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CHAPTER XX
Scott and Murphy walked out to a little grove of pines a short distance from the station and sat down in the shadow to wait for the train. They did not talk much, for each one was too busy thinking over the scrapes they had been through. They felt that they were through with their troubles at last and that it was only a matter of a few hours now till they would be back at headquarters, on familiar ground and safe from interference, but they had felt that same way so often before that they were almost afraid to say anything about it now.

Their appearance had caused a great deal of speculation and gossip among the loafers around the place and many curious glances were thrown in their direction, but no one came near them. The train was late as usual, but it came at last and they climbed aboard with a certain feeling of relief. There might be a wreck but there would not be any quicksands or swamps and a wreck seemed rather trivial compared with those two things which they had come to hate so cordially in the past few days.

“Well, we are on the home stretch now,” Scott exclaimed comfortably.

“Yes,” Murphy retorted, “for the first time in what seems like a century we know where we are going and how we are going to get there.”

The train stopped at the first station. There did not seem to be much of an excuse for a station there, nor anywhere else along the line for that matter, but the train always stopped at all of them as if it hoped that sometime there might be somebody there. This time it was not disappointed. Scott was looking out of the window and he saw a lone man step across the platform and get on the front end of the car. No one else was in sight there, not even a station agent.

Before he had drawn in his head he felt Murphy grab him suddenly by the knee and squeeze it meaningly. He looked inquiringly at Murphy and then followed his glance up the car. The new passenger was walking slowly toward them and he instantly recognized Qualley. The car lamps evidently dazzled Qualley’s eyes after his wait in the darkness and he had not seen them, but just as he was turning into a seat he stopped for a glance over the occupants of the car and recognized them. With well-feigned surprise he changed his mind about the seat and came towards them, smiling.

“Blamed old fox!” Murphy growled under his breath. “If he knew what we know he would have kept off this train.”

“Well,” Qualley exclaimed good-humoredly, shaking hands with them, “I didn’t expect to see any one I knew on this train. Glad to see you. Good ways from home, aren’t you?”

“Quite a jump,” Scott replied. “We’ve been out having a look at the country. Quite a journey for you, too, isn’t it?”

“Yes, first time I have been out of camp for a long time. Company wanted me to come down here and look over some turpentine prospects. They are thinking of leasing in here.”

“Aren’t you afraid they will take advantage of your absence to steal all the logs in the pond?” Scott asked, and he nudged Murphy secretly with his foot.

“You bet I was,” Qualley replied with a hearty laugh, “and I told the boys not to put any in there while I was gone. Haven’t run on to any likely clues yet, have you?” he added.

“No, nothing new since we saw you last,” and Scott nudged Murphy again. They were having a very good time with Qualley.

As they approached their own station Murphy seemed to grow thoughtful. Suddenly he leaned forward and unbuttoned the flap of Qualley’s holster. “What sort of a gun have you got there, Qualley? I lost my old Luger back there in a swamp. Had it for ten years and would not have lost it for a farm.”

Murphy drew the revolver from the holster and examined it critically. It was a little blue steel automatic .32, very neat and very business-like. “Not quite such a hard hitter as mine,” Murphy commented, “but I guess she’d kill a man at that.”

“Would it!” Qualley laughed. “Well, I rather think it would if you hit him right. I killed a deer with it at forty yards last fall.”

Murphy continued to toy with the gun. He unloaded it, loaded it, and tested the mechanism several times, tried the grip in his hand and aimed it carefully at all the lights in the car. It was not till the train was coming to a stop at their own station that he leaned over and slipped it back into Qualley’s holster.

“Looks pretty good to me,” Murphy remarked, as though thoroughly satisfied with his examination. “Maybe I’ll get one of those next time. It would not be as heavy to tote around as the old Luger and I reckon it would shoot hard enough for anything I want it for. Don’t want to sell it, do you?”

“Not for anything you would give me for it,” Qualley replied. “I need it in my business almost every day.”

“That’s right,” Murphy admitted thoughtfully, “I reckon you do, all right,” and he stepped on Scott’s foot.

They all three got off the car together and started down the trail which lead by a short cut to the supervisor’s headquarters. It was about midnight and there was no one in sight around the station, not even the agent. The moon was doing its best to shine through a thin curtain of clouds and the trail was easy enough to follow. They walked three abreast through the open country and were soon back on the one subject of conversation which had been the common topic with them now for over two years—the marvelous disappearance of those logs.

About a mile from the station the trail crossed a rather wide neck of shallow swamp. In a rainy year it would have been impassable, but it was almost dry now and made very good walking. It suddenly occurred to Scott that Qualley was not going in the direction of his camp. “Doesn’t this trail take you a good way out of your road?” he asked.

“About a mile, but this is the only place where there is a trail across the swamp and I have never had the energy to cut another.”

When the trail entered the swamp it narrowed so that they were obliged to go in single file. Murphy stopped to let Qualley go first, but he politely held back and insisted on them leading the way. Murphy smiled a little to himself, shoved Scott gently into the lead and followed with Qualley bringing up the rear. Conversation was not so easy now and they walked in comparative silence. The ground was so soft and spongy that their feet made very little noise and every little sound was easily heard. It was so dark in the swamp that only the outline of things could be seen.

They were about in the middle of the swamp when Murphy heard a faint sound for which he had been listening intently ever since they had strung out on the narrow trail. It was a gentle slap caused by the falling of a leather flap. He listened now even more intently and was almost immediately rewarded by a sharp click close behind him.

“What was that?” he exclaimed, whirling about.

Scott stopped and turned around to see what was going on and was just in time to see Murphy strike Qualley a crashing blow on the jaw before he even had a chance to answer the question.

“Ah, ha, you old fox!” Murphy exclaimed, as he leaned over the fallen man, “I was a little too smart for you that time. That’s a fine gun you have, but it is not much good without cartridges. Just wait till I load her up and then she will work better.” He picked the gun up from the soft ground where Qualley had dropped it, and taking a clip of cartridges from his pocket he calmly proceeded to load it.

“What’s the trouble?” Scott asked. The whole thing had occurred so suddenly that he had not been able to comprehend it. He had been busy planning out the best method of attacking that cabin.

Murphy explained it as coolly as though nothing had happened.

“It occurred to me back there in the train that it might not be altogether safe to be in the woods with this fellow alone at night when he knew where we were, so I unloaded his gun. When he came down this way with us to cross the swamp I knew that there was something up, for it would have been nearer for him to have walked up the railroad track a way and then cut across. Didn’t you notice how polite I was when I tried to persuade him to walk ahead of me through this swamp? Never knew me to be that polite before, did you? And when he turned out to be more polite than I was, I knew just exactly what to expect. I heard the flap of his holster flip down when he drew his gun and I heard her click when he pulled the trigger. I was afraid he might run away and reload so I dropped him.”

Scott shuddered. He realized how closely he had rubbed shoulders with cold-blooded murder and how easily it could have been carried out if it had not been for Murphy’s forethought. “Must have taken some nerve to let him pull that trigger when you knew just what he was doing. Weren’t you afraid that he might have reloaded?”

“Believe me, I’ve been watching him ever since we got off the train. I knew that he could not reload without my hearing him and I sure listened.”

Qualley groaned and looked about him uncertainly like a man awakening from a dream and trying to get his wits together. Suddenly it came to him and he sat up with a jerk.

“This what you are looking for?” Murphy asked mockingly, as he poked the muzzle of the gun into his face. “Don’t monkey with it, it’s loaded now.”

Qualley realized instantly that he had been outwitted. He could not for the life of him think how they had been lead to suspect him and he was a little bit dazed by the unexpected blow, but his magnificent nerve was unshaken. He looked quietly into the muzzle of the gun with unmoved expression.

“Pretty clever,” he exclaimed admiringly, “but what is the big idea? You swipe the loads out of my gun, and then when I try to shoot an alligator you whirl around and knock me down without warning. If it is supposed to be a joke you are carrying it a little too far.” He was a splendid actor and if Scott had not had such good evidence of his intentions he would have doubted himself rather than this indignant Qualley.

“It’s a good bluff, Qualley,” Murphy jeered, “but it won’t work. You can sue me for assault if you want to when you get out of the pen, but it is too late to sit here in the swamp and argue about it to-night. Get up from there and trot along with us. It’s nearer to headquarters than it is to your camp and I know Mr. Graham will be glad to put you up there over night. We’ll tell Roberts that we reached camp all right so you need not worry about his thinking that you have gone back on him. Come ahead. It was mighty polite of you to let me go first back there, but this time I am going to show the politeness. After you, Gaston. Better take the rear, Scott, I don’t want to take a chance on plugging you if he should make a break for it. Now we’re right. Let’s travel.”

Qualley knew that it was hopeless to try to bluff them now and he took the lead without another word. The little procession was more silent now than it had been before and the grin on Murphy’s face was wider.



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