Chapter I. Boy Scouts in a Strange Land
 

"Fine country, this--to get out of!"

"What's the difficulty, kid?"

Jimmie McGraw, the first speaker, turned back to the interior of the apartment in which he stood with a look of intense disgust on freckled face.

"Oh, nothin' much," he replied, wrinkling his nose comically, "only Broadway an' the Bowery are too far away from this town to ever amount to anythin'. Say, how would you fellers like a chair in front of the grate in the little old Black Bear Patrol clubroom, in the village of N. Y.? What?"

The three boys lying, half covered with empty burlap bags, on the bare earth at the back of the apartment chuckled softly as Jimmie's face brightened at the small picture he drew verbally, of the luxurious Boy Scout clubroom in the City of New York.

"New York is a barren island as compared with this place," one of the boys, Jack Bosworth by name, declared. "Just think of the odor of the Orient all around us!"

Jimmie wrinkled his nose in disdain and turned back to the window out of which he had been looking. The other boys, Ned Nestor, of the Wolf Patrol, and Jack Bosworth and Frank Shaw, of the Black Bear Patrol, all of New York, pulled their coarse covering closer under their chins and grinned at the impatient Jimmie, who was of the Wolf Patrol, and who was just then on guard.

It wasn't much of a window that the boy looked out of, just an irregular hole in a bare wall, innocent alike of sash and glass. Away to the east rolled the restless waters of the Gulf of Pechili, which is little more than a round bay swinging west from the mystical Yellow Sea.

To the south ran the swift current of the Peiho river, on the opposite bank of which lay the twin of Taku, Chinese town where Jimmie stood guard. Tungku, as the twin village is named, looked every bit as forlorn and disreputable as Taku, where the boys had waited four days for important information which had been promised by the Secret Service department at Washington.

The gulf of Pechili and the Peiho river glistened under the October sun, which seemed to bring little warmth to the atmosphere. Junks of all sizes and kinds were moving slowly through the waves, and farther out larger vessels lay at anchor, as if holding surveillance over the mouth of the stream which led to Tientsin, that famous city of the great Chinese nation.

"Look at it! Just look at it!"

Jimmie pointed out of the opening, his hand swinging about to include the river and the gulf, the slowly moving boats and the picturesque streets.

"'Tis a heathen land!" the boy went on. "They wear their shirts outside of their trousers an' do their trucking on their shoulders. Say, Ned," he added, "why can't we cut it out? I'm sick of it!"

"Cut it out?" laughed Jack Bosworth, "why, kid, we've just got to the land of promise!"

"Most all promise!" replied Jimmie. "We've got nothin' but promises since we've been here. Where's that Secret Service feller that was goin' to set the pace for us?"

"Perhaps he's lost in the jungle," laughed Frank Shaw. "He certainly ought to have been here three days ago. What about it, Gulf of Pechili and the Peiho river Ned?" he added, turning to a youth who lay at his side, almost shivering in spite of his shaggy burlap covering.

Ned Nestor yawned and threw aside his alleged protection from the growing chill of the October day. The boys, fresh from a submarine in which they had searched an ocean floor for important documents as well as millions of dollars in gold, had arrived at Taku five days before this autumn afternoon.

After concluding the mission on the submarine, Ned had been invited to undertake a difficult errand to Peking, in the interest of the United States Secret Service. Even after landing at Taku, he had confessed to his chums his utter ignorance of the work he was to do.

He had been requested by the Secret Service man who had engaged him for the duty to wait for instructions at the old house on the water front which, in company with Frank, Jack, and Jimmie, he now occupied. The house was old and dilapidated, seemingly having been unoccupied for years, so the lads were really "camping out" there.

Their provisions were brought to them regularly by a Chinaman who did not seem to understand a word of English, and, as the boys knowledge of the Chinese tongue was exceedingly limited, no information had been gained from him. The Secret Service man had not appeared, and Ned was becoming uneasy, especially as the curiosity of his neighbors was becoming annoying.

"I guess this is a stall," Jimmie grumbled, as Ned arose and stood at his side. "You know how the Moores, father an' son, tried to get us on the submarine? Well, I'll bet they've got loose, an' that we're bein' kept here until they can do us up proper without attractin' the attention of the European population."

Ned laughed at the boy's fears. He had no doubt that the man who had promised to meet him there had been delayed in some unaccountable manner, and that the information he was awaiting would be supplied before another day had passed.

"Anyway," Jimmie insisted, "I don't like the looks of things hereabouts! There's always some pigtailed Chink watchin' this house from the street. I woke up last night an' saw a snaky-eyed Celestial peering in at this window. I guess they've got rid of the man we are waitin' for."

"If we only knew exactly what we were to do in Peking," Frank said, approaching the little group by the window, "we might jog along and report to the American legation. I'm like Jimmie. I don't fancy this long wait here--not a little bit!"

"As I have told you before," Ned replied, "I don't know the first thing about the work cut out for us by the United States Secret Service people. There was some talk about following a brace of conspirators to Peking, the conspirators who tried to discredit the United States in the matter of the gold shipment but that was only incidental, and I was ordered to come here and await instructions. So I'm going to wait-- until the moon drops out of the sky, if necessary."

"Oh, we'll stick around!" Frank put in. "Don't think, for a minute, that any of us thought of quitting the game. Still, I'd just like to know how much longer we have to remain here, and just what we are to do when we get to Peking, if we ever do."

"Of course we'll stick!" Jimmie exclaimed. "All I'm kickin' on is the delay. We might have remained on board the submarine, where we had cozy quarters an' somethin' to eat besides this Chink stuff."

"Whenever you want to bump Jimmie good and plenty," laughed Jack, "all you need to do is to tamper with his rations. What's the matter with this rice, kid, and this meat pie?" he added, as the man who had served their food since their occupancy of the old house approached with a large, covered basket on his arm.

Jimmie wrinkled his freckled nose again and laid a hand on his stomach, as if in sympathy with that organ for the unutterable Chinese concoctions it had been called upon to assimilate of late.

"Rat pie!" he said, in a tone of disgust.

"I'll bet a dollar to a rap on the nose that it's rat pie! I can hear the rats squeal nights when I'm tryin' to sleep an' can't."

"Say, Chink," Jack said, seizing the Chinaman by the shoulder and facing him about so that a good look into his slanty eyes might be had, "what do you know about this chuck?"

"No chuck! Pie!"

"Of course it's pie!" answered Jack. "It would be pie if it was made of old shoes, if it had a crust on. What I want to know is, where did you catch him, and who pays you to bring it to us, and who pays him to pay you to feed it to us? Where does he live, and is he black, white, or red? Come on, old top. You know a lot if you could only think of it."

The Chinaman, an evil-looking old fellow with a long cicatrice across his left cheekbone, shook his head and regarded his questioner craftily.

"No spik English!" he said.

"You spoke it then," Jack retorted. "I'll bet a pan of pickles that you know what we were saying when you came in here."

"Let him alone," Frank advised. "That head of his is solid bone. He would think his foot hurt if he had the toothache."

"What a filthy, yellow, toothless, wicked old devil it is!" Jack went on. "Some day when he comes here with that basket of rats I'm going to cut his pigtail off close behind his ears."

"I think he's the foulest old geezer I've ever met," Frank went on. "If I had a dog with a mug like that I'd hire him out to the man who manufactures nightmares."

The Chinaman stood looking stupidly about for a minute before placing his basket on the floor, then dropped it with a jar which rattled the few dishes within and scuffled out of the door. Jimmie followed to see that he did not loiter around the house listening, and came back with a mischievous grin on his face.

Long before the appearance of the Chinaman the boys had planned to use such uncomplimentary language in his presence as would be likely to excite his anger, if he understood what was being said. They did not believe he was as ignorant of the English language as he pretended to be.

"Well," Jimmie asked, of Ned, "did he tumble? What did you see?"

"I saw as evil a look as ever burned out of a human eye," Ned replied. "Looked to me like he would enjoy feeding Jack and Frank to the rats."

"Then he understood, all right?"

"Of course he did," Jack, answered. "I could see that with one eye. He's been coming here with his grub for four days, and picking up a word here and there every time. We ought to have had sense enough to have been on guard against such treachery."

"What's the answer now?" asked Jimmie, turning to Ned.

"I'm afraid we're in a bad predicament," Ned replied. "This shows me new light. The messenger we are expecting should have been here long ago, and I'm now sure that we've just got to do something. I'm getting afraid to eat the food they bring us, and I lie awake at night, listening for hostile footsteps."

"That sounds a little more like Manhattan!" Jack cried. "Sounds like action! We're off in a heathen land, surrounded by enemies, and not likely to get anything like a fighting chance, but I'm for doing something right now. I'm not going to lie still here and be poisoned, like a rat in a sewer!"

"I'm for going on to Peking," Frank said. "We can report to the American ambassador there, and, at least, get something to eat besides rat pie and something better than a bare floor to sleep on. If we only had the Black Bear, the motor boat we cruised with on the Columbia river, we wouldn't be long on the way."

"Huh!" Jimmie observed, taking out a minute memorandum book, "it is seventy miles by the river from Taku to Tientsin, and only twenty-seven by the road."

"And how far to Peking by the road?" asked Jack.

"It is seventy-nine Miles from Tientsin to Peking," was the reply, "and the roads ought to be good."

"That's more than can be said of the natives!" Jack said.

"The allied armies marched over the road to Peking in 1900," Frank explained, "and I rather think the inhabitants of strip of country have a wholesome respect for foreigners. With our high-power motorcycles, ought to make Peking before daylight, if we start right after dark."

"And don't run across any cutthroats on the way," added Jimmie.

"Let's see," grinned Frank, "we were to have a flying squadron of marines with us? What? I reckon they're flying so high that they are out of sight!"

"Suppose we see if the horses are in good shape," Ned said, going to an adjoining apartment.

He made his appearance again in a minute trundling a magnificent motorcycle. It was been built expressly for army use, with a long, powerful stroke 10 h. p. motor. It was as indestructible and as auto machine as could well be designed. With a perfect muffler, automatic carburetor and lubrication, it was a machine to cover miles silently and with little danger of delay.

The open door behind Ned revealed three machines arranged along the wall, and the boys rushed to the examination of them. In second all were in the room, bending over their steel pets.

"Say!" Jimmie cried, presently, "we'll get Peking to-night--not! This machine has been tampered with, and some parts are missing."

"Yes, I reckon the Yellow Peril is on deck!" said Frank.