THE MYSTERY AT
THE MYSTERY AT
WHO WAS SHE?
IT would be difficult to say just why they had selected Number Six to explore on that particular afternoon. Mere chance had a large element in it. So had the fact that it was the only pool within many miles of their vicinity with which they had not already become intimately acquainted. Lastly, it was the farthest removed. They had had to travel twelve miles in the little Ford to get to it.
Bernice lay contentedly at the edge of a sand embankment white as driven snow, her chin cupped in her hands, watching half a dozen or more mullets drift and swing in the limpid clear water below. Sydney roamed along the sides of the pool, a hunting rifle under his arm, also speculatively watching a brace of larger fish farther away.
There is nothing more utterly fascinating than an abandoned South Florida phosphate-mine pool, nor is there anything farther removed in appearance from the same mine in full operation. A phosphate-mine in full swing is a busy, impressive, and unbeautiful thing. From the great shallow crater, many hundred feet in diameter, clouds of steam arise, making it not unlike a real volcano in effect. Freight-cars and locomotives grind back and forth on the sidings, carrying away the mined material; huge hydraulic pipes are woven across the mine space; and at one side an immense washer, resembling nothing so much as the structure of a scenic railway in an amusement park, blots out the sky-line.
But the active usefulness of any one phosphate-mine is short-lived. When its capacity for yielding the valuable commodity is reached (and phosphate is not generally found more than fifty feet below the surface), the mine is promptly abandoned. All the paraphernalia of mining is moved to another region and the gaping hole is left, a horrid blot in the beautiful Florida landscape. But nature seems to love that sunny land, and in a singularly short time she provides a wonderful remedy for the desecration. In a few weeks the great cavity has become filled with crystal-clear water. Vegetation creeps rapidly over the ravaged environs, and strangest of all, fish in shoals unnumbered find their way mysteriously into the new pool, doubtless through subterranean channels, making it a paradise for the angler. And so the unlovely mine has become a little gem of a lake, – the longer the scene has been deserted, the more attractive and alive with fish.
"Sydney," called Bernice presently to her cousin, now standing some fifty feet away, "I never saw anything to equal the fish in this pool! There are more of them and bigger than in any of the other pools you 've shown me!"
"That 's because this is an old pool," the boy replied. "I think they say it 's the oldest mine-pool anywhere in this region. Has n't been worked for twelve or fifteen years. Look at that bouncer over there! I 'm going to get him!" He pointed to a large pike lazily floating by, about fifteen feet out from where he stood.
"But, Syd, you did n't bring your rod," retorted the girl. "How do you expect to get him without a line?"
"I told you I was going to show you something new when we came out to-day. I am. Just you watch!" He waited till the pike was well opposite where he stood on the bank. Then he raised his rifle to his shoulder, aimed at a point just underneath the fish, and fired. When the explosion and the resultant splash were over, the fish was seen floating on its back. It happened that the bank at this point shelved rather gradually out into the water. Sydney sprang in, waded almost to the top of his hip-boots, and caught the slippery body just as it had suddenly revived and was about to dive away. He bore it, still frantically flopping, to the shore and deposited it in his basket.
"Sydney!" gasped Bernice. "Where did you ever learn that?"
"A man that had hunted in Canada told me about it. It 's a great trick. You only stun the fish, but if you don't get him double-quick he revives and gets away. Sometimes I bring a fishing-spear along and get them out that way. Hi! there 's another – right close by!"
He was off again in a twinkling, eager for another catch, and Bernice sat up to watch him with keen interest. But this time he was not so successful. He overshot his mark, and his prize, when the water settled, was nowhere to be seen. After that he stood intent for a long time, waiting with sportsman's patience for another chance, and Bernice settled down again, watching him idly. Every little while she drew a long breath of content and snuggled down closer into the hot white sand. On the opposite side of the pool was an ancient orange-grove and the scent of orange-blossoms was wafted to her with every puff of wind.
"Oh, I 'm glad I 've come to live in Florida!" she sighed aloud. Then she continued to meditate on the very opportune opening that had come to her father, who was not very well, to settle in Florida near his brother in the phosphate region and give his engineering knowledge to the mining interests. Her cousin Sydney had lived in Florida for several years, but she was having her first taste of it in the last glorious month. Every afternoon she and her cousin had spent in the little Ford, exploring the country far and wide.
While she watched now, Sydney raised his rifle for another shot and again missed. "Fired too low!" he called back in explanation and roamed on. Neither of them noticed a lithe little figure gliding behind them from bush to bush, keeping always in the shadow of some protecting shelter and watching them with alert and mystified interest. It would have been a cause of considerable astonishment to them to know they were so closely observed. They did not suppose there was any one within miles of their vicinity.
Presently Bernice scrambled up and announced that she was going to explore the other side of the pool where the orange-grove was, and sauntered off around the edge on her quest. The figure behind the bushes followed noiselessly, keeping always unseen among the scrub palmetto growths. And Bernice, totally unaware of being followed or spied upon, rambled happily along. In the grove she found three oranges hanging within reach, although the new blossoms were on the same trees (a combination that never failed to astonish her!), and resting under one of the trees she ate two, saving the biggest for Sydney when he should arrive at that point. Then she roamed on again.
"O Sydney!" she called back, suddenly and excitedly, "do you know there 's an old farmhouse here? I did n't suppose there was a house within miles of this place."
"I know; it 's an old deserted one," he called back. "Has n't been inhabited for years. I 've seen it once or twice when I 've been here before."
"But it 's inhabited now!" insisted Bernice. "There 's smoke coming out of the chimney and some plants growing in pails and boxes on the porch."
"That 's queer!" he replied "The place has n't been lived in for ages. It 's all tumble-down. Wait till I get around there and see it with you." The quiet figure behind the palmetto scrub seemed more on the alert than ever, and sat motionless, watching with half-anxious, half-wondering eyes.
Sydney lingered several moments to obtain a shot at another tempting fish, and this time waded out, his prize in his grasp. But as his foot touched the bank Bernice heard him give an astonished shout, and looked up to see him struggling desperately with something that was slashing and beating itself about in a furious encounter with him. Without an instant's delay she rushed around the edge of the pool to his assistance.
"Don't come near!" he called to her, thumping and laying about him with the butt of his rifle. "It 's a horrible snake!" He stopped talking, for lack of wind and because every energy was needed to ward off his assailant. It was indeed a snake, as Bernice could plainly see for herself, neither a rattler nor a moccasin, but a hideous creature that was growing steadily bigger and longer and more venomous and horrible in appearance as she watched. It was like nothing she had ever dreamed of or heard of before – an awful nightmare, – to see the reptile grow visibly, before her very eyes.
"Oh, run, Sydney, run!" she implored. "Don't try to fight it. Just get out of its reach!"
"I can't!" he panted. "The horrid thing comes after me whenever I try. I 've got to kill it!" He lunged at it again with the butt of his gun and gave a groan of pain, dropping his rifle from the hand that the snake had injured. In the same instant, the reptile itself, as if satisfied with the damage it had done, slid noiselessly away into the long grass by the pool's edge.
"O Sydney!" cried Bernice in an agony of apprehension. "What shall we do? The creature has stung you. We 're miles from home or a doctor! Is it as poisonous as a rattler or a moccasin, do you think?"
"I don't know," muttered the boy, staring down almost stupidly at his wounded wrist. In reality he was a little stunned and stupefied the suddenness of the attack and the wound he had received. "It hurts a good deal and is growing numb. We 'd better get right home. I don't believe I can drive the car. Can you manage it?"
"I 'll do the best I can," she said. "You know I 've only driven a little since you began to teach me. Come! Let 's get to where we left the car – quickly!" She seized his unwounded arm and began to hurry him toward the car, standing far around on the other side of the pool. But the shock and the injury were too much for Sydney. He turned suddenly dizzy and sat down on a sand hummock, sinking his head upon his knees. And Bernice, sure now that he was dying, sank down beside him in despair and began to sob softly.
"Please! – if you will let me – I think I can help!"
Bernice looked up in astonishment. She had no idea there was any one around: she had not given the subject a thought. And she gasped in further wonder at the figure she saw standing before her.
It was a girl, presumably about her own age – fifteen. She was small in frame, lithe and dark, barefooted and rather unkempt in dress, a ragged blue skirt and soiled white middy-blouse being mainly in evidence. The tangled mat of hair was very dark, almost black and unconfined in any way. Her complexion was tanned to a golden-brown hue, evidently through long exposure to the sun. But her features were very pleasing and regular and her eyes were wonderful – great, iris-blue pupils, surrounded by lashes long and dark and curling enough to have satisfied a society beauty. It was the eyes, chiefly, that arrested Bernice.
"Who – who are you?" she could only stammer.
"I live in the house – over there." The girl indicated the old farm-house in the orange-grove. "I – I saw what happened. I think I know what to do – if you 'll let me?"
"Oh – thank you – so much! Do anything – anything! We 'll be so grateful!" cried the distracted Bernice.
Without another word the girl bent down and raised the boy's wounded wrist that he had left hanging limply down. She turned back the cuff of his shirt which, originally rolled to the elbow, had now fallen over the wrist, scanned the wound critically, and then turned to Bernice.
"Has he a handkerchief?" Bernice extracted one from his pocket, Sydney all the while inert in the stupor that seemed to possess him. The girl quickly tore it into strips and with them bound his arm tightly just above the elbow. To make the bandage tighter, she inserted a small stick and twisted it until Bernice almost winced, so white and bloodless did the lower arm suddenly become. Next she laid her lips to the wound and drew out any poisonous matter there might be. Bernice looked on, wide-eyed and apprehensive. Sydney meanwhile revived enough to realize what was going on.
"I got awfully dizzy!" he said apologetically, and then, for the first time realizing that there was a stranger on the scene and that this same stranger had been rendering him more than medical service, he braced himself up with an astonished, "Oh, thanks, awfully! You 're very good to have done so much. I got stung by something, I guess. Hope it was n't a rattler!"
"Indeed, no! It was n't a rattler! You 'd be in terrible shape by now if it had been," replied the girl. "It was n't even a moccasin. A hog-nosed snake – that 's what it was. They 're not often seen. They 're harmless, but they have a terrible way!"
"I should say it did!" cried the boy. "The little wretch was only about a foot and half long when I first saw it lying there. I made a strike at it and it suddenly began to swell up and get longer and longer and its eyes were like red sparks of fire and it fought like a perfect demon! I 've never come across its like since I 've been in Florida. But thank you so much for what you 've done! I think you 've saved me from having a bad arm, at least."
"It was nothing!" she said and, suddenly overcome by an unconquerable shyness, now that the crisis was over, she turned on her heel and walked rapidly away, increasing her pace to an actual run when she was sufficiently far away.
"Wait, wait!" cried both the young people. "We want – " But she was out of sight in another moment, and later, as they stared after her, they caught a brief glimpse as she flashed into the old farm-house and disappeared from view.
"That 's mighty queer!" commented Bernice. "She might have waited a little longer till we could thank her properly and find out who she was! But come along now. You must get straight home and have a doctor tend to your arm. She has probably saved you from any immediate bad effects, but you ought to have it cauterized – or something. I 'll drive, and you can help me out if I get in trouble. Lucky it 's not your right arm!"
As they drove away, in one last glance back at the old farm-house, they saw the strange girl peeping out at them from the doorway.
BERNICE drove back to town and straight to the doctor's office. Sydney meanwhile had so far recovered that he declared there was really no need of a doctor's attention for him. And the physician himself verified this after he had examined the wound.
"Simply grazed your arm with his head!" he laughed. "Not a particle of venom in those hog-nosed rascals; in fact, they have n't any fangs. But they certainly do look formidable, the big ones! Gave you a scare, I reckon! But whoever fixed you up did it quite scientifically. If it had been a rattler, you would have run a fair chance of getting over it with that tourniquet."
"Know anything about those folks out at old Number Six?" inquired Sydney casually. "That 's where we were fishing this afternoon."
"Don't know much about this region; only came here lately from Jacksonville to help with the mine men," averred Dr. Bennett. "Never been out to Number Six or even heard of it. One of those worked-out mines, is n't it?"
"It has n't been worked for fifteen years or so," replied Sydney.
"Well, I don't get around much to such out-of-the-way places, even to fish. The active mines keep me so busy I can hardly sleep. This blasting plays the mischief all the time. Men get so careless with the dynamite: only yesterday a dozen of 'em did n't get out of range fast enough up to Number Ten and they got caught in the blast and every last one of 'em knocked galley west! I had a pretty time of it with 'em! Managed to keep 'em all out of kingdom come, but they needed some patching up! I have n't time to mosey around fishing – and that sort of thing!"
"No help there!" remarked Sydney when they got outside. "Thought surely he 'd know a thing or two about Number Six, being a doctor and going around so much. But we 'll get at it somehow. There must be some one in this town that knows it. They 're wise about everything else there is to know of the life history of the inhabitants for miles around!"
"Suppose we try Caswell's general store," suggested Bernice. "Mr. Caswell knows the whole neighborhood too, and every one goes there for supplies. He ought to be able to tell us something. Let 's go in and get some packages of chocolate. I can't think of anything else to ask for, and I 'm crazy to find out who that queer girl can be. She sort of fascinated me! There was something very curious about her looks and manner."
They drew the Ford up in front of the big general store or commissary and entered hopefully. Bernice purchased half a dozen packages of chocolate, and while they were being wrapped Sydney engaged the stout, inert, and good-natured Mr. Caswell in conversation.
"Been up to old Number Six fishing lately?" he inquired nonchalantly. "I had pretty good luck there to-day. Never saw a hole so chockfull of fish!"
"No, I ain't been up there in a dog's age. Too fur to go, an' my little tin Lizzie's out o' commission lately anyhow. Caught a good mess over at Number Three yesterday."
"Do you know who 's living in the old farm-house out at Six?" went on Sydney. "Seems to be inhabited now, though I never saw any one in it before."
"Well, you don't tell! Sure 'nough I had n't heard tell there was any one there either. That place belongs to old Doc Halsey over to Bartow. He 's that mean he never would do any repairs on it, and so he ain't had any one to live in it these five years past. Told me a year ago he was going to pull the old thing down and sell the lumber. Well, well! So he 's got a tenant, has he? Can't be a very perticaler one to live there!"
"At least we 've found out one thing!" cried Bernice when they were out of the store. "We know who owns the old place, and of course he 'll know who his tenant is. Let 's go over to Bartow to-morrow and find out!"
But Sydney drew the line at this. "How in the world do you expect to tackle him, anyway?" he argued indignantly. "What excuse would you have for running over there and taking up his time asking such a fool question? It 's none of our business, if you come to that!"
"It certainly is our business, if we want to find out who the girl is that was so kind!" contradicted Bernice. "We ought to do something for her anyway to show our gratitude. It would be rather awkward if we don't even know who she is, would n't it?"
But Sydney was not to be so easily convinced. He was adamant on the subject of visiting Dr. Halsey and questioning him about his new tenants. The cousins, however, were spared the necessity by something that happened that very evening. They had gone together to the early moving-picture show, and when it was over Sydney suggested that they repair to the Orange Blossom Café and have some soda.
Now. the Orange Blossom Café was a town institution. It was the one establishment in the village where ice-cream and soda-water were dispensed, where candy and cigars could be bought, where one could obtain something approaching a restaurant meal – though it approached this no closer than fried ham and eggs and bacon and ham-sandwiches and coffee – usually the only commodities on the bill of fare! But it was the great gathering-place of the town, and around its four or five little tables or over its sloppy soft-drink counter were retailed all the news and gossip within a radius of thirty miles of the center.
Bernice and Sydney seated themselves at one of the little tables and gave their order to the worried-looking, white-aproned boy who attended to such matters. But before it had even been delivered, Sydney, who had been gazing purposefully around at the occupants of the place, hailed some one sitting over in a far corner, in a chair tilted against the wall.
"There 's Ike Massey!" he whispered to Bernice. "I 'd be willing to wager he can tell a few things about Number Six. He knows everything!"
"O Ike! Come over here and have some ice-cream with us, won't you?"
Nothing loath, Ike got up and slouched over to their table with a pleased grin. He was a village character – red-haired, good-natured, always wearing a cheerful grin, boastful and lazy, and of no particular occupation that any one had ever heard of. His chief interest in life was fishing and hunting, and he had whipped every pool and river in that part of Florida times without number. He made an ideal companion for a day's sport, but was of no other earthly use except as a purveyor of village gossip, of which he had always an inexhaustible supply.
"Been fishin' anywhere lately, Ike?" began Sydney, opening up at once the subject he knew was nearest Ike's heart.
"Well, I been over to the Peace River for the last day or two," acknowledged Ike. "Kind o' tired of these pools and wanted a diff'rent kind o' sport. Good catchin' over there! Reckon I landed thirty or forty in one mornin'! Sold 'em in Fort Meade an' got myself a new rod an' reel!"
"I was over at old Number Six this afternoon," Sydney contributed. "Shot 'em up a bit the way I showed you last week. Good going, too. But, by the way, Ike, did you know there 's some one living at the old farm-house there? Quite surprised me to see some one in it!"
Ike Massey looked at him thoughtfully before replying and took a large mouthful of cream. "Know who it is?" he queried between spoonfuls.
"No, did n't see any one but a girl, about Bernice's age, I should think. Queer little specimen!"
Ike continued to imbibe ice-cream for an appreciable interval. Finally he spoke. "I was over to Number Six myself – 'bout a week ago. Not much luck. Weather too cool and fish were n't bitin'." He paused in his leisurely way and surrounded another huge spoonful of ice-cream. These intervals were maddening to his two interlocutors, but they knew there was no way to make him come to the point other than simply – to wait!
"Seen some one in the old house myself," he went on at last. "Could n't quite make things out – at first!" He scraped the last drops of cream from the bottom of his dish and then sat back, staring silently and somewhat mournfully at the empty plate.
"Have another plate of cream, Ike!" urged Sydney warmly and purposefully. "It 's a hot night and these dishes don't amount to any thing at all. I 'm going to have another myself!"
"All right! Thank ye! Don't mind if I do!" And Sydney gave the order, trusting that a fresh supply would bring forth fresh information. Ike began on his new plate with unabated vigor and was in no condition to talk for a moment or two.
"Well, as I was sayin', the fishin' up to Number Six was pretty poor last week. I dunno what got into 'em. I don't reckon I brought home four after a whole day at it."
"That so! You say you saw some one in the old house?" questioned Sydney, patiently herding him round to the subject again.
"I certainly seen signs it was inhabited – ferns on the porch, an' all that. An' finally, as my water-bottle was plumb empty, I reckoned I 'd go and ask for a fresh supply."
"Did you get it?" demanded Sydney, with more anxiety than the subject called for, apparently. Ike eyed him with some curiosity.
"Sure I got it. It 'd be queer sort o' folks that 'd refuse a feller a drink o' water! Fat 'cracker' woman come to the door when I knocked. I was sure I 'd seen her somewheres else before. While I was pumpin' I asked her did n't she come from down Fort Myers way an' she said yes. Asked her what she was doin' so far from home an' she laughed an' said she 's married now an' come up here to live.
"Well, I sort o' gave her all the good wishes of the season an' says might I make so bold as to ask who she married. An' she says she married that Everglades guide that used to be so well known a while back. Jerry Saw-Grass. I says this is a long way from the Glades for Jerry to live and she says yes, and then looks kind o' embarrassed-like and says he ain't so well now an' the Glades don't agree with him no more, so he 's settled here. An' all the time keepin' one eye indoors, kind o' anxiously, as if she did n't want some one in there to hear – or something like that. All of a sudden that there young kid come runnin' around the corner of the house an' the cracker woman, when she sees her, she hollers fer her to go fetch some fire-wood an' so the kid disappears again. An' I says to her, 'That your gal?' an' she says no, she 's a sort of niece of Jerry's or something like that. Anyhow, I was filled up by that time an' wanted to get back to fish so I says good day. An' that 's all I know about 'em except – when I was over to Peace River the other day, I met up with a feller that 'd known Jerry in the Glades, an' he said he don't believe that kid 's any niece of his; that Jerry is a half-breed Indian anyhow an' he thinks the kid ain't, an' no one knows where she really come from an' when Jerry – "
At this juncture Ike spied a crony just entering the café and shouted across the place, "Hey, Doug! want to see you a minute about that gun we was going to swap!" And to the cousins: "Thank ye all for your company – an' the cream. Mighty good of you! Gotta see that feller right off before he gets away. He 's tryin' to duck me – if he can! So long!" He left them precipitately and two minutes later was out of the café.
"Pity he did n't finish that last remark!" exclaimed Sydney. "But anyway we got about what we wanted. What do you think of it, Bernice?"
Bernice sat staring wide-eyed and unseeingly before her for the space of several moments. Finally she spoke:
"What did I tell you, Syd? There 's something queer about that girl! I knew it the first minute I laid eyes on her. There 's a mystery somewhere! Oh, when can we go out there again?"
"I can't go for a couple of days," replied her cousin. "So you 'll just have to possess your soul in patience till then!"
JERRY SAW-GRASS ENTERTAINS
BERNICE spent the next two days in excited speculation. Decided zest was added to her wonderful new life in Florida by the introduction of so piquant a matter as they had accidentally stumbled across. When her cousin was at length free to take an afternoon off again, she straightway proposed that they visit Number Six and try to see the curious new inhabitants of the old farm-house.
"Yes, and I want to thank that girl, too, for what she did," agreed Sydney. "What do you think would be nice for us to take her – something she would n't be likely to have? How would a book do, or some candy?"
"Don't take a book!" laughed Bernice. "She probably can't even read if she 's come from such an uncivilized place as the Everglades. Let 's get a big box of the nicest bonbons we can find. I warrant that will be something she 's never had before!" Accordingly, armed with a five-pound box of chocolates, they drove to Number Six in the Ford the next afternoon, intent on the payment of their debt of gratitude. As the road around to the grove was very rough and cut by old railroad tracks, they decided to leave the car where it had stood on their first visit and proceed on foot. Much to their surprise, sounds of shouting and laughter and splashing came to them as they drew near the pool, and, curious to learn the cause of it, they crept noiselessly to the edge. The sight that met their gaze took their breath away and almost bowled them over.
Seated on the edge of a high bank above the pool was the girl, attired in a tattered bathing-suit. With a long pole she was prodding at something down below – something that floundered and splashed and lashed about the shallow water protestingly. Bernice uttered a frightened little cry and clung to Sydney's arm in a panic.
"Do you see what she 's doing?" she choked. "Look at that awful – ugh! But, good gracious! Let 's run! This is frightfully dangerous!"
"It is n't a bit dangerous. But I confess I never saw a girl with quite nerve enough for that!"
"But, Sydney, an alligator – a huge alligator – and in a pool like this!"
"Why these pools are full of 'em in the season," Sydney reassured her. "They begin to come out of the mud at the bottom about now, for the summer season. They 're harmless and they 're scared to death of humans and are always trying to get away from them. People bathe and swim in these pools with half a dozen of 'em peacefully occupying the other side." Bernice, however, continued to shiver and shudder and quake.
Just then the girl on the opposite bank stood up, took a flying leap, and dove straight into the pool, not twenty feet from where the old 'gator was trying clumsily to burrow into the mud and sand at the water's edge. With a great shouting and splashing, she drove him back on shore again and then clambered out herself to scramble up the steep bank and continue her teasing and prodding from above. But when she reached the top she caught sight of the two visitors on the opposite bank and hesitated for a visible moment. In this moment the old 'gator clumsily waddled down to the water and was lost to sight in an unbelievably short space of time. But the girl, after another glance across the pool, turned and fled hastily through the grove and into the farm-house and was lost to view.
"Let 's go back home, Sydney!" shuddered Bernice. "I 'm scared to death to stay around here with that awful creature so near. It can't be safe!"
"Nonsense! It 's as safe as a church! This is just your first experience. You 'll get so used to seeing 'em you won't even give 'em a second glance after a while. We 'll walk around to the house slowly, giving her time to dress, and then make our party call! I 'm crazy to see old Jerry. He 's been a famous guide in his day. Knows the Everglades like a book, they tell me."
Protesting still, Bernice allowed herself to be reluctantly led along, and presently they stood before the tumble-down veranda on which were now blooming ferns of wonderful luxuriance in old soap-boxes and leaky pails. Sydney advanced boldly up the rickety steps and knocked at the half-open door. A fat, unkempt, and more than middle-aged woman answered his knock. Her hair had obviously not been combed that day, she held in one hand a corn-cob pipe, and there were unmistakable signs that she was addicted to snuff. To Sydney's polite "Good afternoon!" she responded "Hey!" which appeared to be the typical "cracker" greeting of that neighborhood.
"Is – is the young girl who lives here at home to-day?" he stammered, scarcely knowing what to inquire. She stared at him in stolid wonder, but her only reply was to hold the door wider and say: "Come in an' set wun't ye?" They both entered somewhat timidly, to behold a man seated by the empty old chimney-place, rocking silently in a decrepit rocker, smoking as silently a blackened pipe which he removed only long enough to nod to both and resumed without uttering a word. If this was the famous Jerry Saw-Grass, thought Sydney, his appearance was a decided disappointment. His faded cotton shirt, dirty khaki trousers, and heavy boots suggested nothing of his romantic calling; his heavy, bearded face with the long mustache ends falling down to mingle with the unkempt beard was more like the ancient buccaneers of history, to Sydney's mind, than in keeping with a half-breed Indian guide. However, here he was, but there was still no sign of the youngest member of the trio.
In utter silence the four sat for several awful moments, and then Sydney plucked up courage to ask for the unseen girl and tell briefly the reason for their visit.
The only response to the tale was that the woman lifted up her voice and called loudly: "Dell! Dell! Come out! I reckon you 're wanted."
After another long interval, a door to an inner room opened and the girl stepped out, clothed as she had been at their first encounter, a half-frightened, half-inquiring expression in her big eyes. Sydney rose courteously, explained again their visit, and presented the box of candy, laying it in her reluctant hands. An embarrassed pause ensued while she stood there, staring down at it, plainly at an utter loss how to proceed with the amenities. It was Bernice who came to her rescue.
"May I open it for you?" she asked, and took the package from the girl's unresisting hands. Removing the wrapper, she had a sudden inspiration, took off the cover, popped one of the candies into the girl's open mouth, placed one in her own, and passed the box around the room to all the others. It was decidedly "not according to Hoyle" but it worked. Miraculously the ice was broken. A delighted smile overspread the faces of the girl and the woman. Even old Jerry relaxed into what passed for a pleased grin.
"My! ain't them things good!" commented the woman, and Bernice promptly passed her another. In a moment they were all munching contentedly and the woman was telling how she "had n't had no candy sence she left her home two months ago." Sydney then thought he 'd try his hand at drawing out Jerry and began on a series of animated questions about the Everglades. But Jerry was either no conversationalist or he did not feel communicative that day, for not a word could the boy draw from him. Nods and grunts, affirmative or negative, he granted, but not another expression issued from behind his solemn beard. At last the boy gave it up in despair and the two visitors rose and took their departure. No one asked them to come again except the woman who was plainly trying to make up for the deficiency in affability of her lord and master.
"He 's got the misery in his back to-day," she explained. "He 's often took that way. That 's why he can't live in them swamps no more." The girl seemed to have faded imperceptibly into the background and was nowhere to be seen when they left. But down by the edge of the pool and well out of sight of the house they were suddenly arrested by her figure, rising up unexpectedly from a big scrub-palmetto clump.
"Wait!" she said. "Don't talk too loud, please." And she glanced over her shoulder back at the cottage. "I – I want to – to thank you again for – the candy!"
"Oh, the thanks are all on my side!" exclaimed Syd gallantly. "If it had n't been for you I might have been in pretty bad shape. The doctor said you made a splendid job of it – left very little for him to do."
"I 'm glad," she said simply, then hurried on. "But I want to say something else. I don't want them to know – they might n't like it, but – I – I wish you would come often – both of you. I – I 'm lonesome!" She stopped abruptly as if frightened at having said so much.
"Why, of course we 'll come!" declared Bernice impulsively. "We 'll come every time we can manage it and we 'll take you out in the car for rides sometimes, if you care to go."
"Oh, no, no!" the girl protested in quite inexplicable panic. "I can't do that. They – they would n't like it."
"But why not?" demanded Bernice indignantly. "It 's perfectly safe. Sydney is a splendid driver."
"It – is n't that. They – they don't care for me to see many people."
Bernice stared at her in amazed incredulity. "But – pardon me! – may I ask why? What possible harm can there be in it?"
The girl became very much embarrassed. "It is – is hard to explain, – I know. I – I just can't explain it, I 'm afraid. But if – they think I am seeing any – any outsiders much, they will move away again – to some place that is farther off from – people."
"I can't understand it!" cried Bernice. But Sydney interposed: "Well, never mind if you can't. That 's not our affair. But we 'll come whenever we can, anyway. How shall we manage it, though, if we 're not to let – er – Mr. Saw-Grass and his wife know of our visits?" He turned questioningly to the girl.
"If you 'll leave the car a good ways off – in the brush, and never come over this side of the pool, it 'll be all right. Don't try to call me or signal to me – in any way. I 'll be over there a part of every day. I 'll always see you."
"But won't they – the – er – I mean your father and his wife – ever come over on this side?" questioned Sydney.
An indignant flush spread under the girl's dark skin.
"He – he is n't – that is, I call him Uncle Jerry," she retorted. "No, they will not go over that side. The truth is he has some kind of disease. I don't know what it is – the hookworm, perhaps, – though he sees an old doctor up this way sometimes and he says it is n't the hook-worm. Anyhow, he can't live in the Everglades any more and he can't get around much. And she" – an expression of faint contempt appeared in her face for an instant, – "she – takes snuff and is very lazy. She never goes out of the house or beyond the yard and garden if she can help it. She won't go round the pool."
She walked along with them to the other side of the pool and they came to where the car stood. Bernice's mind was fairly sizzling with a host of questions that she longed to ask, yet something in the strange girl's restraint prevented her from uttering them.
"You 've been very – very good to me," the girl said wistfully as they clambered in, "to bring me all that candy. I never had anything like it before."
"Tell me," asked Bernice, for this she felt would be a quite legitimate question, "have you lived in the Everglades all your life – before this?"
"Yes, either in them or right on the edge. This is the first time I 've ever been so far from them."
As they started the car and prepared to drive away, Bernice suddenly leaned out. "We 'll come again very soon. But – I most forgot! – we have n't even told you our names. I 'm Bernice Conant and this is my cousin, Sydney Conant. We 're living at Jasper, the phosphate town about twelve miles from here. And shall we call you Dell?"
Again the annoyed flush crept up under the girl's dark skin. "They call me that, but my real name is Delight!" And she turned and disappeared into the underbrush.
MANY SPECULATIONS AND ONE CERTAINTY
IN the sweet-scented darkness of the hotel porch that evening, Bernice and Sydney discussed and re-discussed the strange happenings of the afternoon. Bernice and her parents were staying at the little hotel temporarily while a bungalow was being found for their occupation near that of Sydney's parents. A South Florida phosphate-town is a curious mushroom growth, designed only for those engaged in the working of the phosphate-mine or factory, and the most recent comers must always put up with the accommodations of the little hotel till their own bungalows are either constructed or vacated by departing occupants.
The two young people were much divided in their opinions in regard to their new acquaintance.
"But you can't deny that she 's certainly very unlike those other two – that she lives with!" asserted Bernice for the half-dozenth time.
"Yes, she 's different, I admit," replied the more cautious Sydney; "at least, she 's very different from the cracker woman. How different she is from Jerry I can't tell, as he had so little to say. They tell me he 's very intelligent, though."
"But what 's the meaning of her being so mysterious – and wanting us not to let them know when we come? I warrant they 're not kind to her and she wants to get away from them somehow." Bernice was a little irritated at Sydney's inability to see the thing from her point of view.
"If she wanted very much to get away, all she 'd have to do would be to run off and give herself into the hands of the authorities. If she could prove that they 've ill-used her or anything like that, no one would make her go back to them. No, if she wanted that, she 'd have plenty of opportunity," replied Sydney skeptically.
"But perhaps she does n't know enough, especially if she 's lived in the Everglades all her life. Did you notice what good English she used? Hardly a single grammatical mistake. Where did she ever learn it?"
"That I can't figure out, unless Jerry is some sort of a scholar, which is n't likely. I know there are no schools in that wilderness and not a soul lives there except the Seminole Indians; and they 're an ignorant lot. They are the only really wild Indians left in the United States. Once in a while they come in to Miami or Fort Lauderdale or even Kissimee to trade, but most of them can hardly speak a word of English. No, that is a puzzle!" Sydney had to admit.
"Well, it is n't the only one by any means," insisted Bernice. "How do you account for the way she acted when you spoke of Jerry as her father? She was positively indignant, though she admitted that she called him uncle."
"Calling people uncle does n't mean a thing down South here. Every other old darky is Uncle or Aunt Something-or-other! But anyhow he 's told people she was his niece and it may be really true."
"I don't believe it!" cried Bernice. "She 's no half-breed! She has dark hair and a dark sunburnt complexion, but her eyes are the bluest things I ever saw – perfectly beautiful! I 'll never believe she has a drop of Indian blood in her."
"Then will you tell me how she ever came to be in the Everglades at all?" demanded Sydney, rather exasperated that Bernice should try to make a mystery out of what he thought could be easily explained. "Her blue eyes came from her white ancestry. That does n't prove anything. And no one but an Indian or a part-Indian like Jerry could possibly have lived in the Everglades all their lives. So there!"
But Bernice chose to ignore this retort. "What do you suppose was the reason that they don't like her to have much to do with strangers?" she mused. "She even said they might move away if they thought she was trying to. That looks to me as if something was – well, queer about it. Don't you think so?"
"It may or it may n't be," acknowledged Sydney. "How do you know that the girl is n't kind of queer herself and has sometimes made trouble for them by thinking she is n't treated just right and complaining of it to outsiders! I would n't blame them for putting some pressure on her in that case."
Bernice however, would have none of this argument. "You may be three years older than I am, Syd, and pride yourself on your common sense and superior judgment, but if you can't see that there is something strange in that whole situation and that that poor little thing is n't a mischief-maker or an – an idiot – or anything like that, why, I give you up!" And she marched away in a huff. But she came back in a minute or so to add, "And she said her name was Delight. Do you suppose a half-breed Indian ever gave her that name?"
"I notice they did n't call her that, anyway," Sydney conceded. "Cheer up, old girl! I did n't mean to discourage you, really. But you must n't get a lot of romantic notions about an ignorant little Everglade cracker or Indian – or whatever she is! Tell you what, though! I 'm willing to play Sherlock Holmes with you as often as you fancy, if you think it worth while to run the truth to earth. We 'll go over there to Number Six any time you say and work it out after the most approved Sherlockian methods, only don't ask me to go and beard Jerry Saw-Grass in his lair and forcibly demand that he present me with explanations! I draw the line at that. I fancy he could be rather formidable if he had provocation!"
"O Syd, will you? There 's nothing I want half so much – hunting down this mystery, I mean. It has just taken hold of me somehow, and I can't get that poor little thing out of my mind. There was something so pathetic about her. When shall we go out there again?"
"Well, not too soon," conceded Sydney. "If we 've got to use all these precautions against being seen, I 'd rather hate to be found spying around there, in case everything did n't go right and Jerry got to prowling around or anything like that. I don't like that aspect of it any too much. It 'd be right awkward! Let 's wait a few days."
Bernice in her impatience found it very hard to wait and chafed at any delay. But the matter was decided for them, or rather they decided it themselves sooner than they had expected. On the following Saturday about noon, Bernice rushed over to her cousin's bungalow and found him raking the live-oak leaves into neat piles in the sandy enclosure around his house. A mocking-bird was lilting entrancingly near by and the warm air was drenched with the scent of orange-blossoms. It was a heavenly day, but Bernice noticed none of these things.
"O Syd!" she panted. "Guess what I heard – and saw! I happened to be in the general store getting something for mother just now, and who should drive up, in the funniest old wagon drawn by a little, tired-out mule, but Jerry Saw-Grass and his wife!" She paused to see the effect on her cousin.
"Well, what of it?" he demanded, unmoved. "I suppose they have to come to town sometimes to get supplies. Was the kid with them?"
"No, she was n't," went on Bernice breathlessly. "Jerry got out and came in the store and stood right next to me at the counter. He did n't seem to recognize me at all and so I did n't say anything. He 's so queer that I did n't like to, anyhow. I heard him tell Mr. Caswell that they 'd come in town for the day. He wanted to get supplies and 'the missis' wanted to go to the moving-picture show in the afternoon. They probably won't get back till six or seven o'clock in the evening especially with that poky little mule. Here 's our chance, Syd! Let 's start right out in the car after the noon dinner and drive like mad over to Number Six. We can have the whole afternoon there without worrying about them. Don't you see?"
"All right," agreed Sydney. "There 's no earthly reason why we should n't go to that old mine pool whenever we like. It is n't their property. I 'll take my rod and lines to fish and you can chum around with the kid as much as you like. As you say, it 's perhaps the best opportunity."
That afternoon, therefore, found them bowling along the asphalt road in the direction of Number Six, eager for their quest and all oblivious of the perfect Florida weather and surroundings. In the back of the car Sydney had a rod or two and his fishing basket and Bernice a number of trifles that she thought would please the strange and lonely dweller at the deserted farm. The way had never seemed so long, and when they turned off the asphalt road of traffic and into the rutty, rough trail through the woods to the old mine pool it irked them sorely to have to slow down to ten or twelve miles an hour. It was two miles through the pine and scrub-palmetto and young live-oaks before they came in sight of the turquoise blue water of the pool. Hardly had they stopped the car when a little figure sprang out of the bushes.
"The Missis' wanted to go to the moving-picture show"
"Oh, I thought you 'd come. I knew you 'd come!" she cried delightedly. "I was sure you 'd see them in town – and know that I was here alone!" Her simple faith in them was so touching that Bernice had almost a moment of panic in imagining what the girl would have felt if they had disappointed her. "I 've been here watching for you ever so long!" Delight went on. It was curious to observe the difference in her manner – the lack of the restraint of the previous visits, the simple pleasure in their mere presence with her.
"I 'm going to fish," declared Sydney with true tact. "You girls can amuse yourselves for a while, can't you?" They joyfully agreed and he strolled off to whip the blue, placid water with his long line and reel, with more or less success. The girls meanwhile, left alone, made rapid strides in getting better acquainted.
"Tell me," demanded Bernice almost at once, "how did you dare tease that old alligator the way you did the other day? Were n't you afraid of him? You frightened me to death! But, by the way, he is n't anywhere around now, is he?" and she glanced apprehensively at the pool.
"My, no! He 's down in the mud," smiled the girl. "I tried to pull him out all this morning. He would n't come. You need n't be afraid of him." With the ice thus broken, Bernice drew from her amazing accounts of her encounters with rattlers, alligators, and other dangerous denizens of the wilds, all of which she recounted as if they were the most ordinary affairs. After that, she led Bernice off to a dense thicket where she said she had something to show her and, to Bernice's horror, exhibited a huge diamond-backed rattlesnake, coiled as if asleep. To her further horror, she bent down and stroked it with the utmost sang-froid and then laughed a peal of merry amusement.
"It 's nothing! See? Only the skin! The rattler left it there some time ago!" Bernice sat down and gasped, weak with relief and astonishment.
"You are a wonder!" she cried. "Is there anything you don't know about the wilds of Florida?"
"It 's easy when you 've grown up in them," answered her companion, but her manner grew a trifle more evasive. At this point Bernice bethought herself of the things she had brought in the back of the car and went to get them.
"I had some things at home that I thought you might like," she said half apologetically, and she presented her new friend first with a copy of one of her own favorite books. This was a wily move on her part, carefully thought out beforehand, for she wanted to discover, without direct question, if possible, whether the girl could read and where she had learned. Delight's eyes fairly sparkled when she saw the book and she seized upon it eagerly. And opening it at the first page, she read the title aloud.
"Oh, you are good!" she exclaimed. "I don't even own a book of my own. I have n't read anything – since – " She stopped abruptly, as if reflecting on the advisability of disclosing something, then went on boldly, " – not since I – I went to school at Fort Lauderdale!" She seemed to think this a very damaging disclosure, for she halted again as if in suspense.
"Oh, I thought you lived in the Everglades all your life," commented Bernice quietly, trying not to exhibit a sign of the excitement she felt at this revelation. "I have wondered how you managed to – to go to school."
"Fort Lauderdale is n't far from the edge of the Glades," explained Delight. "That year – it was three years ago – Uncle Jerry was taking parties through the Glades regularly and our camp was on the New River, 'bout five miles in from Fort Lauderdale. He was away so much and I – I wanted so to go to school. There was a little school near the edge of the town. I begged Wanetka to let me go and finally she said yes. I paddled there every day, five miles in the canoe. I learned very quickly to read. That 's what I wanted to do most. The teacher was good to me and gave me extra time. I could not go very regularly for Uncle Jerry would come back – and then I dared not. He – he did n't wish me to learn. He can't read himself; he thinks it is a waste of time for me – not necessary. Wanetka did not tell on me: he never knew. But at last the season for the tourists was over and we went back to our old camp, way in the middle of the Glades. I never got another chance to go to school and I 've never seen a book since!"
"May I ask – who was Wanetka?" asked Bernice, her curiosity at last getting the better of her caution.
"She? Oh, she was Uncle Jerry's Indian wife. She died two years after we were at Fort Lauderdale. She was very good to me. I – I loved her." A shade of sadness crept into her tones at the mention of this incident.
Bernice longed madly to ask her whether the Indian woman was a relative, whether Jerry Saw-Grass was a relative, what the strange connection was; but she dared venture no further along that line just then. She was too cautious to frighten the girl by asking more confidences than Delight might choose to bestow. Accordingly, she turned the conversation by presenting her other offerings – a box of homemade fudge, and one of the latest magazines, profusely illustrated and filled with interesting short stories. The gifts were received with a very passion of gratitude, apparent enough, though Delight was not unduly demonstrative in her expression of it. While she was poring over the pictures Bernice sat longing to ask some of the score or more of questions surging through her brain, yet still scarcely daring. But before she had a chance, Sydney came hurrying over to them
"I just want to tell you that the – er – that Jerry and his wife are driving back. I went toward the road a way and just happened to see them coming slowly, 'way in the distance, but I 'm sure it 's they. I don't know why they 're coming now. It 's quite early yet."
Instant consternation fell upon the two girls. Bernice wanted to fly and hide somewhere, and Delight got to her feet, swiftly gathering her new possessions in her arms.
"I 'll go away," she said a little breathlessly. "Stay here, both of you. Just act, please, as if I had n't been here, as if you had n't seen me. There 's no harm in your being at this place if I 'm not with you. And, besides, I want to – to hide these things in a place I have – for my own things. I don't want them to be seen – over there." She nodded her head in the direction of the house.
"Delight," said Bernice, suddenly and impulsively, "do you – are you so afraid of – of your uncle? Is he – well – unkind to you?"
The girl opened her beautiful eyes wide with unfeigned astonishment. "Unkind to me! Oh, I just reckon not! I – why, I am very fond of him!"
She motioned them a hurried good-by and slipped away into the undergrowth with the smooth and silent dexterity of which she seemed a perfect mistress. And when she was gone Bernice and Sydney simply stared at each other with dropped jaws and blank expressions.
"Well, can you beat that last?" exploded Sydney at length.
A QUEST IN THE NIGHT
AS things turned out, they did not even have to encounter the returning pair, who were so long in arriving that Sydney finally remarked:
"Well, I don't know what 's keeping the mule-express, but I don't see any object in our hanging around here any longer. Let 's get in the car and drive out to the main road through that other trail that leads in here. It is n't quite as good, but we can manage it, and there 's no sense in just waiting to be discovered here." This route they accordingly took. But so great was their curiosity as to the cause of the delay, that Sydney got out, when they were a safe distance away, and went back on the main trail to reconnoiter. He came back in a few moments to say that apparently the cart had broken down about half a mile from the pool and that when he had peeped through the bushes he saw the "cracker" woman and Delight both trying to patch it up and Jerry sitting perfectly motionless and silent in the wagon. Evidently, from the little conversation he heard, the man had begun to feel ill while in town and they had decided to come home without staying as long as they had planned. Sydney said he would have liked to go out and offer them some assistance; but concluded that the girl would only have been worried and embarrassed by it, and accordingly he slipped away without being seen.
"So that 's that!" he finished, and Bernice occupied the journey home retailing to him her half-enlightening and half-baffling conversation with Delight at the pool.
"It 's curious," commented Sydney when she had finished, "but the more you learn about that situation the more tangled up it becomes. I thought it pretty simple at first and that you were entirely mistaken in your guesses. But now I agree with you: it certainly is a puzzle!"
They drove the rest of the way home in silence, except when Bernice once exclaimed:
"Why – why if she 's so fond of her uncle Jerry, is she so afraid of him – or of them? I can't understand it!" But Sydney did not attempt to elucidate what was just as much of a mystery to him. One idea only occurred to him.
"I believe I 'll hunt up Ike Massey again!" he suddenly exclaimed. "Do you remember, that night when we got him to talk, in the Orange Blossom Café, he broke off before he had finished, and I 've always had a notion that he knows something more than he 's told us already. I 'm going to look him up in the café again to-night."
That evening Sydney was as good as his word. But he came back very soon to find Bernice on the hotel veranda and tell her that he had not been successful in locating Ike at the café but had learned that he was supposed to be fishing that evening at Number Three. As it would later be a bright moonlight night, he announced that he intended to take the Ford and hunt up Ike, as much for the fun of the thing as anything else.
"O Syd!" cried Bernice, "do take me with you! I know mother won't mind. I 'll go and ask her right now. I do so love to drive at night here, and we do it so seldom!"
"All right, go and ask her. And first I 'll take you to see that new mine, Number Eighteen, at work. You 've never seen one of the mines at night and it 's something of a sight."
Ten minutes later they were bowling over the asphalt roads in the sweet-scented Florida night. The moon had not yet risen, but there was a faint glow in the east, indicating that it was near the horizon. Their way lay across a flat marsh waste, with here and there a tall, lonely pine, heavily draped with Spanish moss. Strange sounding frogs croaked in the marshes, croaked with such a different sound from the frogs of the North, that Bernice could never really believe they were frogs at all. At intervals a mocking-bird somewhere across the marshes lilted entrancingly and a whippoorwill mourned in another quarter.
Suddenly, on rounding a sharp turn in the road, Bernice looked ahead and caught her breath.
"O Syd, what is that?" It was indeed a peculiar sight, looming up in the midst of this deserted wilderness. A great edifice brilliantly lighted with electric lights stood out against the dark sky. It resembled amazingly a scenic railway in an amusement park, and one almost expected to hear a brass band accompanied by the shouts of pleasure seekers. Alongside of this edifice was a sight equally amazing. From an immense hole in the earth like a volcanic crater, there rose swirling clouds of steam, weirdly illuminated by a number of strong search-lights playing on it from different points of the excavation. It made the resemblance to an active volcanic crater even more startling.
"There 's Number Eighteen," replied Sydney. "That brilliantly lighted affair is the washer. It 's used to wash the sand out of the phosphate or the phosphate out of the sand. The other thing 's the mine. We 'll go over and look at her working." He ran the car off the road and across the stubbly field till they came to the outskirts of the works. Here they left the car and walked to the edge of the great pit.
"I never dreamed of such a sight!" sighed Bernice, gazing over the rim. "Those men look like demons crawling around there in that awful muddle of steam and mud and confusion! And see those walls of the mine breaking down where that great pipe of water is trained on them!"
"That 's the water-drill," commented Sydney. "They get at the material that way."
"And what 's that huge hill of sand off to the side?" questioned Bernice.
"That 's what they call the 'overburden.' The phosphate does n't lie right at the surface. It begins about ten or fifteen feet further down and all the top layer has to be removed first. So they shovel it off and leave it there at the side. But come, Bernice, we can't stay here all night. I want to get over to Number Three. It 's about a mile from here. I don't want to miss Ike."
"And just to think," murmured Bernice, as they scrambled back to the car, "that beautiful, quiet, deserted Number Six was just such a sight as this once! I can hardly believe it!"
"It is some contrast!" acknowledged Sydney. "And it 's just as hard to believe that some day in the not far distant future this will look just about like Number Six also. Can you believe that?"
As they resumed the road and drove on to Number Three the moon rose – a great circle, red as a conflagration, immense in size. And when at last they approached Number Three, a pool very close to the roadside, the night had become almost as brilliant as day. On the opposite bank, backed by a grove of moss-draped live-oaks, they beheld a dark, still figure, patiently sitting on the bank beside a stationary fishing-rod or two.
"There 's Ike!" whispered Sydney. "Now, the problem is, how to get over there close to him without having him think we 've deliberately hunted him up. If he once gets the notion we 're after him for any special reason, and particularly if he thinks we 're too much interested in Number Six, I 'm afraid he 'll begin to be troublesome."
"Had n't we better just sit here a while and act as if we were looking at the moonlight on the pool? Then later you can appear to recognize him and call over to him."
"Good idea!" exclaimed Sydney. "You have 'em sometimes! We 'll do just that thing."
They sat for ten minutes in the quiet spell of the moonlight. Several times a big fish jumped clear out of the water and fell back into the pool, creating a thousand silver ripples. The odor of jasmine mingled keenly with the many other scents wafted to them across the pool. So poignant was the witchery of the night that they hated to mar it by so much as a whisper. But at last it was Ike himself who broke the spell.
"Hey, there!" he called across to them. "Got such a thing as a good sharp knife with you? I dropped mine in the pool a while back."
The interruption was fortunate, and Sydney shouted back lustily:
"Hullo! That you, Ike? Sure, I have a knife. We 'll come around there to you, for I know you don't want to leave your lines."
And when they had picked their way around to where he sat, "Who 'd have thought of coming across you here? Had any luck? We were out for a drive and stopped to watch the fish jumping in this pool."
"They don't jump nowheres around me," grumbled Ike, "nor bite either, for that matter. I 've tried every side."
"What 's the matter?" asked Sydney. "Seems just the right sort of night for 'em."
"Don't know. Maybe that 's the matter!" And Ike pointed to a curious dark object, much resembling a long, floating log to one side of the pool. Then he took up an old bicycle lantern that he carried with him and pointed it directly at the log.
"Stand right behind me," he commanded Bernice, "and look over my shoulder!" She did as he bade her and presently beheld two blazing points of light steadily approaching the bank on which they stood.
"Oh, what is it?" she whispered breathlessly.
"Just old Mr. 'Gator!" laughed Ike. Bernice gave a little scream of terror and the points of light disappeared.
"He could n't have hurt you. The bank 's fifteen feet steep just here. Besides that, I 'd a shot him first if he 'd tried to get up. I think the rascal's been layin' for the fish all evening. That 's why they don't bite. If I 'd a mind to shoot him, I 'd maybe get a dollar for his hide. He 's a big feller – but it 's too much trouble to skin him."
"Oh, let 's get away from here, Syd!" whispered Bernice, still shuddering. She could not yet understand their callousness to the danger of this (to her) terrible monster. But Sydney only laughed and said to Ike:
"She 's scared to death of 'em! To-day we saw that kid over at old Number Six having a regular romp with one and I thought Bernice would go into a convulsion!"
"You seem to be over to Number Six quite a bit," commented Ike, making a fresh cast with one of his rods. This was precisely what Sydney wanted.
"Yes, we have been over several times lately," he replied. "Fishing 's generally good there and Bernice here likes to see the girl. They sort of chum together while I fish. Queer little kid she is!"
Ike made no response to this but dug into an old tin can for another worm. Sydney tried not to appear desirous of a reply and whittled a stick nonchalantly. Presently Ike deigned to speak.
"If you 've managed to make any of that outfit talk, you 've done more than I can. Since the day I first saw that there cracker woman, I 've never managed to get hardly so much as the time o' day from the lot. I seen Jerry one morning prowling around catchin' something for breakfast, I s'pose, an' I thought I 'd have a chat an' find out a few things about the Glades from him. But, bless you, he just nodded an' would n't talk no more 'n an oyster! I tell you, there 's something queer about the outfit! Take it from me, Jerry 's got something up his sleeve, or my name ain't Ike Massey! He 's hidin' – that 's what he is!"
"But what do you suppose he 's hiding for?" demanded Sydney, inwardly delighted at this sudden outburst of Ike's. A sly look, visible even in the moonlight, came over the man's face.
"He 's got a reason – don't you worry! Who do you suppose that kid is they have taggin' around with them?"
"Why, I don't know; do you?" demanded Sydney. This was better than he had even dared to hope. And even Bernice forgot the alligator for a moment and pricked up her ears.
"D' you suppose that kid belongs to him?" hissed Ike, his face close to Sydney's.
"I had n't thought much about it. Why should n't she?" Sydney led him on.
"She ain't no more like either of 'em than a mullet is like a shark; that 's why. Oh, I 've been studyin' the situation a bit! I ain't blind. An' it 's my firm belief that Jerry stole that gal – some time or other – an' is just hidin' away here till everything 's safe an' then he 's goin' to get a ransom for her! You see if I ain't right!"
"Oh, that 's nonsense!" laughed Sydney, but at the same time he pinched Bernice's arm till she almost cried aloud.
"No, 't ain't nonsense, either. An' if it ain't that, it 's something just as bad." He commenced to reel up his lines with determination. "But I ain't goin' to waste any more time here to-night. Was out all last night anyway an' I need sleep. You goin' back to town? If so, I 'd thank you for a lift."
"Sure thing! Come right along!" cried Sydney. "We ought to have been back some time ago."
Ike gathered up his belongings and they all moved round the pool to the road where the car stood, Bernice casting many a backward look at the log-like form still floating in the moonlight. The ride home was uneventful, as Ike, on the back seat, was both sleepy and uncommunicative. But he thanked them warmly for the ride when they had entered the village, and they left him at the door of his own tumble-down shack.
"Well, what did you think of it? Was n't it worth while?" demanded Sydney excitedly, as they reached the hotel porch.
"I don't know what to think. How about you, Syd?"
"Well, I 'll admit that same idea has occurred to me more than once, but it 's seemed too – extravagant, somehow. I just can't seem to credit those two with any such scheme as that about the kid and yet it certainly is one explanation!"
"There 's one big objection to it – the very thing she told us this afternoon," declared Bernice. "If such a thing were the case, would she be likely to be so fond of that Jerry as she says she is?"
"No," Sydney had to admit, "I 'll have to acknowledge – it does n't seem likely!"
A NEW FACTOR
IT is a very usual but always surprising experience that when one has once become interested in a new topic or event dozens of fresh incidents in connection with it are always cropping up to confront one. So the two Conant cousins found it. Three days later Bernice had a rather peculiar experience.
She was standing in the little post-office waiting for the mail to be sorted and the window to open. Ordinarily she would have unlocked the family box, taken the contents, and gone away as quickly as possible, for she hated to linger about the rather dirty and stuffy little place. But as she had forgotten the key and did not want to return home for it, she leaned impatiently against the one writing-slab and listened in bored curiosity to the scraps of conversation going on about her. The office was crowded, for it was the regulation hour for the distribution of the morning mail, the great event of the day to the more idle population of the town and indeed to many of the inhabitants for miles around, who drove in especially for the occasion. Village and local gossip was here retailed and ideas on every possible subject exchanged in the soft Southern drawl that Bernice always found fascinating. She found herself standing beside two typical "cracker" farmers, whose conversation presently drifted to her, and at a familiar name she suddenly pricked up her ears and listened with absorbed interest.
"Funny thing happened in taown las' Sat'day," remarked one. "Yuh heah tell of it?" The other responded with a grunted "Uh-uh!" which in Florida vernacular generally indicates "No!"
"Well, I saw it," the first went on. "That there half-Indian fellah was in taown – th' one they do say is out to old Number Six livin' theah now. He had his missis with him, th' one that come from down Okeechobee way. They wus jes' hittin' it up ter have a gran' time – buyin' their tickets to go into the movies. I was right behind 'em. The line was cleah out inter the street. All on a sudden I saw that fellah (they do say his name is Jerry something-or-other) staring across the street an' give a queer grunt. I looked ter see what he was lookin' at an' theh was a gray-headed fellah in a Palm Beach suit – a reg'lah Yankee swell – a-gazin' at Jerry as if he 'd jes' got sight o' some 'un that owed him twenty dollars! The fellah started to come acrost the street, but jes' then a lot o' cyars came through an' blocked things up a bit, and when he got ovah an' come up to the movie place, blest if that Jerry had n't beat it, jes' as slick, him an' his missis both; an' nobody seemed to know where they 'd gone. The other fellah looked around, sort of dazed-like, as if he 'd made a mistake, an' then he went off too. I seen him since; he 's staying down to the hotel. They do say he 's got somethin' ter do with the mines."
At this point the window opened and there was a rush to obtain the mail. The two gossipers drifted away, but Bernice stood stock-still where she was, rooted to the spot with astonishment at the new phase of things that had suddenly opened up to her. When the crowd had sufficiently thinned out she obtained her own mail and hurried back to the hotel. It seemed an age before noon-time, the first opportunity she would have to see her cousin, for he was helping his father with office work in the phosphate factory, nearly every morning till he could go away to college in the autumn. But at last the noon hour came, and Bernice, on the watch from the hotel veranda, signaled Sydney's car as it passed by on the way to his bungalow. He got out, leaving his father to drive home, and joined her in a sunny, deserted corner.
"What 's the matter?" he demanded. " You look as if you 'd been seein' things!"
"No, but I 've been hearin' things!" she retorted excitedly and retailed her experience in the post-office. "But that is n't all," she added. "Do you know that man is staying right here at the hotel! There he is over there, reading the paper. His name is Mr. Tredwell. I 've tried to find out all I can about him this morning in a quiet way. He 's down here transacting some law business for the mines, they say. Came down from New York last week. Nothing apparently to do with Jerry at all. Now what do you make of it?"
"You can search me!" responded Sydney, looking thoroughly puzzled. "Looks as if Jerry was afraid of him all right. But for what reason, goodness only knows! It may not have anything to do with the kid."
"But it certainly explains why they came back so soon last Saturday. And you say you heard the woman say he was ill, and of course it was n't so. They just did n't want Delight to know the real reason. Can't you see that?"
Sydney had to acknowledge that it looked that way, but was still doubtful that it might be for any reason that would affect her. "The man may know Jerry – may have had some dealings with him. Perhaps he may have hired Jerry as guide in the Everglades at some time or other, and Jerry may have proved dishonest or got away with something that did n't belong to him. Some of those guides and trappers are notoriously untrustworthy. And this Mr. Tredwell, seeing him and perhaps recognizing him again, thought he 'd just come over and have an interview. It would be a very simple explanation."
"It would be simple, but it just does n't seem to me to fit," declared Bernice. "If that had been all, I believe Jerry would have bluffed it out somehow. I 'm sure it would take a good deal more to make him so anxious to elude the man as he was very evidently. Now I propose that we go to see Delight again this afternoon – manage to see her alone somehow, – and just stop beating about the bush any longer but find out what is the matter there and how we could help her."
"I don't see why you constantly take it for granted that she needs any help!" protested Sydney. "She 's an interesting little thing and I admit that there are some puzzling sides to her case, but it 's none of our affairs after all, and I don't see why we should meddle in it." Sydney was planning a career as a lawyer and certainly he was gifted with the judicial mind – infuriatingly so at times, in Bernice's opinion. "However, I 'll take you out this afternoon if you want to go."
And, despite all he said, Bernice shrewdly suspected that his own curiosity played not a little part in his acquiescence.
"After all, though," admitted Bernice when they were on their way that afternoon, "I don't know how we actually can open the subject with her, do you? She 's awfully difficult to approach about anything concerning herself and those people."
"If you take my advice you 'll let her alone on it. Perhaps something may come up that 'll open the subject without any trouble. It 's always better if it comes that way. I don't believe in forcing anything myself." Having delivered himself of this sage advice, Sydney drove gravely on, keeping a weather-eye always out for the stray cows and pigs that make life a burden to the Florida motorist.
But the problem was again solved for them by what they encountered as they drew near the vicinity of the trail where they usually turned off the main road. To their immense surprise, they beheld, walking ahead of them and in an opposite direction from the one from which they had come, the unmistakable figure of their new friend, Delight. With his foot well down on the accelerator, Sydney speedily overtook her.
"Hello! May we give you a lift? We were coming over to see you this afternoon."
The girl gave them a startled look, followed at once by a joyful greeting, "I have to walk to a little store about five miles from here," she told them. "We 're all out of tea and flour and Uncle Jerry is too poorly to go. They did n't get all they wanted in town the other day and it 's too far to go there. We – they sometimes get things at that little store."
"Well, this is luck! Get right in," cried Sydney, "and we 'll drive you there. It 's a shame for you to walk on this warm day, anyhow." He got out and helped her into the rear seat, where she settled down rather timidly beside Bernice.
"I 've – I 've never ridden in one before!" she acknowledged, and fairly lost her breath at the speed which Sydney promptly put on. Bernice observed that her dress was considerably tidier than when they had seen her before, – a clean middy-blouse and her skirt mended and brushed. Her dark hair too was smooth and orderly. It all created a subtle change in her appearance, transforming her from the wild little half-Indian that she had first appeared into a civilized and even well-groomed person.
"How nice you look!" was Bernice's involuntary comment.
"I – I want to look nice – always!" declared Delight in timid appreciation of the compliment. "But it 's so hard in – in the wilds there especially when – no one else tries. Those books you brought me made me want to all the more – that and seeing and being with you. I 've made up my mind that I 'll keep trying. But somehow – uncle does n't seem to like it. He – he does n't understand!" This latter in an unusual burst of confidence. "I – I think it is because he does n't read."
Here was the very opening Bernice longed for, and she took advantage of it boldly. "How is it, Delight, that you wanted to read when no one else around you did – wanted it so much that you were willing to go all that way to school to – to learn? It has always surprised me."
Immediately Delight went into her shell again, and Bernice felt that for once she had made a dreadful mistake. But a moment later, the girl turned to her with a mysterious air.
"I 've made up my mind to tell you something, Bernice. You are the first friend I 've ever had – the only one. Will you promise to keep it a secret?"
"May n't I even tell Sydney?" whispered Bernice breathlessly. "He 's so interested in you, and I know he will never tell!"
"Well – yes, but not now. Later. No one else – positively. The most important reason that I wanted to learn was because I had found a strange thing – long ago – that I wanted to find out how – to read. I felt sure it would tell me something – about myself – about – who I am!"
AFTER it was all over, Bernice thought it the strangest afternoon she had ever spent; but at the time her mind was so much occupied with other things that she never realized how the hours went. Sydney drove them to the little roadside store, five miles away – a wee little place where the chief commodity for sale seemed to be ginger-ale and other liquid refreshment of a like nature. As in a dream, she watched Delight make her simple purchases, and then they started to drive back.
"But if I get back and go home so soon," commented Delight, "they 'll wonder how it has happened. It takes a long time to walk that ten miles. They will not like it if they know I have ridden with you – with any one!"
"Oh, that 's simple!" Sydney laughed. "If that 's the case, we 'll take a good long drive and land you back home about the time you 'd naturally arrive there. So much the better!"
"You just drive ahead then and don't pay any attention to us: we 're talking!" commanded Bernice in a significant tone. And Sydney, quick to take the hint, devoted himself exclusively to the wheel, while the two girls, snuggled down in the back seat, remained absolutely oblivious of all outward affairs.
It was a long story that Delight told, partly in the "cracker" patois that she naturally used, partly in the simple but labored good English that she sometimes tried to affect. The substance of it, as Bernice afterward retailed it to Sydney, was as follows:
She had always lived in the Everglades, as far as she knew or could remember – in the very depths of them for the greater part of her life. Whether she was born there or not, she did not know. She had always been with Jerry and his Indian wife, Wanetka. Wanetka had been very good to her, very kind and loving; in fact, both of them were. The first camp or home she remembered was on a "hammock" or wooded knoll in the Glades near the region of Fort Myers, but even that town was many miles away across the Big Cypress Swamp. Jerry used to go for supplies occasionally in his canoe. He got Wanetka anything she wanted. He even brought her at one time a little hand sewing-machine, and the Indian woman made many pretty things with it for her to wear.
The girl declared that she was very happy at this period. She loved the wilds and knew no other kind of life. Later Jerry decided to go to another region, and they moved the camp to the north side of the Glades. There were many other moves sometimes near the Miami region, sometimes on the west side. Always they kept well within the Glades. In the main it was always Jerry who went out to the towns, though occasionally Wanetka went. Jerry often acted as guide to some tourist who wanted to make a trip into the Glades. Sometimes it would be just for hunting or trapping; sometimes a man would take an exploring expedition through them. Jerry knew them as no one but the Indians knew them.
At this point Bernice had inquired, not without some trepidation, whether Jerry himself was partly Indian as it had been rumored. Delight replied that he had once said he thought he was part Indian, but neither his father nor mother was an Indian. They were both native Floridians from somewhere near Fort Myers. His real name was not Saw-Grass but Simpson. The former had been given him as a joke by the first person he ever guided through the Glades. These wilds are overgrown with the terrible tall grass, with edges as sharp as a knife or saw, called "saw-grass." It was almost impossible to cut one's way through it. Jerry was so expert at overcoming this difficulty that the man had nicknamed him "Jerry Saw-Grass" and he had kept the name to this day. But he had once been told that one of his grandparents was a Seminole Indian and he thought it was his Indian inheritance that made him love the Glades so much. He preferred to live in them and was very fond of his Indian wife. She was a real Seminole.
It was a long time before Delight ever thought of asking any questions about herself. She never dreamed there was anything to ask. Jerry and Wanetka were as her father and mother to her. She had never known any other. And as she almost never saw any one else, there were no questions in her mind. She was happy; that was enough. But when she was about eleven or twelve years old, a strange thing happened. They had just come to live near Fort Lauderdale and were camped on the New River several miles inland from the town. She had gone out one morning to roam in the woods but came back after a while and lay down in the sun close to the back of the hut. She had almost fallen asleep when she heard the two talking inside the hut. They evidently thought she was still away; for, as she listened, because she had nothing else to do and could not very well avoid it, she heard Wanetka ask Jerry if she might take Delight in to town with her next day. He replied, a trifle angrily:
"No, no, no! Now don't begin that! You know what the understanding was. She 's not to go near people. It 'll be the beginning of trouble. She 's getting older now and 'll begin to understand and ask questions. It won't do, I tell you! He gave strict orders and I won't have 'em disobeyed!"
Instant wonder sprang up in the mind of Delight. What was it all about? She could not think. She had never dreamed there was any mystery about her. Who was it that did not wish her to see people? And why? She lay very still and listened longer, hoping she might hear something else. They were quiet a long time. Jerry was mending a fishing-rod and Wanetka was putting things away in the hut. She liked to keep it tidy. They had not been there very long and things were not in their right places yet. Presently she heard Wanetka ask Jerry, "Where shall I put this?"
"Here! Give it to me. It 's time that thing was destroyed! She might get hold of it some time. She can't read, but it might make her curious. I 'll burn it!" She heard him answer, and then there was a sound of tearing, as if a book had been ripped to pieces. Nothing else happened, and after a while they both went out to fish in the river farther upstream. Neither one had seen her. It was then that she stole into the hut and looked in the fireplace. The fire had gone out. There was a considerable pile of ashes and the stiff covers of a book that had charred but not burned up. On one of the covers was a word or two in printing. She did not know what it was. She had never seen any books and very few printed words – only those on the canned goods and things that Jerry brought home from the towns. But something in her mind told her it meant something, and she saved it. Then she poked around in the ashes and presently found in the heap several pieces of paper that had not all been burned but only charred around the edges. And on these were strange marks, not much like the printing on the book cover and yet not entirely unlike them. She did not then know it was handwriting, but the same feeling made her sure that this too was something which, if she could find out what it meant, would help her to make something out of this strange new puzzle.
She took the papers – all that had enough left of them to be worth saving, – and hid them away in a safe, dry place, far off from the hut. She never mentioned to the others what she had discovered and they never knew. But from that moment she felt that she could not rest till she had learned how to read – how to puzzle out all that was on those papers. She thought and thought of how it could be done. Jerry would not allow her to go into town and go to school: she knew that without even asking. Neither he nor Wanetka knew how to read. How was she to begin?
In looking about the house she saw, however, that many things there had labels with marks, and, guessing that those marks or words told what they were, she decided to begin right there. She took the cans of things whose contents she knew, and tried to remember the marks that evidently meant those words. Very soon she knew the combination of marks that meant "tea," "sugar," "flour," and words of that sort. Many times she met with words she could not connect with anything at all and often made mistakes and got them connected with the wrong things. But she learned a little in that way. Then, one time when Jerry and Wanetka had both gone into town, they came back with a magazine that Wanetka had bought because she liked to look at the pretty pictures, and Wanetka had insisted on getting for her a little child's book full of bright colored pictures that she thought the girl would like to see. Neither of them realized it, because they could not read and did not even want to, but this little book was a child's easy primer, full of pictures that illustrated the simple words of sentences so that one could not help learning something from it especially if one was interested and trying hard, as she was.
After a while she had learned all she could from the primer, and she had saved the magazine that Wanetka had thrown away when she was tired of it. She knew now a fair number of words whenever she saw them but she never found anything like what was on the cover of the burned book, nor in the least like the marks on the paper or leaves. She was not satisfied and was really quite unhappy because she could not make any more progress. Then Jerry agreed to go with a man who was anxious to spend a while in the Glades, exploring or doing scientific work, and wanted a guide and companion. They were to be gone five or six months. And he left Wanetka and herself to remain where they were till he got back.
After he had gone, she paddled the canoe down toward the town one day and discovered, on the bank of the river, before one gets into Fort Lauderdale, a little house where there seemed to be a number of children sitting in rows and learning what she almost jumped out of her skin to find was some of the very words she knew. She realized then that this was a school. She had sometimes heard Jerry speak of it near the town. A pretty young woman was sitting on a raised platform and telling the children the words. Delight never knew how she came to do it, but she got out of the canoe, walked right into the room and up to the young woman and asked if she could go to school there. The woman looked rather surprised but said, "Of course, dear! Sit down over there and I 'll find out presently what you know."
She found out later that the girl knew very little, except the words she had taught herself, but she was so desirous to learn that she seemed to pick knowledge up very quickly. The teacher did not ask her too many questions, for she thought the child was one of the Indians who often came down the river to the town. Some of them would occasionally ask to be allowed to go to school for a while, and the white people were always very willing to have them and never asked them many questions for fear they might become frightened or embarrassed and might never come any more.
Delight went back to Wanetka that day and told her what she had done, and Wanetka was very angry about it at first. But the girl begged hard and said she wanted to learn to read so that she could amuse herself and promised to read interesting stories to Wanetka when she could do so, so that finally the Indian woman gave way, said she might go, and promised not to tell Jerry, who would punish her severely if he knew. She made her promise faithfully, however, that she would not have anything to do with the other children and would come straight back every day when school was over, and that she would not tell the teacher anything about themselves or their lives.
She went to school for more than five months and in that time learned to read and write – not very well, but to some extent – and a little of other subjects. The teacher said she picked things up with amazing quickness, but this was because she was determined to learn all she could in the short time she had. The teacher used to teach her in extra times like recesses, when she saw she did not play with the others out of doors. Sometimes she stayed after school was over and gave her extra help and frequently lent her books to read at home. She was very, very kind, and Delight became quite fond of her. Only once did she ask anything about the girl herself. She put her arms about Delight one day and asked how it was that her eyes were so blue – that she did not seem like an Indian. Delight could not answer her, and as she saw that the girl was embarrassed she did not insist on an answer and never asked her anything of that kind again.
Jerry came back at the time he had said he would and she dared not go to school any more. She was very sorry, but at least she had done what she wished: she had learned to read – and write. She was content. They only stayed at that place a short time afterward, for one day Jerry came back from the town upset about something, though he did not say what had disturbed him. They never knew, but in a day or two they had packed all their things up again and were off for another move. They went far into the Glades this time and stayed there, longer than they had ever stayed so far in before. It seemed almost as if Jerry was afraid to come out, for some reason. At last as their supplies had given out and they needed to move nearer to a town, they went up to the northern part near Okeechobee. It was here that Wanetka became very ill. They never could tell what it was but thought she had eaten something poisonous without knowing it. They could do nothing for her and could not get a doctor, though Jerry tried, but could find none who would come. She died the day he returned and they buried her there near the lake.
It was plainly an effort for Delight to go over this part of her history, and she stopped for a few moments to wink away the tears. But presently she went on. "We felt very bad and very lonely after that – Uncle Jerry and I. He has never seemed the same since. He never talked very much, but since then he has been so silent. He scarcely ever speaks at all, only when he 's spoken to or asked a question and must answer. Uncle Jerry and I went to stay with Wanetka's people, the Seminole Indians, for a while. I did not know their language and could n't talk to them much but they were good to us and very kind to me.
"So the time passed, till a few months ago Uncle Jerry began to be ill in some way, and he thought that the Glades did not agree with him any more – that he would not be well again while he lived in them. He left me with the Seminoles and he went and saw some of his own people that he had not seen for years. He went several times, but he did not take me with him. At last one day he came back and told me he had married again – a 'cracker' woman he had met while he was visiting his people. He said she would be good to me and help take care of me, and that we were going to go further north, away from the Glades altogether, to live. He thought it would be better for his health.
"So we came up here. It is a great change and I miss the Glades very much. Uncle Jerry found he could rent that old house, 'way off from everything, and it just suited him. He thought no one would know him around here, but I think he is mistaken about that. He has been recognized several times. It has upset him. The – his new wife is – kind enough to me but somehow I can't like her very much. She 's very careless – not tidy about things like Wanetka was. And she takes snuff, and it makes her lazy. She never wants to move about much. She 's not unkind to me, but – but I think she does not care very much about me and I can't seem to care for her. They still don't wish me to see any one or – or go anywhere. To-day is very unusual – that I should have been allowed to go for these things. It is only because Uncle Jerry could n't go – and she would n't. That is all!"
She ended the tale so suddenly that Bernice was startled. "But, Delight," she exclaimed, "you have not told me what you found out about those papers you were so anxious to read! Did they tell you anything? What was it?"
"They told me something, but they are very hard to read. I don't understand them," the girl answered. "They only made the mystery greater. Here they are. I always carry them about with me hidden. You can look at them for yourself." She took a small packet from inside her blouse and thrust it into her companion's hands.
BERNICE looked at it with curiosity and awe. Never before had she been so close to a mystery. With fingers that shook a little from excitement, she unfolded the wrappings and brought to light a few dirty and discolored pages, looking as though they had been torn from a fair-sized note-book. They were blackened and charred with fire all around their edges and so far in that often words were indistinguishable. And they were covered with fine and precise handwriting, still legible where the fire had not interfered. Bernice was eager to examine them closer but the wind caused by the speed of the car blew them about and made the task almost impossible. Furthermore, Sydney warned them that it was about time to land Delight near her home.
"I am going to beg a great favor," said Bernice, taking a sudden determination. "Will you allow us, Delight, to take these papers home with us and examine them at our leisure to-night? Perhaps we may be able to make something out of them that even you have not made. We will keep them just as safely as you would, and will return them to you to-morrow."
"You promise that you won't show them to any one?" questioned the girl in hesitation. "I feel that somehow I ought not to – to share this secret with any one. But I trust you so much – "
"You can depend upon it, Delight," Bernice assured her. "I have never broken a promise yet."
"Then – take them!" and Delight thrust them into her hands again. "If you 'll meet me to-morrow afternoon near the largest palmetto clump across the pool from the house, I 'll be there."
As they neared the opening to the trail that led to the pool, Delight asked them to let her out there so that she might walk the rest of the way.
"I 'd feel safer that way," she said, and added, "Oh, there is one thing more I forgot to tell you, Bernice. The word on the cover of the book. I could not keep the cover. It was too big – and hard. I was afraid it would be found out. But I remembered the word. It was 'J-O-U-R-N-A-L,' I am not very sure I know what it means. But, good-by! I must n't stay another minute!" And she hurried down the trail.
"Drive home like the wind, Syd!" commanded Bernice when she was out of sight. "I 've so much to tell you that I 'm just about bursting; and I can't do it till we can be quiet somewhere!"
When they got to the hotel, Sydney suggested going on to his bungalow for the proposed colloquy, but Bernice voted against this. She knew that her mother was visiting his mother that day and that they would have difficulty finding a place where they could be undisturbed. Then Sydney suggested a live-oak grove half a mile down the road. But Bernice voted that down also.
"It will be hot there," she decided, "and there 's no comfortable place to sit. Let 's just get rocking-chairs and go in the east corner of the hotel veranda. It 's nice and shady there and a good breeze and absolutely no one about at this time of day."
And so they did. Before examining the papers, Bernice retailed to her cousin every word she could remember of the long account Delight had given her of her past history. Sydney listened with absorbed attention, but without interruption till she was through.
"My word! but that 's some earful!" he exclaimed slangily, but in deadly earnest, nevertheless. "Hand over those papers – quick! I want to see what we can make of 'em. Guess you were right, old girl: there sure is some mystery here!"
Again Bernice undid the packet of charred papers. "She said the book-cover that she destroyed had the word 'Journal' on it, so it 's not difficult to guess what these must be," she commented, before they proceeded to examine them critically.
Then, with bated breath, they gave themselves to the study of the charred pages. After a long interval, Bernice looked up, an expression of blank dismay in her gray eyes.
"But, Syd, what does this all mean? I can't make head or tail out of it! Look here, for instance. It reads: 'Air roots of ficus aurea become fused together when remain pressed in contact. Cases of natural inarching very unusual. Coccolobis floridana in abundance on this hammock. . . . Ground in this region probably lifted after great Pleistocene subsidence. . . . The Bursera and some of the Eugenias are second migrants. . . .' I just can't make anything out of it at all!"
"I know," agreed her cousin, "it is pretty confusing, but I 'm beginning to think I see daylight. Somebody has evidently been making notes – Naturalist's or geologist's or botanist's notes about something, somewhere – probably in the Glades, by the look of it. I don't wonder the poor kid was rather mixed up by all this. Naturally she could n't understand a word of it – just like so much Greek to any one who has n't studied that sort of thing!"
"But do you suppose it 's all just – this?" cried Bernice disgustedly. "What 's the use of wading through it? There are quite a number of pages."
"You can't tell about that. If it were a Journal, perhaps there might be some other entries – more personal ones. And if that 's the case we can't afford to miss them. They might explain something, you know."
"Well, let 's look 'em all through then!" sighed Bernice resignedly. "We can skip lightly over the – the scientific parts. Here, you take that bunch and I 'll go over this one. If we don't come across something in that way, I give it up." They settled down to quiet and silent study of the closely written and now all but illegible notes. Suddenly Bernice sat up with a start.
"Look here! See what I came across, right in with a lot of incomprehensible stuff! 'Found the child, Delight, with a perfect specimen of the Cyrtopodium punctatum, a native epiphytal orchid, in her tiny hand this morning. She must have picked it off the bark of tree under which she was sitting. Attracted by the colors, no doubt. Cried when I took it away.'
"'The child, Delight'! There can't be any mistake about that!" cried Sydney. "But who can the person be that 's writing, and what relation to her – if any? Does n't sound like any near relation, I must say! But you 're not the only person that has discovered something. Listen to this! 'The inutility of all this grows upon me. I have no longer any great desire to live. When it 's all over with me, what 's to be done about her? But she shall not go back – a thousand times no!'
"There 's a whole bookful in that little item, if we only had the key to it," commented Sydney wisely. "Somebody's tired of 'playing the game' and the little kid is going to be the sufferer. I 'm quite convinced now that there 's been something queer somehow!"
In growing excitement they continued to scan the scraps of paper, sure that every other word or line would bring further enlightenment. But they were doomed to disappointment. Except for one further little personal item, there was not another clue to anything in all the maze of incomprehensible Latin, botanical, and geological allusions. This item arrested the eye of Bernice, just as she was about to throw down the remainder of her papers in despair.
"'I have paid Jerry generously for what he is to do. He did not wish it so, but the future is the future and must be provided for. It is the wisest solution. The child must be kept from want at least, but she must never know – what I have known.'
"That 's the most enlightening thing yet," she declared when she had read it to Sydney. "Do you know, I have a brand-new idea about this whole thing. What she told us, combined with this, has made me certain that Jerry Saw-Grass has been paid by somebody to get rid of her – to do away with her somehow or other because she was n't wanted where she belonged. There have such things happened; you know there have. But why he has n't done it yet I can't quite understand. Oh, she 's in awful danger – that poor little thing! And you were trying to tell me only to-day that she did n't need our help!"
"Oh, wait a minute!" exclaimed Sydney, his head in his hands. "You talk so fast and hard I can't even think! You do jump at conclusions in the most illogical way, too. Jerry Saw-Grass has n't the faintest intention of 'doing away with her,' as you so cheerfully express it. Nor has he ever been asked to probably. Those blood-thirsty deeds are n't pulled off quite as frequently as you seem to imagine. I have another explanation and, I hope a more sensible one.
"There 's one thing maybe you don't know, but I 've heard of it a good many times, especially since I lived in Florida. The Everglades are a great hiding-place and shelter for a certain class of people – escaped criminals and those who are dodging the law for some reason best known to themselves – deserting soldiers and a heap more of a like variety. Might n't it be likely then that the one who made those notes was a fugitive from justice or something of the kind, living in the Glades and chumming around with Jerry? What in the world he 'd have a child with him for, I can't imagine, though I can easily see, if he did how he 'd want that child protected perhaps from the consequences of his wrong-doing and even kept in ignorance of the whole affair, as it grew up."
"Yes, that certainly seems more sensible, Syd," admitted Bernice meekly. "You do know a lot more than I. And yet I hate to think of that dear little Delight being connected in some way with a – a criminal!"
"The weak point in the argument," mused Sydney, "is where all this scientific business comes in. I somehow can't picture any one with – with criminal tendencies being so absorbed in the fauna and flora and all that sort of thing of the Glades and making elaborate notes about them. No, there 's a screw loose in that argument somewhere!"
"Well, anyhow, I think it 's the best explanation we 've struck yet," declared Bernice, but suddenly she sat up very straight and caught her breath. "Sydney Conant, if we really think that, what are we going to say to little Delight to-morrow. I just could n't tell her any such supposition as that!"
"Don't say anything about it, of course. It would be cruel to put such an idea into her head. Have you thought what connection that man – that Mr. Tredwell may have with all this?" Sydney demanded, suddenly going off on a new tack. Bernice looked blank.
"Really, I 'd forgotten all about him," she acknowledged. "Such a lot has happened since. What do you think about it?"
"I think there 's some very close connection," he admitted. "Jerry recognized him and was wild to get out of his way. Jerry knows him and fears him for some reason. Therefore, I 'm not drawing too long a bow, as they say, when I take the liberty of thinking Mr. Tredwell has some bearing on things. I 'm going to watch him and, what 's more, I 'm going to cultivate his acquaintance. Something may come of it!"
The next afternoon they drove over to Number Six to keep the tryst with Delight, the precious packet ready to be handed back into her keeping. When they reached the pool, they reconnoitered carefully to be sure they might not be observed by the occupants of the farm-house on the other side. But as no one was in sight anywhere, they sat down in the shadow of the big scrub-palmetto clump designated by Delight – and waited. The time drifted by as imperceptibly as the few light, downy clouds above the pool that scarcely seemed to move in the immeasurable depths of the blue sky. Cardinals and mocking-birds sang and flirted their tails at them; a moccasin-snake, asleep near the edge of the pool, uncoiled himself presently and slipped into the water; even the old alligator appeared, his head like a mere floating log on the surface of the pool near the middle. And still Delight did not come. Whole battalions of fish drifted by, idling infuriatingly near the shore. Sydney set a line for them and caught one or two.
Suddenly, however, he could stand it no longer. "You stay here!" he commanded, rising and preparing for departure. "I 'm going to slip around the pool, keeping under cover, and just get over near the house and see what 's the matter. There 's something unusual about it. She has n't usually kept away like this. Maybe she 's sick or some one else is or an accident or something. I 'll be back presently."
He slipped away behind the bushes and was soon out of sight, while Bernice remained, patiently watching. From where she sat she could not see what he did when he reached the other side of the pool; indeed, he had no intention that she should, for if he were visible to her he would also be visible to the dwellers in the house. Sooner than she expected he came scurrying back, singularly enough without much precaution for keeping out of sight. And breathlessly he seized her arm.
"If you want to see something strange, come with me and be quick about it!"
THE WHITE FLAG
WHEN at last they got around to the farm-house, Bernice was completely out of breath, but she managed to pant, "This is very risky, Syd! Delight would not – like – it. They 'll see us sure as anything! What 's the – matter, anyway? Are they – all away?"
"Just come along and see for yourself!" he retorted, and led her boldly up to the front veranda. Hesitatingly she mounted the rickety steps.
"I suppose they 're all away somewhere. But, Syd, even if they are, we have n't any right to go into the house, have we? And, besides, they may come back any minute."
"Come along and don't fuss!" he ordered her. "You 'll see for yourself when we get inside."
Still doubting, she crept in after him and looked about. The first glance revealed nothing very different from what it had been in their earlier visit. There was the decrepit rocker by the empty fireplace. The rough table and two other chairs stood in their usual positions. But a closer scrutiny revealed the subtle difference. Though this furniture was still in evidence, there was not a single sign of any more personal belongings in sight. Various little articles they had observed in their earlier visit were missing. A glance into the two little bedrooms disclosed the rude old beds bare of every vestige of mattress or covering. The kitchen beyond possessed no trace of cooking or eating utensils. Then at last the truth dawned on Bernice.
"Sydney!" she gasped, "they 've – they 've gone!"
"Gone – cleared out – beat it!" he averred. "Must have done it in a dickens of a hurry – some time between yesterday afternoon and this. Probably some time last night. It would be most likely."
"But why – why should they have done it so suddenly – and Delight never said a word about it to us – yesterday?"
"Of course she did n't say a word, because the poor kid never knew a thing about it! I 'd be willing to swear to that! Probably they were planning it and wanted to get her out of the way while they got ready, so sent her off on that long errand. Must have been some shock to her when she learned the news!"
"But I can't understand why they did it. They 've only just come here recently. Why move so soon again?"
"Plain as the nose on your face! Jerry 's afraid of that Mr. Tredwell – wants to get out of his vicinity – thinks, no doubt, that the gentleman will try to hunt him up. Naturally he does n't feel safe around here any more."
"What do you suppose Jerry is afraid of him for?" cried Bernice.
"If we knew that, we 'd probably know the explanation of a lot of this mystery," answered Sydney sagely.
"Then why not try to find out from Mr. Tredwell? Why not ask him right out if he knows anything about it?" demanded Bernice.
"You forget – your promise to Delight!"
Bernice clapped her hand to her mouth. "Oh, I did forget for a minute! Why – why but this is maddening, Sydney! How in the world are we going to solve the mystery when – when we 're so hampered by a promise like that?"
"Perhaps it is n't intended that we should solve it. Perhaps it 's none of our affairs."
"But what about poor little Delight?" moaned Bernice. "For her sake, we surely ought not to give it up! She wanted to solve the mystery about herself. Think how she learned to read and all that, in order to do it. I 'm just certain she must be heart-broken over this change." She glanced about the room again. "Perhaps they really have n't gone for good. See! They have n't taken the furniture with them!"
"I 've a very strong suspicion that this furniture went with the house and did n't belong to them, anyway. They would n't be likely to cart heavy things like this around with them in their wanderings. And if they were going in such a hurry, they could n't arrange to take it, of course. So that does n't mean anything."
Bernice continued to roam disconsolately about the forsaken rooms, hoping against hope to discover some clue to the mystery of this new development.
"Would n't you think Delight would have tried to get word to us in some way – let us know she was going and where?"
"She undoubtedly had n't a ghost of a chance. Probably it was all sprung upon her when she got back here yesterday afternoon, maybe not till well toward night. What chance would she have to get word to us? I can just see them, scurrying around and packing up and loading their traps in the little mule wagon (the mule's gone too, of course; I looked in the shed outside) and hustling off in the darkness. You can warrant your last dollar that they left at night and got well away from here before morning so they would n't be seen on the roads in the vicinity!"
"Sydney, where do you suppose they went? Would it be possible to trace them – to follow them?"
"There 's only one place they 're aiming at – the Everglades, of course!" declared Sydney. "That 's the only spot where Jerry is safe – where he 's pretty sure he can't be followed or found. But it will take them some time to get there, traveling in that mule wagon, if they are going to travel that way; and of course there are a dozen different routes they might follow. Yes, I presume they could be traced – until they get into the Glades. But who 's going to trace 'em – and why? I confess that I should have neither time nor opportunity nor sufficient cause to show for such a useless course!"
They went out and sat on the rickety veranda, many of whose boards were half rotted away or completely missing. Out beyond the straggling orange-trees the pool lay like a sheet of turquoise under the afternoon sky, but the charm of the spot had largely fled so far as Bernice was concerned now that the chief actor in the scene was gone. Suddenly she sat up very straight, inspired with a new idea.
"Sydney, I 'm simply certain that Delight never went away from here without trying to leave some sort of a message for us! Can't you see how likely it would be? Not only because she was growing quite fond of us but also because we still have the package of papers that belong to her. Surely she would want them back some time. She would try to let us know where she was going and – how to get them to her, perhaps!"
"Yes, it is likely," agreed Sydney after thinking it over judicially. "But just how she could manage it is rather a puzzle. She simply could n't send a message to us at Jasper; that 's out of the question."
"She could write us a letter. She knew how to write; why not?"
"She knows how to write, yes. But think of the difficulty of trying to get a letter to us. In the first place she undoubtedly had no envelopes or stamps. These she 'd certainly have to get somewhere, and it 's altogether probable she had no money. Then how would she get it in a post-office without being discovered? No, I feel pretty certain it would never even occur to her to do it that way. But she might have written a note and left it around here somewhere, quietly, after the others were out of the way, hoping we 'd find it when we came."
"Oh, fine!" cried Bernice, happy once more to have some thread, no matter how tenuous, to hold to. "I 'm simply certain that is what she 's done. Now let 's get right to work and hunt this place over – thoroughly – and I know we 'll come across it!"
They began systematically, each taking a separate room and went over every nook and cranny, hoping every moment to come upon the looked-for missive. But the search was fruitless. Then Sydney suggested that they exchange, each searching the rooms the other had gone over, in case some hiding-place had escaped notice. This they did, with no more
"But she might have written a note"
satisfactory result. The old house was empty of any clue that would lead to their further enlightenment.
Again they went out on the veranda in despair and sat dangling their legs over the unrailed edge.
"It 's strange," said Sydney, after a long silence, "but in spite of our not finding anything here, the more I think of it, the more certain I feel that she has left a message somewhere! We know it 's not in the house; let 's just try to think where would be the most likely place she 'd put the thing. Come to think of it, the house would n't be a good place, after all, for she 'd always have run the chance of having it discovered before they left. Of course, Jerry could n't read, and I rather doubt if the cracker woman could either, but they 'd be sure to scent something queer about it."
They both sat with their heads in their hands for some time, thinking with deep concentration of the problem they faced. It was Bernice who had the first idea.
"Syd!" she exclaimed radiantly, "what geese we are not to have thought of it before! Delight expected to meet us down by the big palmetto clump across the pool. Of course that 's where she 's left the message!"
Sydney merely gave a grunt, expressive of thorough disgust at his own density, and shouting, "Come on – quick!" set off at a run for the point indicated. In due time they reached the great, spreading scrub-palmetto clump. Bernice always said that these clumps reminded her of the expensive palms in the florist shops up North, the kind that was always used as a decoration at weddings and parties. When she drove along the wild Florida roads lined with them, she said it made her feel as if they 'd just been decorated for a ceremony of some festive kind.
This clump was larger than usual, the great leaves falling over in such a way that they formed a tent-like appearance in its depths.
"Look out how you search in here," warned Sydney. "These clumps are a great retreat for rattlesnakes, especially in this warm spring weather."
They accordingly reconnoitered the ground with the greatest care before venturing to poke around much in the depths of the growth. But, finding no unwelcome occupants anywhere about, they boldly penetrated to its very depths. Nowhere about the bush did there seem to be the slightest sign of a communication, but a sudden whoop from Sydney, around at a farther side, brought Bernice to him at a run.
"Look at that!" He pointed to a little twig, not more than five or six inches high, sticking out of the ground a few feet away from the edge of the clump. It would never have been noticeable except that a small white rag had been tied to the top in such a way as to wave out bravely on the breeze like a miniature flag or signal.
"Is n't it the queerest thing!" cried Bernice. "I sat here and gazed at that thing for fifteen minutes, while you were away, and while I thought it a little peculiar, it never dawned on me for a minute what it was really intended for. Of course she meant to attract our attention to it in that way. Was n't that clever of her! But, come, let 's dig down under it and see what 's there!"
This time their search had its reward. Down in the fine white sand, only a few inches under the surface, they came upon the message Delight had left for them. It was a note written on a small and not very clean scrap of paper – a piece of a paper bag, in fact. The writing appeared to have been done with a piece of sharpened and charred wood. Doubtless she had possessed neither pen and ink nor pencil. And while the spelling was correct, the chirography was stiff and peculiar, showing a great lack of practice.
They are going away from here – for good [it began with marked lack of ceremony], I do not know why, but I must go with them. Bernice, I love you. You have been my friend. You are both my friends. Keep the papers for me. They are safe with you and I know you will not tell my secret. Perhaps some time we will see each other again. If there is any way I can ever get a message to you, I will, but I do not hope for so much for I know where we go – to the Everglades again. He says it is the only place we can live – and be safe. I do not know why this has come so suddenly. He did not intend to go back. Something strange must have happened.
There is no time to write any more. I hope you will find this. Bernice, if you will dig down further you will find something I leave for you. It is all I have to give. I wish you to have it. I was so happy with you. My heart is breaking, but I can do nothing but go. Good-by to you both. I will never, never forget you.
They looked at each other without speaking when Bernice had finished reading it aloud. There was something deeply touching about the little message. It brought a lump into their throats. Bernice turned to dig down further in the hole where the note had been and presently brought to light a long string of the light-blue glass beads that the Seminole Indian women were so fond of wearing. She laid it in her lap and looked at it for a long moment. Then she put her head down on her knees and sobbed quietly, while Sydney walked away a bit and whistled a loud tune to escape likewise indulging in any unmanly show of emotion.
"There 's no use, Syd," declared Bernice, getting up and wiping her eyes after an interval, "we just can't let that dear little thing go like this. You can't begin to think what a – a hold she 's taken on me. Why, I feel almost as if it were a sister of mine that was being dragged away and hidden for some unknown reason. I 've made up my mind to one thing: I 'll keep my promise to her, of course, literally, but I 'm going to spend every moment from now on solving this matter somehow or other. I 'm simply sure it can be done!"
"Needless to say, I 'm with you," agreed her cousin. "And what 's more, I 've a very distinct notion how it 's going to be done!"
"Oh, have you, Syd?" cried Bernice, smiling up at him with eyes to which tears had again started. "That 's great of you! What is your idea? I 'm crazy to know."
"The first step is to pump Mr. Tredwell as skilfully as possible about what he knows of Jerry Saw-Grass and then – "
"But Syd," objected Bernice, "you don't even know Mr. Tredwell yet. How are you going to get acquainted with him, to begun with?"
"Don't bother your head about that detail, Miss Conant," replied her cousin loftily. "The matter is already adjusted. Yours truly made that gentleman's acquaintance last evening in a long chat we had on the hotel veranda, after you had retired to your downy couch!"
"Sydney Conant! And you never even told me! How did you do it and what did he say?"
"I was keeping it a surprise. I got some information out of him that is going to be rather valuable, I expect. But I can't tell you now. It 's growing late and we 've got to be making tracks for home, and I must do a little tinkering with that self-starter before we do. It 's been bothering me this afternoon."
Bernice slipped the beads into her handbag and trailed after him acquiescently enough, as they made their way to the car; but her mind was a seething caldron of questions and determinations and longing to meet again with Delight.
They were almost ready to go when Sydney glanced up and beheld Ike Massey grinning at them from a palmetto clump not fifty yards away.
IKE MASSEY BECOMES A NUISANCE
"SUFFERING cats! Do you see that?" exclaimed Sydney under his breath. "Of all the people we did n't want to see, he 's the worst! I 've got all I want out of him. Now he 's just going to be troublesome!"
"What shall we do?" demanded Bernice in the same fashion.
"Bluff it out! Make him think we 're just here for fishing – if we can! Just leave him to me."
They pretended to be unaware of his presence as long as they dared. But Ike was not easily to be shaken off.
"Hey!" he shouted lustily. "What ye doing out here again?"
"Hullo, Ike!" Sydney returned with apparent good nature. "Here you are again! We seem to meet frequently nowadays. Come to try your luck at Number Six?"
"We-ll, partly. How's fishin' to-day?"
"Pretty poor. You see we have n't more than one or two to show for it. Going home now, as soon as I can jack up this self-starter."
"Been fishin' all the time?" demanded Ike, a curious glitter in his eye. Something about his manner warned Sydney that the man had been loitering around unseen longer than they suspected, and he made his answer all the more wary.
"Been tinkering with this thing about half the time," he laughed ruefully. As a matter of fact, realizing that he had only set up his rod in a perfunctory way, while they were waiting for Delight, and had had but the one catch, he did not dare to stretch the time any further.
"Well, I was over t'other side, down in the cove there, and the bitin' was fine," remarked Ike, who seemed determined, for some reason, to get him in a hole. In confirmation of his statement he exhibited a heavy catch lying in his old leather pouch.
"Must have been some reason it was better there than here, then," answered Sydney, searching his tool-box for pliers. "Plague take this thing! We 'll never get back at this rate. Banged the crank up the other day and it won't catch, either!"
All this time Bernice had been standing by, conscious that Ike had a definite purpose in questioning them. She knew that he must have been across the pool probably concealed by the vegetation that grew close to the edge at that point long before they had arrived that afternoon, else they must surely have seen his approach. How much had he seen? How much had he heard? What did he surmise? The speculation turned her fairly cold with dismay. She longed to get into the car and fly from the scene, but this was not possible. Meanwhile Ike had devised a new form of torture.
"Seen you take a flying trip over to the house there!" He pointed to the deserted farm-house.
It had come! Sydney perceived that there was no use of dodging the issue any longer. Ike had probably seen even more than he was going to acknowledge.
"Why, surely! I went over to see if that kid was at home. Bernice wanted to see her and talk to her a bit. She 's rather scary of old Jerry, is Bernice; that 's why she did n't go herself." He did not know whether Ike had discovered for himself that the birds had flown or not. Considering, however, that even if he had not, it would be best in the end to be open about the matter, he went on: "Funny thing, though! The whole outfit seems to have moved out – gone away on a visit – or something!"
"Yeh, I know!" acknowledged Ike succinctly. "Found that out myself earlier in the day!"
Devoutly trusting this would end the matter, Sydney went on with his tinkering in silence. But Ike was by no means satisfied.
"You was n't at all disturbed about their going – so sudden-like, was you?" he queried, sitting down on a hummock and refilling his pipe.
"Disturbed? Why should we be?" parried Sydney, bending lower over his work to hide the flush of indignation that would surge up over his fair-skinned face. As for Bernice, she had turned actually pale under her tan.
"Well, I seen you runnin' back here and then the both of you pelted back to the house for all you was worth and was in an' out of it considerable for a spell. 'Peared like you was rather upset somehow!"
"Of course, we were considerably surprised to find them gone," admitted Sydney with as much dignity as he could muster. "I ran back and told my cousin here and we both went over to the house and tried to see if we could find any trace of them – but we were n't successful!"
But if he thought this explanation was going to satisfy Ike, he was sadly mistaken. The attack was instantly renewed, from another angle this time.
"I 'll warrant you 'd give a good deal to know why they plugged out o' here so sudden, would n't ye?"
"It 's none of my business, that I know of," retorted Sydney stiffly. "Those people have a right to go and come as they please."
"Sure! sure!" acknowledged Ike, nodding wisely. "I ain't sayin' they have n't a right, I just remarked you 'd mighty well like to know why they lit out!"
"Well, would n't you?" retorted Sydney, turning the tables on him.
"Oh, I admit I 'm curious about them. I 'm always just naturally interested in other folks' affairs, seeing I ain't got any perticaler of my own! But I don't reckon I 'm so all-fired wrapped up in this affair as you two seem to be! You sure did hit me as all cut up about this here vanishin' of Jerry an' his clan!"
"Well, Bernice has got sort of fond of that girl and they chum it around a lot while I 'm fishing, and altogether we were rather struck all of a heap by her sudden disappearance. It is n't strange."
"Did n't strike any clue as to where they 'd gone, did you?" demanded Ike, aiming suddenly at a vital spot.
And here Sydney was nonplussed. Had Ike seen them when they discovered Delight's signal and hiding-place? It was altogether likely. And if he had, was it any use to dissemble and try to throw him off the track? He did not want to tell a direct untruth, and any further evasion seemed impossible now. He was sick and disgusted with the grueling he had been subjected to and indignant beyond words that they should be so victimized. Moreover, it was growing late and they should be home now. The self-starter was so far repaired that it worked, even though there were further adjustments that ought to be made. A sudden bright idea occurred to him – a way out of the unpleasant dilemma.
"How in the world could I have spotted a clue?" he exclaimed testily. "Now, then, Bernice, I believe we 're all ready. Get in, quick as you can! We ought to have been home long ago."
Bernice was quick to take the hint and scrambled in without further remark. But Ike was not done with them yet. He leaned across the door of the car in such a way that they could not very well start and continued his third degree of questioning.
"Before you go, I 'd just like to ask – for reasons of my own – whether you did get any idee where that lot 's lit out to? Personally I think it 's the Glades, but I would n't put it past Jerry to light on some other choice, now that he 's labeled as belonging in the Glades."
It was only what Sydney had expected. He did not suppose for a moment that Ike was going to let him off so easily. But he had his scheme well planned. Stepping on the self-starter, he replied. "I tell you, Ike, I don't know any more than – "
But he got no farther, for at this point the car shot suddenly forward into the thicket, hurling Ike unceremoniously out of the way and landing him rather forcibly, head first, into a palmetto clump. On plowed the car through the thicket and out toward the road, while Bernice held on for dear life and shrieked lustily. Before it had quite landed head on into a pine-tree that stood directly in its path, Sydney managed to bring the unruly vehicle to a stop.
"Gee whiz!" he exploded, getting out and mopping his forehead. "That was some unexpected jump! You are n't hurt, are you, Ike?" he called to the man who was just scrambling out of the bushes.
Ike was decidedly shaken up and huffed. He felt himself all over solicitously and sat down to extract a sharp splinter from his forearm.
"No, I guess there ain't any serious damage done, but it was a close call. What 's the matter with that old coffee-mill of yours, anyway?"
"Guess that self-starter is n't just right yet. I only stepped on it a second and the old thing leaped ahead like a young gazelle! Think I know what 's wrong with it. She won't do it again. Come along, Ike. Can't we take you back to town?"
"Not on your tintype!" growled Ike, rubbing an abrased shin. "You don't catch me in that thing again; not for a gold-mine. I 'll get back on Shank's mare, thank you!"
"Well, it 's too bad!" laughed Sydney. "I don't believe it will happen again, but you 're going to have a long hike. Well, so-long, if we can't persuade you to come!" And the little car shot away and was out of sight before Ike could change his mind. When they were out of sight of the pool, and out of hearing too, Sydney stopped the car at the side of the road and lay back in his seat, helpless with laughter. Bernice stared at him in wonder and alarm.
"What on earth is the matter?" she demanded at length.
"Oh, oh! oh!" cried Sydney, holding his sides.
"That was too rich! I 'd stand it all over again to see the way he went, heels over head, into the bushes! That 's what you might call poetic justice!"
"Well, it 's mighty lucky it happened so, anyway," sighed Bernice. "I was scared to death, I 'll confess, but the accident was certainly fortunate for us!"
"'Fortunate' did you say? I 'll have you to know, young lady, that the recent little mischance was carefully planned and executed by yours truly!"
"You don't mean you did it – on purpose?" cried Bernice. And when Sydney nodded, they both relapsed into another spell of helpless laughter.
"It was the only thing I could think of to give us a chance to get away without answering him," acknowledged Sydney when he had recovered sufficiently to speak. "The chap 's getting to be a downright nuisance. He 's on to the fact that we 're deeply interested and he 'll never let go till he knows the reason why. We 're going to have a lot of trouble with him, I 'm afraid. I wish I 'd never questioned him in the first place.
"Well, come ahead! We must be making tracks for home or Ike will be hoofing it along and discover us here. I could n't very well pull off that bluff about the self-starter not working right again!"
THE FORCE OF A PROMISE
ON the way home they tried to forget Ike, and Sydney gave Bernice an account of his interview with Mr. Tredwell the previous evening.
"He was sitting on the veranda smoking, when I came out after bringing you folks home from our bungalow. I did n't think of speaking to him; singularly enough, he opened the conversation with me by asking if I happened to have a match about me. I always carry a box around in my pocket, so I obliged him, and gradually we got to talking. It ended in my sitting down by him and remaining there till nearly midnight.
"He 's a very interesting man – has traveled all over, especially in Florida, and knows the State like a book. And, by the way, we found out that he had known your mother's father very well, had gone to the same college with him, though he graduated two or three years later than your grandfather, but was quite a friend of his. They rather lost sight of each other in later years, for he went to Europe for a long stay. But he was very much interested and wanted to meet you and your mother. Queer how small the world is, is n't it?"
"That 'll make it all the easier to get acquainted with him, won't it?" interrupted Bernice.
"No trouble at all about that!" declared Sydney. "I 'll introduce him all around to-night. But that is n't all we talked about. By and by we got to discussing this town and the people in it and the queer specimens you see coming in from the wild outside districts. He began it by speaking particularly about a curious cracker fellow who 'd tackled him that day for a job in the mines – said he was a 'good hand tuh make othah fellahs work and would like to be a foreman'! Mr. Tredwell had a hard time assuring the chap that he did n't have anything to do with hiring the mine workers. Then he went on to speak of other queer characters he 'd come across and suddenly, to my amazement, he asked me if I 'd ever noticed that half-Indian chap who came to town once in a while.
"I wondered just how much I ought to tell him: how much I could tell him without breaking that promise to the kid: but concluded it would n't do any harm to admit at least to seeing Jerry: so I said yes, I had seen him once or twice. He went on to say that he had reason to be more than usually interested in that particular person; in fact, would like very much to meet him and have a talk with him. Then he told me the incident of last Saturday when he saw Jerry in line at the movie-show and tried to get across to him and found him gone when he managed to reach the other side of the street.
"I asked him if he 'd ever met Jerry before and – what do you think he said? Yes, once, down in Fort Lauderdale! See how that dovetails in with what little Delight told us? Remember her saying that Jerry left there once in pretty much of a hurry and went deep into the Glades for a long time afterward? I spoke quite casually about Jerry being a famous guide and trapper in the Glades; and he said yes, so he 'd heard, but that there was something else that was singular about him beside that. And then – then," here Sydney paused dramatically, "he up and asked me if I knew that Jerry had in his care a girl who, it was thought, did not belong to him!
"I was really put to it to answer him. If I admitted I knew, it might involve Delight, and yet I could n't very well say I did n't. So I compromised by simply remarking, 'Is that so?' He went on to say that he had heard so when he was down at Fort Lauderdale some years before, but when he met Jerry and had questioned him about it, Jerry had denied it flatly and then disappeared for good. But he said he had been asking some questions about the town here concerning the guide and found that it was rumored that he did have the child with him, though no one had seen her, and that he was also supposed to be married to a cracker woman rather recently. He said that he had n't discovered just where he lived yet, but when he did, was going to try to have another interview with him.
"I did n't say a word about my knowing where Jerry lived but just let him ramble on and tell me all he would. He went on to say that there were very serious legal reasons why he should talk to the fellow, that he had been trying to find him for years without success, and that it was utterly unexpected, coming across him in this region. He had certainly never dreamed of finding him anywhere but around the Everglades.
"Of course I was absolutely handicapped by that promise to Delight and could not tell him a thing I knew, partly because I have n't figured out yet whether his business with Jerry will bring more trouble to her or not, and partly because it did n't seem fair to the whole outfit at Number Six – or rather that were once of Number Six! I can't feel that they are criminals, or anything like that; and I want to know more about what Mr. Tredwell wants with them before I give him so much as a hint, if I ever do! I did n't get any more out of him after that, for it was growing so late that we both decided to go to bed. But you can see now that we 're in for some new developments perhaps through him. I 'll stay to dinner with you folks to-night at the hotel and get a chance to introduce you all afterward."
In the pleasant twilight after supper, on the hotel veranda, they found Mr. Tredwell, sitting in a corner by himself, smoking the inevitable cigar, and apparently just enjoying the fading afterglow, glimpsed through the huge live-oak trees so heavily draped with Spanish moss. Sydney, walking by with Bernice and her mother, stopped to introduce them, and Mr. Tredwell rose with alacrity and after the introduction found them all chairs. They discovered him to be a quite delightful and entertaining person, full of enthralling incidents of his many travels which he could recount very realistically. Mrs. Conant and he spent considerable time exchanging reminiscences of her father, so that, in a very short interval, they felt quite as if they had known each other all their lives.
It was not until the interview was nearly over that Mr. Tredwell electrified the two young folks by turning to Sydney and casually remarking: "Remember that half-Indian chap we were speaking of the other night? I found out quite by chance to-day that he is supposed to be living out somewhere near one of the old mine pools known as Number Six, some twelve or fourteen miles from here. No one could give me just the exact location – at least not so as I could find it without some difficulty. I believe you have to leave the main road at a certain point and take some obscure trail through the woods. Now, I 'm very anxious to get at him as soon as possible, for I can't stay in this region much longer. I have urgent business elsewhere. And more than that, my car is laid up with a broken connecting-rod and won't be ready for use short of two or three days. I was wondering whether you would, as a great favor, be willing to drive me out there to-morrow afternoon in your car, if you were n't otherwise engaged. It 's a great deal to ask, I know, but I understood you to say that you knew the region around here pretty thoroughly and must confess I 'd rather take the expedition with you than to go in a public taxi. The affair is just a little in the nature of a matter I don't want to make too public."
Sydney and Bernice glanced at each other with one startled look. Could anything be more singular than this particular request? Had it come a few days earlier, they would have been hard put to it to know what to reply. As it was, Sydney saw no reason why he should not cheerfully comply. The expedition promised rather interesting and unusual features, indeed!
"I 'll be delighted to," he replied. "Won't we, Bernice? I 've been out that way fishing, once in a while. I think I know how to get there without difficulty. We 'll all go. Aunt Elsie, would n't you like to take the drive too? You have n't been out that way. We can stay in the car or ramble around and explore the pool while Mr. Tredwell has his interview."
But Mrs. Conant thanked them and refused, declaring she had made the engagement to go to Tampa with her sister-in-law next day. As nothing, however, would have persuaded Bernice to give up her chance to be one of this curious expedition, it was arranged that the three should meet at the hotel next afternoon at two o'clock.
When they were alone, just before Sydney left, he whispered to Bernice: "Is n't this the greatest piece of business you ever heard of – us taking him out to Number Six? Lucky thing the kid is n't there now! Say, he 'll get some shock when he finds they 've flew the coop again, won't he? But don't you dare to show, by so much as the faintest sign, that you 've ever been there before or have the least inkling about the thing. You 'll have to do a nice little bit of acting, I fancy! And I do hope Ike Massey keeps out of the way!"
"Of course I won't show that I know anything about it!" declared Bernice indignantly. "I would n't for Delight's sake, anyway. Gracious! I can hardly wait for the time to come!"
It was with a strange presentiment of pending complications that they set out on the following afternoon. Bernice alternated between wishing madly that Delight had never extracted that promise from them and being thankful that they were not permitted to tell what they knew. But what she chiefly dreaded was being put in a position of having to answer complicating questions that could not be evaded. As, however, there was not the slightest use in borrowing trouble, she wisely decided to see how things turned out and not to worry beforehand.
The conversation during the ride was on general subjects, and when at last they reached the pool Bernice inwardly thanked fortune that they had not once touched on the ticklish topic. Sydney halted at the spot where he usually parked his car, got out his fishing-rod, and announced that he and Bernice would stay on that side of the pool and try their luck, while Mr. Tredwell went round to the other side to find Jerry. He pointed out the old house in the orange-grove, saying he understood that must be where Jerry lived.
They watched Mr. Tredwell make his way around the edge of the pool, after having satisfied themselves that Ike was nowhere in the vicinity. And they watched him approach the tumble-down veranda, reconnoiter about him a bit, and finally ascend to knock on the still half-open door.
"I feel as if I were standing over a mine that was just about to explode!" Bernice confided to her cousin.
"It makes me feel rather mean," added Sydney, "to think I know all the while what he 's going to strike, and yet what in the world can I do? We 're just bound hand and foot by that promise Delight extracted from us. Sometimes I think it is n't right, – as if it might be better for her in the end if we did not keep it. I don't know; it 's a puzzle!"
They could see Mr. Tredwell standing patiently by the door, waiting for an answer to his knock. Then they saw him knock again and, after an interval, a third time. At last they saw him push the door open, look about, and walk in. And after that nothing happened for a very long time and they almost held their breath, for the "coming explosion," as Bernice insisted on calling it!
Much later they saw him emerge from the house and hurry around the pool in their direction – and they knew the struggle was on!
"It 's singular, very singular!" panted Mr. Tredwell, when he at last came around to where they were standing.
"What 's singular?" demanded Sydney as nonchalantly as though he were not perfectly well aware of the facts all the time.
"That house; it 's absolutely empty! Are you sure this is the right place?"
"I think I can be quite sure of it," replied Sydney cautiously. "It 's the only farm-house around here for miles. And one day, not so long ago, I was out fishing at this pool and happened to notice that the house seemed occupied. Are you sure that it is empty, or are they perhaps just temporarily away from home?"
"It 's uninhabited; no doubt of it. Some furniture is there still, but not the slightest sign of any one really living in the place."
"Very queer that he should move away so suddenly!" commented Sydney, more for the sake of saying something than for any better reason.
"No, it is n't strange!" exploded Mr. Tredwell at last in thorough exasperation. "It 's only about what I expected, as a matter of fact. Jerry has eluded me before and I quite suspected he 'd try to again, only I thought that this time I 'd been too quick for him. Did n't think he 'd imagine it necessary to slip away so soon, as he was so well hidden here. He 's a slick article the slickest thing I ever came across! He has given me the slip every time!"
Sydney said nothing, except to murmur his regrets at Mr. Tredwell's disappointment. Later he ventured to ask if that gentleman intended to try to trace the fleeing guide.
But Mr. Tredwell, deep in thought, paid no attention to his query. Instead he suddenly confronted Sydney and looked straight into his eyes.
"Tell me," he commanded, in a tone that was not to be gainsaid, "did you ever happen, while fishing here, to have noticed a young girl, about this young lady's age," pointing to Bernice, "anywhere about that house or – or around this pool?"
And so, at last, was Sydney brought to bay!
IN the brief space of time before he answered, Sydney managed to keep his head and hastily review the possibilities. As a matter of fact, he considered, Delight had not extracted any promise from them never to disclose the simple occurrence of their knowing her. The promise related mainly to the curious papers she had confided to them and to the history of her life as she had told it to them. Perhaps then there was no reason why Sydney should not answer, fully and truthfully, Mr. Tredwell's query.
Accordingly, while Bernice held her breath to the stifling point, he replied calmly: "Well, yes. As a matter of fact, we did see a – a young girl in and about the place. Also there seemed to be a woman there. Perhaps that was Jerry's wife."
Mr. Tredwell ignored the latter side-issue. "You saw the girl! and what was she like, may I ask? Did you ever get close enough to her to describe her?" His keen blue eyes seemed to bore into Sydney's very soul.
"She came around the pool to where we were," admitted Sydney. "She looked like an Indian at first glance or a very dark cracker type. Black hair; very tanned complexion. But her eyes were quite beautiful, deep iris-blue with long lashes."
"Did she speak? Did she talk to you?" Mr. Tredwell probed still deeper.
"Why – er – yes. I was fishing and she was rather shy, but she got talking to Bernice and they had quite a conversation, I believe."
Immediately Mr. Tredwell whirled around to Bernice. "What did she say, may I ask? How did she speak? Did she seem very – very ignorant?"
Bernice could have cheerfully scalped Sydney for thus involving her in the affair, but she replied bravely, "She seemed a very sweet little thing, gentle and shy and – and very attractive." Truth to tell, Bernice was somewhat irritated at this rather autocratic catechizing and suddenly had a bold inspiration, so that she ended with – "But may I ask why you are so interested in her, Mr. Tredwell? I thought it was Jerry you particularly wanted to see."
The effect on Mr. Tredwell of this sudden turning of the tables was instantaneous. "Oh, I – er – I – well, that is a matter I can't very well explain just at present!" he stammered. "To be frank with you, this matter is very – er – very involved. A legal difficulty – it would be – er – very indiscreet to discuss it."
For a moment he was silent, puzzled apparently as to how to proceed. He sensed the fact that the young people did not quite relish this cross-questioning, yet there were plainly admissions that he was still very anxious they should make. Sydney and Bernice said nothing and let him struggle with the difficulty without aid.
"There is one thing I would very much like to ask," he began again, presently. "Did she – did you, in the course of your conversation with her, discover what she was called, – what was her name?"
The two young people glanced at each other in rather a panic. What was it best to answer to this? To disclose that might be a decidedly damaging admission, especially if this man's interest was not friendly. Yet how could they evade the truth? Sydney took the matter in his own hands.
"We asked her her name, when we told her ours, and she said she was called Dell, but that her real name was Delight."
The effect of this statement on Mr. Tredwell was very singular. His eyes opened wide for an instant and he drew a gasping breath and turned and walked off toward the pool. There he stood, with his hands crammed in his pockets, staring down into the limpid water while the cousins eyed him uneasily and wondered what was coming next.
"Oh, are we doing right Sydney?" murmured Bernice. "Ought we to have told – so much?"
"Can't very well help ourselves. He has us cornered good and proper! But that was a great dig you gave him, Bernice! You quite bowled him off his feet for a minute. Don't worry about the thing. If I were only sure what his motives were, I 'd know better how to answer. The trouble is, we don't know. We may be doing Delight a lot of harm or we may be holding back when it 's all for her good. I wish I knew. Here he comes back again!"
But in the short interval of time, Mr. Tredwell's manner had changed entirely, and when he again approached them it was to take an entirely new tack. His manner was open and frank, but exceedingly firm.
"It may seem very unwarranted of me to question you so closely," he began, "but there are reasons, the best of reasons, why I must sift this matter to the bottom. I – er – do pardon me for this rather abrupt way of putting it! – I feel absolutely certain that there are aspects of this affair that you are acquainted with and have not, for some reason, seen fit to disclose to me. Of course, I do not know why and perhaps have no right to ask. But you would oblige me very much if you would tell me whether you knew, before we came here to-day, that Jerry and the rest had – decamped?"
"Yes," admitted Sydney manfully, "we did. But there – were – reasons why – why we felt we had no right to tell you so."
"Then you really do know more of this matter. May I inquire further if you know where they went – and by what route?"
Sydney drew a long breath. "That I – I cannot tell you. I have no right! I – we – have given a promise!"
"Not to Jerry, I hope!" flashed Mr. Tredwell.
"No, to – Delight!"
Mr. Tredwell appeared relieved at this admission. "I suppose I have no right to inquire, but I should very much like to know why she extracted that promise."
"I 'm sorry, but I don't believe I can tell you that, either," replied Sydney firmly.
"Then, perhaps you would be willing to answer this. Do you know anything about this – child's relations with the other two she lived with? Were they – er – kind to her? Did she seem fond of them?"
"I think it is all right to answer that," agreed Sydney. "They were very kind to her, so I understand, especially Jerry. She called him Uncle Jerry and said she was extremely fond of him. I do not think she felt the same toward the – his wife. He has only married her recently."
"Thanks. That at least gives me a new impression of things. May I inquire if you knew whether she – er – went away with them this last time willingly?"
Again Sydney was obliged to hedge. This was very dangerous ground. "I – I cannot tell you that!" he said firmly.
"I see," acquiesced Mr. Tredwell. Suddenly he changed his ground again. "If I were a mind to," he added, "I think I could give you a little piece of information that would startle you quite a bit. On further consideration, I believe I will give it. Do you know this? Last Tuesday afternoon, you two folks sat in the east corner of the hotel veranda and had a long and animated discussion of this very affair, much of which I could not help but overhear, as my room is right at that corner. I had come back to the hotel in the early afternoon, feeling a trifle unwell, and lay down on my bed for a nap. After a while I woke out of a sound sleep and heard voices conversing outside. I 'm rather used to that, as my window opens right on the veranda, and I 'm forced occasionally to be an unseen third party to conversations outside, much against my will. I tried to go to sleep again and shut out your voices, but suddenly I caught the name 'Jerry' and something about the Everglades; and then, I confess, I listened with all my ears, for it is of the utmost importance that I get to the bottom of this matter.
"Unfortunately for me, you spoke in the main in rather low tones and I lost often quite important items. But I want to tell you very frankly that I gleaned enough to give me almost all the clues I need – almost, but not quite. I apologize deeply for having had to do this. I detest and despise the role of eavesdropper, but in this case if you knew all the facts, I think you would say I was justified. I heard you, Sydney, announce that you were going to seek deliberately to cultivate my acquaintance, and I made the task easy, as I was equally anxious to cultivate yours."
He stopped short to mark the effect of his amazing disclosure. A bomb suddenly exploded in their midst could not have astounded them more. In a veritable panic of dismay, they gazed at each other. Why had they not been more careful? Why had they not realized that the hotel veranda was no place to discuss an affair so secret – that it might not be as deserted as it seemed! But there was no help for it now. One phase of the matter angered Sydney, and he demanded, in a tone of repressed annoyance:
"Why then have you kept us in ignorance of all this, since you have discovered what you did? Why did you not tell us right away that you had – overheard?"
"Turn about 's fair play!" laughed Mr. Tredwell. "You seemed determined to hold me off and pump me as hard as you could, without my realizing it. I determined I 'd do the same and see what each could make out of it. But is n't it time we stopped working at cross-purposes? What is the advantage?"
"It is n't a question of advantage," answered Sydney, relaxing a bit. "Since you have been so frank with us, I may as well tell you that we have become deeply interested in the girl. She has confided to us as much as she knows of her history, and I confess there seems to be a dark mystery about it all somewhere. But she made us solemnly promise we would n't tell any one and we 're not going to break it. We don't want harm to come to her."
"If I were to assure you," began Mr. Tredwell, "on my word of honor, that no harm is going to come to her through my investigations, but only good, would it make any difference in your feeling about the matter?"
"Most certainly it would!" cried Sydney, brightening up. And Bernice nodded a vigorous assent. "Only – only I don't see how that 's going to affect the matter of the promise. That 'll have to hold good, no matter what the circumstances are, won't it?''
"Perhaps we can circumvent that in another way!" smiled Mr. Tredwell. "For instance, if I were to tell you a few things I overheard the other day, and you realized how much I knew, barring certain rather necessary details that escaped me, perhaps you" might feel that it would not be violating her confidence to supply those details?"
"Well, I might have a try at it," volunteered Sydney cautiously, "but I do not have to answer if I think best not to!"
"You are going to make a true lawyer!" laughed Mr. Tredwell. "I can see that right now. However, suppose I tell you that I understood from some of your remarks that this child, Delight (and, by the way, I never caught her name that afternoon; it – it quite surprised me when I heard it!) – this child had in her possession something – some journal or diary – that half gave her a clue to a mystery about herself. I gathered from what you said about it that it was something in the nature of a naturalist's notes, but I was still asleep, I imagine, while you were reading it. Am I correct?"
"Yes," acknowledged Sydney. "It can do no harm to admit that much."
"The notes themselves, I presume, you do not feel justified in showing me?"
"That is just what she made us promise not to do!"
"I see. Among those notes were there many allusions to – to the child herself?"
"Very, very few. What there were did not seem to – to throw much light on the mystery."
"The child herself does not know what they mean?"
"I don't believe she does. She thought maybe we could understand – make something out of the puzzle. But we could n't."
"Does this child, Delight – remember ever seeing any one around with them – with Jerry – in the Everglades?"
"She remembers Jerry's first wife, a Seminole Indian woman. Absolutely no one else."
"Ah! that 's a point that is very important. Thank you for not hesitating to disclose it. One thing more. I have n't a doubt that Jerry has gone back to the Everglades. It 's the only place where he 's likely to think himself safe from me. I would very much like to inquire if, when this party left here, you had any idea what special route they intended to take? Perhaps the girl knew?"
"No, to be candid with you, their departure was the greatest surprise to us. It must have happened the very night after Delight gave us the papers. When we went to return them next day, the place was deserted. Quite by chance we found a little note she had left for us, but she knew no more than we what route they would take. She bade us good-by; that was about all."
"I thought it rather singular," went on Mr. Tredwell, "considering what I knew of the whole affair, that you should be so willing to bring me here this afternoon. I did not realize that you already knew the birds had flown! But now I have a proposition to make. This Jerry Saw-Grass must be traced – and followed. The matter is so important that I have decided to postpone other urgent business that would have taken me back to New York, and follow this up to the end. It is a matter that has long held fire in a legal sense and ought to be settled at once. I am more than fortunate to have come upon this clue. I had almost given up hope of ever solving the mystery.
"You two young people seem to have been lucky enough to gain the entire confidence of the principal actor in the scene. It is her welfare that is at stake, and Jerry is the factor that is blocking the whole proposition. Jerry we must get at and, since you two are so deeply concerned with Delight, how would this proposition strike you? I invite you both and Bernice's mother to accompany me in my car (which I devoutly trust will be ready!) to take a few days' trip down into the region of the Everglades and see what we can discover in regard to the fugitives. What do you say?"
The proposition was so astonishing, so beyond anything they had ever expected to happen, that they were mutually struck dumb. But their looks were so eloquent that Mr. Tredwell laughingly remarked, "Well, as silence is usually construed to mean assent, I take it that the bargain is settled!"
IKE MASSEY'S LAST EFFORT
THE return to the hotel was accomplished in rather a daze so far as the young folks were concerned. It had been a bewildering afternoon and the culmination had so taken their breath away that they were still incredulous that they could possibly have heard aright.
"I suppose, considering the circumstances, that it would be just as well not to disclose to Mrs. Conant exactly all of our purpose in baking this trip, in case she agrees that she and yourselves may accompany me. It would be rather hard to admit another to share in this secret, and I do not anticipate any difficulty in arranging things so that she will suppose every one except myself is off merely on a pleasure excursion. We will start day after to-morrow, if all goes well with that car of mine; and meantime, Sydney, you and I had better scout around and see if we can unearth any clue as to the direction the party took in making their escape. It ought not to be hard to trace a trio as conspicuous as they would be and in a mule-wagon, too. If it had been a car now, the matter would be far more difficult. I would also advise that you bring those papers she confided to you along with us. I will not ask to see them till there is good and sufficient reason to do so, and when you all agree that I am justified in having them shown to me."
The matter of the expedition was introduced to Mrs. Conant by Mr. Tredwell himself that night. Owing to the fact that he had been a friend of her father, she was the more easily persuaded. And, in addition, a trip down through Florida in Mr. Tredwell's luxurious car was a treat that no one could look upon without favor, especially as the life in a little "phosphate-town hotel" had long since begun to pall. To the great delight of the cousins, she gave her consent, and preparations for the excursion at once began to be made.
The following morning was spent by Mr. Tredwell and Sydney in the latter's car, exploring all the region for a radius of a score of miles, striving to unearth any trace of the trail the fugitives had taken. It was, in the main, without any definite result. Several days had elapsed since the flight. More than that, as the earliest stage had doubtless been accomplished long after nightfall, few, if any, had noticed a mule-wagon with its party of three. Mule-wagons were not at all uncommon, even traveling after dark. And Sydney suggested that, in all likelihood, Jerry had clung in the main to unfrequented and poor roads and so kept out of sight of the greatest traffic.
Since Mr. Tredwell was of the opinion that
The matter of the expedition was introduced to Mrs. Conant by Mr. Tredwell himself
perhaps the owner of the old farm-house might afford them some clue, they hunted him up. As Mr. Caswell had once told Sydney, he proved to be a doctor who lived in a near-by town. He acknowledged that the land around the pool and the old farm-house belonged to him, that he had rented it to Jerry (who had given his name as "Mr. Simpson"), had been paid a month's rent in advance, and had heard nothing more of his tenants. He was surprised beyond measure to be told that they had gone. He knew nothing about who they were or where they had come from. He admitted that the old house was very dilapidated and that he had not expected to let it at all, but was contemplating having it torn down, when Jerry applied to rent it and establish his family there, and, as he did not seem to object to its condition or require it to be repaired, the doctor was only too glad to be able to rent it so easily.
There was no useful information to be gained in that direction, and the two turned their attention to another. They drove out to Number Six and examined critically every trail that led from the old farm-house, hoping to see perhaps the mule tracks or wagon ruts left by the cart. But a heavy rain the night before had washed away every trace of recent make and left them as much at sea as before. At this point, Sydney and Mr. Tredwell sat down on the edge of the dilapidated veranda to think it out.
"We might as well boil it down to the two or three final possibilities," decided Mr. Tredwell. "After all, whatever route he may have taken from here, Jerry's destination was the Everglades. It 's only a question of what point he planned to enter at. Let 's reduce the thing to its smallest number of possibilities. We 're over near the west coast. He would hardly, then, plan to take the long trip over to the east coast and enter by the routes in from there. The quickest and safest for him would of course be the nearest. Granted, then, that he decides for the west entrances; if he pursued the usual course, Fort Myers, the Caloosahatchee River, and so on, he would undoubtedly realize that he could easily be traced. He would try for a course further in. He might even get over to the Kissimmee River, abandon his mule-cart, and go down the river by boat or canoe, through Lake Okeechobee in the same way, and so strike into the Glades from the north. Perhaps, looking at it from all sides, that is what he would be most likely to do. It would be the safest from observation. In any case, his progress is sure to be slow, unless he abandoned everything and took a train, say to Moorehaven on the lake. But this, I 'm certain, he would not do.
"Our best bet, therefore, is to get down, as speedily as possible, to Lake Okeechobee and see if we can head him off there. His traveling will necessarily be very slow. In all likelihood, too, he will have to stop and get supplies at the southern end of the lake before he enters the Glades. There 's where we 'll catch him. I propose, then, that we run over to the east coast and down as far as Palm Beach, striking in from there to the lower end of the lake."
"But is n't that going a long way around?" questioned Sydney.
"There 's an old saying, 'The longest way round is the shortest way home'!" laughed Mr. Tredwell. "It applies particularly in this case, because the roads are better on that side and we can make quicker progress. Jerry, I figure, is ambling slowly down the Kissimmee River and keeping as much as possible out of sight. It will take him at the very least a week to reach the southern end of the lake, probably longer. If we push it, then, we 'll be liable to reach the place long before him and welcome him when he gets there. I have ordered the car to be ready at eight o'clock sharp to-morrow morning, and we ought to reach Melbourne, on the east coast, long before dark. By the next night we will easily have reached Palm Beach and can strike in from there, and then – "
At this point, Mr. Tredwell was interrupted by a curious thing – the sound of a match struck within the old house on whose veranda they were sitting. Both of them jumped as if they had been shot.
"Did you hear that?" Sydney whispered as they scrambled to their feet. But they were not quick enough to get inside before a figure appeared in the doorway. It was Ike Massey, slouching nonchalantly against the doorpost, lighting his ill-smelling corn-cob pipe.
"Mornin'!" he offered, grinning at their very patent astonishment and consternation. "Hope I did n't disturb you! Did n't expect to find no one here this hour of the day."
The man was evidently a stranger to Mr. Tredwell, who was looking him over in considerable surprise and annoyance. Sydney's mind, working like lightning, strove to figure out how Ike had got into the house without their seeing him and just how long he might have been there. They had been all through the house themselves earlier in the morning, and it was certain that he was then nowhere about. He must have come in unobserved at the back door while they had been sitting there, and there was absolutely no telling when he had come or how much of their conversation he had overheard. Deeming, however, that discretion would be the better part of valor and that it would be best all around not to exhibit any signs of worry to Ike, Sydney determined to do the polite thing.
"You sure did startle us, Ike! Have you taken up your headquarters here? Meet my friend Mr. Tredwell! This is Ike Massey, greatest hunter and fisherman in these parts."
"I come in a spell back to see if I could find a match or two. Dropped mine in the pool an' they ain't no good now. Thought mebbe Jerry 'd left a few around. Found a couple on the mantel-shelf, but that 's all. You ain't got any about you, friends, have you, now?"
It all sounded plausible enough, yet both could not help but feel that the man overheard much of their conversation, and that, no doubt, with intention. Sydney especially was convinced of this. Mr. Tredwell, however, handed Ike a box of safety matches and bade him keep them, as he had another about him.
"Thank ye! thank ye!" said Ike, lowering his slouchy bulk to a seat beside them on the veranda edge. It was evident that he planned to spend the rest of the morning with them if so allowed. "Got a couple o' lines set out down to the pool, but the bitin's kind o' poor this mornin'. Funny how some days you can 't pull 'em in fast enough; an' others you could sit from mornin' till night 'thout a nibble; an' as fur as you kin see, the two days is exactly alike!"
But Mr. Tredwell and Sydney were in no mood to discuss the possibilities of fishing at that time, and made a move for departure.
"Well, guess it 's about time we were getting back," remarked Sydney, as he and Mr. Tredwell lowered themselves from the veranda, preparatory to leaving the scene. "Hope luck 'll change before the day 's out, Ike! So-long!"
But Ike was not easily to be defrauded of his desired bit of gossip. He shifted his pipe and laid a detaining hand on Sydney's arm.
"What you up to, anyway?" he demanded in a stage-whisper. "You two on the track of that Jerry, all right, ain't you? Found out what he done? I could n't help hearin' a bit o' what you were talkin' of while in there fussin' around."
The barefaced acknowledgment of his eavesdropping exasperated Sydney, and he lost his temper with Ike at last.
"It 's none of your business, Ike, what we want with Jerry! You 've been trying to poke into this affair long enough; now quit it! And kindly don't mention the matter to me again!" The retort was a mistake, as he was soon to discover. Ike did not "get mad"; that was not his method. He only slouched down a little farther on his backbone and leered up with an unpleasant grin.
"Gettin' kind o' cocky, ain't you! Strikes me I remember an evenin' not so long ago that you was glad enough to fill me up chock-a-block with ice-cream for the sole purpose o' gettin' me to tell all I knew about this here Jerry, now wa 'n't that so?"
The retort almost bowled Sydney over with surprise. He had not dreamed that Ike had fathomed his purpose at that time. Evidently the man was cleverer than he had given him credit for being. Before he could reply, Ike had another "facer" for him.
"An' then, seems to me I remember another night when you hit my trail out to Number Three (after stalking me at the café) an' pumped me some more – pumped me dry that time, I reckon you figured! Anyhow, I notice since then you ain't had much use for me! Oh, I know you reckoned I was that dumb I did n't get on to your scheme, but you better begin to give Ike Massey credit for seein' an' hearin' an' thinkin' a deal more 'n he looks capable of! Now if I was to tell you that I know quite a bit more about Jerry than I 've let on, mebbe you 'd come down off your high horse an' – "
But at this point Mr. Tredwell pushed Sydney unceremoniously out of the way and faced Ike.
"I 'm the only one to settle with about Jerry!" he announced. "Jerry concerns me more than any one else at present, Ike, so if you have anything interesting to say, kindly pour into my ear!"
There was something slightly withering in Mr. Tredwell's direct, steel-blue glance. When he turned it upon you, you either told the truth – or you turned precipitately and fled. Ike decided on the latter course.
"Hold on a moment!" cried Mr. Tredwell, laying a detaining hand on him as he turned on his heel to slink off. "You have n't answered my question yet. What do you know about Jerry that you have n't already disclosed? The truth – now!"
Ike turned back with a somewhat sickly grin. He glanced just once into Mr. Tredwell's cold, keen, blue eyes and then dropped his own and kept them down.
"You took me up kind o' quick on that, boss!" he stammered, shuffling his feet. "To tell the truth, I was just sort o' joshin' Sydney here. I did n't exactly say I knew any more about Jerry, if you rec'lect; I only said suppose I knew. I just thought – "
Mr. Tredwell gripped his shoulder and looked him straight in the eye.
"Well, let me tell you something, my man! A few nights ago I was out driving quite late with Mr. Bostwick, who runs the hotel. We were out on that wild stretch south of Fort Meade. Pretty deserted around there. We heard two or three shots from a gun, and a little while later we saw some one sneaking away with a brace of wild ducks under his arm. He did n't see us, for we 'd stopped the car under an overhanging tree and we were completely screened from view. I would n't have known the man from Adam; but my host, Mr. Bostwick, told me it was some one by the name of Ike Massey and if it were known that he was shooting out of season; he 'd be fined and perhaps imprisoned for breaking the game-laws. But he said Ike was a good-natured soul and he for one would n't want to inform the authorities about the matter.
"Now, Mr. Ike Massey, I want your promise, here and now, that you will neither bother us any further about this matter of Jerry, nor will you open your mouth to any one else to do any further gossiping about him or his affairs. I shall know if you do, and I shall give myself the pleasure of reporting you to the proper authorities on the grounds I have mentioned. Otherwise, I shall not molest you. Have I your word?"
Ike turned a countenance, now almost green with terror, for an instant up to Mr. Tredwell and stammered assent. And then, on being released from the grip that held him, he turned without ceremony and scrambled away to the rear of the house and out of sight in an incredibly short space of time.
WHEN Ike had disappeared, Sydney turned to Mr. Tredwell with a gasp of admiration.
"You sure are a wonder!" he cried. "You hit him just right! That rascal has been pestering the life out of me lately and I honestly did n't know how to get rid of him. I did pump him quite successfully, those first two times he mentioned, but he 's been making me pay up for it since; and I admit I did n't give him credit for seeing through me like that!"
"Oh, I know his kind!" said Mr. Tredwell calmly. "I 've had to deal with it too often to be mistaken. A little cleverness but mostly bluff: that 's his variety. But it was just pure luck that I should have happened to have that little misdemeanor on him. It hit him just right, and I think we 're quite safe from him now. I 've heard of him a number of times, and I imagine it 's through his gossiping around the village that I got my information about Jerry and his whereabouts. But I never came in contact with the man before."
"Well, you 've rid me of a regular old man of the seas!" sighed Sydney as they got into the Ford and drove away.
They had no sooner reached the hotel than Bernice hurried out to meet them and drew Sydney aside with an air of obvious mystery.
"What now?" he demanded, perceiving that she was boiling over with a desire to impart some news.
"Oh, Syd, you 'll never guess! I 've struck a clue, all by myself!"
"Good work! Let 's hear what it is. It it 's anything worth while, we ought to tell Mr. Tredwell."
"Worth while, indeed!" sniffed Bernice. "It 's about the worth-whilest thing we 've found out yet. I 've a great mind not to tell you, you 're so snippy!"
"Oh, come off!" laughed Sydney. "You know what I mean! Goodness knows, we 're in need of some clue, anything to give us a start!"
"Well, here 's how it happened. Mother needed quite a number of little things for the trip – things you can't get in this town, – so I took the bus over to Bartow to do a little shopping for her. While I was strolling about the town, waiting for the time for the next bus back, I happened to pass the place where the bus down to Arcadia starts. There was a big crowd getting in and I had got almost by when – what do you think?" She paused exasperatingly.
"If you don't go on – double-quick – I 'll – I 'll – I 'll – " threatened Sydney vaguely but menacingly.
"All right – all right! Well, I saw some one getting into that bus who looked strangely familiar. I could only see her back and she had a hat on. But something about her made me just stop short – and stare! Just before she got inside she turned around to free her skirt that had got caught on a nail or something – and – it was – the cracker woman!"
This time Bernice was thoroughly satisfied with the effect of her disclosure. Sydney grabbed her by the elbows and demanded excitedly:
"What! Not the cracker woman! You can't mean it!"
"Most assuredly, the cracker woman!" mimicked Bernice. "No other. I could n't mistake her, even though I only saw her once. She was the last one in and the bus started right off, so I had no chance to speak to her. But that 's my harrowing tale!"
"Golly!" ejaculated Sydney. "Where 's Mr. Tredwell?" And he was off before Bernice could get in another word.
This sudden and very fortunate discovery changed the entire outlook of their plans. If Bernice were not mistaken, (and she declared she could not be), their wisest course was to pursue the "cracker" woman and not Jerry, so Mr. Tredwell decided. Why there was this strange split in the fleeing party, no one could guess. But since Jerry's wife had, in that one interview the cousins had had with her, been the most inclined to communicativeness, common sense pointed out that she was the one to pursue. Moreover, her route they could trace with a fair amount of accuracy.
"There 's not a moment to be lost!" cried Mr. Tredwell. "My car is ready now. I 've just been to the garage and found they had finished with it ahead of time. Let 's get dinner as quickly as possible and make tracks for Arcadia. We won't wait till to-morrow to start. Can you get your mother to fall in with this change of plans, Bernice?"
"Oh, I 'm sure of it! Mother is really all ready now. I 'll run up and close our grips right away."
They had no definite plan as to just how they were going to trace Jerry's wife when they did get to Arcadia, but as they went bowling along in Mr. Tredwell's high-powered car that afternoon, he gradually worked out his scheme.
"My idea is to overtake the bus before it reaches Arcadia, if possible," he confided to Sydney, who was sitting beside him. "Of course, it has a big start on us but it has to stop in all the towns in between, and we may be able to catch up with it. I do wonder what this woman's object was in coming over this way."
"The only reason I can think of is that some one said she came originally from down Fort Myers way, so perhaps she 's suddenly made up her mind to go back there for a time," replied Sydney.
Mr. Tredwell agreed that this could be about the only object in the unexpected move on her part. They drove on at what seemed to Bernice's mother a reckless pace, and she more than once turned to her daughter to remark that she had not supposed Mr. Tredwell to be so inclined to break the speed laws. Bernice, however, who was holding her breath and watching the road ahead with fixed attention, declared on her part they did not seem to be going half fast enough.
Town after town they drove through, always stopping to inquire if and how long before, the Arcadia bus had passed that way. One other surmise troubled the three, and that was whether the object of their pursuit had got out at any one of these intermediate towns. But, as Mr. Tredwell confided to Sydney, if she had, the only way to find it out was to overtake the bus before it got to Arcadia, follow it into that town, and observe whether she was among the passengers. If she was not, they would know that she had left it earlier in the journey and they would have to trace her back.
The golden afternoon sunlight at last began to wane. At Wauchula they learned that the bus had passed through three-quarters of an hour before, which was a decided gain on the time at the town before. On they sped, the big motor purring rhythmically, the speedometer registering forty to fifty miles without intermission, except when they slowed for some sharp curve or passed another car on a narrow bit of road. At Gardner they were but twenty minutes behind the bus, and, as Mr. Tredwell remarked, were bound to catch up with it before it got to Brownville, when – there was an ominous veering of the car to the side of the road. Mr. Tredwell applied the brake and brought it to a stop. And, to the excited inquiries of Bernice from the back, Sydney had only one bitter comment:
It took twenty minutes to change to one of the spares and was, as Sydney remarked, a record for such a heavy car and a rear tire at that. But he whispered to Bernice that they had now probably lost the chance of getting in ahead of the bus (as they were a good forty minutes behind it) and likewise their best opportunity of tracing Jerry's wife, as they could not then be certain whether she had got off at one of the intermediate towns or gone on by the next bus to Fort Myers. It was an exasperating accident.
At length all was in readiness once more and they made another start. But the hope that had been so near fruition was now about abandoned, and the best they could expect was to reach Arcadia before the time for a bus to leave for Punta Gorda and Fort Myers. If Jerry's wife was intending to go to the latter place, she might have to wait about till bus time and so be in evidence. But it was rather a forlorn hope. Suddenly, at a turn in the road, Sydney looked ahead and shouted:
"What 's that?"
It was indeed a queer affair that they were approaching. A crowd of people appeared to be standing about in the road; and over at the side keeled into a ditch, was some great, bulky object whose form at first could not ibe distinguished from the car. But as tliey got nearer, Sydney gave an astonished whoop.
"The Arcadia bus! She 's gone over into the ditch. Hope no one 's hurt!"
It was a curious scene that they arrived at a few minutes later. The big bus had keeled over in some incomprehensible fashion and lay with her side in a deep ditch. No one was hurt, miraculously, except the driver who had a sprained wrist. He tried to explain excitedly how he had done his best to pass a car that insisted on crowding him badly, and his right wheels slid into the ditch before he could turn out. How the passengers had managed to crawl out afterward was a mystery no one tried to explain. But there they stood about, surveying the results with dreary patience and waiting for a relief bus which was to come from Arcadia presently. The accident had occurred in the midst of a wooded stretch, wild and uninhabited, with "soup" (as Sydney called the boggy land) on both sides in the dense undergrowth.
Suddenly Sydney, who had been searching through the groups of passengers with a keen eye, turned to Mr. Tredwell and whispered, "Over there, to your left, sitting on a log! Look!"
Mr. Tredwell did as he was directed and beheld the object of their long chase, the "cracker" woman, Jerry's wife.
JERRY SAW-GRASS IS CORNERED
BERNICE saw her at the same time and poked Sydney violently in the back to attract his attention.
"I see! Wait a moment. We must think how it 's best to approach her," he whispered.
After a conference with Mr. Tredwell, it was decided that Bernice herself had better get out of the car and speak to the woman and invite her to go on to Arcadia in Mr. Tredwell's own conveyance.
"We must n't alarm her," warned Mr. Tredwell. "We must have her think we have come this way and stumbled on the accident quite by chance, that we are surprised to find her here and are only too delighted to be of service to her. She had better sit beside me here in the front of the car and let Sydney go in the back till we reach Arcadia."
Bernice was a little shy about accepting the mission, but Sydney helped her out of the car, explaining to Mrs. Conant at the same time that they had just seen some one they knew among the passengers and were going to offer to help her out.
"Why, how do you do?" cried Bernice, approaching the woman, who had been looking the other way, and holding out her hand. "How unfortunate this accident was! I hope you were n't hurt."
The woman gazed at her a moment without recognizing her; then her face broadened in a grin of recognition and she cried, "Hey!"
"Can't we help you out?" went on Bernice. "We 're going on in this direction in Mr. Tredwell's car and will gladly put you down wherever you want to go."
Jerry's wife gazed at her uncomprehendingly a moment and then the situation seemed to dawn upon her. "Well, thank yuh! I was set to go to Arcadia when that thyar bus went over. I 'm that shook up! I had tuh crawl out the back on my hands an' knees! I reckon thyar 's no tellin' when the othah bus'll come along an' I gotta catch the one from Arcadia to Punta Gorda. Sure! I 'll be right glad to go on with you-all!" She got heavily to her feet and followed Bernice back to the car. When she had reached it, Sydney shook hands with her cordially and introduced her to the other occupants of the car. Then he helped her in beside Mr. Tredwell. Quite overwhelmed by this unwonted hospitality, she beamed impartially upon them all, while Sydney, leaning forward from the rear seat, plied her with polite questions.
"Well, how's everything out at Number Six since we saw you last?" he inquired heartily.
A perceptible change came over her face as she replied cautiously, "Pretty well, I reckon; but we don't live thyar no more."
"Oh! so you 've moved! Hope you 've found as pleasant a place for your new home. Suppose you left the others there?"
As her only acknowledgment of this question was a determined and ominous silence, Sydney hastened to change the subject and asked her how the accident to the bus happened. This drew from her a voluble account and occupied the rest of the time till they drew up at the bus stand in Arcadia. When Sydney had helped her out, she bade them all a friendly good-by and thanked everybody impartially for the kindness in transporting her to her destination so quickly. Then she disappeared into a near-by confectionery store where she indicated that she would sit and wait for the next bus. Sydney and Bernice gazed at each other in rather a panic, thinking this a dreadful anticlimax to all their hopes and the exciting chase. But Mr. Tredwell, finding himself conveniently out of tobacco, remarked that he 'd better get out and stock up at this place where they seemed to have a supply, as there was no telling when he might be able to find more, and of the right kind, in the course of their journey. Accordingly, he too left the car and disappeared into the shop.
He was gone a very long time. So long it was that Mrs. Conant became quite uneasy and suggested that Sydney go and hunt him up. But the two young people, realizing only too well his mission and loath to interfere with it in any way, disclaimed any uneasiness about him and tried to divert her by giving her a conservative account of how it happened that they had been acquainted with Jerry's wife.
Presently Mr. Tredwell came out. He excused himself for the long delay by saying he had met some one he knew in the store who kept him talking overtime. But there was a distinctly satisfied gleam in his eye, and the two cousins felt rather certain that his unacknowledged mission had been successful. To the great astonishment of every one, however, he turned round to those on the rear seat and proposed a surprising change of plans.
"I find on inquiry, that some one I 've been wanting to see on a matter of business is in this vicinity and that therefore it would be wise to put up in this town for the night, instead of going on as far as Punta Gorda or Fort Myers, as we planned. There 's a fair hotel here, I believe. Would it disappoint you folks very much to remain over?"
Mrs. Conant comfortably expressed herself as delighted to remain, for the region was all new and interesting to her, and the two cousins were naturally nothing loath, scenting, as they did, some still undisclosed development. While they were preparing to depart in search of their hotel, the Fort Myers bus arrived and left, carrying with it the "cracker" woman, who waved farewell to them cordially. Both, however, thought they saw a look of understanding pass between her and Mr. Tredwell before the bus rolled away. It was not till that night after supper, when Mrs. Conant had retired early with a headache and Mr. Tredwell had proposed to them a stroll about the moonlit town, that they learned the true inwardness of his long absence in the store that afternoon.
"Of course you are wild to hear the result of my interview with our cracker friend," began Mr. Tredwell, "so I won't keep you in suspense another moment. After I had bought my cigars, I walked over to where Mrs. Jerry was sitting by a small table (the only one there happened to be in the place) and asked her if she was not rather thirsty and tired after her unfortunate experience and would she allow me to order her some soda or ice-cream. Said I was going to have a glass of ginger-ale myself. She accepted with some slight show of reluctance. I think she rather suspected by then that I had something up my sleeve, so to speak! However, I talked about impersonal subjects till she was well along with her dish of cream. Then, suddenly, I looked her right in the eye and quietly demanded, 'Why did you leave Jerry and the child, Mrs. Simpson, and where are they now?'
"The unexpectedness of the attack took her completely off her guard. 'I ain't left them! I 'm goin' back – that is – I mean – ' she floundered and corrected herself and grew red and looked down to avoid meeting my eye. Then, 'You ain't got no right to ask me questions anyhow!' she flared out.
"'I 've got the best right in the world, Mrs. Simpson,' I answered her quietly. 'And it would pay you to tell me at once and truthfully just where you left the other two.' With this, I very unobtrusively laid several ten-dollar bills on the table and put my hand over them. I strongly suspected she had a mercenary streak and I was n't mistaken; though I 'll say this for her, that she is n't wholly mercenary, however. The sight of the money aroused her avarice; but she was still loyal to Jerry.
"'He ain't done nothin' wrong!' she said defiantly, yet eyeing the bills all the time. 'I dunno what you want him for, but he ain't done nothin' wrong an' I ain't goin' to give way on him!'
"'Madam,' I replied, 'you mistake me, I 'm afraid. I have n't anything against Mr. Simpson. I don't want to get him into any trouble. I don't know anything about him, in fact. I only want to have a talk with him about this child – this young girl – Dell, as you call her. There are some legal reasons why I must know who she is and how she came to be in his care.'
"I thought it wise to be perfectly frank with her and in the end it proved the best line to have taken. She suddenly collapsed in her chair and looked at me with a hunted expression.
"'There it is!' she gasped. 'It meets me at ev'ry turn. That Dell 's the cause of all his troubles – an' his queerness too. It 's on account of her he 's run away: he told me that much, though he won't tell me no more. I ain't got nothin' agin' the child – she 's a nice enough little thing, – but she certainly do make him queer. If he wa' n't that sick he can't move hand nor foot, we 'd be down in the Glades this minute, all on account o' her!'
"'Oh, then he 's ill!' I exclaimed. 'That certainly is too bad!'
"'Yes, he 's that sick he had to lay up at a little shack down between here an' Punta Gorda,' she rambled on, rather forgetting for the moment, I imagine, that I was to be considered in the light of an enemy. Truth to tell, I think she was glad of some one to talk to and pour out her grievances to. 'I been up to Bartow to-day to try an' get him the medicine he wanted. They did n't have it at Arcadia. He don't know I went so far. He 'll be wonderin' – but I got the stuff!'
"I suddenly decided to parley no longer with her but come to a decided point, so I said: 'Look here, Mrs. Simpson, we might as well understand each other. This money is yours, provided you will give me the information I want. It is n't a bribe. It 's just honest pay for honest assistance. There 'll be more for you later when we 've settled matters satisfactorily. I mean no harm to Jerry – nor to the child either – nothing but good, as I think you 'll find in the end. Tell me exactly where I can find the house you are staying at. Is it possible to reach it by automobile? I will get there to-morrow and perhaps I can be of some assistance.'
"She hesitated a full moment, but my friendly attitude – plus the crackling bills – won the day.
"'It 's a little old farm-house – down between Nocatee an' Hull,' she capitulated. 'You have to turn off at a cross-road where thyar 's a orange-grove at one corner an' right across from it a pine stretch. You go to the left through the pine stretch; it ain't a very good road. 'Bout a mile in, on the right-hand side, is a little old house. You 'll know it by four banana-trees planted in front. An old woman lives thyar all alone. She took us in two or three days ago 'cause Jerry was that sick he could n't go no further – an' we been thyar right on since.'
"I thanked her for the information – said I 'd be there to-morrow morning and that she need not mention our conversation to Jerry, as it might only worry him needlessly, She was only too ready to comply with this, I could see. And so, with this understanding, I left her. And I imagine our quest will end sooner than we expected when we round our party up to-morrow, down between Nocatee and Hull!"
"And only to think," exclaimed Sydney excitedly next morning, while the three were waiting for Mrs. Conant to join them in the car, – "only to think, if Bernice had n't just happened to catch that glimpse of Mrs. Jerry yesterday at Bartow, we 'd be all on the wrong track now, bowling over to the east coast and giving Jerry all the chance in the world to recover and make a get-away into the other side of the Glades! We 'd probably never have found him!"
"It 's very often the 'just happeneds' that rescue the situation in an affair like this," remarked Mr. Tredwell. "But it certainly was more than fortunate that Bernice should have made that particular discovery when she did. I believe we would have had a most difficult time in locating Jerry if she had n't. He would have had all the opportunity in the world to escape. And, as I fully believe we shall straighten out the whole matter to-day, perhaps, Bernice, you had better explain the situation a bit to your mother while we are driving there. She will be sure to be bewildered by this singular change in plans and it is n't fair to keep her in the dark any longer. We may even have to give up this expedition for the present and return to Jasper. But, I promise you, should all go well, we will certainly take that trip down the east coast later."
During the drive that followed, Bernice did as Mr. Tredwell had requested and retailed as much as she could pack into the comparatively short interval, of the curious train of circumstances that had led up to their present quest. Mrs. Conant was too much astonished over the singular affair to make much comment, but she soon grew as excited as the others at the prospect of the outcome of this chase and the solution of the perplexing problem.
Half-way between Nocatee and Hull they found the cross-roads mentioned by Mrs. Jerry with the orange-grove at one side and the pine stretch on the left. Into this they turned and ran bumpingly along an uneven road through a wilderness of tall Georgia pines, their slim trunks bare of foliage or branches for twenty-five or thirty feet till they feathered out at the top into the masses of ten and twelve inch needles that mark this species. The ground beneath was sand as white as driven snow, carpeted only by the brown pine-needles. The air was hot and sweet with the heady odor of pine.
"So far so good!" cried Mr. Tredwell. "It 's just as she described it. Now, if she has n't repented of her confidence and informed Jerry of our impending visit, we 're all set. The only thing I fear is that she might have regretted telling me what she did."
"There 's the place now!" whispered Sydney, as the car rounded a bend in the road. "The little old house with the four banana-trees in front!"
It was the typical Florida farm-house – gray, weather-worn, and probably unknown to paint since it was built. The veranda overflowed with great tubs of luxuriant ferns and growing plants, and the doors and windows were wide to every breeze and innocent of either screening or drapery. All leaned forward eagerly to verify the situation, and, just as Mr. Tredwell brought the car to a stop in front of the house, from the open door there appeared on the veranda a slim little figure – Delight herself – and at sight of the car, she caught her hand to her mouth!
Bernice had leaped out of the car even before it came to a stop, and in another instant she was on the veranda grasping Delight by both hands. An old "cracker" woman with a weather-beaten brown face half hidden by a faded blue sunbonnet came out of the door and stared at them curiously.
"Delight!" "Bernice!" leaped from them simultaneously, in suppressed tones that conveyed volumes more than the simple names. Those in the car watched the scene without moving to mar it by a single word, scarcely by a deep-drawn breath.
"Oh, how did you come here? How did you know?" breathed Delight. And then, "He is sick – in there! He will be – very angry!" The thought seemed to distress her. And then she became aware for the first time of strangers in the car, Mrs. Conant and Mr. Tredwell. "But who are these?" she questioned in surprise and alarm.
"Delight," whispered Bernice, "it would be difficult to explain to you all that has happened while we stand here. Come out to the car, won't you? I want you to meet my mother and Mr. Tredwell and we 'll try to explain to you there all about it."
Very shyly and reluctantly the girl allowed herself to be led through the yard and out to the car and was there presented to the two whom she had not yet encountered. And while she sat, crouched between Bernice and Mrs. Conant, Mr. Tredwell very quietly and gently explained to her the object of their mission.
He had neither the time nor was it his intention to explain all at that moment. On many points Delight was as completely mystified as were the others. But his search for Jerry and the curious circumstances linking his quest with that of the two cousins he enlarged upon, exonerating them from all appearance of having broken their promise to her. "And so," he ended, "you see that it is very important for me to have a little interview with your Uncle Jerry. Will this be possible, do you think, at present? How sick is he?"
"He was in bed; he could not move hardly. He had a fever too," she tried to explain. "But he is a little better to-day. He got up this morning. But he is very weak. He has been sitting on the back porch where it was shady – "
She did not finish her explanation. There was a shuffling sound on the front porch, and out of the door crept Jerry, holding feebly to any support to assist his stumbling progress. The sun had got round to the back of the house, and he had come to the front where it was now shady and cool. For a moment he did not notice the party out on the roadside. Then he looked up.
In all her life Bernice had never witnessed anything so tragic as the look that sprang into his eyes – the look of a trapped animal, terror-ridden, despairing. Groping for one of the decrepit chairs he sat down heavily, as Mr. Tredwell sprang out of the car and came toward him.
"You got me!" he muttered. "I thought I 'd give you the slip but – you got me – where I can't do a mortal thing!"
MR. TREDWELL EXPLAINS ALL
"JERRY," said Mr. Tredwell kindly, "I 'm downright sorry to find you feeling so poorly. Please do not be worried about my visit here. I want to see you and have a little interview with you, I 'll admit – an interview I 've been trying to accomplish for several years. But perhaps you don't feel equal to it now. I don't want to take an unfair advantage of you when you 're ill."
"Might as well have it over and done with," groaned Jerry. "I 'm all in now. I 'm done! Better have it over!"
"Very well, perhaps we had," agreed Mr. Tredwell. "Is – is your wife about anywhere?"
"No – she ain't. She went off to Punta Gorda this mornin' to see her folks, I reckon."
"Coward!" thought Bernice and Sydney simultaneously. "She just did n't want to face the music!"
"That so? Well, with your permission, I 'll ask my folks to come up here on the veranda. It 's rather hot out there in the sun and I imagine this will prove a long interview."
Jerry nodded impassively, and Mr. Tredwell escorted the three others to the porch, made the introductions, and found them seats. Mrs. Conant occupied the only other vacant chair, Mr. Tredwell seated himself on a bench, Bernice and Sydney perched on the edge of the unrailed porch, and Delight went over to stand by Jerry's chair. It was a curious group. And upon it the weather-beaten old woman who owned the house stared out at regular intervals from windows and doors. As she was nearly stone-deaf (so they afterward learned) she must have been thoroughly mystified by the whole performance!
"Perhaps it would be just as well," began Mr. Tredwell, "if I commence by asking you, Jerry, a few of the questions I 've been anxious to put to you for some time past. You have been dodging an interview with me for a long while, but you needn 't have feared it – really. I hold nothing damaging against you. I only wanted you to explain the circumstances of having in your charge this – er – child, about whom there seems to be some mystery." At this, Jerry, who had been sitting with his arms folded and his head bent, glanced up uneasily. But he made no response. And Delight, standing at his side, slipped an arm across his shoulder.
"Jerry," went on Mr. Tredwell, coming at once to the point, "was this child, Delight, left in your care by a man named Colfax?"
Jerry looked up now in real astonishment. "No; at least that ain't the name he gave me!" he answered guardedly.
"Oh, then there was a man who left her in your care! May I ask his name, then?"
The guide shifted uneasily. "I ain't no right to tell – gave my solemn word – but you got me cornered. His name was Wyndham; at least, so he told me – Harry Wyndham."
It was Mr. Tredwell's turn to be startled. "Oh!" he exclaimed uncertainly, and then, after a moment's thought, "Of course! I see! It 's all right – and the same thing anyway. Now, will you tell me why you have kept this child hidden away from civilization so long?"
"He wanted it so," declared Jerry sullenly. "He made me promise on his dying bed that I 'd never let her come near folks again, that I 'd keep her in the Glades always. He gave me money for her keep – not that I wanted it, – I was that fond of her I would 'a' brung her up anyway as my own. But he gave me money an' said to keep her in the Glades away from 'em all. I don't know what he done that he was hidin' from 'em, but I reckoned he did n't want her to suffer after he was dead an' gone for no crime of his!"
At this point, Mr. Tredwell strode across the porch and stared Jerry straight in the eye. "What in conscience do you mean by that – 'for no crime of his'? Explain yourself!"
Jerry's stare was equally bewildered. "Well, if he had n't committed no crime, what for was he hidin' in the Glades? Only fellahs that are gettin' away from the law is anxious to slip into the Glades an' stay there! That 's another reason I been dodging you all these years. I thought you was trying to git holt of his daughter to answer for what he 'd done!"
Mr. Tredwell sat down heavily on his bench and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. Then he smiled a rather grim smile. "Well, of all the misunderstandings!" he gasped. "I guess it 's time I told my story at this point, to avoid any further complications. I might as well tell you that I represent the estate of a very wealthy family in New York, by name of Colfax, every adult member of which is now dead. Fifteen years ago there were three members living – the senior Mr. Henry Colfax, his eldest son, Henry Wyndham Colfax, and a younger brother, Anson. They were a very unhappy family, whose chief disagreement was over the matter of money and the big estate. I cannot just now go into details, but the father greatly favored his younger son, Anson, who was of a particularly disagreeable and grasping nature and seemed to have an unusual influence over his parent.
"The elder son, Harry, was as far removed in nature and disposition as can be imagined from that of his two relatives. He was a deep student, interested in everything under the sun but money, and never understood his father and brother. He had married a wife of whom his father did not approve, chiefly because she was a girl of no money or family, and so, of course, an added thorn in his side. The older son would gladly have given up his interest in his father's fortune, except that he very much wanted money to pursue some scientific investigation to which he had dedicated his whole life. At length, however, the situation at home became so unpleasant and unbearable to him that he took his wife and very young infant daughter and departed for Florida, announcing that he never intended to return.
"He had been there only a little over a year when I was called upon to inform him that his father had died, leaving the entire estate and fortune to the younger brother by a will made only a few days before he passed away. I inquired if he intended to contest the will. The only reply I received was to the effect that he did not intend to contest the will, that he was through with the entire connection forever, that he intended to disappear from civilization at once, never to return and wished no effort ever to be made to trace him.
"The affair was thus dropped and concerned me no more for a number of years – five, to be accurate. Then, quite suddenly, in an automobile accident, the younger brother was killed. As he was unmarried and had died intestate, it devolved on me to hunt up the heirs to the big estate. There were absolutely no immediate ones except the older brother and his child, if either of them was still in the land of the living. As the last I had heard of young Harry Colfax was down in the region of Florida, I began my search there. It was, however, a curiously unsatisfactory one. Harry Colfax had always been deeply interested in the Everglades (then even more of a mystery than they are now), and I therefore conducted my search in their vicinity. I heard many vague rumors about him, though he had never been seen since his father's death. It seemed to be known that he had gone with a guide into the deepest depths of the wilderness, accompanied also by his wife and child. None of the three had been seen since, though some knew the guide had occasionally come out for supplies. But even he had not been seen for a long while of late. Some said that the man was dead, that his wife was dead, that they were all dead, even the guide. I could get no satisfaction at all; but as there was so much element of uncertainty I was obliged to return to New York, and the matter of the inheritance had to be held in abeyance.
"Then, three years ago, I happened to be down here at Fort Lauderdale on business and heard a strange tale from a young schoolteacher in the town of a mysterious child who had attended her school, learned to read with wonderful celerity, but would never talk of herself or her people. She always came to school from the Glades in a canoe. The teacher said it was rumored that she was in charge of the famous guide Jerry Saw-Grass."
At this point Jerry looked up with a startled glance, but he made no comment on what he had heard. And Delight appeared to shrink away from him as if in fear.
"Thinking I might be on the trail at last, I had Jerry pointed out to me one day in the town and asked him quite directly if he had a little white girl in his care. He lied to me with coolness and plausibility, but for just a fraction of a second I had caught him off his guard and I did not quite believe him. I was still more convinced that something was queer because I saw him no more from that time and understood that he had disappeared from the vicinity. But the Everglades are the one fastness left in this country where fugitives may successfully conceal themselves, and I knew it was useless and worse than useless to pursue Jerry into them. I saw and heard no more of him till, a few days ago in Jasper, I got that fugitive and almost unbelievable glimpse of him. And so, it has all led to this! It would be a great satisfaction to me, Jerry, if you could tell your side of the story and clear up a few of these hazy points."
Jerry moved in his chair uneasily and cast a half-apologetic glance at the company.
"I ain't used to talkin'," he faltered. "I can only say as I took up with this yere 'Harry Wyndham,' he called himself, 'bout fourteen years ago. He wants a guide to go into the deepest part of th' Glades an' he wants to take his wife and the little 'un with him. I says it 's unusual an' probably risky for 'em but he says no, they 're goin' to all live there an' not go back to town life no more. He says he wants to study – an' things like that, but I s'pects from the first as he 's got somethin' on his conscience, probably a big forgery or somethin' an' wants to keep out o' sight. I 've seen a lot like that. The Glades is the place for 'em.
"We goes into the deepest part an' camps there an' he reads an' writes an' stares at things through a glass an' all that, but he never goes out to the edge of the Glades, not even for supplies when we need 'em. I does all that. After we 'd been there 'bout a year, the young lady, his wife, steps on a rattlesnake one day, poor thing, an' dies next day from it. We could n't save her. I thought he 'd go crazy then. But still he won't go back to the towns. We buries her in the swamps an' he does n't know what to do with the little un, so I tells him I really got married to an Indian girl a while before I met up with him. She 's with her people yet in a camp 'bout fifty miles north but if he likes I 'll go get her an' she can keep house for us an' take care of th' baby. He just jumps at it and so I brought Wanetka there.
"'Bout a year or two later he gets sick himself. I don't know what ailed him but he just seemed to pine away like. He did n't read and write no more; jest sat staring out over the Glades an' playin' with th' baby sometimes. He makes me promise before the end that I 'll never, never let the child go way from the Glades or grow up where people was. 'There 's a reason,' he says, 'but you 'll never understand it.' He gives me all the money he has left – for her. I wants to get a doctor for him but he won't have it, and one mornin' I finds him dead, right there in his bed, as if he 'd slept away.
"After a while I went back to my old work of bein' a guide but I never let the child go near the towns. I never knowed she 'd learned to read. I was afeard for her to get any book-learnin' – for fear she 'd – find out. I did n't never want her to have to answer for her father's crime – whatever it was. I – well, I loved the little thing, Wanetka an' I did. If I 'd 'a' knowed – " He swallowed hard. Then he went on, "I married that cracker woman lately an' come up north because I ain't well. Somethin' is ailin' me an' I don't know what. But I could n't live in th' Glades no more an' I wanted little Dell to be cared for – somehow, if anything happened to me. I guess it wa'n't a very lucky move!" He smiled wanly at the first and only joke he had ever tried to make.
"It was the luckiest thing you could have done, Jerry!" laughed Mr. Tredwell. "And now, as you 've cleared everything up for us capitally, it only remains for me to see those papers you have in your possession, Bernice and Sydney, and prove beyond a legal peradventure, by verifying the writing, that the Harry Wyndham of the Everglades was the Harry Colfax of New York, my client. Have I your permission to examine them, Miss Delight? These two friends of yours have been very faithful to their promise to you, in forbidding me to have the briefest glimpse of them."
Delight stared at him with an uncomprehending look and murmured something inarticulate. So astonishing had these revelations been and withal so unexpected that even now she had not yet taken them in nor realized their bearing on her own affairs. Jerry himself was regarding confusedly the packet of papers that Bernice had taken from her hand-bag.
"May I show these to Mr. Tredwell now?" asked Bernice quietly of Delight. The sound of her familiar voice seemed to rouse the girl at last out of her daze.
"Why – yes!" she stammered. "Why – I reckon you can. I – I don't seem to know yet quite what it is all about, but – but I don't want any harm to come to Uncle Jerry!"
"Don't have the slightest fear of that, dear child!" exclaimed Mr. Tredwell as he received the papers. "Your Uncle Jerry deserves only the highest praise and commendation for what he has done. It was only through an unavoidable misapprehension on his part that he was forced to play the role of a constant fugitive, and a stupid mistake on mine that I did not recognize him for the faithful guardian he has always been. But we 're going to straighten all that out now!"
While he was examining the papers and comparing them with old letters he had taken from his wallet, Delight turned to Jerry and rested her head on his shoulder. Some inkling of the truth was at last beginning to dawn on her.
"Are they going to take me away from you?" she whispered.
"I reckon they are, honey!" he returned hoarsely. "If you got all the money they say – an' your daddy wa' n't no criminal like I always thought, then there ain't no reason in the world why you should have to stay any longer with old Jerry Saw-Grass."
"I won't go! I won't go!" she cried then, flinging herself upon him in a passion of tears.
"You got to, honey!" he soothed her, smoothing her dark hair. "I can't keep you here any longer now." It was at this crisis that Mrs. Conant stepped into the breach.
"If Mr. Tredwell and Jerry will agree to it," she began, "I should like to invite Delight to come and make a stay with Bernice and myself. We are to go into our new bungalow in a day or two and I know we shall both enjoy having her with us. And as she knows Bernice so well, the companionship will help her to bear her loneliness in leaving her accustomed environment."
"Nothing could be better!" cried Mr. Tredwell, putting the papers aside. "I had been rather puzzled as to how we should arrange matters in that respect, anyway, and this is a splendid solution for the present. Will you consent to it, Miss Delight?"
Bernice's eyes implored her and she visibly wavered between her allegiance to her foster-uncle and prospect of the life with the companion to whom she had become so much attached. But Jerry himself settled the question by pushing her from him toward Bernice and her mother.
"You go with them!" he bade her. "They 're the right ones for you now!"
Mr. Tredwell got up and came over to Jerry. "There 's not the slightest doubt about the identity of my client with the man you cared for in the Glades so long. The writing on these pages of his journal is identical with that of letters bearing his own signature. I can only say now that, though there are many details to be arranged, the future of little Delight Colfax will necessarily be very different from her past. But that does not mean that we intend to separate her from you, Jerry. You have been faithful to the utmost and such a separation would be more than cruel. We must talk over what arrangements we can make. You do not seem at all well. Will you not allow me to take you to Jasper with us and get you the medical attention you need?"
But on this point, Jerry was adamant. "No, no – thank you, sir, just the same, but I gotta stay here till I git over this. It 'll pass. I 've had the same thing afore this. When I kin travel again, we 'll go back to old Number Six, my wife and me, an' stay on there. It suits us – an' mebbe – sometimes, I kin see her – little Dell here – jest once in so often, so 's – so 's she won't quite fergit me, y' know!"
"There is n't a shadow of doubt," Mr. Tredwell assured him rather huskily, "that she 'll want to see you – with extreme regularity!"
Half an hour later, her belongings all packed in the car and her tearful farewell said to the guardian who had cared for her so long, Delight Colfax stepped in beside Mrs. Conant and Bernice. As the big motor slid away to the low purr of its perfect mechanism, she leaned out of the car for a good-by to the still figure seated on the porch.
"I 'll run down again in a day or two and bring you back to Number Six!" called back Mr. Tredwell in parting.
"And we 'll come with him and bring the Ford along to help!" sang out Sydney.
Bernice too had an inspiration.
"And Delight and I are going over to Number Six to get the house all ready for you!" she shouted as her contribution.
There was something so heartening about these kindly commonplaces that they cleared the atmosphere of the inevitable and the tragic for Jerry. The faded blue sunbonnet was poked out of the door and the cracked voice of the deaf old woman, unable any longer to contain her curiosity, demanded, "Who air them people, anyhow?"
"My folks!" he explained to her in pantomime, the suspicion of a complacent twinkle in his eye. And, to the occupants of the departing car, he shouted lustily:
"All right! I 'll be expectin' ye!"