was entirely unfamiliar were scattered around in great profusion on either side of the cabin. It seemed to Scott as though a woman must have planned it all, for he could not imagine a man taking so much pains with the decoration of his home. He found himself thinking that it was no wonder this fellow had not caught the timber thieves.

Just to the west of the cabin a little creek bordered with titi and sweet jasmine wandered slowly out to meet the blue waters of the Gulf. It could not always have flowed as slowly as it did now, for some time in the past it had built quite a little delta which extended out in the form of a miniature cape, and was covered with a grove of tall, stately palmettos. Far out from the shore a long line of low-lying sand islands broke the horizon. It was certainly an ideal spot.

The interior of the cabin was quite as tastily equipped as the exterior, and the cupboard seemed to be stocked for a long siege. There was nothing lacking even to the luxuries. Scott smiled as he thought of his own bare little shack high up in the southern Rockies with the round bullet hole in the windowpane.

“I don’t care if that sissy supervisor does not show up for a week,” Scott grunted contentedly as he settled down in a comfortable steamer chair on the porch. No one could have asked for a better place to wait. But Scott was not much given to idle comfort, especially when his curiosity was aroused, and it usually was aroused about something. Just now he was almost wild to know something more of this new problem which he had been given to solve. He watched a little flock of sandpipers run along the smooth beach a way, following the very edge of a wave, but long before they had turned the point of the little palmetto cape he jumped restlessly from the chair and went into the cabin to study a map which he had noticed hanging on the wall.

It was a detailed map, showing the irregular boundary of Okalatchee forest and the different types of timber. It was a great sprawling tract of a million acres extending along the gulf to the river on the west, to the farm lands on the east, and north to the big swamp. It was covered with unfamiliar terms he had seen in books, but which had never seemed real to him before. He had always read them before as he would read the names in a fairy tale, and here he was in the very midst of them: pine ridge and cypress swamp, hardwood bottom and gum slough, low hammock and baygall, high hammock and cane break, turpentine orchards and stills.

He marveled at the great number of ridges shown in that flat country, and the many long, stringlike swamps which paralleled the river and the coast. And he wondered where in all that maze of unknown country the timber thieves whom he was supposed to catch were working. He noted several ranger stations shown on the map and wondered whether any of them were connected with the mystery as had been the case in the sheep business in the West, or whether there were really any thieves at all. He remembered reading a story in which men had been convicted on circumstantial evidence of stealing a raft of logs, and it was not till they had served a month in jail that the raft had been found in the bottom of the pond where it had been tied.

If only the supervisor, or any one else who could tell him anything about it, would come. He had not liked the “gum-shoe” game as he had called it when he had been obliged to try his hand at it in the West, but he found himself eager to get at it here because other men had tried it and failed. It seemed to him like a challenge and he was eager to accept it.

He pored over the map, studying the lay of the land and letting his imagination run wild. He had caught those thieves in forty different ways in at least a dozen different parts of the map when the failing light warned him that it was time to get supper and prepare for the night.

He had no instructions or invitation to make use of that cabin or the supplies in it, but there is a certain freemasonry among the men of the woods which was invitation enough for him. He had no hesitation in spreading his blankets on one of the beds and ransacking the cupboard for his supper. There was plenty to choose from and the wood was laid in the stove ready for the match. In half an hour he was sitting down to his lonely meal.

But it was not destined to be a lonely meal. Scott had hardly finished what he probably would have called his “first course,” when he heard a light step on the shell walk, a thud or two on the porch, and a man loomed big in the doorway.



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