Scott Burton and the Timber Thieves
SCOTT BURTON AND THE TIMBER THIEVES
“WE’VE GOT TO GET ’EM, I TELL YOU.”
Scott Burton sat on the porch of thelittle cabin on the edge of the forest andlooked absently out across the wide beachat the restless waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Noone ever would have guessed from his expressionnow how crazy he had been to see that gulf onlythe day before. He apparently did not see thewater at all. The big waves boomed on thebeach unheard and even the little oyster schooner,which glided across the picture on its way to port,failed to catch his attention. He had sat motionlessfor so long that a great big fox-squirrel,afraid but drawn on irresistibly by his curiosity,had crept nervously up within a few feet of him.
Suddenly Scott shook his head to rid himselfof a bothersome fly and the frightened chatter ofthe squirrel as it whisked behind the nearest treebroke the spell. He gave the intruder a quickglance and turned his attention once more to theopen letter which he held in his hand. He hadread that letter dozens of times, in fact he knewevery word on the typewritten page by heart, buthe read it again now in the hope of finding someadditional meaning between the lines.
“Your remarkable work in cleaning up thetrouble with the sheepmen on the CormorantForest last summer has led us to select you forsome special work of a rather delicate characteron the Okalatchee. There have been some timberthieves at work on that forest for some time, andso far our officers have been unable to catch themor effectually put a stop to their work. It will beyour particular duty to see that these thefts arestopped and the trespassers brought to justice.
“In order that you may have ample authority,you have been appointed deputy supervisor underMr. Graham and will be given every possible assistance.
“You will report directly to this office.
No, he could not see any more in it, and yet itseemed mighty little to tell a man who had beenlooking forward to that letter for a week and hadtraveled two thousand miles to get it. He turnedthe paper over thoughtfully as though he hopedto find some further instructions on the back ofit, and then proceeded to review once more thewhole situation.
He had been fortunate enough to earn considerabledistinction in Arizona, where he had beenworking as a patrolman, by clearing out a gangof grafters who had been running sheep on theForest without a permit. This achievement hadwon for him the chance of an appointment as aranger, but he had asked for the opportunity toobtain a little more experience as a patrolmanbefore taking up a more responsible position.His request had been granted and he had spentthe summer very profitably on the district he hadcleaned up so creditably in the spring.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, he hadreceived a telegram from the Washington office.
“Report Okalatchee, Fla., at once. Youwill find instructions there.”
He had become attached to the Southwest andhad looked forward contentedly to a permanentlocation there, but he was possessed of even morethan the usual young man’s love of travel, andFlorida had always been a country of his dreams,a country of fairy tales that he had hardly evendared hope to see. The sudden realization thathe was actually going there had driven everythingelse from his mind, and an hour after hehad received the message he was in the saddleon his way to town.
It was only when he was on the train speedingacross the vast expanse of Texas, with plenty ofopportunity to think, that he had begun to burnwith a consuming curiosity to know what his instructionswould be. The longer he had traveledthe higher his air castles had grown and the moreanxious he had become to see those instructions.By the time he had reached New Orleans he wasin such a hurry that he could hardly enjoy histen-hour wait there, though it was the firstsouthern city he had ever been in and a placewhich he had always longed to see.
The sight of the tall palmetto palms and themoss-covered live oaks drove his imagination toeven more fantastic efforts, and finally arrived inOkalatchee he had almost run directly from thetrain to the postoffice to get those precious instructions.And this letter was all that he hadfound. He had found that the supervisor’s headquarterswere five miles away through the pinewoods and the telephone gave him no answer.He had hired an old negro to drive him over.There was no one there, but the door was notlocked and he had decided to stay there till someone came. He was not much better off than beforehe had obtained the letter.
“Well,” Scott thought, “there is nothing to dobut wait till the supervisor turns up,” and he proceededto investigate his new surroundings.
The little three-room cabin, built of rough lumberwith battens over the cracks, was exactly likenumbers of other ranger cabins he had seen, butits location had been selected with more than theusual attention to beauty and comfort. It nestledjust within the edge of a very dense stand of tall,longleaf pines and the little front yard ran outto meet the broad sand beach. Flowerbeds ofhibiscus and groups of oleanders lined the walkof crushed oyster shells, and plants with whichScott was entirely unfamiliar were scatteredaround in great profusion on either side of thecabin. It seemed to Scott as though a womanmust have planned it all, for he could not imaginea man taking so much pains with the decorationof his home. He found himself thinking that itwas no wonder this fellow had not caught thetimber thieves.
Just to the west of the cabin a little creekbordered with titi and sweet jasmine wanderedslowly out to meet the blue waters of the Gulf.It could not always have flowed as slowly as itdid now, for some time in the past it had builtquite a little delta which extended out in the formof a miniature cape, and was covered with agrove of tall, stately palmettos. Far out fromthe shore a long line of low-lying sand islandsbroke the horizon. It was certainly an ideal spot.
The interior of the cabin was quite as tastilyequipped as the exterior, and the cupboardseemed to be stocked for a long siege. Therewas nothing lacking even to the luxuries. Scottsmiled as he thought of his own bare little shackhigh up in the southern Rockies with the roundbullet hole in the windowpane.
“I don’t care if that sissy supervisor does notshow up for a week,” Scott grunted contentedlyas he settled down in a comfortable steamer chairon the porch. No one could have asked for abetter place to wait. But Scott was not muchgiven to idle comfort, especially when his curiositywas aroused, and it usually was arousedabout something. Just now he was almost wildto know something more of this new problemwhich he had been given to solve. He watcheda little flock of sandpipers run along the smoothbeach a way, following the very edge of a wave,but long before they had turned the point of thelittle palmetto cape he jumped restlessly fromthe chair and went into the cabin to study a mapwhich he had noticed hanging on the wall.
It was a detailed map, showing the irregularboundary of Okalatchee forest and the differenttypes of timber. It was a great sprawling tractof a million acres extending along the gulf tothe river on the west, to the farm lands on theeast, and north to the big swamp. It was coveredwith unfamiliar terms he had seen in books,but which had never seemed real to him before.He had always read them before as he would readthe names in a fairy tale, and here he was in thevery midst of them: pine ridge and cypressswamp, hardwood bottom and gum slough, lowhammock and baygall, high hammock and canebreak, turpentine orchards and stills.
He marveled at the great number of ridgesshown in that flat country, and the many long,stringlike swamps which paralleled the river andthe coast. And he wondered where in all thatmaze of unknown country the timber thieveswhom he was supposed to catch were working.He noted several ranger stations shown on themap and wondered whether any of them wereconnected with the mystery as had been the casein the sheep business in the West, or whetherthere were really any thieves at all. He rememberedreading a story in which men had been convictedon circumstantial evidence of stealing araft of logs, and it was not till they had serveda month in jail that the raft had been found inthe bottom of the pond where it had been tied.
If only the supervisor, or any one else whocould tell him anything about it, would come.He had not liked the “gum-shoe” game as he hadcalled it when he had been obliged to try his handat it in the West, but he found himself eager toget at it here because other men had tried it andfailed. It seemed to him like a challenge and hewas eager to accept it.
He pored over the map, studying the lay ofthe land and letting his imagination run wild.He had caught those thieves in forty differentways in at least a dozen different parts of the mapwhen the failing light warned him that it wastime to get supper and prepare for the night.
He had no instructions or invitation to makeuse of that cabin or the supplies in it, but there isa certain freemasonry among the men of thewoods which was invitation enough for him. Hehad no hesitation in spreading his blankets onone of the beds and ransacking the cupboard forhis supper. There was plenty to choose fromand the wood was laid in the stove ready for thematch. In half an hour he was sitting down tohis lonely meal.
But it was not destined to be a lonely meal.Scott had hardly finished what he probably wouldhave called his “first course,” when he heard alight step on the shell walk, a thud or two on theporch, and a man loomed big in the doorway.
Scott’s first impression was that this wasthe biggest man he had ever seen. Healmost filled the doorway and the crownof his Stetson brushed the frame. His keen eyetook in the interior of the cabin in one swiftglance as he entered and then focused steadily onScott, who had risen smiling to greet him.
“Mr. Burton, I presume?” he