Chapter XII. The Black Hand Game.
 

Shortly after breakfast, and after what remained of the chickens had been eaten, Bradley and his charge left the camp, after inviting the boys to visit them in the cabin in the valley. Bradley appeared anxious to be friendly, and seemed absolutely frank in his talks. The only suspicious thing they noticed in him was his jealous care of the boy--his reproaches when the lad had indulged in a word or two of French!

"You bet I'll visit you at the cabin!" Jack said, as the two disappeared over the summit. "I'll be there with the lingo, too! I can soon find out from the boy what he knows of the French language! Of course I'll be down to the cottage!"

"Bradley will see that you don't talk with the boy alone!" Jimmie declared.

"I'll catch him doing it!" was Jack's reply.

"What do you think about it, Ned?" asked Frank. "Is that the prince, or is it Mike III.? You may have all the guesses you need.

"First," Ned said, turning to Jack and Frank, "tell me what the boy said when he spoke in French."

Jack repeated the interpretations as previously given, and Ned remained in a thoughtful mood for a long time. Then he went into the tent, without answering any questions, and began overhauling the stock of reading matter brought along.

When he found what he wanted to he threw himself on the bunk where he had slept and read steadily for an hour or more. At least he held to the book for that length of time, turning the leaves rapidly at times, and then not at all for several minutes.

"What's he up to?" asked Teddy. "Something on his alleged mind!"

"I'll go and find out what he's reading," Jimmie volunteered.

The boy entered the tent, but was back in a moment with a broad grin on his face.

"It is a French dictionary!" he gasped. "Ned is learning French, so he can talk with the prince in his native tongue!"

"The prince isn't French!" Jack declared. "He belongs away in the East somewhere. French is the polite language of Europe, so of course, he's been taught it!"

After a time Ned came to the door of the tent and beckoned to Jimmie.

"Suppose we go and get some pictures of the mountains," he said, when the boy entered. "We haven't taken a snap-shot since we came here.

"I'm strong for it!" Jimmie declared. "We might go and take a few snaps at the counterfeiter's den. That will be fine!"

"What's that?" demanded Frank Shaw, poking his nose into the tent. "Going to take pictures of the counterfeiters den! I'm in on that. We'll take a bunch of pictures--enough for a first-page layout--and send 'em in to dad's newspaper. Hot stuff! What? And I'll write the biography of Uncle Ike, and send it in with the rest. His picture ought to go in the center of the layout. He'll be a hero, all right."

"All right!" Ned agreed. "We'll go and take the pictures, and we'll send them in when you get the story written! Will that answer?"

"Sure it will!"

So Ned, Jimmie, and Frank started away laughing, for all knew Frank would never write the story, toward the counterfeiters' cave. When they came in sight of the ridge which jutted out of the slope to make the canyon, and under which the workroom was situated, they saw a man moving northward, keeping close to the jagged summit of the lesser elevation, and looking sharply about as he advanced.

"That may be one of them," Jimmie suggested.

"I don't believe it!" Frank contradicted. "What do you think, Ned?" he added.

"Never saw the outlaws," Ned answered, "so I can't decide the question. Still, I doubt if one of the counterfeiters is within fifty miles of this spot now."

"That's the idea!" Frank said. "Of course the shooting of last night would draw out the natives. There'll be dozens around the caves to-day."

The boys walked on to the canyon, taking snap-shots of everything they saw. The slope, the canyon, the valley to the west, the green valley to the south, the shallow cave from which the entrance to the workroom gave, all were transferred to films to await development. When at last they entered the shallow cave they paused.

"There may be some of them in here yet," Frank suggested.

"Not to-day!" Ned replied. "There are too many strangers about!"

They entered cautiously. There was now no fire on the stone hearth, and the atmosphere of the place was damp and chill, as well as dark. Here and there a break in the rocky roof above--the ceiling of the apartment was very near to the surface of the outcropping ridge--let in a shaft of light, but for the most part the apartment was in heavy shadows.

Ned took out his electric light and turned it enquiringly about the room. Counterfeit money still lay scattered over the floor. The melting pot and the dies were on the cold iron shelf where they had been left, and even a coat hung against the wall.

"They got out in a hurry," Jimmie declared.

"And they are not likely to come back in a hurry!" Ned added.

Frank paced the apartment off, set his camera tripod, and got out his powder.

"You boys stand over on the other side," he requested, as he moved back to his tripod, "and when I give the word you, Jimmie, touch off this flash."

"What do you want a view of that corner for?" asked Jimmie. "You are too close, anyway, to get a good picture."

"I'm going to have a picture of every corner, and the middle, and the roof, and the chimney, and everything about the blooming place!" Frank declared.

"Wait a minute!" Jimmie shouted. "I'll hide in the passage we went out of last night, and when you are ready to spring the print I'll look out, with a fierce expression on my pretty face. That will make the picture look like the real brigandish thing. What?"

"All right," laughed Frank, "get in there! It is only an excuse for getting your mug into dad's newspaper, but we'll let it go."

Frank and Ned busied themselves for half an hour or more, taking pictures and looking over the implements used in the manufacture of spurious coin. At length, when they returned to the outer cave, they remembered that Jimmie had not returned from the west passage to the workroom, and Ned went there to look for him. He was not there, nor was he in any of the niches or shallow openings in the rocky walls. Ned called to him, but he did not reply. Then Frank came running into the passage and joined in the hunt. In vain! Jimmie was nowhere to be found.

"Wherever he is," Frank said, after a long search, "he has his camera with him."

"I didn't see him have one," Ned replied. "You must be mistaken."

"It was the baby camera he had," Frank explained. "He carried it under his coat. The little monkey has doubtless gone off on a picture-making tour of his own."

"That is just like him," Ned agreed, "so we'll go on about our business and let him present himself when he gets ready."

"He seemed to take quite an interest in that child," Frank suggested, "and he may have gone on to the cabin."

"We may as well go that way and thank the old lady for the hens Jack didn't make into a pie," Ned observed. "I'd like another look at that child myself."

"Is it the prince, or is it Mike III.?" laughed Frank.

Ned smiled, but made no reply, They walked on down the slope and connected with the valley at the south end of the ridge. When they came to the cabin they found Mrs. Mary Brady sitting in the doorway, the child playing on the ground--beaten hard by years of wear--in front of her. She arose as they appeared, and the boy darted off into the fenced garden farther to the south, looking back with a grin from behind the stake-and-rider fence.

"Good day to you, young gentlemen," the old lady said. "I hope you passed a pleasant night! The mountain air is good for those who seek sleep."

Then it occurred to Ned that neither Bradley nor the child had referred in any way to the shooting of the night before, though, if at the cabin, they must have heard it. He regarded the old lady keenly as he said:

"Has any one seen anything of the outlaws to-day?"

"The outlaws?" repeated the other.

"You heard nothing in the night?" Ned asked.

"I thought I heard a gunshot now and then," was the indifferent reply, "but they are too common here to attract attention. Did the shooting disturb you?"

Ned did not believe the old lady had slept through the furious fusilades of shots of the night before. What her motive was in ignoring the matter he could not understand, but he decided to set himself right with her and also with her mountain friends by telling of the events of the night.

If they were to remain long in that section, it was quite necessary, he thought, that the natives should understand that the boys of the Camera Club were not there to spy on counterfeiters or the moonshiners, if any there were in that region.

So he told her that the boys had blundered on the workroom of the counterfeiters, had been suspected of being spies sent by the government and seized, and finally had been released by strategy. He added that they were not there to molest the people of the district, whatever their occupation might be, but to take pictures and have a long vacation in the health-giving mountain air."

"And I hope you'll pass the word along," he closed, "so that your friends will not regard us as enemies. We are anxious to meet as many of them as possible, and to be on good terms with them."

This was strictly true, as the boys were not there to convict any of the natives, whatever their offenses might be, but to deal with the strangers who had abducted the prince from his home in Washington. Ned was certain that no one belonging in that region had had a hand in the crime, although he suspected that some of them might innocently harbor the outlaws he was in quest of.

The old lady listened to Ned's story and his explanation with a startled face.

"I'm sure," she said, "that no one belonging here was interested in the counterfeiting gang you boys came upon. I am sure, too, that no one will blame you for what you did. We are law-abiding people, but our mountains constitute a secure refuge for some who are not worthy of protection."

Ned was more than pleased at the outcome of the matter, for he was sure the old lady would take pains to set the matter before her friends in the correct light. The conversation soon changed to other subjects. The child did not return, and directly Frank saw him walking along a distant hillside, hand-in-hand with Bradley.

"Mr. Bradley seems to stick close to Mike," he said, tentatively.

"Never lets him out of his sight," was the reply, and Mrs. Brady seemed to resent the face as stated. She evidently had little of the lad's companionship.

When the boys reached the camp Jimmie had not returned, but their chums were gathered around a sheet of letter paper which had, no one knew how, been thrust into the tent. Jack's face was deadly white as he handed it to Ned.

"We are up against a black hand game," he said. "Jimmie has been stolen!"