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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Scott Burton and the Timber Thieves » CHAPTER X
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CHAPTER X
“Well,” Scott whispered to Murphy, “let’s get out of here and see what we can find.”

Murphy was ready enough to move and perfectly willing to tackle the whole camp single-handed if necessary, but he was surprised that Scott did not want to wait till the camp was asleep, since he had already taken such precautions to avoid detection. “Think they have settled down yet?” he asked, as they crawled out of the brush.

“No, but I thought we might cut a circle around here and maybe find out how they get the lumber out of here. We can sneak in and look over the mill and the logs later on if we get a chance.”

They took a good look at the location of the pile of brush so that they would be able to locate it again, and started off through the woods to the southward. They moved cautiously so that they would not make any noise, and would be able to hear any one else who might be traveling the woods that night. The sky was clear and they could see fairly well. Before they had gone very far they sighted a road a short distance ahead. When they reached it they were very much surprised to find that it was a railroad. The rails were wooden “two-by-fours” and the ties were slabs from the mill, but it was a railroad just the same. They stood and gazed at it a moment in silent wonder.

“A railroad!” Murphy exclaimed softly. “You’ve got to admire their nerve whatever you may think of their honesty. Wouldn’t that beat you?”

“Imagine building a railroad to haul off stolen goods and getting away with it for over two years right here within a few miles of town.”

“If they had built a steam railroad and a bigger mill no one would ever have found it,” Murphy growled sarcastically. “It’s always the little fellows who get caught. If they had just stolen a loaf of bread or a yeast cake they would have been caught long ago.”

“Let’s follow it up and see where it goes,” Scott suggested, turning down the track toward the south.

They walked in silence for some time, pondering over the gigantic scale on which this fraud was being conducted. There certainly must be some clever men at the bottom of it. They had covered about two miles when the moon peeped over the trees and they discovered a big swamp looming up ahead of them—a great black mass of dense undergrowth barring their way like a wall.

“Must have been some job to put this railroad through that swamp if it is anywhere near as big as it looks,” Murphy remarked. “Jesse James was little more than a piker compared with this bunch.”

The vegetation in the swamp was so dense that it seemed almost like going into a tunnel. Gradually their eyes became used to the darkness and they could see a little better. A small opening in the trees ahead let in the moonlight and Murphy started forward with an exclamation of astonishment. They were on a solid dirt embankment built up there three feet at least above the level of the swamp and ditched deep on either side.

“No half-way measures for them!” Scott exclaimed. “They must have expected to keep this up for a good many years to make all this worth while.”

A sudden inspiration had come to Murphy. He was down in the ditch studying the sides of the old dirt embankment. After a careful examination he started up with a grunt of satisfaction.

“Now I know where I am!” he exclaimed, “or rather where I am going.”

Scott looked at him inquiringly. He had not seen anything which meant anything to him. He waited impatiently for an explanation.

“These people did not build this embankment,” Murphy explained. “It’s as old as the hills. It is one of the first railroad embankments ever built in the United States if it is what I think it is.”

Scott smiled a little incredulously. He had never heard of a railroad in Florida at a very early date, especially in that part of it, and he thought that he knew his history pretty well. Murphy was too interested in what he had found to notice him.

“I have never seen the thing before but I have heard of it often. It ran from Weewahitchka up on the river to the town of St. Joseph down on the gulf. It was built with wooden rails just like this and the cars were pulled by niggers instead of an engine.”

“What was it for?” Scott asked.

“To get the cotton from the back country down to the coast.”

“But why didn’t they take it down through the river instead of hauling it down through this big swamp on this expensive fill?”

“Because there was no deep water harbor at the mouth of the river and St. Joseph had one of the best harbors east of Pensacola.”

“Never heard of it,” Scott retorted. It sounded like an improbable story, and he thought that Murphy must be trying to string him.

“That may be, too. There isn’t any town there now, but at one time it was the second largest cotton shipping port in the United States.”

“Seems rather strange that it should have been so very important and then have disappeared so completely,” Scott protested.

“It was just about wiped out by cholera and yellow fever in 1841. About that time the real railroads began hauling the cotton to other ports on the Atlantic coast and they never rebuilt the old town. They moved most of the frame houses away to other towns on the Gulf and the brick ones went to pieces.”

“Sounds interesting,” Scott said, finally convinced that Murphy was at least trying to tell the truth about it. “Now I suppose they are hauling their lumber down over this same right-of-way and loading it on boats in that fine harbor.”

“That’s my guess,” Murphy replied. “This old railroad embankment probably suggested it to them.”

“Well, let’s follow it up and see for ourselves,” Scott suggested.

They walked rapidly now, for there did not seem to be much chance of meeting any one out there in the swamp. Every now and then the cat owls back in the shadows of the moss-covered cypress trees burst forth into series of weird, unearthly shrieks which made their blood run cold. It sounded to the boys as though two or three women were being murdered at once.

“Gee whiz!” Scott exclaimed, as he ducked vigorously at an unusually explosive screech which seemed to come from directly overhead, “this would be a fine place for a fellow who believed in ghosts. I wonder whether they do their hauling at night or in the daytime?”

“Probably in the daytime if they have nigger labor. They could never get a nigger into this swamp at night, and besides, there are not half a dozen people a year who ever come into this country. A deer hunter now and then; nobody else.”

They had made their way through the swamp for about three miles when the darkness of the swamp gave way to the moonlight of an open pine ridge. It was quite a relief to come out of that gloom and they breathed more freely in the open.

“What’s that?” Murphy exclaimed, suddenly crossing himself and pointing excitedly off into the forest. He was actually trembling.

The sudden exclamation startled Scott. The cat owls had given him the jumps. He followed the direction of Murphy’s gesture and saw a tall white form apparently rising from the palmetto scrub a short distance to one side of the right-of-way. It was an uncanny sight and he shivered in spite of himself.

“Let’s go see,” he whispered with a good deal more confidence than he really felt. They had been whispering again ever since they had entered the swamp.

Murphy hesitated an instant, but followed him closely. They picked their way cautiously through the brush, making as little noise as possible. They were within thirty yards of the hazy white form which seemed now to be sinking stealthily down into the scrub as they approached. Scott could not make it out. He heard the faint click of the safety lock on Murphy’s Luger. His attention was fixed so intently on the crouching figure that he forgot his feet. The next instant he stepped in a hole and fell sprawling.

He jumped to his feet half expecting to find the mysterious figure ready to spring at his throat. It had not moved. He glanced at a stick he had picked up when he fell and dropped it in dismay. He stared at it horrified for an instant. It was a human bone. He relaxed with a nervous laugh. He saw that he had stepped into a grave, the brick top of which had fallen in and exposed its gruesome treasure. When he realized what it was he had no difficulty in recognizing the ghost as a tombstone. Its apparent movement was caused by the shadow of a palm leaf which was waving gently before it in the breeze. It was such a relief that he laughed aloud.

He laid his hand on Murphy’s arm and was surprised to find him trembling violently. Another screech from the cat owls started him pattering a prayer. Murphy was willing and ready to fight anything human at any time regardless of size or weight, but he was superstitious, and the combination of cat owls and graveyard had upset his nerves completely.

Scott could not help but recall the contemptuous look which Murphy had given him back in the boat and he was strongly tempted to remind Murphy now that there was nothing there for a man to be afraid of, but he needed Murphy’s help and did not risk making him angry. However, he enjoyed the joke just the same when Murphy growled, “Let’s get out of here!” and beat an almost precipitous retreat to the railroad track.

Just as they were about to step out on to the open track they stopped and stood as rigid as the trees about them—for a voice had called in impatient tones from no great distance, “Hello, is that you, Bud?”


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