Chapter XVI. Rescue and Capture
 

As Arnold rushed back into the burning cabin the gallery roof fell, effectually blocking the doorway, thus preventing escape again.

"Harry," cried the frightened boy. "Harry, where are you?"

Through the pall of smoke and amid the hiss and crackle of flames came the reassuring call that put new life into the lad.

"Here I am over here in the corner. Come here a minute."

"But, Harry," urged Arnold, "come on out of here. We'll be burned as sure as fate. What makes you stay here, anyway?"

"I'm going now," declared the boy. "I forgot something that was left here and came back to get it. That's all."

Both boys now moved toward the one window of which the cabin boasted. The roof at the opposite end and directly over the bed where the fire had started was now weakening and threatened to fall.

"Up with you now, Arnold," cried Harry. "Let's make time."

"You first," gasped Arnold. "You're burned and have had more smoke than I. Go ahead or I won't stir a step."

"All right," smiled Harry. "It's a good thing the breeze is favorable. We'll make it all right now. Wonder where Doright is."

"Never mind Doright," said Arnold, drinking in great draughts of fresh air. "Doright can take care of himself for all of me. I want to get back to the boats and the Fortuna. Let's be going."

"I'm with you," Harry agreed with a satisfied chuckle.

"What's the matter now?" asked Arnold. "I can't see what should amuse you in all this trouble. I'm worried."

"I can't tell you what makes me feel so happy, but I just imagine that we've done a good stroke of business tonight."

"In burning down a man's home?"

"Yes and no. I can't tell you any more for I don't know."

"More mystery, eh? Well, so long as we're hot-footing for home you may save the mystery. Come on, now, let's go."

The boys lost no time in starting for the place where their boat had been left. A short conference in the shadow of a clump of palmettos was held. They were agreed as to the direction, although it lay in a different quarter than the road by which they had entered the clearing. Here the boys' woodcraft stood them in good stead.

Soon they were out of the light cast by the now fallen walls of the burning cabin. Just as they felt safely away from the clearing and thought it safe to speak above a whisper a coarse voice called them to halt. They were confronted by a tall man.

"It's that man Lopez," gasped Harry. "He's got back quickly."

"What do you want?" questioned Arnold angrily. "Say it and be quick about it. We haven't time to stand here all night."

"Now, don't get gay, young rooster, or I'll cut your comb."

"It is Lopez," whispered Arnold. "He's still angry, too."

"Put up your hands," commanded Lopez, for it was he. "Keep 'em up," he added. "I'll fix youall for this. You done burned my cabin and it's got to be paid for. I'll settle you." Then lifting his voice he called, "Doright! Doright! Come yere."

"Comin', Boss," quavered the still frightened negro.

"Doright, did these fellers set fire to my cabin?"

"Yaas, sir, Boss. Dey sure done hit," replied that worthy.

"We might as well arrest 'em now as any other time, then," declared Lopez. "Take this gun, Doright, and if they try to run, shoot."

"Yaas, sir, Boss," grinned the darky. "Ah sure will shoot."

"Now, boys, get going," commanded their captor. "Walk right up, too, for we're a long ways from home and I'm tired."

"How did you happen back so soon?" queried Harry. "I thought you had gone to town to talk with Wyckoff about hanging us."

"I done change my mind," answered Lopez. "I forgot something at the cabin and now hit's done burned. I have an idee I'd better shoot youall right now for that trick. Yes, sir, I just believe so."

Knowing his quick and hasty temper as they now did, the boys were not unprepared for anything that might happen. Gritting their teeth they marched bravely on even though they felt that at any moment the erratic man behind them might send a bullet into their backs. They resolved, however, to show no fear.

Not far along the path they were halted by Lopez, who whispered a short consultation with Doright. In a moment he ordered the boys to one side of the road for some distance where he compelled them to lie flat on their faces and commanded them to absolute silence on pain of instant death. He kept his rifle at their ears.

"Doright," he ordered, "go back up to that there path and see what them folks wants. If they're strangers let 'em go on. If they're the fellers I think they is, toll 'em along and lose 'em. You'll know where to find me at the factory if I lose you now."

"Yaas, sir, Boss," grinned the negro. "Ah'm named Doright."

Arnold and Harry were compelled to lie with outstretched arms and fingers digging into the sand while their comrades parleyed with Doright in plain hearing of their place of concealment. Neither dared to make a sound or in any way attract the attention of their friends. Lopez was swinging the rifle muzzle slowly back and forth.

After Doright and the other, party had proceeded to the destroyed cabin Lopez compelled his prisoners to get to their feet and walk ahead of him in the path.

"We'll have a nice little boat ride, boys," stated Lopez in a pleased tone of voice. "We're going to have a pleasant trip, too."

No answer was made to this remark by either of the boys. Their silence seemed to anger Lopez, for he upbraided them for their sulkiness. His moods changed quickly. Frowns tramped the heels of smiles. One moment he was gay, the next in despair.

Arrived at the leaning oak he compelled the lads to untie both boats, towing the small skiff that had been brought by Harry and Arnold behind the big scow rowed by their friends. Into this scow he put the boys and then seated himself, rifle in hand.

"Grab a root and growl, now," commanded Lopez. "I'm ridin' this trip. And mind you," he continued, "you better row quiet. No splashin' and bangin' around with them oars."

"We'll row as well as we can," replied Harry. "A Boy Scout always does everything he undertakes as well as he knows how."

"You're great Boy Scouts, you are," sneered Lopez. "If I had a boy like you, I don't know what I would do with him."

"You couldn't have a boy like us," declared Arnold with some heat. "You know heredity exerts a wonderful influence on boys."

This sally, luckily, was lost on Lopez for his knowledge of English was limited to say the least. His mind, ever alert, caught the sarcasm in the boy's tone, but he hesitated about showing his ignorance by asking questions concerning the meaning of the big word. He contented himself with abusing the boys in vile language.

Pulling manfully at the oars the captives sent the scow through the water at a good rate of speed, rapidly shortening the distance between themselves and the town. Ever and anon Lopez cast a backward glance over the stern. Finally he commanded the boys to pull in closer toward the shore. His voice assumed a brisker tone with a note of anxiety in it. He was visibly excited.

"Lopez," announced Arnold, "I see a light behind us. It's gaining on us. I've seen it for two or three minutes. What is it?"

"Hush up about lights, boy," commanded their captor. "Youall don't see no lights. They ain't no lights there at all."

"But I did see a light," insisted Arnold in a positive tone.

"No, you never," repeated Lopez. "Don't make no difference if you think you saw a light, they ain't no light there."

"Oh, I get you," Harry put in. "That's another of those mysterious 'because' reasons. Or as the fellow said, 'It's so if I say so even if it ain't so.' Is that it, Lopez?"

"Yes," snapped Lopez. "Now git to work at them oars and send this boat along or it'll be the worse for you."

Thus urged, the boys bent to the oars with renewed vigor. Their efforts sent the boat along at a rapid pace. Finally as they were becoming exhausted, Lopez commanded them to head directly in shore. They did so, but instead of running ashore, shot up the entrance to a narrow bayou. Inside, Lopez commanded them to lie flat in the bottom of the boat. They heard directly the sound of approaching oars.

"What's that coming, Lopez?" questioned Harry.

His answer was a thrust of Lopez's foot in his ribs and again he felt the muzzle of the rifle creep along his spine.

With the talk and laughter of their chums ringing in their ears, Harry and Arnold were compelled to lie silently in the scow, while the other party passed them a second time that night without being aware of their presence.

"Looks like we better get up and go to work," announced their captor after the sound of the oars and talk from the other boatload had died away. "We've got a long ways to go yet," he added.

"Let's take it a little easier, if you please," requested Arnold. "My arms are nearly pulled out of their sockets."

"All right, my hearties, take your time now. I just wanted to get into clear while the others went past us," replied Lopez.

In a short time the boys were amongst the shipping on the river. Here they were directed to row alongside a deserted wharf. Lopez guarded them while they made the boat fast and then prepared to take them up into a rough looking quarter of the town. Just as they were preparing to leave the wharf a boat was heard approaching from down stream. Lopez stopped, then gave a peculiar whistle.

What was the boys' surprise to see Doright row up alongside the wharf, make fast his boat and come ashore.

"Doright," Lopez commanded. "Youall come with me while I fix these young rascals and then I want you to come back here and take that shipyard man's scow back to him and take that skiff back to the shipyard, too. Somebody might want them boats again."

"Yaas, sir, Boss," was Doright's unvarying reply.

The boys were marched a short distance up the deserted street to a disreputable looking shanty. Here they were forced inside and compelled to enter an inner room.

"Doright, get a piece of rope and tie these young fellers."

"Haint got no rope, Boss," announced Doright. "No rope here."

"What'll we tie 'em with?" inquired Lopez.

"Don't know, Boss," replied the darky. "Dey don't need tyin'."

"Oh no, they don't," Lopez replied sarcastically. "They didn't need it up in the woods, neither. That's why they burned my cabin down. Now I haint got no home no more'n a rabbit."

"Haint got no rope, Boss," dolefully declared Doright.

"Here, take this gun while I cut up their snake skin," cried Lopez, turning over to the negro his rifle.

He proceeded to remove from an inner pocket of his jacket the skin of the snake that had so nearly ended the life of Harry. Cutting this into strips he quickly bound the boys' arms and made them sit down on a bench. Next he prepared to leave the room, taking Doright also.

"If you are good boys and don't try to burn this place," he said from the doorway, "I'll bring you something to eat by and by."

After he had closed the door the boys sat talking over the events of the day. They were agreed that the day had been a most strenuous one and that a little sleep would be welcomed. As they prepared to lie on the floor for what rest they might get, Harry gave vent to a chuckle of laughter. Arnold was all attention.

"What is it, Harry?" he queried. "What's the joke?"

"If that man only knew what he had been missing, he wouldn't have gone away so cheerfully," replied Harry with another chuckle.

"I don't seem to get you," declared Arnold. "I think you might tell--" He paused. "What was that noise?" he asked.

"I didn't hear any noise," replied Harry sitting up.

Through the wall came the plaintive cry, "Bob, Bob White."