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CHAPTER III
Scott and Mr. Graham had an early breakfast together.

“I suppose there is no use in asking a man from the West if he rides?” Mr. Graham laughed.

“Not much,” Scott replied. “If a man lives in that country he has to ride. It almost broke my heart to leave my saddle horse behind, but the ‘super’ there seemed to think that I would be transferred West again and would not be here long enough to make it worth while to ship him East.”

“Humph,” Mr. Graham growled, “judging from my own experience you will be grayheaded before you catch those thieves. Well, I have two ponies here and you can use one of them. He’s not the best in the world, but I guess he’ll do.”

Scott was glad to find the western stock saddle in use here instead of the English saddle he had been used to in his home in Massachusetts. The man who has once become familiar with a stock saddle wants no other. The pony, too, though far from the equal of the big black stallion he had bought from Jed Clark, was a very good one. It was easy to see that Mr. Graham was a connoisseur in more things than cabin sites and flowerbeds. Everything he owned was of the best.

“We’ll take a run up around the cuttings first,” Mr. Graham explained, “have lunch at the turpentine camp, and come back by the river. That will give you a pretty good idea of the whole forest and show you just how the land lies. Then you can study the thing in detail at your leisure and tackle it any way you please. I’ll help you all I can but I have failed at it too often to have any advice to offer.”

“I’ll probably need all the advice I can get whether it is any good or not. I certainly have no ideas about it now, but there cannot be much wrong with seeing the country first.”

Their road—it was little more than some winding wheel tracks—lead through a rather thin stand of tall, yellow pines which were straight and smooth as telegraph poles with only a few flat branches near the top. In places there was scarcely any underbrush on the ground, only a few stray spears of wire grass and a thin layer of dead needles which scarcely covered the white sand. Here and there were large patches of scrub palmetto, just leaves three or four feet high growing up from the snakelike roots which seemed to lie almost on the surface of the ground. With the exception of these palmettoes it did not look very different from the pine forests of the Southwest with which Scott was so familiar.

“Where are all those ridges which are marked on the map hereabouts?” Scott asked, as he looked curiously at the level country. So far he had seen no sign of a hill.

“There is one of them,” Mr. Graham laughed. “Doesn’t look much like the ‘Great Divide,’ does it?”

“I don’t get you,” Scott said, still scanning the country.

“Well, you see this country is all made up of strips of swamp and strips of dry land. The dry land is often not more than two or three feet higher than the swamp, but it is called a ridge just the same. Must seem a little strange to a man from the mountains.”

Just ahead of them appeared a solid bank of dense underbrush, all woven together with climbing vines which arched the road like a gateway. The road dipped slightly under the arch where the ground was black and damp, but rose quickly and was almost immediately out in the open pine woods again.

“That,” Mr. Graham explained, “is a baygall, and this is another ridge. Always be careful how you try to ride through those baygalls where there is no road, they are sometimes very soft and even if they are not you are more than apt to hang yourself in those vines. They have yanked me out of the saddle more than once.”

For two hours they rode through this fascinating country of alternating swamp and pine flats without seeing any one or any sign of human habitation. It seemed to Scott even more deserted than his own wild, rocky mountains. They ducked through a little baygall and suddenly came out on to an open ridge from which all the timber had been cut. A more desolate-looking place Scott had seldom seen. Every stick of timber was gone and under the Forest Service regulations the slashings had been burned so clean that the ground was perfectly bare. The low stumps stood out like tombstones in a cemetery.

“You are approaching the haunted grounds now!” exclaimed Mr. Graham. “This is where Qualley is cutting and over yonder in that swamp lies the enchanted pool where all those logs have so mysteriously disappeared.”

They could hear the sound of axes now and the darkies laughing and shouting at the mules. Soon they overtook the strangest-looking rig that Scott had ever seen. It looked at first like two great wheels rolling along the road alone, but as they drew closer he could make out a pair of mules ahead of them and three long logs hung on chains underneath. He had read of these “high wheels” (they were actually eight feet high), but these were the first he had ever seen. A darky was sitting on the long tongue singing light-heartedly and punctuating his song with entirely unnecessary shouts at the patient mules. When he saw the riders his shiny black face broke into a broad grin.

“Whatever crooked work is going on around here,” Mr. Graham remarked soberly, “these darkies are not in on it. They are always as jovial in their welcome as that fellow there and they are scared to death of this pond.”

“Or they are good actors,” Scott said. He was unwilling to except any one from his suspicion.

Mr. Graham shook his head. “Of course, you are right to suspect everybody. I was just expressing my own convictions. A white man can act scared pretty well but when a nigger turns gray he is scared.”

A little farther on the logging road ended abruptly at a rough log dock on the edge of a pond. It was unlike any other log pond which Scott had ever seen. It was in reality an arm of the big cypress swamp. Great churn-butted cypress trees rose queerly out of the water around it’s edges. They were bare of leaves, but their limbs were draped with great festoons of Spanish moss. A number of long pine logs, some loose and some bound together into rafts, floated quietly on the black waters. Around the head of the pond directly opposite them and back a way from the water were the crude board shacks of the logging crew.

It was a dull, gray day and the whole scene presented a gloomy enough picture.

“So this is the haunted pond?” Scott asked eagerly, as he took in every detail of the surroundings. “It sure looks it to-day.”

“Yes, this is the place, but it has had me baffled for so long now that I am not sure whether it is haunted or enchanted. Seems sometimes as though it must be enchanted.”

They sat their horses and gazed at the pond in silence for several minutes. Mr. Graham had stopped even thinking about the possible solution. Scott was studying all the details of the layout. This was the place where his problem must be solved and he wanted to be familiar with every foot of it.

“What’s that?” he asked suddenly, pointing at a bunch of brush near the opposite side of the pond.

Mr. Graham studied the clump carefully and made out the outline of a man half screened by the foliage. Even as they looked the form melted away.

“Come on!” Scott called as he spurred forward. “Let’s ride around there and see who that is.”

They dashed wildly around the end of the pond on the trail which the logging teams had made. It could not have been much more than a minute till they had reached the point opposite the clump. There was thirty feet of water between it and the shore, and it was screened quite as thoroughly on this side as on the other. They examined it minutely but found no sign of life.

“You stay here and watch it while I go get a boat,” Mr. Graham suggested. He rode back toward the shanties and Scott kept his eyes glued on the spot where he had seen that mysterious figure.

Before Mr. Graham had ridden fifty yards a shrill whistle arrested him. Scott turned quickly at the sound and saw a man walking leisurely toward him along the edge of the swamp. Mr. Graham rode back again to join them.

“Thought you had him that time, didn’t you?” grinned the newcomer.

“Sure did,” replied Mr. Graham good-naturedly. “Was that you out there on that stump?”

The man grinned again and nodded. Scott thought that he looked a little ashamed of his discovery and studied him suspiciously.

“What made you beat it when you saw that we had spotted you?”

“Well, I did not want to wave because I did not want those other fellows to know that I was there. I knew you’d come whooping around here to have a close look, so I slipped out and came along the shore to meet you.”

“Pardon me,” exclaimed Mr. Graham, noting the curious glances the two men were casting at each other. “I had forgotten my manners. Murphy, this is Mr. Burton who has been sent down here by the office to solve this log-stealing mystery. Murphy is the ranger in this district,” he explained to Scott, “and can probably tell you more about this thing than anybody else.”

The two men shook hands and Scott found himself looking into a pair of clear, blue, unfaltering eyes.

“I ought to be able to tell you something about it,” the ranger admitted doggedly, “but I can’t tell you a blamed thing. I’ve sat on that stump out there till I’ve worn it smooth, but I have not found out a thing. Not a single thing.”

“Ever watched at night?” Scott asked.

“Day and night,” he replied. “Watched out there all one night without seeing so much as a bubble on the water, and in the morning Qualley reported another bunch of logs missing. Gone right from under my nose.”

Scott looked mystified but said nothing.

“I’m showing Mr. Burton the layout to-day and letting him get the general run of things. Going over to the turpentine camp for lunch and have to keep moving. You will help him all you can if he wants you.”

“You bet I will!” Murphy exclaimed enthusiastically. “I’ve had my try at it. Now I’d like to see how somebody else goes about it. Call on me any old time,” he called to them as they rode away.

“Funny place for him to be,” Scott commented after a long silence.

“The thing is getting on Murphy’s nerves,” Mr. Graham laughed. “It would not surprise me much to find him in the bottom of that pond in a diving suit. He wakes up in the middle of the night and sneaks over there.”

Scott did not say any more about it, but he decided to keep his eye on Murphy. There might be more than one explanation of his interest. At least he would bear watching. They rode in silence for some time, each absorbed in his own thoughts. All traces of the big swamp were far behind them and they were once more on the open pine ridges.


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