“Now, Hop, that will never do,” cried Egan. “How are we going to get our ducks ashore if you take the dogs away?”
“Throw chunks on the other side of them and let the waves wash them ashore,” was the reply. “I saw a flock of quails over here, and as soon as I get some of them, I will bring the dogs back.”
“You’re not much of a sportsman, Hop,” said Curtis. “There is no such thing as a flock of quails. Covey is the proper word.”
“Aw!” said Hopkins. “Well, I don’t care what you call them, so long as you will let me have the dogs long enough to shoot some of them. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The duck hunters were obliged to be satisfied with this promise, and when Hopkins made it he fully intended to keep it; but in the ardor of the chase he forgot all about it. The pointers very soon found the covey, which Hopkins had marked down very accurately, and when it took wing at his approach, he brought down five members of it very handsomely. Punch and Dandy dropped to shot – that is, when the gun was fired, they laid down and waited for the hunter to reload – and when they were ordered to seek dead, they executed a man?uvre which some of our best artists, who love a dog and gun, have often reproduced on canvas.
The reason why dogs are taught to drop to shot is this: The members of the covey do not all fly away at the same time, but some generally remain behind, preferring to trust to concealment rather than to flight. If the dogs were permitted to rush in at once to secure the dead birds, they would flush these laggards, which would get off scot free; for of course the sportsman could not shoot at them while he held an empty gun in his hands.
“Seek dead,” commanded Hopkins, as soon as he had reloaded his gun; whereupon the dogs jumped up, and, after running about among the bushes for a few minutes, stopped and came to a point.
“Fetch!” said the hunter; and in obedience to the order each dog seized a bird. They were coming in with them, when Dandy stopped as if he had suddenly been deprived of all power of action, and came to another point. He was standing a live bird while he held a dead one in his mouth. Punch backed him splendidly – that is, he stopped and pointed also, although he did not see or smell the bird – and the two presented a picture that Hopkins, had he been handy with the brush or pencil, would have been glad to preserve. He stood and looked at it for at least five minutes, the dogs holding their point stanchly all the while, and then he flushed the bird and brought it down.
“Well done, boys,” said Hopkins, after he had reloaded his gun, and placed the two quails carefully away in the capacious pockets of his shooting-coat; “you have been educated by somebody who understands his business. Seek dead.”
Hopkins had kept his eyes on the surviving members of the covey, and marked them down (by that we mean that he had noted the exact spot on which they alighted); but he did not intend to pay any further attention to them just then.
“I will attend to you in half an hour,” soliloquized Hopkins, when all the dead birds had been brought in. “By that time you will begin to run around, and the dogs will be able to scent you. Hie on, boys! Hunt up another flock.”
Hopkins had never seen so many quails as he saw that afternoon, not even in Maryland, where they are found in such numbers that they attract sportsmen from distant States. He found so many fresh coveys that he forgot all about the one he had left in the brier-patch. The pointers led him on and on, and Hopkins never stopped to take his bearings, until he had filled the pockets of his shooting-coat so full of birds that they would not hold another one. Then he sat down on a log to rest, and to listen for the roar of Egan’s gun. But he did not hear it, for Egan and his party were on their way to the shooting-box, having secured all the birds they wanted.
“I declare, it is growing dark,” said Hopkins; “and if I don’t reach the cabin pretty soon, I shall have to stay in the woods all night. That would not be pleasant, for the fellows never would leave off poking fun at me. Come on, boys. I think the lake lies in this direction.”
But Hopkins was not the only hunter who has been “completely turned around” in the woods, and instead of going toward the lake, he followed a course that lay parallel with the shore, and about a mile and a half from it. He walked rapidly, passing through Godfrey Evans’s old cotton field – now grown up to briers – and within less than two hundred yards of his cabin, and finally found himself sitting on the top rail of a fence which ran along by the side of a smooth, well-beaten road. He did not remember that he had ever seen that road before. He believed that it ran from the river back into the country; but which was the river-end of it and which the country-end, he could not tell. The pointers did not seem disposed to help him out of his quandary, for when he stopped on the top rail of the fence to rest, they laid themselves contentedly down by the side of the road to wait until he was ready to go on.
“I am out of my reckoning as sure as the world,” said Hopkins to himself, “and there’s no house in sight. Ah! Here comes somebody. I’ll ask him if he will tell me which way I must go to find the river – that is, if I can stop him.”
Just then Hopkins heard the clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the hard road. He knew that the animal was approaching at the top of his speed, but he could not see him, for the thick bushes shut out his view. He jumped off the fence and hurried to the road to intercept the horseman, and just then a riderless nag dashed by, running with the speed of the wind. Hopkins knew him the moment he caught sight of him, for he had seen him before.
“There, sir!” he exclaimed, “I knew that colt would do some damage if he ever got the chance. When you see a horse with a narrow forehead and peaked ears that almost touch at the tips, you want to look out for him. He’s gone and tumbled Dave Evans and his mail bag off into the ditch, and who knows but he may have broken his neck?”
As this thought passed through the boy’s mind he shouldered his gun, and set off up the road in the direction from which the horse came. He moved along at a rapid trot, looking everywhere for the dismounted mail-carrier, but he would certainly have passed him if he had been alone. The dogs were the first to discover him. After Hopkins had run about half a mile, Dandy and Punch, who were fifty yards in advance of him, suddenly stopped and began barking at something in the fence-corner – the boy could not see what it was, for the bushes concealed it from his view. Believing from the actions of the dogs that they had found a wild animal of some kind, Hopkins cocked both barrels of his gun and walked slowly along the road until he came opposite the fence corner, but still he could see nothing. He tried to send the dogs into the bushes, but they positively refused to go. They barked loudly and looked very savage, but kept close to Hopkins for protection.
“I don’t much like the idea of going in there myself,” thought the young hunter, “for there are such, things as bears, panthers and wild-cats in this country; and neither do I like to go on without having a shot at that varmint, whatever it may be. I won’t, either. I am going to see what it is.”
His gun was loaded with heavy shot, and Hopkins had the utmost confidence in his skill as a marksman. Having fully made up his mind that he would not be driven from the field by an invisible enemy, he walked cautiously toward the bushes, stooping down now and then to peer into them. The pointers kept pace with him, and finally Dandy, who must have discovered something that set his fears at rest, made a sudden bound and disappeared in the thicket. No sooner was he out of sight than his barking ceased, and when Hopkins parted the bushes with one hand, holding his gun in the other in readiness for a shot, he saw the pointer licking the face of the mail-carrier, who was lying on the ground so effectually gagged with a stick that he could not speak, and so tightly wrapped up in ropes that he could move neither hand nor foot. Hopkins was horrified, as almost any boy would have been under the same circumstances. Although the thicket was pretty dark the hunter recognized David as readily as he had recognized his horse, and he thought at first that he was dead; but when his optics became somewhat accustomed to the obscurity, he saw that David’s eyes were wide open, and that they were turned toward him with a most appealing expression.
“Well, this is a little ahead of any thing I ever heard of,” said Hopkins, who was profoundly astonished. “What are you doing there?”
David made an effort to reply, but the stick that was tied between his teeth checked his utterance. Then it appeared to dawn upon Hopkins that possibly the captive mail-carrier would be grateful for a little assistance, and he proceeded to give it without further loss of time. Letting down the hammers of his gun he laid the weapon on the ground, pulled his knife from his pocket, and in less time than it takes to write it, David was relieved of both gag and bonds and placed upon his feet.
“I have been robbed!” he gasped, as soon as he could speak.
“I suspected as much,” replied Hopkins, calmly. “It could not have happened so very long ago.”
“No, I suppose not. The men have not been gone more than ten minutes, probably, but it seems as though I had been a prisoner here for an hour.”
“Very likely. Did you recognize the robbers?”
“I did not. I am quite sure I never saw them before. They had made an attempt to disguise themselves as negroes, but I could see their white skins through the black on their faces very plainly.”
“Well, come on,” said Hopkins. “There’s no use in standing here and allowing them to get away with their plunder. Tell me all about it as we go along.”
“There’s not much to tell,” answered David, after he and Hopkins had worked their way out of the bushes to the road. “I was jogging along at a lively pace, never dreaming of danger, when the first thing I knew, three men jumped out of the bushes and halted me. One pointed a cocked rifle straight at my head, another seized my horse by the bits, while the third pulled me and the mail-bag to the ground. Then the man who was holding my horse let him go – ”
“I saw him,” said Hopkins, “and that was a very lucky thing for you. I lost my way, and while I was sitting on the fence, trying to make up my mind which end of this road I ought to take in order to reach the landing, your horse went by. I supposed he had thrown you, and so I came on to see if I could do anything for you.”
“And very grateful I am to you for it,” said David, warmly.
“Of course; that’s all understood; but the credit belongs to your horse and to Don Gordon’s pointers. If I hadn’t seen the horse, I should not have known that anything had happened to you; and if Punch and Dandy had not been with me, I should have gone right by that thicket of bushes without once suspecting that there was anybody hidden there. Well, proceed. The man let your horse go – then what?”
“Then they all jumped on me, and before I fully comprehended the situation, I was helpless and speechless. They turned my pockets inside out, but the only thing they found in them that was worth stealing, was my revolver. One of them grabbed that and the mail-bag and made off with them, while the other two carried me into the bushes and left me there.”
“Did they make much of a haul?” asked Hopkins.
“I can’t answer that question, for I don’t know what there was in the mail-bag. If they had robbed me a few days ago, that is, on the fifteenth, they would have got something to pay them for their trouble, for I had in my pocket seven hundred dollars of Silas Jones’s money that I brought from the county seat for him.”
They would have secured something else, also, and that was a check that was worth five thousand dollars to Mr. Brigham, but which would have been of no more value to the robbers than so much waste paper. The mail-carrier, however, was not aware of that fact, and if Lester Brigham had only been wise enough to keep his own counsel, no one in the settlement, except those interested, would have known that David was ever intrusted with money or its equivalent.
“I’ll never carry any more funds for anybody,” said David, choking back a sob. “Indeed, I don’t suppose I shall ever have another chance.”
“Why not?” asked Hopkins. “You are in no way to blame for the-loss of your mail-bag.”
“I know it; and I am very glad indeed that I was not found and released by any one who lives in the settlement. As you are a stranger here you are, of course, neither a friend nor an enemy to me, and consequently you can have no object in defending or condemning me.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean just this: There is no one in the neighborhood who has warmer friends and more bitter enemies than I have. I know that my friends will stand by me in my trouble, but there are a good many in the settlement who will say that I wasn’t robbed at all – that I stole the mail and made up a story to cover my guilt. I am neither blind nor deaf, and I can put my hand on a dozen men and boys who are watching for a chance to throw me out of my position so that they can apply for it themselves. No one ever thought the mail-carrier’s berth was worth anything until I got it, and now everybody wants it.”
“Let ’em want,” said Hopkins, encouragingly. “You have nothing to fear so long as you retain the confidence of Don’s father. We’ll go and see him the first thing. Being a magistrate, he will, of course, know just how to go to work to find and arrest those fellows.”
The boy’s confidence in General Gordon was not misplaced, but it is doubtful if that gentleman, with all his shrewdness, could have effected the capture of the robbers as easily as he did, had it not been for the fact that the quick-witted Don obtained a clue for him from a most unexpected quarter.
We left Don and his friends sitting in their cosy room at the shooting-box waiting for supper, which was served in due time. Curtis and Egan were astonished at the quantity and variety of the viands which old Cuff spread before them, and paid the highest possible compliment to his skill as a cook and caterer by eating until they could find room for no more. When he pushed his chair away from the table, after trying in vain to dispose of the last piece of roast duck that Cuff had placed before him, Egan declared that he never could go to bed after such a supper as that, and proposed that they should make another effort to find out where Hopkins was. Don said he thought it would be a good plan; so Egan took down his double-barrel, filled one of his pockets with cartridges and started for the door. Just as he opened it the report of a gun, fired twice in rapid succession, came echoing across the lake. It sounded from the direction of Godfrey Evans’s cabin.
“There he is now,” said Bert.
In order to make sure of it Curtis set up a very fair imitation of a war-whoop (he and the rest of the academy boys had been practicing on it ever since the Indians made the attack on their camp) and before the echoes it awakened had wholly died away, an answering whoop came from the other side of the water.
“It is Hop,” said Don, as he ran into the cabin after his cap. “Shove off the sail-boat, fellows, and pile in.”
In less than a quarter of an hour the sail-boat had been launched and pulled across to the opposite side of the lake. Hopkins was not at the landing to meet them, so the boat’s painter was made fast to a tree, and Don and the rest started toward Godfrey’s cabin. By the aid of the light which streamed through the open door, Don could see that his friend was standing in the yard, that David and his mother were with him, and that all three appeared to be conversing earnestly with a horseman who had just stopped there. When the latter saw Don and his party approaching, he put spurs to his nag and galloped away.
“What did I tell you, Mr. Hopkins?” said David, bitterly. “There are twenty men and more in this settlement who believe just as Mr. Owens does.”
“What’s the trouble here?” inquired Don, “and what does Mr. Owens believe?”
“O, Mr. Don, it’s dreadful,” cried Mrs. Evans, covering her face with her hands and sinking down upon the bench beside the door. “To think that my David should ever be accused of such a crime!”
“The trouble is, that the mail has been stolen,” said Hopkins, “and Mr. Owens, who was ordered out by the constable to assist in raising a ‘hue and cry’ after the robbers, has just been down here to comfort David with the assurance that he doesn’t believe a word of his story.”
“He had the impudence to tell me, to my face, that I was the thief,” exclaimed David, hotly. “He said that when I first began to ride the route he told several people about here that that mail would get into trouble through me sooner or later, and he seems delighted to find that his prediction has been fulfilled.”
“Why – I – I. Eh?” cried Don, who was utterly astounded; while the rest of the party, no less astonished and bewildered, crowded up closer to the speaker in order to catch every word.
“I don’t wonder that you are surprised,” said Hopkins. “So was I, when I found him back there in the country, bound and gagged, and laid away in a fence corner. Mr. Owens declares that David tied himself, but I know better.”
“What are you trying to get at, anyhow?” exclaimed Bert.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” chimed in Don. “Now, Dave, begin at the beginning and tell your story so that we can understand it.”
David complied, and for a few minutes held his auditors spell-bound. After he had described how the robbers had tied his hands and feet and concealed him in the bushes, Hopkins took up the narrative and told his part of it, adding that he and David had gone straight to the general, who, after listening to their story, took immediate steps to effect the capture of the robbers.
“But I am very much afraid that he will never find them,” said Hopkins. “He acknowledged that he didn’t suspect anybody, and David says he never saw the men before. Besides, they were disguised as negroes.”
“I don’t care for that,” said Don. “I know who did it, and so do you. Stay here, everybody.”
To the surprise of all his companions, Don walked with a firm and rapid step straight into the cabin and closed the door behind him. A moment later a frightened scream came from the inside, followed by the words —
“Go way, Mr. Don! Go way, I tell ye. I didn’t tuk it – I sw’ar I didn’t; an’ if you lay an ugly hand onto me I’ll make daylight shine through you as sure – whoop!”
Just then a rifle cracked, and the cabin shook all over as some heavy body fell violently to the floor. These alarming sounds seemed to freeze the blood in the veins of those who listened to them. The boys were struck dumb and motionless with horror, while Mrs. Evans wrung her hands silently for a moment and then fell off the bench in a dead faint. They knew instinctively what had happened inside the cabin. Bert was the first to recover his power of action. He ran for the door, but it would not open for him. When Don closed it he had pulled in the latch-string so that his companions could not follow him.
“Stand out of the way, Bert,” cried Hopkins, “and give me a chance at it.”
So saying, Hopkins backed off a few paces and launched his hundred and eighty pounds against the door with all the force he could command. The weak wooden hinges gave way beneath his weight, and the door landed in the middle of the cabin with Hopkins on top of it. Bert and the rest crowded in as soon as the way was opened for them, and although their fears were instantly allayed by the scene that was presented to their gaze, their wonder was greatly increased. Dan Evans was lying flat upon his back, and Don Gordon was holding him down with the greatest ease, in spite of Dan’s frantic efforts to get up.
“O, Don!” cried Bert. “Did he hit you?”
“No,” was the encouraging reply. “I am all right. You fellows go out, please, and leave us alone. I want to ask Dan a few questions.”
The boys mechanically obeyed, looking inquiringly at one another and shaking their heads as if to say that all attempts at explanation would be useless. The whole proceeding was a deep mystery, and so it would remain until Don was ready to clear it up.