Swamp Island (Serapis Classics) - Mildred Wart - ebook

Swamp Island (Serapis Classics) ebook

Mildred Wart



Penny and Louise go to a nearby swamp to gather flowers for a banquet and manage to lose Louise's dog during the trip. They plan to go back, but first they learn of an escaped convict. Penny knows the convict would hide in the swamp, thus giving her another reason to search the swamp. While dodging dangerous animals, the girls discover Louise's dog, the convict, an illegal immigrant, and an illegal alcohol distillery in the swamp.

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Published 2017

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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.


Penny was no coward; neither was she foolhardy.

A second look at the bearded stranger, and her mind telegraphed the warning: “This man means business! Better play along.”

The man fingered his gun. “Git goin’ now!” he ordered sharply. “And don’t come back!”

In the boat, Louise already had reached nervously for the oars. She wet her fingers and whistled for Bones, but the dog, off on a fascinating scent, had been completely swallowed up by the rank undergrowth.

“Ye heard me?” the stranger demanded. “I be a patient man, but I hain’t speakin’ agin.”

Penny hesitated, half tempted to defy the swamper.

“Let Bones go,” Louise called. “Come on.”

Thus urged, Penny backed toward the skiff. Stumbling over a vine, she caught her balance and scrambled awkwardly into the boat.

Louise pushed off with the oars, stroking fast until they were well out into the channel. Only then did she give vent to anger.

“That mean man! Now we’ve lost Bones for good. We’ll never get him back.”

“Maybe we will.”

“How? We’ll never dare row back there today. He’s still watching us.”

Penny nodded, knowing that anything she might say would carry clearly over the water.

The stranger had not moved since the skiff had pulled away. Like a grim statue, he stood in the shadow of a towering oak, gazing straight before him.

“Who does he think he is anyhow?” Louise demanded, becoming bolder as they put greater distance between themselves and the island. “Does he own this swamp?”

“He seems to think he does—or at least this section of it. Don’t feel too badly about Bones, Lou. We’ll come back tomorrow and find him.”

“Tomorrow may be too late. He’ll be hopelessly lost, or maybe that man will shoot him! Oh, Penny, Bones was such a cute little dog. He always brought me the morning paper, and he knew so many clever tricks.”

“It was all my fault for insisting upon landing there. Lou, I feel awful.”

“You needn’t.”

Louise forced herself into a cheerful tone. “Maybe we’ll find him again or he’ll come home. If not—well—” her voice broke.

Both girls fell into a gloomy silence. Water swished gently against the skiff as Louise sent it forward with vicious stabs of the oars.

With growing distaste, Penny eyed the mass of flowers in the bottom of the boat. Already the blooms were wilting.

“I wish we never had come to the swamp today, Lou. It was a bum idea.”

“No, we had a good time until we met that man. Please, Penny, it wasn’t your fault.”

Penny drew up her knees for a chin rest and gloomily watched her chum row. A big fish broke the surface of the still water. Across the channel, the sun had become a low-hanging, fiery-red disc. But Penny focused her eyes on the receding island.

“Lou,” she said, “there were two men on the point. Did you hear what they were saying?”

“No, only a murmur of voices.”

Her curiosity aroused, Louise waited patiently for more information. Penny plucked at a floating hyacinth plant and then added:

“I can’t quite dope it out, Lou. One of those men seemed to be asking the other to hide him, and there was talk of evading the law—also a threat to ‘get’ someone.”

“Us probably.”

“No, until you called Bones, they apparently didn’t know anyone was around. Who could those men be?”

“Crooks, I’ll bet,” Louise said grimly. “Thank goodness, we’re almost out of the swamp now. I can see the clearing ahead and a little tumbledown house and barn.”

“Not Trapper Joe’s place?” Penny asked, straightening up to look.

The skiff had swung into faster water.

“We’re not that far yet,” Louise replied as she rested on the oars a moment. “Don’t you remember—it’s a house we passed just after we rented the boat.”

“So it is. My mind is only hitting on half its cylinders today. Anyway, we’re out of the swamp. Let’s pull up and ask for a drink of cool water.”

With a sigh of relief, Louise guided the skiff to a sagging, make-shift dock close to the farmhouse.

Some distance back from the river, enclosed by a broken fence, stood an unpainted, two-story frame house.

Beyond the woodshed rose a barn, its roof shingles badly curled. At the pump near the house, a middle-aged woman in loose-fitting faded blue dress, vigorously scrubbed a copper wash boiler.

She straightened quickly as the skiff grated against the dock.

“Howdy,” she greeted the girls at their approach. Her tone lacked cordiality.

“Good afternoon,” said Penny. “May we have a drink at the pump?”

“Help yourself.”

The woman jerked a gnarled hand toward a gourd cup attached to the pump with a string. She studied the girls intently, almost suspiciously.

Louise and Penny drank only a few sips, for the water was warm and of unpleasant taste.

“You’uns be strangers hereabouts,” the woman observed.

“Yes, we come from Riverview,” Penny replied.

“You hain’t been in the swamp?”

“Why, yes,” answered Louise, eager to relate details of their adventure. “We gathered flowers, and then met a horrid man with red whiskers! He drove us away from the island before I could get my dog.”

The woman gazed at the girls in an odd way.

“Sarved you’uns right to be driv off,” she said in a grim voice. “The swamp’s no place fer young gals. You might o’ been et by a beast or bit by a snake.”

“I don’t believe the man we saw was much worried about that,” Penny said dryly. “I wonder who he was?”

The farm woman shrugged and began to scour the copper boiler again. After a moment she looked up, fixing Penny with a stern and unfriendly eye.

“Let me give you a pocketful o’ advice,” she said. “Don’t fret that purty head o’ yourn about the swamp. And don’t go pokin’ yer nose into what ain’t none o’ your consarn. If I was you, I wouldn’t come back. These here parts ain’t none too health fer strangers, even young ’uns.”

“But I want my dog,” Louise insisted. “He’s lost on the island.”

“Hain’t likely you’ll ever see that dawg agin. And if you know what’s good ’n smart, you’uns won’t go back there agin.”

Having delivered herself of this advice, the woman turned her back and went on with her work. Made increasingly aware of her hostility, Penny and Louise said goodbye and returned to the skiff.

As they shoved off, they could see that the woman was watching them.

“We’re certainly popular today,” Penny remarked when the skiff had floated on toward Trapper Joe’s rental dock. “My, was she a sour pickle!”

Ten minutes later, as the girls brought up at Trapper Joe’s place, they saw the lean old swamper standing near the dock, skinning a rabbit. His leathery, weather-beaten face crinkled into smiles.

“Sure am glad yer back safe an sound,” he greeted them cheerfully. “After I let you take the skiff I got to worryin’ fer fear you’d go too fur and git lost. ’Pears like you had good sense after all.”

“The only thing we lost was my dog,” Louise declared, stepping out on the dock. “Bones is gone for good, I guess.”

She quickly told the old trapper what had happened on the island. He listened attentively, making no comment until she had finished.

“’Pears like you must have run afoul of Ezekiel Hawkins,” he said then. “Leastwise, he’s the only one hereabouts with a grizzly red beard.”

“Is he a crook or a fugitive from the law?” Penny demanded.

“Not that nobody ever heard of. Ezekiel and his two boys, Hod and Coon, tend purty much to their own business. But they don’t go fer strangers hangin’ around.”

“And do they own the island?”

“Not an inch of it—all that swamp’s government land. Can’t figure why, if ’twas Ezekiel, he’d drive you away from there. Unless—”

“Unless what?” Penny asked as the trapper fell silent.

“Jest a’thinkin’. Well, I’ll keep an eye out fer the dog and maybe have a talk with Ezekiel.”

Penny and Louise thanked the swamper and paid him for use of the boat. Gathering up the flowers they had picked, they started toward the road where they had parked Penny’s coupe.

The trapper walked with them to the front gate.

“By the way,” Penny remarked, “who is the woman on the farm just above here?”

“At the edge of the swamp? That’s the Ezekiel Hawkins’ place.”

“Not the farm of that bearded man we met today!”

“Reckon so.”

“We stopped there for a drink and talked to a tall, dark-haired woman. She was rather short with us.”

“That would be Manthy, Ezekiel’s wife. She’s sharp-tongued, Manthy is, and not too friendly. Works hard slavin’ and cookin’ fer them two no-good boys of hers.”

Penny and Louise asked no more questions, but again saying goodbye to Trapper Joe, went on down the dusty road.

Once they were beyond earshot, Penny observed: “What a joke on us, Lou! There we were, complaining to Mrs. Hawkins about her own husband! No wonder she was short with us.”

“We had good reason to complain.”

“Yes we did,” Penny soberly agreed. “Of course, we can’t be dead certain the bearded man was Ezekiel Hawkins. But Manthy did act unpleasant about it.”

“If it weren’t for Bones, I’d never set foot near this place again! Oh, I hope he finds his way home.”

The girls had reached Penny’s car, parked just off the sideroad. A clock on the dashboard warned them it was after five o’clock.

“Jeepers!” Penny exclaimed, snapping on the ignition. “I’ll have to step on it to get dressed in time for the banquet! And I still have the tables to decorate!”

A fast drive over the bumpy sideroad brought the girls to the main paved highway. Much later, as they neared Riverview, Penny absently switched on the shortwave radio.

A number of routine police calls came through. Then the girls were startled to hear the dispatcher at headquarters say:

“Attention all scout cars! Be on the alert for escaped convict, Danny Deevers alias Spike Devons. Five-feet nine, blue eyes, brown hair. Last seen in state prison uniform. Believed heading for Riverview.”

“Danny Deevers!” Penny whispered, and quickly turned the volume control. “I repeat,” boomed the dispatcher’s voice. “Be on lookout for Danny Deevers, a dangerous escaped criminal. Believed heading this way.”


“Did you hear that?” Penny demanded of her chum as the police dispatcher went off the air. “Danny Deevers has escaped!”

The name rang no bell in Louise’s memory.

“And who is Danny Deevers?” she inquired. “Anyone you know?”

“Not exactly. But Jerry Livingston has good reason to remember him.”

“Jerry Livingston? That reporter you like so well?”

A quick grin brought confession from Penny. “Jerry is only one of my friends,” she said. “But it’s a known fact he’s better looking and smarter than all the other Star reporters put together.”

“It’s a fact known to you,” teased her chum. “Well, what about this escaped convict, Danny Deevers?”

Penny stopped for a red light. As it changed to green she replied:

“Don’t you recall a series of stories Jerry wrote in our paper nearly a year ago? They exposed shortages which developed at the Third Federal Loan Bank. Jerry dug up a lot of evidence, and the result was, thefts were pinned on Danny Deevers. He was convicted and sent to the penitentiary for twenty years.”

“Oh, yes, now I remember.”

“At the time of his conviction, Deevers threatened if ever he went free, he would get even with Jerry.”

“And now he’s on the loose!”

“Not only that, but heading for Riverview, according to the police.”

“You don’t think he’d dare try to carry out his threat?”

Penny frowned and swerved to avoid hitting a cat which scuttled across the highway.

“Who knows, Lou? The police evidently are hot on Deevers’ trail, but if they don’t get him, he may try to seek revenge. It’s odd he turns up today—and those men talking in the swamp—”

Louise’s eyes opened wide. “Penny, you don’t think Danny Deevers could have taken refuge in the swamp!”

“It’s possible. Wouldn’t it be a good hideout?”

“Only for a very courageous person,” Louise shivered. “At night, all sorts of wild animals must prowl about. And one easily could be bitten by a poisonous snake and could die before help came.”

“I’m not saying Danny Deevers was on the island today, Lou. But it’s a thought. Maybe I’ll pass it on to the police.”

Penny fell into thoughtful silence as she reflected upon the strange snatch of conversation she had overheard between the two men in the underbrush. Had the bearded stranger really been Ezekiel Hawkins, and if so, with whom had he talked? The chance that the second man might have been Danny Deevers seemed slim, but it was a possibility.

When the car finally reached Riverview, Penny dropped Louise at the Sidell home and drove on to her own residence.

As she entered her own house, Mrs. Weems, the Parker family housekeeper, met the girl in the living room archway.

“Oh, Penny, where have you been!” she exclaimed. “Your father has telephoned twice. He’s waiting for you now at the newspaper office.”

“Do telephone him I’m practically on my way,” Penny pleaded. “I’ll grab a bath, dress, and be out of here in two shakes.”

Midway up the stairs, the girl already had stripped off her sports shirt.

“I’ll call your father,” Mrs. Weems agreed, “but please, after this, pay more heed to time. You know how much the success of tonight’s newspaper convention means to your father.”

Penny’s mumbled reply was blotted out by the slam of the bathroom door. The shower began to run full blast.

With a sigh, Mrs. Weems went to telephone Mr. Parker at the Riverview Star office.

For several years now, the housekeeper had efficiently supervised the motherless Parker home. She loved Penny, an only child, as her own, but there were times when she felt the girl was allowed too much freedom by an indulgent father.

Penny’s active, alert mind was a never-ending source of amazement to Mrs. Weems. She had not entirely approved when Mr. Parker allowed the girl to spend her summers working as a reporter on the newspaper he owned.

Nevertheless, the housekeeper had been very proud because Penny had proved her ability. Not only had the girl written many fine stories which brought recognition, but also she had demonstrated a true “nose for news.”

One of Penny’s first lessons learned on the Star was that a deadline must always be met. Knowing now that she dared not be late, she hurriedly brushed her hair and wriggled into a long, full-skirted evening dress.

Almost before Mrs. Weems had completed the telephone call, she was downstairs again searching frantically for a beaded bag and gloves.

“Here they are, on the table,” the housekeeper said. “Your father said he would wait just fifteen minutes.”

“That’s all I need, if the lights are green,” Penny flung over her shoulder, as she ran to the parked car. “See you later, Mrs. Weems!”