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CHAPTER XXV
When they landed, the prisoners’ feet were untied and they were marched off toward the nearest railroad station. The women, who had, of course, not been tied up with the others, were given their choice of going home or of going on with the men. They chose to stick by their husbands. It was a queer-looking procession winding through the old pine woods. The prisoners were all sullen and there was not very much conversation.

Mr. Graham attempted to be sociable. “Well, Roberts, you certainly had us buffaloed for a long time, but we have caught up with you at last.”

“Yes,” Roberts snarled contemptuously, “and if you had not stumbled on to that old chain out there in the swamp you would never have caught up with us. It was all Qualley’s carelessness.”

“Qualley’s?” Mr. Graham exclaimed in feigned surprise. “Why, he said that he did not know anything about this business.”

That was too much for Roberts. He raved like a crazy man and cursed Qualley in all the vile terms he could think of as the leader of the whole gang and the man who had persuaded him to go into it against his will. Suddenly he happened to think that he might say something to incriminate himself and shut up like a clam. No further attempts to get a rise out of him had any effect.

They waited beside the railroad track out in the woods because they wanted to avoid the curious crowd which they knew would be embarrassing for both them and the prisoners if they went to the station. When the train finally came they flagged it and arrived at the county seat without seeing more than a dozen people. They turned the prisoners over to the sheriff, who happened to have come down to meet the train, and went on to Okalatchee.

Mr. Graham had to go back to headquarters to write up his report on the case. Murphy was going home to take the good news to his wife, and Scott decided to go with him. There was one point in this mystery which had not been solved: they had not discovered how the logs were taken out of the pond. Mr. Graham tried to persuade Scott to come back to camp and have his wound dressed and get a little rest, but he promised to get Murphy to dress the wound, which he declared was nothing more than a scratch, and thought that he could rest better after he had cleared up the last point in the puzzle.

“Did you hear what Roberts said about stumbling on to that chain in the swamp?” Scott asked, when they were started on the home trail.

Murphy nodded. “That was what we heard all right, but we never had the luck to stumble on to it.”

“As soon as you have told the news to your wife we’ll get out there and have a real look for it.”

Mrs. Murphy was as glad as any of them that the thieves had been caught. “Now,” she exclaimed, “maybe Pat will stay home a little of the time. He has been living at that log pond a good part of the time for the past two years.”

“Yes,” Murphy grinned, “and we are going back there again as soon as I fix up this fellow’s throat, which Roberts came so near slitting for him.”

When Scott had a look at himself in the glass he could easily understand why Mrs. Murphy had been so horrified at the first sight of him. The powder from Roberts’ pistol had blackened all one side of his face till he looked like a half-minstrel, and the flesh wound in his neck, which was really a very shallow one, had bled so profusely that his shirt was all stained up.

“Could not look much worse if I had really been murdered,” he laughed, “but that scratch is almost healed up now.”

“That is because you were so close to the gun that the heat fairly cauterized it, but we’ll have to wash it out just the same and put some antiseptic dressing on it. These gunshot wounds are very apt to cause trouble. Seems as though blood poisoning follows them mighty easy.”

Murphy soon applied a simple dressing and they set off for the old log pond, which had now acquired a new interest. The men, who had already heard of Qualley’s arrest, plied them with curious questions, but they put them off by saying that they had orders not to say anything about it.

“The wooziest thing about this,” Murphy explained, as they walked slowly around the log pond, “is that some logs actually went out of here one night while I was here watching them.”

“Were you alone that night, or was Qualley with you?”

“Qualley was there, too, but he was right in sight all the time.”

“Did he stay right there with you?”

“Let me see. No, he did not stay right there in the brush all the time. As I remember it he went out on the logs once or twice and monkeyed around there when he thought he heard something suspicious, but, as I said, he was right in sight all the time. Of course I did not suspect him then and did not watch him as close as I would now.”

“Don’t remember where he went in the pond, do you?”

“Yes, I remember that, because he always went in the same direction, always over there toward the east side of the pond.”

“Then I guess that is where we had better look first.”

On that side the log pond was separated from the swamp by only a very narrow neck of land which was densely covered with brush. They made their way along this neck, fully expecting to find a narrow channel through which the logs had been floated, but there was no such passage there.

“I have a hunch,” Murphy said as he cut a long pole and made his way back to a point where the neck was not more than three feet wide. There he poked into the bank just below the surface of the water with his pole and struck a hole at almost the first jab. With a shout of triumph he gave the pole a shove into the hole and turned around to look behind him. There was a slight commotion in the waters of the swamp and the pole shot up to the surface some feet from the shore.

“But how did they get the logs down through there?” Scott asked.

“Just like this. I may break my neck trying to ride these logs without my calks, but if I don’t, watch.”

He cut another pole and jumped nimbly on to a log near the edge of the pond. He poled it toward the shore, headed directly toward the tunnel. When the front end of the log was about to touch the bank he jumped to that end, ran toward the other end and jumped quickly to another log. His weight on the front end had caused the log to dip down to the opening and his running along it had given it an impulse which sent it sliding through the tunnel just as the stick had done and it floated free in the open swamp.

“Same way we used to duck them out of the sorting boom,” Murphy explained. “Isn’t that a slick trick, though?”

It seemed little short of marvelous to Scott, who had never acquired the knack of running logs, but he could not stop to enthuse over it now. The next thing to find out was what they did with them in the swamp.

They got a bateau from the camp and paddled around to the place in the swamp where the log was floating. “Right out beyond here somewhere,” Scott cried, “ought to be that chain which we are supposed to have stumbled over.”

They paddled slowly on into the swamp, scanning every tree eagerly. They had not covered more than two hundred yards when Murphy finished the sentence which Scott had begun. “And there she is.”

They paddled swiftly over to the furrowed and swollen butt of an old cypress. Hanging from a spike about a foot and a half above the water was a heavy logging chain. “So you are the guilty party,” Scott exclaimed, as he looked curiously at the chain. “The next question is, What did they do with you?”

Murphy grabbed the chain and began to pull on it. There was no give at first. Then something on the end of it which seemed to be somewhere under the spreading roots of the tree began to swing slowly to one side.

“Feels like an alligator from the way it is swinging around in there,” Murphy exclaimed, as he redoubled his efforts on the chain. Before he could make any further remarks the thing suddenly shot out from under the tree and almost dumped them out of the bateau. It was a heavy, tublike boat which had been caught on one of the roots of the tree, and in it were all the tools and materials needed to build a section of a log raft.

“So that is the way they worked it,” Scott exclaimed. “Now I see the whole thing. They shot their logs out of the pond there at night the way you did a few minutes ago. Then the next day they collected them over here and made them up into rafts. Then when they started for the mill with a log raft they hauled one of these sections, or maybe sometimes two or three of them, out of one of those lower openings in the river bank and hooked it on to their raft. No one would be likely to notice just how many sections they had. Then when they came to their canal down below there they took that section off and no one was any the wiser. Well, it was pretty slick and it worked.”

“And now I think I’ll go back to camp. I did not know how tired I was till now, that it is all over and cleared up, I feel like going to sleep here in the bottom of this boat.”

“Come on over to my place,” Murphy said, “and I’ll lend you a horse.”

So it was that Mr. Graham a little later recognized Murphy’s horse walking slowly toward his barn with Scott asleep in the saddle.



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