PATHFINDER OR THE MISSING TENDERFOOT
COMPLETE ROSTER, WHEN THE PATROLS WERE FILLED, OF THE HICKORY RIDGE TROOP OF BOY SCOUTS MR. RODERIC GARRABRANT, SCOUT MASTER THE WOLF PATROL ELMER CHENOWITH, Patrol Leader, and also Assistant Scout Master MARK CUMMINGS TED (THEODORE) BURGOYNE TOBY (TOBIAS) ELLSWORTH JONES "LIL ARTHA" (ARTHUR) STANSBURY CHATZ (CHARLES) MAXFIELD PHIL (PHILIP) DALE GEORGE ROBBINS THE BEAVER PATROL MATTY (MATTHEW) EGGLESTON, Patrol Leader "RED" (OSCAR) HUGGINS TY (TYRUS) COLLINS JASPER MERRIWEATHER TOM CROPSEY LARRY (LAWRENCE) BILLINGS HEN (HENRY) CONDIT LANDY (PHILANDER) SMITH THE EAGLE PATROL JACK ARMITAGE, Patrol Leader NAT (NATHAN) SCOTT (OTHERS TO BE ENLISTED UNTIL THIS PATROL HAS REACHED ITS LEGITIMATE NUMBER)
THE HICKORY RIDGE BOY SCOUTS
PATHFINDER OR THE MISSING TENDERFOOT
CAPTAIN ALAN DOUGLAS SCOUT MASTER
THE NEW YORK BOOK COMPANY NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY THE NEW YORK BOOK COMPANY
I.—THE BIRCH-BARK MESSAGE 17
II.—AT THE HAUNTED MILL 25
III.—THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF NAT 34
IV.—THE SEARCH FOR A CLEW 42
V.—THE TRAIL GROWS WARMER 50
VI.—HUNTING FOR THE MISSING SCOUT 58
VII.—THE AMBITION OF LANDY 67
VIII.—READING THE SIGNS 75
IX.—SETTING THE TRAP 84
X.—HOW THE TRAP WORKED 93
XI.—RUN DOWN 101
XII.—THE LANGUAGE OF SIGNS 110
XIII.—THE CALL OF THE WOLF 119
XIV.—THE NEED OF A PATHFINDER 127
PATHFINDER OR THE MISSING TENDERFOOT
THE HICKORY RIDGE BOY SCOUTS
THE MISSING TENDERFOOT.
THE BIRCH-BARK MESSAGE.
"Hold on, boys; here's a stick standing upright in the trail. And look, fellows, there's a piece of nice new birch bark held fast in the cloven end, that grips it like the jaws of a vise."
"Say, it's a message, all right."
"And from our crack-a-jack pathfinder, Elmer Chenowith, too, I warrant you."
"What do you say, Matty? Is Red Huggins right?"
Seven boys had come to a halt in the heart of the big woods. They were a rather husky-looking set, all told, and evidently bent on getting all the benefit possible from being outdoors through the last few weeks of vacation time.
The one appealed to, Matty Eggleston by name, was something of a leader among the Hickory Ridge Troop of Boy Scouts.
In fact, he was at the head of the Beaver Patrol, and studying constantly in order to attain the rank of a first-class scout.
There are so very many things a boy must know in order to reach this ambition that comparatively few scouts ever attain it. But by concentrating all his energies upon one particular study he may earn a merit badge, which it will make him proud to wear.
Matty took the piece of bark from the cloven stick. The other six boys clustered eagerly around, anxious to see what sort of message it could be that the assistant scout master had left in the trail.
They were out to try a new experience, and one that appealed to every boy in the bunch.
A party of the scouts, their identity and number unknown to Elmer and the balance, had started off for the woods early in the day.
An hour later, Elmer, with one companion, had taken up the trail, and when a second hour had elapsed the balance of those who were bent upon playing the game left town in two detachments.
It had been arranged that Elmer was to act as pathfinder and tracker. He would in turn leave a plain trail that a child could follow.
Besides this, he had promised to transmit from time to time some sort of message. Thus those who came along in the rear, in two detachments, would be kept in touch with events, and also advised as to what they should do.
The party bringing up the rear was headed by Mark Cummings, who was Elmer's particular chum. He was really the bugler of the troop; but for this occasion Elmer himself carried that instrument, with the idea of calling the scouts together at some time later on.
"Hey, look at that, would you; it's all marked up with crow's feet tracks!" exclaimed Landy Smith, a rather fat boy who had only recently joined the Wolf Patrol, making the eighth and last member.
"What's Elmer think we are, a lot of kids, to leave us an illustrated rebus to guess? Looks to me like a little boy's first try to draw cows and Noah's Ark people."
Some of the others laughed when George Robbins gave expression to his disgust in this way. George was a cousin to Landy, and had also recently signed the muster roll of the scouts, although he belonged to Matty's patrol, the Beaver.
"You've got a heap to learn yet, George," said Red Huggins, shaking his head at the offender.
"In what way?" demanded the other.
"Why, this is what they call Injun picture writing," replied Red, obligingly.
"Oh! it is, eh? But what's that got to do with finding a trail, or following one that's already found?" asked the latest tenderfoot.
"A heap, as you'll soon learn, my boy," replied Red, with a pitying look, as if he could not understand how anyone should be so green. "Matty, suppose you enlighten him a little, won't you—that is, if you've got through reading your letter?"
"Letter!" ejaculated both Landy and George—"that thing a letter?"
"A short and sweet one," remarked Matty. "You see, Elmer has signed it with what I make out to be the paw of a wolf. That's the totem of his patrol, while mine is a beaver tail, and the third one would be the claw of an eagle."
"Say, that sounds kind of interesting like," observed Landy. "I rather expect I'll cotton to this same Injun picture writing letter business, once I get at the secret key of it."
"That's where you're away off to start with, Landy," remarked Matty, laughing, "because you see there's nothing hidden about this business at all. In fact, the one particular idea with the one who writes a message in Indian picture writing is to make it so simple a child might understand."
"Well, I declare," cried the fat scout, who was not in khaki uniform like four of his companions, simply because he and George were waiting until the town tailor, father to Jasper Merriweather, one of the members of the troop, could complete their suits—"then, if a baby could understand what our pathfinder has left for us, perhaps now there might be some chance for me."
"Oh! it's as easy as falling off a log, once you get the hang of it," declared Larry Billings.
"Look here, and I'll show you, fellows," remarked Matty, holding the bark up so that everyone present could see the lead-pencil marks.
"Looks like several men, to start with," interposed George.
"Good enough, George," said the patrol leader, "and that's just what they are. Count them, will you?"
"One, two, three."
"That's right. So you see, to begin with, our pathfinder tells us the enemy ahead are three in number. Now, do you see anything close by those three figures of men?" and Matty held the bark directly in front of Landy and George.
"Sure," replied George. "Under one is a mark—say, it looks like the same down at the bottom of the letter, and you said that was the sign or totem of the Wolf Patrol."
"Just so; and this tells us the first fellow is a member of that patrol. Under the others you will see marks to indicate that they are members of the Beaver and the Eagle patrols."
"That's so, Matty; I can see 'em," declared Landy, who evidently did not wish his cousin to get all the credit for smartness.
"All right. Let's get on a little," said Matty. "First notice two have hats on, while the third wears none. Now, you may think that an accident in drawing, but it isn't at all. Elmer meant it for something."
"And I can guess what it is," declared Chatz Maxfield, the Southern boy.
"Then tell the rest of us," cried several.
"Why, it's dead easy," was his reply. "Stop and think; who's always losing his hat every chance he gets?"
"Nat Scott!" quickly exclaimed Landy.
"All right. And don't we happen to know that Nat was one of those who went ahead of Elmer and Lil Artha by an hour or so," laughed Red.
"Well, I declare!" cried Landy, "and do you mean to say Elmer has guessed that, or did he see the fellows before he wrote this letter?"
"Neither one nor the other. He just figured it out from something he found. Perhaps he knows what the print of Nat's shoe looks like, for we all make different tracks, you know."
"Yes," said Chatz, "that would be just like Elmer. He's the most observing, wide-awake fellow I ever knew since I came up from the South. I've seen him measuring some of our tracks, and making a copy in that wonderful little book of his."
"Now, let's get on a little further. Do you see that the second figure, no matter how often he appears, always has his left leg bent a little?" and Matty pointed in several places to confirm his statement.
Immediately Red laughed aloud, and then in one breath he and Larry exclaimed:
"That's Ty Collins, as sure as anything!"
"I guess you've hit the mark," said Matty, "and that was just what Elmer was trying to tell us. Ty's left leg has always been a little crooked since he fell out of that cherry tree three years ago. Now, the third fellow got me at first, but come to look at him he seems a little different from the others. See here, and here, and here."
"That's a fact," declared Landy, scratching his nose in a way he had when puzzled.
"He can't mean he's a dead one, and sprouting wings, can he?" asked George.
"Wings! I've got it, fellows!" shouted Red.
"Then pass it around to the rest, because I'm all up a stump," observed Larry.
"Shucks! don't you know there's only one fellow in the whole troop who's always sighing because he can't fly, and wishes he had wings?" demanded Red, promptly.
"Toby Jones, the boy who's bent on sailing through the clouds some day!" cried Chatz.
"Exactly," remarked Matty. "And in this clever way our pathfinder has told us who the three scouts ahead are. Now he shows them coming to a fork in the trail. One goes to the north, and the others to the northwest. Which party can be carrying the wampum belt we expect to trace down?"
All of them looked again, and while several shook their heads Red remarked:
"Seems to me one of the two that kept together fell down just at the fork of the trail. Was that only an accident, Matty, or a part of the play?"
"I believe it was done on purpose," the other replied. "Because, if you look closely, you'll find that the one who stretched out on the ground was Ty, and that from that time on he has a funny little wiggly line drawn around his waist."
"Sure, he has. That must be the wampum belt," exclaimed Red.
"Yes. No doubt he was instructed by our scout master, Mr. Garrabrant, that when they separated the fellow carrying the belt must do something to show it. That was a clever dodge of Ty's to lie down, and make an impression in the earth."
"Yes, and smarter yet for Elmer to discover the impression, and read it," declared Chatz.
"What else does the letter say?" asked Landy, who seemed quite enthused now, after discovering how exceedingly interesting this communicating by means of Indian picture writing might become.
"Elmer tries to tell us he is pursuing the two who headed northwest. You see he has made an arrow showing this fact," Matty continued.
"But there are some other marks; can you make them out at all?" asked Landy.
"This is certainly a fire. Before separating, the three enemies built a fire and pretended to feed. Here they are sitting around the blaze and eating; and if you look over yonder right now, you'll see the ashes where the fire has been."
All of them hurried across to where Matty pointed.
"By all that's wonderful, there has been a camp fire here," said Landy.
"You're a little off there, Landy," corrected the leader of the Beaver Patrol; "this was only a little cooking blaze, not a camp fire."
"But what's the difference?" demanded the new recruit; "I thought a fire must be a fire."
"Well," said Matty, "when hunters are in a hostile country and want to prepare a meal they dig a hole and make a small blaze in it that will be hot enough for their purpose, but which might not be seen fifty feet away."
"And a camp fire?" continued the novice.
"Quite a different matter. That is generally a rousing blaze made for comfort, and at a time when no danger is feared. This was only a cooking fire," Matty went on to explain, as he again thrust the "message" into the jaws of the cloven stick.
"Do you know how long ago this fire was made?" asked George.
"The ashes are cold now, but they must have been warm when Elmer was here. He says so—anyhow, that's the way I read it. Here are four hands held up. Counting fingers and thumbs he wants us to know he has gained on the enemy, and was only twenty minutes behind when they separated at this fire."
"Well, that takes the cake!" ejaculated Landy, whose whole appearance indicated amazement.
"I wonder if it's going to turn out so?" remarked George, who was always unbelieving, and hence sometimes called by his friends "Doubting George."
"Well, we'll prove it later," said Matty, "because I am putting all these things down in my record. When we come together Elmer will tell us what he meant, and read our answers out loud. Then well see how that second squad come out. But let's be on the move again, fellows. Plenty to do before we overhaul our pathfinder, and find out if he secured the wampum belt. Come along, everybody!"
AT THE HAUNTED MILL.
Once more the little squad of scouts resumed their forward movement.
Matty remained at their head, as before. This game was growing more delightful to him every minute, and some of the others were feeling the same way.
Of course it was easy work for those who came after, and the second bunch, headed by Mark Cummings, would have, as Red expressed it, a "snap."
The real work of following the trail was falling upon Elmer and his companion, the tall, angular fellow known among his mates as Lil Artha.
In carrying out the purpose of the game they were to do all the reading of the signs, and leave a plain track for those who came after. But the two detachments of scouts were expected to pick up as much knowledge concerning the methods used as they could.
Besides this, they must read the messages left occasionally by their pathfinder.
For quite some time the boys scurried along. More than once they had to quicken their pace to what Matty called a "dog-trot." This happened especially when the "signs" were very plain.
"Why all this haste?" asked Landy, who seemed to be puffing a little, because of his being rather a stout boy, and not very well up in athletics.
"Because we want to gain on Elmer when we have the chance," replied the leader.
"But look here, Matty," said Landy, "do you mean to tell me Elmer is getting along about as fast as we've been doing, when he has a blind trail to follow, and we have a plain one?"
"Looks like it, don't it?" exclaimed Red.
"But how under the sun does he do it?" pursued the doubting greenhorn.
"Well," Matty went on, "Elmer lived in Canada, away up where our blizzards come from. He used to ride a wild broncho, throw a rope, hunt antelope and wolves, and was once in at the death of a big grizzly bear that had been playing hob with their cattle."
"Yes, I've heard all that," admitted Landy.
"So you see he learned a lot about following a trail that would never be seen by any fellows like us scouts. He knows a dozen signs that tell him the facts. And when greenhorns like Ty, Nat, and Toby try to fool him, why, he just eats the trail up."
Matty, as he finished speaking, came to a sudden pause.
"We might as well take a breathing spell," he remarked, "because we're getting pretty close to the meeting place anyhow. Besides, here's a chance for me to show you how Elmer manages."
The others crowded around, eager to see for themselves what object lesson Matty expected to lay before them.
"Now I want you to notice right here," he said, pointing to the ground, "that the footprints of the two boys ahead suddenly stop. Here are the plain marks left purposely by Elmer and Lil Artha. Do you notice how they run alongside this fallen tree?"
"That's a fact," declared George, as all of them walked slowly along.
"The two foxes in the lead thought to puzzle the hounds by jumping on this long log, and running its entire length," said Matty, with a grin, "but they had their trouble for nothing. Why, it was such an old trick that Elmer guessed it at a glance. He must have gained quite a lot on 'em here."
George and Landy exchanged glances.
"Well, there's a heap more in this game than I ever thought of," admitted the latter.
"Don't see how he does it," remarked George, with a doubting shake of his head.
"Oh, the more you study up on this thing," said Red, "the better you'll like it. No end of clever stunts that can be engineered. But see here, Matty, didn't you say we must be getting near the place where we expected to round up both foxes and hounds?"
"Yes, I'm looking to hear the bugle any minute right now," replied the leader.
"Where was it fixed for?" asked Landy.
"Oh, I thought you knew," Matty replied, as they once more took up the broad trail, at the point beyond the end of the fallen tree.
"I heard some talk about an old mill, but didn't pay much attention to it," remarked Landy, carelessly.
"Then you've got to turn over a new leaf, old fellow, if you expect to ever succeed as a good scout," Red broke in with.
"How's that?" demanded Landy.
"Because," replied the red-headed lad, himself always wide-awake and on the alert, "a scout to succeed must forever keep his wits about him and observe things. In fact, Elmer says he should take as a motto, besides the words 'Be Prepared' the old sign you see at railroad crossings."
"Stop! look! listen!" exclaimed Matty, Larry, and Chatz in chorus.
"I suppose I am somewhat sleepy," grumbled Landy, "but perhaps some day I'll surprise you wide-awake Slim Jims by doing something real smart. But tell me more about this mill."
"You sure must have heard of Munsey's mill?" remarked Matty.
"Oh, I believe it does sound kind of familiar, but then I must have forgotten all I ever heard about it," Landy confessed.
Red and Matty exchanged glances, and shook their heads mournfully. It seemed a pretty tough proposition to ever expect to make a good and profitable scout out of such poor material.
"Well," said the patrol leader, "there is a long story connected with the old ramshackle mill. No use of my going into all the details. It's been abandoned a good many years now. People have tried to live there three times since old Munsey was found dead there, but they had to give it up."
"Yes, suh," Chatz broke in, his eyes shining brightly, for this was a subject that appealed very strongly to him, "they just couldn't hold out. Got cold feet after going through the experience and had to quit."
"But why?" demanded Landy.
"Because they declared the old mill was haunted!" replied Matty.
"Yes, suh, it was haunted," echoed Chatz.
The Southern boy had always confessed to a streak of superstition in his make-up. He admitted that he must have imbibed it from association with the ignorant little negro lads with whom he had been accustomed to play down on the plantation.
He had even admitted once to carrying in his pocket, as a charm, the left hind foot of a rabbit, which animal had been killed by himself in a graveyard when the moon was full.
The boys plagued Chatz so much that he had by degrees shown signs of considering most of his former beliefs as folly.
Still, the mere mention of a haunted house set his nerves to quivering. Chatz might be a timid fellow when up against anything bordering upon the ghostly, but on all other occasions he had proven himself brave, almost to the point of rashness.
It was "Doubting George" who burst out into a harsh laugh.
"A haunted house!" he exclaimed. "Ghosts! Strange knockings! Thrilling whispers! Ice-cold hands! Oh, my, what a lark! I've always wanted to get up against a thing like that. Don't believe in 'em the least bit. You could talk to me till you was gray-headed, and I'd just laugh. There never was such things as ghosts, never!"
Chatz looked at him rather queerly.
"Oh, well, perhaps you're right, George," he said, holding himself in check, "but I've read of some people who had pretty rough experiences."
"Rats! They fooled themselves every time," declared the boy who would not believe. "Bet you it was the wind whistling through a knot hole, or a parcel of rats squeaking and fighting between the walls. Ghosts! It makes me laugh."
"Same here," declared Red.
"Listen!" exclaimed Larry just then, making them all start. Through the timber ahead of them came the sweet clear notes of a bugle.
"Told you so, fellows," declared Matty, smiling; "that's Elmer. He's learning to use the bugle nearly as well as Mark himself."
"Then we're at the end of our trail following, are we?" asked Landy, not without a sigh of relief, for it had not been as easy work in his case as with his less stout comrades.
"Well, pretty near," Matty replied. "We've got to keep it up till we come in sight of the mill."
"But why?" asked George, who seemed to want to know every little thing, so that his natural tendency to object might have a chance to show itself.
"Oh, well, there might be one more opening for a message, and our main business is to translate these, you know."
"Do we stay long at the old mill?" asked Chatz.
Red gave him a quick, suspicious look.
"Aw, I reckon I know what's on our comrade's mind," he remarked, with a wink.
"As what?" demanded Landy.
"Chatz thinks he'd like to prowl around some, and see if that ghost has left any signs. 'Tain't often he's had a chance to meet up with a real haunted house, eh, Chatz?" and Red gave the Southern boy a sly dig in the ribs.
"Never had that pleasure in all my life, fellows, I assure you," replied the Southern boy, with ill-concealed delight in his manner.
"But say, no respectable ghost was ever known to walk except at midnight, and we don't intend camping out at the old mill, do we, just because of this silly talk?" asked George.
"Oh, the rest of us don't, but Chatz might take a notion to stay over," laughed Red. "When a fellow is set on investigating things he don't understand, and which were never meant for us to understand, there's just no telling how far he will carry the game."
Chatz gave him a lofty look.
"Thank you for the compliment, suh," he said.
They continued to follow the "spoor" of the two hounds, left so plainly for their guidance.
It was not long before another stick that held a bark "message" was discovered. And Landy felt immensely elated to think that by some chance he had been the first to see the "sign."
"I'll surprise you fellows yet, just mark me," he chuckled, while Matty was trying to read the queer little characters Elmer had marked upon the brown inner side of the fresh bark torn from a convenient tree close by.
"Wish you would, old top," remarked Red, with his customary enthusiasm.
"You'll get to like all these things more and more, the farther you go," said Larry.
"I feel that way already," was Landy's quick reply; "only I'm that clumsy and slow-witted I just don't see how I'm ever going to keep up with the procession."
"Elmer says it's only keeping everlastingly at it that makes a good scout," remarked Chatz.
Evidently, from the way these boys continually quoted "Elmer," the assistant scout master must be a very popular fellow in Hickory Ridge, and those who have made a study of boy nature can understand what rare elements the said Elmer must have in his composition to make so many friends and so few enemies.
"Come around and see what I've made out of this message," said Matty just then.
It proved to be the concluding communication, and in plain picture language informed those for whom it was left that the two foxes had stopped here, made a dense smoke to attract their missing comrade, and when joined by him, the three had gone on together to the rendezvous at the old mill.
"Fine," cried Landy, when he heard what a remarkable story those rude drawings told.
"Very good—if true," admitted George.
"Well, come along and we'll prove it," laughed Matty; "for unless I miss my guess the mill is close by."
"Sure," declared Red. "I can hear the noise of water tumbling down some rocks, or over a mill dam."
Five minutes later and Chatz called out:
"There you are, suh!"
The mill could be seen through the trees, and all of the boys felt the greatest eagerness to hurry along and reach this spot.
It happened that none of this bunch had ever set eyes on Munsey's mill, or the pond just above it. There were plenty of places nearer Hickory Ridge for fishing purposes. And besides, the dear familiar old "swimming hole" was more convenient than this place, nearly seven miles away.
"I see Elmer and Lil Artha," observed Larry.
"Yes, and there's another fellow just beyond. I reckon it must be Ty Collins," said Chatz.
Elmer waited for them to come up. He and his companions were standing on the edge of the dam which had long ago been built in order to hold up the water and form the big lonely looking pond beyond.
"Ugh, what a spooky looking place this is!" exclaimed Larry, as soon as they drew up where they could look out on the big pond, its surface in places partly covered with lily plants, and the long trailing branches of weeping willows dipping down to the water.
"It sure is, suh!" remarked Chatz, plainly interested, and not a little excited.
"Here we are, Elmer," called out Matty; "and I guess the second bunch will be along soon. I see Ty and Toby, but where's Nat Scott?"
Elmer gave him a serious look.
"That's just what we're wondering," he said. "They all reached the old mill, you see, but Nat seems to have disappeared in a mighty queer way!"
THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF NAT.
Chatz was the only one who gave utterance to a sound after Elmer had made this surprising, as well as alarming, admission.
The others were looking, first at Elmer, then at each of his three companions as well; and finally out upon the dismal pond that assumed much the appearance of a lake, it stretched so far up the valley, almost a quarter of a mile, in fact.
Just then the only sound they heard was the noisy scolding of the water as it went over the spill or apron of the stout dam that had stood all these long years, defying floods and the ravages of time.
And somehow, there was something chilling in the very lonesome character of their surroundings.
Of the ten scouts present, Chatz seemed to be the only one who did not look solemn. There was an eager glow in the Southern boy's dark eyes, as though the situation appealed to that element of superstition in his nature.
And Elmer, noting this expression, that was almost of glee, knew that when the companions of Chatz fondly believed they had cured him of his silly faith in ghosts and such things, they had made a mistake. The snake had only been "scotched," not killed. It was already awakening again, under the first favorable conditions.
"Say, this ain't any part of the game, is it?" demanded Red.
"Yes, you don't expect us to guess what's become of Nat, and then find him grinning at us, perhaps astraddle of a limb up in a big tree?" remarked Larry.
"I asked these fellows," said Elmer, seriously, "and both Toby and Ty gave me their word of honor that no game or joke was set up between them. If Nat is playing a prank then he's doing it on his own account."
"And Nat ain't generally the fellow to think of playing a joke on his chums," declared Larry.
"Gee, this is getting wild and woolly now!" remarked Landy; "I'm all of a tremble. What if the poor fellow fell over this dam here, struck his head on a rock, and lies right now at the bottom of that black pool where the foam keeps on circling around and around. Ugh! It makes me shiver, fellows, honest and truly."
George, as usual, scoffed at the idea of anything having happened to Nat Scott.
"He'll show up as soon as he feels like it, make sure of that," he declared.
"Have you called him!" asked Matty.
"Yes, all of us did," replied Lil Artha, whose customary rollicking good nature seemed subdued in a measure for once.
"And he didn't answer?" demanded Chatz.
"We never heard a word, and that's a fact, boys," declared Toby Jones, uneasily.
Then they all looked around again, their eyes naturally roving in the quarter where, near the farther end of the dam, the old mill stood.
Its day was long since past. The great water wheel at the end of the sluice had partly fallen to pieces with the passage of time and the ravages of neglect. What was left seemed to be almost entirely covered with green moss, among which the clear little fingers of water trickled.
Suddenly a discordant scream rang out. It was so fearful that several of the fellows turned pale, and all of them started violently.
"There!" ejaculated Chatz.
His manner was almost triumphant; just as though he would like to demand whether these chums of his could not find some reason to believe as he did, after such a manifestation.
"Oh, glory, what was that!" quivered Landy, as he clutched the arm of Elmer Chenowith.
"But it didn't come from the mill," declared Larry. "Sounded to me like it was out there on the pond."
"Good for you, Larry," remarked Elmer.
"Then I was right?" asked the other.
"You certainly were, and if the whole of you turn your eyes aways up yonder, perhaps you'll notice a big black-and-white bird come to the surface. It dived just after scolding us for disturbing its fishing excursion."
Following the direction indicated by Elmer's extended finger the scouts all watched eagerly.
"I see something moving just behind that bunch of lily pads," exclaimed one with keen vision.
"There it swims out now, and it's a big water bird, too. Looks like a goose to me," Landy remarked, earnestly.
"That's a loon, fellows!" exclaimed Red.
"Is it, Elmer?" they demanded in a breath.
"Just what it is, and nothing else," replied the acting scout master. "They are very common up in the Great Northwest. And once you've heard their wild laugh you'll never forget it."
"Huh, sounds just like the shout of a crazy man to me," ventured Lil Artha.
"Everybody says that," Elmer declared. "And I never knew a single fellow who liked to hear a loon call. Some say it's a sign of ill luck to be scolded by a loon."
"Ill luck!" echoed Chatz, once more looking in the direction of the ramshackle old mill.
"But see here," remarked Matty, "tell us about Nat, won't you? When was his queer disappearance first noticed, Elmer?"
"Well, when Lil Artha and myself arrived here we found Toby and Ty throwing stones out in the pond, scaring the little red-marked turtles that were sitting by dozens on every old log and rock, and great big bullfrogs as well."
"Never saw so many whopping big frogs in all my life," declared Ty.
"You see," explained Toby, "we missed Nat, but thought he had just wandered off to look around. Ty and me, why, we felt too tired to explore things till the rest came along."
"Oh, but you could amuse yourselves throwing things into the water, eh?" Matty remarked, with such a vein of sarcasm in his voice that Toby immediately aroused to defend himself.
"'Twa'n't that at all, Matty Eggleston; prove it by Ty here if either of us was afraid to go inside your old haunted mill, was we, Ty?" he exclaimed, with a fine show of righteous indignation.
"Course we wasn't," Ty hastened to declare, with a decided shake of his tousled head. "We walked along the shore till we came to a nice shady place, and then squatted down, meanin' to wait till Elmer showed up. Then I popped a rock at a sassy little turkle, and pretty soon both of us were letting fly."
"When did you miss Nat, and where was he the last you saw him?" asked Matty, who was expected some day to become a lawyer.
"Oh!" answered Toby, "he said he'd hang around the dam here and look into things. You know Nat always did want to pry into everything he saw."
"What then?" Matty went on asking.
"Why, we saw Elmer and Lil Artha coming, and went to meet 'em, that's all," replied Ty.
"Have any of you been inside the mill?"
"Why, no," Toby spoke up. "Elmer and Lil Artha sat down to rest, and you see we expected Nat to pop out on us any minute, so we just didn't say anything about it till they asked."
"And that was just about the time we first heard your voices close by," said Elmer, "so we made up our minds to wait till you joined us, when we could scatter and search."
"Search!" echoed Larry. "Good gracious! do you think Nat can be lost?"
"It doesn't seem possible," admitted Elmer, "but I blew the bugle, and sounded the assembly. If Nat heard that he is scout enough to know it was a command for him to come in—if he could."
"Whew! this is something we didn't expect to run up against—a mystery right in the start," remarked Matty, mopping his face with his big bandana handkerchief, which he wore about his neck, cowboy fashion, with the knot behind.
"You never can tell, suh!" said Chatz, in a solemn manner; and somehow none of the boys seemed quite as ready to scoff at the Southerner's superstitious belief, as usual.
"But hadn't we better be looking around?" remarked Matty. "Nat may have gone into the old mill, bent on investigating, and some accident have happened to him."
"As what?" queried George, cautiously.
"Oh, well, perhaps he tripped and fell, striking his head as he went down. Then again, a rotten plank might have given way under him, and let him get an ugly fall," Matty replied.
"That sounds reasonable enough," said Elmer, "and now I want some of you to scatter around and see if you can discover any trace of our missing comrade. Red, you get a long pole and poke down in that deep pool, though I feel pretty sure you won't find any sign of him there, because there isn't a mark of blood on the rocks, as there would be if he had fallen from up here on the dam."
The boys looked aghast.
Up to this point perhaps Landy and several others may have indulged in a hope that after all perhaps this might only be a little finish to the remarkable game of fox and hounds which they had been playing.
Indeed, Red and Larry had once or twice even exchanged sly winks. They actually suspected that Elmer had secretly ordered Nat to conceal himself, up among the branches of a tree, perhaps, so as to have the whole party guessing, and running around like a pack of dogs off the scent.
Now the last vague hope in this particular seemed shattered by Elmer's thrilling suggestion.
And more than Red's horrified eyes roved in the direction of the ugly black pool, across the surface of which the foamy white bubbles kept circling constantly, as the surplus water ran over the dam.
"Where will the rest of us look, Elmer?" asked Matty, breaking the awful silence that had gripped them after hearing the scout master's suggestion.
"Any old place," replied Elmer; "only I guess you needn't go far along that farther shore, because Toby and Ty were there where you see that big oak tree."
"They couldn't see the dam from there, could they?" asked Red, quickly.
"No, that's true," answered Toby.
"And so they wouldn't know whether anybody knocked poor Nat over here; or if he went across to the old mill," Red continued.
"Right you are, Red," replied Ty; "but neither did we hear any shout. An old bluejay was screechin' in the woods near us. Yep, a feller might 'a' called out and we not noticed it."
"I want two of you to go with me to the mill," said Elmer.
"Count me for one!" cried some one, instantly; and of course that was the eager Chatz, who would have started a new rebellion had he been debarred that privilege.
"And I'm the second victim," declared Lil Artha, with a grin, but at the same time looking very determined.
"All right," said Elmer; "fall in behind me, and we'll see what the inside of the mill looks like."
THE SEARCH FOR A CLEW.
Following the lead of Elmer, the tall lanky scout and the wiry Southern boy quickly found themselves at the other end of the mill dam.
Lil Artha had cast his eyes about him as he cautiously made his way along. He seemed to be figuring on what chance there might be for an active chap like Nat Scott slipping on one of the wet and moss-covered stones, to go tumbling down toward that suspicious black pool.
Not so Chatz Maxfield.
Apparently he had made up his mind from the start that this strange vanishing of their comrade must have some connection with the mystery of the old mill.
Did they not admit that three separate times people had tried to live there in the dwelling that was part and parcel of the mill; and on every occasion they had given it up as a bad job?
Well, it seemed to be understood that none of them could stand the sights and sounds which had come to them while under that roof.
People might scoff at such things all they had a mind to, but surely it seemed as if there must be something in it.
At any rate, everyone of those three families believed the mill house haunted. And for many years now, no one had had the nerve to occupy the place.
And yet it had once been a paying venture, for the main road was only a few hundred yards away from this lonely, forbidding-looking pond, where the frogs grew so large and the red-marked "turkles," as Ty Collins called them, were so saucy.
"Careful here!" warned Elmer, as they arrived at the runway, where in times past the water was turned on when the mill was to be operated.
The boards were rotting and slimy, and if one made a slip he might get a wet jacket in the sluice, where there was more or less running water.
Elmer held up a hand to hold his comrades back. He seemed to be down on his hands and knees, as though examining something that had just caught his attention.
"What is it?" asked Lil Artha.
"He came this way, all right, boys."
"Do you mean Nat?" questioned Chatz.
"Why, of course," replied the leader.
"How do you know?" continued Chatz.
"I've been following Nat's trail for miles," answered Elmer, "and sure I ought to know what his footprint looks like. Here it is on this clay just beside the sluice. Wait till I cross and see if he made the other side all right."
"He must, because he ain't in the sluiceway," remarked the tall boy.
A minute later and Elmer, who had carefully crossed over, testing each board before trusting his weight on it, called out:
"The marks are here, all right, fellows. Nat did start to look into the old mill. Come over, but be careful. Go slow, Chatz," he warned again, as the impetuous Southern boy slipped, and might have landed in the slimy sluice only that Lil Artha threw out a hand and clutched him.
They were now almost in the shadow of the deserted mill. It looked gloomy and forbidding to the eyes of at least Elmer and the tall lad, though Chatz may have considered it an object well worth coming a long distance to see.
"Wow! I must get some pictures of this same old ruin while we're up here," said Lil Artha, who carried a little pocket camera along, and was a very clever artist indeed.
"A fine idea," remarked Elmer; "but there are a lot of good people in Hickory Ridge who would think a picture of Munsey's mill very tame and incomplete without the ghost showing in it."
"Ah!" said Chatz, his face aglow.
"Oh, well," Lil Artha went on, "perhaps now I might be lucky enough to tempt that same ghost to pose for me. Anyhow I mean to ask him, if so be we happen to run across his trail."
He looked at Chatz, and then winked one eye humorously at Elmer. But the Southern boy did not deign to take any notice.
"Come, let's go in, fellows," he said, impatiently.
With that the three started for the other side of the mill, where an entrance could most likely be much more easily effected.
Elmer continued to watch the ground, and from the satisfied look on his face Lil Artha felt sure the scout master must be discovering further traces of the missing boy.
Perhaps, after all, they would find Nat hiding inside the mill or the dwelling alongside. Perhaps he had been so busy investigating that he had not noticed their shouts, or the bugle call, for the falling water made quite a little noise.
Or, on the other hand, possibly Nat may have been seized with a sudden desire to tease his comrades in return for many a practical joke of which he had been the victim.
But one of the three was quite firm in his belief that neither of these explanations would turn out to be the true one.
Of course this was Chatz Maxfield, through whose mind had run the conviction that poor Nat Scott must have paid dearly for his temerity in invading the haunted mill.
Yes, Chatz feared that the ghost must have got Nat, though he was afraid to openly proclaim his belief. Fear of ridicule was a weakness of Chatz. It often causes boys to hide their real feelings, and even appear to be much bolder than they naturally are.
Once around the end of the mill and they saw the dwelling attached to it.
Here, too, was the old road, now overgrown with weeds and almost hidden from view. And yet, twenty years ago, in Miller Munsey's time, no doubt farmers daily drove up here with sacks of corn, wheat, or rye, to have the grain delivered to them again in the shape of flour.
"Shall we try to go in by way of the house door?" asked Lil Artha.
"No," replied Elmer, "he went in through that opening where some boards are off the side of the mill. Perhaps we'd better do the same."
"A good idea," remarked Chatz, with the air of one who could not get inside the walls of the mill too speedily to please him.
"Just as you say, Elmer," the lanky scout observed; for having been in the company of the other when the latter was acting as pathfinder to the expedition, Lil Artha was more than ever filled with admiration for his wonderful talents in discovering things supposed to be lost.
So Elmer without further hesitation ducked through the opening, with his two allies keeping close to his heels.
At any rate it was somewhat more restful inside the mill.
Those walls, even if now going rapidly into a condition of decay, shut out some of the noise caused by the falling water.
Lil Artha and Chatz both looked about them eagerly, even anxiously, as soon as they found themselves within those walls which had once resounded to the clatter of the grinding.
Their motives, however, were probably as far apart as the two poles; while the long-legged scout hoped, yet dreaded, to see the figure of Nat Scott lying somewhere about, Chatz, on the other hand, was anticipating discovering some token of ghostly visitors.
Nothing rewarded either of them, however. The interior of the mill was of course in a generally dilapidated condition. What remnants of the crushing and milling machinery remained were rusty and broken, as though tramps may have made the place a refuge, and tried to destroy what they could not carry away to sell.
The boards creaked dismally under their tread. More than that, they were loose in places, and Lil Artha, stepping upon the end of one, might have vanished through a gap in the floor only that his agility saved him.
"Wow, would you see that, now, Elmer!" he exclaimed, his voice sounding strange amidst such singular surroundings.
"You made a neat side step, old fellow," said the one addressed. "Some of us, more clumsy, would have slid down into the cellar."
"Say, now, I wonder—" began Lil Artha, and then stopped to stare at the treacherous plank that formed such a trap.
"You're wondering whether poor old Nat could have taken that tumble?" suggested Elmer.
"That's what I was; what do you think?" asked the tall scout.
"Here, lay hold and we'll soon find out," remarked Elmer, bending over the loose plank.
It required considerable tugging to get it out of the bed it had occupied so long, even if it was fastened by no nails.
Both of them lay down and thrust their faces into the gap.
"Looks pretty dark down there, don't it?" asked Lil Artha, who was secretly shivering with the anticipation of making a grewsome discovery, but who would not have his comrades know the true condition of his nerves for a good deal.
"It sure does that," was Elmer's reply.
"I can just make out something or other lying down there; it might be an old log, you know, and again, p'raps it ain't."
Lil Artha did not venture to say plainly that he more than half feared lest the object he could see might turn out to be poor Nat Scott. But that was a fact.
"Well, let's find out for sure."
Elmer, while speaking, was taking something from his pocket. It proved to be an old newspaper, from which he tore a sheet, crumpling it up into a ball.
"I generally carry a newspaper along when I go into the woods," he said in explanation. "And it's wonderful what a help it sometimes turns out to be in case you want to start a quick fire. Now for a match."
"I'm sorry now," remarked Lil Artha.
"About what?" asked the scout leader.
"That I didn't think to fetch it along—that new electric hand torch my father gave me on my birthday, you remember, Elmer?"
"Oh," laughed Elmer, "well, who'd ever think we'd have any need of a torch on this hike! Why, it was an altogether daylight affair, and we expected to be back home long before supper time. I even promised Mark to practice battery work some this afternoon. There, now watch when it drops. I hope there's nothing down there to take fire."
"If the old trap did go up in smoke I guess nobody would care much," muttered Lil Artha, as he pressed his face still further into the opening, after Elmer released his fire ball.
The burning paper seemed to alight upon the damp earthen floor of the cellar. Immediately both boys tried to secure a mental photograph of all there was below them.
"It's only a log!" cried Lil Artha, in a relieved tone of voice, and at the same time betraying more or less disappointment, for perhaps he had made up his mind that they were to be treated to some species of horror.
"You're right," added Elmer, "that's what it is—an old log that has lain there, goodness only knows how long. Nat doesn't seem to have slipped down into the cellar, then, does he?"
"Not that you could notice," replied Lil Artha, and then he added: "but Elmer, didn't you notice something jump when that paper first went down?"
"Well, yes, I did, for a fact, Arthur."
"Any idea what it could be?" persisted the other.
"I hope you're not thinking of that ghost we've heard so much about?" said Elmer.
"Now, that's hardly fair, Elmer; you know I don't take any stock in fairy tales or hobgoblin yarns. But something sure moved."
"A big rat I guess, perhaps a muskrat from the pond above. They sometimes find a burrow leads them to some old, unused cellar."
"But look over there, and you'll see a lot of white bones, Elmer," pursued Lil Artha.
"That's a fact. Some animal must have fallen in here, starved to death, and been eaten up by the rats."
"But, Elmer, are you sure they are animal bones?"
"I noticed the skull, and I think it must have been a large dog," replied Elmer.
Then he and the tall scout scrambled hastily to their feet, for Chatz had suddenly given utterance to an exclamation that seemed to contain much of both surprise and mystification.
THE TRAIL GROWS WARMER.
"Say, just look up there, fellows!"
Chatz pointed a quivering finger upward as he gave utterance to these words.
Of course both Elmer and the lengthy scout followed his directions, and turned an inquiring gaze toward the dimly seen rafters of the old deserted mill.
"Gee whittaker! what in the dickens are they?" exclaimed Lil Artha, as his startled eyes rested on what seemed to be countless numbers of queer little bunches of dusky gray or brown hair.
They looked for all the world like some farmer's wife's winter collection of herbs, tied up in small packages, and fastened in regular order along the different beams.
"Well, I declare," laughed Elmer.
"You know what they are, Elmer; let us in on it, won't you?" demanded Chatz.
"Nothing whatever to do with the ghost, but all the same often found in haunted houses, church belfries, and old towers. See here."
He stooped and picked up quite a good-sized stone that happened to be lying on the floor.
Elmer was a pitcher on the Hickory Ridge baseball nine, and could hurl a pretty swift ball.
When he shot that stone upward it went like a young cyclone, struck the rafters with a loud bang, clattered around from one beam to another, and finally fell back to the floor with a thud.
This latter sound was certainly not heard by any one of the three scouts, for it was utterly drowned in a tremendous rush as of sturdy wings, and several openings above were filled with some rapidly flying objects.
"Wow, did you ever see the like of that now!" cried Lil Artha.
"What were they, Elmer?" asked Chatz, who had really been too startled to think fairly.
"Bats!" replied the scout leader, promptly.
"I supposed as much," declared Chatz, "and as you remarked just now, they always seem to like a building said to be haunted."
"Well," remarked the tall boy, "sometimes I've had the fellows hint to me that I had bats in my belfry; but sure not that many. Why, I reckon there must have been well-nigh a thousand in that gay bunch, Elmer."
"I guess there were, more or less," replied the other.
"And now what?" asked Chatz.
"Let's look further here before we go into the house itself," the scout master made reply.
So they went from one end of the deserted mill to the other, peering into every place where it seemed there might be the slightest hope of discovering their missing comrade.
Elmer even entered a small room off the main floor, and which had possibly been used as an office when the grist-mill was in business.
"Nothing doing, Elmer?" announced Lil Artha, as the other came out again.
Elmer shook his head in the negative.
"Don't seem to be around here at all," he said.
"Well, let's try the house," suggested Chatz; and it was easily seen from his manner that he was eager to make the change.
After one more careful glance around, as if to make absolutely positive that nothing had been neglected, the scout leader nodded his head.
"Come on, then, fellows," he said.
So the others once more fell in his wake, like true scouts who knew their little lesson full well, and were ready to follow their leader wherever he might choose to go.
Elmer had previously noticed a door leading, as he believed, from the main mill into the cottage that had once been the miller's home.
Toward this he now pushed. He wondered if he would find the door fastened in any way. One touch told him it was not.
And so, without hesitation, Elmer strode across the threshold into what had once been the happy home of a contented miller, until trouble came, and tragedy ended it all.
Like the mill itself the house was fast falling into a state of decay.
It was only a cottage of some four rooms, all on the one floor. The boys passed from one apartment to another until presently they had been over all the territory comprised within those four walls, so far as they could see.
Both Chatz and Lil Artha uttered exclamations that breathed their disappointment.
Because each of them had failed to discover that upon which he had set his mind he failed to see anything else.
Not so Elmer, who carried out the principle which he was forever holding up before the others as a cardinal virtue which should govern a true scout always.
He noted a number of things that the other two might have passed by, simply because they refused to let their minds work outside of a certain groove.
A frown came upon Elmer's face also, as though he did not wholly like the looks of things.
"Well, he ain't here, that's sure," remarked Lil Artha, shrugging his shoulders in disgust.
"He certainly isn't," muttered Chatz, who, however, was thinking of an entirely different object than the one the tall boy referred to.
"Suppose we give him a shout, and see if there's any result?" suggested Lil Artha.
"Do so, if you like," replied Elmer, in a tone that did not seem to promise much faith in the outcome of this plan.
So the tall boy raised his voice and shouted in his loudest key. A few stray bats that had taken up lodgings in various dark corners of the four rooms went flapping through a broken sash. But beyond that nothing came to pass.
"This sure beats the Dutch," remarked Lil Artha, using his bandana again to wipe off the perspiration that had gathered in beads upon his forehead.
Elmer was looking around again.
"Wonder if there can be a cellar under here?" he remarked, presently.
"I should say yes," replied the tall boy.
"Then there ought to be a trapdoor in the floor somewhere about. Look around and see if you can find it, boys," Elmer continued, himself stepping into the kitchen.
Chatz and the tall boy had hardly gotten well started in their search than they heard Elmer calling.
"He's found it, sure!" observed the Southern lad.
"The luckiest chap ever, take that from me," declared Lil Artha, and then adding hastily: "but then, he always deserves his luck, because he works for it."
Although he did not exactly mean to do so, the one who said that expressed one of the greatest truths known. Deserve good luck, and it will many times knock at your door. Do things worth while, and obtain pleasing results.
Of course they hastened into the kitchen. Here they found Elmer bending over and examining the floor.
"It's a trapdoor, all right," declared Lil Artha, as he noted the dimensions of the cracks that formed an almost perfect square.
"But how to get it up's the question," said Elmer; "for there seems to be no ring in sight. All the same, boys, I reckon this same trap has been used more than a few times lately, from the looks of things."
"Whew! do you really mean it, Elmer?" remarked Chatz, deeply interested.
"Why, you can see for yourself right here that some sort of tool has been used to pry up the thing," Elmer went on.
"Say, I had a glimpse of an old broken kitchen knife lying over there by the sink. Wonder if that would do the trick? Shall I get it?" remarked Lil Artha.
"If you will," replied Elmer.
The article in question was speedily placed in the hands of the scout master.
"Just the very thing to lift this trap with," he declared, as he started to insert the stout remnant of the blade in the crack.
"Reckon it's been used to do the trick many a time," advanced Chatz.
"I wouldn't wonder," Elmer added.
Using the broken blade as a lever he soon pried the trap up far enough to allow the others a chance to insert their ready fingers. After that it was easily completed, and the square of wooden flooring removed.
"Dark as Egypt," remarked Lil Artha, as he tried to pierce the gloom with his gaze.
Elmer made a move, and Chatz, thinking he intended descending the ladder that led down into the unknown depths, caught his arm.
"I wouldn't do it, Elmer," he said.
"Do what?" asked the other.
"Go down there," continued Chatz. "No telling how deep it may be or what lies there, either. If anybody must go, send me."
"Well," laughed Elmer, "I like your nerve, Chatz. You think something might hurt me, but you don't care so much for yourself. That's like you Southern fellows, though. But make your mind easy, my boy, because just at present I don't think any of us need drop into this hole."
"I'm glad of that," declared the other; "but when you made a move I thought you were going."
"Oh, I only meant to get out my newspaper again, and make another little candle," said Elmer, with a chuckle.
"Well, say what you will, boys," remarked Lil Artha, who had been thrusting his head below the level of the floor and sniffing at a great rate; "I'm glad, too, that we don't just have to drop down this ladder. It's cold and damp down there, and I tell you I don't like the smell."
"There is a queer odor comes up, now that you mention it," admitted Elmer.
At that the eyes of Chatz grew round with wonder and suspense.
"Oh, I hope you don't think—" he began, when Elmer interrupted him.
"Kind of fishy smell, don't you think?" he said.
"Well, since you speak of it I rather guess it is something like that," Lil Artha admitted.
Then Chatz breathed easy again.
"But how could fish ever get in here from the mill pond?" he demanded.
"Give it up; I pass. Ask me something easy," the tall scout hastened to say.
Meanwhile Elmer had, as before, taken a section of the newspaper, crumpled it into a ball, and after that drew out his match box.
"Guess it's safe to drop this down," he remarked. "It seems so damp there can really be no danger of anything taking fire."
"Sure there couldn't," asserted Lil Artha, sturdily. "Let her go, Elmer; and everybody look."
The match crackled, and the resulting flame was instantly applied to the paper ball.
Then Elmer let this drop, after he had made sure it would burn.
Three pairs of very good eyes immediately started in to take a complete inventory of the contents of the little damp cellar under the deserted mill cottage.
For perhaps a full minute the paper ball continued to burn, lighting up the cellar well enough for them to see from wall to wall.
Then the flame dwindled, flickered, and finally went out altogether. Chatz gave a big sigh.
"Well, I declare!" he exclaimed.
"What did you see, Chatz?" asked Elmer.
"Who, me?" exclaimed the Southern boy. "Nothing at all, Elmer," and his manner told plainly that he was both disappointed and disgusted.
"How about you, Arthur?" continued the acting scout master.
"What did I see?" Lil Artha replied, promptly; "four damp-looking stone walls, a hard earth floor, and a few old boxes lying around, but not another blessed thing."
Something about Elmer's manner caught his attention and aroused his suspicions.
"See here, did you discover anything?" he demanded.
"Well," replied Elmer, "I can't say that the evidence is so plain a fellow who runs may read; but from a number of things I've seen since coming here to the Munsey mill pond I've about made up my mind this place isn't quite as deserted as people seem to believe."
"Do you mean, Elmer," cried Lil Artha, excitedly, "that tramps or some more yeggmen, like those fellows we met with up at McGraw's lumber camp, have squatted here in this haunted house?"
"Something like that," replied the other, steadily, "though I don't believe they dare spend a night under this roof. There's no sign of that."
"But what would they kidnap our chum for?" demanded the excited tall scout.
"I don't know for certain, but we're going to find out pretty soon," said Elmer, with a determined look.
HUNTING FOR THE MISSING SCOUT.
"Honest, now, Elmer, do you really believe that?" asked Chatz Maxfield, after staring at the scout master in a puzzled manner for half a dozen seconds.
"It looks so, on the face of it," replied the other.
"But plague take it," argued Chatz, "for the life of me I just can't understand, suh, what those fellows would want to make a prisoner of poor Nat for. In all our troop he's about the most harmless scout, except perhaps Jasper Merriweather. Nat is strong as an ox, but he wouldn't hurt a fly if he could help it."
"That's so," echoed Lil Artha. "I've seen him walk around so as not to step on a harmless little snake on the road. And it wasn't because he was afraid of snakes, either. Remember he killed that fierce big copperhead last summer, after the other fellows had skipped out?"
"There's one chance, though," Elmer went on, "that after all Nat may be hiding."
"But he knows the sound of the bugle, and what penalty follows disobedience on the part of a scout," declared Lil Artha.
"That's true enough, fellows," Elmer said, as if he himself might be trying to see through a haze; "but perhaps Nat finds himself in a position where he can't answer us without betraying himself to these unknown men."
Again did Chatz and the tall scout look at each other helplessly. And judging from the way they shook their heads, the puzzle was evidently too deep for them.
"Say, Elmer, you manage to get on to these things in a way to beat the band; could you give a guess now about how many men there are holding out around this old haunted mill?"
Lil Artha asked this in good faith. He had come to believe, with most of his comrades, that Elmer Chenowith was next door to a wizard. Of course they realized that his knowledge was at all times founded on facts and common sense; yet this did not detract from the wonder of his accomplishments.
"I think there are three at least, perhaps four or five in the lot," Elmer replied.
"Whew! that's a healthy crowd of toughs, now, to run up against!" remarked Lil Artha.
"And what do you propose doing, suh, if I may make so bold as to ask?"
Chatz was usually a very dignified fellow, especially when coming in contact with one who, according to recognized scout law, must be considered his superior officer, and as such entitled to respect.
"First of all, perhaps we'd better go outside," the other replied.
"And tell the rest of the boys what we've found—or rather what we didn't find," remarked Lil Artha.
"Yes. There doesn't seem to be anything more to poke into here; for I'm dead certain those men, whoever they are, don't make their headquarters in either the mill or the cottage."
"You mean they don't sleep here; is that it, suh?" inquired Chatz.
"That covers the ground," Elmer answered.
"But they do come in here sometimes, while the sun is shining," persisted Chatz.
"I have seen the marks of many heavy hobnailed shoes in the dust of this place; and some of the prints were very fresh," came the answer.
"Then if they're wanting in the nerve to sleep under this roof, when it would be so handy, in a thunderstorm like we had the other day, for instance, that looks as if they believed some in the ghost story, don't it, Elmer?"
"Why, I suppose it does, Chatz."
"All right. I'm not saying anything more," remarked the Southern boy, with a look of conviction on his dark face, "but I only hope we run across one or more of these mysterious unknowns while we're up at Munsey's mill."
"Listen to that, would you, Elmer! I declare if he don't mean to interview these fellows, and find out what they've gone and seen here in the night time!" and Lil Artha chuckled as he said this.
"All right," remarked Chatz. "There are a lot of things I've always wanted to know, and I'd be a silly to let the chance slip past me."
"Hey, how about this bally old trapdoor, Elmer?" demanded Lil Artha.
"We'd better put it back where it belongs," replied the scout leader.
"I reckon you're right, suh," observed Chatz. "If some one came in here, walking in the dark, he might take a nasty header down this hole."
"Say, supposing your ghost did that," remarked the tall scout, as he helped lift the wooden square back to where it belonged; "why, you could do better than asking questions of an outsider, because, Chatz, you might interview your old ghost himself."
The other drew himself up.
"Kindly omit calling it my ghost, if you please, suh," he said, stiffly. "I don't pretend to have any claim on the object in question—if there really is such a thing. I'm only wanting to know; and I come from South Carolina, suh, not Missouri."
Elmer, after one last glance around the kitchen, was heading for the other room where an exit could be made.
And it was almost ludicrous to see with what haste the other two followed after; just as if neither of them cared to be left alone inside the walls of the haunted mill cottage.
Once outside, they found several of their comrades clustered near by, evidently awaiting them. That curiosity was rapidly reaching fever heat it was easy to see from the anxious looks cast upon those who had been investigating the interior of the buildings.
No doubt every fellow had meanwhile been industriously engaged in ransacking his brain to remember all he had ever heard concerning Munsey's mill, and the troublesome spirit that had frightened away three separate tenants in years gone by.
They were rather a demoralized trio of boys who welcomed the coming of Elmer, Chatz, and Lil Artha.
"Find any signs of Nat?" asked one.
"Hope the plagued old ghost didn't get him," another ventured.
"Tell us all about it, Elmer?" asked the third member of the little bunch.
But the scout leader instead raised the bugle to his lips and sounded the assembly call.
Voices were heard, and immediately the others came hurrying to the spot. Landy was the last to arrive, and he came up puffing and blowing as though he might have been at some little distance when he heard the summons for gathering.
"Listen!" said Elmer, raising his hand, and immediately the confused chattering of many boyish tongues ceased.
This enabled them to hear distant shouts from the southeast, as though newcomers might be approaching the mill over about the same course as that they had pursued.
"Mark Cummings and the last detachment!" declared Matty.
"Hurrah! six more good fellows to do battle with the outlaws of the haunted mill!" exclaimed Red; at which some of the others gasped in astonishment, and exchanged uneasy glances.
"Better wait till they all get here, boys," said Elmer, "and then I'll tell you what we've found out, also what we suspect."
Chatz and Lil Artha could not but notice how particular Elmer was to use the plural pronoun. But then, that was always his way. Whatever faults the boy may have had—and the best of fellows comes far from being perfect—selfishness was not one of them. Impatiently they waited for the coming of the six scouts forming the last detachment. This would increase their roll-call to sixteen, lacking only one of the number that had started out.
Presently a sight of khaki uniforms among the trees announced their near approach.
As the two wings of the Hickory Ridge Troop of Boy Scouts came together, there was a general exchange of badinage.
The newcomers had an intense desire to learn whether their interpretation of the messages might excel that of the first detachment.
But in the midst of the questioning, the startling news concerning Nat Scott's mysterious vanishing began to circulate among the newcomers.
This put a quietus on all business, and the entire troop clustered around Elmer, begging to know what it could mean.
So the scout master, understanding just how his comrades must feel, started in to explain, as far as lay in his power.
First of all, for the benefit of the newcomers, he told of how Nat's disappearance was brought to his attention by Toby and Ty, just before the coming of Matty and his group of scouts.
Then he quickly related what he and Chatz and Lil Artha had done in the deserted buildings close by.
Presently the story was finished, and some of the boys, who had listened with hearts beating much faster than their wont, took the first decent breath in five minutes.
Of course questions poured in on Elmer as thick as hail stones during a summer storm. Finding it utterly impossible to answer a quarter of these intelligently, and make any kind of progress, Elmer called for silence.
"It stands to reason, fellows," he remarked, when the last whisper had died away, "that we've got to have system about this thing if we expect to do any business. Am I right?"
"Yes, yes," came from every scout; for boys though they were, they recognized the wisdom of what he said.
"All right, then," Elmer went on. "I'm going to divide the troop into three searching parties. We must scour the neighborhood and see if we can find any sign of where these unknown men sleep, for there isn't any trace of their staying in cottage or mill at night time."
"We understand what you mean, Elmer. How shall we divide up?" asked Mark.
"You keep your detachment as it was, intact, Mark," came the reply; "and Matty, you have your six to back you. Lil Artha, Toby, and Ty will fall in with me, and make the third party."
"All right, suh, we understand," called out Chatz.
But he, as well as many others of the boys, showed in their faces that they envied the good luck of the three fellows who had been picked out to form Elmer's smaller group.
"What are our duties to be?" asked Mark, who, having only recently arrived, and being staggered by the sudden nature of the intelligence, had as yet not fully grasped the situation.
"First of all, let every scout who has not already done so, pick up a stout club in the woods, as he passes along," said Elmer.
"Like this, for instance," remarked Jack Armitage, flourishing a husky specimen that would pass muster for an Irishman's shillalah.
"Or this!" cried Red, whose cudgel was as long as a walking stick, and almost as thick through as his wrist.
"Suit yourselves about that, boys," continued the scout master, "only don't be in a hurry to use them as weapons until you have the order. Now, each detachment must keep close enough together so that the members may communicate by means of patrol calls—the cry of the wolf, the slap of a beaver's tail as he beats the water to call his mate, or the scream of the eagle."
"We know, Elmer; what else?" asked Matty.
"All the while you will keep on the lookout for some sign of the enemy. The scout who discovers anything that he thinks would have a bearing on the solving of the puzzle must immediately summon his leader. This he can do by the whistle which all of you know, as it has been used before."
"Is that all, Elmer?" asked Mark.
"If the matter seems very important to the mind of the leader, let him give the assembly call very loud on his whistle. Upon hearing that, every scout is expected to give up hunting on his own account, and head in toward the place the signal comes from. Is that plain to every fellow?"
A chorus of assent answered him.
"That's all, then, fellows," Elmer went on. "Do your duty, every scout. We've got to find our comrade, and we've got to get him out of the hands of these men, whoever they may turn out to be."
"If they've hurt our Nat, it's going to be a bad day for them, that's all," blustered Red, as he pounded his club against an inoffensive stone.
"Now, start out, fellows, and let's see who'll be the lucky one to discover this hidden shack where these men must stay nights," Elmer concluded.
"Say, hold on here! Is that what you're looking for—a hidden shack? Why, I can take you to one right now," called out a voice.
The speaker was Landy Smith.
THE AMBITION OF LANDY.
Every boy became suddenly stationary when this surprising intelligence broke from the lips of the new member, who, like three others in the troop, did not wear a khaki uniform.
Elmer had several times let his eye fall on the stout boy, as though trying to guess what his manner indicated.
He had seen Landy come up last of all, panting so for breath that not one word had he spoken while the scout master was explaining things.
Landy was not only a tenderfoot scout, but he had in a number of ways proven his right to the title of greenhorn.
Imagine, then, the utter amazement of his comrades when he so coolly declared that he might be able to lead them to a hidden shack.
Elmer, if surprised, did not allow this fact to interfere with his plain duty.
"Come here, Landy," he said, and the stout new recruit hastened to do as he was ordered.
Of course Landy would not have been human, and a boy, had he been able to repress the grin that forced itself upon his rosy countenance.
Perhaps he remembered saying not so very long ago that the time might come when he would be able to prove his ability to carry the name of a scout.
Of course at the time Landy could never have even dreamed the opening would arrive so soon. That made it all the more welcome. Perhaps now, some of the fellows who loved to tease him, and say that he was too fat and slow-witted to ever be a shining success in the Hickory Hill troop, would change their tune.
Landy's hour had come. He was in the lime light, and occupied the center of the stage.
Mindful of the respect due his superior officer, Landy saluted as he clicked his heels together, and stood at attention before the scout master.
"You say you can show us where there is a hidden shack or cabin, do you, Number Eight?"
Elmer frequently addressed the boys by the number they held in their patrol, and as Landy was the last one admitted into the Wolf Patrol he went as Number Eight.
"Yes, sir," the tenderfoot replied, quite enjoying the fact that fifteen pairs of eager eyes were riveted upon him right then and there.
Landy looked redder than usual, but for all that he seemed able to command his voice, for it did not tremble a particle.
"You arrived later than the rest when I sounded the assembly on the bugle," went on Elmer; "was that because you were some little distance away?"
"Yes, sir, I was just going to peek in through the window of that funny little cabin I found when I heard the call. But I didn't look, sir, because I knew a scout's duty was to obey!"
"Hear, hear!" said Red, in a low voice.
"That was well done, Number Eight," Elmer continued, "and I hope you will always keep your duty before your mind. Do you think you could lead us to where you saw that hidden shack?"
"I expect I can, sir; anyhow, I'm ready to try," Landy promptly answered.
Several of the scouts exchanged nods and glances. Why, they had never before dreamed that the fat boy had so much business about him. He acted just as might one who had been a member of the troop a whole month, instead of but a few days.
It was plain to be seen that his becoming a scout was going to be the making of Philander Smith. Already there was a great change in his ways. He was throwing off his weaknesses, and beginning to think for himself.
"All right," said Elmer; "suppose you come with me, then, Number Eight, and try to go back over your own trail. That might be the quickest way to get there."
"But how about us, Mr. Scout Master; do we keep up the formation as arranged?" asked Mark.
"No, for the present that is all off," Elmer replied, "the whole of you fall in behind; and don't forget to keep an eye out for your sticks. But no talking above a whisper, remember. This may turn out to be serious business."
The scouts already realized this. Still his words of caution entailing silence were well placed, for boys as a rule do love to chatter.
And so the whole troop started off, with Elmer and Landy in the lead, the latter hardly knowing whether to be tickled at the attention he was receiving, or worried because he presently began to doubt his ability to "deliver the goods."
Strange how all sections of the woods look alike to a fellow who is a novice in the art of picking his way. Landy had imagined that he was just soaking in valuable information while following the lead of Matty or Elmer. But when the crisis arose, and he found himself placed upon his own responsibility, he lost confidence.
Pretty soon Elmer guessed the truth, and that their guide was getting what Lil Artha would call "wabbly." This was when he took them twice to the same spot and then looked pained.
"Up a stump, fellows," chuckled Larry, who had perhaps himself felt a little twinge of jealousy because a greenhorn had so suddenly leaped into the front when older and more experienced scouts had been unable to score.
But Elmer was not at all dismayed. In fact, to tell the actual truth, he had rather expected that the new beginner might find more or less trouble in carrying out his orders.
"Getting mixed up some, are you, Number Eight?" he demanded, as Landy scratched his head and then tenderly caressed quite a good-sized lump they now saw he had on his forehead.
"Well, I'm sorry to say, sir, I seem to be a little confused," admitted the fat boy; "but then perhaps that ain't to be wondered at if you knew just how hard I bumped into that crooked tree yonder."
"With your head?" asked Elmer.
"Yes, sir," replied Landy; "you see I was trying to hurry, when my foot caught in a vine and I went ker-slam right against that tree. Say, but I saw ten million stars right then! and that's no exaggeration, sir."
"Why do you say it was this tree, Number Eight?" the young disciple of woodcraft continued.
"Well, it was impressed pretty forcibly on my head, and my mind, too, sir," grinned Landy, "and perhaps, if you looked, you could find the dent I bet I made when I struck."
Some of the boys snickered at this. Not so Elmer, who seemed to feel he had quite a serious proposition on his hands, and that the others had a right to look to him to untangle the knot.
"I'll soon find out," he said, and then turning to the crowd he added: "keep back and give me a chance to see if Landy is right."
"He's after the trail, that's what," said one of the scouts, as they saw Elmer advance to where the crooked tree pointed out by the fat recruit stood, and bend down at its base.
Every eye remained glued on the young scout master. Not a word more was said, for they knew that explanation of Elmer's movements must be the right one.
No sooner had Elmer dropped to his knees than he felt a thrill of pleasure.
"It's here, sure enough!" he muttered, as his eye discovered the torn turf where Landy's toes must have dragged when he fell.
And with the knowledge of trailing which he possessed, it must surely prove an easy task to follow those plain tracks. Landy knew nothing at all concerning the art of hiding a trail, and which the bearer of the wampum belt and his companion had tried their best to put into practice with the idea of deceiving the pathfinder who came behind.
When Landy put his foot down it was with considerable emphasis. Consequently, any one of the more experienced scouts would have been equal to the task of following that trail backward.
As Elmer moved away he made a swift, beckoning movement with his arm. This the boys interpreted as a command or invitation to "get a move on," as Lil Artha put it, and follow after their leader.
So the troop moved onward, and more than one fellow's teeth came together with a click as he grasped his cudgel tighter in his hand, and resolved to give a good account of himself should it become necessary to do something violent.
True, the rules counseled peaceful victories; but there may be times when it becomes absolutely necessary for Boy Scouts to show that they have good red blood in their veins.
And most of those present were of the opinion that the present occasion promised to be just such a crisis that called for strenuous treatment.
Their companion, Nat Scott, had mysteriously disappeared, and they had good reason to believe that he had fallen into the hands of these unknown men who made the vicinity of Munsey's mill their secret headquarters.
Why they should seize upon Nat, and what object they could have in holding him a prisoner, were questions no one could answer, as yet. But they meant to know, and that before long.
Now and then some fellow would step aside without a word, and possess himself of some attractive club that had caught his eye while passing.
Evidently none of them had forgotten the injunction of their leader to arm themselves. And really it was strange how much comfort even a stout walking stick could give a fellow on an occasion of this sort, when unseen and unknown perils hovered about them.
Meanwhile Elmer stuck to his task. Indeed, it was an easy one for so experienced a tracker and pathfinder, and he did not hurry along faster simply because he wanted a little time to collect his own thoughts, and decide what ought to be done.
When Landy so obediently gave up his investigation, and sought to rejoin the balance of the troop when the bugle sounded, he managed to make what proved to be a "bee line" through the woods. Even trees that were in the way could not stop him with impunity, as he had proven when he collided with that crooked one.
This made Elmer's job still easier. And as he advanced farther into the woods he marveled first at the rashness of Landy in wandering so far away; and second at the ability he displayed in getting safely back to the shore of the pond.
Elmer was keeping one eye out ahead as he moved along. Of course he anticipated coming upon the concealed shack at any moment now. When he saw an unusually large cluster of high bushes and undergrowth he felt positive that he must be almost in touch with the place.
What kind of reception might they expect? If these men, whom none of them had as yet even seen, turned out to be rascals who were hiding from justice, and who suspected them of being a posse sent out to round up the tramp thieves, their manner of greeting might prove to be anything but friendly.
Could they have one or more fierce dogs among them? Elmer had not seen the first trace of a dog anywhere around, but this could hardly be accepted as positive evidence that there were none.
Frequently such men make it a point to possess canine companions. And these are invariably of some species fond of the spirit of battle.
It was partly the expectation of running across such four-footed enemies that had influenced Elmer to have the boys arm themselves with clubs. He knew what a power for good a stout cudgel may prove under such conditions.
Looking closely he had to confess that he could see no sign of life about that clump of bushes.
And yet the trail led directly from it; and as if to sweep away his last remaining doubt he now discovered a second series of fresh tracks leading straight toward the spot.
Besides, here was a regular path, beaten down by many feet, and which headed in the quarter Elmer knew the big pond lay.
That settled it.
Elmer waited for the balance of the troop to come up. Everyone's gaze was fastened on him. Eyes flashed more brightly than usual, and some of the boys naturally showed their nervousness by the way they kept their cudgels moving.
"Is that the place, Landy, where you saw the shack?" he demanded.
Landy had known it was for more than a full minute past, but he remembered that a scout on duty must wait to be asked before volunteering any information.
"Yes, sir," he replied, "that is the place."
"Spread out a little, fellows," said Elmer, quietly, "and advance slowly. Everyone be ready to give a good account of himself if they rush any dogs on us. Forward now!"
And silently the sixteen scouts, spread out somewhat like an open fan, started to advance upon the strange dense thicket in which Landy had seen a shack.
READING THE SIGNS.
At the command the scouts came to a stop. They had been gradually concentrating as they pushed forward, so that when this halt was made they formed half a circle, and each fellow was almost touching elbows with the next in line.
Just before them, even though pretty well concealed by the foliage of the bushes, they could make out what appeared to be a rough shack.
No other name would apply, for it was clumsily built out of odds and ends of boards, secured at the mill, no doubt, together with sods, a heap of stones, some mud that had hardened until it resembled mortar; and, finally, a roof thatched with straw, much after the style the boys had seen in pictures of foreign cottages in Switzerland, France, and Italy.
"Say," observed Red, who found it unusually hard to keep from expressing his views, "I don't believe there are any kiyi dogs around here, fellows."
"Don't seem like it," remarked another, doubtless breathing a sigh of relief at the improved prospect.
"Sure we'd have heard them give tongue," observed Toby, advancing boldly to look in through the opening at the side of the shack, and which doubtless served the purpose of a window.
"Careful, Toby; go slow," called out Elmer; for there could be no telling what sort of a storm the appearance of the boys in khaki might raise within the shanty.
An intense silence followed. Every fellow could feel his heart pounding against his ribs like a trip hammer, and he wondered whether the sound were loud enough to betray his nervous frame of mind to his companions, never dreaming that they were all in the same box.
A red squirrel in a tree overhead, that had been observing all these doings with round-eyed wonder, began to chatter and scold. A little striped chipmunk sat up on a neighboring stump and took note.
"Nobody home, fellers," called out Toby, after he had apparently stared in through that opening for more than a full minute.
Some of the scouts looked relieved; others frowned as if disgusted. This sort of thing might be all very well, but it did not seem to be taking them any closer to the rescue of their comrade, or clearing up any of the dark fog of mystery that hung like a wet blanket between themselves and the solution.
Elmer immediately strode forward. By following the well-defined path he was able to find himself at what was plainly the rude door of the shack.
Upon this he knocked sharply. There came no answer, and even the keenest ears among the scouts failed to catch the slightest sound following this summons.
"Try it once more, Elmer," advised cautious Mark.
Again the tattoo sounded, but as before it produced no results. So Elmer opened the door, which he saw had been fashioned in the rudest way from boards, and hung upon strap hinges.
As he pushed the door aside, every scout held his breath and gripped his stick expectantly. But nothing happened. No string of rough men came bustling forth, demanding in coarse language what the boys meant by bothering them.
It looked as though Toby must have struck the right key when he so confidently declared there was nobody at home.
So Elmer entered, with some of the bolder among the scouts at his heels. The balance contented themselves in pressing around the door and window, and taking it out in looking.
Just as he had expected, Elmer found the interior of the shack pretty gloomy. Under the best of conditions very little daylight could find a way through such small openings, and these were now almost filled by the bodies of the curious scouts. But this was a matter easily remedied. Elmer had his matchsafe ready in his hands, and his first act was to strike a light.