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´╗┐Title: The Auto Boys' Mystery
Author: Braden, James A. (James Andrew), 1872-1955
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 "The Auto Boys' Mystery" ***

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[Illustration: "Great heavens! It's Lew Grandall!" cried the stranger on
the raft. (_Page 399_)]



THE AUTO BOYS' MYSTERY

By JAMES A. BRADEN

AUTHOR OF

"THE AUTO BOYS," "THE AUTO BOYS' ADVENTURE,"
"THE AUTO BOYS' CAMP," "THE AUTO BOYS' BIG SIX,"
"FAR PAST THE FRONTIER," ETC.

FRONTISPIECE BY ALFRED RUSSELL

THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY

CHICAGO--AKRON, OHIO--NEW YORK



THE AUTO BOYS' MYSTERY



CHAPTER I

PROLOGUE


The Auto Boys had been camped on the unfrequented shore of Opal Lake
for several days. At first hunting and fishing were the only enlivening
features of this, their unusual summer outing.

Opal Lake, far up in the big northern woods, had at this time no other
campers. True, there was an abandoned clubhouse on a nearby point not far
from where Phil Way, Billy Worth, Dave MacLester and Paul Jones selected
the spot for their Outing Camp. But, until within a day or two, even the
clubhouse had seemed to be as it looked, deserted.

But a smoke being seen one day, the boys had become curious. Without
actually entering the house itself, they had made individual or collective
trips that way. Also strange sounds had been heard, and even human
presence had been detected. Finally Paul, the youngest of the boys, made
a cautious trip thither and even entered the house where he had heard
voices, and otherwise had detected that real folks were undoubtedly
there; though why they were there Paul could only guess. Perhaps they
were in search of a bag of money, said to be twenty thousand dollars,
stolen three years before and supposed still to be hidden somewhere
in that region.

Strange men had been seen near the end of a gravel road which the
Longknives Club (owners of the now abandoned clubhouse) were then
constructing for their own use and convenience. The unexpected loss of
this money caused the work to stop, while the workmen, including a
Swedish foreman, Nels Anderson by name, remained unpaid to this day.

Aside from the clubhouse, the nearest inhabitants to the boys' camp were
this same Anderson and his family, who lived in a small clearing five or
six miles away on the trail leading to Staretta, a small town perhaps
a dozen miles further on. This was the nearest town to Opal Lake which
was, indeed, a veritable "Lake of the Woods."

When Paul Jones, finally escaping through the cellar window, left the
clubhouse without being discovered, he ran across in the dark another
somebody who vanished, uttering strange and savage oaths. Paul also made
himself scarce in another direction and happened upon Chip Slider, whose
merry response to Paul's greeting caused both soon to become so friendly
that Paul took Chip to their camp, where a warm meal soon loosened the
boys' tongues and there was a general interchange of opinions about
game, fish, the big woods, and at last the abandoned house on the point.

Here the boys learned from Chip that a man named Murky was also in the
woods and supposedly after that lost or stolen satchel, thought by many to
be hidden somewhere near. They learned from Chip more of the robbery
of Grandall, the treasurer of the Longknives, by this same Murky; also
that Murky himself, through the connivance of Grandall, was held up by
Chip's father by the order of Grandall. The scheme seemed to have been
for Grandall to get the money thus entrusted to his care in a way that
would divert suspicion against himself and direct it elsewhere. After
sufficient time had elapsed, then Grandall would manage to use that money,
meanwhile placating Chip's father, supposedly by bribes.

So open, frank and friendless was young Chip that he won the Auto Boys'
confidence, and stayed on at the camp, proving himself a valuable aid and
an added link in their narrow social life.

Shortly before this Chip, encountering Murky in the woods, had been
badly beaten by the other, and had been seen with a bandaged head by
some of the boys. This induced much pity for the homeless lad, while
Chip's knowledge of Murky and matters connected with the robbery just
alluded to, made him serviceable in the matter of knowing more about
what was going on in and about the house on the point. It appeared, too,
that others of the boys during previous scoutings about the point had
seen Murky, though they did not know who or what he was until Slider
enlightened them.

The general conclusion was that the voices heard inside the house were
more than apt to have indicated the presence of Murky and Grandall,
still on trail of stolen money that must have, in some way, slipped into
unknown hands. Still nothing was sure or settled in their minds except
that Chip was a good fellow and Murky a bad one from almost any point of
view one might take.

Another point occurred to Phil Way, the oldest and the leader of the Auto
Boys; not one of suspicion against Chip, but for general enlightenment.

A recent visit to their camp when all the boys were away had occurred.
Things had been taken, including provisions, bedding and dishes. Perhaps
young Slider, more familiar with the woods life nearby, might have some
knowledge that would lead to the perpetrator.

Taken all round, the camp thought itself rather in luck that Paul had met
this strange homeless lad in the way and under the circumstances he did.

Nels Anderson, the giant Swede, had also been seen under suspicious
circumstances by some of the boys. Taken altogether, the whole matter
was attractive enough to foster certain ambitions inside the lads, who
were too apt to fancy themselves amateur detectives, a vocation they
knew little or nothing about, rather than young woodsmen, hunters, or
anglers, pursuits they really did have some knowledge of and also some
skill.



CHAPTER II

A QUIET, TRANQUIL SUNDAY


A great bull-frog whose hoarse croaking could always be heard above
other sounds about the lake, "beginning at exactly eleven o'clock
each night"--at least so Paul Jones positively stated--had started his
unmelodious serenade a long time before the Auto Boys and their visitor
prepared for bed. Paul's adventure, Chip Slider's whole story and the
combined information thus afforded had proved a most fruitful field for
speculation and conversation.

A bed for Slider was contrived by spreading over some hemlock boughs a
tarpaulin used on the car for covering baggage. A bucket-seat cushion from
the car served quite nicely as a pillow. Indeed Chip had not for a long
while had so comfortable a resting place, crude as it was.

The plans for the night's sleeping arrangements were seized upon by
Phil as an opportunity of finding out whether the strange boy had any
knowledge of the recent robbery of the camp. With this in view his
remarks about a scarcity of blankets and his inquiries as to where Chip
had been managing to find accommodations were adroitly framed. Quite
perfectly he succeeded in gaining the knowledge desired, nor did Slider
ever suspect that the Auto Boys' suspicions might very easily have been
directed toward him.

It was truly pitiable to hear Chip tell how in the night he had stood off
a distance in the woods, taking note of the bright campfire of the four
friends; how he had smelled their frying bacon when all he had to eat was
a little dry bread; how he had been tempted to apply at the camp for food
and shelter, but was afraid; how he had spent one whole evening within
sight of the cheerful light about the shack, because it was a kind of
company for him, and he slipped away and made his bed in the dead leaves
beside a log when at last the campfire had quite died down.

Yet very interesting, too, was all that Chip told. One certain fact made
clear was that he had nothing to do with the theft of provisions and other
items from the camp. When this was fairly plain Phil Way ventured the
remark that Murky had possibly fared better in the woods than Slider had
done.

"No denyin' it," Chip assented. "I found his hang-out only yesterday. It
would put you in mind of a bear's den, most, to see it."

"Tell all about it," urged Phil. "I'd like to smoke him out, like we would
a woodchuck," he added with bitter earnestness.

"Nothin' much to it," answered Slider, but he went on promptly to report
what he had seen and the manner of his discovery. He had been in search
of berries, or whatever he could find for food, he said, for his slender
store of provisions was nearly gone.

As he approached a marshy place where he thought he might find
huckleberries, or blueberries, he discovered Murky there ahead of him. He
had known the evil fellow was in the woods. He had watched him
frequently, believing he might learn something of the stolen payroll
money or at least what was going on so secretly about the old clubhouse.

Carefully keeping himself out of sight, Chip had followed when Murky left
the marsh. The latter walked directly to a thicket on a knoll, went in
among the bushes and disappeared. Then for a long time Slider patiently
waited. He wondered if the treasure he was seeking might not be hidden
in the copse.

Toward evening Murky left the thicket and slipped away in the direction of
the point of land occupied by the clubhouse. Improving this opportunity
Slider cautiously visited the brush-covered knoll. There he found the
tramp's den--a nest of leaves and pine needles and branches between
two logs. Poles laid across the logs and covered over with branches
made a roof for the den. Merely as a place to sleep the nest looked
snug enough, Chip said.

"Didn't see any blankets or dishes, did you?" Dave asked.

Indeed he had seen these very things, Slider answered, and had wondered
how Murky came by them. He thought they probably had been taken from the
clubhouse.

A complete quartette of voices answered this remark, setting Chip right
as to the real ownership of the items mentioned. For not one of the four
friends doubted now that it was Murky and no one else who had stolen
their equipment and provisions. Considering the unscrupulous character
of the fellow, they only wondered that he had not plundered the camp
completely, leaving them nothing of value. It did not occur to them that
probably the thief really wished to take more than he did, but could not
conveniently carry a greater load.

It was a matter of congratulation among the boys that they had not, by
leaving the camp again unguarded, given Murky a chance to return. They
were more certain than ever now that some one of them must be always
in attendance about the shack, and it would have needed very little to
persuade them, also, that despite Opal Lake's many attractive features
their best course would be to pull up stakes and bid its shores good-bye.

Even after all were in bed this feature of their situation was discussed
to some extent. Two main reasons for wishing to occupy the present camp,
for yet a few days, were suggested. One was that in another week they
must head the Thirty homeward and it was therefore hardly worth while to
search out a more secure and less frequented locality for a camp site.

For reason number two there was the lively interest in the outcome of
the search for the Grandall payroll money, and an earnest wish to help
Chip Slider find the treasure, if possible, and return it to the rightful
owners,--the members of the club which had been practically broken up by
its twenty thousand dollar loss, as many a larger organization might be.

Quite as usual Paul's voice was the last one heard when the discussion
closed and the quiet of midnight settled over the forest. All had been
silent for some time. Slider had expressed in his grateful, however
awkward, way his appreciation of the offer his new friends made to
help him. And Phil Way, answering for all the boys, said there was no
obligation at all and no thanks necessary,--that nothing had been done,
as yet, at least.

"Anyhow, it seems to me," said Paul, after a long silence, "It seems to
me as if we were all going to have our hands full. There will be Murky and
Grandall and Nels Anderson digging into this mystery just as hard as we
can, and maybe harder. And they are all bad ones, all of 'em, unless maybe
Anderson might not be so really bad excepting for being hooked up with a
bad outfit, and all that."

No comment being made by the others with regard to these remarks, Jones
went on to say that if there was any advantage to be had by having right
and justice on their side, fortune ought to favor Slider and his friends
in the search to be carried forward. He reasoned it all out, too, to his
own satisfaction, that in the end justice must prevail in all things or
the whole world would ultimately go to smash. "And that's a fact, now,
ain't it?" he asked.

There came no answer.

"Well, is it, or don't it, wasn't it!" inquired Paul, rather facetiously.

Still no answer. Jones raised himself up on his elbow. He listened. It
was perfectly evident from the heavy breathing all about him that every
one of the other lads was sound asleep and had been for some time.

"Why! The bing-dinged mummies!" he exclaimed, "and me talking till I'm
all but tongue-tied--and to no one!" he added indignantly.

Having heard how Slider slept in the open woods with not even a cover
over him more than leaves, the Auto Boys would have been ashamed now to
feel afraid in their snug shack, no matter what strange noises might come
from the lake's dark shore lines. And though the sounds of various wild
creatures coming to bathe or drink did reach the lads, as occasionally
one or more of them awakened during the night, no heed was given the
disturbers. It was enough to know that the exceeding drouth brought
animals from long distances to the water's edge and that they were much
more intent on drinking than having trouble with anyone or even among
themselves.

Not because it was Sunday morning but due quite entirely to their having
retired so late, the Auto Boys slept longer than was their custom. Poor
Chip Slider awakened with the first peep of daylight, really tremendously
surprised to find himself in such comfortable quarters. With a sigh of
exquisite content and satisfaction he at once dropped off to sleep again.
With the exception of the night at the bachelor's shanty he had not
known such sweet and unbroken rest for--it seemed to him almost his
whole lifetime.

And then again, if Chip had wondered whether there might be kindness,
cheerfulness and plenty to eat somewhere in the world, as he most
certainly often had done, he must surely have found the answer now. For
when he awoke again the rich aroma of boiling coffee and cheering
scent of frying bacon greeted him. From the beach down by the lake,
too, there came lively laughter and a great splashing of water.

"Skip down and dive in! Paddle around some, then rub down lively!" urged
Billy Worth, who, having had his plunge, was now nimbly getting breakfast.
"Makes a man feel dandy!" he urged, really thinking that a bath would do
Chip good, anyway. "And hold on!" he added. "Here's soap and a towel if
you care for 'em."

Slider was by no means afraid of the water. He was glad of the chance
to take a swim and had the sound sense to realize, as well, that he
stood much in need of a vigorous scrubbing. He hurried down to the water
zestfully, albeit rather lamely for his body was stiff and sore. Paul
made him feel at home at once by turning a back flip-flop off the now
completed raft for his especial benefit. He asked Chip to follow suit,
but the latter only smiled and dove off forward, instead.

"Being around the woods as much as you have been, you'll hardly have a
change of clothes with you, but here's a shirt I'll never need, and you
can keep it if you'll accept it from me," said Phil Way in a pleasant,
off-hand manner, when he and Chip were dressing. It was a friendly yet
delicate way of getting the young stranger into one garment, at least,
that was clean and whole.

The boy could not refuse nor did he wish to do so. Though he was
sensitive, his feelings were not injured. Nor were his pride and
manliness hurt at all. It was just because he was not permitted to feel
that he was in any degree an object of charity.

True, Chip had begged for food along the road. One would think that did
not indicate much pride on his part; but it should be remembered that
asking for aid among strangers is very different from receiving anything
as charity from those one considers his friends.

With such a beginning the Auto Boys and their new acquaintance found
Sunday passing very pleasantly. They wrote letters, took long walks about
the lake and Phil and Paul took Chip for a ride in the car, going almost
to Anderson's cabin before turning back.

This put the boys in mind of the tree that had been shivered by the mighty
blow of the great Swede. After dinner all but Dave walked out to the end
of the gravel road improvement to inspect the spot again and particularly
to see the slivered stump on which Anderson's sledge had fallen with such
mighty force.

Here, it developed, Slider had made his headquarters, so far as he may be
said to have had anything of the kind in the woods. He had kept his stock
of food here, hidden in a weather-beaten cracker box, that some teamster
had used in feeding his horses. But there was no food left now, Chip
explained. Then he added that but for falling in with his new friends
he would have been obliged to abandon, for the time, at least, his search
for the stolen fortune. The few berries he could find would not have been
enough to sustain him. He had eaten even the stray stalks of stunted
corn that grew up where horses, used in the road building, had been fed.

MacLester had remained on guard in camp while the others were out upon the
old roadway. The latter returned to find him perched on the log projecting
over the water, scrutinizing the Point and the old house there closely.

"Hang it!" declared David forcefully, "I wish we hadn't agreed that we
wouldn't go near the clubhouse today. I've seen a man moving about over
there. He came out on the porch toward the lake, once, and after looking
all around he stepped down to that rotten old wharf and threw something
into the water."

"Gee whiz!" Paul Jones burst forth, "was it the same man we saw before?"

"Yes, the one with the golf cap," MacLester said. "When he went inside
he went upstairs and closed that window that has been open. He acted as if
he was getting ready to go away."



CHAPTER III

THE SEARCH IN THE OLD HOUSE


Paul's adventure in the old house somehow seemed to give importance to his
opinions on all matters pertaining to that subject. So when he suggested
that the act of throwing something into the water by the tenant of the
abandoned building was for the purpose of destroying evidence, all the
boys agreed that quite likely such was the truth.

What evidence this person, be he Grandall or not, wished to destroy and
why, was the subject of vast discussion. Since the coming of Slider among
them, particularly, the Auto Boys found the mystery of the stolen twenty
thousand dollars to possess for them a strong personal interest. They
talked over and over again, and with the greatest relish, everything
that had come within their notice in and around the bleak old structure
down there on the Point.

Finally--it was during the Sunday evening supper of cold hard-boiled eggs,
bread and butter, bananas, graham crackers and coffee--that finally, and
at last, Phil Way proposed that a really serious visit be made to the
clubhouse the following morning. Of any person encountered--Mr. Murky
excepted, of course--permission to use the vise and other equipment in
the automobile shed would be asked. This would be a reasonable pretext
for going to the clubhouse grounds. And being on those premises, everyone
should look carefully about for some clue to the stolen money's hiding
place.

It was not easy for Captain Phil to suggest this plan. He was not sure it
was quite square and honorable--"on the level"--as some would say,--but
he called it a stratagem in a worthy cause and so felt better over it.
But really, since the cause was that of helping Chip Slider, as against
such villains as Murky and Grandall, no one could blame Phil, or blame
any of the lads that they welcomed his proposal heartily.

The day had been hot and close. Contrary to the usual condition, also,
the air grew little if any cooler as night came on. A dive from the
projecting log into the lake to cool off was in order then, as the boys
prepared for bed.

"Just goes to show what a nuisance clothes are, anyway," observed Paul
Jones, as he dried himself. He was rejoicing exceedingly that he had
only to jump into his nightshirt to be clothed to all necessary extent,
following his swim. "Heap fine idea if we had clothes for day time as
simple as for night time!" he added.

"Yes sir, it's just such fellows as you, Jones, that would sooner or
later drift right back to the stone age if there weren't more
energetic ones to drag you along forward, making you wear clothes and
things--keeping you civilized," was MacLester's answer. A good-natured
grin accompanied his remarks.

"Well, I s'pose it takes clothes to give some folks an appearance of being
civilized," was Paul's warm rejoinder, yet with utmost good-nature. "But
for my part--well, I'll go on wearing 'em, David, for your sake."

"And it would make your appearance more civilized still if you made more
civil use of your tongue," MacLester retorted.

Then Jones had recourse to his usual, "Tush, tush, Davy! You've tired
yourself all out. You'll feel better tomorrow."

This sort of language, in a fatherly tone that from Paul's slender size,
in contrast with Dave's large frame, was really grotesque, always provoked
a mild laugh. Usually, too, it closed the wordy clashes in which the two
boys frequently engaged.

MacLester made no further response. He was ready for bed now, Billy had
already crept in and Phil and Chip Slider were following him.

"Last is best of all the game," chirped Jones in his own blithe,
self-complacent way as he saw that he was bringing up the rear, as
often he had done before. But in another moment he likewise was in bed.
The boys were feeling now the late hours of the night before. Undoubtedly
they all would "feel better tomorrow."

The probability that the amiable Mr. Murky would discover Chip Slider's
presence in the woods had been discussed before, but the talk was renewed
at breakfast Monday morning. Chip was quite sure the old fellow did not
suspect that he was near. He had been very careful to keep out of Murky's
sight and was more anxious than ever to do so now, being quite sure there
would be serious trouble for himself and his new friends as well, were he
discovered.

It was so apparent that Slider stood in great dread of the tramp that
Phil had no hesitancy in suggesting that he might better remain at the
camp while the others visited the old house. Chip agreed readily. He said
he could be of no use elsewhere, and his presence with the Auto Boys would
but inflame Murky as much against them as himself if they chanced to meet
him.

With the exception of the upstairs window being closed, the clubhouse
and its surroundings looked exactly the same as on their former visits
to the Point, the Auto Boys found. The air of loneliness, melancholy and
excessive quiet impressed them all just as it had done before. The sound
of their own footsteps appeared to ring in a hollow and unnatural way.
Their voices, though low and subdued, seemed loud and harsh in their ears
in the foreboding calm of this haunted atmosphere.

"I don't see _why_ it should always feel so here--as if a fellow was just
going to be scared to death," remarked Billy in an undertone.

"If you figure it out, though, it's all in your mind," replied Phil
thoughtfully. "Trouble is, to make yourself believe it."

But notwithstanding his reasoning, sound enough, undoubtedly, despite the
awful tragedy the Point was so soon to witness--Captain Phil carried his
philosophy rather gingerly, as it were, when he stepped up on the porch
to knock. In other words, he stepped very lightly. Still his rapping was
right sharp and it should have brought a response had there been anyone
within hearing, willing to make answer.

Peering in at the windows, the boys could see nothing in any way different
than when they had been at the house the first time.

"I tell you whoever _was_ here has gone," said MacLester for the fourth
or fifth time, and he tried the door. It was locked. The door at the
rear,--that is, the one opening upon the high porch facing the lake,
was likewise tightly secured.

"Now then," said Phil, resolutely, "we're face to face with the question
that has been in my mind all night. What are we going to do next? And I'll
tell you what we _are_ going to do. We have no right to go into the
house--no right at all, one way you look at it. But that isn't the answer.
We are helping Chip Slider with his search for money that was stolen
and hidden, and that ought to be found and returned to its owners. Then
it's _necessary_ that we go in this clubhouse and _we're going in_."

"Paul knows the way up through the cellar! Let him get in at the window
he got out of and so go up the cellar stairs and open the door for us.
There's a key inside, likely," proposed Billy.

"Say! how'd you like to take a run and jump off the dock?" answered young
Mr. Jones with more fervor than elegance. "No, sir! We can find some other
window open!"

And Paul was right. A surprise awaited the boys when they reached the west
side of the house. (The path from front to rear passed on the east of the
building.) The brush and a couple of tall trees grew very close to the
walls at the westerly side. Phil was foremost as the friends ventured in
that direction.

"Look!" he cried suddenly. "A window open, and more than that, it's
smashed to smithereens!"

Quite true it was. The fragments of glass littered the parched and
stunted grass. The sash of the window was raised to its fullest height.
A freshly broken branch of a low bush, close by, was evidence that
the mischief had been done but recently.

The boys could only guess by whom and for what purpose the window had been
shattered. The thought came to them that Murky might have been doing some
investigating inside. Possibly he was in the house at this very minute.
The idea was not a pleasant one to contemplate.

"Gee whiz! I'd fade _away_--I'd shrink up to a pale shadow and
perish--actually perish, if ever that fellow got hold of _me_!" said young
Mr. Jones. His voice indicated that perhaps his exaggerated statement
might not be so overdrawn as it appeared.

"Come on! Give me a lift, somebody," exclaimed Way impatiently. Then,
ignoring Billy's prompt offer of a hand to boost him, up he clambered
and the next moment stood within. Billy, Paul and Dave followed.

The air in the house was close and oppressive. Outside the sun shone
hot. Not even a zephyr stirred the leaves. A bluejay shrieked noisily, as
if in protest at the visitors' conduct. With something of that "fading
away" feeling Paul Jones had mentioned, the boys proceeded, however, from
room to room.

Downstairs they found everything to be quite as has been described
heretofore. The bucket on the kitchen table beside which, on a former
occasion, the boys had seen a tiny pool of water, was now empty and
turned upside down. Other little things, such as the tin dipper being
inside a cupboard and every drawer and every door closed, suggested
that whoever had occupied the house had indeed gone away.

A door opened upon the stairs that led to the second floor. It was closed
but not locked. Up the dusty steps the boys went. They found themselves
in a hall off of which opened six small bed-rooms. In each was a bedstead
of one kind or another, some of iron, some built of pine lumber. There
were mattresses on all the beds but on only one was there other bedding.
This was in the room the window of which the boys had more than once seen
to be open.

A couple of blankets and a pillow were thrown loosely over this mattress.
The latter was quite out of its proper position as if it had been placed
on the bedstead hurriedly. Looking more closely the lads discovered that
the other mattresses were awry. Dave suggested that someone had pulled
them this way and that to see if anything was hidden in or under them.
There was no telling whether he was right.

Between two of the tiny bed-rooms was a bath-room. It contained a tub
and washstand only, but was quite nicely finished in painted pine as,
indeed, was all the second floor. There were no towels, soap, brushes or
any of the usual paraphernalia of a bath-room in sight but on a little
shelf beneath the mirror were a shaving-mug and brush.

"See! this has been used just lately! The soap is still wet on the brush,"
Phil Way observed, picking up that article. "Mr. Grandall forgot it, I
reckon."

"Grandall--your grandmother!" exclaimed Worth quickly. "Look at the
initial B, big as life, on the cup!"

"Just the same, it was Grandall who was here and the only questions
are, what did he come for and where has he went?" said Paul Jones more
positively than grammatically.

"Anyhow the shaving cup or the initial, either one, is no sure sign of
anything except that someone was here, and we knew that before," said Way
reflectively. "Quite likely the reason the mug was left here was that it
had been here all along and did not belong to Grandall," he reasoned.

"Now you're shouting," spoke Jones with emphasis.

At the end of the narrow hall was a small room with a door opening upon
a balcony. Here the boys stepped out. The view of the lake from this point
was extremely pretty. Under the glow of the sun the water shone like
silver. The green shores looked cool and delightful--far cooler than
they really were.

But they were lovely to the eye. Only one tall, dead pine whose naked top
and branches rose gaunt and ghostly above the foliage of its neighbors
offered the slightest omen of the impending danger in a scene so tranquil.

A high trellis on which the roses or some vines had at some time clambered
to this balcony or porch roof where the boys now stood, offered them an
opportunity to climb down to the ground. Only Billy chose this route. He
quickly reached the earth and went out to the decaying remnants of the
wharf while the others resumed their search through the house. But if he
thought to discover any sign of whatever the strange man threw into the
water the day before, he was disappointed.

Worth rejoined his friends in the clubhouse living-room. Striking many
matches to find the way, they all descended the steep steps into the
cellar. Very little light entered this dark place. One small window only
was there beside the one whose presence Paul Jones had found so convenient.

"Here's the place to look carefully," observed Billy. "But I say, we are
a pack of mutton-heads! What if someone should come into the house this
minute? Tell you what! You fellows dig around here and I'll stand guard
upstairs."

"I did think of such a plan but after seeing that broken window, I
concluded it wasn't necessary," said Phil. "Whoever there might be to
disturb us now, has been through the house ahead of us, I'm thinking. And
it's my opinion that we are too late coming here, anyhow. The man who
most likely found the twenty thousand dollars is the one who cleared out
last night."

Still Billy Worth insisted on going upstairs to stand guard while the
search of the dark cellar went forward and the bluejay outside harshly
screamed its protests while the gaunt, bare top of the old dead pine
frowned ominously across the lake.



CHAPTER IV

A GUEST AT NELS ANDERSON'S


In vain did the youthful searchers examine every foot of the cellar's
earthen floor. The thought that there, if anywhere, the treasure might
be buried, impressed them strongly and right diligently did they apply
themselves to their task.

A few old boxes, a heavy pine table and a combination cupboard and ice
chest were substantially all the cellar contained. All these were explored
and the ground beneath them thoroughly inspected. "Nothing doing," was
the way Jones summed up the result, and if he meant by this that every
effort was fruitless, as would appear likely, he was quite correct.

All through the automobile shed and all about the club grounds the boys
carried their exploring and their minute inspection of whatever had the
appearance of being a likely hiding place for a suit-case containing
twenty thousand dollars of currency. Despite the temptation to experiment
with the engine that had been used for pumping, to try the tools of the
workbench, or to put afloat the fishing skiff they discovered, partly
covered with lumber at the far end of the shed, they molested nothing.
They only looked, but this they did thoroughly.

It was noon and Chip Slider, keeping camp alone, had become anxious and
worried for the safety of his new friends before the latter made their
appearance at the lean-to. He looked wistfully from one to another and
read in their faces the answer to the question in his mind.

All hands fell to with preparations for dinner. Chip had busied himself
with the gathering of an immense quantity of dry wood, but fresh water
must be brought from the well in the sandy beach, potatoes must be washed,
peeled and sliced for frying; bacon must be sliced; eggs and butter
brought from the "refrigerator," also,--something for everyone to do, in
short, under Chef Billy's competent direction.

Whether Murky, as well as the wearer of the golfing cap, that is, the
recent tenant of the clubhouse, had departed from the woods, was a
question all tried in vain to answer satisfactorily as the boys sat at
dinner. And if one, or both, had or had not really gone for good, was also
an inquiry, the answer to which could not be discovered.

Paul Jones proposed that a visit be made to the den Murky had made for
himself. Slider could show the way. Approaching carefully, it might be
quite easy to discover the tramp's presence or absence without danger of
being seen by him. Billy Worth interposed with the suggestion that a trip
to Staretta was more important. Provisions were needed, there would surely
be some mail at the office and the letters written yesterday should be
posted.

"Yes, and stop at Anderson's, too!" put in MacLester. "I'm mighty
suspicious of that individual, _myself_,--'specially after Jonesy's
experience!"

With these good reasons for going to town confronting them, together with
the fact that the use of their car was always a source of keen enjoyment
to the Auto Boys, it seems quite needless to state what they decided to do.

Paul inspected the gasoline supply and added the contents of a ten gallon
can kept as a reserve, not forgetting to put the now empty can in the
tonneau to be refilled at Staretta. Dave looked to the quantity of oil
in the reservoir and decided none was needed. Phil in the meantime
was examining nuts and bolts with a practiced eye--a hardly necessary
proceeding for every part of the beloved machine had been put in the
pink of order on Saturday afternoon.

"Worth's turn to drive," said Jones. "So go on, Bill. I'll wash dishes.
Gee whiz! If there's anything I'd rather do than wash dishes--"

"Yes, the list would fill a book!" Worth broke in. "You go ahead, Paul,
I'm going to stay in camp. Going to cook up a little stuff and all I ask
of you fellows is to bring these things from Fraley's."

Worth passed over a list he had been writing and, with a show of an
extreme reluctance he did not feel, Paul climbed up to the driver's seat.
Phil Way meantime was protesting that he would remain to guard camp.
Billy would not listen, but said in an undertone that Way must go along
to make Chip feel comfortable and contented.

For Slider had shown for Way a fondness that was both beautiful and
pathetic. It was as if he realized that he had truly found the answer
to the musing questions of his lifetime at last. This was true with
regard to all four of the chums but most especially was Chip already
devoted to Phil.

With MacLester up beside Paul, and Way and the now clean and well-fed
boy of the woods in the tonneau, the graceful automobile threaded its
route among the trees. With roads averaging from fair to good, an hour
would have taken the travelers to Staretta easily. With six or seven miles
of woodland trail, then an equal distance of but moderately good going
before getting fairly out of the forest, Paul took an hour and a half
for the trip. There was no need to hurry, he said, but just the same as
soon as the wheels struck the good, level earth not far from town the
speedometer shot up to "30."

Link Fraley was found, busy as usual, this time packing eggs into a
shipping case; but for once he stopped working the moment he caught sight
of his callers. Sometimes he had allowed his father to wait on the boys
as they did their buying, but today he told the senior member of the
house he would attend to them himself.

"Been wantin' to see ye," said Link cordially. "Anything new back in the
timber?"

The young storekeeper's voice had a peculiar inflection and his face bore
an expression that answered "yes" to his own question.

"A little; that is, we have something to tell and something to ask about,
as usual," Phil replied. "Here's the list of things Billy wanted. If
you'll get them ready while we go over to the post-office--we want to
have a good, old talk with you."

"Been annexing part of our lumber country population, I see," remarked
Fraley in an undertone, glancing toward Slider who had waited at the door.

Phil nodded.

"Want to look a little out," Fraley continued, with a shake of his head
and a tone of doubt; but he turned away at once to find the baking soda,
item number one in Billy Worth's list, and his young friends betook
themselves to the post-office.

At the rear door of Fraley & Son's establishment was a platform to
facilitate the loading and unloading of freight. It was roofed over with
pine boards that gave protection from sun or rain and, as whatever
slight breeze there might be blowing was to be found here, there was
no better place in Staretta for a chat on a hot day. Seated on kegs of
nails on this platform, upon their return to the store, the Auto Boys
told Mr. Fraley, Jr., the main facts of their discoveries since last
seeing him.

Link listened with the most sober attention.

"I honestly don't know," said he at last, "whether to take much stock
in the story of the suit-case full of swag or not. But it does look as
if things in general pointed in that direction. I didn't believe, at
first, that your neighbor up there by the lake was anything more than one
of these vacation tourists that often go trapsing 'round, even if he
wasn't just a chap doing some shooting out of season. But I'm pretty
well satisfied now that a lot more than ever _I_ suspected has been going
on. Listen here!"

With this Link took from between the leaves of a notebook a neatly folded
clipping from a newspaper. Clearing his throat, while he opened the
clipping and smoothed it over his knee, he proceeded to read aloud.

The newspaper item was an Associated Press dispatch dated from ----, the
home city of the Longknives Club. Its substance was that Lewis Grandall,
teller of the Commercial Trust & Banking Company of that city, was
missing from his home. His absence was supposed to be on account of an
investigation the Grand Jury had been making in connection with certain
city contracts in which he had been interested, not as an officer of the
bank, but personally. The disappearance of Grandall, the dispatch stated,
had caused a small run on the bank and general uneasiness among the
depositors and stockholders. This had later been quieted by a signed
statement from the directors stating positively that the company's
interests were not involved in any of the missing teller's personal
business affairs.

"From which it would seem to a man up a tree that one certain Grandall
was finding Opal Lake atmosphere good for his constitution," remarked Link
Fraley as he finished reading. "But," he went on, "it looks to me a lot
more as if he had come up here for his health, so to speak, than to
hunt for a bag of the coin of the realm that somebody stole three years
ago. The point is, that if the twenty thousand dollars that the road
builders should have got, but didn't, was put through a nice, neat and
orderly system of being stolen here and there till it all got back to
Grandall again, he ain't been letting it lie around the woods and drawin'
no interest nearly three years now."

"By ginger! I knew that fellow at the clubhouse was Grandall, all right,"
spoke up Paul Jones. "And you must have hit the nail on the head when you
told us in the first place that Nels Anderson was mixed up with him in
cheating that whole army of men out of their pay," the boy added briskly.

"That doesn't dovetail with what we already know about Murky getting the
money first and then Slider taking it from him and its getting back to
Grandall again," said Paul thoughtfully.

"Oh, no! that wouldn't make much difference," said Fraley. "Grandall was
playing everybody against everybody else for the benefit of Grandall.
That was his general reputation, too--downright deceitful! Never knew
just where he'd hook up or how long he'd be either one thing or the
other--your best friend, or your worst enemy."

Whether Grandall had been frightened away from the clubhouse by finding
Murky to be in the vicinity, or for other reasons had deemed the lake
an unsafe hiding place, the boys and Fraley debated for some time. As
they at last prepared to go, Link called Phil to one side. He did not like
the notion of Chip Slider being taken up by the Auto Boys in any very
intimate way, he declared. He had known the elder Slider, he said, and
there were a lot of better men in Michigan than he and a lot of better
boys than his son was likely to be.

Phil told Fraley he was surely mistaken with regard to Chip, at least,
but promised he would be on his guard in case he found any deceptive
tendencies developing in the young gentleman in question.

Meanwhile Paul and Dave had driven to the general repair shop at which
their gasoline was purchased and all were soon ready for the road. With
a steady purr their quiet, powerful car left the town behind. What a
perfect machine it was! And what its owners would do were anything to
happen to deprive them of its ever-ready services--the very thought would
have been quite unbearable. It is a wise plan, indeed, that none of us
can see even a few short hours forward, or know certainly the changes a
single day may bring.

An adequate excuse for stopping at the lowly home of the Andersons had
not been forgotten by the chums while in town. Choosing to call there on
their homeward way rather than when on the road in from the woods, they
now had with them an extra half dozen of bananas.

Mrs. Anderson sat on a rickety chair at the shady side of the little house
vainly trying to get a breath of fresh air while doing some mending, as
the Thirty came to a stop near her. Hastily she arose and went around to
a back door.

Phil was already out of the car and was walking up to the low front
step--the dwelling was without a porch--when through the open doors
he saw Mrs. Anderson enter at the rear. She spoke some words in her
native tongue the boy did not understand; but directly Nels Anderson
stepped forward from the kitchen to meet him while at the same time
another man glided silently out of the door at which the woman had just
come in. The man wore a golfing cap. If he was not the identical person
who had lately occupied the clubhouse then Phil Way was vastly mistaken.

"Wouldn't you like some bananas?" asked Way pleasantly. "We thought likely
you did not get to town often and maybe would relish a taste of these,"
and with a friendly smile he tendered his offering.

With only a word of thanks and that spoken rather indifferently, Phil
thought, the great Swede accepted the fruit. Still holding the paper
sack under his arm he said he wished the camp at the lake only good luck
but he thought it dangerous for the boys to stay there. It would be more
so as time went on, unless a pouring rain came very soon to wet the ground
and foliage. The probability of forest fires near by was becoming serious.
Two severe blazes had already occurred. He pointed away to the west and
south, calling attention to smoke that he said he could see over the
distant tree tops.

Oddly enough Phil could see no smoke, at least nothing more than usual.
The horizon in this region had always a hazy, smoky tinge, he had
observed. Nevertheless he said he appreciated the suggestion and added
that a few days more would see the breaking of camp at the lake, anyway.
It was in his thoughts to ask what Anderson himself would do in the
event of a forest fire. The tiny clearing, he thought, would be very
little protection if the flames came near it.

But Way refrained from speaking of this. There was a matter of more
importance about which he wished to inquire. "Do you know if there is
anyone staying at the clubhouse at the lake, Mr. Anderson?" Thus did the
boy frame his question. Receiving no answer but a shake of the head, Phil
then continued. "Because," said he, "it would be right convenient if we
could get permission to use the workbench in the automobile house. We'd
do no harm to anything."

"I tank yo better let him bay," Nels answered, the least bit sharply.
But more kindly he went on to say that he knew of no one being at the
clubhouse now and that while the property was not his, the best advice
he could offer was not to meddle with anything in the buildings or on
the grounds.

Quite baffled by the Swede's apparent friendliness, yet certain that he
was practicing deception, Phil returned to the machine. He told fully of
the conversation with Anderson while the car purred forward.

Without exception the boys agreed with him that the talk of forest
fires was like the denial of all knowledge of the clubhouse being
occupied--simple deception, and nothing else. Clinching the soundness
of this reasoning also, was the certain fact that the recent clubhouse
tenant was now Anderson's guest.

"Grandall! He saw Murky or Murky saw him! He must have guessed that Murky
has found out how he had been given the double cross, and was after him
in dead earnest. Result: Grandall, in cahoots with Anderson for some bad
business or other, packs his little satchel and goes to the Swede's to
stay."

So did Dave MacLester reason the whole matter out. Chip Slider nodded his
endorsement of these conclusions.

"They've got that stolen money, so they have!" he said. "We could have
them arrested," he added, only the word he used was "pinched."

"And we will! _Mark that!_" said Phil Way.

Yet it often does happen that young gentlemen, and older ones, too, make
assertions which, in the end, lead not where it was thought they would do
at all.



CHAPTER V

"WHO SAID I WAS AFRAID?"


For Billy's information the developments of the afternoon were told
and retold when all were again together in the camp. There was much
discussion, too, concerning the advisability of causing the arrest of
the man in the golfing cap and, possibly, Nels Anderson as well.

Meantime Billy had announced supper. It was a most tempting little meal
with warm soda biscuits and honey as the chief items. The former Chef
Worth had prepared during the afternoon and the latter he had caused to
be brought from Fraley's in anticipation of his having the biscuits ready.

No doubt it was at the comfortable old farm home of Tyler Gleason that the
four chums had developed a marked fondness for the delicacies mentioned,
as readers of "The Auto Boys" will remember; but be that as it may, they
enjoyed the change from the usual camp fare hugely.

As has been stated, there was no little discussion as to whether the
Staretta officers should be asked to arrest and hold the stranger at
Nels Anderson's until he could be positively identified as Grandall, the
dishonest Longknives' treasurer. Phil Way declared firmly that this must
be done.

"Personally, I don't see any sense in mixing up in an affair that doesn't
really matter much to us!" exclaimed MacLester. He had been quiet for
a long time. When he did speak it was with hard emphasis in his voice.
"Murky and Grandall and the whole outfit that got away with the cash the
road builders should have had--well! we don't usually have much to do
with such people and no good will come of our beginning now," the boy
added.

For a moment Chip Slider's face wore a look of anger. Perhaps he thought
Dave's latter remark was aimed at him. But he said nothing.

Phil looked at MacLester in a significant manner, as if he would caution
him against speaking so. Yet, "No use growling, Davy," were the words
he said. Then he added that such a thing as duty must be taken into
consideration; that one who has knowledge of a crime and conceals it is
regarded by the law the same as if he actually shielded the wrong-doer.

"Gee whiz! I should say so," piped Paul Jones with shrill emphasis. "We'd
be a pack of softies if we let Grandall and Murky, and the rest, get
away, after all we know now!"

When Billy also joined heartily with Phil and Paul in urging that the
Staretta officers be notified of the presence of both Grandall and
Murky, MacLester no longer held back. How best to go about the matter,
however, became immediately a problem.

Dave wanted to telegraph the police in Grandall's home town and learn
if the man was really wanted by them. The hearsay evidence possessed by
Slider, with regard to the stolen twenty thousand dollars, he declared,
wasn't worth much until it could be backed up by more hard, cold facts
than were thus far in hand.

"Suppose we were to go back to Staretta and have a talk with the sheriff
or chief-of-police or constable--whatever they have there in the brass
buttons line--tonight," proposed Billy. He was resting comfortably, his
back against a tree, while Phil and Dave, with Slider's help, were washing
the dishes.

Having had a quiet but busy afternoon young Mr. Worth was quite ready for
an evening out.

"Sure pop!" Paul Jones exclaimed. "How do we know but that Grandall fellow
is right on his way now to fly the coop?--and that's just what he is, most
likely."

"Go ahead! I'll keep camp--Slider and I," put in MacLester quickly.
Perhaps Dave was anxious to show Chip some friendly attention to make
amends for the unpleasant words spoken a little while before. Perhaps
Chip, as well, wished to show that he harbored no ill feeling. At any
rate, "Yes, let him an' me do up the rest of them dishes an' the rest
of you get started sooner," the lad proposed.

The thought that Slider's presence, to tell the officers in person what he
knew of the stolen payroll money, would be highly desirable, did not
occur even to Phil, usually quick to see such things. The plan was put
into effect at once. With headlights throwing a long, white glow before
them Billy, Phil and Paul said good-bye. Worth was at the wheel, one
finger on the throttle, and at truly hazardous speed he sent the steady
Thirty in and out among the trees that bordered the narrow trail.

"Goodness, Bill! What's the hurry?" ejaculated Phil, alone in the tonneau
and getting more of a shaking up than he relished.

"Oh, he thinks there's so many trees around it won't hurt if he does tear
out a few of the big, old ones _that are all done growing anyway_," Paul
added grimly.

For it most generally is true that the driver is much less nervous than
his passengers. A chuckle was Worth's only answer, but he did retard the
throttle some and with less gas the machine at once slowed down.

The evening was close and warm as the previous night had been. The moon
had not yet risen but, knowing every part of the road, Billy let the car
pick up speed again directly he reached the broader, straighter path.

"We'll get this robbery business into the hands of the bluecoats; then
home for us," called Phil from his seat behind. He would not willingly
have admitted it, but he believed he smelled smoke. Also he was thinking
of a clipping enclosed from home that morning telling of very destructive
forest fires in other sections of this northern part of Michigan.

"I guess so," Worth answered. "It's a shame to punish a car on such roads
as these. The lake is all right and being by ourselves is just what we
wanted, but--"

The sentence was not finished. It was a way Billy had of leaving some
things unsaid. In this case the road told all the driver had left
unspoken. It was certainly "no boulevard," as young Mr. Jones had
expressively remarked the first time the chums traversed it.

The dim glow of a kitchen lamp was the only sign of life the boys noticed
at Nels Anderson's little house as they passed. They did not pause.
There would be no occasion for them to visit the place again, they had
decided, but whether correctly or not will in due time be apparent.
Just now the main thing was to reach Staretta before everyone, Link
Fraley in particular, would most likely be found in bed.

True it was that the little town fell asleep early. "And what's to stop
it?" Paul Jones had once asked. Yet the lights were still burning in
Fraley's store and at the post-office, which was in the little shoe store
opposite, when the Thirty rumbled down the main street.

Mr. Lincoln Fraley, standing in the doorway, went down the steps to meet
the boys as they drove up. Something had happened, he was quite sure, to
bring them back so soon; for, not being familiar with the rapid traveling
an automobile affords, he had no idea of the lads having been to Opal
Lake and back since he last saw them.

"It's time to close up anyhow. Come take a ride," Billy invited.

Mr. Fraley said his father would attend to closing the store and, going
in leisurely for his hat--lest he be suspected of a too lively interest in
the prospect of an automobile ride if he hurried, perhaps--he presently
seated himself in the tonneau beside Phil. As Billy drove slowly forward
Way told of the discovery of Grandall at Anderson's. Briefly he stated
the intention of causing the man's arrest and the capture of Murky, as
well, which, he was certain, could be quite readily accomplished.

"Well now!" said Mr. Fraley in a musing tone, and, "if it don't beat me!"
he slowly added in the same slow and reflective manner.

"But great land of belly aches!" Paul Jones chirped protestingly,
"don't you see what we want? We want to know whom we must
see--sheriff--judge--chiropodist--whoever it may be to get these
chaps into jail and nail down those twenty thousand pieces of eight!"

"Don't be in a hurry," spoke Fraley with greater animation. "What I had
in mind was that Nels Anderson surely is consorting with Grandall and
probably has been all along. I'm the more sure of it because the Swede
was in the store early this morning and bought a lot more stuff than
we've ever sold him at one time before. I didn't wait on him and didn't
know of it at the time you were here this afternoon. My father just
happened to mention it at supper. Pretty plain now where Nels got the
money and plain as daylight, as well, that he expects to have company
for some time, which accounts for the stack of provisions he took back
with him."

"All the more reason--" Phil began, meaning to continue, "that we should
get in touch with the officers at once."

Link anticipated what he would have said. "No," he interrupted, "You
don't need be in any hurry. And you do want to bring that Slider boy
with you when you come to talk with the sheriff. Your evidence is mostly
second-hand anyway. You don't want to give it to the county officers
third-hand and fourth-hand when it ain't necessary. I'm watchin' the
papers every day and I'll get some more news about Grandall's running away
from the Grand Jury and his bank. Just you wait."

There was a lurking suspicion in Billy Worth's mind that Fraley wished to
wait until he, himself, could communicate with the officers, but he said
nothing. Phil and Paul were disappointed, too, that their friend would
not advise immediate action.

The boys talked of those matters after they had left Link at his
home,--the large, plain house with flower beds in front, near the
store. But they had headed the car toward Opal Lake now and their
conclusion was to continue homeward. They would do nothing until the next
afternoon, at least, at which time, it had been agreed, they were to see
Fraley again. They would find out, meanwhile, and be able to inform the
officers, whether Mr. Murky was still "at home" at the rude shelter
where Chip had seen him.

The light was yet burning at the humble Anderson dwelling as the friends
passed on their homeward way. They thought they saw the figures of two
men sitting just outside the door where a faint breath of air might now
be stirring, but could not be sure. They were quite satisfied the guest
of the family was still there and for the present this knowledge was
sufficient.

As the headlights' glare swept the camp at Opal Lake Chip Slider was for a
moment seen making frantic gestures. He seemed to wish the boys to hurry.
Phil almost fell over the excited youth as he jumped down from a forward
seat a few seconds later, for Chip had seized a front fender as if he
would thereby help to halt the car more quickly.

"I can't help it," cried Slider with anxiety, "and I don't want to be
scared over nothin'--but it's Dave! He went over the lake in the boat an'
that's the last I seen him. It was somebody hollerin'--somebody hollerin'
from t'other side!"

With real alarm the three friends heard the disconnected words of the
frightened Chip. In a chorus they demanded to know all about the matter,
their own language hardly more clear than Slider's. Phil was first to
gain composure enough to call for quiet. Then he said:

"Now, Chip, tell us precisely what happened and how long ago. I guess Mac
could get himself out of any kind of pickle he'd be likely to get into,"
he added with vastly more confidence than he felt. "Go ahead now, and
don't be so rattled."

It was only a half hour or thereabouts after the automobile had gone,
the boy stated, his tones still filled with alarm, when he and MacLester
heard cries from across the lake. They had washed and put away the dishes
left to their attention, and were sitting down by the water, thinking it
cooler on the beach. Some refuse they had thrown on the campfire blazed
up, making quite a bright light. Like a distant whistle of a railroad
engine there came a little later a long, loud cry, "Hello-o!"

"Well, hello!" MacLester cried in answer, Chip stated, telling his story
clearly, but so slowly Paul was fairly bursting with impatience. There was
more "hollering" of hellos, the lad went on, then the voice from over
the water asked, "Could ye put me up fer the night?" Dave answered, "Yes,
come on over." Replies came back, "Have ye a boat?" and "Could ye not
kindly row across fer me?"

The outcome of the whole matter was that MacLester remarked to Chip that
they would wait until Phil and the others returned.

"'Would you be afraid to cross over alone?' I asked him," said Slider,
"an' I meant just a fair question, but he turned quick as a cat.

"'Who said I was afraid?' he spoke pretty sharp. Then he hollered out to
the party that had been yellin', 'Keep singing out to guide me an' I'll
paddle over to you.'

"He got in the boat and started and never a word he said. Every minute
or two I heard the other one and Dave hollerin' out to each other till
about the time when the boat could have touched t'other shore. Then it
was still an' I ain't heard a word since. I've yelled an' yelled an' kept
the fire blazin' up to steer 'em straight to this here side, but never a
word of answer did I get an' hide nor hair of 'em I ain't seen."

"Could it have been that fellow Murky? Would you know his voice?" asked
Billy.

Chip shook his head. He was quite sure the voice was not that of the
person mentioned.

"He could disguise his voice easy enough," spoke Paul dejectedly. "Dave
could swim all night, but the other fellow--"

"Now wait a minute!" interrupted Phil briskly, feeling that he simply
_must_ face the situation with courage, bad as it might be. He hurried
down to the beach. Loudly and again and again he called, "Oh! Dave," and
"Oh, David MacLester!"

No answer came to his despairing cries. Softly the water lapped the sand
at his feet. In the distance the frogs were croaking. Darkness too deep to
let even the outlines of the farther shore be seen hung over Opal Lake and
distinctly on the light breeze now springing up came the odor of burning
pine.

"If we only had another boat!" murmured Paul. "There's the skiff down by
the clubhouse," he meekly suggested.

"Why," said Billy, "our old boat was safe enough! I can't believe they
ever left the other side. That's where we've got to get to. We can go
around the east end of the lake in about half an hour's walk."

Phil Way was never so perplexed--never so at a loss to know what to do.
Looked to as the leader and the captain in all things, he usually was
quick to suggest, quick to decide and quite generally for the best. His
heart--his nerve--whatever it is that keeps the mind steady and alert at
such time--came nearer failing him now than ever before.

All the boys, Chip included, were on the beach. Several times Phil's cries
had been repeated by the others. At last--

"We must get the skiff," Way declared. "If Dave's on dry land we can find
him when daylight comes, if not before. But if he's holding on to an upset
boat, though too weak to answer us, maybe, we've got to find him right
off."

Leaving Paul to guard the camp and keep a bright fire burning, Billy
and Phil, with Chip accompanying them, were soon running toward the old
clubhouse. They carried the oil lamps from the car and thus made good
progress. But the skiff was found dry and seamy. It would be necessary
for one or another to keep bailing constantly, they saw, the moment they
launched her.

And where were the oars? In their excitement the boys had not noticed
the absence of this very necessary equipment until the boat was in the
water. With frantic haste they searched here and there. The rays of their
lamps were far from powerful and close inspection of each nook and corner
must be made to see what might be there.

The excessive stillness, the atmosphere of loneliness and melancholy that
hung always about the Point and its deserted buildings seemed intensified
tonight. The shadows cast by the two lamps seemed unnaturally gaunt
and ghostly. With all their activity the three lads could not but be
impressed by these things, but they were too occupied to be frightened by
them.

"At last!" Phil's voice came low but quick. In another moment he drew a
pair of oars from behind an unused door whose lower panels a charge of
buckshot had shattered, apparently, and which was now stored in a corner
of the automobile shed.

"Whatever will we bail with?" asked Billy, finding the skiff already to
have taken considerable water.

"I know," came a prompt answer and Slider disappeared in the darkness.
From behind the garage he brought in a few seconds two empty tin cans.
"There's no end of 'em among some weeds back there if we need more," he
said.

"No! You keep bailing, Chip, and you, Billy, hold the lights! Off we go!"
and Phil shoved away the moment all were fairly on board. From the black
shore line to the east they could see the campfire shedding a bright light
for a little distance over the waters; but except for this and the rays of
the auto lamps Worth held the darkness was like pitch.

"Paul's blaze will be our light-house. We want to hit toward the middle
of the lake, just about opposite the camp, then straight over to the far
side," spoke Way, breathing fast. "Keep me guided right, Bill." He was
pulling hard.

The incoming water kept Slider more than busy. With a can in each hand
he scooped to right and left. Worth found it necessary to give Phil very
few directions for Way was a splendid oarsman and the light craft swept
forward rapidly.

Every minute or two Billy sang out MacLester's name. Eagerly he scanned
the water as far as the lamp rays fell, but heard nothing, saw nothing.

Not until the north shore was almost reached did Phil slow down. Then he
let the boat drift forward easily while watching for a landing place.
"Raise the lamp higher," he called over his shoulder.

Billy did so and as the skiff floated nearer the quite steep bank rising
from the water at this point, there came suddenly into the lighted circle
a flat bottomed fishing boat. It was the scow MacLester had used and it
was empty.



CHAPTER VI

IS NO NEWS GOOD NEWS?


The fishing boat lay drifting, but only three or four yards from shore.
Had Dave effected a landing or, in the darkness, had he tried and failed?
That which quite possibly, even probably, had happened was a thought that
filled even Phil with apprehension and despair.

"Light the way! I'll pull close in shore," he said, trying hard to swallow
the lump in his throat.

The bank where the skiff's nose soon touched was steep, yet easy to be
climbed as its height was only a few feet. But there was no sign that
anyone had been near it. Otherwise the dry earth would have shown the
imprints of toes or heels. This was quickly proved when, Phil steadying
the boat and with a root and a straggling shrub to help him, Billy crept
quickly to the top.

"Still, we don't know just where Dave may have run in. It's queer that
he let the scow drift, if--even if he expected to go right back," said
Worth in a hushed tone, from the edge of the low bluff.

"Queer what became of the man who called him over here, if such a thing
as Mac falling into the water may have happened," observed Phil. "And
Dave could swim--why, almost across the lake, if he had to! He could save
himself if there was nobody pulling him down."

Throwing Billy a line by which to hold the boat, Way and Slider followed
him up the bank. They walked some distance in each direction along the
shore but the feeble light of the oil lamps showed no trace of David
MacLester nor yet of the mysterious person who had summoned him. The
thought, "crooked work," was in the minds of all three.

"After all, it's the water I'm most afraid of. If Dave fell and hurt
himself or was pushed into the lake--but never mind. One of us must go
back to Paul and the others will have to--look further," said Phil at last.

Billy was chosen to return to camp. What Phil meant to do, with Slider's
help, was drag the lake in this vicinity. If Dave had gone to the bottom,
due to some accident or injury, it might not yet be too late to save his
life. Such things had been done, Way said, but he spoke without his usual
confidence and very, very gloomily.

Returning to the skiff, the boys ran along side the fishing boat and drew
the latter to shore. Phil and Chip tied her to a projecting root and Worth
bade them good-bye.

With a long, steady stroke he pulled for the southern shore and the bright
light blazing there. But it is one thing to row for the fun of it, when
the sunlight dances on the ripples, and quite another to cross a strange
body of water--and alone--when inky darkness spreads everywhere.

The swelling of the wood had now pretty well stopped the skiff's leaking,
yet again and again Billy paused to bail out. The unpleasant thought
that he would find the water pouring in too fast for his best efforts
harassed him. He could not see, so he often put down his hand to feel
and thus make sure the boat was not filling. So at last did he float
into the rays of the campfire's light and a minute later stand telling
Paul the unhappy discoveries made.

The thought that Dave and the strange man, having found their boat
drifting beyond reach, may have started to walk around the head of the
lake and so come on foot to the camp, had suggested itself to Billy as
he rowed. Mentioning this to Paul he set out, with a small camp lamp in
hand, to explore the shore in the direction indicated.

Thus left alone again Jones was the most dejected and sorrowful young
fellow one could easily imagine. To keep the fire blazing high was all he
could do to be of any possible assistance. Inactivity was hard for him
to bear at any time. Especially was it hard when his thoughts were so
disturbed and his anxiety so great.

It was coming daylight when at last Jones saw the fishing boat
approaching. In it were Phil and Billy and Chip; for Worth, having
traversed the whole upper border of the lake without result other than
to tire himself exceedingly, had spent all the latter part of the night
with Way and Slider.

To the great astonishment of these two he had suddenly appeared to them
out of the darkness. He had broken his lamp to bits in a painful tumble
into a dry water course the undergrowth concealed.

Several hours the three lads had then spent alternately dragging the
lake's bottom with hooked poles, looking up and down the steep bank for
footprints, and here and there going some distance back into the woods
vainly searching. Even before the dawn appeared their lamps went out.
With difficulty they had then embarked for the opposite shore. Daylight
came as wearily they worked their heavy craft forward.

The one hopeful fact the boys found in a sorrowful review of the
situation, as they stretched their tired limbs upon the ground, was that
the dragging of the lake in the vicinity where Dave's empty boat was
found had been without result.

"We'll get some rest--a few minutes, anyway, and a cup of coffee, then
we'll see what daylight will do to help us," suggested Phil.

Yet it was scarcely more than sunrise when the search was resumed.
Crossing to the north shore in the skiff, Billy and Paul set about a
minute inspection of the dry earth of the bank and of the woods for a long
distance up and down the water's edge. Leaving Slider in camp, Phil
made the detour of the east shore on foot.

As Way drew near the scene of the fruitless work of the night he
discovered close in shore an old log lying just under the water's surface
and partially imbedded in the earth of the bank. A short, stubby branch
projected its wet and slimy tip an inch or two above the water. A
slivered end that had risen considerably higher was freshly broken.
Not completely detached, it lay almost level with the water's surface.

But a more interesting discovery still was unmistakable footprints in
the dry earth. The footprints were made by MacLester. Of this Phil was
certain. It was to the large projecting splinter, broken from the old
log, that Dave had tied the boat, perhaps. Yet how had the slow and heavy
craft broken from its mooring? And what was of vastly more consequence
what had then happened to Mac?

The scene of Way's discoveries was some distance from the spot in which
the fishing boat had been found. It was farther to the east, also, than
search along the bank had been carried during the night; but the lake at
this point had been dragged again.

Examining the ground carefully, Phil sought to find some further evidence
concerning the missing boy's movements. He discovered nothing of
importance. Going forward, then, to Billy and Paul, now working toward
the westerly end of the lake, he told them of his discoveries. Quickly
they returned with him.

To make their search thorough the three boys undertook to inspect the
ground covering a wide area at this point where they believed their
friend had landed. Several hundred feet from the water they made an
interesting discovery. In a little patch of earth, made bare by the
burrowing of some small animal, there were three footprints. One showed
the mark of a shoe such as Dave MacLester wore. Two other tracks were
broad and heavy--the imprints of coarser footwear.

It was a marked relief to the three chums to find such good cause to
believe MacLester was not drowned; but what in the world had become of
him? Had he been enticed away? Had he been taken captive by some unknown
enemy?

In vain the search for other footprints,--anything to cast additional
light on the grievous problems,--was carried further. Every prospect ended
in disappointment. It was long after noon. The boys had penetrated several
miles into the woods and they at last acknowledged themselves completely
baffled.

Murky was a name they often mentioned as they counseled together. They
could think of no one else who might have a reason for doing them all an
injury. But why should Murky wish to make Dave or any of them a prisoner?
His only motive could be that he feared they were searching for the stolen
money he considered as his own. He had warned Chip Slider to keep off
that track, the boys knew.

"We'll hunt till dark, then if we have no success and get no word at all,
we will get the sheriff and a lot of men from Staretta! We will find Dave
and it won't be very pleasant for Murky or whoever is to blame for this,"
declared Way. "There's more back of the whole matter than we can make
out--more than we can even guess right now, you'll see!"

The boys returned to camp. The thought had come to them many times
that Chip Slider might know a great deal more than he had told. They
remembered Link Fraley's words about the boy. But they could not accuse
him without any ground for doing so. They could find no evidence that
Mac's disappearance had not occurred just as Chip had told them. And
he had twice repeated the whole story the same as in the beginning.

It was a heart-sick group that ate a hasty lunch of bread and coffee
in the woodland camp. Now for the first time, however, Paul told of the
lonely time he had had during the long night--told of the noises he had
heard in the distance, along the beach. He was quite sure that bears
and deer, as well, to say nothing of numerous smaller creatures, had
come to the lake to drink and bathe. He believed they would have come
quite close to the shack but, for the bright fire he kept blazing.

Ordinarily the boys would have found great interest in such a subject; but
today their spirits were at too low an ebb, their minds too disturbed over
the unaccountable loss of their friend to permit their attention being
otherwise occupied.

All except Billy set out after lunch to learn whether the suspected Murky
had deserted his usual hiding place. Slider was the guide. He led the
others quite directly to the logs where the tramp had made his bed and
headquarters.

The fellow had apparently departed. He had left the pan and other utensils
taken from the boys' camp but the blankets he had carried with him. They
were nowhere to be seen, at any rate.

More certain than ever, then, that it was this unscrupulous villain who
had decoyed Dave across the lake and in some manner forced their friend to
accompany him, the lads hurried back to camp.

Again they rowed to the north shore and with utmost determination plunged
into the hot, close woods.



CHAPTER VII

THE LONG-HIDDEN TREASURE IS UNCOVERED


And now, while the weary young searchers were hastening resolutely into
the woods to the north of the lake, they were leaving in the forest to the
south one who would well bear watching. I do not mean Chip Slider sitting
alone, tired and melancholy, beside the shelter of poles, wondering if
there could possibly be any place where trouble did not come. No--not
Chip, but a man who at this moment stood looking into the little valley
where the last camp of the road builders had been.

A somewhat portly, somewhat pompous and self-important appearing
individual was this man. His bristly hair, cut very short, was tinged
with gray under the large, loose-fitting cap such as golfers and motorists
wear. His face was smooth, puffy and red. His very eyes, more touched
with red, also, than they should have been, as well as his pudgy hands
indicated self-indulgence and love of ease.

Presently the cap and the person under it moved from the rise of ground,
above the road builders' last camp, down into the valley. With a smile
that had too much of a sneer about it to be pleasant, the man ground his
heel into the gravel where the Longknives' road had come to its troubled
ending. With the same disagreeable sneer in his manner that accompanied
his unpleasant smile, he turned here and there, noting how the brush
and stunted stalks of mullen were springing up all about the unfinished
task the workmen had left.

Startled suddenly out of his reverie by a bluejay's scream, or some
other noise--he may have fancied it, he thought--the man looked hastily,
searchingly about him; but satisfied, apparently, that he was alone,
he moved leisurely into a shaded place and sat himself down on a
stump--another token of the great road that had been begun but never
completed. Quite carefully he drew up his trousers at the knees, then
picked from his hosiery, whose bright color showed in considerable
expanse above his oxfords, some bits of dry grass and pine needles
gathered in his walk. Mr. Lewis Grandall had come, apparently, to view
the work his perfidy had caused to be abandoned.

For a long time the unfaithful treasurer of the ambitious Longknives sat
in silent meditation. He had noted with some satisfaction that a growth
of brush screened his position from easy discovery should anyone chance
to pass that way; and now his thoughts ran back over the circumstances
leading up to his present personal situation. Quite steadily his eyes
were fixed upon the unleveled bank of gravel, the half-hewn logs and all
the unfinished work in the general picture of desolation and abandonment
before him.

It is doubtful, perhaps, if Grandall realized his own responsibility for
the waste and ruin on which he looked. At least his face bore no trace
of sorrow, no expression of sincere regret. The same dull sneer was in
his eyes, the same defiant air was in even the poise of his body and the
heel that, with a certain viciousness, he dug into the dry earth.

Lewis Grandall's start in life had been attended by bright prospects.
If only he had been found out the first time he yielded to temptation
in scheming to get money by dishonest means, he might still have made
his life a success by turning at once to the right road; but not being
detected, he became bolder. From mere trickery and deceit it is but a
step to out-and-out thievery. Grandall took that step and more. Yet he
managed for long to cover his tracks sufficiently that few suspected and
no one publicly accused.

One would have supposed that, being accustomed to the handling of other
people's money in his banking work, he would not easily have been tempted
when he found himself with a large sum of the Longknives' funds in his
possession. Neither had he any pressing need of this money at the time he
laid his plan to appropriate to his own use the cash intended for Nels
Anderson's army of road builders. He merely thought he might some day be
glad to have at his command a secret reserve large enough to maintain him
indefinitely.

So did he plan the pretended robbery by which a former woodsman he had
long known made off with the suit-case wherein he carried the money for
Anderson's long overdue payroll. His original purpose had been to make
some sort of division of the cash with Murky; but there was not anywhere
in the Grandall code either honor or honesty. It was a particularly
bright idea, indeed, so Grandall himself considered when the thought came
to him that he might have the unsuspecting Murky relieved of the suit-case
before the fellow had so much as seen what was in it.

The plan was put into effect. Slider, weak of morals, but strong of arm,
was chosen for the work. To him Grandall told as much of his whole scheme
as he thought necessary, but told him nothing whatever that was wholly
true, with the possible exception of the statement that Murky was not to
be trusted because he talked too much.

Having been a beneficiary in a small but largely crooked lumber deal
Grandall had once managed, Slider entered into the robbery scheme most
willingly. With the general result the reader is familiar; but in detail
it may be added that, in keeping with the promoter's plan, he who relieved
Murky of the suit-case hid it later just where few would suspect it might
be hidden.

That place was almost within gunshot of the very spot where the money
would have been distributed had it reached those for whom it was intended.
This not only suited Mr. Grandall's convenience, but kept Slider in a
comparatively safe locality, as well. So many men had been engaged on
the work near Opal Lake that the presence of any kind of person in working
clothes, in that vicinity, would occasion no remark.

Thus had Slider secreted the suit-case in a decaying heap of drift along
the identical little stream beside which the great gravel road had ended.
There had Grandall found and quietly removed the riches the very next
day. Then the dishonest treasurer limped back to his hotel, for he was
supposed to be scarcely able to move, owing to his "injuries," as a result
of the robbery.

Nearly three years passed. The suit-case lay undisturbed where Grandall
hid it and its valuable contents were intact. If the Longknives' treasurer
had had occasion to make use of this money, meanwhile, he had been
either afraid or unwilling to do so. But he knew where it was. He knew
that in an emergency he could lay hands on a moderate fortune whose
existence he believed none suspected. The thought bolstered his courage
in scheming the method of more than one piece of trickery and dishonesty.

Then came the end, as sooner or later in crooked plans it must
come--Failure! They all fail,--it is inevitable,--at last. The
wrong-doer faced the necessity of flight.

Grandall's defalcations in the bank did not appear at once. A small
matter--the "padding" or falsely increasing of some petty bills for
material furnished the city--had started an investigation. It was to
the amazement of everyone who knew the man that a long, long chain of
shady operations and even petty stealing, even the robbery of his own
friends, was by slow degrees uncovered.

Toward the last, it was apparent, Grandall had been driven to the most
painful desperation. Night and day he must be on guard to keep his
deceptions covered up. Constantly he must devise new practices in deceit
to conceal others that once had served, but now, daily and hourly, were
opening at most unexpected points revealing the treachery, falsehood,
hypocrisy and rottenness they erstwhile had secreted.

Like a common thief, the guilty Grandall stole away in the night. Behind
him he left all that might have made life useful and pleasant--home,
friends, hope and ambition. Lying for some time hidden in a distant city,
he at last felt it safe to travel by a circuitous route to Opal Lake.

At a country railroad station he stepped quietly off the train. With no
luggage but a small handbag he slipped into the woods. A long tramp
brought him the following day to the abandoned clubhouse. The very
atmosphere of oppressive loneliness there pleased him because of its
assurance of his safety from discovery.

How little Grandall guessed, or even suspected, that at just this time
he could not have come to a place more fraught with danger to himself
will never be known. No knowledge had he of the eyes that stealthily
watched him. No thought had he that the moment he appeared with the stolen
suit-case in hand, ready to slip away to hoped-for safety in a distant
country, a lurking enemy would leap upon him.

The thief sat for a long time contemplating the ruins where so abruptly
the road building had ended. It was not until near evening that he
strolled slowly toward the clubhouse. The general course of the gravel
drive he followed, but in the main kept a few feet to one side, that
the trees and brush might screen him.

He had no fear here, yet he knew some boys were in camp not far away and
not even by them did he wish to be observed. For he would spend one night
of rest in the clubhouse room that once had been his own; and then he
would be away--gone for all time from these and all the scenes of his
younger life.

Yet a pair of heavy, scowling eyes watched Grandall's every footstep--saw
him enter the clubhouse--saw him seat himself restfully in the empty
living-room beside the great fireplace and proceed to make a supper of
sandwiches and fruit from his small satchel.

Murky could not have been more vigilant had his own life been at stake.
Not only his determination to gain again the stolen money that had
been taken from him, but his hatred of that person the victim of whose
double-dealing he had been, made him watchful, and a very dangerous man.

Quite suddenly in the afternoon had the vexed and oft-disappointed tramp
discovered Grandall. It was while the latter stood beside the ruins
where the gravel road had reached its ending. In delighted surprise
Murky with difficulty suppressed a cry. Dropping instantly to the ground,
he pressed over his mouth both his dirty hands lest some exclamation he
could scarcely resist should betray him. "Blame _me_!" Under his breath
he muttered the words with almost fiendish pleasure.

His worst enemy then was the occasion of those sounds that had startled
Grandall from his reverie. But he felt himself so entirely alone, so
wholly free from any probability of being observed, that he had given the
slight noise not a second thought. During all his afternoon of sinister
gazing upon the ambitious enterprise his act had wrecked, he still
believed himself as completely alone as a man well could be in any vast
woods or wilderness.

And even when Grandall left the little valley and walked in silent
meditation to spend one night more--but one--in the old house on the Point
he heard no footsteps coming on behind. His thoughts were far from
pleasant ones but they occupied him fully. The sullen hatred so clearly
shown in the expression of his eyes and lips was but a reflection of all
that passed within his mind. Friends or foes, men were all alike to
him, and those who had never voiced a word against him he reviled equally
with those who had been his dupes, and with the men whose accusations had
caused his flight, as well.

Coming to the clubhouse, Grandall lingered for a time up and down the
weed-grown walk leading to the garage. Then while it was yet light he
went down to the rotting pier and looked long and earnestly across and
up and down the lake. Slowly he returned and, entering the house, went
at once down cellar.

In the pitch darkness he felt his way to the rear of the steps leading
from above. Striking a match or two, he examined by such flickering flames
the rough uneven wall. With bare hands, then, he seized a projecting
corner of one of the large flat stones and pulled it easily from place.

If this part of the wall had been laid up with cement or mortar it had
been broken down some time before, as would appear very probable, for the
masonry that Grandall now brought tumbling to the floor concealed a deep
aperture in the dry, sandy earth.

The thief's next lighted match revealed the hole and also revealed a damp
and discolored leather case.

Still crouching in the dark cellar Grandall managed to work the rusty
lock and lay the suit-case open. Then he struck another match and its dim
glow disclosed the carefully packed bundles of bills, and among them a bag
of coin. He nodded his head in a satisfied way. He had assured himself
on first arriving at the old house that the treasure was safe; but he
would not remove it from the hiding place until he was prepared to leave,
he had decided. Now he was ready.

And where was Murky?

As a matter of fact, from his concealment among the bushes near by, he
was trying to decipher the room upstairs that this lone visitor to the old
house would probably occupy. He had lost sight of Grandall when the latter
had quickly entered and gone to the cellar. But it was only for a little
while that the scowling eyes searched the open door and the windows in
vain.

As Grandall came up to the living-room carrying the discolored suit-case,
he glanced quickly all about him. Possibly some sense of his guilt came to
his mind now that the evidence of his theft was squarely in his hands,
and for the first time he appeared apprehensive. Yet he paused only for
a few seconds. He saw to it that all the first floor doors were bolted
from within, and slowly climbed the stairs to the sleeping rooms above.

As if quite at home the man entered that room whose long, low window
opened upon the little balcony toward the lake. He smoothed down the
mattress and brought a blanket from an adjoining chamber. Opening the
window wide, for these upper rooms were very close and warm, he drew the
suit-case to the better light he thus admitted and proceeded to count the
money it contained.

The night was hot, the air seemed stifling, but when he had satisfied
himself as to the amount of the treasure, Grandall returned the packages
of bills and the bag of gold and silver pieces to their places, then
closed and locked the window. He locked his chamber door also, before
lying down to sleep. As if that could save him now!



CHAPTER VIII

DAVE MACLESTER'S ADVENTURE


It required no little courage for Dave MacLester to row across the dark
waters of the lake to the darker woods of the north shore. Had there
been someone to go with him he would have answered the cries for aid
much more willingly. But since either he or Chip must remain in camp,
Davy set out alone, pretty gloomily, pulling the heavy scow with what
speed he could.

MacLester was far from being a coward but by nature he was more timid
than calm, self-possessed Phil Way, or bold and venturesome Paul Jones.
With a keen sense of duty and resolute determination to overcome every
thought of fear, however, he ran the scow against the steep bank of the
lake's far shore.

The voice that had guided Dave across the water greeted him at once. "It's
full glad I am to see ye, even if I can't see ye half in the darkness of
it," came with a pronounced Irish accent.

"Guess that won't make much difference if you can see your way into the
boat," Dave answered. "Did you get lost?"

"No, no! not lost at all, at all, but I couldn't find me way, quite," came
the response. The speaker had now come down on the sloping bank close to
the boat, as if about to step aboard.

"I only wondered," Dave answered. "Seems as if the woods were full of
mysterious people--one lone man hiding in an old clubhouse, another--"
The lad checked himself. A sudden thought came to him that perhaps he
better not speak too freely without knowing with whom he was talking.

"What's he doin' there? A man all alone, and in an old clubhouse? What
might be his name thin?"

"How should I know?" Dave answered to this question. He was becoming the
least bit suspicious and again he checked himself when it was just at his
tongue's tip to add, "We think the name may be Grandall." There would be
no harm in awaiting developments before he told a stranger quite all he
knew, he grimly reflected--a wise thought, it should be needless to say.

"No harm,--no harm intinded," spoke the Irishman good-naturedly. He
had come close to the water's edge now and Dave's eyes being fairly
accustomed to the darkness, made him out to be a little, elderly man
with a short beard, but very little hair on his head. The old fellow's
baldness was, indeed, the most noticeable thing about him as, with hat
in hand, lest it fall off into the lake, perhaps, he stooped down the
more closely to inspect MacLester and the boat.

"Why," said the boy, fearing his short "How should I know?" might have
been unpleasantly curt, "You see there are four of us fellows in camp on
t'other side and we've happened to see a man at the old house on the Point
below us. We've wondered who he might be, staying alone as he does, and
keeping so out of sight of everybody. It's miles to the nearest house and
nobody but our crowd of four fellows and our one visitor is anywhere near.
But climb down into the scow and I'll take you over. Steady now, while I
hold the old shell up to the bank."

For a few seconds the stranger made no reply. Then--"It must be a lake
here thin. Has it a name, at all, d'ye know?"

"Why, sure it's a lake!" replied Dave a little tartly, wondering if the
old fellow supposed the sheet of water lying so quiet in the darkness
there might be a river or an ocean. "Its name is Opal Lake. This old boat
is good and strong though. It'll carry us across all right."

Once again there was a long pause before the stranger spoke. "Oh yis!"
he suddenly exclaimed, "There's me baggage, and me almost forgettin' of
it! Will ye help me a wee bit with it? Sure 'tis not far!"

The kindly and somewhat coaxing voice of the old fellow, whose brogue was
just enough to give a pleasant quaintness to his speech, amused MacLester
and he assented readily enough to the request made of him. He threw a
loop of the scow's anchor rope over a stub projecting from the water and
sprang ashore. He did not notice in the darkness that his leap broke the
fragile branch securing the boat, allowing her to drift, but at once said:

"We'll have to wiggle some, for they'll be looking for me in camp pretty
shortly."

"Sure, 'tis not far," the man again said pleasantly, and clapping his
straw hat down over his head till it almost concealed his ears, he led
the way into the woods.

"Me name is Smith--Jawn Smith. What's your'n thin?" spoke the genial
Irishman, as the two walked quite rapidly, despite the darkness.

"MacLester--I'm Scotch," said Dave, smiling to himself over the thought
that his new friend plainly was not French.

Mr. Smith made no reply and a long distance had been covered when Dave
spoke again.

"How far back are you--that is, your baggage? We'll never find the lake
again, till morning, if we don't watch out."

"Sure, 'tis not far now any more," came the quite unsatisfactory answer.
"Is it tired ye air?"

"No--but--great guns!"

With no other remark Dave continued close behind or alongside his guide
for a long time--a very long time, it seemed to him,--possibly a quarter
hour. Then--

"Where in the world are we bound for?" he asked pretty sharply.

"Sure, ye'll not lave me," was the answer, quite pleadingly.

With a decided mixture of feelings Dave said, "Couldn't you do without
your baggage until morning?" But in his thoughts he added: "I've heard
of wild Irishmen, and I guess I've met one, too." Still, he smiled in
a grim way, reflecting further that he, also, would have a stirring
personal adventure to report in camp, and he would see it through now
at all hazards.

MacLester was certainly right. He would have a story of personal
adventure to relate when he parted company with "Jawn Smith." But this
was something he was not to succeed in doing so soon as he supposed.

Time passed and still the little, old fellow with now and again his
oft-repeated, "'Tis not far," trudged onward. He _seemed_ to know the
way perfectly. Dave followed or kept near his side. However, when for
possibly the tenth time the man said, "'Tis not far," the lad's impatience
got the better of him.

"Your ideas of distance must have been picked up in an automobile," he
said. "Twenty miles isn't far in a car, maybe. One or two--not to mention
five or six--may be a lot better than a fair stretch for walking. And I've
been gone a long time from camp."

The stranger made no reply.

"What are you doing in the woods--fishing, or just traveling for your
health?" Dave was getting more than a little cross and his tone showed it.

"Sure, thin', I was goin' to tell ye," muttered Mr. Smith, still going
forward but more slowly now,--"I was goin' to tell ye that me business is
that of a sivy-ear--you know?"

"A what? I'm afraid I don't know exactly."

"You don't know a sivy-ear? Sure! Peekin' through a little popgun on three
poles? That's a sivy-ear."

"Oh, a surveyor!" exclaimed Dave. "What in the world have you been
surveying here in the woods?"

"Down't be axin' questions. Sivy-ears go peekin' an' peekin' an' they
don't tell whatever they may see. For why should there be sivy-ears at
all, if they towld what they do be seein'?"

MacLester was both irritated and amused; but he was getting too uneasy now
to let the all-too-apparent humbuggery of his companion go unchallenged.

"Well, I'll say this much, Mr. Smith, that if you know where your
instruments are, and can go there right off, I'll stand by my bargain to
help you; but if you don't, you better say so. We're five miles from
the lake now, if we're a foot."

"Yes, it's right ye air," was the still unsatisfactory answer. And though
Dave replied more sharply than he had yet spoken, his companion each time
responded in soft tones and mild language, but always evasively.

"Well! if you know where we are, tell me that!" spoke MacLester very
firmly at last. "I'm going not a step further until I know what sort of a
wild goose business you are taking me on!"

"Oh,--oh! Sorra day--sorra day!" The man sat himself down heavily upon a
fallen tree over whose prostrate trunk he had just escaped falling. "Ye
must do as ye will, but it's lost I fear I am."

"Lost?" echoed Dave loudly. "You don't mean that we've been jamming ahead
in the dark, and all this distance, without knowing where we were going!"

"It was _not far_!" Mr. Smith moaned wearily. "Oh! it is tired am I!"

"Well! I'll be cow-kicked!"

And possibly David MacLester may be excused for using so impolite an
expression when his situation is considered. Here he was miles from
Opal Lake--miles from camp, and lost in the woods in the dead of night
with a strange man who might be either a dangerous crook or a harmless
lunatic--circumstances pointed toward both.

"Ye'll not be blamin' _me_, sure!" spoke the old fellow. His very voice
showed that he was indeed tired to the verge of fainting; but his manner
was as mild and child-like as his words.

Language could not express Dave's feelings. In mute contempt, anger,
weariness and a certain deep curiosity mingled, he dropped to the ground.

"I wouldn't blame you, mister," said the boy at last, "but I set out to
do you a friendly turn and you get me into this pickle as a result and
still give me no satisfaction as to where you belong or where you want
to get to."

"Jawn Smith"--and it plainly was not his name--made no answer for a long
time. Meanwhile David expressed himself pretty freely to the effect that
there was but one course to pursue and that was to stay right where they
were until morning. "And when daylight comes we'll head straight for the
lake," said he.

"It's no odds who I be," said the stranger finally. "If I be not a real
sivy-ear, I'm the likes of one, a peekin' and peekin'. Which is for why
I can't be gossipin' about matters that means a great deal to them that I
would be befriendin'. Come mornin', we'll see."

"Humph! Hope we may see more than we do this minute," Dave answered. For
although the two had been so long in the darkness that they could make
out trees and other objects well enough to avoid them, it had been a very
hard as well as a long tramp and the more so because of the gloom of night.

His head pillowed on his arm Dave fell asleep, at last, regardless of
the many things that vexed and worried him. His queer companion slept
also and so did the daylight find them sore and hungry. The sun's rays
brightened their spirits, but "you can't eat sunbeams," as MacLester
rather gloomily remarked. The first excitement of the adventure had
subsided now and he was quite inclined to despondency.

On the strength of the stranger's statement that his camp and baggage
and food he carried could be found in a short time Dave again let him
lead the way. A long walk in one direction was followed by a tramp of
a still greater distance in another with no apparent intention of arriving
anywhere.

And both MacLester and the stranger were suffering for water. They had
crossed a small stream where there were still pools of good water,
notwithstanding the severe drouth, early in the morning. It was decided
to revisit it before starting for the lake. But here, too, long-continued
efforts were a flat failure.

It is a dreadful feeling to realize that you know not which way to turn
to reach any given point. Lost! It is a word whose terrors must be
experienced to be fully understood.

"Come, now! I'll be the guide, and just you keep with me. We'll get out
of here somehow," said MacLester resolutely. Thus far the stranger, for
the most part, had been the pilot. It was past noon. Neither had tasted
food since the preceding day and both were parched for water. The sun beat
down till even through the thick screen of pine and deciduous branches
the heat was trying. No bit of breeze relieved the sultriness.

But Dave's best efforts seemed fruitless. The only reward in a long, long
tramp was to lead the weary pair to a small stream. But even this was a
most fortunate discovery and both drank freely, then drank again.

As they rested the stranger was much depressed. After a long silence he
said in hopeless tones: "What for a man ye may think me, I dunno; but the
saints bear me witness, me bye, never did I sit out to drag ye where ye
be. It's all past goin' further I am, and ye've got to lave me. An' if
ever at last ye come to that lake, go right at wanst to that clubhouse
and tell the gintleman who's stoppin' there, for the love of hivin' to
come quickly where I be. It's Daddy O'Lear that wants him, say--poor--poor
Daddy O'Lear."

"What's that?" exclaimed MacLester. "Now if this _ain't_ a pretty mess!
I was sure your name wasn't Smith, but----"

"An' I'll be staying thin, till ye come fer me; but ye'll be tellin'
nobody but the wan man that I'm here, be sure."

"You are going along with me," was the decisive answer. "Then I'll tell
no one anything. I don't want anything to do with your friend. There's a
way out of this howling wilderness somehow! We've got to move! It will be
dark again in two hours!"

But even a strong tugging at his arm would not persuade Mr. O'Lear, if
such were his real name, to rise and start.

"You go with me or you'll go to jail where someone else ought to be too,
if I'm not mistaken," said Dave with emphasis. "You can't stay here, man!
And whoever you are, I'm not going to let you!"



CHAPTER IX

"THE LAKE! IT'S THE ONLY CHANCE OF ESCAPE!"


The sun went down and the coming darkness warned the three boys, vainly
searching for Dave MacLester, that they must hurry if they were to find
their way to camp. If no success had attended them by daylight, they
certainly could hope to do nothing after nightfall, and they turned back
toward the lake.

All afternoon Phil, Billy and Paul had tramped the woods. Except for the
three tracks in some soft earth, as earlier mentioned, not one certain
clue to the direction taken by Dave and his unknown companion had the
friends found.

Quite worn out in both body and mind, they took careful note of their
bearings, then headed by what they thought a bee-line for Opal Lake.
On and on they hurried. The twilight deepened and they kept to a direct
course with difficulty. And still they reached neither the lake nor any
familiar spot.

"Fine boat we're in if we've gone and got lost," gasped Paul, bringing
up the rear. The boys were pushing forward at a slow run, Phil Way in the
lead.

"We didn't pay close enough attention to the distance, when we were going
the other way; but we'll be out of this in a little while now," came Way's
hopeful answer.

"I smell smoke. It might be from our own camp. Chip would be firing up
like mad to make a bright blaze," came Billy's voice above the steady
patter of feet upon the needle-strewn ground.

"There's some breeze picking up, but not quite from that direction," said
Phil, though he paused not a moment.

Paul was first to discover that the course Way was taking could not be
right. "I can catch the smell of the swampy ground, at the west end of
the lake, in the wind," he said. "We've got to head right against this
breeze."

A brief pause, and the lads agreed that Paul was right. And soon the proof
was positive. Ten minutes of rapid walking brought the chums to the water,
but it was at the east end of the lake, not the north shore, at which
they found themselves. Another half mile or less would have taken them
entirely beyond the familiar sheet of water, and have led them, hopelessly
lost, undoubtedly into the woods to the south. Their course had been
steered too far easterly in the beginning.

Glad, indeed, to be so near their camp once more, despite the weight upon
their hearts concerning Dave, the boys agreed to continue on around the
upper end of the lake on foot rather than return now for the skiff on
the more distant shore. So did they come presently to their shack and
the bright blaze Chip Slider had burning as a beacon light for them.

The ray of hope the young searchers held out to one another on their
homeward way, that they might find MacLester safe and sound in camp upon
their own arrival there, was quickly turned to disappointment. Chip had
no news--not one word of information, good or bad, to report. He had
remained faithfully in camp and had seen nothing, heard nothing unusual.

"Exceptin'," said he, "there's bad fires somewheres in the woods. I
smelled smoke the minute the wind began blowin'. All day there wasn't
hide nor hair of air a stirrin'. It was just after sundown that it started
in, real gentle, an' it's gettin' higher. You take a fire in the woods,
and a stiff gale, and you've got something to look out for, I tell you."

"We've got to rest and think a little, and have something to eat," said
Phil, paying scant attention to Slider's words. "We've done what we can
in one direction, now we must start out on some other plan."

"I knowed you'd be hungry and I've got the coffee hot. I boiled some
eggs and cooled 'em this afternoon and them are ready, too. Just you
all rest and I'll get some kind of supper," announced Slider, almost
bashfully. But his friends were truly glad to do as he suggested. The
simple, hasty meal of cold, hard-boiled eggs with plenty of bread and
butter, crackers and cheese and coffee would have been most enjoyable
too, had there been no absent one.

For an hour or two the three Auto Boys rested and sought to find the best
plan to pursue toward finding Dave MacLester. They could not do better,
they at last felt sure, than to report their mystery to the authorities at
Staretta.

From the town, also, inquiries among the villages lying beyond the great
woods could be made by telegraph or, even better, by telephone, perhaps.
If Dave had been foully dealt with, as seemed only too probable, the law's
officials could not be any too quickly informed.

It was drawing on toward midnight when the Thirty's lamps were lighted,
the engine started and all made ready for a rapid run to the town. Phil
took the wheel. Telling Slider to keep a bright blaze shining and his
ears wide open for any signal from over the lake, he threw in the gear,
let the clutch take hold, and the three boys began this last bit of
service they were ever to have from their much beloved car.

Way was usually a conservative driver but tonight his foot at no time
ceased to press the pedal that increased the gas. Over the smooth spots
and over the rough ones, ruts, roots and hummocks of the hard-baked
earth, the automobile whirred. Rarely did the speedometer show less than
fifteen miles and often the indicator touched twenty-five, and this
while the road was still but the woodland trail.

Luckily the lights were clear and bright, but more fortunate still, Phil
was every moment alert and earnestly attentive to every inch of the road
and every throb of the machine.

Like some swift phantom the blaze of the lamps sped on and on among
the ever retreating shadows and utter blackness of the night. Like
black-hooded spectres the trees at either side seemed to glide ever to
the rear, silent and ghostly except as their branches were tossed by
the rising wind.

It was not until they were far past the bleak, dark house of Nels
Anderson, that Billy shouted his opinion that inquiry should have been
made there. No, Phil called with emphasis, the time for giving heed
to uncertain, unknown persons had passed. He was sorry the arrest of
Murky and of Grandall had not been brought about when first it was
suggested, he said. A lot of things might have turned out differently
if it had been done, and he, at least, believed----

"Look! There's sure fire yonder!" It was Paul's voice interrupting.

The car was fairly clear of the woods and the road now led among the
blackened stumps and rough undergrowth of the district where flames had
raged in time long past.

Far to the west and north the sky was blazing red. The whole distant
horizon of the direction named seemed as if the doors of some mighty,
seething furnace, miles in width, stood open. A rank odor of burning
wood came stronger and stronger on the gusts of wind.

"It's a good ways off and maybe isn't burning much this way," shouted
Worth above the rush of air and whir of the auto's wheels.

"The wind, man! It's sweeping right into the heart of the woods," Phil
answered loudly. But not for a moment did the car slacken speed. The road
was getting better. Staretta was but five miles distant.

"Still, there's not much danger of the fire coming our way. It will go
way north of the lake," Worth replied.

"And that's just the direction Mac's in," echoed Paul Jones in tones of
alarm.

"Yes!"

Phil cut the word quick and short. His tone and the instantly still
greater speed of the car told all too plainly where his fears were running.

There was no need to rouse Link Fraley or the officers of Staretta. They
were astir watching the progress of the distant flames. Scores of men had
already gone to join the fire fighters, who, it was reported, had reached
the scene from Jacques' Mills, a settlement to the northwest that lay in
great danger, should the wind change.

The fire had been noticed only as clouds of smoke during the day, Link
Fraley said. In the afternoon messengers arrived saying that the blaze
was gaining great headway. It might yet be confined to a certain swampy
district, thick with dead trees and grass and a rank undergrowth of
rushes, now dry as tinder from the long drouth. It was here the fire
had started. Many men returned with the bearer of the news to aid in the
battle.

With sundown came the wind. There could be no stopping of the terrible
destruction so long as the gale increased, Link Fraley stated. The best
that any could hope for was that the blaze could be kept within a narrow
limit as it swept onward into the wholly unsettled country so saving the
little towns and mills along the railroad line.

But about MacLester--the hearts of the three boys sank like lead. Even
Sheriff Larsen said nothing could be done for him while so great a number
of lives were in jeopardy and every hand was needed to preserve them. He
was sorry--very sorry; but he believed and hoped Dave would escape in
safety, somehow, though there was not a thing that anyone could do at
once to help him or to aid his friends in finding him.

Perhaps he had been lured into the woods for purposes of robbery, or by
Murky, in a spirit of revenge; but even the much-needed attention of the
law to that dangerous character must wait, the sheriff said, until the
great fire could in some degree be overcome.

Awed and alarmed, their every nerve tense with a depth of interest and
anxiety such as few ever experience, the three friends listened to the
conversation of those about them. The principal crowd had gathered before
Fraley's store. Suddenly, from the partially lighted interior, Link
Fraley came. With a nod of his head he beckoned the Auto Boys aside.

"An Indian fellow--Doughnut Dan, they call him--has just come in from
up the line," said he, "and brings word that the fire will get south of
Opal Lake and no stoppin' it. Hadn't ye better go? Right now you'll be
ahead of it to the lake and no danger. Later on--and ye've got that Slider
chap on your hands back at your camp. Get him and get your stuff, and
get 'em quick."

"But MacLester! We can't----" began Way hurriedly.

"You've _got_ to! What can't be helped, can't be helped, but what _can_
be--that's what you got to think about and _right off_!"

"He's dead right, Phil, bad as it is," murmured Billy sorrowfully.

"It may be, but we'll----"

Whatever Way had meant to say, he spoke no further but quickly started
for the car. Paul and Billy followed and the latter took the wheel while
Phil re-lighted the gas lamps and Jones gave the crank a quick, quarter
turn.

When but little north of Staretta the three boys could see that all
the Indian had reported was true, and more than true. If the high wind
continued the whole district south of Opal Lake would be swept by the
fire within the next few hours.

But even in this estimate they were falling far short of the truth.
Every hour the wind blew harder. Great brands of fire were being carried
forward, starting constantly, and in hundreds of places, fresh bursts
of flame.

The car never traveled better than on this last night of its usefulness.
In but little more than twenty minutes the boys were driving through dense
volumes of almost stifling smoke. They were now well into the woods and
within the path of the flames' fiercely rapid advance.

As they went forward they discovered that the fire's main path would
probably be midway between the lake and the desolate country burned over
years before. But it would be spreading constantly. Nothing could check it.

Suddenly a feeble glimmer of light loomed out of the smoke and the
darkness forward. It was the glow of the lamps at Nels Anderson's.

"They'll never get out alive," called Phil. "Hold up, Billy!"

By the lights of the car, and from the windows and open door of the low,
unpainted house, the figures of Anderson and another man, and of Mrs.
Anderson and their little girl could be seen moving hurriedly in and out.
Phil sprang down to investigate.

The giant Swede, his family and their guest were carrying the household
goods of every kind to the very center of the small clearing. What they
feared was all too plain. But would their efforts count for anything?
Would their very lives be safe in this small space?

"I tank she will go nort of us," spoke Anderson, excitedly, as Phil
approached. "She must bane most at da lake now."

Obviously he referred to the fire. Before Phil could say more than that
he hoped the little clearing would escape the fire's main fury, at least,
the other man came up. He was the person in the golfing cap. Way was sure
of his identity instantly and his face grew hard.

"Have you been in town? How bad is this situation?" he asked calmly but
with a thoroughly business air.

"Ever so bad. You'll never be safe here," the boy answered with some
excitement. "You better----"

"No! the worst of it will be north of us," said the other quickly. "It
came up as if the whole woods had caught fire at once. We smelled and saw
the smoke in the afternoon. Nels and I were 'way west of here to see what
the danger was. We'd have been all right in this part but for the wind.
But you boys--are any of your party at the lake now? Because--you'll have
to move fast! Get back here to this clearing. If the fire keeps tending
north you'll be far safer here than on the water. There's no telling how
long it might keep you hemmed in there."

Much disturbed by the thought that even now Chip Slider might be in
gravest danger, Phil said hastily, "Thank you for all you say, at least,"
and hurried to the car.

"The worst of this is ahead of us! Get to the lake, Billy, quick!"

Again the trusted Thirty shot forward. The fire was still too distant to
be clearly seen among the trees, but the sky reflecting its red fury sent
down a glow which, but for the dense smoke, would have been like early
twilight. Still over ruts and roots, smooth spots and rough spots alike,
Billy drove, not carelessly, but very fast. Still the smoke-filled air
grew denser.

"The man is crazy! The fire may reach the lake, but Anderson's place will
be squarely in the path of the worst of it," cried Phil Way excitedly.
The boys were nearing their camp now, and the duller glow upon the sky
gave proof that the flames were more distant from here.

Poor Slider was found nearly beside himself with fear for the safety not
of himself but his new-found friends. He was resolutely at his post, and
the blazing campfire showed that he had not forgotten to keep going a
signal to Dave MacLester that the camp was not deserted, should he chance
to appear on the farther shore.

"We're the veriest blockheads!" said Phil Way, as he looked over the lake
and noted that here was the only place of real safety. "We've left the
Andersons to be suffocated if they aren't burned up. Who'll go with me
to bring 'em?"

"I'll go! Come on!" cried Paul, and Billy was not a second behind him.

"Wait!" Phil ordered. Then, "One of you stay here with Chip. Add all the
logs you can to the raft. Make it bigger, stronger! There'll be eight of
us, likely, that it will have to carry."

"Gee whiz! The car! The car, Phil! It'll be burned."

"No, it won't! Into the lake it goes. Water won't put it out of business
permanently. Billy, will you stay?"

"Go ahead!" cried Worth and in five seconds Phil was driving the
automobile in a way he had never done before.

Even before Anderson's place was reached the raging flames to the west
of the road lit up the narrow trail with a frightful glare. But on and
on the car flew.

The little clearing was reached in the nick of time. Great sparks and even
flaming branches were raining down upon it. The smoke was stifling.

Huddled under some kind of an old canvas,--a tent cloth from some
workman's camp on the gravel road, perhaps, Mrs. Anderson and the little
girl were trying to escape the smoke and terrific heat. The grass all
about the clearing was on fire. The little house must go, when the main
body of the flames came closer, and very doubtful did it look that life
itself could be saved in so exposed a place.

With a cry, "You can never come through the fire if you stay here,
people! We've come for you in the car! The lake! It's the only chance
of escape!" Phil made his presence known.

The roar and crackle and all the dreadful noise of the ocean of flame
that, as far as eye could see, flooded the woods to the west seemed quite
to drown the boy's loud shout.



CHAPTER X

THE LAST RUN OF THE BELOVED THIRTY


A second time Phil loudly called and now an answer showed Nels Anderson
and the golfing man to be near the edge of the woods. They had completed
the burning of a wide strip of the dry grass completely around the
clearing, only to find their work useless. All hope of thus stopping the
spread of the fire toward the buildings was destroyed by the falling
embers. The wind carried them everywhere.

There was no time to lose. The danger of death from suffocation, even
if the flames could be escaped, was very great. Now the roof of the
house was on fire. There was not a barrel of water within miles. Further
fighting, further loss of time, would be folly. Giants of the forest were
flaming up from roots to topmost branch not twenty yards within the
woods. The whole roadway would be ablaze, on both sides, in a few minutes.

A most pitiable object was Anderson's poor cow. Her head to the ground
as if to escape the smoke, a low, frightened bellowing told of her
realization of the danger. Forgetful of herself the child was saying, "Oh,
poor, good bossy! Oh, poor bossy!"

The small haystack along side the crude, log barn suddenly blazed up. The
dull red glow gave place to a white light all through the clearing. It
was impossible now that any part of the property could be saved. Anderson
and the other man came running to the car.

"It will be a close shave! Can you make it, boys?" cried the one in the
golf cap, above the roar of the flames.

"You bet! Be at the lake in no time! We've often carried more'n six,"
yelled Paul excitedly. "Right in here!" and he held the tonneau door open
wide. "You in front with Phil, Mr. Anderson!"

Even as Jones followed Mrs. Anderson, the little girl and the golfing
man into the tonneau, and slammed the door behind him, the Thirty was
under way. Its staunch gears were never before so quickly shifted from low
to high. What mattered it if Paul did sit down hard in the strange man's
lap? What mattered it if poor Nels, unused to automobiles, was jerked
nearly from his seat before he got his great, clumsy legs quite inside?
The raging sea of fire was bordering the trail ahead, and hundreds of
little tongues of flames leaped here and there in the parched, dry grass
and weeds in the road itself.

With frightened, staring eyes Paul looked with wonder upon the dreadful
flames leaping from one treetop to another. The man beside him was
shielding his face from the terrible glare and heat and the woman and
little girl clung tightly to each other, the former watching only the
child and holding a hand to protect her face. As if dazed and unable to
comprehend, Nels Anderson looked always back toward the doomed clearing.

Phil Way alone watched the road ahead. With firm set jaw and straining
eyes he looked ever forward through the blinding glare and the billows
of smoke that now and again concealed the trail completely. But his
hands gripped the wheel with perfect confidence, his foot pressed the
accelerator steadily. The gallant car responded. The ground seemed
speeding from under its wheels. On and on it flew.

Thus far the fire had raged to the west of the road only. In but a few
places had it reached the trees directly beside the trail, pausing there
till some fresh gust of wind, or shower of sparks, carried it to the other
side.

But now Phil saw before him a spot where on both sides of the road the
forest was a flaming furnace. He did not falter. On flew the car. Another
moment and it was in the midst of the fire. A hundred yards it ran
through the deadly heat, the awful roar and sheets of flame leaping upward
and outward till their fiery fingers were all but seizing the brave lad
and his passengers.

Safely the Thirty ran the fearful gauntlet. There came a shout of praise
and admiration from the golfing man, words of thanksgiving from the woman.
The worst was over.

Rapidly, but not so fast as in the direct course of the wind, the fire
was reaching out toward Opal Lake. Like a galloping army it came on behind
the car, but, barring accident, could never, would never, overtake the
swift machine.

Barring accident! Bravely the engine, clutch, gears, springs, axles and
wheels had withstood the strain of the terrific speed, the heavy load
and the wretched road. Bravely, with every charge of gas, each cylinder
delivered generous power.

The car shot down the grade into the small valley where, some distance
below, the gravel road came to its abrupt ending. There was a heavy jolt
as the front wheels struck the dry bed of the shallow stream.

Anderson, the giant, pitched forward. He might have caught and righted
himself quite readily had he had complete use of his hands and arms, long
since partially paralyzed; but in his disabled condition he missed the
windshield frame he tried to catch, and went partly overboard.

With his left hand Phil Way reached for his falling passenger, still
holding the wheel with his right. He seized poor Anderson just in time,
but the great bulk of the fellow drew him partly from his own seat, and
pulled the steering wheel sharply round.

Still going at speed, though now on the upward grade, the automobile
answered instantly to the call of the steering knuckles--true to its
mechanism, perfectly, to the last--answered to the driver's unintended
command, and sharply swerved to the right. A large pine stood in its
course.

So quickly did the collision occur, so unprepared were any of the
automobile's occupants to meet the terrible shock that the escape of all
from serious injury was truly miraculous. The outcome must surely have
been far worse had the tree been struck squarely head-on. The fact of
the fender and right front tire and wheel receiving the heaviest force
of the impact lessened the jar, and the car swung around spending
broken momentum in the dishing of both rear wheels.

Nels Anderson, pitched far out on the ground, was gathered up cut and
bleeding. Mrs. Anderson and the child were bruised but not much hurt.
Phil, Paul and the golfing man suffered no injuries beyond the nervous
shock.

Strange as it may seem, Paul Jones spoke not a word. Questioningly he
looked at Way.

Phil had been first to help Anderson to his feet. Now leaving him to the
care of the others he quickly inspected the damage done to the machine.
The roar of the flames was still just behind. Their blood-red glare cast a
twilight glow far ahead through the darkness of the woods.

"She was a mighty good car," said Phil Way, softly, as if to himself,
quite as one might speak of some friend who has gone. "A mighty good
car!" but at the same moment his gaze took in the flames fast following
along the ground and from tree to tree both west and south. Even here
the heat and smoke were terrible. The dull red light was everywhere. The
very sky seemed ablaze.

"This is most unfortunate. I'm truly sorry for this, boys," spoke the
golfing man, very soberly. He too had been hastily investigating the
damage.

Though his voice was kind, the speaker irritated Paul Jones exceedingly.
"Wouldn't have happened but for you, and except to send you to prison you
aren't worth it, I can tell you that, Mr. Grandall," were the words he
thought, but did not utter.

"Might have been worse! We're still a mile from the lake and the fire's
just behind us! That's the whole answer," said Phil rapidly. His words
were in reply to the stranger's sympathetic expression, but were equally
addressed to all. "Right ahead on this trail, then! We've a raft that will
hold everyone!"

Rapid movement was necessary. The wind was blowing furiously now. No power
on earth could stay the flames that swept ever forward. Their path grew
constantly wider.

Both Phil and Paul looked with astonishment to see the stranger, whom they
now detested more than ever, seize Anderson's little girl in his arms to
carry her; but they were all hastening forward through the crimson light,
and clouds of smoke. No more than a glance could the boys exchange.

Many times the two lads looked back. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the
rise of the ground soon shut off their view of the prized Thirty. The
hungry, sweeping flames came curling, playing, leaping, dancing, roaring
on. They reached the car.

Phil remembered, long afterward, that as he stepped out of the automobile
for the last time he noticed the speedometer, twisted about so that the
light of a lamp shattered and broken, but still burning, fell upon it.
The reading was 5,599 miles--the record of the season.

Safely ahead of the fire the fleeing refugees reached Opal Lake. With a
glad shout, though their faces showed deepest anxiety and fear, Billy
Worth and Chip Slider received them.

"The raft's all ready! I've made it big enough to float a house! All our
provisions are on board, too!" said Billy to Phil, the moment he ran up.
"Where's the car?"

A few words told the story. There was no comment beyond the quick, "Oh!
what an escape!"

The snaky tongues of fire coming on swift, almost, as the wind itself,
were but two hundred yards away when the rescuers and rescued embarked
upon the raft. Boxes and camp equipage afforded seats. Billy had trimmed
a couple of extra long poles with which to move the clumsy craft, and
present safety for all was assured.

The dawn was just breaking. Once out on the water the coming daylight was
quite clear despite the smoke that in vast clouds rolled swiftly over,
whipped and torn by the wind.

"Thank goodness there's no fire to the north--not yet anyway," said
Phil rubbing his face, grimy with smoke and ashes. He was thinking of
MacLester and for the information of the Andersons briefly told of Dave's
unaccountable disappearance.

"There's a long stretch of pine on the other side," said the stranger,
still wearing his golfing cap, by the way. "There are a couple of streams
there, though, both of them flowing into the lower end of the lake. If
your friend is lost and should remember that, he could follow either one
of them and not come out wrong."

Dave was more than merely lost, Paul thought and said so. And, "You know
this country pretty well," he added, addressing the former speaker. "You
belonged to the Longknives," he went on rather tartly. "It will be the
last of the old clubhouse."

"Yes, one blot will be wiped out. It is only too bad that so much that is
good must go with it."

Paul glanced at Phil and his eyes also met Billy's. The man's words were
puzzling.

"We saw--" Paul began, but a shout interrupted him--

"_There's_ Dave! There's Dave now and some man with him!" yelled Chip
Slider suddenly. His voice was like a burst of ecstasy. His eyes scanning
the distant shore, he had instantly caught sight of the two hats waved as
a signal.

The joy of the three chums, that the fourth member of their almost
inseparable quartette was safe and sound, it would take pages to describe.
With the most delighted waving of his own hat, Phil shouted to MacLester
about the skiff still moored on the north shore. His voice was lost in
the roar of the wind and the flames now sweeping very near the water's
edge. By signals, however, he quickly made Dave understand and the
latter and the man with him were seen to hurry forward to where the
boat was tied.

All the time the golfing man watched MacLester and the person with him
keenly. "Impossible!" he muttered at last. "I thought for a moment I knew
the old chap your friend seems to have in tow."

But it was not impossible, apparently, for even before MacLester and
his chums could exchange greetings, as the skiff drew near, the small,
elderly man in the stern of the boat cried: "Oh! 'tis there ye air then,
Mr. Beckley! Oh, ho! hurray! I dunno!" A laugh that was equally like a sob
accompanied the words, and "Oh, ho! oh, ho! I dunno!" the old fellow
cried again and again.

"It's 'Daddy' O'Lear, right from my own home," the golfing man explained
briefly.

The three boys again exchanged quick glances. Instantly as he heard the
name "Beckley" Phil had remembered the initial B on the shaving cup found
in the clubhouse. Was the man trying to carry on a deception even as
to his name, and at such a time, his thoughts inquired. No, he quickly
decided, there was some mistake.

"I do hope it may be no bad news he may be sent with, Meester Beckley,"
said Mrs. Anderson. She had been sitting silent on one of the boxes Billy
provided, the little girl leaning on her knees. All the Andersons had
watched the fire constantly, their heavy hearts revealed in their sad
faces.

"I--I think not," spoke the man in a puzzled way, glancing toward the fire
now almost bursting through the shore line.

"It will be hot here, and dangerous," said Phil, looking in the same
direction. "We must shove down the lake. Our poles won't reach to go
out farther. The water's too deep. We'll lie off opposite the marsh near
the Point."

Shouting to the approaching boat to follow, Way and Billy slowly pushed
their heavy craft to the west. The skiff overtook them easily and quickly.

"Hello!" grinned Paul Jones as Dave faced quickly about when the boat
came alongside. But his half-jocular tone fell on ears attuned to serious
matters.

"Oh! this is a terrible thing," said MacLester, his eyes fixed on the
flood of flames.

"I was never so glad as I am this minute! What in the world happened to
you, Dave? But never mind; you're safe now," Way answered with emphasis.

Somehow all felt it was no time for conversation. Dave made no response to
Phil's question. But Billy Worth--Chef Billy--remembered one thing.

"Have you had anything to eat?" he demanded. "I'll bet you haven't!"

"Mighty little--either of us," was the answer. "We were lost,--just about."

"Here's something!" and Worth drew a basket out from beneath a blanket.
"Guess we'll all feel better for a bite of breakfast," he added.

Crackers, cheese, bread and butter and bananas were in the "ship's
stores," as Billy expressed it, and there was enough for all.

The simple matter of eating served not only to relieve hunger but gave all
present a sense of better acquaintance and far greater freedom in talking
with one another.

"'Tis an awful waste of wood, sure!" said Mr. O'Lear.

Obviously he referred to the fire. The flames now swept the shore line
from the Point to the lake's eastern boundary. For miles upon miles the
forest was a whirlwind of furiously roaring flames, or a desolate waste
of blazing wreckage, smoldering stumps and blackened, leafless tree trunks.

"The clubhouse! The roof has caught!" cried Billy Worth suddenly. "And
look! It's a man!--two men, on the porch roof!" he yelled.

"Great heavens! it's Lew Grandall!" cried the stranger on the raft. "And
the other man! They're fighting!"

"It's Murky! The other one is Murky!" Paul's sharp voice fairly shrieked.
"It's the suit-case! They have the suit-case! Murky's trying to get it
away from him!"

"Oo--ho there!" shouted the golfing man with all his force. "Get to the
ground! The fire's all around you! Get into the lake quick or you're dead
men!"

For an instant the two who fiercely struggled on the small balcony seemed
to answer to the voice. Grandall would have leaped, it was apparent, but
the other seized him furiously, and drew him forcibly back. Then a thick
burst of smoke concealed them both.



CHAPTER XI

SETTING WRONG THINGS RIGHT


Wearily had Lewis Grandall lain himself down to sleep in his hot, close
room. It was his last night in the old clubhouse. He might have been
quite comfortable, so far as his physical self was concerned, had he been
willing to open the door-like window that led to the small balcony and
admit the air; but this he feared to do.

Some sense of danger, a feeling of some dreadful peril impending, harassed
him. He tried to reason it all out of his mind. He had not felt so
before having actually in his possession the moldy, discolored leather
suit-case, he reflected. Why should it make a difference?

There was no good cause for its doing so, he told himself, and resolved
to think of other things. But always his thoughts came back to the one
point--some great peril close before him. What was it? He could not fathom
the distress of his own mind.

Often as Grandall tried wearily to forget, to turn and sleep, some
lines of a tale he had somewhere heard or read,--a pirate's song you'll
recognize as being in a book of Stevenson's--struck into his mind. It was
as if someone sang or called aloud to him:--

    "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest!
    Yo-ho-ho! And a bottle of rum!"

In vain he told himself that it was nothing--nothing! That he must not
let himself fall a prey to such silly dread, an unidentified fear, like a
child afraid in the dark. But ever the sense of peril oppressed him. Ever
there came to his haunted thoughts--

    "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest!
    Yo-ho-ho! And a bottle of rum!"

At last he rose and sat a long time on the edge of the bed. Then he
dressed himself. For a great while, as the night crept slowly on, he
sat thus fully clothed. He did not know why he did this. The fear of some
unknown, threatening thing was not removed or altered. The ringing in his
brain--

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest!" was just as it had been before.

He lighted a match and looked at his watch. Four o'clock. Soon it would be
daylight. Then he would go--leave this terrible place forever! Leave
everything he hated--and that was all persons and all things. Leave the
guilt he vowed he would never face--if he could. So thinking, he lay
down once more and sheer exhaustion let the wretched man sink into heavy
slumber.

Lynx-eyed, the scowling Murky waited. The black shadows of the thick
shrubbery near the clubhouse door concealed him. A long, long time passed.
It was quite evident, the tramp reflected, that the man with the suit-case
had gone to bed.

Should he break in on him? Break in the house, slip up to his bed, strike
one swift blow and end the whole search for that twenty thousand dollars
quickly? End it all so quietly that the one who had played him false
would never be conscious of the outcome?

No, that was not the plan Murky chose to follow. It might result in his
obtaining the prize he sought, but he desired more. He wanted revenge.
He wanted Grandall to know, too, that he _was_ avenged,--would have him
fully realize that it was Murky,--Murky whom he had tricked and deceived,
that had found him out and vanquished him at last.

Daylight was necessary to the tramp's plan. He wanted Grandall to see and
recognize him. He pictured in his mind how, when suddenly awakened, the
trickster should find looking down into his face a pair of eyes that were
sharper and just as unmerciful as his own. Then he would speak, make sure
he was known--strike quickly and effectively, and be gone.

He would not commit murder--unless obliged to do so; it might make
trouble. But he would leave Grandall so hopelessly senseless that there
would be no possibility of early pursuit from that quarter, as there
would probably be none from any other.

Oh, they were black, black thoughts that coursed in Murky's mind!--hardly
the thoughts that should come to a man in his last night on earth. But
they were very pleasing to the tramp. With a kind of wild, wolfish relish,
he pondered over the details of his plan.

Satisfied that Grandall would not leave the clubhouse before morning,
confident of his own ability to awaken at the slightest sound of footsteps
near, and resolving to be astir before daybreak, anyway, if he were not
disturbed earlier, which he regarded as quite improbable, the scowling
wretch allowed his eyes to close.

Even in sleep Murky's face bore an expression little short of fiendish.
He was lying quite under the thick foliage of the bushes. They screened
him from view and from the breeze that had sprung up out of the west. But
also they screened from his eyes the glow that now lit up the heavens, in
the distance, for miles around.

It was the smoke, strong in his nostrils, that at last startled the
fellow into sudden wakefulness. He had been too long a woodsman, had
had too thorough a knowledge of the great forests in his earlier, better
days, not to know instantly what it meant. He sprang up and looked about.
The course of the wind was such, he reasoned, that the fire would not
reach this particular vicinity. But what if it should? Why, so much
the better, he reflected. The clubhouse would burn. If Grandall, dead
or unconscious, burned with it--Murky's smile was hideous.

For some time he watched the progress of the fire, yet in the distance.
But presently he became aware that the daylight was near. It was time for
him to act.

Stealthily Murky crept to the broken window at the west side of the
clubhouse and entered. He knew the first floor doors were locked, but
he did not know that Grandall had secured his bedroom door. This he
discovered in due time. Just outside the room he listened. Sounds of
heavy breathing assured him his victim slept.

It took a good while for Murky's heavy knife to cut in a panel of the pine
door a hole large enough to permit him to reach in and turn the key; for
he worked very slowly, very quietly. The daylight was coming in at the
window of the narrow hallway when his task was done--the daylight, the
dull glare of the advancing flames and the sound of their roar and fury.

The door creaked slightly as ever so slowly its hinges were moved, but
in another second Murky stood inside.

The man on the bed awoke--leaped to his feet--saw--recognized--gave forth
a yell the like of which even the wildest places have seldom heard.

Instantly Grandall knew his danger. Seizing the leather case, for whose
stolen contents he had risked so much, he threw open the balcony window.
In another moment he would have leaped to the ground below but Murky
caught him and they grappled.

It was in the midst of this first fierce struggle that the two were seen
by those on the raft. Murky's greater strength was fast overpowering the
other's soft muscles. Grandall breathed in choking gasps.

Then came the shouted warning from the lake. For an instant the surprise
of it caused the tramp to relax his hold, but only for an instant.

"Blame _me_!" like some wild beast he growled, though there was savage
delight in his tones as well, "Blame _me_! but I'd as soon leave my bones
here as anywhere, to see you get what's comin' to ye, you lyin' skunk!" He
fairly hissed the epithet in Grandall's ear.

It was at this juncture that Murky first drew his panting adversary back
into the flaming clubhouse. Grandall knew he was no match for his enemy
in strength.

"Wait, you fool!" he gasped. "There's a fortune for you--ease--luxury!
Take it! I'll add as much more to it!"

As the lying wretch hoped, Murky's wild thoughts were for the moment
attracted by the words. His grip upon Grandall's great, fat neck was
weakened. Like lightning and with a vicious curse the latter threw him
off, put forth all his strength and hurled the tramp to the floor.

For himself there was aid in sight, was Grandall's thought. If he could
escape to the water below, he could make some explanation to those on the
raft, whoever they might be. They would save him from the fire and from
Murky, whom he feared still more.

Far more quickly than you read the words, the idea flashed in the mind of
the frightened scoundrel. The instant he freed himself he leaped again
through the window. With the yell of an enraged maniac Murky followed.

The Auto Boys and their companions on the great raft, floating but a
few hundred feet from shore, saw Grandall reappear. With horrified
faces they saw about him the smoke and flame that now raged in the roof
above, and throughout the whole lower floor of the clubhouse, below
the balcony,--saw him seize the leather case and pitch it far forward
to the water's edge--saw him glance down as if, in desperation, to leap.

Again a blood-thirsty savage scream sounded above the fury of the fire
and wind, and Murky also appeared on the flame-shrouded balcony.

Grandall was too late. No more than a child could he cope with the mad
strength of his assailant. Like a great bag of meal, or other heavy, limp
and lifeless thing he was dragged in through the open, blazing window. A
fiendish but triumphant yell once more came out of the leaping smoke and
flame. It was the voice of the infuriated tramp, to be heard on earth
again, no more forever.

Dazed, powerless, speechless, those on the lake helplessly witnessed the
awful tragedy. With straining eyes and ears they watched and listened;
but there came now no sound above the fitful roar and crackle of the fire
and the surging wind.

Within a minute the roof of the clubhouse went down. The whole interior
of the building followed, and where had stood the old house on the Point
there remained only the walls of flaming logs, the mass of debris and the
wreckage of wrecked lives that rapidly burned within them.

"You know what's in that bag he threw down to the water?" the golfing
man asked. It was in the midst of the exclamation and words of awe of
those who saw the terrible scene enacted, that the question was asked
of Anderson. The Swede nodded.

"And you?" said the stranger, turning to Phil as spokesman for the boys.

"Yes, we know. We know the whole story. We--we thought _you_ were--We saw
you about the clubhouse and we got it into our heads that _you_ were--Was
it really Grandall that we saw on the balcony?"

"Thought _I_ was Grandall?" muttered the man, mystified. "Why should
you? Did you know he was in the woods? For I did not. But it was Lewis
Grandall and no other that went to his death before our very eyes! The
man with him--Murky was the name you used? Who was he?"

"Then you don't _know_ the _whole story_ of the robbery?" exclaimed
Billy Worth. "Murky was the man Grandall got to go through the motions
of robbing him of the twenty thousand dollars in the first place!"

It was with great interest, indeed, that Mr. Beckley heard the complete
account of Grandall's double-dealing scheme as Chip Slider and the Auto
Boys had gathered the information.

Meanwhile there had come with the wind fitful dashes of rain that soon
settled itself to a steady downpour. The forest fire had nearly burned
itself out on the lake's south shore. Thousands of acres of smoldering
ruins lay in its wake. Yet for a long time the refugees huddled upon
the raft, protecting themselves from the storm as best they could with
blankets and bedding. Not yet was it safe to venture ashore.

It was during this period that the golfing man made known his own identity
and told why he happened to be hiding in the old clubhouse, resulting
quite naturally, he freely admitted, in his being taken for the fugitive
treasurer of the Longknives.

His name was Henry Beckley, he explained, and he had been one of the most
active members of the Longknives Club. He had never been quite satisfied
that the club's treasurer was really robbed of the money intended for the
road builders, but had never found any genuine evidence to the contrary.

A long time had passed since the loss of the money. The investigation
of Grandall's crookedness, at home, was taken up by the Grand Jury. Mr.
Beckley had reason to suspect the man of a number of dishonest practices,
but feared for the safety of the bank, in which he was heavily interested,
if the public suddenly learned that Grandall was a thief.

To avoid being called as a witness in the matter he decided to go away
until the investigation was over. He would keep his going and his
destination a secret from all, his own family excepted, he planned,
and with no one suspecting where he might be, visit Opal Lake. Living in
concealment at the clubhouse he would have an opportunity of investigating
his suspicion that Grandall had made up the robbery story. Also he would
satisfy himself, at least, that Nels Anderson had had no part in the
disappearance of the payroll money and settle, for all time, occasional
rumors to the contrary.

Mr. Beckley had reached the lake only a day or two before the Auto Boys
set up their camp there. He avoided them for he wished to work in secret.
Also, for fear other strangers, or even some who might know him, should
chance to visit the lake, he was careful not to disturb the deserted
appearance of the clubhouse. He burned no light at night, and rarely
sat anywhere but in his bedroom.

"You had a light there one night," spoke Paul. "We saw it flicker for just
a second once, then after while saw the same thing again."

"It must have been matches to light my cigar that you saw," Mr. Beckley
replied. "I knew you had discovered me and that in part was one reason
that I went to Anderson's to stay. He brought me some provisions one
evening and I agreed then to go to his house, and I did so within a day
or two."

Paul could have said "Yes, _I_ knew he came to see you," if he had wished.
But he was silent.

But MacLester spoke up: "And you went down on the old pier and threw
something into the water the last thing before leaving. We saw that, too!"

"Yes, you're right. All the scraps of my lunches and the like I tied up
and, putting a stone in the package to sink it to the bottom of the lake,
I threw it in. You must have had pretty sharp eyes for the Point," the
speaker added, pleasantly. "But it is no wonder. I would have been even
more interested in my own investigations than I was had I known half as
much of the true story of the Grandall robbery as you boys knew. And had
I known of that awful Murky being around I'd most certainly have gone to
stay with good old Nels Anderson much sooner than I did."

"Sure, I am worried sick to know what ever I would ha' done, a gettin'
to the hoose an' not findin' of ye there," put in Daddy O'Lear with a
sorrowful shake of his head.

Mr. Beckley's faithful follower had already given that gentleman and
MacLester an account of his adventures ending in his sudden appearance
on the north shore, as the three sat by themselves in the boat some time
earlier. Now the story was repeated for the information of all.

Mrs. Beckley, it appeared, having learned of the flight of Grandall wished
her husband to be informed of this development. He had cautioned her
that he could receive no letters without revealing where he was, and she
could not write or telegraph. So with many instructions as to secrecy
she sent the old family gardener, Daddy O'Lear, to tell all that had
occurred.

The well-meaning old fellow left the train at a town to the north of
Opal Lake, as told to do. He became quite confused and lost in the woods
as he sought the clubhouse, and when he chanced to learn from MacLester
that he had actually reached Opal Lake, though quite without knowing
it, he was greatly alarmed. He feared the nature of his errand would be
discovered by the young campers.

On the pretext of going for his baggage he walked back into the forest,
MacLester accompanying him, instead of crossing over to the boys' camp.
He wanted to gain time to think and plan. He finally decided that, a long
way into the woods, he would give MacLester the slip and later reach the
clubhouse and Mr. Beckley secretly, by walking around the lake to the
other side.

This plan might have been more successful had "Daddy" not lost himself
more hopelessly than ever, before he was ready to put it into execution.
And if it had not been for Dave serving as his guide, at last, the
good-natured Irishman never would have found his way to the lake again
at all. This he freely admitted.

"I was satisfied that the stream we found must lead to the lake, or to
some larger stream that would do so," MacLester explained. "We were a long
time getting here, but when I saw the fire burning so terribly I didn't
know whether to be glad or sorry we had saved ourselves. Then I saw the
raft, and--_believe me_!"

Very soon after reaching his friends MacLester had learned of the loss
of the automobile. Naturally thoughts of the car were in the mind of
every one of the boys, even in the midst of all they had lately passed
through. But no word of complaint or grief was spoken. Possibly Mr.
Beckley noticed this for his own thoughts were not idle.

The rain still fell in torrents, hissing and steaming in the smoldering
ruins of the great fire. But the heat was almost gone now. The shore could
be approached without inconvenience. Mentioning this, the golfing man
suggested that it would now be possible to see if the general suspicion
concerning the suit-case Grandall had thrown to the water's edge was
correct.

The skiff was moored to the raft. Dave and Phil entered the boat and rowed
up past the rotting and now half burned timbers of the old pier. The
leather case had fallen partially into the water they saw, but quickly
they recovered it.

"In spite of what has happened to this money, and we all know the terrible
history now--I suppose we must agree that this bag and its contents are
still the property of the Longknives Club," said Mr. Beckley solemnly.
For, unopened, Phil had passed the discolored case at once to him. "At
any rate," the speaker went on, very soberly, "we will see what is in it.
I have a few things in mind regarding the club's disposition of this
matter."

Without hesitation Mr. Beckley picked up the leather case and eyed it with
a growing suspicion. It was now battered, almost shapeless. More than that
it looked, somehow, almost too small. Finding that it was locked, he cut
open one of the sides with his pocket knife.

But, instead of packages of bank notes and bags of gold and silver coin,
there was disclosed brushes, comb, and a few other toilet accessories,
together with a limited change of underwear and one bosom shirt. Of
course these were soiled by mud and water, but not unduly discolored.

The varied expressions of dismay, vexation and amazement shown by those
on the raft and in the skiff were almost comical.

Nels Anderson ventured an opinion that the bag was Grandall's, but
wondered why the man had heaved it over first instead of jumping with
it himself.

"He must have been crazed by terror," said Mr. Beckley. "But the question
now is what did he do with the larger suit-case. He certainly had it
somewhere, or that chap Murky wouldn't have been hanging round."

"Do you think both those men were burned to death?" This from Dave.

"I don't see how either could have escaped. The building was in flames
when they disappeared. It is almost night and we're all tired. I think
we perhaps had better to go back to camp, sleep quietly, and then in the
morning we can search the ruins and see what we may find."

As everyone was weary, this received general assent. They were not only
weary but discouraged. The unexpected and mysterious loss of the suit-case
containing the money was, in itself, an unlooked-for defeat, and just as
everyone felt sure that their difficulties were solved.

Scarcely had they reached the old camping ground than out of the still
smoking wilderness came a loud shout. Link Fraley, his shapeless old hat
pulled down almost over his eyes, his horses and wagon steaming wet and
coated with ashes, drove up at a trot.

"Well, well!" he cried. "We've been worried about you all. Staretta's
gone wild over this fire. Worried about the Andersons and the Auto Boys;
and I'm more worried about what I saw on the way here."

"What do you mean by that last?" asked Mr. Beckley, who was quick to hear
the unusual note in this final remark by Fraley. "What did you see?"

"I ain't certain; but I'm almost sure I saw that scowling fellow we
called Murky. I didn't get but a glimpse. 'Twas a mile or so back, where
the half burnt logs was piled up thicker than usual near the trail. Before
I could stop my team he was gone. No use to foller; besides, I was in a
hurry to get on to where the camp was, hoping I'd find you folks all
right."

Link's news occasioned somewhat of a flutter among the weary party thus
gathered at the ruins of what had once been the Auto Boys' camp. After
some discussion, while Chip and Worth were roasting potatoes and preparing
hot coffee, it was determined that, after eating, they would return with
Fraley to Staretta and sleep in warm beds once more. After that plans
might be made for investigating what Link had seen on the way over.

They hastened their meal and then, all climbing into the wagon, they
started back. Probably a mile further on Fraley pointed at a confused
tangle of fallen trees and logs which the fire had partially consumed, yet
left in such profusion as to form a sooty labyrinth where a fugitive
might easily escape unseen in that growing twilight. By now the moon
was shining, for the rain had long passed. Link stopped the wagon and was
pointing out where he had caught this flying glimpse. He was about to
start on again when Phil Way, crouched at the wagon's tail-board, cried
out as he jumped off:

"Hold on a minute, Link! I think I see something!"

Mr. Beckley, beside him, had seen it too, for the moonlight made things
more distinct than when Fraley had passed an hour or so before. Beckley
also descended.

When he reached Phil, the boy was raising up a sooty, battered leather
suit-case with several holes burnt partially through its thick sides. A
wide flap was cut through the leather. It hung down as Phil held it up.
It was some larger than the other bag and Beckley instantly knew that he
was looking at the receptacle that had held the money.

Had held it, but now no longer.

"It's empty, Mr. Beckley. How did he come to leave it here?"

"Why, don't you see? Look at those holes." Beckley pulled at the edge
of one and the burnt leather parted easily. "Murky--of course it was
he--must have seen that this bag would no longer safely hold his plunder."

"Then he's taken it out and put it into something else," said Way.
"Perhaps his coat, if he had one left."

"No; here's what looks like it had once been a coat."

Further search under the moon revealed only that certain foot tracks,
found by Paul Jones, led off to the left through the wet ashes, as if
the party who made them was in a great hurry. But, search as they might,
only one pair of foot tracks could be seen.

"Evidently Grandall did not survive," said Beckley. "No wonder! He must
have been all in when that scoundrel dragged him back inside the burning
building. But how could Murky have gotten out alive? Probably Grandall,
in his frantic haste, must have caught up the wrong bag, for it was the
money he was after. When Grandall was finished his companion would, of
course, try to make sure of the loot which both had schemed so hard to
get and keep."

Reasoning thus, they all went on to Staretta, for nothing could be done
that night, or without bloodhounds, which the county sheriff was known
to have at his home at the county seat.



CHAPTER XII

WAS THIS THE END OF MURKY?


When the still struggling Grandall was dragged inside by Murky and hurled
through the burning bedroom door into the flames beyond, the latter had
one resource left, though it is doubtful if he would have thought of that
but for one fact. In the brief struggle they had stumbled over another
suit-case than the one Grandall had heaved to the water's edge.

Murky recalled that when he had at first entered he had seen two bags. One
was the bag containing the money. Another, a trifle smaller, was the
one brought by Grandall containing articles for his personal use while
in the woods. In the fight Grandall had grabbed the smaller, whether
by mistake or not will never be known. But in such a death-and-life
struggle as went on, with Murky indisputably the best man, such a mistake
was likely, more than likely, to have been made by the despairing,
frightened thief then being overpowered by a more ferocious, desperate
rogue.

In less than a second Murky knew that there lay the treasure for which
he had run such a terrible risk, and also that his only competitor was
gone. Little would the fire leave of Grandall for after-recognition, when
the ruins were searched. The heat was unbearable; Murky's clothing was
already ablaze in spots. On the stand was a can of water, left by the now
dead man.

In a twinkling he poured it over himself, seized the suit-case already
scorched, and dashed for an open closet door. In this closet was a
displaced trap door. Murky knew that under this was the hallway leading
to the cellar stairs. In the cellar might be present safety--if he
could make it. The clubhouse had caught from the roof. Probably the cellar
was not yet reached. All this in less than no time, as he darted to the
closet, kicked aside the trap which Grandall had overlooked, and jumped
boldly down to the floor he had glimpsed beneath.

Murky was strong, tough, and such a leap was easily made. Already the
lower rear rooms were blazing, and he had barely time to rush through the
advancing flames to reach the stair door. Jerking it open, he stumbled
through, hurrying down into the obscurity below. It was not so dark as
usual, for the wide flare of the burning house above lighted up the cellar
dimly, also showing to Murky the gleam of a cellar window off to one side,
the last side to be encroached upon by the fire.

There were smoke and sparks outside, while sundry sparkles overhead told
him that the floors might shrivel into flames at any minute. In fact
crumbs of blazing embers already were filtering down. In the light thus
afforded, he saw some tow-bagging piled on one of the boxes that littered
the cellar floor. At the same time a jingling thud announced that some
of the coin had fallen from the scorched suit-case.

At once he seized the bagging, picked up the chamois-bag of coin and
wrapped it round the leather case, including the escaped coin. With a
rock from the crumbling wall he broke what remained of the window and
crawled through.

Fortunately for him he was on the opposite side from the balcony where
the amazed group on the raft and skiff were still watching, although they,
too, were on the point of quitting.

Which way should he go? The rain was beginning to fall though the woods
were still burning. But, close by, a small lagoon began. It was a part of
the water that separated the point on which the clubhouse was built,
making it an eligible site for the purposes of the Longknives when they
erected the house. It offered Murky a chance and he jumped at it as a
drowning man will dash for a straw. The water was shallow, yet deep enough
to keep off much of the heat as he waded along, crouching, half creeping,
his treasure now over his shoulder as he hurried to where the lagoon
widened towards the open lake.

Here he waited while the rain poured down drenchingly, gradually putting
out the fires that here had not the fierceness that had driven them in
from the westward. As soon as it was possible he stepped ashore, walking
as he thought towards the east and south. He was still trying to make
sure of his course and the rain was still coming down when he heard the
rattling of wagon wheels off to his right.

"Blame _me_!" he ejaculated. "What the--the--what can that be?"

Twilight was near, the air dim with falling rain, when a rough wagon,
drawn by two horses driven by one man whom he thought he knew, came in
sight. Before Murky could get out of view behind the sooty, smoking logs,
he himself was seen. Link Fraley had been urging his horses faster.
Before he could slow down the scowling face he had seen was gone, as Link
himself had told the others.

He felt sure that he knew that face, but being unacquainted with the
events at the clubhouse, already described, he was in too great haste to
reach the lake to stop and further investigate. So Link passed on while
Murky, now sure that he was headed wrongly, turned away.

In order to make greater haste he took the money, bills and all, from the
dilapidated bag, thrust it all inside the tow sack, and turning at last
to the course he had mistakenly thought he was following, he disappeared
within those slimy, sooty depths of the fire-ruined forest.

He plodded on, wondering at times if he was going right. Later in the
night it became cloudy and there were symptoms of more rain. Strange to
say, he did not reach any farms or houses or other signs of the railroad
which he felt sure must run in this direction. That is, if he had kept the
course previously laid out by himself.

As may be imagined, the going was not easy. The earth, at times strangely
swampy, grew more and more difficult to pursue. He wiped the sweat from
his head and neck more than once.

"Blame me!" he ejaculated. "Why don't I git somewhere? Looks like I've
travelled long enough and fur enough!"

When it began to rain again he was compelled to take off his one remaining
coat to wrap round the tow sack of money to keep it, at least, partially
dry.

"The bulk of this money is paper," he reflected. "Paper won't stand too
much wetting; not even gov'ment paper such as money is made of. Blame me!
Wish I had a rubber blanket!"

Crossing a log over a slough just before daylight, feeling his way
slowly, yet not daring to stop until he reached some sign of railroad
or clearing, or at least a house or barn, his foot slipped on a log
and down he went into a black pool of mud-encrusted water.

"Ugh--ow-w-w-wh!"

Would his feet _never_ strike bottom? Yes--at last. But the water was up
to his shoulders: the bag, coat and all was partly in the slime that
wrapped him coldly, icily about. Though the night was summery, the chill
of that involuntary bath was unpleasant. More than unpleasant; it was
exhausting, even terrifying. He tried to wade out, but the mire deepened.
He turned and tried to find the log again, but in the darkness all sense
of direction seemed to have left him.

At last, when even Murky's resolution was about to give way to despair,
his outstretched hand touched a limb. Convulsively he grasped it, both
arms going out in eager hope to grasp something tangible amid that inky,
nauseous blackness. As he did so a cry broke from him, for he felt the
bag slipping from his shoulder. He clutched it desperately.

"Oh! Ugh-h! My Gawd!" The cry broke into stranglings as his head went
under. A furious struggle then began, for Murky was not one to give up his
hold on life, or plunder, or anything valuable to him, without fighting.

Somehow he grasped at the unseen limb. It broke just as his weight began
to hang thereon. More splashings, strugglings. He found another limb, all
dead, sooty, yet wet from the now pouring rain.

This one seemed to hold. Inch by inch Murky drew one leg, then the other
from the sucking mud below, but as fast as one leg was released the
other stuck fast again. It was like working in a treadmill, only far
more perilous, fatiguing, and terrible. Would he ever get out--rescue
himself?

After all, love of life was more powerful than money or aught else.



CHAPTER XIII

SEARCHING FOR CLUES


The next morning, though it was still cloudy and rain was falling, Link
was prevailed to return with his team to the place where he had seen the
man with the scowling visage. Meantime Nels Anderson and family had been
made comfortable in a disused cabin in the edge of the village.

Nels, being comparatively useless, also remained. To him later in the day
came Chip Slider, saying:

"I went with them folks and they didn't do nothin' much, except that Paul
picked up a gold piece right near where they found that old suit-case.
All at once it come to me that something's got to be did."

"Vell, vot you bane goin' to do?" Nels spoke indifferently, for he had his
own troubles heavily on his mind.

"I don't want you to say much to the others. But if you find they ain't
goin' to foller up that trail we lost in them burnt woods, 'count of the
rain, I'm goin' to foller it myself. Say, Nels, I want to get your wife to
cook me up some grub--on the quiet, see?"

"On de qviet--heh? V'ot for you bane goin' to do?" Nels was vaguely
suspicious but kindly.

"They've gone for the sheriff and the dawgs. But they won't get back afore
ter-morrer. I want that grub right away--see?"

Nels grunted a surly assent, adding: "Don' you forget to bring dat grub."

This Chip proceeded to do, managing to secure through Billy Worth and Phil
Way a limited amount of flour, bacon and one or more minor ingredients.
But both were curious, naturally.

"Look here, Chip," remarked Phil casually. "You ain't going to leave us,
are you? We--we rather like you, boy."

Chip took them both aside as he explained his purpose to some extent.

"You know Paul found a gold piece where that suit-case was picked up. That
shows as how Murky, or whoever it was, must 'a' been puttin' the money in
something else. It's rained on that trail, and even if the sheriff comes
with his dawgs, they can't foller it to do any good."

"Well then, how the mischief can you follow it?" demanded Worth. "You just
can't! Believe me, Chip, you're going up against a hard thing."

But Chip persisted. The sooner he got off, the better. After all, seeing
he was bound to go, they wished him luck. But meanwhile Paul had come up
and was listening eagerly. When Phil and Billy turned away, he clapped
Chip on the back, saying:

"Chip, you're the goods--sure! I'm going with you, see?"

Chip looked so astonished that Paul hastened to add: "Don't you worry!
I'll have some grub of my own, too. More'n that, I'll get a couple of our
camp blankets. Now that our Thirty is gone, we won't be using much of our
camp supplies. Say, it's up to us to help get back that twenty thousand
dollars or what's left of it--hey?"

So it was arranged. During the afternoon Mr. Beckley and a constable came
back but without either the sheriff or the dogs. To the anxious queries
put to them Beckley shook his head discouragingly.

"We talked to the sheriff. He seemed anxious to do all he could; but he
was positive that the rains and the strong scent of burnt ashes over soil
would baffle the hounds. Said he: 'I'm used to bloodhounds. I know what I
am talking about. My dogs are useless here.' But he was insistent on our
notifying the police of the nearer towns by wire. He also 'phoned to the
nearest big cities, in case Murky turned up at any of them. We gave a
description of the fellow as best we could, and also charged him with
murder."

"I suppose you mean Grandall," remarked MacLester.

"Certainly! I think, considering what we saw on the balcony especially
when Murky was dragging Grandall back into the burning building, there
can be little doubt but that Murky made an end of him. It was undoubtedly
to his interest to get Grandall out of the way; especially if Murky had a
notion of making off with the plunder himself."

No one disputed this. And so the matter rested. During the day men were
sent off to notify the nearest settlers. In case Murky appeared, they were
to arrest the man or, if unable to do that, to let folks in Staretta know
at once.

Meanwhile Link Fraley, having turned the store over temporarily to his
father, who was the real proprietor after all, and an assistant, spent
most of his time going round with the Auto Boys and Mr. Beckley.

"It's this way," he remarked. "I've been so much with you lads in this
business that I feel somehow as if we were all interested. By the way,
kids, where is that chap Slider? And I don't see your chum Paul round
here."

These remarks were made along in the afternoon, after a busy morning of
investigation involving a good deal of running round generally. For the
first time it suddenly occurred to three of the Auto Boys that one of
their number had not showed up, even at the dinner taken at noon at the
one tavern of the place. Also, where was Chip Slider?

"Gee whiz-z!" Phil wondered that he had not noticed their absence before.
"I remember him and Chip whispering together after we got back. Don't you,
Link?"

Link did and said so emphatically, adding:

"Now come to think, I seen them two moseyin' off down where the Andersons
be."

"By ginger!" This from MacLester. "I bet they're off to help Nels fix up
that old cabin a bit. It sure needs fixing if I'm any judge."

"Tell you what, boys," put in Worth, "suppose we all go down there and
give poor Nels a lift. He's half helpless himself. These Staretta folks
sent them in some things. We'll do our bit while we're waitin' for Mr.
Beckley to get that automobile he thinks he needs."

Now that the Thirty belonging to the boys had been destroyed Beckley, on
reaching Staretta, had sent a man to the nearest town to bring some kind
of motor car, for it was plain to him that if he was to get anywhere with
his faithful assistant Daddy O'Lear, some kind of assistance more to be
depended on than Link's scraggy horse team should be secured.

So while Beckley waited the boys set out for Anderson's cabin. But upon
reaching there no sign of either Paul or Chip was to be seen. Instead
Nels himself sat despondent in the doorway, while inside Mrs. Anderson
and the child were striving in a desultory, hopeless way to arrange the
inside of the unkempt cabin.

"We came down to see if we could help about anything to make you all more
comfortable," said Phil, still looking for Jones and Chip. "We kind a
thought Paul and that Slider boy was down here."

"So they was," remarked Mrs. Anderson, apathetically wiping out a frying
pan, "but they went off soon as they had their grub cooked. And a job it
was, too."

"Just what do you mean, Mrs. Anderson?" put in Billy uneasily.

"They was goin' somewhere, I think. Then--"

"Yah--yah!" This from Nels in the doorway. "They bane had der dinners."

Meanwhile Phil was thinking what Chip had told them that morning. Paul's
absence was now explained. Worth also felt that an astonishing light had
dawned on him somehow. He turned to Way, saying:

"What doughheads we were when Chip was talking so glibly about what he was
going to do! Why, the thing is sheer nonsense!"

"More than that, it is dangerous!" exclaimed Phil. "Suppose them two boys
meet up with Murky way off in the burnt over woods. What'll Murky do to
'em?"

"Don't talk punk, Phil!" Billy was in cold earnest now. "You know what
he'd do or try to do, if he thought they had come after that money.
There's nothing he _wouldn't_ do if he could, that would put them off his
trail and land them--oh, goodness! It makes me cold when I think of Paul."

Here the Anderson girl timidly approached, holding out a scrap of paper.

"He give it me," said the child. "Pap was away and ma was busy."

"Who gave it you?" demanded Phil as Worth took the soiled, folded paper.

"One of you boys. They was leavin'. Ma didn't know," seeing Mrs. Anderson
looking on with astonishment written all over her. "I fergot it 'til now."

"Boys," the pencilled scrawl began. "I'm off with Chip. We got some grub
along, and a pair of blankets. Chip thinks we can follow Murky. I just
got to go along, too. Paul. P.S. Don't worry."

Nels' wife was fishing out a blanket from a scant pile of bedding in one
corner, and held it out, saying:

"He says wrong, sir. They ain't got but one blanket; for Mr. Paul
he--offered us one of the two he had. I wouldn't take it but he piled
it with the things folks brought in. Then they both hurried off."

"Ve nefer see dat blanket," began Nels. "No. He done left it. Mein frau,
she find it v'en day bane gone."

The situation now looked more grave to the boys than ever. Little was
said, however. Even Dave would only commit himself so far as to ejaculate:

"Paul always was a fool!"

But this was said in no animadversive sense. It was wholly sympathetic,
even while Dave might have disapproved. Finding there was nothing more
to be done for Nels they were about to leave when Anderson, who had been
whispering with his wife, suddenly announced:

"I bane go mit you. I know de woods. I lif in de woods. I go mit you!"

"It won't do, Nels," remonstrated Worth. "You ain't fit. You're needed
more here."

"How did you know we were going after Paul and Chip?" asked Phil.

Nels smiled for the first time that day. His wife explained.

"He knew you boys were good and that you loved your chum. Perhaps he felt
that you were sorry for Chip, too. He wants to do his part. But I think
you are right. In his fix he'd better stay with us."

All three boys insisted that Nels' place was with his family. It looked
that way, anyhow. But Nels shook his head rather grimly. Finally he
retired to the doorsteps, neither taking part in further discussion nor
saying much of anything more at all.

After the boys left, however, he bestirred himself. His wife,
understanding him better than others, mutely began preparing more
food. Meanwhile Nels, from some recess in his rough clothing,
resurrected two one-dollar bills. These he forced upon his wife, who
meantime had wrapped up certain provisions and made him take the blanket
left by Paul.

On the way back to town the boys encountered Link Fraley; and he, being
in their confidence, was briefly told all that had occurred. As they
explained the grin on Link's face grew broader, his eyes twinkled and
he seemed vastly tickled at something.

"Well, what you goin' to do?" He asked it as if he already knew.

They told him, and he slapped the boys on the shoulders congratulatingly
as he rejoined:

"Bully for you, boys! Stick to your friends! That's the way to git along
in this world. That little hungry looking cuss Chip--why, somehow I kinder
liked him. Lemme tell you something. I'm goin' 'long, too."

Here Link's smile grew so broad that it nearly met his ears. "I been doin'
some thinkin' of my own. I ain't after money in this. Yet, if we should
happen to git that money back, or he'p 'em git it, I rather guess Mr.
Beckley would do the right thing."

"He would; I feel sure of that." Phil was speaking. "But that isn't
worrying us so much as that Chip and Paul should start out that way
without even letting out a cheep what they was up to."

"We-ell!" Link looked uncommonly wise. "You see, they two had seen that
ugly cuss first. Then ag'in, I think Chip felt sore 'cause Murky beat him
up so. He'd sorter like to git even, I reckon."

"Another thing," put in Phil. "Chip knows that his dead father didn't act
up square 'bout that money either. Grandall put him up to it. But Chip,
I'm thinkin', wants to do the fair thing."

"You say you are going along, too?" asked MacLester. "That is good of you,
Mr. Fraley. We've lost our car and the Longknives have lost their money. I
guess it's right that we should all help to try to get the money back.
As for the car--our bully old Thirty--well, we'll have to get home without
it. But what made Paul and Chip in such a hurry?"

"Chip's knocked about a good deal. He knew that if Murky got out of the
big woods our chance to get him would be small." This from Worth. "By the
time it all got into the hands of the police there'd be more or less costs
and--and expenses. As for Paul Jones, he just couldn't help it, I guess."

"When will you be ready, Link?" queried Phil. "That is, if you are really
going along."

"Ready right now, boys. When will you start?"

"It's now mid-afternoon," remarked Phil. "I propose we get ready and start
at daylight tomorrow. It has rained off and on all day--hullo! Here comes
Mr. Beckley."

Beckley, still followed by his henchman Daddy O'Lear, came hurriedly out
of the only telephone office in Staretta. When he learned what the boys
together with Fraley were up to, he looked dubious. Finally he said:

"Perhaps it is the best way after all. Nothing more can be done here.
Whether we recover the money or not, it is right that you should look
after your chum and--and that Slider boy." Mr. Beckley spoke this last as
if he rather had doubts if Chip were worth looking after. But, with the
Auto Boys on the trail he felt safe as far as the money went, provided
they found Murky, and the spoil Murky would be apt to have with him.



CHAPTER XIV

TRAILING THE STOLEN MONEY


Several miles away from the wagon trail that led from Staretta to the
now destroyed Longknives' clubhouse, two boys were groping along in the
falling twilight in a discouraged manner.

Around them stretched seemingly endless vistas of burned and blackened
forest, stark, leafless, forbidding. Under foot was a sooty, miry quagmire
of rain-soaked soil, naturally low, swampy in places, and now all but
impassable. The rain had subsided into a misty drizzle, soft, fine, yet
penetrating.

"Gee but I'm tired, Chip!" said the younger of the two, lifting with
effort one foot after the other from the deep mud underneath.

"Well, she _is_ gettin' rather bad," replied the other. "Won't be much
moon tonight, I reckon."

"D'you suppose the other boys will start out such a day as this?"

"Dunno; hard to tell. But we've come a right smart ways, Paul, and so far
as I kin see we're gettin' further and further into these big woods."

"But we've never lost old Murky's trail. Have we, now?"

"Nope! Dark as it is, I kin make it out. You know when we started out we
noticed that one of his shoes or boots had a prong on one side of the
heel. Well, here she is--see?"

And Chip Slider pointed to a deep impression made apparently by a big
shoe-nail or some other peculiarity which the lads had noted earlier when
the light was better. Paul grunted a tired assent.

"Where do you reckon we are, anyhow?"

Chip was staring at a high bulge ahead as if some huge rock or boulder
protruded upward from the nearly level ground.

"I dunno. There's something ahead that looks like we might find a shelter.
Come on, Paul."

The two plodded on, one carrying the lone blanket and the other the small
store of eatables that remained after their last inroad upon it. When
they were nearly up to this unusual obstruction there came a sparkle of
light that hit the damp air momentarily, then went out. It seemed to Chip,
who had the keenest eyes of the two, as if it might have been the flare
of a match.

The boys halted at once and stood staring, listening, perplexed and yet
most curious. Finally they heard a snapping of twigs, and then came
another flare and still another. Nothing else could they see for, as Chip
suspected, it was only the reflection of a light that they had seen.
Evidently there must be someone behind that bulge. While they waited
breathless, there came a confirmation of their fears--or rather was it
their hopes?

"Blame me!" growled a heavy voice. "Why in sin won't she get afire?"

With one accord the two boys stood and stared--at each other. Finally Paul
leaned forward, whispering:

"Murky, Murky!"

Chip more composedly nodded; then he too whispered:

"We must slip up behind that thing. It's a rock, I reckon."

Paul said nothing but when Chip started, he did likewise.

"Step keerful," whispered Slider. "Don't let your feet make a noise when
you pull 'em out of the mud."

A low rumble of thunder muttered its way out of the west indicating more
rain. As if to emphasize the menace of this, they heard Murky cursing to
himself. He, too, was aware that further rain and storm boded no good to
himself.

More softly still the boys came gradually up under the shelving sides of a
great rock, that proved to be the termination of a chain of similar rocks
which abutted from a ridge of low hills off to the northeast.

Beyond, on the other side of this last big boulder, they could still hear
Murky--if it was Murky--renewing his attempts to make a fire. Under the
shelving sides the boys had some shelter. But from the brighter glare on
the other side they knew that the tramp had succeeded in starting his
fire. Was he any better protected from the increasing rain than they?

For quite a time the two crouched, blanket over their shoulders, while
the rain pattered harder and harder. Finally a slight shift of wind to
the westward caused the rain to beat in on them more. They were very
uncomfortable, squatting in the wet mould with their backs against the
damp rocks.

"See what I got?" Paul held up something that Chip cautiously felt.

"Where did you get that?" Chip was astonished.

"I knew we had one at the camp. But I thought it was lost. But today I
found it in one of our bags. When we started I managed to slip it into my
pocket. We're only two boys, and Murky is a grown man. Why, you've got
bruises on you now that he gave you--" Paul was showing a pistol.

"Hs-sh!" whispered Chip. "Not so loud. Lemme see that gun!"

"All right," and Paul passed it over. Chip looked at it closely. "I can't
tell yet if the chambers have any cartridges. We might need it."

By the mere feel of the thing they did not make sure, so Paul, before Chip
had time to remonstrate, struck one of his own matches. By this light the
two bent closely, the light flaring out into the night air. At last, as
the match went out Chip declared:

"The chambers are all empty except one, and I can't see--hold on!"

Forgetting his previous caution, Chip himself struck another match.
While they bent again to see if the cartridge was a full one they were
appalled when a deep, rough voice from out the apparent wall of rock
behind struck on their boyish ears like a knell of coming destruction.

They turned, Paul grasping the dubious pistol, while Murky, still wet,
covered with mud and doubly forbidding by reason of this, seized Chip
Slider in one hand and reached for Paul with the other.

Where had Murky come from? How did he suddenly appear apparently out
of what the boys supposed to be a solid wall of rock? But at any rate
there he was with Chip squirming in his grasp while Paul, darting to one
side, barely eluded his left-handed clutch. Altogether it was a ticklish
situation.

But Paul was plucky. In a trice, remembering the one cartridge, he
levelled the pistol and began pulling the trigger.

"Let go that boy!" his almost childish treble rang out. "Leggo, I say!"

Click--click--click went the hammer as he pulled the trigger, at the
same time jumping back further from Murky's gripping hand. Meantime Chip
managed to loose himself. Murky, hearing the empty sound of the striking
hammer, growled:

"Huh-h! She's empty, blame ye--"

Just then--crack! came the sound of the full cartridge; but Paul's aim
being unsteady, the ball just clipped Murky's left ear.

It maddened him more than anything else. With a yell of rage and pain he
sprang at Paul, catching the lad as the latter tried to spring backward,
but stumbling in the mud, while the pistol flew from his hand. By this
time the light of Murky's fire was blotted out by some passing object that
darted swiftly out of the obscurity whence Murky had sprung. At the same
time Chip, now free, leaped pluckily to the assistance of his friend.

But on the instant the unknown object, emitting a Swedish howl of rage,
burst through, striking Murky with an impact that sent him headlong out
into the night. With this collision back came the light that had been
momentarily blotted from view by the last welcome intruder.

When this last stood revealed, big, heavy, yet strangely hampered by
his half useless arms, the two boys were in turn again astonished yet
gratified to behold--Nels Anderson. Accompanying this appearance came
the sounds of rapidly retreating steps as Murky, recognizing defeat,
made himself scarce as fast as he could. The three looked at each other,
grinning the while as they looked.

"Say, Mr. Anderson," began Paul, "it was bully of you to come, and you
still crippled in your arms!"

At a glance both saw that Nels, while active as ever in body and legs,
held his arms loosely, both hanging down at his sides.

"My arms no good," he began, "but I bane all right yet. Coom--ve look fer
dot feller."

He turned, diving through a side passage hitherto hidden from Paul and
Chip, while they, following, emerged into a recess where two gigantic
boulders, leaning together, made the shelter under which Murky had started
the fire that, flaring out into the darkness, had so puzzled the boys
before. Here Murky, becoming aware that someone was beyond him, had crept
up between rocks, listening when the boys arrived, and had sprung upon
them as has been described.

For half a minute Nels stood, glaring at the embers of the fire and around
to see what else might be there. But there was nothing, apparently, beyond
a few scraps of eatables and a remnant of wet tow sacking.

"Coom on!" shouted the big Swede. "We bane get nothin' here!" And he
darted off in the darkness towards where Murky's retreating steps had
last been heard. But nothing resulted except a trio of tired searchers
with deep mud on their legs and a sense that Murky had eluded them again.

"I don't see any signs of money round here," gloomily owned Paul, looking
about the rocky recess where Murky had been quartered but a short while
before. "It is dark as pitch everywhere else. One thing, Chip. I fancy we
got his grub, whatever he had left after eating."

"That's something," owned up Chip. "A feller can't git along much in these
woods unless he has something to fill his belly with."

Anderson, paying little heed to this, was staring into the fire, doubtless
thinking matters over. Chip picked up the tow-bagging, scanned it
closely and turned to Paul standing near. He pointed at a shred of the
bagging that, without being detached from the sack, had somehow caught a
small patch of greenish paper inside its loose clutch. Carefully Chip
picked out this, and handed it to Nels and Paul.

"That looks like a piece of money," quoth Chip. "Ain't it the corner of
a bill of some kind?"

Closer inspection revealed, even to Anderson's thicker brain, that the
paper shred had undoubtedly been part of a bank note of some kind. Being
wet, it was easily torn from the parent bank note in the rough handling
the money had undergone. At least such was the conclusion drawn by all
three after a short inspection. Paul was greatly excited.

"What did I say when Phil found that old suit-case? Murky must 'a' put
the money in something else. It must 'a' been all wet. He must 'a' had
that money here. What did he do with it?"

"I'm goin' to hunt for it right now!" said Chip now all eagerness.

"First we find Murky," interposed Nels. "Vere he be, dere ve find money."

"But Murky didn't have no load on him when he tackled us!" was Chip's
objection.

"I goin' make light," said Nels. "You look roun'. Mebbe fin' money. Mebbe
fin' nothin'. I bane go fin' Murky. Make heem tell. Yah!"

And Anderson, who still had some use of his big hands, picked up a hatchet
left by the fugitive in his haste and clumsily began to split some dry
pine which had long lain under shelter, doubtless left there by former
campers or hunters. For several minutes the boys ferreted their way into
or through the neighboring crevices among the jumble of rocks, even
using part of Anderson's splinters to aid them; but nothing did they find.

"Now we go," said Nels at last. "You boys bane tired mooch?"

The truth was all were pretty tired, but not one would acknowledge the
fact. Nels, used to long fatigues, and crippled besides, made both Paul
and Chip reluctant to own up that they needed sleep more than further
travel.

The upshot of all this was that, in a short time, all were following the
mud trail left by Murky in his flight but a brief spell back. The fire had
been replenished, so as to give them some clue as to where they were,
should they wish to return. Chip bore the torch; Paul carried an armload
of fat splinters; while Nels, plodding between, bent his woods-sharpened
eyes on the tracks that were plain enough yet, for the rain had at last
ceased.

After leading them a sinuous path through the blackened wilderness for
perhaps a mile, the tracks turned sharply to the right and upward along
a more gravelly slant until what seemed the backbone of a wooded ridge was
attained. Here the fire in consuming leaves, fallen branches and most of
the thinner undergrowth, had thus swept from the gravel beneath all the
surface refuse. Probably this was accomplished before the rains began.

In consequence the tracks, growing more and more imperceptible, finally
vanished entirely.

"I bane tired," and Nels sat down, shaking his great head discouragingly.

"Gee whiz!" gurgled Jones. "I almost wish I was back in Staretta in my
little bed 'stead of way out here where I don't even know where I am or
how I'll get out again."

But Chip was made of sterner stuff. Seeing his companions were in the
dumps, he perked up and sniffed the night air expectantly.

"What's the use of gittin' discouraged? Mornin' 'll soon be here. We kin
see that fire yet, can't we? Les' go back and git some sleep."

"No use of dat." This from Nels. "It bane very late now. We git fire here.
Sleep a bit."

But it was concluded not to make a fire, as it might give the man they
were hunting a clue as to where they were. So the three prepared to pass
a comfortless night. Fortunately it did not rain any more and, after a
fashion, they managed to endure the rest of the night. At last, cool and
cheerless, the dawn came, and with the first glimmer the three set out
along the ridge. Nels kept to the summit, while the boys patrolled the
sides, keeping an eye out amid the softer mud and ashes for any sign of
foot tracks.

A mile or more might have been traversed thus when, at a shout from Chip,
the others hastened to him and saw that the boy had detected distinct foot
tracks leading away towards the east.

"Fresh ones too," said Paul, pointing. "And--look there. Criminy! I'm
going to take a look inside that hollow log."

He darted towards a rusty looking tree trunk over which the fire had
swept, leaving naught but the solid wood cylinder of dead beech. Most of
the shrivelled bark, moss and dead leaves were reduced to ashes. These
the rain had made into a moist, blackish gray mush. At the larger end
were plain signs as if some heavy body had crawled inside and perhaps out
again. Nels, more up to woods lore, looked, sniffed, fingered clumsily,
then delivered himself.

"Murkee, he bane sleep here yoost li'l whiles. Git oop soon. He bane gone
a'retty--yuss!"

"Gone--yes!" exclaimed Paul. "But where did he go? How did he get away
so all-fired soon--hey?"

Here another call from Chip solved the question. Not far below the hollow
log began a tiny slough which presently widened out until footprints were
discernible in the mushy tussocks of what had before been a fringe of
marsh-grass. It was Chip who led the way now, and eagerly pointed out
further developments in the hunt.

"Do you reckon this really is Murky we are following?" asked Paul while
Nels, tired, hungry and sleepy as well, dragged along dumbly.

"Pshaw!" exclaimed Chip, who was bent on solving the apparently
unsolvable. "Who else would it be way out here in this wilderness? We
wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Murky: Murky wouldn't be here if his
own work hadn't driven him into it. Let's go on."

And on they went, the trail growing plainer as the slough widened and
deepened. Finally they came to a fallen tree extending from one side of
the slough to the other. The scorched, blackened, rain-soaked top reached
to their side. Half way across the branches ceased and nothing but a slimy
black trunk reached to the other side. Already they were about to pass
this when Chip, who was in the lead, suddenly stopped.

"I don't see no more tracks," said he, seemingly nonplussed.

At once Nels came forward, took one look about, then pointed at a sooty
limb projecting landward from the trunk.

"W'at de matter wid dat?" he exclaimed. "She bane go dat way."

"Sure--you're right!" cried Paul, instantly comprehending. "But how will
you get across, Mr. Anderson?"



CHAPTER XV

MURKY AT BAY


Chip Slider, always willing when there was something to do, caught hold
of the limb that showed signs of recent use and swung himself up into the
top. Paul Jones followed, but Anderson shook his head as he tried to raise
his half useless arms. Without assistance he could not make it. Yet it
was evident that the fugitive Murky must have taken that road.

Meanwhile Chip, landing on the other side after a slippery passage on
the log, saw the tracks leading straight off through the woods as if
Murky well knew what he wanted and where he was going. Paul, in crossing,
noticed midway of the log certain muddy smears as if someone had either
fallen off or had climbed up on the log about midway of the slough. This
did not much impress him at the time. Hastening on to join Chip, the two
then perceived that Nels was still on the other side.

"By cripes! Anderson can't make it, Chip! We ought to have waited and
helped him over. That log's mighty slippery. Looks as if someone had
fallen off already. What had we better do?"

"Say, Paul, this trail leads right back in the direction of them rocks
where we spent last night. What do ye think of that?"

But Paul was now calling to Nels on the other side. He had heard what
Chip said and shouted to the big Swede its import. At this Nels solved
the difficulty in a few words, directing the boys--if they were sure of
this--to follow the new trail while Nels would go back to the head of
the slough and rejoin them somewhere near the foot of the rocky ridge
they had previously traversed.

Still the trail was puzzling. Both lads found not only a fresh trail
leading ridgeward, but signs of an earlier trail, now much rainwashed,
that led towards the slough, not away from it as the fresh trail did.

"Tell you what I believe, Paul," remarked Chip after studying the
situation over. "When Murky first struck out he was trying to get
clear off, probably east somewhere. He must 'a' come this way, tried
to cross the run here and couldn't. He might 'a' fell off that log
where you saw them stains.

"What would he do then? Why, strike for higher ground; git to some place
where he could make a fire. That took him back to where he run against
us. And if it hadn't 'a' been for Nels, I ain't sure but what he'd a got
the best in that mix-up. What do you think?"

What Chip thought was indicated by his pointing finger, for he was ahead,
following the trail, now growing more and more indistinct. Paul came up
and looked at the faint outline of tracks now turning abruptly up the
rocky ridge.

"Murky--if 'twas Murky--is goin' right back where he and us spent last
night. Now what would he be doin' that for? There hain't but one reason
that counts," affirmed Chip. "He's hid out that money somewhere--don't you
reckon?"

All at once the significance of this appealed to both the boys. As with
one accord they eagerly resumed their trail hunt, but it was with such
scant success that Paul finally shook his head in discouragement. Chip,
now on hands and knees, stooping, at times almost crawling, was inclined
to give up too.

"You remember how we lost that trail before on this ridge and only found
it when we separated, taking in the lowland on either side?"

"Yep! That's what we'll have to do now. Wish Nels was here. Wonder where
he is now?" And Paul peered in the direction of the slough.

With one accord both lads waited a few minutes, but seeing no sign of
the vanished Swede, it was agreed that Chip should take one side of the
ridge and Paul the other, and at each mile of progress or thereabouts,
should let each other know. If, meanwhile, one should strike the trail
again he should call or go in search of the other.

Possibly Paul had gone a mile, when a rumbling, heavy voice halted him.
No trail had he found, but--there was Anderson coming, having at last
rounded the head of the slough.

"You find him yet?" meaning the vanished trail. "He bane go dis way?"

"No, we lost it on the ridge like we did before. Chip is looking for it on
the other side of this slope. I hope he has better luck than us."

"Let's res' a leetle, Paul," and Nels slumped heavily down.

At this juncture came a faint call from the other side of the ridge. Paul
jumped up again, saying:

"Come on, Mr. Anderson! That must be Chip. He's found something, for we
agreed to let each other know, whichever came on anything first."

And Paul gave an answering shout, starting up the gentle rise of the rocky
elevation, on top of which both trails had vanished.

"Alright--I bane coomin'," responded Nels as he wearily got up and
tried to keep up with Paul's hasty steps, but soon gave that up. "I bane
tired--all een--das w'at."

Young Slider had felt all along the keenest interest in the recovery of
that stolen money. His dead father's participation therein probably kept
him stimulated by a desire to show his new-found friends, the Auto Boys
that he was worthy to be trusted.

After some futile search he was at length gratified to discover signs of
the vanished trail. It came down from the higher ground where the rocks
and gravel made it indistinguishable. Filled with new courage he followed
on, pleased that it became more plain as the lower ground grew softer
and more mushy. At this juncture he began calling to Paul, and perhaps
it was indiscreet in view of what presently happened.

But Chip was not thinking of himself. Instead, as he gave his last shout
and heard the faint echo of Paul's reply, he only thought that he was
again on the track of Murky. Where was Murky now?

"I hope we'll soon know," he said to himself as he plodded on, on--eyes on
the ground and seeing little of things around him. "I hope Paul hurries.
He'd help a lot--"

"Blame _me!_" A savage growl struck on Chip's ears. "It's that durned
little Slider cuss."

With a curdling chill Chip raised his eyes and was astounded by what
he saw. Having gone farther than he thought, amid his eagerness to get
on and his constant scrutiny of the trail, he saw around him the same
rocks rising to his right that they had approached the night before. And
right under the heavy ledge where he and Paul had been sheltered, prior
to Murky's attack, stood Murky himself, mud-slimed, gaunt, fierce, and
scowlingly savage.

"Ain't I never goin' to git rid of you?" he snapped, drawing menacingly
near. "You'll not dodge me this time!"

With this Murky lurched forward, his claw-like hand reaching forth.
Chip let out a yell of terror. He could not help it. The yell would
come, and it rang far-reaching, striking on Anderson's ear as the Swede,
having recovered, was crossing the ridge's backbone not so very far away.
That yell smote upon Paul not unlike the effect of an unexpected thunder
clap. But Paul recognized the voice. Chip was in trouble. He--Paul--was
not with him. Gripping his courage, he rushed on, rounding a bulge of
rock just in time to see Chip being dragged within that same recess
whence both Murky and Nels had emerged the night before, one to attack,
the other to rescue the two boys.

"Look here!" cried Paul, now more angry than ever, his fear of Murky quite
gone for the time being. "You let that boy alone! Hear me?"

Apparently the tramp did not, for he disappeared through the elbowed
recess still dragging the struggling Chip. Just then Paul stumbled and
was nearly thrown down by hitting a smooth, round rock with his foot.
Recovering, he picked up that rock and darted through the recess after
Murky with his captive. His other hand also found that pistol with which
he had clipped the robber's ear, and which Paul had hung onto, thinking
he might have a use for it. No cartridges were in it of course, but still
it was a weapon.

In one corner of that recess where the fire had been built Murky had young
Slider down and apparently was choking the life out of the lad. Without
a word Paul ran up, heaved the rock and, as luck would have it, struck
the robber fairly right over the head.

A less hard-headed man would have toppled over. But Murky was hard-headed
as well as hard-hearted. He reeled upon his knees and his clutch upon Chip
relaxed sufficiently to enable that thoroughly frightened youngster to
wriggle away on hands and knees while Murky was recovering.

The latter scrambled to his feet, his head smarting. Roaring, he lunged
at Paul, who darted back, his only real weapon gone and wondering what
to do next. More by instinct than anything he levelled the empty pistol at
the robber, shouting at the same time:

"Keep off--keep off! I--I'll shoot--"

But by this time Murky had recovered his poise and his strength as well.
For all he knew Paul might send bullets his way, but that did not now
stop the ruffian. With a savage snort of anger he sprang upon the boy,
wrenched from him the pistol and straightway began to beat Paul over
the head. About this time Murky felt a clinging form jump upon his back,
wind its thin arms and legs around his half reeling frame, as Paul struck
at him with boyish impetuosity, though the blows were futile so far as
doing the man any serious harm.

"Blame ye both!" he exploded. "I'll fix ye--blast ye!"

And fix them both he methodically proceeded to do. Seizing Paul by the
scruff of his neck and twisting Chip somehow under his other arm, he then
tried to bang their heads together. Luckily he did not succeed before
there was a sudden interruption.

For the second time there came in Murky's rear a rumbling roar of anger.
Nels Anderson, just arrived, breathless, exhausted, was yet ready to do
what might be done by a tired man almost without the use of his arms.

At the sound close behind him Murky turned, his savage claws fastened in
the half helpless boys' clothing. Pushing them before him, he rushed upon
the Swede. The impact was too much for Nels.

Back he staggered, his heels tripping, and fell with the two youngsters
on top of his prostrate bulk.

By the time the three got to their feet again Murky had vanished. But they
heard him farther on, and in an instant Chip was off, crying:

"We mustn't lose him! He's back after that money! I just know it!"

Was Chip right? Only quick work might solve that riddle. In a trice Paul
was at Chip's heels while Nels, puffing more than ever, yet still game,
came on after. Arrived at the next turning, they saw Murky dragging at
something in a dark corner or crevice of rock. Seeing his pursuers
coming, Murky rushed blindly at them. Chip managed to dodge but Paul
was overborne and, stumbling back, brought up against Nels, and again a
rough-and-tumble struggle began. Meantime Chip, having dodged, saw what
Murky, down on his knees, had been dragging at when again surprised.
Intuition told him what it might be. Instead of going to the aid of his
companions Chip stooped over, dragged out a wet, soiled package from a
deeper crevice, ran off through another passage that seemed to wind
among a number of converging boulders, and--a moment later returned
empty-handed to where the fight was still going on.

Murky now had the big Swede down and was pummelling him over head and
face with his fists. Anderson was rolling, twisting about, striving
ineffectually to wriggle loose. From behind Paul Jones was doing his
best to drag the robber back. Paul had him by the hair and collar. When
Chip came back, he had managed to hit Paul with one right-handed fist and
the boy was gasping.

All this went through Chip like a flash of lightning out of a clear sky.
Seizing a good sized fragment of rock, he began pounding Murky about the
head.

"Blame ye!" roared the thief. "Will ye quit? I--I'll--"

Further utterance was checked by Murky's turning and flinging himself
full length upon young Slider. Bearing him to the ground, the lad was
soon knocked into unconsciousness by Murky's powerful blows.

"Git outer my way!" he shouted, rising and making a break for the same
place where Chip had seen him stooping not ten minutes before. "Blame me!
I--I'll--where is it? What have ye done with it? Ye will, will ye?"

By this time, blinded by baffled rage, Murky proceeded--as Chip afterwards
expressed it--"to wipe up the earth" with his opponents.



CHAPTER XVI

CONCLUSION


Through the nearer passages under the leaning rocks, approaching footsteps
were heard, hurried steps, that even Murky had to heed. Then came Link
Fraley, followed by Phil, Dave, Billy--the Auto Boys. Behind those was
Mr. Beckley, breathing heavily as if tired by undue haste.

No sooner had Murky seen who they were than he sprang up from the scramble
wherein he, the Swede and Paul were engaged, and made a break for another
passage. But Link, who happened to be nearest, thrust out one long leg.
With another cry of rage Murky went prostrate.

For a few minutes--or was it seconds?--a struggle went on. But Murky's
day of probation was at last over. Actually weeping with anger, Anderson
strove to reach his late opponent. Paul, though somewhat bruised from his
own struggles, also tried to do his bit in securing the scowling man.
But it was not necessary. In another short space of time Murky lay there
helpless. His arms were bound behind his back, his legs and feet also
secured.

One of the first things Mr. Beckley did was to walk up to Anderson and
shake his nerveless hand with great vigor. Then he did the same thing to
Paul, who was also being congratulated by the other boys. Then Beckley
turned to Anderson, saying:

"It was brave and faithful of you, Nels, to start out all by yourself.
But it was you and this--this lad who really rounded up the rascal."

"You forget Chip Slider, Mr. Beckley, don't you?" Paul Jones liked to be
fair, though at times he was too forward. "Chip was along--why, where is
Chip? I'd forgot him for the moment."

Link Fraley and Phil Way were bending over Chip's still prostrate form
where he lay after being so maltreated by the scowling villain who now
lay bound not more than ten feet away.

Attention thus drawn, the entire party devoted themselves to the task of
reviving young Slider, who it appeared was only stunned and bruised by
his treatment at the hands of the robber.

Presently Mr. Beckley again took the lead in questioning. "Of course I--we
feel deeply grateful. The Longknives will do almost anything for those
who were most active in securing this fellow and his ill-gotten booty.
He'll have to face a murder charge too, as there is little doubt but that
he dragged Grandall to his death inside that burning building. And now
that we have the thief and the money--"

"Are you sure we've got the money, sir?" It was MacLester who asked this
for, Scotch-like, Dave was always ready to cast doubt upon most anything
that was not proved before all men. "I don't see any money!"

"Of course we may not see it right now, yet I don't doubt but that you
and Murky know where it is?" This to Nels and Paul, who both looked rather
nonplussed. "Where is it, Nels?"

"I--I--" Anderson was stammering and confused in manner. "I bane not sure
I can tell. That feller, he know." He pointed at Murky who glared evilly
at the crowd in general.

"Ye needn't look for me to tell anything," he snarled. "I got no money!"

"If you had, you'd lie about it," was Beckley's comment that seemed to
meet the general opinion among his captors.

Murky relapsing into sullen silence, Beckley resumed his queries.

"Do you mean that having gotten this scoundrel here," indicating Murky,
"you don't know where his plunder is?"

"Wish I did, sir," said Paul Jones, turning from Chip who was just
beginning to be conscious of outward things.

"And you, too, do not know where the money is?" Beckley turned again to
Anderson, who squirmed rather uneasily.

"Wush I did," the latter muttered. "I bane coom after the boys. Ven I coom
oop wid 'em, dey vass in mix-oop wid heem," pointing at Murky.

"That fellow must 'a' had the money hid out somewhere," said Paul. "We
followed him for miles. Finally we lost the trail, then we came on him
by accident, as it were. He was about to get the best of Chip and me when
in came Nels, here, and Murky disappeared. It was in the night. In the
morning we struck his trail again. But he never seemed to have the money
with him. It is all a mystery to me. Isn't that the way of it, Nels?"

Nels gave a sheepish nod of assent.

"Well, it's something big to have apprehended this fellow. Before we are
through with him I dare say we will know where that stolen money is."

Mr. Beckley spoke with grim purpose which, however, did not belie his
apparent disappointment that the stolen twenty thousand dollars was
not forthcoming, or at least some knowledge gained as to its present
whereabouts.

Here Chip Slider, reclining against Link Fraley, who was still
solicitously supporting the boy's dizzy head, blinked and strove to
raise himself. Clearing his throat, he asked in a shaky voice:

"Is it the money they want to know about?" This, apparently, to Link.

"Why, yes, boy! We've got hands on the thief," meaning Murky. "But what
Mr. Beckley wants to know now, is what's become of the swag, the boodle,
the stuff Murky stole. He won't tell, and you chaps don't seem to know."

"Yes, we do!" replied Chip unexpectedly. Then he sat up unaided.

"What do you mean, my lad?" queried Beckley, a quizzical smile on his face
for he had not fully determined the reason of Chip's being here except in
a casually superfluous way.

"I mean that--" glancing at Paul and Nels, "--that we know where the
money is. At least it looks like the money and Murky seemed mighty anxious
to get his paws on it."

Giving little heed to the wonder in the faces of the Swede and Jones, the
boy tried to get to his feet. "Help me up, please. I'll be all right in a
minute. There! Now if you will all go with me, I'll show you what I mean."

Still supported by Fraley, though Chip was almost himself again, he led
the party to a deep crevice where some dirt had been hastily pawed out.

"Right here I saw Murky on his knees trying to pull out something from
this hole. About that time he saw us again, and the way he went for us
kep' him busy with Nels and Paul. It flashed through me what Murky was
after. I left them fightin'. It was two to one, anyhow. When I got to
this hole I pulled out a wet bundle that I took to be the money. Seemed
like I could see the bills or the corners of them in bundles."

"Yes, yes!" exclaimed Beckley eagerly. "They would be apt to be in
packages. You were right; I feel sure you were right!"

"But where are those bills now? Where is the bundle?" asked Link.

Without a word Chip, unaided, led the group to the nearby recess where
he had hurriedly stowed them. Pointing, he continued:

"That there is what I drug out of yonder hole, sir. I guess it's the
money, or Murky wouldn't 'a' been so anxious about gittin' it."

It was the missing money, of course. Practically intact, too, although
it was wet and in places mud-soaked. The bags of coin were there. One had
a small rip in the seam, doubtless where the coin had escaped that Paul
found near the dilapidated suit-case.

Here Paul's enthusiasm at last broke loose.

"Oh, you Chip!" he cried. "You're the goods, ain't you? That then was the
reason you didn't stop and help us fight Murky!"

"Yah--he had good reesons--heh!" This from Nels, now rejoicing like the
rest. "I bane like you, Cheep; zat I does!"

After that nothing apparently was too good for young Slider. Even Mr.
Beckley, dropping his previous air of good-humored toleration, declared
that Chip deserved real commendation.

"You have showed pluck and perseverance, for you were about to start
after that skunk Murky alone when our young friend Paul Jones joined you.
And Nels, our good old Nels, crippled though he was, came swiftly on
the trail of you both, arriving just when help was needed."

"Yes, Paul," remarked Phil, "our crowd came just in time too; but if it
had not been for you three, I guess we would not have both prisoner and
money in our hands right now."

"That reminds me," interrupted Link, starting off on a run. "Who stayed
behind to watch that devil Murky?"

As with one accord the others, except Mr. Beckley and Chip Slider, started
after Fraley, leaving those two to bring along the money. A moment later
they broke into the passage where Murky had been left, and found that
the wily rascal had already loosed his hands by rubbing the cords that
bound his wrists against a sharp edge of the rocks, and was at work upon
the bindings that held his feet. These were only partially freed. Seeing
his captors approach, he jumped up, made a reckless bolt for freedom, but
fell sprawling on the earth. In a trice the others were upon him and
after a brief struggle had him tied hard and fast again.

"You'll not get away again, old chap," was Billy's comment as he tied the
last knot. "There's a thing called law and justice you've got to face
before you're done with this crowd!"

While Mr. Beckley, with Anderson's aid, and with sundry others looking
on, carefully counted over the wet, draggled, yet still good contents
of the package thus found, there came a rattle of wheels. Presently two
teamsters from Staretta appeared, with word that they had managed to
bring their teams thus far, but the mud and thickening tree trunks might
prevent their going farther.

"Guess you won't have to go farther, my men," spoke up Mr. Beckley. "Can
we get back to Staretta by night--with a prisoner, and also three more
of our friends who came on before?"

"Sure we can! We've broke such road as there is in comin'." The speaker, a
red-faced, burly looking man, was shaking hands with Nels, for he was one
of the old gravel road workers whom the Longknives had never paid as yet.

"Well then," remarked Beckley to whom all deferred as the leader in their
subsequent proceedings, "we will get a move on at once. I am anxious to
reach town where I can telephone. It is lucky that I changed my mind
and did not go on by rail, when I found that these boys were already
after the prisoner yonder," indicating Murky, "and that the other Auto
Boys, with Mr. Fraley, were going at once in pursuit. I may state here
that, though the clubhouse is gone and Grandall along with it, we have
recovered the twenty thousand dollars. If I know the Longknives Club,
they will now be more than willing to pay all claims against them by those
who trusted them. It was long delayed, yet it could not be helped. I
trust to put all things straight before I leave your hospitable little
town."

Needless to state good, clean Staretta beds were occupied by the
Andersons, the Auto Boys, the golfing man, his servant Daddy O'Lear,
and Chip Slider that night. Even Murky, though guarded in the village
lock-up, had a more comfortable place to sleep than he had enjoyed for
some time. Later, under a warrant duly drawn, charging him with murder
and robbery, he was conveyed to the jail at the county seat to await the
grand jury and the court.

Before Mr. Beckley left, and after he had wired particulars of these
recent events to the Longknives Club, he received by wire the hearty
acquiescence from them in the plan already formulated for the disposition
of the stolen and rescued twenty thousand dollars.

First, there was to be medical aid for Nels Anderson, and a restoration of
the money losses he had sustained in the building of that gravelled road.
Also Chip Slider was to be helped and aided for the plucky way he had
acted, especially in removing the money from where Murky, had he come
back in a hurry, would have found it. Next those workmen who had been
employed three years before must receive the money due them.

Lastly a new automobile should be provided without undue delay for the
Auto Boys. It certainly was due them. Had it not been for their bravery
and devotion to duty the tragedy making up the last chapter of the gravel
road's history would have been far, far more terrible.

It was not long until all Mr. Beckley's plans were carried out.
Legally the Longknives Club had never been disbanded and the funds
were unanimously voted as he proposed.

But how about poor Chip Slider?

There is today no more contented boy in Lannington, the home city of the
Auto Boys, than he.

Without loss of time the chums returned home, taking Chip with them.
He's working for Con Cecil in a newspaper office there and going to
night school. All his questioning if peace and plenty might not be found
somewhere, sometime, has been most pleasingly answered.

There was gladness and thanksgiving in the homes of all the boys' families
when the telegrams telling of their escape from the great forest fire
were received. A most happy homecoming it was for all, a day or so later.

Scarcely a week had passed when Henry Beckley and a committee of
Longknives drove up to the green and yellow garage the Auto Boys called
their own, and there delivered a truly splendid new car.

On part of the boys' families and their friends there was much ado about
it all. A dinner by the Lannington Automobile Club, and a great many more
fine speeches than the four chums relished hearing about themselves, was
one such thing.

"And I will venture to say," spoke Mr. Beckley, in the course of his after
dinner address, on this occasion, "that whatever the future has in store
for our friends, they will be found active and alert in time of play, in
time of work or in time of danger."

"The Auto Boys' Big Six," a book wherein the later experiences of the
chums will be reported, should in due time enable you to judge whether Mr.
Beckley was correct.

THE END





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