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CHAPTER XIII

In the meanwhile Scott was moving cautiously along the beach in the direction of the camp fire. The fog had grown denser and he had to rely on his hearing for anything more than a few feet from him. The moon was completely blotted out but there was very little chance of going astray with the water lapping the beach on one side of him and the camp fire showing as a dull blur ahead. When he stumbled on to the railroad track he stopped and listened intently for a long time. He always had a dread of some one slipping up behind him and felt much safer if he was sure that all his enemies were ahead of him. He did not know how many men there were at the mill or how many had come down with the lumber, and there was always the possibility that some more might come straggling in from that direction.

He caught no sound save the weird screeching of the cat owls back in the swamp and crept on toward the growing light of the camp fire. He was close enough now to catch the blur of shadows passing between him and the fire and hear the rumble of sullen voices. He remembered seeing a clump of brush a little way from the fire on the side away from the beach and decided that his best chance would be to circle around inland and crawl up behind it. There was little chance of detection unless he should run on to one of those stragglers whom he so much dreaded, for the fog was dense enough to pretty well conceal anything outside of the immediate circle of the firelight.

His feet made no sound in the soft sand, but he had to move very cautiously to avoid the chance of striking a dead stick or a tin can. He was so close to them now that the slightest sound might give him away. He had completed his circle and was crawling slowly forward toward the clump of bushes when his heart seemed suddenly to stop beating and he stood frozen in his tracks. The black stub not more than six feet away and on which he had been directing his course had moved.

Had it really moved or was it another case of a waving palm leaf like the one which had fooled them back in the cemetery? He waited, hardly daring to breathe to see whether it would move again. He had a harrowing suspicion that it might be a man who had been watching him and was preparing to spring upon him as soon as he came within range. He argued that it could not be a man, for one of these men would shoot on sight and not wait to come to close quarters; they had probably had enough of that. But he might not be sure whether it was friend or foe and be waiting on that account.

The suspense was frightful, and it seemed to him that he had been crouching in that same cramped position for hours. He had just about decided that he had again been fooled by a stump when the object moved again. His first instinct was to lie flat on the ground to avoid detection, but he realized that that would put him in an utterly helpless position and he decided to wait as he was and be ready for anything. Unless the man did shoot he would stand a very good show of dodging him and losing himself in the fog.

The man came so close that Scott could almost have reached out and touched him. Every muscle in his body was as tense as a steel spring and he could hardly hold himself, it seemed so certain that the only sensible thing to do was to strike first and save himself. The figure passed slowly by and took its place in the sullen circle around the fire. Scott heaved a great sigh of relief and moved a little nearer. He felt that he had to get close enough to recognize the speakers and hear distinctly what was said or he would have accomplished very little by his eavesdropping.

At last he reached his little clump of bushes and peeped cautiously through them at the council of war which was sitting so close before him. They had piled the fire high with driftwood and Scott could make out the faces quite distinctly. He had no trouble in recognizing the five with whom they had fought a few minutes before, but there were four others there now. Evidently they were the men who had brought down the lumber cars. Two of them were sitting with their backs to him. Roberts seemed to be the leader of the gang. He was standing on the opposite side of the fire facing Scott and the others were apparently looking to him for orders. He was staring silently at the fire now with an expression of bitter hatred and Scott noticed with satisfaction that his lower lip was cut and bleeding.

Suddenly he raised his head and glared fiercely around the circle. “We’ve got to get ’em, I tell you. If they ever get back to town or headquarters with that story our business will be cooked and we’ll be more than likely to go to the pen. What good will all the money we’ve made do us then? They can’t get away from us if we keep our eyes open. They don’t know the country well enough to travel it very fast and Mike would get back to the canal long before they could. They would probably try to go that way because they have their boat right there somewhere—the boy saw them this afternoon. If they try to go the other way they don’t know the road. They would follow the beach and would have to cut away inland to get around the swamp. We can hide up there at the head of the swamp and pot them dead easy. There is not one chance in a hundred of their getting by us because we know every foot of the country and they don’t. They are in a regular bottle here and there are enough of us here to cover the neck so that a squirrel could not get through.”

“You can count us out on that stuff,” said the man who had been the spokesman there that evening before Roberts arrived and was evidently the skipper of the schooner.

“What’s the matter with you?” Roberts sneered. “You’re about as much interested in this thing as we are. You’ll lose a pretty business if they blow on our game.”

The man shrugged his shoulders. “I came over here to get a load of lumber, not to help murder anybody. If I can’t get a load here I can get one somewhere else. It may not pay quite so big but it will be a lot safer.”

Roberts glared at him angrily for a moment. He had no scruples himself and the probable loss of the tremendous booty he was getting in those stolen logs made him almost beyond himself with rage. He did not dare speak at first because he knew if he did he would surely say something which would very likely turn these men against him and if they wanted to they could do him quite as much harm as the forest officers. He swallowed hard and finally succeeded in getting sufficient control of himself to speak with apparent calmness, but inside he was almost burning up with rage.

“If that is the way you feel about it,” he managed to say quietly, “you better leave now before you know any more about it.”

“Guess you’re about right,” the skipper said, rising slowly and speaking to his men. “Come on, boys, there is not likely to be much more lumber going out of this port.”

“Might as well load on what is already at the dock,” said one of the men who was sitting with his back to Scott.

“No, thank you,” the skipper replied. “I have a hunch that by the time I got to market with that lumber there might be some inquiries about it that would make it hard to sell.”

“Don’t forget that we have a pretty good notion where to find you if there should ever be any need of it,” Roberts called after him as the crew disappeared into the fog in the direction of the boat.

“I’m not likely to brag much about my connection with this end of the business, unless I am forced to,” the skipper called back.

There was the sound of a keel grating on the sand as the men pushed the boat into the water and the splashing of oars told that they were already on their way back to their schooner. For a few moments the men who were left gazed around the fire in silence, listening sullenly to the retreating sound of the oars. They were discouraged by the defection from their ranks, but were, if possible, in an uglier mood than before.

“Chicken-livered scoundrels,” Roberts muttered, breaking the silence. “If they ever peach on us they will have hoisted their last sail. I’d get him if I had the noose around my neck.”

“Can’t hang us for stealing a little lumber,” one of the other men answered rather uncertainly.

“Maybe you better get out of this bunch, too, if you are getting scared,” Roberts sneered, and the man was silent.

“Well,” Roberts continued, “what are we going to do about it? What do you think of it, Qualley?”

At that unexpected name Scott started so violently that he felt sure they had heard him. He could hardly believe his eyes when the man addressed as Qualley arose and he recognized him as the foreman of the logging camp. It seemed incredible that a man could be such a scoundrel as this man seemed to be—stealing on a gigantic scale from the company who employed him. And all the time for the past two years he had been helping Murphy to hunt for the thieves while he helped the thieves to get away with the logs.

From his attitude it was evident that Qualley was a partner in the deal with Roberts. “There is only one thing we can do now,” he said, “get those two fellows before they get away with the news. We have too much at stake to take any chance on them spoiling it all.”

“Then, let’s get busy!” Roberts exclaimed. He rubbed his hand gently over his bleeding lip and seemed to take considerable satisfaction in the prospect of the work ahead of him.

“Hold on a minute,” Qualley said quietly. “I am just as anxious to get busy as you are, but there are one or two things we ought to settle before we start. What are we going to do if they should get away from us?”

“Don’t see any chance for them to get away,” Roberts objected a little nervously.

“No,” Qualley agreed, “it does not seem as though they could, but there is a bare possibility of it and I would like to get it decided now what we are going to do if they do. The government has a mighty long arm and they will be after us pretty hard if they find out about this business. We ought to have some plan.”

“What’s your plan?” Roberts asked. Qualley was evidently the brains of the party and they looked to him for leadership.

“Well,” Qualley replied thoughtfully, “I’ve been thinking it over and I would suggest something like this: if they do get through us and make their way straight back to headquarters they will have to follow the beach, because there is no way for them to get to their boat with Mike up there watching the canal. It will be at least two days before they can get back. Why not lay for them till to-morrow night? If we have not gotten them by that time it will be because they have gotten by somehow. Then we will know what we are up against. You can go way back in the swamp there to that old cabin—the dogs can’t trail you there—and I’ll go back to the logging camp where I can keep my eye on things and maybe help them hunt.”

“What makes you think they will not take you?” Roberts asked in surprise.

“Why should they? They have not seen me and do not know that I have been mixed up in it at all. I have helped Murphy hunt for the timber thieves so much that he will probably tell me all about it; may ask me to help him out. Then I would have a fine chance to lead them astray.”

“How long do you expect us to stay cooped up in that cabin? I’d rather be in the penitentiary than to try to live in that place for the rest of my life, especially if you are out loose and going where you please.” Roberts was not at all satisfied with the arrangement.

“Well, what do you want to do?” Qualley asked indifferently. “Make a run for it if you want to, but I think you will have a good deal better chance if you lay low for a while, say a month or two, and then try it. It may have blown over a little by that time and they may not be watching so close.”

The plan evidently did not appeal to Roberts. It galled him to think that he might be in a trap while Qualley was not even under suspicion. Scott saw the look of sullen craft on his face and thought that he would not give much for Qualley’s chances if Roberts was ever taken. Probably either one of them would cheerfully watch the other hang if he thought it would improve his own chances any.

No one seemed to be able to think of a better scheme and Roberts finally agreed to it grudgingly. “Let’s be going,” he said. “Unless I miss my guess we’ll have both those would-be detectives bagged before to-morrow night and there will not be any need of anybody hiding in the swamp.”

Qualley arose energetically and stretched himself. “I hope you are right and I don’t see why you shouldn’t be. Joe, you go up and tell Mike to stay on the job there watching that canal until he gets further orders. If they get by him it may mean several years in the pen for him, so he better look sharp. The rest of us will take the short cut across the swamp to the neck and you can join us there as soon as you can make it. The four of us ought to be able to cover that swamp so that a rabbit could not get through.”

They moved slowly away toward the track and Scott chuckled when he heard Roberts call to Joe, “Stop at the camp on your way over and bring me a gun. Those scoundrels stole mine.”


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