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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Scott Burton and the Timber Thieves » CHAPTER V
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CHAPTER V
The next morning Scott started out early. He went alone, explaining to Mr. Graham that he wanted to scout the big swamp and see if he could find any clues. He did not know what they would be but he felt that it would be impossible to hide anything out in the open pine country, and that the key to the mystery must be somewhere in that gloomy swamp. He had studied the map thoroughly the evening before and had made an outline tracing of the swamp to carry with him. Armed with this map and a consuming curiosity he set out on foot for a point on the river where Mr. Graham assured him he would find a small bateau.

It was a bright, sunshiny morning when he started, but even before he reached the river the wind changed to the south and a dense fog rolled in off the gulf. In fifteen minutes the water was dripping from the trees as though from a heavy rain. The effect was almost weird. The trunks of the trees immediately around him were plain enough; at fifty feet they looked like ghosts. He walked in that little circle of forest and felt like a man in a cage. New trees loomed out of the fog ahead, stood boldly out as he passed them, and were quickly swallowed in the shroud behind. The trunks seemed to run up into the very sky and the tops were lost to view. It was Scott’s first experience with a real fog and he realized how easy it would be to get lost.

By keeping a careful watch he finally succeeded in locating the trail to the river and had no difficulty in finding the bateau just where Mr. Graham had told him it would be. It was a peculiar-looking craft twelve feet long and two and a half feet wide in the middle. It was even narrower at the ends which were square like a barge. It was flat-bottomed and fully deserved the description of “tippy” which Mr. Graham had given it. There was a rough, home-made paddle beside it. Scott was used to handling a canoe, but he found this new boat far crankier than anything he had ever seen before. It seemed to lurch sideways without the slightest provocation. In the first mile up the river he came within an ace of upsetting a dozen times. Gradually he learned the balance of it and got along pretty well. It did not seem to draw any water at all. Mr. Graham had said that it would float free on a light dew.

Toward the middle of the morning the fog burned off and the skies were clear once more. The shores were low and fringed with heavy brush, back of which was a strip of mixed hardwood forest made up mostly of hickories, oaks, and gums. It reminded Scott of the tropical stage settings he had seen at the theater. Now and then a little green heron or a big hooper crane would flop silently off an overhanging limb and disappear lazily around a bend in the river. Once he thought he saw the eyes of an alligator sticking out of the sluggish water, but they sank silently before he could make sure. Gray squirrels were scampering all through these hardwood trees, but they, too, seemed to be utterly silent. Scott felt like one of those old Spanish explorers who had made their way through that same country almost five hundred years before. It did not seem as though things could have changed much since then.

Three miles up the river the east bank melted away and the big swamp began. This was the place which Scott had come to explore. He turned the bateau and paddled out of the river into the swamp. The break in the bank was only a narrow one and beyond the passage the strip of hardwoods continued as before, but it was a very narrow strip and back of it as far as the eye could see the swamp ran parallel to the river. The timber was almost as heavy here as it was on the dry land, but they were the great gaunt cypress trees instead of the hardwoods. The cypress is the largest tree east of the Pacific coast forests, and there in the gloom of the swamp decked out in the great festoons of Spanish moss, they seemed giants indeed. Around each one were a number of cypress knees, peculiar, stake-like growths which come up to the surface of the water to get air for the roots. Some stuck up high out of the water, others did not quite reach the surface. These last had a disconcerting way of poking into the bottom of the boat or interfering with the paddle. Several times they almost capsized the cranky little bateau. “Ought to have a pilot for these reefs,” Scott growled, as he threaded his way slowly through them.

He decided to skirt the east shore first and see how large the thing really was. It might take days, even weeks to see it all, but he felt sure that the solution of the mystery was here in this swamp and he did not know any other way to get at it. The swamp seemed even more silent than the river. Scott found it even more fascinating. Occasionally enormous turtles poked heads almost as large as saucers, and about as flat, above the surface and eyed him curiously. He saw several black, hairy spiders with a three-inch spread of legs crawling on the tree trunks, and twice he saw fat, cotton-mouthed moccasins uncoil themselves sluggishly from the trunks of fallen trees and glide silently into the water.

Mile after mile he wound his way slowly among the trees and the cypress knees, always keeping in touch with the ragged shore line, and watching keenly for any sign of a trail or landing place. He found many of them but they all turned out to be animal trails which showed no trace of a human footstep. They were, nevertheless, intensely interesting to Scott. He had always prided himself on his woodcraft, and these medleys of coon, fox, wildcat and deer tracks were offering him new fields to conquer. He became so interested in them that he traveled on and on from one trail to another, wholly forgetful of time. He found dozens of smaller tracks in the black, plastic mud, tracks which he did not know, and it piqued both his pride and his curiosity. He almost forgot his object in coming there.

He had pottered along this way for several miles, following the crooked shore line of the swamp and stopping to examine every trail when a sudden pang of hunger caused him to glance at his watch. It was three o’clock. He laid his paddle across the bateau in front of him and sat there idly watching the shore while he ate his lunch. He had not thought to bring any water and the black waters of the swamp looked uninviting. However, he was well accustomed to eating dry lunches in the Southwest and made out very well. He decided that he would continue his search till four o’clock and then start for home; but he became so interested that he overstayed his time a little. It was half-past four before he realized it.

Scott knew that he could never reach the landing, probably not even find the passage out of the swamp, before dark, if he retraced his course around the jagged shore line. It would be much shorter and quicker to go directly across the swamp to the hardwood bottom and then follow that down to the opening. Unfortunately, the sun disappeared behind a bunch of leaden clouds before he had gone very far and left him without a guide. The sameness of the swamp and the utter lack of landmarks made it hard to hold the course, but he felt pretty sure of his directions and paddled on confidently as fast as the cypress knees and partially submerged roots would let him. Fallen trees and clumps of brush forced him to make many short detours which were very confusing. He had come much farther that morning than he had realized.

He had not seen any trace of the hardwoods along the river when darkness came with the swiftness so characteristic of the southern nightfall. Darkness seemed literally to fall on him. There was not a star in the sky and it was impossible to penetrate the black veil for even a few feet. He almost bumped into the trees before he could make them out, and the cypress knees which he could not see at all seemed to be everywhere. And yet he groped his way along in the hope of reaching the river.

About nine o’clock the skies cleared. The light helped him to make a little faster progress, but he could not see any stars that he knew, and could not make sure of his direction. He had almost come to the conclusion that there was no limit to this swamp, when a bank of black shadow loomed ahead of him. It was a shore line of some kind. Through the screen of brush he caught the shape of a pine tree outlined against the sky. It was not the hardwood strip along the river.

There was no use in going any farther now. He was about as completely lost as he could very well be. The moon would be up about eleven and he might as well wait for it right there. He sat motionless in the boat and listened to the small noises of the night, an occasional splashing along the edge of the swamp, the cry of a night heron, or the rustling of restless, small birds in the branches overhead. A gentle breeze was blowing from the direction of the forest.

Once a faint crackling in the brush, the faintest snapping of a tiny twig sounded loud there on the water, told him something was coming toward him. His eyes had become pretty well accustomed to the uncertain light, and as he watched he recognized the form of a large raccoon making his way out on to a log which extended quite a way into the water. It was not over twenty feet from the boat. Wholly unconscious of the silent observer the coon deliberately began to prepare his evening meal which he had evidently brought with him. He tore it into pieces, just what it was Scott could not see, and carefully dipped a piece in the water. Then he solemnly proceeded to wash it. He rubbed it between his front paws and scrubbed it as thoroughly as any laundress, and in much the same way. When he was finally satisfied of its cleanliness he repeated the process with another piece. His meal ended, he washed his hands and waddled ashore. Scott had often heard that the coon would eat nothing without first dipping it in water, but he had never imagined any such thorough scouring as this. He no longer regretted getting lost. Such a chance as that repaid him several times over.

He was almost sure once that he heard the creaking of a chain, but it was very faint and was not repeated. Shortly the moon came up almost directly in front of him. He was headed straight away from the river. With the shadows to guide him he turned to the west once more. A couple of hours’ paddling brought him to the hardwood bottom land and he soon found a passage through to the river. It was not the same passage where he had come in, but one considerably farther up the river.

From there on he had no trouble in finding his way. The tide was running out and the bateau traveled freely. He had marked the landing well and soon had the boat hidden in the accustomed place. When he sneaked quietly into the cabin it was half-past three, but he stopped to have a look at the pantry before he turned in.

Mr. Graham raised his head and had a squint at him, but he did not ask any questions, he did not have to—he knew what had happened to a man in a strange swamp on a cloudy day.


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