Chapter XVI. The Call of the Pack.
 

Ned and Frank stood in the shadow behind a protecting rock and peered down into the moonlit canyon for a long time. At first there was no one in sight below, but presently a man came out by the fire, which was burning low now.

It appeared to the boys that he must have crawled out from under the chimney rock itself! He appeared so suddenly that they knew that, at least, there must be an underground hiding place in which he had been concealed when they had first come in view of the canyon and the rock.

The man mended the fire, gathering up the ends of the logs and limbs which had burned through in the middle and placing them back on the coals. Then he opened a box which he had brought from some out-of- sight place and took out canned food and cooking utensils. He was evidently going to get an early breakfast.

Presently a second man joined the first arrival, and they sat down by the fire to wait for water in a great pot to boil. At least, the boys supposed that they were waiting for it to boil.

"I'd like to know what they are talking about," Frank said. "I'm going to see if I can get close enough to them to find out."

"I was just thinking of that myself," Ned responded, "so we may as well be on our way. Keep your gun handy, but don't shoot unless one of them seizes you."

"I'll take good care they don't get hold of me," Frank answered. "Say," he went on, "if Jimmie is there, he must be in some hole under that rock--the one they came out of! If they turn away, I may be able to get in there and see."

"Wait until there is little danger of detection," Ned advised. "We don't know how many men there are in the party, remember."

The boys walked softly back to the north, keeping ridges and outcropping rocks between the canyon and themselves, and then crept softly down the slope so as to come out at the north end of the little cut. The men they were watching were frying bacon and boiling coffee now, and appeared to be thoroughly occupied with their tasks.

In a few moments both boys were within hearing, distance. The men were not talking much, however. In fact, they both seemed to be harboring a grouch, from the infrequent low, grumbling complaints which the boys overheard.

"I'm through with the bunch after this!" one of the men said. "I'm not going to do all the work and let some one else draw all the money."

"It is time we got out of here anyway," the other said. "Those fresh boys were around here this afternoon."

"Why didn't you plug them if you knew they were here?" demanded the other.

Frank nudged Ned in the side with his fist.

"Cheerful sort of people!" he said. "I'm looking to see something start soon."

"I didn't know at the time that they were here!" the man replied, with a snarl. "I'm no Indian sleuth. After they left I started through the grove and found their tracks. Good thing for them that I saw their tracks instead of their heads!"

"Well," the other grunted, "if we are agreed that it is time for us to get out, why don't we get out? I'm not going to take all the chances! Why don't the others come? They won't come, and that's all there is to it. They're waiting for us to do the job! Then they'll claim the pay."

By this time the bacon was crisp and the coffee was simmering fragrantly in the pot and the two men fell to with an appetite. Frank watched them eat with an appetite of his own, rubbing his stomach and trying to show how near the point of starvation he was, although it had been only a short time since he had eaten a hearty meal!

"They don't trust us!" one of the men muttered, at length.

"We haven't got a thing on them, if they see fit to welch on us," the other admitted.

"But if we obey orders, they will have so much on us that we won't dare say a word, even if they make us walk back and buy our own meals on the way!"

"Is it agreed, then, that we're going to cut it?" asked one. "If it is, we may as well go now as at any future time."

"All right."

"Now?" asked the other.

"Why not? It will soon be daylight."

"Good idea, for we can't be seen trailing that kid along with us in the broad light of day," was suggested. "Let's move right now!"

"Now," whispered Frank, "do they mean Jimmie, when they speak of the kid, or some one else? And if they are speaking of some one else, here's a question: Is it the prince, or is it Mike III.?"

"It seems to me," Ned whispered back, "that I've heard something like that before."

"Well, get the kid out and feed him!" one of the men commanded. "We've got to keep him with us until we get pay for what we have already done."

"Now we'll know!" Frank suggested, as one of the men turned toward the rock. "If it is Jimmie we'll soon know it. What?"

They were not long kept in doubt. Jimmie shot out of a hole under the rock like an arrow in full flight and squatted down by the fire. Frank snickered when he saw the boy, and turned hastily away toward a ledge which showed back to the north.

While Ned was wondering what the boy was up to, the long, vicious whine of a wolf reached his ears. The call died away slowly, and was followed by silence, then by the snarling call of the pack!

The men by the fire started to their feet and seized their revolvers. Jimmie jumped away from the blaze and held up his hands, bound tightly together.

"Cut me loose!" he cried. "Are you going to let the wolf come and eat me?"

"There are no wolves in these mountains," declared one of the men. "That was a signal of some kind!"

"I've seen wolves since we came in here," Jimmie declared, telling the exact truth, at that, only the wolves he referred to belonged to the Wolf Patrol, Boy Scouts of America! "They're fierce wolves, too!" he added.

Frank crawled back to Ned's side and lay laughing at the commotion the signal had caused in the little camp. The men hastened their packing, and one of them who had been about to give Jimmie his breakfast snatched the bread and bacon away and put them in a pack he was making up.

"Here!" the boy shouted. "You give me the eats! Think I'm going to travel over these mountains with me tummy abusing me for not doing the right thing by it?"

"You're lucky to have any tummy!" snarled one of the men.

"Aw, give the kid his breakfast!" commanded the other.

The men quarreled and growled at each other while the packing was going on, and Jimmie sat looking around for some sign of the Boy Scout who had given the signal. In half an hour they were ready, and then Jimmie was ordered to move on.

"If you try to run away," he was informed, "you'll be chased by a bullet. We have no time to fool with you! Just keep a pace or two in advance, and march straight ahead and you'll have no trouble. Get along, now!"

"But where's the prince?" asked Frank. "I thought we were going to find the royal prince here!"

"The prince of what?" asked Ned. "The prince of the slums or the prince of a little patch of ground over the sea?"

"Blessed if I know," Frank commented. "See me throw a scare into those bums!"

The men stopped still in their tracks when the ugly snarl of a bear came to them out of the darkness. Frank did himself proud in the manner in which he put out the bear talk. The men were surely frightened.

"Now there's a bear!" wailed Jimmie, although Ned thought he caught a note of fun in his voice. "Don't you know these hills are full of bears? We saw some at our camp last night," he added, "eating bread and honey!"

"Bear nothing!" shouted one of the men. "There ain't a bear within a hundred miles of this place! This is some trick!"

Again the fierce, angry snarl of the bear! Ned caught Frank by the arm to keep him quiet, but the boy finished the bear talk he had begun.

Then Jimmie hastened matters by breaking away and running toward the rock from which the sound had proceeded. Both men took after him, but a shot from Frank's gun caused them to halt. They stood still for an instant, their figures tense and tall, and then turned and ran, almost tumbling over each other in their fright!

They did not stop at slight declivities. They leaped gulleys and almost fell into canyons which split the summits. In vain Ned called to them to halt, that they would not be injured. They ran like race horses, and were soon out of sight. Frank and Jimmie were rolling on the ground in their delight.

Ned looked grave and annoyed. Without speaking he looked over the camp where the men had cooked the breakfast and then returned to the boys.

"I am sorry for that," he said, mildly. "I wanted to put those men through the third degree! We should have held them up and put on the handcuffs."

"You didn't say so!" observed Frank sheepishly.

"No use to talk about it now," Ned declared. "Perhaps Jimmie knows what we expected to learn from them."

"All I know is that the bums got me at the cave and tied me up," Jimmie said.

"How many men have you seen in the party?" asked Ned.

"Just those two. They were always talking about some one else coming in, but I never saw any one else."

"What did they talk about?" asked Ned.

"They were trying, most of the time, to make me admit that the Camera Club was a secret service organization," laughed the lad. "Of course I denied it!"

"What did they say about a child?"

"Not one word! I kept my ears open for that kind of talk!"

"Did they have a boy with them at any one time?" asked Ned.

"This afternoon, or yesterday afternoon, rather, I saw a kid moving about on the slope. I was cooking, and built two fires so as to make a signal. Did you see it?"

"Yes, we saw it," answered Ned, "but did not reply to it for the reason that we feared discovery. We wanted to come here in the night and release you and capture the two outlaws! But what sort of a child was it that you saw?"

"Why, it was the kid from the cabin. Say, Ned," he added, with a wink at Frank, "is that the prince, or is it Mike III.?"

"Cut it out!" roared Frank. "We've heard enough of that."

Ned laid a hand on the shoulder of each boy.

"That shot attracted attention," he whispered, "or the runaways are coming back. I hear some one tramping over rock, and a moment ago I caught the gleam of a gun barrel."

"Then it's me for a hole to crawl into!" whispered Jimmie. "I've had troubles of my own for the past few hours! Say, but I'm hungry, boys."

The boys left their place of retreat just as a couple of bullets spattered on rock.