“So be I,” said Dan, who was delighted at the prospect of going back to his old way of living.
“So ye shall, Dannie. We’ve done niggers’ work long enough, an’ now we’ll be gentlemen agin, like we used to be. Thar ain’t no call fur you an’ me to work so hard every day, when everybody else takes it so easy down thar at the landin’; an’ we won’t do it, neither. Here’s Dave makin’ a power of money, and as he ain’t of age yet, every cent he ’arns ought to go into my own pocket. It shall go thar too, or I’ll make a bigger furse here in the settlement nor I did afore. Gordon needn’t go to pokin’ his nose into the matter, either, for he won’t scare me as easy as he did the last time.”
“How much would a deer be worth at eight cents a pound, pap?” inquired Dan.
“Wal, that depends. If he weighed a hundred an’ twenty pounds, he’d bring as much as five or six dollars, I reckon; an’ if he weighed two hundred an’ fifty pounds, like the one I killed three winters ago, he’d be worth fifteen, an’ mebbe twenty-five dollars,” answered Godfrey, who was no quicker at figures than he used to be.
“That’s a heap more nor I could make chopping wood,” said Dan.
“Course it is. A smart hunter like yourself oughter be able to get a deer every day, to say nothin’ of the turkeys ye might trap an’ shoot. ’Sides ye’d be doin’ a gentleman’s work an’ not a nigger’s.”
This conversation took place between Dan and his father one bright summer’s day when they were returning home from the landing, whither they had gone under pretense of looking for work. Mrs. Evans knew there was something wrong the moment they appeared at the door, and she was not long in finding out what it was. Godfrey and Dan had worked faithfully during the whole of the winter and spring, and Mrs. Evans, although she did not see a cent of the money they earned, David being expected to look out for her comfort, began to believe that their reformation was complete, and that it would prove to be lasting; but now she learned, to her great sorrow, that she had been too hasty in coming to these conclusions. When she saw that the axes were thrown aside, and that the rifles, which had so long been idle, were daily taken down from their hooks, she knew that bad times were coming again. And they came apace, too. Godfrey and Dan seemed to have lost all their skill as hunters, for the game they brought to the landing did not amount to much. It is true that they made some money, but it all slipped through their fingers without doing them any good, and by the time cold weather came they were as ragged and lazy as they had ever been, and just as ready to engage in any scheme that would bring them money without work.
Meanwhile Lester Brigham mustered up courage enough to come out of his retirement, and was somewhat surprised as well as vexed to learn that he might have done so long ago if he had felt so disposed, and that his voluntary banishment was entirely needless. Nobody paid much attention to him.
“Don’s got another shantee over there on the point, and I shouldn’t be sorry to see that go up in smoke like the old one did,” a man of the Godfrey Evans stamp said to Lester one day. “’Tain’t no use to him and Bert, and by building it there they have taken the bread out of the mouths of a good many folks who live about here. As soon as school is out they’ll come home, get a party of their friends together, and kick up such a rumpus there on the lake that all the birds will be driven out of the country; and when a poor man gets out of bacon he can’t have a duck or goose for dinner, for there won’t be any for him to shoot.”
Every time Lester Brigham rode away from the landing – he very soon fell into the habit of going there as regularly as Godfrey and Dan did – he carried with him the impression that the Gordons were not held in very high esteem, and that he and Bob Owens had the sympathy of all the best people in the settlement. Encouraged by this belief, he began making efforts to work his way into the good graces of the Packard boys, but he failed utterly. Fred and Joe were warm friends of the Gordons, and they met his advances in so freezing a manner that Lester was highly enraged, and straightway set his wits at work to conjure up some plan for getting even with them. He wished for Bob Owens more than he had ever wished for him before (if Bob had been there he would not have joined him in any plan for mischief or revenge, for he was not that kind of a boy now); but as the only friend he had ever had since he had been in the settlement was many miles away, and Lester could no longer bear to live alone, he was forced to look for another associate – one who had plenty of time at his disposal, and who would accompany him on all his hunting and fishing excursions. He found him at last in the person of Dan Evans, who lost no time in turning their intimacy to account.
Lester, as we know, was provided with all the implements that any sportsman could possibly find use for, but he was a very poor shot, and he knew nothing whatever about hunting. He had, however, a larger amount of pocket money than he could spend in Rochdale, and whenever Dan Evans made a good bag, Lester would select from it such birds or animals as he fancied, pay the cash for them, and carry them home to show as trophies of his own skill. Of course Dan was not just such a companion as he would like to have had, but he was better than no friend at all, and in his presence Lester could brag to his heart’s content. No matter how unreasonable the story he told, Dan never disputed it or even looked incredulous. He was much too cunning for that.
“If I had the money that your brother brought my father last night, I wouldn’t be here to-morrow at this time,” Lester said to Dan one day. He had of late grown very tired of life in Mississippi, and was almost constantly urging his father to let him go somewhere, he didn’t much care where, so long as he could find ample opportunity for recreation, and would not be required to work or study. Mr. Brigham had threatened to send him away to school if he did not leave off bothering him, and Lester was so very much afraid he would carry his threat into execution, that he began to think seriously of leaving home as his friend, Bob Owens, had done. The only thing that stood in his way was the want of money. “When the mail was distributed last night my father got a letter with five thousand dollars in it,” continued Lester. “He gets that much on the fifteenth day of every month from his agent who is selling off our property in the North.”
Dan opened his eyes in great surprise. Five thousand dollars was not so large an amount as he and his father had hoped to make by digging up the barrel of gold and silver that was supposed to be buried in General Gordon’s potato-patch, but still it was a lot of money – a much greater sum than Dan ever expected to earn by honest labor.
“I don’t want you to say anything about it,” continued Lester, “for it is my opinion that there are a good many men about here who would not be any too good to waylay Dave and rob him if they knew that he was entrusted with the care of so much money.”
Dan protested that he wouldn’t think of such a thing; but still the information he had received seemed to make an impression upon him, for he became very silent and thoughtful after that, and Lester could hardly get a word out of him. He seemed to have suddenly lost all interest in hunting, for he missed several fair shots, and finally declaring that he did not feel in the humor for sport, he abruptly abandoned his companion, leaving him to continue the hunt alone or to go home, just as he pleased. An idea had suggested itself to Dan, and he wanted to get off by himself so that he could turn it over in his mind and see what he could make of it.
“Five thousand dollars,” said Dan to himself, as he hurried through the woods. “That’s a right smart chance of money, the first thing you know. And to think that our leetle Dave should have the handlin’ of it! Dave makes stacks of greenbacks by ridin’ around the country doin’ nothin’, he wears good clothes all the time, and here’s me – Dog-gone my buttons, I’ve got just as good a right to have five thousand dollars as Mr. Brigham has. I wish I was mail-carrier. I wouldn’t ask to go more’n one trip, an’ after that nobody in this country wouldn’t ever set eyes onto me again.”
Dan seemed to know where he was going and what he intended to do when he got there, for he kept straight ahead without once slackening his pace, paying no heed to the squirrels which barked at him as he hurried along, and making his way around the foot of Diamond lake, he finally reached the levee that ran along the bank of the river. Here he found a dilapidated house-boat which had been tied up to the bank for a month or more – long enough, at any rate, for Dan to become very well acquainted with the men who owned it. He had met them while hunting in the woods, had showed them the best places to set their traps for minks and ’coons, had taken part with them in shooting-matches at the landing, and had given them information which rendered it comparatively easy for them to forage upon the hen-roosts and smoke-houses of the planters who lived in the neighborhood. They had drawn a good many secrets from the boy – one especially that they intended to use for their own benefit as soon as the opportunity was presented.
Dan walked up the plank that ran from the shore to the bow of the house-boat, and entered the cabin without ceremony. It was as dismal a hole as he had ever looked into, and Dan, accustomed as he was to gloomy surroundings, wondered how anybody could live there. It contained but one apartment, and that was used as a kitchen, sitting-room, dining-room and bed-room. The men were lounging in their bunks, while their wives were gathered about the rusty stove puffing vigorously at their well-blackened cob-pipes. When the boat careened under Dan’s weight, one of the men sprang from his bunk and made an effort to conceal a couple of chickens he had just been picking; but as soon as he saw who the visitor was, he laid them down again, for he knew he had nothing to fear.
“Mornin’. I reckon I skeered ye jest a trifle, didn’t I? How wet ye be in here,” said Dan, glancing at the little pools of water that filled every depression in the rough, uneven floor.
“Come in an’ take a cheer, Dannie,” said the man who had tried to hide the chickens, while the other two sat up in their bunks and nodded to him. “It is damp, that’s a fact; but, you see, it rained powerful yesterday, the roof aint by no means as tight as it might be, an’ the ole scow leaks water awful. We can’t hardly keep her pumped out.”
“Then what makes ye stay here?” asked Dan. “I know a nice, tight leetle house over thar on the shore of the lake, with two big rooms into it, an’ thar aint nobody lives thar.”
“We’ve seen it; but it’s locked up.”
“What’s the odds? Take something an’ pull one of the steeples out, an’ ye kin get in as easy as fallin’ off a log.”
“We don’t want to get into no trouble. Who owns it?”
“Don Gordon; but he’s off somewhere goin’ to school, an’ thar’s no tellin’ when he will be to hum.”
“Does he live thar when he’s to home?”
“No. He jest stays there a leetle while an’ shoots ducks an’ geese. That’s what he built it fur.”
“Rich folks always has nice things,” said one of the men who had not spoken before, “but we poor folks has to take what we can get. We’re just as good as Gen’ral Gordon too, every day in the week.”
“So be I,” said Dan, “an’ I wouldn’t stand back if I wanted to go thar. Thar aint no sense in Don’s livin’ in that shantee when his father’s got a big house with carpets an’ a pianner into it, an’ chiny an’ silver to set the table with.”
“No, thar ain’t,” said the man who had done the most of the talking and who answered to the name of Barlow. “We’ll move our duds over thar, if we can get in, an’ stay thar until we can fix our boat up a little. If everything works right, we’ll have a better one before long.”
He got upon his feet as he spoke and drew from under his bunk a short bar of iron, which had more than once come into play when Barlow wanted to force an entrance into somebody’s smoke-house. Carrying this in his hand, he went ashore with Dan, who led the way through the woods toward Don Gordon’s shooting-box. It was the work of scarcely a moment to pull out one of the staples, and when that had been done, the door swung open, and Dan and his companion went in to take a survey of the interior. It was dry and comfortable, as clean as it could possibly be, and Barlow at once decided that he would live there as long as he remained in that neighborhood.
“It’s nice to be rich,” said he, seating himself in one of the empty bunks, after touching a match to the pile of light wood which the lawful owner of the shooting-box had left in the fire-place. “It’s nice to have horses an’ hounds an’ niggers to work for you, while you have nothing to do but ride around the country an’ enjoy yourself. That’s the way I’d live if I had the chance to make money that your brother’s got.”
“Yes, Dave makes right smart,” said Dan, with some pride in his tones, “an’ he don’t do no work, nuther. But he’s scandalous mean with what he ’arns. He gives it all to mam, an’ me an’ pap never have none of it. He’s gettin’ mighty tired of Dave’s way of doin’, pap is, an’ t’other night he told Dave that he could jest fork over every cent of his ’arnin’s, an’ let pap have the handlin’ of ’em. Dave, he said he wouldn’t do it, an’ I’m looking for the biggest kind of a furse up to our house when next pay-day comes.”
“Your pap has got the right to every cent Dave makes till he is twenty-one years old, an’ Dave can’t hender him from takin’ it,” said Barlow. “I ’spose he carries a heap of money between the landin’ an’ the county-seat in that mail-bag of his’n.”
“I should say he did!” exclaimed Dan. “Only last night he brought in five thousand dollars for Mr. Brigham – the father of that boy who was down here with me t’other day. Lester said so this mornin’. He told me too that Dave brings in just that much on the fifteenth day of every month.”
Barlow started and looked hard at Dan, and then he looked down at the floor. “Wal, if I was Dave,” said he, after a moment’s pause, “I’d bring in jest one more of them letters, an’ then I’d skip.”
“So would I,” said Dan. “What does Brigham want with that money? He’s got more’n he can use already. Lester said so.”
“That’s always the way with rich folks, Dannie. The more they get the more they want; an’ me an’ you an’ everybody like us could starve for all they care. We’re jest as good as they be too. It’s a wonder to me that somebody don’t go for Dave an’ take some of them letters away from him.”
“I don’t care if they do,” answered Dan. “If I should see ’em doin’ it, I wouldn’t lift a hand to hender ’em. That would bring Dave down from his high hoss, fur Gen’ral Gordon wouldn’t never hire him to tote the mail agin; an’ then he’d have to scratch for a livin’ the way me an’ pap does.”
“It would serve him right, for bein’ so stingy,” said Barlow.
“But the feller that goes for him had better watch out,” continued Dan, “fur Dave, he carries a double-barrel dissolver in his pocket. It shoots six times, an’ he knows how to use it.”
“I don’t reckon that would stand in the way of anybody who wanted them letters,” said Barlow, with a laugh. “If Dave should see a couple of loaded rifles lookin’ him square in the face, he wouldn’t think of his six-shooter.”
“Mebbe he wouldn’t,” said Dan. “But if I could ride that mail-route the next time Brigham’s money-letter comes in – if Dave could be tuk sick, or get lost in the woods, or something so’t I could take his place – the fellow that wanted them five thousand wouldn’t have no trouble, for I shouldn’t have no dissolver with me. But he’d have to give me half.”
This was the idea that had so suddenly suggested itself to Dan Evans – to get David out of the way for one day so that he could carry the mail, and give Barlow and his two friends a chance to secure a portion of Mr. Brigham’s money. If Barlow had jumped at the bait thus adroitly thrown out, Dan would have proposed that, after the robbery had been accomplished, they should all take to the flat-boat, push it out into the river, and let the current take it to New Orleans, where they would divide the money and separate, Dan going his way and Barlow and his companions going theirs. Dan thought it was a splendid idea, but Barlow knocked it into a cocked hat by the very next words he uttered.
“You couldn’t take your brother’s place even for a single day,” said he.
“What fur?” demanded Dan, who was greatly surprised. “Can’t I ride that thar colt of his’n as well as he kin?”
“I ’spose you can; but that ain’t the pint. You’ve never been swore in fur a mail-carrier, an’ so you would have no right to tech that mail-bag. If Dave should be tuk sick or get lost in the woods, Gen’ral Gordon would have to carry the mail himself.”
“Whoop!” yelled Dan, jumping up and knocking his heels together. “He’d be a wusser man to fool with nor Dave, fur he’s an old soldier.”
Barlow made no reply. The boy had given him something to think about, and he was as anxious to be rid of his presence as Dan was to get rid of his friend Lester Brigham. He left him without taking the trouble to assign any reason for his hurried departure, and went back to his boat. In the course of the day he and his friends transferred their luggage to the shooting-box, and there they lived until they were ordered out by its indignant owner. As their time was not fully occupied they had leisure to talk about the mail-carrier and Mr. Brigham’s money; and we shall presently see how their numerous consultations resulted.
“Here, Dandy! Here Punch! To heel,” said Bert, as he and his four companions started down the shore of the lake in search of their supper.
“Why do you make the dogs go behind?” demanded Hopkins. “Why don’t you hie them on, and perhaps they will stand something for us. I should think this ought to be good quail ground.”
“So it is,” answered Bert. “And if you want a chance at some, we’ll – ”
“No we won’t,” interrupted Egan. “If little birds are the height of Hop’s ambition, let him take the pointers some day and go off by himself. We are after ducks now, and we want the dogs to stay with us, and bring our game ashore when we kill it.”
Hopkins made no reply. Like all enthusiastic sportsmen, he had his own ideas of shooting, and he was much more successful with some kinds of game than he was with others. There was no boy who could beat him in getting over a rough country on horseback, when the hounds were in pursuit of a deer or fox; he was almost certain to kill every snipe, quail, or grouse that got up before him; but a wild duck, going down wind with the speed of a lightning express train, bothered him. With all his practice, he had never been able to make a respectable bag of water-fowl; so he stood around, holding his gun in the hollow of his arm, and watched Egan, who cut down every duck that passed anywhere within seventy-five yards of him. The pointers brought them out as fast as they fell into the lake, and it was not long before Bert and Fred Packard, who were polite enough to allow their guests to do all the shooting, had about as many ducks slung over their shoulders as they wanted to carry.
“This is like the handle of a jug – all on one side,” said Hopkins, at length. “I must find something to shoot at, for I can’t carry these loads back home with me.”
He gradually drew away from his companions as he spoke, but he had no intention of going off alone. He kept his eyes on the dogs, and when he saw them looking at him, he waved his hand toward the bushes. The intelligent and well-trained animals understood him, and, believing no doubt that hunting upland birds was easier and pleasanter work than retrieving ducks from the cold waters of the lake, they were prompt to obey the order thus silently conveyed to them. Egan and the rest did not see the dogs when they went away, for their attention was fully occupied with a fine flock of mallards, some of which were coming across the lake, holding a course which promised to bring them within easy range of Egan’s double-barrel. The latter, who was snugly hidden in a thicket of bushes, had cocked both barrels of his gun, and was waiting for the ducks to come a little nearer to his place of concealment, when all on a sudden they took wing and disappeared up the lake. Egan and his companions looked all around to see what had frightened them, and discovered Hopkins and the pointers in the act of crossing a fence that ran between the woods and a brier-patch.