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CHAPTER XIV

Scott waited till they had disappeared in the fog and then followed cautiously. Suddenly an idea came to him that made the cold chills run up his back. What if they should go over past Murphy and Murphy should mistake them for him? If they would just keep on talking it might be all right, but if they walked in silence Murphy would be almost certain to hail them.

He crept up as close behind them as he dared so that if the worst came he would be there to help Murphy. For the second time in his life he sorely regretted that he did not have a gun. If there was trouble, Murphy would probably be shot before he could get near enough to do anything. If he had only taken Murphy’s advice and his pistol he could at least cause a diversion even if he could not hit anything.

Joe had turned off to follow the track to the camp but the rest of them went steadily on down the beach directly toward Murphy. They had apparently exhausted their ideas in the talk around the camp fire for they had fallen silent now, just what Scott had dreaded. He thought they must be pretty close to Murphy now and he expected every instant to hear his voice. If they would only say something. A sudden inspiration came to him and he deliberately kicked a tree he was passing and stopped behind it. He was listening breathlessly.

“What was that?” Qualley asked in a quiet voice. “Did you hear anything?”

There was a pause and then Roberts answered, “Yes, I heard it. Must have been a pine cone dropping or those cowards out there on the schooner locking their back door.”

Scott heaved a sigh of relief. Certainly Murphy must have heard that if he was not asleep. It was not likely that a man would go to sleep under those circumstances, but the idea worried Scott and he knew that he could not feel comfortable again till he had joined Murphy and put him wise to the situation. It had never occurred to him before he left Murphy that there might be some one else wandering around there and they had not arranged any signals for recognition.

They were all moving again now and he felt certain that they must have passed the place where he had left Murphy. He stopped and listened in silence till long after all sound of the rest of them had died away in the distance. He waited a moment longer and then hissed cautiously. The response was so immediate and so close that he almost jumped out of his skin.

“Begorra,” Murphy exclaimed in a relieved tone as he stepped out from behind a tree close beside Scott, “that’s the first time I ever pointed a loaded gun at a friend, but you been looking down the barrel of my old Luger for the last five minutes and didn’t know it. If you had not made some signal or something pretty quick I’d have blown up.”

“Gee!” Scott exclaimed, grasping Murphy’s hand and sitting suddenly on the ground, “I think I would have felt better if you had shot me. I have been so afraid you would hail those other fellows when they came along that it has just about made me sick. I feel as limp as a dishrag.”

“I came mighty near doing just that thing, too,” Murphy replied cheerfully. “I had my mouth all puckered up to ask you what had kept you so long when one of them spoke. I was already sitting down or I would have dropped same as you did.”

“I was wishing mighty hard that I had taken your pistol as you wanted me to. I saw my mistake when I discovered that those fellows might run on to you here in the dark, shoot you and have it all over before I could ever get near enough to them to do anything.”

“Pretty handy thing to have when you are dealing with a bunch like that,” Murphy said. “But tell me all about it. Where have you been all this time and what happened? Where are those guys going?”

Scott thought a second. “It’s a pretty long story but I guess this is as good a place to tell it as any unless we want to hurry on after those fellows and get ourselves shot.” He went on to tell Murphy all that he had overheard at the camp fire, how their retreat was already cut off from the canal, and how those men who had just passed were on their way to head them off and shoot them if they attempted to make their way around the head of the swamp. When he mentioned Qualley’s name Murphy almost cried aloud.

“To think of the hours that old scoundrel has sat down there in the brush with me and watched to see if he could catch himself stealing logs out of that pond!” Murphy exclaimed angrily. “If I ever catch up with him I’ll punch his head for that if it is my last act.”

“Now the question for us to decide,” Scott said thoughtfully, “is what we are going to do? How are we going to get out of this place? We have been two years getting in here and it looks as though we might be a long time getting out.”

Murphy thought about it for a moment. “We might go west from here instead of east as they expect us to and then go north cross-country till we strike the main line railroad. It would be a long way around and I do not know anything about that country. No telling how many swamps we would get tangled up in or whom we might meet on the way, but it ought to be fairly safe.”

“I thought of the possibility of that,” Scott replied. “Of course, they do not know that we know anything about their plan to head us off. They know that we do not know much about this country here and will not know that we are going across a narrow little neck of land where they cannot miss us. They did not seem to think of the possibility of our going around the other way; maybe it was because you cannot get around that way. At any rate it would take us a long time and the plan does not appeal to me much. I am in favor of having a look at the swamp and seeing if we cannot figure out some way of getting across it.”

“Let’s try it,” Murphy exclaimed enthusiastically, “even if we can’t make it, it will be shorter to wait till they go home than to make a trip around the world as we would have to do if we went west. They only planned to wait for us till to-morrow night.”

So they decided to follow the beach down to the edge of the swamp and try it. They started down the beach, moving rather cautiously and stopping to listen every few minutes, for they did not know that the other men had not stopped along there somewhere and they did not care to run on to them unexpectedly. Scott glanced at his wrist watch. The little luminous hands pointed to half-past eleven. The fog was beginning to fade away. Before they had gone very far the night was clear once more and it seemed almost as light as day.

“That fog must have come on for our special benefit,” Scott whispered. They had become so accustomed to whispering that they did not seem to be able to stop it.

They thought they were a little too conspicuous on the open beach and turned back into the edge of the woods where they could see everything on the beach without being seen. The soil was so sandy and the ground so free from underbrush that they made very little noise. What little breeze there was was blowing in their faces.

Suddenly they caught sight of a moving object in the woods ahead of them. They stopped instantly and watched it with bated breath. They could not quite make it out, but it was moving towards the beach and they knew they would soon have a look at it in the moonlight of the open. Whatever it was it did not seem to be in any hurry. It moved jerkily and stopped so long sometimes that they almost lost track of it. It looked like a man crouching and sneaking along as though stalking something. If it had been coming in their direction they would have been badly worried, and even as it was Murphy had examined his rifle two or three times to make sure that it was in working condition.

When it finally stepped out into the moonlight they looked at each other with a sigh of relief. It was a doe and she seemed wholly unconscious of the presence of any enemy. She walked leisurely and sedately enough until she came to the edge of the water and then the moonlight seemed to go to her head. She twitched her white tail once or twice and suddenly began cavorting around like a calf at play. She pranced aimlessly this way and that, tossing her head and kicking up her heels till the shallow water shone in the moonlight like a shimmering puddle of fire. It was the first time Scott had ever seen the phosphorescent sparkle of salt water and it seemed to him like magic or some fairy business. Every time her slender legs cut the still water they left a trail of flame. It was a wonderful exhibition of unconscious grace and even the practical Murphy looked on in silent admiration.

At last one of her sudden dashes took her to leeward of them and she caught the man-scent. One sniff was enough. She did not stop to investigate further. With flag erect and head held high she seemed to rise from the water like a bird and a couple of wonderful bounds carried her quickly into the protecting shadows of the forest. They could hear her going for a moment and then a clear, sharp, whistling snort from far back in the woods told them that she had stopped to see if she were followed. Another snort and a snapping of dead branches showed that she was not yet satisfied with the distance between them.

“Must smell pretty bad to her,” Scott laughed. “Did you ever see anything prettier than that?”

“If it had not been for those fellows out there in the brush, and if it were not out of season she would have come in awful handy for a midnight lunch. It seems to me like a hundred years since I had anything to eat.”

“If you had taken a shot at her it might have been more than a hundred years before you would have eaten again,” Scott retorted in disgust. He could not understand how a man could look at such a sight as that and think only of shooting. “There is no telling how close we may be to that bunch.”

They had covered about three miles when the pine woods ended abruptly at a little creek and beyond it was a black and forbidding swamp. The undergrowth was dense and tangled and under it they could catch the gleam of the moonlight in the water.

“Gee!” Murphy exclaimed, “I’d hate to tackle that place in the dark. Looks as though it might be a pretty hopeless proposition even in the daytime.”

The prospect was, indeed, discouraging. They had no idea how wide the swamp might be or how deep the water might be in parts of it. Some of those swamps were easy wading, not more than three feet deep, but in others there was as much as ten or twelve feet of water. Scott sized it up as best he could and came to the conclusion that a passage through it at night would be impossible and he doubted very much if the daylight would be a very big help.

He glanced thoughtfully out across the calm and shining waters of the bay. “How far can you swim, Murphy?” he asked suddenly.

“Quite a ways down if the water is deep enough,” Murphy retorted, “but I don’t make much progress ahead.”

“Can’t you swim at all?” Scott asked incredulously.

“No more than a stone. Why, were you thinking of swimming to town?”

“No, not quite that, but I was wondering how far it was to that lighthouse out there. Maybe we could get a boat from them.”

Murphy looked at the winking light in dismay. “Well, it’s pretty hard to judge distance across the water, but I should say that light was at least four or five miles out. No, it would be considerably quicker for me to wait till to-morrow night when those fellows will have left for their retreat in the swamp.”

“We might not gain very much time in going across there,” Scott admitted, “but to tell the truth I do not like the prospect of going up around the head of this swamp and across that narrow neck of land even after to-morrow night. Those fellows may change their minds and decide to stay there a little longer. They would hate to lose us and they might decide to stay a little longer or leave Qualley there to watch another day or so. I don’t so much mind a danger I can see, but I hate to have somebody hanging around in the bushes watching me. At any rate, I don’t suppose that a day or so would make much difference to us. We know where they are going to hide and we could find them there next week just as well as now.”

“Guess that’s right,” Murphy replied slowly, “but if there is any chance of our staying here for two or three days I am going back there now and take a shot at that deer no matter who may hear it. They say the buds of these palmettoes are good to eat but I never thought much of them.”

Scott had a sudden inspiration. “I have it!” he exclaimed. “There must be a hard strip of beach along the edge of that swamp. The tide would build it up there in spite of the swamp. I’ll bet they never thought of that.”

They both ran eagerly forward and waded the creek. It was not more than knee-deep. They were about in the middle of the stream when Murphy looked nervously over his shoulder toward the dark woods behind them. “I wonder if this is the narrow neck they were going to wait for us to cross?” he questioned.

It was an unpleasant thought and they both ran a little faster. Scott was involuntarily writhing his body back and forth as though he could already feel the bullet in his back. Murphy evidently felt the same way about it and his Irish philosophy expressed Scott’s thoughts exactly.

“I wonder why it is,” he soliloquized as he ducked back and forth, “that a fellow would always so much rather be shot some place else than the place where he thinks he is going to be?”

Scott was too busy to answer him. They would not have had nearly so far to wade if they had gone down on to the beach before they took to the water, but they had been so eager to test out their new idea that they had jumped right in up there in the woods. The swamp was opposite them there and they had to wade down till they came to the beach. Murphy’s suggestion that this might be the spot where their enemy was waiting for them had disturbed them so that they were both running through the water now and wondering how they ever got so far away from the beach.

They almost shouted when they rounded the farthest projection of the swamp brush and saw a broad, smooth beach stretching out before them. It seemed too good to be true. They made a mad dash toward it to put that point of brush between them and the imaginary rifles they had conjured up behind them.

Scott reached it first and fell sprawling on his face. He thought for an instant that he had been shot, but he had not heard anything and it felt more as though some one had caught his foot. He had not yet realized what had happened when Murphy landed beside him with a grunt. He put out his hands to lift himself up and gasped with astonishment when he saw them disappear in the smooth sand. His feet seemed to be caught under something and he pushed up his body with his arms to investigate. He was yanked unceremoniously back on to his face. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Murphy go through almost the same contortions.

Thoroughly frightened now he pulled viciously at one hand. It came slowly and heavily from the reluctant sand. Then something seemed to give way in his head. “Quicksand!” he shrieked, and began to struggle with the frenzy of madness.


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