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The Strange Cabin on Catamount Island
by Lawrence J. Leslie
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It would take him only a little time, a minute or two at the most, to lift that log, and place it just where he wanted to have it. And Max was again pleased because he had gone through all the operation when there in daylight, since it made things so much easier now.

So he quitted his post at the open chink, where the light filtered through, and which had served his purpose so well in the line of observation.

It was to be hoped, in carrying out the balance of his scheme, he would not make any sound that, reaching the ears of that wild-looking inmate of the cabin, would bring him flying through the doorway. Max had not the slightest desire to come into close connection with the mysterious unknown crazy man. And his motives in attempting the capture of the other were purely along the line of kindness. If a man is unable to look after himself, then it stands to reason that he ought to have attention from those whom the state appoints as his guardians.

The log was where he had left it. Max knew this, for he had made it a point to feel for it at the time he crept close to the cabin, and listened for sounds of any sleeper being within.

He had to lay his gun aside, if he wished to work out his plan, for he must use both arms, and every pound of muscle he could summon to the fore, such was the heaviness of the log.

It was a minute of considerable suspense while Max was carrying that log forward.

He reached the door, and nothing had happened, thank goodness. And it was with a grateful heart that the boy presently carefully planted the log in the position he had fixed upon as being best.

Now one end rested against the door, which opened outwardly by good luck; while the other dug into the ground, and was held by the end of a huge rock that cropped up close to the surface just in that convenient spot.

Max drew the first decent breath he had had since starting to carry out his daring project. He believed that he had the trap so arranged now that escape from it was well-nigh impossible; and yet almost immediately his heart seemed to jump in his throat with sudden apprehension.

Perhaps in dropping the log into place he may have made some little sound that reached the ears of the crazy man within the cabin. Max heard a shuffling of feet. Then the door was shaken, at first gently, and then with more and more violence, until the very walls of the cabin seemed to quiver under the force employed.

Although he had been so very confident before, Max now experienced a new feeling of acute alarm. What if the imprisoned man succeeded in breaking out of his place of confinement, would he not be raging mad in every sense of the word, and in a humor to attack the camp of the boy chums?

Max had started to grope for his gun, but as this fear sprang into being again, instead of doing that he stumbled over to where he knew of a second log lying on the ground; perhaps where poor Wesley Coombs had left it in that long ago time, when he started to make a home in this wild land.

Frantically Max tugged at this larger log. Under ordinary circumstances he might not have been able to have more than moved the heavy tree trunk; but keyed up to a pitch of desperation by the conditions that confronted him, he bent himself to the task with a strength equal to that of almost any man.

Rolling the log along until he had brought it to just the proper point where it could be best used, Max exerted himself once more, and to some purpose. Afterwards he wondered himself how he had ever accomplished such a feat, because it did look far beyond the power of a half-grown lad. But necessity compels all of us to do things that, in our calmer moments, we would call preposterous, and out of reason.

All Max knew was that the log went up against the door, that was quivering under the attacks of the crazy man within.

He drew a sigh of relief when assured of this fact. Panting for breath he stood there and listened. The walls and roof he knew were absolutely sound, which had seemed wonderful enough, considering all the years that the cabin had stood here unoccupied.

It would take any man hours to dig under those logs, and burrow out, especially if he had no hatchet or knife to assist in the labor, as Max believed was the case now. And long before that happened he could have his four chums on the spot, ready to lend the assistance of their strong young arms in securing the escaping prisoner.

What they should do about it, Max as yet hardly knew. This was a matter in which he felt he would like to have the advice of grave and thoughtful Owen. Four of them might keep guard over the raging madman, trying to appease him by thrusting bits of tempting food through the cracks; while the fifth fellow sped down the river in one of the canoes to bring help from Carson.

And right then and there Max was boy enough to feel that it would be something of a feather in their caps if, in addition to camping a whole week on Catamount Island, they could lay the ghost that had frightened Herb and his friends at the time they tried to spend a single night in the strange cabin.

But he must not waste any more time here. Minutes were worth something, with the trap sprung, and a desperate lunatic caught.

He must hasten back to the camp, tell his chums all that had happened, and after arming them as best could be done, they must hurry to the cabin. Max had decided that Owen ought to be the one to spin down the Big Sunflower as soon as the first peep of daylight appeared in the east. He would not dare allow him to attempt the voyage in the dense darkness, for fear of a spill, and possible peril; since there were many cross currents, and rocks that would sink a frail canoe if struck at full speed.

Now the man seemed to have become quiet again. Max hoped that he had realized the foolishness of trying to break through the door, and that the lure of the stolen food had drawn him back to his feast. He listened, and could catch just the faintest of sounds, which it was impossible to analyze. But above all else the anxious boy hoped that his captive might not think about burrowing under the log wall, at least not for some time yet.

And so, having finally located his gun again, Max turned away from the cabin, meaning to retrace his course along the shore to the camp where his chums would be found.



CHAPTER XV.

UNEXPECTED ALLIES.

It was with a feeling of thankfulness, as well as a sense of satisfaction, that Max Hastings started to head for the shore of the island once more. By this time he felt that he ought to know every foot of the way, after passing over it so often. And it afforded an easier passage than by keeping straight through the dense underbrush and woods; though the crazy man seemed to prefer that course, having a possible secret trail of his own.

As the island was not many acres in extent, Max expected to reach the camp before ten minutes had elapsed, or fifteen at most. The boys would be anxious to see him. Perhaps they had been sitting up inside the tents all the time, too worried to go to sleep. If so, he wondered whether they had known when the wild man of the woods again entered the camp, and made way with the provisions waiting for him.

Reaching the shore, where he could look out upon the passing river, he turned his head in the quarter whence he knew his destination lay.

In this way then he had been going, perhaps five minutes, and all seemed well, when he met with a sudden and disagreeable surprise.

Something sprang upon him without the least warning. Max, although horrified, and with that ferocious bobcat in mind, attempted to struggle the best he knew how; but to his astonishment his arms were pinioned at his sides, so that he really found himself helpless to move, as he was thrown heavily down.

Of course he had understood before this that it was not an animal at all that had jumped upon him, but a human being like himself. His first thought lay in the direction of the madman whom he had left in the cabin with the barricaded door. In some mysterious way the fellow must have escaped, and following fast upon his heel had now accomplished his capture.

And just when this awful thought was getting a grip on the mind of poor Max, he found occasion to change his opinion once more. A face had come in contact with his, and it was smooth, and destitute of the hair he had seen straggling over the long unshaven countenance of the crazy man.

Could Ted Shafter and his cronies have dared venture back after receiving that severe fright earlier in the evening? The idea seemed next door to preposterous to Max; but what other explanation could there be to the mystery.

"Got him safe, Jenkins?" asked a gruff voice close by; and Max realized that it was a question addressed to the unseen party who held him so tightly.

"That's what I have, sir; but seems to me there's something wrong here," replied the other party, the athletic fellow to whom Max owed his tumble.

"What d'ye mean by saying that, Jenkins?" demanded the man who seemed to be in authority, since the second one called him "sir," and seemed ready to obey his orders.

"He don't feel near as big as our man; and his face, it's as smooth as my own. I reckon we've hit on the wrong bird, Mr. Lawrence," continued the man, slightly relaxing his firm grip on Max.

"I'm sure you have," said the boy, thinking that it was time he let these mysterious parties know that he seriously objected to being set upon, pulled down, and roughly treated, just as though he were a common criminal.

"Well, this is a joke on us, sure enough," remarked the man who gave orders; "let him up, Jenkins; it must be one of the boys we saw through the glasses yesterday camped at the foot of the island. They didn't go back home after all, as we believed, when we came back here with a boat this evening. That must have been another lot we heard coming down the river."

Max began to grasp things now. From these words he knew that these two men must be the same whom Steve had seen watching the island on the day before, and who had appeared to go away up the river. They must have circled around, so as to finally reach Carson, where they heard certain things that had sent them up again, this time in a boat, late the afternoon before.

And hearing the splash of oars as Ted and his cronies hurried back to town, they had believed that the boys were those whom they had seen camped at the lower end of the island. Doubtless they even suspected that Max and his chums might have been also frightened off by the same wild-looking man who had appeared to Herb Benson weeks ago.

"Who are you, and what are you looking for over here on Catamount Island?" Max now asked, boldly, feeling pretty sure he could give a good guess, even before the other spoke a word in explanation.

The crackle of a match told him that the leader of the couple wished to take a look at him, so as to be satisfied. And when the little piece of wood flared up, Max was able to see that both men were, as Steve had declared, dressed in gray uniforms, that were decorated with the brass buttons of authority.

"Well, it is a boy, as sure as anything, Jenkins," remarked the man, who wore a short-pointed beard, and had a keen face, as though he might be in the habit of dealing with charges who required constant vigilance. "Now, I hope my assistant didn't hurt you much when he jumped you, following my orders, when he heard you coming?"

Now, Max did feel a trifle sore, where he had struck the ground with the said Jenkins on top of him; and doubtless the feeling would be still more pronounced by another day. But then he was too proud to confess to any such small thing.

"Nothing to mention, sir," he remarked, just as though it were a common thing to have people wallow all over him, as though they were playing tackle in a football struggle. "But are you looking for a lunatic?"

"Hello! Do you mean to say you can put us on the track of one?" demanded the man who had been called Mr. Lawrence by his assistant.

"A rather big man, with a shock of white hair, and staring eyes; a man dressed in a faded suit of brown, and wearing an old blue flannel shirt?" Max went on.

He could not see the men now, because the match had long since gone out; but it was evident that they were delighted to hear him talk in the way he did.

"You've described him to a dot, my lad," remarked the gentleman; "only his hair was cut fairly short, and his face smooth, when he broke loose from the asylum, now two months back, and disappeared. Such a job I never before struck. We've been on twenty different trails, and everyone turned out false. And we were about to give it up, when I remembered that long ago he had lived in this section of the country; and the idea came to me that perhaps even a crazy man might remember places. So we came up here to look at the island, only to find a party of boys camped on it; and that seemed to indicate a crazy man could not be anywhere near them. But down in Carson I heard a story from a boy about a wild-looking creature that had frightened himself and his friends nearly to death up here on the island; so, not knowing what else to do, Jenkins and myself got a boat and came back, meaning to explore the place in the night time, as well as by daylight. We intended going back home and giving it all up as a bad job, if this last hope failed, and we didn't locate old Coombs in the place he once lived, they told me."

Max uttered a cry.

"What was that name you spoke, sir?" he asked.

"Why, the name of the lunatic that broke out, and has given us all this chase over the blessed country; Wesley Coombs his full name is. Have you heard of him, my boy?" replied the warden of the asylum.

"Oh, yes, and to think that when he escaped, after being confined for so many years, the poor man turned back here to the last place he had lived when he had a wife and child. They were both drowned in a freshet. I understood he had gone, too; but he must have been taken to the lunatic asylum instead, poor fellow."

Max was feeling very sad as the truth broke in upon him after this fashion. To think that Wesley Coombs had been alive all these years; restrained of his liberty. And how pathetic it was to know that when he finally found an opportunity to get away, he had, through some queer freak of fate, come back to this island of the Big Sunflower, where he had brought his young wife and child years ago, and which still remained, the one remembrance of the past in his poor dulled mind!

"Is he here now on the island?" asked Mr. Lawrence, eagerly.

Perhaps Wesley Coombs was a person of very little importance in himself; but he had been sought for so long that his recapture would bring considerable satisfaction along with it.

"To the best of my knowledge and belief, he is," replied Max, chuckling to think how he was in a condition to know, and enjoying the prospect of springing a surprise upon the two wardens of the asylum.

"Then you've seen him?" continued the head keeper.

"I certainly have, sir, or I couldn't have described him very well," Max went on, not too anxious to make his disclosure; for he thought he ought to enjoy the situation a little, after experiencing that rough tumble.

"Can you take us to where we can find him?" next asked the warden.

"Inside of five minutes, sir. I was just on the way to get the rest of my chums, and then send for assistance, because I've caught the crazy man in a trap!"

"A trap! D'ye hear that, Jenkins? This lad has been able to do what you and I would have given a lot to accomplish. What sort of a trap, would you mind telling us, young man?" continued Mr. Lawrence, with more respect in his voice than at any time previous.

"In his old log cabin, sir," Max replied, "where once upon a time he used to live. He has been sleeping there every night, but hiding in the thick jungle during the day. Several times now he's gone and raided our camp for provisions, which he would take to the cabin, and eat up. So I fixed it for him to get something more to-night, while I waited up here, ready to fasten the door of the cabin with a log."

"Well, that sounds clever of you, I must say," remarked the other, admiration in his voice, "and the trap worked, did it?"

"He came along, and he walked into the cabin. Somehow he must have secured a supply of matches, for he has been having fires there, sir; and he lighted a splinter of wood when he came in to-night. I peeped through a chink and saw him for the first time. He gave me a chill, I tell you. You see, we got the idea in our heads that it was an escaped convict hiding out on the island; but none of us ever thought of a crazy man, and poor old Wesley Coombs at that."

"After he went in you fastened the door, did you?" the other asked.

"I had a heavy log handy, and this I propped up against the door, so no single man could ever push it open. But because he threw himself against it so hard I dragged a second one over to back up the first. And now, sir, I'm sure he can't get out of that cabin unless he takes to burrowing under the logs; which would take him hours; for he had no knife, and the earth is as hard as stone there."

"Well done, my lad. Allow me to thank you for the great help you have given us, and to congratulate you as well. Shake hands, won't you, please," and this Max did with all the sincerity in the world.

"And I sure hope you don't hold any grudge against me, young feller, because I bumped your head when I took you in?" remarked Jenkins, as he, too, brushed up, and felt for the hand of the boy in the darkness.

"Why, of course not," replied Max, giving an unseen grimace as his bruised side hurt him just then. "You were only doing what you thought was your duty; and, after seeing that wild man, I can understand that he must be strong as an ox, and I suppose violent, too."

"Oh, no, not a bit," declared Mr. Lawrence; "that is, he's never been so in the past. No keeper ever had the least trouble with old Coombs. They all liked him, because he was so gentle and tractable. But would you mind taking us to that cabin now, young fellow!"

"I wish you'd go with me down to our camp first," said Max.

"To be sure we will, and it's a very little favor to ask after doing us such a good turn; but what's the idea, my boy?" asked the head warden, cheerfully.

"My name is Max Hastings," replied the boy, who did not just fancy being called "my boy" and "young fellow" any too much. "You see, I wanted to have my four chums on hand at the time you opened the door, and secured poor old Wesley Coombs. We can get back there in a jiffy, and they'd be ever so much obliged for the chance of seeing how the last thing worked."

"Well, it seems to be your game all along, Max, since we don't even know where this strange old cabin, that we've been hearing so much about lately, is located. So, as you promise to lead us back there with as little delay as possible, certainly we'll go with you. And the sooner we start, the quicker we can be back again."

That was a hint from Mr. Lawrence that Max could not ignore. There was logic and a world of truth back of it, too.

"Come on then, please, sir; the going is better close to the shore line; and that's the way I came up."

With that he started, the others trailing along in his wake. And Max chuckled to himself more than a few times while thus drawing nearer and nearer to the camp, where a great surprise awaited his chums.



CHAPTER XVI.

THE LAST CAMP FIRE ON CATAMOUNT ISLAND.

"Hello! In camp, there, ahoy! Show a head!"

That was the way Max shouted, as he broke into the circle of light cast by the camp fire, none too good just then, on account of lack of attention.

Instantly several heads appeared in view, two at each tent flap, to be exact.

"It's Max, all right!" shouted Steve.

"And, say, what's this he's gone and brought back with him, fellers?" cried Bandy-legs, staring in surprise at the two men, with their gray uniforms and brass buttons of authority.

The four boys now came creeping forth. And when he saw that all of them were fully dressed, Max knew that sleep could hardly have visited the camp during his long absence.

"These are my chums, gentlemen," remarked Max, as he bent a smiling face on the staring quartette. "The one on the right is my cousin, Owen Hastings; next to him comes Toby Jucklin; then this boy is Bandy-legs Griffin, who is much better than he looks; and the last of all is Steve Dowdy, or 'Touch-and-go Steve' we call him. And this gentleman is Mr. Lawrence, while his assistant is Jenkins."

"From the penitentiary, of course; I can see the uniform?" remarked Steve.

"Wrong again, old fellow," laughed Max. "They happen to be wardens from the State Asylum for the Insane!"

"What?" gasped Steve. "Ain't they looking for a desperate escaped jail bird?"

"Not at all, but an escaped lunatic; a man who got away some months back, and has kept hidden ever since here on this island, while they've been searching all over for him. And, fellows, you'll be surprised as much as I was when you hear who the poor chap really is we've been feeding with our ham and other grub. Steve, remember what you heard your father say about the man who once started to make his home on Catamount Island; but the flood came and upset his plans?"

"Say, do you mean Wesley Coombs?" demanded Steve, quickly.

"Yes," replied Max. "Well, you got things a little mixed there. He lost his wife and baby in the freshet, but he was saved, though his mind was always a blank; and all these years the poor fellow has been shut up in the lunatic asylum. He managed to escape a while ago, and seems to have been drawn back here to the place where he was last happy. And now they've come after him to take him back, for he'd he frozen to death, or starve, if left loose here winter times."

"But can they get him, d'ye think?" asked Steve.

"Oh, that's dead easy for them," returned the other, trying to keep from displaying anything like pride in his voice or manner. "You see I've got him shut up in the old cabin right now. We only came down here to get you fellows, and then these gentlemen want to hike back there to make the capture."

"Whoop! It takes Max to do big things!" shouted Steve.

"He never bites off more'n he can chaw!" asserted Bandy-legs, appearing to be supremely happy over the improved prospect of things.

"I'm rather inclined to agree with you, boys," remarked the head warden. "Max has certainly done himself proud on this special occasion; and we're placed under a heavy debt of gratitude to him. But if you're ready, boys, we might as well make a start. The sooner we have our man in custody, the easier we'll feel. He's given us such a long chase that it'll be good to know we can bring him back to his old quarters, where he seemed fully contented until the chance came to skip. None of 'em can ever let that pass by, no matter how satisfied they are. It's a part of the disease, the doctors tell us."

So they started forth, taking both lanterns with them so that they might have plenty of light along the way. Not one of the boys felt the slightest alarm about leaving the camp unprotected now; especially after Max had described how he gave Ted Shafter and his cronies such a good scare.

"We saw the flash, Max," remarked Owen, "just when we were thinking of getting under cover, like you suggested. And we heard the yells, too. All of us thought we recognized the voice of Ted, and we had a pretty good guess coming that you'd given 'em something to remember."

"Say," remarked Steve, laughingly, "when they went shooting past the lower end of the island as fast as they could row, they were chattering like a lot of old crows. We kept as mum as oysters, and let the lot go. It was a good riddance of bad rubbish anyhow, and we didn't want to hold 'em back for one minute."

The return journey was easily accomplished, with Max to lead the way, swinging one of the lighted lanterns in his hand.

As they left the shore and headed in toward the place where the old cabin stood, all of them were listening to ascertain whether the inmate were beating against the fast door, and perhaps shrieking as only a madman might.

But all seemed very quiet.

"Chances are he's digging a tunnel under the wall, like you said he might, Max," suggested Steve.

"Well, he's in there safe and sound, anyhow," replied Max, in a satisfied tone.

After reaching the cabin the head warden went up to the door, and, with the help of the others, threw both logs down.

"Hello, in there, Wesley Coombs, this is Warden Lawrence, come to take you back to your comfortable quarters at the palace."

With that he threw open the door, and lantern in hand stalked in. The wild man was sitting there on the hard earthen floor, and engaged in calmly eating. He merely glanced up as they entered, and paid no further attention to them, which rather pleased Max, for he had feared a terrible struggle, and secretly deep down in his heart felt a great pity for poor old Wesley Coombs.

The crazy man seemed to recognize the badge of authority in the uniforms of the two wardens, for he obeyed their slightest orders without the least hesitation. But Max was pleased to see that there did not seem to be cringing fear in connection with this obedience, such as would rather indicate that he might have been badly used at times in the past by men wearing these same uniforms.

They all went back to the camp; and since sleep seemed next to impossible, after such exciting times, they just sat around talking. The two wardens proved very pleasant fellows indeed; and declared that the cup of coffee which was brewed for them was nectar, "ambrosia," Mr. Lawrence called it.

When morning came the wardens took their prisoner away. Poor Wesley Coombs seemed to cast one last pitiful glance back at the island ere he passed from the sight of the youthful campers. No doubt he was safely returned to the asylum; for some time later Max received a very courteous letter from the superintendent in charge of the institution, thanking him and his friends very warmly for the aid they had given the wardens in effecting the recapture of the escaped lunatic, But it would always give Max a queer little feeling of pain deep down in the region of his heart every time he thought of the wild man of Catamount Island, and what a sad memory of the dim past it had been that drew him back there after so many years of blankness had ensued.

Now the balance of their stay on the island partook more of the nature of a picnic than anything else. With the passing of the supposed "ghost" of the strange cabin, there no longer remained anything to disturb their peace of mind. Ted Shafter and his crowd would certainly give the place a wide berth from that time out; and with reasonable precaution the boys need not fear contact with any wild-cat or poisonous snake while staying there.

On the last morning of their camping experience, while they were beginning to dismantle the tents, and prepare for loading the canoes, quite a flotilla hove in sight down the river, there being three boats, each rowed by a couple of weary boys.

It turned out to be Herb Benson and some of his friends, who had started from Carson very early in the morning, and had just been able to make the island before noon. Of course it was mostly curiosity to see whether Max and his chums had really spent the whole week on the island that had brought them up.

But enough provisions remained to give the entire crowd a dinner; and feeling refreshed after this, they were ready to start back with the current, a much easier task than butting against it.

Sitting there, and enjoying the hospitality of the five campers, Herb and his friends listened to an account of the many things that had happened. And how their eyes did distend with wonder and interest when they heard all about the wild man of the strange cabin of the island, whose sudden appearance at the time the others occupied that shack had driven them away in mad haste.

They frankly admitted that Max and the rest possessed more grit than they had given them credit for, and that the little wager had been decided in their favor. After all, our five boys had enjoyed the outing more than words could tell; and were then, one and all declared, ready to repeat the experience at the earliest possible opportunity.

That time was closer at hand than any of them suspected when speaking of their desire to again get together under cover of the tents.

They made the return trip in pretty fast time, the canoes gliding along as if drawn by unseen hands, as the paddles flashed in the light of the westering sun. It had been a week of many surprises, and not a few thrills, that would haunt them for a long time to come. And among all the other things for which they believed they had reason to be thankful, that little episode in connection with the Shafter crowd stood out prominently. No doubt, in time, the fellows would learn what it was that had given them such a grand scare; and they would also try to make out that they guessed it all along, and had only fled because their presence had become known; but Max would only smile if he heard that. He would never forget the cries of genuine alarm that had gone up from that boat, when the awful glare suddenly burst out from the bushes of the haunted island.

Of course, one of the first things done after reaching town was to hand the cedar canoe over to the local boat builder, and have him put a new garboard streak in the bottom, to take the place of the defective one, which had been bored through and then artfully plugged, in such a way that it would not be noticed, yet must work loose at some time perhaps when far up the river, as we know it did.

They never really found out just who was guilty of such a mean act; but felt positive that it could originate in no other brain but that of Ted Shafter, even if actually committed by his shadow, Shack Beggs.

The boathouse was soon improved, and made so strong that the boys felt they could defy such conspirators; for they hardly believed Ted was ready to set fire to a building, and take the chances of being sent away to a reform school, in order to get square with some of those boys he hated bitterly.

That his enmity would endure, and give Max and his chums further cause for anxiety, all those who knew the stubborn nature of the Carson bully felt convinced.

What befell the five chums on another outing trip which soon followed the camp on Catamount Island, with many thrilling adventures, and a mystery in the bargain, will be found recorded in the pages of the next story in the "Camp Fire and Trail Series," entitled "Lost in the Great Dismal Swamp."

THE END.

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