PEE-WEE HARRIS ON THE TRAIL
BY PERCY KEESE FITZHUGH
THE TOM SLADE BOOKS, THE ROY BLAKELEY BOOKS THE PEE-WEE HARRIS BOOKS
ILLUSTRATED BY H. S BARBOUR
Published with the approval of THE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS :: NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
I THE LONE FIGURE 1 II A PATHETIC SIGHT 5 III THREE GOOD TURNS 9 IV THE FIVE REELER 15 V R-R-R-ROBBERS! 20 VI A MESSAGE IN THE DARK 24 VII LOCKED DOORS 28 VIII A DISCOVERY 32 IX THE TENTH CASE 36 X A RACE WITH DEATH 41 XI A RURAL PARADISE 45 XII ENTER THE GENUINE ARTICLE 48 XIII A FRIEND IN NEED 56 XIV SAVED! 61 XV IN CAMP 65 XVI FOOTPRINTS 74 XVII ACTION 80 XVIII THE MESSAGE 84 XIX PAGE TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FOUR 88 XX STOP! 92 XXI SEEIN' THINGS 97 XXII HARK! THE CONQUERING HERO COMES 104 XXIII PETER FINDS A WAY 109 XXIV DESERTED 114 XXV BEDLAM 122 XXVI THE CULPRIT AT THE BAR 128 XXVII SOME NOISE 134 XXVIII ON THE TRAIL 138 XXIX VOICES 142 XXX FACE TO FACE 146 XXXI ALONE 154 XXXII ON TO BRIDGEBORO 159 XXXIII HARK! THE CONQUERING HERO COMES BACK 165 XXXIV PEE-WEE HOLDS FORTH 169 XXXV SCOUTMASTER NED DOESN'T SEE 174 XXXVI MORE HARDLING 180 XXXVII HINTS 185 XXXVIII THE FIXER 192 XXXIX BETRAYED! 197 XL GUESS AGAIN 206
"WHO—WHO ARE—YOU?" PEE-WEE STAMMERED Frontispiece HANDWRITTEN NOTE 27 "The road is closed," said Peter. 109 PEE-WEE BEFORE THE JUSTICE OF THE PEACE. 130 "WE'RE NOT MINERS, WE'RE SCOUTS!" PEE-WEE SHOUTED. 202
PEE-WEE HARRIS ON THE TRAIL
THE LONE FIGURE
The night was bleak and cold. All through the melancholy, cheerless day, the first chill of autumn had been in the air. Toward evening the clouds had parted, showing a steel-colored sky in which the sun went down a great red ball, tinting the foliage across the river with a glow of crimson. A sun full of rich light but no heat.
The air was heavy with the pungent fragrance of burning leaves. The gutters along Main Street were full of these fluttering, red memorials of the good old summer-time.
But there were other signs that the melancholy days had come. Down at the Bridgeboro station was a congestion of trunks and other luggage bespeaking the end of the merry play season. And saddest of all, the windows of the stationery stores were filled with pencil-boxes and blank books and other horrible reminders of the opening of school.
Look where one would, these signs confronted the boys of Bridgeboro, and there was no escaping them. Even the hardware store had straps and tin lunch boxes now filling its windows, the same window where fishing rods and canoe paddles had lately been displayed.
Even the man who kept the shoe store had turned traitor and gathered up his display of sneaks and scout moccasins, and exhibited in their places a lot of school shoes. "Sensible footwear for the student" he called them. Even the drug store where mosquito dope and ice cream sodas had been sold now displayed a basket full of small sponges for the sanitary cleansing of slates. The faithless wretch who kept this store had put a small sign on the basket reading, "For the classroom." One and all, the merchants of Main Street had gone over to the Board of Education and all signs pointed to school.
But the most pathetic sight to be witnessed on that sad, chill, autumn night, was the small boy in a threadbare gray sweater and shabby cap who stood gazing wistfully into the seductive windows of Pfiffel's Home Bakery. The sight of him standing there with his small nose plastered against the glass, looking with silent yearning upon the jelly rolls and icing cakes, was enough to arouse pity in the coldest heart.
Only the rear of this poor, hungry little fellow could be seen from the street, and if his face was pale and gaunt from privation and want, the hurrying pedestrians on their cheerful way to the movies were spared that pathetic sight.
All they saw was a shabby cap and an ill-fitting sweater which bulged in back as if something were being carried in the rear pocket. And there he stood, a poor little figure, heedless of the merry throngs that passed, his wistful gaze fixed upon a four-story chocolate cake, a sort of edible skyscraper, with a tiny dome of a glazed cherry upon the top of it. And of all the surging throng on Main Street that bleak, autumnal night, none noticed this poor fellow.
Yes, one. A lady sitting in a big blue automobile saw him. And her heart, tenderer than the jelly rolls in Pfiffel's window, went out to him. Perhaps she had a little boy of her own....
A PATHETIC SIGHT
We shall pay particular attention to this sumptuous automobile which was such as to attract attention in modest Bridgeboro. For one thing it was of a rich shade of blue, whereas, the inhabitants of Bridgeboro being for the most part dead, their favorite color in autos was black.
The car, indeed, was the latest super six Hunkajunk touring model, a vision of grace and colorful beauty, set of with trimmings of shiny nickel. The Hunkajunk people had outdone themselves in this latest model and had produced "the car of a thousand delights." That seemed a good many, but that is the number they announced, and surely they must have known.
When one sat in the soft, spacious rear seat of the Hunkajunk touring model, one felt the sensation of sinking into a—what shall I say? One had a sort of sinking spell. You will pay particular attention to the luxurious rear seat of this car because it was destined to be the couch of a world hero, rivalling Cleopatra's famous barge which you will find drifting around in the upper grade history books.
This was the only super six Hunkajunk touring car in Bridgeboro and it belonged to the Bartletts who on this momentous night occupied its front seat.
"Do look at that poor little fellow," said Mrs. Bartlett to her husband. "Stop for just a second; never saw such a pathetic picture in my life!"
"Oh, what's the use stopping?" said Mr. Bartlett good-humoredly.
"Because I'm not going to the Lyric Theatre and have that poor little hungry urchin haunting me all through the show. I don't believe he's had anything to eat all day. Just see how he looks in that window, it's pathetic. Poor little fellow, he may be starving for all we know. I'm going to give him twenty-five cents; have you got the change?"
"You mean I'm going to give it to him?" laughed Mr. Bartlett, stopping the car.
"He's just eating the things with his eyes." said Mrs. Bartlett with womanly tenderness. "Look at that shabby sweater. Probably his father is a drunken wretch."
"We'll be late for the show," said Mr. Bartlett.
"I don't care anything about the show," his wife retorted. "Do you suppose I want to see The Bandit of Harrowing Highway or whatever it is? If we get there in time for the educational films, that's all I care about. You gave money for the starving children of France. Do you suppose I'm going to sit face to face with a little boy—starving?"
"I can't see his face," said Mr. Bartlett, "but he looks as if he had the Woolworth Building in his back pocket."
"Little boy," Mrs. Bartlett called in her sweetest tone, "here is some money for you. You go into that store and—gracious me, it's Walter Harris! What on earth are you doing here, Walter? I thought you were a poor little—I thought you were hungry."
The sturdy but diminutive form and the curly head and frowning countenance which stood confronting her were none other than those of Pee-wee Harris, B.S.A. (Boy of Special Appetite or Boy Scouts of America, whichever you please), and he stared her full in the face without shame.
"That's the time you guessed right," he said.
THREE GOOD TURNS
"Give him the money," laughed Mr. Bartlett.
"I will do no such thing," said his wife. "I thought you were a poor little starving urchin, Walter. Wherever did you get that sweater?"
"I don't believe he's had anything to eat for half an hour," said Mr. Bartlett. "Well, how is my old college chum, Pee-wee? You make her give you the twenty-five cents, Pee-wee."
"A scout can't accept money like that," said Mrs. Bartlett reprovingly, "it's against their rules. Don't you know that?"
Pee-wee cast a longing glance back at the window of Pfiffel's Bakery and then proceeded to set Mrs. Bartlett right on the subject of the scout law.
"It—it depends on what you call rides; see?'" he said.
"And on what you call hungry," added Mr. Bartlett.
"If—if you—kind of—want to do a good turn, I haven't got any right to stop you, have I?" Pee-wee said. "Because good turns are the main things. Gee whiz, I haven't got any right to interfere with those. I haven't got any right to accept money for a service, but suppose—suppose there's a jelly roll—"
"There is," said Mr. Bartlett, "but in two minutes there isn't going to be. You go in and get that jelly roll as a favor to Mrs. Bartlett And hurry up back and we'll take you to the Lyric."
"I was going there anyway," Pee-wee said, "I want to see The Bandit of Harrowing Highway, it's in five reels."
"Well, you come along with us," said Mr. Bartlett, "and then you'll be doing two good turns. You'll be doing a favor to Mrs. Bartlett by buying a jelly roll and you'll be doing a favor to me by making a party of three to see The Bandit of Harrowing Highway. What do you say?"
"Three's my lucky number," said Pee-wee. Then, suddenly bethinking himself he added, "but I don't mean I want to get three jelly rolls—you understand."
"Yes, we understand," said Mrs. Bartlett.
So it befell that Pee-wee, alias Walter Harris, scout of the first class (in quality if not in quantity) found himself riding luxuriously down Main Street in the rear seat of Mr. Bartlett's big Hunkajunk touring car, eating a jelly roll with true scout relish, for it was now close to eight o'clock and Pee-wee had not eaten anything since supper-time. Having completed this good turn to Mrs. Bartlett he proceeded to do a good turn to himself by bringing forth two sandwiches out of the pocket usually associated with a far more dangerous weapon. This was his emergency kit which he always carried. Morning, noon, or night, he always carried a couple of sandwiches the same as motorists carry extra tires.
And while he ate he talked. "Gee whiz, I'm crazy to see that picture," he said.
"We usually go for the educational films," said Mrs. Bartlett.
"I don't like anything that's got education in it," Pee-wee said. "Even when I go to vaudeville I don't like educated monkeys and cats and things. I like bandits and things like that. What's your favorite thing?"
"Well, I like scouts," said Mr. Bartlett.
"Mine's ice cream cones," said Pee-wee. "Is this a new car? I bet I know what kind it is, it's a Hunkajunk. I like hot frankfurters too. I can tell all the different kinds of cars because a scout is supposed to be observant. Do you like gumdrops? I'm crazy about those."
"But where did you get that sweater?" Mrs. Bartlett asked.
"Do you want me to tell you about it? It belongs to the man that takes care of our furnace; he's got a peach of a tattoo mark on his arm. My mother told me I had to wear a sweater so I grabbed that as I went through the back hall. I always go out through the kitchen, do you know why?"
"I think I can guess," said Mr. Bartlett.
"And the cap?" Mrs. Bartlett asked.
"You know the burglar that came to our house?"
"No, I never met him," said Mrs. Bartlett.
"I bet you don't like burglars, hey? He left this cap. He didn't get anything and I got the cap so that shows I'm always lucky. My mother doesn't want me to wear it. Gee whiz, she hates burglars. Anyway, it's good and comfortable. My father says if he comes back for it I have to give it to him."
"Well, you certainly don't look like Walter Harris, the boy scout I have always known," said Mrs. Bartlett.
"Don't you care," said Pee-wee. "If you're a scout you're a scout, no matter if you don't wear anything."
"Oh, how dreadful," said Mrs. Bartlett.
"I know worse things than that," said Pee-wee.
"Well, tell us about the scouts," Mr. Bartlett encouraged him.
"Shall I tell you all about them?"
"Surely, begin at the beginning."
"That's law one, it's about honor; do you know what that is?"
"I've heard of it," said Mr. Bartlett.
"A scout has to be honorable, see? That comes first of all."
"Eating is all the way through it."
"Oh, I see."
"A scout has to be so—kind of—you know, so honorable that nobody could suspect him, see? If you're a scout that means that everybody knows you're all right. There are a lot of other laws too."
"Well, here we are at the Lyric," said Mr. Bartlett, "so let's go in and see what The Bandit of Harrowing Highway thinks about honor."
Leaving the car in front of the theatre the three elbowed their way through the long, crowded lobby and soon Pee-wee Harris, scout, was no longer in Bridgeboro but among rugged mountains where a man with a couple of pistols in his belt and a hat as big as an umbrella reined up a spirited horse and waited for a caravan and all that sort of stuff....
THE FIVE REELER
And meanwhile something very real happened. Two men in khaki, but without any pistols in their belts, rode slowly up to the front of the Lyric Theatre in a big blue touring car and stopped.
It was one of those palatial cars "of a thousand delights," a new super six Hunkajunk touring model. A couple of policemen, safeguarding the public's convenience, had moved the Bartlett car beyond the main entrance in the interest of late comers and it was in this vacated space that the second medley of blue and nickel was now thoughtlessly parked. No cars came along after it so there it remained with a little group of admirers about it.
The few loiterers in the lobby glanced curiously at the two young men. These strangers strode in laughing in a way of mutual banter, as if their sudden decision to see the show was quite amusing to themselves.
No one recognized them; they must have come from out of town. They wore khaki suits, with flapping brimmed hats of a color to match and their faces were brown with the wholesome, permanent tan of outdoor life. They seemed greatly amused with themselves and their breezy manner and negligee which smacked of the woods attracted the attention of Bridgeboro's staff of unpaid censors who hung out in and about the Lyric's lobby. But little, apparently, did the strangers care what was said and thought of them.
One of them bought the tickets, to the hearty indignation of the other, and they disappeared into the terrible fastnesses along Harrowing Highway where they tumbled boisterously into a couple of seats off the center aisle, "right within pistol shot of the bandit," as one of them laughingly remarked to the other.
In the last reel the bandit was captured by a sheriff's posse, the young school teacher from the east whom he had villainously kidnapped was set free and went to live on a ranch with the hero who also carried several pistols, and the detective whom the millionaire had sent from the east (and who likewise carried several pistols) became a train robber and nearly killed the millionaire whom he met in the middle of the desert (carrying pistols) and who killed him instead and was in turn mortally wounded by the partner he had ruined and who had nothing left but several pistols.
And then Scout Harris fell asleep, and slept through the first part of the educational films. In a kind of jumbled dream he saw President Harding (with pistols) receiving a delegation of ladies (all armed) and then he felt a tapping on his shoulder.
"Walter," Mrs. Bartlett whispered pleasantly, "if you don't care about these pictures why don't you just go out and curl up in the back of the car and have a real good nap. Then when we come out we'll all stop and have some cream before we go home and we'll leave you at your house."
Pee-wee was too sleepy to answer; his mind Was awake to but two things, ice cream and pistols. In a kind of stupor he looked to make sure that Mrs. Bartlett was not armed and then, dragging himself from his seat he stumbled up the aisle, through the lobby, across the sidewalk, and tumbled into the rear seat of the big car that seemed waiting to receive him. He was just awake enough to realize that the night was cold and he pulled the heavy blanket over him and was dead to the world.
Many adventures awaited this redoubtable young scout but one terrible ordeal he escaped. In this he was, as he had said, lucky. For the very next picture on the screen after he had made his half-conscious exit, showed a lot of children in Europe being fed out of the munificent hand of Uncle Sam. And Pee-wee could never have stayed in his seat and quietly watched that tormenting performance.
Scout Harris never knew exactly when he passed out of the realm of dreams into the realm of wakefulness, for in both conditions pistols played a leading part. He was aware of a boy scout holding Secretary Hoover at bay with two pistols and Mr. Ellsworth, his scoutmaster, rescuing the statesman with several more pistols. And then he was very distinctly aware of someone saying,
"How many pistols have you got?"
"Twenty-seven," another voice answered.
"I've got forty-three and two blackjacks," said the first voice.
"You're wrong," said the other.
"I jotted them down," the first voice replied.
"We should worry," the other one laughed.
At this appalling revelation of seventy pistols between them, to say nothing of two blackjacks, there seemed indeed very little for the speakers to worry about. But for Scout Harris, whose whole stock of ammunition consisted of a remnant of sandwich and the almost naked core of an apple, there seemed much to worry about.
Pee-wee realized now that he was awake and being borne along at an excessive rate of speed. He knew that he was in Bartlett's big Hunkajunk car and that the dark figures with all the firearms on the front seat were not Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett.
Trembling, he spread the robe so as the more completely to cover his small form including his head. For a moment he had a wild impulse to cast this covering off and scream, or at least, to jump from the speeding car. But a peek from underneath the robe convinced him of the folly of this. To jump would be to lose his life; to scream—well, what chance would he have with two bloodthirsty robbers armed with seventy pistols and two blackjacks? There were few boy scouts who could despatch an apple core with such accuracy of aim as W. Harris, but of what avail is an apple core against seventy pistols?
He could not hear all that was said on the front seat but the fragments of talk that he did hear were alarming in the last degree.
"—best way to handle them," said one of those dark figures.
"I've got a couple of dead ones to worry about," said the other.
Pee-wee curled up smaller under the robe and hardly breathed. Indeed two dead ones was something to worry about. Suppose—suppose he should be the third!
"One for me, but I'm not worrying about him," said the other.
"We'll get away with it," his companion commented.
Then followed some talk which Pee-wee could not hear, but he felt certain that it was on their favorite topic of murder. Then he overheard these dreadful, yet comparatively consoling words:
"Trouble with him is he always wants to kill; he's gun crazy. Take them if you want to, but what's the use killing? That's what I said to him."
"Oh sure, that's just what I told him," the speaker continued; "steal up—"
"Step on it," the other interrupted, "we're out in the country now."
The big super six Hunkajunk car darted forward and Scout Harris could hear the purring of the big engine as the machine sped along through the solemn darkness. A momentary, cautious glimpse from under the big robe showed him that they were already far from the familiar environs of Bridgeboro, speeding along a lonely country road.
Now and then they whizzed past some dark farmhouse, or through some village in which the law abiding citizens had gone to their beds. Occasionally Pee-wee, peeking from beneath the robe, saw cheerful lights shining in houses along the way and in his silent terror and apprehension he fancied these filled with boy scouts in the full enjoyment of scout freedom; scouts who were in no danger of being added to some bloody list of dead ones.
That he, Pee-wee Harris, mascot of the Raven Patrol, First Bridgeboro Troop, should have come to this! That he should be carried away by a pair of inhuman wretches, to what dreadful fate he shuddered to conjecture. That he, Scout Harris, whose reputation for being wide awake had gone far and wide in the world of scouting, should be carried away unwittingly by a pair of thieves and find himself in imminent peril of being added to that ghastly galaxy of "dead ones." It was horrible.
Pee-wee curled up under the robe so as to disarm any suspicion of a human form beneath that thick, enveloping concealment and even breathed with silent caution. Suppose—suppose—oh horrors—suppose he should have to sneeze!
A MESSAGE IN THE DARK
Pee-wee seldom had any doubts about anything. What he knew he knew. And what is still better, he knew that he knew it. No one ever had to remind Pee-wee that he knew a thing. He not only knew it and knew that he knew it, but he knew that everybody that he knew, knew that he knew it. As he said himself, he was "absolutely positive."
Pee-wee knew all about scouting; oh, everything. He knew how and where tents should be put up and where spring water was to be found. He did not know all about the different kinds of birds, but he knew all about the different kinds of eats, and there are more kinds of eats than there are kinds of birds. How the Bridgeboro troop would be able to get along without their little mascot was a question. For he was their "fixer." That was his middle name—"fixer."
And of all of the things of which Pee-wee was "absolutely positive" the thing of which he was the most positive was that two thieves connected with the "crime wave" were riding away in Mr. Bartlett's big Hunkajunk "touring model" and carrying him (a little scout model) along with them.
What should he do? Being a scout, he took council of his wits and decided to write on a page of his hikebook a sentence saying that he was being carried away by thieves, giving his name and address, and cast this overboard as a shipwrecked sailor puts a message in a bottle. Then someone would find the message and come to rescue him.
But with what should he weight his fluttering message, so that it would fall in the road? Pee-wee was a scout of substance and had amassed a vast fortune in the way of small possessions. He owned the cap of a fountain pen, a knob from a brass bedstead, two paper clips, a horse's tooth, a broken magnifying glass, a device for making noises in the classroom, a clock key, a glass tube, a piece of chalk for making scout signs, and other treasures. But these were in the pockets of his scout uniform and could be of no service to him in his predicament.
The only trinket which he had was the fragment of a sandwich. Having reduced this, by a generous bite, to one-half its size, he wrote his note as well as he could without moving too much. One deadly weapon he had with him and that was a safety pin. With this he now pierced the piece of sandwich to the heart, linking it forever with that note written tremblingly in a moment of forlorn hope and utter darkness, under the kindly concealment of the buffalo robe.
On the opposite page is the note and how it looked.
Having cast this last message out upon the road he withdrew his arm cautiously back under the robe and lay as nearly motionless as possible, prepared for the worst.
If he should never be heard of again, it would seem both touching and appropriate, that this memento of him should be a morsel of food (which he loved) fastened with a safety pin which was the weapon that he always carried.
I am being kidnapped by thieves who are stealing Mr. Bartlett's car. I don know where I am. If anybody find this please take it to my house Bridgeboro Walter Harris Scout Br]
Like the ground-hog, Pee-wee did not emerge again until the occasion was more propitious. For fully an hour the car ran at high speed which afforded him some hope that the strong arm of the law might intervene. But the strong arm of the law was apparently under its pillow in delicious slumber. Not a snag did those bloody fugitives encounter in their flight.
At last the car slowed down and Pee-wee could feel that it was turning into another road. His unwitting captors were evidently either nervous or sleepy, for they talked but little.
The car proceeded slowly now, and when our hero ventured to steal a quick glimpse from under his covering he perceived that they were going along a road so dark and narrow that it seemed like a leafy tunnel. The somber darkness and utter silence of this sequestered region made the deed of these outlaws seem all the blacker. There was now no doubt whatever of the criminal nature of their bold enterprise. For surely no law-abiding, civilized beings lived in such a remote wilderness as now closed them in.
Soon the car came to a stop, and Pee-wee's thumping heart almost came to a stop at the same time. Suppose they should lift the robe? What would they do? And quite as much to the point, what should he do? A sudden impulse to throw off his kindly camouflage and run for all he was worth, seized him. But he thought of those seventy pistols and two blackjacks and refrained. Should he face them boldly, like the hero in a story book and say, "Ha, ha, you are foiled. The eyes of the scout have followed you in your flight and you are caught!"
No he would not do that. A scout is supposed to be cautious. He would remain under the buffalo robe.
Presently he heard the unmistakable sound and felt the unmistakable feeling of the car being run into some sort of a shelter. The voices of the thieves sounded different, more hollow, as voices heard in small quarters indoors. A little suggestion of an echo to them.
Pee-wee Harris, scout, did not know where he was or what was going on, but he felt that four walls surrounded him. The plot was growing thicker. And it was suffocating under that heavy robe, now that there was no free air blowing about it.
"Where's the stuff?" one of the men asked.
"On the back seat," said the other.
"Oh, no, I guess it's on the floor," the man added, "I think I put the silver cup under the back seat—"
Pee-wee shuddered. So they had been stealing silver cups.
"Either there or—oh, here it is."
Pee-wee breathed again.
Then he heard no more voices. But he heard other sounds. He heard the creaking of a heavy rolling door. He heard a sound as if it were being bolted or fastened on the inside. Then he heard the slamming of another door and a muffled, metallic sound as of someone locking it on the outside. Then he heard footsteps, fainter, fainter.... Then he heard a sound which seemed to him familiar. He could not liken it to anything in particular, but it sounded familiar, a kind of clanking, metallic sound. Then he heard a voice say, "Let me handle her, give her a shove, hold her down, that's right."
Pee-wee's blood ran cold. They were killing someone out there; some poor captive maiden, perhaps....
Then he heard no more.
The ominous sound of doors rolling and of clanking staples and padlocks told Pee-wee all too conclusively that he was a prisoner, and he was seized with panic terror at the thought of being locked in a dungeon where he could hardly see his hand before his face.
As to where he was, he had no guess more than that he was miles and miles from home. But along with his fright came a feeling of relief that he was no longer in company of those two scoundrels who were unwittingly responsible for his predicament. They would probably not return before morning and he would have at least a little breathing spell in which to consider what he should do, if indeed he could do anything.
The departure of his captors gave him courage and some measure of hope. Freedom he did not hope for, but a brief respite from peril was his. Time, time! What the doomed crave and pray for. That, at least was his.
He had presence of mind enough to refrain from making any sound, for the thieves might still be in the neighborhood for all he knew. The last he had heard of them they had been talking of "handling her" and "giving her a shove" and he did not want them to come back and "handle" him.
So he sat on the rear seat of the big Hunkajunk car ready to withdraw beneath the robe at the first sound of approaching footsteps. If he had been free to make a companionable noise, to whistle or to hum, or to listen to the friendly sound of his own movements he would have felt less frightened. But the need of absolute silence in that dark prison agitated him, and in the ghostly stillness every creak made the place seem haunted.
If he could only have seen where he was! He knew now something of the insane terrors of dark and solitary confinement. So strongly did this terror hold him that for a minute or two he dared not stir upon the seat for fear of causing the least sound which the darkness and strangeness of the place might conjure into spectral voices.
There is but one way to dispel these horrors and that is by throwing them off with quick movement and practical resolve.
He jumped down out of the car, and groping his way through the darkness stumbled against a wall. Moving his hand along this he found it to be of rough boards. Indeed, he had a more conclusive proof of this by the fact that a large splinter of the dried wood pierced his finger, paining acutely. He pulled it out and sucked the bleeding cut, then wound his handkerchief around it. One discovery, at least, he had made; the building, whatever it was, was old. The smell of the board sides informed him of that much. And there was no flooring.
He now stood thinking, wondering what he should do next. And as he paused he heard a sound near him. A sound as of quick, low breathing. In the open such a sound would not have been audible, but in the ghostly darkness of that strange prison he could hear it clearly when he listened. Sometimes he could distinguish the momentary pauses between the breaths and sometimes the faint sound seemed continuous. As he listened in silent, awful terror, the thumping of his heart seemed to interrupt the steady, low sound.
It was not normal breathing surely, but it was the sound of breathing. He was certain of that. He thought it was over near the car.
THE TENTH CASE
The thought that there was a living presence in that spooky dungeon struck terror to Pee-wee's very soul. He could not bring himself to move, much less to speak. But he could not stand idly where he was, and if he should stumble over a human form in that unknown blackness.... What could be more appalling than that? Was this uncanny place a prison for poor, injured captives? Was there, lying just a few feet from him, some suffering victim of those scoundrels? What did it mean? Pee-wee could only stand, listening in growing fear and agitation.
"Who's there?" he finally asked, and his own trembling voice seemed strange to him.
There was no answer.
"Who's there?" he asked again.
Silence; only the low, steady sound; punctuated, as it seemed by his own heart beats.
"Who—is—is anybody there?"
Then, suddenly, in a kind of abandon, he cast off his fears and groped his way with hands before him toward the low sound. Presently his hand was upon something round and small. It had a kind of tube running from it. He felt about this and touched something else. He felt along it; it was smooth and continuous.
And then he knew, and he experienced infinite relief. His hand was upon the spare tire on the rear of the car. The air was slowly escaping in irregular jerks from the valve of this tire, making that low sound, now hardly audible, now clearer and steadier, that escaping air will sometimes cause when passing through a leaky valve. The darkness and Pee-wee's own thumping heart had contributed to the horrible illusion and he smiled in the utter relief which he experienced by the discovery.
But one other discovery he had made also which gave him an inspiration and made him feel foolish that he had not had the inspiration before. The little round thing that he had felt in about the center of the tire was the red tail light of the car; he realized that now. And this discovery reminded him that he could have all the light he wanted by the mere touching of a switch.
"That shows how stupid I am," said Pee-wee. He was so relieved and elated that he could afford to be generous with self accusations. "One thing sure, it shows how when you hunt for a thing you find something else, so if you're mistaken it's a good thing."
This was logical, surely, and he now proceeded to avail himself of the benefit of his chance discovery. Presently this dank, mysterious, spooky dungeon would be bathed in welcome light. Pee-wee climbed into the front seat and moved his hand across the array of nickel dials and buttons on the instrument board. There seemed to be a veritable multitude of little handles and indicators for the control of the Hunkajunk super six touring model. Not even a wireless apparatus, with which Pee-wee's scouting experience had made him familiar, had such a variety of shiny little odds and ends.
Having no knowledge of these things he moved his hand among them cautiously, fearful lest some inadvertent touch might cause the car to go careering into the board wall. He bent his head close to the instrument board in search of printed words indicating the purpose of the various buttons, but the darkness was too dense for him to see anything but the shiny nickel. At the same time his wandering foot, conducting an exploration of its own, came against a little knob.
Pee-wee never knew precisely what he did to cause the startling occurrence which followed. There were two switch buttons, side by side, and in one a small key had been left. Evidently he decided that this was the lighting switch. He was just able to decipher the word IGNITION above it. But alas, the word ignition means SPARK on an auto.
Whether he purposely, in curiosity, stepped on the button in the floor he never knew. In nine cases out of ten it would have required more effort to start the Hunkajunk touring model. But this was the tenth case. In a frantic effort to stop the power, or perhaps in groping with his hand, he pulled down the spark lever, and the six cylinder brute of an engine awoke to life!
Out of the exhaust pipe in back poured the fatal volume of gaseous smoke which spells death, horrible and suffocating, when locked and barred doors and windowless walls enclose the wretched, gasping victim as in a tomb.
A RACE WITH DEATH
In close confinement it is all over in a minute in these cases. The victim is poisoned and suffocated like a rat in a hole. Surprising as it may seem, this deadly poison works faster than its victim can act. And with darkness for its ally the only hope lies in presence of mind and quick action.
Pee-wee Harris was a scout. Laugh at him and make fun of him as you will, he was a scout. He was at once the littlest scout and the biggest scout that ever scouting had known. He boasted and bungled, but out of his bungling came triumph. He fell, oh such falls as he fell! But he always landed right side up. He could save the world with a blunder. And then boast of the blunder.
He was not a motorist, he was a scout. Wrong or right (and he was usually wrong), he was a scout. He was a scout with something left over. Like a flash of lightning he jumped into the car and shut off the switch, but the imprisoned air was already heavy with the deadly fumes and his head swam. Shutting off the switch would not save him; nothing would save him unless his mind and body acted together with lightning swiftness.
Say that he made a "bull" of it in starting the engine, and you are welcome to say that of him. But after that the spirit and training of the scout possessed him. You, with all respect to you, would have died a frightful death in that black prison.
Pee-wee Harris, scout, tore his handkerchief from around his cut finger, unscrewed the cap of the radiator, dipped his handkerchief into the hole, bit off two small pieces of the warm, dripping cloth, and stuffed them into his ears. The wet handkerchief he stuffed into his mouth. And so Scout Harris gained a few precious moments, only a few, in which to make a desperate effort to find a way out!
You would have forgotten about the radiator full of water, I dare say....
Roy Blakeley (Silver Fox Patrol and not in this story, thank goodness) said, long after these adventures were over, that a handkerchief stuffed in Pee-wee's mouth was a good idea and that it was a pity it had been removed. But Pee-wee Harris was a scout, he was a couple of scouts, and he saved his life by scout law and knowledge. And there you are.
Acting quickly he now groped his way around to the rear of the car. It was odd how quickly his mind worked in his desperate predicament. His eyes stung and his throat pained him and he knew that he had won only the chance of a race with death. But what more does a scout want than a fighting chance? His wits, spurred by the emergency, were now alert and he recalled that the men who had stolen the car had rolled one door shut and slammed another. So perhaps the rolling door had been barred inside. Where the small door was he did not know, and there was no time now to make a groping exploration of the sides. The rolling door must be in back of the car, he knew that.
He was dizzy now and on the point of falling. His wrists tingled and his head ached acutely. Only his towering resolve kept him on his feet.
Groping from behind the car he touched the boards and felt along them for some indication of the door. Presently his hand came upon an iron band set in a large staple through which was inserted a huge wooden plug. This he pulled out and hauling on the staple slowly rolled open a great wide door.
A fresh gust of autumn wind blew in upon him, a cleansing and refreshing restorative, as if it had been waiting without to welcome the sturdy little scout into the vast, fragrant woods which he loved. And the bright stars shone overhead, and the air was laden with the pungent scent of autumn. It seemed as if all Nature, solemn and companionable, was there to greet the little mascot of the Raven Patrol, First Bridgeboro Troop, B.S.A.
The car of a thousand delights had so far afforded very few delights to Pee-wee Harris.
A RURAL PARADISE
Pee-wee looked about him at an enchanted scene. He seemed to have been transported to a region made to order for the Boy Scouts of America. That a pair of auto thieves should have brought him to this rural Paradise seemed odd enough.
As he gazed about and looked up at the quiet star-studded sky his fears were all but dispelled. For were not the friendly woods and water near him? They seemed like rescuing allies now. In the soft, enveloping arms of those silent woods he would find safety and shelter, and so he should find his way home through their dim concealment.
The building in which the car had been left was an old weather-beaten shack, which, judging from the sawdust all about, might once have been used as an ice-house. This seemed likely, for it stood near the shore of a placid lake in the black bosom of which shone a myriad of inverted stars and through which was a golden path of flickering moonlight. The ice-house, or whatever it was, had never been painted and the grain stood out on the shrunken wood like veins in an aged hand.
At a respectable distance from the woods near the shore where Pee-wee stood was a sizable village, or young town, big enough to have traffic signs and parking zones and a main street and a movie show and such like pretentious things. Between this town and the shore were a few outlying houses, but mostly sparse woodland. To the north the woods were thicker.
The lights of this neighboring town formed a cheery background to the dark, silent lake shore. This town was West Ketchem and the chief sensation in West Ketchem during the last few years had been the destruction by fire of the public school, a calamity for which every boy went in mourning.
Across the lake, Pee-wee could see other and fewer lights. These belonged to a smaller village in which nothing at all had ever happened, not even the burning of its school. Far from it. The school stood there in all its glory, under the able supervision of Barnabas Wise and Birchel Rodney, the local board of education.
About in the center of the lake, Pee-wee saw a small red light. Sometimes there seemed to be two lights, but he thought that one was the reflection of the other in the water. The light seemed very lonely, yet very inviting out there. He supposed it was on a boat Perhaps some one was fishing....
But in all this surrounding beauty and peacefulness, Pee-wee saw no sign of the murder of any captive maiden. His eagle eye did see where a boat had been drawn up on shore, and if any "shoves" and other cruel and abusive "handling" had been administered by those scoundrels with seventy pistols, it must have been to that poor defenseless boat. Or perhaps they were out in the middle of the lake at that very minute sinking their victim.
Anything might happen—in the mind of Scout Harris.
ENTER THE GENUINE ARTICLE
At another time Pee-wee would have delighted to linger in this scout's Utopia. But his chief thought now was to take advantage of his fortunate escape. He had not the faintest idea where he was, more than that he was a full two hour's ride from home. That would be a long and lonely hike, even if he could find his way in the darkness.
He tried to recall the names of the various lakes in New Jersey and in the neighboring state of New York, and he recalled a good many, but that did not help him to identify this one. So he started up toward the town in the hope of identifying that.
The village petered out toward the lake; there were but a few houses. It was about eleven or twelve o'clock or after and the good people in the straggling cottages thereabout had put out their lights and retired to slumber before that wicked hour.
There was a stillness and gloom about these uninviting, dark houses; a cheerlessness not to be found in the densest woods. They made Pee-wee feel lost and lonesome, as the dim, silent wilderness could never do.
Soon he reached the town, and there in the center of a spacious lawn was something which, in his loneliness and uncertainty, seemed the picture of gloom. The ruin of a building which had been burned to the ground. What a fire that must have been to witness! Better far than The Bandit of Harrowing Highway! Over a partly fallen arch, under which many reluctant feet had passed, Pee-wee could just make out the graven words: WEST KETCHEM PUBLIC SCHOOL.
West Ketchem. So that was where he was. But he had never heard of West Ketchem. The fame of this lakeside metropolis had not penetrated to surging Bridgeboro. At least it had' not penetrated to the surging mind of Scout Harris. He tried to recall West Ketchem on the map of New Jersey in his school geography.
But evidently West Ketchem had scorned the geography. Or else the geography had scorned West Ketchem.
Undecided what to do, Pee-wee lingered a few moments among the mass of charred timbers, and desks ruined and laid, low, and broken blackboards, all in an indiscriminate heap.
"I bet the fellers that live here are glad," he said to himself. "That isn't saying they have to believe in fires, except camp-fires, but anyway after it's all over they've got a right to be glad."
The situation of the school seemed to have been a sort of compromise between the claims of the lake and the claims of the town. It was not too far from the town and not too far from the lake. Perhaps it had been built within sight of the lake so that the West Ketchem student body could see it while at their lessons. A kind of slow torture.
Pee-wee had never before seen the familiar realities of school life thus brought low and lying in inglorious disorder at his feet. It gave him a feeling of triumph and had a fascination for him. Damp smelling books were here and there among the ruins, histories, arithmetics, algebras and grammars. He could tread upon these with his valiant heel. A huge roll call book (ah, how well he knew it even in the darkness) lay charred and soggy near the assembly-room piano. Junk heaps had always had a fascination for Pee-wee and had yielded up some of his rarest treasures. But a school, with all its disciplinary claptrap reduced to a junk heap! He could not, even in this late hour and strange country, tear himself away from it.
But another influence caused him to hesitate. What should he do? There were hardly any lights in the town now. He was a scout and he could not reconcile himself to the commonplace device of going to someone's house and asking for shelter. His scout training had taught him self-reliance and resource, and here was the chance to apply them, to go home, to find his way without anyone's help. The lonely road called to him more than the dark houses did.
But how about the car? Mr. Bartlett's stolen car? Would it be the way of a scout to go home and tell about that? He had come in the car, Providence had made him its guardian, and he would take it back again and say, (or words to this effect) "Here is your super six Hunkajunk car, Mr. Bartlett; they tried to steal it but I foiled them! I was disguised as a buffalo robe."
There was only one difficulty in the way of this heroic course and that was that he could not run the car. Never again would he touch one of those frightful nickel things on the instrument board. So, wishing to handle this harrowing situation alone, with true scout prowess and resource, he kicked around among the ruins of that tyrannous and fallen empire, and tried to devise some plan.
Suddenly he heard a sound near him. He paused in the darkness, his scout heel upon a poor, defenseless crumpled spelling book. Thus he stood in mingled triumph and agitation, his heart beating fast, every nerve on edge.
"Who—who's there?" he said.
He moved again, and was startled as his foot slipped off the charred timber on which he was walking. The brisk autumn wind was playing havoc among the debris, blowing damp pages over faster than anyone could turn them. It played among a burned chest of old examination papers. scattering them like dried leaves. Correct or incorrect, they were all the same now. Pee-wee liked this roving, unruly wind, having its own way in that dominion of restriction. He liked its gay disregard of all this solemn claptrap.
But now he heard clearly the sound of footsteps among the ruins, footsteps picking their way as it seemed to him, through the uncertain support of all that various disorder. Groping, careful footfalls.
"Who's there?" he asked. And the only answer was a gust of wind.
Could it be those thieves in search of him? Or might it be the ghost of some principal or teacher lingering still among these remnants and reminders of authority?
Then from around the corner of a charred, up-ended platform appeared a face. A face with a cap drawn low over it. And presently a dark form emerged.
"Who—who are—you?" Pee-wee stammered.
"I'm a teacher as was here," the stranger said. "You needn't be scared of me, kiddo."
"I was just kind of looking around," Pee-wee explained apologetically.
"Here's a pencil fur yer," the stranger said. "I jes' picked it up."
Pee-wee accepted this as a flag of truce, and felt somewhat reassured. A man who would give him a pencil surely meant no harm. He had as much right to be there as Pee-wee had.
"If you were a teacher here I shouldn't think you'd say 'as was,'" Pee-wee ventured, "But gee whiz," he added, "I don't care how you say it." No teacher had ever before called him kiddo and he rather liked it. "Maybe you taught manual training, hey?" Pee-wee said. "Because they're kind of different."
"There's where you hit it," said the stranger.
"Right the first time, and I'm just sort of collecting some of my junk."
"That's one thing about me, I'm good at guessing," Pee-wee said. "I kinder knew you were that. Manual training, that's my favorite study because it isn't a study at all. I made a bird-house, I did, in manual training, a dandy big one."
"Bird-houses is a good thing to make," said the manual training teacher.
Pee-wee could not see his new acquaintance very well or the bundle which he carried. If the teacher had been after his junk he seemed to have been fortunate in finding it, for he had collected a considerable amount of booty. Indeed, he had but a minute before succeeded in disinterring the safe which had been in the principal's office, but here he had met with disappointment. He had, however, hit upon a microscope of some value from the equipment of the student laboratory and he had found a lady's handbag which he seemed to think worth keeping.
"What are you doing here?" he asked of Pee-wee.
A FRIEND IN NEED
"Do you want me to let you into a secret?" Pee-wee said. "I know where there's a stolen automobile. Maybe you'd like to help me take it back to its owner, hey? If you do you'll get an honourable mention in our troop-book. I was carried away in it by two thieves who didn't know I was in the car, because I was disguised, sort of, under the buffalo robe. Do you want to help me foil them?"
The manual training teacher seemed interested but a bit incredulous. He looked Pee-wee over and said, "what's all this?"
"Maybe you don't believe me but it's true," Pee-wee said. "Do you know how to run a car?"
"Anything from a flivver up," said the stranger.
"Shh," said Pee-wee, "this one is away, way up. It's a super six Hunkajunk, it belongs to a man where I live, in Bridgeboro, New Jersey."
"Well, what are you doing here?" the manual training teacher asked.
"I was kind of kidnapped accidentally. They did it but they didn't know it. They've got pistols and blackjacks and things and I heard them talk about stealing. I bet I'd have heard a lot more only my head was under the buffalo robe. If you'll help me we can circum—what do you call it—you know—circum—"
The teacher did not know. But his interest was aroused at this whispered tale of armed bandits and of a big stolen car. Pee-wee completed the tale in breathless excitement. He told all, from the beginning. "They locked it in," he concluded, "and went away; but one of the doors, the big one, was locked on the inside and I opened it. Anybody can take the car out. Those men have gone away across the lake. If you'll drive it to Bridgeboro you can stay at my house and have breakfast and I'll tell Mr. Bartlett that you helped me, and gee whiz, they'll thank, you a lot. Maybe you know about scouts because manual training teachers know a lot about scouts on account of scouts making bird-houses and all things like that, and so maybe you know about good turns. That'll be a peach of a good turn. And if I tell about it you'll get a kind of a medal from our troop with your name on it. What's your name? Mine's Walter Harris, but the fellows in my troop call me Pee-wee, but I should worry about them. Will you help me? What's your name?"
"Mr. Swiper," said the stranger, rather thoughtfully; "let's go and look it over."
He was certainly considering the proposition and Pee-wee accompanied him back to the lake, keeping up a running fire of enthusiastic encouragement and representing to him the delight and self-satisfaction of circumventing a pair of scoundrels. "They've got pistols and everything," he said as a clincher, "and if they'd steal a car they'd kill somebody, wouldn't they?"
"Seventy pistols is a good many," said Mr. Swiper, incredulously.
"Sure it is," said Pee-wee excitedly; "it's more than Jesse James had. I guess they belong to a big band of thieves, hey? Maybe they've got a—a—a haunt on the other side of that lake, hay? Now you can see it's good to go to the movies, hey? Because we could never circum—foil them if I hadn't, hey? They drove it right away from in front of the theater. Anyway," he added excitedly as he trotted along, "I'm glad I met you because now I don't have to wake up the police or anything, hey? And I bet Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett will be surprised when they see us bringing it back, won't they? I'll show you where we have our meetings."
Mr. Swiper was not carried off his feet by Pee-wee's excited talk. He was thoughtful and preoccupied.
"That's one thing I have no use for—thieves," Pee-wee said. "Gee whiz, I never took a ride with thieves before. But anyway it's going to be all right now. We'll just toot the horn in front of the house when we get there, hey? And I'll say—I'll say—'Here's your car Mr. Bartlett.' And then I'll introduce you to him, hey? And I bet he'll—anyway, you wouldn't take anything, would you? Money or anything like that?"
"Don't insult me," said Mr. Swiper.
"I didn't mean it," Pee-wee said apologetically; "scouts are like that, they won't take anything for a service, but eats don't count, you can take eats. But I mean money——"
"Don't speak of money again," said Mr. Swiper.
Thanks to Pee-wee, the door of the rustic lakeside garage stood invitingly open.
"I won't—I won't say anything about money; gee whiz, you needn't have any fear," Pee-wee said, making a play for his companion's good-will; "gee, I wouldn't do that—I wouldn't. But you could take a medal, couldn't you? A scout good-will medal?" he added anxiously.
"Maybe," said Mr. Swiper.
"Gee, you'll have to take it," said Pee-wee; "our scoutmaster will make you."
Before entering the building, Mr. Swiper made an inspection of the lonely neighborhood, and looked out across the still, dark lake.
"That's where they went?" he asked.
"Sure, they won't see us," Pee-wee said reassuringly.
But the manual training teacher was not going to take any chances with a crew of ruffians—not he.
"Even if they should see us or hear us," Pee-wee encouraged, "they wouldn't dare come after it, because it isn't theirs. They thought nobody would ever find it in here. It's good I was on the inside, hey?"
"That's the place to be," said Mr. Swiper.
"You bet it is," said Pee-wee. "Were you ever locked in a place?"
To this purely personal question, Mr. Swiper made no reply; Instead he walked about the car thoughtfully, then climbed into the front seat and turned on the dash-light. He seemed to know what he was doing. Pee-wee did not wait but excitedly climbed in beside him.
"Gee whiz, a feller's got to have nerve to steal a car, hasn't he?" he asked, unable in his elation to keep still.
"That's what," said Mr. Swiper briefly.
"It—it kind of—sort of—makes us feel like thieves, taking it," Pee-wee commented, looking about him rather fearfully, "but anyway we've got a right to, that's one sure thing.... Haven't we?"
"And it's all right, that's one sure thing. Oh boy, I'm glad I met you and you'll get as much credit as I do, that's sure. Anyway, we've got a right to take it away from the thieves, I hope. Gee, nobody can deny that. Anyway, I guess you don't feel scary."
"Guess they won't follow us," said Mr. Swiper. "Not if they know what's well for them. Thieves don't come after you, they run away from you."
"You bet they do," said Pee-wee, delighted at his new friend's rather generous contribution to the talk.
The engine now purred softly, the silent shifting into reverse gear told the young rescuer that a practiced hand was at the wheel. Slowly the big car backed out of the building and around till it headed into the dark over-grown road.
"You didn't put the lights on," Pee-wee said.
"Time enough for that," said his companion, who seemed quite accustomed to driving in the dark.
Presently the big super six Hunkajunk touring model was rolling silently along through the woods, rescued, saved! Soon to be restored to its rightful owner by W. Harris, scout, B.S.A.
By the dash-light, Pee-wee obtained a first glimpse of his companion's face. There was nothing in particular about him, save a long, diagonal scar on his face which Pee-wee thought might have been caused by some tool in the ruined manual training room. The young man had also very short hair; it was so short, in fact, that it seemed almost like no hair at all. It was like a convict's hair.
The light which Pee-wee had seen across the water was not on a boat as he had supposed. It was on a small island the very name of which would have delighted his heart, for it was called Frying-pan Island, because of its rough similarity of form to that delightful accessory of camp life. If Scout Harris could have eaten a waffle out of such a frying-pan he would have felt that he had not lived in vain.
This frying-pan, instead of being filled with fat, was filled with woods, and a little to the west of the center, where an omelet might have nestled in its smaller prototype, three tents were concealed in the enshrouding foliage. Down at the end of the handle of this frying-pan was good fishing, but it was marshy there, and sometimes after a heavy rain the handle was completely sub-merged. From an airplane the three white tents in the western side of the pan might have seemed like three enormous poached eggs; that is, provided the aviator had an imagination.
It was upon the shore of this little island that the two young men who had driven the automobile from Bridgeboro pulled their boat ashore about ten minutes after they had all unknowingly locked Scout Harris in their makeshift lakeside garage. Considering that they were cut-throats and ruffians and all that sort of thing, their consciences seemed singularly clear, for they laughed and chatted as they made their way along the few yards of trail which led to their lair, or den, or haunt, or cave, or whatever you care to call it.
They were greeted by a chorus of boys who jumped up from around the camp-fire where they had been seated making demands upon them for news and booty.
"How about it? Can we stay here?"
"What kept you so long?"
"Did you get the silver cup?"
"I bet you didn't find out?"
"I bet you ate supper in a restaurant."
"We made rice cakes."
"Did you get the cup?"
"Let's see it."
"They didn't get it"
"Yes they did."
"I bet they didn't."
"I bet they did."
"Look at the smiles on their faces."
"I bet we have the town hall wished on us."
"I bet it's the fire-house."
"I feel it in my bones we have to go to school."
"Let's see the cup."
"Did you eat?"
"What is this, a questionnaire?" asked one of the arrivals, the one who had driven the car.
"Let's hear the worst."
"Break it gently."
"We thought your new junk wagon broke down."
"Don't say anything against his new junk Wagon or he'll never tell us anything."
"Did you put the baby to bed?"
"Yes and locked him in."
"What kept you so late?"
"We got mixed up with a Bandit of Harrowing Highway."
"He's a villyan."
"A movie play."
"That's a nice thing for two scoutmasters to go and see. Your two troops are ashamed of you."
"If our two troops don't shut up—"
"We'll shut up—come on, altogether!"
Followed a welcome silence.
"We've gone to a lot of trouble today for you kids," said one of the scoutmasters. "We've got the cup but we had to wait a couple of hours for it. The merchants in the great metropolis of Bridgeboro are so slow that a turtle would be arrested for speeding there. Poke up the fire, Nick, we're cold, and I'll tell you all about our adventures. We've made a day of it, huh?"
The scout whom he called Nick jogged up the waning blaze while others brought a fresh log, and soon the camp-fire was roaring a warming, hearty welcome home to the weary scoutmasters. One of these (who was evidently young enough to be addressed by his Christian name, for they called him Ned) sat on an old grocery box and related the happenings of the day, while the others sprawled about, listening. Occasionally his fellow scoutmaster (Safety First they called him) contributed a few words.
"Well, the first thing we did when we got ashore was to—"
"Get out of the boat?" a scout asked. There was surely not much constraint between scouts and scoutmasters in this outfit.
"We went up to town and saw the school board; at least we saw Mr. Cram. He says everything's upside down and they don't know what they'll do—says there won't be any school for a month anyway. (Cries of despair.) They can't use the town hall and they can't use the fire-house and they're talking of using the old Wilder mansion. We told him if there wasn't going to be any school till the middle of October or so, we'd like to bunk right here on the island and study nature. He said, 'Go to it.' So there's no school for a month (murmurs of disappointment) and we've got to chip in and get some more groceries.
"We squared things with your parents and most of them are glad to get rid of you. How about that, Safety First? Corby's sister is giving a party and hopes he'll stay away. Let's see now; oh yes, we bought some fishing tackle.
"Then we got some gas and started for Bridgeboro after the cup. We went after that cup like Sir Thomas Lipton. The jewelry man didn't have the engraving finished so we dropped in at a movie show and saw a fellow with a lot of pistols. How many pistols were there, First Aid? We counted them off coming back in the machine, there were seventy. Crazy stuff. That's the kind of stuff you kids fall for. Well, after the pistol shooting was over we got the cup and started back and here we are. Any questions?"
"Let's see the cup."
We left it in the machine. We'll get it in the morning. Now look here, you scouts. I want every last one of you to try for that cup. There are half a dozen of you that need to wake up. There are a few dead ones here; Harry, the crack shot—yes you—I'm looking right at you—I want you to can all this stuff about killing animals and get busy and do the best scout stunt of the season and win that cup. Understand? I was saying to Safety First on the way home that a fellow gets more fun stealing up on an animal and piking him with a camera than he does poking around with an old air gun that he saw advertised in Boy's Life. That's what! I'm talking to you straight.
"Now here's a silver cup and it looks pretty swell all engraved with our patrol names and we drove way to Bridgeboro to get it. That cup's going to stand on the stump of that tree there—where the chipmunk hangs out. And the day we leave this island it's going to the scout that has done the best scout stunt. Tracking, signalling, good turn, cooking, it makes no difference what. The scout that does the biggest thing, he gets the cup. We two scoutmasters and Mr. Wade are going to be the committee. Now you'd better all turn in and hurry up about it, and Ralph Gordon is not to snore; they're complaining about it over in town."
"Can we do any kind of stunts we want to?" asked the tall scout whom they call Nick.
"Any kind at all that's good scouting; that's the only rule."
"All right, then I'm going to start to-night," said Nick; "I'm going to row across and get that cup out of the car so we all can see it. Let's have the key, will you?"
At this there was a general laugh mingled with shouts from a dozen or so volunteers:
"I'll go with you!"
"I'm in on that!"
"I was just going to suggest it!"
"Yes you were—not!"
"Wait till morning," said Scoutmaster Ned.
"It can't be done," said Nick in a funny, sober way; "a scout is supposed to have his sleep, that's the most important rule of all, you said so yourself. I can't sleep till I've had a squint at that cup. Come on Fido, let's row over."
The scout called Fido had won his name because of his doglike persistence in following trails. "That's me," he said, "I was just going to propose it when you took the words out of my mouth."
"I'd like to see a photograph of anybody taking anything out of your mouth," said Scoutmaster Ned. "Go ahead, the two of you; I wish your people would send you both to a private school that opens up to-morrow. Go on, get out of here. And don't wake us up when you come back."
"Thank you kindly," said Fido.
"The pleasure is mine," said Scoutmaster Ned.
So this, then, was the explanation of the bloodthirsty talk which the mighty hero of the Bridgeboro troop had heard under the buffalo robe as he emerged from the sweet realm of slumber in the automobile.
Pistols, killing, stealing and dead ones! To steal up to a bird and not kill it! To wake up if you are a dead one! To laugh with wholesome scout humor at the silly gun play of the screen! To count the pistols in William I. Smart's five reel thriller!
Alas, Scout Harris!
But we are not to accompany that redoubtable rescuer in his thrilling flight. We are going to row across the lake in which the dying camp-fire on the little island cast a golden flicker, into which the oars held by our new acquaintance, Nick Vernon, dipped silently and rose dripping as his practiced arms drew the boat through the water, causing a musical little ripple at its bow.
"Got the key?" Fido asked.
"Do you suppose I'd come away without it?"
"Pull a little on your left. I can just make out the shed. There isn't,—yes there is, there's just one light in the town."
"That's Algernon Kirkendall studying his algebra," said Nick.
"It's just in line with the shed. Row straight for the light and we'll hit the shore just right. I'll lift this seat and steer with it. Crinkums, it's dark on the water, isn't it?"
So the algebra was of some use in the world after all; Algernon Kirkendall was a scout without knowing it.
"S.N. thinks more of that new car than he does of the troop," said Fido.
"Sure, the car don't give him as much trouble," said Nick. "We're a Hunkajunk troop and Safety First's troop is a Ford troop; it's small but it makes a lot of noise. If I ever start a troop it will be air-cooled. How about it, am I headed right?"
[Footnote 1: Scoutmaster Ned he meant.]
"Row straight ahead, I'll steer."
"Golly, the water's black. Look! Did you see that fish jump? Look around, the camp-fire looks good from here. Believe me, the autumn is the time to camp. We're in luck. I love, I love, I love my lessons, but oh you little island!"
"We're set till Columbus Day."
"You mean Election Day. Gee, your oar touched bottom, here we are. I'll row back."
They pulled the boat up and started for the shack. Fido reached it first and called excitedly, "It's open! The car's gone!"
"Stop your fooling," called Nick.
"I'm not fooling, come and look for yourself, hurry up, the car's gone."
They stood in the big open doorway in gaping amazement. They walked in, too dumfounded to speak, and when they did speak their voices sounded strange to each other within the dark, empty confines of those old dried board walls.
"Somebody must have broken in through the small door," said Fido.
"It's closed and locked," said his companion. "How about the fastening on the big one?"
"It's all O.K.; nobody's been breaking in, that's sure."
"You don't mean to tell me S.N. would lock the small door and then come away leaving the big one open, do you?" Nick asked incredulously.
"Well, what then?" his comrade retorted with greater incredulity. "If both doors were closed and fastenings are all right now, could anybody get the car out? They left the big door open—that's what they did."
"They never did that," said Nick; "look here, here's a fresh finger print on the door—you can smell the oil on it. Here, wait till I light another match. S.N. did what he always does, he opened the hood and turned on the oil pet-cock and fussed around and then pulled the door shut. Someone must have been inside this place before they got back."
Fido Norton was by this time on his knees outside the larger door. "Here are footprints," said he; "two, three,—here's another one. Give me another match."
"Those were made by our own fellows," said Nick, inspecting the ground, half interested. "Can't you see they were made by scout shoes? Do you think a boy scout stole the car? Here are some others, too, S.N.'s, and Safety First's, I suppose."
"Why should they step outside the big door?" Norton asked. "These are fresh footprints, all of them. After they got through, they'd go out through the small door wouldn't they? This print, and this one, and this one," he said, holding a match, "were made by scout shoes—to-night, not an hour ago."
"All the fellows except us two are in camp," said Nick.
"All right," Fido Norton shot back, "they might all be at the North Pole, but these prints were made by scout shoes to-night. That's what I'm telling you."
"All right," said Nick with a tolerant sneer in his voice, "the car was stolen by a boy scout, probably a tenderfoot. Maybe it was stolen by a girl scout—"
"No, they're scout shoe prints," said Norton, ignoring his friend's sarcasm, "and they're not an hour old, not a half hour, that's what I think."
"Well, actions speak louder than footprints," said Nick; "what are we going to do, that's the question?"
"Whatever you say," said Norton cheerfully.
"Well then I say let's send up a signal," said Nick hurriedly, "the fellows at camp will see it and everybody else for miles around will see it. Every telegraph operator along the railroad can read it. Forget about scouts stealing cars and do what I tell you. Hustle up to the police station and tell them about it so they can't say we didn't report it, then meet me at the town hall."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to use the old search-light if it will work. It hasn't been used since the night of the armistice when they lighted up the flag with it. Climb in through the broken window on the side and come up into the cupola. Don't tell Chief Bungelheimer or he'll say it was his idea. My father's on the town committee, it's all right, hustle now, get the police department off your hands and maybe we can do something—no telling. Remember, the side window, the one that's broken. And look out for the ladder, it's rotten. Hurry up, beat it!"
Fido Norton hurried to the police station in back of Ezra Corbett's store and aroused Officer Dopeson who was at the desk waiting for out-of-town speeders to be brought in. In a kind of waking dream the officer heard an excited voice shout, "Mr. Ned Garrison's car is stolen from the shed down by the lake."
When Officer Dopeson was fully aware of this noisy intrusion, the intruder had disappeared. He lost no time, however, in setting the usual machinery in motion. By a continuous series of movements of the receiver rack on the telephone he aroused Miss Dolly Bobbitt, the night operator, from the depths of the novel she was reading, and notified the Police Department in East Ketchem across the lake to be on watch for the car. The police department over there said that he would be glad to do that. The police departments of Conner's Junction and Rocky Hollow were also notified.
A long distance call to the New York police warned them to be on the lookout. Blinksboro, on the main road, did not answer. Knapp's Crossroads had gone to a harvest festival and forgotten to come back. No answer. Lonehaven couldn't get the name of the car but said it would watch out for a Plunkabunk. Wakeville said no car could possibly get through there as there wasn't any road. Miss Dolly Bobbitt returned to her novel.
And meanwhile the scout raised a mighty hand up into the vast, starry heaven, like some giant traffic cop....
"Pull that canvas cover off it," said Nick to his comrade who had just come up the ladder. "The blamed thing's all rotten anyway, I guess. Strike a match and find where the switch is. Look out you don't slip in the hole. Look at all the confetti and stuff," he added hurriedly, as the tiny flame of the match illuminated a small area of the little cupola. "War's over, huh?"
There upon the floor were strewn the gay many-colored little paper particles, plastered against the wood by many a rain, mementos of the night when even West Ketchem arose and poured this festive, fluttering stuff down necks and into windows. Someone who had thought to throw the search-light on the flag across the street, had spilled some of insinuating stuff in the little cupola. How old and stale, and a part of the forgotten past, the war seemed! And these once gay memorials of its ending were all washed out and as colorless as the big spiders that claimed the little cupola as their own. It smelled musty up there. And whenever a match was lighted the spiders started in their webs. A lonely bat, settled for the winter, hung like an old stiff dishrag from a beam.
"Did you find the switch?" Nick asked, as he fumbled hastily with the big brass light. "All right, wait till I point the lens down, now turn it."
There was no light.
"Did you turn it?"
"Pull it out, maybe it works that way."
There was no light, Norton paused in suspense while Nick shook the brass case and jarred the wiring to overcome a slight short circuit if there was any there.
"All right, turn it again."
There was no light, and the two scouts stood baffled and heavy hearted in the lonely darkness.
"I'm a dumb-bell!" said Nick in a quick inspiration. "Go down and turn on the main switch; it's in a box on the wall in the vestibule; just pull the handle down and push it in below. We'll never get any juice up here with that turned off. Hurry up."
Norton descended the ladder and with lighted matches found his way to the vestibule where the switch-box was. Here was the big switch on which all other switches in the building depended. As he pulled it down one lonely bulb in the meeting-room brightened and cast a dim light in the musty, empty place. It was evidently the only bulb in which the individual switch was turned on. Norton went through the meeting-room and turned this off. The place smelled for all the world like a school-room.
When he reached the ladder it was bathed in light. Nick was pointing a shaft of dazzling brightness downward. It revealed spiders and split rungs on the ladder and all the litter at its foot. All the rotting framework of the place and all the disorder were drawn into the light of day. A pile of old law books became radiant, dry and dull as they were.
"We've got it," called Nick, "hurry up, this blamed thing will reach to the isle of Yap. What's S? Wait, I'll give 'em the high sign first."
A long, dusty column swept across the dark sky.
"Attention everybody," said Nick. "What's S?"
"Three dots," said Norton.
"Three flashes it is. How's that? I'm forgetting my A, B, C's. What's T?"
"Is three seconds long enough?"
"Three for dashes and one for dots."
The long column swung slowly to right, then slowly back to left again, then slowly back to right.
"P's a hard one; here goes." "Good for you, some handwriting."
In five minutes or less, Nick had sprawled across the open page of the heavens the words, "STOP BLUE CAR 50792 EAGLE ON FRONT." He paused about half a minute then repeated the message.
That long, accusing arm crossed stars as it swayed and flashed. It filled the limitless sky like a rainbow. A giant spectre it was, swaying in the unknown depths, crossing clouds, and piercing realms of darkness, and speaking to those who could understand. A sick child, somewhere or other, saw it, and the watchful mother carried the little one to a window the better to see this strange visitant.
"It's a search-light," she said. But to them it had no meaning. A merry party returning home in the wee hours paused and watched it curiously but it spoke to them not. At Knapp's Crossroads they saw it, just as the harvest festival was breaking up, and Hank Sparker and Sophia Coyson lingered on their way home to watch it. But it spoke not their language.
Did it speak to any one, this voice calling in the dark? Did any one understand it? Were there no telegraph operators in any of the stations along the line? They would understand. Was there no one?
PAGE TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FOUR
If Pee-wee had stolen a glimpse from the buffalo robe at about the time that he was writing under difficulties his momentous message to the world, he might have noticed a little old-fashioned house nestling among the trees along the roadside.
At that time the house was dark save for a lamp-light in a little window up under the eaves. Little the speeding hero knew that up in that tiny room there sat a boy engrossed with the only scout companion that he knew, and that was the scout handbook. It had come to him by mail a few days before.
This boy lived with his widowed mother, Mrs. Mehetable Piper. His name was Peter, but whether he was descended from the renowned Peter Piper who picked a peck of pickled peppers, the present chronicler does not know. At the time in question he was eating the handbook alive. The speeding auto passed, the mighty Bridgeboro scout pinned his missive to his remnant of sandwich and hurled it out into the dark world, the boy up in the little room went on reading with hungry eyes, and that is all there was to that.
Peter belonged to no troop, for in that lonely country there was no troop to belong to. He had no scoutmaster, no one to track and stalk and go camping with, no one to jolly him as Pee-wee had. Away off in National Headquarters he was registered as a pioneer scout. He had his certificate, he had his handbook, that is all. It is said in that book that a scout is a brother to every other scout, but this scout's brothers were very far away and he had never seen any of them. He wondered what they looked like in their trim khaki attire. He could hardly hope to see them, but he did dare to hope that somehow or other he might strike up a correspondence with one of them. He had heard of pioneer scouts doing that.
In his loneliness he pictured scouts seated around a camp-fire telling yarns. He knew that sometimes these wonderful and fortunate beings with badges up and down their arms went tracking in pairs, that there was chumming in the patrols. He might sometime or other induce Abner Corning to become a pioneer scout and chum with him. But this seemed a Utopian vision for Abner lived seven miles away and had hip disease and lived in a wheel-chair.
Peter had a rich uncle who lived in New York and took care of a building and got, oh as much as thirty dollars a week. The next time this rich uncle came to visit he was going to ask him if he had seen any real scouts with khaki suits and jack-knives dangling from their belts and axes hanging on their hips.
Peter experimented with the axe in the woodshed but it was so long that the handle dragged on the ground and he could sit on it. He had likewise pinned a Harding and Coolidge button on his sleeve and pretended it was a signalling badge. A signalling badge! He did not tell his mother what he was pretending for she would not understand. Out in the small barn he had presented himself with this, with much scout ceremony, and he had actually trembled when he told himself (in a man's voice) to "step forward and receive this token...."
The car in which Scout Harris was being carried reached the lake and still Peter Piper poured over his scout handbook by the dim, oily smelling lamp, up in that little room. The two scoutmasters rowed across and were greeted by their noisy troops and still Peter Piper read his book. The scout of scouts, W. Harris of the nifty Bridgeboro outfit, was nearly suffocated, then escaped and stood triumphant over the ruins of the West Ketchem school, and still Peter Piper's smarting eyes were fixed upon that book. They were riveted to page two hundred and eighty-four and he was reading the words "Scouts should thoroughly master these two standard...."
He read it again and again for his strained eyes were blinking and the page seemed all hazy. He paused to rest his eyes, then read on. But he did not turn the page. For an hour his gaze was fixed upon it. Just on that one page....
Suddenly something, it seemed like a shadow, crossed the window outside. If Peter's little room had been downstairs he might have thought that a spectre of the night was passing. He looked up, startled, dumbfounded. And while he gazed the tall dusky apparition passed back across the window again.
Half frightened and very curious he raised the little sash and looked out. The night was dark but the sky was filled with stars. Not a light of man's making was there in all the country roundabout. He concentrated his gaze along the back road and tried to pick out the spot where Peace-justice Fee's house was, thinking that perhaps some sign thereabout would furnish the key to this ghostly mystery. But there was not the faintest twinkle there, nor any sound of life. Only solemn, unanswering darkness. Somewhere in the woods a solitary screech owl was hooting its discordant song.
"Is—is—anybody here?" Peter asked, his voice shaking. There was no answer, nothing but silent, enveloping darkness.
Peter groped behind him for the old piece of broomstick which propped the window open, and with this in place, he leaned far out and gazed toward the little graveyard where his father and his grandfather and all the simple forbears of the lonely neighborhood had gone to their rest. Not a sound was there in that solemn little acre. He strained his eyes and tried to identify the place by Deacon Small's tall, white tombstone, but he could not make it out.
Suddenly, just above that silent, hallowed little area, a tall gray thing appeared, then disappeared as suddenly.
Peter trembled, yet gazed in fascination. He was fearful of he knew not what. Yet he could not withdraw his eyes from that spot. Had someone—some thing from that little graveyard come to his window and gone back again to its musty rest? Was it—could it be—?
Hardly had he the chance to think and conjure up some harrowing fear, when the dusky column appeared again, then disappeared, then appeared again. Then darkness.
Whatever put it into Peter Piper's head he never know, but quick like those very flashes occurred to him the very words that he had been saying over and over to himself but a few minutes before—saying over and committing to memory. "Three dots or flashes—S, three dots or flashes—three dots or flashes—"
Again it arose, that ghostly apparition, and filled the dark sky above the little graveyard. This time it remained, for one, two, three, four seconds.
Peter's hand trembled now from a new kind of excitement, as he groped behind him for his one poor scout possession, the handbook. Then he reached for the lamp, but the night wind blew it out just as the tall thing came again, and stayed for several seconds.
Peter groped for the little box of safety matches which always lay near the lamp. These were the chief ornaments of his little room, the lamp and the safety matches. He held a match close over page two hundred and eighty-four while he divided his gaze between this and the next lingering visitation of that strange, long, shadowy thing over the graveyard. He struck match after match, as each blew out. Yes, that was what three short flashes meant—S. And one long flash meant T.
Suppose—suppose there should be three long appearances now? That would be O. Were these signs, expressed in ghostly strangeness, just the figments of Peter's excited imagination? Just the Morse Code haunting him and coloring his fancy? He put his finger on the black symbol on the page and waited.
—Two—three—then a pause.
His finger held upon the page trembled as he lighted another match and still another and moved his finger to another printed symbol on the page. And the long, dusty column over beyond the graveyard, came and went, now for a second, now for several, now for several again, then for one short second.
"STOP!" said Peter, his voice shaking as if indeed some ghostly spectre were upon him. Somebody, somebody was talking to him! Some scout, in real khaki attire, out in the great world?
Peter did not know where to place his waiting finger next. A mighty hand had been raised in the black, solemn night, and had said Stop. Had sprawled it across the open page of the heaven. Peter waited, as one waits for a spirit to give some sign. He kept his eyes riveted upon the general service code, lighting match after match and throwing them on the floor as the fickle things went out. Some day, some day, maybe, Peter would have a real flashlight with a switch button, a flashlight of shiny nickel that he could polish, such a flashlight as he had seen a picture of in Boy's Life. A flashlight that would not blow out. Sometime he would—maybe....
Out of the solemn darkness, someone, somewhere, had called to Peter Piper of Piper's Crossroads; had stolen like a silent ghost to his little window and bidden him watch.
Far away that arresting voice may have been, away off in the big world, and none could say how far or near, or where or how it spoke, calling in the endless wilderness of night. But it spoke to Peter Piper, of Piper's Crossroads, to Peter Piper, pioneer scout.
And Peter Piper, with the aid of the only scout companion that he had, read it and was prepared, as it is the way of a scout to be.
He did not dare to hope that he was being drawn into the actual circle of scouting; he would not know how to act among those natty strangers. Wonderful as they were, with their pathfinding and all that, they could hardly penetrate to his humble, sequestered little home. Peter Piper of Piper's Crossroads was not going to allow himself to dream any extravagantly impossible dreams. The nickel flashlight and a correspondence with some unknown "brother," that was as far as his hopes carried.
He had still a lingering and persistent feeling that this whole amazing business was unreal; that he had been dreaming it or at least reading a meaning where there was none. He knew that he could see trees and the stars in Hawley's pond when there were none there. Might not this be the same? He had expected sometime or other to make a signal fire and give this scout voice a try-out with some simple word. He had not expected to be aroused and called to service by its spectral, mysterious command.