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CHAPTER XVIII
They were, indeed, going into a new country, that is, a new and strange country to them, but really a very cold country if they were to believe the signs about them. They were scarcely out of sight of the camp-fire site when they stumbled on to the ruins of the old town of St. Joseph. It had evidently been a gay and prosperous place at one time. The outlines of the foundations of huge cotton warehouses were distinctly traceable and the ground was littered with pieces of broken bricks. A little farther on they found a foundation almost half full of broken champagne bottles, and beyond that the oval of a racetrack almost uncanny in its appearance of recent use. There were certain things about it which made it seem as though the place had been suddenly destroyed by an earthquake or other catastrophe only a short time before. It was very hard to realize that there had been no one living there for eighty years.

It was a question with the boys whether they would push on west along the beach in the hope of striking a town in that direction or whether they would turn north to the main-line railroad. Their experience with the blind pocket which they had gotten into the night before made them a little afraid of the beach, and they had no idea how far it might be in that direction before they would come to a town. They knew that the railroad could not be over forty miles north and thought it would be reasonable to expect to find some settlement in that direction. Food was beginning to be a serious consideration.

They stood on the edge of the old town and looked about them. Each knew what was in the other’s mind.

“Let’s try it to the north,” Murphy suggested. “There ought to be some grub somewhere up in that direction.”

That agreed pretty well with Scott’s decisions and they turned toward the north. The country was about as forlorn-looking as any that Scott had ever seen. The big timber had been cut away for some miles, probably to supply the old town, and there was nothing left but a scattering stand of scrub oak on the flat, white sand, with now and then a small patch of scrub palmetto. Aside from the old and blackened stumps there was not a trace of the civilization which had at one time flourished so near there. They had been traveling through this dismal waste for about an hour.

“Don’t look much like anything to eat around here!” Scott exclaimed in disgust.

Murphy did not reply. He was too hungry for words, but after about a half-hour’s silence he answered:

“Wonder why a fellow has to think about something he can’t get all the time. I try to think about something as far away from food as I can and in two minutes I’m longing for a beefsteak again.”

Scott had been trying the same thing and knew that it was true. But they both felt that their strength would hold out for the day all right and they would surely find some habitation before the end of the day. The sand was not soft enough to bother them and they were making good time. At least they did not have to worry about the men who were looking for them over there to the east.

They must have covered about six miles in this way when the same old curse of this country loomed up in front of them in the form of a swamp which stretched as far as they could see to east and west. They both sighted it at about the same time and looked at each other in utter disgust.

“I am for going straight through her,” Scott exclaimed determinedly, “if she is ten miles wide and a mile deep. If you follow the edge of it west it will probably lead to a quicksand on the beach, and if you follow it east you will end up on that same neck where those fellows are waiting for us. This country seems to have been built for their special benefit,” he added bitterly.

“I’m with you,” Murphy agreed doggedly. “I’d rather drown than be starved to death.”

So they held to their course and traveled straight toward the great black swamp. It might have looked like courage to an onlooker, but they themselves knew that it was desperation. If it happened to be a narrow one they would get through all right; if it was a wide one, well—they probably could not do much better by trying to get around.

They were not more than a hundred yards from the swamp when Scott stopped with an exclamation of surprise. They had come upon a distinct trail angling across their course. There were no footprints in it now, but it was a broad trail such as people make, and showed evidence of having been considerably used at no very distant date.

“What do you suppose that is?” Scott asked wonderingly.

Murphy looked at it with little interest. He could not eat it and he no longer had any interest in anything unless it gave promise of dinner. “Leads down to that logging camp unless my geography is crooked and we might as well follow it to the swamp. It’s going our way.”

“Maybe it goes through the swamp,” Scott suggested with a flash of hope. “Wonder where those fellows did get their supplies from? I should think they would have been afraid to get them from the river boats. It would have made their place too conspicuous.”

They followed the trail with curiosity even if without much hope and saw it duck into the heavy brush. As he ducked in after it Scott uttered a shout of triumph. There was a boat chained to a tree at the end of the trail. Like the trail it was far from new but showed signs of use at a comparatively recent date.

Murphy’s spirits came up with a bound. “Well,” he exclaimed, “this is the first piece of real luck we have had in some time. That boat looks almost as good to me as a loaf of bread.”

The question of ownership never entered their heads. They had been in dire need of a boat and Providence had provided one. There were no questions asked. There were no oars, but Murphy cut a pole with his hunting knife and they were soon skimming over the water merrily.

“Set your course due north, boy, and point it out to me, that’s all I ask!” he exclaimed, as he heaved away on the pole. “That swamp water does not look so bad from a boat, does it?”

They had gone with one bound from the dumps of despair to the summit of hope and they were so happy they felt silly. They had not realized how worried they really were. Now nothing seemed impossible. They felt perfectly confident that all their troubles were over and they would soon be at headquarters reporting their great discovery.

They were well out in the swamp, probably a half mile or more when Murphy gave a shout and redoubled his efforts with the pole. Scott thought he had sighted dry land again and stood up in the boat to see. Instead of land it was a house built up on piles in the middle of the swamp.

“Surely no one lives in that house away out there!” Scott exclaimed.

“Probably not,” Murphy replied cheerfully; “but there may be something to eat in it just the same.” And he headed for the house.

There was no smoke coming out of the chimney and nothing to show that it was occupied or had been for some time. The porch in front of it was really a landing with steps coming down to the water. They shouted but there was no answer. Scott thought they were wasting time in stopping there at all, but Murphy was determined to see if there was anything there to eat. He declared that he would never forgive himself if he passed it up now and found out later that there was food in it.

They tied the boat to the steps and went to the door. Murphy pushed it open gently and looked in. It was rather dark inside and it was a few minutes before their eyes became accustomed to the half light. Then things loomed up plainly and Murphy uttered a shout of satisfaction. The shelves all along one corner of the building were piled with provisions of all kinds. A number of bunks were built against the wall at the other end of the building, but they paid very little attention to that except to glance at them to make sure there was no one there. Their interest was centered in those shelves.

“Whew!” Murphy whistled as he gloated over the great store of provisions, “wouldn’t we have been sore if we had passed this up? I don’t know who lives here, but I am going to have one full meal on him whoever he is. Gee! he has enough stuff here to stand a siege of six months.”

“Strange!” Scott pondered as he looked over the supplies. “It does not look as though any one had lived here for several months at least and yet these provisions are all fresh and could not have been here such a great while. This looks like an old house on the outside but from the looks of the floors I don’t believe it has ever been lived in much. I don’t understand it.”

“I am not going to try to understand it till I have had my fill of this bacon and flapjacks. What do you want, tea or coffee? He, whoever he is, has them both here.” Murphy did not seem to care whether the provisions belonged to man or devil, and felt that the mystery could wait for a solution till he had satisfied his appetite.

Scott built a fire in the stove for Murphy and then returned to look things over some more. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation of such profound astonishment that even Murphy paused in his cooking to see what had happened. Scott had found a sales slip wrapped up with one of the bundles and the groceries listed on it were charged to Mr. Roberts.

“By cracky!” Scott exclaimed, looking at Murphy with eyes round with surprise, “I have it. This is the very cabin where those fellows are coming to hide. They keep it stocked up for just such an emergency.”

The fact that they had walked into the very den of the scoundrels who had been out gunning for them all the night before and were probably even then on their way there startled them a little at first. But nothing could divert Murphy’s attention from his frying pan for very long.

“Oh, well,” he said philosophically, “we have their boat, so they are not likely to get here before we have finished dinner. Nothing could stop me from eating now; it would take more than that outfit to spoil my appetite.”

A little chuckle of satisfaction died on Scott’s lips. It would be a good joke on the thieves to find their boat gone just when they needed it, but where would they go if they could not get to the hiding place they had prepared? They might get suspicious and go somewhere else where no trace could be found of them.

“I wonder if they have another boat anywhere?” he exclaimed. “I wish we had not taken this one.”

“Don’t worry,” Murphy replied as he chewed a piece of half-cooked bacon, “I don’t think they would be likely to abandon a place which they have prepared and fixed up the way they have this one. At least they would not give it up so easily.”

“No use in worrying about it now, anyway. We can’t take the boat back without running too much risk and any damage we have done cannot be helped. We’ll eat all of their grub we can and then beat it on across the swamp. We will get Qualley when he comes back to the camp and I have a sneaking idea that it would not take much to make him tell on the other fellows.”

“Any one of them would hang all the others for a plugged nickel,” Murphy growled contemptuously.

So they made the best of their opportunities and gave no further thought to the future trouble they might be piling up for themselves. There was unlimited food and for a long time there seemed to be no end to their appetites, but they were satisfied at last and stretched out on a couple of the benches in supreme contentment.

“Gee!” Murphy exclaimed, “I’m full right up to my Adam’s apple and I’d like to stay right here and sleep for a week.”

But instead of sleeping they both sat suddenly bolt upright and stared wide-eyed at each other. The sound of voices came to them very distinctly.


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