THE BOY SCOUTS WITH THE MOTION PICTURE PLAYERS By Robert Shaler
CHAPTERS I. The Haunted Make-Believe "Castle" II. Creating a Panic III. Taking Possession IV. Scouting at Midnight V. A Startling Surprise VI. Guests at the Camp Fire VII. Faced by a Mystery VIII. As in the Days of Chivalry IX. With the Motion-Picture People X. The Assault on the "Castle" XI. Imitation and Reality XII. When Swords Clashed XIII. Well Done, Scouts! XIV. Oakvale Gets a Thrill
THE HAUNTED MAKE-BELIEVE "CASTLE."
It was about the middle of a fall afternoon, and Friday at that, when five well-grown lads, clad in faded khaki suits that proclaimed them to be Boy Scouts, dropped down upon a moss covered log near a cold spring at which they had just quenched their thirst.
The one who acted as leader, and to whom the others often deferred, answered to the name of Hugh. He was, indeed, Hugh Hardin, assistant scout master; and the others were also full-fledged members of the Oakvale Boy Scout Troop of which so much has been written and told.
Those fortunate readers who are familiar with previous volumes in this series need no introduction to these lively lads.
For the benefit of others who have not up to this time made their acquaintance, it may be said that the boy next to Hugh was Alec Sands; the stout, rosy-cheeked fellow with the beaming face, Billy Worth; the slender one, Arthur Cameron; and the uneasy chap "Monkey" Stallings, so nicknamed on account of his pet hobby for hanging by his toes from the cross-pieces of telegraph poles, or the lofty limbs of forest trees.
It might also be noted further that Hugh was known as a fine all-round scout; Arthur's leading specialty lay in the line of amateur surgery, at which he was wonderfully proficient; Alec gave the leader a pretty good race in nearly every line of scout activity, while Billy,—-well, to be frank, Billy's strong points might be set down as an everlasting fund of cheery good-nature, and a remarkable capacity for stowing away "grub."
Apparently the boys were out on some sort of fall hike. Each had burdened himself not only with a pack but a blanket as well, the latter secured, after the usual military habit, across one shoulder.
Each fellow also depended on a stout staff that, in a way, answered for an Alpine stock, should they have to climb any hills. Besides, it was handy as a weapon of defense in case they were attacked by a vicious dog.
"Well, the time limit you set has come, Alec," Hugh was saying after they had stretched themselves along the convenient log.
"Yes," burst out Billy, eagerly, "you promised to tell us all what you confided to Hugh before he agreed to get up this little weekend hike. I'm burning with curiosity to know what's in the wind."
"We've taken a leap in the dark, you see," added Arthur, "because when Hugh said it would be well worth our while we just trusted him. Now, open up, Alec, and relieve our suspense. You said the next time we stopped you'd begin to explain all this dark mystery."
"Me, too," exclaimed the Stallings boy, who was always turning his restless eyes upward, as though seeking some enticing branch where he could exercise his favorite antics.
Alec Sands laughed softly.
"I'm ready to tell my little story, boys," he remarked. "It isn't such a wonderful one, after all, but Hugh agreed with me that it might give some of us an excuse for coming up this way. And my aunt had supplied all the necessary funds covering our railroad fare from Oakvale to the little station where we jumped off the local train—-Scarsdale."
"Which aunt, Alec?" demanded Billy, whom it was always difficult to suppress.
"Oh! none of you ever met this relative of mine, I guess," considered Alec. "Aunt Susan is a very rich woman, and what you might call eccentric if you wanted to be particularly nice, and not use a harsher word. In fact, her nerves have gone back on her, and every little noise about sets her wild. She has taken a notion that the only salvation for her is to find some sort of a quiet country home in which her servants can glide around in felt slippers, with never a rooster's crow to disturb the dead silence."
"Whew! you must mean she's a regular crank, Alec—-excuse me for saying it!" exclaimed Billy, wiping his heated brow, for when others were shivering the fat boy perspired.
"Well, forget that part of it," resumed Alec, making a wry face. "Aunt Susan is peculiar, and immensely wealthy, so that money needn't stand in the way of her doing anything she fancies. In some way or other it seems she heard about a queer place away up here in the woods. It is known as Randall's Folly!"
"Why, seems to me I've heard something about that place!" burst out Arthur Cameron, in a surprised tone. "Isn't it a modern castle built by a man years ago and meant to look like some British place in the days of Queen Elizabeth?"
"Just what it is, Arthur," chuckled Alec, as though highly amused.
"Let's see," pursued the other, uneasily, "there was some sort of story told in connection with the castle—-strikes me folks said it was haunted, or something like that."
"Whew! and are we heading for that beautiful spot as fast as we can hike along?" demanded Billy, his eyes round with wonder, perhaps uneasiness.
"My aunt wrote to my mother that she wanted some one to come up here and investigate, so she could have a full description before going any further into the deal for the property. Not that Aunt Susan bothered a bit about the ghost part of it, but she wanted to know whether the building was a ramshackle affair, or part-way decent. In fact, she asked for photographs of the place inside and out, and even requested that, if I could be induced to take the trip, along with some of those wonderfully bright chums of mine of whom she had been hearing such great stories, I was to buy the best camera that fifty dollars could command, and use the balance of the hundred for other expenses. So here we are close to Randall's Folly, with Saturday ahead of us for business, and meaning to go back home Sunday afternoon."
"Which lovely programme must include two nights spent under the roof of a haunted house!" gasped Billy, still wiping his streaming forehead, though he really should have been cooled off by this time.
"For my part," spoke up Arthur Cameron, "nothing would please me better than the chance to say I'd run across a real ghost. I've been reading lots of creepy stories connected with spooks, but they never could get me to believe in such silly things."
"Same here," added the Stallings boy, though his voice sounded a trifle unsteady as Hugh could not help noticing.
"As for me," the scout master remarked, "I considered it a fine chance for a little excitement. I, too, had heard some stories about this gloomy make-believe castle that had been built in the lonely woods by old Judge Randall when he married a young wife, and wanted to carry her away from the rest of the world. They say it's getting to be an interesting ruin by now, though perhaps Alec's aunt might choose to patch the crumbling walls up, if other things suited her."
"Huh! takes all sorts of freaks to make this world," grunted Billy. "The idea of anybody actually wanting to bury themselves away up here, and never see a thing in the way of circus, baseball, winter hockey, Boy Scout rivalries and other good happenings. The old Judge must have been crazy."
"Well, lots of people suspected it when he started to build this castle," said Alec, drily. "They felt dead sure after it happened; for hold your breath now, fellows, because to be honest with you there was a terrible tragedy, and after the poor young wife was buried the judge lived as much as ten years in an asylum. He had become a maniac, you see, from jealousy of his beautiful wife."
"I suppose it's all right, since there are four other fellows along," Billy finally went on to say, "but honest Injun, if I had known all this at the start, I don't believe I would have been so anxious to come. I expect that old toothache of mine would have cropped up and kept me home."
"The walking is good down to the station, Billy," murmured Alec, "and we were told that a freight-train would come along around dark this evening, bound south, which was due to stop at the water-tank"
"That'll be enough for you, Alec," continued the fat boy, with a certain amount of dignity. "You never knew me to show the white feather, and back down, once I put my shoulder to the wheel. If the rest can stand it I ought to be able to do so."
"Good for you, Billy," cried Hugh. "Alec here ought to make you an apology. But since we've rested up, and there's still half a mile to tramp, with the afternoon wearing on, suppose we make a fresh start."
Soon they were trailing along the dimly seen road, which evidently was not used to any great extent by the few scattered farmers in that vicinity. Most of the talk was in connection with the weird mansion toward which they were heading. Alec was coaxed to relate a number of other facts he had managed to pick up regarding its romantic history.
"Look out for signs of a high wall on the left, boys," he finally told them. "It may be almost hidden by vines and scrub trees by now, I was warned. It surrounds the whole place, though here and there it may be broken down. Few people after dark want to pass this place except in a hurry, and although it's only a mile and a half from the railroad, I don't believe tramps ever think of coming here. You see, most of them know the stories told about Randall's Folly, and they steer clear of the place."
A short time afterwards Hugh's keen eyes made a discovery.
"I think the wall you mentioned lies over yonder where all that wild tangle can be seen," he remarked, whereupon there was a hurried movement in that direction, followed by various exclamations to the effect that the scout master's announcement was indeed true.
"Seems as if the castle must be perched on a high piece of ground, commanding a pretty good view of the country around," observed Arthur, as they sought for a broken place in the crumbling wall so as to gain an entrance to the grounds beyond.
"The story goes that Judge Randall built it that way so he could keep watch, and know if any of his wife's former suitors were heading this way," Alec explained.
"Why, he must have been a regular old Bluebeard!" gurgled Billy.
"He was demented on that one subject," confessed Alec, "and the disease kept getting a stronger grip on him until finally—-but hello! here's the hole in the wall we wanted to find, so let's crawl over the broken-down stones and enter."
"Hold on," snapped Hugh just then, "I thought you said, Alec, no one was bold enough to trespass here! If you look down to where I point you'll see part of a footprint in mud, showing that a man must have come across this broken wall not half an hour or so ago!"
CREATING A PANIC
When Hugh gave utterance to this really startling announcement, he naturally lowered, his voice. The others came crowding up, and stared at the tell-tale mark. As their scout education had long since passed far beyond the novice range they had no difficulty in seeing that Hugh had stated the truth.
"A whopping big foot made that mark," whispered Billy.
"And see there," added Alec, hastily, also in a low tone, "here's a second one not so big. Two fellows crossed this hole in the wall, and only a short time ago, because the mud is as fresh as it can be."
That caused the scouts to exchange significant looks.
"Anyhow," Billy was heard to whisper to himself, "whoever made those footprints was a live human being, and no spook, that's sure."
The thought evidently did much to relieve his mind, Hugh realized. Alec meanwhile was shaking his head as though not only puzzled but annoyed.
"What do you make of it, Hugh?" he asked, like most of the fellows turning to the scout master when there was a difficult problem to be solved.
"Oh! there might be several explanations," replied the other with a reassuring smile. "First of all, these fellows may be a couple of curious countrymen wanting to take a look around while the sun is still up, being afraid to come here after night sets in."
"Yes, go on, Hugh; what next?"
"Then it might be they are men who have heard about the deserted castle, and wonder if they could pick up anything worth carrying off if they forced an entrance. But there's still another answer to your question, Alec."
"I can guess what you mean, Hugh. My aunt, it may be, isn't the only person with money to burn who's taken a notion to buy Randall's Folly. Is that what you've got on the tip of your tongue, Hugh?"
"Just what I meant to say," he was told. "But no matter, if we find there's a rival in the field, perhaps we might scare him off in some way. That wouldn't be such a hard thing to do, when you've got a haunted house to work with."
"Oh! with my trick of throwing my voice, Hugh," spoke up Monkey Stallings, "I bet you I could play the ghost racket to beat the band. Just give me a try-out and see what I can do, Hugh."
"Well, first of all," remarked the scout master, "we had better climb over the break in the wall here, and find the trail of these two unknown men. After all it may turn out they are simple country jakes wanting to take a peep at the mansion they've heard so many queer stories about."
Accordingly the five scouts hastened to clamber across the gap, a feat requiring little dexterity; though clumsy Billy had to catch his toe among the stones, and come near pitching headlong down, were it not for Hugh quickly throwing out his ready arm.
It required little effort to find the tracks beyond the mass of fallen stones; a mere tyro of a scout could have succeeded in following such a plain trail, and at that hardly half test his ability along that line.
Bending partly over, the boys kept diligently at work pursuing the zigzag line of footprints. Evidently the men had picked out the easiest way to advance. They must have either known where they were going, or else followed a former path that was not overgrown, and partly concealed with rank vegetation.
"Look! there's a glimpse of the castle!" whispered Alec, suddenly.
Through the openings in the copse beyond they could see the gray walls rising up ahead. It was an impressive spectacle. The westering sun shone on the tower that had been made to look like some old-time type English masonry, famous in history, with its portcullis, drawbridge, and surrounding watery ditch known as a "moat."
After silently inspecting the side of the old building thus presented to their gaze for a minute or so, the boys began to show their former restlessness.
"The trail keeps right on, Hugh!" whispered Alec, which was as much as saying that he could see no reason for further delay.
"Listen!" cautioned Arthur.
"Oh! what did you think you heard?" asked Billy, with a gasp.
"It must have been voices somewhere ahead of us," came the answer. "The men are talking it over, most likely."
"Debating whether they've got the nerve to go a step further and enter the haunted castle," chuckled Alec. "Let's move on, and get a squint at the bold trespassers, Hugh."
Accordingly once more the whole party started to move ahead, foot by foot. All the woodcraft they had managed to pick up in previous exploits was brought into play as they crept along softly.
"Stop!" Hugh gave the low order, finally.
"I see them, Hugh," announced Alec, eagerly.
"Show me where," begged Billy, pushing himself forward.
A few seconds later Arthur was heard to say disdainfully:
"Why, it looks to me as if they might be only a pair of Weary Willies, who had wandered up here from tramping the railroad ties. They must have heard about a fine house lying idle here, and have come to camp out for a spell. You can see they've got a chicken dangling by the neck, and some old tomato cans they mean to make coffee in. Whew! but they are a tough looking pair, I tell you."
Alec looked, and sniffed disdainfully.
"Here's where we're up against it good and hard, fellows," he remarked, softly. "The question is, do we want to stand for that couple of greasy hoboes keeping us company while we camp out here in the deserted castle? Everybody say his mind, and majority rules, you know."
"Excuse me, if you please," muttered Arthur, with a shudder. "I'd sooner sleep in a pigpen than alongside such human animals as those unclean hoboes."
"Why," remarked Billy, aghast at the thought, "they might rob us of our blankets; or worse, of our precious grub, which would be what I'd call a calamity without equal."
"We've just got to bounce them, that's plain," said Monkey Stallings. "Hugh, you remember what you the same as promised me?"
"Oh! if you think you can start something that will rid us of the pair," the scout master told him, "go to it right away. If you want us to help, say the word, Monkey."
Already the other was feverishly attacking his pack, which he had tossed upon the ground. He soon found what he was looking for, to judge from the satisfied exclamation that passed his lips.
"Tell us what you've got there, Monkey," urged Alec.
"Yes, that's do," added Billy, anxiously, "because we want to be on our guard. If it throws a scare into those tramps it might work just as bad with some other fellows I know, unless they were warned beforehand. Show your hand, Monkey, please."
"Oh! shucks! it's only a sort of wild-goose call I tried to make from directions I read in a little book," confessed the ingenious one. "It don't seem to imitate a wild honker much, but say, I c'n make the most unearthly sounds come out of this hollow bone you ever listened to. Why, it nigh about freezes my own blood when I try the call in the pitch dark. Now watch and see what happens."
"Be careful, Monkey," warned Hugh, as the other prepared to creep away. "Don't let them glimpse you at any time, or there may be serious trouble. They look like an ugly couple of customers. I suppose you mean to try and get around on the other side of them?"
"Sure thing," replied the originator of the scheme, "and if I were you, Hugh, I'd make out to hide your bunch, because, believe me, that pair will come whooping along this way like mad pretty soon."
"Which is what we'll do right away, Monkey, never fear," Hugh told him.
Accordingly the four scouts disposed themselves in such fashion that while they would be hidden from view they could at the same time watch whatever took place, and enjoy the fun, if, by good luck, the scheme arranged for the entertainment of the bold hoboes, turned out successful.
The two ragged wanderers were sitting on the stones bordering the ditch or "moat" that surrounded the make-believe ancient castle. They evidently debated as to the advisability of forcing an entrance to the wonderful mansion, and taking up temporary or permanent quarters there. Perhaps the idea of spending the coming winter under so magnificent a roof, with frequent excursions around the countryside in search of necessary supplies, engrossed their attention.
Some little time passed away. The four boys began to show signs of impatience, believing that Monkey Stallings must surely by now have gained the place he had in mind when he left them.
"There, I saw him wave his hand to us from that slit in the stone wall of the tower!" hissed Alec, presently. "He's managed to find a way to get inside after all, and now the fun's going to begin."
"It's time, too," added Arthur, "because the hoboes have made up their minds to try and break into the house. See, that big chump has picked up a heavy rock, and he acts as if he meant to hurl the same against those stout oaken doors."
Indeed, that was just what happened. The collision, however, only resulted in a loud bang, for it would take many hundreds of like blows to do those stout doors any serious damage. The smaller tramp shook his head dubiously.
"Now they are talking it over again," whispered Alec. "The short one is pointing as if he believes they can find a much easier way to get inside than trying to smash the door down. Hey! Monkey, better get busy or you'll find the pair treading close on your heels."
Hardly had Alec spoken that last low word than a thrilling sound came floating to the ears of the four listening scouts. None of them could ever describe what it was like; indeed, it seemed to possess a character all its own, and somehow caused the "goose-flesh" to creep over their bodies, even though they knew the origin of the uncanny cry.
The two tramps had jumped back at the first outburst. They seemed to be staring wildly toward the "donjon tower," as Alec persisted in calling the round structure at one end of the imitation castle. Louder and louder grew the racket. Billy laid a trembling hand on Hugh's arm as though seeking comfort from personal contact with the scout master.
Presently the pair of hoboes appeared to have reached the limit of their endurance. One snatched the dead fowl that had possibly been stolen from some farmyard on their way up from the railroad; while the other hastily gathered the rest of their primitive possessions in his trembling hands.
Then, as another fearful burst of strange cries broke forth from the haunted castle, the two men started wildly on the run. Faster and faster grew their pace as Monkey blew more furiously on his home-made "goose-call" with telling effect. As they passed the spot where Hugh and the other three scouts were lying in concealment, the alarmed pair could be heard giving vent to excited remarks, and some strong language as well, though neither of them seemed to possess the nerve to turn his head and look back so as to find out if they were being pursued.
So they went out of sight along the crooked trail they had made in approaching the deserted mansion; though for several minutes afterwards the sound of frequent collisions with trees, and stumbles over hidden vines proclaimed that their panic showed no signs of abating.
"Don't all laugh at once," cautioned the scout master, knowing that an outburst was imminent.
Understanding what was meant, the boys threw themselves down upon the ground and gave way to merriment that was none the less overpowering because it had to be indulged in "with the soft pedal on," as Arthur artfully expressed it.
While they, were still enjoying themselves in this fashion, Monkey Stallings joined them. He had a huge grin on his rather odd-looking, face, showing that he felt fully satisfied with his recent fine work.
"Say, did I do the thing up in good style, boys?" he demanded.
"I should say you did, Monkey!" burst out Billy. "Makes me think of one of Aesop's fables I used to read ever so long ago, about the lion and the donkey out hunting together."
"Suppose you tell us about it then," suggested Arthur, a little wickedly, for he had, in truth, a pretty fair idea concerning its nature.
"Why," proceeded Billy, hastily, "it seems they discovered a flock of goats in a cave, and the donkey suggested that he disguise himself with an old lion skin they found, and go in to scare the goats out, when the lion standing by the exit could kill the game. When he had hee-hawed and kicked up such a rumpus that the poor goats dashed out, to meet their fate at the exit, the donkey finally came along and proudly asked the lion what he thought of his antics. 'Splendid,' said the lion, or something like that, and I guess you'd have frightened me, too, if I hadn't known you were only a donkey!"
Monkey Stallings hardly knew whether that, was intended for a compliment or not, but he laughed because the others did.
"All the same I had the longest pole that knocked down the persimmons," he asserted. "I gave that bunch the biggest scare of their lives. The way is clear for us now, and, thank goodness, we won't have to sleep under the same roof with that greasy pair of rascals, and, after all; that was the end in view."
"Monkey," said Arthur, "you've put us all under heavy obligations by what you did, and for one I'm not going to forget it, or twit you about the funny noises you manage to coax out of that bone goose-call you made. The end justifies the means, is what I say every time. Now, what's next on the programme, Hugh?"
"Well, since we've met the enemy and won the fight," laughed the other, "I should say our best move would be to occupy the abandoned works. Monkey can lead us to where he managed to get into the castle."
"As easy as falling off a log," asserted the other, proudly, as became the principal actor in the late little "unpleasantness."
"Besides," added Alec, impatiently, "we want to take a few pictures inside and out of the old shebang while the sun still hangs high."
"What's the hurry?" asked Billy, who liked to put off things to a more convenient season whenever he could find half of an excuse; "plenty of time to do all that to-morrow, I should think."
"'Strike while the iron is hot,' has always been my motto," asserted Alec, when, in truth, it was mostly his impatience that hastened his actions. "How do we know what sort of a day to-morrow may turn out to be? Suppose a storm came along, how could I get a good picture of the castle to send my aunt so as to pay for the elegant camera she gave me?"
"Guess you're right there, Alec," admitted Billy, always ready to own up when he felt that the argument was going against him. "Besides, it needs plenty of light to get views inside the house, when the windows are as small and measly as they seem to be here."
"Oh! as for that," declared the other, airily, "leave it to me. I've been smart enough to fetch along an entire outfit for taking flashlight pictures; so you see we can get all we want after night comes."
"You've certainly got a level head on your shoulders, Alec," ventured Arthur, giving the other a slap on the back that was intended for commendation, though it made the recipient jump, for he had not been expecting anything of the sort, and possibly there was that about the air of that haunted mansion which caused all of them to be a bit more nervous than usual.
Monkey Stallings led them around to one side of the rambling building. As they went, they were loud in their expressions of amazement and even delight, for really, it was an impressive sight to the eyes of American lads not accustomed to crumbling ruins of old-time castles, where doughty knights of the Middle Ages may have fought in tournament with lance and sword.
"Wait up a bit, please, fellows!" suddenly exclaimed Alec. "I couldn't find a better view of the castle than right here, with that sun blazing along the walls, the turrets and that magnificent donjon tower. I want every one of you to be in the picture at that, so place yourselves as I tell you."
Alec was something of a photographer, and had many good views in a book at home. He fully expected to do wonderful things with this expensive outfit, since the lens alone cost three times as much as his other camera complete.
When he had snapped off several views he declared himself satisfied.
"In the morning, if the weather holds good," he remarked as he gave them the "high sign" that he was through, and that they need not pose any longer, "I mean to pick up a couple of views from the other side. The morning sun will allow me to do that, you understand. And now, Monkey, where did you climb inside?"
They were soon able to gain the interior after the same manner in which the pilot of the exploring expedition had accomplished it. Monkey's sharp eyes had discovered a small opening that might be called a slit in the solid wall, after the fashion of those to be seen in the dwellings of Moors and Arabs and Turks. It was easy enough for each boy in turn to squeeze himself through that slender gap, though once there arose a serious doubt in Billy's mind as to whether he would not stick fast, and have to be pushed through with a rammer, much to his bodily discomfort.
Two fellows behind assisted his progress, while the others in advance gave him a helping hand, so that finally Billy gained his end, though he could long afterwards be seen ruefully rubbing his elbows and hips as though they had been scraped in the passage.
After that they left their packs in one of the lower apartments, while they roamed all through the wonderful interior. Apparently money had not been spared in the erection of an imitation castle, though Hugh found, in some places where what was supposed to be solid rock, proved to be only wood, skillfully painted to resemble the more lasting material.
"Whew! it has about forty rooms all told, I should say," observed the steaming Billy after they had wearied of wandering about the strange place, and came back to the apartment where their blankets and packs had been deposited.
"Wonder how Aunt Susan will like the blooming old shack?" Alec was heard to say as though some doubt had already commenced to enter his mind.
"You, said, she wanted it quiet, you know, Alec," observed Hugh. "I defy any one to find a place that fills that bill better than this one. Why, not even the peep of a bird can be heard; it's just a brooding silence that would get on the nerves of most people and make them shout out loud."
"Let's hope it stays that way while we're up here," said Billy, and then noticing that some of the other fellows were smiling broadly he hastened to add: "Oh! it isn't that I really expect anything like a ghost to walk when it comes midnight, you understand, but I don't always sleep as sound as I would like, and I hate to have anything screechy wake me up. So, Monkey, please keep that goose-call of yours in your pocket the rest of the time."
"Perhaps, we had better get ourselves comfortably fixed before night finds us," suggested Hugh. "We can make a blaze in that fireplace and cook supper here as nice as any one would want. It's going to turn out a novel experience for the lot of us."
"You bet it, will," asserted Monkey Stallings stoutly. "I always did think I'd like to spend just one night in a house they said was haunted. To tell you the honest-truth I'm real glad you asked me to come along, Alec, even if there does seem to be a queer feeling running up and down my backbone. I never knew the like before save that time I was dared to walk through the graveyard at midnight, and some fellows tried to scare me with their old sheets. Huh! I had made sure to carry Tige, my bulldog, hid under my coat, and I just let him loose. It makes me sick with laughing even now when I remember how those sillies tore off, with that pup snapping at their legs."
"I'm glad to notice," said Billy, just then, "that we can fasten both doors to this lower room, if we feel like it. You see, they've got bolts that can be shot into the sockets."
"Shucks!" mocked Alec, disdainfully. "What good are locks and bars and bolts when they say a ghost can ooze itself in through a keyhole even? But then don't get an idea in your head, Billy, we're going to be bothered by anything except rats. That's the only kind of spooks you'll find in such a place as this. And after we've had our supper I hope you'll all accompany me while I take some views of the interior, because several of the rooms are going to make dandy pictures."
So supper was cooked after their customary camp style, only in this instance, while the scouts had a roof overhead, and stout stone walls surrounding them, they missed the whispering of the treetops, as well as the star-studded sky.
Afterwards they gladly helped the aspiring photographer while he made good use of his flashlight apparatus. Alec chose certain apartments in which he fancied his wealthy and eccentric aunt would be most interested. He also declared himself satisfied in the end that he had succeeded in getting some views that ought to turn out "gilt-edged."
The mansion was unfurnished, so that they had no chance of finding sleeping quarters or beds of any kind above. Whoever now owned the place had removed all such articles long since, possibly to prevent tramps from finding an inducement to lodge in the deserted and lonely, castle.
However, this was nothing serious to fellows who had camped many a time among the rocks, where they were even debarred from having hemlock browse for a soft mattress.
"We'll try the floor to-night, boys," said Hugh, as he started to spread his blanket out in regulation style. "If it proves to be too hard for us, perhaps we can put in the second night outdoors somewhere. That will depend on the weather, for we have no tent to keep the rain or snow off, you remember."
The others hastened to copy his example, for they were all fairly sleepy. Billy told himself that he would very likely lie awake all nightlong, because he felt sure something strange was bound to happen to them. He was shrewd enough to arrange his blanket bed directly in the middle, so that he had a pair of chums on either side of him. If the others noticed this sign of weakness they kindly overlooked it. Perhaps, to tell the truth about it, Monkey Stallings and Arthur Cameron were themselves not entirely free from uneasiness, and deep down in their hearts wished the night well over with.
Hugh happened to awaken some time afterwards, and as the flames lazily lighted up the big room occasionally, he lay there watching them play upon the wall. So he allowed himself to figure what strange scenes these same rooms must have witnessed in those bygone days when the old judge and his young prisoner wife occupied the monstrosity of an imitation feudal castle.
When Hugh was about to turn over and compose himself to sleep, he heard a peculiar sound that caused his heart to beat much more rapidly than its wont. He suddenly sat up and listened again.
SCOUTING AT MIDNIGHT
It was certainly a queer sound that floated to the strained hearing of the boy as he crouched there on the floor of the room amidst the folds of his blanket and listened with might and main.
There followed a brief period of silence and then he felt a thrill, for it came again, a peculiar whimpering that would have given Billy a spasm of fright had he been awake to catch it, instead of calmly sleeping close by.
"What in the mischief can it be?" whispered Hugh to himself as he allowed his hand to grope around for something he wanted, and which he remembered placing conveniently by at the time he prepared his crude bed.
The fire had died down again so that the big apartment on the main floor was almost wrapped in darkness. Still, when tiny tongues of flame played at hide-and-seek about the charred log, they caused all sorts of odd shadows to run athwart the walls.
Hugh gave a grunt of satisfaction when his fingers closed upon the object he sought. It was only about the size of two fingers, and nickel-plated at that. In fact, Hugh had made himself a trifling-present lately of a small vestpocket edition of a flashlight, controlled by a battery, and had thought it worth while to carry it along with him on this expedition, though not saying anything about it to the others, thus far.
"I'm bound to find out what makes that noise, as sure as anything can be," was what the boy was telling himself resolutely, even while he crept out from among the folds of the warm blanket endeared to him by reason of many associations of the past, of which so much has been written in previous volumes.
That was just like Hugh Hardin. A good many boys would possibly have concluded that going wandering about a great imitation castle like Randall's Folly, after midnight, trying to discover the origin of strange sounds, was no business of theirs, and would have cuddled down closer, even drawing their blanket over their heads in order that they might not hear a repetition of the noise.
Hugh was built on a different order. He knew full well that sleep with him was entirely out of the question so long as that chilling whimpering and rustling continued at regular intervals.
Now Hugh was only a boy, it must be remembered, and many a strong man would have declined committing himself in the way the scout master intended doing.
He had listened to all the talk about ghosts carried on by the other fellows, with more or less interest and amusement, for Hugh refused to believe in spook manifestations. At the same time he admitted that his heart was fluttering at a much more rapid gait than customary when he started toward one of the doors of the room, using the little electric torch to light his way.
If any one could have read the thoughts that were surging through the boy's excited mind, they would perhaps have been found to range about in this manner:
"Ghosts, eh? Well, I've always said there never existed any, and perhaps I'll have a chance right now to prove it, one way or the other. A queer kind of a hobgoblin that must be to keep whimpering like a baby, and then fluttering to beat the band. But what in the wide world can it all mean? That's what I reckon on finding out, given half a chance."
He had reached the door by that time. Billy had seen to it that the bolt was shot into its socket before he lay down. More than that, he had even gone to the trouble to fill the keyhole full of crumpled paper, remembering that jibe on the part of one of his chums to the effect that spirits can "ooze like smoke" through even such small apertures.
Hugh had been wise enough to pick up a handy club before starting forth upon his mission of investigation. He did not anticipate finding a chance to make use of it, but when a man insures his house against fire he really does not expect it to be burned down. Hugh wanted to be on the safe side, that was all.
Just at that point the boy, was influenced to turn around and cast the light of his torch upon the forms of his four comrades swathed in their coverings. Not one of them moved, even in the slightest degree, so that, if Hugh was half contemplating inviting company, he found no encouragement there.
Gritting his teeth, the boy calmly drew back the bolt, softly opened the massive door, slipped boldly through the aperture, and then as deftly closed the door behind him.
Standing there in the great hall he listened intently, meanwhile keeping his light turning this way and that in order to see if anything moved. Perhaps, in the days when Judge Randall lived in his romantic castle, this massive hall had been decorated after the usual custom of feudal times. Hugh could easily imagine shining suits of armor standing grimly in, the corners, like sentries on guard. He had detected marks on the walls betraying the fact that at some time they had borne all manner of relics of long-past age of chivalry, so that the illusion might be complete. But now they stood there bare and cold, and a chilly draught came down from the empty regions above that made the boy shiver.
Then he heard the strange sounds again. They were clearer now than before.
"One thing certain," muttered Hugh, between his set teeth, "whatever makes that noise it comes from up above. And the thing for me to do is to climb the stairs; so here goes."
If he felt any hesitation he did not show it as he made his way to the foot of the broad stairway and commenced mounting, step after step. Always the sounds seemed to grow a little clearer, and this fact told Hugh his scout instinct must be truly leading him directly toward the place from which they issued.
He had reached the second floor, and was pushing steadily onward. Several times he stopped short to listen, nor would he make a move at such intervals unless he had received his clue again. Not once did he manifest any weakness in the line of shrugging his shoulders, and saying that it was none of his business if the night air played pranks by forcing its way through some hole in the wall, with a whine and a gurgle.
When Hugh once set himself a task it was his nature to carry the thing through to the end. He would despise himself if he allowed any weak fear to triumph over his common-sense.
A brief time later he found himself standing near where he knew one of the several turrets stood. He remembered now that while they had investigated more or less of the big building, they were forced to skip several portions, leaving them for the next morning's survey; and doubtless this turret chamber must have been in the list of those unexplored places.
"Whatever it may be," Hugh was telling himself, "the thing making all that noise is in there! I'll listen once more, and then take a peek."
When he again heard the gurgling, the fluttering, and the strange whimpering Hugh had his hand on the door knob. He quickly threw the barrier open and flashed his light into the chamber.
Instantly there was a scurry of wings. Queer glowing balls of yellow connected with obscure, shadowy figures stared at him. The wings winnowed the air, and again he caught that peculiar whinny.
Hugh laughed aloud.
"Why, it's only a family of owls after all," he said, in great relief, "that's taken up quarters here in this turret, where they can go in and out as they please. Yes, and those things that flapped away must have been some ugly bats in the bargain, that haven't gone into winter quarters yet. Well, this is a pretty good sell, I must say. I'm glad I made up my mind to find out what that noise was. Now I guess I can go to sleep again. Ghosts! Well, like as not every ghost that ever was heard of would turn out to be as simple a thing as this, if only some one had the nerve to investigate."
He closed the door to the turret chamber. Let the owls and bats have their quarters if they wanted to. There was plenty of room in that great castle for himself and chums to sleep without ousting, the happy family from their roost.
So Hugh started down the stairs feeling much lighter of heart than when he had so recently climbed upward. The tension and strain had been removed from his boyish heart, and he was ready to confess that things had seemed pretty ticklish at one time, and had required all his resolution to push ahead.
He found the right door, and softly opening it made his way into the big room in which the others were sleeping. While fastening the door again Hugh could hear the regular breathing of Billy, and possibly of the others.
As he incidentally flashed his light on them before turning in he was surprised to see Alec Sands sitting bolt upright and watching him curiously. Hugh held up a warning finger. He did not want Alec to talk out loud and needlessly awaken all of the other fellows. At the same time he know full well he must give some sort of explanation for his strange absence.
"I heard it, too, Hugh," whispered Alec, with a half grin. "Woke up and found you gone when I put out my hand to feel your blanket. Then I caught those awful ghoulish sounds somewhere. Wanted to creep after you, but say, I own up I didn't have the nerve to try it. So here I've been sitting, hugging my knees, and listening till I'm shivering as if I had the ague. Now tell me what it is, Hugh, for I just know you've found out."
Hugh chuckled and said:
"Oh! just a family that has squatted down on these premises, and hates to be evicted in case your rich aunt, or anybody else, buys the same!"
"Come off, Hugh; don't try to muddle me all up like that, when I'm dying to know what could make such awful sounds. What kind of a family is it?"
"Owls, with a few big bats thrown in for good measure," explained Hugh. "They've taken up their quarters in one of the turret chambers where slits in the walls allow them to go and come as they please."
"You woke up and heard that gibberish, didn't you, Hugh? And you made up your mind on the spot that you just had to find out what it meant? It's like you to do such a thing! But, Hugh, why didn't you let me in on it? I'd have been glad to keep you company, sure I would."
"I knew that, Alec," apologized the other, yawning as he began to creep under his blanket again, "but all of you seemed to be sound asleep, and I hated to wake anybody up. Besides—-well, I just felt like going it alone, you see."
"Of all the nerve, you've got it to beat the band," commented Alec. "I thought I could stand for a good deal, but let me tell you I draw the line at creeping upstairs in this spooky old castle, and investigating such a fierce noise as that. Listen, will you, they're at it again, Hugh? Why, if Billy woke up and heard that he'd throw a fit."
"Then we want to quit talking and not wake him," cautioned the scout master, as he gathered the folds of his covering about him, much as a soldier of olden times might wrap his martial cloak around his body while settling down calmly to sleep on the battlefield.
Alec was chuckling as though something amused him.
"Tell you what," he presently whispered, as a last thought, "if my Aunt Susan is as dead set for silence as she says, those noisy owls are going to vacate their snug quarters up there in a hurry. I honestly believe, Hugh, this lonely old curiosity of a castle is going to please my queer relative a whole lot. The chances are she'll plank down the money to buy Randall's Folly when she gets my report, accompanied by the pictures I'm taking. Well, here goes for another nap, hoping the Owl family will settle down and not disturb us again to-night."
A STARTLING SURPRISE
"Hello! Is it safe to come out; and is the coast clear of ghosts?"
That was Billy addressing Hugh on the following morning, the scout master, as well as Alec Sands and Arthur Cameron, being up and around. They looked at Billy poking his head out from amidst the folds of his capacious red-and-black striped blanket, and laughed, for somehow he reminded them of a cautious old tortoise trying to spy out the land before entrusting his flippers beyond the confines of his shell.
"Nothing doing in the ghost line, Billy," Hugh told him, "so you can stretch yourself as much as you please. Hurry up a little! Alec here was just suggesting that as the morning looks so fine we might as well go outside and build a cooking fire under the trees for a change"
Billy thereupon threw the blanket aside and hopped to his feet.
"When you say anything about eating," he observed as he started to finish his dressing with feverish haste, "seems like my whole system responds. Alec, I want to tell you the idea isn't half bad either. Dining in this musty old room seems too much as if we were still at home, you know. Nothing like being under the trees when you're taking an outing. I haven't got any gypsy blood in me that I know of, but I do like the big outdoors a heap, better than anything else going—-that is, except eating."
Monkey Stallings was by this time also awake and fixing himself to defy the chilly morning atmosphere.
They abandoned the castle, taking their belongings with them. At the time it was looked upon only as a little incident, and no one dreamed that afterwards they would find themselves very thankful for having done this very thing.
Back of the building the trees grew thickly, and it did not take the scouts long to discover a very good location for a temporary camp, where they could build a fire and cook breakfast.
"Another thing," said Alec, "if the weather holds good I'm going to suggest that we hunt a place back there, half a mile, perhaps, away from the castle, to spend the night in. Like Billy here, I don't fancy sleeping under a roof when I can have a chance to camp out under the stars and hear the whispering of the trees."
The others were quick to seize upon the idea.
"It's our only chance to sleep out," said the Stallings boy, "because we've got to make tracks to-morrow afternoon, you remember."
"I should say that Alec ought to be able to take all the pictures he needs of this old rookery this morning," remarked Arthur. "As for me, I've seen all I want of the place. It makes me feel sad, because I can't help thinking of what happened up here so long ago. It was a crazy man's scheme to start with, and then there was the terrible tragedy that happened later on. Ugh! let's climb out right now."
So they built a nice cooking fire, and started to get breakfast. It was while they discussed the morning meal with the eagerness that boys' healthy appetites alone can display, that Billy asked a leading question.
"I forgot to ask if anybody heard a ghost laugh in the night?" he demanded. "Once I happened to wake up, and imagined I could hear somebody laughing away off in the distance; but say, I only pulled my head further under my blanket, and went to sleep again just like an innocent little babe. How about that, Hugh, Alec, and the rest? Was there anything doing?"
This was the time for Alec to tell about the little adventure Hugh had met with. Billy's eyes grew round with wonder and awe as the story proceeded, and seeing this, Alec did his best to keep up the interest at fever heat to the point where Hugh burst into the haunted turret chamber, and made the discovery that it was tenanted by a family of owls, and some bats.
"Gee whiz!" ejaculated Billy, heaving a great sigh of relief, "I honestly began to believe you meant to tell us that turret-tower room was the place where the tragedy happened, and that Hugh had watched it all being repeated over again. Owls, hey? Well, they're an innocent lot when you get acquainted with 'em. All the same, let me tell you I'm glad we expect to sleep outdoors to-night."
"When we get through breakfast, boys," suggested Arthur, greatly interested in what he had just heard, "let's all go up and be introduced to Hugh's pets, if they haven't vamoosed the ranch. I always did like to watch owls stare at you with their big yellow eyes; but you want to keep away, for they've got wicked beaks, and can take a piece of skin off your hand as easy as anything."
Accordingly this programme was carried out. The visit to the turret chamber was not as productive of results as some of the boys might have wished, for most of the owls and bats went scurrying forth through the slits in the wall as soon as the door was opened, despite the garish light of day which they were supposed to dislike. Still, enough were seen to satisfy Billy the story had been no "fake."
Alec said he was disappointed because he could not take a picture of the whole outfit; though not necessarily for the benefit of his rich aunt.
"But the sun seems just about right for the several exposures I want to make of the southeastern side of the castle," he told them, "so let's climb down out of this and get busy."
"I'll tell you what I think," ventured Billy as they were making for outdoors once more. "Like as not that same family of owls has been responsible for a lot of that silly talk about this place being haunted. People imagine all sorts of things, you know, when they don't understand queer sounds."
"Yes," retorted Alec, with a chuckle, "that's so, they do, Billy; and I've known them to pull their heads under blankets. It's all very well for you to talk so bravely when the sun's shining overhead; but everybody knows how different things look and seem at midnight. We'll forgive you this time, Billy, because the rest of us, all but Hugh perhaps, were in something of the same boat, I'm afraid."
The photographic work went on apace, and as Alec had in times past proven his abilities in this line, he was apparently justified in believing that success was going to crown his present efforts.
"I tell you Aunt Susan will be tickled half to death when she gets prints of these pictures," he remarked again and again as he worked, never missing a single object that he considered would lend additional enchantment to the views. "I ought to consider myself mighty lucky to be presented with such a dandy camera as this. I've made sure to fetch my daylight developing tank along with me, because if any of the exposures turn out to be poor ones I'll have another chance to duplicate the same tomorrow morning, even if it is Sunday."
"So far," observed Monkey Stallings, with a chuckle of satisfaction, "there isn't any sign of those two hoboes turning up here again—-which pleases me a heap, let me tell you."
"Oh! no danger of them coming back again," Billy assured him. "They got the scare of their lives when you tooted that goose-call. Long before now that brace of tramps has struck the railroad ties, and are making tracks for other regions where they don't have old castles haunted by spooks."
The last picture was finally taken. Alec seemed satisfied with what he had done.
"I've got two rolls of film left," he explained, "which I'm going to hold for an emergency. You never know what may happen when you're taking pictures. Something is apt to come along that you would give a heap to get, and if you're out of films you feel like kicking yourself."
"You've got a long head on your shoulders, Alec," commented Arthur. "I guess you must believe in the old saying that 'an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.'"
"Also," added Billy drily, "that in times of plenty it's wise to lay in a stock against the dry spell that's coming. I've been there myself, and ought to know what it means to go hungry just because you've been careless. That's one reason I always try to put in a spoonful of coffee for every fellow, and then add one for the pot."
That was always the way with Billy; he seemed to view almost every subject as inevitably connected with the one absorbing idea of supply and demand. By this time these good chums of his knew his weakness so well that they generally let such allusions pass unnoticed.
"How would it do for us to root around a bit while we have the time?" ventured Monkey Stallings, who liked to investigate better than anything else, except in an old mansion where the dust of years had settled, and there were uncanny things to be run across.
"If you mean," Hugh told him, "we might move around some, and look for that place where we want to make our camp for the rest of our stay up here, I'd say it was a good idea."
"Of course," supplemented Arthur, "we could move back to the castle late this afternoon if the weather turned out bad, and a storm threatened, which, according to all the known signs, isn't going to be the case."
"Glad to hear you say that, old weather bureau prophet," laughed Alec; for the scout who had just made that bold assertion had long been looked up to as an authority on the subject of changes of the weather, and could reel off a dozen reasons for the prediction he was making, all founded on a good sensible basis.
Accordingly they all started forth, having deposited most of their belongings in a good hiding-place where they would be perfectly safe. Since there had been no attempt to clean up the grounds surrounding the wonderful "castle" after its abandonment, Some ten years or so before, of necessity they had gone back to their original, wild condition. Nature always seeks to hide the cruel gashes made by the hands of man, covering the wound with all manner of growth from trailing vines to young saplings, brush and weeds.
Passing through a dense wilderness of this newer growth, the scouts pushed on into the heavier woods. Here they found things much more to their way of looking at it. Indeed, with the stately forest trees rising up all around them, and shutting out that queer building on the point of land overlooking the broad valley beyond, it seemed an ideal spot for making a camp.
They were not long in deciding on where they would stay, and two of the fellows, Alec and Monkey Stallings, were dispatched back to carry their personal belongings to the new site. Alec was anxious to get to work developing some of the rolls of films he had taken, in the expectation of making good any failures.
By ten o'clock everything had been gathered in the new camp, which was situated not much more than a quarter of a mile away from the deserted mansion. The boys believed they could already call their mission a success; and after Alec had been heard from in connection with his photographic work, this would be set down as a certainty.
"Listen!" called out Monkey Stallings about this time, for he happened to have remarkable hearing. "Seemed to me that was some one talking over yonder."
"Mebbe the tramps have come back after all," exclaimed Billy looking startled. "You know they always say a bad penny is sure to turn up again."
"Better look for some good handy clubs, I say," observed Alec, pouncing on just such a stout stick as he had in his mind's eye when speaking.
"Whoever it is coming," remarked Hugh, uneasily, "we'll soon know the worst, for I can see them through the bushes there. They know we're here in the bargain, because they're making straight for this place."
The scout master had hardly finished saying this when two men dressed in gray uniforms and carrying guns suddenly stepped out of the bushes, one calling aloud:
"Hold up your hands there, every one of you, and don't try to run, or it will be the worse for you. We've tracked you up here, and you're under arrest. Steady now!"
GUESTS AT THE CAMP FIRE
"Do what he says, fellows!" urged Hugh, sensibly, at the same time elevating both hands above his head, in which ludicrous feat he was speedily imitated by his four chums.
The two armed men continued to advance cautiously toward the scouts. At the same time it could be seen that they appeared more or less surprised on account of discovering that it was a parcel of fairly well grown boys whom they were making prisoners.
"Is this a joke?" asked Alec Sands, with a tinge of a sneer in his voice. "If so I want to say it's in pretty bad taste, don't you know."
"You'll find it a serious kind of a joke, young fellow," snarled one of the two men in uniform, who seemed to be huffed over something, perhaps the scratches he had received in plenty where the brambles had scraped his face.
"Perhaps you'll be kind enough to explain what we're being held up this way for?" asked Hugh, as pleasantly as he could, for he realized that these men must represent some sort of authority, and in all probability were laboring under a misapprehension.
"Who are you all, anyway?" demanded the taller of the two men, and Hugh saw that he had better address himself to this person, since he seemed to be the more even-tempered of the pair.
"Our suits ought to tell you that," Alec managed to snap out, not fancying the idea of being forced to keep his hands elevated in such a fashion, just as though he might be a miserable criminal trying to escape from the penitentiary.
"We are Boy Scouts," said Hugh, hastily, seeing the men frown at Alec's impatient remark. "We belong in Oakvale, and have come up here to spend a couple of days camping out. Besides that one of us has been commissioned to take some pictures of an old deserted mansion not far away from here, which his aunt in the city is expecting to buy, if his report turns out favorable. That's the whole story, I give you my word of honor, sir."
The tall man looked straight into Hugh's face. What he saw there seemed to impress him very favorably, for the expression of distrust quickly faded from his own countenance, and a friendly smile began to take its place.
"I reckon we've been and made a mistake this time, Pete," he said, turning to his companion. "These young chaps don't look like they'd have a hand in trying to get a crazy man free, after the law had shut him up in an asylum!"
"What's that you say?" exclaimed Arthur, while Billy's eyes were like small editions of saucers, in so far as being round was concerned.
"We belong at the State Asylum for the Criminal Insane," explained the taller man, whom Hugh now understood must be a guard. "There was a notorious party shut up there, and he managed to escape by the aid of his money and the help of some friends outside. Men are searching the whole country over for signs of him. We got a clue that he might be found up here in this region, and that he was being taken care of in a camp, until such time as he could cross the line into Canada."
"Can we lower our hands now, friend?" asked Hugh, seeing that Billy for one was getting very red in the face with the exertion of stretching upward so long.
"I guess you don't none of you look very dangerous," he was told, "so drop back as you please. We can't take chances, you understand, so we'll ask you to produce proofs that you're what you claim. Then if everything is O.K. p'raps now you might invite a couple of hungry and tired guards to hang around a while until you rustled up a bit of grub, and a cup of hot coffee which would go straight to the spot, for we haven't had a thing to eat since last night."
"Oh! that's really too bad!" exclaimed Billy, immediately sympathizing with any one who knew, the pangs of hunger. "Sure, we'll invite you to stay with us to lunch. Luckily my policy of always providing a little extra will come in handy, for we can fit you out with a pretty fair meal."
Even the shorter guard grinned on hearing this. He seemed to have quite lost the feeling of suspicion he had at first entertained toward Hugh and his chums. In fact, he even stood his repeating rifle up against the tree nearest him, and seemed bent on taking things easy.
Hugh was pleased because the adventure had after all turned out so harmless. He had been a little startled when the demand was first made that they should surrender, and mention made of the startling fact that they must consider themselves under arrest.
Every one busied himself in gathering wood, and making preparations for building a fire, even though, under ordinary conditions the boys might not have started in to cook for some time to come. Billy, however, seemed to consider it always in order to think of such an important subject as "preserving life"; for that was what he was pleased to call eating. No one ever heard a groan or complaint from Billy when the order was given to prepare a meal; if the occurrence happened six times a day he would have shown up smiling and hungry on each and every occasion.
The taller guard became more and more friendly as he watched these preparations going on. He also asked numerous questions concerning Hugh and his chums.
"Now that I think of it," he remarked presently, "it strikes me I read something about a batch of Oakvale scouts that helped the people over in Lawrence when they had that big flood there. Are you some of that lot, boys?"
"Several of us were there, and had great times, I assure you," Hugh modestly replied, nor did he offer to enter into any particulars of what had happened in the imperiled town at the time of their visit, though those boys from Oakvale had certainly earned the medals they proudly wore for saving life at the risk of their own on that special occasion.
"Why, yes," the shorter guard now remarked, "and when I went down home last week in Chester they were talking about how some scouts had helped fight the forest fires over Oakvale way. Mebbe now you chaps had a hand in that game, too?"
For answer Billy thrust out his left hand before the man's eyes.
"See that red scar on the back of my hand?" he asked. "Well, I got that up there fighting the fire on the mountain that was trying to wipe out the home of Mrs. Heffner, a widow."
"Good for you, Billy!" exclaimed the taller guard, for by now they had come to know the scouts by their several names, feeling quite at home in the temporary camp. "I'd like to wager that there must have been some tall doings when you got busy with the water pails. I've been on the same line myself, and know what it means to fight a forest fire with the wind a-blowin' it right along, spite of all you can do to stop it."
"About this crazy man you were speaking about," observed Alec, as though a sudden suspicion might have struck him, "it doesn't happen that his name could be Randall, Judge Anson Randall, does it?"
"Oh! what if it should turn out that way?" gasped Billy, as he comprehended the nature of the idea that must have flashed through the other's mind.
The tall guard, however, shook his head in the negative.
"That isn't his name at all," he told them. "This man did something terrible, and his money hired the best lawyers in the country to defend him. In the end he was called insane, and sent to the asylum. Then his folks tried every way they knew how to get him free. At last a scheme was hatched up so he could make a break for liberty. Well, their plans have succeeded. He's escaped. They're searching for him all over the country up here. But I reckon, because their plans have been laid so carefully, all our efforts to catch the conspirators will be in vain."
"Money talks!" said Alec, laconically.
"Well, it talks pretty loud in a case like this," the man added.
When the meal was ready they all sat around to enjoy it. Billy in particular seemed very much taken with the idea that they had company.
"We've known some queer happenings in our camping out experiences, fellows," he told the others, as they started in to dispose of the immense amount of food the generous fat scout had cooked. "This is the first time, however, we've had for guests a couple of gentlemen guards from the State Asylum for the Criminal Insane. I'm glad to see you are enjoying my little snack, thrown together in so hasty a manner."
"Well, me and my side partner," commented the taller guard, with a wink at his companion, "wouldn't mind if a prisoner managed to break away every day in the week if we could be sure of getting such a fine treat as this, eh, Pete?"
Pete declared that he could truthfully echo that assertion, though his mouth being so full at the time he could hardly more than mumble his sentiments.
The two men did full justice to the meal, and then announced that, much to their everlasting regret, they felt compelled to bid the friendly scouts good-bye, though they would like nothing better than staying over the night with them.
It was hardly full noon when they took their departure, waving a farewell from the edge of the thick brush before plunging into the same. They had another clue that was worth following up, for those who were fortunate enough to recapture the escaped prisoner would be in line to receive some satisfying sort of reward, either in the shape of money, or a betterment in their condition of employment at the asylum.
"Well, they're gone!" remarked Alec, as he busied himself with his development tank, anxious to find out how his films were going to turnout.
Billy heaved a sigh that seemed to come from the soles of his feet.
"To tell the honest truth," he admitted, "I ain't sorry a bit. Those fellows could give me points about how to stow stuff away, and then not half try. Why, they acted as if they were hollow clean down to their shoes. I guess they told the truth when they said they hadn't had a bite of breakfast this morning."
"But, Billy," interposed Arthur, "I thought you loved to see people eat heartily all the time? We've always believed you were the most hospitable fellow going."
"Huh! I used to think the same," grunted Billy, scratching his head, "but then you know there's such a thing as piling on the agony. Those fellows weren't just hungry men—-they were cannibals, regular human graveyards, I should say, by the way the stuff disappeared down their throats. If they drop around again to-night I reckon our stock of grub will be lowered so much we'll all of us have to go on half rations the rest of the time we stay here—-something I don't look forward to with much joy."
"Don't worry, Billy," Hugh told him. "They said they would be miles away long before night set in. The country is safe, and we're not likely to starve."
Alec interrupted the conversation to call out exultantly:
"Oh! this first roll is coming along dandy, let me tell you! It's going to be the best thing I ever did; and my stars, but that lens does cut fine! It was a lucky day for me when Aunt Susan got track of this old castle up here in the woods, for it's given me a regular jewel of a camera outfit."
Every one felt pleased on hearing this, since it would save Alec the trouble of snapping the pictures over again.
Billy was taking things easy after getting up the midday meal, as he felt he had earned a rest. At the same time the fat scout's mind was busily employed.
"I was just thinking," he finally broke out with, "what a lot of queer things have happened to us since we came up here. I wonder what we'll strike next. We've rubbed up against raiding tramps, mewing owls, ghosts in the night, and guards hunting for an escaped insane criminal. Besides, there are still a few more hours left for a new batch of exciting happenings. I tell you, boys, this little side trip proposed by Alec and engineered by Hugh bids fair to equal anything we've endured in our whole checkered career."
FACED BY A MYSTERY
To tell the truth, Hugh was thinking something along those same lines himself, so that he felt in a mood to quite agree with the enthusiastic Billy.
"Take it all in all," he remarked, reflectively, "we're one of the luckiest lot of scouts that ever wandered down the pike. Most fellows experience a regular rut, and never run up against anything out of the way. But I have to shake myself very time I look back over our calendar, for fear it's only a dream."
"We certainly have had more than our share of things happening to us," admitted Alec, proudly, "but the wheel of the mill will never run again with the water that is past. So I forget the things that are gone, and keep looking hopefully forward to other glorious events that lie waiting for us in the dim future."
"Hear! hear!" exclaimed Billy, clapping his hands, "Alec is getting quite poetical these days."
"I only hope," continued the other, with a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes, for one of Alec's weak spots was a love of flattery, "that our latest venture will turn out just as successful as many others have done before it."
"No reason that I can see why it shouldn't," spoke up Arthur Cameron. "We've run across the lonely castle your aunt is negotiating for, and it seems to fill the bill to a dot."
"Yes," remarked Monkey Stallings, anxious to have a hand in the discussion, "and your pictures, you tell us, are turning out dandies at that. You ought to be as happy as a clam at high tide, as they say, though I never asked one of the bivalves just why he felt that way."
"Oh, I am!" declared Alec; "and I reckon the chances are three to one Aunt Susan is going to enjoy this delightful quiet up here, where not even the squawk of a crow, or the, crow of a squawking rooster can be heard the livelong day. Still, somehow I seem to feel a queer sense of oppression bearing down on me. I hope now it isn't a bad omen of coming trouble, and that, after all, my rich aunt is doomed to lose out in the deal for Castle Randall."
The others laughed at the idea.
"Why, it's a cinch for your side, Alec," said Hugh.
"The owner of this ancient and half-ruined pile of stone and make-believe rocks," Arthur told the doubter, "couldn't find a purchaser in a coon's age. Who would ever want to come away up here to bury themselves from civilization, and in such a silly old rookery as this? Well, it was one chance in a thousand that a nervous wreck like your aunt heard of it."
"Don't worry, Alec, you've got a snap, believe me," chuckled Stallings; and then unable to longer resist a certain alluring limb which he had been eying longingly for some little time, he bolted up the trunk of the overspreading tree, to hang by his toes, and swing daringly to and fro as some of them had seen a yellow-headed, green-bodied poll-parrot do from his perch.
Alec continued his work, and from time to time announced that every roll was indeed turning out superbly. No one had ever seen him quite so happy. The possession of a lens that did better work than anything he had ever known in all his experience was enough in itself to make his boyish heart thrill with joy. And then the singular character of the film subjects added to the sense of satisfaction, for they were sure to enhance the attractiveness of his collection, as well as please Aunt Susan immensely.
It must have been about one o'clock when the boys received their first rude shock. Hugh had just been thinking of giving orders for another walk in the direction of the deserted building about a quarter of a mile away. Alec had finished his work and had the well-developed films hanging to dry, securely fastened to his stout cord with snap clothes-pins, so there was no danger of any unfortunate catastrophe happening to them before they were thoroughly dry.
"Listen, will you?" suddenly exclaimed Monkey Stallings, sitting bolt upright, and raising one hand impressively.
"Oh, my stars! what do you call that?" gurgled Billy. From the manner in which the color deserted his ruddy cheeks one might have imagined he feared they were about to be attacked by a host of savage pirates bent on plunder.
Alec and Arthur could also be seen to stare vacantly at the distance while they strained their ears to listen. As for Hugh himself he found it hard to believe his senses, for the absolute quiet and dead calm brooding all day long over that retired spot in the wilderness had been rudely shattered by a most astonishing noise as of many hoarse voices, making a jumble and roar of sound unlike anything save the confusion of battle.
It rose, it died away again, and then once more swelled to an amazing extent, after which it finally stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
Five scouts stared at each other. Billy rubbed his eyes as though he really began to believe he must be asleep, and passing through a vivid dream bordering on the nightmare.
"Hugh! what can it be?" demanded Alec, a bit pale with sudden excitement, for which in truth he could not be at all blamed under the circumstances.
For once the scout master seemed puzzled himself. He shook his head in a way that brought new consternation to the heart of Billy Worth.
"You've got me up against a hard proposition when you ask me that, Alec!" was what Hugh declared.
"Then you can't even give a guess, can you, Hugh?" Billy besought him.
"We all heard the racket, that's sure," muttered Stallings, as though he had possibly begun to suspect he might be a victim of some delusion, and wished to make certain the others were in the same boat as himself.
"And it sounded just like a dozen, yes, three dozen men shouting like anything," Arthur assured him.
"I wonder——-" began Billy, starting up eagerly.
"If you've got an idea hurry and tell us what it is!" urged the impatient Alec. "I'll be hanged if I can grapple anything, it's given me such a bad shock."
"Go on, Billy!" added Arthur.
"Why," explained the fat scout, "you see, I was thinking that p'r'aps those tramps we scared off had come back with a big bunch of their kind, meaning to take possession of the castle. Now, you needn't all jump on me and say that's silly, because I happen to know those hoboes often gather in regular armies about this time of year, heading for the cities. Hugh, it isn't such a bad idea, after all, is it?"
"Since none of us seem able to think of any other explanation," the scout master told him, reassuringly, "it will have to stand until we can strike on a better. It seems to me the sooner we hike over that way the quicker we'll learn the real facts."
"True enough, Hugh," assented Alec, readily, while the others showed by their actions that they were perfectly willing to make the start.
Their preparations for leaving their camp were few and simple. What food they had left was thrust up in the crotch of a big tree, so that it might not be carried off by any wandering wild animal, though they had no reason to believe there was anything larger than a 'coon' or a 'possum' around that region. The blankets and a few other things of value were also placed in safety, while Alec again tested the supports of his "clothes line" on which those precious films were strung to dry.
"I hate to leave them," he told the others, mournfully, "but now that they're wet and sticky they can't be packed away. I almost wish I hadn't been in such a hurry to develop them."
He stared at Billy as though almost tempted to beg that worthy to stay behind and protect the films by his presence, which Billy absolutely refused to do, rightly interpreting the look.
"Not on your life, Alec, much as I would like to oblige you!" asserted the fat scout, positively. "I want company when there's all sorts of strange things happening around. You don't catch me sticking to this camp by my lonely. Stay back yourself if somebody has just got to hold the fort. My duty lies in the front rank. History tells that the Worths were always found in the van when danger loomed up. Sorry not to oblige you, Alec, but it's simply impossible. William Worth will sink or swim with his comrades."
As Alec could not think of staying back when the rest were bent on learning the secret of all that terrible clamor of human voices raised in angry shouts and whoops, he took his place alongside Hugh, and they all started forth.
"One thing sure, to begin with," remarked Hugh, after they had left the camp behind them, "we're a unit in saying that racket came from where we happen to know the old castle lies."
"Oh! that's an easy nut to crack!" declared Monkey Stallings. "The sounds came right down the wind, and any one can see it's blowing softly straight from the haunted mansion."
"We might guess that the ghosts were having a hop all by themselves," ventured Billy, "only you know they say spirits never show themselves in the daytime. Anyway, those whoops were more like wild Injuns on the warpath than just spooks."
"Well, as we don't happen to have any Indians left in this region nowadays," added Hugh, drily, "we can put that explanation down as impossible. But we'll know more about it before three minutes more have passed, because, unless I miss my guess, we can glimpse the castle when we strike that rock yonder. I remember taking a look back as we came along, so as to impress distances and direction on my mind, and could see the whole structure looming up."
"Whee! listen again, will you?" exclaimed Billy, aghast.
The strange noise had again broken out. They could hear many husky voices shouting in unison, and, besides, there were other odd sounds such as might be made by a small army of desperate assailants beating wildly against that stout door of the lonely castle.
No wonder the five boys stared at one another, with vacant looks on their several faces. It would have puzzled smarter people than they pretended to be to analyze such a remarkable jumble of noises as their ears now caught.
Hugh would not let them stop for a second. Indeed, if anything, he hurried them along faster than ever, as though fully determined to have the mystery cleared up without further loss of time. If Billy's footsteps were inclined to make him linger behind his mates he bestirred himself to assume a faster gait, for at such a critical moment the fat scout did not wish to find himself left in the lurch.
The horrid din continued as they hurried forward. If anything it grew more and more maddening, causing the boys to shiver with mingled impatience and alarm.
Now they were close on the rock mentioned by Hugh. In another ten seconds they would be able to at least see the walls of the grim castle in the near distance. Billy wondered whether, after all, they might not discover that there was not the slightest sign of a living human being in sight. He was rapidly coming to believe there might be something ghostly about these sounds. Billy was just then in a fit condition to believe anything, no matter how absurd, for his poor heart was fluttering in his manly bosom just as you have doubtless felt the tiny organ of a bird throb when you held the frightened thing in your hand.
They all kept in a bunch, and thus arrived at the rock at the same time. Every scout came to a sudden stop. Their eyes, dilated with amazement, were turned toward the region where those sounds still welled forth, shouts and blows and shrieks making a conglomeration that was simply appalling. So stunned were Hugh and his mates that for a brief time their tongues clove to the roofs of their mouths.
AS IN THE DAYS OF CHIVALRY
"W-what's it all mean, Hugh?" Billy was gasping, as he stood there with quaking knees, and just stared and stared.
Indeed, for the moment Hugh could not have answered him, he was himself so busily engaged in looking. There was good and sufficient reason for the eyes of every one being glued on the remarkable sight taking place before them, for surely such an amazing spectacle had never before been witnessed in America, nor indeed for some hundreds of years even in the old country.
The castle was no longer given over to the owls and bats and rats. It now seemed to be fairly swarming with moving figures, and such figures! Hugh blinked, and took a second look before he could actually believe his eyes.
Why, there were horses clad in all the panoply of the fourteenth century, on the backs of which sat knights in shining armor, with long lances, and great two-handed swords for their weapons, and waving plumes dangling from their helmets. Men with bare legs and all manner of weird apparel were attacking the castle, using clubs, rocks, and queer arrangements for casting missiles; some of them were climbing short scaling ladders only to be rudely hurled down again by some of the valiant defenders who manned the top of the walls.
The drawbridge had been raised, and the portcullis protected the door, but the gallant assailants had apparently thrown a bridge hastily constructed across the moat, and they were certainly as busy as a hive of bees that had struck a mine of sugar.
It was a wonderful scene, and the five scouts could hardly be blamed for thinking they must be dreaming, everything was so unreal, so like a page torn from history in the times of the Crusaders.
Perhaps one or more of them began to believe that a host of spirits belonging to ancient worthies, long since dead, while passing by had recognized in the make-believe castle such a wonderful copy of something they had known in life that they were tempted to stop and play their parts again with all this gusto and confusion.
If this were the case, however, Hugh quickly disillusioned the rest of the group. His quick eye had found an explanation for all this remarkable happening.
"Well, I declare, who would ever have believed it?" they heard him saying, for again the riot was beginning to die out, men were brushing themselves off, while a few others, less fortunate than their companions, were being pulled out of the moat surrounding the castle, which evidently held some water, for they appeared to be dripping wet, though taking it all in good part.