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´╗┐Title: Afloat - or, Adventures on Watery Trails
Author: Douglas, Alan
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Afloat - or, Adventures on Watery Trails" ***

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[Frontispiece: The track could plainly be seen but the trail ended
abruptly.]



AFLOAT:

_or,_

_Adventures on Watery Trails_


BY

CAPTAIN ALAN DOUGLAS

SCOUT MASTER



M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY

CHICAGO :: NEW YORK



Copyright, 1917, by

The New York Book Co.



CONTENTS


CHAPTER

    I.  THE RAIL BIRDS HEAR SOME NEWS
   II.  WHEN HEN CONDIT LEFT TOWN
  III.  A PROMISING CLUE
   IV.  JOHNNY'S CHICKEN THIEF TRAP
    V.  THE KNIFE WITH THE BUCKHORN HANDLE
   VI.  BOUND FOR SASSAFRAS SWAMP
  VII.  THE MISSING SKIFF
 VIII.  PICKING UP CLUES
   IX.  THE PERILS OF THE WATER LABYRINTH
    X.  THE SUSPICIOUS ACTIONS OF LANDY
   XI.  A NIGHT ALARM
  XII.  THE VALUE OF SCOUTCRAFT
 XIII.  HEN CONDIT'S STRANGE MESSAGE
  XIV.  BOUND TO SUCCEED
   XV.  WOLF PATROL PLUCK WINS
  XVI.  CONCLUSION



ON WATERY TRAILS


CHAPTER I

THE RAIL BIRDS HEAR SOME NEWS

"Elmer said we'd take a vote on it!"

"Yes, and tonight the next regular meeting of the Hickory Ridge Boy
Scout Troop is scheduled to take place, so we'll soon know where we
stand."

"Thith hath been a pretty tame thummer for the cwowd, all told, don't
you think, Lil Artha?"

"It certainly has, as sure as your name's Ted Burgoyne.  Our camping
out was cut short, for with so many rainy days we just had to give it
up."

"Yeth, after three of the fellowth came down with bad cases of malarial
fever.  The mothquitoes were so plentiful."

"That was some news to me to find out that a certain breed of
mosquitoes are the only ones that give you the malarial poison when
they smack you."

"Huh!  I used to think all that talk was a silly yarn, too, Toby, but
now I put a heap of stock in the same," declared the unusually tall and
thin boy, who seemed to answer to the queer name of "Lil Artha;" he had
evidently been dubbed so by his comrades as an undersized cub, and when
shooting up later on had been unable to shake off the absurd nickname.

"But here we've still got a couple of weeks left of our vacation, you
know," remarked the chap called Toby, "and it'd be just a shame to let
the good old summer time dribble away without one more whack at the
woods, and the open air life we all love so well."

"Toby, jutht hold your horthes!" exclaimed the one who lisped so
dreadfully, and whose name was Theodore Burgoyne, though seldom called
anything but Ted; "you let Elmer decide for the crowd.  I'm dead
certain he'll lay out a joyouth plan at the meeting tonight that'll
call for the unanimous approval of every member of the troop to be
found in thith sleepy town these dog days."

"Hear! hear!  Ted has got it down pat, let me tell you!" cried Toby
Jones, who in the bosom of his family was occasionally reminded that he
had once upon a time been christened Tobias Ellsworth Jones.

"Yes, you know our faithful and hard-working patrol leader to a dot,
Ted," added the long-legged scout, with a wide grin on his thin and
freckled face.  "Trust Elmer Chenowith to think up a programme that
will meet with universal approval.  But this is a pretty warm
proposition for a late August day.  Let's sit in the shade a while, and
cool off, while we're waiting for Landy and Chatz to show up."

Accordingly the trio of boys in faded khaki suits, that looked as
though they had seen considerable service, proceeded to perch upon the
top-most rail of a fence at a point where a splendid oak tree threw its
wide-spreading branches over the road.

They were just outside the town of Hickory Ridge, and if you want to
know where this usually wide-awake place was situated it might be well
to refer to earlier books in this Series in order to ascertain all the
interesting particulars.

These three lads belonged to the local troop of scouts, just then in a
most flourishing condition.  Under the leadership of Elmer Chenowith
the Wolf Patrol of the troop had accomplished so many unusual things
that a fever had taken possession of the town boys to become enrolled.

There was also the Beaver Patrol, with a full number, and the Eagle as
well as the Fox seemed destined to finish their quota of eight members
in the early Fall.

The three boys whom we have met on the road chanced to be among the
original charter members of the troop.  All of them belonged to the
Wolf Patrol; for it often happens that fellows wearing the same totem
are brought closer together than others.

Since it chances that the exciting incidents which we have started out
to chronicle in the present story fell almost exclusively to the
portion of the boys belonging to the original Wolf Patrol, it might be
well to give a brief description of who and what they were, before
going any further.

Elmer Chenowith, being the patrol leader, comes first in line.  He was
a manly lad, with many winning qualities that made him a prime favorite
among his fellows.  At one time his father had had charge of a vast
farm and cattle ranch up in the Canadian Northwest, and while there the
boy had learned a thousand things calculated to be useful to him in his
capacity of a scout.

He had long ago received official authority from Boy Scout Headquarters
to act as a deputy or assistant scout master, whenever the regular
overseer, young Mr. Roderic Garrabrant, could not be present.  Elmer
filled the position in such a clever fashion that no one ever
questioned his ability to play the part of guide.

Then there was Mark Anthony Cummings, who was looked upon as Elmer's
chum.  He was the grandson of a famous artist, and there were those who
prophesied that some day Mark would follow in the footsteps of his
illustrious ancestor; for he would draw off-hand charcoal sketches of
his chums, mostly in a humorous vein, that excited roars of laughter.
Mark was also something of a musician, and had in the beginning been
elected to fill the position of bugler to the troop.

Ted Burgoyne was afflicted with a dreadful lisp, on account of a
hare-lip, so that as the boys used to say if offered a fortune he could
get no closer to the real thing when dared than to say "thoft thoap."
But then Ted was a marvel in his way, for he had more knowledge of
medicine than all the other boys of the troop combined; and on this
account they often called him "Doctor Ted," or "Old Sawbones."

In cases of snake-bite, fainting, cramps, near-drowning, cuts from the
camp axe or hatchet, gun-shot wounds, broken bones, or, in fact,
anything likely to happen to campers, Ted was what Lil Artha always
called "Johnny-on-the-spot," though Toby could never pin him down to
saying "which spot."

Toby Jones was really the "funny" boy of the patrol.  His grandfather
being one of those Zouave veterans, who had accompanied Colonel
Ellsworth to Washington when the war between the States broke out, and
saw the latter shot in Alexandria, Virginia, while taking down a
Confederate flag, nothing would do but that the boy must bear that
venerated name and so he was christened Tobias Ellsworth Jones.

Toby was ambitious.  His leaning lay in the line of aeronautics, and he
was always trying to invent some sort of aeroplane that would discount
all the efforts of such men as the Wright brothers.  The dreadful fate
of Darius Green and his famous flying machine had no terrors for Toby,
though his chums were always warning him to beware.

He had, on several occasions in the past, attempted to show off with
one of these ambitious contraptions.  Those who have read some of the
preceding volumes of this Series know what ludicrous results came about
because of this over-vaulting ambition on the part of Toby.  But he was
not one whit discouraged, and often declared that unless his life were
cut short he meant to see that the name of the Joneses went "ringing
down the ages" as one of the most illustrious since the days of Paul
Jones, the American who fought sea battles in the Revolutionary War.

Lil Artha, in reality Arthur Stansbury, was reckoned a good scout, and
a loyal companion who could both play a joke and take one when it was
aimed at him; he was rather fond of photography, and addicted somewhat
to harmless slang.

The sixth member of the original Wolf Patrol was a Southern boy,
Charlie Maxfield by name, though known simply as "Chatz."  He possessed
all the traits to be found in boys who have been born and raised south
of Mason and Dixon's line, was inclined to be touchy whenever he
thought anyone doubted his honor, talked with a quaint little twang
that was really delightfully musical, and taken in all had grown to be
a prime favorite with his fellows.

Chatz had one silly weakness which, though he tried hard to overcome
it, would occasionally crop up.  He was dreadfully superstitious, and
believed in ghosts, which failing he laid to his having associated with
piccaninnies when a youngster, and in some way imbibing their belief in
the supernatural.

Yes, Chatz at one time had even carried a rabbit's foot for luck, and
to ward off evil spirits.  The animal was said to have been killed in a
graveyard in the full moon and it was a sure-enough _left_ hind foot,
too, which he believed to be a very important distinction, since no
other would answer.  Of late, however, Chatz said less about these
things than when he first came to Hickory Ridge; and Elmer believed he
was by degrees out-growing the foolish, superstitious beliefs of his
childhood.

Two later additions to the Wolf Patrol were Henry Condit, known simply
as "Hen," and Landy Smith, otherwise Philander.  The latter was a fat,
good-natured chap, always perspiring, and who had a queer habit of
placing his forefinger alongside his nose when puzzled or reflecting.

As occasional mention may be made in these pages to other members of
the Troop, it might be well to simply give a list of their names and
"let it go at that," as Lil Artha would say.

The Beaver Patrol being full consisted of eight boys.  Matty Eggleston
was the leader, and after him came "Red" Huggins, Ty Collins, Jasper
Merriweather, Tom Cropsey, Larry Billings, Phil Dale and "Doubting
George" Robbins, a cousin to Landy.

There were also four members to the Eagle Patrol, with others about to
come in.  Jack Armitage filled the position of leader, and after him
came Nat Scott, Ben Slimmons and Jim Oskamp.

Apparently, the three fellows perched on the Virginia rail fence had
agreed to wait for others who were to join them in starting for the
favorite "swimmin' hole," for their conversation betrayed this fact.

Lil Artha began to grow a little impatient.  He wiped his perspiring
face and in so many words gave his two chums to understand that if the
laggards did not put in an appearance inside of ten minutes he meant to
start without them.

"A fine lot of scouts Chatz and Landy are showing themselves to be, not
keeping their word," the tall boy grumbled; "there, didn't you hear the
clock strike ten?  They were to be here not later than a quarter to the
hour."

"Oh! well, you know Chatz isn't in a hurry," chuckled Toby.  "Fellows
raised down in Dixie are used to taking their time.  It's the warm
climate that does it, he told me.  But speaking of angels and you hear
their wings, they say; for unless my eyes deceive me there comes Chatz
right now."

"Yeth, and thauntering along like he might be away ahead of the time
thet for meeting here.  Chatz ith what I call a cool cuthtomer."

When the fourth lad joined the bunch, there was a lot of good-natured
badinage indulged in all around, after the manner of boys in general.

"Do you intend waiting any longer fo' Landy?" asked the newcomer.

At that remark the other laughed uproariously.

"It makes me think of the full 'bus," said Lil Artha; "when it stops to
take on another passenger they all look cross; and he squeezes into a
seat wondering why people will act so piggish; but let it stop again
for another fare and he grumbles louder than anybody else."

"Yeth, we've waited fifteen minutes for you, Chatz," said Ted, "and
it'd be only fair to give poor, fat Landy ten minutes more."

Chatz immediately took out his little nickel watch and held it in his
hand, just as though he might have been the judge at a sprinting match.

Before five minutes had crept past, however, there was a cry raised.

"Here comes poor old Landy," said Toby, "mounted on his wheezy bicycle,
and pegging for all he's worth.  Look at him puffing away, will you?
He just knows he's been keeping us waiting here ever so long, and
that's making him put on so much steam.  Wow! he nearly took a header
that time into the ditch.  What a splash there would have been, my
countrymen, if he played leap-frog into that mud-puddle!"

The boys sat there on the rail fence and began to greet the coming
bicycle rider with loud shouts.

"Hit her up, Landy!"

"One good turn deserves another, you know."

"A little more power to your left foot, or you'll be in that ditch yet,
Landy!"

"Oh!  Landy, does your mother know you're risking your precious old
neck on that beaut of a wheel?"

The fat scout did not cease his exertions until he had reached the
place where his four chums sat on the fence.  Then they saw that while
his round face was red, and the perspiration stood out in beads on his
forehead, there was a drawn, almost a scared look on his countenance.

"Hey! what ails the fellow?" burst out Lil Artha, as though discovering
that Landy was trembling more with some mysterious emotion than fatigue.

"Yeth, hurry up and tell uth what's happened!" cried Ted Burgoyne,
jumping off his perch, and hastening to the side of the panting boy.

Landy seemed to swallow something that may have been threatening to
choke him.  Then making a great effort, he managed to say a few words.

"Terrible thing's happened, fellows!  Knocks the reputation of the Wolf
Patrol all to smithereens!"

Of course, this excited those four scouts as nothing else could have
done.

"Has anything happened to Elmer?" almost shouted Toby.

"No, it's Hen Condit!" answered Landy; "he's gone and stole a lot of
money from his guardian, and lit out, that's what!  And him belonging
to the Wolf Patrol, too!"



CHAPTER II

WHEN HEN CONDIT LEFT TOWN

"Hey! say that over again, won't you, Landy!  I sure believe my ears
must have fooled me!" exclaimed Lil Artha.

"Hen Condit robbed his uncle and guardian, are you telling us, Landy?"
gasped Toby; "aw! come off, now, you're just giving us taffy, thinking
it smart."

"I tell you I just came from their house," continued the perspiring
scout, mopping his reeking forehead with a suspicious looking
handkerchief that may once on a time have been really white.  "You see,
Mr. Condit didn't get up as early as he generally does, because he had
a _terrible_ headache.  And say, they even think he might have been
given a dose of chloroform to make him sleep longer."

"Hold on, fellows," snapped Toby just then, "as luck will have it here
comes Elmer in his father's little runabout.  He said he had to go over
to Rockaway on an important errand for his dad this morning, which was
the only reason he couldn't join us for a swim.  Let's hold him up, and
Landy can tell the whole story then."

When they made urgent gestures to the boy in the swift-flying runabout,
he hastened to pull up, laughing at the same time.

"I hurried over and back on purpose to follow you fellows to the ole
swimmin' hole," he told them; "but I didn't expect to meet you on the
way.  Don't delay me; I'll jump on my wheel to chase after you."

"But, Elmer, something awful has happened, and you ought to know about
it," declared Toby, at which the boy in the small car looked
searchingly at each of the others in turn, and seeing how grave they
appeared, he demanded what it meant.

"Why, you see," explained Lil Artha, "Landy here was late in joining
us.  He just came along on his machine, pegging it for all he was
worth, and looking like he had seen one of the ghosts some people
believe in.  He only started to tell us when you came in sight; but
it's terrible.  What d'ye think, he says our Wolf Patrol comrade, Hen
Condit, has run away from home, and robbed his guardian in the bargain!"

Elmer instantly jumped to the road.  He faced Landy as a lawyer might a
witness on the stand; and Elmer knew just how to "pump" a fellow so as
to get the principal facts without much loss of time, as his chums
understood.

"Go on and tell us about it, Landy," he commanded.  "How did you happen
to learn about the fact in the first place?"

"Why, you see," answered the other, only too willing to explain to the
best of his ability, "ma, she sent me over on an errand to the Condit
house.  I was madder'n hops about it, too, because I just knew I'd be
keepin' the fellows waiting here under the Grandaddy Oak."

"What did you find when you got there?" asked Elmer, who knew Landy to
be long-winded, and that often the quickest way to learn facts from him
was to put him on the grill.

"Why, they were all upset," admitted Landy.  "Mr. Condit was as mad as
a bull in a china shop, and his wife was looking as white as chalk,
yes, and scared, too.  Seems that when he went into his library after
eating breakfast he found the safe open and everything gone.  It was an
'inside job' the Chief said, because nobody had busted the safe."

"Then the Chief was there, was he?" questioned the patrol leader.

"Sure he was; Mr. Condit had 'phoned to him.  There were a dozen
neighbors in the house, too, and more acomin' right along.  Biggest
kind of excitement.  Oh! it's going to be town property before night, I
guess, and lots of people'll be pointing their fingers at every fellow
wearing khaki, and saying they always knew scouts was no better than
the law allowed.  Oh! wouldn't I like to get hold of that Hen Condit,
though."

"What makes them believe it was Hen" continued Elmer.

"Say, that's the queerest part of it all," answered the fat boy; "the
silly gump gave the whole business away himself--went and left a note
behind him telling that he was the guilty villain, and that they
needn't ever expect to see him again, because he had lit out for
Chicago."

"Whew! you don't say!" gasped Lil Arthur, apparently half stunned by
this later intelligence; "I never would have thought Hen could be such
a fool as to convict himself like that."

"When was he seen last?" demanded Elmer, still after information.

"He went to bed last night, they said, just as usual; but shucks! it
would be the easiest thing agoing for Hen to climb down from his window
if he took a notion.  I've known him to do the same dozens of times
just for fun, rather than take the trouble to go around to the stairs."

"Then Hen has disappeared, and no one has seen him this morning?"

"Never a soul.  His aunt went to his room when he didn't show up, but
not finding him expected Hen had gone off to my house.  And his uncle
is whopping mad over it.  He nearly took a fit when the expert Chief
said he reckoned someone had chloroformed him.  He called Hen a viper
that he had fostered, and said if he could only ketch him he'd see that
he got his deserts."

"Listen, Landy, did you see that note?" asked Elmer.

"That's what I did, let me tell you," came the prompt reply, "and it
was in Hen's well-known fist, too; I could tell that a mile off if I
saw it.  Haven't I heard the writing teacher at school tell him he was
well named, because his paper looked like a hen had dabbled in the ink,
and then strolled around every-which-way."

"Then you can tell us about what it said, can't you?" continued the
patrol leader.

Landy laid that ready forefinger of his alongside his nose, as though
that action would aid his memory.  Then he closed one eye, another
singular habit he had; after which he slowly went on to say:

"Course the exact words have slipped me, Elmer, but it ran something
like this.  He said circumstances which he couldn't control had forced
him to do this thing; that he was sorry, but it couldn't be helped.  He
hoped his uncle would forgive him, and forget there was such a fellow
in the wide world as Hen Condit.  There was also some more that I can't
just recollect; but it was to the effect that he believed he had money
coming to him, so Mr. Condit could take it out of that and call it
square.  But just think what all this is going to do to the scouts,
Elmer!  Never since the troop was organized has it met up with such a
terrible blow."

All of them looked serious.  They knew that a certain element in
Hickory Ridge would only too eagerly seize upon this incident to prove
what they had always claimed, which was that scouts, after all, were no
better than other boys, and that when put to the test they could turn
out bad as well as the rest.

"Yes, the honor of the Wolf Patrol is hanging in the balance, Elmer,"
said Lil Artha.  "Are we going to just stand by and not lift a hand
because it was one of our chums who did this mean job?  If it was
anyone else and they called on us to track him, wouldn't we respond to
a man?  Here's a supreme test before us that's going to prove how much
our honor means."

"I say the same, Elmer," urged Chatz, indignantly; "let's all get busy
and see if we can run Hen Condit down like a fox we've got on the trail
of.  Let's fetch him back to face his uncle, and prove to all Hickory
Ridge that the boys of the Wolf Patrol can never stand for wrong doing
in their ranks.  Yes suh, it's surely up to us to show our colors."

Elmer rubbed his forehead.  He looked thoughtful, as though possibly he
might see a little further into this mysterious happening than any of
the rest.

"Listen, fellows," he told them; "I've known for some little time that
Hen was acting queerly.  He failed to attend the last two meetings, and
when I asked him about it he avoided my eye.  I've been wondering what
it all meant, and intended to have a good heart-to-heart talk-fest with
Hen as soon as I got a chance."

"Hold on," said Toby.  "I wonder now if that man I saw him with could
have had anything to do with this ugly business."

Elmer turned on him like a flash.

"It may have more to do with it than you think, Toby," he remarked;
"when was it you saw them, and where?"

"Just yesterday morning," replied the other, "and down at the bridge
over the creek.  Hen nodded to me when I rode past on my wheel, but it
struck me even at the time he acted like he hoped to goodness I
wouldn't bother stopping to say anything."

"And a man you didn't know was with him, you say?" questioned Elmer.

"Well, I didn't just glimpse his face, for you see he turned his head
away as I passed, but I made up my mind he was a stranger in these
regions, so far as I could see."

"That looks mighty suspicious, I should say, suh!" declared Chatz,
positively.  "That stranger is the nigger in the woodpile, according to
my mind, suh."

"Mebbe poor weak Hen has been cowed and bulldozed into doing the whole
thing," suggested Lil Artha, sagely.

"Now, I wonder if that could weally be tho?" remarked Ted.

"We ought to get busy and do something right away, Elmer," observed
Toby Jones.

"I'm glad to know that's the way you feel about it," continued the
patrol leader.  "This is a bad piece of business.  It's up to the boys
of the Wolf Patrol to find out the truth.  I had laid out another
scheme for our last outing of this vacation, but everything must give
way to tracking our comrade down, and learning the whole truth!"

"Bully for you, Elmer!" ejaculated Lil Artha, looking delighted.

The others were almost as exuberant in their expressions of approval.
Just a brief time before some of their number had been wondering what
could be done to give them a short siege in the woods to wind up the
vacation period; and here along comes this necessity calling to the
other members of the "Wolf Patrol to awaken and defend the honor of
their organization.

"Here, jump aboard all of you but Landy, and he can come along on his
wheel," ordered Elmer, making room after he had seated himself back of
the steering wheel.

"Are you meaning to go to Hen's house?" called out Landy, looking
worried because he was to be left behind, and would have to straddle
his wheezy old wheel once more.

"Yes, if you care to toss your machine in those bushes, Landy, and can
get aboard, come along!" called out Elmer, relenting when he caught
that piteous expression on the other's rosy face.

In another moment they were off, Landy having been hauled aboard.  The
runabout had never been made to carry such a full cargo of passengers;
but then boys can hang on like monkeys, and are ever ready to accept
chances.

They were quickly at the Condit house.  Like the home of Landy, it
stood on the border of the town, with a back gate opening on a side
road.  Altogether, there may have been two acres in the place.

By now fully two dozen curious people were in and around the house upon
which such a sudden catastrophe had fallen.  They talked among
themselves, asked questions, examined the queer note signed by Hen, and
shook their heads pityingly as they observed the white face of the
boy's suffering aunt.

Mr. Condit was a rather severe man.  He looked very angry, and kept
calling the boy hard names as he told how Hen must have known the
combination of the safe; and doubtless doubled at least the amount
taken in hard cash, as it is human nature to make even troubles seem
many times as large as they are.

Elmer and the others managed to see the convicting note.  They were all
of the same opinion as Landy; and agreed that no one but Hen could ever
have written those fateful words.

"I never would have believed he could ever be such a silly gump!" was
what Lil Artha remarked, after surveying the crooked writing, which, of
course, he knew only too well.

After they had hung around for some time, and Elmer had asked all the
questions he could think of, the boys went outside to talk it over.

"Right now some of those people are looking at us in a sneering way,
suh," observed the touchy Southern boy, indignantly; "and I give you my
word fo' it they're beginning to say among themselves that Hen Condit
belonged to the wonderful Wolf Patrol.  Elmer, we've suttinly got to do
something to clear the good name of our patrol."

"We will," replied the other, simply, and yet with that earnestness
which carries conviction in its train.  "Already I've got a suspicion.
There may be nothing to it but it's given me an idea where we ought to
look first of all."

"Please tell us about it, Elmer?" begged Toby.

"I just knew Elmer would get on the track in double-quick time,"
asserted Landy, who always believed there was nothing impossible to the
patrol leader, once he set himself to a task.

"It all came about from hearing a boy talking when I was down in the
market yesterday morning.  You know who he is, Johnny Spreen, the
fellow who always ships out a raft of dried ginseng roots every year,
and in the Spring sends a bunch of muskrat skins to the city."

"Sure we know Johnny," assented Toby, quickly; "he comes to town with a
load of hay once every two weeks.  His folks live a long ways off, up
beyond the two lakes where we used to go camping."

"That's right, Toby," said Elmer, "and their farm borders that terribly
big Sassafras Swamp lying beyond Lake Solitude.  Well, I happened to
hear Johnny tell how he had taken a look through the swamp the other
day, just to find out how the muskrats were coming on, so as to get a
pointer on his winter business this year.  He said he honestly believed
there must be some man hiding there, because in several places he had
come on tracks."

"But people sometimes go in Sassafras Swamp to hunt, don't they,
Elmer?" objected Lil Artha.

"Not in August, because there are no woodcock up there, you know, and
nothing else can be shot at this time of year," Elmer continued; "but
Johnny had something else to say that interested me considerably.  It
seems at one place he found ashes that told of a fire, and while
rooting around he picked up a piece of steel that he allowed me to see.
It had evidently been _filed_; and boys, can you guess what it made me
think it must have once been?"

Although all of them looked eagerly interested, they shook their heads
in the negative, as though unable to hazard even a guess.

"Go on, Elmer, and tell us," urged Toby.

"Yes, let down the bars and relieve our anxiety, please, Elmer," added
Lil Artha.

"Unless I'm away off in my reckoning," said the other, solemnly, "it
was part of a pair of steel handcuffs such as officers fasten to the
wrists of prisoners when taking them to the penitentiary!"



CHAPTER III

A PROMISING CLUE

It was about four o'clock on the following afternoon when a wagon drawn
by a pair of husky horses moved along the shore of Lake Solitude, many
miles away from the town of Hickory Ridge.

This vehicle was filled with lively lads, all of them in the faded
khaki uniforms that, as a rule, distinguish Boy Scouts the wide world
over.

Counting them it would be seen that they numbered just seven, and this
included all of those whom we met on the road under the spreading
branches of the big oak, and Mark Cummings in addition.  Since the
entire membership of the Wolf Patrol consisted of eight, it was plain
that the only one now lacking was the unfortunate Hen Condit.

After making up their minds to exert themselves to the utmost in hopes
of finding the runaway, and bringing him back home, Elmer and the
others had set to work preparing for the campaign.

The patrol leader gave such advice as was required by some of the
others, telling them to go as light as possible, since they would have
to be moving around, and ordinary camp material could not be considered.

If they were compelled to remain out in the open for one or more
nights, there were plenty of ways whereby they could secure shelter
without carrying along such a cumbersome thing as a tent.

Each fellow had his rubber poncho strapped to his pack.  Elmer and Lil
Artha carried a gun each, not that they expected to shoot any game, but
to use as a threat should they be faced by a desperate escaped jail
bird.  Besides this the boys had seen to it that each one had some sort
of food supply, in the shape of sandwiches, dried beef, and such things
as could be most easily packed.

As Lil Artha had gaily declared, they expected to be like "Sherman's
bummers," and live off the country as they went along, though willing
to pay ready cash for any and all eggs, fowls or bread secured from
farmers' wives.

Josh had arranged to "tote" a coffee pot along, together with a supply
of the ground bean; while Landy had a capacious frying-pan fastened to
his pack, which the others just knew would be frequently tripping him
up, and making all sorts of noises when they wanted to steal silently
along.

Just what they meant to fry in that pan no one fully knew; but they
were strong in "hopes," and believed that things would turn up to
satisfy their hunger when the sensation became too acute.

The team had been hired at the town livery stable, and they had been on
the road now since early in the morning, for it was a long way up to
Lake Solitude.

As this region had been the scene of some of the earliest camps of the
Hickory Ridge scouts, of course, the conversation covered many memories
connected with those experiences.

The horses had shown signs of playing out some miles back; but Lil
Artha proved himself to be an artful as well as clever driver.  He
managed to coax them along, and there was little doubt now that they
would reach their intended destination inside of a short time.

This was a farmer's place that lay adjacent to the swamp at the head of
the solitary lake.  Here they would arrange to leave their team while
searching the dark recesses of the swamp.  As all of them had had
considerable experience in such unsavory places they believed they knew
fairly well how to go about the hunt.

"Well, we ought to fetch that old farm mighty soon now, I should think,
Elmer," remarked the driver, as he flecked the back of the off-horse to
disturb a big green fly that was trying to stab the sweat-covered
animal in a tender spot.

"From what I've been able to find out, and what I know in the bargain
from my own experience up here," the patrol leader explained, "the head
of the lake lies just beyond that patch of willow trees, and we'll see
the farmhouse as soon as we make the next turn.  Easy there, Art, you
came near dumping us then."

"The pesky old road is so narrow it's hard to keep going straight,"
complained the other, in disgust; for one wheel had, indeed, slipped
over the edge, and their escape from a bad spill had been what Lil
Artha himself would have called a "close shave."

"I reckon suh, Sassafras Swamp must lie over in that direction then?"
remarked Chatz, pointing as he spoke.

"Just what it does," replied Elmer.

"It looks particularly gloomy, I should say," remarked Toby.

"Swamps always do, you must know," Elmer told him; "some of them are
always half dark even in the middle of the day.  That's because of the
jumble of vines that hang from tree to tree, and the canopy of branches
overhead.  Why, down South, as Chatz here can tell you, where Spanish
moss covers the trees, it's almost dark in some swamps."

"But, Elmer, there's one thing I just don't understand," suggested
Landy.

"Out with it then; and if I can explain I'll be only too willing," he
was told.

"Supposing now for the sake of argument that stranger was a bad man who
had escaped from a sheriff somewhere, when being taken to the
penitentiary; and that he managed to get a strangle hold on our chum,
Hen Condit, so that the other just had to do whatever he was told--get
all that, do you?  Well, if they skipped out of Hickory Ridge night
before last, how under the sun could they get away up here in a day or
so?"

"Yes, it's something like thirty miles, I should say, Elmer, and it
takes that boy Johnny a day and a night to get to our place with his
load, all down-grade, too.  You remember that Hen Condit never was
anything to brag of in the line of a long-distance walker."

"He may have made up his mind that he had to do some tall sprinting,"
said the other, "when he realized what a hornets' nest he'd stirred up
back there."

"Yeth," remarked Ted Burgoyne who had been listening to all this talk
with certain ideas of his own, "and lots of times it ithn't tho very
hard to get a lift on the road.  Wagons and autoth happen along, you
know, and the farmers around here are thoft things, you thee."

"I was just going to say that same thing, Ted," Elmer remarked, "when
you took the very words out of my mouth.  Yes, they may have had a
lift; or else Hen had to stretch himself to do the tallest walking of
his career.  All of which is based on the supposition that they did
come away up here, and are hiding right now somewhere about Sassafras
Swamp."

"You're figuring on what Johnny said, eh, Elmer?" asked Mark.

"I'm figuring on a whole lot of things," replied the other; "and among
them is the fact that some unknown man has been using the swamp for a
hiding-place of late."

"P'raps we'll learn a heap more about it after we stwike the farm we're
heading for," suggested Ted.

"And there, if you look now you can see the house among those trees,
with smoke coming out of the chimney at the kitchen end," said Elmer,
pointing ahead.

Lil Artha deliberately took chances by removing one hand from the
lines, and vigorously rubbing his stomach with it.

"Oh!  I know something of what bully suppers farmers' wives c'n serve
up," he hastened to say, throwing all the longing he could into looks
and words; "and here's hoping we get an invite to stay over there till
morning.  If they are very pressing, Elmer, I entreat you not to hurry
us off.  Things can wait that long, and we don't expect to do much in
the night-time, you remember."

The patrol leader made no rash promises.  He simply smiled, and started
to talk of other subjects; so poor Lil Artha, who did feel so empty
after such a little lunch by the wayside, was left in suspense.

"What's this farmer's name?" asked Toby.

"Trotter," replied Elmer.  "You know Johnny Spreen is really a bound
boy, and he has to work for the farmer until he gets a certain age,
when he is supposed to be given a sum of money, and be his own boss.
That's the law."

"Well, all I hope is that we pick up some decent clue around here,"
said Lil Artha; "Yes, and a bully supper in the bargain, that'll fill a
horrible vacuum, and put us all in fighting condition."

Their arrival created something of a sensation.  Dogs began to bark,
roosters to crow, cows to moo, and even a donkey started to bray in a
fearful fashion.  Immediately Johnny Spreen, the boy who trapped
muskrats in the winter, came running out from the big barn where he was
probably milking some of the cows, for he held a three-legged stool in
one hand as though it might be a weapon of defense.

The farmer, a long, lanky individual with a keen face, also bobbed in
sight, holding a currycomb; while at the kitchen door could be seen the
buxom figure of his wife, evidently bound to learn what was happening
even if her dinner did burn in consequence.

Three tow-headed, wild-eyed little Trotters, who had been playing at
teeter with a plank laid over a carpenter's "horse" for a seesaw,
ranged themselves all in a row, and gaped their fill at the strange
spectacle of a wagonload of boys all dressed pretty much alike.

"Are you Mr. Trotter?" asked Elmer, as he jumped down, and the other
came forward toward him.

"That's my name, son; what fetches the hull lot of you up this way?
Ameanin' to camp on the lake-shore, it might be?  I've heard about the
scouts daown at Hickory Ridge; Johnny yonder's been apinin' to jine 'em
this long time back, but, of course, it ain't to be thunk of, with him
so far away."

"Yes, we are the members of the Wolf Patrol, Mr. Trotter," said Elmer,
who wanted to make a good friend of the farmer in the start.  "I'm
Elmer Chenowith; perhaps you know my father, or some of the other
fellows' parents."

He thereupon introduced each one of the boys by name, and even
mentioned the fact that the father of this one or that occupied a
prominent place in the business or professional world of Hickory Ridge
town.

"We haven't exactly come up here to camp out this trip, Mr. Trotter,"
continued the patrol leader, after bowing to the farmer's wife who had
first darted indoors to see that her supper was not burning, and then
hurried to join them.

Elmer knew that the truth might just as well come out in the beginning
as later.  On this account he did not intend to hold anything back, but
be perfectly frank with the owner of the lake farm.

"What might be your object then, son?" asked the tiller of the soil,
possibly feeling a bit of natural curiosity in the matter.

"Ask him first of all, won't you Elmer," pleaded Lil Artha, as though
he feared lest this important matter be lost sight of in the confusion
of affairs; "whether he c'n spare us some eggs, and a few broilers to
take into the old swamp with us?"

"I guess ma c'n let you have what you want along them lines," replied
Mr. Trotter, "though seems like somebody's been amakin' free with her
layin' hens lately.  They keep disappearin' right along.  Sometimes I
think it's a mink that's gettin' 'em, but they ain't any signs of sech
a critter around; 'cause you know a mink'll kill as many as a dozen
fowls in one night, and jest suck their blood."

Elmer exchanged suggestive looks with his mates.

"From what you say, sir," he remarked quickly, "your fowls are carried
off bodily.  Is that it?"

"They jest keep on gettin' less an' less right along," the farmer
admitted.  "Me and Johnny here was thinkin' o' settin' up with guns to
see if we could get a crack at the chicken thief, whether he was a
mink, a badger, or a two-legged raskil."

"That's what we was meanin' to do," agreed the said Johnny, glad to
have his name mentioned in the matter at all.

"Well, we've got a hunch, Mr. Trotter," said Lil Artha, bound to get
his say in the affair, "that we might put you wise about that same
thief."

"I'd shore be glad to hear it," declared the farmer; "Johnny here has
been asayin' as heow he b'lieves thar's a feller ahidin' out in the
swamp, 'cause he seen his tracks.  I even reckoned on sendin' for a
neighbor o' mine, Bay Stanhope, that's got some hounds used to
follerin' people, an' see if we could run him daown."

"Well, Mr. Trotter, that is exactly what we scouts propose doing," said
Elmer.  "And now if you'll listen to something I've got to tell, you
can understand what sort of interest we've got in this thing."

So in as few words as possible he narrated the story of how Hen Condit
had acted in such a queer way, robbing his uncle and guardian, and
actually leaving a silly letter that fastened the crime on his own
shoulders.

"He was seen by one of my chums talking with a strange man just the day
before this happened," continued.  Elmer.  "We believe that man was the
same unknown party who has been hiding in Sassafras Swamp for a time
past, and as you've just told us, living off your flock of fowls.
Johnny here, down in the hay market, gave me something he picked up in
the swamp near some ashes.  Here it is, Mr. Trotter, and all of us
believe firmly it is part of a steel handcuff which was filed in half,
showing that the man must be a desperate character escaped from jail."

At that the farmer's wife uttered a little shriek, and began to look
frightened.

"Hennery," she told her husband authoritatively, "you go git your gun
right away.  And Johnny, chain the bull-dog close to the kitchen door.
After this I'm meanin' to make sure the bar's in place when I'm left
alone, and Moses kept inside the house along with me."

Elmer guessed that the said Moses must be the bull-dog.  He also
figured that, as a rule, the animal was kept indoors nights, which
accounted for his not having interfered with the carrying off of the
farmer's chickens.

Mr. Trotter was plainly deeply interested by this time in the story
connected with the coming of these seven scouts.

"Sure I'll do all I kin to help you land the critters, boys," he
assured them.  "But that swamp is some big, an' I guess as haow you'll
have all you want to do achasin' through the same.  Supposin' naow you
let things rest till tomorry, and make an early start.  Mebbe we might
bag the raskils this very night, if so be they try to make another haul
on my feathered stock, aimin' to git a turkey this time."

Of course, Elmer could see through a grindstone that had a hole in its
center.  He knew very well that the shrewd farmer wanted to make use of
them in order to protect his property; but it served Elmer's purpose
just as well to readily agree to the proposition.

As for Lil Artha, his eyes were almost popping out of his head with
suspense; he was also licking his lips after the manner of a hungry dog
when scenting a bone.

"We'll stop over with you then, Mr. Trotter," agreed the patrol leader;
"and before morning try to figure out our plan of campaign looking to
rounding up the chicken thieves who are believed to be hiding in
Sassafras Swamp."



CHAPTER IV

JOHNNY'S CHICKEN THIEF TRAP

"I'm only sorry for one thing, boys," remarked Farmer Trotter's wife,
who had apparently hailed the decision of the seven bold scouts to
guard her fowl-roost with undeniable joy.

"What might that be, ma'm?" asked Lil Artha, in a quivering voice; for
the poor fellow began to have a terrible fear that she was about to
warn them her stock of provisions was too valuable to be wasted on a
batch of tramps.

"Of course, we'll be glad to have you to supper, and breakfast, too,
for that matter," she told them; "but I'm afraid I couldn't find beds
enough to go 'round, even if you all doubled up."

At that the elongated scout gave a loud laugh; the clouds passed from
his face like magic.  If he could only be positive of his regular
rations it mattered nothing to Lil Artha where he laid his head.

"Oh! don't let that little thing bother you, Mrs. Trotter," he hastened
to say, thereby making himself spokesman for the crowd; "why, we're
used to camping out, you see, and in our time we've slept in the
queerest beds you ever heard tell of.  We can bunk in any old place, I
give you my word."

"What's the matter with sleeping in the barn?" asked Toby, suddenly.

"That's so," added Landy, eagerly; "it's nearly full of nice sweet hay,
cut only a month or so back.  Me to hit the hay every time."

In fact, the idea seemed to appeal to all of them.  They had planned to
make their camp just as circumstances permitted, and this thing of
spending the first night in a hay barn was romantic enough to suit the
fancy of any scout who loved adventure and the Big Outdoors.

So it was quickly settled.

The boys were shown the barn by the eager Johnny, who could hardly
finish his numerous chores on account of the excitement surrounding
him.  It was an event of prime importance, according to his mind, when
seven real scouts came and took the farmhouse of the Trotters by storm.

That supper was one never to be forgotten by the fellows.

Why, according to Lil Artha, and he ought to know as well as the next
one, the table fairly _groaned_ under the weight of good things which
the farmer's wife kept placing upon it.

"Talk about your festive board," the tall scout afterwards remarked to
several of his pards, "that table just talked, that's what it did, and
in the sweetest tones you ever heard.  Yum! yum, wouldn't I like to
board with the lady of the Trotter Farm for just one long week.  I'd
pick up flesh at the rate of five pounds per day.  The only trouble
would be about getting into my clothes in the end."

Johnny had shown them where they were to sleep, so that each fellow
could fix himself to his best advantage.  This was done ahead of time,
for all of them knew how difficult it was to manage such things by the
aid of a wretched stable lantern.

Elmer saw that Johnny was fairly itching to tell him something, and so
he managed to get the bound boy aside just as darkness was creeping
along.

"What have you got up your sleeve, Johnny?" he demanded, at which the
other had a laughing spell, and confessed.

"Why, you see, I got a trap all rigged out!" he started to explain.

"A trap for the chicken thieves, do you mean?" asked the patrol leader.

"That's the ticket, Elmer.  Yuh see, I reckoned that by now they'd be
gettin' real tired o' jest plain hen, and might feel like climbin'
higher.  We gut some whoopin' nice young turks that like tuh roost in a
certain tree.  Easiest thing in the world tuh grab a couple in the
night, and kerry 'em off.  So I fixed it."

"Suppose you let me take a look at the trap you made, Johnny?"
suggested Elmer, naturally interested.

"Jest what I was agoin' tuh ask yuh tuh do, Elmer.  And I guess now it
wouldn't be a bad ijee fur the rest tuh kim along, too.  If so be
there's a kerflummix in the middle o' the night, they ought tuh know
what she means."

Now, Elmer himself could not exactly find a definition for that word,
but he had a faint idea Johnny meant a big noise or a row.  At any rate
he was glad of the chance to invite the other six scouts to accompany
them.

Elmer lighted a lantern, and after the boys had gathered around he led
them away from the big barn.

Presently, at some little distance, he came to a halt.

"This here's the tree the turks hes picked out tuh roost in.  Some o'
'em likes tuh fly 'way up, but others prefers the bottom limbs.  If a
feller's keerful he kin climb up and wring the necks o' as many as he
wants.  Young turks they don't know nigh as much as old uns, yuh see.
Now I'll show yuh how I sets my trap."

First of all they noticed that there was what appeared to be a drygoods
box exactly under the tree.

"Seems to me you're making it mighty easy for the chicken thieves when
they drop around, with that box right under the lower row of turkeys?"
suggested Toby, upon discovering this fact.

Johnny Spreen gurgled over with laughter.

"Say, d'ye reckon so?" he exclaimed; "well, by hokey! now, that's part
of the game, sure it be."

"Oh! then you really want them to climb up on that big box when trying
to grab one of the young turkeys?" asked Lil Artha.

"Jes' so," chuckled the bound boy.

"Is she loaded, then?" continued Lil Artha, as all of them gravely
examined the innocent-looking box.

"I'll show yuh how she works," Johnny said, proudly.  "Mebbe my ijee
ain't good for nawthin', but she's the best I could think up.  Course,
the thieves they hain't fotchin' no lantern along, 'cause they'd be
afeared we'd see a movin' light.  Then ag'in I don't b'lieve sich
slinkers ever does own a lantern."

"That's right, Johnny," remarked Toby, impatiently, "let's take it for
granted then they come in the dark.  What will they do next?"

"Huh! what'd any feller do when he sees sech a nice box awaitin' for
him to git up on, so's to grab the nigh turk?" demanded Johnny.  "Now,
if yuh watch me yuh'll git the ijee in a jiffy."

A stout rope seemed to be hanging from the limb overhead.  It had a
running noose at the end, which the bound boy was now adjusting on the
top of the drygoods box.

Elmer chuckled as he began to grasp the scheme; it seemed pretty smart
to him, and he was ready to give the bound boy credit for a bright idea.

"Now," continued Johnny, "jest tuh show yuh how she works I'm agoin'
tuh make a wat yuh calls it, a martin o' myself.  Hold the lantern,
Elmer, and gimme room."

He climbed up on the big box.  The turkeys were craning their necks and
observing him with evident wonder, though they were undoubtedly on
friendly terms with Johnny who had fed and driven them since hatching
time, and knew his raspy voice.

"Yuh see, in the dark he don't notice the loop any," continued the
inventor of the trap, "and when he gits real busy with the turks why
there's a good chanct o' his foot gittin' caught in the loop.  She on'y
needs a leetle jerk this-aways!"

He gave the required pull, and instantly a most surprising event came
to pass.  That jerk at the rope must have set a hair-trigger going, for
there followed a sudden rattling noise, the loop was instantly
tightened around his ankle, and in a trice Johnny was hanging head
down, as helpless as a snared rabbit.

The scouts clapped their hands in glee.

"Great scheme, Johnny!"

"It sure does you credit!"

"My! what a cwack when your feet hit the limb!"

So the scouts kept giving their views, while Johnny swung there, vainly
trying to reach up and catch hold of the limb, with the turkeys
twittering, and showing more or less alarm.

"Elmer, git me daown outen this, please!" begged the prisoner.

"But how can we do it, Johnny, when we don't know the combination of
the racket?" demanded Lil Artha.

"Foller the rope, and shove the hogshead up the rise agin!" explained
the suspended boy, who was probably already beginning to feel the
discomforts of "standing on his head."

Several of them rushed off, and sure enough they found the secret of
the springing of the trap.  Johnny's clever scheme was simple enough
when once its secret had been disclosed.

He had an old hogshead perched on the top of a steep little rise near
by.  It was connected with the long rope that had a noose at the end.
When anyone pulled the rope, as with a foot caught in the loop, a
trigger was set free, and the heavy hogshead started to roll down the
little descent, jerking the entangled thief up by one or both ankles,
as happened to be the case.

Of course, by rolling the hogshead back to its initial position Johnny
was enabled to right himself, and get his foot free from the noose.

He started rubbing his shin as though it felt sore after such a rough
experience, but they could hear him laughing softly to himself all the
while.

"I jest reckoned the old thing'd work to beat the band," he told them;
"an' now I knows it.  Wait till I set the trap agin, fellers, an' then
we'll go back tuh the barn.  What d'ye spect's agoin' tuh happen if
them chicken thieves kim around tuhnight, Elmer, hey?"

"Well, somebody's liable to meet up with the surprise of their lives,
that's all," the scout patrol leader admitted.

The boys were pretty tired, and did not care to remain up too long.
Perhaps Mrs. Trotter might have liked to have these lively fellows in
to sing for her, and enliven her monotonous life a little; but
considering that they half expected to be hard pushed on the morrow,
Elmer advised that they try to get all the sleep possible while they
had the chance.

The horses had been well cared for, and arrangements made with the
farmer to keep them in his stable until the scouts were ready to return
to Hickory Ridge.

"This is what I call a soft snap," ventured Toby, who had burrowed into
the hay as far as he thought necessary, and lay there at full length.

"The farmer was mighty careful to ask whether any of us smoked, you
noticed," remarked Lil Artha.

"Can you blame him?" demanded Landy.  "He must have twenty tons of fine
new hay in this big barn, and that's worth all of four hundred dollars."

"Jutht as like ath not, too, he didn't put a cent of inthurance on the
barn," Ted remarked; "farmers are careleth that way, you know."

"And so are boys who make out to be men because they smoke on the sly,"
Elmer went on to say.  "More than one barn has been set on fire by
smokers using matches in the hay.  Tramps are responsible for a heap of
this waste; and I don't blame any farmer for asking such a question.
I'm glad we could tell him none of us had taken to the habit as yet."

"Or if they had they'd reformed!" chuckled Lil Artha, meaning himself.

"One thing sure," observed Mark, "if we hear that barrel crashing down
the hill with all those stones inside it, we ought to be pretty spry
getting out there, because a poor wretch might get dizzy hanging with
his head down."

"What if nobody happened to hear the alarm," suggested Landy, who had a
tender heart even when chicken thieves were concerned.

"I take it suh, that would be a bad thing fo' the coon that set the
trap off," Chatz announced, gravely.

"Oh!  Johnny has prepared for even that," said Elmer.  "He showed me
how he had fixed another cord that runs all the way to his room in the
house.  When the barrel starts to rolling that cord will be snapped,
causing a weight to fall on the floor close to his bed, and bound to
waken anybody but the dead."

"Say, that Johnny's a sure-enough wonder!" declared Toby; "he's got the
inventive genius developed to beat the band.  I'd like to see more of
Johnny Spreen.  Who knows but that we might hitch together and make a
team.  I've done a few little wrinkles along the line of invention
myself, you remember.  Jones and Spreen wouldn't sound bad."

Of course, that brought about a stirring up of old history, for many
and humorous had been Toby's attempt to construct a flying machine, and
also a parachute that would save the lives of daring aeronauts when
their engines gave out a mile or two up in the air.

Finally, the boys began to talk less, and it could be easily seen that
they were getting sleepy.  Elmer really encouraged them to quit their
efforts to keep awake.  He himself felt that sleep would be welcome
just then; and when that humor seizes a fellow he dislikes being kept
awake against his will by the chattering of a comrade who does not know
what a bed is meant for.

Then the last word was mumbled, and stentorian breathing here and there
in those hay nests announced that the tired scouts had surrendered to
the sleep god.  Elmer was, perhaps, the last to drop off, for he had
been thinking of a lot of things, running from the chicken-thief trap
to the strange conduct of Hen Condit in robbing his guardian, and then
leaving that ridiculous note to condemn himself.

Once Elmer chanced to awaken, and more from the habit of the cattle
range than anything else, he raised his head to listen.  The only
sounds he heard consisted of the champing of the horses, still busy
with their sweet hay, or it might be the distant cry of a
whip-poor-will calling to its mate in the apple orchard.

So Elmer dropped back with a satisfied feeling such as comes on
realizing that all is well.  Perhaps the thieves would not make a visit
to the farm adjoining the big Sassafras Swamp, on that particular
night, at least.  Perhaps morning would come at last, and find the trap
undisturbed.

Elmer was letting these things pass through his brain in a hazy sort of
way peculiar to one who is just yielding to sleep.  He had almost
reached the point when things would have slipped entirely from his grip
when suddenly and without the least warning there started a tremendous
racket such as he had noticed came to pass when that hogshead started
rolling down the grade, and the stones with which it was loaded began
to rattle about inside.

Almost at the same instant there rang out a shrill scream of agony that
could only have come from the throat of someone in mortal distress.

As if by magic every scout sat bolt upright, as though they had been
shot into that position by the action of a gigantic galvanic battery.

"Oh! what happened?" Landy was heard to call out in trembling tones.

"It's Johnny's trap!" whooped Lil Artha, all excitement.



CHAPTER V

THE KNIFE WITH THE BUCKHORN HANDLE

"Everybody get out in a hurry!" called Elmer, suiting the action to the
word himself by scrambling erect and making for the open door of the
big barn.

It was far from light in there; but as they could easily see the
opening all they had to do was to make for it.  Elmer had been careful
to make sure that there were no pitchforks lying around loose, to be
run upon by accident.

Hardly had the scouts managed to stream from the interior of the barn
than they became aware of the fact that someone was running headlong
toward them.  Toby threw himself into an attitude of defense, raising
the piece of wood he had grasped for a club; but Elmer realized that
the runner was approaching from the direction of the farmhouse and
therefore must be a friend rather than a foe.

"Steady, boys, it must be Johnny!" he told his comrades as they
clustered there.

Johnny it proved to be.  The bound boy must have lain down on his cot
fully dressed and equipped, for he had on even his cowhide boots, and
was minus only a hat.  Of course, the boy was fairly brimming over with
intense excitement.

"Didn't yuh hear him yell?" he was crying.  "We've kotched the chicken
thief fur sure, fellers.  Whoop la! kim on, everybody, and nab him
afore all the blood runs tuh his head!"

Lil Artha and Elmer, of course, had snatched up their guns, although
they hardly believed they would find any use for the weapons.  All of
them started on the run toward the spot where the turkeys roosted in
the favorite tree.

The sky was clouded over, and while it was not actually dark the boys
had some little difficulty in seeing as well as they might have liked.
Now and then one of the sprinters would stumble over some impediment,
and perhaps measure his length on the ground, only to scramble erect
again and tear after the rest.

It was usually clumsy Landy who met with these mishaps; but even such
things did not seem to subdue his ambition to keep after the crowd.

Elmer was listening as he ran.  He wondered why they did not already
hear the groans or whines of the wretched thief who had been hung up by
the heels without receiving a second's warning.

Remembering how Johnny had been whisked aloft, Elmer felt sure no one
could be blamed for letting out that shriek when the catastrophe came
about.  Nor would he have thought it queer if the suspended rascal kept
up his groans as he writhed and twisted in a vain effort to reach up to
the limb; which only a circus contortionist would have been able to do.

He imagined he heard some sort of sound ahead of them.  But even at
that Elmer could not be certain.  It might be the night breeze sighing
through the upper branches of the tall tree, or the alarmed turkeys
holding a confab among themselves, for all he could tell.

But they were rapidly bearing down upon the spot now, and in another
half minute ought to be where they could see the swaying figure of the
caught thief.

"I don't seem to get him, Johnny!" ventured Lil Artha, in a
disappointed tone.

"Huh! somethin' gone wrong I guess!" grunted the inventor; and if the
tall scout could feel chagrin, fancy what a shock it must have been to
Johnny when he realized that there was no dangling figure to greet him,
despite that wild yell so full of mortal agony.

Perhaps already wise Elmer had begun to hazard a shrewd guess as to the
why and wherefore of this vacancy.  He was a great hand to see through
things long before the answer became apparent to his chums.  If this
were so, at least he did not venture to say anything to them about it.

By now all of them, save slow-poke Landy, had arrived at the tree.
They could hear the alarmed turkeys making some twittering sounds
above, but if any of them had flown off the rest remained on their
roosts.

Johnny had been smart enough to fetch his lantern along.  This he now
proceeded to light, and as soon as the wick took fire he began to
examine the trap.

"Dog-gone the luck, she went and broke on me!" he wailed, as though his
boyish heart were almost broken by the catastrophe.

"That's what comes of not testing things before-hand!" said Toby, with
the air of a wise-acre who knew it all; and yet Toby was himself a most
notorious offender along those very same lines, as his chums could have
informed the bound boy had they chosen to give a fellow-scout away.

"Gee whiz! he did test it, Toby," said Lil Artha, indignantly; "didn't
we all of us see him ahangin' head-down.  There's some sort of a
mystery about it, that's what."

"Not much," said Elmer, who, while the others were talking, had been
examining the end of the rope that lay on the ground near by; "it's
been cut, that's all."

"Cut with a knife d'ye mean, Elmer?" cried Johnny, aghast.

"Just what it has," continued the patrol leader firmly; "you can see
that with one eye, for the edges are smooth, and not ragged as they
would be if the rope had broken a strand at a time."

Every fellow had to push up and examine it to make sure, and there was
no dissenting voice after that.  They knew Elmer was right, as he very
nearly always appeared to be in matters like this.

"But say, however could he have twisted up to get at the rope while he
was hanging here by one leg, I'd like to know?" demanded Landy.

"Mebbe the second thief helped him git loose," suggested the bound boy.

"Just what happened as sure as anything," assented Elmer.  "They were
too smart for you that time, Johnny.  Instead of running away when the
alarm went off, this second fellow whipped out his blade, and finding
the rope where it ran from the tree, he cut it."

"Then the other dropped down, and got his legs loose," added Toby.
"See, here's the loop lying on the ground."

Sure enough, it was just as he said.  The loop was there in plain
sight, just as it had apparently been hurled aside by the trapped thief
after he had a chance to use his hands.

Johnny was the most bitterly disappointed fellow Elmer had come across
in a long time.  He kept muttering to himself as he examined the
fragment of rope.  Lil Artha said he was "chewing the rag," whatever
that might mean; but, at any rate, Johnny did not seem to be in a very
happy frame of mind, so the operation could hardly have been of a
pleasant nature.

"Now, I understand that second little rumble I heard," said Elmer.  "It
was just as Johnny reached us in front of the barn, and sounded like
the barrel had started on again.  That happened when the rope was cut,
allowing the weighted hogshead to keep on a little further to the
bottom of the drop."

"Let's see if you hit the nail on the head with that guess," suggested
Toby, who liked to be convinced by his own eyesight when anything came
to pass.

So, led by the inventor of the trap, they hurried to where the hogshead
had been perched on the brink of the steep little descent.  It could be
seen at the bottom; and this confirmed the theory Elmer had advanced.

"And we didn't get a glimpse of the thieves after all," lamented Landy;
"now I was hoping I'd see a fellow dangling there when we came up.  Not
that I'd like him to suffer too much, you know; but for Johnny's sake I
wanted him to be nabbed."

"Yes, it's all off now," admitted Lil Artha.

"Of course, after that row they wouldn't be silly enough to come again
for another try?" suggested Toby.

"Huh! that ole trap ain't no good after that mess," grunted Johnny,
disdainfully.  "I reckons as how I'll hev tuh think up sum other kind.
But they ain't agoin' tuh git any o' them turks if I have to sot up all
night, and borry a gun frum you fellers in the bargain."

"What's the matter with tying Moses the bulldog to the tree here?"
remarked Elmer; "he's barking now at the kennel near the house.  I'd
certainly make use of the old dog if I were you, Johnny."

"Jest what I will do, Elmer.  Moses ain't a great hand tuh bark, yuh
see; bulls do the business with their teeth 'stead o' with their noise.
But he kin give tongue when he wants tuh.  I'll fix him here fur the
rest o' the night."

"How does it come the farmer hasn't shown up?" asked Mark, who thought
it a bit queer Mr. Trotter displayed so little interest in the safe
keeping of his young turkeys.

"Oh! him," chuckled Johnny; "nobody never ain't agoin' tuh get him
waked up once he hits the hay.  Talk tuh me baout sleepin', he kin beat
anything yuh ever met.  I bet yuh the missus is up and waitin' tuh know
if we grabbed one."

"Do you think they got a turkey after all?" asked Landy, as he picked
up several feathers from the ground near the tree.

"What do you say about that, Johnny?" Elmer inquired.

"Well, it daon't stand tuh reason he did," replied the other, gravely;
"even if he had holt o' one at the time, he never'd a held on tuh hit
arter that rope had slung him head down'ards.  Guess I ort tuh know.
If any o' yuh wants tuh feel what it's like, I'll rig the trap up agin
in the mawnin' for yuh.  Hold a turkey nawthin'.  He couldn't even hold
his breath, but had tuh give a yell like he was killed."

Indeed, they were all of pretty much the same opinion.  No matter how
brave a fellow the trespasser might be, when he met with such a sudden
and unexpected upheaval as that running noose brought about, his wits
were bound to desert him for the time being at least.

It may have been noticed also that no one, even bold Lil Artha, the
most venturesome of them all, volunteered to make the additional test
when morning came.  They seemed perfectly satisfied to accept the will
for the deed.  They had witnessed the speedy working of Johnny's trap,
and evidently had no itching to try what it felt like to hang head
downward from the limb of a tree, with a leg almost dislocated by a
sudden jerking, powerful lever.

"Well, 'tain't no use acryin' over spilt milk, they sez," remarked
Johnny, who, after all, seemed to be of a philosophical turn of mind;
"the thing's done, an' that's all they is tuh hit.  Might as well git
Mose and fix him here tuh the tree.  Them turks has jes' gut tuh be
saved, no matter how much trouble it takes."

"Elmer, what are you thinking about?" asked Mark just then; for being
used to the ways of his best chum he could see that the patrol leader
was pondering something in his mind.

"If you want to know it was about that yell," Elmer admitted.

"A pretty husky whoop in the bargain, let me say," observed Lil Artha;
"I used to think I could beat all creation letting out a yell, but that
went one better, you hear me talking."

"Yes," added Toby, "it sounded as if the top of the world had blown
off, the fellow made such a howl.  Anyway, that's how it seemed to me
when I was waked up so suddenly."

"Have we ever heard a whoop like that before?" asked Elmer.

"Now you're thinking of Hen Condit, of course, Elmer," came from Toby.

"Well, Hen's got a good strong pair of lungs, let me tell you,"
admitted Landy.  "I remember the time that cow tossed him when he was a
small boy, and say, he made everybody inside of half a mile run
outdoors to see what was the matter.  They found Hen straddlin' a limb
of a tree, and whooping it up for all he was worth.  It might have been
him, Elmer, no telling."

"And just as well any other person badly scared," Mark observed.  "I
think I'd be able to do some fine work along those lines under the same
conditions."

"Then it seems that we'll never be able to identify Hen by that shout,"
laughed Elmer; "but there's a way we can find something out, as all
scouts ought to know."

That remark immediately put them all on their mettle.

"Sure thing, Elmer," agreed Lil Artha, "for, of course, you mean if we
could find a trail around here we might pick out the different
footprints; and one of us ought to know something about the kind of
shoes Hen wears."

"That's me," admitted Landy, "because I happened to be going with Hen
more or less lately.  Show me the footprints and I'll tell you soon
enough if it's him."

Of course, nothing could be done without the lantern, so they kept
close to Johnny, who carried the same.  From time to time he was given
instruction how to hold the light so they might examine certain spots.

"Hello!  Elmer's found something!" suddenly exclaimed keen-eyed Lil
Artha, when he saw the scout leader stoop over almost under the tree,
and alongside the large drygoods box.

"That so, Elmer; what was it?" several asked him in a breath.

"Gather around me," the other commanded, "and let's see if you can
recognize what I picked up."

"Huh! bet you it fell from his pocket when he was dragged upside-down,"
was the way Lil Artha put it; quick to guess the truth, though he had
not himself thought of this possibility before.

"Correct for you, Lil Artha, for that's what happened," Elmer
acknowledged.

"Is it a knife, Elmer?" continued the tall scout.

"Once more you hit it," said the other; "and Landy, since you say
you've been going more or less with Hen lately, perhaps you'd be apt to
know his knife if you happened to set eyes on it?"

"To be sure I would, Elmer."

"You've handled it then, have you?"

"Lots of times, because you see I lost my own frog-sticker some weeks
back, and I ain't had a birthday since to get a new one," Landy
confessed.

"That sounds good to me," Elmer told him; "so now take a look at this,
and tell us what you think."

With that he brought his hand around, having been keeping it behind his
back all this time.  When he opened it there was disclosed a common,
every-day jack-knife with a buckhorn handle, such as might be expected
to be found in the pocket of almost any lad, and capable, when given a
keen edge, of performing miracles in the way of shaving sticks and
cutting up apples.

So Landy gravely, though eagerly, took up the knife.  He opened the big
blade and seemed interested in a certain nick he found there.

"Elmer, that settles it," he said, finally; "it's Hen's knife, I'm
positive; and it must have been him that was hanging from this tree a
bit ago!"



CHAPTER VI

BOUND FOR SASSAFRAS SWAMP

When Landy Smith settled the matter in this convincing fashion, the
rest of the scouts showed more or less interest in the outcome.

"That proves one thing," asserted Toby; "Hen Condit is up here, all
right."

"It proves a whole lot of things, according to my opinion," added Lil
Artha as he nodded his head in a way he had of emphasizing his remarks;
"it tells us Hen is in bad company, for the second fellow must be the
man he was seen with the other day in Hickory Ridge town."

"According to my notion, fellows," said Mark, seriously, "the hand of
that same unknown man stands back of all poor Hen's troubles.  Until
that party was seen in this part of the country, Hen didn't seem to
have a single worry.  He was always as light-hearted a chap as you
could find in a week of Sundays."

"What under the sun can it mean?" queried Landy, looking distressed;
because, truth to tell, he and the missing scout had been getting quite
fond of one another lately, and the shock had told upon Landy much more
than any other boy belonging to the Wolf Patrol.

"I tell you what I think," ventured Ted Burgoyne just then; "that man
mutht have hypnotized Hen.  I don't thee how elth he could make him do
whatever he wants.  Yeth, I even believe he forced Hen to wite that
letter.  Needn't laugh, Lil Artha, I've been reading it all up lately,
and there are thome queer happeningth along the line of hypnothism."

"Elmer, how about that; do you believe in it?" asked Lil Artha, who was
known to be pretty much of a scoffer in his way.

"I decline to commit myself--just yet at any rate," laughed the patrol
leader.  "I confess that queer things do happen, and a fellow who
always refuses to believe because he doesn't understand is silly.  But
we do know this unknown man has some kind of influence over our chum;
what it is we're going to find out before we're many days older."

"I like to hear you say that, Elmer," cried Landy, "because I just seem
to believe the thing's more'n half done when you put _your_ hand to the
plough.  I can't help but think how poor Hen must be feeling right now,
after getting himself in such a fix."

"How about those tracks we started out to find?" asked Toby just then.

"We'll give another look before closing shop," replied the patrol
leader.  "Just fetch the lantern over, Johnny; they'd be apt to head
away from the barn."

It was really in the direction of the near-by swamp that they now
commenced to look.  The wisdom of Elmer's figuring was soon made
manifest, for they quickly ran across what they were looking for.

"Here you are," said Elmer, "and now get busy, Landy."

"Yes, drop down on your marrow-bones and see what you make of the
footprints," Lil Artha told the fat scout.

Now Landy had had fair training in certain kinds of work associated
with scout-craft.  He had even taken numerous lessons in following a
trail, though giving poor promise of ever being a shining light in that
respect.

"Please hold the lantern closer, Johnny," he said, as he thrust his
nose down near the ground; "yes, here's a footprint as clear as
anybody'd want to see; and I sure ought to know the person who made the
same."

"Tell us why, Landy?" asked Elmer, with a pleased smile.

"That's an easy thing to do, Elmer.  You see that diagonal mark across
the toe of this impression--well, that's caused by a patch on the left
shoe.  All right, Hen Condit had just such a patch put on his shoe a
week ago last Saturday."

"You know that for a fact, do you, Landy?" questioned the patrol
leader, who did not want any guessing about this business.

"Why, I sat there all the time the cobbler was working at the same,
having accompanied Hen to the shoemaker's shop," continued Landy.
"What's more I joshed him about the fine and dandy track he made every
time he stepped in some half-hard mud that day after he left the shop.
Oh!  I'm as sure of this footprint as I am that my name's Landy Smith."

"Well, then, we've had double evidence," spoke up Ted Burgoyne; "and I
gueth that ought to thettle the matter.  Ith our Hen that was dragged
up by the heelth.  Elmer, will it pay uth to try and follow the trail?"

"Hardly just now, at any rate, Ted," the other told him.  "We might aim
to do something of the kind in the morning.  But even here it looks as
if they headed for the swamp.  That's a point to remember, boys."

Perhaps several of the scouts were just as well satisfied.  The idea of
starting out on a trail that might soon take them into a dismal swamp,
and at midnight in the bargain, with a cloudy sky overhead, did not
appeal very strongly to Landy, Toby and Chatz.

Accordingly, they turned back, heading for the friendly barn,
attracted, doubtless, by fond memories of those comfortable beds in the
sweet hay.

"How about the bulldog, Johnny?" asked Elmer, as they reached the barn
entrance.

"I'm meanin' tuh git Mose up yonder, and tie him tuh the tree," replied
the boy.  "Them turks hes gut tuh be looked arter, if I hes tuh stay up
all night tuh do the trick.  An' lemme tell yuh, Elmer, I kin make up
another trap jest as cunnin' as any ole fox.  I'll git 'em yit if so be
they keep hangin' 'raound these parts."

"I believe you would, Johnny," assented the other, who realized that
the bound boy was displaying several good traits that would carry him
along through the world once his time of bondage with the farmer was up.

There being no reason why they should keep away from their sleeping
quarters any longer, the seven scouts entered the barn.

"Wow! but it's plumb dark in here, though!" protested Lil Artha, after
he had knocked his shins twice against some projection, and even
slammed into a post that chanced to be directly in his way.

"We'd better stand still for a little while, so as to let our eyes get
used to the gloom," suggested Elmer; "it's always that way when you
step into one of the moving-picture places, you remember; but a few
minutes later you can see all around you.  Better waste a little time
than a lot of cuticle."

"Just so," grunted Lil Artha; "already half an inch of skin has been
barked off my shin, and my nose is swelling where I banged the same
against that awful post."

"Well," remarked Toby, whose ankles had not been bruised and who
consequently could even think to joke about the matter, "it's probably
the first time then Lil Artha was ever left at the post.  But I can see
a heap better already."

All of them found that their eyesight soon became accustomed to the
gloom; and that it was not so very bad after all.  They had just
managed to reach the place where their traps were left, and started
burrowing in the hay again, when Elmer called their attention to
certain suggestive sounds outside.

"That must be Johnny and the bull pup going past on the way to the
turkey roost," ventured Mark, as they plainly caught a whine, and then
a low growl that was vicious enough to make one's blood turn cold.

"If those fellows should be reckless enough to come back to make a
second try for young turkey," Landy was saying, as though he could not
keep his mind from grappling with Hen Condit and his troubles, "they'll
be some surprised when that ferocious old Mose grabs them by the legs,
and holds on like everything."

"For one, now," admitted Toby, "I'd want to be excused from any session
with the big white teeth of Mose that stick out from his lower jaw.
But if you asked me my opinion I'd say one scare a night was as much as
any ordinary chicken thief could put up with."

"Nothing doing," muttered Lil Artha, showing that he, too, was of the
same mind as the companion scout.

At least it was very evident none of the boys expected being disturbed
again in their slumbers, for they went about settling down as though
they meant to enjoy a good long session.

"Don't wake me too early, mother dear," Toby was heard to say, half to
himself, "for to-morrow won't be the first of May, and I'm not to be
the queen of the occasion either.  So please let me have my snooze out,
everybody."

Nothing did occur to disturb their slumbers which doubtless were
additionally sweet after that one break.

Elmer had them all up when he considered that it was right and proper.
True, the sun was only peeping above the horizon, and the birds still
twittered amidst the shrubbery near by; but Elmer knew what great hands
farm people are about getting up betimes, and he did not wish to keep
Mrs. Trotter's breakfast waiting for any sleepy-heads.

The grumbling ceased as if by magic the moment he mentioned that word
"breakfast," and Lil Artha immediately announced himself as being
wide-awake.

"H'm! seems like I could even smell the batter cakes frying right now,
fellows," he told them, with a smack of his lips.  "Notice that I scorn
to give them the well-known name of flapjacks on this festive occasion,
because we're going to eat at a regular table, under a hospitable roof;
and it's only when in camp that wheat cakes are called flapjacks."

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," chortled Toby.

"Yes, but if you kept calling it an onion you'd soon think it didn't,"
affirmed Lil Artha; "but say, do you reckon that bell was meant for us?
Oh! where's my other shoe; they pinched me, so I took 'em off in the
middle of the night, and the left one has gone and hid in the hay."

"Mebbe the rats got away with it, Lil Artha," suggested Landy,
wickedly; "I'm certain I heard 'em squeakin' all around here; and they
like shoe for breakfast."

It turned out, however, that there was no damage done; the missing
foot-wear was soon discovered under a wisp of hay, and quickly the tall
scout crept out in the wake of his six comrades.

A second time the bell was heard, and at that they all started on a run
for the rear of the house, where several tin basins, and some soap, as
well as clean towels announced that the farmer's good wife had gotten
things ready for them.

Lil Artha had guessed right; perhaps his keen scent had discovered the
odor of pancakes in the air, for they were in plain sight, several
pyramids of the golden beauties, with a pitcher of real maple syrup,
and plenty of fresh butter to go with the same.

Mrs. Trotter may only have had three little girls of her own, but she
certainly had been brought up in a family where there were boys,
because she knew so well what their weaknesses were.

What with three fried eggs apiece, guaranteed strictly home-grown and
fresh; a great rasher of sweet ham, also a product of the farm; coffee,
with genuine cream in the same, a dish of oatmeal, and then those
steaming stacks of cakes, it was a wonder some of those scouts were not
completely foundered.

Elmer had more or less difficulty in coaxing Lil Artha away from the
table.  The elongated scout could hardly breathe, he was so full; but
he heaved many a sigh as he noticed that a fresh plateful of those
unexcelled pancakes had just been put on, with no one left to do them
justice.

Shaking his head sadly, Lil Artha finally managed to get on his feet
and leave the dining-room.  His last look back spoke volumes; it said
as plainly as anything those wonderfully expressive words: "though lost
to sight, to memory dear;" and probably never again in the course of
human events would Lil Artha equal the astounding record he made that
same morning of thirteen pancakes straight.

Elmer knew they would have a big day ahead of them, and was really
anxious to get started.  He had made arrangements with the farmer and
his wife to supply such provisions as they could conveniently carry
along with them for a couple of days, while they were combing the big
Sassafras Swamp in hopes of coming across the two parties they sought.

If the Chief of Police in Hickory Ridge, with others to help him,
should put in an appearance, Elmer hoped they might be given such
information as lay in the power of Mr. Trotter.

"We are not hoggish, you must know, Mr. Trotter," he told the farmer,
as they were making their last preparations before starting forth;
"much as we want to be the ones who will round up these two lurkers in
Sassafras Swamp, if the police come to take a hand in the chase we wish
them every luck.  Yes, and what's more we stand ready as true scouts to
lend them a helping hand."

"All we want," added Ted, seriously, "ith a chance to athist our chum
Hen.  We believe him to be under thome influence, and tho we're bent on
breaking hith chains."

Each of the seven boys had a certain load to carry besides his rubber
poncho, and his pack was supposed to hold the extra food supplies as
well.  Some people on seeing what these consisted of might imagine the
swamp hunters meant to spend a very long time in their search; but then
such persons would in that way betray their gross ignorance as to what
a growing boy's appetite amounts to.  They were taking no chances of
starvation; and two whole days meant at least three times that many
full meals, with sundry bites in between.

From what Elmer had learned through Johnny Spreen, it was possible to
navigate a fair portion of the swamp with a boat.  They had several
flat-bottomed skiffs that were used for that purpose, usually by the
boy in his fur-hunting expeditions during the fall and winter seasons.

Unfortunately, things were so much behind at the farm that Johnny could
not be spared to accompany them.  Elmer had hinted at this, not because
he feared his own ability to get around, but because Johnny's being
along would save them much precious time.

When the scout leader had soaked in all possible information the bound
boy was capable of delivering, he believed he was in a fair way to
master the situation.  If Hen and his unknown captor were still hiding
anywhere in the big swamp, Elmer fancied they could be found.  What was
going to happen after that event came about, of course, he could not
say just then.

They made their way along for some distance until near the place where
the three flat-bottomed skiffs were kept tied up.  It was here that
Johnny made a sudden discovery that gave them all a little thrill.



CHAPTER VII

THE MISSING SKIFF

"Well, I swan!" was the sudden exclamation that broke from the lips of
Johnny Spreen, the farmer's bound boy, as he came to a halt.

Elmer, glancing hastily at him, saw the boy rubbing his eyes in a
somewhat dazed fashion.  He acted for all the world like a fellow who
did not feel sure that his sight was as good as usual.  Something
evidently was amiss.

"What is it?" demanded Lil Artha, in his usual impetuous way.

"The boats!" muttered Johnny Spreen.

"Sure thing, we see 'em!" declared the tall scout.

"How many kin yuh count, tell me?" asked the other, beseechingly, still
giving an occasional dab at his eyes, as though doubts clung to his
mind regarding their faithfulness.

"Why, let's see, I glimpse three--no, there are only two skiffs
afloating in that little bayou," Lil Artha told him.

"Only two, air yuh dead sartin?" continued Johnny.

"That's correct, two boats and no more.  I c'n see each one as clear as
anything.  Why, what difference does that make, Johnny?" asked Toby.

"But ther ought tuh be _three_, I tells yuh," insisted the bound boy;
"wun two-year old, another built larst season, and the last un just
this Spring.  Yessir, three on 'em in all."

"Well, I gueth your old boat took a notion to go to the bottom then,
Johnny," asserted Ted, "becauth there are only a pair floating there, I
give you my word."

"They was every wun thar yist'day," persisted Johnny.

"Are you sure of that?" Elmer asked him.

"Well, my name's Johnny Spreen, ain't it?" demanded the other, grimly;
"I'm workin' out my time with Mister Trotter hyar, ain't I?  Then I
still got two eyes, and I ain't turned loony yit by a long shot.  I
tell yuh, Elmer, I handled three skiffs yist'day--seen as they was tied
securely.  And now yuh tells me they be but two."

"Yes, that's a fact," the patrol leader assured him.

"All right then, they gut one, thet's boz."

Elmer expected some such result as this, so after all he did not seem
to be very much staggered.

"I suppose by 'them' you mean the chicken thieves, Johnny?" he remarked.

"No other."

"But if the man has been moving around in the swamp for a couple of
weeks, more or less, could he do without a boat all that time?"
continued the leader.

"I guess he cud, Elmer, though w'en yuh wants tuh trap muskrats yuh
need sum sort o' craft the wust kind.  P'raps he didn't chanct tuh run
across our skiffs up tuh last night.  Then agin mebbe he was askeered
tuh snatch one, fur fear we'd hunt arter it, an' bother him in the
swamp."

"All right, Johnny, I believe you're barking up the proper tree," said
Elmer; "but it looks as if the man changed his mind last night, and
took a boat."

"Yep, an' by gosh! the newest one o' the lot, too!" groaned the bound
boy, as he led them closer to where the other skiffs floated, secured
to stakes.

"After all that row," suggested Lil Artha, "it might be they thought
we'd give a quick chase, and they couldn't afford to take any more
chances.  So as a boat'd come in handy for them they gobbled it."

"Anybody'd pick the best in the bunch, come to that," added wise Toby.

"I don't know about that," Mark went on to say; "a really smart fellow
would be apt to reason that if he took only the old tub the owner
mightn't think it worth while to make much of a hunt for it, not caring
whether he got the same again or not."

"I consider that sound reasoning, Mark," observed the patrol leader,
who was never happier than when he found some of his followers
displaying good judgment in such matters.  "But the boat's gone, and
our next duty is to take a look around the bank before we get to
trampling things up too much.  We ought to make sure of things by
finding that marked track again."

"It can be done as easy as turning a handspring," vowed Toby Jones, as
all of them immediately spread out, fan-shape, like hounds that had
lost the scent temporarily, and were searching for it again.

Hardly half a minute had gone when there was an exultant cry raised.

"Didn't I say so?" demanded Toby, triumphantly; "but I never thought
Landy of all fellows'd be the one to find the trail."

"Oh! sometimes queer things do happen in this world," asserted the fat
scout, swelling with his triumph; "they say the race ain't always to
the swift.  But take a look, everybody, and see if I'm right."

They looked and unanimously pronounced Landy's judgment correct.  There
was the imprint of a shoe, a _left_ shoe in the bargain, beyond doubt,
and anyone who had eyes could detect that diagonal mark running across
the sole, which Landy had pointed out before as the line of the new
leather, placed there while he waited for Hen Condit in the Italian
cobbler's shop.

"As plain as the nose on your face, Landy!" admitted Lil Artha, with a
trifle of disappointment in his voice, for he had calculated on
discovering the tracks himself, and for one who was next door to a
greenhorn to do it humiliated the tall scout.

"No personal remarks, please, Lil Artha," said Landy; "I know my nose
isn't as prominent as yours, and some others in the crowd, but it
answers my purpose all right, and I'm not ashamed of it."

"Well, now we know where we're at," remarked Ted, with a satisfied air,
as though it might be a maxim with him to always start right.

"And it's up to us to divide our forces, choose our boats, and make a
start," Mark Cummings was saying.

"Ginger! don't I on'y wish I cud be goin' along!" said Johnny Spreen
with an expression on his face that could only be described as compound
disappointment.

"All of us would be glad if you were, Johnny," Elmer told him, feeling
for the boy, whose company would certainly be of considerable help to
the expedition, for Johnny knew the watery paths and the tangles of
Sassafras Swamp as, perhaps, no other fellow possibly could, since he
had long haunted its recesses, laying traps, and looking for new haunts
of the wily muskrats.

"As there are seven of us, all told," remarked Lil Artha, "that means
three in one boat, and four in the other.  Elmer, you divide up.  This
newer skiff looks to me just a weenty bit the bigger."

"It is by a foot, and wider, too," asserted Johnny, quickly.

"Then it ought to carry four, of course; but how's this, Johnny, where
are the oars for both craft; I don't see any!"

"Shucks! we don't use oars in the ole swamp," declared the other.  "A
push pole's the best way tuh git along.  Yuh see it's soft mud
everywhar, and so we cuts poles with a crotch at the end.  That keeps
'em frum sinking deep in the mud, so yuh kin git a chanct tuh shove."

"And a mighty good idea, too," avowed Toby; "I've had a little
experience with just plain everyday push poles, and even got hung up
when one stuck in the mud, so the boat left me.  But Elmer, how'll we
divide?"

The patrol leader glanced over his force.  It was only fair that he
arrange it so the weight would be as nearly equal as possible.

"Lil Artha, take Mark and Landy in the smaller skiff; the rest will go
with me," he announced immediately.

Mark was the nearest chum of the patrol leader, but Elmer disliked
favoritism, and hence he thus tacitly placed Lil Artha in command of
the second boat.  But then there was also another good reason for doing
this, since the tall scout had always shown himself to be clever on the
water, much more so than the bugler of the troop.

Johnny was already showing them how to pull the skiffs in by means of a
rope attached to each.  It was a good way of mooring them when not in
use.

"Yuh see the third boat was drawed up on the shore here," he remarked
in a disconsolate tone; "'cause I was ausin' her right along.  I guess
that's the reason they took the best o' the lot."

When the two boats had been brought to the shore, packs were
distributed in the same, according to the directions of the leader.
These were not hastily tossed aboard, but placed where they would be
out of the way of the one who was using the long push-pole.

"Thank goodneth we've got our camp hatchet along," remarked Ted, as he
took his place, "tho even if we do lose or bweak our pole we can
alwayth cut another one."

"Yep, I never go intuh the swamp without my hatchet," asserted Johnny.
"Yuh see it comes in mighty handy when yuh want tuh make a fire, or cut
a way through sum tangled snarl o' brush.  Then, besides, I find a use
fur the same in setting traps, fur mushrats ain't ther on'y kind o' fur
we bags araound these diggings."

Some of the boys might have liked keeping up the talk, especially when
it bordered on such an interesting subject.  Elmer, however, knew that
time was valuable to them just then, with such a difficult task ahead.
They had to find two parties who were secreted somewhere in the swamp;
and as Lil Artha declared it was "pretty much like looking for a needle
in a haystack."

Johnny stood there on the bank, and waved his hat to the scouts as he
watched them poling away.  They could almost imagine they heard the
tremendous sigh that came from his breast as he saw a glorious chance
for real fun pass from his grasp.

"Good-bye, an' good luck tuh yuh all!" he called out.

Following the serpentine passage of clear water, the two boats soon
passed from the sight of the bound boy, though doubtless he could still
hear gurgling sounds as the push-poles were worked, and the flat prows
of the skiffs passed over the numerous water-lily pads.

And now the swamp was before them.

All of the scouts surveyed the scene with lively anticipations.  They
could easily understand that the immediate future might throw all
manner of strange adventures across their path, and, like most boys,
Elmer and his chums were ever hungry for exciting things to happen--it
was in the blood.

But, then, at first the borders of the big Sassafras Swamp did not look
so very forbidding.  Elmer warned them not to expect that this
condition of affairs would last long.

"You remember what Johnny told us," he remarked so that all of them
could hear his words; "it keeps getting worse the further you go in.
Things are easy to begin with, but after a while we'll have our hands
full.  Above all things we must keep our heads about us, for if we do
that we'll escape getting lost."

"Then Johnny did admit a fellow could get lost in this place, did he?"
inquired Landy, uneasily.

"He used to lose his way often when he first started coming in here
after muskrats," confessed Elmer; "and then he began to have some
system about his excursions so that by degrees he got it all down pat."

"Yes, Johnny said he believed he could pole a boat pretty much into the
heart of Sassafras with his eyes shut or bandaged," remarked Lil Artha.

"Too bad he couldn't get off and be along with us," lamented Landy;
"and Elmer, if we'd only promised Farmer Trotter five dollars a day
he'd have let his help join us, I'm sure of that."

"Huh! too bad you didn't think of that before, Landy, and put it up to
Elmer," jeered Lil Artha; "but I wouldn't bother too much about it if I
was you.  Chances are we won't get lost much; and by the same token,
even if we do it'll be some kind of a sensation to wake us up."

Landy scratched his head, but not knowing how much of this was intended
by his tormentor he did not reply.  As they were gradually working
further into the dense growth by now there was enough around them to
chain their attention and arouse their interest.

In some places they could see that the shore stood above the sluggish
water, although covered for the most part with dense shrubbery that
would be difficult to pass through.  Channels began to be met with
running to the right and left, so that it behooved Elmer to remember
the explicit directions given by the muskrat trapper if he wished to
avoid getting side-tracked in the start.

Lil Artha, in the other boat, was also using his knowledge of woodcraft
to some purpose.  When it happened that the two skiffs came alongside
he called out to Elmer, as if to settle some point he had in mind.

"Even if I hadn't listened when Johnny was laying down the law to us
about the main channel in here, Elmer, I reckon I'd had no trouble
stickin' to the same, up to now, anyhow."

"Why tho, Lil Artha?" asked Ted Burgoyne.

"It's just this way," continued the other, briskly, as though only too
willing to show his hand, "you see Johnny has followed the same passage
in here so often now he's actually gone and left a trail behind him."

"Say, what are you giving us, Lil Artha?" demanded Toby; "on shore a
trail is all very well, but the water leaves none.  Once it settles
down after a boat's passed, I defy anybody to tell a thing about the
same."

Lil Artha grinned as though he really pitied the dense ignorance of
some people.

"You've got another think coming, Toby," he said, drily.  "I suppose if
you sat down and racked your poor brain a whole week you'd be no nearer
knowing what I mean, so I'll have to explain."

"Guess you will, that," muttered Toby; "if you know yourself what
you're getting at, which I doubt."

"Looky there," said the skipper of the second skiff, "do you notice
that where we make this turn to the left the bushes along the point are
kind of frayed, like something had rubbed against 'em a heap of times?"

"Why, yes, it does seem so," admitted Toby, reluctantly.

"All right then," continued Lil Artha; "if you'd kept your eyes about
you all the while you'd seen that same thing at near every turn.
Trying to cut short when he poled along, Johnny has left a track of his
passage at every bend.  I always look sharp, and I can tell as easy as
falling off a log whether he went on, or cut into another passage.  And
Elmer will bear me out on that explanation, too!"



CHAPTER VIII

PICKING UP CLUES

The leader of the Wolf Patrol laughed when he heard Lil Artha make this
remark.

"Every word that you are saying, Lil Artha, is the truth," he
announced.  "I've been watching those ragged edges of bushes myself.
You see, the time might come after a while when I'd get mixed on the
directions given by Johnny Spreen.  Then I'd want to have some other
scheme so as to find my way."

"But after a bit, Elmer, we'll get to a spot where Johnny changed his
course from one day to another, as he went to different traps; how're
we meaning to regulate our hunt then?" asked Toby.

"We've got to search the best way we can for the missing skiff," Elmer
explained.  "If only we can find it hauled up somewhere on the bank
we'll know they went ashore at that point, don't you see?"

"Why, how eathy!" declared Ted, evidently lost in admiration for the
simplicity of the scheme, that could never have occurred to him before.

"Oh! then, if that's the case I reckon we'd better not be making quite
so much racket as we go along," said Mark.

"I was just going to remark about that," the patrol leader added.  "If
all of a sudden we found the boat, and had been talking loud, or
laughing, the chances are the game would give us the slip.  So after
this whoever is doing the pushing try not to splash more than you can
help; and when you talk do it in whispers."

Perhaps all this mystery added to the pleasure of such a fellow as Lil
Artha; at least his eyes were sparkling much more than their wont as he
continued to ply his pole with the air of a Venetian gondolier along
the Grand Canal.

Once, however, he must have rammed it too hard into the yielding ooze,
for when he tried to pull it out there was considerable resistance.
Lil Artha managed to stop the moving skiff in time to save himself;
even then he might have been pulled overboard only that watchful Mark,
anticipating something of the sort, threw his arms around the long legs
of the pusher, and held on grimly until the pole could be extricated.

An hour, two of them had slipped by since parting from Johnny Spreen.
They were now in the heart of the swamp.  All around them lay a solemn
silence broken only by the splash of a bullfrog leaping from a bank,
the gurgle of some water snake or the solemn croak of a bittern fishing
near by, followed by the flap of its wings as it flew away, alarmed by
their approach.

All of the boys were more or less impressed by this strange silence.
It seemed as though some heavy weight were pressing down upon them.
Toby even whispered to one of his mates that it could hardly be worse
if they were passing through a country graveyard at midnight.

At the same time, all of them being bright, wide-awake fellows, there
were plenty of interesting things continually cropping up to arouse
their interest as scouts.  Every minute or so someone was calling
attention to this or that thing, though never forgetting the need of
caution.

If at any time a voice was raised more than Elmer deemed wise, a single
"hist" from his lips caused the speaker to moderate his tones instantly.

By now they were not so much concerned about where they went as the
possibility of finding the missing skiff.  Eager eyes were ever on the
alert.  A number of times Lil Artha, or it might be Toby or Chatz, felt
a sudden thrill as some object caught their attention ahead, which at
first glance seemed to open up great possibilities.  Then as they moved
closer and a better chance came to investigate, deep disappointment and
chagrin would follow; for after all it turned out to be only the end of
a log, or some such simple thing, and not the stern of the old skiff at
all.

Elmer happened to be a little ahead of the other boat at the time
Chatz, consulting his nickel watch, found it was just ten o'clock.
When he showed this to Toby the latter grinned as though very much
pleased.

"I nominated ten, didn't I, Chatz?" he remarked in a low tone; "when
you asked me to take a squint up at the sun, and say what the hour
might be?"

"You certainly hit it that time in the bull's-eye, suh," admitted the
Southern lad; "and I confess that I thought it half an hour later.  I'm
still some shy, it seems, on telling time by the sun and stars."

A low hiss from Elmer just then, as he wielded the pole, caused the two
scouts to stop talking, and turn their attention to what was going on.
The first thing they discovered was that the skiff was now heading for
the near shore.  Then looking further the boys could see that evidently
someone must have camped there, for to the practiced eye many things
indicated as much.

When the prow of the flat-bottomed boat ran gently up on the shore, at
a low order from the skipper, Ted, who happened to be further up in the
bow than any of the others, jumped to the land and began to draw the
skiff up.

There was a bank several feet high just beyond, but Ted waited until
the others had also disembarked before attempting to ascend this.  By
now the other boat had also reached shore, with its crew tumbling out,
though avoiding any sign of confusion, for they were pretty well
drilled in the elements of obedience to orders, as all true scouts
should be.

No sooner had the boys gained the higher ground than they readily
discovered that it had been the site of a camp at some time in the not
far-distant past.

A number of things told them this, chief of which might be mentioned
the little pile of dead ashes that lay in plain sight.  They could even
see the sticks that the unknown party had used when cooking some sort
of meat close to the red coals.

All of them gathered around.  Elmer gravely examined the ashes, while
the others eagerly waited to hear his decision.

"Quite some time old," said the leader at last, having figured out the
solution by means of certain rules well known to those who have made
woodcraft a study.  "At least a couple of rains have passed over since
this fire was left.  There are no footprints that I can see.  That also
goes to show it was some time ago; but I think it was only one person
who camped here."

He pointed as he spoke to where soft hemlock browse had been gathered
as if for the purpose of forming a couch; and there being but a single
bed even Landy could guess Elmer was correct when he said one party had
made the temporary camp.

"Then it must have been the unknown man," said Lil Artha, "and our chum
Hen wasn't along at the time."

They moved around as if looking for further signs, because scouts are
always keen to find tell-tale marks that will add to the size of the
edifice they are building up, founded partly on conjecture and also on
"give-away" facts.

Lil Artha it was who emitted a low whistle, and the others glancing up,
well knowing that he must have made some sort of important discovery,
saw him waving one of his hands to them--he held the Marlin
double-barrel with the other, of course.

"See that?" he told them when they reached his side amidst the bushes
adjacent to the little opening where the long-cold fire ashes lay.

"Feathers, for a cookey!" exclaimed Toby, "and a heap of the same, too."

"Now we know what he cooked on the ends of those sticks!" observed Mark.

"Yeth, and now we know where one of Farmer Trotter's henth went to,"
added Ted.

"This is more than Johnny ever ran across," remarked Lil Artha,
"because he only guessed the chicken thief was hiding in the swamp, for
he'd seen tracks.  Hold on, he did say there was ashes, too, at the
place he picked up that filed half-circle of steel, but it must have
been in a different place from this."

"Well, it's only a little incident after all," said Elmer, "and doesn't
tell us much that we didn't know before."

"Only that we're on the track of those lost chickens, you know,"
chuckled the tall scout.  "But see here, Elmer, if they made a fizzle
of their raid last night, how d'ye suppose they're going to keep from
starving to death in here?"

"Ask me something easy, please," retorted the other; "though if I was
in their place I think I could manage to keep alive.  There are lots of
ways for doing that, if you only stop to think."

"Sure there are," spoke up Toby, eager to show that he had learned his
lesson fairly well, even though not claiming to be as expert at some
things as were Elmer and Lil Artha.  "Now, with some cord and a bait I
reckon rabbits could be trapped or snared.  Then gray squirrels are
plenty in here, if only you found a nest of the same in a hollow tree."

"And," added Landy with a yearning vein in his voice, "haven't we seen
whopping big green-back bullfrogs aplenty?  If there's one dish I'm
fond of more than any other, that's fried frogs' legs.  Yum! yum, don't
I wish we could spare the time to knock over a dozen of those bullies."

"Not while we're on such a duty as we started out to fulfill, Landy,"
Elmer advised the fat scout.

"Then there are fish in these waters, too, fat sunfish as big as any I
ever set eyes on," continued Toby; "and when you're hungry they taste
prime, though I hate the bones, and came near choking to death once on
a sunny.  Worse than pickerel, according to my mind, and that's saying
a lot.  Oh!  I guess a smart fellow with matches to make fires, could
manage to keep the wolf from his door in here all right."

"But all men are not up to one-tenth of the resources known to Boy
Scouts," ventured Elmer, "which is why they generally have to rely on
staving off hunger by raiding the chicken roosts of poor farmers.
That'll be enough for this time.  Suppose we get aboard again, and
continue our exploration of Sassafras Swamp."

"It's a sure-enough big patch of mud and water and brush and mystery,"
admitted Mark, as they began to climb into the boats again as before.

"And from what Johnny told me we haven't seen as much as a tenth of the
place yet," Elmer assured them; whereat there were all sorts of
incredulous looks to the right and to the left, as though the magnitude
of their task might by this time be making a stronger impression on the
boys' minds.

A change was made in pushers as they started off once more.  It turned
out to be no child's play handling that long, heavy pole which had a
faculty for clinging to the ooze below the surface of the water, and
necessitating more or less exertion in order to drag it loose each time
it was used.

Landy had not taken his turn as yet.  It really looked as though Lil
Artha was a little afraid of the fat scout, for he and Mark had
alternated in doing the work.  Landy was not complaining at all.
Indeed, Lil Artha felt sure he could see a satisfied grin upon the
rubicund face of the happy-go-lucky, fat scout from time to time as he
heard the one at the pole puffing with the exertion.

Perhaps in the end it would prove to be a case of the "last straw on
the camel's back," and Lil Artha, casting discretion to the winds,
would feel impelled to thrust the push-pole into the inexperienced
hands of Landy Smith.  He was evidently putting off the evil hour as
long as he could, fearful of consequences.

So noon came and found them well into the depths of Sassafras Swamp.

They went ashore to eat their lunch, Lil Artha begging that they have a
small fire and make a pot of coffee.

"I c'n pick up aplenty of real dry wood, you know, Elmer," he went on
to say in his wheedling way, "so that there ain't going to be hardly a
whiff of smoke that anybody could see with a field glass.  And say,
when you're all tuckered out with pushing a boat through the grass and
lily-pads, nothing makes you feel so fine as a brimming cup of coffee.
So please say yes, Mister Scout Master!"

Of course, Elmer could not resist such a piteous plea as that.

"You could wring tears from a stone, Lil Artha," he told the other,
laughingly, "when you put on a face like that.  I reckon we might have
a small cooking fire and a pot of coffee.  None of us would object to
it, and sandwiches are dry eating all by themselves, even when you're
hungry.  So go ahead; but no chopping, mind; break all the small stuff
you gather over your knee."

Landy eagerly assisted, though Lil Artha kept a watchful eye on what he
gathered lest he mix in green stuff that would make a black smoke when
it burned.  Another scout managed to find a stick with a crotch that
would hold the coffee-pot over the blaze until it had boiled.

The scouts were not in the habit of putting up with such apologies for
comfort as these; as a rule, when they camped out they had tents,
blankets, and a little spider contraption that folded up in small
compass, and which served as a gridiron stove, being placed over the
red coals, with cooking utensils resting on the bars.

The coffee was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone, and a vote of thanks
taken for Lil Artha, who had first suggested making it.  Resting for a
short time afterwards, the boys felt refreshed when once more the task
was taken up.

Lil Artha looked at Landy tumbling contentedly into the middle of the
old skiff, and seemed on the point of saying something; then he shook
his head and picked up the push-pole himself.

"Not yet, but soon it's just got to be; only I hope he won't upset us
all," Mark heard the tall scout mutter to himself, nor did he need a
further hint to know what was passing through Lil Artha's mind; Landy
was not going to evade his share of the arduous labor forever.

It, doubtless, took considerable thinking and planning on the part of
Elmer to make sure they did not "repeat."  So far, none of the boys
could say as they moved along that they had ever before seen the
stretch of water and scrubby shore, covered with trees and vines.

This spoke volumes for the smartness of the young patrol leader, though
somehow his chums did not seem to consider it such a wonderful feat for
Elmer.  That is the penalty for being successful; others expect great
things from such a comrade, so that he is constantly put to his best
efforts to satisfy them.

It must have been quite some time, perhaps as much as two hours after
they had stopped to eat their lunch when without warning the swamp
explorers met with a surprise that gave them a new thrill.

At the time, Lil Artha happened to have passed a little in the lead,
though he would soon be dropping back again, especially when there came
a chance to make a mistake in direction, for he wanted Elmer to decide
such puzzles.

The tall scout must have forgotten his warning from Elmer, for he cried
out:

"Hey! everybody look what we're up against!  A bear, Elmer, that's what
it is!"



CHAPTER IX

THE PERILS OF THE WATER LABYRINTH

"Silence, everybody!" hissed Elmer, who knew it would be just like
Toby, and perhaps some of the other fellows, to burst into a shout as
soon as they could get command of their voices.

It was certainly a bear, a small one to be sure, but genuine enough,
and not such as can be seen with wandering foreigners, taught to dance,
or wield a pole as a soldier would his musket.

Just when the scouts glimpsed the hairy denizen of Sassafras Swamp, he
was engaged in sitting on his haunches and gathering in the bushes with
his sturdy forelegs.  To Lil Artha, it looked as though Bruin might be
making a lunch from the luscious, big blueberries that grew in such
abundance here and there through the swamp.

Up to the moment when Lil Artha thus called attention to the presence
of the black native, the bear must have been in ignorance of their
being so near at hand.  When he did notice them, he simply gave a
disgusted grunt, and ambled away through the brush.  Lil Artha always
declared the bear glanced back at them as he ran, and even put out his
tongue, just as if he knew it was the close season, and that a kind
game law protected him from all harm.

"Say, let me tell you this old Sassy swamp isn't such a bad place for a
game preserve after all," said Toby; "I think some of us could enjoy
having a week up here, after the law on bears and all such was up.  But
it's too far from home during the school session, for us to come."

"Oh!  I don't know about that," remarked the tall scout, meditatively;
"we could borrow a car, and start in the middle of the night when there
was a moon.  That'd give us a whole day up here.  Take it at
Thanksgiving and we could make it three, with Friday and Saturday
thrown in.  Elmer, think it over, won't you?"

"Plenty of time for that," he was assured; "We've got our hands full as
it is, without borrowing trouble."

"And perwaps before we're done with it," Ted croaked, "you'll be that
tired of seeing nothing but thwamp all around, that you'll vow never
again for yourth."

"I'm going to make a proposition, Elmer," said Landy; "and I hope
you'll agree.  Suppose we go ashore and tackle some of those elegant
blueberries ourselves?  It's a shame that bears should be the only ones
to enjoy such a feast.  And it's tough sitting here so long!"

At that Lil Artha grunted, and looking almost savagely at the speaker
nodded his head while he muttered:

"That settles it, my boy; I see your finish.  You're going to earn your
salt after this, no matter what happens!"

Elmer seemed to consider for a few seconds.

"I see no reason why we shouldn't pull up for a little while, just as
you say, Landy," he observed, to the delight of the rest; "and everyone
of us is fond of a mess of good ripe blueberries.  So pitch in while
the supply lasts."

The berries were thicker and larger than any they had ever seen before;
and Lil Artha declared he considered the judgment of the little black
bear "prime."

"He sure knew a good thing when he found it, and so do we," he told
those who were working fingers and jaws near him.

When Elmer concluded that "enough was as good as a feast," they once
more embarked, and the voyage was resumed.  There was a new pusher in
the older skiff, however.

"Here, you Landy, suppose you change seats with me," Lil Artha had
remarked as the fat scout started to settle down in the middle of the
boat, just as though he had a mortgage on that prize seat.

Landy looked worried.

"What for, Lil Artha?" he ventured to say, looking at the skipper with
distress plainly marked on his round features; "do you want me to push
the boat now?  Not but that I'm willing to do anything I'm asked, you
know; but I didn't think you'd want to take chances on getting wet, and
mebbe losing our packs in the bargain; because I know I'm awful clumsy
about some things."

"Well, in this case we'll have to take the risk," said the other,
grimly; "the only satisfaction we have is that if anybody does get wet
you won't escape.  We're all in the same boat, you understand; and we
sink or swim together.  Now climb up here, and I'll show you how to
handle a pusher.  Time you learned a few more of the tricks a true
scout ought to know."

Landy, apparently, wanted to do his best.  He watched how Lil Artha
used the heavy pole and then started to imitate him.

"That's the way, Landy," said Mark, desirous of encouraging the stout
boy in his new duties; "you can do it all right if you only keep on the
watch."

"Course I can," replied the new hand, scornfully; "guess you're all
fooled if you think I never pushed a skiff with a pole before."

"So you were just playing 'possum, were you?" demanded the indignant
Lil Artha, "bent on fooling me so as to evade hard work, eh?  I'd be
serving you right, Landy, if I kept you shovin' away the rest of the
afternoon.  It'd thin you down a trifle, too, because I think you're
getting too fat for any use.  Go slow there, and don't splash so loud
when you drop the pole end in again."

Landy seemed to soon become fairly proficient so that his mentor could
turn his attention to other things of interest they happened to see
around them as they continued their course.

Crows scolded from the treetops as the two boats glided underneath.
This circumstance might probably pass unnoticed by one who knew little
or nothing of woodcraft, but to an Indian it would be a sure sign that
the sharp-eyed birds had discovered some human being, probably an
enemy, and in that way he would be put on his guard against a surprise.

As the man they were looking for did not appear to be educated along
these lines, they need not fear that their presence in the swamp would
be betrayed through any such agency as crows cawing, or flying about in
excitement.

Some time later Toby uttered a low "whew" that caused Chatz, just then
in the act of putting the pole back into the water, to hold it
suspended in midair.

"Elmer, I may be mistaken," said Toby, "but something moved over in the
branches of that tree yonder, and unless my eyes deceived me, which
they seldom do, it was a cat!"

"You mean a wildcat, don't you, Toby?" whispered Landy, for the two
boats were close enough together for the occupants to have shaken
hands, had they wanted to.

"Just what I meant," repeated Toby, firmly.  "I can't say that I see
him now, for he's somewhere up in the thickest part of the bushy tree;
but it must have been something more than a 'coon, because I actually
saw the blaze of its eyes!"

"Whew!" gasped Landy, looking as though he wanted to drop the push-pole
on the spur of the moment; "get your gun, Lil Artha, why don't you?
Mean to let a feller be jumped on, and clawed something awful, do you?
I give you my word that if I see a wildcat comin' for me, I'll jump
overboard, and let him tackle the rest of you in the boat, that's what.
Get your gun, Lil Artha; they're vicious you must know, specially when
they've got kits around."

"We haven't lost any cat!" remarked Lil Artha, composedly, as though he
really took a cruel satisfaction in seeing Landy shiver; "and, besides,
I don't more'n half believe the fairy story.  Toby's got to show me
before I own up.  I reckon some of my people must have come from
Missouri."

"Yes, they raise a heap of mules there, I understand," remarked Toby,
with considerable sarcasm; "but I'm glad to see that Elmer has thought
it worth while to lay hold of his scatter-gun, so as to be ready.
Course we don't want any trouble with any old cat; but there's such a
thing as armed peace.  If she jumps for us, I hope Elmer will give her
a load before she lands, that's all.  We've got to pass pretty much
under some part of that tree, understand?"

Acting on Elmer's initiative, Lil Artha now also picked up his gun, and
started to keep a sharp watch.  As Toby had truly said, they could not
really continue on their way without passing under the wide-stretching
branches of the tree where he claimed to have seen "something that
looked like a wildcat."

"Get busy there, Landy, use your pole, and push us along.  Don't stand
there just like you were frozen stiff; we won't let any cat grab you,
make up your mind to it.  Get a move on you, I say, Landy Smith."

"Oh! well, might as well be killed for a sheep as a lamb, I reckon,"
muttered the fat scout as he started to make use of his push-pole.

For the time being, caution was thrown to the winds; all Landy
considered was the rapidity with which he could get past that ominous
tree containing Toby's bobcat.

Perhaps Landy's heart was beating a regular tattoo as he found himself
actually compelled to pass under the tree itself, owing to the
narrowness of the channel at just that part of the runway.  Elmer,
watching out of the tail of his eye, could see how pale the other had
become, and he was secretly amused.

It was just like Lil Artha, when their skiff was directly under the
suspected tree, to utter a low gasp, and proceed to elevate his gun in
a hurry, as though sighting the quarry.

Poor Landy came very near having a fit; he dropped the pole overboard
and fell backwards in the boat, which came near swamping.  Toby, in the
other craft, succeeded in rescuing the floating pole before it had gone
completely beyond reach.

"Guess I was mistaken that time!" said Lil Artha, without cracking a
smile, although no doubt he must have been secretly chuckling at the
way the handler of the push-pole had shown alacrity in getting out of
range.

So Landy, with a sheepish grin, managed to get on his feet again, and
take the rescued pole from Toby's hands.  He gave the tall scout a
sharp look as though suspecting that it had been a trick intended to
play upon his nerves.  But then Landy was always a good-natured fellow,
and never bore anyone ill-will, no matter what the joke might be of
which he became the victim.

Toby could not be persuaded that he had not glimpsed a wildcat in that
tree under which they passed.  He kept staring back as long as it was
possible to catch a view of its leafy branches.

"Well, say what you like," he concluded, "I did see _something_ whisk
out of sight up there; yes, and it had starey eyes in the bargain.  If
it was a 'coon, then all I can say is they breed queer 'coons up in
this old Sassafras Swamp country.  There now, that's about enough from
me."

"The afternoon is nearly half gone, and we haven't scared up our quarry
yet," advised Mark later on.

"Plenty of time, for there's another day coming," said Elmer.  "We're
here to comb the swamp through from end to end but what we'll find
nobody knows.  Keep listening, too.  It might be possible we'd hear a
shout that would give us a clue."

"Say now, I hadn't thought of that before," admitted Toby.  "If Hen
_is_ being treated harsh-like by that unknown who's got hold of him,
mebbe he might let out a yawp once in a while.  There's no harm done in
listening, I reckon, and Landy here could tell if it was him giving
tongue."

Now and then some sound did come to their ears, but of an entirely
different character from the one they were hoping to catch.  A
granddaddy bullfrog on some mossy log sent out loud and deep-toned
demands for "more rum! more rum!"  Then a saucy bluejay started in to
scold the fellows in the boats for daring to trespass in its preserves,
and how the angry bird did lay it on until they were well beyond reach
of its chatter.

Once a far-away grumble floated faintly to their ears, at which there
was an immediate comparing of opinions.  Some seemed to incline to the
belief that it must be distant thunder, and that they were bound to
soon be caught in a storm, which had been creeping unnoticed up on
them, the dense foliage by which they were surrounded preventing them
from learning the fact sooner.

"If you asked me what it was," said Elmer, when he found that the
others were not able to agree, "I'd be inclined to say we're not more
than half a mile away from one side of the swamp, and that there's a
farm lying yonder on which they keep a bull.  I imagine it was his
lowing we heard just then."

"Bully, say I, not meaning to be funny either," remarked Landy; "for
I'd a heap sooner believe it was a bovine trying out his bazoo than a
thunder-storm heading this way.  It's bad enough to be in constant
danger of getting ducked by falling overboard, without taking chances
overhead in the bargain."

As they did not hear any repetition of the suspicious sound the scouts
finally determined that Elmer had guessed right, and that there must be
a stock farm not a great distance away from the border of the swamp.

The more they pushed on into what seemed the interminable recesses that
surrounded them the greater became their wonder as to how they were to
find those they sought.  The chances seemed very much against them; but
then they had an abounding faith in Elmer's sagacity; and he seemed to
be determined on persevering.  Doubtless, too, the others reasoned to
themselves, Elmer had some clever plan laid out which would be sprung
when the proper time arrived; and this confidence did much to relieve
their minds as they pressed steadily on.

Lil Artha was apparently bent on making Landy pay for his previous easy
time; he kept the other at work, though frequently the fat scout had to
hold his push-pole under his arm while he mopped his reeking brow.
Perhaps Landy panted very loud on purpose, with the object of causing
his obdurate boss to relent, and give him a chance to "spell" with Mark.

Heedless of sighs and half-heard groans alike, Lil Artha just sat there
and took his ease, while the slave worked and worked as though he were
chained to the galley's oar.

No one ever knew whether it were actually an accident or a deep-laid
scheme on the part of the weary Landy to end this period of torture.
There may be some things even worse than a mere ducking--at least a
stout boy like Landy Smith might think so.

At any rate, none of the scouts happened to be looking very closely at
the time, and consequently they could not say one way or the other.
All they knew was that without any warning Landy was seen to be dragged
out of the stern of the skiff, struggle to clasp his writhing legs
about the pushpole that stood at an oblique angle, caught firmly in the
tenacious mud, and then releasing his hold, flop with a great splash
into the dark-colored water of Sassafras Swamp!



CHAPTER X

THE SUSPICIOUS ACTIONS OF LANDY

To this very day, it has never been positively known among the scouts
of the Wolf Patrol whether Landy met with an unexpected accident, or
allowed himself to be deliberately dragged out of the boat, seized with
a sudden overwhelming desire to end his spell of drudgery.

The splash was simply terrific, and Landy vanished completely beneath
the surface of the swamp water, which chanced to be fairly deep at that
place, as of necessity Landy himself must have known.

"Oh! he's overboard!" exclaimed Toby, in the other boat, perhaps louder
than his orders from the scout master permitted.

"What a nuisance!" grunted Lil Artha, trying to appear unconcerned,
though it might have been noticed that he tried the best he could to
stop the movement of the skiff by thrusting both hands in the water,
and paddling.

Mark did better than that, for he snatched up a thwart that he knew was
loose, and started to use it vigorously so as to check the progress of
the floating boat.

Meanwhile, of course, Landy came to the surface like a bobbing cork
that had been pulled down by the bite of a fish.  He was floundering
around like a whale, spouting volumes of water that he must have
swallowed in his dive, and apparently doing his level best to stay on
top.

"Hey! ain't you goin' to help a feller?" they managed to make out from
his almost incoherent splutter.

The other boat had by now pushed up close alongside, and Elmer, leaning
over the side, seized the swimmer by the coat collar.  Landy at once
allowed himself to apparently collapse.  He was content to have someone
support him; but some of his chums imagined there was a suspicious
_manufactured_ look in the expression of terror that had fixed itself
on his face.

With plenty to lend a helping hand the fat scout was soon pushed and
hauled on board the skiff from which he had fallen.  The treacherous
pole was also recovered and given in charge of Lil Artha, for, of
course, it could not be expected that a fellow who had just been
rescued from a watery grave would be able to continue that arduous task
of pushing.

Lil Artha frequently looked queerly at the dripping Landy as he used
the pole.  Sometimes he would chuckle softly to himself, and a swift
grin flash athwart his lean countenance as though a humorous thought
had struck him; after which the tall scout might be observed to shake
his head as if bothered.

Landy settled down to taking things easy.  He wanted them all to know
that he had had a remarkably close call, and every little while he
would heave a great sigh, to follow it with such words as:

"I'm terrible glad you boys were on deck to save me.  My clothes seemed
as heavy as lead, and I sure think I'd have gone down three times if
you hadn't chucked me aboard here.  That was a narrow squeak for me.  I
guess I went and got too confident, and it made me careless.  But holy
smoke! how that mud can grip!  I just couldn't get the old pole out
nohow, and that's a fact.  I won't forget what you did for me, fellers,
sure I won't.  I hope to be able to do the same for every lasting one
of you some day."

"You're too kind, Landy," laughed Toby; "none of us are hankering after
an experience like that.  I'll never forget what you looked like,
dangling there on that push-pole, and trying to squirm your legs around
it so as to climb up.  Want to know what you made me think of, Landy?"

"Go on and tell me," said the other, with a tremble in his voice, for
he was by this time beginning to feel the effect of his immersion.

"Why, you remember how we used to go frog-hunting in a boat, with a
three-foot line at the end of a stout pole, and a small hook baited
with a piece of red flannel?  Well, when we'd see a whopping big
greenback we'd dangle that red stuff close to his nose.  It was funny
to see him squat down like a cat does on sighting a sparrow or a robin,
and then jump up to grab the flannel."

Toby paused to chuckle afresh, and the object of his attack urged him
to continue, although he evidently realized that he was about to be
held up to boyish ridicule.

"First, the frog thinks he wants that queer red bug the worst kind,"
Toby went on to say, "but as soon as he feels the hook he changes his
mind.  Then he starts in to do the greatest acrobatic feats you ever
saw, twisting his hind legs up over his head like he wanted to turn a
somersault, or else climb up the line.  Well, when I saw you dangling
on that push-pole, I thought of a fat, greenback frog."

"Huh! guess you'd a tried to climb, too, if you'd been in my place,"
grunted the stout scout, drawing his coat a little closer around him,
and shivering.

"No, I'd have stuck by the boat, Landy," said Toby, soberly.

Landy shot him a suspicious glance but did not make a reply.  Perhaps
he may have been wondering whether any of his mates already suspected
that his recent narrow escape had not been such an accident as it
appeared.

Elmer now took a hand in the discussion.

"Here, let's make less noise, fellows," he remarked.  "In the
excitement we've already broken our rule, and if there was anyone near
by they must have known all about us.  And we're going ashore just
beyond there."

"So soon in the afternoon, Elmer; what's up?" demanded Chatz, who,
having rested since last using the pole, did not understand why they
should call it a day's work at not much after three o'clock.

"If you look at Landy, you'll understand why," continued the patrol
leader.

"Why, he is shivering, sure enough!" exclaimed Chatz; "what ails you,
suh?  Are you feeling cold on such a warm day as this?"

"What, me cold!" stuttered Landy, trying to put on a brave face, though
his lips were turning blue and quivering; "of course I ain't.  It must
be the excitement of the little scare has gripped me, that's all."

But wise Elmer knew very well he was assuming a degree of comfort which
he did not feel, and he could not stand for it.

"You've got to do one of two things, Landy,", he said, with authority,
"either take the push-pole again, and warm your blood up, or else go
ashore to dry your clothes.  Otherwise, we'll have you getting a chill,
and then the fat will be in the fire as far as our hunt goes.  Which
shall it be?"

"If it's all the same to you, Elmer, and you mean the whole kit to stop
off too, I say let's go ashore," hastily replied Landy.

"Head for that little cove, Lil Artha, and you too, Toby," said Elmer.

"I'd like to lend him something I've got in my pack," remarked Lil
Artha, apparently taking pity on the shivering one; "only you c'n see
with one eye it wouldn't come within a mile of meeting around his
waist."

"I've got a sweater he could put on while his clothes are drying,"
volunteered Toby Jones; "of course, it isn't his size by a jugfull, but
then you know sweaters stretch.  Like as not it'll go around me twice
though, after Landy's worn the same.  But he's our chum, and scouts
should always be ready to make sacrifices for each other."

"That's real good of you, Toby," mumbled Landy, strangely enough unable
to meet the honest gaze of the generous donor.

The landing was soon made, and when the dripping Landy got ashore the
first thing Elmer made him do was to jump around, and thresh his arms
back and forth.  This, of course, was to induce a circulation of blood,
so as to resist the chill following his late immersion.

"Lil Artha, I leave it to you to make the fire," said the patrol
leader.  "Use dry wood so there'll be little or no smoke; and build it
in that low spot over to the right.  If we choose to keep it going
to-night, there's only a small chance that anyone will discover the
light in that dip."

Nothing pleased Lil Artha better than to make a camp fire.  Besides the
genial glow, which he so dearly loved, being a fire worshipper by
nature, it doubtless meant that before a great while they would be
cooking supper; and as we happen to be aware such a task was never
onerous to the lanky scout, whose appetite seldom failed him.

There were others to help pick up the right kind of wood, for every
scout has to learn such things early in his career in woodcraft.  Soon
a crackling little blaze sprang up, which, being carefully fed,
presently amounted to a considerable fire.

"Here you are, Landy," said Elmer, when he could feel the genial heat
at a distance of five feet away; "strip off, and hang your duds on
these sticks we've planted around the fire.  They'll soon begin to
steam, and then dry out."

Elmer even took a hand himself, wringing each article cast off by the
bulky Landy before he hung it judiciously before the fire.

Fortunately, the fat scout had made out to carry an extra pair of socks
and a suit of clean underwear in his pack, and having donned these,
with the help of Toby's expansive sweater, he had to make out.  There
was considerable fun poked at him as he squatted there by the fire
attending to his clothes, so as to make sure they did not get scorched
by the heat.

"There's one thing bad about this drying-out process, though," Lil
Artha was heard saying to Ted, who chanced to be near by; "and that's
the way clothes shrink after they've been wet."

"Which reminds me," Toby called out, "of that story about the fat
bachelor who had washed a suit of his new underwear himself, and hung
it on the clothes-line to dry; but the maid came along afterwards and
finding them ready to take in hung up a suit belonging to the kid,
about four years of age.  When the stout bach stepped out to get his
suit and saw that baby outfit hanging in its place, he rubbed his eyes
and was heard to say to himself: 'Great Scott! and the clerk swore they
wouldn't shrink a bit!'"

"But I hope _my_ clothes won't shrivel up so I can't get in the same,"
Landy observed, anxiously.  "A nice figure I'd cut going around day and
night like this.  And let me tell you the skeeters would fairly eat me
alive.  As it is, I'm cracking at them all the time right now."

Frequent examinations, however reassured him.  His clothes were drying
nicely, and did not seem to be losing any of their former generous
proportions.  So in time Landy might hope to be garbed in his proper
attire as became a scout, and not an Arab or a "side show freak," such
as Toby persisted in dubbing him.

Supper was later on taken in hand.  There was no lack of recruits when
it came to doing the cooking; in fact, Elmer found that he had six
enthusiastic would-be _chefs_ to choose from, even Landy expressing a
willingness to serve, as he had to hover near the blaze more or less
anyway, and might as well be busy.

Afterwards the fire was allowed to go down, though Elmer did not feel
that it was positively necessary for them to let it die out entirely.
If it was bound to betray them doubtless the mischief had already been
done; and having to shoulder the blame, they might as well have the
game.

It was a great delight to them all to squat there around the fire and
talk in low tones.  There were no boisterous language or actions
tolerated.  Elmer gave them to understand that they were now out on
serious business, and all such conduct must be left to another time.

Still, they found plenty to talk about, most of it connected with the
strange happening at Hickory Ridge, in which their unfortunate comrade,
Hen Condit, bore such a prominent part.

"I wonder now," Toby was saying at one time, "whether the Chief of
Police got a clue like we did that'd fetch him up in this region of the
country with a posse, meaning to try to round up this escaped rascal?"

There was a variety of opinions concerning this point, some believing
one way and the rest having contrary views.

"It would be too bad, now," said Ted, "if they managed to haul both of
them up before we could get Hen in hand, and hear hith thory of what
happened."

"That's a fact," added Lil Artha.  "We know the Chief, and that he'd
take Hen back to town just like he was a real criminal.  No matter what
excuse the boy'd try to give, the Chief wouldn't listen, leaving all
that for the Justice of the Peace before whom he'd take his prisoners.
Boys, we've just got to find Hen first; that's all there is to it."

That seemed to be the consensus of opinion among them.  By degrees they
had come to believe that Hen Condit must be under a spell, to have
acted as he did.  Nothing else would explain the mystery, for Hen had
always been reckoned a mild, inoffensive sort of fellow, one of the
last boys in Hickory Ridge to do anything so terrible as commit a
robbery.

"That's just what it is!" declared Toby, as they again talked it all
over in hopes of getting a better conception of the truth, "the man
who's got Hen must be one of those terrible hypnotists you read about.
I saw one down in the city last summer at a show, and he made fellows
do the most ridiculous things anybody ever heard tell of."

"Such as what?" asked Lil Artha, looking as though he might be
skeptical.

"Why, one boy thought he was a goat, and ran all around on his hands
and feet, hunting for tin cans and old shoes to eat.  Another believed
he was a dog baying at the full moon, and I nearly took a fit listening
to him whoop.  Then there was a third fellow who believed he was made
of iron, so he stretched himself from one chair to another, and three
men stood right in his middle; and he didn't break, either.  Say, it
was the greatest sight you ever saw."

"Fakes, all rank fakes!" snorted Lil Artha; "every one of those boys
was a confederate of the impostor.  You notice they never come to small
places where everybody knows everybody else, but show in cities, where
a new audience comes each night.  I'd like to see a circus like that,
just to laugh; but you couldn't get me to believe in hypnotism worth a
cent."

"Well, then," demanded Toby, "what do you think this man's got on Hen
that he's made him do whatever he wanted, tell us that, if you can?"

"I don't know," replied Lil Artha, promptly.

"See?" cried Toby, exultantly, "he backs down right away."

"There are a lot of things I don't know," added the tall scout; "but
it's my opinion that Hen's being held to that man through some kind of
fear.  P'raps he's been made to believe he did something _terrible_,
and his only hope is to skip out before the police get him.  But let's
wait till we find him, and then we'll know it all."

"A sensible conclusion," remarked Elmer, who had listened to all the
talk with considerable interest; "and as the hour is getting late
suppose we begin to settle how we're going to sleep through our first
night in Sassafras Swamp."



CHAPTER XI

A NIGHT ALARM

Up to then none of them had apparently bothered about figuring how they
would make themselves comfortable, so that Elmer's suggestion was like
a bomb thrown into the camp.

"I should think we had better get busy if we want to have a place to
sleep on," Landy exclaimed, for the hard ground did not appeal very
much to the fat scout, accustomed as he was to a feather bed at home.

"We have no blankets, remember," said Elmer, "and that is one reason
why I laid out to keep the fire burning in a small way through the
night."

"But luckily," added Mark, who apparently had been looking around more
or less since they came ashore, "there are plenty of spruce and hemlock
and fir trees close by.  We can make our beds like hunters always used
to do, away back in Daniel Boone's time."

"Every fellow will have to shift for himself, then," said Elmer; "so
let's start in and lay a foundation for a soft and fragrant bed."

"Hay was good enough for me last night, suh!" declared the Southern
boy; "but I've got a hunch I can sleep just as sound on balsam."

"Hemlock for mine every time!" announced Lil Artha.

Then there was a bustling time as the entire seven scouts started to
break off small branches and twigs from the adjacent trees, laying them
in piles until it looked as though they had secured enough for their
purpose.

The beds were arranged in something like a circle around the fire, and
acting on the advice of Elmer, who had been on the cattle range and
knew what was right, each sleeper expected to keep his feet toward the
fire.

"Looks a heap like a big cart-wheel," observed Lil Artha.

"The fire is the hub, and each scout a spoke, that's right, suh," Chatz
agreed.

Landy acted as though he would never get enough of the fragrant browse.
Long after the others had stopped gathering it, he continued.  When
they joked him about being greedy when there was no price to pay, he
had an answer ready.

"I'm a whole lot heavier than anybody else, don't you know?" he told
them.  "And on that account I ought to have a higher pile under me.
Besides, I always did like to gather things in."

"We'll remember that, Landy," threatened Lil Artha, "the next time we
need a big supply of firewood.  You've fixed it up good and tight, and
you'll find us the most obliging lot of scouts east of the Rockies."

After considerable fussing and joshing, they managed finally to get
"fixed."  As none of them had slept too soundly on the preceding night,
owing to their strange environment, and the wild alarm that sounded
when Johnny's chicken-thief trap was sprung, the boys were both weary
and drowsy.

Elmer was really the last to drop off, and he smiled as he raised his
head to glance around at the stretched-out figures of his six chums.
Some were breathing pretty loud, but Elmer could forgive that, and so
he also gave himself up to indulging in refreshing slumber.

He was awakened by a horrible crash that made him instantly sit up.
Other figures were bobbing up all around the smouldering camp fire.
From the condition of this latter, Elmer knew that he must have been
asleep much more than an hour.

"What happened?" gasped Landy the first thing, for he was digging his
fat knuckles into his heavy eyes as though trying to rout the last atom
of drowsiness from them.

"It was me," replied Lil Artha, promptly; "I fired my gun!"

"What at?" demanded Elmer, thrilled in spite of himself.

"A creeping man!" came the astounding answer.

"Wow! what's all that, Lil Artha?" Toby exclaimed; "you must have been
dreaming, and did it in your sleep.  It's a good thing none of us
happened to be in range of your old Marlin scatter-gun, that's all."

"Rats!  I tell you I was wide awake, and sitting up when I fired,"
insisted the tall scout.

Of course, by this time all were on their feet, for the excitement had
gripped hold of them.  Elmer realized that Lil Artha was speaking
earnestly, and showing no symptoms of having played a practical joke.

"Now tell us all about it, Lil Artha," he commanded.

"Why, it was about thisaway," said the other, obediently.  "I happened
to wake up and felt a bit thirsty, so I sat up thinking I'd crawl over
to our big jug of fresh water and take a swig.  But just as I sat up I
saw something moving over in the bushes about twenty-five feet away.
Yes, sir, and the fire picked up just then so I could make out what
looked mighty like a man peeking at me through the same bushes--fact
is, I _know_ that's what it was, and nothing else."

"Well, what did you do then?" asked the patrol leader.

"I always keep my faithful Marlin handy when I sleep out in the woods,
you remember, Elmer," continued the other, with a touch of boyish pride
in his voice; "so all I had to do was to grab up the gun and blaze away
as quick as I could throw the same to my shoulder."

Elmer caught his arm in a fast grip.

"Not aiming at a man in the bushes only twenty-five feet away, Lil
Artha--don't tell me you were silly enough to do that?" he asked,
somewhat hoarsely.

The tall scout chuckled, and Elmer's fears were instantly dissipated.

"I'm not a fool, Elmer," he said, loftily.  "I aimed away up in the
air, and shot to scare not to hurt!"

"Good enough, Lil Artha," the scout master went on to say in a relieved
tone; "I couldn't believe you'd be so reckless.  A charge of bird shot
at that distance goes like a bullet, because it hasn't a chance to
scatter."

It was apparently Toby's turn to appear skeptical now.

"Huh!  I s'pose he lit out then like a streak, after you'd wasted a
good charge of shot in the air, and knocked leaves from the branches of
trees--is that what you want us to believe, Lil Artha?"

"Didn't you hear the row he made rushing away?" demanded the other,
severely; "but then all of you started talking at once, and I guess you
didn't take much notice."

"I heard some sort of noise off that way," asserted Elmer, pointing.

"Correct, Elmer, for that's where he was kneeling, right over there in
those thick bushes.  You see I mightn't have noticed him at all only he
happened to move just when a little flame shot up along that piece of
partly burned wood."

"Oh!  I admit that you may have seen _something_," persisted Toby; "but
the chances are ten to one it was a white-faced heifer that had hit on
our camp, and was looking to see who and what we were.  We happen to
know there's a stock farm not a great ways off, and I reckon their cows
get into the swamp once in so often."

"Think you've laid it down pretty pat, don't you?" sneered Lil Artha;
"but I'm going to show you where you're away off your base.  Guess I've
got eyes, and know a human from a white-faced heifer.  Watch my smoke,
that's all."

With that the indignant scout handed his gun to Chatz, and stepping
over to the fire picked up the half-burned brand which he had mentioned
before.  This Lil Artha whirled briskly around his head several times
until he had it crackling and taking fire afresh, so that it promised
to make a very fair torch, if used for only a brief time.

Elmer made no objections to the programme.  Indeed, he was deeply
interested in the outcome, whatever it might prove to be.

After having made sure of sufficient light, Lil Artha boldly strode
directly toward the spot he had indicated as the scene of the
near-tragedy.

"Go slow, Lil Artha," warned cautious Landy; "he might be laying for
you there.  Keep him covered, Chatz, with the gun, won't you?"

"Oh! give us a rest, Landy; didn't I tell you he hoofed it like fun
after that shot gave him a scare?  Who's afraid?"

With that Lil Artha reached the bushes indicated, and the others were
close on his heels, every fellow eager to find out whether what he had
told them was in fact true, or if the apparition had only been a
figment of Lil Artha's imagination, the tail-end, as it were, of a
stirring dream.

Bending down, the long-legged scout began to scan the ground.  His
discoveries started almost immediately, as his excited words announced:

"Here's where he pushed back the brush, as you c'n see for yourselves.
Yes, and there's aplenty of footprints besides.  Looky where he knelt
down, because here's the mark of his knees as plain as anything.  Now
what do you say, Toby Jones?  Is the laugh on me, after all?"

Toby had to confess that it did not look that way.

"Oh!  I'm ready to own up you did see a man snooping around our camp,
Lil Artha," he confessed, frankly; "and when you let fly with that load
he lit out like all possessed.  Elmer, of course the chances are it was
_that man_, don't you think?"

"We know of no other in this region," said the patrol leader.  "He must
have discovered our fire, and was creeping up when our vigilant comrade
saw him, meaning to steal part of our food supply.  We happen to know
they're short of grub, and now that the country is being roused against
them this man is beginning to be more or less afraid to venture out of
the swamp to secure another lot of fowls, or anything else along the
eating line."

"But it looks as if he came here alone, Elmer, seeing we can find only
one set of footprints," remarked Lil Artha.

"Oh! mercy!  I certainly hope now he hasn't done anything _ter_rible to
our chum, Hen Condit," quavered Landy, in a panic.

"There's no reason why we should believe such a thing," announced
Elmer, decidedly; "we've already agreed that he possesses some sort of
strange power over poor Hen, and I suppose the boy is waiting in their
camp away from here, for the man to come back with provisions."

They walked back and the fire was revived, for since no one felt just
like trying to sleep again they concluded to sit up a while and talk it
all over.  This attempted visit on the part of the unknown man had
apparently put a new face on the whole matter.  It might change their
plans considerably, too, some of the scouts feared.

"I don't see why that should be," Elmer explained.  "Of course, after
this we'll have to keep a watch every night, so as to hold him up if he
tries to get away with any of our stuff.  It may hurry things along in
the end.  If they have little to eat, and the man is really afraid to
go outside of the swamp thinking the police are waiting to arrest him,
he may make up his mind to surrender to us."

"Then you believe he knows why we're here, do you, Elmer?" demanded
Toby.

"It seems possible, although, of course, we have to jump at
conclusions, because we really don't know," came the answer.

"Whew! but this is all a dark mystery," confessed Landy; "and I never
was much account at guessing the answer to riddles.  Who is this man;
what is he holding over Hen Condit's head; why should our chum do that
awful thing, and then leave such a silly letter behind to convict
himself?  I'm all in a whirl, and if anybody can straighten me out I'd
be a heap obliged."

Apparently, nobody could, at least there was no effort made in that
direction.  In fact, to tell the truth, all the boys felt that they
were groping in the gloom, and even their best guesses had only a
slender foundation.

"We've enlisted in the war, though," said Lil Artha, grimly, "and we
won't be kept back by any little thing.  If that chap comes snooping
around any more he stands a mighty good chance of getting hurt, that's
all I'm going to say about it."

"And we'll run across Hen, sooner or later, you can put that in your
pipe and smoke it," asserted Toby Jones, firmly.

When they had discussed the subject from every side, without picking up
much additional information worth while, the boys began to feel sleepy
again.  So Elmer told them off in watches, two scouts being assigned to
duty at a time.  Landy was left out, because he was the odd fellow, and
perhaps for other obvious reasons.

He pretended to be quite indignant over the slight, and vowed that he
would certainly sit up through one of the watches with the pair whose
turn it happened to be.  But none of them took his threats seriously,
because they knew full well when Landy Smith once got asleep it
required something like a young earthquake to arouse him.  Elmer hardly
anticipated another visit from the mysterious unknown that night.  He
fancied the fellow must have imagined Lil Artha really shot point-blank
at him, and that it was only his good luck which enabled him to escape
disaster.

Being too good a scout to take unnecessary chances, and not wishing to
lose the main part of such supplies as they had fetched along for
several days' use, the patrol leader took all due precautions.

The fire was kept up the balance of the night in the bargain, for they
felt as though the illumination helped to guard them.  Complete
darkness might have tempted a raiding thief to try again, while he
would be afraid to attempt such a risky move while the flames crackled
and lighted up the immediate surroundings.

After all, nothing happened to disturb them.  The sentries stuck
diligently to their duties, and changed at the time appointed.  This
had been laid out by Elmer, as the sky had cleared and the stars could
be plainly seen in places.  He figured time from the position of
certain bright planets, and their setting would mean the different
changes in guard mount.  Scouts who have been in camp have learned
these methods of telling time by the use of the heavenly watch, and few
of them after once mastering the interesting method find a need for
Ingersols.

When daylight sifted in through the treetops overhead, the boys gave
signs of arousing.  Landy, of course, was the last to awaken, and he
professed to be quite heart-broken because no one had called him in
time to help stand out that watch.  The gleam of humor in his eyes,
however, told Elmer that the fat boy was not quite so much disappointed
as he made out to be.  In fact, the patrol leader was beginning to fear
that Landy had latterly shown signs of developing a new trait in his
composition, and started to play the part of a deceiver, in return for
constant badgering on the part of his fun-loving mates.

It was while they were eating breakfast that Elmer propounded a new
scheme, and after placing it before his comrades asked them what their
opinions were.

"The question now is," was what he said, seriously, "whether we mean to
keep on poling our skiff along the waterways; or shouldering our packs
take the shore from now on; and as our rule always has been, majority
votes carry the day."



CHAPTER XII

THE VALUE OF SCOUTCRAFT

"But that old skiff suits me all right," objected Landy, who did not
particularly fancy shouldering his pack, to tramp through brush and
over marshy tracts of land, such as must be their portion.

"Why ought we make a change, Elmer?" asked Ted, also unable to grasp
the meaning of this new move.

Not so Lil Artha, who was quick to see things, especially when some
suggestion on the part of the scout-master was concerned.

"Why, what ails you fellows?" he exclaimed, scornfully, as became one
possessed of superior brains; "don't you understand my sighting that
man last night alters the whole business?  Now, there's no need of
hunting a needle in a haystack, for we've got a real trail to follow
up."

"That's right, suh, and scouts ought to be able to accomplish the
task," Chatz remarked in his superior way, which, however, everybody
knew was only skin-deep, the result of his Southern birth and training,
for he was a splendid fellow at heart, and well liked.

"What about the skiffs then, if we abandon the same?" asked Toby.

"Oh! we'll mark the place, and Johnny can easily find his property when
we're paying him five dollars for their use," said Lil Artha, lightly.
"And boys, better make a start with those packs right now."

Landy sighed heavily, and seeing there was no escape he started to
carry out the suggestion of the tall scout.  His lack of ambition was
so noticeable that Lil Artha could not resist the temptation to take a
shot at him.

"I was just thinking, fellows," he went on, maliciously, "that Landy's
going to play out on us, and give no end of trouble; so we might leave
him here to watch the boats while we're gone."

"What! me stay here, and starve to death?" ejaculated Landy, commencing
to put considerably more vigor into his labor; "I guess not, if I know
myself, and I think I do."

"Oh! for that matter we'd let you have some grub," continued the
generous Lil Artha; "enough for one full meal anyway."

"No thank you, not any in mine.  I'm going where the rest do, make up
your mind to that.  If the old boats have to be watched stay yourself,
Lil Artha, that's all.  You couldn't coax or hire me to remain alone a
single night in this awful swamp, not if you tried till doomsday.  I
like company, and if I have to I c'n even put up with you as a steady,
Lil Artha.  Now that'll do for you.  It isn't to be considered for a
second."

Of course, Lil Artha was only having a little fun, because there was no
thought of leaving anybody behind to stand guard over the two abandoned
skiffs; and least of all would Elmer have dreamed of appointing the fat
and timid scout for such a duty.

When deciding on such a radical change in their plans, Elmer did not
forget that it might also be well for them to conceal the two boats.
Should the man they were hunting chance to come upon the skiffs he
might think it good policy to smash in the planks to such an extent
that they would be useless for further voyaging; and possibly the
scouts would be glad to get out of the swamp by the same means they had
taken when entering.

"First of all, let's hide the boats somewhere," he suggested.  "They're
pretty heavy, of course, but seven of us ought to be able to carry
them, one at a time."

"It needn't be for far either," Lil Artha assured them, "because here's
a jimdandy place close by.  Everybody on the job, and see what you can
lift."

After all it was nothing to speak of, for the two skiffs were easily
handled, and nicely concealed from view.  When the boys had removed all
traces of their passage, anyone might walk by within five feet of the
patch of bushes and never suspect what lay there so neatly hidden.

"There, that job's done," said Elmer; "now finish packing, and we'll be
off."

Landy hurried now.  He had a lingering fear that there might be more in
that obscure threat made by Lil Artha of desertion on their part than
appeared on the surface.  The more he considered being left alone in
that dreary swamp the faster Landy's fingers flew.  He also kept a wary
eye on the tall scout, and had Lil Artha shown any intention of
hurrying off he would have surely found Landy tagging at his heels,
whether he had his pack or not.

Meanwhile, Elmer, having quickly arranged his possessions, because of
long familiarity in the packing line, had gone over once more to the
bush patch where on the preceding night Lil Artha had seen that
suspicious lurker.

Of course, it was Elmer's intention to examine the tracks left by the
mysterious visitor, and see whether it would be possible for them to
pick up the trail.

He was, of course, taking it for granted that the party must have been
the same man they had been hunting ever since reaching the swamp.  So
far as Elmer could say, his footprints resembled those they had seen
with Hen's, although there was really nothing remarkable about them to
distinguish the indentations above all others.

Elmer knew that they took certain chances in figuring this way.  After
all this man may have been the farmer who had a stock farm.  Some of
his cattle breaking bounds would likely enough wander into the swamp,
and in looking for the strays perhaps he had discovered the smouldering
fire.

As tramps, and possibly bad men as well, sometimes hid in the depths of
swamps, the cautious cattle-raiser may have been crawling up to find
out the truth when that sudden shot frightened him, so that he had run
wildly away.

Well, no matter which of these two solutions to the mystery proved to
be the correct one, Elmer meant to try and come upon the party whose
trail now lay before him.  He still favored the original idea, and, in
fact, never bothered mentioning the other speculation to his comrades.

All of them being ready they set out.  Elmer and Lil Artha led the van,
for they were recognized as the best equipped scouts in the Wolf Patrol
when it came to a question of trailing.  What Lil Artha lacked in
actual experience, he partly made up for in his pertinacity, as well as
his constant practice along these lines.

It soon became evident to them that the fugitive had not thought it
worth while to try and hide his trail at the time he fled from the
camp.  That sudden shot must have given him a nervous shock, so that
all he cared about just then was to put as much distance between
himself and those seven khaki-clad boys as possible.  The fact that
they carried weapons and would not hesitate to use their firearms must
have convinced him it was a risky thing to hang around that region any
longer.

For half an hour the boys moved on.  Sometimes it was at a fair walk,
and then again when the trail grew fainter so that those at the head of
the column were compelled to exercise all of their knowledge in order
to make sure progress, things slackened more or less.

The boys had been warned not to make any unnecessary noise.  Talking
save in the lowest of whispers was strictly tabooed, and even at that
Elmer did not encourage any conversation.  They also had to take care
of their feet, and not press their weight upon some stick that would
break with a loud snap.  Even such small things have spoiled well-laid
plans before now, and trackers, whether of wild beasts of human
fugitives, cannot be too careful.

If Landy puffed a little the other made no objection, since he took
care to do it half under his breath.  It was not such very easy work,
though as scouts most of them enjoyed every minute of the time, being
constantly thrilled with the expectation of suddenly coming upon a camp
where those they sought might be found, and taken by surprise.

Lil Artha even had it all arranged in his mind just how he meant to
threaten that man with his gun, warning him savagely that it would be
as much as his skin was worth to attempt to flee.

It was in this humor that they came to a log that lay across their
path.  Here the trail ended, but, of course, such clever fellows as
Elmer and Lil Artha would understand a little trick like that.  The
stumbling man had naturally taken to the log, passed well along to the
other end, and then jumped off.

"You take that side and I'll cover this one," said Elmer, without the
least hesitation; "ten to one we'll get him again."

They did, for Lil Artha quickly found the tracks once more.  The
incident, however, told them that the man had begun to fear he would be
followed when morning came, since this was his first effort to baffle
pursuit.

"I'm sorry that happened," said Elmer, softly, to his working partner;
"because it's going to make our task all the harder you see."

"Do you mean because he's begun to be afraid he'll be followed?" asked
the other.

"That's just it," continued the patrol leader; "if that idea gets a
firm hold of him he's bound to do everything he knows how so as to
leave us in the lurch.  In the end he might even decide to quit the
swamp, and take his chances of getting away outside."

"Well, we don't quit at that, do we?" asked Lil Artha, with a gritting
of his teeth that told of grim determination.

Elmer looked at him and smiled.

"We'd be a nice lot of scouts, wouldn't we," he said, sarcastically,
"if we were ready to throw up the sponge at the first sign of trouble?
No, we've started on this trail, and we'll run it down if it keeps us
busy the rest of our vacation."

"In the immortal words of General Grant while flanking Lee and driving
him back toward Richmond," continued the other, "'we'll fight it out on
this line if it takes all summer!'  I'm glad to hear you say that,
Elmer.  But here we are up against it again, seems like."

This time the fleeing man had reached a certain point, for his tracks
could be plainly seen, but the trail abruptly ended.

"It's an easy guess," said Elmer, after a brief examination.  "You can
see that he stood up on his toes here, for the indentation is heavier
forward.  Then, besides, look at this bark lying fresh on the ground,
only a few small pieces, but scraped from the tree above us."

"Sure thing, Elmer!" declared Lil Artha, while the others stood and
watched the actions of their comrades with the utmost curiosity, "he
just grabbed hold of that lowermost limb, gave his feet a fling against
the trunk of the tree, and hoisted himself up yonder."

"Then perhaps he's somewhere up there still," suggested Landy.

"I don't think so," continued Elmer; "but we'll send up an expedition
to find out after we make sure that all avenues of escape are closed.
My own opinion is that he passed out along some other low-hanging limb,
and dropped to the ground again, perhaps thirty feet away from here."

"Let's look and see!" cried Toby, eagerly.

"Be careful," warned Lil Artha, hurriedly; "for unless you step mighty
fine you may cover up the prints of his shoes where he dropped down."

Elmer had already decided just about where he would have descended from
the tree had he been in the place of the fugitive.  Lil Artha, too,
seemed to have settled on the same spot for he was just at the heels of
the leader.

Instead of looking down, Elmer kept glancing up.  It might be he was
mentally following the straddling figure along that great limb.
Presently he abruptly stopped.

"I can see signs that tell me he came this far, but they end up there,"
he told his companion.  "Yes, and here you see fresh leaves on the
ground.  Look sharp, Lil Artha, and it may be your eyes will light on
the fresh trail."

Hardly had Elmer spoken when a low but eager cry told that success had
been achieved.  Lil Artha pointed to the mark of feet close beside
them.  Undoubtedly, the fugitive had dropped once more to the ground.

"Say, let me tell you he's a slick article, that chap," said Toby,
after they had once more made a fresh start.  "I wouldn't be surprised
to learn he'd been out on the plains in his day, he seems to know so
much about Indian ways and all that."

"But he's met his match in our scout-master, for a fact," blustered
Landy, full of genuine admiration for the commander who had many a time
led the Wolf Patrol boys to victory over stupendous obstacles.

"Silence everybody now," came from Elmer, though naturally it must have
given him a warm feeling in the region of his heart to know that these
good chums felt so kindly toward him and were not backward in
expressing their sentiments.

So they continued on for another stretch.  The fugitive must have come
to believe that by this time he would have thrown any possible tracker
off the scent; at any rate, he tried no new game looking to baffling
pursuit.

Gliding along like shadows the seven scouts made fair progress.  Elmer
was of the opinion that at any minute now they might come upon the spot
where the unknown had his hide-out.  He had communicated his plans to
the others before this, and they all knew the parts they would be
expected to play should it come to a hold-up.

Covered by the guns that he and Lil Artha carried, it was doubtful
whether the man would dare take chances and try to flee.  If he did and
left Hen behind him, the first thing for them to do would be to secure
the boy, even if he evinced a desperate desire to avoid them.

Somehow, Elmer himself believed they would find what they were seeking
in the unusually large patch of brush that now lay ahead of them.  He
caught glimpses of the water just beyond, which proved that an arm of
the swamp extended in this direction.

Pushing steadily on as noiselessly as possible, they were presently
able to part the bushes and discover a dead fire in plain sight.  The
boat lay on the shore, with one plank smashed in, doubtless the result
of an accident that had wrecked the hopes of the two fugitives.

Eagerly they surveyed the prospect, and then Lil Artha gave a grunt of
disgust.

"Skipped out, that's a measly shame!" he exclaimed, wrathfully.

"But what's that white thing stuck in the crotch of the wand yonder?"
demanded Toby; "looks to me like it might be some sort of communication
from our poor pard Hen Condit; because that's an old scout and Indian
way of leaving word, you know."

Elmer was already hurrying forward to possess himself of the message.
The others watched him take it from the crotch of the stick and open
the soiled paper on which there seemed to be more or less crooked
writing in pencil.  Then the patrol leader turned to his comrades, a
look of satisfaction on his face.



CHAPTER XIII

HEN CONDIT'S STRANGE MESSAGE

"Is it from Hen?" asked two or three at once, that being the all
important fact stamped upon their minds.

At the same time they realized just as well as anything it must be so,
else Elmer would not be smiling and frowning as he deciphered the
meaning of the scrawl.  As all the boys knew, Hen Condit was one of the
poorest writers in the Hickory Ridge High School.  It may be remembered
that in speaking of his other note some of them brought this fact
forward, stating that a teacher had once declared the boy well named,
since his efforts looked like "hen-tracks" on paper.

"It's lucky that I'm able to read any sort of old writing," remarked
Elmer, not without a touch of boyish pride; "it's a gift with me, and
Hen sometimes came to ask me to tell him what he'd set down, for after
it got cold he couldn't well make it out himself."

"Then you've sensed the meaning of his present communication, have you,
Elmer?" questioned Mark, a little bit given to stilted language.

"I can read it all right," was the reply he received, "but
understanding the gist of it is another thing.  The sentences seem
disconnected, and some of them are queer.  When Hen wrote this he must
either have been half out of his mind, or else he was in great fear of
something, or _somebody_!"

Of course, when the scout-master said this, it produced something of a
sensation among the other six fellows.  They exchanged grave looks,
while Lil Artha was seen to shake his head, and give that gun of his a
little tilt upwards, as though he now believed more than ever the time
was near at hand when he would be compelled to make some sort of use of
the same, in order to save the kidnapped chum.

"Please read it out to us, Elmer!" begged Landy.

"Yeth, we're wondering what it can all be about," added Ted Burgoyne.

"Then listen, and please don't interrupt me until I finish," said
Elmer.  "This is what Hen's written with a lead pencil on this sheet of
paper, which I think he must have torn from a little memorandum book I
happen to know he always carries about in his pocket."

He held the crumpled paper closer to his eyes, for in places the
writing was rather faint, and in two particular spots Elmer had to
guess at a word, for evidently a drop of something, perhaps a salty
tear, had fallen on the paper, blurring the work of the lead pencil
stub.

"Boys, perhaps you'll get this--he says he counted seven and everyone
wore a khaki uniform--he thinks you must be the militia--course I know
better--but it's no use, you just can't help me--I'm a goner, and the
most miserable boy on earth--but I say on the honor of a scout I never
meant to do it--I've just got to disappear--maybe I'll let you hear
from me if ever I get Out West where they can't find me.  Oh! what hard
luck, but I have to do whatever he says, no matter what I want.  I'm
meaning to leave this behind in the scout way, and don't I hope you'll
find it.  There, he's calling to me to hurry, for we're going to quit
this hide-out and try to escape.  I'm awful hungry, too.  Better leave
me to my fate unless you can find a way to seal his lips.  That's all.
Hen."

"Great Caesar!" exclaimed Lil Artha, who had hung on every word spoken
by Elmer.  "That proves one of two things.  Either our poor pard is
looney, or else he's got in the power of a rascal who controls his
mind.  I always knew Hen was weak in the upper story just a teenty
mite.  Poor old chap, we've got to find him if it takes us till
Christmas.  You hear me talking now!"

"Yeth, and we all thay the thame!" burst from Ted, as he doubled his
none too expansive fists, and looked as savage as he could.

Indeed, a hasty glance around just then would have told any observer
that this strange message, filled with despair and yearning, left by
Hen Condit in the crotch of a stick thrust into the ground, had renewed
their former resolution not to give over the search until they had
either found the missing chum or exhausted every known device looking
to success.

"If you asked me," said Elmer, "I'd say the answer to the riddle lay
between the two things you mention, Lil Artha.  Hen is crazed almost,
but it is with fear.  He finds himself in the power of a brute who is
using him for his own purposes.  How it's been done, of course, we can
only guess, but the boy believes he has been forced to rob his
guardian, and that a posse is searching right now for him, with the
intention of putting him in jail.  That explains his panic."

"And say, he tells us right at the end of his note that he's some
hungry," Lil Artha went on to remark; "and, according to my notion,
that condition is next door to being insane.  Why, mebbe the poor
fellow hasn't had a solitary bite for a whole day or even two of 'em.
I pity him from the bottom of my heart."

"Notice what he incidentally says near the end," added Elmer.  "'Better
leave me to my fate unless you can find a way to seal his lips.'  That
seems to strengthen our theory, doesn't it?"

"All this mention of 'he' must stand for the unknown man who has got
Hen, of course?" ventured Mark.

"Couldn't be anybody else," the patrol leader made answer; "in fact,
Hen just now doesn't seem able to even think of any other person."

"The fellow is no common rascal, let me tell you, suh," Chatz declared.
"He must have been some sort of professor along the lines of magic,
perhaps a hypnotist who performed wonders on the stage before crowds,
and then dabbled in things that the law sat down on, which landed him
in the penitentiary finally."

"When the truth comes out, Chatz, I'm positive that your theory will be
found pretty near the exact facts," affirmed Elmer.

"But all the time we're jabbering away here," warned Lil Artha,
"remember that they're getting further and further away from us."

"As to that," the patrol leader assured him, "a few minutes don't make
so much difference, and it's always best to start right, so as to avoid
a loss of ten times as much later on by making mistakes.  Then again,
I'm pretty sure that man is too smart to think of trying to leave
Sassafras Swamp before night comes, even if he plans to do it then."

Somehow, this intelligence comforted the more impetuous ones.  They had
such unlimited faith in Elmer knowing what course was best to pursue
that his judgment was accepted on its face value every time--just as
the Treasury notes of the United States Government are relied upon to
be worth their face denomination in specie.

"About how long ago would you thay they had thkipped out of here?" Ted
asked, as they still lingered, looking to the right and to the left, as
though wanting to make certain nothing valuable in the way of a clue
could have escaped their scrutiny.

"Lil Artha, we're depending on you for that information," suggested
Elmer, although it could not be doubted that he himself was able to
give a pretty good answer, for he had observed certain signs as well as
the tall scout.

"Not more than two hours ago, I'd say, Elmer," Lil Artha ventured, with
considerable confidence manifested in his manner, as though if put to
it he was able to muster all the evidence necessary to establish his
veracity.

"Just about what I thought myself," added the scout-master, with a
satisfied smile.  "Two heads are better than one, any day, Lil Artha,
especially when they seem to work together as well as ours do."

"Then the man didn't think to skip out right away after he got back
here, did he?" asked Landy, "because a good many hours have elapsed
since Lil Artha woke us all up with that sudden shot."

"No, he must have slept for some time," answered Elmer, "knowing there
wasn't apt to be any sort of a pursuit in the night.  Then again he
relied more or less on having blinded his trail, as a man who had spent
some time in the West among Indians and cowboys would have done.  It
wasn't a great while before dawn when he must have aroused poor Hen and
told him they must get away."

"But when do you think our chum could have scribbled that message?"
asked Mark.

"Evidently, after he knew about our being within a mile of him,"
replied Elmer, with a promptness that told how he had figured it all
out.  "I suppose the man told him about the khaki soldiers who were in
the swamp looking for them, thinking it would make Hen more frightened
than ever; but we know he guessed the truth about our being his
comrades of the Wolf Patrol."

"Then, believing he would be hurried off again, sooner or later," Mark
continued, "he took the first chance he had to write that message.  He
must have fixed it in that split stick, and just as they were leaving
here stuck the wand in the ground, scout fashion."

"We seem to have it all sized up to a dot by now," remarked the leader,
preparing to move; "and as there isn't anything else for us to do here,
suppose we get busy on the trail again, Lil Artha?"

"I'm your chicken, and you can depend on me when it comes to scenting
out a trail, Elmer.  Wonder if that man will be up to any more high
jinks in the way of walking along logs, climbing trees, and such
tricks?  We'll keep a good lookout for such capers, believe me."

They were soon moving along, the two trackers in the van as before,
with others trailing after.  Landy brought up the rear, though Mark
kept a careful eye on him most of the time, as though rather skeptical
about his ability to make progress without getting into some sort of
trouble.

It would be just like clumsy Landy to trip, and make a headlong plunge
into the brown tamarack water of the swamp just when he should have
been most careful.  They had known him to do such things more than a
few times in the past; and on this account Mark always made it a point
to drop back and keep him company when he imagined the situation became
acute.

From the rapid manner in which Lil Artha and Elmer picked up the trail
it was plainly evident that so far the unknown fugitive from justice
had not bothered resorting to any of his tricks looking to blinding the
tracks.

He had been compelled to wait for daylight before trying to move
through the swamp, because progress would have been next door to
impossible at night time unless one were familiar with the way, or else
carried a lantern.  Neither of these happened to be within his scope,
and so he had to depend upon daylight.

Of course, none of the boys knew what sort of a reception they might
expect when finally they overtook the man they were following.  What
little they could gather from various sources inclined them to believe
he must be a pretty desperate sort of customer.  The occasional mention
of him in that strange message left by Hen was along those very lines.

He might be armed for all they knew.  Such criminals usually are,
though in this case it might be otherwise, Elmer had told them, since
he believed the man had been a prisoner making his escape when first he
struck Sassafras Swamp, and concluded to have his hide-out in its
depths.

Still Lil Artha was not for taking too many chances.  As he moved
along, the tall scout managed to keep that reliable gun of his in
position for quick use, should an occasion arise calling for service.

He also tried to glance ahead from time to time, in hopes of locating
any suspicious ambuscade.  A sudden attack that would leave himself and
Elmer weaponless might throw the entire party into a state of
helplessness, which would always reflect on their ability as scouts.

They spent half an hour in this fashion, though the trail wound in and
out so much that at the end of that time they could hardly have been
more than a quarter of a mile away from the late camp of the fugitives.

"Did you hear that, Elmer?" whispered Lil Artha, suddenly, throwing out
a hand so as to clutch the other's arm; while everyone became rigid
with suspense.

"It certainly sounded like a cough," admitted the other.

"But I'm dead certain it wasn't from in front of us, but over to the
left, which would be some queer," muttered the tall tracker, staring in
the quarter which he now indicated with outstretched finger.

"I thought the same, Lil Artha," Elmer told him; "but then this trail
twists and turns so much it might get around that way easy enough."

"Of course it might, Elmer."

"All we can do is to keep going along as we are, and some of us watch
for signs of Hen and the man over yonder," added the scout-master.

"Then you don't think it'd pay to strike out to the left?" questioned
the other, who seemed to be hesitating between two opinions.

"We would be silly to quit a sure thing for an uncertainty," said
Elmer, decidedly.  "After all our ears may have deceived us, and it
might have only been some queer grunt of a frog, a heron fishing for
minnows, or even a muskrat choking over his dinner.  No, we must keep
on as we're going, that's sure."

Lil Artha looked relieved.  After all, it pleased the tall scout to
have someone decide a puzzling question like this for him.
Responsibility weighs heavy on the shoulders of many even capable boys,
and they are only too glad to be able to shift it on occasion.

"Just as you say, Elmer, and I reckon you're quite right, too," always
in a low, sibilant tone that would not carry further than a dozen yards
at the most.

They again turned to take up the trail, which just at that point
happened to run through some bushes coming up to their hips.  It was
easy to see where those ahead of them had brushed through, for they had
trampled down the lush grass, and brushed aside the tender branches of
the bushes.

Elmer had even bent over to take a good look down at the ground before
setting forth when he heard Toby Jones give a sudden, violent hiss.

Now, that was a well-known sign among the boys of the Wolf Patrol, and
which had served them in good stead many a time in the past.  Heard
under such thrilling conditions, it could mean only one thing; Toby had
discovered some sort of danger, and was warning his comrades in order
that they might drop down out of sight.

Every fellow seemed to understand this instantly, for as though they
were all moved by the same controlling influence, they allowed
themselves to sink on their knees amidst the friendly bushes that
afforded such splendid shelter.  Even as Elmer dropped thus he had shot
a quick glance toward the left, from which that seeming cough had come,
and saw something that electrified him.



CHAPTER XIV

BOUND TO SUCCEED

No wonder the young scout-master was surprised and thrilled by what he
saw as he crouched there amidst the bushes, and stared over their tops.

Not more than sixty or seventy yards away at the most there appeared to
be a violent commotion among another bunch of brush, as though a number
of unseen parties might be forcing their way through the obstruction.

Even as Elmer, and his chums as well, looked, a figure burst out,
quickly followed by a second, a third, and then still more, until in
all there were six in the queer procession that seemed to be heading
directly for the late hide-out of the swamp fugitives.

What startled the boys most of all was the fact that they knew several
of those who went to make up that strange company.  First, there was
Johnny Spreen, the bound boy at the Trotter farm, and who had given
them so many points concerning the swamp he knew so well.

Just behind Johnny walked a consequential looking personage dressed in
a blue uniform, and, with a glittering shield fastened on his left
breast.  Well did the Hickory Ridge boys know the Chief of Police in
their own town.  Behind him came a second and a third man, also in
uniform, whom they knew to be local "cops;" while the next had the
appearance of having been impressed into the posse; then at the tail
end of the procession came Farmer Trotter, carrying an old musket that
may have done duty in the Civil War, half a century back, for it looked
like a fossil.

"Gosh!"

That was Lil Artha "letting off steam," as he would have termed it; but
he uttered his favorite expression so very low that there was not the
slightest danger of it's being overheard.

"Don't wink an eyelash if you can help it, fellows," whispered Elmer,
who apparently, for reasons of his own, did not want the posse to know
of their presence so near by.

Of course, the others instantly knew what he meant, and if they had
been made of stone it is doubtful whether they could have maintained a
more rigid attitude as they crouched there in the bushes.

Fortunately, all of the posse seemed to be looking ahead.  Perhaps they
had been warned by the bound boy that the place to which he was taking
them was not very far distant, which would account for their eagerness.

So they passed on.  Elmer kept whispering to his followers not to make
a move unless it was to drop down flat on their faces.  Apparently, not
even Landy felt inclined to do this.  As long as the Chief and his
gallant posse remained in sight everyone crouched there and took it out
in staring.

Then when even Farmer Trotter had been swallowed up in the scrub, sighs
might have been heard arising from some of the boys' lips, as though
they were relieved to have the suspense ended.

"Never glimpsed us!" remarked Mark, triumphantly.

"Blind as bats in the day-time!" added Landy.

"They didn't happen to turn this way," said Elmer; "and since you all
kept so still I don't believe they'd have noticed us even if they had
looked.  I want to say it was well done, boys."

"That was Johnny Spreen, wasn't it?" asked Landy, as though he wanted
to have someone corroborate what his own eyes had told him.

"It certainly was," said Lil Artha.  "The farmer wouldn't let him come
with us, but I guess the Chief just swore them both into his posse, and
then they had to come or run up against the law.  A sheriff or a police
Chief can do that, you understand; no matter whether a man wants to
serve or not, he's got to."

"And you all noticed, I reckon," remarked Chatz, "that they were making
straight fo' the hide-out where Hen and that man spent the night.  That
shows Johnny must have figured out after we left him that it would be a
good place for hiding.  What do you all say about it?"

"Oh! there's no question but what you're correct, old top!" Lil Artha
told him in his queer way.  "But I'm real tickled because Elmer didn't
take a notion to hail the Chief, and take him in on our deal."

Elmer laughed at that.

"It wasn't any 'Hail to the Chief' this time, you see, Lil Artha," he
remarked.  "We have borne the heat and burden of the day, and it wasn't
right that that crowd, coming in at the tail end of the chase, should
share alike with us.  Besides, you remember we decided we wanted to get
at poor Hen _before_ the law could lay a hand on him."

"So we did," muttered Chatz.

"But Elmer," objected Toby, "supposing they get to that place, and find
the birds flown, don't you reckon they'll notice that we've been there?"

"So far as the Chief and his men go," returned the other, "I wouldn't
believe them capable of finding out anything except that the camp was
empty.  But all the same I suppose they will know about us."

"Meaning that Johnny will see our tracks, and read the story there; is
that it, Elmer?" queried Lil Artha, quick to catch on to the meaning of
the patrol leader's words.

"Yes, Johnny will tell, because he's been hunting furs so long that he
knows a heap about following tracks.  When he finds out there were a
lot of boys in the camp he'll guess we discovered the place."

"Mebbe they'll take it for granted we caught the birds, and be ready to
throw up the game then and there?" suggested Toby.

"Hardly that," advised Elmer; "Johnny ought to be able to tell them
different.  He would soon learn after looking things over that all our
tracks were made _after_ those of the man, when we left the camp.  You
see that must tell him we were pursuing the fellow.  I put myself in
Johnny's place; and that's how I believe I'd figure it out."

"A good way to do, too, believe me," said Mark.

"Then in that case," Lil Artha continued, "they'll be coming along
after us before a great while.  Whew! if this doesn't beat anything I
ever took part in.  It's a continuous procession, boys, winding in and
out through the high lands of old Sassafras Swamp--first Hen and the
man who controls his actions; then seven bold scouts of the Wolf
Patrol; and finally our big puffball of a Chief and his valiant posse
bringing up the rear."

"But we don't want them to overtake us, do we?" asked Landy, actually
meaning to hint that they had better be moving on, which was a
remarkable thing to enter the head of the Smith boy, always the first
to desire a halt.

"We do not," Lil Artha informed him, plainly, "and to prevent such a
horrible catastrophe from happening we expect to be on the jump again
right away, doubling our pace it may be, Landy.  The worst is yet to
come, remember."

"Huh! you can't scare me any, Lil Artha," the fat scout told his
tormentor; for he knew very well that with a trail to follow they could
hardly proceed any more rapidly than before.

Progress was immediately resumed.  They went forward in about the same
manner as before, with Mark keeping Landy company at the tail-end of
the procession.  The situation was now growing more and more serious,
and much depended on whether they could manage to overtake the
fugitives before night came on.  A whole day's tramping through the
intricate recesses of the swamp, just as the dry land afforded footing,
was a monumental task that must try the nerve of the best of them; and
Landy, if not one or two others, would be apt to drop out of the ranks
long before sunset came.

Elmer, however, was hopeful that they must overtake those they chased
long before such utter weariness seized upon them.  He knew that Hen
Condit himself, although no weakling, could not stand hours upon hours
of continual walking, especially when it consisted of such uncertain
footing as fell to their portion under those conditions.

Complete exhaustion then might compel Hen to beg his companion to
either leave him or else order a halt.  One way or the other suited the
scouts just as well, so long as they overtook Hen.

When Landy found that he was puffing from his exertions he took an
extra grip on himself and would not listen to Lil Artha when the tall
scout proposed that he drop out.

"All you have to do is to squat where we leave you, Landy," the other
had told him in a wheedling way; "and after we're done our business
we'll sure promise to look you up again, won't we, Elmer?"

"Nothing doing," snapped Landy, decisively; "what d'ye take me for, Lil
Artha, to desert my poor chum Hen when he needs help so much?  I'm a
sticker I want you to know.  Adhesive plasters haven't got anything on
me when it comes to standing by you through thick and thin.  No use
wasting your breath; save it for your work, say I!"

"Let him be, Lil Artha," said the patrol leader, hardly knowing whether
it was fidelity to a fellow-scout in distress that influenced Landy, or
a dreadful fear lest he find himself left alone in the midst of the
dismal swamp.

"Why yes," added Mark, "Landy is doing all right, even if he does
wheeze more'n is good for him.  But he hasn't stumbled more than six
times in the last half hour, which is some record for Landy, you
understand, follows [Transcriber's note: fellows?]."

Apparently, Landy took this as a great compliment, for his perspiring
face was set in a grin of triumph as he thrust out his tongue at Lil
Artha, as much as to say:

"See, Mister Smarty, others appreciate my good qualities if you don't.
So just mind your own business, and leave me alone to attend to mine.
I'll get there or burst a blood-vessel trying.  That's the Smith nature
every time."

Having heard Landy talk in this strain many a time the rest of the
scouts could easily put these expressions in his mouth, though he was
too short of breath just then to give them utterance; looks, however,
often count more than mere words.

They had been making splendid progress all this while, and must have
covered considerable distance since the time when they watched the
official posse wind its way past their hiding-place.

Lil Artha and Elmer had once or twice held a low consultation after
making an examination of the tracks they were following.

The others, listening to what the leaders said, found they were
comparing notes, and that it appeared to be the opinion of both Hen was
getting pretty tired.  This they could make out in various ways known
to scouts who had made a business of reading the story to be found in
tracks.

"You can see how uneven Hen walks most of the time," said Lil Artha;
"he wobbles even worse than Landy here, which goes to show he's getting
pretty tuckered out.  Can you blame the poor fellow when p'raps he's
weak from hunger?  If any of us had to go without a bite to eat all day
we'd get wobbly on our pins, too."

There was no dissenting voice raised to this assertion; eating is so
essential to the average boy that nothing on earth can compensate for a
dearth of food at the regular intervals.

"Then we saw several places where Hen had sat down to rest, you
remember," Elmer reminded the other.

"Yes, and the last time it struck us both that the man had yanked him
to his feet again by main force; which I take it wasn't as nice and
kind of that bully as you might expect," Lil Artha went on to say.

"Oh! the coward!" Chatz was heard to growl, and the look on his face as
he said those few words told what he meant to do if ever the
opportunity came his way to strike a blow for the abducted chum.

Filled with renewed determination after this little conference, they
once more took up their task.  Lil Artha likened their progress to the
ways of the Siberian wolf that follows its quarry day and night until
in the end its very persistence wins the victory.

"We're in this to the finish," he was fond of saying whenever he had
the chance, "and sooner or later we'll get him.  The boys of the Wolf
Patrol mean to stick to their name, and run the prey to the earth.  He
just can't get away nohow.  All we've got to do is to keep moving, and
believe the game is going to come our way.  Everybody put his best foot
forward again.  It's for the honor of the patrol, boys, that we get
hold of Hen Condit before the Chief takes him in."

It was now two hours and more since they had started on this new trail.
Before this time no doubt the posse must have reached the deserted
hide-out, and learned that the birds had flown.  Yes, it was even
possible that they were coming along the plain trail the seven scouts
had left behind them.

Figuring then that the bulky Chief and his men would not exceed their
own rate of progress, they could count on almost two full hours'
advantage over the others.  That surely ought to be an abundance of
time in which to carry out their plans, granting that they could
overtake the fugitives.

Elmer had again cautioned them to keep still.  The swamp was very
silent where they now found themselves, and sounds could be carried to
some distance under such conditions.

Landy was getting on fairly well, considering a number of things that
he had to contend with.  Indeed, Elmer meant to tell him as much when
he had the chance; for he felt that the stout scout deserved
encouragement.  What might seem trifles to some of the others assumed
the aspect of mountains in the eyes of one who was not gifted with
agility by Nature, and had to carry a far greater weight with him than
any of his mates were obliged to.

But here was Lil Artha coming to a full stop again.  Looking at him the
others found that the tracker did not seem to be bending over to
examine the trail more closely, as had occurred many times before.

On the contrary, Lil Artha was now raising his head in an expectant
attitude.  Landy even conjectured that he must be observing a
woodpecker boring a hole in some rotten tree-top, and was about to try
and follow the supposed line of vision on the part of Lil Artha when he
heard him say something.

It was only a brief sentence, but it meant worlds to those tired trail
followers.

"I smell smoke--wood smoke at that!" was what Lil Artha hissed, as he
continued to sniff vigorously.



CHAPTER XV

WOLF PATROL PLUCK WINS

It was no time for talking, and everyone realized that fact.  If they
were close enough to the fugitives to catch the scent of burning wood,
the camp could not be far away.

Elmer and Lil Artha seemed to hit upon the same idea at the same time.
They took note of the prevailing direction of the wind, and guessed
that the fire must be in the quarter from which it was blowing.  That
was not exactly straight ahead, but a little to the left.

Making motions to indicate extreme caution, Elmer led the way.  Now was
the time for the scouts of the Wolf Patrol to prove the value of their
education.  Many times in the past had they practiced this very same
difficult feat of creeping up on the camp of an unsuspecting enemy,
just as a bunch of red Indians might do; and what they had learned
under those conditions was going to prove of practical value to them
now.

No one tried to hurry.  What was the use, when those they followed had
come to a halt, and there was no longer any need of haste?

So they went on yard by yard, straining their vision all the while in
hopes of glimpsing the column of smoke, or the crackling flames ahead.
In making this advance they were careful to creep along as close to the
ground as possible.  This was an easy matter for a thin fellow like Lil
Artha, but to stout Landy it was quite a different task, though he
succeeded in flattening himself out wonderfully well, all things
considered.

When finally smoke was discovered, their caution increased, if such a
thing were possible.  Fortunately, the nature of the ground proved
favorable to such work as creeping, there being a certain amount of
grass that might be used to conceal their movements.

Pretty soon those in the advance could catch sight of a figure seated
on the edge of the bank at a place where the water extended.  Back of
him the fire smouldered, as though feeding on wood that had been thrown
upon it some time before.

It was Hen Condit!

Imagine the thrill that passed through Elmer, Lil Artha and those other
fellows when they made this out to be a fact.  Pretty soon as they
looked they saw that the missing chum seemed to be engaged in
industriously fishing, for he had a rude rod in his hand, and baited
his hook with some worms even as they watched.

His back was turned toward them, so there was no opportunity for the
newcomers to open negotiations with the fellow-member of the Wolf
Patrol even should they want to.

And now stretching their necks a trifle more they made another
discovery.  The man in the case was lying on his back, and so far as
they could tell, sound asleep.  Apparently, the master could take
things easy and rest himself, but the slave must keep constantly
employed trying to take in something calculated to satisfy their hunger.

It made Lil Artha grind his teeth when he saw this; and Elmer had to
touch him on the arm, as well as shake his head sternly in order to
warn him that nothing desperate must be attempted.  With victory almost
in their grasp they would, indeed, be foolish to ruin things by too
much haste.

As motions must from this time on take the place of speech, Elmer began
to make use of a beckoning finger to tell the others what their next
move should be.  This, of course, was a further advance.  They must
contrive in some way to push closer to the camp, so that when the
crisis came, they would be in a position to thwart any move the man
might make looking to carrying Hen off with him.

All this had been arranged beforehand, and each fellow knew exactly
what part he was to play in the round-up.  Lil Artha and Chatz had,
indeed, been warned that it would be up to them to make sure Hen did
not run away, filled with a fear of the consequences should he be
taken, even by his friends.

Advancing in this careful fashion, the scouts had covered many yards,
and were now almost within striking distance of the camp.  It was at
this particular moment that a sudden thing happened calculated to bring
matters to a climax.

After all that patient waiting, and rebaiting of his hook, the
persistence of the fisherman with the crooked rod was rewarded.  He was
seen to give a quick jerk, and then with a mighty effort throw a fairly
large, shining fish over his head.

No sooner had it landed with a thump on the ground, and commenced to
flop furiously, than Hen gave vent to a cry of delight, such as any
hungry boy might utter when he found himself favored with a chance to
break his long fast.

The sleeping man jumped to his feet as though at first he thought the
police had found them out.  Seeing the excited boy and the flopping
fish, he hurried over to the spot.  His first act was to strike poor
Hen over the head, and tell him to get busy again if he wanted a bite
to eat for himself, because there was only enough in that fish to take
the edge off one person's appetite.

Lil Artha came very nearly upsetting all Elmer's plans when he saw this
brutal act of the man, for he started to gain his feet, and had to be
pulled down by violence, shivering with excitement.

Hen had gone back to his task again, looking thoroughly cowed and
disheartened.  The man, taking the fish in his hand, held it up as if
to admire its looks; then he stepped down to the water as though
meaning to clean the prize without any loss of time, possibly spurred
on by hunger.

Elmer again began to advance a foot at a time, meanwhile keeping close
watch on all that was going on ahead.  They had the situation well in
hand, their line covering the ground, with the water cutting off escape
in one quarter.

Even without those serviceable guns the seven boys might have proven
themselves master of the game, for clubs could serve in lieu of better
weapons.  As it was, Elmer felt positive things must go their way.

Just then, Hen, in turning to reach his supply of bait, chanced to see
that line of creeping figures in khaki.  The mingled expressions that
crossed his face told what a flutter the sight must have brought to his
heart.

Elmer instantly put a finger on his lips, and made a gesture warning
Hen not to betray them.  Perhaps it was just as well, for the poor
fellow seemed on the point of crying out in his mixture of joy and
fear.  He did succeed in making some sort of sound that attracted the
attention of the man, who raised his head to growl:

"What ails you now, you young fool?  I'm almost sorry I went to the
bother of trying to save you from the clutch of the law.  What are you
complaining about, I'd like to know?  Get another fish, if you expect
to stave off your hunger; the first of the spoils always goes to the
boss."

"I caught my finger on the hook, that's all, Joe," stammered Hen,
perhaps telling the truth, too, for in his sudden shock of excitement
at seeing his chums he could very well have done such a thing.

"Well, suck it, and get busy doing your work, that's all, while I cook
this fish, and perhaps another you may take.  Yes, and while you're
about it just pray that my appetite will be stayed with this one; for
if it isn't, you'll have a small chance for a bite unless they come in
faster than they've been doing."

Well, the crisis had passed, and there had been no discovery; but then
Elmer was really caring very little now.  He only wanted to post his
backers a shade better so as to cut off all chance of escape, when he
intended opening up the game himself by springing a surprise on the man.

One thing he did mean to look out for, and this was a possible move on
the part of the escaped jail bird to lay hold of Hen.  Such a man would
think first of all how he could use the boy for a shield, while he made
terms with the enemy.  It was an old trick, which Elmer had known to be
used with more or less success when up on that Canadian cattle ranch,
where bad men were occasionally met with, who gave lots of trouble
before they were rounded up.

Two, three minutes passed.

Elmer did not believe it would be good policy for them to continue to
advance any further.  He did not wish to get so close to the man that
the other could by a sudden rush reach them before they were able to do
anything.

By a low hiss he warned his comrades that the critical time had
arrived, when every scout would be expected to do his duty.

Then slowly he got up, first on his knees, and then on his feet.  Every
fellow duplicated his move, so that the entire seven were now standing
there, forming a line slightly inclined to resemble the new crescent
moon.

And there was Hen Condit turning his head around to stare at them, his
face as white as the chalk they were accustomed to use upon the
blackboard in school.  His eyes were as round as circles, while upon
his strained countenance hope, fear, expectation, almost a dozen
emotions struggled for the mastery.

"Hello!  Joe!" called out Elmer, without the slightest warning.

Up rose the head of the man who was busy cleaning the fish.  When he
saw those seven khaki-clad figures standing there, with two shotguns
bearing directly on his person, he was to all appearances struck dumb
for the moment.  His eyes stared and his mouth fell open.  Fish and
knife dropped from his nerveless hands.

"Caught, by thunder! and by a bunch of boys at that!"

These words burst from his lips, after which he started to use some
pretty strong language until Elmer put his foot down sternly.

"Stop that kind of talk, Joe!" he ordered.  "We've got you rounded up,
and there's no use kicking.  If you make a move to run, or jump this
way, we'll fill you full of bird-shot, do you hear?"

"Both barrels in the bargain, Joseph, mind you!" added Lil Artha, still
burning with indignation as he recollected how they had seen the beast
cuff poor Hen; and perhaps deep down in his boyish heart actually
hoping the other might take a notion to try and get away, when they
would be justified in peppering him, after he had run possibly thirty
or forty yards.

"Oh!  I guess the jig's all up with me, boys," said the man, with a
look of sheer disgust on his face.  "I've had a little run for my
money, but the stone jug seems to be yawning for me.  I was a fool to
bother with the kid, it seems; but when the scheme came to me at first
I thought it too fine to drop.  Here's where I get paid for being a
silly gump.  What do you want me to do, boys?  I'll obey with as much
cheerful alacrity as I can, seeing that I'm starving to death just now."

"First of all," said Elmer, who had it all mapped out, "lie down on
your face and put both hands behind you.  We're going to tie you up,
and wait for the Chief with his posse to come along.  Do you get that,
Joe?"

"Sure I do, and since it's Hobson's choice with me here goes.  I
suppose you fellows must be Boy Scouts.  I once organized a troop of
the same, but never dreamed I'd be arrested by the khaki crowd.  It's
all in a day's work, though."

He, accordingly, stretched himself flat on the ground.  When they could
see that he had his hands held behind his back, and conveniently
crossed at the wrists, four of the boys advanced.

"Keep your gun aimed at him, Lil Artha," commanded the scout-master,
"and if he tries any funny business let him have it in the legs.  Here,
Landy, you and Chatz sit on him while I secure his hands."

The man attempted no resistance, for he realized the folly of it.  He
did groan, however, when Landy squatted down on his legs, and the other
fellows could hardly blame him for grunting.  It was like a thousand of
brick dropping from a second story building, as Lil Artha afterwards
described it.

The job was quickly and neatly dispatched, Elmer wrapping his cord many
times around the wrists of the prisoner.  By this time Joe seemed to
have recovered his nerve, and made out to consider the whole thing more
in the light of a big joke than anything else.

Meanwhile, there was Hen standing near by, and hardly knowing whether
to look delighted at seeing his cruel boss thus being tied up, or show
the dreadful fear that was gripping his soul as he contemplated what
must follow.

"Cheer up, Hen, old fellow," said Toby, stepping over to grasp his
hand; but to his amazement Hen immediately broke down, and began to sob
as if his heart were broken.

"You don't know the worst, that's what," he said, plaintively.  "That
stealing the money from my uncle was bad enough, but oh! will they
really hang me for the other?  I sure didn't mean to do such a terrible
thing when I threw that stone and hit the tramp that day!  I've had no
peace of mind ever since he told me his pal had really died.  He said
he'd keep still about it if I'd go with him, and do everything he told
me to.  And I've just had to, even when I felt sick enough to want to
lay me down and die."

"What's this yarn you've been giving the boy, Joe?" demanded Elmer,
sternly, as he faced the man, who with his hands tied behind his back
had been propped up against a convenient tree.

The man looked at Elmer and then burst into a derisive laugh.

"I knew he was a soft subject when I met him that day," he said, "and I
made up my mind I'd work him for fair.  He did throw a stone and hit a
fellow I was with on the head.  We chased after him but he was too
speedy for us.  Later on when I was all alone I set up that slick game
on him, telling him my pal had actually died, and I'd buried him in the
woods.  Oh! it was almost too easy.  He did just whatever I wanted him
to.  You'll find every cent of the money in my pocket, because I never
had a ghost of a chance to spend any of it.  That's all, son.  Now you
understand what ails the silly fool."

Hen Condit had listened to this, at first with that look of abject pain
on his face.  Then as the substance of the man's confession dawned upon
his mind he began to exhibit fresh interest that caused another
expression, that of wild hope, to swiftly take the place of despair on
his countenance.

"Oh! do you mean then, Joe, that your pal didn't die after all?
Please, oh please, tell me that, and I'll forgive you for everything
mean you've done to me!" he begged.

"The last I saw of the tramp," the prisoner told him, "he was settled
in an empty freight car, and bound for the city.  He was as frisky as
ever then.  I'd have joined him only I didn't want to pull up broke in
the city; and I thought there ought to be some rich pickings for a
clever crook around these regions.  That's where I made my one big
mistake.  And now I'm going to take my medicine.  That's all from me,
you hear.  Only I say, kid, you're lucky to have such a fine lot of
chums to help you out of a bad scrape!"



CHAPTER XVI

CONCLUSION

"I can hardly believe it's true," muttered Hen Condit, helplessly, as
he looked around him at the beaming faces of his seven loyal chums;
"just seems to me as if I'd wake up and find it only a lovely dream."

"Well, it isn't, just the same, Hen," said Lil Artha, as he wrung the
other's cold hand as though it had been a pump handle, and he the
honest milkman; "the money's been recovered, every cent of it, and like
as not there's some sort of a reward out for the recapture of this gent
here, who broke jail with a pair of handcuffs on his wrists which he
filed off weeks ago up in this same swamp.  And if there is, you share
with us in that, Hen, remember."

"But I didn't do a single thing to get him, and that wouldn't be fair!"
weakly protested the relieved boy, with his arm linked in that of
Elmer, upon whom he seemed to lean in this dreadful crisis of his young
life.

"Didn't hey?" snorted Toby; "I guess you _lured him along_; then again
and helped to blind his eyes while we crept noiselessly closer and
closer.  Sure you deserve part of the reward, Hen, providing there is
any up."

At hearing that unique remark, the prisoner burst into a hearty laugh.
Evidently, "Joe," having made up his mind that he was going back to the
clutches of the law, could enjoy a good joke as well as the next one;
he was undoubtedly a reckless sort of fellow anyway.

"That's fine for you, son," he told Toby; "luring the rascal on is a
good one.  That poor kid was almost too easy for me to work, for he
fell into my trap as soon as I pulled the string.  Why, I felt ashamed
of myself sometimes, it was so much like taking candy from the baby.
But he isn't a half bad sort of a boy; and let's hope this'll be a
lesson to him never again to throw stones at poor tramps.  They're
human as well as the rest of us, and have their feelings.  That lump on
his head pained Weary Willie Larkins as much as it would have done Hen
here."

Having made sure that the desperate character whom they only knew as
Joe could not escape, the boys built a jolly fire, and proceeded to
cook something.  Hen was so savagely hungry they had to lead him away
while the meal was in preparation, for he vowed he was dreadfully
tempted to jump in and devour his food raw.

And when a supply had been made ready, the scouts did not forget to
feed their prisoner, who certainly seemed to enjoy it very much, indeed.

"You boys are a great bunch," he told Lil Artha, who was looking after
his necessities in the line of food; "and after all, I'm not sorry you
were the ones to get me, if it had to be.  I'd never forgive myself if
that fat Chief of Police down at Hickory Ridge managed to round me up,
and him as ignorant about following a trail as a greenhorn."

You see, before then the man had guessed that Elmer must have spent
some time Out West, from various things he heard mentioned.  Indeed, he
had asked plainly if such were not the case, and afterwards told the
young scout-master a few interesting things connected with his own
checkered career.

His real name he declared would never be known, for he came of a good
family, which he would not wish to disgrace.  He admitted that he had
had every chance in the world to make a mark in the line of law or the
ministry, and had even been a professor at one time in a college; but,
somehow, a love for dissipation dragged him down until finally he had
disappeared, assumed another name in a part of the country where he was
not known, and commenced his career of vice.

The man told the scouts to take a lesson from his blasted career,
though they hardly knew whether he really meant it or, as Lil Artha was
constrained to say, was "talking through his hat."

The fire was kept burning, and fed with more or less green wood in the
hope and expectation that the black smoke thus generated might draw the
tracking posse to the scene the more rapidly.

It was almost two hours before they arrived, which would indicate that
Johnny might not be quite as expert at following a "man trail" as some
of the scouts were.

Great was the astonishment of the Chief and his men when upon
approaching the fire by creeping up they discovered that those about it
were the eight scouts, and even recognized in the bedraggled figure of
the last member none other than the wretched culprit, Hen Condit.

And there, seated with his back against a tree and his hands and ankles
securely bound scout-fashion, was the man they wanted.  He greeted
their coming, and the look of amazement on the Chief's red face with
roars of amusement.

"Better late than never, Chief," he called out.  "While you were
sleeping over it, these smart scouts did the business, and took me in.
All the cold cash that was taken has been recovered to a last red cent;
and I've explained just how I forced this silly boy Hen to write that
letter, when it was really me who cribbed the money.  So don't bother
blaming a kid like that.  He's had his lesson, Chief."

Elmer thought that was pretty handsome of Joe, and he did not hesitate
to tell him so.  He could see that the man was a strange mixture of
good and evil, though it seemed that the bad elements in his
composition were generally on top.

As there was no need of remaining any longer in the swamp, they started
to leave.  Johnny said he would go back and take the two skiffs out,
towing one behind him.  Later on he could come and mend the new boat by
fetching a plank to replace the one that had been staved in by striking
a log at full speed.

"Hope we see you again down at Hickory Ridge, Johnny!" called out Lil
Artha after the bound boy.

"Yes, and we won't forget that clever chicken trap of yours," added
Toby, "even if the man did cut his companion free before we reached the
spot.  By the way, Hen, here's something of yours that we found."

"My knife with the buckhorn handle!" exclaimed the Condit boy, looking
pleased.  "I missed that, and thought I'd never see it again.  Where
did you pick it up, Toby?"

"Huh! you dropped it from your pocket once upon a time when your heels
were some higher than your head.  That helped to give us a strong clue,
and we knew we were on the right track up here near old Sassafras
Swamp.  Next time you're chicken hungry, Hen, button up your pockets;
you never know what's going to happen these days."

Hen turned fiery red, and then laughed in a confused fashion.

"Well," he said, boldly, "both of us were terribly hungry, and since
I'd jumped in up to my neck you know, an inch further didn't seem to
mind.  I suppose that's the way with all boys who go to the bad; the
first step leads to another until they don't care much what becomes of
them.  But oh! I'm hugging myself to know it's all going to be like an
ugly dream now.  What don't I owe you fellows?  All my life I'll
remember it."

Once out of the swamp and they were soon at Farmer Trotter's place.
Here it was found that the Chief and his posse had come in a big
touring car that just held the party comfortably, though there would
still be room for Joe, of course.

The boys were invited to pile in and hang on; but respectfully
declined.  A ride of so many miles to the home town, going at a fast
pace over a bumpy road, and hanging on outside the car in the bargain,
did not seem to have any great attractions for them.

"We prefer to take our time, and use the big wagon, Chief," said Elmer
after consulting with his seven chums; "like as not half-way there
we'll make camp and have a jolly night of it, arriving home before
sundown again."

"Pleath tell our people we're on the way, and expect to turn up thooner
or later," added Ted Burgoyne.

"And Chief, you promised to let my uncle know the whole story,
remember," called out the contrite Hen Condit.  "I'll be ashamed to
face him, but perhaps he won't be so _very_ angry when he hears how I
was deceived so terribly, and made to believe I had actually killed
that tramp when I threw the stone.  And my aunt loves me, that I know.
Don't forget to tell them every cent has been recovered from the thief,
and that I'm bringing it back with me."

The scouts did camp that night in a wood alongside the road.
Fortunately, the weather proved very kind to them.  Lil Artha said the
"wind was tempered to the shorn lamb," by which he undoubtedly meant
that since they had neither tents nor blankets it considerately did not
turn cold, nor were they caught out in a heavy rain storm.

Their last outing of the vacation season had proved to be a fine one.
They had passed through a novel experience when exploring the depths of
the mysterious Sassafras Swamp; and better still had managed to save
their poor, mistaken comrade from a fate, the very thought of which
would often make him shiver even when months and years had crept by.

They had a great night of it there in camp.  Even Hen tried to forget
for a time what he must face on the morrow, and joined his chums in
their songs, as they sat cross-legged around the cheery blaze.

There was no longer any necessity for suppressing their boyish
exuberance, for the gloomy swamp had been left behind, nor was there
any hiding escaped criminal to take alarm.  So they laughed and talked
and sang to their hearts' content; nor did the sleepiest of them,
meaning Landy, of course, get a chance to lay his head on his
make-believe pillow until nearly midnight.

"What's the use of wasting so much time in sleeping?" Lil Artha had
demanded, when the stout boy pleaded for them to desist, and give him a
chance to get some rest; "this is going to be our very last camp until
away off in Thanksgiving week, even if we have one then.  So let's make
the most out of it.  You c'n sleep any old time, and lie abed till ten
on Sunday, if you want to.  Now for another song, fellows, and Landy,
we want your fine tenor to help out, remember."

The morning found them astir, and after breakfast the horses were once
more put to the pole so that a start could be made for home.

None of them were in a hurry, and it was really about the middle of
that afternoon when the expedition entered town.  The news had, of
course, been widely circulated, and everybody was on tip-toe, filled
with excitement, and watching for their arrival.

A great crowd had collected to greet them, and there was the brass band
of which Hickory Ridge was getting to be quite proud, playing a
sonorous tune which some of the scouts believed must be "Lo! the
Conquering Hero Comes," though none of them felt quite sure of it.

Well, Hen Condit was forgiven by his uncle, after he heard all about
the terrible time the boy had, and in what way unscrupulous "Joe"
deceived the foolish boy.  Elmer and his chums made it a point to see
that the story was widely circulated, and the balance of the scout
troop aided to the best of their ability, for Hen was well liked.

The consequence of all this was that most people decided the boy had
already been sufficiently punished, and that his lesson was apt to be
of lasting benefit to him during the balance of his natural life.
Besides, it gave shrewd fathers and mothers a fine moral lesson to hold
up before their own erring youngsters, and hence for a long time to
come the narrow escape which Hen Condit had had from going wholly to
the bad was used as a means of correction.  In this way it doubtless
did much good, if that could be of any satisfaction to Hen.

No doubt there will be other stirring events come up, with mysteries to
be solved, as the Hickory Ridge Boy Scouts pursue their activities; and
should such interesting happenings take place, be sure they will not
escape our notice.  Until then we must say good-bye to the faithful
readers who have accompanied us through the stirring adventures that
befel our young friends in Sassafras Swamp.



THE END





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