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CHAPTER XVII
Scott awoke in the morning with the sun shining full in his face. He had been so dead to the world that it was hard for him to realize where he was and how he came to be sleeping on the open beach with the waves of the rising tide lapping the sands within a few feet of him. Suddenly the events of the night before came to him and a feeling of horror crept over him when he realized what a risk they had run by exposing themselves in that way right in the enemy’s country.

“Good thing they waited for us instead of coming to look for us,” he thought, as he sat up to reconnoiter. His first glance was down the beach in the direction from which they had come. A chill ran over him that seemed to leave him paralyzed; he just stared. Then he rubbed his eyes to see if he was really awake. It seemed like the continuation of a dream which had been haunting him for a good part of the night.

There were Roberts and Qualley not over two hundred yards away and walking rapidly straight toward them. With the realization that was far from a dream, that these men were only too real and were hastening forward on his trail now eager with the hope of getting a shot at him, Scott came to life with a violent jerk. In two more minutes they could not help seeing him if, indeed, they had not discovered him already.

He formed his plan instantly. There seemed to be only one chance. Flattening himself as close to the sand as possible to escape notice, he reached out quickly and shook Murphy’s shoulder at the same time warning him not to move or speak. Murphy was a light sleeper and he was wide awake the instant Scott touched him, wide enough awake to take in his meaning at once. He simply looked at Scott inquiringly without moving his head or body at all.

“They are after us, Murphy. They are on our trail and not more than a few rods away. Our only chance is to try to slip into the creek without being seen and hide in the bushes over there in the swamp. Careful now, but hurry.”

Murphy took a hasty peek at the two men and felt for his gun. The holster was empty and his face fell. He had pretended to Scott that he had lost it in the quicksand, but he did not know that he had. He had been inclined to fight when he saw that there were only two men in the approaching party, but now there was no chance. He twisted sullenly about on the sand and wriggled down the gentle incline after Scott, who was already headed for the creek alligator fashion. It was uncomfortable business, for they had seen their enemies so clearly that it was hard to realize that they had not been seen. They rather expected to hear the crack of a rifle any minute.

They slid quietly into the water and made for the opposite shore, or rather the opposite rim of brush, for there was no shore there. Scott swam under water and managed to make shelter without coming to the surface. Murphy could not do that, but he held his breath and crawled on the bottom as fast as he could. He had to come up for air, but he stuck only his nose out of water like a hunted loon, and was able to take his next breath in the shelter of a titi bush. They hastily selected a dense bush just beyond for a hiding place and worked their way to it carefully. Fortunately for them the bottom of the swamp was sandy or a trail of muddy water might have betrayed them. They were no farther away from the shore than that. They submerged themselves to their eyes and waited.

“Ought not to have any trouble in keeping cool here,” Murphy whispered with his usual humor. No matter how glum Murphy was feeling, danger immediately brought his wit to his rescue.

They could look out through the small openings in the bush without much danger of being seen. The men were so close that Scott could see the expression on their faces. He could see that Roberts, who was eagerly setting the pace a little way ahead of his companion, was triumphant now and sure that the fight was won. He could even see the ugly cut on Roberts’ lip and how he longed for the opportunity to put another one beside it.

The men had reached the edge of the creek now a little ways above, at the point where the boys had taken to the water the night before in their eagerness to reach those quicksands. They heard a burst of profanity from Roberts. “Taken to the water like a couple of foxes,” he exclaimed angrily. His eye wandered down the bank of the creek and was quick to catch the tracks in the sand where the boys had slept. Roberts almost ran in his eagerness. Qualley walked slowly and thoughtfully, looking for other signs.

Both men stared for a long time at that peculiar-looking conglomeration of tracks with puzzled faces. They could not understand the peculiar trail the boys had made when they had wriggled down into the creek a few minutes before. Scott thanked heaven that there was no way to tell in that dry sand how recently those marks had been made.

Qualley squatted down and examined every detail carefully. “That is evidently where they slept,” he said, pointing to the impressions of the outstretched figures. “I think I know what they did. They went over there and tackled that quicksand and got stuck. They managed to get out of it and came over here on the beach to rest up and decide what they were going to do next. But blessed if I can figure out what they were doing there,” and he pointed to the peculiar slides. He arose suddenly and looked out toward the cape. “Don’t suppose they could have built a raft and made the cape, do you?” he asked, as though questioning himself.

“No signs of their having built one here,” Roberts replied, “but it looks as though they had pulled something into the water. Might have been an old plank, but that would have been water-logged and would not float.”

Qualley turned thoughtfully from the cape and fixed his gaze absent-mindedly on the very bunch of brush behind which the boys were hiding. It seemed to them that he must see them and they both involuntarily sank a little deeper into the water. Between the excitement and the chill of the swamp water their teeth were chattering so that they were afraid it would be heard clear across the creek.

Qualley shook his head slowly. “No, there is only one thing that they could have done; they must have tried to cross the swamp. We can see plain enough that they were here and there are no tracks leading away from here. They did not build a raft and Murphy can’t swim, so there is nothing left but the swamp. Well, I wish them joy of their trip.”

Roberts hated to give in. “There is not much chance of their getting across, but I wish we knew what had happened to them so that we would not be in suspense so long. It will be a week before we can be sure that they did not get away. Possibly they got foxy and followed up the edge of the creek a ways to shake us off the trail.”

“We can soon find that out,” Qualley replied; “we can follow the edge of the swamp up to where the others are waiting and see whether we can pick up any tracks. They could not have passed us that way in the night or we would have heard them. Nothing could move through that brush without making an awful racket, especially at night.”

“If we don’t find anything,” Roberts grumbled, “I suppose it will be up to us to beat it for that cursed cabin and wait to see what happens.”

“Yes,” Qualley said indifferently, “it would not be safe to put it off much longer. I’ll keep a watch out for them around here for a while longer to make sure that they do not come back out of the swamp and then go back to the camp and wait to see if they get back there. If they show up I’ll let you know at once. If they have not come through by the end of a week it will probably be safe to get back to work again.”

When Qualley said that he would watch a while to see that they did not come back the boys’ hearts sank, for they knew that they could not hold out in that cold water much longer, and, as Qualley had said, no one could move in that swamp without making a racket which could easily be heard by any one listening on the other side of the creek. They looked at each other with a sigh of relief when the two men turned and walked off up the edge of the creek together.

They waited breathlessly till they saw the men round a point some distance away with their eyes on the ground watching for any telltale signs. “Well, now what shall we do?” Murphy whispered between his chattering teeth.

“I’ve got to get out of here and get warm before I can even think,” Scott replied. His lips were blue and he was shivering so that he could hardly talk. “I wonder if we could not find a log or something over there on that quicksand where we could get in the sun without being in plain sight of any one who came along?”

They waded over toward the quicksand, feeling their way cautiously and expecting every minute to feel the sand giving way beneath them. A large tree which had fallen with its stump on the solid ground and its top buried in the quicksand offered them just the kind of place they wanted. They crawled quickly on to the fallen trunk and then eagerly out into the sunlight.

“Gee! doesn’t that sun feel fine?” Murphy chattered. “I wish we dared to build a fire. I don’t feel as though I could ever get warm clear through again.”

Of course they did not dare to build a fire and were obliged to content themselves with sitting in the sunlight and beating themselves with their arms to try to stimulate their tardy circulations. It was about a quarter of an hour before their teeth ceased to chatter and they began to feel at all comfortable.

“Now then,” Scott said, basking flat on the log so that he could soak up as much warmth as possible, “which shall it be? Wait here till dark and then try to run the gauntlet up around that neck they have been watching, make a break now to the west and take a chance on getting away before Qualley comes back, or have a try at crossing this swamp?”

Murphy threw a disgusted look at the cold swamp in which he had been soaking for the last half-hour and showed very clearly that no matter what he might think of any of the other schemes he would prefer anything to any more wading. “Gosh!” he exclaimed suddenly with so much feeling that Scott straightened up to see what had happened, “I’d sure hate to be an alligator. Don’t like that plan of going up around that neck much better either. No telling how long they might leave a guard hanging around up there. I’m for a break to the west. There would not be so much uncertainty about that. We’d either make it, or we wouldn’t,” he added with a shrug.

“Might try Qualley’s raft scheme,” Scott suggested.

“Nothing doing!” Murphy exclaimed emphatically. “That would be worse than trying the neck. It would take us hours to float across there and Qualley might come back and practice some long-distance target shooting on us for an hour or so. Even if he missed us he could go around to the head of the cape and catch us when we came out. No, that does not appeal to me.”

As a matter of fact it did not appeal to Scott either. Like Murphy he was in favor of staking everything on a dash to the west. If Qualley did not happen to see them right at the start they would be comparatively safe for the rest of the way. He had wanted to try the swamp till he had found how cold the water could get, now he felt that he would very much prefer being shot.

“All right, then,” he agreed, “let’s make a break for it. We ought to hunt up a log like this or something of the sort where we could get out of here without leaving a trail right on the edge of it, and we better work our way up to that point so that we can see that no one is right on hand to see us start.”

Now that they had decided what to do it seemed as though it was already half done, and they began to feel a great deal more hopeful. They almost forgot that they had been half frozen a little while before, but the thought of wading ashore now reminded them of it. How they hated to get off that log into the cold water.

“Are we ready?” Scott asked, preparing to slide from the log.

“Sure,” Murphy replied cheerfully. “I’d feel a little more like it if I had something to eat, but I guess I can make it.”

They slid quietly off the log into the water and made their way cautiously back toward the creek, keeping a sharp lookout for any one who might have come back to have a last look for them. There was no one in sight on the beach. Keeping just inside the brush on the edge of the swamp, they worked their way up to the point where Qualley and Roberts had disappeared a while before. They could see for quite a distance here and the coast seemed clear.

They could not find any log which would take them out of the creek on the opposite side and clear of the bank, but they selected a large clump of bunch grass for a landing place, took one more look to make sure that no one was watching, and made a dash for it. It seemed to Scott that he had been putting in most of his time lately tearing around the country with the expectation of being shot in the back. They half expected it now. Scott stepped on a stick which broke with a loud crack and Murphy jumped three feet in the air.

“Begorra, I thought they had me that time!” he grumbled as he ran the faster. “I wonder if it would really feel as mean to be shot in the back as a fellow thinks it would?”

“Shut up,” Scott growled. “Think of something pleasant to say, can’t you?”

They had not realized how thin that pine woods was till they tried to hide themselves in it. It seemed as though you could see through it for half a mile. They had run all of that before they felt at all safe and sat down on a log to catch their breath.

“Well, we have passed the worst of it,” Scott panted, “but I’ll feel a lot better when we have crossed that railroad and gotten into a country where we are not likely to run into any one who will be looking for us. It would be just our luck to meet some one on that railroad track.”

They were anxious to have the suspense over and soon started again, traveling in the edge of the woods where they could keep an eye on the beach. They crossed the trail the men had taken the night before and were soon in sight of the track. They reconnoitered before they ventured into the open, but the place seemed completely deserted. The schooner was gone and the bay was empty. They listened a long time, but could hear nothing save the monotonous lapping of the water on the beach.

“Guess it’s all right,” Murphy remarked, walking out into the open. He made his way straight for the old camp fire and began hunting around it as though he had lost something the night before.

“What did you lose?” Scott asked.

“Nothing, I was only hoping that they had lost something to eat here. If I had that deer we saw last night I could chew a leg off her. When did we have anything to eat last, anyway?”

It was a long time since they had had any food and the sight of the empty tin cans around the fire made it seem even longer. They could not find so much as a scrap of bread.

“Cheer up, Murphy,” Scott exclaimed, “we are going into a new country now and we may find a house in the first fifty miles or so. Who knows?”


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