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CHAPTER XI
Scott was thinking fast. He had to decide on a course of action and that quickly. Should they try to hide or should they meet this man and trust to his being a stranger? The voice was too close to give them much chance to hide and the owner of it was probably a good woodsman, thoroughly familiar with the country. On the other hand, this man could not have received any notice from the mill and would have no reason to suspect them. He decided to go ahead; he might learn something from this stranger.

He stepped out into the track and walked slowly forward with Murphy at his elbow. They had not gone a dozen paces when they saw two men coming out of the woods on to the track only a short distance ahead of them.

“Thought I heard you over there in the brush,” one of the men explained. “You were so late comin’ that we started out to meet you.”

By this time the man was close enough to recognize his mistake even in that uncertain light. He stopped short and eyed them suspiciously.

“Thought you was some one else,” he growled. “Where might you be from, stranger?”

Scott evaded the question. “We did not know where we were when we ran on to this track. Where does it go?”

“Where you all trying to get to?” the man countered.

“Old St. Joseph town,” Scott said, remembering what Murphy had told him about the terminus of the railroad.

The man still eyed him curiously. “Ain’t no town there now,” he said.

“I know there isn’t,” Scott replied. “We just wanted to size up the harbor. Do you live here?”

“Campin’ here,” the man said, “huntin’.”

“This old railroad go there?” Scott asked.

The man hesitated a moment. “Goes to where the town used to be,” he said reluctantly. “Reckon we’ll walk back with you. Man we were lookin’ fer don’t seem to be comin’.”

“Where was he coming from? I didn’t know anybody ever came out this way.” The other fellow was asking so many questions that Scott felt justified in asking a good many himself.

“Been out huntin’,” the man replied. “Good many deer out this way.”

They moved forward and the two men moved with them. “What’s the railroad for in this wilderness?” Scott asked.

Again the man hesitated so long that Scott thought he was not going to answer at all. He could hardly have helped hearing him.

“Mill cuttin’ up the line haulin’ lumber down to the harbor,” he finally answered, as though he had weighed all the possibilities and decided to try the truth.

“Must be a pretty big outfit to afford a railroad like this,” Scott continued.

“Reckon it is,” the man replied after another pause. He was evidently giving careful thought to his answers.

“Are they located on the river?” Scott asked.

“No,” the man answered promptly, “they are nowhere near the river.” He did not seem to notice that he had practically denied any knowledge of the mill in his previous answer. Scott smiled to himself.

They walked in silence for a few minutes. Scott knew they must recognize their Forest Service uniforms when they came to the camp fire, even if they had not already done so, and he was trying to think of some way of accounting for them without arousing suspicion. He finally hit upon a plan which he thought might work.

“We tried to get a boat over from Pensacola,” he said, “but could not find any. So we came over on the train and tried to make it cross country. There did not seem to be any direct way of getting here.” He thought that he could see the man relax a little as though relieved by the information.

“Yonder is our camp fire,” the man said, with a shade of cordiality creeping into his voice. “Better come over and have a cup of coffee.”

Scott knew that they were playing with fire, but he did not see any way out of it. They had neither tents nor provisions with them and were counting on getting back to the bateau and out of the country before morning. He decided to accept the invitation in the hope that he could think up later an excuse for getting away.

“Thanks,” he said, “we’ll sit down for a minute anyway. Walking through this sand is pretty tiresome business.”

The camp fire had burned pretty low but the man tossed on a few pieces of light wood and it immediately flared like a torch. Scott looked curiously around for the tent but there did not seem to be any. It did not seem reasonable that they should be camped there without some means of shelter in a country where rain might be expected any time. The gentle plashing of small waves told him that they were close to the beach of the harbor. Murphy and his companion had observed a complete silence. Each was afraid to talk for fear he would spoil the fairy tale which he knew his friend was building up. But Murphy had been using his eyes and he asked a question now to call Scott’s attention to something which he might not have seen.

“What’s the light out there on the water?”

Scott looked toward the sound of the lapping water and saw a light—the dim light of a lantern—bobbing gently up and down some distance away. He looked inquiringly at the stranger.

“Schooner waiting for lumber, I reckon. She dropped in there this afternoon,” he answered carelessly.

This gave Scott a new idea. He thought that it probably accounted for the men not having any tent. They had come in on the schooner and were expecting some one from the sawmill to meet them. It was not a pleasant discovery to make. He had thought that they had been lucky in meeting these men and getting so much information from them. Now he knew that it was little short of a calamity. Some one might drop in from the mill at any minute now with the story of the scare they had had up there that afternoon and it would not take them long to add two and two together. Their story about coming from Pensacola would be immediately discredited and they would be definitely identified as officers from the National Forest. Not only that, but these fellows would know that they had seen the mill, had come up the canal from the river, and had learned of the source of the logs. It was only a question now of how far these men would go in their own defense and to protect their future business. From the looks of the men Scott thought they would stop at nothing.

“Ought to make a pretty cheap operation for them,” he remarked. He spoke as carelessly as he could, but he kept one ear turned toward the railroad track and listened with all his might. He accepted a cup of coffee and racked his brain while he drank for some excuse to get away from them, and yet he did not want to go till he had found out who the men were who were running that mill. He wanted a chance to talk to Murphy to see if he had recognized any one connected with it. He glanced out toward the light in the harbor and was surprised to find that it had disappeared. Then he noticed that a fog had come in off the water while they had been sitting there and had shut from view everything more than twenty feet away. Scott was rather pleased to see this, as it might give them a better chance to get away in case there was any necessity for it.

The two men seemed to be content to leave things as they were. They seemed to want their guests to think that they were no longer suspicious of them, but Scott noticed that they watched them very closely and seemed to be listening as intently as he for the approach of some one from the direction of the sawmill. Slowly another and unexpected sound worked its way into his consciousness. It came from the direction of the light he had seen in the harbor and was undoubtedly the squeak of some rusty oarlocks. It had never occurred to him that there might be other men on board the schooner and that they might come ashore. The odds were piling up against them. He glanced at Murphy and saw that he, too, had heard it.

If he could have caught Murphy’s eye just then he would have made a dash for it and trusted to the fog to get away. Even while he thought of it the boat grated on the beach. Possibly these men would go down to meet their friends.

“Ready to go out, Jack?” a voice called from the water’s edge.

Neither of the men answered at once. Then the one who had been talking to Scott spoke up quietly: “Not yet, come on over to the fire.”

Scott knew now that they were virtually prisoners. These men intended to keep them right where they were till the messenger or whoever it was came from the mill and helped them to decide whether it was safe to turn them loose after what they had found out. He knew very well what the decision would be, but there was no way out of it now. They could fight about as well one time as another and he decided to stay and see what would happen. It would at least give them a chance to identify some one from the mill and possibly learn something more about this mysterious crew.

Murphy evidently thought that the time for action had arrived or was rapidly approaching. He kept Scott in the corner of his eye all the time now to catch any possible signal and toyed absent-mindedly with the flap of his holster. The man beside him was watching his every motion with his own rifle resting conveniently across his knees and his fingers toying with the trigger guard. It was evidently a case of armed truce all around.

They could hear the other men approaching through the wire grass and they soon stepped out into the firelight. There they stopped and gazed curiously at the unexpected guests. Then they looked inquiringly at the man called Jack.

“Couple of fellows from Pensacola,” he explained, “who have come over here to inspect the harbor. They was lost up here on the right-of-way when we found ’em.”

Scott nodded as pleasantly as he could in acknowledgment of the introduction, but Murphy only stared at them sullenly. The two newcomers took their places around the fire and they all sat in silence—waiting. The fog had thickened about them till they could see nothing outside the immediate circle of the firelight; the call of the cat owls still came to them faintly from the distant swamp and the waves lapped on the beach with a melancholy monotony which was getting on Scott’s nerves. He was beginning to wish that something would happen just to break the tension.

Then it came. There was a crunching of heavy boots in the sand and a figure loomed suddenly up out of the fog close on them. He was evidently somewhat dazzled by the firelight and did not notice that there were strangers present.

“Couldn’t make it any sooner, boys,” he apologized. “One of the cars got off the track and we had to unload the lumber to get back on, but they are started now and will be here before long.”

Scott had recognized him the instant he spoke as the superintendent of the turpentine camp.


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