Slowly the boys swept their vision around the horizon. Everywhere the mountains appeared to bask in the warm spring sunlight, seemingly as secure as cats dozing by a fireplace. The fleecy clouds, passing across the face of the sun, threw shadows on the hillsides, making beautiful patterns of light and shade. The fresh, young growths gave forth a soft green tint, in pleasing contrast to the darker colors of the pines. Brooks sparkled in the bottoms. Far as the eye could reach this gorgeous panorama extended.
"Isn't it wonderful?" said Charley, after the two boys had surveyed the scene in silence. "The forest is one of nature's very finest gifts. And to think what we do to it by our carelessness. At any minute this green paradise may become a very hell of roaring flame, just because some smoker is too careless to blow out his match before dropping it, or some camper too lazy to make sure his fire is extinguished. Why, it seems to me that a murderer is an innocent angel compared to such a man. Think what he does! He kills the fish and the birds and the animals and perhaps some human beings, and he destroys not only the wood that civilization must have, but he ruins the very ground so that it cannot produce another forest. It seems to me that a man who does that ought to be punished more severely than any mere murderer. Why, a murderer kills only a single being. The man who starts a forest fire kills countless living things. I tell you, Lew, it makes me mighty proud to have a part in protecting this grand forest."
The boys were silent, wrapped in thought, until Lew suddenly pointed to a dense growth of evergreens directly below them, and not very far down the ridge. "That must be our camp site," he said. And both boys examined the spot with interest.
"That must be it," said Charley. "It's dense enough, goodness knows! And there is a little stream of water stealing out of the lower side of the thicket. So there is a spring in there. Let's go down and take a look at it."
They shouldered their packs, whistled the pup to their heels, and went down to the thicket. In a space not less than a hundred yards in diameter rhododendrons grew in indescribable density, while above them towered some huge hemlocks. The two boys came close to the thicket and peered into it. Even now, in the bright glare of the full sun, deep twilight reigned beneath the rhododendrons. Evidently they were growths of great age. Their stems were like young saplings. Their tops rose high and spread wide. And their branches were laced and interlaced and twisted and grown together so as to make a mass almost impenetrable.
"Great Ned!" cried Lew. "A passer-by would have about as much chance of seeing us in there as we have of discovering China from this hillside. The question is, how are we going to get into the place?"
Charley dropped on his hands and knees and crawled slowly under the low rhododendron branches.
"Keep right in my tracks, Lew, if you come in," warned Charley. "If there are any snakes in here, they'd bite a fellow before he could see them. I'll look sharp for them and if you follow me, you won't run any risk."
He picked up a fallen branch, trimmed it, and crept on, stick in hand. Suddenly he crowded back hard on Lew, almost kicking him in the face. At the same time he began to thrash about in the leaves ahead of him.
"Great Caesar!" he exclaimed. "I almost crawled on a big rattler. He was so near the color of the ground that I didn't see him until he coiled and raised his head. Gee! That was a close shave."
"As long as you didn't get bitten," said Lew, "It's a good thing it happened. We'll be on our guard now."
"Yes, indeed. Did you put the potassium permanganate in the first-aid kit, and the hypodermic syringe?"
"Surest thing you know."
"We'll just carry them with us, Lew. We won't take any chances on death by snake-bite. These mountains are full of rattlers and copperheads."
"And we won't take any chances on being bitten in this thicket, either," answered Lew. "We'll put the pup in ahead of us."
They whistled in the dog and sent him scouring through the thicket. But either there had been no more snakes within it or else all had fled, for the dog raced eagerly about but found nothing to alarm him.
Confidently the boys now pushed into the interior of the thicket. At the very heart of it lay the spring. It came bubbling up through pure, white sand, and had formed a deep basin, over the lower edge of which the crystal water went rippling away through the thicket.
"We'll put our tent right here," said Charley, indicating a level spot beside the spring basin. "We'll have to clear away some of the bushes to make room for it. We can use what we cut as a screen, though nobody would ever see a tent away in here, especially one of brown khaki, like ours."
He drew his little axe and began clearing a space for the tent, cutting the rhododendron stems a little below the surface of the ground. Lew piled the branches at one side. Then the tent was dragged in and set up, the rope being used as a ridge and tied to two strong saplings. The sides of the tent were squared and pegged down.
"Drive the pegs tight, Lew," directed Charley. "We don't want to have anything crawling under the sides. Thank goodness, we have a sod cloth."
After they had completed this task and set about bringing in the duffel, Charley remarked, "We can't go in and out this way, on our hands and knees. We've got to make a path. We'll find the best way out and trim the bushes so that we can walk upright."
"We'd better not make the path straight," said Lew. "If we zigzag it, nobody will know it really is a path."
After they had picked out a level route they trimmed back the rhododendron branches so that they could walk through the thicket, though the branches at the very edge were left undisturbed. The cut branches were added to the screen about the tent. Then the duffel was carried in and stowed in the tent.
"What bothers me," said Charley, "is to know how to put up our aerial. We don't dare hang it up where it can be seen, and I don't know how well it will work among these hemlocks."
"All we can do is to put it up and try it," said the ever practical Lew, "and the sooner we do it the better."
Quickly they had their wires suspended between two hemlock trees. The aerial reached almost from trunk to trunk, and the wires were completely hidden by the branches that stood out all about them.
"If she'll work," commented Charley, "it's a peach of an arrangement. Nobody would discover that aerial in a hundred years. I can hardly wait until evening to test it out."
"Willie might be listening in again to-day," suggested Lew. "It will take him several days to get that new outfit made. We'll try him on the hour."
"Good idea, Lew." He looked at his watch. "It's ten minutes to the hour now. If Willie is listening in, we'll soon know whether or not our aerial will work."
They began putting the tent in order, stowing the duffel in neat little piles. Just outside the tent Lew built a foundation for the alcohol stove, by leveling the earth and setting a flat stone for the stove to stand on. Meanwhile, Charley was stuffing the tick with dry leaves.
Exactly on the hour Lew sat down at the wireless key and sent a call flashing into the air. Promptly; his receiver buzzed in response.
"Got him," said Lew, and while Charley went on filling the tick and bringing in hemlock branches to use like springs under the tick, Lew conversed with Willie. The latter was still working at the new wireless set, and had listened in every hour during the day. All the other members of the Wireless Patrol were likewise hard at work, and it was practically certain that by the time the vacation was ended each would have earned his share of the money needed to buy the desired battery.
"I can't tell you where our camp is," rapped out Lew, "because that is a secret that we are not supposed to tell. The forester does not want anybody to know that Charley is employed by the forestry department. We are posing as fishermen. Tell the fellows not to talk about Charley and tell Charley's father the forester does not want it known for a time that Charley is a fire patrol. He thinks that we have a better chance to find things out if it is not known that we are connected with the forestry department."
Willie said that he would caution the boys and tell Mr. Russell. Also he said he would be in his workshop until supper time and would listen in most of the time. The club members would be at their instruments as usual to catch the time from Arlington and pick up some of the news. Lew replied that he would call Willie then, if he needed him.
For some time after Lew laid down the receivers, the two boys worked silently. They finished setting the hemlock branches in the earth, placed the stuffed ticking above them, and laid their blankets in position. They brought the wireless outfit into the tent and set the instruments in a corner. The grub was stacked in another corner. A little pool was dug in the stream just below the spring, to make a place for washing dishes. Their extra clothes were hung on the ridge-rope. The first-aid kit was fastened to the tent wall where it would be handy, and Charley put the permanganate and the hypodermic syringe in his pocket.
They had almost completed their task, when a low whistle was heard outside the thicket. The pup pricked up his ears and was about to bark. Lew grabbed him and held his jaws together. Then both boys sat silent, listening and looking questioningly at each other. Soon the whistle was repeated.
"We've got to find out who's whistling," said Charley. "Keep the pup quiet and I'll slip out and take a look."
He left the tent, but had hardly gone ten feet before a voice cried, "Hello, Russell! Are you in the thicket? This is Morton, the ranger."
"Sure we're here," replied Charley, an expression of relief coming on his face. "We didn't know who it was and kept quiet until we could take a look. I'm coming out now."
He hurried from the thicket and shook hands warmly with the newcomer. Instinctively he knew that he was going to like his ranger. Big, broad-shouldered, quite evidently powerful, with a kindly expression, a winning smile, and a deep voice that instantly created confidence, the ranger was a picture of honest manhood. No one could look into his deep blue eyes, set far apart, or examine the lines on his face, at once betokening strength of character with gentleness, and not feel that here was a man in very truth. One knew instinctively that he would never hesitate a second to risk his life to save another's, and that he would be as gentle as a woman in his dealings with all creatures. But the great, strong jaw and the straight mouth and long nose all foretold fearless courage, and were ample warning that the man would be terrible if stirred to wrath.
"Come in and see our camp," said Charley, after the two had conversed for a moment. And he led the way into the thicket.
The ranger followed, his practiced eye noting everything. "You've made a good job of it," he said with commendation, when he was at last seated in the tent. "Nobody will ever find you here, unless you do something to betray your position. You'll have to be a little careful about fires. I wouldn't make any during the daytime."
"We aren't going to make any at all," explained Charley. "Mr. Marlin gave us an alcohol stove to cook with."
"I don't believe you need go so far as that. Use your alcohol stove during the day. At night nobody can see smoke, and if you screen the blaze, nobody will ever discover you. It would be pretty dismal here at night without any light. Let's see if we can't fix up a little fireplace that will help you out."
He got a number of large, flat stones, which he set on edge, fashioning a high, square fireplace that opened toward the front.
"The stones will screen the flames on three sides, if you don't build too big a fire," he said, "and your tent will shut off the view on the fourth side."
"Thank you," said Charley. "It will be a whole lot more cheerful with a fire. We have a candle lantern that we intended to use, but a fellow just ought to have a fire when he's in camp."
As they began to discuss the work ahead of them, the ranger inquired, "What instructions did Mr. Marlin give you?"
"He said that we should keep our connection with the department secret," said Charley, "and if possible, avoid meeting any one. If we do bump into anybody, we are to pose as fishermen. He said you would give us detailed instructions."
"Very well. First, about your outfit. Have you any firearms?"
"A light, high-powered rifle and a pistol."
"You can't carry a rifle in the forest at this season without exciting suspicion. Leave your rifle here. Let me see your pistol? Have you another?"
Charley handed him his pistol and said that he had no other.
"Then take this," he said as he handed Charley his automatic. "Let your chum carry your pistol. I'll get another at the office. It isn't likely that you will ever need to use a weapon in the forest. I have been a ranger for years and have never yet drawn one, but I never travel without one. You'll meet some pretty tough characters in the forest and sometime your life may depend on having your pistol. My advice is never to patrol without it. But keep it out of sight. Keep your badge out of sight, too. And since you are supposed to be nothing more than fishermen, you'll have to play the parts. Carry your rods and catch a few fish each day during the season."
"Where are we to patrol, and what hours are we to observe?"
"You are especially employed to guard this virgin timber, though, of course, you must protect any part of the forest you happen to be in. Take some good hikes over the region right away and get acquainted with it. Use your map and, if possible, learn the region by heart. Then your map will mean something to you. Learn where the virgin timber lies. Keep a close watch on it, and on any fishermen or campers. I'll spend at least two days a week out here and you must report to me each time I am here. Meantime, you must report to the office every night the last thing before you turn in. The chief said you had a wireless and could do it. Maybe you can, but it beats me to know how."
"We'll show you in a little while," smiled Charley as he glanced at his watch. "Willie will surely be listening in within twenty minutes and we'll call him."
"I'll have to take your word for it," said the ranger. "I can't wait a minute. It will be long after dark before I get out of the mountains. I telephoned my wife I'd be late, but she always worries when I'm out after dark. You know snakes are bad up here, and they're all out at night. And by the way, you'd better carry some of this permanganate. Do you know anything about it, and what to do with it if you're bitten?" The ranger started to pull a bottle from his pocket.
"Thanks," said Charley. "It's mighty good of you to offer to share with us. But we have permanganate and a syringe both, and we know what to do with them."
"Good. But be careful where you step. What do you wear on your feet?"
He examined the boys' shoes and canvas leggings. "They're all right. I don't believe any snake will bite through them. But high leather boots would be safer. Bear it in mind when you buy new shoes. Now I must go."
"When and where am I to report to you?" asked Charley.
They agreed upon a place of meeting, half-way between the highway and Charley's camp, whereupon the ranger, holding out his hand, said, "Good-bye and good luck to you."
"Do you have to go?" asked Charley. "Couldn't you stay overnight with us?"
"I'd like to, but the wife would worry herself sick."
"Suppose she knew that you were going to stay here. Would that make it all right?"
"I'm often away overnight during the fire season," smiled the ranger. "It's the snakes that she's afraid of. She'd rather have me stay here all night than come through these mountains after dark. You see her father was bitten by a snake when she was a girl and she is mortally afraid of them."
"Then you're going to stay here all night," said Charley, with decision. "I'll get word to her right away."
The ranger smiled incredulously. "I wish you could," he said. "It would relieve her mind."
Charley threw aside the pack cover that had been placed over the wireless instruments. The ranger looked at the outfit with wondering interest. Charley glanced at his watch and threw over the switch.
"Willie might be listening in," he explained, as the sparks began to leap between the points of his spark-gap. Twice he called, then a bright smile came over his face. "Got him," he said.
For some moments he alternately worked his key and listened to the return buzzing in his receiver. Then he turned to the ranger. "Willie has the forester on the telephone," he said. "What shall I tell him?"
"Ask him to tell Katharine that I shall stay here with you in your camp overnight, as I could not get home until long after dark."
With fascinated gaze the ranger watched the sparks fly under Charley's manipulation of the key. Then there was a long silence as the three sat waiting for the reply.
"Katharine says to tell Jimmie she's awful glad," said Charley, relaying the forester's message literally, "and to thank the new patrol for taking care of him."
Then and there Charley knew that he was going to like not only the ranger, but also the ranger's little wife. As for the ranger, he was almost spellbound.
"I know you talked to the chief," he said, "but what gets me is how you did it. Why, if I knew how and had an outfit like that, I could talk to Katharine any time and anywhere."
"We'll make you an outfit and teach you how to use it," cried the two boys together. "You shall have your first lesson to-night."
Twilight drew near. Lew brought out the grub bag, and Charley began cooking some food over the little alcohol stove.
"I think that you can safely take a chance on a wood-fire at this hour," said the ranger. "I'll build it myself."
He placed a few dried leaves within the fireplace and stacked some twigs, broken into short lengths, in a cone-shaped heap above the leaves. At once he had a bright little fire that made almost no smoke but gave lots of heat, though the flames did not reach as high as the stone sides of the fireplace. Quickly a little bed of coals formed, and Charley put his frying-pan directly over them. In no time the air was savory with the odor of sizzling bacon and hot coffee.
Squatted about the little fire, the three guardians of the forest ate their evening meal. From time to time the ranger thrust a stick into the fire, and so kept the flames alive. But it was a dim little blaze at best. Yet it was mighty cheering and comforting as the darkness wrapped the forest, and the gloom beneath the rhododendron thicket became inky and impenetrable.
For a long time after supper was eaten and the dishes cleaned, the three sat before their little fire. Spellbound, the recruits listened to this veteran guardian of the forest as he told them of his work in the woods, of his encounters with beasts, of birds and reptiles, harmful and otherwise, and of the rocks, and flowers, and trees. For the ranger loved the forest even as Charley did.
When the evening was farther advanced, and the air was vibrant with the voices of the wireless, Lew and Charley took turns reading the news, while the ranger's expression of amazement and admiration grew deeper and deeper, and his liking and respect for his young subordinate increased rapidly. Finally the ranger was given his first lesson in radio-telegraphy. While Lew was writing down for him the wireless alphabet, Charley was showing him how to make the letters on the spark-gap. Before they turned in for the night, the ranger had learned to distinguish the difference between the sound of a dot and of a dash as the signals buzzed in the receiver.
On the Trail of the Timber Thieves
Very early the next morning the ranger was afoot. Before ever the faintest streaks of light penetrated the thicket, he had started the coffee to boiling on the little stove, and breakfast was almost ready before he wakened his young comrades.
"Why didn't you call us sooner?" asked Charley indignantly, as he leaped out of his blanket. "It's our place to do the work here, not yours."
The ranger smiled. "It would have been cruel to waken you earlier. It's easy to see that you aren't accustomed to such stiff work as your hike here yesterday must have been. You slept like logs."
"We intend to do our full share of the work," said Charley.
"I'm sure of it," replied the ranger. "If I had thought you were trying to shirk, I'd have had you out of bed long ago."
Many a time afterward Charley thought of that statement and pondered over it. He was learning a good deal about life these days.
Grateful indeed was the warm coffee, for the April morn was chill. Quickly the food was eaten, and the ranger prepared to depart.
"I don't want to burden you with rules," he said in parting. "Your business is to protect the forest. Every day you will meet some new situation. You must do your best to protect the harmless creatures of the forest, as well as the timber. That means you may have to deal with gunners who are violating the law. Such men, with firearms in their hands, are dangerous. You may come across timber thieves. Get acquainted with your territory so that you can tell whether a felled tree is on state land or on private property. Your maps show you where the lines run, and you will find the trees along these lines blazed. If you find lumbering operations going on within the state forest, do your best to stop the cutting and report the matter at once. You may find traps set out of season. And it is practically certain you will have to deal with fires and perhaps the men who start them. Being a fire patrol involves a whole lot more than merely walking about through the woods. I can't give you rules that will cover all the situations you will find yourself in. Common sense is the best rule. The chief has given you a very important post here. It's an unusual responsibility for one so young. But we both expect you to make good. I'll be disappointed if you don't. You know if you fail, I'll have to take part of the blame." He shook hands with both boys and was gone.
"He's a prince," said Charley, after the ranger had left the thicket. "He knows just how to treat a fellow. Why, I've simply got to make good now. I'd get my ranger in bad if I didn't."
Quickly they put their camp to rights, then slipped their pistols into their pockets and got their fishing-rods.
"What is the first thing on the programme?" asked Lew.
"We'll go up to the top of the hill and have a good look over the country," replied Charley. "It's just about time for campers to be cooking their breakfasts. If there are any of them near us, we might see the smoke from their fires and locate them. You know the ranger wants us to keep tab on everything that's going on in our district."
They ascended the mountain and climbed the tree from which they had viewed the country on the preceding day. The sun was just coming over the eastern summits, sending long, level rays of light flashing among the dark pines, making beautiful patterns of sun and shade. In the bottoms the night mist had gathered in little pools, in places completely blotting out the landscape. The tree tops, upthrusting through these banks of fog, looked like wooded islets in tiny gray lakes. In every direction the two boys scanned the country, looking sharply for slender spirals of smoke. But they saw only mist curling upward.
"It looks to me," said Lew, "as though mighty few people ever get into this valley. It's such a hard journey to get here that I suppose the fishermen will stop at the streams in the valleys nearer the highway, and nobody else would want to come here at this time of year. Unless this timber is set afire purposely, I believe there is not much danger of its being burned."
"There's just the rub," replied Charley. "It would naturally be safe, being so hard to get to, and for that reason it wouldn't be watched as well as more accessible regions, particularly when it is difficult to get fire patrols. But because some one is evidently trying to burn this particular stand of timber, it is especially necessary to guard it. Mr. Marlin wants it watched continually, but so secretly that no one will realize that it is being guarded. That might make the incendiary careless—providing he comes again—and so lead to his detection. We must do nothing to betray ourselves. We'll have to be careful not to mark this tree in any way, so that a passer-by would guess it was used as a watch-tower. And we shall have to be sure that we don't wear a path leading from it to our camp."
For many minutes the boys sat in the tree, well screened from observation by the spreading limbs, yet themselves able to see perfectly. In every direction they searched again and again for telltale columns of smoke, but saw nothing.
"It looks to me," remarked Charley, "as though there isn't a soul in this region except ourselves. If that is so, it is the best possible time to do a little exploring. Suppose we take a look at the valley above our camp. We can cover a lot of ground between now and noon and yet get back here for another observation during the dinner hour. We ought to be in this watch-tower or at some other point equally good every time men would naturally be having fires, and that means morning, noon, and night. Between times we can explore the forest. It means some pretty stiff hiking, but I guess we can stand it."
They drew their map and compared it with the country as it actually appeared.
"We aren't so far from the end of the state land in this direction," commented Lew. "That's the very place you suggested exploring. We might look up the line, as Mr. Morton suggested. You notice the stand of pines ends a long distance this side of the line. That's all hardwood forest up that way."
"The sooner we get at it, the better," agreed Charley.
Carefully they descended the tree, picked up their fishing-rods, and hastened down the mountainside as fast as it was safe to travel. The nearer they came to the centre of the valley, the larger the trees grew. Evidently the rich soil had worked down into the bottom, during the centuries, and the tree growth was enormous. Under these huge trees there was no underbrush, and the two boys could make fast time. They approached the stream, which flowed swiftly along under the tall pines, where they had no doubt trout innumerable lurked in the shadowy depths. The temptation to stop and fish was strong, but they put it aside and pushed on up the valley.
For a long time they passed like ghosts among the pines. The earth was springy with the accumulated needles of many years, into which their feet sank silently. Under the huge trees everything seemed to be hushed. There was no wind to set the pines awhispering, and the music of the brook stole through the forest like the low singing of a muted violin string.
For a long distance they passed through a pure stand of pines. Then the character of the forest began to change. Soon they were in a mixed growth, and not long afterward they found practically nothing but deciduous trees about them.
"We're not far from the line now," suggested Lew. "This must be the stand of hardwoods we saw from the lookout tree. I doubt if it is more than half a mile to the line."
"Keep your eyes open for blazed trees," said Charley. "We ought to see some before many minutes."
They had gone on, perhaps a quarter of a mile, when Lew said, "It looks pretty thin ahead. Either there is a natural opening in the forest or else the timber has been cut out."
Charley thought of what Mr. Morton had told him about timber thieves operating along the boundary lines. He was glad that he had decided to explore this particular section of his district. A moment later he was still more glad, for the stillness of the morning air was suddenly broken by a splitting, rending sound, which was followed by the crash of a great tree as it came thundering to earth. There could be no mistaking the sound. A tree had been felled. Both boys stopped dead in their tracks and looked questioningly at each other.
"Timber thieves!" said Charley in a low voice. His cheeks paled a trifle. Then a look of determination came into his eyes.
"What shall we do?" asked Lew in a loud whisper.
"I don't know," replied Charley. "But we'll find out what they are doing. Then we can decide what to do ourselves."
He drew his automatic but as quickly thrust it into his coat pocket, as he remembered what the ranger had told him. But though the pistol was in his pocket, he still grasped it in his hand. The tense look on his face showed plainly enough that he was ready to shoot right through his coat. Lew, observing his companion's movements, followed his example.
Minute after minute the two young forest guards stood silent, listening for the sound of axes or other customary noises that ordinarily accompany lumbering operations. But the morning stillness was undisturbed. A puzzled expression crept over their faces.
"Maybe that tree wasn't cut at all," whispered Lew. "Maybe it just fell of itself."
"We'll find out," replied Charley, and cautiously they began to make their way toward the point whence the sound had come. Sheltering themselves behind trees, they advanced rod after rod. The stillness remained unbroken. The stand of trees grew thinner, with more and more underbrush. Presently they saw before them an unmistakable clearing in the forest. Rapidly they advanced, screened by the bushes, until they stood close to the edge of the clearing. Beyond question somebody had been cutting trees. Over a considerable area the timber had been felled, and whoever had felled it had cut ruthlessly. Hardly a sapling remained in all the cleared area. On every hand trees lay prone. Some had been trimmed and cut into pieces. Some remained exactly as they fell. Everywhere freshly cut stumps told plainly enough what had occurred.
"Somebody's cutting timber all right enough," whispered Charley, "and it's on state land. I wonder where they are. They certainly cut that tree we heard fall, but I haven't heard an axe or a human voice and I don't see any signs of lumbermen."
"Maybe they're at camp eating breakfast. It's still early, you know."
"If they are," said Charley, "then this is the very time to investigate. We'll look around before anybody gets back."
Glancing once more about the opening to make sure that nobody was in sight, they stepped from behind their concealing bushes and started across the open space. But immediately they came to a dead stop. Like rifle-shots, a succession of sharp sounds rang out, accompanied by splashing noises. The two boys were at first alarmed, then puzzled. They looked at each other in amazement.
"What was that?" asked Lew.
"I don't know," replied Charley. "At first I thought somebody was shooting at us. But I didn't hear any bullets hum. And the noise didn't sound exactly like a gun, either. It was like the noise a fellow makes when he hits the water real hard with a board."
In every direction they scanned the clearing. They saw no living things but the trees. "It's queer," commented Charley. "Let's look at that nearest tree that's down. Maybe we can learn something from it."
They walked over to the tree, then studied it in amazement. "I never saw anything like that before," cried Lew. "I don't believe that was ever cut with an axe. It looks as though it had been gnawed off."
"It has," cried Charley with sudden excitement. "I understand the whole thing now. We've found a colony of beavers. I never saw a live beaver, but I've read about them and seen pictures of their huts and their work, and that looks exactly like the pictures. And those noises like rifle-shots were their alarm signals. They slap the water with their tails when they are frightened and dive under water. I suppose they're all in their lodges now, and we'll never get a peep at them. Gee whiz! Just think of finding beavers, Lew, real beavers. I didn't know there were any in Pennsylvania."
"It seems to me that I read something about the game commission stocking the state with them a few years ago. I think they put a number of them in the state forests. Doubtless they have multiplied in numbers and started new colonies."
"That explains it," said Charley. "Gee! I'm glad we found these fellows. And I'm just as glad that they aren't timber thieves. You know, Lew, it made me feel kind of queer to think of facing real timber thieves. I didn't like the idea a bit. But I kept thinking about Mr. Morton and what he said about his being blamed if I fell down, and I made up my mind I'd do it, no matter what happened."
They now turned their attention to the felled tree once more, studying the innumerable teeth marks, like so many tiny chisel cuts, on stump and butt. Then they noticed the great chips lying about the stump, some of them half as big as dinner plates.
"It gets me to understand how they can bite out such huge chunks," said Lew, "when their teeth are evidently so small. Why, you'd think an animal would have to have a mouth as big as a hippopotamus to take bites like these."
Charley laughed. "Looks that way, doesn't it?" he said. "But as I remember it, what I read said that the beaver gnaws out parallel rings around the trunk and wrenches out the wood between. It's like sawing two cuts in a board and chiseling out the board between them."
"I see," said Lew. "But I should think they'd break their teeth all to pieces."
"So should I. But they have very strong teeth that grow out as fast as they wear away, and that are as sharp as a chisel. I wouldn't want a beaver to bite me. I'll bet he could bite right through a bone."
"I suppose," said Lew, "they cut these trees to use in making their dam; but what gets me is how they are going to get the trees over to the dam. It would take a team of horses to drag this trunk. It's fifteen inches in diameter."
"The article I read," said Charley, "stated that as the beaver dams became higher, the land adjacent was flooded and that the beavers made little canals through the flooded area and floated their logs where they wanted them. You notice that they have gnawed the limbs off of a number of these trees and cut several of the trunks into lengths. I was sure they were sawlogs when I first saw them."
"Well, there isn't enough water here to float a log," said Lew, "though it's mighty wet and it looks as though the water was several inches deep a little farther on. Let's see if we can find a canal."
They stripped off their shoes and stockings, and, rolling up their trousers, began to wade. Very soon they found the water nearly knee-deep.
"There's more water here than there seems to be," admitted Lew. "There's so much marsh-grass and so many water-plants it fooled me."
Cautiously they waded about. Suddenly Lew plunged forward, and only by grasping a bush did he save himself from getting completely wet. As it was, he found himself standing upright in three feet of water. After he recovered from his surprise, he felt about with his feet.
"This is their canal all right enough," he said. "It's very narrow, but it will float anything that grows in this forest."
He scrambled out and the two boys made their way back to dry ground. "How are you going to get dry?" asked Charley. "I don't want to make a fire unless it is absolutely necessary."
"Never mind about me. I'll dry off soon enough. Let's find their dam."
They made their way toward the run and soon discovered the dam. It was a great pile of branches, stones, moss, grass, mud, bark, etc., that had been built across the stream and extended for rods on either side. It looked very solid, yet the water did not pour over it, but filtered through it.
"Think of all the work it took to make that," cried Lew. "Why, every stick in it had to be gnawed down and floated here, and all the bark and grass and roots had to be pulled and brought here and the stones collected. And say! How in the world do you suppose they ever handled those stones? And how do you suppose they ever anchored the stuff when they began building? I should think the current would have swept everything away at first. That's a pretty swift stream."
"I read that they start their dams with saplings, which they anchor across the current with stones. They are much like squirrels, you know, and can use their fore paws about as well as we can use our hands. I suppose the stones lose weight by displacing water, but if I hadn't seen these rocks, I'd never have believed that such big stones could be handled by animals no larger than beavers."
"See here," said Lew. "These willow branches must have taken root, for they seem to be growing right up out of the top of the dam. And there's a birch that's surely growing. You know the branches of some trees will root if you put them in water, especially willows. Why, if they continue to grow and take more root, there'll be a hedge of living trees right across this brook. The dam will become so dense that it will back up a great quantity of water. I reckon this bottom will just naturally turn into a swamp after a time."
"Now that's interesting," suggested Charley. "You know the Bible tells us the world was made in six days; but it seems to me it isn't finished yet. Every rain washes down soil from the hills and helps to fill up the valleys and the river-bottoms, and the floods scour out the watercourses and carry earth and stones down to the ocean. And here we see a piece of land that used to be fine, dry bottom, now becoming a swamp. It looks to me as though the earth is changing every day."
They examined the dam more critically. "It's two hundred feet wide if it's an inch," said Lew, "though the brook isn't more than fifteen or twenty. You see, it extends on each side of the brook to land that is a little higher than the level of the stream bank. That's what makes this big head of water. At the least there are several acres of it."
"There's one thing that we haven't seen yet," added Charley, "and that's their houses. They ought to be some distance above the dam."
"I wonder if those are beaver lodges," said Lew, pointing to some bulky heaps of brush at a little distance up-stream.
"That's exactly what they are. They don't look much like houses, do they? But I guess they're pretty snug inside. The entrances are deep under water, you know, so that the ice can't clog them in winter, and so that the beavers can get to their food all right."
"What do they eat, Charley? Do you know?"
"Sure. They eat roots, and tender plants, but mostly bark from certain trees. I believe these are willow, poplar, birch, and some others. They cut down the wood in summer and pile it under water in front of their huts and hold it down with stones."
"Well, what do you think of that!" cried Lew.
"They eat a pile of it, too. I don't remember how many trees that article said a colony of beavers would eat in a winter, but I'm sure it was up in the hundreds. I remember how astonished I was when I read about it."
"No wonder they clear the forest so fast. I wonder if we ought to tell Mr. Marlin. Maybe he doesn't know about these beavers. They might begin to cut down his virgin pines. I'm sure he wouldn't want that to happen."
Charley laughed. "I'd bet my last dollar that Mr. Marlin knows all about these beavers. You can bank on it that he knows all there is to know about the territory he has charge of. And as for the beavers eating the pines, it seems to me that I read that they never touch evergreens."
A ray of sun slipped through the leaves above them and fell directly upon Charley's face. He glanced up and was surprised to note how high the sun had climbed. Then he looked at his watch.
"Gee whiz!" he cried. "We must have been fooling around this beaver dam for more than an hour. We must be about our business. We'll go on and locate the boundary line."
"I wish we could get a glimpse of a beaver," sighed Lew.
"Not much use to wish it," said Charley. "They're furtive, and I suppose they will stay in their lodges for hours. It seems to me I read that they work at their dams mostly at night. We'll go on now, but maybe we could come up here some moonlight evening and see them at work."
They made their way around the beaver dam and continued on up the valley. Within a few hundred yards they came upon a blazed tree. Speedily they discovered a second. Then, following the line indicated by these two trees, they rapidly passed tree after tree blazed and painted white, tracing the line entirely across the valley. They picked out some landmarks by which they could readily locate the line again.
"If anybody except those beavers starts any timber cutting," said Charley, "we'll know in a second whether he's cutting the state's wood or not. Now I guess we'd better hustle back to camp."
Lew got their noonday meal while Charley ascended once more to the watch tree at the top of the mountain and made a careful survey of the country. Not a sign of smoke could he see in any direction. No fire was discovered during the afternoon hike. The evening inspection from their tower was equally reassuring. After a brief chat by wireless with their friends at Central City, and through them sending their nightly message to the forester, telling him that all was well, the two tired young fire patrols rolled up in their blankets and were quickly asleep, serene in the knowledge that the forest they guarded was safe.
Spying Out the Land
All too rapidly the days passed. Occasionally a shower moistened the surface of the ground, but for the most part the dry weather continued, with every hour increasing the fire hazard. During the first few days Charley was never free from a feeling of dread. Every time he awoke he expected to smell fire. Every trip to the watch tree was made in the fear that somewhere within his vision there would be telltale clouds of smoke arising. A nervous apprehension seized upon him, and a mortal fear of fire; and a growing disbelief in his own power kept him in a state of unconquerable anxiety.
All these were sensations new to Charley, though they were normal enough. The natural result of responsibility, they were coupled with Charley's keen realization of the insignificance of his own or any one else's powers as opposed to the vast forces of nature. Had Charley never seen a forest fire, had he never done battle with the raging flames, he could not have had this sharp realization of the insignificance of his own strength. But the recent struggle with the forest fire and that far more desperate battle with the same enemy years before, when the Wireless Patrol was in camp at Fort Brady, had given Charley a true estimate of the well-nigh irresistible fury of a fire in the forest, should conditions be favorable to the flames.
Only luck, Charley realized, and the best of luck, had brought him and Lew out victorious in their recent contest. The next time fire started—and he knew well enough that there would be a next time—there might be a strong wind, or to reach the blaze might take him hours, or he might not be able to summon help with his wireless, or other unfavorable conditions might arise to render his efforts useless. Then the forest would go roaring up in flame. And even though he might not have been unfaithful to his trust, the result would be the same. The timber would be destroyed. This great forest would be consumed. And he, especially selected to guard and protect it, would have failed. The thought was overwhelming.
More and more Charley turned to his wireless as a drowning man clutches at a straw. He saw that when Lew had gone and he had nothing but his own powers to depend upon, the wireless was going to be like a life-line to him. He realized that to have the powerful battery he wanted was imperative, if he was to have even a chance to make good in his efforts to protect the forest. And as he and Lew patrolled the timber, he made it evident to his chum what a vital part that battery would play in his success. But neither of them saw any way for Charley to come into immediate possession of it.
As the days passed and the forest still slumbered in safety, the sharp edge of Charley's anxiety wore off. That, too, was normal, for he could not naturally remain at such a pitch of emotion. So his interest in the life about him gradually returned. And indeed there were innumerable objects to interest a nature lover like Charley.
The country itself was enough to make a nature lover happy. When Charley climbed his watch tree and looked about, he could see nothing but forest. East, west, north, south, league upon league, far as the eye could see and much farther, stretched the forest, like a huge green sea. The mountains rose like great waves; and from his lofty perch Charley could see several parallel ridges rearing their crests aloft on either side of him. Distinctly he could see the two bottoms at the foot of the mountain on which stood his watch tree. Splendid stands of timber filled these valleys with swelling streams of water that flashed in the sunlight here and there through little openings in the trees. But what lay in the farther valleys he could only guess, though he knew that each must have its stream and some timber. What else there might be Charley did not know.
It was part of his work as a patrol to find out. And eagerly he looked forward to the daily hikes that would take him here or there or elsewhere in the great forest. Already he loved it; and he wanted to share all its secrets. Had Charley but known it, that very attitude of mind made him more valuable both to his ranger and to the forester. It meant that his work would not be done in a perfunctory manner, but with that genuine interest born of love that alone leads to perfect service.
The two chums made themselves familiar with their own valley from the border line of the state lands above the beaver dam, to a point many miles below their own camp. They found that they were in the heart of the stand of virgin timber, and that the location of their camp was by far the best that could have been chosen for the purpose of guarding the stand.
Charley thought it wonderful that the forester could offhand select such a strategic point. He felt more certain than ever that Mr. Marlin must have an intimate knowledge of the territory over which he had jurisdiction. Could Charley have known how intimate that knowledge was, he would have been amazed. And what he did not even guess was the fact that the forester had planned just such a secret watch on the big timber as Charley was now keeping, and that he had selected the camp site only after days of investigation.
Nor did Charley so much as dream that for some time Mr. Marlin had been looking about for some one he could trust to do the work. The native mountaineers did not command Mr. Marlin's entire confidence, nor did many of them possess the intelligence or education he desired in the man he selected.
Yet his sudden choice of Charley was characteristic of the forester. He always acted quickly when he thought the time for action had come. Charley's grit and pluck in voluntarily fighting the fire, coupled with his membership in the Wireless Patrol, were the factors that led Mr. Marlin to engage him at once. Had Charley known these facts, he might have felt a bit conceited or at least elated over the situation. But his belief was, as Mr. Marlin wished it to be, that the forester had taken him only as a last resort. And Charley was working hard to make good. He could hardly have taken a better way than the road he had chosen—to make himself familiar with all the territory he was to guard, and so to prepare himself for the emergencies that lay ahead of him.
Every day, and every hour of each day, the two boys found much that excited their wonder, for now they were studying nature at first-hand. Taking their dog, they one day climbed the mountain beyond the one on which their watch-tower stood, and came down into a lovely valley. But what instantly arrested their attention was the face of the mountain on the far side of this valley.
Instead of being a timbered slope, this mountain was a sheer precipice of rock that rose abruptly a thousand feet in air. Its rugged sides were seamed and scarred. Here and there a projecting ledge offered a scant foothold, but mostly the face of the cliff was one vast, frowning rock that rose almost perpendicularly. On tiny ledges and in crevices of the rock little ferns grew in masses, hanging down the face of the cliff like green fringes. Wild flowers had taken possession of the crannies. In precarious footholds, where it seemed impossible for them to exist, a few trees had sprung up, their roots crawling fantastically over the rocks in search of bits of earth to grow in, while the tops of the trees stood up slantingly against the face of the cliff. Mostly they were evergreens, and their scraggly branches made irregular dark masses on the face of the precipice.
As the two boys made their way toward the foot of this cliff, a great bird came soaring over the top of it, and sailed in lofty circles over the valley.
"Look at that hawk!" cried Lew. "Isn't he a whopper? Look at the spread of his wings. And see how he soars, without ever moving a muscle. I wonder if he can see us."
Evidently the bird saw something, for suddenly it tilted downward, shot toward the earth like a flash, and was lost to sight behind the trees.
"Whew!" cried Charley. "Did you see that drop? It almost took my breath away to watch him."
A moment later the bird rose into sight again, bearing in its talons a dark-colored animal of some sort. Though the animal was not large, it must have weighed many pounds. Yet the bird flew upward swiftly, lifting himself rapidly with strong strokes of its wings.
"Gee whiz!" exclaimed Charley, after watching the bird a moment. "That's no hawk! That's an eagle. It's a bald eagle, too. See his white tail and head and the bare shanks?"
"Are you sure?" demanded Lew. "I've always wanted to see a bald eagle. It's our national emblem, you know."
"I'm pretty sure that's one," replied Charley. "I've read about them and seen pictures of them, and that bird's exactly like the pictures. We can see his legs well because he's holding them straight down. They're bare. The golden eagle has feathers all the way to his toes."
"Gee! I'm glad we saw him," exclaimed Lew. "Look where he's going."
The bird flew straight toward the cliff, climbing upward with tremendous speed. He flew directly to a ledge far up the precipice, where he vanished from sight.
"That's where the nest is. I'll bet anything on it," said Charley. "We'll keep an eye on this place and see if there are any little eagles later in the season."
For some time they watched the ledge to which the eagle had flown, but the bird did not again come into sight. Evidently the ledge was much wider than it appeared to be from the bottom of the valley, and perhaps the face of the cliff was worn away, cave like, at that point, affording a secure retreat. At any rate, the eagle was seen no more.
"Well," said Lew, after a time, "if we can't see the eagle again, perhaps we can find out what sort of an animal it was he got. I think I can pretty nearly point out the spot where he landed."
They started toward the point at which the eagle had come to earth. When they thought they were near the place they began to search the ground carefully for some signs of the tragedy that had occurred. They looked in vain. Nowhere could they find any telltale marks.
"I suspect it must have been a coon," suggested Charley. "It looked like it to me. We know there are lots of them in this forest."
Just then the excited chattering of squirrels attracted them. They began to examine the trees about them. Presently they came to one around which were scattered innumerable shells of nuts that had been gnawed into and eaten.
"There must be squirrels in that tree," said Lew.
Now muffled squeaks of fear or pain were audible. The two boys looked at each other questioningly.
"There are squirrels up there all right," agreed Charley, "and something's wrong. That's exactly the way a squirrel sounds when it's in trouble. Yes; there are some squirrels in the tree top. They're terribly excited over something."
The boys began to examine the tree. It was an old oak. Well up its trunk a limb had broken or rotted away, and the resulting decay of the stub had made a hole in the tree itself. What instantly riveted the attention of the two boys was something black and tapering that projected from the hole and that slowly waved in the air.
"A blacksnake!" cried Charley. "He's probably eaten the little squirrels."
In a second Charley was shinning up the tree. Not far below the squirrel hole the stub of another old limb projected. Charley pulled himself up and got a footing on it. He drew his little axe from his hip, and, yanking the snake half-way out of the hole, broke its back with a sharp blow of the axe, and then threw the reptile to the ground. Lew was on it like a flash with his feet, tramping it to death. In the snake's mouth was a small squirrel still kicking and making muffled noises.
Charley slid to the ground, drew his knife and slit the snake's head, releasing the young squirrel. It was hurt and terribly frightened, but was apparently not really injured. Charley kept it in his hand, feeling for broken bones.
"I don't believe this squirrel is really harmed a bit," he said finally, "but it was a pretty close call. I'm going to put it back in the nest again."
He put the little creature in his pocket, then again shinned up the tree, and placed the squirrel in its nest. Meantime, the old squirrels in the tree top chattered incessantly.
"Nobody's going to hurt you," said Charley, looking upward through the branches. "We're only trying to help you."
When he came to earth once more he examined the snake. "He's a big fellow," he said, stretching the reptile out straight. "He's a good deal more than six feet long. I guess we'll take his skin and make a belt of it."
As he drew out his knife again and proceeded to skin the snake, he continued, "I don't believe in killing snakes as a general rule, but blacksnakes do more harm than good, I believe. It's true they kill rats and mice, but they also eat birds' eggs and young birds and squirrels, and no end of other useful creatures. And they are so active that one snake will kill a great number in the course of a year."
"I don't understand how they can eat anything so big as that young squirrel," said Lew, "but I know they do."
"Really they don't," laughed Charley. "They drag themselves outside of their prey. You know their jaws are loose so they can spread them, and their teeth point backward. What they do is to work the upper jaw and then the lower, hooking their teeth into their food, pulling back with each half of the jaw in turn. You see they literally pull themselves over their prey. Well, I'm glad we got that fellow. I suppose it's my business to kill all the blacksnakes I can. Whatever harms the squirrels, hurts the forest."
"What do you mean?" asked Lew.
"Why, you know that squirrels help to plant the nut trees in a forest. Some tree seeds, like pine and maple seeds, are so small or light that they are carried easily by birds and winds, and so scattered about. But acorns and nuts are so heavy that they fall straight down to the earth. If the squirrels didn't carry them away and bury them in such quantities, how could we ever have had these great stands of nut and oak trees?"
"I never thought of that," said Lew.
"It looks as though what Mr. Marlin said was right—walking about through the forest is only a small part of a forest guard's work. He's got to know an awful lot about things before he can be sure just what he ought to do."
"I never had any idea how big a job it is, Lew. And think what a forester must have to know. I tell you it takes a man to fill a job like that."
Noon came. The boys grew hungry. "I could eat all the sandwiches we have myself," smiled Charley. "I wonder if we couldn't catch some trout to help out. It would be all right to make a fire over here, I'm sure. And we'll keep it so small it won't make any smoke. And even if it did, it couldn't possibly betray the location of our camp."
They made their way to the stream in the middle of the valley, baited their hooks, and dropped them into the water. In no time they had half a dozen fine trout.
"You clean 'em, Lew," suggested Charley, "and I'll make a little fireplace."
He selected a little shoulder of earth close to the run and began to dig into it with a stick. In a moment he had uncovered a deposit of solid clay. The clay was hard to dig, but he could shape his fireplace in it exactly as he wanted it. When the task was completed, he started a very small fire with leaves and small branches. By careful feeding, he kept the flames burning clear, with almost no smoke. Presently he had a bed of glowing coals that almost filled the little fireplace.
Lew, meantime, had cleaned the fish and cut some black birch branches which he thrust through the fish lengthwise. Squatting beside the little fire, the two boys now held the fish over the coals, turning them slowly, and roasting them thoroughly. With the addition of the trout, their meal was ample.
They ate slowly, and after their meal sat for a time beside their fire in the warm sun, watching the forest life about them, and listening to the song of the brook and the myriad other sounds of the woods. Finally they prepared to leave. The fire had shrunken to a white bed of ashes.
"We'll make sure that it is out," commented Charley. And he stepped to the run and got a hatful of water, which he poured on the ashes. To his astonishment the ashes were washed away, leaving the fireplace bare. The fireplace had changed color and looked as though made of brick. He touched it and found it as hard as stone.
"Fire-clay," he said. "That's probably worth something. I'll take a sample along."
He dug away more top-soil and scooped out a big ball of clay. Then he filled in the holes he had made, covering up all traces of the clay deposit, and blazed a tree near by to identify the spot.
The journey back to the camp was made by a route different from the one taken in the morning, the boys following the stream down the valley for a distance before crossing back to their own valley. The first fishermen they had encountered were seen on the return trip. The men were wading in the stream below the boys and so did not observe the young fire guards behind them. Charley and Lew instantly slipped behind trees, and after watching the men until they were lost to sight, struck off toward their camp. They got there shortly before sunset. While Lew prepared supper, Charley once more made his way up to the watch tree, where he remained until dusk.
Early in the evening they got into touch with their friends at Central City, and through them sent a reassuring good-night to the forester. Then, too tired to listen to the night's news, they wrapped themselves in their blankets and were soon sound asleep.
The Trail in the Forest
The following day the two young patrols were to report to their ranger at the appointed place in the forest. Although the ranger had much farther to travel than they did, the boys knew from experience that he was afoot early during the fire season, and they felt certain he would be at the meeting-place before the appointed hour. Charley wanted to be as prompt as his ranger, and so the two boys were astir by the time the first streaks of light tinged the eastern skies.
It was still dark enough to risk a little blaze in their fireplace and the warmth was grateful, for the early morning air was chill enough. Breakfast was soon cooked and their camp put to rights. Then, taking their fishing-rods again, they set forth to patrol the forest. The pup was tied in the tent, lest he should get into trouble with a porcupine or some other creature of the forest, and so make them tardy for their appointment.
Their plan was to travel down their own valley for a distance, then pass through a gap to a fire trail in the next bottom, which would lead to other trails that would take them close to their destination. They had studied out their route carefully on the map, and they made their way with both speed and certainty.
For a long time nothing of moment happened to them. The sun came up bright and clear, flirting with the fleecy clouds in the sky, that now plunged the land in deep shadow and again drew aside so that the forest was bathed in golden sunlight. The earth sent forth fragrant exhalations. A gentle breeze lent a tonic quality to the atmosphere. The leaves sparkled with dew, and the stream in the bottom flashed in the sunlight, filling the woods with its sonorous babble. So inviting was the scene that despite their haste, the boys could not resist the temptation to drop their hooks in promising pools as they moved along. Without half trying, they accumulated a dozen fine trout. The smaller ones they carefully unhooked and threw back into the stream.
They passed through the gap in the mountain and started to cross the bottom to the fire trail. At the brook in the middle of the valley they paused to make one last cast in an especially inviting pool. At that moment two men came out of a near-by thicket. Both were smoking. They were equipped like fishermen, though they had no fish. They were rough looking, with hard faces. One of them had an ugly scar above his right eye and showed a mouthful of gold teeth when he took his cigar from his mouth, as he asked, "What luck?"
"We've got a few," replied Charley, extending his creel for their inspection.
The man looked at the fish and swore savagely. "These kids have fished the brook out," he growled. "There's no use trying this stream. We'll have to go on to the next valley."
Charley was in a quandary. These men, with their cigars, were a menace to the forest. It made him nervous merely to look at the glowing tobacco and the careless way the men flicked the ashes about. He was almost panic-stricken at the idea of their passing into his own valley while he was absent. He did not know whether to tell them the truth about his fish or remain silent. But he remembered that his watch in that valley was supposed to be a secret one, and he said nothing. Afterward he was glad that he had remained silent.
"Come on," said the man with the gold teeth. "These kids have queered us here. We'll be moving."
As he started away he gave Charley such a savage look that it almost frightened Charley. It did worry and alarm him, for he could not help asking himself what he should do if he had to deal sternly with such a man. Even with Lew at his side, he felt fearful. Alone in the forest with such desperate-looking men, he knew that he would be helpless.
Then he remembered the automatic stowed in his hip pocket and felt relieved. Now he understood much better why the ranger had given it to him. The remembrance that he had this weapon stiffened his courage wonderfully. He determined that if gun-play ever became necessary, he would not be caught napping. At once he shifted the automatic to his coat pocket, where he could shoot without drawing the weapon, and where he could carry his hand without exciting suspicion.
"Gee!" whispered Lew, after the two men had passed out of hearing. "I wouldn't care to meet that pair after dark."
"What I am afraid of," said Charley, "is that they will set the forest afire. They were mighty careless with their cigars. Will they be any more careful with the butts when they have finished their smoke? I don't know but what we ought to trail them. Yet we've got to meet Mr. Morton and I don't want to be tardy. I can't make up my mind what we ought to do."
After a moment's consideration, he unjointed his rod, and started off in the direction from which the men had come. "We'll find Mr. Morton just as quick as we can," he said with decision, "and tell him the situation. Meantime, we'll make sure those men didn't start any fires up to this point."
Charley's anxiety lent wings to his heels and he started at a rate of speed that would soon have winded both boys. At a protest from Lew, he dropped to a fast walk. With open fire trails before them, the chums advanced rapidly. Soon they were well up the slope of the next mountain. They turned and studied the country behind them with anxious eyes. But no smoke columns showed against the green of the forest and they went on with lighter hearts.
"I'm certainly going to get a pair of good field-glasses," said Charley, "though I don't know where the money's to come from any more than I know how I'll get my battery. But I just have to have both."
Their meeting-place with Mr. Morton was in the next valley. Charley glanced at his watch and saw that they were early for the appointment. Yet he kept on at good speed in the hope that Mr. Morton might also be early. He wanted to talk to him as soon as he possibly could. The two boys never reached the meeting-place, however, for shortly they met Mr. Morton himself coming up the fire trail. He had reached the meeting-place, and, being early, had decided to climb to the top of the hill. He knew that his subordinate would almost certainly travel by way of this fire trail, and he planned to keep watch on the mountain top while he waited for him.
Charley was so relieved to see his ranger that he scarcely knew what to say. He suddenly felt so different that he was almost ashamed of having been alarmed. As he looked at it now, it seemed foolish to have been so disturbed because a stranger had been provoked at what he chose to regard as interference with his fishing.
The ranger shook hands warmly with his young friends. "I see you have kept the forest safe so far," he said with a smile. "How have things been going?"
"All right," replied Charley, "but we met a couple of men an hour or so ago, whose looks we didn't like."
"How's that? What did they do that you didn't like?"
"Well, they were smoking and they were careless with their cigars. Since we met them I've been expecting to see a smoke column rising every time I turned around; and I'd hate to tell you how many times I've looked back in the last hour."
"It never hurts a man in the forest to look back," said Mr. Morton with another smile. "Lot's wife is the only person on record who came to grief that way. But seriously, you mustn't get nervous just because you see a smoker. You'll meet hundreds of them, and they're all pretty careless."
Charley flushed a little. "You don't understand, Mr. Morton," he went on. "I wasn't nervous—that is, I didn't—I mean, it wasn't the mere fact that the men were smoking that made me feel anxious. I didn't like the looks of the men or their actions."
"What did they do?"
"Well, they swore at us."
The ranger laughed. "That's a habit of these mountaineers," he said. "You mustn't pay any attention to it. They don't mean anything by it."
"Do they look at you as though they'd like to kill you, too?" demanded Charley. "Is that a habit of these mountaineers?"
Instantly the ranger's face was sober. "See here," he said seriously. "What have you been doing? What did you do or say to the men that made them curse you? A little authority hasn't made you toplofty, has it? You know you are not supposed to let anybody know that you're a fire patrol."
"I didn't," replied Charley, stung by the implied criticism. "We caught a few fish in our own valley, then cut through to the valley just below us, on our way to this trail. Just as we reached the run, two men came out of the bushes. They asked what we had caught, and when I showed them, one of them swore at us terribly and said we had fished the stream out so that they would have to go on to the next valley."
"Is that all?" laughed the ranger, looking much relieved.
"No, sir, it isn't," continued Charley. "They looked as though they wanted to kill us."
The ranger was inclined to smile, but he forbore, seeing that Charley was sensitive. "You'll soon get used to meeting tough-looking customers in the forest," he said.
"I hope that I don't meet many like that fellow," sighed Charley. "When he scowled at me, he looked as fierce as a chimpanzee. And he had an ugly scar over his eye that actually seemed to turn red."
Instantly the ranger's face became sober. "A scar over his eye," he repeated. "Which eye?"
"His right one."
"Did you notice his mouth?"
"Sure. I couldn't help noticing it. It was full of gold teeth."
The ranger gave a low whistle. His face became still more serious. "Tell me exactly what was said and done," he continued. "Repeat your conversation just as accurately as you can."
When Charley had rehearsed the entire affair in detail, the ranger asked, "And you are sure you gave him no hint that you had come from the next valley?"
"Absolutely none. I thought right away that I mustn't do that."
"You're a lad of discretion," smiled the ranger. "You have done well. But be awful careful of that old scoundrel. That's Bill Collins. He's a bad egg if there ever was one. He never came into these mountains to catch fish. That's merely a blind. And he was headed for your valley, too. That's absolutely certain. Otherwise he wouldn't have gone there."
The ranger paused in thought. "Did he go there?" he continued. "That's the problem. If he said he was going there, it's more than likely he was headed for some other place and wanted to throw you off the track."
Again the ranger paused and studied Charley's face keenly. Evidently the wide-set eyes, with their indication of intelligence, the strong nose and good chin, and especially Charley's straight mouth with its thin lips, reassured him. "My boy," he said kindly, "I don't want to alarm you unnecessarily, but be careful of that man. He's up to something, or he wouldn't be in this forest; but what it can be, I've not the remotest idea. The only thing I can think of that would bring him here is the virgin timber. He's been mixed up in several crooked lumber deals. He wouldn't hesitate for an instant to steal timber or to set the forest afire. And it's my personal belief that he wouldn't stop at"—he paused and studied Charley's face again—"at murder."
The two boys were sober. For a moment they looked at the ranger in silence. Then, "What had I better do?" asked Charley.
"Keep out of Collins' road," answered Mr. Morton instantly. "If you can get track of him, watch him; but don't let him see you or know he is watched."
Again the ranger paused to ponder the matter. "It isn't a square deal to let you kids go up against that old crook," he said suddenly. "Come on. We'll see if we can find him. And if we do, I know how to deal with him."
The ranger strode forward at a terrific pace. The two boys had almost to run to keep up with him. Over his face came a grim expression that boded no good for Bill Collins. On and on he went, saying never a word. Evidently he was revolving the situation in his own mind. Not until they reached the brook did he utter a syllable. Then he said, "Show me exactly where you boys were and where the two men came out of the bushes."
Charley pointed out the respective positions. Mr. Morton searched the bushes but found nothing enlightening.
"Which way did they go after they left you?" he asked.
Lew pointed out the route they had taken. Along the margin of the brook both men had left clear footprints. Mr. Morton sank to his knees and the three studied these prints closely. Then, "Come on," he said, rising. "We'll see if we can trail them."
Lew led the way to the point at which they had last seen the men. The disturbed condition of the leaves showed plainly that some one had passed. Very slowly and painstakingly the ranger followed the trail. In many places the forest mold still retained the imprint of a foot distinctly. So they followed the trail for several rods. Then they were unable to find any more footprints, nor did the leaves appear disturbed in any way.
"They've turned off to one side or the other," said the ranger, when he was sure they had overrun the trail. "Let's see if we can find which way they went."
The three investigators turned and spread out, advancing a foot at a time, and examined the ground minutely. Not a leaf nor a stick, nor yet the bushes or tree trunks escaped observation. At last Charley gave a little cry. He had found a footprint that corresponded exactly with one they had studied by the brook. A little farther on a second imprint was visible, and the leaves again had the appearance of having been disturbed. For some distance they continued to search for and to find footprints and other unmistakable signs of the passage of the two men.
"It is useless to look for any more tracks," said the ranger, straightening up. "Collins and his companion quite evidently went up this valley instead of the one they told you they were heading for. They were merely trying to mislead you, which makes me all the more certain they are here for no good purpose. They certainly had no reason to suspect your connection with the Forest Service, and I presume that Collins was so annoyed at being seen by anybody that he just couldn't keep his temper. So he swore at you. He's a violent chap. It's certain that he's somewhere ahead of us, with at least two hours' start. We'll try to overtake him, though we don't want him to see us. What we'll do if we find him will depend upon circumstances. Now let's hustle. But be quiet and keep your eyes open."
Not until near sundown was the search discontinued. Then, finding themselves almost directly below the watch-tower, the ranger and his two helpers struck directly up the slope, took a long, careful look for smoke, and descended toward Charley's camp.
"I'm going to spend the night with you," explained the ranger. "I wish that you would try to call up Katharine and tell her how it is. I don't like to leave the forest until I find out what those scamps are up to."
They came to the camp. The pup was still in the tent, and everything seemed to be as it was when the two young patrols left in the morning.
"Things seem to be all right," said Charley. "We'll be a bit cautious and cook on the alcohol stove to-night."
But when he went to the spring for water, he gave a cry of dismay. In the soft ground by the spring basin was a footprint exactly like that they had traced so painfully in the other valley.
The Telltale Thumb-Print
More serious than ever was the ranger's face when Charley showed him the telltale footprint.
"It's bad!" he said. "Altogether bad! He's as cunning as a rat, that Bill Collins. But how he could ever discover a camp so well concealed as this one is, I don't know."
And with that the ranger fell into a brown study. Lew and Charley went on rapidly with their preparations for supper.
"Here," called the ranger, noticing what they were about. "Mr. Marlin sent this to you. I almost forgot about it." He reached into the capacious inner pocket of the hunting-coat he wore and drew forth a bulky package.
"Beefsteak!" cried Charley, opening the package. "Oh boy! And enough for two meals. We're certainly obliged to you and Mr. Marlin both."
Meantime, the pup, neglected, fawned upon them and began to whine, when suddenly the ranger cried out, "I've got it. It was the pup."
"The pup?" echoed Charley. "What about the pup?"
"Why, it was the pup that betrayed the camp. In some way those men got within hearing or smelling distance of this place, and the pup must have barked or whined. You know how a lonely dog will howl and carry on. I'm sorry, but I guess that pup will have to go, Charley."
Charley's face expressed almost as much mental agony as the pup's whine had shown, though he said nothing. The ranger, looking up, caught the expression, however, and understood. He knew how lonely it would be for Charley after Lew returned to Central City. "The harm's already done," he continued, "and I suppose it never does any good to lock the stable after the horse is gone. You may keep your pup, Charley; but I do wish he was a dumb brute in fact as well as in name."
"I can train him to be quiet," said Charley eagerly. "I trained Judge Gordon's dogs to hunt and I can train this little fellow not to make a noise. If I could keep him, sir, I'd be mighty glad. He'll be a lot of company."
"Keep your dog, noise or no noise," said the kindly ranger with determination. "If you can really train him well, he'll do us a thousand times more good than he does harm. Now that I know Bill Collins is in these woods, I don't like the idea of leaving you here alone. You train that dog as fast as you can. Train him to warn you of the approach of strangers, and train him to fight, too—and to fight hard."
Again the ranger lapsed into silence. After a while he said, "What puzzles me now is this: Should we move your camp to another place or leave it where it is? Bill Collins knows there is a camp here. He saw you two boys in the forest and he has probably seen no one else. He will likely infer that it is your camp. But he has no way of knowing that you are connected with the Forest Service, unless, unless—By George! Why didn't I think of that sooner? Ten to one he hid close by and watched for you to come back. If he did, he saw us when we came down from the top of the hill. And if he saw me with you boys, he knows as well as I do why this camp is hidden and what you boys really are doing. I'll bet it made him swear some when he saw me." And the ranger chuckled.
"But maybe he didn't see us," suggested Charley.
"I'd just as soon believe that the sun didn't set. That fellow's a fox for cleverness and a bulldog for persistence. Yet I don't see that we need feel bad, even if he does know where your camp is. We've learned more than he has. We know he's back in these parts and that he is making a secret visit to this timber; for you may be very sure he intended it to be a secret visit."
"But he can't be certain we know who he is," argued Charley. "He is as much a stranger to Lew and me as we are to him."
"True enough, Charley, true enough. It was really a great piece of luck that you boys happened to bump into him. It would have been better, of course, if you could have seen him without being noticed yourself, but in that case we should never have guessed who he was. No; it's a game of checkers between us now, and we've each lost a man to the other. But in my opinion we got a king in exchange for an ordinary checker. What I'd like to know is, who the man is that's with him."
"Supper is ready," announced Lew.
The three entered the tent, where Lew had hung the lighted candle lantern, and in the growing darkness ate their meal.
"It seems to me," suggested Lew, "that it would be best to leave the camp right where it is. If we move it, that will indicate that we know its location has been discovered. If we let it remain where it is, these men won't know whether we are aware if their visit here or not."
"You've a good head on you, young man," said the ranger approvingly. "That's exactly the thing to do. Besides, if we moved it and Bill Collins wanted to find it, he'd stick right to the job until he succeeded. But I don't believe he has any interest in watching this camp or in staying in this forest. It isn't a healthful place for him and he knows it. You see, Bill and I are old acquaintances. It's my opinion that he came in here for some particular purpose and that he'll get right out the instant that purpose is accomplished. Those men didn't have any packs, did they?"
"Not a sign of a pack," replied Charley. "Their coat pockets bulged out as though they had sandwiches or something in them, but they hadn't a thing in their hands or on their backs except fishing-rods and creels."
"That settles it," said the ranger. "They can't stay here more than forty-eight hours at the most. And there's no danger of their telling anybody else about your camp because they won't want anybody to know they were here. We'll just consider the camp situation settled."
They finished their supper and had begun clear up the dishes when suddenly Charley thought of the fire-clay. "Oh! I have something to show you," he cried, and went to the corner of the tent to get the clay ball. It was just where Charley had left it, but the instant he picked it up he was somehow conscious that it was different. He held the ball up and looked at it critically. Then he hefted it in his hand.
"Lew," he exclaimed, "how big was that ball of clay we took for a sample?"
"Four or five inches in diameter," rejoined Lew. "Why?"
"Look at that. It isn't a bit more than three inches thick. I was sure we had more clay than that. I meant to make a little pot of it."
"We did have more. I'm sure of it. You don't suppose those men could have taken any of it, do you?"
"Let me see," said the ranger.
He took the ball and examined it critically. "That looks like fire-clay. If it is, and the deposit is of any size, you have found something of value. You know the state sells things like that on a royalty basis. We might be able to develop a good clay business. We like to work up all the business we can, because the revenues go toward the purchase of the equipment we need. You know the legislature won't give us all we need to buy implements for fighting fires, and for fire-towers, and other equipment."
"If we could make a fire," said Charley, "you could soon tell whether it is good fire-clay or not."
"Make a fire," said the ranger. "Collins already knows where our camp is and nobody else will be prowling around here at this hour."
In a minute the boys had a fire going. When they had a deep bed of coals, they dropped the ball of clay in it and made more fire on top of the bed.
While they were waiting for the clay to bake, Charley sat down at his wireless key. As it was still early in the evening he did not feel certain that any of the Camp Brady boys would be listening in. He called several times with no response, so he threw over his switch and resumed his conversation with his fellows. When he flashed out his signals a quarter of an hour later, however, he got a prompt reply.
"I've got 'em," said Charley quietly to his comrades. "And it's Henry talking." He was silent a while, listening to Henry's message. Then he said, "Henry wants to know when Lew is coming home. Vacation is about ended."
"Tell him that I think I'll go back with the ranger to-morrow. I've stayed as long as I possibly can."
Again there was a pause. "Henry wants to know what we are doing and whether or not we've had any adventures. I wish I could tell him the real situation. But that would never do."
Charley turned to his key and began to tick off a message: "Everything as quiet as—" He stopped abruptly. A cry that fairly made him shiver sounded in the forest. He turned to the ranger. "What in the world was that?"
"A wildcat," replied the ranger. "He smells the meat you hung up. You'll just have to be a bit watchful. He may hang around here for days, and sometimes those fellows get nasty."
Another piercing cry startled the night. Again Charley shivered. Lew got up and by putting more wood on the fire lighted up the interior of the thicket brightly.
Charley turned to his wireless key and sent a call signal flashing.
"What's the matter?" came back Henry's reply. "Why did you cut off?"
"Wildcat," flashed back Charley. "Just outside our camp. Smells our meat. Scares a fellow half to death when he cries out. Ranger says it may hang around for days. Wish you would send us some traps."
"You'll bring them out on your next visit, won't you?" said Charley, turning to Mr. Morton.
"Bring what out?" demanded the perplexed ranger.
"Why, traps. I forgot that you couldn't read the message I was sending. I'm asking Henry for traps."
"Tell him to send them along. Trapping will be better than shooting under the circumstances, but don't hesitate to use your gun if you need to."
Charley turned back to his instrument and asked Henry to rush the traps. He inquired about his fellows of the Wireless Patrol. Henry had nothing out of the ordinary to report. Then Charley asked Henry to get the forester at Oakdale on the telephone.
After a long wait, Charley's receiver began to buzz. "Henry has the forester on the telephone," Charley explained to the ranger. "What shall I tell him?"
"Nothing. I'll tell him about Bill Collins myself. Just say that everything is all right and ask him to get Katharine on the telephone."
Again there was a pause. "He's got her," said Charley.
"Please tell Katharine," said the ranger, "that it was necessary to stay in camp with you to-night. Ask how she and the little girl are."
While his friends sat in silence before the crackling fire, Charley took the message. "Katharine says that everything is all right and they are well. She thanks the fire patrols for taking care of her husband."
Charley said good-night and laid down his receivers. "Your wife is a pippin," he said with a smile as he turned toward the ranger. "I don't wonder you like her. Think of her thanking us for taking care of you. Why, we'd be scared to death if we were here alone, with that confounded hyena howling out there in the bushes. She must be a brave little woman. She didn't seem a bit worried because you hadn't come home."
"I guess she had an idea I wouldn't get back to-night," said the ranger. "You know it's a pretty good hike for one day."
Charley knew well enough that Mr. Morton was trying to mislead him. He saw at once that the kind-hearted ranger had intended to spend the night in camp. But not knowing what to say, he turned in silence to the pup, which evidently smelled the wildcat, and tried to quiet him.
"You can be glad that you've got that dog," said the ranger. "I don't think that cat will come any closer, for it can smell the dog as well as the meat. Take care of him and make him useful. Now we'd better turn in, for we must pull foot early in the morning."
"Let's first see if our clay is baked," suggested Charley.
Charley scattered the embers and rolled the clay ball out of the ashes with a stick. It was baked as hard as a brick. The ranger folded up the newspaper which he had used as an outer wrapper for the meat, and picked up the ball with the paper. Lew held the candle lantern close while the ranger examined the clay. Slowly he turned the ball around, picking at it with his knife blade.
"Who made this ball?" he asked suddenly.
"I did," said Charley.
"Did Lew touch it at all?"
"I can't recall that he did."
"No; I never laid a finger on it," said Lew. "Charley rolled it and carried it here himself."
"Let me see your thumbs, Charley," said the ranger.
Charley, puzzled, held them up for inspection. The ranger examined them closely. "Now let me have that little microscope of yours," he continued.
Charley handed it to the ranger, who studied the clay ball intently through the glass, then as carefully looked at Charley's thumb. Then he chuckled. "We've taken another king in this little checker game," he said. "Look at that."
While Mr. Morton held the lantern for them, the two boys studied the burned ball of clay. On it were a number of distinct thumb-prints, now turned into solid brick by the action of the fire. The boys looked at each other questioningly and then at Mr. Morton.
"It's a clever rogue who doesn't trip himself up somewhere," chuckled the ranger. "What happened is as clear as daylight. Collins and his companion found this clay while they were inspecting your camp. They must have suspected that it was fire-clay and that you had found a deposit of value. They took some along to test, and rolled what was left into a ball again, thinking you would never notice the difference. But they forgot that clay would take finger-prints so readily, and they have left their calling cards behind them."
The ranger carefully wrapped the clay ball in his handkerchief, and then in a newspaper. "Let me have this," he said. "The police may have some duplicate prints somewhere. We don't know what Collins and his pal are up to, but we have something here that we may find very useful. It isn't every crook that is so considerate as to leave his thumb-prints behind him."
Good News For the Fire Patrol
As the ranger had foretold, the forest guards did indeed pull foot early in the morning. Black darkness still enfolded the camp when the ranger awoke his young companions. Fire was speedily kindled and breakfast gotten under way.
"Better eat your meat, boys," suggested the ranger. "Otherwise it will keep that cat hanging around here. We'll hardly dare to leave the pup behind again, and that beast might get in here and tear your tent to pieces. These cats play hob with things sometimes."
Lew decided that he would carry nothing back with him, as he contemplated visiting his chum at intervals.
"Just take your rifle," said the ranger to Charley. "You'll be all alone on your return trip and with two such animals as we've seen hereabout, it will be just as well to have it. If I were you, I believe I'd make a pretty close companion of it and always keep it within reach."
When they left the camp, they were burdened only with Charley's rifle and food for the noon meal, which they stowed in their pockets. The instant there was light enough to guide their footsteps, the trio set forth.
For hours they trudged through the forest, for the most part in silence. Although they traveled by a circuitous route, and with eyes and ears alert, they neither saw nor heard anything that pointed to the presence of other human beings in the forest. The ground bore no telltale footprints. No incriminating marks were discernible on the trees. Smoke was nowhere visible. No firearm disturbed the silence of the wilderness. No birds flew upward with cries of alarm, save at their own approach. And the only voices that were audible were the voices of the brooks.
Under other circumstances Charley would have been supremely happy. The sun came up bright and clear. No veil of mist floated before the face of the sky. But woolly, white cloud banks sailed lazily aloft, intensifying by contrast the blue of the sky. A gentle wind blew fitfully. The earth steamed fragrantly, sending up an odor joyful to the nostrils. And the little brooks babbled wildly in their joy at the spring-time.
But Charley was not in a responsive mood. The thought of the man Collins and his evil-favored companion weighed upon him heavily. Nor was the knowledge that a wildcat was prowling about his camp reassuring; though Charley was far from being afraid of the beast. And always the dread of fire was in the background of his consciousness. What troubled him more than anything else just now was the approaching loss of his chum. Could Charley have diagnosed correctly the feelings that oppressed him now, he would have known that it was the fear of loneliness more than any fear of Bill Collins or wildcats or forest fires, that made him sad. To read about Robinson Crusoe was all right, but to be Robinson Crusoe was quite a different matter—at least a Crusoe without a good man Friday. And Charley was too downcast at present to realize that the pup at his heels could be to him all that Friday was to his master, and perhaps more.
Again and again Charley turned over in his mind the problem of how he could get the battery he needed. More than ever he felt that he absolutely must have it. Such a battery would cost many, many dollars. To be sure, Charley's salary would soon bring him in enough money to pay for such a battery; but all of his income, or practically all of it, Charley knew, he must give to his father. How he should get around the difficulty, Charley could not see.