THE STRANGE CABIN ON CATAMOUNT ISLAND
THE STRANGE CABIN ON CATAMOUNT ISLAND
BY LAWRENCE J. LESLIE
I.—HOW THE DARE WAS GIVEN
II.—BANDY-LEGS IN TROUBLE
III.—ON THE ISLAND WITH THE BAD NAME
IV.—THE SUDDEN AWAKENING
V.—EXPLORING THE ISLAND
VI.—WHAT THE ASHES TOLD MAX
VII.—THE MYSTERY OF THE CABIN
VIII.—AN UNWELCOME DISCOVERY
IX.—WATCHED FROM THE SHORE
X.—THE BUILDER OF THE STRANGE CABIN
XI.—WHAT HAPPENED ON THE SECOND NIGHT
XII.—A BOLD PLAN
XIII.—UNSEEN PERILS THAT HOVERED NEAR
XIV.—HOW THE SCHEME WORKED
XVI.—THE LAST CAMP FIRE ON CATAMOUNT ISLAND
THE STRANGE CABIN ON CATAMOUNT ISLAND.
HOW THE DARE WAS GIVEN.
"And so Herb Benson dared you, Max, you say?"
"That's what he did, Steve."
"To camp on Catamount Island?"
"And stay there a full week. He said that even if we did have nerve enough to make the try, he'd give us just one solitary night to hang out there!"
"Huh! just because Herb and his old club got scared nearly to death a while ago by some silly noise they thought was a ghost, they reckon every fellow is built on the same plan, don't they, Max?"
"I guess that's what they do, Steve."
"So they challenge us to make a camp, and stick it out, do they? What did you tell Herb? Oh, I hope you just took him up on the spot!"
"Well, I said I'd put it up to the rest of the chums, my cousin, Owen Hastings, Toby Jucklin, Bandy-legs Griffin, and yourself."
"Count me in as ready to accept the dare. Why, I'd start this blessed minute if I had my way, Max!"
"I know you would, because you're always so quick to flare up. That's why they all call you 'Touch-and-go Steve Dowdy.' But come along, and let's get the other fellows. We can go down to the boathouse and talk it over, anyhow."
"But tell me first, when can we be ready to go, Max—some time to-morrow?"
"You certainly are the most impatient fellow I ever knew," replied Max, with a laugh; "yes, if the other boys are willing, I guess we might get off at noon to-morrow. It wouldn't take long to lay in our supplies; and you know we've already got tents, cooking things, and all that stuff on hand."
"Oh, shucks! leave the grub part of the business to me," remarked Steve, instantly. "What's the use of having a chum whose daddy is the leading grocer in Carson if he can't look after the supplies. But I'm just tickled nearly to death at the chance of this little cruise up the Big Sunflower."
"I can guess why," Max observed, as he kept pace with his nervous companion's quick strides.
"The new canoes!" exclaimed Steve; "it gives us the chance we've been wanting to find out how they work in real harness. We've only tried little spins in them so far, you know, Max. Gee! I hated like everything to let my motorcycle go; but the folks put their foot down hard, after that second accident to our chum, Bandy-legs; and, like the rest of the bunch, I had to send it back to the shop for what it was worth. It was like going to the scrapheap with it, because I lost so much money."
"Well, let's hope we can make it up in fun on the water with our boats," was the sensible way the other put it. "Here's Ordway's drug store, and we can use his 'phone to get the rest of the crowd along."
A minute later, and inside the booth they were calling for M-23 West. It was not later than eight-twenty in the evening when the two boys met down in front of the hardware store, where a brilliant light burned all night long; so that the evening was young when Max caught the well-known voice of Toby Jucklin at the other end of the wire.
Toby stuttered, at times, fearfully. He kept trying to overcome the habit, and the result was that his affliction came and went in spasms. Sometimes he could talk as well as any one of his four chums; then again, especially when excited, he would have a serious lapse, being compelled to resort to his old trick of giving a sharp whistle, and then stopping a couple of seconds to get a grasp on himself, when he was able to say what he wanted intelligently.
"That you, Max?" asked Toby, who had lived with an old, crabbed uncle and been treated harshly, despite the fact that his father had left quite a little fortune for him when of age; until Mr. Hastings took hold of the case, had the court depose Uncle Ambrose, and place the boy in charge of a generous gentleman whose name was Mr. Jackson, with whom he now lived in comfort.
"Just who it is, Toby," replied the other. "Say, can't you hike down to the boathouse and meet us there?"
"Now?" demanded Toby, his voice beginning to show signs of wabbling.
"As soon as you can get there," was what Max answered.
"Hey! what's on the carpet now, tell me, Max?" demanded Toby, quickly.
"Keep cool," warned the boy in the booth. "Steve is here with me in the drug store. We've got a scheme for a little outing in our canoes, and want to put it up to the rest of the bunch. How about coming down, Toby?"
"S-s-sure I'll b-b-be there!" exclaimed the other.
"Then make a start soon," and with that Max rang off, because he knew Toby would hold him indefinitely if once he got started asking questions and stuttering at the same time.
He soon had another boy on the wire, this time Bandy-legs. And the response was as rapid and favorable in this quarter as it had been with Toby. From the tone of the inquiries Max made, the boys understood there must be something out of the common on tap, and their curiosity was therefore excited. They would have been at the place of meeting, even though they found it necessary to crawl out of bedroom windows and slide down the post of the front porch; which in neither case was required, for both Toby and the other chum had plenty of freedom.
When Owen, who, being an orphan, lived at his cousin's house, had been brought to the 'phone and asked to join the rest for a serious consultation, Max "shut up shop," as he called it.
"Let's get a move on ourselves now, Steve," he remarked, as they left the booth, "and hustle around to the little boathouse my splendid dad bought for us when we got the canoes. It isn't a beauty, but it answers our purpose fine."
"Just what it does," replied Steve, as they walked out of the store. "I reckon all the boys are on their way by now, eh, Max?"
"I'd like to see anything hold them back after the way I stirred things up. Why, just as like as not even poor old Bandy-legs is tumbling all over himself, sprinting down to the river through the dark."
"He does have the greatest time trying to keep his legs from tripping him up," remarked Steve; "but all the same there never was a better chum going than Bandy-legs Griffin. In a pinch he'd stand by you to the limit, no matter what happened. But hurry, Max; as we did the calling, it's up to us to get there ahead of the rest, and have the lamps lit. Wow! I barked my shin then to beat the band. Hang the dark, say I!"
"A little slower, Steve," cautioned the other, catching hold of his chum's coat sleeve. "Rome wasn't built in a day, you know. We'll get there just as soon, and with our skin whole, if only you don't rush things so hard."
"I can see the boathouse ahead there, I think," suggested Steve, presently.
"That's right; and we're the first after all, you see, because every fellow has a key, and if any one got in ahead of us we'd notice a light in the window. Hello! who's that?"
"Think you saw something, did you, Max?" asked the other; "but as there wasn't any answer, I guess you must have been off your base that time."
"Perhaps I was," replied the other; "but here we are at the door now, and as I've got my key handy, I'll open up."
The boathouse had once been some sort of low, squatty building, which, being made over, answered the new purpose very well. And when Max had started a couple of lamps to burning the prospect was cheery enough. Several canoes were ranged in racks along one side. Three of these were single canoes; the other a larger boat, which two of the boys paddled, and they called it the war canoe.
Hardly had they reached this point than there was heard the sound of a voice at the door. Steve opened it to admit a panting boy, whose short lower extremities had a positive inclination to pattern a little after the type of bows, which gave Bandy-legs the name by which he was known far and wide.
Then came Owen Hastings, a quiet sort of a fellow, looking very like his cousin Max; and a minute later Toby Jucklin appeared.
"Now open up, and explain what all this fuss and feathers means?" demanded Owen, as the five gathered around the table upon which the larger lamp stood.
The boys expected to fit this building up as a sort of club room later on, and in this place during the next winter keep all their magazines, as well as other treasures connected with their association, together.
So Max explained just how it came that Herb Benson, the leader of another group of Carson boys, had challenged them to spend a certain length of time on Catamount Island, far up the Big Sunflower branch of the Evergreen River, which flowed past the town.
Some time previous to this Max and his four chums, wishing to secure funds in order to carry out certain pet projects for the summer vacation, and early fall, had conceived the notion that perhaps the mussels, or fresh-water clams, that could be found, particularly along the Big Sunflower, might contain a few pearls such as were being discovered in so many streams in Indiana, Arkansas, and other Middle Western States.
They had been fairly successful, and during a search discovered a number of really valuable pearls. From the proceeds of the sale of a portion of their find they had purchased motorcycles, with which they enjoyed a few runs. Then, as Steve had remarked so forlornly, Bandy-legs being so clumsy with his mount as to have a few accidents, which, however, had not been serious, their folks had united in declaring war on the gas-engine business. Consequently they had been compelled to dispose of the machines at a sacrifice. And the canoes had been their second choice.
After the other three had heard what the proposal was, they united in declaring their perfect willingness to take up the dare, if only to show Herb that there was a big difference between his brand of nerve, and that which the five chums possessed.
Of the lot possibly Bandy-legs was the only one who did not show great enthusiasm over the project. Max noticed that he seemed to simply let the others do the talking, though when a vote was taken upon whether or not they should accept the challenge, the Griffin boy's hand went up with the rest. Still, that was certainly a sigh that broke from his lips.
"What's the matter, Bandy-legs? Don't you feel like making the try?" demanded the impetuous Steve, quick to notice that the other was not brimming over with the same kind of eagerness that actuated himself.
"Oh! I'm going along, all right," declared the shorter chum, doggedly. "Ketch me staying out when the rest of you want to go. But I never dreamed I'd ever pluck up the nerve to stay a night on that blooming island. Why, ever since I c'n remember I've heard the tallest yarns about it. Some say it's just a nest of crawlers; and others, that all the varmints left unshot in the big timber up beyond have a roost on that strip of land in the middle of the river."
"Rats!" scoffed Steve, derisively. "That's all talk; hot air, you might say. Don't believe there's any truth in it, any more'n that story about ghosts, and queer noises that Herb and his crowd tell about. Anyhow, I never let a dare go past me."
"That's right, Steve," remarked Owen; "it acts on you just like a red flag does on a bull. But it's decided, is it, fellows, that we go to-morrow noon?"
"We ought to be able to paddle up there in five hours or so," remarked Max.
"Sure, and I'm in fine trim for the job; how about you, Toby?" Owen continued, for the stuttering boy was to be his mate in the double canoe, which could hold the tents, and some of the more cumbrous luggage devoted to camping comfort.
"Just aching for exercise," the other managed to say, promptly enough.
"Well, I reckon we'll all get what we want," Max remarked, as they prepared to quit the boathouse; "for the current is pretty strong in places, and the island lies a good many miles off. Everybody be on hand early to-morrow, for we've got a heap of things to do before lunch time. Skip out now; I'm going to douse the glim."
As the chattering boys walked away in the darkness they were followed by a stealthy figure that seemed desirous of not being seen. And a little later, when passing a house where a light gleamed from a window, this figure came for just a second in the shaft of light; so that had any one of the five chums happened to glance behind just then they might have recognized the evil face of their most vindictive enemy, Ted Shafter, the bully of Carson!
BANDY-LEGS IN TROUBLE.
At noon on the following day there was more or less excitement around the spot where the boathouse stood. The canoes, already loaded, lay moored near by, awaiting the word to be given that would send the little expedition on its way up-stream.
Of course the news had got abroad, though Max would much rather have kept it a secret, if they could. But Herb and his friends, as well as some other boys of the river town, were on hand to see the start.
And as was natural, a heap of good-natured chaffing was indulged in. All sorts of dismal predictions were made by Herb, and those of his comrades who had been in his company at the time of their wild midnight flight from Catamount Island.
"We'll expect to see you to-morrow, all right, fellows!" cried one.
"Yes, and we're going to keep tabs on you, if you don't show up," remarked still another. "It won't be fair to sleep on the mainland, and just go over in the day. You've got to stay right there a whole week, night after night, to win out. See?"
"A week," answered Steve, laughing in a scoffing manner; "why, if it wasn't a waste of good time, we'd have made it a month. But we've got other fish to fry, and don't want to spend all our vacation on that measly old island."
"Yes, say what you like," called Herb, as the canoes began to leave the shore, and the paddles to flash in the noonday sun's bright rays; "you'll have another story to tell when you show up to-morrow, or I miss my guess."
"Wait till you see that old cabin, that's what!" called out another, in a mysterious way that somehow caused Bandy-legs to look uneasy, Max thought.
He knew that if there was going to be a weak link in the chain it would lie in that quarter; for the short chum had a few silly notions concerning certain things, and was not wholly free from a belief in supernatural happenings. But with the backing of four sturdy chums, Bandy-legs ought to brace up, and show himself a true boy of nerve.
"Look at that Shack Beggs making faces after us!" remarked Steve, who, as usual, threatened to take the lead in the push up the Evergreen current.
"I noticed him hangin' around all the time," added Bandy-legs; "and every now and then he'd seem to grin, and shake hands with himself, like he felt nearly too good to keep the thing quiet. Whatever ails him, d'ye think, Max?"
"Well, as I never stood for a mind reader, I can't tell you," was the reply of the one addressed; "but as we know he belongs to that Ted Shafter crowd, it's easy to understand that he just believes something terrible is going to happen to us up on Catamount Island."
"Oh! I hope he's barking up the wrong tree, then!" exclaimed Bandy-legs.
"Just what he's doing, take my word for it," Owen put in, from the stern of the big war canoe, which he and Toby were urging against the flowing current with lusty strokes, and evident keen enjoyment.
"How does it go?" asked Max, who was in a sixteen-foot canvas canoe like the one Steve handled so dexterously; while Bandy-legs, fearing to trust to anything so frail, had insisted on getting one of the older type lapstreak cedar boats, that were so marvelously beautiful in his eyes.
"Fine as silk!" announced Steve, from up ahead.
"Ditto here!" echoed Toby, and Owen added his words of praise.
"It seems like bully good fun!" declared Bandy-legs, who was puffing a little, his boat being somewhat more weighty than the other two single canoes, and who consequently was somewhat behind the rest; "but I wish you'd get a rope on Steve there, and hold him in. He ain't fit to be the pace-maker. I just can't keep going like wildfire all the time."
"That's right, too" remarked Max. "We ought to let up a little in the start. It never is good policy to do your best in the beginning of a race. And we've really got loads of time to make that island before nightfall."
Of course Steve could do as he pleased; but since the others dropped back a little so as to accommodate the less skillful Bandy-legs, he had to follow suit, or be all alone in the van. Steve grumbled more or less because some fellows never could "get a move on 'em," as he complained; but outside of making an occasional little spurt, and then resting, he stuck pretty well by his mates during the next hour or two.
Then something happened, something that they had never once dreamed of, and which was at first utterly beyond the understanding of any of the paddlers.
Bandy-legs seemed to find more or less trouble about getting himself settled in the best attitude for his work. It was all pretty new for him, though Max thought the other did very well for a greenhorn. He wriggled about in his cedar boat like an uneasy worm, changing his position often, and each time thinking that he had improved his paddling powers, only to find the same old fault.
All at once he set up a whoop that startled his chums.
"Hi! looky here, what's happenin' to this old coffin!"
The others saw nothing wrong, save that Bandy-legs himself seemed to be engaged in scrambling about more or less, as though he had suddenly discovered a venomous spider crawling out from under the false bottom of his delicate craft.
"What ails you?" called out Max, stopping the use of his handy spruce blade, as he turned his head toward the one who appeared to be in trouble.
"Wow! I tell you she's sinkin'!" continued Bandy-legs, as if aghast.
"What! your canoe?" cried Owen, as if unable to believe his ears.
"Sure she is, boys! Water's just bubbling up in her to beat the band! I felt it gettin' wet down by my feet, and looked just in time. What'll I do—jump over and swim for the shore right here?"
"Don't be silly, Bandy-legs!" cried Max. "If something has happened to your boat, why, head for the shore, and paddle hard. It ain't so far away but you can reach it easy enough. You must have hit a snag, and punched a hole in the skin of the canoe."
"I never hit nothin'!" called back the other, as in his clumsy fashion he managed to presently change the course of his boat, and start for the nearest bank, with the war canoe and that of Max accompanying him.
"Hey, what you goin' to do, have a snack?" yelled Steve, who at that moment chanced to be a little way ahead of the others.
"Bandy-legs is sinking, and we've got to see what ails his boat!" answered Max, making a speaking tube or a megaphone of his hands.
No doubt Steve, impatient to reach their destination, and make camp before dark, would be saying things not at all complimentary to the sufferer, as he retraced his course, in order to join them.
Meanwhile, when the canoes reached a pebbly stretch of shore, they were beached; and then Max set to work to ascertain what could have happened to the cedar boat to make it start sinking in such a mysterious way.
First the bundles were taken out, and they all observed that it was fortunate they had decided at the last minute to let Bandy-legs have one of the tents instead of the foodstuff he had been given in the beginning.
"Give me a hand here, fellows," remarked Max, "and we'll turn her over to let the water get out faster. I can see right now where the trouble lies, and it's right down in the bottom. There's a leak as sure as anything!"
"Then its good-by to my bally little canoe right in the start, I reckon," complained the owner, sadly. "I'm a Jonah, all right. All sorts of things keep happening to me. What does it look like, Max?" as the boat was finally turned completely over, so that the bottom was fully exposed.
Max uttered an exclamation that told of astonishment.
"Well, that is queer!" they heard him mutter, as he thrust a finger through the hole in the garboard streak of the boat.
"What strikes you as so funny, Max?" asked Steve, who had by now joined them.
"Look for yourself," replied the other, moving back.
Four heads were instantly bent over, as the boys took his advice.
"Must have been a round snag, all right," commented Steve; "because that's as pretty a circular hole as I ever saw."
"Tell you I never struck no snag!" declared the indignant Bandy-legs; "guess I'd 'a' felt it, wouldn't I, Max?"
"Listen, fellows," said the one appealed to, in a tone that caused the others to stop their wrangling, and pay attention; "as Bandy-legs says, he didn't run foul of any snag on the river since we left home. That hole was made by an auger, or a bit held in a brace. Some mean fellow had the nerve to lay this trap for our chum, in order to give us all the trouble he could."
"Shack Beggs!" shouted Steve, always quick to make up his mind.
"That was why he kept grinning like he did, when he watched us go off," observed Owen, in a disgusted way. "When do you suppose he could have found a chance to do such a dirty trick, Max?"
"Well, we don't know for a certainty whether it was Shack or one of his crowd," replied the other, shaking his head; "but whoever did it must have found some way to get into the boathouse after we left last night. You remember, boys, we've got a ratchet brace there, and several bits. One of them would just about fit this hole. But he must have been mighty careful to take away every little splinter, so as not to make us suspect there'd been any funny carryings-on."
"How d'ye suppose he fixed it, so as to keep the water out till just now?" asked the bewildered owner of the canoe.
For answer Max made a crawl underneath, and almost immediately came out again holding something in his hand, which he showed them. It was apparently a plug of wood, and must have come from the hole that had caused the sudden flooding of the cedar canoe.
"There, you can see what a neat little game he played!" Max exclaimed. After he bored that round hole he made this plug and drove it in from above. Underneath he made sure that it was evened off so it wouldn't be seen unless any one examined the bottom of the canoe close. Then he had it fixed so when Bandy-legs got to moving about, as he always does, you know, any time he was liable to loosen the plug and the pressure of the water'd do the rest.
"Oh! what a wicked shame!" cried the owner of the wrecked canoe.
"H-h-he ought t' b-b-be hung f-f-for it!" exclaimed Toby, just as indignant as though it had been his own boat that was injured so wantonly.
"What can we do, Max, to fix her up?" asked Owen, quietly.
"Oh!" put the plug in again, and make sure that it will hold this time. Later on, when we get back, we'll have to get the boat builder in Carson to put a new streak of cedar planking in, to take the place of this one."
"Sure you can fix it so there won't be any chance of my going down?" asked the anxious owner.
"Easy enough. Just give me ten or fifteen minutes, and I'll answer for it," came the confident response, as Max immediately set to work.
"While this is going on the rest of us can rest," remarked Owen, dropping down on the ground.
"Here's the sandwiches I made this morning; might as well take a bite, now we've got to hang out here a spell," and Bandy-legs began passing them around.
"Looks to me like we had reached the junction of the Big Sunflower and the Elder," observed Steve, as he munched away contentedly at his ham sandwich.
"Just what we have," Max spoke up, working away at his little job, and stopping occasionally to snatch a bite. "It lies right around that bend yonder. I remember it well, and how we made our first haul of the mussels there."
"Yes, and found a bully old pearl in the first lot," declared Steve, watching Bandy-legs poke around in the grass nearby; for the boy with the short legs was of an investigating turn, and liked nothing better than to search for things; "hey! what you think you'll find there, diamonds this time?"
"Oh! I just run across a lot of wriggling little snakes, about as long as lead pencils, and I'm seein' 'em twist and turn. It's just fun to watch the little beggars get mad."
"Huh!" grunted Steve, as he turned his attention to what Max was doing; "some fellers get fun out of mighty little things, sometimes."
A minute or so later they heard Bandy-legs laugh again.
"Say, let up with that silly play, and come in," called Steve, testily; "we're 'bout ready to load up again and go on."
"You'd die laughing to see her try to get a whack at me," called back Bandy-legs. "It's the mother of all them little snakes, I reckon. My! but she's mad though; just coils up here, and jumps out at me every time I touch her with my stick!"
Max felt a shudder pass through his person as he looked at Owen. For suddenly he seemed to realize that the rattling sound, which he had of course thought was caused by a noisy locust on a nearby tree, was in fact the deadly warning that an enraged rattlesnake gives when striving to strike its fangs into an enemy!
ON THE ISLAND WITH THE BAD NAME.
"Keep back, Bandy-legs; that's a rattlesnake!" shouted Max, and some of the others turned white with sudden alarm, as they also noted for the first time the incident buzzing sound from a point nearby.
Immediately every one started toward the spot where the foolish Bandy-legs was standing, holding a rather short stick in his hand, with which he had doubtless been tormenting the larger snake just as he had previously annoyed her young brood.
He was now seemingly turned into stone, although fortunately enough he had managed to spring back a pace upon hearing the dreadful words shouted by his chum.
"Get clubs, and make them as long as you can!" called out Owen. "Be careful how you let her have a chance to reach you when she springs out. A rattlesnake can sometimes strike as far as her own length, they say."
Immediately a scene of great excitement followed. Each fellow ran around, trying to find a suitable stick, that would be stout enough to do execution, and at the same time have sufficient length. For now that they knew what its species was, the coiled serpent looked terribly ugly, as, with head drawn back, she waited for another attack, all the while sounding her rattle like a challenge to battle.
Steve happened to be the first to find a stick that he thought would do the business, and he immediately rushed forward.
"Slow, now, Steve!" warned Max, fearful lest the natural headstrong nature of the other might get him into trouble.
Just then Owen also picked up a long pole, and advanced from the opposite side. The badgered snake, only intent on defending her young, thinking that here was a chance to get away from all this turmoil, had slipped out of coil, and even started to glide off; but as Steve made a wild swoop with his pole, she again flung herself into coil, ready to fight to the end.
Nobody spares a rattlesnake, however much they might wish to let an innocent coachwhip or a common gartersnake get away. From away back to the Garden of Eden times the heel of man has been raised against venomous serpents. And somehow the close call their chum had just had from a terrible danger, seemed to arouse the hostility of the chums against this snake in particular.
When both Max and Toby came up, each, with a part of a hickory limb in their hands, the destiny of that snake was written plainly, strive as she might to escape, or reach one of her human tormentors.
Whack! came Steve's pole down across the reptile's back, and from that instant the fight was taken out of the scaly thing.
"Wow! this is what I call rushing the mourners!" gasped Bandy-legs, after they had made sure that the rattler was as dead as might be expected before sundown; for Owen declared that he had some sort of belief in the old saying that "cut up a snake as you will, its tail will wriggle until sunset."
"I should say yes," added Steve; "and you're bent on bein' in the center of every old thing that happens. First you shout out your boat's sinking, and while we're fixing her you wander out and stir up a hornets' nest about your ears."
"Say, it did sound like it, sure as anything," admitted the repentant Bandy-legs. "I'm sorry I gave you all so much trouble, boys; next time I run across a litter of little snakes, it's me to the woods. Wonder what became of the beggars? They disappeared about the time the mother came tootin' up."
"Mebbe they ran down her throat," suggested Owen; "some say snakes can hide their young that way, but I never believed it."
"Well," remarked Max, who was examining the dead reptile, "this one didn't, so I reckon they must have skedaddled off in the bushes. Perhaps they're old enough to take care of themselves, though I hope they don't live to grow up. If there's one thing I detest on earth it's a poisonous snake."
"Me, too!" piped up Bandy-legs; "but then, you see, I never thought this one was loaded. Yes, I just reckoned she'd come to see what I was doin' with her bunch of youngsters, and I kept on jollyin' her. Thought I was havin' fun, boys, but never again, you hear me!"
"Want to take these rattles along, Bandy-legs?" asked Owen, who had severed the horny looking appendage at the end of the tail; "it'll serve to remind you of what a silly job it is to play with a snake that you've never been properly introduced to."
"Not for me," replied the other, with a little shudder. "I'd just hate to have my folks know how foolish I was. Keep 'em, and hang the thing up in the clubhouse, boys."
"Sure," interrupted Steve; "do for a dinner horn some time; better than Japanese wind bells to make music."
"Ugh! I'll never hear it without thinkin' of the grand scare I got when Max here shouted out the way he did," admitted the one who had been the cause for all this commotion.
"The canoe's ready for business at the old stand," announced Max, "and don't be afraid that there's going to be any trouble again with that same leak. I've fixed that plug in good and strong, Bandy-legs. Now let's be off!"
Accordingly the voyage was resumed. And just as some of the boys had said, they speedily turned from the main river into the branch called the Big Sunflower, which, as the scene of their late successful search for pearls, was invested with memories of a rather pleasant character for the five chums.
As they paddled along against the rather brisk current, first one, and then another had something to call out regarding this place or that.
"It's just great to be coming up here again, after buying these boats with some of the hard cash we earned that time," declared Steve, who was keeping closer to the others now.
"How many fellers d'ye reckon started grubbin' up here, after we quit?" demanded Bandy-legs, who was working the paddle fairly well, though at times he made a bad stroke, and seemed to learn slowly that it could all be done without the splash and noise he insisted on making.
"Dozens of 'em," replied Owen; "but they didn't find much, and it soon petered out. Why, one boy told me he'd hunted two whole days, and found just three mussels, which didn't turn up a single pearl. He said we'd cleaned the whole river out, and sometimes I think that way myself."
"But that bunch back of Ted were as smart as anything, too," observed Max. "Think of them finding that there was a whole lot of ginseng growing wild in the woods around Carson, and gathering it in on the sly."
"They sold it for a snug little sum, too," Owen admitted; "and then started to plague the life out of us. But we came out of the large end of the hole, didn't we, fellows!"
Chatting in this strain they tugged away, and continued to mount higher up toward the headwaters of the sinuous river. But the Big Sunflower was an odd sort of a tributary; in fact, like the Missouri, it should really have been called the main stream, or as Steve expressed it, the "whole push."
"I've been told that it runs right along into the next county, and sometimes spreads itself into a bouncing lake. Why, right where Catamount Island lies, the river is three times as broad as the Evergreen at Carson."
It was Max himself who volunteered this bit of information. They had been keeping at this steady paddling for some hours now, and Bandy-legs was not the only one who grunted from time to time, as he looked at blistered hands, and felt of his sore arm muscles.
"Well, we don't mean to keep on that far, I hope, fellers," remarked Bandy-legs, pathetically, at which Steve laughed in derision.
"You'd sure be a dead duck long before we crossed the border, my boy!" he cried.
"Keep a good lookout ahead," advised Max, some time later.
"He means that the island can't be far away, and by the jumping Jehoshaphat, boy, I think I can see something that looks just like an island around that bend yonder," and Steve pointed with his extended paddle, as he spoke so enthusiastically.
A cheer broke forth, even if it did sound rather weak, for the paddlers were a little short of wind right then. It was the island, sure enough; and as they picked up new vim at the prospect of being soon allowed to rest their weary muscles and backs, the boys examined the place and its surroundings with considerable interest.
They then exchanged looks that meant volumes. Indeed, if Catamount Island did have a bad name, it seemed to deserve all that. The trees were very dense, and made the place look gloomy, and as Bandy-legs declared, "spooky." Several had partly fallen during some heavy blow, and rested upon others that had proven better able to stand up against the wind. A few were fashioned in weird shapes, too; and to tell the truth, it looked as if Nature had taken pains to gather together on that one particular island all the freak things possible.
"What do you think of it, boys?" asked Max, smiling a little as he noted how even bold Steve was just a little bit awed by the gruesome aspect of the place which they meant to make their stamping ground for a full week, unless they wished to bring down upon their heads the scorn and derision of Herb and his crowd, and hear their cries of "I told you so; who's a scare-cat now?"
Then Steve gritted his teeth after his usual fashion, and laughed, though truth to tell, there was not any too much mirth about that mockery of a laugh.
"Come on, who cares for expenses! Me to be the first to put a foot on our island," he called out, as he dropped his paddle into the water again, and urged his little buoyant canvas canoe onward with vigorous sweeps.
"Our island! Listen to him, would you? Oh! like that, now. As for me, you don't hear me claiming a foot of the old place. Ugh! it's enough to make a fellow shiver just to look at it. And it smells like cats or skunks lived around here. But if the rest of you are bound to go ashore, I suppose I'll have to follow suit. But I'm glad I said good-by to everybody before I came up here."
Nobody paid any attention to what Bandy-legs was saying, as just then they were making for the lower shore of the island, where a fair landing place seemed to offer its services.
The rest were all ashore and looking around, before Bandy-legs managed to jump out of his cranky cedar canoe. He acted as though glad at least to have arrived safe and sound, if very sore.
Pretty soon the whole of them were as busy as beavers, putting up the two tents on ground which Max had selected as suitable for the camp. In doing this he had to consider a number of things, such as a view of the river, nearness to the boats, a chance for drainage in case of a summer storm that might otherwise flood them out, and soak everything they owned; and such matters that an old and experienced camper never fails to remember in the start.
Then came the delightful task of getting the first meal. That is always a pleasure, though it begins to pall upon the party before the weekend. Everybody wanted to have a hand in that first meal, and so Max fixed it that they could enjoy the privilege to their heart's content.
And after the night had closed in around them, what joy to sit around with the dancing and crackling fire, while they brought forward recollections of other occasions when they partook of camp fare, and looked forward to a period of keenest enjoyment.
Even Bandy-legs seemed for the time being to have quite overcome his feeling of timidity and uneasiness, so that he laughed with the rest, and appeared as joyous as anybody, sitting there and watching the curling flames eat deep into the dry wood that had been tossed to them, and feeling so restful after the meal.
Steve was filled with complete happiness. Somehow or other he seemed to be more set than any of his chums upon proving to Herb and his comrades, that they had been a lot of chumps who were almost afraid of their own shadows. He had never been in a gayer mood, Max thought.
Presently all sorts of sounds arose around them, among which were the cries of night birds like the whip-poor-will; owls started to hoot back somewhere on the island; giant frogs boomed forth their calls for "more rum, more rum!" and altogether there was soon quite a noisy chorus under full blast.
But as all these sounds were familiar to even Bandy-legs, though it was not often they heard them in concert, no one remarked that he objected to them.
Max was just in the act of declaring that if there was one dish of which he was particularly fond it was frogs' legs, and that he meant to start on a hunt for some of those blustering fellows in the morning, when a shriek that was entirely different from anything else, broke upon their startled ears.
In spite of all their boasted self command, Steve, Owen, as well as Max, Toby and Bandy-legs scrambled to their feet, and looked at each other speechlessly, while their faces certainly took on a degree of pallor that was remarkable, considering how red were the flames of the fire that tried to paint their cheeks a rosy hue.
THE SUDDEN AWAKENING.
"Oh! what do you suppose that was?" demanded Bandy-legs, his voice quivering.
"It might have been a wild-cat," suggested Owen, cautiously, as if trying to recall just what he had read about the cries of these animals, when roaming the woods at night.
"Mebbe it was an owl!" remarked Toby, actually forgetting to stammer in his new alarm.
"Max, whatever do you think?" asked Steve, turning on the boy he addressed; for if any one could know it ought to be Max.
"Well, to tell the honest truth, fellows, I'm nearly as much in the dark as the rest of you," admitted Max, looking perplexed.
"But then you've had experience, and ought to know what sort of racket a bobcat makes when he's on the rampage?" insisted Steve, belligerently.
"On the rampage! My goodness!" echoed Bandy-legs, at the same time making sure to move still closer to the blaze; for he suddenly recollected that nearly all the really dangerous beasts of the wilds are afraid of fire.
"It came so suddenly, and lasted so short a time, that I didn't have much of a chance to make up my mind," Max went on; "but if you really want me to say what I suspect made it, I will."
"Go on," Steve said, encouragingly, "I guess we can stand it all right."
He had picked up the shotgun which Max had thought best to bring along, though not expecting to use it in shooting any game like rabbits, squirrels, partridges or quail, since summer was the off season for such things. And when Steve became excited he looked very warlike indeed. Why, Bandy-legs began to feel more confidence just by looking at the ferocious expression Steve assumed. It was good to feel that you had a "fighting chum" nearby, in time of need.
"Yes, let's have it, Max; we're ready to hear the worst," Owen went on.
"It sounded more like a human voice than anything else I can think of!" was what Max immediately said, very calmly indeed.
"Just what I thought you'd give us!" cried Steve, making a move as though ready to spring away into the surrounding darkness, gun in hand.
"Hold on," added Max, taking a firm hold on the coat of the impulsive chum; "we'd like to know why you try to run off, when I remarked that I thought it mightn't be an animal at all, but a human being?"
"Why?" repeated the other, struggling a little as if wanting to break away, but finally giving up the effort, "because I just know who it is, that's what, and I'd give a heap to lay my hands on him, that's all."
"B-b-but, Steve, mebbe the r-r-rest of us'd l-l-like to know, too," stammered Toby, eagerly.
"Yes, and sure you wouldn't be rushing off like a house afire, to leave us here without the gun, while you lost yourself in all this tangled undergrowth," Owen suggested, reproachfully.
Steve looked a little conscience stricken.
"That's right, it would be mean of me, fellows," he admitted, as he glanced at the gun he had snatched up so eagerly. "And likewise silly in the bargain, because in this pitch darkness I'd like as not only stub my toe, and take a beastly header into some snake hole. I guess I'll simmer down, and stay where I'm most needed."
"But, Steve," complained Bandy-legs, "you ain't told us yet who you believe it was made all that noise? And do you think he did it just to give us a scare?"
"Just what I do, Bandy-legs," replied the other, stoutly; "because the feller I had in my mind was Ted Shafter."
"What's that; Ted Shafter!" echoed Bandy-legs, aghast.
"Or if not him, then Shack Beggs, or Amiel Toots!" went on Steve, doggedly nodding his stubborn head up and down, as though the idea had secured a firm footing in his mind, and would not easily be dislodged.
Owen turned to his cousin Max. Somehow, in moments of sudden need, it was noticeable how they all seemed to place great dependence on Max.
"Could that be so, Max?" he asked. "Would you think that bunch of fellows'd take the trouble to come all the way up here just to bother us?"
"Oh! so far as bothering us went, I believe they'd go to even more trouble than that," was the reply Max made. "The only question in my mind is, whether they'd have the nerve to come over to this island at night time, just to try and give us a little turn."
"Of course they knew all about what we expected to do?" suggested Owen.
"We can be sure of that," replied his cousin. "In the first place, Shack Beggs was in that mob that saw us get under way. Then again either Shack, or some other boy in his crowd, must have managed to get into our clubhouse last night after we left, and bored that hole through the bottom of the cedar canoe, thinking we wouldn't notice it."
"Wonder they didn't slash a knife through the canvas boats in the bargain," commented Touch-and-go Steve, gloomily; "it'd be just like their meanness."
"Well, that would have been so barefaced that of course the whole town would have been up in arms, and somebody might tell on them, which'd mean that Ted would be sent away to the reform school for a time," Max explained.
By degrees the boys began to settle down again. Owen was the first to drop back into the comfortable position he had occupied at the time that weird screech first shocked them, and brought about a sudden rising up.
Max managed to possess himself of his gun, and then Steve, quieting down, followed the example of his campmates, by picking out a good place near the crackling blaze, where he could hug his knees, and stare gloomily into the fire.
For some little time the boys exhibited a degree of nervous tension. It was as though they half expected that awful cry to be repeated, or some other event come to pass. But as the minutes glided by without anything unusual happening, by slow degrees their confidence returned, and finally they were chatting at as lively a rate as before the alarm.
All sorts of speculations were indulged in concerning the possible character of the origin of the sound. Bandy-legs in particular was forever springing questions on Max as to what he thought it could have been, if not one of that Shafter crowd.
"Do they have real panthers around here, Max?" he asked suddenly.
"Well, I don't think there's been one seen for a good many years," replied the other, accommodatingly. "Time was, of course, when they need to roam all about this region; yes, and wolves and buffalo as well; but those were in the old days when it was called the frontier."
"Buffalo!" echoed Bandy-legs, in amazement; "why, Max, I always thought buffalo were only found away out West on the plains, where they used to be seen in great big droves, before Buffalo Bill cleaned them out, supplying meat for the workers building the first railroad across the continent."
"Well, that's where you were away off," answered the other, "because in all the accounts in history about Daniel Boone and the early settlers along the Ohio and in Kentucky you can read of them hunting buffalo. Seems they went in pairs or small droves at that time. Why, they used to get them for meat in the mountains of Pennsylvania when on the way across to the valleys on the other side. And at that time there were more panthers around here than you could shake a stick at."
"You'd never ketch me doing that same thing, if it was a panther," admitted Bandy-legs, frankly. "I'm afraid of cats of all kinds the worst ever. Why, I always said I'd rather face six lions than one tiger, any day."
"Sure, who wouldn't?" remarked Steve, dryly. "They'd make way with a feller all the sooner, and end the agony. But Max says he don't believe it could have been a panther, so make your mind easy, Bandy-legs."
They managed to talk of other things in between, but the boy with the short legs would every little while think up some new question in connection with that shriek, which he would fire at Max, and demand an answer. When Steve tried to make fun of him for harping on that old string so long, the other immediately took up arms in his own defense.
"Huh! it's easy enough for you to act like that, Steve," he remarked once, when the other gave him a jeering laugh; "because if we had to make a bolt for it, you've got running legs, and could put out at a whoopin' lick; but how about poor me? Wouldn't I get left behind, and that'd mean make a meal for the big woods cat? Guess I've got more at stake than any of the rest."
But taking it all in all, that first evening spent around the camp fire on Catamount Island was rather enjoyable. Old recollections of other days came cropping up from time to time, and were mentioned, to be commented on. And never before had a blazing fire seemed more delightful than just then. It is always so with those who go out into the wilderness to get close to Nature; the new experience has charms that no other could quite possess.
After a time, however, some of the boys began to yawn at a great rate, as though getting sleepy. None of them had slept any too well on the preceding night, simply because of the excitement they were laboring over, with a week of outing before them.
"Move we get ready to turn in!" suggested Max, finally, when he began to fear lest Bandy-legs in particular would dislocate his jaws, and bring down a new catastrophe on their heads.
"When we drew lots for tents, it turned out that Steve, Bandy-legs and myself were to bunk in this big tent, while Max and Toby, taking a lot of the stuff along, had to sleep in the other, wasn't that it?" remarked Owen, as he got on his feet, and stretched himself, as though a little cramped from sitting so long in one position.
"J-j-just w-w-what it was," Toby replied.
"That makes three of us in our tent, don't it?" said Bandy-legs, as if relieved to know that he would have a companion on either side, for at such times there is safety in numbers.
"Yes, and if that panther does come, he'll have some trouble picking you out in the crowd," jeered Steve.
"That's mean, Steve," declared Max, who saw that Bandy-legs was really concerned, and also remembered that in times gone by the other had spoken more than once of the strange fear he from childhood had entertained for cats of all kinds, while accustomed to playing with every species of dog known to lads.
"Oh! I take it back," quickly responded Steve, who could say sharp things, and then be sorry the minute afterwards.
Of course, having had considerable experience by now, all the boys knew just how to go to work in order to make themselves comfortable, with only a thick camping blanket to serve as a bed.
Max had long ago showed the greenhorns how to fold this, so that while one part lay between their bodies and the ground, they would have several thicknesses over them, to be pulled up as the night grew cooler. Besides, each boy had a rubber poncho in which the blanket could be wrapped during the day, to keep it from getting wet while in the canoes. This was always first of all laid down on the ground, so as to keep the dampness from giving them rheumatism, for even boys may be taken with this ailment, if careless in times when the ground is far from dry.
Everybody else being disposed of, and ready to go to sleep, Max fixed their fire after the manner of a woodsman, so that it would burn for hours, yet never threaten to get away into the woods, should a heavy wind arise.
"All ready, boys?" he asked, feeling his own eyes getting heavy.
A couple of sleepy replies came from the tent where the three chums lay; evidently Toby and Bandy-legs were already far gone in the Land of Nod.
So Max crawled into his snug retreat, and settled himself down to securing some of the refreshing slumber he so much needed.
He had left a flap of the tent up, so that as he lay there he could see out, but as the fire did not come within the range of his vision, he was not annoyed by its flickering. Now and then the flames would spring up, and the vicinity be brightly illuminated; then they would gradually die down again, and things become more indistinct.
Max remained there awake, for some little time; because, as often happens, his sleepiness seemed to desert him after he lay down. Many pleasant things flitted through his mind, for the most part connected with past events in which he had figured, and in quite a number of them having been enjoyed in the company of these four good chums of camp fire and trail.
Then Max went to sleep. He had wondered whether they would be left to pass the night in peace, or be suddenly aroused by some clamor, such as had possibly given Herb and his crowd their scare. Hence, being on the watch for some such alarm, Max was not altogether astonished when he found himself suddenly aroused by a whoop, and heard Bandy-legs shouting out at the top of his voice:
"Help! help! something grabbed me by the leg, and was pulling me out of the tent. I'd have been a goner only I grabbed Steve here, and held on. Get a light, fellers. Where are you all! Hurry up, or it'll come back again after me!"
EXPLORING THE ISLAND.
There was little time wasted in getting outside the two tents; almost before the last of the excited Bandy-legs' complaint had sounded, five shivering boys made their appearance alongside the fire, clad only in their pajamas.
Max had his gun in his hands. He may have carried it out more as a precaution, or to keep the impulsive Steve from dodging in after it, than from any great expectation of finding a use for the weapon. And then again, its appearance would go far toward reassuring poor Bandy-legs that the fear of the unknown beast returning to drag him away was reduced to a minimum.
Steve immediately made a pounce for the fire. Max thought he meant to knock it together, and perhaps induce it to flare up, so as to give them more light; but it seemed that the other was only after a smoldering bit of wood, which he swung around his head until it burst into a flame.
"Now, let it try and attack us, that's all!" cried Steve, as though quite ready to use his novel weapon after the manner of a baseball club, should a vicious bobcat emerge from the dark circle around them, and attempt any "funny business," as Steve called it.
It was thoughtful Owen who stooped down, and threw a little inflammable fuel on the remains of the camp fire, so that when it blazed up, which immediately happened, there was no longer darkness near the spot, as they could see far into the jungle that lay on the side away from the water.
"Now, what happened?" asked Max, turning on Bandy-legs for an explanation.
"Why, here's the way it was, fellers," replied that worthy, bent on squaring himself with his chums; "I was dreamin' of bein' home, when the old tomcat got a sudden notion that I'd been and stepped on his tail. Gee; he turned on me like a flash, and grabbed me by the leg. Seemed like he was changed into a big striped tiger, then and there, for he started to drag me away, like he meant to eat me up. I got hold of the leg of the table, and held on like all get-out. That's when I waked up, and found that I was bein' yanked out of my blanket by some critter that did have hold of my left ankle. And it was Steve and not the table leg I'd been hangin' on to like grim death."
"I should say you had," muttered the one mentioned, who was now rubbing his arm where Bandy-legs had pinched it, "and if you left a piece of skin as big as a fifty-cent piece below my elbow, I'll be glad, believe me. Bet you I'll be black and blue for a week of Sundays. You sure did give me the worst scare I ever had, with that whoop right in my ear, and then grabbin' me like a bear might."
"And l-l-listen to him, w-w-would you," remarked Toby, "he s-s-says he was d-d-dreaming, fellers!"
"After this I vote that we tie Bandy-legs up, head and heels, with the rope we brought along," ventured the aggrieved Steve, pulling up the sleeve of his pajamas to see what the damage might really be. "If he's going to dream about cats going mad, and bust our nice sleep all to flinders in this way, why give him that small tent to himself. Blessed if I want him for a tentmate again."
"But, Steve, I tell you it wasn't a dream after all; only I just happened to get things mixed, you see. Somethin' did grab me by the leg, and try to pull me out of the tent! If I'd been scared so I couldn't kick and yell, why chances are you'd be short one camp-mate right now, that's all."
"Shucks!" grumbled Steve, hard to convince, "talk is cheap; prove it, Bandy-legs!"
"I will, then!"
With that the other dropped down on the ground and started to roll up the left leg of his loose pajamas. He did so with a certain amount of confidence, as though he felt positive that he would be able to display such evidence, that even skeptical Steve might not dispute.
"Now, how about that?" demanded Bandy legs? triumphantly.
All of them lowered their heads to look. And a variety of exclamations attested to the fact that apparently Bandy-legs had carried his point.
"Scratches, as sure as anything!" commented Owen, seriously.
"Fresh done, too, ain't they?" demanded the victim, energetically, determined to clinch matters beyond all chance for dispute, while about it.
"That's right, they are," Max chimed in with.
"P'r'aps if you looked sharp now, one could see where claws had raked me through the leg of my pajamas," suggested Bandy-legs, satisfied to have cleared himself of the charge of having aroused his campmates simply because he happened to be visited with a bad dream.
"Well, I can't just say that's clear," Max continued, "but it looks like something had had hold of you by the ankle, just like you say, Bandy-legs."
"And just add to that, it was pullin' me along in a big hurry, Max. Say, didn't I tell you that if there was anybody goin' to be eat up by cats, it'd be me?" wailed the victim of the night assault.
"That's all right, Bandy-legs," said Steve, in a tone meant to be cheering; "you know we've got a good rope along, and if you only choose to take the trouble to tie yourself to the tent pole every night, nothin' can't run away with you."
Max had to laugh at the idea; and somehow that seemed to rather make things look a bit more cheerful. He made Bandy-legs show him just where he had been lying, and as it was between the other pair, it certainly seemed singular why any intruder should have picked the short-legged boy out for attention.
After Max had gone down on all fours, holding the lantern, which Owen had lighted, and seemed to be trying to discover the trace of feet, he shook his head.
"Perhaps there might have been tracks," he remarked, "but we've moved about so much since, that they've just been covered up."
"Tracks of what, the catamount?" asked Bandy-legs, anxiously.
"Perhaps human tracks!" Max went on.
"There! I expected something like that!" burst out Steve. "If there was anything around here that gripped hold of Bandy-legs, and tried to yank him out of the tent, I'd be willing to wager a heap that it could be laid at the door of them measly critters, Ted Shafter and his gang!"
The others hardly knew what to think. But at any rate the fact that Max had ventured to propose such a solution to the strange mystery of the night assault seemed to give the victim more or less comfort. He could stand being made an object of attack on the part of prank-loving boys, but the very thought of having been seized by a hungry man-eating panther gave him a cold chill.
"Say, do we crawl back in our nice blankets, and try to get some more sleep?" asked Steve, who was shivering; because the air seemed cold, after being so rudely aroused, and made to leave a warm nest.
"Couldn't we just stick it out around the fire?" asked Bandy-legs, who doubtless had conceived a notion that he would feel ever so much safer if awake, and dressed, than lying there helpless, and at the mercy of every beast that chose to creep into the camp.
"I was just going to propose that, boys," remarked Max; "because, you see, it's just about peep of day," and he pointed to the east as he spoke, where, upon looking, the others could see a faint seam of light close down near the horizon, which they knew indicated the coming of the sun.
"Well, I declare, the whole night's gone!" declared the surprised Steve.
"Oh! ain't I glad!" breathed Bandy-legs, crawling into the tent to get some of his ordinary garments, such as he was accustomed to wear when on an outing.
The others followed suit, and it was not long before the camp began to assume a busy appearance, with all of the boys bustling about.
"One night gone, anyhow," remarked Max, as he and Owen started preparation for breakfast, all of them owning up to being hungry for the ham and eggs they had decided to enjoy for the first morning meal in camp.
Then, as daylight had fully come, Max seemed to conceive a sudden notion.
"Get one of the others to help you with this, Owen," he remarked. "I'll be back in half an hour, or less."
Although wondering what he had in mind, Owen, being a boy of few words as a rule, did not attempt to question his cousin. He saw him go down to where the canoes lay up on the beach, and launching one of the smaller canvas ones, paddle off. And as he saw Max move along close to the shore of the island, now beginning to be bathed in the first rays of the rising sun, Owen smiled, as though he had guessed the other's mission.
Later on, just as the call to breakfast was given, Max returned, and drew the little canoe up on the beach where the others lay.
"What luck?" asked his cousin, as Max sat down and started to pour himself a tin cup of coffee, his platter having been already filled with fried ham and eggs that sent up a most tempting odor.
The others lifted their heads to listen, and even stopped eating, hungry as they were, to learn what it was Max had been investigating.
"Nothing doing," replied the returned paddler, with a smile. "I went completely around the island, and examined the shore the best way I could, for signs of some boat, or to see where one had landed last night, but I didn't get a glimpse of anything. If they did come off the mainland, they knew how to get ashore without leaving any signs behind, that's all."
"But, Max, I didn't know that Ted Shafter was such a good woodsman as all that!" objected Owen.
"No more he isn't," replied the other, as he lowered his cup, after taking one good drink of the hot contents, that tasted better than anything he ever got at home, where they had thick cream, and delicate china to drink from. "And that's one reason why I'm puzzled to believe it could have been them."
Bandy-legs looked worried again.
Once more his hopes were shattered because, if it turned out the intruder had been an animal after all, what about those six other nights he would have to pass in that tent, with the unfeeling Steve and the heavy-sleeping Owen?
"Well, what are we going to do about it?" demanded the last-named boy.
"I'll tell you," replied Max, in a matter-of-fact tone; "we've got the whole day ahead of us, to prowl around, and see what the blessed old island looks like. And perhaps we might find out a few things before dark comes on again. As I said a while ago, one night's gone. I hope now none of you want to throw up the sponge, and go back home, to let Herb and his crowd crow over us?"
"Not me!" shouted Steve, like a flash.
"And I'm willing to stick it out!" added Owen, firmly.
"M-m-me t-t-too!" put in Toby, who was munching some cold biscuits they had fetched along, and of which he was especially fond.
All of them looked at Bandy-legs, and he could not deny the appeal he saw in the faces of his chums. It made considerable difference, too, now that the bright daylight surrounded them; for even a timid boy can feel brave between sunrise and sunset.
"I'm willing to hold on, if the rest do," he declared, "though it's pretty tough if I'm goin' to be the only one that's in danger of bein' chawed up by savage tomcats that roam about here. But, Max, if we go nosing around to-day, I want to keep close to you, and that bully little gun of yours, understand. Them's my conditions for agreein' to stand pat, and stay here on this haunted island."
"Rats!" scoffed the unbelieving Steve; "haunted, your eye! You mark my words, it'll all turn out just as common as anything, when we once get the hang of things. Ain't it always that way, Max? Didn't it look easy to the old fellers over at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, when Columbus, he stood an egg on end by just breaking it a little?"
"That's what it did, Steve; and I'm glad to see how you take it," replied Max.
But when a little later they did start out to look around a little, being more than curious, Bandy-legs was allowed to do as he suggested, and keep close company with Max and the twelve-bore gun. He carried in his hand a ferocious-looking fish spear, which he had mounted on a pole about ten feet long. Owen had the hatchet; Toby the long-bladed knife which they used to cut bread and ham with; while Steve patted his pocket in a significant way, as though he carried something there, up to now he had overlooked, but which seemed to give considerable confidence.
In this manner, then, the five boys sallied out to investigate their surroundings, and see what the island with the bad name contained. If they happened to run against some wild-cat, or other savage animal, they wanted to be in shape to put up a good stiff fight.
Max had to laugh when he saw his chums lined up, armed in this fashion.
"I just pity the poor thing that tries to give this crowd trouble," he remarked; "to look at the lot of weapons we carry, you'd think we expected to have a battle for the possession of Catamount Island instead of starting out on a peaceful little exploring expedition."
"All the same, the handling of such things makes a fellow feel better," declared Bandy-legs.
"It may you," burst out Steve, who had been dodging that fish spear right and left for some time, "but if you keep on trying to poke that blooming four-pronged stabber into my eyes, like you've been doing, it won't be much fun for the rest of us. Show him how to carry the thing, Max, if he must take it along."
This being amicably arranged, with Bandy-legs holding the spear part in front of him, so that he might make use of it in an emergency as a lance, they started out. Somehow, no one seemed to consider the possibility of their camp being invaded during their absence. The eatables had been hung up, so that hungry wild-cats might not run away with them should they take a notion to visit the place while the five boys were away; but no one thought of one of their own species coming around.
It was indeed hard work making their way through the dense growth that covered the main part of Catamount Island. Max saw that as the place had been let alone by mankind, Nature had kept on increasing the wild tangle of vines, bushes and saplings that filled the spaces between the larger trees. In some places the branches were so very dense overhead that it seemed gloomy and even "spooky," as Bandy-legs took pains to inform his companions.
Birds they saw many times, and often the whirr of wings announced the sudden flight of a partridge. Squirrels abounded, and even a raccoon was sighted, while Max declared that he felt sure he had a glimpse of the red brush of a vanishing fox that had been disturbed in his day nap by their approach.
Still, all these were such things as they had expected to meet with. What pleased Max most of all was the fact that outside of a few harmless small snakes the island seemed to hardly deserve the terribly bad name it had gained as a breeding spot for venomous reptiles, and which reputation it was that had always kept local hunters from visiting its shores in the season.
The little party was pushing through the thickest part of the jungle, where they had great difficulty in making progress at all, and often tripped over roots, or found themselves twisted up in vines that hung down from the trees, when Max, who led the van, turned and made a motion with his hand that the others new signified he had discovered something to which he wished to call their attention.
And so, filled with eager curiosity, they craned their necks forward in the endeavor to learn just what it was that had apparently aroused the interest of Max so abruptly.
WHAT THE ASHES TOLD MAX.
"Get back, Steve, and let me have room with my fish spear!" whispered Bandy-legs, nervously, just as if he fully expected that they were about to be attacked by a legion of fierce wild-cats, and wished to be able to impale the first that showed up on his lance.
Steve, fearing for his legs or back, seized hold of the long pole upon which the four-pronged and barbed spear was mounted, then he felt safe in leaning forward again, to see what it was Max had discovered.
"Why, it's a cabin!" he exclaimed, as though somewhat disappointed.
"A cabin!" echoed Bandy-legs; but there was relief rather than chagrin in his voice, and the pole Steve clutched steadied a little.
"Sure it is, and nothing more!" remarked Owen.
"B-b-but, f-f-fellows, did yon ever s-s-see such a c-c-cabin?" demanded Toby.
"Well, it does look kind of queer," admitted Steve, "but mebbe that's just because of the shack being abandoned so long. The weeds and grass and bushes have grown right up to the walls; and looky there, the roof even seems to be green, like grass had took root there. She is a dandy-lookin' roost, sure as you're born, Toby."
All of them stared at the odd little affair. Cabins they had seen before now, by scores, some fairly commodious, others small and limited in accommodations, bat never one that looked like this shack on Catamount Island.
"Anybody around, that you can see, Max?" asked Owen, presently, when they had been standing there in that group, watching the green-roofed cabin, and the vegetation-covered walls of the low, squat cabin, for some time.
"Well, if there is, I haven't had a squint of 'em," Steve took occasion to remark, before the one addressed could reply.
"S-s-somebody g-g-give 'em a hail!" said Toby, sensibly.
So Max immediately called out:
No response followed. Although the five boys watched eagerly to see if any figure that might correspond with the queer cabin came out of the partly opened door, nothing happened.
"Cabin, ahoy!" sang out Steve, in a very loud, gruff voice, that surely merited some attention, if so be there chanced to be any one at home.
He met with no better success than had attended the salute of Max. The boys exchanged glances, and nodded, as if their minds were made up.
"If the mountain won't come to Mahomet, then he's just got to go to the mountain, that's all," Owen remarked, as he started to push forward.
Every one began to move at the same time, and in this sort of hollow square, with the menacing fish spear gripped by Bandy-legs sticking out ahead, they advanced toward the mysterious cabin.
All was silent around, save that a busy woodpecker hammered loudly on the dead top of a chestnut tree close by, looking for a breakfast of grubs. In this fashion, then, they reached the front of the shack that seemed to have been deserted so long that vegetation was trying to claim, or cover it out of sight.
Max thrust his head in at the partly open door, while the others stood by, ready to back him up, if any ferocious thing attacked him. But apparently he saw nothing of the sort beyond, for after that one survey, Max proceeded to deliberately enter the strange cabin.
The others pushed close on his heels, for they had determined to stick together through thick and thin. Even Bandy-legs, spear and all, tried to gain entrance, but in the end he had to let his pole drop to the ground, since there was hardly room for that inside, and the four boys as well.
They looked around them. The interior of the shack was certainly about as desolate as anything they had ever set eyes on. Not a sign of anything in the way of former comforts seemed to remain. Over in one corner there had at one time been a sort of berth made, where the party who built the cabin kept his blanket most likely and slept; but just now it only had some dead leaves in it, such as might go to serve a wild beast for its nest.
Something flitted out of the opening that served as a window, and from the fleeting glimpse the boys had of this, they believed it must have been a red squirrel, that possibly thought to hide its store of nuts in this lonesome cabin, though as yet the season for this sort of thing was far distant, since summer had not progressed very far.
After all it was Toby, who, as a rule, had little to say, who broke the silence that hung over the chums as they stared around.
Whether it was that the sound of a human voice had stirred them up, or the fact of Toby saying that one expressive word without stumbling, as usual, something aroused the others, and Steve broke loose.
"Well, of all the tough-looking places I've ever struck, I think this takes the cake!" he exclaimed.
No one ventured to disagree with him on that score, because he expressed just what was in the mind of every one of the others.
"Now whoever could have lived here, do you think?" demanded Bandy-legs, who, now that his alarm was of the past, could appear as curious as the next one.
Max was using his eyes to look about. He was always quick to discover things that would escape the observation of his companions. It had become a settled habit with Max to always be on the alert in cases like this, so as to pick up valuable information, even from small things. The secrets of the trail he dearly loved to examine, so as to read a story there that was hidden from common eyes.
And so the first thing he discovered was the fact that some animal, or human being, had been eating here not many days back, at least. There were a number of small bones lying scattered about, which in time would naturally be carried away by a prowling fox or wild-cat, or perhaps a raccoon.
He picked a couple of these up, while the other boys watched his actions with interest, expecting that Max would read the signs rightly, and being content to leave that task to his ingenuity.
"A partridge, I should say, though I may be wrong," he remarked, after looking closely at the bone, apparently from the wing of a fairly large bird.
Then he smelled of it, as though that might give him a clew.
"It was cooked before being eaten," he went on, "and that tells the story, fellows. No wild-cat ever ate that partridge, because so far as known they never bother with cooking their food."
"Course not," added Bandy-legs, seriously, not understanding the humor of the remark Max had made; "how d'ye suppose they'd ever be able to build a fire? Tell me that, now, Max. It was hard enough for me to learn how to do it, and I'm human."
"Oh! are you?" snapped Steve, always ready to give the other a sly dig when he saw the chance; "well, now, we're glad to know that, because sometimes we've wondered if it was so, haven't we, fellows?"
Max did not pay any attention to these side remarks. He was still looking about him, as though under the belief that if he hunted closer he might discover other things that would help explain about the strange cabin and its equally mysterious late occupant.
"I think you're right about the partridge part of it, Max," said Owen just then.
"What makes you say that?" asked the other.
"Why, because, while we were on the way here, you remember, I stepped out of the path we were following. That was so I could examine something that had attracted my attention close by, down in the matted bushes."
"What was that something, Owen?" asked the other.
"I've never seen one made of twisted vines before, always cords; but I believe it must have been a partridge snare," replied Owen, confidently.
"That might be," Max went on, in a reflective way. "Suppose, now, some man was on this island, and either couldn't get away, or else for some reason didn't want to go over to the mainland. He'd have to live, some way or other, and if he didn't have a gun and ammunition, why, the only way he could keep alive would be by getting fish from the river, mussels perhaps, for I've seen quite a few shells on the shore, though they looked like they'd been opened by muskrats, or by snaring some of the game birds out of season."
"That sounds pretty good to me, Max," admitted Steve, always ready to express an opinion, one way or the other.
"T-t-to m-m-me same way!" Toby followed.
"A man!" echoed Bandy-legs; and then as a sudden idea struck him, he went on: "Say, Max, looky here, you don't mean that it was a human being grabbed me by the leg last night, and tried to haul me out from under my blanket?"
"I hope not," replied the other; "for any man who would leave the marks of his nails on your ankle like we saw, must be a pretty savage sort, to my way of thinking."
"Wonder when he could have been here last?" remarked Owen, also beginning to look around, as though hoping to discover an answer to his own question.
Bandy-legs was appearing rather uneasy. He could not forget what a tremendous pull he had received at the time he was awakened; and the very thought that they might even now be in the abiding place of the creature that had been responsible for his fright gave him new cause for shivering.
He looked up and around, as though suspecting that the aforesaid human being might be hiding close by, and watching them with ferocious eyes. But there was no loft to the squatty cabin, and hence no place where anybody of size might lie in concealment. Still, Bandy-legs looked longingly down at his fish spear, and wished he had thought to shorten that pole, so he could always keep it handy in case of a sudden necessity.
Max even tried to find traces of footprints on the floor; but as the earth was as hard as rock he did not meet with any flattering success there.
"Anyhow, he had a fire in here, looks like, when he cooked that bird," Steve remarked, as he pointed to a little heap of ashes over where the chimney, that was made of hard mud and pieces of stone, stood.
Max saw that there seemed to be considerable of truth in this discovery of the quick-witted chum. There were certainly ashes there, a little heap of them, and these could not have been left behind when the former occupant of the cabin deserted his home years ago; for the winds of winter, sifting in through the partly open door, would have scattered the ashes long since.
They spoke of more recent occupancy, perhaps within the last month, or even week.
"I reckon, now, this is the cabin that boy spoke about, when they called out after us as we were leaving town?" Max said, half to himself, as he continued to look around him.
"And from the way he talked, you'd sure believe he thought it was the worst kind of a shack he'd ever struck," Owen went on to remark.
"I've been thinking that over," observed Steve, "and come to this conclusion—that they must have started to spend the night in this same cabin, and perhaps the ashes there are some from their fire. Then during the night they got their bad scare, which none of them would ever tell about, on any account. It must have come from something that they saw in this same cabin; and whatever it was, it sent the whole bunch on the run for their boat. They said they nearly killed themselves as they bumped into trees, fell over vines, straddled stumps; and when they came back to town they sure looked as if they had been through a fight."
"And this is that queer old cabin he said we'd run across?" ventured Bandy-legs, again turning to cast his eyes about him, this time in more of an awed manner than before, though the shack had not changed its appearance one iota meanwhile.
"But you see, boys," Max remarked, with a smile, "they started to bunk in here, and we don't mean to bother ourselves trying that, when we've got our good tents along. So, after all, I don't see why we shouldn't be able to stick it out the full week, and go back to laugh at Herb."
As he was speaking Max stepped across the interior of the deserted green-roofed cabin. Knowing that some notion had appealed to him, the others watched to see what he would do. They saw him stoop down beside the little pile of gray-looking ashes that lay in the fireplace.
"Watch him!" said Owen, beginning to suspect the truth.
Max thrust his hand down upon the heap; then he quickly moved it so as to further penetrate the ashes; after which he sprang hastily to his feet, exclaiming:
"Of course I don't pretend to say who the party was that devoured that partridge, fellows, but he must have had it for his supper last night; and there's been fire here up to this morning, because the ashes are still warm!"
THE MYSTERY OF THE CABIN.
Max, in whose ability to understand all such things they felt so much confidence, spoke those surprising words, the others showed more or less astonishment.
One by one they had to bend down, and put his assertion to the test, by poking a finger gingerly into the little pile of gray ashes. Even Bandy-legs would not rest satisfied until he had thus copied the example of the others.
"Warm-say, it's hot, fellers!" he exclaimed, as he hastily snatched back his hand, and commenced to blow the ends of his fingers. "Anyhow, I guess I must 'a' just rooted out a live coal, for it burned like the dickens."
"Well, we know one thing that we didn't before," asserted Owen.
"Two, you'd better say, for they both sting like fun," grumbled Bandy-legs, rubbing his injured fingers vigorously.
"Yes," said Steve, "somebody's been in this old cabin, and not so very long ago, either; for they must have made a little fire about dawn, to fry a part of a partridge by. And if that's been all the poor critter had for his breakfast, I'd like to wager, now, he must be hungry yet."
"I'm glad of one thing," ventured Bandy-legs.
"That you didn't get three fingers scorched; is that it?" asked Steve.
"Naw!" answered the other, indignantly, "Tell you what it is, boys; I didn't believe much of it when they said it was ghosts up here on Catamount Island. Now we know there ain't none around."
"Well, how do you know it, Bandy-legs?" asked Max.
"Because ghosts—whoever heard of them wanting a fire, either to cook with, or else keep warm? Still, that awful howl we heard last night—I keep wonderin' what it meant, fellers?"
No one attempted to answer Bandy-legs. They believed they had about exhausted that subject while sitting around the camp fire on the previous evening, before starting to go to their blankets; and did not feel like reopening the question.
"Let's get out of this," suggested Steve, with a shiver.
"Second the motion," declared Toby, speaking straight again.
"Unless Max wants to hang around a little longer, in the hope of striking a clew that might tell us something about this queer old place, and the mysterious party that's been sleeping here," Owen followed with.
"Oh, I think I'm done looking around in here," the one mentioned remarked, with a shade of disappointment in his voice; for Max disliked to give up any object he had set out to attain.
"We might run across some tracks outside," suggested Steve.
"I meant to give that a try," Max explained; "but somehow I don't feel as if we'd have any great success there; because, when we came in I noticed that the ground was kind of poor for showing footprints—rocky, and covered with dead leaves that have drifted in here right along."
But all the same Max spent some little time hovering around, now down on his knees and closely examining the ground; again looking up at the swaying limbs of the overhanging trees, as though knowing that they could explain the mystery, if only they might speak.
"Any use, Max?" called out impatient Steve, presently; for he had been fretting at the delay for several minutes now.
"Give it up," returned the other, turning his back on the strange cabin with its green roof and lichen-covered walls.
"Which way now?" asked Steve, evidently pleased that they were going to make a move of any sort; for inaction galled him always.
"Back to camp?" queried Bandy-legs, hopefully; because he believed that was the one comfortable spot on all that island, and regretted ever having left it; though they could never have tempted him to remain in camp alone; not on that island with the evil name, at any rate.
"Well, after starting out, we ought to poke around a little farther than we've done this far, I should think," Max replied; "still, I'm ready to do whatever the majority say; three against two has always been our rule. How about it, boys?"
"G-g-go on!" exclaimed Toby, promptly.
"Same here," from Steve.
"Count me in," came from Owen, smilingly; for whatever Max thought right, his cousin could usually be depended on to back up.
"And I move we make it unanimous; because I don't just like being the only one on the other side," Bandy-legs ended up with.
"That settles it, then; so come along, and we'll keep on to the upper end of the island," Max suggested, leading off, gun in hand.
"Oh, wait, I've forgotten something!" cried Bandy-legs, running back.
Steve groaned aloud.
"I just knew he'd remember that blooming old fish spear again!" he declared. "I saw he'd forgotten it, but I didn't say a word; because he keeps turning the thing around so that a fellow don't dare call his life his own. See here, Bandy-legs, let me knock off a few feet from that long pole. Then mebbe you c'n handle the spear better."
"Oh, that's awful kind of you, Steve; I was just thinking of trying to do that myself, when you saved me the trouble," remarked Bandy-legs, sweetly, as he suffered Steve to take the long pole out of his hands, place it on two stones, and by jumping smartly on it at the weakest part, manage to sever some four feet of the spear shaft.
"Now you can handle it better; and for goodness' sake keep it away from my back," Steve went on to say; "there's no telling what you might do, if you got excited all of a sudden; and I wouldn't like to be taken for a big carp, or a sucker either."
So they turned their backs on the queer cabin, and once more plunged into the tangle of vines and vegetation, making their way slowly onward. At times they could not even see the sun that they knew: was shining above the leafy canopy over their heads. But Max seemed to have no difficulty whatever in keeping along a straight course.
"Don't see how he does it," muttered Bandy-legs, as he fumbled with a little compass he carried all the time nowadays; for having been lost once upon a time in the woods, he was determined not to take chances that way again.
"Oh, there are plenty of ways for keeping a course you set, even when the sun is behind the clouds," Max told him. "It's a poor hand that depends alone on seeing sun or moon to know his way in the forest. I can tell from the bark on these trees which is north; then the green moss on the trunks tells me the same thing; and even the general way the trees lean points it out; for you'll notice that nine out of ten, if they bend at all, do so toward the southeast; that's because all of our heavy winter storms come from the northwest."