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CHAPTER XVI
In the meanwhile nothing had occurred to put Qualley and Roberts to sleep. They had followed the beach for only a short distance after passing Murphy and had then turned off into the swamp on a deer trail with which they were familiar. Progress was slow in the darkness of the swamp and the rough going did not better their already ragged tempers. Each was absorbed in his own brooding and there was no talking with the exception of frequent angry exclamations when some one of the party tripped over a hidden stick or root. They were all in an ugly mood, especially Roberts, whose disposition was never very pleasant.

The trail bore away to the northeast and headed for the upper end of the swamp which cut back into the forest from the beach like a big bay. The trail soon lead them across that narrow neck of swamp and out on to an open pine ridge which bordered the big swamp to the east of it. At the point where the trail struck it the ridge was two or three miles wide, but it narrowed rapidly to the northward and terminated three miles inland in a very narrow neck not more than a hundred yards wide between two very dense swamps.

This was the place where they confidently expected to catch Scott and Murphy. Roberts looked at the narrow strip of open pine woods, almost free from underbrush, with a grunt of satisfaction.

“Not much cover for them there,” he growled. “A rabbit could not get across there to-night without our seeing it. Unless they get suspicious and go west on the beach they are ours.”

“Of course,” Qualley replied thoughtfully, “as I said a while ago, there is a possibility that they may go west or try to go north, but I don’t think they will. They probably think that they can travel as fast or faster than we can and would take advantage of the lead they had to beat it straight down the beach for town. They do not know that the swamp is there and when they come to it they will naturally try to get around the end of it. That means about three miles down the beach for them and about five up here if they follow the edge of the swamp. They do not know that this is the only way through, so why should they try to avoid it?”

“Well, let’s get ready for them. They’ll be dropping in on us first thing we know and catch us blabbing here. I’ll take this clump of brush on the edge of the swamp, and Bob and Jim can hide over there on the other side. You can go down just beyond there in that bunch of palmetto and if by any possibility I should miss ’em you would be sure of them.”

Roberts suggested this arrangement because he feared that Qualley, who he thought was not known to be implicated in the crime, might be loath to shoot these innocent men. He had no such scruples himself and wanted a position where he would have the best chance at them.

Qualley raised no objection and they all separated in silence to take up their assigned posts. In about an hour, they figured, their victims ought to be putting in an appearance if they were coming at all. Qualley was apparently dozing comfortably in his clump of palmetto and the two hired men whispered cheerfully enough behind their brush screen. To Roberts alone, burning up as he was with a combination of hatred and fear, the minutes seemed to drag insufferably. He glanced nervously at his watch every few minutes and eagerly stared at the first projection on the edge of the swamp where he expected his victims to appear. As the time he had estimated for their arrival grew nearer, it was all that he could do to keep from crawling out of his hiding place and sneaking down to that point to see if they might not be hiding just around the corner.

More than an hour had passed and still they did not come. Roberts became as restless as a caged tiger. The owls had ceased their weird concert back in the swamp and there was nothing to break the stillness of the night save the never-absent small noises of the night. If only the wind would blow, or a tree drop or anything to break that nerve-racking monotony. Roberts moved irritably from one cramped position to another and still the tardy hours dragged wearily by without any change. Only the moon turned in her course and started the shadows slanting in another direction.

And yet they had not come. A certain chill crept into the air, a forewarning of the break of day. It was the hour when the pulse of the world is at the ebb, when sick men sometimes fail to catch the flood and are stranded in the great Beyond. No man can sit through it in the woods at night and not feel a certain awe, close akin to fear. Roberts felt it. All criminals are superstitious and with the turning of that tide he felt convinced that fate had turned against him. His prey had escaped him and with their escape every hour lessened the chances of his opportunity to enjoy the benefits of his stolen wealth. The possibility of spending the greater part of the remainder of his life in a penitentiary, just when he had acquired the means to enjoy himself, was almost maddening.

The first sudden streak of the southern dawn shot out across the eastern sky and Roberts could stand it no longer. With one last lingering look at that long-watched point he crept from his hiding place and sneaked cautiously back with many a nervous glance over his shoulder to the place where Qualley was stationed.

“Let’s leave the boys here to watch this place and go back to the beach,” he whispered. “Maybe we can track them now in the daylight.”

“Well, if you want to risk it,” Qualley assented, a little reluctantly, “but they have about an equal chance of seeing us first. If they have gone west they have gone so far that we cannot catch them and if they go any other way they must either come here or go up past Mike so I do not see what you will gain, but if you want to go I’m game.”

“We’ll at least know where they did go,” Roberts replied irritably. “Anything is better than waiting here doing nothing.”

Qualley had just risen from his cozy nest and stretched himself when he suddenly grabbed Roberts’ arm and they both dropped quickly back into the shelter of the brush. A man could be very distinctly seen slipping along the edge of the swamp towards them.

Roberts gave a grunt of satisfaction and pushed over the safety on his revolver. “Let me take him,” he hissed.

“All right,” Qualley replied, “but let him get closer. There will be less chance to miss, and besides the other fellow is not in sight yet and you’ll scare him off.”

They waited breathlessly while the man came slowly forward, slipping along from clump to clump and apparently wholly unconscious of their presence. Roberts was so eager to shoot that only constant warnings from Qualley prevented him from taking a shot even at the risk of losing the other man. At last the figure had reached a point almost opposite them on the edge of the swamp. He stepped out into the open an instant and looked about him. He was not more than thirty yards away.

Roberts raised his pistol and aimed quickly. It was an easy shot and not much chance to miss. Just as he fired Qualley shouted and struck up the weapon. The suddenness of the blow knocked the pistol out of Roberts’ hand and the bullet whined harmlessly through the treetops.

Roberts turned savagely upon Qualley with the snarl of a wounded tiger. “Double cross me, will you?” he gasped, snatching at his knife.

“Double cross nothing,” Qualley answered quietly. “Another instant and you would have shot Joe.”

Sure enough it was Joe bringing the rifle from the camp as he had been ordered to do and he was not slow in making himself known when he heard the shot. They had both forgotten all about him.

“Well, I guess that will be sufficient warning to the other fellows,” Qualley remarked after a satisfactory explanation had been made to Joe. “There is not much use in hanging around here any longer now. If they had not started west before that they probably are making pretty good time in that direction now.”

Roberts was too much chagrined to have any reply. He pushed his revolver into his holster with disgust and took his rifle from Joe.

“There is nothing to do now, I suppose,” he grumbled, “except to go down to the beach and see where they did go. I am at least going to have that satisfaction before I sneak off into any hiding place.”

“I’ll go with you,” Qualley agreed. “I’d like to see where they went myself and there is the bare possibility that they have spent the night down there on the beach and were too far off to hear that shot. Joe, you and the other boys watch this pass till we get back.”

There did not seem to be much need for caution now, but they moved rather carefully and scouted the ground pretty thoroughly before they rounded any corners. They hardly expected to find the boys traveling that way in the daytime, but they were not taking any chances on meeting them unexpectedly. When they came to the cut-off trail they had not yet seen any tracks except their own.

“Want to take the trail or follow the edge of the swamp?” Qualley asked.

“Let’s follow the trail,” Roberts growled. He could feel his chances slipping away from him and it made him surly.

They traveled faster now, for there was not much chance of meeting any one in that direction and soon came out of the swamp on to the beach. It was easy to read the signs on the smooth sands of the beach and a glance showed them two tracks going east. They searched more carefully. There were none coming back.

“Must be somewhere between here and the neck,” Qualley said; “there is no possible way out unless they found a boat. I never heard of any one going through that swamp.”

“Not a chance,” Roberts exclaimed with rising spirits, “we’ll get ’em yet.”

The trail was plain enough on the open beach, but it had them worried a little when it turned back into the edge of the forest. It looked as though they might have changed their minds and decided to circle back to the west.

“Wonder if something scared them out?” Roberts asked anxiously, as they searched for the trail in the forest. The anxiety was of short duration, for they soon picked up some tracks in the palmetto scrub and when they had learned its general direction they had no trouble in following the trail.

Qualley guessed the reason for the digression into the forest pretty closely. “Thought they would be less conspicuous in here and might lose us for a while,” he explained. “It would have worked all right last night and caused us considerable delay, at least if we had been hard on their trail as they probably thought we were. Rather clever of them. They make it a little hard for us yet.”

But Roberts was not to be discouraged. He had been down in the dumps a short time before and could see nothing ahead of him but an uncomfortable cell in the penitentiary or an almost equally unpleasant life in a dismal hiding place; now he felt sure of his prey and was in a triumphant mood.

“I would not give them much for their chances,” he retorted grimly, and hastened his pace on the uncertain trail. “In half an hour our worries will be over.”

And it certainly looked as though he was right, for the palmetto scrub had given way to a stretch of open sand and the trail lay clear before them, leading straight to the sleeping men on the beach less than a quarter of a mile away.



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