Chapter XV. A Surprise at the Fortuna
 

"What's it to you where we are going?" demanded Jack, as he elbowed his way past the others and confronted the giant.

"Look here, white folks," began the negro, "Ah don't want no trouble, but youall mustn't go rangin' aroun' thoo mah place like this here 'thout 'splainin' yourselfs. This is mah fahm."

"Yes, it is your farm," cried Frank. "You've got as many farms as a hen's got teeth! All your farms are in your mind!"

"Nemmine about dat, boys," grinned the black. "Jes' youall tell me where youall's gwine, else mebbe somepin' gwine happen!"

"You're right, something's going to happen, and that mighty suddenly!" was Jack response. "This'll happen to you!"

He swung his arm up. Tom expected momentarily to hear the report of an automatic. Instead he saw the negro's face lighted brilliantly by the dart of flame from the imitation automatic which was fitted as a searchlight. The powerful electric light blinded and dazzled the man on whom it was thrown.

"Now, look here, fellow!" began Jack in a threatening tone. "If you don't stand one side and tell me your name at once, I'll put this light square on your foot and that foot'll wither up and tomorrow this time, it'll drop off. I could do that to your head, too, if I wanted to. But you will probably not make it necessary for me to do so. At least, I hope not."

"Lordy, Boss," stuttered the now thoroughly frightened man, "Don't youall point that there thing mah way no mo'. Ah don't like hit--Ah pointedly does not. Youall needn't be afraid of me."

"Nobody's afraid of you, you big lummix!" declared Tom, now coming forward. "What's your name, anyhow?" he demanded.

"Mah name's Doright Abraham Jefferson Davis Canaan. Ah don' know de rest ob it. Ah 'spects dey done forgot to tell me all."

"Well it's a good thing your shoulders are broad enough to carry that much of a load," laughed the boys. "That's enough."

"Now then, Doright Whatsyourname Canaan," Jack began, "can you tell us where we are? It is dark in these woods and we don't know this country at all. Tell me where we are at."

"Well, sah," began the darky, "Youall is 'bout half way to West Pascagoula. Yaas, sir, Boss, dat am a sure 'nuf fac'."

"Good! That's enlightening!" Frank put in. "Now tell me is there a place nearby. I mean does anyone live near here?"

"No, sir," replied Doright. "Ah can show youall where they was onct, but they haint there no mo'. Done moved!"

"Lead on, Doright," commanded Jack, "and be careful on what road you set your feet. We have lost our two comrades and we are trying to find them. Our noble dog here has trailed them thus far, and he'll help us find the boys, but you can do it more quickly."

In answer, Doright turned and beckoned the boys to follow. He led them in a short time to the site of the cabin in the clearing. There the lads found only a few smoking pieces of timber and a huge bed of embers. Tom's nose was sniffing suspiciously.

"Do you get it again?" asked Frank. "I do, and it's plain as can be in here. Seems mighty funny, too!" he declared.

"It is peculiar," agreed Tom. "I can get the odor of burned flesh as plain as day. I wonder what this fellow knows."

"Doright," demanded Frank, pulling his automatic from his pocket and presenting it muzzle foremost towards the giant, "tell us what happened to the boys. Tell it quick and straight."

Quaking with fear, the negro told of the call of the boys late in the afternoon; of his preparing supper; of the rage of Lopez; of his command to tie the boys; of his own sleepiness when thinking the boys were safe and of finding the cabin afire.

He maintained that he had remained as long as it was possible to hope for the boys' safety, and then had started off in search of Lopez or Wyckoff to give them the news.

His fear was so genuine and his grief over the fact that he had been unable to do anything to save their chums so intense that the boys could not find it in their hearts to chide him further.

"Never mind, Doright," Tom exclaimed laying a hand on the broad shoulder of the negro. "We believe you did all you could and that you tried to live up to your name and to do right. Don't grieve."

Rowdy had been ranging about the clearing while the conversation had been going on. He did not seem to take a dislike to Doright, but rather ignored him. This fact was commented on by the boys.

"Jack," Tom spoke at length, "do you know what I think?"

"No, Tom, I do not," replied Jack. "You think so many things it's hard to keep track of them all. I wish I might. What is it?"

"I don't believe the boys ever were in that cabin at all."

"Oh, yes, dey was, Boss!" protested Doright. "Ah seen 'em."

"Then they got out!" stoutly maintained Tom.

"Where are they now?" asked Frank. "And how do you explain that odor of burning flesh? There's a mystery here somewhere."

"There always is a mystery when the Beaver Patrol goes out on a hike," declared Tom. Look at the dense, dark mystery that surrounded us while we were in the Copper Country. Look at the mystery about our visit to Niagara Falls. We simply blunder into mystery every time we stir a foot! Mystery is our regular schedule!"

"Yes," agreed Jack, "but we always solve the mystery. This is going to be no exception to the rule! We must solve it!"

"Maybe Doright can explain something about this thing," suggested Frank. "Doright!" he called. "Can you tell me what makes such a smell of burning meat around here? What is it?"

"'Deed, Boss, Ah cain't tell youall what it is. Ah don' know!"

"Not much use quizzing him!" declared Jack. "We can't search the ruins now. The embers are too hot. If the boys were in there when it fell, we can investigate and find their remains tomorrow. For the present, I move that we go back to the Fortuna!"

"Second the motion!" agreed Frank. "What do you say, Tom?"

"Might as well, I guess," Tom stated. "It's no use sticking around here! We can't do anything until daylight, and the embers of the fire cool off. I move we get Doright here to show us the way back to the boats, and then we'll row back to town."

"Agreed!" cried Jack at once. "Doright, do you remember the big oak that leans out over the water maybe two miles from here?"

"'Deed Ah does, Boss!" declared the darky. "Mighty good fishin' right by dat oak! Sure knows dat place mighty well!"

"Well, if you'll take us there and then row us down to the town where our vessel is lying, we'll pay you well for the trouble and give you a good supper and breakfast. Will you do it?"

"Sure Ah will," replied Doright. "Ah'd be right smart proud to he'p youall. Is you ready to go right now?" he added.

Having satisfied themselves that there was nothing to be gained by lingering near the spot, the boys decided to start for the Fortuna at once.

They all hesitated a moment when leaving the clearing, looking back with lingering gaze at the spot where the cabin had stood. A lump was in each throat as they trudged wearily along in the wake of Doright the giant negro as he led them through the forest.

At length he came out into the clearing near the big oak the boys had described. They pressed eagerly forward as the river was neared. In their desire to return to the Fortuna they were but expressing the desire of every heart to return to its home when trouble comes. Tonight the boys carried aching breasts. They believed that on the morrow they would be called upon to perform sad offices for their two friends who had been victims of a mistake.

"I'll take the big boat with Doright, and you two lads can take the little skiff that the boys used," suggested Jack, who was in the lead. "That way we can make better time, I think!"

"What's the matter with all of us going in the big boat and towing the skiff behind?" questioned Tom. "I don't want to be alone just now. I'd much rather keep together if it's possible to do so."

"How about it, Doright, can you pull the boat with all of us in it?" Jack asked. "You know it's one of those big shipyard scows!"

"Guess Ah kin, Boss," grinned Doright, in reply. "Ah'll try hahd!"

"All right, then, let's be in and away at once."

"Sure!" cried Tom who was now in the lead, and who had reached the live oak. "Sure thing. All hands and the cook get aboard!"

"Something's happened!" cried Jack. "That sarcasm is so evident in Tom's voice I just can't believe everything is all right."

"Why, nothing at all could have happened," cried Frank. "We've had more than our share of hard luck already. First you boys got off your course with a horseshoe too near the compass. Then you meet a boy who tried to let your fuel leak away. Then you meet the man who bores your ship full of holes, then you find me and we get disturbed by the possibility of Charley's being on that fishing schooner and now the boys have disappeared. It is not possible that someone has stolen our boats. It just couldn't happen. It mustn't happen."

"Well, it's the very thing that did take place," Tom answered. "Now it's a weary wait until they bring the boats back or else we'll walk back to town. I think we'd better start walking now."

"Come on, I'm game," declared Frank wheeling in his tracks. "Does Doright know the way back to town by the pedestrian method?"

"Sure," answered the one mentioned. "Ah knows every hook and crook around these here parts. I've been borned and raised yere."

"Then show us the way to town," entreated Jack. "We're tired."

"Ah kin beat walkin'," replied Doright. "Ah'se got a boat."

The boys capered about in high glee at the prospect of a boat ride so handy. Their enthusiasm was contagious and Doright actually hurried as he went away to the place where his boat was hidden.

In a short time he returned and the boys embarked. The boat was a flat bottomed affair, made for fishing purposes, and was to be noted because of its rugged and simple construction, rather that for being a thing of beauty. Doright handled the craft with skill.

"Now then, engineer," Tom cried flinging himself full length in the bottom of the boat, "let out a link! We're going home!"

Doright's application to the oars quickly brought the party to a point where they could distinguish the riding lights of the vessels at anchor in the river. As they were passing the mouth of a little bayou, Frank declared he saw people in a boat near the entrance. In explanation Doright told him that many people were out for fish at that hour, seeming to think the fish fed at certain hours, hence were more easily captured.

In a short time Doright's muscles had forced the ungainly looking craft to a point where it was necessary to use care in navigating the stretch of water if collision with shipping was to be avoided. His skill born of long practice was very evident. Arrived at the shipyard Jack tossed the black a dollar saying that they were grateful for the help he had rendered them.

Unchallenged the boys approached the Fortuna. They expected at least a hail from the watchman of the yard. None came.

"Ah," observed Jack stooping over a prostrate figure near the foot of the ladder leading to the deck of the Fortuna, "he sleeps."

"What's the trouble with the watchman, if it is he?" asked Tom.

"It is the watchman," Jack answered with a tenseness of expression, "and he's struck with bottle paralysis. I wonder if the Fortuna is all right, or has that Wyckoff had the run of things a while."

"Let's get aboard quickly," suggested Frank, "and look about."

"Up we go," cried Tom. "Easy, lads, the ladder's shaky."

Jack in the lead stepped inside the pilot house and down the companion-way. As he reached the cabin below, his chums heard him stumble. Quickly they reached for the light switch.

"Who left that bundle there?" asked Jack. "What's in it?"

"I didn't," declared Tom; "open it up and see what's inside."

Jack tore off the wrapper. Aghast he stared at his friends.