Chapter 14: Pirate Ways Are Hidden Ways
The rain, fine and needle-like, stung Val’s face. There were ominous pools of water gathering in the garden depressions. Even the small stream which bisected their land had grown from a shallow trickle into a thick, mud-streaked roll crowned with foam.
But the bayou was the worst. It had put off its everyday sleepiness with a roar. A chicken coop wallowed by as the boy struggled with the knot of the painter which held the outboard. And after the coop traveled a dead tree, its topmost branches bringing up against the plantation landing with a crack. Val waited for it to whirl on before he got on board his craft.
The adventure was more serious than he had thought. It might not be a case of merely going downstream and into the swamp to the cabin; it might be a case of fighting the rising water in grim battle. Why he did not turn back to the house then and there he never knew. What would have happened if he had? he sometimes speculated afterward. If Ricky had not come into the garden to hunt him? If together they had not--
While Val went with the current, his voyage was ease itself. But when he strove to cut across and so reach the mouth of the hidden swamp-stream, he narrowly escaped upsetting. As it was, he fended off some dark blot bobbing through the water, his palm meeting it with a force that jarred his bones.
But he did make the mouth of the swamp-stream. Switching on the strong search-light in the bow, he headed on. And because he was moving now against the current, it seemed that he lost two feet for every one that he advanced.
The muddy water was whipped into foam where it tore around shrub and willow. There were no longer any confining banks, only a waste of water glittering through the dark foliage. The drear habitat of the vultures was being swept bare by the scouring of the incoming streams, but its moldy stench still arose stronger than ever, as if some foulness were being stirred up from its ancient bed.
It was only by chance that Val found the drying rack which marked the boundary of Jeems’ property. Here the land was higher than the flood, which had not yet spread inland. He tied the boat to a willow and splashed ashore. In the lower portions of the path his feet sank into patches of wet. Something which might have been--and probably was--a snake oozed away from the beam of his pocket torch.
The clearing was much as it had been, save that the door of the chicken-run stood ajar and its feathered population was gone. But under the cabin Val saw the betraying sparkle of water. The bayou in the rear must have topped flood level.
Someone had been there before him. The lock was battered and there had been an attempt to pry loose its staples, an attempt which had left betraying gouges on the door frame. But misused as it had been, the lock yielded to the key and Val went in. Warned by a lapping sound from beneath, it did not take him long to get the chest, relock the door, and head back to the boat.
He was none too soon. Already, in the few moments of his absence, there were rills cutting across the mud, rills which were growing in strength and size. And the flood around the drying rack was up a good three inches. Val dumped the chest into the bow with little ceremony and climbed in after it, his wet trousers clinging damply to his legs. Something plate-armored and possessing wicked yellow eyes swam effortlessly through the light beam--a ‘gator bound for the Gulf, whether he would or no.
The return as far as the bayou was easy enough, for again the boat was borne on the current. But when Val faced the torn waters of the river he experienced a certain tightness of throat and chill of blood. What might have been the roof of a small shed was passing lumpily as he hesitated. Then came a tree burdened with a small ‘coon which stared at the boy piteously, its eyes green in the light. An eddy sent its ship close to the boat; the top branches clung a moment to the bow. And to Val’s surprise, the ‘coon roused itself to a mighty effort and crossed into the egg-shell safety the boat offered. Once in the outboard, it retreated to the bow where it crouched beside the chest and kept a wary eye on Val’s every movement.
[Illustration: _Then came a tree burdened with a small ‘coon which stared at the boy piteously, its eyes green in the light._]
But he could not rescue the wildcat which swept by spitting at the water from a log, nor the shivering doe which awaited the coming of death, marooned on an islet which was fast being cut away by the hungry waters. And all the time the stinging rain fed the flood.
Val gripped the rudder until the bar was printed deep across his palm. Soon it would be too late. He must cross now, heading diagonally downstream to escape the full fury of the current. With a deep breath he turned out into the bayou.
It was like fighting some vast animated feather-bed. His greatest efforts were as nothing against the overpowering sweep seaward. And there was constant danger from the floating booty of the storm. The muddy spray lashed his body, filling the bottom of his craft as if it were a tea-cup. And once the boat was whirled almost around.
Val was beginning to wonder just how long a swimmer might last in that black fog of rain, wind, and water when his bow eased into comparatively quiet water. He had crossed the main current; now was the time to head upstream. Grimly he did, to begin a struggle which was to take on all the more horrible properties of a nightmare. For this was many times worse than his fight against the swamp-stream.
Twice the engine sputtered protestingly and Val thought of trying to leap ashore. But stubbornly the outboard fought on. If there ever were a sturdy ship, fit to be named with Columbus’ gallant craft or Hudson’s vessel, it was that frail outboard which buffeted the rising waters of a Louisiana bayou gone flood mad.
It achieved the impossible; it crept upstream inch by inch, escaping disaster after disaster by the thinness of a dime. Since he had apparently not been born to drown, Val thought as he saw his headlight touch the tip of the landing, he would doubtless depart this life by hanging.
Then his light picked out something else which lay between him and the landing. The sleek, knife-bowed cruiser certainly did not belong to Pirate’s Haven. And what neighbor would come calling by water on such a night? It was moored by two thick ropes to a sunken post, and already the mooring was dragging the bow down. Val headed in toward it, running the outboard between the stranger and the landing.
Out of the blackness ashore a shadow arose and waved at him frenziedly. Then he saw Ricky’s white face above her long oil-silk cape. Her hair was plastered tight to her skull and she was protecting her eyes from the fury of the rain with her hands.
Val sent the boat inshore until it bit into the crumbling surface of the levee with a shock which threatened his balance. Ricky snatched at the painter and held steady while he jumped. They made the boat fast and Val landed the chest. The passenger did his own disembarking, making his way into the garden without a backward look. Then Val demanded an explanation.
“What are you doing here?” he tried to out-screech the wind.
In answer she clapped her wet, muddy hand across his mouth and pulled him back from the levee.
They reached the semi-shelter of a rotting summer-house where he put down the chest. Ricky pushed her wet hair out of her eyes. It was impossible for them to hear each other without screaming madly.
“Jeems told me--after you left--Val! How could you be so mad!”
“I made it.” He touched the chest with his toe. “After we had practically kidnapped him, we couldn’t let his belongings just float away. But why are you out here? And where did that boat come from?”
“I came out here after Jeems told me. I’m all right.” She laughed shakily. “I’ve got my oldest clothes on--and this,” she touched her cape. “I couldn’t stay in there--waiting--after I knew. And I didn’t want Rupert to ask questions. So I said that I was going to bed with a headache. Then I slipped out here to the levee. And I hadn’t been here two minutes before that boat came downstream. There were four men in it and they got out and went into the bushes over there. And, Val, Rupert is down at the other end of the garden where they are having trouble with the levee. Holmes and Creighton went down to see if they could help, too, just after you left. There’s nobody but Charity up at the house with Lucy and Letty-Lou. Val, what are we going to do?” she appealed to him.
“First I’ll investigate these visitors,” he said easily, though he felt far from easy within.
“Me too,” she said firmly if ungrammatically, and since Val could not wait to argue, she went along.
They took the route she had watched the invaders follow, wriggling through wet bushes and around trees.
“Val, look out!” She grabbed his arm and so saved him from tumbling headlong into a black hole in the ground. Vines and a small shrub or two had been ruthlessly torn out to bare the opening. It was here that the visitors must have gone to earth. And then Val had a glimmering of the truth; the “Boss” and his friends had at last found Jeems’ private door.
Prudence urged that they return to the house and send Sam Two or some other messenger down to the cross-roads store to summon the police by phone. Prudence however had never successfully advised any Ralestone. They had a decided taste for fighting their own battles. So, torch in hand, Val dropped into the hole. And a moment later Ricky slid down to join him.
They stood in a rough passage. Stout timbers banked its sides and guarded the roof. There was a damp underground smell such as Val had noted in the cellar of the house, but the air was fresh enough. After the first hasty survey, the boy held his fingers over the bulb of the flashlight so that only the faintest glimmer escaped to light their path.