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CHAPTER VIII
Murphy had figured that the tide would turn again at about six o’clock in the morning. By five he was up getting breakfast. Scott soon joined him. There was a cold fog hanging over the river and they crowded close around the fire. The temperature was not conducive to conversation. It was not till the heat of the fire had thawed them out a little that Murphy broke the silence.

“Are you dead sure that there were eight sections in that raft?” he asked. It was the second time that Scott’s observation had proved better than his own and it piqued him a little. The power of observation is one of the woodman’s most valuable faculties.

“I sure am,” Scott replied, “I counted them twice.”

“Do you suppose those fellows are selling those logs to the mill on a separate account?”

“That is what I want to find out if I can. I thought it would be interesting to see how they handle the thing when they come in with the raft.”

Murphy chuckled. “It will be good sport to stand there and see them sell those logs which they have been to so much trouble to steal for the credit of the company.”

They were in high spirits and sent the bateau skimming down the river at a tremendous rate. It was not yet nine o’clock when they landed at the mill dock. They knew that the raft could not get in before ten or eleven. It was the first southern mill Scott had ever seen, with its great open pile of ever-burning sawdust and slabs blazing away as though to invite the destruction of the mill by fire. The upper part of the mill was built like a summer house, with open sides. Instead of the little short logs he had seen in the north the big band saw was ripping up logs forty and even sixty feet long.

The manager saw them and came over for a chat. He knew Murphy and greeted Scott cordially. “Still looking for the timber thieves?” he asked pleasantly.

“Still at it,” Murphy admitted.

“I suppose you get a great many logs in here from all up and down the river?” Scott asked.

“No,” the manager answered, “not now. We used to buy in small lots from many owners, but that was before Qualley started up there. We had quite a supply on hand when he started and he is getting the stuff down to us now just about fast enough to keep us going. We only cut about forty thousand feet a day. I am not sure, but I do not believe that we have bought a log from any one else for almost a year.”

“Are there any other mills on the river?” Scott asked.

“No, this is the only one down this way. There may be some more up the river, but if there are they are a long way up.”

Just then a big doubledeck river steamer with her tall smokestacks and queer-looking stern paddle wheel went by spanking her way up against the current.

“Don’t suppose one of those things would tow a raft up the river?” Scott suggested.

“Too slow for them. They are slow enough any way and a raft tow would cost her more than the logs are worth.”

“I don’t see what good it would do any one to steal logs here, then,” Scott said. “What could they do with them when they get them?”

“That’s what Murphy has been trying to find out for a couple of years,” the manager laughed. “He thought for a while that I was buying stolen property here, but he has never been able to prove it on me. Like to look over the mill, Mr. Burton?”

Scott was glad of the opportunity to keep in touch with the manager till the rafts came in, and eagerly accepted the invitation. They followed the manager through the strange mill which looked so much like a summer house to Scott with its open sides and elevated tramways leading out to the lumber yard. He watched the long logs come dripping up the jack chain on to the log deck, saw the powerful steam nigger toss the great trunks on to the long saw carriage as though they had been so many toothpicks and listened to the shriek of the big band saw as it tore through the screaming log. The explosive exhaust of the shotgun feed as the newly sawed plank fell away from the cant had always sounded to Scott like a shout of triumph. In five minutes that shining ribbon of steel had slashed up the growth of three or four centuries. Perhaps La Salle had marched beneath the branches of that very tree.

It was fascinating to watch the perfect working of those powerful machines, and Scott never tired of it, but he was watching to-day with only one eye, the other was on the bend of the river above the mill. They followed the lumber clear through the sorting shed and even out to the piles in the lumber yard; they examined the dry kiln and watched the noisy flooring machines in the planing mill, and even then the raft had not arrived. Scott glanced questioningly at Murphy. What could be delaying them so long?

It was almost noon before the nose of the tardy raft poked around the distant bend in the river. They were sitting in the office talking as usual of the mystery of the stolen logs. Scott was so glad to see the rafts that he felt like shouting, but he wanted to see what the manager would do. Possibly it would be a little embarrassing for him to have visitors from the National Forest at his elbow when the raft came in. But if Scott expected any such thing he was disappointed.

“Here come some of your runaways now,” the manager remarked with a smile when he caught sight of the raft. “Let’s go down and see what they’ve got.”

The raft was still quite a distance up the river and well out in the middle of the stream, but they could see the men working steadily at the great sweeps edging the clumsy craft over toward the opening in the upper end of the log boom. They made their way out along the double boom to have a look at the logs and to get within speaking distance of the men.

“By George,” Murphy whispered excitedly to Scott, “those are niggers on that raft now.”

Scott paused to get a better look at the men and uttered a suppressed exclamation. He grasped Murphy’s arm. “Look there,” he whispered, “there are only six sections.”

“I thought you were dreaming last night,” Murphy retorted. “Been hanging around the swamp too much at night.”

“Not on your life,” Scott exclaimed decisively. “I’d bet my last cent that there were eight sections in that raft last night when we passed it.”

Murphy smiled incredulously.

“Sort of late to-day,” the manager called to the darkies on the raft.

“Yas, suh,” one of the darkies answered with the usual grin, “we wuz kinda late ketchin’ de tide dis mahnin’.”

“How much did you bring me this time, George?” the manager asked.

“Ah don’t know, suh, but I’se got some writin’ heah fo’ you from Mistah Qualley.”

The raft had floated down against the boom and the darky addressed as “George” handed over a scale bill. The manager glanced at it and offered it to Scott. “Want to check them up?”

Scott looked at it rather doubtfully. The log sizes in that country were all so different from what he was used to that he knew that he could not even estimate the contents of the logs very accurately. He thought that the best thing to do was to admit it.

“You know more about this than I do,” he said, passing the paper on to Murphy.

Murphy glanced at the totals and walked slowly over the raft examining the ends of the logs. “Nobody would get rich on the difference any way,” he remarked when he had finished.

“Where did you tie up for the night?” Scott asked.

George seemed to hesitate for a moment. Scott thought that he started to say something and then changed his mind. “About seben miles up de ribber,” he finally answered.

“Do you always tie up at the same place?”

“Can’t always make it, Cap’n,” the darky grinned. “De tide, she say whar to tie up.”

“Have much trouble getting your raft out through the swamp last night?”

The darky rolled his eyes a little suspiciously. “No, boss, she come through mighty slick.”

Scott saw now that the darky was lying fluently and knew that there was no chance to get any more truth out of him, if, indeed, they had gotten any at all.

“Well, Mr. Brown,” he said, speaking loud enough for the darkies to hear, “I guess the scale is all right. We thought maybe they were slipping some extras into the rafts, but we seem to have been mistaken. I hope you will pardon me for suspecting you, but it is my business right now to suspect every one.”

“Suspect all you please,” Mr. Brown laughed, “but let’s go down to dinner. I wish I were getting those logs. They do not bring me any too many and I have very few on reserve in the pond.”

They accepted Mr. Brown’s invitation to dinner but started up river immediately afterwards.

“Now we’ll see what became of those two extra sections,” Scott said with determination as they lost sight of the mill.

Murphy did not answer. He had not seen those extra sections himself and he was not altogether convinced that Scott had seen them either. Scott knew how Murphy felt about it and that made him all the more determined to find them and prove that he was right.

For a long time they paddled in silence. They kept a sharp lookout on both sides and investigated everything which looked like a possible opening in the low-lying banks. They had not found anything when they turned the bend into the stretch of the river where the raft had been tied up for the night.

There was nothing there. “Must have sunk,” Murphy chuckled.

Scott did not deign to answer. He was a good deal more puzzled than Murphy because he was sure that he had seen them the night before. He directed the bateau over to the place where the raft had been tied. There was plenty of evidence there to show that the rafts had been tied there many times before, but there were certainly no sections there now. Two sections of raft, each forty feet long, are not easily hidden.

“I wonder if that steamer could have picked them up?” he asked gloomily.

“Not likely to,” Murphy grinned. “Those logs will weigh from six to eight tons apiece.”

Scott was absorbed in his own puzzled thoughts and had lost interest for the time being in his surroundings.

“Hello, there!” Murphy exclaimed excitedly as they passed the place where the rear of the raft had been tied.

Scott was instantly alert. Behind the tangle of brush and vines which hung clear down to the surface of the water he could see what looked like an opening in the swampy shore line. He immediately turned the bateau toward it and they forced their way under the heavy screen of vegetation.

They both uttered an exclamation of surprise. They were in what appeared to be the mouth of a bayou about thirty feet wide. The sides of it were swampy and a bend about a hundred feet ahead shut in the view. They paddled silently up the creek with the feeling of a couple of bloodhounds on a hot scent.

“Holy St. Christopher!” Murphy exclaimed excitedly as the bow of the bateau poked around the bend.

Scott could hardly wait to see the cause of the excitement, but even when he did see it he did not grasp the full significance of it at once. Instead of the sleepy, vine-covered bayou which they had so nearly passed by unnoticed—a place so wild that Scott’s imagination had once more jumped back to the old explorers pushing their way into unknown channels which no white man had ever seen before—the bayou stretched out before them like a modern canal. All the bordering brush and overhanging vines had been cleared away. A deep-worn tow path followed close along the northern bank. The shores were deeply gouged and torn as if by the passage of many rafts of logs. Moreover, many of the signs were very fresh.

Scott gazed at it in wide-eyed amazement.

“Maybe you were right about that raft having eight sections,” Murphy mumbled. “Looks as though it might have had eight hundred of them.”


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