The Boy Scouts of the Air on Lost Island
BY GORDON STUART
I OVER THE DAM
II A HOPELESS SEARCH
III LOST ISLAND
IV MORE THRILLS
V A STARTLING CLEW
VI TO THE RESCUE!
VII THE FLYING EAGLE SCOUTS
VIII A VOYAGE IN THE DARK
IX A RESCUE THAT FAILED
X "TO-MORROW IS THE DAY!"
XI A MID-AIR MIRACLE
XII AN EMPTY RIFLE SHELL
XIII THE GAME BEGINS
XIV PATCHING THE "SKYROCKET"
XV A WILD NIGHT
XVI TRICKED AGAIN!
XVII THE BIG PLAY
XVIII A CLOSE FINISH
The Boy Scouts of the Air on Lost Island
OVER THE DAM
Three boys stood impatiently kicking the dew off the tall grass in Ring's back yard, only pausing from their scanning of the beclouded, dawn-hinting sky to peer through the lightening dusk toward the clump of cedars that hid the Fulton house.
"He's not up yet, or there'd be a light showing," grumbled the short, stocky one of the three.
"Humph—it's so late now he wouldn't be needing a light. Tod never failed us yet, Frank, and he told me last night that he'd be right on deck."
"We'd ought to have gone down right off, Jerry, when we saw he wasn't here. Frank and I would have stopped off for him, only we was so sure he'd be the first one here—especially when you two were elected to dig the worms."
"We dug the worms last night—a lard pail half full—down back of his cabbage patch. And while we were sitting on the porch along comes his father—you know how absent-minded he is—and reaches down into the bucket and says, 'Guess I'll help myself to some of your berries, boys.'"
"Bet you that's why Tod isn't here, then."
"Why, Frank Ellery, seventh son of a seventh son? Coming so early in the morning, your short-circuit brain shockers make us ordinary folks dizzy. This double-action——"
"Double-action nothing, Dave Thomas! I heard Mr. Fulton tell Tod yesterday he was to pick four quarts of blackberries and take them over to your Aunt Jen. Tod forgot, and so his dad wouldn't let him go fishing, that's all."
"Sun's up," announced Jerry Ring.
"So's Tod!" exclaimed Dave Thomas, who had climbed to the first high limbs of a near-by elm and now slid suddenly down into the midst of the piled-up fishing paraphernalia. "I just saw him coming in from the berry patch—here he comes now."
A lanky, good-natured looking sixteen-year-old boy, in loose-fitting overalls and pale blue shirt open at the throat, came loping down the path.
"Gee, fellows," he panted, "I expect you're cussing mad—but I had to pick those berries before I went, and it took me so long to grouch out the green ones after it got light."
"I see you brought the very greenest one of all along," observed Dave dryly.
"Oh, you here, too, little one?" as if seeing him for the first time. "I didn't know kindergarten was closed for the day. I make one guess who tipped over the bait can."
"Ask Frank," suggested Dave with pretended weariness; "he's got second sight."
"Don't need second sight to see that worm crawling up your pants leg. We going to stand here all day! I move we get a hike on down to the boat. Maybe we can hitch on behind Steve Porter's launch—he's going up past Dead Tree Point—and that'll save us the long pull through the slough."
The boys picked up the great load of luggage, which was not so big when divided among four boys, and hustled out of the Ring yard and down the dusty road. They were four of a size; that is, Tod Fulton was tall and somewhat flattened out, while Frank Ellery was more or less all in a bunch, as Jerry said, who was himself sturdily put together. Dave Thomas was neither as tall as Tod nor as stocky as Frank; He looked undersized, in fact. But his "red hair and readier tongue," his friends declared, more than made up for any lack of size. At any rate, no one ever offered a second time to carry the heaviest end of the load.
Now, as they walked along through the back streets of Watertown, rightly named as it was in the midst of lakes, creeks and rivers, they began a discussion that never grew old with them. Tod began it.
"We've got plenty of worms, for once."
"Good!" cried Dave. "I've thought of a dandy scheme, but it'd take a pile of bait."
"What's that?" asked Jerry, suspecting mischief.
"You know, you can stretch out a worm to about three inches. Tie about a hundred together—allow an inch apiece for the knot—that would make two hundred inches, or say seventeen feet. Put the back end of the line about a foot up on the bank and the other end out in the water. Along comes a carp—the only fish that eats worms—and starts eating. He gets so excited following up his links of worm- weenies, that he doesn't notice he's up on shore, when suddenly Tod Fulton, mighty fisherman, grabs him by the tail and flips him——"
"Yes—where does he flip him?" Tod had dropped his share of the luggage and now had Dave by the back of the neck.
"Back into the water and makes him eat another string of worms as punishment for being a carp."
"You with your old dead minnows!" exclaimed Tod, giving Dave a push that sent him staggering. "Last time we went, all you caught was a dogfish and one starved bullhead. There's more real fish that'll bite on worms than on any other bait. I've taken trout and even black bass. Early in the morning I can land pickerel and croppies where a minnow or a frog could sleep on the end of a six pounder's nose. Don't tell me."
"Yes," put in Jerry, "and I can sit right between the two of you and with my number two Skinner and a frog or a bacon rind pull 'em out while you fellows go to sleep between nibbles."
"Bully!" exclaimed Frank. "Every time we go home after a trip, you hang a sign on your back: 'Fish for Sale,' with both s's turned backwards. I'm too modest to mention the name of the boy who caught the largest black bass ever hooked in Plum Run, but I can tell you the kind of fly the old boy took, all the same."
"Testimony's all in," laughed Tod, good-humoredly. "And here we are at the dock of the 'Big Four.'"
"Yes, and there goes Porter up around the bend. We row our boat to- day. We ought to get up a show or something and raise enough money to buy a motor."
"I move we change our plans and leave Round Lake for another trip." It was lazy Frank who made the proposal.
"What difference does it make to you? You never row anyway. Plum Run's too high for anything but still fishing——"
"I saw Hunky Doran coming back from Parry's Dam day before yesterday and he had a dandy string."
"Sure. He always does. Bet you he dopes his bait," declared Tod.
"Well, you spit on the worm yourself. The dam isn't half as far as Dead Tree, and, besides, we can always walk across to Grass Lake. Jerry votes for the dam, don't you, Jerry?"
But Jerry only shrugged his shoulders. Frank and Tod always disagreed on fishing places, largely because their styles of angling were different and consequently a good place for one was the poorest place in the world for the other. So Jerry, who usually was the peacemaker, said nothing but unlocked the padlock which secured the boat, tossed the key-ring to Dave with, "Open the boathouse and get two pair of oars. Tod, take a squint at the sun—five-thirty, isn't it? An hour and a half to the Dead Tree, and an hour more to Round Lake. What kind of fish can you take in old Roundy after eight o'clock?"
"Oh, I knew we were going to the dam, all right. I give in. But if I've got to go where I don't want to, I'm going to have the boat to fish from."
"As if you didn't always have it!" snorted Frank. "The only one who fishes in one place all day, but he's got to have the boat—and forgets himself and walks right off it the minute he gets a real bite. Huh!"
Tod paid no attention to this insult. He and Jerry settled in their places at the oars, with Frank at the stern for ballast, and Dave up ahead to watch the channel, for Plum Run, unbelievably deep in places, had a trick of shallowing at unlikely spots. More than once had the Big Four had her paint scraped off by a jagged shelf of rock or shoal.
They were all in their places, the luggage stowed away, and Frank was ready to push away from the dock, when he raised his hand and said instead: "Understand me, boys, I'm the last one in the world to kick—you know me. But there's one request I have to make of you before the push of my fingers cuts us off from the last trace of civilization."
"'Sw'at?" cried the three.
"When we have embarked upon this perilous voyage, let no mournful note swell out upon the breeze, to frighten beasts and men—and fish—into believing that Dave Thomas is once more trying to sing!"
Immediately a mournful yowling began in the bow of the boat, growing louder as they drew away from shore. And then, amid the laughter of his three companions, Dave ended his wail and instead broke into a lively boating song, the others joining in at the chorus. For Dave's singing was a source of pride to his friends.
So, Dave singing lustily and Tod and Jerry tugging at the oars in time with the music, they swung away from the dock and out in the center channel of Plum Run, a good hundred yards from shore. Once in the current, they swung straight ahead down stream. Before long the last house of Watertown, where people were fast beginning to stir, had faded from view. They passed safely through the ripples of the shoals above Barren Island, a great place for channel cat when the water was lower. Through the West Branch they steered, holding close to the island shore, for while the current was slower, at least the water was deeper and safer.
A mile-long stretch of smooth rowing lay ahead of them now, after which they entered Goose Slough, narrow and twisty, with half-hidden snags, and sudden whirlpools. More than one fishing party had been capsized in its treacherous quarter mile of boiling length. Then came a so-called lake, Old Grass, with the real Grass Lake barely visible through its circle of trees. A crystal-clear creek was its outlet to Plum Run, a thousand gleaming sunfish and tiny bass flashing through its purling rapids or sulking in deep, dark pools. There was good fishing in Grass Lake, but waist-high marsh grass, saw-edged, barred the way for nearly half a mile.
But just ahead of them Plum Run had widened out once more to real river size, its waters penned back by concrete, rock and timber dam, with Parry's Mill on the east bank.
"Land me on the other side, above the big cottonwood," decided Frank. "There's a weedy little bight up there where I predict a two- pound bass in twenty minutes."
"I'll try the stretch just below, working toward the dam, I guess. How about you, Jerry!" asked Dave.
"I'll stay with the boat awhile, I reckon. Where away, boatman?"
"Dam," grunted Tod.
"Not swearing, I take it?" inquired Jerry.
Dave and Frank were dropped out at the cottonwood, where they were soon exchanging much sage advice concerning likely spots and proper bait. Jerry and Tod chuckled as they rowed away. Tod himself was keen on still fishing with worms or grubs; he liked to sit and dream while the bait did the work; but his quarreling with Dave and Frank was mostly make-believe. Jerry, the best fisherman of the four, believed, as he said, in "making the bait fit the fish's mouth." His tackle-box held every kind of hook and lure; his steel rod and multiple reel were the best Timkin's Sporting Goods Store in town could furnish; they had cost him a whole summer's savings.
Tod rather laughed at Jerry's equipment. His own cheap brass reel and jointed cane pole, with heavy linen line, was only an excuse. Throw-lines with a half dozen hooks were his favorites, and a big catfish his highest aim. As soon as the boat hit the dam he began getting out his lines. Jerry jumped lightly over the bow.
"Shall I tie you up?" he called over his shoulder.
"Never mind, Jerry. I think I'll work in toward the shore a bit first, and, anyway, she can't drift upstream." So Jerry went on his way out toward the middle of the dam.
It was really a monstrous affair, that dam. The old part was built on and from solid rock, being really a jutting out of a lime stone cliff which had stood high and dry before the water had been dammed up by the heavy timber cribs cutting across the original stream. Concrete abutments secured these timbers and linked the walls of stone with the huge gates opening into the millrace that fed the water to the ponderous undershot millwheel. Just now the gates were open and the water rushed through with deafening force. Jerry made his way across the stonework section, having a hard time in the water-worn crevices, slimed over with recent overflows, for when the millgates were closed, Plum Run thundered over this part of the dam in a spectacular waterfall.
He had hardly reached the flat concrete before he noticed that the roar from the millrace had ceased; the gates had been closed. All the better; this part of the river was shallow; when the water rose, big fish would be coming in to scour over the fresh feeding grounds. So he moved a little nearer shore and quickly trimmed his lines. He heard a hail from the bank as he made his first cast. It was from Dave.
"Mind if I come out and try my luck beside you?"
"Not at all. Water's coming up fast. Best try some grubs or worms, though. No good for minnows here now."
"Sure," agreed Dave, settling comfortably beside him. "Water sure is filling up, isn't she? Guess the Miller of the Dee dropped a cogwheel into his wheat."
"Not wishing anybody any bad luck, but I hope they don't start up again all day. This'll be a backwater as soon as the current starts going over the dam. Another six inches—say! Look at Tod. If he isn't fishing right above the flume. Wonder if he's noticed."
"Noticed? He's got a bite, that's what! Look at him bending to it. It's a big one, you bet. Golly, did you see that!"
"I see more than that," exclaimed Jerry grimly, dropping his precious pole and starting across the slippery rocks on the run. "If he doesn't get out of there in about thirty seconds, he's going over the dam!"
But just as Jerry mounted the last clump of rocks, just as Dave's desperate shouts had aroused Tod to a realization of his danger,— something happened. You have watched a big soap bubble swelling the one last impossible breath; you have seen a camp coffee kettle boiling higher and higher till splush! the steaming brown mass heaves itself into the fire—the bending, crowding mile-wide surface of Plum Creek found a sudden outlet. And right in the center of that outlet was a plunging tiny boat.
"Help!" rang out one choked-off cry, as in a great rush of suddenly foaming flood, over the dam plunged a boat and a terrorized boy.
A HOPELESS SEARCH
In the brief instant that Jerry stood on the slippery point of rock he had the queer feeling that it was all a horrible dream, or at least only an impossible scene from a motion picture. Where a boat had been a second before was now only a seething, tossing down- tumbling wall of brownish foam.
But his stunned inaction was quickly gone. Down to the very edge of the flood he raced, almost losing his balance and toppling in. At a dangerous angle he leaned over and peered into the churning water- pit below.
Dave had come hurrying to his side, to miss his footing at the last and plunge waist-deep into the current. A precious moment was lost in rescuing him. When, both safe on the rocky ledge, they turned to scan the depths of the fall, it was to see a dark object suddenly pop up full fifty feet downstream. It was the boat—but no Tod.
"Did you see it!" cried Jerry excitedly. "Didn't it look like something blackish in the bottom of the boat?"
"She's full of water, that's all. Tod's down there under the fall. He's drowned, I tell you! What shall we do? What shall we do!" Excitable Dave was fast losing his head.
"Come on!" shouted Jerry, aroused by the helplessness of his companion. "We've got to get to the mill and have them turn the water through the race. Then we've got to get a boat out there— quick!"
But he had not waited for Dave. Across the river just below the dam was a house. If there was a telephone there—Jerry knew there was one at the mill—something might yet be done in time. There was of course no way of reaching the mill itself across that raging torrent. There was a telephone at the house, but it seemed hours after Jerry reached it before he finally got a gruff "Hello" from the mill manager, Mr. Aikens. But, fortunately, Aikens was not slow to grasp the situation. In the midst of his explanations Jerry realized that there was no one at the other end of the wire.
Out of the house he dashed and down to where in his wild race he had seen a boat moored below the dam. The oars were still in place. Barely waiting for the panting Dave to tumble in, he pushed off, exultingly noting as he strained at the oars that already the volume of water pouring over the falls had lessened. Before he reached the main channel it had dwindled to a bare trickle.
"Take the oars!" he directed the helpless Dave, at the same time stumbling to the bow of the boat and jerking off shoes, shirt and trousers. Diving seemed a hopeless undertaking, but there was little else to do. Again and again he plunged under, coming up each time nearly spent but desperately determined to try again. Two boats put out from the mill side of the river, capable Mr. Aikens in one of them. A grappling hook trailing from the stern of the boat told that such accidents as this were not unusual in treacherous Plum Run.
Then began a search that exhausted their every resource. The ill word had speedily gone around among the nearer houses, and in the course of an hour a great crowd of men appeared from Watertown itself. The water was black with boats and alive with diving bodies. Hastily constructed grappling hooks raked the narrow stream from side to side. A big seine was even commandeered from a houseboat up the river and dragged back and forth across the rough river bed till the men were worn out.
But all to no avail. Every now and then a shout of discovery went up, but the booty of the grappling hooks invariably proved to be only watersoaked logs or mud-filled wreckage. Once they were all electrified at a black-haired body dislodged by a clam-rake, that came heavily to the surface and then sank, to be the subject of ten minutes frantic dragging, only to be finally revealed as the body of an unfortunate dog.
It was heart-breaking work, and the tension was not lessened with the appearance on the scene of Mr. Fulton, Tod's father. He said nothing, but his hopeless silence was more depressing than any words of grief could have been. Jerry and Dave and Frank, feeling in some queer way guilty of their friend's death, could not meet his eyes as he asked dully how it had happened.
The dreary day dragged to a weary close, and the sun sank behind heavy clouds black with more than one rumbling promise of storm. The boys toiled doggedly on, weak from hunger, for their lunches had gone over with the boat, and, anyway, they would not have had the heart to swallow a bite. Lanky, good-natured Tod Fulton—drowned! It simply couldn't be. But the fast darkening water, looking cruel now, and menacing, where it had laughed and rippled only that morning, gave the lie to their hopes. Hopes? The last one had gone when Mr. Aikens had said:
"Never heard of anybody's being brought to after more than two hours under water. Only thing we can hope for is to find the body. I'm going to telephone to town and tell 'em to send out some dynamite."
It was already dusk when this decision was made, and it was after nine o'clock before an automobile brought a supply of dynamite sticks and detonating caps. In the meanwhile a powerful electric searchlight had been brought over from the interurban tracks a scant mile west of the river line, and the millwheel had been shafted to the big dynamo and was generating current to flash dazzling rays of light across the water.
Mayor Humphreys, from Watertown, and Mr. Aikens were chosen to set off the dynamite, while watchers lined the shores, sharp-eyed in the hope of catching sight of the body when it should come to the muddied surface of Plum Run after the dynamite had done its work.
Charge after charge was set off, and countless hundreds of fish were stunned or killed by the terrific force of the explosive, but no body of a hapless sixteen-year-old boy rewarded the anxious searchers. Up and down the river combed the dynamiters, and glare and crash rent the night for a mile down the stream. It began to look as if other means would have to be resorted to—the saddest of all, perhaps—time. Sometime, somewhere, after days or even weeks, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred miles down the river, a sodden, unrecognizable body would be washed up on sand-bar or mud-bank. It was a sickening thought.
"Have all the river towns been telegraphed?" asked a bystander, of the mayor. A nod of the head was his only answer.
"We may as well go home," was the final reluctant verdict. "We can come back in the morning." Mr. Fulton alone refused to abandon the search, and Mr. Aikens kindly offered to bear him company till daybreak brought others to take his place. When all had gone save these two and the three boys, Jerry approached and tried to draw Mr. Aikens aside.
"Do you suppose," he began with a kind of despairing eagerness, "that he could have stayed in the boat?"
Aikens shook his head. "Not a chance in the world," he declared.
"But I thought——" began Jerry, to be interrupted by Mr. Aikens, who finally contented himself with merely repeating:
"Not a chance in the world." They were silent until at last Mr. Aikens, moved by some impulse of kindliness, for he could hardly help guessing how miserable the boy's thoughts must be, added:
"You thought what, lad?"
"The boat was full of water, of course, but when she popped up, it looked like there was something black in the bottom——"
"You saw the boat go over, didn't you! It must have turned over and over a dozen times down there in that whirlpool, even if he had stayed in till she lit. But he couldn't have. And even if——"
"Yes" urged Jerry, but without enthusiasm.
"If he was in the bottom of the boat he would have been drowned just the same, knocked senseless as he probably was by the terrific force of the fall and the tons of water plunging on top of him. Mind you, I don't think there was one chance in a million but that he was dashed out long before the boat hit bottom."
"But where's the—the body, then?" objected Jerry miserably.
"If grappling hooks and seines and dynamite couldn't answer that question, don't expect me to. Look here, lad, I know you feel all cut up over it, but think of how his poor father feels——"
"I am—that's what makes me feel as if it was partly my fault."
"Now—now—don't take it like that. Man and boy I've lived on this and other rivers a good many years over forty, and a drowning I've known for every one of those years. The water's a treacherous dame— she smiles at you in the sunshine, and the little waves kiss each other and play around your boat, but the shadows lurk deep and they're waiting, waiting, I tell you. The old river takes her toll. It happened to be your friend, that's all. But it wasn't anybody's fault. Mr. Fulton would be the last one in the world to think so."
Jerry looked over at Mr. Fulton, who had finally ended his mute pacing up and down, and now sat, chin in hand, staring out across the water. A sudden impulse made the boy go over and stand for awhile, silent, beside the grief-stricken man. He wanted to say something, but the words would not come. So, after a little, he walked upstream to where Dave and Frank huddled against an overturned boat; the night was growing a bit chill.
"Moon's coming up," remarked Frank as Jerry settled down beside them. No one answered.
"It's awful to sit around and not move a finger to find him," shivered Dave at last. "Seems as if there ought to be something we could do."
"Do you know what I think?" replied Jerry, almost eagerly. "I think I was right about that boat. I've been trying to remember what we left in the boat that could have looked like—like what I saw when she came up. There wasn't a thing in the boat—not a thing. It was Tod I saw—I know it was!"
"But he never could have stayed in," objected Frank.
"That's what Mr. Aikens said—and everybody else. But tell me what else it could have been I saw. I saw something, that I know."
"We ought to have gone after the boat," admitted Dave, slowly. "We didn't do a bit of good here, that's sure."
"But we didn't know that at the time," Frank argued. "Everybody'd have blamed us if we'd gone on a wild goose chase down the river after an empty boat——"
"But nobody would have said a word if we'd found him in the bottom of a boat everybody else thought was empty. If the moon was only higher——"
"You don't catch me drilling off down Plum Bun at night, moon or no moon. There's a rattlesnake or copperhead for every hundred yards!" It was Frank who took up Jerry's thought. "Besides, it would be different if we hadn't waited so long. Tod—Tod's—he's dead now," voicing at last the feeling they had never before put into words.
There was a gruffness in Jerry's voice as he answered, a gruffness that tried hard to mask the trembling of his tones. "I know it, but— but—I want to do something for Mr. Fulton. Won't you fellows go along with me? I guess I—I'll go."
"Down river?" asked both boys, but without eagerness.
"Till we find the boat."
"It's no use," said Frank. "Our folks'll cane us now when we get home. Going along, Dave—with me?"
"How far do you s'pose the boat's drifted by now, Jerry?" asked Dave instead of answering Frank.
"Can't tell. She's probably stuck on a sandbar or a snag, anywhere from five to twenty-five miles down. Don't go along, Dave, unless you want to."
"Better come home with me," urged Frank.
"Do you need me along, Jerry?" queried Dave uncertainly.
"No—" shortly—"no I don't. Mr. Fulton does—Tod does."
Jerry rose stiffly to his feet and started slowly off in the faint moonlight, without so much as a look behind.
"So long, Jerry," called Frank. "Come on, Dave."
But Dave slowly shook his head and reluctantly followed the footsteps of his chum.
"Hold on a minute, old man; I'll stick with you."
It was only a thin edge of a moon that now stood barely above the low line of tree-covered hills beyond the east bank of the river. The light it gave was a misty, watery sort of ray that was a doubtful help in walking over the broken shore line. The two boys were too occupied in watching their footing to do much talking. Jerry led the way, bearing to the water's edge, finally stopping where a light rowboat had been pulled well up on the rocky beach.
"We'll have to divide forces, I guess. In this uncertain light we never could be sure of seeing the boat if she was on the other side. I'll cut across while you go down this bank."
"Why not take the boat and go down the middle?"
"Too hard work getting through the shallows, and, besides, this way we're closest to the place where the boat would most likely have been snagged. We can go lots faster on foot. We'll keep about opposite each other; we can yell across once in a while and it won't be quite so lonesome. You go ahead till you get below the riffles, and wait there till I catch up with you."
Jerry stepped into the boat and took up the oars. Dave gave the boat a mighty shove that almost put the stern under the water.
"Hey! What you kids doing?" bellowed a gruff voice that the boys hardly recognized as being that of Mr. Aikens.
"Just duck and say nothing," called Jerry guardedly to Dave. "He might try to stop us."
So Dave scurried into the shadows of near-by trees, while Jerry bent low over his oars and noiselessly shot the boat out into safe waters. It was the work of only a few minutes to push the nose of his boat high and dry on the sand of the opposite shore. He was in the heavy shadow of a big cottonwood and felt safe from peering eyes, so without wasting time to mask his movements he jumped out and scurried along the bank. A level stretch of a hundred yards carried him around a bend; he stopped for a brief rest and a glance toward the other side, where a great crashing of bushes told him that Dave was safely out of sight and well on his way toward the riffles.
A chuckle almost escaped Jerry as he listened to the thrashing about, but remembrance of their errand killed the laughter. In fact, the chuckle turned to a genuine sob, for Tod Fulton was his closest chum. So, without an instant's pause, he made his way to the foot of the riffles, where their search would really begin. How soon it would end, there was no telling; it might be one mile; it might be twenty. But Jerry grimly determined that he would carry the undertaking through to the end.
The riffles was really a succession of pools of treacherous depths, joined by foaming, rock-broken rapids. The bank was lined with great boulders through which a day-time path wound a difficult way. Jerry wasted no time in trying to follow it, but skirted far around through a waist-high cornfield. A barb-wire fence held him prisoner long enough to allow Dave to break cover first on the opposite shore and send a vigorous but quavery "hello" across the water.
"I'm stuck on the fence!" shouted Jerry in return. "Go ahead. I'll be along directly."
But he noticed that Dave stood waiting on the shore when he finally managed to release himself and broke through the thin fringe of willows. "All right, Dave," he urged. "Let's not be losing any time."
For a while the going was much easier. On Jerry's side a wide reach of sand lay smooth and firm in the pale moonlight. On Dave's side a few yards of sand lay between a steep bank and the water's edge, but every few hundred feet a shallow creek broke through and forced wading.
There was no chance for the boat to have stranded here, and the boys hurried along. Within a mile the character of the ground changed. Now the water lapped along under high, steep banks, with tiny, willow-covered islands alternating with bass-haunted snags of dislodged trees barricaded with driftwood. The moon cast queer shadows and more than once Jerry's heart felt a wild thrill as he fancied he saw a boat hull outlined against the silvered current.
Every few hundred yards the two boys stopped and sent encouraging shouts across the widening water. It was a lonesome, disheartening task, with every step making the task all the harder. Deep bays cut into the shore line; the feeder creeks grew wider and deeper. The night air was chill on their dripping shoulders. Plum Run was no longer a run—it was a real river, and Dave's voice sounded far off when he came out on some bare point to shout his constant:
They were now on a part of the river that was comparatively strange to them. Jerry had more than once followed the Plum this far south, but it had always been by boat, or at best on the west bank, Dave's territory, where a chain of lakes followed the course of the river. Each new twist and turn sent a shiver of nervous dread through him. Many the story of rattlers and copperheads he had heard from fishermen and campers—and the night was filled with unexpected and disturbing noises, overhead and underfoot. Of course he knew that snakes are not abroad at night, but the knowledge did not help his nerves.
Moreover, they were drawing near Lost Island, and no boy of Watertown had ever been known to cast a line within half a mile of that dreaded spot. For Lost Island was the "haunted castle" of the neighborhood. It was nothing more than a large, weed-and-willow- covered five acres, a wrecked dam jutting out from the east bank, and a great gaunt pile of foundation masonry standing high and dry on a bare knoll at the north end.
It had a history—never twice told the same. The dam had been dynamited, that much was sure. By whom, no one knew. The house, if ever a house had been built over those rain-bleached rocks, had been struck by lightning, hurricane, blown up by giant powder, rotted away—a dozen other tragic ends, as the whim of the story-teller dictated. The owner had been murdered, lynched, had committed suicide—no one knew, but everyone was positive that there was something fearfully, terribly wrong with Lost Island.
It was one of the few islands in Plum Run which was not flooded over by the spring freshets, and the land was fertile, yet no one had ever been known to live there through a season; this in spite of the fact that Lost Island was known as "squatter's land," open to settlement by anyone who desired it.
And Lost Island lay barely half a mile farther down the river. Jerry fervently hoped that their search would be ended before they were in the shadow of that forsaken territory. His nerves were not calmed any by the tremble in Dave's voice as he shouted across:
"Lost Island's just below us, Jerry. Shall we go on?"
"Sure thing, Dave!" called Jerry with a confidence he did not feel. "It can't be any worse than what we've already gone through—and we've gone through that all right."
"Supposing," hesitated Dave, "supposing the boat's grounded on Lost Island itself——"
"It's the boat we're looking for, isn't it?" But Jerry knew as he spoke, that, hard as the going was, he would be well satisfied to discover the boat five weary miles farther on.
Once more they plodded along, the dark, forbidding hulk of Lost Island looming nearer and nearer. Just before passing behind the northern point Jerry came out to the water's edge and had cupped his hands about his mouth for a final reassuring shout, when a sudden discovery made him pause. A shout, that seemed to split in mid-air, convinced him that Dave too had just then caught sight of the astounding object.
It was a gleaming, flickering, ruddy light, and it came from the very center of Lost Island!
Jerry's first thought was fright. But that soon gave way to the wildest of conjectures. Suppose Tod had been in the boat. Suppose he had come to in time, but too weak to do more than remain in the boat till it grounded here on Lost Island. A waterproof match-safe easily accounted for the fire. Jerry refused to allow himself to reason any further. There might be a dozen reasons why Tod had not swum the scant hundred yards to shore.
"Do you see it!" finally came a shout from the other side.
"It's a camp fire," called Jerry. "Do you suppose it could possibly be——"
"It couldn't be Tod, could it!" came the answer, showing the same wild hope that had surged through Jerry.
"Oh—Tod!" rang out from two trembly throats on both sides of the river.
There was no reply. At least there came no answering shout. But the next instant Jerry rubbed his eyes in bewilderment. The camp fire had been blotted out as if by magic. Only the deep gloom of thick- set willows lay before him.
"The fire's gone!" came in alarmed tones from Dave.
"Tod—Oh, Tod!" rang out once more through the still night air.
This time there was an answer, but not the one the boys expected. A gruff voice demanded angrily:
"Say, you idiots—what in the thunder you want!"
"We're looking for a boy who was drowned up at——" began Jerry, who was closest to the high point where a man was presently seen stalking through the fringe of bushes.
"Boy who was drowned? Calling for him! Ye crazy loons!" interrupted the man.
"We don't know whether he was drowned or not," answered Jerry hotly.
"Well I'll never tell you," was the surly response. With a disgusted shrug of the shoulders the great hulk of a man slouched back toward the center of the island, pausing just before he disappeared once more in the wilderness to warn:
"Any more of that howling's going to bring a charge of buckshot, and I don't care which of you I hit."
"Do you care if we come over and look along the shore of the island?" shouted Dave at the retreating figure.
The answer, which was more like a growl than a human response, left no doubt of the man's meaning. Neither boy felt the slightest desire to swim across to Lost Island. Instead Jerry waved his arms over his head and then pointed downstream.
So once more they trudged along, disheartened more than ever, for somehow the actions of that weird figure on Lost Island had made their search look more of a wild goose chase than ever. The island was soon passed, but Jerry found himself peering hopelessly across a sluggish, muddy-bottomed slough that promised many a weary minute of wading before he could hope to establish communication with his companion again.
So it was with a great feeling of relief that, once more on solid ground, he heard Dave's call.
"Say, Jerry, we're pretty near down to Tomlinson's wagon bridge. What you say that we hustle on down and meet halfway across—and wait there for daylight. I'm about woozified."
"Good!" agreed Jerry, pleased that the suggestion had come from Dave. "Even the thought of it rests my old legs till they feel like new. I'll just race you to it!"
But it was a slow sort of race, for neither boy was willing to take a chance in passing the most innocent shadow—which always turned out to be a water-soaked log or a back-eddied swirl of foam. Nevertheless, it was a spent Dave who sank gasping to the rough plank floor of the middle span of the wagon bridge a scant second ahead of another puffing boy.
A good ten minutes they lay there, breathing hard. Then both rose and walked over to the edge and leaned heavily against the girders as they looked gloomily down the river.
"Looks almost hopeless, doesn't it!" admitted Jerry, finally.
"Worst of it is we don't really know whether she's down below yet or if we've passed it. She was riding pretty low."
"Wonder what that man was doing on Lost Island?" speculated Jerry, crossing wearily to the north edge of the bridge and peering through the gray dawn-mist toward the island, barely visible now. A mere twinkle of light showed among the trees, and he stood there for a long minute. Dave come to his side, and the two waited in silence for the dawn. Jerry had almost fallen asleep standing up, when a sudden clutch at his arm nearly overbalanced him and sent him tumbling off the dizzy height.
"Look!" gasped Dave.
"What is it?" exclaimed Jerry, turning to his companion, all sleep gone.
"I'll swear it's the boat—right under us!"
It was only a bare few seconds before the floating object had passed within the shadow of the bridge, but there could be no doubt about it; it was a boat, riding so low that only her outline showed. Jerry rubbed his eyes in disbelief, but for only an instant. Then he sprang to the other side of the bridge, shedding hat, coat, trousers, shirt and shoes, on the way. So, at least, it seemed to Dave, who caught his chum's arm, as Jerry poised himself, his body white and gleaming in the moonlight, on the high rail that ran along the edge.
"What you going to do, Jerry? It's a good thirty feet to the water— and you don't know how deep it is down there."
"I'm diving shallow, Dave; two feet is all I ask below. We can't take any chances of losing her. Carry my clothes along the bank, will you? I'll try to make the east side—it looks a little closer."
In the few seconds they had talked, the boat had drifted under the bridge and now cut through the silver-edged shadow of the last timbers.
There was a quiver of the flimsy railing, a slender body cut through the moonlight, parted the water with a clean sush! and bobbed up almost immediately, within three feet of the boat. Jerry Ring did not have the reputation of being the best diver in Watertown for nothing.
Now ensued a great kicking and churning as Jerry's legs transformed themselves into propellers for the salvaged "Big Four." Progress was slow; the waterlogged craft lay in the river like so much cordwood. More than once Jerry had to stop for a few minutes' rest. But little by little he neared shore, encouraged by Dave, who impatiently awaited the landing, wading out finally waist-deep to help.
Neither one said a word as the boat was at last beached. No more than the barest glance was needed to tell that there was nothing in the boat but water. Theirs had been a fruitless chase.
"Well," said Dave, slowly, after a long silence, "I guess that ends our last hope."
"I'm afraid you're right," agreed Jerry dejectedly. "But there's one thing that puzzles me—do you notice how much water there is in the boat? It's a good ten inches from the top—how full would it have been when she popped up from under the falls at the dam?"
"She'd have been right up to the top, I suppose. Why?"
"Well, what I want to know is: How did it get out? And, what's more, I'd like to know how it would have taken the boat all these hours to float those few miles. Plum Run's got a six mile an hour current up above, and it's at least four here. There's something mighty funny about it all to me."
"But mightn't it just have been snagged or shoaled up above, and finally worked loose?"
"Sure, I know that. But I know the boat was drifting about as fast as we were walking, and that being the case, she must have cleared Lost Island just about three minutes after we talked with that man!"
"You're getting excited, Jerry—over nothing."
"Nothing! You call the water that was baled out of the boat nothing. It was baled out, I tell you. And look at that rope—it was cut loose. Somebody was in too big a hurry to untie knots, that's my guess."
"But, Jerry, what in the world are you driving at, anyway!"
"I don't know. Something about the way that man back there on Lost Island acted set me thinking away in the back of my head. I didn't realize what it was that was going on in my cranium until I noticed this cut rope and say!" Jerry's voice rose in high excitement. "Dave! Dave—do you remember? The bucket!"
Dave only stared at his friend in bewilderment. "Wha—what bucket?" he at last managed to gasp.
"You remember last week when we were out, and the storm caught us and pretty nearly swamped the boat? Tod said he'd bet we'd never be caught without a bailing can again—and he put a lard pail on a snap hook under the back seat. It's gone!"
"But what if—why, pshaw, it could easy have worked loose and floated away. I don't see what there is to be so worked up about."
"But, Dave, don't you see——" Jerry was trembling with excitement. "Suppose Tod had stayed in the boat, and he came to, and he didn't have any oars. First off he'd try to bale her out, wouldn't he? He'd bale out just enough so she'd ride easy, and then he'd try to get to shore. Maybe he landed on Lost Island. Suppose he did, and suppose that ruffian we saw didn't want him to get off again. What else would the man do but cut loose the boat when we came along!"
"Jerry, don't you think we'd better be getting on home?"
"What's the matter with you, Dave?"
"Why, nothing, Jerry——"
"Then what you talking about going on home when I'm running down a clew like that?"
"It's almost morning, Jerry, and you've had a hard day and been up all night—and the lonesome chase through the dark——"
"Now look here, Davie! If you think I'm getting soft in the head, just forget it. I never was more in earnest in my life. Don't you understand? I think Tod's alive—back there on Lost Island!"
"But we don't know he was in the boat——"
"Look here, Dave, if you were falling, what'd be the first thing you'd do? You'd grab at the nearest thing to you, wouldn't you! And if you got hold of that boat-seat, for instance, you'd pretty near hang on, wouldn't you? I saw something in the bottom of the boat when she came up."
"Yes, but we don't know the boat touched Lost Island——"
"No, of course not. But most always when I see a sign that says 'No fishing allowed,' I know there's fish there."
"You certainly talk as if you were out of your head. What's fishing got to do with it?"
"The man was not overly anxious to have us come out and make a search of his island. I'm going back up there and I'm going to swim across or get across and I'm going to find out what he has there he doesn't want us to see. Are you game to go along?"
"But supposing there's nothing there, and the man——"
"That island doesn't belong to anybody. We've got as much right there as he has. The worst he can do is to kick us off, and there's only one of him against two of us. Come on."
Before they left, however, they tipped their boat over and emptied out nearly all the water. Then, as they had no oars to row her back, they tied her by the short length of rope left, to a stout willow. Jerry resumed his clothing, and shivering a bit in the cool morning air, was eager to warm up with a good brisk walk.
They were on the east side of the river, and the trail would have been hard enough even in broad daylight, but Jerry would waste no time in crossing over when a few minutes later they halted at the bridge. Home lay on the other side of the river, and Dave, still unconvinced, stubbornly insisted on following the west bank, but Jerry soon cut short the argument by striding off in disgust. After a minute of uncertainty Dave tagged along behind. Neither spoke; to tell the truth, they were both decidedly cold, hungry and cross. The damp, fishy smell of the river somehow set their nerves on edge, and the long drill through swamps and across creeks and sloughs appeared none too enticing.
"I say, Jerry," called Davie finally, "let's stop for a breath of air; I'm about petered out."
"Can't," replied Jerry shortly. "Sky's getting gray now. We've got to get there before daylight. If we can catch our friend on the island asleep it'll make things a lot easier. Pull your belt up a notch and see if you can't put the notch into your legs."
Dave grumbled but obediently hastened his gait. In single file they cut across the last stretch of knee-deep mud and halted opposite Lost Island. There it lay, beyond the narrow stretch of steaming, misty black water, dark and forbidding. There was something shivery about its low-lying-heavy outline, with nothing visible beyond the border of thick willow growth.
"Looks like some big crouching animal, doesn't it?" remarked Dave as they stood an instant peering across.
"Well, we know it can't spring—and it won't bite, I guess."
"I'm not so sure. How are we going to get over?"
"Swim it, unless—no, I guess we won't swim—not, at least, if there's a pair of oars in that flat-boat I see yonder. Funny we didn't stumble over it when we came down."
"Maybe it wasn't here then. Maybe the man came over in it. We better not stand here in the open. We don't know what minute he might be back."
"Well, if it is his boat, at least we don't need to worry about running onto him over there on the island."
"You're going to swim over, aren't you, Jerry? If the man came along and found his boat gone, he'd know we were over there and——"
"And he'd be stranded on this side until we were so kind as to bring back his boat. You can bet he isn't going to swim over, and I bet you I don't either."
The boat proved to be a cumbersome flat-boat of the type used by clam-fishers. In fact the smell that simply swirled up from its oozy bottom left no doubt that the boat had been used for that purpose. A pair of unbelievably heavy oars, cut from a sapling with a hand-axe, trailed in the water from "loose oarlocks." Dave gave a gasp of dismay as he "hefted" the rough implements.
"Let's swim it, Jerry," he said disgustedly. "The boat'll never hold up the oars and us too. They weigh a ton."
"Pile in," answered Jerry, with the first laugh since that tragic moment when he had seen a different boat swept over the dam many weary miles up the river. "We'll each take an oar and try some two- handed rowing. This craft was built for ocean-going service. Hold tight; we're off."
But they weren't. Jerry's mighty push ended in a grunt. "Come on; get out here and shove."
"Maybe if we took the oars out we could start her," Dave jibed. "I hope you've got a freight-hauling license."
"Get out and push. Your witty remarks are about as light as those young tree-trunks we have for paddles. All together now!" as Dave bent over beside him. A lurch, a grinding, thumping slide, and the flat-boat slid free of shore.
"It's a mighty good thing if that man isn't on the island," remarked Dave as he took up his half of the propelling mechanism. "Because when our craft took the water she certainly did 'wake the echoes of yon wooded glen,' as the poet says."
"Poetry's got nothing to do with this boat. It doesn't rhyme with anything but blisters. Let's see if we can move her."
Thanks to some tremendous tugging, the flat-boat moved slowly out from shore. Inch by inch, it seemed, they gained on the current.
"The old tub's got speed in her," grunted Jerry, between sweeps of his oar.
"Ought to have it in her," returned Dave. "I'll bet you nobody ever got it out of her. Ugh!"
"Always grunt out toward the back of the boat—keep your head turned. It helps us along."
"I've only got one grunt left; I'm saving it. How far have we gone?"
"All of ten feet. I'll tell you when we hit the island. Lift your oar out of water when you bring it back. The idea is to move the boat, not merely to stir up the water."
So they joked each other, but their hearts were heavy enough, for always in the back of their minds was the thought of their friend, who, in spite of the wild hope that Jerry had built up, might— must, Dave was sure—be lying at the bottom of treacherous Plum Run somewhere, drowned.
At last they seemed to be nearly halfway across, and they rested a brief spell, for every inch of their progress had to be fought for.
"All right," said Jerry, taking up his oar, "let's give her another tussle."
But Dave did not move, although he still hunched over his oar.
"Come on, Dave," urged his friend. "We don't want to lose any time. The sun ought to be up almost any minute now."
"Look behind you, old man. Right where we're headed, and tell me what you see."
Jerry turned in his seat. He took one quick glance toward Lost Island, now less than a hundred feet away, and then gave a low cry of dismay.
A STARTLING CLEW
There was a streak of light in the western sky, whether caused by the low-hanging, mist-hidden moon or a freak reflection of the coming dawn. Against that patch of brightness the northern headland of Lost Island loomed up high and barren save for its one tall tree. But it was neither headland nor tree that caught Jerry's attention and caused the gasp of dismay.
Standing there, bold and menacing, looking like a giant against the queer light, was a man.
Whether it was the same one who had hailed them earlier in the morning, the boys could not of course know. But there was no doubt about the equal unfriendliness of his attitude, for through the crook of one elbow he carried a shotgun, while even as Jerry turned in his seat, the other arm was raised and a big fist shaken.
The next instant they were assured that this was the same man as had warned them away before. There was no mistaking the voice that bellowed across the water. Neither was there any mistaking the meaning of the brief sentence:
"Get to thunder out o' here!"
Jerry stood up in the boat and waved a friendly hand in the general direction of the angry man, and called pleasantly:
"We were just coming over to see about a boy we think landed on your island last night or early this morning. We found his boat down at the bridge and we figured that he must have——"
As Jerry talked, Dave had been slyly urging the boat closer to shore, but at a sudden interruption from the island, both he and Jerry paused.
"You come another foot closer, you young idiots, and I'll fill you full of rock salt. I loaded up especial for you when you raised that rumpus last night; I knew durned well you'd be coming back."
"Have you seen anything of our friend?" cried Dave anxiously, trying to smooth things over by being civil.
"If he's anything like you two, I hope I never do."
"You've got no right to keep us off Lost Island," began Jerry hotly.
"I don't need any right; I've got a shotgun. You two just pick up your paddles and blow back to shore—and be sure you tie up that boat good and tight or I'll have the law on you. Git, now!"
There didn't seem to be anything else to do. The two boys muttered to each other, and neither one was willing to admit believing that the man would really shoot, but somehow they were unwilling to put it to the test. Reluctantly they took up the oars again and turned the nose of the boat back toward the east bank.
Facing the man now, Jerry sent one last appeal across the slowly widening space.
"We didn't mean any harm. A friend of ours was drowned yesterday, we think. We're looking for him—or his body. All we want is to know if you've seen anything of him."
"I told you this morning I hadn't."
"But why don't you let us look on the island? We're almost sure our boat was stranded there a long while. He might have been in it. If you'd just let us look, we'd be satisfied."
"I guess you'll be satisfied anyway, youngster. Just keep on rowing. Where was young Fulton drowned, anyway?"
Jerry made no answer. When Dave undertook to shout a reply, Jerry silenced him with a savage look. Then he stood up on his seat. Making a megaphone of his hands he yelled derisively:
"Yah! He wasn't drowned!"
Then he sat down again and caught up his oar and began lunging desperately at the water. "Hurry, Dave, hurry!" he commanded excitedly.
"What's got into you?" exclaimed Dave impatiently. "You've been flying off on about forty different angles lately. What new bug has bitten you?"
"Bug! Dave, do you mean to tell me you didn't hear what the man said?"
"Course I did—but we're going, aren't we? He didn't say he'd shoot unless we kept on coming ahead."
"Oh—that! Well, you've been up all night, so no wonder you're half asleep. Didn't you hear him say: 'Where was young Fulton drowned?'"
"Well what? What in thunder's got into you? Why shouldn't he ask that?"
"He should have. He should have asked it the first time we talked to him. But, gee whiz, Dave, he shouldn't have known it was young Fulton unless—unless it was young Fulton himself who told him. Dave—Dave! Don't you see? We never mentioned his name."
"Great guns!" gasped Dave.
That was all he said, and for that matter, all that either one said. The man stood on the point of Lost Island till he was satisfied that the boys had tied the boat safely and did not mean to loiter in the neighborhood. Then he disappeared among the trees of the lower part of the island. But the boys did not pay much attention to their late antagonist, save for a bare glance as they topped the high ridge that followed the river course.
Miles to the north they could see a big square white building that they knew as Carter's Mills, really only a grain storage elevator. Almost due west of that was the milldam, which was about the only place they could hope to be able to cross Plum Run—and Watertown lay on the other side. Of course, they might follow the river bank on the chance of meeting some good-hearted fisherman or camper who would row them across. But the chance was too slim. They decided to cut across country till they reached the mill.
It was a long, hard drill on an empty stomach. Up hill and down dale, and every step kept time to by a pang from the inner man.
"Do you think it's a sin to steal?" This from Dave.
"Apples? A sin? Not if you know where there are any. Lead me to them."
"Oh, I don't know where any are. I just wondered what you thought of it,"
"Do you think it's wrong to punish criminals?" This from Jerry.
"Put 'em in jail you mean?"
"Well, whatever way seems best."
"No, I can't say as I do. Why, Jerry?"
"I'm going to thump you good and plenty for fooling me about those apples, that's why."
"Catching comes before thumping!" and Dave was off with all the speed his weary legs could muster. Fortunately Jerry's legs were in no better shape, so the race, while exciting enough, was a long, slow one. Before Jerry was able to overhaul his chum, he was so tired out that anything so strenuous as thumping was quite out of the question.
"If you'd just kept running straight ahead, instead of ducking and dodging, we'd be home by now," he complained as he released the puffing Dave.
But at that they had made good time through their chase and within a very few minutes the last bend of the river showed them the milldam. The place was deserted.
"I guess Mr. Aikens persuaded Tod's father to go back home and get breakfast and rest up a bit," remarked Dave. "If there doesn't happen to be a boat on this side of the river we may have to wait some time for that breakfast you've been promising me the last ninety-eight miles. We sure can't get across the dam, with all that water rushing over."
"I'll swim it before I wait," grimly declared Jerry. "Do you suppose Mr. Aikens took the mill boat?"
"Most likely. Where'll you try it, below or above? Swimming, I mean."
"No chance below, with that current. But I guess we won't need to. I see Pete Galpin's clam-boat down at his dock. It leaks like sin, but if one bails while the other rows I guess we can make it."
No one was astir at Galpin's shanty, a houseboat pulled high and dry on shore, and almost hidden by great piles of driftwood snagged upon the bank to serve as winter fuel. Old Pete Galpin lived there all alone, fishing and clamming and occasionally taking a wood-cutting contract to help out through the scant winter months. Once he had been known to work with an ice-cutting gang, but quit because he was afraid he'd make so much money that it would tempt somebody to rob him.
The flat-boat that was moored down at Galpin's "dock"—four railroad ties roped together—was none too substantial looking, having been built by Galpin himself from odds and ends picked up from scrap heaps and driftage. As Galpin himself said, the only whole part about the boat was the name, which had been painted in red on a single thin board sticking a full two feet past the stern— "UPANATUM."
But the boys did not waste a great deal of time in admiring the beautiful lines of their borrowed craft. Jerry made at once for the oar seat, leaving Dave to untie and push off. For all the tremendous leak which at once developed, the boat responded easily to the strenuous tugs of Jerry's muscular arms and back.
They beached the boat and made their way up the bank and across a field where oats had just been cut, the bundles lying yellow as gold in the early morning sunlight. Just beyond was a narrow, plum- thicket bordered lane, which in turn led into the newly graveled "county" road. The boys found the walking much easier in a path that twisted along next to the fence. However, within a mile, along came a farmer, hauling a load of early potatoes to town, and the boys gladly accepted his invitation to "hop on."
Within a quarter of a mile both were sound asleep, nor did they waken until the springless wagon rattled over the interurban tracks less than two blocks from Dave's home. Rubbing their eyes in a vain attempt to drive out the sleep, they stumbled along the quiet street.
"Where will I find you after breakfast?" asked Jerry, as Dave turned in at his gate.
"In bed. I'll be lucky if I stay awake till after breakfast."
"But we've got to tell Mr. Fulton."
"You tell him, Jerry. I just know he won't pay any attention to what we say—I don't more'n half believe it now myself——" Dave had to stop for a tremendous yawn.
"If that's the case, you might just as well sleep." Jerry was out of patience, but Dave was too sleepy to care very much.
"I'll see you—see you—later, Jerry," he said drowsily as he turned and staggered up the walk.
Jerry, after an undecided second or two, faced about and began to retrace his steps. He cut through the Ellery back yard and came out on the cross street at whose corner the Fultons lived. The house was a big ramshackle affair of a dozen rooms or so, far too large a place for the Fultons, since there had been only the two of them, Tod's mother having died when he was only a little tad. Indeed, as Tod said, they only used three rooms, the kitchen and two bedrooms. But that was hardly true; there was a big basement under all the house, the most of it used as a workroom, and here it was that the two of them spent the better part of their waking hours.
Mr. Fulton was an odd sort of man, a bit inclined to think his business his own business. But it was no secret among his neighbors that all sorts of queer contrivances were planned and made in that combination machine shop, carpenter shop, forge and foundry below stairs.
Mr. Fulton was an inventor. True, for the most part he invented useless things; he had inherited money and did not need to make any more. But the boys, who were allowed to roam through the workshop at will, were wildly enthusiastic over the ingenious devices schemed out by father and son, for Tod was a chip off the old block.
Now, Jerry did not go up to the front door, even though it was standing ajar. Instead he hurried to the little side porch and reached high up under the eaves, where an electric button was concealed. He pushed it, hard, well knowing that if Mr. Fulton were anywhere in the house he would hear that bell. That was why it had been so well hidden.
But there was no response. Again Jerry rang; he could hear the shrill br-r-r-r of the bell. After a long time he heard footsteps, but something told him they were not those of Mr. Fulton. The door swung open. There stood Mr. Aikens.
"Is Mr. Fulton here," demanded Jerry.
"Asleep," nodded Mr. Aikens.
"I've got to see him."
"All right—if you don't wake him up."
"I've got to talk to him—I've got big news."
"Big news? Of—of Tod?" Big Mr. Aikens was not the kind of man to become easily excited, but his manner was eager enough.
"Of Tod—yes!" cried Jerry.
"What is it? Have you found his—his body?"
"Better than that, Mr. Aikens—Oh, I'm almost dead sure!"
Jerry was so excited himself that his voice shook. As for Mr. Aikens, he leaped over and caught Jerry's arm and was shaking it wildly up and down. Neither one noticed that a white-faced man stood in the opposite doorway, and that his eyes were simply blazing with expectancy.
"What do you mean? What can you mean!" demanded Mr. Aikens.
"I believe that Tod Fulton is——"
"Not alive?" almost screamed a voice from across the room. "Not alive!"
"Alive and on Lost Island!"
TO THE RESCUE!
This much of the interview was perfectly clear to Jerry afterwards, but what followed he could not quite understand at the time or later. For a moment it was almost laughable. There stood Aikens fiercely clutching one arm and waving it up and down as if to pump further information from him. Mr. Fulton, after the first dazed instant, darted across the room and grabbed Jerry's other arm.
"Where is he? Tell me—quick!" he demanded.
Then it was that Jerry could not understand, for the look that came over Mr. Fulton's face at his reply was neither belief nor doubt. His eyebrows almost met in a frown as he repeated mechanically:
"On Lost Island, you say? But—but—how do you know? You weren't on Lost Island, were you?"
"No—o," answered Jerry slowly.
A look of relief, quickly hidden, came to Mr. Fulton's face, but Jerry saw it, and wondered.
"Did someone tell you he was there, then?"
"Someone told me he wasn't there——" began Jerry, when the ting- a-ling of a telephone bell cut him short.
"Oh!" exclaimed Mr. Fulton and hurried from the room. His muffled voice could be heard in a lengthy conversation. Jerry impatiently awaited his return, anxious to tell the rest of his story. Imagine then his surprise when Tod's father delayed his return unreasonably, and his only response to Jerry's eager sentences was, "Yes, yes, I know."
Jerry's heart sank unaccountably—he sensed the fact that Mr. Fulton was not listening, was only waiting, in fact, till the boy should finish and he could decently get rid of Jerry. The story was consequently hurried through. Disappointed beyond description, Jerry left the house, not even noticing that Mr. Fulton had left the room even before Jerry had reached the door.
Something was wrong somewhere; Jerry had expected that his story would be literally snatched out of his mouth; instead it had been smothered under the dampest kind of wet blanket. Feeling not a little sore over his failure to impress the two men with the importance of his discoveries, Jerry plodded along home, determined that as soon as he had gulped down a little breakfast he would hike back to Lost Island alone and make one more attempt to gain the cover of its wooded banks.
Even that plan was doomed to disappointment. Jerry's mother had saved a goodly breakfast for him, and bustled about making him comfortable. Contrary to Jerry's expectations, she had no word of blame for his having remained away overnight without asking consent, and even listened with sympathetic ear to the story of his adventures. But just at the moment when Jerry was about to announce his intention to return, Mrs. Ring was called to the back door, to return a few minutes later with the announcement that it had been Mr. Aikens, and that Jerry was not to worry any more about Lost Island.
"But I've simply got to go back, ma," sputtered Jerry, his mouth uncomfortably full of pancake. "Mr. Fulton isn't going to—well, he didn't show much interest in my theories—-"
"But Mr. Aikens seemed to think he did. You just rest easy, son. If two grown men can't take care of your Lost Islander—and your theories, too, why, well—you just get ready to pile into bed, that's all."
"But, ma—there's the boat."
"It'll take care of itself till you get there."
"Hush up, now. Into bed with you."
"But can I go after the boat when I——"
Mrs. Ring caught up a flat piece of wood from the back of the kitchen range, and laughingly but firmly put an end to the coaxing, Jerry retreating hastily to the shelter of his bedroom.
Both Jerry and his father stood in awe of tiny Mrs. Ring, who barely reached to overgrown Jerry's shoulder.
"Wake me up at twelve, will you, ma?" called Jerry, in his most wheedling voice. His mother only laughed, but Jerry felt sure she would. Besides, there was his dollar alarm clock.
Jerry repented his request when sharp at twelve o'clock he was called for noonday dinner. He was sleepy and cross and not a bit hungry. His muscles were sore, and the drill to Lost Island did not have quite the romance by broad daylight that it had had a few hours before.
Jerry watched his father put on his hat and hurry back to work, with a great deal of relief. His mother was much easier to handle in a case of this sort.
"You won't mind if I don't get back till late?" he asked, hoping she would give her unqualified consent to his remaining away as long as he saw fit. "You promised me I could go camping this summer—let me take it now, please, ma."
"Will you promise me to come back and let me pick the birdshot out of you after you've made a landing on Lost Island?" she asked in mock anxiety. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Ring was about as proud of her big boy as a mother well could be without making herself a nuisance to the neighbors. From his earliest boyhood she had cultivated the independence of spirit he showed with his first pair of real trousers, and now she often strained a point to let him exercise it. To be sure, she sometimes wondered how much was genuine self-confidence and how much was a reckless love of adventure.
Now she raised her eyebrows in denial, but at the eager look on the boy's face she relented. "Trot along, Jerry," she agreed, with a quick pat at his shoulder—the Rings were not much at kissing each other. "If you can't take care of yourself by now, you never will be able to. I know you're as anxious as you can be about Tod—I do hope it turns out that you are right about him."
With a muttered, "I've got to be right," Jerry set about making himself a couple of substantial sandwiches and stuffing them in the pocket of his canvas hunting coat, which he took along for emergencies. "Good-bye, ma," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can bring Tod with me."
Once outside, he wasted no time but struck off at once cross-lots to rout out Dave Thomas and Frank Ellery. Fortunately Frank came first, otherwise Jerry might not have been equal to the task of waking up Dave. They tried everything they had ever heard of. They tickled his feet; they set off a brass-lunged alarm clock under his very nose; they dumped him roughly out of his bed, but even on the bare floor he slumbered peacefully on. Cold water brought only temporary success. They were in despair.
It was Frank who finally solved the problem. Seating himself on the foot of the bed, he raised his head much in the fashion of a hound baying at the moon—the sound that issued from his throat would put to shame the most ambitious hound that ever howled. Jerry caught up a pillow and would have shied it at the head of the offender, but the perfectly serious look on Frank's face withheld his arm. Gradually it dawned on him that the boy was trying to sing—and, more than that, it was one of Dave's favorite songs he was murdering.
Then it was that Jerry understood Frank's strategy. The bed-clothes began to heave; they had piled them all atop Dave as he lay on the floor. Frank began on the chorus. A wriggling leg emerged from beneath the comforts. Jerry joined in, his voice a villainous imitation of Frank's discords. Another leg came to view.
They began to repeat the chorus, further off key than before. One line was all they were suffered to torture. A catapult of boy, bedclothes and pillows bounded from the floor and sent Frank spinning into the bed, while Jerry barely saved himself from a spill on the floor.
"You will yowl like a lot of bob-tailed tomcats, will yuh!" yelled Dave, dancing up and down on one foot—he had stubbed his toe against one of his shoes in his charge across the room.
"You will snore away like six buzz-saws on circus day, huh?" snorted Frank, neatly catching Dave in the pit of the stomach with a pillow caught up from the floor.
For a second it looked like a free-for-all, but Jerry had no time to waste.
"Get your clothes on—hustle. We're going back to Lost Island."
"Suppose my mother won't let me?"
"Suppose you tell her we've got to go and get our boat? She'll let you go all right. You just want to get back to bed, that's all that's worrying you. Hustle, Dave. We can't lose a minute."
"But didn't you tell Tod's dad about what we—found out?" Dave hesitated over the last. It was plain to be seen that he was none too sure in his own mind of the importance of their discovery.
"I did, and he—well, he acted so queer about it that I don't know what to think. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they—he and Mr. Aikens, you know—never went near Lost Island. They think we're just kids."
"But we don't really know anything, Jerry; we're only just guessing."
"Guessing, huh? Well, I'm only just guessing that you're wasting a lot of time about getting your clothes on, but in about half a minute I'm going to climb all over you."
At that Dave bristled up a bit, but his fingers became spryer with buttons and hooks and very shortly he stood fully dressed and ready to go downstairs. Jerry had already made peace with Mrs. Thomas, so little time was lost in waiting for Dave to snatch a bite to eat and be on his way.
"I've got four bits loose in my pocket," announced Jerry, once they were out on the street. "If we don't let any grass grow on the side streets while we're moving we can make the two-five express on the Dellwood Interurban. We can drop off when they slow down at Downers Crossing; that must be almost opposite Lost Island. It's hard going through the swamps to get to Plum Run, but I guess we're good for it."
They made the two-five—with about three seconds to spare. Their car was empty, so each dropped into a seat and sprawled out comfortably. Jerry smiled grimly to himself as he looked back perhaps five minutes later and saw how the two had slumped down in their seats. It did not need a throaty gurgle from Dave to convince him that the pair were sound asleep. "A fine pair of adventurers," he muttered to himself, not entirely without some feeling of resentment. It was well enough to be the leader, but—well, he wouldn't have minded a little snooze himself.
He did not feel quite so critical, however, when, perhaps a half hour later, at a terrific jolt of the train, he was roused from the doze into which he too had fallen. A hasty glance out the window told him that they were at Downers Crossing. With a yell that would have done credit to a whole war-party of Comanches, he pounced upon the two sleepers and dragged and pushed and pommeled them out onto the platform of the car. The train was beginning to move, so their descent was none too dignified.
"Why in thunder didn't you wake us in time so I could have got a drink?" complained Frank.
Jerry said nothing; he felt too guilty to risk any answer. After they had cut across to the wagon road that led in the general direction of the river, he consoled his chum with: "Downer's farm is only about half a mile in, and we can get all the buttermilk we want there——" adding mischievously: "——on Wednesdays, when they churn."
Both Dave and Frank promised instant murder for that, so he had to admit that they would reach the best spring in Winthrop County within three minutes.
"Saved your hide by just twenty-nine seconds," declared Dave as he plunged his face into the bubbling surface of the clearest, coldest kind of a hillside spring.
Their gait was much livelier after that, and in less than ten minutes Plum Run was sighted, But they did not come out as close to Lost Island as Jerry had predicted. In fact, they were not certain in which direction it lay, for to the north lay a cluster of trees apparently surrounded by water, and which might well be the place they sought. To the south lay another green spot away from shore.
"It's north of here," declared both Dave and Frank, but Jerry exclaimed triumphantly, after the first tangle of argument:
"It must be south. If Lost Island was north the wagon bridge'd be between us and it."
So south they went; and as they drew nearer they saw that the patch of green was indeed Lost Island. Once they were within close sight of it, they went forward with all caution. The last hundred yards or so they made on hands and knees, finding cover in every clump of bushes or willows on the way.
But finally they were ready to break through the last fringe of willow and spy out the prospect. Jerry, who was ahead, waited for his two companions to catch up with him.
"Not a sound, now," he cautioned as they crouched beside him.
Stealthily they pushed aside the leaves that obscured their view. Suddenly, from behind them a yell, blood-curdling, absolutely hair- raising, rang out through the stillness. The three turned.
But it was too late. Breaking cover at the same instant, a half- dozen husky young chaps charged on the surprised trio.
"Up and at them, fellows!" came a roar. "They're part of the gang!"
THE FLYING EAGLE SCOUTS
For a minute or two it was hard for the three boys to understand just what had happened. They were pounced upon and hurled roughly to the ground, in spite of their violent struggles, and there they were pommeled unmercifully. They fought back, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. It was no adventure-story fight where the lone hero engages a dozen husky brutes and by superior science and strength lays his assailants out one by one.
Too bewildered to be really angry, the three found themselves pinned to the ground. Then they were able to take stock of their attackers. Six boys they were, of about the same size and age as Dave, Jerry and Frank, They were dressed in some odd sort of uniform, like brownish canvas. Just now their faces wore triumphant grins.
"Here comes Phil," remarked one of the three who were standing, coming over to sit on Jerry's legs, Jerry having seized a favorable opportunity to attempt escape.
"What's the idea?" inquired the newcomer, a tall but well-knit chap with a broad, sunburned face and a mop of black hair showing under the forward brim of his wide hat.
"We caught them trying to sneak up on us, so we fooled them and jumped on them instead. It's part of that Lost Island gang," volunteered Dave's captor.
"We're not either," exploded Dave.
"Shut up!" exclaimed the one astride his stomach. "Didn't we see you slinking along through the bushes?"
"Well, so were you. But we didn't try any wild Indian game on you just on that account."
"Good reason why. You didn't see us," crowed the one on top, giving Dave a vigorous poke in the ribs to emphasize the point.
That was too much for Dave. His usual good nature had been oozing out with every passing second. Now he gave a sudden twist, heaved, turned, heaved again, and in less time than it was told, was on his feet and presenting a pair of promising looking fists to the two others who had quickly come to their comrade's assistance.
"Hold on a minute," suggested the one they had called Phil. "Let's get the straight of this thing first and fight afterwards. You say you don't belong on the island?" he asked, turning to Dave.
"We certainly don't. We were trying to get onto it without being seen. That's why we were skulking along that way."
"Trying to get onto it? You haven't any boat."
"We could swim, couldn't we?"
"But what do you want to get onto the island for? Where are you from, anyhow?"
"None of your particular business," snapped Dave, but Jerry answered as well as he could with his shortness of breath—he too was "stomached" by a stout boy of his own size:
"Know anybody there by the name of Tod Fulton? He's a cousin of mine—why, what's the matter?" for the three boys had cried out in dismay.
"Why—why—he's the boy we're after. He's our chum," stammered Jerry at last.
"Then what you after him for—if he's your chum?"
"Well, he's—he's——" began Jerry, and Dave blurted out:
"What!" cried the whole crew at that. "Tod Fulton drowned!"
"We don't know for sure. That's why we're trying to get onto Lost Island."
Then the story came out, piecemeal, for all three insisted on telling it. Phil stood as if stunned. At the end he said simply:
"He's my cousin. I'm Phil Fulton. We live at Chester. That's about ten miles south of here. We're the Flying Eagle Patrol of Boy Scouts—maybe you noticed our suits."
"Thought you were some kind of bushwhackers the way you dropped on us," complained Frank. "But what was the idea in thumping us because you thought we were from the island?"
"We had good reasons enough," declared Phil. "We left town at midnight last night, hiked all the way to our boat-landing two miles up the river, and made the long pull up the Plum in the dark just for the sake of getting an early morning chance at the best bass rock you ever heard of—just to get chased out at the point of a shotgun after we'd landed the first one—a three pounder too. Can you blame us for being sore?"
"On Lost Island?" asked Jerry eagerly.
"No, off Lost Island. A big burly ruffian blew down on us, cussing a streak, and wouldn't hardly let us get into our boat. Chucked stones at us all the way across and promised us a mess of birdshot if we came back. Do you blame us for wanting to lay you out?" It was Dave's conqueror who spoke.
"If that's what you do on suspicion, I don't want to be around when you're sure of yourself. My ribs'll be sore for a week."
The boys had been talking excitedly; each one was wrought up over the fate of poor Tod and this was the only way they were willing to show their feelings. It was Phil who brought them back to earth.
"Well, fellows," he suggested, "let's get acquainted first, and then let's see if we can't frame up some way of getting across and going over that island from end to end. Line up, Scouts, and be presented."
The Scouts lined up in two columns.
"This is Sid Walmsly, nicknamed 'the worm,' partly because that's the way we pronounce his name, but mostly because it's a long worm that has no turn, and Sid says he's always the one to be left out. You can remember him by the wart on his left knuckle. Next is Dick Garrett; he's assistant Patrol Leader. This thin, long-drawn-out morsel of sweet temper is Fred Nelson. We tried to nickname him "Angel" but he licked everyone that tried it on him. Now comes our joker, we'd call him Trixie if we dared. His ma calls him Algy Brown. Frank Willis stands first in the behind row. He goes by the name of "Budge," chiefly because he won't unless he wants to. Barney Knowles, the littlest giant in the world—the one in the red sweater. He wears a sweater in July and shirt-sleeves in December. And last of all, but not least—far from it—Ted Lewis, the only grouchy fat man in captivity. Smile for us, Teddy." Teddy growled.
Jerry introduced himself and his two chums, and then turned anxiously to Phil. "Got any plan?"
"Why not just get into our boat and row over? We can tell that chump over there——"
"Thought you told us good Scouts were always respectful to our elders?" interrupted Ted, he of the "grouch."
"Respectful where respect is due," came the quick response. "We can tell the gentleman that we have sent the rest of the gang back for the sheriff——"
"And good Scouts never tell lies——" This from Ted again.
"Be still or I'll make it the truth by sending you back after him. We ought to make the try, anyway, because that makes our next move easier. If we can't get on the island in the open, we've got to use a little strategy. If we just could get our boat around to the other side of the island——"
"I've got it!" cried Dave. "Our boat's down the river. While the bunch of us keep up a demonstration along the shore here, two of us could slip down and get the boat and sneak in at the lower end."
"Good. We'd best waste no time about it because it's going to be coming on dark before we know it. Who's going along with me?"
"To the island? I'll go. The man knows me," agreed Jerry. "Where's your boat?"
The rest waited in the cover of the bushes while Phil and Jerry quietly made their way down the river bank to where the Scout boat was moored. They sprang in at once, Phil pushing off and hopping lightly to the oars. There was only one pair, but he sent the boat skimming across the ripples. No one was in sight on the island, and they were in hopes of making a landing unobserved, but just as their boat touched shore the willows parted and the man stepped out on the high bank.
"Back again?" he demanded gruffly.
"Oh, yes," replied Phil easily. "We came back to see if you'd let us look for a box of tackle one of the boys thinks he left down where we were fishing this morning."
"Oh! And you," said the man sarcastically, turning to Jerry. "I suppose you came to look for a lock of hair from your drowned friend's head?"
The man's tone was so unfeeling that Jerry simply gasped, but Phil boiled over at once.
"I'll have you know that that boy was my cousin. We have good reason for believing that he's on this island and we're going to search it!"
"Oh, indeed!" and Jerry could have sworn that there was a twinkle in the man's eye for all there was no mistaking the threat in his voice. "Well, I can promise you a full-sized spanking unless you make yourselves scarce in just about one half minute. This makes the third time I've had to chase you off—and third time's the charm, you know."
"But why don't you want us to look for our friend? Surely you've got nothing against him—or us."
"Not a thing. Not a thing, sonny. Only I live on this place, and I can't have a troop of youngsters tracking mud in at my front door. That friend of yours couldn't very well be on my island without my knowing it, could he?"
"But you've never said out and out that he wasn't on the island," asserted Jerry boldly. "And you've acted so suspicious that—that we wouldn't believe you now if you did say it."
The man laughed at that, for Jerry had started out by trying to be diplomatic, but his feelings got the better of him before the end.
"I'll be careful not to say it then. As for the tackle box—here it is." Jerry opened his eyes wide; he had thought the box a pure invention on the part of Phil. "Now back water and keep backing."
"You think you've got us beat," shouted Jerry at his retreating back. "Never you worry—I've told Mr. Fulton, and he and Mr. Aikens will be coming down here with a posse. They won't be asking your permission if they can investigate an island that doesn't belong to you any more than it does to me."
"It belongs to Mr. Fulton, I suppose?" challenged the man, and turning around for a last laugh. Neither boy answered.
"You tell your Mr. Fulton that I said he was welcome to come any time."
"Now what?" asked Jerry, as Phil turned the boat about and headed for the other shore.
"What next? Night, mostly. Then I think we'll show your Mr. Billings a few Scout tricks he doesn't know about."
"I didn't say his name was Billings——"
"I know—but I did. I've seen him before. That may be the reason he's so touchy about having us land on the island. The last time I saw him it was down at dad's office. Uncle Ed—that's Mr. Fulton, you know—was there, and when I opened the door on them suddenly, he and this Billings were having the hottest kind of an argument. Dad hustled me out of there in a hurry, but not before Uncle Ed'd called him Billings—and a lot of other things."
"You think then that Billings is still sore at Mr. Fulton, and that he's holding Tod there——"
"Nothing more likely. We'll know to-night. At least we'll know whether Tod is there—and I guess we'll make a good strong try at getting him loose."
"How can we do it? What's your plan?"
"Leave it to the Flying Eagle Scouts. I'm not bragging, but we're one live crew!"
A VOYAGE IN THE DARK
Still, it was some time after the return of Phil and Jerry from their unsuccessful sortie into the enemy's country, before a practical plan occurred to the ten-brain-power plotters. But the scheme, once its details had been worked out, struck them all as having a fair chance for success. Briefly, it was this:
Two of the boys—Jerry and Phil were again chosen—were to go down the river to the bridge and cross over and get the Big Four. They were to come back up the river as quietly as possible, hugging the opposite shore to a point about two hundred yards below the island, where the east bank spurred off into a fairly high hill. Here one of the boys was to leave the boat, as near nine o'clock as possible—it was now seven—and climb the hill, where he was to signal across to Dick Garrett, who would be watching directly opposite.
Then Jerry and Phil were to make all speed to Lost Island, landing at the lower end. The Boy Scouts, and Dave and Frank, were to gather as conspicuously as possible—a flaring camp fire would show their intentions—and pretend that they were about to embark for the island.
That ought to leave the lower end of the island unguarded for the safe landing of Jerry and Phil. Once they were ashore, the dense bushes and the darkness ought to be sufficient cover for their search.
Little time had been lost, really, in making the plan, for the Scouts had been bustling back and forth, building a camp fire and preparing supper. Four of them had set up the tents, finishing the task begun by all of them when Jerry and Phil set out on their first trip to the island.
It was not a very fancy meal the boys sat down to. The food was served on paper lunch plates, so there would be no dish-washing. Each Scout carried knife, fork, spoon and tincup. There was no extra "silverware" save the cook's big utensils. So the three outsiders ate with fingers and pocketknives. A nice mess of perch had been caught in a near-by creek, and Frank Willis, whose turn it was to act as chef, had browned them most artistically. There were some ash-baked potatoes, and a farmhouse close by had provided a generous supply of buttermilk.
The last of the meal was eaten by the light of the camp fire, for the sky had clouded over and night seemed to drop suddenly from above. Licking the last morsel of the delicious fish from his greasy finger-ends, and wiping his greasier mouth on his sleeve, Jerry jumped to his feet and announced:
"I'm ready, Phil, if you are."
"I've been ready for a quarter of an hour—just waiting for the skillet to be empty, because I knew you'd never stir so long as there was a crumb left. Where do you put it all?"
"I've got to stow away a lot to balance my brains. I notice you're a light eater," retorted Jerry, but Phil only chuckled.
"All right, you two—be on your merry way," put in Dick Garrett. "This is no picnic excursion you're starting off on. And don't forget your oars, unless you expect to row your boat with your wits."
The two made no reply; a half minute later there were only eight boys in camp.
Something like a quarter of a mile inland was the gravel road that followed the windings of Plum Run, to cut across at the wagon bridge. Two stealthy figures hurried through the woods and across the fields, to emerge on the other side of a barbed wire fence and trudge off down the dusty road.
"Some woodsman, you are!" snorted Phil in purposely exaggerated disgust. "When you skulked through the brush the limbs could be heard popping for a mile. How many times did you fall down?"
"Fall down? What you mean, fall down? Every time you stumbled over your shadow I thought you were ducking for cover, so I simply crouched to keep out of sight."
Phil snorted, and quickened his pace. Jerry put an extra few inches on his own stride and easily kept up. They passed a farmhouse—at good speed, for a dog came out and after a few suspicious sniffs proceeded to satisfy his appetite on Phil's leg. A loud ripping noise told that he at least kept a souvenir of the visit.
The dog's excited barking kept them company to the next farmhouse, which they passed as silently as possible, not particularly desiring to repeat the experience.
"It was your whistling back there that scared up that dog—see if you can whistle a patch onto my leggins," Phil suggested when they were once more surrounded by open fields.
Jerry did not answer, for just ahead of them the road forked and he was trying to remember which turn it was one took to get to the bridge. He had never gone this way, but he had once heard a farmer giving directions to a party of automobilists. However, Phil unhesitatingly took the branch that cut in toward the river, so he said nothing for some time.
"Ever been over this road before?" he ventured to ask when the road suddenly became so rough that they stumbled at every step.
"No—never been up this way. We always fish on the other side of the Plum."
"How do you know then that this is the right road?"
"It turned in toward the river, didn't it? And the other road angled off toward Tarryville."
"But the bridge road is graveled all the way, and if this isn't blue clay I'll eat my hat. It might just be a private road to some farm, and the other road might have swung around after a bit. This muck- hole doesn't look good to me."
"All the same, through those trees yonder I can see water. It's the old Plum all right. Shake a leg."
"I think we'll gain time by shaking two legs—back to the fork. That's the Plum, all right enough, but you'll walk through marsh all the way to the bridge if you try to follow the bank. I remember now: this is the old wood road. It hasn't been used since they cut timber on the Jameson tract."
Jerry did not wait to finish his argument but had already gone back a good fifty feet of the way to the other road, when he noticed that Phil was not following him.
"What's the matter, Phil?"
"Don't you think we've wasted enough time, without losing some more by going back?"
"We'll lose more by going ahead. And we're losing now by standing still chewing the rag about it. Come on."
"I'm going ahead. You followed my lead this far; I guess it won't hurt you to follow it a little farther. I'm Patrol Leader, you know."
Jerry sensed a little resentment in Phil's tone, and remembered that once or twice he had spoken to the Scout leader just as he did to his chums—and his chums always looked to him for commands.
"I'm not trying to boss you, Phil, don't think that. But I know that the other way is the best way, and I've got to follow it. So you go ahead, and I'll wait for you at this end of the bridge."
Without further word he strode off on the back road. It was so dark that he might have done so safely, but he did not look back. Nevertheless, a pleased grin spread over his face, for he was soon aware that Phil was tagging along not many paces behind. That had always been the way. Jerry was a born leader; the other boys followed him willingly because they never found any cause to lose confidence in his judgment.
"Phil, you're a genuine sport," was all he said as the other boy fell into step beside him as once more they reached the gravel roadway and turned into the right-hand branch.
Sooner than they expected they saw the gaunt skeleton of the upper bridgework against the dark sky. Jerry did not permit himself an "I told you so," but he said instead:
"We'll be in a pretty pickle if we get on the other side and find our boat gone."
Phil made no answer and in silence they walked across the hollow- echoing bridge. A series of giant stone steps led down to the river bank, and as soon as they reached bottom they saw that their fears were groundless, for there lay the Big Four as Jerry and Dave had left her eighteen hours before. Deep footprints in the mud bank, dimly visible in the dusk, told that someone had stopped to look the boat over. Perhaps had the oars been handy, the boat might not have remained so safely.
The boys were glad to relieve their shoulders of the pair they had taken turns in carrying, and without pausing to rest, they stepped into the boat, Phil finding some difficulty in making the Scout boat's oars fit the Big Four's oarlocks. But at last they were off and Jerry bent to his task. The Big Four had been built for speed, and the craft was trimmed just right for getting the most with the least effort. The current was fairly swift here, but Jerry hugged the east bank and took advantage of every eddy. It was not long before Lost Island swung into sight.
"Let me spell you off," suggested Phil, but Jerry shook his head.
"After we land at the hill you can take her the rest of the way. I think I'll pull in at that little cove just ahead. It makes a little longer walk, but it's well out of sight of the island. Who'll climb the hill!"
"Leave that to me. I kind of want to try out a little signaling stunt that Dick and I have been figuring on. Here's a good sandy stretch; let's beach her here."
The boat grated on the pebbly shore; Phil sprang lightly out, and Jerry was left alone. He could hear Phil scrunching over the rocks and through the brush; then all was still. Jerry strained his eyes to see if he could make out the figure of Dick, who must be almost directly opposite, but only the dense black of the wood met his gaze. He waited patiently for the gleam of the flashlight, but minute after minute slipped by, and no signal appeared.
So he was somewhat surprised when after perhaps fifteen minutes he heard a footstep on the beach and he realized that Phil was returning.