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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Scott Burton and the Timber Thieves » CHAPTER IX
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For a few minutes the men sat in wondering silence. The very boldness of the scheme was astounding. Here was a canal carefully and thoroughly prepared for the sole purpose of transporting stolen logs and not more than a hundred feet from the river where steamboats plied up and down and the rightful owner of the logs passed frequently.

“Some nerve!” Murphy finally exclaimed, expressing the thought which was uppermost in both their minds.

“Well, we’ve found where they go,” Scott remarked with a sigh of satisfaction, “but what do you suppose they do with them? Is there any railroad over that way or any other stream to the coast?”

Murphy shook his head. “Not a trace of one unless they have a secret one like this canal.”

“I suppose there is no telling how far this goes,” Scott mused, “but I have a hunch that we better tackle it a little carefully. Any man with the nerve to steal logs the way this fellow is stealing them probably would not hesitate at anything. I doubt if he would welcome a visit from a couple of forest service uniforms.”

Murphy felt for his holster and seemed comforted at finding it where it belonged. His Irish was rising fast at the prospect of a possible fight.

“Suppose we paddle slowly up the bayou,” Scott suggested, “and keep our eyes open. They have been undisturbed so long that I doubt if they keep any kind of guard and we ought to be able to see them before they see us.”

That plan suited Murphy perfectly. He laid his automatic on the bow of the bateau where it would be handy and paddled ahead. They went very slowly, sneaking cautiously up to every bend and stopping frequently to listen. They had covered at least a mile in this way without seeing any signs which looked suspicious or anything to indicate that they were getting any closer to their destination. Not a sound broke the afternoon stillness of the forest.

“Must be selling those logs in Mobile,” Murphy grumbled.

As they poked the bow of the bateau slowly around the next bend there was a tremendous splashing in the water ahead. Murphy snatched up his pistol and Scott whisked the bateau back under the protection of the bank with all his strength. They both looked rather foolish when a bunch of ducks rose noisily honking and finally made it out over the treetops some distance ahead of them.

“They were pretty nearly as badly scared as we were, anyway,” Murphy growled as he resumed his paddle.

Scott estimated that they had come at least four miles from the river and still there was no sign of logs or life. “Think we’ll have provisions enough to last us on this trip?” he asked.

The canal had cleared the river swamp now and lay in a narrow strip of baygall between ridges of pine forest which had been neither logged nor turpentined. They still talked with hushed voices though they were apparently miles from anywhere.

“I wonder if this neck connects with the big swamp over west?” Murphy said. “I have heard about that swamp but have never been there. They say it is a whale of a big one and runs down within a very few miles of the coast.”

“Shouldn’t wonder,” Scott growled as they paddled slowly along. “Seems as though it might connect with the Pacific Coast. Pity Columbus didn’t find it.”

It was getting late in the afternoon when they paused at a bend in the bayou to listen for the hundredth time. They straightened up suddenly and looked inquiringly at each other. The faint but unmistakable whine of a sawmill sounded plaintively from somewhere far ahead of them. The light of triumph was in their eyes now, but they were too excited to talk. Without a word they both bent to their work and paddled eagerly forward. The country on either side was more open now, and there was less chance of their running into any one unexpectedly. Every time they stopped to listen the whine of the saw was more distinct. It seemed too good to be true and they had to listen often to assure themselves that they were not dreaming.

At last they could see the smoke through the trees and finally reached a point where they could make out the hazy outlines of the camp. It was the crudest kind of an outfit. A small portable mill sat out in the open without the protection of even so much as a shed-roof, and scattered about it were three miserable cabins—mere board shacks. Only one little pile of lumber was in sight. They sat for a few minutes and gazed at it in silence.

“Well,” Scott remarked, “there she is. The next question is, how are we going to get close enough to identify our lumber without getting shot?”

Murphy’s Irish blood was boiling. He had been looking for those timber thieves for two years, and now that they were in sight he was for stalking in on them and arresting them.

“Rush ’em!” he exclaimed angrily. “Rush right in on them. Take them by surprise and we can arrest the whole outfit easy.”

“It might be possible, all right,” Scott replied, weighing the possibilities, “but it seems to me doubtful. We have only one gun. There are six of those fellows in sight and probably more in the cabins. If they were all in one bunch we might stand a show, but while we were covering the ones there at the mill it would be a cinch for any one in the cabin to pot us.”

Murphy had to admit the truth of that, but he was in favor of trying it anyway. “What are you going to do then?” he asked peevishly when Scott shook his head in disapproval of the scheme. “Not going to run home and let them get away?”

“No reason why they should run away when they do not know that we have found them. But I was not thinking of running away. My plan is to reconnoiter the place as closely as we can, find out how many men there are here, identify our logs, and possibly close in on them at night. We haven’t any warrant for them, and probably they are not the fellows who are stealing the stuff. They are only hired men and if we arrest them the real thieves who are engineering the job at a safe distance may get wind of it and get away. No, I think we better just hang around here and keep out of sight till we can find out who is running this outfit. Then we can nail him and we’ll have something worth while.”

“Hadn’t thought of that,” Murphy admitted, cooling off a little. “It would be too bad to lose the main guy after all. Best thing we can do is to take to the brush here and wait till dark. Can’t be over half an hour now.”

They tore their eyes from the mill and turned to examine the near-by brush for a good hiding place. “There is a good thick clump over there,” Scott said, pointing to a clump a little way ahead of them, “where we can hide the bateau and ourselves, too. It’s——”

The words died on his lips and his eyes almost popped out of his head. In that very clump of brush there were a pair of big eyes as round as his own and fixed full upon him. Blue, frightened eyes they were, and they no sooner found that they were observed than they disappeared like a flash. Scott shot the bateau forward to have a close look and was just in time to see a very small boy minus any clothes at all streaking it through the brush toward the camp as though his life depended on it—and he probably thought that it did. He had evidently been swimming in the bayou and had been cut off from his clothes by their approach.

“Now we are in for it!” Scott exclaimed, as he pointed out the flying figure to Murphy.

“Where did he come from?” Murphy asked, frowning.

“Out of that clump of brush right there in front of us. I just happened to see his eyes. It is a good thing we were talking in whispers or the little rascal would have overheard every word that we said.”

“Probably heard every word of it anyway,” Murphy growled. “Now they’ll be down here to investigate. Shall we wait for them or go to meet them?” The idea of retreating never so much as entered Murphy’s head.

Scott had other plans. “Maybe if we can get out of here without being seen or leaving any trace behind us, hide the bateau in one of these brush piles and hide ourselves they will not find us and will think that the kid was lying. He was not very large, you know, and they would not put much faith in his story.”

The plan did not appeal to Murphy. He was getting mad again and wanted to fight. “What’ll we gain by that? Why not stay here and scrap it out?”

“Because we are trying to find out a little something about this thing without being seen ourselves,” Scott retorted a little sharply. “Stir them up now and the whole gang may get away before we can do anything with them.”

“I’ll bet I could stop two or three of them,” Murphy growled.

“We’ll land on that clump of grass there on the left where we will not leave any footprints and get the bateau out of the water,” Scott said firmly.

Murphy obeyed in silence. It was easy to see that he did not approve, but he obeyed. Keeping the clump of brush in which the boy had been hiding between them and the camp, they landed on a bunch of roots and lifted the bateau bodily from the water. They made their way carefully to a large brush pile back some fifty feet from the edge of the bayou. There they carefully hid the boat and concealed themselves. “It will be dark in about ten minutes,” Scott whispered. “If they don’t find us pretty quick they will not have much chance of seeing us.”

“Dark don’t bother one of those infernal hounds much,” Murphy grumbled. “They’ll find us easy enough and pull us out of here like a couple of rats.”

A lump popped up into Scott’s throat so hard that it almost choked him. The thought of the keen-nosed hounds with which almost every southern camp is infested had never occurred to him, but he tried to put a bold face on it. “Well, we’ll have to take a chance on that. We can fight if we have to, but we won’t unless we do.”

He was conscious that Murphy was eyeing him curiously with a trace of contempt and he knew that he was being suspected of cowardice, but his judgment told him that his was the wiser plan and he stuck to it, hard as it was.

They had not much more than covered up their tracks and settled down to watch developments when they saw a man riding leisurely from the direction of the camp. He was trying to look unconcerned, but he rode directly toward the clump of bushes where the boy had been hiding. They were both rejoiced to see that the almost inevitable hound was lacking so far, and they were not a little relieved that the rider was on the other side of the canal. He wore the usual overalls, cotton shirt and old felt hat, and was a total stranger to both of them. An old thirty-thirty Winchester was balanced carelessly across the horn of his saddle.

He drew rein on the opposite side of the canal, glanced at the clothes which the boy had left, and ran his eye carefully along the banks in both directions as far as he could see. Evidently it had not occurred to him that the bateau might have been taken out of the water, for his examination was too rapid to take account of anything as inconspicuous as footprints. Without any apparent suspicion he turned toward the river and rode rapidly away down the tow path and out of sight.

“If he keeps that gait up long it will be dark before he gets back,” Scott chuckled.

Evidently the boy had been keeping pretty close watch on the man. The horseman had hardly disappeared from view when the boy came running toward the canal. He moved more cautiously as he approached the clump of bushes and stopped to examine them minutely. Satisfied that there was nothing there he pounced on his clothes and proceeded to change them for the old pair of his father’s overalls which he had on. His curiosity was not so easily satisfied as the man’s. He examined the shore foot by foot to see if the boat had landed, scanned the surrounding country suspiciously every now and then, and once glanced curiously across at the brush pile which concealed the spies. Finally he, too, trailed away down the bank of the canal.

Already the sun had begun to dip below the treetops on the horizon, but it seemed to Scott as though it must have stuck there. Instead of the sudden darkness which usually came with the setting of the sun in that country, the twilight held on and on. They both heaved a sigh of relief when the rim of the sun finally disappeared behind the trees and the dusk settled rapidly over the forest.

“What do you suppose they will think when they don’t find anything?” Murphy grinned.

“Probably lick the kid for ‘seeing things’ and let it go at that,” Scott chuckled.

“I hope he has a reputation already as a fluent liar. That would help some. Well, what is the big idea now?”

They were still talking in whispers for they did not know how close the boy or some of the other searchers might be and voices carry far in the evening stillness of the forest. They could clearly hear the voices at the mill an eighth of a mile away. Scott had been thinking hard of his plan ever since they had crawled into their hiding place and was ready with his answer to Murphy’s question.

“I think that we better stay here for a while till that fellow comes back home. Then he will not be so likely to run up on us from behind. When things have settled down over there we can scout around and see how they get the lumber out of this place, and, if possible, where they take it. They would not dare take it back out and down the river. Possibly we can even get close enough to some of those logs to see if they have your mark on them. Unless you can suggest some better plan.”

Murphy did not have any objections to make. There was nothing in it which suggested running away, and there was some promise of excitement in putting it through. They sat for a while in silence listening for the return of the horseman and the boy. It was almost an hour before they heard voices on the tow path below. It was the man on horseback and the boy half walking and half trotting beside him. They caught enough of the conversation to reassure them. As the pair reached the place where the boy had been swimming the man’s voice asked jeeringly, “Don’t see an elephant or a hippopotamus in them bushes now, do you?”

The boy was protesting vehemently with all the breath his rapid pace had left him. They were soon gone, but that little scrap of conversation was as good as a promise that they would go straight home and to bed.

But they did not wait for them to go to bed. Scott was satisfied that there was no other searching party out and that no one would be sneaking up behind them. They heard the people laughing over at the camp and knew that the boy was being teased about the horrible apparitions he had seen.


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