"No. I've got a character of my own. I don't need any one to give me a character," retorted Hippy.
"Who is the feller that come inter these mountains with ye, and then quit ye in such a hurry?" demanded another.
"His name is Tom Gray. He is the husband of Grace Harlowe Gray, who leads our party of Riders. He has gone over to the Cumberlands on business."
"He is to make a survey for the government."
Lieutenant Wingate had let slip something that he should not have done. He saw instantly from the exclamations that the mountaineers uttered under their breaths, that he had "said something," as he expressed it to himself.
"So that's it, hey! Be ye-all workin' fer the gov'ment, too?" demanded a voice.
"I am not, nor have I been since I fought in France. Is there anything else that you ruffians wish to have me tell you?" demanded Hippy belligerently.
"Where be the other feller headed for fust?"
"I don't know where he is headed for now," answered the captive, becoming wary.
"Reckon we'd better look that gov'ment feller up right smart," said one of the captors in a low tone. "We'll bag the bunch of 'em. Shore ye ain't got nothin' else t' tell us honest folk up here?" demanded the first speaker.
"Reckon ye better think it over, young feller. We'll give ye till ter-morrer t' make a clean sweep an' tell us the whole business. If ye don't we'll jest blow yer fool haid off an' chuck ye in a hole in the mountain an' there won't be nothin' more heard of ye," threatened another.
"The Germans tried to do that same thing, but they didn't succeed," dared Lieutenant Wingate. "Who do you think I am, anyway? What do you think I am? Come, now, suppose you make a clean sweep and tell me what all this rotten business is about."
"Ah reckons ye don't have t' be told nothin'," was the reply that Hippy got. "We're goin' t' take ye away from here an' put a guard over ye, so if ye wants t' live till ter-morrer, keep quiet."
"Wait a moment!" called Hippy, as the captors turned away for further conference. "Don't I get anything to eat out of all this?"
There was no reply to his question, and Hippy went without his supper, which fact really gave him more concern than the knowledge that he was a prisoner in the hands of desperate men, who, if their word could be believed, proposed to do desperate things to him.
All but two of the mountaineers soon left the scene, and these two took turns in sleeping and guarding their prisoner. Along towards morning Hippy fell into an uneasy sleep, but his sleep was brief. He was roughly yanked to his feet, and, at the point of a rifle, driven deeper into the forest. His guards did not halt until daybreak. They then untied the prisoner's arms, bound his feet, and placing him in a sitting position, back against a tree, passed a rope around his waist and tied him to the tree.
"You forgot something," reminded Hippy as they started to walk away.
"Huh?" demanded one of the mountaineers.
"You forgot to tie the tree down. It might run away, you know."
A grunt was the only reply he got. The men then built a small fire and began preparing their breakfast. Bacon and coffee was their meal, and Hippy Wingate, now without his blindfold, was forced to sit there and watch them eat. It was the most unhappy hour that he remembered ever to have experienced.
After finishing their own breakfast they favored him with a cup of water, and, lighting their pipes, sat down to talk, much of which the listening ears of their captive overheard.
As nearly as Hippy could make it out a mountain feud was in the making, and the twenty-third of the month was the time set for the opening. He heard the names "Bat Spurgeon" and "Jed Thompson" mentioned, but they conveyed nothing to him beyond the mere names. The voices of his captors and his own weariness finally lulled Lieutenant Wingate to sleep, and he slept for hours. He was awakened late in the day by being roughly shaken and a cup of water thrust into his hands.
"I thank you for this bounteous repast," said Hippy mockingly. "Is this the water cure you are giving me?"
"Oh, shut up!" growled the mountaineer, and went away leaving Hippy gazing after him, a sardonic grin on the Overland Rider's face.
Hippy was aching all over his body as darkness settled over the forest, marking the second night of his captivity. With it came the cook fire and again the agonizing odors of coffee and bacon. With it, too, came something else—a low, guarded voice behind him and, seemingly, only a few inches from his ear.
"Don't make a sound, Lieutenant."
"Who are you?" demanded Hippy, without in the least changing his position or showing excitement.
"You would not know if I told you. Listen to me. When those two fellows sit down to supper, the light of the fire will be in their eyes, and, unless they get up and stare, they will not be able to see you in this shadow. If everything is safe I will cut you loose. Are your feet bound?"
"Yes. Who are you?"
"You wouldn't know if I told you, I said. Keep quiet and speak only in answer to my questions."
"All right. Got anything loose about your person—I mean food, man-sized food, not canary-bird rations such as those bandits have been doling out to me?"
"You can't have anything now. After we have gotten away from here I will try to dig up a snack for you. Silence!"
For the next several minutes neither the prisoner nor his mysterious friend uttered a word. Supper was ready for the mountaineers, but, before sitting down to it, one of them walked over to the prisoner and stood peering down at him. Hippy's heart almost stopped beating, so intent was he on listening for the breathing of the man behind him and from his fear that his mysterious friend might be discovered.
No such emergency arose, nor did he hear the breathing he was listening for.
After satisfying himself that the captive was safe, the mountaineer returned to the fire and sat down to his supper.
Hippy felt a slight tug on the rope that bound him, then its pressure about his waist was released.
"Steady, now," warned that even voice behind him. "Crawl on all fours."
The rescuer placed a hand on Hippy's shoulder and guided him slowly, cautiously, every movement forward threatening to draw a groan from the released captive.
"Now get up! Give me your hand," whispered, the stranger. "Don't speak."
For some little time they crept on in silence, the stranger twisting and turning, finally taking to the middle of a mountain stream and following it up for some distance when he halted.
"Tell me what the situation is back there. What did they propose to do to you?" demanded the man.
"I expect the gang is on its way there now to shoot me up, provided I do not give them the information they seek," answered Hippy.
Lieutenant Wingate repeated the conversation of the previous night, leaving out no details, however trivial they might seem to him.
"I thought so. Come up here and sit down. I shall have to leave you, perhaps for an hour or more. When I return I will give one short whistle. If all is well you will reply with two short whistles."
"You are going back there to spy on that outfit that we just left?" questioned Hippy.
"Yes. I want to see who the others are, and what they have up their sleeves. Here's a revolver for you. I suppose they took yours. Don't use it unless you have to."
"Wait a moment!" called Hippy, as his mysterious friend started away. "Haven't you forgotten something? That 'snack' you promised to dig for."
"Oh, yes. Here's some dog biscuit for you, and—"
"Dog biscuit?" exclaimed Hippy.
"Hardtack. You ought to know what that is," chuckled the stranger.
Hippy groaned. It revived painful memories of France in wartime, but he accepted the hardtack and began biting it off in large chunks. Hippy did not concern himself about how long the mysterious friend remained away so long as the biscuit held out, unpalatable as it was.
"I shall be listening for shells to burst first thing I know. Army food! How did I ever eat it for nearly two years and live?"
It was full two hours later when the welcome whistle signal sounded somewhere down stream, which Lieutenant Wingate answered as directed.
"Come! We will head for your camp now," announced the man a few moments later, as he stepped up before Hippy.
"Did you learn anything on your little excursion?" questioned Hippy thickly, for his mouth was well filled with hardtack.
"Yes, Lieutenant. I learned a great deal. I was there when the crowd came in to put you on the rack. The two fellows who let you get away had a hard time of it, and it looked for a time as if there was going to be shooting. Cooler heads, however, headed it off. When you get back to your party I should advise you to pull up stakes and get out. Those fellows will be after you and you'll have to look alive or you won't be alive long."
"I know I am thick, old man, but tell me why they are so eager to blow my light out," begged Hippy.
"Don't you know, Lieutenant?"
"If I did I shouldn't be asking you. Begging your pardon for my bluntness."
"One reason, but not the principal one, is that you bounced one of the gang from your camp."
"Go on. What's the big idea?"
"The big idea, as you call it, is that there is a price on your head up here! Now do you understand, Lieutenant?"
Hippy Wingate uttered a low, long-drawn whistle of amazement.
THE POWER OF MIND
"What do you suppose it can mean, and who threw it into our camp?" wondered Elfreda Briggs, folding up the newspaper that contained the message to them.
"It must mean that a friend is interested in our welfare," replied Grace. "Whoever and whatever he may be, his advice is good, and here we stay until we find Hippy. I am going out right after breakfast and make an effort to pick up the trail. Surely the outlaws, or whatever they are, will not be waiting all that time for us to follow them. I will make a quiet scout. I do not look to be interfered with, for they surely will have gone away by now."
"Shall I call the girls and tell them? The knowledge that a helping hand has been held out to us surely will comfort Nora," said Elfreda.
"Yes. I will rout out Washington and have him start the fire. It has been a trying night and I am glad it is at an end," replied Grace.
"I knew it," cried Emma Dean when she learned what had taken place. "I didn't con-centrate for nothing."
"You what?" frowned Elfreda.
"I have been con-centrating all night long—con-centrating on Hippy to call him back to us."
"Oh, you darlin'," cried Nora, throwing her arms about Emma.
"I should advise you to continue to 'con-centrate,'" suggested Anne. "If you were to stop now you might break the mental string; then we should lose Hippy for good."
"You just wait. You'll see whether or not he comes back," retorted Emma indignantly.
Nora's face was flushed that morning and her heart was filled with a new hope—the hope that Hippy might be with them before the close of that day.
After breakfast, as planned, Grace took up her rifle and went away, leaving Elfreda and the others to guard the camp and, incidentally, to keep Washington busy and out of mischief. He was, too, forbidden to play his harmonica lest the noise attract attention to the camp of the Overland Riders.
Proceeding cautiously, Grace reached the stream, and followed it until she found where the kidnappers of Hippy had left it. After waiting and watching for a full hour, Grace stepped out boldly. For six hours the Overland girl employed all her knowledge of the open in an effort to pick up the trail of the mountaineers, but the trail appeared to end abruptly at the bank of the creek. Not even the hoofprints of horses could be found on the softer ground a short distance back from the stream.
There are tricks in masking one's trail that the Kentucky mountaineers had learned from generations of feuds and attacks by revenue agents, which Grace Harlowe knew nothing of.
At noon she gave up the attempt to find the trail over which Hippy Wingate had been taken, and started back towards the camp.
"What luck?" called Nora, as she appeared at the edge of the clearing where the camp was pitched.
"None. As a trailer, I am a miserable failure, a rank amateur."
"If you were to spend as much time con-centrating as you do tearing about over the landscape, you would be more successful," declared Emma wisely, at which there was a laugh at Grace's expense.
"I surely could not be more unsuccessful than I have been," replied Grace smilingly.
The afternoon was passed in discussing their situation. While the girls were eager to be out trying to find Hippy, they believed that they were doing the wise thing in following the advice of their unknown friend, whose message had been tossed into their camp, so they remained in camp and waited.
When night came and still no Hippy, the depression of the Overlanders increased and there was little conversation, each one appearing to be listening, Emma, with a faraway look in her eyes, now and then relapsing into deep thought. Emma was "con-centrating."
The same arrangement for guarding the camp, as had been carried out the previous night, was again followed. This time, Grace took one side of the camp and Miss Briggs the other. Both hid in deep shadows, each with a rifle at her side and a revolver in its holster. Thus prepared they settled themselves for the night, all the other members of the party being in their tents and, supposedly, asleep.
It was late when Grace and Elfreda were aroused by Washington talking, muttering in his sleep, then the nerves of the two girls leaped to attention as, out of the bushes on Miss Briggs' side of the camp, a twig snapped. It was accompanied by a sound that indicated the presence of a human being.
"Who goes?" demanded Elfreda sharply.
Without giving the maker of the noise out there time to answer, she fired a shot from her revolver into the trees in that direction, but high enough to be certain that one underneath them would not be hit.
Miss Briggs' shot brought instant results.
"Hey there! Cut the gun!" howled Hippy Wingate.
"It's Hippy!" breathed Grace, springing to her feet. "Don't shoot, Elfreda!"
The two girls sprang up and waited. They were still cautious, but their companions, awakened by the shot, were not. Nora, Anne and Emma rushed out, demanding excitedly to know what the trouble was.
At this juncture Hippy walked into the clearing.
"Meet me with a pail of food! I'm starving!" he wailed.
For the next few minutes there was excitement in the camp, Nora clinging to Hippy's neck laughing and crying, Emma standing a little aloof from them with a superior smile on her face, Anne, urging the wide-eyed Washington to start the fire and prepare coffee, and Grace seeking to quiet Nora so that they might hear Hippy's story.
When the campfire blazed up and they saw his condition, Nora wept again. Hippy was hatless—his hat was out in the bushes where Grace, after finding it, had secreted it—his clothes were torn, he was hollow-eyed, and his head wore a lump that stood out prominently.
"Never mind the trimmings. Give me food," he begged. Then between mouthfuls he told the story of his capture so far as he knew it, told it to the moment of his reaching the Overland camp. Hippy said he intended, if possible, to creep in quietly without awakening any one and give the girls a big surprise in the morning, when Elfreda threw a wrench into the machinery, "and tried to wing me," he added amid laughter.
"I could not afford to wait," answered Miss Briggs.
"You sure are some quick on the trigger," declared Hippy. "The fellow who was with me ducked, and I heard him chuckling and laughing as he sneaked away."
"Yes, but, had it not been for me, you might not have been here, Lieutenant Wingate," interjected Emma Dean.
"Eh? How's that, Emma?"
"Why, I—I con-centrated on you and brought you back," answered Emma solemnly.
"What a pity," murmured Hippy sadly. "And she so young."
"Who was the man who rescued you?" questioned Grace, after the laugh at Emma's expense had subsided.
"I don't know. I never saw him before. He is a slick article, whoever he may be."
"Are you certain that it was not our Mystery Man?" asked Anne.
"I am. Say! We must get out of here right smart, for there is going to be trouble," urged Hippy.
"I should say that we already have had our share of it," complained Elfreda.
"Yes, but this is different, child. The mountaineers are after us—after me especially," he added, throwing out his chest a little.
"After you—after you, Hippy, my darlin'?" cried Nora. "Why should they be after you?"
"I don't know any more about it than you do. Perhaps the little mix-ups we had with those two fellows may have something to do with it."
"It must be something more serious than revenge for your having bounced one and driven the other one away," offered Grace. "Will you please tell me why we should move in such a hurry?"
"Because the fellow who got me out of my scrape said we must. He says we have got to make Thompson's farm as quickly as possible and stay there until the storm blows over," insisted Lieutenant Wingate. "Of course, I don't give a rap for myself, but I have a great moral responsibility."
"A what?" interjected Emma.
"Moral responsibility. I am responsible for the safety of you girls and my powerful body shall stand between you and all harm."
"Ahem—m—m," piped Emma Dean.
"To what storm did he refer?" asked Grace. She was regarding Hippy narrowly, not yet sure that he was not joking, though she did not believe he was.
"I don't know, Brown Eyes. That depends upon which way the wind blows. It feels like snow to me. He did not say what kind of storm, but he strongly advised what I have told you," answered the lieutenant.
"It doesn't sound reasonable to me. I do not see how we should be any safer on the farm you speak of, than we shall be by following the trail to Hall's Corners, all the time attending strictly to our own business," observed Elfreda.
"Nor do I," agreed Grace.
"I will tell you why, Elfreda," answered Hippy. "We shall be safer there, where, for some reason, my informant doesn't seem to think those ruffians will bother us. Whereas, if we remain out and continue on our way to our destination, I shall probably be shot. Those mountaineers are bound to get me."
"What?" gasped Nora Wingate. "Hippy, my darlin', do you mean it?"
"Yes I do. There is a price on my head up here! That's the whole story."
"A price! Huh! If there is, I'll wager that it is a cut-rate price. Good-night! I am going back to bed." Emma Dean turned her back on them and flounced off to her tent.
"THEY'VE GOT THE BOY"
"I don't believe it. Your rescuer was drawing the long bow," spoke up Anne Nesbit.
"Yes, I can't imagine Hippy with a price on his head," nodded Miss Briggs.
"When I'm dead you folks will be sorry that you didn't take me seriously," rebuked Lieutenant Wingate. "Do we do as my friend suggested, and hike for the Thompson farm, or must I be sacrificed on the altar of unbelief?"
"Grace must answer that question. She is our captain," answered Elfreda.
Grace Harlowe regarded Hippy with searching eyes.
"You are not fooling us, Hippy?" she demanded.
"Could I be so base as to deceive my dearest friends?" answered Lieutenant Wingate in an aggrieved tone. "How can you doubt me?"
"Girls, if there be no objection, we will start at daybreak. Washington, do you know where the Thompson farm is?" questioned Grace.
"Ah reckon Ah does," drawled Washington.
"How far is it from here?"
"'Bout two skips an' er jump, Ah reckons."
"He thinks we are a flock of fleas," grumbled Hippy under his breath.
"I will get the map. We shall learn nothing from Washington," said Grace, rising. "Washington, pack up everything we shall not need to-night. We wish to make an early start in the morning."
Fetching the map, Grace and Elfreda pored over it and finally located the farm in question. The map was a sectional map issued by the government and gave every trail and landmark in the territory that it covered.
"I should say Thompson's farm is about twenty miles from here. It appears to be quite a bit out of our way, but that doesn't matter in the circumstances. Yes, I think we can make it. All right, Hippy."
"What about to-night?" asked Miss Briggs.
"The same arrangement as last night," replied Grace in a low tone. "We will take turns. Take your blanket out. He needs a rest to-night," nodding towards Hippy Wingate.
Neither Grace nor Elfreda felt like sitting up another night. Hippy insisted that he must take his watch on guard, but they declined his offer, telling him that they could not trust him to keep awake in view of what he had been through and the sleep he had lost. So the two girls took up their vigil again, Grace lying down near her companion, Elfreda taking the first watch of the night.
It was not long after the camp had settled down to sleep that Elfreda put a quick pressure on the arm of her companion. Grace was awake instantly.
"What is it?" she whispered, instinctively sensing that the pressure on her arm was a warning pressure.
"I thought I heard something yonder by Washington's tent," whispered Miss Briggs.
"Yes, something is moving about there," agreed Grace, after a few minutes of attentive listening. "It may be Washington himself. Don't shoot. Remember, too, that the ponies are in that direction, so if we have to fire we must fire high."
"I had thought of that. I—"
Miss Briggs was interrupted by the most unearthly yell that any member of the Overland party had ever heard. The yell was uttered by Washington Washington.
"Leggo me! Leggo! He kotched me! He kotched me! Wo—o—o—o—o—ow!"
The howls of the colored boy ended in a gurgle.
"Shoot!" commanded Grace. "Shoot high! Empty your rifle!"
Both girls let go a rattling fire with their rifles, and the howls and the shots brought the others of their party tumbling and shouting from their tents.
"Down! Quiet!" commanded Grace. "Let no one shoot without orders, unless in an emergency. I am going out there."
"Better not," advised Miss Briggs.
"I must. You know I must. If they have harmed that boy—Well, you know the answer. Keep them quiet."
With only her revolver, Grace crept around the outer edge of the camp, making every movement with extreme care, pausing now and then to listen. It was her opinion that the disturbers had left, but she was too old a campaigner to take that for granted, and never for an instant relaxed her caution.
The Overland girl reached the far end of the camp without incident. She crept to the tent where the colored boy slept and found it empty. There was no trace, that she was able to discover in the dark, to indicate what had happened to him. Not satisfied with what she had already accomplished, Grace crept further out along the trail, revolver in hand, eyes and ears keenly on the alert.
Finally she turned campwards.
"They have got the boy," she announced, coming up from the rear of the tents, and approaching her companions from behind. All were sitting on the ground, silent, expectant, waiting, either for Grace's return or a burst of revolver fire. Their nerves jumped from the reaction when Grace spoke to them.
"Oh, that is too bad," murmured Anne.
"Did you discover anything else?" asked Elfreda.
"No. I could not see anything in the dark. The worst of it is that we shall not be able to do a thing until morning. That settles our getting started in the morning, for I for one shall not leave here until we have found Washington. I don't know why they should have taken the boy. He surely can be of no use to them."
"He can give them information, can't he?" asked Hippy.
"None that will be of use to them."
"It is my opinion," spoke up Elfreda, "that they were not after the boy at all, but that his howls made it necessary for them to take him to protect themselves. Of course they will drag such information as he has, from him."
"We must all stand watch for the rest of the night," announced Hippy. He then promptly distributed his force, taking the lead in the arrangements, which Grace was now glad to have him do. Then again, she understood full well that Lieutenant Wingate himself was eager to even up old scores with the men who had handled him so roughly.
Each girl, armed with a rifle, took the position assigned to her, and there was no more conversation for the next two hours, no sound other than that from the insect life and the occasional whinney of a pony. The minds of the Overlanders, however, were active. They were pondering over these persistent attacks on them, and Grace, for one, became finally convinced that Lieutenant Wingate was not overstating when he declared that there was a price on his head. She was inclined to think, too, that the same condition applied to all members of the Overland party.
As for Washington, none of them believed that the mountaineers could have any possible motive for harming him, unless, perhaps, it were necessary to do so for their own protection. That, the girls realized, was a grave possibility, especially were the men to see that he recognized any of them.
There was worry on the minds of the Overlanders, and the hours of their vigil seemed to drag out interminably. It was not until morning, however, that anything occurred to disturb them or even rouse them from their endless listening and peering into the darkness with straining eyes and bated breaths. Therefore, the interruption that followed the long, tense silence came as a shock, an interruption that startled each member of the party into a new and throbbing alertness.
"A MARKED MAN"
The first indication that something was approaching the opposite side of the camp was made known by the sudden restlessness of the ponies, which sprang up and gave every indication of fright.
The action of the ponies was followed by a floundering and crashing out there in the bushes as if a large animal were tearing its way through them.
"Hold your fire!" directed Lieutenant Wingate in a low voice. "It may be that one of the ponies has broken loose."
No one answered, but every rifle was held at ready.
"There it comes! It's a man," cried Nora, as a figure burst into view from the bushes.
"Doan shoot! Doan shoot! It am Wash," howled Washington Washington, then tripping on a vine, he fell flat on his face. "It kotched me! It kotched me!" he bellowed, springing up ready to make another dash.
By this time Hippy had him by the collar.
"Oh, fiddlesticks! All this scare for a black nightmare," groaned Emma.
"Stop that racket!" commanded Hippy. "Is any one chasing you?"
"Ah—Ah doan know. Ah—Ah reckons de debbil hisself am chasing me. Ah—"
"Pull yourself together and tell us what happened to you," directed Grace as Lieutenant Wingate led the trembling lad up to them.
"He got me, he did."
"Who got you?" interjected Miss Briggs.
"Ah doan know. He kotched me an' Ah yelled—"
"He yelled? How unusual," muttered Emma.
"Den—den he put er hand ovah ma mouth an' gib me er clip on de haid," continued Washington excitedly. "Ah doan knows nothin' moah till Ah wakes up. Dey was talkin' 'bout dat time."
"Who was talking?" interrupted Hippy.
"Dis heah niggah doan know nothin' 'bout dat. Dey was talkin', an' den Ah jest jumps up—an' den Ah jumps up an runs away."
"How did you find your way here?" asked Anne.
"That is what I have been wondering," nodded Grace.
"Ah didn'. A feller kotched me when Ah runned, an' held mah mouf shut so Ah couldn't holler. Den he-all fotched me heah. Den he gib me er kick an' says, 'Gwine on, yuh lazy niggah, but look out fer de guns. Dem folks kin shoot.' Dat's why Ah hollered when Ah kim inter de camp," finished Washington.
"Did you recognize any of the men who took you away from here?" questioned Miss Briggs.
Washington shook his curly head.
"Did you know the man who brought you back?" asked Grace.
"Ah did not. Who yuh reckons he was?"
"That is what we are trying to find out," Hippy informed him. "Would you know the man were you to see him again?"
"Ah didn' see him nohow. Ah felt him, Ah did, an' Ah feels him yit, Ah does."
"No need to question him," laughed Grace. "His militant friend was rather violent, it appears. Washington, get your blanket and lie down here near the tents. The camp is being guarded and you will be perfectly safe. The others had better turn in also, and get what rest they can. It now lacks only about two hours to daylight, and we shall be able to make an early start, now that Washington is here."
"Yes, he's here, but he would not be here if I had not con-centrated on him," spoke up Emma Dean.
"For the love of goodness, drop that piffle!" begged Hippy wearily. "We have enough serious matters on hand to think about without having to listen to prattle. Laundry, did you know that Miss Dean had been 'con-centrating' on you?"
"What dat? Er hoodoo?"
"Yes, that is what Miss Dean is trying to put on you," laughed Hippy.
"You listen to me, Wash!" demanded Emma spiritedly. "When I was con-centrating on you, making my mind reach out to yours, didn't your hair seem to stand on end just the way a cat's hair does when you stroke it the wrong way—"
"Yes'm! Mah hair stood up all right when dey kotched me," admitted Washington.
"And didn't you feel a distinct electric shock all over your being?"
"Just like as if you had run into an electric light pole?" interjected Hippy.
"No, suh. Didn' feel no shock, 'cept when dat feller kicked me. Ah felt dat all right an' Ah feels it yit."
"I reckon that will be about all. You see, Emma, this was not a case of mind over matter, but of a heavy boot against Washington Washington's anatomy," chuckled Hippy.
The Overland Riders laughed louder than their situation warranted, and Emma Dean, very red in the face, flounced off to her tent without another word.
"I think that was real mean of you, Hippy," chided Grace, laughing in spite of her effort to be stern.
Soon after that the camp settled down to quietness, with Hippy Wingate and Elfreda Briggs on guard, Grace having consented to lie down and sleep for the rest of the night—provided.
They were undisturbed, except when, shortly before daylight, something again aroused the ponies, but the disturbance quickly subsided, and the watchers believed that some animal had startled them.
At daylight the camp was astir—that is, with the exception of Hippy Wingate who insisted on a brief beauty nap after his two-hour vigil. He came out just as Washington, after building the cook-fire, was starting out to water the horses.
"Good morning, Lieutenant," greeted Emma Dean sweetly. "What's the quotation this morning?"
"On what?" demanded Hippy, halting and eyeing her suspiciously.
"On heads, of course."
"Is there any reason why, because I'm a marked man—because there is a price on my head, you should make fun of me? Having a price on one's head is not a joking matter. My mind is carrying a heavy weight, Emma Dean," rebuked Hippy impressively.
"Nonsense! I know better. If it was carrying a heavy burden your mind long ago would have caved in," retorted Emma.
Hippy Wingate threw up his hands in token of surrender, and breaking off a twig of laurel he gravely placed it in Emma's hair so that it drooped over her forehead.
"I bestow upon thee a crown of laurel," announced Hippy solemnly amid shouts of laughter.
"Come, children. Breakfast is ready," called Grace Harlowe. "Washington!"
"Ah'm comin'," answered the colored boy from the bush. "Ah found dis on de saddle," he announced, holding out an envelope to Grace.
She took it wonderingly.
"What's this? The rural free delivery man here so early in the morning!" questioned Emma.
"This is addressed to you, Lieutenant," said Grace, handing the envelope to Lieutenant Wingate.
Hippy read it and a frown grew on his face, deepening as he read it a second time.
"More mystery?" questioned Anne Nesbit.
"Yes. Listen to this, will you?"
Hippy read out loud the following words, almost illegible on the much smeared paper:
"'Yuh-all will git out o' these mountings right smart. We-all knows who yuh be. We-all knows why yuh be here. Turn aroun' an' git out or it'll be th' wus fer yuh-all.'"
"They propose to drive us out, do they?" murmured Grace.
"I looked for something of the sort," nodded Elfreda. "Is the letter signed?"
"No. But wait a moment. There is a postscript here that I haven't read," said Hippy. "Talk about your mysterious forces! Just listen to this postscript, written in another hand and evidently by an intelligent person."
A MOUNTAIN MYSTERY
"Perhaps the postscript is to tell us that it is all a mistake and that we do not have to leave," suggested Emma.
"Listen!" commanded Hippy, then began to read:
"'Do not follow the trail you are on, on your way to Thompson's. Strike due north for half a mile and you will come up with a wagon trail, broader and safer, because you can see a long way on either side through the thin forest. Keep the broad trail for fifteen miles, take third left and second right, which will take you to Thompson's. You're all right, but be vigilant. The above warning means what it says.'"
"Is there a name signed to the postscript?" asked Miss Briggs.
Hippy shook his head.
"I know who wrote that postscript," spoke up Miss Dean. "It was our Mystery Man, Jeremiah Long."
Grace asked for the letter, which she scrutinized critically.
"No, this is not his writing," she decided.
"How do you know? He hasn't been corresponding with you," objected Hippy.
Grace explained that Mr. Long had left a note thanking the Overlanders for their hospitality. To make certain that she was right she went to her kit and fetched the note referred to, and also brought the note that had been tossed into their camp on the occasion of Hippy's disappearance. The three missives were examined by each of the Overland Riders. It was found that the message tossed into camp and the postscript of the letter found by Washington were in the same handwriting. Mr. Long's handwriting was different.
"That disposes of the theory that either of these messages was written by Mr. Long," agreed Elfreda. "The question is, who is our mysterious friend?"
"You do not think it is a trick to get us where we shall find ourselves in a tight place?" suggested Anne questioningly.
"No. I do not feel that there is a shadow of doubt that these two notes are what they appear to be—the suggestions of a friend. Who or what he is we may or may not learn. I propose that we follow the advice he gives us. Are you all agreed on that?" asked Grace.
The Overlanders said they were.
"Then we will go on our way," directed Grace.
They found the wagon trail after nearly an hour's hard riding over rocks, into and out of gullies with steep, precipitous sides, but the wagon trail when reached, while rutty, was so much better that they soon forgot the discomforts of riding "across lots," as Hippy put it.
The noon halt was a brief one, after which they pressed on, having no difficulty in finding their way as directed by their mysterious adviser.
It was nearly dark when they came in sight of a clearing of several acres covered with growing corn, which they surmised to be part of the Thompson farm. Grace asked Washington if it were.
"Ah reckons it be," answered the colored boy, but it was apparent that he knew no more about it than did the Overland Riders.
"Where is the house of this Thompson party?" demanded Hippy.
"Mebby 'bout er whoop an' er holler from heah."
"Huh!" grunted Hippy. "The last 'whoop and holler' you told us of was nearly twenty miles. Don't guess. If you don't know the correct answer to a question, say so. Don't stall around and—"
"I suppose we should ask permission before we camp on private property," suggested Elfreda. "Not knowing where to do so, might it not be wise to back up a little?"
"What do you mean?" asked Grace.
"Move away from the trail and into the thicket where we shall be both out of sight and probably on no man's land, as it were."
"The suggestion is good, though I do not wholly approve of the idea of getting into a pocket where we cannot see about us," agreed Grace. "Our mysterious friend must know what he is talking about when he advises us to go to Thompson's farm, as some one urged Hippy to do."
"He seemed to think we would be safer here," nodded Lieutenant Wingate.
"So far as my observation goes—has gone for the last couple of years—safety is not the one great ambition of our young lives. At least, getting into difficulties and perilous situations has become a habit with Grace Harlowe," declared Miss Briggs.
"Yes, for instance, roping bandits with that Mexican lasso that the cowboys gave her last season," suggested Emma. "Why aren't you throwing it more? I have seen you swing it only once since we started."
Grace said that she had practiced with the rope nearly all winter, and declared that it was about time that the rest of the party took up throwing the lasso. Elfreda, as related in a previous volume, "GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS ON THE GREAT AMERICAN DESERT," also had learned to throw the lasso and could do so quite well, but since her winter's practice with it Grace had gained much skill and was far ahead of her friend in its manipulation. Perhaps, having mastered the secret of rope-throwing, she had lost interest in it.
"I will start practicing again to-morrow," promised Miss Briggs.
"You need it. I don't believe you could even catch cold with a rope," teased Lieutenant Wingate.
"Yes I could—I—" Elfreda's following remark was lost in the laughter of her companions. "What I said, but which you folks were too impolite to listen to, was that I will show you whether I can throw a rope or not. Let me have it, Grace."
"You will find it just inside of my tent, on the left-hand side. What are you going to do?"
"I am going out, as soon as it is light enough to see, and practice until breakfast time."
This Miss Briggs did with the graying of the dawn, after a night of peaceful rest, while Grace and Hippy kept guard over the camp. They teased her at breakfast, and Hippy suggested that Elfreda ask Emma Dean to "con-centrate" on her during Miss Briggs' future practice with the lasso.
"To change the subject, I am going to look up the Thompsons and try to make peace with them, provided they are like most of the mountaineers that we have come into intimate contact with," announced Grace. "I suggest that you and I ride out on a tour of investigation this morning, leaving Hippy here to protect the camp, Elfreda. You may take your rope along and practice on me, if you wish," smiled Grace.
"You will be perfectly safe," murmured Emma.
Immediately after breakfast the two girls mounted and rode out along the trail they had been following, now bordered on one side by a field of rustling corn. Reaching the end of the cornfield they discovered, just ahead, a cabin located in an open space of several acres of rugged mountain land.
"That must be the place. We will ride up and find out," announced Grace, clucking to her pony.
As they approached the cabin a slovenly looking woman, accompanied by three children, one a girl that the Overlanders judged to be about fourteen years of age, the other two girls being much younger, one a mere toddler, came out and, shading her eyes with a hand, eyed the newcomers suspiciously.
"Is this Mr. Thompson's home?" asked Grace, smiling down at the children.
"Ah reckon it be. Who be you?"
"I am Mrs. Grace Gray. My companion is Miss Briggs. We are riding through the mountains for pleasure and business combined, and are camped with our party on the other side of the cornfield. What I wished to ask, if you are Mrs. Thompson, is, may we be permitted to remain there for a few days?"
"Ah reckon ye kin if ye wants to if mah husband ain't objectin'."
"Is he here?" interjected Elfreda.
The woman shook her head.
"Mah other daughter is out pickin' berries. Mebby she'll come down an' look ye over bymeby. Kin I sell ye anything!"
"Yes, if you have milk we should be glad to have some every morning and night while here. We have a man friend and a colored boy with us. One of them will call for the milk early this evening. Thank you so much. Are the children quite well?"
"Tol'bly, tol'bly, Ah reckon."
"I think we have a little candy left. I will send it over to them later," said Grace smilingly, as she wheeled her pony and trotted back towards camp.
"What a sight! Think of living as those people do," reflected Elfreda.
"Perhaps they are just as happy as we are. But those poor puny children! I am sorry for them, and when I think of my daughter, Yvonne, and that healthy young animal, Lindy, your adopted daughter, I feel like crying."
"Don't! Your eyes do not look nice when, they are red. By the way, those two kiddies, despite what the mother says, do not look at all well. Did you observe how red their faces were and how listless they appeared?"
Grace said she did. She wondered, too, what the other daughter was like. Her wonder in this direction was gratified before she had been back from her brief journey twenty minutes. While telling their companions of the mountaineer's wife and family and the appearance of the woman and children, a figure rose up from behind a bush and stood curiously regarding the Overland party.
Washington discovered the newcomer and began to chatter and point.
"Don't shoot. It's a woman," cried Emma.
"No one is going to shoot," retorted Hippy hopelessly.
By this time all the girls were on their feet, gazing at the head and shoulders of a young woman showing above the bush. Her full cheeks and lips were red, and the black, straight hair hanging down her back reminded the Overlanders of Indian squaws they had seen in their journey over the Old Apache Trail. It was the caller's eyes, however, that attracted the most attention. They were large, black and full, and one felt that they were capable of blazing.
"Won't you come in, Miss?" urged Miss Briggs. "May I ask your name?" she added, as the girl, whom she judged was not much past twenty years of age, stepped out into the open.
"Ah'm Julie." That was the only information vouchsafed by the caller, and the only words she spoke for nearly the entire half hour of her stay. The Overland girls plied her with questions, and by a nod in answer to their question learned that Julie was the daughter of the woman they had called on shortly before. They called her by her first name, though now and then Emma would address her as "Miss Thompson," which seemed to perplex Julie.
"My Paw mebby'll drive ye folks off. He don't like no strangers in these parts," she finally jerked out.
"It will not be necessary. We shall be moving on in a few days," replied Grace.
"Paw don't want no strangers," insisted the girl stubbornly. "Spec'ly since he had er gun fight with one o' them. My gosh how them bullets did fly. Paw got one through his stumik and had er right smart trouble with his eatin' fer two days arter that. What you-all doin'?" she demanded, eyeing Nora Wingate, who was making a sweater.
"Crocheting, Julie. Knitting, perhaps you call it."
"Uh-huh. My gran'ma kin beat you-all knittin'."
"Yes?" smiled Nora.
"You bet she kin. Why, whad you-all think? Gran'ma takes her knittin' ter bed with 'er and every now and then she throws out a sock. I'll bet a cookie you-all kain't knit like that-away."
"You win," chuckled Hippy, and the Overland girls laughed merrily.
"I'm going now. Maw said as I'd better come down and look you-all over, cause Paw'll want ter know 'bout you-all. Say! Goin' to the dance?"
"When?" questioned Emma, her interest instantly aroused.
"Sat'dy night to the schoolhouse over in the holler yonder. Mebby you-all kin help we uns to pay the band."
"What? Do you have a band up here?" wondered Anne.
"Uh-huh—fiddle and er banjer, and the feller that plays the banjer kin tear more music out o' it and stomp on the floor harder'n any other perfesser in the mountains. Better come if Paw ain't run you-all out befo' then."
"Don't worry, little one. Paw won't run this outfit out just yet," replied Hippy.
"I dunno, I dunno. Ain't no tellin' 'bout Paw. Bye." Julie pushed a mass of hair from her forehead, gave her head a jerk to settle the hair more firmly in place, then, turning on her heel, walked away without once turning her head.
"With a stomach like his, 'Paw' should have been in France fighting the Boches," observed Emma Dean solemnly. "I'm going to the dance! I'm going to the dance! Tra-la-la," she cried, doing a fancy step about the camp, keeping time with her upraised arms until she stepped on Washington Washington's foot and brought a howl from that worthy.
The Overland girls then fell upon and subdued Miss Dean without loss of time.
"If you let her go to that dance there will be a riot, as sure as I am a foot high," declared Hippy Wingate, in which assertion most of the girls agreed with him.
THREE MEN IN THE CORNFIELD
"Ah tells yuh, Ah did. Ah sawed him obah dar in de co'nfield," protested Washington Washington.
"There you go again. You will saw the wrong person one of these days, then you will go to jail for life," rebuked Emma Dean.
"What's that?" demanded Grace, hurrying to the excited colored boy, who was rolling his eyes and gesticulating as he tried to tell the Overlanders what he had seen.
"Laundry performed a surgical operation on a man in the cornfield. That's all, Grace," Emma Dean informed her.
"Ah did. Ah sawed his gun, too."
"Yours must be a sharp saw if it will saw a gun," murmured Emma.
"He war peekin' at yuh-all, an' when he seed Ah sawed him he snooked an' Ah didn't sawed him no moah."
"Is that all?" questioned Grace.
"Quite likely it was the man who owns the cornfield. He probably was looking the crop over to see if it were fit to cut. I presume a man has a perfect right to look at his own cornfield, even up here in the Kentucky mountains," observed Miss Briggs.
"Ah reckons you're right," chuckled Hippy. "I decline to get excited over it. I have troubles of my own. Say!" he added, his face growing suddenly serious. "You don't suppose it was a fellow trying to collect that head money on me, do you?"
"Not in broad daylight, Hippy," smiled Grace. "The headsman probably will perform the delicate operation of decapitating you some night when you are asleep."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Nora. "The mountain air has made you all light-headed. I know who it was. It was 'Paw.' Paw has returned and was looking us over. I hope, for our own peace of mind, that he liked our looks."
"Nora may be right," nodded Anne.
"Yes," agreed Grace. "I think it would be wise for Hippy to go to the Thompson home for the milk to-night. He can then get acquainted with Mr. Thompson, and perhaps interest him, and make him friendly to us."
Hippy eyed her disapprovingly and sighed.
"A lamb was led to the slaughter and—"
"Just the same, we must be alert to-night," advised Grace. "If Hippy and Elfreda will take the first half of the night, Anne and I will take the watch the balance of the night."
This was agreed to, and the rest of the day was devoted to setting the camp to rights, practicing with the rope, at which all tried their hand, and taking naps, always with attention to their surroundings, for the Overland Riders knew they were in more or less peril in the Kentucky mountains, and believed that sooner or later those who, for some reason, wished to be rid of them, would make a desperate attempt to force them to leave that neighborhood.
There was the warning note to indicate that the attempt might not be long delayed.
Supper, that evening, was eaten just after dark, as the Overlanders enjoyed sitting about their campfire in the cool evening air, chatting and telling stories and indulging in good-natured banter as they ate. They had just sat down when a voice from the darkness brought instant silence, and a quick reaching for their weapons. The nerves of the Overland girls were getting jumpy.
"I make the near-blind to see and the seeing to see better. I am the promoter of happiness, the benefactor of all-uns of the mountains. Specs, ladies and gentlemen. Nick-nacks, thread, needles, but principally specs and good cheer. Yes, thanks. I will have a snack with you. I thank you for the invitation."
The Overland Riders, who, up to this juncture, had not uttered a word, burst into laughter, for they recognized that voice, the never-to-be-forgotten voice and lingo of Jeremiah Long, the Mystery Man.
"You are indeed welcome," greeted Grace, stepping forward to shake hands with the spectacle man, who put down his grip, mopped his forehead, then grasped her hand, regarding Grace with twinkling eyes.
"I have just come from Jed Thompson's hospitable home where I have spectacled the family from the old man himself down to and including the babe. They told me that down by the cornfield was a bunch of campers, and I said I'd go down and sell them some specs. I'll introduce myself. I don't know you," he added in a lower tone. "I'm Jeremiah Long, and I've already told you the rest. Who are you?"
"We are the Overland Riders, riding through the mountains for pleasure—and business," answered Grace, quickly catching his intimation that he did not desire that listening ears should know that he had met the party before. "After mess you must show us your wares. Perhaps we may find something that may be useful to us."
"Charmed, I'm sure." The Mystery Man of the mountains placed a hand over his heart and made a profound bow. He then sat down. "Cream and sugar in the coffee, please. Thank you. I caught the odor of this coffee before I rounded the upper corner of the cornfield. My nose frequently leads me to the good things of earth, and what I don't then see with my own eyes, the eyes in my case do."
"I would give almost anything to be able to talk a blue streak the way you do," exclaimed Emma so earnestly that her companions nearly choked with laughter, and that left the Mystery Man with laughter instead of words on his lips.
"Yes, but greater even than the gift of gab, is the gift of 'con-centration,'" twinkled Jeremiah Long.
"How did you know about that?" demanded Emma, looking her amazement.
"How did I know? My dear young woman, the essence sent out by 'con-centration' is an imponderable quantity—"
"Imponderable?" wondered Miss Dean. "I like that word, and, though I don't know what it means, it sounds good."
"As I was saying, the waves sent out by your 'con-centrating' may have, like the wireless waves, been picked up by my own delicate mental mechanism and—"
"In other words, Miss Dean overshot the mark she aimed at," interjected Hippy.
"Well, something like that, I should say," chuckled the Mystery Man.
"Is there anything you do not know?" wondered Anne Nesbit.
"You are a mighty fortunate man, I should say," declared Hippy. "Think what the result would have been had that 'imponderable quantity' hit you fair and square. Why, it would have blown you to atoms—molecules and—"
"Suppose we change the subject," suggested Grace Harlowe. "Show us your wares, won't you, Mr. Long?"
The visitor got up, and, fetching his case, opened it, revealing great numbers of shining spectacles, beads and other shoddy adornments.
"We will now fit you to glasses, those of you who need them."
"You, of course, know how to examine eyes?" nodded Elfreda.
"Oh, no. I 'fit' the bows to the ears," answered Mr. Long.
"Yes, but aren't you afraid you will ruin the eyes of the persons you fit glasses to?" questioned Grace.
The Mystery Man smiled.
"I never heard of a person's eyes being ruined by looking through a window," he made reply, raising a merry laugh. "I'll fit you to smoked glasses to protect your eyes from the sun. They won't cost you anything. Neither did they cost me anything. I want my wares known in every home in the mountains, and I want every man, woman and child, and babe in arms, to be seeing things through my eyes, and I'll accomplish it if the window glass holds out."
"Of course we expect to pay you," began Grace.
"Not a cent, not a cent. I should say it might be wise to have them—the glasses—well smoked up like a ham, for there may be doings up here that it were the part of wisdom for you folks not to see. Do the bows fit, Mrs. Gray?" he asked, adjusting a pair of specs to her ears.
"I—I think so."
The visitor rattled on, keeping his customers fairly convulsed with laughter, until he had equipped half the party with spectacles.
"You may pay me," he suddenly suggested, lowering his voice. "I've changed my mind. That will be two dollars apiece," he added in a loud, blustering tone.
The Overland Riders looked at him in amazement. Only a few moments before that he had proposed to "fit" them with glasses free of charge.
"Of course we will pay you," announced Emma Dean airily.
Elfreda and Grace, who had been eyeing Mr. Long inquiringly, saw motive in his sudden change. The quick, meaning glance he gave them convinced them that their surmise was right.
"What is it?" asked Grace, her voice down almost to a whisper.
"Yes, two dollars. Thank you. There are three men in the cornfield watching us," he added in a tone barely loud enough for the Overlanders to hear. "Don't look. If I don't run out of change I'll have you all fixed up in three shakes of a possum's tail," said Mr. Long, again boisterously.
ELFREDA DISTINGUISHES HERSELF
"The smoke is too thick. I can't see through the glasses. I want my money back," complained Emma.
"No extra charge for the additional soot. Who is next? Ah! Wash needs a pair of specs to tone down the whites of his eyes," cried Jeremiah.
"Never mind him. He is smoky enough as it is," returned Hippy. "If you are dead set on doing more business you might go out and put goggles on the mules. Perhaps then they might not see so much to bray at."
This badinage was kept up for some little time, so that the prowlers in the cornfield might not suspect that their presence were known to the campers.
All of the party were wondering how the Mystery Man knew that they were being watched, for none of the Overlanders had heard the slightest sound in the direction of the cornfield, and their ears, after all their campaigning, were always on the alert. Jeremiah was a man of many mysteries.
Grace invited him to share their hospitality for the night, which he acknowledged by rising and favoring them with another profound bow.
"I will sleep in the open, if I may be permitted to do so—as before," he murmured. In the same low tone, he added: "I don't just like the location of your camp."
"Why not, sir?" asked Miss Briggs.
"Too many ears in the cornfield, and besides—"
Emma Dean uttered a dismal groan. Her companions burst out laughing, Jeremiah regarding them with eyes that twinkled and laughed, though the face remained almost expressionless.
"Is it not true?" he asked.
"Yes. Too true! Alas, too true," murmured Hippy in an awed tone.
Grace got up laughing and went to her tent for blankets for her guest.
"By the fire as before?" she asked upon her return.
Jeremiah shook his head.
"I will place them, Mrs. Gray. Thank you."
The girls then bade their guest good-night, each one shaking hands with him, and, as Grace extended her hand, he placed in it a roll of money.
"The funds I held you folks up for," explained Mr. Long. "You can return it to them to-morrow with an explanation. Do not let the lieutenant take too many chances, is my suggestion. Good-night."
It had been decided that, so long as their guest were to sleep in the open, it would not be necessary to keep guard outside. Grace said, however, that she would stand watch in her tent part of the night, then call Elfreda, and turn in.
Mr. Long made up his bed on the cornfield side of the camp and, after listening to one of Hippy's war stories, rolled up in his blankets and went to sleep. Grace, from her tent, could faintly make out the form of the Mystery Man, and, sitting, chin in hand regarding him, she wondered, as she had done many times before, who and what the man was. That he was all he would have them believe she did not for a moment credit.
"What's that?" Grace leaned forward and peered. Mr. Long appeared to be asleep under his blankets, but, a short distance from him, she saw another figure cautiously rolling slowly towards the cornfield.
Looking more closely at the blankets, the Overland girl saw that they were folded lengthwise to make them appear something like the form of a human being, and that it was Jeremiah himself who was so cautiously rolling away.
After waiting another hour for his return she decided that their guest had left them for the night. Grace then awakened Elfreda and asked her to take the watch for a couple of hours, saying she was very tired.
Elfreda got up sleepily and, for several minutes, sat with hands clasped to her head.
"Anything stirring?" she asked, yawning.
"Nothing except the Mystery Man. He stirred himself out of camp. He rolled out. I do not believe he will return to-night."
"Queer chap, that. All right, Loyalheart. I am awake now. Tumble in and I will see if I can keep you out of trouble until daylight."
"See to it that, instead, you don't get us into a peck of it," chuckled Grace, tucking herself in under the blankets. "Thank you for getting the bed so nice and comfy for me."
"Don't tantalize me. I know how sweet that bed is, for I just got out of it myself," replied Miss Briggs sourly. Grace did not hear, for she already was sound asleep, and Elfreda, muttering to herself, straightened up and exercised her arms and shoulders more thoroughly to arouse her sleepy faculties.
"There! I think I can manage to keep awake now. I hear Hippy snoring. Gracious! If I had a snore like that I think I should file it. Oh!"
Elfreda had seen a movement on the cornfield side of the camp. To her, it looked like a man crawling into camp.
Miss Briggs reached for her rifle and waited. Now and then little ribbons of flame flickered over the bed of coal of the campfire, lighting up the camp momentarily. Elfreda was unafraid for the weapon in her hands gave her confidence, and the cool touch of the barrel against her hand steadied it.
The intruder was now coming directly towards her.
The moving object was directly in line with Washington Washington's tent, and for that reason Miss Briggs would not have dared to fire, even did she find it necessary to do so.
Her first impulse was to awaken Grace, but upon second thought she decided to wait. Perhaps it was the Mystery Man returning, though Elfreda did not believe he would take the chance of getting shot.
"Mercy! It's an animal," gasped the watcher. "A bear!" she added in an awed whisper, as a faint mountain breeze fanned the campfire into a flame.
The bear by this time had sniffed its way across the camp, bearing to the left as it neared her tent, but halting when it reached the pack that contained their provisions. Here the animal was quite clearly outlined in the light cast by the fire.
It was a small bear, but it looked very large to Elfreda Briggs, who had never experienced meeting a bear at such close range. He began clawing at the pack of provisions and tearing with his teeth at the tough canvas covering, and had it open before Elfreda realized what he was up to.
"He is eating up our food!" she exclaimed under her breath. Miss Briggs raised her rifle to fire. She lowered it ever so little as a new thought occurred to her.
"I'll do it!" she declared, laying the rifle on the ground beside her. "I probably shall make an awful mess of the attempt, but I am going to try to rope that beast. I don't believe he will attack me if I miss. If he does I shall have every incentive to break all running records in my sprint for the rifle."
Elfreda reached for Grace Harlowe's Mexican lasso, arranged it for casting, then, after listening briefly to Grace's breathing, stepped cautiously from the tent.
The bear was tearing at the food and its covering, and grunting with satisfaction, and the supplies of the Overland Riders were disappearing at a rate that promised a famine, if Bruin's operations were not immediately checked. So busy was he that her cautious footsteps were unheard, and so deep was his snout plunged into the treasure he had found that he failed to catch the scent of his enemy.
As she neared him Miss Briggs felt a sudden weakness in the knees that threatened flight on her part, but, by summoning all her will, she managed to call back her grit.
"Ill do it if it kills me!" muttered the Overland Rider. "If I win, I shall have the laugh on Grace Harlowe. If I lose—well we won't think about that. Here goes. Steady, and 'con-centrate,' Elfreda Briggs!"
Miss Briggs swung the rope above her head three times to open the loop, and, gauging her distance as well as she knew how, she let go. One side of the loop hit Bruin on the ear.
Uttering a snarl at the interruption, the animal made a leap and accomplished what the roper had failed to accomplish. He leaped right into the loop with his head and one leg. His spring drew the lasso tightly about him. He was fast, but he did not propose to be so for many seconds. Throwing himself on his back, the bear began clawing and biting at the hateful thing that was drawing tighter and tighter about him.
Elfreda, triumphant, now highly excited, determined to hold fast to that which she had, twisted the free end of the rope about her arm and grasped the tautened strand with both hands, at the same time bracing her feet and pulling with all her might.
Bruin bounded to his feet, and for one terrible instant J. Elfreda thought he was going to rush her. Instead, the bear whirled and, humping himself almost into a furry ball, galloped away. His captor, with the rope twisted about her arm, could not have freed herself in time, even had she thought of so doing.
"Help! Oh, help!" she wailed, as her feet were jerked from under her and she was hurled violently to the ground. "Help—p!"
The camp of the Overland Riders was in an uproar in an instant. J. Elfreda, champion of peace, though not a pacifist, had started something, the end of which was not yet in sight.
WHEN EMMA SAID TOO MUCH
"Where is he?" bellowed Hippy, charging from his tent, rifle in hand. "Elfreda!" shouted Grace, rubbing her eyes to get the sleep out of them. She could hear the commotion, but was unable to make out the cause of the disturbance.
In the meantime, Miss Briggs was being dragged over the ground at a rate of speed that was neither good for her clothing nor her body. In his blind fright, the animal charged straight into Washington Washington's pup-tent, landing right on the colored boy. The lad threw up his arms, and they closed about the neck of the bear.
A frightful howl instantly woke the mountain silence, as Washington let go and rolled from under. The bear, as much frightened as was Wash, turned and charged across the camp. He met Emma Dean head on, and she went down under the onslaught.
"It's a bear! Shoot him!" screamed Emma.
"No!" shouted Grace. "He is dragging Elfreda. Don't shoot!" Grace's eyes by this time had become adjusted to the uncertain light and her mind instantly comprehended the situation, so far as the fact that her companion was being dragged was concerned, though she did not realize that it was her rope that was around the neck of the frightened animal.
Young Bruin went through Grace's tent, Elfreda following him like a projectile. Both emerged from the ruins on the other side and headed for the bush, with the Overland Riders in full pursuit.
"Throw yourself on the rope and grab it!" panted Grace, as Hippy ran past her.
"Let go!" he shouted to Miss Briggs, but, though Elfreda was willing to do so, she could not. Neither could she summon enough breath to answer.
"Snub the rope around something," urged Grace.
Hippy reached and passed Elfreda and threw himself on the rope, as he thought. The bear, having made a sudden turn to get away from him, caused Hippy to miss the rope by a few feet. The rope tripped Grace who landed flat on the ground.
It was at this juncture that Anne and Nora reached the scene, and the next instant they too were tripped by the rope. The entire Overland party were now floundering about in the bushes, and Washington Washington was up a tree, clinging to it, wide-eyed, as he listened to the uproar below him.
Darting this way and that, the bear finally raced around a tree with Miss Briggs following. The purchase thus given to her served to check the progress of the animal. Hippy took instant advantage. He threw himself on the rope, and, this time, succeeded in grasping it with both hands.
"Quick! Get her loose," he panted, holding to the lasso with all his strength, but feeling it slowly slipping through his hands, for the bear possessed greater pulling strength than did Hippy.
Grace lost no time in freeing the rope from Elfreda's hands and arm.
"Drag her away. Lively!" she urged.
Anne and Nora gave instant obedience, and the instant Elfreda was free of the rope, Grace quickly snubbed it about the trunk of the tree.
"Let go, Hippy," she called. "I think I can hold him till you get here to help me."
Bruin was snarling and plunging, throwing himself this way and that in his vain efforts to free himself, but the hair rope held. Mere bear strength was not equal to breaking a woven hair rope, and, when Hippy threw his weight on the end of it with Grace, they hauled the animal up towards the tree little by little, Bruin fighting every inch of the way.
"Watch him," warned the lieutenant.
As he neared the tree, the animal showed fight but Grace and Hippy made the rope fast when the bear was a yard or so from the tree, fearing to draw him any closer to themselves.
"How is Elfreda?" called Grace, fanning herself with her hat.
"Sadly mussed," answered Nora.
"Well, now that you have him, what do you propose to do with him?" demanded Grace, walking over and gazing down at Miss Briggs, who lay on the ground breathing hard.
"I—I have done all I ca—an," groaned Elfreda.
"I should say you had. What happened, Elfreda?"
"Mostly myself. You ought to know that by looking at me." Miss Briggs' face was scratched from contact with the bushes; her hair was down and in a tangle, and her clothing was torn. She was a much mussed-up young woman.
"Watch him, Hippy," called Grace. "J. Elfreda, if you are feeling able please tell us what occurred. I know that you roped the animal, but that is all."
Miss Briggs briefly related her experience up to the time the Overlanders appeared on the scene.
"You win the blue ribbon," laughed Grace. "As I asked before, now that you have the beast, what do you propose to do with him?"
"Let him go," replied Elfreda a little petulantly.
"Yes, but how? You roped him. It seems up to you to untie him."
"Oh, cut the rope," suggested Emma.
"Indeed, you will not," objected Grace. "You must think of some better plan."
"Leave it to the bear. He will have the rope gnawed in two very soon at the present rate," called Hippy. "Come, Emma. Get busy and 'con-centrate' on the difficulty."
The animal was on its back when the girls gathered about him, keeping a safe distance from him, however. He was clawing and biting and snarling savagely, and Grace was much concerned for her rope, which was one of her prized possessions.
"What do you suggest, Hippy?" she asked.
"Either cut the rope or shoot him, or else let him liberate himself."
"He will have to be shot. I am sorry, but it seems the only way," decided Grace. "Will you do it, Hippy?"
"Sure I will. Mighty glad for the opportunity. We will have bear steak for breakfast."
"Perhaps we shall have jail to digest it in. I am not certain whether or not we are permitted to shoot bear at this time of the year. Do you know what the Kentucky game laws with reference to bear are?"
Hippy said he did not, and did not care. Having made up his mind to have bear for breakfast, no mere laws should interfere with his appetite he said. The girls, not wishing to witness the operation, returned to the camp and Hippy shot the bear.
Most of the balance of the night was spent by him in dressing the animal and stringing it up by its hocks to let it cool. He was not an expert at this sort of thing, but had Tom Gray been there he would have done the job and been back between his blankets in an hour. However, there was bear steak for breakfast, though Elfreda declared she wouldn't touch a mouthful of it for anything. The others were not suffering from delicate appetites, and did full justice to the meal.
Later in the forenoon, Hippy, who had declared himself too busy to go for the milk the night before, started out for the Thompson cabin, accompanied by Nora and Emma, to purchase a pail of fresh milk.
Upon their arrival there, Julie and the rest of the family, except Mr. Thompson, gathered about the Overland Riders, full of curiosity. Julie explained that "Paw" had gone away the night before and hadn't come back.
"Paw's awful mad 'bout you folks," she announced. "Said as how ye had better git out afore he got too het up 'bout ye."
"We shall be going in a few days," answered Nora. "Tell your 'Paw' not to get excited."
"I'll tell you what," bubbled Emma. "Does he like bear meat?"
"Ah reckon he likes most any kind o' food," answered Mrs. Thompson.
"Good. Listen to me! We got a bear last night and we had part of him for breakfast. For a time it looked like he was going to have us for his breakfast, but we shot him and Lieutenant Wingate dressed him, and he was fine," declared Miss Dean with enthusiasm. "I will send the colored boy over with a fine bear steak for Mr. Thompson, and, if he is anything like Lieutenant Wingate, he will be mad no longer."
The mountain woman smiled at Emma's temperamental enthusiasm.
"I reckon he'll be mighty glad to have it," she nodded.
Before leaving, Hippy Wingate chucked the two little children under the chin and gave each a five-cent piece, promising to give them as much more each time he came for the milk.
"Queer about 'Paw,' ain't it?" mimicked Emma as they were on their way home. "I wonder if he is staying in the cornfield watching our camp. Perhaps he'll come out when he hears there is bear steak at home. My, but aren't those children dirty?"
Grace frowned when Nora told her of Emma's offer to give the Thompsons some of the bear meat.
"Emma, no good ever comes from babbling. I am sorry you did that, but so long as you promised you must make good," directed Grace.
"All right. Don't be so frightfully touchy. I will send Wash over with a hind leg."
"No. You will send or take a steak, as you promised. A bear's leg! The idea!"
"I don't know what you mean. A leg of lamb is considered a real delicacy where I come from, and I should think a leg of bear would be an equally delightful delicacy up here where the beast grows."
Even Miss Briggs joined in the laugh that followed, though it hurt frightfully to exercise her facial muscles.
Hippy said he would cut out a steak, but Nora decided that he must have assistance or he would be sending something that not even the mountaineers could eat. A black chunk of meat that weighed all of twelve pounds was the result of the carving. This Hippy tied up in a roll and gave to Washington to take to the Thompsons.
"Our peace offering to 'Paw,'" observed Hippy as the colored boy, with the bear meat on his shoulder, trudged away playing his harmonica. "That dance that Julie invited us to attend, comes off to-morrow night. She asked me to-day, if we were going. I said I reckoned we'd be over, and asked her if she would trip the light fantastic with me, but Julie shook her head. What about it? Do we go or stay?"
"What will we do about the camp?" wondered Grace.
"Leave it here, of course," urged Emma.
"And find it missing when we return," suggested Elfreda. "I fear that won't do at all."
"We can hide our equipment and ride the ponies over to Coon Hollow, with Laundry along on one of the mules to look after our horses when we get there," planned Lieutenant Wingate.
"What about the other mule?" questioned Anne.
"Let him take care of himself. If any stranger attempts to fool around that mule he will get the everlasting daylights kicked out of him. Nora, you had better shake your feet up to-day and get in practice, for to-morrow night you dance—if—"
"Yes, if," laughed Grace. "It shall be just as you people wish. Personally I am not keen for it, except that it will be a treat to watch the mountain folk at play."
All except Miss Briggs were enthusiastic for the dance.
"With my damaged countenance, I shan't be able to dance," she complained.
"You don't intend to dance on your face, do you!" wondered Emma.
"If I perform the way I did with the bear, I undoubtedly shall. There is no telling what I might do."
"You ought to have a net to perform over, like the circus people do," declared Emma. "Do we go?"
"Yes, let's go," urged Nora.
The others being of the same mind, Grace gave a rather reluctant consent and the matter was settled then and there, greatly adding to the happiness of Emma Dean.
That afternoon Grace made an inspection of the cornfield and discovered the imprints of heavy boots in the soft dirt near the camp. There had been, she believed, four men in the party, and all four evidently had been spying on the Overland camp. She followed their trail until she came to the edge of the cornfield, facing the Thompson cabin. Grace shrugged her shoulders and retraced her steps.
"I have a feeling that our affairs must come to a head soon," she murmured. "The footprints, after leaving the cornfield, appear to lead directly towards the Thompson home. However, we shall see. The night may bring something in the way of a development. I am getting tired of the waiting policy. Girls," called Grace, as she entered the camp. "What do you say if we break camp and get out to-morrow?"
"You forget the dance," reminded Emma, who did not propose to miss such an opportunity as this.
"Day after to-morrow, then?" questioned Grace.
"In spite of warnings and the suggestion of our unseen friend?" asked Anne.
"Yes. We can't stay here forever. Besides, the days are passing and we have some little distance to go before reaching the rendezvous where we are to meet Tom. What we need is action."
"Did I not start something for you last night? What more do you want?" demanded Miss Briggs.
"To keep moving. You started the wrong way. You were headed towards home when you set out behind your bear," laughed Grace. "What do you say, girls?"
"Yes. Let's go," nodded Elfreda. "Nothing much matters after last night, so far as I am concerned." The rest left the decision entirely in Grace Harlowe's hands, and she decided to move as suggested, provided nothing intervened to prevent their doing so.
Bear meat, coffee with real cream and fresh vegetables, procured from the Thompsons, made an unusually appetizing supper that night, and during the meal Washington furnished music to entertain them. He was still playing when Anne warned her companions that a man had just stepped out of the cornfield and was coming into camp.
The Overlanders got up, wondering who their caller might be.
"Evenin', folks," greeted the stranger, who was of the same gaunt, razor-faced type that they had come in contact with on other occasions on this journey.
"Good evening," answered the Overland Riders pleasantly.
"We have just finished supper, but won't you sit down and have a snack?" asked Grace. "There is some meat and coffee left."
"Reckon Ah will, thankee."
The caller sat down, tucked his red handkerchief under his chin, hitched his revolver holster back a little further, leaned over and sniffed at his heaping plate of bear meat, then fell to with a will. "He ate as if he had had nothing to eat for a fortnight," as Emma confided to Anne Nesbit. Washington made a fresh pot of coffee for him.
"Reckon this 'ere's as fine a piece o' beef as Ah ever stowed," observed the guest, rolling his eyes up to the assembled Riders.
"It isn't beef. It's—" began Emma, but quickly subsided as Anne pinched her warningly.
"It's what?" demanded the caller.
"Codfish!" answered Emma lamely.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders and resumed his eating.
"Ahem!" said Hippy by way of clearing his throat. "It is a fine, large evening. Do you ordinarily have such large evenings in the Kentucky mountains?"
"Off an' on, Mister. Wall, Ah reckon Ah'm full clear to the gullet. Who be ye-all?"
"We call ourselves the Overland Riders. May I ask who you are?" questioned Hippy.
"Ah'm the game constable of this 'ere county. Where's the bear?"
"Some—some of it is—is inside of you," gasped Emma Dean a little hysterically.
A JOKE ON THE OVERLANDERS
"Help!" murmured Elfreda Briggs.
"The game constable!" repeated Lieutenant Wingate. "Oh! Glad to know you, old man. Glad to know you. This is a genuine pleasure, I assure you. How is business? Are you arresting any game—rabbits, possums, or anything of that sort?" went on Hippy jovially, to hide his real feelings.
Grace Harlowe laughed in a low tone.
"Ah may be. Ah asked, where is the bear?"
"Bear, bear?" questioned the lieutenant, glancing about him inquiringly. "I—I didn't know that you had lost one. What sort of a looking bear was he, and did he wear a license tag on his collar or—"
"Oh, shet up!" growled the constable. "That was bear meat Ah had fer mah supper. No one ain't allowed to have bear meat till December."
"Then why did you eat what you say was bear meat?" demanded Miss Briggs in her severest legal tone. "You say no one is allowed to have bear meat until December, but it appears to me that you have had your share of it this evening."
"Whut's that over thar?" he exploded, pointing to where the carcass of Elfreda's bear was faintly discernible, hanging by its hocks from a pole suspended between two trees. The constable strode over and peered at what was left of Mr. Bruin.
"So, that's what yer up to in these 'ere mountings, eh?"
Hippy shrugged his shoulders.
"You win," he said. "What is the answer?"
"Wall, Ah reckons as if you'd pay me fer the bear an'—an' settle fer the damages, Ah might—"
"Settle nothing!" roared Hippy in a tone calculated to frighten the visitor, but which failed to have that effect. "Why, I could have you arrested for trying to accept a bribe from a former United States officer. You will get no bribe from me."
"Ah'll arrest the whole pack of ye. Officer, eh? Ah reckoned as ye was that. Ah did, an' seein' as ye admit it, ain't nothin' more to be said 'bout that, but Ah'll take ye in and clap ye in the calaboose jest the same. Yer under arrest! All of ye is under arrest onless ye'll agree t' git out o' the mountings t'-night."
Hippy shrugged his shoulders, and the Overlanders, with the exception of Grace, looked serious. Grace was trying hard not to laugh out loud.
"See here, Mister Man!" demanded Lieutenant Wingate gruffly. "My great grandfather was from Missouri. You have got to show me. How do I know you are a constable? Where is your authority?"
"This 'ere's mah authority," replied the mountaineer, patting his revolver holster.
Hippy stepped a little closer to the constable.
"And 'this 'ere's my authority' for saying that you are no more a constable than I am!" retorted the Overlander.
Hippy's fist landed on the point of the mountaineer's jaw, and the mountaineer went over backwards, landing heavily on the ground unconscious from the blow.
"Hippy! Oh, Hippy darlin'! What have you done?" wailed Nora.
"Hit him! Hit him again before he can get up!" cried Emma excitedly.
"Be quiet, you little savage," admonished Anne.
"You surely have done it this time, Hippy Wingate. Now we are in for trouble," rebuked Grace Harlowe.
"Brown Eyes, this fellow is a rank fraud. He isn't a constable, and I will wager that, were he to think there were such an animal within a mile of him, he would hit out for the bushes right smart."
"I agree with you. But, Hippy, you shouldn't have done that. The man was only bluffing. I saw that, or thought I did."
"So was I bluffing. The difference is that he and I do not bluff in the same way. Wait!" Hippy snatched the mountaineer's revolver from its holster, removed the cartridges and tossed them away, after which he returned the weapon to its holster. He then unbuckled the man's ammunition belt, shook all the cartridges out of that and rebuckled the belt about the fellow's waist.
"Laundry!" called Lieutenant Wingate.
"Fetch me a pail of water. On the run!"
"I reckon this will wake him up," chuckled Hippy as he dashed the pailful of water that Washington brought, full into the face of the unconscious "constable."
It did. The man gasped and choked and struggled, and sat up, brushing the water out of his eyes with a sleeve. His blinking eyes slowly swept the camp, finally coming to rest on Hippy Wingate's face.
"Question him," suggested Grace.
"Who sent you here to try to bluff us?" asked Hippy sternly.
"Ah'll show ye." The mountain man's revolver was out of its holster in a flash as he leaped to his feet, and aimed it at Hippy. He pulled the trigger, but there was no report, only the click of the hammer as it struck the rim of an empty chamber of the revolver.
Five times did the fellow pull the trigger of his weapon, but with no better result, Hippy standing at ease before him, a smile on his face.
"I have a perfect right to shoot you for that, Mister 'Constable.' I may yet decide to do so. Who sent you here to play tricks on us?"
Uttering an exclamation of disgust, the mountain man thrust his revolver into its holster, one hand having crept about his ammunition belt and found it empty. He appeared to be dazed, but whether from the rap Hippy had given him, or because of the mysterious disappearance of his cartridges, they were not certain.
"Are you going to answer my question?"
The fellow shook his head.
"Do you know Jed Thompson?"
The mountaineer regarded his questioner sullenly, scowlingly, and without much change of expression. The scowl had been there ever since he woke up from the blow on his chin.
"Perhaps you know Bat Spurgeon?" This was one of the two names that Hippy had heard mentioned when he was the captive of the mountaineers. The other name was Jed Thompson, the man, undoubtedly, on whose farm the Overland Riders were then encamped.
A sudden change of expression flashed into the eyes of the "constable."
"So? You do know him, eh?" chuckled Lieutenant Wingate. Hippy drew his own weapon from its holster, fingering it absently while frowningly regarding the man before him.
"Why are you ruffians so eager to have us get out of the mountains? What have we done to you that you should be so dead set on getting rid of us?"
As before, there was no answer.
"I see it is useless to question you. Of course I could make you talk, and I would were there no ladies present to criticize my methods. However, I am going to let you go. You go back to the fellow who sent you here. Tell him for me that, if he bothers us further, we will take matters into our own hands. As for you, you poor fish, if ever I see you hanging about this or any other camp I am in, I'll shoot you on sight."
"Do it now while you have the chance," urged Emma.
Grace rebuked her with a stern look.
"I will give you ten seconds, after you have faced about, to get out of sight in the bushes," resumed Hippy. "Turn around! Go!"
Hippy fired a shot over the head of the mountaineer who had fairly leaped for the bushes and disappeared in them.
"Quick! Follow him, darlin'. He may have other cartridges in his pockets," urged Nora.
"Anyway, the joke is on us. We fed the man and put evidence against us right in his stomach," wailed Emma Dean.
THE DANCE AT COON HOLLOW
Lieutenant Wingate, comprehending instantly, sprang into the bushes after the man he had driven out of camp.
"Didn't I tell you to get out of here?" demanded Hippy, pointing his revolver at the mountaineer, who had halted and was feverishly going through his pockets in search of ammunition.
The man stood not upon the order of his going, and, to speed him up, Lieutenant Wingate sent two shots over his head, following these up by chasing the fellow clear out into the open field where the Thompson cabin stood. The mountaineer made a quick run across the field, zigzagging, expecting, undoubtedly, to hear a bullet whistle past his head.
"Whew!" exclaimed the lieutenant, brushing the perspiration from his forehead as he stepped into the camp. "I am afraid I am not getting proper nourishment. My wind is not as good as it used to be. Nora darling, you will have to feed your husband better if you expect him to live this strenuous life."
"Did you hit him?" questioned Emma eagerly.
"Fiddlesticks! If I could not shoot straighter than that I think I should practice until I learned how to shoot."
"No you wouldn't. You would just sit down and 'con-centrate,'" retorted Hippy Wingate. "What do you make of all this, Brown Eyes?"
"More than I can very well express."
"I wish you might have been willing for me to use on him some of the methods employed by the intelligence department of the army to make Boche prisoners talk. He would talk, all right," said Hippy.
"This is not war," reminded Grace.
"No, but it is going to be," answered Hippy briefly. "Well, what do you dope out?"
"I think that the man who was just here is a Thompson man. Did you notice his expression when you mentioned Bat Spurgeon? If ever there was murder in a man's eyes, there was in his."
"From what you overheard the night you were a captive of the mountaineers, you understood that the Spurgeons were going to start trouble with Jed Thompson, did you not?"
"Yes. Of course that may have been mere bluff talk," said Hippy.
"I don't think so. They are a bad lot, all of them. I am glad we have decided to leave this place, for, having assaulted our visitor, we may look for reprisals from Thompson."
"What's the difference? There is a price on my head, so I might as well be a lion as a lamb. Is there any bear meat left?"
"None cooked," replied Nora. "The 'constable' ate it all."
"I hope it gives him indigestion for life," growled Hippy. "I will watch the camp to-night, and, if you hear a rifle fired, don't get excited. It will be the man-with-a-price-on-his-head taking a pot shot at some fellow who is trying to earn the reward."
The Overland Riders did not sleep very well that night, for each of them looked for action from the mountain men. Nothing, however, occurred to disturb the camp.
Next morning Lieutenant Wingate went to the Thompson cabin to get milk, hoping to see Jed Thompson and have a talk with him, but Julie said "Paw" was not at home and might not be for "a right smart time."
While at the cabin, Lieutenant Wingate inquired how to reach the schoolhouse in Coon Hollow where the dance was to be held that night. Julie told him in such great detail that Hippy was positive he never should find his way there, but he promised to do his best to get there.
"Ah'd go 'long and show you-all the way if Ah didn't have t' meet mah fellow. Bet you-all'll like him. Name's Lum Bangs an' he kin wallop any fellow in the mountains."
"Do you think he could whip me?" teased Hippy smilingly.
"He shore could. Jist let him lam you-all t'-night and see whether he kin er not."
"Thank you. I prefer to do the 'lamming' myself. When 'Paw' comes home please tell him I wish he would call on us to-day, for we are planning on moving our camp to-morrow. Tell him I wish to have a friendly talk with him."
Julie shook her head vigorously.
"Paw ain't strong on that kind o' talk. He'd rather fit with a man than gab with him."
Lieutenant Wingate asked Julie if she would dance with him, saying that Nora would be glad to have Julie do that.
"Ah will not," she retorted with a fine show of indignation.
"Why not?" teased Hippy.
"'Cause my feller would lam you-all's haid off an' then give me er punch in the jaw."
"Gracious! Lum is a gentle animal, isn't he?" grinned Hippy.
Julie blinked, but made no reply. Hippy said good-bye and went away laughing.
Late that afternoon Grace sent Washington out to learn the way to the schoolhouse, for, otherwise, she knew they would have difficulty in finding their way, for the nights up in the mountains just now were very dark.
Upon his return, the colored boy was unable to give them clear directions as to how to reach the schoolhouse, though his conversation on the subject was voluble, if not specific.
"That will do," rebuked Grace. "Pack all the supplies, except what will be needed for supper." She then consulted with Lieutenant Wingate as to where to stow their possessions so that they might not be disturbed by man or beast during the absence of the party at the mountain dance. Hippy went out and scouted about for a suitable place for the purpose. He found it in a hollow in the rocks which he said they could protect by placing stones in front of the opening.
Much of the equipment was stowed there before dark. After supper the rest of it was placed in the opening in the rocks.
"Do we take the rifles with us?" questioned Lieutenant Wingate.
"No, indeed," answered Grace with promptness. "It would not look well."
"Nor does it feel well to be held up or shot at without having the means to defend one's self," answered Hippy. "I shall take my revolver."
"Yes," agreed Grace. "Wear it under your blouse. I will do the same."
They decided to hide the rifles and ammunition in the bushes and trust to luck that no one stumbled on them. When they had finished with their preparations, nothing was left in the camp but the tents and a few blankets, mess kits and provisions being in the cache in the rocks.
One mule was to be ridden by Washington, the other to be left to its fate, hidden in a dense growth of laurel.
"I suppose he will awaken the whole country with his brays," growled Hippy.
"There are mules and mules," observed Emma Dean.
Hippy gave her a quick, keen glance, but her face was guileless.
At eight o'clock the Overland Riders set out on their ponies, Washington Washington in the lead on his pack mule, industriously mouthing his harmonica, the girls laughing and chatting, Hippy silent, lost in contemplation of his own problems.
"Which way to the Coon Hollow schoolhouse?" called Grace as they passed a slowly walking couple a short distance beyond the Thompson home.
"Yer headin' fer it," answered the man.
"If Laundry gives the mule a free rein, we probably shall reach our destination sooner than if the boy tries to guide the animal," suggested Elfreda Briggs.