"We'll stay here to-day and not go on for another twenty-four hours," decided the scout master, as they sat around eating breakfast.
"For one I'm glad to hear that," said Felix; "I can hike as well as the next fellow; but just the same when I'm off for pleasure I don't like to keep moving all the time. This suits me first-rate. Then I expect to do some paddling when we find the right sort of a log, with Josh at the bow casting his flies, and Tom at the stern trolling his phantom minnow along."
The log needed was easily found, and was rolled down, to be launched in the pond. A rude paddle was also cut, with the aid of the ax and a sharp knife. Felix declared he could make it answer the purpose; so presently the enterprising scouts composing the fishing party went forth, followed by the best wishes of their mates.
"Fix it so we have a fish dinner to-night, fellows!" Billy Button called out.
"If you're wise you'll not make up your mouth that way; then there's no danger of being disappointed," said George. "I never expect anything, and so I meet with pleasant surprises once in a while."
Perhaps since the days of old Robinson Crusoe a more remarkable fishing party never started out than that one. The three boys had taken off shoes and socks, and rolled up their trousers above their knees. Straddling the log, Felix used his paddle, and, sure enough, the clumsy craft moved along fast enough to answer their desires.
Tom let out his line and trolled, while Josh began to cast with great animation, sending his trailing flies close to the shore, and drawing them toward him in fine style.
Presently he struck and managed to land a fair-sized bass. Then Tom caught a larger one on his imitation minnow. The fun began to wax furious, so that once both the anglers chanced to be busily engaged with fish they had hooked at the same time.
It was while this was going on, and their string had already reached respectable proportions, that the boys on the log heard a sound far away, up on the side of the mountain, which caused Josh to exclaim:
"That's a pack of dogs yapping, and they're hot on the track of some sort of game, too! It may be only a poor little cottontail, but we'll soon know, for they're heading straight in our direction. Whew! listen to the yelps they give!"
"There's something in the lake over yonder, and coming this way, too!" exclaimed Felix "Can it be a muskrat, Tom, do you think, swimming on top of the water?"
"Not much it isn't!" cried Josh from the bow of the novel craft; "it's a deer I tell you, a stag with half-grown antlers, taking to the water to escape from the hounds."
FRIENDS OF THE DEER
"Yes, its a buck," announced Tom, as a shout from the camp told that one of the other scouts had also discovered the swimming animal.
"Whew! there come the dogs along the shore!" cried Felix, pointing as he spoke to where a number of swiftly-moving objects could be seen.
"They've taken to the water after the deer!" exclaimed Josh.
"It'll be a shame if they manage to catch up with the poor thing in the pond!" Felix declared; "we ought to break that game up somehow. Isn't there a way?"
"If we had a canoe instead of a log we might get between, and keep the dogs back," he was told by the patrol leader; "but I'm afraid we'll never be able to make it at this rate."
Felix had started paddling furiously even while the other was speaking. The novel craft began to move through the water much faster than at any previous time. It was really surprising how much speed it could show, when driven by that stout, if homely, paddle, held in the hands of a muscular and excited scout.
Tom gave directions as though he were the pilot, and while the swimming buck certainly saw them approaching he must have considered that these human enemies were not to be feared one-half as much as those merciless hounds following after him, for he swerved very little.
"We're going to cut in between the deer and the dogs after all, boys!" cried the delighted Josh, who was bending his body with every movement of the paddler, as though he hoped to be able in that fashion to assist the drive.
"It's a pity we didn't think to bring another paddle along!" was Tom's comment, "for that would have added considerably to our progress."
As it was, however, they managed to intervene between the hounds and the frightened buck. Josh waved both arms, and shouted threateningly at the eager dogs. They possibly did not know what to make of it, for as a rule their masters probably tempted them to chase a deer even with the law against hounding in force.
"Keep back there, you greedy curs!" yelled Josh; and as Tom and Felix joined in the shouting, the last mentioned also waving his flashing paddle, the swimming dogs came to a pause.
Whenever they made a start as though intending to sweep past the log on which the three scouts were perched, Felix, waiting for some such move, paddled vigorously to head them off. This series of obstructive tactics, coupled with the demonstration made by the other boys, served to keep the hounds in check for a certain length of time.
"There, he's made the shore across on the other side of the pond!" announced Tom.
Looking that way the boys saw the harried buck hasten out of the shallow water. He turned once on the very edge to give a single glance back toward the baffled dogs, still swimming aimlessly about, and yapping in defeat, then leaped lightly into the undergrowth and vanished from sight.
"Good-bye!" shouted Josh, waving his hand after the rescued deer, "and good luck!"
The dogs by this time had managed to flank the obstruction.
"No use chasing after them any more, Felix," said Tom; "I think the deer has a good lead on them now, and will easily make his escape."
They watched the pack swim to the shore, and noted that they came out at some little distance from the spot where the buck had left the water.
"That's going to delay them still more," announced Tom; "they've lost the scent, and will have to chase up and down hunting for it."
Sure enough the hounds ran first one way with their noses to the ground, then doubled back. It was several minutes before a triumphant yelp announced that they had finally struck the lost trail.
"There they go with a rush!" said Josh, as the pack was seen to start off, following the course taken by the deer.
Their eager yelps became less distinct as they skirted around the foot of Big Bear Mountain.
"Well, that was a queer happening, wasn't it?" said Tom, as they prepared to resume their fishing, which had been so singularly interrupted.
"It'll make an interesting event for your note book, Tom," declared Felix.
"A deer is seldom seen around this region," Josh ventured to say; "which makes our luck all the more remarkable. I wouldn't have missed that sight for a good deal!"
"I saw Stanley Ackerman using his camera, so let's hope he got a bunch of snapshots that'll show the whole circus," Felix announced.
"How about allowing dogs to roam the woods up here, Tom; isn't it against the law in this State nowadays?" Josh asked.
"It certainly is," he was informed. "For a good many years chasing deer with hounds, and using a jack-light at nights to get them, has been strictly forbidden. Time was when packs of hounds used to be met with in plenty. Men would start out and hunt deer that way. Then the papers took it up, and showed the cruelty of the so-called sport, and it was abolished."
"According to the law anybody is allowed to shoot dogs caught in the act of running deer, especially in the summer time; isn't that right, Tom?"
"Yes, that's what we would have had a perfect right to do if we'd had a gun along. But I don't believe that pack belonged to any one man. They are dogs that have gone wild, and having gathered together in the woods, live by hunting."
"I've heard that dogs do go back to the old wolf strain sometimes," Josh admitted; "and now that you mention it, Tom, there was a wild look about every one of the beasts. I even thought they had half a notion to attack us at one time; but the way Felix kept that paddle flashing through the air cowed them, I guess."
The fishing was resumed, though all this racket seemed to have caused the bass to cease taking hold for some time. By skirting the more distant shores, close to where the water grass and reeds grew, they finally struck a good ground, and were amply rewarded for the efforts put forth.
"I think the bass must have their beds on this shoal here," said Tom, when they paddled back over the place at which success had come to them. "It's early in the season as yet, and a lot of them are still around here. They haven't gone out into deep water with their newly-hatched young ones."
"Is that what they do?" asked Felix, who was not as much of a fisherman as either of his chums.
"Well, not immediately after the eggs hatch," Tom told him. "The mother bass is going to keep her swarm of little ones in shallow water, and guard them until they get to a certain size. Then she darts in among them, scatters the whole lot, after which she is done with them. They have reached an age when they must take their chances."
When finally about noon the three came ashore, rather stiff from having straddled that log for such a length of time, they had a pretty fine string of fish, two of them in fact.
The talk as they ate their mid-day meal was along the subject of deer hunting, and Tom as well as Josh had to tell all about it, as far as they knew.
Stanley declared he had made good use of his camera, and hoped the results would come up to expectations. All of them united in saying that it had been an adventure worth while; and apparently their sympathies were wholly with the gallant buck, for they expressed a fervent hope that he would succeed in outrunning his canine enemies.
Somehow in the course of the conversation mention was made of Tony Pollock and his crowd.
"I heard Tony tell a story of having seen a deer pulled down somewhere in the forest last fall by a pack of ugly dogs," related George Cooper. "At the time I believed he was only yarning, though he vowed black and blue it was so. He said the dogs looked and acted so ugly that he thought it best to clear out before they turned on him."
"Like as not this same pack," remarked Tom. "They say that once a dog has taken to that savage sort of life nothing can ever coax him to go back to living with mankind again. It's in the blood, that call of the wild."
"Well," chuckled Josh, "we know of another kind of call of the wild that's going to be heard in the land pretty soon, when Farmer Sile Perkins faces Tony. He will demand double pay for the chickens Tony and his crowd stole, on penalty of his being arrested if he doesn't whack up. Oh I can just see Tony begin to crawl then; and I wonder how he'll get the money."
Carl was saying little or nothing, and Tom knew why. Here they had been on the hike several days, and as yet there had arisen not a single chance for him to get in touch with Dock Phillips.
Tom understood that another spell of dark foreboding was beginning to enfold his chum. At the first opportunity he could find, Tom joined Carl. The latter had thrown himself down on the bank some distance away from the camp, where he could be in the shade, and yet look out on the sunlit water, which just then had a most attractive aspect.
"You're worrying again because nothing has happened as we hoped would be the case, eh, Carl?" was what the patrol leader said as he dropped down close to the moody scout.
Carl sighed heavily.
"Perhaps it's foolish of me, Tom," he said, with a curious little break in his voice, which he tried hard to master; "but once in so often it seems as if something gripped me, and made me shiver. It's when I get to thinking what little real progress I am making that this chilly spell comes along."
"Yes, I can understand that," the other told him. "I did hope we might run on Dock while we were up here, and either force or coax him to tell what he did with the stolen paper. He's away from the influence of Mr. Culpepper, you know, and if we had to come down to offering him a price to get the paper he might accept."
"Oh! much as I hate to have to compromise such a thing," said Carl, desperately; "I believe I'd do it. Anything to get that paper, for the more I think of it the stronger I believe it means everything to my mother."
"Well, we haven't quite got to the end of our tether yet," the patrol leader assured him. "I can't explain it, but somehow there's a feeling inside of me that tells me to keep on hoping. In some sort of fashion luck is going to turn your way. Just keep up your grit, and hang on. Take a lesson from the persistence of those dogs in following the deer."
"Yes, I suppose I ought to. I've read how wolves will keep chasing after a deer day and night, steady as dock-work, until in the end they tire it out and get their dinner."
Just then they heard a shout, or what was closer to a shriek. It came from beyond the camp, and was immediately followed by cries of alarm from the other scouts.
"What's happened?" asked Tom, as with Carl he hurried to the spot to see a group approaching bearing some burden in their midst.
"Walt Douglass fell out of a tree," replied Billy Button, looking very pale; "and Mr. Witherspoon says he's afraid it means a fractured leg, if nothing worse!"
FIRST AID TO THE INJURED
Dismay seized upon most of the scouts upon realizing what a disaster had fallen upon them. Tom however was not the one to forget that he had made a special study of "first aid to the injured," as had also Rob Shaefer.
"Carry him over here, where we'll make a soft bed of the blankets, and then we've got to see how badly he's hurt!" was what Tom called out, hurrying on ahead to arrange things.
His example seemed contagious. Boys are apt to follow a leader very much as sheep will a bell-wether. Everybody wanted to assist; and the feeling of panic gave way to one of confidence. Scouts should be equal to any sudden emergency; and in that way prove the value of their education along the lines of usefulness.
Walter was groaning dismally, although trying his best to bear the pain. He looked as white as a sheet in the face. Tom's first act was to force himself to appear cheerful; he knew that if all of them stared and shuddered it would have a bad effect on the injured lad.
When they had made an examination Tom and Rob agreed that one of the bones only had been broken.
"It's a painful thing, but not nearly so bad as a compound fracture would be," Tom announced. "I think we can set it all right, temporarily, and then bind the leg up. In the meantime, Mr. Witherspoon, please make up your mind what we'd better do about getting Walter home in a hurry, where the doctor can take charge of him."
"I hope you won't think of giving up your hike just on account of me, fellows," said the poor Walter, weakly, showing a magnanimous spirit in adversity that made his chums feel all the more admiration for him.
"Leave that to me," Mr. Witherspoon announced; "I remember seeing an old car in the yard of that house we passed some three miles back. If you boys can make some sort of stretcher for carrying Walter I'll see that he gets home to-day, if I have to accompany him, and then come back again to you."
This cheered the stricken lad as nothing else could have done. Home just then had a most alluring look to Walter. The woods may seem all very delightful when a boy is perfectly well, but let sickness or an accident put him on his back, and there is nothing like one's own home.
After making some preparations, Tom and Rob announced that they were ready.
"It's going to hurt you some, Walter," said the patrol leader, regretfully; "but it's got to be done, you know. Those two ends of the bone must be brought together, and after that we intend to bandage your leg the very best we know how."
Walter shut his teeth hard together, and seemed to prepare for the worst.
"Go ahead, boys," he said, grimly; "I'll have to grin and bear it, I guess. And I deserve all I'm getting for being so silly as to slip when I was climbing that tree to see what was in the hole in the trunk."
He managed to stand it very bravely indeed, though the agony must have been intense. The other scouts heaved a sigh when they saw the amateur surgeons start to binding up the injured limb.
"That's all through with, Walter," said Tom, cheerily, "and you stood it like a soldier, we'll all declare. Just as soon as that litter is done you're going to be carried back to that house, if it takes every one of us to do the job."
Josh and some of the others had been busily engaged trying to construct a suitable litter. Fortunately they had learned how this should be done, for it is one of the duties of every Boy Scout to know this.
With the ax they cut a couple of stout poles about eight feet in length. These were to constitute the sides, and would form the handles, each one to be in charge of a scout.
A blanket was arranged across these in such a manner that there would not be the slightest danger of its slipping, after the two poles had been held a certain distance apart with a couple of cross-pieces.
When finally the litter was completed it was pronounced first-class by every one.
"I'm proud of the way you boys grapple with an emergency," said Mr. Witherspoon, enthusiastically. "You're all a credit to the organization to which you belong. I mean that your light shall not be kept under a bushel, for this is an example worthy of being spread abroad, and copied by other scouts."
The next thing was to lift Walter to the litter, which was done without giving the poor fellow much pain. He seemed so grateful for every little thing they did for him, and looked so pitiful lying there that tender-hearted Billy Button was observed to hurriedly rush away, pretending that he wanted to wash his hands down at the water, when they all knew the tears had been welling up in his eyes.
"It's going to be no easy task getting him all the way back to that house," said Mr. Witherspoon, "especially over such rough ground as we've struck. Four will be needed to work at a time, and they'll have to be relieved often, so perhaps we had better all go along save one scout, who can stay to look after the camp."
"Let Billy stay," said Josh; "he was complaining of a stone bruise on his heel, and would be better off here than taking that six mile tramp."
So it was decided that Billy Button should remain in the camp. He did not look as if he enjoyed the prospect very much.
"No wild animals around here to bother you, Billy," Josh assured him, when they were prepared to make the start.
"You forget those dogs, I guess," Billy told him; "they must be pretty mad at us for holding them up. What must I do if they take a notion to come back and threaten to eat me up?"
"Oh! the easiest thing for you to try," Josh told him, "would be to shin up this tree here, and wait for us to rescue you. We've hung our grub up so nothing can get hold of it. But don't worry, Billy; there isn't one chance in ten that the dogs'll come back this way."
It was a strange procession that left the camp. Stanley took a picture of the litter bearers so they would have something to remember the occurrence by; and Walter had so far recovered from the shock and the acute pain as to be able to raise his head, so that he might appear in the scene as the object of all this excitement.
Billy saw them depart, and then turned his attention to other things. Being left in full charge of the camp he had a sense of responsibility resting upon him, such as he had never experienced before.
It would take them perhaps two full hours going that distance with the injured boy, because great care would be required in picking the easiest way. Of course the return journey would be made in half that time.
Altogether three hours might elapse, even with the best of luck, before the main body of scouts could be expected back; and Billy had been told that they would depend on him to get supper started.
It was fine to see how very careful the litter bearers were as they pushed along the back trail. One would go ahead to lead the way, and so avoid any unusually rough places as much as possible. Every boy looked well to his footing, since any sort of jolt, such as would accompany a stumble, was apt to cause Walter unnecessary pain.
Their progress was necessarily somewhat slow. Tom said that was one of the times when it paid to be sure rather than to try to make speed. And from the fact that not once did they cause poor Walter to give a groan it could be seen that these careful litter-bearers fulfilled their duty fully as well as Red Cross or hospital attendants could have done.
The two hours and more had passed before they came to the house at which Mr. Witherspoon had remembered seeing a car. It turned out that the man who lived there was doing so for his health. He wanted to be in a quiet place on account of shattered nerves.
When he learned what had happened he told them he would gladly take the injured scout to his home, and that there was room also for Mr. Witherspoon, whom he would bring back with him again.
The splendid manner in which the scouts had managed, both with regard to doing up the fractured limb, and in making that litter, excited the man's admiration; and he felt that he could not do too much for those self-reliant lads.
"Such work should be encouraged by every right-thinking man or woman," he told them; "and after you've all had a cup of hot coffee, which my wife is getting ready right now, we'll be off."
Of course all of them were feeling much more cheerful, now that they knew the hike would not have to be abandoned on account of this accident. Some of the boys had begun to fear this would be the result.
"When I get back here from town," Mr. Witherspoon told them, "it is apt to be late, and I'll be too tired to try that three miles over rough ground. So I've made arrangements to stay here over-night with our good friends. In the morning after breakfast I'll start off along the trail for the camp. Of course it would be nice if several of you met me half way there."
"We'll be only too glad to do that, sir," Josh told him; for Mr. Witherspoon had by this time firmly entrenched himself in the affections of his boys, who believed him to be the best scout master any troop had ever boasted, barring none.
After seeing the car start, and giving Walter a rousing send-off that must have done his heart good, the rest of the boys concluded to turn their faces toward the camp.
"Three hours will seem an age to Billy Button," said Horace, who was feeling quite proud of the fact that he had been chosen as one of the litter-bearers.
"Oh! he'll have plenty to do cleaning all those fish we caught this morning, and some other odd jobs I gave him," remarked Josh, carelessly.
"Billy is inclined to be timid," Felix observed, loftily; "and it's a good thing, for him to be left alone once in a while. Nothing like making a scout feel he's just got to depend on himself for things."
The three miles was soon covered by the returning eight scouts.
"I can see smoke ahead!" announced Josh presently.
"Yes, and there's the pond shining in the light of the sun," added Felix.
"Isn't that our chum, Billy, waving his hands to us?" asked George. "Looks as if he wanted us to hurry up some. I wonder what's happened now?"
"Oh! he's only anxious for us to join him," said Carl; "perhaps he made a mistake in the time we were to be back, and he's gone and cooked all the fish."
It was soon seen, however, that the guardian of the camp had a good reason for his excitement. His face bore a troubled expression, it struck Tom, when he drew near the camp.
"Anything gone wrong here Billy?" he asked.
"I should say there had, Tom!" he burst out with. "Why, would you believe it, some miserable tramps raided the camp, and got away with most of our stuff!"
"Tell us how it happened, Billy!" said the patrol leader, when the clamor of excited voices partly died away, giving him a chance to make himself heard.
"Yes, what did they do to you, Billy?" demanded Josh, noticing that the other did not seem to be limping, or showing any other signs of having met with rough treatment at the hands of the camp raiders.
"Why, it was this way," Billy hastened to explain. "You see I was down by the water cleaning all those fish at the time. Guess I must have been pretty much a whole hour at the job. And I'd just about finished when I thought I heard somebody give a sneeze, which made me get up off my knees and look around."
"And did you see the tramps in camp cleaning things out then?" asked Felix.
"Well, no, not exactly," replied Billy; "the most I thought I saw was something moving in the bushes on the other side of the camp; and yes, it was just like a laugh too that I caught."
"What did you do?" asked Josh.
"I wondered if those wild dogs had come back," said the guardian of the camp, "and the first thing I thought to do was to put the pan of fish I'd cleaned up in the crotch of a tree. Then I went to the camp, and oh! my stars I but it was in an awful mess, with things flung around, and most of our eatables taken, as well as the frying-pan and coffee-pot!"
"Oh! that's sure the limit!" groaned Josh. "We'll never be able to keep on our hike with nothing to eat or drink, and not a pan to cook stuff in, even if we bought it from the farmers. It spells the end, fellows!"
"Yes," echoed George, always seeing the worst side of things, "we'll have to go back to town like dogs with their tails between their legs, and have all the other fellows make fun of us."
"Hold on there, fellows, don't show the white feather so easily," said Tom, who was looking very determined.
"Do you mean there's any chance for us to keep going, after our things have been taken in this way?" demanded George.
"Well, we can talk that over to-night, and then see what Mr. Witherspoon has to say about it when he joins us in the morning," Tom told him. "As for me, I'd be willing to go on half rations rather than own up beat. How do we know but that this raid on our stuff was made just to force us to give up our hike?"
"Why, how could that be?" asked Billy Button, wonderingly.
"And why would hoboes want that to happen?" added George.
"When Billy says they were tramps he's only jumping to conclusions," Tom explained, "he doesn't know a thing about it, because he owns up he failed to get even a single look at the thieves. I've got my own opinion about this thing."
"Meaning you believe you know who the fellows were?" questioned Carl.
"Stop and think—who would like nothing better than to put us in a hole? Don't we happen to know that Tony Pollock and his crowd are around here on Big Bear Mountain somewhere? Didn't they rob that hen roost of Mr. Perkins?"
"Tom, I really believe you're right!" exclaimed Josh, beginning to look at the matter from the standpoint taken by the patrol leader.
"We can soon settle that part of it!" declared Rob Shaeffer.
"By hunting for their tracks, and finding out how many thieves there were," Tom went on to say. "Come on Billy, and show me just where you saw the bushes moving when that laugh struck you."
He called upon the others to keep back so that they might not spoil any tracks to be found at that particular spot. A very little search showed the boys what they so eagerly sought.
"Here are tracks enough, and all heading away from the camp," said the patrol leader presently, "let's see how we can classify them, for every footprint will be different from the others."
"Here's one that is square across the toe," announced Josh, instantly. "And say, seems to me I remember Asa Green always wears shoes like that. Now Wedge McGuffey has got broad shoulders and spindle legs, and he wears a pointed shoe like the one that made these tracks."
"Here's another that's got a patch across the toe," said Felix. "Couldn't mistake that shoe, no matter where you saw it. A fellow could be hung on such circumstantial evidence as that."
"And here's a fourth that's different from any of the rest," continued Tom, as he pointed downward, "so it looks as if there were just four in the bunch, which you may remember corresponds with the number in Tony Pollock's crowd, now that Dock Phillips has thrown his lot in with them."
Some of the scouts expressed their indignation loudly as they investigated the results of the daring raid. It would not have been pleasant for Tony and his cronies had they been brought face to face with the angry scouts about that time.
Tom Chesney soon had reason to admit that he had met with a personal loss that bothered him exceedingly.
"They've even taken my little diary in which I've been keeping an accurate account of our entire trip," he announced; "though what good that could do them I'm at a loss to understand."
"Oh! they just believed it would make you feel bad," explained Carl; "and that would tickle Tony, he's such a mean sort of fellow. Perhaps he expects to read it out to the others while they sit by their fire, and then throw it away. I hope you can write it all over again, Tom."
"Too bad!" declared Josh, "when you went to such trouble to jot everything down just as it happened, thinking you might take that prize offered for the best true account of a hike by scouts."
"I'll make sure to write this latest adventure out while it's fresh in my mind," remarked Tom, bent on making the best of a bad bargain.
"Well," observed Felix, "all I hope is that we decide not to give up the ship for such a little thing as being without provisions. It'll make us hustle some to lay in a supply; but, after all, the experience is going to be a great thing for us."
"And if it comes to a vote," added Horace, showing unexpected stamina in this emergency; "count on my voice being raised against giving up. Why, I'm just getting interested in this game, and I find it pretty exciting."
"Just what I say!" echoed Josh.
"And I!" came from every one of the others, without even the exception of poor Billy, who seemed to feel that he might be mostly to blame because the raid on the camp had been conducted while he was in charge.
Tom smiled on hearing so unanimous an expression of opinion. He knew that even such an apparent catastrophe as had befallen them was not going to cause these gallant fellows to "take water."
"How long ago was it that the raid took place, Billy?" asked Josh, as though a sudden idea had struck him.
"Oh! I should say about an hour or more," replied the other, after thinking it over. "I suppose they watched the camp for a while to make sure I was the only one around. Then when they saw me so busy down there by the pond they just started to root. They may have been poking around half an hour, for all I know; I was keeping my eyes on my work and thinking of poor Walter."
"Tom, would it pay us to follow them right now?" demanded Josh, while his eyes sparkled with the spirit of retaliation, as though he could picture them pouncing on the spoilers of the camp, and making them pay dearly for their frolic.
The patrol leader, however, shook his head in the negative, much to the disappointment of the impetuous Josh.
"In the first place they were apt to hurry off," said Tom. "Then they might even try to blind their trail, though I don't believe any of them know much of the Indian way of doing that. But the sun will soon set, and it grows dark early along the northeast side of Big Bear Mountain you know."
"Yes," added George, always ready with an objection, "and some of us feel a little tired after all we've gone through with to-day."
"We'd better leave that until Mr. Witherspoon joins us in the morning," concluded Tom. "Of course that wouldn't prevent a couple of scouts following the trail a bit while breakfast was cooking, and saving us that much trouble later on."
"The next thing for us to see about is how under the sun will we cook all these delicious bass Billy's got ready?" remarked Felix.
"Oh! I forgot to tell you they missed one frying-pan," remarked Billy, exultantly; "it chanced to be hanging from a nail I drove in a tree, and they couldn't have seen it. By making relays we can do our cooking in that."
"Besides, we're two shy of our original number," added Horace.
"What would we have done without any skillet at all, Tom?" asked Billy.
"Oh! there are ways of doing it by heating a flat stone, and cooking the fish on that," replied Tom. "Then some old hunters who won't bother to carry a frying-pan into the woods with them manage by toasting the meat or fish at the end of a long sliver of wood. Given the fish and a hot fire, the fellow who couldn't invent some way of cooking would deserve to go hungry."
"That's right," agreed Josh. "And everybody notice that it's going to take more than a little thing like this to stall the scouts who are up to their business."
Indeed, there did seem to be an unusual spirit of animation among the boys that evening. Every fellow was anxious to assist in getting supper ready, so that after all it began to look at one time like a case of "too many cooks spoiling the broth."
When the first batch of fish had been browned they were kept hot on a clean stone close to the fire while the other lot was cooked. As their supply of coffee had gone together with numerous other things, the boys had to drink cold water for supper. Loud were the lamentations over this.
"The smell of coffee, bacon, or fried onions is what always makes it seem like camping out," declared Josh, sadly; "and now we haven't got a single one of those lovely things left. Our breakfast is going to be a pretty limited one; and as for other meals to-morrow, where they are going to come from is a question I'd like somebody to settle."
"Listen," said Tom. "I'm going to get you up at daylight, Josh."
"Me? What for? Do we have to start in fishing that early, or else go hungry?"
"I want you to go along with me, that's all, Josh."
"Along—where to, may I ask?" continued the other scout, wonderingly.
"Back to where we took Walter," replied Tom; "I think when that gentleman hears what's happened to us, after we tell Mr. Witherspoon, he might be willing to sell us some supplies, such as coffee and bacon, and even loan us an extra frying-pan, as well as some sort of tin to boil coffee in."
So, after all, the boys who gathered around the camp fire that evening, after such an eventful day, did not seem to be cast down one-half as much as undoubtedly the four young rascals who had played this mean trick upon them expected would be the case.
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
It was just about an hour after dawn, and the sun had hardly got started on his journey toward the zenith, when two boys in the khaki garb of scouts arrived at the house to which Walter Douglass had been carried on a litter.
Mr. Witherspoon on coming out to get a breath of air before breakfast was announced was surprised and pleased to see Tom and Josh.
"Why, this is splendid of you, boys!" he remarked, as they came toward him. "Of course you were anxious to know about your comrade. We got him safely home, and called the doctor, who said he would not have to set the limb again, since you scouts had done the job in first-class style. It's a feather in your cap, for he is sure to tell it everywhere. Now, what makes you look so glum, Josh?"
That gave them a chance to explain. When the scout master heard of the latest outrage of which the Tony Pollock crowd had been guilty, he was much annoyed.
"We thought," Tom went on to say, "that perhaps by coming over here before you got started we might influence the gentleman to spare us a small amount of coffee, a strip of bacon, and some sort of tin to make the coffee in."
"No harm trying," Mr. Witherspoon immediately remarked; "and it does you credit to have thought up such a scheme. I've found him an accommodating gentleman. If he has anything he can spare I'm sure we'll be welcome to it."
When the matter was mentioned to Mr. Clark, he immediately offered to help them out as far as he could do so.
"I can give you plenty of eggs," he said, "and enough coffee for several meals. It happens that I'm shy on bacon just now, and intended to run in to town to stock up either to-day or to-morrow, when I have my eggs to dispose of. What I can spare, you're entirely welcome to."
Nor would he allow them to pay a cent for what he handed over to them.
"What I've heard about you boys from Mr. Witherspoon here has aroused my interest greatly," he told Tom and Josh as they were about to depart; "and I'd be glad to know more about such a splendid movement as this promises to be. You must keep me informed of your progress. I would appreciate an occasional letter. Then, if it happens that your account of the outing is ever put in print, Tom, remember me with a copy."
"I certainly will, sir," the patrol leader promised, for he realized that the gentleman and his wife led a lonely life of it, removed from association as they were, with most of their fellows.
They reached the camp in three-quarters of an hour after leaving the house, and received a noisy welcome from the rest of the boys, who gave their leaders the regular scout salute as they came into camp.
Then once again the affair was discussed, this time with Mr. Witherspoon to listen and give occasional comments. It ended in their original plan's being sustained. They would not give up, and would try to carry out the plan as arranged before the hike was started.
Tom had an idea that they must be near the cabin of Larry Henderson, the naturalist whom he had met in Lenox, at the time of the snowball battle with the Pollock crowd.
"He gave me directions how to find his cabin," Tom explained to his companions when they were discussing this matter, "and I believe we must be somewhere near there right now. I asked Mr. Clark, and what he could tell me only confirmed my idea."
"But Tom, do you think we could get some supplies from him?" asked Josh.
"There's a reasonable chance of that," he was told. "I understood him to say he always kept a supply of all sorts of food on hand. It was to lay in a lot that took him down to Lenox that time, you know."
"Then goodness knows I hope we can run on his shack to-day," said Felix fervently. "We want most of all coffee, potatoes, onions, bacon, ham, and, well anything that can stop the gap when ten campers are half starved."
"Shall we get started right away, Tom?" asked George, who looked distressed, as though he had not been wholly satisfied with the amount of his breakfast.
"There's nothing to delay us, since we have no tents to come down," Tom told him. "Every fellow fold up a blanket, and make his pack ready."
"It's going to be marching in light order with us nowadays," sighed Felix, "with all our good stuff stolen. That's the only compensation I can see about it."
"Tom, you've studied your chart good and hard, let's hope," commented Josh; "so we won't run any chance of going past the place without knowing it?"
"He gave me certain land marks that I couldn't very well miss seeing," explained the patrol leader.
"According to my way of thinking," Felix was saying, "we must be half around the foot of Big Bear Mountain by this time."
"You've got the right idea of it," admitted the one who carried the chart; "and Mr. Henderson's cabin isn't far away from here. That crag up on the side of the mountain was one of the things he told me about. When we can get it in a direct line with that peak up there we will be within shouting distance of his place."
Tom continued to keep on his guard as they pressed onward. Every one was alive to the necessity of finding the cabin of the old naturalist as soon as possible. Farms were so rare up here that they found they could not count on getting their supplies from such places; and the possibility of going hungry was not a pleasant prospect.
After all it was an hour after noon when Tom announced the fact that the several land marks which had been given to him were in conjunction.
"The cabin must be around here somewheres," he said, positively.
Hardly had he spoken when Josh was noticed to be sniffing the air in a suspicious fashion.
"What is it, Josh?" asked the scout master.
"I smell smoke, that's all," was the answer.
Others could do the same, now that their attention was called to the fact.
"With the breeze coming from over that way, it ought to be plain enough we must look for the cabin there," remarked Tom.
The further they advanced the plainer became the evidence that there was a fire of some sort ahead of them. Presently they got a whiff of cooking, at which some of the hungry scouts began to sniff the air like war horses when the odor of burnt powder comes down the breeze from the battlefield.
"There it is!" exclaimed one of the watchful boys, suddenly.
Yes, there stood a commodious cabin right in the midst of the thick woods. It was a charming site for the home of one who loved nature as much as the old naturalist did.
When a vociferous shout rang forth a form was seen to come quickly to the open doorway. It was the same genial Larry Henderson whom some of the scouts had once rescued from the unkind assault of the bully of Lenox and his crowd, as they pelted the lame man with hard ice balls.
He welcomed them to his little home with a heartiness that could not be doubted, and soon a royal dinner was being prepared for the whole party. While this was being dispatched later on, the owner of the woods cabin listened to the story of the great hike over Big Bear Mountain, as told by the boys.
Everything seemed to interest him very much indeed, and when last of all they told him how some unscrupulous boys had stolen most of their supplies, meaning to break up the hike, Mr. Henderson looked pleased.
"Don't let a little thing like that deter you, boys, from carrying out your original proposition," he remarked. "I can spare you all you want in the way of supplies. Yes and even to a coffee-pot and an extra frying-pan. An enterprise as splendidly started as this has been must not be allowed to languish, or be utterly wrecked through the mean tricks of such scamps as those boys."
He was pleased when they gave him a round of hearty cheers, such as could only spring from a group of lively, wide-awake American boys.
Afterwards he showed Tom and some of the others many things that interested them more than words could tell. Indeed, so fascinating were the various things he took the trouble to explain to them, that the scouts only wished they could stay at the cabin in the woods for a number of days, enjoying his society.
It was decided that they must remain there at least until another morning, which would give them a night with the naturalist and hunter, a prospect that afforded satisfaction all around.
Tom soon saw that Mr. Henderson had something on his mind which he wished to confide to him; consequently he was not much surprised when he saw him beckon to the leader of the Black Bear Patrol to join him.
"Tell Mr. Witherspoon to come, too, and also that bright chap you call Rob," remarked the recluse. "It is a little matter that may interest you and I think it best to lay the story before you, and then let you decide for yourselves what you want to do. Still, from what I've seen up to this time of your character, I can give a pretty shrewd guess what your answer will be."
Of course this sort of talk aroused a good deal of curiosity in both Tom Chesner and Rob Shaefer, and they impatiently awaited the coming of the scout master.
"And now I'll explain," Mr. Henderson told them, when he found three eager pairs of eyes fastened on him. "I chanced to be about half a mile away from home an hour before noon to-day when I heard angry voices, and discovered that several persons were about to pass by, following a trail that leads straight into the worst bog around the foot of Big Bear Mountain."
"I warrant you that it must have been the four young rascals who robbed our camp, that you saw," ventured Mr. Witherspoon.
"I know now that it was as you say," continued the other. "At the time I might have called out and warned them of the peril that lay in wait for them if they should continue along that misleading trail, but when I looked at their faces, and heard a little of the vile language they used, I determined that it would be a very unwise thing for me to let them know I lived so near."
"And you allowed them to go on past, you mean, sir?" questioned Mr. Witherspoon.
"Yes, I regret to confess it now," came the reply, "but at the time it seemed to be simply ordinary caution on my part. Besides, how was I to know they would pay the slightest heed to anything I might say? I did not like their looks. But since then I've had grave doubts about the wisdom of my course, and was more than half inclined to start out, lame though I am, to see whether they did get off the only safe trail, and lose themselves in the bog."
"Is it then so dangerous?" asked Mr. Witherspoon; while Tom was saying to himself that perhaps the chance so ardently desired by poor Carl might be coming at last.
"There are places where it might be death itself to any one who got off the trail, and became bewildered. The mud is deceptive, and once one gets fast in it an hour or two is apt to see him swallowed up; nor will his fate ever be known, for the bottomless mire of the bog never discloses its secrets."
Tom drew a long breath.
"If you will show us the way there, sir," he told the naturalist, "we will certainly accompany you."
INTO THE BIG BOG
"Is it worth our while to bother with that crowd, Tom?" asked Josh, with a look approaching disgust on his face.
One lad waited to hear what reply the patrol leader would make with more or less eagerness, as his face indicated. Needless to say this was Carl Oskamp, who had so much at stake in the matter.
"There's just this about it, Josh," said Tom, gravely, "suppose after we arrived safely home from this splendid hike, the first thing we heard was that one or two of that crowd had been lost in the Great Bog up here, and it was feared they must have found a grave in the mud flats. How would we feel about it, knowing that we had had the chance given to us to stretch out a helping hand them, and had failed?"
Josh turned red in the face. Then he made a sudden gesture which meant he was ready to throw up his hands.
"Huh! guess you know best," he replied, in a husky voice; "I didn't think of it that way. I'd sure hate to have such a thing on my mind nights. Let's start right away then."
That was the way with Josh; when he had anything unpleasant to do he was always eager to get it accomplished. For that matter, however, there were others among the scouts who wished to be astir, for the words of the patrol leader had thrilled them.
"What if they have gotten lost in that awful mud bog, and right now are stuck fast there, whooping for help?" suggested Felix.
Billy Button and Horace looked white with the very thought. As usual George pretended to make light of the whole matter, though some of them fancied much of his disbelief was assumed, for George had a reputation to maintain.
"Oh! no danger of those Smart Alecks being caught so easy," he told them; "they could slip through any sort of bog without getting stuck. Like as not we'll only have our trouble for our pains."
"You can stay here at the cabin if you like, George," Tom told him.
That, however, was far from George's mind; if the others meant "to make fools of themselves he guessed he could stand it too"; and when they started forth George had his place in the very van. Josh often said George's "bark was worse than his bite."
"Fortunately," said the old naturalist, "the Great Bog isn't more than a mile away from here, and as I've spent many a happy hour there observing the home life of the little creatures that live in its depths the ground is familiar to me."
"But you still limp, I notice, sir," remarked Tom; "are you sure you can make it to-day? Hadn't we better try it alone?"
"I wouldn't think of letting you," replied the other, hastily. "I shall get along fairly well, never fear. This limp has become more a habit with me than anything else, I must admit. But if you are ready let us start off."
Accordingly the entire party began to head in the direction taken by those four boys from Lenox. Rob and Josh were keeping a close watch, and from time to time announced that those they were following had actually come along that same trail, for they could see their footprints.
"You know we took note of the different prints made by their shoes," Rob told some of the other boys when they expressed surprise that this should be possible, "and it's easy enough to tell them every once in a while."
"They are really following my usual trail, which I always take when going to or returning from a trip," explained the hermit-naturalist, looking pleased at this manifestation of scout sagacity on the part of the trackers.
Tom was keeping alongside his chum Carl, instead of being with those who led the procession. He had a reason for this, too; since he had seen that the other was again showing signs of nervousness.
"Tom," said Carl in a low voice as they walked steadily onward, "do you think I may have a chance to see Dock face to face, so I can ask him again to tell me what he ever did with that paper he took?"
"While of course I can't say positively," was Tom's steady answer, "I seem to feel that something's going to happen that will make you happier than you've been this many a long day, Carl."
"Oh! I hope you're on the right track!" exclaimed Carl, drawing a long breath, as he clutched the arm of his faithful chum. "It would mean everything to me if only I could go home knowing I was to get that paper. Just think what a fine present it would be to my mother, worried half to death as she is right now over the future."
"Well, keep hoping for the best, and it's all going to come out well. But what's that the boys are saying?"
"I think they must have sighted the beginning of the Great Bog," replied Carl. "Do you suppose Mr. Henderson has brought that stout rope along with the idea that it may be needed to pull any one out of the mud?"
"Nothing else," said Tom. "He knows all about this place, and from what he's already told us I reckon it must be a terrible hole."
"Especially in that one spot where he says the path is hidden under the ooze, and that if once you lose it you're apt to get in deeper and deeper, until there's danger of being sucked down over your head."
"It's a terrible thing to think of," declared Tom; "worse even than being caught in a quicksand in a creek, as I once found myself."
"How did you get out?" asked Carl. "I never heard you say anything about it before, Tom?"
"Oh! in my case it didn't amount to much," was the answer, "because I realized my danger by the time the sand was half way to my knees. I suppose if I'd tried to draw one foot out the other would have only gone down deeper, for that's the way they keep sinking, you know."
"But tell me how you escaped?" insisted Carl.
"I happened to know something about quicksands," responded the other, modestly, "and as soon as I saw what a fix I was in I threw myself flat, so as to present as wide a surface as I could, and crawled and rolled until I got ashore. Of course I was soaked, but that meant very little compared with the prospect of being smothered there in that shallow creek."
"But the chances are Tony and those other fellows know nothing at all about the best ways to escape from a sucking bog," ventured Carl.
"Yes, and I can see that Mr. Henderson is really worried about it. He is straining his ears all the while, and I think he must be listening in hope of hearing calls for help."
"But none of us have heard anything like that!" said the other.
"No, not a shout that I could mention," Tom admitted. "There are those noisy crows keeping up a chatter in the tree-tops where they are holding a caucus, and some scolding bluejays over here, but nothing that sounds like a human cry."
"It looks bad, and makes me feel shivery," continued Carl.
"Oh! we mustn't let ourselves think that all of them could have been caught," the patrol leader hastened to say, meaning to cheer his chum up. "They may have been smarter than Mr. Henderson thinks, and managed to get through the bog without getting stuck."
Perhaps Carl was comforted by these words on the part of his chum; but nevertheless the anxious look did not leave his face.
They had by this time fully entered the bog. It was of a peculiar formation, and not at all of a nature to cause alarm in the beginning. Indeed it seemed as though any person with common sense could go through on those crooked trails that ran this way and that.
The old naturalist had taken the lead at this point, and they could see that he kept watching the trail in front of him. From time to time he would speak, and the one who came just behind passed the word along, so in turn every scout knew that positive marks betrayed the fact of Tony's crowd having really come that way.
By slow degrees the nature of the bog changed. One might not notice that his surroundings had become less promising, and that the surface of the ooze, green though it was, would prove a delusion and a snare if stepped on, allowing the foot to sink many inches in the sticky mass.
In numerous places they could see where the boys ahead of them had missed the trail, though always managing to regain the more solid ground.
"It's getting a whole lot spooky in here, let me tell you!" admitted Felix, after they had been progressing for some time.
"But it's entirely different from a real swamp, you see," remarked Josh; "I've been in a big one and I know."
"How about that, Josh; wouldn't you call a bog a swamp, too?" asked George.
"Not much I wouldn't," was the reply. "A swamp is always where there are dense trees, hanging vines and water. It's a terribly gloomy place even in the middle of the day, and you're apt to run across snakes, and all sorts of things like that."
"Well, we haven't seen a single snake so far," admitted Horace. "I'm glad, too, because I never did like the things. This isn't so very gloomy, when you come to look around you, but I'd call it just desolate, and let it go at that."
"Black mud everywhere, though it's nearly always covered with a deceptive green scum," remarked Josh, "with here and there puddles of water where the frogs live and squawk the live-long day."
"I wonder how deep that mud is anyhow?" speculated George.
"Suppose you get a pole and try while we're resting here," suggested Josh, with a wink at the scout next to him.
George thereupon looked around, and seeing a pole which Mr. Henderson may have placed there at some previous time he started to push it into the bog.
"What d'ye think of that, fellows?" he exclaimed, in dismay when he had rammed the seven foot pole down until three fourths of its length had vanished in the unfathomable depths of soft muck.
"Why, seems as if there wasn't any bottom at all to the thing," said Felix.
"Of course there is a bottom," remarked the naturalist, who had been watching the boys curiously; "but in some places I've been unable to reach it with the longest pole I could manage."
"Have we passed that dangerous place you were telling us about, sir?" asked Mr. Witherspoon.
"No, it is still some little distance ahead," came the reply.
"If it's much worse than right here I wouldn't give five cents for their chances," declared George.
"Hark!" exclaimed Tom just then.
"What did you hear?" cried Carl.
"It sounded like voices to me, though some distance off, and coming from further along the trail," the patrol leader asserted.
"They may be stuck in the mire and trying every way they can to get out," observed the naturalist. "Let us give them a shout, boys. Now, all together!"
As they all joined in, the volume of sound must have been heard a mile away. Hardly had the echoes died out than from beyond came loud calls, and plainly they heard the words "Help, help! Oh! come quick, somebody! Help!"
RETURNING GOOD FOR EVIL
When that wailing cry reached their ears it thrilled the scouts through and through, for now they knew that the worst must have happened to the wretched Tony Pollock and his three cronies, adrift in the treacherous muck bog.
"Forward, but be very careful to keep in my tracks all the time!" called out the naturalist as he started off.
They wound around this way and that. There were times when Rob, who came directly on the heels of the pilot, could not see the slightest trace of a trail; but he realized that from long association and investigation Mr. Henderson knew exactly where to set his feet, and thus avoid unpleasant consequences.
They now and then sent out reassuring calls, for those unseen parties ahead continued to make fervent appeals, as though a terrible fear assailed them that the rescuers might go astray and miss them.
By degrees the shouts sounded closer, though becoming exceedingly hoarse. Presently Felix called out that he believed he had glimpsed the unfortunate boys.
"Oh! they're all in the mud, and up to their waists at that!" he cried.
"No, you're wrong there, Felix," said Josh. "Three of them seem to be stuck fast, but there's one up in that tree nearly over them. He must have managed to pull himself up there, somehow or other."
"He's got a branch, and is trying to help one of his mates," asserted Rob. "But he doesn't seem to be making much headway."
"They're in a peck of trouble, believe me!" admitted George, for once neglecting to sneer at the prospect of a fatality.
Carl was trying to make out who the three in the bog were.
"Can you see if he's in there, Tom?" he asked, eagerly.
"Yes, it's Wedge McGuffey up in the tree, and the others must be Tony, Asa and Dock," the patrol leader assured him; nor did he blame poor Carl for sighing as though in relief, for he could easily guess what it meant to him, this golden opportunity to be of help to the stubborn boy who could lift the load from his heart, if only he chose.
When they came closer to the struggling captives in the lake of mud they heard them actually sobbing for joy. Hope must have been almost gone when first they heard that chorus of cheering shouts. And when the scouts saw what a desperate condition the three prisoners were in they could not blame them for showing such emotion in the excess of their joy.
Soon the newcomers were as close as they could come to the three who were stuck there in the mire. Never would they forget their deplorable appearance. They had evidently floundered about until they were fairly plastered over with the mud, and looked like imps.
"Can't you get us out of here, fellers?" called Tony Pollock, in a voice that seemed almost cracked, such was his excitement, and his fears that these scouts, whom he had done his best to injure, might think to pay him back in his own coin and abandon him to his fate.
"Yes, we'll manage it some way or other," said the hermit-naturalist. "Keep as still as you can, because every movement only sends you down deeper."
Then he turned to Tom, for he knew the patrol leader was the one to take charge of the rescue party.
"Here's the rope, Tom," he told him. "Pick out several of the stoutest of your comrades, and make use of the tree as a lever. It's all very simple, you can see, thought it may hurt them more or less when you pull."
Tom understood what was expected of him.
"Come along with me, Carl, Rob and Josh," he said. "The rest of you stand by and be ready to pull if we need any more help. We'll pass the end of the rope back to you."
"But how are we going to climb up in the tree?" asked Rob; "without getting stuck in the mud ourselves?"
"There's only one way," replied Tom, as he seized hold of a branch that happened to be within reach, and commenced to climb it as though he were a sailor swarming up a rope.
When he had effected a lodgment above they threw the rope to him, and after Tom had made one end fast to the thick limb the other three had little difficulty in following him.
Then they clambered out to where Wedge McGuffey was perched. His condition betrayed the fact that he too had been caught in the muck; but being closer to a friendly branch he must have made a tremendous effort and climbed into the tree.
First of all Tom made a running noose in the end of the rope. Then he lowered this to Tony who was almost below the limb of which they were astride.
"Listen, Tony," said Tom, clearly, "put the loop under your arms, with the knot at your chest. Then grin and bear it, because we've got to drag hard to get you free from all that stuff you're in."
"Oh! never mind about me, Tom; I'd stand anything if only I could get out of this terrible place. Pull me in half if you have to; I'm game!" said the boy below.
They found that it was really a little harder than they had bargained for, because of their insecure footing. Accordingly, after several attempts that did not meet with much success, Tom had the other end of the rope carried to the scouts who were on the ground.
After that Tony just had to come. He evidently suffered pain, but, as he had said, he was game, and in the end they hoisted him to the limb, where he clung watching the next rescue.
It happened that Asa was the second to be pulled out. Meanwhile Dock was in great distress of mind. All his nerve seemed to have gone, for he kept pleading with Carl not to think of having revenge because of the way he had harmed him.
"Only get me out of this, Carl," he kept saying, "and I've got something right here in my pocket I'm meaning to give back to you. I was getting shaky about it anyhow; but if you help me now you're a-goin' to have it, sure you are, Carl!"
It can easily be imagined that Carl worked feverishly when it came time to get Dock Phillips out. He was deeper than either of the others had been, and it required some very rough usage before finally they loosened him from his miry bed.
Dock groaned terribly while the work was being carried on, but they did not stop for that, knowing it had to be. In the end he, too, was drawn up to the limb, a most sorry looking spectacle indeed, but his groans had now changed into exclamations of gratitude.
It required much labor to get the four mud-daubed figures down to where the others were awaiting them. Even Tom and his helpers were pretty well plastered by that time, and their new uniforms looked anything but fine. Josh grumbled a little, but as for Tom and Carl they felt that it was worth all it cost and a great deal more.
Carl would not wait any longer than he could help. Perhaps he believed in "striking while the iron was hot." Tom too was egging him on, for he felt that the sooner that precious paper was in the possession of his chum the better.
"Dock, I hope you mean to keep your word to me," Carl said, as they took up the line of march over the ground that had been so lately covered.
Dock was seen to be fumbling as though reaching into an inner pocket; and while the suspense lasted of course Carl held his very breath. Then a hand reached back, and something in it was eagerly seized by the widow's son. One look told him that it was the paper his mother needed so much in order to balk the greedy designs of Amasa Culpepper.
"How is everything now, Carl?" asked a voice in his ear, and turning he found Tom's smiling face close to his own.
"Oh! that terrible load seems to have fallen from my shoulders just as water does from the back of a duck!" Carl exclaimed, joyously, and the patrol leader saw that he was very happy.
"I'm so glad!" was all Tom said, but the way he grasped his chum's hand counted for much more than mere words.
When they finally reached the end of the treacherous Great Bog there was a halt called by the naturalist.
"We must stop here and try to clean these boys off as best we can," he announced.
This was no easy task, but by making use of slivers of wood from a fallen tree they finally managed to relieve Tony and his crowd of most of the black mud, although they would be apt to carry patches of it on their garments for some time after it dried.
"Now," said the kindly old hermit-naturalist, "I'm going to invite all of you up to my cabin, and we'll have a feast to-night in celebration of this rescue from the Great Bog. You four lads have had a narrow escape, and I only hope you'll never forget what the scouts have done for you."
Even Tony seemed affected, and certainly no one had ever before known him to show the first sign of contrition. He went straight up to Tom and looked him in the eye.
"We played your crowd a mighty low trick I want to say, Tom Chesney; and while we've et up most of the grub we took, here's something you might be glad to get back again," and with that he thrust into the hand of the patrol leader the little note-book which Tom had mourned as lost to him forever.
"I'm glad to have that again, Tony," the other said, offering his hand to the contrite one; "because I mean to use my account of this hike later on in trying for a prize. It's lucky you didn't throw it away as you did the frying-pan and coffee-pot, which I see you failed to carry along with you."
"We know where they're hid in the brush," Tony hastened to declare; "and I c'n get 'em again inside of an hour. I'm a-goin' to do it too, 'cause I feel mean about that thing. I'm done with callin' the scouts names. Fellers that'd reach out a helpin' hand to them that didn't deserve it must be the right sort. And laugh if you want to, Tom Chesney, but when we get back home I want ye to lend me a book that tells all a feller has to do when he thinks of gettin' up a scout troop!"
Tony was as good as his word. When he said a thing he stuck to it, which was his best quality. He tramped a long way back along the trail, and reappeared after sunset bearing the missing cooking utensils.
"We're going to pay for the eatables we took later on, I promise ye, Tom," he declared.
They spent a great night and those four boys who had hated the scouts so long learned many wonderful things connected with the great movement as they sat by the fire, and listened to all that was said.
In the morning they went their way, and appeared to be different youths from what they had been in the past.
Mr. Witherspoon and the scouts spent another day and night with the hermit-naturalist. Then on the next morning they started forth to complete their hike over Big Bear Mountain.
It chanced that no further adventures came their way, and one afternoon weary but well satisfied with the success of their trip, the troop re-entered Lenox, with Felix sounding his fish horn just as valiantly as though it were the most beautiful silver-plated bugle that money could buy.
WHEN CARL CAME HOME—CONCLUSION
Amasa Culpepper had taken advantage of the absence of Carl to drop around that afternoon to see the widow. He fully believed that by this time Dock Phillips had either destroyed or lost the paper he claimed to have found; or else Amasa felt that he could secure possession of it at any time by paying the sum the boy demanded.
When Carl drew near his home he saw the well-known rig of the old lawyer and grocer at the gate. Somehow, the sight gave Carl an unpleasant feeling. Then, as his hand unconsciously went up to the pocket where he had that precious paper, he felt a sensation of savage joy.
They would get rid of this nuisance at last. Mr. Culpepper would have to produce the certificate for the oil shares that had become so valuable, now that the receipt he had given for it could be produced, and after that an era of prosperity would come to the Oskamp's, with grim poverty banished forever.
Carl entered by the gate, and passed around the side of the house instead of using the front door as usual.
The boy knew that the windows of the little sitting room must be open, and of course the afternoon caller would be in there. Carl was anxious to hear what had caused the rich old man to don his best clothes and drop in to see his mother of an afternoon, though he strongly suspected the reason back of it.
It did not strike the boy that he was playing the part of an eavesdropper, for in his mind just then the end justified the means. And he knew that Amasa Culpepper had to be fought with his own weapons.
Evidently he must have again asked Mrs. Oskamp to marry him, and as before met with a laughing refusal, for Carl could hear him walking nervously up and down in the little sitting room.
Having exhausted his stock of arguments as to why she should think seriously of his proposal, Mr. Culpepper seemed to be getting angry. He had been courting the widow for a long time without making any impression on her heart. It was time to change his tactics. Perhaps since entreaties had failed something in the way of half-veiled threats would become more successful.
"You tell me that with the burning of the tenement building more than half of your little property has been lost," Carl heard him saying as he crouched there under the open window.
"Yes, that is the sad truth, Mr. Culpepper," the widow admitted.
"But with a family of children to bring up how are you going to live from now on, when before this happened you had barely enough? If you would seriously consider the proposition I make you, and become Mrs. Culpepper, your children would have a good home."
"That is very generous of you, Mr. Culpepper," Carl heard his mother say, while he fairly held his breath in suspense for fear she might agree to what the other asked; "but I cannot change my mind. I never expect to marry again."
"But how can you get along, I want to know?" he demanded, angrily. "It takes money to live, and you will see the children you love suffer."
"There is one resource still left," she told him, as though urged to put him to the test. "It lies in those shares of oil stock which you are holding for me. They have become very valuable, and when I dispose of them I hope to have enough and to spare for all future needs."
There was a brief and awkward silence.
"But what evidence is there," he finally asked icily, "that you ever placed any shares of stock in my hand, or even so, that they were not delivered to you again? Of course you can show my name at the bottom of a receipt if that is the fact?"
"Is that absolutely necessary, Mr. Culpepper?" she asked, helplessly.
"It is strictly business, madam," the visitor went on, in his cold, cutting tones that were like the rasping of a file. "I could not think of handing over anything of value that was in my possession without receiving in return a receipt."
"But you would not be so cruel as to deprive my children of their bread simply because of a little technicality, sir? I will do anything the law demands to insure that you are not held liable whether the lost receipt is ever found again or not."
"There is only one thing you can do," continued Mr. Culpepper, eagerly, "that will cause me to waive my rights, and you know what that is. Those are my only terms of surrender."
"That's just where you're a whole lot mistaken Mr. Culpepper!" cried Carl, unable to hold in any longer, and thrusting his head and shoulders through the open window as he spoke.
The widow gave a slight shriek, while Mr. Culpepper said something half under his breath that no doubt expressed his feelings.
"What do you mean by saying that?" he asked, in a voice that was unsteady.
"You made a statement that you'll have to take water on," Carl told him with a broad smile on his face. "Listen! My mother will be down at your office to-morrow morning with Judge Beatty and myself, and she'll demand that you deliver the paper that this receipt calls for!"
With that he held up the precious little paper so that those in the sitting room could see it. Mrs. Oskamp gave a bubbling cry of joy, while Amasa Culpepper, seizing his hat and stick, hurried out of the door, entered his buggy and whipped his horse savagely, as though glad to vent his ill humor on some animate object.
Carl was not another moment in climbing through the open window and gathering his mother in his strong arms. The whole story was told that evening with the younger children gathered around. Mrs. Oskamp sat there and felt her mother heart glow with pride as she heard how Carl had played his part in the exciting drama connected with the hike of the Boy Scouts.
"It seems as though some power over which you had no control must have led you on to the glorious success that came in the end," she told the happy Carl, after everything had been narrated. "With that paper in our hands we can have no further trouble in securing our property. But I shall feel that we owe something to Dock Phillips, and that it can only be repaid through kindness to his mother."
On the following day they took Judge Beatty, who was an old friend of Carl's father, into their confidence, and the certificate of stock was promptly though grudgingly delivered to them on demand.
Amasa Culpepper knew that he had been fairly beaten in the game, and he annoyed Mrs. Oskamp no longer.
The oil shares turned out to be worth a large sum of money, and it placed the Oskamps beyond the reach of want.
Tom Chesney wrote his account of their great trip over big Bear Mountain, and, sure enough it did take the prize when submitted in competition with numerous others to the magazine that had made the offer. Tom remembered his promise and sent copies of the story to Mr. Clark, as well as to Mr. Henderson.
The last heard from Lenox the Boy Scouts were thriving famously. They expected to enjoy many an outing under the charge of the good-hearted scout master, Mr. Witherspoon, but some of the boys were of the opinion that there never could be just such a wonderful series of exciting adventures befall them as had accompanied the hike over Big Bear Mountain.