There was but one thing for me to do, one action to take—follow them. Dropping the cant-hook, I turned aft and crept forth through a small opening onto the wooden frame which supported the motionless paddlewheel, choosing for the scene of operations the river side, where the boat effectively concealed my movements from any prying eyes ashore. Everyone aboard would be clustered forward, curiously watchful of that line of soldiers filing across the gangplank and seeking quarters upon deck. The only danger of observation lay in some straggler along the near-by bank. I lowered myself the full length of my arms, dangling there an instant by clinging to the framework; then loosened my grip and dropped silently into the rushing waters beneath.
MY FRIEND, THE DEPUTY SHERIFF
Well below the surface, yet impelled swiftly downward by the sturdy rush of the current, sweeping about the steamer’s stern, I struck out with all the strength of my arms, anxious to attain in that first effort the greatest possible distance. I came panting up to breathe, my face lifted barely above the surface, dashing the water from my eyes, and casting one swift glance backward toward the landing. The high stern of the Adventurer was already some considerable distance away, exhibiting no sign of movement along her after-decks, but with that snake-like line of men still pouring over the crest of the bank, and disappearing forward. Great volumes of black smoke swept forth from the funnels, and my ears could distinguish the ceaseless hiss of steam. Again I permitted my body to sink into the depths, swimming onward with easier stroke, satisfied I had not been seen.
When I came up the second time I was quite far enough to be safe, and the stragglers had largely disappeared on board. Content to tread water, yet constantly drifting farther away in the trend of the current, I was able to observe all that took place. The sun had disappeared, and the western shore rested obscured by a purple haze, the wide stretch of water between slowly darkening. Light lingered still, however, along the clay hills of Yellow Banks, crowded with those soldiers left behind, who had gathered to speed the departure of their more fortunate comrades. The decks of the Adventurer were black with men, their cheers and shouts echoing to me along the surface of the river. Slowly the steamer parted from the shore, as the paddle-wheel began to revolve, flinging upward a cataract of spray, the space of open water widening, as the advancing bow sought the deeper channel, and headed northward. A great resounding cheer from both ship and shore mingled, rolling out over the darkening waters of the river, and echoed back by the forests along the bank. Farther up two other boats—mere phantoms in their white paint—cast off also, and followed, their smoke wreaths trailing behind as they likewise turned their prows up stream. Ten minutes later the three were almost in line, mere blobs of color, barely distinguishable through the descending dusk.