Produced by John Argus, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
IN CAMP ON THE BIG SUNFLOWER
LAWRENCE J. LESLIE
[Illustration: MAKING PREPARATIONS FOR THE FEAST]
I.–AN ALARM IN THE CAMP
III.–WHAT OWEN KNEW
IV.–THE UNKNOWN SHELL GATHERERS
V.–A PUZZLER FOR MAX
VI.–THE FIRST CROP FROM THE RIVER
VII.–BANDY-LEGS WANTS TO KNOW
VIII.–A GREAT FIND
IX.–MAX WONDERS STILL MORE
X.–AT DEAD OF NIGHT
XI.–THE NEW COOK SPRINGS HIS SURPRISE
XII.–DANGER AHEAD ON THE TRAIL
XIII.–MAX PLAYS THE GOOD SAMARITAN
XIV.–SETTING THE MAN TRAP AGAIN
XV.–THE MYSTERY SOLVED–CONCLUSION
IN CAMP ON THE BIG SUNFLOWER.
AN ALARM IN THE CAMP.
“Hey, Bandy-legs, what d’ye suppose ails Toby there?”
“He sure looks like he’d just seen a ghost, for a fact, Steve. Where are Max and his cousin Owen just now?”
“Oh, they walked down along the river bank to look for signs of fresh-water clams. So we’ll just have to run things ourselves, Bandy. Hello! there, Toby, what under the sun are you staring at?” and the boy called Steve jumped to his feet as he called out.
It was night in the woods, with a cheery camp fire blazing close to where the restless river fretted and scolded along its crooked course.
The boy called Toby, whose last name happened to be Jucklin, also scrambled to his feet when thus hailed by his campmate, Steve Dowdy.
He was a broad-shouldered chap, unusually husky in build, and apparently as strong as an ox; but all his life poor Toby had been afflicted with an unfortunate impediment in his speech that gave him no end of trouble.
When the third boy also stood erect it was plain to see how he came by his name. His legs were bowed, and appeared too short for his body. “Now open up and tell us what you saw, Toby,” demanded Steve, who was by nature inclined to be what his chums called “bossy.”
“L-l-land’s sake, didn’t you s-s-see it, fellows?” asked the troubled one, his voice trembling with the excitement under which he was laboring.
“Stick a pin in him, Steve,” advised Bandy-legs; “that’s the easiest way to make him talk straight English, you know.”
“Don’t you dare try it, now, I tell you,” warned the other, forgetting to even stutter in his indignation. “I’m going to tell you about it just when I’m good and ready. G-get that, now?”
“Please commence then, Toby,” pleaded the shorter boy. “Was it a real ghost you saw, or a snake? I’m terribly set against the crawlers, you remember.”
“S-shucks! ‘Twan’t no s-snake, Bandy; I give you my word for that. But it had the awfulest glittering eyes you ever s-saw, boys.”
“Wow! listen to that for a starter, will you?” cried Steve.
“Keep going, Toby; don’t let up now,” begged the boy with the crooked legs.
“I just couldn’t make out for sure, b-but b-back of the eyes I thought I could see—-“
“Oh, what?” asked Bandy-legs, feverishly.
“A long body just l-like that of a b-b-b—-” Toby seemed to swell up as he tried in vain to say the word he wanted, but it was apparently hopeless.
“Why don’t you whistle, Toby, you silly?” cried Steve.
“Yes, that always helps you out, you know,” the short boy declared, as he clapped a hand on the shoulder of the now red-faced stammerer.
Upon which Toby screwed up his rather comical face, puckered his lips, and emitted a sharp whistle.
Strange to say, the action seemed to cure him for the time being of his trouble.
“Was it a bear?” asked Bandy-legs, impatiently.
“Come off,” remarked the other; “I was only going to say it looked like a big cat.”
“He means a wildcat, Steve!” exclaimed one of those who listened with all his nerves on edge.
“Or, perhaps, it might have been a panther,” remarked Steve, a tinge of eagerness in his voice, for Steve wanted to distinguish himself while on this camping trip by doing some wonderful exploit.
“And here we stand like a lot of gumps, when our guns are within reach. Right now that terrible beast may be making ready to jump on us.”
As the short-legged boy spoke he made a flying leap in the direction of the tent that had been erected.
Both of his campmates were at his heels, and doubtless quite as anxious as himself.
There was a confused series of sounds following their disappearance. Then they came crawling out again, each one gripping some sort of weapon.
“Now, show me your blessed old tiger cat!” cried Steve, handling a double-barreled shotgun valiantly.
“Yes, who cares for a measly wildcat; let him step up and get what’s coming to him!” declared Bandy-legs, who was waving the camp hatchet ferociously.
“I’m b-b-badgered if I c-c-care what it is right now. This rifle belonging to Max h-h-holds six bullets, fellows,” spluttered Toby.
“Listen!” exclaimed Steve, with more or less authority in his voice.
“Oh, what did you think you heard, Steve?” asked the wielder of the hatchet. “Was it a whine, a cry just like a baby’d make? I’ve heard that’s the way these panthers act just before they spring. Be ready, both of you, to shoot him on the wing.”
“Rats! It was voices I heard,” declared Steve.
“Then it must be Max and Owen coming back to camp from the river,” Bandy-legs asserted.
“Just as like as not,” Steve admitted.
“But what if the savage beast drops down on the shoulders of our chums?” said the other in tones that were full of horror.
“C-c-come on, b-b-boys!” panted Toby.
“Where to?” demanded Steve. “I’m comfortable just as I stand. What’s eating you now, Toby Jucklin?”
“D-d-didn’t you see, we’ve j-j-just got to warn our c-c-chums, and s-s-stand that t-t-terrible beast off? H-h-hurry, boys!”
“Yes, I see _you_ hurrying,” said Steve, with a laugh; “why, you’d fall all over yourself, Toby, and perhaps try to swallow our only hatchet in the bargain. Besides, there’s no need of our sallying forth to stand guard over Max and Owen, because here they come right now.”
“Sure they are,” declared Bandy-legs, “and mebbe we’ll be able to find out whether it was a wildcat Toby saw, a panther, or one of those awful Injun devils they say come down here from the Canada woods once in a long time.”
“All right, you c’n laugh all you l-like,” the boy who stammered said, obstinately; “but wait and s-s-see what Max says.”
The two boys, who strode into the camp just then, eyed the warlike group with positive surprise.
“What’s going on here?” asked the one in the lead, who seemed to be a well-put-up lad, with a bold, resolute face, clear gray eyes, and of athletic build.
“Why, you see, Max,” began Steve in his usual impetuous way, “Toby here thought he saw a hungry cat sizing us up, being in want of a dinner; and so we got ready to give him a warm reception.”
“Y-y-you b-b-bet we did!” exclaimed the party in question, shaking his hatchet ferociously.
The boy called Max turned and looked toward his cousin Owen, and there were signs of amusement in his manner.
“D’ye suppose it could have been a bobcat?”
Steve went on, he having his own opinion, which was to the effect that Toby had imagined things.
“Suppose we find out?” suggested Max, promptly.
“Oh, no use asking _him_!” declared Steve. “As soon as he tries to tell he gets to tumbling all over himself. He saw a pair of staring eyes, and imagined the rest. For my part, I’ve made up my mind ’twas only a little old owl.”
Bandy-legs laughed, while Toby grunted his disgust.
“Huh! think so, d-d-do you, Mister Know-it-all? J-j-just you wait and s-s-see,” he remarked.
“Wait for what?” demanded the scoffing Steve.
“Why, Max is g-g-going to find out,” asserted Toby. “G-g-guess owls don’t leave tracks, d-d-do they? Well, Max c-c-can soon tell us. Huh! an owl!”
“Oh, I reckon we’ll soon be able to settle that part of it, all right,” said Max, soothingly, for he saw that his two friends were growing a little too earnest in their dispute.
“T-t-told you s-s-so,” chuckled Toby.
“Now, first of all, Toby, answer me a few questions, please,” began Max, steadily.
“S-s-sure I will; just c-c-crack away,” the other piped up, cheerfully enough.
“Sit down again in exactly the same place where you were at the time you saw these yellow eyes staring at you–they were yellow, all right, I suppose?” Max continued.
“R-r-reckon I did s-s-say that,” admitted Toby, “b-b-but I might’s well confess right n-n-now that I couldn’t s-s-say for sure whether the eyes were g-g-green or y-y-yellow. All I k-k-know is they s-s-stared like anything at me.”
“Listen to him, would you!” exclaimed Steve; “he’s backing off his perch I tell you, taking water to beat the band.”
“T-t-tain’t so,” stoutly declared Toby. “I s-s-saw the eyes, and believed I c-c-could make out all the rest. G-g-go on, Max; what’s next?”
“Are you sitting in the same place?” asked the other, quietly.
“I am,” replied Toby.
“Now point exactly to the spot where, as you say, you saw the staring eyes,” Max went on.
“T-t-that’s easy done. S-s-see where that bunch of wintergreen p-p-pokes up l-like the tuft of an Injun’s war bonnet–r-r-right there it was, Max.”
“All right,” remarked the other, quickly. “Now, the rest of you just hold your horses a bit and give me a chance to look around.”
“You bet we will,” declared Bandy-legs.
“If anybody can find out the facts, Max will,” asserted Steve.
The four boys watched with considerable interest to see what Max would do. They had the greatest confidence in this chum, whose knowledge of things pertaining to the woods far exceeded that of any other member of the club.
First of all Max stepped to the fire, and they could see that he was looking it over carefully.
“He’s after a torch, that’s what,” asserted Steve.
“S-s-sure he is,” echoed Toby.
“There, he’s found what he wants,” declared the boy with the crooked legs; “and it’s a jim dandy one, too. Now he’s heading for the place you saw your big cat, Toby.”
“N-n-never said ’twas _my_ cat!” flashed up the other, aggressively.
“Well, you’re the only one that saw the beast, anyhow,” declared Bandy-legs, stoutly.
“Oh, let up on all that talk, fellows, and watch what Max does,” Steve broke in, impatiently.
“And,” remarked Owen Hastings, speaking for the first time, “if it should turn out to be any sort of a wild animal, look out how you shoot.”
“I s-s-should s-s-say yes,” added Toby. “G-g-go mighty slow, boys, w-w-while our c-c-chum is in front.”
“Then don’t you think of throwing that tomahawk, Toby, remember,” cautioned Bandy-legs.
“Shucks! you’re only t-t-talking to hear yourself,” grunted the other, in scorn.
Meanwhile Max had advanced, torch in hand.
He gave no evidence of any concern, and to all appearances seemed to take very little stock in the possibility of meeting with some species of dangerous wild beast.
They saw him bend down, and at the same time thrust the blazing fagot of wood closer to the ground.
“He’s discovered something, sure as you live, and I bet you it’s a track,” asserted Bandy-legs.
“Huh! s-s-see him pickin’ something up. P’r’aps it’s an owl’s feather,” sneered Toby.
“Now he’s beckoning to us to come on, fellows!” cried the eager Steve.
With that the entire bunch started forward, filled with a desire to learn what Max had discovered.
He was smiling as they hurriedly approached, and yet at the same time the frown upon his face told that Max found himself puzzled.
“Say, was it a w-w-wildcat?” bubbled forth Toby.
“Or a big Virginia horned owl?” demanded Steve.
Max shook his head to both questions.
“Nixy, fellows, you’ve got another guess coming,” he remarked, soberly. “Fact is, the eyes Toby saw staring at him through the bushes belonged to a half-grown boy, and a badly scared one at that!”
Strange to say, Toby, usually the last to gather his wits together, was on this occasion the first to give expression to his overwrought feelings.
“Gee! that’s a s-s-screamer you’re g-g-giving us, Max,” he burst out with.
“But what makes you say it’s a boy, Max; why not a man, when you’re about it?” asked the skeptical Steve.
Max held up something he clutched in his hand.
“That’s a boy’s cap, reckon you’ll all admit,” he asserted, quietly.
“It sure looks like it,” admitted Bandy-legs, bending forward to examine the article in question.
“And a mighty tattered cap in the bargain, I should say,” remarked Owen, who was something of a bookworm, filled with a theoretical knowledge concerning subjects that, as a rule, his cousin Max had personal acquaintance with.
“All right,” Max went on, “I found this here, right where Toby saw the staring eyes. But that isn’t all, fellows. Look down where I point, and tell me what you see.”
Bandy-legs and Toby could not make anything out of the queer-looking marks they saw revealed by the light of the torch.
With the others it was different.
“Somebody’s been kneeling here, for a fact,” declared Steve.
“Here’s where his knees pressed in the earth; and you can see how his toes dug holes yonder,” Owen remarked, pointing.
“Just so,” Max went on; “and when you notice how short the distance between knees and toes is, you’ll agree with me it was a boy.”
“That’s all right, Max,” spoke up Steve; “but why would he be a scared boy–why didn’t the chump walk right into camp and join us?”
“Perhaps this boy has some reason to be afraid. Perhaps he got an idea in his head that we’d come up here to hunt for him! And when he saw Toby looking straight at him, he fell into a regular panic right away.”
“You m-mean he s-s-s-s—-” and finding that the word was going to prove too much for him Toby quickly puckered up his lips, gave a little whistle, and wound up by speaking the objectionable word as plainly as anyone could have done–“skedaddled?”
“Yes, ran away as fast as he could,” Max continued. “I’m sure of that from the tracks he made, and only wonder how he could have done the same without you hearing him.”
“Where are his tracks?” asked Steve.
“Yes, show ’em to us, Max,” added Bandy-legs.
“Look here, and here, and here, then. You can see by the size that these footprints were made by a boy. And, yes, his shoes are just about falling to pieces in the bargain. He’s got one tied with a piece of twine, wrapped several times around.”
“Gosh! however do you know that, Max?” asked the astonished Bandy-legs.
“Why, once you learn how to read signs, it’s as easy as falling off a log,” laughed Max, as he proceeded to show them just how he figured things out.
“That’s t-t-too bad,” muttered Toby.
“Just why?” inquired Max.
“If he’d only had the n-n-nerve to step up, and m-m-make our acquaintance, there’s that bully pair of m-m-moccasins, you know, I’d like to have g-g-given him. Always pinch my t-t-toes dreadful. Just f-f-fit him, I bet,” declared Toby, who had a very warm heart.
“Well, it’s too late now, because the fellow’s far enough away by now,” commented Max.
“Perhaps we might happen to run across him some other time?” suggested Steve, consolingly.
“Like as not,” the other remarked, “and now, let’s return to the camp, and think of what we’ll have for supper. I’m as hungry as a bear, for one.”
“Same here,” declared Bandy-legs enthusiastically; for, though short of stature, he was known to have full stowage capacity when it came to disposing of appetizing food.
There was soon more or less of a bustle around the camp. Each one seemed willing to help, and from the orderly way in which they went about their several tasks it was evident that these campers had reduced things to something of a system.
And while the supper is in process of preparation it might be as well for us to learn a little more about these five lively lads.
They belonged in the town of Carson, which lay some fifteen miles to the south of the camp.
Always warm friends and chums, they had lately organized themselves into a little club, which they called the Outing Boys of Carson. The main object of this association was camping out, and having a good time generally. But Max and Owen had by degrees conceived ideas far in advance of these early plans.
It was on account of these ambitious projects that they had now come up into this wilderness where the boys of Carson were never known to penetrate before.
Max had a good home, and his cousin Owen, who was an orphan, lived with him.
Steve was the only son of the leading grocer in Carson, which fact more than once aroused the keen jealousy of Toby Jucklin, who, like Bandy-legs, never seemed able to get enough to eat.
Toby himself lived with an uncle, and perhaps this gentleman did not fully appreciate the enormous appetite of a growing boy, and failed to satisfy his needs. Besides, Nathan Jucklin was known all over that section as close-fisted, and capable of “squeezing a penny.”
Then there was Bandy-legs. Of course he had a name by which he was known among his teachers at school and at home. It was Clarence; but to every boy in town he went by the significant name of Bandy-legs.
They had come up the narrow and tortuous Evergreen River in a couple of old boats, capable of carrying all the camp material; though so leaky that frequent baling out was necessary in order to keep things dry.
Sometimes they had been able to use the oars to advantage, and cover a mile or two in pretty good fashion.
Then, again, they were compelled to use poles in order to push the boats; or, else going ashore, drag them by means of long ropes, for the rapids were swift.
It had taken them from early morning to nearly dusk to cover these fifteen-odd miles; but now that the camp was established, the tent up, the fire crackling, and supper being prepared, they forgot their tired backs and muscles.
“Hey, Max!” called out Bandy-legs, turning around from where he was attending to the bubbling coffee.
“What is it?” asked the other, who had managed to arrange a temporary rude table, a slab of wood having been brought along for the purpose. “You forgot to tell us about it, don’t you know?” the other went on. “Somehow, all the excitement about that silly kid in the bushes knocked it clean out of my head.”
“It did now, f-f-for a fact,” spoke up Toby. “So t-t-tell us what the p-p-p-p”–whistle–“prospects are, won’t you?”
Max and his cousin exchanged a quick look, after which the former placed a finger on his lips.
“Wait a little, Toby,” he said, cautiously. “When we gather around the festive board, and get our heads close together, I’ve got some bully good news to tell the bunch of you.”
“H-h-hear that, will you, boys?” remarked Toby, in more or less excitement.
“Say no more now, please. How about that coffee?” Max continued.
“S-s-she’s cooked to a turn, and I h-h-hope the rest of the g-g-grub is ready, too.”
“All right here,” announced Bandy-legs, seizing the frying pan, which was filled with potatoes, seasoned with a few onions, and hurrying over to where the low table had been arranged.
Inside of five minutes they were busily engaged disposing of the savory mess.
Five hungry lads can make away with considerable food, given the chance; but all due allowance had been made for even the astonishing appetites of Toby and Bandy-legs, when making preparations for the feast.
Once the edge was taken off their appetites, and the boys remembered the promise made by Max.
“Now tell us what luck you had, Max,” Steve asked, as he broke open a fresh paper package of crackers, and appropriated a generous portion of cheese.
“Y-y-yes, that’s the t-t-ticket!” exclaimed Toby.
“I did promise, didn’t I?” Max started out to say; “and it’s time I kept my word. You know the idea wasn’t mine at all, but came from Owen here, who had been reading up on the subject. We wanted to discover some way of earning a nice little sum of money this summer, in order to carry out certain plans we’ve got in our minds; and among all the schemes hatched up, his one struck us as the smartest.”
“Besides, it gave us just the jolliest chance to come up here and pitch camp,” asserted Steve.
“Something we’d been talking of doing for ever so long, fellows,” Bandy-legs put in.
“All of which is true,” Max went on to say. “Well, what was this bright little idea Owen sprung on us! Nothing more nor less than a treasure- hunting expedition. Only, instead of trying to unearth the gold and jewels some Captain Kidd of these Northern woods has hidden away, we expect to find something in the way of gems that no mortal eye has ever looked on up to now.”
Apparently these words of Max gave the others quite a thrill, for they exchanged looks, and their faces betrayed evidence of intense interest.
“Owen had taken a great deal of stock in this new industry of finding pearls in mussels, or fresh-water clams,” Max went on. “He managed to learn that long ago our river had been pretty well stocked with these shellfish, though the town people had eaten them up clean. But Owen believed, and I agreed with him, that some miles up-stream the chances were we might find a good lot of mussels, big fellows that had never been disturbed except by some hungry ‘coon or fox.”
“And so we just made up our minds to start out on what seemed to be an innocent camping trip,” broke in Steve, chuckling. “That would give us all the chance we wanted to see whether there was anything in this pearl- fishing business along fresh-water streams.”
“And we’re here, all right, ready for work,” remarked Bandy-legs. “Would you mind passing me that frying pan, Owen? It’s a shame to waste such a lot of tasty grub.”
“Huh! n-n-no danger,” grunted Toby, enviously.
“We had to hurry for all we were worth to get up here before dark,” Steve remarked; “for Owen said the best place would be at the junction of the two little streams that go to make the Evergreen. And so we didn’t have any chance to make a hunt on the way up.”
“But we saw lots of empty shells, you know,” broke in Bandy-legs.
“Yes, looked as if muskrats, or something like that, had been living off mussels right along,” Steve admitted.
“And so, while we made camp, our two learned leaders strolled up the river known as the Big Sunflower to see what the chances were for a crop,” Bandy-legs went on.
“Now, please make your report, Max, because, you see, we’re just burning up with anxiety to know. A whole lot depends on whether we’ve come up here on a fool’s errand or not. Did you find what you expected? Are the full shells here a-plenty?”
And, smiling at the eagerness of Steve, Max drew out several large mussels from his pockets, which he clapped upon the rude table.
“They’re here, all right, boys,” he said, earnestly, “but as to whether we’ll find any pearls in the same, that remains to be proven.”
WHAT OWEN KNEW.
“Well, I declare, is that the kind of mussel they’ve been finding pearls in?” demanded Steve Dowdy, as he took one of the long-shaped bivalves in his eager hands, the better to examine it.
“They agree with the description to a dot,” Owen replied, confidently; “and, to my mind, these seem particularly fat and promising.”
“T-t-tell me about that, now, will you?” gasped Toby, who was also examining a prize. “S-s-say, Max, why looky here, I’ve picked up these s-sort of c-c-clams many a t-time when d-diving.”
“I reckon we all have, and opened them, too, to eat,” replied Max, with a good-natured laugh; “but not being wise to the pearl racket at the time, it never struck us that we ought to examine the shellfish closely before swallowing.”
“Bet you more’n one pearl has gone down my red lane then,” grinned Bandy-legs; “because, you see, I always used to be mighty fond of fresh or pickled mussels. Say, perhaps I’m a walking jewelry shop right now, fellers. Mebbe I’m carrying around a whole pearl outfit. Wow! it makes me feel uneasy-like.”
“D-d-don’t you worry any, my b-b-boy,” broke in Toby; “no danger of anybody t-t-trying to k-k-kidnap you, even if your pouch was lined with p-p-pearls.”
“That’s wise of you to say such kind things, Toby! I’ll remember it, too,” said the other, reproachfully.
“But, see here,” remarked Steve, “what’s to hinder us from breaking open these mussels right now, and finding out if they’ve got anything worth saving sewed up inside?”
“Be sure and keep the meat, then, fellows,” broke out the boy with the crooked legs. “Two apiece all around means ten, and that ought to make a nice little dish of stewed mussels.”
“Yes, j-j-just so, for t-two,” asserted Toby.
Each boy thereupon set eagerly to work opening the pair of shellfish that had fallen to his share. Being unfamiliar with the methods employed they were doubtless all more or less clumsy. One by one they succeeded in accomplishing the task, and immediately set to work examining the contents for any sign of a prize.
Silence reigned for several minutes. Then Max addressed his four chums, inquiring:
“Are you all through?”
An affirmative answer came from each one of the others in turn.
“What luck, Owen?” asked the master of ceremonies, turning upon his cousin.
“Nothing doing here,” came the response.
“How about you, Bandy-legs?” Max went on.
“All a bluff; nary a show of color,” was the way the disappointed one made answer.
“Nixy, nothing from me. I’ve searched every particle of the blooming old things, but pearls seem to be as scarce as hens’ teeth. Perhaps these ain’t the right kind of fresh-water clams, after all.”
“Yes, they are,” replied Max; “and how is it with you, Toby?” and there seemed to be something like confidence in the way he turned to the last member of the Ranger Boys’ Club, for he had not been secretly watching Toby for nothing.
“I found only a r-r-rotten little p-p-pebble,” replied Toby.
“Let me see it, then?” asked Max.
“Oh! c-c-come now, Max, you’re j-just trying to string me. S-sure that ugly little crooked thing could never be a valuable pearl?” remonstrated Toby.
“Perhaps not, Toby, but all the same I’d like to take a look at it,” answered Max.
“Fork over, Toby,” commanded Bandy-legs, with almost too great a vein of authority in his voice.
The stutterer looked halfway belligerent; then, as if thinking better of his first desire for a wordy conflict, he passed the tiny object across the table to Max.
Both he and Owen examined it by the aid of a strong magnifying glass.
“It’s a pearl, all right,” announced Max, finally.
“Oh! joy! joy!” exclaimed Toby, ready to leap to his feet and begin a jig.
“But without any particular commercial value,” Owen said, once again freezing the enthusiasm of the stammering, excited Toby.
“All the same, it ought to encourage us to begin work dredging the Big Sunflower,” remarked Steve, as he started in to examine the first find of the expedition.
“It certainly will,” Owen declared. “But, see here, Max, what are you grinning about?”
“He’s found something in his old oyster, bet you a cooky!” ejaculated Bandy-legs, excitedly.
“Is that so, Max? Did you see our friend Toby, here, and go him one better?” asked Steve.
Max was still smiling broadly.
“You’ve got me up against the fence, fellows,” he admitted. “Caught me with the goods on, as they say. Yes, it’s a fact, I _did_ find something in that second tough old mussel shell I opened.”
“Was it really a decent pearl, Max?” pleaded Steve.
“Look for yourselves, boys, and tell me what you think.”
As he spoke, Max opened his left hand.
The action allowed a small, milk-white object, much smaller than a pea, to escape. It rolled upon the board which composed the table; and as the fire burned brightly, all of the boys could easily examine it.
One by one they picked the tiny white object up and held it at several angles, to see how the glow of the fire seemed to reflect in faint prismatic colors from its surface.
“Say, this _is_ a pearl, all right, and a jim-dandy one, too,” declared Steve, after he had had his turn at handling the discovery, “I ought to know, because my mother’s got a string of the same–left to her by an old aunt over in England.”
“Owen, what d’ye suppose it’s worth!” demanded Max, turning on his cousin.
“Well, now, you’ve got me there, fellows,” declared the bookworm. “You see everything depends on how pure and perfect it happens to be.”
“That’s a fact,” said Steve, thoughtfully, as he feasted his eyes on the little beauty. “D’ye know, fellows, I’ve always been fond of pearls. Why, when I was only a little kid my mother says I used to notice a ring my aunt wore, and would hang around her all the time, wanting to touch the pretty little gem. I reckon the old admiration still holds good.”
Steve even sighed as he reluctantly passed the new-found pearl along. Max smiled to notice how his eyes seemed to follow it.
“Well, we’ve proved one thing, sure,” remarked Bandy-legs, as he scraped the skillet carefully for the third time, evidently believing it was a sin to waste a single scrap of good food.
“Yes,” spoke up Toby, who was watching this action with signs of disapproval, for he believed he would be compelled to complete his meal with crackers and cheese; “we k-k-know now there are p-pearls in some of these b-b-blessed old m-m-m”–whistle–“mussels, there!”
“But don’t let’s get too big notions, fellows,” Owen thought fit to put in just then.
Owen was what his teacher at school always described as “conservative.” He lacked the impulsive sanguine disposition of Steve. At the same time he was no “croaker,” and far from being a “doubting Thomas.”
Owen often acted as a safety brake in connection with his chums. When some of them showed signs of rushing pellmell along the road, regardless of difficulties and unseen pitfalls, it was Owen who would gently draw them in, and counsel caution.
They looked to him as a mentor, nor were any of them in the least offended when he restrained their headlong rush.
“In what way, Owen?” asked Steve.
“You see, it’s like this,” the other went on. “From what Max and I learned, we don’t fancy there can be any great quantity of these mussels up here. Perhaps we won’t find a single one along the other little stream, which they call the Elder River.”
“How about that, Max?” asked Bandy-legs.
“It’s the simple truth. I was told we might get a few of the shellfish up along the Big Sunflower, but none in the water of the other creek,” replied the one addressed.
“H-h-how do they account f-for that?” asked Toby, always eager to learn.
“Must be something in the water that prevents mussels from breeding in the Elder,” Owen replied; and so great was the confidence those fellows placed in the knowledge of their bookworm chum that not one of them dreamed of disputing his theory.
“Go on, please,” Steve remarked. “You had it on your tongue to say something more, didn’t you, Owen?”
“Only this. We might scrape in a hundred, five hundred or a thousand shellfish, and not be able to duplicate this lovely little gem once.”
“T-t-that’s so,” observed Toby. “They s-s-say pearl hunting’s the b-b-biggest lottery in the whole w-w-world.”
Steve was sitting there with his elbows on the table, both hands holding his head, and his eyes glued on the pearl that lay between them.
“That would be a tough deal,” he muttered. “I’d give a heap to have a handful of those pretty little things. My! just to think what luck to strike one the first pop.”
“Besides,” Owen went on, lowering his voice, as he seemed to cast a quick suspicious glance to the right and to the left, “that isn’t all, fellows.”
His manner somehow thrilled Toby and Bandy-legs. Even Steve raised his head to stare at Owen, though it required an effort for him to break the strange spell the milk-white pearl seemed to have cast about him.
“Tell us what you mean, Owen,” begged the broad-shouldered young Samson, with the bowed legs.
“Yes, p-p-please do, b-because you s-s-see, we’re all worked up now.”
“Then listen, fellows,” said Owen, impressively. “It’s only fair, as Max and myself have decided, that you should know all we’ve found out.”
“That’s right,” muttered Steve. “As well as what we suspect,” Owen continued, in the same mysterious way.
Steve was so deeply impressed with the seriousness of Owen’s manner, that, perhaps unconsciously, he allowed his hand to steal over to where the double-barreled shotgun leaned against the trees, and rest confidingly upon the same.
Max had occasion to remember afterwards just how much Steve was worked up.
“Well, what was it?” asked Bandy-legs, after Owen had allowed some seconds to elapse.
“For the last half mile, when we were pushing up toward the forks of the river,” Owen went on, “we noticed that the empty shells along under the banks seemed to grow more numerous.”
“Yes, and all of us felt tickled to see it,” broke in Steve, “because it was a good sign. It told us the mussels were here, all right.”
“And it also told us,” Owen continued, “that there were a lot of little fur-bearing animals living along the stream, with a mighty strong taste for fresh-water clams.”
“As what?” asked Bandy-legs.
“Oh! mink, otter, muskrats, raccoons, and perhaps fisher. All these used to be plentiful through these parts in years gone by. I’ve heard of men trapping them, but of late it’s been lost sight of, so I reckon they’ve increased at a great rate.”
“Well, I don’t see anything about that to bother us much,” argued Steve. “I reckon there’ll be plenty for all of us. What the minks and musquash get won’t keep us from making our try, will it?”
“No,” said Owen. “But it wasn’t that I was speaking about. The fact is, we made a disagreeable discovery a little while ago, when we went out to investigate–ran across a heap of mussel shells piled up by human agency, and not through that of fur-bearing animals in search of a meal.”
The three others who heard this startling fact for the first time stared at Owen, as if hardly able to grasp the full dimensions of the calamity that threatened their pet project.
THE UNKNOWN SHELL GATHERERS.
Steve was, as usual, the first to recover from the sudden shock.
“Whew! that sounds like a tough deal, fellows!” he remarked, with a grimace. “Here we are, thinking we’ve got the field all to ourselves; and expecting to spring a big surprise on the sleepy folks of Carson when we come marching home with a pocketful of valuable fresh-water pearls, that would give the Ranger Boys all the money they need to carry out their pet plans. And squash! almost as quick as you can wink, it’s all knocked into a cocked hat. Yes, a tough deal, boys, and perhaps no more of these little beauties for us.”
He picked up the lone pearl again, as if unable to wholly resist its attractions.
“Huh! and instead of having the field all to ourselves, it looks like we might be poaching on the preserves of some other fellow.”
Bandy-legs gave voice to his bitter disappointment after this fashion.
“T-t-too bad,” muttered Toby, who seemed to feel that upon an occasion like this every member of the club ought to allow himself to be heard.
“Say,” broke out Steve, suddenly, “perhaps it’s that little prowler Toby sighted spying on the camp?”
“I wonder!” exclaimed Bandy-legs, his face lighting up with new interest.
“Perhaps the boy may have some connection with the gathering of the shells,” Owen went on, “but it was a man’s big footprint we saw alongside the pile of empties when we struck a match.”
“What do you think about it, Max?” suddenly asked Steve, turning around to stare at the one he addressed.
Max had apparently seemed quite content to let his cousin do the talking, for he had remained quiet during this discussion.
Upon being directly appealed to, however, he was not at all backward about replying.
“I’ve been doing a heap of thinking since Owen and myself examined that pile of shells,” he started in to say, “and if you care to hear the conclusion I’ve come to, all right.”
“You b-b-better b-b-believe we do, Max,” was Toby’s immediate explosion.
“Don’t hold back a thing,” observed Steve; “because we’re all dyed-in-the- wool chums; and what concerns one concerns all.”
“Cough it up, Max. We’re holding our breath, you understand, wanting to know. And none of us come from Missouri, either,” Bandy-legs observed, eagerly.
Max smiled at the expressive way his comrades had of urging him on. Nor could he fail to be deeply touched by their confidence in his ability to fathom the puzzle.
“I took occasion to examine some of those empty shells by the light of other matches,” he continued; “and on many of them I was surprised to find plain marks of small teeth!”
“Wow! I’m g-g-getting on to what you’re going to spring on us!” exclaimed Toby, whose wits were not slow, if his speech had that affliction.
“I don’t believe any of those mussels had been opened by human hands,” Max went on to boldly declare. “Whoever is up here must be collecting them just for the sake of the mother of pearl. You know, I suppose, that these shells are used for making pearl buttons and such things?”
“Yes, they are worth so much a hundred pounds,” remarked Owen. “The price is high enough to pay some men for collecting them when they can be found in any decent quantities.”
“Then, Max, you don’t think these parties are onto the pearl racket–is that it?” asked Steve.
“Honest Injun, boys, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached after studying it out. They are just collecting the empty shells, and never dreaming how one little pearl like this would be worth perhaps a full ton of shells.” And Max took the prize from Steve, who seemed a bit reluctant to let it go.
Max had apparently made up his mind as to what would be a safe hiding place for the little beauty.
All of them watched him wrap the pearl in a wad of pink cotton, deposit this in a small cardboard box about two inches long by one wide, and half as thick; which, in turn, was carefully thrust into a haversack hanging from the center pole of the tent.
That same haversack was used as a “ditty” bag. All sorts of small articles, likely to prove useful in camp, were deposited in its capacious depths. And when anything was wanted, the boys usually searched in this leather pocket before proceeding to any trouble.
“A snug nest for our first prize, eh?” Bandy-legs took occasion to remark, as he watched how carefully Max pushed the little packet down into the depths of this depository.
“It sure ought to be safe there,” Steve declared, with a sigh as of genuine relief.
“Nothing could happen to it, with five fellows sleeping around. And Max is so ready to wake up that he’d even hear a cat moving,” Owen remarked, with a laugh.
“Do you expect we’ll have any trouble with these pearl-shell gatherers, Max?” Steve demanded.
“I hope not,” was the ready reply. “We don’t expect to interfere with their business at all. Fact is, we’d just as lief turn over what shells we gather to these parties to pay for trespassing on their preserves.”
“But not the pearls we find–if so be we’re lucky enough to run across more?” flashed Steve.
“Surely not,” Max answered, sturdily. “They don’t own this country; and I’m sure they’ve got no lease on the waters of the Big Sunflower. So we have just as much right up here as they do. But we’re a peaceable crowd, you know; that’s one of the leading rules in the constitution of the Ranger Boys’ Club.”
“Yes,” chuckled Bandy-legs, “we’re set on having peace even if we have to fight for it.”
“Well,” put in Toby, aggressively, “all I c-c-can s-s-say is, they’d b-b-better think twice before t-t-trying to bother our crowd. We’re only b-boys, but we’ve got rights.”
“Hear! hear!” broke out Bandy-legs, clapping his hands as if to encourage the speaker.
“And we know how to s-s-stand up f-for ’em,” wound up Toby, shutting his teeth hard on the last word, and looking very determined.
“You bet we will,” remarked Steve. “I’d just like to see anybody have the nerve to try and steal that bully little gem we’ve captured first pop. My stars! don’t I hope we’ll have the mate to it in short order.”
Presently the talk drifted to other things connected with their home life in Carson. The names of several boys were mentioned; and from the way Bandy-legs and Toby expressed opinions of those same school fellows, it appeared that they suspected the others of having watched their movements of late.
“Lucky we played that fine trick,” the former declared, “and started on our up-river voyage before daybreak, while Ted Shafter, Amiel Toots, Shack Beggs, and the rest of the gang were tucked away in their little trundle beds fast asleep.”
“S-s-say, don’t you b-b-believe there was a high j-j-jinks of a time to-day when Ted f-f-found we’d slipped away, and nobody knew where?”
“But they know we had boats,” remarked Max, “because we caught one of the crowd spying on us. That’s why we had to keep our stuff under lock and key, with old Stump Griggs to watch it.”
“Yes,” complained Steve, bitterly, “because a fellow as mean as Ted is wouldn’t stop a minute if he found a chance to upset our plans. Ten to one the prowler old Stump scared away night before last was Ted himself; and I wouldn’t put it past that bad egg to burn the boathouse down, just to get even with our crowd.”
“But the Outing Boys don’t scare worth a cent,” declared Bandy-legs, given to boasting a little more than any of his chums.
“Oh, well!” observed Max, cheerfully, “we expect to hide our boats in the morning, you know, and perhaps, even if Ted and his scrappers do work up along this way, they won’t find us. If we’re wading in the river searching for mussels we’re apt to hear them coming in time to get away.”
“Guess you’re right there, Max,” said Owen.
“Sure thing,” remarked Bandy-legs. “There ain’t a time but what some of Tad’s crowd are snapping at each other to beat the band. Every little while a fight is on the carpet. Takes Tad half the time keeping peace in the family.”
“Huh!” chuckled Steve. “I’ve seen him do it by knocking down both of the scrappers, just as neat as you please. Ted likes that way of keeping the peace. It gives him exercise, you see, and makes the fellow respect him more ‘n more.”
The supper tins were washed, and for quite a long time the five boys sat around the crackling fire, talking, writing in their note books, and amusing themselves in many ways.
It was no longer dark.
A moon, slightly past the full, had crept above the horizon before they finished supper; and while the trees prevented those in camp from getting all the benefit of this fine sky lantern, for the most part the shadows that lurked in the woods were banished.
Finally some of the boys began to show signs of sleepiness. Toby was yawning about every minute, while Bandy-legs rubbed his eyes and stretched himself, like a tired boy nearly always does.
“Guess it’s about time we turned in, fellows,” Max declared, himself feeling the effect of getting up at three o’clock in the morning in order to leave town before peep of dawn.
“That’s what I say,” agreed Bandy-legs. “I’m sore all over from poling that clumsy old boat up-river. And once I hit the straw you’ll never hear a peep from me till morning.”
“Move we adjourn!” sang out Toby, so suddenly that he actually neglected to stammer.
“All in favor say ‘Aye’!” Max proceeded to observe; and immediately a chorus of approval was the signal to send them hurrying into the tent.
Ten minutes later and silence rested all over the camp on the Big Sunflower. A hungry raccoon came prowling around, eager to pick up what crumbs had fallen from their table. The big moon climbed higher and higher in the clear sky, and, mounting above the tops of the trees to the east, looked down, and smiled upon the peaceful scene.
Max was a light sleeper, just as one of his comrades had declared.
No matter how sound his slumber appeared to be, if there happened to be any unusual movement in the camp it was sure to arouse him.
He did not know just how long he had been dead to the world at the time something moving caused him to open his eyes.
The moon had climbed so high that he knew some hours must have passed.
Yes, there was certainly some one moving about in the tent. Max, of course, first of all thought of Ted Shafter and his cronies, and wondered if, after all, the rival Carson crowd could have found them out.
Next his thoughts flew to the unknown shell gatherers, and a suspicion that perhaps one of them had invaded the camp, bent on stealing the valuable pearl, filled his mind.
This caused Max to raise his head, and turn his eyes toward the tent pole where the haversack containing the precious pearl hung.
Sure enough, there _was_ some one standing there, and actually fumbling with the bag.
To the intense surprise of Max he recognized the dimly seen figure.
It was Steve.
A PUZZLER FOR MAX.
Max could hardly believe his eyes.
It seemed so remarkable for Steve to be examining the haversack at this midnight hour.
Perhaps the other had been dreaming, and as the pearl was much in his mind he may have gotten up to ascertain whether the little package still reposed safely in the pouch?
Max came to this conclusion as he lay there and watched.
Steve seemed to give a satisfied grunt presently. Then he turned away, stepped gingerly over the forms of Bandy-legs and Toby, bent down for a few seconds, as if fumbling with his clothes, and still muttering to himself, finally crawled under his own blanket.
Max was chuckling as he dropped back on his rude pillow made of leaves that had been crammed into a flour sack.
“Guess Steve is deeper in this pearl business than the rest of us,” he muttered, “since he has to climb out of a warm blanket just to make sure nobody’s got away with our first prize. Well, he’s welcome to stand guard. Me to get some more sleep.”
So little impression did the circumstance make upon Max’s mind that in less than five minutes he had drifted away once more to the borders of slumberland.
In the morning it was Owen who awakened the balance of the campers.
“Here, suppose you fellows show a leg, and take a dip in the creek,” he announced, poking his head into the tent.
“I smell bacon!” cried Bandy-legs, as he sat up hurriedly.
“And that must sure be the odor of c-c-coffee that comes s-s-stealing in here!” declared Toby, bounding erect.
Soon the four were floundering about in the cool waters of the Big Sunflower.
They did not prolong their bath because Owen had declared breakfast almost ready. As Bandy-legs remarked, they could take a dip at any old time; but breakfasts only cropped up once in every twenty-four hours.
And, hence, it was not long before they were seated around the table, enjoying the bacon and fried eggs, hominy and coffee, that the cook of the morning had provided; flanked by an abundance of home-made bread and country butter.
The conversation turned from one subject to another. First it was the chance of their being discovered and annoyed by the crowd that ran with Ted Shafter. Then came talk of the mysterious shell gatherers, whose secret industry the sudden coming of the Ranger Boys might interfere with.
Max was several times tempted to bring up the subject of the pearl, just to find an opportunity for asking Steve if it had been a bad dream that sent him from his warm blanket to make sure the little packet was safe.
Then he decided to hold back just a little longer, and let one of the others start the ball rolling.
No doubt Steve would volunteer a satisfactory explanation without being prodded, given time.
Sure enough, it was Bandy-legs who brought the conversation around to the subject of the pearl.
He and Toby seemed to disagree as to the size of the prize, the latter stubbornly insisting that it was as large as a little marble.
“Aw! rats! What is getting you, Toby!” exclaimed Bandy-legs, in disgust. “Sure you must have been dreaming over it, and things have been growing all night. I tell you it was smaller’n a pea even.”
“R-r-reckon I know,” grumbled Toby, as stubborn as he could be; “and I’ll b-b-believe it till you p-p-prove the other way.”
So, of course, Bandy-legs, feeling that he had been challenged, sprung to his feet.
“I’ll do it, then, just to show you!” he exclaimed, as he made for the opening of the tent.
A minute later they heard him grumbling and growling within. Then his voice came welling forth:
“Was I dreaming, or did I see you put that thing in this haversack?”
“You sure saw me, Bandy-legs,” replied Max, feeling a queer burning sensation dart all over his flesh, as though a suspicion of coming trouble suddenly took possession of him.
“You tucked it away in pink cotton, didn’t you?” demanded the one inside the tent.
“That’s what he d-d-did,” answered Toby, before Max could speak.
“And say, Max, did you take her out again?” asked Bandy-legs, reproachfully.
“I did not,” answered Max, firmly.
He shot a glance toward Steve. That individual seemed to be staring, just as the others were. Max could discover not the faintest indication on his part of amusement. Indeed, he even looked indignant and aroused.
“Well, all I c’n say then, is, it’s mighty funny,” Bandy-legs kept on repeating.
“Can’t you find the little cardboard box?” called out Max.
“Not any; I tell you it ain’t here!” came in reply.
“Oh! s-s-shucks! you n-n-need a pair of specs I g-g-guess, Bandy!” jeered Toby.
“Fetch the bag out here,” ordered Max; and as he was the recognized head of the club, his word in a case of this kind was law.
The broad-shouldered boy quickly hove in sight. He was carrying the leather haversack; and his face seemed puckered up in a frown.
“Specs, nothing!” he snapped. “Just you ram your paw inside, Toby Jucklin, and let’s see how much better you c’n succeed.”
Of course, being thus challenged, Toby felt in honor bound to make the trial.
Everyone watched with rapidly growing interest; and when Max stole another look at Steve he was more puzzled than before.
Was Steve trying to play a trick on his chums; or could it be possible that the strong fascination which he admitted pearls always had for him was tempting him to deceive his comrades?
Max hated to even allow such a suspicion to gain lodgment in his mind; but after what he had seen, how could he help it?
He determined to say nothing to anyone, not even his cousin Owen, but just watch developments.
Of course Toby’s confidence quickly gave way to something akin to dismay. He seemed to rattle the contents of the bag around again and again, but apparently without success.
“Well,” scoffed Bandy-legs, realizing that it was his turn to crow, “why don’t you produce the goods, Toby? You said I needed specs, didn’t you? The first pair we find floating down the Big Sunflower goes on _your_ nose. Why don’t you show up? Let’s see that little cardboard box.”
Toby withdrew his hand.
He seemed about to try and peer within the leather pouch when the voice of Max stopped him.
“Turn it inside out, Toby!” said the leader, quietly.
“Yes, dump everything on the table. That’s the ticket!”
It was Steve himself who said this.
If he was playing a joke Steve certainly knew how to keep a straight face. He looked eager, indignant, even alarmed; but Max could see not one single sign of secret laughter. Even his eyes, those tell-tale orbs by which the secret thoughts are so often betrayed, failed to disclose the twinkle Max fully expected to find.
Toby obeyed instructions.
Quite a motley collection of various things that were apt to prove useful rattled on the rough board table as he held the pouch up by two corners.
The little cardboard box was missing.
Toby, as if to make the matter so positive that there could be no mistake, even turned the bag inside out.
“She’s gone, fellows!” ejaculated Steve, hoarsely. “After all our boasting some sly thief has crept right into our midst, and got away with our little beauty! It’s rotten luck, that’s what I say. And for the life of me I don’t see how he ever did it.”
Max opened his mouth, as though the temptation to speak was more than he could stand; but he closed it quickly again.
“I’ll wait and see what his little game is,” he kept saying to himself. “If it’s a trick, I never believed Steve would be guilty of such a thing. And he’s carrying it out just like he meant it, too.”
The others were beginning to turn their eyes in the direction of Max.
“You’ve always been such a light sleeper, Max; how is it you didn’t hear the thief creep in, and search our bag?” Bandy-legs asked.
Max shrugged his shoulders.
“All I can say, fellows, is that I only woke up once during the night, thinking I heard some one moving about. But I give you my word there was no one in the tent then who didn’t belong here.”
Max was looking straight at Steve when he said these words. He really expected to see the other turn red with confusion, perhaps laugh a little, and then in his usual frank way acknowledge that he had taken the pearl just to give his chums a little shock.
To the surprise of Max he saw no such sign of guilt upon the face of his friend. Apparently, for some reason or other, Steve meant to brazen it out.
Remembering how the other had seemed to be so strangely fascinated by the handsome pearl, made Max shiver a little, he hardly knew why.
“We all saw you put it in the bag, Max,” declared Bandy-legs.
“I tell you what let’s do,” said Owen. “Perhaps some fellow is bent on playing a joke on the rest of us. Let’s settle that point so we won’t ever think of it again.”
“G-g-good idea, Owen. You r-r-run the g-game to suit yourself,” piped up the eager Toby.
“Shall I repeat a form of assertion, Max, to which each one of us will subscribe?” asked Owen, with his customary readiness.
“Certainly; and put it up to me first,” replied his cousin.
“Then here goes. I hereby affirm that to the best of my knowledge and belief I’ve neither seen nor handled that little cardboard box containing our pearl since the time Max dropped the same in this bag. How is it with you, Max; can you truthfully declare the same thing?”
“I can, and hereby do so affirm,” replied the other, solemnly.
“Bandy-legs, hold up your hand,” Owen went on.
“Sure thing. Now put me to the test,” flashed the broad-shouldered boy, as he quickly raised his hand.
“The other one, Bandy-legs, your right hand. There, that’s the ticket. Do you solemnly give your word the same as Max and myself did, that you haven’t seen or handled that little box since it was dropped in this bag by my cousin?”
“I never have,” replied the one on the stand.
“Toby, how is it with you?” Owen kept on.
“I s-s-say exactly the same. So far as I k-know I haven’t seen, h-handled or even s-smelled that little b-b-box since Max hid it in h-h-here. I’m completely f-f-f-f”–whistle–“flabbergasted at finding it gone.”
“And Steve, what about you?” Owen asked.
Max Hastings was more bewildered than ever when he heard the one he had positively see fumbling at the leather bag while the others slept promptly declare:
“So far as I know, fellows, I’ve never seen or handled that little box since Max took it off this table and stuck it in the bag. And that’s my sworn affidavy, believe me!”
THE FIRST CROP FROM THE RIVER.
After that strange declaration on the part of Steve, Max felt that his lips must be sealed more than ever.
He wanted a little time to think things over.
Besides, Max even began to wonder whether he could have just dreamed that he saw Steve fumbling at the haversack in the middle of the night, and mumbling to himself all the while.
So he concluded to hold his tongue, say nothing of what he _believed_ he had seen, watch Steve closely, and wait for new developments to arise.
Boys are, as a rule, not much given to long spells of depression.
There is something in the natural buoyancy of a lad’s nature that throws off the gloom, and invites the cheery sunlight to enter.
So the whole five were soon eagerly planning as to their work for the day. First of all the two old boats which had served to carry them up to the forks of the Evergreen River must be securely hidden. This was mainly on account of those prank-loving boys who, under the leadership of the town bully, Ted Shafter, they half expected to follow them to this region.
“If they ever came across our boats,” declared Steve, wrathfully, “you all know what would happen.”
“Easy enough to smash in the bottoms with a few big dornicks,” declared Bandy-legs.
“Huh! And m-m-make us peg it all the w-w-way b-back to town,” grunted Toby, who was not known as a great admirer of leg exercise.
“All right, then,” said Max, promptly; “you and Bandy-legs better get busy taking the boats to that big cove where the tall reeds grow so thick. Seems to me you ought to be able to hide our craft so well there, the chances of discovery would be next to nothing.”
“We c’n do it all right,” affirmed Bandy-legs, as he started up. “Come on, Toby, get a move on you.”
“Wait a minute, c-c-can’t you? What’s your h-h-hurry. R-r-rome wasn’t built in a d-day, I g-g-guess.”
“Well, go ahead and have it out, because I can see you’ve got something on your mind. Now, what’s eating you, Toby?” the other complained.
“I only w-wanted to ask Max if it wouldn’t be g-g-ood p-p-p-p”–whistle–“policy for us to mark the place where we leave the boats. There! do you get that, Bandy-legs?”
Toby asked this question triumphantly. Strange to say, that whenever he stumbled most in his speech, so that he was compelled to halt, and give that short whistle, Toby was able to finish what he was saying without a single hitch.
Steve often declared it reminded him of a country railroad crossing. There you beheld the warning sign: “Stop! Look! Listen!” and upon complying immediately heard the whistle, after which everything moved on smoothly.
“Toby, that’s a sensible suggestion of yours,” Max hastened to declare. “If so be you hide the boats away so well that we couldn’t ever find the same again we’d sure be in a nice pickle, eh, Owen?”
“I should remark,” the one addressed replied; “that tramp to Carson would be anything but a peach. And with all our camp stuff to tote along, too.”
“Excuse me!” Bandy-legs exclaimed. “Make sure we’ll mark the place, boys. Now, get a move on, Toby. Where will we find the rest of you when we get through our job?”
“Oh! somewhere around here,” Max replied. “You see we’ve got a big job ourselves, taking down the tent, putting it up again some distance away from the water, removing every sign of our having camped here, and then disappearing. You’ll be back long before we’re done.”
His prediction was fulfilled, for when half an hour later Toby and his companion showed up, the tent had vanished, Steve and Owen were carrying blankets, food, and cooking utensils deeper into the woods, while Max was working like a beaver close to the water’s edge.
“What’s going on now, Max?” asked Bandy-legs, as he watched the actions of his chum.
“I’m doing my best to wipe out all the ‘sign’ we’ve made around here,” replied Max.
“And it looks to me like you’re doing a good job of it, too, partner,” declared the other, his eyes filled with admiration, as he saw how deftly Max smoothed out all traces of where the boats had been pulled up on the pebbly shore of the river.
“Oh, well, I’m only a greenhorn at this sort of thing,” laughed the busy worker, patting a telltale footprint until it was merged with the surrounding soil; “I’d be reckoned a bungler by any experienced woodsman, you know. But in this case it’s an easy job to pull the wool over the eyes of Ted and his crowd.”
“Meaning that they’re about as ignorant of all these things as I am?” Bandy-legs went on.
“Perhaps. But that won’t be for long, let me tell you. I’m bound to show you everything I know about these things, and pick up more myself in the bargain. Did you get the boats hidden away all right, Bandy-legs?”
“Gilt-edge, I give you my word. And we tied some of the reeds together near the spot. Only a feller who was lookin’ for the tag’d notice where we did it. Toby or me, why we could go straight to the spot, with only one eye open.”
“All right. Then suppose you get busy helping Steve and Owen. Nobody must step back here again to leave fresh tracks after I’ve rubbed these all out.”
Max continued to work as steadily as a beaver. Step by step he retreated backward, removing all traces left by the campers.
It was an arduous task, especially when he came to where the tent and fire had stood. But really the boy proved to have a natural talent for this sort of thing. He utterly removed all the ashes, scattered some brush over the spot, and at the end of an hour Max stood on the border of the dense woods casting a last careful look over the field of his recent labors.
“I ought to pat myself on the back over that job,” he chuckled; “and it wouldn’t be throwing any bouquets either. Ten to one Ted Shafter and his gang could land here, cook a meal, and lie around, without ever once dreaming we’d spent a night on the same camp ground.”
Then he withdrew from the scene of his recent operations.
Picking his way through the woods, after a time he heard voices, and then discovered the tent.
The new camp site had been selected by Owen, and it certainly did him credit. Max stood for a few minutes watching his chums work, and smiling with pleasure over the prospect of a full week or more in that delightful secluded spot.
Trees grew densely around the place, and until one drew very near, it was next to impossible to discover the dingy old waterproof tent that nestled in the midst of the thick undergrowth.
A clear little gurgling spring sang close by, affording all the water they would need for drinking and cooking purposes.
But, as Max stood and looked, the happy smile gradually left his face, to be succeeded by an expression of grave concern.
As he was watching the movements of Steve at the time, it could be easily understood what pressed upon his mind.
“Oh, come, this won’t do at all,” Max presently muttered, pressing his teeth together resolutely. “It’s all going to come out right, sooner or later. Of course it looks mighty queer just now, and I can’t for the life of me understand it; but I’ve known Steve all my life, and he’s never yet been called a _thief!_ I’ll just bottle up, and hold my horses, and watch what he does, because I’m bound to find out.”
So he strode into the new camp, walking all around, and quite free with his hearty compliments concerning the fine way Owen and Steve had done their part of the business.
“But looky here,” burst out the impatient Steve, after a while, “we’re wasting time, you know. Some of us might as well be up the river gathering a few pecks of mussels.”
“T-t-that’s so,” declared Toby. “And it’s up to Max to s-s-say who goes out f-f-first.”
“Suppose, then, Steve and myself lead off, and make the first try,” Max suggested. He had a double object in nominating Steve as his working partner on this occasion. In the first place he knew the impatient nature of the fiery lad, and that his heart was more set upon the finding of other pearls like unto the lost one than any of the others.
This was not all.
Having Steve in his company for a couple of hours would give Max a good chance to study the other closely.
Perhaps, too, if Steve were really playing a practical joke on his comrades he might, without meaning to do so, let a hint drop that would serve to betray the object he had in view.
“Here, don’t forget the bags we fetched along to carry the mussels in,” said Bandy-legs.
“And I h-h-hope I g-g-get a chance to make a t-t-try this afternoon,” remarked Toby, not a little disappointed because he had been passed over when Max selected the one to accompany him on the first hunting expedition.
So the two boys walked off, taking with them a couple of bags. Max also thought it wise to shoulder the reliable old shotgun.
“It isn’t the game season, I know,” he said, as the others looked their surprise, “and about the only thing we ought to shoot right now would be woodcock. I saw a marsh where I reckon I’ll find some of the long-billed mud diggers. You know they get their food by sticking their bills deep down in the mud. That’s why you always look for woodcock in a wet spot or marsh. Ready, Steve? All right, we’ll make another start.”
About twenty minutes later the two boys had reached the bank of the little river, half a mile or so above their first camp site.
They lost no time, but set to work at once, removing shoes and socks, and rolling the legs of their trowsers above their knees.
Then, with selected, sharp-pointed sticks, after wading into the shallow water, they began to poke carefully around in all such promising places as mussels would most likely be found.
Steve gave the first triumphant cry.
“I’ve got one, Max! And say, he’s just a jim-dandy big fellow, too, believe me! Now, I wonder if he’s going to present us with the mate of that little beauty of a pearl we lost so queerly.”
Max was watching his chum closely.
“He says that just as naturally as if he meant every word of it,” the boy muttered; puzzled more than ever; and then raising his voice he went on to say: “You’ll just have to take it out in guessing, then, old chap, because we can’t bother stopping to open every find we come across.”
“I should say not,” replied Steve, and immediately added: “Hey! what d’ye think, here’s another of the blessed old shellfish, just poking his nose out of the sand like he wanted to invite me to gather him in.”
“Good enough! I haven’t picked up my first one yet; and here you’re walking away from me double-quick. Guess I’d better get busy.”
The truth was Max had been so wrapped up in watching his chum that as yet he had hardly tried to make a find.
But he now set industriously to work. There were times when the mussels came in fast; and again they seemed to fall off.
Gradually the boys worked up-stream, crossing and recrossing as they searched.
“We’re covering the ground all right,” asserted Steve, as his laugh announced another prize; “and believe me, we clean ’em out as we go. How many have you got in your bag, Max?”
“About nine or ten, I reckon, Steve.”
“I’ve got fourteen, and some busters among ’em. I’ll be pretty badly disappointed if one out of the lot don’t turn out a good milk-white pearl,” the other called out.
“Perhaps it’d be better not to mention that word so loud again, Steve,” cautioned the other.
“Are you saying that just on general principles like, Max, or is there a reason?” and Steve, as he made this demand, splashed closer to his chum.
“Oh, well!” Max went on, “you know they say that sometimes even the trees and rocks have ears. And we don’t know who might be hiding around, watching us right now.”
“Did you see or hear anything to make you think that way?” asked the nervous Steve.
“Can’t say I did,” replied Max; “but I thought it good policy to sling my gun over my back by the strap, and not leave it ashore. Sorry now I brought it along; but we don’t want it stolen like our pearl was.”
“That’s right, we don’t,” asserted Steve, without the slightest hesitation. “If these shell gatherers have got the nerve to sneak into our tent and make way with our first pearl, I reckon they wouldn’t hold back at taking a good old scatter-gun that chanced to be lying around loose.”
“Let’s get busy again, Steve.”
“Right-o! I’d like to make my score an even two dozen before we meander back to camp for lunch. And I s’pose the other feller’s ‘ll want to have a try next time. Anyhow, you and me can be amusing ourselves opening these mossbacks, and finding out what’s inside.”
Half an hour later Max called a halt. As Steve had only twenty-three mussels in his bag he did hate to give up the work the worst kind; but the demands of his appetite made him willing to return to the camp.
“They’re heavy enough to tote along,” Steve admitted when almost there. “And, after all, you had no use for your gun, Max.”
“I’ll slip over to the marsh this P. M., and see what luck I can have,” returned the other.
“There’s the camp, with Owen cooking dinner. But look at Bandy-legs, would you, Max? He sure acts as if he’d run up against some hard nut to crack!”
BANDY-LEGS WANTS TO KNOW.
“Say, I wonder what next is going to disappear around this old camp?” Bandy-legs was saying in a disgusted tone, as the two who had been over to the river drew near.
“Why, what do you miss now?” asked Max.
“You remember that old cap we found last night?” the other went on.
“Why of course I do,” Max replied. “Do you mean to say you kept it?”
“Well, I had an idea I’d give it back to the poor feller if ever we ran across him,” Bandy-legs continued, for he was really a warm-hearted boy, as his chums well knew; “and when we came here to this new camp I remember as plain as anything sticking that same old cap on the end of this bush that grows to a point. Then just now I noticed it was gone.”
“That’s as sure as the nose on your face, Bandy-legs,” remarked Steve.
“Now don’t you go to making fun of my nose,” the other retorted. “It’s a good, honest nose, if it is big. And it never yet made a habit of sticking itself in other people’s business. That’s the way with all Griffin noses; they mind their own affairs every time.”
Max knew there was danger of an argument, because Steve was likely to take this as a challenge. Therefore, to promote peace, Max thrust himself between the other two.
“Have you asked Owen and Toby about it?” he inquired of Bandy-legs.
“Sure I did, right away,” came the answer.
“And they denied touching it?” Max went on, determined to sift the matter down, trifling though it might appear to be at first sight.
“Both of ’em declared they’d never even been near this same old bush,” the other replied.
“That looks queer,” Steve broke in.
“Owen did say he saw the old cap just where I stuck it,” Bandy-legs continued.
“How long ago, Owen?” demanded Max.
“Oh, I should say half an hour or so. I happened to look that way and got quite a start, because at first I thought it was somebody watching us. Then when I saw how Bandy-legs had fixed it on the bush I had to laugh.”
“Mebbe the wind carried it away,” suggested Steve.
“That’s so; I never once thought of that,” ejaculated the puzzled one, eagerly clutching at a straw that promised to explain the mystery.
“How about it, Max?” asked Steve.
“Well, your idea sounds all right, Steve, but unfortunately it has one weak place.”
“As what, now?” asked Bandy-legs. “Why, there hasn’t been a breath of wind all the morning,” Max went on, with a chuckle. “I remember wishing it would come up, for the sun was sure something fierce when we were wading about, looking for clams.”
“You’re right, Max,” called out Owen, who could easily hear all that was said, “no breeze ever carried that cap away, and I know it.”
“What did, then?” demanded Bandy-legs, bent on getting some sort of solution to the puzzle.
“This old country must be hoaxed or bewitched, I guess,” grumbled Steve. “Things just seem able to disappear without anybody taking ’em. First we had to lose our bully little pearl that just took my eye; and now even a ragged old cap has to walk off by itself.”
“Oh, not quite so bad as that, I think, Steve.” Max laughed as he said this. “When that cap went away it was through the agency of legs, according to my notion,”
“Oh, I see now what Max means!” cried Bandy-legs; “he believes some gay old mother squirrel just took a notion to line her nest with that ragged cap, and made off with it.”
“Rats!” exclaimed Steve; “Max don’t think anything of the kind. See him examining the ground right now, will you? I reckon he thinks that same runt of a boy came back after his cap, and got it, too, in the bargain.”
At that Max laughed aloud.
“Good guess, Steve, old chap. That’s just what happened, and if you look where I point, all of you can see the same small footprint we found last night where the old cap lay.”
“He’s right, fellows, for here it is!” cried Steve.
They all had to crowd around for a look, although Max warned them to be careful, so that the impression of the boy’s ragged shoe might not be trodden upon.
“Well, just to t-t-think what b-b-bright fellers we are,” said Toby, in apparent disgust; “when even a r-r-runt of a boy c’n steal up and s-s-spy on us without a b-b-blessed one knowing it.”
“Huh!” grunted Bandy-legs, who seemed in a peculiar frame of mind for one who was usually so good natured, “who’s got a better right to that cap, I’d like to know, than the boy that owns it. Put yourself in his place, Toby, and tell me if you wouldn’t just grab your own cap if you saw it? Course you would–we all would, and I don’t blame the kid a little bit.”
“Too bad he didn’t like the looks of our crowd,” Steve remarked.
“What makes you think he didn’t?” Owen asked, smiling.
“Well, he acted like he was afraid of us,” replied Steve.
“T-t-tell you what, boys, I reckon it wasn’t our looks, after all, that s-s-scared him, though Bandy-legs does resemble a terrible p-p-pirate when he wears that old zebra s-s-sweater of his.”
“Then what did?” demanded the one who had been thus picked out as a special mark, while he ran a hand fondly up and down the sleeve of the white-and-black striped garment, worn in spite of the heat of the day.
“Our g-g-guns!” broke out Toby triumphantly.
“That’s a good guess, Toby,” remarked Max. “Perhaps the boy believes we’re some sort of deputy sheriffs, and up here to give the man he’s with trouble. Anyhow, I have a pretty good idea myself that it was our guns that made him so shy.”
“All right,” remarked Steve, “the pitcher may go to the well once too often. You mark my words, if he keeps on sniffing around our camp much longer he’ll get caught.”
“Sure he will,” echoed Bandy-legs, grimly. “We want that pearl back, don’t we, boys?”
“And we’re going to have it, too,” observed another of the group, in a positive way.
Max had that queer feeling pass over him again; for it was Steve who made this half-angry remark.
What could it mean?
He had always believed Steve to be as honest as the day was long, his only faults being a hasty temper, and a desire to do things without sufficient preparation.
But that the boy would deliberately _steal_, simply because he happened to be fascinated by the beauty of the pearl, seemed beyond belief.
No wonder, then, that the bewildered Max sighed, and rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, as though hardly knowing whether he were awake or asleep.
As nothing more could be done, the five boys adjourned to the camp, where Owen quickly completed his preparations for lunch. They had decided to have the heavy meal, called dinner, in the evening, so that the work of the day might not be interfered with.
When those who had been off hunting shellfish had returned, tired with their labors, it would be nice to gather around, and take their time in enjoying the bountiful meal that had been prepared by the cook appointed for that day.
Each of them expected to take a hand at this necessary job. In anticipation of the opportunity to shine as a talented _chef_ Bandy-legs had in secret been coaxing the hired girl at home to teach him a lot of things.
As his turn would come on the second day, he could hardly restrain his impatience. He surely calculated that when his chums saw what wonderful things _real talent_ could accomplish, they would easily vote him a prize.
But Bandy-legs had much to learn.
His ambition was all right, but he would soon discover the vast difference between cooking at a gas range or the family coal stove and trying to accomplish the same result out in the wilds over an open wood fire.
Then, again, he had stuffed his head so very full of different recipes that the chances were poor Bandy-legs must get the formulas mixed, which would result in some mighty queer messes to be tried upon his patient campmates.
After the meal was finished those who were to do the grand wading act of the afternoon got ready to go forth.
They took the bags, and received minute directions from Max concerning the best way for finding the mussels, half buried as they were in mud or sand.
Max also made a rude map on paper, taking in the supposed course of the winding river, as well as the country that came between.
“Here you can see the trail I’ve marked as the shortest cut to camp,” he finished, pointing to a dotted line that seemed to be almost straight. “It runs exactly southwest, you notice, boys.”
“But how are we going to always know what _is_ southwest?” asked Bandy-legs, receiving the chart.
At that Toby gave a snort of disdain.
“W-w-what d’ye s’pose this is for, s-s-silly?” he demanded, dangling a little nickel-plated object before the eyes of his companion.
“That’s right, we’re going to have the bully little compass along with us,” declared the doubting one, looking considerably relieved; for truth to tell, if Bandy-legs feared any one thing more than another, it was the haunting idea of being lost in a great big wilderness, and meeting a slow and dreadful death through starvation.
“And even if we should l-l-lose this useful t-t-trinket,” continued Toby, exultantly, “I’d know how to t-t-tell which was north, all right.”
“Huh! why, of course, by the moss on the sides of the trees,” observed Bandy-legs. “Guess I heard Max tell that, all right. Never forget it, either. But how the dickens is a feller to ever remember _which_ side of the big trees this moss always grows on?”
“Stop and think,” said Max, who had an idea that some day this information might be useful to his chum; “the hard storms of winter generally come out of the northwest, don’t they?”
“Reckon you’re right; though to tell the truth I’d never noticed it much,” Bandy-legs replied.
“Well, you want to wake up and notice everything that happens,” advised Max, seriously. “It’s the fellow who keeps awake, and sees and hears it all, that gets on in this world, Bandy-legs. And you know it, too.”
“Sure. I know my weak points, Max; and the best thing about me is the fact that I want to wake up and do better. But about that moss–does it always grow exactly on the sides of the trees pointing toward the northwest?”
“In the majority of cases,” replied the other; “here and there it may vary some, but anybody with half an eye can decide the right direction. Then in the night you have the north star, which you know can always be found by drawing an imaginary straight line along the two stars forming the end of the bowl of the Dipper, generally called the Great Bear.”
“Oh! that’s easy. But once I heard you say a common ordinary watch could be made to serve as a compass; how about that, Max?” added Bandy-legs, showing considerable interest in the subject.
“So it can, but I’ll explain that at another time. You fellows had better be moving now,” and Max turned his back on the other as the best way to shut him off; for Bandy-legs was a great questioner.
“So-long!” called out Toby, cheerfully, as he started to follow the trail left by Max and Steve on their way from the river, half a mile away.
“If we meet up with this mysterious shell gatherer, what ought we to do?” asked the second boy, halting.
“Act friendly, and pay attention to your own business, that’s all. Nobody will hurt you,” Max called out, as he turned into the camp.
A GREAT FIND.
“When do we begin, Max?”
Steve asked this question a short time after the three left in the camp had cleaned up the tin pans used in preparing and eating the warm meal, and Owen had gone off to try and secure a mess of bass for supper.
Steve had been usually fast in his share of the work, even for him. Max had noticed this fact, and could give a good guess as to what was spurring the other on to such exertions.
“Begin what?” he asked, as if in dense ignorance.
“Why, in opening our catch, you know,” Steve replied, jerking his thumb to where the little pile of mussels lay, close by the camp fire.
Steve had himself emptied the two bags, upon their arrival in camp. Evidently he did not mean to take any chances of having the precious bivalves stolen by the prowling half-grown wild boy. And in order to provide against such a catastrophe he had been very careful to deposit their morning’s “catch” in an open spot so destitute of shrubbery that no one could approach within ten feet unseen.
Truth to tell he was a little eager himself to set to work investigating the insides of these shells.
The remarkable luck attending their first attempt gave him more or less hope that other prizes might crop up to reward their continued efforts.