Chapter XVII. Just a Little Dark Wash.
 

More shots were fired, but the boys were soon out of range. A flush of pink was showing in the sky now, and the sun would be up in half an hour. Jimmie looked longingly toward the camp, and Ned turned his footsteps that way.

"Speaking of quitters," Jimmie said, as they moved along, "the two men who geezled me take the bun! They quarreled all the time because some one else didn't come and do something they wanted done! No wonder they ducked when one shot was fired!"

"About the boy you saw yesterday afternoon," Ned asked. "Are you sure it was the lad who was brought to our camp?"

"Of course it was!"

"Dressed just the same?"

"Just exactly."

"Why didn't you take a picture of him?" asked Frank.

"Huh, don't you ever think I didn't," was the reply. "I've got it in my camera now. When we get to camp I'll develop it and print some. I've got pictures of the men, too, and about everything around the hole in the ground where they hid me."

"That is as it should be!" Ned declared. "But how did you do it!"

"They are easy!" was all the reply Jimmie made.

A quarter of a mile away from the chimney rock Ned paused and looked back.

"I can't understand where those men went to," he said.

"My friends do you mean?" asked Jimmie with a grin. "They're going on a hop yet."

"No; the men who did the shooting," said Ned.

"Well," Jimmie went on, in a minute, "there is a place somewhere near the rock where some friends of the men who ran are camping. I heard them talking together."

"You little rascal!" Ned exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me that before?"

"Oh, you won't find them there now!" Jimmie advised. "I'll bet they ducked when we got away. They won't remain around here now."

"Are they counterfeiters?" asked Frank.

"They're bums from the city, brought here in connection with the abduction of the prince!" laughed Jimmie.

"How did you manage to cook and take pictures when you were tied up like a fish for shipment?" asked Frank.

"They didn't tie me up for a time, for I gave them a lot of talk about liking their society," was the answer. "They just watched me. When it came night and they wanted to sleep, they put the harness on!"

"That was careless of them," declared Frank, "not to tie you up tight."

"They're just cheap bums," Jimmie insisted. "They couldn't kidnap a bird in a cage."

The sun was up when the boys reached the camp, and Teddy was getting breakfast.

The arrival of Jimmie was hailed with manifestations of joy, as may well be supposed. The boys clustered around him excitedly, and even Uncle Ike, from the corral, sent forth a he-haw greeting. The breakfast Teddy prepared for him was a wonder!

The meal was scarcely finished when Bradley came sauntering into the camp. He stopped suddenly when he saw Jimmie. Watching him closely, Ned saw that he was dismayed as well as astonished. However, he soon came forward with a set smile on his face and took the boy by the hand.

"You're lucky," he said, "to get out of the clutches of the counterfeiters so soon. I was afraid something serious might have happened to you. How did you do it?"

"Ned came after me," was the only reply the boy made.

"We've decided to go away," Ned explained, "and so they gave him up, after a short argument."

"With a gun!" whispered Jimmie to the others.

Bradley loitered about the camp for a long time, asking questions and talking of a great many things which did not interest the lads at all.

"And so you are going out to-morrow?" he asked, arising to go.

"We expect to," Ned replied soberly.

"Perhaps I'll meet you outside somewhere," Bradley laughed.

"I hope so!" Ned replied, whispering an aside to Frank.

Frank walked away toward the tent, and directly, while Bradley's face was in clear outline, Ned heard the click of a shutter and knew that the snapshot had been made.

When Bradley at last started away Ned called the boys together and asked them if it wouldn't be a good idea for them to take a prisoner-- just to equalize things!"

"Bradley?" asked Frank and Jimmie in chorus.

"That's the man" laughed Ned. "Do you think you could head him off and hide him in some out-of-the way hole in the ground?"

"What for?" demanded Jack. "I don't see what you want to do that for."

"Just for the fun of it!" Jimmie exclaimed. "I'll guard him after he is taken!" he added, with an appealing look at Ned.

"Well," Ned went on, nodding at Jimmie, "I have an idea that if two of you work down the slope and come out ahead of him you can coax him to throw up his hands easily enough."

"Then, after that, if you leave it to me," Jack continued, "you'll go down to the cabin and get the prince and start away with him!"

"You're sure it is the prince?" asked Ned.

"Of course! I should think any one with sense could see that. Just see how suspiciously the kid is watched! Of course, if you want to take the abductor along too, why that will be all right, but I'd get the prince first!"

"That's good advice," Ned declared, seeking to conciliate the boy, "and I'll go down to the cabin now and look after that end of the game!"

"If things work this way," laughed Oliver, "I guess we will get away to-morrow!"

"Why don't you let me go with the boys and help capture that stiff?" asked Jack, speaking to Ned. "He may be armed and perfectly willing to shoot."

"We have messed things up a bit here," Ned answered, "so whatever we do must be done at once. I have another little errand to do while they capture Bradley!"

"Oh, we'll get him, all right!" Frank insisted.

"You bet we will!" Jimmie added. "I'll tie him up tight, too! He won't take no pictures while he is my prisoner."

"Perhaps he won't have a baby camera hidden under his coat! laughed Frank.

"What are you going to say to him, boys, when you take him?" asked Teddy.

"We ain't going to say anything," Jimmie answered, "We're just going to get him!"

"Be careful, boys," was all Ned said as Frank and Jimmie left on their dangerous mission. "Be careful!"

After they had disappeared up the slope Ned turned to Jack.

"You saw one act of the play yesterday," he said to him. "Suppose you come with me now and see another act."

Jack came forward with outstretched hand and downcast face.

"Say, Ned," he said, "I'm sore at myself!"

"What's that for?" Ned asked, shaking the hand heartily and lifting the boy's face by taking him by the chin. "Why are you sore at yourself?"

"Because I acted like a dunce when we left chimney rock without signaling to Jimmie," was the reply, "and because I grumbled like a bear with a sore head when you suggested that Bradley be captured."

"You had a perfect right to express your opinion, my boy," Ned said.

"Yes, but I might have known that you knew what you were about. To be honest, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw you bringing Jimmie back."

"The least demonstration on our part at that time," Ned said, then, "might have caused the men who were guarding Jimmie to shift their quarters. Besides, I wanted Bradley in the toils before I made the final break."

"But he wasn't when you released Jimmie," Jack suggested.

"He will be before the final card is laid down," Ned replied. "But come," he went on, "we must be moving if we get to the cottage before the trouble begins."

"I'm all in the dark," Jack said, "but I'm willing to take your judgment now."

Ned and Jack hastened away, traveling down the slope to the west and south so as to get to the cottage in the quickest possible time. When they came in sight of the structure they saw Mary Brady sitting in the doorway, her head bent forward, her face buried in the palms of her hands.

She arose at the sound of their footsteps and advanced with outstretched hands to meet them. There were tears on her face and her manner was excited.

"You came too late!" she cried, wringing Ned's hand. "They have taken him away."

"When?" asked Ned, leading the old lady into the cabin.

"Oh, I don't know when! Sometime in the night. I awoke and saw that the bed was empty and called to Bradley. He arose and has been looking for him ever since."

"He was just up at our camp--looking!" Ned said, with a wink at Jack.

The old lady now went to a cupboard and brought forth a glass in which a dark fluid rested. A small black brush stood against the side of the vessel.

"I found this for you, as you asked," she said.

Ned examined the contents of the glass and made a mark on a white paper with the brush. The color transmitted to the paper was a light brown, not black.

"You washed the boy, as I asked you to?" Ned then enquired.

"I tried to," was the reply, "but Bradley said he would take him out and give him a swim in the run down in the valley. He wouldn't let me touch him."

"Well, what did the pillow case show this morning?"

The old lady pointed to the white paper.

"It was stained like that," she said.

During this talk Jack had been standing looking from Ned to the old lady with all shades of expression on his face. Now he spoke.

"Say, Ned," he almost gasped, "what is the meaning of all this?"

"Wait a minute!" Ned said, facing the old lady again. "And you listened to their talk when they sat together last night?"

"Indeed I did, sir, and its the first time I ever played the spy!"

"What was Bradley saying to him?" asked Ned, then.

"He was saying French words over and over for him to repeat!"

Jack dropped into a chair and looked helplessly at his chum.

"Foolish little French phrases, like one finds at the back of any dictionary?" asked Ned. "He was repeating them so that the boy could say them after him?"

"Yes, sir, that is just it."

"Now, Jack, what about your prince of the royal blood?" asked Ned.

"I gather from what I hear that he was painted," said Jack, with a shamed look in his eyes. "Painted!"

"Sure he was!" cried the woman. "Painted and taught foolish little French words to say! But he is Mike's boy! I know that!"

"This is like the Arabian Nights!" Jack cried.

"Worse!" Ned declared, "for all my plans have gone wrong with the disappearance of the boy."