JACK WINTERS' CAMPMATES
Made in U. S. A.
M. A. Donohue & Company Chicago—New York
Copyright 1919, by The New York Book Co.
Made in U. S. A.
CONTENTS CHAPTER PAGE I. A GREAT STREAK OF LUCK 11 II. JACK AND HIS MATES IN CAMP 19 III. THE FIRST NIGHT UNDER CANVAS 27 IV. TAKING A LOOK AROUND 36 V. TOBY'S ADVENTURE 45 VI. SIGNS OF MORE TROUBLE 54 VII. PROSPECTING FOR PICTURES 63 VIII. WHEN THE CAT RULED THE ROOST 72 IX. BACK TO THE WOODS CAMP 80 X. THE NIGHT ALARM 89 XI. THE RASCALLY THIEF 98 XII. FISHERMAN'S LUCK 107 XIII. THE MAN WITH THE PICKAX 116 XIV. WHEN THE SUN STOOD STILL 125 XV. JACK LIFTS THE LID 134 XVI. STORM-BOUND 144 XVII. THE PROSPECTORS 151 XVIII. INSIDE THE ENEMY'S LINES 160 XIX. THE COMING OF THE CRISIS 168 XX. OUT OF THE WOODS—CONCLUSION 177
JACK WINTERS' CAMPMATES
A GREAT STREAK OF LUCK
"Sure, walk right in, Toby. My latch-string is always out to my chums. I see you managed to pick up Steve on the way across; but I wager you had really to pry him loose from that dandy new volume on travel he was telling me about, because he's such a bookworm."
The two boys who hastened to accept this warm invitation, and enter Jack Winters' snug "den" were his most particular chums. Those who have been lucky enough to read the preceding volume of this series will of course require no introduction to Steve Mullane and Toby Hopkins. However, as many newcomers may for the first time be making the acquaintance of the trio in these pages, it might be just as well to enumerate a few of their leading characteristics, and then we can get along with our story.
Steve was a pretty husky fellow, a bit slow about making up his mind, but firm as adamant, once he had convictions. He had proved himself a wonder as a backstop in the thrilling baseball contests so lately played with Harmony, the champion team of the county. Indeed, it was due in great part to his terrific batting, and general field work that the Chester nine came out of those contests, under Jack Winters' leadership, with such high honors.
Toby Hopkins was something of a genius in many ways, a nervous sort of a boy, and really deserving of his familiar nickname of "Hoppy" for short. All the same, he was game to the core, and would never acknowledge himself whipped as long as he could draw a decent breath. Toby ardently admired Jack, and believed there never was another such born leader as the fellow who had "placed Chester on the map" of outdoor sports.
Jack Winters had not always lived in this same town of Chester. When his folks came there from an enterprising place, he had been shocked to discover how little genuine interest the boys seemed to take in football, baseball, and all such healthy recreations.
Jack had been accustomed to enjoying everything that had a tendency to arouse a lad's ambition to excel in all healthy exercises calculated to be of benefit to both mind and body. He soon proved to be the much-needed "cake of yeast in a pan of dough," as Toby always declared, for he succeeded in arousing the dormant spirit of sport in the Chester boys, until finally the mill town discovered that it did not pay any community to indulge in a Rip Van Winkle sleep.
And now that the seed had taken root, and Chester was fully awake, some of her most enterprising citizens were promising to take up the subject of a gymnasium and boys' club-house, where the young lads of the town could, under the management of a physical director, have a proper place to spend their spare hours with profit to themselves.
Vacation had not as yet made any serious inroads on their summer season, and for some little time now Jack and his two best chums had been trying to figure out some scheme that would occupy a couple of weeks, and give them the outing they were hungering for.
All sorts of ideas had cropped up, but thus far nothing seemed to have caught their fancy to such an extent that their enthusiasm ran wild. It was just at this interesting stage of the game that Jack had called to the others over the 'phone, to ask them to drop in at his place that evening after supper, and hinting after a boyish fashion that he might have something "real interesting" to discuss with them.
Familiarity with Jack's den caused both the visitors to lose no time in seating themselves in favorite seats. Steve threw himself haphazard upon an old but comfortable lounge, tossing his cap at the same time toward a rack on the wall, and chuckling triumphantly when by sheer luck it stuck on a peg.
Toby curled up in the depths of a huge Morris chair that had been discarded as unworthy of a place in the living-room downstairs, and to which in due season Jack had naturally fallen heir.
"Now, we've strolled over this evening in response to your call, Jack," observed Steve, with one of his wide grins, "and full to the brim with expectancy, as well as supper. Suppose you unload and tell us what you've struck this time?"
"Yes, spin the yarn, please, Jack, because I'm fairly quivering with suspense, you must know," urged Toby, with a vein of entreaty in his voice.
Jack laughed. He knew that while the others were trying to appear cool, inwardly both of them were boiling with curiosity and eagerness.
"Well, the conundrum is solved, I reckon," he went on to say; "that is, if both of you agree with me that this chance is something like a gift dropped from the blue sky. We made up our minds a long time ago that it must be some sort of outing for us this summer, and the only thing that looked dubious was the state of our funds, and they have been drained pretty low, what with buying so many things needed for our sports. Well, that part of it has been settled. A magician bobbed up just when we needed one the worst kind."
Steve no longer reclined at full length on the lounge; he sat up straight and turned a pair of dancing eyes on the speaker. As for Toby, he actually leaped out of the depths of his chair, and threatened to execute a Fiji Island war-dance on the spot.
"Go on, tell us some more, please," urged Steve. "Who is this kind gentleman who has taken such an interest in our crowd that he'd actually offer to stand for the expense of our outing?"
"Well, in the first place," Jack explained, "strange as you may think it, it happens that it isn't a gentleman at all, but a lady who offers to pay for everything we'll need, to have the greatest camping trip of our lives."
"Re-markable!" gurgled Toby Hopkins. "Well, all I can say is that I'm more than surprised. But it's mighty evident to me that she does this because of the admiration she feels for our chum, Jack Winters; and I guess, Steve, once more we're lucky to have such a general favorite for a comrade."
"Listen, fellows," remonstrated Jack, hastily, "there are several reasons why the lady is doing this for us. One of them is admiration for the way we acquitted ourselves in the baseball games lately played. She has a healthy regard for the proper bringing up of boys, though she has never been married herself, and therefore knows them only from hearsay. She is interested in the projected gymnasium, and means to invest some of her means in the enterprise, believing that it will pay enormous dividends to the young people of this community. But you mustn't ask me for her name, because I am not at liberty to mention it even to you fellows just yet. Later on the promise of secrecy may be withdrawn, after we've come back from our trip."
"Then there is another reason for her generosity besides the desire to reward a select few of the Chester nine on account of their good work on the diamond, eh, Jack?" asked Steve, persistently.
"Yes, I own up to that," he was told, "but that's also a secret for the present. She has made one provision which is that we are to take a quantity of pictures of the region while there, and that will certainly be an easy way of returning her kindness, especially since she stands sponsor for everything, and we are not limited to the amount of our expenses."
"Whew! that sounds like a fairy story, Jack," breathed Toby, entranced.
"I take it," continued the wise Steve, "that if she wants certain pictures of the region for some reason or other, the camping country has already been settled on?"
"Yes, it has, and I hope you'll both be pleased when I tell you we are going up into the Pontico Hills region, with a horse and covered wagon, hired from Tim Butler's livery stable, to carry all our stuff along."
"The very place I've always wanted to spend a spell in!" ejaculated Steve, exultantly. "It's surely a wild region, and a better camping place couldn't be picked out, no matter how long you tried."
Toby, too, seemed delighted.
"I suppose now, Jack," he presently remarked, shrewdly, "this unknown lady friend of yours doesn't want it known that any one is backing us in our trip?"
"That is understood," he was informed speedily enough. "Of course our folks must know where the money comes from, but the story ends there. It is a dead secret, though later on when I'm at liberty to open my heart and tell you just what it all means, you'll both agree with me that if the kind lady is to get what she is aiming for, no one outside ought to know a thing about her being interested in our trip."
Of course this sort of talk aroused the curiosity of the two boys to fever pitch, but they did not attempt to "pump" Jack, knowing how useless it would be; and at the same time realizing how unfair such a proceeding would be toward their benefactress.
So they spent an hour and more in discussing the various means for making their vacation in the woods a memorable one, long to be talked of as the greatest event of the year. Long lists of needed supplies were made up, and corrected, so that by the time Steve and Toby thought it time to start homeward, they had managed to fairly map out their programme.
"Fortunately we can hire that splendid big khaki-colored waterproof tent belonging to Whitlatch the photographer," Jack said as the others were leaving, "and all other necessities we'll pick up at our various homes. Goodnight, fellows, and mum is the word, remember."
[Footnote 1: "Jack Winters' Baseball Team."]
JACK AND HIS MATES IN CAMP
It was rather late in the afternoon, some days later, when a light covered wagon drawn by a stout though rather lazy horse, could have been seen moving along the valley road among the famous Pontico Hills. Three boys dressed for rough service in the woods sat upon the seat, with Jack doing the driving just then, though both Toby and Steve had taken turns at this work during the long day they had been on the road.
They were many miles away from Chester now, and pretty close to the end of the journey, as Jack informed them.
"We'll strike the old logging road just above here, you see," he explained, "and by following it a mile or so we are due to come on the place where I've been told we'll find a dandy camp-site, with running water near by."
"Lucky for us you managed to get hold of that old map, and copy it, I tell you, Jack," ventured Steve. "This is certainly a pretty wild country up here, and with mighty few settlers around. I doubt if you could run across a single farm in four square miles of territory."
"It's really worse than that, Steve," admitted the other. "I think you'd have to go three or four miles in any direction before you struck a living soul; and then the chances are it'd only be some wandering timber-cruiser, taking a look at the fine lumber prospects, with a hazy idea that he might be able to strike a bargain with the party who owns all this land up here."
"If they at one time started in to cut this timber," said Toby, glancing around at the myriad of lofty trees that stretched their tops toward the sky, "they didn't get very far before being called off, did they, Jack?"
"I believe the land fell into other hands, and the new owner had no desire to clean it of the timber. So operations stopped. But many an envious eye has been turned in the direction of the Pontico Hills of recent years. They say it carries the finest batch of uncleared land left in the county, if not the whole State."
"How about that grown-up road ahead of us, Jack," called out Toby, who had very keen eyesight; "do you reckon now that might be the logging trail we're looking for?"
"Just what it is, my friend," chuckled Jack; and upon reaching the spot he forced the horse to make a turn to the right, though the animal seemed a bit loath to obey the pull at the lines, apparently anticipating harder work ahead.
They found it no easy task to push along the road over which the logging teams had once made their way, so overgrown with vines and small saplings had it become. Steadily they advanced, all of them eagerly observing the many interesting things that caught their attention.
"There's something moving back of that hanging vine, fellows," suddenly whispered Toby, hoarsely; "and I can't tell whether it's a man or a sheep!"
"Why, it's a doe and a spotted fawn, as sure as you live!" ejaculated Steve just then, as two objects flashed off with graceful bounds that carried them lightly over fallen trees and all other obstacles. "First time I ever saw wild deer in their native haunts. We've got a gun along, but of course nobody'd think of shooting deer out of season; and the law especially protects those with young."
"We've fetched that gun with us only as a sort of protection," said Jack, positively. "None of us would dream of hunting in July. Fact is, I didn't mean to carry it at all, but the lady suggested that it might be just as well, since you never can tell what might happen."
Toby and Steve exchanged quick and suggestive glances at hearing Jack say this. Somehow it struck them as meaning there might be a trace of danger in the secret mission which Jack had undertaken for their mysterious benefactress. And doubtless from time to time they would have further reasons for believing that there was something deeper in their errand than merely taking photographs of the wild country for the edification of the lady, who, for all they knew, might be the owner of these miles and miles of wooded land.
"The sun is getting pretty low down in the western sky, fellows," observed Toby, after a while.
"And I should say we'd come all of a mile since leaving that valley road," Steve added.
"I'm expecting to strike the place any old time now," Jack went on to tell them in a soothing tone. "Here and there you can see where trees have been cut, though they grow so dense around here the slashes hardly show. Keep a bright lookout for the bunch of oaks that makes a triangle, because that's where we pull up and make our camp."
Two minutes afterwards and Toby gave an exultant cry.
"I see them, Jack, sure I do, and I tell you they're beauties in the bargain. A better landmark it'd be hard to find. Well, for one I'm right glad our journey is done."
"Tell that to Moses the nag, here," laughed Jack, "because he'd be mighty happy to know his work is through for a long spell. We've fetched plenty of oats along, and mean to rope him out days, so he can eat his fill of grass. Yes, that answers the description given on my map, and we've finally arrived.
"Yes, and if you listen," went on Steve, eagerly, "you can hear a soft musical sound like water gurgling over a mossy bed. That must be the little stream you told us was close by, and which would supply all our wants. Why, I'm as thirsty as a fish out of water right now, boys; me for a drink!"
With that he hurled himself over the side of the wagon and went on a run in the direction of the soft sweet murmur which he had rightly guessed could only proceed from running water.
When a little later Steve, his raging thirst satisfied, joined his chums again, he found Toby unharnessing Moses, while Jack was investigating the immediate vicinity with an eye to locating the camp-site.
The wearied horse was led to water and then staked out with the long and stout rope fetched along for this especial purpose. They anticipated having little trouble with Moses while in camp, since all the beast would have to do lay in the way of feeding, and being led to water twice a day.
Next the wagon was unloaded, and from the pile of stuff that soon littered the ground, it was evident that the three lads had taken a fair advantage of their expenses being guaranteed, for they certainly had not stinted themselves along the "grub" line at least.
"We've just got to rush things, and do our talking afterwards," suggested Jack.
"That's right," agreed Toby, "because already the sun is setting, and before long it'll be getting plumb dark. Luckily enough we thought to fetch that lantern along with us, though, and a supply of oil in the bargain."
"I wonder," said Jack, with an amused chuckle, "if there was a single thing we did forget to pack in the wagon. Talk about going into the woods light, when you've got a convenient wagon to carry things along, you're apt to fetch three times as much as you really need."
"I'm one of those fellows who like comfort every time," admitted Steve; "and I suppose I'm responsible for a heap of these things right now; but never mind, Jack, some of them may yet come in handy; you never know."
They seemed to be fairly well versed in the art of raising a tent; at least Jack knew how to go about it.
"Time presses too much to be overly particular how we get it up tonight," he told the others when they suggested that it did not seem to be quite as firmly staked as seemed proper. "Tomorrow we'll rectify all errors. Now, if Toby will begin to get the bedding inside, and sort over the cooking things, I'll make a fireplace. Steve, would you mind taking the ax and cutting some wood?"
"Happy to do so," chirped the big fellow, who had always boasted of being handy with an ax, as his muscular condition gave him an advantage over both the others. "The only trouble is I'm as hungry as a wolf right now, and so much extra exercise will make me wild for my supper."
The sound of the ax soon announced that Steve was doing his duty, and that a supply of wood for the cooking fire was certain to be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Jack had started to build a fireplace with a number of stones which lay conveniently near by. From the blackened state of some of these the boy suspected they had served for just such a purpose on some former occasion.
When he had fixed this to suit his ideas of the proper thing he had arranged the stones so that one end of the fireplace was a little broader than the other.
Across this space he now laid a metal framework that looked like a grill, and which was two feet square. This was bound to prove a most valuable camping asset, since coffee pot and frying pan could be placed on it without much danger of those accidents that occur so often when they are balanced upon the rough edges of the stones themselves.
All was now ready for the fire itself, which Jack quickly started. Toby gave an exclamation of satisfaction the instant he saw the flames leap up.
"Too bad we were in such a hurry," he went on to say, regretfully. "Some sort of ceremony ought to attend the starting of the first fire in camp. It's going to be our best friend you know, when even we get ravenously hungry; and seems to me we might at least have joined hands, and danced around the blaze while we crooned some sort of song dedicated to the god of fire."
"None of those silly frills go in this camp, Toby, you want to know," said Steve, sternly, coming in just then with an armful of firewood. "This is a business camp, and not a make-believe one. We're up here to enjoy ourselves, and take pictures, but no barbaric rites can be allowed. Leave all that for the savages of the South Sea Islands, or those fire worshippers we read about. I love a fire as well as the next fellow, but you don't catch me capering around a blaze, and singing to it like a foolish goose."
Toby was too busily engaged then to attempt to argue the matter. He had arranged most of the provisions so that a choice could be made, and now he ran off a long string of edibles, most of which, however, would require too much time in the cooking to be chosen.
As is usually the case under similar conditions, they finally decided to cut off a couple of slices from the big ham, and with some of the already boiled potatoes fried crisp and brown, make that the main dish for their first supper.
Soon delicious odors began to arise and be wafted away on the evening air. If any of those curious little woods rodents that might be peeping from their covert at the invaders of their solitude had a nose capable of appreciating such perfumes, they must have been greatly edified by these queer goings-on.
But hungry boys have no thought save to satisfy their clamorous appetites, and so little unnecessary talking was done up to the time when the trio curled themselves up with their feet under them, tailor fashion, and proceeded to clean off their heaping pie pans of the savory mess that had been prepared.
THE FIRST NIGHT UNDER CANVAS
"This is something that just can't be beat!" Toby remarked, after he had made serious inroads upon his first helping, and taken off the keen edge of his clamorous appetite. "I enjoy my food at home all right, but let me tell you nothing can ever quite come up to a supper cooked under the trees, and far removed from all the things you're accustomed to meeting every day."
"And this coffee is sure nectar for the gods," said Steve, helping himself to a second cup as he spoke. "Now, at home I never can bear this tinned cream, yet, strange to say, up here in the woods it seems to go first rate. Pass me the sugar, please, Jack. And Toby, after I've slacked my hunger a bit so I can act half way decent I'm meaning to toast some of the slices of bread at that splendid red-ash fire."
So they continued to sit there and fairly gorge themselves until Steve could hardly sigh, he was so full; but then all boys are built pretty much alike in that respect, so we can easily forgive Steve in particular. Cutting wood does put an edge on a naturally keen appetite that knows no limit save capacity; and Steve had many good qualities to more than balance his greediness.
Later on when they lay around enjoying the sight of the crackling fire, and casting pleased glances toward the capacious khaki-colored waterproof tent that stood close by, they talked of many things that had some connection with their intended stay in the Pontico Hills country.
"This sweet little stream with the ice-cold water is the Spruce Creek you've got marked on your map, of course, Jack?" suggested Toby. "Now how far away would you say Paradise River lies from our camp?"
"Oh! not more than ten minutes' walk from here, I imagine, and in that direction," and Jack pointed as he spoke, showing that he already had his bearings pretty well fixed in his mind.
"Why do you suppose those loggers ever made camp here when they expected to get their timber out through the river, and the lake below, perhaps shipping by way of Chester?"
Toby asked this question as though he sought information, and if so, he appealed to the right person, for Jack was quick to reply.
"Why, I understand that the ground lies pretty low down by the river, Toby; and a camp there might be in danger of being flooded out with the spring rise. You know Paradise River does get on a tear some years, and pours into our lake like mad. These lumbermen had long heads, and didn't mean to take chances of being drowned out of their camp. This higher ground served them better, just as it will us now. That's the only answer I can think of."
"And it comes mighty near being the true one, I'm telling you, Toby," affirmed Steve, positively. "I'm right glad we've been wise enough to look out for that sort of thing. Huh! had one nasty experience of being flooded in a camp, where we had to wade up to our necks in the stream that grew in a night, for the little island was all under water. No more of that sort of thing for this chicken, thank you."
They talked until all of them began to grow sleepy. Then the horse was looked after for the last time, and found to be lying down, well satisfied with the feed of oats and sweet grass that had made up his supper.
Inside the tent there was plenty of room, for the three intending sleepers. Apparently Mr. Whitlatch, the photographer, carried quite a lot of paraphernalia with him when going off on his periodical excursions, taking pictures of Nature as found in the vicinity of Chester; and meant to have an abundance of room in which to keep his camera and other traps safe from the heavy rainfalls that frequently deluged that section of country.
Making themselves comfortable, the three boys tried to compose themselves for the sleep they needed so much, for very likely none of them had rested soundly on the last night under the family rooftree, on account of nervous anticipations of the fun in store for them.
It turned out a difficult thing to do. Going to sleep away from the surroundings with which they were familiar excited them so much that even though they closed their eyes to shut out the fitful flashes of the fire burning just outside they could not control their thoughts.
Then again at times sounds that were not at all familiar came to their ears. As a rule they understood that these were made by the small fur-bearing animals inhabiting the wooded region, and which must have been thrown into an unusual state of excitement by their arrival on the scene.
The hours passed.
In due time all of the campers managed to get asleep, though, if they awakened during the night, it must have given them a queer feeling to realize that they were no longer surrounded by the familiar walls of their rooms at home, but had only a thin canvas covering between themselves and the star-studded heavens above.
The whinny of old Moses acted as reveille to arouse the trio inside the tent; possibly the animal was accustomed to having his breakfast at peep of day, and wanted to know why it was not forthcoming now.
First Toby, then Jack, and finally Steve came crawling forth, clad in their warm pajamas. They stretched, and went through certain gymnastic feats calculated to limber up their cramped muscles. Then, as the fresh morning air began to make Toby in particular shiver, he plunged inside again to commence dressing.
"It really isn't because I'm so ferocious for my breakfast, boys," he hastened to explain, when the others followed him under the shelter; "but that air is pretty nippy, seems to me, and I don't like too much of it when minus my clothes. Steve, how about you trying your hand at those bully flapjacks you've been boasting of being able to make ever since this camping trip was first planned?"
"Oh! I'm game, if you both say the word," affirmed the other. "That's why I just insisted on fetching that self-raising pancake flour along. What would a camp be like without an occasional mess of flapjacks?"
Later on, while Steve was making ready to carry out his job, Toby sought Jack, who was doing something inside the tent.
"Say, do you know, Jack," he went on to remark, "I woke up some time in the night and couldn't just make up my mind what it was roused me. Seemed like a clap of distant thunder; but when I peeped out under the canvas the stars were shining to beat the band. Did you happen to hear it too, Jack?"
"Just what I did, Toby," returned the other, with a smile, "and as you say, it did sound like far-away thunder. I saw you peeking out, but didn't say anything, for old Steve was sleeping fine, and I didn't want to wake him up. After you went off again I crept outside for an observation. It was around midnight then."
"Course you could tell by the stars," suggested Toby, eagerly. "I saw you taking their positions about the time we crept in for a snooze. I must learn how to tell the hour of the night by the heavens before we finish this camping trip. It must be a great stunt, I should think, Jack."
"As easy as falling off a log, once you begin to notice the heavenly bodies, and their relations to each other," Jack told him. "I'll take pleasure in putting you on the right track any time you see fit."
"But about that sound, could it have been a blast of any sort, Jack?"
"That's hard to say," the other replied, looking thoughtful, Toby saw. "It may be they are doing some quarrying miles away from here; or else some railroad is being cut through the hills."
"But even if that's so, Jack, why should any one want to set off a blast in the middle of the night, tell me?"
"I give it up, Toby. Possibly before we leave this region we may have found out an answer to your question. Forget that you heard anything queer, that's all. We expect to scour this whole region up here, and if anything like that is going on, as likely as not we'll learn all about it."
Toby looked strangely at his companion as though a suspicion may have arisen in his mind to the effect that perhaps this queer sound had something to do with the mission that Jack had undertaken in coming to the Pontico Hill country; but Toby had the good sense not to press the matter any further, though his boyish curiosity had undoubtedly been exercised.
When breakfast was ready, they made themselves as comfortable as the conditions allowed. Already there was a vast improvement over the arrangements of the preceding night. Two short logs had been rolled up so as to serve as seats while they discussed their meals. This was much nicer than squatting on the ground in attitudes that severely tried the muscles of their bodies. Toby promised to make a rude but serviceable camp table upon which their meals might be served. And a host of other things were considered by means of which their stay in the woods might be made much more comfortable.
They talked of numerous things besides those that concerned the present outing. Football came in for a fair share of their attention, because the fever to excel in sports had already seized hold of these Chester boys, and in the fall they hoped to put a sturdy eleven in the field that would be a credit to the town.
Besides this other sports were mentioned, especially those having an intimate connection with the season of snow and ice. Lake Constance offered a fruitful field for iceboating; and there could hardly be a finer stream than the crooked Paradise River when it came to skating distances during a Saturday, or in the Christmas holidays.
So the time passed. They had actually cleaned out the coffeepot and both fryingpans of their contents, but at least no one could ever complain of getting up hungry in that camp—not while Steve had anything to do with the cooking. His flapjacks had turned out to be a big success, and Toby in particular was loud in praise of them; though by the way he winked at Jack when declaring them the best he had ever devoured, barring none, it was plainly evident that he was saying this partly in the hopes that the gratified Steve would repeat the dose frequently.
"This will never do," said Jack, finally; "we have too much on hand this morning to be loafing here. First we'll get the dishes out of the way, and then arrange programme for the work. By noon I expect to have things more ship-shape."
The others were eager to assist, and presently every one had his hands full. The big tent was raised in better shape than could be done in their hurry of the preceding evening. Then all their stock was gone over, some of it placed securely away in the covered wagon until needed, and the rest kept handy for immediate use.
A dozen different artifices were carried through, each intended to make things more comfortable and handy. Plainly Jack knew ten times as much about the business of camping-out as either of his chums; and they were only too pleased to take lessons from him, being eager to "learn all the frills," as Toby said.
And just as Jack had predicted when noon came they had most of these innovations carried through, so that the afternoon could be used for other enterprises as the humor suggested.
TAKING A LOOK AROUND
Toby had evidently been making up his mind about something, for they had hardly finished a cold lunch when he turned to Jack and remarked:
"I've got a hunch there ought to be some mighty good fishing over there in the river, do you know, Jack? I fetched my stuff along, and would like ever so much to make a try there this afternoon, if either of you cared to go with me."
"Now, that's too mean for anything," grumbled Steve, looking quite unhappy. "I'm just as fond of fishing as the next fellow, and I'd like to take a whirl with the gamey bass of the upper reaches of Paradise River; but hang the luck, I just oughtn't to try to walk that far."
"What ails you, Steve?" demanded Jack; "I haven't heard you complain any, though come to think of it, you did limp more or less when walking around this morning doing your share of the chores. Got a cramp in your leg?"
"No, but one of these shoes has rubbed my heel till it's sore," fretted Steve, taking off his shoe to sympathetically rub that portion of his pedal extremity. "If I expect to be able to toddle around, and have any sort of fun while we're up here I ought to keep quiet the balance of the day; and also put some sort of lotion on my heel that'll start it to healing."
"I can't go with you, Toby," Jack went on to say, "because I have planned to take advantage of this clear day to snap off a few pictures, just to get my hand in, you see. My old camera wasn't good enough, the lady said, and so she had me step in and buy the finest in Chester. It looks like a dandy box, and I aim to pick up a lot of mighty smart photographs while we're up in this neck of the woods."
"Any objections then to my going off alone, Jack?"
Toby asked this with such an appealing look on his face that Jack could not find it in his heart to put any obstacle in the way.
"I don't see why you shouldn't take a little tramp by yourself if you feel that you just can't wait until tomorrow, Toby," he told the other. "Only be careful not to get lost. I'll loan you my map, which you can study while waiting for a bite; and then again, you must carry the compass along, too. I reckon you know something about telling the points of the compass from the green moss or mould on the northwest side of nearly every tree-trunk. Yes, go if you feel disposed, but start back an hour or so before dark."
"Just when the fishing is bound to be at its best, too," complained Toby; "but then after I know the way, and have broken a regular trail to and from the river, I can stay later. I dug a lot of worms in our garden, and picked up some whopping big night-walkers besides, so I'm all fixed for bait, I reckon."
Eagerly then Toby secured his jointed rod, and the little canvas bag in which he kept all his paraphernalia, such as hooks, sinkers, extra lines and many other things without which a fisherman's outfit would not be complete.
Taking his quota of bait in an empty can that had contained some Boston baked beans which the three lads had eaten cold for lunch, Toby started gaily forth, whistling as he went.
"You said the river must lie directly west of here, Jack," he called back ere plunging into the woods; "so I'm heading that way now. I expect to take notice of everything that looks at all queer, as I go along, and make as broad a trail as I can, so I'll have no trouble about coming back the same way I go. Steve, wish me luck, because I know you just love fried black bass."
Thereupon Steve waved both hands after him as if in blessing.
"Hope you get a fairly good mess, Toby," he shouted, "not more than we can manage at one sitting, because I hate a fish hog who wastes twice as much as he can make use of. But if they do bite like sixty, say, I'll be sorry I didn't make up my mind to limp along with you, no matter how much this heel hurts."
So Toby vanished. They could hear his merry whistle gradually growing more distant as he trudged along, keeping his face set toward the west, and doubtless making sure of this by frequent glances at the friendly compass.
"Let me take a look at that heel of yours, Steve," said Jack, when they were thus left in charge of the camp. "Luckily I thought to fetch some magic healing salve along, and I'm sure it'll help you a lot. We'll fix that shoe, too, so it can't do any more damage. I've had a bruised heel myself, and I know how painful it always is."
Steve was only too willing to have Jack's assistance; and between them the little operation was carried out. The limping camper declared his heel felt ever so much better, and he believed he would have no further trouble from that source, given a rest until the next morning.
Then Jack got out his new camera, and fussed around for half an hour or so, examining its working before loading it with a roll of film. He appeared greatly pleased with its excellent workmanship, and felt that if he only did his part the results must be exceedingly satisfactory.
"I may be gone an hour, Steve," he told the campkeeper, as he prepared to make a start; "or, for that matter, don't be surprised if I'm away double that length of time. A whole lot depends on what I run across interesting enough to make me take considerable pains to get a good picture of it. I mean that our kind benefactress shall at least have the worth of her money, and call it a good investment, if a set of splendid pictures can fill the bill."
"So long, Jack, and I reckon it would be silly for me to tell you not to get lost. You've been too long at the business to need any compass in order to get around in a strange region. But if you should stray away, remember to shout and I'll fire the gun twice in answer."
"It's a bargain, Steve, and I won't forget the signal," chuckled Jack. "If anybody should chance to drop in on you while I'm gone, entertain them as your good sense tells you is the right thing. But remember, we're just up here for a vacation camping trip, and nothing more."
"Oh! I can be as close-mouthed as a clam, Jack, never fear!" sang out Steve, as the other strode away the camera held over his shoulder by its strap.
Jack was gone almost two hours. Then he once more showed up at the camp, and Steve pretended to be greatly overjoyed at seeing him.
"I was just thinking I had better get out the gun, and fire off both barrels so's to let you know where the tent lay," he chuckled, as though such an idea amused him considerably. "But I suppose you've found some things worth snapping off; how about it, Jack?"
"Yes, I used up a six-exposure film, and believe I've picked up some things well worth the trouble. Next time I'll go in another direction, and farther away from camp. This is a wonderful country, Steve. I don't believe you could find grander bits of scenery than right here among the Pontico Hills. Anything unusual happen since I went away?"
"Oh! I've had a lot of visitors," laughed the other boy, "slick little chaps in their fur coats one and all. They are watching us both right now, I reckon, behind the shelter of the leaves on the ground, and up in some of these big trees. There were both red squirrels, and fat gray ones that barked at me, and seemed to ask what business a chap walking on two feet had in their domain. Then chipmunks galore live around here, and the little striped fellows have already begun to get acquainted, for one ran in and picked up a bit of bread I threw, and then whisked out of sight like fun over there where he lives in the holes under the roots of that tree. Why, I've been so employed watching them, and talking to them, that the time has just skipped along. When I looked up at the sun just now and guessed you'd been gone nearly two hours, I had to rub my eyes and figure it all out again. You see I'm so used to telling time by clocks that it seems queer to use the sun for it."
"No signs of Toby so far, I suppose, Steve?" asked Jack a little later, as he emerged from the tent after putting his camera safely away.
"Not a thing," announced the other. "I hope you're not worrying about him, Jack, and sorry already you let him go off alone. Mebbe I ought to have kept him company, sore heel or not."
"Don't fret about it, Steve. Toby has common horse-sense, and could hardly get lost if he tried his hardest. You see, the formation of the valley is calculated to always set a fellow straight, even if he gets a little mixed in his bearings. It runs directly southeast to northwest around here. Besides Toby has the compass, and the sun is shining up there full tilt. He may not be in for another hour or so; but I wouldn't be alarmed even if the sun set with him still away. The light of our campfire would serve as a guide to him, once darkness fell."
"Yes, that's a fact, Jack. We could build a roaring blaze that might be seen a mile and more away. I did hear one thing that surprised me."
"What was that?" demanded the other, looking expectant, as though he could give a pretty good guess himself, which was as much as saying that he had heard the same sound.
"Why, there must be some sort of mining going on not many miles away from here," argued Steve, "because that was surely a blast I heard half an hour ago. First I had an idea it meant a coming storm, but there wasn't a sign of a cloud in sight. It seemed to be a deep, heavy reverberation, just like I've heard dynamite make at the red-sandstone quarry near Chester when the workmen at noon set off their blasts. Of course you noticed it, too, Jack?"
"Well, I should say so," the other admitted, "and during the night both Toby and myself were awakened by just the same sort of far-off dull roaring sound."
"I must have been sound asleep then, because I never caught it," acknowledged the other, frankly; "but if you two boys talked it over, what conclusion did you arrive at, may I ask?"
"We were undecided," said Jack, warily. "We sort of inclined to the opinion that either a railroad was being cut through the hills over to the north, or else there might be some sort of mining or quarrying being carried on there. I told Toby that while it was an unknown quantity to us now, the chances were in our scouting around while camping here for two weeks or more, we stood to learn just what caused that queer booming sound."
"There's Toby whistling, as sure as anything," announced Steve. "I figure from his merry tone that he's met with a decent bunch of luck. Yes, there he comes, swinging through the woods, and actually following the trail he made in going out. Good boy, Toby, he's all right."
"And it's fish for supper in the bargain," asserted Jack, "for you can see he's carrying quite a neat string of the finny beauties. There, he holds it up so you can get your mouth ready for a feast."
As the fisherman came closer, Jack saw that he was looking a bit serious for a fellow who had been so successful in his first fishing trip to the river.
"Something happened, I calculate, eh, Toby?" demanded Steve, also reading the signs.
"Well, yes, I've got a story to tell that may interest you both," admitted Toby with an important air.
"Now that's what I get for staying home when I had a chance to go along with you, Toby, old scout," grumbled Steve. "Just my luck to be left out of the running. Hang the sore heel, I say!"
"Come over to the log and sit down, Toby," tempted Jack; "you must be a little tired after your long walk, and all the work of catching such a bunch of fighters. It seems after all that the gamiest bass frequent the upper reaches of Paradise River. And none of the fellows in Chester cared to go that far when the fishing near home was always pretty good."
So Toby was escorted to the sitting log with one chum on either side. He would not have been a natural boy if he did not feel his importance just then, with two fellows eager to hear his story.
"Now pitch in and tell us what really did happen," begged Steve; "for of course by now you've got us all excited, and guessing a dozen things in the bargain."
"Well, I didn't have a bit of trouble finding the river," began Toby, just as though he felt he should conduct them gradually along until the climax came, as good story-tellers do, he understood. "All I had to do was to follow my nose, and keep going ahead into the west.
"I reckon the Paradise River must lie about a mile and a half over yonder; but in places the going isn't as easy as you'd like. Finally, I glimpsed running water, though to tell the truth I'd heard it some time before; because in places there are quite some rapids, and they make music right along, as the water gurgles down the incline, and swishes around rocks that stick out above the surface.
"Let me tell you, boys, the old river may look pretty fine in spots down our way, but shucks! it can't hold a candle to what you'll see up here. Soon's I got my eyes fastened on that picture I thought of you, Jack, and how you'd just love to knock off such a handsome view for keeps.
"But fishing was what I'd come after, and so I put all other notions out of my head. It didn't take such an old fisherman as Toby Hopkins long to settle on what looked like the most promising site for throwing out in an eddy just below some frowning big rocks, and where the shadows looked mighty inviting for a deep hole.
"Say, the fun began right away. Hardly had my baited hook disappeared in the dark water when I had a savage strike, and away my reel buzzed like fury. He was a game fighter, let me tell you, and I had all I could do to land him, what with his acrobatic jumps out of the water, and his boring deep down between times. But everything held, and he chanced to be well hooked, so at last in he came.
"That sure looked like business, and I lost no time in baiting up again, for I knew how finicky bass are about biting, and that you have to make hay while the sun shines, because they quit work just as suddenly as they start in, without you understanding the cause either.
"Right away I had another, and then a third big chap followed which I lost. But what did one fish matter when there seemed to be no end of them just hanging around waiting a chance for grub—because that was just what I was feeding 'em, having fetched along two dozen big white and brown fat fellows I got out of rotten stumps around home.
"Before there was a lull, I had landed five of the string. Then they quit biting, and I had a chance to rest up a bit, and do some thinking. So mebbe half an hour passed, when suddenly something happened. I heard a cough, and looked around right away, thinking that either Steve here, or you, Jack, had taken a notion to follow my trail across to the river just to see what was going on.
"Say, I had a little shock just about that time. A man was standing there not a great ways off, and watching me for keeps. He seemed to be scowling like a black pirate, and something told me right away he didn't much fancy seeing me there, taking fish out of the river.
"I guess I must have thought of half a dozen things all in a minute. He was one of those slick wardens prowling around to see that the game laws were enforced; or it might be he owned the land up here, and took me for a poacher who hadn't any right to be fishing on his preserves; then again, he looked so ugly and black that I even figured whether he could be a desperate fugitive from justice who'd been hiding in the Pontico Hills country, and hated to see anybody coming in to bother him.
"When the tall man with the black mustache and goatee started to move toward me I collected my wits and decided I'd have to seem cordial to him. Then, Jack, I also remembered your warning not to peep a single word about our having come up here for any other purpose besides having a jolly summer outing during our vacation.
"So I nodded my head and said good morning to him just as cheerful and unconcerned as I could. He grunted something, and kept coming along, watching me like a hawk all the while, I could see. Why, I had a cold shiver chase up and down my spine just like somebody had thrown a bucket of ice-water over me; because all sorts of horrible things began to flash through my mind.
"If he chose to tumble me into the river and drown me, who'd ever be the wiser for it, I thought; and perhaps I unconsciously moved back a bit from the edge, as if I wanted to put on a fresh bait.
"'Who may you be, boy, and how does it happen that you're fishing up here where not a single soul have I seen in the weeks I've spent here?' was what he said to me.
"'Course I up and told him my name, and that I lived in Chester; also how with two chums I was camping about a mile or more to the east.
"All the while I was speaking he kept those hawk-like black eyes of his glued on my face. I felt my skin fairly burn, and wondered whether he could read a fellow's thoughts, which would surely give me away. But I told him the truth, because we have come up here for our vacation camping, and mean to have a bully good time of it fishing, walking, and eating until our grub runs low, and we'll have to head back to civilization.
"I guess I must have put up a pretty fair article of a yarn; leastways he seemed just a mite more cordial when I'd got through; though I could feel that his suspicions hadn't all been set at rest, for he seemed mighty uneasy.
"He told me he was a surveyor employed by the owner of the property all around there; but that owing to an accident to a companion, he had to temporarily stop work, and was waiting for another assistant to arrive. But he never once hinted at such a thing as our visiting him in his camp; or suggesting that he'd like to drop in on us here during our stay.
"He asked a whole lot of questions about Chester folks and what was going on down there; so thinking to interest him I told him about the new spirit that had been aroused in Chester boys, and how we were going to have a new gymnasium erected this coming fall; also how we licked Harmony at baseball, and hoped to wipe their big eleven up on the gridiron when the football season opened.
"Would you believe it, that solemn-looking man never cracked a single smile all the time I was giving him such a glowing description of sport events down Chester way. And I want to go on record as saying that the man who has no love for baseball or football in his system is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils.
"Then finally he said goodbye, just as short as if he was biting it off from a plug of tobacco, turned on his heel, and walked away as cool as you please. Anyhow, I did make a face after him when I could see that his back was turned. And, believe me, fellows, that man isn't all right; he's got something crooked about his make-up as sure as two and two make four."
Steve heaved a great sigh.
"I want to say again I'm sorry I wasn't along when you met him, Toby," he observed, disconsolately. "Not that I don't give you credit for being as smart as they make 'em, but two heads are better than one, even if one of them is a cabbage head."
"Which one?" demanded Toby, suspiciously.
"I'm not committing myself," grinned Steve. "But all the same I agree with you in saying that man must be crooked, though just what his game could be up here I'm not able to even guess."
He gave Jack a quick, almost imploring look as he said this, as though begging him to lift the veil and let them see a little light; but Jack only turned to Toby and commenced to quiz him, asking numerous pointed questions, all concerning the appearance of the dark-visaged stranger who had bobbed up so unexpectedly to interrupt his sport with rod and reel.
It could be seen that Jack took especial pains to inquire into the personal looks of the man. He even startled Toby once by asking suddenly:
"If you scrutinized his face as closely as you say you did, Toby, perhaps you can tell me if he had a scar under his left eye, a sort of mark like a small crescent moon, and which like most scars turns furiously red when any excitement comes along?"
"Why, Jack, I clean forgot to mention that!" Toby instantly exclaimed. "He certainly did have just such a disfigurement, though I took it for a birth-mark and not a scar or healed wound. So then you've already got a good suspicion about his identity, have you? Well, this keeps on growing more and more interesting. Steve and myself will be glad when the time comes for you to open up and tell us the whole story."
"You must hold your horses yet a while, fellows," said Jack, gravely. "The lady made me promise to keep the secret until I had gained the information that was so important, and then I could tell you everything. Toby, I want to congratulate you on playing your part well. That man had reason to suspect you might be up in the Pontico Hills for something a heap more important than just camping out. Perhaps he's satisfied now you spoke the truth; and then again he may still suspect something wrong, and want to keep an eye on us; so we must never speak of these things except when our heads are close together. At all other times we've got to act just like care-free lads off on a camping trip would appear. There are other days to come, and bit by bit I reckon the thing will grow, until in the end I've found out all I want to know."
"One thing sure, Jack," ventured Steve, meditatively, "it's no ordinary game this man with the black mustache and goatee is playing up here in these hills."
"Well, I can stretch a point," Jack told him, with a twinkle in his eye, "and agree with you there, Steve. It's a big game, with a fortune at stake; and so you can both understand how desperate that man might become if he really began to believe that our being here threatened his castles in the air with a tumble. So be on your guard all the time, boys, and play your part. Suspense will make the wind-up all the more enjoyable; just as in baseball when the score is tied in the ninth and Steve here has swatted the ball for a three-bagger, with two men on bases, the pent-up enthusiasm breaks loose in a regular hurricane of shouts and cheers, and we're all feeling as happy as clams at high tide. Now, let's get busy on these fish, and have a regular fry for dinner tonight!"
SIGNS OF MORE TROUBLE
They had a most bountiful spread that evening. Steve and Toby insisted on taking charge, and getting up the meal. Besides the fish, which by the way were most delightfully browned in the pan, and proved a great hit with the three boys, there was boiled rice, baked potatoes, warmed-up corned beef (from the tin), and finally as dessert sliced peaches, the California variety; besides the customary coffee, without which a meal in camp would seem decidedly poor.
All of them fairly "stuffed" after the manner of vigorous boys with not a care in the wide world, and plenty more food where that came from. After supper was over they had to lie around and take things easy for a while, inventing all manner of excuses for so doing, when in reality not one of them felt capable of moving.
"I must say the bass up the river seem to taste a whole lot better than down our way," remarked Toby, reflectively. "Sometimes when I've fetched a string home with me, and the cook prepared them for the table they had what seemed like a muddy flavor. It may have been because the river ran high just then, and this affected the fish more or less."
"Don't you believe it," snapped Steve, philosophically. "The difference was in the surroundings, and the kind of appetite you had. No matter if a fellow does think he's hungry at home, when he sits down to a white tablecloth, and silver, and cut-glass, and all that sort of stuff it sort of dulls the edge of his appetite. Then again he has to just wait his turn to be served, and mustn't forget his table manners if he knows what's good for him. But say, up in the woods he can just revert back to the habits of primeval man from whose loins he sprang, and his appetite compares to that of the wolf. Oh! things do taste altogether different, somehow or other; and meals seem an awful long time apart."
"What's on your mind, Toby?" asked Jack, a short time afterwards, when he noticed the other looking pensive, as though his thoughts might be busy.
"Oh! I was only wondering whether we'd hear that queer old booming sound again tonight, that's all, Jack; and mebbe, too, I was trying to figure out just how he manages to make it."
"Everything comes to him who waits, Toby," he said, simply; "and so don't worry yourself about things yet awhile. Let me shoulder the burden; if it gets too heavy a load for one fellow to carry be sure I'll call on you two for help."
Then he deftly guided the conversation into other channels. There was plenty to talk about, for these were observing lads, who kept their eyes open no matter where they might be; and every little while Toby would remember something he had noticed as he made his way to or from the river, that he must describe in order to arouse Jack's interest, and cause him to decide on a trip across country soon.
They sat up fairly late, for there was a peculiar fascination about the crackling campfire that held them spellbound. They clasped their hands about their knees, and stared into the glowing heart of the fire, as though capable of seeing all manner of fantastic figures dancing there like madcap sprites. It was the old, old story that never dies out, the spirit of devotion that mankind pays to the element which he had compelled to serve him so well in a thousand different ways, but principally to cook his food, and warm his chilled body.
Finally Toby admitted that his eyes were closing in spite of himself, and Steve on hearing that frank confession commenced to yawn at a terrific rate; so Jack said for one he meant to creep between his blankets and get some sleep.
All seemed well as they retired within the tent where, by the light of the lantern, they could finish their disrobing, and don their warm flannel winter pajamas, which, at Jack's suggestion, they had fetched along with them, because he knew how chilly the nights become in camp even during the "good old summer-time."
After all Toby had his fears for nothing, because he was not aroused by any mysterious explosion. If anything of the sort happened he certainly failed to hear it, and slept through the night.
When morning arrived they were on the job again, as Steve termed it; that is, taking their waking-up exercises in front of the tent by doing a number of gymnastic feats, and then after dressing proceeding with breakfast.
"So far we've been favored with good weather," remarked Steve, as they sat on the logs, and enjoyed the meal thus prepared. "Not a drop of rain, and while fairly hot nothing unseasonable, to make us sizzle along toward three in the afternoon. But seems to me there's a change due before long. I don't quite like the looks of the sun this morning; and it came up glowing red in the bargain."
"So it did, Steve," assented Toby, "and they say that's a good sign of stormy weather. Well, all we can do is take things as they come, the bad with the good. When fellows camp out for two weeks they ought to go prepared for wet as well as dry weather. I've fetched along my rain-coat, and the rubber cap that keeps your neck dry in the toughest of a downpour; and rubber boots, so why should I worry?"
"Since you're prepared to be a regular waterdog, Toby," said Steve, "we'll look to you to do all the stray jobs when it rains. Jack and myself not being so well prepared can stick to the tent and keep dry."
"Perhaps you're counting your chickens before they're hatched," chuckled Jack, apparently much amused by this conversation on the part of his chums; "for there's no certainty that it means to rain today. That sign business used to make a great hit with people before they began to reason things out; but it as often misses making connections as it does strike the truth."
"Guess it must be a whole lot like the almanac people," laughed Toby. "You know they just guess at probabilities when setting down what the weather is going to be six months ahead. I remember reading a story about one of the most famous of almanac makers, I forget what his name was, but let it go as Spilkins. He was walking out in the country one fine morning when there wasn't a sign of a cloud in the sky. A farmer working in a field called out to him that he'd better keep an eye above, for like as not there'd be rain before the day was done. Spilkins only laughed at him, and went on; but sure enough, an hour later it clouded over like fun, and down came the rain, so that he had to seek shelter in a friendly barn.
"Now, as an almanac man, he thought it worth while to go back and interview that hayseed, and find out just how he could tell there was rain coming when not a sign was visible. I guess Spilkins thought he might pick up a valuable pointer that he could make use of in prognosticating the weather ahead.
"The man was working again in his field, where the shower had made things look fresh and green. So Mr. Spilkins called him over to the fence, and after passing a few pleasant remarks, bluntly asked him how he could scent rain when not a small cloud was in the sky. The farmer grinned, and this is what he told him:
"'Why, you see, Mister, we all of us take Spilkins' Reliable Family Almanac around this region, and we goes by it regular like. When he sez it's going to rain we calculate we'll have a fine day for haying; and when he speaks of fair weather, why we just naturally git out our rain-coats, and lay for having a spell in the woodshed. And I happened to notice this same mornin' that he predicted a fine day, so I jest knowed it'd sartin sure rain; and, sir, it did!'"
Both the others laughed at the story, which neither of them had heard before, old though it was.
"That's just about the haphazard way almanacs are built up," observed Jack. "Of course in a few instances they do hit the truth; so could any of us if we laid out a programme for a year ahead. It's natural to expect hot weather along about this time of the summer; and such a spell is always followed by a cooler period. So we'll take our ducking when it comes, and not bother our heads too much ahead of that time."
While sitting there they mapped out their intended plans for the day. Jack figured on starting out a little later, and securing some more photographs. Steve, not wanting to spend another day in camp, asked permission to accompany him.
"Certainly you can come along, Steve," he was told; "if you think your heel is equal to the long jaunt, because I may cover quite a good many miles before coming back to camp again. How about that? I wouldn't like you to start limping, and be in misery for hours."
"Oh! the old thing seems to be all right this morning, Jack," Steve assured him. "That salve was sure a magic one, let me tell you, and took all the pain out of the rubbed place. I've found a way to prevent it ever hurting again; and right now I'd be equal to a twenty-mile tramp if necessary."
"How about you, Toby, will you mind acting as camp guardian for today? Tomorrow one of us might want to go over to the river with you, and have a try at the bass; but on the whole, I think it would be wise to keep watch over our things."
Jack said this seriously, so they knew he was not joking.
"Why, do you really think that man, or any one else, for that matter, would actually steal things from us?" demanded Steve, frowning as he spoke, and perhaps unconsciously clenching his fists pugnaciously.
"I'm only guessing, remember," Jack informed him. "It might be a raid on our camp would be made during our absence. Don't you see, if our being up here annoyed certain people, the quickest way they could get rid of us would be to steal all our eatables while we were away from camp. We couldn't stick it out and go hungry, could we? Well, on that account then we'd better keep a watch."
"Jack, you're right!" snapped Toby, while Steve looked even more aroused than ever at the bare possibility of such a calamity overtaking them; for Steve, as we happen to know, was a good eater, and nothing could appall him more than the prospect of all those splendid things they had brought along with them being mysteriously carried off by unknown vandals.
"Toby, just you keep that shotgun handy, and defend our grub with the last drop of blood in your veins," he went on to say. "Now, I'll step out and see if Moses has finished the oats I gave him before we had our breakfast. While about it I'll lead him over for a drink at Turtle Creek below the spot where we get our supply of clear water."
"Thanks for your trouble, Steve; you'll save me doing it later," spoke up Toby, graciously. "When you fellows are off I'll wrestle with the dishes and cooking outfit. After that I've got several things I want to fix about my fishing tackle—some snells to tie fresh after heating them in boiling water; and hooks that need filing about the points, as they seem a bit dull. Then there's a guide on my pole—I mean my rod, that needs winding with red silk thread. Oh! I'll find plenty to keep me busy I reckon."
Ten minutes afterward Steve came hurrying back with a look of concern on his face that caused both Jack and Toby to jump to the conclusion that he had made some sort of important discovery.
"It isn't Moses that's broken away and given us the slip, I hope?" gasped Toby, and then adding: "no, because I see him over there where we tied him out so he could eat his fill of green grass. What's happened, Steve; you look like you've met up with a ghost?"
"We had a visitor last night, just as sure as anything, boys," said Steve, solemnly; "and we can thank our lucky stars he didn't run off with our stuff in the bargain!"
PROSPECTING FOR PICTURES
"How do you know that, Steve?" asked the startled Toby.
"Guess I can read tracks when I see them!" snapped the other.
"Then you've come across some sort of trail, I reckon?" ventured Jack.
"Just what I have," came the quick reply, "and here's the way I happened to hit on it. Tell me, do either of you chance to own this pocket handkerchief?" and as he spoke Steve flipped the article in question from its hiding place, and held it up before his comrades.
Both gave a hasty look, and shook their heads in the negative.
"Never saw it before," Toby went on record as saying; "and it's an unusually fine piece of material, I should say, just such as a gentleman who cared a heap for his personal appearance and clothes would be likely to carry."
"Well, you picked that up first of all, and it excited your suspicions; is that it, Steve?" queried Jack.
"It started me to looking around the spot," explained the other, "and right away I saw the tracks of shoes—long shoes in the bargain, making prints entirely different from anything we'd be likely to do. So says I to myself, 'hello, Mister Man! I see you've been snooping around here while we slept like the babes in the woods!' And so I came in to let you fellows know about it. Want to see for yourselves, don't you? Then just follow me."
They were soon examining the imprints. Just as Steve had said, there could be no question as to the tracks having been made by some one other than themselves. More than this, Jack could easily tell that they were comparatively fresh.
"Let's follow them a little bit, and see what he was up to," he suggested, which they accordingly set out to do, and found that while the stranger did not actually enter the camp he did scout around it as though desirous of seeing all he could.
"Wanted to know if Toby here spoke the truth when he said we were only a bunch of fun-loving boys off on a vacation camping trip, didn't he, Jack?" Steve asked, as if to confirm his own suspicions.
"Yes, he actually went completely around our camp, and in several places seems to have approached pretty close," Jack went on to say, after they had given up following the trail of the unknown man. "I think he must have even heard some of us breathing inside the tent, and perhaps he could count our number that way. But after all no great harm has been done; only it goes to show we must keep our eyes open all the time we're up here."
Toby heaved a great sigh.
"Whew! but it's getting some exciting, let me tell you, fellows. All the while you're gone today I'll be nervous and think I heard footsteps every time a gray squirrel whisks around a tree, or barks at me so sassy like."
"Do you think this could be the same man who talked with Toby yesterday, Jack?" Steve inquired.
"We can guess that it must have been," came the answer. "He wasn't wholly satisfied with things, and dropped over in the night to learn if this camp was actually run by boys. You see how wise the lady was, after all, for if this party had run upon three men in camp up here, the chances are he'd be more apt to suspect their motives."
Steve shook his head as though ready to give it up. He never in all his life had been so thoroughly mystified as just then. Toby, too, had an anxious expression on his face, as though he would give considerable if only Jack felt disposed to explain the whole matter. But Jack held his peace; apparently nothing could induce him to betray the confidence of the lady who had trusted him. When the right time arrived, he would divulge the secret; but until then both his chums must content themselves with taking it out in speculations.
Finally, Jack began to collect his photographic paraphernalia as though about to get ready to start forth on his tramp. Steve had meanwhile looked after a "light lunch," which he facetiously called a "snack"; though it filled two of his coat pockets, and Jack had some difficulty in stowing away his portion.
Toby eyed these amazing preparations with something akin to awe.
"Say, do you really expect to come back tonight, or are you figuring on staying out a whole week?" he asked plaintively; at which Jack, taking compassion on him, hastened to assure Toby there was no cause for worry.
"You know Steve's weakness," he went on to say aside, "and of course he is always in deadly fear of starving to death. That's why he loads himself down so with grub on the least provocation. But never expect to see a crumb come back, for that would be against Steve's principles, you know. He thinks it a shame to waste food; and so he'd stuff himself until he could hardly breathe rather than throw anything away. We may be a little late in the afternoon, but we'll bob up serenely long before dark comes."
So they set out, Toby waving them goodbye with his dish towel, for he had started in to do the breakfast things.
For a whole they walked along, observing everything that seemed worth their attention. Then Steve took note of a certain fact which he deemed significant. This was that Jack was heading in an almost straight line, as though he had arranged a plan of campaign for that day; and also that if they kept along that course, sooner or later they were bound to fetch up in the neighborhood of the place where that strange booming sound had originated.
This fact agitated Steve, and made him think many things. He even found himself speculating upon the chances of their running across the stranger who was taking such a deep interest in their presence in the Pontico Hills country.
Jack did not make any pretense at hurrying. He was taking his time, it seemed, and enjoying the scenery around him. A thousand things called for exclamation of delight, for the woods looked especially grand with the sun glinting on the green foliage of the various trees, some of which were veritable forest monarchs.
Once before noon arrived, Jack stopped short. The largest tree thus far encountered confronted them. Just what size butt it had I should be afraid to say, for fear I might not be believed, but it was perfectly enormous.
"I must try to get a shot at that dandy oak," said Jack, with bubbling enthusiasm, such as becomes an amateur photographer who loves his calling. "Never have I set eyes on such a majestic king of the woods. I'm sure it will make a splendid picture with you standing alongside, Steve, just to show its enormous girth. The pity of it is that I can't dream of trying to get the whole tree in the picture, for no camera could do that in these dense woods, where you can't get far away from the object you're photographing."
He found that the side toward the sun was after all the best for his purpose, and accordingly, after a little maneuvering, Jack secured a picture of the tremendous monarch of the woods.
"I guess now he was a pretty hefty old tree when Columbus discovered America," said Steve, afterwards, as he tried to measure the butt by passing around it many times with his arms fully extended. "Just think of all the stirring events in history that this giant has outlived. It makes a fellow look up with respect, and feel as if he wanted to take off his cap to the patriarch, doesn't it, Jack?"
"You give him the right name when you say that, for a fact, Steve; because there's no way of our telling just how many hundred years he has stood right in this same spot."
"Well, I'm glad I'm not a tree," grinned Steve, "because it must be terribly monotonous staying all your life rooted to the ground, and never seeing anything of this beautiful world. As for me, I want to travel when I grow up, and look on every foreign land. Going on now, Jack, are you? Soon be time to take a little noon rest, and lighten the loads we're carrying in our pockets."
"Given half an hour more and it'll be noon," Jack informed him, after taking a look aloft to where the beaming sun was high in the heavens. "I never like to eat lunch until then, so let's wait a bit. Besides, I'm not quite as hungry as I ought to be to do justice to all that stuff you put in my pockets."
After that Jack did not seem anxious to snap off further pictures, though they came across a number that would have made excellent ones. Steve wondered whether he might not be saving his film for something more important. Even the thought gave a delicious little thrill, his imagination was so highly excited by now.
Then came the time when Jack, taking another look aloft, announced that the sun had reached his zenith, or nearest point overhead. That was good news for Steve, although truth to tell he had for some time been slily nibbling at the contents of one of the packages he carried in his pockets, unable to resist the temptation while the opportunity was within his grasp.
Fortune favored them again; but then possibly the presence of that sweet singing little rivulet that meandered through the forest may have had something to do with Jack's decision to stop for lunch; he was always seeing these small but very important things, as Steve very well knew.
They found a mossy bank and sat down, Steve with a great sigh of contentment; but whether this was caused by the fact that his lame foot was hurting him a bit again, or just from plain delight over the arrival of "feeding time," it would be hard to say; nor, indeed, fair to big Steve, who might have his weaknesses, but on the whole was a real good fellow.
Here the pair sat and ate and drank of the cold water until they had fully satisfied the inner man. After all, Steve was compelled to wrap up part of his lunch again, being utterly unable to devour it.
"Huh! guess that time my eyes were bigger 'n my stomach," he grunted, being too full for much speaking; "but, then, never mind, we are quite a ways from camp, and I often take a little bite around three in the afternoon, even when I'm home. So it isn't going to be wasted, believe me."
"Only waisted," laughingly said Jack, and then apologized for getting off such an atrocious pun.
They decided to lie around for an hour, and then push on a little farther before turning back. That Jack figured would bring them to the camp by the triangle oaks an hour or so before darkness came on, which was time enough.
It was very pleasant for Steve, lying there on his back, and feeling the gentle breeze fan his heated face; for around about noon the sun's rays began to grow pretty fervid, and Steve often mopped his perspiring and beaming face, though taking it good naturedly.
Both of them shut their eyes and rested, though not meaning to even take what Steve was pleased to call a "cat nap." It was peculiarly still just at that hour after the middle of the day. The little woods animals must all be sleeping in their burrows, or the hollow trees where they had their nests. Even the inquisitive squirrels were only noticeable by their absence. A scolding bevy of crows alighted in a tree some distance off, and kept up what Steve called facetiously a "crow caucus."
The time Jack meant to remain there resting, had almost expired when both of the boys suddenly sat up, and held their heads in a listening attitude.
WHEN THE CAT RULED THE ROOST
"I've heard foxes bark before, Jack," said Steve, with a trace of excitement in his manner, "but never like that. I reckon now those bowwows were plain dog!"
"Sure thing," remarked his companion, nodding his head at the same time, while a pleased look flashed athwart his face.
"It wasn't so far away, either, was it?" continued Steve, meditatively. "We have the air in our favor, that's true, but the sound was pretty strong. Huh! seems as if we may not be the only campers in this stretch of the Pontico Hills. Other folks have taken a notion to come up here. I wonder if they can be Chester fellows, or from some other place."
"It doesn't matter much to us who they are, since we don't intend to mix with them," said Jack, drily.
"That was a pretty husky bark, Jack, and I should say on a venture the beast might be a fair-sized dog. I think I'll look around for a nice club as we saunter along. Never did fancy being jumped on by a mastiff, or a vicious collie. Been bitten twice already, and the third time might be fatal to poor little Stephen."
"That isn't a bad idea," his mate told him; "and I'll copy your example. Then if we are unlucky enough to run smack into the beast, we can keep him at bay anyhow until his owners come up and rescue us. But I'd a heap rather not have it happen. As you say, the air is coming toward us, which is a good thing; for in that case even a dog with a good nose wouldn't be apt to get our scent in a hurry."
Jack now evinced a disposition to move on. It was as if that series of gruff barks from the unseen dog had acted as a sort of challenge; and having a duty to perform he meant to carry it out grimly.
They accordingly walked on, not making any kind of haste. Indeed, Jack showed a disposition to act cautiously. He was continually keeping a careful vigil, and, as a rule, his eyes were directed ahead. There seemed to be no longer a disposition to look for beautiful vistas that might draw forth exclamations of delight; and as for snapping off a picture, why, Jack had slung his camera back of his shoulder with a final air that told he had put such an idea completely out of his head.
As the minutes passed and they heard no further indications of the dog's presence near by, they concluded that he must have gone back to his day dreams. Steve found himself more than ever puzzled by the actions of his companion. He wished harder than before that Jack would lift the veil a little, and tell him what it all meant, who that man might be, and what he was doing up there among the hills that would bear watching.
It began to get real exciting once, when Jack suddenly ducked and pulled Steve down with him, as though he had glimpsed something suspicious. Valiant Steve gripped his club with a firmer clutch, took a big breath, and awaited the coming of the savage dog; for he believed nothing less than this was about to confront them.
Jack raised his head so that he might see above the bushes behind which they chanced to be crouching. Then he gave a low chuckle as of amusement.
"False alarm after all, Steve!" he whispered. "See, it was only a red fox scuttling away, with his big brush dangling behind him. He was just waking up after his afternoon nap, and wondering where he could get a fat partridge for his supper when our coming disturbed him. I just caught a glimpse of something moving, and on the spur of the moment of course could think only of the dog."
Steve breathed freely again. He also knocked on the ground a bit savagely with that elegant club of his.
"Well, I'm just as well pleased, Jack," he remarked, "though I had it made up to give the brute all that was coming to him. Once let me get a fair crack at him with this stick, and he'll go daffy, I warrant you. I'll put all the vim into the blow that stands for a home-run hit on the diamond. But remember, I don't like dog, and I'm not aching for a chance to make the try."
So again they started along, still heading straight toward the region out of which had come that tell-tale barking. They had come to a still wilder section of country by now. The land was cut up by little ridges and gullies and walking proved more tiresome. Jack appeared to notice this fact, as though it might have a certain significance in his eyes. To Steve, however, it only meant that there must be more chances of game holding forth amidst these dark and gloomy depressions, where trees and heavy undergrowth combined to make an almost impassable stretch.
While there was really no trail for them to follow, it happened that the easiest way to make progress took them along a direct line. On either hand the impediments seemed to be such as to discourage any variation from their course. Only with considerable effort could they have pushed through the tangled vegetation, and for one, Jack did not seem disposed to try it.
Then something happened.
"Oh! did you hear that, Jack?" gasped Steve.
Both of them had come to an abrupt halt, and were standing there, straining their eyes to see what lay ahead of them.
"The first time it was a dog," muttered Jack, as if communing with himself; "and now, unless I'm might mistaken, that meant cat!"
"Cat!" echoed Steve, incredulously. "Why, it was a whole lot louder noise than any cat I ever ran across could make! a snarl that sent a cold chill racing up and down my backbone. Cat? What sort of a cat would you call it, Jack?"
"A wild cat, if anything," replied the other, neither of them stirring as yet. "Look around you and tell me if anybody could imagine a better place for such a beast to live in. And I think I've located it. We can find out quickly enough by making a move as if to go on."
He suited the action to the words. Instantly there came the repetition of that vicious snarl. It seemed to contain all the concentrated essence of savage hatred, and sent another shiver over Steve.
"Now I can see the critter, Jack!" snapped Steve, extending his club to point toward a certain tree standing directly in their path. "Crouching right on that lower limb. Oh! how his yellow eyes glare at us! Excuse me from wanting to come to close quarters with such a demon."
"For one thing, you've settled on the wrong gender, Steve," remarked Jack in a fairly cool tone; "because if you look sharper you'll see two other puffy balls close by the first one. Those are half-grown whelps, and the mother stands ready to defend them to the last ounce of her strength, and drop of blood. We've surprised Mrs. Cat at home."
"Yes, you're right there, Jack, those must be cubs, for I saw one move just then. But with such a combination against us what are we going to do? Surely you won't think of trying to scare the old cat away?"
"Twenty armed men couldn't do that, so long as her kits were in danger," Jack told him. "If we still mean to advance there's only one way to do it. We can't fly over, and consequently it's up to us to go around, or else turn back and acknowledge ourselves baffled."
"I hate to do that last the worst thing," grumbled Steve, giving another whack at the ground with his long club, shaped somewhat like a baseball bat; "but whatever you say goes, Jack."
"It looks a trifle easier traveling over on the left," observed Jack, "so let's make our try there."
When they started, there was another volley of snarls from the beast in the tree, evidently laboring under the impression that this flank movement had some bearing on the safety of her precious offspring.
Steve kept his eyes turned in that quarter about as much as he used them to take notice of the way he was going. Every unusually loud snarl made him think the cat was about to launch herself toward them in an attack; so that the boy was kept worked up to fever heat all the time.
"She's on the move, Jack!" he now hissed. "I saw her leap down to the ground and run along. Say, she's keeping on a line with us, would you believe it?"
Jack took a look himself in order to be convinced.
"You're right there, Steve," he said, with a short laugh. "After all our trying this little dodge may not be worth the candle."
"She's bent on keeping us from advancing, seems like," complained Steve. "Why, the pesky thing acts like she had a mortgage on all that stretch of woods beyond here, and didn't mean to let us foreclose on her either."
"One thing sure, she isn't afraid of two fellows like us," chuckled Jack. "Even our clubs have no terror for the mother of the kitties. Why, if we dared push on ahead she'd jump at us like a flash."
"I certainly feel cheap, being held up like this by an ordinary cat," gritted the burly Steve between his teeth.
"When you're up against an enraged wildcat mother," Jack told him, "and without a sign of a gun to back you, that's the time to spell prudence in big capital letters. They've got terrible claws, and can use them to tear a fellow's clothes to ribbons, not to mention what they'll do to your hide. No use talking, Steve, if the miserable beast is dead set on keeping us from going on we'll have to own up beaten, and retire with our skins whole."
"I've lost track of her for a minute, Jack. Wonder now if she's gone back to her family, thinking we've been scared off."
"You can test that easy enough," he was informed; "just take a step or two forward, and see what happens; but don't be too rash, Steve. You'll need all your good looks when you get back to Chester again. I'd hate to see the map of Ireland across your face in red scratches. Besides, there's always danger of blood poisoning setting in when a wild animal has scratched you, especially one that is carnivorous by nature. Go slow now."
The experiment met with an immediate success, for there broke forth a fresh series of explosive snarls even more ferocious than any that had gone before. Steve drew up in a hurry, evidently under the impression that he was in danger of being made the object of an attack.
"Yes, she's there still, Jack!" he exclaimed, just as though there could be any doubt of such a thing.
"I saw her move, in the bargain," his companion went on to say. "She has kept on a line with us all the while, and still bars the way."
"This is simply disgusting," fretted Steve.
"It's something that can't very well be helped," Jack told him: "and so what's the use of feeling bad about it. There are other days coming, when we may be able to pass along here without being balked by a mother cat with kittens. You know the old saying, 'what can't be cured must be endured,' so we'll have to make the best of it."
"Does that mean we're at the end of our rope for today, Jack?"
"Seems that way, Steve; the cat rules the roost this time, apparently."
BACK TO THE WOODS CAMP
Steve had a fairly well developed stubborn streak in his nature, and he certainly did hate to give a thing up, once he had got started. Worst of all was the fact of their being compelled to acknowledge defeat through a miserable wildcat; had it been a panther now, a tiger, or a lion, he might bow to the inevitable with a good grace; but cats, in his mind, were always to be associated with the night-singing Tommies at home, for which species he felt a contempt that could best be displayed by a rock thrown from a bedroom window.
"Shucks! I hate to do it, but just as you say, Jack, the beast is set on drawing a regular dead line ahead of us, which we can't pass without a fight. So when you're ready give the word and we'll quit cold. I'll never feel like telling any of the fellows at home, though, how two of us were forced to turn tail by just one measly cat."
"We might sit down here for a spell, and see if the brute will slink away," suggested Jack, evidently also averse to giving up so easily.
"Good idea," agreed Steve; and accordingly they found a convenient log upon which they could rest while waiting to see how the plan worked.
Time passed, and Steve kept his face turned toward the spot where the last savage snarl had been heard. He had a vague suspicion that perhaps the beast might try to stalk them, just as he had seen a domestic tabby do a sparrow at home.
When fully ten minutes had crept by Jack made a slight move.
"Well, we can't hang out here much longer," he was saying; "already the afternoon is so far along that I'm afraid we'll never be able to get back to camp before dark sets in. Let's make a move, and test things."