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´╗┐Title: The Auto Boys' Quest
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' Quest" ***

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                      THE AUTO BOYS' QUEST

                      _By_ JAMES A. BRADEN

AUTHOR OF "THE AUTO BOYS," "THE AUTO BOYS' OUTING," "FAR PAST THE
FRONTIER," "CAPTIVES THREE," "CONNECTICUT BOYS IN THE WESTERN RESERVE,"
ETC.

                 ILLUSTRATED BY ARTHUR DeBEBIAN

    THE SAALFIELD PUBLISHING COMPANY
    CHICAGO, AKRON OHIO, NEW YORK

    Copyright, 1910
    By The Saalfield Publishing Company



[Illustration: Phil held up a yellow envelope, then read: "Know you have
gone. Don't know where. Rushing around crazy."]



CONTENTS


    CHAPTER                                     PAGE

       I  A Plan and a Scheme                      7

      II  A Little Practice in Strategy           23

     III  A Plan that Did not Fail                40

      IV  Safely Away                             53

       V  Camping on a Strange Road               74

      VI  On to the Gold Cup Races                90

     VII  A Night Adventure                      104

    VIII  Plans for the Big Race                 120

      IX  The Crafty Plan of Mr. Gouger          134

       X  Adventure Befalls the Chosen Trio      151

      XI  Mr. Blackbeard, the Giant              168

     XII  Discovered                             184

    XIII  Around the Gold Cup Circuit            203

     XIV  At the Clarion Racing Camp             218

      XV  Secrets of the Woods                   233



THE AUTO BOYS' QUEST



CHAPTER I

A PLAN AND A SCHEME


"And they piled three stones one on top of another to mark the place.
The first was just a big field stone, the second was rough and flat and
the third, which was at the top, was the kind called conglomerate. You
know--all full of pebbles, like coarse gravel pressed into a mass.
Or--or like a fruit cake."

There was a note of earnestness in Billy Worth's voice, as if he felt
his words to be of great importance and desired that his hearers be
impressed accordingly. That his communication did have reference to an
important matter was made most apparent, perhaps, by the response it
elicited, also earnestly spoken:

"And if no one has disturbed them, the chances are the rocks are there
yet," said Phil Way. "I mean that, although the heaving of the ground,
as it froze and thawed winter after winter, would probably throw the
pile down, the three different stones would still be close together for
years upon years."

"And I'll be standing here for years upon years without starting this
engine if you don't give me a spark! Almost breaking myself in two, and
you sit there threshing over that old stone pile again! Did you think I
was working this crank handle just for exercise?" These remarks, both
earnest and emphatic, came from a young gentleman who stood at the front
of a large touring car, the forward seats of which vehicle were occupied
by the two whose words have been earlier noted. "Or did you think I was
trying an experiment in perpetual motion?" he added, with equal sarcasm.

Mr. Billy Worth, at the steering wheel, laughed good-naturedly. "I
solemnly beg your pardon, Mac," he said. "I was thinking of those three
stones. Now you're all right!" So saying, he moved the quadrant to the
point at which there was a spark advanced to set the automobile's engine
chugging when his friend with the crank handle had again given it an
initial motion.

"Was pretty sure Dave would make a discovery if he worked hard enough,"
piped a shrill voice tantalizingly. "I noticed that the spark wasn't on.
Meant to mention it after while, but really didn't like to interrupt the
conversation!"

These remarks, accompanied by a very self-complacent grin, proceeded
from a young gentleman whose half-recumbent position in the tonneau was
possibly more comfortable than dignified. Indeed, comfort rather than
dignity was plainly his preference as no doubt it often is with persons
somewhat less than fifteen years of age.

"Meant to mention it, did you?" came with marked emphasis from the one
addressed as Dave, slamming the tonneau door behind him, as the machine
moved out of its quarters--a tidy green and yellow building nestling
beneath some old elms. "Meant to mention it, eh?" and putting hands
suddenly upon the youthful humorist's shoulders, he shook him pretty
vigorously.

The latter took his punishment with utmost good nature, saying only, "No
fault of mine! If you fellows don't know how to start the car, let me
know and I'll teach you. Gee whiz!"

With all its irony, this speech was allowed to pass unnoticed for now
the automobile glided with a gentle bounce over the sidewalk and out of
the cinder drive of Dr. Way's residence into the street. All four
passengers settled themselves in their seats as if for a rapid ride.
Their car ran beautifully and in scarcely more time than is required to
state the fact its glistening wheels and body, its shining wind shield,
lamps and horn had disappeared at the park gate far down the avenue.

Had you happened to be in that well-known city of the Middle West,
Lannington, on this early day of June in the year 190--, and had you
noticed this particular automobile as, guided by well-trained hands, it
swept with a flourish around the curve and in through the park entrance,
quite possibly you would have wished to make inquiry concerning the car
and its occupants. There was something of quiet distinction about the
latter and about the machine and the way it was handled.

Inquiry from any person interested in boys or motoring or both--and who
is not?--would have been, indeed, entirely natural. Nor would the
veriest stranger have experienced difficulty in obtaining information.
While in no sense were they especially prominent because of wealth,
exalted social position or otherwise, the Auto Boys, as the four were
called, were at least well known.

Introduced briefly and individually they are Phil Way, Billy Worth, Dave
MacLester and Paul Jones. Just what sort of lads they are will become
apparent as the acquaintanceship progresses. At the present moment
attention must be returned to the spot they have so recently
quitted--the little green and yellow building beneath the elms.

A very tidy structure is the small garage the four friends call their
own. It stands at the end of the drive leading out past the blooming
syringas and a great bed of vari-colored peonies to the street. Approach
and entrance from that direction are very convenient. Or entrance by way
of the alley, in the rear, may be accomplished quite as easily. Its
doors, both front and back, are the largest things about the building.
With both opened wide the automobile can be driven directly through. To
back the car out is unnecessary at any time. Driving in from the rear
means simply driving out through the front doors, or vice versa.

The custom of the young proprietors of this model establishment of its
kind with reference to coming and going with the car was well known
among their acquaintances. It was well known, too, that at most times
the alley doors of the garage were kept closed and locked. Just why any
of their friends should remain waiting at that side of the building,
therefore, with them inside and the machine headed toward the street, as
a glance in at the back window would easily show, might well be
considered a trifle mysterious.

Also, just why any friend should apply an ear to the small crack between
the door and the wall of the building proper--stooping down in an
attitude of thoughtful attention upon all that was taking place
inside--might well be made a subject of inquiry.

Nevertheless precisely such a situation had existed to-day. A sharp-eyed
young fellow, not much less than sixteen years of age, had stood for all
of ten minutes in practically the position indicated. Not until the
automobile and its owners had departed did he also leave, walking
hastily down the alley and keeping much closer under the cover of the
high, tight-board fence than would seem entirely necessary.

The young man was too respectable in his general appearance to be
mistaken for a tramp or other type of vagabond loitering about for no
good purpose. Nor had he any of the usual sneak-thief characteristics,
suspicious as his actions were. Only a half-surly, half-defiant
expression about his hawk-like eyes and a scowl above his heavy brows
gave a clue to his thoughts and purposes. It was easy to guess that in
some way he had suffered a disappointment.

At the corner of a residence street upon which the lad presently
emerged, his face lighted up. Smiling, as if he had concluded to think
better of the matter whatever it may have been, he spoke quite aloud,
yet in a low tone: "'And they piled three stones on top of one another
to mark the place. One was a big field stone, another a flat stone and
the third, which was at the top, was conglomerate.'" And then a moment
later, "'Conglomerate! All full of pebbles like coarse gravel!' As if
any man didn't know 'conglomerate'!"

There was something coarse and rasping in the way the boy repeated the
latter phrase of the words he had overheard at the green and yellow
shed. It suggested both maliciousness and mischief. His further language
as he spoke in undertones to no ears but his own was confirmation of
such an opinion. "Plenty of time yet. Guess wherever any old thirty
horse-power motor can go, a forty-five can follow! Confound those little
beasts! I don't see where they can be!"

That the young man's latter remark, even less amiable than it was
complimentary, had reference to someone whom he expected to see, was
made apparent a few minutes later when a heavy car of the roadster type,
too lumbering to be of the best, came suddenly around the corner and
stopped at the curb near him. The machine carried two young fellows of
about his own age.

"Been looking for you everywhere, Pick," said one of the two--he at the
wheel--"You said you'd go out Chestnut. What you doing way down here on
the avenue?"

"Said nothin' of the kind," growled the sharp-eyed one. "I said I'd
meet you right here on Green Avenue. Been looking for you till--"

"You did _not_!" spoke the other of the two in the car. "I know what you
said!"

But by that time the lad called "Pick" had seated himself in the double
rumble, and as the automobile moved forward--"Oh shut up!" he answered
moodily. "I'm sore! Still nothing to it but talk of the three stones.
Anyhow, though, I've got the exact words about them," and with this he
repeated the description of three stones, piled one on top of another,
substantially as he had overheard the same.

"Well, they're going somewhere and they're going to start soon. I've
found out that much, for sure," spoke the chap who drove. He was a
really likable looking fellow, named Perth--Fred, or more often Freddy,
when addressed by his first name.

The lad beside him was "Soapy"--otherwise Harry--Gaines, the somewhat
spoiled son of one of the very few rich men in Lannington. He was of
such uncertain temper, slipping so far beyond the reach of ordinary
mortals and putting on ever and again so vast an air of superiority,
possibly because of the paternal wealth, but with or without cause or
reason, that his nickname seemed well applied. He it was who claimed
ownership of the Roadster.

"Course they're going somewhere! Haven't we known it all along? Didn't
they say themselves they were going, and just as good as tell us we
wasn't wanted, when we told 'em we'd go with 'em? Humph! They've had a
plan rigged up this long while and making such a mystery of it that half
the town wonders what they're up to."

He of the hawk eyes--otherwise "Pick," otherwise Tom Pickton--was the
speaker. The coarse, rasping quality of his voice was the more
pronounced as he put more contempt in it. "Just the same, I'm thinking
they can't go where we can't follow--if we like; eh, Gaines?" It was in
quite a different key, though the voice was still harsh as a file, that
Pickton addressed the owner of the machine.

The latter young gentleman said that with his car he could run circles
around the persons to whom the other made reference. He was of the
opinion that nothing more interesting could be desired, however, than
merely to trail along behind the Auto Boys, (for it was to them that the
conversation referred) and by thus being constantly present, annoy and
harass them in a way that would be a "deuced lot o' fun."

Then, too, if the four chums who had declined the self-extended
invitation that Soapy and his friends accompany them, had in mind the
secret exploring of a mystery, a search for a robbers' cave or some such
thing, which was considered to be their real purpose, they would be
enabled to carry out their plan, at last, only by making terms with the
Chosen Trio.

The Chosen Trio, it will be understood, was the name by which Messrs.
Pickton, Gaines and Perth had elected to style themselves. "Chosen to be
hanged, if anything!" Paul Jones had ungraciously said; but that is
neither here nor there. The three were in no immediate danger of
meeting such a fate, and they _were_ capable of making themselves most
extremely disagreeable, without appearing to trespass beyond their
lawful rights. Where one automobile was allowed, for instance, another
might follow; and the public roads everywhere were built no more for one
individual than for another.

"Well, I was only going to say, if you'll give me the chance, that I
know the four of 'em are going on a trip and what's more I know just
about where," put in Fred Perth, as Soapy concluded. "They've hired Jim
Underhill to attend to a lot of the work they had engaged to do and they
told him he'd have to begin next week sometime. They wouldn't tell Jim
where they were going. Just said, 'Ask me no questions an' I'll tell you
no lies,' when he put it straight at 'em to know what for a trip was
scheduled."

"Next week, eh?" Pickton ejaculated. "_We're_ ready _now_. All we've got
to do is watch their old boat and when they begin to pack up it will be
ditto here. Nothing much to that, eh?"

"Everything's fixed for me to leave any time," said Perth, thinking with
satisfaction how, after much difficulty, he had obtained permission to
accompany Gaines and Pickton on a proposed motoring expedition.

"Huh! I'll just _go_," spoke Soapy in that braggadocio way so common to
his kind.

"Ought to get some new stuff in the touring outfit, I suppose," put in
Pick, as if to himself, but really fearful that at the last moment, due
to Gaines' well-known careless ways, the car would be found without one
item of spare equipment.

"By George! That's right! Run down to the Park Garage, Freddy. We'll
load up some stuff and I'll have 'em put it in dad's next month's bill.
We'll be away by that time."

These instructions from Soapy, always willing to make purchases if they
were to be charged, and the more so if he saw at hand a way to defer
for a time an interview with his father in regard to them, changed the
course of the Roadster away from the residence district of the city to
the business center.

As the car passed the down-town entrance to the park, the machine of the
Auto Boys came up behind and, gliding past, halted before the door of
the automobile establishment toward which the Chosen Trio had journeyed.
The Roadster drew up beside the Thirty.

"So you fellows are going to let daylight into some more mysteries, eh?"
said Pick, in a tone of banter to the occupants of the other machine.

"Are we?" asked Billy Worth, with a smile.

"But you needn't tear yourselves away on that account. We haven't gone
yet," Dave MacLester added as Soapy said, "Drive on!"

Perhaps it was the quiet, unruffled and yet absolutely uncommunicative
tones of the Auto Boys that fired Soapy Gaines' wrath. Like a pouter
pigeon he swelled up. "Aw, sure, drive on!" he said to Perth, still at
the wheel. "And don't you think," he added in a low tone, still pompous
but threatening, too--"And don't you think that we won't make 'em get
right down on their knees to us or wish they'd never left home."

"Or both!" laughed Pickton in that unbearably rasping way.

"Yes, or both," was the response, "and some more on top of that! I'm
going into this thing right, now, just for that low-down answer of
Worth's if nothing else--the little two-by-four!"

"But yet--"

It was Perth who would have spoken, and it was in his mind to say that
he saw nothing particularly objectionable in Billy Worth's words; that
his answer to Pick's observation was natural enough.

"'But yet'? Just you keep your 'but yet' till later on. I'm talking
now!" interrupted Soapy, savagely. "I'm talking now, I say!"

The fact is, indeed, that Mr. Soapy Gaines was quite apt to talk too
much.



CHAPTER II

A LITTLE PRACTICE IN STRATEGY


It was a direct result of Gaines' tongue wagging much more loosely than
reasonable discretion would have counseled, to say nothing of sound
sense, that information concerning the scheming of himself and his
fellow conspirators reached the Auto Boys.

In the first place Soapy made the boast in Knight & Wilder's garage
that, when the Auto Boys set out on the tour, the object of which was
shrouded in such mystery, his own car might not be so far behind but
that somebody would look "about like thirty cents," when somebody
arrived at somebody's very secret destination.

Again, the same afternoon, to a crowd of young fellows gathered for
baseball practice he made such broad hints concerning the Auto Boys and
a mysterious spot marked by stones piled near it, many years ago, that
the dullest of them could not but connect the same with the journey Phil
Way and his friends were known to have in prospect.

It was the most natural thing imaginable that, being very friendly
indeed with Phil, Billy, Paul and Dave, and by no means an ardent
admirer of the Chosen Trio, Ed Wilder improved his earliest opportunity
to tell the former of Soapy Gaines' words and half-jocular,
half-threatening manner. With equal promptitude, also, a half-dozen or
more of the baseball enthusiasts let it be known that, whatever the
well-concealed plans and purposes of the Auto Boys might be, Gaines and
Pickton, and very probably Perth, as well, had obtained information in
regard to them.

Thus did Soapy's exact words, in some instances, and the substance of
them in others, reach the four friends at one time and another before
twenty-four hours had passed.

"Hard to tell whether they think it would be just a joke to follow after
us or whether they intend to be low-down, sneaking mean," said Phil Way,
as the well-nigh inseparable quartette discussed the situation in the
green and yellow garage.

"I don't see that that's the important thing. The main question is, how
did the three of 'em find out so much," was Billy Worth's observation.
"Of course we know that our intention to go on a trip is common
property; but wherever could they have heard about 'three stones to mark
the place'? If they've heard enough that they make hints of that kind,
how much else do they know?"

"Oh, fudge! Pay no attention to 'em, _I_ say. What's the odds whether
they trail after us or don't?" put in Dave MacLester.

"Huh! Plenty enough odds!" ejaculated Paul Jones, forcibly. "If we'd
wanted them tagging along we'd have told 'em when they as good as asked
us. And what's more, if we're going to take them into the plan we might
as well tell it to everybody and forget all about keeping our business
to ourselves. But say! What's the matter with fooling 'em! Let 'em
follow after us and when we've led 'em away off the real track, just
slip away and go where we first intended?"

There was a general murmur of interest and some laughing over the
possibilities Paul's suggestion might develop, but in the end the talk
came back to Phil Way's inquiry--were the Chosen Trio bent on making
serious mischief and of themselves a contemptible nuisance, or did they
think merely that it would be fun to ascertain and expose the object of
the contemplated journey?

"They've been spying on us some time or other or they'd never be able to
drop so many hints about the Three Stones. Then again, though, that's
all they have hinted at, so far as we've heard," said MacLester. "Likely
they don't know about anything else. But if we are going to pay any
attention at all to them, let's do as Jones says. Let's have some fun
out of it."

And so began a series of moves on the checker board of events for both
the Auto Boys and the three Chosen Ones which, and particularly with
regard to the latter, gave all of them something to think about.

A decoy movement was the first put into execution. Its purpose was to
ascertain to what extent Soapy Gaines and his friends were keeping tab
on the going and coming of the Thirty, by which name, it will be
remembered, the car the four chums jointly owned was known.

With a tarpaulin tied over the rack behind, as if it covered a quantity
of baggage, divers boxes--mostly empty--in the tonneau, two extra tires
in their racks and the whole outfit presenting the appearance of being
ready for extended touring, the Auto Boys headed their car into the
street the following morning.

Amid frantic waving of their hands, and by Jones a most ridiculous
pretense of wiping away tears of parting--fairly giggling in his
handkerchief as he did it--the machine was turned directly toward the
Star Lake road. At good speed, yet not too fast--it wouldn't do to
eliminate the certainty of being seen--the Thirty rolled into the
country just as the great clock in the Court House tower rang nine.

Going with what carelessness he could assume, yet stealthily, too,
through the alley at the rear of the Way and other residences on the
south side of Grace Avenue, young Mr. Pickton looked in at the window of
the green and yellow garage as he had done many times before within the
past week. Not at all surprised was he to see the shed empty, but he was
astonished and not a little chagrined to notice that the extra tires
were no longer in the corner reserved for them, and various other
articles of touring paraphernalia customarily stored in plain
view--ropes, lantern, shovel, a large tarpaulin, and so on--were
missing.

"Ginger! They're gone already!" exclaimed the dumbfounded Mr. Pickton,
and took to his heels.

From a corner drug store in an adjacent street he telephoned the news to
Soapy Gaines. The latter, no less surprised than Pickton, vented his
disgust and displeasure by applying to the Auto Boys a comprehensive
variety of names. One would have supposed they had done him some
personal injury; at least that they had been bound by every sort of
moral obligation to have notified Mr. Gaines and his friends of their
intended departure.

Within a half hour Pickton and Freddy Perth were frantically working
over Gaines' Roadster while that young gentleman rushed rather foolishly
and very excitedly about the carriage house in which the machine was
kept. (Mr. Gaines, Sr., had not yet relinquished horses.) Soapy's
principal purpose, indeed, seemed to be that of getting himself in the
way. In any event, he succeeded so well that young Mr. Perth, hastening
to the tank with a heavy can of gasoline, collided with him violently
and both rolled upon the concrete floor, the gasoline gurgling over
them as if it laughed a deep, deep, solemn laugh.

Unlike most young fellows whose privilege it is to use and care for an
automobile, Soapy Gaines little relished the work. Instead of being
constantly afraid his chums would have too much to do with the oiling,
the lights, the fuel supply and the general keeping of the machine in
good trim, as many another young fellow would have been, Gaines was the
opposite--afraid only that they wouldn't.

Not to any motive of generosity was this attitude of his to be credited.
Soapy just didn't like to work and, moreover, had never learned how to
perform even the simplest tasks, whether in connection with the
automobile or otherwise. It was a misfortune real and serious. To a
great extent, however, since such learning had never been required of
him, was he to be pitied rather than blamed.

Notwithstanding their various vexations, for the spilling of the
gasoline was but one of several annoying experiences, the Chosen Trio
were presently spinning down the street at a rate of speed inviting
unpleasant notice should a bluecoat be encountered. They were by no
means equipped for an extended journey. All they hoped to do was
ascertain the road the Auto Boys had taken. With this information in
hand, they would return home and make ready for a long tour. It would be
easy to trace the well-laden touring car once its general route beyond
the city was known.

Perhaps the Auto Boys made a mistake by not slipping away quietly, this
very morning, well ahead of their expected schedule. They could probably
have eluded successful pursuit more easily at this time than later. And
yet it must be remembered, and their own opinion in the matter was that
only by a decoy movement could they assure themselves with regard to the
Trio's real intentions. So all in all Phil and his friends thought they
planned extremely well.

Alighting from the Thirty in the city's outskirts, Billy Worth had
quietly returned by street car to the business district. In the
seclusion of the private office of Knight & Wilder's garage he awaited
developments. Nothing happening at once, he bethought himself of the
telephone, and obtaining ready permission to use it, he called up Ben
Ryder.

Reflecting with no small interest that, as the Ryder home was but across
the street from the Gaines mansion, and Ben being a pretty wide-awake
fellow and likely to be observing, also a good friend, even if he was
going to college next fall, Billy was mightily pleased with himself for
having thought of him. He rejoiced the more, too, when Ben--Mr. Benjamin
Harrison Ryder, left tackle, if you please, sir!--but just good, honest
Ben, for short, answered his summons.

"Yes, the three of them went bowling down the street in Gaines' young
battleship twenty minutes ago," was the answer to Worth's question.
"Don't mention your having inquired? Why, not if you want it that way,
certainly. Might not promise so readily if I saw the thing from the
same angle that makes it look so important to you. Hope you won't take
offense if I say I really don't, though, Billy!"

As this laughing answer terminated the conversation, Worth scoured his
brain for other sources of information. The Park Garage, and the
Automobile Club were called in turn. From the first nothing was learned,
but from the club came the news that Gaines and Pickton had been in the
rooms to look at some road maps, leaving later to overtake Phil Way's
crowd. The latter had driven out on the Star Lake road some time before.
Dr. Malcom told Gaines and Pickton of having met them as he returned
from a country call.

John Lawdon, the snappy young secretary of the club, always eager to be
accommodating, told Billy all this without so much as asking to whom he
was speaking. He had helped Pick and Soapy look over the maps, he said.
Yes, Fred Perth was with them. He had seen all three drive away.

So delighted to have obtained a positive key to the Trio's movements
that he could hardly say "Thank you," without betraying excitement in
his voice, Billy hung up the receiver. Then he waited, but not long was
he kept in suspense.

The telephone rang. Mr. Wilder's stenographer responded. "It is for you,
Mr. Worth,"--with a peculiar little accent on the Mr.

It was Phil Way, calling in from Star Lake as had been agreed he should
do. Promptly and with many a laugh over the success of their ruse, Billy
reported all he had learned.

"Good enough!" exclaimed Phil. "We will run over a lot of cross roads
and finally back to town before noon, giving them a route to trace that
will keep 'em out all day."

"Hurry along! They'll be there soon!" Worth replied, eagerly. "Get a
good start ahead and we'll watch for them as they come back! Let them
see just a smile in the corner of an eye, you know! Better than to give
'em the laugh right out."

Almost to the letter was the plan of the Auto Boys consummated. The
hitch in their program followed the early discovery by Gaines and his
company that they themselves had made a serious mistake or else had been
made the victims of a trick. That one or the other proposition was true
dawned slowly upon them as they painfully traced the car they sought by
the tracks of its wheels, or, where these were lost in the dust, by many
inquiries at farmhouses and of fellow travelers upon the road.

"If it was just a low-down scheme to send us wild-goose chasing, they'll
be hanging around somewhere to gloat, you bet!" Fred Perth suggested, as
it became painfully apparent that the Auto Boys' machine had simply made
an extended series of turns, then returned to town.

"Anyhow, it's all the more reason we've got to upset their old secret
tour," said Gaines, with determination.

Pick was driving. "I'll run her around the suburbs to the South road,
then up to your house through the back streets, Soapy," he proposed.
"They'll be watching for us to come in through town, if this _was_ just
one of their measly tricks."

"Her" being the automobile and being also a well-behaved car, "she" made
no protest of any sort to the longer way home, as Pickton suggested.
Soapy and Perth likewise agreeing, a half circle was made around the
town. It was nearly two o'clock when the Roadster, with the water fairly
boiling out of the radiator, rumbled into the Gaines carriage house.

Perhaps it was because they were not only disgusted with their fruitless
journey, but very hungry as well, that the Chosen Ones unanimously
agreed that, in substance, Messrs. Way, Jones, MacLester and Worth were
a precious lot of rogues who thought themselves extremely smart. And it
is very much to be feared, indeed, that some such feeling with regard to
their mental capacity was entertained by the four friends when a couple
of hours later the two parties of young gentlemen came face to face on
Main Street.

But if there was in the glances of the Auto Boys an exultation which,
strictly speaking, was not at all to their credit, it must be remembered
that they were only human. Only human, and not so trained in the
suppression of the appearance, only, of exulting over a fellow creature,
as older members of the human race sometimes become.

Phil and Billy were on the way to deliver the large route of evening
papers they managed every week day, and Dave and Paul to buy some
supplies for the proposed trip when the opposing parties met.

"Oh, hello!" cried Paul Jones with an expansive grin.

"G'wan, you--" It was Soapy who answered, but the final word, if he
completed his sentence, was lost in the noise of the street. What that
word was is immaterial, perhaps. What it wasn't was made very plain by
his manner and the term was certainly _not_ "young gentleman,"
"cherished friend," or anything of that order.

"Oh, well, they had no business trying to inject themselves into our
affairs," said Billy Worth, sorry to see the bitter feeling of the three
lads.

And there was really broad justification for Worth's remarks. For a
large part of a year--ever since the preceding fall, and it was now
June--the Auto Boys had had in contemplation the journey they were about
to begin.

For reasons they deemed sufficient, their destination and their object
they had revealed only in their families. All comment, all conjecture,
all inquisitive or teasing words from their friends had been
successfully resisted.

The curiosity of their usual associates was only heightened by this
fact, and in time the secret plans of the lads were vested by their
whole acquaintanceship with an importance far out of proper proportion
to their probable consequence. Then came Soapy Gaines and his followers,
Pickton and Perth, with frequent hints of a truly mysterious
nature--"Three stones piled one upon another to mark the place."

What place, and where? And why? And who marked it, and when?

Not only those of an age with the Auto Boys themselves but their elders
as well wondered more and more as ever and again came some reference to
the secret journey.



CHAPTER III

A PLAN THAT DID NOT FAIL


A number of plans for eluding Soapy Gaines and the watchful eyes of his
two bosom friends did the Auto Boys formulate. None of them seemed quite
satisfactory. A scheme to slip away at night was discarded as being too
much like simply running away. Another, which involved the shipping of
all supplies to a nearby town and really making the start from there,
was considered to necessitate too great a loss of time if the goods were
sent by freight and to cost more than the lads felt justified in paying
if forwarded by express.

Thus, as for varying reasons every suggestion offered was at last voted
undesirable, there appeared no other course than to disregard the Trio
entirely. It was in the midst of this extremity that on the Saturday
following the wild-goose chase on which the Roadster had been led,
Pickton again asked Dave MacLester point blank when "Sinbad's next
voyage" was to begin.

"Since you are so good as to inquire, and as it must make a whole lot of
difference to you," answered Davy, firing up under Pick's bantering
tone, "we're going to start Monday afternoon. If there's anything else
you'd like to know, just mention it."

"Say! _Are_ you going to leave Monday?" asked Pickton, doubtingly.

"If it's perfectly convenient to you, we really would like to get away
at that time," MacLester answered witheringly. Then fearing he had said
too much, he added: "Of course we might come back the same day. Such
things have happened."

Pick received this reference to the fruitless chase of a few days
previous with a contemptuous "A-h-w!" Yet he went away pretty well
satisfied that Monday was the chosen day.

A half hour later, Dave related at the green and yellow shed under the
elms all that had been said.

"Don't see what you meant by speaking out that way!" growled Billy
Worth. "They'll just be watching all the closer!"

"Yes, sir! They'll be watching all the more," cried Phil Way, with
sudden enthusiasm, "and I have a scheme that I think will work." Then in
the lowest undertones he told his plan.

In undertones filled with joyous anticipation, also, the suggestion
advanced was elaborated upon. And when the four chums separated, each
knew just what he must do, and there is no doubt whatever that at this
juncture they would not have had Gaines, Pickton and Freddy Perth
abandon their plan of pursuit if but a word would have persuaded them to
do so. No! The prospect of vanquishing them and of leaving them
chagrined and humiliated was quite too delightful to think of the
circumstances being other than just as they were.

Monday came. Phil Way and Paul Jones were out in the car when the work
of the morning had been finished. Billy Worth was occupied with the lawn
mower at his own home and Dave was somewhat similarly engaged in the
MacLester family garden. All of these facts the Chosen Trio had gathered
in good season. Quite satisfied with the situation, they took the
Roadster out for a spin, intent upon the whereabouts of Phil and Paul in
the Thirty.

Keeping a sharp eye on all the automobiles in view, the three youths
presently turned toward the Ravine road, for it was one the Auto Boys
used a great deal. They often went to Tyler Gleason's farm, a short
drive beyond the city. Phil and Paul had gone there this very morning,
in fact.

And what was this? Soapy Gaines burst suddenly into a laugh not unlike a
conqueror's war-whoop and Pickton and Perth joined in his mirth in
scarcely less demonstrative fashion.

The Thirty of the Auto Boys was being "towed in."

Yes, it was true. As the Roadster came close, the Chosen Ones found
their first glimpse of the predicament of the enemy fully verified.
There was George Knight in his big six-cylinder, with Phil Way, glum and
silent, in the seat beside him, while tied by ropes behind they hauled
the four-cylinder car of the Auto Boys. Paul Jones, steering the car in
tow, seemed to be trying to look indifferent--as if he didn't care.

"Give ye a lift?" cried Tom Pickton, slowing up. He was not alone in his
anxiety to know how seriously the Thirty was out of commission.

"No, thank you!" Phil Way answered distantly, as Mr. Knight drove ahead
without pause or comment.

It is interesting to note how quickly the Gaines party discovered that
they were themselves ready to turn toward the city.

This they did, and until town was reached they loafed along a
considerable distance in the rear of the towed machine, yet keeping that
car plainly in view. In the light of subsequent developments, too, it is
interesting to record the zealous watchfulness of the three exultant
young gentlemen as they saw the crippled car hauled into Knight &
Wilder's garage.

Lacking nothing in brazen audacity, Pickton alighted from the Roadster
and, standing in the doorway of the automobile establishment, noted with
evident relish that Mr. Wilder, the mechanical genius of the concern,
looked very sober and puckered his lips up quite despairingly as he
lifted the Thirty's bonnet and seemed carefully to inspect the motor. He
spoke a few words to Phil and Paul, then some men came and pushed the
Auto Boys' machine through the storage rooms into the repair shop.

An expressive and by no means unhappy smile shone on Pick's
countenance--a really disagreeable smile, it was, in those hawk-like
eyes of his,--as he climbed into Gaines' machine. Perth was
driving,--Soapy rarely ever held the wheel himself--and as the car moved
off, all three noticed the evidently disconsolate feelings of Phil and
Paul as the latter two emerged from the garage and started homeward on
foot.

"Guess maybe that don't simplify matters some!" chuckled Freddy Perth.
"Instead of having to watch the whole bunch of 'em, all we need do now
is keep our eyes on their shed at Way's to see when they get the machine
home again."

"Watch the garage, too!" Gaines put in. "They'll run around to try out
some as soon as they get fixed up. Hang it! Why didn't you push right up
and see what the matter was, Pick?"

Young Mr. Pickton, although considerably irritated by this question,
merely said: "Sure! We've got to watch the garage! Wilder wouldn't tell
us anything, though, if we asked him! Knight, either. Remember when I
inquired what was wrong with Crossley's limousine, the day it was run
in there? 'Who wants to know?' Wilder says. 'Well, I do,' I told him.
'Guess it's the referendum,' he said with never even a grin. Humph!
Knight's just about as accommodating as that, too. There's nothing to it
but watch for the old boat when they get it to running again. Perth, you
go down through the alley and peek into Way's shed about supper time."

Freddy said he would and added the suggestion that the Trio could spend
the afternoon at the ball game; that, particularly since their machine
was laid up, Way and his crowd would most likely be there. The proposal
met with general approval.

A great deal relieved to feel that their vigilance might safely be
relaxed for the present were the Chosen Ones as they journeyed to the
ball grounds in good season. Sure enough, there were the Auto
Boys,--Paul and Phil, at least, standing in line for tickets.

"MacLester and Worth are working some place. You can pretty near count
on that. It's their steady system," whispered Pickton, as with Gaines
and Perth he fell into line before the ticket window, then a minute
later joined the rush through the gate.

And "There they go in!" whispered Paul Jones to Phil, his smile, always
expansive, becoming almost alarmingly broad. "They saw us in line and
never noticed us sidestep to the window," he added in triumphant manner.

"They think we went inside all right," Phil answered. "Trouble is we
don't know whether they'll find out we didn't. It's the only drawback to
this scheme. They'll be suspicious if they discover we aren't there.
Only thing for it is quick action."

Already the two boys were walking rapidly down a side street. Turning
the corner they reached the car line a few blocks from the ball park.
From a neighborhood grocer's establishment Phil telephoned instructions
to Billy Worth in waiting at Knight & Wilder's. Then, while Paul boarded
the first city-bound car, he returned to the ball game.

Very careful was Mr. Philip Way to take note before going inside that
Gaines' Roadster was still alongside the curb. Also careful was he to
station himself where he could see all who came and went. In short, he
was so occupied in these and similar matters concerning the whereabouts
of that eminently select party of three, self styled as Chosen, that his
thoughts were a long way from the baseball game now in progress. But
then the game was one-sided and slow; maybe that was the reason Phil
evinced so little interest.

With others of the great throng Way left the grounds when the very lame
exhibition was over. A good many were growling about "a mighty poor
article of ball," and "village hay tossers;" but Phil made no complaint.
The game had served one purpose almost as well as the decisive battle of
a pennant series could have done. He even laughed, though inwardly, as
he overheard Fred Perth say, "Why, there's Way, now!"

As if quite by chance Phil was walking past the Roadster as its owner
and his friends prepared to turn that lumbering vehicle homeward. Even
when Gaines sang out, "Oh, I say! The walking's pretty good!" which
comment was plainly meant for his ears, he made no answer beyond a
deprecating wave of his hand. Not even did he look around--at that time,
but he did assure himself of the direction the Trio took and that their
manner was that of unsuspecting confidence.

Or perhaps Paul Jones' expression, as Phil told all about it afterward,
fits the situation better. "There never was a better case of asleep at
the switch," said Paul. And maybe he was right.

Was it merely a coincidence that the Trio in the Roadster twice passed
Way's home before supper and again just afterward? Once Phil was on the
porch. Once he was loitering near the low, green and yellow garage, now
so empty and bare but for the workbench and tools of many kinds, and the
desk in one corner.

Later, when the long June day was over, when the sun had set and the
good-night twittering of the birds sounded unusually loud and clear as
darkness gathered, Way busied himself inside the shed. The big front
doors were wide open, to admit the air, no doubt. All three electric
lamps in the small building were burning bright.

If Freddy Perth had only known it, in fact, he could have seen from the
street that the automobile was not in the home garage at all and that
Phil was. He might have saved himself the walk through the dusty alley,
and still have made the same report to Gaines and Pickton, the substance
of which was that the Thirty was still at Knight & Wilder's and that its
owners were at their respective homes. At least Way was for he had seen
him.

But if Perth or Pickton or Soapy Gaines, himself, or all three, for that
matter, had chanced to board a certain limited suburban trolley car an
hour later, the same evening, they might have been surprised to discover
that although Phil _had_ been at home he was not at home now. And,
also, if appearances were not altogether deceptive, that he had no
intention of being again at home in the immediate future. For an extra
large suitcase was on the floor before him and a motor coat draped the
back of his seat.

"Round trip?" said the conductor when Phil asked the fare to Littleton.

"No, one way," he answered.

"Forty cents," the conductor said. "Ain't bad for twenty-five miles.
Cheaper'n automobile travel, at that."

"Oh, cheaper, possibly," said Phil Way, "but--"



CHAPTER IV

SAFELY AWAY


"They're going to go soon, if they go at all. Likely would have started
to-day, as MacLester said, if their machine hadn't played out," said Tom
Pickton, when on this Monday evening he and Perth were leaving Gaines at
his home. "We'll watch 'em to-morrow, all right!" declared Mr. Pickton
earnestly.

And now if Pick is as good as his word, if he and his fellow
conspirators are really watching the Auto Boys, as another day comes, it
is an interesting and busy scene that falls upon their gaze.

Phil Way is looking over every part of the Thirty's oiling system. "It's
too bad we had to put the faithful old machine in the humiliating plight
of being towed in, even if there never was a thing the matter with
her," says he.

"And you ought to've seen Phil! Never saw him appear so broken up!
Honest, I just hurt from holding in when the three of them drove by us,
as if they thought they were 'it,' hollering out, 'Give ye a lift?' in
that sarcastic way of Pick's! And when they were 'way past, maybe I
didn't laugh!"

Paul Jones was the speaker, strapping a suitcase to the car's running
board as he talked. Billy Worth and Dave MacLester were occupied in the
rearrangement of a lot of other baggage, the canvas of a tent among the
rest, in the tonneau. The car stood just outside a large frame building
in the rear of the Yorkshire House, the principal hotel of Littleton.

A combined livery stable and garage was this frame structure, if one
judged by appearances, for it housed both horse-drawn vehicles and
automobiles. Of the latter there were three--two runabouts and a light
touring car. The Auto Boys' machine appeared to have been kept here
over night. By their further conversation it was evident, too, that the
young gentlemen themselves had remained over night in the Yorkshire
House, and into that hostelry they repaired a few minutes later for an
exceptionally early breakfast.

"Too early for any earthly use. I don't see no sense in it," the not
fastidiously tidy cook of the establishment stated at least five or six
times to the maid who waited on table; and who, it may be added, quite
agreed with him until she found a nickel tied in the corner of each
napkin after the very early guests had left. As a matter of fact, it was
exactly five o'clock.

And now again, if Mr. Thomas Pickton, still sound asleep in his bed at
home, had been watching the Auto Boys, as he had stated would be
faithfully done to-day, he would have saved himself and friends a rather
humiliating disappointment at a later time. But, as has also been
plainly indicated, Pick, with all his hawk-like eyes, saw nothing of
what was taking place, and as Freddy Perth and Soapy Gaines were not a
whit more wide awake than he at this hour of five A. M., the well-laden
Thirty with its four owners aboard purred merrily westward, farther and
farther from the small town of appropriate name, and farther yet from
Lannington.

"Guess they have to get up in the morning some to get ahead of us,"
observed Mr. Paul Jones, with a sigh of satisfaction. And it would
certainly appear that he was right, though he did rub his eyes
considerably and though his sigh stretched out to the extent of a great
yawn only a few seconds later.

Thus was the _Auto Boys' Quest_ under way at last. Away back at the
great, empty farmhouse where Grandfather Beaman once lived, the first
plans for this trip had been laid. Those of you who have read _The Auto
Boys' Outing_ will recall the circumstances. You will remember the days
of zestful fun and tranquil rest the lads had, following the solution of
the mystery of the strange characters on Grandfather Beaman's wooden
leg, the disclosure of Jonas Tagg's evil designs and the discovery of
the identity of "Little Mystery."

And do you recollect the pleasant evenings on the old front door step?
There it was that the trip to the great Ship woods was first suggested,
and there it was that the solemn agreement, making the whole expedition
a secret, was entered into.

Going back a little farther, it will not be necessary to remind readers
of _The Auto Boys_, the first story of this series, that for purely
business reasons the four friends had made it a practice not to talk
publicly of their joint ventures. Even the "Retreat" in Gleason's
Ravine, was known to few outside the immediate families of the boys.
Just how they had managed, as the "Young American Contract Company," to
acquire their automobile and start the passenger service to Star Lake,
with all the exciting adventures resulting therefrom, was, likewise, a
subject the young men did not publicly discuss, although of course the
main facts had in time become quite commonly known.

One reason the four chums were so successful in confining within the
limits of their respective households and to their very nearest friends
knowledge of their plans and undertakings was that there was nothing of
the braggart in any of them. Phil Way, usually the leader in their
various ventures, whether for purposes of fun or business, was a tall,
slender, brown-haired, clear-eyed and mild-mannered chap. At the time of
the history herein related he is well past fifteen years of age. His
father is a physician, by no means rich, but in very comfortable
circumstances.

Billy Worth, fun-loving and jolly, but an earnest young fellow, too, is
a little younger than Phil and in general appearance quite his opposite,
being short and stout. Yet let none suppose that that stocky frame of
his carries an ounce of anything but bone, muscle and good, red
blood--good, red blood that glows in his cheeks, and helps to place
that alert, snappy expression in his twinkling brown eyes. So much for
William Worth, Junior. William Worth, Senior, it may be stated, is
engaged in machinery manufacturing.

A member of this quartette of friends I am sure you will like is Paul
Jones--slight, slender, audacious. He has been in long trousers less
than a year. He wears his motor cap far back on his head and rakishly
low on one side. His sandy hair, thus quite prominently exposed to view,
is in a more or less tousled condition a greater part of the time. Of a
care-free disposition is young Mr. Jones, however, and the rumpled state
of his hair bothers him not at all. It was brushed this morning, and,
"Goodness, gracious! Can you expect a man's hair always to be just so?"
Why, probably not. Then again, a good deal depends on the "man."

Forgive a great deal to Paul. If he lacks something in general
refinement and polish as compared to the other boys, it is because his
advantages have not equaled theirs. Being an orphan, he has missed much
his friends have received, though Mrs. Wilby, his sister, and John
Wilby, her husband, have given the otherwise homeless lad the best their
limited time and means afford.

Dave MacLester is of still another type. Nearly as tall as Phil, he is
much heavier. He lacks the power of quick perception and quick movements
common to his three friends, but outranks any one of them in strength.
He is a dark-haired chap of Scotch descent and if he is just a little
slow, he is at least sure. His fault, if fault it may be called, is a
certain moodiness of disposition, apt to reveal itself at times in his
hopeless, pessimistic view of things. Maybe it would be more accurate to
describe this characteristic as his misfortune. He is at fault in regard
to it only to the extent that he neglects or fails to strive against his
naturally gloomy or irritated mental condition, and, so eventually grow
entirely away from it.

One interesting fact about all the boys is the bond of union among them.
Petty differences have arisen scores of times, of course; wordy
disputes have occurred less frequently; but for a long, long time the
four have been almost inseparable, both in work and in play, their
unwritten motto being, "the best interests of one are the best interests
of all." Unselfishly every pleasure is shared, and uncomplainingly in
every task and duty each fellow does his share.

The escape from the watchful eyes of Soapy Gaines and his followers with
the car and its load of baggage for this present expedition was brought
about only because each one of the four worked in faithful harmony with
the general plan. What this plan was, has already become apparent.

That the towing in of the Thirty to Knight & Wilder's garage was but a
pretense to throw the Trio off their guard, you have probably guessed
from the beginning. It would be interesting, perhaps, to hear at length
how Billy and Dave rushed the automobile to the home garage upon
receiving word by 'phone that the Gaines party had been lured into the
ball game and forgetfulness, but more important matters are waiting.

Let this part of the history be summed up briefly, then, by recording
only the bare facts that, with the help of Paul, who did not remain at
the baseball park, it will be remembered, Worth and MacLester loaded the
automobile with camp outfit and baggage and were safely beyond the city
all within two hours.

By a circuitous route, avoiding the streets most used for motor traffic,
the three reached the country roads. Here, too, they chose the least
traveled thoroughfares until fully ten miles had been placed between
them and Lannington.

Even by the longer route, Littleton, nearly forty miles distant, might
have been reached before dark; but to attract the least possible notice
they lingered in little frequented roads, and ran quietly into the
Yorkshire House garage and stable just after sundown. So was the car,
laden down with the evidences of an extensive expedition, and well
calculated to attract much notice, housed for the night.

The three boys believed they had been observed by not one person likely
to mention having seen them--at least to anyone from whom, directly or
indirectly, the Trio would obtain intelligence of their movements. They
told Phil as much, and with evident satisfaction, when they met him upon
his arrival by suburban trolley car, later in the evening.--And now
another day had come. The Auto Boys were in the best of spirits as they
left the lately risen sun and Littleton in their rear.

"'Westward the Star of Empire takes its way,'" quoted Billy Worth,
waving his cap zestfully, as the automobile bowled smoothly along,
MacLester at the wheel.

"Takes its Way and also its Worth, and MacLester and Jones," shouted
Paul, with that expansive grin which never failed to bring a smile from
any sort of person disposed to be half-way good-natured.

"Say, Jones, they've hung people out in the Ship woods country for
horse-stealing, and that's hardly a misdemeanor compared to such
downright atrocities as you perpetrate! Goodness! That was bad!"
declared Dave. He always did like to have a fling at Paul. "The best pun
is horrible, but a poor one!--"

"What did you say about the 'breast bone' Mac?" shouted Jones, from the
tonneau, with admirable pretense of having caught but two words and
caught neither of those correctly, as the car whizzed forward. Then,
almost without pause, "Yes, I like the white meat, too!" he sang out.

"White meat? Don't mention it! I'm positively starving," Worth put in,
and in a twinkling the whole conversation changed to the subject of the
noonday lunch and what the car's larder afforded. Paul's hearing
improved very greatly, at once, by the way.

"Why, we have a cheese-box full of cold ham and buns and baked beans and
pickles and a cake and cheese and pie and--" Jones enumerated; then
MacLester, quickly going forward with the inventory, as Paul paused for
breath, added:

"Sardines, bananas, olives and potato chips, and I'll bet half the stuff
will spoil on our hands."

"Risk it!" Phil Way observed in the tone of one who speaks from
experience. And somewhat later when a halt was made for luncheon,
weighty evidence was presented that if any risk whatever existed it was
extremely slight. The very hour appropriated to a noonday purpose was
strong testimony--not yet eleven o'clock. However, breakfast had been
extremely early, it will be remembered.

With a great deal more haste than ceremony, the roadside repast being
finished, dishes and food were packed away again and the automobile sent
once more bounding forward. Nearly fifty miles onward lay the little
town of Sagersgrove and here the Auto Boys expected to receive
information direct from Lannington concerning the movements of Gaines,
Pickton and Perth.

How much or how little those young gentlemen may have discovered by this
time, and what their intentions might be, were matters of marked
interest to the chums who had so cleverly outwitted them. They were more
than pleased with themselves, therefore, that their foresight had
prompted the making of arrangements with Mr. Knight to send a telegram
to Sagersgrove to be received upon reaching there.

That Knight & Wilder shared the secret of the four boys it is almost
needless to say. Even to knowledge of the destination and the real
purpose of the journey the garage proprietors had been taken into
confidence. They were good, reliable friends, to begin with, and as the
location of the Ship woods was remote from sources of automobile
supplies, it might be necessary to send to them for repairs. And as both
men had shown a lively interest in the enterprise now under way, it was
quite certain Mr. Knight would not fail to have news of some kind
awaiting the travelers at the point agreed upon.

Meanwhile the probable and possible discoveries of the Chosen Three and
what their ultimate plans would be were discussed over and over again.
Even if Gaines and his followers should learn the direction the Thirty
had taken--even if they chanced upon the discovery that the party had
spent the night in Littleton--they would still be unable to so much as
guess the direction taken next.

Again, even if the Trio had any knowledge of the great Ship forest they
would have no reason for supposing the four friends to be bent on
reaching that wilderness. All the information the Gaines crowd had, so
far as known, and the thing which so seriously pricked their curiosity,
was that sentence they had somehow overheard, "Three stones piled one on
top of another to mark the place."

"They could connect that and the big woods if they knew where we were
heading for; but by itself the talk of the three stones gives them
nothing to go by," urged Billy Worth. He had put the same thought into
slightly different words at least a half-dozen times before and the
others had done no less. But there was no cause to doubt his reasoning.

"Three stones piled one on top of another" might be used to mark many
and many different sorts of places. They might be in town. They might be
in the country, in pasture or meadow; beside a lake in the valley, or on
the summit of the hills. Again, what reason why they might not be in the
heart of a great forest?

The Ship woods comprised such a forest. Its very name was derived from
the fact that for long years great timbers for ship building purposes
had been cut there. In one part or another of its vast expanse men were
at work the whole year through, sawing, chopping, hewing. A single
"stick" from the forest's depths might measure more than one hundred
feet in length by three feet or more each way, in thickness. Perhaps
four teams of horses would be used to haul such a piece of timber out of
the woods and to the railroad siding where it was loaded for
transportation to the owners' mills, many miles away.

The fact that those who owned the forest did live a long distance from
it, naturally left the vast tract in the hands of only such men as were
employed in cutting the big "sticks." And as the latter were little
interested in anything more than the trees that would do for their
purposes, the woods was for the most part regarded as pretty nearly
public property. That is to say, no one so much as thought of asking
permission to go there, to camp, to hunt, to pick blackberries, or
anything of the kind.

Nor was anyone expected to do so, for that matter. The boss timber man
and the crews which handled the saws, and axes, the heavy chains, the
canthooks and all the paraphernalia of their hard, hard work, asked no
questions of trespassers. They warned hunters against leaving campfires
burning and against dropping lighted matches in the leaves. They would
permit no one to chop into or otherwise injure a tree which might make
"timber" then or later; but in general the occasional stranger who
visited these wilds was as free to come to hunt, to fish, to build a
brush shack or camp, or to gather firewood, herbs or poles or bark--to
do almost as he pleased in short--and as free to go away again, as he
would have been in the unclaimed forest of a new country.

All this information and much more the Auto Boys had gathered. Plans for
their trip had been under way all winter. In imagination they had often
pictured the wild, rugged scenery of the locality. Working and talking
together, they had built for themselves a kind of aircastle on the banks
of the swift, cold and rock-strewn stream skirting the edge of the big
woods, in which, at least figuratively, they lived. They had seen
themselves in their tent, the automobile in a shelter close by, and a
little fire lighted to drive mosquitoes away, many and many an evening
together, while still the snow lay deep and the tinkle and gurgle of
the swift-flowing stream were smothered beneath the ice.

Possibly it is true that in anticipation there is more pleasure than in
realization, yet few people actually believe it. Certainly Phil Way and
his friends did not. They had anticipated a lot of fun in this tour now
under way at last, but one of its merriest features they had not
foreseen at all. This was the keen delight they had in having given
Gaines, Pickton and Perth the slip so nicely. Indeed, their
self-satisfaction over this incident was quite beyond measure, and Dave
MacLester found no support whatever when he advanced a supposition that
the telegram to be picked up in Sagersgrove would say the Chosen Ones
were in pursuit and probably not far behind.

"Anyhow, we'll know all about it in about two and a half flicks of a
bobolink's tail," said Billy Worth, "for if that church spire up over
the trees yonder isn't Sagersgrove, I'm blind."

Fortunately, then, for young Mr. Worth's eyes, the spire rising above
the banks of green a half mile beyond, was that of the Methodist church
of the town he named. In a very brief time it had been reached, also,
and from a very neat and clean old gentleman, who might have been the
preacher himself, although he was mowing the small church lawn, the lads
inquired their way to the telegraph office.

Fortunately, again, it was not at all difficult to find one's way about
in Sagersgrove. The telegraph office was in the wing of the operator's
home, "down the street two blocks, then turn to your left two blocks--a
little brown house, set low to the ground. You'll see the white and blue
sign."

Three minutes later Phil Way emerged from the side door of the identical
house the old gentleman described. He held up to expectant view a yellow
envelope, then opened the same, and, one foot on the running board, read
in a low tone:

     To Phil Way and Party, Sagersgrove.

     Know you have gone. Don't know where. Rushing around crazy.

"Wow!" yelled Paul Jones, with cheery emphasis. Which expression,
although seeming to betray no very great depth of intellect, or to
communicate any very particular intelligence, did appear to express the
feelings of the Auto Boys to a nicety.



CHAPTER V

CAMPING ON A STRANGE ROAD


Jubilant and expressive though it may have been, Paul Jones' "wow," was
very far from being all the Auto Boys had to say concerning the telegram
received. In general they shared Paul's mirthful feelings. With a very
human kind of pleasure they let their minds dwell upon Gaines' sullen
wrath and Pickton's chagrin and disappointment.

The condition of bewilderment and utter discomfiture which would be
natural to Freddy Perth was also easily imagined. In short, it was with
real delight that the boys pictured the Trio confronted by the discovery
that they had been out-generaled; left like a squad of raw recruits
hopelessly drilling around the field, looking for the beginning of the
battle that was all over long ago.

"Oh, I guess maybe they don't find _their_ cake is dough, and they
couldn't eat it if they kept it," chuckled Paul, blithely, but really
somewhat twisted as to the quotations he meant to employ. "But anyhow,
the thing for us to do is keep moving. We're getting too much noticed.
It'll lead to more advertising than we'd really like to have."

This reference to a considerable number of pairs of eyes now
scrutinizing the travel-stained car, its touring and camp equipment and
the owners thereof, caused Billy, now at the wheel, to drive slowly up
the street.

Dave MacLester, who had gone into a livery stable close by to inquire
about the roads to the westward, came out just in time to see the
machine move off. Not guessing Billy's intentions, which were to go only
to the next corner above, as a good place to turn, he dashed frantically
after the car. He sprang aboard and climbed into the tonneau
breathlessly.

"Don't seem to be in any hurry at all!" he ejaculated, witheringly. "Go
straight ahead. Turn at the first corner. It's the best road west. Other
one's all torn up for four miles out, they said."

Billy had put on speed at once, when Dave was safely in, and now he let
the speedometer mark up to twenty-five on a fine stretch of brick
pavement, clear of car tracks and broken by few intersecting streets, a
speedway not to be resisted.

The net result of the flying start and apparent haste was not a little
comment on part of those who had gathered near the car. Even the men in
the livery stable ran out to see and learn what the commotion was all
about and the town marshal sauntered up just a moment later.

Now the marshal of Sagersgrove was a self-important old fellow named
Wellock. His uniform consisted principally of a badge of great size and
a greasy blue coat with brass buttons. He wore old and rusty black
trousers, very baggy at the knees and much frayed around the bottom.

With a solemn and knowing look Marshal Wellock made a few inquiries
concerning the car which had just passed out of sight and its occupants.
Then he made some mysterious entries in a pocket memorandum, the
generally soiled appearance of which was not at all unlike his own.
These movements alone were enough to make a deep impression upon the
crowd which had now collected; but accompanied as they were by Mr.
Wellock's knowing and extremely mysterious air, the whole effect was to
produce in the minds of those gathered near the profound conviction that
the four strange boys were nothing short of bank-robbers in disguise.

Men exchanged looks of deep significance as if saying, "I told you so."
Women nodded their heads to one another in a way that plainly indicated
their certain knowledge of the guilt of the young strangers, whatever
might be the crime laid at their door.

Observing the unlimited notice he was attracting, Marshal Wellock's
importance increased. Preserving still his deeply mysterious air, he
walked on to the telegraph office and went in. What he learned there
apparently did not cause him to change his very good opinion of himself
and of the great power vested in him, for he was more darkly mysterious
than ever as he returned. Indeed, his whole bearing was such as to make
him decidedly red in the face, as he frowned savagely, in keeping with
his idea of the great personage which he himself felt and, he believed,
everyone else must undoubtedly consider him to be. What he thought he
knew about the four boys would have made a long story. What he did know
could have been told in a dozen words and none of them to the lads'
discredit.

Meanwhile the Thirty still sped on westward. The afternoon was waning
and the road was growing bad. Sagersgrove lay far in the rear.

"Don't look to me as if this could be the main route," said Phil Way,
thoughtfully noting the brush-grown fields and the poor character of
the farmhouses and buildings, becoming more and more infrequent as they
progressed.

"Oh, it's the road all right. It'll be better going soon," MacLester
answered; and as the latter himself had obtained the information
respecting the route, Phil said no more.

Mile after mile slipped to the rear, but slowly now, for the road was a
constant succession of deep ruts, miniature mountain chains and great,
half-dried holes of mud. The late June sun was going down. Blackbirds
flew in noisy flocks from one to another of the dense thickets growing
in frequent and extensive patches as far as eye could reach over the low
land at either side of the wretched way.

"Well, if this _is_ the road, we better go where it isn't," muttered
Billy Worth, his arms beginning to feel the effects of driving over the
painfully distressing course.

"Oh, stop your growling!" Dave answered a little savagely. "This road
will be all right when we get to the high ground where the trees are
yonder! And by the Old Harry! Why should you hold me responsible? Never
knew it to fail, anyhow, that whoever it is that half breaks his neck
and nearly gets left behind, to dig up the road statistics for a trip or
any part of one, is from that minute blamed right and left for every
hole that's found and for every stone that's struck."

In which observation young Mr. MacLester was not at all wrong.
Identically the same weakness of human nature crops out in so many
places that none can fail to recognize it. Phil Way saw and felt the
truth of Dave's remarks at once.

"Does look better on ahead. Can't expect good going all the time," he
said. It was a way of his. He had turned aside and prevented storms
which might have grown to serious proportions among the four in just
such manner time upon time.

Nevertheless, the promised improvement did not come with the higher
places to which the rough trail in due time led. Two parallel ruts among
the grass and low underbrush were all that now remained to indicate a
road of any sort. Now, too, a thick woods, without so much as a fence
between, bounded the course on both sides. The sun was lost to view, the
late twilight of a June night was closing in. For nearly two hours not a
human habitation had been seen.

Away to the east stretched the swampy brush-grown country that had
bordered the line of progress for many miles. To the west there appeared
only the scarcely passable path leading deeper and deeper into the
forest, hemming in the course on north and south.

Billy had brought the car to a halt. Unmistakably the Auto Boys were as
nearly lost as one can well be on a public highway--(but there are many
just such)--of a prosperous and wealthy commonwealth.

"Anyhow it makes me think that I always was fond of white meat,"
chirped Paul Jones, trying to put a cheerful countenance upon a truly
depressing situation.

"If you don't mind a suggestion, Jones, I'd say that it's better not to
talk of what you aren't likely to get," put in Phil Way, a little
soberly. "Just some of that ham and bread and butter and beans sounds
good to me. So if Billy will make some coffee we can go into camp pretty
comfortably right here. In the morning we can go back, if we can't do
anything else."

"Gee! I always did like chicken, though!" persisted Jones, as if
Melancholy had marked him for her own, and there was no remedy for his
feelings but the refreshment he mentioned.

"Here, too! If we had a good supper, it would brace us all up," Worth
put in.

"Shucks! We'll _have_ a good supper," remonstrated Phil, impatiently.
"Who'll get some water? Wish I knew where. Come on, Dave! Likely there's
a good, clear creek just over this rise of ground. You make the fire,
Paul."

So Way and MacLester started off with a bucket while Chef Billy set to
work with his provisions. In five minutes Jones had a bright fire
blazing beside an old log, where an open, grassy place offered
comfortable seats upon the ground, then he began unloading such baggage
as would probably be needed. Yet every minute or two he would trot
around to where Worth's supper preparations were in progress, sniffing
the air, and smiling in a most delighted state of anticipation. "And
won't Way be surprised!" he said. "Just listen to me when he comes
back."

At last Phil and Dave did come. They had been obliged to go a long way
to reach the valley and the stream they knew must be there, and it was
now quite dark.

The embers of the fire glowed brightly, offering a truly comfortable
sense of companionship. In the bright glow's midst stood the big coffee
pot which had seen service many times before, also a tightly covered,
black roasting-pan. The two boys put down the bucket, borne between them
on a short pole and Way at once busied himself in opening up a big bale
of bedding.

"All-I-wants-is-my-chicken," half sang, half chanted Paul Jones.

"Oh, forget it!" drawled Phil, impatiently, creating a laugh--perhaps
because it was not often he descended to plain, unvarnished slang.
"You've been talking chicken all day. My! that coffee smells good," he
added, just to take the rough edge off his speech.

"A nice drumstick and a slice or two of white meat. U-m-m!" sighed
Jones, as if he certainly would expire directly if his wish were not
gratified.

An impatient growl from Phil elicited another laugh in which Jones
joined with greatest merriment. Then in another moment--

"Come on, here! Get your festal board ready!" commanded Chef Billy and
directly he drew the black, covered pan from the coals and lifted the
lid. Ah, what savory smell was that! Chicken--roast chicken, and
positively no mistake about it.

"Say!" This ejaculation, his face lighted up bright as the blazing
coals, was all Phil could muster.

"Well, I guess maybe we're no wizards! No, we're no wizards--nothing
like that at all," chirped Paul Jones in his peculiarly happy way. "No!
Don't take a wizard to do these little tricks! Don't think it for a
minute!"

"Where ever _did_ you get that chicken?" demanded Phil, completely
puzzled. "This is what your talking about white meat meant, is it?"

Then they told him how Mrs. Tyler Gleason, whose good friendship they
had won out on the farm the year before, sent the chicken, all nicely
roasted, expressly for the expedition. All four lads had been at the
farm and at the "Retreat" in the ravine on Sunday afternoon and in
confidence told Mr. and Mrs. Gleason of their plan to start their
journey on Monday. The unexpected but very welcome contribution to their
stock of provisions arrived but an hour before the car was loaded. Phil
being so busily engaged in putting the blinders over the eyes of the
too-confident Trio, had not, of course, known of the gift. The others
saved the fowl for supper purposely to surprise him.

"Nothing to do but warm it up, and way off here on the edge of nowhere,
we have as fine a roast chicken as ever came down the pike," quoth Billy
Worth. And although it must be admitted that any roast chicken pursuing
its way upon the pike, or any other roadway, would be nothing short of
extraordinary, the fact remains that Mrs. Gleason's offering was all
that could be desired.

Always master of ceremonies in such matters, Billy did the carving and a
good-sized thimble would have contained all that remained of the roast
fowl, apart from the dismembered skeleton, when supper was over. The
best way to pick a bone really right up to the last shred, inclusive,
never was with knife and fork, anyway.

Ample quantities of coffee, bread and butter and the other good things
the regular store of the cheese-box larder afforded, made the entire
supper so successful that, on the whole, the boys contemplated their
situation with no serious misgivings as they gathered about the
campfire. The croaking of the frogs in the broad expanse of swamp and
marsh land to the east, the profound quiet, and intense darkness in the
woods on either side, the flickering lights and shadows of the blaze
before them, were well calculated to inspire dread and apprehension if
not downright fear; but so used to depending upon themselves--so
self-reliant, therefore, were these four friends that the thought of
being fearful or allowing themselves to be uncomfortable on account of
their lonely surroundings, lost though they practically were, did not
occur to one of them. So much, then, for the worth of a clear conscience
and the habit of self-confidence.

And again, notwithstanding their somber surroundings and the annoying
lack of knowledge as to their precise whereabouts, the four friends were
by no means without equipment to make themselves quite comfortable. Long
winter evening discussions, plans and preparations had not been for
nothing. Even to rubber-covered sleeping bags which, just as an
experiment, perhaps, would have made a pouring rain something to be
invited rather than feared, the camp and touring outfit was complete.
Just for one night it was not worth while to put up the tent or to
unpack a large part of the car's load, but blankets to spread upon the
ground, others for covering, and a tarpaulin for the car, were all
within easy reach.

Drowsiness came early, under the influence of the fire's genial warmth
and in the midst of Paul's voluble discourse on the probable extent of
time lost, due to losing the road, the other boys drew their blankets
over them and with a laugh bade him good-night. There being "nothing
else for P. Jones, Esquire, to do," as he himself expressed it, he, also
"sought the arms of Morpherus Nodinski."

Again quoting the words of "P. Jones, Esquire," it must be "that frogs
sleep all day, for how else can they stay up to holler all night?"
Certainly there was little diminishing of the weird clamor from the
marshes as the night advanced. All else was still as death. Not even an
owl disturbed the forest's dark solitude.

And the Auto Boys slept on. The greater part of the night had passed,
but no glimmer of dawn had yet appeared when there came suddenly like a
wail of dire distress, louder far than the frogs' deep croaking, a long
drawn-out cry--"Help!" And again and yet again, "Help! Help!"

Dave was the first awakened. The second call completely roused him and
he had the whole camp astir in another five seconds. Once more, and
thrice repeated, came the wailing, drawn-out cry.



CHAPTER VI

ON TO THE GOLD CUP RACES


"Yes, sir, they have went. I don't know nothing else about it," spoke
the young fellow employed as general utility man in Knight & Wilder's
garage. His principal work consisted of polishing metal and pumping up
tires, but laboring under an impression that he was an automobile
salesman, he put on very swaggering airs. Just now he affected scarcely
to notice three boys who made inquiry concerning the proposed tour of
Phil Way and his friends.

Mr. Knight, coming up at the moment, told the important young gentleman
in an undertone that his deportment in the establishment was not that of
publicity. Such being the case, he sent the youth to gather up some
tools which a touring party had borrowed and left lying on the curb, as
was certainly very good of them and very honest.

Then Mr. Knight quizzed the three lads, who were none other than Gaines,
Pickton and Perth. It appeared, he said, with a sly smile, that Phil Way
and his party had gone away on a trip. Then he asked them about their
own plans, but they knew his friendliness toward the four chums too well
to divulge a great deal. Still, they could not help showing the chagrin
they felt upon learning that the Auto Boys had really departed the
preceding day.

Seeing their ill-humor in the matter the senior partner of the
establishment made various remarks to the effect that none but the most
active and alert individuals could expect to cope successfully with such
clever chaps as Billy Worth, Phil Way, MacLester and Jones. Indeed, he
was of the opinion, he said, that no one--referring to no person in
particular, of course--but in general, _no one_,--need feel disturbed if
Phil Way and his crowd of fellows did get ahead of him or them; because
Phil and Billy and the others were really exceptionally able men,--in
fact, quite out of the ordinary with regard to intelligence and good
judgment.

The whole effect of Mr. Knight's discourse, as he no doubt intended, was
to make Gaines really sour, Pickton's vanity decidedly ruffled and
Freddy Perth deeply humiliated, sick at heart and ready to admit that he
was no match for such fellows as Way had gathered about him.

"Oh, come on!" growled Pick, at last, and when a half minute later the
three were again in Gaines' Roadster at the curb outside, he slammed in
the clutch so violently that Soapy just escaped being thrown out. To the
Automobile Club, to the Park Garage,--to all places they considered in
the remotest degree likely to afford information of the direction the
Auto Boys had taken, the Trio went.

With furious impatience but still vainly, they hustled from one end of
the city to another. Repeatedly they drove past Dr. Way's residence, as
if to make sure, time after time, that none of the four friends was
about the green and yellow shed. All they could learn was that the chums
had driven away, their car laden as if they meant to go to the Pacific
Coast, at least, the preceding afternoon.

"I _thought_ it was funny that only Way and Jones went to the ball game.
And they did it just for a blind, too!" said Pickton grimly.

"You thought nothing of the kind!" growled Gaines. "Least if you did,
it's a fine time to be telling it!"

"Well, I guess they haven't seen the last of us yet, anyway, eh?" Pick
answered in that way in which he so often knuckled to Soapy's humor,
leading that young gentleman on to do the thing he himself most wished
to do.

"I should rather _guess_ they hadn't," Gaines responded, as if the idea
of pursuit were wholly his own,--"I'll show 'em a trick or two yet."

"The first thing is to find out where they are; at least, which way they
went," put in Perth, quietly.

Gaines turned on him angrily. "What's that got to do with it? You leave
that to me!" he said.

And while it would appear that the information Fred mentioned was, under
all the circumstances, quite essential and really did have quite a great
deal to do with the case, that young gentleman made only a wry face in
answer. Soapy did not see him. Quite possibly Perth did not intend that
he should.

In fruitless running from place to place the three boys spent the day.
Repeatedly were they on the verge of falling out with one another
completely. Only because Pickton bore Gaines' insolence in silence, or
turned it aside by some flattering or cajoling remark, did these two get
on at all in this time of trouble and disappointment,--the sort of time
that really measures friendships and motives.

Perth was content to have little to say, usually accepting the
suggestions and remarks of the others without comment. He drove the car,
for the most part, and as he liked it very much, earnestly hoped the
proposed long trip following after the Auto Boys would not be abandoned.

Wednesday came and the Trio, glum and despondent, talked a great deal,
again came very near to serious quarreling, and achieved nothing. And
now the objects of their chiefest interest and the cause of their
chagrin were two days upon their way. But whither?

"'Three stones piled on top of each other to mark the place,'" mused
Pickton over and over again. "They _think_ they have something great in
sight, but I'll bet they don't know exactly what, any more than we do.
And they think they're so plagued smart! We've just _got_ to take some
of the conceit out of 'em."

"That's what!" Soapy Gaines asserted, but rather dubiously.

"Might as well talk in our sleep, for all the good just talk's doing,"
Perth was moved at last to say with some asperity; and his views would
appear to be not far wrong. However, he was called a pessimist, or some
other word amounting to the same thing, by Pickton, while Soapy insisted
quite violently, "You leave that to me."

The fact that the Auto Boys had disappeared almost as if by magic and at
a time when their machine was supposed to be indefinitely laid up for
repairs, Pickton and Gaines were obliged reluctantly to admit.

That their intention of following after the chums looked more and more
ridiculous as the hours passed, and they had no notion whatever as to
the direction they should take, was something of which they did not care
to be reminded. Yet it is likely that for want of any clue whatever, and
their inability to find one,--for none of the three was particularly
resourceful,--the Chosen Ones would have been forced to abandon their
scheme at last, but for the merest chance by which some valuable
information came to them.

Early on Thursday Freddy Perth sat looking over the morning paper while
Soapy and Pick were starting a fresh discussion of the necessity of
taking some of the conceit out of someone, needless to mention whom. The
three were on the lawn at Perth's home. The Roadster stood at the curb.

     MARSHAL MIRED

     SAGERSGROVE OFFICIAL PULLED OUT OF SWAMP BY YOUTHS HE PURSUED.

The foregoing headlines came to Fred's notice as he tried to read while
still following the conversation of his two friends, thread-bare though
their subject now assuredly was. Half mechanically at first, then with
lively interest he noted the following:

     "Sagersgrove, June--In a light automobile in which they had set out
     to overtake and arrest four youthful tourists from Lannington who
     passed through Sagersgrove yesterday, Marshal Wellock and Eli
     Gouger, the latter a self-appointed detective, plunged over a bank
     into Cowslip marshes west of here last night. Both were buried to
     their necks in mire.

     "The locality is practically a wilderness and the automobile would
     have settled beyond recovery in the swamp but for the merest
     accident of assistance being quickly obtained. The touring party
     the officers were after had encamped on a ridge of high land a
     half-mile beyond and responded to the cries for aid. Wellock and
     Gouger were able to drag themselves out of the marsh and the car of
     the tourists pulled their automobile out when only the seat
     remained above mud. Marshal Wellock was saved the necessity of
     arresting his rescuers for it developed that his suspicion that the
     youths had stolen their car was unfounded. The four strangers had
     themselves taken the marsh road by mistake. They were piloted to
     the State pike by the officers."

Having read this interesting item through twice, the second time very
slowly and thoughtfully, Freddy Perth again listened to the conversation
of Pickton and Gaines. They still discussed the possible whereabouts of
the Auto Boys.

"Seems likely to me that they may have gone west,--away out through
Sagersgrove and beyond," observed young Mr. Perth, after a minute or
two, a self-complacent twinkle in his eye.

"About as likely as a muley cow having horns, eh, Gaines?" Pick
answered.

"Or a--or a dog or anybody else having 'em," Soapy responded, lamely.

"Well, of course I never did know anything about it, and of course you
two _do_ know all about it. Still, when you get through with all this
stuff you've said over and over ever since Tuesday, till honestly I'm
sick of hearing it, just read that!"--and Perth held out the newspaper,
his finger indicating the important item. There was triumph unlimited in
his manner.

"Aw, let's see!" growled Pickton, doubtingly. Perth's self-satisfied
smile irritated him. He took the paper and, Soapy peering over his
shoulder, both read the item through.

"Humph! May be them and it may not," was Pick's comment.

"Don't be a hogshead! It's them all right," Gaines answered brusquely.
"Why, they're two hundred miles away by this time!"

"Yes, sir! And they're headed for the Gold Cup road races at
Queensville," put in Perth, quickly. "That's just where that old State
pike goes. I remember seeing the map!"

Reluctantly Pickton admitted that the tourists mentioned in the
newspaper dispatch must be Phil Way's party. Inwardly he denounced his
luck that he himself had not been first to discover the news.
Reluctantly, too, he admitted that the four chums were apparently headed
for the Gold Cup automobile races,--a series of road contests over a
twenty-six mile course, scheduled for Saturday of the following week.
However,--"Don't see, though, what that mystery of the 'three stones
piled up to mark the place,' that they seem to make so much of, has to
do with races," he persisted.

"Maybe they're going to have a lunch stand at the track. Maybe they
rented space for it by mail and had three stones piled up so's they'd
know their place when they got there. Just like that bunch, figuring to
earn some money!"

This thought, advanced by Soapy, really did that young gentleman credit,
he so rarely had an idea of his own. And although Pick declared as
boldly as he felt prudent, that the three stones he had heard mentioned
so mysteriously had been placed one upon another long years before,
which fact he had also heard stated, the former insisted that his own
notion of the matter was correct.

While in no sense agreeing as to this, Pickton, for reasons of his own,
carried the discussion no further. In his own mind was the thought that
he, at least, would find out if the three stones did not mark some spot
vastly more important than Soapy pictured. Let Gaines and Perth think
what they might, the main thing was to be starting in pursuit.

"If it's us for Sagersgrove and the old State pike west, we can't move
too fast," he said. "We can trail them all right from there, and catch
them by Sunday, I'll bet!"

Gaines and Perth gave prompt acquiescence. The Roadster was run to its
home garage at once, and there followed the trying packing and repacking
of touring equipment which inexperience always encounters.

Preparations for a hurried departure had been going forward, in a
haphazard way, for a long time. The result was an accumulation of much
baggage that was not needed, and the utter absence of several items both
desirable and necessary. Out of such chaos order was brought before
noon, however, and the three lads separated to meet again at one
o'clock.

Their good-bys were said, their car at last lacked nothing which could
well be carried on a machine of its type, and the Chosen Trio headed
toward Sagersgrove promptly at the hour named.

"Now burn up the road," quoth Mr. Soapy Gaines; and Perth, at the
steering wheel, answered, "We'll see the Gold Cup races, anyhow."

"Enough more than races, you take it from me," said young Mr. Pickton,
grimly, still thinking of--what?



CHAPTER VII

A NIGHT ADVENTURE


The cries for help which broke upon the quiet of the night, rousing the
Auto Boys as they slept, they quickly answered. With what result has
been told in the Sagersgrove item appearing in the Lannington morning
paper, the second day following.

Briefly, the circumstances were that, his mind overheated by his large
estimate of his own importance, Marshal Wellock's imagination got the
better of him. True, the four young strangers had appeared to be in a
great hurry. True, one does not often see, even in larger cities than
Sagersgrove, four mere youths enjoying a touring car equipped for
long-distance work. Also the Sagersgrove operator had plainly hinted to
the marshal the telegram the lads received looked decidedly queer. And
to one unacquainted with the facts, it must be admitted, also, that such
an impression was quite natural.

All in all, the bumptious officer, believing he saw a glowing
opportunity to distinguish himself, enlisted one Eli Gouger in his
enterprise, not so much because he desired that gentleman's assistance,
as for the reason that Mr. Gouger was possessed of a motor car. He used
the machine, a light runabout, in his business of ice-cream peddling, on
Sunday afternoons particularly, and on various occasions when not
occupied with another line of activity he pursued, namely, that of
general detective.

In this connection it may as well be stated quite frankly that if Mr.
Gouger had ever succeeded in detecting anything more than some small
boys, whom he once caught filching cherries from his trees, the world at
large had yet to learn of it. But perhaps that was the fault of people
who might have employed him, but didn't. He always had said he never got
half a chance in detective work, though he liked it ever so much better
than the ice-cream business.

Be this as it may, Mr. Gouger, private detective, had eagerly joined
Marshal Wellock in his proposal that they pursue the four mysterious
youths who, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the marshal himself declared,
had stolen the automobile in which they attracted so much attention in
front of the telegraph office.

In some respects the two officials were well matched. Mr. Gouger was
considerably the younger, but his attire had the same appearance of
needing renovating that marked the marshal's outfit. In their
conclusions with regard to the absolute certainty that the young
strangers were automobile thieves, and that probably a reward was
offered somewhere for their arrest, the two were also quite identical.
Even in their private and personal opinions of each other they did not
differ greatly.

Marshal Wellock secretly considered Mr. Gouger to be nothing more than a
would-be private detective, whose gilded badge was worth about five
cents as a novelty--nothing more.

Eli, on the other hand, had long since reached within his own confidence
the certain conviction that the town of Sagersgrove needed nothing so
much as a new marshal; that Mr. Wellock was a conceited old loafer and
nothing more, and that a man of about Eli Gouger's age should be in his
place.

The very fact that, in the recesses of their hearts, the two men had for
each other a minus quantity in the matter of admiration, was to a degree
responsible for the ignominious ending of their enterprise. Each
secretly planning to reap the major portion of the glory, also the
reward they persuaded themselves would follow the capture of the four
desperate car thieves, they chugged painfully over the road the Auto
Boys had taken. Darkness had come before they were fairly started. Now
it was growing very late.

"It's sure as shootin' that they stole the car. They never would have
took such a road, except they was tryin' to sneak along where nobody
would see 'em," observed Mr. Gouger.

The going grew steadily worse. It was past midnight. The little runabout
had been making a slow and trying voyage over the ruts and through the
holes. Perhaps Marshal Wellock was weary. He certainly had become
impatient.

"Can't you get a little more speed out o' this junk wagon? Like ridin'
in a stone-boat," he remarked pretty sharply, after a long silence in
which he had reflected upon the probability that Mr. Gouger was "putting
up some game" on him.

Nettled by these words, and being tired, cross and likewise suspicious
himself, Mr. Gouger decided to shake the marshal into a better humor by
going over a very rough place at the fastest rate the little car could
muster. Possibly he would have succeeded; at any rate Mr. Wellock was
gripping his seat with both hands to hold on, when suddenly, whizz! The
car skidded into a rut, Mr. Gouger for a moment lost control, and in
another instant the little machine leaped over the low bank into a
stagnant pool of thick, dirty water and almost bottomless mud.

"Now see what you done!" gasped Mr. Wellock, sputtering and spitting, as
he succeeded in dragging himself up the bank. He had gone out of his
seat and into the mud and water like a log rolled off a flat car.

"Who in thunder made me do it? Nobody's fault but your own! I knew
'twasn't safe, but by _gum_! you kept squealin' for more speed! Now see
what _you_ done," hotly returned Eli, who had also taken into his mouth
rather more of the stagnant water than he seemed to relish. Head
foremost he had pitched out over the steering wheel as the machine went
down.

What followed when the two had taken inventory and found themselves not
seriously damaged, though in a truly sorry plight, has in substance been
told. Both men were still wet from head to foot and literally covered
with the thick, oozy mud when the Auto Boys reached them.

The first task was to rescue the car. This was accomplished by means of
ropes hitched to the Thirty though the runabout had sunk almost out of
sight. Beside the rekindled campfire on the ridge, a half-mile away, the
two unhappy officers bathed as best they could and dried their clothes.

The dawn of the early summer morning was breaking now, and Billy Worth
bestirred himself to prepare breakfast. The other boys began repacking
the car which had been quickly unloaded, preparatory to answering the
calls for help.

The identity of the lads Mr. Wellock and Mr. Gouger had learned to their
entire satisfaction. Yet it was with mixed feelings of disappointment
and relief that they became convinced of their folly in supposing the
four young men to be thieves and runaways. For it _was_ a disappointment
that for all their trouble they had received nothing but a ducking in a
swamp; and it _was_ something of a relief not to feel compelled to
place under arrest those who had been of such timely service.

So, as they scraped the thickest of the mud from their clothing, the
crestfallen officers agreed to say nothing to the boys to indicate that
the lads themselves were, in fact, the suspected car thieves of whom,
they had already told, they were in pursuit. Unfortunately their
self-importance had caused them to let a large part of Sagersgrove know
the object of their journey as they set out. Their return home, in
consequence, was followed by a very different kind of story in the
newspapers than they had pictured would be the case.

However, that was a matter for the marshal's and the detective's own and
later consideration. For the present, and for a long time afterward, for
that matter, the degree of admiration they confidentially entertained
toward each other was not materially increased. Nevertheless, the two
did have the manliness to bury their mutual feelings of irritation, in
the presence of the young strangers, and to offer in return for all that
had been done for them to direct the boys to a cross road by which they
could soon reach their proper route.

A hasty breakfast being over, the Thirty was again turned back to the
scene of the runabout's accident. The little car had not been greatly
damaged and from this point it slowly led the way eastward. At a still
early hour a road leading off to the right and seeming to terminate in
the very depths of the marshes was reached. With the assurance, however,
that the rough trail was passable and led directly to the State pike,
the Auto Boys ventured upon this course, Mr. Gouger's machine going on
in advance as before.

A struggle of nearly two hours through ruts and holes--one so bad that
the Thirty was practically unloaded before getting through--brought the
promised end. Coming out of a stump-strewn lane, for the cross road was
at this point nothing more, the two machines emerged upon a fine, smooth
road. There was a sigh of relief from five of the six travelers. The
sixth simply shouted and the hearty enthusiasm of his "Hurrah!" was
inspiring. Needless to say, the noisy one was--to use his own usual form
of identification--"Mr. P. Jones, Esquire."

"It was us they were after, all right. I'm satisfied of that," was Billy
Worth's comment when good-bys had been said to the two men. "They
suspected something or other, and I only wish we knew what."

"I hardly believe that," Phil Way protested mildly, but Paul and Dave
sided quite emphatically with Worth.

Perhaps it is immaterial, but the subject was discussed at great length.
And as the Thirty again rolled smoothly forward all but Phil recalled
with unconcealed satisfaction the woeful spectacle the two men presented
when first the light from the automobile lamps, carried to the scene of
rescue, fell upon them.

"Why, honestly, I'm glad Dave did get us onto that awful road. We've had
a real adventure," chirped Jones; but he had to dodge a backhand swing
from MacLester the same moment. To make his peace in that quarter he
added: "Anyhow we didn't lose so much time and I wouldn't have missed
the excitement for a lot."

So, as the speed and the road permitted, the talk ran on and meanwhile
the car was making good progress forward. The map showed nearly two
hundred miles yet to be covered and half the distance must be made
to-day if possible. If the going continued good this would be no
hardship, but the old pike would be left behind before night, and road
conditions beyond were likely to be questionable.

Following the extremely early breakfast, the usual noonday lunch was
looked forward to with no little impatience as the morning advanced.
Phil had suggested that no pause be made until a small river, shown on
the map to be not many miles distant, was reached, and the others
agreed. Nevertheless a wagon, en route to some market with strawberries,
was so much of a temptation that the car was halted and two baskets of
the fine fruit were purchased. The contents of one of these disappeared
in a manner well calculated to make adherents of Fletcherism hold up
their hands in amazement, had any such been near--which assuredly there
were not, or not in the automobile, at least.

The second basket Billy Worth simply put away to be enjoyed with the
regular noon luncheon; nor would all of Paul's and Dave's coaxing soften
his stony-hearted determination. Billy, it will be remembered, was the
cook and general chief of the commissary department. As such he
possessed in a strong degree the trait, peculiar to those offices, of
always being ready to repel too severe a raid upon the larder between
meals and always keen to add some delicacy to the commissary's store.

And maybe Billy's idea was the right one. Certain it is that when the
river bridge was crossed at last and the noon camp was made under some
willows just beyond, nothing could be finer than the deliciously fresh
berries with sugar and cream. Phil brought the latter from a farmhouse
on the hill above and a still larger supply of good, rich milk. With the
fruit, bread and butter, cheese, crackers and the last of the boiled
ham, the repast was ample in both quantity and enjoyment.

"Only wish we had that other quart of strawberries," sighed Paul Jones,
longingly.

"Of course you do, p-i-g! Lucky to have _any_!" Billy reminded him.
"Provisions are going to be a thing to look out for on this trip."

"Well spoken, my boy; well spoken!" responded Paul, with patronizing
air; but Phil put in, "No joke about that. Nothing nearer the Ship woods
than Gilroy and that's six or seven miles away. No telling, either, how
far back in the woods we may be."

"Great Columbus, Phil! Don't talk that way! You'll give Bill nervous
prostration!" exclaimed MacLester, rising and starting to look the car
over. "On the job here, you fellows, if you're going with me!" he added
briskly. For Mac was driving to-day and the responsibility of covering
yet another sixty miles before sundown, and over roads some of which
might be extremely bad, rested on his shoulders.

If "on the job" meant "on the car," as at least seems probable,
instructions were followed with alacrity. Not even pausing to gather up
the evidences of their having stopped for lunch, Billy and Paul hastily
packed away bread and butter and similar supplies, then clambered into
the tonneau. Phil had hurried to the river's edge where he washed dishes
and milk buckets in a shorter space of time than he would ordinarily
have considered proper; but the car was chugging away in waiting and he
jumped up to the seat beside Dave in an exceedingly spry and nimble
manner.

"Go ahead," he said, and the Thirty answered gently, smoothly to the
clutch.

"You left that strawberry basket lying there by the fence and you had
scribbled all over it," said Billy Worth to Paul, a half hour later. He
was thinking of the possibility of the Chosen Trio coming on behind,
perhaps in hot pursuit, yet uncertain of the course, "What did you write
on the box?"

"Why! Say, that's _so_!" was the answer, with a disconcerted grin,
"That's right! I wrote 'P. Jones, Esq.,' for one thing, and 'With kind
regards to Lannington.' I drew a picture or two and--Gee! I thought I'd
toss the basket into the river! Don't s'pose it will hurt, do you,
Bill?"

"Guess not. Of course we aren't billing the country as if we were a
circus, exactly. At least that wasn't what we set out to do."

"Well, what d'ye think of it? I'm frank to say I'm a fine young
chimpanzee," Jones muttered, really blaming himself a great deal.

"Oh, don't gnash your teeth over it! There's just about one chance in a
hundred that Gaines and his crew will ever find which way we came or try
now to follow us," said Billy reassuringly.

Phil and Dave agreed with Worth as the subject was discussed later,
saying there was no probability whatever that Paul's writing would ever
come to the Trio's notice. Even if Gaines' Roadster were to pass the
identical spot, what likelihood was there that any of the party would
notice or give heed to a little, empty strawberry basket?

So did Jones quickly recover his wonted joyousness. Blithely he was
declaring, "Oh, I guess I'm no wizard! No, no wizard at all. No, not at
all!" his customary good opinion of himself quite restored, within a few
hours.

The sun was low. Camp for the night had been made beside a turbulent
little brook where a woodland skirted the highway. Paul had gone to a
dwelling some distance to the rear for milk. He returned bringing not
only the five quart bucket nearly full, but eggs and a basket of
berries, as well. Hence his self-complacency; hence for the third time,
his words accompanied by that contagious grin, so peculiarly his
own--"Oh, I guess I'm no wizard! Nothing like that at all!"



CHAPTER VIII

PLANS FOR THE BIG RACE


Quite likely it was because they were so completely engrossed with the
intended search of the Ship woods--the main item in the plan they had
discussed for many months, that the Auto Boys had thus far given the
Gold Cup races little heed. Casually they had mentioned among themselves
the circumstances that the western boundary of the woods was not many
miles from the scene of the great stock car contests, but that was all.

Beside the campfire they kindled close to the dashing, woodland stream,
however, the subject was suggested by an item in a city newspaper
purchased in one of the small towns on the day's run. The final laying
out of the twenty-six-mile course, it now appeared, had brought one
corner of the irregular circuit to within a few miles of the great
forest. The general headquarters would be in Queensville, only a
half-hour's ride beyond.

"We'll just slip over there of a morning now and then and watch the
practice work," proposed Phil. He brought his open right hand down like
a small pile driver upon his left wrist at the same moment, not by way
of emphasis, but in deadly attack upon a mosquito.

"And go to the races? Sure!" put in Billy Worth, asking and answering
the question all in one breath. "Wonder we never realized how near
Queensville we'd be!"

"Yes, we'll let the race meet upset all our plans and we'll go home with
nothing to show for the whole trip," muttered MacLester, with a
tremendous yawn.

Jones came up with a lot of green weeds, twigs and leaves for the fire
just in time to hear Dave's comment. He dropped the armful on the blaze,
producing a smoky "smudge" as protection from mosquitoes, and sat
himself down cross-legged upon the ground. Then very deliberately--

"David, I really think you better go to bed," he said. "You're tired and
cross. Go to bed, so as to wake up early in the morning and hear the
birds sing," he added soberly.

"Possibly I _am_ somewhat fatigued," was the cutting response, "and
being so, you will kindly pardon me if I don't tear any buttons off
laughing at such a positively brilliant witticism."

Paul grinned his appreciation of this thrust but before he could answer,
Phil Way broke in: "Why, no! The races needn't interfere with our plans
at all. Who knows but what a day or two will end the whole expedition so
far as anything the woods contains is concerned? We wouldn't want to
hike back right away! We're after fun as much as anything, aren't we?"

"And the most fun I can think of right this minute is to get some
sleep," Dave replied. Then with a cushion from the car for a pillow he
stretched out upon his blanket. "Happy day when we get the tent up and
go into camp right, about to-morrow night," he said, as if to himself.

And if there was a note of irritation in his tone it was because he
_was_ very tired. Dave was a trifle gloomy and occasionally the least
bit sour by disposition; but in this instance it must be remembered that
he had been at the wheel of the Thirty all day; also, that the rest of
all the boys had been much disturbed the night before.

"Really believe I am '_somewhat fatigued_,' myself," chirped Paul, a few
minutes later, gay and lively to the very last. For scarcely had he
added: "Gee! This is a _downy_ couch!--Down about a foot too far!" than
he dropped off sound asleep on his blanket spread over the grass.

Billy and Phil were not long in following the example of the other two
and presently the only sound to break the silence was the tinkle of
bells where some sheep were feeding in a pasture across the little
stream.

Tired humanity finds rest and comfort even on the bare ground when more
conventional beds are not obtainable. Yet Dave was right. Another night,
when a permanent camp had been established, might easily show a marked
improvement in the lads' situation. Not but that all four were happy and
contented just as they were! Any one of them would have asserted
emphatically that he was having a fine time. But--confidentially--a nice
dreamy nap on the soft grass beneath some tree on a warm afternoon is
one thing, and sleeping all night on the ground is another. Even the
Auto Boys, in strictest confidence, mind you, would have admitted it.

Time was that, when sleeping out, whether in the open as on this
occasion, or in the hillside hut of Gleason's Ravine, the boys found
themselves subject to a certain degree of nervousness. The distant
shriek of a locomotive whistle on the still night air might cause any or
all of them to start into partial or complete wakefulness, uncertain
whether the sound was not a human voice. The heavy barking of a dog far
away, yet in the silence and the darkness seeming very close, was apt to
produce a similar effect. The certain conviction that the sounds came
nearer, being directed, indeed, straight toward the camp, easily
impressed itself upon high-strung imaginations.

A considerable variety of experience of this character is common to most
camping parties whose members have seldom slept with no roof but the
sky, or none but a bit of canvas, at the most. It would not do to say
they are caused by timidity. But rather they are the result of
surroundings wholly unlike those to which body and mind have been
accustomed.

But there are delights in sleeping out of doors which those who have
never experienced them can scarcely imagine. Even though the couch be
"downy" after the manner Paul Jones described, there are compensations.
Of course there must be sufficient covering to keep one warm, and a roof
of some kind when it rains. With these provided, soft mattresses may
well be dispensed with. The company of the stars, the good, fresh air,
the music of the breeze in the branches above--these and much more will
be bountiful recompense.

Every one of the Auto Boys would have endorsed these remarks and with
enthusiasm, I am sure. Dave may have wished for a bed in an established
camp rather than the one he had on the bare ground. They would all have
voted for that. A pillow, even though made of a blanket-end spread over
fresh pine twigs or clean, freshly gathered grass, beats an automobile
cushion as a head-rest. This no one would deny. And if the established
camp means one thing, and the roadside resting place the other, it is
very well to choose the former.

The degree of comfort is the only question. The delights of out-of-doors
exist as certainly one way as another. Thus, for instance, in either
situation, are the stars, whether they look down in the tranquillity of
a calm, still night, or through broken, storm-tossed clouds, most
excellent and interesting company.

Now the whole purpose of this digression from the story is to make clear
the _reason_ back of the simple statement that the Auto Boys slept
soundly. Notwithstanding their strange surroundings and their lack of a
permanent camp's greater comforts, they passed the night in unbroken
rest. If they awakened at any time it was merely to turn over and fall
asleep again. If in the interim they noted, drowsily, the stars still
bright, the sky still clear and the promise of fine weather to-morrow,
it was merely this and nothing more. The apprehensions that at one time
would have come to them that possibly danger lurked in the deeper
shadows they rarely if ever experienced now.

And let no one suppose it is not something of a trial to desert one's
snug resting place upon the ground in the morning, quite as much as it
is to leave a soft, warm bed indoors. The temptation to indulge in just
one more little snooze of five minutes, ten minutes or whatever time one
thinks he might possibly allow himself, is quite the same. Complete
wakefulness and ambition return more quickly in the open air and
buoyancy of spirit is usually greater--that is all.

With the responsibility of breakfast on his shoulders Billy Worth was
the first astir. The sun was well up and all the woodland was merry with
the songs of birds. Robins piped musically from the old rail fence.
Bobolinks, jays, bluebirds, chattering blackbirds and even crows added
their voices to the odd combinations of melody. In some not distant
pasture a boy was calling loudly as he drove up the cows.

Into the cool, clear brook where the swift current eddied among some
stones, Billy plunged hands and arms elbow deep. He dashed the water
over his face with a half-shiver and ran to the towel left hanging over
night on the steering wheel.

"You fellows going to get up?" he inquired abruptly.

"Yep! Right away!" came the response from Phil, and with a reluctant
sigh he sat up and looked about him. From Dave and Paul came no answer.

"I'm going to get a bucket of water at the creek. I'll be back here in
about a minute, and anybody who's not up is going to get ducked! So
there's fair warning!" announced Mr. Worth. There was a note of
determination in his voice.

Maybe Billy even hoped the two still stretched snugly in their blankets
would fail to take him at his word. He would soon show them whether he
meant what he said or not, he thought. But by the time he reached the
brook Dave rose slowly and stretched himself. Seeing this, young Mr.
Worth lost no time.

Half filling the small bucket, he raced back to camp. The distance was
only a few yards. Two more quick steps and he would have reached the
prostrate Paul; but suddenly as if shot from a gun that young gentleman
leaped to his feet.

"Just saved _yourself_!" laughed Worth, making a move with the bucket as
if he thought a little cold water judiciously applied might be a good
thing anyway.

"Well, you want to remember that I gathered all the stuff for the smudge
last night, and I need my rest," said Jones with a half injured air but
with a sly smile, too.

"Well, that's so! Five minutes' work does quite exhaust some people,"
Billy returned with friendly sarcasm. "If you could possibly wiggle a
little firewood up this way and Phil will get the grub out while Dave
puts the blankets and things away, I'll see if we can't have a light
collation in the shape of breakfast."

Way was already kindling the fire with the remnants of last night's fuel
supply. Paul acted upon instructions with reasonable alacrity and a fine
bed of coals was ready by the time the bacon was in one frying-pan and
several large potatoes, washed, peeled and sliced, were in another.
Coffee and bread and butter completed the menu, and as a fine appetite
is another of the delights of open air living, the call to breakfast
was answered a great deal more promptly than Chef Billy's earlier call
to get up had been.

So was another day begun. So a little later was the Thirty again
measuring off the hard, smooth clay of the road while the bright June
sun and pleasant breezes combined to set off most delightfully every one
of nature's early summer charms.

For mile upon mile the Auto Boys' route was bordered by rich pastures,
waving meadows and the cultivated fields of a fine farming country. The
wheat was coming into head. The oats marked the long, parallel lines of
the drills like millions of tiny soldiers in green uniforms massed
regiment upon regiment. Farmers, their sons and their hired men were
busy with cultivators and with hoes in many a field where the young corn
was starting off vigorously, as if having particularly in mind that
growth expected of every good corn field, "knee high by Fourth of July,"
and meant to establish a new record.

Surely there's nothing to equal motoring as a means of seeing the
country. Not only are the constant change of landscape and constant
succession of new scenes which the railway traveler may enjoy, to be had
in an automobile but more--very much more.

The motorist gains a great deal that the railroad passenger inevitably
misses. For the man on the train the musical clang of the dinner bell as
one passes near some farmhouse, for instance, is lost--swallowed up in
the noise and rush of the locomotive. The sweet scent of the wild crab
apple can never make its presence known in the skurrying currents of air
sweeping constantly aside from and after the wheels of steel. And these
are but samples of countless impressions upon the senses the automobile
tourist experiences, which he who journeys by rail may meet only by rare
chance.

The difference is vast. The Auto Boys discussed the subject with keen
appreciation of their good fortune in owning a machine.

"Why!" said Billy Worth, "it amounts to the same thing as the
difference between pictures and actual life. You can lay eyes on a scene
like that young fellow plowing, over yonder, say, in any art store. You
can see the green of the grass and the brown of the ploughed land. See
the trees and the old rail fence in the background and the team of
horses and the driver. But it doesn't mean anything like as much as when
you can at the same time catch that smell of the ground just turned over
and hear that hired man calling out to his team. Hear him? Hear that
chap yonder, now?"

And through the air, rich with the fragrance of the freshly ploughed
earth came in lusty tones: "Ha-a-a-aw! Haw, there! Molly! You great big
haystack, why don't you ha-a-w?"

Certainly Billy was right.



CHAPTER IX

THE CRAFTY PLAN OF MR. GOUGER


The late afternoon sun shone with a softened light in the valley through
which Wolf creek flowed dark and sluggish from the Ship woods. The
stream itself looked very dark, indeed, where the shadows of the trees
lay on the deeper pools. Where the sunbeams struck the ripples the water
had a brighter, clearer hue and tinkled sweetly, soft and low, for the
current was moderate.

Looking up stream from the low wooden bridge at the public road, one
could see that a sharp, irregular, wooded steep marked the limits of the
valley on the east. The rise of ground began only two score yards
distant from the water and with it began, also, a thick growth of mostly
small trees and brush.

Rough ledges of sandstone and conglomerate rock cropped out of the earth
in many places here, but the strip of land between the stream and the
hillside was cleared of timber and lay quite level. Two parallel paths
through the coarse grass and among the straggling bushes marked a
primitive roadway midway between the slope and the creek. It extended
back through the valley, apparently, to where the woods a quarter of a
mile distant from the highway, stretched down from hill to hill, hiding
the creek and all beyond.

As the sun was going down there rolled along the unfenced public road
skirting for nearly two miles this southern boundary of the Ship woods,
a heavily laden touring car.

"The bridge! The creek! That old trail through the valley--By Jinks,
we're here!" cried a shrill young voice from the car. The machine had
come to a halt where the rough road led back from the highway just
before the bridge was reached.

"Yes, we're _here_ and blessed if I see anything very thrilling about
it!" came another voice, in tones of decidedly less enthusiasm. "At any
rate, though, we _are here_."

Is it necessary to state that Paul Jones was the first speaker and that
Dave MacLester was the second?

"Well, scoot ahead, somebody! See if we can get down the bank and into
that pair of ruts through the grass, yonder, without turning turtle or
blowing out a tire."

This command, briskly delivered, came from Billy Worth who leaned, tired
and dusty, on the steering wheel.

"All O.K.! Come ahead!" shouted Phil Way a second later. "The track down
the bank is here all right, but under the grass. Gently, Bill!"

With a sudden plunge and stiff jerk the car went down the incline
leading from the road and across a broad, shallow ditch. Then slowly it
rolled onto the grass and weed-grown trail leading up to the valley.

Way walked rapidly in advance looking out for pitfalls or possible
causes of danger to tires. "Might as well get the road cleared at once,
fellows," he said, and the hint was sufficient. Paul and Dave jumped
down from the slowly moving machine to lend assistance.

Heavy wagons in summers that were past and the logging sleds of the
timber crews in winter had broken a well-marked road. It was still rough
but odd chunks of wood and the stones found here and there could be and
were thrown to one side.

Paul Jones voiced with considerable earnestness the opinion that he
would rather pilot the car than "heave dornicks" out of the road; but a
subdued chuckle from Billy, lazily driving forward as the course was
announced clear, was all the comfort his observation brought him.

"S'pose we needn't go more than thirty or forty miles back from the
road!" ejaculated MacLester grimly. He was quite out of breath from the
effort of up-ending a heavy pole that had lain across the trail. Also,
as has been noted earlier, he was just the least bit tired and
impatient.

"No farther back than we have to go to find a snug camping place," Phil
responded with extra good humor. For cheerfulness is contagious and does
a great deal more to brighten up another's despondent mood than any sort
of remonstrance against being glum could do. "Maybe that little point
down by the creek is just what we want, now," Way went on gayly. "Hold
up, Bill, till we peek around here some."

The point did offer many advantages, being a low, grassy place, like a
small peninsula, where a water course curved about till it finally
reached the main stream. The creek formed a considerable pool just below
the junction with the water-worn trench; for, while the latter, though
deep, was now nearly dry, it was apparent that in time of rain its
torrents rushed into the larger stream with both force and volume.

"Rather flat and low, but pretty good at that," observed Way, hopefully
surveying the situation. "But maybe we'd better look a little further.
What do you think, Mac?"

"Reckon so," said Dave, and telling Worth to wait, the two went forward
to investigate.

Paul Jones meanwhile had been tracing the deep, narrow bed of the
smaller stream, filled with the idea that its source must be in some
spring. And presently he came running back shouting at the top of his
voice--"Yelling like a wooden Indian," Billy said--"Say! oh, say! Here's
the hunky-doriest place you ever dreamed about! Here's the one spot in
all your natural life, for a fact!"

The rapturous enthusiasm of Jones' tones caused Worth to jump down from
the car and hurry toward him. Dave and Phil, now some distance forward,
also hastened back, and together the quartette climbed the rise of
ground toward the woods. What they found fully accounted for Paul's
delighted manner.

Here on a shelving plateau of conglomerate rock, overgrown with moss and
patches of velvety grass, was a level space several hundred feet in
length and perhaps fifty feet from the abrupt descent at its front to
the rough, irregular wall of natural stonework, rising as high as the
tops of the trees, at the back.

From a wide but shallow cave, in the wall at the rear, there trickled a
beautifully clear and cool spring. For a time the water rested in a
natural basin in the rocks, then overflowed through a tiny channel of
its own making. Deeper and wider this channel grew and so became the
water course, previously described, leading to the creek.

Many small ash, beech and chestnut trees somehow found foothold in the
earthy crevices of the rocks, but of underbrush, fallen timber or
similar obstructions the place was quite clear. Being much higher than
the valley before it, the little plateau caught the last rays of the
sinking sun most charmingly as it also received the welcome visits of
the wandering breezes that passed quite over the lower land.

Of firewood, that most necessary factor in the making of a camp, there
was plenty both below and above the broad shelf. Water of the purest
quality the spring afforded in abundance. For bathing, fishing or such
other accommodations as a good-sized stream could afford, the creek was
but a few hundred feet away.

"Great!" exclaimed Mr. William Worth approvingly. "Simply carniverous!"

By which expression, it will be understood, he meant that the spot under
inspection was extremely satisfactory, rather than exactly what he
called it.

"Never get the car up here!" declared MacLester, looking about
doubtfully. "Never get the car up here in the world!"

"You leave that to me," cried Paul, blusteringly, as if Mac's remark
were a challenge to himself personally. "I've heard of half-backs and
quarter-backs and all that sort of thing, but I'll be blamed, Dave, if
you aren't the champion hold-back of the United States! We'll get the
car up here like rolling off a log!"

And although Paul's expression was possibly as much overdrawn as it was
picturesque, it may be stated at once that a means of running the Thirty
up to the higher level was provided without great difficulty. The
cutting down of a few straggling trees and clearing away of the brush
where the southern edge of the wide ledge sloped off easily toward the
public road, made all that remained quite safe and easy.

The net result was that, ere the shadows grew so deep as to cause a
suspension of operations, the car with all its heavy load stood close
beside the shallow cave and the spring. The campfire blazed cheerily a
few minutes later and the sweet sizzle of frying bacon, always delicious
to a hungry man, filled the pure, wholesome air of the woods.

The Auto Boys were very, very comfortable. Of this fact they assured
themselves over and over again, although at no time was there room for
the slightest doubt in the case. And leaving them in this pleasant
situation, weary but entirely tranquil, restful and luxuriously
content, attention must at this point be returned to Mr. Soapy Gaines,
and the two companions of that very unselfish and highly agreeable young
gentleman.

It was on Thursday afternoon, it will be remembered, that the Chosen
Trio set out from Lannington. Gaines' big and clumsy Roadster was loaded
heavily. Freddy Perth at the wheel, Soapy at his side and Pickton buried
among baggage strapped on and around the rumble seat, they headed toward
Sagersgrove by the most direct route. Without mishap the little town of
Waterloo was reached by dusk and there the night was spent. Pickton had
so adroitly planned matters that Gaines registered at the village hotel
for the entire party. He meant also that Soapy should have entirely to
himself the pleasant task of settling the bill in the morning. But it
was not to be. Very unselfishly that young gentleman ventured the
supposition, when breakfast was over that, as he was furnishing the car
for the trip, his companions would probably be prepared to pay the
traveling expenses.

"Oh, whack 'em up all around," suggested Perth. "Thought that was
understood."

Pickton said nothing.

"Well, by George! I don't pay anybody's but my own!" growled Gaines. "If
anybody thinks I'm soft, they better think again."

This shot was so obviously intended for Pick that he flushed hot and
scarlet. "Sure! Everybody's to pay his own way!" he said. Rather
sheepishly he added, though: "We might have got breakfast cheaper along
the road somewhere."

And the foregoing dialogue but serves to illustrate the feeling that
existed among the three companions. The unity, mutual trust and generous
friendship which characterized all the relations of the Auto Boys with
reference to one another were wholly missing in the Chosen Trio. The
wonder is, indeed, that these three had remained together so long.

True, Soapy wanted someone for company and someone to operate the car
and to take care of it. Pickton had his own selfish end to serve by
making use of Gaines in such ways as he could and Perth--Fred would have
borne a great deal just for the sake of being around the Roadster.

Also, Fred liked both the other two, in a way. It was not his
disposition to find fault or to be over-critical at any time. It did not
so much as occur to him, for instance, that the uncomfortable rumble
seat, hemmed in with baggage, should be occupied by Soapy any part of
the time as the car chugged on noisily but at no mean speed, toward
Sagersgrove.

It lacked still two hours of noon when Eli Gouger, self-constituted
detective in Sagersgrove, beheld the heavy machine of the Chosen Trio
coming down the main street of that peaceful town. He looked again and a
sudden thought smote upon his brain. Then he acted.

Perhaps it should be explained that, following their uncomfortable
experience in pursuit of the Auto Boys through the Cowslip marshes, Mr.
Gouger had even less admiration for Marshal Wellock than he had
entertained before. And now, as he saw the strange automobile
approaching, he realized that it was traveling at a considerably higher
speed than the ordinances of the town permitted. Also he realized that
if Marshal Wellock chanced to see the law's violation by these young
strangers he would pounce upon them instantly.

In no mood was the marshal, of late particularly, to let any motorist
escape if there was the slightest reason for an arrest. The officer had
been made the butt of too much ridicule as a result of that chase that
ended with him head first in the mud to be in a very amiable temper. He
wanted only the excuse and he would clap into jail any strange
automobile user who entered the town.

Well aware of all this, and well aware that he, himself, detective
though he feign would be, was powerless to make an arrest, Mr. Gouger
hastily planned a deep and crafty plan. He would win for himself a
degree of glory which should make Marshal Wellock appear, in contrast,
a most negligent and inefficient officer, to say the least.

Frantically waving his arms, Mr. Gouger rushed into the street as the
strange car and its three passengers drew near. Pickton brought the
machine to a halt.

"You chaps will get arrested if ye don't watch out!" declared Mr.
Gouger, vehemently, a little irritated by Gaines' instant and by no
means polite inquiry, "What's hurting _you_?"

"Fact is, you've been speeding half way through town. I own a machine,
myself, an' I know. Maybe there's a warrant out for ye now," he
continued rapidly.

Pickton's jaw fell and Gaines felt a giving way inside as if his upper
and lower halves had suddenly parted company at the waist line.

"Guess--guess--we'd better not stop to talk about it then," said Freddy
Perth, brokenly, but with a sadly forced grin.

"Tell ye what, slip 'round here with me. Drive up slow. I'll get ye into
my barn an' a little later ye can slip out o' town," Mr. Gouger
suggested. There was a gleam in his eye, however, and a sort of internal
chuckle in his tones that would have been a warning had any of the Trio
noticed them.

"Well, blame it all! Show us _where_," growled Pickton, noticeably
bolder now. "Lead on!"--This with solemn, dramatic air that would have
been ridiculous had it not been so tragic.

Mr. Gouger wasted time in very few more words. Through an alley he
escorted the Trio, still in the car, to the yard at the rear of his own
modest, frame dwelling in a side street close by. Asking the lads to
leave their car partially screened from view beneath the low-branching
cherry trees, he invited them into a small, tightly-boarded cowstable.

"Stay in here a spell. I'll be back," grinned the would-be detective,
and suddenly stepping out he closed the door and locked it by means of a
large padlock attached to a chain. "Ye can consider yourselves under
arrest _right now_," sang out Mr. Gouger, then, in tones of triumph,
"I'll have the constable here right off an' ye can go before the 'squire
an' pay up. Don't be speedin' next time till ye know there's no
_detectives_ around."

The astonishment of Messrs. Gaines, Pickton and Perth may be more easily
imagined than successfully described. They did not suspect the purpose
and the reason for the imposition that had been practiced upon them, nor
did they realize that their captor had no authority to make an arrest
himself. He had taken this means of detaining them until he could summon
a constable, apparently, because he did not care to undertake the arrest
alone. Having no knowledge of Mr. Gouger's lack of admiration for
Marshal Wellock, of course, the lads ascribed the motives of that very
able disciple of Mr. Pinkerton entirely to a desire to share in the fine
to be imposed upon them.

These general conclusions the three boys reached in an extremely short
space of time. What should they do? The day was warm and the
tightly-closed stable was like an oven. In the cherry trees and along
the hedge, bordered by bachelor buttons, at the opposite side of Mr.
Gouger's back yard, the robins were twittering joyously. But their
lively notes awakened no responsive feeling in the hearts of the
imprisoned Trio.

Remotely possible is it, however, that, unnoticed though their music
was, the songsters exerted an influence upon the thoughts of Soapy
Gaines; or it may have been only a coincidence. At any rate, his spoken
words were--

"I'll be blamed, Pick, if you ain't a bird! Followed that duffer into
this trap like a pup trailing a meat wagon. Blame me, if you ain't a
real _bird_!"

Mr. Gaines' tones, it may be stated, were even less complimentary than
his language.



CHAPTER X

ADVENTURE BEFALLS THE CHOSEN TRIO


The stable's one window, composed of two small panes of extremely dirty
glass, admitted to the young gentlemen within a dingy light. The shed
was empty, save for the dirt and litter everywhere; but not one crack or
crevice could be seen to suggest a loose board and possible means of
escape. Clambering up to the little window, however, Freddy Perth
discovered that it was hooked inside and he lost no time in admitting
the air and sunlight.

"Can wriggle through here, all right, if we want to do it!" he exclaimed
in loud undertones.

"Get along then, quick!" ordered Pickton. "S'pose we're going to stay
here and get fined? You right after me, Soapy!"

Ordinarily Pick would have shown Gaines a very noticeable deference in
allowing him to go first; but this was a different situation. He even
resented Fred's being ahead of himself, and fumed irritably while that
young fellow was slowly struggling through the narrow opening.

With no ledge or projection of any kind on the outer wall to steady him,
Perth could only slip one foot and then the other through the window,
let his body follow and drop to the ground. He struck in the midst of a
wet and sticky heap of decaying weeds, garbage, tin cans, ashes and
broken crockery but fortunately, upon his feet.

More frightened than ever, now, he viewed impatiently Pickton's painful
efforts to force himself out of the stable by the same route, and his
eventual success.

"For pity's sake, Gaines, don't be all day!" admonished Pick fretfully,
when finally he had reached the ground in safety. "Let go, now! You're
all right! Hangin' on there like a crazy pinchin' bug!"

Thus pleasantly encouraged, Soapy had by this time his head and body
through the aperture, and was moved, yet loath, to let go his desperate
grasp upon the edges of the window's frame. Stupidly he had not advanced
feet first and in consequence there was but one chance in a thousand of
his being able to alight upon those extremities when he let himself
down. However the urgency of the situation as well as his friend's
caustic remarks determined him to make the effort and with a subdued
groan he pitched forward.

It was only as might be expected, under the circumstances, that when
Gaines sought to leap clear of the window and get his feet in under him,
he failed--failed wretchedly. His head plunged into a large, and sadly
decomposed pumpkin, carried out to the heap of refuse when Mrs. Gouger
had cleaned the cellar recently. His hands grasped only the wet,
decaying weeds and, unable to steady himself, he rolled on his back amid
the cans, the ashes and all that the rank heap contained.

If there was consolation for young Mr. Gaines in the fact that the
pumpkin had broken the force of his fall, he expressed it in a weird and
peculiar manner, as he struggled out. If he found reason to congratulate
himself that, beyond a mixture of pumpkin pulp and seeds upon his face
and in his hair, and sundry sorts of decomposed vegetation clinging to
his hands and arms and clothing, he was not injured, he did this,
likewise, in strangely excited, irritated language.

Perhaps he was thinking of other things than either consolation or
congratulations. Nevertheless he let Perth lead him quickly to the car,
half-blinded with the juices of the pumpkin in his eyes. Pickton had the
engine going, and Soapy was pushed and lifted into his seat with more
dispatch than ceremony. Even while Fred climbed up to the rumble the
automobile was put under way. Then out of the alley and down the side
street it lunged as if Eli Gouger were but a yard behind.

To follow the side streets to the city's outskirts, and avoid every
thoroughfare that looked like a principal artery of the town, was
Pickton's plan. For some distance he put on great speed, but later
heeded Perth's suggestion to go more slowly and so attract less notice.
And as even moderate driving would take one from center to circumference
of Sagersgrove in no great length of time, the Roadster was well into
the country within a quarter of an hour.

But on and on Pickton hurried. Whither he went he cared not, nor looked
to see where he might turn to left or right. He wanted only to leave
behind as far as possible the pursuers he believed would certainly be
coming on.

"We'll be at the south pole sooner than the Queensville race course at
this rate," Freddy Perth shouted, at last. "Head down the first likely
looking road west. Great guns! Things aren't so desperate as all this!"

Soapy Gaines, still bearing noticeable evidence in his hair and on his
clothing of his plunge from the window, but now able to see as usual,
vehemently acquiesced in Perth's suggestion.

"Never saw a man lose his head so!" he growled, with reference to
Pickton's frantic haste, regardless of direction. "We're after that Phil
Way outfit, don't you know it! Catch 'em about next year! Sagersgrove is
where we were going to get right behind 'em on the old pike!"

"A few miles west, then on the first thing that looks like a road, due
north, and we'll come to the pike," suggested Fred, more pleasantly. "We
can't help but recognize it, and the paper said Way's crowd took that
route. Keep a-going. If we don't stop for noon we won't have lost much
time, after all."

The still frightened travelers reached their looked-for road to the west
a mile further on. Often they had looked back, but now they paused and
scrutinized carefully the distant horizon in the direction they had
come.

An old black horse and buckboard and a small boy in charge of that
conveyance, which they had passed a few minutes before, were the only
objects in sight along the dusty, sunny road. Over in the pasture on the
right, some cows were feeding. In the wood lot on the left silence
reigned save for the vagrant breeze faintly rustling the leaves. From a
farmyard further down the road came indistinctly the cackling of a hen
in token of a new laid egg added to the world's food supply; but for
aught else within view or hearing the three lads might have been the
sole inhabitants of the country.

The general influence of the calm and quiet scene was beneficial to the
excited minds of Mr. Gouger's erstwhile prisoners. At a far more
moderate speed than they had lately traveled they now went forward
again, taking the road to the west. It pitched down a remarkably long,
stony hill, then crossed a broad valley. And as by following this route
the Trio escaped the necessity of taking a round-about way on the north
side of Sagersgrove, as the Auto Boys had done, to pass the streets torn
up for improvements, they really fared better than they thought.

Particularly was this true when, by mid-afternoon, they found themselves
on the hard, level surface of the old State pike, quite as Freddy Perth
had planned. What difficulties they escaped by missing the northern
route the Auto Boys used, and what danger of straying into the Cowslip
marshes they thus avoided, the travelers never discovered.

The fever of excitement accompanying their flight from the stable had
quite subsided as Fred and Pickton exchanged places, the former taking
the wheel preparatory to a long, steady run over the fine old pike.
Three objects were now kept constantly in view. One, to leave
Sagersgrove as far behind as possible before nightfall; another, to
discover a store or restaurant where provisions for a picnic supper
might be purchased, and the third to gain, if possible, certain
information as to whether the Auto Boys had passed that way. A camping
place for the night was a fourth but much later consideration, for it
had been decided to keep the car in motion until a late hour.

Years ago one would have found plenty of opportunities to purchase
either food or lodging along the still famous old road the boys were
traveling. At nearly every four corners was a tavern or some house whose
hospitality might be enjoyed for a moderate price. Frequent hamlets and
villages marked the way, also, and there quite elaborate entertainment
might be obtained at the inns. Very different did the Trio find the
situation, however--as different, almost, as the contrast between their
own conveyance and the stage coaches of old.

In one small settlement after another did either Perth or Pickton leave
the car to inquire for the provisions they wanted, but beyond crackers,
cheese and sometimes dry, hard cakes or cookies the general country
stores offered them, they found nothing.

"We would have brought some proper stuff to eat along if you two hadn't
been in such a frothy hurry!" growled Soapy Gaines, and as he spoke he
was busily consuming the last of a dozen bananas Fred had brought from
home.

But Mr. Gaines was not much given to self-denial or to a considerate
manner at any time. He had set his heart on cold ham or chicken, iced
tea and salad for his supper. The prospect of feasting on crackers and
cheese did not strike him at all favorably, hungry as he was. Being
pretty tired and having the mortification of his ridiculous plunge into
the decayed pumpkin still in his mind, as well, it may be said that he
was not the most agreeable of traveling companions.

And indeed, his mood showed little improvement as time passed. How much
of his more than usual ill-temper might be attributed to the humiliating
plunge from Eli Gouger's stable window, would be difficult to determine.
No doubt he thought much of it and so grew all the more irritable,
instead of passing the whole matter off with a laugh and then forgetting
it, as any sensible young fellow would have done.

But Gaines had not gathered in environment or training even a moderate
degree of good, sound sense. Perhaps he was not alone at fault, yet
right here it may be said that, clear through to the wretched and
unfortunate end of his connection with the present enterprise, he
maintained quite constantly an air either of bullying and grumbling or
utterly selfish indolence and indifference.

Freddy Perth and Pickton, as well, for that matter, were quite willing
to make a supper of such simple provisions as they could obtain at the
general stores, with the possible addition of milk, and maybe a pie or
fresh bread and butter from some farmhouse. But no extent of "soap," as
Perth called the wheedling talk and flattery Pick administered to
Gaines, would make that young gentleman agree. It was quite dark,
therefore, ere a town affording even moderately good hotel
accommodations was reached. There a stop for supper was made. Even then
Soapy found the iced tea and the salad not at all to his taste, but ate
hugely of the plainer fare.

A more important development of the hour spent in the hotel was the
certain knowledge gained that four lads in a heavily-laden touring car
had stopped to purchase some newspapers a couple of days earlier. The
news-stand clerk supplied this information quite frankly when asked if
such tourists had been noticed passing through. He added that there
would be many touring parties on the roads during the next week or more,
going to the Gold Cup races.

So certain was he in his own mind, indeed, that the boys before him were
bound for the big stock car contests (as he likewise had no doubt the
four earlier travelers had been) that unconsciously he overstepped the
truth in the report he gave. The young men who had passed on in advance
had _told_ him, he said, that they were _going_ to the races. He
_thought_ they had stated that they would stay in Queensville.

"Sure thing!" exclaimed Freddy Perth as the information gleaned was
discussed while the Roadster forged steadily forward again, a little
later. "Sure thing!" said he. "I didn't think there was much to that
'three stones piled one on top of another,' unless just marking the
place they are to have beside the race course. They'll go straight to
Queensville. If we keep going late to-night, we can be there by
to-morrow night ourselves."

Again Gaines gave it as his opinion that the Auto Boys had some business
venture, as well as the races in view. Again Pickton kept to himself his
thoughts on this subject--thoughts that were far from loyal to his
companions. Maybe it would have been better had he mentioned them. Maybe
it would have been better had he changed the plan that, in his heart, he
knew he had formulated even before this journey was fairly started.

It was a warm June night. Fireflies flashed and vanished in constant
succession over the field and along the roadsides. In the frequent
farmhouses the lights shone pleasantly through open doors and windows.
And always the gas lamps of the Roadster showed ahead a clear, smooth
course. The car was leaving the miles steadily behind. Under the
influence of the calm surroundings and the automobile's easy motion,
Soapy fell asleep. He had turned partially upon his side and rested his
head upon his arm thrown over the back of the bucket seat.

"We'll make camp when we find a good place," said Perth, at the wheel,
over his shoulder to Pickton, "Gaines is dead to the world."

"Blessed good thing! He'd insist on a feather bed or something, if he
wasn't," the person addressed made answer. "Don't know that I relish the
idea of sleeping out very much myself; but gee whiz! I haven't got the
price to hunt up hotels every time we want a meal or a bed, and neither
have you. And you take it from me, Soapy will want to borrow some money
from one of us before the week is over. I'll not give him a picayune!"

"Humph!" Perth responded, and that was all he did say. He didn't fancy
the change in Pickton's words and tone, now that Gaines would not hear.
But later he did add:

"It's camp out or nothing for me. That is what we planned to do and if
we don't find a place where we can do what cooking we have to do, I'll
get a room somewhere and pick up meals as best I can. Then if I run out
of money I'm going to get a job at something or another till the races
come off. Might as well see them, while we're there. Our chasing Phil
Way and his bunch isn't going to amount to anything anyway--nothing more
than that they won't be able to say they saw the Gold Cup and we
didn't."

"You stick to me, Fred. We'll make Gaines do as we all agreed. We are
going to find Worth and Way and those fellows and we're going to have
some fun with 'em. We can rough it just as well as they can and if
Gaines don't like it--"

"Oh, fiddle! You dream miracles and talk wonders! And it stops there,"
Perth exclaimed, but only half seriously. Then, "What you say is all
right, Pick, but you won't stand by it."

"By the old bean porridge pot, Perth! You're the most contrary monkey I
ever saw!" was Pickton's ejaculation. "I'll stand by every word I've
said!"

But whether he did or whether he didn't subsequent chapters will show.
For the present it is essential to state that beside a thick hedge,
where the ground was level and the grass deep--and very wet with dew, in
consequence--a camping place was found. Not one of the Auto Boys would
have chosen such a spot. There was no water near, no trees beneath which
the ground would be comparatively dry. The thorns of the hedge, also,
where dead branches had fallen, might be encountered just when one least
expected them.

No, Billy Worth or Phil, Paul or Dave would not have picked this place
even in the dark. Pickton and Perth would not have done so either, had
they possessed half the knowledge and experience the Auto Boys had
gained in matters of this kind.

It was eleven o'clock by Freddy Perth's watch. For an hour or more the
night air had felt quite cool, in the automobile, and thoughts of warm
blankets and sleep were pleasant ones as camp was established at the
point described, despite the objectionable features named.

Far back in Sagersgrove the town clock was striking the hour. Eli Gouger
turned restlessly in his sleep and half awakened. "Might have had two,
or maybe four dollars apiece out of 'em just as well as not, if that
good-for-nothing Petersby hadn't had to get his dinner 'fore coming with
me," he growled, as indeed he had been growling for some time. "Get his
dinner! The blamed calf! He's a great one to be a constable, he is!"



CHAPTER XI

MR. BLACKBEARD, THE GIANT


It was with much growling and sleepy sulkiness that Soapy Gaines crawled
down from his seat in the Roadster while Pickton and Fred were opening
camp equipage and making ready for the night. By the lamps of the car he
viewed their labors for a minute or two, drowsily grumbling the while,
then putting a light motor robe over his head and shoulders threw
himself on the grass heavily.

"Ow! Murder! I'm killed!" came frantic screams from young Mr. Gaines the
next instant. "Ow! I'm--I'm killed dead!"

If "killed" Soapy was, however--to say nothing of his being killed
"dead"--his actions were certainly extraordinary. He rolled over and
over, then jumped to his feet, again calling out in greatest distress
that he was "killed," and ending with the declaration in tones both loud
and angry, "Never saw such crazy idiots! Let me jump into thorns a yard
long and never say 'Look out!' Somebody'll get it for this, I'll bet,
now you see!"

As a matter of fact there had chanced to be a considerable heap of
thorny branches from the hedge buried in the tall grass at the precise
spot where Gaines had thrown himself. They found him out in several
places, piercing his back and legs painfully. And although his injuries
were, of course, not at all serious, he seemed somehow not to take this
fact into consideration.

He hopped about--"like a crazy war dance," Fred Perth muttered--then
frantically sought to examine the damage sustained by the glare of the
headlights. All the while he was saying things, some of which were not
exactly complimentary to those addressed, and vowing vengeance on
someone or something, he apparently did not know what.

Perth could scarcely suppress a laugh but Pickton was more in a mood to
express some very decided opinions as the two helped Gaines assure
himself that none of the thorns were still lodged in his flesh--an
assurance he seemed very reluctant to accept.

"Anyhow, it shows us we'll have to be right careful about the tires.
We'd have to pump _them_ up again," observed Perth with a grin.

But Soapy saw nothing funny in the remark and quite pointedly said as
much. And it was not until Pickton had explored a spot nearer the car,
on his own hands and knees, and so proved that it was wholly safe, that
the sadly spoiled member of the party could be persuaded to stretch
himself in a blanket there and so fall asleep.

In a little while the other two of the somewhat discordant, though
self-named "Chosen" Trio had done the same.

It was Friday night--the very evening on which a certain quartette of
other lads had selected their permanent camp in the western edge of the
Ship woods. Tom Pickton thought much of them, wondering where they were
and what progress they might have made by this time with the mystery of
the "three stones" as he lay gazing at the stars.

Very fearful was Thomas that ere their stopping place could be
discovered and their movements investigated, he would be too late--too
late to learn the secret of the Auto Boys' Quest. Or if not, indeed, too
far behind them to discover the real purpose of the lads' expedition, at
least too late to do some possibly successful exploring on his own
account. For this, particularly, did Pick have in mind. If there was
hidden treasure to be found, he had the right, he considered, to locate
the same if he could do so.

But Tom fell asleep at last resolving only for the present that an early
start must be made next morning and no pains spared to trace definitely
the movements of the young motorists whom he knew to be at least two
days in advance of the Roadster. And this resolution he carried into
prompt action.

It was just sunrise when he arose. Freddy Perth responded instantly to
his call. Gaines still slept and was left undisturbed while a tiny
gasoline stove was excavated from the depths of a bale of baggage and
breakfast preparations started. Perth had a long walk to obtain water,
but returned bringing some fresh eggs the kind farmer's wife had offered
him, as well; and when Soapy was at last summoned to arise he found
coffee boiling and the morning meal just ready.

A night's rest had improved the temper of the genial Mr. Gaines,
temporarily, at least. Although indulging in a deal of growling over the
lack of bathing facilities, which were, in fact, noticeably wanting, he
"felt like a lark." At least he said so, and perhaps he did. For a
creature of that description could hardly be expected to lend a hand at
packing baggage away, pumping up a tire from which considerable air had
escaped, or anything of the kind; and certain it is that Soapy did not.

The day's running of the Trio was through a wealthy farming section.
Often they stopped to inquire if the Auto Boys had passed that way, and,
as the well-loaded touring car and its four youthful passengers had been
noticed by many, they found in this well populated region no want of
information. Even after the pike was left behind and a sparsely settled
section encountered, it was still no task to learn at one poor dwelling
or another the direction the Auto Boys had traveled and the time, even
to the approximate minute, when they had passed.

The sight of an automobile was not a frequent occurrence in these parts.
The way the horses shied here, in contrast with the little heed they
gave the machines nearer the towns, was sufficient proof of this. The
people, too, had paid vastly more attention to the touring car, as they
also looked much more curiously at the Roadster here than had been the
case on more prominent thoroughfares.

So did the three lads find their spirits rising. Or, it might be more
accurate to say, so did two of them make such observation; for when the
prospect of simply crackers, coffee and cheese for lunch developed, Mr.
Soapy Gaines sank into a sullen rage which continued until evening. He
was like a volcano during such periods--smoldering constantly, but
emitting flame and fury at quite frequent intervals.

If any of the boys still seriously considered their flight from Gouger's
stable as likely to make them trouble, they did not show it. Fully
believing their captor to have been a properly authorized officer, they
understood their offense in escaping him to be much more serious than
the mere charge of exceeding a speed limit would be. Once Fred suggested
that it would have been better to have submitted to the arrest and paid
their fine, that they might have proceeded on without fear of further
molestation; but to this there came from Gaines so violent an eruption,
in answer, that he pursued the subject no further.

Very well did Fred know, however, that at any point along the road, at
any spot, whether they might be in Queensville or at the races, at any
time of night or day, the charge "fugitives from justice," might have to
be faced. Perfectly well did Pickton, also, understand this to be the
very unpleasant situation, though he grew boldly confident such
complications would not arise as Sagersgrove fell farther and farther to
the rear.

And on the whole it was extremely fortunate for the Trio that Eli Gouger
was far from being a regularly constituted officer of the law. It
certainly would have been an immense relief to the inner consciences of
Perth and Pickton had they known this. Perhaps it was because Soapy was
too positively stupid to comprehend the situation fully that, except for
the ridiculous part he had played in the affair, he would have
considered the escape from the barn as a particularly bright and clever
piece of work.

As nearly as the three boys could learn, they were within fifty miles of
Queensville when lights began appearing in the windows of the few
houses they passed, as twilight overtook them.

"Got to find beds sooner or later and why not in the first good camping
place?" Pickton suggested. "Cost less here than in town, even if we
reached there all right."

"Yes! See if you can't find a bloomin', thorny hedge and both of you
jump into it," came from Gaines, explosively.

    "'And when he saw his eyes were out, with all his might and main
    He jumped into the bramble bush and scratched 'em in again,'"

quoted Pickton with a laugh. For an hour he had been trying in vain to
rally Soapy into a better humor. But that young gentleman making no
response to this pleasant sally, Tom turned to Fred, on the rumble seat,
saying: "You try to get some eggs and ham and bread, or whatever you can
at the next house we come to and we'll go into camp right off. Blamed
pity, though, we didn't make Queensville."

"Blamed pity we didn't get bacon and dried beef--any old thing--at that
last cross-roads store, as I wanted to," was the answer. "I don't relish
walking into strange yards and nobody knows how many dogs ready to take
your leg off, any better than you do. And after dark, too!"

Nevertheless Fred did consent to try for provisions at the next dwelling
and succeeded in buying a loaf of heavy, dark bread, a chunk of salt
pork and a two-quart measure of potatoes. Moreover, the man of the
house, a great, swarthy, black-bearded fellow, returned with him,
volunteering to show the way to a suitable camping place.

Pickton was far from favorably impressed by the looks of the man or with
his deep, gruff voice. Gaines was plainly frightened. However, Fred
seemed to have become quite well acquainted with the stranger at once
and the two talked and walked together, as the man led the way forward.

Pickton drove up slowly, behind, and in a little while crossed a small
bridge spanning what appeared to be a nearly dry water course. But just
beyond this the party was conducted over another bridge, a small affair
of light timbers, erected over the wide, deep gutter at the roadside.
The heavy car caused the flimsy structure to sag threateningly, and
remembering the predicament following Mr. Gouger's leadership, Pick
liked less and less the piloting of the black-bearded stranger.

It was now entirely dark. The car's headlights showed no road
ahead--only the closely-cropped grass of a pasture with here and there
clumps of brush and weeds. It was a wild enough appearing place, indeed,
to have caused older men than these lads to look askance before
proceeding further.

"Right ahead here, bub! It's only a shortish piece," the stranger
called.

There was nothing for it but to follow or name a reason for not doing
so. Tom allowed the machine to creep forward, though Gaines whispered,
"We'll be murdered and robbed, that's what we'll be!" It was a real
relief to both when Perth's voice came back through the darkness a few
seconds later, "Come on up with the car. Here we are, and it's
first-class."

Almost immediately the headlights shone upon an open space under some
chestnut trees. It was at the foot of a steep rise of ground. Here the
small stream crossing the road, just below, formed a deep, narrow pool,
clear and cool. Fallen limbs and branches of a giant chestnut long since
dead and now dry as tinder, lay here and there, affording the finest
sort of firewood. The short, velvety grass beneath the thick foliage of
the living trees was like a lawn and in all respects the conditions
presented a splendid camp location.

"Ye'll want a fire the first thing," the black-bearded fellow said, and
at once collected an armful of the dry wood. "Now ye can peel yer taters
an' cook 'em like a ding-dang. Fry yer pork, too! Got a skillet?" said
he, as the bright blaze he started flamed up.

And upon being assured that everything needful was at hand, the
stranger bade the party good-night and strode away. A minute later his
heavy foot-falls upon the light wooden bridge over the ditch were heard.
And although by this time the boys were inclined to believe he meant
them nothing but kindness, it was a relief to have him out of sight and
hearing.

Late as it was, Fred proposed a hearty supper. All were hungry and
Gaines and Pickton found the suggestion quite agreeable, the latter
making the reservation, however, that he'd "be blamed" if he was going
to wash any dishes afterward. The remark was quite like Soapy, all
through. Also, much as he sniffed and, in Fred's language, "turned up
his nose" at the salt pork, he ate heartily, not to say greedily, of
that fare, though the meat and potatoes were scarcely more than half
cooked.

Whatever other faults he may have had, Pickton never objected to doing a
fair share of work. He fell to at the dish washing while Perth opened up
blankets for the night. The campfire was very cheerful, though the
gasoline stove of their outfit had been found more convenient for
cooking, for all three lads lacked a broad camping experience. So more
wood was brought to keep the fire blazing, and in all the odd chores
performed, necessary or otherwise, the sum total of Mr. Soapy Games'
contribution to the labor was the opening of his own suit case to find a
clean shirt he wished to put on in the morning.

Although their supper and a vigorous washing of dusty, dirty hands and
faces (which, quite contrary to precedent, followed rather than preceded
their repast), had made each member of the Trio more optimistic than
they had lately been, they still felt apprehensive concerning the
swarthy giant of a fellow on whose land they were. Fred insisted that he
meant only kindness, but when asked why the man should want to be more
than decently civil to utter strangers, he could only answer, "Good
Samaritan!"

All night long Pickton scarcely slept, so doubtful of Mr. Blackbeard's
seemingly good intentions was he. Gaines had merely said, "Well, you
fellows have got to keep your eyes open. I sleep sound as a bat and
would never wake up no matter what happened." Then he had growled a
great deal about the quality of his bed until at last he was snoring
tremendously.

Perth's confidence in the "Good Samaritan" gave him a sense of real
security and he dozed off quickly. And in the meantime Mr. Blackbeard
himself had returned to his homely, unpainted house and sat himself down
with Mrs. Blackbeard on the kitchen doorstep.

"Likely young fellers," said he. "Might have asked 'em into the house
but they'd probably rather sleep out. Beat's all where some folks get
all the money, Lizzie!" His tone was one of wonder, rather than
complaint. "Here's them snips of young shavers tearin' over the country
havin' a good time while you,--you that's worth a hay-rack load of 'em,
ain't got a fairly good go-to-meetin' gingham dress, an' won't have
till we sell the wheat that ain't hardly mor'n headed out yet. Beat's
all, don't it?"

"Well, well, it's all right, John! Everybody has their good times,
accordin' to their different ways an' means," the woman answered simply.
"We have ours an' plenty enough to be thankful for, every day of our
lives."

The whole of which goes to show that for every Eli Gouger in the world
there is somewhere a true and honest, manly man bringing the general
average up. Also, that big, generous hearts are often found in rough
exteriors, and some of earth's truest nobility dwelling in obscure
places. But--

"Gee Whiz! This is another day!" exclaimed Freddy Perth, several hours
later, sitting up suddenly to find the sunlight filtering in through the
chestnut branches.

And, quite remarkable as he seemed to think it, it was.



CHAPTER XII

DISCOVERED


It was Sunday morning in Camp Golden. The name had been bestowed by
Paul, always fond of the high-sounding or romantic. And although David,
with customary pessimism, proposed that the broad, shelving ledge be
called "Camp Golden--It's-Barely-Possible" instead, Jones' suggestion
was accepted; partly because no one cared, in particular; partly because
his name possessed euphony, if not positive significance.

Anyway, Sunday morning it was and breakfast of coffee, corn cakes and
bacon, with strawberries after, rather than before the principal part of
the meal, was just over. The Auto Boys, in various attitudes of ease,
made no immediate haste to clear away the dishes.

Paul Jones sat on a cushion on the ground, with legs crossed like a
tailor on his bench. Billy made himself comfortable, on a convenient
box, both hands clasped around an up-turned knee--a favorite attitude of
his,--while Phil and Dave in equally unconventional positions occupied
camp stools. Their places were at opposite sides of an old-time trunk
which, turned half over, served as a table. Newspapers--quickly disposed
of in the fire when soiled,--no need to _wash them_--did duty as a
tablecloth.

It was a cheerful, pleasant scene, there amid the shade and sunshine and
green leaves. A low tent was erected with its back to the rocky cliff at
the rear of the ledge. Here were accommodated two beds of hemlock twigs
spread upon the ground and covered with blankets, also a box which, in
addition to holding wearing apparel and the like, served as a kind of
center table. Its lid was pretty well littered with an assortment of
young gentlemen's belongings this morning--an odd mixture of neckties,
collars, socks, clothes-brush, shoe brush, a revolver, fishing tackle, a
hatchet and a bottle of olives. Larger items of wearing apparel hung on
a line along the tent's rear wall.

In the shallow cave shelves formed by building up broad, flat stones
like a series of steps, accommodated sundry tinware, dishes and canned
provisions. A perfect cooling system, made by diverting a part of the
water from the spring to a small excavation in the gravelly floor of the
cave, afforded proper storage for a crock of butter and a pitcher of
milk set down in the little pool. Here, also, a bucket of other
provisions of a perishable nature was similarly disposed. Not even the
famous spring-houses of early days could have been more serviceable or
delightful.

The campfire was placed not quite in front of the tent, as the custom is
if prevailing winds do not blow the smoke in, but quite to one side. It
was the width of the ledge, rather than the winds, however, which in
this instance made desirable the location chosen. It would not do for
Chef Billy to have to work at the extreme edge of the declivity that
broke sharply down to the valley below--the "jumping off place," Jones
called it.

The improvised table was almost directly in front of the tent, but
slightly toward the right, the fire being on the left. Still further to
the right was a rough shelter for the car made of poles with a tarpaulin
and sundry green branches spread over them. Here were stored, likewise,
a couple of axes--brought all the way from the Retreat in Gleason's
ravine--and numerous other tools, spades and a pickaxe included.

"And now we're so comfortably settled, the pity is it's Sunday, and--"

"And we told the folks we'd keep track of the days of the week, and they
sort of took it for granted from that that we'd observe the seventh,"
broke in Phil Way, finishing the sentence Billy Worth began. "Pretty
good day to write some letters home, for one thing. And those other
matters you may have in mind, such as certain things that have been in
the woods, all undisturbed for a good many years, will probably keep
till to-morrow."

"If there had just been a text announced we'd have had a regular sermon
already," quoth Paul Jones, with that inimitable grin that made his
plain, freckled face delightfully attractive.

"Why, if a text is all you want, I'll give you one," spoke Way
instantly. "It isn't from the Bible but is a good text, anyway. 'To
thine own self be true.' It means just this: That we should not, away
off here in the wilderness, and no fellow should when away by himself
anywhere, be any less decent and respectable than he would be where
everybody knows all that is going on. It means enough more than this,
but the point for us is that it is just as much Sunday here as it is at
home. We'll be civilized."

"Well, that is a sure-enough sermon and a pretty good one, too," said
MacLester, quite soberly. "We'll sing something, and it will be the
same as going to church, almost."

Dave liked singing at any time, it may be remarked parenthetically, and
his bass and Paul's tenor did make the vocal efforts of the quartette
very pleasing. So now they sang "America," "Lead, Kindly Light," "The
Old Oaken Bucket," "Onward, Christian Soldiers," and "Tenting on the Old
Camp Ground." And although it must be admitted that their selections
were of wide variety, they were all full of the spirit of love,
thanksgiving and kindness and certainly not the slightest irreverence
was intended if any there was.

"No, sir! We'll sing no more till the dishes are washed and the camp, to
say nothing of ourselves, put in some kind of order," announced Billy
Worth in answer to Dave's, "What else do we all know?" He began a rapid
collection of the tin plates, cups and the like, but suddenly paused.

"Automobile!" cried Paul at the same instant.

All four boys rushed to an extreme point of the ledge, which commanded a
partial view of the public road. Again the horn of a car sounded and
they were just in time to see a heavy roadster, laden with traps and
baggage and three lads of their own age as passengers, sweep over the
bridge and, more slowly, up the stiff rise beyond.

"Pickton and Gaines and Perth!" cried Worth in astonishment. "And--"

"What do you know about that?" demanded Mr. Paul Jones in similar tones;
and again he said, "What _do_ you know about that?"--not, apparently,
because he had reason to suppose that any of his friends had information
pertaining especially to the Chosen Trio, or even because he expected to
gain intelligence of any description. Perhaps he really looked for no
answer to his inquiry. (In which case it would be difficult to say just
why he made it.) At any rate he received none.

"Well, sir, I never thought they'd have the gumption to carry out their
scheme of following after us," was Phil's comment. "If they only knew
how close they were just a minute ago!"

"Wouldn't make much difference," observed MacLester, dryly. "They'll
locate us now, but if we keep our wits about us they won't locate
anything else."

"Nothing of the kind!" Worth ejaculated. "Their hustling by so fast is
good enough evidence that they think we are still on ahead somewhere.
They'll never think of this woods, but likely only of the races."

"Sure thing!" put in Paul Jones, in his very positive, opinionated way.
"Nothing to it but keep out of their sight. They'll go clear through to
Queensville, likely. In three days more the whole county around the race
course will be alive with strange automobiles. They'll never get a line
on us if we keep out of sight. Simply means we've got to watch them
some, though, so's to be sure _they_ aren't watching _us_."

"Maybe we _had_ better look into what they're doing," Phil acquiesced
and all heartily agreed. The fun of the situation, a hide-and-seek game
in automobiles with the whole vicinity of the Gold Cup race course--a
stretch of territory twenty-five miles in length and as many broad--as
the grounds of action, appealed instantly to each one.

The best part of it, too, was that the Chosen Trio were "It"--the ones
who must do the searching. The desirable side of the game, as the ones
who were hunted, had fallen to the Auto Boys. Believing as they did,
that their hiding place was reasonably secure against discovery, too,
and there being never a rule of play to require them to call out or give
any sort of clue to their whereabouts, the prospect became all the more
interesting to the lads as they talked it over.

One thing of which all four boys assured one another was that they had
too much at stake to incur any sort of risk of their camp being found.
Also, they were agreed, there must be no underestimating of the
resourcefulness and cunning of the Trio. It was really surprising that
the latter had succeeded so well thus far in finding the route the
Thirty traversed. Their evident perseverance in doing so was, as well,
ample indication of their serious intention to do all they
threatened--find out the meaning of the mysterious expedition and play
mischief with that undertaking generally.

All day Saturday the Auto Boys had spent in erecting their permanent
camp and in establishing connections for such part of their food supply
as they could best obtain from some farm. The latter had not been easily
accomplished. There was little cultivated land in the immediate
neighborhood of the great woods. The nearest farmhouse was a half-mile
away and the next one an equal distance beyond.

Unluckily, too, it had been found necessary to go to the second of the
farms in order to obtain milk. It would mean a two-mile tramp each
morning, there and back. Either this or a trip in the car, and on
account of the rough ground between the camp and the public road, the
latter method was hardly desirable, as a daily practice.

Aside from this inconvenience the young campers were highly pleased with
their location. They had yet to make arrangements for sending and
receiving mail, but this they had planned to do on Sunday afternoon.
Their letters home having been written, the most convenient grocery or
other source of general supplies discovered, and all the odd tasks
incident to getting settled cleared away, they would be ready on Monday
morning, they planned, to begin the long contemplated attack upon the
secrets of the great, silent woods.

But now had come the unexpected arrival of Messrs. Gaines, Pickton and
Perth much nearer these scenes than any of the four friends had supposed
they ever would be. It might make an entire revision of the program
necessary.

"As to that same, we shall see," said Billy Worth, looking up from the
letter writing on which, barring numerous interruptions, all were
engaged.

"How d'ye spell 'barnacles'?" demanded Paul Jones, insistently, the same
moment.

"Huh! Barnacles! I'll bet that's the Trio," laughed Billy.

"Lot Jones knows about barnacles," sniffed MacLester.

"That so? Listen to my letter: 'The insectivorous barnacles on the face
of nature'--meaning Gaines and his bunch, of course--'them would-be
cutaneous young billy goats'--meaning Gaines and the rest again--'have
hurled their preposterous physiognomy unfrequented and unbid into this
locality.'"

A merry laugh greeted Paul's conclusion and he grinned his own delight
with himself.

"Still, I bet he don't know what a barnacle is," persisted Dave with
good-natured derision.

"Why, you certain species of shell fish! What do you mean by your
insolence?" demanded Jones, with mock dignity. "Barnacles--from the
Latin word 'barn,' meaning a kind of stable, and the Greek word
'culls,' meaning an inferior kind of anything. Together, then,
barnacles--an inferior kind of stable, a--a pig sty, say? So there you
have it; but you might have let it go without forcing me to use such a
low word as 'pigs' in the presence of gentlemen, just to make myself
clear in your laborious mental processes."

Phil and Billy laughed at this sally but went on with their writing.
Dave must give one return shot, and it was:

"Jones, if words were water, you'd have been drowned long ago. The way
you flounder around in 'em makes me think of a tumble bug climbing
upstairs backwards."

Paul responded only with a solemn "Pooh! pooh!" as if he could not take
time to notice seriously any such childish prattle. And while it must be
admitted that there was nothing at all brilliant or elevating in the
exchange of youthful repartee that had taken place, who shall say that
both did not profit by it?

They had made each his thrust and parry and, give or take, without a
thought of losing temper. They had had a few seconds' practice in quick
thinking, which is always desirable. The whole difference between a
brain of snap and vim and one both slow and dull, is likely to lie in
practice in rapid, accurate work, or the lack of such training, rather
than in an original difference in capacity.

Yet it must not be supposed that even Paul and Dave were constantly in
an offensive and defensive attitude toward one another. That would never
have done at all. Sooner or later such a manner would have become
irritating. The tongue whose words are too frequently sharp, or by
constant habit, other than kind and considerate, will make trouble
inevitably.

By themselves Jones and MacLester rarely indulged in such exchange as
that of this morning. The fun of it was lacking when Phil and Billy were
not by to serve as an audience. Alone together, the two were harmonious
as could be. They were much more apt to differ at other times. An
instance when they did not, however, occurred directly after the verbal
contest lately recorded.

"We will make a run to Queensville, get a light lunch there and have
dinner in camp to-night," remarked Chef Billy, sealing the letter he had
written. He brought his fist down with a whack upon the envelope, not
for sake of emphasis but to make sure of the flap being fast.

"Aw, Bill! I'm most starved _now_!" protested Paul.

"Here, too!" MacLester urged. "Something in this air seems to make a
fellow want to eat all the time."

"Well, the point is, we've got to be starting. It's nearly noon," Worth
answered.

"Yes, that's so," Phil Way agreed. "Maybe we better have an egg sandwich
or something like that, all around, and it will do for now."

"Sure!" chirped Jones, emphatically. "Stuff will only spoil if we don't
eat it up."

"Risk anything spoiling around here," was Billy's earnest comment; but
he ordered that frying-pan and eggs be brought him forthwith, while he
proceeded to rake together the remnants of the fire.

The route to Queensville was, for the first part, straight ahead upon
the road bordering the Ship woods. Six miles distant, westerly, this
road effected a junction with a thoroughfare running to north and south.
Distant a mile or two, in the former direction, was the direct road to
Queensville. This and the north and south road were both a part of the
twenty-six-mile race circuit.

It was easy to locate the road to Queensville once Gilroy, with its one
general store, half dozen straggling dwellings, a church, a school and
blacksmith shop, was reached, for numerous automobiles were traversing
the course of the races in both directions. And how the Auto Boys
scanned every car! And what a collection of machines it was!--Runabouts,
roadsters and nondescript contrivances, the identity of the
manufacturers of which even Billy Worth could not determine. Some had
been rebuilt in one way, some another and some were of strictly home
production. But among all the cars, fine and otherwise, the lumbering
black and gray Roadster Mr. Soapy Gaines called his own, was not seen.

In a quiet side street of Queensville the four friends left the Thirty.
They were but a few steps from the main thoroughfare upon which the
business section was situated, and directly before them, as they turned
into the street was a sign: "Alameda Headquarters."

"Here's one of the likely cars, now," exclaimed Phil. "Jim Wilder,
cousin of our Mr. Wilder at home, drives her and he's great, they say!"
He would have added: "Let's see what they're doing," but already Billy,
Dave and Paul had hastened forward, bent on that very mission.

As the lads approached, the crowd about the entrance to the building
surged suddenly away and, waving his hand to all to stand back, a man in
overalls and jumper pulled the heavy door about and it swung shut with a
bang. The curious ones thus barred from further view of what was
within--the racing car and drivers, probably--formed an assemblage so
dense that those nearest the door were not visible to the Auto Boys, at
the edge of the gathering. But immediately the people began dispersing.
A minute later, through the thinning ranks, Paul Jones suddenly
discovered the Chosen Trio.

He had just time to whisper and, with his friends, slip back of a group
near the curbing when Gaines, Pickton and Perth passed at the inner side
of the walk. There appeared no room to doubt the Trio would go straight
forward and, when they were fairly beyond the crowd, Billy and Phil,
still watching them, stepped back into the open to get a better view.

The movement was unfortunate. Freddy Perth chanced to turn and his eyes
rested at once upon the lads. With a gay laugh he caught the hands of
Pickton and Gaines, wheeling them around. Pointing with his thumb, his
arm half outstretched:

"How do you _do-o-o_?" he called triumphantly to the crestfallen Way and
Worth.

"Hello!" Phil responded with a frown, but looking about as if to see how
Billy was bearing up, he was astonished to find himself alone.



CHAPTER XIII

AROUND THE GOLD CUP CIRCUIT


Phil's "hello!" was none too cordial, but glad under any circumstances
to meet someone from home, and quite overjoyed to show the Auto Boys
that the Chosen Trio were on the spot, Perth was hastening forward.

Again Way looked anxiously in all directions, trying vainly to learn
whence his friends had so mysteriously fled. No sight or sound of them
could he discover.

"Got your car running again sooner'n you expected, didn't you?" grinned
Freddy, coming close up. "When did you get in?"

"Not sooner than _we_ expected--sooner than _you_ expected, wasn't it?"
responded Phil. "Haven't been here long. You came in this morning."

"How'd you know?" Perth demanded with a searching look.

"Bird told me," Phil smiled. "Where you staying?"

"Ask the bird that, too!" grinned Freddy.

"Well, see you later. Be here for the races, I take it," Way laughed,
not at all put out by Perth's adroit reply to his own question. With a
little wave of the hand he walked quickly away; but a glance over his
shoulder a minute later assured him that Perth, Gaines and Pickton were
following not far behind. The latter two had loitered in the background
while the conversation with Fred was taking place.

If Phil was astonished to find himself so unexpectedly alone, it was
apparent that the Trio were scarcely less so. Perth was certain he had
seen Billy Worth at the same moment he had first seen Way. What had
become of Billy and where were Dave and Paul?

Phil, himself, would have given something at this particular moment to
have been able to answer these questions. Meanwhile it was obvious his
first task was to escape from the three who followed. Where was Gaines'
Roadster? If he could lead the Trio far enough from their car that they
would not have that means of pursuit, it might be that Billy and the
rest would come along in the Thirty, pick him up and thus enable all to
make their escape quite readily.

Acting on this thought, Phil turned into the first residence street
intersecting Main, the business thoroughfare. Even now he was but a few
blocks distant from where the Thirty had been left. Surely, he reasoned,
some one of his friends would be watching the direction he took. One of
them would manage, some way, to get into communication with him, even if
they did not come dashing up with the machine and effect his rescue.

Was it an instance of telepathy--the action of Billy's mind, or Paul's
or Dave's or of all three, upon Phil Way's--that caused the latter to
think of a sudden, rapid dash in the car, after the Trio had been led a
safe distance from their own machine, as a likely means of escaping
them? Such a thing is not impossible. It is not, indeed, improbable. And
yet, although stranger instances of thought transference have been fully
proved, it may have been after all only a coincidence that the plan that
came into Phil's mind was exactly the one Billy Worth suggested to Paul
and David and which they prepared to put into execution.

Very luckily had Worth made a dive into the crowd the moment he found
himself and Phil observed by Freddy Perth. Thinking Way followed, he
called with a quick gasp to MacLester and Jones and darted into an open
stairway. Quickly as they could the three ran up the steps into a narrow
hall on the second floor.

A window was open toward the street and Worth was not long in
discovering how to put it to good use. In dismay he saw, with Paul and
Dave peeping out over his shoulder, that Phil had fallen fairly into the
enemy's hands. He could not hear the words exchanged with Perth, but
realized how mystified Way was as he waved his hand and walked away.

"Of course they'll follow. Won't let him get out of their sight!"
ejaculated Billy. "We've got to make a grand rush in the machine and get
Phil away from them before they know what's happened."

"Just let him lead them quite a stretch away. Gaines' car is probably
right near here," Paul put in, eagerly.

The suggestion was adopted. Then Jones volunteered to keep Way and the
enemy both in sight while Billy and Dave brought the Thirty up.

Ten minutes later there was a sudden blast of a flying automobile's horn
in one of Queensville's quiet streets. In another instant the car had
slackened speed and a young man rushed from the sidewalk and climbed
aboard. Like a flash the machine sped forward again, followed by a
series of angry, disappointed yells from three other youths who also
dashed out from the sidewalk as if they had thought of going along.

A good many people observing the rather mysterious performance, as they
sat upon their lawns and porches, or strolled on the street, were
decidedly at a loss to know what to make of it all.

"Oh, I guess we're no wizards at all! No, nothing like that! No wizards
about us! Not at all!" chuckled Paul Jones in a perfect rapture of
delight. "No, we're no _wizards_!"

And although Philip, William and David expressed themselves in somewhat
different language, it was apparent that they, too, entertained pretty
much the same opinion as the highly elated Mr. Jones with regard to
their being "No wizards, at all," whatever that may signify.

Yet now that the Chosen Trio had been again outwitted and again left
behind, temporarily at least, there remained the problem of keeping well
beyond their sight and reach. To do this and to do it without permitting
those persistent young gentlemen to bar the Thirty from entering the
limits of Queensville was no small undertaking.

The town was of only a few thousand population, and even now when filled
with strangers and with strange automobiles from the larger cities near
by, it was apparent that at any moment the four friends appeared on the
principal streets they might expect to meet the very persons they most
wished to avoid.

MacLester emphatically declared himself in favor of letting the Trio "go
hang." If they "wanted to tag along clear to the Ship woods," he did not
care. They'd have principally their trouble for their pains. All they
might discover as to the object of the expedition and the camp in that
out-of-the-way place, would not, according to young Mr. MacLester's way
of stating it, "Make 'em wise enough to hurt 'em." Whatever the reports
they carried back to Lannington, no one would give them much credence
anyway, he declared.

But Phil Way sturdily opposed any such surrender. The original
determination to keep the real purpose of this long journey a secret
could not be abandoned now, he argued, without a practical admission
that Gaines and his followers had been too clever for them. Billy and
Paul stood resolutely with Way. Meanwhile the Thirty had been traversing
one dusty, unpaved street after another in the town's outskirts.

"They'll never be expecting to see us again to-day. Let's go back down
town. If we keep our eyes open, we'll see them first, and that's all
that's necessary," proposed Worth; and, being himself at the wheel, he
turned the car toward the business district.

From no source came an objection. In ten minutes the machine was again
standing just where it had been left before. Quite contrary to the
expectations of the boys, also, they saw nothing whatever of the Trio,
though they spent an hour looking about the little city and observing
the hundreds of visitors.

Some had come, it appeared, simply for the day, to see the preparations
for the great road races. Many were present because of a direct interest
in the contests in one way or another and would remain until all was
over. Racing drivers and the builders of their cars, automobile
salesmen, tire men, newspaper men from many cities--motoring enthusiasts
of a score of sorts and a hundred degrees of significance, from the
young fellow who expected to own a runabout some day to the engineer who
designed and would drive the most popular machine in the heavy car
race--they were on the streets, in the hotels, thronging everywhere.

On barns, fences, trees, posts--anything that offered a chance to drive
a nail, were signs, banners and all sorts of advertising matter. One
might find himself informed on one post that he must use "Heapa" oil or
be miserable for life. The very next post would tell him if he did not
use "Slickem" oil he'd be sorry forever. And as the really quite
conflicting announcements, admonitions, claims and assertions were in
great variety and multiplied many times by their frequent repetition,
any gentleman who might have set out to be guided by them would surely
have had a serious time of it and have landed in a padded cell
somewhere, sooner or later, undoubtedly.

In addition to the cosmopolitan character of the crowds--to say nothing
of the diversity of the advertising posters and signs--were the town's
decorations of flags and bunting everywhere. Then a band played on the
steps of the Court House, in the heart of the little city, and the
music, the chugging of engines, the confusion and excitement, the very
odors--for where is the real motoring enthusiast who dislikes the smell
of diffused gasoline fumes?--made a deep impression upon the Auto Boys.
It is very much to be feared, indeed, that they started for Camp Golden
at last much more intent upon seeing the races the following Saturday
than upon delving into the secrets of the Ship woods the following
morning.

By taking the longer route, followed by the race course, around to
Gilroy, in going home, the four friends finished a complete circuit of
the roads chosen for the stock car contest. In going to Queensville, it
will be remembered, they turned due north and later almost directly
west upon reaching the course, directly in front of the Gilroy
post-office. From Queensville they ran almost directly south, thence
east, northeast and north to Gilroy again.

The geographical situations of Camp Golden, Gilroy and Queensville the
reader should have well in mind. Let him imagine a series of country
roads forming a great, irregularly-shaped dipper. The handle is the road
passing the Ship woods. Where the handle joins the dipper itself, six
miles west of the Auto Boys' camp, is Gilroy, a crude little country
hamlet--no more. The rim of the dipper represents the roads making up
the racing circuit. Nearly half way around, to the right, that is,
north, thence west from Gilroy, is Queensville--twelve miles distant.
Continuing on around the rim is the little town of Chester, three miles
beyond Queensville.

The "Ambulance station,"--a desperately sharp curve--marks the turn of
the course to the east again, two miles further on. Then the edge of
the dipper becomes very irregular as the road winds in and out through a
wooded country, until at Far Creek Sawmill it strikes off due north.
Four miles ahead is Gilroy again, which hamlet, by this way around, is
fourteen miles from Queensville.

Much work had been done on the roads comprising the racing circuit to
put them in condition, and as Phil Way remarked, on the homeward trip
this Sunday afternoon, "There was certainly going to be some
excitement." Yet little he guessed how much more than excitement,
merely, was in store for himself and his friends.

"I'll bet there _is_," quoth Billy Worth, answering Way's remark. "It'll
be some exciting, for instance, about the time we meet Gaines' Roadster
somewhere around the track. That very choice Trio will be out every day,
more or less, and whether we go one way or the other, it will be pure
luck and nothing else if we don't come face to face with them some time
before the races are over."

And Billy's view of the matter was nothing if not plausible. There was
no way of reaching Queensville from the camp without following the
course of the proposed races. There was no cross road leading even in
the direction of that town. By a very long detour the result named might
possibly be accomplished, it was true, but it would be like going from
New York to Philadelphia by way of Albany and Harrisburg.

This Sunday afternoon it was most fortunate for the Auto Boys that they
chose to complete the circuit the races would follow, when leaving
Queensville for Camp Golden. Had they gone the other way a meeting with
the Trio would have been certain, for that select company of young
gentlemen spent several hours on the opposite side of the course vainly
watching.

Guided only by the direction the Thirty had taken after the rescue of
Phil Way, Gaines and his associates had set out in pursuit as rapidly as
possible. Until dark they haunted the road to the north and east. Their
utter lack of success was quite annoying.

In fact, Mr. Soapy Gaines became so irritated that his company could
scarcely be called enchanting; unless, indeed, one were possessed of the
peculiarity of enjoying being called a "crazy snapping turtle" and other
like names, not well chosen, at least, if intended as terms of
endearment. But as to Soapy's ruffled temper and conduct generally there
will be opportunity for observation later. At this moment attention
should return more directly to the Auto Boys.

"If we hadn't spent a whole half-day chasing around Queensville and back
again, we might have had a good walk in the woods and maybe we would
have found those three stones," growled Dave MacLester, toasting his
hands over the campfire, for the evening had come on quite cold.

"Never mind, little one, never mind! You'll feel better after you've had
your supper. Your poor, 'ittle tummy wants something. You'll feel
better pretty soon." This language in a soft, fatherly tone from Paul
Jones caused a smile. Even David smiled, too, for directly afterward
Chef Billy announced the evening meal.

It was a pleasant thing to sit before the glowing fire, enjoying toasted
crackers and toasted cheese after the major portion of the supper--baked
beans, baked potatoes and bacon, and coffee, of course--was over. It was
a pleasant thing to creep under the blankets in the tent, luxuriously
tired, an hour and a half later.

Most exquisitely pleasant was it, also, to lie snug and comfortable
listening to the tinkle of the little spring where the water flowed over
the miniature cataract leading to the cleverly devised cooling system,
and so to fall asleep at last.



CHAPTER XIV

AT THE CLARION RACING CAMP


The arrival of the Chosen Trio in Queensville did not occasion the
excitement in that small city that at least Mr. Gaines had anticipated.
Possibly there would have been a more noticeable interest had it not
been that strangers and strange cars had already become, on account of
the numbers present for the races, a drug on the market. Queensville
people had grown quickly accustomed to the presence of visitors. Beyond
a passing glance the lumbering Roadster and its passengers received
little notice, therefore.

Soapy had counted so much upon the demonstration of lively interest the
arrival of himself, his car and Pickton and Perth--whom he regarded as
a kind of body-guard--would occasion that to attract little or none of
such curious attention was a serious blow to his vanity.

The fault, Mr. Gaines in his own mind assured himself, lay in the very
ordinary appearance of his friends. He would have to let it be known, he
concluded, that he alone was the owner of the Roadster and that he, if
not those with him, was a person of quite some consequence.

It was with difficulty that Pickton and Perth prevailed upon Gaines to
do as they had originally agreed and look for quarters where they could
prepare most of their own meals and so incur no considerable expense.
This accomplished, they quite readily found a really desirable place of
the character desired. It was a vacant, one-story, white cottage.
Adjoining was a more pretentious house, the owner of both of which
dwellings was desirous of taking in what money he might while the influx
of strangers was on. For the moderate charge of five dollars for the
week he gave the Trio the use of the cottage for themselves and
permission to run their car into a shed in the rear of his own
residence.

The three lads might have been very comfortable--might have fared well
in all respects, in the situation presented, had Soapy been the least
bit favorably disposed toward "roughing it." With the gasoline camp
stove for their cooking, ample bedding, and water and similar
accommodations already in the cottage and at their disposal--why, under
the same conditions the Auto Boys, or any group of really congenial
young fellows, would have lived in a delightfully care-free way!

But Gaines did not like the bare floor and he did not like the absence
of such little conveniences as rocking chairs and electric lights. And
although Mrs. Gaston, wife of the owner of the property, and a most
pleasant, motherly old lady, sent over a mirror, a lamp, a small table
and three kitchen chairs for the accommodation of the boys, to say
nothing of a jar of canned peaches and a fresh rhubarb pie, Soapy
"hoped he wasn't an object of charity just yet awhile."

Or as Mr. Freddy Perth expressed it, he "simply turned up his long, thin
nose at the whole shooting match and acted like a beastly cad." Where
and how anything remotely similar to a "shooting match" came into the
situation may not be exactly clear. No doubt young Mr. Perth knew just
what he was talking about; but at any rate the words quoted, it should
be understood, were his own.

However, and notwithstanding Mr. Gaines' constantly expressed
dissatisfaction, Pick and Fred went ahead with the plan to make the
white cottage their headquarters for the week of the races. The location
was pleasantly convenient. Only four blocks distant was the main street
and the Crown Hotel. Here many of the racing car owners and drivers were
staying and here, also, the committee in charge of the contests had its
office.

Considerably disgusted with the failure again to find the Auto Boys and
out of sorts with himself and everyone else, Gaines went alone to the
hotel for his supper on Sunday night. Perth and Pickton enjoyed their
evening meal just as much without him, it is possible, at the cottage.
And though they attempted nothing more intricate in the culinary art
than boiling eggs, toasting bread and making coffee, they supplemented
this fare with fruit from the stand down on the corner and so managed
very well.

Soapy returned from the hotel to find the cottage uncomfortably cool and
Fred and Tom both in bed--because they were tired and because they were
warmer there. He sniffed contemptuously as he prepared to follow their
example. Growing still more sulky, he requested both his friends to bear
in mind who owned the car that brought them there. Even after he was in
bed, Gaines felt moved to declare that he didn't care where the Auto
Boys were or were not. He meant, he said, to enjoy the races.

He wanted to hear the hotel discussions, see the practice work and all
things incident to the contests. So far as he was concerned, he at last
concluded, "Worth and that bunch might run and jump off the edge of the
earth if they wanted to." Which feat, by the way, had the Auto Boys
known they had Mr. Gaines' free and complete permission to perform, they
would quite likely have been glad to undertake for his especial
accommodation, if for no other reason.

Now, although Mr. Tom Pickton was no better pleased with the temper
Gaines displayed than was Mr. Frederick Perth, the two did not
themselves become the firmer friends. Being fellow sufferers from
Soapy's disagreeable manner, it would have been quite natural that every
bond of friendship and sympathy between them should be strengthened. Yet
quite the contrary was true.

Pickton more than half believed Perth responsible for the fact that
Gaines had not invited him to supper at the hotel. Fred's somewhat
inferior clothing, and his general lack of a kind of swaggering style,
much affected by Soapy himself, made the latter ashamed to associate
with him. In this light, at least, Pickton viewed the matter. He
reasoned that Gaines went by himself because to invite one made it
necessary that he invite both the others. Thinking thus, he wished
fervently that Fred were some place else.

On the other hand, young Mr. Perth resented in his thoughts, if not in
words and actions, a certain secretive manner Pickton had shown more and
more of late. He resented still further Soapy's selfish and snobbish
conduct. So all in all, harmony and good-fellowship among the Chosen
Trio's members, never strong, never founded on the deep, mutual love and
respect that is the basis of all true friendship, was in a fair way to
disappear entirely.

Monday morning presented little change in the chilly atmosphere of the
white cottage. Soapy remained in bed until Perth called him to
breakfast--again toast, eggs and coffee. Meanwhile Pickton had brought
the Roadster around to the street in front, and after the morning
repast suggested a trip over the course. As Gaines and Fred both liked
this proposal, the feelings of all three toward one another became, for
the time, more pleasant.

Earnest, serious practice by the racing drivers began this Monday
morning and from four to ten o'clock the roads were closed against all
others. The Trio ran down in the Roadster to the banked curve just south
of Queensville to watch the work of the different cars and men. It was
at this point that the main grandstand was to be. Work on the structure,
rising in successive tiers of seats in rows hundreds of feet in length,
was now nearly completed. No charge for admission would be made before
the day of the races and from boxes for each of which, for the one big
day, the price would be fifty dollars, the three lads viewed the coming
and going of the machines and their crews.

A large, red car, stripped to the chassis, save for the hood, the low
seats and fuel tank back of them, made the most consistent record of
the morning. Repeatedly its driver covered the circuit at fifty-five
mile speed and did not exceed a minute's difference in time between one
lap and another.

This machine was the _Clarion_; Kemper, driver, and Allstop,
mechanician. It was a popular car and a favorite crew. Gossip at the
Crown Hotel was partial to Kemper and the _Clarion_ as winners in the
heavy car race.

A long, low, gray car with black lines--and known as the _Hare_, was
another of the "sure" winners, according to the forecast of those whose
wisdom was aired each day and night wherever crowds congregated in
Queensville. The identity of the _Hare's_ driver was the subject of
almost unceasing discussion. When out on the course or wherever he might
be seen, he wore invariably a head-dress that covered his face
completely. None could recognize him. On the entry list his name
appeared as "I. S. Mystery"--nothing more, and it is scarcely necessary
to add that a mystery he was. Cobert, his mechanician, was also
unknown. He wore no mask. His head-rigging left his face open to close
scrutiny; but he was silent always. He worked with Mr. "Mystery" as if
they read continuously each the thoughts of the other and had no need of
any other language.

The _Hare_, as a car, was known quite well enough. The manufacturers
were among the most prominent in America. As a factor in the heavy car
race, the machine was considered very important, as has been stated. So
much, however, depends upon the skill, experience and daring of the
driver in any such contest, that many and many a man would have given a
great deal to know who "Mystery" was, and where he and Cobert had
acquired their apparently perfect training.

Six other cars, including the Alameda, two Brights, a Henry and two
Wings completed the field for the big race. The light car contest was
but a minor affair and attracted little notice. Of the six machines just
mentioned, the Henry was looked upon as a bare possibility. The Brights
were not rated highly, though one of them, with Crane--a
long-experienced driver--as pilot, was counted upon as an interesting
"dark horse." The Wings were the product of unknown builders. One of the
wags at the Crown Hotel remarked that "the _pair_ of them might fly
_some_, but not very far at that." The Alameda was not considered at all
formidably, either, being practically unknown.

All the gossip concerning the different contestants he had heard about
the hotel Gaines repeated as being strictly first-hand intelligence, or
quite as if every word were a matter of his own personal knowledge, as
the Trio watched the Monday morning practice. Very well did Fred and
Pickton know where he had heard all he told them. That they secretly
resented his manner of superiority there can be no doubt; but their
interest in obtaining information was too lively to permit of their
failing to listen, and attentively.

By ten o'clock, all the racing cars had been taken home to their
respective stations, some in Queensville and some to headquarters
established in camps at convenient points adjacent to the course. With
the way now open to them, the Trio started in the Roadster for a trip
around the circuit, Pickton at the wheel.

"Oh, you!" called a voice from one of the tire supply pits directly in
front of the grandstand.

Perth answered, "Hello!"

"How far you going?" asked the first speaker, a brisk young man in a
suit of khaki. "Wonder if you'd just as soon take a couple of tubes over
to the Clarion camp for me?"

"Sure, Mike," said the by no means bashful Perth, though why he supposed
the name of the young man to be Michael--which, in fact, it truly was
not--is a problem. But anyhow, "Sure, Mike!" he said.

"Their camp is in a little grove just the other side of Chester. You'll
see a lane leading right back to their tent and a barn they have," the
chap in the khaki suit continued. "Give 'em these two tubes. They'll
know who sent 'em. You're the boys for me, all right!"

Gaines would have objected to taking the tubes aboard except for the
opportunity to see the Clarion headquarters. He did not like the way in
which Perth acted as spokesman. He so informed Fred a little later.
Again he requested him, also, and with some degree of earnestness, to
remember whose machine he was "banging around for the accommodation of
any Tom, Dick and Harry."

Perth smoothed matters over as best he could by saying, "Oh, Gaines,
let's be civilized!" but he held the two tire tubes in his own hands.
When the camp of the _Clarion_ was reached, he carried them personally
to the man who appeared to be in charge.

With the gentleman who received the tubes Perth found it quite easy to
become acquainted. He volunteered to assist as the stranger immediately
set about the work of inserting one of the new tubes in a tire. The
change was being made on a car kept at the camp for general purposes.
Fred's offer was accepted and he did his work right skillfully.

Gaines and Pickton looked on but gave no assistance. Later all three
were allowed to watch Kemper and Allstop making some adjustments on the
Clarion racer. A proud moment it was, too, when the famous driver nodded
to them in a friendly way.

"Much obliged for those tubes," he said, looking toward Fred. "It was
one on me that you were asked to fetch them. I intended stopping at the
tire control my last time around and forgot it."

"Don't mention it," said Perth.

It was odd, but the fact, nevertheless, that this very natural
conversation was the source of much irritation to Mr. Soapy Gaines.

"That Clarion car has no more chance," said he, when the Roadster was
again underway upon the course--"that Clarion car has no more chance of
winning than your grandmother. The thing's a heap o' junk and Kemper
couldn't drive a truck!"

"Fudge!" snorted Perth in an outburst of supreme contempt.

"Keep our eyes open and we might find Way's outfit," suggested Pickton,
anxious to prevent a clash and even more anxious, if the whole truth
were known, to locate the Auto Boys' camp.

Strangely enough Tom's proposal instantly interested Soapy very much.
Fickle and uncertain always, he now declared that, come what might, he
would find where Way and the rest were staying and what they were doing
in the locality, if it took all day.



CHAPTER XV

SECRETS OF THE WOODS


"Wiggle around some! Get your blood in circulation, and you'll be warm
enough!" ejaculated Billy Worth, rather forcibly.

His remark was aimed at Paul Jones, fussing and shaking, pretending to
be all in a shiver with the cold while he leaned half-dressed over the
campfire. "Might wiggle a little more wood up here. Can't afford to burn
up the back-log, just getting breakfast!" Billy added.

Worth had been up and fully dressed a quarter of an hour or more. With
Phil's help he had the morning meal actively in course of preparation.
It was but little later than sunrise. The air was still cool. Dave was
finishing his hasty toilet in the tent and Jones half-heartedly was
trying to do the same while crouching as close to the fire as he very
well could do without falling in.

"Great Scott, Bill!" protested Paul in answer to Worth's call for
firewood. "Great Scott and also gee whiz! I'll bet I've toted
twenty-seven cords of wood into this camp already, and we've been here
just two days. I hope if ever you are married your wife will be
descended from four generations of railroad firemen and your coal house
will be half a mile from where you live! I just do, by ginger!"

And although Paul's words were decidedly softened by his tone of
pretended personal injury and suffering, Billy called, "Gangway!" in a
manner far more peremptory than sympathetic in reply. Up he came rushing
with the coffee pot and, uncertain whether some of its cold contents
might not be intended for his bare shoulders, Paul sprang quickly to one
side. Quite sprightly then, he completed his dressing in almost less
time than it takes to say it, and until breakfast was announced gathered
and carried up firewood as if he had whole train-loads to collect and
only a day in which to do it.

On part of all the boys there was the liveliest activity this Monday
morning. At last and at last, after all their months of planning, after
all the preparations and their long journey they were ready to explore
the secrets of the vast Ship woods. All talk of the automobile races,
all thought of the Chosen Trio's pursuit, thus far so ridiculously
fruitless, were forgotten. True, Mr. Gaines and his loving friends were
in Queensville; and true, that small city lay almost twenty miles
distant. Still what do twenty miles count with an automobile at one's
disposal? Yet even this thought did not more than once occur to the four
chums.

"Three stones piled one upon another to mark the place." Once more the
Auto Boys found themselves repeating many times the words which had been
the means of bringing them to the great woods. Once more they speculated
upon the probability of being able, in all this broad expanse of
timbered hills and dales, to find that one small spot where years before
the marker of stones had been erected.

Their search, it had been decided long ago, should be pursued
systematically. To roam through and through the woods, going at random
in this or that direction, would almost certainly result in a complete
failure to locate the object of their trip. The danger of becoming
hopelessly lost, far in the forest's interior, was still another
excellent reason for keeping steadily within lines of march agreed upon
before starting.

"Remember," said Billy Worth, "that the bark has the most moss on the
north side of the trees. Remember--"

"Oh, fiddle, Billy! You remember that there'll be the hungriest
quartette around here to-night that you ever had to cook for," broke in
Paul Jones. "Nobody's going to get lost!"

"Well, you remember, young fellow, that you're to be back to camp in
time to go for milk before supper," cried out Dave MacLester.

There were other parting sallies as Dave and Billy started out in one
direction and Phil and Paul another. A last admonition from Way, that
regardless of all else, and no matter what was or was not discovered,
all four were to meet in camp again at six o'clock, marked the
separation of the two searching parties. Yet even these were not the
last words spoken. Dave MacLester just could not resist his customary
prediction of ill-luck.

"Bet a dollar, right now, nobody finds a thing!" he called loudly. But
by this time he and Worth were high up on the crest of the ridge rising
above the camp. Phil and Paul were some distance away, heading straight
up the valley of the stream below.

Any one chancing to observe the boys as they thus set out would surely
have found his curiosity aroused by their accouterment. Each party
carried an axe and spade. In the hollow of Phil Way's arm was also a
small rifle. Billy Worth carried in addition to his spade a rather
formidable looking revolver. Paul Jones carried a noonday lunch for
himself and Phil in a small box slung over his shoulder like a
knap-sack. Similarly MacLester bore refreshment for himself and his
partner for the day.

"Pretty good fun if we _don't_ find anything," Dave found himself
admitting almost before the echo of his prediction of failure had died
away.

And was he right? The air was just pleasantly cool. The fragrance of the
forest's tender new leaves was everywhere. No sound but the distant
cawing of crows, and somewhere to the right the chirp of a squirrel
broke the silence save for the rustling leaves underfoot. The very hush
of the woods was eloquent with sweet sentiments. The dogwood blossoms
seen at intervals, and more frequently the wake-robins and adder's
tongues, contributed their touch of beauty to enhance such gentle
thoughts and feeling.

Buoyant and happy, the one eager with expectation, the other less
confident but very willing to find himself a poor prophet, the two lads
moved steadily, watchfully forward. Billy and Dave had been assigned to
all that part of the forest lying to the north of Camp Golden and
between the edge of the hillside above the creek and a long since
abandoned logging road which penetrated deep into the woods a quarter of
a mile to the east. It would keep them very busy to cover the ground at
all thoroughly before night.

"No, this ain't the great woods, though! Oh, I guess it's hardly any
woods at all! Very poor woods! Oh, yes! Very poor day, too!" With this
and other similar declarations, equally dignified and polished, Paul
Jones expressed the delighted state of his mind at about the same time
Dave was mentioning his own pleasure to Worth.

Phil Way acquiesced in all of Paul's words, paradoxical as it may
appear, for he really denied them. "There never was a grander day; and
isn't it a dandy, big woods!" he said. "Just makes a man feel like
soaring, though never before so conscious of his littleness and
downright insignificance. Why! the creek! these old trees! They were all
here and ages old long before we were on earth! They'll be here long
after we are gone, too, Paul. But oh! it is fine to be with them--to
enjoy them!"

The course Way and Jones were taking was to the north through the
valley. Between the east bank of the creek and the foot of the hill lay
a strip of woods ranging from one hundred to three hundred yards in
width. This was to be the field of their searching as they progressed to
the extreme northern limits of the forest. Returning, they would
traverse carefully the broad, sloping hillside, broken here and there by
precipitous ledges. So would they reach camp again, and the more open
valley near it.

"'Three stones piled one on top of another!' It will be along the hill,
I'm thinking, that we'll finally find them," observed Paul thoughtfully
to himself. Then, impressed by what he considered the importance of this
conclusion, he called out the substance of it to Phil, for the two were
keeping some distance apart in order that the least possible bit of
ground should escape their scrutiny.

"Well, don't forget there's something more than three stones to look
for," Way answered. "If you find anything that looks interesting, sing
out. I'll do the same."

It was a valley of romantic interest the two boys were exploring. Here
the creek foamed and bubbled into "suds" over and around obstructing
rocks or driftwood. Again it rested in deep, narrow pools. Beyond, in
gentle ripples the water gained speed again to go tumbling on and on in
miniature falls of a thousand different shapes and sizes, where its
course was rough and broken.

Years and years ago the Indian knew this valley and its adjacent wooded
hills and low plateaus as a favored hunting place. Later white hunters
and trappers here sought and found wild game,--the deer, the bear, the
panther, the wolf, and even the beaver.

Pioneer settlers followed in their turn. For the latter, however, the
country was too broken by rocky ledges and hills. The more level and
fertile lands offered greater attractions for their husbandry, so they
carried their work of clearing, ploughing and planting elsewhere.

For years after the country all about had been quite opened up, wild
game continued to be found in the rough region now known as the Ship
woods. It continued thus to be a hunting place. Men traveled many miles
to try their skill as sportsmen there, finding pigeons, wild turkeys and
smaller game for a great while after the last deer and the last bear
were gone.

At noon Phil and Paul came together beside a considerable waterfall of
the creek. Seated on a great beech tree, partially uprooted by the
undermining of the stream and now lying across it, the two ate their
lunch. No reward for their searching had yet come to them. Through the
screen of leaves and low bushes they could see in the distance a
farmhouse. It meant that the road bounding the Ship woods on the north
was very near.

"Humph! Didn't think we _would_ find anything right off," observed Paul,
philosophically. "But it wouldn't surprise me if we'd have some luck
this afternoon." And a minute later, as if fortifying himself against
disappointment,--a really wise thing for anyone to do where the element
of chance is a factor--"Then again," said he, "it wouldn't _surprise_ me
if we _didn't_."

But although Paul had thus plainly stated that he was not to be
surprised at any event, the fact remains that he gave a most joyful yell
a couple of hours later, in answer to Phil's loud signal,--"Guess we've
found something!"

"Not the three stones, but something pretty good, though!" Way called
again, easily, as Jones bounded forward. "It's slippery elm! Twenty
trees if there's one!"

"Good enough!" Paul cried enthusiastically. "Wish it had been the other
thing but anyhow we wanted slippery elm, too! We haven't failed
entirely, have we, Phil?"

Delighted as could be, Jones frisked about like a colt while with his
axe Way trimmed from a tree before him a long strip of bark. Then again
and again he pulled off shreds of the inner fiber and tasted them.

"Let me see!" Paul demanded. He sank his teeth into the interior surface
of a piece of the bark. It was soft and moist and had a peculiarly
sweetish taste. In one's mouth it seemed to be melting away and in a
smooth, oily manner like butter.

"Gee! It's slippery, all right!" ejaculated Paul, seriously, his lips
screwed up like the mouth of a jug, his nose all wrinkled.

"No doubt at all about it being slippery elm," replied Phil confidently.
"Only trouble is, it's not the best season for gathering it. Ought to be
taken in spring when the sap is flowing. The inside of the bark is just
the slipperiest thing then you ever saw."

"Twenty-six cents a pound. I remember the quotation we saw in the paper
as if it were only yesterday," observed Jones delightedly. "S'pose there
must be just hundreds of pounds in the trees right around here, Phil.
Won't weigh so much when it's dry though!" he added, his spirits falling
slightly.

"Only the inner bark is good, but even at that," Phil returned with
satisfaction, "even at that, we could gather a perfect stack of it in
almost no time. Won't Billy and Dave be glad?"

Carefully noting all surroundings,--the distance from the creek, the
bare knob or point on the hill yonder and various other landmarks,--that
they might easily find the place again, the two boys in due time
continued on. With them they carried extensive samples of their
discovery and both watched eagerly for more trees of the same kind while
pushing forward. But they did not forget they had other things for which
to search. They cautioned each other they must be as painstaking as to
this as they had been before.

How Worth and MacLester had been faring meanwhile may be told more
briefly, though they were even more fortunate. That part of the woods
penetrated by them lay quite dry and high. There was less underbrush
than on the lower levels. The saws and axes of the logging crews had
scarcely touched this portion of the forest. All was in quite the same
wild state as it had been a hundred years before.

Dave and Billy came upon a shack of brush piled over some supporting
poles late in the afternoon. Some hunter had erected the shelter the
preceding winter, perhaps. In any event, with its bed of leaves and
abundant shade, it offered a good place to have lunch and to rest.
Leaving their tools here, then, the boys descended into a valley beyond
to find water. There was a small brook there but its bed was quite dry.

"Good thing we have that bottle of cold coffee," observed Billy. "It'll
do for now. We'll get water sometime, or--"

His sentence was never finished. Suddenly his eyes had fallen upon a
low, broad-leafed plant. He gazed steadfastly for a few seconds. Then
Dave saw what it was that had so unexpectedly arrested Worth's attention
and--

"Ginseng!" he exclaimed. "Sure it's ginseng! I've seen the cultivated
kind!"

"I just happened to catch sight of it! Wasn't watching out for anything
just then at all!" said Billy excitedly.

"And here's some more!" cried MacLester in similar tones.

"Here, too,--a lot more! Six dollars a pound for it! Hurrah for us!" And
Billy ran for a spade. He wanted to make sure the plants had the forked
roots usually characteristic of ginseng.

"Now, Bill Worth, don't you go to counting any chickens before they're
hatched!" answered Dave. "There'll be some drawback, somewhere."

It was quite like young Mr. MacLester to make just such a prediction.

Yes, David MacLester, some drawbacks to be sure, yet without this bed of
ginseng never would the joys experienced in "_The Auto Boys' Race_" have
been your happy lot.

THE END.

       *       *       *       *       *

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