The ducks, geese, swans, and brant were already beginning to come into the lake, and on the morning of the third day following their arrival at the plantation, the young hunters, Fred and Joe Packard being included among the number, made ready to take up their abode at the shooting-box. The canoe and sail-boat, both of which had been securely housed during the absence of their owners, were put into the water and loaded to their utmost capacity with bedding, provisions, and camp furniture. There was just room enough left in the canoe to accommodate old Cuff, the negro who was to act as cook and camp-keeper during their sojourn at the shooting-box; and when all the boys and Don’s two pointers had crowded into the sail-boat, the little craft seemed on the point of sinking. As an Irishman would have remarked, if the water in the lake had been two inches higher, she would have gone to the bottom beyond a doubt.
“We’ve got about three hundred pounds too much cargo aboard,” said Curtis, in his quiet way. “Hop, suppose you get out and go afoot; there’s a good fellow.”
“Make Egan throw his artillery overboard and we shall get on well enough,” retorted Hopkins. “That’s what makes the boat sink so deep in the water.”
With much fun and chaffing the boys pulled toward the point on which the shooting-box was located, and by handling their heavily loaded craft in the most careful manner, they succeeded in beaching her in safety. As her bow touched the shore, old Cuff, who landed at the same moment, uttered an exclamation indicative of the greatest astonishment. Don looked up and saw that the shooting-box was already occupied. A smoke was curling out of the stove-pipe that served for a chimney, and a rough-looking man, dressed in a tattered suit of brown jeans, stood in front of the open door, leaning on his axe. From the cabin there came the sound of voices mingled with another sound that made old Cuff almost ready to boil over with indignation.
“’Fore Moses, Mr. Don,” he exclaimed. “Somebody in dar crackin’ all de nuts dat I done pick up for you an’ your frien’s.”
“We’ll soon put a stop to that,” answered Don. “Those people, whoever they are, have no business in there, and they must get out at once.”
“Did you ever hear of such impudence?” exclaimed Bert, angrily. “Where did they come from, anyhow? They don’t belong in this part of the country.”
The man with the axe seemed as much surprised to see Don and his party as the latter were to see him. He too uttered an exclamation which brought to the door the other occupants of the cabin, seven of them in all, including two more men and three women; and very disreputable looking persons the most of them were. The other two, one of whom seemed to be entirely out of place there, did not show themselves at the door as openly as their companions did, and consequently Don and Bert did not see them. They thrust their heads out very cautiously, and as soon as they saw who the new-comers were, they drew back and made all haste to effect their escape through the window on the other side of the cabin.
“What do you want here?” demanded the man with the axe, as Don walked up the bank followed by his companions.
“I think that is a proper question for me to ask you,” replied Don, who did not at all like the surly tone in which he had been addressed. “This house belongs to my brother and myself, and we would thank you to vacate it without the loss of a moment.”
“Wal, I reckon we shall do as we please about that,” drawled one of the men who stood in the door.
“Well, I reckon you won’t. You’ll do as I please about it. I want possession here, and I want it now. I see you broke the lock in order to gain admittance, and you had no business to do that.”
“Do you live here?” asked the man with the axe.
“I’m going to live here.”
“Wal, thar’s two rooms in the shantee, an’ why can’t you-uns take one of ’em an’ let we-uns – ”
“We don’t want company,” exclaimed Don, who was fairly staggered by the proposition. “We want you to clear out bag and baggage, and to be quick about it, too. My father is a magistrate, and this shooting-box is on his land.”
The word “magistrate” had a magical effect upon the members of the dirty group in the door-way. It put life into them, and at the same time set the women’s tongues in motion. They began packing up their scanty belongings, declaring, with much vociferation, that it was a sin and a shame that they should be turned out of such snug quarters just to accommodate the whims of a party of young aristocrats who wanted to come there and shoot a few ducks. Why couldn’t they go elsewhere for their ducks and leave honest people alone? That was always the way with rich folks. They didn’t care how others suffered so long as they had their own pleasure. But it was a great comfort to know that it wouldn’t always be so. There was a time coming, and it wasn’t so very far distant either, when rich folks would be required to give up some of their ill-gotten gains.
“That sounds like communism, doesn’t it?” said Curtis.
“Yes; and that sounds very much like incendiarism,” answered Hopkins; and so it did, for just then one of the men in the cabin was heard to say: —
“Never mind, Luke. The old shantee is dry an’ fire’ll burn it.”
“Let them burn it if they dare,” said Bert, his slight form swelling with indignation. “I wouldn’t give a picayune for the life of the person who attempts it. Cuff,” he added, turning to the negro, “as soon as we get things straightened up here, I want you to go back to the plantation after Don’s hounds. It looks now as though we should need them.”
The tramps, if such they were, seemed to be in no hurry to leave the shooting-box. They bundled up their goods with great deliberation, abusing the boys roundly all the while, and finally came out and turned their faces toward the river. As soon as they were out of sight Don and Bert began an investigation of the premises. The cabin looked as though it had been occupied for a long time. The wood which they had provided for their own use was all gone, the stove had been copiously bedewed with tobacco juice, the floor was littered with nut-shells, and everything was dingy and smoky.
“We can’t live in any such looking hole as this,” said Don, in deep disgust. “Cuff, build up a good fire, put on the kettle and scrub out. Let’s have things neat and clean, as they used to be. Bert, suppose you take somebody with you and watch those people and see where they go”
Bert at once started off with Hopkins for a companion, and while they were gone the others employed themselves in setting things to rights. The bones, squirrel skins and turkey feathers that were scattered about in front of the door were raked into a pile and set on fire; a fresh supply of stove-wood was cut; and the boats were unloaded and their cargoes piled up outside of the cabin in readiness to be transferred to the interior as soon as the purifying process had been completed. By the time this work was done Bert and Hopkins came back.
“They’re n. g. on the books – no good,” said the former. “They have a little house-boat in the river – ”
“That’s all we want to know,” interrupted Don. “They are thieves and vagabonds of the first water.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Curtis.
“What’s a house-boat?” inquired Egan.
“I will answer the last question first,” said Don. “A house-boat is simply a scow twenty-five or thirty feet long and six or eight feet wide with a cabin amidships. This cabin takes up the whole of the boat with the exception of two or three feet at each end, where the crew stand when they are handling the lines and the steering oar. These boats are generally the property of fishermen and hunters, who float about looking for a suitable place to ply their occupation. For example, there is a house-boat in the bayou above Mound City – that’s in Illinois, you know – which has been there four or five years, its solitary occupant making a good living by trapping minks and raccoons in the winter, and catching buffalo and catfish the rest of the year.”
“Buffalo!” repeated Egan.
“Yes. I didn’t say bison.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Hopkins, who, although he was a splendid fox-hunter, was not very well posted in natural history.
“There’s a good deal of difference, the first thing you know. A buffalo is a fish, somewhat resembling a black-bass in shape, but possessing none of his game qualities, while a bison is an animal.”
“But there are such animals as buffaloes,” said Egan.
“Yes, in Africa and Asia, but not in this country. There are no partridges, pheasants, or wild rabbits here, either. As I was going on to say, this man will probably stay at Mound City until the fish and game begin to grow scarce, and then he will paddle his boat out into the current and float down the river until he finds another place that suits him. If he gets hard up for grub, he will not hesitate to visit anybody’s corn-field, potato-patch, or hen-roost.”
“No honest, industrious man ever lives in that way,” said Bert. “The planters along the river are suspicious of these house-boats, and when they find one tied up on their premises, they always order it off.”
“If these people had a shelter of their own, why did they take possession of your shooting-box?” asked Egan.
“O, for the sake of variety, probably,” answered Don. “Perhaps their house was too small for them; or it may be that the roof leaked, or that the scow was full of water. They always like to live ashore when they have the chance.”
There was much to be done about the shooting-box, and the boys were kept busy all the forenoon. Old Cuff grumbled lustily while he scrubbed, declaring over and over again that Don ought to set fire to the cabin and destroy it, for it never could be made fit for white folks to live in again. After eating a substantial lunch, which was served under the trees, Egan, Hopkins, and Curtis took their guns, and, accompanied by Bert and Fred Packard, strolled along the shore of the lake to see if they could find anything for supper, while Don and Joe remained behind to assist Cuff at his work. When Egan and Curtis returned at dark, they declared that they were more than satisfied with their prospects for sport. The lower end of the lake was full of ducks, they said, and Egan had astonished his companions by bringing fourteen of them down with a single discharge of his heavy double-barrel, while Curtis had showed his skill with the rifle by shooting four ducks on the wing, and killing a swan at the distance of more than two hundred yards. They were tired as well as hungry, and glad to see the inside of the shooting-box, which did not look now as it did when they first came there in the morning. A cheerful fire was burning in the stove, which had been blacked and polished until one could almost see his face in it; the room was brilliantly lighted by two lamps that were suspended from the ceiling; the floor was covered with rugs; pictures of hunting and fishing scenes adorned the walls, and camp chairs and stools were scattered about.
In the next apartment, which was used principally as a sleeping and sitting-room, the same scene of neatness and order was presented. The wide fire-place, which occupied nearly the whole of one end of it, was piled high with blazing logs, and comfortable beds were made up in the bunks. There were pictures on the walls of this room also, rugs on the floor (some of these rugs at once attracted the attention of Egan and his friends, for they were made of the skins of bears and deer that had fallen to Don’s rifle), and there were camp-chairs enough to accommodate all the boys that could crowd about the fire-place. The room looked cosey and comfortable, and the visitors no longer wondered why it was that Don thought so much of his shooting-box.
“I am going to have one of my own,” said Curtis, “and it shall be modeled after this one. I shall build it this fall, so as to have it in readiness to receive you fellows when you go home with me next vacation. Now, then, where are those quails that Hop brought in? Can your darkey serve them up on toast in good shape?”
“Of course he can,” answered Don. “No one can do it better; but Hop hasn’t brought in any quails yet. Where did you leave him? I wondered why he didn’t come home with you.”
“Hasn’t he returned?” exclaimed Egan. “Then he’s lost. We haven’t seen him since two o’clock, when he coaxed your pointers away from us – we owe him a grudge for that, for we wanted the dogs to stay by us and retrieve the ducks we shot – and went over into a field after a flock of quails he had marked down there. We heard him shoot several times after that, and as he is a good marksman, we made up our minds that we were to have quails for supper. There he is now,” added Egan, as an impatient yelp sounded at the door.
“I am afraid you are mistaken,” replied Don, and the sequel proved that he was; for just then the door was thrown open, and Don’s hounds, which Cuff, in obedience to Bert’s orders, had brought up to guard the shooting-box, came bounding in. There were six of them, and the one which held the foremost place in Don’s estimation was Carlo, the dog that had been the first to respond to his whistle when he was tied up in Godfrey Evans’s potato-hole. He was an immense brute, as well as a savage one, and when he raised himself on his hind feet and placed his paws on Don’s shoulders, his head was higher than his master’s.
“We will keep them in here with us until Hop comes; for as they are not very well acquainted with him, they might object to his coming to the house,” said Bert. “Now, Cuff, dish up a couple of those ducks in your very best style. Be in a hurry, for we are hungry.”
Curtis and Egan, having exchanged their high-top boots for easy-fitting shoes, and their heavy shooting-coats for others of lighter material, set to work to clean their guns, while the rest of the boys drew their chairs up in front of the fire, and asked one another what it was that was detaining Hopkins. He couldn’t get lost; they were sure of that, for all he had to do when he wanted to come home, was to follow the shore of the lake, and he would find the shooting-box without the least trouble.
“Do you suppose he would be in any danger from those vagabond friends of ours, if he should chance to stumble upon them in the woods?” said Curtis, as he pointed his breech-loader toward the lamp and looked through the barrel to make sure that it was perfectly clean. “I must confess that I didn’t quite like the looks of them.”
“I never thought of them,” said Don, jumping up and taking his double-barrel down from the antlers on which it rested. “I believe he would be in danger if he should meet one of those fellows in the woods, for he wears a splendid gold watch and chain, and I noticed that the man who was chopping wood when we came here this morning, looked at the chain very frequently. I think it would be a good plan to signal to him.”
“Better let me do it,” said Egan. “He can hear my gun farther than he can yours.”
Accompanied by all the boys Egan went out on the shore of the lake and fired both barrels of his heavy piece in quick succession; but there was no response. Again and again the duck-gun roared, awaking a thousand echoes along the shore, but still the missing boy did not reply. When Egan had fired away all the cartridges he had brought out with him, the boys went back into the cabin and sat down and looked at one another. They began to fear that their friend’s ill-luck had followed him from Bridgeport to Rochdale, and that he had got himself into some kind of a scrape.
We said in the second chapter that after Bob Owens ran away from home to become a hunter, and Godfrey Evans and his son Dan went to work to earn an honest living, and David Evans became mail carrier, and Lester Brigham withdrew himself from the society of the boys in the neighborhood, the inhabitants of Rochdale and the surrounding country settled back into their old ways, and waited for something to happen that would create an excitement. Unfortunately they were not obliged to wait long.
After one has spent years of his life in idleness, he finds it an exceedingly difficult task to turn over a new leaf and make a radical and permanent change in his whole course of conduct, and Godfrey and Dan were no exceptions to this rule. So long as they worked for General Gordon, who took pains to keep a close watch over them, and to encourage them by every means in his power, there was no fault to be found with them. They labored early and late; Godfrey, as we know, saving enough from his hard earnings to refund the money of which he had robbed Clarence Gordon on the highway, the old cabin in which they lived was repaired and refurnished, and everything seemed to be well with them; but when they had cut all the wood the general could use that year, and the latter went away on business leaving them to take care of themselves, the trouble began. They made a few feeble attempts to find more work, and in their efforts to do so they came in contact with the professional loafers about the landing, whose influence over them was anything but beneficial. The majority of them spent their time in watching the steamboats, taking part in shooting-matches and making a pretense of hunting and trapping for a livelihood; while those who had work, and were able to pay for having it done, did not want Godfrey and Dan to do it. Mr. Owens, Bob’s father, was mainly responsible for this state of affairs. He had not yet got over being angry at General Gordon for putting in a bid for the mail-route when he wanted it himself, and he never allowed an opportunity to abuse him to pass unimproved.
“Gordon seems to have taken Godfrey and his family under his protecting wing, and now he can provide for them and welcome,” Mr. Owens often said. “I want some wood cut the worst way, but I’ll see Godfrey and Dan in Jerusalem before they shall have the job. If it hadn’t been for Gordon I might have had my boy at home with me now.”
“Yes, and my boy would not have been obliged to make a hermit of himself,” Mr. Brigham would always remark when he heard Mr. Owens talking in this way. These two men had been rather distant toward each other after Mr. Brigham’s refusal to go on Bob’s bond, but they were firm friends now. They both hated General Gordon, and for nearly the same reason. Mr. Brigham had come to Rochdale with the idea that his money would at once make him the head man of the county; but in this he was most sadly disappointed. He found that the general was worth just as much, if not more than he was; that he was everybody’s friend and adviser, a member of the legislature and a candidate for governor, and that it would be of no use for anybody to try to usurp his place. That was the reason he didn’t want the general to have the contract for carrying the mail; and when he learned that the latter had influence enough to secure it without any of his help, he was greatly enraged, and felt quite as bitter toward his rich neighbor as Bob’s father did.
“Never mind,” said Mr. Owens. “It is a long lane that has no turning, and we shall some day be able to get square with Gordon for that piece of business. Mark my words: David Evans will sooner or later prove himself to be utterly unworthy the confidence that is placed in him. It can’t be otherwise, for he is – ”
Mr. Owens was about to add that David was the son of a thief as well as the brother of one; but he didn’t say it, for he recollected in time that his own son was not above reproach – that he had left Rochdale having in his possession more than a hundred and sixty dollars that did not belong to him.
“Where have you fellows kept yourselves so long?” asked one of the loafers, when Godfrey and Dan once more made their appearance at the landing, carrying their rifles on their shoulders as in the days gone by. “Been spendin’ some of Dave’s money in a tower to Europe? O, been cuttin’ wood for Gordon, eh? Well, that’s what I call nigger’s work, and I wouldn’t do it for no ’ristocrat. It’s right smart easier to hunt and trap. There’s going to be a power of deer and turkey this fall, and Silas Jones has agreed to pay cash for all I can bring him. He’d be willing to make the same bargain with you, I know, for he wants all he can get to ship to some commission merchant in St. Louis. He gives eight cents a pound for the deer, and sixty cents apiece for the turkeys.”
“I’ll just tell ye what’s the gospel truth, Dannie,” said Godfrey, after some of his old friends had talked to him in this way a few times. “I’ve got just as much right to hire somebody to chop my wood as Gordon has, an’ I ain’t goin’ to cut no more fur him nor no other ’ristocrat. I’m goin’ huntin’.”