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CHAPTER VII
Murphy had a very attractive little cabin back there in the woods and a little wife who looked perfectly capable of running things while he was away, and while he was home, too, if necessary. She did not seem in the least alarmed at the prospect of being alone for possibly two or three days. Murphy tossed the necessary supplies into his pack sack and they were soon on their way back to the bateau. They loaded all the duffle into Scott’s boat and Murphy took the bow paddle.

It seemed that the log pond was a natural, bottle-shaped arm of the big swamp. From the mouth of it to the river a quarter of a mile away a channel had been cleared of all brush and cypress knees which might interfere with the passage of the log rafts, but there were no booms or anything else to separate it from the rest of the swamp.

“They pole the rafts out that channel to the river,” Murphy explained, “and let them drift with the tide and the current the rest of the way.”

“I should think they would be hung up on the banks all the time,” Scott objected.

“Oh, they don’t turn them loose. There are always two men on them. There is a long sweep on each end of the raft, and by means of those they can usually keep in the channel and make the bends all right. Of course they have to tie up when the tide comes in and wait till she turns again. It is an ideal lazy man’s job, and these niggers love it.”

The north shore of the swamp swung considerably farther to the north and they were at least two miles above the channel when they came out on the river. In all that distance they had seen nothing but animal trails similar to the ones which Scott had found lower down. Murphy was able to explain many of the tracks which had puzzled him.

The hardwood strip was wider here and they landed to explore it. It was a quarter of a mile across to the river, but a coon trail was the only sign of life which they discovered.

“Well,” Scott said, “it may not help us any but we have the satisfaction of knowing that nothing goes into or comes out of that swamp except at the logging camp or by way of the river.” He had not been looking for anything in particular and did not know exactly whether he felt disappointed or relieved at not finding it. They knew now where they did not have to look for the thieves and that would help.

They returned to the boat and continued to examine the shore down to the log channel. The strip of dry land was only about four rods wide at this point. The channel was not a natural opening like the two which Scott had found below. It had been dug out and showed very clearly the signs of much use. The banks had been gouged out by the passing rafts, and tramped by many feet. They searched the ground for some distance on either side but could not find anything to show that the men who had made the tracks had ever done more than step ashore to help shove the rafts through the channel.

It was getting rather late in the afternoon but they thought they would have time to paddle downstream to see how many openings there were into the river and get back in time to see the raft come out. As the tide was coming in they stayed in the swamp. It is very often some little thing like this which changes the whole course of events. If they had only gone down the river. But they did not.

They did not examine the shore here with the same care. It did not occur to them that there could be anything there of particular interest. About a mile brought them to the first one. It was much broader and deeper than the one Scott had found in the morning, but was so overhung with trees and brush that it would not be readily noticed from the river. A rather hurried examination did not reveal any traces of use. They did not know how much farther down they would have to go and were anxious to get back before the raft went out. Another mile brought them to another opening.

“That settles that part of it!” Scott exclaimed. “This is where I went in this morning. There is only one more opening below this, and that is down at the lower end of the swamp. I have been all the way around her now. There are just these four channels into the river.”

“And two of them,” Murphy said, “are new ones on me. I have been down that river dozens of times. Funny I never noticed them.”

“They are pretty well screened from the river,” Scott replied. “Don’t look as though either of them had ever been used.”

Without further search they paddled back for the log channel so that they would not be in the way of the raftsmen, and had just time enough to pick a good hiding place before it was dark. The sky was clear and from where they sat they could see the river and the mouth of the log canal plainly. A fire was out of the question and they ate their cold supper in silence.

Scott was getting used to this night gloom in the big swamp now. It did not seem as weird as it had before, possibly because he was not alone, but there was a certain fascination about it which kept his interest on edge. The monotonous splashing of the drooping branches dipping in the current seemed to take on a certain musical rhythm. The booming of the bull bats as they dropped down into the opening over the river and the honking of the lonely night heron fitted in like the solo parts in an orchestra. Suddenly there was a shriek which made Scott’s blood run cold. It certainly could not have been written in the music.

“What in thunder was that?” he whispered excitedly, and then joined in the silent laugh with Murphy. Even before he had finished speaking he had recognized the hunting cry of the great barred owl. There is no more blood-curdling sound, and coming as it did on tensely listening nerves it had raised the hair on both their heads.

“That is enough to make every mouse and small bird in the woods die of heart failure,” Scott whispered.

“Probably what he does it for,” Murphy whispered back. “A little more and he’d got me, too.”

It was not till about eleven o’clock that they heard the sound of voices floating faintly toward them from the direction of the pond. After a long silence they heard them again much nearer, and soon the splash of the poles trailing through the water was distinctly audible. The blow of a hammer and the clank of a chain caused Scott to look at Murphy inquiringly.

“They have to break up the raft to get it out into the current,” Murphy whispered.

After considerable delay and splashing three sections of the raft shot out of the canal and swung downstream as they were caught by the current. They were tied to a tree by a rope and swung back against the near shore. After another delay and more splashing another three sections appeared and settled neatly in behind the others. Two men came quickly out of the shadow on to the raft and chained the two parts securely together. They disappeared to untie the mooring ropes, appeared again quickly to man the sweeps and slowly worked the raft out into midstream as it glided down the silent current. It seemed like a ghost raft on the river Styx.

The two men in the brush watched intently as the raft glided by. No sooner were they out of hearing than Murphy turned excitedly. “Those were white men on that raft,” he whispered. “The light was too uncertain to make them out, but they were white men and one of them looked like Qualley.”

“The fellow in the bow looked to me something like that superintendent at the turpentine camp,” Scott said doubtfully, “but I may have been mistaken. I have never seen him but once.”

“Yes, sir, that’s exactly who it was. Now what do you suppose he is doing over here?”

Before Scott could answer they both heard quite distinctly that clanking of a chain which had come to them the night before from somewhere out there in the swamp. It was much plainer than it had been before and seemed nearer. They listened intently for a few minutes but heard nothing more.

“Let’s take a sneak out that way,” Murphy suggested eagerly.

Scott nodded and they scrambled silently across the neck of land to the boat in the swamp. “Don’t make any noise,” Scott cautioned. “We do not want them to know that we are on the lookout any sooner than we can help.”

The moon had not yet come up and it was so dark back there in the swamp that they made slow progress. Every few minutes they stopped to listen. Once or twice they thought they heard a faint splashing, but sounds are very hard to locate in such a place. After more than an hour of fruitless search they gave it up.

“Now, what?” Murphy whispered as they sat disconsolate in the middle of the swamp.

“How far is it down to the place where they sell those logs?” Scott asked thoughtfully.

“About fifteen miles.”

“Will they make it with that raft to-night?”

“No, they tie up during the flood tide, you know, and they had already lost a couple of hours of the ebb when they started. They will not get more than half way.”

“Let’s follow them,” Scott suggested. “I don’t suppose we shall see anything, but I would like to talk to those people at the mill.”

Murphy agreed and they were soon threading their way through the cypress knees back to the log canal. They reached there just too late to see another bateau disappear up the channel toward the camp. They glided out into the river and paddled silently with the current. As they did not know where they might run on to the raft they approached all the bends cautiously.

“The tide will be turning pretty quick now,” Murphy whispered. “When it does they will tie up, and when they tie up they will go to sleep. That will give us a chance to get around them.”

Some distance farther down they were sneaking cautiously around a bend when Murphy held up his hand in warning and Scott brought the bateau to a stop. Not fifty yards away they could see the shadowy outline of the raft lying close in under the shadow of the trees. There was a small fire burning at the far end of it and they could see two forms flitting about in the flickering light. They had evidently just arrived and were busy making the raft fast to the shore.

The amateur detectives pushed their bateau well in under the shadow of the brush-covered bank and settled down to watch. They did not have long to wait. The men soon completed their preparations and settled down beside the fire. The low sound of voices soon gave place to silence which was in time broken by a long whistling snore.

“That is accommodating of that fellow,” Scott whispered. “If it were not for his music we might have sat here for an hour trying to find out whether he was asleep. Shall we make a sneak for it?”

“Better wait a few minutes,” Murphy suggested, “till we can make sure of the other fellow.”

The other man was either awake or he did not snore. They listened in vain for ten minutes and decided to take a chance on it.

“Think we better try to steal by under the shadow of the opposite shore?” Scott asked.

“Not for mine,” Murphy answered, “the fellow might be awake and mistake us for a deer. I’d rather take a chance on floating right down the middle of the stream.”

Scott thought the suggestion a good one. He had seen one of those men shoot and he did not feel like playing deer for him. The moon was just coming up and would make them uncomfortably conspicuous, but there was nothing else to do unless they wanted to wait there all night. A single shove sent the bateau out from the shore and it floated very slowly down the stream. The tide was just on the turn and it seemed that they would never get by that raft. At last they were out of sight around a bend in the river. They paddled silently for a few minutes. Then Scott’s excitement broke all bounds.

“Did you notice anything peculiar about that raft?” he whispered eagerly.

Murphy shook his head.

“There were eight sections in it.”

“No,” Murphy exclaimed incredulously.

“Yes, sir, I thought it was a mile long from the length of time it took us to get by and I counted the sections. There were eight.”

“Where in thunder did they pick up the other two?”

Neither of them had any answer for that and they paddled on, thoughtfully silent. It was possible that the raft had broken the night before and they were picking up the pieces. There was not much chance now of finding out where they got it. The next best thing would be to see how they got rid of it.

“What’s the matter with our getting some sleep?” Murphy asked. “We can go ashore till the tide turns. They can’t start before that and we can easily beat it out ahead of them.”

There did not seem to be any good reason why they should not and they turned in to the first high land they saw. They built a fire and made the coffee they could not have at supper. The night had turned cold enough for them to get pretty well chilled while they were watching the raftsmen go to sleep. The fire and the coffee soon warmed them up. They hauled their blankets out of the boat and were soon asleep beside the little fire.


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