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 "Missus Wilson, where's Billy?"  
Mrs. Wilson turned to the door, wiped her red face on her apron, and finished emptying a pan of hot cookies into the stone crock, before answering, sternly:
"He's down to the far medder, watchin' the gap, Maurice. Don't you go near him."
"No ma'am, I won't. Jest wondered where he was, that's all."
"I 'low you're tryin' to coax him away fishin' er somethin'."
"Oh, no ma'am. I gotta get right back home to Ma. She's not very well, an' she'll be needin' me."
"Fer land sakes! you don't say so, Maurice. Is she very bad?" The tones were sympathetic now. Maurice nodded, and glanced longingly at the fresh batch of brown cookies.
"She was carryin' the big meat-platter on her arm an' she fell with her arm under her—an' broke it."
"Lord love us!" Mrs. Wilson started to undo her apron. "Why didn't you tell me before, you freckle-faced jackass, you! Lord knows what use you boys are anyways! Think of you, hangin' 'round here askin' fer Billy and your poor Ma at home groanin' in pain an' needin' help. Ain't you 'shamed of yourself?"
"Yes ma'am," admitted Maurice cheerfully. "I guess I should'a told you first off but Ma she said if you was busy not to say anythin' 'bout her breakin' it."
"Well, we'll see about that. No neighbor in this here settlement is ever goin' to say that Mary Wilson ever turned her back on a feller-bein's distress. I'll go right over to your place with you now, Maurice. Come along."
Mrs. Wilson was outside, by this time, and tying on her sun-bonnet. Maurice held back. She grasped his arm and hustled him down the walk.
"Is it broke bad, Maurice?" she asked anxiously.
Maurice, peering about among the trees, answered absently.
"Yes ma'am. I guess she'll never be able to use it ag'in."
"Oh pity sake! Let's hurry."
Maurice was compelled to quicken his steps in order to keep up to the long strides of the anxious woman. Suddenly he halted. "Missis Wilson," he said, "you fergot to take that last pan o' cookies out'a the oven."
The woman raised her hands in consternation.
"So I did," she exclaimed. "You stay right here an' I'll go back and take it out now."
"Let me go," said Maurice quickly. "I know jest how to do it an' kin get through in less'n half the time it'll take you."
"Well, run along then. I best keep right on. Your poor Ma'll be needin' me."
Maurice was off like a shot. As he rounded the house on a lope he ran into Billy, coming from the opposite direction. Billy's cotton blouse was bulging. In one hand he carried the smoking bake-pan, in the other a fat cookie deeply scalloped on one side.
"Where you goin' so fast, Maurice?" he accosted, his mouth full.
Maurice glanced fearfully over his shoulder. "Hush, Bill. If your Ma happens to come back here it'll go bad with me."
Billy held out the pan to his chum and waited until Maurice had filled his pockets. Then he asked: "Where's she gone?"
"Over to our place. I told her about Ma fallin' an' breakin' the meat-platter, an' I guess she misunderstood. She tried to take me along with her. I had an awful time to get 'way from her."
Billy laughed. "Gee! Ma's like that. Nobody gets 'way from her very easy. Here, fill your shirt with the rest o' these cookies, an I'll take the pan back; then we'll be goin'."
"Fish ought'a bite fine today," said Maurice as he stowed the cookies away in his bosom.
"You bet. The wind's south. Have you got the worms dug?"
"Yep. They're in a can in my pocket. Did Croaker come back?" he inquired, as the two made their way down the path.
"Sure he came back. He's a wise crow, that Croaker, an', Oh gosh! don't he hate Ma, though! He gets up in a tree out o' reach of her broom, an' jest don't he call her names in crow talk? Ma says she'll kill him if ever she gets close enough to him an' she will, too."
"Well sir, I nigh died when I seen him settin' on our winder-sill," laughed Maurice. "We was havin' mornin' prayer; the new teacher was at our place an' he was prayin'. Croaker strutted up an' down the sill, peerin' in an' openin' an' shuttin' his mouth like he was callin' that old hawk-faced teacher every name he could think of. I saw he had a paper tied 'round his neck so I crawled on my hands an' knees past Ma, an' slipped out. If Ma hadn't been so deef, she'd have heard me an' nabbed me sure."
Billy chuckled. "Then you got my message off of Croaker, Maurice?"
"Yep; but by jinks! I had a awful time guessin' what you meant by them marks you made on the paper. Darn it all, Bill, why can't you write what you want'a say, instead of makin' marks that nobody kin understan'?"
"There you go, ag'in," cried Billy. "How many times have I gotta tell you, Maurice, that Trigger Finger Tim never used writin'. He used symbols—that's what he used. Do you know what a symbol is, you poor blockhead?"
"I should say I do. It's a brass cap what women use to keep the needle from runnin' under their finger-nail."
"Naw, Maurice. A symbol is a mark what means somethin'. Have you got that message I sent you? Well, give it here an' I'll show you. Now then, you see them two marks standin' up 'longside each other?"
"Well, what do you think they stand fer?"
"I thought maybe you meant 'em fer a couple of trees, Bill."
"Well I didn't. Them two marks are symbols, signifyin' a gap."
"A gap? Hully Gee!"
"Yep, an' this here animal settin' in that gap, what you think it is?"
Maurice shook his head. "It's maybe a cow!" he guessed hopefully.
"Nope, it's a dog. Now then, you see these two boys runnin' away from the gap?"
"Gosh, is that what they be, Bill? Yep, I see 'em."
"Well, that's me an' you. Now then, what you s'pose I meant by them symbols? I meant this. I've gotta watch gap. Fetch your dog over an' we'll set him to watch it, an' we'll skin out an' go fishin'."
Maurice whistled. "Well I'll be jiggered!" he exclaimed. "I wish't I'd knowed that. Say, tell you what I'll do. I'll sneak up through the woods an' whistle Joe over here now."
"No, never mind. I bribed Anse to watch that gap fer me."
"What did you have t' give him?"
"Nuthin'. Promised I wouldn't tell him no ghost stories fer a week if he'd help me out."
They had topped a wooded hill and were descending into a wide green valley, studded with clumps of red willows and sloping towards a winding stretch of pale green rushes through which the white face of the creek flashed as though in a smile of welcome. Red winged blackbirds clarioned shrilly from rush and cat-tail. A brown bittern rose solemnly and made across the marsh in ungainly flight. A blue crane, frogging in the shallows, paused in its task with long neck stretched, then got slowly to wing, long pipe-stem legs thrust straight out behind. A pair of nesting black ducks arose with soft quacks and drifted up and out, bayward.
Billy, who stood still to watch them, was recalled suddenly to earth by his companion's voice.
"Bill, our punt's gone!"
With a bound, Billy was beside him, and peering through the rushes into the tiny bay in which they kept their boat.
"Well, Gee whitticker!" he exclaimed. "Who do you s'pose had the nerve to take it?"
Maurice shook his head. "None of our gang 'ud take it," he said. "Likely some of them Sand-sharks."
"That's so," Billy broke off a marsh-flag and champed it in his teeth.
Maurice was climbing a tall poplar standing on the bank of the creek. "I say, Billy," he cried excitedly. "There she is, jest 'round the bend. They've beached her in that piece of woods. It's Joe LaRose an' Art Shipley that took her, I'll bet a cookie. They're always goin' 'cross there to hunt fer turtle's eggs."
"Then come on!" shouted Billy.
"Where to?"
"Down opposite the punt. I'm goin' t' strip an' swim across after her."
Maurice dropped like a squirrel from the poplar. "An' leave them boat thieves stranded?" he panted. "Oh gosh! but won't that serve 'em right!"
"Let's hustle," urged Billy. "They may come back any minute."
They ran quickly up the valley, Billy unfastening his few garments as they ran. By the time Billy had reached the bend he was in readiness for the swim across. Without a thought of the long leeches—"blood-suckers" the boys called them—which lay on the oozy bottom of the creek's shallows ready to fasten on the first bare foot that came their way, he waded out toward the channel.
"Bill, watch out!" warned Maurice. "There's a big womper coiled on that lily-root. You're makin' right fer it."
"I see it," returned Billy. "I guess I ain't scared of no snakes in these parts."
"But this beggar is coiled," cried his friend. "If he strikes you, he'll rip you wide open with his horny nose. Don't go, Bill."
"Bah! he's uncoilin', Maurice; he'll slip off, see if he don't. There, what did I tell you?" as the long mottled snake slid softly into the water. "You can't tell me anythin' 'bout wompers."
"But what if a snappin'-turtle should get hold of your toe?" shuddered Maurice.
"Shut up!" Billy commanded. "Do you want them Sand-sharks to hear you? You keep still now, I'm goin' after our punt."
Billy was out in mid stream now, swimming with swift, noiseless strokes toward the boat. Just as he reached it the willows along shore parted and two boys, both larger than himself, made a leap for the punt. Billy threw himself into the boat and as the taller of the two jumped for it his fist shot out and caught him fairly on the jaw. He toppled back half into the water. Billy seized the paddle and swung it back over his shoulder. The other boy halted in his tracks. Another moment and the punt was floating out in midstream.
LaRose had crawled to shore and sat dripping and sniffling on the bank.
"Now, maybe the next time you boat-thieves find a punt you'll think twice afore you take it," shouted Billy.
"How're we goin' to get back 'cross the crick?" whined the vanquished LaRose.
"Swim it, same's I did," Billy called back.
"But the snakes an' turtles!" wailed the marooned pair.
"You gotta take a chance. I took one." Billy urged the punt forward across the creek to where the grinning and highly delighted Maurice waited.
"Jump in here, an' let's get fishin'."
Maurice lost no time. "Where'll we go, Bill?"
"Up to the mouth. There's green bass up there an' lots of small frogs, if we need 'em, fer bait."

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