While Don was listening to the story of the robbery as related by David and Hopkins, he stood in such a position that he could look through the open door of the cabin and command a view of the interior. There was no one in there except Dan Evans, who, instead of coming out to hear the story, as almost any boy would have done, kept his seat by the fireplace. The light shone full upon him, and Don could see that he was ill at ease. He cast furtive glances toward the excited group in front of the door, twisted nervously about on his chair, and acted altogether as if he felt very miserable. Don was surprised at first, and finally he became suspicious.
“That fellow knows more about this afternoon’s work than any of us,” said he to himself. “He doesn’t act that way without some good reason. I believe it will pay to ask him a few questions.”
The sequel proved that our hero had struck a warm trail the very first time trying. When Dan found himself shut up in the cabin, and Don Gordon standing between him and the door and cutting off his only way of escape, he became terribly alarmed, and confessed his guilt without waiting to be questioned. Scarcely realizing what he was doing, he broke out into loud protestations of innocence, and seizing his rifle, which stood in the corner behind him, declared that he would shoot the intruder if the latter laid a hand upon him. The threat was by no means an idle one. Dan fully intended to carry it out, but fortunately for him and all concerned, he had to deal with one who always kept a level head upon his shoulders. Before Dan had fairly ceased speaking, Don sprang clear across the cabin with one cat-like bound, seized the threatening rifle with one hand, laid hold of Dan’s collar with the other, and, bringing all his strength and skill into play, threw him to the floor with the greatest violence. In the struggle the rifle was discharged, but the bullet passed harmlessly through the roof. A few seconds later some heavy body came against the door, which was broken from its hinges, and Don’s companions came hurrying in, expecting to find him wounded or dead. They did not see how it could be otherwise, for there was not a better rifle-shot in the settlement than Dan Evans. Don quickly set their fears at rest by assuring them that he was “all right,” and at his request the boys went out again, leaving him alone with his captive.
“Now, Dan, what do you know about this miserable business?” said Don, as soon as his friends had left the cabin. “Believe me when I tell you that it will be better for you if you tell the truth. Dave is backed up by the whole United States government, and the fellows who waylaid him are bound to be captured. They cannot possibly escape.”
“I’m a hoss in the cane an’ hard to curry,” replied Dan; by which he meant that he was one who could not be easily conquered. In order to prove the truth of his assertion, he began struggling desperately; but Don seized him by both wrists, and crossing his arms upon his breast held him as if he had been screwed up in a vise.
“Answer my questions and then you can get up,” said Don, calmly.
“Don,” said Bert, thrusting his head in at the door, “Mrs. Evans says that Dan has been at home all the afternoon; so, of course, he could have had no hand in stealing the mail.”
“No, I didn’t, Mr. Don. I sw’ar I didn’t,” exclaimed Dan, who, finding that resistance was useless, began to shed tears copiously. “I didn’t tech that thar mail-bag.”
“I haven’t said that you did,” answered Don. “But you know who did touch it, and I want you to tell me all about it. Now be quick: who’s got it?”
“I reckon it must be Barlow,” whined Dan.
“He’s one of the fellers who was in your shootin’-box when you come thar this mornin’. He lives in that thar flat-boat that’s tied up to the river bank.”
“I thought so from the first,” said Don to himself. “I knew those vagabonds would raise some kind of a row before they left.” Then aloud, he added: “How do you know that they were in the shooting-box when I went there this morning?”
“Kase I was thar – me an’ Lester Brigham.”
“Lester Brigham!” repeated Don.
“Yes. Me an’ him goes huntin’ a’most every day.”
Don was profoundly astonished. He told himself that Lester must be getting very low down in the world if he were willing to make a daily companion of so worthless a fellow as Dan Evans.
“Well, this thing was all cut and dried, wasn’t it?” said he. “You planned the robbery, and Barlow and his two friends did the work. Was that the way of it?”
“I didn’t plan nothin’,” protested Dan. “Don’t hold me so tight, Mr. Don, an’ I’ll tell ye what’s the gospel truth. Lester, he told me that Dave was bringin’ in right smart of money for his pap every month, an’ I told Barlow of it, an’ Barlow he said he’d like to have some of it so’t he could live like rich folks do. That’s all I done, Mr. Don, sure’s yer born – honor bright, an’ hope to die if it aint.”
“You didn’t say anything to Barlow about going halvers with you?”
“Nary word, Mr. Don. Nary blessed word.”
Don didn’t believe this, for Dan was almost too earnest in his denial. But he had obtained a clue, and that was what he wanted.
“Dan,” said he, throwing all the emphasis he could into his words, “you had better take my advice and stay right here at home and mind your own business until this thing is settled. You will get yourself into trouble if you don’t. Now do as you please.”
So saying he helped Dan to his feet and joined his friends in front of the cabin. He spoke encouragingly to Mrs. Evans who was sobbing violently, assured David that there was no reason why he should be so down-hearted, and started for his sail-boat, followed by his companions. Of course the latter were full of questions. They had heard all that passed in the cabin, and knew that Dan Evans and Lester Brigham were in a measure responsible for the robbery; but what had put it into Don’s head to accuse Dan? That was something they could not understand.
“Dan gave himself away by his actions,” said Don, in explanation. “That’s the whole secret of the matter. But I don’t know what is to become of those two boys. Lester can’t get much lower by land, and as for Dan – he’ll end his days in the penitentiary if he keeps on. He meant to shoot me to-night; I could see it in his eye. Now we’ll go home and tell father all about it.”
Propelled by four oars the sail-boat moved swiftly through the water, and at the end of twenty minutes she was made fast to the jetty, and the boys were on their way to the house. When they reached the back porch they found three horses hitched there, and General Gordon in conversation with the constable and Godfrey Evans. The latter was stamping about in a great rage, flourishing his arms over his head, and acting like one demented.
“Why, what brings you boys here?” asked the general.
“We have news for you,” replied Don, who then went on to give a circumstantial account of the incidents that had just transpired at Godfrey’s cabin. Godfrey could hardly believe his ears. When he learned that Dan was one of the indirect causes of the robbery, he jumped up, knocked his heels together and uttered a yell that could have been heard a mile away.
“Gen’ral,” said he, picking up his rifle which he had laid upon the porch, “I’ll go hum an’ take the cowhide an’ I’ll larrup that thar boy – ”
“Calm yourself, Godfrey,” interrupted the general. “You will only make matters worse if you do that. What do you advise, Mr. Ross?” he added, turning to the constable.
“Is there any way to get Don’s sail-boat out of the lake into the river?” asked the officer.
“Of course there is,” answered Don. “We can row her up the pass and drag her over the levee. She’s heavy, but we have the force here to do it.”
“Then my advice is, that we find and search that house-boat at once,” said the constable. “Mr. Don, you would make a first-rate detective.”
The general went into the house to make out a search-warrant, and the boys hurried back to the jetty to put the sail-boat in readiness for her trip down the river. As the mast had been stepped that morning, the bowsprit put in, the sails bent on and the running rigging rove, all they had to do was to loosen the canvas and select those who were to pull the oars.
“There’s a splendid breeze on,” said Don, who had never been able to make up his mind which he liked best – sailing, horse-back riding, or shooting. “It blows right down the river, too. We can’t sail out because the pass is so narrow; but when we get out into the Mississippi, will go flying. Now, then, why doesn’t father come?”
The general was making out a warrant empowering the constable to search the house-boat when they found it, and then he lingered to unsaddle the horses which he had brought out for his own use and Godfrey’s. When these duties had been performed, he and Godfrey and the constable came down to the jetty and took their seats in the sail-boat, which was promptly pushed off and headed up the pass. Half an hour sufficed for the oarsmen to bring her to the levee, over which she was hauled without the least trouble. Then came another short stretch through which she was propelled by the oars; and as soon as she was fairly out of the pass and began to feel the force of the wind and the current, the oars were drawn in, Don seated himself at the helm, Bert, with Fred and Joe Packard’s assistance, hoisted the sails, the sheets were let out and the pursuit was begun.
“Keep as close in to shore as you can, Don,” said Bert. “It’s pretty dark, and we may pass her before we know it.”
“You don’t expect to see that house-boat where you found her this morning, do you?” said Don. “It’s eleven o’clock, isn’t it? Well, she is twenty miles down the river by this time. Keep a bright look-out for lights, everybody. We don’t want to let some steamboat run us down before we know it.”
Although he knew he was wasting time in doing it, Don kept the boat as close to the bank as he could with safety, but nothing was to be seen of the piratical craft of which they were in search. When Bert announced that they had passed the place where she had been moored in the morning, Don drew in the sheets a little, and held the boat’s head diagonally across the river in order to strike the stronger current of the channel. Then the sail-boat began to show the speed of which she was capable; and then, too, the general enjoined silence upon all her occupants.
“The night is comparatively quiet,” said he, “and the rattling of an oar, or a word spoken in a loud tone of voice, can be heard a long distance. We have one advantage over the crew of that flat-boat: we can get out of the way of a steamboat and they can’t; so they will have to carry lights for their protection.”
Under Don’s skillful management the little boat flew swiftly along, keeping in the channel when her course was clear, and making all haste to get out of it as often as the vigilant look-out announced that there were lights ahead. Two hours passed, and nothing had been seen of the flat-boat.
“I reckon we’ve missed her,” said the constable. “She has tied up to the bank somewhere, and we have run by her in the dark.”
“If that is the case, there is only one thing we can do,” said Don. “We’ll keep on down the river until day-light, and then we’ll come about and beat back again, making a close examination of each shore. She can’t escape us, unless she hauls into one of these little bayous and gets out of sight among the bushes.”
“And if her crew know the river and are at all sharp, that is just what they will do,” said the constable.
Just then a deep-toned whistle sounded in the bend below them, and instantly the conversation ceased and everybody was on the alert, and listening with all his ears to catch the reply. It came at length, but it was not a whistle; it was a prolonged blast from a tin horn. There was a commotion among the boys, and their excitement arose to fever heat.
“There she is,” said Bert, confidently.
“Don’t be too hasty in jumping at conclusions,” said his father, in a quiet tone.
“There’s a flat-boat in the bend below us, and I am sure of it,” answered Bert.
“So am I; but still it may not be the one we want to find. There is more than one flat-boat on this river, you know.”
Don brought his boat close to the wind, and went scudding across the river to get out of the steamer’s way. He held well over toward the eastern shore, and when he stood off on the other tack the steamer had passed, and Bert announced, in a low tone, that there were lights straight ahead. They were close to the water, and the sail-boat’s crew had but one opinion concerning them. They belonged to a flat-boat, but whether or not it was the one of which they were in pursuit, was a question that only time could solve.
“Lay us aboard of her without any ceremony,” said the general. “Bert, stand by with the boat-hook. We must move quickly, and give them no chance to throw the mail overboard, if they have got it.”
Don kept the bow of his little craft pointed toward the flat-boat, and so silently did she move through the water that the man who stood at the steering-oar, keeping a sharp look-out in front of him, but never thinking to look behind, was entirely unconscious of her approach. Presently Bert reached for the boat-hook, at the same time giving a nod that everybody understood. A few minutes more would decide whether they were on the right track or not. Bert stood up in his place; Don, at a sign from his father, paid out the main-sheet rapidly, thus bringing his craft broadside to the house-boat, and just then the man at the steering-oar awoke from his reverie and turned quickly about.
“Keep away, there!” he shouted, in great alarm. “Keep away, or you’ll sink us.”
Don did not want to sink the house-boat, but he wanted to come alongside of her, and he did it a moment later in a very creditable manner. The instant the two boats touched, General Gordon and his party sprang over the side and ran into the cabin, some going in at the back door and the others at the front, leaving Don and Bert to act as grappling-irons, and to keep the boats from drifting apart. The man at the steering-oar was captured by Egan, who stood guard over him with his double-barrel, and Barlow and his companion, who were busy in the cabin, were covered by the constable’s revolver and Godfrey Evans’s rifle before they had time to think of their weapons.
“This looks like business,” said the officer, handing his six-shooter to Fred Packard, and drawing three pairs of handcuffs from his pocket.
The others thought so too. David’s mail-bag lay upon the table – he would never carry it again, for it had been ruined by being cut open with a knife – and its contents were scattered about over the floor and in the bunks. The most of the letters had been torn open, and the robbers had reaped a very fair reward for their trouble, having secured about forty dollars in greenbacks, and a check for three hundred dollars, drawn by a country merchant in favor of his creditors in Memphis. The general took charge of the bills and the check, while the constable lost no time in putting the irons on Barlow and his confederate.
“Where’s the other?” said he. “There ought to be three of them.”
“Here he is,” said Egan, who marched his prisoner into the cabin and turned him over to the officer, at the same time making a sergeant’s salute, as he would if he had been at the academy.
“I told you jest how it would be,” said the steersman, glaring savagely at Barlow as he felt the cold handcuffs clasped about his wrists. “Why didn’t you hide, as I wanted you to do, instead of trying to run?”
“You would have showed a little more sense if you had done that,” said the constable, “but on the whole, we are very well satisfied. Now keep still, all of you,” he added, shaking his finger at the women, who, having checked their loud lamentations, now showed a disposition to become abusive. “Godfrey, keep your eye on these men until they are safe under lock and key.”
Godfrey was just the one for this business. There was only one thing that would have suited him better, and that was an order to punch the prisoners’ heads. For the first time his eyes were opened to the fact that David was a great help to the family, and that the loss of his position as mail-carrier would be a serious blow to all of them.
“If me an’ Dan would only wake up an’ stay woke up, we’d get along well enough,” he said to himself, as he leaned on his long rifle and looked thoughtfully at the floor. “Dave’s doin’ his shar’, an’ me an’ that lazy, good-for-nothin’ Dan has got to do our’n from this day on; an’ that’s just all thar is about it. Dan never would a thought of puttin’ anybody up to robbin’ Dave if he had been to work, an’ I’ll see that he has plenty to do in futur’, I bet ye.”
While General Gordon and the constable were gathering up the mail and putting it into the bag, they had much to talk about. They had secured the robbers, and the next thing was to get them back to Rochdale. They had about decided that they would tie the house-boat to the bank and take the prisoners up the river in the sail-boat, when Curtis came in to say that there were lights below them; whereupon the general picked up Barlow’s horn and went out to answer the steamer’s signals. This having been done, he waited for her to come abreast of the flat-boat. She proved to be a large stem-wheeler with a tow of empty coal barges.
“Steamer, ahoy!” shouted the general.
“Hallo!” responded a man who was standing on the hurricane-deck near the bell.
“What steamer is that?”
“The ‘B No. 2’ of Pittsburg.”
“Is that you, Captain Pratt?”
“Yes; but that can’t be you, Gordon.”
The general replied that it was he; and upon receiving this reply the captain raised his hand, the pilot rang the stopping-bell, and the steamer’s wheel hung motionless in the water.
“Why, Gordon, what in the world are you doing here at this hour in the morning?” demanded the captain.
“Can’t stop to explain now,” answered the general.“ Will you give us a lift as far as Rochdale?”
“Of course I will. Can you bring that tub of yours alongside?”
They could and they did. The sails were hauled down instantly, the oars were manned and the flat-boat was hauled over and made fast to the stern of the steamer’s tow. Then the general went on board the steamer to explain matters to Captain Pratt, while the boys lingered to look after the safety of the sail-boat. Having tied her to one of the barges so that she would ride easily, they followed the general on board the “B,” and seated themselves on the quarter-deck to talk over the exciting events of the night. Every one of them gave Don Gordon great credit for what he had done. If he had not been sharp enough to see guilt in Dan Evans’s face and actions, there was no knowing when the robbers would have been captured.
“Young gemmen,” said the negro steward, “won’t you step into de cabin an’ hab a bite of lunch? You mus’ be hungry after your long, cold ride.”
The boys were hungry and cold, too, although they did not know it until that moment. They did ample justice to the steward’s lunch, and also to his breakfast which was served at seven o’clock. At eight they passed Rochdale, and half an hour later they cast loose from the tow and began the work of pulling their clumsy prize and its occupants to the landing.
The “hue and cry” which the constable had raised the night before had brought the loafers and the neighboring planters out in full force, and there was a large crowd to welcome them as they went ashore with their prisoners. As there was no place in Rochdale in which the robbers could be confined, the preliminary examination was held at once, the women being tried as accessories. They all pleaded guilty – (as there were ten witnesses present who could testify that the stolen mail was found in their possession, and David Evans easily identified them by their clothing, they could not do otherwise) – and half an hour later they were on their way to the county-seat, where they were to be kept in jail until their trial came off. When they and their guards were out of sight, General Gordon and his party, which included David Evans and his father, got into the sail-boat and started for the lake.
“I didn’t see Lester and Dan anywhere,” said Bert, when the sail-boat had been made fast to the jetty, and David and Godfrey had started for home. “I wonder if they have taken to the woods.”
“I should think they would want to go there or somewhere else,” replied Don. “But if Judge Packard thinks their presence necessary when the trial comes off, he can easily find means to make them show themselves. Godfrey won’t sleep soundly until he gets his hand on Dan’s collar. That boy will have to work hard now to make amends for what he has done.”
The boys spent an hour or two in the house, giving Mrs. Gordon and her daughters a graphic account of their night’s experience, and then set out for the shooting-box, where a cordial welcome and a hot dinner awaited them. Old Cuff had passed the night in a fever of suspense; but, like the faithful fellow he was, he stuck to his post, and held himself in readiness to defend the cabin with the aid of the hounds and a big club. If Barlow and his friends had tried to burn it, as one of them had threatened to do, they would have got themselves into business.