The throaty croak of frogs filled the night as Salt, car headlights darkened, brought up at a bend of the road near the swamp’s edge.

Entrance to the pinelands could be gained in any one of three ways. A road, often mired with mud, had been built by a lumber mill, and led for nearly a mile into the higher section of the area. There it ended abruptly.

Half a mile away, near Trapper Joe’s shack, lay the water course Penny and Louise had followed. From it branched a maze of confusing channels, one of which marked the way to the heart of the swamp. But only a few persons ever had ventured beyond Lookout Island, close to the exit.

The third entrance, also not far from Trapper Joe’s, consisted of a narrow boardwalk path nailed to fallen trees and stumps just above the water level. The walk had fallen into decay and could be used for only five hundred feet.

“Seems like a funny time for a truck to be coming out of the swamp road,” Salt remarked, peering into the gloom of the pine trees. “Hear anything?”

Penny listened intently and shook her head. But a moment later, she explained: “Now I do! The truck’s coming this way.”

“Let’s get closer to the road exit,” Salt proposed. “We’d better leave the car here, if we don’t want to be seen.”

Penny’s high heels kept twisting on the rutty road, and finally in exasperation, she took them off, stripped away her stockings, and walked in her bare feet.

The truck now was very close and the pair could hear its laboring engine. Salt drew Penny back against the bottle-shaped trunk of a big tree at the road exitway. There they waited.

Presently the truck chugged into view, its headlights doused. On the main road, not ten yards from where Salt and Penny crouched, it came to a jerky halt.

The driver was a husky fellow who wore a heavy jacket and cap which shadowed his face. With him in the cab were two younger men of athletic build. Both wore homespun clothes and stout boots.

As the truck halted, the two younger men sprang to the ground.

Instantly Penny and Salt were certain they had seen one of the strangers before.

“He’s the man who drove the accident car this afternoon!” Penny whispered. “The auto stolen from Widow Jones!”

Salt nodded, placing his hand over the girl’s lips. He drew her back behind the tree.

The precaution was a wise one, for a moment later, a flashlight beam played over the spot where they had been standing.

“Thought I heard something!” one of the truckers muttered.

“Jest them frogs a-croakin’,” his companion answered. “You’re gettin’ jumpy.”

“Let’s get a move on!” growled the driver of the truck. “I gotta get this load to Hartwell City before dawn. You keepin’ any of the stuff?”

“A couple o’ gallons will do us. Too durn heavy to carry.”

From the rear end of the truck, the two young men who had alighted, pulled out a large wooden container with handles.

“When do you want me to stop by again?” the truck driver called above the rumble of the motor.

“Can’t tell yet,” one of the men answered, swinging the heavy container across his shoulder. “Pappy’ll send word.”

The truck pulled away, and the two young men started down the road in the opposite direction. Not until they were a considerable distance away, did Penny speak.

“What do you make of it all, Salt?”

“It’s got me puzzled,” he admitted. “If I’d have seen the truck come out of the swamp at any other time I wouldn’t have thought much about it. But considering the way Mrs. Jones acted, some funny business seems to be going on here.”

“I’m certain one of those young men was the driver of the accident car this afternoon!”

“It did look like him.”

“They must be the Hawkins boys, Coon and Hod,” Penny went on, thinking aloud. “What were they doing in the swamp so late at night? And what are they trucking?”

“Echo answers ‘what’,” Salt replied. “Well, shall we start for Riverview?”

“Without learning for certain who those two fellows are?”

“I would like to know. The only thing is, your father’s going to be plenty annoyed when he finds how late I’ve kept you out.”

“Leave Dad to me.”

“Okay, but if we run into trouble tonight, we can figure we went out of our way to ask for it.”

By this time, the two swampers had vanished into the darkness far up the road.

“They’re heading toward Trapper Joe’s place,” Penny observed. “The Hawkins’ farm is just beyond, on the waterway.”

“We may as well give them a good start and then follow in the car,” Salt decided.

They walked back to the parked automobile where Penny put on her shoes and stockings again. After giving the two strangers a good five minutes start, Salt drove slowly after them, keeping headlights turned off.

Trapper Joe’s dismal shack loomed up dark and deserted.

“We’ll have to park here,” Penny instructed, “The road beyond is terrible and it plays out.”

Alighting, the couple looked about for a glimpse of the two swampers. The nearby marsh seemed cold, unfriendly and menacing. Heavy dew lay on the earth and a thick mist was rising from among the trees.

From behind a shadowy bush, two gleaming eyes gazed steadily and unblinkingly at the pair. Penny drew back, nervously gripping Salt’s hand.

“It’s only a cat,” he chuckled.

“A wild one, maybe,” Penny shivered. “All sorts of animals live in the swamp, Trapper Joe told me.”

“Want to stay in the car and spare those pretty shoes of yours?”

“No, let’s go on.” The gleaming eyes now had vanished and Penny felt courageous again. Nevertheless, she kept close beside Salt as they tramped along the dark road.

A pale moon was rising over the treetops, providing faint illumination. Penny and Salt no longer could see the pair they had followed, and were afraid they had lost them completely.

Then they spied the swampers crawling over a fence some distance away.

“There they are!” Penny whispered. Just as I thought! They’re taking a short cut to the Hawkins’ place.”

Unaware that they were being followed, the two swampers crossed a plowed field, frequently shifting their heavy burden.

Coming at length to the Hawkins’ farm, they vanished into the woodshed.

“Guess you were right, Penny,” Salt acknowledged, pausing by the fence. “Evidently they’re the Hawkins’ boys.”

The door of the house had opened and a light now glowed in the window. A bulky figure stood silhouetted on the threshold.

“Who’s there?” the man called sharply. “That you, Coon?”

From inside the shed came a muffled reply: “Yep, it’s me and Hod.”

“How’d you make out, son?”

“She’s all took care of an’ on ’er way to Hartwell City. Ike says he’ll fetch you the cash in a day or two.”

“Git to bed soon’s you kin,” the older man said, apparently pleased by the information. “Your Ma’s tired and wants to git to sleep ’for mawning.”

He moved back into the house, closing the door.

“Guess we’ve learned all we can,” Salt remarked. “We may as well get a little shut-eye ourselves.”

Penny, however, was unwilling to leave so soon.

“I wish we could find out what is in that big container, Salt! After those Hawkins’ boys leave, maybe we could sneak a peek.”

“And get caught!”

“We can be careful. Salt, we’ve stumbled into a lot of information tonight that may prove very valuable. We’ll never have another chance like it. Come on, Salt, it’s worth a try.”

Despite his better judgment, Salt allowed himself to be persuaded. For ten minutes the pair waited near the fence. Finally they saw Hod and Coon Hawkins emerge from the shed and enter the house.

Another ten minutes they waited. By that time the light had been extinguished inside the house.

“Everyone’s abed now,” Penny said in satisfaction. “Now for the woodshed!”

Crossing the field, the pair approached the tumbledown building from the side away from the house. The woodshed door was closed.

Penny groped for the knob and instead, her hand encountered a chain and padlock.

“Locked!” she muttered impatiently. “Just our luck!”

The rattle of the chain had disturbed a hound penned inside the shed. Before Salt and Penny could retreat, the animal’s paws scratched against the door and he uttered a deep and prolonged bay.

“Jeepers!” exclaimed Salt. “We’ve got to get away from here—and fast!”

Already it was too late. A window on the second floor of the house flew up and Mrs. Hawkins in cotton nightdress and lace cap, peered down into the yard.

“Who’s there?” she called sharply. “Answer up if you ain’t hankerin’ fer a bullet through yer innards!”

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