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CHAPTER XXIV
Mr. Graham had the conductor stop the train a mile from the station and they dropped off into the woods. “Thought it would be just as well not to stir them up down there at the station,” he explained. “They may have some scouts on the lookout.”

Day was just breaking and they heard some wild turkeys gobbling over in the swamp. It was a tempting sound, but they were after bigger game this morning and held to their course at a round pace. Mr. Graham had explained his plan of campaign to them on the train and they traveled in silence now, each one busy with his own thoughts.

Scott would have doubted his ability to find that bateau, but Murphy was a regular hound in the woods, and he walked to it as confidently as though he were walking down a broad highway. Now and then Scott recognized some landmark and knew that they were on the right course. He could run a compass line with the best of them but Murphy never used a compass unless he was surveying. When they came to the edge of the swamp he glanced about him a moment and nosed through the brush right on to the old bateau.

“Good work,” Mr. Graham commented, and handed him one of the two paddles he had brought along. “You take the bow and limber up your gun. You sit in the center, Burton, and keep that rifle ready. Don’t shoot till I tell you, but when you do, don’t miss.”

The little bateau was quite steady with an extra man seated in the bottom of it and the two expert paddlers sent it skimming through the water at a great rate.

“Better get out your compass, Burton. Murphy is pretty good, but we want a double check on this.”

Long before Scott thought they ought to be anywhere near their destination a cabin suddenly loomed out of the mist quite a way to the left. He pointed it out silently to Mr. Graham, who signaled to Murphy to stop paddling. Murphy gazed incredulously at the cabin and shook his head.

“There is some difference in paddling with two paddles and poling with one pole,” he whispered; “but it does not seem as though that could possibly be the place. Looks like it, though.”

Mr. Graham thought it best to investigate and they started slowly toward the cabin, keeping the trees between them and it as much as possible. There was no sign of life, but it was nerve-racking work to sneak up on the blind side of the cabin never knowing when some unseen marksman might open fire. They stopped immediately back of the cabin and listened intently for a long time. There was no sound. Cautiously they pushed the bow of the boat around the corner, and Murphy, revolver in hand, took a peep at the front. The others could tell from the relaxation of his body that it was the wrong place. They knew it long before he spoke.

Murphy slipped his revolver back into its holster and resumed his paddle. The front window was broken and the door was gone. There was no landing stage and the whole place looked deserted. Mr. Graham had a look inside. There was nothing in it and it did not seem to have been occupied for years.

“Must have been somebody else in hiding some years ago from the looks of this place,” Mr. Graham remarked. “I could not imagine any one living out in one of these swamps unless he could not live anywhere else. Well, let’s make for the next station. I hope we have better luck there.”

Once more they started on their silent way. There did not seem to be any birds in the swamp in the daytime. An occasional squirrel was the only form of life except the cottonmouth moccasins which seemed to be holding a convention of some kind. They were gliding about everywhere in the water and crawling up on to the logs to sun themselves. Scott had never seen so many poisonous snakes in so short a time.

Murphy raised his paddle and pointed ahead and a little to the right. It was not very distinct but they finally made it out. The hazy outline of a cabin peeping through the maze of tall, gray tree trunks and long festoons of Spanish moss. There was no doubt about it this time. Scott recognized the surroundings and he also recognized a thin haze of smoke hanging about the cabin. There was some one in it.

A thrill went through the whole party and they straightened in their seats with every nerve a-tingle. No one knew just exactly what was going to happen, but they felt sure that there would be something and that quickly. Mr. Graham’s plan was to sneak up on the place from the rear. They could then wait in hiding till some one came out. If they could cover one of the party with a gun they might be able to force the surrender of the whole gang without rushing the cabin, which would be a very hazardous thing to do. There was very little chance to take advantage of any cover, and the attacking party would be almost completely at the mercy of the garrison till they could force their way inside.

With this plan in view they sent the bateau slowly and cautiously forward toward the back of the cabin just as they had done with the other cabin a little while before. They ducked nervously from tree to tree like an Indian scout. They were within a hundred yards of the cabin now and no one seemed to have noticed their approach. They were watching the cabin so intently that they did not think to look at anything else. It had not occurred to any of them that some of the occupants of the cabin might be out in boats.

Suddenly a faint sound off to the left of them caught Mr. Graham’s ear and he turned with a start. Not very far from them and headed for the cabin was another bateau. For a moment the cabin was forgotten. They all grasped their guns and gave their entire attention to the boat. It was manned by a single negro and he was paddling leisurely. He apparently had not seen them and did not seem to have a care in the world.

Mr. Graham was undecided whether to signal the negro and warn him away from the cabin, or to lie perfectly still and take a chance on his going on without seeing them. He reasoned that the people in the cabin must have seen the darky approaching from that direction, right in the path of one of the windows, and that to call him to them now would be inevitably to attract attention to themselves. He decided to keep still. It seemed like a poor chance, but about the only one he had. If he had known what the arrival of that negro at the cabin would mean he would probably have risked everything to stop him, for it was the belated George with Qualley’s message.

George stopped paddling every stroke or two to see what time it was. Not that he was in any hurry, far from it, but he was completely fascinated by his new gold watch. It was probably this infatuation which prevented him from seeing the other bateau. He seemed utterly oblivious of everything around him, and with another long look at his precious watch he disappeared around the corner of the cabin without seeing them. They were near enough to hear distinctly the voices which greeted him when he arrived at the landing.

Mr. Graham heaved a sigh of relief, and then suddenly seized his paddle with a new inspiration. These people would surely come out on the porch to see what the negro wanted, were probably out there now, and would be so taken up with him that it might be the best possible opportunity to catch them unaware. He signaled to Murphy and shot the bateau ahead with all his might. He went around the opposite end of the house from the one the negro had taken and ran the bateau close up beside the end of the landing stage.

The whole party was there in a group on the porch, five men and three women. They arrived just in time to hear Roberts swear viciously and angrily crumple up a piece of paper in his hand. The negro was the first to see them and it was the sight of his astonished gaze which caught the attention of the others. The surprise was so complete that for the fraction of a second they stared open-mouthed and motionless.

“Hands up!” Mr. Graham commanded sharply. “I have a warrant here for the whole bunch of you.”

Roberts saw that he was covered, caught in the open without his gun and taken completely at a disadvantage, but he was desperate. He was no coward and he knew that capture meant the penitentiary for him. With a roar of rage he ducked back of the women. The other men followed his example instantly, and they all crowded toward the cabin door, keeping the women between them and those threatening guns. Roberts was cunning enough to know that those men would not run the risk of shooting a woman.

Mr. Graham was furious to see this opportunity slipping from him through such a cowardly trick, but he did not dare to risk a shot. There was only one thing to do now. They must get inside that cabin, for on the outside they would be at the complete mercy of the gang and they very well knew what that would mean.

“Come on, fellows,” he shouted, and scrambled from the boat on to the landing stage. Scott forgot his rifle in his eagerness and bounded up the steps empty-handed close at his leader’s heels.

The door was slammed shut, but Mr. Graham thrust his foot into the crack and the impact of his weight quickly followed by that of Scott’s drove it inward and scattered the confused crowd on the inside to all corners of the cabin. The roar of Murphy’s gun announced his arrival and a man crumpled out of the fight with a groan. It was quickly followed by another roar and Scott felt a streak of fire across his neck and the scorch of burning powder on his cheek. He struck out wildly and cut his knuckles on the muzzle of a pistol, but he had spoiled the second shot which tore some shingles from the roof, and he saw the pistol fly from his opponent’s hand. The next instant Roberts’ face, contorted with the fury of an angry beast, burst through the smoke in front of him.

From the moment that Murphy’s gun fired the first shot Scott had been fighting like a man in a dream. The smoke and the gunfire dazed him, and he did not know what to do. But when that furious face broke through the smoke close to his own he came to himself. He could not understand the noise and confusion of a gun battle, but he had had years of training as a boxer and he knew exactly what to do with that snarling face. He landed on it with every ounce of strength he had in his powerful shoulders and the face went back into the smoke as suddenly as it had come.

The three women were cringing in a terrified group on one of the bunks as far removed from the shooting as possible. They evidently had no idea of taking any part in the fight.

Mr. Graham had grappled with one of the men and was writhing on the floor in the opposite corner of the cabin. The two remaining men had both gone after Murphy. One of them had tackled him from the rear and attempted to pin his arms to his side while the other was wrenching the pistol from his grasp. Scott ran to Murphy’s assistance. Just as Scott reached him the man succeeded in getting the pistol and aimed it pointblank in Murphy’s face, but he had to hesitate for a second because the other man was directly in the line of fire.

That second’s hesitation saved Murphy’s life. Before the man could fire Scott landed a smashing blow behind his ear. The man crumpled up without so much as pulling the trigger. The remaining man let go his now useless hold on Murphy and bolted out of the door. Scott left Murphy to chase him and turned to see if Mr. Graham needed any help, but he did not. He had freed himself and was sitting astride the motionless figure. He jumped up now and looked about him.

“Where is Murphy?” he asked, when he recognized Scott through the coat of black powder with which his face was covered.

“He just chased the last man out the door,” Scott explained.

“Keep these fellows down while I see if he needs any help.”

But Murphy certainly did not need any help. He was down on his knees on the edge of the landing and was pumping the unfortunate man, now at least half drowned, up and down in the waters of the swamp. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself.

The reaction was too much for them and they both roared with laughter. Murphy looked up at them and grinned. “Pull him out, Murphy,” Mr. Graham shouted, “we may need him at the trial.”

Murphy rather reluctantly pulled the man out of the water and laid him on the landing. Scott had turned from his glance out of the door just in time to see Roberts regain consciousness and make a motion to crawl toward his gun which was lying on the floor near him. He sprang forward and snatched the gun out of his reach. “I did not expect you to come to yet,” he said coolly. “Move again and I’ll fix you right.”

“Well, I guess we have them pretty well rounded up,” Mr. Graham remarked. “Now we’ll tie them up.” He took a coil of rope from a nail on the wall and proceeded to tie their hands and feet. He tied Roberts first and then the man he had choked so badly. Scott leaned over to help him straighten out the man who had been struck back of the ear and Mr. Graham had his first good look at him.

“Great guns, man!” he exclaimed, “you are all over blood. Where were you hit?”

Scott had been too excited to think anything about himself. In fact he did not realize that he had been hit at all, but now that his attention had been called to it he felt the sting of the streak across his neck. “It can’t amount to much,” he explained apologetically, “because I thought it was a powder burn at the time and had really forgotten it till you spoke.”

Mr. Graham insisted on having a look for himself but was soon satisfied that it was only a slight flesh wound. “Lucky for you, though. A half-inch to the right would have cut your jugular.”

The man whom Murphy had shot had received a glancing shot on the forehead and was only stunned. Murphy’s victim had swallowed a quart or two of swamp water and was feeling too sick to offer any further resistance.

“Five desperate characters smoked out of a stronghold like this and tied up without any one being seriously hurt. That is what I call a pretty good morning’s work,” Mr. Graham exclaimed enthusiastically. “If those women have not turned them loose again,” and he bounded into the cabin.

It would have been a very easy thing for the women to do, for every one had forgotten all about them, but they had not moved. They were evidently too badly scared to think of resistance. Roberts was lying on the floor with his face turned to the wall in sullen resignation.

“The next question is, How are we going to get them out of here? Where are your boats?” Murphy asked one of the women.

She seemed afraid to answer but more afraid not to. “One of the men went fishing in it,” she answered reluctantly.

“Oh, ho,” Mr. Graham exclaimed. “So that’s it. Get on guard, Murphy; he’ll probably be coming back pretty quick to see what all that shooting was about.”

They carried the man in from the landing to get him out of sight and waited.

“By the way,” Mr. Graham asked suddenly, “what has become of that nigger?”

Every one had forgotten him and he had taken advantage of the opportunity to fade away. He was already far out of gunshot of the cabin and still going strong.

They waited in silence now for the absent man to return. They did not have long to wait. He had heard the firing and hurried back to see what all the rumpus was about. He had stopped at a distance and watched the cabin for a long time and not noticing anything suspicious he paddled on to the landing. When his boat touched the dock Murphy stepped out and covered him with his revolver. He was too surprised to resist and came out of the boat without a word with his hands high over his head. He was soon tied up with the rest of the bunch.

The fisherman’s boat was a good-sized scow and they had no trouble in loading all the prisoners on it. They tied their own bateau on behind and all three went to poling.

“Too bad we can’t make them do the work,” Murphy growled, “but I would be willing to pole a scow a long way for the sake of landing this bunch,” and the others agreed with him.


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