With slow, smooth strokes, Penny Parker sent the flat-bottomed skiff cutting through the still, sluggish water toward a small point of wooded land near the swamp’s edge.

In the bottom of the boat, her dark-haired companion, Louise Sidell, sat with her hand resting carelessly on the collar of her dog, Bones, who drowsed beside her. The girl yawned and shifted cramped limbs.

“Let’s go home, Penny,” she pleaded. “We have all the flowers you’ll need to decorate the banquet tables tonight.”

“But not all I want,” Penny corrected with a grin. “See those beautiful Cherokee roses growing over there on the island point? They’re nicer than anything we have.”

“Also harder to get.”

Louise craned her neck to gaze at the wild, tangled growth which rose densely from the water’s edge.

“Remember,” she admonished, “when Trapper Joe rented us this boat his last words were: ‘Don’t go far, and stay in the skiff.’”

“After we gather the flowers, we’ll start straight home, Lou. We’re too near the edge of the swamp to lose our way.”

Disregarding Louise’s frown, Penny tossed a lock of auburn hair out of her eyes, and dug in again with the oars.

A giant crane, disturbed by the splash, flapped up from the tall water grass. As he trumpeted angrily, Bones stirred and scrambled to his feet.

“Quiet, Bones!” Louise ordered, giving him a reassuring pat. “It’s only a saucy old crane.”

The dog stretched out on the decking again, but through half-closed eyes watched the bird in flight.

“Lou, hasn’t it been fun, coming here today?” Penny demanded in a sudden outbreak of enthusiasm. “I’ve loved every minute of it!”

“You certainly have! But it’s getting late and we’re both hot and tired. If you must have those flowers, let’s get them quickly and start home.”

The two girls, students at Riverview high school, had rented the skiff early that afternoon from Trapper Joe Scoville, a swamper who lived alone in a shack at the swamp’s edge.

For three hours now, they had idled along the entrance channel, gathering water lilies, late-blooming Cherokee roses, yellow jessamine, and iris.

The excursion had been entirely Penny’s idea. That night in a Riverview hotel, her father, Anthony Parker, publisher of the Riverview Star, was acting as host to a state newspapermen’s convention. He had handed Penny twenty dollars, with instructions to buy flowers for the banquet tables.

Penny, with her usual flare for doing things differently, had decided to save the money by gathering swamp blooms.

“These flowers are nicer than anything we could have bought from a florist,” she declared, gazing appreciatively at the mass of blooms which dripped water in the basket at her feet.

“And think what you can do with twenty dollars!” her chum teased.

“Seventeen. Remember, we owe Trapper Joe three dollars for boat rental.”

“It will be four if we don’t call it a day. Let’s get the flowers, if we must, and start home.”

“Fair enough,” Penny agreed.

Squinting at the lowering sun, she guided the skiff to a point of the low-lying island. There she held it steady while her chum stepped out on the spongy ground.

Bones, eager to explore, leaped after her and was off in a flash before Louise could seize his collar.

Penny followed her chum ashore, beaching her skiff in a clump of water plants. “This place looks like a natural haunt for cottonmouths or moccasins,” she remarked. “We’ll have to watch out for snakes.”

Already Louise was edging along in the soft muck, alertly keeping an eye upon all overhead limbs from which a poisonous reptile might drop.

Annoyed by thorny bushes which teethed into her jacket, she turned to protest to Penny that the roses were not worth the trouble it would take to gather them.

But the words never were spoken.

For just then, from some distance inland, came the sound of men’s voices. Louise listened a moment and retreated toward the boat.

“Someone is here on the island,” she whispered nervously. “Let’s leave!”

All afternoon the girls had floated through the outer reaches of the swamp without seeing a single human being. Now to hear voices in this isolated area was slightly unnerving even to Penny. But she was not one to turn tail and run without good reason.

“Why should we leave?” she countered, careful to keep her voice low. “We have a perfect right to be here. They’re probably fishermen from Riverview.”

Louise was not so easily reassured.

“We have all the flowers you need, Penny. Please, let’s go!”

“You wait for me in the boat, Lou. I’ll slip over to the bank and get the roses. Only take a minute.”

Stepping carefully across a half-decayed log, Penny started toward the roses, visible on a bank farther up shore.

Bones trotted a few feet ahead of her, his sensitive nose to the ground.

“Go back, Bones,” Penny ordered softly. “Stay with Louise!”

Bones did not obey. As Penny overtook him and seized the trailing leash, she suddenly heard voices again.

Two men were talking several yards away, completely hidden by the bushes. Their words brought her up short.

“There hain’t no reason to be afeared if we use our heads,” the one was saying. “Maybe me and the boys will help if ye make it worth our while, but we hain’t aimin’ to tangle with no law.”

The voice of the man who answered was low and husky.

“You’ll help me all right, or I’ll tell what I know! Only one thing brought me back here. I aim to get the guy who put me up! I was in town last night but didn’t get sight of him. I’m going back soon’s I leave here.”

Penny had been listening so intently that she completely forgot Bones.

The dog tugged hard at the leash which slipped from the girl’s hand. She scrambled for it, only to have Bones elude her and dart into the underbrush.

From the boat, Louise saw her pet escaping. Fearful that he would be lost, she called shrilly: “Bones! Bones! Come back here!”

The dog paid no heed. But Louise’s cry had carried far and served to warn those inland that someone had landed on the point.

A moment of dead silence ensued. Then Penny heard one of the men demand sharply: “What was that?”

Waiting for no more, she backtracked toward the boat. Before she could reach it, the bushes behind her parted.

A tall, square-shouldered man whose jaw was covered with a jungle growth of red beard, peered out at her. He wore a wide-brimmed, floppy, felt hat and loose fitting work clothes with sturdy boots.

His eyes, fierce and hostile, fastened directly upon Penny.

“Git!” he said harshly.

Penny retreated a step, then held her ground.

“Please, sir, our dog is lost in the underbrush,” she began. “We can’t leave without him—”

“Git!” the man repeated. As he started toward her, Penny saw that he carried a gun in the crook of his arm.

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