Chapter XIV. Pointing Out the Trail.

After leaving the window at the rear of the cabin, Ned moved to the north side, where there was no window at all, and stood there, huddled against the wall, until he heard the old lady enter the house and close the door. Peering around the corner to see that no one was in sight, he crossed the open space swiftly and approached the grove where he had seen Jack.

Jack was not in sight, but a round hole cut in the bark of a tree told the direction in which he had gone. In the Indian sign language used by the Boy Scouts this meant:

"This is the trail. Keep on in this direction."

Wondering what had taken Jack away so suddenly, Ned followed on until he came to an open space where no trees were growing. He, however, kept straight ahead, taking snapshots as he came to desirable scenes.

A hundred yards from the edge of the grove he came to a small round stone sitting on top of a large one. Then he walked faster and with more confidence. This, too, said:

"This is the trail! Keep on!"

It was now after noonday, and the sun poured fiercely down into the valley between the great ridges. There were patches of forest here and there, and now and then the boy came to a field which had been planted to corn. Still, he came upon no human being. The two cabins he saw seemed empty and deserted.

Weary and hungry as he was, Ned kept on, now reading the trail sign from a tree, now from a stone, now from a bunch of grass tied at the top, with the ends of the blades sticking straight up. He walked a couple of miles without turning to the right or left, and then found a new signal. The hole in the bole of the tree where the sign stood was accompanied by a long cut in the bark of the left side.

This, as plainly as a voice from the thicket could have done, said:

"Turn to the left and keep on in that direction until you are further instructed."

The turn to the left led Ned up the slope. So the field of action was likely to be in the mountains again! The signs were closer together now, and Ned followed them with faith that he was on the right track.

But who had made the trail? Was it Jimmie or Jack? Probably the latter, Ned concluded, for Jimmie would not be likely to have had an opportunity of so blazing his trail, while Jack was free to do so at will.

But why had Jack gone away on the trail alone? Why had he not called to him, Ned, in order that they might proceed together?

It was possible that the boy might be following some person whom he suspected of the abduction, still that did not seem to be likely, as any one tracking another in the broad light of day, in such a country as that, over open places and rocky elevations, would be almost certain to be discovered. Ned feared the boy was being led into a trap.

Finally, almost at the edge of the timber, Ned came to a third sign. There were three holes cut in the bark of a tree, facing the trail he had followed, and on the right side was the familiar slit in the bark.

"Turn to the right and be careful, for there may be danger ahead!"

That is what the talk on the tree said!

To the right lay a rim of trees, facing the bare face of the mountain. Between the trees and the summit lay a long stretch of rocky slope, in some places actually inaccessible to one not an expert in mountain climbing.

Obeying the signal, Ned turned to the right and kept under the shelter of the trees. It was very still there, save for the sharp raspings of insects hiding in the foliage and the sleepy call of birds in the sky and in the tops of the trees.

The boy made his way through the underbrush for some distance without finding any sign. At a loss what course to pursue, he decided to do nothing! So he sat down in a thicket and waited. And while he waited he took snapshots!

His thought, sitting there in suspense, was that Jack might have waited for him at some point on the trail! At best the boy could have been only a half hour ahead of him. He waited an hour, until the sun began to touch the tops of the distant western mountains, and then climbed cautiously up a tree and looked about.

Then there came a rustling in the bushes farther to the south, and the low, angry growl of a black bear came up to him! Ned began sliding down the tree at once.

That was the call of the Black Bear Patrol! He knew now that Jack was not far off. At the bottom of the tree he found the boy waiting for him!

"Say, but I've had a long wait!" Jack complained.

"Why didn't you signal before, then?" demanded Ned.

"Why, I thought you'd come right on, come on and meet me!"

"And you never knew I was here until I climbed the tree?"

"Of course not. How should I?"

"Well," Ned observed, "we'll know better next time. I presume I should have made a sign myself--the call of the pack, for instance."

"Of course," Jack replied. "Now," he went on, "do you know what's doing here?"

"I'm in quest of information," Ned grinned. "What have you found?"

"I've discovered that the Brady cabin is being watched!"

Ned couldn't understand that, and said so. Jack went on: "When I stood in front of the house, two men came out of the canyon and walked down to the tree belt and stopped. They stood there a long time, talking, and then started off in this direction and I followed them."

"Are they mountaineers?" asked Ned. "People of this section?"

"Certainly not! They are to all appearances city people, at least in dress."

"You couldn't hear what they were saying?" asked Ned.

"No, but I could get some idea of their thoughts from their gestures. One was kicking about something, and the other was trying to pacify him."

"Well, where did they go? Where did you see them last?" asked Ned.

"They went up the slope, and disappeared behind that chimney of rock. I've got pictures of that rock!"

"This looks like a three-cornered game!" Ned mused.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Jack. "Where are the three interests?"

"We'll probably have to come back here tonight," Ned went on, without answering the question. "We can never get up that slope in daylight without attracting their attention."

"We must be at least four up-hill miles from camp," Jack calculated.

"All of that," answered Ned. "It is a long walk there and back."

"Then why not remain here?" asked Jack. "I'm hungry, but I'm more in need of rest than food just now. We can lie here in the thicket until night, and then creep up the slope and see what's doing."

"I was about to suggest that," Ned observed, "but I thought you'd be ravenous for the sight of a camp dinner!"

"I have a hunch," Jack declared, after a time, "that Jimmie is somewhere in this section! I don't know why, but when I saw those men, strangers, evidently, walking so stealthily over the country I got the hunch! Then I followed them, because I thought I might get a clue to the boy's whereabouts by so doing."

"If the boy is here," Ned replied, grimly, "we'll find him!"

"Of course we'll find him! That's what we are here for!"

The boys thus encouraging each other crawled deeper into the thicket and lay down. They were more than tired, worse than hungry, but they never thought of sleep, or of leaving their post of observation. The afternoon passed slowly, the boys taking snapshots now and then.

"The boys will be thinking we've been geezled!" Jack said. "I wish they knew where to find us. There's no knowing what they will do, they're so anxious about Jimmie. And if they scatter over the country others may be captured."

"They usually show good sense in emergencies," Ned commented.

When the first tint of twilight came, the boys crept to the edge of the thicket and sat looking out on the mountain. There was the broken way to the summit, and there was the chimney rock behind which the men had disappeared, but no human being was, for a long time im sight.

Then a small figure came swinging down the slope, off to the north, and presently came opposite to where the boys lay. Jack seized Ned by the arm and pointed.

"Is it the prince, or is it Mike III?" he asked.

Ned got out his field glass and studied the face and figure until, whistling some childish discord, the boy turned back and disappeared in the direction of the cabin.

"What is that boy doing off here alone?" asked Jack, then.

"Keep watch of the chimney rock," Ned advised.

"But what do you think of it?" demanded Jack. "How did that boy get up here?"

"If you see any one moving up there," Ned went on, provokingly, "let me know."

"Oh, look here!" Jack insisted, half angrily, "what's the use of shutting up like a clam? What is your idea about that boy? We've never seen him before except in Bradley's company. Do you think he ran away? Why can't we go and get him and hold him until Jimmie is released?"

"So you think the men who have taken Jimmie are the men who are conducting the abduction game?" asked Ned.

"Yes, don't you?"

"I have written the answer to that down in my little book," smiled Ned, "and when the right time comes I'll show it to you."

"Well, if we are going to catch the boy we'll have to be moving."

"We are not going to catch the boy."

Jack threw himself down on the ground in disgust.

"You're the Secret Service man," he said, "and I presume you know what you are about, but it looks to me as if you had been reading a dream book, or something like that."

"Why should we catch the child?" asked Ned.

"To hold him! To be able to say to the outlaws that we hold the top hand!"

"And trade the child for Jimmie, as you suggested?"

"Why, of course!"

"That would make a failure of our mission, me son!"

"But it would save Jimmie's life."

It was now growing quite dark in the valley, especially where the tree growth was heavy, but upon the slope objects might still be clearly distinguished some distance away. While the boys watched the child came out of the thicket to the north and began ascending the mountain, walking with a light, springing step, as if out for exercise after a long and tiresome confinement.

"Now keep your eye on the mountain," Ned requested.

In a moment a column of smoke arose from behind the chimney rock. The boys watched it intently and the child with it, for he was now approaching the rock.

"Cooking supper!" remarked Jack. "I wish they would pass it around!"

"Does it take two fires to cook supper up there?" asked Ned, with a smile.

Jack half arose in his excitement, but Ned drew him down again.

"Jimmie's up there!" he whispered. "There's the Boy Scout call for help!"