AT WHISPERING PINE LODGE
BY LAWRENCE J. LESLIE
I. THE HALT ON THE ADIRONDACK CARRY II. GRIPPED BY A GIANT'S UNSEEN HANDS III. OBED GRIMES BOBS UP IV. BANDY-LEGS SUSPECTS V. PACKING OVER THE "CARRY" VI. THE LODGE OF MANY WONDERS VII. THE YOUNG MAGICIAN VIII. PRODUCTS OF THE FUR FARM IX. LAYING PLANS TO HELP OBED X. TRAPS FOR NIGHT PROWLERS XI. A TREE THAT BORE STRANGE FRUIT XII. THE TAPS ON THE CABIN WALL XIII. OBED LEARNS SOMETHING XIV. A BIG SURPRISE XV. STEVE'S DREAM COMES TRUE XVI. THE FUR FARMER'S TRIUMPH—CONCLUSION
THE HALT ON THE ADIRONDACK CABBY
"Where's Touch-and-Go Steve, fellows?"
"Why, Max, he slipped away with his little steel-jointed fishing-rod as soon as he heard you say we'd stop here over night. And I saw him picking some fat white grubs out of those old rotten stumps we passed at the time we rested, an hour back. Huh! just like Slippery Steve to get out of the hard work we've going to have cutting enough brush for making our shanty shelter tonight; seeing that we didn't fetch our bully old tent along this trip. He's a nice one, I should say."
"N-n-never you m-m-mind about Steve, Bandy-legs. He t-t-told me he knew he c-c-could yank a m-m-mess of fine trout out of that c-c-creek, where it looked so s-s-shallow just back there. He's m-m-meaning to w-w-wade in, too, I reckon, and when you s-s-smell the fish c-c-cooking you'll be s-s-sorry you said what you did."
"Well, let's get a move on, and start that shanty. I chose this place partly on account of there being so much brush handy, you see."
"Sure you did, Max. It takes you to notice things that miss our eyes. Here, let me handle the hatchet, because you see I was such a truthful little shaver away back that my folks often regretted they hadn't named me George Washington."
"All I c-c-can say then, Bandy-legs, they b-b-builded wiser than they knew when they j-j-just let it g-g-go at regrets. A f-f-fine George Washington you'd m-m-make, I'm thinking."
The boy answering to the peculiar name of "Bandy-legs" laughed good-naturedly as he began to swing the sharp-edged hatchet, and cut down some of the required brush which, having camped many times before, he knew was suitable for their requirements.
Besides this sturdy young chap with the lower limbs that were a little bowed, and which fact had doubtless suggested such a nickname to his schoolmates, there were two others busily engaged in gathering the material to be used in affording them a rude, but effective shelter during the coming night.
The one whom they called Max seemed to be looked upon as a leader, for it is absolutely necessary that in every pack of boys some one takes the initiative. His whole name was Max Hastings, and on numberless occasions he had shown an aptitude for "doing things" when the occasion arose, that gained him the respect of his chums. For a complete record of these achievements the reader is referred to earlier volumes of this series, where between the covers will be found much interesting and instructive reading.
The third boy of the trio in sight was Toby Jucklin. While Toby was certainly agile enough when it came to acrobatic stunts, and such things as boys are fond of indulging in, his vocal cords often loved to play sad pranks with his manner of speech. As the reader has already discovered, Toby was fain to stutter in the most agonizing fashion. When one of these fits came upon him he would get red in the face, and show the greatest difficulty in framing certain words. Then all of a sudden, as though taking a grip on himself, Toby would stop short, draw in a long breath, give a sharp whistle, and strange to say, start talking as plainly as the next one.
In time perhaps he would conquer this weakness, which after all is only caused by nervousness, and a desire to rattle out words.
There was a fourth chum also, the Steve spoken of and who had slipped away with his new steel-jointed bait-rod, and a handful of fat grubs, as soon as he heard Max say they had gone far enough on their way. Steve, being one of those hasty lads who do a thing while many people would be only figuring it out, had long ago fallen heir to a number of suggestive nicknames, among others "Touch-and-Go Steve," and "Old Lightning."
These four lads were a long ways from their home town of Carson, nestled on the Evergreen River, and near which we have seen them in the earlier books of this series successfully carry out numerous of their undertakings.
In fact they were deep in the wildest part of the famous Adirondacks at the time we run across them on this particular occasion. There was not a town within many miles, nor for that matter a regular camp where summer guests were entertained. The difficulties to be encountered along this "carry" were so great that ordinary excursionists avoided it severely. Indeed, few fishermen ever invaded these solitudes, although there were undoubtedly many places where trout of generous size might be picked up.
All this would make it seem a bit queer that Max and his three chums should venture into this section of the wilderness without a guide along; so perhaps it might be wise to enter upon explanations while the opportunity is open.
Now these tried and true chums had had strange things happen to them before, but they were well agreed that their present undertaking far exceeded everything else that had ever come their way, at least so far as its being a romantic quest was concerned.
Everything combined to make it seem a page torn from one of those old-time fairy books they used to love to read when much younger, and more gullible. In the first place, it was a wonderful piece of luck that came their way, when the School Directors agreed, after the summer was half over, that the school buildings required considerable alterations in order to make them sanitary for the coming winter; and really a special providence that watches over the fortunes of boys and girls must have caused the carpenters and masons to go on a protracted strike, so that when this had been finally settled there was not nearly time enough left in which to complete the extensive repairs.
School had started, and gone along in a rough-and-ready fashion for some weeks; but everybody was "sore" about it. The builders complained that they could not accomplish half the work they should, because of the annoyance of having so many children trotting around, and bothering them. And the teachers were almost distracted on account of the constant pounding together with the presence of rough men, who broke in upon classes, and forced them to vacate certain rooms because they had to do something there.
And so along about the first of October the School Board wisely concluded that a vacation of some two weeks would do far less harm to the scholars than a continuation of these interruptions. Besides, the teachers on their part threatened to also strike unless relief came promptly.
Imagine the delight of such fellows as Max, Bandy-legs, Steve and Toby Jucklin, all of whom loved life in the open so much, when they got the chance to further indulge this propensity, especially at the most glorious time of the whole year, when the nut crop was coming on, the trees turning red and yellow from the magical touch of Jack Frost's cold fingers, with a tang in the air that made a fellow twice as hungry as he ever got in the hot old summer-time.
And then, as though Fate had determined to make this the most wonderful of periods in all their checkered careers, a thing happened that seemed just like one of those old but once much beloved fairy stories.
Perhaps, by listening to the workers exchanging comments as they gather the necessary brush, which later on would be fashioned into a shelter capable of shedding even a moderate amount of rain, we may be able to pick up enough general information to understand the nature of their mission up into the Adirondacks.
Bandy-legs was speaking at the time. He had a little fault in the way of often showing a disposition to look at the darker side of things; and doubtless being unusually tired, after a hard day's tramp, with such a heavy pack on his back, had something to do with his spirit of complaining on the present occasion.
"Well, all I can say, fellows," he remarked, as he carried an armful of the stuff he had been gathering to the spot where Max had already commenced to erect the sides of the squatty shelter by driving stakes into the ground, "is that I hope we haven't come all the way up here on a reg'lar fool's errand. It'd cost Mrs. Hopewell a pretty good sum, and be a real disappointment to her, if after all we didn't find that good-for-nothing nephew of hers, Roland Chase. Honest to goodness now, I'm a little inclined to believe he'll be leading us a wild-goose Chase, if you want my opinion."
"Oh! l-l-let up, c-c-can't you, Bandy-legs!" spluttered the indignant Toby, pausing for a minute to wipe the beads of perspiration from his brow, and regain his breath in the bargain. "You're g-g-getting to be a regular old g-g-granny, that's what, with all your d-d-dismal p-p-prophesies. Tell me, d-d-did we ever f-f-fail yet in anything we undertook? C-c-course we haven't. Right in the start we found all those b-b-bully p-p-pearls in those mussels we g-g-gathered in the Big Sunflower River, and laid away a n-n-nice n-n-nest-egg in bank for the crowd. Sure we'll f-f-find Roland Chase; we've just g-g-got to, that's all."
"All I want to say about it, boys," observed Max, "is that I admire the grit of the boy. They told us he was something of a dude, didn't they, and that his rich uncle was afraid he'd never amount to much anyhow; so what did he do but make a most extraordinary will; at least, everybody who's heard about that proviso says so. I heard Judge Perkins say though he guessed the old man knew boys better than most folks, and had taken a wise course to prove whether this Roland had any snap in him or not."
"Well, he was left just two thousand dollars cash down," said Bandy-legs, in a thoughtful manner, as though reviewing the singular circumstance, "and if at the end of two years he could show that he had doubled that amount, besides earning his own living, why he was to come into two-thirds of his uncle's fortune. Some of our Carson people who know folks over in Sagamore where the uncle lived tell whopping big stories about the size of that fortune. I heard one man say he reckoned it was as much as two hundred thousand dollars, in all."
"The funny part of it is," resumed Max, shaking his head in a way rather odd for him, "that immediately after Roland received his two thousand in cash he disappeared from the scene. That was almost two years ago; and from that day nobody in Sagamore has ever had a peep at him. The fact is he might almost be dead. Once his other aunt, Mrs. Hopewell, who lives now in Carson, had a few lines from Roland. He simply said he was alive and well, and that he had hopes of seeing her again one of these fine days."
"Yes, that's r-r-right," burst out Toby, in a disgusted tone, "but not a p-peep did he give about what he was d-d-doing, or if he meant to show up and c-c-claim his f-f-fine f-f-fortune. And all she could make out was that the p-p-postmark on the l-l-letter was Piedmont, N.Y., which on looking up we f-f-found was away up here in the h-h-heart of the old Adirondacks."
"Well," said Max, still working industriously away, "Mrs. Hopewell is getting very much concerned about Roland. Somehow she seemed to fancy the boy, though no one else thought he'd ever amount to anything, because he used to like to wander around in the woods all the while, or go fishing, instead of studying. But I guess those people hadn't ever been boys themselves; and all of us can appreciate this liking for the open that Roland showed."
"And so," pursued Bandy-legs after the fashion of a story-teller who had-reached a crisis in his tale, "she asked Max here if he wouldn't be willing to undertake a trip to the mountains with several of his good chums, meaning us, fellows, to try and locate the missing Roland, and bring back some encouraging news; for the good old soul is in great fear that the second year will soon be finished, and unless Roland is able to show four thousand dollars in cash, most of the estate will go to his older cousin, Frederick. Mrs. Hopewell dislikes this chap very much, because she says he is a bad man, who drinks, and gambles, and does all sorts of things old ladies detest. Well, we took her up in a jiffy as soon as we heard the glorious news about school being closed for two weeks; and as she foots all the bills, we're bound to have a jolly time of it, even if we don't run across Roland; and I think that is like looking for a needle in a haystack."
That was a pretty long speech for even Bandy-legs to make, and yet it covered considerable of the ground, and explained just how it came that Max and his three comrades chanced to be so far away from the home town.
The boys were just about to turn their attention once more to the work that had been undertaken when all of them suddenly stopped and listened.
"That was Steve yelling then, I reckon," snapped the owner of the bowed legs, "but honest Injun, I didn't make out what he said. Mebbe now he struck a whopper of a trout, and was giving one of his whoops. You all know how excited Steve does get if anything out of the way happens."
"L-l-listen!" cried Toby Jncklin, jumping to his feet. "D-d-didn't it sound like he was yelpin' help?"
"Just what it seemed like to me!" exclaimed Max. "Something may have happened to Steve, because he's always getting himself in trouble. Come along, fellows, and we'll soon find out. There, he's whooping it up again."
And this time every one of the trio of running boys could plainly detect something approaching agony in the thrilling cry of "Help, oh! hurry up, fellows! Help!"
GRIPPED BY A GIANT'S UNSEEN HANDS
That Max, Bandy-legs and Toby all kept their wits about them was manifest. Their actions had made this clear enough, for each of the trio before starting "on the jump," as Bandy-legs described it, had made sure to pick up something that, according to his mind, was apt to be needed. Max, for instance, had snatched a rope that hung from a broken branch of the tree, and which one of the boys had fetched along simply because "a rope often comes in mighty handy for lots of things besides a hanging bee." On his part Toby had stooped down and possessed himself of the camp hatchet; if it proved that Steve was being attacked by a bobcat he fancied he could make pretty good use of such a tool in an emergency. Bandy-legs, true to his hunter instinct, made out to secure the only gun which had been brought with them on the trip.
As they ran wildly in the direction from whence those appeals for assistance still came, louder than ever, every fellow was straining his vision to be the first to discover what it could be that was causing Steve to let out such alarming whoops.
They did not have very far to go before suddenly all of them discovered the object of their solicitude. He seemed to be standing nearly waist-deep in the stream, and still holding on to his tough little steel rod.
"Oh! shucks!" gasped Bandy-legs, almost out of breath from his violent exertions, "he's only struck a mud turtle, or something like that, and wants us to come and see. It's a burning shame to give us all such a scare over a measly turtle."
"B-b-bet you it's a w-w-woppin' b-b-big fish!" ejaculated Toby.
"Keep on running!" snapped Max. "He needs help, and in a hurry, too!"
This sort of talk amazed both the others. So far as they could see Steve stood there quite alone. They looked again but could see no savage animal attacking their comrade; nor was there any vast disturbance in the water, as though some marine monster might be trying to drag him down; besides, such things as alligators or sharks were utterly unknown up here in the Adirondacks.
"But, Max, he's all right, as far as I can see," expostulated Bandy-legs, in reality unwilling to keep up that violent exertion just to please some silly whim on the part of the fisherman, who, like as not, would give them the laugh after they came up puffing and blowing like porpoises.
"Look again," snapped Max. "Don't you see how deep he's in? Pretty nearly up to his waist, isn't he?"
"That's all right," said Bandy-legs, "but if the silly has gone and waded deeper than he meant to, why don't he just turn around and walk out again?"
"Because he can't!" Max told him, still running.
"Hey! w-w-what's hindering him!" stammered Toby, thrilled by this new mystery that had so suddenly dawned upon them.
"The sand's got too tight a grip on him," cried Max, "and he's sinking deeper all the time!"
"Oh! thunder, it's quicksand, then!" exploded Bandy-legs.
Having now the key to the enigma explaining Steve's strange action, as well as his queer antics while floundering about out there in the little stream, both boys could easily see that May evidently spoke the truth. So those envious Spanish courtiers found it easy to balance an egg on end, after Columbus showed them how to do the trick.
In another half minute they arrived on the shore of the little stream. Steve out there, with the shallow water coming now up almost to his waist, greeted their arrival with a sickly grin.
"Sorry to bother you, boys," he said, "but seems like I've gone and got into a nasty pickle. Please yank me out of this, won't you?"
Impetuous Bandy-legs was about to instantly start forward when Max gripped him by the arm.
"Don't be foolish, Bandy-legs," he told the other, severely. "You'd only get yourself in the same boat, if you stood there and tried to drag Steve out; and two would be harder to take care of than one."
"But say, don't be too slow about starting something, will you?" urged Steve, once again looking nervous. "Why, I'm sinking right along, I tell you. Every time I try to get one foot up t' other goes down three inches further, because I have to bear all my weight on it. This is no laughing matter, boys. I'll be swallowed up before your eyes soon if you don't get busy. Max, you ought to know how to extricate a fellow from the quicksand!"
"There are lots of ways in which it can be done," the other told him, meanwhile measuring distances with his eye, as though he already had a plan in mind. "If when you first discovered that you were sinking you had thrown yourself sideways, and started to crawl or roll, regardless of how wet you got, you might have made it, for in that way you'd have presented more of your body to the action of the sand. Then a mattress could be made from branches, weeds or any old thing, that would bear the weight of one or two of us. But I've got even a better scheme than that to work."
"Please hurry!" pleaded the imprisoned boy.
"Keep cool, Steve," advised Max, "because there's positively no danger, now that we're on deck."
"But tell me what you mean to do, Max?" continued Steve.
"Make use of this rope, which you see I just happened to fetch along," explained the other, holding up the article in question. "It's going to save time, too, because one of us would have had to run back to camp, and that must mean delay. You're deep enough in as it is, I guess."
"A whole lot deeper than is pleasant, I tell you," Steve instantly added. "Why, at the rate it's sucking me down I guess in less'n a quarter of an hour the water would be up to my chin. And then, oh! fellows, just imagine how I'd feel when it began to cover my mouth. You're not going away, I hope, Max?"
This last almost frantic cry was caused by a movement on the part of the one on whom poor Steve's hopes most depended.
"I'm going to shin up this big tree that sends a limb out right over your head, don't you see, Steve?" Max told him, reassuringly. "Once I get above you and we'll make good use of this rope of mine. The limb will act as a lever, and when the boys get to pulling at the other end of the rope you've just got to come out, that's all there is about it."
"Hurrah! that's the ticket!" shouted Bandy-legs, seeing the game now for the first time. "Steve, you're as good as landed. Bless that old rope, it's already proved worth its weight in gold." Steve watched operations anxiously. Despite the positive assurance conveyed in these words from his chums, the terrible grip of that clinging sand made him cold with apprehension. He imagined all sorts of things, from the rope breaking under the sudden and terrible strain, to his arms being drawn from their sockets in the battle between the tenacious sand and the muscular ability of the two boys ashore.
When Max managed to reach a point directly above the one in peril, straddling the friendly limb as only a nimble boy could do, he quickly fashioned a slip-noose at one end of the rope. This he lowered until Steve could snatch it, which he did with all the eagerness shown by the drowning man who clutches at a straw.
"Fix the noose under your arms, Steve," directed the master of ceremonies, calmly enough, though possibly Max was more excited than he chose to let the other see, "and get the knot around so it will be exactly in front. Then, when I give the word for the boys to commence heaving, you work both legs as hard as ever you can. It's going to help, more or less, you know. I can't do much up here, in the way of pulling, for I'd lose my balance; but make up your mind we're meaning to yank you out of that in a jiffy, Steve."
"Oh! I hope so, Max, I surely hope so!"
Everything was soon ready. Steve had complied with the directions, and now awaited the issue with all the fortitude he could command. Afterwards perhaps Steve might sometime or other even laugh, as he remembered how scared he was; but just then, with the difficulty still unadjusted, it was not at all humorous.
"Ready, everybody?" called out Max.
Receiving an affirmative reply from three pairs of lips, he went on to say:
"Then get busy, pulling! Make it a steady haul, and no jerks, or you'll hurt Steve more than is necessary. Steady there, Bandy-legs, no hurry, remember—just a regular increasing pull! Good enough, boys!"
Steve had obeyed instructions, and by the way he worked both feet as soon as he felt the strain one might think he was practicing swimming lessons. It must have given him more or less physical pain to feel the terrible drag of the rope under his arms, but he shut his teeth hard together, and kept back a groan.
"Now rest a bit, Toby and Bandy-legs!" called out Max. "How about it, Steve—you moved some, didn't you?"
"Yes yes, quite a little, Max!" cried the other. "Please get busy again right away. I'm sick of staying in this old quicksand!"
He still clung tenaciously to his steel fishing rod, as though he meant that it should share his fate. Once more the team ashore started in. Now their task seemed lighter, as though, having succeeded in dragging their chum up several inches, with his whole weight now suspended by the rope, the job was going to be finished in short order.
Soon Steve, crowing joyously, was drawn completely out of the water. He gave this a last suggestive kick and then dangled there in midair, spinning around like a teetotum.
"Hand me your rod, Steve," commanded Max. "Then use your arms and pull yourself up on the limb. After that you can easily hunch along like I do, and get to the main trunk. It's all over but the shouting, Steve; and you can consider yourself pretty lucky to get off as easily as you do, with a pair of wet trousers."
"I'm thankful enough, Max, you can make sure of that," said the other, carrying out the suggestion, and thus freeing both hands for the task of mounting to the friendly limb.
Before long he had reached the ground, where his three chums each gravely shook hands with him. Steve was already getting back his nerve, that had been under a severe strain.
"But anyway I did have bully good luck pulling out fat trout, boys," he told them. "You can pick up a dozen along this side of the stream. Fact is, it was such splendid fun that I just stood too long in one place, catching them and tossing the beauties ashore; and so when I tried to move, why, I couldn't to save my life. It felt like a giant had gripped both feet, and was holding me down. The more I tried the worse it got. Whee! I would have been pretty badly scared if no one was near by, I own up to that."
Perhaps the others mentally considered that as it was, Steve had looked a "good deal concerned" at the time of their arrival; but not wishing to harrow his feelings any further just then they kept this to themselves; though Bandy-legs did give Toby a suggestive wink, to which the other replied in like kind.
It was found upon gathering the trophies of Steve's skill as an angler that they had quite enough for a meal; consequently Steve announced that he guessed he needn't start in again with rod and hook and grub.
All of them were soon busily engaged in fixing up the camp. Since they had thought it best not to try and fetch a heavy tent along with them they knew it would be necessary to construct some such brush shanty shelter every night unless they could find a convenient ledge under which a camp could be made. But all of these boys had often slept under the stars, with the heavens for a canopy overhead, so that they did not feel at all worried over the circumstance.
As the sun sank lower and lower toward the horizon the camp began to assume a comfortable air. The brush shelter had been finished, and pronounced equal to any they had ever built before. It might not prove wholly rain-proof, but as for keeping off the dew, and protecting them against the chilly night air, it offered them "all the comforts of home," as Steve put it.
Then supper was started, a fire having been built after the most approved method in vogue among guides and hunters of long experience. Indeed, Max and his companions were far from being green to the ways of the woods. They had learned heaps through their many camping experiences; and some time before a visit to an old trapper had initiated them into dozens of secrets of the craft that would never be forgotten.
Again the talk was of the strange mission that had brought them up to the Adirondacks. Bandy-legs could not seem to get over his belief that they were bound to have all their trouble for their pains.
"What sort of a clue have we got to work on for a starter, fellows, tell me?" he went on to say, just as they were starting in to enjoy the supper that had been supervised by a trio of eager cooks, all as hungry as boys could well be, and continue to exist. "All we know is that when this boy, Roland Chase, left Sagamere, almost two years back, he was a sickly, white-faced chap, and with only one decent trait about him, which was his love for outdoors; though up to then it had been mostly a yearning, because they wouldn't let him get away from the house much on account of his delicate constitution. Well, we're looking for some such chap; but up to now we haven't got on his track."
 "With Trapper Jim in the North Woods."
"But hold on, Bandy-legs," expostulated Steve, "you forget that we did hear about a boy that answered that description, though nobody seemed to know his name. He was sometimes seen in the company of a half-drunken old guide named Shanks somewhere around Mount Tom district. And now we've come up this way in the hope of crossing his trail. Not that I've got much expectation myself that we'll be sure to find this same; Roland, who turns out to be a sort of will-o'-the-wisp to us; but since his old aunt was so kind as to finance this expedition, why we're bound to do all we can to make it a blooming success, that's what."
"Well," commented Max, who seemed to be the most confident one of the quartette, "remember, if we fail to make connections it'll be the first time on record that we've really been stumped. I don't believe in hard-luck stories. As a rule success comes only to those who deserve it. And we've still got most of that two weeks' vacation ahead of us, to hunt around for Roland Chase."
Somehow Max always seemed to say things calculated to make his chums feel more satisfied. It is a mighty good thing to have a real optimist in camp, especially when the weather gets bad, and everything else seems to go wrong. Even Bandy-legs took on a more cheerful air, and brightened up after hearing Max say this. They had more or less reason to feel proud of the record they had made in the past, so far as accomplishing things went. And the people around Carson would be apt to tell any one inquiring about Max and his cronies that they had actually done several exceedingly smart things, and were boys far above the average.
The supper was voted a huge success, and never had fish been fried a more delicious brown than those in the pan. Perhaps Steve entertained a private opinion of his own, to the effect that never had a higher price been paid for a mess of fish than he offered up when he found himself made a prisoner of the unseen giant residing under the quicksands; but all the same, Steve devoured his share of the fish as smartly as the next one. He doubtless felt that he deserved having a feast, after his adventure in supplying the materials.
They were almost through eating, and feeling particularly well satisfied, as is usually the case, when the appetite has been taken care of, when Toby Jucklin was seen to be staring straight ahead.
"What ails you, Toby?" demanded Steve, discovering the mysterious actions of the other. "Think you see a ghost; or was it a 'coon whisked past, smelling our fine spread here? Speak up, can't you, and tell us?"
Toby managed to find his tongue, and as usual when excited made quite a mess of his explanation.
"W-w-why, y-y-you s-s-see, I—t-that is, there's s-s-somebody—oh! look for yourselves and you'll understand quicker'n I c'n tell you!"
Sometimes Toby seemed to become so provoked with his ungovernable vocal organs that he would get angry, and wind up by speaking as plainly as the next one.
But before then Max, and perhaps the other pair in the bargain, had discovered a figure advancing slowly toward them. Eagerly Bandy-legs stared. Perhaps he began to already entertain a wild hope that the newcomer would prove to be the very boy whom they had come so far to find; but if this were so he must have almost immediately discovered his mistake, for the other was a sun-burned and wind-tanned lad, sturdily built, and apparently the son of some woods guide; for he carried a gun, and was dressed in rough though serviceable khaki trousers and blue flannel shirt.
OBED GRIMES BOBS UP
"Howdy, strangers!" said the other, as he slowly approached the spot where Max and his three chums still sat around the fire, feasting on their spread. "I happened to see yer blaze, and guessed I'd drop in to see who yah might be. 'Taint often anybody comes up this way, though to be sure thar was two gentlemen fishin' hereabouts last summer."
Somehow Max liked his manner of speech. He also thought he could detect something like a love for humor in those sparkling eyes.
"Sit down, and have a bite with us, won't you?" he remarked, making a suggestive movement with his hand, as though calling attention to the fact that there was still plenty of room on the log which he and Toby Jucklin had occupied in common. "Sorry the trout's given out, but we've got plenty of other grub, and be sure you're welcome."
The sturdy woods boy was looking them over. Bandy-legs, suspicious as usual, rather took umbrage at this action. He eyed the newcomer as though not yet quite willing to echo the warm invitation accorded him by Max. But Steve was already getting an extra tin-cup for coffee; and fortunately there still remained an abundant supply of the amber fluid in the capacious pot.
Apparently the newcomer had determined that it would be prudent for him to comply with the invitation thus cordially given. So he sat down and made himself at home. Up there in the woods there exists a genuine hospitality that never hesitates to extend the right hand of fellowship to any straggler who chances to enter the camp. There seems to be something in the healthy ozone of the wilderness that makes all men comrades for the time being. The latchstring is always out in camp; and never does an appeal for help go disregarded.
Max proceeded to immediately introduce himself and his three chums by name. He of course mentioned the fact that they came from a town named Carson, situated far away from that region; but then of course the woods boy could never have heard of such a place before. Still, his eyebrows arched, and he seemed to once again observe his entertainers with fresh interest; but then when Max Hastings chose to exert himself to make a favorable impression every one fell under his spell.
And when Bandy-legs, Toby and Steve noticed that Max did not think fit to say a single word about the queer mission which had brought them to the mountains they too concluded that it would be just as well not to be too hasty about telling all their business to a stranger. A little later on, perhaps, when they came to become better acquainted with the other, they might ply him with questions in order to find out if he chanced to know such a weakly looking fellow as Roland Chase.
Of course after that it was up to the other to tell them whom he was. He did not have any hesitation, from which Steve concluded there could be no reason for keeping his identity a secret.
"Course I got a name, too, even if it ain't quite so scrumptuous as yours. But Obed Grimes suits me just as well, and it ain't never kept me from eatin' three square meals a day—when I could get 'em," he told them, soberly, though that odd little gleam in his eyes mystified Max somewhat.
"I suppose you live around this section, then, Obed?" he remarked, as he cleaned out the frying-pan that had contained the ham and eggs—the latter having been carried all the way from the last small village they passed through, and which supply would doubtless be the last they might enjoy for a long time to come.
"Oh! yes, thar's a plenty of Grimeses up this way," the other replied, promptly. "Fact is, the Grimeses are a big family, all told. Thar's Grandad Grimes to start with, and he's going on ninety now; then there's Uncle Hiram, Uncle Silas, Uncle Job, Uncle Sephus, Uncle Nicodemus, and a whole lot more; besides Aunt Rebecca, Aunt Sophia, Aunt Hetebel, and—glory to goodness, I could sit here for ten minutes and string out the names of the grimeses there are in the mountains; but say I'm awful hungry, and you'll excuse me if I get busy with this fine grub. The other names will keep till next time, I reckon."
"Whew! it must feel funny to belong to such a big family," remarked Steve, who did not happen to have any close relatives himself.
"Oh! shucks! none of 'em ever bother about me any," said the boy, as well as he could with his mouth stuffed of the ham and bread, which he presently washed down with a copious draught of hot coffee. "They just know that Obed he c'n take good care o' hisself."
Bandy-legs began to show a rising interest in the other. His suspicions were beginning to give way under the genial ways of the said Obed. That smile on the dusky face of the visitor in the camp had commenced to get its work in. By degrees perhaps Bandy-legs might even come to like Obed Grimes; though, truth to tell, he had always despised that last name, for a boy answering to it had once treated Bandy-legs in a most humiliating fashion, and this still rankled in his memory, although years had fled since the occurrence.
"Do you mean from that, Obed," he went on to remark "that you're all alone up here in the woods near old Mount Tom? Haven't you any of the other Grimeses along with you?"
The boy shook his head in the negative, and grinned again. Max was trying to study him, and he found the task one well worthy of his best efforts. In the beginning he determined that Obed was no ordinary chap, but possessed of sterling characteristics. He waited for the conversation to get further along, confident that the other had a surprise up his sleeve which he might condescend to share with them, after he had become fully satisfied they were to be trusted, and that he could look upon them in the light of friends.
"Nary a Grimes 'cept me inside o' twenty miles o' here, and that's a fact," he assured Bandy-legs, after finishing his drinking. "Fact is, most o' the family don't know jest where I'm at; and say, between us, I ain't a carin' about tellin' 'em."
That looked a bit singular, Bandy-legs thought. His suspicions returned again, though with diminished force; for somehow he could not look into that frank and even merry face of the woods boy and actually believe he was "off-color" in any way.
"But what do you do with yourself all alone, I'd like to know?" burst out impetuous Steve. "Are you making a living playing at guide for parties of tourists, or fishermen and hunters? And, say, you don't mean to tell me you stay all alone up in this wilderness right through the winter?"
Obed Grimes nodded his head cheerfully.
"I ain't got any choice in the matter, yuh see," he told them, mysteriously; "just got to stay. Why, it would bust the hull business to smash if I 'lowed myself to skip out, even for a week or two. I'm tied down to it, that's right."
Bandy-legs exchanged a significant look Toby Jucklin. He scratched his head with the air of one who found himself up against a hard, knotty problem. Apparently, if the stranger in camp was trying to mystify them, he had already succeeded in tangling up the wits of Bandy-legs completely.
Max continued to sit there and take it all in. There was no need of his saying anything so long as the other fellows had embarked on the task of drawing Obed out and learning just what he was doing to keep him marooned up there summer and winter, like a regular old recluse, or woodchuck.
"But there must be heaps and heaps of snow here winters," suggested Steve; "and I'd think you'd find it pretty hard getting about."
"Oh! not so bad when you have snow-shoes" Obed told him, with a shrug of his shoulders, and another attack on the contents of his tin panninkin.
"'Course not," Steve hastened to say, as though he had guessed that this would be the answer. "But when the law is on the deer and partridges it must be hard to keep to a regular diet of trout. I c'n stand them for a while; but in the end I'd get sick of the smell of 'em cooking."
"Oh! I have plenty of good grub along," chuckled Obed. "I was on my way home at the time I glimpsed your fire; and bein' full o' wonder concernin' who could be around these diggings right now I crept up to spy on ye. But say, soon's I glimpsed your crowd, and saw that you was only a bunch o' boys, why I felt easier, 'cause I knew then you couldn't mean to bother me any."
Now that sounded queer again, Bandy-legs thought. Why should any one take the trouble to "bother" Obed Grimes, unless, indeed, he had been doing something that he hadn't ought to, and hence expected to be visited sooner or later by emissaries of the law, possibly in the shape of angry game wardens?
All sorts of strange thoughts flashed through that active brain of the boy with the bowed legs. He wondered whether Obed could be a desperate young criminal. Had his family, those excellent Grimes of whom he had spoken in such proud accents, cast him out as altogether beyond hope? Bandy-legs could hardly think this when he looked again into that face, and caught the gleam of those merry orbs. No, Obed might be a peculiar sort of fellow, but really there did not seem to be much of guile in his make-up; if it turned out to be so, then he, Bandy-legs, was ready to call himself a mighty poor reader of character.
So he, too, relapsed into temporary silence and let Steve carry on the interrogations; which the said Steve considered himself very well qualified to do since he aspired in his secret soul to some fine day study to be a lawyer.
"But why should anybody want to bother you, Obed?" he asked. "To hear you talk in that way a fellow would think you had a lot of enemies hanging around, trying the best they knew how to give you trouble."
"Well, I ain't had any mix-up ever since I've been here," admitted the other, with a slight frown crossing his face; "but lately I got wind o' some news that's worried me a heap. Fact is, I'm afraid I'm goin' to be right smart bothered with a bunch o' thieves who'd like to steal my outfit from me!"
Steve fairly gasped. He could not make head or tail of what the other was so deliberately telling him. Max, listening, and watching that expressive face of Obed, secretly believed the newcomer was purposely drawing Steve on, meaning to surprise him when finally he chose to explain it all. So Max did not attempt to interfere, but let things go on as they were doing, satisfied that the answer to the conundrum would soon come.
"Steal your outfit from you?" echoed Steve, when he could catch his breath; "do you mean that you're carrying on some sort of business, then, up here in the woods?"
"Reckon that's about right, Steve," Obed replied, and his familiar use of the other's name could be easily explained by that spirit of "free masonry" that exists among all boys. "I've got a business, which looks like it was goin' to pan out right decent, and make me some money in the bargain. That's why they're meanin' to rob me, I guess; anyhow, it hinges on that same thing. And I thought you might be that crowd first, but I soon saw I was mistaken, and that you'd be my friend."
"But what sort of business is it you're in, Obed?" asked Steve, boldly.
"Me? Oh! I'm only a farmer," confessed the other, chuckling as he spoke.
"A farmer!" echoed Steve, looking blank; "but how could anybody steal your ground away, or carry off your crops, I'd like to know?"
"Why, yuh don't jest understand, Steve. I ain't no regular hayseed. I'm a fur farmer, you see; and you could carry my crop of fox pelts away easy enough on your own back!"
Max Hastings smiled. He at the same time drew a breath of relief, satisfied to know that his first impression of the sturdy looking young chap was confirmed, and convinced that the said Obed Grimes must be the right sort of fellow.
Steve and Bandy-legs fairly gasped, as though they had received a real shock. At the same time the eyes of the former glistened with newly-awakened interest.
"A fur farmer, do you say, Obed? And raising foxes for the market, are you?" he burst out with, delightedly. "Now, I've read a heap about that sort of thing in the papers and magazines, but I never thought I'd actually run across anybody that had the nerve and confidence to go into it as a business. And you say you're making good, are you, Obed? That's fine!"
"I've turned my 'tention to raisin' real black foxes, first thing," explained the other, with a touch of genuine pride in his manner, Max could easily see; "and if the try turns out as profitable as I reckon she promises to be, why, then, I'm figgerin' on tryin' to raise mink and marten and sech other furs as fetch top-notch prices."
"Then I guess you must have trapped all sorts of wild animals before now, Obed?" suggested Steve, eagerly, "so you know their habits to a fraction; because, of course, only one who is posted in that direction could ever hope to make a success of a fur farm."
Obed grinned and nodded his head.
"Oh! I reckon I'm up a little bit in all sech things," he said airily enough. "And after all, it ain't so very hard to raise foxes. I was afraid fust off it might be what they told me, that blacks ain't to be relied on to breed true to strain, but shucks! I've got some cubs that are dandies. Wait till you see 'em, boys."
That sounded as though, sooner or later, Obed meant to have them visit his fur farm, and see with their own eyes what he had been doing. Bandy-legs, skeptical once more, told himself he only hoped the whole thing might not turn out to be a myth, and that the said Obed himself prove to be a deception and a fraud.
"I understand that the pelts of black foxes are worth a whole lot of money," remarked Steve; "fact is, we know that to be so, because we once had such a skin given to us by a man who made a business of trapping."
"It all depends on the quality of the pelt," explained Obed. "Some ain't worth as much as three hundred dollars, because they've got defects, yuh see. Then again a real fine skin has fetched as much as thirty-six hundred dollars in London markets."
Evidently, Obed was well posted, at any rate, whether he really had such a fur farm of his own or not, Bandy-legs concluded. And then he again allowed himself to give imagination free rein, and for a time even looked on Obed as the essence of truth, doubly distilled.
Sitting there by the fire, which one of he boys replenished every little while, Obed told them many very interesting things connected with that strange farm of his. All this in his odd vernacular which Max tried to get the hang of, in order to judge whether it signified that the country boy lacked an education or not. He continued to be more or less mystified, however, though concluding that Obed was just one of those customary country boys often run across on farms who take especial delight in joking and playing little tricks which they consider humorous.
"But he isn't at all bad, I'll stake everything on that" Max also told himself, as he sat and listened to the really interesting descriptions given by the other of his successes, and first failures along the difficult line of breeding foxes in captivity, with scores of things against him, which had to be overcome.
An hour passed by in this manner. When Max saw their visitor showing signs as if he meant to leave them, he took a hand in the conversation, which up to then had been almost wholly monopolized by Bandy-legs, Steve and the woods boy.
"It's very kind of you to invite us over to inspect this wonderful little fur farm of yours, Obed," he went on to say; "but you'll have to give us directions how we can get there, unless you mean to accept our offer of a blanket by the fire here tonight, when we could go along with you in the morning."
Obed looked sober.
"I'd like to stay longer with you, boys," he hastened to say, as though he really meant it, "but I ought tuh be gettin' back home. Thar's some duties waitin' for me to look after. And then I ain't quite easy in my mind 'bout them two fellers that's up here in the woods. They ain't meanin' to do any shootin', even if they have got Lem Scott along as a guide, and he the meanest skunk in the hull county, lots o' folks do say, and a poacher in the bargain that the wardens are layin' to grab one o' these fine days. Now I'll jest up and tell yuh how to get to my place. It's as easy as water runnin' down-hill."
He entered into explicit directions, and Max pinned them in his memory. In fact, Obed simply told them to follow the stream up three miles until they came to a bunch of seven birch trees on the right-hand bank. There they were to pick up a trail they would find, follow it half a mile, and at that they would see a cabin under the hemlocks and pines, which would be his humble home woods.
"We've got it all down pat, Obed," said Steve, "and like as not you'll see the bunch of us trailing along there some time tomorrow morning. I've always been crazy to see a fur farm, after reading so much about them, and you bet I don't mean to let this chance slip by me."
Max now thought it time to make a few inquiries himself. He wanted to ask Obed whether he had ever run across a boy by the name of Roland Chase, a sickly looking chap in the bargain. It might possible to pick up a clue in this way; and they had reached a point where they could not afford to let any opportunity for acquiring information get past them.
In order to pursue this course, however, Max realized that it would be necessary to enter into some sort of explanation concerning the nature of the peculiar errand that had tempted them to come to the Adirondacks.
"I want to ask you a question or two, Obed," he began, "but first of all I ought to tell you what brings us here."
Accordingly, Max proceeded to explain how the school had be closed for two or more weeks in early October, and what a singular thing came about to tempt them into taking an outing. He was watching the woods boy at the time he first mentioned Mrs. Hopewell, and spoke the name of Roland Chase; but if the other gave any unusual signs of interest, Max failed to catch the same. Still, Obed was listening with all his might, and it seemed as though the unusual story of the inheritance that was to be given to the said Roland in case he made good, interested him.
Max in this manner explained just why he and his three chums had accepted the generous offer of the elderly lady, so deeply concerned over the welfare of her nephew Boland, that she was ready to spend almost any reasonable sum in order to at least learn that the poor boy was alive, and in fairly decent health.
They had been told to assure him, in case they ever managed to locate the elusive Roland, that he should not worry because of not being able to comply with the absurd conditions of Uncle Jerry's ridiculous will; because she had enough of this world's goods for both, and she meant to leave it all to him, Roland; so she begged him to come back to her, and live his own life again, even though he had spent the last penny of his two-thousand-dollar legacy, and was as poor as Job's turkey.
All this made an interesting story, and must have amused the woods boy more or less, because Max knew how to put considerable pathos in it. Obed sat there shading his eyes with his hand to keep the glow of the fire from dazzling him. Occasionally he would interrupt to ask some natural question, which made Max think he was taking a fair amount of interest in the account.
"What I wanted to ask you," concluded Max, "was whether you'd ever happened to run across this same Roland Chase in the mountains. We heard about a fellow answering his description who was seen in company with a dissipated guide named Shanks. I thought perhaps you might help us out, Obed."
Obed looked him straight in the face.
"So far as I knows on, Max," he went on to say, seriously, "I ain't never met any feller like yuh say face to face. About that man Shanks, I know he's said to be a tough un. I saw him some months back down at Sawyer's Forks, and by hokey! now that you mention it, thar was a sickly lookin' young feller along with him then; but say, his name was Bob Jenks, or somethin' like that, and not Roland Chase."
"Oh! well, so far as that goes," said Max, "he may have changed his name. Some people think nothing of sailing under false colors; and if it turns out that Roland has taken up with such a disreputable character as this drunken guide seems to be, I don't wonder at him wanting to hide his identity. So you think you must be going home, do you, Obed?"
"Yep," the other observed, gaining his feet. "And I wanter to thank all o' ye for givin' me sech a pleasant evenin'. I ain't had sech a good time this long while back. But then the Grimeses all are 'customed to roughin' it. Granddad used to be away all by hisself for as much as two years, trappin' up in Canada. It's in the blood, I reckon. Now, yuh mean to drop in, and visit me, don't ye? I'll be expectin' yuh, and have something to eat awarmin', though course I ain't a good cook like you fellers, as has had so much experience. So long, boys!"
He waved them a cheerful goodbye, once more smiled at each in turn, whirled on his heel, and was gone, seeming to vanish in the shadows of the nearby woods like "a wisp of smoke when the wind strikes it," as Steve remarked.
After the departure of their guest, it was only natural that he should be the subject of conversation about the fire as the four chums lay there taking things easy.
"Max, honest to goodness now," Bandy-legs remarked, "do you really take any stock in that fairy story he told us about an imaginary fur farm? It struck me Obed is givin to yarnin' just for the love of it. All that stuff about his relatives may have been true, and again only nonsense. It's my opinion there isn't any Granddad Grimes, or Uncle Hiram, Nicodemus and so forth. He grinned like everything when he was reeling those names off so slick. Yes, he was stringing us, I bet you."
"W-w-why," burst out Toby just then, "who wouldn't have to s-s-snicker when he had a w-w-whole lot of relations with such f-f-funny names! It'd make me grin from ear to ear every time I h-h-happened to think of 'em. You're the greatest hand to s-s-suspect anybody I ever s-s-saw, Bandy-legs. Now, I want you to k-k-know that I think Obed the s-s-straight g-g-goods, and I'm taking a heap of s-s-stock in seeing that bully f-f-fur f-f-farm of his tomorrow; ain't you, Max?"
"Certainly I am," replied the other, without a second's hesitation. "In the first place, Bandy-legs, you must understand that nobody could talk so interestingly on a subject unless he knew a lot about it. He told us a dozen things about fur farming that I never heard before."
"Huh! and perhaps nobody else ever heard of them either, Max," grunted the far from satisfied Bandy-legs.
"Nothing will ever satisfy him except he sees those kit foxes with his own eyes," asserted Steve, almost indignantly, "handles them with his own paws, and asks every little critter whether he really belongs to Obed Grimes. Bandy-legs is the worst Doubting Thomas going, when the fit comes on him."
Even this sort of talk did not convince the objector.
"Say what you will, fellows," Bandy-legs went on, stubbornly, "there's a wheen of queer things connected with this same Obed Grimes, and I won't take that back till he shows us his wonderful old farm, where he raises black foxes for the fur market. Stop and think how mysteriously he popped in on us, will you? Why, he as much as owned up that he had been spying on us for a long time. If Toby here hadn't discovered him peeking, and pointed that way, chances are he wouldn't have shown up at all. Now, what made him snoop around our camp like that?"
"Say, didn't he explain all that just as straight as a die?" objected Steve, who seemed to have conceived quite a fancy for Obed Grimes, the woods boy. "He told us he had reason to fear some unscrupulous fellows were hanging around this region and meaning to steal his pets when they got half a chance. That was why he wanted to watch, and make sure we didn't belong to the same crowd."
"Oh! yes, a likely story, too," continued Bandy-legs, with a sneer. "Why should anybody want to rob a poor boy who was trying to earn his living by farming, even if it was furs he raised instead of grain or hogs or stock?"
"Why, you poor ninny, the reason is as plain as the nose on your face, Bandy-legs, and that's not invisible by a big sight. When a black fox pelt will fetch a thousand dollars, more or less, and can't well be traced once it gets mixed with other pelts, it stands to reason that any thief would want to steal it. As to your doubting that there are any other people up in this section, you seem to forget, Bandy-legs, that around noon today we sighted a plain smoke some miles away, which we opined must have been made by some advance hunters, waiting for the law to be off deer. Well, why couldn't it have been the people Obed says he fears, who made that smoke? Now, for my part, I believe every word Obed Grimes said. He's the straight goods every time, and you can see it in his eye, for he looks you direct in the face."
Thereupon, Bandy-legs, as though realizing that he had raised a hornet's nest about his ears, deemed it the part of discretion to shrug his shoulders after the manner of one who, "convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."
"We'll let the subject drop, Steve," he said, hastily. "It ain't worth quarreling over. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it; and tomorrow we'll know what's what. But remember, if it turns out that we've been bamboozled, don't blame me, because I've warned you all."
"If we had a chill from every warning you've sprung on us, Bandy-legs," Steve told him, witheringly, "why, say, we'd have gone all to pieces long before now. You're a regular old bad-weather prognosticator, that's what you are."
"That's right, get to calling names. It's a habit with people who know they are in the wrong," grumbled Bandy-legs; but, nevertheless, he "drew within his shell," and said nothing further about Obed Grimes or his suspicions concerning the same.
PACKING OVER THE "CARRY"
Later on the conversation began to lag. Steve was noticed drowsily nodding his head in a suggestive way; and then after a sudden start he would look around aggressively, as if to remark: "who said I was sleepy?" but within three minutes he would be at it again.
In fact all of the boys were really tired out. The day's tramp had been a difficult one, even for fellows accustomed to such things; and those regular Adirondack packs, with a band crossing the forehead in the usual way, had seemed doubly heavy before they decided to stop for the night.
Of course there were sounds to be heard all around them, but "familiarity breeds contempt," and from Max down they were all accustomed to hearing similar noises whenever they spent nights in the open. The owl would whinny or hoot according to his species; the loon send forth his agonizing and weird shriek from some distant lake; a fox might bark sharply and fretfully, or two quarrelsome 'coons dispute over a bit of food they had discovered—all this went with the camping business, and indeed it would have seemed odd to those boys had the usual accompaniment been missing.
"Well, what's the use of our staying up longer?" Max finally announced in an authoritative fashion, after Steve had almost jerked his neck awry for about the seventh time, with one of those spasmodic movements. "Our blankets are calling to us, boys; let's turn in."
There was no negative vote recorded, for every one seemed ready to call it a day, and quit. Max took it upon himself to look after the fire. Plenty of wood had been gathered to last until morning, and then some; for, as the night air was beginning to feel pretty sharp, it was concluded to keep the fire going.
"I'll look out for that part," said Max. "I generally wake up just so many times during the night when I'm in camp, and it's no trouble for me to crawl out and toss another stick on the fire. So forget it, fellows, will you?"
Apparently the others took him at his word, for not another sign of any of them was seen while night lasted. Once they snuggled down in their warm comfortable blankets, they must have become "dead to the world," as Steve aptly termed it.
Several times while the night held sway a figure would crawl noiselessly out of the crude brush shanty shelter, and place another lot of wood upon the dwindling fire, thus keeping it going for another spell of several hours. Of course this was Max, who really liked to take an observation concerning the state of the weather, note the changed positions of the heavenly bodies, so that he could figure on the passage of time; and then once more creep into the folds of his blanket to again fall into a deep sleep.
So the night passed.
Nothing occurred to disturb its serenity. The little four-footed woods folks doubtless prowled all around the boys' camp, eyeing the glimmering fire with wonder and distrust, for it could not be a familiar sight to any of them, since mankind seldom visited this inaccessible region so far removed from the track of ordinary travel. Some of the more daring among them, venturesome 'coons or 'possums perhaps, may even have invaded the precincts of the charmed circle, searching with their keen little noses for traces of castaway food; but, if so, their presence did not disturb the sleepers within that shelter.
So morning came on apace, and presently from the brush shanty one after another of the fellows came creeping forth, to stretch and yawn and finally hasten their dressing, for the frosty air nipped fingers and toes quite lustily.
They were in no particular hurry, and breakfast therefore was undertaken in the best of humor, with plenty of time given to its preparation. Everybody seemed to be in the best of humors, and his good sleep must have smoothed even the spirit of the fretful Bandy-legs, for he no longer grumbled or found fault. Perhaps, as so frequently happened, he was secretly ashamed of having shown such a suspicious and argumentative disposition on the preceding evening, and meant to make amends for it by an unusually cheery manner.
It was determined to "break camp" soon after the matin meal had been comfortably dispatched. This did not promise to be an extraordinary feat, since they were trying to go light-handed on this expedition, and did not have many of their ordinary "traps" along, from a tent down to certain cooking utensils that had been deemed too heavy for "toting" mile after mile into the wilderness.
It makes a whole lot of difference just how fellows mean to go, when laying out the impedimenta for a trip. If a wagon or a boat is available, all sorts of things may as well be taken along, so as to insure the maximum of comfort; but when it is known in the beginning that all they are meaning to use must be packed every mile of the way on the back of the campers, then it is high time to cut down the list to the last fraction, so far as weight and bulk are concerned.
Max and his chums had reduced this down to a real science. For instance, having a comfortable balance at the bank, thanks to their thrift in the past, money did not enter into their calculations at all. Consequently, they had purchased a complete little outfit of aluminum cooking vessels that nested within each other and weighed next to nothing, while offering all the advantages of ordinary granite ware. Other campers' comforts, too, had been secured, so that they even carried a certain amount of condensed food in the shape of milk powder; evaporated eggs that could be used to make excellent omelets in case of necessity; and even soup in double cans, with a layer of unslacked lime between, which, by the addition of a little water to the lime could be heated up beautifully without the aid of a fire.
 "In camp on the Big Sunflower."
When all of them started in to get busy, things quickly assumed a concentrated condition. Each article had its regular place where it would take up the least possible space. Why, by now every fellow had found out just how to do up his pack so that no sharp and uncomfortable edges would cut into his back; and when this condition has been reached, it means that the last word in packing has been learned.
Max himself saw to it that the fire was effectually "killed" before they quitted the scene of their night encampment. This he did by throwing water on the hissing embers until it was quite dead. If every party that spends a night in the wilderness took the same pains to put out their fire on leaving, many a magnificent stretch of timber would be spared from the ravages of a forest fire, that leaves only blackened tree trunks behind, and ruins thousands of acres of wooded land every year.
Although a fire may die down, and seem to have little life in it, there is no absolute surety unless water be used, that a rising wind may not fan the embers into renewed activity, until a dangerous spark is carried into some nest of dead leaves near by, and so the fire starts that man-power can seldom control.
"Three miles, he said, up this stream," observed Bandy-legs, as they started gaily forth, Max in the lead, and Toby bringing up the rear.
"And as no doubt the said stream meanders considerably in its course, that might mean only half the distance as the crow flies," remarked the leader, turning once more to look back toward the deserted camp, after the fashion of a carpenter who considers it wise to measure his post once again before applying the saw, because after the deed is done the parts can never be put together again; but everything seemed still, and not the faintest whisp of smoke crept lazily upward from the late camp-fire.
They walked along for a short distance, and then upon crossing a little rise, in order to skirt a bad section of marshy ground, it was discovered that they had a good chance to look backward. A rather pretty view rewarded their efforts, and as all the boys appreciated Nature in her fall dress, they stood for a minute drinking this in.
"You can follow the course of the stream for quite a distance, notice?" remarked Bandy-legs. "And I even see the place where we yanked Steve here out of that sand."
Steve frowned as he looked, and Max could see that he had gone a little white. The memory of his harrowed feelings on that occasion would stay with Steve for quite some time, and produce an unpleasant sensation every time it came before his mental vision.
Max also saw him shut his teeth very hard together, and was close enough to even catch a word or two the boy muttered savagely to himself.
From that Max could judge the lesson had been impressed on Steve's mind indelibly; and that as long as he lived he would be careful how he entered an unknown stream when fishing; and especially how he became so engrossed in his sport as to stand a length of time in one spot, without working his feet up and down so as to make sure they were free from clinging sand.
They chatted from time to time as they proceeded, and of course all sorts of subjects cropped up to be discussed. Sometimes there was a little good-natured dispute concerning something or other, for boys have different minds, and are apt to view things from various angles; but as time passed they made such good progress that Max presently announced his belief they must presently glimpse the seven birch trees mentioned by Obed Grimes, as marking the place where they were to quit the bank of the stream.
At the time they stopped to look backward Max had scanned the country behind them, looking for some trace of another camp smoke, but seeing fond of "working his way," and often slipped out of things when he could manage it—some fellows always do get hold of the smaller end of the log that is being carried, as if by instinct; though it would be hardly fair to call them shirkers.
They rested for something like ten minutes. Then Max started up.
"Here's the trail Obed told us about," he observed, pointing down at his feet as though he had been looking about him while recuperating after that three mile carry. "And I guess we might as well be going on. For one I'm beginning to feel quite curious to see that lodge of his under the pines and hemlocks, as well as learn what he is doing with his fox farm."
Bandy-legs opened his mouth, and then considered it better not to voice the question he had on the tip of his tongue, for he shut his jaws tight together again, and did not speak; Max noticing this, it caused him to smile in quiet satisfaction. That was a very disagreeable habit of Bandy-legs, always questioning things, and wanting double proof before he would put the stamp of his approval on them; and Max kept hoping that in the process of time it could be broken up.
It was not difficult to follow the trail, even though at times this proved to be rather faint and undecided; at least it turned out to be an easy task with the four chums, simply because they were accustomed to such things. A greenhorn might have lost the track many times, and made a none. He had in mind the story told by Obed concerning the presence in the vicinity of another party, and his suspicions concerning their base intentions. Apparently Max must have believed what the woods boy said, even though he could see no sign of a camp that morning.
"I've got an idea the seven birches are just over yonder, boys!" announced Steve, who possessed good eyesight. "Twice now I've glimpsed something white among the thickets of undergrowth; and you can see that the creek is beginning to swing around so as to lead us in that direction."
"G-g-guess you're about r-r-right, Steve!" declared Toby Jucklin, instantly; "to t-t-tell you the t-t-truth, I've been squinting that same p-p-patch of white myself q-q-quite some little time now."
It turned out to be just as Steve had prophesied. They soon discovered a bunch of birches growing from the stump of a larger tree that had long ago fallen under the ax of a woodsman.
"There are seven, all right—count 'em!" announced Steve with a vein of exultation in his voice, just as though by right of discovery those birches really belonged to him.
"Let's call a little rest before we tackle the last round," begged Bandy-legs, as they arrived alongside the landmark mentioned by Obed; and without waiting for the others to assent he dropped his pack, and threw himself down on an especially inviting bit of moss, heaving a great sigh of relief; for be it known, Bandy-legs was not especially "mountain out of a mole-hill," as Steve aptly put it, when referring to the matter.
Soon they were casting eager glances ahead, under the impression that they must certainly be drawing near the object of their search. Even Bandy-legs had by now apparently arrived at the belief that Obed was "straight," and that he really did have some sort of home in this secluded region. The directions had turned out to be exact, from the three-mile tramp along the stream and the "seven birches, count 'em"; to the winding trail that led from that point deeper into the woods.
"Looky there, isn't that some sort of high wire fence?" demanded Steve, suddenly.
"And, say, I got a plain whiff of sweet hickory wood smoke then, believe me," added Bandy-legs, in some excitement, and evidently forgetting that not long before he had been skeptical regarding the existence of any lodge or fox farm.
"Well, there's the answer right before you," laughed Max; and as they stared in the direction their leader was pointing, the balance of the little party saw what seemed to be the "cutest" little cabin fashioned from sawn logs, and nestling in a happy fashion directly under the clustering pines and hemlocks, that hung over it most protectingly, as though with the intention of keeping the winter snows from weighing down the sloping roof.
At one end was a chimney made of slabs of wood, with the chinks filled in with mud that, in the process of time, aided by the heat of the fire, had become as hard as cement or adamant; and from this there curled wreaths of lazily ascending blue smoke, the source of that delightful odor that had drifted to Bandy-legs's nostrils.
THE LODGE OF MANY WONDERS
"There's Obed right now, waving at us from the doorway of his cabin," announced Steve, even as they looked at the picture made by the little log structure nestling so cozily under the dark foliage of the resinous trees that never lost their green look, even when snow covered the mountains to the depth of several feet.
They hurried forward to join the owner of the woods lodge, who had evidently expected them to put in an appearance about this time of day, figuring just when they would break camp, and how long it would take them to make the "carry."
He shook hands with each of his new-found friends in turn, and warmly, too. Even Bandy-legs seemed to feel that his unworthy suspicions of the other could have no foundation, to judge from the hearty way in which he greeted Obed.
Max was quick to see that Obed looked pleased at their coming. He also wondered why the other seemed to raise his eyebrows now and then, and smile as though certain thoughts he entertained were quite amusing. But, then, seeing what a lonely life the young fur farmer must be leading, so far away from his kind, and wrapped up in his singular calling, after all, it was not so queer that he should act in this way, upon having visitors, and boys of his own age, in the bargain.
They were ushered inside the lodge, and here another surprise greeted them. Max in particular was astonished to find that the small building contained so much in the way of comforts. If he had thought of the matter at all, he probably expected to find just an ordinary shack, such as nine boys in ten would be contented with building, and that Obed was putting up with all sorts of discomforts.
The contrary proved to be the truth, for there were numerous things in sight to cause a visitor to express surprise. Why, Obed even used aluminum cooking utensils equal to theirs, though not meant for camping particularly; there were several rocking chairs, and one big fireside chair that looked mighty inviting indeed, as it flanked the broad hearth where Obed had a blaze going.
The kitchen lay at the back, and actually had a wood stove in it, capable of baking bread or biscuits on occasion. Water, too, had been piped to the cabin from some spring farther up the rise; though, in the dead of winter a supply must of necessity be obtained from some other source since this would be frozen up.
These things, and many others along the same line, caused Max to survey Obed with a new source of wonder. Who was this remarkable boy, and how on earth did he come to possess such a magical lodge up here in the unpeopled wilderness? Why, a rich man could hardly have surrounded himself with more in the way of comforts; and yet, according to his language, and his account of himself, Obed was only an ordinary child of the woods, one of the very numerous Grimes tribe, many of whom doubtless gained their living by serving as guides in season.
Max, after staring around him in due wonder and admiration, turned again to Obed. He could see that the other was observing them with that merry twinkle in his eyes? and evidently expecting his guests to express amazement at finding so wonderful a habitation where they had anticipated so little.
"Its just splendid, that's the only word I can find to express my feelings, Obed," Max hastened to say, at which the other laughed aloud.
"Course, now, you-all are awonderin' jest how a poor woods boy like me 'd ever git hold o' such a clever cabin," he went on to say; "but shucks! that's an easy one to explain. Yuh see, it was built by a man who had plenty o' money and poor health. He thought he could get well by stayin' here, and so he fixed her up to beat the band. That big chair he loved to sit in when the fire was agoin'. But jest as he got fixed so nice his wife sent for him to come back home; and, say, he had to go. So, havin' no use for his place here, he turned it over tuh me for a song, I c'n show yuh the bill o' sale. Yuh see, I got to know Mr. Coombs right well, for he was interested in my ijee o' startin' a fur farm. Well, he's dead now. I often think when I'm sittin' here enjoyin' what he built that somehow his spirit must be a hoverin' around, cause he certainly did love this place a heap."
The explanation entirely satisfied Max, though of course that skeptic of a Bandy-legs had to let his eyebrows go up in an arch as he listened; but then Bandy-legs would doubt anything that savored of the uncommon. Max simply frowned at him and paid no more attention to his manner.
"You were certainly mighty lucky to fall heir to such a lovely little home as this, Obed," Steve was saying, with a streak of envy in his voice. "Say, I'd just be tickled half to death now if I could spend a month up here with you. There must be plenty of game around, I reckon; and it'd be a real delight to keep house in a little palace like this. But how are you going to tuck us away for the night, Obed, if I might be so bold as to ask, seeing that as yet we haven't had an invite to stay over?"
"Oh! that's easily managed," replied the other, with, another of his queer laughs. "You haven't begun to see all the wonders o' this lodge. Mr. Coombs amused himself for a whole summer havin' it built. He put a heap o' his own ijees into the same, too. Yuh see, he used to be a sea captain once on a time, and that gave him the notion to have tables that folded against the wall so as tuh take mighty little room. Then seem' as how he might expect to have company some time or other, look how he fixed the bunks along the walls."
With that Obed turned a button that none of them had thus far noticed, fastened on the wall Immediately a section slipped down exposing a cavity beyond that proved to be a regular sleeping bunk, fully capable of "housing" any ordinary person. It was plain to be seen that his sea education had given Mr. Coombs the idea carried out in this remarkable fashion.
"Beats anything I ever struck!" admitted the admiring Steve, as he pushed forward to peep inside the cavity that seemed to offer such a comfortable bed.
"But hardly big enough for the whole bunch of us, I'm afraid, Obed," urged Bandy-legs, with the idea, of course, of drawing the other out.
"This is one bunk," said Obed, calmly, "there are three jest like it along the two walls, makin' four in all. So yuh see it's jest like Mr. Coombs, he figgered on my having you-all stop over with me some fine day. Then I c'n make up a bed on that 'ere couch, which is softer 'n any o' the bunks. He used to sleep, on it all the time, did Mr. Coombs."
"Well, I must say this is a revelation to me," admitted Max, his face showing how pleased he felt. "And you were lucky, as Steve here just said, to fall in with such a fine man as Mr. Coombs, at the time you started your fur farm. I suppose it was the interest he took in it that made him hand over this cabin, when he learned that his plans for staying here could never be carried out."
"Why, yes, mostly that," agreed Obed, turning a little red. "P'raps I ought to tell yuh that I chanced to do Mr. Coombs a little favor when we first met. Yuh see, I happened to come on him in the woods. He'd started out to find a certain kind o' sapling that he wanted right bad to use; and not bein' used to findin' his way around, he jest naturally got lost. But that wasn't the wust o' it. In using his ax to chop down a sapling he kim across, what did he do but cut his foot, and it was bleeding like fun when I ketched his shouts, and kim up. Course, I soon fixed that foot, and since he was only a little dried-up speck o' a man I managed to tote him on my back most ways home here. He chose to think I'd done him a great favor, and after that he was always sayin' he meant to repay me some day. Well, he certainly did when he turns over this here neat contraption at a price that was dirt cheap, and which I'd be ashamed to mention to yuh. That's how it come I got this cabin."
How simple the explanation was after all, and how Bandy-legs must feel his cheeks burn with shame at the thought of having suspected this same Obed of trying to deceive them. Max could easily picture the ex-sea captain seated in that capacious fireside chair with the tufted cushion, and perhaps smoking his long-stemmed pipe with the air of a man who believed he had found what he had long sought, peace and comfort combined, only to have a summons come that he dared not disobey.
"Make yourselves to hum," said Obed, cheerily. "Here, drop the packs over in this corner. If later on so be yuh want to git anything out o' the same it'll be easy done. And seein' as I've got dinner started, I guess we wont take a turn around the farm till it's been stowed away."
Although, of course, all of the boys were eager to see what a fur farm looked like, where those wonderful black foxes that brought such, a big price in the London markets were being bred in captivity, none of them objected to sitting down and taking a rest. Bandy-legs and Steve in particular made a bolt for the big chair, though the latter was too quick for his competitor, and managed to ensconce himself within its capacious embrace before Bandy-legs arrived.
"Start earlier next time, Bandy-legs!" crowed the proud possessor of the coveted seat, as he spread himself so as to occupy it all. "But after I've tried it out I'll vacate, because I expect to get busy in that bully little kitchen, and help friend Obed sling the grub for dinner."
So Bandy-legs had to content himself with a seat on the couch. He might have been observed sniffing the air with avidity, however, as though he had caught some enticing odor stealing out of the oven of the cook stove, that was not unlike fresh bread being well browned; and there was nothing Bandy-legs loved better than the crust part of a fresh baking—he always had a compact with the cook at home to save him the "run-over" portions, which he looked upon as a prize well worth having.
Soon Obed left them there in the larger room and vanished within the kitchen. It was a challenge to Steve which he could not long resist. Bandy-legs kept watching him glance toward the connecting doors. His whole manner was that of a boy who, although making no sound, might be "sicking" one dog on another. No sooner had Steve left the capacious fireside chair than Bandy-legs slipped into it; and after that he was not meaning' to be dislodged until the summons came to gather about the table to discuss the midday meal. Bandy-legs liked eating as well as the next one; but he loved his ease more, and was well content to have some other fellow do the hard work of getting the meal ready; his time would come when he had to "work his jaws" in disposing of his portion of the spread.
The more Max looked about him the greater his wonder became. All manner of thoughts surged through that active mind of his. He had already conceived the greatest sort of secret admiration for the extraordinary woods boy, even before he had glimpsed that remarkable fur farm which the other was successfully running. Plainly, then, this same Obed Grimes was bound to be a credit to his family; and all those people bearing the strange names given by Obed would some day find cause to feel proud of having such an enterprising relative.
Obed proved to be a pretty good cook, despite the humility with which he had remarked that of course he could not expect to compete on even terms with fellows who had had so many better opportunities to acquire the "knack" of things, than had come his way.
The bread was as fine as any Bandy-legs had ever eaten in his own home, where a high-priced cook held sway over the kitchen. There was also a meat pie that seemed delicious, both as to crust and contents, when opened; though Obed in-formed them that it was made of canned beef, and even displayed the recent tin jacket, with its telltale label, as confirmation to his assertion.
"Yuh see, boys," he remarked, laughingly, "I don't want yuh to think I'd poach a deer in the close season, and palm it off as mountain mutton, like they do at some o' the big hotels up here in the Adirondacks, I'm told. Course I do shoot a deer once in a while in season; and lots o' pa'tridges, they bein' so tame yuh c'n knock them over as they sit on the lower limb o' a tree after flushin'. I ketch wheens o' trout, too, from time to time; but I give yuh my word I never yet killed anything when the law was on it, never!"
When Obed said a thing in his emphatic way, he was to be relied on, Max thought. The woods boy could look very sober at times, though, as a rule, there was that merry gleam in his eye that told how much he loved a joke.
Altogether they had a delightful meal, and what was even better, there was an abundance to give every one three bountiful helpings, which fact pleased Bandy-legs and Steve in particular. The former, on passing his plate—for they actually had such articles at this wonderful lodge under the pines—for the third help, excused himself by remarking aside:
"It's queer what a terrible appetite toting a pack a few miles over a carry gives a fellow. Now, at home I'm generally satisfied with one portion, but once let me get into the harness, and I seem to have no end of capacity. Say, I'd eat you out of house and home, Obed, if I stayed very long at your ranch."
"No danger o' that, I guess, Bandy-legs," replied the other, for he had of course taken quite naturally to calling these new friends by their customary names, just as boys always do get on quick terms of familiarity. "Last time I went to town I laid in quite a wheen o' stuff. Then there's always the crick to git trout outen; and in a short time you could shoot pa'tridges without breakin' the game laws. So don't let that worry yuh any. I'm on'y too tickled to have some fellers around. It does git kinder lonely here, sometimes, I own up."
"Whew! I should think it would, Obed," said Steve, lost in admiration for the amazing nerve displayed by the woods boy in remaining all by himself, winter and summer, seldom, if ever, seeing a human face, and apparently devoting all his energies to making his fur farm experiment turn out to be a success. "Nothing would tempt me to stick it out here a whole winter. Why, I'd die of the blues, and let the black foxes go to the dickens, while I made break for the nearest town, so I could hear the sound of a human voice."
Obed looked at him gravely, and heaved a sigh.
"Yep, I feels that ways, too, sometimes, Steve," he said presently; "and let me tell yuh the temptation is nigh more'n I c'n stand; but I jest shuts my teeth together, and tells myself that I started in to do this job, and I'm agoin' to stick it out or know the reason why. Then I git my second wind agin' and it's all right. Once I used to give in right easy, but I'm broke now o' that bad habit, I guess."
THE YOUNG MAGICIAN
The more Max listened to Obed talk on the one subject that seemed to be his pet hobby, that of raising valuable fur-bearing animals for the market, the deeper grew his conviction that the woods boy was well worth studying.
He might talk after the manner of an uneducated boy, but Max knew that this could not be the case. Even though the main lot of numerous "Grimeses" were following the humble occupation of guides amidst the extensive stretches of the Adirondacks, and possibly many of them would be found to be boors, save along the line of woodcraft, Obed had managed to pick up considerable knowledge, somehow or other.
When trying to explain how this idea of successfully raising "silver" black foxes took such a main grip on his imagination, he brought out a batch of clippings which he had managed to get hold of in some manner, Max could not even guess how.
Some of these were fantastic in their revelations, while others were authentic interviews with parties who for years had been secretly engaged in the business of fur farming. This was away up on Prince Edward Island beyond Nova Scotia, said to be the place best situated geographically for the purpose, as these animals require a severe climate in order that their pelt assumes its richest and heaviest crop. A black fox farm started down in Florida would not produce furs worth offering for sale.
Max was intensely interested with one account in particular connected with the extensive pioneer silver fox ranch. He even asked the privilege of copying the same for future reference, because he knew that statements he might make later on would be skeptically received by many people who had never dreamed that any species of furs were so valuable that young pups could be worth more than their weight in gold.
That the boy reader of this story may also stock up with information that will better enable him to understand what enterprising Obed Grimes was trying to do on a small scale, I am tempted to give the main items in this newspaper article, every word of which is said to be literally true.
Since this account was first printed some years ago, other farms along similar lines have been started away up near Calgary, in the Canadian Province of Alberta, and are said to be doing excellently, one ranch near Midnapore reporting a start with twelve pair, and the pack now counting thirty-seven in all.
But here is the main part of the clipping, well worth reading:
There is something novel about a ranch which consists of spaces covering 150 feet of ground. Chappell, now president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, Nova Scotia, owns seventy pairs of silver black foxes, and his ranch is split up into small inclosures of that size, covered with wire on four sides, the wire being buried four feet under ground, attached to a concrete base, and turned in several feet. The silver black fox tries to root its way to freedom, and this is the way the breeder prevents his escape.
When the foxes mate we also mate a pair of black cats of the ordinary domestic variety. As soon as the young are born, we take the fox pups away from the mother fox, and the kittens away from the mother cat, and make the cat foster-mother to the fox cubs. In this way we are able to rear a more domesticated breed of foxes.
For twenty years this business of raising foxes of the silver black species was really kept under cover, because of its great possibilities for making big money. With the last four or five years the business has become organized, and today many millions of dollars are invested in it.
The last lot of animals slaughtered was in 1910. There were forty-three pelts sent to London at that time. They brought as high as $3,800, the average fetching $1,500. Silver black fox is the rarest fur utilized by man. The Russian sable, otter, and South Sea seal are practically eliminated for commercial purposes, due to international laws which prohibit the killing of these animals for the next ten or fifteen years, so as to give them a chance to increase.
Only 800 pairs of live foxes were placed on sale last year. Fewer than 50 of that number were killed and their fur sold. The rest went for breeding purposes, because fur farms are starting up in many favorable places. The men who raise silver foxes on Prince Edward Island know the game. They started in it as boys many years ago.
"In the provinces of Prince Edward, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, men and women interested in breeding foxes have been made wealthy. They were poor people ten years ago. Today they live in town houses, own their own automobiles, and yet continue to give the strictest attention to all the details connected with their singular farming industry."
Obed was extremely modest in what he told concerning his own small beginning. Max, having also read in one of the clippings that a pair of gilt-edged silver black foxes were worth all the way up to $30,000, was, of course, doubly curious to learn whether those with which Obed started could be the genuine article, and if so, how had he managed to obtain them.
It seemed to be only a game in which rich persons could enter. Obed understood just what must be passing in the mind of the other, and at the first opportunity he hastened to explain.
"I was just chock full o' this business," he went on to say, "when I ran across Mr. Coombs. Yuh remember I told yuh about how that came about, and that he seemed to think I'd saved his life." Well, he and me kept house together here for some months, and then one day thar come the biggest surprise I ever had. He fetched a crate along up from town in a wagon he hired; and say, inside the same was the finest pair o' silver blacks I ever saw. Then some more wagons begun to show up fetchin' rolls of wire netting, and bags o' cement to make concrete with. Mr. Coombs had gone into the fur raisin' business for keeps, and I was to have an interest in the game. He had an agreement all written out that both o' us signed before a justice, which fixed things up. Half the proceeds o' the fur farm was to come to me, while I stayed here to look after things.
"Well, sir, we worked like fun to git the stockade built 'cording to form; and our mated pair o' foxes planted in the same. Since then I've fixed three more enclosures, ready for an increase o' stock. Mr. Coombs, he called this the Lone Lodge Black Fox Farm, and I guess the name will stick even after I get to selling off some o' the product."
It was simply wonderful, all of the eager listeners thought. Max could hardly believe his ears, and yet so far as he could make out Obed seemed in dead earnest. Besides, he had the documents to prove the truth of his story, he said, which he would spread before them a little later on.
As for that skeptic, Bandy-legs, he rolled his eyes up many times while listening, and seemed to be swallowing it with considerable difficulty. Toby and Steve never questioned the veracity of the narrator; they were simply amazed at the immensity of the enterprise that had sprung up almost like a mushroom, over night. Millions on millions of dollars invested in artificial fur farming, and the general public utterly in the dark concerning the facts until recently, when its scope could no longer be concealed, like a light hidden under a bushel.
"And now that you've kinder got an idea of what a big fur farm might be like," the singular woods boy went on to say, rising as he spoke, "s'pose yuh meander out and take a look at my humble beginnin'. I surely hope yuh won't run down my efforts, 'cause o' course things ain't got to runnin' full swing yet. But the cubs are nigh big enough to be taken to market."
"How many have you got, Obed?" asked Max, following the other out of the cabin.
"One pair nearly grown, and another just two months old. I've been mighty lucky in not losing a single pup so far," came the reply over Obed's shoulder; and he might be pardoned for putting just a mite of pride in his tones, for he had accomplished something worth while for a new beginner at the business.
"But if you expect to keep in this line," said Bandy-legs quickly, as though he voiced a suspicion that kept cropping up in his mind, "why do you want to dispose of that first pair of pups?"
Obed laughed good-naturedly.
"I'll tell yuh, Bandy-legs," he said, confidentially. "In the first place breeders like to change their stock, so as to bring new blood into the pens. Then again, why, I happens to need the money that's comin' to me for my share. A fellow has got to live up here in the mountains, and grub costs a wheen o' hard cash, 'specially when yuh got a good appetite, which seems to fit me all right. But if I get what I'm hopin' for it'll be all right, and I reckons thar'll come some years before we let more foxes get away from this same farm."
So he took them to where he had his main enclosure, in which the boys found the parent foxes. They may have become somewhat accustomed to seeing Obed, and hearing the sound of his coaxing voice, for even the most timid of wild animals in the process of time comes to recognize the one who supplies their wants along the line of daily food. But possibly Bandy-legs or Steve chanced to laugh, or speak out loud, for the old foxes took the alarm; and it was only after constant efforts on the part of Obed, with his familiar call to dinner, that caused them to show themselves at all.
They were certainly beauties. Max wondered more than ever at the nerve of Obed in trying to start a silver black fox farm in this section, with no one save himself apparently in charge. He feared that the enterprise would be doomed to certain disaster. The smart woods boy might be successful in raising a crop of valuable youngsters in the fox line; but sooner or later some unscrupulous men, guides out of a job perhaps, and loaded with strong drink, would try to make a secret raid on his preserves, and clean him out in a single night. Fox pelts worth thousands of dollars must tempt some men beyond their fears, or power of resistance.
Max made up his mind he would talk about this with Obed before he left. He wondered at the short-sighted policy of the executor of Mr. Coombs' estate in allowing so much money to be tied up in this property without proper safeguards. If it was intended to continue the fox farm now that it gave all evidences of possible success surely the boy should have an assistant, some strong woodsman who could by his presence and readiness to do battle awe any intended transgressors.
They next visited the enclosure where the two pair of little foxes played and slept and ate their fill, daily increasing in size and value. They were also timid, though in due time Obed managed to get them to show themselves; for hunger is a powerful inducement, and the smell of favorite food a lure difficult to resist.
"Of course," explained the young fur farmer, while they were watching the inmates of the second enclosure, "I don't have black cats up here yet to carry out them directions exactly; but I'm aiming to do that also pretty soon. Yep, and after this set o' pups has been sold, if they fetch all I count on, I'm goin' to have a talk with the lawyer that looks after Mr. Coombs' estate. He promised to come up and see what could be done about extendin' the farm. And then I guess it's goin' to be time to hire a helper, seein' I can't do everything by myself."