As soon as the match flamed up he cast one quick look around the interior. This assured him that there were certainly no low-browed men crouching in the corners, and ready to hurl themselves upon the young invaders.
The next thing Elmer did was also a very natural move. He saw a candle in a bottle, standing on an upturned box, and stepping forward he applied his match to the waiting wick.
Then he looked around again.
There could be no doubt about this shack having been recently used as sleeping quarters by a number of men.
Several heaps of straw told where they lay, and Elmer counted four of these. Then there were a few bits of old clothing hanging from nails, a pair of heavy shoes, a frying pan, a kettle in which coffee might have been made, some broken bread, part of a ham, and some ears of corn; this last possibly stolen from the field of some farmer.
It looked like a tramp's paradise, but the puzzle was, what would tramps be doing so far away from all customary sources of supply?
Elmer sniffed the atmosphere, which was both heavy and far from pleasant. And Lil Artha, who had pressed into the shack, hot upon the heels of his chief, took note of his significant action.
"I should say yes, it's rank as all get out," he remarked, holding his nose between a finger and thumb. "Even beats that fishy smell we struck when we looked down into the cellar at the cottage. Whew!"
Others expressed themselves about as strongly, and little Jasper Merriweather, who had unwisely pushed into the shack, found it necessary to hurry out again, white of face and gasping.
But Elmer had conceived an idea, even while suffering from the unpleasant odor of the place.
"Howling cats!" exclaimed Lil Artha, "I don't see how you can stand it, Elmer. Talk to me about tramps, and the way they hate water, here's the rank evidence of it. Wow, ain't I sorry for poor Nat if he's got to associate with this hobo crowd for long!"
"But how do we know they're hoboes?" asked Elmer, turning on the tall scout.
"Hey? What's that?" exclaimed Lil Artha, actually so surprised that he neglected to hold that firm grip on his nose any longer.
"What makes you so sure they're tramps?" pursued the scout master.
"Why, goodness gracious alive, Elmer, you don't mean to say you doubt that now?" cried the tall boy, sweeping his hand around as though to draw attention to the various articles that seemed to stamp that theory a positive fact.
"Seeing these things here is what makes me question that idea very much," began Elmer; and then he picked up one of the old shoes, to hold it at arm's length. "Look at that, fellows; never made in this country, and you know it. Hobnails such as no one but foreigners use on their shoes."
"Well, I declare; I guess Elmer's right!" exclaimed Red.
"He certainly is, suh, take my word foh it," was the way Chatz expressed himself.
"Now look here, whoever saw a tramp's nest with anything like this in it?" and Elmer picked up a string of beads, evidently a rosary, that must have been overlooked in a hasty flight.
"Whew, that's going some!" ejaculated Phil Dale who, with his cousin Landy, happened to be in the shack eager to see all that went on.
"Perhaps he can even tell us what brand of foreigners these fellows are," remarked Landy, who was beginning to look upon Elmer pretty much in the light of a wizard.
"Oh, that ought to be easy, fellows," said the young scout master, as he reached up and took down a worn letter his quick eye had noticed stuck in a crack.
Every eye was immediately focused on the scout master. They knew his reasoning powers of old, and expected that Elmer would quickly put them on the right track now.
Indeed, hardly had the latter glanced at the well-worn letter he held than he smiled.
"What is it?" asked Red, impatiently.
"Yes, tell us what you've found out, Elmer," said Lil Artha.
"Why, look here at the name. As near as I can make out it's Giuseppi Caroni," replied the other.
"Wow, that is plain enough!" exclaimed Red.
"Sure Italiano," echoed the tall scout.
"Just as I thought," replied Elmer.
"But you can prove it," remarked Chatz.
"That's easy enough," added Dr. Ted, "the thtamp ought to be enough, you thee."
"And if it isn't, fellows, here's the postmark as plain as anything—Naples, Italy," continued Elmer.
"Naples, hey?" remarked Lil Artha. "Say, I was just reading about Naples the other day, and it said that next to the island of Sicily we get more of our Black Hand crowd from there than any other part of Garibaldi's old land."
A gasp seemed to go the complete rounds of all the khaki-clad warriors who thronged that mysterious little shack.
"Black Hand, you say, Lil Artha?" exclaimed Red.
"Yes, and anarchists, too; the kind that blow up the kings and queens of the Old World. The kind that abduct people so as to make their rich relatives whack up a big ransom."
Some of the boys looked a little timid, and glanced around apprehensively, as though they anticipated seeing a whole bunch of fierce-looking dynamite users rise up around them.
Others shut their teeth together harder than ever, and these more determined fellows, it might be noticed, tightened the grip they had upon their sticks.
All eyes were turned again upon Elmer, who had listened to these remarks with an amused smile.
"Hold on your horses, boys," he said, raising his hand just then to still the rising dispute.
"Shut up, everybody; Elmer's got something more to tell us," Lil Artha cried.
The hubbub died away, and an eagerness to listen took its place; for every one of them was anxious to pick up points concerning the clever way their leader figured things out.
It was an important part of a scout's duty to learn how to read signs, not only when following a trail, but at all times.
And especially valuable would this qualification become when confronted by a baffling mystery such as the Hickory Ridge troop was now up against.
"Those who occupied this shack were four in number," Elmer began.
"How did you find that out?" asked Red.
"By the various tracks. So far as I could see there were just four separate kinds leading up to this place, and each one different."
"Hurrah! I tell you, fellows, that's the way to learn things. Elmer knows how to do it," cried Lil Artha.
Without even smiling at the implied compliment Elmer went on:
"Two of them wore shoes with hobnails just as you see on this old cast-off shoe here. A third one had on American-made brogans, and I expect they hurt him some, too, because he was limping as he walked. He is undoubtedly the chap who used to own these old foreign-made gun-boats."
"Hold on a minute, please, Elmer," pleaded Red.
"All right. You want to ask me something, and I think I know what it is," remarked the other.
"You say this fellow's new shoes hurt him, and made him limp; please tell us how in the wide world you ever found that out?" Red continued.
"Well, it might be possible that the fellow was always lame, but his tracks show plainly that he limped. Something was wrong with his left leg or foot, because the toe dug deeply into the ground."
"Well, I declare is that dead-sure evidence, Elmer?" demanded the astounded tenderfoot, Landy, who was listening with all his might to these intensely interesting facts as brought out by the scout master.
"Try it yourself sometime, Landy," remarked Elmer. "Pick out a nice piece of ground where the marks will show plainly. Limp as naturally as you can with the left leg. Then go back and examine the trail. You will find that not only does the left foot dig deeper at the toe than the right one, but that same toe drags a little over the ground as you bring the left foot forward each time."
"Just listen to that, will you!" remarked Red, "but I know Elmer is right. I can grab the principle of the thing."
"But how about the fourth one, Elmer; seems to me you've been holding back something there, that you mean to spring on us," said Lil Artha.
"Well, I have," remarked the other, quickly. "This fourth track was smaller than the others, and the person also wore American-made shoes."
"Ah, a boy, eh?" asked Red.
The scout master shook his head.
"Wrong that time, my boy. You'll have to guess again, I reckon," he said.
"Was it a woman, Elmer?" demanded Lil Artha.
"Just what it was—an Italian woman, squatty like most of her race; and I should say between fifty-five and sixty years of age," Elmer replied, soberly.
SETTING A TRAP.
At that there arose new exclamations of wonder, as well as of disbelief.
"Oh, come off, now," remarked Red, quite forgetting in his amazement the respect supposed to be shown for an acting scout master, even though in the private walks of life he might only be a fellow playmate; "you can't expect us to swallow that, now, Elmer."
"Do you mean about the woman's height, or her age?" asked the other, calmly.
"Why—er—both I guess," faltered Red, weakening as he saw the positive front of the other.
"Stop and think, did you ever see any other than a short, squatty woman among the Italian laborers? And I reckon nobody else ever did. They carry heavy burdens on their heads, and people say that's one reason they're always dumpy," Elmer began.
"He's right, fellows," broke out Landy; "why, I've seen a dago woman carrying a mattress, a stove and some chairs on her head all at the same time. Gee, looked like a two-legged moving van:"
"But see here, you notice a shelf with a few things on it, some hairpins among the lot. It was built unusually low, so she could reach it. And what's this you see here, fellows? A piece of broken looking glass fastened to the wall. Notice how low down it is? No man ever used that glass, you can depend on it; and the woman who did was surely small, wasn't she now?"
"A regular sawed-off," assented Lil Artha, emphatically.
"Elmer's sure proved his point there, fellows," declared Red Huggins, grinning.
"But what makes you think the woman is old, Elmer?" asked Landy, curiously.
"That's so; how in the wide world could you know such a thing without ever seeing her?" demanded Toby.
"Nothing could be easier, fellows; see here!"
As Elmer spoke he reached out his hand and took something off the low shelf.
Those in the room crowded around, fairly wild to follow out the clever deduction of their young leader.
"Why, it's a comb," cried one.
"Only an old broken comb," echoed another, with a shade of uncertainty in his voice.
"What is there about that to tell you, Elmer?" queried Red, staring first at the article in question, and then at the smiling scout master.
"I know," burst out Matty just then.
"Tell us," pleaded several.
"Yes, throw some light on the dark mystery," added Lil Artha, "because to the untrained eye it's all as gloomy as the inside of my pocket. A comb, and how to tell a woman's age from that! Well, I own up beat."
"Why, it's as easy as falling off a log, or coming down in a smash when you're first learning how to fly," Matty began.
"Hey, don't you drag me into this thing," spoke up Toby, whose many experiments as a new beginner in the science of aviation had usually ended in his enjoying a disastrous tumble.
"All you have to do is to examine the comb," Matty went on. "Then you'll find that it holds a few long hairs, and, fellows, just see how gray they are, will you?"
"Well, what d'ye think of that!" burst out Red. "And I guess we're a lot of chumps, fellows, not to have seen through it before."
"Would a woman be among anarchists, Elmer?" demanded Toby.
"Oh, I don't know," came the reply. "Perhaps so, though not as a usual thing. But understand that I haven't said I agreed with you altogether, when you gave such a hard name to these people."
"Then you don't count 'em as Black Hand kidnapers, who expect to raise a bully good sum by holding our pard, Nat Scott, for ransom?" demanded Red.
"I've seen nothing to tell me that's the way matters stand," Elmer commenced saying, "and several things seem to say just the opposite. The presence of the woman, and her having such an article as this precious string of beads don't seem to go along with such a thing as a band of rascals."
"Yes, yes, go on, Elmer," several called out.
"We haven't found the slightest sign of a bomb factory here, or even a book teaching how to bring about a revolution. These things make me believe that these three men and a woman may not be such terribly hard cases after all."
"But you believe they've got our chum, and are holding him a prisoner, don't you, Elmer?" asked Matty.
"I do believe it," Elmer went on. "In fact I know it, because if you look back of that empty box yonder, which they use for a table, you'll find a hat—Nat's hat, if I'm not mistaken."
A rush was made for the box in question, and there followed a confusion of tongues, as half a dozen fellows tried to talk at once.
"You found a hat, didn't you?" demanded Elmer.
"We sure did, and here she is," cried Red, holding up the article in question.
"It looks like a scout's regulation hat?" Elmer remarked.
"Which nobody could deny," sang Lil Artha.
"And as every scout present has his own hat on his head right now, it stands to reason this couldn't belong to any of us, eh, fellows?"
"To clinch the matter, Elmer," observed Matty, "if you look inside the hat you'll find two little silver letters fastened there. The N. S. stands for Nathaniel Scott."
"Well, that point seems proved. Nat was here. Perhaps in wandering about he struck this place. But the indications are he was captured first, and brought to this shack."
"But," said hasty Red, interrupting Elmer, "if you admit that these Italians have made our pard a prisoner, how can you say they are not bad men, thieves wanted by the officers of the law, even if not anarchists?"
"Some things I can only guess at, without being able to explain my conviction. But, honestly, fellows, I hardly think these people are as bad as you make out. I know blackmail is practiced over in Italy a lot. And that one of the favorite ways to get money is to kidnap the son or daughter of a rich man, and demand a heavy ransom. But in this case they would hardly pick Nat Scott for a pigeon to be plucked. His father is only a schoolmaster. There are others here who would seem to be more attractive bait."
"Hear, hear!" cried Lil Artha, casting a meaning look in the direction of Larry Billings, whose father, being a banker, was reckoned the richest man in all Hickory Ridge.
"But ain't we wasting a heap of time here?" asked Red, impatient as always to be doing something.
"That's just what I was saying to Ted here," declared Larry, whom the meaning glance of Lil Artha had plainly rendered uneasy.
"You may think so," remarked Elmer, "but this is a case of the more haste the less speed. I reckon it's wise for us to make sure about the character of these Italians before we go to chasing after them. They're an excitable lot, you know, and we might bring on trouble that could just as well be avoided if we went slow."
Matty looked at his leader sharply.
"Say, see here, Elmer," he remarked, "you know, or anyhow you've got a pretty good hunch, who these people are?"
"Why, yes, Italians," laughed the other.
"Now, that ain't what I mean," Matty went on. "No dodging, but own up."
"You're wrong there," Elmer said. "I don't know, and my suspicions so far are founded on such slight evidence that I don't care to commit myself before the whole of you—yet."
"But from what you said just now," Matty continued, "you don't seem to agree with the rest of us when we call these Italians anarchists."
"Because there hasn't been a solitary thing to prove it. We pathfinders must always discover some trace of the trail, or else we'd go astray. And I've owned up that I'm more than half inclined to believe these people are not the bad lot you'd make out."
"But they've got our chum a prisoner," said Red.
"Looks that way," assented Elmer, cheerfully.
"And honest men would never do a thing like that," declared Red.
"Oh, wouldn't they?" replied the other. "Perhaps now the shoe might be on the other foot."
"And perhaps these honest people might suspect that you three fellows in uniform represented the great United States army about to surround them, and make them prisoners because they had been occupying private property here at Munsey's mill."
The scouts looked at one another, astonished. Here was a theory then which had never appealed to them before.
"Well, I declare!" gasped Red.
"Don't it just beat the Dutch how he gets on to all these things?" said Lil Artha.
"But, Elmer, why take poor Nat a prisoner, bottle him up so he couldn't call for help, fetch him to this old shack, and finally carry him off when they light out!"
It was Matty who asked this question. Elmer smiled and shook his head.
"I can figure out a lot of things," he said, "just as I can read Indian writing; but please don't expect me to tell you what people think. I only know that these Italians were surely frightened at the sudden appearance of three fellows in khaki, and that they probably took them for soldiers. They must have had some idea in view when they captured Nat, and hustled him to this shack. Perhaps they only meant to hide here until the rest of us had gone."
"And they got more scared when you sounded that bugle, I reckon," remarked Lil Artha.
"Yes, and then the coming of another bunch of six scouts may have made them believe the worst was about to happen," Elmer continued.
"Say, I thought I heard low voices when I was just going to peep in that window there, and the bugle called me back to duty," Landy spoke up.
"Yes," Elmer added; "and it may be the coming of Landy just finished their panic. After he went away they must have vamosed the ranch in a hurry."
"Well, all this is mighty interesting, sure," declared Red, with an appreciative nod, "but it ain't bringing us any closer to finding our chum Nat."
"Yes, what's the programme, Elmer?" asked Chatz. "Do we take up the trail right away, and try to follow these heah rascals to their new camp? You can count on all of us, suh, to do the troop credit."
"There may be another way," remarked Elmer, who seemed to be pondering over the matter.
"Tell us about it, then, please."
"Sometimes it's the best policy to hike after an enemy as fast as you can put. Then again, there are other times when a whole lot can be won just by waiting for the enemy to come to you."
"That's so, fellows," declared Matty; "I see what Elmer means. He thinks that if we hid out here, we'd be able to bag the whole blooming crowd soon."
"Sounds all right in theory," admitted Red, "but for one I'd like to know why Elmer believes that push will come back after a little."
"I only feel pretty sure on one point," explained the acting scout master. "And that concerns the woman alone."
"Meaning, I take it, that you think they'll send her back, the cowards, to find out whether the coast is clear," ventured Red.
"No, they will never have to send her back, fellows," Elmer went on, positively.
"Won't, eh?" remarked Lil Artha.
"I firmly believe that once we withdraw from this same old shack the woman will steal back of her own free will."
"To get her precious old comb, mebbe," sneered Red.
"To recover something which I guess she values above ten thousand combs," and Elmer as he spoke held up the string of beads forming the rosary.
"In her hurry to get away she must have forgotten all about this. But I warrant you, fellows, she's discovered the loss by now. What follows? She makes up her mind that she's just got to return and find it, if so be we haven't taken it from that nail where it was hanging when we came in."
"Good! You've got things down just pat, Elmer. And then what?" asked Matty.
"I expect to hide near by while the rest of you go noisily away. She can't know how many came, and she'll think all have departed. Then, when she comes in I'll make her a prisoner. Perhaps they'll be glad to exchange Nat for their woman. Or else, if we can make her understand that we're only toy soldiers, and mean the men no harm, she will lead us to their hide-out."
The scouts were listening attentively, as they always did when Elmer was talking. He possessed such a fund of interesting information that they knew full well they could learn many useful things by trying to grasp the ideas he advanced.
HOW THE TRAP WORKED.
"There's only one thing about it that I object to on general principles," remarked Mark.
"What's that?" asked Elmer.
"You shouldn't think to stay here alone," the other went on. "Perhaps one of the men might return with the woman—if she does come."
"Yes, that's true; there is a chance," Elmer admitted.
"Well, you see how you'd be up against it then," Mark went on, earnestly. "A savage Italian woman, who might have a knife along, would be bad enough for one fellow to handle."
"That's so, Mark."
"And should there be a dago man along, why, I guess you'd just have to sit sucking your thumb and not making a move," Mark continued.
"I reckon I would," laughed Elmer. "All of which means that you think I ought to pick out a couple of husky fellows to keep me company."
"That's what I'd do."
"And that you wouldn't mind being one of the same guards, eh, Mark?"
"I'd enjoy it all right, Elmer."
"Well, I'm thinking that way myself now. You can hold over with me, then. I'll want another fellow, too. Let's see," and he glanced at the eager faces by which he was surrounded: "oh, well, Lil Artha will be the other."
"Oh, shucks!" grumbled Red, bitterly disappointed, because he dearly loved action.
"Matty," said the acting scout master.
"On deck," replied the leader of the Beaver Patrol, saluting.
"You might try and see how far you've gone in the art of following a trail. I don't believe these rough fellows know the first thing about trying to hide their tracks, so you oughtn't to have a great deal of trouble."
"Oh, I guess I'd be equal to the job so long as they keep down on the low ground. But if they once start up the side of the hill, where it's all rocky, I reckon my cake will be dough, then, Elmer."
"Do your best, anyhow, Matty," the scout master went on; "nobody can do more. But to tell you the truth, I believe the first chance lies here."
"You really think, then, the woman will return?" queried Mark.
"I am almost dead certain of it," Elmer replied. "I've been among the Italians some in the colony they have on the outskirts of our town. And I've studied them more or less. They seem a queer people to us, but their religion is a big part of their lives—at least that goes with the women part of the settlement."
"I think you're right, Elmer," remarked George, who had not spoken up to now; "I happen to know a little about the Italians, too, because my father employs a lot of 'em, you see. Wouldn't be surprised one bit if she sneaks back here to recover those beads. They mean a heap to her, fellows."
Everybody stared to hear George talk like that, for as a rule he was hard to convince; which fact, as has been stated before, had caused him to be known as "Doubting George."
"Well, let's get busy," suggested Red, who, if he could not hold over to assist Elmer, at least felt that the sooner he and the rest started on the trail the better.
"That's the stuff," added Toby, also anxious to be doing something, he cared little what.
"All right," remarked Elmer, "and, as a first move, suppose you fellows begin to back out of here. Keep in a bunch outside. Mark, you and Lil Artha watch for a chance to drop down in the bushes, and lie as quiet as church mice till I give the signal, which will be a whistle. Understand?"
"Sure," replied Lil Artha, pausing in the doorway to watch Elmer hang up the beads again on the nail where he had found them; "but why ought we be so particular about dropping out of sight, if you don't mind telling us?"
"Well, it might be the woman has already returned, and is hiding somewhere close by, waiting for the crowd to move."
"That's so," admitted Lil Artha.
"And of course if she even suspected that any of us hung out she wouldn't try to enter the shack at all," Elmer pursued.
"Then we'll have to be mighty careful, Mark, how we do the great vanishing act," the tall scout remarked.
"Wait till the boys happen to bunch around you, then just drop, and let them go on. But Mark, as you will be the last one out, suppose you close the door after you, just as if the shack were empty."
"Are you expecting to hide behind that box, Elmer?" demanded his chum, pointing to the affair that had evidently served as a rude table.
"Just what I am," replied the other, promptly.
"Oh, I see."
And with one last look around, Mark advanced toward the exit, beyond which the scouts could be seen talking and gesturing as Matty looked for the trail left when the Italians fled in such haste.
Evidently it was Mark's idea to take a good mental impression of the interior of the shack away with him. This would prove useful in case there arose a sudden necessity for his presence, and that of Lil Artha, on the scene of action.
When the last of his companions had gone, and the rough door of the shack was swung shut, Elmer hastened to softly move the big box a little, so that it might suit his purpose better.
He did not imagine that this would appear suspicious in the eyes of the woman, should she return for her rosary, because it was to be expected that in a search of the cabin such changes were apt to take place.
He could still hear the chatter of many voices outside, but they were growing fainter. Evidently Matty must have found the trail he wanted, showing where the four Italians, together with their prisoner, had left the concealed shack.
So, knowing the value of time in an affair like this, Elmer hastened to crawl behind the big box.
Anyone entering the room could not see him, nor would his crouching form be visible from the hole in the shack wall, intended as a window.
At the same time Elmer had so contrived things that, by making use of an old bunch of straw which he allowed to hang over the edge of the table, he was easily able to keep watch upon both openings, the window and the door.
Then he waited patiently for something to happen.
Some minutes passed.
Outside all seemed as quiet as a Sunday in Hickory Ridge.
The sound of boyish voices had utterly died away, proving that Matty must be showing considerable skill in leading his detachment along a trail.
Indeed, once the presence of human beings no longer acted as a disturbing element, a little frisky red squirrel hopped up in the open window and peeped within the shack.
Perhaps the little chap was more or less at home there. At any rate Elmer was pleased to see him sit up on his haunches and begin to gnaw at a stray nut he had evidently discovered.
To his mind the red squirrel was apt to serve in place of a vidette. Should anyone approach the shack now the little nut-cracker would give warning by frisking away in sudden alarm.
So the wide-awake scout finds opportunities to make use of the most ordinary and commonplace things to be met with in the woods.
Everything may have a meaning, if only the scout possesses the key of knowledge so necessary for the unlocking of the door.
Not moving a finger Elmer simply awaited the turn of events.
And not once did he doubt the outcome, so positive was he that his reasoning must be correct.
If the woman returned alone, he believed they ought to easily take her prisoner; but, on the other hand, should one or more of the men accompany her, he must expect the conditions to be changed, and alter his own plans in consequence.
Two minutes must have gone by now.
Elmer was not simply guessing this, or, as Lil Artha would say, "making a blind stab at it." He knew because, as he crouched there watching, he was continually marking the flight of time by counting to himself.
In imagination his gaze followed the swinging pendulum of the big grandfather clock that stood in the hall of his home.
"Tick, tick, tick!" he could see it go back and forth, each movement marking the passing of another second of precious time.
Ah! the squirrel had ceased to work at his nut now. He even gave signs of sudden alarm, as though his keen little ratlike ears had caught a foreign sound indicating the coming of a human being.
And yet Elmer knew positively that he himself had not moved in the slightest degree, so that the squirrel's panic could not be laid at his door.
"I guess something's going to happen," he thought, "unless either Mark or Lil Artha showed themselves recklessly; and I don't believe they'd do it."
He continued to watch his four-footed little sentinel perched up there in the apology for a window.
Even as he looked the timid squirrel vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.
Elmer only silently chuckled, quite satisfied with the way things were working.
And he somehow still continued to keep his eyes glued on that hole in the wall, as though laboring under the impression that when the Italian woman did come she would first of all appear in that particular quarter.
And he was right.
Even as he looked he discovered a suspicious movement in the gap. This was brought about by the uplifting of a human hand, upon the fingers of which he could count at least five broad rings without settings.
Perhaps the owner of that hand was on her knees, and in this manner sought to rise up.
Elmer, still looking, saw a head presently fill part of the crude window.
It was a woman who stared in, there could be no questioning that fact. And so far as he could tell she seemed to be alone, for he neither saw nor heard any sign of a second party.
Once he knew her burning gaze was fastened upon the bunch of straw which he had arranged so as to serve as a veil, back of which he might continue to watch what was taking place.
Elmer fairly held his breath, fearing that she might have discovered the lurker, or at least entertained suspicions regarding his presence there.
But not so.
Her eyes, having swept back and forth until they had fairly covered the whole interior of the dimly lighted shack, seemed to be attracted toward one particular spot.
This was where the string of beads hung from the nail driven into a log.
It was the lodestone which had served to draw this woman once more into the danger zone.
And from that instant, if Elmer had allowed the slightest doubt to creep into his mind before, it no longer found lodgment there.
The woman was bound to enter in order to obtain possession of that precious string of beads.
Once she thrust her head and shoulders through the opening and attempted to clutch the rosary, but the effort was useless.
"Now she is coming!"
Elmer whispered this to himself as he saw that the woman no longer occupied the opening—she had undoubtedly started for the door.
Yes, now he could see the closed door begin to quiver, as though eager hands had started to open it.
Elmer held his breath with eagerness, and all the while watched the door.
Between his strong teeth the scout master held a little German silver whistle, such as patrol leaders usually carry for signaling purposes.
This he expected to sound when the time was ripe, and he had every reason to believe that his two comrades would rush into the shack the very instant they heard the call.
Now the door was surely opening wider. Even in her hurry the Italian woman did not forget the need of due caution when all these enemies seemed to be hanging around.
Her experiences across the ocean may have made her exceedingly ill disposed to trust anything that wore a uniform.
Yes, the door had given way by now to admit a moving figure, and then it was drawn shut again.
Elmer smiled to see how closely his guess had come to the actual truth. The Italian woman was not only squatty, and "broad of beam," as Lil Artha would have put it, but, as Elmer had said, might be close on sixty years of age, for she had many wrinkles, and her hair was certainly gray.
She left the door unfastened behind her. Elmer chuckled to himself under his breath, for he saw that in doing this the woman had not only left a way of speedy escape open for herself in case of necessity, but also a free passage for the scouts when the signal whistle blew.
Straight across the floor of the shack glided the woman.
She was making a bee line for the string of beads with the little silver cross at the double end.
And the hidden scout could hear the low words of musical Italian flowing from her lips when she reached out an eager hand to seize upon the sacred article.
Now was his time.
The critical moment had arrived when he must proceed to spring his trap.
As silently as he could, then, Elmer arose to his feet. He was behind the woman and could never bring himself to believe that he had made even the slightest sound when rising.
Then the only explanation left was that the woman happened to be in front of the broken looking glass at the moment, bent on fastening the beads about her thick neck. And if so, she must have discovered him as he arose from behind the big box.
At any rate she uttered a cry that to his mind was not unlike the snarl of a wild beast. He saw the almost savage look that came over her swarthy face, and knew that after all, such a woman was fully as much to be feared as the stoutest ladrone.
And so Elmer did not think it was unworthy of a true scout to send out the call for help.
The woman might be disposed to defy just one half-grown lad, whereas if she believed herself to be up against the whole troop she would submit with the best grace she could command.
And so he blew a shrill blast that must bring both Mark and Lil Artha dashing to the spot.
The effect upon the woman was rather surprising.
Perhaps Elmer might have expected seeing her cower down, seized with a sudden overwhelming fear, but nothing of the kind occurred.
To his surprise she snatched out a wicked-looking knife from the bosom of her dress. It looked to Elmer like a broken kitchen knife that had been ground down to a point. With such a blade he remembered seeing the Italian women from the settlement just outside Hickory Ridge wandering around in the early spring, digging dandelion plants for "greens."
He could hear the rush of approaching footsteps even as the woman sprang for the door with a wild look on her face.
The other two scouts had of course caught his shrill signal, and were hastening to join their leader.
Undoubtedly both Mark and Lil Artha must have seen the woman, if not while she was looking in at the window, then when she turned the corner of the hidden shack to enter by the door.
And hence they would surely understand that there was no man opposed to their combined force.
The fact of the woman being armed with so terrible a weapon as a knife, and that look of grim determination on her dark face, alarmed Elmer.
What if she attacked the two scouts—what if in her sudden panic she wounded either of his chums? There could be no telling what a fear-crazed, ignorant woman, strong as an ox, and almost as irresponsible, might do in an emergency like this.
Of course he would have only been too well pleased could he have shown the woman that it was all a mistake, and that they meant her no ill.
But with her brandishing that wicked-looking knife and leaping for the door, there was certainly no opportunity for argument.
Elmer sprang forward.
His main idea was to try and knock that blade from her grasp by striking sharply on her arm or her knuckles.
At the same time he thought to warn the other scouts, so that they might take due precautions when suddenly brought face to face with the Italian woman who was running amuck.
Perhaps when they heard him shout they would just naturally believe he was being hard pressed. And in that case, instead of deterring them, his cries would only further spur the others on.
Nevertheless Elmer lifted his voice in warning:
"Look out, boys! She's got a knife, and is coming out at you! Take care there!"
Just then something happened.
The woman had not turned her head as Elmer thus gave tongue, as might a hound on the warm trail of the fox.
She kept straight on. The door was before her, and while she had drawn it shut after entering, it has been mentioned before that she made no attempt to fasten the same.
So now, when she hurled her whole weight against the barrier it flew outward with a jump.
As luck would have it, the two scouts had managed to reach the door at exactly the same time. And that second chanced to be the identical one when the frightened foreigner crashed into the door.
There could only be one result, and that filled with bitterness and woe to both Lil Artha and Mark. As the uncouth door was thrown suddenly outward, as if forced by a battering ram from within, it struck the scouts a tremendous blow.
They crumpled up and went over. A couple of ten-pins struck by a swiftly hurled ball could hardly have collapsed more ingloriously than did Lil Artha and his mate.
Indeed, the long-legged scout seemed to perform a complete revolution in the air, landing on his knees among the bushes.
Two seconds later, when Elmer dashed out of the shack, this was the astonishing spectacle he saw—the woman running away as best her bulk allowed, casting glances that were half frightened, half triumphant, behind her; while Mark was sitting up, rubbing a bump on his forehead ruefully, and Lil Artha had taken out a handkerchief to dab at his bleeding nose.
Still, nothing short of an earthquake could ever bottle up the flow of animal spirits that usually possessed the lanky one.
While he applied his handkerchief until it looked particularly gory, he was bent upon giving expression to his views.
"Wow! and again I say, wow! What cyclone was that we ran up against, Elmer? Did you let fly with that club of yours, or did the old shack just take a notion to fall over on us? It felt like I was being kicked by an army mule."
"Same here, Elmer," lamented Mark, as he succeeded in struggling to his feet.
"Well, it wasn't anything like that at all," declared Elmer, hastily; "and if you take the trouble to look yonder, before your eyes begin to close up, you'll see what hit you, running away like a scared hippopotamus."
"Glory be! Was it that dago woman?" yelled Lil Artha, now on his feet again.
"Yes, she burst the door open when she saw me, and as you chanced to be in the way, why, you got the benefit, that's all," Elmer remarked.
"Don't let her get away, fellows! Come on, who's afraid? We can cover three feet to her one. Let's make her a prisoner," shouted Lil Artha, whose usually even temper seemed to have been decidedly ruffled by his recent mishap.
So the three scouts left the shack and began to rush after the fleeing Italian woman.
Of course she knew immediately that she was being pursued. She tried to increase her pace, but evidently with little success. Short, dumpy people can never hope to compete with slim, long-legged greyhounds like Lil Artha.
And so, almost from the start, the three scouts began to close in upon the fleeing Italian woman.
"Say, she's got a bloody old knife," gasped Lil Artha, as they struggled on through the woods where the creeping vines and the underbrush, not to mention frequent logs and occasional woodchuck holes, made running a desperate business.
"That's so, Elmer," piped up Mark, "I saw her shake it at us then."
"I know it, fellows," said the scout master, "and that's what I was shouting about, to warn you."
"Are we gaining any, Elmer? I can't see just as well as I'd like, with this thing up to my nose," the lanky runner asked.
"Pulling up on her fast, my boy," came the reassuring answer.
"And what're we goin' to do when she turns on us?" demanded Lil Artha.
"First of all, surround her."
"That sounds good as far as she goes. What next?"
"We must try and knock that nasty thing out of her hand by a sharp blow on the arm," continued Elmer, who strangely enough seemed as cool as a cucumber, while both of his companions showed the effect of the mad pace.
"I tumble to it, Elmer," gasped Lil Artha, "and I'm the fellow to give that lovely little tap. I made Red drop his stick seven times when we were having a bout with long sticks, and which we pretended were the old-style quarterstaves."
Even the long-legged Lil Artha must see now that the distance separating the pursuers from the fugitive had been greatly shortened. Another five minutes would see them overhaul the woman, unless something not down on the bills came to pass.
Five minutes—why there would surely be ample time to bring this result about, judging by the way they were covering two yards to her one.
The woman knew it, too.
She was becoming more and more anxious. This was shown by the way she kept turning her head from time to time as she ran.
Elmer knew what was apt to happen. For himself he found that he had need of both his eyes with every step forward he took through that tangle, where trailing vines lay in wait to trip him up, and branches hung low as if seeking to catch in his hair, to make him another Absalom.
Already had Lil Artha gone down with a thud, but as he said himself, his "dander" was aroused, and no little things like this could be allowed to interfere with his pursuit.
So he had hastily scrambled to his feet and followed at the heels of his more fortunate chums, a sight calculated to excite wild laughter among the rest of the troop, with his blood-flecked face.
At any rate Lil Artha was game to the backbone, and Elmer often remembered it afterward when "trying out" his scouts.
The closer they drew to the fleeing woman the greater her fright seemed to become.
Whenever he saw her looking backward over her shoulder Elmer would make pantomime gestures with his free hand.
He was trying the best he knew how to tell her to give over this foolish flight, and that they had no hostile intentions.
But the chances were she interpreted these movements just the other way, and believed he must be threatening her with all sorts of terrible things unless she yielded herself a prisoner to their prowess.
Well, no matter, it could hardly last more than another minute or so. Do what she would the woman must find it utterly impossible to get away.
Already the active mind of the young scout master was busy, weaving a clever scheme by means of which they could surround the woman, and by attacking her all at once, succeed in knocking the shining knife out of her hand.
No doubt he would have succeeded in doing the job, too, had conditions continued to make such a move necessary.
But they did not.
The fickle hand of Fate came in between just in time to share in the matter.
It seemed to Elmer that they were constantly getting into a more tangled mess of undergrowth. All around and ahead were traps calculated to slyly catch unwary feet and trip them up.
Suddenly Elmer gave vent to a low gasping cry; but while Mark involuntarily turned his head to learn if his companion had gone lame, to his surprise and gratification he found the other running as smoothly and easily as ever, as though perfectly fresh.
"The woman!" shrieked Lil Artha, who, apparently, from his position in the rear had been enabled to see just what had happened.
"Where—is—she?" gasped Mark, once more allowing his eyes to travel ahead.
For, apparently, the fleeing Italian had vanished at that instant, as completely as though the earth had opened and swallowed her up.
"She's down—caught her foot in a root!" cried Elmer, not slackening his warm pace, for he wanted to make a quick job of the thing.
Then Mark saw that some object was threshing the bushes furiously. Twice the woman tried to rise, but on each occasion she fell back again.
Then presently he gave a shout as he guessed the true situation.
"She's caught fast in a vine, Elmer. Even the woods work with us! I tell you she's a prisoner right now! All we've got to do is to tie her hands!"
"But look out for that dandelion knife, boys," warned Elmer, as the three of them reached the spot.
THE LANGUAGE OF SIGNS.
It happened just as the boys had expected. While turning her head so often to see how near these persistent pursuers were, the woman had caught her foot in a stout vine.
She had been hurled to the ground with considerable force, but apparently received no serious injury. When she tried to regain her feet, however, on each occasion the clinging vine refused to release its hold. As a consequence she went down again.
Finally, as though realizing the uselessness of further struggling against Fate, the woman stopped trying to get up.
Having twisted around in some manner, she just sat there and stared at the three boys in khaki.
"Now she's wondering what we're going to do," said Mark, as they stood with the woman between them.
"Yes, she's frightened again, poor thing," remarked Elmer. "I'm afraid it's these uniforms that have done it. She surely takes us for soldiers, and thinks we've come here just to arrest the whole bunch."
"I'm glad of one thing, though," said Lil Artha.
"What might that be?" asked Elmer.
"Looks like she must have dropped that fierce frog sticker when she fell, because you notice she hasn't got the old knife in her claws just now."
"That's right," admitted Mark, cheerfully, for the fact naturally pleased him.
"And here it is, right at my feet," said Elmer, as he stooped and took something from the ground.
It was the knife which the Italian woman had flourished so recklessly.
"My stars, what a savage-looking thing!" ejaculated Lil Artha, as he stared at the knife.
"Well, it does look wicked for a fact," remarked Elmer; "but after all, I reckon she's never done anything with it but cut dandelion greens, or else prepared fish," and he took occasion to bring the blade close to his nose while speaking, only to make a face, as though the fishy odor that clung to the steel might be far from pleasant.
"Well, we've overhauled the lady; now whatever are we going to do with her?" demanded the tall scout.
"I wonder if she understands English?" remarked Elmer.
"Try her and see," Mark suggested.
The woman had been watching them keenly all this while. Her manner suggested that she might be trying to read her fate more from their actions than any words which they would let fall.
Accordingly, Elmer stepped forward a pace.
"No hurt," he said, in the gentlest tone he could muster; "friends—boys—no soldiers."
"She don't savvy worth a cent, Elmer," said Lil Artha, in disgust.
"And her eyes keep following your movements with the knife, as if she thought you meant to strike her," observed Mark.
Elmer himself saw that this was a fact. Plainly, then, the woman could not understand English, and in her present state of fright she seemed incapable of reading his reassuring gestures. What he meant to be a sign of friendliness she interpreted as a symbol of hostility.
"Seems to me we ought first of all to get her foot free from that nasty tangle," he remarked.
"Sure, and I guess the only way to do it is to cut the plagued old vine," said Lil Artha. "But I guess I hadn't ought to run the thing down, because it served us a mighty good turn just now."
"Step in and cut the vine, Elmer," suggested Mark.
When, however, the young scout master had taken a step or two forward, knife in hand, the woman's fears were once more aroused.
She threw herself forward, struggling violently to release her trapped foot. But the vine proved as strong as a new clothesline, and held tenaciously.
"Good gracious, what a silly goose!" exclaimed Lil Artha, "when all we want to do is to set her free."
"But you see she don't look at it that way. The poor creature thinks we're conspiring to turn the tables on her, just because she threatened us with this knife. Here, hold it, Mark."
Elmer handed over the knife to his chum at a moment when he saw that the woman's eyes were fastened upon him.
Then he held up both his hands as he smiled reassuringly. It was the universal "peace sign" known throughout the world. Hardly a savage tribe in the heart of Darkest Africa but would recognize the meaning it expressed.
This time when he advanced the Italian woman did not struggle again. She watched him. Curiosity was overcoming fear. Perhaps she had even begun to realize that these dreadful soldiers did not present such a savage front after all.
So Elmer dropped down on his knees, at a point where he could come in contact with her imprisoned foot, and the wiry vine that gripped it.
A brief examination convinced him that since she had turned around several times during her violent struggle to break away, the only means of freeing the entrapped foot was to cut the vine.
Of course that meant the knife again, and if he asked Mark to hand it to him, possibly the foolish foreigner would have another fit of terror.
So Elmer commenced to use tact again.
First of all he commenced to work at the vine, the woman watching him eagerly.
"No use, pardner," remarked Lil Artha. "That thing is like steel bands, and the old woman has managed to tie herself up handsomely. Nothing but a knife, and a sharp one, too, will do the business."
"I know it," replied Elmer, quietly. "I'm only pretending to try and get her foot out just to make her understand that we want to help her. Now just watch me, and see how I manage."
Presently, as if despairing of success, he ceased his labor. Then he pointed to the vine, and made several slashes across it with his forefinger, after which he pointed to the knife Mark was holding out, and nodded his head.
The woman was interested.
"Go through it all again; she's beginning to understand," said Mark, himself deeply interested in the success of this deaf and dumb method of communication.
"Well, of all the stupids going, give me one of these same dagoes," grumbled Lil Artha. "Why, you make it plain enough for a Hottentot to grab, Elmer. But I'm beginning to hope she'll get on soon. Try her once more, pardner. You're the boss hand at wig-wagging. Give her the high sign, Elmer."
Deliberately Elmer again pretended to cut the vine with his forefinger, then shook his head and afterward pointed to the knife.
The woman's black eyes followed each movement, and evidently she began to grasp the idea that he did not desire the weapon so as to injure, but to assist her.
"Glory be!" ejaculated Lil Artha, who had been almost holding his breath with suspense while all this pantomime business was going on, "look at that, would you, fellows? A bright thought has managed to get a foothold in her brain. I bet you it needed a sledge hammer to pound it in. Say, she's beginning to smile at you, Elmer. You've won out. She believes you mean all right. Give him the toad-sticker, Mark, and let him get to work."
Elmer knew that his actions would no longer be misconstrued. The Italian woman understood.
So he held out his hand and received the knife from Mark. The woman moved uneasily, but the smile Elmer gave her was surely enough to disarm any lingering suspicion she may have entertained.
Of course it was only a small job now to cut through the obstinate vine at a point where the greatest holding point lay.
"There you are!" remarked Lil Artha, as the knife severed the last strand.
The woman got slowly to her feet. She folded her arms across her bosom with what seemed to be an air of resignation. Yet Elmer knew that all the while those sparkling black eyes were watching him intently.
The woman had guessed that Elmer must be the leader of the three strangers in uniform. Hence she looked to him for orders.
"Well, what're we going to do with this pretty thing, now that we've got it?" remarked Lil Artha.
"I suppose, first of all, we ought to go back to the shack," said Elmer.
"You mean to hold her a prisoner, I take it?" asked Mark, who had the utmost faith in the acting scout master's ability to grasp the situation.
"That's about the only thing open to us," Elmer replied. "Through the woman perhaps we can get in touch with the three men who are holding Nat Scott a prisoner, and bring about his release."
"I don't see how," grumbled Lil Artha. "If you had all that trouble getting her to understand you only meant to cut the old vine, and not her foot off, how in the dickens d'ye expect to get her to know we don't mean to do her bunch any harm?"
"Oh, there may be ways," smiled Elmer.
"But you don't speak Italiano, Elmer; that's dead sure, else you'd have used it right now to tell her you only wanted to cut the vine," Lil Artha went on.
"How about George?" remarked Elmer.
"What! George Robbins?" asked the tall scout.
"Why, yes, you remember he told us his father employs a large number of these foreigners, and unless I'm mistaken I think I remember hearing George say he'd been picking up quite a lot of Italian words."
"That sounds all to the good then," declared Lil Artha, with enthusiasm. "Bully for George! His knowledge may be the key that's going to unlock this old padlock for us."
"Then let's get back to the shack. Fall in around the woman. That ought to tell her what we want her to do."
Elmer, as he spoke, took up his position alongside the prisoner, while Mark and the long-legged scout clapped their sticks to their right shoulders as though parading arms.
Then Elmer pointed backward in the direction they had just come from.
"Go!" he said, impressively.
Whether the prisoner understood the word, or judged from their actions what was required, Elmer could not say. All he cared for was the fact that when he started off she accompanied him, limping a little as though she might have twisted her ankle somewhat in the violence of her struggles, looking sullen rather than fearful now, and apparently resigned to her fate, whatever that might prove to be.
There was no difficulty about reaching the abandoned shack again. All Elmer had to do was to follow the broad trail they had made when chasing after the fleeing woman.
They found no change when they presently drew up at the hidden retreat. Nor was there any sign of the other scouts, though once Elmer thought he did hear loud and excited voices up on the side of the mountain, as though Matty and his detachment might have found it necessary to leave the lowlands, and were having troubles of their own.
"Well," remarked Lil Artha, as they arrived in front of the shack, "here we are, all to the good, and right side up with care. The question is, what d'ye expect to do with the signorina, now that you've got her?"
"She must be kept a prisoner in the shanty until we can decide on our course, and get George here," replied Elmer, so readily that the others understood how he must have his plan of action fully mapped out in his own mind.
"Let's see you usher her in, then," chuckled the tall scout, just as though he anticipated enjoying a treat when Elmer tried to "shoo" the Italian woman into the place.
But it proved the easiest thing possible. When Elmer took her by the arm and pointed to the open door the woman gave him one look, shook herself free from his grasp, and hastened to vanish within the shack.
"Easy as falling off a log," declared Lil Artha, a shade of disappointment in his voice, for he had anticipated more or less of a struggle.
Elmer quietly closed the door.
"How are you going to fasten it?" asked Mark.
"I wish that was the hardest nut I had to crack," laughed the scout master. "Fortunately the door opens outwardly."
"Unfortunately, you mean," echoed Mark, as he touched the painful lump on his forehead.
"I say yes to that," grinned Lil Artha, whose nose had stopped bleeding by this time, but whose face was a sight to behold, being smeared with all manner of strange red marks that made him resemble an Apache Indian on the warpath.
"As it does open outwardly, however," Elmer went on saying, with a sympathetic smile for the woes of his chums, "it ought to be easy enough for us to barricade the door. Look around, boys, and see if you can find several good stout sticks about three or four feet long. Even a small tree trunk would be about what we want."
"And I think I know where to find one," said Lil Artha, hastening away, "because I took a header over it when we were chasing the dago woman."
THE CALL OF THE WOLF.
"That's the ticket, Lil Artha," said Elmer, as the tall scout returned presently, bearing on his shoulder quite a good-sized log about five feet in length.
"Reckon that ought to hold all right," panted the burden bearer, as he cast the small tree trunk at Elmer's feet.
"Fine and dandy," commented Mark, beginning to get the barricade in position.
Of course the log had to be planted in such a way that it might secure a grip on the door. This meant that it must incline at an angle of more than forty-five degrees.
Elmer dug a little hole, first of all, at a certain distance from the door, after the length of the log had been tested.
Then, with the help of his chums, he seated one end of the log firmly in this. When the other end was allowed to slip down the face of the door it rested about halfway.
"No danger of that slipping loose if she tries to push out," remarked Elmer.
Mark gave several additional pulls downward at the upper end of the log, to make it still firmer.
"I'll just wager," he said, finally, "that nobody, man or woman, could open that door now from the inside."
"How about the window?" asked Lil Artha.
"You might manage to crawl through that small opening, but that broad-beamed woman, never," declared the scout master, positively.
"Then we've got our wild bird safely caged."
"Looks like it, for the time being, anyhow," was the way Elmer replied.
"Say, see here, you don't seem to go very strong on the jail business. What's on your mind now, Elmer?" and Lil Artha confronted the other as he spoke, lifting a reproachful finger at him.
"Well, there's many a slip between the cup and the lip, you know."
"Oh, rats! Get down to business, Elmer. What might happen to upset our plans?" asked the tall scout.
"One of the men might return."
"And of course throw down the log and liberate our prisoner. But between you and me and the lamp-post, Elmer, I don't believe that's going to happen. 'Cause why? Well, it's my honest belief that this Italiano woman's got all the nerve there is in that crowd. The men are cowards."
"I'm rather of the same opinion, Artha," remarked Elmer. "And I've thought that same thing more than once when watching some of them in their settlement."
"But how about your other reason, Elmer?" asked Lil Artha. "Suppose now the men don't come, what danger is there of her getting out? D'ye expect she could burrow under the walls like we did once up at that old lumber camp?"
"Perhaps. But I was thinking of another thing. Notice how poorly this shack is put together? Why, if that Amazon got on the rampage and just took a notion, I believe she could bring the whole business down in ruins about her head."
"Wow, I guess she could, Elmer!" remarked the tall boy, nodding his head, "just like Samson did long ago when he yanked the temple down, and kicked the bucket himself, with all his enemies. But I don't think this dull-witted creature's got sense enough for that; do you?"
"Perhaps not. I hope she won't, anyhow, because I mean to leave you and Mark here to guard our prisoner while I'm gone," said Elmer.
"Oh, I see, you want to join the rest of the troop. Perhaps you've got a hunch they might be needing you about now?" Lil Artha observed.
"One thing I know, and that is they've left the low ground and gone up the side of the mountain."
"I guessed that myself when I heard some of the fellers callin' up yonder. So it stands to reason they've lost the trail among the rocks," Lil Artha went on.
"I expect as much," Elmer said, "and you know that since the men carried Nat Scott away with them we've just got to find them sooner or later."
"But why d'ye suppose now they'd be so pesky mean as to climb the hill?" demanded the tall scout.
"Oh, perhaps they guessed it would be harder for anyone to track them up there," Elmer answered.
"Yes, that's so," Mark put in; "or it might be they know of some fine cave up yonder where they can hide. You often run across caves, big and little, on stony hills."
Elmer seemed to agree with this suggestion, for he nodded his head after Mark had advanced it.
"Do you think you can manage?" he asked.
"Well, we'd be a pretty pair of scouts, wouldn't we now, if we failed to make good on a job like this?" scoffed Lil Artha.
He threw his staff over his shoulder, gun fashion, and began tramping up and down before the door of the hidden shack, just as though he were a military sentry on duty.
"I guess you'll do all right, Lil Artha," laughed Elmer.
"Before you go, Elmer," said Mark, "please tell us just why you believe these Italians haven't meant to hurt our chum Nat."
"Well, I just seem to feel it in my bones, and that's about all I can say," returned the other. "I'm more convinced now than ever that it's going to turn out only a silly mistake on their part. Perhaps they've been doing something here that's against the law, and the sight of our uniforms threw them into a panic. They've carried Nat off with them just so he couldn't give the alarm, and bring the rest down on 'em."
"Counterfeiting, perhaps," suggested Mark. "Seems to me I've heard that the Italians are pretty smart at that sort of thing."
"Well, I don't imagine it's anything as serious as that," Elmer replied.
"Then tell us what you do think," demanded Lil Artha.
"You will force my hand, will you?" laughed Elmer.
"It's only fair to tell us," pleaded the tall scout.
"Well, all right, seeing that I'm more than ever convinced I'm on the right track. Here, smell that, both of you and tell me what it reminds you of."
He thrust the queer, sharp-pointed knife that had been taken from the woman into the hand of Lil Artha.
That individual immediately raised it to his nose, took one good smell, and made a wry face.
"Ugh! rank fishy odor, all right!" he declared.
"Then look back a bit, Lil Artha," Elmer continued. "Don't you remember that in the mill and cottage we discovered a strong fishy smell when we tried to investigate that underground place?"
"You're right, we did," assented the tall scout; "it made me feel a bit squeamish, too, for if there's one thing I can't stomach it's rank fish. Ugh!"
"I see what you're leading up to, Elmer," announced Mark, briskly, "and I must say it looks as if there might be a whole lot of truth in it, too."
"These Italians are often fishermen. A cousin of mine once told me that along the Gulf coast and around New Orleans the whole fishing industry lies in their hands," Elmer went on.
"Then you believe this bunch is getting fish out of Munsey mill pond, and selling them, perhaps over in Scarsdale?" said Mark.
"They are netting fish illegally, I imagine," Elmer answered. "That would explain their alarm. Perhaps the game warden has been around and threatened to have them hauled in if they didn't take warning. And ever since that time they've been on the nervous lookout."
"Gee, I bet you now that's what it means, fellows!" declared Lil Artha, filled with new enthusiasm, as he grasped the startling idea advanced by the scout master.
"And I never saw so many big frogs as there are around here," Elmer went on.
"That's because even the boys keep away from the haunted mill," Mark added.
"You know how frogs sell in the market, and how it would pay anybody to catch a few hundred such jumboes as there are here," Elmer remarked.
"Well, it does take you to figure things out just, I must say," laughed Mark.
"He's a wizard, that's what," declared Lil Artha, whose admiration for his leader was boundless.
"Not at all," smiled the other; "a little common sense was all that was needed. The strong odor of fish in that cellar put me on the track first. You know there's an old saying to the effect that where there's smoke there must be fire."
"And then this knife, too—like as not the woman does all the cleaning of the fish. I thought she reminded me of black bass or pickerel, I wasn't sure which," Lil Artha stated, with a chuckle.
"But we've been around more or less, Elmer," Mark put in, "and I don't remember seeing any signs of fish cleaning, scales or anything."
"Of course not," came the quick reply. "If these people knew they were breaking the law, and expected the game warden to pop in on them any day, you can just believe they'd be mighty careful to hide all traces of this thing."
"Perhaps they throw it all back in the pond for fish bait," suggested the tall scout.
"Not a bad idea," commented Elmer.
"And the cellar under the mill cottage?" asked Mark.
"They might use that as a cool place to keep the fish until they can get them to market," Elmer replied.
"That's a fact, seeing they have no ice to pack them in," Lil Artha observed. "And the more I think of it all, the better it looks to me, fellows."
"Then you believe my explanation may be the true answer to our chum's vanishing?"
"I sure do."
"That they came upon him by accident," Elmer went on, "and filled with a sudden panic, just captured him to keep Nat from calling out, and bringing the rest of us around?"
"That's what they did," Lil Artha affirmed. "And no matter how sorry they might be afterward because they did it, they just can't drop him now."
"Then, since we've agreed on that point I don't see the need of my hanging around here any longer," Elmer observed, drawing his belt one notch tighter, as though preparing for new labors.
"And your orders are just the same?" Mark asked.
"Yes, you two keep guard over the shack, and don't let the prisoner get away, if you can prevent it."
"Depend on us, Elmer. And say," Lil Artha remarked, "don't you think now it would be a good thing to send George down here?"
"That's an idea worth while," Elmer quickly replied.
"Oh, I get 'em once in a long time," grinned the other.
"A good scheme, and I'll send George back as soon as I can. When he comes, take him in to see the woman. Have him try and get her to understand that we mean her men no harm, and only want them to set our chum free."
"And then what? Supposing George is able to get that pounded into her head?" asked Lil Artha.
"Why, he must make her understand that we want to conduct an exchange of prisoners."
"By that, Elmer," Mark broke in, "I suppose you mean well give the woman up if they let Nat go free?"
"That's it," returned the leader. "And as she is the only one who knows their new hiding place, she must lead us to them."
"That puts me wise, all right," declared Lil Artha. "But get good old George here as soon as you can, Elmer. I'm just crazy to see if he knows how to tell the old woman all this."
"That's all, boys; I'll be going now."
But although Elmer said this he continued to stand there immovable. Neither of his comrades thought it strange, for they, too, had caught the same sound that had reached his ears.
It was evidently a pretty good imitation of the howl of a wolf.
Now, as this was the signal call of Elmer's own patrol they knew immediately that some scout belonging to that section of the Hickory Ridge troop must be approaching, and took this customary method of announcing his coming.
All eyes were accordingly turned toward that quarter from whence the note of the wolf had seemed to come.
This was a little up the side of the mountain. Elmer, thinking to give the other his location, sent out an answering signal.
"You're scaring the old woman again with your howls," remarked Lil Artha, pointing to the shack, at the small window of which they could see the face of the prisoner, filled with wonder and awe.
Perhaps the Italian woman was beginning to suspect she had fallen into the hands of a pack of crazy people.
"There he comes!" suddenly announced Mark, pointing as he spoke.
"Looks like Dr. Ted," remarked Lil Artha.
"Just who it is," said Elmer. "I wish it had been George Robbins, now, because that would have saved time. No such luck, it seems, so we'll just have to make the best of it."
"But what d'ye suppose Ted's coming back after?" pursued the tall scout.
"Help," declared Mark, decisively. "You heard what Elmer said when he turned the troop over to Matty? If they found themselves up a stump they were to let Elmer know, just so he could swing in somehow, and pull them out of the hole."
"They're up against it, good and hard, bet you a cooky on it," declared Lil Artha, as the other scout drew near.
THE NEED OF A PATHFINDER.
As Dr. Ted approached he made the scout salute in due regulation style.
"You're wanted above, thir," he said to the acting scout master.
"By that I suppose you mean they've struck a snag?" questioned Elmer.
"The rockth bothered Matty. Tho long ath they left a trail in the earth he could follow it all right. But when it kept on athending it got tougher and tougher. Then he lotht it altogether, and thent me to fetch you along, thir."
"All right, I'll go with you, Number Three. You'll be interested to know that we've got a prisoner here in the old cabin," remarked Elmer.
Ted glanced that way, and caught sight of the face in the window.
"The old Italian woman, eh?" he exclaimed.
"Sure," said Lil Artha, as proudly as though the honors of the capture belonged exclusively to him.
"Then she did come back for her beadth?"
"Yes. Tell you all about it on the way, for we must be moving now, Ted," the scout master remarked.
"All right. I'm with you, Elmer. Come on, then," and, wheeling sharply around, Ted started to retrace his steps.
So Mark and his long-legged comrade were left to guard the prison of the old Italian woman, while the other two scouts climbed the hill.
"No uthe going over the trail we made," remarked Ted. "It wound around and then climbth the hill. We could thee about where the cabin lay, and I made a bee line downhill for the thame."
As they toiled upward Elmer, keeping his promise, related all that had happened in the neighborhood of the hidden shack.
Ted seemed to enjoy the narrative very much indeed. He was particularly pleased with the account of where the old woman in her panic had burst the door open, and upset both Mark and Lil Artha.
"I wondered what happened to our friendth," said Ted. "And if you hadn't been in thuch a big hurry to cut out, I'd have tried fixing both the poor fellowth up. Lil Artha lookth like a pirate chief, and ath for Mark, you'd think hith brains might be breaking out."
Elmer had no trouble at all in following the plain trail left by Ted when he came down from above. His practiced eye could easily see the marks on turf, leaf mold, or even where the other's heels with their steel nails had scraped along a slanting rock.
"Tell me thome more about that, pleath," said Ted, while they were still climbing.
Nothing loath, for he really believed he had solved the secret of the whole business, Elmer gave him the story, from his first faint suspicion upon looking down into the strange-smelling cellar of the mill house, up to his detecting such a strong odor of fish about the Italian woman, and particularly the knife she carried.
"That'th a bully good idea, all right," said Ted, when the story was finished.
"Do you think it sounds fishy?" laughed Elmer.
"Yeth and no," answered the other, immediately. "While it theemth to be a fish yarn, yet it ith all to the good. I really believe you've gone and figured it out, Elmer. And if that ith tho, it ith going to be another big feather in your cap, don't you forget it."
"We ought to be close to where you left the rest of the boys, by now," suggested the scout master, desirous of changing the conversation, for, strange to say, Elmer never liked to hear himself praised.
"I reckon we are," replied Ted. "Suppothe you try your whistle, and give 'em a call."
So the patrol leader's whistle was brought into play again. Hardly had it sounded than there came an answer from a point not far distant.
"There they are!" cried Ted, pointing, "I thee Red waving hith hat to uth right now. We'll join 'em in a jiffy, if the walking ith good."
It proved to be decent enough for the two climbers to reach the spot where Matty and the rest of the troop awaited them.
"I'm all in, Elmer," admitted the leader of the Beaver Patrol, as he threw up both hands in disgust. "Just as I said, it was all hunk till I struck the rocks, and I've been up in the air ever since."
"Yes, Matty has even hinted that he believes those Italians must have had wings somewhere around here, and just flown away," laughed Chatz.
"Well, that wouldn't be so very queer," declared Toby Jones, always thinking of things touching on aviation. "It's a bully good place to make a start, anyway, if a feller only had the wings."
"Yes, and a gay old place to bring up on all the rocks down there. And how about our chum Nat; he never had any longing to soar through the air. But tell us what's doing, Elmer," said Red, impatiently.
"Oh, he's got lots to tell you," declared Ted, with the air of a highly favored one who had been already taken into the great secret.
Of course his words stirred the scouts as nothing else could have done. They crowded around and began to beg for particulars.
"Where's Lil Artha?" one questioned.
"And Mark?" exclaimed another.
"Say, Elmer, did she come back, and step into the nice little trap you were going to get ready?" asked a third scout, with intense interest aroused.
When Elmer nodded his head they broke out into a rousing boyish cheer.
"Tell us all about it, Elmer," was flung at the scout master from all quarters.
As this was Elmer's intention anyway he lost no time in briefly though forcibly describing all that had taken place down below.
"And now I want George to go down with Ted, here," Elmer went on, "and try to engage the woman in conversation. Tell her, if you can, who and what we are, and the reason for our coming here in uniform. Tell her we mean them no harm, but that we want our chum set free. Do you follow me, George?"
"Of course I do," came the ready answer.
"You understand Italian, and talk it some, I've been told?" Elmer went on.
"Oh, yes, I can really converse with some Italian men. Don't know about a woman, though. But I'll do my best to make her see things straight."
"I like to hear you talk that way, George," continued Elmer; "the true scout is always ready to do his best. And I think you're going to make a fine addition to our troop before long."
"After I've told her, what then?" asked George, who looked pleased at hearing these words of praise from one he respected as highly as he did Elmer.
"Why, you must bring her along, and rejoin us. Lil Artha and Mark will accompany you, because all ought to be in at the finish. You understand, don't you, George?"
"I sure do. Come on, Ted, show me the way down to the old shack. As we go along I'll be brushing up my Italian words so as to spring 'em on the old lady. This way, Ted."
"And while you're jabbering with the woman, why, perhaps now I might be amuthing mythelf doctoring the noble woundth of our two chumth," declared the fellow who was never so happy as when engaged in the work of a doctor.
Why, some of the boys often called Ted "Sawbones," because he gave himself over, heart and soul, to his one great hobby.
So the two of them vanished down the side of the hill. As their voices died away among the thickets Elmer turned his attention to the task of finding and following the trail of the Italians.
"Show me where you saw it last, Matty," he said.
"Here you are, then," came the reply; "that footprint is as plain as anything."
"So it is," remarked Elmer, after studying the mark briefly. "Our chum made that, I'm positive."
"Then he must have done it on purpose," said Matty, "because I've noticed that one footprint right along."
"Good for Nat," he remarked. "If he don't dare use his voice and call out to us, he's doing everything in his power to show us the trail. That's what he's learned of scouting tactics. I'm glad he remembered. It shows how much a fellow can learn."
"That's right," remarked Matty; "I see it all plain enough right now; but d'ye know the suspicion never did break in on me that these tracks had been made purposely, and by Nat? Why, I just had an idea one of the bunch was a little careless, that's all."
"Well, you'll know better after this, Matty. But stand back, and let's see what luck I'll have, if so be you fellows haven't killed the trail by running around."
They watched his actions eagerly, each fellow bent on learning all he could of the science that was already proving to be so interesting.
First of all Elmer took a comprehensive survey of the ground above; for everyone understood that those they were tracking must be aiming to reach some cave or crevice farther up the slope.
Then, having settled in his mind about where the fugitives might be aiming for, the scout master began to look for marks on the rocks.
For a little while he found it very hard work, indeed, but after reaching the limits of the search maintained by Matty and those with him, the task became considerably easier.
And mindful of his position as acting scout master to the troop during the temporary absence of Mr. Garrabrant, Elmer made it a point to explain more or less as he went along.
"See, here is where one of the men slipped on this rock, and left a new scratch. And this shows where another broke a twig off this branch in passing. You can see it has been freshly done, because the green leaves do not show much sign of wilting."
In this fashion, then, he not only intensely interested his followers, but continued to make progress all the while.
Most of the boys were eager to get points on such an engaging subject as trail finding. These hung upon his every word, examined the marks to which Elmer drew their attention, commented upon the same among themselves, and several even went so far as to take out memorandum books in which they hastily scribbled such notes as would enable them to remember.
All the while they were climbing higher, and by degrees found themselves in a wilder section than any of them had dreamed existed so near their home town of Hickory Ridge.
"Looks like there might be a few caves around such a place as this," remarked Red, as he wiped his face with the red bandana handkerchief which he had hung cowboy fashion around his neck, with the knot at the back.
"Oh, that's a dead-sure thing," replied Ty, who happened to be close at his elbow at the time. "Fact is, I've seen several myself. Anyhow, they were dark, ugly looking holes between big rocks, and if this was a game country I'd say they might be bear dens or the homes of wolves."
All this sort of talk tended to key the anticipations of the boys up to a point where they were expecting almost anything to happen.
Elmer paid no attention to side issues. There might be a dozen likely looking hiding places along the route, but they did not interest him an iota so long as that faintly marked trail continued.
He had about all he cared to do, moving from one spot where a stone had been freshly dislodged to another point at which the moss and lichen had been torn from a sloping rock by a foot that accidentally or purposely slipped.
There were possibly some little indications, which to his mind told that they might now be drawing near the place where the panic-stricken Italians were hiding. If so, Elmer did not confide this to his companions, perhaps because he might not himself be so very sure, but more probably on account of not wishing to waste more or less precious time in explaining on what vague grounds he founded his theory.
The trees still grew around them, springing out of spaces between the rocks. They were more stunted than those in the great forest that covered the richer bottom lands, but as a rule they served as a canopy overhead, and only occasional glimpses could be obtained of the country beyond.
By this time some of the scouts had begun to feel the effect of the climb, for there is nothing more fatiguing than ascending a steep hill.
Still they proved their grit by keeping on, as if determined to stick it out.
Even fat Landy Smith, while actually panting for breath, and mopping his forehead with a damp handkerchief, stubbornly declined to own himself in the "has been" class, as Red called it.
They were moving along what seemed to be a little plateau, at the end of which arose a cliff seamed with numerous cracks and scars.
Elmer had smiled when he cast a glance toward the rocky wall, just as if he could scent the end of the trail close at hand.
But he was already halfway across the level territory, with the scouts scattered back of him, when without the least warning there suddenly sounded a shot that seemed to come from somewhere ahead; and the report gave each scout a strange chill in the region of his heart.
"Scatter, and hide!"
It was Elmer who shouted this order. He had not heard any sound as of a bullet passing, and did not know but that the shot had been fired simply for the purpose of a warning.
Still, there was no need of their taking chances. And as he gave the command, Elmer was one of the first to seek the shelter of a near-by rock.
Immediately the valiant scouts scurried around, each eagerly desirous of finding some sort of snug retreat.
No further shots came, much to the satisfaction of the boys, and inside of half a minute not a figure was to be seen upon the little plateau.
It chanced that Red had selected the same rock as Elmer picked out, behind which to crouch.
And of course Red could not long remain silent, since his overcharged feelings just had to find a vent.
"Whew, this is what I call warm!" he said, puffing.
"Do you mean the weather, or the fact that we have been under fire?" asked Elmer, who was looking out from his end of the rock, and trying to size the situation up.
"Oh, well, I guess both of 'em would pass muster, all right," Red went on. "You don't think any fellow got hurt, do you, Elmer?"
"Not any. Fact is," continued the scout master, "I've a pretty good hunch the shot was not fired at us, but into the air, warning us to keep off or we might get hurt."
"The ginnies fired it, of course, Elmer?"
"I'm sure of that."
"And we've cornered the bunch at last, hey? You did the trick, Elmer. Trust you for following even half a trail blindfolded. But say, do you know where they're holding the fort?"
"I've got something of an idea," replied Elmer. "If you look up the face of the cliff, Red, you'll notice a bunch of green stuff growing. I think there must be a shelf of rock there, and perhaps a cave back of it."
"But what makes you think that, Elmer?"
"Because I saw the powder smoke puff out from those little bushes when the report sounded," replied Elmer.
"But my stars! that's all of fifty feet up. How d'ye suppose those dagoes could get up there?" continued the one who sought information.
"Oh, that would just as likely as not turn out to be easy enough, once you got started. Perhaps there's some sort of path leading up the face of the cliff, and which we just can't see from here."
"What're we going to do, Elmer?"
"Nothing—just now, anyway."
"Just sit on our haunches, and wait for our birds to drop into our hands, eh?" pursued Red.
"Oh, perhaps we may have to fight for it in the end, but I'm hoping for an easier wind up to the affair," Elmer continued, musingly.
"You think the old woman may help out?"
"I know she will, if George can only succeed in convincing her that we're friends, not enemies."
"Then we're waiting till they arrive?" asked Red.
"I'm going to give the signal for retiring as soon as the boys get their breath back," remarked the scout master.
"Well, they might be in better places, because the sun feels scorching to me right now," grumbled Red.
"Then pick out your new roost, and be ready to migrate as soon as you hear the whistle. Pass the word along, too, Red."
Presently it was understood that when the scout master gave the signal every fellow was expected to crawl or dart away, seeking through one way or another to get out of the fire zone.
"I hope George has succeeded in explaining everything to the woman by now," remarked Red.
"I'm sure he has, and that the whole of them are even now on the way here to wind up this business," Elmer declared most confidently.
When ten minutes had gone by, and he felt sure that all of the scouts knew what they were expected to do, Elmer took out his whistle.
Then the shrill notes sounded, cutting the air as though charged with irresistible force.
Immediately everybody got busy. Khaki-clad figures could be seen darting this way and that, but none of them made any attempt to advance. This sort of move might be expected to anger the Italians, without doing any good, and the scouts had been warned against it.
There came no second discharge of firearms, and from this fact it seemed evident that the unseen enemy understood that there was nothing hostile connected with this action on the part of the scouts.
Again did Red and Elmer find themselves good neighbors as they arrived at a pile of rocks, behind which they sought shelter.
"All safe?" asked the former.
"Yes, as far as I know," came the answer. "Landy fell all over himself, and started to roll downhill, but one of the other fellows pulled him up. He was limping to beat the band, but I hope it's nothing serious."
"No danger," chuckled Red. "Landy is too well padded to suffer much from a fall. Now do we just wait here till the others fetch the lady?"
"That's a part of the contract," said Elmer; "so just make yourself as comfy as you can."
"And watch the big rock there, eh, Elmer?"
"Oh, if you want. We would feel pretty cheap if they took a sly sneak, and left us in the lurch."
Elmer settled down as though he thought there was no use borrowing trouble. And seeing their leader take things in such a matter-of-fact way the balance of the scouts followed suit.
Confidence thus begets confidence in others; and this in itself was one of Elmer's reasons for acting as he did.
The minutes passed.
Several times did impatient Red get up on his knees to take a look down the hill.
"Shucks! but they're a long time coming," he mumbled. "Perhaps, after all, the old woman was too sharp for the bunch—perhaps she's tucked 'em away in the cabin—turning the tables on our four chums—perhaps, now——"
Right there Red stopped in his predictions of evil.
"There they come," said Elmer, quietly.
One hasty look satisfied Red that his comrade spoke only the truth. Moving figures caught his eye just a little way down the slope.
These presently developed into four boys, three of whom were clad in khaki. The other, who was, of course, George, the interpreter, kept close at the side of the Italian woman.
Now and then she seemed to address some remark to George, which he doubtless answered to the best of his ability. When his vocabulary proved unequal to the task he would finish with a series of gestures and shrugs as he had seen chattering Italians do.
And presently they reached the spot where the balance of the scouts held forth.
The woman surveyed them as she came up, but Elmer noticed that she did not seem afraid now.
"I guess you've done the business, George," he remarked to the new recruit.
"Well," replied the other, with a broad grin, "that's what I think myself, Elmer."
"She understands now who we are, and that we haven't any intention of doing her men any harm—you explained all that?"
"Sure. And you can see now that instead of looking scared, she's ready to grin if you give her any encouragement," replied George.
"And she knows that we want her to go out with us and have a talk with her old man, telling him what a fool he's been making of himself. She understands all that, does she?"
"Like a book, and is ready to do the trick. We'll have our Nat back in short order, now," George continued, looking proud and happy because he had been able to prove of such valuable assistance to his fellow scouts, even before he got his uniform.
"All right, then. The sooner we start the ball rolling the better. Come along, George."
Presently the two of them were escorting the Italian woman toward the foot of the cliff.
When two thirds of the way there an angry, excitable voice stopped them. On looking up they could see several heads topping the sparse vegetation that undoubtedly grew along a ledge.
"Now, tell her to talk, George!" said Elmer.
There was hardly any need, for the woman had broken loose on her own account. And such chattering as followed—Lil Artha afterward declared it reminded him of a monkey cage when one of the inmates had taken more than his share of the dinner provided.
But the woman did most of the talking. She also scolded, stamped her foot, and even shook her fist up at those above.
Evidently her arguments must have had a convincing ring about them, for suddenly she turned to George and smiled amiably as she said something, and made a suggestive movement of both shoulders.
"It's all right, Elmer," declared George.
"Are they going to do what we want?" asked the scout master, greatly pleased.
"Sure. And I reckon there he comes now. One of the men seems to be helping Nat down the path that runs along the face of the rock. Bully! We win out!"
A loud cheer from the scouts told how they were enjoying the situation.
Nat Scott waved his hand to them in greeting, for, having lost his hat at the shack, he was bareheaded.
The Italian was still a little suspicious, for he would come only two thirds of the way down. But Nat easily made the balance, and was soon shaking hands with everyone of his mates, just as though he had been separated from them for a week.
Leaving the woman to rejoin her people the scouts made their way down the side of the mountain until they reached the mill pond.
Nat's story was brief, and just about what Elmer had guessed. In prowling around he had unexpectedly come upon the three men.
They had seized upon him and threatened him with their knives if he so much as gave a yell. He had been kept for a short time in the shack. Then Landy's prowling around seemed to fill the Italians with a new alarm, and the three men, together with the woman, had hastily fled.
On the way up the mountain the woman had discovered the loss of something, and gone back.
Then the men forced him to hurry along, and finally landed him on that secret ledge where he believed there was some sort of cave.
That was all Nat knew, and the whole thing smacked strongly of mystery until he heard what Elmer's theory was.
"Anyhow," Nat said, with considerable satisfaction in his voice and manner, "they didn't scare me one little bit. And besides, Elmer, in lots of places I went and made plain marks that I just knew you could read any old time."
"That stamps you a true-blue scout, Nat," declared Elmer, "and I think the troop has reason to be proud of you."
"Three cheers for Comrade Nat Scott," suggested impulsive Red; and they were given with such a vim that many of the big bullfrogs along the farther bank jumped into the mill pond in great alarm.
As their main object had been carried out while on the way to the haunted mill, and there was no further reason for lingering after they had eaten the "snack" carried along for this purpose, the Hickory Ridge troop of scouts took up the homeward march.
After talking it all over among themselves it was decided that their duty compelled them to give the game and fish warden a hint as to what was probably going on up at Munsey's mill.
He went there with a deputy two days later, but the Italians had taken warning and fled. However, the warden found and destroyed several nets with which the fish poachers had been illegally gathering the finny prizes in the long-deserted pond.
There was one disappointed scout in the troop however, and this was Chatz Maxfield.
He always would feel as though he had missed the opportunity of his life in spending some time at a haunted mill which was supposed to support a good lively ghost, and never once chancing to come upon the hobgoblin.
However, Chatz would continue to live in hope.
At any rate, everyone was positive that he had learned a host of valuable things calculated to make him take higher rank as a woodsman, and a true scout. And no doubt in the annals of the Hickory Ridge Boy Scouts that little hike to Munsey's mill would always be read and re-read with the keenest interest, and take rank with the greatest of their achievements.
BOY SCOUT NATURE LORE
BOY SCOUT NATURE LORE TO BE FOUND IN THE HICKORY RIDGE BOY SCOUT SERIES.
Wild Animals of the United States } Tracking } in Number I.
THE CAMPFIRES OF THE WOLF PATROL.
Trees and Wild Flowers of the United States in Number II.
WOODCRAFT, OR HOW A PATROL LEADER MADE GOOD.
Reptiles of the United States in Number III.
PATHFINDER, OR THE MISSING TENDERFOOT.
Fishes of the United States in Number IV.
FAST NINE, OR A CHALLENGE FROM FAIRFIELD.
Insects of the United States in Number V.
GREAT HIKE, OR THE PRIDE OF THE KHAKI TROOP.
Birds of the United States in Number VI.
ENDURANCE TEST, OR HOW CLEAR GRIT WON THE DAY.
THE REPTILES OF THE UNITED STATES.
The reptiles are a class of vertebrate animals. By vertebrate animals is meant those having a backbone. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals having scaly skins, and breathing by lungs and not by gills as do the fish. Strange as it may seem they are related to the birds. In prehistoric times they were of enormous size and many of them were capable of flying. Fossil forms of reptiles are very numerous and scientists have given these fossil forms such sonorous names as Dinosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs. These names are made up of Greek words meaning terrible lizards, fish lizards, near lizards and winged lizards.
The class of reptiles is made up of five orders:
Sphenodons; Lacertilia; Ophidia; Chelonia; Crocodilia.
Of the Sphenodons, there is but one living representative. Its home is in New Zealand. Zoologists tell us that this reptile is more closely related to its fossil cousins than any other now in existence. Since we are considering only those reptiles which an American boy may find living in their natural haunts in his home land, discussion of the Sphenodon is out of place in this article. We recommend, however, that you read up about this curious creature that links the gigantic prehistoric lizards with the little creatures of to-day's world.
THE LACERTILIA OR LIZARDS.
Lizards differ from snakes in that the right and left halves of the lower jaw are joined together by bone instead of elastic ligament and in that they have legs and eyelids. They are found in the warmer climates. Most of them live on insects, but some types as, for instance, the Iguanas, live entirely on vegetable matter, while others prey on birds, mice, frogs, etc.
The Geckos form a large sub-order of lizards. Their chief characteristic is their adhesive toes, which enable them to cling to and run on smoothest surfaces even when upside down. They do not like the hot sunlight and largely feed at twilight and at night. The Reef Gecko is found in Florida; the Warty Gecko, so called on account of the rows of large wart-like scales on its back and sides, inhabits Lower California; the Cape Gecko, Lower California; the Banded Gecko, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The latter is the most gaudily marked of the Geckos found in the United States and is likewise the most abundant. It may be seen at dusk coming out of rock crevices to feed on small insects. Many consider this lizard poisonous and its saliva is supposed to produce painful skin eruptions. Authorities, however, tell us that this is not so. The first three Geckos mentioned live largely in trees, but the Banded Gecko lives on or near the ground.
The American Chameleons are not true chameleons, but belong to the same family as the Iguana. They have come to be known as Chameleons because, like the rightful owners of that name, they change the color of their bodies. This change is occasioned by the differences of temperature and light. One species is found in the United States and is known under various names, such as the green lizard, the fence lizard and the alligator lizard. It is called alligator lizard from its resemblance to a young alligator. This lizard is found in the southeastern United States from North Carolina to Florida. The common colors of the American Chameleon or the Anolis, which is its scientific name, are brown and green. These colors vary with conditions. When asleep, for instance, this little reptile is green above and white below, and when fighting or frightened it becomes green; at other times it is brown. Raymond L. Ditmars, Curator of Reptiles in the New York Zoological Park, says that in collecting these lizards and placing them in wire-covered boxes, he has "always noted their change from various hues, prior to capture, to a scrambling collection of several dozen emerald-green lizards. If the gauze cage be laid down for half an hour or so while the collector rests, the lizards soon take on a brownish tinge, but as soon as the box is again carried about and the occupants are shaken up and frightened, the brilliant color appears among them all." He further says that "there is no relation or influence between the lizard's colors and its surroundings. The change of color is brought about principally through temperature and light and their influences on the creature's activity; also by anger, fear and sleep."
The Anolis stalks its prey like a cat does a mouse. It crouches and creeps forward for the final spring with motions that are exactly similar. It lives in trees and feeds upon insects. These little creatures make interesting pets and will soon learn to take their food from your hand. The proper quarters for it is a wire-covered fernery which should be placed in a warm but moist situation and the foliage daily sprinkled with water. The Anolis is a great water drinker and will find the drops adhering to the leaves of the plants.
There are but few species of Iguanas found in the United States and these only in the southwestern part. They are large in size and have a crest of spiny scales running along the neck and back. They use their tails as weapons of offense and defense. The Cape Iguana is a species found only in Lower California. The tail is ringed with large spines. The Black Iguana is found in southern Arizona. It is a great fighter when at bay and is then no mean antagonist. It does not invite a fight, however, but will run if there is any chance of escape. Both of these Iguanas reach about four feet in length. They have large appetites and eat both animal and vegetable matter—birds, small animals and tender vegetation. In central and southern America their flesh is prized as a food and it is said to have the flavor of chicken. They live part of the time in trees and part of the time on the ground. The Desert Iguana, however, is terrestrial. It is found in the desert parts of the southwestern United States—in Colorado, California, Arizona and Nevada. It is largely vegetarian. The tail is brittle, and to free itself when held by it, this creature will easily and readily snap it off.