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The Strange Cabin on Catamount Island
by Lawrence J. Leslie
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"All that's mighty interesting, Max," remarked Steve; "wish I knew as much as you do about traveling through the woods, and the things a fellow is apt to meet up with there. The more I hear you tell, the more I make up my mind I'm going to take lessons in woodcraft; but I never seem to fully catch on."

"Well, it comes easier with some persons than with others," remarked Max, who was too kind to say what he really thought; which was that in his opinion boys, or men either for that matter, who are hasty and impetuous by nature, never make clever hands in the woods, where patient labor at times is the only method of solving some of the puzzling things that confront one.

"Now we're getting near the upper end of the island," remarked Owen, a while later.

"How do you find that out!" asked Bandy-legs, looking around him helplessly, as if he really expected to see signposts to the right and left, informing the traveler of the lay of the land.

"Why," answered Owen, "you see, the trees are getting lower, and not so thick, as the soil doesn't seem so rich down near the water. I can see through the upper branches here, and we couldn't do that before. Besides, I've been keeping tabs on the distance we came, measured by paces; and I reckon we just must be near the other end of the island by now. Max said it was about two hundred and fifty yards from top to bottom."

"Oh, is that it?" was all Bandy-legs remarked; but he beamed admiringly on Owen from that moment, as though he might be sharing the halo of glory that was hovering over the head of Max.

They did come out on the shore a couple of minutes later. Looking up the river it was easy to see where the stream became narrow again, after spreading out into the broad bay where Catamount Island was situated.

"And to think we've just got to go back that same way," sighed Bandy-legs, dismally.

"Perhaps not," remarked Max, who had a frown on his face, as of new concern. "I was just thinking that we'd better keep right along the beach here, boys, and get back to camp as soon as we can. I reckon we've been gone more than a full hour now; and that we may have done a foolish thing to come away, and leave things unprotected."

"Whew, that was silly of us, sure enough!" ejaculated Steve; "and yet it never struck me that way till you mentioned it, Max. Yes, let's lose no more time, but get a move on us. Looks like we might have easy walking all the way, and get there in next to a jiffy."

"If so be those Shatters and Toots and Beggs are around, haven't we left things nice for them, though?" commented Owen. "If we're lucky enough to get off scot free this time, you won't catch us doing just that sort of foolish thing again."

"They might steal our grub!" gasped Bandy-legs, to whom such a thing would be in the nature of a terrible calamity, since he did like good eating above almost anything else.

"What about our canoes?" said Max, sternly, very much provoked at himself for having made this slip, when the others all seemed to look to him to provide against any such mistake in judgment.

They hurried as much as the rough nature of the shore line allowed. Poor Bandy-legs was put to it to keep up with his more nimble companions; and came puffing along in the rear, sometimes tripping over the pole of his fish spear, but holding on to the same with dogged determination.

And so, in the course of a little time, they rounded the point that stood out just above where they had fixed their camp, and thus came in sight of the beach upon which they had landed when reaching Catamount Island the afternoon before.



CHAPTER VIII.

AN UNWELCOME DISCOVERY.

"Bully, they're still there, just like we left them!" shouted Steve; and from the manner in which he said this, it was evident that he had shared in some of the fears which beset his companions.

In fact, all of the boys experienced a singular relief when they discovered that the canoes still lay there on the beach.

"Seems to be all hunky dory," Bandy-legs was heard to remark, as he came puffing along in the rear, determined to keep up with the procession; "if only now them tricky fellers ain't gone and bored more auger holes in my little cedar dinky! You never can tell. 'Pearances are often deceitful, remember, we used to write in our copybooks at school? Well, they are, sometimes. I know it, because I never 'spected to have the river come in on me; and it did, you just bet it did!"

But while Bandy-legs was amusing himself by this manner of talk, no one was apparently paying the least attention to him. They had hurried along, eager to get to the camp, and verify their first impression, to the effect that all was well.

So far as they could see, as they drew near, things were just as they had left them something like an hour and a half previously. The two tents stood there, with the little burgees flapping idly in the morning breeze. Possibly a wandering 'coon or a curious fox may have dropped in to investigate conditions; but the food had all been placed far above the reach of such hungry creatures, so no one need feel the least bit of alarm.

It was Max who made the first discovery that set them to quivering again with a new apprehension.

"Look at the flap of the tent here!" he exclaimed. "I'm dead sure I fastened it tight behind me; and I was the last one in there. It's hanging loose, right now!"

"Wow, so's ours!" whooped Steve, furiously.

The boys plunged into the tents, anxious once more concerning the state of affairs; and immediately a chorus of indignant outcries told that they found things otherwise than satisfactory.

"Somebody's been rooting around in here!" called out Steve, from the depths of the second tent.

"And mauled all our duds, too! Look at the stuff scattered around, would you?" Bandy-legs was heard to howl.

"Looks like the thief wanted to find something or other, and must have been frightened off by hearing us coming," Owen declared, also a bit angrily.

As yet there had come no loud outcries from the other tent; but that was not because those who had rushed inside found things just to their satisfaction. Max was always a fellow of few words; and as for Toby, he never could express himself intelligently when tremendously excited. He just stood there, with his lower jaw moving up and down, yet no sound following the action.

There was good reason for this feeling of dismay on the part of the pair occupying the smaller tent, where most of the provisions were kept. For they had discovered, as soon as they entered, that everything was thrown about, helter-skelter. Indeed, it looked as though the unknown thief must have been gathering together pretty much all their supplies in the shape of foodstuff, with the evident intention of carrying the same off; when, alarmed by their coming, he had grabbed up a strip of breakfast bacon, the last loaf of bread, and possibly a can of baked beans, with which he had hastily decamped.

Max, after the first flush of his indignation had passed away, was rather amused than otherwise by the affair. The loss had not been so very great after all, since no damage had been done to the precious canoes. And if it came to the worst, one of the campers could easily be dispatched to the home town to buy more provisions, since they had plenty of money still in the treasury, thanks to those wonderful little pearls, taken from the waters of this same Big Sunflower River.

As usual with him, Max began to cast around in order to find some clew to the identity of the thief. Of course the other three had by this time hurried into the smaller tent to ascertain what the extent of the damages might be. And loud were the wailings of Bandy-legs when he heard that among the missing things was the splendid strip of bacon, on which he had cast many an envious eye, as he contemplated future enjoyment, with slices of the same sizzling in a hot frying pan, and sending off the odors that made him positively ravenous with hunger.

"Oh, but wasn't it good we came back just in time!" he exclaimed, as he looked around at the untidy interior of the tent, with a pile of provisions lying in the open center, where the eager intruder had thrown them. "He meant to just clean us out, that's what he did. I bet that Herb Benson had something to do with this mean old raid. He wanted to scare us off the island, or starve us out!"

If Max thought along these same lines he had not as yet mentioned the fact; but he did look queerly at Bandy-legs when he said this last sentence, as though the possibility of such a thing appealed to him.

"Was there only one feller here, or a crowd?" demanded Steve, as he eyed the pile of canned goods, that ham that was only partly cut, and a number of packages containing prunes, sugar, flour and such things, many of them as yet not even opened.

"Looks like there was half a dozen; or else the feller, if there was only one, had an appetite that would beat Bandy-legs here all holler," declared Steve, who was really more enraged than any of the others.

All of them looked to Max to decide this question, satisfied that if the truth could be learned at all, he would unearth it.

"I think there was only a single thief here," he presently said. "And I'll tell you why I hit on that. He certainly carried off a few things, just as much as he could grab up in a big hurry when he heard us. Now, his first intention was to scoop in the whole business; you can see how he piled the stuff up here, meaning to get it all. And if there had been two, three, or more, they'd have made a bigger hole in our grub department than happened."

"That sounds good to me, Max," remarked Owen, nodding his head attentively.

Toby was here heard to make a jumble of sounds, being still too excited to get his vocal cords in decent working order. He kept pointing at a nail that had been driven into the tent pole.

Now, strange to say, Steve was really the quickest to understand what the stammering boy meant, when he became twisted up in this way.

"He says his sweater is gone, the dark-blue one that his guardian, Mr. Jackson, gave him just a week ago on his birthday. And he left it hanging there on that old nail," was Steve's explanation of the strange jumble of sounds Toby was giving forth.

"And that's true every word of it," put in Max at that moment; "for just as I turned to quit this tent, as we were going off, that same sweater fell down off the nail. I stopped long enough to hang it up again. So if it's gone, the thief took a notion he could make good use of it."

Toby remained silent with indignation for a long time; and in his case this was not a mere figure of speech either, but a grim reality, for he was tongue-tied.

"Let Max hunt around, and see if there are any tracks," said Owen.

"That's the ticket!" added Bandy-legs; and both the others nodded their heads in immediate approval of the scheme.

Whenever it came down to a showing of woods lore, Max was the one always designated to handle the matter. His chums believed him capable of discovering almost anything going, if only a few faint tracks had been left behind.

Nothing loth, Max started in to look; but he knew in the beginning that the task would be a difficult one, and the results not at all equal to the exertion put forth.

Still he did find several places where a footprint, not at all like any made by their own shoes, seemed to tell where the intruder had stepped, in making his rapid rounds of the camp.

"There was only one thief, boys," he announced, after he had looked carefully.

"Man or boy, do you think, Max?" asked Owen.

"A man; and I should say a pretty hefty one, too," replied the other, with conviction in his voice.

"Why, how c'n you tell that, Max, without ever once gettin' sight of the feller?" demanded the astonished Bandy-legs.

"Oh, shucks, how dense some people are!" put in Steve, scornfully. "Why, stands to reason, don't it, that a big man'd wear shoes ever so much longer than a little man, or a kid? Well, look at that print Max is pointing to right now! Don't think any Shafter, Toots or Beggs made that, do you?"

"Gosh!" exclaimed Bandy-legs, staring; "he must 'a' been a giant, sure. I never did see a bigger shoe print, honest now. And, boys, it ain't the nicest thing going to know that monster is right here, marooned on this island with us."

"Now what makes you say that, Bandy-legs?" demanded Steve. "How d'ye know but what he come across from the mainland?"

"Why," the other hastened to say, as though proud of having his opinion asked, "he'd have to swim, then, because Max here said there wasn't a sign of a boat landin' anywhere along the shore. Fact is, the island is so rough that boats would find it pretty hard to land anywhere, but on this little beach right at the foot, and made just for such a thing. And then again, Steve, don't you forget about that queer old cabin, now. He lives there, sure as you're born!"

"Whew, six more nights!"

That was Toby Jucklin finally getting his breath; and as there was no telling when he would talk steadily, or stammer, none of his campmates thought it at all strange to hear him say these words calmly and evenly. Toby had been wrestling with those miserable vocal cords of his for so long a time that he now had them under control for a short period at least.

"Can we stand it, fellows?" asked Owen, more to find out how the others felt than because his faith was becoming wobbly.

"Sixty, if you said the word!" declared the impulsive Steve, grimly; "why, after accepting that dare, a dozen critters like this one we haven't ever seen yet couldn't frighten me away from Catamount Island; no siree, bob!"

Max looked admiringly, also affectionately at the speaker. If there was one trait he liked about Steve, it was his indomitable pluck. The boy was absolutely afraid of nothing that walked, flew, or crawled. He was as bold as a lion, but very indiscreet. He often reminded Max of a small terrier attacking a big St. Bernard, and snapping viciously all the while. Yes, Steve was a bundle of nerves, and not to be daunted.

"I honestly believe you would stick it out if it took all summer, Steve," he remarked, laying a hand on the other's arm.

"Excuse me, then," declared Bandy-legs. "This thing wears on my nerves like everything. I'll soon be skin and bones if it keeps up. Somebody tell me what that big thief wanted with me last night, when he grabbed my leg, and started to haul me out of the tent? That's what bothers me. He seems to've got a spite against me in particular. I bet you he's got his wicked eye on me, right at this blessed minute."

"Oh, p'r'aps he thought it was a ham he grabbed hold of," remarked Steve, flippantly, as he pointed to Bandy-legs' rather plump lower limbs, of which he was rather vain, in spite of their shortness.

But for once Bandy-legs did not laugh at a joke that was on himself. The matter appeared too serious for trifling. How could he ever go to sleep peacefully when expecting to be aroused suddenly by a terrible tug, and feel himself being dragged along the ground, just as though seized by a striped tiger of the East Indian jungle?

"I see there's only one way to be on the safe side," he was muttering disconsolately; "I've just got to come to tying myself to the tent pole every night Then if he drags me off, down comes the old tent; and I guess the rest of you'll sit up and take notice at that."

"You might shin out for home, Bandy-legs?" suggested Steve, just to test the sticking quality of the other.

"But I won't, all the same," flashed Bandy-legs, with a determined shake of his head. "If the rest of yer c'n stand havin' that sort of business goin' on, reckon I ought to hold out. But I wish now I'd brought a gun along. Then mebbe he'd let me alone, or take a feller of his size."

"Come along, boys, let's get things in shipshape again, and see just what's gone!" called out Max, who believed in looking things squarely in the face, and then making the best out of a bad bargain.

So the campers started with a vim to put things as they were before the visit of the unknown forager, who seemed destined to occupy Catamount Island with them during the balance of their stay.



CHAPTER IX.

WATCHED FROM THE SHORE.

The day passed slowly.

Somehow no one seemed very anxious to stray very far away from the camp. For one thing it was out of the hunting season; and on this account the presence of many partridges on the island could not lure Max. They had stirred up quite a number while making that little hike toward the upper end of the place; and every time a bird was flushed, going off with a sudden roar of wings, Bandy-legs had weakened; so that by the time they got back home again he felt as though he had been through a spell of sickness.

And then to have that new sensation sprung upon them, and find that an unknown prowler had paid them a visit in their absence, was, as Bandy-legs expressed it, "too, too much."

But because the boys lounged around camp was no reason why they were not enjoying themselves hugely. Why, even Bandy-legs tried to forget all the dreadful nights ahead of them still, six in a row, and find some source of amusement.

Each fellow seemed, as the afternoon glided along, to just naturally gravitate toward the kind of pleasure that interested him most.

Max and Owen were examining some small animal tracks every little while, which the latter would find along the edge of the water; and as his knowledge of such things lay in the form of book learning, while his cousin had had considerable experience in a practical way, he invariably, after puzzling his head awhile, softly called to Max, who willingly joined him.

Now it was a muskrat that had wandered along the edge of the river, looking no doubt for a fresh shellfish for his supper. Then again, Max proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that a raccoon had crept up to the edge of the water at a place where an old log thrust out. Here he could lie flat, and fish with his paw for a stray small bass that happened to pass too close to the shore for its safety.

The third set of tracks, differing materially from both of the others, Max pronounced the trail of a sly mink; which, with the fisher, is perhaps the boldest and most destructive enemy of the brook trout known.

While these two were amusing themselves in this way, and Owen making notes in his little book all the while, Steve was using the rod and line to some advantage. Perched on the end of another convenient trunk of a fallen tree that projected out over the end of the bank, he managed to secure quite a delightful mess of bass from the passing river—"taking toll," Steve called it.

Toby Jucklin seemed to find his greatest pleasure in taking cat naps. He complained of losing a heap of sleep on the preceding night; and as there was no telling what the second might bring forth, he believed in taking time by the forelock, as he called it.

And Bandy-legs, well, he was sitting there for a long time, working industriously with a pad of paper and a lead pencil; and seemed to be so wrapped up in whatever he was doing that he did not notice Max silently approach, bend down, and secure one of the sheets of paper he had already filled with his crabbed writing.

Really Max had begun to suspect that their camp-mate must be writing a story, founded on that strange cabin, with its lichen-covered walls, and the roof that seemed to be sprouting green grass with the moss.

One glance he took at the brave heading that began the page. The title was quite enough for Max. With a broad grin he quietly laid it down, gave the industrious writer one amused look, and walked away again, without Bandy-legs knowing of the visit.

And no wonder Max felt amused, for what he had seen spread across that page, in letters that were heavily underscored, was this wonderful title:

"Programme for meals during six more days to be spent on Catamount Island!"

Bandy-legs was trying to forget all his troubles by laying out the menu for the balance of their week.

It was about an hour before sundown that Steve came hurriedly into camp. he carried a pretty good mess of fish, which attested to the fact that, impatient as he was in nearly everything else, at the same time he seemed to be a pretty fair waiter when holding a rod and reel in his hand. Perhaps the constant expectation of a bite kept him in decent humor.

But now Max saw that he was considerably excited.

"What ails you, Steve?" asked Owen, who also detected some unusual signs of disgust about the returned fisherman; "did the biggest get away, like it always does? Well, we'll believe you, never fear; especially if he yanked your hook off, and broke your line in the bargain. How big do you think he was, Steve?"

"That old gag don't work this time, Owen," remarked the other, as he deposited his catch on the ground, to be admired by Bandy-legs immediately. "I'm. wanting to kick myself for being silly, that's all"

"Oh, well, I wouldn't bother about that," Max put in, kindly. "There are four of us here, and we ought to be able to do the business to suit you. When shall we begin operations, Steve?"

But even then Steve did not lose his look of disappointment.

"To think that I sat there all that time," he remarked, "and never once remembered that bully field glass we've got along."

At this remark Max realized that the distress of their chum could not be based on anything connected with his fishing experience.

"Hello!" he exclaimed; "now you've got us guessing, all right, Steve. You must have seen something or other, I reckon. Out with it, please."

"Well, I did," replied the other, quickly. "You see, I was sitting there, waiting for an old buster of a bass I'd got a glimpse of several times to come up and get hold of my hook, when I happened to look across to the shore at just the widest part, where it's far away. And right off I discovered that it had been something moving that caught my eye as it were."

"A panther!" gasped Bandy-legs, involuntarily letting his hand creep down to his left ankle, where those scratches still proved the truth of his story that something, the nature of which was unknown, had grabbed him on the preceding night.

"Rats!" scoffed Steve, loftily. "Panthers don't prowl around in the daytime—that is, not very much. It was a human being I saw; and then a second appeared right at his elbow. They seemed to be mighty much interested in this here island, too; for the first one pointed across, and up and down, like he was trying to explain how a swimmer might get over."

"Goodness gracious! Steve, were they men or boys!" demanded Bandy-legs.

"Now I know you're thinking about Herb Benson; or it might be that tricky Ted Shafter," remarked Steve.

"Well, didn't we kinder half 'spect we'd have a visit from one or t'other of them crowds, p'r'aps both?" demanded Bandy-legs, with an injured air.

"All right; but these fellows didn't look like either lot. Then again, I'm right sure I saw the sun, away down in the west you see, shining from something bright. Couldn't make it out first, and then all of a sudden it broke in on me that they had a pair of field glasses, and must be examining this island. That made me remember our own pair, and I hurried to get back off that log I was straddling; but before I'd been able to make the shore, hang the luck, they'd gone."

"Perhaps they saw you, and wanted to keep out of sight?" suggested Max.

"That's just what they must 'a' done," admitted Steve. "But where's the bally old glasses, fellows? I might lie around, and keep tabs on that shore for a spell. Who knows but what they might show up again; and I'm curious to learn just who they can be."

Max quickly vanished inside the tent, and came out with the desired object in his hand.

"Before you go, Steve, tell us whether they looked like men or boys?" he asked, handing the field glasses over.

"Well, I couldn't see as good as I wanted," was the hesitating reply; "but 'peared to me they were men, all right. And they seemed to be dressed in gray homespun, too, like some of the farmers around here wear."

"Oh, perhaps after all it may have been a couple of young farmers taking a day off, hunting woodcock along the river. This is the time of year for the first brood to be big enough for shooting. The law opens for a short spell, and then it's on again till fall," Owen remarked, with his knowledge of such things, gleaned from much reading.

"They didn't seem to have any guns that I saw," observed Steve, doggedly, as he hurried away.

This gave the others something to talk about until the shades of evening began to gather around them. Who these two men could be, and just why they seemed to take such an interest in Catamount Island, were questions that the boys debated from all sides. Even Bandy-legs seemed to be stirred up, and made all sorts of ridiculous suggestions.

Steve came in finally. It only required one look at his disappointed face to tell that he had not met with any success in his latest mission. Even the delightful odor of his freshly caught bass, cooking in the frying pan over the fire, failed to make Steve look happier. He did hate to be beaten in anything he undertook.

"Nothing doing, Steve?" questioned Bandy-legs; for there is a saying to the effect that "babes and fools rush in where brave men hesitate to tread"; which, however, must not be taken to mean that Bandy-legs belonged to either class, although he failed to approach a subject with tact.

"Naw!" snapped Steve, as he hung the case containing the glasses up in its accustomed place inside the tent.

A few minutes later, finding that no one bothered him for information, Steve, who was really brimming over with a desire to argue the matter with his comrades, opened the subject himself.

"Say, now, Max, you don't suppose that it could have been any of them fellows, do you?" he asked.

Max, who was adjusting the coffee pot nicely on the slender iron bars that formed what he was accustomed to call his "cooking stove," these four resting on solid foundation of stones on either side of the hot little fire, turned his head when Steve addressed him particularly.

"Which way did they seem to go when they left?" he asked, slowly, as though the answer might have a good deal to do with his opinion.

"Up the river," replied Steve, promptly.

"Well, then, I don't believe it could have been any of the boys," was what Max went on to state; "and I'll tell you several reasons for saying that. In the first place there would have been three if it was the Ted Shafter crowd; and perhaps more if Herb had come up here to see whether we were really camping on Catamount Island."

"Right you are, Max," remarked Owen, who was listening carefully.

"Then again, what would they be doing away up here so late in the day?" the other continued. "Why, it's miles and miles by road back to town. Even by the river in a boat they couldn't make it short of two hours; and traveling at night along the rapid Big Sunflower would be a ticklish job that I wouldn't like to tackle. Last of all, why go on up the river? If they came in a boat, it would have to be down below us, you know, boys."

There was no dissenting voice raised against this line of argument on the part of Max. And when they sat down to eat their supper the talk was wholly confined to the subject of the two mysterious men. Who were they, and why did they seem to be so greatly interested in Catamount Island? And when Steve made a move that must have attracted their attention, why had they bolted so hastily?

Again did all manner of surmises float to the surface. Bandy-legs was beginning to show signs of nervousness once more. Possibly the coming of darkness had much to do with his condition, for he shuddered every time he felt that scratched ankle give him a twinge. For Bandy-legs feared that he was a marked person; and that if the dreaded occupant of the strange cabin chose to pay them another visit before dawn, he would be the one picked out for trouble.

He seemed uneasy about supper, and wandered down to where the four canoes lay upon the sandy strip, as though the desire to again examine that plugged hole in the bottom of his cedar craft had seized upon him.

Those near the fire were paying little attention to Bandy-legs, for they happened just then to have started an argument along some line, and Steve was warmly defending his radical views.

And when they heard Bandy-legs give utterance to a shrill whoop they scrambled to their feet, half expecting to find that some fearful shape had darted out from the surrounding forest, and was carrying their chum away.



CHAPTER X.

THE BUILDER OF THE STRANGE CABIN.

"What is it, Bandy-legs?" shouted Steve, who, in spite of his constant quarreling with the other, felt a great amount of affection for him.

He had pounced down upon the ax, which happened to be lying close by, and this he flourished around his head as he started to meet the figure that was scrambling up the little bank above the beach.

"Whoo, somethin' jumped at me!" replied the startled boy, panting for breath; for he had fallen at least twice, in his haste to rejoin his campmates near the blazing fire.

Max took hold of him as he came up, and started to ask questions. Perhaps he already began to suspect that Bandy-legs was allowing his fears to run away with his judgment. There was such a thing as being frightened at one's own shadow.

"Are you sure you saw something, Bandy-legs?" he asked.

"Course I am," came the reply.

"And it wasn't your shadow this time?" Max continued.

Now, had Steve put It in exactly the same way, the boy would have shown immediate indignation; but he seemed to understand that Max meant every word, and was not simply trying to tease him. So he replied in like good faith.

"It sure wasn't, Max. Why, just when I was goin' to bend down over my canoe, to see how things looked inside, it gave a nasty little spit straight in my face, and went whirling over the side. And, Max, it had a tail as big as a broom, honest it did."

"Oh, that means it must have been a 'coon," remarked Max, beginning to laugh.

"But what would a measly old raccoon want in my canoe?" demanded Bandy-legs. "If he just had to come snoopin' around, why couldn't the critter pick out a boat belongin' to somebody else? Seems like everything has a spite against just me."

"Well, of course, I can't tell you that," remarked Max. "If you want to know you'll have to ask the 'coon. Perhaps you may have dropped a small piece of food in your boat; and as he came prowling around, not very much afraid of us here, he got track of the same, and was hunting for it when you had to disturb him."

"I don't wonder he sniffed in your face when you poked your head in there," declared Steve. "Nobody likes to be bothered when they're eating. Just try taking a bone away from a hungry dog or cat, once, and see. He thought you a busybody, that's what, Bandy-legs. But he's gone now, if so be you want to investigate, and find out whether the 'coon chawed another hole in your canoe."

But Bandy-legs only threw himself down by the fire.

His air was that of one who was determined not to be easily lured away from so comfortable a place until it was time to go to bed. They could see that Bandy-legs was really becoming quite worked up over the queer way a fickle fortune seemed to be showering little adventures on his shoulders, while the rest went scot free.

"Ain't we goin' to stand guard to-night, fellers?" he asked later on; showing how the subject stuck in his mind.

"Guard over what?" asked Steve.

"Why, that critter is bent on stealing every bit of our grub, and we ought to do everything we can to break up his game," Bandy-legs affirmed, in a firm way that was rather new to him.

"As how?" further questioned Steve; while the others listened as if interested.

"Well, s'pose Max here laid out a plan that would give every feller two hours on the watch," pursued Bandy-legs, proudly, as though he had conjured up this beautiful little scheme all by himself, while sitting there staring into the fire. "If I had that shotgun in my hands, I'd just like to see anybody, or anything, sneak in on us, and steal as much as an egg."

"I guess you would be a pretty dangerous customer, with a loaded gun in your hands, the way you feel right now," remarked Max, seriously. "Come, you mustn't think so much about it, Bandy-legs. Leave it to us, and we'll try and fix it all right."

"But I've got an idea of a trap in my mind I'd like to try out," protested the other, eagerly.

"That's all right," laughed Max, "so long as you don't fall into it yourself, and get us all up in the middle of the night. You must promise not to creep out at any time, to see if there's anything in it."

"Oh, you'll know it, all right, if it does ketch game," grinned Bandy-legs. "You see, I was readin' just last week about a crocodile hunter away off in Africa; and he used to set his traps about like the way I'm goin' to do mine now."

"Go on and tell us about it, please?" asked Owen, always interested.

"I've known farmers' boys to make the same sort of snare to grab rabbits in the winter time," Bandy-legs went on, being a most accommodating boy, especially when he had anything to tell about his own doings. "You find a nice stout hickory sapling of the right kind, and strip it of all the branches. Then you bend it over, and fasten it to a crotched stick you've pounded hard in the ground. The end of the sapling has a stout cord tied to it, and this is made in the shape of a noose. The bait is put in this, and bunny gets his leg caught in the loop, which tightens, so he tugs to get away. Then up goes the sapling, when the trigger is sprung, and the game hangs there, kicking in the air."

"Fine!" remarked Steve, admiringly; "and the chances are just two to one, old fellow, that if you set a trap like that for a visitor, you'll be the first to fall into it."

"Oh, say, can't you let a feller get up even a little thing like that without throwing cold water on him?" complained Bandy-legs, in a grieved tone. "Max, don't you think it'd work, if I tried it?"

"It might," came the reply; "and perhaps there wouldn't be any harm done trying. It's a pretty smart scheme, let me tell you, Bandy-legs. And if we heard a yell, and crawled out to see the thief hanging there, all the credit would be yours."

That settled it. Words of praise from so good an authority as Max would brush away all the sarcastic remarks Steve could think up. So Bandy-legs, with a look of triumph at his opponent, picked up the ax and sauntered off again. But he was very careful to keep within the magical circle of light cast by the blazing camp fire.

They heard him chopping away presently.

"Found the very hickory you wanted, have you?" called out Max.

"Just suits the bill, O. K.," replied the busy one.

After a little he came back for a piece of the rope.

"Don't take more than you need," Owen remarked. "Before we leave here that rope may come in handy. You never can tell."

"Yes," said Steve, with grim humor; "and there's a mighty convenient limb sticking out nearly straight and horizontal from that tree over yonder. If we happened to be out West now instead of ten miles from Carson, the chances are they'd know what that same limb was meant for."

"Oh, come, none of that stuff," Max protested, for he saw that Bandy-legs frowned and looked a trifle unwilling to go away from the circle again. "This is a peaceful community, and they never use ropes that way around here."

Ten minutes later and they heard a sudden snap, accompanied by certain pawing sounds, and a great grunting. Hurrying over to where the trap setter had been hard at work they found him with his hands on the ground, and one leg held high up in the air by the noose he had made of the rope.

Despite the efforts of Bandy-legs, he seemed unable to reach the rope, and only for the prompt assistance of his chums he might have had a serious time of it. Of course Steve laughed as if he would have a fit, even while the others were taking the unfortunate trapper down.

"Works all right, don't it, Bandy-legs?" he demanded. "When they got a new play that they want to try out in some small city away from New York, they say they're trying it on the dog first. And looks like you—"

"Shut up!" roared Bandy-legs, turning on his tormentor. "I wanted to see if it would go off, that's all."

"Well, it did!" remarked Steve, dryly.

"And now I'm goin' to set it for fair," returned the other, who seemed to be so well pleased with the result of his labors that he could even take Steve's chaffing with some degree of good humor.

They left him there, all but Max, who stayed to render any assistance the ardent trapper might need. For Max had an idea that perhaps the trap might play a part in the discovery of the unknown thief, should he take a notion to pay the camp another visit that night.

Then they all sat around the blaze and chatted once more.

"Does anybody know the history of this island, and who ever lived here?" asked Max. "That cabin must have been built a good many years ago, I'd think, judging from the looks of it."

"Say, I was thinkin' about that same thing this afternoon, when sittin' on that log fishing," spoke up Steve.

"Then you remembered something about it, did you?" asked Owen.

"That's what I did," came the ready response. "But it was a long time ago, and I must 'a' been only a little kid then, because I don't seem to just recollect the whole story."

"Tell us what you do remember, Steve?" suggested Max.

"Yes," continued Bandy-legs, "I'd give a lot to know whoever was silly enough to want to live on this wild-looking old island, where in the spring they say the flood sometimes nearly covers everything. You c'n see the drift hanging to the butts of some of the trees right now, and all pointin' downstream."

"Good for you, Bandy-legs!" exclaimed the pleased Max; "I never thought you'd notice such things. Owen and myself were talking about it; but when you get to paying attention to such small matters it shows that you're just bound to make a good woodsman some fine day."

"You bet I am," confided the other, cheerfully, his eyes glistening with pleasure at hearing one he respected so highly as Max Hastings hand out praise in this manner.

"Go on, Steve, tell us what you know," Owen observed, encouragingly.

"Well, I just happened to hear my dad talkin' with another gentleman once, and it was about this same island up here. They called it Catamount then, like they do right now. He said that a long time before, a man by the name of Wesley Coombs had bought the place for a song from the owners, and with his wife and baby here, started to clear the timber off. So you see 'twas him that put up the queer little old cabin here. He thought he could have a great home of it in time."

"Yes, I saw a number of big trees that must have been felled with the ax years ago," Max remarked at this point; "and I was wondering about it."

"W-w-what happened to W-w-wesley C-c-combs?" asked Toby.

"It was a mighty sad thing, my dad said," Steve went on, a tremor in his own voice, for Steve was tender-hearted after his fashion; "you see, the first winter he was here he made quite a heap of money trappin' furs, and fishing through the ice for pickerel that he sold in town. Then in the spring the floods came and the whole little family was wiped out; though the cabin, bein' built so strong, held out against the freshet, and it has ever since, too."

"All drowned, Wesley Coombs, his wife, and his baby, too; that's a tough story of the old island you're giving us, Steve," remarked Owen.

"Well, they said as how the man was saved, but he was stark starin' mad; and my dad said he died later on. I never could get that story out of my bead for a long time. It gave me a bad feeling this afternoon when I remembered the same, and I thought of that little cabin once being a happy home."

"Gee! I hope one of them same floods don't take a notion to swoop down this way while we're camped on Catamount Island!" declared Bandy-legs.

"Oh, well, we'd get home in a hurry if it did," remarked Steve, indifferently. "You know, they said our canoes couldn't sink, because they've got air tanks fitted away up in the bow and back in the stern. All we'd have to do would be to lash ourselves to 'em with pieces of that rope, and float along till we got opposite Carson, when we'd yell for help. Yes, Owen was right; that rope might come in handy one way or another, yet."

"For shame, Steve," called out Max; "trying to mike Bandy-legs nervous again. There never was a flood at this time of year, take my word for it. But we'll try and make ourselves as secure as we can, with our canoes in the bargain; because, if those Shafters did take it into their heads to raid us tonight, we want to be ready for them."

And it was with that idea in mind that the campers busied themselves for half an hour or so before the time they had set for crawling under their blankets, and "wooing the moose," as Bandy-legs put it, meaning to cast a sly reflection on the well-known habit Steve had of snoring in his sleep when lying on his back.



CHAPTER XI.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE SECOND NIGHT.

"Owen, Owen, wake up!"

When Bandy-legs dug his elbow into the side of his sleeping chum, and whispered these words in his ear, naturally enough the said Owen could not help but awaken.

"What ails you?" he asked sleepily; and even Steve stirred as though the sound of their voices had aroused him.

"My trap's sprung!" was the rather surprising information Bandy-legs vouchsafed in return.

"The dickens you say!" exclaimed Owen, suddenly sitting up in the darkness. "Now, how d'ye know that fact? Did anything give a yelp?"

"No," continued the other, eagerly; "but you see, Owen, before I went to sleep I had Max tie a string to my leg and the other end to that loop. It was fixed under the root of a tree; and if the trap went off, why, don't you see, the string'd give me just a sweet little yank, like it wanted to tell me to come around and take my game out."

"And did you feel that same yank?" demanded Steve, sitting up suddenly.

"Right now, before I woke Owen up. Oh, it was a sure enough jerk, all right! What'll we do about it?" demanded Bandy-legs.

"Let's crawl out and see what happened," remarked Owen, setting his actions to correspond with his words, and being followed by his two companions.

"What is it?"

That was Max speaking, and they could see his head poked out from the partly open flap of the smaller tent. Evidently he must have been awake at the time, or else the sound of murmuring voices aroused him; for Max always declared that he was a very light sleeper.

"Bandy-legs here says his trap is sprung," remarked Owen. "He tells us you fixed a string to his leg and the other end to the loop. Well, that just gave him word something had happened."

"We'll soon find out," was all Max remarked, as he proceeded to crawl all the way out of his tent.

Stepping over he picked up the lantern, and a match that had been left handily near by. And so it took but a fraction of a minute for them to possess a light that would answer all purposes.

The four of them then approached the place where Bandy-legs had set his wonderful snare, which he had tested so well himself to start with.

"Huh! I don't see anybody swinging around here!" remarked the always skeptical Steve.

"Neither do I," added Owen, in a tone of disappointment.

"But see, fellers, the old trap, she's gone off!" exclaimed Bandy-legs, in a thrilling tone. "Didn't I tell you I felt a pull that woke me up? It worked, just you bet it did, now."

The hickory sapling was indeed standing up almost straight, with the loop dangling part way down; but the snare was devoid of any victim.

Max looked around as best he could with such a poor light.

"I don't see the first sign of any tracks here," he remarked.

"Shucks, the chances are Bandy-legs might have kicked in the night, and that was enough to set the loop free!" Steve declared.

"He couldn't do that," answered Max; "I fixed that string in such a way there was no danger of it happening. But I rather think some fox in hunting around set the thing off, but didn't get caught in the spread loop. It was set for bigger game, you remember, boys."

"Well, I'm going back to my blanket again," said Owen. "It feels chilly out here, and there's no use staying."

Even Bandy-legs seemed to have lost all faith in his wonderful snare; for he declined to stay long enough to put it in working order again. Twice now it had gone off, and there could be no telling what the third result might be if he ventured to try it again, which he would not.

There was no further alarm, and at dawn the boys came piling out of their tents. The weather seemed to have grown a bit sultry, so Max remarked that perhaps a dip in the water of the Big Sunflower might not feel out of the way.

So they had a happy little time of it, splashing each other, and carrying on as any five carefree lads might be expected to; until all of them decided they had had enough, when dressing was the next thing on the programme.

Bandy-legs was the first to finish. The fire was burning briskly, and a nice red bed of embers between the side stones invited the attention of the cook of the morning, namely himself.

"Say, where'd you hang that half of a ham, Owen?" he asked, after what seemed a vain search.

"Just where we always kept it," was the reply; "suspended from that limb of the oak over—well, did anybody change it around or take it inside the tent?" and Owen looked his surprise, when the others all shook their heads in the negative.

"It's gone!" cried Bandy-legs, looking very unhappy; "our nice ham's been hooked!"

A rush was made for the oak tree in question.

"There's the twine I hung it up by, dangling from the limb right now," declared Owen, pointing.

"But show me the ham, will you?" asked Bandy-legs. "We can't make a decent breakfast off string that's only got a ham flavor, can we?"

"Why, it must have been full six feet up from the ground," remarked Steve, for the benefit of Bandy-legs; "I never thought before a panther could leap that high!"

"Oh, gracious!" began Bandy-legs; and then, seeing the look on Steve's face, he understood that the other was only baiting him for a fall: whereupon he shut his jaws hard together, and determined not to be taken in.

Max, of course, was already looking for signs. It was his opinion that few things could happen without there being evident traces left behind, if only one knew how to find them.

"Here's a track, fellows; and it looks like the same we saw before!" he called out, presently, as he bent over eagerly.

"It sure does," admitted Owen.

"Right under where our lovely ham hung, too," wailed Bandy-legs.

"All he had to do was to reach up and grab it," commented Owen.

Toby did not say anything, but went through a pantomime movement as of a man taking possession of some object dangling there from the limb.

"I wish now we'd taken it in our tent, when Max complained that the ham smell made it unpleasant in his own," Bandy-legs went on.

"There was a man once who actually locked the door of his stable after his horse was took," Steve ventured; at which Max laughed.

"Well, it does look like we'd have to go without ham for a while, boys; but after all, it was only a half. Think how bad we'd feel if it was a whole one. And whoever took it must have been pretty hungry in the bargain. He's been living on partridges right along, when he could find any in his snares. The rest of the time he went without a bite, seems like."

"But, Max, who is he?" asked Steve; at which the other shrugged his shoulders.

"Ask me something easy, boys," he replied. "I've never seen him even once, like Herb and his chums did, when they tried to sleep in that queer old cabin. But you see, we've got his footprints right here in the dirt. They ought to tell us something, perhaps."

"But, Max, footprints can't talk, can they?" demanded Bandy-legs,

"Always, in their own language," was the ready reply. "You have to study that a while though, before you can understand what they say."

"Oh, yes, I'm on to you now, Max," cried the other, triumphantly; "you mean that you can tell it was a man by the size of the prints; ain't that it?"

"One of many things," answered Max. "Now, this seems to have been a pretty hefty sort of fellow, because the marks are big. It is a common shoe, too, just like the men make and wear in the prisons and public institutions."

Bandy-legs fairly gasped for breath at hearing this remark. To his mind it seemed to imply that the mysterious dweller of the strange cabin on Catamount Island must be an escaped convict, a desperate ruffian, who might take a notion to murder them all in their sleep.

"And we've still got five more nights to stay here!" he groaned, as though with that new intelligence the very last hope he was cherishing of ever being able to see his folks again vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind.

"Say, that makes me think of something," Steve broke out just then.

"About what?" asked Max, turning from his examination of the plain footprint at the place where the unknown visitor had stood when reaching up for the tempting half of a smoked ham.

"Those two men," the other went on to say.

"What about 'em?" asked Owen.

"I said they wore gray homespun clothes, didn't I, just like the farmers, plenty of 'em, have around these diggings? Well, I've changed my mind, boys. It just broke in on me that I saw somethin' flash every time they moved this way and that. No, it wasn't the field glasses either; but somethin' about their clothes. Brass buttons, I reckon, boys! Them men might 'a' been wardens from the penitentiary, lookin' for a prisoner that escaped some time ago!"

Steve drew himself up proudly, as though conscious of the fact that he had hit upon a very plausible explanation of the mystery. Max was evidently thinking it over, for his face seemed serious enough, to be sure.

"That doesn't sound so much out of the way, Steve," he admitted. "Fact is, it may be the very thing. Some of these guards have gray uniforms, I believe; and they put brass buttons on the same, just to make them look official-like. Yes, they wanted to get over here, and didn't have a boat. Perhaps they've gone up river to get one, and cross to the island. They might try it to-day; and then again perhaps they'd wait for another night, for fear of frightening him away, and losing him somehow if he jumped into the river."

"What a peck of trouble we've sure struck since we took on that dare," Owen remarked, just then.

"Yes," added Bandy-legs, with a sad look, "and the end ain't come along yet, by a big sight."

Of course they had plenty of other things to supply the lack of ham for breakfast. Max even went to the trouble of making some flapjacks, just to take away the bitter disappointment Bandy-legs seemed to feel over the disappearance of the joint. And all of them united in declaring that they did not care how soon he had the same notion again, the cakes were so fine.

The day was very warm, and having been reminded that the Big Sunflower River was capable of assuming the dimensions of a flood upon certain occasions, nervous Bandy-legs turned one eye upward from time to time, as though trying to figure out whether they might expect a cloudburst of some sort, should a storm drop in upon them.

Steve joked him more than a little about his new fears.

"Got your tree all picked out, have you, Bandy-legs?" he would remark in his bantering way. "Be sure and tie your canoe to the lower limb, so it'll stay by you. And feel a little pity, won't you, please, for the other poor fellers who go ridin' down the raging flood, hangin' on to the bottom of their boats? Oh, it's a wise guy you show yourself, old boy. They don't ketch you asleep, do they? Weasels ain't in it with Bandy-legs, boys. You see from the way he looks at that oak yonder, that's his choice, when she comes bowling along here."

Max had some little scheme of his own on his mind. He did not even take his cousin into his confidence; but along after lunch he picked up the gun, and, remarking that he might go for a little walk along the shore, left them wondering.

They knew Max well enough to feel pretty certain he must have something "hatching," as Steve put it; and all sorts of guesses were indulged in during his absence.

Although the four boys left in camp amused themselves in a variety of ways, even fishing with fair success, as Steve had done on the preceding day, time hung heavy on their hands that afternoon. It seemed as though the sun would never draw near the line of far-away hills that marked the western horizon.

More than a few times Owen would look up, as some slight sound caught his ear. He was listening for the report of the gun Max carried; but as the minutes turned into hours, and nothing was heard, Owen began to grow anxious.

He had almost reached the point of proposing that they give a halloo, and if no reply came, start out to look for the absent chum, when a moving figure up the shore caught his attention, and presently it developed into Max.

"See anything of the convict?" asked Steve, upon whom that idea seemed to have taken a decided hold.

Max shook his head in the negative.

"Have you been up to that cabin again?" asked Owen, suspiciously.

"I suppose I might as well tell you that I've laid a little plan that, if it only turns out well, may bag the unknown visitor we had last night," Max confessed. "You see, when we were up there the other day, I noticed that old as it was, the cabin was as strong as anything. If a fellow could only slip up, and shoot a bar across the door in any way after some one went inside, it'd be dollars to doughnuts he'd find the chap there in the morning."

"And when would you do all this fine slipping-up business?" asked Steve.

"I'm going there again to-night," Max continued, positively; "and lie around to see what happens. And none of you need say a single word, because you don't come along with me. When I've managed to secure that door as I've arranged for, it'll be time enough to let you know about it. Forget it now, boys; and let's talk about supper."

Bandy-legs stared hard at Max, as though he could not believe his ears. That anyone would dare venture all the way up to that strange cabin in the darkness of the night, and even try and capture the desperate ruffian whom they now believed to be an escaped convict, amazed him.

Sure enough, that night, about the time the boys under ordinary conditions would be thinking of seeking their blankets, Max quietly took his gun and vanished from the sight of his chums.

He had taken particular note of every step of the route along the bank with this night journey in view. And he felt now that he could silently make his way along without anything bordering upon an accident. Had any of the others been with him a clumsy mis-step was apt to create trouble; and Bandy-legs in particular was always getting into a mess.

Max had reached a point about halfway up the shore of Catamount Island when he suddenly stopped short and crouched low. Surely that was the low sound of voices coming to his ear. And he immediately recognized the fact that the murmur must be carried across the water, which is such a splendid conveyer of sounds.

Then some persons must be coming off from the shore in a boat! His mind went back to what Steve had seen of the two men in gray uniforms. Were they about to land on the island now, bent upon recapturing the desperate man who was hiding there.

Max had just about come to this decision when he had occasion to alter his views of the matter. He heard a peculiar little cough, which struck him as mighty familiar. Their old enemy, Ted Shafter, had an odd way of making such a sound; and there were those who said it was caused by smoking so many cigarettes. Did this cigarette cough mean that Ted and his two cronies were coming to play a practical joke on the campers of Catamount Island?



CHAPTER XII.

A BOLD PLAN.

"Hold on, fellers! Let's get a line on what this rotten old shore looks like," Max plainly heard Ted Shafter say, in a low tone.

The oars continued to dip in the water, for unless this were done continually the swift current would carry the boat downstream rapidly enough.

Looking closely at the point from whence the sound proceeded Max believed he could make out an object that seemed darker than the surroundings. This then must be the boat in which the three boys had pulled all the way up from Carson; a job not to be sneered at, considering the weight of the craft, and the strength of the current.

"Hang the luck, Ted, I can't see anything but just a solid blur," remarked another of the occupants of the boat; and Max knew that it was Shack Beggs, whose father was an engineer in one of the works at Carson, who made this disgusted remark.

"I can see trees, and I think some rocks," said a third one, undoubtedly Amiel Toots; for he had a soft oily voice, just as Amiel was a soft oily boy, treacherous by nature, and only faithful to Ted because he really feared the big bully.

"That accounts for the whole bunch of them," Max was saying to himself, and at the same time endeavoring to figure out how he could give the three rowdies a scare that would send them flying down the river, not to come back again.

Max thought he saw a way of accomplishing this much-to-be-desired end. He had in his pocket several flashlight powders that he had intended using in the line of photography, if the occasion ever arose for trying to take a picture during the period of darkness. With them he also carried a clever little arrangement fashioned after the style of a pistol, whereby with a pressure of one finger the flash could be brought about.

There, they were talking again, after all of them had been trying their hardest to make out the conformation of the shore near which they were at the time.

"Reckon yuh must move in a little closer, Ted, if so be yuh 'spect us tuh see just where tuh land," Shack remarked.

"Don't you think we ought to go a little slow about landing?" remarked Amiel, who evidently had certain fears of his own, which same caused his soft oily voice to quiver painfully.

"Aw! what's the matter with you?" grated Ted, savagely. "Just acause them fellers go to talkin' 'bout ghosts and all that stuff, you're afraid, that's what! Sho! didn't we see Max Hastings and his crowd there on the foot of the plagued island? If they could stay here two nights a'ready, what's a-goin' to hurt us inside of only one hour, tell me that, hey?"

When Max heard this he came near chuckling. It seemed to answer the question he had been asking himself; for he wondered whether these fellows could have heard about the scare Herb and his friends received some little time ago, when they tried to stop on the island over night.

Apparently, then, they had, and the fact had even made a strong impression on the weakest one of the lot, Amiel Toots. And Max was not so sure about the others being very far removed from fear in connection with that same subject, much as they made out to show courage.

"It's going to work all right, see if it don't," Max whispered to himself, as he began to make ready to start things moving.

First of all he wanted to screen his own body completely from sight; for when the sudden vivid flash came it would disclose every little object around for a radius of many feet. This was easily accomplished. A convenient tree trunk offered a friendly asylum; and back of this he might hide, so that no one could see him, from the river side at least.

First of all he gave a very dismal groan. Max was not up in matters pertaining to ghosts in general, and could only make a guess at emitting the proper kind of sound; but really it did seem quite "shivery," even to the boy responsible for making it.

"Glory be! What was that?" he heard Amiel ask, instantly.

Utter silence followed, and apparently everyone in the boat was listening with might and main for a repetition of the groan. Max thought it would be a pity to disappoint those fellows. They had come so very far just to have some fun; and if they were now compelled to go all the way back to Carson without ever having the least amusement, think of the trouble they had taken for nothing! And after all, it was so easy to give them good measure, brimming full, and running over. So he groaned three times in rapid succession, just as if the troubled spirit might be getting impatient.

He heard exclamations of renewed alarm from the pitch darkness; for clouds shut out what little light might have come from the heavens above.

"Let's get out of this, boys!" Ted was heard to say.

"Hurry, hurry! I thought I saw something moving right then! Be quick, fellows!" Amiel Toots exclaimed, in thick accents, as though his fright had become such as to seriously interfere with the working of his vocal cords.

Max waited no longer. He knew that the boat, drifting down with the current, was now exactly opposite to him. He heard the splash of the oars striking the water; although in their haste and clumsiness the three Carson boys were in danger of upsetting their craft while trying to turn so quickly.

Max pressed the trigger of his little flashlight pistol. Instantly a dazzling light sprang forth, blinding the eyes of the three in the boat just as if they had met with a bolt of descending lightning.

Then it was gone, as quick as that, leaving the darkness of the night more noticeable than before. Max was satisfied with his work. He heard cries of horror break forth from Ted Shafter and his two cronies. Amiel Toots even started to crying like a big baby, he was so badly frightened; while the others tugged at the oars desperately, in the endeavor to turn the boat, so as to head downstream.

And when they did finally get started, the way they tugged at those ashen blades was enough to win almost any race.

"Good-by, Ted and Company!" said Max, not out loud, but to himself in a low tone; for he did not want to lessen the fear that had gripped those three fellows.

He could hear the sound of the oars working furiously in the rowlocks long after the fugitives must have passed the lower end of the island. Of course the rest of the campers would catch the sounds that had welled forth, and feel curious about them; but between the four they ought to be able to figure out what it meant. And as the fact of his possessing the flashlight powders was known, they must realize that he, Max, was at the bottom of the whole affair.

As Max continued his forward progress he was trying to understand what Ted and his friends had meant to do. They knew, of course, how the campers expected to stay there on Catamount Island for a whole week; and the temptation to try and play a mean trick on Max and his chums had finally moved them to get a boat, and row all the way up here.

No doubt they had arrived in the vicinity of the island at some time during the afternoon; but unwilling to show themselves, lest their intentions be thwarted, they had waited down around the next bend until darkness came along to conceal their movements.

Just what they expected to do no one ever knew; but such mean tricks were always cropping up in the minds of the trio, that even the setting adrift of all the canoes, thus compelling the campers to swim ashore, and foot it all the way back to Carson, would not be anything unusual for them.

However, there need be little fear that those three frightened boys would ever make a second attempt to land on Catamount Island, especially during the night time. So far as they were concerned, the campers might now rest easy; and even Bandy-legs, when he heard the facts, could draw a relieved breath.

Max now tried to forget all about the recent little adventure, and fix his whole mind on what lay ahead of him. He had started out on what seemed rather a risky errand, if, as they suspected, the occupant of the strange cabin was really a desperate escaped convict. Still, Max was a brave lad; and having once conceived this little plan of campaign, he could not force himself to give it up, just because it carried a spice of danger.

He knew that at a certain point, which he had marked, he must leave the shore of the island, and turn aside. Through dense shrubbery then his course lay; but he had marked it well in his mind, so that he could follow it faithfully, even in pitch darkness. And it was only a little way, after all, before he would come upon the strange cabin with the green roof and lichen-covered side logs.

Several times he stopped to listen, but heard no suspicious sound. Once a small animal of some sort started off nearly under his feet, and gave the boy a shock; but nevertheless he did not turn back. Having made his mind up on a certain matter, it would have to be something more than that to make him change his plans.

Before quitting camp he had asked his chums to leave something in the line of food, where it could be easily found by a roving man, while out of the reach of foxes, 'coons, and 'possums. This he meant to be in the shape of a bait. If the half-starved marooned convict once got it in his clutch he would undoubtedly make straight for the cabin retreat, there to devour his prize. And it was while the unknown party was engaged in this delightful task that Max expected to slip up and fasten the door by means of the arrangement he had fixed that afternoon, a very simple affair, too, as it turned out.

Now he could just distinguish the dark blur ahead of him, which he knew must be made by the cabin itself. As the trees were not quite so dense overhead in this spot, for once upon a time, many years ago, poor Wesley Coombs had started to clear around his then newly made log cabin, Max was soon able to make out the partly open door, just as he had found, and also left it, so as not to excite the suspicions of his intended victim.

Then he settled down to watch, hoping that if the man were waiting for a chance to steal more food, he would soon find an opportunity, and come hurrying back to dispose of it as before. For Max had found the bone of their ham, picked clean, in the shack that afternoon when he visited it; though there had been no sign of any human being around at the time, the man evidently only sleeping under that old but stout roof.



CHAPTER XIII.

UNSEEN PERILS THAT HOVERED NEAR.

Once Max had crept softly up to the side of the cabin and listened, with all his senses on the alert. If the unknown were asleep within, he surely must have betrayed the fact by his labored breathing.

No sound, however slight, came to the alert ears of the boy from inside the strange cabin; and from this fact he felt pretty positive that it must be entirely empty at the time.

After that he moved back again and took up his old station, where the undergrowth would shelter him. He had picked out the place in the daylight, and made sure it was not in the path one would naturally take when coming from the lower end of the island. When settling this matter Max had in mind the unpleasant nature of the meeting should the other stumble upon him as he hid there waiting.

How slowly the minutes passed! To kill the time he began counting, as though in imagination he could see the great pendulum of the grandfather clock that stood in the hall at home, why even a minute seemed enormously long, and five of them an eternity.

Then he allowed his mind to roam back again to the camp, where his four chums were at that minute. He was trying to picture the coming of the escaped convict in his striped suit, creeping up like a stealthy tiger, and quickly discovering the food that had been left there as a bait.

How eagerly would he pounce upon it, and then head back to the vicinity of the lonely cabin, around which clung such sad memories of that tragedy of the long ago, when the waters came up in the night, and took the whole Coombs family off to their death.

Once Max felt his nerves thrill with expectancy, as he caught a movement close by. His hands involuntarily tightened on the stock of the gun he carried, not to use upon the convict, but as a measure of precaution.

Listening intently, he felt sure that he could detect a slight creeping sound, as if some one, or some thing, were stealthily approaching the spot where he crouched, and held his very breath with suspense.

Surely this could not be a man making his way along. Such a burly figure must make more noise than now reached him. Only a sleek animal could pass from log to log with but a faint pat of feet; or it might be the brushing of the bushes in its progress toward him.

But it was no small raccoon or mink that was slowly approaching, as though bent upon finding out what manner of intruder lay in concealment there.

Facing the slight sounds Max waited, and watched, and listened. If his pulses were bounding much faster than their wont it was not surprising, for as yet he had not the slightest idea as to what might happen.

Should this, for instance, be one of the ferocious wild-cats for which the island had been famous long before Wesley Coombs ever dreamed of settling there, Max felt that he would hardly find himself in an enviable position; since the gloom under the trees must prevent him from seeing how to aim with certainty.

Given daylight, and that faithful little gun, the boy would not have thought it anything terrible to face at close quarters the biggest and most savage wild-cat ever known; for his charge of birdshot might be counted on to serve the purpose of a large bullet, and tear a hole in the side of the beast.

It was far different at dead of night, and such a dark night at that. And Max, while he could hardly be said to have had very much experience in that line, knew from hearing old Trapper Jim up in the North Woods tell stories that a wounded bobcat was one of the meanest things to run up against known to hunters.

The sounds kept on, and even became slightly plainer. This would surely indicate that the animal must be drawing nearer in his cautious way. Perhaps it was only curiosity that urged him on. Max hoped so from the bottom of his boyish heart. He did not have any desire to find a savage denizen of the wilds fastened on his back, clawing and tearing with the fury of a demon, while he himself would be almost helpless to get at his enemy.

Max was determined on one thing. No matter about the escaped convict and their desire to capture him, self-preservation must stand first on the calendar; and if he really found himself in a position where he anticipated an attack from the big cat, he meant to pour in the contents of both barrels, and then take chances.

As he continued to watch, always in the one quarter, where the slight noise indicated the presence of the creeping beast, Max saw something that riveted his attention immediately. At first he thought it was a glowworm, or possibly a firefly that had not yet arisen from the lush grass in which it lay concealed during the daytime.

Then, with a sudden shock, he realized what it was, for now there were two of the glowing spots, and close together. The cat had turned its head slightly, exposing both eyes. Like the orbs of all creatures of the feline species its eyes in the darkness glowed as though they were made of phosphorus.

It was far from a pleasant sight. Small wonder that the boy's hands trembled a little as he raised his gun, so as to cover those twin spots of yellow fire. He did not want to shoot, and only meant to do so as a very last resort; but since there was no telling what the treacherous brute might attempt to do, Max felt that he must keep himself in readiness every second of the time.

One thing brought him a little reassurance; so far as he could ascertain now, the bobcat was no longer advancing. Doubtless it lay there, stretched out upon a convenient log, and intently watching the crouching figure among the bushes, which it undoubtedly recognized as belonging to the hated, and also feared, human family.

Max stared as hard as he could straight back. He wanted it to understand that he was not in the least afraid, for that was what would count most when facing a wild beast.

A woman had been known to set a tiger in flight by opening her red parasol and rushing straight at him; while a bugler, about to be devoured by a lion, frightened the animal away by waving his arms and blowing all sorts of weird notes on his instrument.

Another man Max had heard of, upon finding himself at the mercy of a tiger, being utterly unarmed, was inspired to throw himself over, so that he stood upon his hands, waving both feet in the air, and in this posture advancing, finally dropping upon all fours, and still running toward the beast. Unable to understand what manner of creature this was the tiger slunk away.

For a space of perhaps five minutes, which to Max were like so many hours, the curious bobcat remained there, watching him as a cat might a mouse at play. Then the boy plainly heard the animal give a snarl as of utter disgust, and the glowing orbs vanished; while he could hear the pat of velvet-shod feet as they landed on another log.

At any rate, the beast had withdrawn, much to the relief of the lad. And again he was free to take up his own business of watching for the return of the occupant of the strange cabin on Catamount Island.

Another period of waiting, and Max again caught a slight sound. At first he feared that his former visitor, the bobcat, had returned with the intention of making a closer investigation; but, after listening, he became convinced that this was not the case.

Now it was a peculiar rustling among the dead leaves that lay under the trees, no fire having ever swept across the island, at least for many years. The sound was really continuous, and could hardly be made by the passage of any animal—mink, skunk, weasel, 'coon, 'possum or even muskrat.

Then it must be some sort of snake that was gliding along close by him. Again did the boy feel a sense of repulsion. He knew that it had long been said the island up the Big Sunflower was a nest of rattlesnakes, though so far none of them had seen even one of the scaly reptiles. What if this were one of the deadly species that was being attracted toward his crouching form?

He could not refrain from making some movement, with the intention of frightening it away; and was immediately gratified by hearing the slight rustling pass off to one side, as though his ruse had been successful.

This was really getting monotonous, and he found himself wondering when it might come to an end. What could be delaying the man? Had he, Max, miscalculated, so that the unknown party would not be apt to try to enter the camp until away toward morning? Or could it be that the boys were sitting up unusually late?

Max hardly believed this latter was the case, since he had asked them to retire shortly after he left; and supposed that they would heed his wishes in the matter, knowing how important it was to start things going.

So he finally concluded that the man himself was unduly cautious. Well, he had reason to be, if, as they now believed, he chanced to be an escaped prisoner, who had broken out from the penitentiary, and was trying to elude recapture by hiding in this remote and unusual haunt.

But surely it could not be much longer. Why, it seemed to Max that hours must have elapsed since he parted from his chums, and started on this little private enterprise of his own. Much had happened to him in that time, and he marveled to think how events could crowd upon each other's heels, once they started.

There was that little adventure with Ted Shafter and his followers, whereby he had, by a clever ruse, sent the fellows hurrying back down the river, and given them such a good scare that they would never again bother the campers on Catamount Island.

Then came the affair with the prowling bobcat; and Max would certainly not soon forget the chilly sensation that held possession of him all the time he could see those twin glowing yellow orbs fastened upon him.

And last, though far from least, had been that fear when he found reason to believe a passing rattler was within half a dozen feet of him.

Could there be any further danger to be met? He knew of none, and hoped nothing might occur to give him another thrill such as those that had passed. For while Max Hastings might be said to be a resolute lad, about as fearless as the ordinary boy of his years, perhaps more so, still he did not yearn for excitement.

There was Steve now, who was quite another proposition; he just dearly loved a racket, and was never so happy as when he felt that there was a fight of some sort in prospect, he cared very little what its nature.

How much longer could he stand it? And was midnight far past? Max would have given something for a chance to glance at the little nickel watch he carried; but the flash of a lighted match might come just at a time to ruin his carefully laid plans, and he declined to take the risk.

There was no striking clock in a church tower to tell him of the night, such as he was accustomed to at home; and Max was hardly woodsman enough to be able to read the stars and know by that means.

The thought came to him with great force, however, as he lay there looking up at the few stars he could see through the leafy canopy overhead; and Max determined that henceforth he would place himself in position to know just when certain bright stars might be expected to rise above the eastern horizon each succeeding night or others set in the west.

His long vigil was fated to come to an end at last, however. When the boy was almost ready to give up, and confess that sleep was mastering his desire to accomplish things, he heard a sound again.

Ah, this time it could be neither the rustle of a cat's body through the foliage nor the sinuous movements of a gliding snake along the ground. Closer it drew, and again did Max hold his breath with suspense; for now he knew beyond a doubt that a human being was approaching with hurried steps, and that the unknown headed toward the cabin, coming from down the island, too!

Once Max allowed himself to suspect that it might be one of his chums trying to find his place of concealment, and that something dreadful might have happened in camp that required his immediate presence. This thought, however, he immediately put aside as nonsense. It must be the inmate of the strange cabin who, having stolen the provisions, just as Max had expected he would, was now making a bee line for his retreat with the intention of devouring the same!

Closer came the rushing sound, as of the passage of some large form. Max had, it seemed, been wise to choose his hiding place in a thicket, where no one would think of going, for in this way he avoided contact with the stranger.

Directly past him Max saw a moving bulk go, and all he could make out was that the other was a man of unusual proportions, a giant in fact.

Then he heard him come up against the wall of the cabin, give a grunt, grope around for the door, and pass within.

After which the sound of the door closing came agreeably to the ears of the boy.



CHAPTER XIV.

HOW THE SCHEME WORKED.

"Now it's about time for me to be doing something!"

That was what Max whispered to himself, after he was sure the unknown party had taken up his quarters within that queer cabin with the green roof and lichen-covered walls.

The very thought of being able to move, and start doing things, seemed a relief. His muscles were so cramped from long sitting in the one position that at first he experienced quite severe twinges, when he started to leave the hiding place he had been occupying for some hours at least.

It took Max but a very short time to creep up to the side of the cabin. He had to be exceedingly careful, to be sure, since he could not tell what keen ears the fugitive from justice might possess. And surely an escaped convict would be apt to always be on the alert for sounds calculated to spell danger to him.

Before reaching the wall, however, Max had made a discovery. As is usual in the case of old log cabins that have stood neglected for many years, subject to storms, and the heat of summer, as well as the wintry blasts, some of the dried mud that had once been plastered between the logs to fill in the "chinks" had become loosened and fallen away.

Max had noted this fact before when prowling around. Indeed, ere entering the suspected cabin on that very day, he had taken the precaution to glue an eye to one of these cracks, and endeavor to find out whether it were safe for him to go in.

And now, through these same chinks there came streams of light, showing that the occupant possessed a supply of matches at least, and had lighted something that served him for a candle; possibly a long splinter of lightwood, picked up in the daytime at a point where the lightning had riven a resinous pine tree, and scattered it over the surrounding ground.

With the intention of seeing what the escaped convict looked like, Max made for one of these slender openings that ran the same way as the horizontal logs. He, of course, picked out the one that seemed to offer him the best advantages, in that it was a trifle larger than any of the rest.

Avoiding the shaft of light all he could, until ready to thrust his face up to the logs, and fill in the gap, Max crept along on hands and knees, trailing his gun.

He could hear slight movements from within, as though the man might be doing something. Max could give a pretty good guess what that was, if, as he suspected, the bait had been taken from the trap in the camp, and the convict arrived here with his arms filled with provisions.

Now Max was close enough to be able to accomplish the end he had in view. The very second he fastened his eye to that slender aperture he felt a thrill pass over his frame again, similar to that which had attacked him at the time he faced the crouching wild-cat.

He saw a man seated tailor fashion, with his legs crossed, on the hard earthen floor of the cabin. He seemed to be tearing at some food with almost the ferocity of a half-starved dog.

Max looked in vain for the expected and well-known stripes that would distinguish a prison convict. This man did not wear anything of the sort. His garments were of a very ordinary kind, though just now exceedingly ill kept, from groveling in the dirt, and sleeping night and day without taking them off.

His hair seemed to be rather long and unkempt, while there was a wild look in his face; and the way he cast his staring eyes about sent a cold chill into the heart of the watching lad.

Max realized that after all he and his chums had made a very poor guess of it, when they tried to figure things out. But he also felt a little satisfaction when he remembered how he had declared the footprint was made by a common shoe, such as inmates in all public institutions wore, as they are made in prisons by those who are serving long sentences.

This wretched man, then, was no escaped convict; but he was undoubtedly a crazy being, who, having fled from some retreat, thought to elude recapture by hiding in this lonely place!

Max hardly knew what to think. The change was so complete that he felt as though he must alter his plans in accordance with the new line-up. It would have been all right for the boys to help recapture a desperate criminal, whose being at large was a constant menace to the peaceful community; but would the same apply when it was a lunatic who kept house in that strange cabin on Catamount Island?

No matter what he decided, he must make his mind up quickly. The man looked very dangerous, though Max knew that appearances are very deceptive when those who are out of their right minds are concerned. Often the very man who seems most harmless is the crafty one ready to commit a terrible deed; while he who looks to be a veritable terror may turn out to be a mild fellow, who would not harm an ant.

Rapidly he ran things over in his mind. Why, evidently anyone devoid of sense and reason had no right to be at large. While he might manage to live through the summer, by snaring birds and catching fish, what would happen to the poor fellow when the biting blasts of bitter winter swept down from the cold Northland!

No matter who he was, where he came from, and what his object in hiding here might be, it were better that his presence be made known to the authorities. Somewhere or other they must be looking for him, since even the helpless inmates of public institutions for the insane are objects of concern; and one of them at large will create a reign of terror in a community, especially among the women.

"I must do it!" Max was saying to himself, as he continued to watch the wretched man tear away at the food, and act as though he were a wild beast rather than a human being, once gifted with a mind that could reason, love, hate, and learn.

As he had explained to his chums, when they pressed him, ere consenting that he venture upon this night expedition alone, Max had fixed it so that when the opportunity arrived he could fasten the door of the cabin securely.

A stout log would do the business. He had examined it, yes, and even tried the effect when he placed it in a leaning position against the door, although declining to go inside at the time, as he did not want to be caught in his own trap.

It had worked splendidly, too; and once it was fixed as he meant to have it, the lad felt positive that no single man, however powerful he might be, confined within the shack, could dislodge that barrier.

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