[Frontispiece: The track could plainly be seen but the trail ended abruptly.]
Adventures on Watery Trails
CAPTAIN ALAN DOUGLAS
M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY
CHICAGO :: NEW YORK
Copyright, 1917, by
The New York Book Co.
I. THE RAIL BIRDS HEAR SOME NEWS II. WHEN HEN CONDIT LEFT TOWN III. A PROMISING CLUE IV. JOHNNY'S CHICKEN THIEF TRAP V. THE KNIFE WITH THE BUCKHORN HANDLE VI. BOUND FOR SASSAFRAS SWAMP VII. THE MISSING SKIFF VIII. PICKING UP CLUES IX. THE PERILS OF THE WATER LABYRINTH X. THE SUSPICIOUS ACTIONS OF LANDY XI. A NIGHT ALARM XII. THE VALUE OF SCOUTCRAFT XIII. HEN CONDIT'S STRANGE MESSAGE XIV. BOUND TO SUCCEED XV. WOLF PATROL PLUCK WINS XVI. CONCLUSION
ON WATERY TRAILS
THE RAIL BIRDS HEAR SOME NEWS
"Elmer said we'd take a vote on it!"
"Yes, and tonight the next regular meeting of the Hickory Ridge Boy Scout Troop is scheduled to take place, so we'll soon know where we stand."
"Thith hath been a pretty tame thummer for the cwowd, all told, don't you think, Lil Artha?"
"It certainly has, as sure as your name's Ted Burgoyne. Our camping out was cut short, for with so many rainy days we just had to give it up."
"Yeth, after three of the fellowth came down with bad cases of malarial fever. The mothquitoes were so plentiful."
"That was some news to me to find out that a certain breed of mosquitoes are the only ones that give you the malarial poison when they smack you."
"Huh! I used to think all that talk was a silly yarn, too, Toby, but now I put a heap of stock in the same," declared the unusually tall and thin boy, who seemed to answer to the queer name of "Lil Artha;" he had evidently been dubbed so by his comrades as an undersized cub, and when shooting up later on had been unable to shake off the absurd nickname.
"But here we've still got a couple of weeks left of our vacation, you know," remarked the chap called Toby, "and it'd be just a shame to let the good old summer time dribble away without one more whack at the woods, and the open air life we all love so well."
"Toby, jutht hold your horthes!" exclaimed the one who lisped so dreadfully, and whose name was Theodore Burgoyne, though seldom called anything but Ted; "you let Elmer decide for the crowd. I'm dead certain he'll lay out a joyouth plan at the meeting tonight that'll call for the unanimous approval of every member of the troop to be found in thith sleepy town these dog days."
"Hear! hear! Ted has got it down pat, let me tell you!" cried Toby Jones, who in the bosom of his family was occasionally reminded that he had once upon a time been christened Tobias Ellsworth Jones.
"Yes, you know our faithful and hard-working patrol leader to a dot, Ted," added the long-legged scout, with a wide grin on his thin and freckled face. "Trust Elmer Chenowith to think up a programme that will meet with universal approval. But this is a pretty warm proposition for a late August day. Let's sit in the shade a while, and cool off, while we're waiting for Landy and Chatz to show up."
Accordingly the trio of boys in faded khaki suits, that looked as though they had seen considerable service, proceeded to perch upon the top-most rail of a fence at a point where a splendid oak tree threw its wide-spreading branches over the road.
They were just outside the town of Hickory Ridge, and if you want to know where this usually wide-awake place was situated it might be well to refer to earlier books in this Series in order to ascertain all the interesting particulars.
These three lads belonged to the local troop of scouts, just then in a most flourishing condition. Under the leadership of Elmer Chenowith the Wolf Patrol of the troop had accomplished so many unusual things that a fever had taken possession of the town boys to become enrolled.
There was also the Beaver Patrol, with a full number, and the Eagle as well as the Fox seemed destined to finish their quota of eight members in the early Fall.
The three boys whom we have met on the road chanced to be among the original charter members of the troop. All of them belonged to the Wolf Patrol; for it often happens that fellows wearing the same totem are brought closer together than others.
Since it chances that the exciting incidents which we have started out to chronicle in the present story fell almost exclusively to the portion of the boys belonging to the original Wolf Patrol, it might be well to give a brief description of who and what they were, before going any further.
Elmer Chenowith, being the patrol leader, comes first in line. He was a manly lad, with many winning qualities that made him a prime favorite among his fellows. At one time his father had had charge of a vast farm and cattle ranch up in the Canadian Northwest, and while there the boy had learned a thousand things calculated to be useful to him in his capacity of a scout.
He had long ago received official authority from Boy Scout Headquarters to act as a deputy or assistant scout master, whenever the regular overseer, young Mr. Roderic Garrabrant, could not be present. Elmer filled the position in such a clever fashion that no one ever questioned his ability to play the part of guide.
Then there was Mark Anthony Cummings, who was looked upon as Elmer's chum. He was the grandson of a famous artist, and there were those who prophesied that some day Mark would follow in the footsteps of his illustrious ancestor; for he would draw off-hand charcoal sketches of his chums, mostly in a humorous vein, that excited roars of laughter. Mark was also something of a musician, and had in the beginning been elected to fill the position of bugler to the troop.
Ted Burgoyne was afflicted with a dreadful lisp, on account of a hare-lip, so that as the boys used to say if offered a fortune he could get no closer to the real thing when dared than to say "thoft thoap." But then Ted was a marvel in his way, for he had more knowledge of medicine than all the other boys of the troop combined; and on this account they often called him "Doctor Ted," or "Old Sawbones."
In cases of snake-bite, fainting, cramps, near-drowning, cuts from the camp axe or hatchet, gun-shot wounds, broken bones, or, in fact, anything likely to happen to campers, Ted was what Lil Artha always called "Johnny-on-the-spot," though Toby could never pin him down to saying "which spot."
Toby Jones was really the "funny" boy of the patrol. His grandfather being one of those Zouave veterans, who had accompanied Colonel Ellsworth to Washington when the war between the States broke out, and saw the latter shot in Alexandria, Virginia, while taking down a Confederate flag, nothing would do but that the boy must bear that venerated name and so he was christened Tobias Ellsworth Jones.
Toby was ambitious. His leaning lay in the line of aeronautics, and he was always trying to invent some sort of aeroplane that would discount all the efforts of such men as the Wright brothers. The dreadful fate of Darius Green and his famous flying machine had no terrors for Toby, though his chums were always warning him to beware.
He had, on several occasions in the past, attempted to show off with one of these ambitious contraptions. Those who have read some of the preceding volumes of this Series know what ludicrous results came about because of this over-vaulting ambition on the part of Toby. But he was not one whit discouraged, and often declared that unless his life were cut short he meant to see that the name of the Joneses went "ringing down the ages" as one of the most illustrious since the days of Paul Jones, the American who fought sea battles in the Revolutionary War.
Lil Artha, in reality Arthur Stansbury, was reckoned a good scout, and a loyal companion who could both play a joke and take one when it was aimed at him; he was rather fond of photography, and addicted somewhat to harmless slang.
The sixth member of the original Wolf Patrol was a Southern boy, Charlie Maxfield by name, though known simply as "Chatz." He possessed all the traits to be found in boys who have been born and raised south of Mason and Dixon's line, was inclined to be touchy whenever he thought anyone doubted his honor, talked with a quaint little twang that was really delightfully musical, and taken in all had grown to be a prime favorite with his fellows.
Chatz had one silly weakness which, though he tried hard to overcome it, would occasionally crop up. He was dreadfully superstitious, and believed in ghosts, which failing he laid to his having associated with piccaninnies when a youngster, and in some way imbibing their belief in the supernatural.
Yes, Chatz at one time had even carried a rabbit's foot for luck, and to ward off evil spirits. The animal was said to have been killed in a graveyard in the full moon and it was a sure-enough left hind foot, too, which he believed to be a very important distinction, since no other would answer. Of late, however, Chatz said less about these things than when he first came to Hickory Ridge; and Elmer believed he was by degrees out-growing the foolish, superstitious beliefs of his childhood.
Two later additions to the Wolf Patrol were Henry Condit, known simply as "Hen," and Landy Smith, otherwise Philander. The latter was a fat, good-natured chap, always perspiring, and who had a queer habit of placing his forefinger alongside his nose when puzzled or reflecting.
As occasional mention may be made in these pages to other members of the Troop, it might be well to simply give a list of their names and "let it go at that," as Lil Artha would say.
The Beaver Patrol being full consisted of eight boys. Matty Eggleston was the leader, and after him came "Red" Huggins, Ty Collins, Jasper Merriweather, Tom Cropsey, Larry Billings, Phil Dale and "Doubting George" Robbins, a cousin to Landy.
There were also four members to the Eagle Patrol, with others about to come in. Jack Armitage filled the position of leader, and after him came Nat Scott, Ben Slimmons and Jim Oskamp.
Apparently, the three fellows perched on the Virginia rail fence had agreed to wait for others who were to join them in starting for the favorite "swimmin' hole," for their conversation betrayed this fact.
Lil Artha began to grow a little impatient. He wiped his perspiring face and in so many words gave his two chums to understand that if the laggards did not put in an appearance inside of ten minutes he meant to start without them.
"A fine lot of scouts Chatz and Landy are showing themselves to be, not keeping their word," the tall boy grumbled; "there, didn't you hear the clock strike ten? They were to be here not later than a quarter to the hour."
"Oh! well, you know Chatz isn't in a hurry," chuckled Toby. "Fellows raised down in Dixie are used to taking their time. It's the warm climate that does it, he told me. But speaking of angels and you hear their wings, they say; for unless my eyes deceive me there comes Chatz right now."
"Yeth, and thauntering along like he might be away ahead of the time thet for meeting here. Chatz ith what I call a cool cuthtomer."
When the fourth lad joined the bunch, there was a lot of good-natured badinage indulged in all around, after the manner of boys in general.
"Do you intend waiting any longer fo' Landy?" asked the newcomer.
At that remark the other laughed uproariously.
"It makes me think of the full 'bus," said Lil Artha; "when it stops to take on another passenger they all look cross; and he squeezes into a seat wondering why people will act so piggish; but let it stop again for another fare and he grumbles louder than anybody else."
"Yeth, we've waited fifteen minutes for you, Chatz," said Ted, "and it'd be only fair to give poor, fat Landy ten minutes more."
Chatz immediately took out his little nickel watch and held it in his hand, just as though he might have been the judge at a sprinting match.
Before five minutes had crept past, however, there was a cry raised.
"Here comes poor old Landy," said Toby, "mounted on his wheezy bicycle, and pegging for all he's worth. Look at him puffing away, will you? He just knows he's been keeping us waiting here ever so long, and that's making him put on so much steam. Wow! he nearly took a header that time into the ditch. What a splash there would have been, my countrymen, if he played leap-frog into that mud-puddle!"
The boys sat there on the rail fence and began to greet the coming bicycle rider with loud shouts.
"Hit her up, Landy!"
"One good turn deserves another, you know."
"A little more power to your left foot, or you'll be in that ditch yet, Landy!"
"Oh! Landy, does your mother know you're risking your precious old neck on that beaut of a wheel?"
The fat scout did not cease his exertions until he had reached the place where his four chums sat on the fence. Then they saw that while his round face was red, and the perspiration stood out in beads on his forehead, there was a drawn, almost a scared look on his countenance.
"Hey! what ails the fellow?" burst out Lil Artha, as though discovering that Landy was trembling more with some mysterious emotion than fatigue.
"Yeth, hurry up and tell uth what's happened!" cried Ted Burgoyne, jumping off his perch, and hastening to the side of the panting boy.
Landy seemed to swallow something that may have been threatening to choke him. Then making a great effort, he managed to say a few words.
"Terrible thing's happened, fellows! Knocks the reputation of the Wolf Patrol all to smithereens!"
Of course, this excited those four scouts as nothing else could have done.
"Has anything happened to Elmer?" almost shouted Toby.
"No, it's Hen Condit!" answered Landy; "he's gone and stole a lot of money from his guardian, and lit out, that's what! And him belonging to the Wolf Patrol, too!"
WHEN HEN CONDIT LEFT TOWN
"Hey! say that over again, won't you, Landy! I sure believe my ears must have fooled me!" exclaimed Lil Artha.
"Hen Condit robbed his uncle and guardian, are you telling us, Landy?" gasped Toby; "aw! come off, now, you're just giving us taffy, thinking it smart."
"I tell you I just came from their house," continued the perspiring scout, mopping his reeking forehead with a suspicious looking handkerchief that may once on a time have been really white. "You see, Mr. Condit didn't get up as early as he generally does, because he had a terrible headache. And say, they even think he might have been given a dose of chloroform to make him sleep longer."
"Hold on, fellows," snapped Toby just then, "as luck will have it here comes Elmer in his father's little runabout. He said he had to go over to Rockaway on an important errand for his dad this morning, which was the only reason he couldn't join us for a swim. Let's hold him up, and Landy can tell the whole story then."
When they made urgent gestures to the boy in the swift-flying runabout, he hastened to pull up, laughing at the same time.
"I hurried over and back on purpose to follow you fellows to the ole swimmin' hole," he told them; "but I didn't expect to meet you on the way. Don't delay me; I'll jump on my wheel to chase after you."
"But, Elmer, something awful has happened, and you ought to know about it," declared Toby, at which the boy in the small car looked searchingly at each of the others in turn, and seeing how grave they appeared, he demanded what it meant.
"Why, you see," explained Lil Artha, "Landy here was late in joining us. He just came along on his machine, pegging it for all he was worth, and looking like he had seen one of the ghosts some people believe in. He only started to tell us when you came in sight; but it's terrible. What d'ye think, he says our Wolf Patrol comrade, Hen Condit, has run away from home, and robbed his guardian in the bargain!"
Elmer instantly jumped to the road. He faced Landy as a lawyer might a witness on the stand; and Elmer knew just how to "pump" a fellow so as to get the principal facts without much loss of time, as his chums understood.
"Go on and tell us about it, Landy," he commanded. "How did you happen to learn about the fact in the first place?"
"Why, you see," answered the other, only too willing to explain to the best of his ability, "ma, she sent me over on an errand to the Condit house. I was madder'n hops about it, too, because I just knew I'd be keepin' the fellows waiting here under the Grandaddy Oak."
"What did you find when you got there?" asked Elmer, who knew Landy to be long-winded, and that often the quickest way to learn facts from him was to put him on the grill.
"Why, they were all upset," admitted Landy. "Mr. Condit was as mad as a bull in a china shop, and his wife was looking as white as chalk, yes, and scared, too. Seems that when he went into his library after eating breakfast he found the safe open and everything gone. It was an 'inside job' the Chief said, because nobody had busted the safe."
"Then the Chief was there, was he?" questioned the patrol leader.
"Sure he was; Mr. Condit had 'phoned to him. There were a dozen neighbors in the house, too, and more acomin' right along. Biggest kind of excitement. Oh! it's going to be town property before night, I guess, and lots of people'll be pointing their fingers at every fellow wearing khaki, and saying they always knew scouts was no better than the law allowed. Oh! wouldn't I like to get hold of that Hen Condit, though."
"What makes them believe it was Hen" continued Elmer.
"Say, that's the queerest part of it all," answered the fat boy; "the silly gump gave the whole business away himself—went and left a note behind him telling that he was the guilty villain, and that they needn't ever expect to see him again, because he had lit out for Chicago."
"Whew! you don't say!" gasped Lil Arthur, apparently half stunned by this later intelligence; "I never would have thought Hen could be such a fool as to convict himself like that."
"When was he seen last?" demanded Elmer, still after information.
"He went to bed last night, they said, just as usual; but shucks! it would be the easiest thing agoing for Hen to climb down from his window if he took a notion. I've known him to do the same dozens of times just for fun, rather than take the trouble to go around to the stairs."
"Then Hen has disappeared, and no one has seen him this morning?"
"Never a soul. His aunt went to his room when he didn't show up, but not finding him expected Hen had gone off to my house. And his uncle is whopping mad over it. He nearly took a fit when the expert Chief said he reckoned someone had chloroformed him. He called Hen a viper that he had fostered, and said if he could only ketch him he'd see that he got his deserts."
"Listen, Landy, did you see that note?" asked Elmer.
"That's what I did, let me tell you," came the prompt reply, "and it was in Hen's well-known fist, too; I could tell that a mile off if I saw it. Haven't I heard the writing teacher at school tell him he was well named, because his paper looked like a hen had dabbled in the ink, and then strolled around every-which-way."
"Then you can tell us about what it said, can't you?" continued the patrol leader.
Landy laid that ready forefinger of his alongside his nose, as though that action would aid his memory. Then he closed one eye, another singular habit he had; after which he slowly went on to say:
"Course the exact words have slipped me, Elmer, but it ran something like this. He said circumstances which he couldn't control had forced him to do this thing; that he was sorry, but it couldn't be helped. He hoped his uncle would forgive him, and forget there was such a fellow in the wide world as Hen Condit. There was also some more that I can't just recollect; but it was to the effect that he believed he had money coming to him, so Mr. Condit could take it out of that and call it square. But just think what all this is going to do to the scouts, Elmer! Never since the troop was organized has it met up with such a terrible blow."
All of them looked serious. They knew that a certain element in Hickory Ridge would only too eagerly seize upon this incident to prove what they had always claimed, which was that scouts, after all, were no better than other boys, and that when put to the test they could turn out bad as well as the rest.
"Yes, the honor of the Wolf Patrol is hanging in the balance, Elmer," said Lil Artha. "Are we going to just stand by and not lift a hand because it was one of our chums who did this mean job? If it was anyone else and they called on us to track him, wouldn't we respond to a man? Here's a supreme test before us that's going to prove how much our honor means."
"I say the same, Elmer," urged Chatz, indignantly; "let's all get busy and see if we can run Hen Condit down like a fox we've got on the trail of. Let's fetch him back to face his uncle, and prove to all Hickory Ridge that the boys of the Wolf Patrol can never stand for wrong doing in their ranks. Yes suh, it's surely up to us to show our colors."
Elmer rubbed his forehead. He looked thoughtful, as though possibly he might see a little further into this mysterious happening than any of the rest.
"Listen, fellows," he told them; "I've known for some little time that Hen was acting queerly. He failed to attend the last two meetings, and when I asked him about it he avoided my eye. I've been wondering what it all meant, and intended to have a good heart-to-heart talk-fest with Hen as soon as I got a chance."
"Hold on," said Toby. "I wonder now if that man I saw him with could have had anything to do with this ugly business."
Elmer turned on him like a flash.
"It may have more to do with it than you think, Toby," he remarked; "when was it you saw them, and where?"
"Just yesterday morning," replied the other, "and down at the bridge over the creek. Hen nodded to me when I rode past on my wheel, but it struck me even at the time he acted like he hoped to goodness I wouldn't bother stopping to say anything."
"And a man you didn't know was with him, you say?" questioned Elmer.
"Well, I didn't just glimpse his face, for you see he turned his head away as I passed, but I made up my mind he was a stranger in these regions, so far as I could see."
"That looks mighty suspicious, I should say, suh!" declared Chatz, positively. "That stranger is the nigger in the woodpile, according to my mind, suh."
"Mebbe poor weak Hen has been cowed and bulldozed into doing the whole thing," suggested Lil Artha, sagely.
"Now, I wonder if that could weally be tho?" remarked Ted.
"We ought to get busy and do something right away, Elmer," observed Toby Jones.
"I'm glad to know that's the way you feel about it," continued the patrol leader. "This is a bad piece of business. It's up to the boys of the Wolf Patrol to find out the truth. I had laid out another scheme for our last outing of this vacation, but everything must give way to tracking our comrade down, and learning the whole truth!"
"Bully for you, Elmer!" ejaculated Lil Artha, looking delighted.
The others were almost as exuberant in their expressions of approval. Just a brief time before some of their number had been wondering what could be done to give them a short siege in the woods to wind up the vacation period; and here along comes this necessity calling to the other members of the "Wolf Patrol to awaken and defend the honor of their organization.
"Here, jump aboard all of you but Landy, and he can come along on his wheel," ordered Elmer, making room after he had seated himself back of the steering wheel.
"Are you meaning to go to Hen's house?" called out Landy, looking worried because he was to be left behind, and would have to straddle his wheezy old wheel once more.
"Yes, if you care to toss your machine in those bushes, Landy, and can get aboard, come along!" called out Elmer, relenting when he caught that piteous expression on the other's rosy face.
In another moment they were off, Landy having been hauled aboard. The runabout had never been made to carry such a full cargo of passengers; but then boys can hang on like monkeys, and are ever ready to accept chances.
They were quickly at the Condit house. Like the home of Landy, it stood on the border of the town, with a back gate opening on a side road. Altogether, there may have been two acres in the place.
By now fully two dozen curious people were in and around the house upon which such a sudden catastrophe had fallen. They talked among themselves, asked questions, examined the queer note signed by Hen, and shook their heads pityingly as they observed the white face of the boy's suffering aunt.
Mr. Condit was a rather severe man. He looked very angry, and kept calling the boy hard names as he told how Hen must have known the combination of the safe; and doubtless doubled at least the amount taken in hard cash, as it is human nature to make even troubles seem many times as large as they are.
Elmer and the others managed to see the convicting note. They were all of the same opinion as Landy; and agreed that no one but Hen could ever have written those fateful words.
"I never would have believed he could ever be such a silly gump!" was what Lil Artha remarked, after surveying the crooked writing, which, of course, he knew only too well.
After they had hung around for some time, and Elmer had asked all the questions he could think of, the boys went outside to talk it over.
"Right now some of those people are looking at us in a sneering way, suh," observed the touchy Southern boy, indignantly; "and I give you my word fo' it they're beginning to say among themselves that Hen Condit belonged to the wonderful Wolf Patrol. Elmer, we've suttinly got to do something to clear the good name of our patrol."
"We will," replied the other, simply, and yet with that earnestness which carries conviction in its train. "Already I've got a suspicion. There may be nothing to it but it's given me an idea where we ought to look first of all."
"Please tell us about it, Elmer?" begged Toby.
"I just knew Elmer would get on the track in double-quick time," asserted Landy, who always believed there was nothing impossible to the patrol leader, once he set himself to a task.
"It all came about from hearing a boy talking when I was down in the market yesterday morning. You know who he is, Johnny Spreen, the fellow who always ships out a raft of dried ginseng roots every year, and in the Spring sends a bunch of muskrat skins to the city."
"Sure we know Johnny," assented Toby, quickly; "he comes to town with a load of hay once every two weeks. His folks live a long ways off, up beyond the two lakes where we used to go camping."
"That's right, Toby," said Elmer, "and their farm borders that terribly big Sassafras Swamp lying beyond Lake Solitude. Well, I happened to hear Johnny tell how he had taken a look through the swamp the other day, just to find out how the muskrats were coming on, so as to get a pointer on his winter business this year. He said he honestly believed there must be some man hiding there, because in several places he had come on tracks."
"But people sometimes go in Sassafras Swamp to hunt, don't they, Elmer?" objected Lil Artha.
"Not in August, because there are no woodcock up there, you know, and nothing else can be shot at this time of year," Elmer continued; "but Johnny had something else to say that interested me considerably. It seems at one place he found ashes that told of a fire, and while rooting around he picked up a piece of steel that he allowed me to see. It had evidently been filed; and boys, can you guess what it made me think it must have once been?"
Although all of them looked eagerly interested, they shook their heads in the negative, as though unable to hazard even a guess.
"Go on, Elmer, and tell us," urged Toby.
"Yes, let down the bars and relieve our anxiety, please, Elmer," added Lil Artha.
"Unless I'm away off in my reckoning," said the other, solemnly, "it was part of a pair of steel handcuffs such as officers fasten to the wrists of prisoners when taking them to the penitentiary!"
A PROMISING CLUE
It was about four o'clock on the following afternoon when a wagon drawn by a pair of husky horses moved along the shore of Lake Solitude, many miles away from the town of Hickory Ridge.
This vehicle was filled with lively lads, all of them in the faded khaki uniforms that, as a rule, distinguish Boy Scouts the wide world over.
Counting them it would be seen that they numbered just seven, and this included all of those whom we met on the road under the spreading branches of the big oak, and Mark Cummings in addition. Since the entire membership of the Wolf Patrol consisted of eight, it was plain that the only one now lacking was the unfortunate Hen Condit.
After making up their minds to exert themselves to the utmost in hopes of finding the runaway, and bringing him back home, Elmer and the others had set to work preparing for the campaign.
The patrol leader gave such advice as was required by some of the others, telling them to go as light as possible, since they would have to be moving around, and ordinary camp material could not be considered.
If they were compelled to remain out in the open for one or more nights, there were plenty of ways whereby they could secure shelter without carrying along such a cumbersome thing as a tent.
Each fellow had his rubber poncho strapped to his pack. Elmer and Lil Artha carried a gun each, not that they expected to shoot any game, but to use as a threat should they be faced by a desperate escaped jail bird. Besides this the boys had seen to it that each one had some sort of food supply, in the shape of sandwiches, dried beef, and such things as could be most easily packed.
As Lil Artha had gaily declared, they expected to be like "Sherman's bummers," and live off the country as they went along, though willing to pay ready cash for any and all eggs, fowls or bread secured from farmers' wives.
Josh had arranged to "tote" a coffee pot along, together with a supply of the ground bean; while Landy had a capacious frying-pan fastened to his pack, which the others just knew would be frequently tripping him up, and making all sorts of noises when they wanted to steal silently along.
Just what they meant to fry in that pan no one fully knew; but they were strong in "hopes," and believed that things would turn up to satisfy their hunger when the sensation became too acute.
The team had been hired at the town livery stable, and they had been on the road now since early in the morning, for it was a long way up to Lake Solitude.
As this region had been the scene of some of the earliest camps of the Hickory Ridge scouts, of course, the conversation covered many memories connected with those experiences.
The horses had shown signs of playing out some miles back; but Lil Artha proved himself to be an artful as well as clever driver. He managed to coax them along, and there was little doubt now that they would reach their intended destination inside of a short time.
This was a farmer's place that lay adjacent to the swamp at the head of the solitary lake. Here they would arrange to leave their team while searching the dark recesses of the swamp. As all of them had had considerable experience in such unsavory places they believed they knew fairly well how to go about the hunt.
"Well, we ought to fetch that old farm mighty soon now, I should think, Elmer," remarked the driver, as he flecked the back of the off-horse to disturb a big green fly that was trying to stab the sweat-covered animal in a tender spot.
"From what I've been able to find out, and what I know in the bargain from my own experience up here," the patrol leader explained, "the head of the lake lies just beyond that patch of willow trees, and we'll see the farmhouse as soon as we make the next turn. Easy there, Art, you came near dumping us then."
"The pesky old road is so narrow it's hard to keep going straight," complained the other, in disgust; for one wheel had, indeed, slipped over the edge, and their escape from a bad spill had been what Lil Artha himself would have called a "close shave."
"I reckon suh, Sassafras Swamp must lie over in that direction then?" remarked Chatz, pointing as he spoke.
"Just what it does," replied Elmer.
"It looks particularly gloomy, I should say," remarked Toby.
"Swamps always do, you must know," Elmer told him; "some of them are always half dark even in the middle of the day. That's because of the jumble of vines that hang from tree to tree, and the canopy of branches overhead. Why, down South, as Chatz here can tell you, where Spanish moss covers the trees, it's almost dark in some swamps."
"But, Elmer, there's one thing I just don't understand," suggested Landy.
"Out with it then; and if I can explain I'll be only too willing," he was told.
"Supposing now for the sake of argument that stranger was a bad man who had escaped from a sheriff somewhere, when being taken to the penitentiary; and that he managed to get a strangle hold on our chum, Hen Condit, so that the other just had to do whatever he was told—get all that, do you? Well, if they skipped out of Hickory Ridge night before last, how under the sun could they get away up here in a day or so?"
"Yes, it's something like thirty miles, I should say, Elmer, and it takes that boy Johnny a day and a night to get to our place with his load, all down-grade, too. You remember that Hen Condit never was anything to brag of in the line of a long-distance walker."
"He may have made up his mind that he had to do some tall sprinting," said the other, "when he realized what a hornets' nest he'd stirred up back there."
"Yeth," remarked Ted Burgoyne who had been listening to all this talk with certain ideas of his own, "and lots of times it ithn't tho very hard to get a lift on the road. Wagons and autoth happen along, you know, and the farmers around here are thoft things, you thee."
"I was just going to say that same thing, Ted," Elmer remarked, "when you took the very words out of my mouth. Yes, they may have had a lift; or else Hen had to stretch himself to do the tallest walking of his career. All of which is based on the supposition that they did come away up here, and are hiding right now somewhere about Sassafras Swamp."
"You're figuring on what Johnny said, eh, Elmer?" asked Mark.
"I'm figuring on a whole lot of things," replied the other; "and among them is the fact that some unknown man has been using the swamp for a hiding-place of late."
"P'raps we'll learn a heap more about it after we stwike the farm we're heading for," suggested Ted.
"And there, if you look now you can see the house among those trees, with smoke coming out of the chimney at the kitchen end," said Elmer, pointing ahead.
Lil Artha deliberately took chances by removing one hand from the lines, and vigorously rubbing his stomach with it.
"Oh! I know something of what bully suppers farmers' wives c'n serve up," he hastened to say, throwing all the longing he could into looks and words; "and here's hoping we get an invite to stay over there till morning. If they are very pressing, Elmer, I entreat you not to hurry us off. Things can wait that long, and we don't expect to do much in the night-time, you remember."
The patrol leader made no rash promises. He simply smiled, and started to talk of other subjects; so poor Lil Artha, who did feel so empty after such a little lunch by the wayside, was left in suspense.
"What's this farmer's name?" asked Toby.
"Trotter," replied Elmer. "You know Johnny Spreen is really a bound boy, and he has to work for the farmer until he gets a certain age, when he is supposed to be given a sum of money, and be his own boss. That's the law."
"Well, all I hope is that we pick up some decent clue around here," said Lil Artha; "Yes, and a bully supper in the bargain, that'll fill a horrible vacuum, and put us all in fighting condition."
Their arrival created something of a sensation. Dogs began to bark, roosters to crow, cows to moo, and even a donkey started to bray in a fearful fashion. Immediately Johnny Spreen, the boy who trapped muskrats in the winter, came running out from the big barn where he was probably milking some of the cows, for he held a three-legged stool in one hand as though it might be a weapon of defense.
The farmer, a long, lanky individual with a keen face, also bobbed in sight, holding a currycomb; while at the kitchen door could be seen the buxom figure of his wife, evidently bound to learn what was happening even if her dinner did burn in consequence.
Three tow-headed, wild-eyed little Trotters, who had been playing at teeter with a plank laid over a carpenter's "horse" for a seesaw, ranged themselves all in a row, and gaped their fill at the strange spectacle of a wagonload of boys all dressed pretty much alike.
"Are you Mr. Trotter?" asked Elmer, as he jumped down, and the other came forward toward him.
"That's my name, son; what fetches the hull lot of you up this way? Ameanin' to camp on the lake-shore, it might be? I've heard about the scouts daown at Hickory Ridge; Johnny yonder's been apinin' to jine 'em this long time back, but, of course, it ain't to be thunk of, with him so far away."
"Yes, we are the members of the Wolf Patrol, Mr. Trotter," said Elmer, who wanted to make a good friend of the farmer in the start. "I'm Elmer Chenowith; perhaps you know my father, or some of the other fellows' parents."
He thereupon introduced each one of the boys by name, and even mentioned the fact that the father of this one or that occupied a prominent place in the business or professional world of Hickory Ridge town.
"We haven't exactly come up here to camp out this trip, Mr. Trotter," continued the patrol leader, after bowing to the farmer's wife who had first darted indoors to see that her supper was not burning, and then hurried to join them.
Elmer knew that the truth might just as well come out in the beginning as later. On this account he did not intend to hold anything back, but be perfectly frank with the owner of the lake farm.
"What might be your object then, son?" asked the tiller of the soil, possibly feeling a bit of natural curiosity in the matter.
"Ask him first of all, won't you Elmer," pleaded Lil Artha, as though he feared lest this important matter be lost sight of in the confusion of affairs; "whether he c'n spare us some eggs, and a few broilers to take into the old swamp with us?"
"I guess ma c'n let you have what you want along them lines," replied Mr. Trotter, "though seems like somebody's been amakin' free with her layin' hens lately. They keep disappearin' right along. Sometimes I think it's a mink that's gettin' 'em, but they ain't any signs of sech a critter around; 'cause you know a mink'll kill as many as a dozen fowls in one night, and jest suck their blood."
Elmer exchanged suggestive looks with his mates.
"From what you say, sir," he remarked quickly, "your fowls are carried off bodily. Is that it?"
"They jest keep on gettin' less an' less right along," the farmer admitted. "Me and Johnny here was thinkin' o' settin' up with guns to see if we could get a crack at the chicken thief, whether he was a mink, a badger, or a two-legged raskil."
"That's what we was meanin' to do," agreed the said Johnny, glad to have his name mentioned in the matter at all.
"Well, we've got a hunch, Mr. Trotter," said Lil Artha, bound to get his say in the affair, "that we might put you wise about that same thief."
"I'd shore be glad to hear it," declared the farmer; "Johnny here has been asayin' as heow he b'lieves thar's a feller ahidin' out in the swamp, 'cause he seen his tracks. I even reckoned on sendin' for a neighbor o' mine, Bay Stanhope, that's got some hounds used to follerin' people, an' see if we could run him daown."
"Well, Mr. Trotter, that is exactly what we scouts propose doing," said Elmer. "And now if you'll listen to something I've got to tell, you can understand what sort of interest we've got in this thing."
So in as few words as possible he narrated the story of how Hen Condit had acted in such a queer way, robbing his uncle and guardian, and actually leaving a silly letter that fastened the crime on his own shoulders.
"He was seen by one of my chums talking with a strange man just the day before this happened," continued. Elmer. "We believe that man was the same unknown party who has been hiding in Sassafras Swamp for a time past, and as you've just told us, living off your flock of fowls. Johnny here, down in the hay market, gave me something he picked up in the swamp near some ashes. Here it is, Mr. Trotter, and all of us believe firmly it is part of a steel handcuff which was filed in half, showing that the man must be a desperate character escaped from jail."
At that the farmer's wife uttered a little shriek, and began to look frightened.
"Hennery," she told her husband authoritatively, "you go git your gun right away. And Johnny, chain the bull-dog close to the kitchen door. After this I'm meanin' to make sure the bar's in place when I'm left alone, and Moses kept inside the house along with me."
Elmer guessed that the said Moses must be the bull-dog. He also figured that, as a rule, the animal was kept indoors nights, which accounted for his not having interfered with the carrying off of the farmer's chickens.
Mr. Trotter was plainly deeply interested by this time in the story connected with the coming of these seven scouts.
"Sure I'll do all I kin to help you land the critters, boys," he assured them. "But that swamp is some big, an' I guess as haow you'll have all you want to do achasin' through the same. Supposin' naow you let things rest till tomorry, and make an early start. Mebbe we might bag the raskils this very night, if so be they try to make another haul on my feathered stock, aimin' to git a turkey this time."
Of course, Elmer could see through a grindstone that had a hole in its center. He knew very well that the shrewd farmer wanted to make use of them in order to protect his property; but it served Elmer's purpose just as well to readily agree to the proposition.
As for Lil Artha, his eyes were almost popping out of his head with suspense; he was also licking his lips after the manner of a hungry dog when scenting a bone.
"We'll stop over with you then, Mr. Trotter," agreed the patrol leader; "and before morning try to figure out our plan of campaign looking to rounding up the chicken thieves who are believed to be hiding in Sassafras Swamp."
JOHNNY'S CHICKEN THIEF TRAP
"I'm only sorry for one thing, boys," remarked Farmer Trotter's wife, who had apparently hailed the decision of the seven bold scouts to guard her fowl-roost with undeniable joy.
"What might that be, ma'm?" asked Lil Artha, in a quivering voice; for the poor fellow began to have a terrible fear that she was about to warn them her stock of provisions was too valuable to be wasted on a batch of tramps.
"Of course, we'll be glad to have you to supper, and breakfast, too, for that matter," she told them; "but I'm afraid I couldn't find beds enough to go 'round, even if you all doubled up."
At that the elongated scout gave a loud laugh; the clouds passed from his face like magic. If he could only be positive of his regular rations it mattered nothing to Lil Artha where he laid his head.
"Oh! don't let that little thing bother you, Mrs. Trotter," he hastened to say, thereby making himself spokesman for the crowd; "why, we're used to camping out, you see, and in our time we've slept in the queerest beds you ever heard tell of. We can bunk in any old place, I give you my word."
"What's the matter with sleeping in the barn?" asked Toby, suddenly.
"That's so," added Landy, eagerly; "it's nearly full of nice sweet hay, cut only a month or so back. Me to hit the hay every time."
In fact, the idea seemed to appeal to all of them. They had planned to make their camp just as circumstances permitted, and this thing of spending the first night in a hay barn was romantic enough to suit the fancy of any scout who loved adventure and the Big Outdoors.
So it was quickly settled.
The boys were shown the barn by the eager Johnny, who could hardly finish his numerous chores on account of the excitement surrounding him. It was an event of prime importance, according to his mind, when seven real scouts came and took the farmhouse of the Trotters by storm.
That supper was one never to be forgotten by the fellows.
Why, according to Lil Artha, and he ought to know as well as the next one, the table fairly groaned under the weight of good things which the farmer's wife kept placing upon it.
"Talk about your festive board," the tall scout afterwards remarked to several of his pards, "that table just talked, that's what it did, and in the sweetest tones you ever heard. Yum! yum, wouldn't I like to board with the lady of the Trotter Farm for just one long week. I'd pick up flesh at the rate of five pounds per day. The only trouble would be about getting into my clothes in the end."
Johnny had shown them where they were to sleep, so that each fellow could fix himself to his best advantage. This was done ahead of time, for all of them knew how difficult it was to manage such things by the aid of a wretched stable lantern.
Elmer saw that Johnny was fairly itching to tell him something, and so he managed to get the bound boy aside just as darkness was creeping along.
"What have you got up your sleeve, Johnny?" he demanded, at which the other had a laughing spell, and confessed.
"Why, you see, I got a trap all rigged out!" he started to explain.
"A trap for the chicken thieves, do you mean?" asked the patrol leader.
"That's the ticket, Elmer. Yuh see, I reckoned that by now they'd be gettin' real tired o' jest plain hen, and might feel like climbin' higher. We gut some whoopin' nice young turks that like tuh roost in a certain tree. Easiest thing in the world tuh grab a couple in the night, and kerry 'em off. So I fixed it."
"Suppose you let me take a look at the trap you made, Johnny?" suggested Elmer, naturally interested.
"Jest what I was agoin' tuh ask yuh tuh do, Elmer. And I guess now it wouldn't be a bad ijee fur the rest tuh kim along, too. If so be there's a kerflummix in the middle o' the night, they ought tuh know what she means."
Now, Elmer himself could not exactly find a definition for that word, but he had a faint idea Johnny meant a big noise or a row. At any rate he was glad of the chance to invite the other six scouts to accompany them.
Elmer lighted a lantern, and after the boys had gathered around he led them away from the big barn.
Presently, at some little distance, he came to a halt.
"This here's the tree the turks hes picked out tuh roost in. Some o' 'em likes tuh fly 'way up, but others prefers the bottom limbs. If a feller's keerful he kin climb up and wring the necks o' as many as he wants. Young turks they don't know nigh as much as old uns, yuh see. Now I'll show yuh how I sets my trap."
First of all they noticed that there was what appeared to be a drygoods box exactly under the tree.
"Seems to me you're making it mighty easy for the chicken thieves when they drop around, with that box right under the lower row of turkeys?" suggested Toby, upon discovering this fact.
Johnny Spreen gurgled over with laughter.
"Say, d'ye reckon so?" he exclaimed; "well, by hokey! now, that's part of the game, sure it be."
"Oh! then you really want them to climb up on that big box when trying to grab one of the young turkeys?" asked Lil Artha.
"Jes' so," chuckled the bound boy.
"Is she loaded, then?" continued Lil Artha, as all of them gravely examined the innocent-looking box.
"I'll show yuh how she works," Johnny said, proudly. "Mebbe my ijee ain't good for nawthin', but she's the best I could think up. Course, the thieves they hain't fotchin' no lantern along, 'cause they'd be afeared we'd see a movin' light. Then ag'in I don't b'lieve sich slinkers ever does own a lantern."
"That's right, Johnny," remarked Toby, impatiently, "let's take it for granted then they come in the dark. What will they do next?"
"Huh! what'd any feller do when he sees sech a nice box awaitin' for him to git up on, so's to grab the nigh turk?" demanded Johnny. "Now, if yuh watch me yuh'll git the ijee in a jiffy."
A stout rope seemed to be hanging from the limb overhead. It had a running noose at the end, which the bound boy was now adjusting on the top of the drygoods box.
Elmer chuckled as he began to grasp the scheme; it seemed pretty smart to him, and he was ready to give the bound boy credit for a bright idea.
"Now," continued Johnny, "jest tuh show yuh how she works I'm agoin' tuh make a wat yuh calls it, a martin o' myself. Hold the lantern, Elmer, and gimme room."
He climbed up on the big box. The turkeys were craning their necks and observing him with evident wonder, though they were undoubtedly on friendly terms with Johnny who had fed and driven them since hatching time, and knew his raspy voice.
"Yuh see, in the dark he don't notice the loop any," continued the inventor of the trap, "and when he gits real busy with the turks why there's a good chanct o' his foot gittin' caught in the loop. She on'y needs a leetle jerk this-aways!"
He gave the required pull, and instantly a most surprising event came to pass. That jerk at the rope must have set a hair-trigger going, for there followed a sudden rattling noise, the loop was instantly tightened around his ankle, and in a trice Johnny was hanging head down, as helpless as a snared rabbit.
The scouts clapped their hands in glee.
"Great scheme, Johnny!"
"It sure does you credit!"
"My! what a cwack when your feet hit the limb!"
So the scouts kept giving their views, while Johnny swung there, vainly trying to reach up and catch hold of the limb, with the turkeys twittering, and showing more or less alarm.
"Elmer, git me daown outen this, please!" begged the prisoner.
"But how can we do it, Johnny, when we don't know the combination of the racket?" demanded Lil Artha.
"Foller the rope, and shove the hogshead up the rise agin!" explained the suspended boy, who was probably already beginning to feel the discomforts of "standing on his head."
Several of them rushed off, and sure enough they found the secret of the springing of the trap. Johnny's clever scheme was simple enough when once its secret had been disclosed.
He had an old hogshead perched on the top of a steep little rise near by. It was connected with the long rope that had a noose at the end. When anyone pulled the rope, as with a foot caught in the loop, a trigger was set free, and the heavy hogshead started to roll down the little descent, jerking the entangled thief up by one or both ankles, as happened to be the case.
Of course, by rolling the hogshead back to its initial position Johnny was enabled to right himself, and get his foot free from the noose.
He started rubbing his shin as though it felt sore after such a rough experience, but they could hear him laughing softly to himself all the while.
"I jest reckoned the old thing'd work to beat the band," he told them; "an' now I knows it. Wait till I set the trap agin, fellers, an' then we'll go back tuh the barn. What d'ye spect's agoin' tuh happen if them chicken thieves kim around tuhnight, Elmer, hey?"
"Well, somebody's liable to meet up with the surprise of their lives, that's all," the scout patrol leader admitted.
The boys were pretty tired, and did not care to remain up too long. Perhaps Mrs. Trotter might have liked to have these lively fellows in to sing for her, and enliven her monotonous life a little; but considering that they half expected to be hard pushed on the morrow, Elmer advised that they try to get all the sleep possible while they had the chance.
The horses had been well cared for, and arrangements made with the farmer to keep them in his stable until the scouts were ready to return to Hickory Ridge.
"This is what I call a soft snap," ventured Toby, who had burrowed into the hay as far as he thought necessary, and lay there at full length.
"The farmer was mighty careful to ask whether any of us smoked, you noticed," remarked Lil Artha.
"Can you blame him?" demanded Landy. "He must have twenty tons of fine new hay in this big barn, and that's worth all of four hundred dollars."
"Jutht as like ath not, too, he didn't put a cent of inthurance on the barn," Ted remarked; "farmers are careleth that way, you know."
"And so are boys who make out to be men because they smoke on the sly," Elmer went on to say. "More than one barn has been set on fire by smokers using matches in the hay. Tramps are responsible for a heap of this waste; and I don't blame any farmer for asking such a question. I'm glad we could tell him none of us had taken to the habit as yet."
"Or if they had they'd reformed!" chuckled Lil Artha, meaning himself.
"One thing sure," observed Mark, "if we hear that barrel crashing down the hill with all those stones inside it, we ought to be pretty spry getting out there, because a poor wretch might get dizzy hanging with his head down."
"What if nobody happened to hear the alarm," suggested Landy, who had a tender heart even when chicken thieves were concerned.
"I take it suh, that would be a bad thing fo' the coon that set the trap off," Chatz announced, gravely.
"Oh! Johnny has prepared for even that," said Elmer. "He showed me how he had fixed another cord that runs all the way to his room in the house. When the barrel starts to rolling that cord will be snapped, causing a weight to fall on the floor close to his bed, and bound to waken anybody but the dead."
"Say, that Johnny's a sure-enough wonder!" declared Toby; "he's got the inventive genius developed to beat the band. I'd like to see more of Johnny Spreen. Who knows but that we might hitch together and make a team. I've done a few little wrinkles along the line of invention myself, you remember. Jones and Spreen wouldn't sound bad."
Of course, that brought about a stirring up of old history, for many and humorous had been Toby's attempt to construct a flying machine, and also a parachute that would save the lives of daring aeronauts when their engines gave out a mile or two up in the air.
Finally, the boys began to talk less, and it could be easily seen that they were getting sleepy. Elmer really encouraged them to quit their efforts to keep awake. He himself felt that sleep would be welcome just then; and when that humor seizes a fellow he dislikes being kept awake against his will by the chattering of a comrade who does not know what a bed is meant for.
Then the last word was mumbled, and stentorian breathing here and there in those hay nests announced that the tired scouts had surrendered to the sleep god. Elmer was, perhaps, the last to drop off, for he had been thinking of a lot of things, running from the chicken-thief trap to the strange conduct of Hen Condit in robbing his guardian, and then leaving that ridiculous note to condemn himself.
Once Elmer chanced to awaken, and more from the habit of the cattle range than anything else, he raised his head to listen. The only sounds he heard consisted of the champing of the horses, still busy with their sweet hay, or it might be the distant cry of a whip-poor-will calling to its mate in the apple orchard.
So Elmer dropped back with a satisfied feeling such as comes on realizing that all is well. Perhaps the thieves would not make a visit to the farm adjoining the big Sassafras Swamp, on that particular night, at least. Perhaps morning would come at last, and find the trap undisturbed.
Elmer was letting these things pass through his brain in a hazy sort of way peculiar to one who is just yielding to sleep. He had almost reached the point when things would have slipped entirely from his grip when suddenly and without the least warning there started a tremendous racket such as he had noticed came to pass when that hogshead started rolling down the grade, and the stones with which it was loaded began to rattle about inside.
Almost at the same instant there rang out a shrill scream of agony that could only have come from the throat of someone in mortal distress.
As if by magic every scout sat bolt upright, as though they had been shot into that position by the action of a gigantic galvanic battery.
"Oh! what happened?" Landy was heard to call out in trembling tones.
"It's Johnny's trap!" whooped Lil Artha, all excitement.
THE KNIFE WITH THE BUCKHORN HANDLE
"Everybody get out in a hurry!" called Elmer, suiting the action to the word himself by scrambling erect and making for the open door of the big barn.
It was far from light in there; but as they could easily see the opening all they had to do was to make for it. Elmer had been careful to make sure that there were no pitchforks lying around loose, to be run upon by accident.
Hardly had the scouts managed to stream from the interior of the barn than they became aware of the fact that someone was running headlong toward them. Toby threw himself into an attitude of defense, raising the piece of wood he had grasped for a club; but Elmer realized that the runner was approaching from the direction of the farmhouse and therefore must be a friend rather than a foe.
"Steady, boys, it must be Johnny!" he told his comrades as they clustered there.
Johnny it proved to be. The bound boy must have lain down on his cot fully dressed and equipped, for he had on even his cowhide boots, and was minus only a hat. Of course, the boy was fairly brimming over with intense excitement.
"Didn't yuh hear him yell?" he was crying. "We've kotched the chicken thief fur sure, fellers. Whoop la! kim on, everybody, and nab him afore all the blood runs tuh his head!"
Lil Artha and Elmer, of course, had snatched up their guns, although they hardly believed they would find any use for the weapons. All of them started on the run toward the spot where the turkeys roosted in the favorite tree.
The sky was clouded over, and while it was not actually dark the boys had some little difficulty in seeing as well as they might have liked. Now and then one of the sprinters would stumble over some impediment, and perhaps measure his length on the ground, only to scramble erect again and tear after the rest.
It was usually clumsy Landy who met with these mishaps; but even such things did not seem to subdue his ambition to keep after the crowd.
Elmer was listening as he ran. He wondered why they did not already hear the groans or whines of the wretched thief who had been hung up by the heels without receiving a second's warning.
Remembering how Johnny had been whisked aloft, Elmer felt sure no one could be blamed for letting out that shriek when the catastrophe came about. Nor would he have thought it queer if the suspended rascal kept up his groans as he writhed and twisted in a vain effort to reach up to the limb; which only a circus contortionist would have been able to do.
He imagined he heard some sort of sound ahead of them. But even at that Elmer could not be certain. It might be the night breeze sighing through the upper branches of the tall tree, or the alarmed turkeys holding a confab among themselves, for all he could tell.
But they were rapidly bearing down upon the spot now, and in another half minute ought to be where they could see the swaying figure of the caught thief.
"I don't seem to get him, Johnny!" ventured Lil Artha, in a disappointed tone.
"Huh! somethin' gone wrong I guess!" grunted the inventor; and if the tall scout could feel chagrin, fancy what a shock it must have been to Johnny when he realized that there was no dangling figure to greet him, despite that wild yell so full of mortal agony.
Perhaps already wise Elmer had begun to hazard a shrewd guess as to the why and wherefore of this vacancy. He was a great hand to see through things long before the answer became apparent to his chums. If this were so, at least he did not venture to say anything to them about it.
By now all of them, save slow-poke Landy, had arrived at the tree. They could hear the alarmed turkeys making some twittering sounds above, but if any of them had flown off the rest remained on their roosts.
Johnny had been smart enough to fetch his lantern along. This he now proceeded to light, and as soon as the wick took fire he began to examine the trap.
"Dog-gone the luck, she went and broke on me!" he wailed, as though his boyish heart were almost broken by the catastrophe.
"That's what comes of not testing things before-hand!" said Toby, with the air of a wise-acre who knew it all; and yet Toby was himself a most notorious offender along those very same lines, as his chums could have informed the bound boy had they chosen to give a fellow-scout away.
"Gee whiz! he did test it, Toby," said Lil Artha, indignantly; "didn't we all of us see him ahangin' head-down. There's some sort of a mystery about it, that's what."
"Not much," said Elmer, who, while the others were talking, had been examining the end of the rope that lay on the ground near by; "it's been cut, that's all."
"Cut with a knife d'ye mean, Elmer?" cried Johnny, aghast.
"Just what it has," continued the patrol leader firmly; "you can see that with one eye, for the edges are smooth, and not ragged as they would be if the rope had broken a strand at a time."
Every fellow had to push up and examine it to make sure, and there was no dissenting voice after that. They knew Elmer was right, as he very nearly always appeared to be in matters like this.
"But say, however could he have twisted up to get at the rope while he was hanging here by one leg, I'd like to know?" demanded Landy.
"Mebbe the second thief helped him git loose," suggested the bound boy.
"Just what happened as sure as anything," assented Elmer. "They were too smart for you that time, Johnny. Instead of running away when the alarm went off, this second fellow whipped out his blade, and finding the rope where it ran from the tree, he cut it."
"Then the other dropped down, and got his legs loose," added Toby. "See, here's the loop lying on the ground."
Sure enough, it was just as he said. The loop was there in plain sight, just as it had apparently been hurled aside by the trapped thief after he had a chance to use his hands.
Johnny was the most bitterly disappointed fellow Elmer had come across in a long time. He kept muttering to himself as he examined the fragment of rope. Lil Artha said he was "chewing the rag," whatever that might mean; but, at any rate, Johnny did not seem to be in a very happy frame of mind, so the operation could hardly have been of a pleasant nature.
"Now, I understand that second little rumble I heard," said Elmer. "It was just as Johnny reached us in front of the barn, and sounded like the barrel had started on again. That happened when the rope was cut, allowing the weighted hogshead to keep on a little further to the bottom of the drop."
"Let's see if you hit the nail on the head with that guess," suggested Toby, who liked to be convinced by his own eyesight when anything came to pass.
So, led by the inventor of the trap, they hurried to where the hogshead had been perched on the brink of the steep little descent. It could be seen at the bottom; and this confirmed the theory Elmer had advanced.
"And we didn't get a glimpse of the thieves after all," lamented Landy; "now I was hoping I'd see a fellow dangling there when we came up. Not that I'd like him to suffer too much, you know; but for Johnny's sake I wanted him to be nabbed."
"Yes, it's all off now," admitted Lil Artha.
"Of course, after that row they wouldn't be silly enough to come again for another try?" suggested Toby.
"Huh! that ole trap ain't no good after that mess," grunted Johnny, disdainfully. "I reckons as how I'll hev tuh think up sum other kind. But they ain't agoin' tuh git any o' them turks if I have to sot up all night, and borry a gun frum you fellers in the bargain."
"What's the matter with tying Moses the bulldog to the tree here?" remarked Elmer; "he's barking now at the kennel near the house. I'd certainly make use of the old dog if I were you, Johnny."
"Jest what I will do, Elmer. Moses ain't a great hand tuh bark, yuh see; bulls do the business with their teeth 'stead o' with their noise. But he kin give tongue when he wants tuh. I'll fix him here fur the rest o' the night."
"How does it come the farmer hasn't shown up?" asked Mark, who thought it a bit queer Mr. Trotter displayed so little interest in the safe keeping of his young turkeys.
"Oh! him," chuckled Johnny; "nobody never ain't agoin' tuh get him waked up once he hits the hay. Talk tuh me baout sleepin', he kin beat anything yuh ever met. I bet yuh the missus is up and waitin' tuh know if we grabbed one."
"Do you think they got a turkey after all?" asked Landy, as he picked up several feathers from the ground near the tree.
"What do you say about that, Johnny?" Elmer inquired.
"Well, it daon't stand tuh reason he did," replied the other, gravely; "even if he had holt o' one at the time, he never'd a held on tuh hit arter that rope had slung him head down'ards. Guess I ort tuh know. If any o' yuh wants tuh feel what it's like, I'll rig the trap up agin in the mawnin' for yuh. Hold a turkey nawthin'. He couldn't even hold his breath, but had tuh give a yell like he was killed."
Indeed, they were all of pretty much the same opinion. No matter how brave a fellow the trespasser might be, when he met with such a sudden and unexpected upheaval as that running noose brought about, his wits were bound to desert him for the time being at least.
It may have been noticed also that no one, even bold Lil Artha, the most venturesome of them all, volunteered to make the additional test when morning came. They seemed perfectly satisfied to accept the will for the deed. They had witnessed the speedy working of Johnny's trap, and evidently had no itching to try what it felt like to hang head downward from the limb of a tree, with a leg almost dislocated by a sudden jerking, powerful lever.
"Well, 'tain't no use acryin' over spilt milk, they sez," remarked Johnny, who, after all, seemed to be of a philosophical turn of mind; "the thing's done, an' that's all they is tuh hit. Might as well git Mose and fix him here tuh the tree. Them turks has jes' gut tuh be saved, no matter how much trouble it takes."
"Elmer, what are you thinking about?" asked Mark just then; for being used to the ways of his best chum he could see that the patrol leader was pondering something in his mind.
"If you want to know it was about that yell," Elmer admitted.
"A pretty husky whoop in the bargain, let me say," observed Lil Artha; "I used to think I could beat all creation letting out a yell, but that went one better, you hear me talking."
"Yes," added Toby, "it sounded as if the top of the world had blown off, the fellow made such a howl. Anyway, that's how it seemed to me when I was waked up so suddenly."
"Have we ever heard a whoop like that before?" asked Elmer.
"Now you're thinking of Hen Condit, of course, Elmer," came from Toby.
"Well, Hen's got a good strong pair of lungs, let me tell you," admitted Landy. "I remember the time that cow tossed him when he was a small boy, and say, he made everybody inside of half a mile run outdoors to see what was the matter. They found Hen straddlin' a limb of a tree, and whooping it up for all he was worth. It might have been him, Elmer, no telling."
"And just as well any other person badly scared," Mark observed. "I think I'd be able to do some fine work along those lines under the same conditions."
"Then it seems that we'll never be able to identify Hen by that shout," laughed Elmer; "but there's a way we can find something out, as all scouts ought to know."
That remark immediately put them all on their mettle.
"Sure thing, Elmer," agreed Lil Artha, "for, of course, you mean if we could find a trail around here we might pick out the different footprints; and one of us ought to know something about the kind of shoes Hen wears."
"That's me," admitted Landy, "because I happened to be going with Hen more or less lately. Show me the footprints and I'll tell you soon enough if it's him."
Of course, nothing could be done without the lantern, so they kept close to Johnny, who carried the same. From time to time he was given instruction how to hold the light so they might examine certain spots.
"Hello! Elmer's found something!" suddenly exclaimed keen-eyed Lil Artha, when he saw the scout leader stoop over almost under the tree, and alongside the large drygoods box.
"That so, Elmer; what was it?" several asked him in a breath.
"Gather around me," the other commanded, "and let's see if you can recognize what I picked up."
"Huh! bet you it fell from his pocket when he was dragged upside-down," was the way Lil Artha put it; quick to guess the truth, though he had not himself thought of this possibility before.
"Correct for you, Lil Artha, for that's what happened," Elmer acknowledged.
"Is it a knife, Elmer?" continued the tall scout.
"Once more you hit it," said the other; "and Landy, since you say you've been going more or less with Hen lately, perhaps you'd be apt to know his knife if you happened to set eyes on it?"
"To be sure I would, Elmer."
"You've handled it then, have you?"
"Lots of times, because you see I lost my own frog-sticker some weeks back, and I ain't had a birthday since to get a new one," Landy confessed.
"That sounds good to me," Elmer told him; "so now take a look at this, and tell us what you think."
With that he brought his hand around, having been keeping it behind his back all this time. When he opened it there was disclosed a common, every-day jack-knife with a buckhorn handle, such as might be expected to be found in the pocket of almost any lad, and capable, when given a keen edge, of performing miracles in the way of shaving sticks and cutting up apples.
So Landy gravely, though eagerly, took up the knife. He opened the big blade and seemed interested in a certain nick he found there.
"Elmer, that settles it," he said, finally; "it's Hen's knife, I'm positive; and it must have been him that was hanging from this tree a bit ago!"
BOUND FOR SASSAFRAS SWAMP
When Landy Smith settled the matter in this convincing fashion, the rest of the scouts showed more or less interest in the outcome.
"That proves one thing," asserted Toby; "Hen Condit is up here, all right."
"It proves a whole lot of things, according to my opinion," added Lil Artha as he nodded his head in a way he had of emphasizing his remarks; "it tells us Hen is in bad company, for the second fellow must be the man he was seen with the other day in Hickory Ridge town."
"According to my notion, fellows," said Mark, seriously, "the hand of that same unknown man stands back of all poor Hen's troubles. Until that party was seen in this part of the country, Hen didn't seem to have a single worry. He was always as light-hearted a chap as you could find in a week of Sundays."
"What under the sun can it mean?" queried Landy, looking distressed; because, truth to tell, he and the missing scout had been getting quite fond of one another lately, and the shock had told upon Landy much more than any other boy belonging to the Wolf Patrol.
"I tell you what I think," ventured Ted Burgoyne just then; "that man mutht have hypnotized Hen. I don't thee how elth he could make him do whatever he wants. Yeth, I even believe he forced Hen to wite that letter. Needn't laugh, Lil Artha, I've been reading it all up lately, and there are thome queer happeningth along the line of hypnothism."
"Elmer, how about that; do you believe in it?" asked Lil Artha, who was known to be pretty much of a scoffer in his way.
"I decline to commit myself—just yet at any rate," laughed the patrol leader. "I confess that queer things do happen, and a fellow who always refuses to believe because he doesn't understand is silly. But we do know this unknown man has some kind of influence over our chum; what it is we're going to find out before we're many days older."
"I like to hear you say that, Elmer," cried Landy, "because I just seem to believe the thing's more'n half done when you put your hand to the plough. I can't help but think how poor Hen must be feeling right now, after getting himself in such a fix."
"How about those tracks we started out to find?" asked Toby just then.
"We'll give another look before closing shop," replied the patrol leader. "Just fetch the lantern over, Johnny; they'd be apt to head away from the barn."
It was really in the direction of the near-by swamp that they now commenced to look. The wisdom of Elmer's figuring was soon made manifest, for they quickly ran across what they were looking for.
"Here you are," said Elmer, "and now get busy, Landy."
"Yes, drop down on your marrow-bones and see what you make of the footprints," Lil Artha told the fat scout.
Now Landy had had fair training in certain kinds of work associated with scout-craft. He had even taken numerous lessons in following a trail, though giving poor promise of ever being a shining light in that respect.
"Please hold the lantern closer, Johnny," he said, as he thrust his nose down near the ground; "yes, here's a footprint as clear as anybody'd want to see; and I sure ought to know the person who made the same."
"Tell us why, Landy?" asked Elmer, with a pleased smile.
"That's an easy thing to do, Elmer. You see that diagonal mark across the toe of this impression—well, that's caused by a patch on the left shoe. All right, Hen Condit had just such a patch put on his shoe a week ago last Saturday."
"You know that for a fact, do you, Landy?" questioned the patrol leader, who did not want any guessing about this business.
"Why, I sat there all the time the cobbler was working at the same, having accompanied Hen to the shoemaker's shop," continued Landy. "What's more I joshed him about the fine and dandy track he made every time he stepped in some half-hard mud that day after he left the shop. Oh! I'm as sure of this footprint as I am that my name's Landy Smith."
"Well, then, we've had double evidence," spoke up Ted Burgoyne; "and I gueth that ought to thettle the matter. Ith our Hen that was dragged up by the heelth. Elmer, will it pay uth to try and follow the trail?"
"Hardly just now, at any rate, Ted," the other told him. "We might aim to do something of the kind in the morning. But even here it looks as if they headed for the swamp. That's a point to remember, boys."
Perhaps several of the scouts were just as well satisfied. The idea of starting out on a trail that might soon take them into a dismal swamp, and at midnight in the bargain, with a cloudy sky overhead, did not appeal very strongly to Landy, Toby and Chatz.
Accordingly, they turned back, heading for the friendly barn, attracted, doubtless, by fond memories of those comfortable beds in the sweet hay.
"How about the bulldog, Johnny?" asked Elmer, as they reached the barn entrance.
"I'm meanin' tuh git Mose up yonder, and tie him tuh the tree," replied the boy. "Them turks hes gut tuh be looked arter, if I hes tuh stay up all night tuh do the trick. An' lemme tell yuh, Elmer, I kin make up another trap jest as cunnin' as any ole fox. I'll git 'em yit if so be they keep hangin' 'raound these parts."
"I believe you would, Johnny," assented the other, who realized that the bound boy was displaying several good traits that would carry him along through the world once his time of bondage with the farmer was up.
There being no reason why they should keep away from their sleeping quarters any longer, the seven scouts entered the barn.
"Wow! but it's plumb dark in here, though!" protested Lil Artha, after he had knocked his shins twice against some projection, and even slammed into a post that chanced to be directly in his way.
"We'd better stand still for a little while, so as to let our eyes get used to the gloom," suggested Elmer; "it's always that way when you step into one of the moving-picture places, you remember; but a few minutes later you can see all around you. Better waste a little time than a lot of cuticle."
"Just so," grunted Lil Artha; "already half an inch of skin has been barked off my shin, and my nose is swelling where I banged the same against that awful post."
"Well," remarked Toby, whose ankles had not been bruised and who consequently could even think to joke about the matter, "it's probably the first time then Lil Artha was ever left at the post. But I can see a heap better already."
All of them found that their eyesight soon became accustomed to the gloom; and that it was not so very bad after all. They had just managed to reach the place where their traps were left, and started burrowing in the hay again, when Elmer called their attention to certain suggestive sounds outside.
"That must be Johnny and the bull pup going past on the way to the turkey roost," ventured Mark, as they plainly caught a whine, and then a low growl that was vicious enough to make one's blood turn cold.
"If those fellows should be reckless enough to come back to make a second try for young turkey," Landy was saying, as though he could not keep his mind from grappling with Hen Condit and his troubles, "they'll be some surprised when that ferocious old Mose grabs them by the legs, and holds on like everything."
"For one, now," admitted Toby, "I'd want to be excused from any session with the big white teeth of Mose that stick out from his lower jaw. But if you asked me my opinion I'd say one scare a night was as much as any ordinary chicken thief could put up with."
"Nothing doing," muttered Lil Artha, showing that he, too, was of the same mind as the companion scout.
At least it was very evident none of the boys expected being disturbed again in their slumbers, for they went about settling down as though they meant to enjoy a good long session.
"Don't wake me too early, mother dear," Toby was heard to say, half to himself, "for to-morrow won't be the first of May, and I'm not to be the queen of the occasion either. So please let me have my snooze out, everybody."
Nothing did occur to disturb their slumbers which doubtless were additionally sweet after that one break.
Elmer had them all up when he considered that it was right and proper. True, the sun was only peeping above the horizon, and the birds still twittered amidst the shrubbery near by; but Elmer knew what great hands farm people are about getting up betimes, and he did not wish to keep Mrs. Trotter's breakfast waiting for any sleepy-heads.
The grumbling ceased as if by magic the moment he mentioned that word "breakfast," and Lil Artha immediately announced himself as being wide-awake.
"H'm! seems like I could even smell the batter cakes frying right now, fellows," he told them, with a smack of his lips. "Notice that I scorn to give them the well-known name of flapjacks on this festive occasion, because we're going to eat at a regular table, under a hospitable roof; and it's only when in camp that wheat cakes are called flapjacks."
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," chortled Toby.
"Yes, but if you kept calling it an onion you'd soon think it didn't," affirmed Lil Artha; "but say, do you reckon that bell was meant for us? Oh! where's my other shoe; they pinched me, so I took 'em off in the middle of the night, and the left one has gone and hid in the hay."
"Mebbe the rats got away with it, Lil Artha," suggested Landy, wickedly; "I'm certain I heard 'em squeakin' all around here; and they like shoe for breakfast."
It turned out, however, that there was no damage done; the missing foot-wear was soon discovered under a wisp of hay, and quickly the tall scout crept out in the wake of his six comrades.
A second time the bell was heard, and at that they all started on a run for the rear of the house, where several tin basins, and some soap, as well as clean towels announced that the farmer's good wife had gotten things ready for them.
Lil Artha had guessed right; perhaps his keen scent had discovered the odor of pancakes in the air, for they were in plain sight, several pyramids of the golden beauties, with a pitcher of real maple syrup, and plenty of fresh butter to go with the same.
Mrs. Trotter may only have had three little girls of her own, but she certainly had been brought up in a family where there were boys, because she knew so well what their weaknesses were.
What with three fried eggs apiece, guaranteed strictly home-grown and fresh; a great rasher of sweet ham, also a product of the farm; coffee, with genuine cream in the same, a dish of oatmeal, and then those steaming stacks of cakes, it was a wonder some of those scouts were not completely foundered.
Elmer had more or less difficulty in coaxing Lil Artha away from the table. The elongated scout could hardly breathe, he was so full; but he heaved many a sigh as he noticed that a fresh plateful of those unexcelled pancakes had just been put on, with no one left to do them justice.
Shaking his head sadly, Lil Artha finally managed to get on his feet and leave the dining-room. His last look back spoke volumes; it said as plainly as anything those wonderfully expressive words: "though lost to sight, to memory dear;" and probably never again in the course of human events would Lil Artha equal the astounding record he made that same morning of thirteen pancakes straight.
Elmer knew they would have a big day ahead of them, and was really anxious to get started. He had made arrangements with the farmer and his wife to supply such provisions as they could conveniently carry along with them for a couple of days, while they were combing the big Sassafras Swamp in hopes of coming across the two parties they sought.
If the Chief of Police in Hickory Ridge, with others to help him, should put in an appearance, Elmer hoped they might be given such information as lay in the power of Mr. Trotter.
"We are not hoggish, you must know, Mr. Trotter," he told the farmer, as they were making their last preparations before starting forth; "much as we want to be the ones who will round up these two lurkers in Sassafras Swamp, if the police come to take a hand in the chase we wish them every luck. Yes, and what's more we stand ready as true scouts to lend them a helping hand."
"All we want," added Ted, seriously, "ith a chance to athist our chum Hen. We believe him to be under thome influence, and tho we're bent on breaking hith chains."
Each of the seven boys had a certain load to carry besides his rubber poncho, and his pack was supposed to hold the extra food supplies as well. Some people on seeing what these consisted of might imagine the swamp hunters meant to spend a very long time in their search; but then such persons would in that way betray their gross ignorance as to what a growing boy's appetite amounts to. They were taking no chances of starvation; and two whole days meant at least three times that many full meals, with sundry bites in between.
From what Elmer had learned through Johnny Spreen, it was possible to navigate a fair portion of the swamp with a boat. They had several flat-bottomed skiffs that were used for that purpose, usually by the boy in his fur-hunting expeditions during the fall and winter seasons.
Unfortunately, things were so much behind at the farm that Johnny could not be spared to accompany them. Elmer had hinted at this, not because he feared his own ability to get around, but because Johnny's being along would save them much precious time.
When the scout leader had soaked in all possible information the bound boy was capable of delivering, he believed he was in a fair way to master the situation. If Hen and his unknown captor were still hiding anywhere in the big swamp, Elmer fancied they could be found. What was going to happen after that event came about, of course, he could not say just then.
They made their way along for some distance until near the place where the three flat-bottomed skiffs were kept tied up. It was here that Johnny made a sudden discovery that gave them all a little thrill.
THE MISSING SKIFF
"Well, I swan!" was the sudden exclamation that broke from the lips of Johnny Spreen, the farmer's bound boy, as he came to a halt.
Elmer, glancing hastily at him, saw the boy rubbing his eyes in a somewhat dazed fashion. He acted for all the world like a fellow who did not feel sure that his sight was as good as usual. Something evidently was amiss.
"What is it?" demanded Lil Artha, in his usual impetuous way.
"The boats!" muttered Johnny Spreen.
"Sure thing, we see 'em!" declared the tall scout.
"How many kin yuh count, tell me?" asked the other, beseechingly, still giving an occasional dab at his eyes, as though doubts clung to his mind regarding their faithfulness.
"Why, let's see, I glimpse three—no, there are only two skiffs afloating in that little bayou," Lil Artha told him.
"Only two, air yuh dead sartin?" continued Johnny.
"That's correct, two boats and no more. I c'n see each one as clear as anything. Why, what difference does that make, Johnny?" asked Toby.