GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS AMONG THE KENTUCKY MOUNTAINEERS
JESSIE GRAHAM FLOWER, A. M.
The Saalfield Publishing Company Akron, Ohio New York Made in U. S. A. Copyright MCMXXI by The Saalfield Publishing Company
CHAPTER I—EXCITEMENT IN THE FOOTHILLS 11
Washington Washington's music is rudely interrupted. The revenge of an outraged mule. "Why dat fool mule kick me?" Hippy airs his knowledge of woodcraft. "Laundry" puts the Overland camp in an uproar.
CHAPTER II—THE MYSTERY MAN 25
"Dis am de sebbenth yeah." The Spectacle Man introduces himself. The voice from the wilderness. The visitor gives the Overland Riders a word of advice. Mystified by an appearance and a disappearance.
CHAPTER III—HIPPY BOUNCES THE "SHEREEF" 32
Overlanders ordered to leave the mountains at once. Hippy Wingate's smile grows into a frown. A bullet that missed its mark. Grace Harlowe steps on Washington's neck and starts an uproar. A mysterious shot wings the mountaineer.
CHAPTER IV—FOOTPRINTS IN THE MOSS 42
The Mystery Man slips away unobserved. The Overlanders led to wonder. Tom Gray utters a warning. Washington gets another scare. The prowler leaves a trail. Revolver shots stir the Overland Riders to action. "That's Grace's weapon!" cries Lieutenant Wingate.
CHAPTER V—THE WAY IS BARRED 52
"Halt! Who comes?" Grace Harlowe slightly wounded. Hippy, in search of her, loses himself. Grace tells of her duel in the bush. The Overlanders are sternly halted and ordered to go back. A shot and a command. Hippy's hat is shot off.
CHAPTER VI—HIPPY MYSTERIOUSLY DISAPPEARS 61
Overlanders throw up their hands. Nora tweaks a mountaineer's nose, and boxes his ears. Tables turned on a mountain ruffian. A night prowler frightened away by a shot. "Hurry, Grace! Hippy has gone!" cries Elfreda Briggs in a thrilling voice.
CHAPTER VII—A VOICE FROM THE SHADOWS 74
The search for Hippy Wingate is begun. Significant trail-signs are discovered. Grace Harlowe makes a find. "Hippy's hat!" gasps Miss Briggs. A mysterious message is tossed into the Overland camp at night. The girls are encouraged by a comforting word.
CHAPTER VIII—A FRIEND IN NEED 87
Hippy, awakening, finds himself a captive. A grilling ride on horseback. Captors question and threaten their prisoner. Sight of food makes Hippy sad. "Don't make a sound, Lieutenant," warns a friendly voice. "There's a price on your head!"
CHAPTER IX—THE POWER OF MIND 99
"I didn't con-centrate for nothing," declares Emma Dean. Grace finds and loses the trail. Elfreda fires at a noise. "Cut the gun!" howls Hippy Wingate. "The mountaineers are after us!" Lieutenant Wingate's rescuer advises the party to move at once.
CHAPTER X—"THEY'VE GOT THE BOY!" 107
"Two skips an' er jump" to their destination. Washington's howls arouse the Overland camp. The colored boy suddenly disappears. The night vigil of the Overland Riders is broken by a shock.
CHAPTER XI—"A MARKED MAN" 114
"Hold your fire!" orders Lieutenant Wingate. Washington Washington flounders into camp. "All this scare for a black nightmare," groans Emma. The "rural free delivery man" makes an early call. Another mystery for the Overland Riders to solve.
CHAPTER XII—A MOUNTAIN MYSTERY 121
A message and a postscript. Miss Briggs says she will show her companions. Camp is made on the Thompson farm. Julie calls to look the Overlanders over. Invited to a mountain dance. Hippy makes a trouble-forecast.
CHAPTER XIII—THREE MEN IN THE CORNFIELD 132
Washington says he "sawed" a man. Jeremiah makes a call on the Overland camp. How the Spectacle Man "fits" glasses. The "benefactor of all mankind" suddenly changes his mind. "Two dollars, please."
CHAPTER XIV—ELFREDA DISTINGUISHES HERSELF 140
The Mystery Man makes a pun. Jeremiah "rolls" out of camp. Elfreda discovers a bear. "He is eating up our food." With the bear's assistance Miss Briggs succeeds in lassoing him. The Overland camp turned into turmoil.
CHAPTER XV—WHEN EMMA SAID TOO MUCH 148
Young Bruin upsets the entire Overland party. "Quick! Get her loose!" Hippy kills and dresses the bear. Footprints in the cornfield. A stranger comes to call and fills up on bear meat. "I'm the game constable! Where's the bear?" he demands sternly.
CHAPTER XVI—A JOKE ON THE OVERLANDERS 162
"No one ain't allowed to have bear meat till December." Overland Riders are told that they are under arrest. Hippy knocks out the "constable" and brings him to with a pail of water. "I'll give you ten seconds to get out of camp!"
CHAPTER XVII—THE DANCE AT COON HOLLOW 168
Hippy declares he is not getting sufficient nourishment. Gay mountain folk gather at the schoolhouse. Washington's music not appreciated. Emma Dean lays the foundation for a "riot." Hippy makes a disheartening discovery.
CHAPTER XVIII—AN INTERRUPTED PARTY 180
Julie introduces her "feller" to the Overlanders. Lum Bangs threatens Lieutenant Wingate. Weapons drawn in the schoolroom. A mysterious shot cripples the "constable." Knocked out by a blow. Washington has a bad fright.
CHAPTER XIX—A CALL FOR HELP 189
Emma "con-centrates" on Hippy and "saves his life." The Overland camp found destroyed. "Dey done got de mule!" wailed the colored boy. Julie's warning is recalled. Grace and Elfreda summoned to the Thompson home to care for sick children.
CHAPTER XX—HIPPY AS A ROUGHRIDER 199
Lieutenant Wingate goes for a doctor. The Overland girls sleep in a barn. Julie refuses to tell tales. The doctor arrives alone. "We were attacked from ambush!" Jed Thompson orders the Overland nurses from his cabin.
CHAPTER XXI—AN APOLOGY AND A THREAT 209
"The lieutenant is down there yet and may be dead!" The doctor reads Jed Thompson a severe lecture. Thompson goes to Hippy's rescue. Hippy accused of being Jim Townsend. "If he looks like me, he's a lucky man."
CHAPTER XXII—JULIE BRINGS DISTURBING NEWS 216
Lieutenant Wingate informs Jed that the Spurgeons are coming to "shoot him up." On the trail again. Julie overtakes the Overland Riders, bearing a warning. "Bat Spurgeon an' his gang is waitin' fer you-uns on the White River Ridge," she tells them.
CHAPTER XXIII—THE GATHERING OF THE CLANS 228
Grace learns that Tom Gray is in the feudist country. Tom's tent found, but he is missing. Nora's missile hits the wrong man. The Overland Riders seek refuge in a cave. Fresh disasters befall them. Fighting out a mountain feud.
CHAPTER XXIV—TRAIL'S END 245
The Mystery Man found a captive in a cave. He "fits" Grace Harlowe with "magic glasses." Through her new specs she sees Tom Gray. Jeremiah Long says his farewell. What Tom found on Hippy's claim.
GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS AMONG THE KENTUCKY MOUNTAINEERS
EXCITEMENT IN THE FOOTHILLS
The foothills of the Kentucky Mountains echoed to the strains of a rollicking college song, as Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders rode into a laurel-bordered clearing and dismounted to make their first camp of this, their third summer's outing in the saddle.
Only one of the party remained on his mount. This one was Washington Washington, the colored boy that they had taken on at Henderson to be their man of all work, guide and assistant cook, for Washington had declared that, "Ah knows more 'bout de mountings dan any oder niggah in Kaintuck." On his own recommendation, Grace and her party had accepted him.
Washington, however, already had shown a love of leisure that was not wholly in keeping with his further recommendation for activity, and, instead of assisting the girls of the Overland unit to unload their ponies, the boy sat perched on the pack mule that he had been riding, playing a harmonica, swaying in his saddle in rhythm with the music, and rolling the whites of his eyes in ecstasy.
"Just look at him, girls," urged Grace Harlowe Gray laughingly. "If that isn't a picture!"
"I call it a nightmare," objected Emma Dean. "Oh, if I only had a nice ripe tomato, and could throw straight enough."
"Impossible!" declared Elfreda Briggs, whereupon Anne Nesbit and Nora Wingate broke forth into merry peals of laughter.
"Laundry!" roared Hippy Wingate. "We didn't hire you for a moving picture. Shake your lazy bones and get busy. If you don't hustle you'll get something harder than a tomato."
"Laundry?" wondered Tom Gray. "Why Laundry, Hippy?"
"That's his name, isn't it? Doesn't he call himself Washington Washington on Sundays and holidays, and Wash-Wash, for short, on weekdays? I have his word for it. Wash is laundry and laundry is wash in the neck of the woods where I was reared," explained Hippy, at the same time narrowly observing the colored boy, who, following Lieutenant Wingate's threat, had permitted himself to slide to the ground, and there he sat, still mouthing his harmonica, lost to everything but the music he was creating.
"Your logic is unassailable," nodded Miss Briggs. "I was wondering why, while we are about it, we don't hire a brass band. We at least would not be obliged to listen to the same tune all the time. Does any one know of a way to put a mute on a harmonica?"
"Ah reckon Ah do," mimicked Emma Dean, taking careful aim and shying a pebble at Wash.
The pebble went rather wide of the mark—that is, the mark for which it was intended, but it reached another and a fully as satisfactory one. The pebble hit Washington's pack mule on the tender part of its hind leg, galvanizing that member into instant and vigorous action.
The eyes of the Overlanders were not quick enough to see the movement that followed. What they did see, however, was Washington Washington lifted from the ground and pitched head first into a clump of laurel, where the light foot of an outraged mule had landed him.
"He's killed!" cried Anne, voicing the thought that was in the mind of each of her companions, and a concerted rush was made for the clump of laurel.
They found the colored boy somewhat dazed when they dragged him from the bushes.
"Wha—whar dat 'monica?" he gasped, referring to the harmonica that he was playing when the mule kicked him.
"Maybe he swallowed it," suggested Emma. "I hope not, for he surely would have musical indigestion. Wouldn't that be terrible—for us?"
"No great loss if it has landed over in the Cumberlands," observed Tom Gray. "Wash, where did the mule hit you?"
"Ah reckons all ovah, 'cept on de bean. Why dat fool mule kick me? Hain't nevah done nothin' laik that befo'. Ah ask yuh why he do dat?" insisted Washington.
They glanced at Emma, whose face reddened.
"I threw a stone at you and hit the mule, if you must know," she said. "The mule passed it on, hitting you with his foot. That mule must have played tag when he was a child. I'm sorry, Wash—but if you had been attending to your business you would not have been hit."
Washington's first thought upon recovering from his daze had been for the harmonica, and his first act, after getting to his feet, was to go in search of it. He found it after considerable effort, and ran the scales on it.
"Glory be!" cried the boy. "Dat fool mule ain't done kicked de music out ob it."
"Listen to me, Washington," demanded Grace, stepping over and laying a firm hand on the lad's shoulder. "You will put that instrument away—"
"'Tain't no inst'ment. Hit's a 'monica," he interrupted.
"I am speaking. Put it away, and do not let me see you touch it again until you have finished your work. Do you understand?"
"See that you do not forget. Unpack both mule packs, but look out for the mules' heels, and remember that we did not hire you for an ornament. Emma Dean, let this be a warning to you," admonished Grace, turning to her companion. "Never trifle with a mule. They are all notoriously devoid of a sense of humor."
Washington, in the meantime, had shuffled away and had leisurely begun removing the packs.
"Speaking of ornaments, I suppose I am the only real ornament in this outfit," observed Hippy.
"You mean the kind that they pack away in the garret with broken chairs and old chromos," suggested Emma.
Hippy shrugged his shoulders and walked away, followed by the laughter of his companions. Emma had scored again, as she frequently did, and Hippy, instead of being ruffled, took keen delight, as usual, in her repartee.
"I fear that boy is not going to do at all," said Grace's husband with a shake of the head. "As I have remarked before, you should have a man for a guide, a man who knows these mountains and who is able to protect and look out for you girls in the event of your getting into trouble."
"But, Tom dear, don't you think the Overland girls by this time should be quite able to look out for themselves?" begged Grace.
"Ordinarily, yes. You are, however, going into territory that is rather wild, going among people that do not value human life or liberty according to our standards. My friend, Colonel Spotsworth, of Louisville, strongly advised against you folks crossing the eastern end of the range, which would take you through mountains where moonshiners and feudists hold forth. I agree with him."
"We have Hippy," suggested Elfreda. "In an emergency he is worth half a dozen of the ordinary kind."
"Yes, but Hippy is not a woodsman. He knows nothing at all about woodcraft, a necessary accomplishment in one who is going to pilot a party of girls across such mountain territory as you propose to travel."
"What's that you say, Tom Gray?" called Lieutenant Wingate from the campfire where he was observing Washington fan it into life.
Grace laughingly repeated what Tom had said.
"Humph! I know all I need to know about woodcraft," declared Hippy with emphasis. "When I smell wood burning in the kitchen stove I know it is time to eat. What more knowledge of woodcraft does a fellow need?"
"Amply sufficient for you, Hippy. But what about the rest of the party?" grinned Tom Gray.
"As I was about to say," resumed Grace, "we shall be up with you in a few weeks. How long do you reckon it will take you to finish your government contract to survey that tract in the Cumberlands?"
"Possibly four weeks. Not longer."
"Call it three weeks—three weeks from to-day. That will make it the twenty-fifth. We will try to be in the vicinity of Hall's Corners on that date, and if you are not there we will wait for you. You will do the same provided we are late in reaching the Corners. Let's have a look at the contour map," suggested Grace.
While the others of the party were busy setting the camp to rights, Washington having removed the packs from the mules, Grace and Tom pored over the map of the eastern section of the mountains. Not only were they planning their routes, but they were critically examining a portion of the map that was encircled with a ring of red ink. The space within the circle represented a tract of mountain land that belonged to Lieutenant Hippy Wingate, property that he had inherited.
Hippy had never seen this property, it having been left to him by a wealthy uncle whose large fortune Hippy had inherited while fighting the Germans in the air in France. He now proposed to look it over. In fact, this journey of the Overland Riders had been planned with that object in view.
Following their return from France, where they had served in the Overton College Unit, Grace having been an ambulance driver at the front, the girls had decided to seek recreation in the saddle each summer. Their first vacation was spent in an exciting ride over the Old Apache Trail in Arizona, following this with a venturesome journey on horseback across the arid waste of the Great American Desert. Lieutenant Wingate's determination to visit his property in the Kentucky Mountains led the Overland Riders, as Grace Harlowe and her friends called themselves, to make those mountains the objective of their third vacation in the saddle.
After Tom Gray had finished his government survey, it was their purpose to proceed with him to Lieutenant Wingate's tract, where Tom was to make a survey and examination of it, so that Hippy might learn whether or not the property possessed any particular value.
"Hippy says his uncle took the property in payment of a debt, but that the uncle never had considered it to be worth much of anything," said Tom reflectively. "From what little I know of that section of the country, I am inclined to agree with him. However, we shall see when we get there."
"Who knows but that Hippy may find still another fortune awaiting him there?" suggested Grace.
Tom shook his head and smiled.
"It would be Hippy's luck, wouldn't it? He doesn't need it; he already has more money than he knows what to do with. Nor have I the slightest hope that he will find anything of value there. The twenty-fifth, then, it is. I shall make Chapman's my base and work from there. If necessary to communicate with me in the meantime you may address me there. I—"
"What's this? Henpecking your husband again, Grace Harlowe?" teased Hippy, coming up to them at this juncture.
"Yes, Hip. I am a shining example of a much henpecked husband. What would you do were you a henpecked husband?" questioned Tom quizzically. "Come, now!"
"Well," reflected Hippy, "I think that would depend largely upon the hen."
"You are right," agreed Tom Gray laughingly. "I shall be leaving in the morning, old man, and I have agreed with Grace to meet the Overland outfit at Hall's Corners three weeks from to-day, or as near to that date as possible. We will then make a pilgrimage to the lands of one Lieutenant Wingate and see what we shall find there. Probably nothing more than some wild game, a few rattlers and—and some mountaineers," added Tom significantly.
"I have been thinking, Tom and Grace, that, should we discover anything of real value there, the Overland Riders should share in it. This is a sort of exploration party, and to the discoverers should belong the spoils," declared Hippy.
Tom shook his head.
"No, no," protested Grace. "It is fine of you to make the offer, but I could not permit it for myself, and I am positive that the other girls will not even listen to it."
"You see, Tom, how they spurn me. The instant I get a brilliant thought they promptly duck it in ice water," complained Hippy.
"We will do this much, we will be your guests when we reach your domains, and, if you insist on being liberal, you may cook our meals for us three times a day. However, so far as sharing in your good fortune is concerned, we can do so only in our hearts," decided Grace with emphasis.
Grace immediately acquainted her companions with Hippy's unselfish offer to share with them whatever good fortune might be in store for him in the Kentucky Mountains.
"That is splendid of Hippy," declared Anne, smiling and nodding.
"I tell him, however, that when we are his guests in the Hippy Mountains, he can give us three good meals a day, cooked by his own fair hands, but that is all," announced Grace. "Do I echo your sentiments, girls?"
They said she did. That is, all except Emma Dean agreed with Grace Harlowe. Emma warned them that Hippy had better not offer her a share in anything unless he were prepared in his heart to lose it.
"Very good then, I won't. I withdraw the offer," declared Hippy airily. "I will agree to cook a meal for you over on the range. Mark the words, 'cook a meal for you on the range!' Ha-ha. How is that? I reckon I can stand it to cook a meal for you if you can stand it to eat it. Speaking of food reminds me that I smell bacon frying, so suppose we fall to and devour it, provided it is fit to eat. Personally I am not overloaded with confidence in Laundry's ability as a chef."
Night had settled over the mountains when they finally sat down on the ground by the campfire to eat their supper, the first warm meal they had had since starting out on their journey at daylight that morning.
Washington had done very well with his first meal, considering that he so recently had been kicked out of camp by an irate mule, and the Overland girls admitted that the little colored boy did know how to cook after all, for the bacon, the coffee, and the potatoes, baked in their jackets in hot ashes, were delicious.
The girls, however, had already found it necessary to read Wash a lecture on the beauties of neatness and cleanliness, it having been discovered that, in this direction, Wash-Wash was not all that his nickname implied.
Wash, having been given permission, retired to the edge of the laurel to resume his harmonica exercise. Lying back in the shadows, only the whites of his eyes and the reflection of the light from the campfire on teeth and harmonica were visible to the Overlanders, giving merely a suggestion of a human countenance.
"A nature sketch in black and white," observed Anne Nesbit. "I should think he would weary of blowing that thing so much. He has been doing so all day long."
"Blowing? You are wrong," corrected Hippy. "A harmonica is played with a grunt and a sigh. I could make a brand new pun on that if I wanted to, but—"
"Don't you dare," begged Miss Briggs. "I am long-suffering, but I cannot tolerate the ancient quality of your puns."
"Most spinsters are that way," retorted Lieutenant Wingate. "Tom, have you any orders for me? I suppose I shall have to act as guardian for your wife while you are absent from this outfit. If you have half as difficult a time managing her as I do, I don't envy you your lot. The only bright spot in the situation is that I have to put up with her peculiarities for the duration of this journey only. You are in for life."
"Hippy, I am ashamed of you," rebuked Nora Wingate.
"Thank you. You see, Tom, what a helpmate my little Nora is. I don't have to feel ashamed of any act of mine; I don't have to feel embarrassed after I have put my foot in it, nor anything. Nora does all of that for me. Really, Tom, you ought to train Grace to be ashamed for you for your shortcomings, or to be embarrassed for you. You have no idea what a lot of bother over nothing it relieves a fellow of."
"Nora Wingate is a very busy woman," observed Emma, whereat there was a laugh at Hippy's expense.
"Tom Gray's wife doesn't have to apologize for him," laughed Grace. "Folks, don't you think this conversation is growing rather personal? I would suggest that we all put on the brakes and start something less personal."
The brakes were instantly put on in one direction, but wholly released in another. The music from Washington's harmonica ceased suddenly in the midst of a lofty flight, ending in a gurgle and a gasp. The Overlanders heard it and laughed.
"He's swallowed the music box!" cried Emma.
Wash, finding his voice, uttered a shrill scream of fright that brought the Overland Riders to their feet in alarm. They were amazed to see the colored boy charging across the camp, his feet barely touching the ground, his eyes wide and staring. In his flight he bowled over Grace Harlowe who measured her length on the ground on her back.
"Stop!" shouted Tom Gray, making a grab for the boy, and missing him by an inch or so.
Emma Dean stuck out a foot and succeeded better than she had hoped, for Washington tripped and plunged floundering into the campfire.
Uttering a piercing yell, he bounded up like a rubber ball and made a mad dash for the bushes with Hippy Wingate in full pursuit.
THE MYSTERY MAN
"I've got him," cried Hippy, appearing with a firm grip on the frightened Washington's arm, and fairly dragging him along. "Can't afford to let any fellow get away who can bake potatoes like Wash can."
"Bring him to me, please," demanded Grace. "Now, Washington, what happened to frighten you so?" she asked in a soothing tone, at the same time patting the colored boy on his kinky head.
Wash rolled his eyes from side to side and twisted his head as if to smooth out the wrinkles in his neck muscles.
"Speak up. Don't be afraid. Nothing can harm you. What was it?" urged Grace.
"De—de debbil him—him speak—him heyeh. Him speak to Wash right outer de air," gasped the boy.
"There! I knew something terrible would happen from your awful work on that harmonica," declared Emma Dean. "I'm not at all surprised, Wash."
Grace shook her head at Emma.
"You imagined all of that, Wash," she said. "What did you think you heard him say?"
"Him say—right outer de air, 'Wash! Remembah, dis am de sebbenth yeah.' Den Ah tuk a frenzy spell."
"What do you mean by the seventh year?" questioned Miss Briggs.
"Ah doan know. It's de hoodoo, Miss. Somet'n sure gwine happen to dis niggah."
"Nonsense!" retorted Nora sharply.
"If you don't brace up and behave yourself, something surely will happen to you," warned Lieutenant Wingate.
"I believe the boy really did hear something," declared Grace as she gazed at the trembling lad before her. "Tom, please look there where he was sitting, will you?"
Tom Gray rose and started to obey her request. At this juncture the bushes parted, and a man, faintly outlined in the light from the campfire, stepped into view.
Wash saw him and, uttering another yell, made a break, but Hippy, on the watch for this very thing, caught and held him.
"Behave yourself or I'll let the fellow have you," he warned.
Tom hesitated, then stepped forward to meet the stranger. He saw a man apparently of early middle age, smooth-shaven, wearing long iron-gray hair that hung below his sombrero, the locks curling slightly at the bottom. The eyes that regarded Tom were keen and twinkling, full of good nature and humor.
"Well, sir, who are you?" demanded Grace's husband.
"Who am I? You will be surprised when I tell you. I'm the original Mystery Man. Spectacles, notions and trinkets are my specialty. I make the near blind see and dull the glare of the sun for those who do see."
"Glad to meet you. Come in, won't you?" invited Tom.
"That's what I'm here for. I've invited myself to have a snack with you-all."
Grace said they had just eaten, but that they would prepare something for their caller if he could wait. The stranger said he could and would wait, so Anne and Nora set about making coffee and frying bacon, Washington being still in too great a fright to do anything useful.
"I'll introduce myself again," resumed the caller. "I'm Jeremiah Long, and that's the long and short of it. Who are you?"
Grace introduced the members of her party, telling Long that they were riding for their health and amusement. Emma added that they were on their way in search of a fortune on Lieutenant Wingate's tract of mountain land, and would have said more had not Grace given her a warning look.
"Are you the voice from the wilderness?" demanded Hippy scowlingly.
The stranger threw back his head and laughed.
"I confess it. I am the 'seventh year' man. Couldn't resist the temptation to give the pickaninny a scare. Oh, thank you," he added as Nora handed a heaping plate of food to him and a tin cup full of steaming coffee.
"You are a peddler. Is that it?" questioned Emma.
"Heavens, no! I'm a promoter. I promote the well-being of these good mountain folks by giving them sight and by furnishing them with nick-nacks to delight the eye. If you-all are troubled with poor sight I'll be happy to fit you with glasses warranted to make you see double. More coffee, if you please. This is the real article. I think I'll have to make this camp my headquarters."
"This camp will be some miles from here by this time to-morrow," Grace Harlowe informed him.
"So will I. So will I. No bother at all about that. Wash, come here!"
Washington would not budge, so Hippy led him over to the caller.
"Scared you, didn't I, eh? Mebby it is the seventh year, but don't let that bother you. Here! Here's a new harmonica for you. It will make more noise than the one you lost when I whispered in your ear out yonder. Go on now, and behave yourself," he added, giving Wash a playful push. "What can I do for you, folks?"
"I suppose you know this country well?" questioned Grace.
Long shrugged his shoulders.
"Sometimes I think I do, then I discover that I don't," he replied soberly. "No one knows it. I know the people, on the surface, and know my way around."
"Perhaps you know something about the moonshiners and the feudists?" suggested Nora.
Jeremiah Long gave her a quick glance of inquiry.
"Take a word of advice from the Mystery Man. The less you know about anything up here in these hills the better off you are in the end. Some folks have made the mistake of knowing too much for their own good, and some of them are here yet, but they ain't saying anything."
Grace thanked him and agreed that his advice was good, at the same time speculating in her own mind over their guest. She was not wholly satisfied that he was what he pretended to be, but what he was in reality, she could not even guess.
In the meantime, Washington, lost in admiration of his new possession, was drawing harmony, and some discord, from it and rolling his eyes soulfully. In the ecstasy of the moment he had forgotten his recent fright. Tom and the Mystery Man were engaged in conversation, Hippy now and then interjecting a question, for the topic under discussion was the tract of land owned by Hippy, though not since Emma's remark had any reference been made to Hippy's ownership of it. The guest's talk was largely about the lay of the land there and its possibilities.
"I'll see you folks if you are going there," he promised finally. "I shall be in that section of the range about three weeks from now, and maybe I can do you some good."
"Thank you," smiled Grace. "We shall be pleased to see you then or at any other time. Mr. Gray leaves to-morrow morning for the Cumberlands where he has business, and we hope to join him, or rather to have him join us, in about that time. I think—"
"Hulloa the camp!" shouted a voice from the bushes on the opposite side of the camp from that by which Mr. Long had entered.
"Hulloa yourself!" bellowed Hippy Wingate. "Come in. The door's wide open."
An instant later a man stepped into the camp, a rifle slung under one arm, a revolver hanging from his belt in its holster. He was tall, gaunt and raw-boned, a typical Kentucky mountaineer, and, as he stood there surveying the Overland Riders from beneath his broad-brimmed hat, not a word was spoken on either side. The mountaineer was studying the members of the Overland party, and the Overland Riders were regarding him inquiringly.
"Why, where is—" began Emma Dean, but a gesture from Grace checked her. Not so with Washington Washington, however.
"Whar dat man?" he cried, referring to their first visitor.
A quick glance about the camp revealed to the amazed Overlanders that Jeremiah Long, the Mystery Man, had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. No one had seen or heard him go. He had simply melted away.
HIPPY BOUNCES THE "SHEREEF"
Still the newcomer stood peering into the faces of the Overlanders. Hippy began talking to the man with his fingers in the deaf and dumb system. The stranger regarded him frowningly, then shifted his rifle into his right hand.
"Who be yuh?" demanded the man.
"Oh! I thought you were a dummy," apologized Hippy. "A thousand pardons, old man."
"May I ask who you are and what you wish?" questioned Grace pleasantly, as she stepped forward.
"Ah asked yuh first. Who be yuh?"
"We are a party from the north, riding through the Kentucky Mountains partly for pleasure, partly for business reasons."
"That is a personal question, is it not?" smiled Grace. "Won't you sit down and rest before you go on? We shall be glad to have you do so."
"Be yuh goin' to answer mah question?"
"I think not, sir."
"Ah'll tell yuh who Ah be, then, an' mebby yuh'll answer. Ah'm the dep'y Shereef of this 'ere deestric'. Ah kin land yuh all in the calaboose if Ah wants to."
"Deputy Sheriff! Mercy to goodness!" murmured Emma. "Next thing we know, the Lord High Executioner will be calling on us looking for victims to decapitate."
"Yes?" questioned Grace.
"Let me speak with the man," urged Tom Gray, whereupon Grace waved her hand behind her to warn Tom to keep quiet.
"Who be yuh?"
"Presumably the man means to ask 'Who are you?' but unfortunately he doesn't speak English," said Emma in a voice loud enough for the mountaineer to hear. He glared at her and Emma glared back.
"I think, sir," replied Grace Harlowe, "that this has gone far enough. We have no information to give. I am sorry, sir. Our purpose in visiting these mountains is a proper one. We are violating no law, have committed no crime, and therefore can have no interest for a deputy sheriff. Besides, I do not believe you are a deputy sheriff!"
The stranger shifted uneasily. Hippy had risen and was stretching himself and yawning.
"All Ah've got to say is, yuh-all git out o' these mountings right smart or Ah'll take yuh-all in. T'morrow mornin' yuh git!"
"Thank you." Grace smiled sweetly.
Hippy strolled up to the mountaineer, also smiling, with right hand extended as if about to shake hands with their caller, but as he neared the man the smile suddenly left his face, and he inhaled a long full breath.
"Beat it!" exploded Lieutenant Wingate in the mountaineer's ear, at the same time turning the man about and running him out of camp in bouncer fashion.
"Run, Mr. Man! Run as if the Old Harry were after you, and don't forget to keep that rifle pointed away from the camp. If it goes off you're liable to get hurt. Get out!"
The mountaineer, as Hippy released him, sprang away a few paces, then, suddenly whirling, fired point blank at Hippy.
Expecting this very move, Lieutenant Wingate had dropped down the instant he saw the man turning, and the bullet went over Hippy's head, and incidentally over the heads of the Overland Riders in the camp a few yards to the rear.
Lieutenant Wingate was unarmed, his revolver being in its holster on his saddle, so all he could do was to duck. His experience as a fighting aviator in France had made Hippy somewhat callous to bullets, as well as an expert in ducking. In the present instance, Lieutenant Wingate made so many ducks and dives, side-slips and Immelman turns that the mountaineer, crack shot that he was, found himself unable to score a hit. The darkness, too, prevented his getting a good sight at the man he was trying to shoot.
Back in the camp the rest of the Overland outfit were lying flat on the ground, just as they used to do in France when they heard a shell coming, which might be due to land somewhere near them. Not one of them had a weapon handy, nor would they have dared use them had weapons been at hand, because there was no telling where Hippy Wingate was at any given second. That, too, was what was troubling the mountaineer.
At the first shot, Washington Washington had forsaken the harmonica and dived head first into the bushes where he lay, face down, a finger stuck in either ear.
Hippy's floundering finally ceased and the mountaineer could not find him. Believing, perhaps, that he had hit his victim, the fellow began shooting into the camp of the Overlanders.
"I'm not going to lie here and let that fellow kill us all," declared Grace Harlowe, springing up and starting away on a zigzagging run. "Keep down, all of you. I'll fetch weapons," she called back.
Tom Gray, however, had forestalled her, and, leaping to his feet, had run back to the tethering ground, where the ponies and their equipment had been placed for the night, to fetch rifles.
Tom and Grace were back in a few moments, but instead of stepping out into the open space where the tents were pitched and the campfire was burning, they separated and crept around opposite sides of the camp, over which bullets continued to whistle at intervals.
"That you, Grace?" demanded a cautious voice a few yards to her right.
"Hippy! Are you wounded?" begged Grace.
"I am not. I'm trying to get to my rifle."
"Here. Take mine. Look out for Tom. He is on the opposite side of the camp. We agreed not to go beyond the edge of the clearing so there might be no danger of our hitting each other. He is looking for the 'shereef.'"
"I'll fix him. Hark! Did you hear that?"
"Yes. It was a revolver shot on beyond where Tom is," answered Grace.
"There it goes again. Tom must be using his revolver. A hit! Somebody yelled," cried Lieutenant Wingate. "I hope it is that pesky mosquito that has been trying to sting us. Stay here while I go out to investigate."
"No, no!" protested Grace. "If you do you and Tom surely will shoot at each other. Remember he is a woodsman and knows how to creep up on one without making a sound that a human being could hear half a dozen yards away. Go to the edge of the clearing and wait. I will go back and around on Tom's side of the camp."
Grace crept away, calling softly to the girls to keep down. Washington, with his ears muffled, failed to hear her coming, nor had she given the little colored boy a thought until she planked a foot down on his neck.
Wash uttered a yell and leaped to his feet, for the second time that night bowling Grace over and darting deeper into the bush.
"Oh, that impossible boy!" complained Grace. "He nearly frightened me out of my wits. The firing has stopped. I must know what has happened."
Grace crept on cautiously, listening intently, not knowing what moment she might come upon the mountaineer. Either he had been hit or he was still stalking the camp, and she must settle the question in her mind before she would feel safe to settle down for the night.
"Is that you, Grace?" demanded a low, guarded voice just ahead of her.
"Oh, yes! Gracious, Tom, you gave me a start that time! Where is the man?"
"Was it you who shot at him?"
"No. I was just about to let him have it when some one fired two shots from a revolver. The second shot hit the man in his shoulder, I think, spinning him clean around and dropping him. He was up and staggering away in a few seconds. I followed him for some little distance; then, being satisfied that he was trying to get away, I came back."
"I hope he stays away," said Grace with emphasis.
"He may be back in force," answered Tom. "I could easily have hit the fellow, and was about to put a bullet through his leg when the revolver shots were fired. Say, Grace! You did not do that, did you?"
"No, Tom, I did not, nor do I know who did. Let's go into camp."
They got up and walked briskly back, calling out to the Overlanders that they were coming.
"He has gone," cried Grace as the two emerged into the clearing.
"Tom, did you wing the critter?" demanded Hippy.
"Hippy, did you fire those shots?" demanded Tom Gray, each asking his question at the same time.
There was a laugh from the girls, and another laugh when both men replied in chorus, "I did not!"
"Where's Washington?" asked Miss Briggs.
"I heard him yell," answered Hippy. "Hope the kid hasn't gotten into trouble. I'll go look for him."
"Yes," spoke up Grace. "I stepped on his neck and he uttered a frightful howl and ran away."
"The question now appears to be, 'Who killed Cock Robin?'" observed Emma Dean. "We know who stepped on Laundry's neck, but we do not know who fired the fatal shot."
"Mystery, mystery, mystery!" complained Miss Briggs. "This is only our first day out and we have involved ourselves in a maze of it, with an excellent foundation laid for future trouble."
"All because that husband of mine ran that deputy sheriff out of our camp," wailed Nora. "Hippy will be the death of all of us yet."
"Hippy did exactly right," approved Tom Gray. "What I am thinking about now is why the mountaineer came here to order us out. I have my suspicions, and I don't like the outlook at all."
"Don't worry, Tom dear," soothed Grace.
"Yes, the worst is yet to come," called Hippy Wingate, at this juncture appearing leading Washington Washington by the ear. "I found Laundry hiding in the bushes. Sit down there and behave yourself, Little Snowdrop, and let that harmonica alone for the rest of the night. Will some one tell me what became of Jeremiah Long?"
"The Mystery Man is here," announced a voice, and the spectacle man walked up rubbing his hands and smiling in great good humor. "What's the excitement?"
"Where did you go so suddenly?" demanded Hippy frowningly.
"I went out to stake down my horse and get my store—my grip. Did I not hear shooting?"
"Yes. We had a visitor and—" Emma bubbled over with words as she described what had occurred after Long's departure, to all of which he listened attentively. "Somebody, we don't know who, shot him in the shoulder. Who do you think could have done that, Mr. Long?"
"Very mysterious, very mysterious," answered the Mystery Man.
Grace and Elfreda were regarding him keenly.
"Think I'll pitch my camp by your fire to-night, if you haven't any objection," announced the visitor.
"You are quite welcome," offered Tom. "If you wish to, you can bunk in with the lieutenant and myself. There is room for three in our tent. We could not think of letting you sleep outside in this chill air."
"Outside for me," answered Mr. Long. "Must have air and plenty of it. You see I heat it up inside of me and use it later to sell my goods. A promoter, you know, must depend upon hot air because what he's selling won't float on cold air."
Grace brought out blankets and a pneumatic pillow which she placed in a heap near the fire.
"Make up your bed on the softest spot you can find, Mr. Long, though I do not believe there is much choice," said Grace. Then, in a lower voice: "I hope you may not find it necessary to shoot any more mountaineers to-night, Mr. Long."
"Sh—h—h—h—h!" warned the Mystery Man. "I don't know what you're talking about," he added in a louder tone, observing that Washington Washington was standing close by, all eyes and ears.
Grace walked away laughing, Jeremiah Long observing her with twinkling eyes, a quizzical smile on his face.
FOOTPRINTS IN THE MOSS
Tom Gray had planned to make an early start next morning, so he was up just before break of day, lighting the cook-fire that Washington had laid for him. Wisps of smoke from the fire were wafted into Grace's tent, awakening her instantly.
"Well, Tom, you thought you would steal a march on me, didn't you?" she chided, as she came out unbraiding her hair.
"I hoped I might. That was why I said good-bye last night."
"You did not think for a moment that I would let you go away without my getting up to see you off, did you?" she wondered. "No. You should have known better than that."
"Now that you are here, I will speak what is in my mind. Watch yourself, Grace. That affair last night disturbs me not a little, because it is an indication of what you folks may have to contend with up here. The Kentucky mountaineer is not a gentle animal. He is a man of almost primitive instincts, and the worst of him is that he doesn't come out in the open to settle a grudge, but, as a rule, settles it from ambush."
"You forget, Tom dear, that we girls are not tenderfeet, that we are seasoned veterans of the world war and that the whistle of a bullet is not a new nor a particularly terrifying sound to us. I hope you will not worry about us. In three weeks you will be with us. By the way, when did our Mystery Man leave?"
"When? Why—I—I didn't know—"
"You had not even discovered that he had gone?" chuckled Grace. "Oh, Tom! There are his blankets within a yard of you, neatly folded, and a slip of paper pinned to the top one, probably bidding us good-bye and thanking us for our hospitality. Read it, please."
Tom did so and nodded.
"Just what you thought it was, Grace. You must be gifted with second sight. About the man Jeremiah Long, who calls himself the Mystery Man, I have a thought that he is the fellow who shot the mountaineer last night."
"Tom dear, you're really awake at last, and before breakfast, too. I am proud of you, my husband. Indeed I am," teased Grace.
"Don't laugh at me. I will confess that it never occurred to me until a few moments ago. There is something mysterious about the fellow, and I confess that I cannot make him out."
Grace nodded and her face took on a thoughtful expression.
"He is not only mysterious, but very keen. Last night—I don't know whether or not you noted the fact—he heard that mountaineer approaching, and slipped out of camp. I do not believe he went far, but that where he was he could see and hear all that was going on. Later he must have hurried around to the rear of the camp, and, when the fellow was trying to shoot Hippy, Long put a bullet through our caller's shoulder. I call that good shooting."
"Hm—m—m—m! Now that you speak of it, I do recall that he disappeared rather suddenly. I am grateful for what he did for us, of course, but, Grace, I do not wholly trust the man, and, if he comes again, I should watch him, were I in your place."
"I do not agree with you at all, Tom. The man is a mystery, but I am convinced that nothing bad lurks behind those twinkling eyes. However, we shall undoubtedly know more about him later, for I have a feeling that Jeremiah will play an important part in our operations up here in the Kentucky mountains. We won't get worked up over him at present, anyway. To change the subject, I haven't told you that Elfreda has adopted Little Lindy, the hermit's daughter that we took from the cave in the Specter Mountains last season. The Overlanders are still her guardians, but that guardianship will be transferred to Elfreda when we get back home in the fall."
"Lindy is a lucky girl. The silver mine is panning out big and she will be a very rich girl by the time she comes of age. Have a cup of coffee with me?"
While Tom was eating his breakfast, he and Grace discussed their personal affairs, then Grace walked with him to the tethering ground, first having seen to it that Tom's pack contained sufficient food to last him through his journey of several days to the Cumberlands. Good-byes were then said and Tom rode away.
After watering the ponies, Grace returned to camp and sat by the fire thinking, until it was time to call her companions. By the time they came out she had breakfast ready for them. Washington, who slept in a little pup-tent, had to be dragged out by the feet by Hippy before he was sufficiently awake to function.
"Laundry," said Hippy solemnly, "I hope you never get caught in a burning house in the night. If you are, the house and yourself will be a heap of ashes in the cellar by the time you get awake."
"Listen to him, will you, Nora Wingate," cackled Emma Dean hoarsely, for the chill of the mountain morning had gotten into her throat.
"For your information, Miss Dean, I will say that the only time my Nora ever listens to her husband is when he talks in his sleep." A pained expression appeared on Hippy's face when he said it.
"Go on wid ye," laughed Nora. "Ye know ye can't talk in your sleep because your snores don't give ye a chance."
Grace put an end to the argument by announcing that breakfast was served. The girls regarded Grace inquiringly when she informed them that their late guest, the Mystery Man, had again vanished with his usual mysteriousness.
"He hath folded his tent and stolen away," observed Emma Dean dramatically.
"He didn't fold his tent, for he hadn't any tent to fold," differed Hippy. "He folded his blankets and hiked for the tall timber. How far do we ride to-day, Grace?"
"To Spring Brook. Wash, how far from here is the next camping place?" questioned Grace, turning to the colored boy.
"Wall, Ah reckons it's 'bout er whoop an' er holler from heyeh."
"So far as that?" chuckled Hippy Wingate.
"It's terrible! I know I never shall be able to stand it to ride so far," declared Emma, tilting her nose up, her head inclined over her right shoulder, a characteristic pose for her when she thought she was saying something smart. As usual, her remark brought a laugh.
"Emma Dean, your nose is the last word in neat impertinence," declared Elfreda Briggs. "Were you a man, some one surely would flatten it for you. Forgive me, dear. That was rude of me," apologized J. Elfreda.
"Never mind the apology. I am used to being abused by my companions," retorted Emma, her face a little redder than usual.
Grace laughingly interrupted the badinage by directing Washington to begin packing. She said they must make an early start, not knowing how far it was to their day's destination, but which, she believed, from a perusal of her map, was all of twenty-five miles.
"The trails are no more than foot-paths and we can make no time, so let's go," she urged.
It was an hour later when the party mounted and started away, Washington bringing up the rear on a pack mule, industriously playing his new harmonica. The going was slow and tedious and the Overlanders were tired when they halted for a rest and luncheon shortly before noon. A half hour's nap followed the luncheon, the party being "lulled" to sleep by Washington's harmonica.
It was a discordant, insistent screeching of the harmonica that finally awakened them.
"Stop that noise!" roared Hippy. "I'll—"
"What is it?" cried Grace, springing up, shaking her head to more thoroughly awaken herself.
"Ah seen er man, Ah did," answered Washington. His eyes wore a frightened expression and he was shifting and shuffling uneasily. "Ah seen his face. He war a peekin' through the bushes right thar where yuh be sleepin'," he informed them, nodding to Lieutenant Wingate.
"You were dreaming," scoffed Hippy.
"Ah wuz wide awake, Cap'n. Er fly er a bug bit me on de nose an' waked me up. Ah seed de man den, an' when he seen I sawed him he run away."
"I hope you gave him an anesthetic before you 'sawed' him, Wash," said Emma Dean, who had been listening eagerly to the conversation.
Hippy started towards the spot indicated by Wash.
"Wait! Don't trample down the bushes until I have had a look," begged Grace, stepping forward. "We will look first."
Parting the bushes she peered in and pointed. Hippy saw a well-marked trail where the bushes had been brushed aside, and here and there a tender leaf-stem broken off.
Stooping over, the Overland girl scrutinized the ground, and, with a finger, beckoned Hippy to kneel down.
"See that?" she demanded.
"What is it?" questioned the other girls in chorus. They had followed Grace and Hippy and were eagerly peering over the heads of the two kneeling Overlanders.
"Footprints of a pair of heavy boots," announced Hippy. "The impression they have left in the moss is unmistakable. This looks as if he had rested his gun-butt here," he added, laying a finger on another depression in the moss.
"I do not think so," said Grace, after examining it critically. "I should say that the man made that second impression with the toe of his left boot. By looking at the impression of the right boot you will observe that it sunk in deeper, meaning, probably, that he threw his weight on the right foot and took a step forward with the left, only the toe of which was on the ground as he leaned forward to peer into our camp."
"'Ma'velous! Ma'velous, Sherlock!' How do you do it?" chortled Hippy.
"Elfreda, please fetch my revolver. I am going to follow out this trail a little way. Perhaps I may discover something," said Grace.
Hippy said he would accompany her, but Grace shook her head.
"Please stay here and look out for the camp. If I need you I will shoot three times."
"I wish you would not go out," urged Elfreda. "What is to be gained? Nothing, and there may be much to lose."
"Grace has made up her mind to go, so you might as well save your breath, J. Elfreda," said Anne.
"Some persons are so stubborn," murmured Emma.
Grace smiled and nodded, then parted the bushes and stepped in. She was lost to their sight in a few seconds, moving on through the tangle of bush and vine without causing a rustle that their listening ears could hear.
"Fine, fine!" observed Miss Briggs. "We surely have made a most excellent start."
"Cheer up. The worst is yet to come," reiterated Hippy. "Keep your ears open. I'll be back in a moment."
Hippy ran to his tent, returning with his heavy army revolver strapped to his waist.
"What are you going to do?" questioned Anne. "Grace said you were not to follow her."
"I'm not going to. I have merely prepared myself in case she signals for me. All hands keep quiet and listen. Stop that noise!" warned Hippy as Wash struck a chord on his harmonica. "Nora, if he sounds another note, take the infernal music box away from him. I—hark!"
A sharp report startled the Overland girls.
"That wasn't Grace's revolver," announced Lieutenant Wingate, leaning forward in a listening attitude, but before the words had left his lips, in fact, instantly following the first shot came a heavy report, a bang that woke the mountain echoes.
"That's Grace! That's a service revolver," cried Hippy.
"They're at it!" exclaimed Elfreda, as three more shots in quick succession, two of them from Grace's revolver, were fired.
"Run, Hippy!" cried Nora Wingate. "Shake your feet!"
"My knees are shaking already. Isn't that enough?" returned Hippy as he plunged into the bushes going to Grace's assistance, but there was nothing in his movements to indicate that his knees were shaking. Hippy Wingate knew no fear, as befitted a man who had fought many winning battles with the Germans high above the earth, but it amused him to convey the impression that he was timid.
THE WAY IS BARRED
The Overland Riders were calm. The thrilling experiences through which they had passed, while engaged in war work in France, had taught them to be so.
"Do—do you think—she is hurt?" stammered Emma.
"We sincerely hope not," answered Anne. "Judging from the reports, it was Grace who fired the last shot we heard," said Elfreda Briggs. "Still, that does not prove anything. I would suggest that we arm ourselves at once and prepare for trouble. There appears to be plenty of it abroad in these mountains."
Acting on her suggestion, the four girls hurried to their tents and armed themselves with rifles, then, taking positions around the outer edge of the camp, just within the bushes, they watched and waited, observed by Washington Washington with wide, frightened eyes.
It was Elfreda who made the first discovery. She caught the faint sound of some one moving through the bushes and raised her rifle.
"Halt! Who comes?" she demanded as she saw the bushes sway, a few yards ahead of her, as some one worked their way slowly through them.
"It's Grace," came the answer. "Help me in."
"Girls!" called Miss Briggs sharply, springing forward. She paused at the first glimpse of Grace Harlowe's face, which was pale; then hurried to her.
There were flecks of blood on Grace's cheek, and by that token Elfreda Briggs knew that she had been hit.
"Got a smack, I see."
"Just a mere scratch," replied Grace. "It made me feel weak and dizzy, but I shall be myself in a few moments."
Elfreda led her companion into the camp, then examined Grace's wound, which, as the Overland girl had said, was a mere scratch over the left temple. Miss Briggs washed the wound where a bullet had barely grazed the skin, and applied an antiseptic.
"Lie down a few minutes, Loyalheart," she urged.
Grace shook her head.
"I shall get my bearings sooner if I keep on my feet. I am ashamed of myself to give way to a little thing like a bullet scratch."
"That's because you're out of practice. You haven't been shot since last summer," said Emma Dean soothingly. "You won't mind it at all after you have been shot again a few times."
Grace laughed so merrily that, for the moment, she forgot the pain of her wound.
"Emma Dean, you are a regular tonic. I thank you. Now I am all right. Where is Hippy?" she questioned, gazing about her.
"Hippy!" wailed Nora Wingate. "Where is he?"
"He went out when we heard you shoot," Elfreda informed Grace. "Did he miss you?"
"I have not seen Hippy since I left this camp. He must have got lost," replied Grace. "Elfreda, fire three interval shots with your rifle to guide him in."
Miss Briggs did so, and all listened for an answer, but none came. Acting on Grace's suggestion, Elfreda fired further signal shots, and still no reply from Lieutenant Wingate.
Grace, finally becoming disturbed at Hippy's long absence, announced her intention of going out to look for him, and was giving her companions directions about signaling her when Hippy Wingate came strolling into camp, his clothing torn and his face scratched from contact with brier bushes. "Hulloa, folks," he greeted, grinning sheepishly.
"My darlin', my darlin', are you hurt?" cried Nora, hurrying to him solicitously.
"No. I got lost and just found myself. Where do you suppose I was? Why less than ten rods from this camp all the time. Never saw such a country for mixing a fellow up. Confound the whole business. If my property is in such a mess as this I'll set the lazy mountaineers at work clearing it up before I'll set foot on it. Hey! What hit you, Brown Eyes?"
"I heard it. I mean I heard the shot, and, like the hero I am, I ran to the rescue, but got all tangled up," explained Hippy.
"Didn't you hear our shots?" demanded Anne.
"I heard 'em, but I was too busy untangling myself to answer. I thought the shots sounded off the other way and got deeper into the mess trying to find the camp."
"You are a fine woodsman," rebuked Elfreda.
"Yes, and you wouldn't be here yet had it not been for me," declared Emma Dean.
"How's that?" demanded Hippy.
"Well, you see, when we found that you did not come back and we surmised that you were lost, I just sat down and con-centrated. Then you came back, just like the cat did in the old story."
"Where did you get that piffle?" chortled Hippy when his laughter had subsided.
"From a professor who visited our town last winter. He said that, by con-centrating, one could bring anything to pass that he wished—provided he con-centrated intently enough and long enough. Why, he said that a person, by con-centrating properly, could move a house if he wished."
The Overlanders shouted.
"You'd better see a doctor," advised Hippy. "Brown Eyes, you haven't told me what happened to you. Who shot you?"
"I don't know. I did not see the person who did it. He saw me, evidently. Perhaps, catching a glimpse of my campaign hat, he thought it was you and shot at me. I let go at him, and we had it out. His second shot hit me and my third hit him. How badly I don't know, but he plainly had enough and got away without even picking up his rifle. It is out there yet, unless he returned for it."
"Did you follow him?" asked Nora.
"A few yards only, then I got dizzy and had to sit down for a few moments. That is all I know about it. I think we had better pack up and move."
"I sincerely hope the next stopping place may be more peaceful than those that have preceded it," said Miss Briggs.
"Please hurry, Washington," admonished Grace. "We have delayed much too long, and if we do not make haste we shall not reach our day's objective before dark. I don't fancy traveling here at night without a guide. Can you find your way about in the night, Washington?"
"I doubt it," observed Emma.
Soon after that, Grace now feeling fit again, the Overlanders were mounted and on their way, following a narrow trail, dodging overhanging limbs, pausing now and then to consult their map, for they had found that Washington could not be depended upon to guide them. He was useful, but apparently was not overstocked with information about the mountains.
It was after seven o'clock that evening before they swung into a valley that, according to the map, narrowed into a cut in the mountains, through which ran a stream of sparkling water fed by equally sparkling mountain rivulets that rippled down to it in silver cascades. The Overland party was still riding under difficulties, for the trail was narrow and, in some instances, overgrown. They were now looking for the stream that the map indicated as being somewhere in the vicinity.
"Here's water," called Lieutenant Wingate, who was in the lead.
"Washington!" called Grace. "What is this stream?"
"Ah reckons it am watah," answered the colored boy, which brought a laugh from the Overlanders.
"Laundry must have been 'con-centrating,'" observed Anne Nesbit.
"This may be Spring Brook," called Miss Briggs. "We shall have to take for granted that it is."
"I think it is," answered Grace as they rode out into a fairly open space and discovered the cut in the mountains through which the stream was flowing.
The ponies already were showing their eagerness to wade into the water and drink, and Grace had just headed her mount towards the stream when she brought him up with a sharp tug on the bridle-rein.
Just ahead of her stood a tall, gaunt mountaineer leaning on his rifle. The expression on his face was not one of welcome, but Grace Harlowe saw fit to ignore that.
"Howdy, stranger," she greeted, smiling down at the man.
"Howdy," grunted the man, as they regarded each other appraisingly.
"Where do ye-all reckon yer goin'?" he demanded gruffly.
"Is this Spring Brook?" interjected Hippy.
"Ah reckon it air."
"Then that is where we are going."
"Yer kain't go this a-way," replied the mountaineer.
"Why can't we?" demanded Grace.
"'Cause Ah says ye kain't."
"Perhaps you do not know who we are. We are a party out for a ride through the Kentucky mountains. We ride every summer. We have no other object, and, if you will pause to consider, you will see that we can do no harm to you or any one else by going where we please in this part of the country," urged Grace.
"Ah knows who ye be. Turn aroun' an' git out o' here right smart!"
"You are making a mistake, sir," warned Grace. "If there is good reason why we should not go up this gorge we will go around it on the ridge."
"Ah said git out! Ye kain't go up the gorge nor over the ridge. Git out o' the mountains!"
"Not this evening, we won't!" shouted Lieutenant Wingate, now thoroughly angered, as he gathered up his reins.
A bullet from the mountaineer's rifle went through the peak of Hippy Wingate's campaign hat, lifting it from his head and depositing it on the ground.
"Don't draw!" cried Grace in a warning voice as Hippy let a hand slip from the bridle-rein.
"Put yer hands up! All of ye!" commanded the mountaineer, the muzzle of his rifle swinging suggestively from side to side so as to cover the entire party.
HIPPY MYSTERIOUSLY DISAPPEARS
All except Nora Wingate obeyed the command to hold up their hands.
"I'll not put me hands up for the likes of you!" she retorted, her eyes snapping, as she deliberately got down from her pony.
"Don't do anything foolish," warned Grace Harlowe.
Unheeding the warning, Nora stepped over and picked up Hippy's hat, eyed the hole in it, the color flaming higher and higher in her face. Nora then walked straight up to the mountaineer, apparently unconscious of the fact that his rifle was now pointed directly at her.
The mountaineer was nearer death at that moment than he knew, for two hands had slipped to two revolver butts resting respectively in the holsters of Grace Harlowe and Lieutenant Wingate. What mad thing Nora had in mind they could not imagine, but they did not believe the fellow would dare to shoot her down in cold blood, for it must be plain to him that she was unarmed.
"Look what you did!" she demanded, holding up the hat that the mountaineer might see the bullet hole in it. "You put a bullet through my husband's perfectly good hat. Aren't you ashamed of yourself? That hat cost him eight dollars, and if I thought you had eight dollars in the world, I'd make you pay for it. You're a cheap ruffian, that's what you are!"
Nora's chin was thrust out belligerently. At this juncture her right hand flashed up to the nose of the mountaineer. The fingers closed over that prominent member and Nora Wingate gave it a violent tweak.
The fellow's jaw sagged. He appeared actually dazed and the muzzle of his rifle, that Nora had thrust to one side as she boldly stepped up to him, had been permitted to sink slowly towards the ground.
Nora Wingate did not stop there. She soundly boxed the fellow's ears, first with the right, then with the left hand, each whack giving his head a violent jolt to one side.
"Jump back!" It was Grace Harlowe who, in an incisive tone of voice, gave the order to Nora.
"Why should I jump back?" demanded Nora, turning a flushed face to her companions. What she saw, however, caused Nora to take a few slow steps backwards. Three revolvers were pointed over her head at the mountaineer. The revolvers were in the hands of Grace Harlowe, Lieutenant Wingate and Elfreda Briggs.
The mountaineer saw the weapons at the same time.
"Drop it!" bellowed Hippy. "Drop it or I'll bore you full of holes!"
The mountain man permitted his grasp on his rifle to relax and the weapon fell to the ground.
"Back up!" commanded Hippy. "Don't play any tricks, and keep your hands away from your holster. Keep him covered, Grace, while I dismount. You, fellow! Take notice! We know how to shoot, probably better than you do. If you try any tricks you'll get what's coming to you. Turn around and stand still with your hands as high above your head as they will go. Good!"
Hippy dismounted and, with revolver at ready, stepped over to the man who was now standing with his back to the Overland Riders.
"Don't make a move! I'm going to take your revolver," warned Lieutenant Wingate, pressing his own revolver against the mountaineer's back. He then jerked the fellow's weapon from its holster and tossed it behind him. Nora picked it up.
The mountaineer faced him, his face contorted with deadly rage.
"I'll kill ye fer this 'ere!" threatened the man.
"Not this evening you won't. Listen to me, Mister Man. We are not here to interfere with you or with your business, and we wish to be let alone. So long as we are let alone, we shall move along peaceably. When we are not, some one is going to get hurt right smart. Get me?" Hippy thrust out his chin pugnaciously.
The mountaineer did not reply, but his eyes, and the malignant scowl on his face, voiced the thought that was uppermost in his mind.
"Now turn around, face up the gully and sprint when I give the word. Don't you show up in this vicinity until to-morrow. You will find your rifle and revolver right here where I am standing. We don't want any such antiquated hardware. Don't stop until you get to the other end of the gully, if you value your life. Go!"
The mountaineer started away at a brisk trot, never once looking behind him.
"Shoot! Make him dance," urged Emma Dean excitedly.
"No!" replied Grace incisively. "We are not savages."
"Why didn't you 'con-centrate' on him and save us all this bother?" demanded Hippy. "Nora darling, I am proud of you," he said, turning to her smilingly. "But never do a crazy thing like that again. Even Emma Dean could do no worse. What's the next thing on the programme, Grace? Do we go on or do we camp here?"
"I don't like the climate of Spring Brook at all. It is too warm and malarial for me," interjected Miss Briggs.
"I agree with you, J. Elfreda," replied Grace laughingly. "I would suggest that we detour to the right and proceed over the ridge, and on into the mountains where there may be a probability that we shall not be molested. What do you say, people?"
"I think we all agree with you," answered Anne.
"Yes, let's seek the seclusion of the mountain fastness and have Emma sit up and 'con-centrate' all night. If she can move a house and lot with her con-centration stunt, she surely should be able to move that touchy mountain savage further away from us," suggested Hippy to the discomfiture of Emma and the great amusement of her companions.
"I think you are real mean," pouted Emma.
"Would it not be a wise thing to do to leave one of us here for a short time to see if that fellow returns and tries to follow us?" asked Nora, still full of fight. "I should just like to teach him a lesson."
"You already have done so," chuckled Anne.
"Your suggestion is excellent," agreed Grace. "However, it is getting dark and we must locate ourselves before that. That is, we should do so. Let's go!"
The Overlanders then mounted and retraced their steps until they found a place where they could climb to the ridge. Reaching the top, they followed the ridge trail for half a mile, then struck off into the mountain fastness. In order to better hide their trail, they guided their horses into a small stream and rode up that for a full mile, finally finding a suitable camping place.
A cook fire, a small blaze, was made under a shelving rock, and Washington was left to cook the supper while Hippy and the girls watered and cared for the ponies. Supper was ready about the time they finished. The pitching of the tents was left for the boy to attend to while the Overlanders were eating.
"Now that we are composed, what does all this disturbance of to-day mean?" demanded Miss Briggs.
"It may be the result of our running that fellow out of our camp last night, or rather Hippy's running him out. Then again, the incident of to-day may be explained in another way. I first had a duel with some one in the bushes; later, when we headed into Spring Brook valley we may have been getting into the Moonshiners' territory. I understand they are rather touchy when it comes to outsiders penetrating their mountain preserves. At least this last savage was thoroughly in earnest when he ordered us to get out. I fear we should have gotten into trouble had it not been for Nora." Grace smiled at the recollection of Nora's chastisement of the mountaineer.
"Surely, they do not think we are revenue officers, do they?" asked Anne.
"They are suspicious of all strangers," Hippy informed his companions. "I had a friend in the flying corps, who comes from Kentucky, and he told me all about these mountaineers. They are, in a way, simple as children, but bad all through when they differ with you."
"Then, there is the Mystery Man," reminded Nora. "Is he one of them?"
"He may be for all we know about him," answered Elfreda, shrugging her shoulders.
Grace said "no."
"It doesn't seem probable, that, were he one of them, he would have shot one of them in our defense, does it?" she asked.
The Overlanders admitted the force of her argument. Supper finished, they sat about the campfire, now a glowing bed of coals, which now and then was fed and stirred into little ribbons of flame by adding bits of dry twigs.
"I am going to sit up to-night, and watch the camp," announced Hippy after the tents had been pitched and the girls, one by one, had begun to do their hair for the night.
"Yes, it will be wise. When you get sleepy, call me and I will take the watch for the rest of the night," directed Grace.
"I never sleep," remonstrated Hippy.
"He never sleeps," mimicked Emma in a deep voice from her tent, sending her companions into a shout of laughter.
"Except when he is supposed to be awake," teased Anne.
Before turning in, Grace made a circuit of the camp and the bushes and the trees surrounding it, halting where the ponies were tethered to see that they were properly tied for the night. Soon after making camp she had taken possession of Washington's harmonica, for it was all-important that attention be not attracted to their camp that night.
Grace was certain that they had not yet heard the last of their mountain enemies and that trouble might be looked for from that direction, hence no precaution must be overlooked with regard to protecting themselves.
"Tom was right," murmured Grace, when, after giving Washington and Hippy final directions, she had retired to her tent and lain down with rifle and revolver within easy reach.
Lieutenant Wingate put out the fire and sat down to watch, rifle in hand. Grace got up an hour later and, peering from her tent, saw Hippy sitting with his back against a rock. At first she thought he was asleep; then, when she saw him take off his hat and smooth back his hair, she knew that she was mistaken.
It was long past midnight when Grace again roused herself and got up with a feeling that all was not well. A quick survey of the camp from her tent revealed nothing disturbing. Hippy was in the same position in which she had seen him some hours before and not a sound was heard from the ponies' direction.
Picking up her rifle, and strapping on her revolver, Grace stepped over to Hippy and peered down into his face. He was sound asleep and snoring.
"It were a pity to wake him," she muttered, moving quietly away and sitting down within a dozen feet of the sleeping man to guard the camp for the rest of the night.
Grace suddenly tensed with every faculty on the alert. She thought she heard something moving cautiously in the bushes at the left of the camp. A few moments of listening convinced her that she was right. She knew that none of her outfit was out there and that Washington Washington was sleeping in his little pup-tent a few yards from her, for she could hear him breathing.
The Overland girl used her eyes and ears, and a few moments later she made out a vague form at the edge of the camp. Even then she would not have seen it, had it not moved to one side. The dark background prevented her being able to make anything out of the form, except that it was a human being.
Having satisfied herself of this, Grace raised her rifle, aiming it above the head of the intruder, and waited. Herself being in a deeper shadow, her movements were not observed by the prowler.
Grace put a gentle pressure on the trigger. A flash of fire and a deafening report followed.
Hippy Wingate sprang to his feet.
"Wha—wha—wha?" he gasped.
"Don't get excited," soothed the calm voice of Grace Harlowe. "I shot over the head of a prowler. Go back to your tent, Washington," she directed, as the colored boy ran out ready to bolt into the bushes.
Grace had heard the prowler crash through the bushes in his haste to get away, and felt reasonably certain that they would not be troubled by him again that night. In the meantime the others of her party had sprung from their tents, excitedly demanding to know what had occurred. She told them briefly, and advised that they go back to sleep.
"You too turn in, Hippy," directed Grace. "It is too bad to have spoiled that lovely sleep. I will look after the camp for the rest of the night."
Without a word Lieutenant Wingate went to his tent. He was ashamed of himself despite his former assertion that Nora Wingate always provided this emotion for him.
"I think I'll ask Emma to sit up and 'con-centrate' to keep me awake after this," muttered Hippy, and then lost himself in slumber.
The camp once more settled down and was not again disturbed, but Grace kept her vigil ceaselessly through the rest of the night. The girls did not know the details of the disturbance until breakfast next morning when Grace told them all she knew about the occurrence. After breakfast she and Hippy searched the ground about the camp and found traces of their visitor. In leaving he had made no effort to hide his trail, probably having been in too great a hurry, but Grace did not consider it worth while to try to follow the trail.
"We must make time, you know," she told her companions upon returning to camp. "If we are late in keeping our appointment with Tom, he will be worrying for fear something has happened to us."
"Something probably will have happened to us by that time," observed Elfreda solemnly. "Several somethings, perhaps."
After considerable milling about, after retracing their steps along the mountain rivulet, they found the trail that they were in search of, the footpath that led in the direction that they wished to go. On either side of the path was a jungle-like tangle of shrub and vine, through which the party, riding in single file, were obliged to force their way.
So dense was the foliage that they could not see each other, but they kept up a rattling fire of conversation back and forth, much of which was directed at Hippy who was leading and doing his best to beat down a path for those who were following.
This continued for some time, until finally Hippy's mount seemed to be getting lazy, for Elfreda, who was riding directly behind the leader, bumped into his pony several times.
"Come, come, Hippy! Have you gone to sleep?" demanded Elfreda. "We shall never get out of the tangle at this rate."
There was no reply, and when Elfreda communicated her belief to her companions that Hippy had gone to sleep on his saddle, there was much laughter. Emma called out that, so long as the horse kept awake, they would be all right.
This condition of affairs continued for some little time, until finally Elfreda rode out into a rugged, rocky clearing and made a discovery that, for the moment, left her speechless.
Hippy Wingate's pony was browsing at tender blades of grass that were sprouting from crevices in the rocks, but its saddle was empty.
"Hippy! Oh, Hippy!" called Miss Briggs.
There was no response to her call. The pony raised its head and looked at her and then resumed its eating.
"Grace!" cried Elfreda in a tone that thrilled every member of the party. "Hurry! Hippy has gone!"
A VOICE FROM THE SHADOWS
The Overlanders came trotting into the clearing, Grace bringing up the rear of the line just ahead of Washington and his mules, who still were some little distance behind.
"What is it?" called Grace as she burst into the clearing.
Miss Briggs pointed to Hippy's empty saddle, and it was not until then that Nora Wingate fully realized the meaning of the scene.
"Hippy, my darlin', where are you?" she cried excitedly.
"Steady now," cautioned Grace. "It will profit us not at all to lose our heads. Spread out and search the clearing. First, tie your ponies so they don't disappear and leave us in the lurch."
The girls quickly slipped from their saddles and began searching, Grace first having examined the saddle of Hippy's pony. She found his rifle in the saddle-boot and his revolver in the holster suspended from the pommel. This discovery indicated to her that Lieutenant Wingate had not had time to take either weapon with him when he dismounted.
"It is my opinion that Hippy fell asleep and fell off," declared Emma, after they had completed their search of the clearing.
"Oh, what shall we do?" wailed Nora, wringing her hands. "Grace darlin', help me think. I can't think straight. Somebody suggest something."
"When did you first discover that his pony was lagging?" questioned Grace, turning to Miss Briggs.
"I should say that it was twenty or thirty minutes ago."
"Say half a mile back. It is possible that Hippy was unseated by coming in contact with an overhanging limb, though I do not recall having seen any low enough to bump one's head."
"We must go back and try to find him," said Miss Briggs.
"Yes," agreed Grace, her brow puckering in thought. "Anne, I think you had better remain here in charge of the camp. Get your rifles out and be on the alert. This affair looks suspicious to me. Shoot a signal if you need us in a hurry. Elfreda, will you go with me?"
Miss Briggs nodded.
"Bring your revolver. Rifles will be in the way," advised Grace. "You girls stay right here. Do not attempt to leave this spot. Nora, keep your head level. Let's go!"
The two girls started back over the trail on foot, walking briskly. A short distance back from the clearing they met Washington, whom Grace directed to go on and wait for them in the clearing. She did not think it worth while to ask the boy if he had seen Lieutenant Wingate.
"I have a recollection of seeing the bushes trampled down on the left side of the trail as we came along," said Grace, after they had left Washington. "It is possible that there is where Hippy was unhorsed."
"Grace, you suspect something, don't you?"
"I don't know whether I do or not. I will tell you after we have found the place where he left the trail. Does not Hippy's disappearance strike you as being a strange one, Elfreda?" questioned Grace, giving her companion a quick glance of inquiry.
"I think we are nearing the spot to which I referred. Keep your eyes open and move slowly. Should we find nothing there, we will walk along a little way off the trail, each taking a side. There!"
Grace pointed to a spot where the bushes had been lately crushed down. She then laid a restraining hand on her companion's arm, and there they stood for a few moments, fixing the picture of the scene in their minds.
Grace finally parted the bushes and looked in, Miss Briggs peering over her shoulders. Using extreme caution they stepped into the bushes, to one side of the disturbed spot, and there Grace got down on her knees and examined the ground with infinite pains. She then crawled along a short distance, following the trail that had been made by whoever had passed through there.
"How far are you going?" asked Elfreda.
"I don't know."
Grace's search led her a full five hundred yards into the thicket, she halting only when she came to a spot where the brush had been trampled down over several yards of space. The sound of a stream could be heard close at hand.
An examination of the ground there gave Grace a fresh clue, and, after stepping over to the brook and gazing at it briefly, she announced herself as ready to go back.
"What now?" asked Elfreda.
"After I get something we will return to camp. We must hold a consultation. I do not feel like deciding this problem alone."
"I know you have made a discovery, but beyond the fact that some one has trampled down the bushes beside the trail, and that a horse has been standing where we are now, I must confess that I am no wiser than before."
"You have done very well," smiled Grace. "Come with me and I will enlighten you further."
They walked briskly back to the edge of the trail where they had first found the bushes disturbed.
"Two men have stood here. If you will scrutinize the ground you will see the imprint of their hobnailed boots. They stood facing each other, just as you and I are doing at this moment. All at once they turned facing the trail and took a step toward it."
"Wait a moment! Wait a moment! You are going too fast for me, Grace Harlowe. Are you gifted with second sight that you know all this?"
"J. Elfreda, for goodness' sake use your eyes. The footprints are so plain that all you have to do, to understand, is to look at them. They tell the whole story up to a certain point," answered Grace.
"They unhorsed Hippy at that point, and I should not be at all surprised if they hit him over the head with a club or the butt of a revolver. You see how easy it would be to do that without being discovered, the foliage being so dense over the trail. After unhorsing him they at least dragged him back for some little distance before they picked him up. I found the marks of his heels where they had dug into the soft earth as he was being dragged."
"You—you said you wished to—to get something," reminded Miss Briggs, somewhat dazed by her companion's rapid recital.
"Yes. I discovered it when I was on my knees examining the trail here." Grace stooped over and, thrusting a hand into the bushes, brought forth an object which she held up for Elfreda's inspection.
"Do you recognize it, J. Elfreda?"
"Hippy's hat!" gasped Miss Briggs.
"Yes. Let us examine it. Look at this! Am I right?" demanded Grace triumphantly. "Hippy was whacked over the head with the butt of a revolver, and the blow cut right through the felt. No wonder he made no outcry. He is a lucky fellow if he hasn't a fractured skull. Elfreda, this is serious."
"Both serious and marvelous—serious so far as Hippy is concerned, and marvelous so far as your visualizing the incident is concerned," declared Miss Briggs.
"Do you think we should tell Nora?"
"We must tell her something, and we cannot tell her an untruth," replied Elfreda after brief reflection. "I should advise telling her all except about the hat. We can conveniently forget about the hat. He was taken prisoner by two men, probably in the belief that it was some one else they were capturing."
"I don't think so," interrupted Grace.
"I do," insisted Miss Briggs.
"All right, then you tell the story to Nora. Let's go back."
Grace hid the hat, intending to return for it at another time, as it might be useful as evidence. They then started on to join their companions, both silent and thoughtful.
Reaching the halting place of the party in the clearing, Elfreda, without giving Grace an opportunity to speak, launched forth into a description of what they had discovered—minus the hat.
Nora wept silently, and Emma slipped a comforting hand into hers.
"Don't cry, Nora darling. Hippy will be back. Nobody, not even a mountaineer, could live with him very long. I don't see how you ever stood it so long as you have." Saying which, Emma prudently dropped the hand she was holding, and backed away.
Nora Wingate sprang up blazing, to meet the laughing eyes and impishly uptilted nose of the irrepressible Emma Dean. Nora laughed and wept at the same time, and then quickly pulled herself together.
"I ought to take ye over me knee, but I won't because ye've brought me to me senses. Grace, see how calm I am. I am ready to listen to your plan, knowing very well that you have one in mind. If they haven't killed him, my Hippy will yet beat those scoundrels at their own game. Any man who has fought duels with the Germans above the clouds, and won, surely will be able to outwit a whole army of these thick-headed mountaineers. What do you think we should do?"
"At the beginning of this journey, as well as those we have taken before, it was agreed between us that when one strays away or gets separated from the party, the Overlanders were to go into camp at or as near the point of separation as possible, and wait there a reasonable time for the return of the absent one. That is what I should suggest doing in the present instance," offered Grace.
"Make camp right here?" asked Anne.
"Yes, but are we not going to try to find my Hippy?" begged Nora.
"I think it advisable to wait a reasonable time, so, with the approval of you folks, I will tell Washington to make camp."
This the girls agreed to, though Nora was for setting out in search of her husband at once. That, too, was what Grace Harlowe would have liked to do, but she believed it would be better for them to remain where they were for the time being.
"Couldn't you follow the trail of those men?" asked Nora.
"I did up to the point where they rode into a stream to throw off pursuers, just as we did last night. Of course they had to leave the stream somewhere, but the probabilities are that they were sharp enough not to leave a plain trail where they came out. For instance, they could easily dismount their prisoner on a rocky footing where no trail would be left, carry him on and secrete him, then have one of their party ride the horses in another direction. Don't you see where that would leave us?"
"Oh, yes, I do," moaned Nora. "My wheels are all turning the wrong way. Don't mind me."
"We won't," promised Emma.
Washington, aroused from a day dream, was directed to hustle himself and make camp. While he was busying himself at this, the girls held a further conference. At its conclusion, Grace paid another visit to the scene of Lieutenant Wingate's undoing.
This time, Grace followed the trail left by the two men who had captured him, and then on down the stream until she came in sight of a rocky clearing, where she believed the captors had left the brook and followed out the plan that she had visualized.
Grace dared not press her investigation further, nor even show herself, the Overland girl shrewdly reasoning that the spot would be watched by those responsible for Hippy's disappearance. She was not desirous of taking unnecessary chances just yet, for, being the captain of her party, she was responsible for their safety.
All during the rest of the day, after her return to camp, one or the other of the girls was posted outside the camp, secreted in the bushes, to prevent a surprise by intruders. So far as they could discover no one approached the camp.
The camp having been pitched at the extreme end of the open space, the campfire, at Elfreda's suggestion, was built at the opposite end, which, as she pointed out, would leave their tents in a shadow after dark, for there were a few scattering laurel bushes between the tents and the fire, but not so dense that the view was greatly interfered with.
The outside guarding was continued until nearly bedtime, eyes and ears being strained, not only for prowlers, but for the return of Hippy Wingate.
"If we get no word to-morrow, what?" questioned Anne.
"Grace and myself will take the trail," announced Elfreda. "If she does not think it wise to go, I can go alone."
"We will both go, unless something occurs to make our going inadvisable," answered Grace quietly. "Elfreda, you and I will sit up together to-night, if you don't mind."
After the others had turned in and Washington had piled some hard wood on the fire, so that a bed of coals might remain for some hours after the flames had died out, Grace and Elfreda sat down together in the shadows near the tents and began their long night's vigil.
Their conversation was pitched too low to be heard by one a yard away; in fact it was carried on mostly in whispers.
Elfreda's watch showed that it lacked but a few minutes of one when, as she gazed at the illuminated dial, Grace suddenly gripped her arm.
"I heard something in the bushes," whispered Grace. "It may have been an animal. I rather think it was. I—"
Something thudded on the ground between the two girls and the laurel shrubs.
"Wha—at is it?" whispered Grace.
"A stick of wood," replied Elfreda. "It looks like a section of a tree limb. Something white is wrapped about it. Oughtn't we to see what it is?"
"No!" answered Grace with emphasis. "Sit tight. It may be a trick."
With rifles held at ready, ears alert, Elfreda Briggs and Grace Harlowe sat almost motionless until the skies began to assume a leaden gray that foretold the coming of another day.
A few moments later Elfreda crept over and returned with the stick that she had observed to fall. An old newspaper sheet was wrapped about it. This Miss Briggs undid cautiously, Grace's eyes keenly observing the operation.
"Look! There is writing on the lower margin of the sheet," she said.
Miss Briggs turned the page around and eagerly read the words that were penciled there.
"'Stay where you are. Friends are working in your behalf. In the meantime guard yourselves vigilantly.
The message that Elfreda had read out loud to her companion served to deepen the mysteries that surrounded them, yet, as they pondered and discussed it, the message seemed to convey to them the hope that at least one of the mysteries might soon be solved.
A FRIEND IN NEED
"Hey! What hit me?" demanded Hippy Wingate, opening his eyes.
"Keep shet!" commanded a surly voice near at hand.
Hippy tried to raise his arms, but could not. They were roped to his sides, as he discovered now that he was regaining full consciousness. A dim light filtering through an opening that he could not see, for it was behind him, showed Lieutenant Wingate that he was lying in one of the shallow caves that may be found almost anywhere in the Kentucky mountains.
"How did I—I get here?" he ventured to ask.
The other occupant of the cave stepped up and gave the captive a vicious prod with his boot.
"Ouch! Say, you! Don't be so infernally rough about it. Kicking is a dangerous habit to get into. One of these days you will forget yourself and kick a Kentucky mule. Then good night!"
"Didn't Ah tell ye-all to keep still? Want another clip ovah the haid?"
"Thank you, no," replied Hippy. "If you don't mind, before I relapse into gloomy silence, you might tell me what the big idea is. Who or what hit me, and why am I here hog-tied like a captured hoss thief?"
"Mebby ye-all be that. Kain't answer no questions, an' if ye don't keep still Ah'll shoot ye. Ah reckon ye-all will keep still that-away."
"Ah reckon maybe you're right," agreed Hippy, and was silent.
Lieutenant Wingate was kept in the cave all that day. Now and then his guard would go out for a short time, and, returning, would stand peering down at the prisoner, but no further conversation passed between them.
Hippy tried to recall what had happened to him. He remembered riding along the trail; remembered the good-natured teasing of the Overland girls, then all at once consciousness was blotted out. He had a faint recollection of being jolted, which probably was when he was being carried away on a horse, but that was the extent of his recollections. He did know that his head hurt him terribly and that it felt twice its natural size. His throat was parched from thirst, but Lieutenant Wingate declared to himself that he would die rather than ask a favor of the ruffian there who was guarding him.
Shortly after dark Hippy heard voices outside the cave; then two men came in, jerked him to his feet and, dragging him out, threw him over the back of a pony just ahead of the saddle, as if he were a bag of meal. When the rider mounted, Hippy was placed right side up on the saddle, his companion sitting behind him on the horse's back.
A rough, miserable ride of something more than an hour followed; then they halted. Hippy, now being blindfolded, could make out nothing of his surroundings, but he realized that there were trees all about him, and he could hear the snapping of a campfire, which reminded him of food and that he was nearly famished.
"If they fry bacon near enough for me to smell, I'll break my bonds and run—for the bacon," he added to himself.
Lieutenant Wingate was roughly yanked from the horse. He landed heavily on the ground in a heap, where he was left to untangle himself as best he could. By violent winking and twisting his head from side to side he was able, by tilting his head well back, to displace the handkerchief with which he had been blindfolded sufficiently to enable him to look about.
Several men were holding a discussion by the campfire, and that their conversation had to do with him, Hippy Wingate knew from the frequent gestures in his direction, though he was too far away to distinguish what they were saying.
The men finally came over to him and demanded to know who and what he was.
Hippy told them briefly. One of the men laughed.
"Ye mean ye'r a hoss thief," he jeered.
"I wish I were. I'd steal a horse and get away from here."
"Know anybody in these parts, anybody who'll give ye a character?" questioned another.