“Steady! Steady!” warned the old swamper as Louise shrank back in horror from the big snake. “Don’t move or he’ll strike!”

Digging his paddle into the slimy bed of the narrow run, Trapper Joe inched the skiff backwards. Should the boat jar against the tree root, he knew the snake almost certainly would strike its poisonous fangs into Louise’s face.

“Hurry!” she whispered.

Slowly the skiff moved backwards through the still water, until at last it lay at a safe distance. The snake had not moved from its resting place.

Now that the danger was over, Louise collapsed with a shudder.

“You saved me!” she declared gratefully.

“It weren’t nothin’,” he replied as he sought another run. “There’s thousands o’ varmints like him in this swamp.”

“And to think Penny and I dared come here by ourselves the other day! We didn’t realize how dangerous it was!”

The incident had so unnerved both of the girls, that some minutes elapsed before they recalled the strange pounding sound which had previously held their attention.

“I don’t hear it now,” Penny said, listening intently. “Just before we ran into that snake, you were about to say something, Joe.”

The guide stopped paddling a moment. “Was I now?” he asked. “I don’t recollect.”

“We were talking about the strange noise. You said you never had heard anything like it before in the swamp. Then you added—‘I wonder—’”

“Jest a-thinkin’,” Joe said, picking up the paddle once more. “One does a lot o’ that in the swamp.”

“And not much talking,” rejoined Penny, slightly annoyed. “What do you think made the noise?”

“Couldn’t rightly say.”

Realizing it was useless to question the old man further, Penny dropped the subject. However, she was convinced that Joe had at least a theory as to the cause of the strange pounding sound.

“He knows a lot he isn’t telling,” she thought. “But I’ll never get a word out of him by asking.”

If Joe were unwilling to discuss the signal-like tappings, he showed no reluctance in telling the girls about the swamp itself.

Wild turkey, one of the wariest fowls in the area, could be found only on the islands far interior, they learned. Although there were more than a dozen species of snakes, only three needed to be feared, the rattlers, the coral snake, and the cottonmouth.

“Ye have to be keerful when yer passin’ under tunnels o’ overhanging limbs,” Old Joe explained. “Sometimes they’ll be hangin’ solid with little snakes.”

“Don’t tell us any more,” Louise pleaded. “I’m rapidly losing enthusiasm for this place!”

“Snakes mostly minds their own business ’less a feller goes botherin’ ’em,” Trapper Joe remarked. “Too bad more folks ain’t that way.”

The boat floated on, and the heat rising from the water became increasingly unpleasant. Penny mopped her face with a handkerchief and considered asking the old man to turn back.

Before she could speak, Joe who had been peering intently at the shore, veered the skiff in that direction.

“Are the orchids here?” Louise asked in surprise.

Old Joe shook his head. “Jest want to look at something,” he remarked.

He brought the skiff to shore, and looking carefully about for snakes, stepped out.

“May we go with you?” asked Penny, whose limbs had become cramped from sitting so long in one position.

“Kin if yer a mind to, but I only aim to look at that dead campfire.”

“A campfire?” Penny questioned. “Where?”

The old trapper pointed to a barren, dry spot a few feet back from the water’s edge, where a circle of ashes and a few charred pieces of wood lay.

“Why, I hadn’t noticed it,” Penny said. Wondering why the trapper should be interested in a campfire, she started to ask, but thought better of it. By remaining silent, she might learn—certainly not if she inquired directly.

Trapper Joe gazed briefly at the camp-site, kicking the dead embers with the toe of his heavy boot.

“Thet fire hain’t very old—must have been built last night,” he observed.

“By a swamper, I suppose,” said Penny casually. “One of the Hawkins’ family perhaps.”

“It hain’t likely they’d be comin’ here after nightfall. An’ that fire never was built by a swamper.”

“Then a stranger must be hiding in the area!” Penny cried. “Danny Deevers!”

“Maybe so, but Danny was city-bred and never could survive long in the wilds. One night here would likely be his last.”

“Supposing someone who knew the swamp were helping him?”

“Thet would make it easier, but it weren’t Danny Deevers who built this fire.”

“How can you be so positive?”

“Deevers was a big man, weren’t he?”

“Why, fairly large, I guess.”

“Then would he be leavin’ little tracks?” Joe pointed to several shoeprints visible in the soft muck. “This man, whoever he be, didn’t have anyone campin’ with him. Leastwise, there hain’t no tracks except from the one kind o’ shoe.”

“I guess you’re right,” agreed Penny, disappointed to have her theory exploded. “I wonder who did camp here?”

“I’m a-wonderin’ myself,” replied the old trapper. “If it’s the feller thet stole my gun, I’d like pow’ful well to catch up with him.”

Joe inspected the ground for some distance inland, satisfying himself that no one was about. As they returned to the boat, he said thoughtfully:

“Not in years heve I been as far as Black Island, but I’ve got an itch to go there now.”

“Good!” chuckled Penny. “I want to see the place myself.”

“It’s a long, hard row. I couldn’t rightly take you’uns.”

“Why not?”

“Fer one thing, I hain’t sure what I’ll find at the island.”

“All the better,” laughed Penny.

But the old trapper was not to be persuaded. “The trip ain’t one fer young’uns. Likewise, with three in a boat, it’s hard goin’. Part o’ the way, the run’s so shallow, ye have to pole.”

“In a polite way, he’s telling us we’re excess baggage,” Louise said, grinning at Penny. “To me it sounds like a long, hot trip.”

“I kin go another day,” said the trapper. “There hain’t no hurry.”

“But you’re well on your way there now,” Penny remarked. “How long would it take to go and return here—that is, if you went alone?”

“Two hours if I made it fast.”

“Then why not go?” Penny urged generously. “Isn’t there somewhere Louise and I could wait?”

“Without a boat?” Louise interposed in alarm.

“I hain’t suggestin’ ye do it,” said the old trapper. “But there is a safe place ye could wait.”

“Where?” asked Penny.

“On the plank walk.”

“Does it extend so far into the swamp?”

“This is a section of an old walk that was put in years ago,” Joe explained. “It used to hook up with the planking at the entranceway, but it went to pieces. Folks never went to the trouble to rebuild this section.”

“All right, take us there,” Penny urged, ignoring Louise’s worried frown. “If we’re above the water, we should be safe enough.”

The old trapper rowed the girls on a few yards to a series of shallow bays where water lilies and fragrant pink orchids grew in profusion. As they drew in their breath at the beautiful sight, he chuckled with pleasure.

“Purty, hain’t it?” he asked. “Gatherin’ posies should keep ye busy for awhile. The boardwalk’s right here, and goes on fer quite a spell before it plays out. If ye stay on the walk, you’ll be safe until I git back.”

Louise gazed with misgiving at the old planks which were decayed and broken. As she and Penny alighted, the boards swayed at nearly every step.

“I’ll pick ye up right here, soon’s I can,” the old guide promised. “If ye keep to the shade, ye won’t git so much sunburn.”

“What if you shouldn’t get back before nightfall,” Louise said nervously. “Wouldn’t we be stranded here?”

“I’ll git back.”

“Where does the walk lead?” Penny asked.

“Nowheres in particular any more. Ye’d best not foller it far. Jest wait fer me purty close here, and I’ll be back soon’s I kin.”

Reaching into the bottom of the skiff, the trapper tossed a parcel of lunch to Penny.

“Here’s some meat if ye git hongry while I’m gone. Mind ye stay on the planks!”

With this final warning, Joe paddled away and soon was lost to view behind the tall bushes.

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