Chapter XII. Saved by a Stranger

"Look, Harry," Arnold cried as they rowed along. "See the palm leaf fans all growing in bunches on shore there."

"Those must be what they call 'Palmettos,'" answered Harry.

"Are they good to eat?" was Arnold's query.

"Not that I know of," Harry replied, "unless some native animal here wants to commit suicide. They are rough and have barbs growing on the leaf stems. They do resemble palm leaf fans with streamers on the edge. We won't bother them, though."

"Surely not," responded Arnold. "But look at that tree with all the gray washing hanging on it. Looks for all the world like all the kitchen mechanics and pot wrestlers in the world had hung their dirty dish cloths on it to dry. And there's another--and another--and another," he exclaimed.

"I know what that is," announced Harry. "That's the Spanish moss we've heard about! At last, we're getting closer to the Treasure Chest. At least we've found something Spanish."

"Pull in toward the shore," requested Arnold. "I see a spot I think would be ideal for a fishes park. I can almost imagine I see numbers of young fish sitting around on the benches in the shady spots right now. They look so cool and comfortable!"

"I wonder if any of them are hungry enough to take a little lunch," mused Harry, pulling as close to the bank as he could.

"Try and see," advised Arnold. "I'm going to drop a line to a big young fellow I've heard about and see if he will answer."

Both boys laughed quietly at the conceit. Their day started finely and augured well. Preparing their tackle they lost no time in lowering an alluring bait to the finny denizens of the water.

Evidently the fish were hungry for not many minutes passed before Harry felt a tug at his line. He began reeling in rapidly.

"Oh, what a whopper," exclaimed Arnold peering over the side of the boat. "It's as long as my arm and big as a good sized stove pipe, I believe. One or two like that will be enough."

"Thanks," panted Harry. "Wait till I get this one."

Skillfully the lad drew the fish to a point where he could be sure of landing it without danger. Then he waited for his chum to assist with the landing net. The fish was a beauty.

"What shall we call it?" proudly questioned the lad.

"Well, I should call that No. 1," gravely replied Arnold. "He looks like a fellow I used to know by the name of 'A. No. 1.'"

"Good," cried the delighted Harry. "Now you go after his cousin. Get Mr. No. 2, and do it quickly."

"Here he comes," declared Arnold. "I knew I spit, no, spat--what should I say, spitted or spatted?--on that bait just right."

"You watch out or he'll walk away with the bait and all."

"Bingo," yelled Arnold. "I got him."

Harry laughed to see the way Arnold was struggling to keep the fish. For a short time it looked as if the fish had Arnold. At last after a long battle the fish was exhausted and gave up.

"That's a better one than mine," was Harry's generous comment.

"They're just about as nearly twins as it's possible to get them," asserted Arnold. "And they're both beauties. It's nearly noon by my watch, so I vote we go ashore and build a fire. Some fish for dinner wouldn't go bad at all. What are these, Bass?"

"I don't think so," objected Harry. "See that red spot just at the root of their tail? Well, the natives a call that redfish."

"All right," agreed Arnold, "fresh redfish will go mighty fine. And I'm hungry enough to eat a big one myself."

"You're always hungry, Arnold," declared his chum.

"No more often than the rest of the crew. I notice they all eat when the eating is good. And I'd pity the chicken that had to live off the table scraps from our festive board," declared the boy with emphasis. "We're noted for being table finishers."

"I notice we all brought our appetites along," admitted Harry.

"Lets land near that oak tree that leans out over the water," suggested Arnold. There are three tall pines growing a short distance from the oak and that'll make a good landmark if we walk about."

"The very thing! You haven't forgotten your instructions in scouting, have you? That idea is a good one."

"Then we'll go up from the river a ways, make a little camp and eat dinner. Maybe we can see some of the wild creatures of this country. It would be interesting to watch them at play."

"I'm agreeable. We've got the whole day before us. Isn't it fine to know that you don't have to get back at any certain time, but can just loaf along if you wish or work hard if you like?"

"Glorious," agreed Arnold. "Just now, however, you'll want to work hard, I know, for we're going to have a grand feed on redfish. That means you'll please get the wood while I clean the 'piece de resistance' of our dinner. The boys put up a nice lunch."

Not far from the tree where they landed the boys found a suitable spot for their camp. A fire was soon blazing merrily over which the fish cooked with an appetizing odor.

"The boys laughed when I brought this pan along," remarked Arnold. "They evidently didn't believe I would have need for it."

"They'll like that fine big fish we take home, I'll wager."

"After dinner, let's gather some of that Spanish Moss and take it to the Fortuna. I wonder if it wouldn't make good mattresses."

"They say the negroes and some of the whites down here do just that. They bury it in the ground a while then pack it into a mattress and have a fine bed. It must be buried in the earth for a time, though, they say. It is funny looking stuff isn't it?"

"It surely is. But what is that green plant up there? It looks as if the oak tree were all dead except that one sprig of green. Strange that it should keep only one twig alive."

"I believe that's mistletoe growing on a limb of the oak."

"I guess you're right. And down there at the foot of the tree I see a quail. He's humped over and seems to be trying to make himself smaller all the time."

"Hush, man," Harry protested. "Quails don't grow down South as far as this! They're a Northern bird."

"Then maybe I don't know what a quail is," retorted Arnold.

"I don't mean that," replied Harry, "but it seems strange to think of quail being here. I always had an idea that quail humped themselves under the shelter of a corn shock with snow blowing around their toes and nearly freezing them to death."

"Maybe you're right. They tell me the natives call these birds partridges. Just the same, I'll venture to say that I can call them out of cover. Want to see me try it?"

"Sure. Go as far as you like. We won't shoot them, though."

"Certainly not. We have all we need for food except maybe a rabbit. Watch me toll them on."

Both boys were very quiet for a few minutes, then Arnold sent out a plaintive "Bob White" call. In a few minutes he repeated the cry. This time an answer came and directly both boys were delighted to observe the little bright eyed bird that had responded stepping out from the shelter of a clump of grass.

"Too bad to disappoint him," declared Arnold, "but it is getting on towards the shank of the afternoon, so let's take a walk around and then get back to the town. The Fortuna is probably on the railway by now. I wish the others could have been with us this glorious afternoon. It has been fine so far."

Leaving the river the boys walked slowly along scanning closely the vegetation on all sides and keeping an alert eye open for the feathered and furry denizens of the forest.

A rabbit scurried across their path and hastened with great leaps down the path. The boys laughed to see the patch of white tail go bounding down the old trail along which they were walking.

"I'll choose the next one," declared Harry. "Rabbit stew for supper wouldn't go so bad! It would help out on canned goods."

"All right, Harry," responded Arnold. "We'll make the limit one rabbit apiece if you don't mind. We'll have a good supper at that. There's no use taking home more than we can eat soon."

"Here's mine, then," announced Harry taking quick aim at a fleeing cotton-tail. "I'll choose this one right here."

As a tribute to Harry's excellent aim the rabbit bounded high in the air and then rolled over and over lying quite still after falling to the earth. His career had been stopped instantly.

"I hope I can do as well," was Arnold's pleased comment.

"There's your chance," announced Harry. "See him?"

"Come here, rabbit," cried Arnold taking quick aim.

At his shot the rabbit bounded into the air, falling as had Harry's. But instead of lying quietly where he had fallen the rabbit struggled and ran limping away. It seemed impossible for him to go rapidly, however. He managed to get away just too quickly to be caught. The boys hastened after their quarry in an effort to end its struggles as much as to secure the game.

Their chase led them to a low spot where rank grass was growing. The dead stalks of the previous year's growth were fallen to the earth, making a dense mat of dried stubble.

"Small chance of finding him in here, Harry," was Arnold's comment. "We might as well give it up and go on back to the boat."

"I don't like to do that," protested Harry. "He might be right under foot for all we know. Let's kick around a little. Why, what's this?" he continued stooping to pick an object from the ground. The next moment with a scream he jumped backward.

A great snake had lain directly under his feet but now was coiled in a mass. Its tail was whirring angrily while the great triangular head waved slowly from side to side.

Fascinated the boy stood as if rooted to the spot.

Arnold was in direct line with Harry between himself and the snake, so dared not shoot. Harry's automatic had dropped from his nerveless fingers at the first alarming whir of the vibrating rattles. Unable to make a sound or move a muscle the lad stood entirely unnerved while the great reptile prepared to strike.

Arnold fired two quick shots from his automatic, hoping to attract the attention of the snake from its intended victim. His hope was not in vain. At the sound the snake seemed to hesitate a moment as if undecided what to do. Evidently its attention had been attracted from Harry.

Elated at his success, Arnold fired twice more, but this time the angry buzzing recommenced. It seemed as if there was no hope whatever for the lad who stood with the sweat now pouring from his face. To this day he says that he can distinctly remember a little drop of sweat trickling down his nose and pausing at the tip before it splashed to the earth. He declares that it seemed a lifetime while he stood there expecting momentarily to feel the deadly fangs dart into his body and leave their fatal poison.

He protests that so fascinated was he by the awful horror of the situation that he can describe accurately every marking and every detail of the great snake as it lay there coiled for the blow that would prove fatal to himself.

Almost fainting, Harry heard the two shots that caused the snake to momentarily lower its head and cease its buzzing rattles from sounding.

Hope rose within his breast as he noted this action, yet he could not move from the spot. His feet seemed leaden.

The next instant the snake again raised its head and the second shot fired by Arnold seemed to increase its anger for it recommenced with more vigor than before the sharp buzzing of its rattles. In desperation, Arnold emptied his automatic into the ground at his feet, but without effect upon the snake.

A rifle shot echoed through the forest. The rattler lunged forward.