It was nearly half an hour before Lieutenant Wingate regained consciousness, and it was some little time later before he could hold a sitting position, for his head was swimming.
"Had we better not get him under his tent?" asked Grace.
"If there is a tent left, yes. You folks will remain right here until I return. I am going over to the camp," replied Tom.
"Is there danger?" questioned Grace anxiously.
"I think not. I shall not be gone more than a few minutes."
Tom took his pocket lamp with him, leaving the Overlanders in the dark, for their own lamps were in their packs in the tents. Tom, however, came back inside of fifteen minutes.
"How is the camp?" asked Elfreda.
"There isn't any camp," answered Tom.
"Wha—at?" gasped the Overlanders.
"It hit me and went on into the river," groaned Hippy. "Voice of nature," he added in a mutter, but no one laughed.
"Our camp was pitched in the travoy way. The storm loosened the supports of the skidway and let the logs down. Several hundred thousand feet of them rolled over our camp and mashed it flat. A good part of the timber went on into the river. The rest of it is scattered all the way along the travoy."
"What! All our provisions gone?" wailed Hippy.
"No. They were strung up high enough to be out of the way," spoke up Grace.
"You are wrong, Grace," differed Tom. "A log must have ended up and broken the rope. At least the rope is broken and most of our supplies appear to have been carried away. We are now back to first principles. We must either go back for fresh supplies or live as the forest wanderer lives, rustling for our grub as we go along. The first thing to be done is to build a fire."
"Fine! I should like to see you do that with everything soaking wet," laughed Elfreda.
"We shall see," replied Tom. "What we need first of all is light so we may see what we are about."
After searching about, Tom found an old uptilted log which he proposed to use as a "backlog" for a fire. He next roamed about with his lamp, hunting for a dead pine tree leaning to the south. He explained that the wood and bark on the under side of such a tree would be reasonably dry and would make excellent fuel. He found one that had been shivered by lightning, and from the south side of this he chopped off bark and chips. The girls carried these to the fallen uptilted tree.
In the meantime, the guide had searched for and found several pine knots. From these Tom whittled shavings from their less resinous ends, leaving the shavings on the sticks. He set these knots up like a tripod under the fallen tree, small ends down and the shavings touching.
"We will now strike a match and you shall see whether or not we know how to build a fire under present conditions. Grace, how do you think you would strike a match with nothing dry to strike it on?" he teased.
"I do not believe I should strike it," answered Grace.
"Hold your hat over me," he directed, getting down on his knees. Tom placed the head of the match between his teeth and jerked the match forward through the teeth, cupped the match in his hands until the flame of the match ran up its stick, whereupon he applied it to the shavings.
The pine knots flickered, then flamed up, snapping and shooting out little streamers of reddish fire. Bark and splinters from the leaning tree were placed about the knots, and in a few moments they had a cheerful fire.
"Cut two saplings and spread the blanket for a backing," said Tom, nodding to the guide.
Joe sharpened one end of each sapling and forced them into the ground back of the log, and on the saplings she stretched one of the wet blankets.
"Girls, in all our campaigning we haven't learned much, have we?" demanded Anne. "Had it not been for Tom we should have sat all night in misery and wetness. I think we are going to learn something on this journey."
"It strikes me that we have already learned a few things," observed Miss Briggs.
Lieutenant Wingate recovered rapidly, and when able he began searching about to discover what had hit him but could find nothing.
The clothing of the party under the influence of that red-hot fire soon dried out, and the spirits of the Overland Riders rose in proportion. Acting upon Elfreda's suggestion that they make an effort to salvage their supplies, Tom and Hippy prepared pitchpine torches, and all hands repaired to the scene of their late camping place.
"Look! Oh, look!" cried Emma, as they came within sight of it. Not a vestige of the camp was left. Logs lay about everywhere, some almost standing on end. Young trees were broken off short, bushes laid flat as if a tornado had swept over the scene, and here and there the trunks of giant trees were scarred where the bark had been torn off by logs coming in contact with them.
"Think what might have happened to us had we not got out in time," murmured Anne.
"We should have been mashed flat," agreed Emma. "How terrible!"
"That is what comes from listening to the voice of nature," chuckled Hippy.
"Here are some of our provisions," called Grace, who had been clambering over the logs, peering under them and feeling about among the pine cones. She uncovered a dozen or so cans of food, all dented, some mashed out flat, and while she was doing this Elfreda discovered some badly battered mess kits.
Hippy salvaged a chunk of bacon on the river bank, and others found widely scattered remnants of their supplies, including some that had been swept into the river which had not floated away.
"This will keep us going until we can replenish our larder," finally announced Grace. "After daybreak we shall undoubtedly find more of our belongings. The tents, however, seem to have been destroyed. I found a few pieces of canvas, but that was all. I am glad we saved our blankets."
"By the way, Mrs. Shafto, where is Henry?" asked Nora.
"Henry!" cried Joe.
"If Henry is wise he will be found up a tree," chuckled Hippy.
"Henry! Henre-e-e-e-e!" called the forest woman. "Oh, Henre-e-e-e-e-e! Here, Hen, Hen, Hen, Hen! Come here, I tell ye! Hen, Hen, Hen, Hen, Hen!"
"Crow! Maybe that will fetch Hen," suggested Hippy, and the Overland girls shouted.
"Don't ye make fun of me!" raged the forest woman, striding over to Hippy and shaking a belligerent fist before his face. "I give ye notice that Joe Shafto kin take care of herself and her bear, and she don't need no advice from a greenhorn like yerself." Hippy backed away, the woman following him and still shaking her fist, and the more the girls laughed the angrier did Joe get.
"That's all right, old dear. Don't get excited," begged Hippy, trying to soothe the irate woman.
"What? Old dear! Don't ye call me old dear. I ain't yer old dear nor yer young dear. Ain't ye ashamed of yerself to speak to yer betters that way, and 'specially to a woman of my years? I'll larn ye to be civil and to mind yer own business!" Joe gave the embarrassed Hippy a sound box on one ear, then on the other. "Take that, and that," she cried. "Next time I'll use the club on ye!"
Each blow jolted Hippy's head.
"Mrs. Shafto! Please, please! We can't have any such actions in this outfit," rebuked Grace. "Lieutenant Wingate did not mean to offend you, and you must learn to be a good fellow and take as well as give if you are going to stay with this outfit. If you think you cannot, now is the time to say so."
"Do ye want me to git out?" demanded Joe, glaring at Grace.
"Indeed we do not. We wish you to remain, to be a good fellow, to share in our pleasures and take the unpleasant features in the spirit of the Overland Riders. Do you think you can do this?" Grace smiled as she said it.
"I reckon yer right, Miss Gray," decided the forest woman after a moment's pondering and glaring through her spectacles at Grace.
"Thank you. Nora, suppose you lead Hippy to one side—by the ear—and read him a little lecture," suggested Grace.
"I'll do that," agreed Nora Wingate. "Hippy, my darlin', you come with me. I'll fetch a stout stick and I'll make you think of home and mother."
Even Joe Shafto laughed as Nora playfully led Hippy away by an ear. They found them half an hour later sitting by the fire where Nora was still lecturing her irrepressible spouse.
"I've reformed, Mrs. Shafto," called Hippy as he saw them approaching. "I was mistaken in thinking you were my dear. You aren't. Henry is your dear."
"I don't know whether he is or not. I'm afraid Henry loped away when the logs came down. I'll track him when it gets light enough to see."
All was peace in the Overland camp again, and, while they were waiting for daylight, Tom and Hippy hammered their mess kits back into shape with an axe, greatly to the amusement of their companions. As the graying skies finally brought out in relief the tops of the trees, Elfreda, who had been gazing up at them, uttered a sudden exclamation.
"What is that up there?" she exclaimed. "It looks like an animal."
"It's my Henry!" shouted the guide. "Come down here, ye beast! Come down, I say. Henry, do ye hear me?"
Henry plainly did, but he took his time about obeying, and it was not until the light became stronger that he made a move to descend. After reaching the last of the lower limbs of the tree, Henry slid the rest of the way down, dislodging the bark with his claws, a little shower of bark sifting over Joe, who was waiting at the base of the tree to welcome her pet. This she did in characteristic fashion when he reached the ground, by giving him a few light taps with her ever-ready club.
Henry slunk away and sat down by himself to brood over his troubles, Hindenburg from a safe distance eyeing the bear, a dark ruff showing along his pugnacious little back.
Mrs. Shafto began the preparation of breakfast immediately after recovering her bear. While she was doing this, the light now being strong enough to permit, Tom climbed the bank to examine the skidway from which the logs had swept down over their camp. Tom remained up there until the loud halloos of his companions informed him that breakfast was ready. The forester returned to his camp slowly and thoughtfully.
"Find anything up there?" questioned Hippy, giving him a quick glance of inquiry.
"The tents?" asked Elfreda.
"Naturally not up there," he replied, sitting down on a blanket and taking the plate of bacon that Elfreda handed to him.
"Out with it," laughed Grace. "It always is reflected in your face when there is anything weighty on your mind."
"Having something on one's mind is more than all of us can boast," chortled Hippy. "I might mention names were it not that I am too polite to do so," he added, grinning at Emma, who flushed.
"At least I did not get my ears boxed," she retorted. "Mrs. Shafto served you just right, though I think we all regret that, while about it, she did not make a finished job of it."
"That subject is closed," reminded Miss Briggs.
"Hippy, don't you say another word," warned Nora Wingate, and, after the laugh had subsided, they looked at Tom.
"I went up to examine the skidway," he said. "What I found there fully confirmed the vague suspicions that were already in my mind."
"Eh?" interrupted Hippy, leaning forward expectantly.
Elfreda nodded, as if Tom had confirmed her own conclusions.
"It was not wholly the rain that dislodged the supports of the logs, folks," resumed Tom.
"No—ot rain?" exclaimed Hippy, blinking at his companion.
"Not rain," repeated Tom. "Human hands loosened the supports that sent the great pile of logs down on the camp of the Overlanders," he declared impressively.
LUMBER-JACKS SEEK REVENGE
"Same old game," grumbled Hippy.
"What makes you think that the skidway was tampered with?" questioned Anne, after the exclamations following Tom's startling assertion had subsided.
"Because the evidence is there. Even a novice could read the signs left there. In spots, I found the imprints of rubber boots. I also found four canthooks, used for rolling logs."
Hippy suggested that these might have been left when the lumbermen stopped work in the early spring, but Tom shook his head.
"No. They were new, which indicates that they were brought to this place within a few days—probably within the last few hours, for the hooks did not have a single point of rust on them."
"But, Tom! I cannot understand how moving that tremendous weight in bulk was possible for a handful of men," wondered Grace.
"Jacks can do anything they wish with logs," answered Tom Gray. "In this instance they called on nature for assistance, and fickle nature lent them a hand by sending them rain. The ground too, I discovered, had been dug out under the lower side of the skidway and the supports knocked out."
"The varmints!" growled Joe Shafto, who had been an attentive listener to Tom's story.
"The jacks shifted some logs around to act as a track to give the logs on the skidway a good start down the bank; they further cleared a channel lower down so that the water might undermine the skidway still more, then, when the trap was properly set, undoubtedly gave the top of the pile a start with their hooks. I can't describe it so you people, unfamiliar with logging operations, can get the picture clearly."
"I think you do very well," answered Emma wisely. "Of course, Hippy could improve upon it, but fortunately he is not telling the story."
"Do you know of any early lumber operations near here, Mrs. Shafto?" asked Tom.
The guide said she did not, but that the woods were often full of cutters late in the fall and in the early winter.
"Section Forty-three was goin' to start cuttin' on the first of this month I heard, but I don't know whuther they did or not," she said.
Tom Gray consulted his forestry map and nodded.
"We will look in on them, so I believe I shall stay with you until the day after to-morrow. In the meantime I shall have another look at the skidway while you people are packing up," he said, rising.
"What shall we do without tents?" questioned Anne anxiously.
"Do nicely. When we make camp this afternoon Mrs. Shafto and I will show you. I do not think it advisable to head directly for Forty-three, but to camp in the vicinity of that section, as I shall wish to speak with the foreman of the gang there."
"Reckon ye know what ye wants to do," nodded the guide.
When Tom returned from the skidway he smiled and shook his head in answer to the question in Grace's eyes.
"Nothing further," he said briefly.
"You should have been an Indian," laughed Grace.
"Should have been? He is," averred Hippy.
Not a shred of canvas large enough to cover a mess plate was found in the ruins of their camp, and, as soon as they had assembled and packed what was left of their equipment, the party went on without tents. After luncheon that day they turned off from the lumber trail and struck out into the densely timbered land, Joe following her course by certain old blazes on trees. Traveling there was much slower than it had been on the open lumber trail, but the Overlanders made satisfactory time, and covered nearly twenty miles before they halted to prepare their camp for the night.
It lacked three hours of nightfall then, so Tom Gray decided to go over to Section Forty-three and have his talk with the foreman of that lumber camp. It was an hour-and-a-half later when he returned, flushed and angry.
"Well?" questioned Grace.
"I learned that a dozen jacks came in from Bisbee's Corners last night, but when I asked that they be lined up to see if I could identify any of them as belonging to the mob that attacked us at Bisbee's, the foreman threatened to set the whole outfit of jacks on me. He said he was not running a detective bureau and that he didn't give a rap what his jacks did so long as they got out timber."
"What's his name?" interrupted the guide.
"Tatem, he said."
"Feller with a wooden leg?" demanded Joe.
"That's Peg Tatem, the biggest ruffian of 'em all. He'd brain ye with a peavey if you give him any back talk. I've always thought that Peg knew the devils who killed my man. Oh, I hope the time comes when I get a chance to set Henry on him. Henry'd make toothpicks of that peg-leg. I promise ye that. His outfit ain't any better'n Peg himself."
"Who is the contractor?" asked Tom.
"It's the Dusenbery outfit. Dusenbery is always timber-lookin', peekin' about the Pinies to find a cuttin' that he kin steal, and he's stole a lot of it, Cap'n Gray. Ye lookin' for timber thieves?"
"That is a part of my job up here," answered Tom smilingly.
"Git Dusenbery and ye'll have the biggest stealer of these Big North Woods, but have yer gun handy when ye git him or he'll git ye first." With this parting admonition, Joe took a currycomb and brush from her kit bag and began grooming Henry's coat, which, from contact with brush and thorns, and the wetting he had received the night before, looked as if it needed it.
"The burning question of the moment is, do we sleep on feathers or firs to-night?" inquired Hippy.
"We will get at that right away. Mrs. Shafto, please show Lieutenant Wingate how to pick a backlog and let him get spruce boughs for two lean-tos and wood for the night's fuel," directed Tom.
While this was being done, Tom selected the camp site; then cut and set four poles, the rear pair lower than the front, and across these he laid ridge poles. When the spruce boughs were brought in they were placed on top of the framework thus erected, and in a few moments the roof was on. The ends of the lean-to were closed by hanging spruce boughs over them. The roof boughs were all laid in the same direction, butts towards the front, tops towards the rear.
This accomplished, a little green house had appeared like magic, but it was not yet complete. Spruce boughs were brought and spread over the ground under the lean-tos to the depth of about a foot, all laid one way, smooth and springy and so sweetly odorous that the air in the little house seemed intoxicating.
Emma Dean dove in headfirst.
"Stop that! This house is not intended to be a rough-house," protested Hippy, coming up at this juncture with an armful of boughs.
"I can't help it. It is so perfectly stunning. Do you know what its name is? Why, Green Gables, of course, and—"
"What are the wild birds saying?" mocked Hippy.
"They will be crooning a good-night lullaby the instant I lay my weary person down," declared Elfreda Briggs.
A second lean-to, much smaller than the first, was erected. Then preparations for the campfire were begun. This was laid on sloping ground a little lower down than the lean-tos. First, a log was placed and stakes driven behind it to keep it from rolling down the slight decline, its purpose being to supply the backlog of the fire, which, when started, would be almost on a level with the lean-tos, and about four feet from them. Evergreen boughs were cut and laid lengthwise in front of the lean-tos, to be planted between the houses and the fire, in case the fire might be too hot for the occupants.
Hippy was now bringing in the night-wood and complaining bitterly about having to do all the work.
"Why not harness up that lazy bear and make him draw in the logs?" he demanded.
"If ye'll harness the pup and snake in a log with him, I'll make my Henry snake two logs," retorted the forest woman.
Hippy went back for another load of wood, his shoulders jogging up and down with laughter.
"This is all very fine, Tom, but what are we going to do after you have left us?" wondered Anne.
"Grace knows how to build a lean-to, and I am positive that Mrs. Shafto does," answered Tom.
"When you go into permanent camp you will require a different construction to keep the rain out. Bark stripped from trees will answer the purpose," Tom informed them.
The small lean-to was for the guide, and another of about the same size was later erected for Tom and Hippy, though further from the fire than the little green houses for the girls and the guide.
Night was upon them by the time they had finished, and Mrs. Shafto already had built a small cook fire and was preparing supper. About the time it was ready Tom put a match under the larger pile of wood, and a cheerful blaze flamed up.
"Try the house and see how warm it is, girls," suggested Grace.
Exclamations of delight and gurgles of satisfaction followed their trial of the lean-to.
"Why, it is as warm as a steam-heated house," cried Nora.
"That is because the rear side of the lean-to is closed and the front open. The heat therefore remains in the lean-to. Even a low fire will keep one warm in such a shelter in the coldest of winter nights," Grace explained to her companions.
In the meantime Tom and Hippy were discussing the attack of the previous night, and Tom Gray was cautioning Hippy to be on the lookout all the time and see to it that the Overland girls were protected.
"We are getting into rough country. I don't need to tell you that," said Tom. "Law is quite a way removed from us, and it takes time to get the law operating in the Big Woods country. By the time it does get working, the guilty ones generally are out of reach. I wish we had got in touch with Willy Horse and hired him to join the outfit."
"Leave it to Henry and Hippy," laughed Lieutenant Wingate. "What those two 'H's' can't do, he couldn't. Then again, we have Hindenburg. Do you think that fellow Tatem had anything to do with what happened last night?"
Tom said he knew of no good reason why the foreman of Forty-three should have wished to injure them.
"The attack looks to me like a lumberjack's revenge but I can't account for it. I have decided to leave you in the morning. Grace has a duplicate of my forestry map, and will know where I am most of the time. I'll look in on you from time to time, and about the first of the month I shall make my headquarters on the Little Big Branch where you folks are going to camp for a few weeks. Be careful of fire, and if you are visited by a fire warden tell him who you are. One cannot be too particular about saving the forests, and a little carelessness might cause a fire loss of thousands of dollars before the blaze could be stopped."
"We want to go to bed," interrupted Emma. "How are we going to do so with one side of the house out?"
"Hang two blankets over the front, please, Hippy. Take them down after the girls have turned in. I will look after the ponies; then you and I will hit the pines," directed Tom, rising.
The forest woman was hanging up the mess kits to dry when Tom and Hippy went out to water and rub down the ponies. She beckoned them to wait.
"I been thinkin' 'bout what ye said of Peg Tatem, Cap'n Gray, and I don't like it," she said in a tone low enough to prevent being overheard by the girls, who were preparing for bed. "Peg must have been mad 'bout somethin' and I reckon it would be healthy for us to git out of here in the mornin' and camp as far away from Forty-three as we kin. What do ye say, Cap'n?"
"Don't worry about Peg. We shall be out of this in the morning, anyway. I have to leave you to-morrow, so take good care of the girls and don't let Henry eat the bull pup."
"He had better not," growled Hippy.
The two Overland men went to their lean-to laughing, Mrs. Shafto feeding the night logs to the fire before seeking her own browse-bed, Henry taking up his resting place a little distance from her in the shadows and away from the fire. His fur coat was sufficient protection against the evening chill, but Hindenburg's hair was short, and he was shivering when he crawled in and nosed his way under Lieutenant Wingate's blanket.
It did not seem to the Overlanders as if they had more than dropped to sleep, though they had been asleep for hours, when they were startled by a terrific explosion, an explosion that shook the earth and made the forest trees above them tremble and a shower of pine cones rain down on them in a perfect deluge.
"Tree coming! Run!" shouted Tom Gray, at the same time firing his revolver into the air to urge the Overlanders to greater haste.
MYSTERY IN THE FALL OF A TREE
"Run to the river!" It was Hippy's voice, this time raised in warning. He feared that the wide-spreading branches of the falling tree might hit some of the party of Overlanders.
A branch from a smaller tree, knocked down by the larger one in its fall, gave Hippy a sidewipe and sent him flying down the bank.
"Jump inter the river!" screamed the forest woman. "It ain't deep." Joe led the way, shouting as she leaped for the water. Had there been light, it would have been easy to see which way the tree was falling, but in the darkness one could only guess from the sound the direction in which the tree was falling. It landed with a mighty crash just as the Overland Riders leaped into the river, and for a few seconds it sounded as if the forest itself were going down. The girls listened to the crashings and the reports in awesome silence.
"All over!" announced Tom, in a tone of relief.
"I—I don't see anything about a falling tree that necessitates scaring a person out of a year's growth," complained Emma.
"You don't, eh? Then you have something to learn," answered Tom rather shortly.
"At least there is nothing to prevent our going back and getting to sleep, is there?" questioned Nora.
"There is!" said Tom.
"Wha—what do you mean?" demanded Hippy, but Tom made no reply.
Grace found herself wondering what had caused the tree to fall. There was no wind, other than a gentle zephyr; the ground was dry and the tree was not a dead tree, as she discovered when she found that its foliage had blotted out the campfire. Either she had not heard the explosion as the tree burst from the ground, or else she had forgotten that circumstance altogether in the excitement of the moment.
"All right. We can go back now," said Tom.
"And to bed for mine," promised Elfreda.
"If my eyes serve me right, you have no bed," answered Grace laughingly.
"I don't understand," wondered Miss Briggs.
"From its position, I should say that the fallen tree pretty well covers our camp," replied Grace.
"Yes, it fell on the lean-tos," Tom informed them.
The Overland girls groaned.
"The voices of nature seem to be trying to tell us something. Perhaps they are inviting us to get out," suggested Hippy whimsically. "What is your interpretation of the tree's fall, you Nature-Cult Person?" he questioned teasingly, nodding at Emma.
"I think they are seeking to advise us to rid ourselves of one Lieutenant Wingate if we expect to be permitted to proceed in peace," answered Emma. "Why don't you go home?" teased the little Overland girl.
"My wife won't let me. Of course you are not bound by any such restrictions," reminded Hippy.
Tom suddenly broke into a run. The others followed, calling to him to know what was wrong, but the forester did not at first answer, as he sped towards their camp, leaping logs and other obstructions in his path.
"Hurry!" he shouted, upon reaching the scene.
"What is it?" called Hippy.
"We have set the woods on fire!" answered Tom.
What the party had supposed to be only the campfire blazing under the tree that had fallen across it, in reality was a forest fire in the making. In falling, the tree had scattered the burning embers of the campfire, and set fire to the leaves and pine boughs that covered the ground. By the time Tom Gray reached the scene the fire was running up the little saplings, tracing out their limbs until they resembled decorated Christmas trees, and leaping from tree to tree.
"Isn't it beautiful!" exclaimed Emma enthusiastically, as the spectacle burst into view.
"You won't think so before many hours have passed," answered Grace, who, as well as her husband, fully understood what this blaze with so good a start might mean.
"Grab those spruce boughs near the lean-tos and follow me!" shouted Tom. "Every one of you get to work. Stamp out what is left of the campfire, Hippy, so that it doesn't spread towards the river and get away from us along the bank. Stir yourselves!"
Through the smoke, the flying sparks and the pungent, almost overpowering odors, the Overland Riders ran with their arms full of spruce boughs.
"What are we to do?" cried Elfreda. "I feel as helpless as a child."
After they had hurried around the outer edge of the fire, which was rapidly reaching towards them in little wriggling, snake-like streams of fire, Tom directed the girls to spread out, each taking several rods of front to protect.
"Beat it out as fast as you can. When you see a wriggler reaching for a tree, beat it out with your spruce boughs," he ordered. "Don't try to put out a tree on fire. You can't do it, and may set yourselves on fire. Grace, you take the lower end of the line and keep the girls at work. I will look after this end. Should assistance be needed at any one point, shout and we will all concentrate on it. All of you be careful that you don't get burned."
The girls quickly took up the positions assigned to them, and began beating and whipping the "golden serpents," as Nora characterized them. In a few moments each member of the party was coughing and choking, their arms were aching and tears were running from their eyes. In spite of their efforts, however, the advancing fire drove them steadily back.
The big trees soon began to char, and, within an hour, were glowing pillars of fire, as one after another broke into flames that mounted higher and higher. Had there been leisure to view it as a spectacle, the sight would have been a magnificent one, but the Overlanders had other things to occupy their attention. While in no way to blame for the fire, they felt that this was their responsibility, theirs the duty to stop it, and so they worked and fought, gasping for breath, now and then retreating for fresh air.
"Lie down every little while!" shouted Tom. "The air is better near the ground. Pass the word along."
His orders were shouted from one to the other and so reached the extreme end of the fighting front.
What at first had seemed an easy task had grown to an almost insurmountable one. Now they would check the fire at one point, only to discover that it had leaped over the line at another. By the time they had conquered the second one, the first blaze generally would be found to have taken a new start.
A canopy of fire and smoke covered the scene high overhead. Tom hoped that a forest lookout might discover the blaze and send assistance to them, though he knew that much territory might be burned over before help could reach them.
Leaving his own position for a survey of conditions, Tom ran along the line of fire-fighters, giving an encouraging word here and there while his experienced eyes sized up the situation.
"How is it?" gasped Grace when he reached her end of the line.
"Serious! We must fight as long as we have an ounce of strength or a breath left in our bodies," he added, starting back towards his position.
"Keep it up! It's getting the best of you!" he shouted to each Overlander in turn as he passed.
"Can't we send to Forty-three for assistance?" called Hippy.
"No. You or I would have to go. Neither of us can be spared."
"We'll have to be spared if this keeps up much longer. Do you think the horses are safe?"
"Yes. They are on the river side of the fire. The breeze is carrying the fire the other way," answered Tom.
Three hours after the discovery of the fire found the Overland Riders still fighting, to all appearances, just as stubbornly as when they began. Their faces were almost unrecognizable, blackened as they were with smoke and streaked with perspiration. In places, their clothing showed black where it had been seared or scorched. Emma Dean had, for the time being, forgotten to listen to the voices of nature, even though they were sizzling and roaring at her from the far-flung tops of the giant pines.
At the end of the fourth hour, a great tree came crashing down with a ripping, rending roar. Another followed it soon after, and at intervals still other trees lost their foothold and surrendered to their implacable enemy, fire!
It was an awesome sight and the air was full of thrilling sounds. There was not one of that party of fire fighters that did not feel the awe. Henry disappeared, and his mistress had no thought for him. She had been through other forest fires, and, though she worked desperately, she did so without emotion so far as external appearances indicated. Hindenburg, on the contrary, was very much in evidence, running up and down the line, barking at each individual fire fighter and sneezing as he breathed in the pungent smoke.
The graying dawn found the Overlanders still beating at the flames that still kept them on the retreat, driving them deeper and deeper into the forest.
About this time Tom Gray made his second survey. What he found raised his hopes and his spirits.
"We've flanked it!" he cried. "That old cutting to the left has saved us on that side."
"Thank Heaven!" answered Grace in a choking voice. "Te—ell the others!"
"We aren't through yet," reminded Tom, hurrying back to give the others the encouraging news and to urge them to continue their efforts.
Shouts, choking, gasping shouts, greeted the announcement. Then how they did work, the girls with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths, and Hippy Wingate with a piece of his khaki shirt gripped between his teeth and partly covering his nostrils as an aid in keeping the smoke out of his lungs. The throats of all were parched and aching for water, but there was none to be had near at hand, and no time to go to the river for it.
At nine o'clock in the morning the forest fire was conquered, after having burned over several acres of timber. Here and there little blazes were fanned into life by the morning breeze, but alert eyes discovered, and ready hands quickly whipped them out.
"Done! But it will have to be watched. You girls go back to camp and make some coffee. I don't believe that much of our belongings have been destroyed," said Tom.
Instead of starting for camp, the girls sank down in their tracks, and dropped instantly into a sleep of exhaustion. Neither man made an effort to arouse them.
"I wish I might do that too. What do you say if we take just one little cat-nap, Tom?" urged Hippy.
"Can't be done. The fire might start again."
"Oh, hang the fire!" growled Lieutenant Wingate.
"It might 'hang' you; in other words, we should be in danger of being burned, for we surely would sleep all day, once we permitted ourselves to drop off!"
"All right. Carry on! If I could have a nip of sleep I know I should dream of food, which would fix me up all right. How long are we going to let them sleep?" asked Hippy, pointing to the sleeping Overland girls.
"Until we make certain that the fire isn't going to break out afresh. We will then shake the girls up and go back to camp. It doesn't look as though I should get away to-day, does it?" grinned Tom.
"We can sit down, can't we?"
"Not yet! Not for another two hours."
The men separated and began a steady patrol of the fire-line, dragging themselves along wearily until the two hours had lengthened into three. Hippy then declared himself and announced his intention of going straight back to camp for something to eat and a sleep.
Tom, after a final look about, agreed. It took some little time to get the girls sufficiently awake to enable them to stand on their feet, but finally the men had marshalled them all and the journey to camp began.
It was blackened and cheerless acres of bare and fallen trees that their swollen eyes gazed upon on the way back to camp. Thousands of feet of virgin timber had been burned. Tom Gray, whose love of the forest was almost a passion with him, gazed on the wreckage sadly.
"Let this be a lesson to all of you. Always be careful with your campfires," he warned.
The girls were too tired to eat when they reached camp. All they desired was sleep and rest. Hippy's crying need was food, and that was what he proposed to get first, but Tom would not hear to either of them sitting down until the horses had been looked after and watered.
While they were doing that, the forest woman made coffee and fried bacon, which was ready for Tom and Hippy upon their return. The Overland girls had found their blankets, and, rolled tightly in them, lay sound asleep on the bare ground.
"Poor kids! Aren't you proud of each and every one of them, Hippy?" glowed Tom.
"Oh, I suppose so. That is, I presume I should be if I weren't famished."
Henry came ambling in at this juncture and, sitting down, began washing his face with his paws, giving not the slightest heed to the tirade that Joe Shafto was hurling at him.
"Ye git no breakfast to-day," raged the forest woman.
"Oh, don't be so hard-hearted," begged Hippy. "Give the poor fish a rind of bacon at least. You don't know what it means to have an appetite."
Hippy's urgings bore fruit, and Henry got his breakfast, as did Tom and Hippy, and their appetites fully equalled that of the bear.
"Come along, Hippy," urged Tom after they had finished breakfast.
"Let's have a look at the tree that so mysteriously fell on our camp."
"Have a heart! Have a heart, Tom! I want to lie down and sleep."
"So do I, but I cannot until I have learned why that tree came down as it did, and what caused the report just before it fell. Come! The sooner we start, the quicker we shall be in dreamland."
Hippy followed his companion begrudgingly.
"Look at that, will you?" demanded Captain Gray, pointing to the ground about the hole which had so recently held the roots of the great tree that had fallen on the lean-tos. The ground had been torn up for some yards from the true base of the tree, and dirt and pieces of roots hurled in all directions.
Lieutenant Wingate was instantly galvanized into alertness. The scene reminded him of France where he had seen so many similar holes, the result of the explosion of shells. He was down on his knees in a second, crawling about in the hole, feeling and smelling the ground.
"Smell this, Tom," he said, handing up to his companion a bit of cardboard. "What does it suggest to you?"
"Powder, I should say," answered Tom.
"Exactly. It is my opinion that our tree was dynamited. That's what caused the explosion!" cried Hippy. "I wonder I didn't recognize it at the time. Now what do you make of that?"
"I suspected as much, old man. I knew when I heard it that there had been an explosion, and I suspected the reason," answered Tom gravely. "I am glad the girls are not awake. This is serious, and the end is not yet!"
Tom Gray's prophecy came true before the end of that already eventful day.
THE THREAT OF PEG TATEM
The shadows were heavy in the Big Woods when the two men awakened from their afternoon's sleep, into which they had sunk while discussing their discovery. Joe Shafto was getting supper, and it was the odor of her cooking that aroused Lieutenant Wingate to full wakefulness. Hippy routed out the rest of the camp without delay.
They discovered Henry asleep high up in one of the virgin pines, Hindenburg having found warmth and a less perilous position on the blankets of the Overland girls.
"I seen ye folks over by the hole in the ground yonder," the forest woman confided to Tom as he greeted her and asked how she felt. "I took a look for myself this evenin'. Fine kettle of stew, hey?"
"Meaning what?" questioned Tom smilingly.
"I reckon some varmint give that air tree a kick over, eh? Who do ye reckon the varmint was who did that, Cap'n Gray?" demanded Joe, glaring at him through her spectacles.
Tom shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know, Joe. I wish I did," he replied. "Please say nothing about it to the girls. I shall tell Mrs. Gray, of course. Being in charge of the party she should be told of our suspicions."
"Sure. What do ye reckon on doin' to-night?"
"Make a new camp and watch it. Where was that bear of yours while all that uproar was in progress?" demanded Tom.
"Same place the Lieutenant's pup was at—sleepin'!" returned Joe dryly.
Tom turned away laughing. He and Hippy rustled boughs for new lean-tos, chopped wood for the night campfire, and began making a new camp a few rods from the one that had been destroyed by the falling tree and the forest fire. The girls volunteered to assist in the work, but Hippy declared that they looked as if they needed sleep more than work.
The work on the lean-tos had not been finished when the Overlanders were summoned to supper. There was little conversation until they had dulled the sharp edges of their appetites; then their drooping spirits revived and they began bantering each other.
Henry had come down to be on hand when the food was distributed and got many morsels during the meal.
The bear suddenly bristled, swayed his head from side to side, and began to growl. At almost the same instant Hippy Wingate's bull pup was galvanized into life. He began to utter deep growls and resentful coughs.
"Some varmint hangin' around, I reckon," nodded the forest woman in answer to a look of inquiry from Grace. "Be still, Henerey!"
"I hear something coming," declared Tom.
Hippy fastened a hand on Hindenburg's collar, and Joe threatened the bear with a club until he slunk away and disappeared, then, to their amazement, Peg Tatem stamped into camp, followed by a group of lumberjacks.
The Overland Riders gazed questioningly at his scowling face. Tom Gray was the only member of the outfit who knew him, but they instantly recognized the foreman of Section Forty-three, from the descriptions of him given by Tom and Joe Shafto, who now stood glaring angrily at him through her big horn glasses.
Tom greeted the newcomer cordially.
"Won't you sit down and have a snack with us?" he asked.
"Don't want nothin' t' eat with the likes of ye, thankee," growled Peg.
"Oh, that's all right, old top," observed Hippy cheerfully. "We aren't particularly eager to have a rough-neck sit down to mess with us."
"Hold yer tongue, ye cheap dude!" snarled Peg, shaking the heavy stick, that he carried as a cane, at Lieutenant Wingate.
"Don't get rough," grinned Hippy. "What do you want here anyway?"
The lumberjacks, who had accompanied the foreman, halted a few paces to the rear of their superior, and neither their appearance nor their expressions were reassuring.
"What is it you wish?" demanded Tom.
"What ye got to say about this?" snorted Peg, taking in the burned area with a sweep of his stick.
"As a forester, I am very sorry that this has happened, though it was through no fault of ours," answered Tom.
"Ye lie!" exploded the foreman.
"Tatem, you will please drop that sort of talk here. Remember there are ladies present. Besides, I don't take that word from anyone. I said, the fire occurred through no fault of ours. A tree fell on our campfire and scattered the embers, and, before we realized it, the forest was on fire. We worked all night and all the forenoon trying to head the fire off, which we finally succeeded in doing. Had we not done our part, this whole section would long since have been entirely burned off. Why are you taking it upon yourself to come here and interfere with us?"
"Why? Ye bloomin' idiot! I'm talkin' because ye've burned off a few hundred thousand feet of timber from our section. That's why, and yer goin' to pay for every stick of it. Do ye git me?"
"Oh, perfectly, perfectly," interjected Hippy.
"Your section, did you say?" demanded Tom.
"That's what I said," leered Peg.
"You are mistaken. This is not your section. It is possible that you may have intended to crowd your boundaries and steal a few thousand feet of state timber, but so far as its belonging to you or to the people you represent, I know better."
"Ye—ye say I'm a thief?" demanded Peg, the words seeming to stick in his throat.
"No. You may intend to be one, but I have not said that you are. You may be for all that I know. If you have nothing more sensible to say than to accuse us of burning your property, move on! Before you go, however, I wish to say that I believe that, if the truth were to come out, you know more about what caused that fire, and how it was caused, than anyone else. You know what I mean, Peg Tatem."
Only Hippy understood to what Tom Gray referred. That Peg Tatem did, Lieutenant Wingate had not the least doubt, for the foreman's face flushed a violent red under his tan, and his eyes narrowed, as he gripped his club-like cane.
"Get out of here, you and your jacks!" commanded Tom savagely.
"Yes, skip, vamoose, articulate your joints. In other words, shoo!" jeered Hippy. "If I ever see you around our camp again I'll slap your wrist. What!"
Peg Tatem, throwing his weight on the clumsy piece of wood that did duty as a leg, made an almost unbelievable leap towards Tom Gray and brought his club-cane down with all the powerful strength that the man possessed.
"I'll kill ye fer that!" raged the foreman of Forty-three as his club descended.
A SHOT FROM THE FOREST
Tom leaped back and the stick hit the ground instead of the mark that it was intended to reach.
Before the foreman could recover himself, Tom Gray was upon him, and a blow from the Overlander Rider's fist sent Peg Tatem reeling, but before Tom could follow up his advantage, the lumberman collected himself and began leaping around Tom, now striking with the club, then kicking out with the wooden leg. It was impossible to get close enough to the fellow to give him the knock-out blow that Captain Gray was hoping to land on his adversary.
Thus far neither side had made a move to interfere with the combatants, but a movement on the part of the lumberjacks, a gradual edging up, warned Hippy that his opportunity to get into the scrimmage was near at hand.
"Prepare to defend yourselves, girls," he said in a tone that carried to their ears only. "If the worst comes, shoot! Tom and I may get knocked out, for these fellows are tougher than the trees they cut."
"Don't worry, Hippy. We will take care of ourselves," said Grace calmly. "Trust us to defend ourselves."
"With what?" questioned Elfreda.
"There are plenty of good stout sticks on the ground. If you see that these jacks mean to attack us, each of you grab a club and let them have it on their heads. See! Joe is holding her club behind her."
The forest woman was waiting grimly for an opportunity to crack a lumberjack's head. That opportunity came sooner than she expected. Two jacks, having crept around behind the lean-tos, suddenly lifted the rear supports and turned the structures over into the fire.
"Beat it, ye varmint!" screamed the woman, making a rush for the men. One of them struck her, but fortunately for Joe it was a glancing blow, and merely turned her around facing away from them. Joe kept on turning until she was again facing the jeering lumbermen.
"Take that, ye varmint!" The forest woman's club descended on a lumberjack's head. "And ye, too!" she shrieked, hitting the other man across the bridge of his nose.
"Come on! Come on, and I'll wallop the whole pack of ye!"
"Steady, Joe," warned Grace Harlowe. "Don't lose your head."
Tom and Peg were still at it, the foreman growing more and more ferocious as the moments passed and knowing that he had the Overlander at a disadvantage, for Tom was fighting with his fists only, while Peg was using his stick and his wooden leg, and it were difficult for any person, no matter how skillful a boxer he might be, to get under those two dangerous guards. Once Tom succeeded in doing so. His blow knocked the foreman down, but Peg rolled away and was on his feet again with remarkable quickness, and went at his adversary determined to brain him.
"Ready, girls!" called Hippy.
"They are going to rush us," warned Grace. "When I say 'Clubs!' you girls grab sticks, keep together, and stand your ground. Don't run at them."
Each Overland girl carried an automatic revolver, and there were rifles within easy reach, but it was not their intention to use either, unless the necessity to do so became imperative. The rifles had been brought on this journey largely because the party hoped to do some hunting in the North Woods. The revolvers were, as on previous journeys into the wilder sections of their native country, a part of their regular equipment and for use in great emergencies only.
The lumberjacks with one accord rushed at the Overland Riders, uttering yells and jeers. They carried no weapons in their hands, but, as Grace knew to be their practice, each jack wore a lumberman's knife.
At the signal, each Overland girl snatched up a stick and stood her ground with set lips and a face from which most of the color had fled, realizing fully the seriousness of the situation.
Lieutenant Wingate waited until the lumberjacks were almost upon him, waited lounging indolently, his face wearing a grin.
"Oh, don't hurry, children," he admonished. "Save your wind for the flight to the rear." Suddenly, Hippy bent forward and when he rose his hand held a pine knot fully five feet long, the limb ablaze almost from end to end. Not more than two feet separated the burning part from his hands.
The limb was heavy, but Lieutenant Wingate was far from delicate, and when he swung the burning limb it had power and speed behind it. The limb burned and bruised the faces of three lumberjacks in its first swing. Hippy plunged at the mob and belabored them right and left with the blazing torch. More than one jack had to stop fighting long enough to put out the blaze that singed the hair off his head.
Other jacks had run around one end of the camp to rush it from that vantage point. Joe Shafto and her club met them, and so did the Overland girls. Without uttering a sound they belabored the ruffians, beating, whacking, prodding and swinging their clubs to good purpose.
"Help! Oh, help!" screamed Emma Dean.
A thrown club had hit her on the leg and felled her. Emma was out of the fight so far as further defense was concerned, holding her aching limb and moaning as she rocked back and forth.
Hippy turned for a quick glance in her direction.
"Look out, Hippy!" warned Nora, but her warning was too late. Several of the attackers, taking advantage of his attention being drawn away from them, leaped on him. They bore Hippy to the ground. He was mauled and thumped, but not for many seconds, because the girls rushed to his rescue and clubbed his attackers off. The jacks, returning, picked Lieutenant Wingate up and tossed him into the campfire.
Emma screamed at the sight, but Elfreda Briggs grabbed his protruding feet and hauled him out, while Grace and her companions beat back the jacks who had done the cruel thing. Elfreda put out the flames and assisted Hippy to his feet.
"Go in and fight!" urged J. Elfreda. "They're getting the best of us."
At that instant, Tom Gray, turning his head to see how it fared with the girls, was hit on the head by Peg Tatem's club and knocked unconscious. As it proved later, the blow was a light one and Tom was not seriously hurt.
The foreman, uttering an exultant yell, aimed a kick at Tom's head with his peg leg.
Grace Harlowe hurled her club at the foreman's head, but missed the mark.
A bullet hit Peg's wooden leg, and the leg went out from under its owner like magic. Peg landed on the ground but he was up in an instant, raging and springing for Tom. A second bullet hit the wooden leg and split it.
The Overlanders were amazed.
"Who shot?" cried Anne.
"Don't know," panted Elfreda as she and Hippy charged two jacks who were trying to reach Emma.
Peg, frantic with rage, turned his attention to the others of the party, apparently believing that one of them had fired the shots. He raised his club to strike Grace who was bending over Tom.
The club dropped from Peg's hand, and the arm fell to his side with a bullet hole through it.
"I'm hit! Kill 'em!" he screamed. Grabbing up the stick with his left hand, the foreman again started for Grace, his eyes bloodshot, his lips purple.
Grace grabbed what was nearest to her hand, a pine knot, and hurled it at the ruffian. It hit him full in the face, and the sharp protuberances on the knot drew points of blood.
A blow from a lumberjack's fist, at this juncture, knocked Joe Shafto flat on her back. She was up with a bound.
"Henerey! Henere-e-e-e-e!" There was a wild note in her voice, a note of alarm and command. "Henere-e-e-e-e-e!"
They heard Henry sliding down a tree—heard his paws raking the bark as he slid. Joe heard it too.
"Sick 'em! Sick 'em! Sick 'em!" she screamed, giving Henry a violent prod with her club and driving the bear towards the lumberjacks. One of them struck the beast with a club, hitting Henry over the shoulders.
Henry made a pass at the man, bringing away a section of the fellow's coat in his claws which dug into the jack's flesh with their sharp points. The man howled and fled from the beast.
Alternately prodding the bear with her club, and cracking a lumberjack head wherever possible, the forest woman fought her way ahead, backed by Tom and Hippy.
Thus goaded, Henry rose on his hind legs and went through that party of rough-necks like one of his kind cuffing its way through a flock of grazing sheep. Henry bit where he could, but his greatest execution was done with his powerful paws.
The Overland Riders, though angry, weary and perspiring, unable to resist the humor of the ludicrous sight, broke into shouts of laughter.
"Henry has them on the run. Sail in!" bellowed Hippy. "Run, you ruffians, before I turn the rest of our menagerie on you!"
The lumberjacks were now giving ground rapidly, though Peg, wounded and, judging from his expression, suffering, was not further punished. When he saw his men running away, the foreman of Section Forty-three hopped off as best he could, shouting angry threats. The victorious Overlanders with the assistance of Henry chased the lumber outfit to the river, into which the jacks plunged and waded across with all speed.
"Don't you ever show your face in our camp again! Next time, if you do, it will be bullets, not clubs," Lieutenant Wingate shouted after the retreating attackers.
Henry was restrained from following the lumbermen across the river only by heroic measures. The forest woman headed him off and clubbed him back towards the camp, her clothing torn, her hair down her back, her face red and angry.
"Splendid!" cried Grace Harlowe, running to meet her. "You are wonderful."
"I say, Joseph, if that's your name, may I address you as 'Old Dear' without imperilling my life?" teased Hippy.
"Ye kin call me anything ye like. After the talk of them varmints anything would sound as sweet as the harps of Heving in a thunder storm."
"All right—Old Dear," answered Hippy solemnly. "I was going to tell you that you are the apple of my eye, but, being a peach, you can't very well be an apple, so we will let it go at 'Old Dear.'"
Joe glared through her spectacles. The sharp lines of the rugged face of the forest woman gradually melted into a smile, the first smile that any member of that party had ever seen there.
"Go on with ye!" she retorted laughing despite her attempt to be stern. "I ought to sick the bear on ye, but I ain't goin' to."
A BLAZED WARNING
"Well, we gave them a run, didn't we?" crowed Hippy.
"I reckon ye'd better pack and git out of here right lively," advised the guide.
Tom Gray agreed that Peg Tatem would miss no opportunity to take revenge on the Overland Riders for what they had done to him, and it was decided to break camp and move at once, the forest woman being confident that she could keep in the right direction once she found a lumber road that lay to the right of them a couple of miles away.
Weary as they were, the Overlanders were quite willing to get away without loss of time from the scene of their troubles. Their equipment had suffered some, but none was left behind. While they were packing, Tom, in order to make them understand that they had gained the ill-will of desperate men, decided to tell them of the dynamiting of the tree, and declared that it was his belief that Peg Tatem's lumberjacks had done the deed, intending that the tree should fall on the camp while they were asleep.
"There are fellows in Forty-three's gang that were in the mob at Bisbee's Corners," declared Tom with emphasis.
"Are they likely to follow us?" asked Elfreda.
"I don't believe they will stray far from their own camp, but they may try to get us before we leave here. Therefore let's go. They have work to do in their own camp, you see," reminded Tom.
Packing and breaking camp were accomplished quickly. Ponies were saddled, packs lashed on, after which the party started away, the guide leading, carrying a kerosene dash-lamp to assist her in reading blazes on trees and avoiding obstructions, for the lamp had a reflector that threw a fairly strong bar of light.
Daylight must see the Overland Riders some miles from the scene of their fight with the men from Forty-three, and there must be as little trail left as possible. For the latter reason, Joe Shafto kept to such ground as was covered with a mat of pine needles. These, being springy, gave way under the hoofs of the horses, leaving no hoof-prints, no trail. Of the Overland Riders only two persons observed this—Tom and Grace, for, in her brief trips with him into the woods where he, as a forester, spent much time, Grace had learned a great deal about forestry work.
No halt was made until midnight, when the forest woman reined in and directed a ray of light against a huge pine tree.
"A fresh blaze," said Tom, as he trotted up to her to see what the blaze indicated.
"A blaze with a bent arrow cut in it, the arrow smeared with dirt to make it stand out. Clever, but what does it mean, Mrs. Shafto?" he asked.
"It's a warnin', Cap'n."
"That I don't rightly know. The arrow, I reckon, points at the danger."
"Is the arrow not pointed in the direction of our old camp?" asked Elfreda.
"Ye guessed it, Miss Briggs. That means we'd better be moseying along right smart."
"How long has that blaze been there?" asked Hippy.
"An hour, mebby," replied Joe. "Come along, Henry."
A few strokes of her axe obliterated the arrow on the blaze, and the party pressed on.
"I wonder if that arrow-blaze was intended for us," murmured Tom, as they rode on in silence.
Soon, the guide's lamp revealed another blaze, but this was purely a direction blaze, which she mutilated and changed to mean a different direction, then made a sharp turn to the right. Other blazes encountered, all freshly made, led them straight to the lumber road for which she had been searching and would have missed had it not been for the friendly blazes that pointed the way.
"What do ye 'low for that?" demanded the forest woman when they had emerged on the road.
"I believe now that the blazes were intended for us," answered Tom, his brow wrinkling in perplexity. "It is very strange."
"Why worry?" spoke up Hippy. "We are being led, but what's the odds who is doing the leading so long as we are led?"
"Pure logic," observed Miss Briggs.
"From an illogical source," added Emma in an undertone.
They proceeded along the lumber road for fully ten miles, fording two streams, then halting at a sawmill on the banks of a river. The mill had not yet started operations. Tom got off and looked the property over, consulted his map, then the journey was resumed. Just beyond the mill they came upon another of the now familiar blazes, directing them to proceed to the right and follow the river bank.
"The blazer fellow evidently knows where we wish to go. Do you know where we are, Mrs. Shafto?" called Tom.
"Yes, I know now. It's the Little Big Branch River, though it ain't much of a river yit. We got a long ways to go before we git to the place where ye folks are goin' to hang out for a spell. I reckon we'd better make camp just before daylight."
No one offered objection to her proposal. All were weary and cold, as well as hungry and sleepy. Emma was swaying in her saddle, frequently catching herself napping and straightening up just in time to prevent falling from her horse, while the others, noses and lips blue, shivered and made no effort to control the chattering of their teeth.
"Oh, why was I ever induced to leave my happy home?" wailed Anne. "This is the worst of all."
Nothing more was heard from any of them until Joe Shafto finally announced that they had reached the end of their night's journey.
"Rustle something for the makin's, and we'll have heat and a hot drink right smart," she called.
While Hippy tied the ponies and fetched water for them, Tom gathered firewood and started the fire for breakfast. Tea, being the quickest drink to make, was brewed, and gulped down by the Overlanders almost as fast as Joe could, pour it.
"How fu—fu—funny you look," chattered Emma, nodding at Miss Briggs.
"If I look as funny as I feel, I must be a scream," retorted Elfreda.
"Here, here! Don't I get any of that?" cried Hippy, coming up at a run.
Tea was served to him.
"Ah-h-h-h! Nectar of the gods! Now if some one will kindly prepare a little food, I shall offer deep and sincere thanks; then seek my downy couch for sweet repose."
"Hippy is the first to thaw out," chuckled Tom.
"He always was soft, anyway," reminded Emma.
"And we are all blue-noses this morning," added Nora laughingly.
Under the warming influence of the tea, their spirits soon revived, and when the campfire was laid and set going a little distance from the small cook fire, sighs of relief were heard on all sides.
Day was just breaking when the party laid down by the fire for a much needed rest. Pine needles were their beds that morning. No one had the ambition to help build a lean-to, nor did one care to wait for some one else to make it.
Noon found them still asleep, with the exception of Grace, who had risen two hours earlier to get breakfast for Tom who was about to leave for his work, perhaps not to return for some weeks. The Overlanders were to make a permanent camp further down on the Little Big Branch, and, when Tom Gray returned from his first "cruise," he was to follow the river until he found them.
"Rather indefinite," laughed Grace. "However, you aren't much of a woodsman if you can't find us with such directions, though don't cut off the bends in the river or you surely will miss us. We do not intend that our camp shall be over-conspicuous."
Tom said his good-bye and, mounting, rode away and disappeared in the forest. Grace stirred up the fire and added fresh wood so that her companions might have warmth, for the morning was chill, and then called them.
Spirals of smoke were rising above the trees from the campfire. Joe Shafto looked up at it, and shook her head disapprovingly.
"If there's one low-down jack within fifty mile of us on high ground, he'll have us spotted for certain," she rebuked. "Great fire—great smoke for Indian signaling."
"Thank you. I had not thought of the smoke," answered Grace. "How shall I stop its smoking?"
"Pour water on it till it's out, then build a new fire. Never mind. Too late now. The damage's done, and a little smoke more or less won't matter no how."
Breakfast, noon breakfast, proved to be so satisfying that no one felt inclined to pack up and move on.
"Girls, what do you say to the suggestion that we make camp here until some time to-morrow?" questioned Anne. "We are in no hurry, except that we do not wish to be overtaken by Peg Tatem's gang, which, it doesn't seem probable that we shall be."
"Yes! Stay!" cried the Overlanders.
"Is that satisfactory to you, Mrs. Shafto?" asked Grace, turning to the guide.
"I kin stand it if ye kin."
"We stay," announced Grace. "Let's build our sheds after we have settled our breakfasts and are able to summon some ambition."
Their sleeping quarters were finished before dark, and then the girls rambled along the river, here and there startling a buck or a doe into sudden flight. There were no man-made trails here, no sounds other than the murmuring waters of the Little Big Branch and the voices of nature, to which Emma Dean listened, nodded or shook her head as if she and those voices were holding converse. The laughing teasing of her companions failed to swerve Emma from her newfound hobby.
That night, as they snuggled under their blankets, clear and cold out of the silence pealed a mournful howl, long-drawn, strange and full of the wild.
Nora and Anne buried their heads under the blankets to shut out the sound.
"What was that?" cried Elfreda.
"A wolf—an old she timber wolf—a varmint," answered the forest woman from her lean-to.
"And it bids us beware of perils near at hand," droned Emma in a far-away voice.
"Will you stop that?" demanded Elfreda. "You give me the creeps."
"I think it is perfectly wonderful," breathed Emma. Then with greater emphasis she exclaimed, "Such a voice in the wilderness is an inspiration. How I wish Madam Gersdorff might be here to hear it. Girls, you don't know, you cannot dream what a wonderful woman she is."
"I'd like to see anybody dream with you setting up such a chatter," complained Anne.
"Please, please, Emma, let the wolves howl if they wish. We can't stop them, but that is no reason why you should keep us all awake. We need sleep," begged Grace Harlowe laughingly.
After a few muttered protests, Emma subsided, and only the faint yelps of the dreaming bull pup and the noisy slumber of Hippy Wingate disturbed the deeply impressive silence of the great forest. That he might better guard the camp, Hindenburg had been tied out to a tree on his long leash. Lieutenant Wingate had built a miniature lean-to for the pup to crawl under in the event of rain, but Hindenburg was already under it, stretched out on the yielding browse bed, one little brown ear vigilantly erect to catch the slightest sound. Emma Dean declared that the dog must be deaf in that ear, for he never seemed to hear with it.
The bull pup's slumbers were not disturbed that night, nor were Henry's. The bear lay at the rear of Mrs. Shafto's lean-to all night long, curled up into a furry ball, but with the break of day he was off in the forest for the choice morsels of food that he knew were there for him to pluck.
After the campers awakened, the forest woman's shrill call soon brought the bear ambling back to camp, but they observed that he was restless, now and then lifting his nose and sniffing the air, punctuated with an occasional throaty growl, but the bull pup, flat on his back, feet in the air, was sound asleep on his browse bed.
"Henry, what's the matter with ye? I reckon maybe ye smell some varmint that's hangin' 'round waitin' fer the leavin's of the breakfast," scolded Joe.
The bacon was on the fire and the aroma of coffee in the air when a loud hail warned the Overland Riders that they were about to receive an early morning call.
Lieutenant Wingate answered the hail. A few moments later they descried a horseman riding through the forest towards the camp.
The newcomer was dressed in khaki, wearing an army hat and high lace boots. Grace recognized the uniform at once, having seen it before when foresting with Tom Gray. Her identification was confirmed when she caught sight of the bronze badge of the Forest Service, which the stalwart rider wore on his left breast. His face was rugged and weatherbeaten, and the strength of the wilderness was in his eye, though the man's facial expression, at that moment, was far from pleasant.
The forest ranger, or fire warden, halted and surveyed the camp with a slow, searching gaze, narrowly observing the crackling campfire, then suddenly bent a stern look on each member of the Overland party.
"Morning, Buddy. You are just in time to sit in with us for a snack of breakfast," greeted Lieutenant Wingate cordially.
"Put out that fire!" commanded the ranger sternly, pointing a lean brown finger at the cook fire that had grown into a lively blaze.
THEIR DAY AT HOME
"What is wrong about the fire, sir?" questioned Grace pleasantly.
"Have you a permit to build fires in these woods?"
"We have not," spoke up Hippy. "Why?"
"Then put it out!"
"Just a moment, old top. Who sent you here?" demanded Hippy.
"The Dusenbery outfit that's cutting on Forty-three notified me by telephone yesterday that a party of campers had set on fire and burned off several thousand feet of timber. He said there were two men and a party of women—that they were rough-necks, and a lot of other things. I haven't anything to do with that, but I'm going to see to it that you don't do any more damage to the forest."
"Peg Tatem, eh?" reflected Hippy. "How did you find us? Did Peg tell you where we were?"
"I saw your smoke yesterday, but couldn't rightly place you till this morning when I smelled your smoke and found I was close to you. Are you going to douse the fire?"
"I think not, sir," answered Grace.
The ranger sprang from his horse and strode towards the campfire. Hippy stepped between him and the blaze.
"Don't do anything childish. Let the fire alone. When we want the fire out we will put it out ourselves," reminded Lieutenant Wingate.
The ranger drew back an arm as if about to strike at the Overland Rider when a menacing growl at his side caused the forest man to spring back. He had recognized that growl instantly. Henry, standing on his hind legs, "arms" extended, was ready for fight, following a gentle prodding and a "Sick 'im, Henry," from his mistress.
The ranger whipped out his revolver.
"Drop that gun!" yelled Joe Shafto. "That's my bear!"
"Don't shoot! He is a pet bear," admonished Lieutenant Wingate. "That is Henry. Oh, are you awake?" he added, as Hindenburg rolled over, blinked, and then dashed out and began barking at the stranger.
"What's this—a circus?" wondered the ranger.
"I give ye fair notice it'll be a circus if ye don't let that bear be," warned the forest woman in a shrill high-pitched voice.
"Put away your gun, Mister Man. There's nothing to shoot here, unless you get too confounded obstreperous," urged Hippy, now smiling. "My name's Wingate, Lieutenant Wingate, late of the Army Flying Corps in our late unpleasantness with the Hun. What's yours?"
"Chatworth's my name. I'm the warden up here, and, not having a permit to have a fire in the forest, you'll have to hit the lumber trail for the open country."
"Nothing doing! You will have to dope out something better than that to induce us to leave," grinned Hippy.
Grace demanded to know where the ranger got his authority for stating that they should have a fire permit.
"It's my authority!" he answered brusquely.
"Who told you to assume such authority?" interjected Miss Briggs in the calm judicial voice that was hers when trying a lawsuit.
"I'm not answering fool questions. You heard what I said. Are you going?"
"Well—yes, of course we are going, but it may be a month or two before we do go. If you will kindly give me your address I'll drop you a picture card later on, telling you when we expect to leave the Big North Woods," drawled Lieutenant Wingate.
"Hippy, I do not believe that Mr. Chatworth fully understands who and what we are," interjected Grace. "We take such trips as this one every summer, sir, and we are not greenhorns in the forest. We realize the danger of fire to the forests as fully as well as you do. For your information, I will merely say that we were in no wise to blame for the fire at Section Forty-three. A tree fell over and scattered the embers of our campfire, thus starting the forest fire and—"
"All the more reason why you're not fit to be in the woods," answered the ranger roughly.
"Cut the rough talk!" admonished Lieutenant Wingate severely. "Had it not been for us that blaze would have swept the whole state. We fought it all night and until nearly noon next day. Stop growling! If you keep on growling the bear and my bull pup will think you are an animal and sail into you for keeps."
"As I was about to say," reminded Grace, "my husband is a forester and is in the North Woods now on official business. He was with us when the fire occurred, and will join us further along in a few weeks."
"Eh? What's his name?" demanded the ranger sharply, eyeing Grace with new interest in his eyes.
"Tom Gray," answered Grace.
"Is he the fellow that's cruising the timber up here for the state?"
"Humph! Why didn't you say so before?"
"I presume because you did not ask me," returned Grace demurely. "Now that you understand, won't you please sit down and have breakfast with us? We have plenty and really shall be glad to have you."
"Well, I reckon I might as well," decided the ranger, striding over and tying his horse to a sapling.
Hippy introduced him to the members of the Overland party, the ranger bowing awkwardly, but with the quiet dignity so characteristic of those who have learned their lesson from the heart of nature herself.
"Sorry, folks, that I had to be up a tree with you, but we must do our duty and protect this forest. There are not many of 'em left in these United States, and what there is, are going fast. I'll have a snack with you."
"Peace has been declared," murmured Emma.
"Keep that menagerie away! I don't like bears nosing around me any more'n I do wolves."
"Wolves!" exclaimed Nora. "We heard one last night."
"There are lots of 'em up here and they kill the game. The state offers a bounty of seven dollars and a half for every one killed—every full-grown critter; ten dollars for cubs."
"You say the state desires to get rid of them?" questioned Emma.
"All states do. They're varmints," answered the ranger.
"Why don't they try dynamite?" asked Emma. "Perhaps the wolves might eat it and go off."
"Call the bear," suggested Hippy after a brief silence.
The Overland Riders shouted, and the forest ranger grinned, the bull pup joining in the merriment by barking and dashing about the camp, taking a gentle nip at Henry's flank as he passed that none too good-natured beast.
"I reckon this is a circus after all," choked the guide, trying to talk and eat a slice of tough bacon at the same time. "Tell me what happened about that fire. I reckon you haven't told the whole of it."
Hippy thereupon related what they had discovered after the fire, as well as the experiences they had gone through preceding the fire, to all of which the forest ranger lent an attentive ear.
"Hm-m-m!" he mused. "Reckon you haven't heard the last of that outfit. Tatem'll have it up his sleeve for you long as he lives. Keep your eyes peeled. That Dusenbery outfit is the biggest set of timber thieves in the North Woods and I hope we catch 'em. Do I understand that your husband is looking for 'timber-lookers' who are looking for easy money on the sly, Mrs. Gray?"
"He may be," smiled Grace diplomatically.
"Mebby I'll run across him. Thanks for the snack. Thanks to you, Miss Dean, for the wolf suggestion. I'll pass it on to the Game and Fish Commissioner at St. Paul. I'll be off now."
"How about this campfire, 'Chatty'? Do you still insist that we put it out?" questioned Hippy solemnly.
"Well," answered the ranger, stroking his chin reflectively, "being as its you and further, being that I've broken bacon with you and heard a real funny joke from Miss Dean here, I reckon I don't. 'Bye, folks. See you some other time." The ranger led out his horse, mounted and rode away.
"That obstacle overcome," announced Miss Briggs in a tone of relief, "I wonder what next."
"If you will kindly cast your eyes downstream I think you will discover three more obstacles on the way to the Overland camp, and, from the look of them, I am inclined to feel that they are not harbingers of delight. Girls, this really seems to be our 'Day at Home,'" said Grace Harlowe laughingly.
"Good night!" exclaimed Hippy Wingate after a quick glance downstream. "Give Henry a poke in the ribs, Joe. Here's more trouble!"
THE WAY OF THE BIG WOODS
Three horsemen were seen approaching as rapidly as the uneven going would permit. Two of the trio were holding their rifles under their arms at a position indicating readiness for instant action.
The Overlanders were observing them narrowly, and especially Joe Shafto, who, having seen them first, and being suspicious of the newcomers, had run for her rifle and thrown herself down behind a log, commanding Henry to follow. The only other member of the Overland Riders who had a weapon handy was Lieutenant Wingate, who wore the heavy service revolver that he had carried while a fighting air pilot in France.
Hippy's hand was close to the butt of his revolver, but he made no effort to draw it, even though he believed that he and his party were about to have trouble.
"Keep clear, girls, and give me room," he warned. "May have to shoot."
As the three strangers, one leading the way, reached the edge of the camp, the two rear riders threw up their rifles and covered the Overland party with them.
"Put up yer hands!" came the command, sharp and incisive.
"Put up your own," flung back Lieutenant Wingate, and the newcomers found themselves facing his weapon. "Tag! You're it. What is this, anyway?"
"Drop that aire gun or I'll let ye have a hunk of lead!" threatened one of the strangers.
"No you won't. You haven't the nerve. I'll tell you what I will do. I will put my revolver back in its holster provided you put down your own weapons. If you make a move to shoot I will draw and wing you before you can pull a trigger. If you don't believe me, try it. At the same time, old tops, I would advise you that, though you don't know it, you are already covered by a repeating rifle, and further, that should you make a false move, the rifle is likely to go off." With that Hippy Wingate thrust his revolver into its holster. "Your move. What's the joke?" he demanded, casting a quick glance at the log behind which the forest woman was hiding, and observing that her rifle barrel protruded over the log ever so little, though the woman herself was not visible.
The men did not lower their weapons, but the rider in advance rode right into the camp.
"You carrying guns? I mean game guns—rifles?" questioned the man in a tone of severity.
"Not yet, but I came near shooting two men just now," answered Hippy, scowling as savagely as he knew how.
"Let me see 'em!"
"There's one of them. Look at it! On that log yonder," he added, pointing to Joe Shafto's rifle. "Want to see the rest of them?"
"I reckon that's enough," answered the stranger. "I've heard that ye folks was a tough bunch, and up here for a big killing. I'm the game warden. I don't suppose ye even went to the trouble to git a license to hunt in this state. Folks like you think they can git away with most anything, but ye can't do it in these parts."
"Game warden, eh? You guessed wrong, old Santa Claus. I have a license. We all have licenses and we propose to do some hunting when the season opens, though that is not the main purpose of our journey up here."
Hippy handed his license to the warden, which that officer read with frowning attention. Handing it back he demanded to see the licenses of the others, which Lieutenant Wingate had had the foresight to procure before the Overland Riders came west.
"Reckon you're all right so far as licenses is concarned, but ye can't carry guns up here till the season—the game season's open," said the game warden, handing back the licenses.
"It's always an open season for the kind of game we are going to hunt," Hippy informed him.
"Eh? What kind's that?"
"Your kind," retorted Hippy sharply.
"That's all I've got to do with ye. I'd make ye give up the guns, but these gents have something to say to you folks. They'll take care of yer rifles and such."
The game warden backed his horse away. His two companions, taking their cue from his move, rode to the fore.
Hippy surveyed them narrowly.
"Here comes the rub," Miss Briggs confided to Grace.
"We're deputy sheriffs," announced one.
"Charmed, I'm sure," greeted Hippy, bowing with much dignity. "Making early calls seems to be the way of the Big Woods. What do you want? Let me see. So far to-day we have had two wardens and two deputy sheriffs. Speak your piece, but remember that you are covered. It's just as well while talking to me to keep your muzzles pointed towards the ground."
"Are ye the fellows that burned up part of Section Forty-three?" asked the deputy.
"No. The fire did that. We are the fellows that put out the fire, or there would be nothing left of a good part of that section except blackened stumps and dead tree toads."
"Seeing as ye admit it, that's all right."
Hippy nodded. Grace and Elfreda had stepped up, just to the rear of Hippy, that they might miss nothing of what was being said. The second deputy kept a watchful eye on them, presumably to see that they played no tricks on his companion.
"The owner of that section, Hi Dusenbery, reckons as ye've got to pay fer the loss of the timber ye burned, and I'm here, fer one thing, to serve the papers on ye in the suit. Do ye accept service?"
Hippy reached for the papers that the deputy held out, and, without looking at them, tore them and dropped the fragments on the ground.
"You shouldn't have done that," rebuked Miss Briggs. "Grace, help me gather up the pieces. The idea!"
"Anything else?" demanded Lieutenant Wingate. "I have had about enough of this nonsense."
"I reckon there is something else. Ye're charged with bein' dangerous characters. Information has been laid against ye by one William Tatem, otherwise known as Peg Tatem, accusin' some person unknown, but belongin' to this party, of shootin' him through the leg."
"It was a wooden leg, and the shots were not fired by any person or persons in this party. We do not know who fired them," interrupted Hippy.
The deputy sheriffs grinned.
"Ye are further charged with causin' certain wild animals, to wit, a bear and a big ugly dog, to attack Peg Tatem and his men and do 'em injury, to wit, bites and scratches, not to speak of a bad scare."
"Well? There must be something more," urged Hippy. "What do you want me to do?"
"Peg opined that if ye would settle with him for the damages to his leg, and pay him for the scare ye give him, and settle with his jacks for what ye did to them, he might be willin' to let ye off."
Grace said something to Elfreda under her breath and Elfreda nodded. Both saw that Lieutenant Wingate's good nature was slipping from him, that his temper was rising.
"Don't do anything rash, Hippy," urged Grace in a low tone.
"If I refuse, what then?" he demanded belligerently, addressing the man.
"That's up to ye."
"I refuse to pay one copper cent!" roared Hippy. "Go tell that timber-legged friend of yours that if he bothers us again he will either get a bullet through his real leg or land in jail or both. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I don't believe you are deputies at all."
"Then yer under arrest. The whole pack of ye is under arrest!" shouted the deputy, suddenly throwing up his rifle.
A bullet whizzed past the deputy's head, fired from the ready rifle of Joe Shafto, who, with finger on the trigger, was glaring through her big horn-rimmed spectacles, alert for a suggestive move on the part of either of the three men, which would be the signal for another shot from her rifle.
WILLY HORSE SHOWS THE WAY
Elfreda laid a hand on Lieutenant Wingate's arm, then stepped between him and the deputy, who had lowered his rifle a little, hesitating, it appeared, whether to shoot and take his chances or to adopt the safer course. The fact that he chose the latter, and made no further effort to intimidate them with his weapon, was significant to Miss Briggs.
"Mister Man, I am a lawyer, and I will speak with you. I believe you just said that we are all under arrest," reminded Elfreda in an ordinary conversational tone.
"Ye are that, unless ye settle up," blustered the fellow.
"Then, of course, you have warrants. Have you?"
"Well, well, no, I reckon I hain't. Don't need none. I'm an officer of the law. This is my warrant," he said, tapping the rifle.
"We have similar arguments, arguments that are fully as potent," replied Miss Briggs significantly. "We decline to recognize any authority unless backed by proper credentials. What county are you from, may I inquire?"
"St. Louis County," grumbled the deputy.
"And your companion—is he from the same county?"
"Yes. Come! I ain't got time for per-laverin' around. Are ye goin' to pay up or go with us?"
"Neither! You have no warrant; you have no proof that you are officers of the law, and you admit that you are from St. Louis County. Grace, what county are we now in?"
"Beltrami County," replied Grace Harlowe, who had been consulting her map.
Miss Briggs nodded.
"Out of your jurisdiction, Mister Deputy! It might be in order for me to suggest that you remove your persons from our camp," finished Elfreda in the same even tone with which she had carried on the conversation throughout.
"I'll see whether ye'll go with us or not!" raged the deputy.
"Joe!" called Hippy sharply. "If these rough-necks don't go instanter, trim 'em right."
"Don't set Henry on them. They might hurt him," called Grace.
"Get out!" commanded Hippy.
The three men got, but before going they warned the Overland Riders that they would have the law on them for shooting at officers in the discharge of their duty.
In reply, Hippy waved a hand and grinned, and the men rode away rather more rapidly than they had come into the camp.
"Great thought of yours, J. Elfreda," complimented Lieutenant Wingate.
"Elfreda uses her head, Hippy. How much better than flying into a rage and threatening your enemy with dire things," reminded Grace.
"You don't always do that yourself," retorted Hippy. "Thanks, Joe. Had it not been for you we might have had a disturbance."
"Aren't we ever going to have peace?" wailed Emma. "I know I shall have nervous prostration at this rate."
"Cheer up. Let the voice of nature soothe your troubled spirits and rise above such common things as mere officers of the law," comforted Hippy. "What next?"
"Suppose we break camp and move," suggested Grace.
"Yes, yes; let's do so," urged Anne.
"Do you think they will come back, darlin'?" questioned Nora anxiously.
"Not before it is time for the swallows to build their nests under the eaves."
Joe, muttering to herself, went out to fetch in her pack mules, June and July, preparatory to loading the equipment on them for the start. Joe was a little rougher with the animals than usual, and their ears, tilted back at a sharp angle, indicated their resentment, but the guide was too angry to notice this danger signal. A sharp slap on June's thigh to make the animal step over was followed by a lightning-like flash of two tough little mule heels, and Joe Shafto was lifted from her feet and hurled against July, and then July began to kick.
The Overlanders, frightened for the safety of the guide, ran to assist her, when, out of the mix-up, leaped the forest woman, her hair tumbled down her back, and eyes blazing through the big horn-rimmed spectacles, she having rolled under July and out of the way with amazing agility.
"I'll larn ye, ye beasts!" she shrieked, running for her club.
June felt the sting of it, and July grunted as the club descended on the fleshy part of her hip, at the same instant shooting both hind feet into the air; but this time Joe was out of reach.
"Here, here!" cried Hippy, springing forward to interfere. "We don't permit any one to beat animals in this menagerie," he chided, grabbing the woman's club.
"Leggo!" shrieked Joe, wrenching the club from his hands. "No man ain't goin' to tell Joe Shafto what she kin do. Git out of here!" she raged, advancing threateningly on Hippy. "I'll paste them mules when I want to, and—"
"That's all right, old dear," soothed Hippy, backing up laughingly, but Joe followed him, shaking the club before his face.
"Don't ye 'old dear' me. Mules is swine, and no better'n some men, and I give ye notice no man ain't goin' to come 'tween me and my mules. I'll paste 'em when I like, and I'll paste 'em like they did me, the varmints, and I won't have no animile that walks like a man interferin' 'tween me and the mules and tellin' me what ter do. Git out of here afore I give ye a wallop on the jaw, fer I'm goin' ter finish what I begun on June, and her name'll be December when I git through, and don't ye fergit it." Joe grabbed the mule by an ear, gave the animal a prod with her club, then slapped June's face.
"Consarn ye, ye pore insect that's tryin to look like a hoss, but that ain't even got the skin of one, I reckon ye'll be good arter this," she finished, and threw a pack over the back of the now thoroughly subdued pack-mule. "Git started, ye folks, and don't say nothin' to me, for I'm li'ble to git mad arter the stirrin' up them mules give me."
"Alors! Let's go," suggested Elfreda after the laughter of the Overlanders had subsided.
They were on their way a short time later, laughing as they headed for the section on which they hoped eventually to meet Tom, and make permanent camp. The forest woman had never been in that part of the woods, but, knowing the general direction, thought she could hold to it and come out somewhere near the spot they desired to reach.
That night they lay down to sleep in the open, wrapped in their blankets. For the week following the Overland Riders camped out in the same way, and nothing occurred to mar the life of freedom and happiness that they were leading.
The river had been left to the right of them, for the sake of what Joe said might be better going, and a fairly direct course was followed for several days more. One night, however, they suddenly found themselves on the banks of the Little Big Branch where it had taken a deep bend. Hippy declared that it had made the bend to be near Emma and murmur sweet nothings in her ear.
"Listen well, little one," he admonished. "Tidings from the frozen north, as well as messages intended for our ears alone, may be borne to us through you. It is mighty fortunate that we have you with us."
The bank of the river was their camp that night. The party slept just under the bluff, protected by it and lulled to sleep by the gently rippling waters of the forest stream. Early on the following morning they were aroused by an uproar in the camp. Out of the uproar came the shrill voice of their guide.
"Get out of here, ye lazy good-for-nothin'. Think this 'ere is a lumberjack hotel? Sick 'im, Henry! Sick 'im!" raged Joe Shafto.
Grace, hearing the bear growl, sprang up and ran out. Her companions were not far behind her.
Sitting crouched over the campfire, which he had built, calmly cooking his breakfast, was the Indian, Willy Horse, wholly undisturbed by the uproar that his presence had created.
"Call off the bear!" commanded Grace sharply. "The man is our friend."
"He's a lazy good-for-nothin' and he's stole yer breakfast," protested the forest woman, as she headed off Henry and drove him back with sundry prods of her foot.