CHAPTER VII.
THE QUAGMIRE.
IT was already late when the convicts departed,
and our hunters immediately began their preparations
for their first trial with the plume birds.
" I wonder where we had better strike in at first,"
said the captain, " there seems a powerful lot of them
islands, an' they 'pear to me pretty much alike."
"I have been keeping a kind of eye out all day,"
Charley answered, " and it seems to me that there
has been a lot of birds flying around that little island
of dead trees in the marsh right across from us.
Suppose we try that first."
The others readily agreed, and, while Chris was
cooking supper, the boys prepared a number of
torches from fat pitch pine and looked over their
fowling-pieces carefully.
As soon as it was dark, Charley and Walter entered
one of the canoes and the captain the other. Chris
begged hard to be taken, but Charley was firm in
his refusal.
"We will have to take turn about at tending camp,
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THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
55
and you'll have to stay to-night, Chris," he said.
" It won't do to leave the camp alone. You'll have
to keep a sharp lookout to guard against any possible
surprise from wild animals or men. Keep up the
fire so we can find our way back, and have some hot
coffee ready. We'll need it when we get back. Keep
a sharp eye out, Chris," he concluded. " It isn't
everyone I would choose for such a responsible
place."
" Golly, Massa Charley," exclaimed the little
darky, the bald flattery tickling his great racial
vanity, "I jus' reckon nothin' goin' to get past dis
nigger, though I sure 'spects I'd ought to go along so
as to watch out for you chillens."
" We'll be careful," Charley assured him gravely.
" If anything troubles you or you see anything wrong,
fire off your gun twice, and we will hustle back.
Shove her off, Walt."
Walter obeyed with a vigor that nearly upset their
frail craft. "My, but she's cranky," he exclaimed.
" She is pretty ticklish," Charley admitted, " but
just the craft for our purpose. She's so light she will
float on a good heavy dew, and then she's so easy to
take to pieces and pack away. But we'd better stop
our chattering, for we are getting near the island
now."
The moon was shining brightly, giving to the dead
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THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
whitened trees on the little island a peculiar
ghostly appearance. The canoes soon grounded in
the marsh grass, and, fastening them to paddles, stuck
down in the mud, our hunters shouldered their fowling-pieces and trudged ahead through the mire. They
had prepared themselves well for the trip and each
wore a pair of rubber boots reaching to the hip drawn
on over their rawhide boots and leggins.
" I guess we are on the right track," grinned
Charley, ere they had proceeded far.
"Goodness, it's awful," exclaimed Walter. "!
wish I'had a clothes-pin on my nose. Smells just like
as island of Limburger cheese set in a lake of broken
spoiled eggs."
" I reckon that's comin' it a little strong, Walt,"
chuckled the captain. "I guess though we've stumbled onto a good big rookery for sure. That smell
comes mostly from the dead baby birds, broken eggs,
an' such like. But let's keep quiet, lads, we're nearly
there now."
A few minutes more and the hunters enteid the
fringe of dead trees. By the time they reached the
center of the little island where the dead trees were
thickest, the little party was nearly overcome by the
horrible stench. At every step they crushed in nestfuls of decayed eggs which sent up their protests to
high heavens.
THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
57
At last Charley commanded a halt. "We've gone
far enough," he whispered.
Let's light up our
torches together and make as short work of it as
possible. Gee, but I'm sick for a mouthful of sweet,
fresh air."
The fat pine-sticks flared up as though saturated
with oil, their flickering blaze lighting up a weird
scene; the gaunt, bare, white trees, ghosts of a departed forest, the miry ground strewn with eggs of
all sizes, shapes and colors, and dead birds of many
kinds, in amongst which writhed and twisted dirtylooking, repulsive water moccasins and brilliant
yellow and black swamp snakes, while overhead on
the whitened limbs, roosted hundreds of birds partly
roused from their sleep by the glare of the torches.
"We'll have to shoot with one hand and hold our
torches with the other," said Charley.
The guns were very light fowling-pieces, and the
birds were clustered too thickly together to be easily
missed. The three guns belched out their deadly
message almost together and a score of birds fell to
the ground. Again and again were the volleys repeated before the dazed birds recovered their senses
enough to take to their wings.
The hunters paused only long enough to pluck from
the backs of the fallen birds the long, silky plumes,
which they carefully placed in a stiff leather valise,
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THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
then hastened on to another part of the island where
the same performance was repeated.
At first all three hunters stuck close together, but
they soon separated, each picking out for himself
what seemed to be choice places in the little wood.
Yielding to the incessant firing the birds began to
desert their roosts in great flocks until at last but few
lingered on the barren limbs. Charley was about to
call his companions together and propose a return to
camp when a sudden cry sent the blood tingling
through his veins. It was Walter's voice, and its
tone was that of fear and horror unutterable. Pausing a second to locate the direction of the sound,
Charley bounded away for it at the top of his speed.
As he passed a thick clump of trees the captain broke
out from among them and lumbered on in his wake.
" What's the trouble, Charley ?" he panted.
" Something's happened to Walt," he shouted back,
"something terrible, too-just hear him calling."
The cries rose again with redoubled vigor, a world
of dread in their cadence.
The island was small, and in a few minutes
Charley was close to the scene of the cries with the
captain right at his heels. Suddenly they broke out
of the underbrush into a small open space perhaps
forty feet across. Near the center of this place was
Walter, waving his torch frantically back and forth.
THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
59
lHe ceased his cries as their lights flashed into view.
"Stop, stop!" he shouted, " don't come a step further. I am sinking a foot a minute. The ground is
rotten here.
I guess it's up to me to say good-bye,
chums," he continued in a voice he strove vainly to
make steady. "You can't help me, and I'm sinking
deeper every minute."
"Cheer up, lad, we'll find a way," declared the
old sailor, with a hopefulness he was far from feeling,
for he knew well, by hearsay, of the terrible swamp
quagmires that swiftly suck their victims down to a
horrible death in the foul mud.
Already Walter had sunk to his waist, and it was
only a question of minutes ere the slimy ooze would
close over his head. It was a situation that demanded instant action. For a moment Charley stood
silent beside the captain gazing hopelessly at his
doomed chum. Then he turned swiftly and darted
away like an arrow.
"Throw branches, boughs, anything that is light,"
he shouted back; " I am going to get the canvas
painters."
Frantically the old sailor tore down dead limbs and
flung them to the entombed lad. His labor was in
vain, for as each branch struck the quagmire its own
weight sunk it out of sight in the liquid mud.
"Better give it up, Captain," advised Walter,
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THE YOUNG PLUME HUNTERS
cheerfully. "They are doing no good, and Charley
will soon be back with the ropes."
The captain measured the distance to the helpless
lad with a practised eye, and groaned in despair.
" They'll fall short by a dozen feet," he murmured
God forgive me, for bringing him to
hopelessly.
this plight."
In a moment Charley was back with the painters
from the two canvas canoes knotted together. His
first toss confirmed the captain's fears, the rope fell
ten feet short.
Charley's face grew sickly pale under the torch
light, and he stood for a space like one in a daze.
The captain near him was kneeling praying fervently.
Of the three, Walter was the coolest. He had resigned himself to his fate at the failure of the first
cast of the rope. Already the mire had sucked him
down so that he had to throw his head far back to
keep the filthy stuff from entering his mouth.
"Good-bye, old chums," he called cheerfully,
" we've made our last camp together. Don't feel too
down, Charley. Remember what the jockeys say,
'There's nothing to a race but the finish.'"
Charley roused from his momentary trance.
" You shan't die," he cried wildly, "you shan't, you
shan't,-you shan't."
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