The Scotch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins
X. On the Trail
Alan and Sandy left the little gray house in the late afternoon and walked together down the river road toward the village. At the bridge which spanned the stream they parted company, and Alan gave Sandy final instructions as to his duties on the next day. He was to watch Angus Niel's house, which lay some distance north of the village, and see what direction he took as he started upon his daily tour in the forests.
The estate of Glencairn covered a territory so large that Angus could not by any possibility make his rounds in one day or even in one week. The Clan knew well where he had spent his time for the two preceding days, and they thought he would be likely to start in a different direction on the morrow. They did not dare count upon his doing so, however, and so Sandy was detailed to give a positive report as to his movements. The next morning, therefore, found Sandy sitting on a stone dyke not a great way from Angus's house, apparently absorbed in whittling and whistling, but in reality keeping a sharp lookout for any sign of life in the Niel household. He had not long to wait before he saw Angus leave the house and wander away into the forest with his gun on his shoulder. As they had surmised, he took a direction entirely different from his route of the two days before.
Sandy waited until he was out of sight, and then hurried back to the bridge, where he met Alan by appointment, and the two walked briskly on to the little gray house together. When they reached it, the wag-at-the-wall clock was just striking nine, and Jean, her morning work done, was "caning" the hearth with blue chalk as a final touch of elegance to her clean kitchen.
"Come on," said Alan. "I've a plan in my head, and we'll have to start directly if we're going to carry it out. Let me have some of that blue chalk, Jean; we may need it. I've got plenty of food with me, so don't wait to put up anything."
"I'm with you," said Jean, giving a final flourish with the blue chalk before she clapped on her bonnet, and in another minute the Rob Roy Clan was afoot, leaving Tam nursing his wounded paw on the doorstep and gazing after them with pathetic eyes.
They left their luncheon in the cave and hurried on at Alan's command to the little mountain tarn where Angus had killed the stag, and there the Clan gathered about him to hear his plan.
"I've been thinking about this," Alan began, "and I'm sure of two things. Angus must have a place where he puts the game he kills, and he must have somebody to help him. The other man comes along and carries it down the mountain to some point where he can ship it to the city. I say, let's find out where that hiding-place is."
"What will we do with it when we find it?" asked Jean.
"That's where the blue chalk comes in," said Alan. "We'll let him know we've been there!"
"You'll never be writing your name there?" asked Sandy anxiously. "He'd be shooting us next!"
"Oh! Sandy, you're a daft body," said Jean, and Jock added: "Mind the Chief, you dunderhead, and keep your tongue behind your teeth. He's none so addled as you think!"
Sandy subsided a little sulkily, and Alan went on.
"When Angus crossed the lake with the stag he landed right over there by that dead pine tree, for I watched him to see, and the place where he hid the stag can't be far from there, because he came back so soon. We'll just take his boat and see if we can't find it."
"Oh!" gasped Jean, who had never been in a boat in her life, "do you know how to make it go?"
"I can row and I can swim," said Alan, "but I tell you if any one goes bouncing around in the boat, it will be just as bad as being bewitched by the water cow, you'll go to the bottom!"
"I can row, too," said Sandy.
Jean wished she hadn't come, but she was bound she would not show it before the boys, so she said, "Sal! who's afraid?" and when they found the boat, she was the first one in it.
Angus was so sure that no one would find his boat, which was carefully screened by the bushes, that he had not even hidden the oars. So it was soon afloat with Jock at the tiller, Sandy on the bottom, Jean in the prow holding to the sides of the boat, scarcely daring to speak for fear of upsetting it, and Alan at the oars. The lake was smooth, and they reached the opposite shore without mishap, except that twice Alan "caught a crab" and splashed water all over Jock, and Sandy filled both shoes as he jumped out of the boat. They pulled it up under the shelter of the dead pine, anchored it by a stone, and cautiously made their way into the woods.
They were now in a very wild section of the mountains, where it seemed as if no one had ever been since the beginning of the world.
"Just hear the stillness," whispered Jean, keeping close to Jock. There was a sort of trail leading back into the woods, which looked as if it might have been made by wild animals going to the lake for a drink. This they followed for some distance until it became indistinct, and then Alan called the Clan together for counsel.
"We'll go just a little farther," he said, "and then, if we don't see any sign of the place, it may be best to go back, for it is easy to get lost in these woods. We are going east now and luckily the sun is shining. When we do turn back, we must keep the sun behind us and we can't help coming out somewhere on the lake. Remember the pewit call if we lose sight of each other."
They resumed their stealthy walk through the woods, and a few rods farther on came to a wide open space which sloped eastward for some distance down the mountain-side. Here they paused.
"We're getting a good way from the boat," said Jean.
"Yes," said Alan, "and I am just wondering whether we'd better go any farther. We don't want to cross this open space, and I see no sign of Angus's storehouse. I hate to give up, though, for we must be very near it." He searched in every direction with his eyes, and suddenly exclaimed under his breath, "Look there!"
"Where?" breathed the Clan, rigid with excitement.
"Do you see that pile of rocks?" said Alan, pointing into the woods beyond the clearing.
"Yes," said Jock, "but there are rocks all around. I don't see that they're any different from others."
"Maybe not," said Alan, "but I see something that looks like the corner of a hunter's shelter sticking out behind that big boulder, and I say, let's skirt around this open place and see."
"Do you want us all to go?" asked Sandy, hoping the Chief would say no.
"You stay here," Alan answered, to his great relief, "and Jean, you come a little farther with us. Then you and Sandy can keep out of sight and watch. If you see a man, keep still in your places and give the pewit call. Jock and I will go on around the clearing and get a better look at those rocks."
Sandy crouched down in the bracken, and two or three hundred feet farther on Jean stopped also, while Alan and Jock cautiously crept on toward their goal, and, by making a wide detour, approached the rocks from the north instead of the west. As they neared them, it was plain that Alan was right. There really was a shelter built against an overhanging rock and almost concealed from view by pine boughs which formed a screen before it. Little by little the boys crept nearer and nearer, stopping every few steps to be sure there was no sign of life about the place. At last they were within a few feet of the rude camp. The shelter was scarcely more than a hole under the rocks, but there was a blackened spot where there had been a fire, a few pans were standing about, and in one corner a pile of evergreen boughs was covered with well-cured deer-skins. A fresh hide ready to cure was spread out on the rocks near by.
"This is the place," whispered Jock. "There is the skin of the stag. Now what are you going to do?" For answer Alan slipped from behind the rocks, crept stealthily into the camp, and on the underside of the rock wrote in big letters with blue chalk
Then he crawled swiftly back out of sight and, followed by Jock, made his way as fast as he could toward Jean's hiding-place. To Jean the time that they were gone seemed hours long. The place was lonely, and she was afraid, not only of their finding the man at home in his wild lodge, but even of brownies and elves.
A rabbit stuck his ears up over a nearby log and scuttled away when he saw her. The leaves made a lonely sound as they rustled over her head, and when at last she saw a black object moving about among the trees at some distance beyond the rock-pile, it is not surprising that she immediately gave the pewit call, loud and clear.
The boys heard it and instantly vanished behind some bushes. The dark object moving among the trees seemed to hear it too and, springing forward, came bounding toward the rocks, barking as it came. Jean was not much less anxious when she knew for certain that it was a dog, for a watch dog in that lonely place might be quite as dangerous as a wolf. Moreover, she soon saw, a little distance behind the dog, a man with a gun on his shoulder. She saw the dog reach the camp and go sniffing about on the rocks, and her heart almost stood still as it gave a deep howl and started away as if it scented game.
"He's on the trail of Alan and Jock," thought Jean, wringing her hands. "Oh, what shall I do? The man will surely follow, for he'll think the dog is after game." She sprang to her feet and ran back to Sandy.
"Come quick," she said in a low voice. "The dog smells them; we must get into the boat and have it ready for the boys to jump into. There is not a moment to lose." She sped past him as she spoke, and Sandy came galloping after.
Alan and Jock, who had seen and heard all that Jean had, were now tearing at top speed through the woods and knew from answering whistles that Jean and Sandy were on the way to the boat.
The man had by this time reached the camp and was staring at the blue chalk-marks on the rock, as if unable to believe his own eyes. He did not stop there long. He saw at once that an enemy had found his hiding-place, and that the dog was on his trail. Leaping down the rocks, he started across the clearing on a run toward the lake, his gun in his hand. Jock and Alan realized that they could hardly reach the landing-place before the dog did, so they changed their course and veered a little to the north, thinking that in this way they stood more chance of concealment and that they could signal the boat and get aboard in a less conspicuous place.
By this dodge the dog lost the scent of the boys and, nosing the ground, found the trail of Sandy and Jean. Baying frightfully he came bounding through the underbrush and arrived at the landing just in time to see Sandy push the boat from the shore with Jean in the bow. Furious at being cheated of his prey, the dog ran back and forth on the shore, making mad leaps in the direction of the boat and barking as if possessed.
"Oh, where are the boys?" cried the distracted Jean. They lingered in an agony of suspense, not daring to leave until they saw that Jock and Alan were safe, and then from a little distance up the shore came the pewit call. Sandy rose to the emergency and, pulling frantically at the oars, succeeded in reaching the point from which the call seemed to come. The scared faces of Jock and Alan rose from the bracken, and in another moment they had leaped into the boat, nearly upsetting it as they did so. Alan seized an oar, and he and Sandy together got the boat out of sight behind a bend in the shore. Here they hid among the bushes on the bank until they saw the man appear at the landing-place, scan the lake carefully, and then go back into the woods, calling the dog to go with him. Even then they were afraid to stir for they did not know whether he had gone back to camp or was stalking about among the trees searching for them.
They waited for what seemed a week but saw nothing further of the man, and when at last they heard the report of a gun and the barking of a dog far away down the mountain, they felt safe. He was evidently looking in another direction for the intruders, and at once Alan gave the word to go back to their own side of the lake. They skirted the shores, keeping a sharp lookout all the while, and at length reached the landing-place. The weary members of the Clan breathed a sigh of relief as they found themselves safe on their own ground again, arid their spirits rose.
Jock told what Alan had written on the rock, and Alan was so much impressed by that achievement that he took out the blue chalk and on a rock by the tarn wrote "Here Angus Niel, gamekeeper and poacher, shot a stag"; and on the stone where the boat had been, he put the mystic initials "R. R. C."
"There," said Alan, pausing to admire his handiwork, "that'll keep him guessing, and scared too."
"What can we do next?"
"Take away his boat," said Jean promptly.
"Good idea!" cried Alan.
"Where can we hide it?" asked Jock.
"I'm mortal hungry," said Sandy. "Couldn't we eat first?"
"No food until this job is done," said the Chief firmly. "We'll never have another chance when we know where the other man and Angus both are. It's now or never!"
"But where shall we hide it?" demanded Jock again.
"I'll tell you," cried Jean, her eyes dancing with mischief. "We can carry it to the burn and float it down to the cave!"
This was a stroke of genius, no less, and every member of the Clan looked upon Jean with respect bordering upon awe. At the point where the lake emptied into the burn there were loose rocks, about which the water rushed in a swift cataract, but, below, the current flowed more gently toward the fall. It was deep only in spots where the trout loved to hide, but it was not a stream anywhere in its course upon which one would launch a boat for pleasure. The rocks were so near the surface that the weight of even one person might ground it, but afloat and empty it might be carried clear to the rocks above the cave. The Clan considered the plan carefully, standing upon the rocky banks.
"How would we guide it?" asked Sandy doubtfully.
"There's a rope on the end of the boat," said Jean promptly, "and we could push it off with sticks if it got stuck."
"Come on," cried Alan, and the four plotters rushed bask to the lake and pulled the boat out of the water. Alan took the prow and Jock took the stern, while Sandy and Jean supported it on each side, and in this way, after many struggles, they succeeded in carrying it to a place below the rapids where they dared launch it.
"I'll hold the rope," said Alan, "and you, Sandy, take an oar and go down the other side of the stream, so you can push it off if it gets stuck on that side."
"How'll I get across?" asked Sandy.
This was a poser at first, but Alan found a way.
"Get into the boat," he said, "and we'll push it across where there aren't any stones sticking up. You can pole it across with your oar, and I'll keep hold of the rope."
Sandy jumped in at once, and the boat, in spite of some swirling, was finally near enough to the opposite bank so he could jump out. This he did, taking the oar with him. It was an exciting journey down stream, for the boat bumped against rocks and caught on fallen trees, and it was a good hour before the children, tired out but triumphant, finally dragged it out of the water just above the falls.
"If we had our rope, we could drag it to the edge of the cliff and let it down in front of the cave," cried Jean in another flash of inspiration, and Sandy instantly rushed down the rock, made the necessary detour, and climbed the secret stair to the cave. He then whistled, and three heads appeared over the top of the cliff.
"I'll throw up the rope and when you let the boat down, I'll steady it," said Sandy.
"Heave away," cried Alan, and after a few trials the rope came flying up on the cliff and was soon looped around the boat. Then the three braced their feet against the rocks and slowly lowered the boat by the rope fastened to the prow, and by their own rope, while Sandy steadied it below. They threw down the rope-end after it, and a few moments. later the rapturous Clan hauled the boat into the cave! They sat in it to eat their luncheon and were so lost in admiration of their enterprise and their booty that they did not start home until the level rays of the sun warned them that it was late.