As they neared the schoolhouse they heard the music of the "band," as Julie had been pleased to call it. Hearing, Washington Washington played his own musical instrument with renewed vigor.
Many others, bound toward the schoolhouse, laughed and made remarks, or greeted the Overlanders pleasantly as they passed.
The ponies and the mule were tethered to trees hard by the schoolhouse, after which the party filed into the building, with Washington trailing along after them, rolling his eyes and wagging his head in rhythm with the music of violin and banjo.
The music proved too much for Washington to endure in silence, and the Overland Riders were amazed when he clapped the harmonica to his lips and began to play with the two musicians.
Grace started for the boy, but another got to him ahead of her. A young mountaineer picked up the colored boy and tossed him out through a window. It was not so roughly done that the Overlanders could make a protest, and the young fellow who had performed the feat turned from the window laughing over the neat way he had checked Washington's musical interference.
The dance already was under full headway. The floor swayed and groaned, and the building fairly rocked under the rhythmic assault of more than twenty pairs of stamping, shuffling feet. A smoking oil lamp supplied a dull, smoky haze so that it was difficult for friends to recognize each other from opposite ends of the room. All eyes, including those of the dancers, had been turned to the newcomers as the Overlanders filed in and took seats on benches at one side of the room.
It was but a few moments later when Hippy and Nora swung out on the floor and Hippy was soon raising the dust with the best of them.
He then danced with each of the girls of his party in turn. Grace, watching the unusual scene with keen interest, observed that there was little or no change of partners. Each young mountaineer danced with the same girl most of the time, and she concluded that this was the custom up there in the mountains.
At the end of the first dance after their arrival, Grace called Emma over to her.
"I brought two boxes of candy with me, Emma," she whispered. "There is one box left at the camp and I wish to give that to the Thompson children. Do you wish to pass these two boxes around to the mountain girls?"
Emma was delighted. It gave her an opportunity to place herself in a more prominent position than she had occupied on a bench at the side of the schoolroom.
At first the mountain girls were shy, but they soon overcame their diffidence and helped themselves liberally—by the handful—to sweets such as few of them ever had tasted.
"This is Mrs. Gray's treat," explained Emma to each girl.
"Don't Ah git any?" teased the young mountaineer who had assisted Washington through the window.
"Yes. You get left," came back Emma spiritedly.
"Ah never gits left," he retorted, springing up and grabbing the little Overland girl.
In a few seconds they were swinging around the room in a waltz, Emma's face flushed and triumphant, the face of the partner of the man she was dancing with growing blacker with the moments. The mountaineer would not release Emma until she had danced two dances with him, and by that time the girl he had brought to the party refused even to look at him.
Emma made her unsought partner introduce her to other boys, and with smiles and teasing she won many partners, until the room was bordered with a ring of blazing and snapping eyes, all resentful at her success in winning their escorts.
Grace tried to catch her eye to warn her, but Emma studiously refrained from permitting that very thing. Soon the mountain girls allowed themselves to be led to the dancing floor by others than their own escorts.
The atmosphere was becoming highly charged. Even Hippy had swung a mountain miss out to the floor and was dancing with her, but the Overland girls, with the exception of Emma, had smilingly declined when invited by mountain boys to dance.
Men, under the scornful smiles on the faces of their regular partners, were growing sullen. The laughter was dying from the faces of the dancers, and it was quite evident that trouble was brewing.
"Call Hippy to you and tell him to sit down by you, Nora," whispered Grace Harlowe. "I will catch Emma at the end of this dance, if I can. That child is going to start a riot if she is allowed to go on much longer."
Hippy got his summons a few moments thereafter. He obeyed it as gracefully as he could, but rather against his inclinations, for he was having a jolly time of it, forgetting for the moment that he was "a marked man."
Grace explained the situation briefly to Hippy, and told him that between himself and Emma they had created a situation that bade fair to end in trouble.
"What's the odds? I am a marked man anyway," answered Hippy, shrugging his shoulders.
"You will be marked in reality if those husky young mountaineers get after you. Please keep your seat and fade out of the picture," urged Grace. "You see—"
A voice to one side of her arrested Grace Harlowe's attention. She recognized it as the voice of Julie Thompson, whom she had not seen at the dance up to that time, though she had been looking for her.
"Oh, Mr. Hipp," Julie was saying. "Ah wants t' give you-all a knockdown to mah feller. Oh, here's Miss Gray, too. Folks, this is my feller, Lum Bangs."
"Sounds like a pain in the back," muttered Hippy.
"Lum, shake paws with Mister Hipp an' Miss Gray. They're the folks that air campin' down by Paw's cornfield."
"Glad to meet you, Lum, for we all think Julie is a mighty fine—" Hippy's voice trailed off into an indistinct murmur as he gazed up into the face of Julie's stalwart escort. He heard Grace give utterance to a scarcely audible laugh, but at that moment Hippy Wingate did not feel like laughter, for in Lum Bangs he recognized the "constable" whom he had knocked down and driven from the Overland camp by the cornfield.
AN INTERRUPTED PARTY
"Oh! It's you, is it?" muttered Lieutenant Wingate, rising slowly, his eyes fixed on the face of the man before him.
"Ah reckons as it's me," agreed Lum, permitting a hand to slip carelessly inside his coat across the chest, where Lieutenant Wingate had reason to believe that a revolver hung suspended from a shoulder holster. This being the case, he considered it inadvisable to reach for his own weapon.
As yet the drama being played by the two men had not attracted the attention of those in the schoolroom, with the exception of the Overland girls who had recognized Lum instantly, and Julie Thompson, who was gazing open-mouthed from one to the other of them.
"Ah told ye t' git out, didn't Ah?" demanded the mountaineer in a strained voice.
"And I put you out," retorted Hippy. "This is no place for a fight. If you wish to see me, come around to our camp in the morning."
"Be careful, Hippy," warned Anne in a low tone.
"Ah'm goin' t' say it agin, once more. You git out o' this right smart or Ah'll put er hole through yer miserable carcass!"
Hippy suddenly found himself facing a revolver in the hands of Lum Bangs.
The dancers stopped dancing, a couple at a time, and quickly got out of range of Lum Bangs' weapon; the music died away, and a heavy silence, tense with possibilities, settled over the hot, smoky room.
"Are ye goin'?"
"On one condition—that you put down your gun and come outside with me. We'll have it out man to man. These gentlemen will give us fair play, and the fellow who is whipped takes his medicine and goes. Are you man enough to come out and stand up to me?" Hippy thrust out his chin, and there was a set expression on his face, such as Grace Harlowe recalled having seen there immediately after he had shot down three German airplanes on the French fighting front.
"No, no!" begged Nora, not much above a whisper.
"Oh, stop him!" begged Emma of the young mountaineer with whom she had been dancing. "He's going to shoot. I know he is. Make them fight it out with their fists. Hippy whipped Lum once, and he can do it again. I'll be Lum's second and you can be the second for Lieutenant Wingate."
"What's er second, Miss?"
"A—a second is one who fans his fighter with a towel, and wipes up the blood. Oh, do stop him!"
"Ah reckon Ah will," drawled the mountaineer.
"Are ye goin'?" demanded Lum Bangs.
"Drop that gun or I'll drill ye, Lum Bangs!" commanded the cool voice of Emma Dean's dancing partner, his revolver now levelled at Lum.
The warning came too late.
Lum Bangs, in a sudden impulse of rage, pulled the trigger and fired point blank at Lieutenant Wingate, but the young mountaineer's warning to him, at the critical moment, had drawn Lum's thoughts from his aim, and his bullet missed its mark. Hippy heard it whistle past him close to his head.
Barely a second had elapsed between Lum Bangs' shot and a second report.
Lum uttered a howl, and his weapon dropped from his relaxed fingers, just as Hippy sprang upon him and dealt the mountaineer a blow that felled him.
"Don't! Don't, Hippy! The man has been shot," begged Anne.
"Jump on him! Stomp on him, why don't ye?" screamed a mountain girl.
The room was in instant uproar, and weapons were drawn and levelled menacingly at the young mountaineer who had ordered Lum to "drop" his gun.
"Stop!" cried Emma Dean excitedly. "This man didn't fire that second shot. He has done nothing, so put away your cannon."
"That's right, folks. Ah didn't shoot, but Ah was goin' t'. Some other duffer fired the shot that hit Lum. You-all kin look at mah gun." He held it out with the muzzle toward him.
The men crowded about him, examining the cylinder to see if a cartridge had been fired from it, and taking a sniff at the muzzle.
"That's right. It ain't been fired," agreed a mountaineer, a puzzled expression appearing on his face. "Did Lum get his'n?"
"No. The bullet went through his wrist," answered Lieutenant Wingate, who, having turned up the sleeve of Bangs' coat, was peering at the wounded wrist. "Men, I'm sorry I struck him, but you see I didn't know some one was going to shoot him. I had to punch him to save my own life, expecting that he would shoot again. As it was I nearly ran into that second shot. Fetch me something—some water."
A glass of lemonade was brought, and Nora Wingate threw it into the face of the unconscious mountaineer. In the meantime, Elfreda was giving first aid to the injured wrist. Lum began to stir about this time, and, at Elfreda's suggestion, he was carried to a window where he might get more free air.
The mountaineers were puzzled. They had, by then, examined every revolver in the room, including those carried by the Overland Riders, but not one had been fired.
"Ah wants ter know who fired that shot," demanded one of them. "Somebody did, an' we're goin' to find the critter that did it. I ain't sayin' that this feller with the uniform on didn't do all right in hittin' Lum, but what we wants t' find out is who winged him in the wrist."
"I think, gentlemen, that the second shot was fired through the window. I am quite certain that it was. I sat near the window and the report of the weapon seemed to be behind me," Anne Nesbit informed them.
There was a concerted rush for the outer air, leaving the Overlanders to attend to Lum Bangs, who was now almost wholly restored to consciousness. Julie Thompson was standing back a little from the group about him, gazing at Lum, a heavy frown on her forehead. Grace nodded and smiled to the girl.
"Don't worry, Julie. He will be all right in a few moments," soothed the Overland girl.
"I ain't worryin' fer the likes o' him," she replied, elevating her chin and turning her back on her escort.
The Overland girls looked at each other inquiringly.
"Ah hearn somethin' 'bout ye to-night, Lum Bangs, that ye don't know as Ah does know," she said, whirling suddenly on him.
"You-all ain't goin' back on me, are yuh, Julie?" begged Lum.
"Naw. Ah ain't goin' back on ye, cause Ah already has. Ah don't want nothin' more t' do with ye. Understand?"
The mountaineer's face reddened.
"Who shot me?" he demanded, sitting up suddenly and feeling for his weapon.
"You needn't look at me that way," objected Hippy. "I didn't shoot you. I punched you, that's all. Some one on the outside of the building fired the shot that hit you. I—"
A commotion at the door interrupted Hippy. The mountaineers came crowding in dragging Washington Washington with them. Washington's eyes were rolling, and he was trembling from fright.
"Is this heah your niggah?" demanded one, glaring at Hippy.
"No, he isn't my 'niggah,' but he belongs to our outfit. Why?" replied Lieutenant Wingate.
"'Cause we found him hidin' in the bushes, an' reckoned as mebby he is the feller that shot Lum."
"What, Wash?" laughed Emma Dean. "Why, Wash couldn't hit the side of a barn with a shotgun. Besides, he has no revolver, and it was a revolver that fired the shot you refer to."
"Let me talk to him," urged Grace. "Washington, were you outside near the building when the shots were fired?" she asked in a soothing tone.
"Did you see any one near the window?"
"Yessah—yes'm. Ah—Ah sawed er man hidin' in de bush dere."
"Did you see him shoot?" asked Elfreda.
"Ah did not, but Ah heard him shoot, den w'en Ah looked, Ah didn't sawed him no moah."
"Who was it?" demanded a mountaineer.
"Ah doan know. Ah didn't sawed him close 'nuf, an' den Ah didn't sawed him at all."
"He oughter be strung up anyway," suggested a voice.
"Don't get excited! Don't get excited," urged Lieutenant Wingate, when it became plain that the mountaineers were determined to make further trouble.
"Gentlemen, Lieutenant Wingate has given you good advice. That colored boy is not to be blamed for what has occurred here," declared Miss Briggs, getting to her feet. "It is not necessary for you to take my word for that, nor the boy's. You can prove it for yourselves."
"How?" demanded several voices.
"Go outside and examine the bushes that grow by the window through which the shot was fired, and look at the ground carefully for foot-tracks. I am amazed that you didn't think of it yourselves. You see when one is angry he does not reason and—"
The men did not give her opportunity to finish. They again bolted from the schoolroom. Their voices and their exclamations were heard under the window a moment later.
"That was fine, J. Elfreda," glowed Grace.
"If they fail to find tracks there I am sorry for Wash, that's all," replied Miss Briggs with a shrug.
"Yer right!" cried a mountaineer, entering the room at that juncture. "We seen where the critter was standin' when he shot Lum. We seen the mark o' his boots, and the bunch is startin' to follow his trail. Reckon you gals might as well go home, fer they'll be a different kind o' a party if they kotch him. Won't be no more dancin' t'-night."
"Ladies, I am sorry if we were the cause of trouble here," began Grace.
"You-all ain't," protested Julie.
"Thank you." Grace favored her with a radiant smile. "What I was about to say, is that we expect to break camp and go on to-morrow morning. If we do not, we should like to have you young ladies come and call on us. It is always open house in the Overland camp. Julie, I hope we shall see you in the morning."
"Ah don't reckon as you-all will be goin' away in the mornin'. Ah s'ppose Ah ought t' tell you-all what Ah knows, but Ah reckons you-all'll find out for yourselves soon 'nuf."
Julie's words did not impress the Overlanders at the moment, but while on their way to camp they pondered over them, discussed them and wondered what she may have meant.
The answer to the question in their minds Grace and her friends found awaiting them when they reached the camp.
A CALL FOR HELP
"Hippy, did you know that I saved your life to-night?" asked Emma Dean as the party neared their camp.
"You—you saved my life?" questioned Lieutenant Wingate in amazement.
Hippy laughed uproariously.
"You poor child, you got us all in Dutch, that's what you really did."
"With your assistance, Hippy," interjected Anne. "How did you save his life, please, Emma?"
"I con-centrated. When Lum pointed the revolver at Hippy, I put my mind on making him miss his aim. He did, didn't he?"
"Yes," agreed the girls, Hippy saying nothing at all.
"Then, I con-centrated on him that he might not shoot again. He didn't, did he?"
"Of course, you are right in what you say," agreed Nora. "He did miss and he did not shoot again, but I think you are drawing the long bow, darlin', in taking all the credit to yourself. What do you say, Hippy?" she asked solemnly.
"Nothing! Nothing at all. After I have had an opportunity to consult a dictionary perhaps I may make a few appropriate remarks."
The party, with the exception of Emma, after a hearty laugh, fell to discussing the incidents of the evening, particularly the mysterious shot that, perhaps, had saved Lieutenant Wingate's life. They were still discussing that mysterious occurrence when they rode up to their camp.
Washington Washington, who had been silent all the way home, perhaps thinking over the narrow escape that he had had from rough handling, suddenly set up a wail and began to chatter so fast that they were unable to make a single thing of what he was saying.
"Stop that!" commanded Hippy. "Have you gone crazy?"
"Something is wrong here, darlin'. Don't scold the boy," begged Nora Wingate.
"The tents are down. Washington, build a fire. Be quick about it," directed Grace, leaping from her pony.
Anne, who had reached what had been her own tent, uttered an exclamation of dismay.
"Girls, this tent has been slit into ribbons!" she cried.
"So has mine," cried Elfreda. "What has happened here?"
"That is what I am wondering," replied Grace. "Washington, please hurry with that fire."
Hippy ran over and assisted the colored boy, who was fumbling about and not accomplishing anything. In a few moments Hippy had a fire snapping. By its light they looked about in amazement. The camp was a wreck. Every tent in their outfit had been slit to pieces, tent poles had been broken up, and such other equipment as they had left out, including three blankets, which had been overlooked when they hid their belongings, had been practically destroyed.
A sudden thought occurring to her, Anne ran on fleet feet to the place where their provisions and equipment had been secreted. She found the stones torn away from the opening and their supplies scattered about. The ground about the opening to the hiding place was littered with them.
Her next move was to look for their rifles and ammunition. A moment later she ran breathlessly into camp.
"The equipment has been scattered, but the rifles and ammunition are as we left them," panted Anne. "This is a fright."
"There! Why didn't you 'con-centrate,' Emma Dean?" demanded Hippy. "Old Con-centration is never on the job when he is really needed."
"How could I when I didn't know anything about this?" returned Emma, with a sweeping gesture that took in the entire camp. "What are we going to do now? Where are we to sleep, I ask you?"
"Sleep standing up just as the ponies do, my darlin'," suggested Nora. "Who do you suppose could have done such a thing? Why—"
Washington, who had gone out to tether the horses, set up a howl that called the Overlanders to him on a run.
"Dey done got de mule! Dey done got de mule!" he wailed. "What Ah gwine do now? Ah doan like dis nohow. Ah sure gwine took er frenzy spell if dis doan stop right smart."
"The mule?" gasped Anne. "Why—wha—"
The pack mule that had been left at the camp, they saw laying stretched out on the ground, its halter still tied to a sapling. Hippy was now standing over it, peering down at the animal. Stooping over, he examined it briefly.
"Somebody has done it this time. The mule is dead, folks," he announced, standing up. "Shot through the head. It seems our friends have not yet deserted us."
"This is an outrage!" muttered Elfreda.
Grace turned on her lamp and went over the ground about the mule, examining the dirt for footprints as carefully as possible. Next she visited the hiding place of their provisions and equipment, there to make the same careful, painstaking search of the ground.
"Hob-nail boots. I find the imprint of the same boots in both places. One man apparently did all of this," was her conclusion.
"Such as all these mountaineers wear," added Anne.
"Perhaps, but I do not believe it. These boots had a horseshoe of hob-nails on each heel. Look at the footprints in the morning and see for yourself."
"Wait!" exclaimed Miss Briggs. "I have a thought."
"Hold it," called Hippy. "We need real thought this very minute."
"Have you forgotten what Julie said to us?" asked Elfreda. "I believe this is what she meant by her remark that we would find out for ourselves soon enough."
"She knew, then!" exclaimed Nora.
"I believe she did, though how, I am at a loss to understand," answered Elfreda.
"Girls, girls! Don't waste time talking," urged Grace. "We have work to do, unless you folks prefer to sleep in the open to-night. I believe we can mend enough of this canvas to use as a big blanket. We can then sleep together and keep each other warm underneath it, I think. Washington, please go out and gather up all of the stuff that you can find. Some of our provisions have been destroyed, but there may be enough for a few meals. Fetch everything here so we can look it over by the campfire."
All hands set to work to make the best of their disaster, and as they worked they discussed the problem uppermost in the mind of each. They were busily engaged when a shout brought instant silence to the group.
"Miss Gray! Miss Gray!" some one called from the darkness.
"Yes," answered Grace.
A woman came floundering along the trail at the edge of the cornfield.
"It's Miss Thompson. Ah wants Miss Gray."
"She seems excited," observed Emma.
"What is it, Mrs. Thompson?" called Grace, stepping out to meet the mountaineer's wife.
"The chilern has took a frenzy, an' Ah don't know what t' do," cried the woman, wringing her hands.
Slipping an arm through hers, Grace led the woman up to the campfire.
"Compose yourself. Now what is the trouble? Are the children sick?" she asked.
"Yes'm. An' Jed's gone away an' Ah don't know what t' do. Ah thought as mebby ye'd come up to the house an' see."
"I surely will. Miss Briggs, who was a nurse in the war, will be of more assistance to you than I could be, so I will take her with me."
Jed Thompson's wife heaved a deep sigh. A load already had been lifted from her mind.
"Ah didn't think ye'd come, but Julie said as you'd come right smart."
"Julie was right," smiled Grace, "even though we are in rather bad shape here. Some one nearly destroyed our camp while we were at the dance. I will be back before long," she added, speaking to her companions. "Come, Elfreda."
On the way to the Thompson cabin the two girls questioned Mrs. Thompson as to what ailed Lizzie and Sue, those being the names of the two sick children. They were able to make but little out of her description of the children's condition.
The sick ones were babbling when Grace and Miss Briggs entered the room. Elfreda sniffed the air.
"I smell fever. Open the windows, Mrs. Thompson. You must have air in this room."
Julie, her face wearing a frightened look, sat regarding the children, both of whom were delirious. A look of relief flashed into her eyes as Grace and Miss Briggs entered and Elfreda stepped directly to the bed on which both children lay. She felt the pulse of each, looked into their mouths, and listened to their breathing.
"High fever?" murmured Grace questioningly.
"Yes. Very high. I wish I had a clinical thermometer. Make her throw those windows open as far as they will go, and, if that doesn't give enough air, open the door."
The entire family lived, ate and slept in the one room of the cabin, and the air, normally bad enough, was infinitely worse now.
"How long have they been this way, Mrs. Thompson?" questioned Elfreda.
"They was took that-away t'-night. They ain't been right smart fer some little time."
Miss Briggs and Grace consulted aside. At the conclusion of their consultation, carried on in low tones, Elfreda turned to the mountain woman.
"These children must have a doctor without delay, Mrs. Thompson. Where is the nearest doctor to be found?"
The woman said the nearest one was at Holcomb Court House.
"We passed through there on our way here, did we not?" asked Elfreda.
"Yes," replied Grace. "It must be twenty miles or so from here. Have you any one that you can send there for the doctor?"
Mrs. Thompson shook her head.
"Mah man's gone awa' an' won't be back till t'-morrow. Ain't no one else that Ah knows 'bout."
"Do you think it would be safe to wait until morning, Elfreda?" asked Grace.
"No. The little one's heart is not acting right. We must have treatment for her as soon as possible."
"Very well. I will hurry back to camp. Hippy must go after the doctor, though I really hate to ask him. What do you think is the matter with them?" nodding toward the bed.
"Frankly, I don't know. I do know that they are very sick children."
"Poor Hippy," murmured Grace, a faint smile on her face, as she hurried from the mountain cabin and started at a run towards the Overland Riders' camp.
HIPPY AS A ROUGHRIDER
Reaching her camp, Grace quickly acquainted the girls with conditions at the Thompson cabin. She then turned to Hippy and told him that he must ride to Holcomb Court House and fetch a doctor.
"All right. I'll get an early start in the morning and—"
"No! To-night! Now, Hippy. To-morrow may be too late," urged Grace.
"Of course, if it is so bad as that. Why don't you have Emma Dean 'con-centrate'?"
"This is not a matter to make light of, Hippy Wingate," rebuked Nora. "Of course you will go."
"Laundry, get my pony, and be lively about it," ordered Lieutenant Wingate.
While this was being done, and Hippy was looking to his rifle and revolver, Grace was explaining to him how to reach Holcomb over the broad wagon trail that they had followed during the last day of their journey. Nora, in the meantime, was packing her husband's kit with sufficient food, that had been picked up from the scattered remnants, to see him through the trip. Twenty minutes later they had started Hippy on his way.
"If I don't come back, remember that I had a price on my head," he called back to his companions.
"Pack up!" directed Grace. "We must move up near the Thompson cabin. It won't do for you girls to remain here alone."
"Where shall we camp?" asked Anne, a worried look on her face. "We have no tents fit for use."
"I don't know just yet, but they have a barn. Perhaps you might sleep there. I must stay with Elfreda, at least until the doctor comes."
All the girls began to prepare for moving, and finally their possessions were strapped in packs, some of which they placed on the backs of ponies, for they were one mule short, and moved up to Thompson's.
Bidding her companions wait outside, Grace went in and consulted with the mountaineer's wife.
"Yes, you folks will have to sleep in the barn," Grace informed them.
"I never thought I should have to sleep with the pigs and the cows," declared Nora. "Bad luck to the man that spoiled our fun."
There was an old haymow overhead in the barn, and there the girls decided to make their bed for the night.
"If there are mice up here I shall die of fright, I know," groaned Emma.
"'Con-centrate' on the mice," advised Anne teasingly. "Once they bump against that 'imponderable quantity,' the mice will trouble you no more."
"Why can't we go into the cabin and lie down on the floor? It can't be worse than the barn," urged Nora.
Grace firmly refused to permit it. Not knowing what the two children were suffering from, she knew that it would be inadvisable for her companions even to enter the cabin.
The girls found their way to the hayloft, after many bumps and falls accompanied by smothered cries and loud protests from Emma, and after he had tethered the horses and the mule just outside the barn, Washington Washington was put to bed on the barn floor. Grace then returned to the cabin.
The children were still delirious and Elfreda said that their temperature seemed to be rising. She decided to give them a sponge bath. This occupied some time, but it had the effect of reducing their temperatures somewhat.
Julie watched every movement of the Overland nurses, following them with eyes in which wonder was not unmixed with admiration, but Mrs. Thompson seemed helpless to do or think, and sat regarding them with expressionless eyes, now and then heaving a troubled sigh.
Along towards morning the children ceased their babbling and sank into an uneasy sleep. The mother, soon after, dozed off in her chair.
"Julie, get some water and soap and help us clean this place. It's a fright," declared Miss Briggs.
This Julie did, so far as getting the water was concerned, but she took so little interest in scrubbing the floor that Grace and Elfreda were obliged to take that task into their own hands. They were down on their knees scrubbing away, when Mrs. Thompson awakened.
"What you-all doin'?" she demanded blinkingly.
"Cleaning house," replied Elfreda briefly.
"'Tain't no use. It'll git dirty ag'in. Ah reckon Jed won't like it, neither."
"We don't care whether Jed likes it or not," retorted Grace. "Leave him to us, Mrs. Thompson."
Early in the morning Grace and Elfreda went out to the barn to see how it had fared with their friends. They were a "frowzy lot," as Miss Briggs characterized their appearance. Their heads were full of hay, their eyes were red, and their faces showed much loss of sleep.
"You folks go down to the brook and wash, and by the time you return we shall have breakfast cooked for you," offered Elfreda.
The breakfast they cooked on Mrs. Thompson's stove, but in the Overlanders' utensils. Nor would they permit any of the girls to come into the house for the food. Handing the breakfast out to the eagerly waiting hands of their companions, Grace and Miss Briggs soon followed and joined the girls at breakfast in the open.
It was not a particularly enjoyable meal. Not once during the breakfast had one mentioned Hippy Wingate and his mission, and it was not until they had finished and sat back that Nora broached the subject.
"When should Hippy be back?" she asked.
"If he found the doctor at once he should have been here two or three hours ago," replied Grace.
"Don't get excited, Nora," begged Elfreda, as Nora's face paled ever so little. "A number of things may have occurred to detain him. Hippy is not one to be beaten when he starts out with a definite purpose in view."
"Especially when I am con-centrating on him," spoke up Emma.
This brought a laugh and put all the girls in instant good humor. They were interrupted by Julie who came out rubbing her eyes, after a few hours' sleep on a blanket on the floor of the cabin.
"Maw wants to know what she'll give Sue and Liz fer breakfast?" she asked.
"Breakfast?" exclaimed Elfreda. "Not a mouthful until the doctor gets here and advises what is to be done. They may have all the water they wish, but nothing of solid food. You won't forget, will you?"
Julie shook her head.
"This is the first opportunity I have had to speak with you quietly since last night, Julie," said Grace. "You made a remark as we were about to leave the dance, indicating that you knew something had occurred at our camp. Julie, you knew what had been done there, didn't you?"
The mountain girl nodded.
"How did you know?"
"Er feller an' girl comin' t' the dance seen it," she answered with some hesitation.
"And you know who did it?"
"Uh-huh," nodded the girl.
"Who was it?"
"Ah shan't tell you-all!" exclaimed Julie, a challenge snapping in her black eyes.
"That is all right, my dear, if you do not wish to speak. How is your friend, Lum Bangs, to-day?"
"He ain't no friend of mine. Ah don't know nothin' 'bout how he is, an' Ah don't care." Julie blazed as she said it.
The Overland girls smiled. Grace's question, they thought, had been answered.
"Thar comes somebody," cried Julie, distracting the attention of all from the subject.
A man on horseback was seen pounding up the trail at a fast pace.
"It's the doc!" announced the mountain girl.
"Hippy! Where's Hippy?" gasped Nora.
"Keep steady," urged Grace, as they got up and walked out to meet the doctor in front of the cabin.
"Are you the doctor?" asked Elfreda as he rode up and swung a hand to them.
"Where did you leave Lieutenant Wingate?" asked Grace.
"About ten miles down the trail. I got here as quickly as possible. To be brief, we were attacked from ambush. The lieutenant's horse was shot from under him. We both began shooting, but he yelled to me, 'Go on, Doc. They need you at Thompson's. I'll get out of it somehow.'
"Well, I saw that he was right, so I rode for keeps till I got out of range of the bullets. Lively neighborhood up here, eh? I'll see the patients, if you please."
Elfreda conducted the doctor into the cabin, Grace remaining to comfort Nora and to consider what was best to be done in the circumstances. Nora was urging her to start out in search of Hippy, but Grace pointed out that they were as likely to miss as to find him, and that the best course appeared to be to wait until later in the day, then, should Lieutenant Wingate not return, a searching party must be organized to go out for him. Grace then entered the cottage and the girls led Nora out to the shady side of the barn where they consoled her as best they could.
"I will sit right down here and con-centrate," promised Emma. "You will see that it will fetch him back. If it doesn't never, never again will I con-centrate on Hippy. The trouble is that he resists the instant he feels the magnetic current, which makes con-centrating very difficult and takes so much of the imponderable quality out of one—"
"Emma! Emma!" cried Anne. "For mercy sake come up and get a breath of air. You will drown if you stay down another second."
Nora laughed heartily.
In the meantime Grace and Elfreda were leaning over the bed watching the doctor's diagnosis. Elfreda told him what had been done for the two children, naming the few home remedies that she had been able to find and administer to them.
"Good, Miss Lizzie might have been dead by this time if you had not done what you did. Susie is not in quite such bad shape."
"What is the matter with them?" questioned Grace.
"Scarlet fever—both of them," was the terse answer. "Have your party all been exposed?"
Elfreda informed him that, not knowing what the children's trouble was, they had thought best not to permit the Overland Riders to enter the cabin.
Grace questioned the doctor further on the attack that had been made on himself and Hippy, and asked him to indicate, as nearly as possible, the spot where the attack was made.
The doctor was giving them the details when the door of the cabin was roughly thrown open and a man stepped in.
"It's Paw! Hello, Paw. The Doc is here."
Jed Thompson carried a rifle under his arm, and his face was as black as a thunder cloud.
"Here's a squall," murmured Miss Briggs, just loud enough for Grace to hear.
"What you-all doin' here?" he demanded, eyeing the two Overland Riders sternly.
It was plain that Thompson's anger was rapidly getting the best of him.
"You-all! Git out o' mah house afore Ah throws ye out!" he roared.
"Be quiet, Paw," urged Julie weakly, Mrs. Thompson being too frightened to utter a word.
"When we have finished with our work, Mr. Thompson, we will leave. Not one second sooner," retorted Elfreda Briggs coolly, as she stepped forward and faced the irate mountaineer.
"Then Ah'll throw ye out! The pack of ye git out afore Ah fergits mahself and shoots ye out."
Jed started for Miss Briggs, his anger now beyond all control.
"Stop where you are, Jed Thompson!" commanded Elfreda Briggs.
The mountaineer halted abruptly. He was facing J. Elfreda's revolver, which was leveled at him, held in a steady hand.
"Let your rifle drop to the floor," she directed sweetly. "Drop it! My hand is a little nervous to-day and this revolver might go off."
The rifle clattered to the floor, but Elfreda Briggs still held her position, her eyes narrowly watching the angry mountaineer.
AN APOLOGY AND A THREAT
"Here, here, here!" roared the doctor in a commanding voice. "What you-all trying to do here? Haven't you got trouble enough on hand without looking for more, Jed Thompson? Give me that gun."
The doctor recovered the fallen rifle, drew the cartridges from its magazine, dropped them in his pocket and stood the gun in a corner.
Elfreda lowered her weapon, but did not immediately return it to its holster under her blouse.
"Thank you," she said, smiling over at the doctor.
"Listen to me, Jed," ordered the doctor. "These young women came here to see what they could do for Sue and Liz. If they hadn't, Liz probably would be dead this minute. They saved her life, Jed Thompson. Now what have you got to say for yourself?"
"That right, Doc?"
"It's the almighty truth. That isn't all. Lieutenant Wingate, one of their party, rode all the way to Holcomb after me last night and nearly killed his horse. On the way back we were attacked from ambush and the lieutenant's horse was shot from under him. I tried to stick and help him fight the critters off, but he told me to 'get!' Said I was needed here. He's down there yet, maybe dead. Jed Thompson, you ought to get down on your knees and apologize to these women folk. I've half a notion to whale you if you don't."
Jed fumbled his hat.
"Who do you-all reckon did the attackin'?" he stammered.
"I don't know. You ought to know more about it than I do. You folks up here in the hills are altogether too sudden—too handy with your guns. One of these days you will meet some one who is more so."
"Ah reckons that young woman's kinder sudden, too," answered Jed, with a sheepish grin at Miss Briggs. "Do you-all say that some critter shot at that feller when he was fetchin' you-all here for Liz an' Sue?"
"Yes. They may have got him before this."
"Gi' me that rifle!" demanded the mountaineer sternly.
"Wait, Jed. What do you propose to do?" questioned the doctor.
"Ah'm goin' t' fetch the loot'nant, an' Ah'm goin' t' git the feller that shot you-all up if Ah kin kotch him."
"Take the rifle, Jed, and the best of luck," bowed the doctor, handing the weapon to the mountaineer, and reaching into his pocket for the cartridges he had taken from it. "We'll now see what we can do for the sick."
Jed was out of the house and across the field at top speed by the time Elfreda had reached the door, after stowing her revolver.
"He is right," nodded Grace, regarding Elfreda with sparkling eyes. "You are sudden. I did not think it was in you to be so quick."
"Huh! I was scared half to death. It is a wonder I didn't—"
"Of course we take that for granted," twinkled Grace.
The doctor announced that he would stay until the children got better, all day and night if necessary. There being nothing more for them to do for the time being, Grace and Elfreda joined their companions outside.
They had not been outside the cabin very long before Emma uttered a little cry of delight, and excitedly pointed down the trail that led past the cornfield.
"Look! Oh, look! There comes Hippy and Mr. Thompson. Didn't I tell you I would fetch Hippy back?" she cried.
"Why, Emma, how is that?" wondered Grace.
"I con-centrated on him, I did, and—"
"She did," glowed Nora, running forward to meet her husband.
"You should open an office when you get home," advised Miss Briggs. "Let me see, your business sign should read, 'Miss Dean, Imponderable Concentrator.'"
"Make all the fun you wish. I know now what I can do, and you know what I have done, only you folks are too stubborn to admit it." Emma elevated her chin and stamped around behind the barn out of sight.
After Hippy had embraced Nora and greeted the other girls he shook hands with the doctor, who had come to the cabin door to wave a hand at Hippy.
"They didn't get you after all, I see," chuckled the doctor.
"Now you-all is back, Ah wants t' talk t' ye," said Jed.
"Just a minute, Jed. What's that, Doc?"
"I say, what happened after I left you?"
"We took a few pot shots at each other from the bushes. The bullets got rather thick, so I decided upon a retreat. Came near having another set-to with Jed. We both were stalking each other down the trail a piece, but Jed got the drop on me and, when he found out who I was, he told me that he had come after me and why."
The doctor chuckled and returned to his patients, whereupon Hippy nodded to the mountaineer, and the latter led the way to the rear of the barn where they found Emma sunning herself and "con-centrating" on something. Hippy waved her away and turned to Thompson.
"What's the big idea, Jed?" he asked jovially.
"That's what Ah wants t' know, Jim Townsend."
"Eh? Townsend! I don't get you."
"We uns up here ain't no fools even if we hain't got edication. We uns knowed you-all was comin'. If I'd seen ye before ye did this fer Liz an' Sue, I'd a plugged ye shore."
"Just a moment, please. Let me get this straight. Who is it you think I am?"
"Yer Jim Townsend. Ah knows you-all, cause you-all was pinted out t' me one time down t' Henderson, 'cept ye didn't have on them togs you-all is wearin' now."
"Who is Townsend?" questioned Hippy. "If he looks like me, he is a very fortunate man."
"You be he. What Ah wants t' know is what—jest what's yer game up here? As Ah've said, you-all, and the wimmen, has done me a favor an' no man kin say Jed Thompson ever fergits a favor. But it kain't last. You-all got ter git out. What Ah ain't goin' t' do now, an' what some other folks might do, is two different things. Ah tell ye it ain't safe fer ye t' stay up here in these hills at all."
"Listen to me, Thompson. I don't know who this man is that looks like me, but I have every reason to believe that my name is Wingate. The record in the family Bible at home says I am, and what I read in that book I believe. You're wrong, Buddy. I am Wingate. I was a lieutenant in the flying corps during the war with Germany. These young women were over there too, as nurses, ambulance drivers and in other wartime occupations. When we returned to the United States, we decided to take a vacation in the saddle each season until we tired of it. The first season we rode over the Apache Trail in Arizona. Last year we crossed the Great American Desert in the west. This season we decided to come up here and combine business with pleasure."
Thompson's under jaw, Hippy observed, was sagging a little.
"An uncle, among other things, left me some mountain property on White River Ridge. I have never seen it, but I am now on my way to look it over and see if it is worth anything. That is the business to which I referred, and is the only business I have in the Kentucky mountains. Are you satisfied?"
"If Ah ain't, Ah'll give you-all warnin' that somebody'll shoot ye till you-all's daid!" warned Jed Thompson.
"That is a game two can play at. I have played at it myself," chuckled Lieutenant Wingate. "You have given me a timely warning, and I'll return the compliment, old dear."
"What's that ye say?"
"I have not said it; I am about to say it. Listen, Jed! Bat Spurgeon's gang has planned to come over here on the twenty-third and shoot up you and your crowd until you-all are 'daid,'" was Hippy Wingate's solemn warning. "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
JULIE BRINGS DISTURBING NEWS
"Is that right, Loot'nant?" demanded the mountaineer, leaning forward and peering searchingly at his informant.
"It is my information."
"Whar you hear it?"
"I overheard it one night. Another thing. That friend of yours, Lum Bangs, I should not trust too far were I in your place. Mind you, I don't speak with any knowledge that he isn't your friend, but I should advise you to keep your eyes on him."
"Ah reckons you-all ain't such a fool as ye look," grunted Jed Thompson, turning abruptly and striding away.
"Whew! That was a blow below the belt," muttered Hippy. "I am glad that Emma Dean didn't hear that."
Lieutenant Wingate heard Thompson getting his horse from the barn, and, a moment or so later, saw him riding away, rifle thrust in the saddle boot. Jed did not return until late that night, after all were asleep. The doctor had decided to remain all night with his patients, so Elfreda and Grace made up their beds in the barn for a much-needed night's rest.
Before they were awake next morning, the mountaineer had again ridden away, and soon after breakfast the girls began work on their equipment, patching up the tents and sewing the blankets that had been cut. The doctor reported that Lizzie and Sue were considerably improved, and decided that, if their improvement continued, he would return to Holcomb that afternoon.
This he did, leaving medicine and explicit directions after extracting a promise from the Overlanders to remain with the patients until he came up later in the week.
Three days later the Overland Riders, having finished their mending, pitched their camp in the open near the barn, where they felt much more comfortable.
During the days that followed the departure of the doctor, the girls and Julie came to know and understand each other better. Julie would sit for hours watching them at their sewing or knitting, as they in turn watched over the sick children. Elfreda told Julie of their work in France, of the bravery of Grace Harlowe and Hippy Wingate; of the little orphan that Grace had taken from a deserted French village one night and later adopted; of her own little Lindy, the hermit's daughter, and of many other things that deeply interested the black-eyed, fiery mountain girl.
In return, however, Julie told very little of the affairs of the mountaineers. Like all of her kind she was close-mouthed, as the Kentucky mountain people had learned from bitter experience was the only way to safety, for an indiscreet word might be passed along and bring the revenue officers down on the moonshiners, which most of the mountain men were.
While nursing the sick girls, Grace wrote to Tom at Hall's Corners, asking him to wait there as the Overland outfit undoubtedly would be late in reaching the rendezvous. Hippy, in the meantime, with Julie's assistance, had found and bought a horse to take the place of his lost pony.
The doctor came up on Saturday, and after looking the patients over announced that they were now wholly out of danger.
"Then, I suppose we are no longer needed here," suggested Miss Briggs.
"Well, I shouldn't exactly say that, but it will be safe to leave them. Julie must have learned something from your attention to her sisters," said the doctor.
"She has learned to be helpful, at least," interjected Grace. "We would not go, but it is important that we start as soon as possible. However, Doctor, if you think we should stay longer, we will do so."
"Go on. You young women have done more than any one else has ever done for these people. Jed is a queer fellow, but I know he appreciates it, though he is diffident about saying so. Where is Jed, by the way?"
"We have seen him only once since you were here," Hippy informed him. "By the way, Doc, do you know a fellow named Jim Townsend?"
The doctor gave Lieutenant Wingate a quick, keen glance.
"Can't say as I ever met him," reflected the medical man, stroking his chin. "Why?"
Hippy shrugged his shoulders, but made no reply.
"Were I in your place, Lieutenant, I shouldn't mention that name up here. It might not be safe," he warned. The doctor changed the subject and began giving Julie explicit directions for the care of the sick children. Elfreda added some suggestions of her own regarding their food, which suggestions the doctor approved, and left after shaking hands and beaming upon each Overland Rider.
The next day being Sunday, the entire party rode to the little mountain church, three miles from the Thompson cabin, and attended services. The devoutness of these queer mountain folk, moonshiners and feudists included, interested them deeply.
Early the next morning, their equipment having already been packed, they bade good-bye to the Thompsons. Julie cried a little, and the sick children clung to Grace and Elfreda as if they could not let them go.
Before leaving, Nora slipped some money into Julie's hand.
"This is for new clothes and shoes for yourself, the children and your mother," she whispered. "My Hippy wished me to give it to you." Giving Julie an impulsive kiss, Nora ran out without giving the mountain girl opportunity to recover from her surprise, and, after Julie had recovered, her amazement at the amount of money held in her hand left her altogether speechless until the Overland Riders had jogged away and were out of sight.
They were short on equipment and provisions, but knew that they could replenish their supplies at the general store at Hall's Corners.
Although they might have made the journey in two days' hard riding, it was decided to make camp early in the afternoon and rest up and enjoy the scenery, and on the following day camp about five miles from their destination, going on to Hall's Corners on the third day. After their idleness at Thompson's all hands were thoroughly enjoying being back in the saddle, and even Emma was enjoying herself so keenly that she forgot to be petulant or to "con-centrate" on anything at all.
In the two days' ride, which they made without incident, meeting very few persons, and not being annoyed by any one, they had come to hope that they had left the troubled area of the mountains behind them and that only peaceful scenes lay before them. Hippy, however, still insisted that he was a marked man.
It was some time after the evening meal of the second day when they heard a horse galloping along the wagon trail that they had followed ever since leaving the Thompson place.
Hippy held up a hand for silence, and the Overlanders sat listening intently.
"Some one is in an awful hurry," observed Emma.
"Going for a doctor, perhaps," suggested Hippy. "That's the way I rode when I went after old Doc Weatherby."
"Only one rider," announced Grace. "Otherwise we might have reason to feel disturbed."
The horse suddenly slowed down, its rider probably attracted by the light of the campfire.
"Hulloa the camp!" shouted a voice.
"A woman!" exclaimed Nora.
"Hulloa! Come on in so we can see who you are," called Emma.
"Howdy," answered the rider, picking her way towards them from the trail.
"Julie!" cried the Overlanders, as Julie Thompson rode into the flickering light of the campfire.
"What is the matter? Has something gone wrong, Julie?" begged Grace, running forward, her companions following close at her heels.
"Ah reckons somethin' is goin' t' right smart," answered the girl, slowly dismounting.
Washington was summoned to take her horse, with directions to water and groom it, for the animal was wet with sweat.
"See here! Where did you come from to-day?" demanded Hippy.
"Ah come from home, an' Ah been er ridin' ever since sunup, Ah have. Ah'm sore an' Ah'm hungry, folks!"
Nora and Anne ran to prepare food and coffee for their guest, while Grace and Elfreda led her to the fire and made Julie sit down.
"Is anything seriously wrong at home?" begged Miss Briggs.
Julie shook her head.
"Not yit. Thar may be. Liz an' Sue is feelin' fine. Paw ain't home, but he tole me t' find a hoss an' git to you-all as fast as Ah could. Ah didn't have no horse so Ah helped mahself t' one o' Lum Bangs' an' rid him right here."
They did not press Julie for the reason for her long hard ride until she had gulped down a cup of coffee, then Lieutenant Wingate suggested that she tell them what it was all about.
"Ah come t' warn you-all," she said. "Paw said as ye oughter know 'bout it right smart."
"Yes? What is it?" urged Grace.
"You-all got t' turn aroun' an' go back, 'cause Bat Spurgeon an' his gang is waitin' fer you-uns on the White River Ridge," announced Julie unemotionally.
Hippy uttered a partly suppressed whistle.
"That is where they are going to collect the price on your head," suggested Emma Dean.
"Sh—h—h!" rebuked Anne. "This is news to me. Who is Bat Spurgeon? Is there something you have kept back from us, Grace?"
"I don't know much about him except what Hippy told me after his capture by the mountaineers. I don't wish to speak of it here," with a significant glance at Julie. "How do you know this, Julie?" she asked, turning to the mountain girl.
"Paw! Don't know how Paw knowed 'bout it. Paw knows nigh everything 'bout what's doin' up here. Reckon you-all'll have er right smart time gittin' to the loot'nant's property ever, 'cause that's where Bat an' his bunch make their hangout."
"Do they live there?" asked Hippy.
"Reckon they do now an' ag'in."
"They carry on their business there? Is that what you mean, Julie?" questioned Elfreda.
"Don't know nothin' 'bout that."
The girls exchanged significant glances. True to her type, Julie would not even expose an enemy. The Spurgeons and the Thompsons were feudists, and had time and again made war on each other for several generations, and it was their policy not to talk, but to let their rifles talk for them.
"What you-all goin' t' do?"
"We are going on, of course," announced Lieutenant Wingate.
"You-all shore'll git lammed if ye do," warned Julie.
"No we won't, 'cause I'll con-centrate. I think I will begin this very night, and by the time we reach that Ridge place all will be sweet peace," bubbled Emma.
Hippy Wingate shook his head and sighed.
"We must go as far as Hall's Corners, Julie. You know I have to meet my husband there. We shall, from then on, have one more man in the party and ought to be able to protect ourselves from those Spurgeon people," said Grace. "However, we will take up the question with Mr. Gray upon arrival at the Corners and decide upon what is best to be done."
"It is very fine of you, Julie," complimented Miss Briggs, laying a friendly hand on Julie's shoulder. "It really is wonderful that you should do all this for us."
"It has helped us a lot, Julie," added Anne. "You see we now know what to look out for. Otherwise we probably should have innocently walked right into trouble."
"And out again as fast as horseflesh could carry us," muttered Hippy. "What is your father going to do about the Spurgeons?"
"Ah don't know. 'Bout what?"
"Oh, most anything," answered Hippy lamely.
"Well, Ah reckon Ah'll be gittin' back home," sighed Julie.
"No, no!" protested the Overlanders in chorus. "You will remain here to-night. Your horse is tired out and so are you," added Grace.
It required considerable persuasion to induce the girl to stay, but she finally consented. Grace and Elfreda arranged to have Julie use their tent, for they wished to talk with her, and the result of that chat in the seclusion of the patched-up tent was that Grace and Elfreda gleaned considerable information. They learned from Julie, indirectly, that it was her father who sent Lum Bangs, in the guise of a game constable, to threaten the Overland party and drive them out of the mountains, her father having heard the story of the bear when he got home that day.
As to why Jed Thompson was so eager to be rid of the party, Julie had not a word to say, though her questioners had their own suspicions.
It was late when the three girls finally dropped off to sleep, but Julie was up with the break of day. Hearing her, Elfreda and Grace also got up and made a hurried breakfast, and assisted her in saddling her horse. Julie rode away waving her good-bye, happy in the thought of a good deed performed, for her brief association with the girls of the Overland party had opened her eyes to many things.
After breakfast the Overlanders held a consultation over what Julie had told them about conditions on White River Ridge, but deferred their decision as to what should be done until they had talked the situation over with Tom. Soon after that they packed up and rode away, reaching Hall's Corners about ten o'clock in the morning. They halted at the general store, which also was the post office, hitched their horses to the tie rail and hurried in for their mail.
"I have a letter from Tom," whispered Grace to Elfreda. "I must talk it over with the girls. Get them outside as soon as they can be induced to lay aside their letters."
"Not bad news, Loyalheart?"
"It may be," answered Grace. "Tom finished his government contract a week ago and went on to the Ridge to make the survey of Hippy's property before we got there, and leaves directions as to where we may find him. Elfreda, I don't like this at all."
"That means that we start for the Ridge and more trouble. Good! Let's go!"
THE GATHERING OF THE CLANS
"How long has Tom's letter been here?" asked Anne, after Grace had explained their situation to her companions.
"Ten days. Every one seems to be issuing warnings, and Tom is no exception. Listen to this, will you? 'Be vigilant! The white moonlight reigns supreme up here.'"
"What does he mean by that? Is Tom growing sentimental?" questioned Emma.
"He means there are moonshiners on this ridge of Lieutenant Wingate's," answered Miss Briggs.
"Huh! Brown Eyes, don't you worry about Tom. Any fellow who is slick enough to say a thing without saying it, is slick enough to outwit the whole breed of feudists and others up here."
Grace said she was not worrying, but that they must start as soon as they could replenish their stores. This they set about doing at once. New canvas with which to patch up their tents, cartridges for rifle and revolver, and provisions were purchased and lashed to the back of the remaining pack mule, or carried by the Overlanders in small packs on their ponies. As soon as possible, after studying the marked map that Tom Gray had left them to show the party where to look for his camp, they set out at a jog-trot, with which Washington and his mule had difficulty in keeping up.
That night they camped near the wagon trail, and at daylight resumed their journey. Late in the afternoon they halted for rest and to study their map and the contour of the mountains at that point.
"It should be somewhere hereabouts," declared Miss Briggs. "The landmarks appear to agree with Tom's markings on the map. It is my judgment that the wise thing to do would be to make camp near here."
After consultation it was decided to do this.
The part of the mountains where they were about to camp was the wildest and most rugged of any that they had seen since reaching Kentucky. Everywhere one saw caves, large and small, and unless one were vigilant he was quite likely to fall into one, for many were mere holes straight down through the rocks, and vine-covered at the top. The rocks themselves were misshapen, and in some instances hideous when the light of the day faded.
"Hippy, is this your property?" questioned Emma as they sat down to their supper.
"You ought to come and spend the rest of your days here. What a lovely spot over on that knoll for a bungalow. I think—"
A distant rifle shot interrupted what Emma was about to say. It was followed by several others in quick succession, but, while apparently not very far away, no bullets were heard, so the Overland Riders felt that they were not the object of the shooting.
"Beginning already," muttered Elfreda.
Grace said nothing. She was listening and wondering if Tom were out there, and if so, if he were in trouble. However, there was nothing to be done except to wait until morning before pushing their search for him further. The camp was well guarded that night, but nothing occurred to disturb them.
Shortly after daylight a systematic search was begun for Tom Gray's camp, the Overlanders separating and going out for individual search, keeping the landmarks near their own camp well in mind.
It was Elfreda Briggs who made the discovery. She called to Grace, who was near by, to come to her. Grace uttered an exclamation as she ran up to Miss Briggs, who stood pointing to a little tent nestling at the base of a rocky peak.
"Is that Tom's tent?" asked Elfreda.
"No, but we will have a look at it."
The two girls ran eagerly to the little tent, proceeding more cautiously as they came up to it. The blankets, they found, were rolled neatly, and a pair of boots stood in one corner, while some clothing hung from hooks on a tent-pole.
"This is Tom's tent. Oh, I am so glad," cried Grace.
"Yes. But where is Tom?"
"It is all right. He may be away from here for days, sleeping in the open, living as only a woodsman knows how to live. You know he is making a survey of this tract, and, I presume, doesn't find it convenient to take his equipment with him. Now I am content to settle down and wait for him. In the meantime we can do some exploring on our own account. I wonder who Tom has with him?"
"What do you mean?"
"Tracks of two different persons right there," answered Grace, pointing to the ground. "Where are your eyes, J. Elfreda?"
"Let's go back," suggested Miss Briggs, sighing deeply. "We must let the girls know at once."
All the Overlanders, except Nora Wingate, were quickly rounded up and told the good news. Nora was nowhere in sight, but Hippy said she was picking mountain berries about a quarter of a mile to the south of the camp, and that she had probably forgotten what she had been sent out for. He said, however, that he would go out and look for her.
In the meantime, Nora had been sitting eating the hatful of berries that she had gathered, gazing off over the rugged landscape and enjoying the mountain scenery bathed in the early morning sunlight. The mountains, in that softening light, lost their hideousness and were really beautiful to look upon. Nora's eyes, slowly absorbing the scene before her, suddenly paused in their roving and fixed their gaze on a point some twenty yards below her. Nora was looking down on the crown of a sombrero. Below it, the figure that the hat belonged to was invisible in the dense growth of vine and bush.
"Faith, and what's that?" murmured Nora, half humorously. "I know. It's that husband of mine wanting to give me a scare. Wait! I'll make the rascal jump."
Nora Wingate groped for and found a small piece of rock, chuckling softly to herself. Rising cautiously she aimed the rock to fall several feet to one side of the man below her, then reaching her hand far back she let fly, just as she had seen bombers do in France when practicing bomb-throwing.
Nora stood shaking with silent laughter at the fright she was going to give Hippy Wingate. To her horror, the rock, instead of landing to one side of the man, dropped fairly on the top of his head. As the stone hit him, the man uttered a grunt, but the Overland girl was too shocked to utter a sound.
The fellow leaped to one side, threw a hand to his head and knocked off his hat in his effort to find out what had hit him, then quickly looked up.
Nora Wingate found herself gazing down, not into the face of Hippy, but into the scowling, rage-contorted features of Lum Bangs. At that moment, Nora, of her own volition, could not have moved to save her life, but Lum speedily furnished the incentive for her to do so. Without an instant's hesitation he fired his rifle from the hip. The bullet from it cut the leaves not many inches from Nora's head.
"Hippy! Oh, Hippy!" she screamed and ran, bullets clipping the leaves close by, which served to lend speed to her flying feet.
Nora, as she ran, kept on shouting for Hippy. He heard her faintly and started at a run to meet her.
"They are shooting at me. Hurry! Run!" urged Nora as he neared her.
"Run? I guess not," retorted Hippy. "Where are they?"
"Up the mountain. There was only one, but there may be more." Nora grabbed her husband's arm and both started at a brisk trot for the camp. Reaching there, Nora hurriedly told her companions what had occurred.
"Lum Bangs!" exclaimed Miss Briggs. "What is he doing here? The Thompsons must be here."
Grace shook her head and said she doubted it.
"Julie warned us against the Spurgeons and said they were waiting for us on this ridge," reminded Grace. "Still, that doesn't explain Lum's presence here, unless he has followed us, seeking revenge."
"Lum may have turned traitor," observed Hippy. "Folks, it is my opinion that we had better prepare for trouble. I smell it in the air."
"Don't you think that it would be wise to protect our equipment?" suggested Anne.
Grace pondered, then announced that for the present they would do nothing beyond looking for a place not only to stow their belongings, but to safeguard themselves in case of trouble. They found such a place in a cave that Hippy had discovered that morning, the opening to which was on a slight rise of ground, commanding a wide view across the valley below it.
The party investigated the cave, and, finding it suited to their needs, began to move into it. Tents, mess kits, some food and a few blankets were all that were left in the nearby camp. Hippy then assumed the duty of guarding the party, but not a sign of life did he discover, nor was there a disturbing sound to be heard. Supper was eaten in camp before dark and the cook fire then extinguished.
Grace was troubled about Tom, and, as the hours wore on, the thought that perhaps he might have come to some harm, grew upon her. She got up about midnight, and, leaving her tent, sat down on a rock, chin in hands, more nervous than she remembered ever to have been before. Hurried footsteps aroused her to instant alertness.
"Is that you, Hippy?" called a low-pitched voice off to the right of her. It was Nora Wingate's voice. Grace had not known she was awake.
"Yes. Wake the girls, but be quiet about it. The woods are full of them."
"Of whom?" demanded Grace, getting quickly to her feet and hurrying to Hippy.
"I don't know, but I saw several men about two hundred yards from here. They are creeping up on the camp. Hurry! Get the girls into the cave. I will keep watch here until you get safely to the cave."
It was but a few minutes later when the Overland girls filed silently from their camp and headed for the cave. Hippy, rifle in hand, halted just outside the camp and waited. He did not have long to wait. A burst of rifle fire woke the mountain echoes, but, being out of the range of fire, he merely crouched down and waited to see what the attackers would do.
In the cave, the Overland girls were peering from the opening, but, by agreement, not a shot was fired by them or by Lieutenant Wingate.
The shooting kept up briskly for several minutes, then died away, and silence settled over the scene. Hippy remained near the camp so long that the girls began to feel concerned for him. This was dispelled nearly half an hour later when they discovered him, well bent over to hide his movements, running towards them.
"Whew! They didn't do a thing to our tents. Shot them full of holes," he exclaimed. "They are going through everything and they're getting worried, judging from what I overheard. We played a neat trick on them," chuckled the lieutenant.
"Don't crow," advised Emma Dean. "It isn't daylight yet. I will con-centrate. I con-centrated all the time you were away, and you came back, didn't you?"
"'Con-centrate' on those ruffians and drive them away; 'con-centrate' on Tom Gray; 'con-centrate' on the Mystery Man—'con-centrate' on anybody, but for the love of Mike don't let loose any of that 'imponderable quantity' on me," begged Lieutenant Wingate.
Hippy advised the girls to lie down on their blankets and try to sleep, saying that he would keep awake and watch at the cave entrance, but none of them felt the slightest desire for sleep, especially when the rifle fire opened up again. They wondered if the attackers were shooting at shadows. Not more than a dozen shots were fired and these at intervals, after which there was no more shooting during the rest of the night.
At daybreak Hippy dozed off, first nodding to Nora to take the watch for him, which she did. The others of the party were sitting on the rocky floor of the cave leaning against the wall, also dozing. Nora, for a short time, sat watching her husband who was snoring loudly; then she got up and peered out at the reddening sky. Unthinkingly, she stepped from the cave and stood inhaling deeply of the fragrant morning air.
Nora suddenly uttered a cry and clapped a hand to her left cheek. At the same instant, it seemed, the report of a rifle woke the echoes.
Hippy, awake and on his feet in an instant, jerked Nora back into the cave, but not before a bullet had flattened itself against the rocks close to his head.
"Lie down and keep tight to the sides of the cave!" he commanded. "They know where we are now. Fine! Fine! Emma Dean could do no worse."
No more shots were fired for fully an hour, then suddenly bullets began to pour into the cave, some hitting the sides and, ricochetting, wailed on into the dark depths of the cavern, making any part of the gloomy place unsafe. The best the Overlanders could do was to keep down and lie close to the wall.
Nora had had a narrow escape from death at the first shot, though, while she had not been hit, the bullet had grazed her cheek, leaving a red mark across it.
Frequent volleys into the cave, after several hours, set the nerves of each of the Overland Riders on edge. Hippy was eager to take a hand in the fray, but the girls forbade it, advising him that he would merely be making a mark of himself, whereas it were doubtful if he could see a single one of their assailants.
"Yes, but suppose they keep us here for days?" objected Lieutenant Wingate.
"We have plenty of food," answered Anne.
"And precious little water," added Grace Harlowe. "My advice is to wait and watch. At night they are certain to come up closer to the mouth of the cave. Perhaps we may be able to get a shot at them then without exposing ourselves. Surely, if they try to enter here we can quickly drive them back."
The rest of the afternoon up to three o'clock was spent in dodging bullets. Exactly on the hour of three there came an interruption that startled every one of the cave dwellers. A rattling fire sprang up, but no bullets came their way. Hippy held up his hand for silence, and listened.
"Two gangs are at it and they must be shooting at each other. I'm going out to have a look!" cried Hippy.
"Look! Look!" cried Emma, whose curiosity had led her to follow Lieutenant Wingate.
Men were seen running down below them. On the opposite mountainside, just across the narrow valley that lay a short distance from the mouth of the cave, they saw skulking figures. Now and then one would drop to his knees and shoot at the fleeing figures in the valley.
The fleeing men in the valley, after reaching the positions they were seeking, faced their adversaries on the mountainside and began firing up at them.
"It is the feud!" cried Miss Briggs.
"That's right. I have it!" exclaimed Hippy. "This is the twenty-second of the month. The Spurgeons were going to sail into the Thompsons on the twenty-third, but Jed Thompson has beat them to it by a day, and attacked them on the twenty-second. Good generalship!"
"I call it terrible," murmured Anne Nesbit.
From their elevated position, the Overland Riders were able to observe the battle in all its details, and it was a thrilling sight. They saw men fall, but whether from bullet or from stumbling the Overlanders did not know, for, in most instances, the fallen ones soon got to their feet and joined in the fight. Now and then, however, one remained where he had dropped.
"I think the party on the mountainside is the Thompson party," announced Grace, who had been observing through her binoculars. "I am positive that I recognize Jed."
"Then the Spurgeons are on the run. Look at that, will you!" cried Lieutenant Wingate.
The supposed Spurgeons were now dashing down the valley, here and there making a stand and shooting up at their enemies, who were pouring down a hot fire on them. The shooting soon began to die down, with an occasional shot from the Thompson feudists, probably long-range shots at the fleeing figures of the Spurgeons.
"All over," announced Hippy. "We can now safely go out. I am going over to see what the camp looks like."
The girls said they too would go. They did not believe that their presence had been discovered by the Thompson fighters, but in this, however, they were mistaken. Keen eyes had espied them watching the battle from the mouth of the cave, and even then some of the Thompson party was on its way to look the Overlanders over.
Washington Washington, who, during the firing on the cave, had remained flat on his stomach on the floor, a finger in either ear, trembling with fright, now assured that he had nothing more to fear, darted on ahead, eager to get to his mule. He gained the camp a few minutes ahead of the Overland party. They saw him coming back, wide-eyed, his feet barely touching the ground as he ran.
"What is it, Laundry?" called Hippy.
Washington's lips refused to frame the words that he was trying to utter. The Overlanders started forward at a run, bringing up abruptly as they gained their camping place. Not a vestige of it, save the ashes of their cook fire, remained. Everything was gone.
"De hosses!" exploded Washington.
"They're gone!" cried Emma Dean, who, following Washington's warning, had run to the tethering place.
They were not all "gone," however. The Overland Riders found that one pony had been, shot through the head, and that the mule had shared a like fate. The other animals had disappeared, probably driven away by Bat Spurgeon and his gang of ruffians.
"Howd', folks," greeted Jed Thompson, fairly bursting into the camp. "You-all don't know whether that critter Spurgeon has been heyeh, does ye?"
"Just cast your eagle eyes about and see if you don't think it looks as if somebody had been here, old top," answered Hippy Wingate, taking in the camp and the tethering ground with a wave of the hand.
"Our ponies are gone. Now we've got to walk all the way home," wailed Emma.
"'Con-centrate,' little one," advised Hippy.
"Never mind 'bout the hosses. We-uns'll fix ye up. Spurgeon and Lum Bates got er-way. They come this-a-way an' Ah reckon they're hidin' in a cave. Shore they ain't in that place where you was?" demanded Jed.
"If ye ain't sartin, better look an' see. We'll be goin' through t'other holes right smart. Mah men is doin' it now!"
"Bates?" wondered Hippy.
"The houn' went back on we-uns. It was this-a-way. Lum opined as we ought ter follow ye and clean yer outfit up, but Ah said as after you-uns had done what you-all had done fer Liz an' Sue, there wan't nothin' doin'. That was the last Ah seen of the houn' dawg. Ah know he was with Spurgeon 'cause Ah put er bullet through his shoulder ter-day."
"Sorry I couldn't have had a crack at him myself," muttered Hippy.
"It was Lum that pestered ye so. Ah set him on ye an' put up that bear story, but you-all didn't swaller it," he added, nodding to Hippy. "Say, Loot'nant, are ye sartin you-all ain't Jim Townsend?"
"Well," reflected Hippy, "I may say I am reasonably certain that I'm not."
"You folks wait here till we-uns come back. Mebby 'twon't be till mornin', fer we've got t' git that houn', Lum, an' Bat Spurgeon, else they won't be no livin' round heyeh. This yer property?" with a sweeping wave of the hand.
"Good thing we-uns cleaned out the Spurgeons then. Won't be none o' 'em 'round when you moves up heyeh. Bye." And Jed left them at a trot.
"I am going to investigate our cave. You can come along if you want to, but if that fellow with the explosive name—Bangs—should chance to be there I'll tell you in advance you better make tracks lively, for there surely will be some shooting," warned Hippy.
Torches were prepared and Washington reluctantly led the way into the cave with one, Hippy walking behind him with drawn revolver, the Overland girls bringing up the rear a few yards from Lieutenant Wingate.
Not having explored the cave very far, they were amazed at its depth; in fact they had gone on, it seemed, a good mile and were still looking for the end.
"I don't believe there is any one in here," Hippy was saying. "We might as well go back."
"Who said that?" demanded Hippy.
Washington Washington uttered a yell and bolted back for the opening of the cave, taking his torch with him, leaving the Overlanders in the blackest darkness they had ever experienced.
"I make the near blind to see, and the seeing to see in the dark as in the daylight. I am the benefactor of all-uns of the mountains. Specs, ladies and gentlemen—fit you with specs that will enable you to penetrate even the darkness of the under-earth. Nick-nacks, threads, needles, but principally specs and good cheer," announced a voice that seemed to come right up out of the earth before them.
"The Mystery Man!" shouted the Overland Riders.
"Oh, Mr. Long, where are you?" cried Grace.
"I am here, bound over to keep the peace. If you will kindly release me I will stretch myself, fit you with specs and proceed to break the peace as soon as I can catch sight of the fellows who put me here. Specs, folks? If you cannot wait, fetch my case. It is here somewhere, and I'll fit you before you untie me."
Hippy struck a match, and by its light they saw Jeremiah Long, arms pinioned to his sides with rope, and a rope about his neck, fastened to a stake driven into a crevice in the rocks.
The Mystery Man was quickly released.
"Do you not wish to hear what has occurred here?" asked Nora.
"Ah know what occurred, up to the time some one hit me over the head and put me to sleep."
Hippy then briefly told him the story of their arrival at the Ridge, and of what followed. Grace added that they were disturbed, very much worried about Tom Gray, and asked Mr. Long if he would assist them in finding him.
"To be sure. Here! Place these specs on your nose and I promise you that through those magic lenses you shall see your husband this very night. Do they fit you?" questioned Jeremiah Long.
"The bows fit perfectly, but I cannot see a thing through the lenses," answered Grace laughingly, as a match flared up in the hands of Nora Wingate and was held before Grace Harlowe's face.
"That is as it should be. So long as the bows fit, it matters not about the lenses. Hold your positions, please, and light no matches until I tell you to, lest you destroy the magic spell."
The Mystery Man left them, but returned in a few moments.
"I will throw a gleam from my magic lamp, and through your magic lenses, Mrs. Gray, you will see that my spell has worked," announced the strange character. He flashed an electric pocket lamp on the face of a man standing facing the party.
The Overlanders gasped.
The circle of light drew the face of Tom Gray out of the darkness.
"Tom!" cried Grace, snatching off the spectacles and running to her husband. "Oh, Tom, how could you keep silent so long when you knew how disturbed we were?"
"I could not well do otherwise, Grace, seeing that I was bound just as Mr. Long was, but with the added burden of a gag in my mouth. He came in after I did, and we managed to get acquainted despite my gag. I could mumble and he got the mumble. After you released him he freed my mouth of the gag and cut the rope that held me helpless."
"You see my magic specs saw that Captain Gray had been clubbed and kidnapped, and I was trying to find him when I was put to sleep and dumped in here to await further disposition. Have the specs fulfilled all that I promised, Mrs. Gray?"
"A hundred fold," laughed Grace happily.
"No charge, thank you. We aim to please our customers. Having an appointment late this evening to fit a pair of specs of another variety than you have seen me display, I will bid you good-evening. If I do not see you again in reality, I shall many times smile at you ladies with my eyes and my heart, and, should you at such times chance to be wearing the magic specs, you will see the smile and recall the smiler."
"Won't you shake hands?" asked Miss Briggs.
"Thank you. I have said my good-byes."
"At least, Mr. Long, before you leave us, please tell us who and what you are," urged Nora.
"With pleasure. I am Jeremiah Long, the Mystery Man, and spectacles is my line. All hay is grass and grass is hay. I'm here to-morrow and gone to-day." His voice seemed to fade away in the darkness, the last words sounding far away and barely heard. The Overland Riders did not know whether he had gone out or plunged deeper into the cave, to emerge from some exit the existence of which they were unaware.
"What a queer man," murmured Anne Nesbit. "He almost gives one the creeps. I wish we knew who and what he is."
"I think Tom knows," spoke up Grace. "Let's get out of this horrid place."
"Yes, I do know. To-night he expects to accomplish what he has been working towards for many months, a round-up of the leading moonshiners of this district. I have seen Long before I came up here, and he confided in me, because I possessed some information, gleaned from hiking over this property of yours, which he wished to have, and that he could not very well ask for without giving me some information in return. Long is Dick Whitfield, the head of a corps of mountain sleuths, probably the shrewdest man in his line of work who ever came into the Kentucky hills. It was he who wounded the mountaineer in the bushes that night by your camp. It was he who protected you in many tight places, including some that you did not know about."
"And shot Lum Bangs through the wrist at the dance," suggested Nora.
"No, that was Jim Townsend, his principal assistant."
"That's the fellow I want to know about—the fellow who ought to be the proudest man in the world because he looks like me," cried Hippy Wingate.
As the party strolled out towards the mouth of the tunnel, Tom Gray told his companions that Hippy's resemblance to Townsend had been quickly seized upon by the Mystery Man, Jeremiah Long, and used as a cloak to cover the operations of the real Townsend, trusting to their skill and watchfulness to keep the moonshiners from collecting the reward that had been offered for Townsend. Either Townsend or the Spectacle Man had kept the Overland Riders under observation a good part of the time. It was Townsend who rescued Hippy from the Spurgeon gang, who conducted Hippy back to his camp, and who left the mysterious notes for the Overlanders.
"Yes. But why did they mark me for the slaughter?" demanded Hippy.
"Don't you understand? They thought you were Jim Townsend. In fact, the mountain men had been informed that Townsend was on his way here as a member of the Overland Riders, to get evidence against the moonshiners. As a matter of fact, Townsend was already here and had been, in disguise, for some time. That belief involved our entire party, you see, and it is a wonder that the mountaineers did not get one of you, at least. When they caught me, knowing that I was in Government service, I thought it was all up with me, but I believe they thought best first to settle their feud with Thompson.
"One thing that possibly saved all of you people, and surely saved Hippy," resumed Tom Gray, "is that you are women. They were eager enough to put Hippy out of the way, but you girls made them hesitate. They didn't like the idea of committing a cold-blooded crime like that in the presence of a group of pretty girls."
"What about that survey you were to make for me?" questioned Hippy.
"I have made it," replied Tom. "That is, I have gone far enough with it to convince me that you have a wonderful coal deposit here. It will make you a richer man than you ever dreamed of being, but it will be at least two years before you can work the veins. A survey has been made for a railroad spur that will go through your property, and I believe the railroad people are going to begin work on it next spring. You will, therefore, have plenty of time to mature your plans for the big splash."
"Hippy Wingate, don't you dare go and get enlargement of the head," warned Nora, after his companions had crowded about Hippy and enthusiastically congratulated him.
"Never mind, Nora. If he does, just let me know. I'll con-centrate on his head until it gets so small that he can wear a charlotte russe cup on it instead of a sombrero. Didn't I con-centrate on everything?" demanded Emma triumphantly.
"You did," agreed Hippy in a guttural voice.
"And didn't everything turn out just as I con-centrated that it should?"
"It did," rumbled Hippy.
"Then there is nothing more to be said," finished Emma amid the laughter of her companions.
That night, having no tents to cover them, the Overland party slept in the cave. Tom Gray sat with Hippy on guard at the mouth of the cave all night, but their watchfulness was not needed. The Spurgeon gang that had been annoying them had been soundly whipped, and, one by one, those that were left were being arrested by revenue men. Spurgeon himself, as the Overlanders learned later, succeeded in getting away. Lum Bangs, too, managed to avoid the revenue agents, but was later hunted down and driven out of the mountains by Jed Thompson's friends.
Late on the morning following the fight, Jed and some of his men rode into the camp with the Overland ponies and also turned in one belonging to his own outfit to take the place of the animal that the Spurgeons had shot.
The Overland Riders spent a week longer in the mountains, during which Tom and Hippy went over the latter's property in detail and laid plans for the future.
Before leaving the mountains, Hippy succeeded in inducing Captain Gray to go into partnership with him and share in Hippy's good fortune. At the end of this happy week the Overlanders packed up what was left of their equipment and rode away towards home, stopping for a day for a visit with Jed Thompson's family, and incidentally to warn Jed that it might be wise for him to raise and use other crops than corn, lest the revenue men take him in as they had done with the Spurgeon gang.
In a way, the Overland girls were glad to start on their way home. None, however, was quite so happy to be homeward bound as was Washington Washington, who frankly admitted that he had had enough, and that he "didn' want no moah."
The further adventures of the Overland Riders will be related in a following volume entitled, "GRACE HARLOWE'S OVERLAND RIDERS IN THE GREAT NORTH WOODS." Battles with the timber pirates, the fight for the Overland claim, the faithfulness of the Indian, who helps Hippy and Tom on to victory, and the Christmas dinner in the depth of the forest amid thousands of scintillating Christmas trees, makes a story of adventure and achievement second to none that Grace Harlowe and her companions ever have experienced.
* * * * *
Obvious punctuation errors corrected.