Now Steve was crawling silently out of the tent; and curious to know what it could mean, Max hastened to copy his example. When he wished, he could do some excellent stalking, and although Steve might have a good pair of ears he certainly showed no evidence of hearing any one come after him.
When Max found himself outside he saw the other moving softly away. He was in his bare feet, not having taken the time to slip on his shoes, as Max had done. This in itself looked queer. Steve ought to know that walking was not the most pleasant thing imaginable when going barefooted, even for such a short distance as lay between the spring and the tent.
The night air was also pretty chilly for a fellow clad only in pajamas, and coming fresh from a warm blanket. Yet Steve did not seem to mind that little thing, for he was moving steadily along, like an Indian brave going to the grand powwow.
Max had been thoughtful enough to take his blanket along with him; not only that but he had also picked up his rifle which was lying conveniently near; for Max had a streak of caution in his composition, and did not like to be taken unawares.
Well, there was Steve moving in the direction where they went to get their water. The tent had not been pitched exactly on the border of the little brooklet that ran from the bubbling spring, because there was really no necessity of this; and besides, the ground just there was not so well adapted to such a purpose.
"If he's after a drink well and good," Max was saying to himself as he started after the other boy; "and since the thing had been mentioned I believe I'm some thirsty myself, so that I could stand a gulp or two. That's mighty nice water, and we don't get anything as good in Carson. But Steve does act queer, for a fact. I wonder now if he can be up to his old tricks again."
Now, in times past Steve had been addicted to the bad habit of doing considerable walking in his sleep. He was himself fully convinced that he had outgrown the trouble; but Max believed it was liable to crop up again under certain conditions favorable to its growth, especially if his mind should happen to be worried.
In this case it could hardly be that, because he had not taken his gun along, as he might have done, if possessed by the idea that lions were prowling near, and that it was his duty, as the guardian self-appointed of the camp, to go out and scare them away.
Max noticed that the moon did not stay out all the time. It was pretty well up in the heavens by this time, and he figured from that it must be somewhere in the neighborhood of one o'clock; for long ago Max had learned the useful woodsman way of telling time very closely by observing the passage of the stars, and the moon, across the blue canopy overhead.
There were batches of clouds that from time to time drifted across the bright silvery face of the moon; and when this occurred a period of half darkness was apt to ensue.
But Max had no difficulty in keeping Steve in full view. This was rendered easy by the fact that the chum's pajamas were of a light color, and could be readily seen against the darker background of the forest.
Just as Max had suspected, he was making a bee-line for the spring. Awake or asleep, Steve was undoubtedly thirsty, and meant to indulge in a drink. Max had never heard of any one doing this when walking in their sleep; but he could remember Steve carrying out some very odd stunts while in this dormant condition, and he guessed it was possible.
He drew a little closer, though not meaning to do anything to arouse the other, who after getting his drink would possibly meekly return to the tent. In the morning Max would accuse him of sleepwalking, and if Steve indignantly denied it, Max could ask him to look at his feet, and demand if he was in the habit of going to bed with the soil of the woods on his soles.
All this flashed through the mind of the boy who followed close on the heels of the leader. He even decided to stand where Steve must surely notice him on his return, and in this way it would be easily settled whether the other were awake or walking in his sleep.
It is so easy to make plans, and yet the best of these may be smashed by some little unexpected happening.
So it was in this case.
Steve had almost reached the spring when all at once a shrill scolding screech rang out, cutting the stillness as with a sharp knife.
Max heard a heavy sound as of something striking the ground. He also caught the flutter of some hairy form that seemed to vanish amidst the branches of the big tree under which Steve chanced to be at the time.
It all happened so quickly, and without the least warning, that although Max was considered a very speedy boy, acting like a flash in a warmly contested game of baseball, he did not think to raise the gun he was gripping in one hand, holding his blanket about him with the other, until the thing, whatever it might be, was gone from his sight.
Steve had come to a rigid standstill the very second that screech made the echoes ring through the aisles of the forest; he seemed startled, amazed and apparently frozen stiff in his tracks.
THE MYSTERIOUS HAM THROWER
"Where am I? Oh! what was that fell alongside me? Who's throwing stones? Hello! Max, Toby, Bandy-legs, where are you all at?"
Steve had found his tongue apparently, and was shouting all this at the top of his voice. Max thought it high time he showed himself, so as to quiet the excitable chum.
"All right, Steve; I'm here at your elbow, you see," he remarked, stepping out into plainer view. "You've only been up to your old tricks again, and walking in your sleep. I think you must have had a bad case of thirst, for you started straight for the spring, and you see you nearly got there."
"You don't say?" ejaculated Steve, looking down in some dismay at his bare feet, and his now shivering figure, clad only in thin pajamas. "But what happened, Max? Sure that was a terrible screech that woke me up; and I tell you I heard some heavy thing bump on the ground close by me!"
"So did I, Steve," added the other; "let's look and see."
Five seconds later and Max gave utterance to a bubbling cry.
"Great Caesar!" exclaimed Steve, staring at the object the other bent over and picked up; "this is the funniest thing that ever happened to me, Max. Why, if it ain't raining hams up here in the woods! Some farmer's smoke-house must have blown up, and we get the benefit."
"Wait a little, Steve," said Max, solemnly; "take another look, will you? Perhaps you'll notice that this is only half a ham."
"Why, so it is, Max."
"Look closer, and tell me if you've ever seen it before," Max continued, holding the smoked meat up so that Steve could see better.
"Oh! then you recognize it, do you, Steve?"
"Why, yes, I seem to, Max," admitted the other, staring first at the section of ham and then upwards toward the tree from which it had apparently descended, aimed so as to strike him; "but what's our ham doing away off here, tell me that, will you? We didn't fasten it to this tree, but the one close to our tent; so we'd know if anything came nosing, around."
"All right, Steve; it looks as if something did come nosing around, without any one of us being the wiser. And that creature, whatever it may have been, was carrying the ham away when it thought you must be following below; so what does it do but let out a screech of fury, and whang, the ham straight down at you."
"Gee! ain't I glad though he didn't happen to be the pitcher of his nine, because he might have made a better shot; and if that seven pound piece of smoked pork had taken me on the coco I'd have seen more stars than there are up above us now."
"Yes, Steve, it's sometimes better to be born lucky than rich," Max told him; "but there the other boys are calling to us, and wanting to know what it's all about. As you're beginning to shiver you'd better turn around and trot back to where you left your blanket, don't you think?"
Steve had a terribly stubborn streak in his composition. He proved it right then and there.
"I'm shivering, all right," he remarked, with chattering teeth, "but I reckon it's more because of the excitement than that I'm cold. Anyway, if I had the good sense to make my way out here in my sleep just because I was thirsty, why, seems like it'd be too bad to get disappointed; so I'm going to have a drink, no matter what happens."
With which he deliberately passed on a dozen paces, reached the spring, and taking the tin cup they kept there proceeded to slake his thirst. Max could not help admiring his grit, even though believing that Steve would be wiser if he forgot his thirst and hurried to the shelter of his blanket.
"Course you mean to carry the ham back with you, Max?" he inquired, as he once more joined the other.
"I should say so," Max told him; "and after this we'll have to be more careful about our smoked meat, unless we want to feed every animal up here. They're smart enough to get on to that racket of hanging it from a limb. We'll keep it inside the tent, and they can only get it by creeping over us as we sleep, which would be a risky thing to do, I'm thinking."
"Any idea what sort of a thing that animal in the tree was?" asked Steve, as he cast an uneasy look aloft, doubtless wondering whether the fierce beast held a grudge against him for having caused it to relinquish its dinner; so that after that he would be a marked boy.
"I couldn't say," Max replied, slowly. "I only had a glimpse of something moving up there, and then it was gone. The moon happened to be behind a cloud at the time, and that helped to fool me. All I can say is that it was a big animal, and not a 'coon or 'possum."
"Whew! some people keep on saying they never did get that tiger back after the storm set the animals free from the cages," Steve said, uneasily.
"Hello! there, what's all this row about?" Bandy-legs called out just then, for the returning pair had drawn near the khaki colored tent, where they discovered their chums standing with guns in their hands, and blankets swathed around their lightly clad figures, looking for all the world like a couple of mummies, or as Max afterwards told them, like Mexican peons with their ponchos.
"Yes, that's what we want to k-k-know!" added Toby.
"Oh! Steve here got thirsty while he was sleeping, and stepped out to go to the spring for a drink," Max informed them. "I happened to see him, and took a notion I'd follow and see that he didn't come to any harm. Then some animal up in a tree, thinking Steve was going to get after him, threw this down to him, and let out a screech that beat anything I've heard this long while."
"Why, that's a half a ham!" ejaculated the astonished Bandy-legs.
"Our h-h-ham, in the b-b-bargain!" shrilled Toby.
"Just what it is," Max continued; "you see, the rascal had actually stolen it, and was making off when he saw Steve below, and got angry. It came mighty near hitting our chum on the head, which would have floored him good and hard. So he was lucky to escape as he did."
"And we're lucky to get our ham back!" Bandy-legs argued, as though after all that were the main point—which from a boy's standpoint it certainly was.
Meanwhile Steve had dodged under the canvas, and presently reappeared, also swathed in his blanket. He was still too much excited to think of sleeping, and consequently meant to stand it out with the rest. Perhaps curiosity had also something to do with the matter, for he would wish to know what Bandy-legs and Toby thought about the species of animal that had carried their smoked meat off.
Their tongues did certainly wag at a great rate for a spell. All sorts of suggestions were made, some of them fairly good, and others bordering on the ridiculous. Toby was for believing that it must have been a tiger, or at the very least one of those terrible spotted leopards they remembered seeing walking up and down in its cage, as though always hoping to get out to its missing mate.
"And they s-s-say leopards have got the w-w-worst k-k-kind of tempers," he insisted, when some of the others threw doubt on this idea.
"Well, whatever it is," Max concluded, "it acted like it was mad at Steve here for walking in his sleep."
"Don't blame the critter much, either," muttered Bandy-legs; "because any feller that would be guilty of doing such monkey-shines ought to have a whole ham flung at his head every time."
"Hold on there," said Steve, sharply; "that's always the way with you fellows. Why, you ought to be voting me a bunch of thanks right now, instead of hauling me over the coals like you're doing."
"Oh! is that so, Steve?" cried Bandy-legs, with considerable of satire in his voice.
"Sure it is," the other went on to say, unblushingly. "Supposin' now I'd just continued to hit the hay, and snored on like you two seemed to have done, what's the answer?"
Bandy-legs and Toby exchanged puzzled looks.
"W-w-whatever do you m-m-mean, Steve?" asked the latter.
"How about that fine ham? When, you looked around everywhere for it to-morrow morning and couldn't find the same high or low, you'd wish Steve Dowdy might have had a little walking fit on, and saved your bacon for you, eh?"
Max laughed at hearing that.
"I guess Steve's got it on you, boys, this time," he remarked. "It seems that in some cases walking in your sleep may turn out to be the right thing. We do owe him something, because it saved our ham this time. But all the same he's got to stop the habit before it gets him into a peck of trouble."
"I s-s-say we p-p-put a rope on him nights," Toby ventured, with emphasis. "Then if he tries to s-s-slope he'll find himself p-p-pulled up with a round turn."
"Hey, you just try it, that's all!" Steve told him. "What d'ye take me for, a horse, to be staked out nights, or hobbled and all that? I give you fair warning right now that whenever we're in danger of losing some of our belongings, if I take a notion to step out and walk in my sleep in order to save the same, I'm going to do it. Get that, don't you, Bandy-legs?"
In spite of all their exchange of views it seemed that after all they were no nearer a reasonable solution of the puzzle than in the start.
"We'll look around in the morning and see if it left any tracks," Max suggested, after it seemed as though they had reached the finish of the matter so far as deciding on the species of animal went.
"That's the best thing said yet," ventured Steve; "and as usual it was left for Max to hit in with it. So, let's see if we can go to sleep again."
They crawled inside the tent and adjusted their blankets again. Max noticed that Bandy-legs changed his position somewhat. As he now lay no one could crawl out of the tent by way of the regular exit without brushing across his recumbent figure more or less. The other did not say anything as to why he did this, but Max could give a pretty good guess.
Steve was too sleepy to pay any attention to what was going on, or he might have taken Bandy-legs to task for trying to play sentry over him, knowing that he must be in the other's mind when he laid this trap.
"We want you to notice, Steve," Bandy-legs told him the last thing, "that Max fetched a bucket of fresh water in from the spring just now; and so if you happen to get thirsty again before morning, just help yourself. It'll save you a lot of trouble."
"Well, seeing that we've got all our grub inside here now, and there's nothing more to be hooked, I guess I'll keep quiet. But you want to be careful how you steal my thunder when the credit's passing around."
Saying which, Steve hid his head under the folds of his blanket, and they knew he had spoken his last word.
The others relapsed into silence, and before long all of them had gone soundly asleep. Nor was there any further alarm during the balance of that first night in camp.
When Mas crawled out again dawn had come, and in fact the sun was peeping up in the east. First Max looked to see that Ebenezer was all right; for he had felt a little uneasy concerning the horse. He found that the animal was already beginning to gather in what grass lay around him, and apparently had not a care in the wide world.
Then the next thing he did was to pass over to the tree in which they had secured the ham and bacon, although later on removing everything to a more secure place of storage inside the tent.
Max carefully examined the ground underneath this tree. He was a pretty fair woodsman, and believed he could easily discover any imprint of padded feet such as would indicate the presence of a tiger. But in spite of going over every yard of the soil as much as three times, Max was finally obliged to admit that there did not seem to be any clue. He could not find any track such as would tell of an animal having been there on the previous night.
This set him to thinking along another line. Apparently then the beast must have entered the tree from another one close by. It was reasonable, and he saw it could have been easily done by even a gray squirrel, for the branches interlocked in several places.
This seemed the more convincing when Max remembered that the ham had been flung bodily out of another tree, showing that the thief was making off without touching the ground at the time.
"Well, seems like it's going to keep right on being a mystery," Max told himself as he gave the quest up; "just as that roaring sound last night may never be solved. Perhaps there are a number of strange wild beasts at large up here; and that our little outing is going to be an exciting one after all."
"Yes," added Steve, who had come out of the tent in time to hear Max say the last of this, "and don't it beat all how things do come around our way, to give us a grand time? When you look back for the time we've been chumming together you can see heaps of happenings that other fellows would give most anything to have cross their trail. But we've got nearly a whole week up here to ourselves, Max; and I say it will be mighty funny if we can't guess the answer to a silly little question like this: Who killed Cock Robin? Or take it the other way, Who tried to knock my brains out with half a ham! And listen here, another night I'm meaning to sit up and see if I can't get a crack at the miserable old thief with my Marlin gun. He'll be sorry the rest of his natural life if he comes nosing around here again."
Steve meant every word he spoke, and Max could see that he had been considerably worked up by what had happened.
Of course they would have numerous other things to engage their attention during this, their first day in camp; but nevertheless from time to time their thoughts must go out toward the little mystery by which they were confronted; and this was apt to start fresh talk about solving the same.
"MILLIONS FOR DEFENSE!"
That was indeed a busy day for all of the boys in camp.
They had numerous things that they wished to do, and turned from one to another in rotation. It might have been noticed too, that they were a little nervous for all they made light of the possibility of meeting some strange beast whenever they went away from the camp ground.
This was shown particularly when Steve and Toby took a notion during the middle of the morning that they would try the fishing over at the pond. If the pickerel declined to bite they might at least pick up some good-sized frogs; so they went prepared for both things; but they also took their guns along, which was a little strange, because they would hardly need them in trying to land either fish or frogs.
Steve had his minnow seine, with which they could doubtless secure plenty of live bait. Then from selected positions along the bank they meant to cast their lines out, hoping to land a few finny prizes that would vary the bill of fare for supper.
All of this was carried out to the letter; the minnows were easily secured, and kept alive in a little shallow pond made by banking up mud on the border of the larger sheet of water. Then they baited their hooks, and cast out, with the fisherman's habitual hope actuating their actions.
The pickerel proved to be both hungry and accommodating, for they soon began to take hold savagely. Several fine fish were landed after a fierce struggle that afforded the anglers more or less pleasure; and they felt encouraged to keep up the sport, assured of plenty for a meal.
When the fish were taken from the hooks they were strung on a stout cord, and kept in the water, so that they would remain fresh longer. Toby would not keep far away from this place long at a time.
"What ails you anyway?" Steve several times called out; "why don't you try a new place like I do?"
Finally the stuttering boy condescended to inform him.
"S-s-seems like this place is as g-g-good as any," he said; "and then p'raps you think I've g-g-gone and forgot all about how that b-b-bear got away with our fish the time we were up at Trapper Jim's p-p-place?"
"Oh! then you're half expecting to have a big bear step out of that brush yonder, and start to carrying away our catch, eh?" Steve demanded. "Well, perhaps it might happen, who knows? After a fellow's gone and had half a ham thrown at his head by some animal up in a tree he's ready to believe near anything. If one does come, Toby, be sure you give a yelp so I could get started on the run. Bear steak wouldn't go halfway bad; and it'd be all the same if he was tame or wild, I'm thinking."
Although after that both boys continued to keep one suspicious eye on the neighboring woods, and made sure that their guns were always ready, nothing happened. It might be they were somewhat disappointed, because both had a streak of love for adventure in their composition, and would possibly have welcomed the excitement that must follow the appearance of a real live bear.
The string of pickerel and perch they carried back to camp aroused the others to enthusiastically admit that Steve and Toby certainly took the premium for catching the wary denizens of the pond. They found themselves delegated to repeat the performance on succeeding days, as long as their appetite for fresh fish remained good.
That afternoon Toby set to work making what he confidentially told Steve was to be a trap. If the unknown animal came prowling around again on the ensuing night, perhaps it would be sorry for trespassing without an invitation.
Just what sort of an arrangement this was going to be he would not declare, but promised to explain it all to them later on.
"Who'll go with me over to the farmer's, to get some fresh eggs and milk?" asked Max, a short time after they had eaten lunch.
"Now don't all look at me that way," Bandy-legs remarked, "because I'm ready to be the victim as soon as I get my second wind, which'll be in about half an hour longer."
"That's always the way with him," Steve complained; "he eats so much that for a whole hour or so he's just logy, and not fit for anything. Now Toby and me think we did our share when we caught that nice lot of fish this morning."
"Didn't you hear me say I was meaning to go with Max!" demanded the other, bridling up. "Well, there's no need for hurrying so. It's a long walk there and back. I'm just wondering whether we ought to take a gun along."
"What for, to shoot the bull if you meet him?" asked scornful Steve.
"Oh! you never can tell," replied the other; "and I noticed that you was mighty careful to lug yours along when you went after fish. Thought a big pickerel'd jump out of the water and chase you, p'raps. Careful how you let fish take a bite out of your leg, ain't you? Well, we might run across some savage animal that'd be a heap worse than a pickerel's sharp teeth."
"I'll carry a gun if you think best," Max remarked; "but as we'll have eggs and milk to tote back with us it might be in the way."
"Just as you say, Max," Bandy-legs continued, nodding to himself in a wise way, as though he had determined on a certain course for himself, which he did not consider it necessary to explain to all the rest.
When the two left camp Steve was climbing a tree with the avowed intention of closely examining the limb from which the smoked meat had been hung.
"A cat, big or little, has got claws," he remarked, as if to explain his actions; "and I guess it might leave some scratches on the bark that would help explain things. Anyhow no harm done trying to see how far my theory will go. Good luck, fellows, and don't you get lost now."
"No danger of that when Max is along," replied Bandy-legs, confidently, as he and his chum strode away.
They knew the location of the farm, because several times that morning there had been borne to their ears the distant barking of a watchdog; and Max had taken special pains to locate the direction from which the sound came. All they would have to do was to keep heading straight into the west until they struck the cleared ground, when the rest would be easy enough.
"The boys have promised to keep the fire going while we're gone," Max told his comrade, as they walked along in company, following what seemed to be a fair trail that led in the right direction, "and to feed it with green wood pretty much all the time."
"Green wood!" echoed Bandy-legs, looking puzzled.
"So as to make more of a black smoke, which will be of considerable help to us in finding our way back to camp," Max informed him.
"Ok, yes, I see," Bandy-legs went on, shooting a look full of admiration toward his companion; "it certainly does take you to think up the best things ever. Now, that wouldn't have occurred to me in a thousand years."
"This walking isn't so bad after all, is it?" asked Max, quick to change the subject when he saw signs of the other breaking out in praise of his woodcraft.
"That's right," his chum admitted; "only I hope we don't meet up with anything that's going to make us sorry we didn't fetch a gun along."
"Not much chance of that," Max argued.
"But then you know there is something loose in this neck of the woods that's got us guessing. What it can be beats my time. A tiger'd most likely pounced on poor old Ebenezer, and paid mighty little attention to our smoked meat; he'd want the fresh stuff right off the reel."
Bandy-legs making a misstep just about then, and almost rolling down a little declivity, found that he had better pay more attention to his gait and talk less; so for some time they walked along in silence.
"There, did you hear that?" Max asked him, presently.
"It certainly was a rooster crowing," the other admitted.
"And right ahead of us, too," Max continued; "which goes to show that we've been hitting the right trail."
"No thanks to me though, Max, because if I'd followed my bent we'd have changed our course more than six times. I thought I knew something about keeping a straight track, but I'm away off."
Some boys seem to take to these things just as naturally as a duck does to water. There are others who do not appear to have the elements in them for making woodsmen, no matter how much they try. Bandy-legs was apparently of this latter class. Now and then he might flash up, and do something creditable, but it was only to fall back into his old careless ways again, and depend on others to do the hard thinking for him.
Five minutes later, and he gave a little shout.
"There's the farmhouse ahead of us, Max, with all the outbuildings in the bargain. Hope we can get the eggs and milk all right, because we've come a long way for the same. And there isn't anything I like better when camping out than plenty of hen fruit, together with the lacteal fluid from the cows. Whew! here's trouble with a big T all right! Look at the size of that Towser makin' for us, would you? Let him take a bite, and there wouldn't be much calf left."
"Ok! I don't know, you're pretty good-sized, Bandy-legs," said Max with a chuckle; but all the same he looked about him, and hastened to pick up a stout stick that chanced to be lying near by.
"Where's the mate to that, Max; see anything for me around? We've got to teach him we believe in the old motto, 'Millions for defense; not one cent for tribute.' What about those guns of ours; wouldn't they come in handy right now to keep him off! Get out, you scamp; what are you making straight for me about? I haven't lost any dog that I know of. Why don't you sick Max there; he's got something for you. Hi! keep away, I tell you!"
The large and savage dog seemed bent on taking a firm grip of Bandy-legs. Perhaps he may have rather fancied his build, and believed it would be easier to pounce on a boy with bow-legs than another who stood five foot-ten in height. Then again the fact that Max was swinging that stout stick vigorously may have had more or less to do with the beast selecting the shorter chum as his intended victim.
Bandy-legs skipped about in a lively fashion, trying to keep himself away from "entangling alliances" with those shiny white teeth. He also succeeded in giving the animal several hard kicks; but instead of discouraging the beast this rough reception seemed to make him the more determined to accomplish his purpose.
Max could hardly follow their movements, they swung around so rapidly. He meant to rush in at the very first opening, so as to rescue his chum, for he saw that Bandy-legs was in a pretty bad way, with that savage brute leaping again and again at him.
He might get his legs twisted as he sometimes did, and take a fall, when the dog would pounce on him like a shot, and perhaps mangle him badly. For this reason Max was bent on joining issue with the dog, and letting him feel the hardness of the club he had picked up.
There was no chance for him to do this, good though his intentions may have been.
Suddenly in the midst of the savage growling and chasing about he heard Bandy-legs cry out exultantly:
"You will have it, then? Now, there's five more left if you're greedy!"
Hardly had he spoken than the big dog began to howl most mournfully. Max could hardly believe his eyes when he saw him writhing and twisting as if in agony, at the same time trying to rub his head with his forepaws.
"What did you do to him?" Max cried; but he might just as well have saved his breath, for he saw what Bandy-legs was holding up, and he knew that the other had been wise enough to fetch along with him a little squirtgun called an "ammonia pistol," which those on bicycles who are troubled by dogs chasing them, often carry in order to teach the brutes a much needed lesson.
It may seem cruel to send a charge of pungent ammonia or hartshorn into the eyes of a dog, but used with discretion such punishment is far better than that the rider suffer a fall and possibly a broken neck, or be mauled by a savage brute which he has not harmed in the least.
"Good-bye, Towser, old fellow!" cried Bandy-legs, mockingly, as the dog started full-tilt for the farmhouse, yelping dolefully as he ran. "Next time get wise to the fact that things ain't always as green as they look. Took me for an easy mark, didn't you, but if I am a little crooked about the pins, that doesn't mean I'm not on to a few games. Come again when you can't stay so long. Tra-la-la!"
Bandy-legs was evidently in a good humor, and felt like shaking hands with himself. To get out of a bad scrape, and without the least bit of assistance from anybody was a feather in his cap; and he believed that he had good reason to feel tickled over it.
"You got rid of the dog all right, old fellow," Max told him; "but look what's bearing down on us now, full sail!"
"My stars! it's the dog's mistress, all right; and say, don't she look like she means business from the word go, though? Hadn't we better run for it, Max? Sure I have enough stuff left for five more shots; but gee! whiz! you wouldn't want me to treat a lady to that sort of thing, would you? She's getting closer all the while, Max."
"Yes, I can see she is," returned the other, calmly.
"Say, you may be all right, because you didn't have anything to do with the shooting up of her pet; but what about me? I'm going to clear out, Max."
"No, don't do it, Bandy-legs," urged the other; "stay where you are, and leave it to me. I think I can fix it up, all right."
And really, such confidence did Bandy-legs seem to have in the powers of his companion that, although he shivered as he saw the approach of the farmer's wife, still he manfully stood his ground.
THE WILD ANIMAL TRAP
The woman who rapidly bore down on the two boys had fire in her eye. She evidently believed she had cause for feeling angry, since it was her dog that had gone howling toward the house.
Somehow she seemed to guess which one of the two lads had been the cause of the wretched animal's misery. Bandy-legs had perhaps been seen in close connection with the raging beast just before the change in the latter's tune came, and the vicious snappy bark became a frightened yelp.
"What do you mean, you young scamp, hurting my watchdog on his own ground? Don't you know I could have the law on you for that? And what's that you've got in your hand there? Looks like a pistol to me. Why, the impudence of you coming in here and actually shooting my poor Carlo!"
The farmer's wife said all this as she continued to advance toward Bandy-legs. She was large, and looked as though she might almost take a chap of his size across her knee, if she felt like it.
Bandy-legs wanted to turn and melt away, but he hated to show the white feather the worst kind. As this was an antagonist against whom he was debarred from using force he therefore looked appealingly toward Max, who had promised to get him out of the scrape.
At the same time he held up the little contrivance he had in his hand.
"Yes'm, this is a pistol, but not the kind you mean," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking, and to be as respectful as possible. "It holds just a little mite of ammonia, and is used by bicycle riders to keep savage dogs from tearing them to pieces. I had to try it on Carlo because he was just bound to take a bite out of my leg; and you know I can't spare any."
She looked down at Bandy-legs' rather crooked lower extremities, and the faintest flicker of a smile crossed her angry face.
Just then Max put in an entering wedge.
"How d'ye do, Mrs. Ketcham? I didn't expect we were coming to your house when we started out from our camp to try and get some fresh eggs and milk. Of course I did know you lived up in this region somewhere. But my chum wasn't to blame at all, Mrs. Ketcham, I give you my word for it. And Carlo will get over the pain in a short time. I hope you won't hold it against us."
Apparently the farmer's wife had not taken a good look at Max up to then. Her entire attention had been focussed on the guilty party, whom she meant to intimidate with her righteous anger.
It was astonishing what a sudden change came over her rather vinegary face as she recognized Max. The fact of the matter was, that she had been supplying his folks with fresh butter and eggs for several years, and accounted them among her best customers, going in twice a week to deliver her goods.
When poor shivering Bandy-legs saw that change in the expression of her thin face he experienced the most delightful sensation. It was similar to what a fellow might pass through when he had been hauled up from over a precipice after hanging to a bush the roots of which were slowly but surely giving way.
"Why, is it you, Max!" the woman exclaimed, her face breaking out with a smile that made her look quite like a different person; "I'm real glad to see you up at the farm. And if this other boy is a friend of yours, why, of course I'll have to forgive him for hurting my poor old Carlo. Perhaps he had to do it, as he says; and my husband does say the dog is getting a little ugly in his old age. We'll forget it then. What's your friend's name, Max? Seems to me I ought to know him."
"He's Doctor Griffin's boy, Clarence," Max hastened to reply; "and as good a fellow as any one would want to know; but he always does object to letting dogs take a piece out of his legs, and that's why he carries that ammonia gun with him most of the time."
"Oh! I thought I had seen him before, but I wasn't sure," she observed, nodding her head; "but then I should have remembered so remark—that is, such a good-looking boy. And I'm going to begin delivering eggs at his house on my very next trip to Carson, too. That's queer, isn't it? Clarence, shake hands with me, and excuse me for seeming to be angry. We have tramps come here so often, and they always shy stones at Carlo, so that when I heard him howling I thought some of that tribe had hurt him. I can let you have all the eggs you want, just laid, and the richest Jersey milk you ever saw. Come up to the house, both of you."
It was all smooth sailing now, and Bandy-legs was glad he had stood up for his rights. He would never have held his own respect had he allowed that beast to get a nip at him while able to fight against it, no matter whose dog he might be.
Once at the farmhouse and they were treated like honored guests. Mrs. Ketcham, as though desirous of making amends for her first outburst, insisted on their accepting a bumper glass of fresh buttermilk each; and this was accompanied by several real home-made doughnuts such as the boys had seldom tasted before.
She loaned them a covered pail so that they could carry the milk from her prize Jersey herd of cows back to camp; while several dozen snowy white eggs from Leghorn fowls were placed in a basket, and so guarded that they could not be broken by any ordinary little jolt.
It was just as well that these precautions were taken, Max thought; for he knew some of the failings of his chum, and one of them was in the line of making frequent stumbles, when there was the least reason for tripping over roots or stones that might lie in the path.
When Max and Bandy-legs finally started back to camp their pockets fairly bulged with winter apples that had been kept over in the cool cellar belonging to the farm, where fruit and vegetables were held in stock through the cold months of the winter.
"Turned out a lucky day after all, didn't it?" remarked Max, laughingly, as they both walked along, each with one hand free to take care of the apple they were munching at the time.
"You're right it did," his chum replied, with fervor, and then he sighed as he continued; "but there was a time when I thought I'd tumbled out of the fryingpan into the fire. It seemed tough enough battling with Carlo; but the way she looked at me, like she could eat me up, was a whole lot worse. But then that was all put on, I guess; and anyhow I'm ready to vote Mrs. Ketcham a trump. She makes the bulliest doughnuts ever, and her buttermilk is—well, it beats the Dutch!"
When they finally reached camp it was without any further adventure. They had seen no sign of any wild animal on the way, a fact Bandy-legs was glad to be able to report when Steve and Toby wanted to know about their trip.
The camp was now in good trim. Lots of little things could be done from time to time, that might add to their comfort. Nails had been driven into trees upon which they hung their cooking utensils; so that each article could be found whenever wanted. Steve had improved on the fireplace, too, having noticed that it had not been built so as to get the most favorable draught, for the prevailing winds would be apt to come from the southwest during their stay, and the front should face that way to secure the best results.
Then Toby had made a nice drain around the upper side of the tent. This was intended to shed the water in case a heavy rain set in, as it was apt to do, this being April weather. There is nothing more uncomfortable when camping than to find that the tent leaks, or that on account of the lay of the land water keeps coming in to make everything soggy, when a little precaution would have prevented such a happening.
Toby had finished his trap, and proudly exhibited the same to the chums who had just returned.
"You s-s-see," he remarked, as he led them forward to where a young sapling seemed to be trying to form a bow in the air, held down by some invisible influence, "it's a very old idea, and I don't c-c-claim to be the inventor. This sapling is h-h-hickory, and she's got a d-d-dickens of a s-s-spring too. It was all S-s-steve and me could do to bend her d-d-down so the n-n-notch I cut in the end could be caught on the p-p-peg I drove in the g-g-ground. You can see how she works, with that l-l-loop of stout rope trailin' along here."
"I reckon you mean to have some attractive bait on the ground, so as to draw the prowler here," suggested Max. "Yes, I've read of traps like this before, though I never used one. They catch crocodiles with them in some places, besides all other kinds of things."
"The idea is this, I take it," Bandy-legs proceeded to say; "when the animal is nosing around after the bait he gets a leg caught in this loop, which pulls tighter and tighter the harder he jerks, till in the end it draws the notched end of the bent sapling free, and of course the same shoots up straight. That takes the animal up with it, if he happens to be small; and holds his hind quarters elevated if he's bigger. That the way, Toby?"
"T-t-thank you for explaining it for me, Bandy-legs," the other quickly remarked.
"I think you deserve a lot of credit for doing such a good job, Toby," Max told the trapper, for he had taken note of the fact that everything connected with the wild animal trap seemed exceeding well done.
"And that hickory sapling does look like it was the toughest bow ever," Bandy-legs affirmed. "Why, I wouldn't be surprised if it could jerk a feller of even my heft up in the air, and hold him upside-down, so he'd look like he was walkin' on his hands."
"W-w-want to t-t-try it?" demanded the constructor, eagerly.
"You'll have to excuse me this time," Bandy-legs answered, apologetically; "you see I've been having all the exercise that's good for me already to-day, what with the four mile walk, and that little circus with Carlo. But I'm willing to take your word for it, Toby, that it'll do the business O.K. And I only hope now some sneaker gets his hind Trilby caught in that loop. It'd give me a whole lot of satisfaction to see a wolf or a striped hyena handing up by his rear kicker, and whooping like all get-out for help."
The sun no longer shone in the friendly way that had marked the earlier hours of this, their first day in camp. Clouds had gathered and covered the sky, so that the air seemed even chilly.
"Feels like we might get some rain before a great while," Max gave as his opinion, and there was no dissenting voice, much though the rest would have liked to argue the other way, for they had hoped to have a spell of fine weather accompany their trip to the woods.
"I had that in mind," remarked Steve, "when I started to lay in a stock of good dry firewood. You see, here's a splendid place to keep it in, under the upturned roots of this fallen tree. If the rain does come it'll hardly heat in there, and things are apt to keep fairly dry. How about that, Max?"
"A good idea, Steve, and I say we had better get busy and gather all the stuff lying around. When you strike a rainy day in camp it's wonderful what a lot of wood you can use up."
"And it feels hunky to have plenty, I'm telling you," Bandy-legs admitted. "Now, while I'm thinking up what we ought to have for supper the rest of you might just as well get busy dragging all the loose wood to cover. It'll be good exercise, and give you a sharp appetite for the spread I'll set before you later on."
Perhaps the others may have considered that Bandy-legs was pretty "nervy" talking in this way, for he was known to be the poorest cook of the lot; but then he had been mysteriously hinting of late that he had been taking a course of lessons in cookery from the accomplished Nora who presided in the Griffin kitchen; and in consequence Max and Steve and Toby were quite curious to learn whether he could manage to get a decent meal together.
Things moved along smoothly, though several times Bandy-legs forgot just what the combination was, and had to call for help in order not to spoil the omelette he was making. In the end it proved to be a pretty decent supper he spread before them; and they agreed that his reputation as a chef had been considerably improved since the last time they were in the woods together up at Trapper Jim's place.
"I told you I could do it," Bandy-legs exultantly declared when they complimented him on his success; "there isn't much I couldn't do if only I really and truly set out to try."
"I w-w-wish then you'd just make up your m-m-mind to try how strong that hickory s-s-sapling is," urged Toby, entreatingly. "It'd give me a h-h-heap of satisfaction to j-j-just satisfy my mind. You'd be about as h-h-hefty as a wolf or a tiger, you s-s-see; and if it dragged you up all r-r-right, it ought to w-w-work with them. P-p-please accommodate me, Bandy-legs."
But apparently his coaxing was of no avail.
"I'd like to do it all right, Toby, but while I'm not tired now like I was before, it's too soon after supper to be yanked around, and turned upside-down that way," Bandy-legs explained, seeming to be very reluctant.
"L-later on, mebbe, then?"
"Why, er, I'm afraid it might wake me up too much just before going to my blanket, you see, Toby. It's a bad thing to get too active when you ought to be hitting the hay, and feel dopey. I've heard my dad say so lots of times. Keeps you wakeful all through the first part of the night. But that trap's all right, I'm tellin' you, Toby. If only some animal big enough to jerk the bow free comes along and sets his hind foot in your loop, you're going to hear something drop."
"I know what I'm meaning to do," said Steve, firmly; "and that's to keep my gun handy, so if we get waked up by a lot of screeching, like the world was coming to an end, I'll be ready to crawl out and wind up the career of the escaped menagerie beast, whatever it turns out to be."
"D-d-don't you be too q-q-quick on the trigger, Steve," pleaded Toby. "G-g-give us all a chance first to see what it's l-l-like. Mebbe we might want to keep it alive."
"What for?" demanded Steve, aggressively.
"A p-p-pet," replied Toby; "lots of p-p-people have pets, and think what it'd mean to me if I g-g-got a h-h-hyena in a c-c-cage."
"Yes, to be sure," scoffed the unconvinced Steve, "and also think what it would mean to all the neighbors too. According to my mind the only good hyena is a dead hyena. And if so be you ketch that sort in your bully trap I'm meaning to knock spots out of the same with a charge of buckshot. That goes, too, Toby, remember!"
TOO TRICKY FOR TOBY
Later on Toby busied himself baiting his trap. Bandy-legs was invited to assist in the operation, but he declined. Perhaps he partly suspected the other had some sinister motive back of his invitation, and that when he least expected it that trailing loop would get twisted around one of his ankles, and his next step might precipitate an upheaval. Of course Toby could always declare that it must have been an accident; but his curiosity would have been satisfied at any rate. And Bandy-legs was firmly opposed to allowing himself to be experimented on. He had heard his father speak so many times of the horror of vivisection that somehow Bandy-legs seemed to have imbibed the idea that all experiments must be unpleasant.
At least it had not rained any at the time the boys sought their blankets; and some of the more sanguine began to hope it would prove to be a false alarm after all.
They had fixed things as well as they could, looking to a bad turn in the weather. If it did come they would have a sort of rustic shelter under which they could manage to keep their fire going, and in that way get some warmth in the tent.
"Come along in, Toby, and quit your fussing out there!" Steve called, as he settled himself under his warm blanket, having chosen a position where he could duck out easily in case there came an alarm in the night.
"P'raps Toby's meaning to try his trap himself before he lays down," suggested Bandy-legs, a little viciously; "he'll sure never be happy till he knows whether it works or not. We'll take you down, Toby, if you get hung up by the hind leg."
"H-h-hind leg!" retorted Toby indignantly, "what d-d-do you take me for, anyhow? Mebbe you think I'm a c-c-cow or a j-j-jackass, but I ain't, all the s-s-same; I leave it to others to p-p-play such g-g-games."
As he came in shortly afterward it was apparent that Bandy-legs had counted without his host when he figured that Toby meant to test the working of his trap at his own expense. Toby was too smart for that, it seemed; and besides he doubtless had confidence in his arrangements.
"Here goes for a bully sleep," said Bandy-legs, as he coiled up under his cover, with his knees close to his chin, a favorite attitude with him; "and I hope nothing wakes me till morning."
"If you sleep as sound as you generally do," Max told him, "it would take a hurricane to bother you. If one came whooping along, and carried our tent up into the tree, the chances are you'd open one eye and want to know who was making all that draught. You're a good sleeper, Bandy-legs, and your mother knows it, too."
"I believe in doing everything well," replied the other, sturdily. "When I eat I eat; and when the time comes to snooze take it from me I'm on the sleeping job from the word go. That's all you'll hear from me to-night, boys."
"Good!" said Steve, wickedly, "the rest of us can do a little thinking, then. Let it go at that, Bandy-legs; no reply needed. I'm expecting to go to sleep myself, for while I did say I meant to sit up and watch for that ham thief, since Toby's been so smart as to set a trap, what's the use?"
Presently all of them must have fallen asleep, to judge from the silence that hovered over the interior of the khaki-colored tent.
Some time passed by.
Then several heads suddenly projected from under as many blankets.
"What was that?" Max asked.
"My t-t-trap s-s-sprung!" gasped Toby.
"But what ails the beast that he don't let out a few howls?" demanded Steve, who was clawing desperately under his blanket, trying to find where he had placed his handy gun at the time he lay down.
"That's the funny part of it," Max declared; "if you've got your gun by now, Steve, let's crawl out and see what's doing."
The three of them hastened to do so, not knowing what they might see once they reached the open. Bandy-legs had as yet not stirred, and it really looked as if he meant to keep his word when he declared that nothing short of an earthquake or a cyclone would disturb him, once he got asleep.
As soon as the others huddled outside, and tried to focus their blinking eyes on their surroundings they discovered several things.
In the first place it had apparently not rained as yet, for the ground seemed to be perfectly dry. Then again, the fire had burned low, for it was giving only an apology of a light, and this flickered, and died down at intervals.
Max knew what should be the first duty, and stepping toward the fire he threw a handful of small trash on the coals. Immediately a flame sprang up, and the camp was fairly well illuminated.
Of course the boys all stared in the quarter where Toby had set that wonderful trap of his. If the hickory sapling had not been set free it would still be seen bent in the shape of a huge bow; but their first glance showed them that this was not the case.
"It's s-s-sprung!" said Toby, huskily.
Steve was holding his precious Marlin double-barrel gun so that he could raise it instantly and take aim.
"Yes," Max went on to say, with a touch of excitement in his voice as well as his manner, "and I can see something swinging back and forward there!"
"Oh! whatever can it be?" Toby ventured, tremulously; and then as he imagined that he detected a slight movement on the part of Steve he flung out a hand and tried to shove the other's gun aside, adding: "Don't you d-d-do it, Steve! Why, it can't be a hyena, or anything d-d-dangerous to us, because d-d-don't you see it's held right up in the air. Let's rush in and keep the poor thing from being c-c-choked to d-d-death!"
The three of them advanced in a straight line, Max and Steve being armed, and apparently ready to do fell execution, should there be any necessity for action. But nothing happened. The swinging object continued to move back and forth, but none of them could detect any spasmodic kicking connected with it that would suggest the dying struggles of a wild beast that was being slowly but surely choked.
Then Max gave a laugh.
"Why, it isn't a beast at all, but the heavy pole Bandy-legs threw over here the time you accused him of wanting to spring your trap, Toby!" he announced; and as all of them gathered close to the now upright hickory sapling, it was seen that what Max declared was really so.
"Then Bandy-legs m-m-must have d-d-done this trick!" burst from Toby, who was apparently, filled with indignation.
"Don't you believe it," Steve assured him; "because we all heard it go off, and right then Bandy-legs was sound asleep alongside me. He's there yet, bundled up in his blanket."
"You think so, but you d-d-don't know for s-s-sure," spluttered Toby, distressed at the failure of his much vaunted trap to show results. "C-c-chances are if you went and looked you'd f-f-find he had a d-d-dummy there under his b-b-blanket all the time."
"Well, now," observed Max, frowning, "that never occurred to me before, and while I can hardly believe our chum would play such a prank on us, still you never can tell. So Toby, we appoint you a committee of one to go back into the tent and see if Bandy-legs is there or not."
"I will!" Toby responded, firmly, as though he meant to have the truth made manifest without any delay; and accordingly he hastened away from Max and Steve, who started in to learn the way in which the heavy pole had been seized by the loop.
Immediately Toby came running back, and his face looked more blank than ever.
"Well, did you find him there?" asked Max.
"Yep, and as d-d-dead to the w-w-world as anything," replied the stutterer, as he looked blankly at his two chums, and then toward the swinging pole, as though, the puzzle had become more exasperating than ever.
Steve gave a low whistle, which was his way of expressing amazement.
"Say, that must be a wonderful old stick, all right!" he declared, jerking his thumb toward the object that was held in the tightened loop of rope.
"B-b-but you d-d-don't really think it j-j-jumped up all by itself, and g-g-got c-c-caught, do you?" Toby demanded, quite aghast.
"Well, hardly," said Max, though a little frown told that he too considered the enigma a nut hard to crack. "Something that had life about it made that stick do that trick; there's no doubt about that."
"Was it an animal or—a man?" Steve immediately asked, as he looked nervously around, and half raised his gun, as though he expected to see some ugly hobo advancing menacingly from the shelter of the forest.
Max was bending down, and evidently trying to examine the soil.
"I don't seem to see any tracks of a man here," he said; "and perhaps you've noticed that about all the bait Toby put out is gone!"
"C-c-cracky! that's so!" cried Toby, although up to then he had not thought to pay any attention to this important fact.
"Then some sort of animal must have been here," Max steadily affirmed. "It ate up the bait, and then must have either accidentally or on purpose poked that heavy stick into the loop, and sprang Toby's trap."
"Sure it must have been an accident, Max," objected Steve; "because it would have to be a mighty smart animal, and a tricky one at that, to play such a sly game as using this stick to set the bent sapling free."
"I know it looks that way," Max went on to say; "but don't forget that the animal that threw the ham at your head from the tree was a tricky one. Some of those beasts belonging to the show are trained to do lots of queer things."
"Oh! if we're up against an educated animal," Steve admitted as though convinced against his will, "that might make a difference, because I've seen such do things I never would have believed any beast could be taught to perform. But he was keen enough to move all around here and never once get caught in the loop. Yes, chances are he knew what that was there for all the time; and having finished his supper, just to show us what he thought of such silly tricks he picks up this stick, gives it a hitch through the loop, jerks at the same, and there you are, with three half scared fellows crawling out of the tent expectin' to find a tiger held up by the hind quarters. This is what they call coming down from the sublime to the ridiculous, I think."
"It's all Bandy-legs' fault anyway!" muttered the disappointed Toby, as he commenced taking the pole out of the loop, as though he meant to reset his trap, hoping for better luck the next time.
"How do you make that out, I'd like to know!" asked Steve.
"Mebbe if he'd only been half way d-d-decent, and l-l-let me try it out on him, this wouldn't have h-h-happened," Toby advanced, at which the other boys felt constrained to chuckle.
"Hard luck, old chap," said Steve; "we'll help you fix things up again, and p'raps you'll strike it different the next time."
That sort of talk helped Toby forget his keen disappointment, so that he actually brightened up somewhat.
"All right, Steve; that's k-k-kind of you. I was g-g-going to ask if you'd care to test the thing for me; but we kind of k-k-know what she can do now. The way it gripped this stick shows how it would h-h-hang on like grim d-d-death."
"I'm going to ask you as a special favor, boys, not to tramp around here any more than you can help," said Max.
"Which I take it means you hope to learn something from finding tracks, when you can see in the daylight; is that the answer, Max?" Steve asked.
"Yes, and when you set the trap keep on this side. I should think that whatever it was picked up the bait might have gone off that other way," Max-continued, thoughtfully.
"Unless it came down the tree here, and went back the same way," Steve proposed. "We know already that the thief is a climber, don't we, Max?"
"You remember, Steve, that ham sailed out of a tree, and whizzed past your head," replied the one whose opinion had been asked. "Yes, and I had a glimpse of some moving object up among the branches, even if it did slip away before I could see whether it had the stripes of a tiger, the spots of an ocelot, or the gray coat of our American panther."
"Gee! but this thing is getting some exciting, for a fact!" Steve admitted; "and we'll all feel a heap sight easier in our minds when we do know just what sort of critter it is hanging around our camp, and trying to make a living off our stock of good grub."
"But Bandy-legs isn't caring whether school keeps or not," suggested Max, as they plainly heard a loud snore from the direction of the tent, where the other chum was evidently sleeping soundly.
"He'll hardly believe us when we tell him in the morning what happened," Steve went on to say. "And now that we've gone and set the old spring trap again, there's not a single thing to show for it, unless we're lucky enough to get our game the second time around."
"S-s-shucks!" muttered Toby just then.
"What's the matter?" asked Max.
"D-d-don't believe the thing'll come again; it's r-r-raining right now."
"Only a few drops, Toby, and they never make a storm, you know," Steve informed him. "We don't want to see any rain, and for one I won't believe it's going to visit us till I see it pouring cats and dogs. When it comes to the weather I never believe anything until it happens, and then, like as not it turns out a fizzle."
"Well, there's no use of our staying out here to get wet," remarked Max; "so I move the meeting be adjourned. All in favor call out aye!"
Both the others were of the same mind, for they hastened to add their voices to that of Max. And accordingly all of them crawled back under the waterproof tent, content to let things move along as they pleased, and quite sure that no matter how the rain did come down they would find their covering faithful to its trust.
Bandy-legs still slept on, and he looked so young and innocent lying there doubled up in a knot that none of the others found the heart to disturb him, but sought their respective nooks, and tried to compose themselves once more for a good sleep.
A STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE
"What's the prospect for the day, fellows?" Steve asked in a loud voice, as he sat up, after throwing aside his blanket.
It was morning, though the sun had not yet shown up. Three other heads appeared in view instantly, for the sleepers had been satisfied to cuddle in their warm coverings, on account of the chill of the night, which must have gradually crept into the tent around the early hours.
"Looks to me as though it hadn't rained much after all," Bandy-legs announced.
"T-t-things a little w-w-wet out there," remarked Toby, who had hastened to thrust his head part way through the opening near which he lay; "but it's all r-r-right, fellows, because I c'n see b-b-blue s-s-sky overhead."
They were soon dressed, and ready to begin the business of the day. The camp fire was not hard to start, thanks to their wisdom in procuring plenty of dry fuel when they had the chance; and breakfast began to send out appetizing odors that excited their appetites—though that was hardly necessary, since normal boys are always in condition to do their share of eating.
As usual they talked of various things while they sat around, each in his favorite attitude, disposing of the meal.
Bandy-legs seemed to have something on his mind, which he took this opportunity for venting, for when a little lull occurred in the conversation he turned to Max, and went on to say:
"After all we forgot something yesterday, Max."
"That so, Bandy-legs? Well, I hope it wasn't such a big thing that it'll upset any of our plans."
"T-t-tell us what?" Toby ventured, as well as he could, considering how full his mouth was of food.
"Oh! you're not in this, Toby," the other assured the stutterer; "and I'm not much s'prised at me forgetting, but it's queer Max should, because he nearly always remembers."
"Then it must have been something connected with the little excursion the two of us took yesterday?" Max guessed.
"Just what it was," said Bandy-legs. "We didn't think to ask Mrs. Ketcham about whether they kept a bull or not; and you know we said we would, because that might explain the awful growling noise we heard and which sounded like an escaped lion roaring."
Max laughed softly.
"I admit that we didn't bother asking her about it, Bandy-legs," he remarked; "but that was because there was no need."
"But why?" insisted the other, greedily.
"Oh! I happened to see the bull myself," replied Max, quietly.
"Pretty good evidence, that, I'd say," chuckled the amused Steve; "and so far as I c'n tell, your lamps are in good condition, Max. Seeing is believing, they say."
"And you didn't even bother to tell me, either; was that just fair!" the aggrieved Bandy-legs wanted to know.
"Well," Max told him, "it happened when you were helping Mrs. Ketcham do something with the eggs, and I guess I must have forgotten all about it afterwards, because we had a lot of other things to talk about. But happening to look out of the window in the direction of the barn I just glimpsed the heavy-set head of a big Jersey bull sticking out of a hole that must have been made in his stall so as to give him air. He was sniffing, as if he knew there were strangers around; but when I looked again he had drawn his head in, and so I forgot all about him."
Toby heaved a disappointed sigh.
"That knocks all my c-c-chances of g-g-gettin' an old he lion this trip!" they heard him mutter.
"Well, did you ever?" ejaculated Steve, staring hard at the other; "just think of the nerve of him, would you, expecting to bag a terrible man-eating lion in a trap like that! Honest now, I really believe Toby here'd be happy if he could only go home in a few days with a whole menagerie trailing behind him—elephant, rhinoceros, camel, lion, tiger, and a ring-tailed monkey bringing up the rear."
"Oh! is that so?" Toby asked him, with a pretended sneer on his face; "and while you're about it, Steve, would you be so k-k-kind as to tell me what sort of a m-m-monkey that is? I never saw one in all my l-l-life."
"I guess you've got me there, Toby," laughed Steve; "because I never have, either, but I should say it was an ordinary monkey that could tie his tail up in knots whenever he wanted to keep it out of mischief, just like you turn up your trousers on a wet day."
They kept things humming until the meal was done; for every fellow had a desire to make his opinion known.
"Now what's the programme for to-day?" asked Max, as they untwisted themselves from their Turk-like sitting positions, and stretched to their full height.
"I'll tell you what I'm m-m-meaning to do," said Toby, "after we get d-d-done the breakfast d-d-dishes. F-f-frogs!"
"Oh! I see, you're worried about all that chorus work they kept up last night, and mebbe you think there were some who sang off-key, which bothers your musical ear, so you want to pick 'em out, and even things up," and Steve grinned as he said this, because he did not have as high an opinion of Toby's accomplishments in the line of music as he might.
"I'm not pretending to have any such c-c-classical n-n-notion," the accused one indignantly declared; "it's a c-c-case of dinner with me. I l-l-like frogs' legs, and they l-l-like me first-rate; so when things agree that way, what's the sense of k-k-keepin' 'em separate?"
"No use at all, Toby," admitted Steve, as though he had seen a great light, "and if you feel like growing a pair of frogs' legs in place of the ones you've got now, why, I wouldn't throw a thing in the way. Only I warn you it would be dangerous practicing singing frog songs by daylight."
Toby did not answer this thrust, only sniffed, and turned away.
Each of the others had a number of things scheduled for attention on this morning. The camp was in pretty good trim by now, but there always seems to be something that can be done in order to make it more cheerful; and Max was one of those fellows who like to potter around, making improvements.
Steve wanted to wander over in the direction of the farmhouse, and tried to find some good excuse for going; but the milk supply promised to hold out for the day, and they certainly would not need more eggs until the next morning.
The fact of the matter was he had heard the accounts of how Max and Bandy-legs had been so splendidly treated by Mrs. Ketcham with more or less envy; because it happened that Steve was passionately fond of doughnuts of the old-fashioned New England cruller kind; and he hoped the farmer's wife might still have a nest of the same in her big stone crock.
He even suggested that possibly Bandy-legs might like to go with him, so as to take a picture of the big watchdog that had given him such a lively time, in order to keep the adventure green in his memory. But having other things laid out for that morning to keep him busy, the other chum respectfully but firmly declined to be coaxed into making a four mile tramp, when there was really no need of it.
So poor disappointed Steve had to give up for that day his hope of obtaining any of those choice doughnuts.
"And chances are," he was heard to mutter to himself as he started to get busy with something or other, "they'll be clean eaten up by another day; but that's always my luck when doughnuts are around. It's too mean for anything."
However Steve was too good-natured a fellow to remain gloomy very long at a stretch, and in ten minutes they heard him trolling a comical ditty as he worked away, showing that his "doughnut fever" had calmed down sensibly.
Meanwhile Toby after awhile made ready to wander over in the direction of the pond where that frog chorus inspired him with high hopes of reaping a bountiful harvest.
He had arranged a long stout pole, with a short line and a hook at the small end. This latter he ornamented with a piece of bright red flannel some two inches square and supplied by Max, which he was wise enough to tie securely to the shank of the hook, well up from the barb, but so it concealed the point.
He also carried the trouting basket slung over his shoulder by the canvas strap, and made sure that his hunting knife had a good edge to it, for he meant to fix the frogs as he took them, thus saving himself more or less of a burden in carrying the useless portions along with him.
"Steve, would you m-m-mind doing me a g-g-great favor?" Toby asked, as he stood there all ready to make a start.
"Sure I wouldn't mind, Toby; what is it?" the other asked quickly.
"I'd like to c-c-carry your g-g-gun along with me," said Toby.
"Not to shoot frogs with, I hope?" remarked Bandy-legs, in high scorn.
"K-k-keep out of this, p-p-please, Bandy-legs," the other told him. "Steve knows I wouldn't be g-g-guilty of doing that. But you see, a feller can't tell what he might run up against these d-d-days, when there's some k-k-kind of mysterious animal p-p-prowlin' around. D-d-did you s-s-say yes, Steve?"
"You're as welcome to the little Marlin as flowers in spring, Toby," Steve told him; "and here, put several more shells in your pocket. Remember I've got a couple with buckshot loaded in the barrels right now. If so be you have to use the gun, be sure you know what you're banging away at, because they'd have you up for murder if you hit a poor man with that charge."
"Oh! I'll be careful, sure I will, Steve; and t-t-thank you ever so m-m-much for lending it to me," with which the overjoyed Toby shouldered the weapon, and started forth.
"Sure you know where the pond lies, do you?" asked Max; "and don't forget that the camp is due southeast of the same. When you start home take your bearings, and if you're in doubt even once, give us a whoop. Sometimes its possible to get lost in the woods, and that means a heap of trouble, don't it, Bandy-legs?"
"Well, if you change that to a swamp I can say yes, all right, because I have been there, and know," was the answer the query brought out.
But Toby had no such fear. He had spent considerable time in the open, so that he had learned many useful lessons, though he sometimes did allow himself to grow more or less careless. The pond was not so very far away but what he could make those by the campfire hear if he wished to shout; and surely a fellow must be a fool who could get lost under such conditions.
He made a bee-line through the woods, as nearly as the nature of the undergrowth would allow such a thing. Before long he had arrived in sight of the pond, which he was pleased to see covered many acres, and had the appearance of a splendid haunt for great big greenbacked frogs.
He could hear them grunting in various places, and this made Toby's heart beat high with hope, for he was especially fond of the sport; though not cruel enough to have indulged in it just for the sake of killing the high jumpers; but the thought of the feasts to come spurred him on to do his best.
It is not always the easiest thing in the world to circumvent a shrewd old grandfather frog who has long grown suspicious of everything that walks on two feet. To crawl up close enough to him to softly push your pole far out, so that the red lure dangles in front of his nose and within a few inches, often requires considerable labor, and necessitates more or less skill as well.
Toby soon became intensely interested in his work. He would stand the gun up against a certain tree while he ranged the immediate shore, and possibly made several captures. It was not long before he was sorry he had bothered fetching the firearm at all, because there seemed no reason for doing so, and it made him many unnecessary steps.
His success was phenomenal, and for an hour he kept moving around the edge of the pond, the banks of which were heavily wooded for the most part.
By that time he had almost two dozen "saddles" in his trout creel, and it was beginning to bother him by feeling heavy; as well as slipping forward while he crept along on hands and knees, in order to get close to some monster who seemed suspicious, and had to be approached carefully.
Finally Toby fell into the habit of leaving the basket along with his gun. When he made a capture he would immediately kill the frog, and toss him over to where these things lay, if within throwing distance. Then, when ready to move further on it was his habit to dress those victims he had gathered meanwhile, after which he allowed himself to be tempted to proceed "just a little further." That is always the way when frog-hunting; one may decide that he has really obtained enough for the time being; but then the conditions may never be as good again; and some of the spoils can easily be kept over until another day by immersing them in cold water.
So Toby toiled on, creeping, sliding, crawling, and doing about everything an active, ambitious hunter might, in pitting his powers against a wary species of quarry that had only to make one big jump in order to baffle all his plans.
Finally he knew that the creel would not hold many more of those big "saddles," and accordingly Toby promised himself that he would surely stop when he had taken just five, in addition to those already bagged.
Three times he tossed a victim over to the bank, where he could see the gun and the basket. A fourth fell into his hands after a long steal through some reeds, and having put an end to the victim's struggles, Toby turned to throw him to the bank, after which he would look for the very last frog he meant to take.
He did not throw that defunct jumper, however, although his hand was drawn back to make the cast. Instead Toby stood there staring, a wrinkle stealing between his eyes just above his nose, as it always did when the boy was puzzled.
"Now, what's that m-m-mean?" he grumbled to himself, as he started post-haste toward the bank. "Mebbe Steve's come out to s-s-see how I'm doing, and he's j-j-just snuck my b-b-basket away for f-f-fun. There's the g-g-gun aleanin' 'gainst that tree all right, but where's my b-b-bully lot of f-f-frogs, I want to know?"
And indeed it was just as Toby said; for the shotgun could be plainly seen where he had laid it, against the base of a tree-trunk; but the trout creel filled almost to the lid with the delicious white meat "saddles" of his many victims had mysteriously vanished!
THE SECRET OUT
When he presently managed to reach the spot he was aiming for Toby was pretty much all out of breath. He had been forced to exert himself considerably in order to get that last victim; and then came this sudden call upon his energies.
He stared all around him, but could not see any sign of mischievous Steve. The trees were for the most part too small to very well conceal any one behind their trunks, it being every bit second-growth timber.
"Steve, l-l-let up on that f-f-foolin', and b-b-bring me back my b-b-basket of b-b-bully f-f-frogs' legs, won't you, please?"
Toby called this out fairly loud, having by now managed to partly recover his lost breath. He waited, and hoped to see the laughing face of his chum thrust itself into view; but nothing happened.
Then Toby began to grow alarmed. He reached down, and snatched the gun from its resting-place alongside the tree-trunk; after which he pulled back both hammers with trembling thumb, while he scanned his surroundings. His eyes were distended, and there was an anxious glow in them; just as though the boy half expected that a savage striped jungle tiger would suddenly make a leap from out the branches of a pine tree near by, and seek to pounce upon him.
But although he scanned each neighboring harbor of refuge earnestly he saw not a sign of a yellow form lying on a limb, and watching him hungrily.
Toby all at once became eager to call his chums to the spot. There seemed to be a strange mystery attached to this sudden disappearance of his prized trophies, which he could not begin to understand. One minute the creel had been here in full view, and when he looked again, lo and behold, it was gone!
He at least had the good sense to stop long enough before starting to make sure that he was going to run in the right direction; and then he used his legs to the best advantage.
All the time he was trying to sprint as though engaged in a road race with some of the best runners in Carson High athletic circles, Toby kept looking to the right and to the left, and then behind him; for he more than half anticipated that this retreat on his part might spur the unknown enemy on to attacking him.
However, he drew near the camp without anything happening. Now he could hear the voice of Steve again trolling some ditty, while Bandy-legs called out to ask Max a question.
This would seem to prove that the whole three of them were there. It also added to the mystery; because all along Toby had kept saying to himself he half expected to learn that Steve was absent, and that neither of the others knew where he had wandered; for this would make it appear as though after all Steve might be the cause of the strange vanishing of the trout creel.
But now that prop was knocked out from under Toby's feet. Hence his face looked pale and somewhat peaked as he hurried over to where the khaki-colored tent stood, with the smouldering fire close by.
"Hello! here's our frog-hunter come back, and I hope he's met with good luck in the bargain!" Max called out, and then as he noticed first that Toby looked somewhat frightened, and second that he was not carrying the trout creel over his shoulder as might be expected, he went on to exclaim: "Why, what's happened to you, Toby? Where's your basket?"
Now Toby, as the reader knows, was likely to get his tongue dreadfully twisted in all sorts of strange knots if he tried to speak in a hurry, when very much excited. That was just what happened now; and Steve had to thump him on the back with considerable energy before he made the accustomed sign that he had succeeded in getting control over his vocal chords again.
"B-b-basket's gone!" was the shot he fired at them as soon as he could speak.
"What d'ye mean, Toby!" asked Steve, frowning; "gone and lost my trout creel in some mud bed, and can't find it again? I ought to be glad you didn't let the Marlin follow suit."
"'Tain't that!" declared the other, with an in-taking of his breath; "it's been h-h-hooked, that's what!"
Max saw that he would have to take a hand in the matter so as to get at the facts without any more delay; for Steve's methods were apt to simply excite Toby more and more, and that meant a further thickness of speech.
"Tell us what happened, Toby," he said, with the little touch of authority in his voice that his position as the leader of the party permitted, and which was always respected by the other chums.
"That's j-just what I want to do, Max," Toby went on to say, after swallowing once or twice in a peculiar way he had when trying hard to get a grip on himself. "You s-s-see, I got to leavin' the b-b-basket on the b-b-bank along with the gun. I had her near c-c-crammed full of the f-f-finest saddles you ever saw, too. Then just when I g-g-got to next to the last jumper I m-m-meant to take, s-s-say, when I looked before throwin' that f-f-frog ashore the b-b-basket wasn't there!"
"Sure you didn't misplace it, Toby?" asked Max, who could not forget that the other had a little failing in the way of meaning to do certain things, and then going right off to attempt something just the opposite.
"N-n-not any, Max," persisted Toby, truculently; "she was there p-p-plain as the nose on Steve's face here, when I threw that third f-f-frog ashore; but when I looked again, nixey, she was g-g-gone!"
"We'll have to go over there with you, and investigate this thing," Max announced with a frown. "If there's anybody hiding up in these woods and trying to play mean tricks on us we want to know it right away. We're too far off for any of the town boys to be trying to bother us; and I don't think any country fellow would take the chances of being caught and pounded. It must be some sort of animal!"
"That's what I thought it was, Max!" Toby declared, not deeming it worth while to explain how at first he had imagined one of them might be playing a joke on him.
"Ought we to leave the camp unprotected!" Bandy-legs asked.
"I'll fasten the tent flap, so nothing can get in, and it'll be all right," Max told him; which intelligence pleased the other very much indeed, for he imagined that they might hit upon him to stay behind, and Bandy-legs had as much desire to be in the hunt as the next one.
Accordingly the four boys started on a run toward the distant pond. Toby led the van, because he had already been over the ground twice, and ought to know where he was going better than any one else. Still, it was Max who on several occasions managed to get Toby to veer a little to the right. He was keeping his eyes on the tracks made by Toby in approaching the camp; and knew just when the latter deviated from his former course, as one will naturally lean to the right unless guarding against this tendency.
Even after they arrived at the water they were compelled to continue on for quite a distance, because the frog hunter had covered considerable ground while keeping up his sport.
"There's your fishing pole leaning up against that tree, I think, Toby," remarked Max, finally.
"Yes, that's so," replied the other. "I c-c-chucked it there before I lit out, so's to have a m-m-mark to see when I came b-b-back again."
"And is that the place where you saw your basket last?" asked Steve.
"It sure is!" Toby declared, half holding up his right hand as though he fancied himself in the witness chair, and bound to give facts exactly as they were. "And l-l-looky here, will you, s-s-see where the gun stood up against the tree trunk? Well, the b-b-basket lay over by that clump of g-g-grass."
Max immediately stepped over and bent down.
"He's right about that, fellows," he announced; "because here you can plainly see where the basket lay on the ground, for it left an impression."